30 September 2009

Letter of Thanks from CBE

September 30, 2009

Dear Friends:

These past few days have been some of the most significant days in the history of our Congregation, making this past Yom Kippur one of the most meaningful ever.

When a section of our Sanctuary ceiling fell, in the same week that we were visited by the Westboro Baptist Church hate group, one had to wonder what tests God truly had in store for Congregation Beth Elohim!

And perhaps, through these experiences, we were meant to learn that our Congregation is truly blessed by extraordinary leaders, a generous and loving community, and faithful and stalwart neighbors who stand by us in times of trouble.

Thank you first of all to Reverend Daniel Meeter and the leadership at Old First Reformed Church. Opening up their worship space to us on Sunday and Monday was an enormous act of faith and generosity that we will never forget. True practitioners of God's command to "love your neighbor as yourself," Reverend Meeter and the Old First community demonstrated a powerful act of friendship. Thank you.

Thanks are also in order to our lay leaders, professional staff, and numerous volunteers who made the transition to Old First and back again as smooth as possible and as result made for a warm and meaningful worship experience. As one part of our physical structure was rendered unusable, we were reminded of how vital, deep and precious our human infrastructure is. We are truly a community of members and each and every one of you made this Yom Kippur so special. Participants in all our services: Main Sanctuary, Yachad Family Service, Tots and Brooklyn Jews--more than 2000 people were able to worship on this holiest day of the year and each was able to do so with a depth of intent and experience that will be felt for months to come.

We wanted to bring you up to date on the state of the situation with our Main Sanctuary.

As you know, a large piece of the Main Sanctuary ceiling above the middle of the Balcony fell on Wednesday evening, revealing what will surely be a long process of repair and restoration. Our Congregation's Executive Committee will be meeting in Emergency Session on Thursday evening to develop a plan for immediate next steps. The Congregation's Board of Trustees will be meeting on October 5th to further discuss our steps going forward.

As we begin this process, we do so buoyed by the overwhelming support of our membership, our neighbors, the broader New York City civic and religious community, and by phone calls and emails from across the country. This is an incalculable blessing. As we begin to move toward celebrating our 150th Anniversary as a Congregation, we do so with the eyes of the city upon us and we are determined to make our celebration and restoration a source of pride for each and every one
of you.

We look forward to traveling on this journey of celebration and restoration together. At this time, we urge you to take action by making your generous donation today to the Yom Kippur Appeal, which will enable us to move quickly to take our first steps towards our Sanctuary's restoration. To donate online, please click here.

May each of you be blessed in the year ahead with abundant goodness, well-being and peace.

Rabbi Andy Bachman
Elana Paru, Executive Director
David Kasakove, President

Freecell Sukkah

Come by and see our CBE Sukkah in progress, designed and executed by our friends from Freecell Design and Fabrication of Sunset Park. John Hartmann and his wife Gia Wolf, along with Adam Iarussi and Dan Silverstein, promise a Brooklyn Sukkah to be remembered!

By the way, here's an interesting article from Architect Magazine featuring John. Enjoy!

Rabbis in Recession

Interesting piece in today's Tablet by Lynn Harris about the state of the job market for rabbis.

Take a look HERE.

26 September 2009

Westboro at CBE: Video and FIPS

In addition, Erica at FIPS has this to say--a great summary of events.

25 September 2009

Our Roof: The Statement

Congregation Beth Elohim
September 24, 2009
Dear Friends,

Something happened today that presents challenges for us on so many levels as we prepare for Shabbat and Yom Kippur. Sometime last night, a large section of our Main Sanctuary's balcony ceiling collapsed. The pieces of plaster are large and quite heavy. We are all so extremely lucky that no one was hurt. After House Committee Co-Chair Susan Doban called in a structural engineer for a full assessment and recommendations for next steps, we were advised that several other sections of the ceiling are compromised and that it is unsafe to sit in certain sections of the Sanctuary until repairs have been made. As it has been in other times of crisis, we have rallied and are fortified by the good work and tireless optimism of so many people. Chief among them to be named upfront is our friend Reverend Daniel Meeter of Old First Reformed Church, who has cleared his congregation's own sanctuary for us to use for Yom Kippur. So much can be said about the spiritual implications of the events of the day, but that is not for now. This moment, we focus on where and when we gather to celebrate together.

This week's Shabbat services and Yom Kippur services will be relocated as follows:

Saturday morning, September 26, 2009
9:15 AM - Bagels and Brachot will be take place in the Rotunda
9:30 AM - Shir L'Shabbat will take place in the Lower Gym
9:30 AM - Yachad will meet in the Rotunda
9:30 AM - Gan Shabbat will meet in the Social Hall
10:00 AM - Altshul SERVICE will take place in the Rabbi's Study
10:15 AM - Chertoff Bat Mitzvah and Eisen baby naming will take place in the Chapel
10:30 AM - Lay Led Minyan honoring the anniversary of Rabbi Weider's Bar Mitzvah
will take place in the Ballroom
12:30 PM - Community Kiddush will take place in the Social Hall

Sunday night, September 27, 2009 (Kol Nidre)
8:15 PM - Main Sanctuary Service will take place at Old First Reformed Church, 729
Carroll Street, entrance located on 7th Avenue
If you need to pick up tickets, they will be available starting at 7:30 PM at the Temple House at CBE by the Garfield entrance.
8:15 PM - Brooklyn Jews Service will take place in the Social Hall at CBE

Monday morning, September 28, 2009
9:00 AM - Tots Service will take place in the Rotunda
If you need to pick up tickets, they will be available starting at 8:30 AM at the Temple House at CBE by the Garfield entrance.
10:30 AM - Main Sanctuary Service will take place at Old First Reformed Church, 729
Carroll Street, entrance located on 7th Avenue
10:30 AM - Yachad (Youth & Family) Service will take place in the Ballroom
10:30 AM - Brooklyn Jews Service will take place in the Social Hall
10:30 AM - Childcare: 2.5-5 year olds will take place in the 3rd floor classrooms
10:30 AM - Child Activities for 5 - 7 year olds will take place in the 4th floor
10:30 AM - Child and Parent Activities for 4 - 7 year olds will take place in the
1:00 PM - Members Hour, guest scholar, Rabbi Herbert Bronstein will take place at
Old First Reformed Church, 729 Carroll Street, entrance located on 7th Avenue
2:00 PM - Music and Poetry Hour will take place at Old First Reformed Church, 729
Carroll Street, entrance located on 7th Avenue
3:00 PM - Afternoon Service Old First Reformed Church, 729 Carroll Street, entrance
located on 7th Avenue
4:45 PM - Yizkor Memorial Service will take place Old First Reformed Church, 729
Carroll Street, entrance located on 7th Avenue
5:30 PM - N'ilah Concluding Service will take place at Old First Reformed Church, 729
Carroll Street, entrance located on 7th Avenue

At the conclusion of the N'ilah service CBE will host a Break-Fast at Old First Reformed Church, 729 Carroll Street, entrance located on 7th Avenue

If you have any questions, please contact Alix Fellman or Elana Paru at (718) 768-3814.

We thank you in advance for your cooperation, patience and understanding. May this New Year 5770 bring you good health, happiness and peace.

Rabbi Andy Bachman
Elana Paru, Executive Director
David Kasakove, President

24 September 2009

A New Beginning

After a recent funeral, a congregant called to say she was giving away some of the books from her father's library. I received a copy of the Encyclopedia Judaica for my study (deeply appreciated) along with several other gems that her father had collected over the years, including a 1949 edition of the Dvir Publishing Co of Tel Aviv "Dictionary of Hebrew Usage" by Yehuda Gur, which is old, musty, and has a great green label from Steimatzky's bookstore in the lower left-hand corner of the inside cover. To a degree, I live for these finds, precious jewels left over from an earlier world.

Among the books was one I already had, Arthur Hertzberg's 1989 The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter. Now, let me share that since Arthur died a few years ago, I have been in search of the perfect picture of him to put up in my study, a testimony to our years of friendship and a solid, prophetic reminder of the many things he taught me. Well, on the back cover of the hardcover edition is a great photograph of Arthur by Sigrid Estrada. Pay dirt! It captures Arthur in his essence, to my mind at least, and so I googled away.

I found Sigrid's site, gave her a call, and in an instant we were in touch. She conducted a brief search for the negative (she had no existing copy of the photograph) and as of this writing, the photo is now on its way to Brooklyn, having been digitally reprinted from the 20 year negative. I'm pretty happy about this.

It had me thinking about the many messages we receive during these Days of Awe--the ways in which word and image, like stepping stones, guide our journey. Despite the Torah's clear prohibition against the worship of images, I admit to finding in certain images a power of conveyance that can be humbling, amusing, inspiring. I have George Mosse's picture in my office; several of my father during his service in the Second World War as well. Arthur's will be a new addition to this miniature pantheon of my influences and it has inspired me to go seeking others as well. At the very least, for those who notice and ask, it will be a future opportunity to talk about some extraordinary people that I have been blessed to know.

Toward the end of his life, Arthur used to say as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approached, "I'm a creaky old Jew. I want to put a tallis over my head and settle accounts with the רבונו של עולם--the Master of the Universe." I think of that line all the time, since during the weekdays I spend my time praying alone, and pray in our community on Shabbat. I reflected today on his words and how the time spent in prayer during the week is solitary, more introspective, but because of the intimacy, it seems as if God is listening--really listening. And like growth in all relationships, the consistent act of talking and listening helps create new insights in ways that talking once or twice a year just doesn't achieve.

Nachman of Breslov used to say, "When meditating before God, it is good to say, 'Today I am beginning to attach myself to You.' Whenever you meditate you should make a new beginning. Every continued practice depends strongly on its beginning. Even the philosophers say that no matter what one does, the beginning counts half. Therefore, no matter what, one should always make a new beginning. If one's previous devotion was good, now it will be better. If it was not good, what better reason is there to make a new beginning?"

An old book. An old sticker. An old picture of a 'creaky old Jew.'

And a new beginning.

23 September 2009

Westboro at CBE: Community Response

The community response == not only from across the neighborhood and city but from across the country has been extraordinary.

Gersh Kuntzman at the Brooklyn Paper provides a terrific summary of the situation right HERE.

I want to thank our public servants who have reached out, in no particular order:

City Council Candidate Brad Lander
NYC Councilman David Yassky
NYC Councilman Bill de Blasio
Brooklyn Boro President Marty Markowitz
NY State Senator Velmanette Montgomery
NY State Senator Eric Adams
US Rep Yvette Clarke

Clergy members who have reached out have included:

Rev Daniel Meeter at Old First
Rabbi Ellen Lippman at Kolot Chayyeinu: Voices of our Lives

In addition, we have heard from a number of wonderful organizations like Lambda Legal, the ADL, the AJC, and the JCRC.

Finally, there are the countless individuals who have responded, as Jews, with a perfect combination of moral outrage and bitterly good humor. Thank you to all!

I will keep regular updates on my facebook profile and will try to keep blogging as well.

There is no doubt that those who believe in and practice tolerance and peace will win the day. And we will have a beautiful Shabbat Shuvah at CBE.

22 September 2009

CBE Official Statement on Westboro Baptist

Congregation Beth Elohim
September 22, 2009
Dear Friends,

On Saturday, September 26, from 9:45 AM - 10:15 AM, Congregation Beth Elohim will be picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist anti-Semitic, anti-gay independent church based out of Topeka, Kansas.

They plan to send representatives who will stand on our sidewalk displaying disturbing signs and provoking those entering our building. They try to create enough confrontation to incite others to provocation. It is their constitutional right to picket.

Congregation Beth Elohim does not welcome this group's message or actions in any way. Our focus and mission as a community is to build an inclusive Jewish community that celebrates the strength of diversity. It is a home for individuals and families of all backgrounds to grow and to learn and to care about and deepen their connections to one another.

We have clear priorities during difficult moments such as these. Protecting our members and visitors, and most importantly our children, is a primary goal. Our internal security team is already in action and local police authorities have been alerted. Although you are entitled to your right to free speech, we ask that you calmly pass these protesters and walk directly into our building without incident.

For more information about the Westboro Baptist and for educational materials about responding to hate groups, please download a PDF provided by the Anti-Defamation League.

Congregation Beth Elohim is an amazing community in that it is a warm and welcoming place. This group will be picketing us because of our commitment to those who desire community. Though Saturday may be upsetting, it is important to remember that our precious values are truly a source of great pride. Our best and only response is to conduct ourselves as usual.

And this Shabbat we have so much to celebrate: Natalie Chertoff becomes Bat Mitzvah; Shir l'Shabbat and Yachad meet in a wonderful, family learning and Shabbat atmosphere; Rabbi Emeritus Weider celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of his own Bar Mitzvah in the Lay-Led Minyan; and Alt-Shul is hosting its bi-monthly traditional minyan. Truly a diverse and celebratory Shabbat worthy of our values of openness and celebration as one community!

Let's focus our energy and attention on making this truly a Shabbat Shalom at Congregation Beth Elohim.

May you all be blessed for another year of life, tolerance, and well-being.


Rabbi Andy Bachman
Elana Paru, Executive Director
David Kasakove, President

The Mad Rush

Waiting in line at the cemetery yesterday.

It was very crowded Monday since Sunday was Rosh Hashanah, Day Two, and there were no burials. A busy time.

While sitting behind the wheel, emailing, and listening to the radio (Brian Lehrer talking about transportation issues on WNYC) we got the signal to move. As I engaged the car back into gear, a mourner from another funeral shot ahead of me, suddenly, in an effort to fight for a place in line with his group. The rush to the grave, through the lens of my own slow-motion perception at that moment, was very illuminating.

I've seen cars fight for vehicular hegemony in a lane on a busy street or highway. I've seen drivers jostle for a cherished parking spot--and even seen some of those confrontations devolve into violence.

But never have I been witness to that kind of driving in cemetery. It was wild. A breach of etiquette (perhaps to delicate a word given the setting) I'd never expected to see.

"What's the hurry?" "What's the rush?" "Hey! Where you going so fast?"

All possible cliches to be employed--but nothing quite fit.

I looked to my left as I waited for the urgent mourner to take his spot in line and saw a large gravestone with the name FAST carved deeply into the granite. An ominous Yom Kippur message.

FAST indeed.

At our own funeral, as earth was shoveled onto the coffin and then as we took turns filling in the entire grave, I thought about the act of shoveling during the Ten Days of Repentance.

Is the act a covering or an uncovering? I thought of my own sins this past year and found myself admitting to them before the grave at the same time that I was covering a body of a life that is no more. The covering and uncovering, a simultaneous gesture, seemed to reach deep to the core, psychologically, of what it means to repent. We both admit our shame at the same moment that we desire to distance ourselves from it.

The paradox of the confessional days.

No easy answers. But a certain truth. This is the end we all can accept. To be laid in the ground, with mourners above us, covering us as an act of חסד lovingkindness. The rabbis called burial the lovingkindness of truth. Who knows what goes through the minds of all those who possess the shovel at that very moment? Covering? Uncovering?

At that point, there is no more rushing to a place in line because it's the end of line, the end of the road, the end.

And the mourners walk away, heap of earth behind us, and begin again. The mad rush. To the end.

19 September 2009

The Dignity of Giving

Rabbi Andy Bachman
The Dignity of Giving
RH Sermon Day One
September 19, 2009
1 Tishri 5770
Congregation Beth Elohim
Brooklyn, NY

תקעו בחודש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו

“Blow the Shofar on the New Moon, on the day of veiling of the New Moon, unto the Festival.”

We read this verse each year at Rosh Hashanah, taken from Psalm 81, as testimony to the ancient tradition of hearing the Shofar. Unquestionably, this sound remains, for generations, one of the most stirring of all our sensory relationships with the Days of Awe.

--The sweetness and roundness of the foods we eat.
--The familiar melodies, both ancient and new, that set our hearts to introspective searching.
--The pure white of the Torah mantels and the bimah coverings.

But none is more evocative, nothing awakens us to the raw experience of our existence more deeply than the blast of the Shofar.

“Arise, oh slumberers from your sleep! Wake yourselves, you sleepers, from your slumber! Examine your deeds, and turn to the Source of Life in repentance. Remember your Creator, you who are caught up in the daily round, losing sight of eternal truth; you who are wasting your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save.”

A year ago, when we last gathered on Rosh Hashanah, a great fear and trepidation held us in its grip. Our nation’s economy was on the precipice. Great strides were being made in Congress and in halls of power around the world to stem the overwhelming tide of economic collapse. Millions had lost their jobs and millions more were sure to. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that the jobless rate in our city has exceeded 10.3%, a sixteen year high. Though there are signs of recovery, we are not there yet.

The action agenda of our leaders here at home in New York and in Washington is enormous and daunting. Bailouts of major financial and automotive industries continue to test the limits of what Americans will and will not tolerate; the health care debate has consumed the last few months of our lives and is sure to occupy several more until an adequate solution is reached; and, here in New York City we see the effects every day of this economic crisis. More homeless people sleeping on our park benches; more begging on main streets of our neighborhoods; diminished supplies in food pantries and continued calls for more help from houses of worship and schools across the city.

In our own congregation, too many members have lost their jobs in the past year or, if they were already out of work, have struggled mightily to find new work. The indignity of this reality cannot be overestimated. It’s said that we spend more time working than we do with our families—a somewhat frightening but nonetheless accurate estimation of the centrality of “work” to our lives. Without it, we may feel naked, alone, unfulfilled.

Despite the sense of financial dislocation that many feel, we should take great pride in saying that we turn no one away from Beth Elohim. To the enormous credit of our lay leadership and our wonderful new executive director, Elana Paru, we work very hard to accommodate those with great needs until their economic ship can sail again through smoother waters. This sense of hospitality and taking care of those close to us is one of the great pillars of our community and a priority in which we can all take great pride. And, as you will surely hear in our President’s Yom Kippur address next week, giving, remarkably, is actually up in our community. It seems the more we grow and meet people’s needs, the more people give. That times of crisis bring great acts of generosity is a silver lining to the dark times we often struggle with.

In the past year we have partnered with a variety of community organizations to attempt to meet the needs of those in our community and beyond, working with UJA Federation, the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, Methodist Hospital on blood drives, the New York City Department of Homeless Services, Common Ground of New York, Old First Reformed Church, City Harvest Food Pantry, and, the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue Homeless Shelter. In addition, we have held workshops and forums on job training, networking and retooling, talking to your children about the economic crisis, and in late November were visited by New York City councilmen David Yassky and Bill deBlasio, who spoke to us about ways in which the economic stimulus package would help New York City. This work was the great effort of our staff member Bobbie Finkelstein, our membership and social action committee volunteers, and our newest staff member, Penni Beckerman, who was so good in her work for UJA that we recruited her to come join us at CBE! (For a player to be named later.)

Through it all, the ongoing Chesed work of our community continues to touch people’s lives in meaningful ways. Susan Miller and Andrea Dobro have been extraordinary at reaching out to people in need, coordinating rides, hospital visits, and meals to those who need them. And I’m not sure people are aware, but one night a week our synagogue hosts two meetings of Gilda’s Club, the cancer support group and we now have two AA meetings taking place here as well—an all women’s meeting and an all men’s meeting. Being a haven for those in recovery is essential for every community.

Personally, I am blessed to be able to give away money each year, as all of our clergy are, through my Discretionary Fund. Especially in an era of diminishing resources, I am able to help individuals, schools, and non-profits here and in Israel fulfill their mission of caring for and educating others. When you as members thank us clergy for being with you at life-cycle events, we are able in turn to carry on the important mitzvah of helping others. And having the privilege of doing so is something I thank you for from the bottom of my heart.

תקעו בחודש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו

“Blow the Shofar on the New Moon, on the day of veiling of the New Moon, unto the Festival.”

The German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has an innovative reading of this text where he notes that the Shofar is blown on the New Moon of the month—at the beginning, on Rosh Hashanah, when the moon itself is a sliver of light, veiled in the sky. And that day of rejoicing, the Festival, Sukkot, occurs when the moon is full. Hirsch writes, “The eclipsing of the moon on Rosh Hashanah is quite appropriate to the purpose of that day; namely, to recall to our minds our task to strive upward and to return to the light. The appearance of the full moon on the Festival of Sukkot, on the other hand, is in keeping with the purpose of that holy day, which is to encourage us to build the shelters of our own lives with trust and confidence and to labor on earth with joy and serenity before God.”

Hirsch therefore provides a structure not only to the Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur but extends the period through Sukkot, where he calls upon us to realize the call of the Shofar in the ways that we create shelter here on earth. This outward looking orientation after an inward period of searching and introspection calls to mind the Sage Hillel, who famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

This early rabbinic view contains Judaism’s essential notion of our obligations both to ourselves and others—the covenantal relationship between human beings which the tradition states are made in the image of God.

You know, following all the health care debate throughout the summer brings to mind many things—many of which could very well be too political and certainly too vile for a Rosh Hashanah sermon. But one area where Judaism is unequivocally clear is in the area of certain mandates of social justice and communal obligation. Of what it means to be a people who heard the Shofar blasts not only on Mount Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac but at the Red Sea, at our Exodus from Egypt, and at Mount Sinai, where we received the Law which commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself” and “honor the stranger, for you were strangers in a strange land.” In fact, and here’s an interesting point, that latter commandment to honor the stranger appears more than any other single commandment in the entire Torah! Honor the stranger, for you were strangers in a strange land. Our historic reality teaches us the obligation to love and care for others. Because we were once the other. It’s plain and simple. Regardless of what our government decides on health care—and be sure we have our opinions—Judaism is clear on our moral and ethical obligations to help the least advantaged.

With regard to health care reform, I guess one could say there’s a private option, a public option and a Jewish option!

Where the Torah is quite clear about our moral obligation to care for the stranger and the disadvantaged in broad terms, the Rabbis of the Mishnah, that brilliant 1st century collection of Jewish law, zero in on a number of features of the ancient welfare state and create a variety of standards that have much to say to us today about our civil society and our economy and our obligations to those who are subjected to the various pitfalls of our system.

You know, there is much ink spilled about whether or not government assistance is good or bad for the poor—does it create dependency or does it help people get a leg up, giving them advantage and subsistence and therefore human dignity? In Mishnah Pe’ah, the rabbinic law about tzedakah and caring for the poor, it is stated by the rabbis over and over again that the fundamental purpose of giving to the poor and disadvantaged is so that they can observe the law so that they can be good and dignified citizens. From the perspective of the rabbis of 1st century Jerusalem, the communal tzedakah fund—the ancient Jewish welfare system—was designed to provide food, clothing and shelter for the chronic poor and the itinerant poor—from Shabbat to Shabbat—meaning, the central, organizing principle of time at play in this articulation of societal obligation was to assist the poor so that the poor could have the dignity of being part of the community, on their own terms, of observing Shabbat. If one was too poor to observe the Shabbat—to wear festive clothing, to have a warm meal, and to rest—then the entire community was charged with the sin of enabling someone to break the Law.

This is Judaism at its most economically radical. Subsistence has a purpose and its purpose is rooted in the Biblical mandate to care for the stranger and observe Shabbat; and the Rabbinic mandate to ensure that the stranger and the poor would be able to observe that Law. Without a base-level of subsistence for each member of society, the society itself was at risk of dissolution.

The rabbis of the Mishnah also included a second measure in addition to Shabbat observance: the obligation of those on assistance to contribute themselves to the communal fund which would in turn help others. I guess it’s another way of saying that we want to help the poor enough by claiming that because of our assistance, they will be able to pay taxes—they’ll own the ability and possess the inherent dignity of being able to give back to the community that supports them. In other words, inherent to the definition of receiving would be getting enough to give back to the fund. Why? Because it was and remains essential to Judaism, it remains axiomatic, that the greatest humiliation for a person is to not be able to give.

The Sages in their wisdom here cite the story of Cain and Abel, arguing that what led to the first murder in human history was the tragedy that Abel’s gifts were accepted by God and Cain’s were not. The humiliation was too much to bear. It led him to kill his own brother.

Last night at our service, I mentioned how proudly American were the leaders of our community who established this Main Sanctuary 100 years ago, locating their hopes and dreams for Beth Elohim in the similar values of early 20th century American society. Universal brotherhood, justice, and peace.

Equally true is the test of our generation and how we respond to the world around us today, the measure of our caring and the extent of our giving—especially to those most in need.

תקעו בחודש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו

“Blow the Shofar on the New Moon, on the day of veiling of the New Moon, unto the Festival.”

With the Shofar blasts on this Rosh Hashanah, we are invited to speak to one another about ways in which we can join going efforts in our community to help those in need, from Chesed work, to work on blood drives, to work helping to fill the dwindling food banks city-wide. Let the Shofar blasts move you to volunteer at a local shelter, to join our efforts with Old First in eradicating homelessness from our neighborhood. Let the Shofar blasts turn you to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington DC, to the American Jewish World Service, always in need of volunteers to advocate and travel to other areas of our nation and the world on the Jewish mission of caring for the stranger and loving your neighbor as yourself.

And closer to home, let the Shofar blasts inspire you to join our efforts at contributing to our CBE Tzedakah Fund, by buying this Tzedakah box and donating all its proceeds to our community’s own ongoing efforts to care for the disadvantaged.

A 10.3% jobless rate in New York City means, in raw numbers, that a whole city like Atlanta, Sacramento, Baltimore, Milwaukee, even Washington, DC, must be seen as being totally without work. Imagine the catastrophe that would represent.

תקעו בחודש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו

“Blow the Shofar on the New Moon, on the day of veiling of the New Moon, unto the Festival.”

And so as the Shofar sounds, let our souls be humbled by the thin light of others but let us be dedicated again, in the New Year, to strive upward and return others to a greater light—a light of hope, dignity, and possibility. Between now and Sukkot, let us search ourselves and others for a way forward and let us build up and fortify a shelter of kindness and love and peace, for those in need.

May you be blessed in your lives for another year of goodness, well-being, dignity, and peace.

18 September 2009

Cornerstone of Renewal

A Cornerstone of Renewal
Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon
Rabbi Andy Bachman
Congregation Beth Elohim
Brooklyn, NY
September 18. 2009
Tishri 1.5770

Buildings tell stories, they say, and there’s no reason to think things are any different here at Congregation Beth Elohim. There’s the famous picture of LBJ coming down the steps of the Main Sanctuary at Representative Manny Cellar’s funeral; or Mayor Koch’s visit in the early 1980s; Zionist leader and American rabbi Abba Hillel Silver addressing the opening of the Temple House in 1929 with Charles Evans Hughes. There have been thousands of bnai mitzvahs with countless tales of cracking voices, brilliant speeches, infamous photographers and dee-jays. Hundreds of confirmation students. Just today, a long time member called to say his mother died. And as we planned the funeral—to be held in the chapel on Monday, after the holy days, he said, “Well, I became Bar Mitzvah in that Chapel, was married in that Chapel, and now I’m going to bury my mother out of that Chapel.”

This is fundamentally who we are. Not just two buildings but the souls which occupy them and make them breathe. The souls that inhabit them with life, with learning, with questions and answers, with joy and celebration and comfort. This is fundamentally who we are.

When we are good at what we do, we are rightfully filled with joy and celebration. And at this time, we humble ourselves before our shortcomings, perhaps best exemplified in our opening prayer for this evening, the Hineni Prayer:

“Here I stand, deficient in good deeds,
Overcome by awe and trembling
In the presence of One who abides
Amid the praises of Israel.

Do not charge them with my sins
May they not be blamed for my transgressions
For I have sinned and I have transgressed
May they not be shamed by my actions
And may their actions bring me no shame

Accept my prayer as though I were
Supremely qualified (implication being I’m not!) for this task
Imposing in appearance, pleasant of voice
And acceptable to all

Help me to overcome every obstacle
Cover all our faults with Your veil of love

Turn our afflictions to joy, life and peace
May truth and peace be precious to us
And may I offer my prayer without faltering”

These are words of profound fear. These are words of deep humility. Words loaded down, rooted into the earth with the awesome responsibility of leading a community not only through the mundane acts of the day to day but in the most urgent hour of need, before an Ark which is rendered into the very Gates of Heaven, repository of the Book of Life, which, now open, will contain the names of all who will live and all who will die in the year 5770 on the Hebrew calendar.

The Rabbis call this moment a moment of פחד יצחק—the Fear of Isaac—so laden is it with sacrifice, with the liminal space between life and death. There is something deeply essentialist about this prayer. It affirms the twin themes of awe and humility central to our message during these Ten Days of Turning. And with the opening word, HINENI, HERE I AM, it is a wake up call, like the one Levi Isaac of Berditchev received one day, at the beginning of Elul, when a cobbler passed by his window asking, “Have you something to mend?” And Levi Isaac realized immediately that he had neglected his own soul!

Of course we have something to mend. And if we’re truthful—hence the reason for our awe and trembling—we can admit that the list is great.

It is said that Jews are people of action—the People of the Book, yes, but also the People of Mitzvot, of Deeds, of Actions meant to bring Redemption, to lay cornerstones of justice and righteousness for the repair of an imperfect world. And so God, in this prayer and elsewhere, is defined as “gracious” and “merciful” חנון ורחום. Because though we are limited, we are in partnership with the Source of Life. We are not alone. And no amount of shortfall should prevent our striving higher and higher each year.

We are here for a purpose and despite our fallibility, we are called to that purpose year after year after year, to stand before the one to Whom we can admit the deficiencies of our lives, be received openly, lovingly, with grace, mercy and compassion, and be given the tools to mend our selves, our families, our communities but we need a place to do it.
Since our founding as a synagogue, we have let that place take care of us. And tonight I ask you to consider reciprocally about taking care of this place.

This is the central to the message of our time together here in this room, this year. We are here not to search our souls only but to make our way on life’s journey together, in this sacred space, covenantal partnership with God and our Tradition, charged with the task no less than that which challenges us to bring peace and lovingkindness to the world. Inspired in this building, even by this building, to heal ourselves and heal others.

This has always been the case. Not only our generation but every generation. Since time began. The rabbis teach us that God’s presence in the Garden of Eden was called Makom—place. That Abraham and Isaac on Mt Moriah found God in a place called Makom. And that when the 1st and 2nd Temples stood, God’s presence there was called Makom—place. And that now, in the Diaspora, in synagogues wherever Jews gather, God, Makom, that place, is present.

What we do with that place, how we care for that place, is the sacred obligation of every generation. Tarfon said famously, we’re not meant to complete the work, but neither are we allowed to ignore it.

And so in many ways, Talmudic as it is to say so, the question here is not did we do it all in the past year but did we do enough? Like many things in life, it’s a matter of scale. And perspective—spiritual, emotional and historical perspective.

Tonight we gather in our Main Sanctuary, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary.

I often share with people the inspiring fact that Congregation Beth Elohim was founded in 1861 in the midst of a Civil War between the States, when slavery existed, when women could not vote let alone serve as rabbis, when gays and lesbians were forced to closeted lives. And in speaking of our founding in 1861, it’s always fun to simply ask aloud: could the founders of our congregation ever have imagined the world we inhabit? What our membership looks like? Who our President is? (And here I refer to our President in Washington. Our congregation’s president, David Kasakove, with mutton-chop whiskers and the right spectacles could, if he wanted, look like any number of the fine 17 German men who began our synagogue 150 years ago!)

But time moved on from 1861 and by the early 20th century, our synagogue’s leaders made the bold and optimistic decision to move from Pearl Street to State Street before permanently locating the embodiment of our communal aspirations to Park Slope.

Thanks to the archival work of our congregational scholar, Rabbi Dan Bronstein along with trustee Nancy Rosenberg and our archivist Martha Foley, who are gathering priceless material in celebration of our 150th anniversary and whose work is on display in the Temple House lobby right now, the historical record is quite clear on what was said when the cornerstone was laid for this very building in 1909.

So let’s focus momentarily on that day.

500 people gathered on May 3, 1909. This silver trowel was used and dedicated. Rabbi Alexander Lyons led the assemblage in prayer and song.

As a lover of history like I know so many of you are, I could go on for quite some time about what a scene this must have surely been. There are many eras of history I’d like to visit up close and the onset of the High Holy Days, when Jewish time seems to collapse, paradoxically, into a window on Eternity, only heightens this connection to generations past, present and future.

But two aspects of that founding ceremony require illumination. In remarks made by Michael Furst, president of the YMHA, he complimented the founders on their choice of real estate, saying, “In addition to its eminent suitability, this spot is hallowed by historic memories. Here the patriots of ’76 struggled for civil and religious liberty, in this immediate vicinity they fought one of the fiercest battles of the Revoltion.” Like so many Jews of his generation, Furst created a direct link between Jewish and American historical values and reality, equating Jewish and American ideals in the quest for freedom, justice and righteousness. And they saw the realization of those ideals in this room where we gather tonight.

Abraham Abraham, (whom it’s said had the unusual title of “President President”) of the Jewish Hospitals, said that day, “A house of worship, aside from its instilling reverence of God, from whom all blessings flow, develops a higher type of manhood and inspires a social ideal of helpful co-operation and fraternal love in all beneficent works. It is the center from which emanate and radiate all altruistic and philanthropic activities that tend to the uplift and betterment of mankind. It is here where charitable and educational endeavor has its inception and its impelling force.”

I insist that you be impressed with his prose!

Let me repeat. This room where we gather--

“…is the center from which emanate and radiate all altruistic and philanthropic activities that tend to the uplift and betterment of mankind. It is here where charitable and educational endeavor has its inception and its impelling force.”

About the impelling force of history, the Sages taught that when our ancestors returned from Babylonian exile, 3 prophets returned with them: one to teach them the dimensions of the Temple’s altar; a second to teach them how to make sacrifices on that altar; and a third to teach them how to write a Torah scroll.

2500 years ago and 100 years ago, those who came before us were deeply serious about their sacred structure. And they saw this building, the cornerstones they laid, not merely as metaphors but as actual walls, a roof, a dome, as the bricks and mortars, as the beginning steps on that journey. And we are here tonight as the inheritors—not only of a metaphoric journey but as the inheritors of a place, a Makom, a real, physical place.

These stories, like refreshing water, like sweet honey from the rock, these words flow over us, nourishing the bonds that link us together as a sacred community and link us to those past and those future members of Congregation Beth Elohim who will one day occupy this space—long after we are gone.

Altruism; philanthropy; charity and education: each the fuel for a better world. What rang true in 1909 rings true today. Walking up the block this morning after dropping the girls at school, I saw a huge banner hanging outside the Garfield entrance to the Temple House that said, “Shabbat Shalom,” as dozens of families brought their children to the Early Childhood Center. Our Yachad program now teaches more than 300 children and parents each Saturday morning with a learning program that has caught the attention of the Jewish world. Our Chesed Committee bakes and delivers food to families in celebration and mourning, acts of generosity that develop sustaining bonds for our membership. And this very Sanctuary, besides serving as the seat of our spiritual strivings, also has hosted dignitaries and authors, artists and musicians, philanthropists and politicians—all in an effort to articulate not only who we are but who may yet come to be as a people, as a community, as a synagogue.

I so love what we do here together. My only wish is that we could do so in a space made as beautiful and cared for as our acts of lovingkindness.

And so in the spirit of the Hineni prayer, I must confess to a certain deficiency in good deeds. As your spiritual leader, I confess to not doing enough to rally this community around the sacred task of laying the new cornerstones of a renovated sanctuary space so that not only our generation but the next generation beyond ours may enjoy the privilege of building community, of learning, and knowing God here at Congregation Beth Elohim.

Look around if you will at our enormous needs: from sound-system to ceiling; from windows to pews; from lintels to rooftops. There is much to do in order to restore this grand sanctuary to the glory of its inception. In a conversation with Rabbi Weider earlier in the week, he told me that in what felt like moments after he arrived here more than thirty years ago, the ceiling of this sanctuary collapsed. His first five years were consumed with the maintenance of an old building, in need of repair. And here I stand, in brotherhood, aware of a similar need. We finished the replacement of the Temple House roof last year; and moments after, the men’s locker room floor nearly collapsed. These days it seems like everywhere we turn, there is a repair to be made.

Again, Tarfon. We’re not expected to complete the task, but we can’t sit this one out, either. This is our time, one hundred years later, our covenantal responsibility. This is our task. To love this Main Sanctuary as it was meant to be loved at the moment of its inception. Like Jacob who dreamed great dreams, and discovered that where he lay his head, on the rock, in the desert, was a Beit Elohim, God’s house, so are we obligated to cause God’s presence to emanate from these walls, to illuminate our neighborhood as a center of learning, charity and goodness.

Thousands will continue to sit in these seats, in this room, on these holy days, years into the future. Let us enable them to see and be seen in splendor. In glory. Let them be heard, and understood, through a sound system that works!

“This neighborhood is well populated, not one sparsely settled,” said Supreme Court Judge Samuel T. Maddox at the 1909 ceremony. “And consequently the greatest good will flow to the greatest number and the influence for good will be the more widely exerted and appreciated. The work to be done is grand and noble and the fruits of your labors shall live for years and years, maybe centuries after the youngest in years here present have been gathered to their fathers.”

In this grand and noble sanctuary; on the eve of the New Year; before the Gates of Heaven and the Book of Life, here, in our Beit Elohim, let us dedicate ourselves in the coming year to be not deficient but proficient in deeds. O’ God, let the work of our hands and hearts, in awe and humility, recognize that what was planted for us, we received from others.

Let us lay a new cornerstone of repair and renewal and by renewal I mean the abstract, the existential, the spiritual, along with the renewal of bricks and mortar, of sound and light, of chair and floor—to honor the 100th anniversary of this sanctuary and soon to be celebrated 150th anniversary of the founding of our synagogue.

And with this renewed dedication to our purpose, may we plant for those who come after us, just as those who came before planted for us, that others may learn words of Torah, perform acts of lovingkindness, and build a better, more peaceful world.

16 September 2009


A new project called 10Q prompts questions for reflection in an interesting and interactive way during this High Holy Day period.

Check it out here and sign up. Should be an interesting experiment for our digitally oriented times.

But don't forget to go to Shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur!

15 September 2009


It is vital that we remember how extraordinarily hard-working the members of our staff who are not Jewish are in the preparations for the High Holy Days.

At home I polish my own kiddush cups and today dropped off at the dry cleaners table cloths, a kittel, and challah cover, in preparation for Rosh Hashanah.

But who polishes the silver at Shul? And cleans the rug? And changes the lightbulbs? And guards the building? And sets things up, as it were, so that we can pray in beauty and peace?

Thank you to all our Maintenance Staff and Office Staff for your extraordinary efforts and devotion to our community's preparation to greet the New Year.

Your work these past several weeks is deeply appreciated.

14 September 2009


I was heading into the city today for a class on Jewish social ethics.

At the Grand Army Plaza subway station, waiting on the stairs above the platform, was a young soldier, dressed casually but carrying a U.S. Mililtary issue duffel bag and backpack, in camouflage green. He was young. Very young.

I asked for his name, shook his hand and asked, "Shipping out?"

"Yes, sir," he answered. "To Iraq." After a brief pause he added, "Today."

Same train, entirely different destinations.

I got his name and wished him well.

When I arrived in the city, traffic was blocked by the NYPD all around a small restaurant on West Third Street in the Village where President Obama and President Clinton were having lunch, his speech on Wall Street already over. As far as the eye could see, police protection--normal for any president but I was grateful in particular for the protection offered President Obama, given the horrifying rage that has come to dominate our political discourse. In some states in these United States, people show up with guns to greet the President. Thank God that's not the case in New York City.

My mind wandered back to the young soldier, alone on the platform in Brooklyn, heading off to war--unprotected. And our President, out for a meal, protected by an army of the NYPD and the Secret Service.

Walking to class, I said quietly:

"To the young soldier whose name I'll remember, I wish you well in your mission. Go in peace and return to your family and friends here in Brooklyn, in peace.

To the President, with so many burdens to bear, I wish you well in your mission and the honorable service you give to our nation. Go in peace and return to your family and friends in Washington and Chicago in peace."

You can actually do that in New York and no one will bother you. The city does have its advantages.

13 September 2009

There's Reason to Keep Trying

The tradition is quite clear.

During the season of turning and repentance, visit the graves of the deceased. They can intercede for you as you prepare to plead your case before the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be God Who sits on the Throne of Glory and is Judge and Redeemer before us mere nothings as we appear, begging for another year of life.

And people say Jews are prone to drama and exaggeration.

So on my way over to Mom's house on Thursday afternoon, driving in from Chicago, the recipient of one of those jetBlue month passes (which will afford me the chance to afford checking in on B quite alot in the next month), I stopped off to see Dad's grave and with prayerbook in hand, took the opportunity to pray the Afternoon service (מנחה).

There's a spot on the rug next to my favorite chair--in my davenning corner at home in Brooklyn--that forms to the shape of my feet when I pray there each day. To see such a spot revealed in the still-green grass of a Wisconsin September, with a warm autumn sun beating on my neck and the words and melodies of our people rising above the whirr and rush of cars on the 94 freeway rushing past was, well, even more rooting than the prints themselves. I felt Dad's presence at that moment and so had to conclude that God was listening, too.

And since it was the afternoon, when Tahanun was offered, traditional prayers of supplication and forgiveness, I chose rather than merely leaning my forehead into my arm, to prostrate, get down on the ground, onto the earth, and beg.

I begged for life and peace; for good health for Mom (and Rachel and the girls and my in-laws and friends, and congregants, and everyone I knew) and cars sped past and the sun beat down and time stood still but it kept rushing on and so I prayed harder and harder and harder until tears welled up and my throat closed and the words came out and the ground accepted them, over the grave.

And when I looked up, nothing had changed.

But a prayer had been offered. And wondered how it would be answered.

When we sat with the doctor on Friday, the report was good. B's cancer is standing still. I looked at her as she heard the news and she was like a tree. Strong, steady. The winds of physicians analyses couldn't move her. We went out to lunch to celebrate this victory and at lunch she revealed that she had sneaked a peak at the doctor's report be he reported it to us.


I thought of the grave the day before. The grass, the sun, my tears. Despite the drama, there was a part of me that enjoyed it.


And I wonder about that idea--that in the midst of our most serious struggles, we insist on still laughing, on finding the element of play, and how that too is what God wants.

Tonight I came home from Slichot services. Tired and worn out. The New Year has yet to arrive and I'm already feeling next year in this year. There's wisdom in that, I know. I just haven't figured that out yet.

But R and A were watching Larry David re-runs on HBO--A, almost 12, for the first time. Man, were they having a ball. 11:45 at night, laughing up a storm.

Larry and Jeff were eating in a hospital cafeteria. Larry had a crush on a doctor. There was alot of misunderstanding about race and the N word. We were nervous about A not fully getting the humor, the meta-commentary, until she said, "Dad, this is exactly what Mel Brooks did with 'Blazing Saddles.' I totally get it."

I thought of my head in that green grass, pleading from Dad for more life for B. And I thought, you know, the way prayers are answered are never quite as linear as we'd like but if we're open to their own trajectory, there's reason to keep to trying.

11 September 2009

My Prayer for 9-11

On this day I think of incomprehensible loss of innocent life.

On this day I think of those whose deaths and suffering came from their efforts to save lives, to clean up a toxic site, who couldn't live with the traumatic memories of the Towers coming down.

On this day I think of my wife and children, who witnessed the Towers getting hit, ran south to Bowling Green, and got the last train out of Manhattan, returning to an equally incomprehensibly beautiful, calm, September morning in Brooklyn. But the traumas they absorbed took years to heal and they joined a circle of thousands and thousands and thousands, who work daily to turn trauma to triumph.

On this day I think of how the citizens of our country changed forever that day, in some ways came closer together and in others ways moved farther apart.

And as I think personally about my own experiences since then, the following text, from Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, comes to mind:

"The Psalmist wrote, 'If I ascend to heaven, there you are; and if I make my bed in hell, behold, there you are.' (Psalm 139.8)

Even in the lowest pit of hell, a person can draw himself closer to God Almighty, for even there God can be found."

After 9-11, most people I know questioned God, questioned religion, and made active lives of rejecting it forever. I chose the opposite path. To be part of a religious community of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and many others I've met since 9-11 who have worked tirelessly to save religion from the fanatics, from those whose corruptions of faith dare to take lives in the name of God--the greatest of all sins.

And so today, the prayers of my heart, the words of my mouth, and the work of my hands join with countless other religious leaders around the world to bring light, truth and understanding to a world darkened by evil.

Even in a hellish abode, one can find God. One must find God if one believes in God. And promise the world that it is the sacred duty of believers to never rest so that the horrors of today, to the best of our ability, can never happen again.

10 September 2009

Morality Amidst the Noise

When the President mentioned last night in his longed for health care reform address before Congress that health care reform was a "moral issue," it created a great sense of relief for millions of Americans, including me. After last week's annual bacchanal--the Labor Day/West Indian Parade, over whose din and beating techno I harbored to explain what a labor union was to my daughters, saturation from a culture hell-bent on satisfying its immediate desires over the long-term investment of the moral and ethical life had me drowning in near misery.

Facebook debates; Twitter updates; virtual town halls; white board postings; and this radically ubiquitous form of communication--the blog--have only enhanced the noise.

Despite every media innovation at our disposal, it finally took a good old fashioned political spectacle--the Joint Session of Congress--and a speech from the President of the United States, to reframe the debate into one in which the rules of engagement would be civil (notwithstanding the juvenile display from Rep. Joe "You Lie!" Wilson, whose outburst only proves the point about Republican tactics this past summer.)

I for one noticed, watching with my daughters last night, that President Obama held forth with incredible dignity in the face of lies hurled at him; veiled death threats all summer long; racism and hatred never before displayed to any President that I can remember; and he would have had every right to stand before the country and yell back.

He didn't. He commanded, which is what he was elected to. Thank God.

A moral debate is necessary here. And I for one am glad it was finally made.

On Tuesday, while walking in the neighborhood, I ran into an elderly man who prays at a neighboring synagogue. We have known each other a long time, have studied together, seen each other at shared community events. Last summer, I taught his grandson in Israel.

He greeted with me the question, "What are you reading these days, rabbi?" What a question! And we talked about Hirsch's commentary to Psalms (he's reading it, too.) Leo Strauss, the Radosh's book on Truman and Israel, and Guttenplan's biography of I.F. Stone, recommended to me by one of Stone's early biographers, the journalist Andrew Patner. We had a great conversation--about the New Year, about Israel and America, and about a better path we all can take.

It seems so simple amidst all the noise in our culture--a sidewalk encounter among the generations about books, ideas, and the way forward.

We didn't Tweet or Post; we merely shook hands and wished one another a Sweet New Year.