Saturday, July 23, 2016

Parsha Balak: What Matters

At the request of our congregants, we are reposting Adas Emuno President Lance Strate's D'Var Torah from this past Friday night, July 22nd, on Parsha Balak:

A little over four years ago, on July 4th, 2012, physicists working at the European Centre for Nuclear Research in Switzerland announced that they discovered the subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson. This particle is also known by its nickname, the God particle. You may recall that atoms are composed of particles such as protons, neutrons, and electrons, and you my also know that there are a number of other subatomic particles apart from those three. Most of these particles have mass, and mass is what distinguishes matter from energy. Protons and neutrons have mass, for example, electrons have just a little bit of mass, but photons have no mass whatsoever. Photons, as you may know, are the particles that form the basis of light, along with every other form of electromagnetic radiation. They are pure energy. 

So, some particles have mass, and some do not, and the question is, how do particles such as protons and neutrons gain their mass? Which is to say, how is it that matter comes into existence? The theoretical answer, put forth by the British physicist Peter Higgs in 1964, is "that particles gain mass by interacting with a medium, or Higgs field, that exists everywhere in space and is made up of unseen particles called bosons." The Higgs boson is called the "God particle" "because it is believed to have originated during the Big Bang and helped shape the subatomic particles that make up all matter in the universe."

And what does this mean for us, as we join together to observe Shabbat? The Fourth Commandment tells us to remember and keep the Sabbath because God labored for six days to create the world, and on the seventh day God rested, and blessed and hallowed the Sabbath day. Shabbat is a celebration of Creation.  As Reform Jews, we are not asked to be creationists, and accept the story of Genesis literally. But Shabbat gives us the opportunity to stop for a moment, and reflect on the grandeur and enormity of our universe, to regard with awe the marvelous and miraculous nature of existence, and to be grateful for our beautiful blue planet earth, the precious and sacred quality of our lives, however fleeting they may be, and the great gift that, just as the universe has been expanding ever since the Big Bang, so too has our knowledge and understanding been expanding over the course of human history.

The discovery of the God particle was announced on our American Independence Day. The founders of the United States were products of what we sometimes call the Age of Reason, or the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that began in the mid-17th century, and originated with the writings of the English philosopher, John Locke, and the Jewish philosopher from Holland, Baruch Spinoza. 

The English physicist Isaac Newton was also an important influence on the Enlightenment early on, and later on, one of the founders of the American republic, Benjamin Franklin, was himself a scientist, and made major discoveries concerning electricity. He didn't know that electricity was created by a flow of subatomic particles when he flew his kite in a thunderstorm and caught lightning in a bottle. But that glowing key in a bottle was an important step on the way to understanding the relationship between electrons and photons.

The founders of our nation believed in the power of reason, and the United States of America was the first country ever to be argued into existence. The basis of the rational argument that underlies our separation from England is made abundantly clear in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In the story of Genesis, the Creator begins the labor of Creation by saying, Let there be light! God calls the world into being, and the world is created by God's word. On July 4th, 1776, our founders created a new nation through words, through a Declaration of Independence. They declared that we all have the freedom to choose our own government, and the freedom to pursue our own dreams. They declared that all people have a right to be free from oppression and persecution, and also to be free to engage in our own acts of creation. In the same way, on the Sabbath, we are given the freedom from labor, but also the freedom to reflect, meditate, contemplate, to pray, commune, and communicate.

The founders of the United States took inspiration from a variety of ancient sources, including our own Holy Scriptures. The story of Exodus is the story of how a diverse population of former slaves, divided among 12 tribes, became one nation, under God. If Moses telling Pharaoh to let my people go was our declaration of independence, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai was our constitution, the laws and commandments that bound us together as one. The rule of Law, of Torah, would apply to everyone, even prophets, priests, and kings, establishing the principles of equality and justice, as unalienable rights. The Haftarah reading for this week, from the prophet Micah, concludes with one of the most memorable statements in the Bible, one that inspired the founders of this nation, and serves as the foundation of our faith: "What does the LORD require of you, only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"

This week's Torah portion includes the story of Balaam, who is a prophet of God, but not Jewish, not one of the children of Israel. He's not even a friend to our people.  And this is important because in our religion, we do not believe that ours is the only pathway to God.  Each individual can relate to God in his or her own way, but mostly God deals with groups of peoples, with families, with communities, with peoples.  In this way, we take responsibility for each other, for creating a just and merciful way of life.

The story relates how the king of Moab does not want to give the Israelites safe passage through his kingdom as they make their way to the promised land, and summons the prophet Balaam to come and put a curse upon the Israelites.  This leads to a comic episode in the Book of Numbers where God causes a donkey to talk.  

Balaam was riding on his donkey to Moab, responding to the king's summons, even though God told him not to, so God sends an angel to block their way. The angel is invisible to the Balaam, but visible to the donkey, so the donkey keeps stopping, and Balaam beats the donkey repeatedly in an effort to make the donkey continue on their way.  Finally, the donkey says to Balaam, "What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?" And Balaam responds, "For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."
 And the donkey then says, "Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?" Balaam concedes the point, and at this moment the angel is made visible to him, and Balaam begs God's forgiveness and offers to turn back. The angel tells him to continue on to Moab, saying, "but the word I will speak to you, that you shall speak."

Certainly, there is an important message here about cruelty to animals, and the Torah does include some significant passages that serve as a foundation for animal rights.

After he arrives in Moab, there are three episodes where Balaam is ordered to curse the Israelites, but instead is directed by God to bless them instead. The first time around, he says, "How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered? For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations." Israel has a unique destiny, and it stands alone, independent, but also isolated.

The second time when Balaam blesses the Israelites, he says, "God has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness. For there is no divination in Jacob and no soothsaying in Israel. In time it will be said to Jacob and Israel, 'What hath God wrought?'" Balaam himself was said to be a sorcerer in addition to being a prophet, which goes along with his unique power to curse and to bless, but what he is saying here is that the Exodus was brought about not by magic or sorcery on the part of Moses and his people, but by the power of God; by the will of God, not that human beings.  

The question, What hath God wrought? became an important part of American history in 1844, when the quotation was used as the first message sent from Washington DC to Baltimore by Samuel Morse, officially inaugurating the first commercial telegraph line. The telegraph used electricity to send signals from one point to another instantaneously, allowing us to transcend time and space for the first time. This invention represents an important stepping stone between Benjamin Franklin's kite line, and the particle accelerator that led to the discovery of the God particle.

The third time Balaam is called upon to curse the Israelites and blesses them instead, he begins with a declaration that became a part of Jewish Sabbath morning liturgy: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!"

The story of Balaam serves as reminder of the power of words, and especially of the power of voice. Balaam has the power to bless and the curse, but both are speech acts, both blessings and curses only have power when they are spoken out loud. The same is true of the concept of prayer. The prayers printed in our prayer books are not actually prayers until we say them out loud (or in some instances, say them silently to ourselves), just as in stories of magic, the magic spell does not take effect until someone actually utters the words.  

Along the same lines, our worship service officially begins with the call to worship, a vocal summoning to praise God. And when we say the watchword of our faith, the Shema, we say, Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. We have to hear it, not see it, so much so that many follow the tradition of covering their eyes when saying this prayer.

Sound is the source of the sacred, while sight reveals the profane world. Sound gives us depth, we can hear the interior of things. And sound emanates from within, as the prayer says, out of the depths I call to you, from deep inside us sound is uttered, and outered. Sight only gives us surfaces.  In the story of Genesis, Creation begins with sound, with God saying the words, Let there be light. God's voice is heard before anything can be made visible, before the creation of light, the first particles created being the ones without mass.

Hellen Keller, who as you know lost both sight and hearing, was once asked which of the two senses she would rather have, if she could only have one. And she answered that she would rather be blind. The reason she gave is that hearing is so much more important for communicating and relating to other people. Sight gives us a world of objects, it leads us to objectify the world, to engage in what Martin Buber referred to as I-It relationships. Sound gives us a world of relationships, of voice and conversation and communication, and makes it easier to form what Buber called I-Thou or I-You relationships.

Albert Einstein's theory of relativity replaced Newton's physics by saying that space does not exist apart from the relationship between objects. The universe does not sit inside a box, or what Newton called absolute space; the particles, the matter of the universe is all that there is, and there is nothing outside of that. Space is the field that exists between the particles of the universe. As the matter in the universe expands, so does space.  

In the same way, our Congregation Adas Emuno does not exist outside of the relationships among us, it is created by our relationships with each other, and with those who came before us. Judaism does not exist, except for the relationships among us as they extend among our people everywhere, and the same is true of any religion, and any nation.  

The relationships created by Higgs bosons, by God particles, is what grants mass to matter. Our relationships with each other, joining together as we do on Shabbat, is what grants meaning to life, and that is what makes life truly matter.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Summer Movie Night Part 1

Join us tomorrow evening, Saturday, July 23rd, at 7:30 PM, for the first of two summer movie nights at Adas Emuno. Our mini-film festival, curated by Adas Emuno President, Prof. Lance Strate, who will lead a discussion following the screenings, is on the theme of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, art and creativity, and the democratizing trend that continue to have a major effect on us to this day. There is some mature content, so parental discretion is advised.

Our first screening will feature Drop City: A New Documentary by Joan Grossman and Tom McCourt.

For more about the film, visit the website: <>.

Admission is free. Light refreshments will be served. 

The second part of our mini-festival will be in two weeks, Saturday, August 6th, when we screen the documentary, !Women, Art, Revolution. More on that later...

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The State of the Congregation

From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

A Message From Our President

Dr. Lance Strate

The State of the Congregation

President's Report Delivered at the 

Annual Congregational Meeting 

June 16, 2016

The State of the Congregation

Having reported on the state of the congregation to the membership three times already, I feel like something of a broken record in saying for a fourth time that the state of our congregation is strong. But this fourth time around, I have no reason to break with tradition, even if it is a tradition of my own making. So I am happy to report to you that as of June 2016, the state of our congregation remains strong.

At the same time, I cannot help but begin by noting that our strength is diminished by the loss of our former Trustee Fred Friedman less than a week ago. I know that if he were still alive, he would be here with us tonight, and would undoubtedly have something to say during this congregational meeting. He would have questions to ask, observations to share, advice to give, and criticisms to make us just a little bit uncomfortable, and keep us on our toes. Fred was more than a good congregant, more than a good board member, more than a good committee chair—Fred was a good citizen. We don't often talk about citizenship in the context of our shul. It's a concept that we associate with secular society. But a synagogue is not only a house of worship, and more than a house of study—it is also a house of gathering, a house of assembly, a beit knesset. And Adas Emuno, our assembly of the faithful, is not only a congregation, it is an organization and a community. And wouldn't we all think and act a bit differently if, instead of talking about membership, we talked about citizenship?

You might say that the difference between members and citizens is that members are asked to pay dues. But citizens are asked to pay taxes, and before the modern idea of dues-paying members, ancient Jewish tradition required us to give a portion of our income (or agricultural produce) to the Temple in Jerusalem and the priesthood, and then to the synagogue and congregation. The practice was adopted by Christians and Moslems, and in English is known as tithing (meaning giving ten percent of your income). And I am not recommending we return to that system, but I am saying that, as citizens of Adas Emuno, we are obligated to support our shul, in part materially, through dues and donations, and also through participation and service, just as citizens of a nation are called upon to serve their country. It is very easy for us, given the kind of culture we inhabit, to think of ourselves as consumers, reducing Adas Emuno to the level of products and services that we purchase. But we ought to think of ourselves as citizens, with rights, and with responsibilities as well.

I like to think that Fred Friedman is looking down on us right now, and smiling and nodding. He understood, as much as any one of us, the value, , and necessity of service. He understood the importance of standing up for our congregation, helping to bear its weight on his shoulders, and helping to carry it forward into a future that he will not see, knowing that others had done the same for his own benefit. I am truly grateful that our congregation was able to honor Fred a little over a year ago, at Friday night Shabbat, because honor is the only coin in which service can truly be rewarded. And we can continue to honor Fred Friedman by thinking about our own, individual congregational membership as citizenship. And as Fred's service extended beyond our congregation, and Adas Emuno is a part of the larger Jewish community, I would like to propose a further honor in his memory, that we institute a Fred Friedman Award for Jewish Citizenship, to be presented annually for outstanding service to the Jewish community. I welcome your feedback during our congregational meeting, and will ask our trustees to approve the proposal at the board meeting to follow.

While I'm on the subject of our Board of Trustees, I want to acknowledge that one of the main reasons why the state of our congregation is strong is our board, our officers and trustees, whose dedication, hard work, and talent is truly extraordinary. As a small shul that has no support staff, no office manager, no executive director, no administrative assistant, our board is a working board, and our officers and trustees step up time and time again, and I want to say thank you to each and every one of them. As some of you know, over the course of the last four months of 2015, I spent most of my time down in Philadelphia as a visiting professor at Villanova University, and this meant that the board had to carry on to a large extent with an absentee president. I want to make it clear that I was under no illusions that I am in any way indispensible. I know, perhaps better than anyone, how much harder other members of the board work than I do. I'm often in the role of that guy who says, "I'll just supervise," or "you have my moral support." So I had no concern about the board functioning without me, but I do want to express my gratitude to each and every one of our officers and trustees: our past president Virginia Gitter, our Vice-President Elka Oliver, our Financial Secretary Mark Rosenberg, our Treasurer Michael Fishbein, our Recording Secretary Marilyn Katz, and our Trustees, Annette DeMarco, Susan Gray, Jody Pugach, Michael Raskin, Norman Rosen, Lauren Rowland, Doris White, Sandy Zornek, and our recent addition to the board, Ronald Waxman.

It has been a great honor for me to serve as president of Congregation Adas Emuno these past four years, and an even greater honor to be asked to serve another two-year term. I have accepted the nomination because I am told that I am still needed, and I believe I am still capable of serving in that capacity. To be honest, part of me would be happy to serve for much longer, because I love this congregation and want to do everything in my power to keep it strong. But for that reason, I also know that it would be much healthier for Adas Emuno to have new leadership, which is why I believe that this should be my last term in that office.

I want to express my appreciation to Elka Oliver for her contributions as Vice-President, and Mark Rosenberg for all that he does as Financial Secretary, and thank them both for being willing to continue on for another two-year term. I especially want to acknowledge Michael Fishbein for his double duty as Treasurer and chair of our Buildings and Grounds Committee. Michael is stepping down as Treasurer, so I want to thank him for his years of service in that capacity, and thank him as well for being willing to remain on the board as a Trustee. I also want to acknowledge Carol Bodian for volunteering to serve as a Trustee. Marilyn Katz is completing her two-year term as Recording Secretary, and is now ready to take on the office of Treasurer, so I want to thank her as well, and to thank Susan Grey, who is willing to take over the role of Recording Secretary.

In the case of small organizations such as ourselves, it becomes easy to rely on having the same individuals fulfill the same roles for year after year after year, and then react with panic when they are suddenly unable or unwilling to continue. So changing officers and committee chairs is good for our congregation, it is good preparation for moving up in the chain of command, and I believe that we have grown stronger over the past four years regarding the future of our congregational leadership. I also note that our new by-laws allow for 18 board members, we have been gradually increasing the size of the board, and our now just one shy of our goal of יח (chai). There is room for one more on the board, and room for many more on our committees. And let me express my gratitude to our committee chairs for their hard work, to Virginia Gitter for the Ritual Committee and the Publicity Committee, and in regrards to our publicity and overall public image, to Lauren Rowland for her graphic design work; to Annette DeMarco for the Social Action Committee; to Elka Oliver and Michael Raskin for the Religious School Committee; to Michael Raskin again for the Membership Committee; to Norman Rosen and Jody Pugach for the Adult Education Committee; to Norman Rosen and Judith Fisher for the Cemetery Committee; and to Michael Fishbein again for the Buildings and Grounds Committee, with an added thanks to Fred Cohen and Rabbi Schwartz for their continual work on our wonderful garden; and to Michael Rask for taking change of snow removal, and relations with Leonia's law enforcement and local government officials.

I also want to say thank you to Sandy Zornick for chairing the Internet Committee, and for finally getting us integrated with ShulCloud, both the membership database and the website, as well as the new email distribution system. This has taken a long time to implement, but now that it is finally in place, we can truly say that we are a 21st century shul.

We also have a fundraising committee, chaired by Susan Gray and Sandy Zornick, and last fall the Treats and Treasures fundraiser hosted by Modiani Kitchens in Englewood was an enormous success. Special thanks go to Richard Alicchio for taking the lead in proposing the fundraiser, and insuring that it was a success, as well as for all of his help the whole year round in securing donations from local merchants for our events. Thank you as well to the core committee that made Treats and Treasures a success, Virginia Gitter, Annette DeMarco, Jody Pugach, Sandy Zornek, Doris White, and Marilyn Katz. Finally, let me express my gratitude to Virginia Gitter one more time, for chairing the nominating committee in her capacity as the only past president active on the board, and thank you to the committee members, Annette DeMarco, Kim Merlino, Michael Raskin, and Beth Ziff.

The past three times I have reported on the state of the congregation, I have always begun with our clergy, and I hope that Rabbi Schwartz and Cantor Horowitz do not feel slighted that I decided to mix things up this year. My esteem for both of them knows no bounds. We are so very fortunate to have the spiritual, intellectual, musical, and educational guidance of these two gifted and godly individuals. I am not only so very grateful to serve as president of a congregation that boasts of this dream team, but I am particularly thankful that this past year was the first of my presidency in which I did not have to concern myself with either a search for a new cantor or religious school director, or a new contract for either of our clergy. The stability that we now enjoy has been elusive for many years, and this is another sign of our strength as a congregation.

I know we are all very grateful for our Rabbi, Barry Schwartz, for his extraordinary spiritual leadership, for the quality of education he provides for our children and our adults, for the high level of discourse he brings to every D'var Torah he delivers and every Torah study session he leads, for his deep dedication to social justice, for his devotion as a caretaker in a manner above and beyond the call of duty, for his compassion and concern as an advisor and counselor… And for his wife Debbie, who adds so much spirit and thoughtfulness to our congregation.

And I know we are all grateful to Cantor Horowitz for bringing so much joy and light to each and every service that she graces with her voice, and her presence. We are a musical congregation, with an ear for talent, and it is delight to have a sweet singer of Israel of such outstanding ability. And we are equally grateful for her caring, understanding, and acumen as our Religious School Director. Our children have never been in better hands. And I also should acknowledge our wonderful teachers, our ever-helpful madrachim, and our ever-present parent volunteers.

One minor initiative that I want to mention at this point is the need for a new sound system for our sanctuary. Our present system is old, does not work all that well, and is simply not adequate for our current needs. We need to replace it before the High Holy Days, and we have time to do so, since they do not begin until October this year.

I have been saying that the state of our congregation is strong, and I stand behind that assessment, but I also acknowledge that we face some serious challenges. They are the same challenges I outlined last year, challenges involving membership and finances. Our membership has been declining slightly, and given that Adas Emuno is its membership, its citizens, that is cause for concern. We have lost some of our senior citizens, and while they are being replaced, in large part due to the fact that some of us are inexorably moving into that category, we need to find ways to attract more members of all age groups. If we could increase our size by just 20 or so families, we would be just fine. Membership is closely related to religious school enrollments, and here too we need to get the word out about the wonderful religious education that we offer, and the warm and welcoming congregation that we are.

As for our finances, they are directly related to our membership. The good news is that we are in good shape for the immediate future. The concern is that our expenses exceed our income, meaning that we are eating into our reserves. We have time to address this problem, but it will require doing better in regard to both membership and fundraising. We have made good progress on fundraising this past year, and we need to build on that success to insure the sustainability of our congregation for the future. Clearly, we need everyone working together on all of these concerns, helping to find ways to attract and retain new members, getting the word out about all that our religious school and our synagogue has to offer, working together on fundraising activities and finding ways to increase our donations above and beyond the basic dues and tuition that we ask for. We need our membership to respond with citizenship, and help us to answer these challenges in the coming years.

Congregation Adas Emuno was founded on October 22, 1871, and our little shul on the hill has kept going and going, all the while maintaining our small, intimate, haymishe community. That is because, despite all odds, we are a strong congregation, one that is blessed by the spirit, the ruach, of its members past, present, and future, and by something greater than ourselves. We are now a little more than five years away from our sesquicentennial, our 150th anniversary. It is time for us to begin planning for the celebration—and we really want it to be a great one, don’t we? And while we prepare to celebrate our 150 years, let's also do what needs to be done, to insure that Congregation Adas Emuno will be still growing strong for 150 years more. May it be God's will that it be so.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Congregational Leadership Congratulations

On behalf of Congregation Adas Emuno, we would like to express our gratitude to all of the congregants who took part in our annual meeting on June 16th, and to those who sent in their proxies as well.

And we would like to congratulate 

  • Marilyn Katz on completing her term as Recording Secretary and on her election as Treasurer
  • Susan Grey on her election as Recording Secretary
  • Michael Fishbein on completing his term as Treasurer and on his election as Trustee
  • Carol Bodian on her election as Trustee

We would also like to congratulate

  • Lance Strate on his re-election as President

  • Elka Oliver on her re-election as Vice-President

  • Mark Rosenberg re-election as Financial Secretary

We thank all of our volunteers for their service to our congregation, and invite all of our membership to take part in  the governance of Adas Emuno. You are welcome, and you are needed!