Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ardor for the Arbor

This past Friday night, following Shabbat services, we held our annual Tu B'Shevat seder. A minor holiday, Tu B'Shevat, literally meaning the 15th day of the Hebrew calendar month of Shevat, is known as the New Year for Trees, or more familiarly as the Jewish Arbor Day. It marks the beginning of the spring season in the land of Israel, quite ironic given the inclement weather on Friday.

Despite the snow and icy weather, some hearty souls turned out to celebrate the holiday at Adas Emuno:

Special thanks to Virginia Gitter for supplying the photographs! And let's dream of a nice, green, and above all warm spring season coming soon!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Communities of Practice

Did you see the article, URJ Unveils ‘Communities of Practice’ in this week's Jewish Standard (dated January 18)?  Written by Lois Goldrich, the article begins with the following pargraphs:

While many synagogues generate creative ideas for growing their membership, they often lack the resources to implement them. 
To address this issue, the Union for Reform Judaism has created the “communities of practice” program, bringing together 37 congregations around the country to share ideas and experiment with new strategies. Two of them are local — Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter and Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia.

Before focusing on our congregation, Goldrich first focuses on our sister shul in Closter. We'll skip over that part, but if you're interested, you can read the article in its entirety on the Jewish Standard website.  And here's how it looked in the print version:

And now for the relevant section of the article:

Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia has been selected for the young families initiatives. Its rabbi, Barry Schwartz, is excited about his congregation’s participation in the project. 
“I think the URJ has come to realize that they need to put congregations that share the same needs and same challenges together,” he said. “That’s what this is about. Small congregations like ours have one set of challenges; large congregations have another.”
While Adas Emuno, founded in 1871, is what Schwartz calls “a wonderful little congregation,” with some 100 member units, it nevertheless embraces members of all ages, including 70 children. 
But with no preschool—and with what the rabbi described as “demographic challenges”—it is not easy to attract young families with children.
“We have a declining number of young families because the Jewish population in this part of the county is diminishing,” he said. Still, membership has been steady, “and we want to keep that base. We’ve been around 140 years. We want to make sure there’s a generation to take our place.”
Noting that his synagogue serves people beyond the immediate neighborhood, Schwartz said the congregation is eager to attract families that are not yet affiliated with the community, including interfaith families.
School director Annice Benamy and congregational leader Rebecca Kind Slater will represent the synagogue in URJ meetings, traveling to Chicago later this winter to participate in the inaugural conference. Both, he said, are professional teachers.
“They’ll be talking to congregational staff and leaders with expertise in this area,” he said. “Why not learn some of the best practices?”
The rabbi said discussion of the issue has already begun, and the congregation has initiated a series of tot programs, including offerings on Shabbat and holidays as well as field trips. He said that young families particularly enjoyed the shul’s recent Chanukah party, at which he played guitar, “did a Chanukah rap, and showed them my dreidel collection.
“We’re trying to develop family-friendly programs,” he said, pointing out that the shul is employing different communications strategies, including social media, town listserves, local newspapers, and parenting publications.
“We have to grow more sophisticated,” he said. “We have to go out to where the people are.”
This year, the congregation’s Hebrew school launched a series of family enrichment activities. Once a month, the rabbi chooses a different grade and leads a discussion.
“Last Sunday I met with third-grade parents to do a Jewish family inventory,” he said. “I listed 20 material objects and 10 observances and each family did an inventory exercise. They scored themselves and compared scores. It led to a provocative discussion of what distinguishes a Jewish home.”
Schwartz said the URJ initiative will “help us come up with a comprehensive strategy [to be] an inviting institution for young families. But whether it will lead to the establishment of a preschool or day care or ‘mommy and me’ program remains to be seen. I’m supportive of the URJ’s efforts.”

The URJ's Communities of Practice program involved a competitive application process, and so we proudly congratulate our Religious School Director Annice Benamy and Trustee Rebecca Kind Slater for their successful efforts, and look forward to the fruits of their endeavor!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

On the Worship of the False Idol of Firearms

This past Friday evening, Rabbi Schwartz devoted the sermon portion of the Shabbat service to the subject of gun violence. Following his sermon, Rabbi Schwartz asked me to add some comments based on a post I published on my own blog, Human Sacrifice and the False Idol of Firearms. I also promised to share that post here on our congregational blog, but first let me ask that if you haven't done so before, please read and respond to our previous post, A Response to Tragedy. And of course there is so much more to be said about this subject, and what I have written here reflects some thoughts about guns and technology that I have been working out prior to recent events, as well as incorporating responses to the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy expressing moral outrage, from the Roman Catholic intellectual, Garry Wills and Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

In his 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman wrote that

the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make life worth living. (p. xii)

Postman introduced the term technopoly to refer to a culture in which the growth of technology is unchecked and unrestrained, and comes to dominate all aspects of society.  As he explains

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. (p. 71)
Writing over two decades ago, Postman suggests that the United States is the only technopoly in the world, although others are aspiring to that state. Whether we are still alone in our culture's total surrender to the technological imperative is an open question, but even if we are not, we are certainly unique in being the first, and furthest along.

But I want to modify Postman's argument slightly, to say that technology is not so much a deity as it is a religion. And as a religion, it is not a form of monotheism, but rather presents us with a pantheon of gods of the machine, some of which are openly worshiped with great enthusiasm, others not so much. For example, the automobile is one of our most cherished deities, a god to whom we give enormous love and devotion, for whom we build numerous altars  and indeed alter the entire landscape, and to whom we sacrifice an enormous amount of our resources, and beyond that,
some 30,000 lives every year.  In contrast, the locomotive is a god that once enjoyed great respect and admiration in this land, but whose worship has been in sharp decline for many decades now.

A similar example is the technology of the printing press, which is enshrined in the first amendment to our constitution, and still enjoys great prestige, but in regard to  its places of worship, attendance and affiliation has been in a downward spiral (much as it has been for traditional churches and synagogues), displaced by younger gods who prefer the title media rather than press, most notably television, computers, the internet, and the pocket gods we call cell phones.

And getting to the main point now, the second amendment, in language so convoluted that it requires almost as much exegesis as biblical passages written in ancient Hebrew, seemingly deifies another technology, arms, which is interpreted as firearms, the gun as god. How else can we explain the inexplicable response on the part of the National Rifle Association to the tragic shooting of 20 children and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, by which I mean the absolute refusal to consider that guns may have had anything to do with the event, and the absolute refusal to consider that any measure of limits, even the most modest, on gun ownership might be called for?

How else to explain the fact that, in the wake of the tragedy, gun worshipers rushed out to buy even more guns, especially of the sort used in the Newtown shooting? Is this not the power of belief, of faith, of worship?

Let me be plain about this. Guns do not represent freedom. As technologies specifically designed to cause injury and harm, to maim and to kill, they are a threat to freedom. Guns do not represent safety or security. There are alternatives to firearms that can fulfill that function. What do guns mean, what do they symbolize? Freud would point to their phallic quality, a point that no doubt would be open to ridicule by many, and that I'm not putting forth seriously here, although let's not forget that almost all gun violence is caused by men. But many critics of Freud have argued that what he interpreted as sexual is really about power. And while I am not in the habit of drawing on the French cultural critic Michel Foucault, in this instance I think his emphasis on power relations as something that permeates culture, beyond the power of the state, is relevant. Knowledge is power, yes, but in practical terms it's know-how that is power, in other words it's not just science, but applied science, technology.  Technology is about power, the power to get things done by the most efficient means available, and guns provide the power to cause damage and death more efficiently than any other method available to the average citizen.

The meaning of the gun is power. The worship of guns is the worship of power, the belief that this divine power will be bestowed upon the worshiper. The concept of deities is of beings that are supernatural, above nature, and therefore of much greater power than human beings. In monotheism, God is often referred to as the Almighty, which is to say all-powerful. Technology, being a form of polytheism, the gun is not almighty, but it is worshiped for the less than absolute power that it grants. Traditionally, the power of divine entities would be invoked through rituals, through sacrifice, through prayer, and the worshiper could never be certain of whether the deity would respond in any way. But our technological gods do respond, immediately and effectively, in granting us the power we seek.

As a religion, technology delivers. But only in regard to the utilitarian, the pragmatic. When it comes to traditional religions, and I would venture to add religions that are genuine religions, there are many other things individuals pray for aside from power: guidance, wisdom, compassion, forgiveness, peace. We pray for the souls of the dead, we pray for the healing of the wounded, we pray that survivors may be comforted in their grief and mourning, we pray for the strength to carry on through adversity. Individuals may pray for the ability to do God's will, or may meditate as a way of listening for God's voice, or simply to open themselves to the sacred dimension of the world, and seek communion with the divine.  Perhaps most importantly, traditional religions include prayers for mercy, expressions of respect, awe and even fear  of divine judgment, an understanding that there are requirements for right conduct, moral behavior, as a precondition for divine providence, and against the possibility of divine punishment.  Technology makes no such requirements of us. Holding aside the validity of religious beliefs, it is clear that traditional religion plays an important role in providing a foundation for ethical behavior, and from a sociological perspective fulfills a positive function. Technological religion, on the other hand, does not, and that is the key idea to keep in mind.

Turning back now to gun worship, I'd like to introduce the comments of Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, taken from a Huffington Post essay dated December 18, and entitled Gun Worship Is Blasphemy. Rabbi Yoffie begins by framing the issue of gun control within a religious context:

Above all, let us remember this: Sensible gun-control is a religious issue.

The indiscriminate distribution of guns is an offense against God and humanity.

Controlling guns is not only a political matter; it is a solemn religious obligation. Our gun-flooded society has turned weapons into idols, and the worship of idols must be recognized for what it is: blasphemy. And the only appropriate religious response to blasphemy is sustained moral outrage and focused moral action.

There is not a single word in the sacred Scriptures of the Christian, Jewish or Islamic traditions that either opposes commonsensical gun control or supports the idea of some God-given right to automatic weapons that fire 100 shots in a single minute.

Yes, our constitution gives us certain guarantees when it comes to gun ownership. But there is nothing in the constitution that says we are entitled to own weapons with a magazine of more than eight to 10 bullets. There is nothing that obligates us to go along with what the NRA has long advocated: the right of almost any terrorist suspect, deranged person, wife-beater and crook to buy almost any weapon at almost any time, no questions asked.

At this point, I want to repeat the point I made in my previous post, On Guns and More, that the second amendment is not scripture, that the Bill of Rights is not the Ten Commandments, that the constitution can be amended and that includes the amendments themselves, and that amendments can be repealed, and it's time to start talking about repealing the second amendment. But let me return to Rabbi Yoffie, and his plea for a response from the faith community:

When these terrible tragedies occur, our nation looks to its religious leaders and its places of worship to provide comfort to the victims and solace to a stricken nation. And it is important that we should do so; we have the capacity to mobilize communities of the faithful, to provide love and caring to those in distress, and to hold our fellow Americans together when anguish and fear are driving us apart.

But at this moment, more is needed of the religious community. As men and women of God, we need to take the moral offensive and demand that something be done.

My plea to every pastor, priest, rabbi and imam in America: This is not the time for the usual platitudes. And yes, we need programs for troubled teens and fewer bloodthirsty movies and hideous video games. But we also need to take on the gun nuts, a single-issue minority too often motivated by intolerance and filled with hate.

When it comes to guns, Americans have learned to be cynical. They have learned that no matter how great the outrage, the entrenched gun interests are always triumphant. But as religious leaders, we know what this leads to. We know that when good people back down again and again; when the gun worshipers are rewarded with ever-more radical pro-gun legislation; when the corpses of the dead, lying bloody before us, are ignored; and when the zealotry and folly of the pro-gun lobby are not confronted by the forces of sanity, the result is fatalism and despair, undermining faith in government and faith in God.

To echo the words of the great sage Hillel, if not now, when?  The problem, though, is politics:

I understand that gun control is not a simple matter; that compromise will be necessary; and that honest, well-intentioned people will differ on exactly what measures are required. But we must make a start. Surely this is the moment to create a coalition of sensible citizens, willing to come forward and say no to the deadly toll that guns are taking on the lives of our children. Surely this is the time to reach out to politicians, of all persuasions and all parties, and ask them to put the welfare of our children and the safety of our citizens ahead of petty, partisan concerns. And surely religious leaders and institutions -- obligated to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with their God -- should lead the way.

If this massacre of innocents in Newtown will not rouse the nation's conscience, then nothing will. Therefore, this is the moment to mobilize the idealism, energy and anger of the American people.

And a word to President Obama: Nothing will happen without the national leadership that only you can provide. You have been a voice for hope and change, but if truth be told, in this area you have been mostly silent. I believe -- although I can't be sure -- that Americans are ready for a leader with the sense and the guts to tackle the abuses of our gun culture. We need to hear from you a voice of moral clarity and a practical plan that you will be prepared to fight for. Your tears about the murdered children were genuine, but they were not enough. No excuses and no dawdling. If Americans are to stop the slaughter and find their higher selves, religious leaders have a critical role to play -- but they can only do so much. The President of the United States must lead the way.

The trouble with compromise is that it only works when there are two sides willing to compromise. But how do you ask gun-worshipers to compromise on the worship of their god? I realize that Rabbi Yoffie is trying to be reasonable, indeed that approaching problems rationally is part of the Enlightenment orientation that gave birth to the Reform Judaism movement that he once led. And he is absolutely right in calling out President Obama on his abject failure to address this issue in any substantive way. We'll see what the Biden Commission that Obama appointed to come up with proposals to deal with this issue comes up with. But how do we compromise on matters of health and safety? What's the compromise on drinking and driving? What's the compromise on seat belts and airbags in cars? What's the compromise on second hand smoke? What's the compromise on radioactive fallout and toxic waste?

Let me turn now to an essay published in the New York Review of Books on December 15th, written by Gary Wills, a leading Roman Catholic intellectual.  The essay is entitled, simply, Our Moloch, and I thank Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz of Congregation Adas Emuno for bringing it to my attention.  The title is in reference to one of the false gods who are the subject of idol worship in the Hebrew Bible, the most often cited passage being in Leviticus 18:21 which reads, "And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch." In this instance, seed refers to offspring, and the prohibition against the sacrifice of children, which is the main lesson of the story of the binding of Isaac (as I discussed in my previous post, Appearances), is reinforced just a little further on in Leviticus in 20:1-5, which reads

1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
2 Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Moloch; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.
3 And I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed unto Moloch, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name.
4 And if the people of the land do any ways hide their eyes from the man, when he giveth of his seed unto Moloch, and kill him not;
5 then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go a whoring after him, to commit whoredom with Moloch, from among their people.

Harsh stuff, indeed, but a strong polemic against a practice that was considered acceptable, desirable, and demanded by the gods in the ancient middle east (as it has been in other cultures in other parts of the world). The powerful prohibition against human sacrifice appears elsewhere in the Hebrew bible, in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Second Chronicles.  And, after all, are we not to this day filled with disgust at the thought of such practices, and of sacrificing children in general? With this context in mind, let's turn to what Gary Wills has to say:

Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there. Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind:

First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The analogy is entirely apt, in my opinion. Of all the false gods that we worship within our technological religion, none are more vile, more horrific, more evil than this one. Some have made reference to the existence of evil in respect to the act of mass murder that occurred, and to the shooter as a person, and in some instances this has been used as a tactic to deflect attention away from the role that firearms have played in this and so many other needless, senseless deaths. What Wills makes clear in this essay is that gun-worship itself is sinful, is evil.

Wills continues by arguing that the gun is more than a technology, but in a way that is consistent with Postman's view that our technologies have become deified:

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.

At this point, I want to note that Wills is not the first to find a false god in a machine, or to call that god Moloch. One of the most dramatic scenes in the 1927 German silent film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, depicts industrial machinery as a Moloch idol devouring workers. The film portrays a future society where there are two classes, the capitalists who live above the city in privileged luxury, and the oppressed workers who live below.  Freder, the son of the city's master ventures below to see how the other half lives, and upon viewing the workers reduced to automatons servicing the industrial engines, he has a vision of the machinery as Moloch. I'm going to include a clip here, and if you're not familiar with silent film, you might find this stylized depiction a bit hard to relate to, but try to understand the powerful statement being made here about human beings placed in servitude to technology:

This Moloch is consuming adult workers rather than children, but the reality at that time is that children were victimized by the industrial revolution, and women as well as men. It was exactly this Moloch that Karl Marx inveighed against in The Communist Manifesto, with the clear understanding that the inhuman working conditions of the industrial factory and the exploitation of impoverished men, women, and children was intolerable, and it would only be a matter of time before the workers rose up in rebellion against the ones oppressing them. But you did not have to be a leftist, radical, or anarchist to see that, as the fascist movement of the early 20th century also was fueled by the alienation of the working classes.  In fact, the screenplay for Metropolis was written by Lang's wife at the time, Thea Von Harbou, who was a Nazi sympathizer. Lang himself was on the liberal side of the political spectrum, and half-Jewish, although his mother  converted to Catholicism when Lang was a child. 

The point is that if there is a religious belief that Americans have clung to along with the belief in technology, and that goes hand-in-hand in many ways with the belief in technology, it's the belief in free enterprise. And that faith in free enterprise suggested that any kind of legislation or reforms regarding how businesses conduct themselves would be unwarranted. And yet, we did pass child labor laws, and all manner of regulations regarding safety in the workplace. Of course, it took organized effort on the part of working people, especially through the labor union movement, for this to come about. It was important, it was necessary, and if not for this process, there might well have been some kind of massive revolution here. In Metropolis, a negotiated solution is reached at the end, the kind that Rabbi Yoffie would recognize as reasonable, but even there it's only after a violent upheaval, and only to avert any further violence and disruption.

So this is a bit of a digression, but one that brings me to the point that the comparison that Wills makes between guns and Moloch not only makes sense, but has good precedent. And the fact that we were able to overcome the Moloch of the industrial machine through organized effort, political action, and legislation, with the support of religious organizations, shows that it is also possible to overcome the Moloch of firearms. And it begins with identifying the god as a false idol, which Wills proceeds to do in his essay:

The fact that the gun is a reverenced god can be seen in its manifold and apparently resistless powers. How do we worship it? Let us count the ways:

1. It has the power to destroy the reasoning process. It forbids making logical connections. We are required to deny that there is any connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands and the greatest number of deaths from them. Denial on this scale always comes from or is protected by religious fundamentalism. Thus do we deny global warming, or evolution, or biblical errancy. Reason is helpless before such abject faith.

2. It has the power to turn all our politicians as a class into invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine. None dare suggest that Moloch can in any way be reined in without being denounced by the pope of this religion, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, as trying to destroy Moloch, to take away all guns. They whimper and say they never entertained such heresy. Many flourish their guns while campaigning, or boast that they have themselves hunted “varmints.” Better that the children die or their lives be blasted than that a politician should risk an election against the dread sentence of NRA excommunication.

3. It has the power to distort our constitutional thinking. It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter. Moloch brooks no dissent, even from the highest court in the land.

Though LaPierre is the pope of this religion, its most successful Peter the Hermit, preaching the crusade for Moloch, was Charlton Heston, a symbol of the Americanism of loving guns. I have often thought that we should raise a statue of Heston at each of the many sites of multiple murders around our land. We would soon have armies of statues, whole droves of Heston acolytes standing sentry at the shrines of Moloch dotting the landscape. Molochism is the one religion that can never be separated from the state. The state itself bows down to Moloch, and protects the sacrifices made to him. So let us celebrate the falling bodies and rising statues as a demonstration of our fealty, our bondage, to the great god Gun.

What a marvelous suggestion, the intent being of course to shame our political leadership into acknowledging the truth of the situation, and taking action. To understand what we are up against, let's listen to the words of Moloch's prophet:

The false conflation of national defense, a function now served by our professional military and police forces, and the private ownership of firearms by gun-worshipers is unworthy of the actor who once portrayed Moses, the Lawgiver. Professionals will generally tell you that they do not want all of these weapons in the hands of private individuals, but that's besides the ponit. For a better understanding of Charlton Heston, let's turn to the following except from Michael Moore's film, Bowling for Columbine:

While I don't completely agree with Moore, who insists on linking American gun-worship to our foreign policy and numerous military interventions in the world, and doesn't distinguish between Canadian ownership of hunting rifles and shotguns, and American worship of handguns and assault weapons, but his interview with Heston is revealing in the simple truth that there is no rational argument to be made for our policies towards firearms. When there is no argument, no rationale, it all comes down to blind faith, to religious belief, to unquestioning worship. And of what? Of the technological religion, of the gun as as American god, of the false idol of firearms who demand of us human sacrifices, the sacrifice of children. 

How much more can we bear?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

From Athens to Jerusalem

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

From the desk of …                    
 Rabbi Barry Schwartz


I’ve really enjoyed working recently on a new slideshow (PowerPoint) presentation. It’s called “From Athens to Jerusalem: An Archeological Tour and Discussion.” I will debut the slideshow at the annual Jewish community learning event called Sweet Tastes of Torah on February 2 at Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

As you know, I love history, and over the past three decades I have been privileged to visit many of the world’s great archeological sites. This show presents photographs of my visits to the wonders of the Mediterranean basin. More specifically, it visits the remarkable remnants of ancient Near East civilization in six countries: Greece, Italy, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Israel.

The tour begins in Athens and ends in Jerusalem. Along the way I visit Delphi, Knossos, Rome, Pompeii, Ephesus, Sardis, Petra, Cairo, Luxor, Abu-Simbel and Masada. In Israel I venture off the beaten track to see half a dozen more fascinating sites. In each place I try to highlight what makes the site unique, that is to say, what contribution that particular place has made to Western civilization.

It is no accident that I begin in Athens and end in Jerusalem. These two cities have come to symbolize the two great philosophical worldviews of the West; the humanism of the Greeks and the theism of the Hebrews. The former holds reason as the ultimate source of authority; the latter posits revelation in that role.

The early Church father Tertullian (c.168-c.225) asked famously: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Jewish and Christian religious thought has been wrestling with that question ever since. In fact, I would argue that the attempt to harmonize reason and revelation is the single greatest issue behind the evolution of religion in the modern world.

I explore this issue toward the end of my slideshow. And this year we have been revisiting the question time and again in our weekly study of the great medieval sage Maimonides (1135-1204). His attempt to meld his faith and his philosophical learning set the stage for almost every other important Jewish thinker to this day.

The noted cultural critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) suggests in his celebrated work Culture and Anarchy that “Hebraism and Hellenism are the two essential philosophies of life between which civilized man must choose.” The esteemed social philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) opined in his oft-cited essay Jerusalem and Athens that “Western man became what he is, and is what he is, through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought.” And in his latest book, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, theologian and Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues for a grand synthesis of reason and revelation, stating that “Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

If you are intrigued by all this, it’s never too late to join our enthusiastic Torah study group every Shabbat morning at 10:00 AM. We love talking theology and ethics and the big questions of life. And come out to my slideshow at the event in Teaneck on February 2 at 7:00 PM, for the photography if not the philosophy!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Help Wanted!

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

A Report from Annette DeMarco
Social Action Committee Chairperson

At this time, most items donated by you have been delivered….  and appreciated!

Coats for women and children were brought to the Women's Rights Information Center, Englewood. Jackets and warm clothing were brought to Temple Beth El of Northern Valley, and from there, delivered to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Soup Kitchen at the New York Campus. Word came back that these items, especially the jackets, were immediately taken by people in need. Food donations were brought to the Center for Food Action. There were over ten bags of groceries with this last delivery. The Leonia Metropolitan Market also gave items for this food drive and we gratefully acknowledge this generous gesture. Donations made to Shelter Our Sisters will be delivered soon.

Our next project will take place on Sunday, January 27. We will be cooking for and serving a pasta and meatball dinner to folks who live at the shelter in Hackensack as well as walk-ins. We need to prepare 150 meals so we REALLY need YOUR help! Cooks will be needed, as well as people to help serve. Some of us will be meeting at Adas Emuno mid-afternoon in order to heat food left there and to be sure we “have everything”. Others will meet at the shelter at 4 PM to help serve. Please stay tuned for more details in an email coming soon. You can also contact me [Annette] at acheryl21 at gmail.com or call at 201-641-7496. Sign-up sheets will be available in the Social Hall, too.

Sincerest thanks to everyone who has been supporting this committee’s projects! And a special thank you to Richard Alicchio for helping with deliveries and acting as a live GPS! May the year of 2013 bring health, happiness, security and peace of mind to all.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Capella on Thursday

Join us this Thursday evening for the only Bergen County appearance of Yale's a cappella singing sensation, Magevet!  Cantor Brian Mayer of Temple Emanu-El in Providence, Rhode Island has gone on record stating that Magevet is “one of the finest collegiate a cappella groups in the nation.” Here now are the details:

So, for an evening full of song and delight, come on over to Adas Emuno this Thursday night!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Religious School News—Coming Together After a Tragedy

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

Religious School News from

Annice Benamy, Religious School Director

Coming Together After a Tragedy

We have memories of where we were for significant events:  I was teaching music in Room 200 in Cleveland, Ohio when 9/11 took place. I was in high school marching band when the TV show “Dallas” questioned “Who shot J.R.?” I was at home getting ready for bed when I heard the news about the death of Princess Diana.  I was on Facebook when I heard about Sandy Hook.  Where were you when you heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook?  Facebook is filled with petitions to sign for every cause – tax cuts, better education, progressive Judaism in Israel, and now better gun control laws. The petitions I sign make their way to Washington DC to that my lawmakers know my name and my beliefs.  I advocate for so many causes to advance our country in the 21st century.  I invite you to do the same.  Take a stand.  Sign your name when a petition comes before you to show your commitment to our world, our country, our community and to our family.

From: www.urj.org                                                      

Prayer:  When Burdens Are Too Heavy We come to You, O God, for your gracious help. You dwell within our heart, You feel our distress, You know our pain, and how burdened we are. Give us strength to bear our burdens with courage, wisdom, and grace. Help us to be true to our better self, to discern our real work in life, and to do it with all our might. When our struggle within our own heart, stay by our sides. Then we shall be able to say with Your prophet (Isaiah 40:31) “But those who hold fast to the Eternal shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

May our work, and the ties that bind us to family and friends, make life rich in meaning for us. so that each day we live may be yet another step leading us nearer to You. Amen

Recommended Books 

 A list of books for talking to your children about death:

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen

It Must Hurt a Lot: A Book about Death and Learning and Growing  by Doris Sanford

The Bug Cemetery by Frances Hill

Goodbye Mousie by Robie Harris

When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurei Krasny Brown and Marc Brown

Tough Boris by Mem Fox

When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers

A Candle for Grandpa: A Guide to the Jewish Funeral for Children and Parents by David Techner and Judith Hirt-Manheimer

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst

Daddy's Chair by Sandy Lanton

Where Do People Go When They Die? by Mindy Avra Portnoy

Friday, January 4, 2013

Adassers, Assemble!

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

A Message From Our President

Dr. Lance Strate

Adassers, Assemble!

All right, I admit it, I'm a bit of a comic book superhero nerd (you can ask our fellow congregant, Annette DeMarco, whose husband own a comics shop in Teaneck). But did you know that it was two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created the character of Superman? First appearing in 1938, he was their answer to the Nazis' racist and anti-Semitic claims about the Aryan superman. Our Superman was a true national hero, growing up in rural Smallville, moving to the big city of Metropolis as an adult, working as a newspaper reporter in his secret identity, on both fronts fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Like Moses, his life was saved as an infant when his parents sent him away in a rocket just before the destruction of the planet Krypton. This makes Superman the embodiment of the immigrant experience of that era, a true alien, an orphan cut off from his old world by violent, destructive forces, adopted by his new world and forced to assimilate by hiding his powers and creating a divided identity.

Clark Kent became his public face, and like all immigrants he was a bit clumsy and awkward, having trouble fitting in, and going to great lengths to hide his ethnicity in trying to present himself as an average American. Immigrants could only feel free to truly be themselves, to relax and embrace their ethnic heritage when they were no longer in public, but in the privacy of their homes, and in the company of their landsmen. For Clark Kent, the freedom to cut loose and reveal his unique abilities and talents, his differences, came when he put on his native costume and put his alien abilities to work in the service of others in his other identity as Superman. And just as Jewish immigrants typically had Hebrew names as well as English ones, Superman had a Kryptonian name, given to him at birth, Kal-El, which sounds much like the Hebrew words for Voice of God, or possibly All That is God.

Over two decades after Superman's debut, two other Jewish comics creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, launched Marvel Comics, with characters that include The Thing from the Fantastic Four, who grew up on Yancy (aka Delancey) Street on New York's lower east side, an old, working class Jewish neighborhood, and Spider-Man, a Woody Allen-type with webs. And then there was the Avengers, the subject of a major motion picture earlier this year, a team of superheroes led by the revived World War Two hero Captain America, created in 1940 by Kirby and another Jewish comics creator, Joe Simon. The membership of the Avengers was subject to frequent changes over the years, but the basic concept held true: Working as a team, the heroes could overcome threats that would overwhelm any one of them on their own. Stan Lee had a penchant for purple prose, and especially alliteration, and this is true of the rallying cry of this comic book team, which was Avengers, Assemble!

So now you know why the title of this column is Adassers Assemble! And admittedly, I'm being a bit redundant, because adas means assembly (our congregation's name means assembly of the faithful), but then again maybe not. Just because you're a member of an assembly doesn't mean that you always are assembled, even when called. Even on the High Holy Days, when most of us are gathered together, we never quite get all of us all in one place all at the same time (another case of divided identity, like Superman and Clark Kent).

But that's all right. Different teams can assemble at different times, and for different purposes. Some of those teams we call committees. For example, we have committees devoted to ritual, to social action, to the religious school, to adult education, to membership, to buildings and grounds, to our internet and publication activities. And we have committees to help organize events and fundraisers, such as the Adas Emuno talent show we have planned for April 20th, and the yard sale we hope to hold this spring. And maybe you've been willing to help, and just needed someone to ask? Well, I'm asking. Please help us out. Be a hero. We need your participation, your unique abilities and talents, as well as your financial support. We can't do all that needs to be done on our own.

There is much that needs to be done, and so much more that we can get done if we work together. It takes a team effort to plan and carry out our worship services (working with our wonderful clergy), our educational programs (in conjunction with our terrific teachers and religious school director), our social action activities, and all of the great musical programs, speakers, and special events that we have set up for you. We need your help to get the word out about all that we are doing, all that we represent as a congregation, all that we have to offer to prospective members. We also need to organize fundraisers to help make ends meet for our religious school and our synagogue, and we need to work together to make much needed improvements to our aging buildings and infrastructure. 

We need you to be heroes, to lend your talents and abilities and resources, on behalf of our congregation. And we need our heroes to assemble, to participate, working together to make this the best Adas Emuno it can be. Will you answer the call?

If you're unsure of how to get started, just ask me, or one of our board members, at services, or on a Sunday morning, or email us at board@adasemuno.org, or call us up and leave a message at 201.592.1712. Adassers, let's assemble, and together realize all of the great things that none of us can accomplish on our own.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Richard Alicchio's Conversion Speech

Richard Alicchio completed his conversion to Judaism on Friday, December 21st, during our weekly Shabbat services. As Rabbi Schwartz wrote in his weekly message to the members of Congregation Adas Emuno on the previous day: "Witnessing a conversion to Judaism is a special moment, and we will have that opportunity at our Shabbat evening service when Richard Alicchio embraces the Torah." Here is a photo taken of Richard and Rabbi Schwartz at the oneg following services that night:

And Richard was kind enough to share with us the speech he gave to the congregation to mark the occasion:

My journey to Judaism began in the early sixties when I met Cheryl. I would go over to her house. There we would listen to her records on the hi- fi. I became a constant visitor and her parents were always kind and generous toward me.

We attended Cliffside Park High School, went to the prom, then I was off to college for two years and then a year at a New York college. I was drafted into the Army in 1966, then got my orders to go to Viet Nam. While I was away my daughter was born and she was three months old when I first saw her. We had her named Leah. My son was born in 1971 . We had a ceremony for him led by Rabbi Berger at Congregation Sons of Israel in Leonia. We had him named Boruch Froyim. At five years old we took them to Sunday school and Hebrew school and they were both B'nai Mitzvah. But we were not married in the Jewish tradition.

We spent many holidays at Cheryl's house, her father had studied to be a rabbi so he knew how to do the Seder very precisely.

What brought me into this conversion was when Cheryl and I first attended services at Adas Emuno. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming that we were taken aback by such kindness. Since 2008, we have been attending services at Adas Emuno and volunteering for various events and it has been very rewarding. I am also eager to learn more about tradition, religion, and philosophy and know that I will learn that here as I attend classes in Hebrew and Torah Study.

And with that we say a hearty Mazel Tov! to Richard and Cheryl Alicchio, and extend our warmest welcome and joyful congratulations to the newest member of our Jewish community!