Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Summer Puim Spiel

We may not celebrate Purim during the summertime, but in these dog days of August, why not take a look back on the Purim spiel we put on this past March? It may not cool you off from the summer heat, but you still might find it pretty cool, nevertheless!

The Schnook of Esther (A Purim Spiel) Adas Emuno March 1, 2015, can be viewed on our very own Adas Emuno YouTube Channel, but we'll also make it easy on you and include it right here in this very blog post!

As you may recall, this year's spiel was performed twice, the first time on the morning of March 1st, for our Religious School as well as any congregants who wanted to attend, and with the addition of our Adas Emuno Religious School Choir joining in on a couple of songs.

This particular Purim Spiel, The Schnook of Esther, is an original work, and any other congregations or Jewish groups out there who are interested in using it for their next Purim celebration, you can contact us via email: <adasemuno at>.

And yes, this is just raw footage, not a professional video production, and yes, the players are not ready for prime time, by any means, but I think you'll agree that we know how to have fun here in our little shul on the hill in Leonia, Bergen County, New Jersey.

 And we'll post footage from our second performance later on, so keep an eye out, and a grogger handy!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Jewish President?

 The most recent op-ed written by Congregation Adas Emuno's president, Lance Strate, for the Jewish Standard, was published in their July 17th issue. And in conjunction with the Jewish Standard's new website, which now is in partnership with the Times of Israel, the op-ed was posted online on his new Times of Israel blog.

The title of the July 17th article is Lieberman's Revenge, and as the title of this post indicates, it's about the question of whether there could ever be a Jewish POTUS (that's not a Yiddish word, by the way, it's a fairly recent acronym, emerging via Twitter, that stands for President Of The United States). And in considering that question, the op-ed points to an unlikely and ironic connection between Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders. But of course, you can read it for yourself, on the Times of Israel/Jewish Standard blog by clicking on the title above, or just by continuing on below.

Could there ever be a Jewish president of the United States? That was a question that was raised repeatedly as I was growing up back in the sixties. On the one hand, we were told that here in the USA, anyone could grow up to be president. That idea was emblematic of the egalitarian foundation of American society, the basis of our democratic system of government. On the other hand, there was the practical reality that everyone who had been president came from a very limited demographic, all of them men, all of them white, most of them Anglo-Saxon with the occasional Dutch or German representative (e.g., Martin Van Buren, Dwight Eisenhower), and all of them Protestant.

So when it came to the question of whether we would ever see a Jewish president, the conclusion we typically came to was that it was possible, but unlikely.

This is not to discount the significance of the 1960 election, when John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic of Irish ancestry, defeated Richard Nixon. No doubt, the advent of our first Catholic president made the idea of a Jewish president seem at least a little possible, and served as a spur to the discussions that took place within Jewish circles about whether it could happen, and if it did, whether it would be good for the Jews or bad for the Jews. In some ways, we were more comfortable with a figure like Henry Kissinger, who became the 56th U.S. secretary of state, or more recently Rahm Emanuel, who served as the 23rd White House chief of staff. That sort of advisory or ministerial role has a long precedent in our history, reaching all the way back to Mordecai in the Book of Esther, and Joseph in Genesis. By way of contrast, we have the 19th-century example of Benjamin Disraeli, who served as prime minister of the United Kingdom, but only after converting to the Anglican Church as a child.

Rahm Emanuel

And, as is well known, Kennedy tragically was assassinated before completing a full term in office, and while there have been several other Catholics who have seriously vied for the presidency, including his two brothers, the nine presidents who followed all have been affiliated with one or another Protestant sect. It is worth noting that the first Greek Orthodox presidential candidate was nominated by the Democratic Party in 1988, and had former Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis defeated George H. W. Bush, his wife, Kitty Dukakis, would have become the first Jewish first lady of the United States. Here, too, we could find a precedent in the biblical personage of Esther.

Then came the year 2000, when Al Gore chose the U.S. senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, to be his running mate on the Democratic party ticket. And while Lieberman was the first Jewish vice presidential candidate to win the popular vote (albeit riding Gore’s coattails), the conservative-dominated United States Supreme Court decided the election in favor of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Gore and others harbored a degree of resentment towards Lieberman for not going all in, and running simultaneously for re-election as senator, a race he won. But in truth, with the economy still going strong under the Clinton-Gore administration, the election was Gore’s to lose. And he did.

Joe Lieberman

Lieberman became a presidential candidate in his own right in 2004, and for a brief moment we came closer to the possibility of a Jewish president than ever before. But he was identified as a centrist at a time when the Democratic party was moving to the left, as the shock of 9/11 began to recede and the reality of Bush’s occupation of Iraq began to take hold. Consequently, Lieberman’s candidacy was not very successful, and the United States senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kerry, a Roman Catholic just like the other JFK, gained the Democratic nomination, only to go down in defeat against Bush’s re-election bid. Whether Lieberman would have done any better or any worse than Kerry is hard to say.

Kerry’s defeat did not slow his party’s leftward tilt, which posed serious problems for Lieberman, especially given his somewhat hawkish stance on foreign policy issues. This came to a head in 2006, when he lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut, and decided to run for re-election to the Senate as an independent. While he won the election, he lost the support of many former colleagues in the Democratic party, including Gore and Hillary Clinton, who abandoned Lieberman and endorsed his rival. And while he remained more or less affiliated with the Democrats during his final term as senator, which ended in 2013, Lieberman in turn endorsed Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, and spoke at the Republican National Convention that year. Rumor had it that he had been considered a potential running mate for McCain as well, and perhaps might have served McCain better than former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Of course, the 2008 election was extraordinary, in that we elected the first African American president. And back in the sixties, conversation about whether there would ever be a Jewish president would sometimes also turn to the question of what would be more likely, that there would be a Jewish president or an African American president? The answer was far from clear, as both possibilities seemed altogether improbable. The fact that Barack Obama was elected and then re-elected is a great testament to the progress we have made as a society, and also a reflection of significant demographic changes within the population of the United States.

The 2008 primaries were also significant in regard to some of the other primary candidates. For example, for the Republican party, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani had been a contender, and could have been the first Italian-American elected to the White House (many urged Democratic New York State Governor Mario Cuomo to run back in the 80s, but to no avail). Mitt Romney came close to taking the nomination away from McCain, and then became the Republican candidate in 2012, making him the first Mormon to come close to winning the presidency (whether Mormons are considered Protestants, or even Christians, is open to debate). Back in 2008, former United States senator from New York Hillary Clinton was considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and had Obama not overtaken her in the primaries, she might have been the first woman to serve as president.

And so we come to the present moment, and the impressively diverse set of major party candidates set to run in the 2016 primaries. On the Republican side, this includes New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Roman Catholic; former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Roman Catholic convert; United States senator from Florida Marco Rubio, a Roman Catholic of Cuban descent; United States senator from Texas Ted Cruz, whose father also was Cuban; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, an African American; and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India.

On the Democratic side, we have former first lady, senator, and secretary of state Hillary Clinton once again running as the heir apparent; former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, a Roman Catholic; and the United States senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, born and raised, and bar mitzvahed, in Brooklyn, New York.

Although their politics are quite distinct, in tossing his hat into the ring to compete in the Democratic primaries, Sanders is following in Lieberman’s footsteps as a Jewish candidate for president. And the amazing thing is that Sanders is suddenly mounting a credible challenge to Hillary Clinton. I find this somehow ironic, given that Clinton and others turned their backs on Lieberman when he was down on his luck, because Lieberman was seen as too conservative. Now, along comes Sanders, who like Lieberman has independent party affiliations while remaining associated with the Democrats, but whose politics is significantly to the left of Clinton, to the extent that he identifies himself as a democratic socialist. So now it is Clinton who is losing ground among the party faithful because she is seen as too conservative.

Bernie Sanders

I imagine that the success Sanders is achieving in the polls and in the all-important activity of fundraising is starting to give Clinton some cause for concern, maybe even an upset stomach? That’s why I would call what’s happening right now, with apologies to Montezuma, Lieberman’s revenge.

Could Sanders win the Democratic nomination next year? And if he did, could he beat whomever the Republicans pick out of their extremely crowded field, thereby becoming the first Jewish president of the United States of America?

It’s possible, but unlikely. But the really nice thing about all this is, it’s unlikely because of his politics, and not because he’s Jewish.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Jewish Life in Colonial America

We're grateful to Cantor Sandy Horowitz for sharing with us the sermon she delivered on Friday evening July 3rd, the eve of the Shabbat that coincided with America's Independence Day:

July 3, 2015

Since it’s almost July 4th and we are in a synagogue, I thought I would spend a few minutes talking about the Jews who first came to this country before the Revolutionary War. 
Jews in Colonial America were certainly free of the overt persecutions and forced conversions to Christianity that had been their experience in Europe; however they weren’t exactly free to live on an equal basis with their Protestant counterparts. (Nor for that matter were the Catholics.) 

The first group of North American Jews landed in New York–then known as Dutch New Amsterdam –arrived in 1654. There were 23 of them, primarily traders and merchants, and they came from Brazil after having fled persecution in Europe.

Since New Amsterdam was Dutch, and Holland was known for its religious tolerance, these Jews figured they had it made. Unfortunately, Governor Peter Stuyvesant didn’t see it that way; he didn’t want Jews to settle in his colony. But economics prevailed over prejudice, as the Dutch West India Company was interested in these Jewish traders, and effectively convinced Stuyvesant to let them stay.

And so they were allowed to trade and to own real estate. However they were not permitted to hold public office, open a retail shop, or establish a synagogue.

When in 1664 the English captured New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York, life for the Jews remained essentially the same. 

As public worship was seen as a threat to the Protestant way of life and was therefore forbidden, Jews prayed privately in a mill loft, which they made into a makeshift synagogue.

For those of you who heard Rabbi Schwartz speak last week about the history of Charleston's African Methodist Episcopal church, we recall that just as Jews prayed privately and in secret in colonial times, so too–in a far more violent climate–did our southern African-American counterparts find ways to pray together even when it was forbidden. 

In any case, the mill loft was the precursor to the first publicly known synagogue Shearith Israel, which was consecrated around 1720, and which exists as a congregation to this day. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, what was Jewish religious life like during this time? These were Sephardic Jews, and for the most part they maintained their Orthodox religious observance. Remember, the Reform and Conservative movements didn’t exist yet. However, once in America, there was a relaxation of observance among some at least, when it came to dietary laws and keeping the Sabbath. It’s known for example that Jews served in the army during the Revolution, where they certainly would have not kept kosher or observed Shabbat.

What’s more, during this time, Colonial Jews chose not to import ordained Rabbis from Europe, as their sister congregations in the Caribbean and South America had done. And so there was no one whose role was to decide on matters of ritual law (halakha), make sure people kept kosher, or be a model for Jewish scholarship and learning. This didn’t change until the 1830s. When disputes arose, unlike the European model where issues were resolved within the Jewish community, here in the colonies, Jews like everyone else relied on civil authority. This was new.
So–who led the congregations in worship? It was the Cantor, known as the Hazzan-Minister.

In fact, the area where the colonial Jewish community was most strict about adherence to tradition, was with its music–Torah cantillation and their liturgical melodies. And so they did import trained cantors–hazzanim–from Amsterdam and London.

Along comes the Revolutionary War. When the British army advanced into New York, most of the members of Shearith Israel, who sided with the rebels, took their Torahs and fled first to Connecticut and four years later, to Philadelphia where they founded a new synagogue, Mikveh Israel. Meanwhile, some members of Shearith Israel, who were loyal to England, remained in New York. Here we may have just witnessed the first congregational ideological split.

Shearith Israel congregation still exists today: to borrow from Guys and Dolls, it’s the “oldest established permanent floating synagogue” in New York. It floated up from its first home on Mill Street downtown to the upper west side where it’s an active synagogue today. 

So that’s New York, what about the Jews of New Jersey? Although it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that there were known established Jewish communities, Jewish merchants from New York and Philadelphia did conduct business in New Jersey during the colonial period. Among the first Jewish settlers were Aaron and Jacob Lozada, who owned a grocery and hardware store in Bound Brook as early as 1718. Daniel Nunez appears in a 1722 court record as town clerk and tax collector for Piscataway Township and justice of the peace for Middlesex County. This may be earlier than their New York counterparts would have been allowed to hold civic office.

In any case, it was the war that led to a change in status of American Jews. 

As I mentioned, Jews for the most part sided with the rebels; they signed non-import agreements, promising not to trade with the England, and many enlisted in the Continental Army and the various militias. They served as soldiers and in some cases as officers. Some Jewish merchants also made significant financial contributions to the revolutionary war cause. After the war, George Washington as President wrote to several of the Jewish congregations thanking them for their contributions and their service.

Over time, the newly formed states loosened their policies regarding the restriction of voting to Protestants only, and by the early 1800s Jews were given the right to vote–(Jewish men, that is…).
We had it easy compared to our African-American counterparts, who didn’t get the vote until much later, and who had a far more violent history than we ever did in this country. But our colonial American history should serve as a reminder that we too have had to struggle for equal treatment under the law even here, in the land of freedom whose birth we celebrate this weekend. 

In a 1790 letter to the Newport Rhode Island Congregation, George Washington wrote: "May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. [Michah]" 

May this beautiful image one day come true for all Americans, and may we help to make it happen.

Shabbat shalom.