Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Buildings of Civilizations

The Buildings of Civilizations
At Touro Synagogue 
Rosh Hashanah Second Day, Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur
September 2018
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On Yom Kippur, I sat in my chair at Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island,  anticipating a beautiful and fulfilling evening. Next to me sat Larrie D. Ferreiro of Washington, DC, who was attending a conference at Salve. He teaches history and engineering at George Mason and several other schools in Washington DC.

I asked him to explain the combination of these disciplines. He said,

“Humans have been engineering large, complex structures as long as we have had civilizations.   Everywhere around the world, every time humans have created complex social systems, they have also created large complex structures.”

His examples include many of the structures in history such as the Pyramids, Angor Watt, and even a ship of the line which, with more than 10,000 parts, he calls one of  the “most complex machines built before the industrial revolution.”  

In a recent book, "Brothers at Arms,” he treats the American Revolution in a similar way. Although Americans see the revolution as a local event, it was much more. France and Spain were seething in anger at the results of the previous war, and the American Revolution became part of a much larger war that involved many of the major players in Europe in an 18th century world war.  

The American thinkers who ran things from Philadelphia realized that America could not succeed without (French) help…and the help in arms, men and money was very generous. Although America liked to credit Benjamin Franklin for his diplomatic success, in fact the French were very eager to assist. 

Newport had a role in the victory at Yorktown, Dr. Ferreiro points out. “American independence was saved by France and Spain — and the Rochambeau expedition at Newport was a major part of that.” The victory at Yorktown began with the march of the French Army from Newport southwards.

The French always deferred to Washington, who in turn consulted his advisors, including the French. The French suggested that with the help of the French Fleet, it would be easier to win a victory at Yorktown than to retake New York City, which was Washington’s preference. With some well placed leaks, Washington fooled the English into believing New York was the target, and moved much of the French and American forces to Virginia. Many of the soldiers at Yorktown, in each of the three armies, were Germans, either soldiers for hire, volunteers or immigrants to America.

As I contemplated our candle-lit shul, I thought how the building was a cooperative effort that involved a lot of moving parts, something like a ship. Some of the push to hire a rabbi, Isaac Touro, and build the synagogue might have been from Aaron Lopez, a recent arrival from Lisbon. The architect, Peter Harrison, used English architectural books for the outline, and information about a synagogue from the Jews of Newport for the details. The bricks were imported from England.

Our current congregation reflects its diverse origin.  In Rabbi Marc Mandel’s various holiday sermons, he addressed us as individuals and as a congregation. He challenged us to build ourselves into better human beings, on both an individual and community level.

On the second day of of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Mandel spoke about וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה “repentance prayer and charity will lead us to a better year.”

“The High Holiday prayer book, the מחזור,” he said, “doesn’t give us a tool kit for how to achieve these three goals. How should we do it and how should we not do it?”

Rabbi Mandel cautioned us against multi-tasking. “One of the most important words in our tradition is שְׁמַע- to listen. If we are multitasking, how can we listen? 

"Therefore this year–when we focus on תְשׁוּבָה תְפִלָּה צְדָקָה when we focus on repentance prayer and charity–let’s focus on each one separately–so that we can concentrate on each goal as we pray for a year of spiritual growth and success.” 

“But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.” is from Unetanneh Tokef. Although the machzor attributes it to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the 1100s, his existence is doubtful, and it was probably composed in Palestine between 500 and 600. The phrase is based on the Yerushalmi Talmud, which says that the decree will be annulled. 

As Rabbi David Golinkin explained in his paraphrase of Rabbi Marc Saperstein, “In other words, the Yerushalmi (and the Bavli too) had a very simple yet problematic theology: if you do X, Y, and Z you will annul the severe decree. The author of Unetaneh Tokef, who lived in the Land of Israel at the time of the Yerushalmi , did not agree with that theology. In his opinion, repentance, prayer and tzedakah cannot annul or eliminate evil, but by searching our souls through teshuvah, praying to God through tefillah and helping other people through tzedakah we help ourselves and others cope with evil and ‘make the evil of the decree pass.’ This is the peshat (simple meaning) of Unetane Tokef which, I believe, most modern Jews can relate to.”

At Kol Nidre, Rabbi Mandel said that perhaps the trap door on Touro’s Bimah was a message from the builders of Touro to future congregants,“Perhaps the people who built the synagogue were doing it for teaching, but for future generations.

“They were telling future members of Touro Synagogue, ‘Don’t become trapped by your own mistakes and misjudgments. Think courageously and boldly like we did.’”

Before Yizkor on Wednesday, Rabbi Mandel pointed to Jonah, who did what we all would like to do in the face of something unpleasant, run away. “God tells him to go to Nineveh and tell the people everything you’re doing is wrong. And Jonah says, ‘Not me. I’m not doing that.’ So he hops on a cruise ship, the best place in the world to run away from your problems and forget about everything.”

In the face of a hurricane, Jonah and we are snapped back into reality. There are forces in the world bigger that us that we can’t hide from.

Death is one of those forces.

As we think of our loved ones who are gone, Rabbi Mandel said, “It’s not too late for us to learn from them. Their souls will be alive if we take their sparks and live as if they are very much a part of us.

“We can inject anything they stood for into our lives and by doing so will unite with them once again, and they are still our mentors and our partners as we continue on our own journeys and once again learn all about what is right and wrong. Gamar Chatima Tova!”

Now it is time to build our sukkahs, ourselves, and our society. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Apples and Apple

Apples and Apple
At Touro Synagogue
Rosh Hashanah First Day
September 10, 2018

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah at Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, things were just right. The weather cooperated, there was a good crowd, yet it was not crowded, Rabbi Marc Mandel and Saul Woythaler raised us up during shofarot, we delighted to the davening of Dr. James Herstoff, Dr. Henry Spencer and Rabbi Mandel, the layning of Sam Spencer and our co-presidents, Professor Louise Ellen Teitz and Paul Tobak, sponsored kiddush lunch. We were happy in our seats, thanks to the work of Renee Talewsky.
After greeting us, Rabbi Marc Mandel spoke about Rosh Hashanah and apples,

“There is a custom on Rosh Hashanah to eat apples and honey. The Jewish people are compared to an apple, as it says in the Song of Songs - as the apple tree is unique among the trees, so is my beloved Israel.

“Recently, the company Apple achieved something never accomplished in American history. It became the first company to be valued at $1 trillion. With one trillion dollars, Apple could buy one billion people a $999 iPhone X and still have a billion dollars left in the bank.

“Even more remarkable, in 1997, Apple stood on the brink of bankruptcy and was just a short step from going broke. Steve Jobs revealed that the company was 90 days away from total insolvency.

“Steve Jobs started Apple in his parents’ garage when he was 20 years old and in 10 years Apple grew from two founders into a company with over 4000 employees.

“After he turned 30, Jobs was fired from the company that he himself started and he endured a public shaming, and what seemed then like the end of his career. Steve Jobs said the following to the graduates of Stanford University, ‘I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me. The business of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It helped me to enter one of the most creative times of my life.’

“Several years later, Jobs returned to Apple and turned it into the giant it would become by way of his genius. He understood that setbacks were stepping stones to greatness. Downfalls are not permanent. Failures are trials meant to make us stronger. The first tablets of the Ten Commandments were smashed – it was the second set which remained.

“As we celebrate the new year Apple can be a lesson to us - and an inspiration to us – if we face challenges that seem insurmountable, just remember how close Apple was to being broken, and today it is the most successful company in American history.

“With this New Year, let us pray that our dreams will bring us great success when we are challenged with difficult days.”

Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford is one of the great speeches. He told three short stories from his life.

Jobs dropped out of college after realizing that he was wasting his parents’ savings...but then studied things that interested him such as calligraphy. It was of no use to him until the creation of the first Macintosh computer. He was able to ensure that both the fonts and the computer were esthetically pleasing.

His second story was about how being fired was good for him. At first he was in shock.  “But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.”

Finally he spoke about death, “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

He ended with a quote from the Whole Earth Catalog, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.” If you are satisfied, you will not strive to improve. If you think you are smart, you will not push the envelope because you know better.

Shanah Tovah Umetukah from Jewish Newport.

You may read Jobs’ speech at

@tourosynagoguenewport @jewishnewportri

Friday, September 7, 2018

The Mitzvah of Welcoming

The Mitzvah of Welcoming
At Touro Synagogue 
September 1, 2018

Something unusual happened today during parshat Ki Tavo. Nobody was called up for the sixth aliyah! Most of the sixth aliyah consists of warnings about what would happen to Israel if God’s commandments were not followed. No one wants to be called up for the “curse” aliyah. Rabbi Marc Mandel took on the burden of the aliyah..but he was not called up.  

The gloom continued during the rabbi’s brief words of Torah. He described walking in Beit Shemash, Israel, through an unwelcoming neighborhood. 

“Beit Shemesh,” he said, “is a town that has been in the news these last few years due to the turf wars between the ultra-orthodox and the less orthodox: there is real tension in Beit Shemesh and it is Jew vs. Jew.

‘A few years ago…we walked from Beit Shemesh to Ramat Beit Shemesh, and we were scared - in one neighborhood there was graffiti everywhere, broken windows, and what appeared to be gangs of people staring at us." 

Beit Shemesh has had a large influx of haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jews, some of whom are intolerant of anyone who they think is less observant. This has led to women being treated as second class citizens, forced to sit in the back of the bus, and trying to make them non-persons, at least in public. So many incidents have occurred that the United States Department of State has issued a warning for American travelers. 

Rabbi Mandel concluded, “So the picture of this week’s parsha is looking more like a bad dream in some places in Israel.

“But let’s be hopeful that we can turn this around. Rabbi Dov Lipman, who used to be a teacher at Reishit Yerushalayim in Beit Shemesh and a member of Knesset, has been trying to build bridges between the communities. Let us support people like Dov and work to paint a brighter picture of Israel that we can all be proud of.”

At the kiddish, which she sponsored, Rita Slom spoke about a time when she felt unwelcome. An election in Newport was scheduled on Rosh Hashanah, and Rita would be unable to vote for her husband, Aaron, who was running for school committee. The issue ended up in court, which ordered the day of the election moved.

In 2013, Rhode Island enacted a law to address the issue:

“§ 17-18-5.1 Elections falling on religious holiday. – In the event that the date for the holding of any state or municipal election, other than the general election held on the first Tuesday next after the first Monday in November in even numbered years, falls upon the day of a religious holiday on which the doctrines of a faith would prohibit its followers from voting, the election shall be held upon the next business day other than Saturday then following; provided, that nothing contained in this section shall be deemed to invalidate any election once it has been held.”

The morning was not all serious. Among the visitors were the Danesh and Hakim families. They had last visited on September 9, 2017 to celebrate the aufruf of Danny who was about to marry Jessica. Once again we heard the joyous sound of ulalation from above. I thought this was how women, who are not full participants during services, make sure that their voices are heard, and that those of us below understand who is in charge. 

Learn more about the aufruf at

May you be able to vote in elections, may you be welcome and greeted with ulalation wherever you go, may you be welcoming to others and Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!