Friday, June 28, 2019

A Man with a Vision

At Jewish Newport
June 22, 2019
also on facebook

A Man with a Vision

 Last Saturday at Newport’s Touro Synagogue, we enjoyed joining a local family as their son was called to the Torah for his aufruf, and we were grateful for their kiddush sponsorship. It was nice to be with so many people who were celebrating a happy occasion.

Rabbi Marc Mandel spoke about politics…almost. 

“This week, President trump officially began his presidential campaign for 2020 and next week 20 Democratic candidates will be debating and launching their campaigns. Who will be the leader of the most powerful country in the world?

“Leadership is the topic of this weeks Torah reading. Who will lead the Jewish people as they prepare to enter the Holy Land? In an interesting twist, Moshe asks his father-in-law, Yithro, to travel with the Jews and to lead them. Yithro said, ‘No, I don’t want the job. I like my life the way it is and I like my home.’ Moshe pleaded with him, ‘We need You. We need you to be our eyes.’

“What does that mean, to be our eyes? Rashi says, ‘Moshe was telling Yithro, “There are things that I don’t see that you see. I need your help.”’ Moshe believed in collaborative leadership-working together towards a common goal. 

“But why did Moshe need Yithro! Surely there were other people who could have helped Moshe? Yithro was a non-conformist, he challenged the status quo and he introduced new ideas that improved an ailing system. Moshe understood and knew this and that’s why he pleaded with his father-in-law.

“And then there is the vision thing.

“Moshe was having trouble presenting a coherent vision to the people. After all, it was Aharon his brother who built the  Mishkan.

“He was asking Yithro to help him develop a vision that he could share with the Jewish nation, a vision that could inspire the people.

“One thing I noticed over the years about the groom is that he is a person with a vision. He knows how to chill; but he  has a vision of what is important and he leads people with the vision. 

“Did Yithro end up going with Moshe? That’s a dispute between the Ramban and the Sforno. Ramban says he stayed and the Sforno says he left.

“Now the groom is ready to take his journey with kallah, but they’re not leaving anyone They are taking the values and the vision of both families and as they start their journey we look forward to sharing the their success and their blessings. 
Shabbat Shalom.”

William Wilberforce
I am reading a book called “Amazing Grace - William Wilberforce and the heroic campaign to end slavery,” by Eric Metaxas. William Wilberforce was very intelligent, but as a youth adopted many of the ways of the upper classes. In eighteenth century England religion and idealism were out of style. This was probably a reaction to 200 years of war and strife in the name of religion. Many enjoyed the good life, defaulting their roles as leaders.  

Wilberforce inherited a large fortune in college, which enabled him to become a member of parliament in 1784, when he was 25 years old. In those days, one had to pay for each vote. 

In 1785 he became a fervent  Christian (Methodist) and realized that he was doing nothing with his life. He became interested in two causes, the abolition of the slave trade, and the promotion of a more civil society. England was a very different place from the country we know today. There was widespread poverty, drunkenness, prostitution, and cruelty. Many crimes were punished by public hanging, which was a spectacle to titillate and intimidate the masses. 

Since 1688, every King of England had issued a proclamation on the accession to the monarchy that urged the ruling classes to act as leaders of society. They had abrogated that role.

Wilberforce’s lobbying persuaded King George III to issue the Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice 1787. The role of religion in this was a secret. Being a sincere Christian was a non-starter.

Wilberforce helped create Proclamation Societies starting with the elite to get them to live up to their role. It took a long time for his vision to become a reality, but gradually England became a more civilized, less brutal place where people cared for each other and for those who were less fortunate. Sometimes it takes a man with a vision!

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, June 21, 2019

Then And Now

Then And Now
At Jewish Newport
Shavuot, 2019
also on facebook

Rabbi Marc Mandel’s Dvar at Newport’s Touro Synagogue on the first day of Shavuot this year was succinct, yet inspiring.
He posed the question, “Why was the Torah given in the desert, and not in the land of Israel?” He gave two answers.
His first explanation was, “The Torah is open to everyone like the desert is.” It did not belong to a part of the people of Israel, such as the kohanim (priests). It belongs to all the people of Israel, and even to the entire world.
Another explanation, he said, was, “The Torah challenges us to create a community out of the desert. We are supposed to build.” The Torah is about building a society, and giving it in a settled land would dilute its impact.
On the second day Rabbi Mandel said, “Shavuot is one of the four Jewish new years. On Shavuot we are judged for fruit.” Then he spoke about the environment. “Our parents and grandparents,” he said, leading up to Yizkor, “did not have the luxury of worrying about the environment. But we must.”
In both explanations, the burden is upon us to make things better, with the guidance and inspiration of the one above us. Are we up to the challenge?
On the first day Rita Slom sponsored a special kiddish. As is well known, sponsoring kiddush and speaking at kiddish often overlap. Since Rita is my cousin, I was expecting great things, and was not disappointed. Rita reviewed the past, and looked to the future,
“I am so happy to see all of you here on this Shavuot afternoon. It is my honor to sponsor this luncheon in honor of what would have been by husband Aaron’s 100th birthday and his yahrzeit 16 years ago. My sons and their families all celebrated his birthday, but they could not be here today.
“Aaron and I and our sons were all born in the Newport Hospital, went to Hebrew School here and Aaron and the boys were bar mitzvahed here. In fact, Bernice Gamins Schweber and I were confirmed in this synagogue. I have never lived any place else - a real native.
“We all graduated from Rogers High School and this is what I want to talk about today. Aaron was born in 1919, a year after the big war, and graduated from high school in 1936. I was born in 1933. Obviously, we were not high school sweethearts. But we did meet at Touro and eventually dated and married!
“We often wonder how many Jewish families were here in those years. For those of you who read the Touro Update, you would have seen a picture taken in 1927 of a group who were at a Jewish community picnic. Aaron and his parents and his friends are in the front rows and my parents and my oldest sister Doris are in one of the rows in the middle. This was not the entire Jewish community. There was another synagogue in Newport at that time.
“I recently read Aaron’s yearbook and found that there were 21 Jewish students in his class. Of that number, only ten continued living in Newport. Many of them were active in the community and this synagogue. Two of them became president of Congregation Jeshuat Israel - my husband Aaron and Bernard Kusinitz. Two of them had sons who became presidents - Bea Berman Bazarksy’s son David and Irving Tobak’s son Paul Tobak who is currently co-president. Eleanor Meirowitz Davis graduated two years after Aaron, and her husband Seymour Davis was president. So were Mort Kosch and Samuel “Sonny” Friedman.
"Fred Alofsin became mayor, and my husband Aaron was on the school committee for 19 years.
"In my high school class there were 10 Jewish kids and only two of us, Michael Josephson and myself, are still in Newport. I was the first woman president of Touro Synagogue.
"In looking at my sons’ classes, there were not that many Jews, primarily because by then we had three high schools on the island. But in looking through the names of those in Rogers, I don’t think that any of those graduates still live in Newport. A sign of the times were the young ones have all moved out of town for jobs or for marriage.
"I am so proud of our Hebew School and all of the volunteers and children who are there. When we worry, ‘Who will be here after we are all gone,’ we can see that they are coming up behind us and hopefully will stay in Newport.
"Thanks for joining us today.”
Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!
Thanks to Rabbi Mandel and Rita Slom for sharing, and to Beth Ginsburg Levine for editing. Touro Synagogue - Newport, RI @rogershighschoolnewportri

Thursday, June 6, 2019

What is Freedom?

What is Freedom?
At Jewish Newport
May 25 2019
also on facebook

On Saturday, May 25, I visited Congregation Or Atid in Wayland, MA, to celebrate the aufruf of Steve Baturin. I greeted him with, “Steve, we have known each other for a long time. He replied, “Yes, from before Sinai.” “Before Sinai” reflects Steve’s involvement in Jewish life. A lot of water has gone over the bridge for both of us since then.

Steve Baturin will receive a Maasim Tovim (Good Deeds) Award at the convention of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (Conservative) in Toronto in July. More info is at the convention site. Also receiving the award is Phil Margolis, who grew up in Newport.

Rabbi Louis Polisson kindly shared his dvar with me, which I have edited:

“In his recent ordination address at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson spoke about German explorer and researcher Alexander von Humboldt. Rabbi Artson told how, in the early 1800s, von Humboldt spent five years climbing the Andes and sailing up the Amazon river, tracing a map of Latin America for the very first time.

“Humboldt came up with the theory that nature cannot be studied in its particulars without studying the whole, that nothing has an identity by itself, that everything’s identity is the total of its relationships to everything that connects to it. Like many of us Humboldt imagined a charming, lovely world in which everything harmoniously contributed to the betterment of everything else. Then reality struck.

“Sailing up the Amazon River, he noticed a Latin-American pig called a tapir. The tapir regularly faced a terrifying dilemma. In the water, crocodiles swirled and approach it. So the panic-stricken pigs would run out of the river and into the slashing claws and teeth of jaguars. On the ocean he watched flying fish flee the jaws of dolphins only to be snatched in the air by hawks.

“Humboldt realized that part of what evolution has produced is the result of terror, competition and each asserting its own survival at the expense of all around it, until it became the prey. We too are bred of tooth and claw.

“But out of generations of terror and violence emerged creatures able to care, love, have compassion and empathy. Mammals marked the emergence of a survival strategy not of brutality and narcissism, but of identifying with those that one loves.
“We have a choice to make. Do we embrace animalistic selfishness? Or do we choose our more compassionate and caring side that yearns for justice and a world of love.

“Torah study invites us to make that choice. We have the ability, as human beings and as Jews, to reach out to each other not to suffer alone and to recognize that it is our business when we see others suffering to alleviate that suffering. And that is, in fact, a commandment from this morning’s Torah portion.

“Parashat Behar contains a quote that’s written on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: ‘ukratem​ ​deror​ - you shall proclaim release, liberty, freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants.’ We are commanded to do this every 50 years, in the jubilee year. ... this ​Deror​, this liberty, was intended to be a moratorium on debts and indenture, a release of those bound by servitude. But later in the ​parashah​, we have the opposite message. God says, ‘​Ki Li Benei Yisrael avadim, avadai heim ​- For it is to Me that the Children of Israel are servants, they are My slaves!’ Are we free, or are we slaves?

“The answer is both. ​Shabbat​ is a day of rest, meant to rejuvenate us. Yet Jewish texts are full of laws regarding the proper ways to observe ​Shabbat.​ Why? Wouldn’t free choice be the best way for us to enjoy a day of relaxation and renewal? ​Jewish tradition says, ‘No.’ We are only truly free when we recognize,embrace and enjoy the obligations that come from being in relationship with each other, with our tradition, and with the Divine.

“My colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg puts it this way: ‘We model the Jubilee cycle in our annual journey from Passover to ​Shavuot,​ when we count seven weeks until the liberation of ​Matan Torah​, the gift of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, on the 50th day. Both Torah and Jubilee represent a higher freedom that comes from knowingly accepting the obligations rising from our relationship to God, to the land, and to one another. That is what true liberty looks like.’”

According to Wikipedia, “Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (14 September 1769 – 6 May 1859) was a Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist, explorer, and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science.” He influenced  Darwin, Wallace, Thoreau Whitman, Emerson, Muir and Irving. He was a careful explorer and observer. With the permission of Spain, he toured South America. He briefly visited the United States and met President Jefferson, who was eager to know about New Spain (Mexico) since the recent Louisiana Purchase made Mexico and the United States neighbors.

Humboldt discovered so many things that his trip was considered the second discovery of the New World.

Many schools, towns and geographical features are named after Humboldt, including Humboldt University in California and 4,940 meters high (16207.35 feet) Pico Humboldt, Venezuela's second highest mountain, in Mérida.  

Alberto Carnevalli Airport Mérida

Alberto Carnevalli Airport Mérida

When I visited Venezuela in the 1980s, I took the opportunity to fly into the Andes. I ran from the plane when it landed in Mérida  directly to the sidewalk to rent a car. Those were the days. After my visit, a fence was erected around the airport.

Driving out of town to explore the Andes, I had to go around a demonstration that included a burning car. I couldn’t help thinking that it could have been my car.

Teleférico de Mérida

The Teleférico (cable car), is one of the longest (12.5 kilometers or 7.7 miles) and highest in the world. Starting in Mérida, it rises from an elevation of 1,640 metres (5,380 ft) to 4,765 metres (15,633 ft) on Pico Espejo. When I got to the top, which took a couple of hours, I was in the clouds. Here is a video taken in 1998. The Teleférico  closed in 2008 and a totally new replacement opened in 2016.

This weekend, during Shavuot, we celebrate Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, on Mt. Sinai. Climbing Sinai is more difficult and more rewarding than ascending the Teleférico, and is a journey that never really ends.

Shabbat Shalom