Friday, November 10, 2023

Drink from the Fountain of Hope

 At Jewish Newport

November 4, 2023

Drink from the Fountain of Hope

By Aaron Ginsburg

Edited by Beth Ginsburg Levine

Thanks to Rabbi Stephen Belsky

Also on  facebook

Last week I got a call from Rabbi Loel Weiss, “Can you come to services at Touro on Shabbat morning?” Since COVID, I have strayed... I quickly agreed. I got up early and drove 1.5 hours from Andover, MA, arriving just as services were starting at 8:45 AM. Only nine men were present at Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI at 9:35. We took out the Torah and waited for a regular or a visitor to make a minyan so we could read from the Torah. And waited and waited.There was something about the way the sunlight played in the synagogue that gave a special glow. 

To help the minutes pass faster, Congregation Jeshuat Israel’s Interim Rabbi Stephen Belsky repeated his discussion from Friday evening. He has been reviewing the Friday evening service by discussing one paragraph each week. This week's paragraph was the first paragraph of the Shema. We read וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ which translates as, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” 

Rabbi Belsky recapitulated: The "heart" represents the mind, as the paragraph continues by saying that all of God's words should be on our heart. The "soul" represents life and its continuation from generation to generation, as the next verse instructs us to teach God's words throughout our own lives and also to our children. The "might” (or “resources,” as it is sometimes translated) is then elaborated on at the end of the passage, where the commandments of tefillin and mezuzah represent taking the words of Torah and turning them into action.

At 10:00 AM, a couple visiting from Cambridge, MA arrived. After talking with the guard about their backpacks, they entered. The young man had a distinctive accent. He hailed from Auckland, New Zealand. We proceeded to the Torah reading. There were honors and parts of the service for all. Rabbi Belsky davened the first part of the service, I led the return of the Torah and Henry Spencer davened the Haftorah and Musaf with his lilting voice. 

Rabbi Belsky’s Dvar began with a riddle. In describing the Torah portions of these recent weeks, he said, “We follow one man's story from cradle to grave. A birth is predicted, divine promises are sworn, families and individuals pass through struggle and trauma and come out stronger; and when this man leaves the world, the legacy of a great nation will begin to sprout like grass over his grave.” 

He said he was not referring to Avraham and Isaac, and added that, “And when he dies after a long and successful life, the very last paragraph of the parasha next week will tell us that [he] was the ancestor of twelve tribes who settled and spread across the Middle East.”

To my surprise Rabbi Belsky explained that he was referring to ישמעאל Ishmael. He mentioned that Ishmael is frequently seen as one of three main villains in the stories of the first book of the Torah. The others are Cain (who killed his brother) and Esau (who wanted to kill his brother). But Ishmael, on the other hand, does not seem to have done anything wrong. 

After Isaac was born, Sarah saw Ishmael playing or laughing and asked Abraham to expel Ishmael and his mother Hagar. Abraham consulted God and then expelled them. They were saved by an angel at a well, just as God had comforted Hagar at the well of B’eir Laḥai Ro’i when she was pregnant, the place where Isaac eventually settled down.

To our sages every word counts, and the commentator Rashi said midrash told us that Ishmael’s laughing referred to murder, idolatry, or sexual misconduct. 

But, Rabbi Belsky explained, in the midrashim that Rashi quotes, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai actually disproves that interpretation. The only reason given in the story of Ishmael's banishment is that he isn't supposed to be Avraham's heir. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explains that Ishmael probably literally laughed because he was the first born son, and yet everyone was celebrating Isaac's birth as if the little brother would be the heir.

In any case, Ishmael and Isaac both fathered great nations, they buried Avraham together, and appear to have both gotten along with each other and treated their father with respect. 

Just as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai thought about Ishmael 2000 years after he lived, it is now 2000 years since the time of Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Belsky told us, “When we look…at the troubles in our lives and at our world of struggle and strife – and sometimes even horror – we have a choice before us: 

 “We can resign ourselves to bitterness, to the pain and disappointment of Hagar and our matriarch Sarah – or we can drink from the waters of B’eir Laḥai Ro’i like Isaac and Ishmael, [which is] not the legendary fountain of Youth, but something much more important – the fountain of Hope.”

Friday, August 25, 2023

Parshat Re'eh at Touro Synagogue


Parshat Re'eh at Touro Synagogue Newport

By Aaron Ginsburg

Edited by Beth Levine

Hebrew text and translation by 

also at

I had the pleasure of attending services on August 12 at Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. The beauty of the synagogue and Newport takes one's breath away. There were quite a few visitors and a sprinkling of familiar faces. I wore a name tag. 

When I had an aliyah, Rabbi Stephen Belsky, interim rabbi, suggested that I add my Hebrew name to make the aliyah process a little easier. My Hebrew name is Israel ben Moshe. I am named after my grandfather Israel Ginsburg. Aaron is there because my mother, Dorothy Pokross Ginsburg aka Dot, did not want me to be called Izzy and Aaron is the first name my parents found in a baby book of names. 

When I was a retail pharmacist a customer in Randolph, Massachusetts asked,  “Are you Jewish?” I tried not to laugh, saying, “Well, what do you think? By the way, my middle name is Israel.”

Rabbi Belsky chose the famous passage from the beginning Parashat Re’eh for his Torah message, 

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה אֶֽת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְע֗וּ אֶל־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם׃ 

“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of your God that I enjoin upon you this day;”

“So here it gets a little weird, " said Rabbi Belsky. “It doesn't say

 הברכה אם תשמעו The blessing – if you obey... It says הברכה אשר תשמעו The blessing – that you will obey.

Rabbi Belsky explained that some Rabbis, including Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, said that in this case “if" and “that” mean the same thing, and the word choice was a matter of style. Others say that “if” implies some uncertainty.

“But, Rabbi Belsky continued,  there's another way to understand that anomalous phrase...

“Ibn Ezra says, ‘For when you obey, behold, you are blessed.’ And Rabbi Shimon Raphael Hirsch explains. ‘The observance of God's commandments is itself part of the blessing.’

“Choosing the blessing means coming together as a congregation, united by faith and by learning, and by caring about each other.

“The blessing that Moshe offered wasn't a prize to win, but a life to live, together, in community, in choosing a life of Torah. Community in Jewish life is a wonderful thing. It's an essential thing. And it is a blessing.

“But it takes work, it takes intention, and it takes choice –choosing to join together
even when we don't agree on everything, choosing to work together to support all of our needs, and choosing to love and forgive each other; choosing to be a blessing for each other, and for the whole world.”

This is a lesson we can apply to all aspects of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!

Friday, June 30, 2023

Who is wise?

 At Jewish Newport 

Who is wise?

June 24, 2023

By Aaron Ginsburg

Edited by Beth Ginsburg Levine

Also on facebook

On Shabbat there was a healthy crowd of locals and visitors at Newport, Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue. Shul almost felt crowded. It was the last full day in Newport for Rabbi Marc and Jackie Mandel. Rabbi Mandel gave a short sermon quoting three Mishnahs from Pirkei Avot. He chose:

Chapter 2 Mishnah 5, “Don't separate from the community.”

אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר

Rabbi Mandel praised the people for supporting the community by participating.

Chapter 4 Mishnah 1, “Who is wise? He who learns from all people.” 

אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם

Rabbi Mandel thanked people for making him a better rabbi.

Chapter 1 Mishnah 2, “The world stands on three pillars, Torah, Prayer and acts of kindness.”

עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

Rabbi Mandel  said, “We just read the Torah. We just prayed. And I want to thank the social justice committee for all the kindness they did in the community.”

Rabbi Mandel’s first Shabbat at Touro synagogue was on June 29, 2012. Around one year later, I decided to go to services at Touro Synagogue. Rabbi Mandel was very welcoming and the services were short. Subsequently the Mandels hosted me so I could spend Yom Kippur in Newport. I commented on the short services and Rabbi Mandel told me, “People don’t like sitting through long services.” I decided to continue coming to Saturday mornings at Touro.

Rabbi Mandel was renowned for his short sermons, which usually were less than 500 words. That left him time to greet members and visitors by name. Sometimes after introducing a visitor, he ended with, “We would be very happy to hear you speak at Kiddush.”

Rabbi Mandel worked closely with and inspired many people in the community. A few of them shared their thoughts:

Former co-president Paul Tobak wrote,


“Rabbi Mandel and his family were an asset to our community. His skill as a baal korei (reader of Torah) elevated our services. Rabbi Mandel was always gracious and respectful of the officers and members of Congregation Jeshuat Israel and was a good match for our congregation. 


“We were fortunate to have had him as our rabbi and his new community and Congregation in Montreal will be enriched by his knowledge and personality. I wish Rabbi Mandel and his family good health and many pleasures in their new home.”

Jim Herstoff added,

“I certainly agree with the comments that Paul so eloquently offered. It was my privilege and enjoyment to have Rabbi Mandel as our rabbi. I enjoyed working with him very much in my position as chair of the ritual committee and gabbai of the synagogue. He understood the needs of the congregation. We worked easily during Covid to adjust the services to ensure the safety and comfort of everyone. 

“Rabbi Mandel is a gentleman. He always put his congregation first...he often declined accepting aliyot that traditionally are given to the rabbi to instead honor congregants. May he and Jackie have much peace and happiness as they assume their places in Montreal.”

Delia Klingbeil recounts how the Mandels taught her and inspired her to keep learning,

“About 10 years ago I met with Rabbi Mandel because my mother had just entered Saint Clare’s (down the street). She was 95 and she had just fallen. We thought this was the end. My mother, a daughter of Polish immigrants, had already decided that she wanted to be cremated. She was not observant or religious, but she definitely was a NYC Jew!

“Rabbi Mandel told me, ‘We can work around this. Can I visit her?’ And every Friday morning for the next 5 years he walked down the street and spent 10 or 15 minutes with my mother. They mostly discussed the books that she was listening to. 

“My mother Frances Weiss Zelenko died in October 2017, a week before her 100th birthday. Rabbi Mandel held a service for her at the chapel on Fowler Ave. We then went, including the Rabbi, to our house in Jamestown where he conducted a shiva service with me and my sister.

“I became involved in Touro, helped with the Hebrew School, and attended services. 

“During Covid, I learned about Sefaria, and spoke about several weekly parshas, including Korach (on zoom) which the rabbi ended with last week. I’m a NYC Queens girl who never attended services until I married and had 2 daughters. I never was Bat Mitzvah-ed and I can read a bit of Hebrew because sometime ago Jackie ran a Hebrew Class in their dining room and I attended, most of the time.

“Ralph and I were honored to have Friday night dinners at Rabbi and Jackie's house after services. Wonderful meals and memories…


“I will miss the Rabbi. He was always non-judgmental and I have great memories of being upstairs during inspirational evenings and mornings at Touro.” 

The next day the Mandels started their journey from Newport to Canada. The rabbi's new position is at Congregation Beth Tikvah Ahavat Shalom Nusach Hoari. That's quite a mouthful. The short version is CBTASNH. Now how do you say that in French?

During the summer Rabbi Stephen Belsky will officiate at Touro. Welcome Rabbi Belsky! 

@tourosynagoguenewport @newportri