Teach Your Child to Swim!


coast guardTwo months before my Bar Mitzvah my parents sent me to my first experience at sleep -away camp. The camp was located in Utterson Ontario (150 miles north of Toronto). Situated on a beautiful pristine lake, the camp offered boating, sailing, canoeing and water skiing. In order to be able to participate in these activities you needed to be a competent swimmer and had to pass a deep water swimming test. Although my father of blessed memory was a good swimmer, he never taught me. That first summer I suffered the embarrassment of not being able to participate in all of the water sports, and especially the big canoe trip.

The summer camp program also offered classes on Judaism. I studied with a professor in residence who taught me (in a class on parent-child relations) that the Talmudic tractate of Kiddushin lists the obligations of parents to their children.  Interestingly enough, providing basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter for a child does not appear on the list. Instead, the list emphasizes spiritual care – such as the obligation to inculcate morals and values in the child. But the obligation that appeared at the end of the list took me totally took me by surprise. Parents MUST teach their children how to swim – or find someone to teach them!  During that first summer at camp I learned that according to Jewish law, parents must ensure that their children can survive independently – including by being able to swim.

Now that I am the rabbi at Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood NJ, I am continually reminded of that first summer by our proximity to the water – and of my great admiration for those who protect and defend us on the seas. There is a Coast Guard Training Station in nearby Cape May.  Whenever there are Jewish cadets, Beth Judah has the privilege of hosting them on Shabbat morning during their eight week basic training course.  Over the years we have opened our doors and hearts to many brave young men and women who come from all parts of the United States, and even from Israel and beyond.  The course is extremely physically, mentally and emotionally rigorous, and many of the cadets have expressed how important the few hours of tranquility have been for them.  They have spoken emotionally about how important praying, singing, being part of a Jewish community and sharing in the Kiddush lunch has been for their spiritual and emotional well-being.

A couple of months ago a young cadet who had just begun his Coast Guard training came to Temple. His face was very sad and somber. In fact, when I spoke to him after services about his initial experiences he became quite emotional, confiding that he did not know whether he had what it would take to complete the program.  I offered him a prayer of healing and for the next couple of months he continued to come to Temple and was warmly embraced by the entire congregation.  What made his story even more memorable was that he told us a bit about his family background.  He and his family are immigrants from Mexico who discovered that they were descendants of Marranos (Jews who were forced to hide their identity in order to survive the Inquisition in Spain).  After learning their heritage, his whole family began the process of learning about Judaism in order to convert – when he was already a teenager! With each passing week the demeanor of our cadet changed.  He began to radiate confidence, to smile more, and to participate more comfortably in the service – accepting Torah honors and leading readings.  He expressed his belief that the spiritual support of the Beth Judah community gave him the courage, determination and fortitude to continue with the training in order to complete it.   Just today I learned that he successfully graduated from his course of training, and saw pictures of him and his proud parents that were posted on https://www.facebook.com/BethJudahTempleWildwood/, along with a message from his parents:  “We have no words to express how thankful we are with what you did. You provided him the human support needed for him to continue and finish the first step of his journey. We have been teaching our kids that Jewish life is about service, serving the family, the Jewish people and everyone.”

This story is a powerful reminder of what small acts of kindness can mean — embracing the stranger, offering hospitality to those in need, saying a supporting word to someone who appears a little down, letting our homes and places of worship be opened wide to all who enter.


As darkness falls — magic rises


solar eclipse

Solar eclipse glasses…a full section devoted to the eclipse in the Sunday New York Times…radio broadcasts explaining the phenomenon and advising about safety practices…cross-country voyages and vacation packages to experience the eclipse.  Excitement is building in anticipation of the first total solar eclipse in a century to be visible in the United States on August 21st.  Before we knew what they were and how to predict them solar eclipses used to inspire fear.  We now know that a total solar eclipse occurs twice a year somewhere on the globe – but it’s been nearly a century since the last one was visible from the continental United States.  That means that next Monday when the moon covers the sun in the sky that a whole new generation will experience a celestial wonder unlike anything else.

I’ve been reading up about solar eclipses and I’ve learned some amazing facts. The temperature will decrease by as much as 15 degrees. Apparently, many animals appear baffled when an eclipse occurs. People have reported restless deer, screeching scattering birds and bees retreating to their hives. By some accounts, people experience strange inexplicable sensations. The whole show will last about 2 hours, from the time the moon first begins to “cover” the sun until the sun is finally whole again.

There are eclipse chasers (much like storm chasers) that venture great distances and go to extreme lengths to witness the magical experience. As a matter of fact, some of my very close friends have embarked on a cross-country trek in their R.V. with their grandchildren to view the eclipse from the Grand Tetons, where the sun will be 100% eclipsed.

Light plays an important role in many religions. In the story of creation in the Book of Genesis, God’s first words are “let there be light.” According to the text, the sun, moon and stars are created on the fourth day.  Light (in Hebrew or) and the planets, the sun, moon and stars are frequently highlighted in Jewish prayer. The siddur (Jewish prayer book) exclaims “with mercy You give light to the world”– “You created the sun and sent forth its rays, reflecting Your splendor”– “the stars are radiant with Your light”– “God fashioned the moon and set its cycles”– “the galaxies of heaven sing praises to God.”

One of my favorite evening prayers praises God for arranging the stars in their heavenly courses according to plan. God is proclaimed Creator of day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light. Perhaps the writer witnessed an eclipse!

Because the wonders of nature resonate so deeply with me, I always look for opportunities to pronounce a special blessing to acknowledge a beautiful sunset, a shooting star, a rainbow, or even an eclipse. Here are two suggested blessings for the solar eclipse:

 Baruch attah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam she-kocho u-g’vurato ma-lay olam. (Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe whose power and might fill the whole world). The second blessing is: Baruch attah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam oseh ma’aseh v-raysheet. (Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Source of Creation)

 I hope that wherever you find yourself on August 21st, you will savor and sanctify this once-in-a-century event.

I recently had a chance encounter with a retired professor of theoretical physics. When I expressed my excitement about the eclipse he surprised me with his response.  He maintained that an eclipse is just an accident of nature with no particular meaning, and nothing to get too excited about. I fervently disagree.  For me, the eclipse and every other wonder of nature is a “wow” moment. I can’t wait to experience it and when that first sliver of light emerges from the darkness it will for me affirm that even the tiniest spark of light can transform darkness. I will be heartened by the awareness that millions of Americans as well as visitors from around the world will unite in experiencing this singular cosmic spectacle. Our common humanity will be evident.   May awareness of this shared phenomenon turn our hearts to one another and cause us to redouble our efforts to bring more light to the world.

Sock Exchange


A story in thissocks weekend’s New York Times caught my eye.  On May 4 Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada.  This summit meeting coincided with International Star Wars Day—a.k.a.#MayTheFourthBeWithYou, a.k.a. the day that thousands of Star Wars fans around the world indulge their inner fan-geek, dress up like Jedis and greet everyone in sight with the classic line from the film “May the Force be with you.” For that high level meeting Mr. Trudeau chose to wear two mismatched Star Wars socks — one in blue and gray with R2D2 and the other in gold and black depicting C3PO.  Set against Trudeau’s dark suit, white shirt and red tie, the socks were impossible to miss in the photo accompanying the New York Times article.  The article further explicated that Trudeau forthrightly acknowledged that he intentionally donned these socks to signal his membership as an unabashed pop culture fans. Furthermore, Trudeau posted a picture of his socks on his Twitter account with the words “These are the socks you are looking for,” yet another Star Wars allusion. The socks serve to reinforce Mr. Trudeau’s image as a new-generation world leader, one who identifies with and understands the concerns of much of his constituency. There’s nothing like bonding over a mass-movie phenomenon to convince a swath of voters that you share their value system.

For years male politicians have used their ties to indicate their allegiances, but this is the first time that I can remember socks coming into play as a signal item of haberdashery.  A few years ago I moved away from wearing my usual black or brown socks and began to wear very colorful ones adorned with all kinds of designs – even rainbows and guitars.  During my years as a congregational rabbi my socks were often exposed when I sat on the Sanctuary bimah and crossed my legs.  After nearly every service I would receive multiple compliments – less often about my sermons than about my socks.  I cannot count the times congregants of all ages would approach and say “I really like your socks.”  Nowadays, in my work as a hospice music therapist I continue to receive compliments from patients, family members and hospice staff who tell me that my socks cheer them up.  To be honest, I began to wear the colorful patterned socks because they made me happy.  I never realized that this simple act of whimsy would put a smile on someone else’s face, raise their spirits, and serve as a point of connection to them.  Now I know.

Coincidentally, I just learned of a very relevant holiday that is rapidly approaching.  Apparently, there are 1500 nationally designated days of commemoration in the U.S.   The average American is probably unaware of most of them.  May 9th is National Lost Sock Memorial Day.  It has been designated as the date to bid farewell to all of the single socks whose mates have been lost over the past year.  It is a response to the eternal mystery:  Where do all the missing socks go? Is there a washing machine heaven?

According to the official description, the appropriate commemoration of the day includes cleaning one’s drawers of all single socks and moving on.  Other recommended ceremonial commemorations include making sock puppets from the single socks, recycling them as dust rags or golf club protectors, or using them to store game board pieces.  The day’s official hashtag is #LostSockMemorialDay.

The appearance of the New York Times article about Prime Minister Trudeau’s unmatched socks practice has got me thinking, though.  Maybe I should hang onto those single socks.  I know that I will definitely continue to wear colorful patterned socks, but I’m not yet sure whether I will follow Prime Minister Trudeau’s sartorial trend and wear two unmatched socks. Maybe, I’ll take a chance and see what kind of reaction I get.

In any case, I will never underestimate the message of my socks!

Take me out to the ballgame…


TEam Israel in kippotThose who know me know that I have always been a big baseball fan. This past year has been very special for me – the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908 AND Israel entered into the World Baseball Classic.  A Team Israel baseball team?  It’s a gross understatement to say that baseball is not a big deal in Israel.  In a nation of around 8 million inhabitants, only about 1000 play baseball – even as recreation.   And baseball is clearly not part of the national culture.  I remember the time when I took a group of Israeli staff members at my Jewish summer camp to a professional baseball game.  They were ready to leave after the first inning, declaring the game too slow and boring and the intricacies that I tried to explain much too difficult and convoluted to understand.

There is only one full size baseball field in all of Israel, built by American Baptists in the early 2000’s. Several other smaller fields are said to be in the works. There has never been an Israeli-born major leaguer. A recent article in The Jewish Week newspaper described Israel’s early success in the World Baseball Classic Tournament as the quintessential Cinderella story. Team Israel defied heavy odds by winnings its first four games with a ragtag gang of mostly has-beens and minor leaguers.  Following their saga as it unfolded and as Israel advanced to being only one game away from the semi-finals in Los Angeles, I thought that perhaps this would be a new miracle story.  But alas, they lost to a very good Japanese team and their short season was over. Nevertheless, they represented themselves and the State of Israel with pride, even though, ironically, there was only one native Israeli on the team (who happens to live in Brooklyn).

The Jewish Week proposed that aside from providing much needed relief from the nerve-racking news of the day, Team Israel’s success offers up a vital message that transcends the boundaries of a baseball diamond. For almost an entire week this underdog team was the darling of the sports world.  Notably, its mascot is a five foot tall Mensch on the Bench, the popular toy modeled after the Elf on the Shelf. Baseball has plenty of actual menches on benches—including the great Sandy Koufax and the power-hitting Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, to mention just two.  The fact that Jews from so many strands of Jewish heritage made up Team Israel denotes far more about the miracle of how modern-day Zionism can unite the Jewish people than about merely fielding a baseball squad. And selecting Mensch on the Bench as the team’s mascot is a powerful reminder that ethics is at Judaism’s core, and that how you play the game (not just winning) is what counts in the game of baseball and the game of life.

What really touched me was seeing that when the Israeli team stood at attention for their national anthem (Hatikvah) before each game, they respectfully took off their baseball caps and donned yarmulkes. And on the eve of Purim, before taking to the field, they read the megillah (the scroll of Esther) in the dugout– another story of unimaginable triumph and Jewish pride.  Even though there is only one actual Israeli on the team, and even though the players are not necessarily observant, the one thing that they all share is their Jewish identity, pride and unity.

I would like to imagine that if Solomon Schechter, the first President of the Jewish Theological Seminary were alive today, he might send me a note after reading this blog. After all, he was the one who said that for a Rabbi to be successful in America, s/he must be able to talk baseball!

Teach us to Number our days



For the past few months I have been doing chaplaincy work for a local hospice. Two gentlemen that I regularly visit stand out in particular because of their sharp minds, zest for living life, optimism, and yes, current age. One man, age 105 was pleased to show me the Happy Birthday letter that he received from President and Michelle Obama on the occasion of his 100th birthday.  Every time I visited he relished the opportunity to share fascinating vignettes from his life.

Just last week I visited another man who celebrated his 106th birthday a few days ago.  Each time I visit he recounts his life, always beginning with his childhood, his attaining American citizenship, his 50 year marriage to the love of his life, and his father’s somewhat strained relationship with Winston Churchill as well as his business association with none other than Mahatma Gandhi.  Although he has no biological children, his nephew and nieces have organized a dinner party in celebration of his birthday, which will include all his favorite foods. These days he suffers from a touch of arthritis and is admittedly hard of hearing, but whenever I see him he greets me with a broad smile and tells me how much he enjoys living each day to its fullest.  He remains interested in the arts, taking in line dancing, attending symphony concerts, and taking advantage of in-house lectures at the assisted living facility where he resides. Before the election, when I asked him if he planned to vote for the President of the United States, he responded enthusiastically that indeed he was.  He looked forward to taking the bus to the polling center so that he could cast his vote in person, rather than by mail.

Current longevity rates are unprecedented. Americans are living longer than ever before, with increasing numbers of people living into their eighties, nineties and even their hundreds. Active late adulthood offers abundant opportunities for discovery and creativity for those who are endowed with good health.  Jewish tradition has always emphasized that long healthy years are indeed a blessing granted by God. I have always been amazed that the Bible lists long life as the reward for fulfilling three of God’s commandments: honoring parents (Exodus 20:12), sending a mother bird away from the nest before capturing her young (Deuteronomy 22:7), and using honest weights in business dealings. (Deuteronomy 25:15).  What these injunctions have in common is that each highlights the importance of righteousness and compassion in all of our daily interactions – within our families, in commerce and even with regard to the nature and the environment.  The ancient rabbis expanded the criteria for attaining a long life to a far more demanding list of ethical behaviors including:  showing patience, never rejoicing in one’s neighbor’s shame, and never calling a person by a name that might embarrass him/her.

Attaining 120 years with undiminished abilities has come to be considered the ideal life span because according to the Torah Moses reached that age with “his eyes undimmed and his vigor unabated.” (Deuteronomy 34:7)  In Jewish tradition, the blessing of “120 years” is frequently offered to people on their birthdays.

Throughout history, the Jewish people have paid particular attention to the welfare of the aged. The book of Leviticus (19:32) commands, “You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old person.” The first words of this verse appear on signs at the front of Israeli buses to remind passengers to offer their seats to the elderly.  In numerous Biblical passages it is the elders who are the wise ones, repositories of knowledge and the judges of the people.  In biblical times, people turned to the elders for life advice.  Unfortunately, all-too-often, nowadays, old people are perceived as socially, psychologically and physically restricted and deteriorated. As a result, they are too often isolated and their skills and wisdom are devaluated.  In contrast, our High Holy Day liturgy enjoins “do not forsake me in old age,” and the Bratslaver Rebbe reminds us that “the prosperity of a country is in accordance with its treatment of the elderly.”  That is why it is so gratifying and important to see the development of programs such as Better Together, a national initiative that brings together teens and seniors to foster ongoing intergenerational relationships and to build concern for and appreciation of seniors in the teens.

Each visit with my amazing senior friends reinforces my appreciation for the vitality, wisdom and life lessons that elders can transmit. Like the 105- and 106-year-old men that I am so honored to visit, may we continue to learn to number our days, to remain optimistic and to live our lives to the fullest.   May we not only count our days, but may we make each day count.  And as the saying goes, “til 120.”

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him….”


lady-liberty-cryingIt has been ten days since our 45th president has been sworn into office, and already he has enacted many executive orders. One of his first ones was his pledge to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. In another he ordered punishments for cities shielding illegal immigrants, and in a third an order to block entry of refugees from war-torn Syria and suspend the entry of any immigrants from Muslim-majority  Middle Eastern and African countries Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Yemen. These and other directives have led to mass protests, fear, and sleepless nights for many Americans.

Surely, the safety and security of our nation must be ensured. But what are our obligations to society’s most vulnerable members? The book of Exodus has this to say: You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. The Bible appreciates how common it is for people to take advantage of society’s weakest, most marginal members, and fears that an appeal to sympathy alone would be insufficient to motivate people to act sensitively. It thus adds a “kicker” to the second of these commandments, warning those who mistreat widows and orphans that “your own wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Exodus 22:23)  Concerning strangers, the Bible claims that they are the sole category of people whom God is identified as loving. “And God loves the stranger.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)

Because Jews have historically been subjected to frequent expulsions, we are all too familiar with the need for help getting settled in a new community and with the reciprocal imperative to provide aid to others. Ample precedent in our historical experience make many Americans feel sympathetic to those in need of a new home due to persecution. We need to look no further than the tragedy of the Holocaust to understand that peoples’ lives are lost when refugees who are fleeing for their lives are refused sanctuary –and that every day counts. Who can remain silent at the images of Jewish and other men, women and children who were turned away while attempting to flee Nazi Germany?  Whose heart does not stir when we read or song Emma Lazarus’ poem affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” For us Americans, the sentiment in favor of immigration also grows from the undeniable fact that the United States, the greatest experiment in pluralism in history, has gained tremendously and continues to benefit from the economic and cultural contributions of immigrants from all over the world.

There are more than thirty references in the Bible related to loving the strangers. The frequency of the command suggests that strangers and foreigners must have had a difficult time finding acceptance in society, as is often the case today. The Bible gives an explicitly stated reason for the commandment to love the stranger, calling on the Israelite’s compassion: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). In this way, the Israelites are told to be empathetic to all strangers, since they themselves were strangers in Egypt for many centuries.

I am proud to be a member of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, an organization that has advocated that our government maintain its proud legacy of welcoming refugees and provide meaningful opportunity to all who seek asylum. In addition, it calls on our government to reject policy proposals that would halt or limit or curtail funding for refugee resettlement in the U.S or prioritize certain refugees over others.

One of the most eloquent statements about the value of human life comes from a very odd source: the admonition administered by ancient Jewish courts to witnesses testifying in capital cases. In addition to the expected warnings against perjury, the judges offered a commentary on why God originally populated the world with only one person, Adam. “To teach you,” the witnesses were warned, that “whoever destroys one life is considered by the Torah as if he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves one life is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Each human life has infinite value, and we cannot stand idly by when we see something that we know is just not right. The long and historical Jewish involvement in human rights and civil rights movements—even in those societies where Jews already have had equal rights—is an outgrowth of this 3000 year old reminder from the Bible, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We cannot stand idly by. We must lift our voices against injustice and in support of our core Jewish and American values.  We must financially support the organizations and individuals who stand up for these core values and for justice.  As Rabbi Hillel said: “If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”




As we approach the threshold of the New Year, I have been reading many predictions about what 2017 may have in store for us and the world. But is it really wise to try to predict the future?  The future has been defined as something that everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever one does, whoever one is. But there has always been a vast curiosity to know the future before we get there.

Every day millions of Americans read their astrological horoscopes in the newspaper to learn what the planets have in store for them. Astrology is a popular occupation in America today, in which thousands of people are employed full time. We consult the stars, palm readers and crystal balls in an effort to part the curtain that veils the future.  I once saw a cartoon in which a young girl was reading her diary to her friend.  The girl commented: “This is one book where I wish it were possible to peek in the back and see how it all comes out.”

Even Jacob in the Bible, third patriarch of the Jewish people, attempted for a fleeting moment to unravel the secrets that are hidden in the womb of time. As he lay on his deathbed, he gathered his children and said to them: “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.” (Genesis 49:1)

As we read further into the story, however, there are no predictions of things to come. And the rabbinic sages point out that although Jacob wanted to foretell the future, the Divine Presence departed from him. God apparently did not want the future to be revealed. But what was God’s reasoning?

If you and I knew what was going to happen tomorrow and the day after and on all the days to come, wouldn’t life lose much of its zest and excitement? A terrible boredom might even set in as we mechanically play out the roles that have been predetermined and foretold for us. And if we knew in advance the disappointments and broken dreams and sorrows that awaited us, could we find the courage to even venture into the future at all?

But the most compelling reason no one can predict the future is that the future does not actually exist. According to Judaism, we all have the freedom of will to determine the shape of tomorrow by what we do today.

The American historian James Truslow Adams put his finger on the truth when he said that while an astronomer can predict precisely where every star will be at 11:30 tonight, he can make no such predication about his young daughter.

What the future has in store for us depends largely on what we place in store for the future. Only our actions — not the stars nor the cards — will determine the shape of things to come.

Several years ago, I read a quote on a wall in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv that has greatly influenced the way I live my life. The quote was attributed to an anonymous survivor of a World War II German concentration camp.


Our lives are enriched when we recall and honor the past and those who came before us, when we live each day to its fullest and do as much good as we can, and when we have faith in the future.

 May the coming year bring you happiness and fulfillment, health and well-being, tranquility and peace.