What’s Your Terumah?

In last week’s Maftir we read about the obligation for every Israelite to give half a shekel, regardless of how wealthy or poor they are. This week we read about a different kind of gift for which our Torah portion is named, the terumah. The terumah was a voluntary contribution that each person gave to the Tabernacle according to “how their heart moved them.” And these were not the dregs-the gifts people brought included gold, silver and copper!

What would motivate someone to give of their resources towards the building of the Tabernacle? Even more so, what would motivate them to give so much that Moses will have to tell them “Stop Giving” four portions later. The commentator Kli Yakar writes that the gold that the Israelites gave towards the Tabernacle atoned for the gold that they used to make the golden calf. Similarly, Baal HaTurim notes that the word for “taking” the Terumah offering is in plural. Why? Because you give Terumah not as an individual but in the context of a community. The Israelites recognized that they were giving to something greater than themselves: the creation of a House for God.

We gain even more appreciation for the gifts of the Israelites when we look at Terumah from a rabbinic context. During Temple times, Terumah was the portion of one’s crops that s/he gave to the priests. One gave 1/50th of his/her crops to the Kohanim, and this portion was designated as Terumah. Similarly, one gave 1/10th of his/her crops to the Levites, known as m’aaser or me’eser (one out of ten), and a portion of this went to the Kohanim as well. Total this equated to given 12% of one’s estate. The job of the Kohanim and Leviim was to serve God in the Temple, not to plant crops and harvest the land, and as a result the community gave them food. The Kohanim provided the spiritual nourishment for the Israelites-the other tribes provided their physical nourishment. Not only that but the giving of the Terumah was an item of spiritual significance in and of itself. Masechet Berachot, the Talmudic Tractate dealing with blessings, begins “What is the time at which one can begin to say the evening Shema? Rabbi Eliezer says ‘From the time that the Kohanim go in to eat their Terumah until the end of the first night watch.”

While this form of Terumah was halachically required to be given, I would argue that it serves a similar purpose as the Terumah from our portion: it enables people to be part of something larger than themselves. It is too easy to feel that what we produce is ours and ours alone-as opposed to utilizing our resources towards a greater spiritual purpose. Imagine what would happen if everyone gave 12% of their resources to spiritual organizations. The rabbis mandate that we give between 10 and 20% of our income to Tzedakah. I will acknowledge how hard it is to give this amount-and that I am not at a stage where I give it. However, in hearing Rabbi Elie Kaunfer at the Schechter Night of Jewish Learning, I was inspired to give more and get closer to reaching the 10% threshold required of Jewish law.

What is going to be your Terumah, your voluntary contribution, to our spiritual house of worship over the course of the next few months? For some it might be to take a leadership role in our congregation; for others it might be to increase your financial contribution to our synagogue; for others it might be to help me with outreach, getting the word out about the exciting things that our congregation is doing to the greater community. I hope that each of us will voluntarily contribute to the Jericho Jewish Center in a significant way, so that we can feel that our spiritual home is a place where God is dwelling amongst us each and every day. Requirements don’t work in our day and age-we are in a century of choice, where time is the most finite resource and where we are pulled in so many directions. I hope and I pray that each of us will proactively make a significant Terumah through your involvement and your contributions to our congregation in the days ahead. Shabbat Shalom.

No Minor Crimes

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing the Chief Rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, speak to at Park East Synagogue. The program began with children from Park East Day School singing the French, Israeli and American national anthems. Rabbi Arthur Schneier next spoke about being freed from Auschwitz in 1945 and about the importance of preserving that freedom.

The line that stood out most to me in the Chief Rabbi’s remarks was “There are no minor crimes”-in other words, any attack against a people must be responded to. The Chief Rabbi also spoke about dreaming of a better France. His speech was very heartfelt and helped give me hope for the future of the French Jewish Community.

After Rabbi Korsia spoke, 5 children from Park East Day School said words to him in French and gave him a special gift. Then Mayor DeBlasio gave an address, proclaiming that “no Jewish community in Europe should have to beg for protection.” DeBlasio also commended President Hollande and especially Prime Minister Valls, who said “if the Jews leave, France will no longer be France.” DeBlasio also called on European leaders to take after the example of New York City, which despite being the most diverse city in the world has had people learn to get along.

It was a powerful event that demonstrated to me that while anti-Semitism is on the rise, the Jewish community is not without friends.

Should European Jews Move to Israel?

Never one to shy away from controversial topics, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu urged French Jews to move to Israel. The question is was he right to do so? Last month our congregation raised $1250 which we gave to the Jewish Agency for Israel specifically for French Jews who were making Aliyah. However, this money was to be used for French Jews who had already chosen to make Aliyah, as opposed to actively pushing for French Jews to leave. Is there a difference between the two?

One could argue that French Jews are no longer safe due to the vitriolic anti-Semitism that has pervaded France. Unfortunately, France is not the only place facing anti-Semitism. As my former classmate and roommate Phil Weintraub sent me, there was just an anti-Semitic outbreak in Madison, Wisconsin: http://tabletmag.com/scroll/189042/anti-semitism-spikes-in-the-badger-state?utm_source=fb&utm_medium=post&utm_content=Anti-Semitism+Spikes+in+the+Badger+State&utm_campaign=feb2015.

The question is does the anti-Semitism that Jews are facing throughout the world justify the urging of Jews to move to Israel. On one hand, Israel is our Jewish homeland where one can safely walk around wearing a kippah or Jewish star. On the other hand, Israel faces its own dangers from its Arab neighbors. There is no truly safe place to live as a Jew.

Should we actively raise our voices for European Jews to move to Israel or is that hutzpadik to do? Your comments are appreciated.

The Lesson from Half a Shekel

I used to lead services with my friend Yoni Stadlin at the Jewish Home and Hospital in Manhattan.  One of the songs he led was called The Giving Song, as it is about the benefits of giving to others. The song goes “Deep inside my heart I got this everlasting light it’s shining like the sun it radiates on everyone.  Cuz the more that I live the more I’ve got to give; it’s the way that I live it’s what I’m living for.”

Songs like Yoni’s emphasize the importance of providing for others and correlate to the emphasis on giving within our tradition.  General practice according to the Bible is “to give what your heart desires,” as we read next week in Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1).  There is no limit on what one can give mentioned when talking about providing for the stranger, orphan and widow.  Therefore I find interesting our Maftir for this week, where everyone is commanded to bring the same amount (half a shekel) as an offering to God upon being counted in the census (Exodus 30:12-15).  What is significant about the bringing of the half a shekel is that everyone had to bring exactly that amount: no more and no less.  In a religion that emphasizes giving to such a degree, why set a limit on how much you can give?

In the Book of Exodus, there is a tension between having everyone give the same amount versus give whatever they are able to.  In a few weeks we will see that the Israelites were allowed to give whatever they wanted to construct the Tabernacle.  It turns out that they were so zealous in their gifts that Moses had to tell them to stop.  People came to Moses and exclaimed that “the people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that God has commanded to be done” (Exodus 36:5).  After this, Moses informed the people “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Exodus 36:6).

This example of the Israelites giving so much of their resources for a communal structure is astounding.  However, the difficulty with allowing people to give as much as they desire is that people do not always have the means by which to give.  I imagine that some Israelites had taken more gold from Egypt which they could donate to construction of the Tabernacle.  God did not want to embarrass those who had lesser means and thus in this week’s Maftir, God requested that every person give half a shekel-no more and no less.  This had two purposes: it made everyone an equal contributor in the construction of the Tabernacle and reminded everyone that they had an equal stake in the community.  The latter purpose is exuded by the rabbinic principle kol yisrael arevin zeh bazeh, that all of Israel has an equal responsibility in the construction of the Tabernacle.

The idea of communal responsibility is one that is not so easy to fulfill in modern times.  With so many familial needs: grandchildren’s schooling, health care, house mortgage, etc. it becomes difficult to provide for the community as well.  There are people blessed in their resources who make generous donations year after year to communal causes.  If we are not in that situation, however, than how can the notion of the Israelites providing for communal needs transfer into our lives?  I will start out with an extreme example and then touch on one that I believe can work for our larger community.

Occasionally, I get to read examples of great altruism.  One an article from the New York Times, entitled “A Donor Match over Small Talk and Coffee,” talks about a kidney donation that will be made by Starbucks employee Sandie Anderson to Annamarie Ausnes.  In small talk, Anderson discovered that Ausnes was in need of a kidney and she was a perfect match.  On March 11th 2008, the two women underwent surgery for Ausnes to receive the kidney.  The fact that a Starbucks employee offered to donate a body part to someone she did not know is an amazing act of selfless kindness, demonstrating to us that acts of great altruism exist in our society.  However, while these opportunities are awe-inspiring to hear about, it would not be feasible to do something like this on a regular basis.

A small but far-reaching way that we can work to create a community which emphasizes giving of oneself to others is to be in dialogue with the other members of the community to get to know them personally.  Part of this is learning what makes them unique and part is discovering what their concerns are.  Through a Community Organizing class at JTS, we set up a House Meeting drive brought students from each of the 5 academic schools there in dialogue with members of the faculty and administration regarding common concerns and ways to make the community stronger.  Through the drive, I heard people share similar concerns which they previously believed were theirs alone.  I also discovered that people had the desire to pool their individual resources to help one another.  Through a one hour conversation, we set the ground to create a vibrant community.  This is not the same degree of altruism as Sadie Anderson offering her kidney to Annamarie Ausnes, but it is a way on a larger scale to create a community of responsibility.

One of the great things about being part of the Jericho Jewish Center is that we have feelings of responsibility for one another, as evident by the large turnouts at Shiva Minyanim or by people inquiring about others’ well-being. However, I feel that we can take this further by reflecting on what is the contribution that each of us will give individually to strengthen our synagogue. For some it might be volunteering to serve on a committee or on the board; for others it might entail helping to plan an event and for others it might be giving of financial resources to help our congregation.

In conclusion, we have examined the tension between allowing people to provide whatever they wanted versus the universal requirement of giving half a shekel.  The giving of half a shekel ensured equal responsibility and an equal stake in the community.  It is difficult to create a community of responsibility when we each have so many needs.  At times there might be the opportunity to do an act of extreme altruism, like donating a kidney, but a more regular approach is to meet people you don’t know and get to know them as a full person: what makes them unique, what are some of their greatest ambitions and what they are concerned or afraid about (what keeps them up at night).  This is a difficult task and it is a bit idealistic.  However, by setting up a community where people can relate to one another in a personal and meaningful way, we can fulfill the maxim of kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh to create a community whose members look out for one another and which lives based on the principle of giving to others.

Opening Our Doors to Interfaith Couples: The Approach of the Jericho Jewish Center

Interfaith couples are underserved and in some cases even shunned by the community. It is not uncommon for interfaith families to close themselves off to organized Jewish activities. At the same time, the lack of receptiveness of many branches of the Jewish community has left a large number of interfaith couples looking to find some way to belong, on their own terms. There are so many interfaith couples who are not connected to any Jewish organization, at times because of previous bad experiences that have led to feelings of shame and inadequacy. As a Jewish community, we are making a mistake by pushing such couples away. Instead, we need a sensitive approach to outreach that welcomes and nurtures new connections with the Jewish community. We need to show these families that there is a place for them in our community, that our tent doors are wide enough for them to be welcomed and embraced.


How do we do this? My congregation, the Jericho Jewish Center, is creating a networking group for interfaith families. We are also creating individualized learning opportunities to address each couple’s individual needs. Our goals in this regard are to provide opportunities to for interfaith couples to interact with other couples who might be experiencing similar things as well as to create a personalized program of exploration of Judaism for each couple which is non-threatening to the non-Jewish partner. 


If you are part of an interfaith relationship and you feel “out of place” in the Jewish community, you need not any longer. Join us for an introductory meet-and-greet on Sunday March 8th from 6:00-7:30 pm at City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill (1080 Corporate Dr in Westbury) with other interfaith couples in a welcoming, supportive and non-judgmental group setting. RSVPs are encouraged to 516-938-2540 or at  rabbi@jerichojc.org. Can’t make that Sunday but would like to participate? Please give me a call at the above number. I would be happy to meet with you, hear your story and demonstrate how welcoming our Jewish community truly can be.

Jericho Jewish Center Alumni Event

On Thursday we had our first Jericho Jewish Center Alumni Event in the city, at Hudson Commons Bar in Hell’s Kitchen. Despite the frigid weather, 12 JJC Alumni came out and had a blast. For some it was a Hebrew School Reunion; for others, an opportunity to meet fellow JJC graduates. The attendees were anywhere from early 20s to mid 50s. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet those who grew up at JJC and learn about their interests.Thanks to Allison Gluck and Dana Arschin for helping me organize. We will have our second JJC Alumni Event after Passover at an outdoor beer garden. Stay tuned for further details.

The Closing of FEGS: A Travesty for the Jewish Community

I was saddened to read in The Jewish Week that FEGS Health and Human Services is closing its offices after accumulating a $20 million deficit. FEGS, an organization that provides social services for hundreds of thousands in New York City and in the greater metropolitan area, does incredible work. It was the first organization I met with upon moving to Jericho, and I quickly learned about Project Replenish, which provides thousands with food collected during the High Holiday season. I also took two groups of Hebrew High Schoolers to stock the FEGS food pantry to provide food for those in need.  Other congregations have cooked food at their facilities and served it to those in need through the auspices of FEGS. FEGS has also helped thousands of New Yorkers find work (through the Connect to Care program) and affordable housing and has programs to help those with disabilities.

Who will pick up these valuable services in FEGS’ absence? What will happen to the needy individuals on the Island who have relied on FEGS’ services in the past? On whom will the Seniors who have received support from FEGS for home care now rely? All these questions (and more) have no answers at this time.

Jethro: Israelite or Midianite?

People often greatly care about their origins.  One of the first questions many of us ask a new person we meet is “Where are you from?”  Ellis Island gets hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, testament to people’s interest about their history.  Many families (including mine) have written family trees, some of which go back 500 or 1000 years.  What is it that keeps pulling us towards our personal history, even when life pulls us away from this history?

This week’s Torah portion features the 10 Commandments as well as the delegation of authority through setting up a court system.  This morning, however, I want to talk about the person for whom the portion is named, Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew), who is Moses’ father-in-law.  Jethro faces a tension between the land of his origin and his location at the beginning of this portion.  As we find out in Exodus 2, Jethro is a Midianite priest.  His daughters go to draw water for their flock, shepherds drive them away, and Moses intervenes, watering the flock himself.  As a result, Jethro gives his daughter Tzipporah to Moses as his wife, officially connecting his Midianite/Egyptian family with Moses and the Israelites.  Fast forwarding to this week’s portion, Moses tells Jethro of God saving the Israelites from the Egyptians.  Jethro’s reaction, in 18:9, is the word yihad, a word which appears only 6 times in the Torah, 3 times as a noun and 3 times as a verb.  This word is generally translated as “rejoice.”  However, Rashi brings in a second translation from a Midrash, that Yitro felt stinging sensations (hidudin) as he was saddened by the destruction of Egypt.  Despite having a daughter who married into the Israelite family, Yitro is still tied to his Egyptian origins and cannot rejoice at his brethren’s demise.

The Tur, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher of the 14th century, has a different reading of that verse.  He reads the word yihad as yahad, unify, stating that Jethro unified his house with the one God and became a Jew.  This is an anachronistic reading, as in biblical times people did not undergo religious conversions-rather they chose to affiliate with an ethnic group.  However, it does connect to a late statement, when Jethro states “blessed is Adonai who saved you from Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh.” It seems that Jethro is in fact rejoicing in the Jewish God-however he also says “who has saved you,” excluding himself from being part of the Israelites.

My question is should we view Jethro as a “converted” Israelite, like the Tur, or as remaining a Midianite?  I believe the answer is the latter, as in Exodus 18:27, after Jethro instructs Moses how to set up judges, Moses sends him back to his land, Midian. Jethro had just proclaimed the glory of the Israelite God, so why would he leave the Israelites?  Even more interesting, in Numbers 10:30, when Moses asks Jethro to stay with the Israelites, and he replies, “I will not go with you, but rather to my land and to my birthplace will I go.”  Moses’ father-in-law once again says he will return to his native land rather than stay with Moses and with his daughter Tziporah. In this case Moses begs him to stay, and while the outcome is ambiguous, it appears to me that Jethro leaves the Israelites. While Jethro has developed a relationship with Moses and the Israelites, he chooses to return to his native Midian rather than continuing on with the Israelites.

          Has anyone here ever struggled over whether to stay in your community or move somewhere new?  What factors did you have to consider?  In the end, which choice did you make?

I see Jethro’s situation as personally speaking to us.  He journeys with the Israelites in both Exodus and Numbers and praises their god.  At the end of the day, however, Jethro decides to return to his homeland.  This teaches me that it is often difficult to leave one’s homeland, and even if he/she physically leaves, there will remain unbreakable ties to the land of one’s formative years.  While Jethro believes in the Israelite God rather than that of the Midianites and his offspring will continue as Israelites, he is still drawn towards his native land.  This story also gives me newfound appreciation for Abraham being able to leave his homeland.

I want to commend everyone here for continuing to strengthen their ties to the Jericho Jewish Center.  Our congregation understands the importance of maintaining a strong Jewish presence in Jericho.  To be able to maintain a congregation for almost 60 years is an incredible feat and is testament to the hard work, dedication and faith of our congregants, as well as following in the footsteps of our ancestors.  Maintaining the rich history of our congregation is special, showing that there is value in continuity. You would not believe how many congregants I have spoken with many who, though they only come on the High Holidays, proudly proclaim “I’ve been a member here for 40 years!”  How fortunate are we to have congregants who play such vital roles in our congregation and who have invested so much in our success.  May today be a day of great celebration for all that we have in our community at the Jericho Jewish Center.