Friday, December 21, 2012

New Jewish Cub Scout Pack 365 Is Open To All

B'nai Shalom is excited to announce a new Shomer ShabbatShomer Kashrut Cub Scout Pack in West Orange.  Jewish Scouting is a time-honored program of character and leadership training for our boys of all backgrounds and skill levels. Boys learn outdoor skills, character values, and citizenship all within a Jewish context.
Pack 365 (The number of "Positive Mitzvot" in the Torah), is open to all boys grades 1-5, and has a mix of day school and religious school families.  Shabbat is fully observed while camping, Kashrut(kosher laws) is observed with mainstream packaged hekhshers only (O/U, StarK, etc). The pack is open to all boys and adult volunteers of any family background, without prejudice, and is chartered by Congregation B'nai Shalom, 300 Pleasant Valley Way, West Orange NJ 07052.
For more information contact Rabbi Tobin at B'nai Shalom, 973-731-0160,

Monday, November 5, 2012

Of Hurricanes and Chesed

As I write this article, most of my congregation is without power or heat.  By the time you receive it, God willing, Hurricane Sandy will be but a recent memory for most of us.  At times like this, we all seek to care for our loved ones, and do what is possible for our congregation, community and region.  We find ourselves seeking – seeking comfort, gasoline, information and ideas.  And we bump up against the unanticipated situation or reaction.  Nerves fray, and people act out.  Yet always we must let our actions be driven by gemillut chesed: genuine Kindness.

The most tragic stories of the Hurricane drive home the point. There is the young mother on Staten Island who knocked on a door begging for help, and was turned away, only to lose her two young children’s lives in the flood outside. Chesed saves lives. Anger fear and selfishness destroy lives.

Here at B’nai Shalom I am proud of our community.  I am proud of those who responded through chesed.

Through a network of mobile phones, portable wifi cards and laptops we were able to stay in touch with the community of “smart phones” on a daily basis. We received multiple positive letters thanking us for being in touch and affirming that no one was alone. And we used the auto-dialer to call the congregation with offers of help and meals. Personal networks reached out to the elderly and the homebound.

We held “flashlight minyanim” for a couple of days.  Then, we were fortunate to get power on the evening of Day 3, so we immediately opened the doors to the shul for warmth and weekday charging all day, every day until power was restored.  Volunteers kept the doors open well into the evening. We scrambled, following a tip from members, to offer a Friday night dinner from Reuben’s and we cooked for 175 to serve a Kiddush lunch for our members on Shabbat as well.

Knowing the kids were out of school, but available and cold, Rena Casser opened religious school on Shabbat and Sunday to return to normalcy early and provide families a much needed break.

Multiple members of the congregation offered spare beds, couches and in one case a paid hotel room for needy members.  And certainly the vast majority of such acts of kindness went unsung and unknown to all but those directly involved. My family was among the many who slept on couches and floors in the homes of such chesed-filled families.

In the haftarah read on Shabbat Shuvah, the prophet Micah tells us (7:20) “You [God] will grant truth for Jacob and chesed for Abraham, as you swore to our forefathers in days of old.” As always, we are grateful for the gifts of both clarity and kindness in trying times. If the shul can be of service to you and yours, please do not hesitate to give us the opportunity to fulfill our mitzvah of chesed with you.

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

Friday, October 12, 2012

How to Fight Prejudice - Don't Boycott Scouting

As of January 1, 2013, The Golda Och Academy (a Solomon Schechter Conservative Jewish Day School in West Orange NJ) will join the Reform Movement's boycott of the Boy Scouts of America.  This is an unfortunate and misguided decision, despite its noble moral stance.

In a nutshell, though there has been no official statement made, Golda Och has determined that the national policy of the Boy Scouts of America is incompatible with the values of the school, and that all ties must be immediately severed when the school's current troop and pack charter expire on December 31, 2012.  I agree that the national policy is bigoted and wrong. But the school's stance is uninformed and ill-advised.  The action does not address the issue, but hides from it in the language of moral boycott.

Here is the policy of the Boy Scouts of America. Boy scouts units (troops and packs) may discriminate against inclusion of homosexual adult leaders ("scouters") and youth members ("scouts").  Please note that no troop or pack that has rejected that policy has ever been sanctioned. The policy is not forced upon the units, it is available to the units.  The Golda Och units always rejected that policy, as it is in conflict with the morals and values of the charter institution: the school.

Why does the BSA hold so tightly to this policy of bigotry and prejudice (in my view)? We must understand how morals are viewed in Boy Scouts before we condemn them.

1) The Scout Oath proclaims a duty to God.
2) The Scout Law proclaims that every scout and scouter adheres to certain character traits, including "Reverence."
3) The BSA has a "Declaration of Religious Principle" which is often published, but especially emphasized in Chaplain Training.
4) Individual religious and moral values of conscience are determined by the Individual Scout and Scouter in the context of their own home faith community.
5) Group religious and moral values of conscience are determined by the Charter Organization.
6) Scouting is a BOTTOM UP organization, with boys in charge of the program, rather than Top Down with the national bureaucracy in charge of the program.

So let's look at the key document here:  The Declaration of Religious Principle, as quoted from the BSA website

The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God and, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member, but it is absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward that religious training. Its policy is that the home and organization or group with which a member is connected shall give definite attention to religious life. Only persons willing to subscribe to this Declaration of Religious Principle and to the Bylaws of the Boy Scouts of America shall be entitled to certificates of membership.

Now, here is the main issue:

Since "the home and organization or group with which a member is connected shall give definite attention to religious life" and homosexuality as a norm is determined in the moral and religious fabric of that home and church/synagogue/mosque/temple life, it is CONTRARY TO THE BOY SCOUTS OWN GUIDING PRINCIPLES TO SET A STANDARD ON THIS ISSUE AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL.

Since over 50% of the national youth in scouting come from Catholic, Mormon and other Charter Organizations that discriminate against homosexuals, the national council represents that majority.  But they are wrong to do so.

There is room for hope and leverage for change.  The language quoted can be, and is being used in the internal debate within BSA about the appropriate or inappropriate nature of the National Policy against homosexual involvement in the BSA.  This Can, and Will change in time because it is untenable as an action against the faith of participating youth and adults.

Now, if we boycott the BSA, we no longer are present.  We are no longer suffering at the hands of religious persecution - which would be contrary to the bedrock principles of the BSA itself.  Would the buses in the south have desegregated if Rosa Parks had boycotted the bus?  No.  She had to get on the bus, sit down, and refuse to move for things to change.

Involvement and Engagement are the routes to change.  But GOA, the Reform Movement, and other boycotting organizations are simply taking the easy moral high ground - and changing nothing.

Except that the boycott does change one thing:  the lives of the boys who are currently in their pack/troop.  These children, who have dedicated themselves to be honest trustworthy loyal helpful friendly courteous kind obedient cheerful thrifty brave clean and reverent as Jews in America have had their unit taken out of their school, and judged for the sins of others.  They are role models for Jewish involvement as citizens.  Their morals, including the morality of inclusion, will no longer be present in this conversation.  They are being told that they should not associate with people who are different, whose morals are different, whose religion is different.  They are being told to get back behind the ghetto walls into a morally and religiously homogeneous world, rather than engage in relationships that can change the world.  It is a loss that they can no longer claim with pride that their scouting represents the best of their school in the world.  That is a change we could - and should - have avoided.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Synagogues Speak for Judaism

Only the synagogue can be the center of Judaism.

For a long time it was wrongly taught that “synagogues replaced the ancient temple.”  In fact, this is not true.  From well before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E, our people had gathered in our towns and communities to hear the Torah read and to say public prayers. 

One of my favorite artifacts is the Theodotus stone, which can be found in Jerusalem’s Rockefeller museum.  This stone, carved in Greek and found in excavations in the City of David, which declares Theodotus to have been a head of a synagogue whose purpose was to welcome the wayfarer in a gathering place of Torah.  Even in Holy Jerusalem, with her hallowed Temple and Priesthood functioning fully, there was a need for a synagogue to welcome and gather people to learn from the Torah.

Look as well at the ruins in Gamla, in upper Galilee.  A 1st century synagogue there has a central reading table, and benches seated all around the walls facing in.  Far from Jerusalem and into the hills, the community needed its center, and even the building was oriented to draw attention inward to the lessons of the sacred text.

The synagogue was not founded because of a lack of the Temple.  It grows from the center of our people’s need for meaning and for community.  We find God talking among us and to us in these sacred buildings and places.  The gathering place is an institution, which is still vitally needed today. 

In recent years, many sought to redefine the “center” of Judaism. At first non-religious institutions such as community centers, and federations claimed the center by virtue their “non-sectarian” nature.  Worse, recent funding trends have corted the peripheral Jewish community at great cost and with rare success.  Formal Jewish institutions can speak for Jews, but only synagogues can speak for Judaism.

America has always been a religious culture, and there is no “post-religious” future in view.  In an age where the fastest growing religions in America include both Mormonism and Islam, our next generation needs to be brought into religious dialogue with our American neighbors by first having a strong religious identity  of their own.  This can not be provided by the community center or the federation, and is seldom the goal of initiatives to reach the unaffiliated.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Metro West has encouraged synagogue affiliation, much to its credit.  It knows that synagogue affiliation is a lead indicator of likely future donors, but it also knows that synagogues provide a soul to Jewish society.  The moral teachings of our various synagogues are what give us strength and purpose. 

The Mormons and the Moslems will be speaking religious language if we truly wish to get to know them.  Will we be able to do the same?

In every generation, in every culture and historic circumstance we have faced, it was the synagogue which was the heartbeat of Jewish living.  The doors are open as the new year begins.  Come back to the center.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Political Murderers & Social Murderers

This week has been one of those weeks that come once or twice a year, it seems, when mass-murder fills the news.

First, on Wed., July 18, there was an attack in Bulgaria against a bus filled with unarmed Israeli tourists.  Second, early this morning, there was an attack in a midnight movie theater in Denver, CO, killing and wounding adults and children alike. In Bulgaria, 5 Israelis and the Bulgarian bus driver were killed.  In Denver, 12 are dead and 50 wounded.  Yet the nature of these two attacks is fundamentally different, and that difference can not be ignored.

It is important for the ethical and religious people of the world to know that these killers are not "crazy," but are intentional and well thought-out individuals who are deliberately and knowingly killing the innocent among us.  The Bulgarian attack was perpetrated by a suicide bomber, dressed in plaid shorts, in the country for only a few days, and carrying a fake Michigan driver's license.  The Denver attack by a man in black, wearing a bullet proof vest, carrying a rifle, shotgun, two hand guns and a gas mask for the smoke canisters he used in the attack. Neither crime was done out of "passion" or in a day.

Conclusion?  These are not crazy people.  These people know what they are doing.  They know that what they are doing is wrong enough to evade the authorities, and to hide until the moment of violence.

And while both murderers are cowards who surprise-attack their unarmed civilian victims, their motivations are clearly different:  One is political and one is social.

A Political murderer, in the case of the attack on Israelis can not be brought to "justice" simply because he is a suicide murderer.  Was he working for Hamas?  Hezbollah? Or was he working for Iran, as Ambassador Michael Oren presents? The bottom line is that there is no possibility of civilized engagement with political murderers.  They can only be stopped by force in advance, prevented by force en route, or engaged by force in the place of their crime.  Their supporting state and non-government organizations must be starved or destroyed if such murder is to be prevented in the future.  They know how to talk and have chosen this instead.  Talk will not be the solution.

A social murderer is different.  James Homes, who was caught at the scene next to his car with a second round of arms inside, was raised to a college education, is a former Medical student, and had just recently withdrawn from a PhD program in Neuroscience at the University of Denver.  He dressed in the garb of a villin and broke into the back door of a shoot-em-up Batman movie to attack the crowd.  He had booby-trapped his apartment with explosives, evidently to great the investigation in the wake of his crime.  As an individual, frustrated in his failures and goals, one can see social discontent is the likely motivation for his evil decisions.  But his intelligence and planning are apparent.

Some like to claim that the roots of violence are economic.  This is simply not the case.  The 911 attackers were not starving or uneducated.  Quite the contrary.  They were simply political murderers.  So too the suicide bomber in Bulgaria.  Eventually he will be identified.  His economics will be irrelevant.  And of course James Homes, or the UVA shooter, or Columbine... all are from the privileged "class" in this country.

When it comes to social murderers, the force of law must be mustered against them, and against any who support and enable them. Yet prison, rehabilitation, and other social tools may have some hope in such cases - if we care to apply all of our societal tools in the justice system.  That is a debate for another day.

But when it comes to political murderers, there is no such hope or reason to believe that tools of peace will win the day.

Friday, June 22, 2012


In response to a 6/21/12 New Jersey Jewish News article which equated Orthodox+Republican+Gun Rights on the one hand versus Non-Orthodox+Liberal+Gun Control on the other, I have sent the following critique to the editor:

There is no necessary connection between one's religious approach to Judaism and one's political view of gun control. Most Jews - from anywhere on the religious spectrum - who are in favor of gun control in America would never advocate similar personal gun control in Israel.  Similarly, we are proud of those who have served in the armed forces, and their prowess with weapons.  There is no inbred disdain for guns.  The issue is defined instead by the role of the individual in matters of personal security in the larger society. Therefore, it is not a matter of religious "streams."

Similarly, the use of "liberal" or "conservative" in this arena is inappropriate.  Historically, liberalism in American Judaism is about an affinity for organized labor, public education and civil rights. This tends towards the Democratic Party often, but not necessarily so. Guns are largely unrelated to these "liberal" issues. For example, a libertarian-minded "liberal" is likely to support the individual right to own or carry a weapon as a matter of personal freedom.  A pro-law enforcement "conservative" may be pro-gun control to give police every advantage possible.

Gun ownership is also not equal to hunting.  Hunting has been a core part of American culture since the first colonists landed and needed to eat two centuries before the first Jews landed in New Amsterdam. You are correct to cite Judaism's lack of use for hunting, and our general discomfort with the practice as sport.  But the first merchant license issued to a Jew in those days included the sale of animal pelts.  As a rabbi, I teach that "sport killing" is forbidden.  Culling a deer herd however, is open for debate.

Gun ownership and gun use are perfectly legitimate in Judaism for both sport (target) shooting and for home/property defense. The later is common among Jewish store owners, while the former is rare among Jews in general.  The truth is that most of us aren't very passionate about it.  

Personally, I am pro-second amendment gun rights, as interpreted by the current Supreme Court of the United States.    Our religion - Orthodox Conservative and Reform - believes in personal responsibility for our actions.  I see nothing less moral about a gun than a knife. What matters is what you do with it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Redemption not Salvation

In just two weeks, Jews the world over will sit down at their home tables and celebrate the Pesach Seder.  This holiday is known as “the time of our freedom” because at this time our ancestors were liberated by God from the power of Pharoah in ancient Egypt.  Yet “freedom” is only a part of the story.  The real theology of the holiday is Redemption.
Redemption is more difficult to understand than freedom.  What does it mean to be redeemed?  And why do we need redemption?  You see, for a rabbinic Jew, what happened to our ancestors happens to us.  What God promised to them is promised to us.  What God has done for them, God will do for us.  It is not about spiritual salvation, but physical redemption.
Redemption is one of those religious words that sounds good, so we leave it alone.  Like Moral, or Covenant. Sounds great, but what does it mean?
The Hebrew is “Ge’ulah”.  It can mean to save, to protect, or to redeem.  To redeem is something other than so save or to protect.  To redeem something is to recover ownership of it.  To redeem a person is to rescue or ransom them from evil or from evil people.  I can also redeem myself when I return to the core values which I have been breaking.  I redeem myself when I make up for past sin or error with good acts of attonement.  All three aspects of Ge’ulah, - Recovery of property, rescue, or attonement are present in this word Redemption:  which are we praying for?  The Passover holiday proclaims all three.
Ownership:  Am zu kanita – this nation, you God have acquired.  God owns us.  Pharoah stole us.  “I will show Pharoah who is God”.  And we are still God’s people in Egypt? God has acquired us, and our status in the world changed.  Pesach must be about knowing that we are God’s people and that brings with it responsibility, or no redemption will come.
Phsyical Protection – Saving: Egypt here is the suffering of all oppression.  The slave-wages laborer, the abused and unprotected immigrant, the abandoned or swindled elderly with no one to protect them. Pesach must be about action in just cause of human rights and dignity regardless of race, culture, language, gender, or religion.  Only in the cause of real and measurable redemption does Pesach make sense.
Attonement:. While the English word can be used to redeem oneself, it is not a rabbinic concept.  We do teshuvah.  We seek Kapparah – attonement.  Yet Pesach does have a sense of your own redemption about it.  In each generation we are challenged to think, feel, and believe that we ourselves each individually and as a group came out of Egypt. 
And in our day we have added one particular prayer to our observance where we talk about Redemption:  We say in the blessing after meals, Harachaman hu yevarekh et Medinat Yisrael, Reishit Tzmichat Ge’ulateinu.  God bless the State of Israel: the first flowering of our redemption.
Pesach is a festival of freedom to be sure.  Yet in the end, Pesach is an assertion that God calls, demands, and acts to redeem – to provide redemption.  It is physical, and it is spiritual.  It is personal, and it is communal.  And despite the fact that it comes from God, it depends on you.  And ultimately, it flowers in Israel to redeem the world.
A sweet and kosher Pesach for each of you.  L’shanah ha’ba’ah birushalayim.  Next year in Jerusalem.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Purim Mitzvot

Purim is coming!

Close your eyes and listen carefully: can you hear the peals of children’s laughter? Can you smell the hamentaschen? Are you ready to laugh with (at?!) me and the others in the shpiel?  Can you feel the undeniable urge to be silly celebrating the ancient victory of our People over the Evil Haman in the far away land of Shushan?  Adults and Children of all ages are searching for and designing their Purim costumes. 

Purim is a joyous time, and such an easy way to throw yourself deeply into our Jewish traditions.  It engages the whole family, and the mitzvot (commandments) of Purim are easy to fulfill.

Often you will hear, for example, the word mitzvah translated as “a good deed” or “a blessing.” The mitzvot are indeed wonderful to perform and a blessing in our lives, but as Conservative Jews we also believe that they are our sacred duties to perform.  The word mitzvah in Hebrew means a “command.” The Jewish way of life, known as Halakhah, is based on that understanding.    Fulfilling our sacred obligations was never more fun than now.

So let’s review: What are the mitzvot of Purim

They all come from the Book of Esther, more commonly known as the megillah.

…the fourteenth… of Adar every year… the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy.  They were to observe them as days of (a) feasting and (b) merrymaking, and as an occasion for (c) sending gifts to one another and (d) presents to the poor.
- Esther 9:22

Here we have four specific commandments (a-f).

(a)   The Purim Seudah – a Festive Meal.  Commanded to eat!  Wonderful!  Certain simchas are connected to an actual obligation to have a feast (for example, a Bris or a Wedding).  The Purim seudah should be festive and full.  As is proper, we celebrate this on Purim day (not Purim night), Thursday, March 8.
(b)  Merrymaking.  Rabbinic tradition offers Purim as a day for great mirth and frivolity.  One custom allows a bit more alcohol than you might ordinarily take, with care.  Purim, in essence, should be joyful.  Our Gala Fundraiser in the evening, and the Purim Carnival during the day will be wonderful examples.
(c)   Mishloach Manot – (sometimes called “shalah manot” or “shalah manos”)Gifts of Food. We fulfill this obligation by giving at least two different people each two different types of food.  The idea is that they should have plenty for their feast, and we should remember our friends.  Our annual Purim Basket drive allows you to sponsor baskets to your friends, families or teachers by having your name listed on a basket that is given to them at Purim.  It is a wonderful fundraiser, and part of this mitzvah.
(d)  Matanot L’evyonim:  “Gifts to the Poor” is always a mitzvah in Judaism, as our traditional generosity as a people through tzedakkah demonstrates.  But on Purim it is even more commanded to give gifts directly to alleviate poverty of individuals.  Support of Food Banks, Mazon, or direct gifts to the needy are all ways to fulfill this important Purim Mitzvah.
(e)   Reading the Megillah:  The Megillah is to be chanted at services both in the evening and in the morning, and is traditionally read from a kosher parchment similar to a Torah scroll.  The Megillah reading has become the most famous and well observed Mitzvah of Purim.
(f)   And finally, there is Ta’anit Esther: The “fast of Esther” is one of four minor fast days, so called because it does not begin on the evening before (like Yom Kippur does), but lasts only through the daylight hours.  This fast commemorates the loss of life associated with saving the Jews from Haman’s evil plot, and mirrors Queen Esther’s courageous preparation to confront the King to save our people.  This year it will take place on Wednesday, March 7th.

There you go!  Maimonides, in the 11th Century C.E. codified the 613 Mitzvot that are found in our Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).  Those are the 6 that are specific to Purim.  I look forward to sharing their observance with each and every one of you.

Chag Purim Sameach!

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin