Wednesday, June 13, 2018

On saying goodbye

This is a very strange month for me. As I prepare to depart from Newburgh and Congregation Agudas Israel, I am beginning to contemplate my new life in St. Petersburg with Congregation B’nai Israel. I wonder what will be the same and what will be different? What will my responsibilities entail? How will I be welcomed and how will I ensure that the synagogue there is a place of welcoming for all?

This too is a journey!

As I ponder those questions, I have been working on the challenging text of winding down here. I have been trying to keep up my normal working activities, while also making extra efforts to make phone calls, meet in person, sit down and talk to the people of CAI. For the last seven years, they have been by my side in so many different ways. We have studied Torah together, prayed together, shared celebrations and mourned together. As I go about these coffees, lunches, dinners, meetings I have become overwhelmed by the words of kindness I have heard. I have discovered that small gestures on my part have been received as larger than life by their recipients. A phone call, a text message, a Facebook post, a hospital or home visit.

For me, these are what I imagine is expected behavior from a rabbi. Our job, our career is study, prayer, inspiration, but most of all, it is to be present with the souls of those around us. The job is not just what we put down on paper or in the ether of the internet, but in the human interactions that are far harder to tally. I might have made lists of the thousands of phone calls, hundreds of visits, and far too many funerals, but instead we all have our respective memories.

Through it all, I am most grateful to my beloved. She has stood by me through interrupted dinners, evenings, nights. She has known that those “interruptions” were sacred moments, calls to be with people in their brightest and darkest moments. Being a rabbi is more than a full time position. My phone is always nearby. Even on Shabbat, we can be reached via the doorbell. None of this would be possible without her support and her love. My work is in my office and yours, in my home and yours, within the community in so many different ways. As I say my goodbyes around town, I discover that within the community I am a (very) minor celebrity, that my gestures of goodwill have been well received.

All in all, I am grateful for the time I have spent here. For me, Newburgh and CAI was a place of personal, spiritual, intellectual growth. It was a place where I took the theory of my education and turned it into practical ministry, practical rabbinics. Sometimes I made mistakes, and I hope that I took responsibility for them, that I learned from them. I have never claimed to be perfect, but am always striving to be better, to build a kesher, a connection with Gd and community.

Leaving is bittersweet. New opportunities beckon, new adventures await, yet the love I have for this community will always remain. CAI and Newburgh are holy places. They have been an essential part of my rabbinic journey. I pray for the strong, bright, vibrant future of these holy communities.

Friday, May 25, 2018

A post of a different sort

I recently had the privielge of attending the Lewis Marshall Dinner at JTS.  My Uncle Ira Schuman has been instrumental in organizing and creating The JTS's 21st Century Campus Project.  You can see more about that project here:

I admire the work of my alma mater and look forward to seeing how this new dorm and library will help improve the feeling of community that I had whilst living in Brush.  There was something very special about living IN the Seminary.  While I did regularly entertain my classmates by coming to class in Na'ot, t-shirts and shorts in the middle of winter, it was inspiring to know that the desk in my study/living room could have been used my generations of students, many of them brilliant minds and scholars.  It was powerful to know that the halls I walked, the kitchen I shared, and the bedroom I slept in had been a part of the Seminary's history for almost a hundred years.  There was something very powerful about sleeping in the building, being able to walk to class without really going outside, living, breathing, the Torah, the Talmud, grabbing a book from the Beit Midrash in the middle of the night, or sitting in the library until it closed.  One loss was that after I married, I had to move out!

With the new campus project, EVERYONE will be able to have that experience.  Their fixtures and furniture will be much more up to date, but they will be able to live and learn in community in a way that I was able to--as well as generations of single students before me.  I am encouraged by the work of JTS and support this endeavor--and my uncle's leadership in it.

Coming into NYC from Newburgh is a schlep, so I made it an afternoon and saw The Band's Visit.  NPR has a great review speaking about how the show demonstrates common ground.
"It suddenly felt really urgent to say that people are people," says Moses. "And when you strip away politics and the sort of rigid tribes that we seem to cling to and belong to, everybody can connect over the need for food and shelter and music and the need for love itself."

The show is not about "the conflict".  It is not about hate or mistrust.  Rather, it is about how in our hearts, as human beings, we all have the same needs.  We need food, clothing, shelter and love.  I would argue we also need faith--belief--hope--however we call it.

By Tdrivas - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
The music was inspiring and a beautiful blend of Middle Eastern styles--Egyptian, Israeli, Lebanese, with a little bit of Broadway flair!  By the time it was done, I felt the desire to get lessons in OUD!

Overall, it was an inspiring and enjoyable show.  I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Narrow Bridge

A few years back we had Mama Doni for Hanukkah.  They previewed a couple of their beautiful Jewish Bluegrass songs.  Now singing as Nefesh Mountain, they have made it big.  They are on the Top Ten Country Chart from Rolling Stone!

Click here to listen to the beautiful song:

As I'm listening to their incredible entire album now (Beyond the Open Sky), I was especially moved by this song.  Based around Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav's famous statement: The whole world is a narrow bridge, the important thing is not to (make yourself) afraid.

Nefesh Mountain wrote beautiful lyrics and melody to add to the words of Reb Nachman: (Lyrics courtesy of Nefesh Mountain)

The chorus is especially powerful:
Troubled times, troubled times
You don’t ease a worried mind
Troubled times, troubled times
Just stay behind
It’s not far from our homes

This song speaks to our own life journeys. Some days we find ourselves challenged.  Some days we find ourselves overwhelmed, but in the beauty of this music we can lift ourselves up.

I have walked this world on the Narrow Bridge
Kol haolam kulo
From the lowlands so low, to high up on the ridge
Gesher tsar meod

The bridge may FEEL narrow, but our lives are filled with possibilities.  No obstacle is insurmountable.  As I listen to this song, I'm inspired. These last few weeks have been filled with so much tsurris, so many troubles, but this song brings me hope.  We can overcome anything.

All we need to do is find ways of changing our perspectives.  Any problem can seem overwhelming if we look at it from the wrong angle.  If we can step back, if we can recognize the interaction of our emotions and our logic, we can find a new way to tackle them.  This may sound like pop psychology, but it is really ancient wisdom.  The world may be a narrow bridge, but it is a bridge that can take us to our next adventure. It is a bridge to our future.  It is a bridge to love, life, and all the good that is coming!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Yom Hashoah part two

Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem
How do we feel the loss of someone we never knew?  My family was lucky.  Depending on how you count, I'm a fourth or fifth generation American citizen.  My great-great grandparents came to this country from all across Central and Eastern Europe.  While I am sure that I lost distant relatives to the plague of Nazi hatred, massacre and murder; my immediate family has been in this country for almost a century and a half.

How do I thank my ancestors for making a decision to leave their homes, their families, everything they knew and coming to the Goldeneh Medinah?  How do I show my appreciation to the United States of America for welcoming them with open arms--or at least letting them in the door?

Yet, even without a direct personal connection to the Shoah, I find this a mournful day.  Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh lazeh-All Israel is responsible for one another.  We are a people.  We are a nation.  We are a faith.  As Jews, we are all connected to each other--and to the broader human family.  We are all one.  If one person is hurt, we all cry out.  As a Jew, the Shoah pains me deeply.  The candle on my desk reminds me of the loss of millions of Jews, as well as millions of gays, lesbians, political prisoners, people with disabilities, Roma, and so many others.  Hitler started with us, but the cancer of hate spread quickly.

Today I see massacres all across the world.  Whether in Sudan, against the Rohinga in Myanmar, against gays and lesbians in much of the Muslim world, massacres still happen.  Genocide still happens.  And the hatred of Jews remains one of the most stubborn viruses in the world.

This blog does not say much, but it also says everything.  As Jews, we have a responsibility to one another, but we also have a responsibility to the world.  We, who have been the victims of violence against us from near the beginning of time, must continue to cry out against hatred everywhere.  Yet it cannot just be as Jews.  It must be as all humans.  Humanity as a whole must know that if one of us is injured, we all bleed.  Never forget.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Thank you FJMC!

Since 1981 the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs has commemorated the Shoah with Yellow Candles.

They have reminded us of the importance of remembering.  They have shown us that while the number of living survivors dwindles each year, that we are perilously close to having no one left with their own memories, WE are the memories.  Our existence as Jews is a living memorial to the Shoah.

The Shoah is in our bones.  It is in our DNA.  Every living Jew is a reminder of the failure of Nazi Germany and its collaborators throughout Europe.

Today, we must remember.  We must see the blood, the hate, and most perilously, we must see how ordinary the violence was and remains.

If only immigration was possible for our relatives.
If only more Germans had stood up against Hitler.
If only the League of Nations had done anything.
If only more Poles and Ukranians hadn't been ready to hand over or murder their neighbors. 
If only Stalin had done something, like welcomed more refugees.
If only Roosevelt had done something, like bombing the tracks to Auschwitz.
If only Churchill had done something, like opening the doors of Mandate Palestine.
If only...

And yet, what happens today?  Across the world there is violence and unrest, nationalism, fascism, hatred are again rearing their ugly heads.  What are we doing?  Are we welcoming the stranger? Are we feeding the hungry?  Are we staying quiet?  Are we speaking out?

I am proud to be Jewish.  I am proud to speak of my identity, my religion, my faith, my Gd.  I am grateful that others spoke out for me.  I am grateful that my ancestors came to the United States to escape persecution and find new opportunities.  I am grateful to the FJMC for their work in sharing memories and creating new ones.  We must continue to remember and speak out.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Thank you JTS. RTI was amazing.

From January 7-11, 2018, I had the privilege of attending the 33rd Annual Rabbinic Training Institute.

 I am deeply grateful to an anonymous donor who helped make it possible for me to attend. Since my ordination, I’ve desired to go, but time and/or finances have never quite worked out. I cannot fully express my appreciation to them for making it happen this year.

Every year I would hear from colleagues what an amazing experience it was. I heard of colleagues who have been every year for a decade or more. They spoke highly of hevruta, of collegiality, of time for Torah that was truly Lishmah.

My time at Pearlstone was restorative. It was enriching. It was inspiring. Studying with Rabbi Dr. Jeff Rubenstein, Rabbi Dr. Joel Roth, and Rabbi Dan Liben was so powerful. The professional skills were also useful, but the Torah was simply on another plane. I am grateful for having the opportunity to put text in context with Dr. Rubenstein, to think about how to connect Talmudic sources to our modern lives. While I attempt (and regularly fail) at Daf Yomi, I enjoy the breadth of the material, of trying to think about how the rabbis would view our milieu.  Dr. Rubenstein really captured that spirit, juxtaposing modern and ancient texts in unique ways. I was especially fond of the Israeli/Bavli intermarriage and comparison to Amelia Bedelia.

Studying with Rabbi Roth is always a pleasure. His digressions are as inspiring as his texts. He finds ways of reminding us of the importance of studying from those we may disagree with, of looking at complicated and challenging issues and finding more positive solutions. He is humorous and serious in a way that shows a living Torah.

Rabbi Liben’s manner of teaching was so gentle and yet so hopeful. He brought an energy and a level of forgiveness that I needed at this time in my life. The texts and practices he shared were a reminder of how we can build a spiritual practice through our sources, our prayers, our liturgy. Again, the Torah he taught was vital, filled with a life force human and Divine.

In our daily lives as rabbis, we strive to be present for our communities and congregants. Sometimes we need a reminder to stop and take care of our own souls, our own bodies, our own spirits, our own hearts and minds. RTI was a sacred gift. It brought me closer to myself, to my friends, my Torah, and to our shared Shechinah, our Divine Presence. It was a holy experience and I returned energized and enlivened. Since I have returned, I have mentioned RTI on a daily basis. The Torah I learned there is one that will be with me always. I cannot wait to sign up for next year.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Vayeshev: You, too can change the world!

What can you do to change the world?

So often we feel small, insignificant.  We are not Presidents or CEOs. How can we influence the world?  How can we make it a better place?

In this video I talk about this week's parsha and how we all have a role to play.  All you have to do is ask "How can I help?"  (I think Daniel Tiger would agree!)

One way I try to make a difference is through regular Torah study.  When we sit and look at our texts, we find the commonalities we have with our history and our future!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Journeys--Video post

Today I discussed the opening of Parshat Vayetze:

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃Gen 28:10

Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran.
וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃
He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.
וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃
He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.

From there we thought about the angels in our own lives and discussed briefly Tefillat Haderech, the prayer of our journeys:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְפָנֶיךָ יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ,
שֶׁתּוֹלִיכֵנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם וְתַצְעִידֵנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם וְתַדְרִיכֵנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם, וְתִסְמְכֵנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם,
וְתַגִּיעֵנוּ לִמְחוֹז חֶפְצֵנוּ לְחַיִּים וּלְשִׂמְחָה וּלְשָׁלוֹם.
אם דעתו לחזור מיד אומר וְתַחְזִירֵנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם
וְתַצִּילֵנוּ מִכַּף כָּל אוֹיֵב וְאוֹרֵב וְלִסְטִים וְחַיּוֹת רָעוֹת בַּדֶּרֶךְ,
וּמִכָּל מִינֵי פֻּרְעָנֻיּוֹת הַמִּתְרַגְּשׁוֹת לָבוֹא לָעוֹלָם,
וְתִתְּנֵנוּ לְחֵן וּלְחֶסֶד וּלְרַחֲמִים בְּעֵינֶיךָ וּבְעֵינֵי כָל רֹאֵינוּ,
כִּי אל שׁוֹמֵעַ תְּפִלָּה וְתַחֲנוּן אַתָּה.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה לפי נוסח ספרד יי שׁוֹמֵעַ תְּפִלָּה

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Vlog on Vayera

How do we visit the sick?  How do we offer the gift of our presence--without overwhelming?
I didn't add that food and flowers are always nice--as long as we know the person's kashrut practices (if Jewish).  You do not have to bring anything to be a welcome presence--just don't overstay that welcome.  We aren't all Abraham and Sarah!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Lech Lecha

Rabbi Philip Weintraub Congregation Agudas Israel Parshat Lech Lecha

2017 PACIFIC OCEAN (NNS) -- The Sasebo-based amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48) rendered assistance to two distressed mariners, Oct. 25, whose sailboat had strayed well off its original course. The mariners, Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiaba, both from Honolulu, and their two dogs had set sail from Hawaii to Tahiti this spring. They had an engine casualty May 30 during bad weather but continued on, believing they could make it to land by sail. 
 Two months into their journey and long past when they originally estimated they would reach Tahiti, they began to issue distress calls. The two continued the calls daily, but they were not close enough to other vessels or shore stations to receive them. On Oct. 24, they were discovered 900 miles southeast of Japan by a Taiwanese fishing vessel. The fishing vessel contacted Coast Guard Sector Guam who then coordinated with Taipei Rescue Coordination Center, the Japan Coordination Center, and the Joint Coordination Center in Honolulu to render assistance. 

 Operating near the area on a routine deployment, Ashland made best speed to the location of the vessel in the early morning on Oct. 25 and arrived on scene at 10:30 a.m that morning. After assessing the sailboat unseaworthy, Ashland crew members brought the distressed mariners and their two dogs aboard the ship at 1:18 p.m. "I'm grateful for their service to our country. They saved our lives. The pride and smiles we had when we saw [U.S. Navy] on the horizon was pure relief," said Appel. Appel said they survived the situation by bringing water purifiers and over a year's worth of food on board, primarily in the form of dry goods such as oatmeal, pasta and rice. Once on Ashland, the mariners were provided with medical assessments, food and berthing arrangements. The mariners will remain on board until Ashland's next port of call.

"The U.S. Navy is postured to assist any distressed mariner of any nationality during any type of situation," said Cmdr. Steven Wasson, Ashland commanding officer. Part of U.S. 7th Fleet's forward deployed naval forces out of Sasebo, Japan, Ashland has been on a routine deployment for the past five months as a ready-response asset for any of contingency.

Can you imagine being lost at sea for weeks?   Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiaba were prepared for a long journey, but not for the one they took!  Abraham thought he was prepared, yet his journey had major ups and downs.

The Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.
2 I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you."

Abraham’s journey begins in the footsteps of his father.  Terach leaves his home with his family, with Avram and Sarai.  They journey from Ur to Haran, towards Canaan, but they do not make it all the way.  Looking at our own histories, I think about the generations of Jews who desired to go to Israel.  They wanted to make aliyah, but it was simply not possible.  Think about your parents, grandparents, and beyond.  What brought them to this country?  They began a journey, but did they finish it?

Map from

My grandparents were all born in New York, but their lives looked very different than mine.  I grew up as the son of a doctor, reminded regularly that while he didn’t choose a lucrative speciality, we always lived comfortably.  My paternal great grandfather had a newspaper stand, working in every sort of weather, every day of the week. He might go to an early minyan Saturday morning, but then he had to work on Shabbat, as much as he didn’t want to.  My paternal grandfather worked for the NY state Department of Labor.  It was not the most interesting job, but he took care of his family.  To take care of my aunt, he worked weeknights teaching English as a foreign language, and took many other side jobs to make ends meet.  My maternal grandfather worked with his hands.  He could see the beauty and potential in many things, fixing, cleaning, and reselling what to others was junk.  (Of course, at home, he had no tolerance for junk and regularly cleaned house, to the chagrin of my grandmother.)  They did not necessarily love their work, but it enabled their children to make different choices.  They strongly encouraged education, pushing their children to succeed in the fields of THEIR choice.

What happened to Abraham?  He went to Israel and immediately had to go down to Egypt.  He did some pretty embarrassing things in trying to convince people that Sarah was his sister--out of fear that they would kill him to take her as their wife.  He and Sarah came out of that experience with great wealth and moved to the Negev with Lot--where there were squabbles amongst their entourages and they had to part ways.  He helped out in a war, bringing peace and more success to himself and his family.  Yet one big piece was missing--children.  He had been promised a covenant through generations, yet did not have another generation to share his connection and love.  Taking things into their own hands, Sarai gave him Hagar and Ishmael was born.  A new covenant was sealed with Brit Milah and next week we find out what happens next.

Their journey is far from over!  Powerful in this narrative is the intergenerational dynamics.  We will eventually see how Isaac and Jacob will continue to fulfill the covenant.  We will see how this leads directly to Joseph, slavery and the Exodus, which brings us to the Torah and Judaism.
Each of these family members was a step in the chain of tradition.  We are also a part of that chain.  Our parents were.  Our children are.  We have the stories of the generations in our blood--both those common to all of us as Jews AND those unique to our families.  

Central to this story is resilience.  Whether Abraham or ourselves, life has never been easy.  We may be privileged.  We may be lucky and fortunate to be educated and have enough to eat.  Yet no life is without pain.  No life is without challenge.  The real test is how we deal with it.

According to tradition, Abraham had ten tests.  Each was an opportunity to show connection to God or not.  It was an opportunity it show strength or not.  It was an opportunity to choose life or not.  Each time, through every struggle, Abraham found ways of continuing.  He even managed to offer thanks to God for all of his challenges and opportunities.

It makes me think about ourselves and our families.  What is our reaction to struggle?  Is it grit?  Is it stick-to-it-ness or do we call it a day when things get hard?  More books have been written than I can quote on the subject, but resilience and determination is the answer to almost every question.  Our survival has been dependent on that.  We can thank God both for the blessings and challenges of our lives, but more importantly we can thank God for the strength to get through, to push on, to live.

Talking to people who have experience loss, meaning everyone, the common thread is the desire to keep going, to put one foot in front of another.  This is not to say that grief and loss are ignored, but that we must still find ways to live, to celebrate, to see the blessings of our lives.  Like Abraham, we must follow the footsteps of our ancestors, but continue the journey to our own destinations.  Like those two sailors, even when they lost their way, they kept plugging along, until they were rescued.  (Sometimes we all need a little help!)  They may not always be exactly where we thought we were going, but through positive reactions, resilience, grit, and faith in God, we can find the strength to discover our own Promised Lands.  Lech lecha!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Resilience and Parshat Lech Lecha

Resilience/journeys and Parshat Lech Lecha
Posted by Rabbi Philip Weintraub on Friday, October 27, 2017