The celebration of Israel’s 70th birthday last Wednesday night and Thursday fills us and Jews all over the world with pride and joy.

Over the last 70 years no other country has faced so much demonization, so many attacks on its right to exist. At the same time, over the last 70 years no nation has achieved more.

Israel has become home and refuge for the majority of Jews in the world. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East with a dynamic free press. Israel’s universities and think tanks have made extraordinary scientific, technological, and medical contributions to the world. Israel is fulfilling its prophetic mission to be  a “light unto the nations.” Israel is a miracle.

But we know that Israel is not perfect. Israel still discriminates against Israeli Arabs, marginalizes non-orthodox forms of Judaism, gives too much power to ultra-orthodox political parties, and has not resolved its conflict with the Palestinians.

Israel is a miracle but a “messy miracle.” As Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman observes, “We will not apologize for the need for a national Jewish homeland, nor will we shirk from trying to make Israel worthy of the most enlightened and holy Jewish values.”

For all its faults, Israel still represents the greatest achievement of modern Jewish history. The Jewish people were expelled from the land of Israel by the Roman empire in the first century of the common era. After 2,000 years of dispersion, in the shadow of the Holocaust, the Jewish people returned to our historic homeland and resurrected the Hebrew language.

Israel represents our collective Jewish rejection of a long history of Jewish victimization. Israel changed our collective self-image as a people from powerless to powerful, from banker to farmer, from yeshiva boy to army general, from weakness to strength.

As we celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary, we know that Israel is a work in progress. Just think for a minute about our country when it was just 70 years old. In the 1840’s, slavery was the norm. Think also of how our country was treating the native American people. Just as there was — and still is — more work to be done in our country, so there is more work to be done in Israel.

As Reform Jews, our task is two-fold: on the one hand, to continue to challenge Israel to manifest the highest Jewish and democratic ideals; and on the other, to travel and study in Israel, to provide Israel with political and economic support, and to defend Israel from military attack and verbal demonization.

Tonight, upon the occasion of its milestone 70th anniversary, we join with Jews around the world to celebrate our joy and pride in the state of Israel.

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A Liturgical Change at Temple Sinai

Tonight I want to share with you a liturgical change that is taking place in the Reform movement and here at Temple Sinai.

The Mourners’ Kaddish is one of our most cherished prayers, a prayer that gives us great comfort. Yet many do not know what this prayer actually says.

Here is the English translation (p. 294) from Mishkah Tefillah:

“Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say: amen.

Blessed is God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort. To which we say: amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel. To which we say: amen.

May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel. To which we say: amen.”

As you can see, the Mourners’ Kaddish is an elaborate prayer of praise to God. It calls upon God to rule the world right away so that we live to experience it. The Mourners’ Kaddish asks God to bring peace.

Surprisingly, what doesn’t the Mourners’ Kaddish talk about? The Mourners’ Kaddish makes no direct reference to death. The two fold reference to peace may be an indirect reference to peace for the living and peace for the dead. But the words of the Mourners’ Kaddish are focussed more on the living. The Mourners’ Kaddish praises God even in the face of loss.

So how is it possible that the Mourners’ Kaddish not speak about mourning? The answer is that the Kaddish was originally intended for another purpose. And the Kaddish comes in different versions. For example, in the Shabbat morning service of Mishkah Tefillah (p. 106) we find the Kaddish but it’s not the Mourners’ Kaddish:

“Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say: amen.

Blessed be God’s great name for all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort. To which we say: amen.”

The difference between this Kaddish and the Mourners’ Kaddish is two-fold. First, we do not employ this Kaddish in the context of mourning. We actually use it to mark the transition between the introductory prayers and the main prayers of the Shabbat morning service.

The second difference you will notice is that this Kaddish does not include the last two paragraphs of the Mourners’ Kaddish. That’s why it’s called the Chatzi Kaddish, literally “the half kaddish.” And the Mourners’ Kaddish is called Kaddish Yatom.

It may surprise you to learn that the recitation of the Mourners’ Kaddish only became standard Jewish practice in the 13th century.

Now, to the point of our conversation tonight, there is something more to recognize about the Mourners Kaddish. I wonder if you noticed it.

The Mourners’ Kaddish asks God to bring peace for the Jewish people alone. But as Jews living in the 21st century, doesn’t it seem more right to include everyone in our prayers for peace?

In 1967, new Hebrew words were added to the Mourners’ Kaddish — not by Reform Judaism here in America — but in England. In the 1967 prayerbook of the British liberal movement the Mourners’ Kaddish reads “May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel and ve al kol b’nei adam “for all human beings.”

Subsequently, Reconstructionist Judaism here in the United States added slightly different Hebrew words to the Mourners’ Kaddish. In the 1989 Reconstructionist prayerbook called Kol Haneshamah, we find veal kol yoshvei teiveil which means “and for all who dwell on earth.”

Our Reform Judaism has embraced this Hebrew phrase as well. It certainly comes from a great source: The book of Isaiah chapter 18, verse 3 and the book of Psalms chapter 33, verse 8.

You may have noticed that the Mourners’ Kaddish in our new High Holy Days prayerbook Mishkan haNefesh includes veal kol yoshvei teiveil. And the phrase will certainly appear in the next version of the Reform movement Shabbat and festival prayerbook twenty five years from now.

But I have asked our Ritual committee and our Board of Trustees that we not wait 25 years to pray for peace for every human being.

And so, beginning tonight, it will be the custom of Temple Sinai to include these words in the Mourners’ Kaddish. Again, the reason is obvious: expressing our care for every human being — no matter their religion, their nationality, or the color of their skin – is consistent with everything we stand for as Reform Jews.

That said, no one is obligated to recite it. If you don’t like it, or you are uncomfortable with it, please feel free to pass. You may certainly recite the Mourners’ Kaddish as you see fit.

Now some of us may say I don’t want to include the new Hebrew phrase because “ it’s not traditional.” But let keep in mind that the prayer that immediately follows the Mourner’s Kaddish is the Aleinu prayer. Now the Aleinu prayer was added into our liturgy as late as the 13th century.

I’m sure there was someone who said at that time “we can’t add the Aleinu prayer it’s not traditional.” And if that voice had won out, the Aleinu would not be in every Jewish prayerbook and we would most certainly not rise to pray it. But now the Aleinu prayer is deemed traditional.

And that’s how it goes with so many of our most beloved prayers – including the prayers we pray every Friday night like Shalom Aleichem and Lechah Dodi— which came into our liturgy as late as the 16th century.

All these prayers and more were once new. And undoubtedly someone objected to their inclusion in our liturgy. But they withstood the test of time because they were deeply meaningful to the Jews who prayed them. And now these prayers are not only traditional. They are beloved. We can’t imagine a prayer service without them.

So my dear friends the time has come to make the new phrase veal kol yoshvei teiveil “and all who inhabit the earth” part of our beloved Jewish tradition as we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.






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Remembering Pastor Mac

When The Rev. Dr. Murdoch MacPherson, the senior pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in New Providence, unexpectedly passed away on Sunday, August 13, the Jewish people and Temple Sinai lost a great friend.
Pastor Mac and I became dear friends when we were asked to co-chair the New Providence Diversity Task Force from 2008-2010. I quickly learned that Mac was one of the most compassionate, joyous, and wise individuals I have ever had the honor to meet.
Pastor Mac was a great friend of the Jewish people. Because there was no synagogue in New Providence or Berkeley Heights, Pastor Mac offered to place a Chanukkah menorah on the church’s property so that the Jewish community could properly celebrate the holiday.  
When I presented Faith Lutheran Church with a mezuzah as a thank you gift, Pastor Mac invited me to recite the blessing and to affix it to the doorpost of the church’s main sanctuary.
Pastor Mac was a lifelong student of the Holocaust. The murder of 6 million Jews greatly pained him. For Pastor Mac, teaching about the Church’s complicity in the Holocaust was a moral obligation.
One of Pastor Mac’s favorite biblical passages was from the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.”  Pastor Mac lived up to those words each and every day.
Temple Sinai mourns Pastor Mac’s passing. We extend our deepest sympathy to Mac’s cherished wife, Carol, and to the entireMacPherson family for your loss.
Pastor Jane, Pastor Mac and Rabbi Gershon

Pastor Jane, Pastor Mac and Rabbi Gershon

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Like So Many Jewish Generations Before You

On Sunday morning, August 6, Temple Emanuel removed its Torah scrolls from the ark. Please read the remarks I offered at this sad and mournful occasion.

My dear friends I just returned on Friday afternoon from a 12 day congregational mission to Israel and Poland. It’s about 3am for me right now. Hopefully, I’m going to make sense! On this trip I learned so many insights about the arc of Jewish history, insights that are relevant — and hopefully meaningful — to us this morning.

I learned that the Jewish people were welcomed to Krakow in the 14th century and expelled in the 15th. Polish Jews moved on to create new Jewish life in nearby Kazimierz and in other towns and villages of Polish Galicia. So too, the Jewish people arrived in Warsaw in the 15th century and expelled in the 17th. Polish Jews moved on to create new Jewish life in Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania.

I learned that the Jewish people were expelled from Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Hadrian in the mid-2nd century. Jews moved on to create new Jewish life in Rome, Alexandria Egypt, Constantinople, and North Africa. The Jews who remained in the Land of Israel moved on to make a new life for themselves in the Galilee.

Indeed, when all seemed lost after the destruction of the great 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, it was the in the Galilee that a new Judaism arose from the ashes. In the new holy cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris (Tzipori in Hebrew), the Temple was succeeded by the synagogue, the priest by the rabbi, the study of the Torah by the study of the Mishnah and the Talmud. It was in Tiberias that the system of Hebrew vocalization – the dots we place above or below the Hebrew letters — was invented.

We Jews have never wanted to leave our communities, to pick up and move, to embrace radical change. We were happy in Krakow, in Warsaw, in Jerusalem  and in so many other communities around the world — including Livingston.

By the same token, we Jews have always accepted the reality of our situation. We always found the way to look forward — not back — and to build an even better and even more glorious Jewish life in new communities, whether that community be in Babylonia or Shanghai or London or America.

Like so many Jewish generations before you, Temple Emanuel, today you move on from Livingston to Summit. God knows you do not want to go….But like so many Jewish communities before you, you are resilient, you are ready to do what you must, you are prepared to rise to the occasion. Do keep in mind that the commute between Livingston and Summit is nothing compared to the commute between Rome and Jerusalem!

And don’t forget this Temple Emanuel: You take with you everything that is most important. You take with you your Sifrei Torah, you take with you your customs and traditions  and — above all– you take with you each other!

Like so many Jewish generations before you, a glorious new future awaits you Temple Emanuel.




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What Does It Really Mean to Observe Passover?

What does it really mean to observe Passover?

The answer is obvious. Observing Passover means to attend one or two seders. Observing Passover means to refrain from eating bread, pasta, and all the other foods prepared with the five prohibited grains.

Of course this is correct. But there is more to Passover than this. Much more.

On Passover, we name the ancient ten plagues and we name the modern plagues of our time. We talk about racism and discrimination, addiction and trafficking, inadequate care of the elderly and our veterans, the persistence of homelessness, poverty, and hunger. We look at the world as it is and dream of how it should be, of how God still wants it to be.

The purpose of Passover is to shake things up, to wake up ourselves from our apathy and our complacency with regard to the way things are. On Passover we rededicate ourselves to the struggle for freedom and equality, justice and peace for all humankind.

At our seders we lifted up the three pieces of matzah and recited the beautiful words, “Now we are slaves. Next year may we be free.” But Passover is not just about political freedom. Passover is also about spiritual freedom and psychological freedom. The truth is that everybody is enslaved to something. It could be a bad or harmful habit like smoking. It could be a negative mindset like living in the past.

The purpose of Passover is to free ourselves from one bad or harmful habit, to liberate ourselves from something to which we are enslaved, physically or emotionally. On Passover we turn the page and start a new chapter in our lives. We get out of our own way from achieving all our hopes and dreams.

At seders all over the world, the children gleefully found the afikoman. In the old days, you ransomed the afikoman with a dollar bill. Now it requires a $15 iTunes gift card to get back the afikoman! But the ritual of the afikoman is more than child’s play. Think about it. We break the matzah in two. We hide one piece. Then we search and find the second piece. We reunite the two pieces of matzah.  What are we doing? That which was broken, we make whole again.

On Passover we find something that is broken in the world and we make it whole again. On Passover we find something that is broken in ourselves and we make that whole again too!

So what does it really mean to observe Passover? We have truly celebrated Passover when we challenge ourselves to care more and to do more. We have truly celebrated Passover when we commit ourselves to increase freedom and justice, equality and compassion in this world. We have truly celebrated Passover when we fix something that is broken in ourselves, when we make ourselves whole again.

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What Does it Really Mean to Celebrate Chanukkah?

Ever since the mid-2nd century before the common era, the menorah has been Judaism’s premier symbol of hope. The reason is clear. The menorah’s light banishes winter’s darkness. The ritual of kindling one additional candle every night increases the light.

During Chanukkah week, we try to become like a glowing Chanukkah menorah, actively seeking out opportunities to bring more light into the world.

This is Chanukkah’s timeless teaching: each of us has the power to push back darkness. Whose heart can you strengthen? Whose soul can you restore hope? Whose mind can you illuminate?

But now it is not just the hungry, the homeless, and the poor, who need our support and concern. Now it is Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, the LGBT community, and Jews experiencing anti-Semitism from the far left or the alt right – who need our concern and support.

On this Chanukkah, we must help to push back the darkness these communities are experiencing, to give them hope, to give them strength, to show them they are not alone, to demonstrate through deeds that we care and we will stand up for them.

What does it mean to really celebrate Chanukkah?

You have celebrated Chanukkah when you talk about how stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination hurt our country.

You have celebrated Chanukkah when you speak out if someone is being attacked for who he/she is.

You have celebrated chanukkah when you never, ever allow a bigoted slur to go unchallenged.

This is Chanukkah’s timeless teaching: Don’t just light the menorah. Be a menorah! Banish darkness. Be the love, the warmth, the compassion you would like to see in the world. Increase the light.

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In case you didn’t know, the people of northern Israel suffered much trauma from 480 forest fires that burned for six days last week, forcing the evacuation from Haifa, Israel’s 3rd largest city, of 60,000+ people.

Thankfully, no lives were lost. But hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged before the fires could be contained. The Haifa synagogues of two of my Israeli colleagues and friends ‒ Congregation Or Chadash and Congregation Gesharim Letikvah ‒ were damaged. The fire made 2,000 Haifa residents homeless.

I would be happy to share with you after our service how you could participate in the humanitarian response to provide assistance, relief, and reconstruction to the families most in distress.

What I most want to share with you tonight is how many of Israel’s neighbors – including its Arab and Muslim neighbors ‒ helped to put out the fires. Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Jordan, Romania, Spain, and Turkey all dispatched planes, helicopters, and firetrucks to battle the blazes. Cyprus sent 69 firefighters to help their Israeli counterparts. There were even 50 American firefighters who went to Israel to help.

Most significantly, 40 Palestinian firefighters, worked side by side with Israeli crews. When asked why he helped Israeli firefighters put out flames in Haifa and outside Jerusalem, one Palestinian firefighter said, ‘from our point of view, above all saving lives is what leads us, and so we decided to come. Our motivation is very high, and we’re happy to give help and human assistance.”

What could be more heartwarming than to see pictures of Palestinians saving the lives and property of Israelis and Israelis saving the lives and property of Palestinians?What could be more hope-inducing than to hear that Arab villages invited Israelis who had to evacuate from neighboring towns to come stay with them?

There will always be people who say there is no hope for peace between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. There will always be people who say Palestinians and Israeli Jews must hate each other. We should not believe them or listen to them. Rather let us find hope in the many Arab and Muslim countries who came to Israel’s help. Let us find inspiration in the courage and the compassion of those Israeli and Palestinian firefighters who worked side by side in common cause to save human life – all human life.

“Fire does not distinguish between Jews and Arabs.”





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