Rabbi's Column

Rabbi's Column

Dear Friends,

This September has EVERYTHING in it. In this one single Gregorian month, we encounter these Jewish moments:
     1. the month of ELUL
     2. SELICHOT
     3. Rosh Hashanah
     4. Yom Kippur
     5. Sukkot
     6. Simchat Torah

What in the world could G-d have been thinking when creating the Jewish calendar? EVERYTHING in one fell swoop. So here is a primer for the month ahead.

ELUL – this Jewish month has four letters in it: אלול .The four letters are an acronym for the proclamation “Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li,” which translates as “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” It is a reminder to us that ELUL, the month of soul-searching preparation for the High Holy Days, is first and foremost about LOVE. We are entering the fourth year of using our new High Holiday Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh. One of the definite distinguishing factors about our new prayerbook, is that it heightens the sense of G-d’s LOVE for us. Don’t think of the holidays to come as stern and judgmental; G-d only wants to help us improve our lives, for ours is a G-d who loves us. We could all do better to try loving each other a bit more.

SELICHOT – this holiday is an ‘overture’ of the themes to come. The Hebrew word “Selichot” is the plural form of “Selicha,” which in modern Hebrew is used when we want to say “Excuse me.” That means that our holiday could be called “Excuse Me’s.” In this way, we embark upon the journey through forgiveness, repentance and – one hopes – to joy and true happiness. Such is the promise of Selichot.

ROSH HASHANA – our holiday marking a new beginning. A new month, a new year, a new moon – and an opportunity to consider our lives and make ourselves new again.

YOM KIPPUR – literally, the Day of Atonement. A play on the words suggests we consider Yom Kippur to be the Day of At One-ment. If we can bring all we do into harmony, be truly at One, then we can enter the year ahead with a sense of promise and hope.

SUKKOT – as soon as the hard metaphysical work of Yom Kippur is done, we turn to the very physical harvest holiday of Sukkot. Come dwell in our TBT Sukkah; be sustained by the beauty of the natural world around us.

SIMCHAT TORAH – our month of holidays culminates in this celebration of a most fundamental cycle, the cycle of the Torah. We are guided by Torah each and every day in a never-ending cycle of learning and growth. To all the cycles in our lives – to a New Harvest, a New Book, a New Year.

Shana Tova,
Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column - Summer 2018

In the midst of these summer months of July and August, many of us are anticipating, planning or engaged in vacations. I am fascinated by the vocabulary we choose to use to describe that time. In America, we call it a ‘vacation,’ but our British friends describe the same experience as ‘going on holiday.’ And of course in Hebrew, we use the word ‘chofesh.’

Each word can help us enter a time in our lives that is most special indeed. The English word ‘vacation’ comes, quite evidently, from the word ‘vacate,’ to leave. An essential part of any vacation is to leave something behind. These days we are not very good at leaving things behind. If we take our cell phones, our iPads and our laptops with us, are we not denying ourselves a critical component of what a vacation is supposed to be? Let go. Leave. Make a shift in your focus. Vacate.

Though we in America tend to use the word ‘holiday’ to refer to a more collective, national or communitarian day off, we would do well to consider the significance of the words chosen by our British friends to describe their vacations. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could elevate the experience of being on vacation to a holy day? What makes a vacation holy? Not merely because we leave something behind, but because we approach the new adventure ahead with careful attention. Let us spend each vacation day in gratitude for the time, the relaxation, and the opportunities for growth that are ours.

The Hebrew word ‘chofesh’ comes from a root word meaning ‘free.’ A vacation is both about freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘for.’ Our vacations are not simply about leaving, but about arriving.

Planning a vacation? Don’t forget to actually vacate, to honor the moments of each holy day and to pack all that free time up, with life.
Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column - June 2018

We are officially in the midst of our transition. We are saying ‘goodbye’ and ‘hello’ at the same time. We say goodbye to Cantor Kevin Margolius who has spent five tremendous years with us. Cantor Margolius has built up so many of the programs that we now hold dear: our Religious School that has a curriculum bursting with learning, our Shabbat band that brings joy to our services, his voice in prayer week-in and week-out, a Bar and Bat Mitzvah training program that has done away with recordings of the portions in favor of the ability to read and even sight-chant trope. The list goes on and on. We are the beneficiaries and we offer our deepest thanks. Please join us for our farewell service on June 15.

At the very same time, we are thrilled to say hello to Cantor Mark Stanton. It has been a non-stop six-month search for just the right cantor at just the right time for TBT. There are big shoes to fill and we are blessed mightily that Cantor Mark Stanton has accepted our invitation to be TBT’s next Cantor-Educator. Cantor Stanton is a graduate of the Hartt School of Music in Hartford. He has been the beloved cantor of Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, Delaware for the past 14 years. He is beloved because of his skills and his passion and his caring for Jewish life. I am delighted beyond belief to welcome him as my clergy partner and I am sure that you will see why very soon, when he joins us for Cantor Margolius’ Farewell Service on June 15 and becomes our cantor on July 1.

Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column - May 2018

What is Jewish music? Music has been a part of our tradition since Biblical times. We chant from our Torah scroll; we pray in music; we grieve with music; we rejoice with music. Jewish musical styles extend from folk to classical to klezmer to Broadway. What makes it Jewish? Is it the composer? The singer? The religiousness? How about all of the above! We have two extraordinary musical programs coming up at TBT – come be a part of making Jewish history.

Rabbi Offner

Sunday, May 6, 2018 at 1 PM hear internationally renowned singer and teacher Joey Weisenberg at TBT. Program is free and open to the public. Excellent experience for all ages! (Lunch at 12 noon, free to TBT members; nominal charge for others)

Saturday, June 2, 2018 at 6 PM join us for a Kosher BBQ and a special musical program with Cantor Margolius and Jason Gaines who will share the story of the Jews as told through Broadway music.

Rabbi's Column - April 2018

We are in the middle of Bar Mitzvah season here at TBT. Thank God, we are blessed with packs of families with 13 year olds. Last week, this week, next week – in fact, we have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to celebrate every single Shabbat from now right through June.

They are always exhilarating. One of the things I love about them is that you get to see yourself through the eyes of others – family and friends, Jews and non-Jewish people too, who are visiting TBT for the first time. One of the nicest compliments that I receive after the service often goes like this: “Oh Rabbi, your synagogue is amazing. It is so warm and loving and intimate and accessible. If I lived here, I would join here. It is so warm, open, intimate and accessible.” That is why we are here today. We are here to celebrate that we are warm and open and intimate and accessible. And we are here because it is time to make sure that our building and our property and our bricks and mortar all reflect just those Jewish values that we so passionately embrace as a community.

It is time to make our building warmer, more open, more intimate and more accessible. We’ve earned that. We deserve that. And it is our responsibility to ensure that for the generations that come after us. Forty years is a long time. Our building is aging. It has cracks, some literal and some figurative. It is not easy to find from the road. It is not easy to drive up into the parking lot. It is not easy to walk from the parking lot to the building. It is not easy to open the front door. It is not easy to find your way, once inside, to the sanctuary, to the rabbi’s study, to the youth lounge.

Accessibility is a Jewish value. A Jewish imperative. We say: “Hamitzvah hazot lo ba’shamayim hi; hi karov aleycha me’od.” (Deut 30:12-14) “The mitzvah of Jewish practice is not up in the Heavens, we don’t make it hard, we place it close to you.” It is time to make coming to the synagogue easy. Picture an easy entrance right off the road. An easy drive into the parking lot. An Open Door and a Welcoming Entrance.

Hidur Mitzvah is also a Mitzvah. It is a Jewish value to beautify what we treasure. There are so many ways that we can beautify our synagogue. With art. With color. With height. With light. With windows.

The most exquisite piece of this synagogue building is what sits outside of its walls. The exquisite piece of nature that God created. The trees and the leaves and the sky and the sunshine. Let us take advantage of that! It is a requirement that a sanctuary have windows. (Mishnah Berurah) We can have windows that are big and wide and open to the world around us.

Our synagogue should be accessible. Not because the government requires accessibility, but because we are Jews and our tradition demands it. The Book of Psalms says of the aged: “Don’t cast me off as I age.” We are all aging, and without insulting our founders I can tell you for a fact that each and every one of them is precisely 40 years older than they were 40 years ago. Our bathrooms are not handicap accessible. It is a ‘bousha,’ (that’s Hebrew for ‘shonda’). But it need not be that way any longer. We can make our bathrooms handicap accessible. We can make our bima handicap accessible. We can make every square inch of our building easier to navigate and more spiritually uplifting to experience.

Our building is beautiful. Our founders created a space that has served us amazingly well for 40 years. It is time to re-envision. It is time to dream. It is time to build, to build upon that which has already been built, to build upon the shoulders of those who came before us, to build a synagogue that says “HERE WE ARE.” To build a synagogue that says “COME AND JOIN US.” To build a synagogue that is as warm and welcoming and traditional and contemporary and bold and conservative and beautiful and accessible as we are.

Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first rabbi of Palestine, as he contemplated the enterprise of building a state of Israel, famously said: HaYashen Tichadesh v’Ha Chadash Tikadesh. The old shall be renewed, and the new shall be made holy.

The time is now, for building and rebuilding together.

Rabbi Offner
(This column was excerpted from Rabbi Offner’s remarks at the Congregational Meeting on March 11, 2018)

Rabbi's Column - March 2018

From the Maxwell House Haggadah to the “10-Minute Seder,” there are more editions and publications of haggadot for Passover than there are prayerbooks for any other Jewish holiday…by far.

Why are there so many types and varieties of Haggadot? Which haggadah will you be using around your seder table? Will you buy a haggadah, find one on the internet, create your own – even use a PowerPoint haggadah instead of a hard copy?

There are literally thousands of Haggadot to choose from because Passover is a holiday that speaks to the quintessential creation story of our people. It is the story of a journey – from slavery to freedom, from degradation to respect, from despair to exhilaration, from darkness to light.

This theme which is at the center of Jewish life speaks to all human beings who yearn to be free. That is why Passover has been the holiday that has generated a Freedom Seder, a Civil Rights Seder, a Women’s Seder and an Immigration Seder. On Passover we sit around our seder tables and take the journey ourselves, recalling our enslavements and tasting of a world where all humanity are free.

Interestingly enough, the Maxwell House Haggadah reveals a classic American story. It was first printed in 1931 when Jewish immigrants to the United States were yearning for recognition and affirmation of their American standing. That Maxwell House wanted to market to the Jewish community was a sign of having ‘made it’ in America. As a part of an ad campaign for their coffee, Maxwell House offered their Haggadah free with the purchase of coffee. The campaign also helped dissuade some in the Jewish community of the mistaken understanding that coffee (because it is a ‘bean’), is not kosher for Passover. The coffee bean is a berry; not a legume. Talk about success stories – there are now over 50 million copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah in print!

There are many other free Haggadot worthy of exploration. Just go to www.haggadot.com to make your own step-by-step Haggadah. There are also some beautiful haggadot for purchase. “A Passover Haggadah,” with illustrations by Leonard Baskin, is a personal favorite. So too the “Gates of Freedom” Haggadah, edited by Rabbi Chaim Stern.

You can find a Haggadah for scholars and one for kids and another for seekers. The most important point is that there is a Haggadah for you. As Passover approaches, exploring the many possibilities for how to tell the story is as important as the telling of the story. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are hungry for the telling and the retelling of our sacred story, reflect upon the many choices of Haggadot that are before us. May we choose wisely as we prepare for the sacred task of reliving our people’s journey from slavery to freedom.

Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column - February 2018

As you read these words, I will be back from my January sabbatical. As I write them, I am with you from afar, wanting to share my gratitude for this precious time and wanting to let you know a bit about how I have spent my time. It is a privilege to be able to have shifted my focus from the daily tasks of work and life in order to live fully in a different kind of present, where clutter is cleared from the landscape and perspective is sharpened.

During my month away, I discovered that it isn’t so easy to let go and allow the present moment to envelop in such a fashion that tasks recede and living expands. How do we fill our lives? How do we shape each day? Too often, we allow the day to shape us. Tasks that have to get done take precedence. Events that happen to us consume our time before we get to decide how we would choose to use our time.

I have chosen to spend much of my time studying the texts of Jewish Mysticism. I look forward to sharing what I have learned with you as I am developing a 4-week Lunch & Learn on Jewish Mysticism. Do mark your calendars now for the 4 Wednesdays in April at noon for our class. The challenge of making life meaningful has been with us forever. In our age we have unique challenges – like those that technology has created for us – but there have always been distractions in life and there have always been efforts to clear those distractions so we can create lives of meaning. Jewish Mysticism is based on the belief that we humans can attain a consciousness that leads us to experience awe and wonder at any moment. It is the simplest of opportunities because it is right before us all the time, but it is the hardest of endeavors because we humans are so easily distracted. The Jewish mystics dedicated their lives, their study, their every-day routines, to achieve a level of consciousness that they described as an experience of the Divine. I have been spending much of my time reading the texts of Jewish mysticism and discovering just how hard and challenging but also how compelling the language of mysticism is.

Consider this. We are all familiar with the 121st psalm. We often recite this psalm at times of tragedy or loss. We say: “I lift my eyes to the heavens, from where (m’ayin in the Hebrew) will my help come? The mystics say no. We’ve got it wrong. Look again. The word ‘m’ayin,’ which we think so obviously means ‘from where?’ could also be pronounced ‘m’ayn’ which translates as ‘from Nothing.’ It is not a question at all; it is an answer. Where does our help come from? From Nothing. Our help comes from Nothing. What the mystics are suggesting is that ‘Nothingness’ is at the center – not in a nihilistic way, but to remind us that no thing is crucial, rather it is being itself that is crucial.

I have been personally focused on the challenge of being more and doing less. It is easier to do while away. Even then, it is not so easy for distractions rise like the mist on the waters. You sometimes don’t even notice that they are distractions, but they are always there.

This has been a precious time for me. I have had time for learning and time for rest and time for fun. Being full-time with Nancy has been the best of blessings. It has been a privilege to be away from the constant demands of the rabbinate, but it is also from afar that it becomes so clear how precious our TBT community is.

I return to you invigorated and excited about all of our upcoming adventures at hand: our congregational trip to Israel, our re-imagining of our building and strengthening and beautifying it for the future, our marking together of Jewish time and celebrating Shabbat together each week, and being with you to celebrate your lives, the peaks and the valleys, to celebrate the awe and wonder of life together.

L'Shalom - 
Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column - January 2018

It is hard to believe that I am already in my 6th year at TBT. In anticipation of soon being in my 7th year, the Board of Directors and I have been in discussion about possible Sabbatical time. Given the very full schedule of events, it seemed best to break up any sabbatical time into smaller parts - hence, we have agreed upon a first step of one month of sabbatical time to be taken January 1-31, 2018.

My first priority is to assure coverage for the congregation during the time that I will be away. Cantor Margolius will be in charge of all clergy needs. Cantor Margolius has already demonstrated his strong skills and the congregation will be in very good hands. Leading our congregation is a team effort and so I also want to thank our Administrator, Kim Romine and Administrative Assistant, Bonnie Mahon for stepping up and making sure everything is seamless, as always.

The notion of a sabbatical comes directly from the Jewish value of ‘shavat vayinafash,’ to stop in order to replenish. I feel blessed to be the rabbi of TBT. It is a privilege to be present with so many times of great intimacy, joy and even sadness, in your lives. I love leading worship, teaching Torah, officiating at life cycle events, engaging with the greater Shoreline community, representing the Jewish community to interfaith endeavors, and providing pastoral care to our congregants. I take very seriously the import of my being available at times of need, not only on a full-time basis, but virtually on an all-the-time basis.

While I am energized by the demands of my work, I am also aware of the need to tend to my own professional and spiritual development. I realize that I am hungry for a period of time to replenish my spiritual reserves and better serve the congregation. The rabbis teach the concept: “livnot u’l’hi-banot,” that is, we can best help to build up others, when we build up ourselves.

What will I do? In some ways, my goal is to ‘do’ less and ‘be’ more. Nancy and I will be out-of-town, hoping to power off in order to recharge. I have a long list of reading material, which I am eager to shape into Adult Education courses upon my return.

I am very grateful to the Board of Directors for its support and blessing. I am grateful to you as well for your enthusiasm. The months go by quickly; I am sure that I will be back in what seems like a flash. At the same time, I hope something of this sabbatical will last forever.

Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column - December 2017

I love Chanukah. I can’t wait for the holiday to begin. Why do I love it so much? Funny, but it’s for reasons you might not expect. First, I love Chanukah because it is such an easy holiday. In contrast to Rosh Hashanah or Pesach, there is very little planning that needs to go into Chanukah. What a gift. Just take out the menorah, light the candles, and...it’s Chanukah.

I also love Chanukah because of the requirement that the candles are not to be ‘used,’ but ‘enjoyed.’ What it means in practical terms is that for the 7 or 8 minutes it takes for the candles to burn down, we are required to STOP, to just sit and enjoy, to reflect in the reflection, and glow in the glow of the beautiful candles.

In some ways I wish it could happen every day of the year, but what makes Chanukah special is that 8 nights in a row the family gathers together and visits - no TV, no homework, no dinner. Just family, candles, and time. It’s not even a long time. But a ten-minute evening ritual can be a wonderful moment in time.

Oh, you say, but I forgot to mention the presents! Yes, let’s talk about presents for a moment. I am certainly not against presents. How wonderful that we take time to think of others and offer and receive gifts from them. But eight nights is a lot of nights. How might we approach this gift-giving holiday without being overwhelmed by consumerism? A couple of ideas. One, we might put a $5 limit on all gifts. That forces everyone to be clever in their approach to thinking about gifts. Or, how about a $1 limit on the first night, $2 on the second night, up to $8 on the eighth night?

Another possibility: different kinds of gifts for each of the nights. One night can be a gift you buy, one night can be a gift you write, one night can be a gift you bake, and so on. Need more ideas? How about a gift-of-self night (non-money items such as cleaning a room, or a no-fighting-with-siblings night); a tzedakah night (everyone finds some clothes or toys and wraps them as a gift to a social service agency), a book or poem night where everyone reads a favorite passage, or a gift-you-make night.

Here’s an idea for the third night: give yourself the gift of an adult Chanukah and come to the Latkes & Vodkas celebration sponsored by Federation at the Guilford Yacht Club.

And the fourth night gift: bring the whole family to our Chanukah Dinner, Latkes & Menorah-lighting here at the synagogue.

Chanukah is fun but its message is more important than ever. It is a message of spreading light in a time of darkness, celebrating religious freedom rather than religious coercion, and living with hope rather than fear.

Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column - November 2017

The month of November has only one Jewish holiday in it: Thanksgiving. “Wait,” you say, “Thanksgiving? That’s not a Jewish holiday!” True, it is not technically a part of the Jewish calendar, but it is, though secular, one of the most Jewish of holidays. It is Jewish because it is based upon two of the most Jewish of values: THANKS and GIVING.

Judaism teaches that we are to give thanks every day. There is so much to give thanks for, even in times of trouble. Judaism also teaches that the act of giving - of ourselves, of our good fortune, of your monetary resources - is a spiritual discipline.

This particular Autumn has been about as gorgeous as Autumn gets here in New England. While we have been enjoying beautiful weather, we are keenly aware of other places and other people who have not been as fortunate as we have been.

At this season on Thanksgiving, I want to give you the opportunity to express thanks for our good fortune by giving to others who are in need. There is a long list. We continue to focus our concern upon those affected by hurricanes in Florida, Texas, and the Carribean, and those affected by the dreadful wildfires in California. Those disasters hit close to home when we learn of people we know or communities we connect with that are suffering.

Our Jewish community suffered a dreadful loss as the Reform Movement’s Camp Newman burned to the ground in Santa Rosa, California. I spent many years in leadership at URJ Camp Swig, which was the precursor to Camp Newman. Fortunately, no lives were lost at Camp Newman, but when I think of the summer spirit and all those facilities teeming with the joys of Jewish children, I shudder for their breathtaking loss. We can help rebuild our Reform Jewish Camp Newman by going to campnewman.org to lend our support.

We are also well connected to the synagogue in St. Thomas where my colleague, Michael Feshbach, serves as Rabbi. He writes:
“I am grateful that the damage to the synagogue itself was limited, although it was significant. We lost all our machzors, most of our haggadot, some our our siddurum, cabinets and other furniture in the museum, extensive damage in both of our historic cemeteries. We may have lost our keyboard and we have water pumps and perhaps a generator switch which needs to be replaced. We double-wrapped the scrolls during both storms (some of which were saved from the fire in our building in 1831!) but were taken by surprise by the Kol Nidrei night deluge. We found a damp ark and ruined white materials the morning of Yom Kippur. One scroll was slightly wet; we believe it is not permanently damaged. We have real damage and need support, but we know things could have been much worse. We must take care not to let there be too long-lasting damage to the spirit of the place. And we know we can come back better than we were.”

Those interested in helping can go to the Facebook page “The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas” or to their webpage at

We are a small but mighty people. “Kol Yisrael Eruvin zeh b’zeh,” we are all connected to one another. At this season of Thanksgiving, we show our thanks by giving to those in need.

Rabbi Offner