Rabbi's Column

Rabbi's Column

Dear Friends,

The major Jewish holidays of the autumn season are now in the past, but we can look forward to two wonderful holidays in November. Though they are admittedly not Jewish holidays, they are most certainly holidays that we embrace and observe wholeheartedly as Jews.

Two holidays in November, you say? What could they be? Thanksgiving is obviously one of them. The other – a personal favorite: Election Day. Yes, I think it is right to call Election Day a holiday. In fact, it is such an important day that I don’t think it would be wrong for the U.S.A. to make it a federal holiday. Make sure to vote on November 6.

I am keenly aware that as I write this “November” column, we do not yet know the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections. But shortly after this SHOFAR is in your hands, we will indeed know the outcome. I don’t know if you will be excited or disappointed, surprised or dismayed. But I do know one thing: whatever the results of the election, we will continue to do the work that needs to be done. No matter who is in elected office, we will continue to work unceasingly to make our world a better, safer, more peaceful planet.

And as we head towards Thanksgiving, we should all pause and remember to be thankful that we live in these United States of America. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to remember those first pioneers who came to this country by boat. No, I don’t mean the pilgrims who travelled on the Mayflower, I refer rather to the Jewish pilgrims who were also fleeing religious persecution and came to these shores in the hopes of a better future. Twenty-three Jews came to the United States from Brazil in 1654 and settled in New Amsterdam.

Our numbers have swelled from 23 in 1654 to 5.8 million Jews in America today. That is less than 2% of the population of the United States, but it is still the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel, and almost equal in number to Israel. Fully 80% of the world’s Jewish population now lives in either the U.S. or Israel.

May we continue to flourish in this country, and may we always contribute to the flourishing of our country.

Chag Same’ach – to a good Election Day and a blessed Thanksgiving.

Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column

Dear Friends,

What a glorious High Holidays we experienced at TBT. It was truly a house of prayer. I still have so many images that float through my mind: the music, the Torahs, the people, the choir, the flowers, the buzz, the energy, the participation, the tears, the laughter, the life.

So much life was packed into our sanctuary. You brought your hopes and dreams and we nurtured them and cultivated them. I hope that there was enough there to sustain you during the entire year ahead. Even when we are not all together. Especially when we are not all together.

This is TBT at its best, an entire community coming together to achieve holiness. That is why I prefer to refer to these days as the High “Holy Days” more than the High “Holidays.” Holidays and Holy Days are different. Consider these words, adapted from the writing of Rabbi Sidney Greenberg:
“On holidays, we run away from our duties; on holy days, we face up to them. On holidays, we seek to let ourselves go; on holy days, we try to bring ourselves under control. On holidays, we try to empty our minds; on holy days, we attempt to replenish our spirits. On holidays, we reach out for the things we want; on holy days, we reach up for the things we need. Holidays bring a change of scene; holy days bring a change of heart.”

So many of us rose up to help in this grand endeavor, this pursuit of holiness. From the moment we were greeted by John Lesage and his Parking Crew, we knew it was a holy day. Just think of all the others: the Board Members who welcomed us into the synagogue, Bruce Topolosky who offered a beautiful sermonette, Bennett Paul and his team who magically host a gorgeous spread of a Break-theFast, our Shofar Blowers: Eli Sherer, Jen Silva , Steve Eppler-Epstein, and Samuel Kaplan. That choir! Wow! Walter Stutzman on the piano. And speaking of music, waiting with baited breath as our new cantor opened his mouth to sing his first notes. Would he? Could he? And the answer came: a profound YES! How perfect that we will gather again in short order to officially install Cantor Stanton as OUR cantor.

Then there is Kim Romine, who is absolutely everywhere to help with every single request. Bonnie Mahon graciously responded to the phones ringing off the hook. Judy Merriam, who hosts a spectacular Tashlich, this year especially as she so creatively made it happen for us all even in the pouring rain. Our Religious Activities Committee, making sure so many had special honors of readings and aliyot (a special shout-out to Heide Mueller-Hatton and Lisa Leventhal). Our Torah readers and Haftarah readers! Our Usher Captain, Doug Agranov, and Ushers Jonathan Levine, Dick Whelan and Al Goldberg. How many years running, now??? Our on-call doctors: Ben Tolchin, Karen Goldberg, Lynda Rosenfeld and John Foggle.

Our Children’s Programs, run by Kate Rothstein – with Suzy Frisch making everything work like clockwork -- were as smooth as could be. A big shout-out to SALTY, our fabulous youth group, to Casey Goldberg and to Rabbi Polly Berg. And our children! How about that Oseh Shalom? Tina Silidker and Sarah Mervine and our Social Justice Committee, making tikun olam a reality distributing bags and col- lecting food for those in need.

Best of all: all of you. You came, you brought your hearts and your souls, and you changed us for the better. To a continued good year ahead. May 5779 surprise us, beyond expectation, with goodness.

With love and admiration,
Rabbi Offner

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.
L’Shalom,
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.

L’Shalom,
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.

L’Shalom,
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.

L'Shalom,
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.

L'Shalom,
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.

L'Shalom,
Rabbi Offner