Rabbi's Column

Rabbi's Column September 2019

Dear Friends,

Curiously enough, the month of September coincides in its entirety with the Jewish month of Elul. September 1, 2019 is also Elul 1, 5779. It means that this entire month is dedicated to preparing for the High Holy Days. What does it mean to prepare? What does Rosh Hashanah mean to you? I find these holidays both exhilarating and utterly exhausting. The exhaustion, I find, is deeply connected to the demand to assess our lives. What is important? What really matters? How am I utilizing this one life that is mine alone?

I want to share some responses to these questions that come straight from the brilliant Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who served as Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and now writes extensively on Jewish themes.

In the Rosh Hashana Machzor that he edited, he asks: “What does Rosh Hashana say to us? Of what is it a reminder? How can it transform our lives?” He gives responses worth of our reflection this month. They are, in brief:

1. Life is short. However much life expectancy has risen, we will never in one lifetime be able to achieve everything we might wish to achieve.
2. Life itself, each day, every breath we take, is the gift of God. Life is not something we may take for granted.
3. We are free. Judaism is the religion of the free human being freely responding to the God of freedom.
4. Life is meaningful. We are not mere accidents of matter, generated by a universe that came into being for no reason.
5. Life is not easy. Judaism does not see the world through rose-tinted lenses.
6. Life may be hard, but it can still be sweet.
7. Our life is the single greatest work of art we will ever make.

What does Rosh Hashana say to you?

L'shana tova,
Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column Summer 2019

Dear Friends,

Welcome to our “Summer” SHOFAR. Instead of a monthly newsletter, we have a July/August issue. It is time to roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. July and August on the Shoreline are especially sweet with all sorts of opportunities to take advantage of in the summer weather and our splendid environment.

We at TBT do our own version of celebrating the summer months. Chief among them is our “Beach Shabbat.” If you have been before, you know how very special they are. We are thankful to our TBT members who live walking distance from the East Wharf Beach and have opened up their homes over the years for the sweetest of onegs following our beach services.

Please remember to bring a beach chair – and as these services have become increasingly popular, we ask that you carpool to the beach, leaving some room at the parking lot for others who also want to enjoy a Friday evening sunset.

Our July and August Shabbat services all begin at 6 PM. Other than July 19 and August 9 when we will be on the beach, our summer services will begin with a “Pre-Neg” at 6 PM followed by a short service so you can be out the door and on your way at 7-ish. If the weather is nice, we may very well have our service outside on the deck.

Add Beach Shabbat to your list of summer activities.

Hope yours is a great summer,
Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column June 2019

Note: these remarks were first shared at the TBT Annual Meeting on May 14, 2019.

As I reflect upon this past year at TBT, a phrase comes to mind: “it’s all about the people.” We have been doing a lot of talking about the building – and that is critically important – but it is critically important because it is a house of the people. I want to speak tonight a bit about the people. In particular, I want to speak about the people who live here in this building, virtually 24/7. And that means the staff. This year has been like no other in TBT’s history because we have walked through it with our new Cantor.

Cantor Stanton came to us shortly after last year’s Annual Meeting. It has been a year of transition for him and for us – a year of beautiful transition as he has become a part of our TBT family. When he interviewed for the position, we knew he had a spectacular voice. He still does. It has been enriching us, elevating our joyous moments and softening the blows of the difficult moments. What we have come to learn is that Cantor Stanton has a fabulous sense of humor, a generous, generous spirit, a big caring heart, a love of our children and a love for people of all ages. In just one year, Cantor Stanton has become family. Our thanks to him for his dedication and commitment to us.

I do believe that this June marks an anniversary. A blessed anniversary at that. We are celebrating the 5th anniversary of Kim Romine’s tenure as our Temple Administrator. Kim has a heart of gold. She also has an obsession for organization and numbers. It is an extraordinary combination. She is able to combine billing and statements and dues and payments with heart and love and soul. How fortunate we are. And Kim’s talents go beyond that as you can see her climbing to clean the gutters, noticing every nook and cranny of our fragile building, keeping her office window open so she can delight in the sounds of our Nursery School children playing in the playground – Kim is everywhere, caring for every member of this holy congregation. Thank you, Kim, for everything you do.

Bonnie Mahon is a professional in customer service and she is the first line of welcome, both at the door and on the phone. Bonnie is always happy to see you, to help you, to respond to any and every request that is made of her. As a special bonus: she loves our Hebrew School children. She knows them all by name – and she knows you by name, too. How lucky we are.

Our staff team also includes our Custodial team of Len & Dyanna and now Steven, too. Len sets up our social hall for onegs, for dinners, for special programs. He cleans the sanctuary and even polishes the Torah silver. He does it all with pleasure. Dyanna is with us every Shabbat, making oneg hosting an easy mitzvah for our members. And Steven is new to our Nursery School and their custodial needs.

Speaking of the Nursery School, we are in the midst of an enormous transition. Bernadette Stak, our Nursery School Director for the past 24 years, is leaving at the end of this school year. Bernadette is the engine behind the TBT Nursery School having such an extraordinary reputation in the community, and her children are your children, many of whom have gone on from the Nursery School to graduate from High School and college, and get married and have children. I can’t tell you how many people around town tell me that they or their children are graduates of our Nursery School.

But time marches on and changes do happen. Thanks to the guiding force of Peter Chorney and Deb Coe at the helm of our Education Committee, we have hired a brilliant successor to Bernadette. Jen Casillo is already doing her magic with the Nursery School, and I hope that everyone here at TBT can begin to know her as we have begun to know her.

TBT is all about the people. The staff….and the congregants who create holy community whenever you enter our doors. Together, we have done extraordinary things this past year, and we can look forward to a promising year ahead.

L'Shalom,
Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column May 2019

Yom HaShoah this year will be like no other for 29 members of the TBT community. As you receive this SHOFAR, we will be in Eastern Europe, traveling from Vienna to Prague and then to Krakow and Warsaw. We will dare, with great trepidation, to visit Auschwitz, a place that cries in our souls, a land relegated to yesterday, but a place that is all too real and stands today as a memorial to the millions of Jews who were gassed and slaughtered there.

I invite you all to journey with us, if not physically, then in spirit. Assuming that this SHOFAR arrives at your door on the first of May, then you can imagine that we will already have experienced Jewish Vienna, both the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, the New Jewish Museum and the Stadttempel, built in 1826, and the only synagogue to have survived Kristallnact in 1938. Perhaps most important of all, we will have visited the Jewish community of 2019 and its rabbi, Rabbi Bar Ami, who will share with us the accounts of the thriving Jewish life of the local progressive Jewish community of Vienna.

On May 1st, we travel to Prague where we will spend time in the Old City to visit Prague’s beautiful Alt-New Synagogue, the Pinchas Synagogue, the Maisel Synagogue and the Spanish Synagogue. We will be on the lookout for the Golem, our dear friend who was invented in Prague to protect the Jewish people. We will be in Prague for Yom HaShoah and will note the occasion with a memorial service at the famed Jewish cemetery in the heart of the city.

We will travel from Prague to Poland, arriving in Krakow just in time to celebrate Shabbat. Our Friday night services on May 3rd will be at the Krakow JCC, a bustling and energetic center of Jewish life today. We are grateful to the community for hosting us for Shabbat services and for Shabbat dinner where we will get to sit and mingle with our Jewish counterparts in Krakow.

We pray that our visit with the Krakow JCC sustains us as we then dedicate an entire day to paying homage to the 6 million at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

We spend our last 2 days (May 5 and 6) in Warsaw. We will visit the Jewish Historical Society, the highly-rated POLIN Museum (the New Museum of the History of Polish Jews), and the Warsaw Ghetto.

These visits are sobering – but traveling with treasured synagogue family gives us strength and inspiration. So too does the cultural backdrop of Europe’s beauty – we will begin in Vienna with a Mozart and Strauss musical concert and we will end in Warsaw, the city of Frederic Chopin’s birth, with a magnificent concert of Chopin’s music.

Our tired but fulfilled travelers will be back home midweek, just in time to refresh ourselves and ready ourselves for Shabbat Services back at TBT on May 10.

L’Shalom,
Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column

It’s time to prepare for Pesach. Seems that there is more preparation for Pesach than for most holidays. In fact, much of the actual holiday is about the ways that we prepare.

So much to consider! There is cleaning and cooking and selecting a hagadah and considering the meaning of words we say each and every year, that take on new meaning each and every year.

Consider the words: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” How do we honor this tradition? At TBT, we have a 2nd night seder that everyone is welcome to join. And though it is a catered event, with costs involved, we are emphatic that no one be turned away and so the Sharon Besser 2nd Night Seder Fund assures that “All who are hungry can come and eat.”

And yet – being provided one dinner isn’t enough for those on a subsistence budget. And so there is the annual TBT Food Drive that takes place from the 1st of April right up until the 1st Seder. Won’t you take part in it? Just pay attention when the Social Justice Committee asks for your contributions by going online and ordering fresh food to be delivered to the Branford Community Dining Room.

Cleaning for Pesach is like no other cleaning. Getting rid of all chametz requires emptying closets and refrigerators and assuring that not even one bread crumb escapes our brooms and sponges. It is the original “Spring Cleaning.” But those who think it is strictly a physical cleaning are mistaken. We rid ourselves of ‘chametz,’ which are any grains that contain leaven and are therefore ‘puffed up.’ So too, it is while on our hands and knees cleaning the floor, that it is the best time to consider the ways we ‘puff ourselves up,’ with pride and an inflated sense of self and lack of awareness about our weaknesses.

One of the most important lines in the Haggadah is “In every generation we are called upon to see ourselves as though we ourselves escaped from Egypt.” It is a line that shouts out to us today: remember where you came from! Remember that you came from slaves! Remember that you are a child of immigrants! And more: Remember that you yourself are an immigrant. Maybe, just maybe, if we can see ourselves as immigrants we will start treating others with more respect and dignity and welcome.

And one more final line in every Haggadah: “Next year in Jerusalem.” These words were never taken literally. Though it would surely be lovely to make a commitment to spend time in Jerusalem in the coming year, the phrase always reminded us of our hope in something greater than today, greater than the here and now. The Hebrew words “Yerushalayim” translate as “City of Peace.” Would that we could create that city of peace all over the world. What a soaring conclusion to Passover that would be.

My best to you for a zissen Pesach – a joyous and sweet Passover.

L’Shalom,
Rabbi Offner

Cantor's Column March 2019

IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE!

It’s that time when we come to the opposite end of the year from the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is the story of Esther and the whole Megillah. Yes, I'm talking about the festival of Purim.

On Purim, we can explore our inner personas and allow them to peek out through the different “masks” that we wear. We act silly and masquerade as many different things and sometimes reveal a piece of our hidden selves. Esther, the heroine of the story of Purim has a hidden side – the fact that she was Jewish. Why, even her Hebrew name, Hadassah, translates to hidden. We see people wearing costumes of all types.

In my former congregations, I had the opportunity to bring my theater experiences and apply them to the various Purim spiels to “kick things up a notch.” This year our Confirmation class, the Adult Choir, and other members of our Religious School will join together for an exciting take on the Purim spiel.

Join us on Wednesday, March 20th in the early evening – Dinner beginning at 5:15pm - and Purim Spiel at 6:00pm. All are invited! Bring a friend!

Please watch out for more information in the upcoming weeks. It's a jungle out there, and right now, I am looking for people to help with costuming, scenery, props, sound board, lighting as well as behind the scenes with make-up and a couple of hands helping with the kids. Please email me at cantor@tbtshoreline.org to let me know your interest(s).

This will be fun for all – the more the merrier!
Cantor Mark Stanton

Rabbi's Column February 2019

When you receive this SHOFAR, I will be away on a one-month sabbatical.

This being my 7th year at TBT, I can see the wisdom of the Torah, which teaches that the 7th year is a time for taking stock. While most sabbaticals are typically several months long, the Board and I are in full agreement that given the very full schedule of events at the synagogue, it is best to break up any sabbatical time into smaller parts. I therefore will be spending this month of February on sabbatical.

My best fantasy is to use the time for “R & R” – that is, READING and Relaxation. I have a book list that would take longer than a month but I am so grateful to have the time to dive in. Most of my reading list will serve to enrich my Adult Education teaching, and I would particularly invite you to consider, if you haven’t yet done so, enrolling for the April segment of my year-long Hartman Institute Course in “Jewish Values and the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict.”

If you can’t take the course, you might want to join in a couple of the reading assignments: ISRAEL: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis, and Once Upon A Country by Sari Nusseibeh – to get just one important Israeli view and one important Palestinian view of the conflict.

Before I leave for sabbatical, my most important priority is to assure coverage for the congregation during the time that I will be away. Cantor Stanton and I have been meeting and going over all the details. He will be in charge of all clergy needs and I am glad to say, as you have seen in the past 7 months now, how very capable he is. I know he is ready and eager to step forward to cover for the month and I thank him deeply for that.

Of course, leading our congregation is a team effort and so I also want to thank our Administrator, Kim Romine, who loves our temple second-to-none, and cares for it constantly, always with zest and gusto. Administrative Assistant Bonnie Mahon is also stepping up and making sure that everything is seamless, as always.

I thank TBT President Jeff Babbin and the Board of Directors who have supported my having some time for spiritual replenishment. I want to assure you too that I am only a phone call away and that Jeff, the Cantor and the staff will be able to reach me if need be.

The months go by quickly; I am sure that I will be back in what will seem like a flash. At the same time, I hope something of this sabbatical will last forever.

Todah Rabbah – and see you in March, Rabbi

Rabbi's Column January 2019

As I think about the state of Israel and the state of Zionism today, I am reminded of that old joke about the 3 elderly folks who are sitting on the beach talking. One says: “Oy.” The other says “Oy vey.” The third says: “Oy vey iz mir.” Finally, they get fatigued from the conversation and agree spontaneously: “Enough talking about the children!”

These days, the punch line could be: “Enough talking about Israel.” Most conversations about Israel today are about Israel’s tsuris. (troubles). Yes, Israel has plenty of troubles. There is anti-Zionism on the left and on the right. There is anti-Semitism on the left and on the right. There is an occupation of the Palestinian people that has been going on now for over 50 years. There is a military build-up of those who would destroy Israel in lands that border Israel: in Gaza, in Lebanon and in Syria. There are those in America who seem to equate Israel with ‘the devil himself.’ And there are those in America who see Israel as the very vehicle to Heaven.

Against this backdrop, life in Israel is bustling and thriving. The foodie scene is very big. By all means, do see the movie In Search of Israeli Cuisine. Medical research in Israel has led to miracles in cancer treatment and calls that an actual cure for cancer is in reach within the halls of the Technion and Ben Gurion University. Israeli start-up companies have created methods to purify and re-use water that have recently been used now in California. Paraplegics have stood and walked once more because of the Israeli invention of a robotic exoskeleton machine.

There is a lot of diversity of opinion about who Israel is and what Israel should be. Remarkably, there is no more diversity of opinion on the subject of Israel than there is within Israel itself. Just take a look at the Knesset on any given day.

Temple Beth Tikvah is a synagogue where diversity of opinion should flourish. I cherish all opinions and viewpoints about Israel. At the same time, I cherish our common ground, which is our love of Israel, our attachment to Israel and our desire to stay informed and engaged.

To that end, I encourage you to join us this month of January in an exploration of Israel and the Jewish Values that undergird this Jewish state of ours. We meet in the sanctuary from 12-2pm on Wednesdays in January. Be a part of the conversation.

L'Shalom,
Rabbi Offner

Rabbi's Column

Dear Friends,

As we descend deeper and deeper into the darkness of the month of December, we would be wise to consider this deep, dark lesson: words can kill. We have been surrounded by demonstration of this deep, dark truth.

The horror of Pittsburgh still lingers in our throats. We can wish it away with the rationale that it was ‘one lone individual,’ but that violent act was made in a context. The shooter was targeting Jews and he was specifically targeting Jews for coming to the aid of immigrants. Every time we hear ugly words about Jews or immigrants, every time we see Nazi swastikas, we must take these actions seriously and speak out about them. These are words and messages that lead to violence. These are words that are an invitation to do harm.

Surely we are not fanatics. Not us. But every time we let violent words pass, without countering them directly, we are aiding the cause of extremists.

December is indeed a dark month. But soon we will light the candles of Chanukah to combat that darkness. This year, there is a particular custom on Chanukah that addresses our fears of rising anti-Semitism. The Talmud instructs that we are to light the menorah “in order to publicize the miracle of the holiday.” It became the tradition to light the menorah in a window, so others could see it. The notion that we are to be vocal about who we are, allowing all to see, was a step in nurturing pride rather than hiding our true selves from others.

This Chanukah, may we be extra clear about who we are and what we do. May we be extra vocal when we hear antiSemitic words or words that defame any group of people. May the words we choose combat the darkness of December.

To a sweet festival filled with light.
Happy Chanukah,
Rabbi Offner

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