Rabbi Isak Asiel
Rabbi of the Jewish communities of Serbia
Rabbi Isak Asiel (1964) is the rabbi of the Jewish communities of Serbia. He attended Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut, Israel. He also graduated with a B.A. in anthropology from the University of Belgrade. He is currently a doctoral student at the same university. In addition to his rabbinical obligations he is active in multi-religious dialogue. He is a frequent lecturer at various universities in Serbia and abroad. He lives in Belgrade with his wife and two daughters.
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove
Rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue
Not for America, not for American Jewry, and certainly not for Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was 1929 an easy year. The stock market that had begun to crumble in early September crashed on Black Tuesday, October 29. From the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression wrought an economic downturn with an estimated 15% drop in global GDP, bank failures, and a devastating impact on employment, personal income, farming, and factories. No sector of the economy was spared, and the effects were felt not only in the economy, but as social histories of the era describe, also in a suffocating culture of despair. With breadwinners on food lines, families were strained and snapped, marriages were delayed, and higher education put further out of reach. Those already on the fringes of society – migrants, minorities – became even more marginalized. Alcohol abuse and other vices spiked, crime and suicide rates rose, and ancient hatreds – from the rise of the Nazi Party abroad to the home-grown antisemitisms of Father Coughlin, Henry Ford, and others – proved to be not so ancient. Whatever societal fractures existed prior to 1929, the Depression exacerbated and spotlighted those fault lines, denying our social fabric its most important bonding agent – hope.
The toll of the Great Depression was felt acutely, but by no means uniquely, by American Jewry. The synagogue building boom of the 1920s – case in point, the Park Avenue Synagogue sanctuary dedicated in 1927 – was followed by a period of Jewish life described by Dr. Beth Wenger as a spiritual depression. Synagogues became unable to meet their debts given unprecedented requests for dues assistance while others deemed synagogue membership a discretionary budget item. Temple Emanu-El, for instance, hemorrhaged by forty-four percent. While some communities, like our own, responded by making religious education free to any child seeking it, difficult decisions were unavoidable. The Brooklyn Jewish Center went on a self-declared “starvation diet”; professionals at KJ went without pay for as many as eight months; and Kane Street paid its employees on a month-to-month basis. Mushroom synagogues began to emerge as low-cost alternatives to established congregations, chipping away at foundational assumptions of communal life. It’s not that American and New York Jewry had no challenges prior to 1929. Our hands were already full with an assimilating second generation who had an increasingly tenuous relationship to the faith of their ancestors. Rather the economic and spiritual depression of those years served to accelerate the challenges, rendering them both existential and unavoidable.
Having begun his career around the corner at KJ, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan had gone on to become the founding rabbi of 86th Street’s Jewish Center and by 1922, had moved a few blocks east to establish the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ). Kaplan’s financial hit was such that he not only lost nearly half his life’s savings, but he found himself in the position of having to raise money for his own salary. Kaplan never lost sight of his blessings – he knew there were many who would gladly trade places with him – but his diaries, published by his biographer Dr. Mel Scult, render evident the dark night of Kaplan’s soul. Kaplan had long despaired of the Sisyphean affair of keeping Judaism alive in America. He felt his professional disappointments more keenly because he had passed on offers in previous years to take charge of the educational system in Palestine or to become the president of the Jewish Institute of Religion. Despite his stature as a congregational leader, a communal presence, and a public intellectual with a steady stream of popular articles, Kaplan felt the acute frustration of having never published a book, a full statement of his vision. In fall of 1929, he was forty-eight years old, a father of four, and several manuscripts lay unfinished in a drawer. “I feel,” he recorded in his diary during those months, “like a polar bear on an ice floe that is drifting into warmer zones as he watches with growling impotence the steady dwindling of his home.” (Communings of the Spirit, Vol. I: The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, p. 394)
The details of what happened next come by way of Dr. Scult’s scholarship. A group of Wall Street leaders hatched an initiative to seed an essay contest – a crowdsourcing effort if you will – on ideas to save and strengthen American Jewry. The noted philanthropist Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck fame responded with an initial (and eventually increased) prize of ten thousand dollars. A panel of anonymous judges from across Jewish life was appointed, and an announcement was issued that read in part: “For the fullest spiritual development of the individual Jew and the most effective functioning of the Jewish community in America, how can Judaism best adjust itself to and influence modern life . . . ?” Kaplan saw the opening and threw himself into the challenge, taking all that he had written, all his love for Judaism and the Jewish people, and all of his instincts about the lived lives of the Jews he served, and began to draft his magnum opus. When the contest closed in 1931, the judges had sixty-two manuscripts to review. Kaplan’s book – Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American Jewish Life – took first prize. Kaplan gave the Rosenwald prize money to a publisher, and the first edition was released in May 1934.
For Kaplan, the book was redemptive. It was the first of many books he would write before his death in 1983; he lived another 50 years before passing away at the age of 103. To the degree that American Jewry has a Bible, Kaplan’s book is it, in historian Hasia Diner’s words: “arguably the most important book in the history of American Judaism.” (Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World (Jewish Lives), p. 112) Kaplan examined the existing institutions and religious movements of his day and found them wanting. While it would be impossible to distill all 522 pages (not counting footnotes) into a sermon, for our purposes one might say he took the three primary categories of Jewish existence – Believing, Belonging and Behaving – and provided a radical conceptual shift in each, arguing that more than Jewish institutions, Judaism itself must evolve and be reconstructed in order to be saved. Kaplan’s God-idea – “Believing” – was a very different, more naturalistic God than that of prior formulations. Kaplan’s vision of a synagogue center, a shul with a pool and a school – “Belonging” – was revolutionary compared to the prayer shtibl of the shtetl immigrant. Kaplan’s notion of Judaism as a civilization, a shared set of Jewish folkways – “Behaving” – was a radical departure from the commanded mitzvot of yesteryear. Kaplan, to be sure, had shared many of his ideas prior to his book, and some of his ideas would have to wait years to be implemented. And yet it is no understatement to say that Kaplan’s vision has shaped the last ninety years of American Jewish life. The JCC movement, the sprawling suburban synagogues in which many of us grew up, havurot, the language of Jewish peoplehood that we take for granted, the bat mitzvah ceremony – Kaplan’s fingerprints are everywhere for those who know where to look. Kaplan’s vision transitioned, transformed, and reconstructed American Jewry from its old-world roots to its American setting. His was a bold vision, a Copernican revolution during a time – and this is the most important part – that was anything but hopeful.
Today is Rosh Hashanah, according to the Jewish calendar the day the world was created, a day given over to possibility and new beginnings. We look at the concentric circles of our existence, as individuals, as Jews, and as members of a wider humanity. The High Holiday mahzor announces: Hayom harat olam, Today the world was born, which Dr. Gerson Cohen translated as “today is pregnant with eternity.” Today is a day when we dare look beyond the horizon of our vision. And today, more than any other Rosh Hashanah in my life and I imagine in yours, our dreams, our hopes, our plans seem stillborn. Ninety years after the Great Depression, COVID-19 has inflicted unspeakable suffering on our world, our country, our Jewish community, and ourselves. We look at the year gone by and we mourn the loss of loved ones. We have been humbled by a pandemic that has laid bare our physical vulnerabilities, exposed our economic fears, and frayed the very fabric of civil democratic society. The psalm of the season asks but one thing – to return to God’s sanctuary – a request that cannot be fulfilled this year. It is not good, the book of Genesis counsels, to be alone; yet this year we are more alone than ever – physically distant from friends, family and community – in a social recession whose effects are beyond measure and as yet not fully understood. A loss of any kind is hard, but our present loss is made more difficult by our awareness that it proceeds apace, into a future with more unknowns than knowns. We remain very much in the midst of the valley of the shadow. There is very little to laugh at, and there is no one here to laugh if there were. I am reminded of the difference between an optimist and a pessimist. The pessimist says, “Things can’t possibly get any worse.” The optimist says, “Cheer up, of course they can.” After what we have been through, with what we are going through, who could fault any of us for being that optimist of the worst kind?
Pastorally speaking, pointing out historic hurts tends not to alleviate the pain a person feels. The discovery that someone, somewhere, sometime once mourned a loved one, went through a painful divorce, or suffered an economic setback, rarely, if ever, diminishes one’s own sorrow. Nevertheless, the story of Kaplan remains instructive, but not because his circumstances were the same as ours, nor because his prescriptive steps recommend themselves for us today. Kaplan is a model for us because he demonstrated the will and the vision to reconstruct Judaism and Jewish life – the heroic hallmark of our people since the very beginning. Abraham first modeled it for us when, struck by the insight that there is one God, he smashed the idols in his father’s workshop. Moses, having just received the law at Mount Sinai, transformed ancient Israel’s religious life by way of the mishkan, a mobile desert tabernacle to house God’s presence. In the seventh century BCE, King Josiah centralized Israel’s worship, and then in the sixth century, Ezra upended the working definition of who was and was not a Jew. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who was literally (and figuratively) spirited out of a ruined Jerusalem in a coffin, asked Vespasian to “Give me Yavne and its sages,” and transformed Judaism from a Temple-based religion of sacrifice to a Rabbinic-based religion of prayer, study, and mitzvot. Kabbalah arose in the wake of the expulsion of Spanish Jewry; Mendelsohn, the rise of denominations and even Hasidism, in the wake of the Enlightenment and Emancipation. Each one of these moments, Kaplan’s included, reflects a time when Jews, faced with unprecedented circumstances, honestly assessed their situation, recognized that a commitment to the Jewish past demands bold thinking about the Jewish future, appropriated the best ideas of the day, and were willing to break an egg or two in order to make an omelet. And in most of these cases, these new beginnings took place in times of physical and spiritual deprivation. Intellectual historians often draw a line connecting Kaplan’s language of reconstruction and that of the philosopher John Dewey. I think we do Kaplan a disservice if we miss the more obvious meaning of the word “reconstruction” in its Depression context: that which has been rebuilt after being damaged or destroyed. Kaplan was just doing what Jews have always done.
Whatever your walk of life, whatever the challenge you face in these dark days, it is incumbent upon us all to muster a willingness to think anew about the future. It has been our core muscle from the very beginning. Lest we forget, the opening verses of Genesis place the act of creation on the foundation of tohu va-vohu, that which is unformed and void. All of the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings and Haftarot – Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Ishmael, Hannah, Rachel – describe moments of physical and spiritual deprivation. All of us are hurting right now, all of us have been kicked off the merry-go-round. There is not one person whose life has not been diminished. And while we could, if we so chose, spend our time measuring whose hurt is more, and we should, if we are human, respond to each other’s pain with generosity of spirit and deed, it strikes me that the calling of today demands something more. In Kaplan’s words, today “we are neither anesthetized by the shallow optimism of a Pollyanna, nor for that matter the moral suicide of helplessness.” Rosh Hashanah is an “act of regeneration by direct human agency.” Today we adopt “a state of mind in which both idealism and realism are equally represented.” (The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, p. 132). Today we have hope. We have hope and we leverage that hope towards reconstructing our future.
I spend most of my waking hours thinking, worrying, working, and praying for the Jewish people, specifically, the members of this congregation. Long before today, you have heard me say that we have an obligation to confront the tough questions facing American Jewry and lead the way in formulating the answers. And now . . . here we are. The other week, as I was writing this sermon, my teenage son walked into the room and began to flip through the new book of last year’s sermons, the one you received in the mail that is usually on the seats. He asked me if I knew the name of the final sermon I gave before COVID hit in early March. “No,” I replied, “What was it?
He looked at the page and read (and you can see for yourself), “Let There Be Disruption.” Then he paused two beats and said, “So how do you feel now, Dad?” Snarky teenager aside, the exchange proves the point. Long before COVID, we all knew that if Jewish institutions are to avoid the fate of RCA, Blockbuster Video, and Kodak, we must have honest and open conversations. No different than any industry, COVID has been a disruptor and accelerator for American Jewry laying bare questions that have been around for some time. It is just that now the toothpaste is out of the tube, and if we love the Jewish people and we are invested in the Jewish future, then there is no better time than now to think boldly about what that Jewish future will look like.
I don’t have all the answers or for that matter an adjusted-for-inflation Rosenwald. But we have to begin somewhere, and Kaplan’s categories – belonging, behaving and believing – are as good a place as any.
Number One: Belonging
What does it actually mean to belong to the Jewish community? I am more aware than ever that the words I am speaking right now are being heard by members and nonmembers of PAS alike. If you are a synagogue member – thank you. If you are not – why not? What would an online membership look like? We are living through an information revolution, where the rules around content – be it music, movies, news, or anything else – are all being rewritten. Why should we think religious content is any different? What can synagogues learn from Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon? How are we the same? How are we different? I know you want community, I read your emails from Iowa and elsewhere telling me: “Nice sermon, Rabbi, but I think it is time for a haircut.” As long as human beings are human, we will thirst for community, but how we go about getting it is not a given. These are questions, to be sure, that long preceded this moment, but COVID, as evidenced by today’s service, has made them unavoidable. How are communities formed, defined, and funded? It is a complex conversation with lots of moving parts, but it is one we must have and one we must lead.
Digging deeper, we know that the question of belonging is not only about membership but about a profound transformation at the core of our being. In Kaplan’s day there were internal and external forces at play asserting if you were born a Jew, then you lived as a Jew and you died as a Jew. Today the Jewish community is far more porous; it is a time when seventy percent of non-Orthodox Jews will marry someone not born of the Jewish faith, if they marry at all. We seek to be as inclusive as possible, but if a community has no boundaries, then at what point does it stop being a community? Kaplan never had to deal with BDS, intersectionality, Black Lives Matter, or an Israeli government whose policies were at odds with many American Jews but in sync with an American president. Tribalism is clearly not going away soon, but Kaplan’s language of “Peoplehood,” is insufficient for the complexities of our time. Our language of belonging must be different.
Number Two: Behaving
Last Yom Kippur I implored you to consider the importance of performing mitzvot – positive acts of Jewish self-identification. Kaplan, influenced as he was by religious anthropologists, articulated a language of mitzvot that avoided God. For him, mitzvot were the folkways, behaviors, and regimens that marked a conscious community – or as Kaplan coined it, “Judaism as a Civilization.” Here, my objection to Kaplan is not that he was wrong; it is just that I want – and I think American Jewry wants – more.
First, we need a language of mitzvot that bonds the Jewish community both to itself and to the needs of our shared humanity. We need to elevate, operationalize, and make sacred a communal expectation that Jews – as Jews – are visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, helping the stranger, and working to mend the social and environmental ills that afflict all of humanity. Friends, there are so many in pain right now; we must be responsive and we must make justice work part of our communal expectation. If the last six months have taught us anything, it is that we are all interrelated. As Dr. King taught, we are all “tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Second, sympathetic as I may be to Kaplan’s anthropological approach to mitzvot, I think it undersells the spiritual strivings of American Jewry. It certainly undersells mine. I believe mitzvot to be opportunities to act in accordance with the divine will, an expression of a sacred relationship, a place where heaven and earth meet, predicated on the belief that there actually is something that the Lord requires of me. And having served American Jewry all these years, I believe that you believe in such a belief.
Third, I think that while the language of mitzvot is a language that people thirst for, it is a language that is inaccessible to the vast majority of American Jews. Kaplan’s Jews knew what to do; they just didn’t believe in it. Our Jews believe; we just don’t know what to do. How to say Kiddush, how to put on tefillin, how to open up a siddur. The language of Jewish ritual is a closed book to so many. What we need is a Mitzvah Recovery Act. There is no reason, in this world of podcasts, Pelotons, and Isaac Boots on Instagram Live, that the Jewish community can’t figure out a way to deliver content that strengthens individual and communal identity. How to chant Torah, how to hang a mezuzah, how to study a Jewish text. Again, we should be doing it anyway. Being in quarantine for six months has only put an exclamation point on the urgency of thinking anew about Jewish education.
Third and finally: Believing
Kaplan’s God, as you may surmise, was a natural one. His very choice of words – “God-idea” – indicates that for him “God” was not an active consciousness but a word used to give voice to our highest hopes and aspirations. Call me old-fashioned, but my God is a bit more involved in my life. I believe in a God that preceded my arrival in this world and who will care for my soul when my time has come. I believe in a God who has a relationship with this earth, with the Jewish people, and with all humanity. I believe that when I pray, I am praying to the God of Abraham and Sarah, and that when I study Torah, I am listening to God as mediated through text and teacher. I believe that there is far more about God that I don’t know than I ever will, and I believe that if you ever hear someone claim to know the unmediated will of God, you should run the other way. I believe that God gave us a head so that we spend our lives seeking to interpret, debate, and refine our understanding of God’s will, and a heart so that we can seek to enact God’s will as we understand it.
Most of all, I believe that right now people are asking more, not less questions of God. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was Kaplan’s colleague, wrote that “Philosophy cannot be the same after Auschwitz and Hiroshima.” I think theology cannot be the same after COVID. After the pain, the sorrow, and the loss of these months, God has a lot of explaining to do and this synagogue should be the central address where we voice our struggles. God bless UJA, JDC, AIPAC, ADL, AJC and HIAS. They all have their missions; our mission is different – this is a house of God. It is here, in the synagogue, that we establish a covenanted community, covenanted with God, with each other, and with the people of Israel, through prayer, study, and mitzvot.
Belonging, Behaving, and Believing. Three categories that Kaplan was willing to reconstruct in his day, and now we must do so in ours. In Kaplan’s words, “The Jew will have to save Judaism before Judaism will be in a position to save the Jew.” Not a change in mission. As long as I am here, this synagogue will remain a house of prayer, study, and community – where we inspire educate and support our membership towards living passion-filled Jewish lives. But how we accomplish that mission – that can change and must change. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the greatest tribute our generation can extend to Kaplan and the last ninety years of American Jewish life is to engage in the selfsame act of reconstruction as he did in his time.
In addition to everything else Kaplan did, he taught homiletics – the art of preaching – at JTS. One of his former students, the late Arthur Hertzberg, recalled how on a Monday Kaplan would model a sermon on the weekly Torah reading and then on Wednesday a student would do the same. Kaplan was notorious for tearing into his students’ sermons, instilling so much fear that when Hertzberg’s turn came, he delivered word-for-word the remarks that Kaplan had shared just two days before. When Hertzberg finished, Kaplan proceeded to tear Hertzberg’s sermon apart. “But Dr. Kaplan,” Hertzberg pleaded, “I’m only saying what you said the other day!” “Ah, but Arthur,” came the reply, “I have evolved since then.”
Our world, our community, we ourselves need to evolve. I have no idea how long this moment will last, but it will pass, and when it does, we have to be different on the other end than when we entered. The fact that things are difficult cannot be an excuse. On the contrary, it is the prompt that summons us to address the questions that have been there all along. God has opened the Book of Life, but the real work is ours. We need to write our own book. May we all fill the blank pages sitting before us, turning them together, writing the next bold volume of our people’s history.
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove, PhD, began his tenure at Park Avenue Synagogue in 2008. Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999, Rabbi Cosgrove earned his PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the editor of Jewish Theology in Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundations and Future of Jewish Belief.
Rabbi Cosgrove also serves the Conservative Movement, the Jewish community beyond PAS, and the community-at-large. He sits on the Chancellor's Cabinet of JTS and on the Editorial Board of Conservative Judaism. A member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, he is also an officer of the New York Board of Rabbis and a member of the Board of UJA-Federation of New York. He serves as Rabbinical Advisor on Interfaith Affairs for the ADL and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Rabbi Cosgrove also serves on the Board of Trustees of Hillel at the University of Michigan and on the National Board of Governors of Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania.
Rabbi Ioni Shalom
Senior Rabbi of Bet Hilel community
Is there something such a free will? Can we determine our future?
Yamim Noraim is a very special moment of the year. We come with our deeds, our failures and our success accounts to pray to God for a better year. We know our future depends on the Judge of judges, as well as our sages taught: Rabbi Kruspedai said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Three books are opened on Rosh HaShana (before the Holy One, Blessed be He): One of wholly wicked, and one of wholly righteous, and one of middling. Wholly righteous are immediately written and sealed for life; wholly wicked are immediately written and sealed for death; middling are left suspended from Rosh HaShana until Yom Kippur. They merit, they are written for life; they do not merit, they are written for death (Rosh HaShaná 16b).
We want to be inscribed in the book of life. But what can we do to deserve that? Does it depends only on us?
There is a story in the Torah which contradicts the principle of the free will and the possibility of changing and coming back on Teshuvah. Do you remember the evil Pharaoh? Do you remember the suffering of the Israelites? It was an awful time for us. But Who was responsible for that? Was the Pharaoh guilty? Let’s pay attention: And God said unto Moses: “Go in unto Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart…” (Exodus 10:1).
The Hebrew root used is KVD, related to something heavy. God made Pharaoh’s heart heavier so he could not regret of his actions. So wait a minute! God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so not let the Israelites leave Egypt. Which was then Pharaoh’s failure? How can we judge a person who cannot decide and whose free will is limited by God?
There are two complementary answers. Maimonides explains that the Pharaoh sinned on his own impulse and mistreated the Israelites who sojourned in his land… justice required that repentance should be withheld from him until retribution had been visited upon him… When the Almighty withholds repentance from the sinner, he cannot return, but will die in his wickedness… which he had originally committed of his own will (Laws of Repentance 5:3). According to Rambam, the hardened of Pharaoh’s heart is seen as necessary for the proper punishment for the sins.
The Midrash adds: The Holy One… gives someone a chance to repent, and not only one opportunity but several chances: once, twice, three times. But then, if the person still has not repented, God locks the person’s heart altogether, cutting off the possibility of repentance in the future (Shemot Rabbah 13:3).
We can understand the hardened of Pharaoh’s heart as a punishment from God but also we can grasp it from a more human perspective. Pharaoh didn’t want to let the people go. He was exposed to his empire. How can a great leader change his word? To do that is to admit he is not perfect, he is not God! Pharaoh had to show only the Facebook effect: always smiling, always right, always successful. How can the Pharaoh exhibit his own failures? As well as time passed Pharaoh though he had to be more tough and harder. He himself took away his own possibility of changing! In five previous opportunities the Pharaoh had the chance to change. Five chances to hear Gods voice. Those times the Pharaoh himself hardener his own heart! He saw the plagues, he saw the suffering but he couldn’t see where his obstinacy was leading him and his people. Every time the Pharaoh hardened more and more his own heart and he get to a no return point.
It happens. It happens in life. When you are so obstinate and want to win every discussion, every debate, every argument… there is no space for the other. And you take more important reasons over personal ties. When you harden your heart so much, there is no way to come back. When you hurt with relentless, wounding and galling words how can you come back from that?
The great message of the Torah is that when you are too much tough, too much hard, too much insensible there is no return back. Open your eyes when still there is a chance! God gives us the opportunity to change: Rabbi Yosei says: A person is judged every day, and not just once a year, as it is stated: “You visit him every morning” (Job 7:18), meaning that every morning an accounting is made and a judgment is passed. Rabbi Natan says: A person is judged every hour, as it is stated: “You try him every moment” (Job 7:18). (Rosh HaShaná 16b).
When we switch the KVD root of a hardened heart and an obstinate soul into a love spirit we understand the other meaning of the root: to honor! Honor your parents, honor your teachers, honor your siblings and honor your fellows and neighbors: “Let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own; And be not easily provoked to anger; And repent one day before your death” (Avot 2).
Undoubtedly this was (and already is) a really heavy (KVD) year. My wish is to shift out harden hearts into loving souls which could honor our parents, our communities, our possibility of change, our fellows, our neighbors and God. Let God help us to change the bittersweet flavor of this COVID-19 year to a honey-honor taste with repentance and love. That is the glue which can link us despite the physical distance if we turn the letters of the word: the harden (KVD) into the loving glue (DVK).
Ioni Shalom is the senior rabbi of Bet Hilel community in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Ioni Shalom, ordained as a rabbi at the Marshall T. Meyer Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in 2012.
He has a degree in Institutional Organization and Management from the National University of General San Martín and a Technical Analyst / Programmer from the ORT Institute of Technology.
From 2012 to August 2017, he worked as a rabbi at the BAMI - Marc Chagall community school, in the City of Buenos Aires, in a community integration and development project. He previously served as a seminarian, rabbinical assistant, and community director in different community institutions and schools.
He is currently a member of the Latin American Jewish Congress, focusing on inter-religious dialogue and a member of the World Jewish Congress’ Jewish Diplomatic Corps.
Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich
Chief Rabbi of Poland
Rabbi Michael Schudrich was born in New York City in 1955. Schudrich was educated in Jewish Day Schools in the NY area. He graduated from SUNY at Stony Brook in 1976 with Religious Studies major. Schudrich received smicha through the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1980 and then later through Yeshiva University in 2000 and received an MA in Jewish Studies from JTS in 1978 and an MA in history from Columbia in 1982.
Schudrich served as rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan from 1983-89. He was also concerned with the recognition of the heroism of Consul Sugihara in saving Polish Jews from the Shoah
As a student in the 1970’s, Schudrich began his travels to East Europe by leading Jewish groups to those countries and meeting with the remnants of the Jewish communities. In 1990, Schudrich began working for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and spent 1992-98 residing in Warsaw, Poland. In June 2000, Rabbi Schudrich returned to Poland as the Rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz and in December 2004 was appointed Chief Rabbi of Poland.
Rabbi Schudrich is the recipient of several awards and medals including the Polish Presidential medal of honor, The Menorah Award for dialogue, Jan Karski Award, Guardians of Memory Award, Tygodnik Powszechny Award.
Rabbi Schudrich has one daughter, Arianna, who lives in New York.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is the 11th Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth since the office was introduced in 1704. Born in 1956 into a Rabbinical family in South Africa, Chief Rabbi Mirvis studied at Herzlia High School, Cape Town (1968 – 73), Yeshivat Kerem BeYavne (1973 – 76) and Yeshivat Har Etzion (1976 – 78). He received his Rabbinic ordination from Machon Ariel, Jerusalem (1978 – 80) and gained a BA in Education and Classical Hebrew from the University of South Africa. He also received certification from the Yaacov Herzog Teachers College as a high school teacher in Israel. Chief Rabbi Mirvis also serves as the Associate President of the Conference of European Rabbis. He has participated in dialogue with Church leaders in the UK at Windsor Castle and Lambeth Palace.
Learn more about Chief Rabbi Mirvis: www.chiefrabbi.org
Rabbi Marcelo Polakoff
President, Latin American Rabbinical Assembly
Rabbi Polakoff is currently the rabbi of the Israeli Union Center of Cordoba, Argentina. He received his B.A. in International Relations from the University of Belgrano, and M.A. in Jewish Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of the Melton Senior Educators Program Center of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a Professor of Talmud and Halacha at Instituto Superior de Formación Rabínica A. J. Heschel of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary. Since 2004, he represents the Latin American Jewish Congress as the Director of Interreligious Dialogue Department and is co-chair of the Interfaith Committee for Peace (COMIPAZ). He was the president of the Latin American Rabbinical Assembly during 2010-2012 and 2012-2014.
Rabbi Yael Splansky
Senior Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple
“The King is in the Field”
Throughout the High Holy Days much of our liturgy describes the theology of God as Judge. God on High looks down over our small lives and our small deeds. In humility, we approach our sanctuaries to stand in reverence before God who is infinite and omnipotent. We enter the inner-chamber of the Palace and pray that Avinu Malkeinu, who is good, will come down from the hard Throne of Judgement (Din) to the softer Throne of Compassion (Rachamim) and mercifully inscribe us for another year in The Book of Life. The metaphors are old and daunting. The theology is powerful enough to move and inspire even the non-believers among our people. Others wonder quietly or aloud how these metaphors leave us awe-struck with fear, even trauma.
Every holy day on the calendar offers another metaphor. Sukkot praises God who is Creator. Pesach praises God who is Redeemer and Freedom Fighter. Shavuot praises God who is Lawmaker and Keeper of the Covenant. Purim laughs with God who plays the game of hide and seek. Tisha B’Av mourns with God who suffers the cruelty of human history.
The month of Elul brings its own set of metaphors. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi suggests that throughout these meaning-laden days which ready us for the New Year, “The King is in the Field.” The Melech Malchei HaM’lachim, The King of King of Kings, is not in the Palace, not in the inner chamber, not in the Throne Room, not even in the outer courtyard. God has opened the gates and gone out to wander the fields to see how the people are faring. During the days of Elul God is on the same plane as the people. The hierarchy is leveled, because God wants to know and God wants to be known. There is an intimacy to these days. The truths of our lives are acknowledged and understood. Let God see each us and know us. Let our individual struggles and triumphs be recognized for what they are. Only then can we be led to the Palace Gates of the High Holy Days. We cannot go there anonymously.
Together in the Fields
I want you to know that you are seen during this trying time. You are known and understood during this time of spiritual striving. Belonging to a sacred community means you can share your story and be heard. You can show your vulnerabilities and be held. Or you may choose to keep private matters private and still take solace in knowing you are not alone, but in the good company of God and fellow travellers.
We recognize our congregants who live alone and may be lonely or bored while self-isolating to stay healthy.
We recognize our congregants whose children are young adults, heading out into the world for their studies. We understand your hearts are filled with mixed emotions – how you want to protect them and also want them to enjoy this exciting stage of independence and growth.
We recognize our congregants whose young children are still at home. We see how you struggle to juggle the demands of work and childcare.
We recognize our congregants who are teachers, creating new ways to connect with their students, and doing so with limited resources and high demands.
We recognize our congregants who are students, who miss their friends and want nothing more than an uninterrupted childhood.
We recognize our congregants who are young adults, going off to university, knowing their education and their social lives will be compromised.
We recognize our congregants who are business owners, working creatively and tirelessly to stay afloat during economic strain.
We recognize our congregants who have lost their jobs or are working multiple jobs to support themselves and their families.
We recognize our congregants who are “essential workers” and live with the stress of exposure each day.
We recognize our congregants who have “regular” medical conditions that are now harder to manage because of the strain on our health care system.
We recognize and honour our elders who wonder if they will live long enough to see life on the other side of Corona.
We recognize our congregants who are weary and wondering when life can expand again, when the simple freedoms we once took for granted will be ours once again.
We recognize our congregants who have been courageous and faithful, self-sacrificing and kind. We admire your ability to count your blessings and remain open-hearted, when the world may be telling you to hunker down and only look after your own well-being.
Even though we don’t get to see you or speak with you often enough, please know that we are here for you. We see you. We acknowledge your struggles and triumphs. And you are in our constant prayers.
We look forward to turning the page on 5780, to greeting the new year together in relief and gratitude. Let us all be written into the Book of Life for a new year of good health, greater potential and open possibility.
Rabbi Yael Splansky is the Senior Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto’s first synagogue. She came to Toronto in 1998 after ordination from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. She became the thirteenth Senior Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in 2014. Rabbi Splansky completed her undergraduate studies in Anthropology and Jewish Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington and at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Splansky is a past chair of the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto, currently serves on the Executive of the Toronto Board of Rabbis and is a Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She also sits on the President’s Rabbinic Council of Hebrew Union College. Rabbi Splansky, a strong believer in interfaith relations, serves on the Canadian Council of Bishops and Rabbis. In 2020 she will teach Judaism to students earning a certificate in interfaith dialogue from St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.
Rabbi Ehud Bandel
Rabbi of Kehilat Nitzan
“Who is he that is honored?
"What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." (Shabbat 31a) These famous words were the reply given by Hillel the Elder to the pagan who came to him requesting to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Unlike Shammai who rudely dismissed that gentile, Hillel, patiently and kindly, taught him the essence of Judaism in a nutshell - the Golden Rule which is shared by so many other faiths and cultures.
A mirror reflection of Hillel’s teaching, yet in a positive form, is found in Rabbi Eliezer’s saying: "Let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own" (Avot 2:11). The tractate of Avot D’Rabbi Natan explains Rabbi Eliezer’s words: “How so? This teaches us that one should regard his friend's honor just as he regards his own. Just as no one wants to have a bad reputation, likewise one should not want anyone to tarnish his friend’s reputation”. And yet, the question is “who is the ‘friend’ that the Mishnah is talking about”? Who is the one who deserves to be honored by us? Perhaps the answer can be found in another famous teaching from the Ethics of the Fathers, that of Ben Zoma who said: “Who is he that is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings” - his fellow human beings! Not just those who are close to us, not just our people, but every human being! Everyone that is created in God’s image deserves to be honored, deserves our respect.
This universalistic approach which is always valid, is particularly relevant during this time of the High Holidays. The “Yamim Noraim” - the Days of Awe are the most sacred in the Jewish calendar, but the truth is that these Jewish Holidays are also the most universalistic festivals in our tradition. Praying on Rosh Hashanah is not only for us Jews, we pray for Tikkun Olam for perfecting the entire world. Rosh Hashanah is a day of a decree for all nations: every creature is called to account: reckoned for life or death.
In the Amida Prayer for the High Holidays, we ask God to grant honor to His people and glory to those who revere Him, but just before we ask for ourselves, we pray for all humanity: “O Lord, let all Your creatures sense Your awesome power, let all that You have fashioned stand in fear and trembling. Let all mankind pledge You their allegiance, united wholeheartedly to carry out Your will.”
This year in particular, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the sense of all creatures standing united in fear and trembling gets a deeper meaning. The global pandemic that spared almost no country is forcing us to acknowledge our kinship, our vulnerability, and our shared destiny as human beings.
This year, many of us will not be able to attend the High Holidays’ services like they were used to in the past. Hopefully, they will have the opportunity to fulfill the Mitzvah of Hearing the Sound of the Shofar. But whether we will be able to attend the synagogue or not, it is the universal message of the High Holidays that we should take into our hearts wherever we are.
The late Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel expressed this message so eloquently in 1992 saying:
“On this Day of Awe, nations and individuals, Jewish and non-Jewish, are being judged by their common creator.
To be Jewish is to seek fulfillment both as a Jew and as a human being. For a Jew, Judaism and humanity must go together. To be Jewish today is to recognize that every person is created in the image of God and that our purpose in living is to be a reminder of God.
Being Jewish to me is to reject all fanaticism anywhere. A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. A Jew cannot remain indifferent to human suffering. The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.
Whether in the synagogue, through live streaming or even in our private silent meditation, let us commit this Rosh Hashanah to do our utmost to preserve the honor and dignity of all humankind and reemphasize the ancient yet everlasting teaching: “Who is he that is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings”!
Shanah Tova, Ketiva V’Chatima Tova!
Rabbi Ehud Bandel is the first native-born Israeli to be ordained as a Masorti (Conservative) Rabbi in Israel. served in the Nachal paratroopers’ unit of the IDF before completing his studies in Jewish History and Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1988 he graduated the first class of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and received his MA in Judaic studies from The Jewish Theological Seminary. For five years he was the Director of Noam - the Masorti Youth Movement and between 1998 and 2005 he served as President and CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel.
In 2006 Rabbi Bandel and his family moved to Melbourne Australia to serve as Rabbi of Kehilat Nitzan - Melbourne's first Conservative congregation, a position he has held for five years.
Rabbi Bandel is a member of the Executive Council of the Rabbinical Assembly and a member of the Board of the World Jewish Congress-Israel.
Rabbi Michel Schlesinger
Rabbi of the Congregación Israelita Paulista-CIP
Rabbi Michel Schlesinger has a law degree from the University of Sao Paulo. He completed his rabbinical studies at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. Since 2005 he served as the rabbi of the Congregación Israelita Paulista-CIP. In 2012, during his sabbatical, he spent three months in New York, where he visited Jewish institutions and studied Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Schlesinger is a representative of the Jewish Confederation of Brazil (CONIB) for interreligious dialogue. In 2013 in Doha, Qatar he was a representative for the Jewish delegation of the National Catholic-Jewish Dialogue (CNBB) during their tenth International Conference.
Rabbi Reuben Poupko
Rabbi of the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation
We all recognize and appreciate that as Jews we have always revered memory. From the earliest moments of Jewish history, we were sensitized to the moral imperative of Zachor- Remember. While events were still unfolding, we were commanded not only to record what was happening but to create mechanisms for the transmission of that memory. From the Exodus to the Holocaust extraordinary, and at times heroic, efforts were made to record the events so that they would not be forgotten.
We are now completing a year, during which our communities were challenged in ways no one could have anticipated. No one planned for this and no one had experience in dealing with a crisis like COVID-19.
What went unspoken, but I believe was deeply felt, was that in addition to confronting all the difficulties we were also creating memories. We understood that 20, 50, or even 100 years from now, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will look back and study how we responded. What will they learn? What will be their memories?
While this crisis is not yet over, it is not to early to reflect on those questions. What has transpired over the last year has added beautiful chapters to the Jewish story. It is a narrative of communities, large and small, coming together to take care of the vulnerable, devise new ways to stay connected and maintain Jewish values and Jewish life.
Our community leaders and professionals, while not infallible, rose to challenge. Our teachers kept teaching in ways no one had before. Synagogues remained remarkably active using techniques that were brand new to many. Federations across North America took the lead to ensure that loneliness was alleviated, poverty mitigated, and our schools got the support they needed.
Rosh HaShana is also known as Yom HaZikaron, the day of memory. We have collectively added to that book of memories. We have written a story that will be a source of pride and inspiration for generations to come.
Additional Jewish values come to mind; Kavod and HaKarat Hatov, respect and gratitude. We all owe an enormous debt to those who continue to lead with courage and compassion during this challenging time; our leadership, professional and lay, our teachers and our rabbis, and most importantly the anonymous Jews who delivered food, paid visits, and made the phone calls to keep us all safe and connected, our respect and gratitude goes out to all of you.
Rabbi Reuben Poupko has served as rabbi of the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation in Montreal since 1986. Currently he is co-Chair of CIJA (Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) Canada’s premiere Jewish advocacy body. Rabbi Poupko is widely recognized as a leading voice for the Jewish community in Canada on matters relating to Israel and antisemitism. He has held numerous leadership roles in the Jewish community and in rabbinic life. He has led numerous missions to Israel and Poland and has chaired the local March of the Living on several occasions. He lectures frequently on university campuses throughout North America.
Rabbi Ute Steyer
Rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Stockholm
Ute Steyer, rabbi of Stockholm and rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Stockholm. She is a permanent scholar in residence at Paideia – The Institute for Jewish Studies one-year program and teacher at the Jewish Community College in Stockholm. Rabbi Steyer is a former program director at Yeshiva University’s Center for Jewish Law and former researcher and lecturer at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She received her rabbinic ordination and MA at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
Senior Rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community
Rabbi Joseph Dweck is the Senior Rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom.
Rabbi Dweck is American born and has lived in Los Angeles, California and Brooklyn, New York. He studied in Jerusalem at Yeshiva Hazon Ovadia under the tutelage of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef z”l. Rabbi Dweck received his Semikha (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef under the auspices of the Sephardic Rabbinical College of Brooklyn, New York.
Rabbi Dweck studied psychology and philosophy and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College. He received a Master of Arts Degree in Jewish Education from Middlesex University in collaboration with The London School of Jewish Studies.
Rabbi Dweck served as Rabbi of Congregation Shaare Shalom, a Syrian Sephardi synagogue in Brooklyn, New York from 1999 to 2014 and also served as Headmaster of Barkai Yeshivah, a large Jewish day school in Brooklyn from 2010 to 2014.
In his capacity as Senior Rabbi, Rabbi Dweck serves as the Deputy President of the London School of Jewish Studies; a President of The Council of Christians and Jews and Ecclesiastical Authority of The Board of Deputies of British Jews. Rabbi Dweck also serves as a member of the Standing Committee of the Conference of European Rabbis.
Rabbi Shlomo Chayen
Educational Director of the Am Yisrael Foundation
Rabbi Shlomo Chayen of the Am Yisrael Foundation (www.AmYisrael.com), was born in 1984 in the United States and made Aliyah with his family at the age of two. Shlomo was raised in Petah Tiqva and continued his religious education at the hesder Yeshivat Ma’alot in northern Israel. While learning at yeshiva he was in charge of community outreach. Shlomo entered the IDF in 2004, and during his service he became a commander in the Paratroopers Unit, and went on to create a new unit in the reserves called Yassar. This unit is unique in that its mission is to enter enemy territory to retrieve casualties and their body parts, as Zaka would within Israel. As the Yassar commander, Shlomo brought together top-line combat soldiers, who are skilled in navigation, parachuting, helicopter flying, urban warfare, etc. as well as those who are especially sensitive to and understanding of the importance of this holy service. During the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza, Shlomo also created Am HaNetzach, a nonprofit organization to assist the affected families where he managed over 2000 volunteers.
After his army service in 2007, Shlomo entered the Meretz Kollel in Mevatzeret Tzion. Shlomo become the Chief Operations Officer of the Sharei Mevatzeret Tzion Yeshiva for both the boys’ and girls’ international programs and COO of the Torah Betzion Institute. At this time, Shlomo completed a professional course in nonprofit management, and studied both life and couples coaching. Shlomo began his Bachelor’s Degree in Education at Rehovot College in 2010 and in 2012, he received rabbinical smicha from Rabbi Weitzman of Ma’alot.
Shlomo moved to Tel Aviv and became the educational director of a Tel Aviv outreach program working with young Israeli business leaders. Most recently, Shlomo has been the main rabbi of young & vibrant Jewish community in Tel Aviv as the Educational Director of the Am Yisrael Foundation and co-founder of our Torah Tech program. Shlomo is approved to perform weddings under the Tel Aviv Rabbanut (www.TLVRabbi.com), having married off many dozens of happy couples, accompanying them throughout the entire process. He has a black belt in Krav Maga, plays guitar, sings, plays basketball, and is a trained and active volunteer emergency first-responder medic with Hatzalah. Currently, Shlomo is also enrolled at the Open University working on another degree in Sociology. Shlomo and his wife Chemda, an MD in pharmacology, live in Tel Aviv with their four adorable children – Neriya, Eitan, Talya, & Amichai.