From Our Executive Director
David Bernat interviewed on Radio Entrepreneurs about SCM's Work and Mission
Hard to be a Jew? Reflections from the Brooklyn Bridge
David Bernat, PhD Executive Director, Synagogue Council of MA
January 10, 2020 Parshat Vayechi
My grandmother would say, “It’s hard to be a Jew, shver tsu zayn a Yid,” The refrain, popularized by Sholom Aleichem, was redolent of the shtetl, pogroms, steerage, sweatshops, and the crowded tenements of Dorchester and Delancy Street. I understood. I studied the histories and heard the stories. But I didn’t feel it. I was raised in suburban edens, in the Goldene Medinah that my immigrant forbearers sought but never found. Yes, I was conscious of our difference—the foods I ate and couldn’t eat, the Christmases and Easters that permeated the atmosphere but were not mine. Still, I could be the Jew I wanted to be, in public and private. Hard—no. Anti-Semitism—No. My parents did prepare me for it, sending me to JDLniks to learn punches and resilience that I, thankfully, never needed to employ. Ironically, the worst violence to which I’d been subjected was teargas at the hands of Jewish extremists as I watched a Soviet ballet troupe at Lincoln Center.
Today, it is getting harder. The onslaught of Jew-hatred is coming from all sides. They shoot us at prayer as a perverse tactic to Make American Great Again. They stigmatize us on campuses based on a twisted calculus of intersectionality where Jews are, by definition, oppressors. A new member of congress reminds us that we are “all about the Benjamins,” and is embraced by some of her party’s leaders and presidential candidates. We are witnessing “Zionism is Racism,” on steroids. Yet, we should not resurrect Bontshe, the diminutive and diminished Jew of Peretz’s fiction who reacted with silent resignation in the face of humiliation and harm. We who are, as Bialik put it, “descendants of Maccabees,” must not “scurry away like mice or hide like bugs” (B`ir Haharegah 1905).
So what to do? How to respond? First, with appropriate vigilance. Isaiah 62:5 remains relevant—“On your walls, Jerusalem, I posted sentries…” On the other hand, let us not wall ourselves in—seek alliances, and be good allies. Stay informed, about our past, and present. And most important—ensure that we are not defined by those who threaten us, that Anti-Semitism does not drive the level and tenor of our Jewish engagement. #JewishandProud Day is every day…Pack into our JCCs, Batei Midrash, and synagogues regularly the way we thronged across the Brooklyn Bridge last Sunday.
This week’s Haftarah imagines David’s last words to Solomon who will succeed him on the throne. He says (1 Kings 2:2) “vchazakta, be strong,” and offers two complementary tacks. One is pragmatic – hold your friends and family close, deal unflinchingly with your foes. The second is the path of tradition and ethics – adhere scrupulously to the Torah of Moses. And there is my takeaway—let us always be guided by our core strengths and values rather than our sense of victimization.
Nachamu Nachamu Ami…Be comforted, Be comforted, My people (Isaiah 40:1)… This 2500 year old prophetic invocation still resonates for any moment of tragedy, when our Kehillah, our community, is wounded. It is a much needed message in light of Saturday’s attack on the Tree of Life synagogue of Pittsburgh, resulting in 11 deaths and more injured, among the congregation and first responders. In this time of darkness, we are fortunate that words, and deeds, of comfort, have come from across the state, the country, and the globe, bringing Jews and members of diverse religious and cultural groups, of all ages, together, in unity, and shared pain.
We highlight, with wonder and gratitude, Sunday’s vigil on the Boston Common, sponsored by JCRC, CJP, ADL, and The Synagogue Council of MA. The gathering, attended by thousands, was buttressed with the presence of numerous leaders of government and religious organizations, and buoyed by reflections and prayers from Governor Baker, Mayor Walsh, Senator Markey, Congressman Kennedy, Attorney General Healey, Police Commissioner Gross, State Treasurer Goldberg, Cardinal O’Malley of the Catholic Archdiocese, Shaykh Fahmy of ISBCC, Rev. Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, Barsamian of the Mass. Council of Churches, Israeli Consul General Boker, Rabbis Spitzer, Hellman, and Cohen-Anisfeld, and Cantor Rosenberg, agency colleagues, Jeremy Burton, JCRC, Marc Baker, CJP, Robert Trestan, ADL, and Boston University undergrad Ariel Stein, a Pittsburgh native and Tree of Life member.
I found Shaykh Fahmy particularly inspiring, urging us to “wear our Yarmulkes a bit tighter,” to preserve our Jewish pride and dignity and remain undaunted in the face of hateful rhetoric and anti-Semitic violence. The Imam’s charge is poignant in its symbolism. We must uphold our core values and mission, all the more so when those very values are under assault. Our “Nachamu,” Isaiah chapter continues “Prepare a path in the desert, God, level a pass in the wilderness…” The Pittsburgh terrorist leveled his anger against the Jewish community because we have been preparing a path to freedom and safety on our shores for refugees and immigrants. Now is the time to double down on our imperative to welcome the stranger… Now is the time to open our hearts rather than close ranks, even as we attempt to manage our grief and join hands with members of our Pittsburgh family.
Hamakom Yenachem May God comfort all those in mourning
David Bernat, PhD Executive Director, Synagogue Council of MA
Yom Haatsmaut Reflection
5 Iyyar 5778 | April 19, 2018
Jewish tradition, as expressed in Psalm 90, imagines 70 years to be a discrete lifespan. In addition, scripture indicates that David, the founding king of our nation lived for 70 years (2 Samuel 5:4). He embodies, symbolically, our communal strength and utopian aspirations. Today, on the 5th of Iyyar, we mark the 70th year of Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, and look forward to the next stage in the life of our homeland.
1948 represented the awe-inspiring fulfilment of a 2000 year hope. Yet, must we be, in the words of the prophet Zechariah (9:12), asirei hatikvah, “prisoners of hope?” As we walk forward with optimism, can we not also recognize where the real has not met the ideal, where there is still work to be done?
As the head of an agency whose mission is framed by a commitment to Arevut, interconnectedness, and Klal Yisrael, unity and pluralism, I am particularly concerned about the way Israel’s government undercuts these values with its Kotel policies. I am similarly dismayed by the marginalization of communities, institutions, and congregations that do not conform to the narrow norms of an entrenched Rabbinic establishment. Closer to home, resurgent anti-Semitism and the contagion of BDS casts a shadow on our festivities.
At Synagogue Council, we are doubling down on our engagement with Israel. Toward that end, our next Israel Experience and Unity Mission, “The Synagogue Then and Now” in tandem with Hebrew College’s Adult Learning Department and Keshet Educational Journeys, embarks in less than a year. On the local front, we have been working hand in glove with CJP and the IAC, and are taking steps toward a deeper relationship with other established agencies such as Hadassah and JNF. We are especially proud of, and enthusiastic about, our newest partnerships with two innovative forward looking Israeli organizations, Ve’Ahavta TLV Experience, and Dror Israel.
I urge you to stay connected with SCM, as we endeavor to serve the community, grow our capacity, and roll out an arc of exciting, substantive programs. In the meanwhile, I look forward to seeing you on Sunday May 6 at the community-wide Celebrate Israel at 70 gathering and on June 3 at our keynote event, “Empowering Women’s Leadership,” where we launch an initiative to incubate women’s mentorship and young leadership on the congregational landscape, honoring the memory and legacy of Anita Redner z”l.
David Bernat, PhD, Executive Director
Jessica Goldberg's Introductory Reflection
Shalom! My name is Jessica Goldberg. I am a fourth-year Rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, and I am joining Synagogue Council this year as a Rabbinic intern. Here’s a short piece of Torah I’d like to offer by way of introduction.
At the beginning of this week’s Parshah (Torah reading), Vayeira (Genesis Chapters 18-21), Abraham is visited by three angels. They come bringing him the joyous news that at this time next year, he and his wife Sarah will have a son. In the next chapter, the same two angels enter Sodom and Gomorrah and set into motion the disastrous events that are to take place there, where the cities are to be destroyed in a cataclysmic inferno sent by God.
If you are reading carefully, you probably noticed that the three angels in the story became two. The text marks this angelic disappearance with no ceremony whatsoever. What happened to that third angel?
One classical Midrash (Rabbinic commentary on the Torah), Genesis Rabbah 50:2, teaches that every single angel is deployed for its unique purpose. Therefore, three angels were needed here: one to announce the good news to Abraham, one to perpetuate the destruction of Sodom, and one to save Abraham’s family from Sodom. The first angel had no purpose going to Sodom, so they simply ducked out of the story.
As a Rabbinical student, I have learned that every word in the text of the Torah, every Rabbi’s voice in the Talmud, and every denominational position is entirely unique. No opinion renders another superfluous. So it is with the individuals who comprise the Jewish people. Every Jewish Neshamah (soul) brings something new to our ancient and ongoing conversation with G-d. Every person who identifies as part of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, gets a seat at the metaphorical table.
I am so excited to get out into the community this year and listen to all of the voices around our table. I hope to create opportunities through Synagogue Council to bring people and communities together in learning, celebration, and engagement. This year is shaping up to be a year of tremendous growth for both Synagogue Council and for my own Neshamah. May we all branch outwards toward our unique destinies as we remain deeply rooted together as the Jewish people.
Doubling Down on the Omer
We are now in the midst of the Counting of the Omer. The Torah based origins of the ritual cycle (Leviticus 23:9-22; Deuteronomy 16:9-12) entailed a seven week transition from the barley harvest, celebrated on Passover, to the wheat harvest, celebrated on Shavuot. It was intended as a period of joyous worship. In the Roman era, due to tragic events surrounding the Bar Kochba revolt (135 CE) including plague, devastation of war, and persecution that represented the beginnings of what we now call Anti-Semitism, the Omer acquired an overlay of sadness, and its observance evolved as a time of mourning.
While our ancestors mourned, they also persevered. They persevered by doubling down on their values and community building efforts. Academies were founded, fundamental texts such as the Mishnah were authored, and the Synagogue emerged as a new center of gravity for Jewish life. [On our recent Synagogue Council Israel Mission, we visited archaeological sites in the Galil and Golan that attested to a boom in Synagogue construction during the first several centuries of the Common Era.]
This year's Omer has also seen tragedies that have hit us hard. The attack on the Chabad of Poway, the missile barrage from Gaza, and the spike in Anti-Semitism and anti Israel sentiment at home and abroad.
It is on us therefore to mourn, and to persevere. And we persevere by doubling down -- doubling down on our efforts to combat Anti-Semitism and hatred, Sin'at Chinam, doubling down on our core values, and doubling down on building a vital Jewish community.
In that light, I call your attention to a range of worthwhile events and programs taking place over the course of this Omer cycle.
David Bernat PhD, Executive Director
Our Moral Imperative: A Post-Chag Reflection
The Sukkah, a temporary structure, reminds us of the tenuous position that many throughout the world find themselves, facing housing and food insecurity, due to natural disasters and other circumstances. This message was driven home quite dramatically because of the recent Merrimack Valley gas explosions. With the holidays in our rear view, we still must hold the symbolism of Sukkot in our hearts and minds all year round, reminding us of our obligation to care for everyone in the community, the leaders and well-resourced along with the less fortunate, “the wood-cutters and water-drawers,” and the “stranger” residing within our gates. Thus the prophet Amos’ aspiration and moral imperative, to “raise the fallen booths… and repair the breaches” in our community fall upon us each and every day. At SCM, we take this mandate seriously, and labor so that no individual or congregation falls through the cracks. I urge you to stay connected and up to date with our programs and initiatives, and give generously to support our work on behalf of our Kehillah, our sacred collective.
David Bernat, PhD Executive Director
The Passover Haggadah contains the following statement, “In each and every generation, ‘they’ rise up and seek our annihilation.” This tragic trope, of ever present enmity, is part of a thematic thread that commences on Shabbat Zachor, when we are commanded to remember and utterly blot out the name of the Amalekites, continues in the Purim narrative, and is then emphasized in the Passover liturgy. The notion of an unrelenting threat is articulated in the Jewish legal or halakhic concept of the Rodef, Pursuer. The Rodef is classified as a person, or entity, that persistently seeks your harm or death. A Rodef therefore must be met with merciless resolve and pro-active attention. The Talmud (Sandhedrin 72a) puts it bluntly “If someone comes to kill you, pre-empt (literally ‘get up early’) and kill them.” The Rodef concept can play out in many and varied contexts. One contemporary example could be Israel’s war on terror. Din [law of] Rodef provides an ethical justification for the targeted killing of a Hamas bomb-maker, even absent a “ticking-bomb.”
While we often conceive of a Rodef as an external threat in human form, my purpose at present is to foreground a Rodef that is so dangerous because it is internal and microscopic. I am referring to the BRCA gene mutations that lead to an extraordinarily high instance of cancer among Ashkenazi Jews. The BRCA threat is all the more insidious because it only needs one transmitting parent, and the transmitter and recipient can be of either gender. As Jewish ethnic and cultural differences are more and more blurred, and with the high frequency of Jewish intermarriage, the BRCA gene mutations have the potential to spread outside the Ashkenazi community and to children of a single Jewish parent who may not even identify as Jews themselves. Under the circumstances, it is imperative that we meet this Rodef head on, with all our might, and with any tool at our disposal.
I call your attention to two major community initiatives dedicated to combatting the BRCA gene mutation threat. The nationwide BFOR Study, undertaken in Boston out of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Beth-Israel Deaconess Hospital, offers free access to genetic testing. Click HERE for information about the study and how to register. Oneinforty focuses on education and advocacy. Click HERE for their website. Lauren Corduck, founder of Oneinforty, and a cancer patient herself, is one of the featured panelist at Synagogue Council’s June 3keynote event, “Modeling Women’s Leadership”. Click HERE for details.
I wish you a Chag Sameach, A healthy and peaceful Passover.
David Bernat, PhD Executive Director
On that day, I will raise the fallen Sukkah of David and repair its breaks (Amos 9:11)
In its ancient context, this prophetic exclamation referred to the Jerusalem Temple. Still, the verse has resonance for us today and speaks eloquently to Synagogue Council's mission and work in the community.
What are our fallen or broken structures today?
1) We see around us longstanding Synagogues and Congregations that are closing, merging, or otherwise struggling.
2) At times, here and in Israel, denominational rifts prevent us from coming together with shared purpose and undermine the unifying principles of Klal Yisrael and Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh.
3) The decimation wreaked by hurricanes and flooding in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean.
In the coming year of 5778, look for announcements of, and please lend your support to, SCM's new and ongoing initiatives.
1) MAAVAR: Resources for Synagogues in Transition.
Relocation of sacred objects
Pro Bono legal support
Strategic Planning conversations
2) Unity and Pluralism education.
3) Coordination of, and participation in, Synagogue and community based disaster relief efforts.
Chag Sameach A Joyous Holiday
David Bernat, Executive Director
Rosh Hashanah Reflections
Rosh Hashanah, Kingship, and Models of Leadership
The theme of Divine Kingship is central to Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays generally. Monarchic metaphors frame the worship traditions, and the word Melech [King] and its derivations permeate the liturgies. God’s Kingship.....