Shedding New Light on Jewish Traditions

President's Messages

Read President Jay Cohen's 5777 Rosh Hashanah message here.


Like most of us who watch television or read the papers, my mind has been bombarded by all kinds of emotions about the presidential race. My emotions
have ranged from laughter, disbelief, rage and disappointment, to name a few. I’m not limiting my emotions to criticism of any one person or party - reference my letter to the editor of the Inquirer published in yesterday’s paper pointing out that the bloated $85 million raised for the Democratic National Convention here included the largest “donor” being the $10 million Pennsylvania taxpayers unwittingly forked out through a grant from the PA Dept. of Community and Economic Development. My research on their own website could not turn up any mention of this in their list of grants, even though their mission includes the promise that they will assure transparency and accountability in the expenditure of public funds.

This morning I’d like to juxtapose this crazy presidential race with our congregation’s Vision Statement. How odd right? Have I lost it? What’s the connection? For me, it’s the use of words, their meaning, how they are perceived and acted upon. 

We live in a world of words. Written and spoken. As Hillary Clinton said in debate #1, “words matter.” What words are said or written, how they are said or written, the context in which they appear, all affect how the words are perceived. Sometimes words are not spoken and that absence also says something. Sometimes there are misperceptions of words. I have a funny example of how one’s attitude at the current moment can cause a misperception of words. 

My first cousin Shirley, who lives in Nacogdoches Texas, visited us this summer. In the course of trading stories, she related one about her older daughter Wendy. Wendy is a divorced mother of two grown children. She lives in Nacogdoches which is a small college town, home to Stephen F. Austin State University. Wendy does not have a wide range of dating options there which sometimes can be a downer for her. One day she was driving in the area and saw from a distance a new billboard which advertised “Singles Vacations.” It gave the address and, since it was just what she needed, she drove over to the address. She parked and literally danced through the parking lot, ready to schedule a well deserved holiday with a chance to meet some men. With hopes raised, she walked up to the receptionist and asked to see some Singles Vacations brochures. The receptionist frowned and pointed to the sign to the left of her which said: “ Shingles Vaccinations”!

In the context of the use, perception of words and action upon those words, I want to reference the Or Hadash Vision Statement. Let me read it to you:

Or Hadash strives to be a dynamic and innovative community that inspires us to deepen our connections to Judaism and to each other through tefillah
(prayer), limmud (learning) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). We aim to achieve these goals in an atmosphere of mutual respect and intellectual integrity that welcomes everyone from all backgrounds. Through shared values and the egalitarian and progressive principles of Reconstructionist Judaism, we aim to evolve spiritually and intellectually as individuals and as a sacred community. 

Very important to me is the part where we are inspired to deepen our connections to each other in an atmosphere of mutual respect and intellectual integrity. 

Our Strategic Planning Committee is currently meeting for its second year and is tasked with making recommendations for the future of Or Hadash over the next 5 years. We aim to be proactive rather than reactive. These recommendations are to be in alignment with the current Vision Statement. So it’s important to understand the import of our Vision’s words. We need to remember how our synagogue functions and also what is not said in the Vision Statement, but what is understood from our history. 

For me, in my years in lay leadership here, I have been awestruck by the level of mutual respect and intellectual integrity that is exhibited here. I think we also share values inspired by Reconstructionism, including being egalitarian and progressive. For me, our Vision Statement is not just words, it is a snapshot of our actions.

In this agonizing and ridiculously long political season, we are living through a war of words that falls far short of showing mutual respect and intellectual integrity. There has been a lot of inappropriate behavior that has led me, and many other people, to be sick and tired of this political season. I literally hate it. How do I deal with this strong emotion in these days of awe? 

While this is the season of forgiveness, in my admitted limited understanding of the Torah, I think the Torah allows for not forgetting-not forgetting oppression, not forgetting injustice. To me, this whole political race, with all of its inappropriate behavior, is an injustice to the American people. 

I have asked myself over the years, and struggled with the question, whether we should always forgive? Should we forgive in the face of injustice? Hate is a very dangerous emotion, which can lead to more hate and violence. So what is our obligation in this situation? I have read that if you don’t act upon an obligation, then that can create negative energy and a negative outcome may result. What are our obligations as progressive Jews, and for progressive people who are not Jewish?

For me, hate is an emotion that is counterproductive. So, I think I shouldn’t say I hate politicians; rather, I should say I don’t like the political processes that drive politicians to say the odious things they often spew out and to pander to particular parts of the electorate. Many politicians use words in manipulative and misleading ways. The presidential race this year has underlayments of racism, veiled incitements to violence and flat out factual lying or, at a minimum, half truths. No matter who we support politically, if part of our mission as Reconstructionists is to repair the world, then should we forgive the politicians for their pandering and the people who fall prey to it? It’s a hard question. However, I think we truly are stronger together. We should try to engage in rational, respectful conversations with those we may disagree with, politically or otherwise. It doesn’t help to turn away from someone you disagree with politically. I think engagement is more meaningful and satisfying. I think that is our obligation as progressive Jews.

Our Vision Statement asks us to engage. We can’t be “dynamic” if we sit still. We can’t repair the world if we do not act. While the word “volunteer” is not present in our Vision Statement, volunteerism is at the heart of our dynamism and engagement. It is just understood that this is how we have always operated and a big reason why we enjoy belonging here. We connect in this way. I think we should strive to not just be observers. I hope we are not just observers in the political races this year. This year, voting is certainly engagement and our obligation. 

We at Or Hadash are naturally givers and not observers. Thanks to those of you who have filled out the Gift of the Hand this year. If you have not yet done this, please pick up the form and consider volunteering. I understand that this is difficult for many of you given family and work obligations. It took me many years to volunteer here. Do what you can when you feel you can. We do not pressure here. This is meant to be a safe, comfortable space. But at some point, please consider not just being an observer. Volunteering is the lifeblood of this congregation. It connects us to each other when we volunteer and forms strong bonds. Thanks to those of you who volunteer for so many things. I am always humbled by our hard working volunteers.

We are lucky also to have our devoted Rabbi, who is highly respected in the Jewish rabbinic community here. He holds positions in Bux-Mont and Philadelphia that reflect that. We owe Rabbi Josh many thanks. Thanks to our synagogue administrator, our bookkeeper, our innovative Education Director, our teachers, and all other staff and non-staff who make this place a giving, comfortable place.

Thanks to those of you on our Strategic Planning Committee who are working on taking Or Hadash into a successful future. Thanks to all who volunteer with the Interfaith Housing Alliance, cooking meals, sleeping over with the homeless families and supporting this effort year in and year out. Thanks to all of our hardworking committee chairs and their committee members who make this place work so well. Thanks to all of you who come out on work days and volunteer with your sweat, muscle and ingenuity. All committees are important. We have other committees recently formed that you will hear more about in the future, whose members are dedicated to the well being of Or Hadash and our larger community as well. We act on our Vision at Or Hadash and we can be very proud of what we do and who we are.

Shanah Tovah everyone!


Read President Jay Cohen's 5776 Rosh Hashannah message here!


Thank you Rabbi Josh.  Shanah Tovah to our congregants, your guests and all visitors.

You know, let me just start out by saying that yesterday morning Cheryl, my wife and speech editor, and I were walking on the beach.  It was a bright, beautiful day and the ocean water temperature was in the 70’s. Actually 76 degrees.  Saturday afternoon and evening had been a washout, with much needed rain, so we really wanted to stay.  And so we discussed as Reconstructionists, why can’t we celebrate the new year in the colder, darker, less busy times of the year?  Why do we do this when it’s still the summer?  What is it with this Hebrew calendar anyway?  Aren’t we progressive enough to consider changing this….Rabbi?? 

But seriously, I want to talk today about progressive Judaism.  What I think it may be and what does it have to do with us?

This term has arisen in the context of the discussions that Or Hadash’s Strategic Planning Committee is having.  This committee is looking at all aspects of our congregation.  Its purpose is to seek to improve all aspects of our congregational life.  As a part of this we are probing our communal identity.  This also relates to marketing ourselves.  Yes, these days synagogues have to market themselves as the synagogue “market” has drastically changed.  Especially in this geographic area.

One of the questions is whether Reconstructionism is “different enough” from the Reform and Conservative movements so as to make our community unique enough to attract new members.   I honestly don’t know if I have an answer to that question, which makes it quite likely that anyone not belonging to a Reconstructionist shul may not know the answer either.  So, I pose this hypothetical question:  what if we changed our name from Or Hadash to “The Center for Progressive Judaism” and explained the goals of such a center.  In trying to answer this question, I’m going to use a top 9 list.   No, this bears no resemblance at all to Rabbi Josh’s top 10 lists, which of course never bore any resemblance to David Letterman’s top 10 list. Here’s my top 9 list of what I think it means to be a “progressive Jew.”  With a little help from Leo Rosten and his book “The Joys of Yiddish.”   Of course, keep in mind that these are in no way mandates-there is always room for variation, flexibility and creativity - key elements I think to being progressive.  And so, the 9th way to be a progressive Jew:

 9.        Not be a knee jerk anything   A progressive Jew strives to think through their allegiances, alliances, politics, social views and all ideas and theories.  It means to try and not be prejudiced or to prejudge anybody, anything, or any idea.  In other words, no one can say, least of all me, that this is what you have to BE, to BE a progressive Jew.  The number 8 way to be a progressive Jew:

 8.        We are not the one chosen people on the face of this earth  While we are not God’s chosen people, we can choose to do anything that will make this world a better place.  Unlike some, we do not use our religion to justify killing or criminal behavior.  But we are entitled to defend ourselves.  All Jews are “mishpocheh” which means we have an “intense feeling of common heritage, common obligations, common values” and common tragedies.  As intermarriage continues and is a fact, our concept of mishpocheh will broaden and non-Jews will come within our family.  The world may one day be one mishpocheh - what John Lennon was really trying to say in his classic song “Imagine” - a brotherhood of man- he just didn’t have the Jewish words for it.  Which leads to the 7th way to be a progressive Jew:

  7.       Work with other religions to benefit all people   As a corollary to not being chosen, we need to try and recognize that people of all religions deserve our respect and assistance.  The 6th way to be a progressive Jew may resonate with some of us more than others:

 6.        We should not feel guilt for not following or liking ritual    Everyone can attain spirituality and the sense of calm this brings to the soul in their own way.  The Yiddish word “pilpul” is an “inflated form of analysis and debate used in Talmudic study, i.e., unproductive hair splitting that is employed not so much to advance clarity or reveal meaning as to display one’s own cleverness.” A folk saying: “If you insist long enough that you’re right, you’ll be wrong.”  The “balbatim” is Yiddish for the board members of a synagogue.  A story:  “Young Rabbi Shulman finally summoned up enough courage to say to Mr. Benenson, one of the balbatim of the community, ‘I trust you won’t mind my mentioning it, but I can’t help noticing that you always fall asleep when I’m preaching.’  “Why not?” replied Benenson.  “Would I sleep if I didn’t trust you?”  Number 5:

 5.        We abhor extremism in any cloak   Extremist Jews are no better than extremist Muslims or extremist Christians or extremist aetheists. Number 4 is a favorite of mine:

 4.        Religion should not be a barrier but a gateway   “Love conquers all” is a cliche that I like because a religious intermarriage can help to lead society to continue to break down the religious and cultural barriers that divide us.  The Yiddish words “Goy” and “shikseh” and shaygets” should have no place in our vocabulary.  A story:  A young priest sees a sign over a hardware store that reads Pincus and O’Toole.  The priest goes in and is greeted by a man in a yarmulke.  The priest says, “I just wanted to let you know it’s great that your people and mine have become such great friends and business partners-it’s such a surprise.”  The man in the yarmulke says, “I have even a bigger surprise, I’m O’Toole.”  The 3d way we can be progressive Jews:

3.         We do not just fight for justice for ourselves but for all people   Can we be truly free if there are people who are not?  Can we be satisfied with our lives if we are doing well but others are not?  That’s a hard and troubling question.  “Tzedaka” is from the Hebrew tzedek meaning righteousness.  A story:  First day of school and the teacher asks each student to give their name, age and hobby.  Sally Farnsworth stood up and said, “I’m 10 and I like to roller skate.”  James Burns stood up and said, “I’m 9 and I collect stamps.”  Morris Wexler stood up and said, “I’m 10 and I pledge $5.”  With Tikkun Olam  a progressive Jew gives of their time and of their money to help others less fortunate.   The yiddish word “chachma” means wisdom.  In Jewish thought, wisdom does not involve knowledge or intellect alone, but moral and character attributes, the highest is being righteous and spreading loving kindness-doing good.  “Money can buy anything [except seichel] - common sense.”  The number 2 way to be a progressive Jew:

2.         We forgive, but do not forget   “Rachmones” means mostly compassion.  A progressive Jew should work hard on this.  Sometimes easier said than done.  This is a hard one to master.  Which leads to the number 1 way to be a progressive Jew:

1.         We are always open to learning    Just when you think you get it, you realize you don’t.  We are seekers of the truth, but don’t always know how to get there.  It’s a journey for us. 

Well, it’s clear to me that this room is full of progressive Jews.  Why do I say that?  How do I know?  Because most of you did not walk out on my speech or fall asleep yawning. If you did that’s okay because it means you trust me.  In Yiddish you have done me  a “mitzvah.”  You are kind, patient and considerate.  You are all “menches”-upright, honorable and decent!

So I guess by this time you who are familiar with Recontructionist Judaism may see parallels between progressivism and Reconstructionism.   Why?  Because we strive to move forward and change with the times.  Stagnation is the opposite of progression.  There are those who may argue that orthodoxy is on the rise, in Judaism and other religions, and that is the way to go to preserve religion in general and Judaism in particular.  But is that really what we are here  on this earth for?

Maybe most important, we are “haimish.”  We are: unpretentious, put on no airs, are unspoiled by office or honors, we are informal, cozy, warm, giving of our time and love, and have the kind of rapport that exists inside of a happy, loving home. 

My wish is that everyone tries to do their best this year to progress.