Blog

Every year, I teach my students some of the more creative laws of sukkahs, the temporary “booths” Jewish people sit in for the 8-day holiday now in progress.  The Sukkah Handbook (by Rabbi Hadar Margolin) has a great picture of an elephant being used as a sukkah wall.  Check it out!  It is right there in the Shulchan Aruch 630:11), the highly regarded Jewish Code of Law. And if you are wondering, it is also ok to build a sukkah on a wagon or boat (Shulchan Aruch 628:2, Mishna Brurah 11, 14), on a camel or on a tree! (Shulchan Aruch 628:3).

There is more room to be creative in building a sukkah than people may think.  This comes in handy during this most unusual Covid-19 year.

For those who live in the suburbs, building a sukkah in an ordinary year is no big deal.  There are snap together kits for sukkahs of all sizes, and it is easy to buy a schach mat (bamboo, etc) for the top of the sukkah. 

For those who live in a city like Manhattan, it is more complicated.  The sukkah must be outside with a clear view to the sky—with nothing hanging over it.  That means no trees, no roofs, no balconies.  For that reason, there are very few sukkahs in the city.

Manhattan residents usually go to their synagogue for communal meals.  Or they go to a restaurant with a sukkah.  One can argue that the sukkah is an early prototype of the perfect outdoor dining spot for these Covid days!  Jews have been eating outside in the somewhat hilly autumn for years!

Other Manhattan residents are lucky enough to spot a Chabad sukkah in a public park or along various walkways on the Upper East Side.   Here is a piece I wrote 3 years ago for Chabad.org about sukkahs on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.   They playfully called it “When a Private Sukkah Costs $4 Million, Where Do We Eat?”  People are free to drop by and use it anytime.

There are also Chabad bicycle sukkahs, and sukkahs on the back of pickup trucks.

But this year, there are extra challenges.  I want to thank Chabad and JLIC, the OU's Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC) at Binghamton University, for creative, safety-minded thinking.  They have come up with ways to build a sukkah which allows for maximum openness and flow of air.

See the pictures below for photos of a Chabad sukkah in Tel Aviv which is open on the sides and has “private pods” for diners to eat in family units, distanced from other sukkah guests.  The next photo is of sukkahs offered to students at Binghamton University with the “minimum” number of walls required by Jewish law.  The next photo is of a sukkah at Manhattans’ Bagels and Co—for one or two diners at a time.  The final sukkah is a common site around the country—Chabad sukkahs for one or two—on a pickup truck.

Enjoy a happy, safe Sukkot.  It is nice to know there are ways to ensure both!





Read more

I have read many articles in the past few months, written by people with disabilities, noting that Covid-19 has given people without disabilities a very small taste of what their lives are like—from people with mobility issues regularly not being able to attend in person meetings or getting around the office easily, to deaf people feeling left out of meetings due to lack of interpreters.  They all end by hoping the world will just be bit more understanding and accommodating for everyone if and when we return to work.

My hope and prayer is that the Jewish World will also continue to be more inclusive and accommodating.  We are off to a good start!  Countless synagogues of all denominations and entire Jewish communities have worked hard to meet the needs of congregants unable to attend in person services, life cycle events or classes.

In this blog, I have documented a few, from community wide shofar blowing on the streets of New York and LA, to virtual classes.   There were countless Shabbat Shuva drashes, as well as rich online pre-holiday programming for people of all ages.

I have been particularly struck by the number of pre-holiday Yizkor services offered.   I attended one this past Thursday offered by Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun.  And Chabad held a Yizkor service at 9 am Sunday (Erev Yom Kippur), advertising, “Join thousands as we remember our loved one…”   In the KJ Yizkor, Rabbi Chaim Steinmatz noted that Yizkor is traditionally recited when the community gathers, and that, this year, many in the community were gathering virtually.

All the years I have been attending synagogue, I have noticed people rushing to shuls of all denominations to “say Yizkor”—even if they had to then turn around and go back to work.  Or they had to get to shul at great cost.   It is not easy for everyone to get to shul—due to age, disability, financial means and more.  Offering Yizkor virtually, especially before the holiday when technology use isn’t an issue for the more observant, is brilliant—and inclusive.

There are obvious halachic (Jewish law) challenges.  Though we are seeing innovation and creativity in both the Conservative and the Orthodox worlds.  There is an old say: “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way.”  This may not be true in all cases—but it means there is room for more “play” within the system. 

Some Conservative rabbis were not comfortable using Zoom on Shabbat and holidays. They were a bit more comfortable when they learned they can leave Zoom “on” for the whole service without touching the controls. Then, Rosh Hashanah came along.  Zoom apparently ends a meeting automatically after 24 hours of being on.  The two-day holiday of Rosh Hashanah would have been problematic—until a clever Conservative rabbi working on this issue contacted a colleague in California who had a congregant who was a higher up at Zoom.  Lo and behold—they found a way to allow Zoom to stay on for 48 hours!

And finally, a playful accommodation.  A clever Jew in Melbourne, Australia found a way to bring the kaparah ritual to Australian Jews on lockdown—he rented a plane with chickens aboard and had the pilot fly “kaparah patterns” over Melbourne!

I pray that 5781 is a year of continuing to be creative and therefore even more inclusive!  

Read more

Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dean Kremer?!

The first four are the Baltimore Orioles pitchers from my childhood who accomplished the unimaginable—these four were 20-game winners in a single season—1971.  Dean Kremer?  Well..there is no way he can win 20 games in a season, given the 2020 season only has 60 games!  We are proud of Dean, nonetheless.

I have been following Dean Kremer, the Israel Baseball player for many years. Now, he is Oriole, bringing pride to Baltimore baseball fans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.  WJZ-TV in Baltimore captured the excitement with its headline before his first MLB start against the New York Yankees: 

Mazel Tov! Orioles’ Dean Kremer Becomes 1st Israeli to Reach Majors, Debuts Sunday Against Yankees”

Kremer came to the Orioles as part of the Manny Machado trade in 2017. He almost reached the big leagues last season with his 3.72 ERA and 122 strikeouts over 113 2/3 innings across three levels of minor league baseball.  He went 9-4 in 15 starts with Double-A Bowie, and went as far as AAA.

According to WJZ, he assumes the roster position of pitcher David Hess, who was optioned Saturday night, and took the rotation spot of Asher Wojciechowski.  Kremer debuted on Sept. 6 against the New York Yankees.  He allowed only one run and one hit, struck out seven batters in 6 innings and was credited with the win as the O’s beat the Yanks 5-1.

Kremer pitched 5 more innings vs. the Yanks on September 12 with 7 more strikeouts.  His third start was against the Devil Rays on September 17, where he pitched 5 innings and had 6 more strike outs. Kremer didn't factor into the decision in the first game of Thursday's doubleheader against the Rays, giving up one run on three hits and three walks. Kremer reported, “I didn’t have my best stuff today, but I really needed to compete,” Kremer said. “They put eight lefties in the lineup so it took me a while to get my breaking ball going. It’s a good thing I had my cutter to get me through, but it was definitely a day where I had to grind through each at-bat.”

 His ERA is currently an impressively low 1.69. 

The Orioles are officially out of the pennant race.  Kremer faces the Boston Red Sox’s Nathan Eovaldi (3-2) in Boston tonight, his final start of the season.

Kremer was born in Stockton, California to Israeli parents and is the first Israeli to sign with an MLB team.   He was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 38th round of the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft.  He chose not to sign. He was drafted again–by the Los Angeles Dodgers–in the 14th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball draft.

Kremer previously pitched for the Team USA baseball team in the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel, where the team won the gold medal.  In 2014 and 2015, Kremer pitched for Israel in the qualifying for the European Baseball Championship, where he received the Most Valuable Pitcher award. He also pitched in September 2016 in the qualifier for Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

We are excited to watch Dean Kremer continue to accomplish great things—both in the MLB and for Israel.  Fellow Californian and Team Israel teammate, Ryan Lavarnway, proudly wears double chai (#36) for the Florida Marlins, where the 33-year-old has served as backup catcher and had 4 hits in 11 at bats.  Lavarnway was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2008, and has played for several major league teams, with a career .215 average in 419 at bats. (see my 2019  Jerusalem Post article about Ryan!

Go Dean and Ryan!

Read more

 

Rosh Hashanah featured major changes, some sadness, and even a possible miracle.

Rosh Hashanah was just different this year, regardless of your level of observance, preferred place of worship, or at home customs.  Services took place on Zoom, they took place outdoors, they were shorter, socially distanced, they featured shofar blowers in various neighborhoods, and there were no big festive meals.

And Jews woke to the sad news that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died Erev Rosh Hashanah (Friday) from complications of metastatic cancer at the age of 87

But there was also a happy story—perhaps even of a miracle—which may have slipped by without notice this Rosh Hashanah.  Diego Schwartzman, a very nice, proudly Jewish 28-year-old professional tennis player from Argentina, stunned Rafael Nadal in straight sets on Saturday at the Internazionali BNL D’Italia Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome.  True, he wasn’t in synagogue this Rosh Hashanah, but there is a parallel between Schwartzman’s actions, and the story Jews who were in synagogue were reading. 

On the first day or Rosh Hashanah, we read about Abraham and Sarah, and the birth of Isaac, after many years of waiting.   Maimonides, the famous rabbi and commentator from the Middle Ages, notes that Abraham had to undergo 10 trials or tests from God.  Two of the tests are alluded to in this reading:  God tells Abraham to send Hagar (Sarah’s maidservant) away after having a child with her, and he becomes estranged from his first son, Ishmael. 

Abraham’s 10th and final test is the story we read on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah—the Binding of Isaac, when God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar, then calls him off after he passes the test.

I don’t think Schwartzman (#15) was thinking about this story while on the clay with Nadal (#2).  But, he, too survived his 10th test—he beat Rafa after losing their nine previous matches.  Schwartzman’s Rosh Hashanah miracle was beating Rafa 6-2, 7-5 in just over two hours in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open.  Nadal is ranked No. 2 in the world; Schwartzman is 15th.  Schwartzman excitedly said, “For sure, it’s my best match ever.  I played a few times against the three big champions in tennis. I never beat them until today. I’m very happy.”

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Schwarzman defeated Denis Shapovalov, the 21-year-old Canadian, who was born in Tel Aviv.  Schwartzman won Sunday’s semifinals match, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (4).

Today, Schwartzman squared off against world #1, Novak Djokovic, in the finals.  What a difference a few days and weeks makes.  I wrote in the Jerusalem Post about Schwartzman’s shocking first round loss in the US Open. And every news outlet in the world covered the story of Djokovic being  disqualified from the US Open just a week ago for unintentionally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball.

Djokovic has beaten Schwartzman in all four previous matches before today’s finals—though Schwarzman took Djoker to five sets in the 2017 French Open.  And he took him to 3 sets in last year’s Rome semifinals.  In today’s finals, Djokovic defeated Schwartzman 7-5, 6-3. 

Schwartzman may not have been in shul this year, then again, who was?!  Thank you, Diego, for bringing us so much pleasure this Rosh Hashanah.  They say that what happens on Rosh Hashanah is a siman, a sign of what is to come this year.  Best wishes for a sweet, successful year on and off the court, Diego!

Read more