Category Archives: Clergy

Snide Letter from Israel or Typical Rush to Judgement by CNN? You Decide.

One of the things that has become increasingly clear to many of us who care about the well-being and the future of the Jewish state is the fact that the media is quick to rush to judgment, present partial stories, take things out of context and, in many other ways, slant stories against Israel. This is not to say that Israel is free from blame but it seems consistent that when there is a quick, snap judgment made it is to Israel’s detriment. And if a correction is made it is often too late. The damage has been done. (Just think about the lack of impact of a Page 35 retraction days after a Page 1 mistake and you get a sense of what Israel encounters over and over again.)

That is pretty much the case with what happened over the weekend with CNN. There was supposed to be a convergence of Palestinian activists on Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel but, because of some good preparation by Israel, it didn’t really seem to take off. Few activists actually showed up at the airport and those who did received a letter from the Israeli government that CNN initially referred to as “snide”. I will give it to CNN that the letter was a bit sarcastic but what the news outlet failed to do was to indicate whether it was factually accurate or not.

And the fact of the matter is, the accusations made by the letter are 100% accurate. The regime in Syria is savage. The Iranian regime is violently cracking down on anyone who speaks against it. Hamas brutal and constantly seeks to cause civilian casualties. And Israel IS the only democracy in the region, the only country that offers women equal rights, the only country with a free press and the only country that seeks to actively protect religious freedom.

All of those things are absolutely true and are clearly laid out in a direct, and admittedly sarcastic, letter. But did CNN seek to point that out or did they simply use the title to criticize Israel? Did CNN misstep or did they simply miss an opportunity to offer some clarity to what really is going on in the Middle East?

And if they stood by their decision to call Israel out on the tone of the letter rather than highlight the points it sought to make why did they, just a few hours later, change the story title to a more neutral “Israel detains pro-Palestinian activists”?

Yes, a “Page 35 retraction”… But the damage was already done.

Here’s the full story from Honest Reporting.


Flytilla Fails to Take Off

April 16, 2012 14:14 by

It was meant to be a Palestinian PR dream. Over 2,000 activists scheduled to converge on Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, arriving on planes from around the world as part of a “Welcome to Palestine” flytilla.

Israel had done its homework, however. No-fly lists of potential activists sent to airlines prevented many from even boarding their flights at the point of departure. What could have been a major international incident turned from a flytilla into a floptilla, the lack of action described by The Times of Israel reporting from Ben-Gurion Airport:

But by mid-morning, nothing much was happening. Nothing had been happening for quite some time, reported an Associated Press TV cameraman in the arrivals hall who had replaced another cameraman who had watched nothing happen for most of the night. …

There were no fewer than 13 TV cameras and about 30 journalists around the terminal, bored and standing around in clumps. Anyone expecting Tahrir Square was presented instead with “Waiting for Godot.”

Indeed, the story barely registered on the radars of the US press, probably due to the fact that the majority of the activists were Europeans.

Snide headline of the day went to CNN:

Hours later, CNN updated the headline to something more neutral: “Israel detains pro-Palestinian activists”.

And what of the “snide letter” described by CNN? It’s worth noting as one of the means deployed by Israel to pop the activists’ balloons.

Dear activist, we appreciate your choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns.

We know there were many other worthy choices. You could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime’s daily savagery against its own people, which has claimed thousands of lives.

You could have chosen to protest the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent and support of terrorism throughout the world. You could have chosen to protest Hamas rule in Gaza, where terror organizations commit a double war crime by firing rockets at civilians and hiding behind civilians.

But instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all and minorities do not live in fear.

Therefore we suggest to let you solve first the real problems of the region, and then come back and share with us your experience.

Have a nice flight.

Having seen the problems that supposedly “non-violent peace activists” could cause Israel, for example the Mavi Marmara flotilla, or regular protests and damage to the West Bank security barrier inflicted by foreign activists, it’s no wonder that Israel took this latest provocation very seriously and preferred to prevent these people from entering Israel at all.

A demonstration at Ben-Gurion Airport under the banner “Welcome to Palestine” is probably a more accurate reflection of the motivations of the activists. After all, most of the radical campaigns against Israel are less about Israeli policies and all about Israel itself and its very right to exist in the region. Rather than “pro-Palestinian”, the actions of many of these protesters is anti-Israel and does nothing to promote peace in the region.

This didn’t, however, stop Phoebe Greenwood, who also reports for The Guardian, from describing the campaign as a “protest against the expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestinian territory” in the Daily Telegraph.

Harriet Sherwood in The Guardian termed it as an “attempted show of solidarity with the people of the West Bank.” She also couldn’t help but include a subtle dig at Israel:

Those suspected of being pro-Palestinian activists were taken first to a smaller terminal, with a “Welcome to Israel” sign above its doors, for interrogation and from there to a nearby prison.

While Sherwood may have portrayed it otherwise, the irony was not deliberate on the part of Israel. Rather, Ben-Gurion Airport’s Terminal One does indeed have a large sign greeting travelers as it has done for many years and not just for this particular occasion.

Overall, however, as the Israeli letter to the activists pointed out, other very pressing concerns in the Middle East continues to expose the obsessive and disproportionate and often hateful attention leveled at the region’s only real democracy. Thankfully, at least in this case, the international press also had better things to do with its time than pander to what turned out to be an expensive failure of a PR stunt.

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Stay Up To Date with TSTI’s New iPhone App

Last Wednesday I had the privilege of going to Florida for the day with TSTI President Jay Rice. While there, we attended a luncheon hosted by Joan and Howard Gellis. (A huge thank you to them for opening their home to us and members of their temple family.) At the lunch were members of the community who have been part of the TSTI family for decades.

After lunch, Jay and I had a chance to update everyone on what’s been going on at temple and answer questions about the current happenings at TSTI. Among the first questions asked was, “When are we going to get a temple app so I can keep up with what’s happening at the synagogue on my iPad?”. (I thank Joe Newman for the question and, for anyone wondering, no, it was not a plant.)

My cryptic answer… “Just wait.” 🙂
At the time I didn’t think the wait would be as short as it was, but I am getting ahead of myself.

For the past few years we have been working to increase the ways in which members of our community can stay in touch with what is happening at temple and, by extension, one another. Through the website (, our Facebook page and Twitter feed, we’ve tried to make it easier than ever for you to get the latest news. We are also beginning to work on areas of the website and Facebook page that will be interactive. In addition, we’ve begun inviting temple members to receive the bulletin electronically for both convenience and environmental care.

Today I’m pleased to share with you that there is a new way to stay in touch with TSTI. Yes, we are talking about a TSTI app!

Our official TSTI app was released in the iTunes App Store last night after spending some time in the review process. If you have an iPhone, an iPod touch or an iPad you can click here and download it for free.

The app includes the latest news from temple, contact information for Clergy and Senior Staff, recent pictures and videos and more. There is a page with music and we will be updating it regularly so that, for example, if a new melody is being used at services, you can listen to it on the go. We hope you enjoy this first release and we look forward to updating it frequently in the coming months.

Rabbi Daniel M Cohen

February 3 Sermon: Nachshon, Courage and Marriage Equality

This sermon was delivered during services on Friday February 3

It is one of my favorite, if not my all-time favorite, stories from our tradition. Perhaps that’s the reason I love to tell and retell this particular midrash when the Torah portion includes the story that leads up to it. This year, however, the story of Nachshon and the Reed Sea takes on a different level of meaning and urgency for me. For those who may not be familiar with the story let me share it with you.

The text of the portion for this week includes our ancestors finally escaping from Egyptian slavery and making their way to the edge of the Reed Sea. They suddenly discovered they are trapped. In front of them is an expense of water. Behind them and rapidly approaching is the entire Egyptian army. Yes, once again Pharaoh apparently changed his mind. The people begin to panic. Taking his role as leader seriously Moses steps in and… lifts his staff into the air. Yes, that’s his response to help calm his people and solve their dilemma – he puts his hand in the air as if to call on a miracle. Nothing happens. He does so again and, again, and, each time, the same result- nothing happens. Things go from bad to worse. The Egyptians are drawing ever closer, the people are increasingly panicked and Moses continues to wait for divine intervention with a Biblical version of the raise the roof motion.

Nachshon sees this and will have none of it. He takes matters into his own hands and, through his actions, seems to say, “Moses there is a time for prayer and there is a time for action and wisdom is knowing when to choose one over the other.” Nachshon steps into the water and keeps going until he can all but taste salt. And, according to the story, it is at that moment that God, perhaps realizing that his people were finally willing to take action, sends the miracle Moses could only pray for. The sea parts, the people crossed to safety, the Egyptians follow and ultimately are drowned, and, on the other side, the Israelites break into song. Freedom is finally theirs.

Nachshon offers us perhaps the best definition of courage that I can imagine.

Courage is jumping into the unknown because you know that it is the right thing to do. Courage is jumping into the unknown because you know that things need to change. Courage is jumping into the unknown not for your own sake but for the sake others, some known to you and others total strangers.

Yesterday morning I was in the presence of great courage in the most unlikely place– New Jersey State Legislature. It was there that I saw the power of real conviction and the courage of people to turn that conviction into action. Yes, yesterday morning I drove down to Trenton to be one of the people testifying on the behalf of The “Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act”– legislation that would create legal marriage for same-sex couples in New Jersey.

A1, as it is called, seeking to undo the unexpected damage caused by the creation of civil unions a few years ago. That provision, while well-intended, unwittingly created a two tier system of citizenship in new jersey. Time and again I heard the negative ways in which it has impacted couples and families. And yesterday was a significant opportunity to undo some of that harm.
As you would expect, the room where testimony took place was not monolithic. There was some, for want of a better word, ugliness in the room and here is just a taste of it.

Time and again people argued against the law saying that it is “breaking God’s law and that all of us know in our hearts that such equality is wrong and sinful.”

In the same voice they continually said, “There’s the truth and you can’t change the truth. From the beginning of time the bible defined marriage as the relationship between one man and one woman. Period. End of discussion. That’s the truth!!!”

And if there weren’t numerous bailiff’s their to keep us all in line I would have stood up and pointed out that the version of the “word of God” they are likely reading and are relying upon to cast judgement was translated from Hebrew by flawed human beings. I would also have pointed out that there are numerous examples of polygamy in the Bible. Yes, apparently the real truth is that marriage has not always been between one man and one woman. But I suspect such people do not want to be confused by facts.

One rabbi spoke against it and claimed that this form of equality would violate the Torah’s principles. He said that referring to same gender relationships as “marriage” would be akin to “This bill “relabeling a swine a cow and then forcing Jews to eat it.”

And another Rabbi said “Homosexuals” as a whole don’t want marriage equality, only an anti-semitic anti-circumcision subset of activists do.

Yes, there was some ugliness in the room but, fortunately, there was far more courage present.

The day began with members of the New Jersey Assembly addressing the bill. They spoke both beautifully and powerfully.

Assemblyman John Wisnieeski began by saying, “Many of us would be well suited and served by listening to the young people of the state. When I talk to my three teenage daughters their comment to me was “why dad? what’s all the fuss? this is something that’s so simple and common sense. why is there even a debate about it?”

He went on to say, “More than 50 years ago our United States Supreme Court made a decision that separate but equal was not equal.” and this law would undo separate but equal status we unintentionally created by our enacting civil unions.”

And he was quick to add that this law “would also protect religious freedom because no clergy member of any religion authorized performing marriage would be required to conduct any service in violation of their expression of religious practice.

Similarly, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver noted that “…when we think about historical context through civilizations that have existed we know that what was the societal viewpoint at one place in time in history evolved through the centuries as societies examined and adopted different points of view.”
And she noted that separate but equal was, the “message that Jim Crow racial segregation laws sent in this country. It was wrong then and it is just as wrong now.”

I saw courage. Courage as family after family testified. There was the Italian Catholic father who came forward with his son, his son’s partner and their children and said (I am paraphrasing), “When my son first came out I was crushed. I’ve since come to see just how ridiculous I was. Look at me? Look at this beautiful family they have given me.”

And there was the couple with 11 children they had adopted from abusive, drug addicted homes. “I’m Mark.” one of the adults in the family said by way of introduction. “And I’m here with my illegal husband Bob and our 11 children. I want to make my illegal husband Bob my legal husband Bob. That’s why we are here.”

And then it was finally time for Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz, Rabbi Joel Abraham and me to testify.

In the hours leading up to it I had heard, time and again that the bill is only supported by the gay and lesbian minority of New Jersey and that people of faith oppose it. As a result I changed my opening comment on the fly and said,

“I’m Dan Cohen and I have served as Rabbi at Temple Sherry Tefilo-Israel a congregation of some 900 households for close to 20 years. I am here today as a straight man and, as we have heard invoked numerous times today, a person of faith because, quite frankly, in 2012 I’m scratching my head trying to figure out why there’s even a question about this to begin with.”

Nachshon knew that breaking away from the past is neither certain nor easy, but that, until someone has the courage to step forward to lead, nothing can change. He saw what needed to be done and did it. Yesterday I was privileged to be in the presence of the kind of courage he embodied. The issue of marriage equality in New Jersey is not simple. Then again, as Assemblyman Wisnieeski’s daughters told him… it should be.

The New TSTI Blogging Corps Takes Off To A Stellar Start

 The newly formed TSTI blogging corps goals can benefit the local community by updating many on what is going on in the temple community and what is coming up in the future.  Rabbi Cohen led the group of teens in the first session to teach them about the pros and cons of digital editing and the democratizing force of social media.


Submitted by the TSTI Bloggers Corp

Ecological awareness at the tap of a finger: Tu B’Shevat 5772


Tu B’Shevat didn’t start as an environmental holiday. The day actually finds its origin in the biblical verse: “When you come to the land and you plant any tree, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise the Lord. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit.” (Leviticus 19:23-25)

“But how,” our sages apparently asked, “do we know how old each tree is?” To answer that question, our ancestors apparently set a specific day as one collective day that would serve as the “birthday” for all trees.

There are four new years. The first of Shevat is the new year for trees according to the ruling of Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel, however, places it on the 15th of the month.

In other words, at first Tu B’Shevat was identified as important for the purpose of calculating the age of trees for tithing. We have a rich history in which layer upon layer of meaning is often placed upon specific days or events and, by the 1500s, the mystics of our tradition had developed a seder ritual that discussed the importance and spiritual significance of fruits and trees.

And so it was that Tu B’Shevat became the Jewish version of Arbor Day, a day committed to an environmental focus. That leads us to this month’s Chai Tech and some cross-platform environmental apps:

Good Guide ( This free app lets you shop green. Its database of over 120,000 products lets you find out what exactly you are buying when you go shopping. Each product is evaluated based upon health, environmental, and social performance ratings. You can scan barcodes while you shop, create your own filters to see if products meet your personal standards, and, in the process, help promote healthily social responsible products while avoiding those that perform poorly. This app is available in the iTunes App Store and Android Market.

Light Bulb Finder ( is “a free mobile phone application that makes it easy to switch from conventional lightbulbs to energy-saving equivalents with the right fit, style and light quality.” The app, which is available in both the iTunes App Store and Android Market, lets you view bulb images, find out the cost, see what the savings will be, and determine the environmental impact of making the change. As part of the Greenfaith Certification Program, my synagogue changed all its bulbs and most of its thermostats. The savings, both in terms of cost and environmental impact, have been significant. Best of all, it was easy and relatively inexpensive to do.

Hootroot ( is a web-based app that lets you calculate the most environmentally conscious path from one place to another. Using the Google Maps’ database, it determines your path and offers it up in a manner similar to the maps app on iOS devices.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. [Humankind] will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation.” That’s where Project Noah can help. Project Noah is a “tool to explore and document wildlife and a platform to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere.” With this app everyone, from the novice to the environmental expert, can learn and document what they find in their natural environment. The app lets you spot something and upload a photograph of the plant or animal in question. It also offers a Location Based Field Guide so you can see what others have found in your area. And finally, it offers Field Missions that are designed for environmental labs, groups, and organizations. It is a great way to find, explore, and share the world around you. This app is available in the iTunes App Store and Android Market.

Unfortunately, these great apps are not yet available to those who, like me, are currently using a Windows phone. Hopefully they soon will be, but until then you might check out:

Tree Hugger. This app has a clean, easy-to-use interface that breaks down environmental news into broad categories so that you can find the information you want quickly and easily.

Environmental News: This app grabs relevant environmental news from The New York Times, NPR, and other sources. While it does not offer original content, it does do the work of filtering out stories of interest for those of us who worry about the state of the environment.

Read online

Hanukkah Light That Makes the World Brighter

In my sermon a few weeks ago (and reprinted here on the website) I wrote about Hanukkah, the gifting that takes place at this season and the ways in which many tangible gifts are, in fact, unwanted by the recipient. I wrote

…perhaps we need to rethink the balance and direct some of our part of that $4 billion toward doing something that will make a difference. The number of organizations that can benefit from such philanthropy is tremendous. But even more powerful than our individual gift is the way our actions can be expanded when done as part of a larger community.

What if, for example, this year each of our households were to pick an issue and not only donate to it, but also promote it within our Temple community. It could be as simple as sending us an email that says,

“For Chanukah this year we made a family donation to ___ organization in place of a gift one night. As part of that gift we want to tell you about the organization, why we picked it, how they do good in the world and how you too can get involved.”

Striking the right balance is what I’d like to encourage this year, and I would love to see members of our community using our Temple website, our Temple blog, and our Temple Facebook page to share their answers to those questions.

Temple member/leader Debbie Bernstein was kind enough to share the following-

This Chanukah, my family will be donating to the Ronald McDonald House Charities.

I began donating to this charity about twenty years ago when my friends started having children and I wanted to celebrate the birth of a baby by making a donation to a cause that specifically helps families More recently, friends of ours had the need to stay in a Ronald McDonald House while their son, Jake, was treated for cancer.

Last year, Jake began a wonderful tradition of making pancake breakfasts for the children and families staying at the Ronald McDonald House near Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. My son, Ben, joined his good friend in this labor of love (and flour and eggs and syrup).
The website for this charity is

We wish you all a Happy Chanukah!
Debbie, Andy, Ben, Jordan and Cameron

If your family is doing something similar please let us know. It is a wonderful way for us all to bring a bit more light into the world this Hanukkah.

Letter to the Editor: It is All About the Balance.


From the New Jersey Jewish News November 30, 2011

Letters to the Editor: Holy Connections

Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently went after the late Apple boss Steve Jobs, blaming him for creating a selfish consumer society. Said Rabbi Sacks: “It’s all i,i,i nowadays!” (The Chief Rabbi later attempted to clarify his comments, saying they were not directed at Jobs or Apple, although his statement “the consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs” seems rather unambiguous.)

I was struck that Jobs was blamed for what Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone described as a society in which individuals increasingly live in isolation from one another.

Although I see countless selfless acts in my congregation on a daily basis, Rabbi Sachs is correct: We do live in a consumer-based society. Often times, we are far too self-centered and self-consumed, and mobile technology makes it easier than ever for us to remain in our own private worlds even as we are surrounded by others. I have certainly been guilty of this on many an occasion. If I am not careful my iPad makes it possible for me to be enveloped by my own world.

But that’s only half of the equation.

Continued here on the New Jersey Jewish News Website

It’s the Holidays… Time to Do Some Good

(This is based on the sermon from Friday, Nov. 18, 2011)

This Thursday we will gather to celebrate the most American of holidays. The next morning some of us will sleep in while others will wake early to take advantage of “Black Friday” deals.

Ask most people where the name “Black Friday” comes from, and they will cite it as the biggest shopping day of the year, the day on which retailers begin to turn a profit and are finally “in the black”. As one source puts it, “back in the day when accounting records were kept by hand, red ink indicated financial loss or black ink indicated profit, thus coining the popular fiscal terms of being “in the red” or “in the black”.

That actually isn’t the case. In fact, according to, “…originally the phrase was a derisive term applied by police and retail workers to the day’s plethora of traffic jams and badly behaved customers. The term “Black Friday” originated in Philadelphia before 1966, and it began to see broader use outside Philadelphia around 1975. It was only later that the alternative explanation related to sales and profit began to be offered.”

Regardless of its origins, this Friday people will wake up earlier than usual to make sure that they are part of the experience. They will stand in line with great anticipation, and then they will reach into their pockets to share some of their hard earned cash with others.

The National Retail Association estimates that over $4 billion will be spent on gifts this holiday season. That’s a big number, but there is another big number that is worth considering: Three quarters of that over $400 billion is estimated to be spent on unwanted items that will be re-gifted or simply unused. [need source] In other words, up to $300 billion in gifts aren’t even something that the recipients want, let alone need. Those gifts provide a moment of excitement, or disappointment, when first opened … and then nothing more. Those gifts won’t enhance the recipient’s life, and they certainly don’t do any good in the world.

I like gifts as much as the next person, but perhaps we need to rethink the balance and direct some of our part of that $4 billion toward doing something that will make a difference.

The number of organizations that can benefit from such philanthropy is tremendous. But even more powerful than our individual gift is the way our actions can be expanded when done as part of a larger community.

What if, for example, this year each of our households were to pick an issue and not only donate to it, but also promote it within our Temple community. It could be as simple as sending us an email that says,

“For Chanukah this year we made a family donation to ___ organization in place of a gift one night. As part of that gift we want to tell you about the organization, why we picked it, how they do good in the world and how you too can get involved.”

And there are so many issues, causes and organizations from which to choose! Women’s rights, environmental care, fair farming practices, support for battered children, support for battered women, reducing homelessness, clean water for Third World countries, clean water for us as a new bill seeks to reduce the impact of current legislation… all of which are important issues that have far-reaching impact not only on our lives but on the lives of so many others.

And the opportunities to let our desire to give extend beyond ourselves is everywhere. Here’s one example:

A few weeks ago, one of our b’nai mitzvah, Adam Present, did a mitzvah project that involved support for NJ SEEDS, an organization that aids academically talented but financially limited youth so they might get the best education possible. Adam wanted his mitzvah project to extend beyond himself, so he requested his peers make donations to NJ SEEDS in honor of his bar mitzvah in lieu of gifts. Through the generosity of his friends and their families, Adam has already raised ~$6000 for NJ SEEDS.

The ripple effect of what any one of us can do when it is done within community is tremendous.

Hillel taught,”If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am only for myself what am I?”

We have a long Jewish tradition of striking a balance between looking out for our own community and reaching out to those who we may never meet. If we only give to Jewish organizations, we are being far too self-focused, but if we only give to non-Jewish organizations our community will falter. After all, the majority of those giving to Jewish organizations are Jews. So the first question that needs to be asked is, “What is the right balance between our giving within the Jewish community and within the world at large?”

In other words, how do we strike the right balance? How do we choose the organizations to which we give, and how do we take what we are willing and able to do and leverage our commitment by getting others involved?

Striking the right balance is what I’d like to encourage this year, and I would love to see members of our community using our Temple website, our Temple blog, and our Temple Facebook page to share their answers to those questions.

There is a debate in the Talmud with regard to how one should properly light the Hanukkah menorah. There is one train of thought that suggests we begin with eight candles and the nine candles for lighting and reduce by one candle each day. There is another train of thought that has us begin with just one candle and the additional light for lightning and increase by one candle each day so that there are just two lights the first night but nine burning on the last night. Obviously tradition sided with the latter approach, and we begin with two candles and go to nine. The compelling aspect of this is the ultimate reason given for the decision. As it says in our sacred text, “in matters of holiness we should always be in the process of increasing the light”.

This Thursday we will gather with our families and give thanks in the most American of traditions. The next day huge numbers of people will participate in another American tradition; shopping ’til they drop. And a short time later we will begin to light the Hanukkah lights. This year let’s begin a bit early by doing our part to add a bit of holiness each day to a world that certainly can use all the help it can get.