Category Archives: Religious Services

Religious Committee – March Meeting Recap

At the meeting on March 8, 2018, the Religious Committee discussed a new Torah Reading Incentive program for our students. While we are still finalizing the details, we think it will be an exciting way to encourage them to read Torah on Shabbat morning.

We also discussed the upcoming Torah Dedication Ceremony to be held on the first day of Shavuot.  Shavuot Services with Sefer Torah Dedication, Donated by Jerry & Laura Jacobs, will take place at 10:00am on Sunday, May 20, 2018. This event is going to be exciting and unique. We discussed ways to make it a truly joyous simcha, and applaud the planning committee for the hard works that’s been done. This is going to be a fun one!

Questions? Contact the Religious Committee at

Ask the Rabbi: Why don’t we always cover our eyes during the Shemah?

Why do we cover our eyes when saying the Shemah at certain times, but not at others?

Jews have a custom of covering our eyes while saying the Shemah (Deuteronomy Chapter 6, verses 4-9). We say the Shemah twice daily because it is written in the text itself (verse 7): “And you shall rehearse them with your children and speak of them, when sitting in your house and when walking on the way, when you lie down and when you rise.” The rabbis of the Talmud interpreted this verse to mean that we should recite the Shemah in the evening and in the morning. They called this part of the service “Kri’at Shemah,” the reading of the Shemah, and they believed we needed to focus deeply to truly grasp the meaning of calling the Eternal “One.” Also, the word Shemah means “hear” or “listen,” and when we cover our eyes it is easier to concentrate on the words we are saying.

There are other parts of the service during which we say the Shemah, but those are not moments that require the complete concentration of reciting the three paragraphs of the Shemah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41). For example, during the Musaf service, we simply acknowledge that the Jewish people say the Shemah twice a day. And during the Torah service, as we are about to carry the Torah to be paraded through the people, we use the Shemah to affirm God’s unity, in a ritual of call and response that ensures that we, as a community, declare our conviction in the oneness of God. In both situations, and in others like that, we do not require the concentration needed to read, speak, teach, and mull over the words of the Shemah. Therefore, when we need to focus on this prayer, we cover our eyes, and when we need to affirm our convictions, we do it proudly, eyes open, with courage and commitment.

Religious Committee – January Meeting Recap

At the meeting on January 11, 2018, the Religious Committee was excited to learn that the Jacobs family we be donating a Sefer Torah to our congregation. We began the discussions of how we’re going to mark this wonderful event.

We also talked about what steps we can take to have more members participate as service leaders and Torah readers. If you, or anyone you know is interested in this, contact Jonathan Arden at and we’ll work with you to get you more involved. If this is something that’s outside your comfort zone, have no fear. We have smaller opportunities to get you started.

New Torah will debut at Shavuot: Join us for services on the first day of Shavuot — Sunday, May 20, 2018 at 10:00am — to celebrate the addition of the new Sefer Torah to our congregation. This is a truly a unique and joyous occasion, and if that wasn’t enough, there will be great food, too!

Congregational Chanukah Party was a Rousing Success!

In case you missed it, the Congregational Chanukah Party on December 13 was a blast! We had about 150 people of all ages who ate 400 latkes and 10 dozen donuts, sang songs, played games, and built a 15-foot-tall Lego Hanukkiah in the back of the sanctuary. It was quite a sight to see!

Building the Hanukkiah

We also made Maccabee badges of courage for ometz lev, our Jewish value for December, and candy dreidels. Attendees donated a mountain of socks and underwear to Bridges to Independence, which provides services to homeless women/families and those at risk of homelessness.

The Lego Hanukkiah completed – it nearly touches the ceiling!

Everyone got to take home an Etz Hayim t-shirt as a Hanukkah gift. If you didn’t get one, contact the office and ask for one. (T-shirts are available in Kids’ or Adults’ sizes Small, Medium, and Large.)

Todah rabah to Morah Laura, Elisa Rosman, Jill Shenk, Harold Dorfman, Carey Averbook, Alan Schwaber and Naomi Harris for such a fun and unforgettable event!

Candy dreidels
Pretzel + marshmallow + Hershey kiss = DREIDEL YUM!

SAVE THE DATE: Don’t miss Etz Hayim’s Party of the Decades, coming up on Saturday evening, February 17, 2018!

Yom Kippur Speech 5778 by Alan Savada

This speech was delivered at Yom Kippur services on Saturday, September 30, 2017.

“Martyrology” by Alan Savada

Those of you who were here for the Rabbi’s sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah will be getting a small encore, as today I will be speaking a little about the Sephardi communities affected by the infamous inquisitions. Often referred to as the Spanish Inquisition, it may have commenced in that nation, but sadly spread to other countries and reach as far away as Mexico and South America, then under Spanish and Portuguese domination. Interestingly enough, while the formal Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition technically ended in the 19th century, the institution still survives today as the Catholic Church’s Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, renamed in 1965 to defend the church from heresy, headed today, oddly enough, by a Spanish archbishop!

Anti-Judaic violence began in Spain as early as 1391, when pogroms there resulted in mass conversions of thousands of Jews fearing for their lives. The Spanish Inquisition formally began almost 100 years later in 1478, and extended to the entire Spanish empire then including the Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples and of course, the possessions in the New World. The original goal was to target those who had converted, but were still adhering to their old religions. It was not until 1492 that all Jews were forcibly expelled from Spain and its colonies.

This expulsion caused a migration of over 90,000 souls into nearby Portugal, whose first king incidentally had a Jewish minister in his court some years earlier. King Manuel at first welcomed the Jewish exiles, but in subsequently choosing to marry the Infanta of Spain, the so-called enlightened Dom Manuel, agreed in his marriage contract to commence persecutions of those he had invited to cross the border.

In December 1496, all Jews had a choice of conversion or exile; they could not, however, take their children or belongings if they chose the latter.

The fate of the Portuguese Jews became the same as their Spanish brethren with forced conversion in 1497, although the inquisition was not formally installed there until 1536 – and was only abolished in 1821.

Last week you heard about the Lisbon Pogrom, or Massacre of Easter 1506, when on April 19, a New Christian, who had converted from Judaism, simply disagreed with a supposed vision by a Dominican friar, which the latter insisted was a presage to the end of the plague and drought. The soul who disagreed was immediately beaten to death by the crowd as a heretic and burnt in the large public Rossio square outside.

The Dominican friars absolved those present of any sins they might choose to commit, and the mob, also joined by Dutch and German sailors, proceeded to murder over 500 New Christians.

King Manuel had taken leave of the plague-ridden capital and ultimately sent magistrates to hopefully ameliorate the situation, but the mobs had grown and violence spread so fast, nothing could be done.

The next day, all the converted Jews hid in their homes to avoid the conflict, but were pulled from their houses, many being burnt alive. Firsthand accounts tell us of infants having their limbs torn off and the day ending with over 1000 murders, not to mention the massive looting.

Tuesday brought members of the King’s court to the capital after the news reached him that his squire, a converted Jew, had also been killed. The Royal Guards were called to quell the rioters and murderers, but it was too later for the 1900 that had been killed.

Is it a comfort to know that many of the antagonists were arrested and hanged, and the Dominican friars that instigated the crowd were stripped of their religious orders and burnt at the stake?

I now divert to another part of the Spanish realm at that time, where we visited this summer. As early as the 1st Century of the Common Era, it is known that Jews lived on the island of Sicily. We were able to visit a mikveh in Siracusa (or Syracuse) where the largest Jewish ritual bath in Europe has been discovered under a hotel and dates back over 1600 years! At the time of the inquisition in 1492, there were 51 Jewish communities on the island with numbers exceeding 35,000.

Even as late as the 17th and 18th century, in the remains of a palazzo turned jail, we find Hebrew scrawling of prisoners. Somehow those who had converted were still subject to the inquisition for hundreds of years after it commenced. Incidentally, the palazzo/jail is now part of the university in Palermo.

Fast forward to today, after more than 5 countries, practicing Jews have returned to Palermo, where some of the street signs now exhibit Hebrew names and letters, although the neighborhoods are largely made up of Arab exiles and refugees from North Africa. Recently, the Archbishop granted a new fledgling Jewish community in Italy’s 5th largest city, the use of an unused Baroque oratorio which we passed by while there, but is still closed for renovations.

Its name: Santa Maria del Sabato, which is oddly being retained for now. Who knows when Jews will again worship in this site, near where the Great Synagogue of Palermo once stood.

Meanwhile, back in Portugal it was almost 100 years after the end of the inquisition that Jews returned to the country. In 1910, the Constitution finally allowed Jews to live within the borders without persecution…well, not completely.

Artur Carlos de Barros-Basto was born in Portugal’s second city, Porto, in 1887 and knowing of his Marrano ancestry, converted to Judaism to encourage others to assert their faith as allowed. In 1910, he raised the Republican flag in his hometown, and as a lieutenant in the army in WWI, was awarded for his bravery and honor on the battlefield. Small communities began to emerge in the late 1920s and in 1929, he laid the cornerstone for a new synagogue in Porto using his newly adopted name Avraham Israel Ben Rosh.

The face of Nazism and fascism sadly came to the fore in Portugal, and while the synagogue was opened in 1938, in the year prior, under a new regime, Barros-Basto had been removed further from his home post and ultimately court-martialed and dismissed from military service for participating in the “immoral” practice of circumcisions. He became known as the Alfred Dreyfus of Portugal, although later came to the fore to assist hundreds of Jews to escape the Holocaust during WWII. While he died in 1961, his descendants are still involved in the flourishing Kadoorie or Porto synagogue, a truly magnificent and grand structure which we first visited just over 4 years ago, and our Rabbi just returned from this summer.

Martyrology – well certainly today I have brought up the stories of many who suffered and perished for just being Jews, thousands of whom even converted and were tortured for that.

As time goes one, we witness the changes in so many communities that have been decimated and reborn, some of them the largest and most flourishing Jewish bastions of their ages. Today we are that flourishing bastion and it is indeed so important for us to remember the past, but also to continue to help to restore these communities. It is also imbued on us to stand against hatred, violence and the bigotry that sadly is becoming so prevalent in our modern world, resulting in the destruction of whole peoples. Maybe we can’t all be Avraham Israel Ben Rosh, but as we have indeed figuratively laid the cornerstone here at Etz Hayim, we can surely speak out and raise our voices when the time comes.

Tashlich Wrap Up

Approximately 30 people attended the stream-side Tashlich service held on September 21, 2017.  This year we enjoyed a wonderful walk to the small Doctor’s Run stream.  Rabbi Bass lead us in a brief, but introspective, service.  It was an excellent complement to the wonderful, yet more formal, prayers from earlier in the day.  Truly, a great way to start off the year and to help gain perspective on the true meaning of T’Shuvah.  A special thanks to Rabbi Bass for leading us in the service.

If you enjoyed connecting with other members in a spiritual way, be sure to join us for the upcoming holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, on October 12 and 13. Find out about all the services and events we’ll be doing on our calendar page.

Yom Kippur Sermon 5778 by Rabbi Bass

This sermon was delivered at Yom Kippur services on Saturday, September 30, 2017.

Spoiler alert: For those of you who didn’t see “Wonder Woman,” I will be giving away major plot points.  This summer I watched the movie “Wonder Woman” — three times. I also now own the DVD.  I absolutely loved it. It was fun, hugely entertaining, and made me feel great.  “Wonder Woman” is smart, charming, playful, and glamorous—things that we don’t often say about superhero movies.  I absolutely loved seeing Gal Gadot, a former Miss Israel and Israeli actress, work her magic on the screen.  She lights up the screen with her presence, and is unabashedly Israeli, even down to her accent.  The movie is well-made, with beautiful colors, great music, and great double entendres, as well as very funny lines.  The fighting scenes, which usually leave me bored, brought me great pleasure.  I will confess that I found great comfort in watching a powerful woman in a golden tiara and thigh-high boots beat hordes of terrible men. Oh, what fun!

I don’t profess to be knowledgeable about comic books.  Indeed, I only found out a few years ago that people who know comics divide themselves into Marvel or DC titles.  Prior to watching the movie, I learned a little bit about Wonder Woman’s origins.  According to historian and Harvard professor Dr. Jill Lepore, in 1940, after critics complained that Superman and Batman were too violent, All-American Comics hired as a consultant a lawyer and psychologist named William Moulton Marston, who lived with two women, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, in a polyamorous relationship.  Both women had graduate degrees in psychology; Holloway was also a lawyer.  With their help, he pitched a comic book featuring a female superhero whose enemy is inequality.  A press release explained: “‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men,” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women.”  As you might imagine, within a year “Wonder Woman” comic books were banned, allegedly on claims of indecency.  She then became the secretary for the Justice League.  When all the men went out to war, Wonder Woman stayed behind to answer the mail.  She would call out: “Good luck, boys! I wish I could be going with you!”  Her original creators were furious!

In 1975, Lynda Carter became Diana Prince in a television series.  The series took place during World War II.  According to the series press release, when the forces of evil threatened the nation, Diana would spin to transform into Wonder Woman, armed with a magic belt that gave her tremendous strength, bracelets that would stop any bullet, a tiara that could be thrown as a returning weapon and an unbreakable magic lasso that would force anyone to tell the truth.  It was a hit throughout the world.

In the movie, Diana grows up on the Island of Themyscira, watching other Amazons do hand-to hand combat and savage sword play to pass the time.  Her mother, Hippolyta, doesn’t want her to learn to fight because she knows that Diana’s destiny is to fight Ares, and she dreads the coming of this day.  Diana’s aunt, Antiope, has different ideas.  She believes Diana should know what to do when the situation arises.  She teaches Diana how to fight, until she becomes the strongest fighter on the whole island of the Amazons.  Now Diana is a grown woman, World War I is coming to an end, and her island is invaded by Steve Trevor, an allied spy, followed by boatloads of German soldiers.  Fighting ensues, the German soldiers are defeated, and the Amazons have suffered many casualties.  Diana feels she must go away with Steve to save the world. She sees a single monster as the sole obstacle to a world of peace and justice, and she seeks to defeat him.  Yet, she is very conflicted.  While she feels she needs to fight Ares and make sure humanity is saved, she knows she can’t have her mother’s blessing.  Her mother doesn’t want to lose her, and doesn’t want her daughter to be hurt.  Hippolyta explains to her daughter that, in her view, human beings don’t deserve her.  Diana confronts her mother saying that she must go and fight Ares, the God of War.  Hippolyta, with a pained look on her face, says to her daughter: “If you choose to leave, you may never return.”  To which Diana responds: “Who will I be if I stay?”  When I heard that line in the movie, I immediately thought about the maxim of the 1st century BCE Sage Hillel, in Pirkei Avot:

If I am not for me, who will be?

If I am for myself alone, what am I?

And if not now, when?

The traditional commentators see this in the following way:

  1. If I am not for me, who will be? That means people can only attain virtue through their own strivings.
  2. If I am for myself alone, what am I? That means selfishness and disregard for others are traits of inhumanity.
  3. And if not now, when? That means moral obligations must be carried out as occasions arise and must not be postponed, lest the opportunities pass by.

While I like the traditional interpretations, I feel that there is more to this equation.  The traditional interpretations see the three questions as separate entities, barely connected to each other.  I do feel, however, that this is a literary unit, and as such its message is not in the separate questions, but in the amalgamation of the three.

If we see the three questions together, they point out that uncertainty is at the heart of every human enterprise.  How can I balance the need to take care of myself with the need to take care of the world, with the correct timing for my actions?  All our actions have many angles, many inner motivations, and many prisms.  When we accept that we all live with uncertainties, open to the many possibilities, we cannot see things in simple terms, in distinct and clear categories of right and wrong.  When we ask ourselves, am I taking care of myself, while taking care of others, at this moment in time, we do live a richer, and more difficult, life.  There are always many, competing perspectives that are constantly tugging at our emotional and intellectual strings.  These three questions are potent because they point out to us the power of uncertainty, the idea that we can grow from being open to the many possibilities of living.

Living with the power of uncertainty can be dizzying at time, and can make us feel at a loss.  Those are the moments that we feel tempted to see things in one way, and one way only.  We are tempted to find certainty in every one of our actions.

When we have certainty, we close ourselves to other possibilities.  When we see things in one perspective, and have our minds made up that the way we think and act is the only correct way, we find ourselves locked in the prison of single perspectives.  Life loses its color, and our outlook is bleak.  There is a saying, attributed to Mark Twain, that clarifies the issues that arise with having complete certainty.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

In other words, when a person is absolutely certain that s/he knows something to be absolutely true, without a shadow of a doubt, with certainty, that is when a person gets in trouble.  When we think we know the right way, and the only right way is our way, we close ourselves to other opinions, to other perspectives, and our reality becomes shriveled, sad, limited.  Without the ability to be open to questions, to different perspectives, to asking ourselves at the same time, is this good for me, for the world, and is this the right time, we incur the sin of certainty.

On Yom Kippur, we beat our chests and pronounce a list of sins.  We say: Ashamnu, Bagadnu, we have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, a full alphabet listing of things that we have collectively done wrong.  This year, as we ponder our responsibilities through the list of actions, we must reflect upon the three questions that together point the way to the truth of the moral dilemma of living life on this earth.  Maybe we will have to add this additional sin to our list: the sin of certainty.

One might ask, but if I am not certain about something, how can I act in this world?  How are we to decide what to do, and not be paralyzed by doubt?  How are we to balance the power of uncertainty with the sin of certainty, and still do something in this world?  The answer to this question is found in the question I have been asking myself the whole summer: What would Wonder Woman do?

At the end of the movie, Diana finally discovers that she is the weapon that will destroy Ares.  The two are in an intense fight.  Steve Trevor, the man Diana rescued and fell in love with, dies, by flying away with a plane full of mustard gas and sacrificing himself so that London would not be destroyed.  He held in balance the three questions and came to the realization that he must do something that went beyond his personal interest.

Diana is devastated, and wants to spread her inner devastation on everyone around her.  She holds up a military vehicle in order to kill Dr. Poison, the mad scientist who created the vicious gas that killed the man she loves.  Ares, taking advantage of Diana’s pain, goads her about killing Dr. Poison, saying that after all, humans don’t deserve Diana, her courage, and her fight for their lives.  At this moment, Diana thinks about Steve, lowers the military vehicle she was going to smash on the mad scientist’s head, and says: “It is not about deserve. It is about what you believe. And I believe in love.”  And then she proceeds to destroy Ares.

I don’t have to tell you that at this point in the movie I was sobbing.  Okay, I am known for having cried at commercials, but I was really moved to tears here.  “It is not about deserve. It is about what you believe. And I believe in love.”  This is the answer to my quandary.  The answer to the three questions, the answer to not falling prey to the sin of certainty because of my fear and discomfort with uncertainty, is to act according to my beliefs.  It is not to act based on a value judgment about what other people deserve.  The way to act with integrity in this world is to stay centered, understanding that what we believe is the true motivation for our actions.  It is not about deserve.  We all act out of deeply held beliefs and perspectives.  If we are open to the fact that we are all acting this way, we can understand and hear with compassion other people’s perspectives.  The way we see and experience the world is highly personal, and if we accept the power of uncertainty we can recognize that other people’s ideas, while different than ours, have their place.  We will all come to conclusions about whatever we think is right or wrong based on what we believe.  And I believe in love.

I believe in loving other people as myself, as we learn from the Book of Leviticus.  I believe in caring, in listening with compassion, and in multiple perspectives.  I believe in seeing things from a kindhearted, loving point of view.  I believe that every human being has the potential of doing good and being good, and when I am proven wrong, I add this to the list of experiences I have, knowing that I am growing as an individual, because it is not about deserve.  And even when I am pained by choosing the wrong answer to the quandary, I know I acted out of love and compassion, and that my actions reflected my beliefs.

In this new year of 5778, let’s beat the sin of certainty out of our chests, embracing the power of uncertainty, and acting according to what we believe, not judging what others deserve.  And may we all believe in love.

Yom Kippur Appeal Speech 5778 by Dan Rosman

This speech was delivered at Yom Kippur services on Saturday, September 30, 2017. 

I am Dan Rosman and I am honored to be the president of the congregation for a second year.  I am very fortunate to work with so many dedicated members who serve on the board of directors, as officers of the congregation, and on our 18 standing committees.  I am always amazed by how many members give so freely of their time and energy to our shul.  I cannot thank them enough for their devotion to our synagogue.  And for those of you who would like to get more involved, I am just a quick phone call or email away.

But I would truly be remiss if I did not mention the glue that holds this place together: our amazing professional and educational staff.  We have been so fortunate to have a group that works so well together.

Our preschool is thriving under the leadership of Alexis Joyce where we had to turn away families this year due to a lack of space.  If you ever want to get a taste of the preschool, drop by around noon on a Friday and you will feel so much nachas as you watch our preschoolers welcome in Shabbat.

On the religious school front, we are incredibly lucky to have Laura Naide as Director of Religious Education. She ensures day in and day out that our children are receiving the highest quality education as well as making sure that we have a robust adult education program.  If you want to see the vibrancy of our religious school, make sure you stop by for a Sunday morning minyan where our children do a fabulous job leading different parts of the service.  And I strongly encourage you to check out our Adult Education programming that will be starting after the high holidays – I know you will find it worth your while.

Having worked with Marcy Burka for many years as Treasurer, I can assure you that we are in the best of hands from a financial perspective.  And if that were not enough, she has the herculean task of ensuring that the building is in tip top shape.

And this place could not function without all of Edgar Rendon’s tireless work.  He treats this place like his own home and works so diligently to ensure that our shul is well taken care of.

As the first person you see as you walk into the office, Marni Corsaro always has a smile on her face even while juggling a phone call, buzzing someone in the front door and getting out important communications to the membership.  She creates such a warm and welcoming environment for us all.

And, of course, our spiritual guiding light, Rabbi Lia Bass.  From presiding over lifecycle events to her teaching and mentoring of children and adults alike, her religious and spiritual guidance is a large part of what makes Etz Hayim so special.

There is so much that goes on behind the scenes to keep the shul up and running.  We can honestly never thank our staff enough for all that they do. So when you get a chance, please let them know how much you appreciate all their efforts that they contribute to Etz Hayim.

As I mentioned at the beginning, there are many active committees at our shul.  I would really like to encourage all our members to take a look at the list of committees and see how they can get involved.  Our synagogue would not function without the amazing group of volunteers that contribute in ways that are too numerous to count.

For those non-members here today, I would encourage you to join us for Shabbat services or one of our upcoming events like our Sukkot Potluck next week, and I guarantee that you will enjoy listening to the Klezmer band during our Simchat Torah celebration at 6pm on October 12.

As I was preparing to write my appeal this year, I started brainstorming about what Etz Hayim means to me.

  • It is a place where I learn and grow as a Jewish adult.
  • It is a place where my children are formulating their Jewish identity.
  • It is a place where I continue to develop my spiritual relationship with Hashem.
  • It is a place that provides a network of support during difficult times.
  • It is a place where I get many opportunities to help others and perform Tikkun Olam.
  • It is a place where Elisa and I can celebrate lifecycle events with friends and family.
  • It a place where Elisa and I have met amazing people and developed lifelong friendships.
  • At its core, it is the one place outside my home where I feel most comfortable.

I believe that synagogues are and will continue to be the center of Jewish life in America.  During these times where we are seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism, it is all the more important that we sustain the only synagogue in Arlington as a center for Jewish life. I hope that everyone here will respond to my appeal because you value our congregation and its precious place in our lives and are ready to honor those that came before us.

There is a saying in the Talmud: “As my parents planted for me before I was born, so do I plant for those who will come after me.”

More than 75 years ago, during World War II, a small group of Jews in Arlington made a commitment to start a synagogue above a shoe store in Clarendon.  They poured their time, energy, and resources into creating what is now Congregation Etz Hayim.  Over the course of decades, many others have given of themselves in order to ensure that our congregation would be a Kehillah K’doshah, a sacred community filled with prayer, study, good deeds, and healing.

We who gather here this Yom Kippur morning have been the beneficiaries of those who came before us.  We have the opportunity to sow seeds that will bear fruit for generations to come. I am hopeful that you will all choose to make a commitment that expresses your gratitude and generosity and will allow Etz Hayim to perpetuate Jewish values, educate our children and grandchildren, and secure our Jewish future.

I challenge those that have given in the past to increase your pledge and those that have never given before to make a pledge today, in essence paying it forward as our founders did when they established this shul in 1940.

I thank you in advance for your commitment to Etz Hayim.  G’mar Hatimah Tovah!

–Dan Rosman

President, Congregation Etz Hayim

Rosh Hashanah (Day 2) Sermon by Rabbi Bass

This sermon was delivered at Rosh Hashanah (Day 2) services on Friday, September 22, 2017.

I came to this country in 1989 to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, after spending my first year in Israel. In between my year in Israel and coming to America, I went to the American Consulate to get my student visa, and had my interview with one of the consular officials. Some of you who are here today are familiar with this procedure, since so many people in our congregation work for the State Department. The official explained to me that I was not to work outside of the seminary in my first year of school, but that in my second year I could work in fields that correlated to my studies. In my second year in the USA I had my papers signed by the school’s registrar confirming that I could be employed, and went to teach religious school in a Manhattan synagogue. One day, I received a call from that religious school office saying that two officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Services had just come over to the synagogue and were on their way to see me. I was to wait for them in my dorm room to show all my papers and documents, proving that I could work in the United States. Apparently, Immigration had received an anonymous call saying that I was working illegally in this synagogue in Manhattan.

I knew everything was in order, and I waited in my dorm room. The two officers came to the seminary gates, a male and a female. They were led to my dorm room. They flashed their badges. Immigration and Naturalization Services, it read. They came in, and were rough and intimidating. They were shouting at me. I could not understand why they were treating me as if I had committed some kind of crime. I clumsily offered if they wanted to sit down, they declined and ordered me to bring out my passport and visa. I was nervous and intimidated, and with trembling hands gave them what they had asked for. As soon as they saw my papers, it became clear to them that they had received a false tip. There was nothing in my dorm room that could be considered even slightly suspicious, and my papers were absolutely in order. To my horror, at this point they bordered on abusive. The male officer brusquely asked that my papers be copied. I said that the only place we could copy the papers was in the library, hoping against hope that these officers would go away. I dreaded the idea of having to walk into the library flanked by two immigration officials. Well, he was not to be dissuaded. I grabbed my library and copier card, and the three of us went to the library, the female officer in front of me, the male officer flanking me in the back, giving the impression that I was being arrested. I felt the eyes of every student, faculty member, and personnel of the seminary on me. I copied all my papers, and they snatched it away from my hands. At the end of the ordeal, they were both visibly upset that there was nothing for them to do with me, and still very intimidating and rough.  It was a horrible, unnerving experience.

I understand that I was one of the rarest cases that these officers had in their lives. Yet, I had a personal glimpse of how scary it can be to deal with seasoned officers who have seen everything. I understood how one might feel on the receiving end of an immigration raid. I understood the helplessness and fear one has when dealing with the immigration system in the US. I believe there is a lot of misinformation on the issue of immigration in this country, and today I will share with you a few personal insights.

I recognize and appreciate that there must be a lot of vetting of who comes into the United States. I know that our country, (and I am proud to be an American citizen, part of this wonderful country) is maligned in many countries in the world, and that there are people constantly trying to bring harm and destruction to us. I also know that the vetting process that immigrants go through is very thorough. It took me 9 years from the moment that I applied for my green card to the moment that I swore my allegiance to the USA as a citizen. It was a long process, and it only wasn’t longer because I was aided by lawyers throughout the process. The lawyers and the majority of the officials that I met through this process were highly competent people. It is just that immigration law in this country is complicated, antiquated, and impossible to truly enforce. The political discourse, which jumbles immigration, refugees, and work visas into one crisis, is very confusing and disheartening.

Our tradition, however, gives us an unequivocal mandate regarding the treatment of immigrants. In the Torah, the term used for immigrant is Ger, which is commonly translated as stranger. The Ger is someone who is not native to the tribes of Israel, but that for one reason or another joins the people of Israel. Just like contemporary immigrants and refugees, they joined the people of Israel because of family ties, love, better work opportunities, or a true love of God. A few verses from the Torah can inform our perspectives about immigration.

Exodus 22:20

20. You shall not wrong an immigrant, nor oppress him; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9

9. Also you shall not oppress an immigrant; for you know the heart of the immigrant, seeing that you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:33-34

33. And if an immigrant dwells with you in your land, you shall not wrong them.

34. But the immigrant who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Eternal your God.

Numbers 15:15-16

15. One law shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the immigrant who dwells with you, an ordinance forever in your generations; as you are, so shall the immigrant be before the Eternal.

16. One Torah and one code shall be for you, and for the immigrant who dwells with you.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19

17. For the Eternal your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, mighty and awesome, which favors no person, nor takes bribes;

18. God executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and loves the immigrant, giving them food and garment.

19. Love you therefore the immigrant; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 24:17-19; 24:22

17. You shall not pervert the judgment of the immigrant, nor of the orphan; nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge;

18. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Eternal your God redeemed you there; therefore I command you to do this thing.

19. When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the immigrant, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Eternal your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

22. And you shall remember that you were an immigrant enslaved in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.

Take a moment to reflect on the passages you just heard. These are but a few verses, only in the five books of Moses, that inform our understanding of the treatment of immigrants and refugees. These verses demand empathy from us, demand that we do not forget our origins, and that we protect others in the way that we would have liked to be protected and cared for. From all these verses, we can infer that according to the Torah, Israelites must treat immigrants in a respectful and loving manner, because once we were immigrants. We had to immigrate to the land of Egypt, because of famine, and a lack of appropriate conditions to raise our families. In Egypt, we were treated poorly, we were enslaved. We built the big monuments that came to symbolize the prosperity of that country. The Torah reminds us, again and again, that we know the heart of the immigrant and the oppressed, and because of that we are to treat them as we would like to be treated. We have to provide for them, together with our own poor.

Immigration Law in the United States has always been complicated. Quotas established in the US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 strictly limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted to the United States each year. That act was tinged with racial undertones, trying to keep certain nationalities, and Jews, from immigrating to this country. From 1924 to 1965, the system of quotas meant to make it impossible for large migration. In the midst of these years, there was WWII, and the Holocaust. We, as Jews, were caught stranded in Europe, without a place to go.  That is when the episode of the St. Louis happened.

Since Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass”on November 9–10, 1938, many Jews realized the danger they were in and wanted to emigrate. On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. There were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. The majority of the Jewish passengers had applied for US visas, and had planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United States. The passengers held landing certificates and transit visas issued by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration. However, just a week before the ship sailed the Cuban president invalidated all recently issued landing certificates, because of a corruption scandal. When the St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, the Cuban government sent away 908 Jewish passengers, refusing to admit them or to allow them to disembark from the ship. On June 2, the Cuban president ordered the ship out of Cuban waters.

Since they were so close to Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. The State Department and the White House decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”

In 1939, the annual combined German-Austrian immigration quota was 27,370 and was quickly filled. In fact, there was a waiting list of at least several years. US officials could only have granted visas to the St. Louis passengers by denying them to the thousands of German Jews placed further up on the waiting list. Public opinion in the United States, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of the refugees and critical of Hitler’s policies, continued to favor immigration restrictions. The Great Depression had left millions of people in the United States unemployed and fearful of competition for the scarce few jobs available. It also fueled antisemitism, xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism. A Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration. President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees, but this general hostility to immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and Roosevelt’s consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president were among the political considerations that militated against taking an extraordinary step for an unpopular cause.

Roosevelt was not alone in his reluctance to challenge the mood of the nation on the immigration issue. Three months before the St. Louis sailed, Congressional leaders in both US houses allowed a bill to die in committee that would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany above the existing quota.

Following the US government’s refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939. The passengers did not return to Germany, however. They were distributed through many European nations, and 254 of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.

The episode of the St. Louis makes it clear that there was a lack of political will, coupled with laws that did not reflect the demand of the times, resulting in the mass extermination of Jews who were caught in Europe without the ability to save themselves and their families. It is important to notice that there were anti-Jewish, as well as anti-immigration sentiments in the nation, fueled by an economic crisis.

In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act created a different reality by eliminating the racialist immigration quotas that were set by the Immigration Act of 1924. Since 1965, many things have changed, and immigration again needs a re-focusing.

Right now, there is legislation introduced in the Senate called the RAISE act, (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act). There are many things this bill will do, but there is one that feels very personal. The bill will remove pathways for parents, siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to apply for permanent lawful residency status in the U.S., limiting the family path to spouses and minor children only. If this would be the case when my mother moved here, she would never be able to have a green card or be a citizen of this country. Like her, there are many older immigrants that have their pensions from another country, and end up paying taxes both here and in their country of origin.

From what I learn from the Torah, and my experiences, I believe that our country needs to take a hard look at the motivations of new legislations, and the effect of limiting immigration in general. I do believe that Congress can find a path for immigration that will work to the benefit of our country, because I believe in this country, in our Government, and in the democratic process. And I believe that with courage our representatives can start finding real solutions that will open our country, wisely, to a path of sustainable immigration.

I hope that today I was able to give you a different perspective on issues of immigration. I hope that you take my words in the spirit in which they are meant, which is to show that behind big policies there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who, like me, have productive lives in this country we call home, but are afraid that things can change at the drop of a hat.  I hope that my words today open a dialogue on issues of immigration, in our congregation and in our community.

May we be able to find positive pathways to make our country, our community, and our individual lives more productive and better in the coming year.


1) All the information about the transatlantic liner St. Louis came from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

2) All the information about the RAISE act came from the bill in Congress. ( S.354 — 115th Congress (2017-2018))

Rosh Hashanah (Day 1) Sermon by Rabbi Bass

On August 13, I was standing in the airport in Lisbon. We were coming back from a truly wonderful trip in Israel and Portugal.

In Lisbon, I visited the site of the massacre of 1506.  In 1497, The King of Portugal, D. Manuel I, forced the conversion of Jews in Portugal, pressured by Spain. On Easter Day, 1506, many people were gathered at the Convent of Saint Dominic, praying for the end of the drought and plague that ravaged Portugal. The priest noticed that the face of a statue was radiant, and proclaimed that all gathered were witnessing a miracle, since the statue’s face was lit, seemingly from within. Soon, he claimed, the plague and drought would end. Two New Christians, who were Jews who had been forcibly converted, followed the trail of the light, and quite dismissively, pointed out to the priest that it was coming from a crack in the window. The priest, unhappy that his claim was being challenged, incited a mob against the two, claiming they were heretics. The crowd carried the men out, where they were beaten to death. At this point, the crowd was excited, and carried out the bloodiest pogrom that Lisbon ever saw. Removing entire Jewish families from their homes, the mob killed almost 2000 people by beating them to death, or burning them at the stake. The Royal Guard arrived and stopped the madness, later punishing many people including the priest who had incited the mob.

In the middle of the Rossio, a bustling neighborhood that once was the home of thousands of Jews, stands a monument. It is a monument of tolerance, commemorating the massacre of 1506. This monument was installed on April 22, 2008. The monument is a Jewish star, fashioned out of marble and metal, and it is inscribed with the words: ”In memory of the thousands of Jews victims of intolerance and religious fanaticism assassinated on this square during the massacre initiated on the 19th of April 1506.” This monument is a part of a reparations movement in Portugal, that is coupled with the offering of citizenship to Jews that can prove their family lived in Portugal in the 16th century. The Portuguese have realized how much they lost by expelling the Jews, and are now trying to bring back a Jewish presence.

On August 13, 2017, I was at the Lisbon airport waiting to come home, when I looked at the TV and saw a scary mob scene: Nazi flags, and people in fatigues fully armed in front of a synagogue. I watched the scene in disbelief as the words Charlottesville, VA, appeared on the screen. I looked online and found out what had happened the day before. The news and the images hit me very hard. I was seeing a clear manifestation of explosive evil. At that moment, the echoes of what happened in Lisbon in 1506 amplified my reaction to what was happening very close to my home that day.

We are here, gathered, a month later. What happened in Charlottesville shook the foundation of our beliefs and certainties in this country, with its old and familiar undertones, yet also with new and disquieting ones. Charlottesville, a town that houses a university, a place that Thomas Jefferson helped to establish, a city where Jews have been living since the 1870s, whose mayor is Jewish, whose past mayor is Sikh, was the stage of this major racist, anti-Jewish demonstration. It was frightening for all of us to see the incredibly bold display of hatred. There were many, quite chilling chants uttered by the Nazis and White Supremacists. For us, some are difficult to hear: “The Jews will not replace us.” “Blood and Soil,” the Nazi refrain. We know well that racism is evil, that anti-Semitism is evil, and that white supremacy is completely against the values of our community and nation. Let me remind you the outward purpose of this rally: it was to protest the removal of a monument to a Confederate General, Robert E. Lee.

Monuments are important. In our tradition, we are commanded to create a lasting monument for our deceased family members. In the Torah, there are many mentions of monuments, matzevot. For example, when Jacob wakes up from his dream in Beth El he sets the stones on which he was sleeping as a Matzevah, as a monument to the experience he had. There are many examples of monuments that are set up to remember events in the lives of the Israelites. Yet, there are also warnings about monuments. In the Book of Exodus, chapter 23 verse 24 we read:

“You shall not bow down to their gods and you shall not worship them, and you shall not do as they do, but you shall utterly tear them down and you shall completely destroy their monuments.”

In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites are taught to not worship any other God than the Eternal. If there are statues, monuments to these false deities in the path of the Israelites, monuments that are a source of confusion, misunderstanding and idolatry, that will lead people astray, they are commanded to destroy them.

According to the Torah, monuments can help us remember an important moment in our lives as a nation, and monuments can also guide us on the wrong path. There are monuments that should stay, and monuments that must be removed. As we read in the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, for everything there is a season: a time to break down and a time build, et lifrotz ve’eit livnot. In our country, we are in a time to re-think our monuments, their placement, and their purpose. Historian Carl Becker writes: ”History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.” A culture demonstrates its values by what it chooses to remember and what it chooses to forget, and by how it remembers its choices. We must be attuned to when the monuments were created, and what was the reason for their creation. The monument in Lisbon is important and touching. Yet it was created in 2008, 502 years after the massacre. It was created when the financial crisis made Portugal one of the least desirable European countries when it came to investments and development. Having the monument was a strategic plan to bring more investments and resources, as well as tourism to Portugal. The statute in Charlottesville was erected in 1924, 57 years after the end of the Civil War. The process of granting civil rights to former slaves was in full force. The South was still reeling from the Civil war, in economic turmoil, in fear, and dealing with so much loss. What was the purpose of erecting a monument that commemorated a Confederate General, with the Confederacy’s history of slavery? I disagree with those who say that this was an expression of memory and history. To me, this statue is a monument to forgetting. Forgetting the taskmaster’s whip, the disemboweled people on trees, slaves’ blood, scars on children’s backs.

Maybe these monuments are to be destroyed, maybe they are to be collected somewhere and preserved as a memorial of a dark past. What is clear is that the monument in Charlottesville, like many other monuments in the South, betray feelings and attitudes that are still very raw in our country. The statues present a series of difficulties, because they are emblematic of the sentiments that fueled their creation: racism, fear, and hatred.

In the Talmud, in Mas. Berachoth 32a, there is a discussion about the Golden Calf episode. God and Moshe are talking after the Israelites had sinned by building a golden calf, a monument to a Caananite deity, and worshiping it. God cannot contain God’s rage at this demonstration of unfaithfulness. God says to Moshe, “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them.” Moshe said to himself: If God is telling me to leave God alone, it must be because this matter is dependent on me – Davar zeh Talui bi. I can intervene here. Immediately, Moshe sprung to his feet and was strengthened in prayer, asking God to have mercy on the people of Israel and to forgive them for their transgression. Moshe realizes he has a power, one of reasoning and persuasion. He understands, based on God’s comment, that it is up to him to change the course of events. There is something he can do when dealing with God’s anger. He understands that the strength to act must come from within.

In the Yamim Norayim, the Days of Awe, we are supposed to do Heshbon Hanefesh, moral stock-taking. On these days, we participate in the process of deep introspection, figuring out what are our personal matzevot, the monuments that we have inside. We figure out what our personal power is, and when we can say, like Moshe: “This matter is dependent on me – Davar zeh Talui bi.”  This year, we must look inside ourselves and decide which monuments have to stay and which monuments have to go, and which monuments should be removed but kept somewhere else as a reminder of a dark past. Do I hold fast to grudges, grievances, and forget personal screw-ups, and forget the kindnesses of people that I now take for granted? Today, we must explore all our internal monuments, with a sharp eye, without shame.  We do this so that our personal transformation can fuel social transformation. With the internal strength that we gain from truly examining the inner and inter-personal monuments, we ask: What are our internal monuments to love, to peace, and to diversity? What are our internal monuments to racism, bias and privilege?  Racism in our communities doesn’t involve hoods, torches and flags, like the ones seen in Charlottesville. Holding on to grudges, putting down people, and fueling feuds makes our hearts fertile ground for fear, hate, and racism. Can I dig deeper and dismantle what is not helpful to the betterment of my society?  How can I contribute to a moral reset in an American society that has become hospitable to hate? It is not only in our public lives that we choose what to remember and what to forget. In our personal relationships, at this time of the year, we also must be careful of what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. Davar ze talui bi – This matter is dependent on me.

There are many structures we need to build into our system to make sure that we are a force of good in our society. We erect the important matzevot, the much-needed good monuments and structures, when we let our empathy, our internal power, our compassion speak louder than any other voice inside of us.  We must hit our moral reset button, and counter hate at all times, starting at our kitchen tables, in the way that we raise the moral issues with our families. We can counter hate, racism, and prejudice in our schools, in our personal relationships, and in our day to day interactions by raising the issues when they come up, and being open to understanding where issues are coming from and what we need to change in our attitudes. With the power of these personal structures we can build communities that make sure our nation lives up to its ideals.

Fixing our communities with the renewed energy that emanates from our individual moral stock-taking will not alleviate the fears that the scenes in Charlottesville bring up. The revulsion we feel when seeing the symbols of white supremacy waved in Charlottesville stems from our historical experiences, from persecution in the Greek and Roman times, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and many other experiences that have shaped our Jewish community. In Charlottesville, the threat of violence, the symbols held high, and the chants disturbed the whole Jewish community. How can we counteract the effects of anti-Semitism in our lives? What are the monuments that can help our community stay strong and grow in the face of this evil?

To me, the best response to anti-Semitism is to lead a proud and vibrant Jewish life. The more we are involved in Jewish life, the better we are at counteracting hate and anti-Semitism. It is through Jewish education, and the formation of a strong Jewish identity that we will be able to tear down the monuments to racism and intolerance. Have a Shabbat dinner with your family and friends, since this is an excellent opportunity for everyone to feel connected, from children to adults. Come to services and strengthen your spiritual life. Join us for fun holidays. Sukkot is coming up, and we will have a potluck dinner in the sukkah. Simchat Torah is coming up, and we have a great time dancing with the Torah to the beautiful music of a klezmer band. Come to Saturday morning or Friday night services, discuss Pirkei Avot or the Torah reading. Come to an adult education session, and strengthen your actions by understanding your deeds in this world through a Jewish lens. Support the programs of our preschool and our Religious School. Join us as we participate in Social Action programs, as we create community. A Judaism of justice and choice, a Judaism that is knowledgeable, proud, and vibrant, is the best antidote to hatred. When we know who we are, when we have a deep understanding of the richness of our tradition, we have the certainty to counteract the negativity of anti-Semitism.

May we build, in this coming year, a monument to the strength and beauty of Judaism, in our homes, in our workplaces, in our lives.


1) With much gratitude, this sermon is based on a teaching by Rabbi David Stern.

2) The translation of matzevoteihem in the Book of Exodus 23:24 is usually “their pillars” but they serve the same purpose as monuments, therefore I used this translation for emphasis.