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Posts Tagged ‘Baltimore’

Thoughts On Bridging The Great Jewish Divide

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

We recently observed the 10th of Teves, which, historically, represents the beginning of the siege of Yerushalayim by Nebuchadnezzar. It was this siege that began a string of calamities that resulted in the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash.

According to some sources, it was on this day that Yosef was sold into servitude by his brothers – the first act of sinas chinam (baseless and unwarranted hatred) within the ranks of the Abrahamitic family.

Unfortunately, sinas chinam has lately been rearing its ugly head, with a vengeance, in Israel.

There are some who will claim that those who yell slurs at another Jew because he (or she) does not dress like them, look like them or believe like them are fighting for the honor of Torah. That calling someone a “shiksa” or spitting on a child is acceptable Jewish behavior. I call it a horrific desecration of God’s name.

Let us not, however, simply blame the haredim. A couple of weeks ago an 11-year-old haredi boy in Israel was hit in the face by two secular Jews. Is this what we have come to? After 2,000 years of Diaspora, when our children were beaten and abused by others, we pick up where the nations of world left off?

We know the individuals who perpetrated these acts do not reflect the feelings and beliefs of the larger groups with whom they associate and identify. But actions of individuals that go unchallenged by the masses soon become the acceptable norm.

No one group has the right to impose its beliefs on the greater public. No one group can claim to have cornered the market on Torah and Judaism and dictate how the collective must behave. We must learn that we can coexist beautifully even if we disagree vehemently. Creating a dialogue with a fellow Jew does not mean you have to accept or condone his beliefs or practices.

I say this to haredim and chilonim, chassidim and misnagdim, daati tzioni and haredi daati leumi; to Modern Orthodox, centrist Orthodox, left-leaning Orthodox, right-wing Orthodox, Conservative and Reform; to those from Lakewood, Yeshiva University, Chovevei Torah and every other group, denomination and faction.

People often ask me what my hashkafa is. I identify with the teachings of chassidus and gain much from the insights of Nechama Leibowitz; I am uplifted by the ideas of Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik and feel inspired by the Torah of the Satmar Rebbe; and I say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut with a berachah but do not feel that Religious Zionism is the most important aspect of Judaism. I wear a black hat and a velvet yarmulke but believe in engagement with the outside world.

So what is my hashkafa?

It’s simple. I’m Jewish. I believe in Hashem and that it is my responsibility to observe His Torah and perform His mitzvos. I believe I do not exist for myself but for the benefit of the klal and therefore it’s my responsibility to contribute to the Jewish people in a positive fashion. I believe we can impact the greater society without compromising our values and beliefs.

I believe Judaism is not about what feels good or is politically correct but what the Torah tells us we must do. And at the end of the day I believe v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha (love your fellow as you love yourself) is not to be selectively applied to people with whom I identify but should serve as the guide for dealing with those to the right and left of us.

We all bear responsibility for the current state of affairs and we are all charged with trying to find a solution. There is no quick fix or particular selection of Psalms to remedy this situation, but allow me to suggest three things:

Engage your fellow Jew. There are times when a new person walks into shul and he can sit for an entire davening without someone coming over to wish him a Good Shabbos. Whether the person looks more observant or less observant, go over, connect and help build the Jewish people. When you pass someone in the street, make sure to greet him with a Good Shabbos. When thinking about whom to have at your Shabbos table, consider those who may not have a large social circle and include them at your meal.

Do more chesed. We are all busy with the various demands of life but we must make time to do for others. If the only things we are occupied with during the week are our own needs or the demands of our own family, we can forget we are part of something bigger. We must create time and open our hearts for others.

Spend less time focusing on hashkafa and more time focusing on Torah. We spend so much time trying to figure out what religious label to attach to ourselves even as we carefully analyze the hashkafic implications of every move in our shul and community. Let’s stop wasting our time. Torah is the great common denominator that unites us all.

Getting The Best Messages

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Suzanne called me today about the newest humiliation she had just experienced. At the gym, a personal trainer loudly reprimanded her for trying to help another person with some equipment, and he did so in front of nearly everybody who was working out there.

Suzanne doesn’t ever want to see that trainer again or ever face the people who were in the gym today while she was being berated. I tried as best as I could to give Suzanne the warm support that she needed. Later on, though, when she was insisting that she could never return to the gym, I shared an insight that popped up. It seemed like there was a clearer message than usual in this latest episode of frequently recurring humiliations, since it was a “personal trainer” who had been hurtful to her this time.

Not going back to the gym wouldn’t put an end to these kinds of pain-evoking experiences in Suzanne’s life, although it would be a good idea to avoid a person with that kind of explosive temper, and report his behavior to his superiors. The reason why these types of intimidating patterns keep repeating, though, should not be avoided.

When certain painful patterns of behavior keep repeating in our lives, it is a major clue that there is an important communication we need to receive. The personal trainers we encounter may differ radically in appearance, yet they’re all delivering the very same message we desperately need to get.

Who are these “personal trainers?” It is not just somebody spitefully out to “get” us. And he or she is not being sent directly our way by an external vindictive kind of God, trying to ultimately make our lives miserable. In fact, we, ourselves, are often, unwittingly, these personal trainers too, helping others to get the very uncomfortable messages they may not feel like getting, but are, nevertheless, vital to their greatest fulfillment.

Personal training sessions are continuously going on because our souls are yearning – non-stop – for the deepest pleasure possible. What is that pleasure? It is to blossom to our full potential.

About half of all people, for example, probably need to become gentler, more compassionate and more giving. Then there’s the other half who nearly always need to become stronger, tougher and more assertive. And each of us keeps getting painful communications – in strikingly similar patterns – throughout our lives, so that we can become more balanced in these essential qualities.

Recently I got hurt because somebody disregarded a business agreement we had made. Why did I trust the person so implicitly beforehand? Hadn’t I been in a seemingly different, but actually similar situation not so long before? Why was I again disregarding the red flags, not taking precautions, and naively hoping for the best outcome?

As hard as it is for so many to stand up for themselves, be assertive, and resist being trampled upon, there are those who find it almost just as impossible to refrain from forging ahead to gain an ever increasing power over others. It is probably as hard for the more ruthless types to take the time to pause and listen respectfully to others – and then respond with genuine warmth – as it is for the non-assertive types to demand to be heard.

In Kohelet (Ecclesiates 3:1-8) Shlomo HaMelech explains what he has come to understand:

For everything there is a season, A right time for every intention under heaven, A time to be born and a time to die, A time to plant and a time to uproot, A time to kill and a time to heal, A time to tear down and a time to build, A time to weep and a time to laugh, A time to mourn and a time to dance, A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones, A time to embrace and a time to refrain, A time to search and a time to give up, A time to keep and a time to discard, A time to tear and a time to sew, A time to keep silent and a time to speak, A time to love and a time to hate, A time for war and a time for peace.

There are times that we need to learn how to be more trusting and times when we need to be less trusting. Situations when we need to demonstrate more patience with people, and circumstances when we have been way too patient. Life seems to be so much about learning how to become more balanced and developing the flexibility to respond fluidly at the appropriate time. We are all here to help each other become our most actualized selves, even though the growing pains can really be excruciating at times.

Lost To Orthodoxy: The Fate of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from A History of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation: 1830-1905 by Adolf Guttmacher, Lord Baltimore Press, 1905. I am indebted to Sally Plumbaum, assistant to the executive director of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, who provided me with a copy of this rare book.

 

 

Not many Jews lived in Baltimore during the eighteenth century; by 1796 the entire Jewish population of the city consisted of about 15 families. As late as 1825, Solomon Etting, one of the first Jewish residents of Baltimore, estimated the Jewish population of Baltimore to be about 150.

Given this, it is not surprising that the minyan that led to the organization of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was not established until the autumn of 1829. It first met in the home of Zalma Rehine, who had recently relocated to Baltimore from Richmond. On January 29, 1830 the Maryland House of Delegates passed an act incorporating the congregation as an official entity within the city of Baltimore.

The Hebrew name of the congregation was Nidchei Yisrael, “The Scattered of Israel.” In its early years it was often referred to as “the first Hebrew Congregation” and later as the Stadt Shul.

“This latter designation was used to distinguish it from ‘The Fell’s Point Hebrew Friendship Congregation’ (later the Eden Congregation), which was organized in 1838 by a number of co-religionists who had settled in what was then an outlying and, at first, [a] separate district, while the Mother Congregation was located in the center of town.”

The early membership was largely made up of Jews originally from Holland, many of whom had previously settled in the West Indies. There were commercial ties between Baltimore and the West Indies that explain the settlement of Dutch Jews from the West Indies in Baltimore.

Beginning in 1835 a number of Bavarian Jews settled in Baltimore and soon outnumbered the Dutch Jews.

“In 1832 the roster of the Congregation contained the names of 29 heads of families; in 1835 there were 41 families, and in 1839 the membership had grown to 59.”

The synagogue “was organized by Orthodox Jews, and for many decades the services were carried on according to the old Orthodox ritual. The people lived strictly Orthodox [lives], observing the very minutiae of the Rabbinical Law. The dietary laws were conscientiously carried out. The Sabbath and the Festivals were consecrated to worship and to rest, and the ceremonies connected with them were observed in every home.

“The Congregation, in those early days, was the center of all communal activity; it reflected, far more than today, the religious and social status of its members, for the Congregation entered into the life of everyone. It regulated the religious affairs of the community by appointing Shochtim, maintaining a Mikvah (Ritual bath), and looking after the baking of Matzoth.”

* * * * *
It is important to keep in mind that those who supported the congregation were, with few exceptions, relatively poor. Most of them struggled to earn their livelihood. Still, help was never refused to those who asked, and the members of the congregation made sure the poor were cared for in many ways. The congregational minutes indicate that at almost every meeting the board voted to give relief to some poor stranger or to someone “who had grown poor in our midst.” Twice a year the congregation sent money to charities in the Holy Land that assisted the poor.

 

In addition to the revenue from dues, the congregation was funded through the selling of aliyahs, Mishebeirachs and Kale Malei Rachamims. Until 1847 the aliyahs were sold before the Torah was taken out via bidding run by the sexton in a manner similar to what is still done in many synagogues on Yomim Tovim. Later the board fixed the amount to be paid for aliyahs.

According to Maryland law, it was required to proclaim an upcoming marriage on three successive Shabbosim before the wedding.

“The sexton proclaimed the marriage, and the Congregation charged for such proclamation from $1.00 to $4.50. The last recorded proclamation is dated May 28, 1881.”

A curious system of fines existed in the synagogue and was in effect until 1893:

“For the purpose of fining, three kinds of tickets were used. A white ticket was sent through the sexton by the president, or one of the officers, to the offender as a warning. If this was not heeded, a blue or red ticket followed, the former being a fine of 25 cents, the latter of 50 cents.

“There were fines for talking during services; for chewing; for gathering on the pavement in front of the Synagogue; for bringing children under five years of age to services; for putting away the talith before services were over; for leaving the Synagogue during services without the permission of some officer; for singing L’Dovid Boruch louder than the Chazan at the going out of the Sabbath.”

 

* * * * *
In 1840 Rabbi Abraham Rice, a talmid chacham and the first Orthodox rabbi to settle permanently in America, became the spiritual leader of the congregation. He realized something we take for granted today, namely, that the future of Judaism depended on children receiving a thorough Torah education. Sadly, opportunities for Jewish education in 1840 in Baltimore were minimal at best. (The same was true throughout America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.)

The proper education of Jewish youth was Rabbi Rice’s first and major concern, and he set out to remedy the lack of Jewish education in Baltimore in what was then a bold and innovative manner.

He therefore established a Jewish all-day school that taught both limudei kodesh (religious subjects) and limudei chol (secular subjects). In 1841 he opened a Hebrew day school under the auspices of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation named the Hebrew and English Benevolent Academic Association of Baltimore.

It was the first Jewish all-day school in America under the auspices of an Ashkenaz congregation. The religious curriculum focused on Hebrew language and grammar, the Siddur, Tanach, Rashi, biblical history, and mitzvah observance, while in the afternoon English reading, writing and spelling were taught, as were mathematics and geography.

“It is noteworthy that the selection of an English teacher was considered of such great moment as to be entrusted to a committee of American-born and educated Christians, who were supposed better to understand the needs of the future citizen.”

Rabbi Rice realized that while most of his congregants spoke German, their offspring were more likely to use English in their daily lives and hence should be able to read, write and speak English properly.

Although originally only for boys, within a few years the school also admitted girls, since it was realized that they too needed a Jewish education. The school was fairly successful, and by 1851 it had an enrollment of about 200.

Unfortunately, the establishment of free public school education led to a decline in enrollment and the school ceased to function in 1870. Parents at that time chose to send their children to public school rather than a Jewish religious school, not realizing they were paving the way for the assimilation of future generations.

While it functioned, the school managed to educate a number of young people who remained observant Jews. One such person was Dr. Aaron Friedenwald, who attended the school and remained an observant Jew throughout his life – something nearly unheard of for a nineteenth-century physician.

“The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation outgrew its quarters every few years. At first it occupied a room, corner of Bond and Fleet streets, over a grocery; then it moved in 1832 to North Exeter Street, near what is now Lexington Street. In 1835 the Congregation occupied an one-story dwelling on High street near the bend, between Fayette and Gay Streets. In 1837 the Congregation had grown sufficiently prosperous to buy a three-story brick dwelling, corner of Harrison Street and Etna Lane.”

Within a few years, however, this facility also became inadequate, and the membership erected the first synagogue building in Maryland. The result was a beautiful structure located on Lloyd Street that, in addition to a magnificent main sanctuary, housed in the basement a bais medrash, four classrooms, a mikveh, and an oven for baking matzahs. The building was completed in 1845 and dedicated with much fanfare.

By 1860 the original building had become too small to seat all of the Congregation’s members and their families, so the structure was enlarged by a 30-foot extension on its eastern end.

Lloyd Street Synagogue 
(Today the Lloyd Street Synagogue Building is an historic site.)  
* * * * *
Increased membership proved to be both a blessing and a curse, as it attracted some who were influenced by the Reform movement. At first the newcomers demanded minor innovations, but as time went on they pushed for more substantial changes. There was constant conflict and dissension. Reform was affecting most synagogues in America by the middle of the 19th century, and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was no exception.

The effects of Reform were evidenced by the fact that in 1850 the synagogue found it necessary to pass a bylaw requiring all officers not only to be personally shomer Shabbos but also to keep their businesses closed on Shabbos and on the first and last two days of Yom Tov.

Every attempt at innovation was fought by those members committed to Orthodoxy, but they were soon in the minority and could not stem the rising tide of Reform. In 1853 confirmation of girls was introduced; in 1857 duchening was abolished; in 1860 many of the piyutim traditionally said in German congregations were omitted; and in 1866 the haftarah was read in German instead of in Hebrew.

In 1870, a petition was presented to the congregational board asking for the introduction of “moderate” reforms – including a mixed choir.

“The petitioners begged for a speedy introduction of moderate reforms [so] ‘that the religious life of the Congregation may not suffer.’ “

A special meeting was called to consider the petition, and it was defeated by a vote of 32 for and 39 against. It looked like the Orthodox members of the Congregation had won.

A few months later, however, the spiritual leader of the congregation proposed a number of sweeping ritual reforms. These included elimination of any references to the restoration of the Temple sacrifices and the recitation of all selections from the Talmud – as well as the elimination of the repetition of certain prayers by the cantor. Despite the earlier rejection of similar reforms, these passed by a vote of 56-22. Further, a resolution for a mixed choir was reintroduced and approved.

Twenty members of the congregation took the matter to civil court, seeking an injunction preventing the board from carrying out the reforms.

“An agreement was finally entered into and the case allowed to sleep on the dockets of the court. The majority of the complainants then resigned from the Congregation in December 1870, and January 1871.”

Shortly thereafter they established Congregation Chizuk Amuno, which adhered strictly to halacha.

Other reforms followed in 1873, including mixed seating and a three-year cycle for reading the Torah. The wearing of talleisim, thecalling up for aliyahs and the reciting of Mishebeirach and Kale Malei Rachamim were all discontinued.

In 1878 the use of the venerable Rodelheim siddur was done away with.

A few years later, observance of the second day of the festivals became a thing of the past.

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, once a bastion of Orthodoxy, was now a full-fledged Reform temple. In fact, it bills itself today as “the largest Reform congregation in Maryland.”

On February 3, 1889, the old synagogue building, which had once been the centerpiece of traditional Judaism in Baltimore, was sold to the newly organized Lithuanian Roman Catholic Parish and became the Church of St. John the Baptist.

* * * * *
The fate of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation is not unique in the annals of American Jewish history. Many synagogues that started out as Orthodox institutions became Reform temples during the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. Ostensibly their goal, as the petitioners for reforms in the rituals of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation had claimed, was “that the religious life of the Congregation may not suffer.”

We know, of course, that they failed miserably. Instead of preserving Judaism, they opened the door to the abandonment of Jewish observance and the assimilation of hundreds of thousands of Jews through intermarriage.

It seems that even Dr. Adolf Guttmacher, who wrote the history of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, realized this to some extent:

“The present religious conditions of the Congregation require some notice. While the material prosperity of the Congregation is all that can be desired, spiritually there is, indeed, much room for improvement. The conditions are the same here that obtain in all other large cities. On the great Holydays the seating capacity of the Temple is taxed to the utmost. The Sabbath services are well attended by women and children, but the men are in a woeful minority.

“But what is most discouraging is the fact that as the fathers, who attended services regularly, die, the sons, though retaining the membership, do not come to the House of God except on rare occasions.”

Time and again it has been demonstrated that the only way to ensure the preservation of Judaism is by strict adherence to halacha. Other approaches, no matter how well intentioned, are doomed to failure.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens.His regular Jewish Press column, “Glimpses Into American Jewish History,” appears the first week of each month.  Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

The Controversial Mordecai Moses Mordecai

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Introduction1
 
   The first ordained rabbi to settle in America, Abraham Rice did not arrive here until 1840. Before then, few men with anything more than a rudimentary Torah knowledge resided in America. One exception was Mordecai Moses Mordecai.
 
   “Mordecai Moses Mordecai was born on January 16, 1727, in the Lithuanian town of Tels [also written Telz, Telshi]. His father was evidently a rabbi, Moses, son of Mordecai. The majority of Jews in Northern Europe had no family names at this period, and were known simply by a patronymic. On his arrival in America, our Mordecai discovered a Moses Mordecai, from Bonn, Germany, residing in eastern Pennsylvania. Probably to avoid confusion, our subject styled himself with his father’s and grandfather’s names as Mordecai Moses Mordecai, usually adding ‘of Telz.’”
 
   At the time Lithuania was one of the major centers of Torah scholarship in the world. Therefore, it is not surprising the Mordecai received a comprehensive Torah education, “but there is no evidence to show that he achieved ordination. On the contrary, he would have signed himself ‘Rabbi’ had he been so entitled. He left his birthplace in northwestern Lithuania to become the first known Jew from his area to arrive in North America.”
 
   In 1760 Mordecai married Zipporah de Lyon of Easton, Pennsylvania. Zipporah’s father, Abraham de Lyon, and grandfather, Dr. Samuel Nunez, were among the original Jewish settlers of Savannah, GA. Mordecai and his bride settled in Lancaster and lived there for about ten years. However, by 1770 they had taken up residence in Baltimore. Mordecai became a distiller, but apparently was not particularly successful in this endeavor. 
 
   “By 1782, the British raids on the coastal cities had caused many patriot citizens [among them the Mordecais] to flee to Philadelphia for safety. The city’s Jewish population was enlarged by refugees from Newport, New York, Baltimore, Charleston and Savannah. A long-deferred project came to fruition when thirty-six heads of families signed themselves as agreeable to building a synagogue [which was named Congregation Mikveh Israel]. Mordecai M. Mordecai was among the signers.
 
   “At long last his rabbinic training could be put to use. He was assigned the important task of writing letters in Hebrew to the more established Sephardic synagogues of London and Amsterdam for approval of the architectural design, since this had ritual significance. Mordecai also penned a Hebrew letter to the thriving congregation in Paramaribo, Surinam, seeking a contribution. The overall appeal brought contributions from sixty-one individuals.
 
   “Mordecai must have been elated when he was chosen by the congregation as one of three experts in traditional Jewish law to rule whether the congregation’s minister, Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, might perform a marriage between Jacob I. Cohen and the widow of the above-mentioned German Moses Mordecai. The problem arose from the fact that the bride-to-be had been born Elizabeth Whitlock, a Christian; and, despite the fact that she had been converted to Judaism in her native England prior to her first marriage, her fianc? was a Cohen.”
 

   Mordecai and another member of this group rightly voted against this marriage, since the Torah prohibits a kohen from marrying a gayarus. Based on this, the congregation’s board of directors forbade their chazzan, Reverend Gershom Seixas, to perform the marriage. Nonetheless, on August 28, 1782 the couple was married without the participation of the chazzan in a ceremony held outside of the synagogue but in the presence of three of the congregation’s leaders. Mordecai took this as a personal affront. “The day before the wedding, Mordecai had received a rude shock when his application to become shammash [sexton, a position requiring some ritual knowledge] found him an unsuccessful candidate.”

 

Confrontations with Congregational

Authorities2
 
   “In 1784 [Mordecai] found himself in trouble with the congregational authorities. A niece of his in Easton, Judith, the daughter of Myer Hart, had fallen in love with a Christian, Lieutenant James Pettigrew, and they had been married by an army chaplain in May 1782, without her father’s knowledge or consent. Thereupon he had closed his door to her, but, with a child on the way, the girl’s mother was anxious to effect a reconciliation between the father and his daughter, so she asked her brother-in-law Mordecai, ‘a man who is well learned in Jewish law,’ to come to Easton to help settle the family problem.
 
   “What happened thereafter became a matter of serious contention. Only one fact was agreed upon – that the father had become reconciled.
 
   “Barnet Levy, also a brother-in-law of Mordecai and a resident of Easton, being in Philadelphia one day, told some members of Mikveh Israel, including the parnass Simon Nathan and Benjamin Nones, that he had been present when Mordecai remarried the couple according to Jewish law, and that he, Levy, had actually signed the ketubah, or marriage contract, as a witness. Mordecai was ordered to appear before a congregational court to answer the charge, and was found guilty of performing an act contrary to Jewish law.”
 
   Mordecai indignantly protested and wrote a letter to the vice president and the Adjunta of the congregation challenging their actions. He gave a number of reasons why he felt that what the congregational court had done was invalid.
 
   However, this was not the only controversy Mordecai was embroiled in with Congregation Mikveh Israel. A certain Benjamin Moses Clava, who was not a member of the congregation, died on March 14, 1785. He had been married to a gentile woman by a Christian minister. Despite this, “a year before, fearing that he was about to die, he called in several Jews and recited the Viddui, or confession of faith. The question was: should he, or could he, be buried according to Jewish custom?
 
   “One group in the congregation at first insisted upon a Din Torah, or legal interpretation, from Holland. But another group, somewhat more realistically, felt that an immediate decision would have to be made. After all, the corpse could not be kept unburied until an answer came from abroad. Consequently, the decision was left up to a panel of experts, consisting of Carpeles, Josephson and Moses D. Nathans. It was their judgment that Clava should be buried in a corner of the cemetery, without ritual washing, without a shroud and without a ceremony.
 
   “In spite of the fact that disobedience to this judgment would bring upon the transgressor exclusion from the religious functions of the synagogue, Mordecai M. Mordecai once again opposed his judgment against that of the congregation. He not only attended the body to the grave, but washed it and clothed it.”
 
   In an attempt to resolve these matters, the congregation sent a letter to Rabbi Saul Lowenstamm of the Ashkenazic Community of Amsterdam, Holland, asking him to rule on the matter. Unfortunately, Rabbi Lowenstamm’s answer, if there was one, has not been preserved.
 
   As a result of these actions Mordecai Moses Mordecai became persona non grata to the power structure of the Jewish community of Philadelphia. No further mention is made of him in the congregational records.
 
   Once the Revolutionary War ended many of the Jews who had come to Philadelphia to escape the British left the city. Mordecai apparently went to Richmond, Virginia, because his name appears on the list of the founders of Richmond’s Congregation Beth Shalome, which was established in 1789. In 1799 Mordecai was residing in Baltimore where he operated a distillery.
 
   “Mordecai had passed his eightieth birthday when on March 4, 1807, he had the joy of performing the marriage of his granddaughter Judith Russell to Isaiah Nathans of Philadelphia. The American Daily Advertiser of Philadelphia calls him ‘Rev. Mordecai M. Mordecai of Richmond, formerly of this city.’
 

   “Mordecai’s death came on January 19, 1809. The Baltimore papers took no note of the event, but The Republic and Savannah Ledger, of Savannah, Georgia, where his son Samuel and several Russell grandchildren were living, in its issue of February 9, 1809, paid him this tribute:

 

     Died at Baltimore on 19th, Mr. Mordecai M. Mordecai aged 83 years, an old and respected inhabitant of that city. This gentleman acquired at an early period of his life the sincere esteem of many of his fellow citizens being one of the patriots who fought and bled in the glorious struggle for the independence of this country. In a private capacity Mr. Mordecai distinguished himself as a tender husband, fond father, and faithful friend. He has left 26 children and Grand children and many acquaintances mourn his loss.”3

 

1 All quotes in this section and the next are from “Two Jewish Functionaries in Colonial Pennsylvania” by Malcolm H. Stern, American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1961-1978); September 1967-June 1968; 57, AJHS Journal. This article is available online at www.ajhs.org/scholarship/adaje.cfm.
 
2 All quotes in this section are from The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson by Edwin Wolf and Maxwell Whiteman, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1957, pages 128-131 unless otherwise noted.
 
3 “Two Jewish Functionaries in Colonial Pennsylvania.
 
 

   Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

 

Shkoyach!: A Chassidic Rabbi’s Offerings On Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Reuven Poupko wears many hats, aside from a fur-clad shtreimel. A rabbi, lawyer and psychologist, the Baltimore native also served as chief rabbi of Curacao from 1998-2001, and has taught in colleges, rabbinical seminaries and day schools. But this Thanksgiving, Poupko is going to swap his bekeshe for an apron as he takes his wife and children to the streets of downtown Baltimore to share a Thanksgiving dinner with some of the city’s most downtrodden residents.

 

Poupko scoffs at the notion that the meal will take place in a meeting room or a social hall.

 

“We are going to eat where they eat,” said Poupko. “On the streets. We will bring tables, chairs, paper goods, tablecloths, and all the finery. We will eat with them, sing with them, and let them know there is someone who cares enough to share a meal with them and join them.”

 

Poupko’s mission to feed the homeless came about by accident about 10 years agowhen he and his wife attended a Muslim colleague’s wedding in downtown Baltimore. The chef went out of his way to accommodate the Poupkos, preparing gourmet plates of what he deemed to be kosher food. Afraid to offend the chef, the Poupkos apologetically told the chef that they had to rush home due to an unexpected issue with their babysitter. Undaunted, the chef wrapped up his culinary creations for them to enjoy at home.

 

The Poupkos thanked the chef for his thoughtfulness and left with the food. Having no non-Jewish neighbors, they planned to dispose the food at the nearest opportunity, but when they stopped at a downtown trashcan, Poupko’s life changed forever.

 

 

 

 

“Here we are,” recalled Poupko, “all dressed up in our wedding finery, about to throw two beautiful plates of food out in the garbage. After all, who could I possibly give it to in my neighborhood? All of a sudden I see maybe 10, 12 pair of eyes, sitting on benches. A voice inquired hopefully, ‘Is that food?’ I gave them the two plates of food. My wife and I felt so bad we went to a convenience store, bought sandwiches and gave them out.”

 

After that, Poupko was a man on a mission. The man who until now opened his home to numerous friends who were going through difficult times and felt Jews were more caught up in the intricacies of Jewish law than in showing compassion for their fellow man, opened up his heart to the destitute. It didn’t matter if they were gentiles or African Americans. What mattered to Poupko was that these were human beings, many of whom were as hungry for human kindness as they were for food.

 

Every Thursday night, Poupko prepares food that will be distributed the following day to the hungry and homeless. And every Friday, when the Poupko children come home early from school, they join their father for the drive downtown to distribute food to the less fortunate. In fact, Poupko says, his children seem surprised that their classmates don’t also feed the homeless.

 

 

 

Poupko found that his campaign to feed the homeless and show them some compassion had an unexpected fringe benefit. His Jewish friends who were going through difficult times saw Poupko’s demonstration of kindness as clear proof the there were Jews who really did care for other people. Combined with Poupko’s message that Judaism is about doing good and caring for others, they slowly came around and many are once again practicing, religious Jews.

 

Over time, Poupko, son of the former chief rabbi of Mexico, began to dress and consider himself a chassidic Jew.

 

“The chassidic lifestyle lends itself less to scholastic accomplishment,” explained Poupko, “but instead stresses the concepts of being happy and satisfied.”

 

In an effort to promote those ideas, Poupko founded Congregation Shevivei Ohr in 1998, an institution that prides itself on offering opportunities for prayer, personal development and performing acts of loving-kindness in order to improve the world. With minyanim every Friday night and Shabbos morning, the open and friendly atmosphere includes singing, dancing, and a traditional Shabbos morning kiddush.

 

This Thanksgiving Congregation Shevivei Ohr will serve traditional food of a completely different sort.

 

“Until now,” explained Poupko, “it was just putting my arm around them, giving them food, and offering a kind word. But it just wasn’t enough. I drop off food and then I go back to my home, just a few miles away, feeling good about myself. But it’s just not good enough.”

 

Congregation Shevivei Ohr will be hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at 10 a.m. for Baltimore’s homeless. On the menu? Because of the difficulties involved in transporting the food, turkey roll sandwiches will replace a traditional turkey and there will be hot turkey gumbo (also known as cholent), cranberry sauce and, of course, dessert. Aside from the culinary delights there will be singing, conversation, and the knowledge that there are people who want to share a meal with the homeless.

 

Aside from the obvious benefits of feeding the homeless and performing acts of kindness, Poupko has discovered that his actions have an added bonus.

 

“This is a tremendous chinuch tool for my children,” said Poupko. “You can talk about chesed from today until tomorrow, but it can’t compare with going out there and actually doing something.”

 

Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who has written for various Jewish newspapers, magazines and websites in addition to having written song lyrics and scripts for several full-scale productions. She can be contacted at sandyeller1@gmail.com.

 

In the best tradition of the pilgrims and Indians, Rabbi Reuven Poupko helps the downtrodden in the inner city.

 

How To Talk With Our Children About Personal Safety

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Here are signs to protect our children from danger:

In 95% of cases, the molester’s not a stranger.

He’s someone you know and respect. He’s disarming.

He is drawn to children. And he’s awfully charming.

This is a handy little jingle for parents to keep in mind, but even though it’s short, my rhyme is not for little children. In order to adequately prepare our children we must first be aware of the red flags ourselves. Then we need to schedule an “annual check-up” with our children and clearly and calmly bring up the subject of personal safety.

What would be a good day on the Jewish calendar for us to discuss this safety topic with our children? It’s useful to pick a particular day that comes once a year, so we’ll be more apt not to forget to do it. (We don’t want to discuss it too often, as we do not want to instill excessive fear in them, but we do want them to remain cautious.) Holidays that require substantial preparation are not appropriate times for such a discussion, but how about Lag B’Omer? The warm weather will have arrived, so it could be a good time to remember to have a yearly frank, yet upbeat conversation about this important safety issue – maybe even right along with reminders about fire and pool safety rules.

But if Lag B’Omer has long since gone by, (as it has now) and we have failed to have a prevention education with our children, it is essential for parents to cover this topic with their children before camp, before school, before anytime they will be in a setting away from us.

Parents can have a safety talk about the prevention of molestation with children as young as three, with age-appropriate adjustments being made gradually as maturity and understanding grows, year by year. We do this just as we would discuss any other safety hazard, with some increased detail for our older children.

We can start off by telling our three-year-olds that nobody should ever touch them in the areas that are covered by a bathing suit. The only exceptions would be a parent or a doctor, who may need to check those areas for health reasons and put cream on a rash in those private areas – but even then only with a parent or older family member in the room. If anybody wants to touch them there at any other time, for any other reason, they should say “no” to that person, even if that person is a family member, babysitter, teacher or counselor. And if somebody has already touched them in their private areas, they should tell you about it. We can tell them that if anybody ever touches them in a way that doesn’t feel right, they can ask the person to stop, try to get away as fast as they can and tell someone about it immediately.

Another conversation, at age four, could remind the child of the basics that were discussed the previous year and add that nobody being allowed to touch them may include older siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts or uncles. Neighbors and family friends may not touch the areas that need to be covered by a bathing suit either. And not only should nobody touch their private parts – nobody should touch any part of their body in any way that doesn’t feel right. If a touch feels strange to them, and they are not sure if it is wrong or right, they should come and ask us about it. We really want to know. Even if they feel silly asking us about it, we very much want them to ask us. We can explain that there are good touches and bad touches. And we can encourage them to ask us about any touching that they are not sure about as well.

At age five, we can tell them that they will probably have some questions for us after we talk with them about personal safety, and we hope they will feel comfortable enough to ask their questions at any time. Too much information is overwhelming to a child, so we want to try to keep each annual conversation about this topic short and simple. We can remind them annually that if anybody ever tries to touch them in a way that feels scary or wrong, even if it’s just a soft, stroking of their arms, some tickling or picking them up, they can tell the person doing it to stop and then they can let us know about it.

We can also add on, at whatever age we feel it’s appropriate, that nobody should ask them to touch or look at their private parts either. And every year there can be a reminder of this safety rule as well. We can ask them, “What if someone wanted to touch you and said to keep it a secret?” And wait for their responses. We can remind them that secrets like that are bad and dangerous and those are secrets that they need to tell us.

Another important point that could be added one year would be that somebody who has been treating them nicely for a while by giving them extra attention, treats, money or gifts, may gradually or quite suddenly start acting in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. We can explain that this could be very confusing, as a child might feel that if the person has been so nice to them, that they should go along with whatever confusing touches the person may have started giving them. It’s very helpful to explain the typical “grooming” process in this way, so the growing child will at least be familiar with this possibility. With this awareness, a child or teen is much more apt to respond to inappropriate touching as an unacceptable real danger if, G-d forbid, his safety is ever jeopardized in this way.

As the children grow older, even through their teens, we can annually add to their basic training by saying that if anybody ever asks them to watch or do things that feel scary or wrong, we hope that they will not feel embarrassed to tell us. We can let them know that it’s best to tell us right away, but even if they didn’t tell us right away, whenever they do tell us, we still very much want to hear about it because if something disturbing or frightening may have happened to them,it was not their fault. This needs to be emphasized, calmly and clearly, once a year.

It would also be helpful to explain to an older child that confusing touches can lead to holding on for a long time to confusing feelings. Some children may have even enjoyed certain aspects of improper interactions, like the extra attention it brings and they do not need to feel ashamed of having this mixture of feelings. The best thing for their neshamas, however, is to not keep any kind of confusing feelings locked up within them. Great relief can come from talking about any disturbing secrets they may have with someone they feel they can trust. We need to reassure them that such burdens don’t have to be carried by them alone. We can also let them know that if they ever feel that they have something to share that they do not feel they can tell us, we can help them find an appropriate professional with whom they can speak.

In age-appropriate ways, as our children grow, we need to reaffirm to them on a yearly basis that victims of abuse are not responsible for the abuse. They need to tell an adult they trust about what happened, and continue telling until someone takes action to stop it.

By teaching our children how to guard the precious bodies that Hashem has given them, we will not be abdicating our responsibility to them. It is still our responsibility to protect them, but this annual training will make it that much more possible for us to fulfill our parental obligations. In helping to protect our children from molestation, we are guarding not only their vulnerable bodies; we are also shielding their innocent souls.

Bracha Goetz is the author of twelve children’s books, including What Do You See in Your Neighborhood? Aliza in MitzvahLand, and The Invisible Book. She also serves on the Executive Board of the national organization, Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, and coordinates a Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister program in Baltimore, Maryland.

A Weekend To Remember: Reflections on the OU’s Marriage Retreat

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

“You’re going where?! That sounds interesting. What is it?” This response we received from friends when we mentioned our plan to attend the Orthodox Union’s Marriage Enrichment Retreat this past July reflected the very same questions we were thinking. And it was with those thoughts that we went to the retreat – interested but unsure of what exactly we were getting into. A nice hotel, no kids, good food and maybe some interesting workshops.

Having been married for some 16 years, we decided to do something a little different from our standard summer one-night, two-day getaway and ventured into this idea of “making a good marriage even better.”

The ride up from Baltimore to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey alone was worth it as we had four hours of uninterrupted time to just talk. With anticipation, we pulled up to the Hilton and began noticing the other participants carrying their hat/sheitel boxes and rolling suitcases.

After checking in and receiving our nametags (detailing where we were from and the number of years married) we strolled to the welcoming buffet. Sitting down in the comfortable room to a wide array of appealing food, we began to get a taste of the beautiful and inspiring weekend that was about to begin.

At this point, we were still somewhat nervous about what the weekend would entail. Was this retreat for older married couples? Was it for couples with serious relationship issues? Would we agree in terms of hashkafa with the topics and the speakers? Nevertheless, it was with an open mind and satiated stomach that we got ready for Shabbos.

The choices of workshops and topics ran the gamut for all ages and stages of marriage – including remarriages and blended families. With topics like “Learning to Grow Together…and Not Apart: Actualizing Emotional Closeness”; “The Overscheduled Marriage: Finding Time for Each Other”; “How to Fight Fairly”; “Communication: I’m Listening…Are You Still Talking?”; and “Dating Never Stops: Creative and Fun Ways to Still Court Your Spouse,” it was sometimes tough to choose which of the workshops to attend. We mutually agreed on the ones most fitting for our situation and attended the same workshops where possible. For the separate sessions on intimacy we parted ways and then compared notes afterward.

Back-to-back sessions left little time for us to discuss what we learned, but we certainly came away with lots of food for thought for the four-hour journey home.

Our fears of hashkafic discordance went unfounded as we saw and heard the high caliber of the speakers and were treated to some beautiful divrei Torah. We came away relaxed and rejuvenated both physically and spiritually and were ready to synchronize all that we had learned.

There were also unexpected benefits. Most inspiring was the array of people who attended the retreat. There was every color of the “Jewish Rainbow” present – truly a sense of Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov. The Kabbalas Shabbos service was quite uplifting and set the tone for the rest of the weekend. Mealtimes (and snack times) offered the opportunity to mingle and meet others in a relaxed and friendly environment. After all, we were all here for the same purpose, no matter what hue you represented in that rainbow.

As the retreat unfolded and we were able to meet more people, we saw there were both young and old in terms of ages and stages.

We were glad the participants were asked to sit at different tables for each meal, which afforded us the opportunity to meet more couples. We sat with people married for less than a year and with couples together for 20-plus years; people marrying off their first child and people who had married several children. Some of the best advice and conversation came from these couples at spontaneous discussions throughout the different meals.

Listening to all the potential and actual problems that arise during marriage was a real eye-opener to us and gave us new appreciation for our own marriage, for what we have as a couple, as separate individuals and, ultimately, as a family, baruch Hashem.

We would like to take this opportunity to express our hakaras hatov, which we experienced on many levels. First, to the OU, especially organizer Frank Buchweitz; then to the caterer and the hotel staff for their high level of professionalism and sensitivity. No detail was overlooked in terms of luxurious comfort and the more sublime aspects of davening, kashrut (of course, it’s the OU!), and shmiras Shabbos. We also wish to express hakaras hatov to the speakers for their obvious dedication in preparing for the multiple workshops and for the time they set aside for private consultations.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/a-weekend-to-remember-reflections-on-the-ous-marriage-retreat/2010/09/21/

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