Thursday, May 31, 2012

W Tea

Although many Jews were active in the leadership of the Russian Revolution, and the government of the Czar was less than friendly to the general Jewish population, there were many anti-Semitic overtones during the revolution. One well-known chant during the revolution was : "Tea of Wissotzky, Sugar of Brodsky, and the Czar is Leiba Trotsky!" (inferring Jewish domination).

Today there is no more Lebedyn Sugar, the sugar produced by Lazar Brodsky (1848-1904), aka the "Sugar King," a Jewish man from Kiev who produced a quarter of the country's sugar production and was an acclaimed philanthropist. Nor did Marxist Communism live out the century, as had been the dream of Marxist revolutionary and Red Army Leader Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). Wissotzky Tea, on the other hand, is now a popular tea in the land of Israel.

The Wissotzky Tea company was established by Kalman Zev Yankelevich Wissotzky (1824-1904). The son of a merchant, Wissotzky's foray into the tea trade came after he studied in the Volozhin Yeshiva, worked at a government organized Jewish agricultural colony, and studied Torah in Kovno with Rabbi Israel Lipkin. In 1849, he created the Wissotzky Tea Company and soon became known as the "King of Russian Tea."

Wissotzky was a generous philanthropist who supported many Jewish institutions, and was particularly interested in helping cantonists, young Jews who had been forcibly conscripted into the Russian army for 25 years (basically life); most lost their connection to Jewish life. Via the Parisian Alliance IsraƩlite, he set up what eventually became the philanthropic fund now known as "The Wissotzky Fund."

A strong believer in Zionism, Wissotzky did not live to see his company relocate to Israel. He died in 1904, just as his company expanded to New York and London. By 1917, they ceased operations in Russia. In 1936, a Wissotzky plant was opened in Tel Aviv, where the company's headquarters eventually relocated.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

In Your Store

Find out if your local store carries Wissotzky Tea and try a cup.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Know What Is Above You

It is human nature to value privacy. This value, probably dates back as far as Adam and Eve. Once they had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they instinctively wished to hide.

While Jewish life is extremely social, Judaism itself recognizes and values the importance of privacy. The Israelites are even praised for the fact that their tent doors did not face one another, meaning that one could not look into another person's tent from one's own dwelling. While this is usually referred to in praise of the Jewish value of modest behavior, it also demonstrates Judaism's basic respect for personal privacy.

Judaism does not demand that someone else monitor a person's behaviors. Part of the basic Jewish philosophy of Free Will insists that all people have the ability to make their own choices. Halacha, Jewish law, is meant to guide a person how to live a moral life. The great sages add some of their own insights in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a tractate of the Mishna.

Rabbi Judah the Prince, who compiled the Mishna (200 CE), is quoted in Pirkei Avot 2:1 as saying, "Reflect on three things and you will never come to sin - know what is above you - a seeing eye, a hearing ear and all your deeds as written in a book."

Being that God is omnipresent (as the children's song goes: "here, there and everywhere"), one is always held accountable for one's actions. Those who are "religious" in their public actions but deliberately transgress in private, demonstrate that while they are fearful of others seeing them act improperly, they lack the very basic element of belief in God's omnipotence. Not only is God able to see and hear one's actions, but every person's actions are recorded, and are reviewed at the end of the year.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Never Fear

Don't worry about not getting accolades for a good deed; we often forget that these, too, are recorded above.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Twenties and Thirties

In the last decade or so, it has become commonplace for the media to note the decline of adulthood--meaning that childhood has been prolonged for so long that young adults are remaining at home and dependent on their parents' support well into their twenties. Whether this is a factor of economics, or a result of the parenting choices of Generation X, or one of other numerous variables, this extended adolescence is most often presented as unnatural and negative...But is it? When one looks at the Book of Numbers, which starts with God's directive to take a census of the Jewish people, one sees that Judaism itself recognizes a difference between young adulthood and true adulthood.

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Rabbi Judah ben Tema notes that "a 20 year old begins earning a livelihood, a 30 year old attains full strength" (5:25). This "schedule of life markers" is demonstrated in the varying ages that are used in taking the census of the Children of Israel as recorded in the Book of Numbers. In Numbers 1, God ordains that the census be taken counting the people from twenty to sixty years old. These were the ages of all those who would be eligible to serve in the army and go to war. The ages for counting the Levites, as directed by God, instructs that the Levites be numbered from ages "thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old, all that enter upon the service, to do work in the tent of meeting." 

In the structure of the ancient Israelite society described by the Torah, there is no more important factor than a life centered on the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The work of the Levites was not necessarily difficult, but it required that those involved truly feel the responsibility of their work. This type of maturity, according to tradition, one only truly attains at the age of thirty. 

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved. 

Take Responsiblity

No matter your age, take responsibility for your actions.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Book of Ruth

Ruth was the Moabite wife of Machlon, one of the sons of Elimelech and Naomi, a wealthy couple who had fled Bethlehem during a bitter famine. Elimelech's family had settled in Moab, a neighboring country with which Israel had a history of conflict.

When Elimelech and his two sons died, Naomi chose to return to her homeland. Her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, decided to go with her. When they reached Israel, however, Naomi urged them to go back to their fathers’ homes. Orpah did leave. Ruth refused, declaring: "Where you [Naomi]  go, I shall go, your people will be my people, your land will be my land, and your God will be my God."

Upon their return to Bethlehem, Ruth and Naomi lived a lonely and impoverished life. People resented that Naomi’s family had fled the famine, and they did not trust her Moabite daughter-in-law. To keep from starving, Ruth gathered excess barley that fell during the harvest in the field of Boaz, a relative of Elimelech. Boaz noticed Ruth’s unique qualities of modesty, loyalty and humility and encouraged her to continue gleaning in his field until the end of the harvest.

In the meantime, the elders of Bethlehem debated whether Ruth was a true convert and whether she could marry a Jewish man. Naomi, however, knew that Ruth was devout and sincere. She directed Ruth to go to the ceremony at the close of the threshing and seek out Boaz, who had been so kind to them. She told Ruth to present herself to him as a potential mate and assured Ruth that Boaz would take care of her.

That night, Ruth demurely waited at Boaz’s feet, signaling her intentions. Boaz, who was much older, an established landowner and a leader in the community, had not thought of himself as a possible suitor until that night.

Boaz and Ruth married and their son, Oved, was the grandfather of King David.

For a more detailed (an illustrated) outline of the Book of Ruth, please visit the National Jewish Outreach Program's special Shavuot website.

This Treat was originally posted on May 27, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Two Days of Festival

 Leviticus 23:34-36: “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month is the Feast of Tabernacles ... On the first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall do no manner of creative labor. For seven days you will bring a fire offering to God; on the eighth day shall be a holy convocation for you ... it is a day of solemn assembly; you shall do no manner of creative labor."

According to Leviticus 23, the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot, including Shmini Atzeret) lasts for eight days. Creative labor, however, is prohibited only on the first and the eighth days. Why then will Jews around the world (except in Israel) celebrate the first two days and the eighth and ninth days as festival days, refraining from creative labor?

The rabbinically ordained Yom Tov Shaynee Shel Galuyot (the second festival day of the diaspora) is the result of our people’s geographic spread. As Jews moved farther from the sphere of influence of Jerusalem (considered what would then have been a ten day journey), maintaining an accurate Jewish calendar became more difficult.
Before the Jewish calendar was fixed by mathematical calculation in 350 C.E. (approximately), the new month was determined by the Sanhedrin based on the testimony of witnesses who had seen the new moon. As the diaspora spread, it became impossible to inform all distant communities when the new month had been declared, so a precautionary second day was added for those distant locations. Far better to sanctify the extra day than to risk violating a day that was actually Yom Tov.

After the calendar was set, it was decided that the custom of Yom Tov Shaynee Shel Galuyot be honored by remaining in practice. To this day, Jews in Israel celebrate one day of Yom Tov, while Jews throughout the rest of the world celebrate two. This difference between Israel and outside or Israel effects the holidays of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot.

This Treat was originally posted on October 2, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Shavuot Is Almost Here

Get ready for Shavuot with our eBook “Jewish Treats on The Ten Commandments,” our beautiful twelve page overview of the Ten Commandments that were given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai on Shavuot.  Download your Free eBook here!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The First Ten

If the children of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai, why did Moses come down bearing only “the two tablets of the testimony” luchot ha’aidoot (Exodus 32:15), rather than a complete scroll of law?

The Biblical narrative states that God brought the Israelites to Mount Sinai and spoke the Ten Commandments, beginning with “I am the Lord your God!” Some commentators argue that the people were so intimidated by God’s voice, that they could only tolerate hearing the first two commandments as they rang out from the heavens. The people then beseeched Moses to intercede and deliver the remaining eight commandments. Moses then ascended Mount Sinai and did not return to the Israelites for 40 days.

Ten Commandments...forty days? Obviously, something more than Moses reviewing Ten Commandments was happening on that mountaintop. Tradition tells us that during the time Moses remained on Mount Sinai he received all of the written and oral Torah.

Moses was uniquely endowed and capable of learning all of halacha (Jewish law), as well as the methods of deriving halacha, in just over a month. However, it was not possible to teach what he learned to the entire nation in less than 40 years

God therefore began with the Ten Commandments, which could be understood and followed on a simple as well as a complex level. For example, honoring one’s mother and father (#5), on the simple level, means giving respect to one’s parents. When studied further, however, one discovers that this commandment is also about gratitude to God, the ultimate Creator.

Thus, the Ten Commandments are seen as the cornerstone of the Torah, containing both the religious (“I am the Lord your God”) and legal elements (“Do not steal”) of the Torah.

This Treat was last posted on May 18, 2011.

Preparing for the Torah

Shortly after the Israelites encamped at the base of Mount Sinai, they agreed to accept the Torah and do all that God had commanded. And so, God declared that He would bring Himself, in the form of a thick cloud, close to the people, that they might hear Him speak. First, however, God instructed Moses that the people must prepare themselves.

There is no way to describe the effects of being in the presence of God because there is no human being alive today who has experienced this level of holiness. In fact, Moses was the only prophet who had direct interaction with God, and God’s Presence at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given was a one-time-only event.

However, it is understood that being in the Divine Presence requires preparation, both physical and spiritual. Therefore, the Israelites, under the guidance of Moses, prepared themselves for three days. They washed their clothes and prepared their souls.

It was not just the people who needed to be prepared. God’s presence affected the inanimate earth as well. The Israelites were instructed, under threat of death, not to go up, or even draw close to, the mountain until the shofar was sounded.

The three days preceding Shavuot (Sivan 3, 4 and 5) are known as Sh'loshet Yemei Hagbalah, the three days of boundaries. These three days were, and still are, days of preparation. Today, while we do not stand at the physical base of Mount Sinai, we can, and should, prepare ourselves to ascend to a higher level of spirituality and religious commitment on Shavuot.

Today is the first day of the Sh'loshet Yemei Hagbolah, the three days of preparation. The holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the receiving of the Torah, begins on Saturday night.

This Treat was originally posted on May 26, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

At Your Synagogue

Call your synagogue today and find out their Shavuot schedule.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Day Of Distinction

On the first day of Sivan in the year 2448 (Jewish calendar), only seven weeks after leaving Egypt, the Israelites reached the Wilderness of Sinai. On the desert plain around the mountain, they set up camp and watched as Moses set off toward the mountain to hear God's will.

The next morning, Moses called for the elders of Israel and transmitted God's message to them (which they then related to the rest of the nation). God had instructed Moses to tell the Israelites:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself. Now, therefore, if you will listen to My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (Exodus 19:4-6).

On that day, 2 Sivan 2448, the Israelites made the most monumental decision in history. They chose to become a people with a distinct and direct relationship with God. They chose to become God's servants, to follow His rules and to faithfully serve Him. They chose to strive for holiness. On the second of Sivan, they chose to be “chosen” when they responded with one voice: “All that God has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8).

The second day of Sivan is not marked as a holiday, as is the sixth of Sivan (Shavuot), the day on which the Israelites actually received the Torah. However, to honor the agreement that was presented and accepted on this day, the second of Sivan is know as Yom Ha'meyuchas, the Day of Distinction.

This Treat was originally posted on May 25, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Give Them A Choice

There is an oft-cited Midrash (Sifrei, Dvarim 343) describing how God offered the Torah to the other nations of the world before He gave it to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. According to this Midrash, the first nation to whom He offered the Torah asked what was in it. When God told them about the law prohibiting stealing, they couldn’t fathom a life without theft. The next nation reacted incredulously to the prohibition of adultery; they were horrified at the idea that God would monitor people’s bedroom behavior! Another nation was unable to accept the prohibition of murder...and so on. When God asked the Jewish people if they would accept the Torah, there were no questions. They declared: “Na’aseh v’nishma” (“We will do and we will listen”).

So, if one understands the Midrash correctly, it sounds like the so-called “chosen people” were God's last choice for receiving the Torah. However, God understood that, unlike the other nations, the Israelites were truly free to accept the Torah since they did not yet have a homeland, they did not yet have an existing government, culture or “way of life.” It was this freedom that God gave them when He brought them out of Egypt into the wilderness that made the Jews more inclined to receive the Torah. They were not chained to a pre-existing life-style and thus were not reluctant to change themselves for the better. This is the practical reason why the Jews were able to accept the Torah so readily.

One must also bear in mind that the Israelites still remembered the generation that had come to Egypt and those who had been enslaved. They still claimed the spiritual heritage of Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebecca, and Jacob, Rachel & Leah.

It is this heritage that we have today. On Shavuot we commemorate the day that God gave the Torah to our ancestors. Now the choice is ours.

This Treat was originally posted on June 7, 2011.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

For Your Holiday

Get ready for Shavuot with our eBook “Jewish Treats on The Ten Commandments,” our beautiful twelve page overview of the Ten Commandments that were given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai on Shavuot.  Download your Free eBook here!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Green Cheesecake at Midnight?

The holiday of Shavuot has three well-known, and well-loved, customs:

Decorating our homes and synagogues with plants and flowers: According to the Midrash, at the time of the giving of the Torah, Mount Sinai burst forth in blossoms of verdant greenery, covered with plants and flowers. This is the basis for the custom of decorating our homes and synagogues with plants and flowers on Shavuot.

Dairy Foods: On Shavuot, it is customary to eat dairy foods – cheesecake and blintzes are particular favorites.

Among the reasons given for this custom are:

Once the Torah was given, the Israelites refrained from eating meat because they needed to learn the laws of kosher slaughter and to make their utensils kosher. They specifically chose to eat dairy and give themselves the time necessary to learn the laws.

On a more mystical level, the gematria (numeric value of the Hebrew letters) of the word chalav, milk, is 40. Forty corresponds to the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai learning the Torah.

All-Night Learning: To demonstrate our love for Torah and our appreciation for God's revelation on Mount Sinai, it is customary to stay up all night on the first night of Shavuot either studying Torah, listening to lectures on Torah topics, or simply discussing Jewish ideas.

Another reason given for the custom of learning all night is to atone for the apathy of the Israelites, who actually  overslept on the morning that they were to receive the Torah, rather than being wide awake in excited anticipation.
For further explanations of these customs, please visit the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Shavuot website. (The customs are at the bottom of the page.)

*This Treat was originally published on May 28, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Getting Ready

Buy some cheesecake to get ready for the holiday.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Feast of Weeks

Shavuot, which we begin celebrating Saturday night (May 26th), is the only holiday in the Torah not listed by the date on which it is to be observed. Rather, the Torah teaches that this festival takes place on the day following the 49th day after the first day of Passover (see Counting of the Omer). The name Shavuot, therefore, reflects the fact that this holiday occurs seven complete weeks (shavuot) after Passover. In mystical terms, the number 7 represents the natural order of things, and so, a complete, natural cycle has occurred.

The natural cycle that has been completed is agricultural. Therefore the holiday is also called Chag Ha'bikurim, The Holiday of the First Fruits, and is the time when the offering of the First Fruit of the harvest was brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as a gesture of thanksgiving for the successful crop.

Seven times seven days, the count of 49, expresses the natural cycle, but Shavuot takes place one day after the seven weeks--one step beyond the natural cycle. It is, therefore, also representative of an event beyond nature.

When the Israelites left Egypt, the people acted as though they were merely cousins bonded by mutual misery. By the end of seven weeks, however, at the base of Mount Sinai, the former slaves rose above their human limitations and, by accepting the Torah, took upon themselves a total commitment to God, the final step in becoming the Nation of Israel. Shavuot is therefore also known as Z'man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah.

*This Treat was originally published on May 21, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

The End of the Week

Prepare to celebrate Shavuot at the end of this week. Learn more about the holiday on's Shavuot page.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Jerusalem Day

In 1947, when the United Nations approved the plan to partition the British Mandate of Palestine (Israel) into a Jewish state and an Arab state, they determined that Jerusalem would be an “international city” for a period of ten years. The plan was approved by the Jews, and the day after it came into effect, the new state was attacked by the surrounding Arab states (as the Arabs had not accepted the partition plan). 

At the time of the cease-fire that ended the 1948 War for Independence, Jordan was in control of the Old City and eastern Jerusalem. Jews lost all access to the Western Wall, the holiest site of the Jewish faith as it is the last standing structure from the retaining wall that supported the Holy Temple, and nearly all of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was destroyed.

On June 5, 1967, the Middle East was once again at war. Although the war itself lasted six days, the battle for Jerusalem was over in two. On June 7, 1967 - 28 Iyar 5727 - Jewish troops took the Old City and, for the first time in almost twenty years, Jewish prayers were recited at the Western Wall.

Eleven months later, the government of Israel declared a new holiday, Jerusalem Day, Yom Yerushalayim, on the 28th of the Hebrew month of Iyar. In Israel on this day, there are state ceremonies and parades, as well as commemorations for the soldiers who died in the battle for Jerusalem. Yom Yerushalayim is also celebrated in many communities outside of Israel with special assemblies and programs. Religious observance of this holiday, by means of the recitation of Hallel, varies by community.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Virtual Visit

Virtually visit Jerusalem.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

I Got Worries

“Our Rabbis taught: Seven things are hidden from men... the day of death, and the day of comfort, the depth [extent] of judgment; and man does not know what is in his neighbor's heart; from what will he earn [a living]; and when the Davidic dynasty will return; and when the wicked kingdom will come to an end” (Pesachim 54b).

Not surprisingly, the things that the ancients fretted over 2,000 years ago are the same basic concerns of today. Of course, fear of death  tops the list, and social scientists conclude that it stems from the natural human “survival instinct.” But what of the others?

Of the 7 items listed as unknowable, the most profound and important is “the day of comfort.” This is a reference to the alleviation of one’s troubles and anxieties. While bad times often feel interminable, they do eventually end. If a person knew the length of time their troubles would endure, then they would have no reason to take action, to pray or ask God for help.

“The depth [extent] of judgment;” refers to how our actions affect the Divine scale, while  “What is in his neighbor's heart” addresses the basic human insecurity and need to feel respected by fellow human beings.

“From what will he earn [a living]” is a powerful reflection on the fear that most people feel at some point in their lives, which has become especially relevant in this past decade of economic insecurity. This same question has troubled humankind since Adam ate Eve’s apple.

The final two items on this list, the return of the Davidic dynasty and the end of the wicked kingdom, are both references to the Messianic era. While at first one might argue that this is not a common modern worry, reread the second statement. How many men and women have gathered together to “occupy” wherever they are? People long to live in a system they feel is fair and in which they feel they have a chance to succeed.

As much as life has changed over the last 2,000 years, human nature and human fears have not.

Extra Change

At the end of the day, set your spare change aside for charity.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Keeping Ethical

Pirkei Avot is commonly translated as Ethics of Our Fathers because many of its statements focus on ethical behavior. For those striving to be ethical, “Nittai the Arbelite says: Keep far from an evil neighbor, do not associate with a wicked man, and do not abandon the belief in retribution” (1:7).

Let’s take a closer look at these suggestions:

“Keep far away from an evil neighbor.” When a person is looking for a place to live, it is important to know more than just whether the house or apartment is nice, or structurally sound. “Location, location, location” from an ethical perspective does not mean an easy commute or a good school district, but rather living near upstanding neighbors.

Why keep far away from evil neighbors? Firstly, so that we will not be influenced to follow in their evil ways. More subtly, however, is because the negative feelings that develop due to bad neighbor experiences can have deleterious effect on one’s own character (anger, being judgmental, holding a grudge, etc.)

“Do not befriend a wicked person.” While this appears to be a reiteration of the first warning, its slight difference in nuance is significant. No matter how much we would like to, we cannot always choose our neighbors, our co-workers or even family members. We do not, however, need to be close to people who do not share our ethical goals.

“Do not abandon the belief in retribution.” At first glance, this may seem unconnected, but when one watches evil people who seemingly get away with behaving unethically, it is important to remember that one of the basic tenants of Jewish belief is reward and punishment. Ultimately, whether in this world or the world to come, the scales of justice are balanced.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Good Neighbors

While Nittai the Arbelite warns to keep far from an evil neighbor, it is good to enhance peace in the world by being friendly with your neighbors.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Soviet Jewry Movement

May is Jewish American Heritage Month. At first glance, a discussion of the Soviet Jewry Movement may seem like an odd choice for Jewish American history, but the movement had a powerful effect on the American Jewish community.

While the USSR was the first nation to recognize the State of Israel in 1948, it was not long before “Zionism” in the USSR became an anathema. Soviet Jews, especially those who identified themselves as Zionists, were marked for persecution, often losing their jobs or, worse, being arrested. Even those Jews who were not Zionists or not even strongly identified as Jews, were persecuted--set apart at school, blocked from promotion, etc. After Israel’s surprising victory in the 1967 Six Day War, many Jews tried to get out, creating a population of “refusniks”-those refused an exit visa and then persecuted (many of whom were also unfairly imprisoned).

In 1964, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) was founded by Jacob Birnbaum, a Jewish activist whose family had escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to England after the Nazis had already come to power. He was assisted by students and activists, including Arthur Green, Bernie Kabak, Glenn Richter and James Torczyner. The SSSJ joined with similar organizations that had followed its lead to form the National Conference for Soviet Jewry in 1971.

These activists stealthily distributed Jewish educational materials and religious articles in the USSR. They lobbied their politicians and organized rallies. In 1987, approximately 250,000 people marched in Washington on the eve of a political summit between Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan. Their political pressure was effective, and it is reported that President Reagan told Premier Gorbachev: “You have no choice but to release Soviet Jewry.”

From the perspective of Jewish American History, the Soviet Jewry Movement marked a unique and beautiful moment of Jewish unity. And while it has been suggested that guilt over in-fighting and lack of action during the Holocaust was an underlying motivation, the fight for Soviet Jewry demonstrated the power of a unified Jewish community.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

To Organize

If you feel passionately about a cause, organize.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Continual Presence

The tumultuous record of Jewish history has led many to wonder how Jews can remain faithful to the Torah. But the very exiles and persecutions that might shake our faith are mentioned in the Torah (Leviticus 26) with a sense of inevitability: not if, but when.

The continual exile among foreign nations* is declared in Leviticus 26:33, "and I will scatter you among the heathens." One can even read of the crisis in faith that comes from exile in the despairing words of Leviticus 26:36, "Upon them that are left alive of you, I will send a faintness of heart."
The concept of hester panim, the hidden face of God, is an important aspect of the Jewish belief in free will. Throughout all events - good and bad - God remains the Guardian of the Jews, even when we cannot see His role. This He asserts in Leviticus 26:44, "And yet, for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to utterly destroy them and to break My covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God."

The sages interpret the separate parts of Leviticus 26:44, finding within it allusions to some of the conquerors amidst the exile. "‘I did not reject them' in the days of the Greeks; ‘neither did I abhor them'--in the days of Nebuchadnezzar (Babylonians); ‘to destroy them utterly'--in the days of Haman; ‘and to break my covenant with them'--in the days of the Persians...‘For I am the Lord their God'--in the time to come, when no nation or people will be able to subject them" (Megillah 11a).

*Jewish autonomy in the State of Israel today is still considered to be within a greater exile, because the Jewish people remain without a Temple.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Simply Pray

At times when you feel things are not going your way, try prayer. (Just remember, a short-term "no" might be for your long term benefit.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Thank You, Mom

In honor of all our favorite Jewish Mothers, we've decided to re-Treat this special Mother's Day edition of Jewish Treats!

Don’t forget to call your mother today, or send her flowers or a card. For those very, very out of the loop, today is Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is a day set aside to show the moms in our lives how much we appreciate them. It’s a sweet and wonderful idea...but according to the Torah, every day is Mother’s Day.

The very first commandment that God gave to Adam was to “be fruitful and multiply.” Traditionally, this mitzvah is only considered obligatory upon men, not women.

This seems strange. After all, women are the ones who carry the children in the womb, nourish the infants from their breasts, and, traditionally, take the brunt of the child-rearing responsibility. If anything, “peru oo’revu,” be fruitful and multiply, should be a woman’s mitzvah!

According to the sages, however, the mitzvah of “peru oo’revu” is not obligatory on a woman because of the inherent dangers in childbirth. It has only been in the last 100 years or so that the number of fatalities during birth has become minimal, and Torah law does not command people to put themselves in life-threatening situations.

Perhaps, however, the danger inherent in motherhood is not just physical. Motherhood changes a person, restricts her and demands that she sacrifice many of the things she most values in life (sleep, independence, etc.). At the same time, through motherhood, a woman has the chance to not only experience the immense power of creation, but also to emulate God's endless ability to give.

Motherhood, therefore, is both a choice and an opportunity. And it is because of this choice, and the sacrifices inherent therein, that one must give his/her mother honor, respect and even gratitude, not just on Mother’s Day, but everyday.

This post was previously treated on May 8, 2011, May 9, 2010, and May 8, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Say The Word

A simple thank you means a great deal to your mom.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Flowers and Poems

The tradition of Mother's Day flowers began with Anna Jarvis, the woman who successfully petitioned Woodrow Wilson to make it into an official holiday (which he did in 1914). To honor her mother’s memory, she wore a white carnation. It became the tradition to bring one’s mother a pink carnation or, if one’s mother was no longer living, to wear a white carnation.  In time, this tradition expanded to full bouquets, cards of poetry and small gifts.

To the discussion of Mother's Day, Jewish Treats would like to note that Jewish tradition does not set aside one particular day to honor either parent, as it is expected that honoring and appreciating (and even revering) one’s parents be part of everyday life.

It is interesting to note that perhaps one of the earliest written records of a mother receiving flowers from her child takes place in the book of Genesis. “And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found duda'eem (mandrakes) in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah” (Genesis 30:14). This act, in and of itself, is little commented on by the scholars. It is noted that even as a young boy, Reuben was careful only to take an ownerless plant. These duda'eem are best known for the fact that Leah gave them to Rachel in return for having Jacob come to her tent that night.

Similarly, within the Book of Proverbs (31:10-31) is a 21-verse poem known as Aishet Chayil, “The Woman of Valor,” which is traditionally sung at the Shabbat table on Friday nights. Among the several different understandings of these verses, it has been suggested that they were written by King Solomon as a tribute to his mother, Batsheba.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.


Let your mother know that she is "more precious than rubies" (Proverbs 31:10).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Lag Ba'omer

The period of mourning* (for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died of plague) associated with Sefirat Ha’omer is not observed on the 33rd day of the Omer, a day known as Lag Ba’omer. In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical value. ”Lamed” equals 30, and "Gimmel" equals 3, thus Lag (spelled "Lamed Gimmel") Ba'omer, literally means 33 (days) in the Omer.

Because the mourning period is now over, Lag Ba’omer is a popular date for weddings (which are not held during most of Sefirat Ha’omer) and haircuts.* Many have the custom not to cut a boy's hair until he is three years old, the age at which the child first begins to learn Torah. Since haircuts are delayed until after the period of mourning, and because there is Kabbalistic significance to hair, many put off the hair-cutting ceremony, called an Upsherin, until Lag Ba'omer..

Lag Ba’omer is also the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the famed Talmudic Kabbalist whose teachings are revealed in the Zohar. In Israel, tens of thousands of people travel to Mount Meron (near Safed) to observe his yahrtzeit near the cave in which he was buried. As per his deathbed request, his death is celebrated rather than mourned.

It is also common for families and friends to gather together for a bonfire and/or picnic on Lag Ba'omer, often on Mount Meron. There are several reasons given for this custom. One is that the word Zohar translates to “shining light,” and bonfires bring light to the world.

*Some people observe 33 days of mourning starting from the beginning of the month of Iyar until Shavuot. In such cases, however, Lag Ba'omer is excluded from the mourning customs.

This Treat was originally posted on Monday, May 11, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.


Celebrate Lag Ba’omer with music!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi), whose yahrtzeit is on Lag Ba’omer, was one the five students who began studying with Rabbi Akiva after the horrible plague that took the lives of 24,000 of his students.. Rashbi was a fiery and fascinating personality.

Like his teacher Rabbi Akiva, Rashbi was considered a fierce enemy of the Romans. He and his son, Rabbi Elazar, hid in a cave on Mount Meron in the Galilee, for 13 years. (According to tradition, they sustained themselves with the fruit of a carob tree, hence the custom to eat bokser on Lag Ba’omer.) When the Roman throne changed hands, the pair of scholars were able to come out of hiding, but reintegrating into the world was not easy. The Talmud notes:

Seeing a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed, ‘They [the Jewish farmers] forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!’ Whatever they [Rashbi and Elazar] cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up. Thereupon a Heavenly Echo came forth and cried out, ‘Have you emerged to destroy My world: Return to your cave!’ So they returned and dwelt there twelve months, saying, ‘The punishment of the wicked in Gehenna is [limited to] twelve months.’ A Heavenly Echo then came forth and said, ‘Go forth from your cave!’ (Shabbat 33b).

Rashbi’s intense study of Torah revealed the deeper, esoteric meanings of the Torah. With the approval of his teachers, Rashbi set out to share the hidden secrets of the Torah, what is today called Kabbalah, with his fellow Jews. His teachings were written in a book called the Zohar, which means “shining light.”

According to tradition, Rashbi requested that his death be marked by rejoicing as the soul takes its proper place with G-d. The great sage, was buried in a cave on Mount Meron, where, each year, tens of thousands of people gather on Lag Ba’omer to joyously celebrate the anniversary of his death.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.


Tomorrow is Lag B'omer. Celebrate Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's "shining light" by scheduling  a special activity with friends and family (perhaps a barbeque if you can't get to a bonfire).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Hebrew Union College

In honor of Jewish-American History Month, Jewish Treats presents the history of Hebrew Union College.

Bohemian-born Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (born Weiss, 1819-1900) arrived in the United States in 1846 (where he assumed the position of rabbi for Congregation Beth El in Albany, N.Y.). There were approximately 40,000 Jews in the country and almost no formally ordained rabbis. The Jewish population in America was becoming predominantly German-Jewish in origin, many of whom related easily to the new Reform Movement that was developing in Germany.

It did not take Wise long to realize that the European-trained clergy, few as they were, were not connecting with their American congregants. He spent 20 years trying to create an American rabbinic college. In 1873, his efforts resulted in the creation of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which, in turn, created Hebrew Union College (HUC) in 1875. With the aid of a generous $10,000 donation by Henry Adler of Lawrenceburg, IN, HUC’s first classes were offered in 1875, housed in two of Cincinnati’s synagogues. In 1881, HUC moved into its own building, and four years later, its first graduates received public ordination.

In 1950, HUC merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion (JIR) in New York, a school established in 1922 by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (no relation to Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise), who promoted Zionism within the Reform movement. At that time, the Union of Hebrew Congregations was not pro-Zionist (HUC-JIR). HUC-JIR has continued to grow, expanding to a campus in Los Angeles (1954) and in Jerusalem (1963). In 1972, HUC-JIR made particular headlines as the first rabbinic seminary to ordain women as rabbis.

With schools of Graduate Studies, Education, Jewish Nonprofit Management, Sacred Music, and Biblical Archaeology, as well as a renowned library/archive, several museums and academic publications, HUC-JIR has become far more than a rabbinic seminary.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved. 

Respect Together

The key to Jewish unity is respect.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Texan Heroine

Rosanna Dyer Osterman (1809-1866) risked her life to act as a courier to the Confederate Army, after the city of Galveston, Texas, was occupied by the Union Army. From Osterman’s perspective, the Union Army were the occupiers. When she learned that the Union knew of the Confederates’ early January attack plan, she managed to get word to the Confederates so that they could attack early and retake the city.

Born in Germany, Rosanna Dyer moved with her family to Baltimore, Maryland in 1812.  In 1825, at age 16, she married Joseph Osterman.

Ten years later, Rosanna’s brother Leon accepted a job as Quartermaster General for the Louisiana State Militia, which eventually led him to Texas just as the famous battle at the Alamo was ending. Leon, who is himself noted as a famous Jewish war hero, wrote glowingly to his sister and brother-in-law about the newly independent territory of Texas, and they soon opened a general mercantile and import business there.

Just as she had grown up in a family that took an active role in the Baltimore community, Osterman was devoted to growing the Jewish community of Galveston. She is noted for her involvement in bringing the first rabbi, who established the first Jewish cemetery in 1852.

Osterman’s contributions to Galveston society, however, were rooted in her good deeds. During the Civil War (in addition to sending information against those occupying her city), she opened her home as a hospital where she treated soldiers from both sides of the conflict.

In 1866, Osterman drowned when the steamship on which she was traveling exploded in the Mississippi River. A wealthy widow with no children, Osterman’s will distributed her estate through large donations to many major Jewish organizations throughout the country, including sufficient funds to create the Hebrew Benevolent Society in Galveston.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Jewish Philanthropy

Explore and get involved with the many Jewish philanthropic opportunities available.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Second Passover

On the first anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt, the Children of Israel prepared to celebrate their first Passover as free people. God decreed that they should eat matzah and maror (bitter herbs) in commemoration of the great event, and, most importantly, that the Israelites should all partake of the Passover sacrifice (lamb).

On the eve of the second Passover, Moses was approached by a group of distraught men. “We are unclean because of the dead body of a man; why are we being held back so that we cannot bring the offering to God in its appointed time among the children of Israel” (Numbers 9:7)?

Contact with the dead rendered a person tamei, spiritually impure, and any person who was tamei was forbidden to partake of the Pascal lamb.

In response to their plea, Moses sought instruction from God. God responded that anyone who was tamei due to contact with death or who was on a far-away journey at the time of the Passover offering (14th of Nisan), would then offer the Pascal lamb one month later, on the 14th of Iyar. Those celebrating “Pesach Shaynee” (Second Passover) had to eat the meat of the sacrifice together with matzah and maror, exactly as on a regular Passover.

Today, without a Temple, no one is able to bring a Passover sacrifice. Thus the laws of Pesach Shaynee have little practical effect in day to day Jewish life. However, there is a custom to eat some matzah on the 14th of Iyar to mark the date of Pesach Shaynee for ourselves and for future generations.

This year, the 14th of Iyar, Pesach Shaynee, is Sunday, May 6, 2012.

This Treat was originally posted on May 7, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Second Chances

Whenever possible, give those who have erred a second chance.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Benjamin Nones

U.S. politics have never been pretty. Even as the colonists declared their independence from England, they were busy arguing with one another. Rather than Democrats (liberals) and Republicans (conservatives), however, the early Americans were divided between the Republicans (liberals) and the Federalists (conservatives). If you find political fighting today abhorant, just imagine what it was like before political correctness!

In 1800, Benjamin Nones, a veteran of Washington's army who was awarded a citation for bravery while serving in General Pulaski's legion, discovered the no-holds-barred methods of American politics, the hard way. Following the Republican convention in Philadelphia, the local Federalist newspaper included a vicious attack against Nones (who had attended the convention), decrying him as "a Jew, a Republican and poor."

Nones' response, which had to be published in a different newspaper, was both passionate and eloquent: "I am a Jew. I glory in belonging to that persuasion, which even its opponents, whether Christian or Mahomedan, allow to be of divine origin...which has preserved its faith secure and undefined, for nearly three thousand years..."

About his Republicanism he was equally eloquent: "In republics we have rights, in monarchies we live but to experience wrongs...How then can a Jew but be a Republican?"

Nones was certainly poor. An immigrant from France, he arrived just before the war. After the war, he tried to make a living as a notary, but with a large family at home (14 children) money was always tight.

Nones was an active member of Philadelphia Jewish community. He served on the board of the Society of Ezrath Orchim and was the president of Congregation Mikveh Israel. Nones, who was also known for his abolitionist views, died in 1826.

This Treat was written in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, which is celebrated in May.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Fairness in Journalism

Stand up against biased journalism by writing letters to the editor in protest. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ethics of the Fathers

Ethics - it’s a big word in our day and age. Between political corruption and financial misdeeds, it is easy to wonder what ever happened to even the most basic ethical standards.

Although superficially it seems that the Torah’s primary focus is on civil, religious and ritual law, in actuality, the entire Torah is a blueprint for ethical living. The Mishnaic tractate of Avot (Fathers) is dedicated to the moral and practical teachings of the great sages. It is probably the best known and most widely studied section of the Oral Law.

Pirkei Avot (literally, Chapter of the Fathers, but better known as Ethics of the Fathers) begins with a simple but important idea: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, the prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly...” While, within the Mishna itself, different rabbis are given credit for their specific comments and thoughts about life, this opening statement delineates the flow of transmission to emphasize that these statements are very much part of Torah. One cannot pick and choose to observe only certain morals and ethics. It is all part of Torah, part of the “total package” that Jews must observe.

Since the time of the Gaonim (circa 8th-10th century, Babylon), Jews have studied one chapter of Pirkei Avot each Shabbat during the six Shabbatot between Passover and Shavuot. In many communities, this custom has been extended so that Pirkei Avot is studied from Passover until Rosh Hashana. Since many synagogues study Pirkei Avot communally each Shabbat after the afternoon service, the six chapters of Avot may be found in most Shabbat prayerbooks after the Mincha service.

This Treat was originally published on Friday, May 1, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

For Your Review

Purchase or borrow a copy of Pirkei Avot to review this summer.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

How To Be Holy

God instructs Moses to tell the Jewish people: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). How does one make oneself holy? The remaining 35 verses of Leviticus 19, however, offer specific mitzvot to help one achieve this goal. Here are those that are applicable even without the Holy Temple:

    1. Fear your mother and father and keep Shabbat. (More Details)
    2. No idolatry. (More Details)
    3. Leave the corners of the harvested field and the gleanings of the field and the vineyard, as well as the fallen fruit of the vineyard, for the poor and the stranger.
    4. Do not steal, deal falsely or lie to one another.
    5. Do not swear falsely in God’s name.(More Details)
    6. Do not oppress or steal from your neighbor.
    7. Pay your employees on time.(More Details)
    8. Judge your neighbor righteously. Do not disrespect the poor, nor favor the mighty. (More Details)
    9. Do not act as a talebearer, nor stand by idly as the blood of your neighbor is shed.
    10. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your brother and do not bear sin because of him.
    11. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge (More Details ). Love your neighbor as yourself.
    12. Do not let your cattle mix-breed, or sow your field with mixed seed, and do not wear garments of mixed fibers (wool and linen).
    13. The fruit of trees planted in Israel is forbidden for the first three years. According to many it applies outside of Israel as well.
    14. Do not eat blood (More Details), practice divination or soothsaying, round the corners of your heads, mar the corners of your beard (More Details) or make cuts of mourning in your flesh or imprint marks on your body.
    15. Do not make your daughter a harlot.
    16. Keep Shabbat (More Details) and revere God’s sanctuary.
    17. Do not try to communicate with the dead.
    18. Respect the elderly. (More Details)
    19. Treat the convert as one of your own. (More Details)
    20. Keep honest weights and measures. (More Details)
    21. Observe all God’s statutes and ordinances, and do them.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Mitzvah Plan

Try to incorporate one new mitzvah into your life.