Thursday, November 30, 2017

Pidyon Ha'ben - Redeeming the Firstborn

“You must redeem the firstborn of a person ... when he is one month old, for the value of five silver shekels” (Numbers 18:15-16).

God sanctified the firstborn male Israelites when He protected them from the plague of the Death of the Firstborn in Egypt. Therefore, God commanded: “Sanctify for me every firstborn, the one that first opens any womb among the children of Israel...he is mine” (Exodus 13:1-2).

It was originally intended that the firstborn would serve as the Jewish priesthood. However, when Moses saw the Golden Calf, he smashed the Ten Commandments and called out: “Whoever is for God, [come] to me!” When only the tribe of Levi stepped forward, the firstborn lost their exalted position. Henceforth, the priesthood was transferred to the Kohanim (who are Levites). However, since the firstborn had already been “sanctified,” each firstborn('s father) has to pay a Kohain to take his child's place in the priesthood (this is referred to as redemption of the firstborn, Pidyon Haben.)

The following condition have to be met to celebrate a Pidyon Ha’ben, making it a relatively uncommon ceremony:

a. It’s a boy.
b. The mother had a natural birth with no previous pregnancies/miscarriages, since the Torah refers to a firstborn who “opens the womb.”
c. The father is not a Kohain or Levi, nor is the maternal grandfather a Kohain or Levi.

The Pidyon Ha’ben is performed when the baby is 31 days old. The child is brought by the parents (often on a silver tray decorated with jewelry) to the Kohain who has been invited to be part of the ceremony.

The Kohain asks: “Which do you prefer, to give me your firstborn or to redeem him?” The father replies, "To redeem him" and recites a blessing on the mitzvah of redeeming one’s son followed by the Sheh’heh’cheh’yanu blessing. He then gives five silver coins (U.S. silver dollars are often used) to the Kohain, who blesses the child.

*This does not include miscarriages earlier than 40 days post-conception. 

This Treat was last posted on June 24, 2009.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Plan to Attend

Do not pass up an opportunity to attend a Pidyon Ha'ben.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

All-American Giver

Mervin Pregulman earned his initial fame as a college football star, but his real success was achieved later as a man of business and as a philanthropist.

Born in Lansing, Michigan, on October 21, 1922, Pregulman played football for the University of Michigan Wolverines from 1941 - 1943. As an outstanding player, he earned more than just the respect of his teammates and the praise of the fans; in 1943 he was named to the All-America team.

After his graduation, Pregulman was a first round draft pick for the Green Bay Packers, but the year was 1944 and duty to country came first. Pregulman joined the Navy, where he served as a gunner in the Pacific and narrowly survived a kamikaze attack on the ship on which he served.

Returning to civilian life in 1946, Pregulman began his NFL career. He played for the Packers in 1946, the Detroit Lions in 1947 and 1948, and for the New York Bulldogs in 1949. He retired in 1950. In 1957, Pregulman moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, the hometown of his wife, Helen, and joined her family’s business, Siskin Steel, of which he became president in 1978. Pregulman took the already successful company to a new level and greatly expanded the business.

Pregulman’s philanthropic activity was initially centered around the family’s Siskin Memorial Foundation, which sponsored the Siskin Children’s Institute and the Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation. He was also involved in supporting numerous local educational institutions as well as a wide-range of charities. But Pregulman and his wife were also very involved with the Jewish community. Pregulman served as the president of the Chattanooga Jewish Federation and gave much of their time and money to Jewish organizations. In 1998, the Pregulmans endowed a scholarship at the University of Michigan that seeks candidates who are committed to working in the Jewish community after graduation.

Mervin Pregulman lived the All-American dream but never forgot the importance of being part of the Jewish community. He passed away on November 29, 2012.

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Your Own Town

Assist local Jewish organizations through direct activity or financial support.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Albania and the Jews

Albania, which today marks its Independence Day, is a small Balkan country with an almost minute Jewish population. While it was never a country with a large Jewish population, there have been Jews residing there for centuries. Some historians even believe that a small group of Jews came to the area in 70 C.E., and archeologists have found what they believe to have been a 5th century synagogue in Saranda. A more consistent record of Jewish settlement occurs after the Spanish expulsion in 1492, when the area was under Ottoman control. Spanish and Portuguese Jews settled in many Albanians towns.

Perhaps the most interesting point of Albanian Jewish history is the fact that there were approximately 200 Jews in the country at the start of World War II and close to 2,000 at the war’s conclusion. In 1937, even as European anti-Semitism was increasing, the government of Albania officially recognized the Jewish community. Two years later, however, Albania became a puppet state under Italian control. Fascist laws limiting the freedom of Jews (and other minorities) were enacted, but the majority of Albanians did not act upon them. In fact, their embassy continued to issue visas to Jews long after other European countries had ceased to do so.

Hundreds of Jews managed to seek refuge in Albania, and the Albanian people did not distinguish between them and Jews native to the country. When the Germans took control of the country in 1943, they demanded that a list of Jews be provided to begin deportation. The local governments did not comply and even provided Jews with forged documents.

The Albanian people, influenced by their custom of hospitality and “Besa” (words of honor) hid most of the Jews in their mountain villages. Some of these Jews went on to work for the resistance, while others were escorted to the Albanian ports and escaped. Yad Vashem has recognized 69 Albanians as Righteous Among the Nations.

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Senior Respect

Stand up to show respect for the seniors in your community.

Monday, November 27, 2017

It's The Hebrew Alphabet

Aleph - Bet - Gimmel - Daled -’s the Hebrew alphabet!

According to the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet has its own meaning and power. The 22 letters are regarded as the building blocks of the world. In fact, the Biblical artisan Betzalel, who created all the vessels for the Tabernacle, was said to have been able to carry out God’s will in such perfect detail because he “knew how to combine the letters with which heaven and earth were created” (Talmud Berachot 55a).

Take, for example, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, "aleph." (To see an image of the aleph, please click here .) The aleph is made up of one diagonal line with a leg and an arm - the aleph therefore has two ends that touch the "ground" and two ends that reach toward "heaven." Since it stretches between the two, aleph is regarded as the letter that unites heaven and earth. The aleph is also a symbol of strength because its form resembles the shape of an ox.

Each letter’s underlying meaning and power adds nuances to the word which it helps to shape and build. For instance, aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew word for truth, emet. One could say that it takes a considerable amount of inner strength to always follow the truth, and that one is judged for truthfulness both by fellow human beings and by God.

This Treat was last posted on November 3, 2008.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Language Use

If you know how to read Hebrew, practice it regularly. If you don't know how to read Hebrew, try starting with NJOP's

Friday, November 24, 2017

Bread and Clothing

Until recently, the repercussions of converting to Judaism meant more than just renouncing one’s previous religious beliefs. More often than not, a person who converted to Judaism also cut off ties with his/her family (and in many cases the family sought his/her arrest and punishment). Additionally, converts were often forced to forfeit any personal wealth that they might possess. This was a challenge for which the Torah was well prepared. Scripture, in Deuteronomy 10:18, states that God “loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” Throughout the Torah, the Jewish people are reminded of the importance of being kind to converts (and widows and orphans). Throughout history, communities often took it upon themselves to help converts support themselves. 

In Genesis Rabbah (78:5), there is an interesting exchange about the broader meaning of the phrase “food and clothing.” The Midrash presents Akilas, a convert, who asks both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua about the meaning of the verse in Deuteronomy. 

Rabbi Eliezer responded to Akilas by pointing to Genesis 28:20, where Jacob vows to dedicate Beth-El as a place of God “If God will be with me...and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear.” Jacob had to ask God for the basic necessities, however, for the convert, God promises in Deuteronomy to give them bread and clothing freely, without their asking. 

Rabbi Joshua, on the other hand, taught that "bread" refers to the Torah (a common analogy), while "clothing" means a tallit (prayer shawl). Rabbi Joshua explained that the promise of “bread and clothing” means that even though converts are not raised with the Torah, they too will be able to attain a high level of Jewish spirituality. 

This Treat was last posted on August 18, 2011.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved. 


Be welcoming to any newcomers in your community.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

It's Not A Big Chicken

If there is one thing that is guaranteed to be in supermarkets in November, it’s turkey! In fact, many supermarkets even give them away to promote large purchases of other groceries.

As you put the turkey into the oven, take a moment to think about the significance of that bird. Did you know that a vast amount of rabbinic ink has been expended in discussing the kosher status of turkey?!

While the Torah specifically identifies those features that make animals and fish kosher (chews cud and split hooves for animals, scales and fins for fish), it does not specify the identifying features of a kosher bird. Instead it states that one may eat "all the clean birds," and then lists only the birds which one may not eat (Deuteronomy 14:11-20).

This has created a problem because not all the birds identified in the Torah’s prohibited list are known today. The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch completed in 1563) therefore ruled that only those birds traditionally known to be eaten by Jewish communities were allowed. This included chicken and ducks.

The turkey, however, was not a traditional bird. Turkeys are indigenous to the "New World" and were not seen by European Jews until explorers brought them back from America. As turkeys became more common fare in the general European community, the rabbis began to receive questions about the bird’s kosher status.

The turkey, which shares many similarities to other known kosher birds – the nature of their stomach, the shape of their beak, the structure of their feet, and that they were not predatory – was deemed kosher by almost all authorities.

So go ahead. Stuff the bird!

This Treat is republished each year in honor of Thanksgiving.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Feast of Gratitude

While the majority of the sacrifices enumerated in the Torah are related to atonement for sins or to celebrate feast days, the sh'lamim, peace offerings, were unique because they were not brought for either reason. And among the different peace offerings, the korban todah, the thanks offering, is set apart because it had to be eaten the same day on which it was offered. In this short span of time, a large portion of food had to be consumed: In addition to the meat of the offering, 30 loaves of unleavened bread and 10 loaves of leavened bread were offered and consumed by the kohanim, levi'im and those involved in the offering itself.

In his book The Call of the Torah*, Rabbi Elie Munk suggests that the quantity of food and the relatively brief amount of time in which it had to be consumed, required that the person who brought the offering invite guests to join in publicly giving thanks to God.

While only four types of people were required to bring a korban todah (a freed captive, one who traveled by sea; one who had crossed the desert, and one who recovered from an illness), in this day and age, when there is no Temple and thus no sacrifices, people who survive any life-threatening situation will often make a seudat hoda'ah, a feast of thanksgiving, after having survived a life-threatening incident or illness and on the anniversary of their survival.

There is no set ceremony for a seudat hoda'ah. To be considered a proper seudah (feast), however, bread should be served so that birkat hamazon may be recited. It is also customary to listen to words of Torah spoken either by the survivor or in the survivor's honor.

*Volume 3, page 59 
This Treat was last posted on November 24, 2011.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Gobble Kosher

Choose a kosher turkey for your Thanksgiving meal.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Jewish League

For American Jews today, it is hard to imagine that Jews in the U.S. in the early twentieth century faced a deeply anti-Semitic culture. Many public and private facilities posted blatant restrictions to Jewish access, while established educational institutions had quotas for Jewish students. The media of the day was rife with anti-Semitic stereotypes and inferences.

In 1913, a Chicago attorney, Sigmund Livingston, created an organization whose mission was “to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people. Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike...” He named his organization the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

While it started out as a two desk affair in Chicago, the ADL came under the auspices of B'nai Brith and grew into a larger, New York based, organization. Significantly, its founding coincided with the terrible ordeal of Leo Frank, whose false conviction of murder, and his eventual lynching in 1915, led to a noticeable rise in anti-Semitism.

The ADL began its work with “appeals to reason and conscience.” It actively used the media to counter negative stereotypes of Jews and to expose America’s unacknowledged intolerance. The organization also acted against hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan and was critical in ending the publication of Henry Ford’s hate-filled newspaper, The Dearborn Independent.

Over the first ten decades of its existence, the Anti-Defamation League grew from an organization that appealed to the logic of the American people and developed into a major moral force advocating for civil rights, sounding a strong voice in the discussion of the separation of church and state, and promoting Holocaust remembrance. While there have also been several controversies regarding the organization, such as their hesitation to recognize the Armenian Genocide, the ADL’s reputation is that of a major voice of empowerment for all Americans.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Always remember that all people are created in the image of God.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Before They Knew Viral

Martha Wollstein, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Germany, began her medical education when she was 16 years old. The Women’s Medical Society of the State of New York was also only 16 years old at that time, having been founded by Elizabeth Blackwell in 1868. Wollstein graduated in 1889, after which she began a medical internship at The Babies Hospital in New York City. When the two year internship was over, she was hired by the hospital as a pathologist.

In 1930, despite not having actively treated children nor having made any singularly ground-breaking discoveries, Wollstein was the first woman to be awarded membership in the American Pediatric Society. But, over the four decades since she had graduated from medical school, Wollstein had dedicated herself to studying the source, and possible treatments, of illnesses such as malaria, polio, tuberculosis and mumps to name a few.

Wollstein’s research career first focused on infant diarrhea, which seems benign but can be extremely dangerous. Her work caught the attention of established researchers. In 1906, Wollstein received the distinction of being appointed as an assistant at the prestigious Rockefeller Institute. Her research work at the Rockefeller Institute continued until 1920, and her output was extraordinary. Her 1918 research on mumps was considered particularly informative on the viral nature of the disease. In 1921, however, Wollstein went back to The Babies Hospital paying particular attention to diseases affecting children. In 1928, she was appointed head of the pediatric section of the New York Academy of Medicine.

By the time of  her retirement, Wollstein had authored an impressive 80 scientific papers. Having moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, she remained there  until shortly before her death. Wollstein passed away in 1939 at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. In a sign of the times, her obituary noted that she “was also known as a pathologist” incredible understatement.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Healthy Spirit

Remember that guarding your health is a mitzvah.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Our Obligation

On November 20, 1959, the United Nations adopted a resolution accepting the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. This ten-point declaration was based on a document created in Geneva in 1924 and was aimed at creating a universal standard for bettering the lives of children. It includes a provision on the right of every child  for a name as well as the principle that children with special needs of all variety receive an education and necessary assistance.

The seventh principle of the Declaration declares that “The child is entitled to receive education, which shall be free and compulsory, at least in the elementary stages. He shall be given an education which will promote his general culture, and enable him on a basis of equal opportunity, to develop his abilities, his individual judgement, and his sense of moral and social responsibility, and to become a useful member of society...”

Judaism does not have a concept of human rights, but rather views the world in terms of human obligations. A child is obligated to honor their father and mother. This is a foundation of Jewish life and one of the Ten Commandments. A parent is obligated to educate their child, and this obligation is expansive. The child must be taught Torah, the fundamentals of Jewish life and guide to the laws and mores of Jewish society. However, a child must also be taught a craft or a trade, the necessary skills to support himself and make society better.

The fact that the right to an education needed to be codified demonstrates how the Torah attitude toward the next generation differed from the rest of the world for hundreds of years. Most societies did not enact universal educational systems until the mid-1800s. However, as early as the 1st century of the common era, “Joshua ben Gamala came and ordained that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and each town” (Talmud Baba Batra 21a).

Today's Treat was posted in honor of Universal Children's Day.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Good for All

Invest yourself in the Jewish education of the children in your life.

Friday, November 17, 2017

For Her Protection

Most people look at the world through the perspective of the society in which they were raised. Their views on everything from beauty to manners to equal rights are framed by the history they know and the people around them. Therefore, when the narratives in the Torah are read, it is imperative that one do their best to understand the society in which the Jewish ancestors lived.

Using this historic filter is particularly important when reviewing the narratives about the lives of the matriarchs. Understanding how harrowing ancient times (and not so ancient times) could be for women helps one better understand why, for instance, Isaac would lie about his relationship with his wife, Rebecca, and state that she is his sister (Genesis 26). He did so out of fear that the men of the place would kill a man to take his wife, but with a brother there would be extra time while they tried to broker a match (see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 12). And while King Abimelech, who noticed the unsibling-like behavior of the couple, was irrate that he had been lied to, he was not dismissive of their fears. “And Abimelech said: ‘What have you done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.’ And Abimelech charged all the people, saying: ‘Anyone who touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death’” (Genesis 26:10-11).

It is easy, from a modern perspective, to read this narrative (and the two similar one’s earlier in Genesis - 12 and 20 - that involved Sarah) and worry about biblical chauvinism and patriarchal inequality. However, as news today regularly uncovers the outrageous behaviors of our civilized society, one should, perhaps, laud the actions of Isaac to go to such great lengths to protect Rebecca.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Moral Guide

Do not let the morality of the media define your morality.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Yom Kippur Katan

Today is one of a number of days on the Jewish calendar that is noted as “Yom Kippur Katan,” literally Little Day of Atonement. It is observed on the day before Rosh Chodesh (the new month)* except when Rosh Chodesh occurs on Saturday* or Sunday, when Yom Kippur Katan is observed earlier on the Thursday prior (as is the case today).

Yom Kippur Katan is interesting in that it is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), but appears to have become a common practice among the 16th century kabbalists in Safed and the tradition spread from there. The basis for the observance of Yom Kippur Katan was the fact that in Temple times a sin offering was included in the Rosh Chodesh offerings, indicating that Rosh Chodesh is a particularly opportune time for repentance and atonement.

Atonement on the actual day of Yom Kippur is accomplished through fasting and prayer, but Rosh Chodesh is also considered a minor festival on which one may not fast. Therefore, Yom Kippur Katan is observed just before Rosh Chodesh.

In certain times and places, it was common for most of the community to fast (sunrise to nightfall) on Yom Kippur Katan. Today, fasting is less common, but the special penitential prayers are still often recited during the afternoon service in some synagogues.

* It is not observed the day before Rosh Hashana (the 1st of Tishrei); the day before Cheshvan, since Yom Kippur has just been observed; the day before Tevet, because it is still Chanukah; and the day before Iyar, since one does not fast during the month of Nisan.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Monthly Reflection

Take a few moments to think about your actions over the course of the last month and whether there was something for which you should apologize or repent.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Writers in a Terrible Place

“The Day of the Imprisoned Writer” (November 15) was established by PEN International to recognize and provide support for writers who use their skills to fight political repression. Today’s Jewish Treat honors a different sort of writer in a different sort of imprisonment, the prisoners of the Nazis whose artistic lives were shaped, and most often, ended by the Holocaust.

In November 1941, the Nazis began operation at Theresienstadt (also called Terezin), a former fortress that was transformed into a “model” concentration camp.* Theresienstadt was the “show” camp to which the Nazis brought the Red Cross and foreign diplomats to demonstrate how well Jews and other prisoners were being treated. As “prettified” as the camp could be, it was still a concentration camp with torture and murder at its core.

Theresienstadt was marked as the destination to which many notable personalities were sent. Among these were a host of writers who continued to write even in their dire circumstances, such as: Norbert Fryd (1913-1976), who wrote a collection of nursery rhymes that were then set to music and performed in the camp ghetto and Peter Kien (1919 - 1944), who wrote numerous plays as well as the libretto to a one-act opera, The Emperor of Atlantis created in the camp.

Because of the combination of talented prisoners and Thereienstadt’s alternative purpose, there were times of actual artistic creativity at the camp. Musical and theatrical performances were arranged, and children were schooled in numerous artistic pursuits. In 1994, a collection of the poems and pictures created by the children of Theresenstadt was published under the title I Never Saw Another Butterfly, which is also the name of a haunting poem composed by 21 year old Pavel Friedmann (who perished in Auschwitz in September 1944).

*Theresienstadt is referred to as both a camp and a ghetto.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

History Read

Read about Jewish history in order to understand the Jewish nation today.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Jewish Work in Diabetes

Not so long ago, diabetes was often thought of as a “Jewish disease.”  This was before doctors and scientists understood genetics. The idea of diabetes as a “Jewish disease” also pre-dated the knowledge of the physical processes involved in the disease and was based on the reports that there was a particularly high percentage of diabetics who were Jewish. In honor of World Diabetes Day, Jewish Treats presents some interesting facts regarding the Jewish connection to the understanding of diabetes.

Research in diabetes has come a long way, but there is still much to learn before a cure is found for the illness. Each year, the European Association for the Study of Diabetes awards a young researcher with the Minkowski Prize. This award is named in honor of Oskar Minkowski (1858-1931), who made the discovery of the connection of diabetes to the pancreas. (It is interesting to note that the pancreas, an organ that was largely unknown or ignored in the ancient world, is mentioned in the Talmud as the “finger of the liver” on page 31a of tractate Tamid.)

Many diabetics are treated by the injection of insulin, a hormone that is produced by the pancreas. One of the researchers credited with discovering the relation of islet cells in the pancreas to diabetes (leading to the discovery of insulin treatment) was Dr. Moses Barron (1882 - 1974). Born into a traditional family in Kovno, Dr. Barron arrived in the United States when he was five and spent most of his life doing research in Minnesota.

A better understanding of how the insulin injections worked was researched by Rechmiel Levine, a native of Zalszczyki, Poland. Orphaned from his mother at a young age, Levine emigrated to Canada at age 16 after his father was murdered in a pogrom. His 1949  discovery of the role of insulin in glucose metabolism gained him the title, "Father of Modern Diabetes Research."

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Healthful and Healthy

Be conscious of how your diet affects your health.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Kindness Day

While giving charity (tzedakah) is an act of kindness (chesed), an act of kindness is not charity. According to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Elazar, "Acts of Kindness are greater than charity, for it is said (Hosea 1:12), ‘Sow to yourself according to your charity, but reap according to your kindness.’ If a person sows, it is doubtful whether he will eat or not, but when a person reaps he will certainly eat it" (Sukkah 49b).

The sages go on to explain that in three ways kindness is better than charity: (1) Kindness can be done with one’s person and one’s money, as opposed to charity, which can only be done with money. (2) Kindness can be done for any person, rich or poor. (3) Kindness can be done for both the living and the dead. 

There are many ways in which a person can perform acts of kindness. Some of the best-known mitzvot associated with chesed are: visiting the sick, welcoming guests, and helping a bride and groom. Opportunities to visit the sick, welcome guests or help a young couple do not usually occur on a daily basis. Chesed opportunities, however, are available to most people numerous times each day. Acts of kindness are performed when helping a co-worker resolve a problem or holding the door for someone even when it means waiting an extra minute. In truth, the simple act of smiling at another person is an act of kindness. The Talmud states, "The man who shows his teeth [smiles] is better than one who gives milk to drink" (Ketubot 101b).

Today, November 13th, is World Kindness Day, but in Judaism, every day, indeed, every moment, is an opportunity to perform acts of kindness.

This Treat was originally posted on November 13, 2012.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Opportunities Await

Keep your eyes open for opportunities of kindness.

Friday, November 10, 2017

A Man of Courage Honored

In 2001, it was recognized that in the course of American history, numerous heroes had been denied consideration for the United States Medal of Honor for extreme valor in battle, due to prejudice against their race or religion (Read more about this here). In the opinion of his family, this was the case of Sergeant William Shemin. Although he had been awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded and the Distinguished Service Cross for battlefield valor, they believed that anti-Semitism had kept his incredibly heroic acts from being fully recognized. After 13 years of petitioning and campaigning, Congress agreed, and, on June 2, 2015, President Barack Obama presented a posthumous Medal of Honor to William Shemin.

Born on October 14, 1896, in Bayonne, NJ, Shemin enlisted in the U.S. Army by lying about his age, perhaps so believably because, in his young life, he had already played semi-professional basketball, graduated from the New York State Rangers School and worked as a forester. Shemin became a rifleman in the infantry.

The action for which Shemin was decorated occurred in August 1918 at the Vessle River during the Second Battle of the Marne (France). Through three days of trench warfare, Shemin and his comrades watched troop after troop fall in the No Man’s Land. Not once, but three times (!), Shemin dove through the machine gun fire to help bring back the wounded. After all the officers and non-commissioned officers were injured in the battle as well, Shemin jumped in to lead his platoon until he too was wounded with shrapnel and bullets. A head wound behind his left ear put him in the hospital for three months, after which he was assigned light duties until his discharge in August 1919.

After the war, Shemin attended and graduated from the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University, where he was an athlete, and then settled in the Bronx, where he opened a landscaping company. He was the father of two daughters and a son who also served in the military. William Shemin passed away on August 15, 1973.

Written in honor of Veterans Day, November 11th.

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Give honor to those who serve or have served your country.

Thursday, November 9, 2017


Kristallnacht, literally the Night of Crystal but generally translated as the Night of Broken Glass, was a tragic turning point in the fate of Germany’s Jewish community. The country-wide pogrom began on November 9, 1938, and lasted through the 10th. Over the course of Kristallnacht, close to 100 Jews were killed, 30,000 Jewish men were arrested, hundreds of synagogues were burned and desecrated and over 7,000 Jewish shops were vandalized and had their shop windows shattered.

The outbreak of violence was orchestrated by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. However, the Nazi leadership firmly maintained that the actions were a spontaneous uprising of the German people against the Jews. They also used fabricated Jewish crimes in order to enact further oppressive laws against Jews, including diverting insurance payments for property destroyed in the pogroms.

The excuse for the so-called “spontaneous” pogrom was the death, on November 9th, of German diplomat Ernst Vom Rath in Paris. He was shot by a 17 year old Jewish youth, Herschel Grynszpan. Young, unemployed and an illegal resident trying to avoid deportation from Paris, Grynszpan shot the diplomat as a reaction to his parents’ deportation to Poland. The Grynszpans had lived in Hanover, Germany, since 1911. In October 1938, the Germans expelled all Polish Jews from German soil just as Poland was about to implement a new law removing Polish citizenship from anyone residing outside of Poland for more than five years. But Poland refused to take the refugees, and 12,000 Jews were put in refugee camps at the border.

The involvement of German citizens in the pogroms, or at the very least the lack of protest from neighbors (and neighboring countries), affirmed the Nazi’s belief that they could do as they pleased concerning the Jews. Previously oppressive measures had been non-violent, but Kristallnacht was the first step toward the horror of the “Final Solution.”

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Listen and Remember

Take the time to listen to Holocaust survivors and remember their stories.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Montana’s Jewish History

Montana is not a state known for its large Jewish community, and yet the early Jewish settlers made a distinct mark on the cities in which they lived.

The first Jewish community developed in Helena, Montana. Populated mostly with Jews of German origin, the Jewish settlers offered the mercantile services necessary for a booming mine town in a gold rush. In 1866, the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Helena was formed. Shortly thereafter, a congregation was established. The first synagogue in the vast territory between Minnesota and Oregon was Helena’s Temple Emanuel, which was dedicated in 1891. Alas, the Helena Jewish community faltered, and, in 1930, the building was sold to the State of Montana, which removed most of the religious imagery except for the stain-glassed windows and added a second floor. In 2000, nearly 20 years after the building came into the possession of Helena’s Catholic diocese, the building was put on the National Register of Historic Places and bears a plaque noting its Jewish significance.

As the Helena community waned, Butte’s community grew. Their first congregation, Bnai Israel, was organized in 1897, and their first synagogue building was dedicated in 1903. Although there was a split during which a second congregation, Adath Israel, was formed, the Jews of Butte unified as one congregation in the late 1960s. Most interesting, however, is that the city of Butte appears to have been very accepting of its Jews, as both its first and sixth mayors were Jewish. Henry Jacobs, who was born in Baden, Germany, was elected in 1879, and Henry Lupin Frank, a native of Ohio, served two terms as mayor starting in 1885.

Today there are a number of small Jewish communities across the state unified by the Montana Association of Jewish Communities. According to, there are approximately 1,450 Jews in Montana today.

On November 8, 1889, Montana became the 41st state of the United States.

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A Gift

When asked to lend a cup of sugar, offer it as a gift instead.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Kindness to Animals

Animals are one of the most important “educational tools” God provided to humanity in order to teach them to be “givers.” While animals can’t communicate with the same ability as humans, they are God’s creations and express basic feelings such as pain, hunger, satisfaction and, many would argue, loyalty and love.

Jewish law teaches us that when a person assumes responsibility for an animal, whether a pet or a farm-animal, care of the animal becomes a top priority. In Talmud Berachot 40a, Rabbi Judah quotes Rav as saying: “It is forbidden for a person to eat until one has fed one's animals, since the verse states, ‘and I will provide grass in your field for your cattle,’ and only then does it say, ‘and you will eat and you will be satisfied’” (Deuteronomy 11:15).

It is from the matriarch Rebecca that we learn about kindness to animals. When Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who is seeking a wife for Isaac, meets Rebecca at her town well, she gives him a drink of water and then says: “I will draw for your camels as well, until they have done drinking” (Genesis 24:19). She ran to the well numerous times to ensure that the camels were properly satiated. (The reason she did not offer to water the camels first was because they were not hers. Additionally, there is an opinion that water, unlike food, should first be given to humans for the sake of pikuach nefesh, saving a life.)

While the obligation does not include animals at large (such as stray cats), the principle itself is intended to make one much more aware of the ways in which he/she can be kinder to all animals and, indeed, to all people.

This Treat was originally published on November 10, 2009.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

For Animals' Sake

Before adopting a pet, think carefully if you will have the time and capacity to care for it properly.

Monday, November 6, 2017

A Jazz Master

On a day dedicated to the appreciation of the saxophone, Jewish Treats presents the biography of a jazz musician whose musical career began with a sax (but was mostly on the clarinet, for which he was labelled “King”).

The musical career of Artie Shaw (1910 - 2004), who was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, began with a saxophone that he bought for himself after his father left the family, when he was around 13. Shaw’s family had moved  from the Lower East Side, New York, to New Haven, Connecticut, and the overt anti-Semitism he encountered had a deep impact on the introverted youth.

A natural on several instruments, Shaw quit school at 15 to pursue a career in music. Success came quickly. In 1928 he won a trip to Hollywood, where he joined Irving Aaronson’s Band. His career thereafter was always successful but colored by his extremely fickle temperament and his distaste for the business of popular music. He quickly tired of playing the songs his audience most wanted to hear.

In 1935, Shaw started his first ensemble, Interlude in B Flat. Notably, in 1938, he hired Billie Holiday as his singer. He was one of the first big band leaders to try to integrate his ensemble. Unfortunately, many of the audiences were not ready for this form of entertainment, and Miss Holiday left the ensemble after a few years due to the racial tensions.

Shaw then worked in Hollywood for a few years. When World War II started, he joined the Navy. His military band played for troops throughout the Pacific, and he received a medical discharge for exhaustion in 1944.

After leaving the service, Shaw continued his frenetic career until he retired in 1954, and devoted himself to writing. In addition to an autobiography, he published two collections of short stories. He was also a sought-after lecturer. In 1983, Shaw came out of retirement and formed the Artie Shaw Band. He passed away in 2004.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Sing It Strong

Choose music that you find spiritually uplifting.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Jews of Panama

The history of the Jews in Panama is similar to Jewish history in other South and Central American countries. Conversos came to the region with Spanish settlers but, in time, became indistinguishable from the rest of the population. In 1821, after Panama, as part of Colombia, separated from Spain, there was an influx of Sephardic Jews from Jamaica and Ashkenzic Jews from Europe. However, they did not develop a community.

In the 1850s, as the Panamanian railroad crossing from Atlantic to the Pacific was completed, more Jews came, and this time a community took hold. Panama’s first congregation, Kol Shearith Israel, was founded in 1876 in Panama City. In 1890, Kahal Hakadosh Yangacob opened in Colon. Two further waves of Jewish immigration led to the opening of two more synagogues in Panama City. Shevet Achim was built by the large community of Syrian Jews who arrived in the 1930s. Eastern European Jews fleeing the Nazis opened Beth El later that decade. Today, there are approximately 10,000 Panamanian Jews, mostly in Panama City, but also in Colon, David, Chitre and several other cities.

Jews have found success in Panama and have been accepted by the country, so much so that twice Jews have held the office of President, although the first time it was a technical presidency. Max Delvalle Levy-Maduro (1911 - 1979), Vice-President from 1964 - 1968, was inaugurated as Acting President on April 8, 1967, while President Marco Aurelio Robles Mendez attended a week-long summit, as per Panamanian law. Moduro’s nephew, Eric Arturo Delvalle Cohen-Henriques (1937 - 2015), assumed the Presidency from the Vice-Presidency after the President with whom he was elected was forced to resign. He served from 1985 until 1988, losing his office after he tried to remove the infamous Manuel Noriega as head of the military.

Today's Treat is in honor of Panama's separation from Colombia, which took place on November 3, 1903.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Sweet Music

Enhance your Shabbat meal by singing special Shabbat songs. (Click here to learn the meaning behind a few such songs.)

Thursday, November 2, 2017


When Vladimir Yevgenyevich Zhabotinsky was born on 13 Cheshvan (October 18) 1880, in Odessa, it was probably inconceivable that he would become a staunch advocate for the resettlement of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel or that he would be known to history as Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Jabotinsky began his writing career in his teens under the pseudonym Altalena. While living in Italy and Switzerland, he served as a cultural correspondent for several Russian newspapers. He was so popular that he was asked to come to Odessa for a full-time position.

After the horrible Kishinev Pogroms shocked Ukrainian Jewry, Jabotinsky went from being a passive supporter to an active proponent of Zionism. He attended the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, and then spent the next several years traveling throughout the Jewish world encouraging Jewish self-defense and advocating for the Zionist cause.

At the beginning of World War I, Jabotinsky realized that the Zionist cause needed the Ottomans to be defeated. Together with Joseph Trumpeldor, he helped create the Zionist Mule Corp, which became the Jewish Legion of the British Army. However, after the war, he concluded that the British were not sincere about helping to  form the Jewish state. His leadership in the Haganah, a paramilitary organization, led to his arrest in 1920. Although he was sentenced to 15 years for illegal arm possession, loud protests against his arrest led to his release.

In 1923, Jabotinsky, irate over the division of Transjordan from Palestine, broke with the larger Zionist body. Jabotinsky’s new movement, Revisionist Zionism, opposed both British assistance and the socialist bias of the general Zionist movement. He also formed the Betar youth movement to advocate his viewpoint. Revisionist Zionists in the Haganah formed the sub-group known as the Irgun, whose actions were more aggressive than the Haganah’s.

The British took advantage of Jabotinsky's 1930 speakng tour and revoked his visa to Palestine. He continued to promote his cause while also advocating for an evacuation plan for the Jews of Poland, Hungary and Romania.

In 1940, while speaking at a Betar summer camp in upstate New York, Jabotinsky suffered a fatal heart attack at age 59. He was buried at the campsite until 1964, when his remains were brought to Israel and laid to rest on Mt. Herzl.

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When you hear a friend is troubled, reach out to them and let them know you are there in whatever way they need you.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

An Unholy Act with the Best Intentions

There are many stories in the Torah that might be deemed “too adult,” and are generally glossed over in Hebrew school. But, like every narrative in the Bible, these stories have significance to the history of the Jewish people.

The text of the story of Lot and his daughters is particularly fascinating. Lot’s daughters commit incest in order to save the world from coming to an end, or at least so they believed. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s elder daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him that we may maintain life through our father” (Genesis 19:32-33). The elder did so on the first night and the younger the night after. They both conceived. The elder named her son Moab (from my father); the younger named her child Ben-Ammi (son of my nation).

One of the most fascinating commentaries on this section of the Torah notes that dots appear over the description of the elder daughter rising up from her father’s bed. These dots communicate that Lot was aware of her leaving, and thus aware of what had happened the previous night. This commentary is a rebuke to him, since he did not hesitate when his daughters offered him wine again the next evening.

Jewish law views incest as one of the most heinous crimes, and, indeed, the descendants of Lot’s daughters were enemies of the Israelites when they returned from Egypt. The Torah even prohibits marrying the men of Moab and Ammon, seeing great fault in their national character. Despite the transgression, from the ancient incestuous act of Lot’s daughters, done out of a desire to save humankind, came Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David and thus an ancestor to the Messiah.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

What's Intended

Don't judge the intentions of other people.