The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, July 30, 2010

A New Home

Well, we have been in our new house in Basalt, Colorado for a week and two days! It is a very different space than what we were living in in New York. The most exciting things for me have been:

1. having a washer/dryer - we can actually do laundry while doing other things - it's just right there!
2. EXTRA closet space - like for all our suits that we're never going to wear here.
3. direct sunlight! - in our NY apartment, we got about an hour of direct sunlight, but only in the summer from about 6-7pm, and it was only in one corner of our living room - we cherished it!
4. a deck - oh to sit and eat and drink outside... there's nothing like it.
5. two sinks! - Not that I don't love David, but we don't have to share EVERYTHING.

Well, those are the top five. There are many more wonderful things about our new house. I think it will take some time for it to feel like home. We haven't yet hung all the pictures, or found places for all the little things, but it's coming along.

Here are some pictures of the move:

Boxes galore!

We have a lot of books. A lot of Jewish books.

Our living room on its way to being cozy!

And before I go, I also have to share our last Havdalah experience. We were up at the house of Bob and Judy Layton in Missouri Heights, and we just could not get over the views up there. Along with about 20 others, we stood outside and sang a niggun (a wordless melody) - we had some great voices! - and shared a havdalah ceremony. We shared our hopes for the coming week: some were traveling to visit family, some were receiving visitors, some were preparing to move to the Roaring Fork Valley permanently. We sang the blessings, watched the candle glow, and just marveled at the majesty of the moment...

And now, another shabbat begins. Shabbat shalom!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tisha B'Av in our Time

Delivered on July 16, 2010 • Parashat D’varim
Rabbi David Segal • Aspen Jewish Congregation

It’s a confusing time to be an American Jew.

From Monday evening to Tuesday evening (July 19-20), Jews observe the holiday of Tisha B’Av.  Literally, the name means ninth of the month of Av.  I think most American Jews are unaware of this holiday and its content, such as that it’s a fast day and part of the lead-up to the High Holidays.  According to our tradition, Tisha B’Av commemorates many things:  first, the punishment of the Exodus generation for their faithlessness upon hearing the scouts negative reports of the land.  They were condemned to die in the desert, says our tradition, on Tisha B’Av.  Then, the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, by Babylonia in 586 BCE and by Rome in 70 CE, respectively.

Later historical events also came to be understood by Jewish tradition as coinciding with Tisha B’Av.  For example, the expulsion of Jews from England (1290) and Spain (1492), as well as the beginning of the 1942 deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, are all believed to have occurred on Tisha B’Av.

Tisha B’Av is especially confusing for Reform Jews.  One of our early American Reform Rabbis, David Einhorn, had a unique interpretation.  Einhorn lived and worked in the mid-to-late 19th Century in Baltimore and then Philadelphia.  In his prayer book, he included Tisha B’Av as a celebration!  In his view, the destruction of the Temple was the day that we Jews went out into the world to spread our prophetic message of universal justice, and thus to be a light unto the nations.  Nowadays, I think we have a little more humility about the prospects for universal redemption.  The world is far from complete and whole, and we acknowledge there are reasons to mourn, and to commemorate destruction and brokenness.

There is also confusion within our tradition about the reasons for the two Temples’ destruction.
In the Talmud (Yoma 9b), we learn that the First Temple was destroyed because the Israelites were engaging in idolatry, incest, and bloodshed -- the three worst sins.  For the Second Temple, the reason given is sin’at hinam, baseless hatred.  Despite that the Jews of the time occupied themselves with mitzvot, it was their needless enmity that caused the Temple’s devastation.

Another voice in the Talmud offers a different interpretation.  Rabbi Yochanan (Metzia 30b) says that the reason for the destruction was that the rabbis “gave judgments in accordance with the Torah.”  As you can imagine, his colleagues are taken aback (I’m paraphrasing):  “What?!?  Should we have had unqualified amateurs giving rulings???”  So then Rabbi Yochanan clarifies: the problem, he says, was that they were so strict to the letter of the Torah that they disregarded the needs and merits of individual cases.  They were unwilling to go beyond the letter of the law to address present realities and preserve the dignity of people.

So we have these two reasons given for the Second Temple’s destruction: Sin’at Hinam and Excessive strictness in Torah. These are striking reasons. The most obvious answer would have been: Rome’s army was stronger.  However, Jewish tradition says no for two reasons: (1) God is in charge of history, and (2) more relevant for us, a Jewish “house divided cannot stand...”

This last point takes us back to our theme: it’s a confusing and troubling time for Jews.
The aftermath of the Gaza Flotilla incident showed once again that there are those who hate and blame Israel regardless of the facts.  There is an information war full of bias and falsehoods.  In many ways, Israel needs our help now more than ever.

And yet, there are two things Israel is doing now that fly in the face of that need for Israeli-Diaspora partnership.  They relate to the two reasons the rabbis mention for the Temple’s destruction: excessive strictness with Torah and sin’at chinam...

There was a bill making way through the Israeli Knesset that would dramatically change the way conversions are handled in Israel.  It was originally meant, I’ve read, to streamline the conversion process, e.g. to help the thousands of not-yet-converted Russian immigrants by granting more local control to community rabbis to oversee and approve conversions.  Instead, it consolidates power over all conversions in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate.  This could have far-reaching effects on the question of “who is a Jew?” and who decides.  It would effect the Right of Return, as well as whether Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Unaffiliated conversions are recognized by Israel.  It raises no less than a question of whether Israel is ahomeland for all Jews, or only a narrow category determined by the Chief Rabbinate.  And it has certainly been feeding the Israel-Diaspora rift.

Second, Anat Hoffman, the director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, was arrested at the Western Wall. She was there with a group called Women at the Wall, who periodically gather on the women’s side to pray together.  This is a problem at the Wall, because it is managed as an Orthodox synagogue, such that women aren’t allowed to pray out loud.  In the past, the group has endured heckling and verbal abuse, as well as occasionally having things thrown at them in protest.  This time, Anat Hoffman was leading the women prayer and carrying a Torah.  This cause such a ruckus that, perhaps fearing a riot, the Israeli police forced her away from the Wall and arrested her.  Again, this raises the question: is Israel a Jewish homeland for ALL Jews?  Is the Western Wall, as a central symbol, open to all Jews to exercise their Judaism?

As I’ve said already, this is confusing and troubling.  Israel needs our help and support, yet we feel pushed away.

So let me try to offer some clarity in the midst of confusion, some comfort amidst all this tzuris.

Let’s look to Torah. In the first line of our parashah, D’varim, the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, it says:
Eileh haDevarim asher diber Moshe EL KOL YISRAEL be’ever haYarden baMidbar mol suf...  
These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel [le-khol Yisrael] in the desert east of the Jordan... (Deuteronomy 1:1)

I point this out because it is the first occurrence of “Kol Yisrael” (All Israel); before this, the Torah calls them “B’nei Yisrael” (Children of Israel). [1]

Something is different after the Exodus. They are no longer just the children of Jacob.  Their bond extends beyond family.  They are becoming a nation, a people, a civilization.  They -- we -- are a collective with a shared sacred history.

That shared sacred story links us.  Whether we’re on this or that side of the Jordan River -- whether we’re Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, or no label at all --
We are Kol Yisrael, ALL of us, Jews.

Now, I’m not so naive as to expect us to speak in a unified voice.  In fact, it could be argued that our nature as Jews results in precisely the opposite.  So rather than that, I believe we should affirm our right to speak with different voices and STILL BE CONSIDERED JEWS.

Israel does need our help. But in TWO ways, and neither works alone:
Not only to survive, but also to remain a home for KOL YISRAEL, for all Jews.

In that spirit of Kol Yisrael, linking us together as Jews despite vast differences in practice and belief, I’ll conclude with a short Shabbes story.  I was told this story earlier this week by Rabbi Mendel Mintz, our local Chabad Rabbi.

At Mendel’s father’s Shabbat table, there was arguing, discussing, disagreeing on some point of Torah or politics.  But there was one unbreakable rule, he would always say:
“You don’t badmouth another Jew at my table. If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.”
As Mendel tells it, his father would interrupt anyone, even his kids, if they were saying something negative about someone else.

How dearly we need a dose of this wisdom today.

As we wish each other Shabbat Shalom tonight, and always,
I hope we can also be agents of Shalom --
of peace, of wholeness --
to our Shabbat table, to Jews everywhere,
and, we pray, to the world.


1. R. Ephraim Landschutz [= Leczyca, 1550-1619] in his commentary Kli Yakar (to Dt. 1:1), as cited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Monday, July 12, 2010


I thought I would use my very first blog posting (they have all been from Rabbi David so far) to reflect on a most wonderful weekend. It began on Friday, when I started running around in disbelief that another shabbat had arrived so quickly! Wasn't it just shabbat? I guess that's what happens when you are adjusting to a new place. Despite my anxiety, shabbat services were full of energy and excitement. We had a great crowd, who sang along with enthusiasm and welcomed us with great warmth. We offered the traveler's prayer to Whitney Mufson, daughter of Nina and Joshua Saslove, who just departed yesterday for her junior fall abroad in South Africa -- we hope she has a fantastic experience!

Saturday - Shabbat - brought in a friend from out of town, who helped me do some house-related errands. We are moving into our new house this Thursday (I can't wait!). Then, we went to Arbany Park in Basalt for a Pot Luck Havdalah gathering with some folks from down-valley. We had a lovely crowd who brought delicious food (Alan's lamb chops might have been my favorite! Although a tough competitor was the cake brought by Werner... really, everything was great). We sang some havdalah melodies as we reflected on what we were all looking forward to in the week ahead.

We had some very spirited singers! All the kids loved seeing, smelling, experiencing the different havdalah objects - especially listening as the candle was extinguished in the "wine" (which we had to make ourselves from crushed grapes and water!).

After most of the people had left, we sat and lingered in the beautiful park and waited for the rainstorm to pass. Even the rain is beautiful here. We all searched the sky for a rainbow -- but it wasn't until we got in our car heading back to our temporary home in Aspen that we saw the most brilliant rainbow. Each color stood out - I can hardly put into words how beautiful it was. Sadly, I didn't get a picture!

Sunday morning, we took our very first hike of the summer - up to Crater Lake.

Spectacular views up there! It was a bit exhausting, but worth the trip. Our reward (for which we worked very hard!) was Bagels at the Bells. We had quite a crowd up at the Bells. Everyone seemed to enjoy yummy toasted bagels and some shmoozing. We finished cleaning up just as the rain began to fall. Rabbi David and I came home and passed out - I guess the hike was more tiring than we realized! We had a perfect afternoon of relaxation. Now we're ready for a big week of work and moving to our house. Shavua tov!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Welcome letter

This is available on our regular website, but I thought it deserved to be posted here as well.  It describes our hopes and plans for the character of the Jewish community we are building here in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley.  It was sent out in a recent mailing with the newest version of our membership packet.


Baruch Habah -- Welcome to the Aspen Jewish Congregation!

In Pirkei Avot, “The Sayings of the Fathers” (1:6), our rabbis teach:
Aseh l'cha rav, u'kneh l'cha chaver, v'hevei dan et kol ha-adam l'chaf zechut.
“Make for yourself a teacher, find for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.”
This three-part statement describes the Jewish community we want to build -- with your help -- in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Make for yourself a teacher.  With religious school, Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation, guest lectures, and adult education opportunities, the Aspen Jewish Congregation is a hub of formal and informal Jewish learning.  We hope you find that there’s something for everyone.  And, just as the rabbis’ words can also mean “make yourself a teacher,” we invite you to bring your own interests and talents to be a teacher yourself in our community.

Find for yourself a friend.  Judaism is about community, about weaving together our individual stories into the sacred stories of our tradition and people.  From holiday celebrations and social action projects, to music and worship, to book clubs and cooking classes, we invite you to link yourself to our community and here find and become chaverim -- friends, colleagues, and a network of support.  What kind of community do you need for wherever you may find yourself on life’s journey?  What gifts do you bring to support and inspire others on their paths?

Judge every person favorably.  The rabbis are wise in urging us to deal with all people according to kaf z’chut, the aspect of merit.  We strive always to bring out the best in ourselves and others by creating a caring community based on the highest ideals of Jewish text and tradition.  We welcome and embrace all those who seek to join together in shaping a life of Jewish meaning and immortal impact.

If we haven’t already, we hope to meet you in person to get to know each other, to answer your questions, and to ask some questions of our own!  Please feel free to be in touch with us.

Bivrachah, with blessing,
Rabbi David Segal
Cantor Rollin Simmons

Sunday, July 4, 2010

More on the 4th of July

A few more things to think about on this Independence Day, in the form of a text study. Both of my postings so far have had a lot to do with George Washington -- 'tis the season, I suppose. Happy 4th to all!

Jews at Home in America (?)

•Read the biblical text and two letters below, followed by questions for contemplation and conversation.

1. Jeremiah 29:7
Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to Adonai in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.

On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, the warden of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, better known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote a letter to George Washington, welcoming the newly elected first president of the United States on his visit to that city.  President Washington’s visit to Newport was part of a goodwill tour on behalf of the new national government created by the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. Newport had historically been a good home to its Jewish residents, who numbered approximately 300 at the time of Washington’s visit. (source)

2. Excerpts of the letter from Moses Seixas to President George Washington
To the President of the United States of America. Sir:
Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits — and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.
With pleasure we reflect on those days — those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, — shielded Your head in the day of battle...
Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship...
Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island August 17th 1790.
Moses Seixas, Warden

3. Excerpts of the letter from George Washington in response to Moses Seixas
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.
...The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
...May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid (see Micah 4:4). May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
G. Washington

(Read the full letters here)

Questions for Contemplation and Conversation:

  • Jeremiah was speaking to Israelites during the Babylonian Exile, urging them to seek the peace of Babylon, their one-time conquerors. How do you think they would have reacted to this message?  How does it resonate with you, as a Jew living in America? Do you think of America as “exile”?
  • What struck you about how the Jewish community described itself in the letter to Washington? What would such a letter look like today?
  • To what extent has Washington’s description of America in his letter been proved true by the test of history?  Share a story of your family’s immigration to America: how does that experience reflect or challenge Washington’s lofty vision of America?
  • Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, has said that American Jews today enjoy more prosperity, safety, and acceptance than at any time or place in Jewish history.  How do you react to that statement?
  • In what ways do you feel that America is a home for you as an American Jew?  In what ways do you feel excluded from it?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

July 4th, Jewishly

As our inaugural blog entry, I'm posting the D'var Torah I gave last night at our first Shabbat service as Rabbi and Cantor of the Aspen Jewish Congregation.  Happy 4th of July!

Rabbi David Segal • Aspen Jewish Congregation • Friday, July 2, 2010 • Shabbat Pinchas

After the Revolutionary War, in 1783,
a group of American military officers 
founded the Society of the Cincinnati.
Their aim was to preserve the ideals
of the American Revolution
and to hold the government accountable
for the promises it had made
to the officers
and to the people of the colonies.
The society elected,
as their first President General,
someone whose name rings out
this July 4th weekend:
George Washington.

The Society of the Cincinnati took its name
from the Roman hero
Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus.
As the story goes --
part legend, part truth --
during a wartime emergency,
Cincinnatus was called from his farm
by a panicked Senate
to serve as military commander
and dictator of Rome.
Just 16 days later,
after he defeated the invading forces,
Cincinnatus resigned as dictator,
restored power to the Senate,
and returned to his farm

In his own day,
George Washington 
embodied the hero Cincinnatus:
After his victorious leadership 
of the Revolutionary War,
he could have leveraged his popularity and power
to become King, as many urged him to do.
Instead, he helped establish 
a non-hereditary, term-limited
succession of power.
He insisted on the title “Mr. President,”
rather than the more majestic and monarchic names
suggested at the time.
After a reluctant second term as President,
Washington declined to seek a third term,
setting a precedent for future Presidents
that later became law 
as the 22nd Amendment, in 1951.
And like Cincinnatus before him, 
he returned to Mt. Vernon,
his home and farm.
The motto of the Society of Cincinnati 
captures both men’s stories:
“He gave up everything to serve the republic.

Our Torah Portion this week,
Pinchas, in the Book of Numbers,
confronts us with 
a more ancient story 
of leadership and succession.
Here we find the Israelites nearing the Jordan River,
and preparations are underway 
for crossing into their future homeland.

As we heard chanted so beautifully,
Moses ascends the mountain 
at God’s command.
There he enjoys a panoramic vista 
of the Promised Land,
only to be told by God,
V’ra’ita otah v’ne’esafta el amecha...
“When you have seen it,
you shall be gathered to your kin” (Num 27:13),
the Torah’s euphemism for death.

If I were Moses,
I might have protested immediately:
After all I’ve done 
for Your stubborn people --
when I didn’t even want this job 
in the first place! --
THIS is how you repay me?

But Moses being Moses,
that’s not what he said.
His immediate reaction 
to this gut-wrenching news
was to think of the Israelites’ wellbeing
rather than his own:
Yifkod Adonai Elohei haruchot l’chol basar ish al ha’eidah
“May Adonai, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a leader over the community.”

I suppose one could interpret Moses’ words
as a passive-aggressive complaint,
as if to say,
If I’m not leading them, you better find someone who can. Good luck.
And Rashi, a medieval commentator,
does just that.
According to Rashi,
Moses’ description 
of this future leader,
one who will “lead [the people] out and bring them in” (Num 27:17),
is Moses’ way of saying to God,
Don’t do to this new leader 
what you are doing to me,
by preventing me from leading the people
into the Promised Land.  (Rashi on Num 27:17)

But regardless of Moses’ actual motivation,
it is worth noticing
that Moses does not assume 
hereditary leadership,
nor ask for his son to be appointed.
In that posture,
and in God’s response,
there is the faint stirring 
of a democratic and republican impulse.
God says:
“Take Joshua ben Nun, and lay your hand upon him.
Stand him before Elazar the priest 
and before the whole community, 
and command him in their sight.
Invest him with some of your authority, 
so that the whole community of the Children of Israel
shall hear.” (Num 27:18-20)

Unlike Moses’ appointment,
which happened in a solitary desert,
with a burning bush as the only witness,
this will be a public succession.
The Israelites have begun to reach
political maturity as a people.
Desert revelations and secret prophecies
cannot sustain them
as they cross from slavery into freedom,
and from freedom into responsibility.

Joshua’s succession occurs 
lifnei Elazar hakohen, before Elazar the priest, 
and lifnei kol ha’eidah, before the entire community.
The verb yishm’u (Num 27:20),
describing what the Israelites will do 
in this moment, 
is usually translated as obey.
But it is the same root as Sh’ma,
in its most basic meaning, to hear --
in other words, this ceremony of succession 
happens in public,
so that the entire community may bear witness.
There is transparency.
And where there is transparency,
there can be accountability.

To be fair,
it would still be thousands of years
before ideas like 
direct election,
universal suffrage,
and a government 
of the people, by the people, and for the people,
would take root and blossom.
But in its day --
an age of kings and empires,
of ruthless and unchecked power,
and pharaohs worshiped like gods --
the Torah’s vision of leadership
is radical,

As we celebrate our Revolutionary American story 
this holiday weekend,
let’s remember and honor 
these lessons of leadership:

Freedom and Independence 
demand responsibility.
We can no longer simply rely on God
to send a prophet from the wilderness,
charged with the task of leading us.
Good leadership requires public accountability,
and it is up to each of us,
both as leaders ourselves 
and as community members,
to ensure transparency,
to protect democracy,
to participate in public life, at every level.

May this 4th of July be filled
with joy, shared together with friends and family.
May it also lead us 
to recommit ourselves
to the values and examples
of Moses,
of Cincinnatus, 
of Washington,
bringing upon ourselves, our families, and our communities
the blessings of freedom.

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Independence Day.