Purim and Environmentalism

I was just reading an article about “being green” (reducing, recycling, etc.) and it got me thinking about the carnival prizes we give out at our Purim carnival.  I’ve been to many events like this where the kids win all kinds of plastic toys that end up broken and in the trash within a few days.  Is there another prize idea we can offer that is more environmental, in keeping with our Jewish values?

There are many environmentally sensitive prizes in keeping with Jewish values.  For example:

  • Money – each dollar bill personally signed by the rabbi!
  • A card that says “A donation has been made in your name to the Congregation Ahavas Israel endowment fund.”
  • Books (a bit expensive, but what a statement it would be if every winner received a $70 Etz Hayim Humash)
  • A FREE trip to Israel (the fine print says that they have to be 18-25, and apply via the Birthright Israel website …)
  • A little piece of papers that says “Congratulations, success is its own reward!”
  • An easily broken paper toy that ends up in the recycling instead of the trash.
  • A kosher chicken.  For the vegetarians, a hard boiled egg.  For the vegans, a beet.

Any other suggestions?


Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – March/2011

My colleague Rabbi Brad Artson gave a talk to rabbis recently in which he said that rabbis need to get over their traditional aversion to dealing with congregational financial issues.  Fundraising and other financial issues in an institution of Torah are as sacred as the study of Torah itself. Therefore, for the second month in a row, I find myself writing about how we make decisions about giving.

These thoughts were sparked by an article in the Jerusalem Post about the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of the top 50 givers in 2010.  Five of the top six are Jewish, and at least 19 of the top 53 (there were three ties) are Jewish.

While Jews have reason to be proud of the accomplishments of some of our fellow members of the tribe, we also have cause for concern.  George Soros and Michael Bloomberg, numbers 1 and 2 on the list who gave a combined total of about $600 million, less than $2 million of that went to Jewish causes.  Overall, Jews give only about 25% of their charitable gifts to Jewish causes.

While I am not arguing that 100% of our giving should go to Jewish causes, I pose a question:  If Jews do not give to UJC, the Synagogue, JNF, the Jewish Braille Institute, Israel Guide Dogs for the Blind, Hadassah Hospital, and other worthy Jewish causes, who will?  Doesn’t it make more sense for 75% of our giving to stay within the “family” rather than only 25%?  When we give to relief efforts, such as the Haitian earthquake, the 2004 Tsunami in East Asia, Hurricane Katrina, we like to channel our money through Jewish organizations.

As you are doing your taxes for 2010, take a careful look at your charitable giving.  Ask yourself whether it reflects the religious and communal priorities of your life to which you aspire.  Ask yourself whether you have paid enough attention to the institutions which nurtured and continue to nurture your Jewish identity, which take care of Jews in need all around the world.  Imagine how different our Jewish world would be if even half that the $3.3 billion given by the top 50 had gone to Jewish causes.

Welcoming Chaverim, for Developmentally Disabled Adults

Reposted from my friend and colleague Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ Blog:

Torah teaches, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” The RiPiK, a twentieth century commentator, suggested that beyond refraining from placing blocks, we should actively remove stumbling blocks. To what might this be compared?

A story…

Even as the Director of Chaverim, a local program for developmentally disabled adults asked the question, his discomfort was evident: “How do you feel about opening your congregation to a local group for developmentally disabled adults?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” I asked.

“We’ve been to other synagogues that have opened their doors, only to feel slowly push us out, after their members became uncomfortable with the presence of our members,” he responded.

The conversation continued. “What’s the worst that might happen?” I asked.

“We have one member who can sing loudly, and sometimes off-key.” He paused, “And you might have someone read slowly, completing a communal reading after others have already finished.”

“Sounds like some of our current members.”

“However, they will usually be accompanied by the Chaverim program director or program rabbi, either of whom will help direct our members if necessary. Would you like to come by one of our events to check out the Chaverim members?”

“Why? Give me a heads up when you think there might be an issue. Make sure that in the early months you attend services only when I am leading them. That way I can witness and deal with any issues that might arise.”

So We Welcomed Chaverim
“Yes, we would love to welcome you,” I said. “Let me speak to our Board in two weeks, when I know they will openly embrace the idea and your members. We will extend to any of your members full membership at our synagogue. Two High Holy Day tickets per Chaverim member – one for the member, one for his/her driver or guest. We will make you, as Director of Chaverim, a complimentary synagogue member, so that we can give you access to our synagogue afterhours for use during your scheduled programs and classes. We ask only that your members fill out a synagogue membership form so we can get them into our system.”

“They should pay membership dues,” he said. “So that they have a sense of commitment. How much should they need to pay?”

“We won’t care. Whatever you think is appropriate. No more than $50; no less than $10. We only ask that they pay it in one lump sum, to ease the work on our bookkeeper. To make it easier, you collect the forms and information, and pass them onto my assistant, who will oversee the processing of the forms.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to meet them first?” he inquired.

“Listen, we pride ourselves on being a congregation that is open and welcoming. And we have families with developmentally disabled children and relatives. So no, I don’t need to approve them. They are Jews. Let them come home.”

Not a Mitzvah (good deed), but a Mitzvah (religious obligation)
It saddens me when I hear kvelling about how this synagogue or that is especially accessible to people with disabilities. This is no mitzvah (colloquially, a good deed); it is a mitzvah (literally, a religious obligation). It is the responsibility of every Jewish community to make Jewish life and celebration accessible to every Jew and Jewish family. We strive to remove stumbling blocks from before all Jews – including those with disabilities.

As expected, the Board discussion lasted less than five minutes. The motion to welcome Chaverim was a “no-brainer.” Our CFO and his wife volunteered to be the liaisons with the program; our Program Director was tasked with smoothing the process from the staff side. We created a new membership category called ‘Chaverim,’ though we were aware that it would be a few months before anyone would officially sign up.

The next week, we designated a few Friday nights as Shabbatot when they would officially come worship with us. As I had been informed, only a few Chaverim regulars showed up at the first services to check us out and to make sure we were welcoming. Based on guidance from the Chaverim Director, early in the service when we welcome others, I just said, “We welcome our members who are connected to Chaverim, a program for developmentally disabled adults, ages 18-88.” We did not ask them to identify themselves at that time; we let them just be Jews at services.

A Service Honoring Exceptional People
We are now close to a year into our relationship. I am told that Chaverim members have attended services regularly and appreciate NOT being singled out. They hang out at the oneg like everyone else; last week I enjoyed watching our president chatting up a few Chaverim members, just like she does ever other non-regular who shows up at services. A few read prayers in our annual Service Honoring Exceptional People (our annual “Special Needs” service); others sang along and just felt like they belonged.

All because of one 20-minute phone call, one email from the Rabbi, five minutes in a board meeting, and a few calls by the Program Director. All in the span of a month.

That, and because we took seriously the Torah teaching, “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.” It should be that easy. Please tell us your story.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – February, 2011

I am reprinting this month a bulletin article written by my colleague Rabbi Richard Hammerman.  I have added a few comments at the end.


Did you ever think, even for a moment, that, “If I wasn’t Jewish, and didn’t have to belong to a synagogue, I would save so much money?” At Church you can just get away with throwing a few bills into the basket- and take care of your conscience and your weekly religious obligations. Right?  It turns out that assumption is wrong.

According to a survey by Josh Nathan-Kazis published in “The Forward” this past September, “Jewish and Christian religious institutions appear to raise about the same amount per member, despite the fact that church giving is voluntary and synagogues charge membership dues.”

Kazis continues, “The amount raised per individual member is very similar between synagogues and churches. But the level of participation is quite different: While synagogues require roughly the same amount of dues from each of their members, church giving does not appear to be so evenly distributed.

“Take Ahavath Achim, a Conservative Jewish synagogue in Atlanta, and Church of the Heavenly Rest, an Episcopal church in Manhattan. The two congregations are broadly comparable: Both serve slightly more than 1,000 middle- and upper-middle class households, have a multimillion-dollar endowment, employ about a dozen people and operate on an annual budget of $2.7 million.

“Both draw around half their income from regular fees paid by members. But, like virtually all American churches, Heavenly Rest does not charge dues. Like most synagogues, Ahavath Achim does.  At Ahavath Achim, those fees are assigned by the synagogue, with each family paying up to $2,100 per year. Annual pledges at Heavenly Rest? As much, or as little, as you can give. While only one-third of member families participate in the church’s annual pledge drive, those that do give an average of $2,700 — far more than the cost of dues at Ahavath Achim.”


We collect slightly less than 1/2 of our annual budget from dues.  The rest primarily comes from the sale of Scrip, the Cadillac raffle, income from renting our building, and income from endowments.  We do not want dues to be a barrier to membership.  Please help us rely less on annual dues by making it a point to buy scrip; sell one more Cadillac ticket than last year; and consider leaving a legacy gift to the Ahavas Israel endowment.  A gift of any size will help the ensure the future of our congregation.  Ultimately, a $3 million endowment might reduce dependence on dues by 50% or ensure that the building fund will always have enough money to keep or building beautiful and in good repair.