My Israel Story (thus far) in Three Parts: Shabbat Shalom…

My Israel Story (thus far) in Three Parts

As Israel marked 73 years since its founding yesterday, I couldn’t help but think back upon my own “Israel journey.” And I realized it can be divided into three general stages.

Stage 1: Mythic Israel

Stage 1

My first trip to Israel took place in 1978 when I celebrated becoming Bnai Mitzvah on Masada. From the first moment I stepped off the plane I knew this was a different kind of trip. I was overwhelmed to hear Hebrew being spoken in the airport. (Having been a poor Religious School student I didn’t understand a word but it was still powerful.) As corny as it might sound, as we traveled the country I felt as if I had come home.

I was amazed by the archaeology. And I was moved by the realization that, no matter where I stepped, I was walking on ground that …

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Shabbat Shalom

Screenshot 2020-03-28 16.25.21 IMG_2B56523064AA-1Dear Friends,

Our TSTI in Israel group had just entered the incredibly powerful Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem. I had told the group we would meet them at the exit because one of our participants was on a personal mission. She, one of her daughters, and I headed away from the Children’s Memorial and, after a brisk walk, found ourselves in Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations.

As Wikipedia explains:

The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations is part of the much larger Yad Vashem complex located on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. Along with some two dozen different structures within the Yad Vashem memorial – which is the second most-visited destination in the country after the Western Wall – the Garden of the Righteous is meant to honor those non-Jews who during the Holocaust risked their lives to save Jews from extermination by the …

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Shabbat Shalom- Friday, March 5, 2021

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Dear Friends,

HIAS, whose commitment is to “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee” has designated this Shabbat as Refugee Shabbat. (The organizations began as HIAS: The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to help Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, but now welcomes all who have fled persecution.) I am proud that the URJ, the Reform Movement, is one of the major Jewish organizations partnering with HIAS.

In honor of Refugee Shabbat I will be changing my Zoom background to this.

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That is the Vaterland and, as I have previously shared, it is the ship that brought my grandfather Alexander Cohen to America.

I keep not one but two pictures of that ship in my office. One is a painting of the ship that my grandfather did shortly after arriving here. The other is an image from the New York Times of the ship …

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Shabbat Shalom: February 26, 2021

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Dear Friends,

One year ago we found ourselves rapidly trying to make adjustments to our Purim Carnival and our Adult Purim Schpiel. Experts had already begin raising the alarm but, at that time, I don’t think any of us could have imagined what was coming. One year later more than 500,000 Americans, and a total of 2.5 million people worldwide, have died of COVID-19. All of us have been impacted by this pandemic, but the family and friends of more than 500,000 of our fellow citizens know a grief that goes even deeper.

At Shabbat services this evening my father’s name will be included on the Yartzeit list prior to reading Kaddish for just the second time. It is hard to imagine that it has already been two years. But it has. I cannot think back to two years ago. My father’s death was not unexpected. He had been declining …

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Shabbat Shalom: February 19, 2021

“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury.”

(Megillat Esther, The Book of Esther)

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Dear Friends,

The Book of Esther, which we read on Purim, is a far darker story than many realize. For example, Vashti was beheaded because she was unwilling to humiliate herself in front of the king’s guests. The king was the epitome of the failed leader who was given a title and influence but squandered it on meaningless pleasures. Haman was the embodiment of the …

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Shabbat Message for February 5, 2021

Dear Friends,

This week’s Torah portion begins with a powerful exchange between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro. It then describes the preparation necessary before Moses would be permitted to ascend Mt. Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments.

וַיֵּ֧רֶד מֹשֶׁ֛ה מִן־הָהָ֖ר אֶל־הָעָ֑ם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וַֽיְכַבְּס֖וּ שִׂמְלֹתָֽם׃

Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes.

Through Moses God tells the Israelites to purify themselves.
He tells them to wash their clothes.
He instructs them to stand at the base of the mountain.
He warns them against touching the mountain lest they incur punishment.

But then he says this…

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם הֱי֥וּ נְכֹנִ֖ים לִשְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים אַֽל־תִּגְּשׁ֖וּ אֶל־אִשָּֽׁה׃

And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman.”

Under any circumstance, this would be a jarring statement but its presence here, at exactly …

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Shabbat Message January 29, 2021

I’m excited about February 19th. I’m anxious about February 19th. February 19th cannot get here soon enough. 

Dear Friends,

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, we find our ancestors are caught between the waters of the Sea of Reeds on one side and the approaching Egyptian army on the other. They were, at that moment, faced with an impossible choice.

If they remained where they were the Egyptian army would force them back into slavery. Even worse, the Israelites would now be dealing with a Pharaoh who had been humiliated and would likely be crueler than ever.

If they continued forward it was more than a bit likely that many of them would drown.

The situation presented them with quite the dilemma. But while it is true that, after a few weeks in the Sinai wilderness, the Israelites would become filled with nostalgia and long for their lives in Egypt, …

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Shabbat Shalom August 7, 2020

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Dear Friends,

One of the ways Jewish tradition was shared in ancient times was through a process known as She’elot u-Teshuvot (Hebrew: שאלות ותשובות “questions and answers”). This process began when a question would be brought to the rabbi. If the rabbi was not able to answer the question he (in those days only men were rabbis) would write down the question and have a messenger carry it to HIS teacher. If the second rabbi was unable to answer the question the process would be repeated and the message sent to HIS teacher. Once the question was answered the response would be returned to the original questioner along the same route. Moreover, the question and the answer would be read by the members of each community along the journey home. In this way, Jewish legal questions and answers spread across Europe. This allowed our dispersed community to be far more …

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Of Hospital Gowns and Hebrew


Dear Friends,

In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, the very reason Joseph needed to be in Egypt in the first place becomes clear. Pharaoh has dreams that no one is able to interpret. Joseph is brought from the prison. He is not only able to interpret Pharoah’s dreams but, based upon those dreams, he puts a plan in place and turns that plan into reality. During the seven years of abundance he stores up as much food as possible so that, when the seven lean years arrive, he and the rest of the society are ready.

Vision and tenacity- those are the qualities Joseph relied upon. They are the same qualities that explain why Am Yisrael Chai- the People of Israel Live!

As the final Shabbat of 2016 approaches I am writing to you from the warmth and comfort of my home here in South Orange. Raina and I were …

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Rabbi Cohen TSTI Annual Meeting 2015 


What an incredible honor it is to stand here before you during our TSTI Annual Meeting for the 22nd time. I have always known what a privilege it is to serve this sacred community. This year I am especially grateful for the opportunity to be part of the TSTI Family.

There is a Rosh Hashanah teaching that explains why the shofar is the appropriate symbol for the new year. No matter how much you practice and prepare to blow the shofar, this teaching explains, anything can and often does happen when you actually go to sound it. Similarly, no matter how thoughtfully you prepare for the new year, once it begins to unfold, anything can and often does happen. One must, it concludes, be prepared to address whatever may come your way.

That has, to a certain degree, been the nature of this year. As we always do, we …

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