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Rabbi Aaron Benson

From left, Rabbi Aaron Benson and Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky address the audience at the Jan. 27 screening. Photo by Donna Newman

By Donna Newman

The Suffolk County Jewish community experienced a unique event on Jan. 27, co-sponsored by North Shore Jewish Center of Port Jefferson Station and Temple Isaiah of Stony Brook.

The documentary film “Who Will Write Our History” about life in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland during World War II had its global premiere in hundreds of venues in more that 41 countries around the world – and the Jewish Center was the only venue in Suffolk.

The film offers a detailed account of the conditions and atrocities faced by Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto from November 1940 to mid-May 1943, at which time the Nazis destroyed the ghetto following an uprising by its inhabitants.

Thanks to the members of a secret society – code named Oyneg Shabes (joy of the Sabbath) – led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum, an extensive archive was created to chronicle the day-to-day horror of life in the ghetto. One cache was unearthed in 1946; another in 1950. A third is believed buried on the grounds of the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw.  

One hundred fifty people gathered to view the film, according to event coordinator Marsha Belford.

Temple Isaiah’s Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky welcomed the crowd. “Over 70 years have passed since [the Holocaust], yet we remember,” he said. “We remember because, during that time, brave people planted seeds to ensure that we would have a tree of knowledge recalling those historical events … At great personal risk and with little hope of survival they hid valuable items that could later be used as proof of Nazi atrocities, serving as evidence to counter false claims of what did and did not occur.”

There was total silence in the screening room, as a combination of archival footage and photographs interspersed with actors reenacting what is described in the diaries and documents. The film brought reality to a history that, barring the evidence of the Ringelblum Archive, would be unfathomable.

After the film, North Shore Jewish Center’s Rabbi Aaron Benson led a Q&A. He offered four observations about the Oyneg Shabes group.

First, the simple human story of resilience and courage in their heroic efforts to record and preserve what was happening to them. Second, a commitment to the Jewish vision of Yizkor (remembrance) that infused their actions. Third, the immense insight of Ringelblum to utilize a very modern, Western idea: a scientific study of history, which was only a few generations old in the 1940s. Fourth, rather than focusing on the leaders (the rabbis) as history traditionally had, his plan was to record history written by ordinary people; assembling a ground-level image of ghetto life.

One film viewer, Dr. Wilfred Lieberthal aptly identified a basis for this wisdom. He said, “Jews have an understanding and an appreciation for the power of the written word.”

The film is available for viewing online.

Rabbi Aaron Benson of North Shore Jewish Center speaks during an interfaith prayer vigil June 24. Photo by Alex Petroski

Normally various religious leaders getting together at the same place and time sounds like the lead-in to a joke, but an event at North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station June 24 was far from a laughing matter.

United States immigration policy, specifically the recently instituted “zero tolerance policy” by President Donald Trump (R) and his administration, which has resulted in the detention of several thousands of people and the separation of families attempting to cross the border together, was the topic of discussion during an interfaith vigil of prayer and unity at the Synagogue Sunday.

Reverend Richard Visconti of Stony Brook Community Church performs “Give Peace a Chance” with help from Haven Sellers at an interfaith prayer vigil regarding United States immigration policy June 24. Video by Alex Petroski

Rabbi Aaron Benson of NSJC, Reverend Richard Visconti of Caroline Church and Cemetery in East Setauket, Reverend Chuck Van Houten of Stony Brook Community Church, Irma Solis of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook, Yousuf Sayed of the Islamic Association of Long Island, Rabbi Steven Moss of B’nai Israel Reform Temple and Reverend Kate Jones Calone of Setauket Presbyterian Church were among the speakers collectively denouncing the policy at the event.

“The goal is to inspire our community to advocate for national border and immigration policies guided by a basic sense of human dignity and worth for all people involved,” a press release announcing the event said. “America should be a country leading the world in compassion and human rights. In this moment, where our country falls short of that, the religious community continues to lead with morals and hope that our followers will stand together for these families.”

Moss, who also serves as chairperson for the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, said the leaders of the represented faiths — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — were brought to the event through the foundations of religious traditions.

“We must stand firm, together — stand tall against these laws and rules, orders and directives that fail to protect the poor, the needy, the homeless, the immigrant — both legal and illegal — and their children from being mistreated, demonized, dehumanized and brutalized,” Moss said. “A government that fails to protect all people is not a government at all.”

Jones Calone, in addressing the dozens gathered at NSJC, likened what she described as the rising tensions brought about by the political otherization of migrants seeking refuge at American borders to sitting in a tub of water gradually getting hotter, adding it’s finally reached a boiling point.

It seemed unbelievable at first, reports that read like bad dreams — desperate mothers and fathers; transports in the middle of the night; cages; warehoused, crying children.”

— Kate Jones Calone

“This is, appropriately, a confession, because if it takes the horror of hearing warehoused children crying to make many Christians uncomfortable with what is usual, then it has taken too long,” she said, turning to her bathtub comparison, and saying the temperature has continued to rise every time the nation is silently complicit with the demonization of certain religions, with limits or bans on certain people from certain places or with violence against people not in power. “’How awful,’ we say — a response I’ve said, heard, felt many times over the past weeks to stories that seem like bad dreams trickling out slowly at first and then printed in line after line, video segment after video segment. It seemed unbelievable at first, reports that read like bad dreams — desperate mothers and fathers; transports in the middle of the night; cages; warehoused, crying children.”

Benson and the leaders, many of whom are members of the Three Village Clergy Council, indicated on a pamphlet handed out at the event that there are ways to help, directing those in attendance to familiesbelong.org, hias.org/take-action among others. He said the group is also planning on holding future events.

Trump signed an executive order last week designed to end family separations as the national attention to the story reached a critical mass, though as of press time around 500 of 2,300 separated parents and children detained apart at the U.S.-Mexico border have since been reunited. The policy has been both denounced by members of the Trump administration as a holdover Obama-era procedure and publicly cited as a new strategy intentionally instituted to deter asylum seekers from trying to come to America.

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By Rabbi Aaron Benson

 

You’re as likely to hear someone bemoaning the commercialization of the holidays as you are to hear someone wish you happy ones. As we enter this festive season, it can be a challenge to properly “get in the spirit” to think of the blessings and good things we have when at the same time we hear constantly the calls around us that we need more of this or that.

Rabbi Aaron Benson

For Jews, there is one way in which the holiday of Hanukkah is supposed to be “commercialized” — or at least “advertised.” Jewish tradition decrees the Hanukkah menorah, the nine-branched candelabra by which we mark the holiday using its central candle to light an additional new candle each night of the eight-day holiday, should be placed in a prominent place so that others can see it. Therefore, you will often see menorah displays in front of synagogues or in the windows of Jews’ home, and in Israel, one will often see menorahs displayed in small glass boxes outside of people’s homes.

The lights of the menorah are meant to remind us of three things. First, they are to be a light in the darkness of winter. Second, they are to remind us of the lights of the seven-branched menorah that was a decoration in the Holy Temple in ancient times, and third, they remind us of the story of Hanukkah, when in the 2nd century BCE the Jews defeated the Greek occupiers of their country and, as tradition would have it, a single vial of pure oil was discovered and lasted for eight days while additional oil was prepared to be used in the temple.

Incidentally, this is where the name of the holiday originates as the word “Hanukkah” means “rededication.” However, it was not just lighting the menorah that was considered sufficient for celebrating the holiday. Our ancient sages decreed that the miracle of Hanukkah must be “advertised,” it must be put on display and shared with others so that the hard-won blessing of religious freedom and tolerance the holiday commemorates could be experienced by all people. This is a Hanukkah lesson we can all share.

We are all blessed to live in a country in which our religious differences are protected and in fact we believe that these and all our many differences are what make the United States such a wonderful country. Let us be proud then, when we see the many lights of this holiday season, for all of them, whether Hanukkah lights or not, communicate the message of Hanukkah — the message of our religious freedom.

The author is the rabbi at the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station.

Rabbi Aaron Benson from the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jeff Station is drawing guests every Thursday for coffee and free advice. File photo

By Alex Petroski

Outlets for negative feedback are bountiful in 2017 America. One need not look far to find someone willing to tear down or criticize, but for residents in the Port Jefferson, Setauket and Stony Brook areas, finding a friendly face who’s ready to listen and provide constructive advice is as easy as buying a cup of coffee.

Rabbi Aaron Benson of the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jeff Station began hosting regular “office hours” at Starbucks on Route 25A in Setauket earlier this year, or gatherings to discuss ideas in a comfortable, informal setting which have been dubbed Benson’s “Starbucks Schmooze.” Every Thursday, members of the NSJC congregation, or anyone else with something on their mind, are invited to the coffee shop to visit with Benson between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.

“I always liked the idea, when I was a kid, I really had this in mind, when I would see one of my teachers outside of the classroom it was always like a special treat,” Benson said during his schmooze Aug. 31. “Like, ‘Oh my goodness, they let them out of the box.’ And so I thought in today’s day and age, it would be a nice thing to be able to interact with people not inside the synagogue, to be out there and perhaps interact with people that I don’t know, and the success of it is really just if I meet a few people and connect a few people.”

Benson said typically he has between two and four visitors during a session, though he’s had as many as six guests actively engaged in conversation, and the discussion ranges from politics to relationship advice to current events and everything in between. He said the idea emerged organically because it fit in perfectly with his normal Thursday routine, which always includes a stop at The Rolling Pin, a kosher bakery, in the same shopping center as Starbucks where the rabbi supervises to ensure traditional processes and requirements are followed for the kosher designation. After that he would go to Starbucks for his caramel macchiato, then heads to St. Charles and Mather hospitals, where he volunteers as a chaplin. He decided to work the hour-long schmooze into the routine in January and hasn’t looked back since.

“If I can bounce an idea off one of those vital life questions for somebody then I am happy to help with that.”

— Rabbi Aaron Benson

JoAnne Shapiro, a regular attendee and member of the NSJC congregation, said it’s refreshing to have a personal relationship with the rabbi at her synagogue.

“I think when you think of the term rabbi, even in this day and age, people view the rabbi up there [on a pedestal],” Shapiro said. “And it just makes our rabbi much more approachable … I think the neat thing about this is that you never know what’s going to come out of the visit. It’s neat, it’s sort of like a nice way to start the day.”

Linda Miller, another member of Benson’s congregation, was attending her first schmooze Aug. 31, though she said before she left she planned on sending her husband for advice the following week. She said the visit was worthwhile not only for the advice she got from Benson regarding upcoming Jewish holidays, but also because she had a lengthy conversation with Shapiro, who she said she’d known in passing for years but couldn’t recall the last time, if ever, they had conversed for so long.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Miller said.

Benson said some of the more rewarding sessions are the ones that feature conversations which require very little of his own input. He recalled one schmooze when two attendees spent much of the hour bonding over the watch one was wearing.

The rabbi offered perspective on the importance of seeking help and guidance in challenging times, be it religious advice or otherwise.

“I can’t tell you to believe in particular stories, but everybody in the world has to have a set of stories that tells them about how you decide on priorities in life,” he said. “What do you do when you fall in love? What do you do when you fail? What do you do when you lose someone important? Religion provides those stories for you, but everyone has those sorts of questions. Everyone confronts those sorts of issues and everyone needs help with that. So if I can bounce an idea off one of those vital life questions for somebody then I am happy to help with that.”

Each of the six items arranged on the traditional Passover Seder plate has a special significance to the retelling of the story of Passover.

By Rabbi Aaron Benson

Rabbi Aaron Benson

Weeks of preparation will pay off in the homes of many Jews when they begin to celebrate the holiday of Passover, which begins the night of April 10 this year and lasts for eight days after that.

Passover is reportedly the most observed Jewish holiday for American Jews. This means that most Jews in the United States will attend a Seder meal (the festive meals held on the first two nights of Passover), refrain from eating leavened products (called chametz in Hebrew) and will eat matzah, the special unleavened flat bread associated with the holiday. All of these observances commemorate the Jews’ release from slavery in ancient Egypt. This theme, freedom from slavery in Egypt, shapes the Passover holiday and still has a lot to tell all of us today.

At the Seder meal, some Jews sing a song that contains the line, “once we were slaves and now we are free people.” Catchy as the tune may be, the message does not accurately convey the spirit of Passover in the Jewish tradition. For Jews, freedom from slavery in Egypt is not freedom to do anything and everything one wishes to do. It is, as our religious laws teach us, so that we may serve the values and principles of our tradition, so that we may take up the obligations of leading just and thoughtful lives without the excuse that anyone else’s will might constrain us from doing what is proper.

As said, this is a concept that has universal application today. How often do we confuse “freedom” with having no responsibilities, no cares, no obligations but satisfying ourselves? When we let this become our philosophy of life, we are not freeing ourselves; we are in fact enslaving ourselves to our appetites and our desires. This is not true freedom or anything close to it.

Passover teaches us that freedom is the freedom to take on responsibility, to stand up for what one believes in, to not leave it to others to tell us what is right and not to leave it to others to do what is right either, but to do it ourselves. Perhaps that is why so much work goes into preparing for Passover — to be truly free isn’t easy, in fact it is hard work, but the rewards, like those that come from having a house ready for the holiday, are well worth the effort.

Happy Passover and best wishes.

Rabbi Aaron Benson is the rabbi at North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station.

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