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Rabbi Aaron Benson

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By Rabbi Aaron D. Benson

In my opinion any holiday that includes matzoh ball soup is bound to be popular. Passover, which begins Monday night, April 22, features this dish, made with matzoh unleavened bread. The holiday is not just popular but is revered by Jews and non-Jews alike for its overarching theme of freedom. The ancient Israelites were enslaved in Egypt yet God, through the prophet Moses, freed them. As a reminder of this miracle, Jews refrain from eating anything baked with leaven and instead eat matzoh, the simple bread of slaves.  

For Americans, Passover resonates because freedom is a virtue at the core of our country’s identity. Being a citizen is defined as having freedom of religion, of speech, of press and of assembly. Quite literally “revolutionary” when first adopted, the principles in our Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, have spread these standards of freedom and human dignity around the world.

The Bible’s message about freedom in the Passover story has a slightly different emphasis. It is not at odds with the American view, but it reminds us of a key aspect of freedom. Moses’ famous message from God demanding that Pharaoh, “Let My [God’s] people go,” is usually quoted without its conclusion, “that they may serve Me [God.]” 

When the Jews were finally freed from Egypt, it wasn’t so they could “let loose” after generations of enslavement. Such a life of abandon isn’t any true kind of freedom. Upon leaving Egypt, the Jews set out into the wilderness, eventually to come to Mount Sinai and there receive the Ten Commandments. To take on the responsibility of freedom. To accept laws that will build a society not of oppression, nor of indulgence, but one of respect and concern and common purpose. The Jews would march on, eventually coming to Israel, where they would settle and start to build a society based around the freedom to be responsible. Helping others isn’t a burden. Respecting them isn’t an imposition. Acknowledging that my own humanity is lessened if I do not also care for yours.

Whether you are celebrating Passover this year or not, make yourself a nice bowl of matzoh ball soup. And then, whether you’re celebrating or not, find someone to share that soup with, maybe even a lot of people, maybe even people who seem different from us. Freedom teaches us that we aren’t so different. At some point, we will all need help in our lives, and at some point we all can offer help. Let’s share that responsibility together, along with the matzoh ball soup.

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

METRO photo

By Rabbi Aaron Benson

Rabbi Aaron Benson

There would be no miracle of Hanukkah, the eight-day festival which begins this Thursday evening, without there first being darkness.   

Hanukkah is meant to be a time of joy. It is not a major holiday, still it is a time to play games, give gifts and enjoy foods fried in oil, reminiscent of the miracle at the heart of the holiday.  

In ancient times, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem had been defiled and when the Jews took it back from their oppressors, they found only enough oil to light the sanctuary’s special candelabra, the menorah, for one day.  Since the menorah must always be lit, the Jews did so, and miraculously, the oil burned for eight days during which time more oil was procured. 

But even more important than the oil, the miracle couldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been darkness at first.  

This year, Hanukkah occurs in a time of hatred and war for Israel and the Jewish People. It is a time of suffering for the innocent people of Gaza. It is a time in which Islamophobia has caused violent and deadly attacks on American Muslims; college students in Vermont and a little boy from the same part of Illinois where I grew up. Not to mention all that divides Americans from each other, too. 

This is a Hanukkah of much darkness. 

But it is only out of darkness that light, that miracles can come. 

I am reminded of the final scene from the first season of the HBO series, True Detectives. The two protagonists are discussing the fight against evil, the war between darkness and light. One of the two argues that looking in the night sky, there is far more darkness than the tiny points of light we see, “it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.” The other objects, saying, “You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing … once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”

If good people, Jews and non-Jews, can resist the vast darkness that surrounds us and bravely light one little light, we, all of us, will create a miracle. May such a miracle, one that brings understanding and peace, be kindled for us all soon. 

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

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Photo courtesy Rabbi Aaron Benson
By Rabbi Aaron Benson

I love Israel. I think the founding of the modern state in 1948 was a miracle, fulfilling 2,000 years of the Jewish people’s dreams.

“My eyes are dimmed with grief,” says Psalm 6. Images and stories of children, young adults, elderly and even whole families being kidnapped, beaten and murdered break me over and over since the war with the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave of Gaza began Saturday, Oct. 7.

I want justice done on their behalf and the perpetrators of such atrocities punished. But I know, even though I can’t imagine how, that there are people out there who see these things as justified, as necessary even, who think of the nation I view as a miracle as a curse.

And I know that if I talk to those people and cry out, “How can this possibly be right?” they will respond that it is. And they will mean it. That conversation will go nowhere, and that won’t stop anyone dying.

Back in college, I was very active in Jewish student life. I also took Arabic, at which I was not great. Often in college, we Jewish students would be demonstrating opposite Muslim students, including some of my Arab classmates, over Israel and Palestine. There was nothing about that topic the groups could say to each other civilly.

However, I could talk about homework with the other students from class. Not only because I could use the help, but because it made me and them human to the others on our opposing sides. 

In the past, many Egyptians and Jordanians spilled Jewish blood in their own fighting wars with Israel, to no avail.

Miraculously, the leaders of those countries took a chance — not on winning, not on convincing the Israelis to disappear, but on coexisting. Israel did, too. And, by and large, it worked. And in recent years, other countries in the Arab and Muslim worlds have done the same with similar results.

One doesn’t make peace with those you like, but with those you hate. You don’t even need to stop hating them to have peace. You just need to agree further bloodshed isn’t going to finally make someone right, it will just make someone dead.

There is a growing list of countries making peace with Israel to the benefit of all. Add this to the centuries of generally positive coexistence between Muslims and Jews throughout history, and you might come away thinking that if vindication isn’t possible, then peace isn’t a bad consolation prize.

I pray those kidnapped will be found safe. And I pray that the blood has already been shed of that final person whose death will convince the sides that coexistence — that peace — is the only resolution.

Please, God, may that be so.

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

Pixabay photo

By Rabbi Aaron Benson

Hanukkah candles need to burn for at least thirty minutes. The Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, involves lighting a candle for each of the holidays eight nights.

Rabbi Aaron Benson

Of course the candles can burn longer than that, but the ancient sages determined such a length of time would be enough to make the lighting significant and yet not overly costly at a time when candles would have been more expensive and essential than today.

The lights remind us of a miracle performed for the ancient Jews. Having thrown off the yoke of foreign rule, they came to rededicate the despoiled Temple in Jerusalem. There they found only enough oil to light the Temple menorah for a day, but the oil miraculously last eight days. During that time the Jews were able to prepare more oil.

Yet we light for only thirty minutes. We illuminate the long winter night for the briefest of intervals. It seems inadequate but we not only do it once, but over and over for more than a week. And this is enough to celebrate a holiday about miracles.

Sometimes in life we may only be able to “light up the dark” temporarily to help that friend or family member or ourselves just a little. Should we refrain from doing so just because we can’t fix it all? Certainly not! Over and over we must keep doing what we can, even if it might be just a little, to bring some good, to cause a miracle to take place.

During the thirty minutes the Hanukkah candles burn each night, and during all this winter season, let us do our part, whether large or small, to aid those lost in the night and light the way for them.

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

METRO photo

By Rabbi Aaron Benson

Rabbi Aaron Benson

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  We all know the saying and it does seem to be true. It also captures nicely the spirit of the Jewish New Year season which starts Monday night, Sept 6th, with the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. What do I mean?

In synagogues around the world, we read the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, on a yearly cycle reading a portion every week. As the New Year holidays begin, we find ourselves coming to the end of the annual cycle with the reading of the Book of Deuteronomy.  That book is read over the course of 11 weeks, about a fifth of the year. And for those not familiar with its subject matter, Deuteronomy is primarily a review of the events of the previous four books.  

We spend a fifth of the year, and a fifth of the Torah, doing review. This is intentional because our New Year season is meant to be one of review and reflection.  We consider our shortcomings, failures, and misdeeds of the past year, actively seek to mend hurt and broken relationships, and plan for how to do better in the year ahead.  

That is a lot to do! If you hadn’t started yet, you’d have a lot to accomplish between now and Monday! Judaism is an optimistic faith. We do not believe anyone is condemned to be bad with no hope of changing. Every year at this time, we celebrate the idea that people can change. But our tradition, as reflected in our liturgical calendar, also understands it is a lot of work to change what’s wrong in our lives.  

Using the annual reading cycle as a guide, we probably should be spending a lot more of our time reflecting on what we do so that we can learn from our mistakes and try again — try again carefully and with the wisdom of experience to guide us.

If you will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah, I wish you a sweet and happy new year. And to everyone, I strongly recommend a life with ample time carved out for reviewing who you are, who you want to be, how to become that person, and never giving up on that process. A lifetime dedicated to such a process will be one well lived.

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

Setauket Presbyterian is among the houses of worship offering services online. File photo

While local religious leaders hold on to their faiths, they are still practicing an abundance of caution during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a March 16 email, the Diocese of Rockville Centre directed all parishes to suspend or postpone all Masses, meetings and nonessential activities until April 14. The suspension tentatively will end after Easter Sunday, which is April 12. The postponements also include confirmations and first communions, while funerals, weddings and baptisms will be permitted if necessary and must be limited to less than 50 people.

“We are encouraging everyone to pray from home and to use this opportunity to develop our personal connection with G-d.”

— Rabbi Motti Grossbaum

Worshippers will be able to pray at local Catholic churches at the discretion of the pastor. However, the number of people must be under 50, in accordance with the New York State mandate.

The diocese said in the email that the Catholic Faith Network will provide televised and online Masses, and alerted Catholics that local parishes may also offer live streaming.

Other faiths are following suit.

Village Chabad Center for Jewish Life & Learning in East Setauket last week canceled several events and programs, according to Rabbi Motti Grossbaum. While last week’s service incorporated distancing of worshippers with 6 feet of space in between each of them, the Chabad has now canceled services until further notice, Grossbaum said, “as health and well-being supersede everything else in Judaism.”

Grossbaum said Chabad’s preschool and Hebrew School have also been closed in line with the state’s two-week mandatory shutdown, and the center is offering online classes and videos for children and adults during the temporary closure.

“We are encouraging everyone to pray from home and to use this opportunity to develop our personal connection with G-d,” Grossbaum said in an email.

“We felt like the best thing was not to have people gather, especially since technology allows us to do something where we can still reach people.”

— The Rev. Kate Jones Calone

The Rev. Kate Jones Calone, interim pastor of Setauket Presbyterian Church, said services have been moved online. On March 15 she said it was just her, a liturgist and a couple of musicians live streaming from the sanctuary using Facebook Live.

She said the board, which consists of congregants, took into account recommendations from the town and health organizations.

“We felt like the best thing was not to have people gather, especially since technology allows us to do something where we can still reach people,” the reverend said.

Setauket Presbyterian is also using Zoom, a video conferencing platform, for church meetings and confirmation classes.

“This is something that I think we are all dealing in a very unprecedented way,” she said.

Jones Calone added the staff is reaching out to parishioners to see if there is any help that they may need as far as running errands and are hoping to identify other ways they can help the community at large.

“From a theological standpoint, we know that connections are there whether we’re together or physically apart,” she said.

The reverend likened following the current health guidelines as similar to loving our neighbors, and she said she hopes everyone will reach out to their loved ones and neighbors as best as they can.

“Not only are we taking care of ourselves but also social distancing and things like that help us make sure we’re loving our neighbor,” she said.

“I will miss worshiping with you all on the Sundays ahead, but hopefully with these measures we will all remain safe and able to continue worshiping together well into the future.”

— Pastor Chuck Van Houten

Stony Brook Community Church Pastor Chuck Van Houten emailed members March 14 saying all churches in the New York Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church were requested to close for at least two weeks.

Van Houten said in the email that SBCC would make worship services available on its website. The services would most likely be recorded the night before and only a few people would be on hand. The church also plans to set up a Zoom account to continue meetings over video conferencing.

“I will miss worshiping with you all on the Sundays ahead, but hopefully with these measures we will all remain safe and able to continue worshiping together well into the future,” Van Houten said.

Rabbi Aaron Benson of North Shore Jewish Center said in an email the synagogue will be operating remotely like other institutions in the area.

“Perhaps one of the more interesting developments has to do with prayer life,” Benson said. “As communal prayers require being in person, Jews nevertheless can continue to pray individually.  The opportunity then, to develop one’s personal spiritual practices and closeness to the Divine may be one of the only positive outcomes of our current state of affairs.”

When it comes to the current situation, Benson said it’s important to remember to have a thoughtful, grateful and kind attitude toward others.

“‘Receive every person with a smiling face.’ This piece of ancient rabbinic wisdom might seem out of place in a time of social distancing and quarantines, but I can’t imagine a more germane piece of advice,” Benson said. “If you’ve been in the stores lately, it can be a bit of a madhouse. If you’re stuck at home for days on end even with your family, if you’re dealing with poor internet connections for your remote meetings — patience and thoughtfulness can be at a premium. This is why in trying times like these remembering to have a thoughtful, grateful, kind and caring attitude toward others can make even more of a difference than an extra roll of toilet paper.  So whether it’s in person or just in your voice over the phone, be sure to have a smile.”

All houses of worships have asked that congregants check their websites and social media for live streaming of services as well as updates of when they will open again.

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.”