Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Shemittah Dilemma

Yesterday, I took part in the Rabbinical Council of America's mini-conference in Israel on behalf of Tzohar, and we spent much of the day touring the Shomron.
At the Tura Winery
Among the stops on the tour, we visited the Tura Winery in Recheilim, where we enjoyed a wine tasting and explanation. In recent years, I've grown to enjoy a fine wine now and then, and I found their Merlot excellent. (they will gladly ship to the United States for two dollars a bottle!) This is in no small part due to the fact that their vinyards sit at the top of Har Brachah (which we also visited later, and which also boasts an excellent winery) whose elevation and cool temperatures are apparently perfect for growing grapes essential to excellent wine. Let's just say that I didn't utilize the spittoon during the tasting, and left the winery in an excellent mood.
During the tasting, our guide explained the challenge she and her husband were facing as the Shemittah year approached.
Farmers have essentially four choices: Farm the land (violating halachah), leaving the land fallow entirely, utilizing heter mechirah (which thus permits the farmer to essentially farm and sell the product in the normal fashion), or use a system called Otzar Beit Din. It's beyond the purview of this post to explain the nuances of Otzar Beit Din, but essentially, under the system, the farmer joins a larger collective in which he essentially becomes the agent of the community to farm the land not for his personal use, but for communal use. Thus, he can farm the land and harvest it for everyone, but he can only sell it at the cost of producing it.  More importantly, the produce retains "kedushat She'viit" - the holiness of Shemittah, which carries a series of requirements, including that it cannot be discarded in the normal manner, wasted at all, and, most significantly, it cannot be exported outside of the Land of Israel.
Rabbis Enjoying the Wine Tasting
Currently, the Tura winery sells about thirty percent of the twenty-five thousand bottles it produces each year outside of Israel. More significantly, the owners feel that they have pretty much tapped out the Israeli market. In order to grow, they need to increase their exports, which they've been doing each and every year.
Except in the wine world, you can't just skip a year. Your buyers will find other suppliers, and other product to sell to their customers. And a business can't just overlook thirty percent of its income. They count on that business to make ends meet.
So, faced with this challenge, their posek, Rav Elyakim Levanon, instructed them to utilize heter mechirah. This would allow them to continue to produce and market the product normally.
Except they don't want to.
These are religious people. They've dedicated their lives to building the Holy Land. They literally, with sweat and tears, built their yishuv and winery, from the ground up. Utilizing heter mechirah means selling the Holy Land to a gentile - an act that counters their worldview and everything they stand for.
This isn't a dilemma with simple solutions.
Our tour guide, sharing her struggle, said that to her mind, the challenge was even harder because "Shemittah is supposed to make life easier for the farmer" - giving the land, and the farmer, a needed year of rest. "Except today, it only makes things harder."

Monday, February 17, 2014

Man Seder Sweeping the Nation Even More Than I Thought!

Last week, I shared this post about the Man's Seder, a mock seder for men geared towards helping men lead a better and more meaningful Seder. Last night, I got this email from a member of Congregation Beth Shalom of Potomac, Maryland:
Hi Rabbi Spolter.
I read with interest the listing of shule's that have created a "Mens Seder Night". I am proud to tell you that this will be the 4th year that Beth Sholom (Potomac, Maryland) has conducted our "Guys Night Out and Seder Summit". I have attached our flyer and recently created Press Release, announcing this year's event.
Our event is truly a community event as last year we attracted over 320 guys and are expecting 400 this year. We are especially proud of our community leadership that has already signed up including the CEO of our Federation, CEO of our JCC, Headmaster of our Day school (over 1500 kids) and Israeli Embassy officials. Last year we also welcomed 6 Rabbis.  
Please keep Beth Sholom, Potomac Maryland in mind, as you continue to publicize this great event, taking place all over the country.
Thank you.
He also sent me this flyer: well as the following press release:
Rachel Winer
PR Consultant

Guys Night Out & Seder Summit: Ribs, Scotch, Learning and More!
Hosted by Beth Sholom Congregation in the Washington D.C. area

Potomac, Maryland: In the spirit of the NCAA Men’s Final Four and MLB Opening Day, Beth Sholom Congregation, the largest Modern Orthodox Synagogue in the Washington, D.C. area, proudly announces its fourth annual BBQ, Scotch and Seder Summit. The event will take place on Sunday evening, April 6th, from 6:00-9:30 PM. Over 400 attendees are expected from near and far, as this is the largest event known of its kind to get “the guys” ready for seder leading.

Who are some of the guys you may see at our event? The CEO of the JCC of Greater Washington, the President of the JCC of Greater Washington, the CEO of the local Jewish Federation, Head of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, leaders from the Israeli Embassy, AIPAC, the World Bank, Rabbis from other local synagogues, community members, friends, fathers, sons and grandsons coming to town from all over the east coast.

This unique "men’s outreach event" reaches across all spectrums of Judaism attracting orthodox, conservative, reform, and unaffiliated Jews. Attendees will also have the opportunity to enjoy Passover insights from Beth Sholom’s recently installed Senior Rabbi, Nissan Antine. Rabbi expresses as he looks forward to leading this event each year, “This is a great event and can surely be re-created in other local Jewish communities across this country.”

The evening features a man’s perfect menu: Kosher BBQ ribs, fries, oven baked “fried” chicken, scotch and Passover wine. The program will incorporate "speed learning," with a focus on sharing ancient traditions to help make one's Seder more meaningful for all participants. Men will take home pocket-sized materials with key lessons for them to incorporate into their own Seders. There will also be a chance to win raffle prizes, think whiskies and sports memorabilia!

The goal for this event is to raise funds to support Beth Sholom, community initiatives, all while providing a great venue for a great Jewish experience. Last year, the Washington Jewish Week stated, "I've been covering Jewish events for well over 30 years, and this was one of the most important, meaningful events I've ever experienced…this was one of the few places I had been where Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, unaffiliated, ...every type of Jew felt comfortable." 

Beth Sholom is one of the most active shuls providing financial support to families in need, during Passover. To find out more information about Beth Sholom, or to register for the event, go to: or call 301-279-7010.

First of all, I love the name: "Seder Summit". Secondly, the shul is really utilizing the program in an exciting way - combining the power of an educational event, a fundraiser, and a force for unity in the community. You can even register and pay for the program online. Sounds incredible!

Rabbi Elazar Muskin
So, what about your shul? I never believed that I had to reinvent the wheel when it came to good shul programming. I was quite happy to "borrow" programs from colleages that I felt would benefit my community. Just recently, I proudly told Rabbi Elazar Muskin from the Young Israel of Century City that my Pre-Rosh Hashanah speaker series was completely and totally ripped off from him (which is fine, because he shared it with a large group of rabbis at a Young Israel conference).
So - rabbis, shul board members, lay-people: Here you go! You've got a great program idea (and even a press release) ready to go. Your members will be excited, your shul will make money, and their Seder night will be enriched.
The only question is, is the Man's Seder (or "Four Cups" or "Seder Summit") that will happen in your city going to be at your shul, or at the shul down the street?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bnei Akiva's New Recruitment Campaign

Happy Birthday Rav Shlomo
Last night, Rena and I traveled to Modiin to participate in a birthday party for a good friend, Rav Shlomo Sobol, the rav of Kehillat Shaarei Yona Menachem in Modiin, and also a founder of the Barkai Center for Rabbinic Training (based out of his shul). The shul was throwing the party (which is rather unique. I can't think of another shul that I know of that threw its rav a birthday party. It speaks to a really special relationship between a shul a its rav.), and they asked me to say a few words.
I mentioned to the community that we became close with the Sobol family over the four years that they spent in Metro Detroit, he as the Rosh Kollel of the Kollel Torah Mitzion. We ran programs, taught Torah, and spent many hours together, and today the Sobols are close friends. I also noted how the Kollel, following the Sobols' instructions, spoke about aliyah, and the importance of aliyah, at every turn. Pretty much every shiur was about aliyah and every conversation ended up leading in that direction as well. At some point I went to Rav Sobol and told him, "Stop talking about aliyah! Yes, it's important, but no one wants to hear it anymore, and they're starting to tune you out." The Kollel tuned the message down a bit, and things worked out fine.
Ironically, I guess, my family listened, as here we are.
I've been thinking about this issue especially in light of B'nei Akiva's recently unveiled campaign to recruit new Shlichim to represent and work for the organization around the world. I opened an Alon Shabbat and saw the following ad:

The caption: The plane is ready. Now it's your turn.
I don't question the great work that B'nei Akiva does, nor do I doubt their sincere desire to encourage aliyah. Yet, I wonder whether this ad campaign is all that realistic, or even true.
Sure, communities want B'nei Akiva representatives, and pay a great deal of money to bring them. Yet, they're not simply bringing representatives of Nefesh B'nefesh. They want these dedicated young people to teach their children a whole host of values, including devotion to Am Yisrael, the importance of the Jewish State, the religious value of serving the Jewish people, educational aspects of Religious Zionism - the list goes on and on. And, if exposure to these great role models inspires a young person to want to live in Israel - terrific.
But that doesn't seem to be the message of the ad. It's seems to encourage the notion that the shlichim are being sent to bring as many bodies as possible back on Aliyah.
I wonder how the communities in America feel about their shlichim being marketed in this manner.

Even more surprising is the other ad in the campaign:

Caption: There are Jews that this doesn't seem strange to...

To the best of my knowledge, most (if not all) B'nei Akiva shlichim in the United States are hosted by Orthodox communities. While these communities may not be chareidi, the vast majority of their members aren't putting up Christmas trees, last I checked. I wonder how many opportunities these shlichim will have to interact with families that are both lighting a Channukiah and also setting up a tree for Christmas?
I wonder what kind of expectations the new crop of recruits will have, when they land in Cleveland to discover that they're not going to save the world, nor will they successfully fill a plane of Olim who will jump to accompany them back on their return flight home. Rather, they're going to staff a Snif, create meaningful programs for children, teach Torat Eretz Yisrael, and hopefully instill a sense of Religious Zionism in the people they work with.
It seems that today, those laudable goals are no longer sufficient to attract good recruits. You have to make them believe that they really will save the world.
I just hope that next year's shlichim are not overly disappointed when they discover that reality isn't so exciting.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Tisa - How Could Moshe Break the Luchot?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tisa - How Could Moshe Break the Luchot?

Generally, we don't commend people for smashing things in anger. Why then do we seem to laud Moshe for smashing the luchot habrit?

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Man's Seder Sweeping the Nation: Now in Chicago. Next Stop: Your City?

It started with a simple idea probably ten years ago. After my wife Rena returned home from a Federation-sponsored "Women's Seder" (complete with orange and obligatory readings), I wondered why they sponsor programs like that for women, but nothing for the men. After all, in many homes, the men lead the Seder. Shouldn't they spend some time preparing? Moreover, the Seder represents one of the most important family educational experiences throughout the Jewish year. Parents actually must sit with their children and talk (and read) about Jewish events. There had to be a program to get men ready for the Seder! Indeed, there was.
What gets men to come to anything? Torah? Sure. But what if you added steaks - really thick ones? (Remember that in Metro Detroit, good meat restaurants are pretty rare.) And what about beer? Men, like beer, right?
Turns out that they do. The idea percolated for a year, until I finally decided to inaugurate what has since become an annual event at YIOP: The Man's Seder. Here's the flyer from my last year.

The event actually garnered a fair amount of Press. We had a great article in the Detroit Free Press our first year, and more publicity in the following years. Here's a piece from the Detroit Jewish News in 2008 (click on it to enlarge):

The program has spawned imitators and emulators, which I'm actually quite proud of. For years now, my good friend Rabbi Barry Gelman of the United Orthodox Synagogue of Houston has been conducting a Man's Seder (you can find some more great pictures from their Facebook  page here). Aish Detroit copied it almost immediately after I left. It's been popping up across the country. And now the Man's Seder, moving into the big time, is making its way to Chicago.
Apparently, Rabbi Ari Sytner of YU's Center for the Jewish Future, shared the idea for the Man's Seder at a lay leadership seminar. The idea took hold, and this year Congregation Or Torah will conduct its first Man's Seder. Only they've rebranded it, and are calling it: Four Cups.

I love it. I love the upgraded graphics, and the Chicago tough-guy theme. I love the sponsorships (why didn't I think of that?) Most of all, I love the fact that a program I thought of is really helping spread Torah and excitement about Pesach.
So, if you live in Chicagoland, make your way to Or Torah for a great night of learning. And if you don't live in Chicago, share this blog post with your rabbi, ritual committee, education committe, Men's Club - whatever. Man's Seder is sweeping the nation. Don't miss it!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Tetzaveh - The Urim V'tumim

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Tetzaveh - The Urim V'tumim

What exactly was the Urim V'Tumim anyway? Could you really ask it the future? More importantly, if you had one, would you want to use it?

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Gila Dodelson and the Facebook Shtetl

Jewish life was always built around the concept of community. We live, by definition, in close proximity to one-another. We celebrate and mourn with each other. We do business with one-another. And, when necessary, we use that closeness to pressure those who we love to do the right thing.
At least that's the idea.
And, when the subtle, behind the scenes pressure doesn't work, halachah offers other, more stinging forms of pressure to coerce community members to stay in line, from the minor sanctions of a mi shepara, to the secondary step of a knas, all the way to the drastic sting of the cherem, which prohibits community members from engaging in any economic activity with the sanctioned individual.
There was a time that these measures were extremely effective. The tighter that the community was knit together, the more each individual person relied on the larger community, and was therefore subject to the forces of community pressure. This is how it should be, and in fact, how it was.
Until it wasn't.
The world got smaller.
Rather than being born, raised, and living in the same village for your entire life, people began to move around, living in different communities, cities, and even countries. How do you enforce social norms when a person can simply move to another town, or, for that matter, just daven at the shtiebel down the street? You can't, and the Jewish community witnessed the unraveling of its ability to pressure individuals on a communal scale.
Until now, that is.
With the advent of social media, the world has now shrunk to such a degree that the entire globe has been reduced to a single shtelt. The shtetl of Facebook.
Exhibit A: The tragic case of Gila Dodelson.
Way back in the "old days", A Beit Din would issue a siruv, and the husband would find himself ostracized - unable to get an aliyah, count for a minyan...he'd be maligned among the people he loved and needed to the point that it wouldn't make sense to withhold a get from his wife. It would have just been too painful.
Today that's no longer the case. The husband davens at a different shul. The wife moves to another city. Even if, somehow, the husband's community ostracizes him, he can easily find another community willing to take him in, see his side of the story, and welcome him with open arms.
Yet, the Dodelson story demonstrated that with enough pressure, and a Facebook page, the entire world can become that Shtetl. There's no community to run to which hasn't read about you, and seen your picture; where someone comes up to you during davening to tell you how much they revile what you're doing; where enough people know you, your parents, and your neighbors and friends. They can exert pressure on your parents' company, forcing them to take a leave of absence as you work out your issues.
Welcome to the Shtetl of Facebook.
It's a brave new world.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Fantastic Day: Bezalel Competes in the Chidon Hatanach, and I Get Another Reminder Why I Moved to Israel

This past Saturday night, as I shut down the house for the night, I noticed a light in Bezalel's room. He was still reading, late into the night. When I walked in, I caught him Tanach. That's when I realized just how invested he was in the Chidon.
Each school that participates in the Chidon gives a written test on the material specified by the Ministry of Education. Bezalel decided to study, and was one of three high school students from Tzvi Katif chosen to represent the school. (The other two later dropped out). Something about the Chidon lit a fire in him, and he began to go through the material for the regional Chidon (which was today).
The material included: most of the five books of the Chumash, Yehoshua, Shoftim, Shmuel, Melachim, parts of Yishayahu, parts of Yirmiyah, and Yonah (he thinks). Some of the material he had never read before, and now he was being asked to remember names, facts, cities, who killed whom, who was bald (and who wasn't) - any and every possible and imaginable detail included in the text.
The regional finals, which took place in Meitar, were actually in two stages. Forty kids took a written test, and eighteen were selected for the final, which was done orally, in front of an audience. Rena and I weren't sure whether to go or not. If he didn't make the cut, we didn't want to embarrass him. But there would be no way to know if he was in until the live program started, so we go in the car and drove to Meitar.
Right before they opened the auditorium, Bezalel sent Rena a text - he made it into the finals. Truth be told, we were genuinely proud that he had worked so hard to get as far as he had. We had not prodded or pushed in the least. It was entirely his initiative, and he worked very hard, pushing off other tests and quizzes to study for the chidon. The Ministry of Education had even set up a website which was optimized for mobile phones, so students could quiz themselves with sample questions.
Walking into the auditorium, I was immediately impressed with the scale of the program, and the investment that the Ministry of Education made in the Chidon itself. This was one of seven regional finals, and yet the stage was decorated with banners, there was full professional lighting and sound; it was the full show - at the local level.
They had even produced mini videos that they were supposed to show before each group of questions. The first set was about Plishtim - and they had produced a four minute video about a Plishti warrior who stops at a local kiosk and orders lunch. It was clever, and not cheap. I've been doing some research for Orot on the costs of producing videos. They had prepared about five or six videos, so it was clear that a good deal of investment went into this program. Sadly, because we started late, and the videos had no real bearing on the quiz itself, they only showed the first video and skipped the rest.
There was even a musical program: kids on flutes; the local choir from the Meitar elementary school. (The first song that they song was the Chemed Song - did you know that there was a song about the Religious Zionist School System? Chemed stands for Chinuch Mamlachti Dati - Religious Zionist Education. Someone decided that they needed a theme song. For some reason, I really love the music video they put out...but I digress...)
Bezalel didn't make it past the first round. Truth be told, the questions were really, really hard. Here was Bezalel's question (each child got the question both orally, and in print in advance):

I had no idea about either part. For that matter, I couldn't really answer the vast majority of the questions.
Bezalel got the first question right. They were eaten by bears. (Who knew?) The judges also tried quite hard to help the kids find a correct answer. And when the crowd felt that a kid had gotten an answer correct that the judges didn't hear, they gave him credit anyway.
The questions only got harder from there, with time limits, and then lightening rounds, until two kids were left - and then finally a winner. They gave each finalist a small gift along with a rather nice Tanach, we sang Hatikvah, and then we had a minyan for minchah.
I left the auditorium with my spirits soaring. My son had competed in a well-produced Tanach competition sponsored by the Ministry of Education of the State of Israel. There was a crowd cheering the kids on; it was just such a special experience.
As the time since our Aliyah passes - going on almost six years now - life has, thank God, settled into a sort of rhythm. It's normal. So you tend to forget the things that brought you to Israel, and why you chose to leave a life in the United States and move halfway around the world.
Today was one of those days. Baruch Hashem.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A New Phenomenon: Four Amot of Space for Rav Addes

Last Friday, in honor of the upcoming completion of Masechet Yoma, our shul sponsored a trip to the Old City, which included davening at the Kotel, a nice breakfast with a siyyum, and then a visit to the new Machon Hamikdash. It was a great event, and I invited my son Bezalel to skip school and join me. He agreed.
When we arrived at the Kotel, it was pretty cold, so we all headed inside the cave to find a place to daven. I didn't really think about it ahead of time, but it was really crowded. Standing room only. (I guess this makes sense: Rosh Chodesh, Friday morning and Netz all together - why not come to the Kotel.) We weeded our way through the crowds and noticed that there was a nice open space at the end of the cave near the back wall. We head there and began "setting up" - putting on Tefillin, etc.
Then, suddenly, we were accosted by a man who soon identified himself as the gabbai of Rav Addes (who is known as a mekubal), who starting moving our things out of this space. It was reserved. For Rav Addes. The entire space. No one could be within ten feet of him, at a minimum.

I have never heard of anything like this before. (I subsequently asked some friends who have never heard of anything like it either.) This man was unyielding. He didn't really explain himself, and seemed quite taken aback with the thought that we were impinging on his space. It became clear that Rav Addes needed an open space without anyone around him. It wasn't an issue of whether you agreed with the gabbai or not. This was how it was going to be. He didn't ask. He moved your stuff, your chair, your shtender. It was like there had to be a giant force field around the mekubal. When I asked him to explain, he mentioned something about not interrupting the rav's kavanot. Or something like that.

I've really never seen or heard of anything like this before. Have you? Can anyone explain to me why Rav Addes (at least according to his gabbai) needs the area around him clear of anyone else while he's davening?