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Beth Israel Congregation


Beth Israel Congregation Newsletter

January/February 2007
Tevet/Shevat/Adar 5767

Tu Bishvat
President's Message
Beth Israel Chanukkah Party
News from the Hebrew School
Upcoming Events & Special Services

NOTE: It is our policy that no personal telephone numbers, email addresses or mailing addresses be contained in the web version of our newsletter. If you need to get in touch with one of our members please email us at

Tu B'Shvat

by Daniel Leeman

As we will be celebrating Tu Bishvat this year with a community seder, here are some thoughts about the New Year for Trees, Rosh Hashanah La'Ilanot. Ilan is a word for tree in Hebrew. Shvat is the fifth and coldest of the Hebrew months (this year Jan. 20-Feb.18). "Tu" stands for the letters Tet and Vav, which add up to the number 15. Our holy day of Tu Bishvat occurs on the fifteenth day of Shvat. In Israel the almond blossoms begins to bloom, and the time for planting begins.

Traditionally, the seven species from Israel are recognized: wheat, barley, grapes, fig, pomegranate, olive oil, and honey. Diaspora Jews the world over search for fruit from Israel, if possible, like Jaffa oranges, boxer fruit, figs, olives. We recite the blessing "Borei p'ri ha'etz" thanking G-d as the creator of fruits from trees, as well as "Shehecheiyanu," thanking G-d for keeping us in life, and sustaining us to this moment.

In Gen: 2:9 it is written: "And (in the Garden of Eden) from the ground the Lord G-d caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food..." In Gen: 2:15 it is written: "And the Lord G-d took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to till it and to tend it."

From these and other biblical sources, the rabbis recognized the beauty and sanctity of trees and our relationship to them. And as a result, Jewish people are leading advocates for sustainability and environmental protection. Jewish activism has extended to the fields of global warming, renewable energy, and pollution control. Some rabbinic groups advocate for vegetarianism, arguing that although Jewish law provides for kosher shechita (slaughter), one may perceive it as a type of compromise, not really in the spirit of the Torah. They argue that raising animals for food presents terrible inefficiencies in acquiring our nutrition, not to mention the huge and unnecessary water consumption by these animals to prepare them for market. They also make mention of the possible cruelty to animals that may arise from raising animals for slaughter. Any cruelty to animals is specifically forbidden in the Torah.

Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees is a beautiful holiday, that causes us to carefully examine what a blessing trees are for humanity, and ponder the myriad of ways we can act in the future to guard and protect our forests and our planet.

President's Message

by Andy Hagler

Saturday Morning Book Club

This past Saturday morning I did something that I can't remember ever having done when there wasn't a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I dropped by for Saturday morning Torah services. There wasn't a minion, not even close, but a handful of our members gathered in a semi-circle to read and discuss the bit where Joseph reveals his identity to, and reunites with, his brothers. Cantor Leeman read the Hebrew and gave a short introduction to the torah portion to kick things off, but the "learning" came from our round-table discussion of the story. Everyone participated and brought to the conversation their own unique insight and style of discourse (mine is to cross-examine, a professionally induced character flaw that I practiced only on Daniel) in a relaxed atmosphere.

We're talking 90% English here. Great story. Intriguing character development. A text certainly worth reading and thinking about. Even better, this is a book club made up of people who are fun to spend a few hours with. The praying starts at 9:30, the discussion at 10:00. The pace depends on the group (we didn't finish this week's portion and didn't even try to) and Cantor Leeman gets you out the door by 11:30. I found that it really is a nice way to spend a Saturday morning and hope that you'll give it a try sometime soon.

Tu Bishvat Seder

Our last community holiday gathering was a well-attended Hanukkah/Borsht-Belt skit party that I think everyone present truly enjoyed. Coming up on Friday, February 2 at 6:00 pm is a pot-luck Tu Bishvat Seder. It's the "birthday of the trees" holiday, and also a time to reflect on what our community can do to protect our natural environment. Given the unsettling mildness of this Maine winter, thus far, the holiday may someday soon become the time when we plant our tomato gardens. Let's hope and pray not. Join us for Tu Bishvat.

Beth Israel Chanukkah Party

by Marilyn Weinberg

When I help to organize an event, I am often so busy that I don't get a chance to enjoy it. But this Chanukah was an exception. So many people came and helped make this party one of the best I can remember. Susan Horowitz and Donnie Spiegelman cooked up a huge number of delicious latkes. Janice Povich, Rea Turet and Jill Standish helped set up and made everything look good. Even though I knew the "jokes," I laughed as hard as everybody else when I saw them come to life by our talented Beth Israel performers. I still can see our president, Andy Hagler, dressed up as Geronowitz the chief of the Schmohawks, telling us about his buffalo hunt. Our ending, with Marie Pressman leading us in song, felt joyous. I didn't want her to stop. It was truly a group effort. Thanks to everybody who helped make it happen.


This is the season of miracles. When we kindle the Hanukkah lights, we thank God for the miracles God performed for our ancestors at this season of the year. This prompts two questions: What is a miracle and do miracles really exist? By way of an answer, let me share a story.

During Israel's War of Independence, a courageous young man named Yochai ben Nun volunteered for a suicide mission. He was to ride a torpedo and aim it at an Egyptian destroyer. Since in 1948 Israel had no Navy, a rowboat carried Yochai within a few miles of the warship. The torpedo was launched with Yochai astride.

Revolving searchlights from the Egyptian ships were scanning the sea and would easily spot the manned missile. The rider would be killed, but too late to keep the torpedo from reaching its target. "While Yochai's buddies watched, the searchlight beams suddenly vanished and all was black. Then came the reverberations of an explosion. The enemy ship went up in flames. Yochai's friends watched in silence, their joy subdued by their presumption of Yochai's death. They began to row away. But they heard what sounded like a human voice. Frantically, they rowed toward the sound. Like a spirit risen from the sea, Yochai appeared. What had happened?

"As if by a miracle," he told his friends, "the Egyptian search lights had grown completely dark just as he was near enough to aim his torpedo and leap off. Yochai ben Nun lived to become the first Admiral of the Israeli Navy."

How shall this extraordinary event be recorded for posterity? Was it a miracle? Or is it mere coincidence that the Egyptians turned off their searchlights at a crucial moment?

If we were living in biblical days, there is little doubt that such an event would be considered miraculous. But in our time of reason and skepticism, such occurrences are dismissed as coincidence or extraordinary good luck. Some people believe in miracles having occurred exactly as they are recorded in the Bible. Others seek a natural or rational explanation and think that what was miraculous about them was the timing. Still others reject miracles as nothing more than legendary elaborations of very ordinary events, embellished over many years of telling and re-telling. And still others see miracles as proof of God's existence.

Judaism never made faith in God dependent on miracles. Our Sages tell us that if love is dependent on some material object, that love will falter if the material object ceases to exist. So it is with faith. Faith that is dependent on God operating in a certain way will disappear if God is perceived of not acting in that way.

Miracles, I think, only confuse the issue. They make faith harder. Miracles prove absolutely nothing. "Never depend on miracles," is good advice from our Sages. "While it may be true that miracles sometimes occur, food is rarely provided by them."

The great danger inherent in miracles is waiting for them. To wait for a miracle is to deprive us of our ability to act on our own. If we sit back and do nothing, it is unlikely that any miracle will occur. David Ben Gurion once said that you have to work terribly hard to create a miracle. Even the splitting of the Sea of Reeds required human effort.

According to the Midrash, the waters of the sea didn't part until the Israelites had entered the sea and the waters reached up to their nostrils. Only then did the waters part. Had the Israelites waited until the waters parted, they would have probably been slaughtered by the Egyptians. If we want miracles to occur, we must work to make them happen.

This is precisely what the Maccabees did. They didn't wait for some miracle to occur when the Syrian Greeks sought to forbid the practice of Judaism. They began a campaign of guerilla warfare. They had no idea whether or not they would succeed. The Maccabees created the miracle of Hanukkah by their action, not by waiting for divine intervention. There are times for prayer and there are times for action. It is action that makes miracles happen. A real miracle is when we accept our responsibilities, when we confront our problems, when we act to make things better.

Are there miracles? Of course, but perhaps it is the miraculous things that happen every day that we don't think of as miracles. Love, family, hope, faith, inspiration, creativity, accomplishment these are the real miracles of life. Miracles are what we do with our lives, not what is done for us or given to us.

Nes gadol haya sham a great miracle happened in the days of the Maccabees. And a great miracle happens today and every day whenever a person accepts his responsibilities, faces his or her problems and acts to make things better. May each of us create our own miracles and thereby enrich our lives and the lives we touch.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah
Rabbi David H. Auerbach

News from the Hebrew School

by Barbara Leeman

Hanukkah News

In December, besides continuing in their Hebrew education, our school also had a chance to celebrate Hanukkah together, and take a little break to remember the miracles of today. The kids made their own dreidles and colored them. Special thanks to Campbell Clegg who prepared all the materials. The kids played the dreidle game and decorated Hanukkah cookies. We have some amazing bakers. Special thanks to Deb Hagler, Susan Horowitz and Marie Pressman for all the Hanukkah cookies they pre-made for the kids. We were also so fortunate to have had Marilyn Weinberg bring in her donut dough, so that the kids could make their own sufganiyot (donuts). I think the smells of all the goodies made their way all the way to the Patten Free library. Some wonderful Hanukkah stories were read, and there was lots of singing following the festivities. Besides all the wonderful help Campbell, Deb, Susan, Marie and Marilyn provided, we also thank Chris and Rachel Schoenberg, Beth Pols and Hannah Leeman for helping the kids so that the teachers were able to meet and plan for the rest of the year. We were also so excited to celebrate Hanukkah with our congregation at our community-wide Chanukah party on December 17th. Breakfast was perfect, the hot sizzling latkes couldn't be beat, the skits were hilarious, and the music and singing led by Marie Pressman and Cantor Daniel was very beautiful and festive. What more could someone ask for. A huge thank you to Marilyn for all her coordination to make this day special for everyone.

Class Shabbats

Our Heh class Shabbat was December 8th. The students who participated in the service were Quin Boyd, William Connelly, Gina Maris and Zachary Miller. Great job to our leaders. What a good example they set for the rest of the school to follow. Our next school Shabbat will be 3rd/4th grade on March 16th with the Daled class. This class includes Shira Gersh, Jacob Hagler, Julian Ireland, Elliot Pressman, Jacob Schoenberg, and Sophie Sreden. Each service begins at 7:00 pm. The class gathers earlier at 6:00 pm for a meal, where we have a chance to sing zmirot (Shabbat melodies) and learn some new blessings. We encourage members of our congregation and greater community to attend these special services. Your attendance and support inspires our students to continue their effort towards a quality Jewish education. Please mark your calendars.

Tot Shabbat Services Continue

This year we have scheduled five Tot Shabbat services throughout the year. We are very excited about keeping this as a regular option for families with very small kids. The second Tot Shabbat, December 1st, was led by Rebecca Lewis and Rachel Schoenberg. A limited number of prayers were introduced to the kids. Some lively singing and some Hanukkah stories filled the air. Many thanks to Becca and Rachel for preparing so beautifully and for leading this during December. Our next Tot Shabbat is scheduled for January 26th. Please let anyone who has small kids know about this special service.

What's Coming Up

We will be having a community Tu B'shevat Seder this year on Friday, February 2nd, and an additional model Tu B'shevat seder on February 7th during Hebrew school where the classes will each display their own demonstration of their knowledge of the holiday.

Take note of Calendar Changes!

Please note above the new date for the Daled class service. It is a change from the originally scheduled date of February 9th. Changing this service to March 16th will give our students additional time to prepare amidst the spring holidays. Our Aleph and Bet class will have their class service together on April 27th. This is also a change for our Bet class which was originally scheduled for March 16th.

Plans are now underway for a special Yom Hashoah observance, hopefully during Hebrew school on April 11th (more information to come) and for a special Yom Ha'Azmaut celebration, hopefully to be held on April 22nd. Again more information will follow.

For anyone who is interested, our next parent group meeting is at 4:30 pm during Hebrew school on January 10th. This is the best way for anyone interested, to see more of what is going on during Hebrew School, and to be more involved. We are always looking for new and exciting ideas to incorporate into our Hebrew School program.

Upcoming Events & Special Services

Friday, January 19: Jill & Arnie Standish share some of their experiences and observations from their recent trip to Israel. Services will begin at 7:00 pm.

Friday, January 26: Tot Shabbat service with stories and songs for our young ones. Services begin at 6:30 pm.

Friday, February 2: Come to our first Tu B'Shvat Community Seder! A pot luck dinner begins at 6:00 pm (no meat, but fish is OK). We are supposed to eat fruits and grains grown in Israel. So plan on bringing something containing barley, dates, figs, grapes (or raisins), pomegranates, olives or wheat. Almonds and carob are also good options. Sing songs and learn more about this Jewish environmental holiday!

Thank You for Your Donations

Friends of Beth Israel Congregation
  • Bonnie Seasonwein Markey and Jeffrey S. Goldstein of Pelham, New York, in honor of the birth of their grandson, Randall Stevens Walker, son of parents Heather Seasonwein Walker and Corey Stevens Walker of Freeport
  • Stephen Blatt
  • Margaret Bromberg
  • Richard Cohen & Eliza Gouverneur
  • Sarah Laurence
  • Dr. Mark Mahnke & Dr. Jessica Mahnke
  • Leslie Shaw
  • Daniel & Barbara Winicur
  • Portland Chevra Kadisha
Members of Beth Israel Congregation
  • Lori and Irwin Brodsky
  • Barry and Karen Mills
  • Peggy Brown and John Martell in memory of her grandfather, Sol Wernick
  • Jay and Lenore Friedland in memory of Esther Itzkowitz, Mother
  • Lynda Kelly in memory of her mother, Ann Lempert
  • Janice Povich in memory of Lillian Goldstein
  • Rea Turet and Sandy Polster in memory of her stepfather, Sidney Lasher