Is Polite Debate a lost Art?

This past September, I pointed out, in my Shofar column, our fascination with conflict. Even a superficial look at society reveals so many ways in which human beings engage in this. From competitive sports to open warfare; from domestic interactions to international relations; from the process of elections to the execution of government; from history to fiction, we have to admit we find conflict “entertaining,” especially if we can stand on the sidelines and watch it’s progression.

There’s at least another side of conflict that goes beyond entertainment, and that’s the process of give-and-take that takes place within a good debate. If we are exposed to both sides of well-argued proposition, it can allow us to get below surface impressions and prejudices and closer to true knowledge. We know that this is the time-honored way in which justice must be administered. Truth be told, anyone who seeks a greater understanding of a given situation requires a mind sufficiently open and, at the same time, critical of relevant information, no matter what side of the debate it comes from.

No wonder then, that so much of the “Rabbinical” material is filled with expressed disagreement between different individuals or groups and the careful, painstaking analysis of the various points of view. No wonder that ancient Greek society cultivated the “Socratic Method.”

All this, nevertheless, requires a tremendous amount of patience on our part; especially when it comes to listening to (or reading) opinions that aren’t congruent with ones own. For example, it just gets so easy to become caught up emotionally – as we can observe on a daily basis – in discussing the subjects that make up the deep political divide we are enduring as citizens of the United States. So little seems “shaded” these days. We either “hate” or “love” our political leaders and, instead of looking at observable facts, calmly debating their positive or negative value, so often I see insulting remarks being lobbed from one side to the other.

The internet and social media have made communication possible between individuals who may be total strangers. In addition, the way this communication takes place on a screen may make us oblivious that there is another human being behind those words. To this point we haven’t developed any etiquette to govern those “screen exchanges.”

However, I’m aware that hurling insults at the person who disagrees with you is an ancient, if not lame, technique of “winning” a debate. It’s called ad hominem when used as a tactic. It’s really a tacit admission that you’ve run out of good arguments with which to counter your opponent. Since you have no chance of proving them wrong by using logic, you wind up denigrating them.

To the extent that I’ve participated in online political debates, I see this constantly. What concerns me more, is the degree to which I hear these ad hominem’s from some of our country’s leaders. Beyond even that; it appears we, ourselves, in the heat of the moment, miss recognizing just how destructive this kind of conflict is, in the quest for wisdom and wise government.

As I remember; my dad loved to say, “Can’t we disagree, without being ‘disagreeable?’”

I look forward to the day when the “Age of Information” can give way to the “Age of Understanding” and even the “Age of Wisdom.”

I pray for the return of vigorous, polite debate!

With warm regards,

Mordecai Miller
Rabbi, Beth Ami Congregation.

Feast of Lights

It’s no coincidence that our festival of Chanukah occurs so close to the winter solstice; the days are short and the nights are long. Darkness is all around. Nature has gone to sleep; in some areas, even a deep sleep. Frost has killed much of the summer’s growth and we have to wait patiently as the days slowly grow longer even as the average temperatures may grow colder.

As a metaphor, winter represents the gloom of death and despair. What better time to be able to celebrate a festival that brings light and hope into such a moment in our lives?

In the course of the eight days of Chanukah, we add another psalm to our morning and evening services: Psalm 30, “A psalm of the dedication of the House – of David.” The word “Chanukah” means “dedication,” and the “House” mentioned here is none other than the great Temple which stood in Jerusalem.

To review the story in brief: at the juncture in history in which the events of Chanukah took place, the land of Israel was under the rule of the Emperor, King Antiochus Epiphanes. He attempted to unite his empire by compelling those under his rule to take on the Greek religion. He transformed the Holy Temple into a shrine to worship the Greek god, Apollo, and slaughtered pigs on the altar. The Jews were forced to abandon the study of Torah and the practice of the Divine commandments. There were those who succumbed to the pressure, but the priest of Modin, Mattathias, along with his five sons refused to accept the decree and mounted a series of guerrilla campaigns against the Emperor and his armies.

Ultimately, the rebels were successful and were even able to enter Jerusalem, only to find the Temple in a state of desecration. It would be necessary to cleanse and rededicate it. The question on everyone’s mind: Would this act be acceptable in the sight of God?

As the Talmud relates: after going thorough all the necessary steps in the process of rededication, it was now necessary to light the great menorah in the shrine. This required the purest of pure olive oil. It was already a miracle that a jug was found containing a small amount of the requisite oil, bearing the seal of the High Priest and still intact. There was little expectation that the amount of oil would even burn for one day.

Miraculously, it burned for eight days. This amount of time allowed the Jews to produce more oil, which would ensure that the menorah could continue to burn. This miracle was evidence that their act of rededicating the Temple was, in fact, acceptable.

In the midst of a dark, bleak period, the light of hope was rekindled.

To cite a small portion from psalm 30 which combines the themes of Divine rescue and dedicating the Temple:

“I exalt you, O Ad-nai, for You have drawn me up;

And have not allowed my enemies to rejoice over me.

… You changed my mourning to become my dancing;

You loosened my sackcloth and have girded me with joy,

So that (I might) sing of Your glory and never be silenced;

Ad-nai my God, I will thank You without ceasing.

And may the lights of Chanukah shine forever all your days.


Mordecai Miller.

Rosh Chodesh Women

For Rosh Chodesh Shevat, the Moon Mavens are welcoming Anita Migliore, our Zero Waste Specialist at Recology. Anita will answer your questions about what can and can’t be recycled or composted. Feel free to bring items you would like to ask about. Join us on Monday, January 27th at 7:00pm in the Multi-Purpose Room … and bring a dairy or parve snack to share. Questions? Contact Patty Bernstein at

Post-Thanksgiving note

Dancers, I hope your Thanksgiving was a good one. Thanks to all who registered, we are out of the woods. I believe you can still register but have to telephone at this point, rather than do it online.
Our coming dates are
Dec. 4 and 18
Jan 8 and 22
Feb. 5 and 19
March 4 and 18

Carpool events: (if you want to be on the carpooling email list reply and let me know. That list is copied to all, not hidden.)
Cafe Shalom in San Francisco is Dec. 14
These dances are usually good for beginners: AN AFTERNOON OF Pre -1985 “NOSTALGIA” ISRAELI FOLK DANCES
Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019 1:30-5:30 PM
Askenaz Dance Center-Berkeley $10.00 (Under 18 yr. old FREE)
-Potluck snacks and drinks.
Oldies includes dances through 1984
-Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center
1317 San Pablo Avenue @ Gilman St., Berkeley
Led by: Allen King

I’m resending some videos of dances we have worked on. I’m also trying to get an mp3 of this gorgeous Ladino version of HaShoshanah Porachat, or The Rose:

Here’s a video of a new intermediate/advanced dance that has been requested– Aneni… it seems very popular. It’s good for wafting and swooping around, which is fun to do on occasion. It means “Answer me”

The last advanced dance we did was this one, Mamriim (They’re taking off)

And before that, Arba Onot (4 Seasons)

We reviewed a staple dance, Or Chadash

Links I’ve sent before, to a range of dances including beginners’ are here

Rosh Chodesh Moon Mavens

Y’all come to our Rosh Chodesh event on Friday, November 29 (day after Thanksgiving) at 7:30pm. The moon mavens are leading services beginning with our Birkat HaLevana song and the prayer/poem for the new month. (We’ll have copies for the whole congregation.)

Adon Olam will be sung to the tune of Blue Moon … so you might want to listen to a YouTube rendition by Billie Holliday.
We’ll also switch the Yahrzeit board lights to reflect the new month of Kislev.

If you come, please bring a treat (parve or dairy) for the oneg afterwards.

Feel free to invite your friends … everyone is welcome!

Thanks between holidays

With the High Holidays completed, I thank those who were instrumental in creating a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere of traditional services both at the Friedman Center and in the Beth Ami Sanctuary. Thanks above all go to Lee Feinstein, Chair of Religious Practices; to Rabbi Miller; to David Ackerman, the new Chazzan, and to you, those who chose to daven with us throughout the holy days. There are many more, whose specific contribution may have gone unnoticed by you and me, who made Congregation Beth Ami the heartfelt and meaningful place to be for so many.
Please respond to the online survey that will be (has been) sent to your “Inbox” soon so that we know what was most valuable to you.

On October 13, the Celia Gurevitch Library was re-dedicated and re-opened in a wonderful ceremony. The Gurevitch family and the Batzdorffs were honored for creating and making our Library an outstanding resource to the North Bay Jewish Community. Tamar Landau and Karen Herskovic, and other committee members, have done a beautiful job refurbishing and re-establishing the space. Thank you! The Library is open Monday – Thursday 10:00AM – 5:00PM; Friday 10:00AM – 2:00PM. Stop by and take a new look.

And finally, your Board of Directors has unanimously adopted the Policy Against Harassment created by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). Here’s an excerpt:

Whether they be professional staff or lay leaders, the need to relate to one another in an appropriate manner is essential to creating a viable, thriving community of congregations that promotes, nurtures and fosters a vibrant Conservative Jewish movement grounded in the teachings of the Torah.

Here’s the link to the full document:

Take care,
Carolyn Metz, President

Thanksgiving Wishes November, 2019

There’s a definite chill in the air and a joy that the long anticipated first seasonal rain will fall to quench the parched soil and the dried vegetation. There’s a musical sound to the falling rain that I never heard living east of the Rockies. Rain plays a significant role in our faith; its onset, timing and quantity places life in the balance. What a happy coincidence that this season’s rain finally arrived the day before the Thanksgiving holiday. Along with everything else, we really do have a significant reason to celebrate.

Thanksgiving marks the transition from the final close of the harvest time to the onset of winter: Chanukah in our Jewish community and in our general community, the Christmas season and the turn of the secular year.

It’s a time to come together with family and friends; even traveling across county – perhaps continents – so as to reconnect. In so many ways it’s a celebration of all those essential elements that make life worth living, and the “festive meal” brings it all together around the family table.

Here at Congregation Beth Ami we are offering a chance to “extend the celebration” over next weekend, (December 5th – 7th). Beth Hamon serves as an artist-and-educator in residence as well as a cantorial soloist in synagogues, community centers, and coffee houses across the country. She was also selected as one of the top five “New voices in Jewish Music” by Forward Magazine. A number of our own members got to hear her in person when she participated in a local women’s retreat. They were so impressed with her talent that they floated the idea of bringing her in to Beth Ami over a weekend. We are so pleased that we will be able to offer Beth to our community as our “Singer/Scholar in Residence.”

On Thursday evening, December 5th at 7:00pm, Beth will be offering a workshop and jam session to our Sonoma County Jewish musicians. There is no charge for this workshop. Anyone wishing to participate should call the office (707) 360-3000 and speak to Elizabeth.

Friday evening, starting at 6:00pm, Beth and I will lead a musical Kabalat Shabbat Service, followed by dinner and a program. Dinner reservations are required by December 4th and the charge is $15.00 per person. To learn some of Beth’s melodies click here.
Saturday morning, during our Kiddush Pot Luck, following services, Beth will offer a teaching for us.

The weekend caps off with a Havdallah Cafe, Saturday evening, December 7th at 7:00pm, which we are sponsoring with our sister congregation Ner Shalom. A $15.00 donation is requested and $25.00 for limited preferred seating. There will be refreshments on hand for purchase. Tickets to the Havdalah Cafe available online.

My family and I join in wishing you much joy in this Thanksgiving Season. May you always have much for which to be grateful in the years ahead.

With warmest regards,


Nursery School Trike-a-Thon

We at the Nursery School are thrilled to be preparing for our Second Annual Trike-a-Thon! This exciting Nursery School fundraiser was an absolute blast last year! We raised just over $4,000 for our Jill Tager Scholarship Fund and this year we have a $5,000 goal! The children will all bring their bikes and trikes Friday, November 15th to hit the track.

They are collecting flat donations as well as per lap donations for each lap they ride around the course. All are invited to come and cheer the riders on. There will be two rounds, from 10–10:30 a.m. and from 11-11:30 a.m. If you would like to sponsor our riders and help us raise funds for the Nursery School, donations can be made on the Beth Ami Website by clicking Nursery School Fund in the Giving section on the website (, or checks can be brought in or mailed to the Beth Ami Nursery School Office. All donations are greatly appreciated. This is a fun way to come out and show support for our wonderful school. There will be upbeat DJ-ed music and party blowers for people cheering on the riders. We could always use more people to help count laps if you’d like to volunteer to help us out. If you are interested in volunteering your time to help out at the event, please e-mail me,

The Nursery School is also still offering tours and currently has a few open spots. We enroll all year long while space is available. If you know anyone with preschool age children you think would like to join our community, they can call the office 707-360-3030 any time to schedule a tour and hear more about our wonderful program.

Social Action Committee Fall News

Toda Raba to the Beth Ami family and friends who filled the Redwood Empire Food Bank bins to overflowing during the holidays . Once again we have demonstrated our commitment to Tikun Olam. We need to remember that hunger never takes a holiday, so please continue to bring healthy food to the shul on a regular basis.

As the weather is changing, days getting shorter and nightly temperatures dropping we can begin to look through our closets for lightly used warm clothing and accessories. Hats, gloves, warm socks, jackets, sweats and sleeping bags are always needed. The SAC hasn’t decided where to donate the clothes yet but the bins will be in the foyer of the shul by the time you read this article. If anyone has a suggestion where to donate, please let us know. We also continue to collect toiletries. Always needed: feminine products, socks.
Thanks again for everyones’ support.

The next dinner at The Palms is scheduled for Wednesday, November 20 th. The dinner will have a different menu. Jerry Newman has offered to cook Texas style brisket . A nice early Thanksgiving meal. Thanks Jerry!
The SAC is very excited about the Shabbat weekend with Beth Hamon on December 5-7. Some of us saw Beth at the women’s retreat and really loved her singing and ability to create community. We will support the Adult Education and ad hoc committee during the weekend.

We are also finalizing our plans to sponsor the Shabbat dinner and speaker on Friday, January 3. More details to follow.
Busy time and all is good.
Upcoming dates
The Palms: November 20 th. 4:30- 6:00
Redwood Empire Food Bank: December 18th. 5:00-7:00.
Interested in joining us? Call Elizabeth at the office 360-3000 or Lyla 526-7438
B’ shalom, Lyla

Kurdish Israeli folk dance

For our October 16 class we will learn Debka Kurdit. Kurdish Jewish Israelis have a special festival called Saharane held during Sukkot in Jerusalem. 13,000 people have attended in past years; the Kurdish community in Israel numbers approximately 200,000. Most came to Israel in the general expulsion of Jews from Islamic and Arab countries after 1948.

Here is a nice video of Kurdish jewish Israelis doing a traditional dance:

And here is the dance choreographed by famed choreographer Moshiko:

Coming dance dates are October 16 and 30, November 20, December 4 and 18