Review of 6th Street Minyan Friday Night Service

Stephen Richer
Review of 6th Street Minyan Friday Night Service (4/2/2010  6:30 – 8:30 pm)

Event Summary

The newly founded 6th Street Minyan met for the second time this past Friday.  Despite a Passover week that was undoubtedly wearying for many, approximately 75 people showed up for the organization’s services and social hour.  Located at the second floor of the Sixth and I annex (the non temple part), the room proved a tight fit for some of the late comers.

A casual atmosphere was encouraged by the group’s mixed (male/female) circular seating.  The vast majority of attendants were in their 20s and 30s, although the event did see a wider age range than is often found at services at Sixth and I.

The leaders of the organization—Ben Bernstein, Annie Lumerman, and Allison Adges—guided everyone through the Hebrew service, occasionally adding personal touches, such as one part where participants were invited to take turns leading the song to different tunes.

Half way through the service, 6th Street Minyan member Adam Weissman offered his insight on Passover.  “Change,” he said, “can be very difficult.”  The people of Israel were reluctant to abandon their situation as slaves in Egypt—despite its horrors—because it is difficult to give up that which is familiar.  Even when the Israelites escaped and were granted freedom, some of them complained, unused to their new circumstances.  In many ways, Adam argued, this situation parallels today’s American society.

Following the services, attendants mingled while eating matzah, potato salad, tuna salad, and a superb chocolate mousse.

Review of Macaroon Manischewitz Madness

Stephen Richer
Review of Macaroon Manischewitz Madness (4/3/2010 – 9:00 to midnight)

Event Summary

On Saturday night, Adas Israel opened its doors to more than 190 young professional D.C. Jews.  For only $5 ($10 at the door), participants of Macaroon Manischewitz Madness were treated to an open bar, kosher-for-Passover desserts, and the chance to relive college (through “Manschischewitz Pong”) or bar/bat mitzvahs (through a spirited game of Coke/Pepsi).  But for those who didn’t feel like taking a trip back in time, there were was enough pop music, dance space, and conversation to make the event worthwhile.

Organizing the Manischewitz Pong Competition proved to be somewhat difficult owing to the number of people and loud music.  But by the end of the night, more than 25 pairings signed up for the action.  No final winner was ever proclaimed, but the author of this review does know that a certain team named “GTJ Unit” did post a convincing first round victory.

As for dancing, with the exception of Vicki and a few others, Saturday’s crowd didn’t belong on Dancing With The Stars.  Nonetheless, a small number of attendants compensated for talent with a large amount of enthusiasm.

Most attendants started filing out by 11:45 pm (event started at 9:00), but many of those who stayed to the bitter end headed to Adams Morgan to bar hop and stare longingly at the leavened bread of Jumbo Slice.

Event Grade = 8  (Seven attendants were asked to rate this event on a scale of 1 – 10).

– Nice Turnout
– Decent Bar
– Some fine dancers! ; )
– Music was too loud
– Felt like a Bar/Bat Mitzvah

The Etymology of Passover

Stephen Richer
The Etymology of Passover

Transcript of speech to be delivered at The George Washington University on 4/6/2010.

Passover is a time of questioning, and the most renowned of the established Passover questions are the four questions that ask why this night–the night of the Seder (be the it first or second)–is different from all others.

Question 1) Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzoh, but on this night we eat only matzoh?

Question 2) Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?

Question 3) Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip our herbs even once, but on this night we dip them twice?

Question 4) Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?

Useful as these questions are in initiating the retelling of the history of the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt, their importance in my personal estimate is matched by the question:

Why is the holiday commemorating the Exodus story called Passover?

Owing to the popularity of Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments, most Americans can tell you that for his Tenth Plague, God invoked The Angel of Death which spirited from house to house killing the firstborn male child unless the door was marked with the blood of the pascal lamb–showing it to be the home of an Israelite–in which case the Angel of Death would simply pass over the house.

And for most, this phenomenon of the Angel of Death passing over is enough to justify the Passover name.

But the inquisitive Jew–which is to say nearly every Jew–should wonder why this plague should be namesake of the entire holiday.  After all, The Angle of Death is just one of ten plagues.  Why not call the holiday “jump” in reference to action of the frogs in the second plague, or “swarm” in reference to the flies, lice, or locusts in reference to plagues three, four, and eight?  Or else the Holiday could embrace a rotating system like the Chinese calendar and name the holiday after a different plague each year.

Two theories are commonly offered in response:

The first posits that the passing over of the Angel of Death was simply the last plague and therefore assumed the title.

But if it were the fact that the Jewish people were simply at a loss for a title for the holiday and merely reverted to the last major event, then Passover would not have been chosen.  After all, the Ten Plagues of Egypt does not conclude the Exodus story.  Something like “Red Sea” would have been chosen instead to commemorate the Israelites final step in freedom.

Furthermore, other examples suggest that when in doubt, titles are extracted from the beginning of a story rather than the end.  Homer’s Odyssey takes its title from the man referenced in the very first words, “Muse tell me of the man of many wiles, the man that wandered many paths of exile.”

Similarly, Christian songs like Jingle Bells and Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer bear the names of the songs’ respective opening lyrics.

This “opening phrase” precedent is so pervasive that it can even be seen in modern day electronics.  The default title in Microsoft Word documents is the first line of text.

It seems then, that the holiday is not named Passover simply because the Angel’s passing was the tenth and final plague.

A second hypothesis suggests that the Angel of Death’s passing merits recognition the Holiday’s name because it is the worst of the Ten Plagues of Egypt.

To be sure, the systematic destruction of first born children was devastating, but whether it deserves the superlative can be debated.

According to one scholarly article, titled “Women In The Ancient World,” “Pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy were the three most dangerous times in [Ancient Egypt].”

Most research substantiates that this quote–it is estimated that between 33% and 50% of children in Ancient Egypt died in the first weeks of their lives.

This high rate of infant mortality is not surprising.  It is nearly equivalent with other Ancient societies. Furthermore, owing to the absence of an Ancient Egyptian word for midwife, it is likely that Ancient Egyptians did not have midwives to help facilitate a more sanitary birthing process.

But even beyond infancy, the life of an Ancient Egyptian child was precarious.  Malnutrition and infection were endemic–not least of all because of the state of the Nile River–and the society’s high economic inequality meant that the majority of Ancient Egyptians worked as hard laborers–an activity not conducive to longevity.

As such, scholars consistently estimate that only 1 out of every 2 Ancient Egypt children survived past the age of 5.

It has also been establish to a high degree of certainty that Ancient Egyptians usually entered into relationships and started their own households during the early teen years.  These new households averaged more than six children, thereby ensuring that elderly parents would be ensured a “staff of old age.”

All of these factors limit the intensity of the Tenth Plague.  The Angel of Death took the first born male child of each household.  But if we consider that there already existed a 50 percent chance that the first born male child would die owing to natural causes, and knowing that once a child made it past the most dangerous years of his life he would only be a few years away from establishing his own household and thereby remove himself from the reaches of the Angel, we can safely estimate that the Angel’s devastation would not be as broad in scope as initially imagined.

The Tenth Plague seems especially forgiving when compared to other events chronicled in the story of Exodus.  For instance, the locusts of the fourth plague “devour[ed] what little you ha[d] left after the hail, including every tree that [was] growing in your fields.” (Exodus 10:3 — 10:6)  Without food, death would extend far beyond first born male children.

But perhaps the most deadly act of God throughout the book of Exodus was his final destruction of the Egypt armies in the Red Sea.  There, Egypt’s strongest and bravest were put to death–a more draconian punishment than that of the Tenth Plague.

And so we can safely conclude that the second hypothesis for the naming of the Holiday–that the Tenth Plague was the most severe–also fails upon inspection.

Fortunately, the sages (through the mediums of Rabbis Teitelbaum and Schwersenski) have offered us a third explanation as to the etymology of Passover.  Passover refers not to the Tenth Plague but to a period of spiritual ascendancy that occurs on a yearly basis in accordance with the historical escape from Egypt.  During this time (the first two nights–the Seder nights), Jews can make otherwise unmerited leaps in their spiritual journeys–they can “pass over” normal spiritual steps to move to higher planes.

The argument is nuanced, but unlike most academics, especially Fareed Zakaria, I recognize when I’m outside my area of expertise, and, accordingly, I will defer this discussion to Rabbis well-versed in the theory, and until then, I will continue to question the name of Passover in the spirit of Passover.

Happy Passover!

Note:  the sanctimonious tone in which this was written/delivered was assumed only because I thought it would make for a fun/humorous delivery.

Ranking The Plagues

Stephen Richer
Ranking The Plagues

Almost everything has a ranking.  Al Franken ranked religions in his book Oh, The Things I Know (reform Judaism placed first); US News & World Report ranks colleges; Newsweek ranks rabbis, The Economist ranks countries, and Maxim ranks women.  But nobody ranks the Ten Plagues of Egypt.

For the next week, Gather The Jews will be posting plague rankings contributed by our staff and community.  If you would like to see your rankings posted and counted toward our final ranking, please email

Please feel free to provide comments to your rankings.

The final rankings will be based on total number of votes and on strength of argument.

Note:  Although only the first plagues affected the Israelites, for the sake of an objective ranking, assess all ten plagues as if they were universal.

Stephen Richer’s Rankings (Worst to least worst).

Rank    Plague
1             Boils — Chickenpox was bad enough.
2             Flies —  Spiders would probably accompany.  Eww…
3             Lice
4             Locusts
5             Frogs
6             Firstborn — Infant mortality rates were super high anyway. And more children would likely be lost through
lice, locusts, or boils.
7             Hail  — Can you say snow day?
8             Water into blood — The Nile is disgusting anyway.  Plus we’re supposed to drink wine on Passover.
9             Livestock — Vegans manage, right?
10           Darkness — “Cause it’s eleven thirty (A.M) and the club is jumpin’, jumpin'”

Sheryl Burstein’s Rankings (Worst to least worst).

1             Firstborn
2             Lice — eww, I don’t like things crawling on me … (except for cute Jewish boys)
3             Boils
4             Flies
5             Locusts
6             Water into blood
7             Frogs — eww, I don’t like things jumping on me … (except for cute Jewish boys)
8             Hail
9             Darkness
10           Livestock — matzo ball soup, anyone?

Michael Lipin’s Rankings (Worst to least worst).

1             Darkness — Was always, and remain, freaked out by pitch-black situations.
2             Firstborn — Am one of them.
3             Locusts — Not an insect fan.
4             Flies — Ditto.
5             Livestock — Not a vegetarian, so need my meat/poultry fix.
6             Boils — With universal health care, should be easier to seek treatment.
7             Hail — Depends on the diameter.
8             Water into Blood — Brita manual says filter prevents this.
9             Lice — Head & Shoulders does the trick every time.
10           Frogs — Just think of them as multiple Kermits.

Newsletter 4

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Team Jewish,

Welcome to week four of Gather The Jews!

The health care bill passed.  Kansas lost.  Israel and the United States disagreed.  Sandra Bullock is now single according to Facebook.

Celebrate or bemoan these events with some of your fellow Jews at an upcoming Passover Seder, Shabbat dinner, or other Jewish opportunity.

As always, full event details and other events can be found on our website

Passover Seders:

If you don’t have plans for Passover yet, be sure to check out our new webpage dedicated to Passover events in Washington, D.C.

Click here.

Shabbat Options (3/26/2010)

1) What: Downtown Shabbat with Larry Paul & Robyn Helzner
Where: Sixth & I Synagogue
When: 6:00 pm – Drinks and appetizers.  6:45 – Services.  8:00 – Dinner.
Theme: “Join musician Robyn Helzner, one of the leading interpreters of world Jewish music, and Cantor Larry Paul for this spirited, musical, Carlebach-inspired service.”


2) What: DC Minyan Shabbat Services

Where: DC  JCC

When: 6:45 pm – 8:15 pm.

Theme: DC Minyan is a traditional egalitarian Jewish community. Seating is separate for men and women without a mechitzah.

Featured Events:

1) What: Chocolate and Wine with Gather The Jews

Where: Biagio Chocolate – 1904 18th Street Northwest DC
When: Thursday, March 25, 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm.
Theme: Open only to GTJ newsletter subscribers.  Come enjoy chocolate and kosher wine with GTJ people.


2) What: How to Cook a Passover Seder Dinner with a Spanish Twist – Jewish Professional Network
Where: Contact event administrator
When: Sunday, March 28, 1:00 pm – 4:30 pm.
Theme: “Why not add a different twist to your Passover Seder this year and impress your friends and family with a meal they will never forget?  This evening, we each learn and take on the basics – from A to Z – of making a special Passover Seder Dinner with a unique Spanish Twist!”  Register at

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Help make Gather The Jews even better.  There are plenty of fun ways to get involved (writing, updating the calendar, organizing events, speaking to Jewish organizations, etc).  If you have free time, talk to us about helping the Jewish community. Write to if you are interested.

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Vayikra – Apologize

Last week’s portion.  Sorry, I fell a bit behind… March Madness…

Stephen Richer
Leviticus 1:1 — 5:26

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

This week’s Torah Portion teaches us that all actions have consequences, especially sinful actions.  Every time we offend, or break rules, there are subsequent occurrences–the offense can be followed with an apology in which case the harm is mitigated, or, if the apology is foregone, pain and grievance are the results.

Parshas Vayikra focuses on apologies–how to atone for our sins.  The method (animal sacrifice) and primary focus (God) of these apologies are different from today’s apologies, but the need for repentance is firmly established in the portion.

“And he shall lean his hand [forcefully] upon the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted for him to atone for him.” (Leviticus 1:4).

“And it shall be, when someone incurs guilt in any one of these cases, that he shall confess the sin which he had committed.” (Lev. 4:5)

The portion spends only limited time detailing the nature of the offenses, choosing instead to concentrate on the details of atonement.  For example, “And the kohen shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger, and place [it] on the horns of the altar [used] for burnt offerings.” (Lev. 4:25)  Previous commentaries offer a number of explanations for this emphasis.

One explanation observes that “to err is to be human.”  Or, more seriously, to sin is to be human.  Most of us, and here I certainly include myself, occasionally sin.  Whether it is yelling at a parent, lying to a friend, or something more serious, sins are an almost inevitable part of life.  This universality is substantiated by the array of potential sinners in the portion.  People sin unintentionally (Lev. 4:1); the entire community can sin (Lev. 4:13); people of the land can sin (Lev. 4:27); and leaders can sin (Lev. 4:22).

Fortunately, given the ubiquitous nature of sin, an individual can still be a mensch even if an occasional sinner.  In summary, sin happens, what is important is the response.  That is why so much emphasis is placed on the apology in the portion.

A second interpretation of why the portion is almost entirely devoted to atonement as opposed to particular offense, is that it demonstrates the relationship of effort between sin and apology.  Sins are quick; they are often the result thoughtlessness, impatience, or lack of discipline.  To fully atone for sins, the opposite characteristics must be exhibited: patience, discipline, and time.  If offense is given; the offender must work doubly or triply hard to atone.

In the final verses, the parsha suggests that these measurements of atonement are relative.  Yes, Kobe Bryant bought his wife a $4 million ring after committing adultery, but such a sum is not necessarily sufficient–according the above discussion of proportionality–nor is it necessary.  “But if he cannot afford a sheep, he shall bring as his guilt offering for that [sin] that he had committed, two turtle doves or two young doves before the Lord.” (Lev. 5:7).  This is a progressive sin tax.  The more you can afford; the more you give.

Sins have consequences–they can either prompt apology or hurt, or a combination of the two.  This portion teaches the importance of the apology.

AIPAC’s Eliot Brandt at Mesorah D.C.

Stephen Richer
AIPAC’s Eliot Brandt at Mesorah D.C.

“Name an issue–just one issue–that receives the same type of bipartisanship Congressional support that Israel receives.”
Despite working for a political institute and reading the newspaper with some regularity, I struggled to name more than two issues: steroid use in baseball and farm subsidies–and I’m not even so sure about the second of these.
But that, of course, was exactly the point.
Speaking before a large crowd at Mesorah D.C., AIPAC’s Eliot Brandt argued that despite the recent tension between Israel and the United States, few things are as unwavering as America’s support for Israel.  Since 1948, the two countries have worked closely together to advance similar aims and values.
And these values extend far beyond the global war on terrorism.  Israel not only represents a country that is America’s frontline of defense, but a country that has more scientific patents and Nobel prizes per square mile than any other country; a country that values women’s rights, civil rights, and economic rights; a country that, unlike many of its Middle Eastern neighbors, does not persecute homosexuals or people of minority religions, and a country that has the second most listings on the NASDAQ, trailing only the United States.
Mr. Brandt enumerated these facts and others during a 25 minute speech that informed and amused the Mesorah D.C. Friday night crowd.  The popularity of his speech was evidenced by the fact that following dessert, nearly the entire Mesorah crowd of more than 140 people stayed for Mr. Brandt’s question and answer session.
Questions were broad in scope–ranging from the recent Israel fiasco at University of California Irvine to whether Congressional lobbying is the most effective method for promoting Israel.  Mr. Brandt offered direct answers for each question, but he also developed several general themes, the first of which was that Congressional support of Israel cannot be taken for granted.  At least fifty new members will join Congress in January 2011–these members need to be convinced of Israel’s importance and friendship.  Moreover, Congress operates on a “what have you done for me lately?” mentality.
For this reason, pro-Israel forces in America cannot rest.  If America ceases being pro-Israel, Israel will stand alone in the world.  The chorus of world voices stands almost unanimously against Israel–the recently renamed UN Commission on Human Rights has issued more condemnations of Israel than the rest of the world put together (this includes places like China, Darfur, and Iran).
Mr. Brandt encouraged the audience to speak up on behalf of Israel, to learn more about Israel, and to get more involved.  Yes, there are those who will never listen and never like Israel, but if the world could be divided between sinners, saints, and salvageables, then the majority of the world would be salvageables–those who don’t yet have a confirmed position on Israel and are seeking more information.  It is these people that pro-Israel activists must target.
After this call-to-arms, Mr. Brandt concluded his question and answer session.  The audience continued to schmooze and eat dessert well into the night, taking full advantage of yet another bi-weekly Mesorah D.C. Shabbat Service and Dinner.
**Any minor inaccuracies in the above statistics should not be attributed to Mr. Brandt.  Owing to the restrictions of Shabbat, I did not take notes–I am simply relying on my memory.

American Jew: A Dilemma?

Article originally appeared at the Daily Caller (here)

Stephen Richer

“American Jew: A Dilemma?”


During her time as Prime Minister, Golda Meir appealed to Henry Kissinger for increased American support. The Prime Minister marshaled many reasons for assisting Israel—the country’s geo-strategic importance, its promotion of democracy, its attitude toward the Soviet Union, etc.—but she also appealed to Kissinger’s identity as a Jew. Unimpressed, Kissinger responded, “I would like to inform you that I’m first an American citizen, second Secretary of State, and third a Jew.” To which Meir replied, “In Israel, we read from right to left.”

Meir won the exchange, but the dilemma of the American Jew (and here I include myself), as referenced by Kissinger, remains unsolved. Where do our allegiances lie when Jewish interests conflict with American interests?

Before I jump into the politics of Israel, let me first recognize that American Jewish interests cannot simply be summarized as concern for the well being of Israel. Our interests are multi-faceted. We are, as a group, passionate about women’s rights, gay rights, meritocracy, economic liberties, racial discrimination, etc. But these issues have never made Jews stand out. Debates about abortion are never announced with headlines that read, “Strong Jewish Group Signals Approbation/Disapproval of Government Policy.” On the topic of Israel, American Jews stand out.

And Israel is important to American Jews. Most polls find that approximately 70 percent of American Jews agree with the statement that, “Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.” True, not all Jews support Israel or support it to the same degree—as is evidenced by J-Street—but most studies, including those cited in Norman Podhoretz’s new book, show that the majority of American Jews are still strong advocates of Israel in the classic AIPAC sense.

So what happens when America and Israel disagree? How do we reconcile our status as citizens of America with our status as Jews?

The answer will of course differ from Jew to Jew, and it does not have to black and white; the circumstances would undoubtedly matter. If Israel launched an unprovoked nuclear strike on New York City, I’m guessing that most American Jews would side with the United States.

But in less extreme situations, such as the present dispute between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu administration, it becomes more difficult. My knee-jerk reaction is to stand on the side of the United States. But at the same time, I am a staunch supporter and admirer of Israel and, coupled with that, I agree more with Netanyahu’s foreign policy than with President Obama’s.

I don’t have the answer, but there’s an old Texas expression of loyalty that “you dance with them that brung ya.” And considering that the United States has given me the opportunity to eat, read fantasy books, play basketball, and type essays of small-significance on nice Dell computers, I’ll be proudly siding with United States foreign policy in almost every instance.

All the same, it was a lot nicer when we had an American administration that marched side-by-side with Israel. Which of course makes me continue to wonder: why are American Jews almost monolithically liberal?

Washington Jewish Week on Gather The Jews

Excerpt from Washington Jewish Week article on Gather The

“Andrew Penn-Giannettino prefers latkes over hamantashen, Mel Brooks over Woody Allen (“can anyone argue the genius of Spaceballs?”) and says the best thing about being Jewish is having “access to Jewish women.”

These and other factoids about him were made public earlier this month in Gather the Jews, a new community-based Web site ( that envisions itself a one-stop-shop for young professionals who are hoping to carve out a comfortable place for themselves in the Washington-area Jewish community.”

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Josh Kornbluth as Andy Warhol

Aaron Wolff

Last week Aaron was invited to see the play Andy Warhol, Good for the Jews? Witty, humorous and informational I decided to come back for more and interview Josh Kornbluth.  Don’t worry, he wasn’t looking away the whole time, just when I asked him the important questions.

What would you order if you took Andy Warhol out to dinner?
I think he’d expect me to order Campbell’s soup – so I might try to surprise him by ordering Progresso instead (or homemade, if we were eating at one of those fancy places he loved).

What is better than Campbell’s Soup?
In the hopes that Campbell’s might sponsor me, I am going to say: Nothing!  Campbell’s soup is the very best!  (But if they don’t sponsor me, I’m open to the highest bidder.)

Why should we come to see your play?
If you like to see theater that is both thought-provoking and entertaining (if I don’t say so myself!).

If you could have an all star audience, who would you want in it?
Wow – what a potentially overwhelming question!  Here are a few I’d love to see in the audience: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, the entire cast of The Wire, Barack and Michelle Obama, and (of course) J.Lo.

What painting do you treasure most?
Of the 10 Warhol portraits of “Jewish Geniuses,” my favorite is probably the one of Franz Kafka; it feels like Warhol really captured a sense of the author’s tortured genius.

Where can we learn more about you?
The best place is probably my website,

Interview done by Aaron Wolff.
Photo by William Mercer McLeod