Visit our Year in Review!

Our Year in Review is ready, just in time for Hanukkah! Check it out for a little recap of 2018 plus recommendations for books, music and more.

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You should go to Ireland!

You should go to Ireland! Now!

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Eric and I took advantage of a fantastic deal and flew to Ireland for a week this fall, departing on Norwegian Air from Stewart Airport in Newburgh, N.Y. The two of us flew round trip (no bags or snacks, mind you) for $610. For real!

We enjoyed pretty much everything about our trip, even though neither of us drinks beer or cares about golf. We did not rent a car, and we will not pretend that we saw everything there was to see, but we saw a lot and had a great time.

Here are some of the highlights of our trip and some places/services we recommend:

Wild Rover Tours was fantastic! As I mentioned, we chose not to rent a car. Our two day trips (departing from central Dublin) gave us a taste of the countryside and access to some spectacular sights. We took a trip to the Cliffs of Moher and Galway City and then another trip to Kilkenny and Glendalough. The guides were knowledgeable and friendly, we had time to explore places on our own and we were grateful not to be driving on the “wrong” side of some very narrow, winding roads.

We stayed at The Address at Dublin 1, which was in a great location quite close to a train station and a short walk from many good restaurants. We took a club-level room and made good use of the free breakfast and happy hour during our stay. Our room was quite large by European standards, and we found the staff exceptionally pleasant and helpful.

Ireland is not known for its excellent food, but we enjoyed some fine meals during our travels. Check Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews, and you can’t go wrong. We especially liked our dinners at 101 Talbot and The Winding Stair, but fish and chips at Beshoff Brothers was tasty, too. We had a super sweet lunch at the tiny Queen of Tarts across from Dublin Castle.

In Dublin, we visited Dublin Castle, the Writers Museum, the Kilmainham Gaol, the National Museum of Ireland and the Hugh Lane Gallery. We also went to Trinity College, where we saw the Book of Kells and the Long Room library. Crowds were only an issue at Trinity; it’s definitely worth booking a ticket for the Book of Kells ahead of time and going early in the day.

We bought a seven-day Leap Card, basically a visitor transit pass, that included our airport transfers as well as trams and buses within the city and trains out to the suburbs. One of our favorite little outings was to Howth, which is about 45 minutes from Dublin via train. The harbor town is amazingly picturesque. We took a similar little journey to Dún Laoghaire, another coastal suburb and had a cozy lunch looking out over the water.

We hired a photographer through Airbnb, which ensured that we came home with some lovely photos of the two of us together. I had never done that while traveling before, but it was a treat! Noel took us to some scenic locations and put us at ease while snapping photos. These will be my favorite souvenirs from the trip.

What will be our legacy at Temple Concord?

This is an excerpt of remarks made by Rachel Coker, Temple Concord president, during Rosh Hashanah services today:

During our Shabbat in the Garden service a few weeks ago, we read a midrash that I found especially relevant:

“The Holy One said to Israel, ‘Even if you find the land full of all good things, you should not say, “We will sit and not plant.” Rather be diligent in planting! Just as you came and found trees planted by others, you must plant for your children.’”

For so many of us, Temple Concord is an oasis of trees that were planted by others. When we moved to Greater Binghamton, when we discovered — or rediscovered — Judaism, we found a community populated by friends, mentors and teachers. We found a vibrant place where we could celebrate our families’ milestones and mourn our losses.

This sanctuary became our sanctuary, and this congregation became our congregation.

That has certainly been the case for me and for my family. We were not in Binghamton when the seeds of Temple Concord were planted, but we have enjoyed the fruits of its generous trees for the past 18 years.

We have studied here. We have danced here. We have cried here.

We have eaten So. Much. Food. Here.

Seven years ago, I served as temple president. The economy was awful and our region had just suffered a devastating flood. I doubted whether our congregation would be worshipping on Riverside Drive for much longer.

Today, our situation has improved in some ways and worsened in others.

The foundation that supports the synagogue has recovered much of the value that was lost in 2008. We benefit from the leadership of a longtime rabbi who knows us and our minhag and who pushes us to be our best. Our most recent fundraising campaign, Chai Five, is off to a fantastic start.

But the picture is not entirely rosy. As congregants retire, there are not as many new arrivals in town to take their seats in our pews. Our buildings are in constant need of attention and repair.

Some of the challenges we face are tied to the demographics of Greater Binghamton. Our population is aging. Our infrastructure, built to support larger numbers of people, can be a burden on a smaller, less wealthy community.

Other challenges are ones faced by many religious groups in the United States. The Pew Research Center has found that the share of American adults under age 40 who identify with a religious group is 17 percentage points lower than the share of older adults who are religiously affiliated.

About a decade ago, Temple Concord established a long-range planning committee to consider how best to preserve a Reform Jewish presence in Greater Binghamton. I was a member of the committee, and I still recall the shock we experienced as we studied the trend lines related to our finances, membership and facilities.

Our most important conclusion was that inaction would mean eventual dissolution of the temple.

We lucked out.

Membership stabilized to some degree. The stock market recovered. Rabbi Barbara stayed with us through a period when we could only afford to have a part-time rabbi. Congregants stepped up, contributing time and money to keep our buildings and grounds and hold fun and educational programs.

We have not been forced to make the most difficult decisions about facilities and staffing.

But it’s time to revive that conversation and to think about where we want to be in 2028, literally and metaphorically.

As we welcome the year 5789, will we be in this sanctuary? Will there be children playing in the mansion, waiting eagerly for the shofar service? What will we keep — and what will we give up — in order to safeguard our future?

This fall, I plan to convene a new long-range planning committee.

I hope we will face Temple Concord’s challenges with courage, creativity and intelligence.

I hope we will find ways to plant trees together so that another generation can enjoy their fruit.

High Holidays 101

Greetings from your friendly neighborhood synagogue president! I’m here with a little note about the upcoming High Holidays, some of the most significant days of the year for your Jewish colleagues and classmates. Many of us will be taking two or three days off during the next couple of weeks to observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of you will be wondering:

  1. What is an appropriate holiday greeting?
  2. Don’t these people know we have a big deadline to meet/an important test to take?

Let’s start with the first part. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. (We’ll be partying like it’s 5779, which is the new year on our lunar calendar.) You can wish your Jewish friends a happy new year or, if you’re feeling fancy and want to try out a little Hebrew, you can say “Shana tova!” (It’s basically wishing someone “a good year.”)

My daughter blows the shofar during High Holiday observances each year.
My daughter blows the shofar during High Holiday observances each year.

Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is a somber occasion. It’s the Day of Atonement, and many adult Jews refrain from food or drink from sundown to sundown during the holiday. You definitely do not say, “Happy Yom Kippur!” You could say, “Have an easy fast” or (for those of you interested in attempting another Hebrew phrase) “G’mar Tov.” (That’s a shortened version of a greeting wishing that someone will be “sealed in the book of life” for the year ahead.)

That brings us to the second part. Why all of these days off, and right at the beginning of the school year, no less?

Well, these are our big-deal holidays. You know, the ones people observe even if they’re not regular synagogue-goers. (A bit like Christians who go to church only at Easter and Christmas.)

Where I live, there aren’t enough Jews for it to make sense to close schools or businesses for these holidays. That’s perfectly all right. However, we do need to take the time off so we can attend services, spend time with family and reflect on the year that has passed and the year ahead. Students will miss some work; colleagues will be absent from a few meetings. Please be patient! Within a few days, we’ll catch back up.

In 2018, you can expect Jewish colleagues and classmates to be absent on Sept. 10 and Sept. 19. Many will also take Sept. 11 off to observe a second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Do you have questions about the High Holidays? Ask me: I promise not to laugh or take offense.

Rancorous rhetoric set the stage for newspaper shootings

Despite what you may have heard, “The Media” isn’t a thing. There are individual journalists working for news outlets of varying sizes and quality all over the country. They don’t all know each other. They don’t all think the same way. They didn’t all get the same kind of education.

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During my time as a reporter and editor at three different community newspapers, I was paid so poorly that I often used credit cards to put gas in my car. I worked Tuesday through Saturday at night and just about every holiday.

There was very little glamour in it. We wore wrinkly khakis purchased at Target and subsisted on graying food from infrequently serviced vending machines. When you made a mistake, your bosses yelled at you, readers called you up to tell you that you were an idiot and you promised yourself you’d never repeat the error. The sexism was so rampant and awful it made me shake at times. And you’d better believe that the newsrooms were racist as hell, too.

The work we did at those papers was sometimes exciting and often important. We held elected officials accountable, watched court cases unfold and investigated the quality of the air and water. We documented job losses and athletic victories, academic achievements and horrific crimes.

I wrote obituaries that chronicled the lives of people who made these towns better places to live. I spent time with a family whose child was dying of cancer. A guy chased me off his property at gunpoint. I helped publish an extra edition after the 9/11 attacks.

I stayed as long as I did because I thought of journalism as a community service as well as a calling. It taught me to ask good questions and really listen to the answers. It taught me to write quickly and think even faster.

The people who continue to work in American newsrooms are there in spite of a host of practical and existential challenges. They’ve survived layoffs and endured mockery and harassment from business and political leaders. They sit through long city council meetings and dry court cases so we don’t have to. The journalists who died this week in Maryland lost their lives at the intersection of our national obsession with guns and an epidemic of misogyny. Rancorous rhetoric didn’t kill them, but it sure did set the stage for the attack.

I’ve been out of journalism longer than I was in it. I won’t pretend that daily newspapers are perfect or that every single reporter operates with integrity and intelligence. But if we don’t return to a place where we treat journalists with respect, we stand to lose a vital part of our democracy. And with so much of that democracy in shambles already, we can’t afford to lose that, too.

The 7 best books I read this year

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I read. A lot. This year, seven books earned five-star reviews from me on Goodreads. I know 2017 isn’t over yet, but I’m seeing a lot of year-end lists already, so I thought I’d get going on mine.

These aren’t necessarily the best books of 2017, as many were published earlier. Rather, these are the best books I read this year. They include nonfiction titles as well as some spectacular fiction.

Here they are, in alphabetical order by author. Click on the link to see my brief review:

  1. And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman
  2. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  3. Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
  4. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
  5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  6. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  7. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

If you’re only going to read one of these, make it the Coates. If you have time for two, then add Ward’s novel, which just won the National Book Award.