February 25, 2024


Filed under: Michael — michael @ 5:19 am

Today’s torah proportion is Te’TzaVeh and we continue with the theme of furnishing the tabernacle as a place that will represent God’s presence amongst the children of Israel.  The parsha starts with the requirement of “kindling lamps regularly from evening to morning before the Lord, and it shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.”

Our Tanakh tells us that the tradition of the eternal light is the only commanded practice associated with the ancient Tabernacle that is still in use today.  We have an eternal light above us here in the chapel and we have an eternal light above us in our sanctuary.

I remember approximately 25 years ago, in my first year as President of this congregation, that we had a major crisis during our Yom Kippur service as I was sitting on the bemah.  Anybody remember?  Yes, the eternal light went out right above my head.

Was this a commentary on my leadership abilities?  Was it a sign for me resign immediately and spare myself two years of aggravation and acid reflex?  Or was it a sign that we all just had to work a little harder to bring the holy presence to our Jewish community?  Was it a sign we should not review Rabbi Atkins contract?  After much prayer, soul searching and, of course, kvetching and finger pointing, we found it was a sign that we needed a new fuse box.

Our Tanakh goes on to ask, why has light been such a favorite symbol of God? perhaps because light itself cannot be seen, but we become aware of its presence when it enables us to see other things. 

Similarly,  we cannot see God, we can become aware of God’s presence when we see the beauty of the world, when we experience love and the goodness of our fellow human beings.  Also fire has been used to symbolize God’s presence and like light, fire is not an object. It is the process of liberating energy. 

So at this point in the d’var Torah I could digress and take exception to the commentary of these Rabbis and explain why fire could be considered an object, but I have a ballgame to get to.  As I told Pamela last week, my comments today may or may not be insightful, but they will be brief.

The parsha then continues with the role and investiture of Aaron and his sons as Cohanim or priests, without mention of Moses.  This is the only parsha in the last four books of our Torah, that Moses is not mentioned by name.  There is a lot of commentary about this fact, and it is remarkable that Aaron and Moses are the first brothers without sibling rivalry, brothers that love and respect each other.

It is particularly striking when set against the entire biblical history of the relationship between: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.  

As Psalm 133 says: “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to live together.”

Speaking of brothers does everyone know what Agudath Achim means? It translates as “association of brothers.”  And as brothers I think it is important to ask ourselves do we want to live like Aaron and Moses, or our brothers who came before them in the Book of Genesis.

Do we want to be kind, do we want to work together, do we want revel in each other’s success or do we want to bicker, do we want to disrespect, be divisive, or always need to have the last word?  Our Torah tells us to choose the former not the latter.  Personally, marriage has taught me that it is better to be happy than to try to be right.

That is why we need to pray and study, so we can remind ourselves that we must be humble and not judgmental.  For there is only one true judge, and in my house that’s not me.

It definitively takes more time, more patience and more effort to work together, but it is so much more fun and productive.  Unfortunately, it’s a lesson you learn over time and through mistakes, that is why kindness, and forgiveness are also so highly valued in Judaism.  That is also why Jewish Alzheimer’s is defined by “forgetting everything but the grudges.”

There are many things I enjoy every week.  One is coming to services at the last possible moment before the Torah service and another is the Metropolitan Diary.  Is anybody aware of it?

The Metropolitan Diary is a weekly column in the NY Times and it consists of submissions by readers that generally focus on the quirky events of life in NYC.  When my internal light is burning low, I occasionally read Torah, but I always read the Metropolitan Diary.  Submissions mostly focus on kindness and make me smile, so I would like to share a few with you to warm your hearts.

Dear Diary:

I woke up in my 11th floor apartment on the Upper West Side and immediately smelled freshly brewed coffee.  I was puzzled since I live alone. I decided the smell must be coming through my open window.  Indeed, when I rolled up the blinds, I saw two construction workers having breakfast on a scaffolding.

“Coffee?” one of them said. “Bring your cup.”

Dear Diary:

In the mid-2000s, I worked for a company with offices on Park Avenue.  I lived in Denver then and would fly to New York for meetings several times a year, staying at the company’s suites at the Waldorf Towers.  I often had breakfast at the hotel’s Coffee House, at 50th Street on the Lexington Avenue side.  My usual order was tea and toast.  The tea was served in a small pink teapot with a silver rim, a Waldorf signature.  The little teapots became a comforting morning staple on these trips.  I was served by the same waitress over a period of years, and I often mentioned to her how I loved the teapots.

In October 2014, I read that the Waldorf had been sold.  Then, while on my next trip to New York, I was notified that my company would be merging my division with one in Fort Worth and that I, along with 300 others, would be laid off. The trip would be my last.  The next morning I had my usual breakfast at the Coffee House. My waitress had also been told that she would soon be laid off. I said I would miss her and, of course, my little pink teapots.

It was my last morning at the hotel and I had already checked out. My travel bag was open on the floor next to the booth where I was sitting. I stepped away for a few minutes, returned, tipped the waitress and left for the last time. It was a sad morning.

When I got home to Denver and unpacked my bag, I found a little pink teapot wrapped in a hotel napkin along with a note. It said all of the old Waldorf china and silver was to be sold and that this was a souvenir from my many breakfasts there, compliments of a longtime friend.

Dear Diary:

I parked my car at an outdoor lot near Madison Square Garden while my friend and I went to the Rangers game. After the game, we walked to Virgil’s and spent some time catching up over a leisurely barbecue dinner.  On the way back to the car, I got a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach when the parking lot came into view. From a distance, it appeared that my car was the only one left in the lot.

My uneasy feeling was soon justified. When I left the car there earlier in the evening, I had somehow failed to notice the sign clearly stating that the lot closed at 11 p.m.  

As my friend and I stood helplessly at the locked gate pondering our stupidity and predicament, I saw a piece of paper taped to the fence and flapping in the wind. It was a handwritten note.

“I’m in the Irish pub around the corner,” it said. “Meet me there.”

Dear Diary:

I was crossing Madison Avenue on a very hot August day. Traffic was mostly frozen as a Cadillac edged past a truck and stopped for the light.  The driver of the truck got out and started yelling at the driver of the Cadillac, whose windows were rolled up.

“What are you stupid or something?” he yelled.  The Cadillac’s window rolled down slowly.

“Stupid?” the man behind it said. “Who’s driving the truck and who’s driving the Cadillac?”

November 11, 2023

To Pray or To Act

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 6:38 pm

Usually, when I attend services with a family member or a friend, at some point they will turn to me and ask, will this be over soon?  I always give the same response, We can only pray!

Unfortunately, this “prayer” often seems to be rarely answered in the manner desired by the questioner, or complainer.  And it leads to questions that perhaps we should ponder, Does prayer really help?  Why do I pray?  What should I be praying for?  The topic of prayer always reminds me of a story.  

The humorist Harry Golden tells the story of his father, a notorious atheist who nevertheless went to synagogue every single Saturday morning. When Harry asked his father about it, his father replied, “Look, everyone goes to shul for a different reason. Garfinkel goes to synagogue to talk to God. I go to synagogue to talk to Garfinkel.”

I am sure that we all have different motivations for being here this morning.  Perhaps some are here to pray that this may be a shorter service than past Shabbats.  Perhaps, to pray for a Penn State win at the big game today.  Perhaps, to make sure that we have a minyan to support Shelly who has made a great effort to prepare to read this week’s Torah portion and to support Joel who prepared to dazzle us with an excellent Haftorah.  Our weekly bulletin was very focused on Shelly’s and Joel’s role in this special service.  The bulletin explains they are celebrating special birthdays (Why so Special?)  And they are sponsoring our kiddush today.  I am guessing it was just an oversight, or expectations were low since there was no publicity for a special d’var Torah. And you may get what you pay for!

Back to the topic of prayer and what we call “going to services.”  Over the last 18 months I have committed myself to be here every Shabbat that I am in town.  Why?  to support our congregation.  As I have said before, I believe that it is our responsibility to keep the lights on so we can educate the few children we have left, remember those who have departed, celebrate lifecycle events, and maintain a Jewish presence in our little corner of the world.  Judaism stands for justice, kindness, holiness and human dignity.  Without a Jewish presence, our community is a lessor place for Jews and non-Jews.  

That being said I not really big on the liturgy and I don’t enjoy all the prayers, but I do want to see  what crazy ass socks Ron will be wearing.  I would probably be more jazzed if I knew the prayers better, but I do get hyped when we bring the Torah out for a stroll, and I am inspired to hear the Torah reading, but I have no idea what is being said until I read the transliteration.  Rabbis gets real fired about each reading and carefully explain with meticulous detail the nuances and special items in each Torah reading and each holiday readings.   Sadly, it is often Just Hebrew to me.  However, I have learned a lot over these last eighteen months, especially how to arrive just as the Torah service begins.

Even though my comprehension of Hebrew is poor, there is a certain delight and inspiration to sit here with my mind filled with the chants of Hebrew.  I do find a degree of liberation in the chanting of prayers.  It seems as if I can reflect, think and relax in a way that cannot happen in any other place or at any other time in my week.  I feel better for having been here.  I enjoy the peace and tranquility of no phones, texts, or lists.  I am grateful for the break from reality of our busy world for two hours (not a minute more).  I like to think of our minyan as a great mental break, a virtual oasis of tranquility, especially after the honors get sorted. 

I suppose that is the purpose of Shabbat and I am grateful to all of you who make our weekly minyan possible.

I also want to talk a little bit about today’s parsha is called Chayei Sara, or the Life of Sarah, which begins with Sara’s death.  We learn of Abraham’s grief and his purchase of a plot at the Cave of Machpelah to bury his wife.  Abraham then dispatches his servant to find a wife for Isaac in Canaan from Abraham’s tribe.  Rebecca meets the criteria for a wife and the next generation of Jews has been provided for, and as the parsha ends Abraham dies.

So two very important things happen, a Jewish cemetery is established and the passing of ethical monotheism to next generation is secured.  To this day one of the first things every Jewish community does, is establish a cemetery, even before creating a house of worship.  

While we acknowledge what has transpired in this parsha, the overriding message is the importance of l’dor v’dor, insuring the transmission of God’s message from generation to generation.  A message that this world desperately needs and a message that has endured almost 6,000 years, despite “countless tragedies that would have devastated other nations beyond any hope of recovery as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses in his weekly message.  The destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile. The destruction of the second Temple and the end of Jewish sovereignty. The expulsions, massacres, forced conversions and inquisitions of the Middle Ages, the pogroms of the 17th and 19th centuries, the Shoah and most recently the brutal and barbaric attack on Israeli citizens, including women, children and the elderly. Yet somehow the Jewish people mourned and wept, and then rose up and built the future. This is their unique strength and it came from Abraham, as we see in this week’s parsha.”  Now this gift, this obligation, is in our hands to provide for the next generation.  

There is a story told in the Talmud which we are all familiar, about a wise man named Honi, the Circle Drawer who one day came upon an elderly man planting a carob tree.  Honi asked the man, “How long do you think it take for that tree to bear fruit?”  The man replied, “Seventy years.”

Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years to eat the fruit of this tree?”  And the elder answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren.

This story and this parsha is not about prayer, this is about action, this is about doing.  I think we understand that prayer is not about asking for something, but a way to celebrate and be thankful, and provide strength for difficult tasks, and to provide comfort during adversity.  Prayer reminds us of our responsibilities.  It is import to articulate what needs to be done, but it is more important to get it done.

We can pray for peace as we do each week with Desi’s leadership, and we can pray for Israel in this great time of challenge, but  most of us in this room have opted more importantly to do something to help, you have given to our Federation Emergency Relief Campaign to Stand With Israel and provide funds for humanitarian purposes.  I am proud that 46 family units in our community have given over $41,000 to this cause and with the Federation match we have given over $61,000.  Every gift of any size is significant and I thank you very much.  With Federations across North America, Jewish communities have raise over 550 million dollars.  

The money says a lot and does a lot but more importantly, when you make a gift it really says we support each other and we stand together, as Judaism was intended to be, as a community.

There are other ways to act beyond prayer:

On Tuesday there will be a march in Washington, DC to show support for Israel, demand freedom of hostages and to march against antisemitism.

On Thursday evening here in Altoona, there is the annual interfaith Thanksgiving Service.  This year the focus will be on tikkun olam and the crisis in Israel.  Federation representatives have worked with the interfaith planning committee to include support of Israel in this program.  The interfaith committee has been very accommodating and It would be a shame if we did not represent ourselves and our community as a way of saying thank you for their support.  Sacred Heart Church 7pm, corner of 20th street and 6th avenue.  Be there.

We live in challenging times.  From Israel, to Ukraine, to the threats to democracy and the rule of law, to the increased, open and brazen antisemitism, life for Jews has become much more difficult.  It is critical that we take action to support the people, the programs, and the communities that ensure freedom of religion and worship.  It is incumbent that prayer lead to action if you value human rights and human dignity. 

It is important to remember that we do have the power to work for change and work for justice.  Sure, cruelty and injustice make as sad and distraught, but it shouldn’t make us feel helpless or powerless.  

We do not have to be victims.  We can attend causes and events that celebrate diversity, promote equality, justice and democracy.  There are limitless ways to be involved in organizations that look to achieve these goals.  We can write letters to the editor of our local paper and lobby our elected officials.  We can educate our family and friends. We are not helpless or powerless.  But we must act

In conclusion, yes, your prayers have been answered, I would like to read one of my favorite passages from our High Holiday machzor from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson:

“If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete.  But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs repair.” 

Shabbat Shalom.

April 3, 2023

Thoughts for Passover

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 4:15 am

As we will soon be gathering for the annual remembrance and celebration of Passover in our homes, in our houses of worship, and in spirit with our fellow American Jews and Jews throughout the world, I cannot help but be conflicted by the blessings of freedom of religion, justice and the democratic process that allows us to live as Jews in this country, and the rise of polarization, extremism, inhumanity and warfare that exists with and amongst our fellow man.  It  saddens me that the common values of kindness, respect, and tzedakah do not seem as universal and that many communities are not as welcoming as in past years.

There should be a lot to think about when our Passover Haggadah guides us through the spiritual journey of liberation, a theme that has resonated with so many in difficult times.  Each year it becomes more apparent to me that the freedom gained by the Children of Israel is like many benefits and privileges,  in that freedom comes with responsibility.  As Moses repeatedly spoke the word of God to Pharaoh, Let my people go, we often do not hear the rest of the commandment,  So that they may worship me!

In this instance, as in most biblical stories, a privilege is given or received for a specific purpose.  We are given freedom to fulfill God’s will, and to set an example of holiness for mankind.  Our Torah tells us that this is a task so foreign and difficult that the Children of Israel needed forty years of lessons and wandering in the desert to rid themselves of the selfishness and servitude acquired in generations of slavery.  To be fair, it must have been a monumental task requiring great courage for a people conditioned to serve, to be able to learn how to be free, make choices, and trust their decisions.

Today we live in a world where freedom is widespread, yet we see freedom being abused in selfish pursuits and we see freedom being used as a right to do whatever one wants without regard to others.  The freedom so that may worship me, as a communal freedom to provide for a functional, safe and harmonious society.  Clearly, this involves making individual sacrifices for the greater good, so the whole is more valuable the sum of the individual parts.    This is the call and the prayer that concludes our seder each year, that we hope to live in a world at peace,   a world of universal freedom, Next Year in Jerusalem!

Furthermore, like most things of value, freedom is a right that must be earned.  It must also be protected and nurtured.  The events of recent years have made clear to me that one cannot sit idlily by while human rights and the institutions that protect human rights are under attack.

Our recent Federation Film festival presented four films that addressed difficult issues of racism, discrimination, tyranny, oppression and moral dilemmas.  All were powerful films about our responsibilities to our fellow man.  In each of those films we saw what happens when we do not take responsibility of what happens in our communities, and we become a silent majority.  

While it is not possible to correct every wrong in the world, Shared Legacies clearly showed that we can be agents of change.  We can make a difference by standing up for equal rights, marching for justice and demanding we treat our fellow man with dignity and respect.  Neighbours showed us that we can maintain our humanity while oppressed by practicing kindness, welcoming the stranger, and working for the best outcomes despite difficult times.  The Ritchie Boys showed we have the power to work for change and to work for justice.  Sure, cruelty and injustice make as sad and distraught, but it shouldn’t make us feel helpless or powerless.  We do have ability to make a difference and that power should motivate us.  Farewell, Mr. Haffman made us ponder our humanity and where we would draw the line between survival, and our own morality and values.

We do not have to be victims.  We can attend causes and events that Celebrate Diversity, promote equality, justice and democracy.  There are limitless ways to be involved in organizations that look to achieve these goals.  We can write letters to the editor of our local paper and lobby our elected officials.  We can educate our family and friends. We are not helpless or powerless.

So to quote a car bumper sticker that caught my eye, “Get Involved, the world is run by those who show up.” As the driver of this car knows, there can be no passengers. For the good that we value we must show up, because there are no guarantees that our tomorrows will be as kind and as just as our yesterdays.

January 24, 2023

Film Festival 2023

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 7:01 am

Many years ago when discussing our annual Film Festival, I made the statement that the Film Festival is the best thing that we do.  Bill quickly and politely corrected me by stating that the Film Festival is one of the many great things that we do.  Thanks Bill, you are correct again.  

So why is the Film Festival one of the many great things that we do.  Firstly, it checks all the boxes of our mission statement which is to plan for the philanthropic, social, cultural and educational advancement of the Jewish community and to foster cooperation among local Jewish organizations directed toward that end.

Secondly, it brings us together as a community for a shared experience that challenges our perspectives about religion, identity and purpose.  

Thirdly, our films are very entertaining and thought provoking.

Federation is very excited to be able to return our festival to its traditional four consecutive Thursday evenings in late February and early March after a two year hiatus due to the pandemic.  We were pleased to find a way to hold three one night “festivals” during the pandemic, but it was not the same.  Remember we will also be hosting excellent meals catered by Paula and Dave Binus at the AAC Social Hall prior to each film.

In our 24th year, our Annual International Jewish Film Festival will feature four excellent films.  We are leading with SHARED LEGACIES, a documentary that recounts the crucial historical lessons of Black-Jewish cooperation during the Civil Rights movement.  This potent, inspiring story of unity, empathy and partnership validates the ubiquity of the human experience, and how freedom and equality for all can be achieved only when people come together. 

NEIGHBOURS tells the story of a young boy faced with a new teacher who arrives with the goal of making strapping Panarabic comrades out of Kurdish children and orders the veneration of Assad and preaches hate of the Zionist enemy, the Jews. With a fine sense of humor and satire, the film depicts a childhood which manages to find light moments between dictatorship and dark drama. 

“THE RITCHIE BOYS” is the untold story of a group of young men who fled Nazi Germany and returned to Europe as soldiers in US uniforms. At Camp Ritchie, Maryland, they were trained in intelligence and psychological warfare. Not always courageous, but determined, bright, and inventive they fought their own kind of war. They saved lives. They were victors, not victims.

Our final film, FAREWELL MR. HAFFMANN masterfully guides the viewer through the world of Vichy France, where lives are irrevocably shaped by the twin scourges of war and the black market. Rich in moral complexity and empathy, with several twists too good to spoil, this is grand, big-screen adult entertainment at its finest.

Please join us for as many films as possible, I believe you will be educated, inspired, challenged and, of course, entertained.  I will see you, at the movies.

July 24, 2022

Words of Wisdom

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 2:52 am

As Shabbat services came to their conclusion, the rabbi said, “now let us go downstairs and see what awaits us.”  Those ominous words could be interpreted as a simple life lesson that no one can predict the future, or that life is an adventure and best lived when we look to discover and cherish each moment, or how lucky we are to have something to look forward to with our ability to make choices and with individual freedom.  The rabbi also could have meant that there may or may not be food, and if there was food, could it be tuna fish or egg salad. I am happy to report that the answer to the rabbi’s question was tuna.  

But well after the tuna was gone the words of “what awaits us” still linger in my mind.  It is the quest for answers and certainty that we all crave.  We know when the sun will rise and set, we know Monday follows Sunday, and we know that Bill Wallen will be outstanding when he represents the Jewish community at a life cycle event.  Earlier this month, Bill, representing AAC, gave the following remarks to Bar Mitzvahs Connor and Grant Okonak.  I found his remarks inspiring so they are enclosed below for our entire community. Thanks, Bill.

Okonak B’nai Mitzvah- July 2,2022

Presentation from the Congregation

Connor and Grant, this is an important and exciting day for you, your family, and our Congregation. Today you officially join our community- the community of the Jewish people. You already belong to a number of groups- your family, B.G., your sports teams and other friends. Look around you and see that they are all here to support you as you join our Jewish community.

You are the newest links in a chain that has been unbroken for over 3500 years. It began at Mount Sinai where God and the Jewish people entered into a contract or Covenant. God offered the 10 Commandments and the rest of the Torah to the entire Jewish people in exchange for their agreement to live by the ethics and morals within. The people accepted and the Covenant began. That Covenant must be constantly renewed. It is offered to every Jewish boy and girl and today each of you has accepted the Covenant and become a Bar Mitzvah- a son of the Commandments.

As I look around the sanctuary, I recognize many of your family members. I also remember others of your family who are no longer with us, who are of blessed memory and who I am sure are here in spirit. They are all strong links in the chain and they paved the way for you to be here. They are all a part of you and you are their legacy. I see and I remember: Seltzers, Thalers, Burrows, Nederlanders, Gillers, and Altbergs. You are descended from courageous Holocaust survivors, and determined immigrants who not only lived through war and danger but who came here and thrived. They were builders of our congregation and of our community. They were and are leaders in business, dentistry, education, downtown revitalization, and economic development.

How fortunate you are to have known and learned from your great-grandparents and some of the others who are no longer with us. You can make their lives a blessing by doing acts of kindness in their memory. You honor them and all of your family members by living your lives in an ethical way as guided by the Commandments.

Today our Congregation welcomes you, our newest B’nai Mitzvah. You have demonstrated your knowledge of Hebrew and taught us from the Torah. I’m happy to have been part of your Jewish journey- from your first year in Hebrew, when we sat in the balcony and identified objects on the bimah, until today seeing you leading us in prayer. On behalf of Agudath Achim Congregation, I’m proud to present you each with a Bible- our Tanakh, containing all of the Commandments, and a certificate of your Bar Mitzvah.

Connor and Grant, you are already wonderful young men. May you only continue to grow in knowledge, compassion and love. Mazel Tov.

February 27, 2022

Help and Hope for Ukraine

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 6:01 pm

The world in which we live has become very complex with opportunity and struggle. The daily news presents stories of goodness, mitzvot, tzedakah and chesed, but the news is also full of murder, oppression, intolerance and evil that challenges our faith in humanity. The news this week is almost unthinkable and unimaginable with such a blatant violation of international law, societal norms and human rights, as we are witness to another instance of man’s inhumanity to man with the invasion of a sovereign and democratic Ukraine. Unfortunately, we do not get to choose the obstacles and hardships that life will present, but we do get to choose how we will respond to them. Our home page has a link for opportunities to help in Ukraine. I have also included an opinion piece by a rabbi that has spent time in Ukraine and how he is responding. 

The years I spent in Ukraine taught me a very Jewish concept: Hope, by Jeremy Borovitz

“I watch what is happening in Ukraine and I feel helpless, scared for the state of the world, terrified for my friends and former students and anxious about the future of the place that I called home for nearly four years of my life.

When I first arrived in Ukraine 12 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer, I didn’t speak the language, was intimidated by the culture and was plagued by stories of pogroms and mass shootings that had penetrated the Jewish collective trauma.

Imagine my surprise (not to mention the surprise of my family and friends back home in the United States) when it was Ukraine, and life in a small Ukrainian village, that led to my own spiritual awakening, which brought me closer to Torah, prayer, and God, and which was the catalyst for the rabbinical role in which I find myself today. 

Ukraine has somewhere between 43,000 and 200,000 Jews, a wide swing that depends on who is counting and how they count. The vast majority of these Jews live in four major cities — Kyiv, Dnipro, Odessa and Kharkiv — where one can find a vibrant and breathing Jewish life. 

In addition, most large to mid-size Ukrainian cities have synagogues and/or cultural centers, and you will often find in small towns across the country a handful of elderly Jews who still gather from time to time for holiday celebrations. One of my most transformative Jewish experiences was an impromptu Torah-reading for Simchat Torah celebrations in the town of Zvenyhorodka.

Kyiv, the city which I used to call home, is home to multiple synagogues, a JCC, grassroots social and cultural movements, a Hillel, a Moishe House and a kosher bar, among other institutions. While many young Jews left Ukraine in the past eight years for economic reasons, as recently as a few weeks ago I spoke with friends excited to mark a post-COVID return to Jewish life with a massive Purim bash. 

I spent Tuesday night glued to my phone, unable to sleep, counting Russian battalions on the border and refreshing Twitter feeds in English, German and Ukrainian. I watched speeches by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Early the next morning, after I got my kids off to school, I called Vassil Ivanovich, the physics and math teacher at the school in the small village of Boyarka that I called home for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. 

I asked him how he was doing, expecting to hear a mix of my own trepidation and nervousness and uncertainty. Instead, he said he was doing great. The winter thaw was dropping away, and he might even be able to plant potatoes in the next few weeks. War lingers on the horizon, but the field must be sowed. 

And when I spoke to some of my friends in Kyiv, they were concerned about the Russian invasion but were more worried that someone had put dairy dishes in the meat dishwasher and if everything was now treyf. 

And while texting with a former student we discussed her husband and their plans for a family and, sure, she said, there are tanks at the border, but right now she was just trying to imagine her future. 

Some might call this naivete or denial. I call it hope. And hope is the ultimate act of resilience. 

Jews are no strangers to hope. Maimonides tells us that one of the 13 principles of Jewish faith is the complete belief in the coming of the Messiah. Despite persecution, despite hardship, we are compelled to believe in a more perfect world. The national anthem of the state of Israel is called “Hatikvah,” literally “The Hope,”’ its lyrics adapted from a 19th-century poem that expressed a longing tinged with optimism. “Od lo avda tikvateinu.” Our hope has not yet died. 

In fact, the Ukrainian national anthem captures similar themes. The opening line declares “Shche ne vmerla Ukrayiny,” which translates to “Ukraine has not yet died.” Written in the mid-19th century, this line is in defiance of history, a declaration that an entity that had yet to exist (the first independent Ukrainian state wouldn’t come about until the post-World War I era) had nevertheless refused to perish. 

I think a lot about defying history. I am currently a rabbi living in Berlin, a concept that would have been anathema to most of my grandparents. I walk down streets every day that are littered with Stolpersteine, the brass plaques or “stumbling stones” memorializing the Jews who used to inhabit these buildings. But despite this obscene history, and despite my own encounters in Germany with violent antisemitism, we continue to live here, to build up Jewish life here, to believe that there is a future for Jews here, if only we can will it to be. To live our lives as Jews is, for me, a deeply resilient act. 

It feels like the whole world is currently mired in some sort of COVID PTSD, traumatized by the isolation, by the loved ones we lost, by carefully crafted and curated worlds that were turned upside down. And so we read of impending doom on the Eastern front and we want to shout out to our fellow Jews, “It’s time to run! It’s time to get out!” And meanwhile they are busy kashering their dishwashers. 

One of my friends in Ukraine shared with me some advice from his father regarding the current moment: The biggest regret of his own relatives in World War II was that they split up the family in the face of upheaval. No matter what, they will stay together. As long as they are together, hope remains. 

Can our Jewish family stay together? Both Russia and Ukraine have strong, proud Jewish communities. And while I am decidedly pro-Ukrainian, it would be wrong to suggest that the global Jewish community is unanimous in its views on this conflict. Then again, we never are. 

And yet despite our differences, despite our disagreements, despite the despair I feel when I think of the future of Ukraine and my friends there, I am forcing myself to hope. There are moments when I feel a sense of déjà vu from eight years ago, when the world stood by as Russia annexed Crimea and provoked war in Donbass. But the post-World War II order has been more unified in its opposition than it has seemed in decades. I’m not sure if these words and those sanctions will do anything to quell the violence. But for the moment, it does give me some hope. 

So I will pray for peace, and I will pray for a resolution, and I will pray for my friends. Our hope isn’t dead yet. Ukraine isn’t dead yet. And neither are we, and neither is the future we have yet to build.” from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published 2/23/22.

Jeremy Borovitz is a rabbi and Director of Jewish Learning for Hillel Deutschland. He lives in Berlin with his wife, Rabbi Rebecca Blady, and their two children.

September 6, 2021

Federation Update

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 2:45 am

As the New Year approaches, it is time to reflect on our efforts, and our mitzvot, as well as our shortcomings of the past year both spiritually, ethically and communally.

Each year brings adversity, but I think we can all agree that the past year has been particularly challenging for the Jewish people, Israel and humanity.

It has been particularly challenging for our Federation as most of our procedures and processes have been modified due the health, social, and economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.  

Our most significant change was the retirement of our Executive Director Bill Wallen after 18 years of service.  He has given us friendship, leadership, perspective, reason and inspiration.  He has given of his time, his sweat and his money.   He has also given one of the greatest gifts that one can give another, the gift of certainty. For over 40 years Bill has been a consistent and constant presence and advocate for justice, kindness and humanity through his work as a Federation board member, teacher, committee chair, President and finally Executive Director.  We, our Federation community, has always known that Bill would get the job done with dignity and with consensus.  Bill has been a consistent community builder as a volunteer in our Jewish community, the interfaith community as well as in his professional life in the mental health field.  

Fortunately, Bill has graciously committed to continuing to serve on the Federation executive committee and mentor our members as we transition to an all-volunteer organization for the next year.  Many tasks will need to be delegated and Bill has agreed to help make this transition as smooth as possible over the coming year.  He has also volunteered to continue representing the Federation in our interfaith activities in our community and at our local universities.

Currently, the Federation office is not physically open, and we no longer employ a secretary,  but we can be reached by email, telephone, and through our PO Box at the Hollidaysburg office.  We check our email daily and are returning all phone calls.  We have updated our computer, email lists, and accounting software. I want to thank our executive committee of Clark Adelman, Ronna Lasser, Mickey Port, Neil Rudel, Roz Sky, and Bill Wallen for their help in transitioning the Federation to an all volunteer structure for the past year. We will reevaluate this plan at the end of the year.

Our website is in it’s 12th year and is continuing to be updated on a regular basis.  Please check the website often for program updates, happenings, videos, news online, book reviews and our community calendar.

Meetings have been virtual via Zoom but we plan on having our first person Board of Director and Annual Meetings on Wednesday, October 13th.

Our Campaign to raise funds for local philanthropy and for Jews in need throughout the world continues and we thank you for your support.  Here are some updates on our programs —

  • We have presented adult education virtual classes via Zoom featuring A Tour of Jewish Paris  hosted by Karen Rudel in January and â€œFrom Tevye to Tevye, There’s No One Like Tevye: Jewish History and Memory from Shtetl to Stage” presented by Joellyn Zollman in May.
  • the Veteran’s Memorial Service at the congregational cemeteries in May was our first in person event since the pandemic.  We honored the memory of Henry Weinberg for his commitment to our community and his commitment to honoring our veterans.
  • August 22nd was Federation night at the Curve, and 54 members enjoyed the night.
  • We will be having a one night Film Festival on Thursday, September 23rd at the C2 Trolley Pavilion  at Lakemont Park.  Dinner at 6pm catered by Paula and Dave Binus and movie, The Keeper, at 7pm.

Our plans for the coming year include: 

  • Presenting the 23st annual Jewish Film Festival in February and March of 2022.  We welcome suggestions for films to consider and ideas on what we can do to encourage more of our Jewish community to attend.  The Festival is a great way to bring our community together.
  • Unfortunately, the Celebrate Diversity committee has decided to suspend operations after 26 years, but is working to create a template for our member schools and other communities.  The program was begun by Linda Zionts under the Federation’s auspices. Federation sponsored the trip to the Holocaust museum where generally 200-250 students attend. Since the beginning of the program, we have sent around 5,000 of our local 7th and 8th graders to the museum.  Mazel tov to Judi Sue Meisner for her leadership.

We continue to support:

  • The Altoona Jewish Community Sunday School – we are its largest funder.
  • Jewish programming at local colleges and provide camp scholarships.
  • Jews in need in Israel and throughout the world – 50% of our funds go for this purpose.
  • PJ Library – The program for kids ages 9-11 is called PJ Our Way.  We have brochures on how to sign up. It extends the “Book of the Month” club except now the kids select their own books.  Pick up a brochure for anyone you know who might be interested.  The original PJ Library program is for kids ages 6 months through 8 years.  Call the Federation office for details.

Please consider a gift to  our annual campaign if you have yet to do so, as our goal is 100% community membership. Please help us to build a better community here and to help other Jews wherever they are.   May we all be blessed with health and happiness and a good new year.                                   

June 1, 2021

Remembering and Honoring Henry Weinberg at Our Veteran’s Service

Filed under: Bill — michael @ 1:05 am

On Thursday, May 27, 2021, we gathered for the first time at a Federation event since this pandemic began over one year ago. I think it was fitting that our first gathering was to honor and remember our Veterans, and to honor and remember our dear friend, and community leader Henry Weinberg. Henry was a leading force for this annual tribute to our veterans at our community cemetery’s for as long as anyone can remember. He was also in charge of preserving the Agudath Achim cemetery, both physically, religiously and spiritually. Henry had an uncommon sense of duty, like the men and women we honored with our roll call of names. Bill Wallen spoke about Henry’s commitment to our Veterans as well as Henry’s commitment to community and service:

Remembering and Honoring Henry Weinberg at Our Veteran’s Service, May 27, 2021 by Bill Wallen

“Honor and Remembrance are key Jewish values.- in fact, they are Mitzvot, or holy obligations.  They are so important that we find them in The 10 Commandment, as part of our Covenant at Sinai.  We are required to “Remember the Sabbath…”, and “Honor our mother and father…”  In our rituals, we honor and remember our parents and other loved ones with Kaddish, Yizkor and Yartzeit.

This evening, in observance of Memorial Day, we especially honor our departed loved ones who have served and protected our Country in the armed forces. 

As Jews, we recognize that we stand on the shoulders of our parents, grandparents, extended families, and Congregation leaders who have nurtured, guided and protected us and helped us to reach this moment in our lives.  We thank them as well as God, when we recite the Shechecianu prayer.

For so many years, our annual Veteran’s Service was planned by our friend, Henry Weinberg.  This is the first year without him. He honored his father and his uncle and their devotion to the cemetery and continued their work. Henry was the chair of the Synagogue cemetery committee for 40 years, in fact he often was the committee.

Each year Henry would say to me, “When are we going to start planning the service?  Who do you think would be a good speaker this year?  Each year we would worry about the weather, as invariably we would have thunder showers looming, or a soaking rain the morning of the service.  Tonight we have perfect weather- maybe Henry had some influence on that.

Henry taught me about  turning the values of honoring and remembering into actions- middot into Mitzvot

Let us all follow his example.  We miss you Henry. Rest in peace.”

January 12, 2021

Thank You Bill Wallen, We Will Keep it Going!

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 10:37 am

Over the past 18 years as our Federation’s Executive Director Bill Wallen has given us many things.  He has given us friendship, leadership, perspective, reason and inspiration.  He has given of his time, his sweat and his money.   He has also given one of the greatest gifts that one can give another, the gift of certainty. For over 40 years Bill has been a consistent and constant presence and advocate for justice, kindness and humanity through his work as a Federation board member, teacher, committee chair, President and finally Executive Director.  

We, our Federation community, have always known that Bill would get the job done with dignity and with consensus.  Bill has been a consistent community builder as a volunteer in our Jewish community, the interfaith community as well as in his professional life in the mental health field.  As I write these words, I am reminded of a quote by Winston Churchill, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

His humility often prevents him from seeing the magnitude of his contributions to the lives of others, but I am thankful that after three attempts, our interfaith, Jewish and secular communities were able to honor Bill after his recognition by Penn State Altoona, as An Outstanding Alumni Award honoree two years ago. 

As Bill transitions into retirement, he has graciously committed to continuing to serve on the Federation executive committee and mentor our members as we transition to an all-volunteer organization for the next year.  Many tasks will need to be delegated and Bill has agreed to help make this transition as smooth as possible over the coming year.  He has also volunteered to continue representing the Federation in our interfaith activities in our community and at our local universities.

I believe it is appropriate at this time to evaluate where we are as a Federation and rededicate ourselves to the welfare of our local and global Jewish community through philanthropic, social, cultural and educational advancement.

Does the Federation still fill a viable need in our community?  Do we need a place for Jews of all denominations and beliefs?  Does our programming still resonate?  Is building Jewish identity in our children important?  Does our philanthropy still make a difference in the lives of our neighbors and Jewish throughout the world?  Does our interfaith activities and presence make our community a better place to live for all?  Is it important to have a Jewish presence in every community? I hope you say Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes.

The Executive committee has been discussing this matter in great detail for the last three months and we feel the best approach for the coming year is to mobilize our membership to handle our administrative responsibilities.  This will be beneficial in many ways.  Firstly, we would be significantly more aware of what needs to be done on a daily, weekly or monthly basis as well as help us more accurately determine what our future needs would be if we wanted to outsource or hire an administrative person.  Secondly, it would allow our community the opportunity of mitzvot in being more directly involved in helping each other and our friends and neighbors.  We are aware that this transition will have some rough patches but we believe our greatest strength is our people and we believe this will be a tremendous community building opportunity.  

Thirdly and most importantly, it is critical that each of us is involved in some aspect of Federation life.  There are many small tasks that most of us can do at home to continue our Federation’s mission.  We can no longer just assume that “it” will get done.  â€œIt” will only get done if we individually and collectively choose to make it happen.  It was easy, too easy, to delegate when you had a Bill Wallen to run the show.  It is now time to honor Bill’s past efforts with a renewal of our effort.

As time goes by and things seem to be working as they should, it is easy to become complacent or take things for granted, not only in our Jewish community, but in all aspects of life.  If we want a vibrant and purposeful Federation, it is up to us ,the Board of Directors, to make it happen.  As our good friend of blessed memory, Judy Mesiel would say, “one person can do a lot.”

2021 is the time to create a new Federation dynamic.  Our house is in order but we need to change our methods to keep it in order. It doesn’t take a lot, just a little time for each of us to make a big difference.  The first six months will focus on defining our administrative needs, and we hope the next six months will allow a return to the social, and programming needs of our community.

So what have we done so far?  At our May 2020 Federation executive committee meeting it was decided to discontinue all in person Board of Director and Membership meetings until it was deemed safe due to the COVID pandemic.  Meetings would be held via Zoom as needed.  Susan Pohl, our Federation secretary resigned over the summer and her last day of work was August 13, 2020.  Bill informed me of his intention to retire and he submitted his resignation in September.   His last day on the job was December 31, 2020.

We have opened a PO Box in Hollidaysburg for mail collection at:

Greater Altoona Jewish Federation

PO Box 224, Hollidaysburg, PA 16648

Bill will continue to monitor the email and our telephone answering service and forward items to the appropriate committees or members.  Bill will also continue to maintain our Facebook page.  We are looking for a volunteer to gradually assume these responsibilities.

Neil Rudel, our secretary, will take minutes at all meetings and will arrange for someone else to provide that function if he is unavailable.  Clark Adelman, our treasurer, will make all deposits, and distribute allocations from the Federation as well as the Endowments.  He will also pay all invoices and work with our accountant to maintain proper financial processes with state and federal entities, maintain our QuickBooks software, and make sure our banks accounts are accurate and current.

The executive committee will continue the annual campaign which will soon commence.  The executive committee will also continue to make agendas, campaign and asset reports, and monitor all administrative and committee activities. This committee will also supervise and administer our certificate program, the PJ Library program, our Federation website, and camp scholarships.

The Finance Committee will continue to monitor Federation financial accounts and assets.

The Allocations Committee and Endowment committees will continue to meet to recommend annual allocations of campaign proceeds.

With regard to annual and special programs such as:

Film Festival

Veterans Service

Annual Picnic

Annual Curve Outing

We will resume these programs when it is determined to be safe and feasible.  A committee will be formed when these programs can resume, and it will be the responsibility of each committee for all planning and administration of said program.

We need volunteers for the following Federation liaison positions:


PA Jewish Coalition

Historical Societies

IDA Board of Directors

Israel Bonds

I have great optimism and hope for our future.  Members have already stepped up and volunteered to contribute their time for our Federation.  I continue to be inspired and fulfilled with the opportunity to work with and befriend the great community builders of our Federation past and present.  

Finally, it has been a great honor for me to serve this Jewish community and embrace the banner on our Federation website, Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh v Zeh, Every Jew is Responsible for One Another.  I look forward to continuing our work together.

January 27, 2020

A Journey for Books

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 2:54 am

They say that life is a journey and for me that also applies to books.  Not so much the process of the reading, but the process of the finding.  When you consider the amount of time and the intellectual investment required in reading and study, a good book is hard to find.  I have no problem changing the channel on the television, but once committed to a book I have a harder time putting it away without finishing, even if it has not lived up to expectation.  Last month I read a glowing review about a new book called Josephus, The Jewish Wars, A Biography.  Josephus was a Jewish aristocrat and leader in the Israel at the time of Roman occupation.  He participated in the resistance to Rome, before his capture and confinement to a Roman camp, where he was able to witness the siege of Jerusalem and the final defeat of Israelites.  From exile in Rome he wrote one of the few histories of the Roman war against the Jewish nation.

As I enjoy history, reading, and having recently visited Israel, and spent time on Masada, the final battle place of the Jewish Wars, I was intrigued and searched for the book.  My journey took me to the BN store on 86thstreet in New York City while on a visit to see my daughter.  There was Judaica as far as the eye could see, and the selection was significantly larger that collection of bibles, and books about the holocaust, and Jewish history and worship in the BN store on Fallon Lane.  I found Josephus and The Jewish Wars as well as many other books of interest.  I found How to Fight Anti-Semitism by Bari Weiss, which was the upcoming book for our AAC book club.  I also found a new book from a favorite author, Rabbi Harold Kushner.  The book was new to me although upon opening Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life, I found that it was published in 2015.  Having read most of Rabbi Kushner’s books and enjoyed each one, I purchased it as well as Josephus and How to Fight Anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Kushner did not disappoint, the book was fantastic, as was the Bari Weiss book.  Josephus, however, did disappoint.  Fortunately, the book was short and there were pictures.

So I recommend you head over to the books section of this website for more detailed information about these books.  Who knows, you may also find other books you may want to read, even more than the ones which led you to begin the journey.

October 14, 2019

Israel Bonds Appeal 2019

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 1:41 am

I have been asked to share my Israel Bonds Appeal from services at Agudath Achim Congregation on Yom Kippur.  So here it is:

I am honored to give the Israel Bonds appeal this year.  Joel thought I might have something inspirational to say having visited Israel this year.  I hope to be able to add some value to what should be an easy sell, supporting Israel by buying Israel Bonds.

You may, or may not, remember that last year, Phil Devorris, gave the Israel Bond appeal. 

I asked him what he had said for some inspiration.  He said that he had also forgotten, but we agreed that it was positive.  So he found the speech and emailed it to me.

Phil’s appeal was pre-Israel of our family trip last December.  He spoke about the Devorris family love of travel, the love of adventure, meeting new people and cultures in unique places around the world.  It had very engineering focus as he spoke about visiting the leaning tower of Pisa, a sinking Venice and the fragile ecosystem of the Galapagos, all unique and vulnerable places.  He then transitioned to the fragility of life in the Middle East and the need to support the State of Israel.

I thought about his speech, and I then thought about our service today, and how the liturgy today would be the same as last year, and if I couldn’t remember the appeal, and Phil couldn’t remember, then I’m sure the congregation would not remember, and since the appeal was so good, why not just save myself some time and brain power, and read Phil’s speech.

It’s not like I haven’t read someone’s speech before, right Bill.  I could also ask Phil to come up here and read it, as we are often mistaken for each other.  You may not think we are so handsomely alike, yet two weeks ago at a pumpkin festival, I overheard Phil giving out dental advice.

As Bill would rightly point out, that even though I had to read his Penn State Outstanding Alumni speech for him because he had fainted and was in the hospital emergency room, I did some significant editing. So back to my thoughts and Israel.

Prior to our family trip, and my first visit, my expectations were huge.  Stories from friends and families had set the bar very high.  And I was ready to be overwhelmed. 

Israel did not disappoint, the trip was amazing, Israel is amazing. Each day was full of adventure and discovery – people, places celebrating Judaism and learning so much with my family.  Israel oozes with history and meaning, and our bus had wifi.  If you want the trip details, I know someone who maintains the Federation’s website and there is a link to the trip on the homepage.  (Yes, Josh, there is a Federation website.)

To see what our Jewish family has created in such adverse conditions was incredible.  I was inspired and felt very proud to witness the creation of this Promised land.

If you have not yet gone, you need to do everything possible to go.  I am already thinking about what I am going to do when I return. 

If you do go, beware of the schwarma, the unofficial sandwich of Israel.  I know we are starting a fast, (I thought I was giving this speech last night) and I should not be talking about food, but stay with me.  At a kibbutz in the Galilee, Allison had the traditional schwarma with the Jerusalem mix.  She couldn’t eat fast enough, it was obviously delicious.  Our guide, Mickey, complimented Allison on her adventurous palate.  Allison’s brow wrinkled with confusion, as Mickey explained the Jerusalem mix consists of chicken liver, chicken spleen and chicken heart.  Apparently, Allison’s stomach then began to wrinkle and that was the end of her night in public.  We just received a Happy New Year’s note from Mickey, and he is still apologetic for not providing proper warning about the mix.

But right now I want everybody to think about Israel.  Israel needs our help.  It’s not all milk and honey.  This is not breaking news: It’s complicated over there and that should not be a surprise to anyone.  Israel and Israelis live in a very dangerous neighborhood.  I cannot pretend to know how I would deal with the daily threat of terror.  Imagine having to carry your tallis bag and your gas mask to synagogue, or practicing bombs raid drills, or hearing the bomb siren that has gone off over 8,000 times since 2005 knowing you have 20 seconds to get into a safe shelter, or dealing with the stress of random terror at a market or on a bus.  But having recently visited, granted with a curated view of daily life by people who were paid to make our visit special, Israel, on the surface seems vibrant, confident, and no different than any other cosmopolitan and enlightened country.  On the other hand, soon after our visit, in May,  an American-Israeli man was killed by a Gazan rocket in Ashdod, 18 miles south of Tel Aviv.  He was one of four Israeli citizens killed in those rocket attacks.

Israel needs our support.  We can be critical of Israeli decisions with which we disagree, but Israelis are living with a daily threat that I cannot relate to.  In the Talmud, Hillel says, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.”

We can disagree with their leaders, and their policies, their treatment non-Jewish Israelis, and their Arab neighbors, but we do not know what it is like to live with their daily terror stress.  We live in imperfect times.  We need to look no further than the need to have two armed guards in front of our sealed front doors and our own current state of political affairs to see divisiveness, polarization and evil.

Current events are a call to action, and in these challenging times, support of Israel should be something we all have in common.  And I believe we can support Israel even if we disagree with some of it’s policies or political leaders. The purchase of an Israel Bond is a financial benefit to Israel and a market return for the purchaser.  It is also a message to our Jewish brothers and sisters, we are with you.  As the haters continue to try to isolate the Israel in the court of public opinion, Jews in the diaspora need to send Israel a message, We’ve Got Your Back.  That is how we need to translate l’dor v’dor.

Israel’s love for Jews is unconditional, every Jew has the right to settle in Israel and become a citizen (1950).   I am proud of our community’s past support for Israel.  Forty six years ago today, in 1973, the Arab world launched a surprise attack to destroy Israel, on our most holy day.  Our community raised over $100,000 on the spot to help meet this emergency.  That is over $500,000 in today’s money.  The Israel Emergency Fund was not bonds.  As the former NFL wide receiver, Randy Moss, was fond of saying, it was, Straight Cash Homey.

I am also proud that our Greater Altoona Jewish Federation recently purchased $50,000 dollars of Israel Bonds.  I shudder to think what the future of the Jewish people would be without a Jewish homeland.

Please take your pledge card, and if you are able, please invest in the future of Israel and the Jewish people because our futures are intertwined.  If you do not have a card, please ask an usher for a card.  And remember a bond is not a gift, it is an investment that will not only create financial wealth but spiritual wealth.

I wish everybody an easy fast, and if temptation strikes, think chicken livers, hearts and spleens.

July 11, 2019

Being Present is a Mitzvah

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 4:42 am

I hope everyone is enjoying the new material on the Federation website.  I know that an update has been long overdue.  I believe it has been four months since I last did an update, and that is definitely too long.  My bad. I must admit that updating the website is not always my favorite activity, especially when the weather turns warm, but not necessarily dry.  However, not all things that are important are also fun, but not fun can still be meaningful.  I can type like this in circles, but we are all busy so I should get to the point. The point is, and should always be, that life and Judaism are about mitzvot, doing good deeds, and updating the Federation website is clearly a mitzvah, and which is it’s own reward.

I hope you, our community, takes advantage of the resources and the news that is found in this digital history of our Jewish community.  Our history is quite remarkable.  I am constantly learning new things about our history through my Federation history project. I have gathered photos, learned stories, and interviewed many of our members.  One day it may even be a movie.

One thing you will learn by visiting this website is that we have two exciting programs in our near future.  The first is a road trip to Pittsburgh for Jewish Heritage Night at PNC Park with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The second is our annual Federation Picnic at the NEW Lakemont Park. I hope to see you at both events and please bring your friends.  I recently learned that BEING PRESENT, or SHOWING UP is a great mitzvah.

February 25, 2019

20th Annual Altoona International Jewish Film Festival

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 4:08 pm

If you were not at the Devorris Downtown Center of Penn State Altoona you missed a good one. Last Thursday, February 21st, was the opening night of the 20thedition of the annual Altoona International Jewish Film Festival.  Broadway Musicals, A Jewish Legacy, was our first of five films that will run each Thursday evening after a meal at the next door Heritage Discovery Center catered by the Mama Randazzo’s.  Italian cuisine and Jewish theater have to be two of the finest experience on earth, and the neither the food nor the film disappointed. 

In addition, Neil Port, arranged for three live performances from past P&J actors and Cantor Ben Matis to sing a few select Broadway songs written by Jewish composers prior to the film.  Our film festival brings the best in Jewish cinema to our community and I hope that you are able to make the next four films, and join us for fellowship and a fine meal prior the movie. 

Our next films in order are Crossing Delancey, a romantic comedy, Shoelaces, our international film from Israel, The Samuel Project, a family film,  and the final film is Schindler’s List, which is celebrating it’s 25th  year anniversary.  Schindler’s Listis a special BONUS fifth film instead of our usual four films, and it is free of charge.  We look forward to seeing you at the dinners and the movies, and for every movie the POPCORN is FREE.

November 11, 2018

No One Grieves Alone

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 6:30 am

The following is a guest blog by Rabbi Audrey Korotkin: “In the wake of the horrific murders last Saturday in Pittsburgh of 11 Jews at prayer, congregations and communities across North America have gathered in sanctuaries and in parks and on street corners to mourn the victims – sharing the names of the dead as they share their own grief. Even for those who did not know the victims, the slaughter is a dagger in the heart, for each life taken so violently strikes at us all.

This is the essence of Jewish mourning: no one grieves alone. The service of Yizkor â€“ remembrance – originated in Europe over time as a communal response to the massacre of Rhineland Jews during the Crusades beginning in 1096, as Crusaders took time to slaughter Jews on their way to retaking Jerusalem from Islamic rule. These innocents came to be seen as martyrs sacrificed for the sanctification of God’s name, and their names were read in synagogues on Yom Kippur each year. We know that such a list was shared in Nuremberg as early as 1295; the tradition soon spread, and to these names were later added those Jews killed throughout Europe during the Black Death of 1348-49 by fear-stricken mobs who believed that Jews had deliberately poisoned wells to kill Christians.

Yizkor traditions varied from place to place throughout the Middle Ages. German communities, where the practice started, at first honored these victims of Jew-hatred and persecution by sharing their names on the Shabbat closest to the spring festival of Shavuot(when the slaughter of the Rhineland Jews took place) and also on the Shabbat closest to the 9th of Av (Tishah B’Av, when we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem), which came to be known as “Black Sabbath.” In Eastern Europe, where Jews endured persecutions of their own, the names were read every single Shabbat. And in still other regions of Europe, Yizkorservices were later held on the final days of the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot.

At the same time that the focus on martyrology was spreading across medieval Europe, other traditions also were developing. Memorial lists of congregational benefactors were compiled and read aloud as early as the late 13th century; eventually, the remembrance of the dead was extended to every family in a congregation, evolving into the Yizkor service as we know it today.

Yet, because in every generation Jews have been persecuted and killed for their faith somewhere in the world, Judaism still holds a special place for those murdered precisely because they are Jews. Thus we still recite a martyrology on Yom Kippur, and we pay homage on Yom HaShoah to the six million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust – even those whose names we do not know and those who have no family member left to recite Kaddish for them.

And so we come to the dead of Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, whose names and faces are now so familiar to us: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, brothers Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal, married couple Bernice Simon and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger.

As they are laid to rest this week, with prayers recited for God to keep their souls safe and at peace, they are not just remembered by their family and friends. In keeping with our tradition, their names are being shared from Pittsburgh to Jerusalem – in congregations Jewish and non-Jewish alike – in street-corner vigils, in traditional news media, and throughout social media. They, too, are martyrs of our people, massacred solely because they were Jews. Slaughtered, like the Jews of the Rhineland and those accused of perpetuating the Black Death and those who died in the Shoah, in an environment that is rife with unfounded fear, paranoia, and hatred – by a man who not only had a desire to kill Jews but the means with which to do it.

We honor them with words of the memorial prayer Av Harachamim (Merciful Parent), composed for the Jewish victims of the Rhineland massacres of the First Crusade and included in Yizkor worship since then:

May the Source of mercy who dwells on high
in God’s great mercy
remember with compassion
the pious, upright and blameless
the holy communities, who laid down their lives
for the sanctification of the Divine name.
They were loved and pleasant in their lives
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles and stronger than lions
to carry out the will of their Maker,
and the desire of their steadfast God.
May our God remember them for good
together with the other righteous of the world.”

December 22, 2017

Our Greater Altoona Jewish Federation History is Great

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 11:20 pm

A few blogs ago I attempted to answer the question , “what does the Federation do?” The question arose for a few reasons. One, it is always a good idea to take a moment, step back from the edge and make sure you are still on the correct path, and that your goals and methods are consistent with your mission statement. Let’s face it, we are constantly bombarded with news, data, and technology at an increasingly rapid rate. It is easy to lose one’s way without periodically checking the map or reevaluating the plan.

Secondly, one can still be on the correct path, but the journey can sometimes become laborious as opposed to a labor of love. Often there can be obstacles that were previously an afterthought, but now seem more difficult to overcome. It’s also easy to think that maybe the journey is not worth the effort and give up.

Thirdly, as time goes by the demographics, needs, and goals of communities can change. Over the years Greater Altoona and our Jewish community has changed from one generation to the next. Our physical numbers have significantly declined, our relationship with the greater Altoona community has changed, there is less generational continuity, i.e., our children become adults and find new lives and careers in other parts of the world, our jobs and professions have shifted. In essence the past path may no longer be available and a new route is needed to reach one’s goals.

As a result, some suggest that we are less connected to each other, less rooted to the community, less likely to pursue activities in partnership, and less concerned for the welfare of others. Is the pursuit or goal still so important to keep moving forward and putting forth the effort? Does a decrease in numbers or a decrease in enthusiasm make it too difficult to continue on the current path? Can the community still rally to make a difference. Are there enough people who still care?

These questions lead me to think about our Federation history. The things we have accomplished and the great work we continue to do. Looking for guidance and inspiration, I decided to read our Federation minutes. Where to start, well why not start at the beginning. For us, an excavation of the Federation file cabinets found 1943 to be the start of our written history.

Our documented history is nearly 75 years. Frank Titelman, Max Monarch, Charles Klatzkin, Abe Colbus, Sam Port, Sam Jubelirer, Israel Sky, Sam Maximon and Irv Bregman are alive and well in the minutes of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation. Their efforts, love of Judaism and Altoona, and their vision have been passed to a generation of men and women we know and highly admire. Ed Petsonk, Steve Port, Howard Kenvin, Bert Leopold, Neil Port, Bernie Kron, Don Devorris, Bob Neidorf, Morley Cohn, Susan Leopold, Ed Giller, Alan Goldberg, Bill Wallen, Mickey Port, Neil Rudel, Michael Tomor, and Roz Sky have continued to build on the legacy of our founding fathers and taking the Federation to new levels of philanthropy, as well as an additional focus on social, cultural, and educational advancement.

So inspired, I felt our history should be available to our entire community. I am pleased to inform you that the minutes have been digitized and are now available on our website. If you take the time to read a little about our shared history you will be awed by what has been accomplished. Altoona is the little engine that could, and I believe we are still a community that can.

There is no other organization that welcomes Jews regardless of denomination, regardless of affiliation, and regardless opinion. The Federation is here to further the welfare of our local Jewish community and provide funding for organizations that support Jews and Judaism regionally, nationally and worldwide, including significant support for the State of Israel. We also aim to provide and help others with programs of Jewish content for our community in the areas of culture, spirituality and education.

Federation is a place that welcomes all who are interest in doing mitzvoth. As the Talmud says, “I did not find the world desolate when I entered it; my fathers planted for me before I was born: so do I plant for those who come after me.”

Not only is our leadership focused on mitzvoth, we strongly believe in the Jewish concept of chesed, treating others with loving kindness.

In this spirit we are putting out this HELP WANTED ad:

HELP WANTED: Individuals looking to further the mission of holiness on earth, by helping perpetuate the joy of Judaism in our community with mitzvoth and through chesed. No past experience necessary. Only requirements are a positive attitude, a desire to improve the Jewish experience in our community, a willingness to work with others in the spirit of cooperation and respect, and with an emphasis on community building. Let us remember, Kol Yisrael Averim Zeh v Zeh – Every Jew is Responsible for one another.

Please apply to Federation office.

August 7, 2017

Strictly Kosher

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 9:07 pm

Every now and then, Judaism finds you even if you were not looking for it, or even if you were trying to avoid it. One recent case for me was the YouTube video series, Strictly Kosher. Oy vey, what a cast of characters. We should be fed up with the cheap, narcissistic, and fake “reality” programs that we are bombarded with, but Strictly Kosher appears to be an authentic look at Jewish life in Manchester, England. Whose not down with a look at how our brothers and sister get along across the pond? Strictly Kosher follows the daily lives of a few families through daily Jewish life, simchas, holidays and how they cope with maintaining their Jewish identities in the modern world. The series is educational, humorous and thought provoking. Why am I blogging about it? Because this is what the Federation and the website are all about, sharing the ordinary, special and extraordinary moments that Judaism touches our lives.  So check it out and enjoy.

December 26, 2016

Merry Christmas, Indeed!

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 2:19 pm


One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life” and every year I look forward to Christmas to renew my love for the story of George Bailey. George is the guy you can always count on to do the right thing and he always makes the personal sacrifice for the greater good. He has big dreams.  He wants to be rich, admired and travel the world, but unexpected events conspire to keep George from his personal goals. George begins to doubt and question his choices, but he is then given the gift to see the value of his efforts. The message that every life has value, and is special and unique, is a message that often gets lost in the frantic pace of everyday life. We need to remember and remind each other that we can make our lives and communities special and rich with our ability to bring love and holiness to our every action. And finally, in the dramatic ending to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George realizes what he knew all along, that money has little to do with determining who is the richest man in town.

While I have no religious faith in the Christmas story or the story of Jesus, I do enjoy the spirit of the holiday and it is always nice to see one of our boys getting some good press.

So as I was traveling on Christmas Eve, and reading the Wall Street Journal, I was pleased to read an article by Rabbi Michael Gottlieb in the Houses of Worship Commentary that is found in the Opinion Section each week. It seems that Rabbi Gottlieb is also a fan of Christmas.

In his own words, “Christmas fascinates me. I’m drawn to its history, its color, its atmosphere, its music. And, of course, I’m drawn to the fact that Jesus was a Jew. He was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died a Jew. If for nothing else, I can appreciate Christmas as the celebration of one Jew’s epic birthday. The 20th century philosopher and theologian Martin Buber would often begin lectures to ecumenical gatherings by stating that a key difference separating Jews and Christians is whether Jesus was the messiah. Christians believe he was, and they are awaiting his return. Jews believe that the messiah hasn’t yet come. His suggestion: Let’s all pray for the messiah—Christians and Jews alike. When he arrives, we’ll ask if he’s been here before…The question is if the messiah were to appear, or reappear, what would he say that hasn’t already been said? I assure you that there would be nothing new, no surprises. The messiah would likely declare that we shouldn’t treat fellow human beings like objects and that we shouldn’t steal from one another…Even if his message isn’t fresh, many idealize the messiah as a personal redeemer, a force capable of divine, superhuman power…Given that life is not merely physical, we all have a spiritual dimension that requires attention…Humans naturally search for a superhero—something to apprehend the bad guy, to stop the disease from spreading, to change human nature and the physical order of the universe and save the day. A messianic belief can help fill that yearning. It has for me…Yet the issue isn’t necessarily the messiah. To think so is to take one’s eye off the theological ball. The real issue is God. The messiah can become a veil, it can separate us from the primary source. I’d prefer to blame or praise God directly and not a messianic filter. Within Judaism, rabbinic law has become a potential veil between the individual and God…Like a brightly lighted Christmas tree, Christianity dispels a lot of darkness, theological as well as moral. In its glow, it challenges Christians and non-Christians alike to consider that which is transcendent, eternal and greater than us all. Merry Christmas indeed.”  Click on the link below for the entire article.


Upon the completion of my travels and my arrival to my holiday destination, I unpacked my bags and reclined upon the couch. I was instructed to find a movie on the television for the family, and like a miracle, there it was, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

December 28, 2015

Generous and Jewish

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 11:55 pm





Of the many qualities that define Judaism and our community, generosity is one that often comes to my mind. As we finish our annual campaign, it is easy to focus on financial generosity, the mitzvah of a financial gift to support the many programs that enrich Jewish life in our community, as well as helping Jews in Israel and throughout the world.

Yes, the Federation would like a successful campaign to help fund the many programs that we provide, and the programs with which we are partners with other community organizations. Yes, the Federation feels that a financial gift is empowering not only for the recipient, but also for the donor. Yes, it would be wonderful if every member of our Jewish community provided a financial gift as a symbol of our commitment to Judaism and our fellow Jewish neighbors.

Many years ago our Federation launched Campaign 100%, an effort to inspire all of our Jewish community members to make an annual gift, regardless of the amount, as an act of solidarity and community building. We continue to judge our campaign not only by number of dollars raised, but also by the number of individual gifts. We many never achieve 100% participation, but that will not stop our efforts to give every Jew the opportunity to be counted, and enrich each other’s and the lives of those who are less fortunate.

The Federation would also like to acknowledge that there are many ways to participate and make a difference in addition to a financial gift. Our Federation and our Jewish community is blessed by individuals and families that donate their time, their possessions, and numerous other resources for the benefit of all. There is no doubt that we all have something, or many things to give.

As Sarah Silverman in the American Jewish World Service public service announcement posted on our website video section sums it up, “Jews are givers. They see people in need, they may be pushy about it, but their gonna help you. They may be annoying as they do it, but they will do it.”

So if you looking to feel good about yourself, feel good about being Jewish, and feel good about your hometown, make a gift to the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation before the end of this year. Also, think about how you can volunteer your time or provide resources to help improve a program, attend Federation sponsored events, serve on the Federation board or committees, or participate with college or senior outreach.

We really do believe, kol yisrael arevimzeh v zeh, every Jew is responsible of one another.


July 12, 2015


Filed under: Michael — michael @ 3:13 pm





The Federation blog is meant to inspire our members to learn more, do more, and be more. We try to be more by providing another place for our members to share knowledge and build community. We do this by sharing our simchas, our favorite books and jokes, items of interest in the news, fun videos, and member happenings.

A community shares its celebrations and achievements as well as circling the wagons to be present for its losses.  Fortunately, we have been blessed with many recent celebrations that have been very inspiring. Recently, Don Devorris was honored for by Penn State University with the distinguished alumni award, their highest honor. Lynn Kaplan recently shared her story of family. Our member happenings page honors our recent graduates. Henry Weinberg led the Federation and our congregations in our annual service to honor our veteran’s service to our country at our Jewish cemeteries. Illissa Zimmerman was our keynote speaker and she truly inspired.

At our recent annual Federation meeting we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Aryev and Belenitsky families joining our community. We watched video of their arrival at Blair County Airport, and relived their journey to start a new life in a new country. Their determination to find a better life in a new country took great courage. The effort of our Jewish community to make our new Americans welcome and successful was also a major undertaking. Phyllis Port, Judi Sue Meisner and Bill Wallen shared the actions that brought these two families to Altoona and recognized the volunteers that made it happen.

There is truly no shortage of inspiration in our Jewish community. As always, we hope that our Federation members enjoy our website, continue to find inspiration, and feel motivated to do more and be more.

Click here to read Illissa Zimmerman’s Keynote Address

Click here to read the 1990 New Americans volunteer appeal

November 23, 2014

What does the Federation do?

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 4:31 pm





Periodically, members of our Jewish community ask me, “What does the Federation do?” Initially, the question seemed unusual, but as I thought about the question, it began to make sense. Although I am highly involved with the Federation it is easy to forget that others may not be as focused on who, what, how and why events and programs happen in our community.

The easy answer is that Federation runs an annual philanthropic campaign to further the welfare of our local Jewish community and Federation provides funding for organizations that support Jews and Judaism regionally, nationally and worldwide, including significant support for the State of Israel. Funding for local programs include our Jewish Community Sunday School and Celebrate Diversity. Federation also runs its own programs such as the Altoona International Jewish Film Festival for our community, as well as partnering with local organizations, such as Penn State and SAMA for programs of Jewish content. Federation also organizes and supports mitzvoth projects, coordinates Holocaust education in our schools, and the represents the Jewish community in interfaith events.

Thus, Federation allows our community members to easily participate in philanthropy, and we try to provide and help others with programs of Jewish content for our community in the areas of culture, spirituality and education.

However, I do not think that this adequately answers the question of “what does the Federation do?” I think that people are really asking, what is Federation about, what does it believe, what does it stand for, how is Federation different, and how will it make a difference in my life?

I believe that Federation is a special place because our leadership, our board, and our members stand for community building for the benefit of all members of our community regardless of denomination, and congregational affiliation. We allocate, we program and we give of our time without self-interest for the greater good. We seek to unite and build a more vibrant and supportive Jewish community.

Federation is a place that welcomes all who are interest in doing mitzvoth. As the Talmud says, “I did not find the world desolate when I entered it; my fathers planted for me before I was born: so do I plant for those who come after me.”

Not only is our leadership focused on mitzvoth, we strongly believe in the Jewish concept of chesed, treating others with loving kindness. We may agree or disagree on various issues, but we respect each other’s opinions, and we trust that we are all motivated to help others without pettiness, conflict, accusations or prejudice. We gather with smiles and we leave with smiles, knowing our efforts are going to make a positive impact in our community.

In essence, the Federation is a positive place where people want to be involved in the life of their community. We seek to bring the joy of Judaism to our community with mitzvoth and through chesed, which is it’s own reward, because Kol Yisrael Averim Zeh v Zeh – Every Jew is Responsible for one another.


May 6, 2014

JDC and Your Federation is There

Filed under: Bill — michael @ 4:07 pm


Our Joint Distribution Committee – Centennial Anniversary



Wherever Jews are in need, JDC is there.  That has been true since 1914 when “the Joint” first started providing relief and rescue to Jews in war-torn Europe and Ottoman-ruled Palestine – and it is true today. Throughout the world, and particularly in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the world’s poorest Jews depend on JDC. Today JDC is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian organization – active in more than 70 countries around the globe. For 100 years, JDC has provided rescue and relief to Jews in need throughout the world.  For the last three decades, we have been working to help Jews in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – the poorest Jews in the world – and to renew Jewish community life to provide a support system now and into the future.  In the Ukraine JDC is there – delivering food and other necessities to vulnerable Jews in Kiev and towns across Ukraine as civil unrest roils the country.

Each year, Our Federation gives a significant allocation to the JDC.  It is part of our mission: Kol Yisrael Averim Zeh v Zeh – “Every Jew is Responsible for one another”.  Your gift to the 2014 Campaign will help assure that we continue this mission.

February 22, 2014

Film Festival Begins 15th Year

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 10:52 pm




Our Annual Altoona International Jewish Film Festival got off to a great start with last Thursday’s foreign film, The Other Son.  We learn that eighteen years ago an Israeli was accidentally switched at birth in a Tel Aviv hospital with a Palestinian infant. As Joseph prepares to enter the Israeli army, his parents are informed that their son’s blood work reveals that Joseph cannot be their biological child.  Rather, their child has been raised with another family as a Palestinian in the West Bank.  The Other Son explores the complex issues of birthright, identity, and the role of environmental factors that define individuals, families, and communities.  In addition to untangling this new complex relationship that has been thrust upon two families, the additional layer of Israeli and Palestinian conflict makes this film especially thought provoking, as well as entertaining.

Of course, the story of children switched at birth, as well as the issues that unite us and divide us, are well played out in books and movies.  In The Other Son, we see two young men and their families struggle with this horrible situation on a personal level.  We see this struggle of two families forcibly united by their sons played out on two sides of a wall that divides.  We see each family cross this wall guarded by soldiers.  We see two views of life separated by this physical barrier, but we also come to learn there is a greater barrier for each family member to make sense of this new reality.  The greater barrier is the wall that that exists in the hearts and the minds of each son and their family members.

It is only when this internal wall is brought down, that Joseph, Yassin and their families can try to make sense of their current situation and move forward for a happy and productive future.  Perhaps, this is a lesson for all to consider.

I hope you will join us for our three remaining films on February 27th, March 6th and March 13th.  I know you will be entertained and provided food, as well as thought.  My congratulations to our Film Festival Committee led by Len Zimmerman, and our Executive Director Bill Wallen, for our 15th year of films that bring us inspiration, humor and education.

September 22, 2013

To Struggle

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 3:19 pm




For many weeks I have been struggling to write a blog that inspires, motivates, and educates.  Numerous attempts resulted in blank pages, and my struggles continued.  Forever it seemed like I had nothing.  However, over the high holidays my rabbi enlightened me to the fact that struggling is a human and uniquely Jewish condition.  He said it is normal to struggle with our faith, and the world in which we live.  He did not mention the struggle to blog.  Usually I have no problem offering an opinion, which also seems to be a very Jewish trait.  I thought about writing from the theme of “when Judaism touches my life,” but I like to believe that there is a sense of Judaism in my life everyday, and in everything that I do.  I like to believe that I always conduct myself with integrity and within the laws of my faith, that I have been honest in business, that I have been a good husband, father and son, and that I cherish each day, and work to make this world a better place.  Over time I have realized that small, simple acts can have a spiritual sense and a degree of holiness that honors God and makes our lives meaningful.  Small simple acts can bring joy and honor to those who give as well as those who receive.  Over the High Holidays we have a lot to think about.  The challenge is to begin to act as we continue to think, because our actions are what will be counted and judged.  L’shana Tova Tikatevu.

May 5, 2013

Mazel Tov to Ilissa Zimmerman

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 4:02 pm




Nothing is quite like the last day of school, and nothing compares to celebrating that school is out for summer.  Not only will Sunday, May 12th be the last day for our students of the Altoona Community Sunday School, it will also be the last day for Ilissa Zimmerman to serve as our Sunday School Principal.  Ilissa has been our principal for the last six years and our community will miss her smiling face, endless enthusiasm, and wise leadership.  She has been a self-less, and tireless advocate for the education of our children, and always worked to pursue the greater good.  She has risen above self-interest, and led by example week after week.  Ilissa has been a mentor to our teachers and motivated those of us who are involved in leadership positions in the Jewish community to do more and be better.  On behalf of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, the administrator of the school, I want to thank Ilissa for everything she has done for our children and our community.  On Sunday, please take the opportunity to thank her as well.  Below are two examples of her leadership.

Ilissa Zimmerman’s Address to the Confirmation Class of 2010

Ilissa Zimmerman Federation Member Profile

February 23, 2013

Film Festival 2013

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 2:15 pm




Sunday is Oscar Night, but once again the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation has crashed the movie party with our fourteenth annual Film Festival last Thursday.  Dinner and a movie, The Debt, a 2011 spy thriller, were well received by a big crowd of over one hundred fifty.  With the addition of our catered dinners by Dave and Paula Binus of Catered Affairs for the last ten years, our International Jewish Film Festival has become quite the social, cultural and educational event.  We truly owe a debt of gratitude to the cold, lonely, and bored group of Jews who came to the Federation with this idea.

We also owe a big debt of gratitude to Len Zimmerman and his committee for making our Film Festival the Federation’s signature event.  It has become a community wide event and we now have as much participation from the general community as we do from the Jewish community, both at our dinners, as well as the movies.  Many of our community attendees also serve on our film selection committee.  Our Federation’s goal of community building has certainly exceeded our expectations in this regard and we are very pleased to share this event with our neighbors.

It is wonderful see our “regulars” each year at our four films and it is nice to see that they keep bring new friends to share the fun.  Of course, it wouldn’t be the seamlessly produced event without the efforts of our Executive Director, Bill Wallen.  If you missed The Debt, you owe it to yourself to come to the Altoona Heritage Discovery Center for dinner next Thursday, and then walk next door to the Penn State Devorris Downtown Center for our next excellent film.  We hope to see you next Thursday.


November 25, 2012

Freeing the Soviet Jews- The Altoona Connections

Filed under: Bill — michael @ 4:01 pm




On November 12 at the National Conference of Jewish Federation, my friend Laura Bialis moderated a dialogue about the 1987 March on Washington D.C. for Soviet Jewry.  The dialogue was between Nobel Laureate Ellie Wiesel and Jewish Agency Executive Nathan Sharansky- who together planned the march.

The event took place on December 6th and the 250,000 people there included a bus full of children and adults from Altoona coordinated by our Sunday school.  It was thrilling to be a part of this historic event and to greet friends from other cities in PA and many other states- all there to seek freedom for our fellow Jews who were held hostage in the Soviet Union.

Sharansky had been freed from prison just several months before the March.  The event was the result of a grassroots effort of “students and housewives,” who began the education and advocacy of American Jews about the plight of our Soviet brothers and sister.

The story of their fight for freedom is told in the film Refuslnik– that was produced and directed by Laura Bialis. We showed that documentary at our Film Festival in 2009.  The film is available to borrow or purchase from the Federation office.

Laura is also the producer/director of Tak for Alt, the documentary on the life of Holocaust survivor and civil rights activist, Judy Meisel, who will  visit us again in April of 2013.

Our greatest connection to Soviet Jewry occurred in 1990, when we “adopted the Aryev and Belenitsky families and helped over 30 “new Americans” come to Altoona as their first homes in the United States.  Our community was blessed in having the opportunity to work together in this effort and be a part of a modern day Exodus miracle.


November 10, 2012

Do Not Stand Idly By

Filed under: Bill — michael @ 3:52 am




Friday November 9th marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht- the Night of Broken Glass in 1938 Germany.  That night the Nazis carried out a program or organized riot against the Jews throughout Germany and Austria.  During a 24 hour period: 200 Synagogues were set ablaze; 7,500 Jewish owned  stores and shops were looted and their windows smashed; cemeteries were desecrated; 91 Jews were murdered and 30,000 Jewish men were seized and sent to concentration camps.  This program marked a change from the economic and social discrimination that the Nazis had perpetuated to actual violence and destruction.  It was the beginning of the Holocaust and “Final Solution”.

News of Kristallnacht spread throughout the world- but there was no meaningful response.  In Germany, people watched and participated in the looting.  In other countries, the Nazis were condemned but there was no action taken against them.  The Nazis realized that they were free to continue and escalate their attacks against the Jews, other minorities and on the other countries in Europe.

We are commanded n Leviticus 19:16 (in the Holy code) not to stand idly by when the blood of our neighbors is shed or when others are suffering.  The world stood idly by then.  We must remember that tragic lesson and reach out now whenever our neighbors are suffering.

September 16, 2012

Dynamic Speakers Coming to Our Area

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 1:15 am




Your Greater Altoona Jewish Federation continues to be driven by the Talmudic quote, “One person’s candle is a light for many.”  Our candle is the social, philanthropic, and educational programming that we bring to our community.  In the past year we have brought Rabbi Rami Shapiro, civil rights leader Judy Meisel, and historian Joellyn Wallen Zollman to Altoona.  We have also taken our community to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.  We hope these opportunities have brightened our member’s spirits and souls.

We are blessed to make you aware of two more great opportunities in the next month.  Dr. Michael Wolzer will be speaking in two weeks at the 125th celebration of organized Jewish life in Johnstown, and Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg will be speaking at the Holocaust Education Conference at Seton Hill University in Greensburg in late October.  Both men are highly accomplished authors, lecturers, and national Jewish leaders.  Please go to our home page for more details regarding each speaker and each event.

I hope you are able to take advantage of these opportunities.  On behalf of the Federation, L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu.

August 6, 2012

United or Divided?

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 2:00 am




For me and most sports fans of my generation, nothing was quite like the hearing Jim McKay proudly say, “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the trill of victory and the agony of defeat, the human drama of athletic competition, this is ABC’s Wide World of Sports!”  An Olympic summer rekindles this memory as Wide World of Sports often highlighted Olympic events.  It was hard not to admire or worship athletes who traveled the world and pushed their bodies to the limit for victory.  I can still visualize my sports heroes raising the spoils of victory, but my memory is even clearer regarding the agony of defeat, the poor ski jumper that crashes and tumbles off the ski jump ramp just prior to takeoff, week after week after week. Often sports highlight the fact that where there is great success, there is often great failure.  For those of us in central Pennsylvania, we have had a front row seat to the dangers of hero worship. We have seen how hero worship can cause basic human dignity to be pushed aside.  It seems that simple values such as kindness, respect, integrity, and honesty are often lost in the drama and quest for achievement.  Our rabbis say that this is why we repeat prayers within a service, and from service to service, to focus our thoughts and actions on doing simple holy acts and to remind us to be good citizens and care of one another.  This is how we are supposed to serve and make our world a better place.

It is easy to get lost in the national fervor or the Olympic games, or our upcoming national elections for that matter.  Win or lose, united or divided, we have choices to make, and it is important to be responsible with our choices.  We live in a busy world, and it is also easy to get “lost” on a daily basis as a parent, child, sibling or spouse.  It is hard to be kind and be respectful every minute of every day.  I suppose that is why we are human and not divine.

Bill recently shared a graduation speech that Chaim Potok made at Juniata College in 1992.


Mr. Potok talks about the future, our country, our choices and the power we have to make a difference.  It is certainly worth your time.

April 29, 2012

WISE Women

Filed under: Bill — michael @ 2:35 pm



Many members of the Jewish community spent a special evening at The Casino on April 18 to help WISE Women of Blair County recognize and honor Rozzie Sky, Community Service Volunteer for 2012. Rozzie was described as a woman of “faith, family and community involvement who brings her unique blend of enthusiasm, creativity and commitment to everything she undertakes – and she undertakes a lot!”  Mazel Tov to Rozzie and to the WISE Women organization for their wisdom in honoring her for many volunteer efforts to both the Jewish and general community.  We certainly are proud of Rozzie’s contributions as she joins so many other women in our Jewish community who practice our values of caring for each other, welcoming the stranger and loving your neighbor. Many of these women have been honored in prior years by WISE Women and the YWCA. They include: Nancy Devorris, Judi Sue Meisner, Shirley Pechter and Charlotte Morris as Community Service volunteers; Barbara Hollander – Arts and Letters; Bernice Levinson and Mickey Port – Non-Profit/Government, and Mary Jo Jubelirer – Education.  So many of our women are truly partners with God in the completion, perfection and repair of the world. May they go from strength to strength.


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