May 13, 2011

New Rabbinic Leadership

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 8:35 pm




Change is constant and unpredictable, even in Altoona.  After years of struggling to woo rabbinic leadership, Agudath Achim and Temple Beth Israel have or will be welcoming new Rabbis.  A new rabbi is always an exciting time in the life of a congregation but expectations are always difficult.

I recently enjoyed a meal with Rabbi Josh as he and his family prepare for their new life at Agudath Achim and in Altoona.  As we conversed, my mind reflected on a sermon delivered by a guest rabbi a few years ago.  He delivered a very memorable sermon on the relationship of a rabbi and his congregation.  He explained this relationship as a very complicated one, as a rabbi is an employee as well as a friend and teacher. Expectations are high.  Does the rabbi work to preserve the heritage and practices of a congregation with years of history and tradition, or does he bring new insights and perspectives? YES!  Does he give sermons based on Torah, or sermons based on current events? YES!  Do we want him to lead us, work with us, or follow us? YES!  Does he need to listen to what we say we want, or should he give us what we really need?  YES!

Indeed, it is very complicated and it is a relationship that takes time and effort, like all relationships. In my home there hangs a poem called “a recipe for a happy marriage.”  The main ingredients, love, cooperation, forgiveness, and respect, all share one common feature, the act of giving.  The ability to give toward a greater whole in the absence of self-interest and for the greater good is the basis for any union to be complete and functional.

I also often think about a book that I read many years ago, “And They Shall Be My People,” by Paul Wilkes.  The author follows a conservative rabbi for a year in Worcester, Massachusetts.  He not only explores the relationship of a rabbi and a congregation with regard to expectations and commitment, but he provides real insights about the personal struggles of a spiritual leader.  I think everyone would benefit from this outstanding read with regard to expectations for a rabbi and a congregation as well as Jewish spirituality, and the difficulties of Jewish life in a secular America.

Congregations often have many meetings to discuss the characteristics that a spiritual leader should possess.  From my experience, the common denominator of these discussions was what we wanted, or what we felt we needed.  In my opinion our wants and needs should be secondary to what we plan to give.  A rabbi can only lead a congregation that is open and honest with regard to its own commitment toward observance and participation.  Click here to read about  “And They Shall Be My People,” by Paul Wilkes.


February 5, 2011

The Gertein Report

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 8:42 pm




Last year, over the winter holidays while visiting my parents in San Antonio, Texas, I was happy to discover and rediscover the exhibit, Reclaimed, the extraordinary legacy of Jacques Goudstikker, a preeminent art dealer in Amsterdam, whose vast collection of masterpieces fell victim, and was almost lost forever to the Nazis.  I commented how Judaism is often found in unexpected circumstances and in unexpected places.  This winter holiday produced a similar surprise.  While packing for my trip I grabbed a pile of magazines collecting on my desk for the plane ride to Texas.  Each quarter I receive a copy of Emory Magazine from my alma mater and I usually give it a quick read on it’s way to the recycling bin.  This year an article about a five minute Holocaust documentary caught my attention.  Three Emory students won best drama for this film at the 2010 Campus MovieFest awards.  The story is about a Nazi scientist, Kurt Gertein, who develops Zyklon B gas as a chemical to kill rodents.  Unknown to him it is later used in the gas chambers.  When Gerstein sees his chemicals used for murder at the Belzec concentration camp, he realizes his indirect participation and buries the remaining gas canisters.  Wracked with guilt and finding no other aid, Gerstein surrenders himself to the Allies and writes “Der Gerstein-Bericht” which details his viewing of concentration camp killings.  His notes are later used as direct evidence against Nazi war criminals during the Nuremberg Trials.  Check out the video in our Jewish video online page.

September 1, 2010

NBA Players Going to Hebrew School

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 9:02 pm




We hope everyone has had a relaxing and joyous summer with friends and family.  Soon may of us will be preparing to return to school and prepare for the upcoming High Holy Days in September.  We hope you have enjoyed our Federation website as a source of community happenings and as a portal to events and commentary about Israel and the Jewish experience around the country and around the world.  It continues to be our goal to find articles, videos, movies, books, and stories of interest for us to share.  Please continue to send us information.  In the coming weeks we will be posting information of our fall calendar.  We have many new and old favorite activities and programs upcoming.  In the meantime, please check out the new fascination of NBA basketball players with Hebrew and Jewish thought at Jewish News Online.  Shaq, LeBron and Amare are going to Hebrew school.  If we could only get our kids to be so enthusiastic!


June 1, 2010

Sunday School Confirmation, A Combined Success

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 9:07 pm




Smiles, families, spirituality, pride, fellowship and community, and of course, food, were everywhere at Temple Beth last week.  The occasion was the Altoona Jewish Community Sunday School confirmation.  Our seven confirmands from TBI and AAC stood together in front of their families, friends, the entire Sunday School and the Jewish community to celebrate the confirmation of their Jewish faith and Jewish studies. Our second consecutive combined confirmation for TBI and AAC was spiritual and meaningful from our Rabbi and Hazzan as well as our confirmands.  I congratulate Rabbi Luna, Hazzan Horowitz and the Sunday School leadership for their foresight and hard work in planning this program. The program also featured, our Principal, Illisa Zimmerman, who gave an inspiring keynote address.  Click here to go to the Sunday School web page to find a link to her comments and Confirmation pictures in our photo gallery.

I hope we will continue to find ways to celebrate as a community and I hope we can continue to find the wisdom to see the spirituality and strength that collaboration and commonality can provide.

May 1, 2010

Holocaust and Genocide

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 9:10 pm




Most years our Jewish community comes together to remember and commemorate the great tragedy our people and the world suffered at the hands of Nazi murderers.  This year there was no Holocaust program in our community but I hope that we have all individually taken some time to remember these atrocities of man versus his fellow man.  Please check the Jewish News Online area for some links to articles from newspapers around the world relevant to Yom Hashoah.  Also check out our link on the home page to additional news of relevance to observance of this day.  Also, let us not forget that hatred, bigotry and genocide is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.  Hatred and genocide are not just Jewish problems, they are worldwide problems.  Whether it is bullying on the playground or genocide in Darfur, we cannot allow or tolerate hatred.  To allow is to enable.

March 7, 2010

Film Festival

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 9:12 pm




Tonight the motion picture industry gave it’s annual awards for greatness on the big screen, the Oscars.  For two out of the last three (snow!) Thursdays and for the next two Thursdays the greater Altoona area has been able to see greatness on the semi-big screen at the Penn State Altoona Devorris Downtown Center.  While missing red carpets and glam, we are still treated to the best meal deal in town catered by Paula and Dave Binus, and we are sure to have four thought provoking films.  O Jerusalem and Making Trouble were excellent.  Len Zimmerman and his committee deserve high praise for eleven years of outstanding films and making this annual event one of the social and educational highlights of our local Jewish calendar.  I especially enjoyed Making Trouble, which documented the struggle of Jewish woman to earn respect and greatness in different eras and in different aspects of show business.  It was a pleasure to have Jerry Zolten introduce the film and lead a discussion afterwards.  One point of discussion after the film was about which actors were of Jewish ancestry.  The next day I received two emails on similar points.  One claimed Abraham Lincoln had Jewish ancestry and the second was from my sister in law who recently reviewed a show called Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad.  For your benefit I have added a new RSS feed on our home page called Jew Or Not Jew, that provides a tongue in cheek commentary on Jewish ancestry of celebrities, and check out this link for Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad, a new generation of Jewish women “making trouble.”

January 25, 2010

Best Wishes to Ida and Yale Schulman

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:18 pm




Through my years of volunteer and organizational work I have come to believe in “the principle of thirds.”  Whether it be a congregation, a parents support group, a committee, or a board of directors, one third of the group does not participate, one third will get involved on a periodic basis, especially when asked, and one third is committed and enthusiastic to getting things done.  On a percent basis, in whole numbers, each third would be 33% and add up to 99%, slightly less than 100% because not everybody was involved.  Lately I have come to wonder if there is a fourth group, a 1% which could also be called a “special one percent.” We all know these people who are self-less, and tireless in pursuit of the greater good.  They are able to rise above self-interest, they lead by example and raise the level of all.  We admire their devotion and effort and we aspire be like them.  They are mentors and they leave a mark on our lives.  They motivate us to do more and be better when they are present.   They also inspire and motivate even when they are no longer around.  They can also be called pillars or cornerstones, as they carry the weight and shoulder the responsibilities of many.

When you lose a pillar, an organization or group is forced to deal with this new weight no longer carried by these “one percenters.”  Hopefully, others will rush in to carry the load.  Hopefully, your top third will generate new “one percenters,” people ready to serve at the next level.  Our community has be blessed have had many “one percenters” over the years.  Yale and Ida Schulman are “one percenters” and while we are very happy for them to be moving to be closer to family, we are also very sad to be losing them from our lives and our community.  On behalf of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, we wish them the best.

January 9, 2010

Reclaimed, the Legacy of Jacques Goudstikker

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:21 pm




Two themes seem to continue to repeat in my life.  Looking a second time always seems to provide new insight and Judaism can be found in unexpected places.  Upon a visit with my parents this holiday season in San Antonio, Texas, these themes were again revealed during a visit to a traveling exhibit of reclaimed art from the Holocaust.  The story of plundering art during World War II by the Nazis has been a recent subject of interest for me through books such as The Forgers Spell and movies at our Altoona Jewish Film Festival such as the Rape of Europa and Making A Killing.  I became aware that there was an exhibit while speaking with Rebecca Cohen at the SAMA Shirley Goldfarb reception.  Rebecca, the daughter of Yale and Ida Schulman, lives in Austin, Texas, recommended I check out an exhibit of reclaimed art from the Holocaust when I was to visit my parents in San Antonio. Fortunately, I was able to make time to visit the McNay Museum of Art.

“The exhibit, Reclaimed, reveals the extraordinary legacy of Jacques Goudstikker, a preeminent art dealer in Amsterdam, whose vast collection of masterpieces fell victim, and was almost lost forever, to the Nazi practice of looting cultural properties.  In 2006, after years of working with a team of art historians and legal experts, Goudstikker’s family successfully reclaimed 200 of his paintings from the Dutch government – one of the largest claims to Nazi-looted art ever resolved.  Featuring nearly 50 of the finest examples of the recovered art, along with original documents and photographs, the exhibition reveals Goudstikker’s influence as a collector, art dealer, tastemaker and impresario; and celebrates the historic restitution of the artworks to the rightful heir.  Ten of the paintings on view have never been exhibited in North America before. Also included are 20 original documents and photographs relating to Goudstikker’s life – most significantly, Goudstikker’s own notebook inventorying the bulk of his gallery’s holdings at the time he fled the Netherlands.”  Click here to read more about the Goudstikker family story.

While one would not expect such an exhibit to be in San Antonio, I was also surprised upon arrival at the museum to find that I had already seen the exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City in May.  Regardless, a story this compelling was worth a second look.

November 6, 2009

Light, Holocaust Ballet

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:25 pm




Sunny sixty degree fall days, especially in November, are meant to be spent outside raking leaves, bicycle riding, walking my dog and watching football.  Even more difficult was to be so close to Heinz field yet so fall away while the Steelers were doing battle with the Bengals.  But at the end of the day, despite temptation, I was very happy with my choice to attend the ballet yesterday.  Certainly I was out of my element.  While I have no problem breaking down the action on the field, like the millions of other Steeler head coaches in Western Pa, summing up my experience at the ballet may be a little more amateur but here we go.

For me, there were two aspects of the ballet.  Firstly, one cannot help but be in awe of the incredible strength, flexibility, coordination and conditioning of the performers.  Additionally impressive is the mental focus and teamwork of the troupe.  It is clear that these performers are also actors through their expressions and movements.  They tell a story with their bodies and movements in a very profound way.  Unlike other ballets I have attended, this performance was very physical and athletic with elements of dance and drama.

Secondly and more importantly, “Light: The Holocaust & Humanity Project,” is more than a ballet.  Creator, Stephen Mills, who is not Jewish, has taken a catastrophic human tragedy and used this art form not only to remind us of the horror but to help us feel the emotions and help us attempt to experience this terrible genocide in a different way versus reading a book or watching a movie about the Holocaust.  The ballet follows the life on one survivor from birth, to family, and to confusion, fear, despair and hopelessness.  The portrayal of transport was especially profound as the dancers worked in “boxcar” space and projected the “intimate, stifling conditions in which many died before reaching their ominous destinations.”  Despite the devastation of such conditions and depictions of death and suffering, the ballet ends with the possibility of hope and also inspires us to take our responsibilities as world citizens very seriously.

As Mr. Mills explains in the playbill, “Art alone does not change the world, people do.  We all have to be diligent to individual and governmental protection of human rights whether or not we agree with other’s religious and political choices.  Acts of moral blindness did not go out in the 1940’s with the liberation of Auschwitz.

Before coming to see “Light: The Holocaust & Humanity Project,” try to reflect on an instance when you were a bystander, a victim, or a perpetrator of intolerance.  Use this work to reflect upon your own responsibilities when confronted with acts of bigotry and hate.  My hope is that this work sparks your interest, which in turn starts a conversation.  People engaging in dialogue begin the process of positive change.”

September 25, 2009

High Holidays and Reflection

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:28 pm




For Jews, the High Holidays are a time to reflect on the past year as well as an opportunity to look forward.  We look forward to a healthy and prosperous year for our families, our community and all humanity, and hope that this will be the year that peace will embrace all mankind.  Unfortunately, this view is not shared by all peoples and all nations.

While religion should be about putting people in touch with each other as well as putting people in touch with God, many use religion as a pretext for hatred and genocide.  No greater example of such hatred was recently on display at the United Nations.  Giving an audience to those who deny the Holocaust and champion the elimination of nations is difficult to fathom.  History has shown that repeated lies eventually blur the line between fact and fiction.  Please view the response of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the following link:

Please check out our Jewish News Online section for additional perspectives on the emerging Iranian crisis as well as other topics of interest to Jews throughout the world.

September 1, 2009

The Summer in Review

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:32 pm




It seems that summer has yet to arrive but Labor Day and the school year are right around the corner.  I hope everyone has made plans to attend Altoona Jewish Community night at the Altoona Curve game on Wednesday, August 12th.  Also our community has been invited to attend a seminar of the Blair County Genealogy Society.  The Speaker is David Horowitz and the subject is tracing one’s Jewish roots.  Both events are featured below on our home page.

I hope our families with young children have signed up of the PJ Pajama program also detailed on the home page.  This program is a great way to spend time with your children through age appropriate Jewish storybooks and music.  The last program I would like to highlight is our annual picnic.  We will be returning to Diamond Carriage Farm for pumpkin carving, wagon rides, and fun around the bonfire on Sunday afternoon, October 18th.  More details will be forthcoming.

Congratulations to Bill Wallen and Hazzan Horowitz for the their participation in “A Matter of Faith,” which recently concluded.  I was able to attend the last session and found the program to be very insightful.

I hope everyone has enjoyed the upgrades to our website and I want to thank everyone who has submitted content and photos as we seek to continue to provide new content on a regular basis.  Enjoy the rest of the summer and I look forward to seeing everyone at our upcoming events.

May 22, 2009

Veteran’s Memorial Service

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:34 pm




I want to congratulate Henry Weinberg for putting together a fabulous Joint Veteran’s Memorial Service at our community’s cemeteries.  Our service was very inspiring and led by Adam Schneider and featured guest speaker Reverend Paul Johnson.  The honor roll of interred veterans was also acknowledged.  From the Civil War to the Vietnam War, Agudath Achim Congregation and Temple Beth Israel members have a long and proud tradition of military service, and there are 109 members of AAC and 59 members of TBI on our interred veterans honor roll.

In fact, Jewish participation in the US Military has been significant throughout the history of our country.  During World War I and II, the percentage of American Jews exceeded the percentage of the general population that served in our military forces.  I have included some links to Jewish participation in the military in the Jewish Holiday Links area.  Please check it out and have a joyous Memorial Day weekend.

April 22, 2009

Judy Meisel

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:36 pm




I hope that everyone was able to meet Judy Meisel during her week visit to our area.  This was Judy’s fourth visit to our community and I am amazed at her continued devotion and zeal for advancing the cause of civil rights and her energy and commitment with regard to Holocaust education.  During her week visit she made visits to:

Hollidaysburg Area HS, Altoona Area HS, Altoona Jewish Community School, Continuing Education at St. Rose of Lima, Bellwood HS, Tyrone HS, Interfaith Yom Hashoah Service at AAC, Juniata College, Penn State Altoona, Celebrate Diversity and St. Francis University.

Judy also met with WRTA radio, Altoona HS principal Patty Burlingame, and the Altoona Mirror.  Judy met with and spoke to over 2000 people during these visits.  I hope everyone was able to see her documentary “Tak for Alt.”  If you have not seen the DVD, please contact the Federation office.

I was honored to speak at the interfaith service and my comments are located on the Yom Hashoah area on the Jewish Holiday Link.  This area is new to the website and we be updated for each Jewish holiday.

I hope everyone has enjoyed the upgrades to our website and I want to thank everyone who has submitted content and photos as we seek to continue to provide new content on a regular basis.

February 1, 2009

Welcome to Our New Digital Home

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:37 pm




Welcome to the digital home of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation.  To further our efforts to inform, educate and enrich our Jewish souls, your Federation is now available to you every minute of every day.

It is the goal of your Federation to continue to provide new and exciting ways to enhance the Jewish experience in our community.  To further this goal we have planned an interactive website that will bring current news and fresh perspectives on local, national and international Jewish concerns.  We plan to update our site on a regular basis and be more than an online reference guide.  We want to have new and pertinent content every time you log on to

As you browse through our website you will find our community calendar, photos from Sunday school events, future programming, community favorites, news from Jewish communities around the world as well as links to websites of various interests

Not only will our website be full of social, cultural and educational content, I also hope this site becomes a tool for community building and bringing members of our community together.   Building on the success of our excellent biannual newsletter, L’chaim, our website will look to bring all the current happenings in our community and highlight our members activities in our community.  We will also use this site to profile member families as we have done in our newsletter.

Ultimately the success of our website will rest on your input and help with the development of our content, especially in the Jewish Life area.  We encourage everyone to submit book reviews, jokes, quotes as well as your favorite websites, podcasts, music, recipes and travel spots.  We can learn so much from each other and this is one vehicle to share various topics of interest.

I welcome your feedback and your input.  I hope you think of this website as your Jewish family album and community bulletin board.

On behalf of the Board of Directors of your Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, I hope you find this website meaningful and I hope you will visit often and contribute to this community resource on a regular basis.

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