Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

You Never Know What a Guest Might Bring!

This d’rash was presented on Fri, Oct 26, 2018, at Temple Sinai in Stamford, CT, when Woodlands Community Temple was invited to participate in a spiritual-cultural exchange, sharing with them the music of our service, “A Joyful Noise,” as well as being led by our clergy team. On Fri, Dec 21, 2018, Temple Sinai will come to Woodlands and lead a Shabbat service featuring their clergy team and the music of their “Ruach” ensemble. A great blessing for us all!


This exchange, besides being a wonderful experience for all of us, especially for the clergy (who almost never get to see the inside of another temple), is also symbolically very powerful. Houses of worship of any religion tend to operate in their own little universe. And yet, our message is frequently about how we’re part of a larger community but, all too often, we remain secluded in the day-to-day of our own lives.

But this evening, our two synagogues have actually bridged the twenty-five miles between our spiritual homes and have found ourselves meeting one another, enjoying Shabbat together, and exchanging ideas about the synagogues we love.

Judaism teaches us that hakhnasat orkhim, welcoming visitors, is a mitzvah. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” we learn in Leviticus 19. Whether those we welcome into our homes are simply weary travelers or strangers in need, we are encouraged to make room for others.

In this week’s parasha, Vayera, Abraham meets and welcomes into his home three travelers who turn out to be messengers from God. They bear important news: first, that Abraham and Sarah will soon be blessed with the birth of their son, Isaac; and second, that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is imminent, provoking Abraham to engage in the first act of Jewish social justice by lobbying God to spare the two cities.

Our lives are filled with routine. For most of us, we pretty much know what our days and our nights will look like even before our morning coffee. But hospitality – guests in our homes with whom we share what we have – can change up our routine. Granted, stories abound of house guests who are reminiscent of Michael Myers in Halloween but, hopefully, most such experiences become wonderful opportunities to meet interesting new people and hear about fascinating moments which we then either live vicariously or make plans to do ourselves.

I was thinking of times, growing up in Cincinnati, when my parents opened our home to guests. I remember when I was really little that they often hosted parties during which I was ordered to stay upstairs and out of sight. Later, in my early teens, I remember my older brothers welcoming traveling hippies who would regale me with stories of their having attended Woodstock in 1969. But besides that, our house was most frequently a shelter for myriad cats and dogs. I couldn’t find a photograph from frequent times when entire litters of cats filled our home, but here are some snapshots of me and my siblings and some of the guests who stayed and stayed and stayed, teaching me important lessons in hospitality, about offering food, a place to rest, opportunities to get outside and play, and, of course, lots of love.

Hospitality is on many of our minds these days. Our world has grown harsher, and crueler, in the past few years. Even now, we’re watching nervously as the United States Army is called to turn away thousands of Central Americans who have been labeled as terrorists and hardened criminals but who look far more like concerned moms and dads trying to bring their frightened, hungry, tired children to a place of safety. I understand that borders need to be protected, but it sure does sadden me that our nation’s leadership would portray these folks in such an unfavorable light.

Among my very favorite hasidic stories is one that is told about Rabbi Moshe Leib, the 18th century Tzaddik of Sassov (now in Ukraine). Rabbi Moshe Leib was best known for his love of humanity. One dark night, the story goes, with a heavy snow falling outside, he heard someone tap at his window. Moshe Leib looked out and saw a strange man dressed in tatters, with lacerations on his hands and face, and a gleam of madness in his eyes. The rebbe hesitated for only a moment whether to let such a person into his house, but then thought to himself, “If there is room for someone like this in God’s universe, surely there is room for him in my home.” And with that, he opened the door wide and invited the man in.

I’m hopelessly moved by the plight of abandoned animals. Charlie is a beagle, basset hound mix who came to us from a kill shelter in South Carolina, flew in a private plane to New York where, at Pets Alive in Elmsford, New York (now Paws Crossed), we fell for him and, eight years ago, brought him forever into our home and our lives. Even while I care for my little mutt, I also watch videos from Paws for Hope that catalog the adventures of Eldad Hagar who rescues cats and dogs barely surviving in the streets and neighborhoods of Los Angeles, obtaining medical care for them, and finding homes where they can live in safety and be loved for the rest of their lives. I sit in front of my computer monitor, stunned by this man’s unbounded generosity of heart and time and, through my tear-soaked eyes, write check after check to thank him for providing hospitality that exceeds all reasonable expectations.

Then I think about Albania’s Muslims who, during World War II, not only succeeded in rescuing all of Albania’s 200 Jews, but another 1800 Jewish men, women and children, as Albania was one of the very few countries that kept its doors open to Jewish refugees. When the Nazis occupied Albania in 1943, the response was a uniform one: Besa. Besa means “faith,” or “to keep the promise,” and it reflects the Albanian Muslim idea that when one has welcomed a guest into your home, that guest is accorded all kindnesses and honors, including, if need be, the protection of their lives. When the Nazis came hunting for Jews, the Albanian Muslims embarked upon an ambitious national project: hide every one of them (including the additional 1800). Two thousand Jewish men, woman and children who, except for a single family, all survived.

Now that’s hospitality!

America isn’t perfect. God knows, there are chapters in our history for which we should hang our heads in shame: the near-genocide of this nation’s indigenous peoples, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans, the mistreatment of non-whites, of women, of the LGBTQ community and, yes, antisemitism. But enshrined within our Constitution are words that convey hope for our one day getting this right: “Congress shall have power to establish a uniform rule of naturalization” (Article 1, Section 8). Throughout the 242 years of its existence, America has opened its doors to immigrant populations who, again and again, would provide the energy and the will that would transform our nation into the great land it is today.

But also enshrined in our laws was an insistence on welcoming those who are fleeing danger in their own lands. Since World War II, we can be proud that more refugees have been granted asylum in the United States than in any other nation. But today, applications for asylum are under siege, children are being taken from their parents, and deportations of current residents are occurring everywhere including, only eighteen miles from here, the caretaker of Temple Bet Torah in Mount Kisco where Armando Rugerio has worked for twenty years, raised two children, and now languishes in an Albany jail as he awaits a final determination of his fate.

Ours is a tradition that has always valued opening doors (or, if we’re Abraham and Sarah, opening tent flaps). When guests arrive, they may bring immediate blessing or complex challenge. It is our privilege to swing the door as widely open as we can, and respond as Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov did, “If there is room for someone like this in God’s universe, surely there is room for him in my home.”

Once again, we are so grateful you have welcomed us into your home. Not only is it a cherished blessing to spend this Shabbat with you, but it reminds us all how vital it is for us to welcome others whenever the need, or simply the opportunity, arises.

I once visited a synagogue in Italy and was asked by the rabbi to say a few words. I shared a funny anecdote about life in New York and, really digging into it, I embellished the story with lots of twists and turns before arriving to the punchline. The rabbi then translated it into Italian, but used only a few words to do so. Everyone laughed, so that was pretty great. After the service, I asked the rabbi how he managed to translate my lengthy story into such a compact retelling. “Well,” he said, “I didn’t think they’d get your point, so I just told them, ‘Our guest is trying to be funny. Everyone please laugh.’”

May we always be grateful for the opportunities life presents to meet new people and make new friends. We may not always understand each other, but we can always appreciate good intentions and the generosity of extending and of accepting invitations to share. Thank You for giving us abundant spirits and open minds, that we might always create spaces, both in our personal and our communal lives, to welcome both stranger and friend.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors, God of New York and God of Connecticut, God of the Jews and God of the Muslims, God of the comfortable and God of the afflicted, what goodness You have implanted in Your magnificent world! May we open our homes, our towns, our nation, to ensure that all life is honored and protected. Regardless of differences between ourselves and our neighbors, may we understand that we’re not so different that we can’t look into the eyes of another and see the faces of our sisters and our brothers. May the people of our two synagogues always be among the Righteous of the Nations who stand up and proclaim, “Besa.” My word is my promise. My faith is my honor. Humanity is to be cherished. I will do so for each and every one of them.

Shabbat shalom.

Refugees Welcome!

This d’rash was presented as part of our synagogue’s observance of HIAS Refugee Shabbat. At the end, there is a letter that can help a refugee near where I live to remain in the United States with his family. Please sign it and mail it to the address indicated. Billy

Did you hear? Big Bird is retiring. Well, not Big Bird, but Caroll Spinney, the actor who plays Big Bird. After 50 years of entering our homes from his home on Sesame Street, the voice not only of Big Bird but also of Oscar the Grouch is retiring. He’s 84 years old, which is amazingly difficult to believe!

I mention this because Sesame Street is something that has accompanied so many of us through childhood and, as parents, through our second childhood. Coming home from school, plopping down in front of the TV with an apple and maybe some cheese, and jumping into that wonderful world where we got to learn our ABCs and our 123s, this is emblematic of life done right. While Sesame Street was originally created for underprivileged kids to help them get a good start on their education, we privileged kids loved it too. Sesame Street was part of the good life.

But around the world, there are 25.4 million children who are refugees, who have been forced to leave their home, leave their country, and cannot safely return. If they’re really lucky, they may live with family or friends, but more than likely they’re living in tents and other temporary structures inside of refugee camps, and also in towns and cities where jobs, affordable housing, decent meals and health care are very difficult to come by. If these kids get to watch Sesame Street, they just might be wishing they could live in a home as nice as Oscar’s trashcan.

It is estimated that there are 68 million refugees worldwide. Wanna guess how many of those are here in the United States? Well, since 1975 – that’s a little more than 40 years ago – more than three million refugees have been able to find refuge – a safe home – in America and have built new lives for themselves and for their families. Recently, however, our federal government has pretty much closed America’s gates and the ability for refugees to find refuge here has decreased to almost zero.

On top of that, our government has stepped up efforts to deport – which means to send away from our country – people who once came here from another nation, have lived here for decades, raised families here, but are now being arrested, separated from the people they love and, far too frequently, made to leave the United States and not come back.

Here’s just one family’s story.

Armando Rugerio

In Mount Kisco, maybe 25 minutes north of here, there is a synagogue much like ours called Bet Torah, the house of Torah, where families come to observe Shabbat and holidays, celebrate babynamings and B’nai Mitzvah, learn in their religious school and adult education programs, and practice tikkun olam through shared community service and help for others. At Bet Torah, there is a caretaker whose name is Armando Rugerio. He’s been the caretaker there for twenty years.

Armando has two children of his own, has never broken a law, and has been steadily employed by a community of hundreds of families who adore him. But in a single instant, he was taken away from all of that. He and his family had been dining in a nearby restaurant when a fight broke out. The police came and arrested a number of people, including Armando, who had just been eating a quiet meal with his family. While the court found Armando innocent, a government agency called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, received a list of who was in the jail. ICE began proceedings to deport Armando. Despite decades of employment, paying taxes, and letters from members of Bet Torah attesting to what a wonderful member he is of their community, Armando was sent to Mexico, his country of birth, now a foreign land which he’d left behind some thirty years ago. He was dropped off without bank cards, cash, cell phone or ID. He was given no time to gather any belongings or even to call his family to say goodbye.

Did Armando enter our country illegally thirty years ago? I suspect the answer is yes. But we have to ask ourselves: Is this the correct way to respond? By throwing him out, ignoring three decades of hard work, responsible citizenry, not to mention that our nation claims among its most cherished values a sense of goodness and of caring for people in need?

At the end of this page, you will find a letter. If you are so moved to reach out on behalf of Armando and his family, please consider signing that letter and sending it to the Immigration Court where Armando, who is back in the United States but has been in jail up in Albany for the past five months, is going to be tried, either to be welcomed home or returned to a home that stopped being his home a very long time ago.

In this week’s Torah parashah, Lekh Lekha, Abraham and Sarah embark upon a journey that brings them to a new land, Canaan. They were not citizens of that land but resided there as resident aliens. Still, no one forced them to leave and, in time, our people built homes, and an entire future, in that place which they had dubbed “the Promised Land.”

America too is a land of promise. Recently, however, we’ve told many, many people that promise does not include them. Our ancient Israelite ancestors have taught us differently. Our American ancestors, who settled here to find refuge from oppression and persecution in Europe, have also taught us differently.

If we want America to be restored to a place where the words at the base of our Statue of Liberty still ring true – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” – you and I are going to have write a lot of letters, make a lot of phone calls, and perhaps most important of all, vote, so that these United States of America can once again be that place where nightmares can end, where men and women can bring their children to safety, and where, together, we can build homes as friendly and loving as Sesame Street.

We are so lucky to live in a world where we get Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Taylor Swift, and (soon) mountains of Halloween candy. Help us to grateful for all these things and so much more, and to show our gratitude by truly seeing those who are anything but lucky – 68 million refugees around the world, 25 million who are kids – and doing what we can to help.

Aleinu. It’s on us, God, to stand up for all of them. By signing a letter to help one father get back to his family. By standing with others – at demonstrations, here in services, outside courthouses – wherever our voice is needed. And by voting, to elect leaders who care not only about our future but about those whose future can and should be here as well.

Aleinu, God. It’s on us. May we be worthy of making these words come true.


Honorable Steven Connelly
Honorable Philip J. Montante, Jr.
Batavia Immigration Court
4250 Federal Drive, Room F108
Batavia, NY 14020

Re: Armando Rojas Rugerio A-072486981

Dear Honorable Sirs:

I am writing on behalf of our community member, Armando Rojas Rugerio, whose viable application for asylum was recently denied.

Mr. Rojas has lived in the area for the past two decades and his absence is keenly felt by this community as well as his devoted family. He has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, was deported without any notice to his family— in spite of a stay of deportation signed by a Judge.

Upon return to his sister’s village, Mr. Rojas was immediately identified as a target and was threatened on several occasions, causing credible fear as two family members had been murdered prior to his return.

Two months later, members of our community walked Mr. Rojas through the border entry point at Otay Mesa and he was sent to the Albany County Correctional Facility where he has been incarcerated for the past five months.

I am aware of Armando’s unfailing work ethic and his winning ways that have been an inspiration to all who know him. His absence has spurred the community on to action which has secured the financial support of his family during his detention. I am respectfully requesting that Armando’s application for asylum on the basis of credible fear, (his Asylum Officer found him to be credible and have a legitimate fear if he should be deported), be reconsidered thereby making him eligible for parole and ultimately returned to the family and community who cares for him deeply.

Thank you.

With Another Quarter

Bereshit, the first chapters of Torah, tells the Jewish people’s story of Creation, opening our eyes to the many avenues for interpreting and understanding how (and why) the world came to be. Then there are our own Bereshit moments — when the possibility appears (sometimes quite surprisingly) for new beginnings.

Why do we care so much about the Creation story, anyway? Why is it important for us to know what happened “in the beginning”? Beyond our quest for empirical understanding of the universe’s origins, is there some other motivation for our curiosity? Perhaps we’re drawn to it because Bereshit only begins—it doesn’t end.

Not so with our own lives. We are so fragile. We bend, and sometimes we break. Creation happened so long ago that it can give us hope for our own lives—that we too can last. And lasting, we can sense that our lives mean something.

In the 1990s, while spending part of each summer on faculty at the URJ Kutz Camp, I would steal away with a few friends to a nearby video arcade where we played one specific game that we all loved (yep, the “X-Men” game pictured below). Given enough quarters, we could sometimes finish that game. Along the way, there were many, many defeats. But as long as we had another quarter, there was hope of ultimate victory. As long as there was another quarter, “game over” never really meant the end.

Here are three examples in real life where perceived defeat led to important new beginnings:

1) In the wake of the global financial crisis (circa 2008), James Adams was fired from his lucrative Wall Street hedge fund job. To do some soul-searching, he applied for a job at McDonald’s. His application rejected (three times), Adams was hired by a local Waffle House willing to take a chance on a guy with an MBA but who couldn’t fry an egg. A year later, his life reset, Adams returned to the world of finance, this time to help and advise those who couldn’t afford financial consulting.

2) In 1998, a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. Besides the needed medical work, she had to confront issues of fear, morale and mortality. With early detection, wonderful medical care, loving family and friends, and a good prognosis, she not only survived, but also saw her life settle into one of abiding gratitude and love.

3) And then there’s Jonah, my son who died nine years ago. The journey that has unfolded since has had its ups and downs. There are still days when I’m overwhelmed by his absence, but that’s not where I live my life. Jonah was kind, loyal, funny, and, as happens with most parents, made me glad to be alive. With his death, for a while I felt like dying. But in time, I chose not to focus on how sad I am that he is gone, but on how wonderful it had been to have him around.

Three stories of deep loss and struggle that gave birth to something new. It took time and travail, but for each of us things got better.

And there’s the lesson: Things get better. With another quarter, the game can resume.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes, in his own commentary on Bereshit, writes, “To live life in its fullness, to face death so mysterious, to live on nonetheless in the face of it all. […] For a life not so easy, for a purpose not so clear. […] Because when we do it right […] hinei tov me-od (and it [can be] very good).”

In those darkest nights, may our sacred stories remind us that new days are always beginning.