A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 5.19.23

May 19, 2023


  1. A short word about Wednesday’s NightShul presentation
  2. Shavu’ot Services
  3. A remembrance of Ben Schaeffer


Looking at the calendar, it wasn’t that long ago that I visited Israel on the exceptional UJA-Federation mission in March. But “news time” moves much faster in Israel lately, and so much has happened since then that it may as well have been a year ago. This past Wednesday, together with our friends at PSJC, we learned with Michael Bauer, an exceptional educator on matters pertaining to Israel and Middle East politics and history. Michael gave us lots of food for thought, catching us up all the way to the anticipation of yesterday’s Jerusalem Day flag parade (which was ugly, as we expected). 


For me, though, there was one principal takeaway from Michael’s talk. He had the good grace to admit the following: 


[In my introduction,] I should have warned you about people like me. I am a professional storyteller – that’s what I do – I write, I speak… and storytellers are dangerous people, simply because we tell stories according to what we think interests people. And what interests people is drama… and so I told you about the problems and challenges [facing Israel…].


He reminded us that he didn’t tell us that he went for a drive up north… and nothing happened!… that his kids were playing in the playground… that yesterday on the promenade in Tel Aviv he went for a walk, and a group of Arabs were walking in front of him… and nothing happened! 


In other words, while the media, and the algorithms on our electronic devices, and pretty-much all consumable information is geared toward creating the illusion of constant drama – because that’s what sells – the reality is that life in Israel is pretty normal in a lot of ways – that people are living their lives, quite happily (the Global Happiness Index puts Israel in 4th place!!), and that the average day is free of drama of any kind. My 13-year-old son returned from a trip to Israel less than two weeks ago, and unless he had been told, might not have known that anything exceptional was happening. Life goes on. That’s not to say that we should ignore or undersell the very real issues confronting Israel, but it doesn’t hurt to balance out the drama with a reminder that it’s not all drama. Israel is still a vibrant and wonderful place to live, to raise a family, and to make a life.


Let me wish you all a week free of drama, and a Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.


Rabbi Sam Levine




Shavu’ot services

Shavu’ot begins this coming Thursday night. The service schedule is as follows:


Thursday evening

7:00 pm – come for a light Shavu’ot snack: blintzes and ice cream!!

7:30 Mincha/Maariv

8:00 Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot – teaching with Rabbi Sam Levine


Friday morning

9:00 am – service for first day of Shavu’ot 


  Akdamut (special liturgical poem read on Shavu’ot prior to Torah reading)


Friday evening 

6:30 Mincha/Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv


Saturday morning 

9:00 am – Shabbat service / second day of Shavu’ot 


  Chanting of Megillat Ruth (Book of Ruth)

  Yizkor (approximately 10:45 am)

Join us after the service for ice-cream and cheese cake


Saturday evening

8:10 pm Mincah – end of Shavu’ot/Maariv/Havdalah




Ben Schaeffer

Many of us will remember Ben Schaeffer, an interesting character who for some years used to visit us at the end of services and stay for kiddush. To jog your memory, Ben was preoccupied, single-mindedly (so to speak), about programming for Jewish singles. For most of us, he was the first COVID fatality that touched us personally, dying from the disease in the early days of the pandemic. We had a range of reactions to him, but his loss was a shock to us all.


Ben’s family and friends arranged to have a block of East 16th Street, between Avenues N and M, co-named for him – you can now see a sign there that reads Ben Schaeffer Way. I was asked to say a few words at the event. I share them below, partly because many of us knew him, but mostly because I feel, as I say in the piece, that there is something to learn from his passing. If you knew him, it might have some meaning for you: 


A Word about Ben Schaeffer – Street Naming, Apr. 30, 2023

Rabbi Sam Levine, East Midwood Jewish Center


Ben Schaeffer is one of the few people that I’ve yelled at in my adult life. He was a common feature at EMJC – as the Yiddish expression goes, er kumt tzum oyshpeiyen, showing up regularly right at the end of services. Presumably, he davened somewhere else and then came to us for the simple kiddush we offered, where he would regularly badger some number of us about, usually, singles programming, though at times it would be to offer a political opinion on local politics or labor activism, or to share an article from a local paper that mentioned his political work or his activism or heroism (justly-earned) having to do with his job at the MTA. He could often be vexing and frustrating, able to take any conversation in a direction that addressed his particular inyana d’yoma (‘issue’ – again, usually singles programming). This went on for some years, over which he developed friendships and relationships with some in the community, and would provoke and exasperate others.


And then he contracted COVID and succumbed to the disease. This is what I wrote to my community on learning of his death:


Many in our community were shocked by the death of Ben Schaeffer, myself included.  Without ignoring the fact that he could sometimes be controversial, he was one of the characters who made our community vibrant and interesting.  His vociferous advocacy of programming for Jewish singles was a real contribution to the Jewish community; he was an ardent political activist; and he was a remarkably good listener who would often cede a point when he heard something new – a rare quality, especially for someone whose views were so strongly held.  He was young, healthful (as far as I know), and filled with life-force.  It is hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that he was a victim of this brutal and undiscriminating disease.  I think many of us feel this way.  May his memory be for a blessing – the world is a poorer place for his absence.


Ben’s passing was a lesson in the idea that each life is precious – that often we are not aware of the ways in which a person’s presence enriches our lives, makes then more interesting and more colorful. Among his many good qualities, he was an engaging interlocutor, he cared deeply about important things, and unlike most people, he threw his hat in the ring, advocating for change and working doggedly to make it happen.


I’m not sure how Ben would have felt about this street naming – on the one hand, it would have elicited a visit from him with a torn-out article from the local paper, him pointing out the kavod (honor) that was being conferred upon him. On the other hand, for a guy who got around as much as he did, who was known by nearly every shul in Brooklyn (and maybe Manhattan too) there’s an irony in his name being fixed in a one-block stretch. Still, it’s a great honor, and well-deserved. I pray that his soul is at peace.