Dan Ornstein | WAMC

Dan Ornstein

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: The Old Locust

Mar 18, 2021

In December, the arborists came to our backyard to prune our locust tree, some of whose larger branches had died and were breaking off from the trunk. The workers expertly tossed their ropes and grappling hooks in the air, climbed and pulled themselves upward into the tree, and with their lightweight, portable saws, expertly cut off the diseased and dead branches in a matter of minutes.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Walking On Water

Feb 23, 2021

As an avid winter hiker, one of my favorite endeavors is walking across local bodies of frozen water.  From the tiny frog ponds of Delmar’s Pine Hollow Arboretum to the majestic spaces of Saratoga Lake, if there is a frozen body of water that I can safely traverse, I will cross it.  My wife and I recently escaped from the COVID-imposed boredom of our Albany home to Saratoga for what we called a “venue-cation.” We were working, but in someone else’s house, with four walls different from our own and a massive natural ice rink in our backyard beckoning to me to hike across it.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Dear President Biden

Jan 28, 2021

Dear Mr. President:

Warmest congratulations to you and to Vice President Harris upon this historic and long-awaited occasion of your inauguration. You and the vice president have already demonstrated your ability to listen to the wisdom of others. Much of the wisdom I listen to comes from my Jewish tradition. As people committed to our respective faiths, you and I both know that the voice of the new is often louder, but the vision of the old is often clearer. Our respective traditions are treasure houses of insight that can help us as our guides on the side, as we serve as the sages on the stages of our congregational and national pulpits. Therefore, in your honor, I share with you some of those insights from Judaism, many in response to things you said during your inaugural address. I hope that they can serve as notes in your pockets which you remove from time to time to help you in your sacred tasks.

Dan Ornstein: The Chamber Of Secrets

Dec 31, 2020

While everyone was going crazy over Harry Potter in the nineties, I never really got on that fandom train. I half-heartedly read the first two books, both of whose themes I barely recall.  Thus, I surprised myself when I recently started obsessing about the title of the second book: Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. I went as far as consulting one of my children, as well as Wikipedia, to recall the book’s main theme.  In their second year at Hogwart’s, Harry and his friends investigate the opening of the chamber, which was created by Salazar Slytherin, a founder of the school and the namesake of Slytherin, the most racist and elitist of the school’s four houses.  The dark and forbidding chamber is occupied by the Basilisk, a fearsome serpent controlled by Slytherin’s leaders who threaten to use it to murder students at the school whose family pedigrees are not pure-blood wizard.

Just because our ancient stories are myths doesn’t mean that they aren’t true.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Upended

Oct 6, 2020

As we hiked through the woods and preserves in our region this past summer, my wife developed a fondness for photographing the exposed roots of the many upended trees we discovered.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Falling Stars

Sep 1, 2020

“Dad, the Perseid meteorite shower is easy to see in the sky the next few nights.  How about we drive out of Albany where it’s dark enough to stargaze?”

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Pedagogy And Prophecy

Jul 16, 2020

In addition to my full-time job as a congregational rabbi, I teach Jewish religious studies to middle school students twice a week at our community’s parochial day school.  I’m there to help my young charges understand – and maybe even appreciate – the vast rabbinic tradition of Judaism, which successfully interpreted the Bible and created the foundation for what we call Jewish religion.  Under the best circumstances, this is a supremely difficult task. The distracted and all-too-concrete middle school brain is at striking odds with the often abstract and demanding literature of the ancient Jewish sages.  The ears of a contemporary American teenager are so attuned to what they deem to be relevant and modern, that they are often deaf to the authentic yet ancient voices of the old-time faith.  Under the current circumstances of COVID isolation and Zoom learning, I approached these last few months with my students in anxious anticipation of dismal failure.  In a strange and sweet surprise, my students proved my fears unfounded.  Nearly all of them showed up to class, on time, every session; they brought their more relaxed social selves – pajamas, breakfast and all – onto our Zoom sessions, and, perish the thought, they dug into the demanding projects I assigned them, not despite our classroom’s new-normal, but because of it.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: The Courage Of Refuge

Jun 12, 2020

Some years ago, I wrote an illustrated children’s book about the underground railroad.  In it, a family of slaves seeks refuge with an immigrant Jewish family from Germany who had never intended to serve in the dangerous role of harboring escapees.  Noticing the Jewish family’s Menorah lamp burning brightly in their window one night in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the slave family mistakes the lights for the lights of a safe house beckoning kindly to people running from plantation owners and slave hunters.  Caught in a web of accidental circumstance, fear and suspicion, the story’s four parents are prodded by their four quick thinking children into devising a plan for hiding their friends that night.  The plan works, the two families celebrate Hanukkah together, and the Jewish family helps its new friends escape to freedom the next morning. 

What did Artur Berlinger say to God in his makeshift synagogue at #17 Dlouha Street, in the Terezin concentration camp? 

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: A Sheppard And His Shadows

Apr 2, 2020

Many years ago, a young shepherd dreamed that he was a sheep being carried off in the mouth of a predator. When he woke up in the morning, he realized for the first time in his life that he was going to die.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: The Bachelor

Mar 20, 2020

Dear listener, the truly important news these last several weeks has not been about the Corona virus or the democratic primaries.  It has been about that stickiest, trickiest of love triangles between Peter, Madison and Hannah Ann, who recently wrapped up their time on The Bachelor.  Leaving behind an unresolved story about the future of Peter and Madison’s relationship, as well as Peter’s angry family who can’t stand Madison, the Bachelor has thrilled and frustrated an estimated 8.1 million viewers, roughly the population of New Jersey.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Going Digital

Feb 13, 2020

A friend of mine is dragging me kicking and screaming into creating a social media presence.  Like a personal trainer who refuses to let his lazy,  wannabe-buff client off the hook, he’s pushing me to make waves in the endless seas of social media because I’ve asked him to do this.  Truth be told, at this stage of my career, I need to do this. 

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Bending Light

Dec 22, 2019

Having barely passed high school physics, I surprised myself some time ago when I took on the daunting, thankless task of teaching a lesson about light, prisms and rainbows for a Hanukkah program in our community religious school.  Hanukkah is a great religious celebration of the Jewish people’s victory over its oppressors during the Maccabean War against the Syrian Greeks in 165 BCE.  Modern Jews’ readings of the story through the lenses of minority and smaller-nation status emphasize timeless values such as maintaining one’s identity and political freedom.  Yet Hanukkah’s religious fame is also founded upon its core legend, the miracle of the Menorah lamp that remained lit in the holy Jerusalem temple despite an insufficient amount of olive oil, after the Maccabean War ended.  Because light is so prominent a Hanukkah theme, I reasoned that talking a little about the physics of light and optics with families would be a cool way of emphasizing its symbolism: white light and the spectrum as metaphors for unity and diversity, waves and particles as symbols for the spiritual and the physical, common features of science as a window on God’s miracles.  What could be so hard about such a lesson, especially for an experienced, fun loving, boundary bending religion teacher like me?  What fun we would all have shining lights through prisms in a dark room, watching in amazement all the pretty rainbow colors on the ceiling.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Roots

Nov 14, 2019

We all have instincts for self-preservation that we sharpen over the course of our lives. Yet how do we avoid turning those same sharpened instincts into weapons that we use on ourselves and each other, so that we all don’t get badly injured in the process? Specifically, in our conflicts with others, when, if ever, and how, if at all, should we step outside our zones of safety and suspicion, to take the risk of relating to our (perceived or real) enemies -the “others” – as sisters and brothers?

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Fraternity And Fratricide

Sep 26, 2019

Once, when my siblings and I were very young, my parents made the mistake of putting me and my brother in charge of our sister while they went out for an appointment. Though we are very close today, when my brother and I were much younger, our competing claims to personal territory and parental attention often clashed, producing very unpleasant consequences for both of us and our parents.  Notwithstanding these animosities, he and I at times teamed up in our attempts to terrorize our little sister.   Who dreamed up that specific day’s covert operation I do not remember, but I do recall it being a brilliant exercise in mean stupidity.  We took a knife, placed it on the floor of our kitchen, took out a bottle of ketchup and spilled some of it near the knife.  I lay on the floor on my stomach and pretended to be dead, while my brother began yelling to my sister, “Come here quickly, I’ve killed Daniel!”  My sister, no more than six years old at the time, raced into the kitchen.  She stopped, got down on the floor beside me, took a small sniff of the red stuff and barked, “That’s not blood, it’s ketchup.  You’re in big trouble!”

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Talmud Camp

Aug 22, 2019

Over the last hundred years, The American Jewish community has built an extraordinary system of Jewish summer camping programs. Their goal is to give our well- integrated American kids the chance for total immersion in a thriving Jewish community experience, 24/7.  In this way they strengthen their Jewish identities while they continue to grow as Americans. 

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Fireflies

Jul 21, 2019

At the close of July 4th, the sky darkened to its blackest point.  Sluggish from a filling Barbecue out in the hot sun earlier in the afternoon, I decided to take a walk into the quiet of my backyard, braving the nightly kamikaze pilot attacks of the mosquitos.  My motivation wasn’t to watch the fireworks being shot off downtown at the plaza; as it was, I couldn’t really see them, though their barrage of explosions was noisy enough.  I came outside for nature’s nightly month-of-July performance by the fireflies.

Some on the religious right repeatedly make the claim that authentically religious people are pro-life but could never be pro-choice as well.  This is a lie.  I am religious, I am pro-life and I am pro-choice. 

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Thoughts And Prayers

May 2, 2019

In an episode of the animated sitcom, Bojack Horseman, a movie mogul and her team rush to save their new film that features an orgy of gun violence, after a mass shooting occurs at a mall.  As they bemoan the negative effects of the shooting on their project, they callously feign concern for the real-life casualties by repeatedly tossing off the phrase, “thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families.”

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Tidying Up The Mess

Mar 26, 2017

On my recent birthday, to calm my frustrations about aging and about a broken laptop, I treated myself to the purchase of a new vacuum cleaner. My new friend and automated butler, a light, agile machine, immediately began helping me to wage my relentless campaign against dirty carpets, consistent with my neurotic distaste for chaos.  My kids laughed at me that I did not need to replace our aging upright, whose broken bag compartment hatch was making it an incompetent partner in dirt battles; “Dad,” they chortled derisively, “Anytime an appliance breaks, why do you always find some justification for buying a new one instead of just fixing the old one?”

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Massasoit And Migration

Nov 24, 2016

Thanksgiving is the ideal time to recall that wonderful folk story of how the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony feasted for a full week of Autumn harvest in 1621 with the Wampanoag Indians, the real first Americans, and their chief, Massasoit. 

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Lost With A Friend

Sep 22, 2016

One day, a very close high school friend of mine and I were on a long awaited hike through what was supposed to be a simple trail loop on Bear Mountain, when we came to three diverging roads in the forest. Try as we may, we could not see a single trail marker anywhere. We wound up walking every one of the three possible paths to see which one would bring us to the summit. It overlooked what promised to be a beautiful valley, along with the whizzing cars on the New York State Thruway. Adding a full hour to what was supposed to be our five-mile hike, we chatted away about our lives and sweated away our slowly diminishing water supplies. Each time we would walk for fifteen minutes into dead ends or power grid towers. I would look at my friend for reassurance that we would figure out where to go. Each time, he would smile and say, “You brought a trail map and a compass. I just assumed you knew what you were doing.” We finally returned to that three road junction and decided to head back on the trail we had been able to follow into those woods. Alas, ahead of us on the return trip lay three other paths. Clearly we had come out of one of them to arrive back at this junction, but which path that was, we had forgotten. So, as the day grew hotter, we tried all three. I said to my friend, “Note to self: always leave a marker of some kind when coming off of a trail so you know where you came from, right?” He just smiled, which at that point could have meant anything. All this time, amidst the frustration of getting literally nowhere, we continued to enjoy each other’s company, discussing all kinds of things, personal and political.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Reclaiming Poetry

Aug 11, 2016

I walk into a local library branch to pick up a book I had ordered.  After I tell the young librarian the name of my book that is on hold, she turns away from me, towards the bookshelf.  She pirouettes towards me, my book in her hands, when I suddenly notice the most interesting tattoo on her shoulder, the words, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  I am not a big tattoo fan, but this one’s poignant irony makes me smile.  “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” is the title and last line of one of my favorite poems by the great American poet, Robert Frost:

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Plato In The Dumpster

Jul 21, 2016

After my daughter’s recent graduation from an elite, liberal American university, I helped her to move out of her campus apartment.  Picking up some black bags of garbage, I asked her where I could leave them.  “You’ll see two pretty full dumpsters near the parking lot.  Just put them there wherever you find room,” she called to me from her kitchen.   Sweating in the late morning sun, I lugged the garbage bags out towards the two gigantic dumpsters.  Flowing over their tops, front, and sides were hundreds of plastic bags and cardboard boxes filled with junk, as well as some expensive looking items rather cavalierly tossed out by one of America’s most socially conscious student bodies:  lamps, computers, furniture, clothing, kitchen items, and books.  On the morning after they celebrated their graduations and pledged to make progressive change in the world, armed with their new degrees, these future leaders of society were throwing out what appeared to be used but perfectly good items, presumably to purchase newer, better ones.  As students, parents, and SUV’s tossed and packed, the mostly non-White maintenance workers, employees of the university, picked their way gingerly and quietly through the mountains of leftovers, retrieving for free other people’s refuse that they would likely never be able to purchase for themselves. 

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Graduation

Jun 14, 2016

At my daughter’s recent college graduation, one of the doctoral candidates spoke on behalf of the other graduate students in the university’s school of humanities. As a PhD in English, she had successfully defended her dissertation on the topic of 16th century deathbed memoirs written or dictated by British women.  The speaker credited her studies, as well as her grandfather’s illness and subsequent recovery, with helping her to truly understand the meaning of death.  She now felt prepared to enter the world beyond academia, possessed of deeper wisdom about human mortality.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: A Wake Before Passover

Apr 22, 2016

He had worked for our local Jewish day school for decades.  Whenever I went there for a meeting or to teach a class, he, a Catholic, and I, a rabbi, would greet each other comically.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Once On This Island

Mar 29, 2016

Albany High School’s theater ensemble recently performed Once On This Island, a dark musical set in the French Caribbean Antilles. The play examines race,  class, and gender divisions between the island’s white French upper classes and its black peasants.  It tells the story about Ti Moune, a spirited peasant girl who falls in love with Daniel, a white man of mixed-race ancestry who lives in the gated hotels of the white French islanders.  After saving his life and nursing him back to health, Ti Moune goes in search of Daniel when his people take him back from her village to their side of the island.  Daniel has an affair with her, then destroys her with the news that he is marrying a white French woman, in accordance with the rigid racial and class mores of their time.  Devastated, Ti Moune drowns herself in the sea, but Asaka the earth goddess transforms her into a tree of love which brings all the people of the island together.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Words

Feb 23, 2016

Emily Dickinson included the following poem in a letter she wrote:

A word is dead

When it is said

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Sacred Study

Jan 26, 2016

A dear friend of mine recently moved with his family from Albany to another state.  Having tasted the bitter pill of friendships that die slowly, I worried about ours.  Would our fifteen-year relationship weather the wear and tear of distance, long pauses in communication, and the normal blunting of adult relationships caused by our respective distractions?  I am lucky to have friends with whom I could pick up the thread of a conversation after decades of not talking, as if we had just seen each other yesterday.  Yet with more years of my life behind me than ahead of me, I did not want to risk waiting too long to stay in touch with him, until it was too late to do so.

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