Dan Ornstein | WAMC

Dan Ornstein

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.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Wisdom

Dec 29, 2015

Here is a story about something I learned this past semester.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Kristallnakht

Nov 26, 2015

Between November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazi authorities fomented violence against the entire population of German Jews.  Thugs vandalized and looted Jewish owned establishments, homes and synagogues, and dragged their Jewish neighbors into the streets, brutalizing and killing them.  This date in history is generally regarded by historians as the beginning of the Holocaust. Kristallnakht, the Night of Broken Glass, as it was later referred to, is commemorated annually on those days.  To mark Kristallnakht this year, my wife and I attended a viewing of Oren Jacoby’s documentary, My Italian Secret, which chronicles the courageous activities of Italians who hid and saved Jews under Mussolini’s Fascist regime.  The film shows how citizens ranging from Gino Bartali, the celebrity cyclist, to long forgotten priests and nuns living in the countryside risked their lives to hide Jewish refugees simply because it was the right thing to do.  These stories are very personal for Jews, and they are especially personal for my wife’s family.  She recently returned from a heritage trip to Germany, where she retraced her family’s history, including her grandparents’ escape from the Fatherland in the late 1930’s before Hitler could grab them. 

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Dear Mama Bear

Oct 30, 2015

When the front desk of the hotel told me that you had been spotted near the water fall at the summit of a local mountain hiking trail, I wondered if my couple of days in the Adirondacks wouldn’t be better spent exclusively among humans.  I was enchanted by the thought of wandering, solitary, in the silent woods up to the trail’s summit.  News of your appearance with your cubs in tow sent me in a quiet panic to various websites offering advice on how to survive an encounter with an aggressive bear. In theory, my survival instructions seemed easily attainable, but I knew that if I actually saw you I would abandon them, turn my back on you and dash down the mountain, frenzied.     

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Apple Trees

Aug 28, 2015

One afternoon, as my wife and I watched a summer lightning storm from our front steps, she noticed some perfectly round green apples hanging from the thin tree branches outside our front window. All summer long, I had been gazing at the beautiful apples hanging from the tree across the street from us, their red skins dazzling like rubies in the sun, set against the deep green of the tree’s thick leaves. Now, I was smitten with child like wonder at the gentle intrusion of these green apples on our property. We had never planted any apple trees in our front yard, and I could not even identify for you any of the flora that guard the front of our house. Where did these fruits come from? How could we not know that an apple tree was alive and well in the tangled growth that we thoughtlessly passed by every day? Though two of our three children actively farm, my wife and I limit our agricultural consciousness to buying the best local produce that the supermarket has to offer. Our serendipitous apples became for me a source of fascination, and they are currently competing for my attention with their juicy red cousins in our neighbor’s front yard.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Losing the iPhone, Finding The I

Jul 23, 2015

The Vacation by Wendell Berry

Like any good poem, this one by the poet, Wendell Berry, employs a concrete  metaphor – a man who misses every moment of his vacation because he is too busy recording it – to examine a universal theme: how we absent ourselves from our own lives when we rush through them, disengaged, contracting them out to someone or something else.  Berry uses the word, “move”, with great rhythmic and symbolic effect.  We feel like we are on that speed boat with our vacationer, peering through his video lens at all the beauty which the film captures more accurately than our own minds.  However, for all the movement, there is nothing really moving about the experience:  the man’s camera is a pathetic emotional replacement for the man himself.  Berry also repeats deceptively simple phrases like “have it”, “having it”, “be there”, “would be” and “would not be”.  This turns the poem into a mournful tune about how technological devices are becoming our stand-ins for authentic living.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Summer Camp Retrospective

Jun 16, 2015

When my children were younger, one of their most precious refuges from me and my wife was the Jewish summer camp that they attended.  It is one of several summer programs in our religious denomination that, for over half a century, have built lasting friendships, produced marriages, perpetuated the values of Judaism, and left kids with cherished memories well after they have grown up. 

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Kayaking

May 19, 2015

As the summer approaches, I am beginning to think about one of my favorite activities:  kayaking.  I love kayaking so much, I would kayak every day, if not for one small impediment:  I am a lousy kayaker.

One day in the first century, BCE, a young Jewish man left his home in Babylonia, present day Iraq, and made the perilous five hundred mile journey to the holy city of Jerusalem in the land of Israel.  Each day, he would pay the entrance fee to the guard posted at the door of the great academy of Bible study, so he could sit at the feet of the great teachers. One time, being a poor laborer, he had no money, and when he sought entrance to the school, the guard refused to let him in because he could not pay him.   Undeterred as a devoted student of God’s word, he climbed onto the roof and lay down, pressing his ear against the skylight, in order to listen in on the spirited conversations taking place below.  He became so engrossed in the discussions about sacred matters taking place that he took no notice of the snow falling on him.  Soon, the young man fell asleep, and he began to freeze.  As morning approached down below, two of the great sages interrupted their argument when they realized that the room they were in was not becoming light enough as the sun rose.  Looking up, they caught the young man’s silhouette pressed against the skylight.  Rushing to the roof, they brushed him off, dragged him inside the school, helped him to thaw by the fire, and then listened to him tell his story.  The young man became the legendary Rabbi Hillel, one of the greatest sages of Jewish tradition, who was known for his patience, compassion, love and willingness to teach all people, rich and poor.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Frozen Poetry

Feb 28, 2015

Throughout my neighborhood, the icicles hang down from the eaves of the roofs like colonies of bats clustered along the walls of caves.  Emerging from the heavy cover of melting and re-freezing snow, each icicle begins as gently dripping water which never quite makes it to its destined place on the earth, even under the spell of gravity. The drops congeal and are frozen in the grip of arctic temperatures which transform them into mute winter sculptures.