Wednesday, September 12, 2018


Today, it would be sheer madness, if not utterly dangerous, to send a young kid from one continent to another, all alone, even if it is on a short trip. Rare is the parent who would do that, fearing all kinds of bad things that can happen to a 9-year-old. You can be sued for neglect or child endangerment.

But that is exactly what my parents did when I was in 3rd grade, in Turkey, in the mid 1940’s. In those days, we lived in a small town, called Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus that divides the city of Istanbul into two sections. There was no bridge across the two continents. This was built in1970. So, in order to go to school on the European side of the city, I used to take a ferryboat from Kuzguncuk to Galata-about 20 minutes-, get off the boat, walk to the small subway station about 10 minutes away from the peer, roll out of the subway and walk downhill to Musevi Lisesi, the Jewish school that was located not too far away from the historic tower of Galata. The whole trip often took about half an hour to 45 minutes. Then, on the way back, I had to walk up to the subway, get off, and walk to the peer in order to wait for the late afternoon boat that would take me back to Kuzguncuk. Our house was a few minutes away from the station.

For a number of years, I followed this routine, before we moved to the city itself. I had no problem navigating the streets all alone, and without fear. Nothing happened to me of any significance.

One day, however, things dramatically changed. I was about to take a major test in the fifth grade in order to move from the elementary school to the middle school. It was late winter, and the sea was raging. My father decided to take me along. When we arrived at the boat station, we realized that, because of the bad weather, all traffic was cancelled. Nothing was moving. Yet, if I did not take the test that day, I would have had to repeat the academic year. We had no choice. We had to do something out of the ordinary. My father decided to rent a small rowboat with a boatman in it. The guy agreed after requesting an unusually high price. We got on and he started to row across the Bosphorus. Visibility was almost none. He had to advance pretty much on instinct. The rowboat shook. (As the author of Jonah wrote, “a great tempest came upon the sea that the boat was in danger of breaking up,” Jon.1: 4). We had to hold ourselves pretty tight. Finally, -it felt interminable to us- we reached the western shore of the city. We paid the guy, got into a taxi and made it just on time for me to take a seat at the examination table. Thankfully, I passed it and moved on to the Middle School.

Today, I would never do this to a young kid, let alone to my grand-kids: it is too dangerous to send him/her on a solo trip, no matter how short or long. It is simply too risky. But in those days, this was not a concern. 

I have never forgotten this episode in my life, and taught me that, at times, you have to take risks, yea calculated risks, in order to overcome a serious challenge. This has also been my mantra in life. On many occasions, I have had to take major decisions after quickly reviewing my options under pressing circumstances. It served me well.


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

WE JUST MOVED; The Agony and the Ecstasy

After 12 years in Ashland, one of the western suburbs of Boston, we just moved out of our house, and, really, downsized. From a large condo with three floors, we relocated to a comfortable apartment at the Willows in Westborough, another western suburb of Boston, which has all the three stages for mature people, namely independent living, assisted living and ultimate care. Our apartment has two bedrooms and two baths.   My wife and I found the experience challenging on one hand and exhilarating on the other.

According to a Hebrew proverb, when you change your place you change your luck (“meshanneh maqom, meshanneh mazal”). We hope good luck will continue to smile on us- not that I really believe in such things!!! 

The process of moving taught me a few lessons in life, and here they are:

1.     One can live happily with much less: 
      In our attempt to downsize, we had to go through our belongings and carefully choose those items that we absolutely must have in our new apartment. We quickly realized that all the “stuff” we had but never used for many years can be discarded with no problem. We had to get rid of my old Kindles, cameras, my mother-in-law’s china and other sundry items. The biggest challenge we faced was with my large library. No one wants encyclopedias, periodicals and other scholarly books now. For many years, I kept all the issues of Biblical Archaeology Review, but when I attempted to donate them, I could not find a single institution willing to accept it. I also realized that at my age (almost 80), I will not be using any Akkadian or Sumerian texts as I did before. So I had to throw them all away, simply because I do not have room for them in our new apartment.

2.     Sifting through our belonging forced us to identify what are the most important items in our life:
     Not everything has the same value or carry the same weight in our emotional and physical life. Certain things transcend us. As one gets older, the needs change, and certain new needs emerge. So, as we packed, we took only those objects that are meaningful to us now, such as, important family pictures, documents that I plan to transmit to my children, diplomas that attest to my personal achievement during the course of my lifetime. Other things we simply gave them away.

3.      Nothing in life comes easy: 
````As we planned our move, I fully expected that not everything will work itself out smoothly, but I never imagined that we would have to overcome so many hindrances. Almost every day, we encountered another glitch: for a while we could not find a buyer, until two of them showed up one day; all our smoke detectors had to be changed; a mistake was discovered in our original estate document; the charitable institution that was scheduled to hall away our discarded items cancelled at the last moment; two days before our final stay, our garage door broke down. This experience taught me that we need to deal with the exigencies of life with determination, hope and lots of patience-and I lack the last one.

4.     This move tested our marriage: 
````As we packed our belongings, discarding some and keeping others, my wife and I, of 50+ years, often engaged in serious discussions. At times, we disagreed over many details, but our love and commitment to one another kept us together, and we managed to overcome our differences, by respecting each other’s needs and wants, and, at times, by yielding to opinions expressed in strong emotional language.

I am looking at this move as a new beginning in our life, fully aware of the Hebrew proverb that “all beginnings are difficult” (kol hathalot qashot). We will meet new people, adjust to new schedules, and forge new patterns. But that is life, a series of changes facing each of us at every corner of our existence. Fortunate are those who can easily adapt to them.

Rifat Sonsino, Rabbi, Ph.D.

End of August,. 2018

Saturday, July 21, 2018


I thank all my readers around the world for their continuous support. May you find serenity and contentment in your lives.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018


During the month of June (2018), I spent about 15 days in Spain, first in Madrid and a longer period in Barcelona, leading religious services and lecturing on Jewish topics at the main two Reform congregations of the country. This is not the first time I went to Spain. In the past, I spent more time in Barcelona, and visited Madrid as a tourist. But now I had the pleasure of meeting the leaders and many members of Madrid’s Reform group.  I was very impressed by what I saw in both places, and am encouraged by the progress that each congregation is making. 

Madrid has a small group of liberal Jews, led by its energetic president, Yael C. Madrid, called “Comunidad Judia Reformista de Madrid” (No Hebrew name yet).  On Friday night, June 1, my wife and I attended the Kabbalat Shabbat service that began at 8 pm. There was a great camaraderie among all the participants. I gave the sermon. The service was followed by a congregational dinner attended and catered by all the participants. There are many Jews in Madrid, and the potential of attracting some of them to the Reform group is great. While in the capital, I also had the opportunity to give a lecture on “Jewish God Concepts” at the prestigious Centro Sefarad, and was interviewed by the local Jewish radio on my activities in Spain.

From Madrid we moved to Barcelona by train, and set ourselves for a longer stay in order to be part of Bet Shalom, the Reform Jewish group ably led by Jai Anguita and Maria Prieto Manzanares. Here we met old friends, and quickly became part of the congregation’s life, teaching and lecturing on Reform Judaism. The high point occurred  at the Friday night service (on June 8) conducted in Hebrew and Spanish by lay people. I gave the sermon. It was followed by a huge congregational dinner that was catered by members. During the week, I met with prospective converts and discussed the future with the leaders of the synagogue. I saw more people at the synagogue this time that I had ever seen before. Jai, the president, is working hard to keep things together, and promised me to get help from others in his enormous job.

Jews were expelled from Spain in1492, and spread all over the Mediterranean basin. But now a newer generation of Spanish Jews is emerging through the return of some North African Jews and the conversion to Judaism by many sympathizers. Right now, most Jews are affiliated with the Orthodox but many are seeking a liberal interpretation of Judaism. Reform Jews of the world need to pay attention to this development and support its growth. (I tried to bring a Torah scroll to the Madrid’s Reform Synagogue that has a temporary one given to them by British Jews, but failed to find one in the States.) Both congregations need a new prayerbook, help setting up youth activities and religious schools. I began the process by contacting my congregation, Beth Shalom of Needham, MA, where I am the Rabbi Emeritus, and put in touch our respective professional staff for consultation and exchange of educational material. This effort should be duplicated by many other synagogues in the States, and I hope it will happen soon. There is also the possibility of “adopting” these two synagogues as “sisters” institutions. 

I left Spain exhilarated by the new energy I felt in a few days in a country that had one of the great Jewish centers of the world. Will you help me?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, MA 
Framingham State University