Dan Ornstein

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. 

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: The Art Of Two Grandmas

Jan 29, 2015

At 78 years old, Grandma Moses became an accomplished primitivist folk painter.  From that advanced age until her death at 101, she famously chronicled the American rural experience with an unparalleled eye for color and simplicity, derived from her memories of her life as a farmer, wife and mother.  She was neither a trained artist nor a scholar of art, but that did not impede her from sharing her extraordinary talent with the world.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: The Mosquito

Oct 28, 2014

I hate mosquitoes, having endured my share of sleepless nights itching from their bites and being startled by the maddening drone of their speeding wings.  I reserve my greatest antipathy for those giant mosquitoes that sport long, ugly legs and tubular bodies.  I am not fooled by the seeming frailty of their translucent wings, which move three hundred to six hundred times per second.  They lift and land their owners with the impunity of a rogue pilot, treating every surface of the world like an open runway and the surface of skin like the unlocked door of an unguarded blood bank.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Chickens

Aug 21, 2014

From my late adolescence until recently, I was an ambivalent vegetarian.  My gastronomic relationship with the succulent flesh of cows, sheep and chickens was mostly one of respectful abstinence, except for once every ten years, when like a monk gone wild, I would shed my righteous reputation for no-meat celibacy, and I would go underground to eat from the shadowy flesh pots.  I returned to the kosher cold cuts, hot dogs, and chicken wings, glancing nervously over my shoulder for fear of “getting caught”, as if anyone would really care. I would eat with primitive, furtive satisfaction, yet ultimately with not a whole lot of pleasure, before returning to my life of no-meat discipline.  Like a school of fish swimming in and out of coral reefs, I also moved back and forth between eating and not eating those dwellers of the deep. I finally settled several years ago on remaining a confirmed pescavore, using a friend’s argument about the inherent stupidity of fish as my excuse.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Wise Blood

Jul 17, 2014

Several weeks ago, as I planned my overly ambitious summer reading list, I came across my son’s copy of Flannery O’Connor’s famous first novel, Wise Blood.  Contemplating whether or not to read the book, and always looking for an excuse to talk to my adult child, I called him to inquire about what he thought of it. “You know, dad,” he began, “It is an intensely religious novel, all about a man who is trying to  rid himself of faith in Jesus and God, yet who fails to do so.  As a rabbi and religious person, you’ll like it.”

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: The Noise Which Brings Quiet

Jun 19, 2014

  What I always notice about water tumbling from a cliff or gurgling downstream is the way the noise from its rush makes everything near it sound much quieter. Perhaps it is because I am in the mountains, away from the distractions of urban life, work, and daily nonsense. Maybe it is because the pulse and swirl of water gently force me to listen to the inevitable movement of time and life around me.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: May Day

May 16, 2014

O stormy, stormy world,

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: The Bricks Of Empowerment

Apr 19, 2014

The Passover ritual of the seder meal helps its participants to relive the Israelites’ terrifying transition from slavery to freedom in ancient Egypt. At the seder, eating the unleavened bread called matzah allows us to literally ingest this transitional experience.  According to the Bible, the Israelites baked matzah because they had no time to bake regular bread as they fled Egypt on their way to freedom.  Yet matzah is also called the bread of affliction and economic poverty that our enslaved ancestors ate in Egypt.  When we Jews eat matzah we are trying to get a taste, actually and symbolically, of what it feels like to live with one foot in slavery and one foot in freedom.  Hopefully, that makes us more appreciative of the meaning of both.

Moving from New York City to Raleigh, North Carolina upon ordination was my first serious foray out of a somewhat insular northeastern cocoon and into “real” America.  I was not exactly sheltered until then. I grew up in an ethnically diverse Queens neighborhood, and the inner city public high school I attended was a testing ground for class and racial coexistence.  Still, I thought I knew what difference was until I discovered how different difference could be in the same country, less than five hundred miles south of where I grew up.  The Raleigh and East Carolinas that I remember from the early nineteen nineties were a study in contrasts.  The city is part of an urban powerhouse of cosmopolitanism that attracts people and businesses from all over the world.  Yet it also boasts some of the world’s most rigidly conservative churches and it sits in the midst of the American tobacco farming industry, a very traditionalist, hierarchical culture.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: My Masterpiece

Dec 25, 2013

She walks up to me after morning services, her face uplifted and bright.  “I wanted to let you know about some great news I got from my son,” she grins.  Those few moments after morning worship before I go back to my office are usually when members of my synagogue tell me their worst news about sadness, illness, death.  Her promise to tell me about something happy intrigues and relieves me.  “He has been writing since he was sixteen,” she begins.  “After more than twenty years of writing professionally, he sold a screenplay for a new movie.  My husband and I will be visiting him on the set


Below is my imaginary letter to Sergei Brin, the co-founder and owner of Google.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Searching For Khaled

Sep 19, 2013

I was a twenty-one year old junior in college when I met Khaled Nusseibeh.  We were both undergraduates at Columbia University in New York thirty years ago, and my memories of him and our brief friendship are now quite old and likely distorted.

Dan Ornstein: Anxiously Remembering to Live

Aug 15, 2013

A half-hour north of Albany outside the town of Stillwater you will find the Still Point Interfaith Retreat Center, in my opinion, one of the Capitol District's most beautiful and serene rural settings.  Sheltered and almost completely hidden by a wooded thicket, Still Point is exactly what its name implies: a place of blessed silence and spiritual respite, whose chorus of rustling leaves, birds, and crickets sings a song that drives out the whining musak of daily life from my ears. 

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