Posted on August 6th, 2012 7 comments
By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov
Do you spit three times when you see a funeral procession go by or even when you hear good news? Or do you feel compelled to pull on your ears if you sneeze while speaking about someone who is dead? And do you tie a red string on a baby’s crib to keep the evil eye away?
Most likely, you’re either thinking- “Oh my goodness, I thought I was the ONLY one who did that,” or you may be thinking, “that is ridiculous and just some crazy superstitions.”
Well, despite the fact that one of our central prayers- the Aleinu reminds us to strive for the day when, “superstition no longer blinds the mind,” we, as Jews, have many, many superstitions. For some of us, the superstitions can be seen as mere customs, such as “throwing salt over your shoulder if you knock over the salt shaker, or uttering certain words to prevent something bad from happening like saying, “Ken-eyin-o’hara.”
Personally, I’ve been interested in Jewish superstitions and Jewish magic for as long as I can remember, but it even became part of my rabbinical world when I took Dr. Susan Einbinder’s class “Magic and Popular Belief in Medieval Ashkenaz” in the Spring of 2007 while a student on the Cincinnati Campus. In this incredibly interesting course we studied all kinds of texts and learned about Jewish traditions on the “power” of amulets, reciting various psalms, and eating “magic foods” and much more.
A few months ago this course became a practical issue at my congregation when a debate ensued over an upcoming meal. A recent widow had donated some of her untouched leftovers from when she had been sitting Shiva. Two other women wanted to use that food for a synagogue function and two different women couldn’t possibly dream of eating that food, holding fast to the idea that “you never take food from a Shiva House.” Was this a real custom or simply a ridiculous superstition? Was it even food from a Shiva House if the widow was no longer sitting Shiva? As you can imagine, there were more opinions than people involved in this debate. The particulars aside, the bigger issue was, how do we, as Jews look at superstitions?
What I learned was that, it didn’t matter what the superstition is, because to one person it is a custom, an important tradition that ties them to their Judaism and to another person it was simply “ridiculous” or antiquated act or belief. In many ways, some of what we do for certain holidays or dealing with death may now be considered custom, but could have at sometime been considered mere superstition. And just as we liberal Jews decide which mitzvot have meaning, for many of us, we decide which superstitions or customs also have meaning. When I pull on my ears after sneezing while speaking of someone who passed away, I do it because my grandmother used to tell me to do it- it connects me to my traditions my history. I don’t know that I believe in any repercussions from not doing it, but I am just compelled to do it and it makes me smile and think of my beloved grandmother.
To deal with the debate from the women in my congregation, I began doing some research, posed a question on Facebook and then even offered a class entitled- “What’s a Jew to do- A look at the differences between superstitions, customs and laws.” The class afforded us the opportunity to get to the real meanings behind what we do. Not only was the class fun and really successful, but I also learned about more Jewish superstitions than I could ever have imagined!
So let me know what you think, do superstitions help highten your sense of Jewish tradition? Or do they take away from the real business of Jewish life? I’d love to hear your opinions and add your superstitions to my growing list. In the meantime, here is a list of 10 more of my “favorites:”
1. You should never have a baby shower or buy anything for a baby before it’s born. (In fact, we don’t even say “Mazel Tov, but rather B’sha’ah Tovah to a pregnant woman.)
2. If a child is laying on the floor and you step over him, you must walk back over him or he won’t grow anymore (my mother was a strict enforcer of this one!)
3. A pregnant woman is not supposed to go to a cemetery.
4. Don’t open an umbrella in the house (or it will rain at your wedding).
5. Don’t put a hat on the bed or there will be a death.
6. IF you eat an olive, you have to have at least two (a lone olive is only eaten as part of the meal after a funeral).
7. Don’t put shoes on a dresser or a table or bad luck will ensue.
8. Never sew clothes while someone is wearing them and if you must, tell the person wearing the clothes to chew on a string.
9. When you move into a new house you must make sure to have a broom, salt, sugar, loaf of bread (or flour) and of course a mezzuzah, and it’s even more good luck to move in right before Shabbat.
10. Give Tzekadakah to someone embarking on a trip (especially to Israel) to ensure his safety as he becomes a “Shaliach Mitzvah” and donate the money while away. (Though this could be up for debate as for being a superstition, or a custom.)
When it comes to Jewish superstitions, these are just the tip of the iceberg. What other superstitions do you know and even hold by? Or do you think these are all just “bubbe-meizas” (old wives tales) that no longer hold a place in our Jewish tradtion? While I don’t need to become any more superstitious, God-Forbid; I’d love, God-willing, to hear what you have to say!
Posted on June 4th, 2012 1 comment
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE has some wonderful suggestions for summer reading to strengthen and better understand how we connect with those around us. – ed. Ruth Abusch-Magder
Summer is here! It’s that time of year we send our children and congregants off to summer camp or pack our own bags to spend time on faculty at one of our URJ summer camps. The summer camp experience is one in which – young or old – we have the potential to build deep and lasting relationships with peers and mentors. Much like our youth, I find myself counting the days till our return to URJ Camp Newman, an invaluable time for connection, reflection and fun with dear friends and colleagues.
“Relationships” is a buzzword in the Jewish world right now. We are asking questions. How do we build relationships? What does a community founded on deep relationships look like? What role do relationships play in strengthening one’s connection to Judaism?
The quintessential Jewish model of a meaningful, one could even say sacred, relationship is Martin Buber’s model of the “I-Thou” relationship, when we accept another person for who s/he is. We see the person as a whole being. Buber differentiates this from the “I-It” relationship in which we perceive another person as an object to be either manipulated or used for our own self-gratification.
There are a growing number of books that address these questions about relationships. In recent months I have expanded my Kindle and paper libraries with variety of disciplinary approaches to these questions about relationships. So, in between other more causal summer reads, I might suggest you dip into some of these as well:
- Community: The Structure of Belonging (Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008) – A look at what it takes to build a community in which people feel a sense of ownership and investment in its well-being.
- The Courage to Teach (Parker Palmer, Jossey-Bass, 1998) – From the educator’s perspective, a challenge to look inward and realize what we bring to our relationships with our students and constituents.
- MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend (Rachel Bertsche, Ballantine Books, 2011) – A humorous look at what it means to be a “best friend” and how we build friendships.
- Never Eat Alone – And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time (Keith Ferrazzi. Doubleday, 2005) – From the ultimate business schmoozer-networker-connector perspective, this book provides insight into how we can use relationships to create win-win situations for everyone.
- Relationships Unfiltered (Andrew Root, Zondervan, 2009) – A Christian youth ministry book about how we create authentic relationships with our youth in a religious/spiritual context
Each of these authors addresses the same question: What are we trying to accomplish, if anything, in our relationships? Whether it is our own relationships or those we are trying to help our youth and congregants build, we need to be sure we are clear on our answer to this question.
Often times, as seen in “I-It” relationships, we are trying to influence someone to act, believe, or behave, as we would like them to. Come to this youth group event. Go to religious school. Do this mitzvah. Why? Because everyone else is going. Because I said so. Because it’s our tradition. Rather than a goal of influence, Andrew Root shifts the paradigm back to Buber, suggesting that our relationships should be based on the goal of simply being present. In a true “I-Thou” relationship, we are present with each other, to see each other for who we are, accept each other for who we are, support and accompany each other on our journeys. Root writes, “the fullness of a person (her dreams, joys, pains, fears)” should be more important to us than “her ability to know, admit, believe, and commit.”
In an almost opposite approach, Keith Ferrazzi, a marketing and sales consultant, teaches that “relationships are like muscles – the more you work them, the stronger they become.” Much of his self-help approach to success through networking focuses how relationships can open doors, create opportunities, and lead to greater influence on others. He takes the position that people are loyal to their peers, their networks and those with whom they have relationships. It makes me wonder, though, how could we do a better job of building relationships in our communities so that we build stronger more lasting allegiances and connections to Reform Judaism and Jewish community?
Parker Palmer, from his Quaker background, reminds us that relationships have a sacred quality to them. That which makes the Jewish relationship sacred is the presence of God, Torah and Judaism. When we build Jewish relationships of meaning, Judaism and all that is part of it, is in the middle. Palmer reminds us of verses from Robert Frost: “We dance round a ring and suppose,/ But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” In response to this couplet, Palmer invites us to consider that when we bring that Secret – in our case Judaism – into the center of our relationships, we can have conversations with Judaism and with each other that helps us each find meaning and answers that bring us wholeness.
My family and I will be back at URJ Camp Newman in just days. While there with friends and colleagues, while interacting with young Jews eager to learn, grow and connect, I will carry the challenge of strengthening our relationship with each other. While sometimes we might be circled around a campfire, a guitar and a siddur, or a bottle of Napa Valley p’ri hagafen, each moment will be made sacred with God’s presence.
Posted on February 8th, 2012 No comments
When we think of chaplaincy in the military it is often in the context of serving those who serve. But there are roles for clergy in the American Military policy that cannot be played by other members of the armed services. Rabbi Jon Cutler (DMin HUC-JIR NY) is a congregational rabbi as well as Captain US Navy. He has just returned from and has just returned from a 16 month tour of duty Director of Religious Affairs for Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) Horn of Africa. His account of some of what he did while on active duty, taken from a talk given in Norfolk at the Institute for Global Engagement, is as inspiring as it is informative.
Conflicts have torn the social fabric of the African societies, displaced millions of people, traumatized communities, and drained the continent from material and human resource resulting in destabilizing governments and communities. Religion leaders in Africa play a crucial role in conflict resolution and restoration of peace.
The American Military has a strong presence throughout the world. The role of the military chaplain is to engage with key religious leaders to help promote regional stability through interfaith dialogue, to dissuade conflict by capacity building and to demonstrate a commitment to facilitate African religious leaders in addressing the issues in African Muslim and Christian communities. It is through religious leadership building that there is potential to stem violent extremism such as the influence of Al Shabah along the Swahili coast and to hamper their effort to recruit Kenya Muslim youth to their cause. This process relies on building a trusting relationship over a period of time. The point emphasized is trust. The chaplain has to be an honest broker
Being engaged with religious leaders in East Africa is complex. Engagement takes place on many levels with multiple end goals. The nations of East Africa that I am tasked to partner with are Djibouti, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania. Within each nation are numerous tribes with their diverse culture and language and their set of problems. Then religion is added on top of this with its distinct set of problems. Even though Christians and Muslims are present within each nation the percentage of Christians and Muslims varies from nation to nation for example Djibouti is 99% Muslim and Ethiopia is 80% Christian. Christianity has its own internal dynamic and it varies from nation to nation such as in Ethiopia where the dominant form of Christianity is Ethiopian Orthodox with growing Evangelical Protestant presences or in Kenya the dominant denomination is Anglican but along the coast the dominant religion is Islam (80%).
The same holds true for Islam. Even though the majority of Muslims are Sunni in East Africa there is a significant presence of Sufi (Ethiopia), Aga Khan (Uganda) and Salafists (Tanzania Coast and Zanzibar). Adding to the complexity is the extremist elements within Christianity and Islam. The extremist Islamic group Al Shabah based in Somali is a direct threat along the Swahili Coast of Kenya and Tanzania actively seeking Muslim youth to fight in Mogadishu or the extremist Protestants groups building their churches in exclusively Muslim villages actively seeking converts. There, also, is a small Jewish presence in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. It takes a significant amount of time to grasp the religious complexity within East Africa and even more so the cultural and tribal. The issues concerning women are barely addressed.
In addition there is another layer of complexity with direct engagement and that is who is the chaplain engaging with – the local imam or the Mufti for all of Uganda, the parish priest or Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the local Assemblies of God pastor in a remote Tanzanian village or the Security General for all Evangelical Independent Churches of Africa? Each encounter will have a different dynamic, agenda and end state. Each stakeholder has a distinct personality style as well. And there are times that the chaplain engages with religious organizations which mean that the engagement is with small to large number of people – councils, boards, elders, etc. With it comes its own internal dynamic and politics. These organizations can be local, national, regional, continental, or intentional.
The additional challenge is trying to explain my role as a military chaplain and director of Religious Affairs for CJTF-Horn of Africa to the religious leaders. Since there is no context that they can relate to, I explain in terms of representing the US military as a religious leader wanting to partner with them to help bring peace and stability to the region.
In my role as chaplain, being a rabbi is a surprising advantage. No one religious leader or group of people that I have met ever encountered a Jew before much less a rabbi. I have found that the religious leaders have a rudimentary understanding of Judaism which then opens up great opportunities for in depth discussion about comparative Judaism and Islam or comparative Christianity and Judaism. In the end it has been an educational experience in understanding a religion besides Christianity or Islam with hope of broadening their world view and increased tolerance. For example, the Supreme Judge of Ethiopian Islamic asked that I return to teach him about Judaism.
Meeting the objectives of the mission is extensive. I will discuss two of the means to meet the mission. First, due to my ability to travel throughout Combined Joint Operational Area (East Africa) I am able to identify the religious atmospherics within the region. I am able to identify fault lines between Christian and Muslims groups, fault lines within exclusively Christian groups and/or Muslim group as well as the tension points. For example, talking with Evangelical Protestant ministers their fear is that Uganda will be enacting a law that Sharia law will be part of the Constitution. With the fear came anxiety about their own security in Uganda and strong negative view towards Muslims. The purpose is to gage the atmospherics and in the future such information can be useful. In the meantime if possible due to one’s skill try to address the concerns in order to lessen the tension points. Out of this process can come a greater understanding and appreciation for the other. And through this process of engagement is the ability to identify Christian and Muslim leaders who share the same goal for peace and stability.
Once identified to bring them together to start working on joint projects. The conversation about religion is essential, interfaith dialogue is necessary but the conversation must turn into action. The cause for instability and the lack of peace in East Africa is grassroots issues – lack of opportunities for African youth, poverty, HIV, etc. The role of the chaplain is to facilitate bringing like minded individuals and/or groups, Christian and Muslim, who want to address the hard core issues that are the root causes for lack of peace and stability. The role chaplain is then to work with US Embassy officials in the respective nations to introduce the collective working group of Muslim and Christians to funding sources. The chaplain is very much involved in the 3 D process (Defense, Diplomacy and Development). By working on joint project Christians and Muslims will become inter-dependent on another, therefore, Africa for Africans. Such joint projects have the potential to become self sustaining. This has broader ramifications because it demonstrates to the ‘world’ that Muslim and Christian can live next to each and to work together. The goal is to make violent extremism irrelevant. The goal is to fulfill Micah’s 4:3-4 vision: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning shears; nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken of it.”
Posted on January 10th, 2012 No comments
It seems like coincidence, but I don’t think it is.
On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, respectively, two distinct but very similar videos dominated my social media community. Both videos focused on the experience of teens proud to be Jewish and gay. In and of itself, this is not particularly notable, but the context for both was. Both teens focused on how the national synagogue youth movements in which they participate, USY and NFTY respectively are the places where they feel most able to be completely themselves.
The first video was a speech that the outgoing USY president, Daniel (D.J.) Kaplan gave at the national USY convention and was posted by David Levy and shared widely from his blog. Levy, himself a graduate of USY and now a professional in the Jewish community, wrote “When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be able to get up in front of my USY friends and make a speech like this, but I wasn’t able. Seeing a leader do so makes me incredibly hopeful for the future.” The second video, which was posted by many of Reform folk in my network (you may have been one of them). Often those who posted it wrote little more than “YOU MUST WATCH THIS!” or “Amazing.” Some like Rachel Gurevitz used it to write about how inspired by and proud they are of NFTY.
To my mind these videos are not just inspiring or hopeful, they are also instructive.
I thought of these videos sitting in shul on Shabbat morning. One of my husband’s students at the local day school was celebrating his bar mitzvah. The son of a Jewish Ashkenazi father and a Korean mother, he stood on the bimah wearing a colorful Hanbok, the traditional Southern Korean dress as well as a batik tallit. After beautiful Torah and Haftorah readings he shared insights about the parasha using wisdom gleaned from stories from both his Korean and Jewish ancestors. Brachot were offered in Korean on behalf of his grandparents who were unable to be there. Though few in the congregation understood, many people were moved to tears by the emotion that came through. Afterwards many of the adults spoke with reverence of the interweaving of Korean cultural elements into this traditional Conservative service. Since Shabbat I have checked in with a number of the kids who attended and asked them what they thought of the service. Not a one mentioned the Korean elements, and when I probed they simply took in stride, noting that there was nothing strange about it, it was just, as one girl said, “it is just who he is.”
There is no question that the videos that made the rounds last week owe a great deal to the LGBTQ rights movement in this country, but it seems to me that there is more. Young people today, more and more, are growing up with multiple identities. In earlier generations, people often felt compelled to choose sides, privileging one identity over another. But all of these young people are unwilling to choose. Their allegiance to the Jewish community comes because they are welcome to be fully themselves within the Jewish world. They are Jewish and…..
For the last two summers, I have worked at Camp Be’chol Lashon which stresses the global diversity of the Jewish community and serves a predominantly ethnically and racially diverse group of kids. This fall, I was invited by a local rabbi to speak about the camp and one of the campers, a member of the synagogue joined me. She explained that unlike any other place in her life the camp was the space where she could be Jewish and African without having to choose.
In an era of multiple identities, creating spaces that are just Jewish is not enough. It is not easy to create spaces where some but not all the values of the community are shared but where the differences are not just tolerated but celebrated. These teens suggest that we can and have created spaces where our young people feel comfortable being Jewish and… In contrast to a vision of Jewish life as parochial or internally focused, this accepting approach has the potential to make Jewish space not only attractive and engaging, but also a prime example of how to be fully human.
Posted on June 13th, 2011 No comments
This is LGBT Pride month. HUC-JIR is proud of all of our LGBT alumni. As a tribute, this week we are reposting a piece by Rabbi Victor Appell the Specialist for Marketing, Outreach & New Communities for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Congregational Consulting Group. His story, while highly personal, speaks to both traditional and contemporary visions of Jewish family. This post originally appeared on the URJ blog and is reposted here with permission.
They Needed Parents, We Needed Children
When my partner and I were adopting our first child, the adoption agency required that all families it worked with take a class. The class was about becoming a multi-racial family. At one session, the presenter, an adoptive parent herself, prepared us for some of the questions we would be asked, often by perfect strangers. As two white men planning on adopting an African-American child, we knew we were in for it. We have gotten just about every sort of reaction. At my pulpit, one congregant actually asked if we were going to raise our son as a Jew. Did she think that because Avi was black, we would raise him as a Baptist? I didn’t ask. Sometimes we get strange looks and sometimes on Sundays, black women, still in their church finery, stop and give us tearful hugs while we are shopping in Target.
Sometimes, people ask me if my children are adopted. These people usually answer their own question before I have to. But my favorite question is, “So, did you want to have children?” I am tempted to respond that we adopted by accident, or that we woke up one day and found we had a child, or that the condom broke. Last time I checked it was pretty difficult to adopt a child “by accident.” Fortunately, the inner rabbi wins out over the snarky gay man and I politely reply that yes, Colin and I have always wanted children.
In fact, on our first date we talked about our desire to one day become parents. When people ask me why we adopted our sons I say because they needed parents and we needed children. As Jews, we knew we wanted a family in which we could pass on thousands of year’s worth of traditions and values. We dreamed of raising Jewish children, of blessing them at the Shabbat table, of them chanting the Four Questions, of raising children who would become menschen.
It was not so easy to become a family. At first, we assumed that like so many other Jewish couples, we would bring home a baby girl from China. We soon learned that no foreign country allows openly gay people to adopt internationally. The only way to do it was for one of us to adopt as an individual and work with a social worker who was willing to go along with the ruse when working with a foreign adoption agency. Plenty of gay and lesbian couples do this but this was not how we wanted to begin our family. Turning our attention to domestic adoption, we were turned down by a large adoption agency in Chicago, where we lived at the time. They had no experience in working with gay couples and did not want to get our hopes up. The next agency was willing to work with us though they had only worked with one lesbian couple before and did not seem prepared to work with a male couple. At an information session, they handed out a price list. White baby boys were out of our price range, as were white girls. Hispanic children seemed to be on sale and African-American children on clearance. Welcome to the world of domestic adoption.
Eventually we found our way to a wonderful agency that placed African-American and bi-racial children. Here, everyone was the same price. We knew we had found the agency that would help our family of two become three. Remarkably, nine months after completing the paperwork, we brought our three day old son home. At the time, Illinois would not allow two people of the same gender to adopt a child simultaneously. But they could consecutively. Yes, I know, this makes about as much sense as asking me if I planned on raising my son a Jew! So, I adopted Avi first, and then six months later, Colin also adopted him. Though this “minor” indignity cost us twice as much in legal fees as heterosexual couples, we have a birth certificate with both of our names on it.
When I was looking for my next pulpit, our search was limited to states which not only allowed but were receptive to gay adoption. We wanted a little brother for Avi. Florida, which prohibits LGBT people from adopting, was out of the question. Our search led us to New Jersey. Though New Jersey has yet to pass marriage equality, it has some of the gay family friendliest laws in the nation. Here, we pursued a public adoption. Despite the beurocratic frustrations of working with a public agency to create a family, our being gay was never an issue. In fact, the social workers used to vie over who would do the home visits. They all told us how much they loved we way we had decorated our home. Hey, I’m happy to wear a stereotype when it serves my purposes! Again, in just nine months from beginning the process Lev completed our family.
I cannot imagine being told that because Colin and I are gay that we would not be fit to be parents. Just like any other parents, our days are filled with getting the boys off to school in the morning, checking homework in the afternoon, and reading bedtime stories in the evening. And our weekends are filled with taking our boys from one sporting event to another. Our sons have never met a sport they did not like! And Colin is the coach of Lev’s t-ball team. What do you think of that, Florida?
Posted on April 12th, 2011 No comments
This year, the story of liberation from Egypt is being told on the back drop of a contemporary story of liberation in that same country. In 2006, Rabbi Ruth Sohn who is the Director of the Leona Aronoff Rabbinic Mentoring Programas well as the Rabbi of the Lainer Beit Midrash at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, spent 6 months living in Egypt with her husband Reuven Firestone. Sohn is currently working on a book about that experience and took some time to share some thoughts on how the ancient story and the modern reality come together. -Ruth Abusch-Magder
The bitter and the sweet
Everyone loves charoset and I have always been intrigued by the tradition of dipping the maror in charoset before we offer the blessing and ingest the bitterness of slavery. Only in the presence of something sweet can we fully take in the bitterness of the maror. Only when hope glimmers can we allow ourselves to feel the full force of the bitterness of our suffering.
While we now know that some of the young Egyptian activists had been preparing for months and even years for a moment such as this, when the time would be ripe for mass protests against the regime, what made this moment the time? More than the sad, desperate self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-vender in Tunisia, it was the success of Tunisian protestors in overthrowing their ruler of 23 years sparked hopes in Egypt. Suddenly, people could taste the sweet hope, that the freedoms that had for so long seemed unattainable, might now be within grasp. And suddenly, thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets in Cairo and other cities and towns in Egypt, ready to risk beatings and arrest and worse, to stand up and say No More.
Freedom from… Freedom for…?
In calling for the end of the regime of their modern day Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptians were able to come together in inspiring and moving ways, across lines of religion, gender, class, and education. Their ability to stand together against forces that sought to divide them, even in the face of violent attack, and their success in ousting Mubarak stands as an enormous achievement. And yet, there is no time to lose celebrating. Freedom from the oppressive regime has not yet been fully accomplished. The military, first celebrated by the Egyptians as supportive of the revolution, is now increasingly coming under attack as Egypt’s reviled Emergency Law is still in place, allowing for the continuing arrests and imprisonments, sexual harassment, and torture.
And even as the Egyptians continue to push for freedom from the oppressions of the past, the next question is already upon them, and will shape the formation of political parties going forward. What should this freedom be for? What kind of society do they want to build? What is the vision of a modern Egypt that calls them forward? For many, the idea that Islam should play some kind of role in their society is appealing. But what kind of Islam? And what kind of influence? And at the same time, for many, the experience of protest in Tahrir Square holds an important piece of the vision: a celebration of the diversity of the Egyptian people, and the dignity of every human being. But the vision needs to be given fuller shape and expression, which will include but not be limited to the establishment of new laws. Moving toward Freedom For involves even harder work and is a lot messier than fighting for Freedom From. The Egyptians and the rest of the world need to be prepared for a sometimes slow and circuitous journey.
Freedom from… freedom for…? The experience of the Egyptians points us back to one of the great challenges of our own Exodus. We relive and celebrate our own humble beginnings as slaves with a transformative journey from slavery to freedom, but we are reminded that this freedom is only the first step of a long journey through the wilderness, toward a fuller freedom that still needed to be defined. From our first steps into freedom from slavery, we had to begin to chart that journey, a journey that took us to Sinai and beyond, that included far-reaching laws and teachings, toward a fuller redemption for us and the world. If our journey had not included Sinai, (or Shabbat, or Israel, or a few other things listed in Dayenu?) would we still be around to tell the tale of the Exodus?
So the journey continues, and in every generation, every year, we ask ourselves at Pesach, how, this year, are we enslaved? What is the liberation that calls to us most deeply? What do we need freedom from? What do we need freedom for? And what is the path to this liberation? What is our maror, and our charoset? What is the bitterness for us, and what offers the sweetness of hope that can wake us up to the full bitterness of our current oppression, and galvanize us forward to seek liberation? We are invited to look inward and outward in asking these questions, to consider the broadest political landscape as well as the deepest inner spiritual terrain, and to realize that we do not need to choose between them, but rather can seek new connections between the two realms we too often see as separate.
Our seder tables may hold the best possibility for exploring these questions together, so we can all experience again the promise of the holiday, and perhaps, be able to take a few real steps forward on our journeys.
Chag Pesach sameach.
Posted on March 28th, 2011 No comments
The famed Arab street is buzzing all across the Middle East and North Africa. The Jewish street has been visited by J-street and terrorists. From where she sits on King David Street, HU C-JIR Jerusalem Dean Naamah Kelman has a particular perspective. This week, she share what she sees both on campus and around the country.
I was not in Jerusalem for the first ever full marathon last Friday. I was up in Haifa participating in the first ever “Tikkun Carmel”, Jewish Studies and cultural festival, initiated by our Progressive Synagogue in Haifa (Ohel Avraham), in cooperation with the local Masorati (Conservative) synagogue. I had spent the previous day in Kibbutz Yahel and Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava, at a meeting of the Board of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. Our Progressive Kibbutzim are thriving these days. Yahel is about to build a nature and commercial park and way-station; Lotan, has found their calling as an international center for perma-culture and sustainability. Both Kibbutzim , served as our gracious hosts and both shared their newfound satisfaction with u, a HUC Israeli rabbinic graduate who has moved himself and family to the Arava to be the regional rabbi.
Reports from Jerusalem, 2 days after the terrible terrorist attack, told of the thousands running in the streets. Despite annoying traffic delays, schools closed in order to make way for what is clearly what mayor Nir Barkat does best: keep Jerusalem open to all sectors and best through mass events and major cultural festivals. I share these thoughts as a reminder that Israel continues to be a vibrant, creative, energized society; while at the same time struggling with external and internal conflict, violence, and political corruption. The week began with the sentencing of former President Katzav to seven years in prison. He continues to deny his guilt as a convicted rapist.
This week, Israelis were still reeling from the horrific murder of the Fogel family from the West Bank settlement of Itamar; Israelis were united in their horror and sadness; while the political debates continued. No one seemed to pay too much attention to Knesset discussion on J-Street, nor was there any mention in any of the Hebrew papers of the selection to Rabbi Richard Jacobs as the President –designate of the Union for Reform Judaism.
For Kabbalat Shabbat, I joined our Year in Israel students who were participating in a program called “Parallel Lives.” IDF soldiers from an elite unit are selected to be part of a year-long ongoing exchange with some of our students, around 12 of them and 16 of ours. This program was founded and funded by Israelis who completed their graduate studies in Alabama years ago. Then, throughout the 1980′s they discovered the American Jewish community, and returned to Israel committed to keeping a real and mutual bond alive. When a beloved nephew was killed in an IDF action, they created this program, to honor him, and invest in the crucial dialogue between Israelis and Jews from North American programs. We are now in our 4th year of this unique program. It is quite successful and yet, too often it lives up to its name: parallel lives!
Over the years the biggest challenge is to find the right setting and structure for Tefillah over the 2 Shabbat experiences they share. When our students lead Kabbalat Shabbat, which is usually what has happened, the Israelis sit politely but disconnected to the words of our Siddur. If we sing a modern Hebrew song, that is also somewhat liturgical (like Lu Ye’hi or Oseh Shalom) some sing along. This past Friday, the soldiers planned the Kabbalat Shabbat. Sometimes they come straight from their bases so there is no time to prepare or coordinate. One soldier volunteered to prepare a Kabbalat Shabbat song sheet and each song was put on an Ipod, that served as our “shaliach tzibbur.” So there we were, sitting in a nice circle, facing the decorations of a typical Israeli elementary school, and we sang, accompanied by real playback. These songs were both modern Israeli songs and some tefillah that have been made popular by Israeli musicians. Now our students understood what our Israeli counterparts often experience when they join our Services. There is something both familiar and alien in the joint experience. Our HUC students tried hard to sing along because they intuitively sing and pray in diverse settings.
These soldiers have hosted our entire Year in Israel at their base for our Israel Seminar. They told the group about their experiences and dilemmas. They insisted that they strive to be as moral an Army as possible. These conversations are complicated. Our students hold the IDF and the Israeli government to high standards. The Israelis face complex situations. The Parallel Lives program struggles mightily to become that bridge of understanding and mutual respect.
The great story of this generation is that 2 strong and confident communities are evolving on parallel tracks. We are two generations away from the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel. As Israelis create a modern Hebrew Jewish culture and society, the gap with the Diaspora grows; although we no longer reject the Diaspora as did the early Zionists. Meanwhile, North American (and I want to recognize our Leo Baeck Rabbinic students and Abraham Geiger Kolleg cantorial students this year) young adults are forging their Jewish identities reflective of their needs and dreams.
Many of our students eagerly join Women at the Wall. For many secular Israelis this is a foreign experience. They would rather run in a marathon through the Old City than stop to pray anywhere. Many of our students are bewildered by the religious coercion in Israel; too many Israelis reject the coercion but also reject Judaism in the process. And often reject our form of Judaism too. Yet thousands attended Reform Purim events throughout Israel. Thirty of our Year in Israel students joined the Progressive Congregation in Modiin where hundreds attended Megillah reading, with many of our students reading! Increasingly, Israelis are finding their way to our Congregations and educational institutions. When terror strikes, all our fears return. At the same time, we remain steadfast and fearless to get on with our lives.
The life of Israelis and Diaspora Jews will remain 2 parallel tracks for sure. It is our responsibility to build bridges, connect, exchange, argue, and keep the bonds between us alive and updated. As Reform Jews , we might be able to model a Judaism that lives in and with democracy. Israelis face issues of sovereignty and governance that are still very new for this emerging modern state.
When one of our students Nathan Farb, offered words of Torah to the IDF officers and his fellow students, he was able to list what it means to serve the Jewish people today. He included the work of future rabbis, cantors and educators right along with the defending of Jewish state. He was not smug, nor anxious, he embraced the spectrum, he offered a Birkat Haderech….To experience our students and these soldiers “praying” together, singing together, learning torah together, at this modest Kabbalat Shabbat; it was indeed a taste of the Gan Eden and a glimpse of the future….lu yihee!
Posted on January 24th, 2011 No comments
by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.
Bubbe Meises, literally, grandmother tales, have come to be synonymous with superstition. And superstitions are by modern standards ridiculous, right?
Maybe. Or on the other hand. Maybe Not.
A few years ago when my family moved into a new house in a suburb of Chicago, Rabbi Michael Weinberg and his wife Jody brought us a house warming gift, a basket with bread, salt, and honey. The bread and salt, they explained, were traditional while the honey was in honor of the quickly approaching New Year. I have since learned that the tradition of bread and salt seems to likely draw on historic Russian customs of presenting honored guests or new brides with bread and salt as a sign of hospitality and welcome signifying the prosperity of a full larder.
Calling this practice a bubbe meise is not necessarily out of place. While we cannot know exactly how Jews came to adopt this general Russian custom it is not hard to imagine it being passed down in the doing from mother to daughter. As modern Jews, we are unlikely to believe that the bread and salt will be the cause of prosperity, so it is possible to understand it as a superstition.
But that need not mean dismissing this or other similar grandmother tales as valuable to our contemporary Jewish lives.
Instead of rejecting bubbe meise (and by implication the women who believed in them) might we not learn from the process by which Reform Judaism has grappled with the Torah passed through the generations of men? The stories that our grandmothers told one generation to another resonated for them. They held kernels of wisdom and understanding. Distancing ourselves from those truths and those understandings closes off paths to engaging and meaning. In other words, can we look at the specific grandmotherly tales and belief, examine the ways in which they do and do not resonate for us today? Can we reengage and reinterpret with them as we do with tallit or standing for Torah reading?
I believe very strongly that we can and should.
Recently I was asked to bring a spiritual presence to a housewarming for a woman who had moved into a new home after a difficult divorce. While our modern Reform liturgy offers pieces borrowed from other places to contextualize the hanging of a mezuzah, the grandmother tales offered inspiration that not only spoke directly to the situation but also drew from similar contexts in different times and places. Drawing on the North African and Yeminite traditions involving the making of candle, we lit and broke candles to symbolize from which this home represented a break. Considering the salt and bread, we not only connected to the historic hopes for prosperity but also delved into the ways in which bread and salt represented to transfer of holiness from one centralized fixed place, the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem, to the multiple homes that it has lived since.
Before we dismiss the bubbe meise, consider what might be lost if you do.
Posted on May 11th, 2010 6 comments
The most Jewish show on TV? In my opinion it has to be Glee. Each week the songs and story lines revolve around a particular theme, musician or type of music. Excellent execution transforms a somewhat goofy concept –yes, students do just break into song in the gym- into good television. It is also a wonderful contemporary example of the value of intertextuality. Anyone who appreciates the ways in which Jewish culture rests on the ability of texts and traditions to comment on each other across time and place will relate not only to the content –which the URJ has already flagged as useful for those working with teens- but to the format.
Last week’s episode, for example, revolved around “Bad Reputations” and their rehabilitation. The story line revolved around several of the main characters and their struggles with their own reputations –both good and bad. Meanwhile, the members of the Glee club, collectively suffering from the lack of popularity that desire, are charged with task of taking a “terrific song [which] because of time or some bad press has become a joke,” and giving it new life. Not only does the challenge faced by the songs exemplify the challenge faced by the characters, but the songs themselves help bring along the broader narratives. In this particular episode, Olivia Newton John, a 1980s pop star makes an appearance to work with one of the teachers on a redo of Newton John’s 1981 song physical. It is possible to understand the story line with Newton John without having seen the original music video or knowing the ways in which the song resonated with listeners when it was originally released but without the larger context one loses important nuance that the remake conveys. There are layers of irony and history portrayed in the haircuts, color choices, and dance moves that are only apparent if one is able to recall the original work and period.
The idea that old texts, ie. songs, can resonate if we work to reinterpret them is a very Jewish notion. But in reality, Glee does this kind of reinterpretation each week. The songs chosen, whether based on a theme or an artistic body of work, harken back to the original context and ways in which they were presented. Much like Torah study, the ability to understand the story is greatly enhanced by knowledge of the original texts and contexts in which they existed. The ways in which music, text and meaning interact in the show shares similarities with the ways in which music adds layers of interpretation and meaning to prayer in Jewish worship. In Glee, as in midrash, stories reference each other even as they move in different directions and interpretations of the themes under consideration.
Original broadcasts of the show can be seen on Fox on Tuesday nights, but several episodes are available for viewing at anytime online. If you are a fan of the show, a newcomer, or looking to engage young teens in a conversation about Jewish intertextuality, I have put together some of the questions that came to my mind when watching last week. They can be used with the “Bad Reputations” episode but are equally appropriate with any other episode.
- How do the songs add/animate to the storyline? Do they change or advance the story line in any way? How does music add to/annimate Jewish prayer? What would this show be like without the music? What would prayer be like without music?
- How does the original song compare to the Glee version? How does the setting and story line change/add to the original intention? What do you gain about the story line by knowing something about how the theme or musician is thought about outside the context of this show? Consider how Jewish texts or prayers, like the Friday night Kiddush, draw from biblical sources and splice them together. Does this add to or change our understanding of the prayer?
- What do you think the original singer/songwriter would say if they saw the reinterpretation? (In “Bad Reputations,” Oliva Newton John does actually come back and comment on the need to reinterpret her original work.) What do you think that our biblical ancestors would say about how we understand Judaism? What about the rabbis of ancient times?
Posted on January 12th, 2010 2 comments
Ahead of next week’s celebration of Martin Luther King and his legacy, guest blogger Julia Philips Berger pushes us to reconsider how we think about and teach the history of civil rights. Julia has been working with the Jewish Women’s Archive to develop new approaches for teaching the history of civil rights. A graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, Julia is an education consultant residing in Orlando, FL.
Today, when most Reform synagogues have a social action committee and when legal segregation is a thing of the past, it may be hard for us to understand how some American Jews could not support and participate in the Civil Rights Movement. Over the last seven months, as I’ve worked on a high school curriculum about Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement for the Jewish Women’s Archive, I have been examining this issue and many others that highlight the complexities of Civil Rights history. Part of what I’ve learned is that only when we are fortunate enough to hold a position of power and privilege can we support the fights of others. While many Northern Jews felt safe enough and powerful enough to help African Americans in the South, many Southerners did not. Equally important is the fact that many Northern Jews felt differently when the Civil Rights Movement came to the North. In their own communities, Northern Jews did not always support bussing to integrate schools or Affirmative Action to help African Americans enter college and new business fields. These events were more immediate and more threatening to Northern Jews. The lives of American Jews in the 1950s and 1960s were complicated, so are our lives today. If we want our young people to feel connected to Judaism and continue our legacy of social justice, we need to share with them a more nuanced history that resonates with them, not a nostalgic picture of larger than life heroes who always do the right thing and make the right choices.
As Reform Jews, we are proud of our legacy of social justice. The many Jews who participated in the pivotal events of the Civil Rights Movement are an example of this. In addition to the general Jewish participation and the work of individual Reform activists, there was official Reform involvement in this social movement. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who escaped Nazi Germany, gave a speech at the March on Washington. Members of the CCAR and NFTY participated in this March as well, under banners proclaiming their Jewish affiliation. These are the people and events that we generally point to at this time of year or in our religious school classes. But the history of Jewish participation during the Civil Rights Movement is much more complex. And that complexity has much to teach us.
While we are proud of the large percentage of white civil rights activists who were Jewish, the actual percentage of Jews who participated in the Civil Rights Movement is relatively small and the majority of these lived in the North. Many Southern Jews did not actively support the Civil Rights Movement. It was not that they didn’t believe that segregation was wrong, but that they knew that actively supporting desegregation could be dangerous. It could mean the loss of jobs or customers and clients that they could ill afford. It could mean having crosses burned on their front lawns or the bombing of their temples. Northern Jews would eventually leave the South. Southern Jews needed to live within the white Southern community, and they had done so for years by keeping a low profile. The Civil Rights Movement was not low profile, and the actions of Northern Jews reflected upon Southern Jews, exposing them to the wrath of Southern whites.
Tensions also developed between Southern Jews and some Jewish organizations. For example, in 1956, a congregation in Mississippi wrote to the President of the UAHC expressing its feelings that segregation was neither a religious issue nor a Jewish issue, and asked the UAHC not to make statements about segregation which might be understood by others as being the views of all Jews.
As I read these documents, I was reminded of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which explains that we need to fulfill our basic needs like food, housing, and safety before we can aspire to ideals such as tolerance. As Jews, we often think of our people, in more or less homogenous ways, despite our experience to the contrary. A number of years ago when I was a congregational educator, I learned about a child in my religious school who, upon seeing the temple food chest full of soups, pastas, cereals, etc., wanted to know if she could bring home some of the food for her family. Her classmates and teacher were aghast and reminded her that this was where we brought food for those less fortunate than us. As her mother later told me, they were in want and truly needed the food. Sometimes, we forget that not all American Jews are middle or upper middle class.
This month, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, I hope we can have pride in the fact that our people could be found in the Civil Rights Movement. We should also feel gratitude that many of us today have the power and privilege to be able to help others, and the perception to remember that just as we don’t like it when non-Jews make simplistic statements that begin “all Jews…,” we too must remember that all Jews are not the same, and bring that varied tapestry into our teaching of the past.
[For more information about the JWA’s new Civil Rights Curriculum and their summer institute which will teach teachers how to use these materials, go to http://jwa.org/teach/profdev/institute10/ .]