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  • The Face Judaism in America is Changing

    Posted on June 11th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Journalist Simone Weichselbaum

    “The face of the Jewish community is changing,” explained the TV announcer.


    I had to  smile. She was right. The two people she interviews are examples of that change. Award winning journalist Simone Weichselbaum comes from a family that has both German Jewish and Jamaican roots. She grew up in the thick of two communities, easily weaving these identities together. Families like hers are increasingly common and it is a change in the Jewish world. Conversion is increasingly common as well. Some are drawn by marriage, others like African American Rabbi Capers Funnye, who decades ago found his way to Judaism, are drawn for theological reasons. Conversion is changing the face of the Jewish community.


    But the announcer was also wrong. Her guests are both dark skinned. And there have always been dark skinned Jewish faces. There were Jews in Ethiopia long before there were Jews in Poland. There were Jews in India long before there were Jews in Spain. Dark faces abound.


    But for most of us this is still new and maybe even news.


    I work as the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon an organization that advocates for and celebrates the racial and ethnic diversity of the Jewish community. Much of the work is exhilarating. I interact with dedicated and inspiring Jews, whose backgrounds are different than my own but whose passion is infectious. At other times it can be discouraging.  Sometimes my conversations remind me of what I’ve heard tell of the early days of the gay rights movement. Take for example my conversation with rabbi of a modest congregation in a strongly Jewish city. Asking him to lend support to our effort, he demurred explaining that this was not an issue in his community. “There are no Jews of Color in our congregation. If there were I would know,” he explained with confidence. I wanted to ask him if he thought his predecessor twenty years ago had known about the gays and lesbians in the congregation.


    Not a direct parallel? Maybe not, given that visible minorities are in theory visible.

    The assumption that we would see the diversity if it was there does not entirely hold. Take Dr. Levy, who has always been a reliable member of the Shabbat morning Torah study but hasn’t brought her grandchildren along because she is not sure that they or their Vietnamese father would be entirely welcome. Or maybe the weekly Torah reader who joined the community when he moved cross-country has never really talked about his African American father who married his mother and raised him from age two. He is not quite sure how people would react. Or maybe it is cousin Syd and his equally white partner who show up at Sarah’s bat mitzvah with their beautiful Chinese daughter in tow.


    Change is happening, but it should not be so surprising. Diversity is part of broad collective reality of Jewish life and has always been. More than ever it is also the general American reality. Increasingly it is also becoming an open part of the contemporary Jewish reality in the United States.


    The Reform movement is rightfully proud that as a movement it has been at the forefront of social change and fairness, when it comes to LGBT issues. Though there were bumps along the way, many straight allies played important roles in opening door and creating spaces in classrooms, youth groups, and sanctuaries. People learned about inclusion through sermons, curriculum, and informal conversations.  And while there is still much work to be done, I take heart in the changes that have occurred.


    This can be a model as we work to make our congregations, schools, camps and institutions welcoming and inclusive places from Jews of all ethnic and racial backgrounds too. We need to be prophets of the possible. And diversity is not just possible it is inevitable and positive. Whether we see it or not, the announcer was right, the face of the Jewish community is changing. The historic diversity of our people is increasingly becoming –through adoption, intermarriage and conversion- part of the American Jewish narrative. How we adapt to this change is entirely up to us.


    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.

  • The Ten Commandments: What’s The Point?

    Posted on May 13th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Often times I see the “Ten Commandments” displayed on boards in synagogues, above the Parochet, on walls of praying spaces, in religious school classes- each commandment followed by an exclamation mark, for example:
    You shall not kill! ! לא תרצח
    You shall not Still! לא תגנוב!
    Even in places where the exclamation mark is not actually printed, it could be heard in the tone of the imperative form, as we are traditionally accustomed to read it.
    Could it be read differently?

    Author: Rabbi Oshrat Morag

    Placing a question mark
    In her poem “We All Stood Together” , Merle Feld describes how in Sinai, men and women have witnessed the revelation and received the Torah together. However, as the poem continues, a voice of frustration arises; due to lack of time and availability (staying home and taking care of babies) women’s interpretations throughout Jewish history were not documented. This poem represents the first stage of what feminist theologians such as Rachel Adler and Judith Plaskow (among others) describe as the realization of inequality which leads to critic. In the second stage, feminist readings of traditional texts try to reconstruct the lost voices; as readers of texts as well as writers of texts, giving voice to women in texts along with suggesting new ways of reading texts, or listening to them.
    The first stage includes the realization that traditional texts are the product of male interpretation; reflecting their theological, social, cultural understandings. Feminist approach to those texts often places question marks on what is considered “facts” or the “truth” in order to create possibilities for different interpretations which represent women’s experiences. The interpretation of עשרת הדיברות as I would like to suggest here, puts such a question mark.
    The “Ten Commandments”, and for that matter all commandments, are named in English “commandments”- meaning, orders that come from a hierarchal status, in this case from God. In Hebrew the word מצווה comes from the root צ.ו.ה meaning to order, however the use of the word mitzvah refers explicitly to God’s orders . The notion of commandment might be expected in a patriarchal theology where God is hierarchal; He is a Ruler, a King, Lord of Hosts. A God in those images can only speak to us in orders, in commandments. The power of figures such as kings and rulers lies in the ability to put sanctions and punishments on us, should we not follow the commandments.
    Language is limiting human expressions of theological experience, as it is a representation of human experiences and knowledge and a reflection of those on the image of God. Jewish feminists, motivated to add women’s experiences and knowledge to the Jewish conversation , produced other images of God , suggesting mostly non-hierarchal ones. When viewing God as non-hierarchal I would like to place a question mark on the terminology of “commandments” and ask which word might be most fitting to replace it.

    Taking away the exclamation mark
    The “Ten Commandments” are not named “mitzvoth” in Hebrew but rather are called: דברים (in Shmot 20:1) or דיברות (for example in Bavli Shvuot 39a), meaning some form of speaking. God is speaking to all the people in Sinai and sets ten basic points to what might be considered ground rules for the affirmation of the covenant between us. These words are followed by Parashat Mishpatim, in which the words, that are very general, turn into more elaborating sentences- describing the ideal moral behavior.
    In that light, God could be imagined more as a Guide, or as an Educator who is trying to teach us how to create a just and moral society, and how to become good-doing individuals of that society, rather than a Tyrant who orders us how to behave. The image of an Educator or Guide bears somewhat of the authority that I find easier to accept, since it suggests an authority that is based on experience or knowledge that I don’t share or understand, as well as the good intention for my well-being and that of society . God sets before us many more teachings throughout the Torah, and towards the end, in Parashat Re’eh, we are given the Choice ; we have learned what is right and what is wrong, we are aware of the consequences for following each path, but at end it is our choice to make and we are held responsible for it.
    Using the terminology of “teachings” for “commandments” does not come to devalue their meaning or content. I used to say that as a religious person I feel commanded to follow God’s commandments. By changing the terminology I do not feel any less committed to follow the teachings; if anything it enhances my sense of partnership in the Covenant. Changing the terminology is simply asking to take away the exclamation marks that we supposedly have at their end. By doing so, we open new possibilities for reading the “Ten Teachings”.

    Moving toward the point
    In formal and informal education, we assume, or more accurately, hope that the seeds of values that we plant in the minds of children grow with them along the years. We sometimes see the results specifically in difficult situations; should the right choice be made we know the values have been well implemented and correctly applied.
    Viewing God’s teachings in that light, a point takes the place of the exclamation mark, which enables us to read the “Ten teachings” not as orders but rather as a prophecy of our behavior. It may be perceived as if God shares with us our future selves, as if God says to us :

    I am your God. (I took you out of Egypt as salves and now you are the People of Israel)
    If you follow my teachings (and not the teachings and values of [American] Idols)
    You will remember Shabbat. (that it is a sacred day as well as a social one).
    You will honor your parents. (they are your Guides as well and want the best for you)
    You will not kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or lie, or covet. (Because whenever an instinct or a drive to do wrong appears, you will make the right choice).
    With a point at the end.

    We All Stood Together/ Merle Feld

    My brother and I were at Sinai
    He kept a journal
    of what he saw
    of what he heard
    of what it all meant to him

    I wish I had such a record
    of what happened to me there

    It seems like every time I want to write
    I can’t
    I’m always holding a baby
    one of my own
    or one for a friend
    always holding a baby
    so my hands are never free
    to write things down

    And then
    as time passes
    the particulars
    the hard data
    the who what when where why
    slip away from me
    and all I’m left with is
    the feeling

    But feelings are just sounds
    the vowel barking of a mute

    My brother is so sure of what he heard
    after all he’s got a record of it
    consonant after consonant after consonant
    If we remembered it together
    we could recreate holy time
    sparks flying


    Rabbi Oshrat Morag currently lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina and is pursuing a doctorate in Feminist Theology at HUC-JIR.


  • Sacred Stories: History as Torah

    Posted on April 24th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Septima Collis courtesy of National Museum American Jewish History

    The study of Jewish history  is the study of Torah.

    For decades I struggled with the theological and textual core of Judaism and so I took refuge in the study of Jewish history. I assumed that this form of Jewish study would allow me to engage while avoiding the pesky textual and theological questions that troubled me so. I was of course mistaken.

    In delving into the lives of women and men from the 19th century, I read their letters and diaries, wedding invitations, accounts of birthday celebrations. These were the stuff of daily life, sometimes seemingly inconsequential but more often poignant and powerful. Quite unexpectedly, I came to see in history a way to work my way back into the world of rabbinic text. These lives that I was studying, Jewish to the core, were their own form of commentary. As I began to read them as a dialogue with the theological and textual issues that concerned me, new avenues of understanding unfolded. Each Jewish life individually and also collectively gave me insight that helped me unpack complexities and renew a connection to Torah.


    Yet too often there is a chasm that divides the study of Jewish history and the study of Torah. The former is meant of course to be a study in fact while the latter one of spirit, a significant difference that does challenge us when bringing them together for the purpose of making meaning.


    But the Sacred Stories project, a joint collaboration between CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders program and the National Museum of American Jewish History, is showing how bridging that chasm enriches us all. Sacred Stories is a weekly Torah commentary that engages the core artifacts of the American Jewish historical experience. Each week a rabbi connects an element of the Torah portion with a particular artifact found in the museum. Working with the museum professionals to edit the pieces ahead of publication, I have been amazed at how drawing connections between items as mundane as report cards or muffin tins can shift the way I understand a familiar text. I have been equally astonished by the way a piece of biblical text can shift the way I see sometime as familiar as the Statue of Liberty or the Liberty Bell.


    In many ways the project is an experiment. I know of no other such historical Torah commentary. It is a collaboration that is pushing expectations and established norms by bringing together the history of the Jewish experience with the text of the Jewish experience. And yet anyone who has ever sat with someone in a dark moment and invoked the experiences of the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, or delivered a sermon that draws from the parsha to illuminate a contemporary struggle knows that the living experience of the Jews is never apart from Torah. And all that separates our studied attention to here and now from the study of history is the passage of time.


    Jumping from ancient textual past to the present bypasses and disregards the value and potential wisdom of thousands of years of lived Jewish experiences. The Sacred Stories historical Torah commentary shows us the value and potential of taking the opportunity to see the study of Jewish history as Torah.


    Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, the editor of this blog, is currently working with Clal and the National Museum of American Jewish History on the Sacred Stories Torah commentary.


  • Waiting for Marriage Equality: A Prayer

    Posted on April 18th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Waiting for Marriage Equality

    The judicial system in our country works on its own timeline. While I am used to the cycle of the Jewish calendar, I find myself awaiting a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States with all my fellow justice and equality supporting Americans on Prop 8 an DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act). The Supreme Court of the United States heard the Prop 8 and DOMA cases on March 26th and 27th coinciding with the first two days of Passover. While we count the Omer at the end of the second Seder knowing that 49 days later our people will arrive at Sinai for revelation, with the Supreme Court there is no known decision date.


    Sort of.


    Author: Rabbi Eleanor Steinman

    We anticipate the Supreme Court will issue decisions on Prop 8 and DOMA before the summer recess, which it typically does in late June. One attorney shared that the rulings typically come on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday or the days that are colored red or blue on this calendar. Or, though it happens rarely, the Court could kick the case to the next term as they did with Citizens United setting the cases for further briefing and argument in the fall. And in case that wasn’t enough uncertainty in the case of Prop 8, the court could dismiss the writ as improvidently granted, i.e. the Court decides they never should have heard the case and the ruling of the 9th Circuit will stand (Prop 8 is unconstitutional) and the freedom to marry will return to California. (Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. The above is my understanding of some of the options before the Supreme Court).


    To start the process and have no concrete decision day challenges me to take comfort in the unknown. I wrote this interpretive psalm.


    A Waiting Psalm

    (An Interpretation of Psalm 118)


    Rabbi Eleanor Steinman


    In the narrowness of waiting  I called upon the Source of Life; the Source answered me, and set me free.

    God is on my side, the side of equality and justice; I will not fear; what can another human being do to me?

    God takes my part with those who help me; therefore I shall gaze upon those who disagree with me.

    For it is better to take refuge in the Eternal than to put confidence in human beings.

    It is better to take refuge in God than to put confidence in those sitting upon thrones.

    All naysayers surround me; but in the name of God I will not allow their rhetoric to enter my consciousness.

    They surround me; indeed, they surround me; but in the name of God I will pay them no heed.

    They surround me like bees; they are quenched like a fire of thorns; for in the name of the Holy One I will hold fast to my belief in equality for all

    You, the one I disagree with, pushed me hard that I might fall; but God helped me.

    The Eternal One is my strength and song, and my faith has become my salvation.

    The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; the right hand of God does bravely.

    The right hand of God is exalted; the right hand of God fortifies me in this time of waiting.

    You are my God, and I will praise you; you are my God, I will exalt you.

    O give thanks to the Eternal One; for God is good; God’s loving kindness endures forever.

    Amen. Selah.

    In my role as executive director of California Faith for Equality, I am privileged to work at the intersection of faith and LGBT equality. One campaign that CF4E is working on is called Breakthrough 2 Love. On the site you will find sermon resources, social media memes, and other information about how you and your congregation can make a bold statement that your community is open and affirming as we await a decision from the Supreme Court. Remember June is Pride Month, an ideal time to give a sermon. Please be in touch with me (steinman AT cafaithforequality DOT org or @rabbisteinman) if I can be of assistance to you or your congregation.

    Rabbi Eleanor Steinman is the Director of California Faith for Equality. You can follow them on twitter at @faith4equality.

  • Having “THE” Conversation

    Posted on April 7th, 2013 Special Contributor No comments


    The longevity revolution has sparked many a new reality. One of them is the growing need for families to set up a time to engage aging parents (and themselves) in a conversation about wishes at the end for life. The advances in medical technology, coupled with the expanded life expectancy of baby boomers and their parents, have made these conversations ever more necessary. I am often asked to do on this issue, as well as on the subject of care-giving , I stress the importance of congregations having an annual session on how Judaism looks at end of life issues. This includes not only the texts that inform these discussions, but an overview of State or Provincial laws that will impact these decisions. With a growing number of states in the USA passing or considering “Death With Dignity” laws, this issue will only grow in relevance.

    April 16 has been dedicated as National HealthCare Decision Day. That week would be a perfect time to develop a program, a sermon, or convene a conversation that will raise the issue from within Jewish values and texts. This is a delicate subject to raise with our parents. Maybe even more so with our own spouse. Yet, as many of your know, having the conversation and documenting that conversation via an Advanced Directive and Health Care Power of Attorney, can reduce a significant amount of stress in moments of crises and help to alleviate potential guilt.

    Author: Rabbi Richard Address

    Congregations can be a excellent source of strength and support for families having to make these decisions. The role of the relationship developed and maintained over years, can be a foundation for a person and family feeling cared for and supported. By having the congregation initiate these conversation, it can also provide a sense of meaning to congregations who might otherwise be bereft of adequate knowledge in these areas.

    Having the conversation about one’s wishes for the final phase of life requires some time and planning.

    Make sure that the parties involved agree that they will be having this converation: no surprises! Create an environment that is supportive to this conversation. Take your time. Sometimes the conversation may go off into memories and moments that may bring tears and/or laughter. This is part of the conversation and is very important. Raise issues that we know can cause some concern; i.e. what are your wishes if the medical condition is such that there is nothing more that can be done? It is often helpful to use a template on which to base the conversation. There are numerous books and forms available from hospitals, doctor’s offices, religious groups, etc. It may be advisable to discuss one’s religious views regarding end of life care and be aware of the views of the person’s faith.It is also helpful to be familiar with local options for Palliative Care and Hospice Care. It is important to understand these terms and how they can be of benefit in certain circumstances. Additionally, familiarize yourself with the laws of your state.

    Sometimes these discussions may be met with defensiveness. Try and approach this discussion from a perspective of family unity. “We want to make sure your wishes are honored and that there is no confusion, should the case arise that decisions have to be made.” Remember that as important as an Advanced Directive may be, equally important is the Power of Attorney for Health Care. This document allows a designated care-giver to make decisions for someone if that person is unable to speak for themselves.

    And again, please remember to re-visit these documents every few years as people’s minds, life circumstances and medical technology can and will change.

    Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min is the rabbi at M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ and the founder of Jewish Sacred Aging.

  • A Jewish Journey to Panama

    Posted on March 18th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
    Jewish life in Panama

    American Teens in Panama


    Last month, I had the opportunity to lead the 11th-12th graders of my synagogue on a mission to Panama.  We had been learning about various Jewish communities across the globe all year as part of our post-confirmation class, and this would be our chance to experience Jewish life abroad firsthand.  The trip was designed to combine elements of Jewish learning with a few more “traditional” tourist experiences.  It was quite an endeavor to coordinate such a trip, but all the effort was well worth it.  This was a “once in a lifetime” kind of experience that enriched the lives of all who participated.

    After a red-eye flight to Panama from San Francisco (with a brief six hour layover in Las Vegas, where my students swear they saw Ryan Seacrest…), we were picked up at the airport and driven to our first destination – Congregation Kol Shearith Yisrael.  We spent a beautiful and inspiring Shabbat with this vibrant liberal Jewish community in Panama City. The congregation welcomed us with open arms, not to mention fed us very well!  Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik and Ernesto Motta were kind enough to give us an overview of the history of the synagogue and Jewish life in Panama as we sat down to a delicious traditional Panamanian Shabbat dinner – rice and beans, sautéed beef, salads, and, let’s not forget some of the best tasting challah we ever had.

    Author Rabbi Joshua Lobel (center) Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik (left) and Ernesto Motta (right)

    The services were so meaningful, even though not one word of English was spoken. The service was held in Hebrew and Spanish, but we were all able to follow along, particularly because the melodies were all familiar to us.  More than anything else, the Shabbat services at Kol Shearith Yisrael truly underscored the concept of amcha, of Jewish peoplehood, for my students; that wherever you go across the globe, you can find a synagogue and feel at home.

    Over the next couple of days, we took in a couple of the popular tourist attractions of Panama, including taking an educational cruise on the Panama Canal, visiting the Embera, a local indigenous Indian village, and strolling through Casco Antiguo, one of Panama’s oldest cities.  Each sight was more breathtaking than the next. But the last day of the trip would prove to be the highlight of the entire experience.

    An essential part of this voyage was an opportunity to engage in the sacred work of tikkun olam.  After searching for just the right project, we made arrangements with a local orphanage to come and paint their fence and make a donation to the children.   Now, when we agreed to this, I had imagined a plain, worn, wooden picket fence.  However, when we scouted out the location, we found a much bigger challenge in front of us – a huge metallic enclosure with hundreds of thin bars, some of which were rusty!  But we buckled down, bought all the necessary materials, and spent the entire day hard at work, sweating it out in 95 degree heat and humidity until we had succeeded in painting the fence a vibrant lime-green. As we were working, the toddlers of the orphanage were waving and calling to us from the windows, shouting encouragement in Spanish, driving us to work even harder. It was immensely gratifying to see the transformation of the façade of the orphanage.

    The service project also provided one of my favorite moments of the trip. As they painted the fence, the teens starting singing in order to pass the time.  In the beginning, they chose to sing different pop songs from artists you would expect – Justin Beiber, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and more.  But as they were painting, all of a sudden, a different melody rang out and my face broke into a wide grin.  Here in Panama, painting a fence, my teens were singing Mi Chamocha.  Oseh Shalom followed, then Shalom Rav, and Veshamru.  Something about this work resonated with them as young Jewish leaders. In their hearts, they knew they were performing an intrinsically Jewish task – creating, quite literally, a brighter world for the underprivileged children of Panama.   They weren’t only doing a nice thing. They were doing the Jewish thing!

    By any measure, this trip was a fantastic Jewish experience, one that our teens will never forget.  I encourage every synagogue to explore a mission to a community outside of the United States. In particular, there are congregations in Latin American and the Caribbean that long for a greater feeling of connectivity and relationship to synagogues in the U.S.  But believe me, the benefits for our teens are much greater.  During a standard vacation, we bring back souvenirs, little trinkets to remind us of our voyage.  But during a journey like this, our teens bring back something much more valuable – a stronger understanding of the concept of Jewish peoplehood, the satisfaction of having a lasting impact on a community, and, perhaps most importantly, a greater sense of their own Jewish identity.

    Rabbi Joshua Lobel is the associate rabbi at Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California.

  • Best Jewish Education Innovation Since Two Tablets

    Posted on March 12th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    You know how it goes, you learn a great piece of Torah and want to share it.  Or maybe you have a big idea and you know just the mishna to exemplify it.  Sometimes it is as simple as the source of the words to a new song you want the choir to learn. But standing between our understanding and interest in the text and the people you want to reach is that ever so finicky tool of the trade, the study sheet.

    Sure the days of mimeographs and carbon copies are gone but even with Hebrew data bases and Hebrew language word processors the cutting and pasting, the margins, the fonts can all make one throw up their hands.


    But, NO MORE!!!


    There is a new kid on the block by the name of Sefaria, which is in my opinion the best thing since Moses brought us the tablet. Okay, an exaggeration for certain, but Sefaria is indeed a wonderful tool that every Jewish educator should be taking advantage of. Merging the best of what modern technology has to offer together with a well honed sense of what goes on when people study Jewish texts, they have created a site that allows users to create and share study sheets with ease. The texts are in Hebrew and in English. There are a few choices about how to lay out the material. You can see traditional commentaries or add your own annotations. And lickety split, you have a hand-out ready to go.


    Okay, true not every text is there and you may not love the translations that are available. But, there is a great deal available and in the best of open source ie. collaborative tradition, if you want to add or contribute, you are welcomed and encouraged to do so. It was co-founded by Brett Lockspeiser who has worked in tech including places such as Google and Joshua Foer an author of many books including Moonwalking with Einstein. The main team includes rabbis from across the spectrum like Rav Yehoshua Kahan and Rabbi Ellen Bernstein. But they need more of us to get involved. If you don’t want to translate or enter text, then make some sheets and share them. Help build the future of Jewish learning.


    And if you are the kind of person for whom learning a new tech tricks is hard, there are training videos and detailed instructions that lay things out pretty clearly.


    Try it. It really is pretty cool and mighty useful too.


  • Sitting on a Seesaw, Finding Answers in Israel

    Posted on February 26th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    The ascension of the Member of Knneset Ruth Calderon got me thinking about children’s songs.

    The early Zionists, busy with politics, originally overlooked the genre of children’s songs. It was easy for the great poet Haim Nachman Bialik to rush in to fill the void. But he did much more than whip off a few ditties in the modern language of Hebrew. Worried that without new songs the minds of children would be filled with old ideas, he packed with re-interpretations of classic Jewish texts.

    Take for example, his poem about a see-saw,



    נד, נד, נד, נד,
    רד, עלה, עלה ורד!

    מה למעלה? מה למטה?
    רק אני, אני ואתה.

    נד, נד, נד, נד,
    רד, עלה, עלה ורד!

    שנינו שקולים במאזניים
    בין הארץ לשמיים.

    Seesaw seesaw
    Go down, go up

    What is up above, what is down below
    Only me, me and you

    Go down, go up
    The two of us are balance on the scale
    Between heaven and earth

    Below the surface of this simple poem lies the genius of secular Zionism. What appears to be the regular gobedly gook of children’s rhymes (I sang it to my kids for years while they played in the yard) is actually a critique of Mishna Haggigah 2:1 and the existence of God.

    מסכת חגיגה פרק ב
    א פרק ב הלכה א משנה
    אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים ולא במרכבה ביחיד אלא אם כן היה חכם מבין מדעתו וכל המסתכל בארבעה דברים רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם מה למעלן ומה למטן מה לפנים ומה לאחור כל שלא חס על כבוד קונו רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם:

    Anyone who meditates upon four things, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after.

    And anyone who has no regard for the honor of their Creator, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world.

    Whereas the mishna makes clear that questioning the existence of God is a heretical, Bialik uses the language of the mishna not only to question the existence of what is above and below but to provide an answer –NOTHING. Using the simplest poetic form, Bialik engaged with tradition and turned it on its head. He used the words of the tradition to help express a new vision of Jewish reality.

    This ability to engage with but also question and transform traditional text is one of the greatest and most creative elements of Zionism. As successful as it was in the realm of children’s songs, this approach to text remained largely outside the realm of secular parliamentary politics. Until last week that is.

    Many have seen Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon’s speech to the assembly. Like all new MKs, Calderon was given the opportunity to address her colleagues. Instead of spelling out her policy goals, she chose to teach a section of Talmud. If you missed it, you can watch in the video below or read it here in English. Many have commented on the speech. Much has been made of her ability to engage with ultra-Orthodox MKs. Some have lauded her as the only hope for breaking the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism. Writing in the Daily Beast Zachary Braiterman critiqued Calderon for lacking policy and for setting a dangerous precedent mixing religion and politics.

    I have great admiration for Calderon. She earned a doctorate in Talmud from Hebrew University. She played a key role in creating the secular yeshivah movement in Israel and in promoting secular prayer for Shabbat and holidays.  Zachary Braiterman is correct, Calderon is not a veteran politician, she does not come into the Knesset with a step by step solution and a plan. However, I do see her mixing of politics and tradition as hopeful not as dangerous. One of her first acts in office was to set up a regular time for text study. She has reclaimed the project of the early Zionists and by doing so suggested a new vision for how we might go forward as we search for the proper path towards the future.

    Like the children in Bialik’s song, members of Knesset are searching for the definitive answers to life’s problems. Contrary to the mishna, far from being a heretical act it is a necessary one. The answers are not in the sky, or down below. They come from the dialogue that emerges from the back and forth that happens on the seesaw, the give and take of weight, of idea and positions. Anyone can make a policy speech but it takes creativity and vision to see that answers will come from and balancing between text and reality, between the ground and the sky.



  • Jewish Jokes

    Posted on February 20th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    Jews have long used humor to cope with difficulty. At Purim time the Jewish jokes are especially apt. Here are a few to get you started. We hope you will share some of  your favorites with us! Please post your offerings in the comments section below!


    Winning the Race

    Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion decided to field a rowing team. Unfortunately, they lose race after race. Even though they practice and practice for hours everyday, they never manage to come in any better than dead last.

    Finally, the team decides to send Morris Fishbein, its captain, to spy on Harvard, the perennial championship team.
    So Morris schlepps off to Cambridge and hides in the bushes next to the Charles River, where he carefully watches the Harvard team at its daily practices. After a week, Morris returns to HUC-JIR.
    “Well, I figured out their secret”, he announces.
    “What? Tell us! Tell us!” his teammates shout.
    “We should have only one guy yelling. The other eight should row.”
    -Paul Kipnes

    Purim Comes Calling

    Knock knock.

    Who’s there?


    Esther who?

    The Esther bunny!


    Knock knock.

    Who’s there?

    Vashti! Vashti who?

    Vashti dishes and I’ll give you a hamantaschen!


    Knock knock.

    Who’s there?

    Haman Haman who?

    Haman whatcha doing tomorrow, it’s Purim!


    Knock knock

    Who’s there?


    Orange who?

    Orange you glad it’s Purim?!

    -Phyllis Sommer


    So Long

    The difference between Jews and non Jews at a party? Non Jews leave without saying goodbye, Jews say goodbye and never leave. – Eric Siroka

    A woman goes to the post office to buy stamps for her Chanukah cards.
    She says to the clerk “May I have 50 Chanukah stamps please.”

    “What denomination?” says the clerk.

    The woman says “Oy vey, my god, has it come to this? Okay, give me 6
    Orthodox, 12 Conservative and 32 Reform!”

    -Josh C. Perlman

    Out and About

    What does a waiter say to a table of Jewish women? “Is anything all right?” -David Young


    Sermon Survey

    I first heard from one of my favorite professors, Chanan Brichto, of very blessed memory: A congregant comes up to her rabbi at the Oneg Shabbat and says: “Rabbi that was the worst sermon I ever heard. You insulted our intelligence and rambled on and on.” A congregant who overheard then approaches the rabbi and says: “Oh don’t listen to her. She has no mind of her own! She just repeats what everyone else is saying.”               -Stephen Fuchs


    Moishe Goldberg was heading out of the Synagogue one day, and as
    always Rabbi Mendel was standing at
    the door, shaking hands as the congregation departed. The rabbi
    grabbed Moishe by the hand, pulled him aside and whispered these words
    at him: “You need to join the Army of God!”

    Moishe replied: “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”

    The rabbi questioned: “How come I don’t see you except for Rosh
    Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”

    Moishe whispered back: “I’m in the secret service.”

    -Josh C. Perlman

    It Is No Bother

    Once a rabbi was speaking and a baby started to cry. His embarrassed Mother hastened to remove him. The rabbi called out to her. “Please, you don’t need to take him out. He wasn’t bothering me.” The woman answered, “Rabbi I wasn’t taking him out because he was bothering you. I am taking him out because you were bothering him!” –Stephen Fuchs

    The Blessing Of Shabbat


    What do you get from bad chicken on Friday night? ……..


    -Elisa Koppel


    Parking Spot

    Moishe is driving in NYC . He’s late for a meeting, he’s looking for a
    parking place, and can’t find one. In desperation, he turns towards
    heaven and says: “Lord, if you find me a parking place, I promise that
    I’ll follow all of your commandments and live my life as an exemplary
    Jew. ”

    Miraculously, a place opens up just in front of him.

    He turns his face up to heaven and says, “Never mind, I just found one!”

    -Josh C. Perlman


    Adam and Eve on the Bus

    A devoutly religious Israeli man is sitting on a bus when a scantily clad
    secular Israeli woman takes the seat next to him. Saying nothing, he reaches
    into his bag, pulls out an apple and places it in front of her.

    “What’s this?” asked the woman.

    The man replied, “In the Garden of Eden, after Eve ate the apple she had to
    wear clothes!”

    The next day, this scene repeated itself as the same woman took a seat next
    to the same man. This time it was her turn to pull an apple from her bag and
    place it in front of him.

    “What’s this?” asked the man.

    The woman replied, “In the Garden of Eden after Adam ate the apple, he had
    to work for a living!”

    -Rachel Gurevitz

  • Valentines Day: Jews and the Un-Jewish

    Posted on February 14th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    “Valentines Day is not a Jewish holiday, which is why I did not buy you flowers…” croons Rabbi Joe Black in a song released just in time for the February celebration of love. I had to smile. I’ve heard this before. I grew up in a tight knit traditionalist Jewish community that eschewed the exchange of cards and sharing tokens of love at Valentines Day.


    It is true as the rabbis of my youth taught me and as Black reiterates, any holiday that has a Saint in its name is by no means a Jewish holiday.

    But at what point does the fact that a holiday started off as ‘not Jewish’ stop being a meaningful barrier for engaging in its celebration by Jews? In the United States, the land of sharing, borrowing, and commercialism there are many holidays that have moved beyond their historic meaning and simply become American. For example, the origins of holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day have been overtaken by colorful parades, green beer and and corn beef. Having become a national day of celebration, we can no longer assume that everyone wearing green for the holiday is Catholic or Irish.


    Even more extreme is the disconnect between Halloween and it’s saintly roots. According to that venerable source of all knowledge, Wikipedia,

    Halloween or Hallowe’en (a contraction of “All Hallows’ Evening”), also known as All Hallows’ Eve, is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on October 31, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows (or All Saints) and the day initiating the triduum of Hallowmas.


    Of course very few, if any, of the myriad of people who decorate their home, dress up, attend parties or go door to door in late October in the many communities I’ve lived in (with the exception of Munich, Germany in the heart of Catholic Bavaria) know any of this. And even if they do, it has been rendered meaningless by the gross commercialization that has us buying plastic pumpkin containers the moment we put away the summer shorts. Halloween has become an occasion for merriment, community and FUN.


    Even Jewish institutions have started to embrace the holiday. When Halloween coincided with Shabbat a few years back, many synagogues suggested that kids come in costume with some offering challot with orange and black sprinkles and others candy.


    Halloween may have started as part of a Saint’s Day but it has moved far beyond that meaning.


    And though Rabbi Black’s made me smile and resonated ever so strongly with my husband who like the good rabbi sees no point in paying extraordinary sums for a dozen roses, I know lots and lots of Jews are out there celebrating this day, buying flowers, chocolates, over priced dinners or pining away for a love that is sadly absent.


    The dismissal of a holiday just because it is not Jewish does not take into account the ways in which Jewish have integrated into American society nor the ways in which America has changed the original meaning of those holidays. Nor is this shift limited to the United States. This morning I gave my kids heart shaped boxes of Elite chocolates I picked up in Israel and just got a notice from El Al asking me how I’m celebrating Valentines Day. In a recent conversation  with a group of rabbis at CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders retreat raised the question of whether Christmas could ever become so secular as to overwhelmingly loose its Christian meaning. I’m not willing to go that far -though I’m sure others will be glad to argue with me- but even if we never get that far, let’s recognize that something need not be Jewish to be meaningful to Jews.