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  • Do Good: NFTY, Hollywood and Social Media

    Posted on January 23rd, 2013 Special Contributor No comments

    Last week was Josh Malina’s birthday. The Hollywood star of the West Wing and Scandal decided to ask his fans and social media to celebrate with him by giving a donation to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

    But it has gotten much bigger than that. Whereas Malina’s first hope was to raise $5,000, they’re now at $12,313. This illustrates the power of asking for small contributions from lots of people – they are able to illustrate support for someone whose work they appreciate, understanding that this person adds value to their lives, and they’re able to improve the lives of others as a tribute. This is wonderful.

    Secondly, what the Causes page doesn’t reflect is something else that happened on Twitter. NFTY (The National Federation of Temple Youth, the youth group for Reform Judaism) made Malina an offer:

    @NFTY@JoshMalina We’ll match your @causes campaign for@StopHunger up to $10,000 if you’ll join us in LA to pick up the check.#NFTYConvention

    Malina’s response:

    @JoshMalina: Seriously?! Done!!!

    Author: Esther D. Kustanowitz

    It’s not a surprise that this happened via social media organizing – Twitter has emerged for so many celebrities as just another PR engine, feeding the American hunger for information about the minutiae of celebrity existence and creating a perception of insiderness for pop culture consumers. But Malina gets it in a way that not all actors do – he shares authentic insights of intelligence and humor in a way that shows you it’s not his PR team doing the tweeting. (Or if it is, WOW. Great job.) On Facebook, he uses that medium to expand on the cleverness and to interact with people in the comments. Malina’s using social media to actually reach people. And that’s why a campaign like this is working – because he writes from a place of authenticity and value. People relate to that, and trust him for it.

    So this is how the world of fundraising can work today. Someone authentic with a large network (and loyal followers who relate to and feel connected to him) identifies a cause they’re passionate about, and a reason to ask people donate, and sets a decent, but modest goal. This person is not a celebrity spokesperson – this cause was their idea, emerged from their understanding of a need and their trust in a particular organization to achieve that need. People respond as generously as they want to, helping that person reach the goal and go beyond. Other people or organizations see the movement and are inspired, putting their own money up to match the cause.

    Now, because a celebrity is involved, NFTY realized it was an opportunity to do good, but also an opportunity for their organization, whether it is greater visibility for their programs or enhanced inspiration for their participants. Neither one of those is a bad thing. Although one could look at this as celebrity blackmail – we’ll give you a check, but you have to make a personal appearance to pick it up – the whole concept of a matching gift itself issues a challenge not unlike blackmail – we will do this, if you do that.

    In any case, Malina seems happy to submit to this specific kind of blackmail, which I described to someone else as “the good, mitzvah-laden kind of blackmail.” Being “ultimatum’d” into a public appearance in order to fight hunger isn’t the worst thing in the world. And maybe that’s the lesson – that when you’re passionate about a cause, you do what you need to do to get it done.

    Best of luck to Mr. Malina, wishing him much success, many happy returns of the day, and much nachas from the success of this campaign. (And in the 20 minutes it took me to write this post, donations have shot up – the total is now $13,597 and growing. Why not add a few bucks of your own to this cause? Donate here.)


    This week’s post was originally posted on My Urban Kvetch and was written by Esther D. Kustanowitz a Los Angeles-based writer, consultant and Jewish communal professional, who is also Program Coordinator for the NextGen Engagement Initiative at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a well known blogger.

  • Gilad Shalit vs. Pessimism

    Posted on September 21st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    I find this time of year hard, really hard –as I feel I should. Returning year on year to the same list of sins and faults, taking account of what I have done and more likely not done in the last year, and wondering about my own mortality weighs heavily on my heart. They are powerful and potent, not entered into lightly. Last year I was able to get behind the idea of real change, seeing possibilities and renewal. This year, less so. My communities have been struck by too much cancer, too much financial hardship, too many broken relationships for me to truly believe as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, “If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.”

    This pessimistic view lingered through the rabbi’s sermons –which were both hopeful, and through the family time, and the joyful communal meals into the first days of the New Year. I was not happy with this state of affairs but no amount of meditation, prayer or spiritual conversation was bringing about a change.

    But one never knows from where strength will come.

    Gilad Shalit

    Gilad Shalit

    On Wednesday, I chanced on a tweet by Reuven Werber, recommending Gilad Shalit’s message for the New Year. Like so many who followed Shalit’s ordeal and reveled in his release, I was curious to know what Shalit would share. He describes this past year, one which has been truly one of renewal. He writes about the exceptional moments like being a guest at the NBA and the mundane moments walking the streets and being recognized or even occasionally anonymously. His optimism is profound.


    “During the past year and the previous years in I have learned to look at things from a different perspective. In general, I try to see the glass as half full, and this is also what I wish for the people and the State of Israel. People can suddenly find themselves in extreme situations or unexpected crises. I believe people should prepare themselves mentally for the possibility that such situations may arise. Even if they are not certain what they are preparing for, they should be aware that things can change dramatically at any given moment. This awareness helps people cope with such changes.

    If and when such an extreme situation arises, you must deal with it as calmly as possible and avoid doing things you will regret later. You must overcome.”

    The cynic in me wanted to dismiss this as naïveté, but the reality of Shalit’s survival and his strength suggest something significantly more profound. If the liturgy is remote and abstract Shalit’s words are embodied in the particular and the clearly horrific. The context and experience that frames these words gives them exceptional meaning and power. Shalit’s words resonate with the positive psychologist, Martin Seligman’s research that suggests that optimism is essential for longevity and the ability to flourish in life. Shalit’s words resonate with the wisdom of Rabbi Nachman.

    But Nachman battled to find the joy and meaning in life, it did not always come readily to him. It is easy to be an optimist when times are good, the economy strong, the sun shining, our bodies healthy, our communities strong. Much harder to achieve is the ability to hope in face of difficulty, to see possibilities even when the world seems closed off.

    But Shalit’s optimism is no blind vision. As he explains, “Faith can help of course, but it must be accompanied by an awareness of reality.”

    As I enter into Yom Kippur I will bring with me Shalit’s words. They are my prayer for myself, for all of us, that we may remain optimistic in face of our realities that may not be changeable in discernable ways, for that is the place from which renewal is possible.

  • Serious or Silly: Making Meaning from Jewish Superstitions

    Posted on August 6th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 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.”

    Author: Emily Losben-Ostrov

    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!

  • A Modest Proposal for the Olympics

    Posted on July 17th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Israeli Olympic team 2012

    I’m a sucker for the Olympics. True, it is a whole lot of expense that might be better spent, but even as a die hard non-sports fan, I find the pomp and ceremony, the exertion and accomplishment exciting. And the part I love best, without question, is the is the parade of countries. The costumes, the flags and the excitement of each country draws me in as I think about how hard each of these people worked to get to this day. As a Canadian who lives in the US, I root for my two “home” teams (okay I will always be biased towards Canada) And as a Jew, I am always particularly proud of the Israeli team.

    But like many, I’m feeling more than a bit ambivalent about celebrating this year.

    This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympic games and the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre, which saw the cold blooded murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists. On the 5th of September 1972, Palestinian terrorist broke into the poorly guarded Olympic village immediately killing two and taking 9 hostages. Attempts to rescue the hostages failed and all those taken were all murdered.

    The Olympic games have come to represent the ability of the world to come together. They are a rare moment of peaceful competition rather than the wars that we are used to. The Munich Massacre is clearly the something that the International Olympic Committee would like us to forget. They have reject all appeals to remember the athletes and coaches who were murdered on their watch 40 years ago.  Each of the murdered Israeli men came to the Olympics with the highest hopes and with the ideals of the Olympic committee. Not only were they betrayed by the very organization for which they labored hard at the time, but their memories are being erased by the lack of memorial.

    Israeli Olympic Team 1972

    Each of these men did not live to see their Olympic dreams fulfilled, to embrace the message of peace and brotherhood. They died before Jodoka Yael Arad was able to win Israel’s first medal and surfer Gal Fridman won Israel’s first gold. On a personal level they did not live to see their families flourish, to know old age. They will not among those who are cheering as the Israeli delegation enter London’s Olympic stadium. And most who are there, marching, watching or watching at home will not even know the story of these men.

    So next week, as you watch the Olympics and all the pageantry of opening, (live or taped after Shabbat) I hope you will join me, in turning off your television for two minutes when the leaders of the International Olympic Committee and the London organizers take the stage, and instead turn your attention to the memory of those who died 40 years ago.


    Those who died:



    Moshe Weinberg

    Yossef Ramano

    Ze’ev Friedman

    David Berger

    Yakov Springer

    Eliezer Halfin

    Yossef Gutfreund

    Kehat Shorr

    Mark Slavin

    Andre Spitzer

    Amitzur Shapira


    May their memories be for a blessing.


  • The Power of Gratitude

    Posted on July 9th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    By: Ruth Abusch-Magder

    A simple street scene glimpsed on the early morning commute. A woman in her forties dressed in a sari, a gentleman in jeans and a collared shirt pressed up by her side. A rolling suitcase stood on the sidewalk nearby. A few feet away two young women in western dress milled about one of them fiddling with a camera, reading to capture the scene.

    Stopped at a red light, I watched for a moment. Driving off I knew that while it was just one of thousands of mundane moments that I had already experienced that morning, there was no denying that something important had happened.

    The concept of gratitude is fundamental to Jewish life and practice. The miracle of opening the eyes deserves a prayer of thanksgiving, as does our ability to put our feet on the floor and going to the bathroom. Following the structures of our liturgy, much of life becomes worthy of gratitude. Gratitude is powerful stuff.

    When I was in 9th grade, my mother went back to school, I moved from a tiny Jewish school to large public school, and my family prepared to move to a different city. I was miserable. Each night, my mother would make me make a list of the things that had gone well that day- my sandwich was not soggy, I finished my math homework with ease, walking home before the rain started. My mother is not a religious woman but she was studying psychology. Positive psychology knows the power of gratitude. As Martin Seligman writes in Flourish, “gratitude will raise your well being and lower your depression.”

    I know this power. Three years ago, I arrived with my family in San Francisco after two challenging years in the Midwest. The sea air, extraordinary vistas and mild climate could not change the difficulties of the past, but the appreciation of the miracles around me made it possible for me to heal some of the scars. I can tell the difference between the mornings when I wake my children with urgent cries to hurry and those I when I wake them with the prayer of thanksgiving followed by a personalized appreciation of my child. On the former, there is tension, on the latter there is harmony –and either way we manage to get out in time.

    There is much in our lives that we often fail to appreciate – and for the most part my gratitude practice helps me noticing those things. But the lady in the sari was different. With the exception of the sari, which was a bold contrast of gold and maroon, there was nothing remarkable about what I saw that morning. Yet throughout the day my mind returned to that moment, to the wonder I had felt in witnessing that moment. Having seen those people standing there, doing nothing that demanded my attention, somehow opened me. The rest of my day was similarly unremarkable and yet throughout I felt profound awareness and sense of awe.

    Both my spiritual study partner and my husband, having heard my story, sought a meaning in what I had seen. But I could uncover none intrinsic to what I had seen. For all I know this was a sad moment in the life of these people a moment of departure. Likewise it could have been a positive moment. But the meaning it had to them was not apparent to me. For me I simply felt blessed to have be able to witness what I did, where I did, for no reason in particular.

    Skeptics often wonder why God needs so much praise. In my experience, it is not about God’s need but rather our own. Most of the prayers of thanksgiving are directed at things that we simply take for granted. Likewise for most of the things on the lists I used to make with my mother. But it is daily noticing that which often is left unenjoyed that I credit for enabling me to be grateful for that scene. There was nothing that I ought to have been grateful at that moment nor was it remarkable in any way. Yet I was profoundly glad for having noticed and taken it in –just because it was. Witnessing and valuing the scene created a sense of openness in me, equanimity that allowed me to be present in an extraordinary way for the rest of the day. And for that too, I am grateful

    This post originally appeared on

  • God and the Holocaust

    Posted on June 26th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    The Holocaust poses particular challenges when it comes to theology. For this week’s guest author, Rabbi Phil Cohen, these questions have been on his mind for a long time. – editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Back in my days in the New York school I gave a presentation on the subject of post-Holocaust theology in Eugene Borowitz’s Jewish thought class.  It was 1980, and the subject had been on the table for perhaps a bit more than a decade and a half, with many serious voices weighing in on the subject of God and the Six Million.

    My study of the topic brought me to the provisional conclusion that the Shoah was caused by people, that the evil perpetrated by the Nazis and their many fellow travelers in both East and West Europe was just that, evil perpetrated by human beings.  My theology, I thought, did not include the question of God’s failure to intervene in the violence, because my image of God did not allow for God to intervene into our affairs at all.  God “does” other things, but not that.

    Author: Rabbi Phil Cohen

    But in a low level way the subject persisted to enter my thinking from time to time.  Then I read an essay by Michael Wyschogrod in which he said, “There has crept into our consciousness a profound anger at God, and this  anger is shared by all Jews even those who will not permit this anger to become  conscious.”  (Contemporary Jewish Theology: a reader, p.247)  I took this anger as being related to the Shoah.  So I called Prof. Wyschogrod and inquired of him if a) the statement was directed at the Holocaust, and b) if he still held to the statement.  The answer to both was “yes”.  “How could a Jew think about the Holocaust and not wonder why the Kodosh Baruch hu didn’t do something?”

    His statement and our brief conversation prodded me to think anew about what is at stake with the dilemma of God and the Shoah.  If we are to deny God’s ability to redeem in Auschwitz, then the liberation paradigm of the rescue at the Sea, which informs so much of our Jewish religious culture, loses meaning. We lose the dynamism of covenant, which, however interpreted, always entails a mutuality of relationship between God and the Jewish people.   We lose chosenness, a idea partnered with covenant, the belief that, somehow, the Jews and God have historically had, one might say, a privileged relationship. But perhaps most was encased in the sentiment voiced by Michael Wyschogrod, that asks how God could have not stopped the brutality.

    Now, this is not to say that these historic features of Jewish belief about God ought to be maintained at all costs simply because they have a role in Jewish thought. Indeed, Richard Rubenstein, who is to be credited with bringing this topic to public discussion in 1966 with his famous work After Auschwitz, loudly declared the death of the God of history.  On the other hand, the continuity of Jewish theology could be maintained by Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, who blamed Liberal Judaism and Zionism for bringing God’s wrath upon the Jewish People.  Similarly, the English Reform Rabbi, Ignaz Maybaum, saw in the Shoah God’s hand bringing the entire world into a new and better phase of human existence through the suffering of the Jews.

    I find myself caught on the horns of this dilemma.  I cannot for various reasons accept Rubenstein’s blanket declaration, nor can I see a divine purpose, punitive (Teitelbaum) or otherwise (Maybaum), in the Shoah.  However, I do like Irving Greenberg’s dialectical thinking that post-Holocaust Jewry’s consciousness sways between two poles.  On the one pole rests absolute evil and through it we viscerally experience the absence of the divine.  On the other side lies the state of Israel, no compensation for the events of 1933-45, nonetheless an experience of deep meaning for Jewish existence, in which religious people see God’s presence.  Negativity and positivity with the Jewish people swinging back and forth between them, occasionally perilously.

    And then there’s Wyschogrod’s statement that all Jews bear an anger toward God.  I’m less interested in whether the statement is true than that is carries in it some truth: many people knowingly or unknowingly bear an animus toward God.  That’s important and interesting enough.

    I have no satisfactory conclusion here except to say that just as the Shoah hangs over us in so many other ways, the predicament of God and Auschwitz, for me, will likely never be resolved.

  • African Immigrants, the Bible and the Importance of Personal Narrative

    Posted on May 31st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    By Ruth Abusch-Magder

    When a good teaching session crosses over and becomes a good study session then it sticks with you.

    According to the description in the brochure, I was teaching about the ancient view of non-Jews, and I did. But it was also much more than that. With the caveat that recent scholarship has brought into question the theory that book Ruth was written as a counter polemic to the book of Ezra, I set out for the group the ways in which the books are both similar and different. Addressing the similar theme of exile and redemption, return to the land, geneology and proper inheritance there is much in common between the two.

    Yet stylistically they could not be more different. Ezra is a book of history, dry and systematic. Ruth is a family story that focuses primarily on the experiences of women.

    Making my theological point, that the choice to read Ruth on Shavuot, speaks to a welcoming vision of community that is not a modern Reform choice, but an ancient rabbinic one, was simple.

    But we did not stop there. Building on the comparison that I had introduced the group moved into a conversation about policy and personal experience. As, they saw it, Ezra portrays the reality he sees from a bird’s eye view. Not once does he stop to look at the effect his directives will have on individuals. Nowhere does he consider the emotional devastation that being sent back to their mother’s houses will have on the women he demands be divorced. He sees all the foreign women as one common threat, not as individual women with stories and varying degrees of commitment or connection to Judaism.

    By contrast the book of Ruth focuses on the personal, getting to know the real story and understanding the complexities that lie below the assumptions of the selfishness, debauchery, and malevolence associated in the Bible with the Moabites as people.

    In endorsing gay marriage, President Obama cited his personal relationships with LGBT couples as essential to helping him make the transition. As a rabbi working with an organization that celebrates racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community, I meet Jews have encountered Ezra’s approach when they attempt to access the Jewish community. But I also meet Jews, who have been seen by rabbis, educators, teachers and congregants as full people with complex stories and experiences. The former need much reassurance and often question their place as part of our people. The latter wear their Judaism with pride, often like Ruth, they become leaders and spokespeople for our community.

    As I write there are riots going on in Israel against African and foreign workers. In the United States there are still those fighting against gay marriage. Big ideas and policies are important, but listening to the stories of the individuals affected by those policies is important too. If we really listen, it will likely complicate our assumptions and challenge our hatreds.


  • Who is Free?

    Posted on March 28th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    As we look towards Pessach and the S’darim, Rabbi Larry Bach asks us to think about the meaning of freedom.

    At Kiddush time at our Seders, we will proclaim the days of Passover z’man cheruteinu, the “season of our freedom.” And the question is, who belongs to that collective “our?” Who is becoming free?

    At the most obvious level, the entity doing the talking, and proclaiming its freedom, is the Jewish people. Pesach celebrates our liberation from Egyptian bondage. We — the Children of Israel — were redeemed at this season, all those years ago. Pesach, at this level, is a powerful exercise in communal memory. We celebrate it each year, so that we’ll never forget that we were freed.

    Author - Rabbi Larry Bach

    Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson saw the text a little bit differently. He sought to expand the reach of the “our” in that passage a bit. For him, “our” implies that there are two entities involved, and they turn out to be us and God. Passover is the season of “our” freedom, ours and God’s. We celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage, to be sure; but we also celebrate the freeing of the divine within us. Pesach is our celebration of freedom from enslavement to habit, anger, and small-mindedness, all of which are the very opposite of liberation. In his words: “Freedom is two-fold. There is a physical liberation of the Jewish People, and a spiritual liberation of the Divine Presence, which is to say, the divine within each and every one of us.”

    Another “member of the club” may be at work as we celebrate “our” freedom: everyone else. For many of us, it’s not enough to talk about “our” freedom and limit the conversation to Jewish concerns. We are part of something larger, that encompasses all people, indeed all beings. To speak about “our freedom” and exclude other people seems to run counter to the spirit of the season and the story. Our children’s prayerbook says it well in the reading that introduces Mi Chamocha, the Song of the Sea: “When we sing it we say, ‘Let everyone be free.’”

    Ultimately, I believe, all of the freedoms contained within that little possessive pronoun — the safety and security of the Jewish people, the releasing of the divine spirit within us all, and the universal redemption for which we work and hope — are connected. It is only from a place of physical security that I can develop the habits that connect me to God within me, and everyone else around me.

    It is my hope that each of us will be challenged by the words of the haggadah and the symbols of the seder to expand our sense of belonging this year. May the Seder work its ancient magic, bringing us — all of us — from slavery to freedom, from darkness to great light.


  • Prayers for Veteran’s Day

    Posted on November 9th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments



    In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below

    A student in an Orthodox school in Canada, I learned this poem  by John McCrae off by heart in the third grade. This was my introduction to the concept of veteran’s and the need to honor the service they have given. As we mark veteran’s day this week my thoughts are with the many women and men who serve and have served the countries in which we live. This World War One poem still resonates but there is also room for the new. Once again, I asked Alden Solovy, member Beth Emet-The Free Synagogue in Evanston IL, Solovy who composes meditations and prayer with contemporary themes and traditional resonances on his blog To Bend Light to address the ongoing need to pray for and with our servicemen and women.  May peace be soon upon us all.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Alden Solovy


    Veterans Day Prayer

    G-d of compassion,

    G-d of dignity and strength,

    Watch over the veterans of the United States

    In recognition of their loyal service to our nation.

    Bless them with wholeness and love.

    Shelter them.

    Heal their wounds,

    Comfort their hearts.

    Grant them peace.


    G-d of justice and truth,

    Rock of our lives,

    Bless our veterans,

    These men and women of courage and valor,

    With a deep and abiding understanding

    Of our profound gratitude.

    Protect them and their families from loneliness and want.

    Grant them lives of joy and bounty.

    May their dedication and honor

    Be remembered as a blessing

    From generation to generation.


    Blessed are You,

    Protector and Redeemer,

    Our Shield and our Stronghold.



    To the Soldier, To the Veteran

    These things I do not know:

    The sound of a bullet.

    The power of a blast.

    The blood of a comrade.

    The depth of your wound.

    The terror at midnight.

    The dread at dawn.

    Your fear or your pain.


    These things I know:

    The sound of your honor.

    The power of your courage.

    The blood of your wound.

    The depth of your strength.

    The terror that binds you.

    The dread that remains.

    Your dignity and your valor.


    For these things we pray:

    The sound of your laughter.

    The power of your voice.

    The blood of your yearning.

    The depth of your healing.

    The joy that frees you.

    The hope that remains.

    Your wholeness and your love.


    The Last Soldier

    When the last soldier passes on,

    When armies are disbanded and militias discharged,

    When weapons are abandoned and armor discarded,

    Your mission will, at last, be over.

    For you know the soldier’s secret.

    Yours was not a mission of war

    Nor a mission of ruin.

    Yours was not a mission of destruction

    Nor a mission of death.

    Your mission was safety, security, protection.

    Your mission was honor, loyalty, service.

    Your mission was to end violence, tyranny, despair.


    When the last soldier passes on,

    When the uniforms are retired and the final grave filled,

    We will remember all who served and sacrificed for our nation.


    Until then G-d of Old,

    Watch over our soldiers and our veterans.

    Renew their courage.

    Rebuild their strength.

    Heal their wounds.

    Bind their hearts with Your steadfast love.

    Remember them,

    Bless then,

    Sustain them,

    And give them peace.


    © 2011 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.

  • Arbat Minim vs Shivat Minim: What is the model for the Jewish People?

    Posted on October 17th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    I’ve taken to teaching the Arbat Minim together with the Shivat Minim. At this time of year our attention is firmly on the arbat minim. Not only are they ritually significant but metaphorically too. After a period of serious introspection we set out our plan for better behaviour with acts and symbols that ensure a good start. Our open sukkot are physical embodiments of the openness that we hope for, our four kinds are according to Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 the embodiment of our ability to come together as a unified Jewish community so that we can all carry each other.

    Another exposition: “The fruit of the Hadar tree”  symbolizes Israel (the Jewish people); just at the etrog (citron) has taste as well as fragrance, so Israel have among them men who possesses learning and good deeds. “Branches of Palm Trees” too, applies to Israel (the Jewish people); as the palm tree has taste but not fragrance, so Israel have among them such as possess learning but not good deeds. “And boughs of thick trees” likewise applies to Israel (the Jewish people) likewise applies to Israel; just as the myrtle has fragrance but no taste, so Israel have among them such as possess good deeds but not learning. “And willows of the brook” also applies to Israel; just as the willow has no taste and no fragrance, so Israel have among them people who possess neither learning nor good deeds. What then does the Holy One, blessed be, do to them? To destroy them would be impossible. But says the Holy One, blessed be, lest them all be tied together in one band and they will atone one for another. If you have done atoned, says God, then I am exalted….”

    This vision of togetherness, each of us carrying the other is inspiring. It provides us with a wonderful model to aim towards in our personal and communal lives. But it is also profoundly troubling.

    Last year my friend Rabbi Juan Mejia, challenged the centrality of this midrash because the vision of togetherness it promotes, assumes a hierarchy. Indeed, as I have taught this midrash through the years I cringe. I do not feel comfortable promoting a vision of some people as essentially heartless or other having no substance either inside or out.

    Which is why I’ve taken to teaching the four kinds along side a discussion of the seven kinds.

    The Shivat Haminim, do not rightfully belong to any holiday. As such they have for the most part fallen out of the modern Jewish consciousness which jumps for the most part from life cycle event to life cycle event with brief stops for certain holidays. But when step out of our modern lens and consider their historic roles as ritual and agricultural symbols we find that they offer us a marvelous counterpoint for a vision of creating a diverse community.

    In Deuteronomy 8:8 the land of Israel is described as a place of bounty as, “a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey,” by extension, they represent the richness of the people of Israel. The seven do are not harvested at the same time of year, they represent the ebb and flow of the natural cycle each coming into its own according to its own timeline. Wheat and barley, the juice of the vine and olive oil were essential to the system of sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. But figs and pomegranates were not. The latter can be eaten in the raw state as can grapes but wheat, barley and olives need human help to come into their best. Wheat makes an appearance in the romance of Ruth and Boaz, a symbol not only of fertility but of sexuality; figs, pomegranates and wine play similar roles in Song of Songs. The people of Israel is similarly made up of a diversity of people. Each has its own unique attributes, its time to bloom, its own function and place within the complexity of our communal narrative.

    In the reality of Jewish communal living, when we come together as a Jewish people with the aim of being as close to each other as the four species of Sukkot, we often default to the hierarchy and assumptions of the midrash. We assume ourselves to be etrogim and easily spot the lesser kinds among the group. But if instead of relying on the lulav, etrog, haddasim and aravot, to represent a vision of Jewish people we take a broader vision, like that of seven kinds, though we may never come together as tightly we may be able to step back from our judgmental selves and notice the value that the other holds on their own account. This is not a simple vision of Jewish peoplehood, but it is one I believe we must hold on to if we are to come close to a vision of unity.