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  • A Meditation in Preparation for Rosh Hashana

    Posted on August 22nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    Much of the work that we do during Elul is practical as we get ready for the new school year and for the mechanics of the High Holidays. But even the most busy among us can and should take some time to reflect on where we have been and where we hope to go in the year ahead. Originally, I developed an earlier version of this meditation to be done with a group as part of tashlich, but I have found that it is helpful to enter into this kind of reflection ahead of the holiday season as part of my personal preparation. I do it as a silent reflection and have provided instructions for this approach. One should allow at least 25 minutes at minimum to make one’s way through the whole thing so that you have at least two minutes of thought on each topic but you might take more time if that is what feels right. Alternatively, this meditation can serve as a prompt for journaling or reflective conversation. Let me know how it works for you! -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Sit or stand as you feel most comfortable. Place your feet comfortably apart, firmly feel the ground below you. This meditation takes you through the months of the Jewish year. After the instructions for each month, take at least two minutes to reflect and consider.

    Tishrei: Think back to last Rosh Hashana, recall the sound of the shofar. What has cried out to you in this last year? What moved you from the routines of your life?

    Heshvan: Sometimes we are awakened for good and sometimes we are awakened to that which is bitter. We cannot overlook that which is difficult or hard, reflect on the pain and suffering that has been a source of challenge this last year.

    Kislev: Recall the candles that burned last Hannuka. Light can transform darkness. Miracles can happen. Consider one or many of the rays of light that have given you hope this past year.

    Tevet: The winter rains are that which later bring forth possibilities. What have you done in this last year that will create changes in the future? Reflect on the work that you have done that has not yet born fruit.

    Sh’vat: This is the month where we celebrate the trees. Each year they add a ring to the strength of experience that they already posses. Focus on one way in which you have added to your own strength this year.

    Adar: We all hide elements of ourselves from the world. Consider what part of yourself you are keeping hidden, ask yourself what you risk by revealing it and what might you accomplish if you shared it.

    Nissan: Sometimes freedom comes in grand moments, other times in small steps. What have you managed to let go of in this last year? Who or what helped you in that process? What did you learn or gain?

    Iyar: Even when times are good there is often grumbling and it is only to be expected when times are tough. Focus on some of the complaints that have recurred during this year, ask yourself if they are warranted,

    Sivan: Revelations can change the way we see or act. What new things have you discovered about yourself this year, how have you grown in your understanding? Consider something that you have learned about yourself or something that you hope will be revealed soon.

    Av: Baseless hatred can be the source of much destruction. Where have you been quick to judge in this last year? Consider the implications of your negative judgments, for yourself, those close to you, and your community. How might you repair damage done or shift your approach in the future.

    Elul: Where are you now? Consider the year that lies ahead. What work do you want to do, need to do, so that you can be fully present?

    End with the singing of a niggun or meditative song such as Hashiveni or with the blowing of the Shofar.

  • 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!

  • Music In Modern Israel

    Posted on April 10th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Music always offers a wonderful way to connect to Israel and the diversity of Jewish life. As we look toward the marking of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, we offer this tour of ancient and modern music as seen through the eyes of Cantor David Berger of Congregation Tikvat Joseph of Manhattan Beach CA.


    This year I have the unique privilege of spending nine months in Jerusalem studying at the Hebrew University and teaching at the Hebrew Union College. Within a few blocks of my apartment in Jerusalem there are more synagogues than you can imagine.

    Situated right between the old alleyways and courtyards of Nachla’ot, and the bustling shopping of Ben Yehudah, my temporary home is just about a block away from the first Reform synagogue in Israel, Kehilat Har-El, on Shmuel Hanagid street. Bouncing between all these different types of Jewish communities gathered together in such close proximity, I am continuously reminded that the sounds of Judaism are so much more diverse than any one community can ever contain.

    Author: David Berger

    Some of these places preserve melodies that have been sung for hundreds of years, accompanying the community through different historical eras and geographical locations. Other places experiment with new types of musical expression, reaching out to the “secular” Israeli population by following the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – “May the old be renewed and may the new be holy.” I wish that I could personally take you with me on a tour of the exciting Jewish sounds all around my Jerusalem apartment, but instead, I’ll share some of those sounds and sites with you using Youtube.

    We’ll start at the “Great Synagogue Ades of the Glorious Aleppo Community.” This stunningly beautiful building in Nachla’ot is the center of the Syrian Jewish cantorial tradition. Every Saturday night, from Sukkot until Pesach, members of the community gather at 3:00 AM and sing piyutim (liturgical poems) and psalms for four hours in a ritual called “Bakashot.” After a whole night of singing, the community starts their Shabbat morning service at 7:00. It is quite the undertaking to visit, but the spirit and joy of the community makes it all worth it. Check out this video to get a sample of this Bakashot ceremony (filmed in 1976, but things haven’t really changed much).

    Moving from Nachla’ot to my favorite music store on Ben Yehuda Street, Hatav Hash’mini (The Eighth Note), I would love to share some of the newest Israeli popular music that takes Jewish texts and melodies once limited to the synagogue and gets them on the radio.

    Sagiv Cohen has combined traditional Yemenite melodies with contemporary pop arrangements on his new album Hal’lu. Listen for his Yemenite pronunciation of Hebrew on this recording of the 150th psalm.

    The New Jerusalem Orchestra released a live recording of their inaugural concert, lead by the incomparable Rabbi Haim Louk, the leader of the Moroccan cantorial world. This unique ensemble brought together Jazz, Arabic music, Classical music and modern Israeli music – something that has never really been done before. Listen to their recording of “Ya’alah Ya’alah,” a classic Moroccan festive song.

    Etti Ankari has been a major figure on the Israeli popular scene for 20 years. After six albums of beautiful, secular songs, she went through a religious transformation, and recently came out with an album of original melodies to religious poetry by Rabbi Yehudah Halevy (1075-1141). On this extraordinary album is a touching setting of Psalm 23 – watch her in a live performance here.

    Going back up Ben Yehuda Street, there is a new major Jewish institution on King George Boulevard, right next to the Jewish Agency building. Beit Avi Chai ( is a center that offers an unbelievable array of concerts, classes, programs and exhibits around issues of Israeli culture, Jewish tradition, food, music, theater… It is impossible to keep up with everything that goes on there. Check out this small sampling of exciting videos on their Youtube channel.

    Guy Zuaretz (an Israeli TV star) singing “Cuando El Rey Nimrod” in a concert of Ladino music:

    Here is a group performing the text “Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” from Psalm 23 to an Arabic melody:

    Here is a jazz ensemble performing a classic, nostalgic song made popular by North African Jewish singers about the city of Barcelona:

    Look around their Youtube channel – it is a tremendous treasury of the newest and coolest Jewish culture coming out of Israel today.
    For one more synagogue visit – I want to take you to an exciting new place called Nava Tehila

    This relatively new community meets once a month for Friday night services and offers continuing classes on Jewish spirituality and kabbalah. Mostly using their own melodies, this community reaches out to Israelis in a musical and spiritual language that feels natively Israeli. They post videos of their musicians performing many of their new melodies so that people can come to synagogue prepared to sing. Check out this melody for Psalm 98, part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service (and then look around the rest of the site)

    I wish that I could bring you into more places – but for now this taste will have to suffice. Jerusalem is alive with Jewish music and Jewish prayer that never ceases to amaze. Just when I think I’ve heard it all – I wander into another place and find myself enthralled with something I’ve never even imagined. As I enter my last few months of time here in Jerusalem, I wonder how I will be able to bring this music back to my synagogue in California. As Reform Jews, we are committed to an ever-expanding vision of Judaism. This year at your Passover seder, when you recite the words “L’shanah Haba’ah Birushalayim” – “Next year in Jerusalem” – and you think about the sounds and sites of the holy city, may you be inspired with a vision of Judaism and Jewish music that celebrates all the diversity and excitement Jerusalem can bring.

    This piece originally appeared on the American Conference of Cantors blog and was reprinted with permission.



  • Remember, Forget, Live: Thoughts for Elul

    Posted on September 12th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Forget-Me-Not Flowers


    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder


    Remember Amalek.

    Blot out the memory of Amalek.

    We are to remember and to forget. Remembering and forgetting are linked in an eternal paradox. Without remembering there would be no need to forget but if we truly forget we will not know that we have done so.

    At Purim we remember and then we forget. We return twice over to the words of the megillah, listening to each. We do not miss a word. The memory is made fresh, bold with repetition. And then we drink, we make merry. We forget the serious dangers, the threat to our very existence. It is too much. It is too easy for us to become Haman. When we focus on the remembering it can be easy to overlook our own potential to do evil, to remember that we too can be destructive. It is easy to forget our own power and potential –for good and for evil.

    Jewish sociologist Shaul Kelner marks tzom Rabbin yearly, fasting to commemorate the Rabin’s assasignation. It is his modern tzom Gedaliah. He worries about forgetting. He values the remembering and the lessons it brings to mind.

    There was a very small notice in the Jewish press this morning. The rally remembering the assasignation of Yitzhak Rabin has been cancelled for this year. In the 16 years that have passed the numbers attending this memorial event have dwindled. The memory and the lessons are fading.

    This week Americans are remembering the events of a decade ago, on the 11th of September, 2001. For some there has been no forgetting. Not a day goes by without memories, fear and loss. For others the rituals of the day shaped not only the remembering but also the forgetting. It is our national Tisha B’Av and we are still working to create a meaningful way to both remember and forget.

    The hassidic rabbi of Slonimer, Rabbi Shalom Noach Bereovsky z”l, reflected on Tisha B’Av in his commentary Netivot Shalom. Playing with one of his favorite themes he writes:

    Now, we have taught that there are two paths to teshuvah: the way of “turn from evil” and that of “do good”….But there is a superior path, as the righteous have taught: turn from evil by means of doing good. …we were created to delight in God and bask in the light of the Shekhinah, and this is the objective of our lives of service. When we merit to delight in God, all other fineries and delights pale to nothing in comparison, and evil flees in turn. (translation Rabbi Jonathan Slater)

    Furthermore, as Rabbi Jonathan Slater explains, the Netivot Shalom is playing with the themes found in the prophecies of doom that are read ahead of Tisha B’Av. “R. Shalom Noach, following in the tradition of his forebears and hasidism in general, inverts the sensibility of the season, and the meaning of Isaiah’s vision. Mourning the past is meaningless and ineffective; grieving our own failures and coming into a relationship with our own lives in this moment is liberating – even on the Ninth of Av.”

    We are still too close to know how the remembering and forgetting with regards to the events from 9-11 will shake out. Six years from now, ten years from now, fifty or a thousand years from now, how will we remember, how will we forget? Yet so many of those who were not directly traumatized directly by the events of 9-11 have spoken of one of the lasting effects of that day, the ability to live  -as R. Shalom Noach would have us do -more fully in the moment.

    It is Elul and soon the Yamim Noraim will be upon us. The Shofar calls us daily to remember. We look back over our own lives and remember our own worst moments. The Shofar calls us daily to forget. In order to turn away from evil and turn towards good we need to let go of our own patterns of behavior, we must forget our memorized patterns of behavior. In order to be truly forgiving we must forget the slights and injustices that we have experienced. We cannot afford to be paralyzed by our memory nor set adrift without any sense of the past. Rather we must work to be liberated by the paradox of both remembering and forgetting so that we may live most fully.


  • Prayers for 9-11

    Posted on April 27th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 5 comments

    Liturgy is an essential element for clergy planning memorial tributes, but in looking ahead towards the 10th anniversary of 9-11, several rabbis noted that the complexity and immediacy of the events might not be addressed by the traditional Jewish liturgy. In looking to fill this void I turned to Alden Solovy. A member Temple Beth Emet-The Free Synagogue in Evanston IL, Solovy has been blogging meditations and tefillot with contemporary themes and traditional resonances on his blog To Bend Light. He took up the challenge of creating liturgy for our communal needs at this time and writes in this second in a series on 9-11 of the challenges and possibilities that emerge.  Please let us know if you choose to use any of these prayers or offerings. And as always you are encouraged to send ideas and materials to add to the conversation.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder


    In the past two years I’ve written more than 150 new t’fillot, meditations and liturgical poems. Some take classic themes and put them in a modern voice (for example, “Israel: A Meditation”) and others take modern themes and give them a classic voice (for example, “In Memory of an Organ Donor”). Others take a new look at specific spiritual triumphs and challenges.

    Alden Solovy

    Writing prayers to commemorate 9-11 raised a variety of questions, among them:

    • Whether or not to use particularly charged words, like hero, victim or terrorist?
    • What voice to use, first person or third person, the voice of the witness or the survivor?
    • Whether or not to make distinctions – among others – between those who were on planes, those who were in targeted buildings, those who were in target zones, first responders, family members and those of us who witnessed from across the nation?
    • How or if to relate to the terrorist in prayer?

    For the most part, these prayers illustrate my answers. Two of these offerings are Yizkor prayers. The intent of creating Yizkor prayers is to provide family and friends with an ongoing liturgical response to their losses. Note that the Yizkor prayer for first responders has an intentionally broader focus than 9-11.

    Here they are, followed by links to several other prayers that may be useful to you in the context of developing a 9-11 commemoration.


    For 9-11 Survivors

    G-d of the survivor,

    G-d of the mourner and the witness,

    Grant solace and peace to those still held by physical, emotional and spiritual distress from the attacks of 9-11. Release them from visions of death and destruction, from guilt or shame, from fear or anger. Bind their wounds with Your steadfast love. Lift them on Your wings of kindness and grace.

    Blessed are those who have found peace.

    Blessed are those without tranquility.

    Blessed are those who speak.

    Blessed are those who stay silent.

    Blessed are those who have healed.

    Blessed are those who suffer.

    Blessed are those who forgive.

    Blessed are those who cannot forgive.


    Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, Source of strength for survivors of violence and tragedy in every land and in every age. Blessed are You, Rock of Israel, Source of hope and comfort.


    To the Terrorist

    You who would hold the sky captive,

    The sea prisoner,

    The land in chains…


    You who hide in caves,

    Retreat to the wilderness,

    Disappear behind false names and forged papers…


    You who smuggle guns and arms,

    Hide rockets in cities and bombs in homes,

    Build weapons against the innocent and the bystander…


    You whose designs are destruction,

    Whose plans are fear,

    Whose joy is hate…


    You who harden your hearts

    And wrap yourselves in death…


    What evil has robbed you of your love,

    Your compassion,

    Your goodness,

    Your humanity?

    What lies have invaded your minds

    So that you choose to die in order to kill?


    We who love our lives and liberty

    Stand firm and strong against terror.

    We will defend our nation and our people.

    We will protect our land and our homes.

    And we pray for you to find hope and comfort

    In lives of peace.


    At the Hand of Terror: A 9-11 Yizkor Prayer

    Creator of all,

    Source and shelter,

    Grant a perfect rest under your tabernacle of peace

    To ______________________ (name in Hebrew or your native tongue),

    My [ father / mother / sister / brother / child / wife / dear one/ friend ]

    Who died [ in / during / because of ]

    The 9/11 attacks on the United States.

    Remember the works of his/her hands

    And the message of his/her heart

    Remember all those who were lost in the terror of that day.

    Grant their families peace and comfort for Your name’s sake

    And for the sake of those who perished.

    Bring an end to violence and terror,

    Speedily, in our days.

    May the memory of _____________________ be sanctified with joy and love.

    May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life,

    A living blessing in our midst.


    Yizkor for First Responders

    G-d of the selfless,

    G-d of the strong and the brave,

    Grant a perfect rest among the souls of the righteous

    To ______________________ (name in Hebrew or your native tongue),

    My [ father / mother / sister / brother / child / wife / dear one/ friend ]

    Who died in service to others [ in / during / because of ]

    _________________________________________________ [name of event such as:

    [the 9/11 attacks on the Unites States, the Mount Carmel forest fire, etc.].

    May his/her  dedication to protecting life serve as a shining lamp of  love

    And the works of his/her  hands bring us all merit in heaven.

    Bless the souls of all who have died to save others,

    Civilians and professionals,

    The trained and the untrained,

    In every age and in every land,

    Men and women who answered the call of honor, duty and service.

    May the memory of _____________________ be sanctified with joy and love.

    May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life,

    A living blessing in our midst.


    Other prayers that may be useful in developing a 9-11 commemoration are:

    All of these works are © 2011 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved. Please see “Share the Prayer!” for permission instructions.


  • Confronting Family Stress at Passover

    Posted on April 8th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.

    I often think that Passover is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. Both are holidays for which there is significant preparation, anticipation and expectations. Both are holidays when we make a special effort to reach out to family and gather together in celebration. Both have rituals and customs but also meanings that go beyond what is openly stated and done. And both holidays share much in the way of culinary and entertaining/ritual advice to be found on how to do the holidays ‘right.’ But one place where Christmas has the advantage is in the acknowledgement of  how the reality of these expectations and family gatherings –or in many cases lack there of- mixed together with the pressure of doing it ‘right’can create its own stress and disappointment.

    In addition to helping Jews understand the importance of Passover, it is incumbent upon Jewish professionals to help provide tools and frameworks for coping with our anxieties and the very real complexities of the holiday. Recently, I spoke with Sarah Spencer a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco and a director of Camp Be’chol Lashon who pointed out that many of the rituals and forms of the Seder provide a fantastic structure for dealing with difficulties. Discussing her understanding of the Seder as a model of how to create diverse community, I have a new appreciation for how the Seder might provide a some clues to diffusing the tensions it creates.

    1.     Our stories are the starting point, they resonate with other and echo through the generations. The whole reason to have a Seder is to tell our story so that we can embrace freedom and revelation. Long before Sigmund Freud made it popular, Judaism recognized that in order to be free we need to In order to be free we need to tell our story. We must speak of that which is difficult in order to move forward. But we need not see this speaking, nor even the existence of difficulties as out of the ordinary. Indeed according to our traditions, each of us is obligated to recall our places of slavery and darkness. The presumption is that we all have those places and difficulties and that we all have the potential to move beyond them. Keeping this in mind, we can embrace the Seder not for the perfection it represents but as the opportunity to move forward which all of us need.

    2.     We are opening our homes to strangers. The assumption that we know those who are sitting around the table, is often just that. When real strangers join us at the table, we understand that there will need to be listening and patience to help bridge the lack of familiarity and we work towards doing that. If however, those at the table are family, we may not extend the say level of courtesy and patience. Given that there are many families that come together only a few times a year, and even those who know each other well may make assumptions about who the others at the table are, we would do well to approach those invited to Seder as though they were strangers and treat them with thoughtful courtesy as opposed to presuming we already know and understand them.

    3.     Ask questions. Many of them. How are we to know the strangers with whom we travel? How are we to understand the stories others tell? As Spenser reminds us, asking questions is the essential ingredient for speaking across differences. An expert in diversity and community building, she reminds us that asking questions about differences is the only way to really understand and engage with others. The asking can start before the Seder. Talk with guests and ask how they want to make this night different from other nights. Using the four questions as a guide, encourage the framing of question of curiosity not of accusation. Remind yourself and your guests that questions can lead to hurt or openness; the difference lies in how we ask and how open we are to answers.

    4.     There are 4 children. We know this so well that sometimes we forget that at every table, and within each of us, there are indeed 4 different children. If we are hoping just to have wise sons and daughters gathered then we have not really prepared and anticipated the difficulties that are inevitable. If we can step back and remember that the challenges, the indifference, the inability to pay attention is not personal, but universal then we can gain important perspective on the matter and formulate responses that are appropriate and able to be heard not just reactive and ignored.

    There is no short cut around the stress of Passover. The tensions are built into the anticipation and the importance of the holiday. Yet if we are able to frame and understand the difficulties within the contexts set up for us by our tradition, then we will find that we hold many tools for approaching the hard places and setting ourselves free.



  • Remembering 9-11: Ten Years Later

    Posted on March 10th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    A few weeks ago, I was part of a conversation with an interdenominational group of rabbis about how we will mark the tenth Yahrzeit of 9-11. I was somewhat surprised with the range of and complexity of emotion that emerged from our collective psyche. The only easy observation from that discussion was that there is need to think about how we will approach this anniversary. To help understand how that thinking is emerging, I turned to the community of HUC-JIR alumni for some initial opinions and insights. Planning is only in the beginning stages, so what follows are early thoughts. It is my hope and intention to return to this topic again in the coming months. I welcome your thoughts and input on this topic; your insights, liturgical and ritual suggestions can all help build thoughtful  remembrances.

    –Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.

    9-11 vacillates between personal loss and collective experience of tragedy. We all remember where we were on 9-11. We all live with the consequences, reactions to and realities of that day. Judaism has in it distinct rituals and liturgy for both individual and collective losses. But those events that affect us on both the communal and individual level are not directly addressed by our tradition. How then, as we approach the tenth Yahrzeit are we to memorialize 9-11?

    Where we were ten years ago does impact how we think about memorizing that day.  David Adelson, of East End Temple in Manhattan, had been at the congregation for just over a year when the planes hit the twin towers. His own experience and memory 9-11 is integrated with those of the community that he continues to serve as well as personal. On his days off that fall he was a volunteer chaplain working at the recovery center. The immediacy of the events touched even the little and disconnected elements of congregational life; Adelson recalls that three shabbatot later he stood waiting with the family of a bat mitzvah outside the synagogue they could vividly smell of fire and smoke from ground zero. Though he is only beginning to think about how to mark the tenth anniversary, this mix of personal and collective will undoubtedly be important.

    In 2001, Mary Zamore was working in Westfield, New Jersey at a congregation that was deeply affected by the destruction of the Twin Towers. A few years later she moved to serve a congregation just west enough of Manhattan that the congregrants were not as directly touched. In Westfield, post 9-11, “when you met a new person, you would compare notes on where you were that day,” explained Zamore but that did not happen as frequently in Morristown. On the 5th anniversary, she preached a sermon on healing but realized that her congregants may have experienced the event differently than she did in Westfield. Sarah Hronsky was still in rabbinical school in 2001 and missed out on what continues to be remembered as one of the most meaningful and spiritual services in the history of the congregation. Recognizing the difference between our own experiences and the memory of the congregation is a theme raised repeatedly.

    Many communities have not focused on 9-11 as a day of particular congregational significance in recent years. When Steven Sirbu came took a pulpit in Teaneck NJ, in 2003, he welcomed the broader community into the congregation for an interfaith memorial service. But since then the local Committee for Patriotic Observances, which marks Flag Day, Memorial Day and the like, has taken on the communal observance with only token clergy representation. Many congregations have been marking it on the closest Shabbat though some like Adelson’s have let it slip by in recent years and he is not expecting it to become an annual event. “This 10th, may be the last 9-11, service we do for a while,” according to Adelson. For some, like Hronsky, who has family in the military, it is not just about what happened ten years ago, it is about what is happening now and the sacrifices being made which are, in her words, “important for us to remember as a country.” Several rabbis, who spoke off the record and who are only beginning to think towards the fall, feel that the memorial needs to be interfaith to send a message of unity and common purpose. Yet in some settings, like the JCCs or Hospitals, remembering 9-11 may fit into the institutional setting.

    On a practical note, Sirbu pointed out that for many congregations, Hebrew school will start on the eleventh of September this year, opening the question of how we might communicate this memory of loss with people who have no memory of the event itself. Teaching such things to children is difficult. Those like Adelson in New York can point to the skyline and speak to the loss through experience but as Zamore points out, “we have to be careful when we talk about New York. It is not an abstract place for our kids, the way it might be for those in Chicago, but a place where they and their families go all the time. We need to be thoughtful not to paint it as a place of danger.” She recommends that we turn to the lessons learned by Jewish educators from our collective experience teaching the Shoah and other recent tragedies.

    Every congregation will have to find their own way in this new and still forming understanding of what occurred on the 11th day of the 9th month of 2001, which involved four planes, a handful of terrorists, many heroes and much loss. As Hronsky point out, we would do well to share our experiences and plans, our liturgical suggestions and poetic readings, so that we can help each other craft both memory and meaning.