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  • Remembering a Musical Great: Bonia Shur

    Posted on September 5th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    Bonia Shur, Director of Liturgical Arts, passed away Thursday, August 30, 2012, Erik Contzius offers this personal remembrance.


    The world, the Jewish world, and the music world has lost a special soul. Bonia Shur was a unique shining star whose fire burned brightly. He

    Cantor Bonia Shur

    dedicated himself to the Jewish liturgical arts. Bonia could have easily used his talents to create commercial success. Instead, his Judaism and love of prayer spurred him to compose for the sake of Heaven. I was privileged to have known the man behind the works.


    Just after my Investiture from HUC-JIR, I took a position at Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska. My rabbi, Aryeh Azriel, was a very enthusiastic and creative partner. He insisted that I go in the middle of Sukkot (in my first year as a cantor, mind you!) and spend several days studying with his good friend, Bonia Shur. I had met and worked with Bonia briefly my first year in Jerusalem (he was a visiting composer-in-residence), and I was taken by his composition and energy. Aryeh’s offer to me was like asking if I wanted a brand new car and here are the keys! So Aryeh called Bonia, made the arrangements, and I was on my way to Cincinnati, with really no idea what to expect.
    Bonia was truly a gracious host. He gave me a wonderful tour of the Cincinnati campus (I remember distinctly him pointing out a block of sidewalk in which someone had indicated, in Hebrew, not to urinate on the grounds!), and made arrangements for me to stay in the dorms there. Since it was during Sukkot, he and Fanchon hosted an annual meeting of the second year students at their house. Bonia and I went together to the supermarket and picked out food for the evening. He mused over the quality of the grapes, and actually fed me one! At their home, we prepared for the festivities. It was an evening of music, story sharing, and sitting on large, inflatable exercise balls!
    Back at the college, Bonia was preparing for the annual performance of his Hallel Psalms (one of his greatest works, in my opinion) and he invited me to join the choir of rabbinic students and ringers. I was more than happy to oblige. In our downtime from rehearsing, he exposed me to the depth and breadth of his work, sharing with me his opinions on composing for the synagogue. I drank in his wisdom and was taken by his deep commitment to artistic integrity.

    Although the visit was short, it left a lasting impression on me. Following that trip, Bonia and I were bonded in a relationship of sharing music and more. While in Cincinnati, he and I talked about the need for a new setting of the Mi Shebeirakh, and he composed a work in Hebrew and English which embodies the hope that one needs when praying for the sick. When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, I composed a setting of Shalom Rav, which was incomplete until Bonia arranged it for me. I sent him my new compositions, and he sent me his. I appreciated his feedback on my work, and I loved being one of the first to look at a new Shur manuscript.

    Cantor Erik Contzius

    I was always impressed by his active mind. Late in his life, he took to using computers, and I wound up being his long-distance tutor in Finale (a computer program for engraving.) I sometimes fielded four or five phone calls from Bonia with the preface, “Just one more zing!”
    More than a composer and philosopher, Bonia was a thoughtful and caring human being. If you connected with him, it was with love. Bonia always asked about my family and my well being out of true concern. When I was going through my divorce, Bonia would check up on me to see how I was faring. And he was always encouraging. He egged me on to compose more. When I sent him one of my CD’s, he said, “Zere’s too much! Always keep people wanting more! Don’t give it all away!” He was always wise.
    I learned that when he passed, he was holding the copy of his Hallel Psalms in his hand, newly published by Transcontinental Music. Bonia was so prolific and I am saddened that his compositional voice has been extinguished. But I have been influenced so much by this mountain of a man. I can only hope that my composition work, greatly shaped by his guidance, will sound echoes of Bonia’s life, such that his voice will continue to sound strong.
    May Bonia live on in his music and all who loved him.
  • 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.

  • Sources on Repentance and Forgiveness for Yom Kippur

    Posted on October 3rd, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    Today I got a request from a listserve to which I subscribe, asking that I forgive them for any wrong they may have done in the last year.

    Clearly in this era of social media it was only a matter of time before repentance and forgiveness went online. But while the format of the request was somewhat surprising and sent me off to reflect on the nature of virtual community, it was the broad nature of the request that really caused me to think more generally about the nature of apologies and mehkilah. I neither know the manager of the listserv personally nor do I feel aggrieved by this individual, so in this case it is easy to be big hearted and forgiving. But most of the work we do during this season is more complex than that.

    Our tradition has much to say and this is a case where I think it best to let the sources speak for themselves. As many of us prepare to teach over Yom Kippur and all of us are hopefully taking some time to take stock individually, it is my hope that these will serve as either a resource or a reminder of some of what our tradition says.

    G’mar Hatimah Tovah,

    Ruth Abusch-Magder


    Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. (Micah 7:18)


    One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend. (Proverbs 17:9)


    “One who has sinned against another must say to him or her, ‘I’ve acted wrongly against you’.” (Talmud; Yoma 45c)

    “If you’ve done another a small wrong, let it be great in your eyes…” (Talmud; Avot d’Rabbi Natan; ch. 41)
    “If another has done you a great wrong, let it be small in your eyes.” (Talmud; Avot d’Rabbi Natan; ch. 41)


    “If one has received an injury, then, even if the wrongdoer has not asked for forgiveness, the receiver of the injury must nevertheless ask God to show the wrongdoer compassion, even as Avraham prayed to God for Avimelech, and Job for his friends. Rabbi Gamliel said, ‘Let this be a sign to you, that whenever you are compassionate, the Compassionate One will have compassion on you.” (Mishnah; Baba Kamma 9:29-30).


    A bad tempered person gains nothing but the ill effects of anger; a good tempered person is fed with the fruit of the deeds. (Kiddushin, 40b – 41)


    “All who overlook what’s owed to them, Heaven overlooks their sins in return.” (Talmud; Rosh HaShanah 17a)


    Forgive your neighbors [their] transgressions, and then when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. (Ben Sira 28:2)


    No sin is so light that it may be overlooked. No sin is so heavy that it may not be repented of. –Moses Ibn Ezra



    “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai” (Leviticus 19:18). There is a Chasidic interpretation of the last words of this verse: “I am Adonai.” – “You think that I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbor you will find Me; not in his love for you but in your love for him.” He who loves brings God and the world together. The meaning of this teaching is: You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed and to be realized by you. For the sake of this, your beginning, God created the world. –Martin Buber



  • Singing the Praises of our Mothers: A Tribute to Women Cantors

    Posted on August 10th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment


    Cantor Barbara Ostfeld

    Hebrew Union College has been in the forefront of  educating and empowering women to take leadership roles in Jewish life. 36 years ago, the HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music invested its first female cantor. Their voices have changed prayer for all of us, women and men alike. This week’s guest post by Cantor Erik Contzius describes a tribute to the voices of Jewish women throughout the ages.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Cantor Erik Contzius

    36 years ago, HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music  invested its first female cantor, Barbara Ostfeld. Since that time, women have greatly influenced the modern cantorate as well as the musical liturgy of the synagogue. Cantor Ostfeld was a true pioneer, becoming a role model to those women who immediately followed her through the halls of Hebrew Union College to today, where over half of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) is comprised of women.

    In honor of this double-khai anniversary, the American Conference of Cantors honored those female cantors in the ACC who joined from 1975-1985 at the American Conference of Cantors-Guild of Temple Musician’s annual convention in Boston in June, 2011. All of these women, each pioneers in her own right, were acknowledged for their contributions as well as their trailblazing at the convention. Presentations were made, a special service was performed, and I was fortunate enough to be included in honoring these well-deserving women.

    I was initially approached by my friend and colleague, Cantor Claire Franco, who asked if I would compose a choral work in honor of the ACC’s “Imahot,” marking the occasion most appropriately with a new song. I was very flattered and honored, but initially felt uncomfortable—as a man, was it right for me to attempt to give musical voice describing the path these women traveled? Upon further reflection, in an age of post-modernism and perhaps post-feminism, I was able to reconcile being asked to write such a work, but under one condition: In lieu of selecting a text from our rabbinic heritage, which would undoubtedly be written by men, I sought to find a text in the female voice, by a female voice.

    Dina Elenbogen

    With the help of another friend and colleague, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, I was introduced to a very talented writer and poet, Dina Elenbogen. I explained to Dina the need for a text which would give acknowledgement to women claiming their own voice and place in the role of a Cantor. I described it as a journey towards empowerment, acceptance, and leadership. Despite having a limited deadline, Dina’s talent came through, and a poem was born which painted a very powerful image, one of female strength and artistry, equal but distinct from men, and as Dina was inspired by my ideas, I was in turn inspired by her words.

    The result of this combined effort was the work, “A Woman’s Voice” (to listen see below) The choral work, written for Soprano and Alto choir and piano, was premiered in Boston by the very women whom were to be honored. They gave life to Dina’s words and my music, and the congregation of cantors and synagogue musicians was very moved by the gesture.

    I’m only 42. It doesn’t seem that young, but in regard to the modern cantorate, it is. But what it means to me is that for most of my life, the cantorate has not been biased towards one gender or the other. In fact, having grown up with a rabbi who filled both the role of rabbi and cantor, I was unaware of the cantor as a profession until I met my first one at a regional NFTY convention: Cantor Pamela Siskin. I recalled this strong memory to the cantors I was conducting for the premiere performance and how that memory paved the way towards my entering the profession myself.

    I anticipate that the influence and uniqueness that women have brought to the modern cantorate, and therefore to Judaism entirely, will only be magnified in the next 36 years to come. And that special voice, a woman’s voice, melded with the men’s voice which already is here, will continue to make beautiful music for the Jewish people. As it is written: “Sing a New Song unto God.” The song has become new and will continually do so as long as we see both men and women for the equals they are.

    To listen to a recording of click on this link: A Woman’s Voice

    A Woman’s Voice

    In the beginning      a whimper

    Pounding of heart-steps

    Whispers of open fists

    Prayer notes in stone

    Pounding of heart-steps

    Chirps of morning songs

    Prayer notes in stone

    The language of angels


    Chirps of morning songs

    A girl stands at the threshold

    Hears the language of angels

    Her own music breaking


    A girl-woman stands at the threshold

    Chants the first words of Torah

    Her own voice breaking

    Into stones with burning names


    When a woman chants the first words

    She finds inside her own voice

    Stones with burning names

    A cry becomes a scream


    She finds inside her own voice

    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    A cry becomes a scream

    A song of abundance


    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    When a woman reaches the highest note

    In her abundant song

    Even the stones begin to tremble.


    —Dina Elenbogen, March 2011

  • High Holiday Tickets, Video-Streaming, and Mission

    Posted on July 29th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    As technology makes its way into every aspect of modern life, each community has to consider how to engage with the multitude of possibilities. This week’s guest bloggers Rabbi Robert B. Barr and Rabbi Laura Baum are pioneers in working with technology on multiple fronts to connect and expand their community. Through their work they are creating models that can be used in many settings.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    At this time of year it’s not uncommon for boards of congregations to reconsider their policy on High Holiday tickets.  For some congregations, ticket sales are a significant revenue stream.  For other congregations, tickets encourage unaffiliated individuals to join.  Some congregations use tickets to ensure that members have paid their dues in full, while others have dispensed with tickets all together.  Tickets at the High Holidays are used by congregations for a variety of reasons.  While we each may have our particular bias regarding High Holidays tickets, we probably can agree that there is no one “right way” to handle tickets.   Each approach has different outcomes – intended  and not.

    Rabbi Robert Barr

    Given that the notion of video-streaming services is a relatively new phenomenon it is worthwhile to consider it through the lens of ticket sales.  There is no one answer to whether a congregation should stream, why they should stream, and who their audience will be.  Streaming isn’t “one size fits all.”  There are different approaches that congregations can take which would reflect their values and sense of mission.

    At, we will stream the High Holidays for the fourth year.  Since our launch, our online services have been viewed by tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries around the world.  When we started streaming, our audio and video quality were not great, but people came online anyway, and they appreciated having the opportunity to “attend” the High Holidays.  Some came because they were homebound, others because they could not afford synagogue membership, others because they appreciated our unique liturgy and philosophy, others because they were geographically isolated.  The reasons were endless.

    One woman and her mother attended online and learned the power of online video streaming – all of a sudden a family separated by miles could attend services together.  A woman in DC who had to work watched our streaming services from her office, called her mother in Florida and told her to click on the link, and the two had a very powerful moment listening to the sound of our shofar together.

    Over time, we’ve needed to improve our technology and make significant financial and time investments in the technology – as people’s expectations continue to increase and technological change happens in what seems like nanoseconds!  We’ve also had to wrestle with meaningfully connecting to both our bricks-and-mortar congregants and those watching online.   By deciding to video-stream, there is a responsibility to ensure that the online participant has a quality experience.

    Rabbi Laura Baum is an initiative of Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH.  Our brick-and-mortar congregation’s vision is to be a spiritual home, a meaningful voice, and a humanistic resource for people worldwide, seeking a contemporary Jewish identity and experience.

    With that vision in mind and with funds available after 30 years of fiscal responsibility, our congregation decided to boldly launch an online congregation.

    We do not use technology for its own sake.  We use technology because it helps us move our congregation’s mission, vision, and values forward.  Just as philosophy guides our Jewish practice, our philosophy guides our use of technology.

    Each year, a few more congregations decide to video-stream.  For some, streaming doesn’t make sense.  After all, if you require tickets for the High Holidays why would you offer ticketless High Holidays online?  Some congregations still want to be able to stream for their members who may be homebound or travelling during the holidays.  Those congregations may offer their streaming on a password-protected basis, essentially requiring a “ticket” to watch.  For others like us, we never had tickets at our bricks-and-mortar congregation, so streaming for everyone made sense.  Beth Adam was so committed to reaching out that it expanded its rabbinic staff specifically to serve the needs of the online community.

    Lots of questions arise in congregation’s board rooms about streaming.  Are we encouraging folks not to join?  Are we sending a message to our members that they are footing the bill while others get it free?  Why would someone show up if they can watch it at home?  What does my congregation have to offer online that will be more enticing than showing up?  Can we afford the technology?  How will having video equipment in our sanctuary interfere with the experience of those physically present?  Do we have volunteers and/or employees who can invest the time in this?  How can we protect our members who do not want their attendance to be broadcast on the Internet?  What are the copyright issues if we stream and archive words and songs that others have written?  Will those watching online feel like participants or like voyeurs?  What will the quality look and sound like?

    Just like discussions about membership, tickets, and liturgy, there is no one answer when it comes to technology.  What we have found, though, is that a significant investment of time, energy, and resources is important not only in creating the technology – but also in thinking about how the technology fits with the philosophy, mission, vision, and values of the community.


  • Reflecting on Faith After the Holocaust

    Posted on May 4th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    This week we observed Yom HaShoah. Rabbi Larry Bach shared this beautiful reflection with his community. The message is both timeless and timely.  —- Ruth Abusch-Magder


    The text is fairly well-known:“I believe, with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for him.” The context is verywell-known. It was this text, set to that tune, that Jews sang on their way to their deaths during the Shoah. The Modzhitzer niggun nearly perfectly captures the longing, the hope, and the horror of those moments on the trains, on the platforms, on the journey to the gas. He tarries…and we wait.

    I’ve been thinking about the text, and the melody, a great deal lately. I’ve been thinking about what it takes to say “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah” while everything around you suggests otherwise. Would I have had the strength of faith to join that song? Would you?

    I cannot know, but I can hope. Better yet, I can prepare. I can try to live each moment well, forming habits of the heart and soul that will lead me to do the right thing, instinctively and reflexively, when the chips are down. And as I practice, I come to realize that faith in the Messiah is, most of all, about faith in myself. It is about the having faith in my own capacity to connect to Other, to Self, to God. When I do those things…when any of us does those things…we bring what our Tradition calls Y’mot Hamashiach that much closer.

    Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz concludes his Faith after the Holocaust with two pieces of testimony from that time and place, seeing in them reason to believe. He tells the story of

    Abraham Seidman, the Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, the kind of Jew whom Judaism produced in every generation in tens of thousands, a pious, modest, hardworking pater familias at the same time scholarly, not in a professional sense, but simply because it was the duty of every Jew to study and know the Torah. He had been taken from the Ghetto to the Umschlagplatz to be sent to Auschwitz. There was still some time before the transport was to leave. How did Abraham Seidman spend the few remaining minutes? He wrote a letter to his children taking leave of them forever and asking them for forgiveness should he ever have offended or hurt them.

    And Berkowitz also tells this story, first-told in Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel’s Min Hametzar, regarding Itzik Rosensweig:

    Itzik was a Jew somewhere in Slovakia, a Jew like Abraham Seidman in Warsaw. He made a living by raising poultry. One day he and his family were squeezed into the cattle cars, in which hundreds of other Jews were pressed to suffocation. In the car there was despair all around him; outside a celebrating population of former neighbors was jeering at him and deriding him. He begged them: Please go to my house and give food and water to the poultry. They had nothing to eat or drink all day.

    Where is the Mashiach for whom we wait? He is Abraham Seidman, showing himself to be, for one shining moment, a perfect parent. He is Itzik Rosensweig, answering baseless hatred with a display of compassion and wholeheartedness for the ages. He is those Modzhitzer Hasidim, singing their faith with full hearts, performing the ultimate act of Kiddush Hashem Barabim, sanctifying God’s Name for all the world to see. He is always at hand. When we are be’emunah shleimah, in a place of wholeness and trust, feeling safe and secure no matter what is happening around us, then Mashiach lives in us. And so…

    Ani Ma’amin – I believe. I believe. I believe.

    Be’emunah sh’leimah – with a faith that is whole. With a faith that emerges from my own wholeness, the clear sense of just what is, right now.

    B’viat hamashiach – I believe with a faith that emerges from the clarity of this moment, that all moments can be this moment. Clear. Perfect. And I believe that the clarity and perfection is precisely what is calledmashiach.

    V’af al pi sheyitmah’meyah – And though that clarity is fleeting, though the moments of perfection are few and far between…

    Im kol “zeh” – With every moment that passes, every “now,” every “this”…

    Achakeh lo – I seek to open to that possibility, waiting, and working, and hoping.

    B’chol yom, sheyavo — Every day, every moment, let it come to pass.


    Ani Ma’amin…

  • 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.

  • In Praise of Grandma, Bubbe and Nona Superstitions

    Posted on January 24th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.

    Bubbe Meises, literally, grandmother tales, have come to be synonymous with superstition. And superstitions are by modern standards ridiculous, right?

    Maybe. Or on the other hand. Maybe Not.

    A few years ago when my family moved into a new house in a suburb of Chicago, Rabbi Michael Weinberg and his wife Jody brought us a house warming gift, a basket with bread, salt, and honey. The bread and salt, they explained, were traditional while the honey was in honor of the quickly approaching New Year. I have since learned that the tradition of bread and salt seems to likely draw on historic Russian customs of presenting honored guests or new brides with bread and salt as a sign of hospitality and welcome signifying the prosperity of a full larder.

    Calling this practice a bubbe meise is not necessarily out of place. While we cannot know exactly how Jews came to adopt this general Russian custom it is not hard to imagine it being passed down in the doing from mother to daughter. As modern Jews, we are unlikely to believe that the bread and salt will be the cause of prosperity, so it is possible to understand it as a superstition.

    But that need not mean dismissing this or other similar grandmother tales as valuable to our contemporary Jewish lives.

    Instead of rejecting bubbe meise (and by implication the women who believed in them) might we not learn from the process by which Reform Judaism has grappled with the Torah passed through the generations of men? The stories that our grandmothers told one generation to another resonated for them. They held kernels of wisdom and understanding. Distancing ourselves from those truths and those understandings closes off paths to engaging and meaning. In other words, can we look at the specific grandmotherly tales and belief, examine the ways in which they do and do not resonate for us today? Can we reengage and reinterpret with them as we do with tallit or standing for Torah reading?

    I believe very strongly that we can and should.

    Recently I was asked to bring a spiritual presence to a housewarming for a woman who had moved into a new home after a difficult divorce. While our modern Reform liturgy offers pieces borrowed from other places to contextualize the hanging of a mezuzah, the grandmother tales offered inspiration that not only spoke directly to the situation but also drew from similar contexts in different times and places. Drawing on the North African and Yeminite traditions involving the making of candle, we lit and broke candles to symbolize from which this home represented a break.  Considering the salt and bread, we not only connected to the historic hopes for prosperity but also delved into the ways in which bread and salt represented to transfer of holiness from one centralized fixed place, the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem, to the multiple homes that it has lived since.

    Before we dismiss the bubbe meise, consider what might be lost if you do.