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  • Waiting for Marriage Equality: A Prayer

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

    Waiting for Marriage Equality

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


    Sort of.


    Author: Rabbi Eleanor Steinman

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


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


    A Waiting Psalm

    (An Interpretation of Psalm 118)


    Rabbi Eleanor Steinman


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Amen. Selah.

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

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

  • Spiritual but not Religious

    Posted on January 30th, 2013 Special Contributor No comments

    “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” When I heard that phrase from a student or prospective congregant, I used to suspect they were pushing me away, holding me safely at arm’s length.  On January 14, I heard an interview with Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson on Fresh Air, and he gave me something new to consider.

    “I think people often come to the synagogue, mosque, the church looking for God, and what we give them is religion. And I think that is a huge mistake, and sometimes we let our … fussing around with the institution get in the way of what people came for, which is help in facilitating their … access and relationship with God,” he said.

    My first thought was, Christianity is different.  My second thought was to rewrite his words slightly:  ”People come to synagogue looking for Torah, and what we give them is religion.” Oh dear: Could it be that while I was hearing rejection, what students were really saying was, “Where’s the good stuff?”

    Perhaps that “spiritual but not religious” line is really another version of the rebuke in Isaiah 1:

    Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
    Your incense is detestable to me.
    New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
    I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
    Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
    I hate with all my being.
    They have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.
    When you spread out your hands in prayer,
    I hide my eyes from you;
    even when you offer many prayers,
    I am not listening.

    Your hands are full of blood!

    Wash and make yourselves clean.
    Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
    stop doing wrong.
    Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
    Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

    Has the business (busy-ness) of religious activity gotten in the way of making my institution the home of living Torah?

    When a newcomer calls for information, what kind of greeting does he receive? If the contact is by phone, does she talk to a friendly person or to a machine? if the contact is via the Internet, does the website feature human faces or a picture of a building or symbol?

    What does the website and the bulletin say about our priorities?  How does that statement of our priorities match up with the budget and the reality every day?

    Author: Rabbi Ruth Adar

    When a visitor to the congregation wanders into a service with a bar or bat mitzvah, is he welcomed or treated as an uninvited guest?

    When a darker-skinned person visits, is she greeted properly, or immediately assumed to be the employee of a member or an intruder?

    Do we walk our talk about Jewish ethics and tikkun olam? Do we pay our humblest employees a decent wage? Do we employ people “part time” but expect unlimited hours and dedication? Is our institution a good citizen in its neighborhood?

    The answer to some of these questions may be “not yet.” Human institutions are, well, human. But if our intent, our kavanah, is to be a home of living Torah, then perhaps the answer to “I’m spiritual but not religious,” might become, “You’ve come to the right place.”

    This week’s post was written by Rabbi Ruth Adar, known by her alter ego The Coffee Shop Rabbi.

  • 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.

  • Welcome the Stranger: Grandpa and the Meaning of Ruth

    Posted on May 22nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    With Shavuot upon us, Jews around the world prepare for reading the biblical story of Ruth. For Rabbi Seth Goren the biblical story and the message of the holiday have a highly personal meaning.

    The story of Ruth resonates strongly with me in part because of its similarity to the account of how part of my family left Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather was born in the village of Obodovka, then a part of the Russian Empire. His father ran the town’s general store and was relatively well off. After the Russian Civil War broke out in 1917, the central government ceased paying its employees, and the local postmaster, who was not Jewish, could not afford food for his family. Nevertheless, my great-grandfather allowed him to make purchases on credit so that the postmaster’s family would not go hungry and starve to death in the frigid Ukrainian winter of 1918-19.

    Rabbi Seth Goren

    One day in May 1919, just a few weeks before Shavuot, word spread that a band of Cossacks was riding toward the town bent on attacking the local Jewish population. My great-grandfather loaded the family onto a wagon and began heading westward. They were intercepted by the postman, who informed my family that they were heading in the precise direction from which the Cossacks were coming. “Come with me,” he said, “I’ll hide you in the basement of the post office.” My grandfather and his family remained hidden for the next two days, during which time they heard the postman repeatedly ward off Cossacks, telling them that there were no Jews in the building. When they finally emerged, all of the other Jews of Obodovka were dead, with my grandfather and his family being the only survivors. In this way, my great-grandfather and the postman, strangers to each other’s traditions as surely as they were neighbors, had saved each other’s families.

    Looking back, the histories of both my family and our people hinge on relatively small acts whose broader implications could not have been appreciated at the time. Had Ruth and Naomi not taken responsibility for each other, King David’s genealogical line would have foundered, and the entire course of Jewish and world history would be completely different. On a more personal level, if not for the relationship between my great-grandfather and a Ukrainian postman nearly a century ago, my family line would have ended in an Eastern European shtetl like so many others did. In both cases, it is difficult in retrospect to imagine events unfolding any differently. Nevertheless, these episodes show how even a small act of caring for a stranger can reverberate generations later and thousands of miles away.

    We cannot always anticipate how we will welcome others emerging from their isolation or where we ourselves will stumble upon sanctuary when we are lost among the unknown and unfamiliar. The unexpected twists in the lives of Naomi, buth and my grandfather could not have been predicted in advance. There will be times when we will be strangers, as we were in Egypt, and times when there will be strangers among us. Nevertheless, deliverance, both for ourselves and for those whom we help, is possible when we take care of each other and provide a haven to the stranger who seeks shelter among us.


  • Prayer for Difficult People

    Posted on October 3rd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments


    The holidays are the highest stress period for those of us working as professionals in the Jewish world. Some of the most difficult people in our communities only show up once a year, but then they come en masse.  The people who are normally difficult show up more frequently. And throughout, the increase pressure and time commitments can deplete our patience. As the High Holidays of 5771, fade into the regular rythms, Rabbi Mark Sameth (HUC-JIR ’98) shares his thoughts on dealing with difficult people. Mark is a congregational rabbi in Pleasantville, New York, and tweets on Jewish Meditation from Fourbreaths.

    Rabbi Mark Sameth

    The rabbis taught – as if it might have escaped our attention – that everyone has a yetzer ha ra, and everyone a yetzer tov; everyone has an inclination toward the bad, and everyone an inclination toward good. It may sound defeatist, but the rabbis were optimists. The fact that the definite article ha appears in the term yetzer ha ra and is absent in the term yetzer tov was understood as meaning that, although we may incline toward the bad situationally, or predictably in certain specific interactions, the issue is not characterological; our general inclination is toward the good.

    Still, every once in a while we do meet someone who could be described as a toxic personality. It can be very damaging to be with such people. There are strategies and resources to deal with such destructive personalities. For readers of this blog – rabbis, cantors, and educators – one such very good resource is Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior (Alban Institute).

    Difficult people should not be ignored, cannot be ignored. But focusing too much energy on them comes at a cost. The unspoken needs of less obstreperous people who might actually benefit from our help can be overlooked. And focusing too much energy on difficult people comes at another cost as well, a very personal cost, which we would do well to be mindful of especially at this season. We can spend so much time and energy focused on a few difficult people and the teshuva they need to make, that we overlook our own need for cheshbon nefesh, overlook our need to make our own teshuva. Difficult people can keep us very busy – and the yetzer has no greater tool than busyness.

    Our tradition understands the yetzer as wily in the extreme. We need therefore to be even more artful in our own choice of responses. Sometimes the yetzer needs to be called out, confronted. Sometimes it can be reasoned with. Sometimes it responds only to threats. Sometimes it is susceptible to diversion. Sometimes it can be sweet-talked. Sometimes it will quiet down if we throw it a bone, or let it ride in the back seat. And sometimes it can be thrown off its stride if we can get it to laugh.

    In that spirit I offer the following prayer. Seriously. And may the coming year be a little less difficult for all of us, and for all of them.

    A Prayer for Difficult People

    O God, Creator of difficult people, bless me with the strength, fortitude, wisdom and equanimity of spirit to deal with the difficult people You have placed in my life. Grant me the ability to see the next disaster well enough in advance to dodge, divert, or otherwise disable it before it happens, or at least to minimize its ill effects. May my buttons be hidden from view so that Your difficult people may not so easily press them next time as they have done so very well of late. May You grant sufficient insight to Your difficult people in order that they may come to understand – speedily and in our day – how truly difficult they are, knowing they would surely turn from their difficult ways were they possessed of even the slightest bit of self-awareness. Open the hearts of these Your difficult people to feel compassion for the pain and stress which, sometimes by their actions and oftentimes by their mere demeanor, they have caused in my life, are causing in my life now, and without Your divine intervention seem inevitably ready to cause again. Open their eyes, O God, so that they may see the truth of the situation as You and I, O God, see it: that I am not fundamentally an unhappy person, and that my unhappiness therefore rests with them and with their oh so difficult ways.

    O God, Creator of difficult people, it has no doubt come to Your attention (through the prayers of others) in spite of all You know about my good heart, my good intentions, my good work, and my just overall basic goodness that I am myself at the moment considered a difficult person in the life of another one of Your creatures (maybe more; I didn’t get the whole story). Putting aside for the moment the irony of that one, causing pain and suffering is, of course as You know, the last thing I would ever want to do. Help me therefore, O God, to no longer be the difficult person in someone else’s life. Whether through my need to express myself, or my difficulty expressing myself; whether because of my tendency to criticize, or my need to say that everything is OK when it’s not; whether because I am perceived as expecting too much, or expecting too little; whether through my tendency toward compulsiveness, or toward inattentiveness; due to the way I express my anger, or to the way I express my love;  whether because I never seem to be there, or because I always seem to be there; whether because of my need for orderliness, or my need for spontaneity; because I feel the need to be alone more these days, or because I feel a greater need to be with people; because I always want to talk, or because I never want to talk; because of the way I express my fear, or because of the way I express my desire. O God, Creator of difficult people, help me – knowing so very well how it feels – help me to not be the difficult person in someone else’s life. Rabbi Mark Sameth

  • George Washington and Hanukka

    Posted on November 23rd, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
    The Battle of Valley Forge

    The Battle of Valley Forge

    Jews are particularly gifted in negotiating between the realms of historical fact and mythic narratives. We need only look at the vast chasm that separates the story of the Hannuka as told by the Macabees and that of rabbis of the Talmudic era to see our ability to hold both truths together. The former is a tale of power politics, armies and alliances, the latter one of divine intervention and miracles. Both play powerful roles in informing our understanding of the holiday.

    Interestingly, there is modern Hannuka tale, about George Washington, that plays with not only the national and divine themes, but also with the boundary of history and midrash.

    While I no longer remember where exactly I found it originally, the version of the tale was similar to that found in Isador Margolis and Sidney L. Markowitz’s collection Jewish Holidays and Festivals: A Young Person’s Guide to the Stories, Practices and Prayers of Jewish Festivals, originally published in 1962.

    HTR063As told in this volume, there was one Jewish soldier among Washington’s troops at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777. One cold evening, General Washington out for a walk among the troops came across the young man lighting a menorah. Noting the man’s tears Washington engaged in a fatherly conversation, learning that the man had come to the new world in the hopes of living a life devoid of the anti-semitism and humiliation he had experienced in Poland. Lighting the menorah, he recalled not only his father who had given this treasure, but also the ancient battle for freedom and drew a parallel with Washington’s own fight. Washington commented that if the Jew, the descendant of the prophetic people, predicted that Revolutionary Army would win, so it would. Years later on Hannuka, the same Jew now living in New York placed the same menorah in his window at the start of the holiday. As it happened, President Washington passed by and noticing the candles knocked on the door. Recalling the night they had spent in Valley Forge, the Jew gave the President the menorah as a gift.

    There is a lack of evidence to suggest that these events are founded in historical reality. So, if we were to stick to a vision of Judaism that relies on history alone, this story would be of questionable value.

    To consider this story as midrash raises other questions. After all, it does not follow the traditional methods for uncovering textual meaning. It also takes as its starting text a modern historical event that post-dates not only the biblical but also the era of the traditional rabbinic commentaries.

    Additionally, this story melds together the nationalism of the historical Hannuka story with the divine intervention of the rabbinic Hannuka narrative further complicating our ability to easily identify this story with established categories of narrative traditionally associated with the holiday.

    Yet, despite this, or perhaps because of this, the story has much to offer us when we acknowledge it for what it is and is not. It is an excellent example of modern midrash; an attempt to read Jews into the silences of American history. It speaks of the desire of Jews to see their own story as inseparable from that of the broader American narrative. But it also speaks to the flexibility of the American narrative that allows for such weaving of particularisms into communal fabric. Our understanding of America is built as much on myth as it is history and individual groups in the United States find, or do not find, their place not only in the events of the past but in the telling and remembering of those events.

    valley forgeMoreover, this story speaks to some of the truths about George Washington and provides some challenges to the alignments of nationalism with history and myth with Godly intervention as portrayed in the rabbinic/Maccabean tellings of Hannuka story. George Washington is well known for supporting religious groups of all types –his letter to the Jews of Newport being a shining example of such support. This support stemmed not from secularism, but from a deep belief in an omnipotent God. That deity belonged to no particular faith group but to the cause of goodness. Indeed, as Steve Waldman recounts in the Founding Faith, Washington often attributed success in battle to God’s direct intervention. And while there is no specific evidence of the recitation of prayers over Hannuka candles at Valley Forge, it seems likely that had they been said, Washington would have endorsed them.

    Recently the tale has reentered the popular Jewish consciousness in the form of a children’s book by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Greg Harlin. And it deserves a second look. The Valley Forge tale is a uniquely American Jewish blend, combining midrashic myth creation with historic events. It not only presents us with an opportunity to explore some of the major themes of the Hannuka story from a new perspective but also opens up the possibility for conversations about midrash and meaning making more broadly.