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  • The Face Judaism in America is Changing

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

    Journalist Simone Weichselbaum

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.

  • Having “THE” Conversation

    Posted on April 7th, 2013 Special Contributor No comments


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

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

    Author: Rabbi Richard Address

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Christian Bar Mitzvah: A Rabbi’s Take

    Posted on January 16th, 2013 Special Contributor 2 comments

    Last week, this article,The Sisterhood’s Christian Bar Mitzvah: Can Jewish Ritual Be Borrowed?, was flying all about the internet, causing quite a bit of commotion among my colleagues. I read it with interest and, quite honestly, some amount of discomfort. Because at first glance, the idea of a non-Jew borrowing such a definitively Jewish ritual caused a near-paralyzing pain in mykishkes.


    The motivation behind the article was a clip from the new TLC series, The Sisterhood, a reality show showcasing the lives of five pastors’ wives in Atlanta. In the second episode, Pastors Brian and Tara Lewis reveal that they are “throwing him [their 13-year-old son] a Bar Mitzvah…a Christian Bar Mitzvah.”

    Rituals, throughout history, have been borrowed, shared, appropriated, reappropriated, co-opted, and just plain stolen from neighboring cultures, faiths, and ethnicities. The idea of syncretism is, therefore, not a new one. Yet, when someone takes one of “our” rituals, it feels like a personal attack.

    Author: Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

    My experience with the Rabbis Without Borders program has had a profound influence on my ability to recognize the possibility of multiple truths in other faith communities. In other words, you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right — an idea explored by my teacher, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, in his book by the same name. Prior to my involvement in this cutting-edge think-tank, my views were far more narrow-minded and I lacked a framework in which I could understand much of the current American religious landscape. So while my initial reaction was a visceral one bordering on revulsion, my second reaction was far more reasoned.

    The notion of marking the crucial point in a young person’s life when he or she becomes responsible for his or her own religious decisions, beliefs, and behaviours is a wonderful thing. There is no reason why it ought not be universally celebrated in each and every culture and faith community. At age thirteen, or thereabouts, the critical thinking skills evolve to a much greater extent and the teen is beginning the long, though essential, process of establishing an identity separate from the parents. It is the terminology, however, that becomes problematic. To call something a “Bar Mitzvah” has certain societal implications; the first of which being that the individual is Jewish. And in the case of Pastor Brian and Tara Lewis’s son, he isn’t.

    On Monday, I participated in a lively, if not frustrating, conversation about this very topic on Huffington Post Live. The panel included Pastors Brian and Tara LewisDr. Julian Baggini (philosopher), Dr. Ron Lindsay (ethicist/secular humanist), and me.

    Borrowing Bar Mitzvahs

    If only we had been discussing the topic with which host, Josh Zepps, had led the program: the decision of which faith traditions to celebrate in marriages between faiths. That would have been an interesting and insightful dialogue. But Pastors Brian and Tara don’t exactly consider themselves an interfaith marriage. They see themselves as “true Jews.” They used their appearance as a platform for their own legitimacy and to witness to others with their understanding of Christianity.

    So here is my question for you? What are your thoughts about a Christian Bar Mitzvah in the way I described? As a coming-of-age ritual meant to sanctify one’s reaching the age of religious obligation?

    Oh, and one final thing:

    The cake doesn’t have to be in the shape of a Torah.
    The term ‘bar mitzvah’ is Aramaic, not Hebrew.
    And for the record, Pastor Brian, one absolutely does give up being Jewish when accepting Jesus as the Messiah. That Jew is considered an apostate.

    Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s piece originally appeared on her blog This Messy Life. She is the editor of the CCAR newsletter.

  • Having it All: Rabbi Mom

    Posted on January 9th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    Note, this week’s post is an interview done by Cheryl a mommy blogger and long time friend of Rabbi Allison Berry for her blog Busy from Birth.

    I have been friends with Rabbi Allison Berry, of Temple Shalom in Newton, MA, since long before she was “rabbi” or even “Allison,” as she will always be Allie to me. We met at the end of our freshman year at Brandeis University, when we both became members of the incoming Hillel board. At the time, we laughed and said “how have we not known each other so far?” Though we don’t get together in person as often as we should, each time it’s like we’ve never left each others side. I’m thrilled to have Allison as the first guest poster for The Having It All Project; here’s how she’s having it all.

    Briefly describe your life and what you think makes it unique.
    Currently I am the mom of two (3 year old and 6 month old) and work as a part-time rabbi at Temple Shalom in Newton. Rabbis work a unique schedule – days off are usually on Mondays and the weekends are filled with teaching, service leading and a myriad of other activities. After over three years of leading a very full-time congregation I made the decision before my second child was born to move to part-time work and a position with more structured boundaries (usually 25 hours each week and very few emergency 4 AM phone calls!). One of the best parts of my current routine is supervising programming for families with young children within the synagogue. Basically I get to plan and implement activities that directly benefit my family! Not only am I very proud of the work I do – basically a full-time job with part-time hours – I now have more time at home with my kids. The balance has worked incredibly well. Some weeks I work 15 hours and others 45 – but I have incredible flexibility. On the downside – we make certain budgetary sacrifices to make this type of lifestyle work.

    What are some of your favorite tips and strategies for coping with the chaos?
    What has always worked for my family is flexible childcare! Because I have hours that are not traditional (on the days I work I could NEVER do a 5 PM school pick-up – I generally work until 9 or 10 at night) we rely on two key childcare providers. Our nanny is amazing. She works for us three days a week – in particular she arrives early in the morning and helps minimize the early morning chaos. I am NOT a morning person, but because she helps at this key time I get to work on time and keep my sanity intact! She leaves early on Thursdays (one of her three work days) and that is how we make the finances work and she can be there when I need her the most for my own emotional state
    and happiness. We are also blessed to send our son to a preschool that does not penalize you for a late pick-up or a change of schedule. Need him to stay until 3 PM instead of 1 PM? Of course! Add an extra day that isn’t usually scheduled? Absolutely! They do charge us a set amount for the extra add-ons – but just knowing that if I have a funeral come up or am in a counseling session I don’t have to leave in the middle or risk my life rushing to be on time is a huge relief.

    Please share a moment where it all broke down, and how you got through it.
    Lately we struggle on Friday afternoons! Something always goes wrong and plans go awry. I help lead worship services at the synagogue on average two Friday evenings each month. My husband will commute from Cambridge to Newton to meet us at the synagogue and take the children home. Something always goes wrong. There is terrible traffic and I end up late for services (has happened and been so embarrassing – imagine having someone announce to a room full of 200 people that their rabbi is late, stuck in traffic on 95!). One of the children has a tantrum and screams the entire car ride. Or – my husband is late from work. Then I find myself leading Shabbat services with two children – infant and toddler jumping up and down and on and off the bima (altar/stage). We can’t seem to fix this problem. We thought hiring a mother’s helper to meet me at the synagogue would work – it did help – but my son still had a tantrum when he realized I wasn’t going to stay with him too. We are still working to fix this one. Would love any ideas!!

    Do you have any balance role models? Anything you try to avoid because it wouldn’t
    work for you?

    Balance role models – I meet every other week with two other women clergy. They are slightly older and have children in late elementary school. They always have the best ideas and advice. One of them once told me – “Stop trying to fit your needs into the boundaries of what traditional childcare offers! Your life doesn’t fit those boundaries so why should your childcare needs.” I really felt like she gave me permission to find options that fit my schedule and emotional stressors. So now I hire help for early mornings when I’m not at my best and manage evenings (dinner and bedtime routines) on the evenings I’m not working on my own when I’m in a better frame of mind.

    What wouldn’t work for us — When I worked full time we had no family time on the weekends. Since I moved to my part-time position I really cherish the weekend time we have together as a family. Even if we just go grocery shopping it is really important to me that we do it together. Not only can my husband and I support each other – we get out of the house so much faster when there are the two of us getting the kids ready – but we can actually relax a little and have fun. I missed those unstructured hours terribly. It doesn’t work for us to be overscheduled on the weekends. We don’t do a lot of play dates or programmed activities. My kids are still little so we will have to see if this is realistic as they get older.

    Think back to your 18th birthday. How is your life different from how you expected it to
    be then?

    My mom died four years ago. I never expected at the age of 18 to be raising two kids without my mother around and available to help! My mother-in-law lives in Canada – she is very helpful when we see her – but it isn’t all that often. What I have learned is that none of us should ever take our family – especially family that is ready and willing to help (even if the help isn’t always perfect or the way we would do it ourselves) for granted.

  • The Changing Face of America: Love Thy Neighbor

    Posted on November 18th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    Since the 1980s, more than 6,000 refugees have made New Hampshire their home, and nearly half have settled in Concord. Concord, New Hampshire is a fairly sleepy New England town, despite being the capital of the Granite State. Still Concord is an unusual place, and the town I have called home for the past two plus years. Temple Beth Jacob, 107 years old, boasts a membership of 210 families and plays an active and visible role in this increasingly diverse community.

    Rally Against Racism in Concord, New Hampshire

    One of Concord’s “golden boys” is new American Guor Marial. Guar escaped a Sudanese child labor camp, graduated from Concord High School, and this past summer ran in the Olympics under the Olympic flag. Guor is not yet a U.S. citizen, and holds no passport or official home. Concord High School’s assistant principal has regaled me with Guor stories. Guor is remembered for being as kind and caring as he is fast on his feet.
    Refugees have fled their homes because of a well-founded fear of persecution (physical violence, harassment and wrongful arrest, or threats to their lives) for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. They take with them only what they can carry, only what they have time to pack. Sometimes all they have left are their dreams, their hopes and the will to survive.
    In the 1990s, the majority of refugees came from Bosnia, Vietnam and the Sudan. As they moved into the town, the mayor sought to celebrate the increasing diversity of the community, despite the fact that certain segments of the community were bemoaning the changes. The Mayor’s Task Force on Racism and Intolerance established an annual mayor’s prayer breakfast to welcome our new residents and express gratitude to the many agencies and volunteers who work with the refugee populations.

    Rabbi Robin Nafshi

    Author: Rabbi Robin Nafshi

    Between 2000 and 2007, the refugees came mostly from Bosnia and the Sudan, along with Croatia, Burundi, Liberia, and Somalia. In addition, refugees who identify as Meskhetian Turks settled here. Since 2008, the overwhelming majority of refugees have come from Bhutan and Iraq.
    Northern New England is often characterized as lily white and Protestant. One of the many beauties of Concord, and especially south Concord where I live and where our synagogue is located, is the diversity of the residents. All races and religions live side by side, overwhelmingly in harmony. Sadly, however, there have been incidents involving racist and/or religiously intolerant graffiti. Most of it has been directed at Concord’s Somalian Muslims, whom our community has embraced as our New American Africans.

    In October of 2011, two new American African families awoke to find their homes vandalized with words of intolerance. Immediately, the interfaith community led the response. On a Thursday afternoon and a Saturday morning, the Greater Concord Interfaith Council (in which our synagogue is actively involved) sponsored “Love Your Neighbor” rallies. The Saturday rally was at the local playground in the neighborhood where many of the refugees live.

    The first rally was held on a Thursday so as not to conflict with the Jewish Sabbath. It occurred on the lawn outside the Statehouse. Speakers of diverse backgrounds (including one of our members, originally from Bogota, Columbia) spoke about the beauty that is Concord – in both who we are and how we care for each other. Cantor Shira Nafshi, my partner both professionally and personally, sang an original composition, Power of One, the chorus of which goes: “Get up, get down, get onto your feet; use your voice your hands be the words on the street; don’t just say it be it do it; l’takein et ha-olam, fixing the world starts today, with the power of one.” The song moved the mayor so deeply that he invited Shira to sing it at the 2011 prayer breakfast the following month.

    A local printer provided “Love Your Neighbor” signs, many of which still grace windows and doors throughout the town, over a year later. This isn’t a surprise, for loving your neighbor is the sentiment that defines this town.

    Most of my adult life I lived in San Francisco, New York City, or northern New Jersey, all places far more diverse than Concord, New Hampshire. And yet, there are times that Concord feels like more of a mixed salad than any of those other places.

    The author, Rabbi Robin Nafshi is the rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, NH.

  • The Power of Memory: Remembering Cantor William Sharlin

    Posted on November 11th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    This week we lost another luminary of Reform Judaism, Cantor William Sharlin.  Some of my earliest Jewish memories are of Cantor Sharlin.  He was cantor at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles for his whole career.

    Cantor William Sharlin z"l

    My parents belonged to Leo Baeck when I was born.  Cantor Sharlin officiated at my twin sister’s and my baby naming. (I admit I don’t remember that).  We were consecrated there. I have memories of that joyous evening, marking the beginning of my Jewish education and receiving my own mini Torah – which I still have. While soon after that, my parents made the decision to shift their membership to another congregation, they maintained their relationships with the clergy at Leo Baeck through their ongoing and very active involvement in the Los Angeles Jewish community.

    Many years later, as a second year student at HUC-JIR I had the honor of studying with Cantor Sharlin. He offered an elective class in Torah chanting. While I am not a very confident singer, I wanted to both learn how to chant more proficiently and to experience learning with him. While I still haven’t become a proficient Torah chanter – I need lots of practice before doing it (unlike Rick who can cite chant from the tikkun) – the memories I have of the stories Cantor Sharlin told, the conversations we had about Jewish music, and the impression he made on me as model member of the Jewish clergy remain with me today.

    I am compelled to share one of those memories with you.

    It was the first day of our Torah chanting class. Cantor Sharlin was trying to get to know each of the students in the class.  He went around the room, asking us to share a bit about ourselves and especially our Hebrew names. Given that it was a class in Torah chanting, he wanted to know and use our Hebrew names when it was our turn to chant.

    When it was my turn to share a bit about myself, I didn’t really need to say so much. Cantor Sharlin knew exactly who I was. He remembered me as Mark and Marsha’s daughter.  So, I shared a bit about where I had gone to university, what I was hoping to get out of the class. I  was about to say, “and my Hebrew name is…” when Cantor Sharlin stopped me.

    “I know your Hebrew name. It’s  הדסה בתיה, Hadasah Batya. And your sister’s name is דבורה שושנה, Devorah Shoshanah.”

    My classmates and I were astounded!

    Over 20 years had passed since our baby naming!  How many other babies had he named in the two plus decades? How many b’nai mitzvah had he trained? Weddings officiated?  How was it possible that he could remember our names?

    Author, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE

    As a rabbi who has officiated at not nearly as many baby namings as Cantor Sharlin had at that point in his 40+year career, and one who cannot remember the names of all those babies, I am even more inspired by Cantor Sharlin. The attention and focus he must have given to each of these rituals, to make them meaningful and special for each family surely must have contributed to his ability to remember names. In that moment he taught us all what it means to be a member of the clergy.

    On a final note, it wouldn’t be right to leave this blog post without some music from Cantor Sharlin. My favorite piece is one that he arranged with Debbie Friedman and can be heard in NFTY albums of days past, Lo Yarei’u combined with Lo Yisa Goy.  You can read about it and hear just a piece of it here in this URJ Ten Minutes of Torah by Cantor Kay Greenwald.

    May Cantor Sharlin’s memory be a blessing and may his music bring joy and inspiration to us all for many more years to come.

    This week’s post was written by  Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE and originally appeared on her blog Rabbi Laura.


  • 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.
  • 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.


  • Pride: The Modern Jewish Family

    Posted on June 13th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Rabbi Victor Appel and Family

    This is LGBT Pride month. HUC-JIR is proud of all of our LGBT alumni. As a tribute, this week we are reposting a piece by  Rabbi Victor Appell the Specialist for Marketing, Outreach & New Communities for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Congregational Consulting Group. His story, while highly personal, speaks to both traditional and contemporary visions of Jewish family. This post originally appeared on the URJ blog and is reposted here with permission.

    They Needed Parents, We Needed Children

    When my partner and I were adopting our first child, the adoption agency required that all families it worked with take a class. The class was about becoming a multi-racial family. At one session, the presenter, an adoptive parent herself, prepared us for some of the questions we would be asked, often by perfect strangers. As two white men planning on adopting an African-American child, we knew we were in for it. We have gotten just about every sort of reaction. At my pulpit, one congregant actually asked if we were going to raise our son as a Jew. Did she think that because Avi was black, we would raise him as a Baptist? I didn’t ask. Sometimes we get strange looks and sometimes on Sundays, black women, still in their church finery, stop and give us tearful hugs while we are shopping in Target.
    Sometimes, people ask me if my children are adopted. These people usually answer their own question before I have to. But my favorite question is, “So, did you want to have children?” I am tempted to respond that we adopted by accident, or that we woke up one day and found we had a child, or that the condom broke. Last time I checked it was pretty difficult to adopt a child “by accident.” Fortunately, the inner rabbi wins out over the snarky gay man and I politely reply that yes, Colin and I have always wanted children.

    Rabbi Victor Appell

    In fact, on our first date we talked about our desire to one day become parents. When people ask me why we adopted our sons I say because they needed parents and we needed children. As Jews, we knew we wanted a family in which we could pass on thousands of year’s worth of traditions and values. We dreamed of raising Jewish children, of blessing them at the Shabbat table, of them chanting the Four Questions, of raising children who would become menschen.

    It was not so easy to become a family. At first, we assumed that like so many other Jewish couples, we would bring home a baby girl from China. We soon learned that no foreign country allows openly gay people to adopt internationally. The only way to do it was for one of us to adopt as an individual and work with a social worker who was willing to go along with the ruse when working with a foreign adoption agency. Plenty of gay and lesbian couples do this but this was not how we wanted to begin our family. Turning our attention to domestic adoption, we were turned down by a large adoption agency in Chicago, where we lived at the time. They had no experience in working with gay couples and did not want to get our hopes up. The next agency was willing to work with us though they had only worked with one lesbian couple before and did not seem prepared to work with a male couple. At an information session, they handed out a price list. White baby boys were out of our price range, as were white girls. Hispanic children seemed to be on sale and African-American children on clearance. Welcome to the world of domestic adoption.

    Eventually we found our way to a wonderful agency that placed African-American and bi-racial children. Here, everyone was the same price. We knew we had found the agency that would help our family of two become three. Remarkably, nine months after completing the paperwork, we brought our three day old son home. At the time, Illinois would not allow two people of the same gender to adopt a child simultaneously. But they could consecutively. Yes, I know, this makes about as much sense as asking me if I planned on raising my son a Jew! So, I adopted Avi first, and then six months later, Colin also adopted him. Though this “minor” indignity cost us twice as much in legal fees as heterosexual couples, we have a birth certificate with both of our names on it.

    When I was looking for my next pulpit, our search was limited to states which not only allowed but were receptive to gay adoption. We wanted a little brother for Avi. Florida, which prohibits LGBT people from adopting, was out of the question. Our search led us to New Jersey. Though New Jersey has yet to pass marriage equality, it has some of the gay family friendliest laws in the nation. Here, we pursued a public adoption. Despite the beurocratic frustrations of working with a public agency to create a family, our being gay was never an issue. In fact, the social workers used to vie over who would do the home visits. They all told us how much they loved we way we had decorated our home. Hey, I’m happy to wear a stereotype when it serves my purposes! Again, in just nine months from beginning the process Lev completed our family.

    I cannot imagine being told that because Colin and I are gay that we would not be fit to be parents. Just like any other parents, our days are filled with getting the boys off to school in the morning, checking homework in the afternoon, and reading bedtime stories in the evening. And our weekends are filled with taking our boys from one sporting event to another. Our sons have never met a sport they did not like! And Colin is the coach of Lev’s t-ball team. What do you think of that, Florida?



  • Twitter for Your Congregation

    Posted on October 12th, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments


    When I first heard about Twitter the whole thing seemed ridiculous; after all, who needs ongoing updates on my every action and thought, especially short little burst of only 140 characters. Even my mother doesn’t love me that much never mind my colleagues and friends.

    But in the last few months Twitter has gained traction. Oprah uses it to share her ideas with the Oprah community. In Iran anti-government forces used it to spread word of protests. Caregivers for those in the hospital use it to update family and friends. Nonetheless, it can be hard to figure out if Twitter is a tool that you should make time to learn and use.

    My interest in Twitter as a helpful tool picked up after reading The Reason Your Chuch Must Twitter by Anthony Coppedge which was recommended to me by Jewish education and technology consultant Rebecca Egolf. The book is a good introduction to Twitter. Looking both at the nuts and bolts of the technology as well as opening a conversation as to why pastors should invest in Twitter.

    Coppedge makes the argument that Twitter can help make a pastor more human. It can aide in connecting the community that your institution is supporting, not only to the clergy but also to each other.

    After reading the book, I began to think of how it might be used in a synagogue. An ongoing stream of information about all activities would likely cause information fatigue and hurt the cause but strategic targeting could make this an affective tool in fulfilling core elements of the congregational mission. A Twitter group might be set up for those available for morning minyan. Instead of taking the time to make a dozen phone calls with the hope of getting one volunteer when a tenth fails to materialize, a short tweet (as Twitter messages are called) might be sent out to those (and I would recommend ONLY those) who could step in to make the quorum. A Twitter group could be set up for the Bikur Holim committee so that not only could people keep updated on Mrs. Levy’s triple bypass recovery and needs but changes in the visitation schedule to Mr. Schwartz could be changed without lots of phone calls. Additionally, the Twitter could supersede the need for a phone tree for the Hebrew School.

    According to one of Coppedge’s critics two of the major drawbacks of Twitter in the congregation are the need to educate congregants about the technology and getting their buy in.

    This is not a technology solution for all that confronts those of us working in the Jewish world. Like all innovations, Twitter has it’s limits. Coppedge’s short introduction to the subject can  help us figure out how to use it intelligently to our advantage.