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  • Educating the Modern Rabbi: A Conversation with Michael Marmur

    Posted on August 29th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    The New Year is nearly upon us and this means that the new school year is also beginning. Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting with Michael Marmur, Vice President from Academic Affairs at Hebrew Union College to talk about educating the modern rabbi. -your editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Pictured from left to right: Tonya, trip translator; Sarah Fishman, HUC-JIR rabbinical student; Jaqui McCabe, HUC-JIR education student; Yael Rooks-Rapport, HUC-JIR rabbinical student; and Rabbi Misha Kapustin, leading Seder in Simferopol, in the Crimea region of the Ukraine.

    RAM: One of your main roles as Vice President for Academic Affairs is overseeing the training of rabbis. When the College opened in 1873, the goal was to train leaders for the realities of a new kind of Jewish community that was emerging in the United States. How does the College-Institute today envision the role it plays in educating rabbis?


    MM: The Rabbinical school curriculum is poised between different and sometimes competing desiderata. One, of course, is providing a basis of knowledge and the skills necessary to access the texts and concepts that a rabbi needs in every situation. These skills are essential to whatever a rabbi does and provide a critical foundation. Another element of the curriculum is the acquisition of practical tools that the rabbis need to survive and thrive. Yet another is the development of spiritual sensitivity and the inner life. From yet another angle, we want our rabbis to be engaged in the great moral and social issues of the day, and to be acquainted with the changing face of the Jewish community. Trying to balance these and other considerations is both complicated and exciting work.


    RAM: It is fair to say that we are currently experience a period of significant change in the Jewish world. Is this new reality changing the way the College-Institute educates its students?


    MM: First off, it is important to note that curriculum is always a few years behind the world it serves, and this is not accidental. If we were to teach our students just based on current trends or predictions it would be laughable. If we took a look at the predictions made over the years we know that many of them turned out to be quite wrong. That having been said, there is always a need for change. The days when you could assume (if it was ever right to assume)  that you would be ordained and start off as an assistant in a congregation, then graduate to become the senior rabbi in another larger congregations are over. It will be the story for some of our graduates but by no means for all of them. We can’t even assume that those who do get to the big pulpits will do so by following this path. Take Andy Bachman whose work with Brooklyn Jews and on campus was outside the congregation and now leads a congregation, or Rachael Bregman in Atlanta who works for The Temple but whose rabbinate is outside the walls of the Temple.


    RAM: So how is the College-Institute helping address this shift?


    MM: We are trying to educate ourselves about the changes which are taking place “out there” on the field.  We are in conversations with Hillel, for example, about what needs to happen in the consciousness and expectations of our students which will make them the kind of Hillel rabbis that they want to be. We are looking at changes taking place within the traditional congregations where the majority of our alumni still serve, and outside those traditional frameworks too. While continuing to fulfill our traditional role, we want to broaden our self-understanding. Our job is to serve Jews where they are while building models of where they yet might be.


    RAM: Does this mean changing the curriculum?

    Dr. Michael Marmur Vice President for Academic Affairs at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

    MM: Yes and no. We are now offering classes in areas which were not prominent in our curriculum – there are good examples to be found on each of our campuses. If you look at new possibilities in service learning, spirituality, management and leadership training at the College-Institute happening right now, I think you will be surprised and impressed.Our students spend time reflecting on their roles as leaders and grappling with issues such as intermarriage,  so that they have given the issue significant thought before they are faced with real decisions to be made. More and more students are given the opportunity to integrate their learning with the lives waiting for them “out there”. But at the same time, the more uncertain the scene the prospects becomes the greater the need to shore up core competencies. The where and why people want a rabbi might be changing a great deal but they still need the rabbi to know Jewish texts, to be a tradent of Jewish tradition. Without real knowledge and understanding of that core material the rabbi is ill equipped to be flexible as the settings demand. Folks need rabbis who are equipped with timely tools, but also rabbis who relate to timeless truths. And the very finest examples of people involved in congregational transformation and community engagement model this blend of capacities and passions.


    RAM: Are there limits to what can and should be taught?


    MM: Of course. There is a strong core of knowledge that one needs to become a rabbi but there are things that just need to be learned in the field and one only knows what those are going to be when you encounter them. For example, we want every graduate to know how to hold a balance sheet and read a budget but a specific course in new trends in bookkeeping is only going to be of use to a certain subset of experienced professionals.


    There has always been a range of opinions in the school about the personal and spiritual dimensions of being a rabbi. The founders of the school may have wondered if we are willing and able to tackle these aspects. Many of us now are aware that we cannot ignore them. There are interesting initiatives in the College-Institute which relate to these dimensions too.


    We have recently generated an interesting document listing the learning outcomes our faculty is looking for in our students. It is a challenging and stimulating list, and yet I am sure we have left many of the intangible things off the list. If our students come away with a sense of privilege at the opportunity to spend a life of service and Torah, and a wish to use and improve the tools they have been provided with, our work has not been in vain.


    RAM: Any final words going into the new school year?


    MM: To all our students, faculty, staff and of course our alumni, may it be a year of learning and growth. Shannah Tovah.



  • How to Teach Moral Wisdom

    Posted on August 1st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    דאמר רבי ישמעאל בר רב נחמן

    עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה

    מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה ט פסקה ג

    Rabbi Yishmael Bar Nachman said:  Derekh Eretz preceded the Torah by 26 generations

    -Midrash Rabbah Vayikra


    Summer camps and beach holidays, ice cream and blockbusters; even as we relax and indulge the march towards the High Holy Days has begun. The practical components not withstanding, the spiritual journey is complex. Elul is still weeks away, but Tisha B’Av has just passed and opened the doors of contemplation.

    Baseless hatred was the cause of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and even if we are not inclined to rebuild we cannot fail to recognize the corrosive power of negative speech and mean spirits. How tenuous the life of a community when we all do our best, kal va’khomer, all the more so when malice and negativity invade.

    Before there was a Temple, before there was Torah, there was derekh eretz- the way of the land, the natural path, simple wisdom. It was straying off that natural path, into the briar patch of pettiness and small mindedness that got us stuck and created destruction. If we want to do teshuvah, really repair the wrongs, then we need to return to the way of the land, to the simple wisdom that would have us make right and thoughtful moral choices in the world.

    This is the drum that psychologist Barry Schwartz beats loudly. Known for his work on choices, he has recently turned his attention to common place wisdom. Schwartz traces the origins of practical wisdom to Aristotle, who saw it as a combination of moral will and moral skill. As he explained in a recent TED talk, “A wise person knows when and how to make an exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to use these [moral] skills in pursuit of the right aims.” Someone who is wise, knows how to improvise and does so in a way that helps not hurts others. This kind of wisdom can, for example, turn a hospital janitor into an essential element not just of hospital maintenance but of patient care and wellness, for the janitor who goes against her supervisor’s directive and does not vacuum the waiting room, allows the family sitting vigil to catch vital moments of sleep.

    Critically, Schwartz, contends that practical wisdom can and should be taught. From where he stands that learning comes through experience and through being allowed to try and fail. But there is also a need for mentoring. Or in the words of our tradition,

    “רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה.” (משנה אבות ג יז


    Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: without Torah there is no derekh eretz, without derekh eretz there is no Torah. –Pirkei Avot 3:17

    Derekh Eretz may have predated the Torah, as practical wisdom which knows no religious or tribal boundaries ought to, but it is the specific precepts of Torah that shape our understanding of what is right.

    When he was setting down the foundation for modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch took the phrase,  תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ Torah with derekh eretz, (also from Pirkei Avot) as the basis for his vision. He focused less on the element of derekh eretz as practical wisdom but on the element in our tradition that sees it as engaging in the world, earning a living and abiding by the customs of the general community. As he explained in his commentary on Avot, “Derech Eretz includes everything …this term especially describes ways of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order. It also includes the customs and considerations of etiquette, that the social order generates as well as everything concerning humanistic civil education.” His main concern was making sure that observance of Torah did not eclipse the practical elements of modern life.

    For modern Reform Jews, Hirsch’s understanding of derekh eretz in well within our grasp. On the whole, we are successful in the boarder world, we participate in the social and communal fabric of modern society with ease and achievement. But it is possible, that if we focus exclusively on that understanding of derekh eretz alone, we will miss out on the other fundamental meaning of the term, its link to Torah and the power that comes from the combination of the two.

    Tisha B’Av opens up a conversation about what pulls apart that which is most precious to us, it reminds us of what hangs in the balance with our simple actions, like speech. Derekh eretz is the beginning of the redemption, the use of the common wisdom that keeps our tongue from speaking evil our lips from telling lies. But as essential as derekh eretz –in both its practical wisdom and engage with the secular world meanings- is, it is only a starting point. We step from this general wisdom in Av into the rituals of Elul, the blowing of the shofar, the singing of slichot, culminating in the very particularistic rituals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that define for us clearly the blueprint that is Torah and Jewish practice.

    Derekh eretz is essential to creating community and success but it does not happen in a vacuum. As Schwartz reminds us, it must be learned and reinforced. His worry about lack of leadership, overlooks the resources we have at hand. The means to moral wisdom is available to all of us if we remember that ein Torah, ein derekh eretz. Leadership that is rooted in the precepts of our tradition, in the teachings of Torah, in the rituals and rhythms of Jewish life will not only inspire but guide and instill. As modern Reform Jews, we would do well to reinterpret and reembrace Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s charge. We already know how to navigate the practical elements of modern life, but if we want to ensure continued moral and communal success, we need to reaffirm talmud Torah with derekh eretz.


    Moral Wisdom, Torah, Limits of Rules



  • What’s in a Relationship? Some Summer Must Reads

    Posted on June 4th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE has some wonderful suggestions for summer reading to strengthen and better understand how we connect with those around us. – ed. Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Summer is here! It’s that time of year we send our children and congregants off to summer camp or pack our own bags to spend time on faculty at one of our URJ summer camps.  The summer camp experience is one in which – young or old – we have the potential to build deep and lasting relationships with peers and mentors.  Much like our youth, I find myself counting the days till our return to URJ Camp Newman, an invaluable time for connection, reflection and fun with dear friends and colleagues.


    “Relationships” is a buzzword in the Jewish world right now. We are asking questions. How do we build relationships?  What does a community founded on deep relationships look like? What role do relationships play in strengthening one’s connection to Judaism?

    Author Rabbi Laura Novak Winer RJE

    The quintessential Jewish model of a meaningful, one could even say sacred, relationship is Martin Buber’s model of the “I-Thou” relationship, when we accept another person for who s/he is. We see the person as a whole being.  Buber differentiates this from the “I-It” relationship in which we perceive another person as an object to be either manipulated or used for our own self-gratification.


    There are a growing number of books that address these questions about relationships.  In recent months I have expanded my Kindle and paper libraries with variety of disciplinary approaches to these questions about relationships. So, in between other more causal summer reads, I might suggest you dip into some of these as well:


    • Community: The Structure of Belonging (Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008) – A look at what it takes to build a community in which people feel a sense of ownership and investment in its well-being.
    • The Courage to Teach (Parker Palmer, Jossey-Bass, 1998) – From the educator’s perspective, a challenge to look inward and realize what we bring to our relationships with our students and constituents.
    • MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend (Rachel Bertsche, Ballantine Books, 2011) – A humorous look at what it means to be a “best friend” and how we build friendships.
    • Never Eat Alone – And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time (Keith Ferrazzi. Doubleday, 2005) – From the ultimate business schmoozer-networker-connector perspective, this book provides insight into how we can use relationships to create win-win situations for everyone.
    • Relationships Unfiltered (Andrew Root, Zondervan, 2009) – A Christian youth ministry book about how we create authentic relationships with our youth in a religious/spiritual context



    Each of these authors addresses the same question: What are we trying to accomplish, if anything, in our relationships?  Whether it is our own relationships or those we are trying to help our youth and congregants build, we need to be sure we are clear on our answer to this question.


    Often times, as seen in “I-It” relationships, we are trying to influence someone to act, believe, or behave, as we would like them to.  Come to this youth group event.  Go to religious school. Do this mitzvah. Why? Because everyone else is going. Because I said so. Because it’s our tradition. Rather than a goal of influence, Andrew Root shifts the paradigm back to Buber, suggesting that our relationships should be based on the goal of simply being present.  In a true “I-Thou” relationship, we are present with each other, to see each other for who we are, accept each other for who we are, support and accompany each other on our journeys.  Root writes, “the fullness of a person (her dreams, joys, pains, fears)” should be more important to us than “her ability to know, admit, believe, and commit.”


    In an almost opposite approach, Keith Ferrazzi, a marketing and sales consultant, teaches that “relationships are like muscles – the more you work them, the stronger they become.”  Much of his self-help approach to success through networking focuses how relationships can open doors, create opportunities, and lead to greater influence on others. He takes the position that people are loyal to their peers, their networks and those with whom they have relationships.  It makes me wonder, though, how could we do a better job of building relationships in our communities so that we build stronger more lasting allegiances and connections to Reform Judaism and Jewish community?


    Parker Palmer, from his Quaker background, reminds us that relationships have a sacred quality to them. That which makes the Jewish relationship sacred is the presence of God, Torah and Judaism.  When we build Jewish relationships of meaning, Judaism and all that is part of it, is in the middle.  Palmer reminds us of verses from Robert Frost: “We dance round a ring and suppose,/ But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” In response to this couplet, Palmer invites us to consider that when we bring that Secret – in our case Judaism – into the center of our relationships, we can have conversations with Judaism and with each other that helps us each find meaning and answers that bring us wholeness.


    My family and I will be back at URJ Camp Newman in just days.  While there with friends and colleagues, while interacting with young Jews eager to learn, grow and connect, I will carry the challenge of strengthening our relationship with each other.  While sometimes we might be circled around a campfire, a guitar and a siddur, or a bottle of Napa Valley p’ri hagafen, each moment will be made sacred with God’s presence.


  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 5

    Posted on January 27th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs.  Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

    As we close in on Shabbat, we offer two different rabbinic perspectives

    by Rabbi Judith Abrams of Maqom

    The instructions are always the same: figure out what God wants you to do, then go do it.  If you’re still alive after completing your mission, God will give you another one.  And don’t be afraid of not making enough money.  God will always make it possible for you to make a living while you’re doing your mission.  You may not live in a mansion, but you’ll be ok.  How do you know what God wants you to do?  Find your bliss….that’s where the mission is.

    Author Judith Abrams

    What happens when you finish a mission?  You have to learn to let go of the trapeze bar you’re on and fly through the air to catch the next trapeze bar.  The next bar always appears.  And if you insist on hanging to your present bar, you’re not just messing up your own life, you’re clogging the works for everyone else.  The bar you’ve outgrown is the perfect bar for someone else.  They can’t move forward until you let go. And if you insist on holding on to that bar…woe betide you.  First God will gently tap your fingers.  If you don’t move, God will make the stimulus more painful and ever more painful as you persist in your stubbornness.  Finally, it will come to a choice of so much pain that it will kill you or you finally fly.  Once you finally fly, you’ll soar over that bit of space where you were stuck for so long.  And you’ll marvel that, instead of falling, you’re flying.

    The first time that you fly through that space between the two bars you might feel frightened but once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll actually enjoy that sensation of flying.

    And finally, never, ever believe your own press.  Nothing contaminates spirituality, art and your mission more than ego-contamination.

    by Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman

    Know your strengths and weaknesses — and I don’t mean “what you’re good at” and “what you’re bad at.” Marcus Buckingham, author of the outstanding book “Go Put Your Strengths to Work,” defines a strength as “something that energizes you” and a weakness as “something that drains you.” In other words, a strength is something that makes you feel strong, and a weakness is something that makes you feel weak.

    Author Geoffrey Mitelman

    So as you explore your strengths, think about these questions: What are your natural talents? What gets you passionate? What are the kinds of things that would be enjoyable challenges for you? What are the kinds of things you’d be excited to learn more about?

    And as you explore your weaknesses, think about these questions: What are the kinds of things that, if you never had to do them again, it would be too soon? What activities do you find putting off because you don’t want to do them? What do you find emotionally exhausting?

    Your goal should be finding a job that allows you to maximize your time using your strengths, and minimize your time using your weaknesses. Since the rabbinate is not a typical job, if you can find a position where you can frequently say, “I can’t wait to do this!” and infrequently have to say, “Ugh, I have to do this?!”, then you will find tremendous energy, fulfillment, and joy in your work.

  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 4

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

    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs. Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!


    by Cantor Erik Contzius of Temple Israel of New Rochelle, New York

    Remember that as klei kodesh we serve the Jewish people. Sometimes that service leads us to places we never expected when we entered the Seminary. My first pulpit was in Omaha, Nebraska–not a place I had ever in my life I expected to visit, let alone live. It was a wonderful and enriching experience. Sometimes that service leads us to do things far beyond our comfort zone. This is the demand of being a “Professional Jew.” This is a career and a calling of service.

    Author Erik Contzius

    Be ready for the unexpected. While in Nebraska, through a very large series of events, I would up having someone accused of a white collar crime living in our apartment under house arrest for 3 1/2 months! For me, this was an issue of pikuakh nefesh–it was in the newspapers, some congregants were uncomfortable, but I had to do what I felt was the right and just thing. Hopefully you won’t go through that exact experience, but you never know.

    Get in therapy. Therapists see other therapists so that they can treat their patients better. We need to do the same. Our profession demands our constant presence for others. Heed Hillel’s words: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

    We are still people. Just because we are clergy or have a Masters Degree from HUC does not make us “above” anyone else. Sometimes congregants will put us up on unnatural pedestals. Don’t buy into the hype! We are all weak, all fallible, all human, everyone of us. Don’t forget it!



  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 3

    Posted on January 25th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs. Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

    by Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz, The Community Synagogue, Port Washington, NY

    A few days before I started ulpan at HUC in Jerusalem I went to visit Rabbi Hank Skirball, who I had never met before (or since for that matter!). Our visit, however, was memorable because he gave me three sage pieces of advice about the rabbinate:

    - First, loving Judaism … that’s the easy part.  It’s loving the Jews that’s the hard work – and what matters the most. 

    Author Irwin Zeplowitz






    - Second, always take what you do seriously; just don’t take yourself too seriously.

    - Third, you are never as bad as they will tell you are, and you are never a good as they will tell you are, either.

    His words ring true over the decades – and are wise reminders about loving others, being passionate about the work we do, yet always being humble.  His wise counsel, it seems to me, is not just for rabbis, but for any graduate of HUC-JIR dedicated to a life of Jewish service

  • Creating Particularistic Religious Identities in an Age of Pluralism

    Posted on December 20th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment


    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Even if you did not attend the URJ Biennial to know that Jews in America are worried about how to engage, attract and maintain a connection with young people. And it is not just Jews who worry about the next generation. In an age of individual choices about identities, where switching faiths or having none at all is more likely than staying the course with what we are born into, how do we connect with young people? Apathy and radicalism seem to sell but what about moderation and generosity? 

    There is no easy or single answer to these questions but they are the questions that animate Eboo Patel’s autobiography Acts of Faith. At the start of the book Patel asks us to consider his fellow coreligionists, young Muslim men like himself, who in the summer of 2005 blew up transportation hubs throughout London killing and maiming over 800. What he wonders separates himself from these young people?

    Patel’s look back over his life is an attempt to answer this question by way of describing how he came in his twenties to found the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) an international interfaith service group engaging to make the world a better place by focusing on the concepts of good works found in all religions. The organization is his answer to the question of how to engage youth and it is a compelling one. Much of his analysis of American institutionalized religion and the formulation of the solutions resonate across religious lines.

    But long before you get to the solutions, and even if you do not find them compelling, this is a must read for those looking to work with youth and believe passionately in both particularism and universalism. Patel’s personal story is a familiar one. He is the son of immigrant parents who work hard to assimilate and succeed in becoming American. Elements of his family’s Muslim faith and culture are casualties along the way. As a young man searching to find his place in the world, he looks everywhere but his own heritage before eventually returning to it.

    Along the way he describes a series of close relationships, many romantic and some platonic with others who are compelling to him precisely because these individuals know their own faith traditions and draw strength from them. Each of these characters provides a powerful positive model for being modern and religious. The encounters inspire Patel but also sharpen his sense of self as distinct from the other. And just as we see this happening for Eboo Patel, we ourselves experience this sharpening of self through our encounter with him.

    Patel’s assessment of his Jewish fellow travelers provides an inspiring vision of what is positive and attractive about being a modern Jew. In the mirror of his prose, I was able to see elements of Jewish life that sometimes go unnoticed.

    I want to recommend to every young person of any faith –especially those wondering if faith is for them. But Patel’s vision can and should inspire all of us who struggle with being particular in a universal age and want to share that vision with the next generation.



  • But Israel is Different: Some truth to those ads

    Posted on December 7th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    By Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Recently there was a little bit of an uproar in our community; a family was hosting a party for the 9thgrade alumni of our Jewish day school. Many parents were shocked that the host parents were not planning on staying home to supervise. Talking with a concerned friend, I suggested that someone speak with the mother who might have a different cultural context adding, “after all she is an immigrant.” The response, “She’s not an immigrant, she is an Israeli.”

    Last week, only days after it’s launch, the Israeli government cancelled an advertising campaign targeted to Israelis living in the US and aiming to get them to “come home” to Israel. The cancellation was a response to the outcry which was led in part by Jeffery Goldberg of the Atlantic and echoed by many American Jews. The objections for the most part centered on the negative tone that the ads took towards the quality of American Jewish life. Yet it seems to me that missing from much of the conversation that I was privy too, was a discussion about what it means to define Israelis as a group distinct from American Jews.

    I had to laugh when my friend told me that the Israeli mother hosting the party was not an immigrant. I grew up in exactly the kind of mixed household derided in the ad about Israel’s Memorial Day. My father is third generation Canadian and my mother was born in Tel Aviv. Hot dogs in my home were served in pita with tehina on top and tabuleh on the side. In addition to attending a Jewish day school, I was tutored in Hebrew after school to assure fluency. July was spent hiking Massada not at a summer cottage paddling canoes. I was different than the other children I knew growing up because being Israeli is not the same as an imagined universal Judaism, nor is it the same as the Canadian Judaism I learned at school.

    The Judaism I learned at school was built around prayer and religious ritual, using Torah as our guide. At home, we celebrated the same holidays but with very different meanings and points of reference. At home, history and nationalism replaced Torah as the touch stone for our identification.

    Recognizing elements of Israeli culture as distinct from generalized Jewish identity challenges the concept of a singularly unified Jewish people, an idea that the organized Jewish community on both sides of the Atlantic has long been invested in. It challenges the idea that American Jews will feel naturally at home in Israel. This reality is fundamental to understanding what it will mean to be a Jewish people going forward. We cannot assume, as my friend did, that we understand each other.

    As Reform Jews, we have long recognized that some of the unique elements of Judaism as we have constructed it in North America have a great deal to offer Israelis. Our ability to engage creatively with prayer, text and ritual can serve as a model as Israel continues to grapple with what it means to be a modern Jewish state. Conversely, if we can figure out how to connect with Israelis, both here and in Israel, we have the potential to broaden the paradigms for Jewishness with regards to community and language with the possibility of opening new paths for defining the our sense of ethnic heritage.

    Growing up one foot in Canada, one foot in Israel, I struggled to figure out how to make sense of what were significantly different frameworks for being a modern Jew. Though often spiritually challenging, what I learned from both rooted my sense of self more deeply than either could on its own. I arrived ready to enter rabbinical school drawing not only on a depth of Hebrew language skill but with an understanding of how Israelis use the texts of the past in all manner of cultural construction. In becoming a rabbi, I was able to see beyond the limitations put on me by the Orthodox vision of religion I learned in school because I had Golda and chayalot as role models. There is no single way to put together modern Jewish life but if we want to move forward, we would be foolish to ignore the differences and what we can learn from them.


  • God and Twitter 2: Spiritual Innovation and Connection

    Posted on June 27th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Last year during the High Holiday services at Temple Emanuel of Beverley Hills California, Rabbi Laura Geller paused during her sermon and asked those assembled to take out their cell phones. Contrary to expectations, she did not ask them to turn them off, instead she asked them to turn them on. The theme for the holy season at synagogue was, “What are you doing here?” Smart phones in hand, over a thousand people joined in the conversation with Cantor Yonah Kliger (@CantorYonah) moderating an online conversation that mirrored the lively live discussion led by Geller. The entire dynamic of the service changed. At best, a rabbi leading a traditional conversation from the bimah can hope to engage a handful of people, who may or may not stay on topic. Here everyone was involved and limited to 140 characters, people were considered and deliberate about what they shared.

    At first glance it can easy to dismiss Twitter. Small bites of conversations not necessarily joined in linear progression have the potential to be devoid of meaning. But playing with the medium, it is clear, that the format also lends itself to innovation. Last week I described how Twitter is enhancing the traditional work of Jewish professionals, but Twitter is more than just a way to do the expected in a different format, it is an opportunity to do the unexpected.

    In the Spring of 2010, Rabbi Oren Hayon (@rabbihayon) gathered a group of rabbis to retell the story of the Israelite experience in Egypt. Setting up accounts for Moses, Pharoh and many other biblical players, the story unfolded in Tweet the Exodus (@tweettheexodus) a narrative that had nearly 1,500 followers and received attention in the Wall Street Journal and on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Such a broadly collaborative and interactive retelling would be impossible to imagine in any other forum.

    Traditionally Elijah the Prophet visits Jewish homes on the first and second nights of Passover, but uses Twitter to let see what that often elusive angel of old does throughout Passover. As Rabbi Laura Baum (@JewsOnline) explains throughout the 8 days of the holiday, “We had him in various places, he would go on 8-9 cities a day and we would photo shop him in.” Instead of having the holiday fizzle out in malaise of matzah menu madness, this creative use of Twitter maintained the aspect of interactive anticipation that is meant to infuse the sedarim.

    In this era of being overloaded with information, time and again, Jewish professionals cite Twitter as a means by which they can vet articles and information to help make sure we are getting to the material that we want to focus on. It was this element of Twitter that led me to propose the idea of tweeting the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia to the Jewish Women’s Archive (@jwaonline). The Encyclopedia, which is housed on their site is an incredible resource of exceptional and diverse content. Taking up the idea, JWA recruited about twenty people to choose an article a week during American Jewish Heritage month, to summarize it in 140 characters and link to the source. The project caught one quickly and soon large numbers of people were delving into Jewish history and sharing info on more than 200 articles. Not only did it bring in new readers and feedback to the JWA but it engendered conversation about serious Jewish history in a democratic non-hierarchical format.

    Another one of the consistently reported upon benefits of Twitter is that it allows users to connect with others who you might never otherwise connect with. One such person for me is Reverand Naomi King (@RevNaomi) a skilled user of social media and a Unitarian Universalist minister. Writing on Patheos, a religion site, she explains how Twitter can be used for what she calls, “Digital Faith Formation.” Using a Twitter application called Tweetchat, she brings together experts with those interested in discussing “particular texts, or to speak to particular emotional, spiritual, or social issues.” By locating these conversations in the virtual world of Twitter, she is able to connect across location with a range of people that simply could never come together. As she explains,  “Using a few free and inexpensive tools, people of faith also have a chance to live so openly that others who are seeking can actually find them.” What she is describing is that far too elusive ability to reach in Jewish parlance, “the unafilliated.”

    The use of hastags (#s) is another element of Twitter that is allowing broad conversations to happen. The # symbol in front of a word in the Twitter system allows one to signal that a particular topic is being discussed and to add to a broader series of comments about this topic. A few years back for example JewishTweets (@JewishTweets) introduced #shabbatshalom. Now you don’t need to be on the streets of Jerusalem to feel as though everyone is in on the Shabbat spirit.

    Hashtags allow more much more than list formation. They are a means to virtual participation. Were not at the Women’s Rabbinic Network? Missed out on a session at NATE? You can follow along by following the hashtag associated with the conference and seeing what people have to say. Recently, Collier Meyerson (@WoodyAllenNot)  in the New York office of my organization, Be’chol Lashon, participated in a conference in that city. Sitting at my desk in San Francisco, I monitored the reaction to her presentation on Twitter. As people commented, I chatted with them, (@bechollashon) adding my thoughts. As an organization, we were able to use Twitter to augment and shape the perceptions that were created face to face.

    In the days before Shavuot, a new tradition is emerging that uses the #Torah hashtag to create an international Torah study free for all. Rabbi Mark Hurvitz (@rebmark) keeps hoping that the concerted effort of Jews around the world to send out significant numbers of tweets with the #Torah tag connected will result in Torah trending, or rising to the top of the list of popular Twitter topics. So far it has not, but given the dispersion of Jews and the diversity of our approaches to Torah, this may be as close as we can hope to get to a recreation of the gathering at Sinai. Several of the conversations in which I participated as we “Tweet[ed] Torah to the Top” this year, were as profoundly meaningful as they were direct. And there is no other forum in which so people of such diverse backgrounds, in so many geographic locations, could ever get into serious Torah conversations.

    18 months ago, I did not see any of these wonderful ways to use Twitter to innovate spiritual connection, meaning making and engagement. Given the vast network that is Twitter, I have no doubt missed many other great innovations. And given that Twitter is still in its infancy, I feel certain much more will unfold. Let me know what I’ve missed, and keep me posted on what develops.


  • Happy on the Fence this Israel Day

    Posted on May 9th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments



    יושב על הגדר
    רגל פה, רגל שם

    Sitting on the fence, one foot here, the other there

    -Arik Einstein 1982


    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.

    In 1982, I spent part of the summer much like I did so many other summers in my childhood hanging out with friends, watching too much tv, sitting on the beach or by the pool-in Israel. My mother was born in Tel Aviv in 1940 and came to Canada in her twenties. We would return many summers to see the sites and hang out. In 1982, Arik Einstein sang an easy, breezy song about seeing the good things in life from his position sitting on the fence. As I made my way through high school, the song would become my anthem; the title resonating with how I understood my life. I grew up in Canada, part of a well established, large Canadian Jewish clan. I lobbied Parliament, and took part yearly in the sugaring off of the Maple trees. I also spoke fluent Hebrew, walked around with a large tome of Ben-Gurion’s speeches, and knew the twists and turns of Masada well. I grew up one foot here, the other there.


    Much has been written in the last few weeks about the commitment of the American Jewish leadership to Israel. Einstein’s words are resonating with new meaning.


    In 2006, I spent a year at the Mandel Leadership Institute as a Jerusalem Fellow. I worked closely with Rabbi Daniel Gordis. I learned a great deal in that relationship, but one of the points where he and I differed was in our understandings of what it meant to be a rabbi. For Gordis, being a rabbi meant defending our tradition at every turn. I had grown up with the shadow of the Holocaust casting a pall over the real sense of divinity I knew from my own experience. I had spent a decade in academia, struggling to understand how to make sense of a tradition that is so fundamentally patriarchical and yet astonishingly meaningful. My road to the rabbinate was paved in doubts, rebellions, and frustrations. I felt my mission as a rabbi was to help people through their own complex struggles. This vision of the rabbinate was one that was affirmed for me throughout my time at HUC, where we as Reform leaders in training were encouraged to wrestle with texts. It was affirmed by learning from future colleagues in the field and the ways in which they dealt with contemporary issues, like intermarriage. Reform Jews, it seemed to me, see having one foot here and one foot there, inside and outside of tradition engaging and questioning as quintessentially Jewish.


    Reading Gordis’ recent critique of young rabbis and their critical approach to Israel and questioning of Zionism, I have been revisiting the conversations we had about the rabbinate. Back then, my vision of the rabbinate, though grounded in some measure of experience and a great deal of theory, was in its infancy. To attend Jerusalem Fellows, I had hopped on a plane immediately following ordination. Our conversation about the real work of the rabbi was still imaginary. But what I imagined then has indeed come to pass. The work I do as a rabbi, formally and informally, gains much of its strength and credibility by being open to struggle. This struggling is, I continue feel, fundamental to being part of the Reform movement and to being Jewish. Throughout our history, Reform has understood that modern Jews do not have a single frame of reference. Ours is a community that believes it is possible to live with one foot here and one foot there. Anyone who has ever climbed a fence knows, doing so can be at times be little uncomfortable and unstable. Yet we persist in having one foot here and one foot there because we understand the value of conversation and of multiple points of view, moreover we see this type of learning and talking as fundamentally Jewish.


    Nearly two years ago, I moved to San Francisco. Having never lived in California, I was told time and again, that it would be a shock to my Jewish system. The only place I have found that to be true is in regards to Israel. Earlier this year an Israeli think tank declared our region one of the hot spots for Israel de-legitimization. There are attacks against Zionism at the University of California at Berkeley. Within the Jewish community the rancor has reached such a fevered pitch that our Board of Rabbis began a campaign for civil discourse. I have learned to be cautious whenever discussions of Israel arise. I have been attacked for not being pro-Israel enough and for being pro-Israel at all.


    But San Francisco is also home to some wonderful creative and intensive Israel education initiatives that seek to engage beyond slogans. As Michal Morris Kamil recently told The Jerusalem Report (in an article by Renee Ghert-Zand in the May 23, 2011 issue), “We now know that kids don’t need to be protected from multiple narratives. In fact, exposing children to different perspectives gives them tools to deal and cope with diversity as they grow up.” I recently participated in a day of learning about pedagogy for teaching about Israel, run by BASIS - The Israel Education & Engagement Initiative in Bay Area day schools. The theme throughout the day was opening up the complexity of Israel for students. Two of the presenters, Jonathan Ariel and Rami Wernik, are leaders of Makom, an educational initiative of the Jewish Agency which encourages wresting with the big questions. It is not comfortable. It is messy. But it is the way forward. And it resonates with the complex approach to Judaism that is so fundamental to Reform Judaism.


    As I prepared to write this piece I went back and reread the Einstein’s lyrics. At the end of Arik Einstein’s song, he suggests that sitting on the fence you can see both sides but ultimately you see nothing at all. To quote another Israeli classic pop song, ”I’m sitting in San Francisco by the water and I feel far away.” I am far from the day to day of Israeli life, but I remain connected and engaged. I feel some of Gordis’ concern about the disengagement with Israel and the wonder of Zionism. But my rabbinate has been built on a belief that sitting uncomfortably on a fence is a good thing. I have learned that sharing my struggles about modern Jewish living is critical to my ability to engage others in understanding kashrut, sexism, prayer, Talmud or any other Jewish issue. Einstein’s metaphor still resonates strongly for me with regards to Israel, but his conclusion does not. I sit on a fence, one foot here and one foot there, and my discomfort sharpens my vision and my ability to share it.