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  • Best Jewish Education Innovation Since Two Tablets

    Posted on March 12th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    You know how it goes, you learn a great piece of Torah and want to share it.  Or maybe you have a big idea and you know just the mishna to exemplify it.  Sometimes it is as simple as the source of the words to a new song you want the choir to learn. But standing between our understanding and interest in the text and the people you want to reach is that ever so finicky tool of the trade, the study sheet.

    Sure the days of mimeographs and carbon copies are gone but even with Hebrew data bases and Hebrew language word processors the cutting and pasting, the margins, the fonts can all make one throw up their hands.


    But, NO MORE!!!


    There is a new kid on the block by the name of Sefaria, which is in my opinion the best thing since Moses brought us the tablet. Okay, an exaggeration for certain, but Sefaria is indeed a wonderful tool that every Jewish educator should be taking advantage of. Merging the best of what modern technology has to offer together with a well honed sense of what goes on when people study Jewish texts, they have created a site that allows users to create and share study sheets with ease. The texts are in Hebrew and in English. There are a few choices about how to lay out the material. You can see traditional commentaries or add your own annotations. And lickety split, you have a hand-out ready to go.


    Okay, true not every text is there and you may not love the translations that are available. But, there is a great deal available and in the best of open source ie. collaborative tradition, if you want to add or contribute, you are welcomed and encouraged to do so. It was co-founded by Brett Lockspeiser who has worked in tech including places such as Google and Joshua Foer an author of many books including Moonwalking with Einstein. The main team includes rabbis from across the spectrum like Rav Yehoshua Kahan and Rabbi Ellen Bernstein. But they need more of us to get involved. If you don’t want to translate or enter text, then make some sheets and share them. Help build the future of Jewish learning.


    And if you are the kind of person for whom learning a new tech tricks is hard, there are training videos and detailed instructions that lay things out pretty clearly.


    Try it. It really is pretty cool and mighty useful too.


  • Serious or Silly: Making Meaning from Jewish Superstitions

    Posted on August 6th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 7 comments

    By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

    Do you spit three times when you see a funeral procession go by or even when you hear good news? Or do you feel compelled to pull on your ears if you sneeze while speaking about someone who is dead? And do you tie a red string on a baby’s crib to keep the evil eye away?

    Most likely, you’re either thinking- “Oh my goodness, I thought I was the ONLY one who did that,” or you may be thinking, “that is ridiculous and just some crazy superstitions.”

    Author: Emily Losben-Ostrov

    Well, despite the fact that one of our central prayers- the Aleinu reminds us to strive for the day when, “superstition no longer blinds the mind,” we, as Jews, have many, many superstitions. For some of us, the superstitions can be seen as mere customs, such as “throwing salt over your shoulder if you knock over the salt shaker, or uttering certain words to prevent something bad from happening like saying, “Ken-eyin-o’hara.”


    Personally, I’ve been interested in Jewish superstitions and Jewish magic for as long as I can remember, but it even became part of my rabbinical world when I took Dr. Susan Einbinder’s class “Magic and Popular Belief in Medieval Ashkenaz” in the Spring of 2007 while a student on the Cincinnati Campus. In this incredibly interesting course we studied all kinds of texts and learned about Jewish traditions on the “power” of amulets, reciting various psalms, and eating “magic foods” and much more.

    A few months ago this course became a practical issue at my congregation when a debate ensued over an upcoming meal. A recent widow had donated some of her untouched leftovers from when she had been sitting Shiva. Two other women wanted to use that food for a synagogue function and two different women couldn’t possibly dream of eating that food, holding fast to the idea that “you never take food from a Shiva House.” Was this a real custom or simply a ridiculous superstition? Was it even food from a Shiva House if the widow was no longer sitting Shiva? As you can imagine, there were more opinions than people involved in this debate. The particulars aside, the bigger issue was, how do we, as Jews look at superstitions?

    What I learned was that, it didn’t matter what the superstition is, because to one person it is a custom, an important tradition that ties them to their Judaism and to another person it was simply “ridiculous” or antiquated act or belief. In many ways, some of what we do for certain holidays or dealing with death may now be considered custom, but could have at sometime been considered mere superstition. And just as we liberal Jews decide which mitzvot have meaning, for many of us, we decide which superstitions or customs also have meaning. When I pull on my ears after sneezing while speaking of someone who passed away, I do it because my grandmother used to tell me to do it- it connects me to my traditions my history. I don’t know that I believe in any repercussions from not doing it, but I am just compelled to do it and it makes me smile and think of my beloved grandmother.

    To deal with the debate from the women in my congregation, I began doing some research, posed a question on Facebook and then even offered a class entitled- “What’s a Jew to do- A look at the differences between superstitions, customs and laws.” The class afforded us the opportunity to get to the real meanings behind what we do. Not only was the class fun and really successful, but I also learned about more Jewish superstitions than I could ever have imagined!

    So let me know what you think, do superstitions help highten your sense of Jewish tradition? Or do they take away from the real business of Jewish life? I’d love to hear your opinions and add your superstitions to my growing list. In the meantime, here is a list of 10 more of my “favorites:”

    1. You should never have a baby shower or buy anything for a baby before it’s born. (In fact, we don’t even say “Mazel Tov, but rather B’sha’ah Tovah to a pregnant woman.)
    2. If a child is laying on the floor and you step over him, you must walk back over him or he won’t grow anymore (my mother was a strict enforcer of this one!)
    3. A pregnant woman is not supposed to go to a cemetery.
    4. Don’t open an umbrella in the house (or it will rain at your wedding).
    5. Don’t put a hat on the bed or there will be a death.
    6. IF you eat an olive, you have to have at least two (a lone olive is only eaten as part of the meal after a funeral).
    7. Don’t put shoes on a dresser or a table or bad luck will ensue.
    8. Never sew clothes while someone is wearing them and if you must, tell the person wearing the clothes to chew on a string.
    9. When you move into a new house you must make sure to have a broom, salt, sugar, loaf of bread (or flour) and of course a mezzuzah, and it’s even more good luck to move in right before Shabbat.
    10. Give Tzekadakah to someone embarking on a trip (especially to Israel) to ensure his safety as he becomes a “Shaliach Mitzvah” and donate the money while away. (Though this could be up for debate as for being a superstition, or a custom.)

    When it comes to Jewish superstitions, these are just the tip of the iceberg. What other superstitions do you know and even hold by? Or do you think these are all just “bubbe-meizas” (old wives tales) that no longer hold a place in our Jewish tradtion? While I don’t need to become any more superstitious, God-Forbid; I’d love, God-willing, to hear what you have to say!

  • Sources on Repentance and Forgiveness for Yom Kippur

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


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

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

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

    G’mar Hatimah Tovah,

    Ruth Abusch-Magder


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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



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



  • Reflecting on Faith After the Holocaust

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Ani Ma’amin…

  • The New Middle East: A view from Jerusalem

    Posted on March 28th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    The famed Arab street is buzzing all across the Middle East and North Africa. The Jewish street has been visited by J-street and terrorists. From where she sits on King David Street, HU C-JIR Jerusalem Dean Naamah Kelman has a particular perspective. This week, she share what she sees both on campus and around the country.

    Naamah Kelman

    I was not in Jerusalem for the first ever full marathon last Friday. I was up in Haifa participating in the first ever “Tikkun Carmel”, Jewish Studies and cultural festival, initiated by our Progressive Synagogue in Haifa (Ohel Avraham), in cooperation with the local Masorati (Conservative) synagogue. I had spent the previous day in Kibbutz Yahel and Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava, at a meeting of the Board of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. Our Progressive Kibbutzim are thriving these days. Yahel is about to build a nature and commercial park and way-station; Lotan, has found their calling as an international center for perma-culture and sustainability. Both Kibbutzim , served as our gracious hosts and both shared their newfound satisfaction with u, a HUC Israeli rabbinic graduate who has moved himself and family to the Arava to be the regional rabbi.

    Reports from Jerusalem, 2 days after the terrible terrorist attack, told of the thousands running in the streets. Despite annoying traffic delays, schools closed in order to make way for what is clearly what mayor Nir Barkat does best: keep Jerusalem open to all sectors and best through mass events and major cultural festivals.  I share these thoughts as a reminder that Israel continues to be a vibrant, creative, energized society; while at the same time struggling with external and internal conflict, violence, and political corruption. The week began with the sentencing of former President Katzav to seven years in prison. He continues to deny his guilt as a convicted rapist.

    This week, Israelis were still reeling from the horrific murder of the Fogel family from the West Bank settlement of Itamar; Israelis were united in their horror and sadness; while the political debates continued.  No one seemed to pay too much attention to Knesset discussion on J-Street, nor was there any mention in any of the Hebrew papers of the selection to Rabbi Richard Jacobs as the President –designate of the Union for Reform Judaism.

    For Kabbalat Shabbat, I joined our Year in Israel students who were participating in a program called “Parallel Lives.”  IDF soldiers from an elite unit are selected to be part of a year-long ongoing exchange with some of our students, around 12 of them and 16 of ours. This program was founded and funded by Israelis who completed their graduate studies in Alabama years ago. Then, throughout the 1980′s they discovered the American Jewish community, and returned to Israel committed to keeping a real and mutual bond alive. When a beloved nephew was killed in an IDF action, they created this program, to honor him, and invest in the crucial dialogue between Israelis and Jews from North American programs. We are now in our 4th year of this unique program. It is quite successful and yet, too often it lives up to its name: parallel lives!

    Over the years the biggest challenge is to find the right setting and structure for Tefillah over the 2 Shabbat experiences they share.  When our students lead Kabbalat Shabbat, which is usually what has happened, the Israelis sit politely but disconnected to the words of our Siddur. If we sing a modern Hebrew song, that is also somewhat liturgical (like Lu Ye’hi or Oseh Shalom) some sing along. This past Friday, the soldiers planned the Kabbalat Shabbat. Sometimes they come straight from their bases so there is no time to prepare  or coordinate. One soldier volunteered to prepare a Kabbalat Shabbat song sheet and each song was put on an Ipod, that served as our “shaliach tzibbur.”  So there we were, sitting in a nice circle, facing the decorations of a typical Israeli elementary school, and we sang, accompanied by real playback.  These songs were both modern Israeli songs and some tefillah that have been made popular by Israeli musicians. Now our students understood what our Israeli counterparts often experience when they join our Services. There is something both familiar and alien in the joint experience. Our HUC students tried hard to sing along because they intuitively sing and pray in diverse settings.

    These soldiers have hosted our entire Year in Israel at their base for our Israel Seminar. They told the group about their experiences and dilemmas. They insisted that they strive to be as moral an Army as possible. These conversations are complicated. Our students hold the IDF and the Israeli government to high standards. The Israelis face complex situations. The Parallel Lives program struggles mightily to become that bridge of understanding and mutual respect.

    The great story of this generation is that 2 strong and confident communities are evolving on parallel tracks. We are two generations away from the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel. As Israelis create a modern Hebrew Jewish culture and society, the gap with the Diaspora grows; although we no longer reject the Diaspora as did the early Zionists. Meanwhile, North American (and I want to recognize our Leo Baeck Rabbinic students and Abraham Geiger Kolleg cantorial students this year) young adults are forging their Jewish identities reflective of their needs and dreams.

    Many of our students eagerly join Women at the Wall. For many secular Israelis this is a foreign experience. They would rather run in a marathon through the Old City than stop to pray anywhere. Many of our students are bewildered by the religious coercion in Israel; too many Israelis reject the coercion but also reject Judaism in the process.  And often reject our form of Judaism too.  Yet thousands attended Reform Purim events throughout Israel. Thirty of our Year in Israel students joined the Progressive Congregation in Modiin where hundreds attended Megillah reading, with many of our students reading! Increasingly, Israelis are finding their way to our Congregations and educational institutions. When terror strikes, all our fears return.  At the same time, we remain steadfast and fearless to get on with our lives.

    The life of Israelis and Diaspora Jews will remain 2 parallel tracks for sure. It is our responsibility to build bridges, connect, exchange, argue, and keep the bonds between us alive and updated. As Reform Jews , we might be able to model a Judaism that lives in and with democracy.  Israelis face issues of sovereignty and governance that are still very new for this emerging modern state.

    When one of our students Nathan Farb, offered words of Torah to the IDF officers and his fellow students, he was able to list what it means to serve the Jewish people today. He included the work of future rabbis, cantors and educators right along with the defending of Jewish state. He was not smug, nor anxious, he embraced the spectrum, he offered a Birkat Haderech….To experience our students and these soldiers “praying” together, singing together, learning torah together, at this modest Kabbalat Shabbat; it was indeed a taste of the Gan Eden and a glimpse of the future….lu yihee!


  • Films for Jewish and Israel Education

    Posted on January 31st, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    A Filipino who speaks Yiddish.

    Arabs living in Jerusalem speaking in Hebrew about identity.

    A Jewish grandmother returning to home of her youth –in Djerba.

    These are some of the people I’ve encountered recently through the new Israeli arts site

    The importance of the arts for Jewish education is an axiom among those of us who make Jewish learning a central element of our lives. YouTube and services like Netflix have made it possible for us to access a growing amount of artistic content for use in connecting with and inspiring our communities. Yet much of Israeli film continued to lay beyond the reach of those of us in the US, either because it was not available for viewing on our systems or because of the language barrier. Enter The site’s claim that it is “Omanoot is Israel’s HULU, Amazon, iTunes and virtual MOMA all in one” is a bit grandiose but it does hit its mark of making “Israeli, literature, and visual art) accessible for cultural, educational, and entertainment purposes,” by streaming many films, providing subtitles, searchable indexes and educational materials.

    Moving far beyond the Hasbara films of the Israeli foreign ministry, the site provides a great deal to explore. But I was particularly intrigued by how the offerings might be used to enhance Jewish education. The founders of Omanoot worked with artist and master educator Robbie Greengrass of Makom in conceptualizing the site. The thoughtfulness has paid off. Though the educational materials are for the time being quite limited, the lesson plans that have been posted are particularly strong. Mixing classical Jewish sources with contemporary ones, pairing when appropriate Jewish and non-Jewish sources, and providing educational activities for different settings. A particular favorite of mine was a lesson that used Israeli Reggae Band Hatikva 6’s song “If I Met God” in conjunction with Bob Marley’s “Forever Loving Jah” to open up conversation about the nature of the Divine.

    But the site should inspire educators far beyond the prefab lesson plans. Nor should be limited to Israel ed moments. The content on the site is appropriate for opening conversations on many topics. For example, Yossi and Jaeger about gay Israeli soldiers, for example is available for streaming here and quite relevant as we look towards the repeal of DADT.

    The short lesser known films from the students at the religious film school Maalot, are especially easily adapted for classroom and youth group triggers. The Yiddish language film A-Maiseh which looks at a moment in the life of an elderly Jew and the young Filipino who cares for him might be used in a class on aging or on immigration –not necessarily Israeli. Of interest in this short piece are not only the dynamics between the police and the illegal immigrant but those within the family and among the friends. A class on world Jewry would undoubtedly warm to the story of Aunt Diya, who with scrimping and saving makes her way back to Tunisia to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer in the synagogue she grew up in on the island of Djerba. The story is at once very familiar to those who know the genre of similar roots films retracing Jewish life in Europe and at the same time new and novel given the setting and the customs. Students with whom I watched the film had little knowledge of Jewish life in Arab lands and were curious not only about Diya’s reasons for leaving but also for going back.

    I highly recommend to the bookmark list of any Jewish professional who knows the value of the arts to make deep connections and lasting impressions.

  • Bible and New Media

    Posted on January 17th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    My piece What the Bible Teaches About Modern Media sparked some interest at Hebrew Union College.  Joel Duman, Ed.D.  Lecturer on Bible, Biblical History and Jewish Educational Technology at HUC Year in Israel Program,is an expert on both the Bible and technology. In addition to the work he does at HUC, he teaches at the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem and JTS, New York.  Coordinator and writer of Visual Midrash, a website on “Biblical Art.” What follows is his response to my piece.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    I’m about to finish the teaching of a course in Biblical History at HUC Jerusalem.  One of the issues that has come up is literacy in ancient Israel – we’ve talked about the Lachish letters, where a rural army commander writes in a huff that he is “of course” quite able to read and understand written communiqués;  we’ve mentioned an ostracon found several years ago in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere,

    Joel Duman

    apparently from the 10th century BCE (Khirbet Kaifeh) – writing about matters of societal morality; we’ve talked about the writing and rewriting of history in the Bible, etc.  Both in this course and in my other bible courses, for Americans and for Israelis, we often come up against the seriousness and depth with which the written text has been treated in the Jewish tradition.

    Although the small bytes of information characteristic of the new social media might look similar to the laconic style of the Bible, there’s also something essentially different, in how we deal with these texts.  I don’t think anyone would bother to give a long, hard read to the type of communication found on Twitter, etc. – like the piece I am writing now, not a lot of thought is put into this type of writing; the Bible, on the other hand, shows clearly that it’s formulations have been carefully considered, reworked, edited, changed and that each phrase and each word (each letter sometimes) is fraught with meaning.

    It occurs to me that what we can learn from the Bible about the new media derives from the difference between the use of writing in these two contexts, rather than in the similarity.  I don’t mean this as a rejection of the new media – although not a big fan of much of it, I am an avid e-mailer, although I was never a good letter-writer.  But I think such a comparison offers us an opportunity to notice what’s special, different, eccentric (in the literal and figurative meaning of this word) about our culture and to see how our tradition to offer alternatives to general tendencies of our contemporary world

  • What the Bible Teaches about Modern Media

    Posted on December 13th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    News Feed:

    Erev Rav: God, this dessert is awful, there is ABSOLUTELY NOOOOOO food worth eating

    Moses ben Amram: Wondering, yet again, why I ever took this job…..

    God “the one and only”: You are such a kvetch. Meet up in 30. Bring 70 of your closest with you.

    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.

    The world of online social networks is complex and persuasive. The fluid nature of the medium makes it both compelling and problematic. Even as governments struggle with how to navigate the open platforms that allow national secrets to be shared world wide, the traditional challenges of adolescence and identity formation are amplified in an era that blurs the boundaries between public and private. Things that might have, only a few years back, remained knowledge between a close group of friends, such as a first kiss now become the news of thousands of ‘friends.’ A misspoken remark or bullying in the playground, now gains permanency creating havoc for the victim and the perpetrator. Young people, parents and educators are increasingly concerned about how to help children navigate the complexities of this new social and media reality.

    While it is impossible to inoculate children against all the challenges of modern media consumption, clergy and Jewish educators have an important tool in our box that is often overlooked in the complex discussions about living on-line. The Bible, though clearly very much “old media,” is a great tool for helping young people consider the value and weight of their words.

    Overwhelmed by the sheer volume and content of what they are exposed to in the media, and still developmentally grappling with the concept of consequences, the permanence of the online world can be hard for young people to grasp. The Bible shows us some of the enduring impact of writing down our every action. What is it that we know about Avraham Avinu at this distance? Yes, we know he was chosen by God but we also know that he passed his wife off to the King of Egypt and that he tied his son up and prepared him for sacrifice. When working with young people I ask them if they think that Abraham would be happy with the record we have of his actions. How would he like to be remembered? How would they like to be known in the world?

    While it may seem flip, it is not hard –as I did above -to read much of the narrative element of the Tanakh as a series of facebook or twitter posts. Frequently, the biblical narratives come not in long flowing prose but in short burst – often, dare I say of less than 140 characters a passuk. One of the great joys of the brevity of the biblical narrative is that it leaves much room for commentary. We are left to guess at the motivations at the contexts. And we do.

    David ben Jessie: Just saw the most beautiful woman bathing on her roof

    Commentator one: Seriously man, you’re married.

    David “father of the Messiah” ben Jessie: I’m just looking…

    Commentator two: Go for it Dave, after all you’re the King, whatever you do is cool

    The short pieces we see in the Bible regarding events, such as David’s sighting of Batsheva, make it possible for us to layer meanings onto the text. While that has provided many generations of learned Jews with much to work with, I’m sure that the “reality” of the original events was lost long ago. Today, such commentaries on the short bursts of information that we put out about our daily lives accrue with lightening speed. We don’t wait generations between Rambam’s and Rashi’s thought but seconds between Susan’s and Deryck’s responses. Reality can get lost quite quickly as can our control over the perception of events.

    Gone are the days of the long meaningful missive. Short texts with a series of Roshei Tevot communicate volumes in an economy of space and leave much to the imagination. Going back to biblical commentaries is not going to change the mode of communication but it can be a means by which we help young people unpack their use of modern media.

  • What KLM and British Airways have to teach us about Jewish Leadership

    Posted on April 21st, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    Leaders on the front lines?

    A cloud of volcanic ash grounds European airlines and the chief executives of KLM and British Airways join their crews on test flights to show that it is safe to fly. What do these actions say about the importance of symbolic involvement by top leaders in responding to crises?

    This was the question asked this morning by Steven Perlstein and Raju Narusetti in the Washington Post as part of their by weekly column “On Leadership.” I was particularly drawn to three of the nine responses. Clayton Rosa, a fellow in the Coro Public Affairs program, compared the executives to Cy Sperling of The Hair Club for Men. Cadet Christina Tamayo from Westpoint compared them to her survival swimming instructor. Dr. Marshall Goldsmith an author and expert in business leadership compared them to Jonas Salk.

    Linking these three examples drawn from very different areas of leadership is Goldsmith core reason for admiring Salk, who by injecting himself with the Polio vaccine, “lived his commitment.” The swimming instructor had asked that the cadets to swim the length of a pool underwater in full battle gear. By jumping into the pool and demonstrating this himself he proved that it was humanly possible and that he was not asking others to do anything that he himself was unwilling or unable to undertake. While the least serious of the three examples, Cy Sperling was famous for the line “I’m not only the Hair Club president, I’m also a client.” In all three cases, the ability of the leader to live the message that hoped to inspire others to follow was key to their success as leaders.

    Working in the Jewish community, we are often in the position of “selling” ideas or behaviors to others: Torah study, setting aside Shabbat as a day of rest, holding our tongues from speaking evil. In bringing others along for the journey it is essential that we not only preach but truly live these precepts.

    During my first year of Rabbinical School I taught at a local Hebrew School. Most of the time, I had difficulty engaging them in the material in my lesson plans. During the last semester, I gave up on the curriculum and held conversations with the kids. One thing led to another and one week I ended up spontaneously describing Shabbat dinner in my home. Towards the end of the evening, a quiet boy who often chose to attend my class rather than the one to which he was assigned asked if he was missing something. I repeated back the last few sentences in case he had not heard properly. “No,” he corrected me, “am I missing something by not doing this Shabbat thing?”

    I can assure you that the Shabbat I had described was far from my own vision of what I though of as peaceful. A full time student, mother of two young children, my Shabbatot were usually chaotic. Still, in describing them my passion and commitment for the rituals, my joys in these moments despite the frustrations, the power of the experience must have shone through. I had moved in that moment from being the purveyor of information, to a leader with an authentic vision. There was no question as to which was more compelling.

    It is often hard for Jewish professionals to make time and space to live their own Jewish commitments; to pray not just to lead prayer, to study Torah not just teach Torah study, to embrace the complexity that is their own spiritual journey and struggle. Yet when we do make the time and space, we like executives at KLM and British Airways, have the opportunity to take our leadership roles to next level.

  • Thoughtful Israel Engagement

    Posted on April 15th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment



    Solemn ceremonies. Joyous celebrations. Introspection. Advocacy.

    Long gone are the days when marking Yom Hazikaron, Yom Haatzmaut, and later Yom Yerushalyim were marked with relative ease. Political complexities both in the United States and Israel complicate our ability to talk about Israel. Facilitating conversations about Israel demands the ability to hold on to multiple narratives about Israel’s past and present. It means allowing different opinions but demanding civility. Additionally, it can be challenging to know how to interpret the myriad of news stories about Israel that come to us through traditional and new media sources.

    One of my favorite resources for engaging with Israel is the collaboration between the Haaretz newspaper and Makom. Mokom is a relatively newcomer to the Israel education scene. Based in Israel, it specializes in helping those living in North America connect with Israeli culture and current events. The organization promotes questioning and discussion on all elements of Jewish life but provides particular focus on the arts and on challenging contemporary issues. The collaborative Haaretz and Makom site combines the headline news with opinion pieces, arts commentaries, and forum for discussion.

    Jewish professionals will find the vast array of educational resources of great interest and use. There are film guides, text studies and book group guides. For example, Makom has collaborated with the UJA Federation of New York to create a booklet for chevrutah study on the words L’hiyot Am Chofshi that is visually and intellectually engaging. There are wonderful explorations of contemporary music, including study guides and interviews with musicians. Videos are used to create virtual tours of monuments. dag-nahash-cd-cover

    As you plan to engage with your congregations around Israel in the coming weeks or at any time, I recommend that you check out the site and make use of its resources.