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  • 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.

  • 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.



  • A Military Chaplain Seeks Peace in Africa

    Posted on February 8th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    TANGA, Tanzania (February 16, 2011)-Navy Captain Jon Cutler high fives children during a visit to Tanga, Tanzania.


    When we think of chaplaincy in the military it is often in the context of serving those who serve. But there are roles for clergy in the American Military policy that cannot be played by other members of the armed services.  Rabbi Jon Cutler (DMin HUC-JIR NY) is a congregational rabbi as well as Captain US Navy. He has just returned from  and has just returned from a 16 month tour of duty Director of Religious Affairs for Combined Joint Task Force  (CJTF) Horn of Africa. His account of some of what he did while on active duty, taken from a talk given in Norfolk at the Institute for Global Engagement, is as inspiring as it is informative.

    Conflicts have torn the social fabric of the African societies, displaced millions of people, traumatized communities, and drained the continent from material and human resource resulting in destabilizing governments and communities. Religion leaders in Africa play a crucial role in conflict resolution and restoration of peace.

    Captain Cutler in Kampala Uganda tours the Kampala Gaddafi Mosque with a member of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council

    The American Military has a strong presence throughout the world. The role of the military chaplain is to engage with key religious leaders to help promote regional stability through interfaith dialogue, to dissuade conflict by capacity building and to demonstrate a commitment to facilitate African religious leaders in addressing the issues in African Muslim and Christian communities.  It is through religious leadership building that there is potential to stem violent extremism such as the influence of Al Shabah along the Swahili coast and to hamper their effort to recruit Kenya Muslim youth to their cause.  This process relies on building a trusting relationship over a period of time. The point emphasized is trust. The chaplain has to be an honest broker

    Being engaged with religious leaders in East Africa is complex. Engagement takes place on many levels with multiple end goals.  The nations of East Africa that I am tasked to partner with are Djibouti, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania.  Within each nation are numerous tribes with their diverse culture and language and their set of problems. Then religion is added on top of this with its distinct set of problems.  Even though Christians and Muslims are present within each nation the percentage of Christians and Muslims varies from nation to nation for example Djibouti is 99% Muslim and Ethiopia is 80% Christian. Christianity has its own internal dynamic and it varies from nation to nation such as in Ethiopia where the dominant form of Christianity is Ethiopian Orthodox with growing Evangelical Protestant presences or in Kenya the dominant denomination is Anglican but along the coast the dominant religion is Islam (80%).

    The same holds true for Islam. Even though the majority of Muslims are Sunni in East Africa there is a significant presence of Sufi (Ethiopia), Aga Khan (Uganda) and Salafists (Tanzania Coast and Zanzibar). Adding to the complexity is the extremist elements within Christianity and Islam. The extremist Islamic group Al Shabah based in Somali is a direct threat along the Swahili Coast of Kenya and Tanzania actively  seeking Muslim youth to fight in Mogadishu or the extremist Protestants groups building their churches in exclusively Muslim villages actively seeking converts. There, also, is a small Jewish presence in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. It takes a significant amount of time to grasp the religious complexity within East Africa and even more so the cultural and tribal. The issues concerning women are barely addressed.

    In addition there is another layer of complexity with direct engagement and that is who is the chaplain engaging with – the local imam or the Mufti for all of Uganda, the parish priest or Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the local Assemblies of God pastor in a remote Tanzanian village or the Security General for all Evangelical Independent Churches of Africa?  Each encounter will have a different dynamic, agenda and end state. Each stakeholder has a distinct personality style as well.  And there are times that the chaplain engages with religious organizations which mean that the engagement is with small to large number of people – councils, boards, elders, etc.  With it comes its own internal dynamic and politics. These organizations can be local, national, regional, continental, or intentional.

    Rabbi Cutler with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu at the synagouge in Mbale, Uganda

    The additional challenge is trying to explain my role as a military chaplain and director of Religious Affairs for CJTF-Horn of Africa to the religious leaders. Since there is no context that they can relate to, I explain in terms of representing the US military as a religious leader wanting to partner with them to help bring peace and stability to the region.

    In my role as chaplain, being a rabbi is a surprising advantage. No one religious leader or group of people that I have met ever encountered a Jew before much less a rabbi.  I have found that the religious leaders have a rudimentary understanding of Judaism which then opens up great opportunities for in depth discussion about comparative Judaism and Islam or comparative Christianity and Judaism.  In the end it has been an educational experience in understanding a religion besides Christianity or Islam with hope of broadening their world view and increased tolerance.  For example, the Supreme Judge of Ethiopian Islamic asked that I return to teach him about Judaism.

    Meeting the objectives of the mission is extensive. I will discuss two of the means to meet the mission. First, due to my ability to travel throughout Combined Joint Operational Area (East Africa) I am able to identify the religious atmospherics within the region. I am able to identify fault lines between Christian and Muslims groups, fault lines within exclusively Christian groups and/or Muslim group as well as the tension points. For example, talking with Evangelical Protestant ministers their fear is that Uganda will be enacting a law that Sharia law will be part of the Constitution. With the fear came anxiety about their own security in Uganda and strong negative view towards Muslims. The purpose is to gage the atmospherics and in the future such information can be useful. In the meantime if possible due to one’s skill try to address the concerns in order to lessen the tension points.  Out of this process can come a greater understanding and appreciation for the other.  And through this process of engagement is the ability to identify Christian and Muslim leaders who share the same goal for peace and stability.

    Once identified to bring them together to start working on joint projects. The conversation about religion is essential, interfaith dialogue is necessary but the conversation must turn into action. The cause for instability and the lack of peace in East Africa is grassroots issues – lack of opportunities for African youth, poverty, HIV, etc. The role of the chaplain is to facilitate bringing like minded individuals and/or groups, Christian and Muslim, who want to address the hard core issues that are the root causes for lack of peace and stability. The role chaplain is then to work with US Embassy officials in the respective nations to introduce the collective working group of Muslim and Christians to funding sources. The chaplain is very much involved in the 3 D process (Defense, Diplomacy and Development).  By working on joint project Christians and Muslims will become inter-dependent on another, therefore, Africa for Africans. Such joint projects have the potential to become self sustaining. This has broader ramifications because it demonstrates to the ‘world’ that Muslim and Christian can live next to each and to work together. The goal is to make violent extremism irrelevant.  The goal is to fulfill Micah’s 4:3-4 vision:  “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning shears; nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken of it.”

    A Jewish Student at the Hadassah Jewish School in Mbale, Uganda



  • Jewish And… Youth, Diversity and the Future

    Posted on January 10th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder


    It seems like coincidence, but I don’t think it is.

    On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, respectively, two distinct but very similar videos dominated my social media community. Both videos focused on the experience of teens proud to be Jewish and gay. In and of itself, this is not particularly notable, but the context for both was. Both teens focused on how the national synagogue youth movements in which they participate, USY and NFTY respectively are the places where they feel most able to be completely themselves.

    The first video was a speech that the outgoing USY president, Daniel (D.J.) Kaplan gave at the national USY convention and was posted by David Levy and shared widely from his blog. Levy, himself a graduate of USY and now a professional in the Jewish community, wrote “When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be able to get up in front of my USY friends and make a speech like this, but I wasn’t able. Seeing a leader do so makes me incredibly hopeful for the future.” The second video, which was posted by many of Reform folk in my network (you may have been one of them). Often those who posted it wrote little more than “YOU MUST WATCH THIS!” or “Amazing.” Some like Rachel Gurevitz used it to write about how inspired by and proud they are of NFTY.

    To my mind these videos are not just inspiring or hopeful, they are also instructive.

    I thought of these videos sitting in shul on Shabbat morning. One of my husband’s students at the local day school was celebrating his bar mitzvah. The son of a Jewish Ashkenazi father and a Korean mother, he stood on the bimah wearing a colorful Hanbok, the traditional Southern Korean dress as well as a batik tallit. After beautiful Torah and Haftorah readings he shared insights about the parasha using wisdom gleaned from stories from both his Korean and Jewish ancestors. Brachot were offered in Korean on behalf of his grandparents who were unable to be there.  Though few in the congregation understood, many people were moved to tears by the emotion that came through. Afterwards many of the adults spoke with reverence of the interweaving of Korean cultural elements into this traditional Conservative service. Since Shabbat I have checked in with a number of the kids who attended and asked them what they thought of the service. Not a one mentioned the Korean elements, and when I probed they simply took in stride, noting that there was nothing strange about it, it was just, as one girl said, “it is just who he is.”


    There is no question that the videos that made the rounds last week owe a great deal to the LGBTQ rights movement in this country, but it seems to me that there is more. Young people today, more and more, are growing up with multiple identities. In earlier generations, people often felt compelled to choose sides, privileging one identity over another. But all of these young people are unwilling to choose. Their allegiance to the Jewish community comes because they are welcome to be fully themselves within the Jewish world. They are Jewish and…..


    For the last two summers, I have worked at Camp Be’chol Lashon which stresses the global diversity of the Jewish community and serves a predominantly ethnically and racially diverse group of kids. This fall, I was invited by a local rabbi to speak about the camp and one of the campers, a member of the synagogue joined me. She explained that unlike any other place in her life the camp was the space where she could be Jewish and African without having to choose.


    In an era of multiple identities, creating spaces that are just Jewish is not enough. It is not easy to create spaces where some but not all the values of the community are shared but where the differences are not just tolerated but celebrated. These teens suggest that we can and have created spaces where our young people feel comfortable being Jewish and…  In contrast to a vision of Jewish life as parochial or internally focused, this accepting approach has the potential to make Jewish space not only attractive and engaging, but also a prime example of how to be fully human.






  • Friday, the Rabbi was Outed!

    Posted on January 3rd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    Often experience we have as students training for Jewish professional lives can leave strong impressions and mold our vision of our professional selves for years to come. This week, guest Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb a community rabbi based in Boulder, CO and working tikkun olam and tikkun atzmi writes about how a student internship shifted her perspective.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder


    It was unexpected and I was unprepared.   At Friday night services in front of a room of hundreds of congregants, I was “outed.”  Yes, outed!*

    I remember my heart beating fast and being afraid. I thought, “Why did this have to happen?  What does my sexual orientation have to do with this job? Will these folks still like me? Will they still welcome me into their community? Will they now think of me as other?”  I had hoped to pass (really) thinking that then I would be fully accepted and function more easily.

    It was the beginning of my third year of rabbinical school and a rabbi at my internship at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the world’s largest GLBT synagogue, introduced me to the community and “outed” me as a heterosexual!

    Author, Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb

    Upon reflection some 7 years later, this moment was one of the most profound experiences of my year as a Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinic Intern at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. I “approached” and more fully empathized with the experience that many of my CBST congregants (and GLBTQ Jews for that matter) live(d) through at home, school, synagogue and work. To my unexpected relief, the CBST community welcomed me with open arms and celebrated my rabbinic efforts. In many ways, the congregation was my rabbinic midwife. Unfortunately, not all GLBTQ Jews are fully welcomed or accepted for who they are as God created them.

    And so, it was with eagerness, enthusiasm and excitement, I accepted the invitation to participate in a post chaggim retreat of the rabbinic interns who had served at CBST over the past 15 years.  I looked forward to connecting with fellow travelers and rabbis (straight as well as GLBT) who courageously served and were transformed by this GLBT congregation and in turn have sought to transform the Jewish world, little by little. The world has changed dramatically in the past 15 – 20 years, in bold ways that I would neither anticipate nor imagine.

    Rabbi Ruthie Gelfarb

    Rabbi Ruthie Gelfarb

    The history books will tell the big picture story of how the United States moved from exclusion and silence to more mainstream acceptance of GLBT right. But each of us interns had our own personal stories to share and on the retreat we did. For me awareness real began, in 1987, the year I graduated Harvard College, a small group of students shly organized Harvard’s first Gay and Lesbian meal table in a residential college dining hall. While it seemed odd to me at the time, I now see it as the start my understanding. Returning to college to work as a rabbi and Senior Jewish Educator at the University of Chicago, I was aware of how much had changed. I spoke at the GLBT interfaith spirituality group, counseled queer Jewish students on applying to rabbinical school, and worked with reform, conservative and orthodox Jewish students –of all sexual orientations – to show Paper Dolls, a film about transgendered individuals who live and work in Israel.

    Upon reflection, I realize that some of the lessons I learned at CBST are particular to GLBTQ communities, but many more apply broadly to the Jewish community and inform my rabbinate.  I learned these lessons viscerally and not just intellectually.

    Creating a truly welcoming community takes a lot of work. A “welcoming” community looks into itself to better understand its prejudices, assumptions and fears. And then, a welcoming community reaches out to, makes visible, intentionally plans for and hopefully celebrates the uniqueness of its members.  I’ve made and continue to make lots of mistakes along the way. I try to learn from the experts— unique Jews themselves- be they gay, straight, single, married, parents, childless, adoptive/adopted, working class, affluent, ethnically and racially diverse, blended, or interfaith. To quote the Grammy winning band Coldplay, “No one said it was easy, but no one said it would ever be this hard!” Well, that’s the leadership task I and we’ve accepted for ourselves. It is hard work & holy work!

    *Outing = The act of disclosing one’s true sexual orientation without a person’s consent.

    Note: HUC-JIR alumni in attendance at the interns retreat in addition to Ruth Gelfarb were Rabbi Melissa Simon and Cantor Jason Kaufman.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • God and Twitter: Helping Clergy Do What They Do Better

    Posted on June 21st, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments

    A few weeks ago, Rabbi Marci Bellows (@moosh2) got into a bit of trouble with the members of her youth group. Her sin? Not sending out a Shabbat Shalom tweet on a particularly Friday night. She was a little surprised by the outcry of disappointment. In the many months of sending out these Friday messages she had never heard back from any of her youth group followers. She was not in the least bit sure they were paying attention to her many Twitter missives. But clearly they were.

    Twitter is a social media that allows users to broadcast short messages no longer than 140 characters and followers to track these short bits of news and commentary. In October 2009, I (@rabbiruth) made some predictions on the ways Twitter might be used in a congregational setting. At the time there were a handful of rabbis, cantors and educators to be found using Twitter. While the specifics of that post have not materialized, Twitter has become a valuable tool with particular benefits in Jewish professional life. Today, there are many HUC-JIR alumni on Twitter, not to mention, accounts for HUC-JIR (@hucjir & @hucinci). Talking to some of those that tweet, it is clear that Twitter is playing a powerful role in the ways Jewish professionals do their jobs and live their lives.

    Avid Twitter users are often, like Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr (@FrumeSarah) who blogs and uses Facebook, or Rabbi Mark Hurvitz of (@rebmark) who has a professional focus technology, are heavy users of social media more generally. But experimentation and exploration is part of Twitter. At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Cantor Yonah Kliger (@CantorYonah) is a clergy leader when it comes to social media. He is still figuring out how best to use Twitter, as he explains, “I don’t think five years ago I understood power of Facebook or the potential. So when Twitter got into our consciousness I got this feeling I would get it, I wanted to get in earlier in the game, so now I have a presence and I’m taking a wait and see approach.”

    Even as he experiments with Twitter, Kliger has a clear strategy of mixing short personal and professional missives. Sharing about his kids and the upcoming adult b’nai mitzvah is part of his larger strategy for reaching out to families with young children. Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, (@lizwood1982) of Reform Temple of Forest Hills, New York, employs a similar approach. As she explains, “I tweet both personal and professional things from my account and I do so consciously and conscientiously.  I want my congregants to know I’m a person with a life…  Similarly, I post about our congregational activities because who I am is tied to my professional life as well.”

    One of the strong benefits Twitter allows Jewish professionals is the ability to broadcast their message far beyond their immediate community. As Wood explains, “we are quickly learning that people may not walk into our doors on a whim, but they will look us up online and when they can follow our activities on Twitter, they get a great sense of who we are.  People have told us they’ve come in to our events because of Tweets they saw.” For Rabbi Laura Baum (@JewsOnline) of Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, a bricks and mortar congregation that sponsors the online, Twitter is an essential element of building the virtual Jewish community. The first year, they tweeted updates from the Seder as each of the rituals took place in real time. “We heard from all sorts of people that this was the only Seder they had,” says Baum. Now tweeting the Seder is a regular practice as is tweeting Shabbat services and the High Holy Days. When Bellows writes an article she is able to use Twitter’s system of tags to alert groups, like those working for marriage equality or women’s rights, that she has posted a piece on the topic. This reaching out has helped her build a following that extends far beyond the traditional synagogue crowd and is global in reach.

    Twitter also creates real communities of support and connection for Jewish professional. Hurvitz points to the ability of Twitter, which unlike Facebook does not expect one to know someone before connecting, to allow him to “meet” “people from various Jewish “flavors” and in parts of the world that I had not encountered before.” Though not everyone chats with others on Twitter, those that do speak of strong ties that develop. Einstein Schorr does not necessarily expect those who don’t tweet to fully believe the depth of connection she has felt from a virtual community but for her the coming together has been significant, “At times of profound sadness, I have felt a kinship with a global community that was completely unexpected.”

    Twitters limitation, that you can only use 140 characters, which as Wood explains, means that “it’s hard to always get your point across in a way that you know can be either meaningful, or even useful.” But as Kliger points out, “the structure of the 140 characters is an interesting limitation on how we convey our thoughts with hands or paper we would have had difficulty limiting. It makes you mindful of how you communicate your thoughts and ideas.”

    Twitter is enhancing the work that many Jewish professionals do. Still sitting on the fence about whether to get involved? Hurvitz says, “Just do it!” Though Einstein Schorr warns, “It’s addictive.”

    Next week: Twitter and God Part II: Opening Up New Possibilities, a discussion of how Twitter is creating new modes of Jewish engagement.

    If you are looking for information on how to get started on Twitter, you can follow the step by step instructions written by Twitter or a great informative post on the topic, or  follow this link for a short video.


    For those already on Facebook and looking to consolidate a variety of social networks in one place consider a service like or