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  • Can Women Pray Out Loud? Some Rabbinic Sources

    Posted on October 24th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    I remember when I first seriously looked into the textual basis of “Kol Ishah.”  I used my computer concordance of all of rabbinic literature (here defined as Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli and midrash collections) to look for the term.  I expected to find a long list of sources.  I found three hits.  I thought, “Well, I must have looked it up wrong.”  So I tried “kol ha’ishah”, “kolot nashim” and other variations.  No matter what I tried, I still I came up with just three hits in all of rabbinic literature.  And each of those citations is a repetition of just one statement.  So the prohibition comes down to this single statement:

    Anat Hoffman of Women at the Wall Being Arrested

    If one gazes at the little finger of a woman is it as if he gazed at her secret place!?  No, it means in one’s own wife, and when he recites the Shema.

    Rav Hisda:  A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers (Isaiah 47:2)” and it says afterwards, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, your shame shall be seen (Isaiah 47:3).”

    Shmuel said:  A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, “For sweet is your voice and your countenance is comely (Song of Songs 2:14).”

    Rav Sheshet said:  A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Your hair is as a flock of goats (Song of Songs 4:1).” (B. Berachot 24a//B. Kiddushin 70a//Y. Hallah 2:1; Shmuel’s saying)

    This passage talks about things that might distract a man while reciting the Shema.  I think reasonable minds would agree that a man might be distracted by seeing his wife naked before him while he was attempting to recite the Shema.  But what comes next is, in essence, a list of what different sages find most enticing about women…a sort of sidebar to the main conversation.  Since Shmuel’s statement is included in this sidebar, later generations took it to mean that hearing a woman’s voice is as distracting as having one’s wife sit naked before him.

    Author: Rabbi Judith Abrams

    When I realized this, I contacted one of my mentors and asked, “Is this really the entire basis for not allowing women’s voices to be heard?”  He told me it was.  I must admit, I was flabbergasted.  We had been hung out to dry on the flimsiest of pretexts.  I asked a fellow teacher what he thought of this and he said, “Well, when I was 15 I’d have been distracted by a woman’s voice.”  To which I replied, “Why should I have to shut up for the rest of my life because you used to be 15?”

    The prohibition is all the more surprising because Scripture and rabbinic literature assume that women sing publicly.  Of course, Miriam and the women sing at the shores of the sea (Exodus 15:20-21).  Women are public musicians (Psalm 68:26) and take part in loud public rejoicing (Nehemiah 12:43).

    In Mishnah, it is assumed that women sing professionally, publicly and liturgically:

    Women may raise a wail during the festival [week] but not clap [their hands in grief]; R. Ishmael says, those that are close to the bier clap [their hands in grief].  On the days of the New Moon, of Hannukkah and of Purim they may raise a wail and clap [their hands in grief].  Neither on the former (i.e., the festival week) nor on the latter occasions do they chant a dirge.  After [the dead] has been interred they neither raise a wail nor clap [their hands in grief].  What is meant by “raising a wail”?  When all sing in unison.  What is meant by a dirge?  When one leads and all respond after her.  As it is said:  And teach your daughters wailing and one another [each] lamentation (Jeremiah 9:19).  But as the future [days] to come, [the prophet] says:  “He will destroy death for ever and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces.  (Isaiah 25:8)” (M. Moed Katan 3:9//B. Moed Katan 28b)

    So, weighing our evidence, we have Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic testimony that women sing publicly and liturgically as opposed to a single statement by one sage which does not, in context, ban women’s voices at all.  I believe there is far more textual support affirming the right of women to sing in public and at services than there is for banning it.  “May the the sounds of joy and salvation be hear in the tents of the righteous (Psalm 118:15)!”


    This week’s author, Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD.,  is the director of Maqom an online center for adult Talmud study.

  • Choose Love Over Hate

    Posted on October 17th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Having grown up in the segregated American South with its “no Jews, no Negroes” (and sometimes adding “no dogs,”) public signage,  it was a relatively easy call for me to make about where I should be standing when anti-Muslim paid advertising began appearing in the Washington DC Metro System.    These ads (which have appeared in NY and apparently are coming next to Portland, Oregon) read: “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The image includes a Star of David on either side of the phrases which imply that Muslims and the enemies of Israel are savages. 


    Having also just completed reading the week’s Torah portion from Genesis reminding us that all human beings are created in God’s image, and fearing that the hate-mongers behind these ads might associate Jews and Israel with their bigotry, I felt I had no choice but to stand physically next to the ads and promote a different message.  I am proud to say thatRabbis for Human Rights-North America (of which I was the founding Chairperson) has responded vigorously with a profoundly different message, one which has been placed in public places near these disgusting posters.  The RHR-NA poster reads “In the choice between love and hate CHOOSE LOVE – Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.”  I stood next to the Metro ad holding a copy of the RHR-NA poster, which has not yet made it to the Metro stops in DC.  This also provided me with a challenging opportunity for Rabbinic service in a unique way as I interacted with passersby, fulfilling the mitzvah ofKiddush HaShem (sanctifying God’s name publicly) in the meaning of that obligation as described in the Talmud.

    Rabbi Gerald serotta

    Author: Rabbi Gerald Serotta

    We all presumably know that “savage” is a loaded, stereotypical, and denigrating term that was once used to describe African American, Native Americans and other ethnic minority groups as mentally inferior and culturally primitive with animal-like attributes.  It reeks of bigotry which has been directed at religious minorities in this country including Jews and Catholics.  The implication that Israel is confronted by “savages” has a provenance and a perspective that is inimical to any amelioration of the tragic conflicts that prevent a peaceful resolution for the beleaguered State of Israel.  The misuse of the word “Jihad,” by its linkage with savagery as a summary description of a rich culture virtually all of whose billions of adherents oppose violent extremism, is no more appropriate than the misuse of the word Zionism to signify racism.

    The ad not only demeans Islam and links Jewish symbols and Israel to bigotry, but also abuses our American freedom of speech in order to stir hatred of peace loving fellow Americans.  I am proud to associate myself with remarks delivered at a press conference in DC on October 15 by Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, Jewish Community Relations Council’s Director of Social Justice and Interfaith Initiatives and President of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington: “The placing of offensive, anti-Muslim, ads in the D.C. Metro system is an important opportunity to affirm our commitment both to free speech and to a society that deplores hate and hate speech.  We are all part of one community.  The Muslim community is part of our wider community and our neighbors.  We live in the same neighborhoods, send our kids to the same schools, and volunteer in the same homeless shelters.”

    This week’s post was written by Rabbi Gerald Serotta of Shirat HaNefesh Congregation, Chevy Chase, MD and Executive Director of Clergy Beyond Borders.

  • How to Teach Moral Wisdom

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

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    דאמר רבי ישמעאל בר רב נחמן

    עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה

    מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה ט פסקה ג

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

    -Midrash Rabbah Vayikra


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


    Moral Wisdom, Torah, Limits of Rules



  • African Immigrants, the Bible and the Importance of Personal Narrative

    Posted on May 31st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    By Ruth Abusch-Magder

    When a good teaching session crosses over and becomes a good study session then it sticks with you.

    According to the description in the brochure, I was teaching about the ancient view of non-Jews, and I did. But it was also much more than that. With the caveat that recent scholarship has brought into question the theory that book Ruth was written as a counter polemic to the book of Ezra, I set out for the group the ways in which the books are both similar and different. Addressing the similar theme of exile and redemption, return to the land, geneology and proper inheritance there is much in common between the two.

    Yet stylistically they could not be more different. Ezra is a book of history, dry and systematic. Ruth is a family story that focuses primarily on the experiences of women.

    Making my theological point, that the choice to read Ruth on Shavuot, speaks to a welcoming vision of community that is not a modern Reform choice, but an ancient rabbinic one, was simple.

    But we did not stop there. Building on the comparison that I had introduced the group moved into a conversation about policy and personal experience. As, they saw it, Ezra portrays the reality he sees from a bird’s eye view. Not once does he stop to look at the effect his directives will have on individuals. Nowhere does he consider the emotional devastation that being sent back to their mother’s houses will have on the women he demands be divorced. He sees all the foreign women as one common threat, not as individual women with stories and varying degrees of commitment or connection to Judaism.

    By contrast the book of Ruth focuses on the personal, getting to know the real story and understanding the complexities that lie below the assumptions of the selfishness, debauchery, and malevolence associated in the Bible with the Moabites as people.

    In endorsing gay marriage, President Obama cited his personal relationships with LGBT couples as essential to helping him make the transition. As a rabbi working with an organization that celebrates racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community, I meet Jews have encountered Ezra’s approach when they attempt to access the Jewish community. But I also meet Jews, who have been seen by rabbis, educators, teachers and congregants as full people with complex stories and experiences. The former need much reassurance and often question their place as part of our people. The latter wear their Judaism with pride, often like Ruth, they become leaders and spokespeople for our community.

    As I write there are riots going on in Israel against African and foreign workers. In the United States there are still those fighting against gay marriage. Big ideas and policies are important, but listening to the stories of the individuals affected by those policies is important too. If we really listen, it will likely complicate our assumptions and challenge our hatreds.


  • Welcome the Stranger: Grandpa and the Meaning of Ruth

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

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

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

    Rabbi Seth Goren

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

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

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


  • The Beggar in the Kippah – A True Passover Tale

    Posted on March 21st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    Rabbi Joel Soffin‘s experience on the streets of New York, recalls the classic Hassidic tales. It is a modern classic.

    It was the day of the first seder 2011. I was off on an errand to purchase an afikoman-finder gift. There would be no children with us that night, so we would reverse the numbers in our ages (51=15; 60=6) to identify the three “youngest” who would do the searching. That would require an adult gift for the finder. And so I was on the way to buy the synagogue cookbook as the gift. The synagogue office was some fifteen Manhattan blocks away, and I was speed-walking my way there, hoping to arrive before it closed for the holiday.

    On the street, I passed a homeless man with his hand reaching out to me as he asked for money. I knew that the Rema (R. Moshe Isserles, note on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 249:3-5) had taught that it is forbidden to turn away a poor man empty-handed without giving him something, even if it were but a fig. I promised myself that I would give him some money on the way back. I made the same promise as I raced past a second poor man – “on the way back.”

    Author - Rabbi Joel Soffin

    Then I came to a third man, sitting there on the curb. He was the first beggar I’d ever seen in the city wearing a kippah.  I slowed my pace as he asked me softly, “Do you have $26?” I smiled to myself and pushed onward. $26?!

    I reached the synagogue office just in time. Then with afikoman gift in hand, I was ready to help the three men. I kept thinking about the $26. No one had asked me for so much money before. Such chutzpah! $26?! $26?! And then it came to me.  The gematria for Y-H-V-H is 26. In the guise of a poor man, it might have been Elijah reaching out to me.

    I retraced my steps, giving money to the first two beggars. But I couldn’t find the man with the kippah. I walked around the area for nearly an hour up and down every side street, before giving up and returning home to finish the preparations for the seder.

    Later, I would tell of my experience and donate $26 to tzedakah. I’ll be doing that this Passover, too, but only after I retrace my steps once again to try to find the beggar in the kippah and to invite him to join us.


  • Freedom Rides: From Atlanta to Jerusalem

    Posted on March 15th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Freedom Ride -taken with hidden camera from the IRAC

    This week we have the honor of Rabbi Leigh Lerner’s experience riding the buses for civil rights in Israel. Rabbi Lerner is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth-Shalom in Montreal. He is on sabbatical in Jerusalem and volunteering time with the IRAC on their Freedom Ride project.

    “Git to the front of the bus, bwah, or else!”  That was the end of my first freedom ride, but I was only 13, just a kid boarding the bus from downtown Atlanta to Buckhead.  Segregation reigned in 1958 Atlanta, and having arrived from the integrated north, I just knew it was wrong and wanted to make a statement, so I sat in the “colored” section on that Peachtree St. trolley.  The driver would have none of it and threatened to throw me bodily off the vehicle.

    Author Rabbi Leigh Lerner

    Author- Rabbi Leigh Lerner

    Now flash to Jerusalem, 2012 – 5772, and a different kind of freedom ride.  Come aboard an Egged bus in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox section dotted with yeshivot and a perfect copy of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s home in Brooklyn.  Buses in this area of Jerusalem and in many other areas of Israel had, over the last 12 years, become segregated: women in the back and bidden to enter by the back door, and men in the front.  “Mehadrin” bus lines grew to 50 in number, despite the ill-feeling they engendered.

    Anat Hoffman

    Anat Hoffman

    Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, brought the law suit that re-integrated Israel’s buses, but on January 12, Anat, James Cherney, a URJ board member from Chicago, and I took a short ride to make sure the law was being obeyed and to open the front of the bus to Haredi women.Anat sat in one of 4 seats facing each other in the front of the bus.  Except for three women, every female either boarded from the back and remained there, or boarded from the front and went to the back.  Both ends of the bus became quite full, but not a single Haredi man would occupy any of the 3 seats in the vicinity of Anat Hoffman.
    One woman boarded the bus and sat by Anat, who exchanged a hello with her.  She stayed in that seat for one precious minute, then went to the back.  Why?  Did she sit there to make a statement momentarily?  Or did she lose courage and resign herself to the back, as all the men around her expected her to do?
    Another woman rode but three stops.  She stayed near the back door, which is just before the women’s section, then left with her heavy case.  A third woman boarded with a stroller and stood in a space at the back of the “men’s” section, where Egged provides extra space.  It was a double stroller, and she needed the room.
    When Anat, Jim Cherney and I left the bus, the area where Anat had been seated filled quickly with black hatted men.
    Segregation exists in Jerusalem.  Until IRAC won its case, it existed with the assent of the government, the very government that subsidizes the bus companies.  Now it is sustained by social pressure.  Still, many Haredi women bless IRAC for opening the front of the bus to them again.  Only by sitting where we please will Jerusalemites and other Israelis keep their buses integrated.  Separate can never be equal.
    Be a freedom rider yourself.  When you visit Jerusalem, take 2 hours of a morning to hear IRAC’s story and ride a Jerusalem bus as an observer.  Your eyes will open not only to parts of Jerusalem the tour buses never go, but to people, issues, and struggles that too often remain hidden from our view of the Jewish State of Israel.


    Postscript: For those interested in support the IRAC effort, Rabbi Lerner adds the following note -Commitment is really just for the time period — takes about 2 hours to 2.5 hours, which involves prep talk, getting to bus stop in one of the outer ring Haredi neighborhoods, riding the bus into the city, taking a cab back to IRAC, meeting for 30 minutes to debrief and get further legal background.  Cost is 6.30 shekels, about $1.50, for the bus ride, and usually IRAC takes care of everything, including cab back. It is very safe.  If there’s a problem on the bus, the IRAC person will handle it, and problems do not involve actual physical threats, but sometimes shaking of seats, being told to go to back of bus, several individuals standing over a woman and glaring at her.  Of course they don’t sit near her themselves.  These things do happen, but not that often, and IRAC personnel know what to do.  We’re hoping that people will talk/write about their experience in their congregational blogs or bulletins, etc., and tell what IRAC is doing to keep buses integrated and make sure that “unser yidn,” liberal Jews, secular Israelis, etc. can sit wherever they please in public transport and at public meetings.

  • International Women’s Day and Purim Collide

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

    Rabbi Stanley Davids and Dr. Michael Marmur

    A brief report by Dr. Michael Marmur:

    In honor of International Women’s Day and Purim, a group of about 200 people congregated in Ben Yehuda to hear women read the Megilla (it’s the day before Purim in Jerusalem). The Megillah was read by a group of women including Rabbi Ada Zavidov of Har El Congregation, Rabbi Ma’ayan Turner, and Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, among other Jerusalem women. Men attending were asked to come dressed as women, and some of us obliged.

    The background to this is the struggle over the role of women in public spaces in Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh and elsewhere. In recent weeks the question of whether women will be seen and heard in our streets in the spirit of open societies has been raised, following some high-profile examples of intolerance, most of which originate in the Ultra-Orthodox community.

    Kol Haneshamah Congregation and other liberal forces in Jerusalem are engaged in a series of symbolic acts designed to emphasize the need to stand up for the kind of society we want our kids to grow up in, and your kids to feel at home in.

    Our colleague Rabbi Darah Lerner was spotted in the crowd, along with HUC-JIR students and others.


    To see a video of the event shot by the talented HUC-JIR first year Rabbinic Student Jeremy Gimbel who was also responsible for the Purim spoof on the Book of Mormon musical click on the link below

  • Modern Day Slavery and the Tomato Trade

    Posted on February 13th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    There is nothing more perfect than a red ripe tomato, sweet and savory, fleshy and juicy, the tomato is one of nature’s most precious gifts. Yet, the process by which tomatoes come to our tables is often completely rotten. This week Rabbi Jonathan Katz, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Israel of Longboat Key, Florida, writes about his experience visiting with those who pick tomatoes in Florida and the vision for a different future that emerged out of that encounter.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Recently, I joined several other rabbis from around the country in Immokalee, FL (forty minutes northeast of Naples) for a three day program organized by Rabbis for Human Rights-North America designed to acquire greater understanding of the struggle of migrant farm workers to obtain gain fairer wages and more rights.  Immokalee is considered ground zero in this push.

    Author, Rabbi Jonathan Katz

    What we saw was shocking. The dilapidated trailers that farm workers pay exorbitant rents to live in, stood in the middle of a large parking lot. There were no amenities. At 5:30 a.m. we rose to watch the daily ritual of hundreds of farm workers boarding buses to labor that day for any one of several large growers in the area. We visited a site where a group of farm workers had been held against their will and forced to work fields in 2008, one of several incidents of modern slavery that have taken place in Florida in the last twenty years.

    We also learned about the heroic efforts CIW (the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has undertaken to end abuse in the fields, ensure safer working conditions and procure higher compensation for the arduous work required to pick tomatoes. Sexual harassment is a fact of life. Work breaks are rare. And when rest is possible, there is no shade from the heat of the sun.

    Particularly problematic is the issue of pay. For many years farm workers have received only fifty-cents for every thirty-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. That same amount of tomatoes is often sold for around seventy dollars in major grocery stores.  In an average year, farm workers only make about $10,000.

    In 2001 CIW launched a Campaign for Fair Food that sought a one penny per pound increase for each pound of tomatoes farm workers pick and as well more rights in the field. A penny increase may not seem like much but will raise the earnings of the average working by an estimated $7,000. Additionally the campaign hopes to ameliorate the worst aspects of working conditions.

    After confronting a boycott and increasing pressure from a wide range of CIW advocates, in 2005 Taco Bell agreed to absorb the one penny per pound increase and to purchase tomatoes only from growers who adhered to a code of conduct that echoed CIW’s Fair Food Principles. In subsequent years McDonalds, Burger King and Subway all followed suit.

    In September 2008, the campaign broke new ground with its first agreement in the supermarket industry, as Whole Foods Market agreed to the CIW principles. By August 2010, foodservice industry giants Aramark and Sodexo had also agreed to comply.  Fourteen months ago Jon Esformes, Pacific Tomato’s operating partner and chief marketing officer, became the first grower to comply with the new Fair Food Principles. For those who wonder about the power of the rabbinate, it is good to keep in mind that Esformes’ rabbi apparently played a significant role in his decision to join with CIW.

    Rabbi Katz affixing a mezuza at Trader Joe's

    CIW is now vigorously working to bring large grocery store chains like Walmart and Publix to the table and agree to the code.  On the last day of our visit to Immokalee, we gathered at Trader Joe’s first Florida store in Naples, which was set open only a few days later.  As workmen were completing last minute touches to the building, we affixed (with scotch tape) to the front door post a card detailing the farm workers struggle together with a penny as “mezuzza of justice.” Less than twenty-four hours later and knowing that protest actions were being planned this weekend at forty-one Trader Joe’s stores throughout the country, Trader Joe’s came to an agreement with CIW.

    This outcome is a tribute to the power of organizing. As Reform Jews, we know that repairing the world is our responsibility. Often that task seems a never ending one, sometimes working well can make all the difference.



  • 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