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  • Lance Armstrong – Can Good Spring from Evil?

    Posted on November 4th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    From all the available evidence in front of us, there is only one logical conclusion – Lance Armstrong is a dirty cheater.  Armstrong, who won cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France, seven consecutive times, is accused of using performance enhancing drugs in order to achieve his amazing athletic successes. Recently, the Anti-Doping Agency released an over 1,000 page document detailing the vast orchestrated cheating campaign run by Armstrong’s US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. According to a press release, the agency claims that “the evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.”  In addition, and perhaps most damning, the report contains detailed testimony from his former teammates, who paint a picture of rampant drug use within US cycling.  His former friends and colleagues claim they were bullied into doping, told that they either needed to be injected with dangerous and illegal drugs or they would be kicked off the team.  And those who attempted to expose Armstrong as a fraud faced threats, intimidation, and denigration if they tried to go public with their knowledge of his use of performance enhancing drugs.

    Lance Armstrong’s goose is pretty well cooked.  He has been stripped of his titles and banned from the sport that he loves.  Due to the scandal, he stepped down as the chairman of Livestrong, the charity Armstrong established dedicated to fighting cancer and to helping those afflicted cope with their disease.  His most prominent sponsor, Nike, has terminated its relationship with this disgraced athlete.  Armstrong has become a pariah.  But before we condemn him to sports purgatory with other drug cheats like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, et al, I think it is only fitting to take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Lance Armstrong, for there is more to his story than cycling.

    Lance Armstrong

    For millions of people, Lance Armstrong was an inspirational figure.  He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which, as in the case of many men, went undetected for far too long.  Had it been caught earlier, it would have been easier to treat. Unfortunately for Armstrong, the cancer spread into his abdomen, into his brain. His prognosis was not good.  But he aggressively fought the disease and, amazingly, resumed his cycling career.  Armstrong became a symbol of hope when, just three years later, he won his first Tour De France title.  Those struggling with cancer looked at what he accomplished and said to themselves, “If he can do this, why not me?” Over the years, his “LiveStrong” foundation has raised almost $500 million dollars for the fight against cancer and has raised awareness about this disease.  Armstrong was not merely a figurehead, a celebrity spokesperson – he has worked tirelessly to advocate for greater government funding for cancer research and treatment. I encourage you to visit to learn about this organization’s many programs and all the good it does for people living with cancer.

    But now the very people he has inspired face a difficult question – knowing what we know now about Lance Armstrong, can they still find meaning in their fallen hero?  Can anything good still be taken from his story?

    The Talmud teaches that one day, Rabbah bar Rabbi Shila once met the prophet Elijah and asked him, “What is the Holy One doing?” Elijah replied, “God is reciting traditions concerning the law in the name of all the sages, but God is not reciting them in the name of Rabbi Meir.”  Why not? Because Rabbi Meir was a student of Elisha ben Abuyah, also known as Acher!  Elisha ben Abuyah was a sage and Torah scholar, but, later in life, he turned to a life of heresy.  So according to Elijah, God does not quote Rabbi Meir because he was once a student of this wicked man.  But Rabbah argued on Meir’s behalf, saying, “What does that matter? Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate, ate the seeds within it, and threw away the rind!”  Rabbah maintained that Meir was able to learn matters of Jewish law and tradition from Acher while discarding the sacrilegious attitudes and profane actions of his former teacher.  He kept all that was good within his teacher and rejected all that was bad.

    Author, Rabbi Joshua Lobel

    When it comes to how we view Lance Armstrong, I suggest we need to emulate Rabbi Meir’s attitude toward his teacher.  There is no doubt that Armstrong leaves behind a tarnished legacy.  He has done irreparable damage to his reputation. He cheated his sport, his country, and himself.  But this does not wipe out the tremendous good he has done for those battling cancer.  His titles have been erased from the record books, but his work towards creating a world without cancer cannot be erased.  Lance Armstrong, the athlete, may have been a phony. But there is nothing fake about the hope and inspiration Lance Armstrong has provided cancer patients all over the world.

    Lance Armstrong’s autobiography is titled, “It’s Not About the Bike”, which, ironically enough, is still true, just not in the way he intended.  For now when we think of him, we cannot think of his accomplishments in the world of cycling, for they were an illusion, a doped- up scam.  But, despite it all, we can still remember the man in the yellow bracelet, who reminded us, in the face of cancer, of our obligation to “Livestrong.”

    Rabbi Joshua Lobel is the associate rabbi at Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California.

  • 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.

  • Remembering a Musical Great: Bonia Shur

    Posted on September 5th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    Bonia Shur, Director of Liturgical Arts, passed away Thursday, August 30, 2012, Erik Contzius offers this personal remembrance.


    The world, the Jewish world, and the music world has lost a special soul. Bonia Shur was a unique shining star whose fire burned brightly. He

    Cantor Bonia Shur

    dedicated himself to the Jewish liturgical arts. Bonia could have easily used his talents to create commercial success. Instead, his Judaism and love of prayer spurred him to compose for the sake of Heaven. I was privileged to have known the man behind the works.


    Just after my Investiture from HUC-JIR, I took a position at Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska. My rabbi, Aryeh Azriel, was a very enthusiastic and creative partner. He insisted that I go in the middle of Sukkot (in my first year as a cantor, mind you!) and spend several days studying with his good friend, Bonia Shur. I had met and worked with Bonia briefly my first year in Jerusalem (he was a visiting composer-in-residence), and I was taken by his composition and energy. Aryeh’s offer to me was like asking if I wanted a brand new car and here are the keys! So Aryeh called Bonia, made the arrangements, and I was on my way to Cincinnati, with really no idea what to expect.
    Bonia was truly a gracious host. He gave me a wonderful tour of the Cincinnati campus (I remember distinctly him pointing out a block of sidewalk in which someone had indicated, in Hebrew, not to urinate on the grounds!), and made arrangements for me to stay in the dorms there. Since it was during Sukkot, he and Fanchon hosted an annual meeting of the second year students at their house. Bonia and I went together to the supermarket and picked out food for the evening. He mused over the quality of the grapes, and actually fed me one! At their home, we prepared for the festivities. It was an evening of music, story sharing, and sitting on large, inflatable exercise balls!
    Back at the college, Bonia was preparing for the annual performance of his Hallel Psalms (one of his greatest works, in my opinion) and he invited me to join the choir of rabbinic students and ringers. I was more than happy to oblige. In our downtime from rehearsing, he exposed me to the depth and breadth of his work, sharing with me his opinions on composing for the synagogue. I drank in his wisdom and was taken by his deep commitment to artistic integrity.

    Although the visit was short, it left a lasting impression on me. Following that trip, Bonia and I were bonded in a relationship of sharing music and more. While in Cincinnati, he and I talked about the need for a new setting of the Mi Shebeirakh, and he composed a work in Hebrew and English which embodies the hope that one needs when praying for the sick. When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, I composed a setting of Shalom Rav, which was incomplete until Bonia arranged it for me. I sent him my new compositions, and he sent me his. I appreciated his feedback on my work, and I loved being one of the first to look at a new Shur manuscript.

    Cantor Erik Contzius

    I was always impressed by his active mind. Late in his life, he took to using computers, and I wound up being his long-distance tutor in Finale (a computer program for engraving.) I sometimes fielded four or five phone calls from Bonia with the preface, “Just one more zing!”
    More than a composer and philosopher, Bonia was a thoughtful and caring human being. If you connected with him, it was with love. Bonia always asked about my family and my well being out of true concern. When I was going through my divorce, Bonia would check up on me to see how I was faring. And he was always encouraging. He egged me on to compose more. When I sent him one of my CD’s, he said, “Zere’s too much! Always keep people wanting more! Don’t give it all away!” He was always wise.
    I learned that when he passed, he was holding the copy of his Hallel Psalms in his hand, newly published by Transcontinental Music. Bonia was so prolific and I am saddened that his compositional voice has been extinguished. But I have been influenced so much by this mountain of a man. I can only hope that my composition work, greatly shaped by his guidance, will sound echoes of Bonia’s life, such that his voice will continue to sound strong.
    May Bonia live on in his music and all who loved him.
  • 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



  • Centropa: Old Stories New Meanings in Confronting Europe’s Past

    Posted on July 25th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 6 comments

    Memorial where the bima stood at the Heidelberger Synagoge in Heidelberg, Germany.

    Stories are an essential element of Jewish tradition, but they can also be an essential element of Jewish history and Jewish education. This week Melissa Cohavi shares her new take on stories we often struggle with passing on.

    I love stories.  I especially love stories about families, history, and people affected by history.  Centropa is all about stories too, and perhaps this is why their materials speak to me on such a personal level.  I am the Director of Education at Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut and learned of Centropa last winter.  Centropa, based in Vienna, uses technology to tell the stories of elderly Jews in Central Europe who survived the holocaust, and then made the decision to live their lives in Central Europe and not emigrate to Israel, Western Europe, or the USA.  Centropa has interviewed over 1250 Jews living in 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean.  Centropa has produced more than 25 short multi-media films and has cataloged thousands of personal photos from the interviewees.  Centropa’s goals include:  connecting us all to the lands of Jewish heritage by creating programs about the entire 20th century, not only about the period of the Third Reich; using these programs in innovative ways so that Holocaust education will have relevance everywhere; combating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial by creating programs that students carry out themselves, and share with other students across borders, oceans and ethnic divides. I know what you’re thinking.  I have heard this before.  But Centropa is different.  Their films focus on the lives of Jews in Central Europe both pre-war and post-war.  For me, when we teach our students about the Holocaust it is important to focus on the stories, not only about the tragedies.  After all, stories are so much a part of Judaism and enhance learning in so many ways.  Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe prior to World War II was so vibrant, and now it is gone.  In fact, stories are what connect Jews around the world, and our students to their history.  I don’t know about you, but my students (both youth and adult) love to talk about themselves.  When we, as educators, can bring them stories of a previous generation that they can relate to in their own lives today, we have succeeded on so many levels.  I lived this myself when I was at the egalitarian minyan on Saturday morning, July 14th at the West End Synagogue in Frankfurt.  I attended services with five other Americans and one new friend from Stockholm.  We had so much in common with the approximately 20 or 25 others in attendance that morning.  We all knew the music and I was so happy when we sang Debbie Friedman’s Oseh Shalom.  I was even honored with an aliya to the Torah that morning.  The stories we shared with one another during the oneg brought us together on a very special level, and it was a morning I will never forget.

    Author, Melissa Cohavi

    The Centropa summer academy brought Jewish life and history alive for me.  I was able to visit places in Germany, such as Worms and Berlin that I had only had the opportunity to study about.  Today there are no Jews living in Worms, but there is a small Jewish community in Berlin made up mostly of former Soviet Jews.  It also allowed me to see that non-Jewish teachers in Vilnius, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest and Vienna are both learning about the Holocaust and teaching it to their students.  I learned that there is one synagogue in Vilnius today, where there were hundreds prior to World War II.  I saw how Germany is taking responsibility for its past and learned how teachers in former Soviet-bloc countries are learning about how we live our lives in the West and that the connections between us and our students are so important. This trip was personally important to me on so many levels.  I must admit that I was hesitant to visit Germany, given the history we all know so well.  But I learned that Germans are aware of their mistakes and are working hard to make things right.  There are memorials and museums remembering the holocaust everywhere.  It is taught in schools from an early age and there are numerous exchange programs between Germany and Israel, all supported and paid for by the German government.  There is even a memorial for homosexuals persecuted and murdered by the Nazi’s, located in Berlin.  The connections I was able to make with educators from 14 different countries was probably the most invaluable and tangible thing I came home with. I learned about the Jewish communities in Stockholm and Helsinki, Vienna and Budapest.  Centropa has allowed me to grow in so many ways, and I thank them for that.  Share your stories, we all have something important to tell.

    Centropa Summer Seminar 2012

  • God and the Holocaust

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

    The Holocaust poses particular challenges when it comes to theology. For this week’s guest author, Rabbi Phil Cohen, these questions have been on his mind for a long time. – editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Back in my days in the New York school I gave a presentation on the subject of post-Holocaust theology in Eugene Borowitz’s Jewish thought class.  It was 1980, and the subject had been on the table for perhaps a bit more than a decade and a half, with many serious voices weighing in on the subject of God and the Six Million.

    My study of the topic brought me to the provisional conclusion that the Shoah was caused by people, that the evil perpetrated by the Nazis and their many fellow travelers in both East and West Europe was just that, evil perpetrated by human beings.  My theology, I thought, did not include the question of God’s failure to intervene in the violence, because my image of God did not allow for God to intervene into our affairs at all.  God “does” other things, but not that.

    Author: Rabbi Phil Cohen

    But in a low level way the subject persisted to enter my thinking from time to time.  Then I read an essay by Michael Wyschogrod in which he said, “There has crept into our consciousness a profound anger at God, and this  anger is shared by all Jews even those who will not permit this anger to become  conscious.”  (Contemporary Jewish Theology: a reader, p.247)  I took this anger as being related to the Shoah.  So I called Prof. Wyschogrod and inquired of him if a) the statement was directed at the Holocaust, and b) if he still held to the statement.  The answer to both was “yes”.  “How could a Jew think about the Holocaust and not wonder why the Kodosh Baruch hu didn’t do something?”

    His statement and our brief conversation prodded me to think anew about what is at stake with the dilemma of God and the Shoah.  If we are to deny God’s ability to redeem in Auschwitz, then the liberation paradigm of the rescue at the Sea, which informs so much of our Jewish religious culture, loses meaning. We lose the dynamism of covenant, which, however interpreted, always entails a mutuality of relationship between God and the Jewish people.   We lose chosenness, a idea partnered with covenant, the belief that, somehow, the Jews and God have historically had, one might say, a privileged relationship. But perhaps most was encased in the sentiment voiced by Michael Wyschogrod, that asks how God could have not stopped the brutality.

    Now, this is not to say that these historic features of Jewish belief about God ought to be maintained at all costs simply because they have a role in Jewish thought. Indeed, Richard Rubenstein, who is to be credited with bringing this topic to public discussion in 1966 with his famous work After Auschwitz, loudly declared the death of the God of history.  On the other hand, the continuity of Jewish theology could be maintained by Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, who blamed Liberal Judaism and Zionism for bringing God’s wrath upon the Jewish People.  Similarly, the English Reform Rabbi, Ignaz Maybaum, saw in the Shoah God’s hand bringing the entire world into a new and better phase of human existence through the suffering of the Jews.

    I find myself caught on the horns of this dilemma.  I cannot for various reasons accept Rubenstein’s blanket declaration, nor can I see a divine purpose, punitive (Teitelbaum) or otherwise (Maybaum), in the Shoah.  However, I do like Irving Greenberg’s dialectical thinking that post-Holocaust Jewry’s consciousness sways between two poles.  On the one pole rests absolute evil and through it we viscerally experience the absence of the divine.  On the other side lies the state of Israel, no compensation for the events of 1933-45, nonetheless an experience of deep meaning for Jewish existence, in which religious people see God’s presence.  Negativity and positivity with the Jewish people swinging back and forth between them, occasionally perilously.

    And then there’s Wyschogrod’s statement that all Jews bear an anger toward God.  I’m less interested in whether the statement is true than that is carries in it some truth: many people knowingly or unknowingly bear an animus toward God.  That’s important and interesting enough.

    I have no satisfactory conclusion here except to say that just as the Shoah hangs over us in so many other ways, the predicament of God and Auschwitz, for me, will likely never be resolved.

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

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

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

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


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

    Author Rabbi Laura Novak Winer RJE

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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


  • 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.

  • Is Pride Really a Deadly Sin?

    Posted on February 22nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    “Pride is, in the Jewish tradition, among the most serious of the vices, as humility is among the highest of the virtues. The Talmudic Rabbis, perhaps because of their awareness that scholars are easily tempted to lord it over the ignorant, denigrate pride in the most caustic terms.”

    –Rabbi Louis Jacobs  The Jewish Religion: A Companion

    How ought Jewish leaders think about pride? In Christianity pride is viewed along with wrath, greed, sloth, lust, envy and gluttony to be the seven deadly sins. These sins, stand in a category of their own because, among other reasons, their tendency to cause more sin. True Judaism does not buy into the framework of original sin, but if we take Rabbi Jacobs and the sources he sights, it would seem that we ought to leave pride alone all together.

    At first, I was completely comfortable with this approach. My chevruta and I have recently began making our way through Alan Moranis’s Everyday Holiness which uses the traditional Jewish approach to self examination mussar to lead readers to self improvement. The starting point for this work? Humility. The polar opposite of pride.

    Getting rid of pride is no easy task, no less a persona than Moses struggled to do so. According to our tradition, his understanding of the divine was greater than anyone before or after him. And yet, when it came to preparing for his death, he was not easy to accept his immiment passing. According to the Midrash Tanchuma VaEtkhanan, upon understanding that the authority of interpreting the Torah and receiving prophecy had passed from him to Joshua, Moses cried out and said “Rather a hundred deaths than a single pang of envy. Master of the universes, until now I sought life. But now my soul is surrendered to You.” And yet, when the angel was sent to bring him to God, Moses fought back claiming greater authority and power.

    Pride makes us take up too much space, makes us inflate our importance in comparison to that of other people. As leaders, it can trip us up as we step too far forward, expect too much recognition, or put our own needs ahead of the tasks that need completing. It can cloud our judgment. Pride can lead to a fall sense of importance. As a rabbinic mentor once told me, half the bad stuff they attribute to you is not your fault but at the same time, half the good stuff they attribute to you is not your accomplishment either.

    Yet as Moranis points out, false humility is just as bad as pride. We need to own our strengths and capabilities. Real humility demands stepping up and working to accomplish what we are capable of doing.

    Nonetheless, I was left wondering whether pride, like other elements of the evil impulse, ought to be managed but not entirely eradicated. Is it wrong to find joy in the hard work we do, in the skills we learn and use well? Sometimes, the desire for recognition pushes us to do the right thing. Sometimes our inflated sense of self gets us through what might otherwise be an impossible situation. Describing Sephardi Jews of Turkey, Rabbi Marc Angel explains that no matter how poor these Jews were, they held on to the memory of having once been part of the prosperous Spanish Jewish community. Generations had passed, still pride helped them cope with what were often difficult lives.

    Manage it, contain it. But in my humble opinion, pride is far from entirely negative.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder


  • 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