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

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

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

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

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

    by Rabbi Judith Abrams of Maqom

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

    Author Judith Abrams

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

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

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

    by Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman

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

    Author Geoffrey Mitelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

    Author Erik Contzius

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Author Irwin Zeplowitz






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

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

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

  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 1

    Posted on January 23rd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

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

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

    Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami

    How We Create Boundaries and Maintain Perspective

    1.      Da Lifnei Mi Ata Omeid (Know before whom you stand). Remember that most issues are not really about you.

    2.    Encourage your congregation to call you before setting funeral times. Be actively in touch with families of those about to die to give them your contact numbers and to ask/instruct them to make you the second call after death.  If Rabbi (not the family) calls mortuary to set time, you have more control over your schedule and your life.

    3.      If you have a partner/spouse, involve your spouse/partner in setting times of funerals and baby namings, and of whether to accept weddings. (Honey, I have a funeral for Sunday and 11 am or 3 pm are available; what’s best for our family?)

    Author Paul Kipnes

    4.      Use your partner/spouse/trusted friend as a “boundary keeper” to strengthen you when you weaken.  When you are considering relaxing your boundaries, check by him/her for a “reality check.”

    5.     Tell your children/spouse/partner whenever you skip a meeting for them.  Skip meetings for them.  Schedule in kids games/events, sometimes in your calendar under assumed names.

    6.      Get thyself a therapist.  Who else is NOT nogei-ah b’davar (not touched by the issue)?  A therapist can help you think through the challenging issues that will arise.

    7.      Make it a policy not to attend any B’nai Mitzvah or Wedding receptions. Explain it to every family with whom you meet.  (“I cannot choose one family over the other; nor can I attend all receptions and still see my family.”)

    8.      Don’t waste time getting bitter.  Do what you have to do, and teach your congregation before next problem.  Every situation is an opportunity for education.

    9. Train your lay leaders to protect your vacations and conferences. Set up a clear process for handling synagogue needs when you are away. Send a detailed coverage plans email to staff/leadership whenever you will be away.




  • Friday, the Rabbi was Outed!

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


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

    Ruth Abusch-Magder


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

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

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

    Author, Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb

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

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

    Rabbi Ruthie Gelfarb

    Rabbi Ruthie Gelfarb

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

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

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

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

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


  • The Myth of Denominational Demise

    Posted on December 29th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    In an era where post-denominationalism is a frequent topic, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, suggests that we need not write off denominationalism.

    The world is filled with certainties that aren’t – like the myth that religious denominations are dead. We will eventually have three inchoate pools of people, it is said: Orthodox, “Other,” and Unaffiliated. Already Orthodoxy is less a denomination than a way of life rooted in halakhic observance, community consciousness, and synagogue centrality. “Other,” presumably, will feature the very opposite, synagogues as “limited liability communities” that collect dues in exchange for rabbis on call, life-cycle ceremonies, and occasional events like High Holidays. The growth market will be “a pox on both your houses” — the unaffiliated altogether.

    Evidence for this sorry denouement includes the documented decline in religious affiliation generally, the generational replacement of the baby boomers (who joined things) with their children (who don’t); economic conditions that allow little luxury for supporting synagogue movements; an internet era that provides programming for free; the declining numbers of Conservative Jews, once the majority denomination; and the stagnation of Reform Jews who maintain their numbers only because of the in-migration of Jews by choice. 

    So why are denominations not necessarily on their way out?

    Denominational obituaries assume that organized religion in general is a thing of the past, but it is equally arguable that religion is just changing, not disappearing. Religion, as we know it, is a post-World- War-II response to the Cold War era, baby-boomer children, and suburbia. Synagogues insulated Jews against latent anti-Semitism, and provided safe spaces to rehearse ethnic identity and support of Israel. Plenty of post-war money paid denominational offices to provide the programs that a synagogue needed to ramp up and reach out.

    Denominations back then had bureaucracies that churned out personnel and services; what they did not have is a clear ideological mandate to justify the personnel and services they churned out.

    No one will join that kind of denomination. But denominations are what we make of them. They can define what religion is becoming not reflect what it used to be.

    Precisely this ability to evolve with the times is what makes religion in America so exceptional. Indeed, one explanation for its robustness, relative to the anemic state of religion in Europe, is America’s separation of church and state, which has prevented state support and conditioned religion instead to fend for itself. Static churches, sociologists say, die out; creative ones succeed. Denominations that hunker down with old ways of thinking are indeed doomed. But denominations that think differently have a future.

    This different denominational thinking must acknowledge the fact that, unlike the Cold War era, ours is a time of spiritual search. The limited liability synagogue that trades dues for services will find competitors who offer bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and even funerals (not to mention high holidays) for a whole lot less than what it costs to be a member. And who needs denominations just for that?

    But assume our synagogues respond to the spirituality surge and urge us on to be our better selves. Assume they deliver purpose, meaning, and a reason to be alive. Assume further that they ritualize these higher human goals by connecting people to each other, to their past, and to God. Assume also the existence of rabbis who have something deep to say – rabbis, that is, whose intellectual acumen is equal to whatever society offers elsewhere at its thoughtful best. Assume, in a word, that synagogues manage to ennoble the human condition in communities of commitment, where the scar tissue of entrenched routine is replaced by an intentional response to the human yearning to matter.

    Suppose all this, and you get synagogues that need denominations.

    A single synagogue has but limited reach while denominations unify a thousand synagogues to influence policy round the globe. Denominations can run seminaries that invest in visionaries who compete in the marketplace of big ideas. Only denominations can galvanize large scale investment for a Jewish future; rally opinion world-wide; or have a voice that must be taken seriously far away in Israel and in circles of power everywhere. Only denominations can argue our way to a viable vision of religion for the vast mass of Americans who yearn for a form of religion that is not Orthodox but is equally authentic and equally deep.

    I write this after attending the latest biennial of the Reform Movement, which certainly didn’t look dead or dying. It reaffirmed its commitment to the marriage of modernity and tradition; the courage to take moral stands; an inclusive vision for Jewish Peoplehood; and a compelling portrait of Judaism at its moral and spiritual best. It was religion as it just might be, religion that only denominational greatness can provide.

    Note: This post first appeared on Life and a Little Liturgy Rabbi Hoffman’s blog. It is reposted here with his permission.


  • Creating Particularistic Religious Identities in an Age of Pluralism

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


    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



  • A Prophetic Voice: Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Judaism

    Posted on November 16th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments


    This morning American’s across the country awoke to news that the various “Occupy” encampments from New York to Oakland had been shut down over night. In the slightly less than two months since it began the movement has captured attention across the country. On Yom Kippur a group of Jews came together in New York to pray and Occupy Judaism was born.


    How does this movement play out for the students and alumni of HUC? To be sure, Occupy Judaism is non-denominational enshewing the hierarchies of movement based Judaism. Yet over the last few week I put out calls and connected with some current HUC students and Nancy Weiner, the Clinical Director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and faculty advisor to the Student Association and Interfaith programs to understand their perspective.


    The students spoke candidly but asked that I not use names. They were concerned about the perception their involvement might have on employment –current or future- which suggests that even as the mainstream media covers the protests, Occupy remains a fairly small group on the margins. For the students there is both fear and pride. Fear, that involvement will mark a person as too radical (there are rumors that people involved with Occupy Judaism and currently employed in mainstream Jewish organizations have been asked not to be too public about Occupy involvement.) Pride, that they are carrying out the prophetic tradition.


    For Nancy Weiner, a tenured professor as well as a rabbi to a small congregation, pride dominates. Growing up, social justice was the essence of what it meant to be a Reform Jew. Her High Holidays sermon on the issues raised by the Occupy Wall Street protests and her participation in the protests during Sukkot were obvious extensions of a long standing commitment to social justice. Was she concerned that her sermon might offend or provoke her financially comfortable congregants? Not really. “They understand that there is a need to fix the system.” Nor is she alone in speaking out. According to Weiner several rabbinic colleagues, in wealthy congregations spoke about the movement over the High Holidays. As she pointed out, all of these communities have been touched by the concerns raised by those who were camping in Zuccotti Park. Weiner was neither the only HUC faculty member nor the only HUC rabbi taking part in the Occupy Sukkot action that took place. Shirely Idelsohn Dean of the New York School was there as was Ellen Lippmann.


    Lippmann wrote in the Huffington Post about the connection between the holiday and the contemporary movement. For one of the students, the highlight of eating and sleeping in the sukkot in Zucotti Park was studying the laws of sukkot and recognizing that everyone, from the richest person with the most beautiful home to the poorest person, all have the same obligation to dwell in a sukkah during the holiday, reinforcing a vision of fundamental equality no matter our earthly riches. Another described a scene that amazed her, Councilman Brad Lander was teaching the Occupy Judaism group about law pertaining to housing in New York and all of a sudden Jesse Jackson comes by. The learning stopped, the two embraced and spoke and then the learning continued. It was the embodiment of the sukkah as an open place of peace.

    But for all that I spoke to, the message of Occupy Judaism transcends the direct connection to sukkot. Repeatedly I was told of David Sapperstein’s recent address to the HUC-JIR community in which he spoke of the Occupy Wall Street as a prophetic voice in the best tradition of the prophets of old. True enough there is no clear agenda, no clear answers to fix the problems of society. But that does not seem to bother the supporters. Our ancient prophets did not focus on the fix but rather the identification of the difficulties.


    As for concerns about OWS being anti-semitic, according to those who had spent significant time in the park in Manhattan, they are simply part of the attempts to discredit the movement. Yes, there have been negative signs and slogans here and there, but they have been overshadowed by bigger signs discrediting the anti-semites and the general signage that says nothing about Jews at all.


    No doubt there will be those among the alumni who do not support either or both Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Judaism, I’d love to hear from you as well. For whatever happens next, it is clear that the voices of Jewish wisdom and tradition should not be left out of the economic debates that are so critical for our collective future.


  • What Not To Say About Israel This Year

    Posted on September 6th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments



    There is a great deal in the news this season about Israel. Most of the alumni of HUC-JIR feel close to Israel but live at a physical remove.  Spanning two continents, the College-Institute is aware of how that divide can feel.  And so they are reaching out from our Jerusalem campus to help us think about what we hear and choose to say about current events. This guest post features reflections by Dr. Michael Marmur, Vice President for Academic Affairs.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Dr. Michael Marmur

    It happens every year about this time. Colleagues gearing up for their High Holyday sermons turn to me and other Israeli colleagues in the hope that we might give them some ideas. After all, a number of our Rabbinical colleagues still leave one slot open for the stirring Israel sermon, and it seems that in recent years congregants emerge from an encounter with the Israel shaken, not stirred.

    The month of Elul and the High Holydays to follow are a time of honesty, so let’s face up to the facts: many Jews on the liberal end of the spectrum feel increasingly distanced from Israel. I would hazard the guess that most HUC-JIR alumni in North America will not be teaching and preaching about Israel this year. There are a variety of reasons for this palpable distancing, ranging from ideological disapproval to despair, passing every station from disinterest to confusion to the rise of new interests and issues: spirituality, the tea party, Irene, you name it.

    I have lots of advice to give you, but I urge you to ignore it. There is a wide range of topics to fill an Israel agenda – unprecedented social protest and the struggle for greater social equality, the forthcoming declaration of a Palestinian state, the changing face of the Middle East, the rise of chauvinism and racism in Israel, the standoff with Turkey, the face and soul of contemporary Israel, and more.

    You should ignore my advice, because the only way you will stir the people you serve is to be stirred yourself. If Israel is an “ought”, brought in to the discussion like an aging relative who has to be mentioned to avoid a tantrum, nothing good can come of the encounter. So I want to encourage each of you to find the intersection between your own passions and the debates which rage here in Israel every day.

    Take my advice and don’t take my advice. Instead, find friends and partners here in Israel and tell them what is on your mind, what matters to you. Then, take a deep breath and listen to their response. If you come away from that encounter unsettled, dismayed, challenged, energized, even occasionally inspired, that is what you may bring to those who look to you for guidance.

    There are over 60 alumni of HUC-JIR’s Israel program, and now some 25 graduates of our specialization in pluralistic Jewish education. There are graduates of a program on pastoral care and spiritual guidance. In our congregations, there are professors and proctologists and plumbers, members of many professional cohorts. Outside our movement there are seven million people to speak to. If you are engaged in community dialogue across ethnic divides, find people doing similar work here. If you are an economic conservative, seek out your kindred spirits. If you own a Che Guevara beret, look for the other one in the matching set. If you are a surfer, come to the beach, and if you surf the web, find a blog buddy.

    I am not telling you to agree with everything your Israeli counterpart says – that’s not the way we do it around here. I am suggesting that guilt-tripping is the worst form of tourism, and that an ounce of real engagement is better than a ton of platitudes.

    I believe that what is playing out in this little country matters a great deal to just about anyone with a sense of Jewish identity and historical perspective. The fact that more and more are tuning out is not because Israel stopped being a crazy and extraordinary place. It may have something to do with the fact that wagging our fingers and telling our Jews what they ought to care about doesn’t work. If it matters to you, jump in and show it. If it doesn’t – you probably didn’t get this far in my article.

    If you want the College-Institute to help you find a shidduch here in Israel to share your angst with, we’re keen to be involved. To face up to the folks you serve this year and talk about Israel, the prerequisite is not that you can drop names of generals and government ministers. That can be quite boring. The prerequisite is that you find a way in to deep engagement with Israel, and that you model it to those around you.

    But that’s just my view, and I already told you how you should relate to my advice!

    Shanah Tovah


  • Singing the Praises of our Mothers: A Tribute to Women Cantors

    Posted on August 10th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment


    Cantor Barbara Ostfeld

    Hebrew Union College has been in the forefront of  educating and empowering women to take leadership roles in Jewish life. 36 years ago, the HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music invested its first female cantor. Their voices have changed prayer for all of us, women and men alike. This week’s guest post by Cantor Erik Contzius describes a tribute to the voices of Jewish women throughout the ages.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Cantor Erik Contzius

    36 years ago, HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music  invested its first female cantor, Barbara Ostfeld. Since that time, women have greatly influenced the modern cantorate as well as the musical liturgy of the synagogue. Cantor Ostfeld was a true pioneer, becoming a role model to those women who immediately followed her through the halls of Hebrew Union College to today, where over half of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) is comprised of women.

    In honor of this double-khai anniversary, the American Conference of Cantors honored those female cantors in the ACC who joined from 1975-1985 at the American Conference of Cantors-Guild of Temple Musician’s annual convention in Boston in June, 2011. All of these women, each pioneers in her own right, were acknowledged for their contributions as well as their trailblazing at the convention. Presentations were made, a special service was performed, and I was fortunate enough to be included in honoring these well-deserving women.

    I was initially approached by my friend and colleague, Cantor Claire Franco, who asked if I would compose a choral work in honor of the ACC’s “Imahot,” marking the occasion most appropriately with a new song. I was very flattered and honored, but initially felt uncomfortable—as a man, was it right for me to attempt to give musical voice describing the path these women traveled? Upon further reflection, in an age of post-modernism and perhaps post-feminism, I was able to reconcile being asked to write such a work, but under one condition: In lieu of selecting a text from our rabbinic heritage, which would undoubtedly be written by men, I sought to find a text in the female voice, by a female voice.

    Dina Elenbogen

    With the help of another friend and colleague, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, I was introduced to a very talented writer and poet, Dina Elenbogen. I explained to Dina the need for a text which would give acknowledgement to women claiming their own voice and place in the role of a Cantor. I described it as a journey towards empowerment, acceptance, and leadership. Despite having a limited deadline, Dina’s talent came through, and a poem was born which painted a very powerful image, one of female strength and artistry, equal but distinct from men, and as Dina was inspired by my ideas, I was in turn inspired by her words.

    The result of this combined effort was the work, “A Woman’s Voice” (to listen see below) The choral work, written for Soprano and Alto choir and piano, was premiered in Boston by the very women whom were to be honored. They gave life to Dina’s words and my music, and the congregation of cantors and synagogue musicians was very moved by the gesture.

    I’m only 42. It doesn’t seem that young, but in regard to the modern cantorate, it is. But what it means to me is that for most of my life, the cantorate has not been biased towards one gender or the other. In fact, having grown up with a rabbi who filled both the role of rabbi and cantor, I was unaware of the cantor as a profession until I met my first one at a regional NFTY convention: Cantor Pamela Siskin. I recalled this strong memory to the cantors I was conducting for the premiere performance and how that memory paved the way towards my entering the profession myself.

    I anticipate that the influence and uniqueness that women have brought to the modern cantorate, and therefore to Judaism entirely, will only be magnified in the next 36 years to come. And that special voice, a woman’s voice, melded with the men’s voice which already is here, will continue to make beautiful music for the Jewish people. As it is written: “Sing a New Song unto God.” The song has become new and will continually do so as long as we see both men and women for the equals they are.

    To listen to a recording of click on this link: A Woman’s Voice

    A Woman’s Voice

    In the beginning      a whimper

    Pounding of heart-steps

    Whispers of open fists

    Prayer notes in stone

    Pounding of heart-steps

    Chirps of morning songs

    Prayer notes in stone

    The language of angels


    Chirps of morning songs

    A girl stands at the threshold

    Hears the language of angels

    Her own music breaking


    A girl-woman stands at the threshold

    Chants the first words of Torah

    Her own voice breaking

    Into stones with burning names


    When a woman chants the first words

    She finds inside her own voice

    Stones with burning names

    A cry becomes a scream


    She finds inside her own voice

    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    A cry becomes a scream

    A song of abundance


    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    When a woman reaches the highest note

    In her abundant song

    Even the stones begin to tremble.


    —Dina Elenbogen, March 2011