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  • Spiritual but not Religious

    Posted on January 30th, 2013 Special Contributor No comments
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    “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” When I heard that phrase from a student or prospective congregant, I used to suspect they were pushing me away, holding me safely at arm’s length.  On January 14, I heard an interview with Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson on Fresh Air, and he gave me something new to consider.

    “I think people often come to the synagogue, mosque, the church looking for God, and what we give them is religion. And I think that is a huge mistake, and sometimes we let our … fussing around with the institution get in the way of what people came for, which is help in facilitating their … access and relationship with God,” he said.

    My first thought was, Christianity is different.  My second thought was to rewrite his words slightly:  ”People come to synagogue looking for Torah, and what we give them is religion.” Oh dear: Could it be that while I was hearing rejection, what students were really saying was, “Where’s the good stuff?”

    Perhaps that “spiritual but not religious” line is really another version of the rebuke in Isaiah 1:

    Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
    Your incense is detestable to me.
    New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
    I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
    Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
    I hate with all my being.
    They have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.
    When you spread out your hands in prayer,
    I hide my eyes from you;
    even when you offer many prayers,
    I am not listening.

    Your hands are full of blood!

    Wash and make yourselves clean.
    Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
    stop doing wrong.
    Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
    Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

    Has the business (busy-ness) of religious activity gotten in the way of making my institution the home of living Torah?

    When a newcomer calls for information, what kind of greeting does he receive? If the contact is by phone, does she talk to a friendly person or to a machine? if the contact is via the Internet, does the website feature human faces or a picture of a building or symbol?

    What does the website and the bulletin say about our priorities?  How does that statement of our priorities match up with the budget and the reality every day?

    Author: Rabbi Ruth Adar

    When a visitor to the congregation wanders into a service with a bar or bat mitzvah, is he welcomed or treated as an uninvited guest?

    When a darker-skinned person visits, is she greeted properly, or immediately assumed to be the employee of a member or an intruder?

    Do we walk our talk about Jewish ethics and tikkun olam? Do we pay our humblest employees a decent wage? Do we employ people “part time” but expect unlimited hours and dedication? Is our institution a good citizen in its neighborhood?

    The answer to some of these questions may be “not yet.” Human institutions are, well, human. But if our intent, our kavanah, is to be a home of living Torah, then perhaps the answer to “I’m spiritual but not religious,” might become, “You’ve come to the right place.”

    This week’s post was written by Rabbi Ruth Adar, known by her alter ego The Coffee Shop Rabbi.

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  • Do Good: NFTY, Hollywood and Social Media

    Posted on January 23rd, 2013 Special Contributor No comments
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    Last week was Josh Malina’s birthday. The Hollywood star of the West Wing and Scandal decided to ask his fans and social media to celebrate with him by giving a donation to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

    But it has gotten much bigger than that. Whereas Malina’s first hope was to raise $5,000, they’re now at $12,313. This illustrates the power of asking for small contributions from lots of people – they are able to illustrate support for someone whose work they appreciate, understanding that this person adds value to their lives, and they’re able to improve the lives of others as a tribute. This is wonderful.

    Secondly, what the Causes page doesn’t reflect is something else that happened on Twitter. NFTY (The National Federation of Temple Youth, the youth group for Reform Judaism) made Malina an offer:

    @NFTY@JoshMalina We’ll match your @causes campaign for@StopHunger up to $10,000 if you’ll join us in LA to pick up the check.#NFTYConvention

    Malina’s response:

    @JoshMalina: Seriously?! Done!!!

    Author: Esther D. Kustanowitz

    It’s not a surprise that this happened via social media organizing – Twitter has emerged for so many celebrities as just another PR engine, feeding the American hunger for information about the minutiae of celebrity existence and creating a perception of insiderness for pop culture consumers. But Malina gets it in a way that not all actors do – he shares authentic insights of intelligence and humor in a way that shows you it’s not his PR team doing the tweeting. (Or if it is, WOW. Great job.) On Facebook, he uses that medium to expand on the cleverness and to interact with people in the comments. Malina’s using social media to actually reach people. And that’s why a campaign like this is working – because he writes from a place of authenticity and value. People relate to that, and trust him for it.

    So this is how the world of fundraising can work today. Someone authentic with a large network (and loyal followers who relate to and feel connected to him) identifies a cause they’re passionate about, and a reason to ask people donate, and sets a decent, but modest goal. This person is not a celebrity spokesperson – this cause was their idea, emerged from their understanding of a need and their trust in a particular organization to achieve that need. People respond as generously as they want to, helping that person reach the goal and go beyond. Other people or organizations see the movement and are inspired, putting their own money up to match the cause.

    Now, because a celebrity is involved, NFTY realized it was an opportunity to do good, but also an opportunity for their organization, whether it is greater visibility for their programs or enhanced inspiration for their participants. Neither one of those is a bad thing. Although one could look at this as celebrity blackmail – we’ll give you a check, but you have to make a personal appearance to pick it up – the whole concept of a matching gift itself issues a challenge not unlike blackmail – we will do this, if you do that.

    In any case, Malina seems happy to submit to this specific kind of blackmail, which I described to someone else as “the good, mitzvah-laden kind of blackmail.” Being “ultimatum’d” into a public appearance in order to fight hunger isn’t the worst thing in the world. And maybe that’s the lesson – that when you’re passionate about a cause, you do what you need to do to get it done.

    Best of luck to Mr. Malina, wishing him much success, many happy returns of the day, and much nachas from the success of this campaign. (And in the 20 minutes it took me to write this post, donations have shot up – the total is now $13,597 and growing. Why not add a few bucks of your own to this cause? Donate here.)

     

    This week’s post was originally posted on My Urban Kvetch and was written by Esther D. Kustanowitz a Los Angeles-based writer, consultant and Jewish communal professional, who is also Program Coordinator for the NextGen Engagement Initiative at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a well known blogger.

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  • The Christian Bar Mitzvah: A Rabbi’s Take

    Posted on January 16th, 2013 Special Contributor 2 comments
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    Last week, this article,The Sisterhood’s Christian Bar Mitzvah: Can Jewish Ritual Be Borrowed?, was flying all about the internet, causing quite a bit of commotion among my colleagues. I read it with interest and, quite honestly, some amount of discomfort. Because at first glance, the idea of a non-Jew borrowing such a definitively Jewish ritual caused a near-paralyzing pain in mykishkes.

     

    The motivation behind the article was a clip from the new TLC series, The Sisterhood, a reality show showcasing the lives of five pastors’ wives in Atlanta. In the second episode, Pastors Brian and Tara Lewis reveal that they are “throwing him [their 13-year-old son] a Bar Mitzvah…a Christian Bar Mitzvah.”

    Rituals, throughout history, have been borrowed, shared, appropriated, reappropriated, co-opted, and just plain stolen from neighboring cultures, faiths, and ethnicities. The idea of syncretism is, therefore, not a new one. Yet, when someone takes one of “our” rituals, it feels like a personal attack.

    Author: Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

    My experience with the Rabbis Without Borders program has had a profound influence on my ability to recognize the possibility of multiple truths in other faith communities. In other words, you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right — an idea explored by my teacher, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, in his book by the same name. Prior to my involvement in this cutting-edge think-tank, my views were far more narrow-minded and I lacked a framework in which I could understand much of the current American religious landscape. So while my initial reaction was a visceral one bordering on revulsion, my second reaction was far more reasoned.

    The notion of marking the crucial point in a young person’s life when he or she becomes responsible for his or her own religious decisions, beliefs, and behaviours is a wonderful thing. There is no reason why it ought not be universally celebrated in each and every culture and faith community. At age thirteen, or thereabouts, the critical thinking skills evolve to a much greater extent and the teen is beginning the long, though essential, process of establishing an identity separate from the parents. It is the terminology, however, that becomes problematic. To call something a “Bar Mitzvah” has certain societal implications; the first of which being that the individual is Jewish. And in the case of Pastor Brian and Tara Lewis’s son, he isn’t.

    On Monday, I participated in a lively, if not frustrating, conversation about this very topic on Huffington Post Live. The panel included Pastors Brian and Tara LewisDr. Julian Baggini (philosopher), Dr. Ron Lindsay (ethicist/secular humanist), and me.

    Borrowing Bar Mitzvahs

    If only we had been discussing the topic with which host, Josh Zepps, had led the program: the decision of which faith traditions to celebrate in marriages between faiths. That would have been an interesting and insightful dialogue. But Pastors Brian and Tara don’t exactly consider themselves an interfaith marriage. They see themselves as “true Jews.” They used their appearance as a platform for their own legitimacy and to witness to others with their understanding of Christianity.

    So here is my question for you? What are your thoughts about a Christian Bar Mitzvah in the way I described? As a coming-of-age ritual meant to sanctify one’s reaching the age of religious obligation?

    Oh, and one final thing:

    The cake doesn’t have to be in the shape of a Torah.
    The term ‘bar mitzvah’ is Aramaic, not Hebrew.
    And for the record, Pastor Brian, one absolutely does give up being Jewish when accepting Jesus as the Messiah. That Jew is considered an apostate.

    Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s piece originally appeared on her blog This Messy Life. She is the editor of the CCAR newsletter.

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  • Having it All: Rabbi Mom

    Posted on January 9th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments
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    Note, this week’s post is an interview done by Cheryl a mommy blogger and long time friend of Rabbi Allison Berry for her blog Busy from Birth.

    I have been friends with Rabbi Allison Berry, of Temple Shalom in Newton, MA, since long before she was “rabbi” or even “Allison,” as she will always be Allie to me. We met at the end of our freshman year at Brandeis University, when we both became members of the incoming Hillel board. At the time, we laughed and said “how have we not known each other so far?” Though we don’t get together in person as often as we should, each time it’s like we’ve never left each others side. I’m thrilled to have Allison as the first guest poster for The Having It All Project; here’s how she’s having it all.

    Briefly describe your life and what you think makes it unique.
    Currently I am the mom of two (3 year old and 6 month old) and work as a part-time rabbi at Temple Shalom in Newton. Rabbis work a unique schedule – days off are usually on Mondays and the weekends are filled with teaching, service leading and a myriad of other activities. After over three years of leading a very full-time congregation I made the decision before my second child was born to move to part-time work and a position with more structured boundaries (usually 25 hours each week and very few emergency 4 AM phone calls!). One of the best parts of my current routine is supervising programming for families with young children within the synagogue. Basically I get to plan and implement activities that directly benefit my family! Not only am I very proud of the work I do – basically a full-time job with part-time hours – I now have more time at home with my kids. The balance has worked incredibly well. Some weeks I work 15 hours and others 45 – but I have incredible flexibility. On the downside – we make certain budgetary sacrifices to make this type of lifestyle work.

    What are some of your favorite tips and strategies for coping with the chaos?
    What has always worked for my family is flexible childcare! Because I have hours that are not traditional (on the days I work I could NEVER do a 5 PM school pick-up – I generally work until 9 or 10 at night) we rely on two key childcare providers. Our nanny is amazing. She works for us three days a week – in particular she arrives early in the morning and helps minimize the early morning chaos. I am NOT a morning person, but because she helps at this key time I get to work on time and keep my sanity intact! She leaves early on Thursdays (one of her three work days) and that is how we make the finances work and she can be there when I need her the most for my own emotional state
    and happiness. We are also blessed to send our son to a preschool that does not penalize you for a late pick-up or a change of schedule. Need him to stay until 3 PM instead of 1 PM? Of course! Add an extra day that isn’t usually scheduled? Absolutely! They do charge us a set amount for the extra add-ons – but just knowing that if I have a funeral come up or am in a counseling session I don’t have to leave in the middle or risk my life rushing to be on time is a huge relief.

    Please share a moment where it all broke down, and how you got through it.
    Lately we struggle on Friday afternoons! Something always goes wrong and plans go awry. I help lead worship services at the synagogue on average two Friday evenings each month. My husband will commute from Cambridge to Newton to meet us at the synagogue and take the children home. Something always goes wrong. There is terrible traffic and I end up late for services (has happened and been so embarrassing – imagine having someone announce to a room full of 200 people that their rabbi is late, stuck in traffic on 95!). One of the children has a tantrum and screams the entire car ride. Or – my husband is late from work. Then I find myself leading Shabbat services with two children – infant and toddler jumping up and down and on and off the bima (altar/stage). We can’t seem to fix this problem. We thought hiring a mother’s helper to meet me at the synagogue would work – it did help – but my son still had a tantrum when he realized I wasn’t going to stay with him too. We are still working to fix this one. Would love any ideas!!

    Do you have any balance role models? Anything you try to avoid because it wouldn’t
    work for you?

    Balance role models – I meet every other week with two other women clergy. They are slightly older and have children in late elementary school. They always have the best ideas and advice. One of them once told me – “Stop trying to fit your needs into the boundaries of what traditional childcare offers! Your life doesn’t fit those boundaries so why should your childcare needs.” I really felt like she gave me permission to find options that fit my schedule and emotional stressors. So now I hire help for early mornings when I’m not at my best and manage evenings (dinner and bedtime routines) on the evenings I’m not working on my own when I’m in a better frame of mind.

    What wouldn’t work for us — When I worked full time we had no family time on the weekends. Since I moved to my part-time position I really cherish the weekend time we have together as a family. Even if we just go grocery shopping it is really important to me that we do it together. Not only can my husband and I support each other – we get out of the house so much faster when there are the two of us getting the kids ready – but we can actually relax a little and have fun. I missed those unstructured hours terribly. It doesn’t work for us to be overscheduled on the weekends. We don’t do a lot of play dates or programmed activities. My kids are still little so we will have to see if this is realistic as they get older.

    Think back to your 18th birthday. How is your life different from how you expected it to
    be then?

    My mom died four years ago. I never expected at the age of 18 to be raising two kids without my mother around and available to help! My mother-in-law lives in Canada – she is very helpful when we see her – but it isn’t all that often. What I have learned is that none of us should ever take our family – especially family that is ready and willing to help (even if the help isn’t always perfect or the way we would do it ourselves) for granted.

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  • A Rabbi Takes On the Fiscal Cliff

    Posted on December 27th, 2012 Special Contributor No comments
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    Rabbi Elizabeth Wood and other faith leaders take their concern to the White House

    The week after Thanksgiving, I was blessed with the most wonderful opportunity.  I received a call from the Executive Director of Queens Congregations United for Action (QCUA), the faith-based community organizing group that I work with here in New York.  The Nathan Cummings Foundation was organizing a trip down to Washington, D.C. with several different community and socially focused organizations to talk to senior White House officials about the looming fiscal cliff and he wanted me to participate and help represent QCUA that day.  I was beyond stunned.  But I jumped at the opportunity to be able to help represent my community and to serve as a delegate for the state of New York on such an important issue.

    The day did not disappoint.  We began at 5:30 in the morning as we boarded a bus bound for D.C.  Along with other folks from QCUA (two baptist bishops, a monseigneur, a reverend, a pastor, and various others), I met all of the other participants from New York.  They ranged from people in the arts like the Foundry Theater, Arts and Democracy, and Urban Bush Women to Jewish social justice organizations like Uri L’tzedek, Bend the Arc, and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice.  I was able to connect with Lila Foldes, the co-director of Just Congregations, as well as Rabbi Jill Jacobs from Rabbis for Human Rights and Nigel Savage from Hazon.

    When we first arrived in Washington, we took a tour of the White House.  Normally, one is not allowed to photograph inside the White House, but because everything was decorated for Christmas, we were granted permission to snap as many photos as we liked. It was truly magical to see all of the rooms brightly lit and decorated accordingly.  While we were touring the rooms, a local youth gospel choir began singing carols in the main open lobby.  Their joyous sound filled the rooms and halls as we explored the diversity and the history of one of the most beautiful and notable houses in America.

    Author: Rabbi Elizabeth Wood

    After the tour, we were escorted to the AFL-CIO building for lunch. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is a national trade union center and the largest federation of unions in the United States. While we were there, we learned the background on the issues related to the fiscal cliff and how the results could affect our community in the coming years. It was eye-opening to understand these issues on a deeper level, to be briefed on possible outcomes, and to prepare ourselves to think about ways in which these issues could be solved.

    After lunch, we spent the majority of the afternoon at the EEOB – the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the majority of decisions get made in D.C. (outside of the Oval office and Capitol Hill, of course). There, we met with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President and Michael Strautmanis, Deputy Assistant to the President.  We also met with Jon Carson, the Director of Public Engagement for the White House.  We shared ideas all afternoon on challenges within our communities and ways to overcome obstacles.  We also shared possible ideas and solutions regarding the financial crisis that is looming over our nation.  It was incredibly gratifying to see so many organizations and so many people who are focused and determined to help hard working families and individuals survive and succeed in this world.  While we didn’t come to any major solutions that day, we managed to get our voices heard and to represent our communities to people in the government.  And they really listened.

    My group slipped out a little early to go take a private meeting with our local congressman, Gregory Meeks.  After the devastation from hurricane Sandy a few months ago, we were eager to see what progress had been made and to lobby for more work to be done.  Even now, there are still people without power and heat and we seized the opportunity to make our voices heard even louder than before. All in all, it was a productive day.

     

    But more than that, it was an important day.  At the end of it all, I found myself exhausted but buzzing with excitement.  I realized that while many of my days are important, I could tangibly feel the difference I made for my community and my country.  Social action and social justice have ALWAYS been important to me.  As a rabbi, it guides so much of the work I do in my community.  But as a citizen, I don’t often get the chance to do the kind of work that I did or contribute to the politics of our nation as I was blessed to do, that day. My voice was heard.  And I spoke up – for you, for me, and for everyone.   I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

     

    Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, she’natan lanu hizdam’nut l’takein et ha-olam.

    Blessed are You, most glorious One, who has given us the opportunity to create harmony and repair our world.  Amen.

    This week’s post was contributed by Rabbi Elizabeth Wood of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills.

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  • Hope at Hannukah: A Modern Tale

    Posted on December 10th, 2012 Special Contributor No comments
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    It was Hannukah of 2005, four months after Hurricane Katrina changed everything. A group of us were in New Orleans helping to restore the homes of four Jewish families that had been flooded with nearly eight feet of water. After five days of putting up sheetrock, spackling and taping, we were standing with Anne and Stan Levy outside their home.

     

    Anne Levy is a short woman. She is a survivor of the Holocaust, miraculously being smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in January, 1943 and passing for Christian once on the outside. Eventually, some fifty years ago she had come to this house in New Orleans and has lived there ever since.  “Now we have to start all over,” she had said with tears in her eyes.

     

    She would never have asked for help with her home. “Others need it more.” It was her daughter who had told about their need, bringing us to their home. It wasn’t requested; it was offered.

     

    When we first entered her once beautiful home, we saw that the damage was total. It had been gutted to the studs. There was a hole in the living room floor and a coffee table with a waterlogged copy of Anne’s biography: “Troubled Memory,” sitting on it. It told of how in 1989 she had confronted David Duke at the State Capitol Holocaust exhibition and had told him, with her finger raised high, that this was not a place for a Holocaust denier. She hounded him throughout his run for Governor until he lost.

     

    So there we were with Anne and Stan on the fifth day of Hannukah. Each of the nineteen members of our group had written a special, personal blessing for them. We recited our words with tears in our eyes. Then we presented them with a mezuzah and a Hannukiah.

     

    Holding up the Hannukiah, Stan said words that I will never forget: “Here you are, Jews helping Jews. You have renewed my faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in G-d.” Regaining his composure he added, “I can see the light shining from your faces as you work on my home. I want to have that experience myself. So I will join you on your next building project.”

     

    Author: Rabbi Joel Soffin

    The following year we returned to New Orleans. Stan and Anne hosted all of us for dinner after a day of work. We studied Torah together. This November during Hurricane Sandy, Stan set me this email: “We hope you were out of the storm damage. Please let me know.”

     

    I found a copy of that Dedication Ceremony which began with this paragraph:

     

    The story is told of a family that left New Orleans for a time due to the hurricane and moved to Philadelphia. One member of the family, the mother, went back weeks later to see the extent of the damage to their home. She found that everything had been ruined and removed from the house except one thing, the menorah. As she sat holding that precious object, it seemed to light up in her hands and to ease her burden.

     

    Whenever I look at the lights of the Hanukiah, I think of Anne and Stan. I can hear Stan’s words. And I, too, feel a deeper faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in  G-d.

     

    This week’s post was contributed by Rabbi Joel Soffin founder of Jewish Helping Hands.

     

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  • Building Your Own Ketubah

    Posted on December 5th, 2012 Special Contributor 1 comment
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    A Modern Ketubah

    At Congregation Beth Adam and OurJewishCommunity.org (our bricks-and-mortar synagogue in Cincinnati and our global online synagogue), for more than 30 years we’ve been writing new liturgy reflecting our values as modern Jews.  As a community, Beth Adam’s members have invested energy and resources in publishing services that speak to a contemporary Jewish experience.  Our services give voice to a Judaism that celebrates personal autonomy, values diversity, and appreciates the evolving nature of Judaism; our liturgy has been core to defining our community’s uniqueness.

    Recognizing a need, a small group of Beth Adam’s members joined together to write a ketubah that would be consistent with our voice.  One of our congregational values states: we value acknowledgement of each congregant’s religious and spiritual journey supported through our unique liturgy.   Our goal has always been to say what we mean and mean what we say.

    For a ketubah, that meant challenging ourselves to think about the nature of modern marriages and how to speak about them in a poetic and meaningful way.  We sought to create a text which would give expression to Judaism’s ever-unfolding religious experience and promote humanistic values of intellectual honesty, open inquiry, and human responsibility.

    Rabbi Robert Barr

    Before setting out to write our own text, we learned about the past and how our ancestors approached their Judaism.  Dr. Samuel Greengus from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion came to Beth Adam and taught us about the traditional ketubah and its basic structure and legal aspects.  Not surprisingly, our congregants quickly noted that the traditional text is far from romantic or egalitarian – and that it is not meaningful to most people today.

    While certainly there are many options for modern ketubah texts available these days, we sought to create a ketubah that was more customizable.  Recognizing that “one-size-fits-all” doesn’t make sense when each relationship is unique, we decided to use a model similar to a Chinese food menu or the Build-A-Bear ® store – completely customizable.  We created a series of categories (love, marriage, home, family, and traditions) and then within each category provide multiple sentences that people can choose from for their ketubah.  That means that each ketubah is a reflection of each individual couple’s sentiments and vision for their marriage.  Creating the ketubah also provides a great way for engaged couples to reflect upon their relationship and to envision their hopes for the future.

    Of course, we also recognize the diversity of families – and it goes without saying that we created a document that works for every kind of partnership, whether straight or gay, interfaith or Jewish-Jewish.  We also provided options for couples who already have children and want to acknowledge and celebrate the blending of their families.  The texts work well for first or subsequent marriages.  We think our ketubot are a perfect fit for many unaffiliated Jews, Reform Jews, secular Jews, humanistic Jews, and interfaith couples looking to capture their most important feelings on their wedding days.

    Author: Rabbi Laura Baum

    For example, in the section on family, interfaith couples may include this sentiment: “We hope to welcome children into our family and will raise them with kindness and patience, creating a family that reflects the best of our individual traditions.”  Families with step-children may include: “We are patient and kind to each other and each other’s children.”  And others may choose not to mention children in their ketubah: “We are creating a family that embodies our shared values of compassion, respect, and individual responsibility.”

    Beyond personalizing the text, couples can choose from several artistic looks and can select to include a biblical phrase as a decorative element.  All of the choices are made available to people at our new website.

    As rabbis, it is amazing to be part of a community that has created a liturgy in which we say what we mean and mean what we say.   It is exciting that from here in Cincinnati, we are helping people around the world give voice to their dreams for their future together.  Our ancestors created services and documents that reflected their beliefs and the world in which they lived.  We have that same opportunity and responsibility today.  We are thrilled that through the Internet, we can now share these texts with those outside the walls of Beth Adam – providing others with a chance to give expression to their unique Jewish journey.

    Authors Rabbi Robert Barr and Rabbi Laura Baum serve both Congregation Beth Adam and OurJewishCommunity.org.

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  • Be the Eighth Candle: A Teaching for Hannukah

    Posted on November 28th, 2012 Special Contributor No comments
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    Desmond Howard, The Pose

    I write to you from the football-crazed city of Houston.  (The Texans are currently ranked number one. Just saying.)  So please excuse the following sports analogies.  When the player reaches the end zone, he may make a gesture of celebration (e.g., “the pose” of Desmond Howard in 1991, look it up).  Or it is common for climbers who reach Mount Everest’s summit to raise their hands in victory.  So what does this have to do with Hannukkah?

     

    The Jewish equivalent of “spiking the ball”, doing a touchdown dance or raising one’s hands in victory is to…light some lights, sing and give to charity.  And “our” Hannukkah is only one of many such moments of triumph.  Pesikta Rabbati contains an extensive midrashic examination of Hanukkah’s meaning, one of which enumerates seven different Hannukkahs:

     

    1. The Hanukkah of finishing creating the heaven and earth, which God observed by “turning on” the two great lights (the sun and moon) in the sky (Genesis 2:1, 1:17).
    2. The Hanukkah of completing the wall enclosing Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27), observed with lots of singing.
    3. The Hanukkah of the successful return from Babylonian captivity (Ezra 6:17), observed with lots of singing and offerings.
    4. The Hanukkah of the Hasmonean priests, for which we kindle the Hannukkah lamps, symbolizing their complete victory. The original menorah in this case was probably fashioned from spearheads turned into torches, since the original menorah had been taken away.  (See Daniel Sperber, Magic and Folklore in Rabbinic Literature, “An Early Meaning of the Word Shapud”, Bar Ilan, 1994, pp. 34-39.)
    5. The Hanukkah of the World to Come (Zephaniah 1:12-1), in which the wealthy and unjust are utterly annihilated by God, accompanied with the sound of crying, this time cries of sorrow, not joy.
    6. The Hanukkah of the princes’ anointing the altar (Numbers 7:84-89).  After all twelve princes finished bringing their offerings of silver and gold items, the whole array, clanging mightily, we might suppose, accompanied by the bellowing of the sacrificial oxen, was followed with what one might call, “the still, small voice” that Moses hears from beyond the ark’s cover.
    7. And the Hanukkah of the First Temple’s dedication (Psalm 30:1), celebrated with this psalm. (Pesikta Rabbati 2:3)

     

    So these seven Hannukkahs are logical:  each celebrates the finishing of some important work.  But why didn’t the midrash name eight Hanukkahs?  There are certainly enough occasions in Jewish history to have made for “8 great finishings”, e.g., the rededication of the first Temple after King Josiah’s reforms were completed (II Kings, chapter 23).  So why did the midrash stop at seven?

     

    Author Rabbi Judith Abrams

    Perhaps the midrash is allowing us to supply our own, personal Hannukkahs.  The hallmark of a Hannukkah is that it marks the finishing of a large project. So one way to observe Hanukkah would be to make a commitment to a project that can be finished in a year, so that, next year, it will become the eighth Hanukkah. We can personally dedicate ourselves to enrich our practice of Judaism, to lead healthier lives, to pay off debt, to wrestle addictions to the ground and so forth.  Or perhaps you have recently finished a large effort.  If you have made it to the end zone, the summit, make your own personal triumph the eighth Hannukkah.

     

    May your Hanukkah be filled with light and may your own dedicatory candle burn with joy this year, next year and in every year!

    Author Rabbi Judith Abrams is a Talmud scholar whose writing and teaching for all levels of knowledge can be found at Maqom.com

     

     

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  • The Changing Face of America: Love Thy Neighbor

    Posted on November 18th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Since the 1980s, more than 6,000 refugees have made New Hampshire their home, and nearly half have settled in Concord. Concord, New Hampshire is a fairly sleepy New England town, despite being the capital of the Granite State. Still Concord is an unusual place, and the town I have called home for the past two plus years. Temple Beth Jacob, 107 years old, boasts a membership of 210 families and plays an active and visible role in this increasingly diverse community.

    Rally Against Racism in Concord, New Hampshire

    One of Concord’s “golden boys” is new American Guor Marial. Guar escaped a Sudanese child labor camp, graduated from Concord High School, and this past summer ran in the Olympics under the Olympic flag. Guor is not yet a U.S. citizen, and holds no passport or official home. Concord High School’s assistant principal has regaled me with Guor stories. Guor is remembered for being as kind and caring as he is fast on his feet.
    Refugees have fled their homes because of a well-founded fear of persecution (physical violence, harassment and wrongful arrest, or threats to their lives) for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. They take with them only what they can carry, only what they have time to pack. Sometimes all they have left are their dreams, their hopes and the will to survive.
    In the 1990s, the majority of refugees came from Bosnia, Vietnam and the Sudan. As they moved into the town, the mayor sought to celebrate the increasing diversity of the community, despite the fact that certain segments of the community were bemoaning the changes. The Mayor’s Task Force on Racism and Intolerance established an annual mayor’s prayer breakfast to welcome our new residents and express gratitude to the many agencies and volunteers who work with the refugee populations.

    Rabbi Robin Nafshi

    Author: Rabbi Robin Nafshi

    Between 2000 and 2007, the refugees came mostly from Bosnia and the Sudan, along with Croatia, Burundi, Liberia, and Somalia. In addition, refugees who identify as Meskhetian Turks settled here. Since 2008, the overwhelming majority of refugees have come from Bhutan and Iraq.
    Northern New England is often characterized as lily white and Protestant. One of the many beauties of Concord, and especially south Concord where I live and where our synagogue is located, is the diversity of the residents. All races and religions live side by side, overwhelmingly in harmony. Sadly, however, there have been incidents involving racist and/or religiously intolerant graffiti. Most of it has been directed at Concord’s Somalian Muslims, whom our community has embraced as our New American Africans.

    In October of 2011, two new American African families awoke to find their homes vandalized with words of intolerance. Immediately, the interfaith community led the response. On a Thursday afternoon and a Saturday morning, the Greater Concord Interfaith Council (in which our synagogue is actively involved) sponsored “Love Your Neighbor” rallies. The Saturday rally was at the local playground in the neighborhood where many of the refugees live.

    The first rally was held on a Thursday so as not to conflict with the Jewish Sabbath. It occurred on the lawn outside the Statehouse. Speakers of diverse backgrounds (including one of our members, originally from Bogota, Columbia) spoke about the beauty that is Concord – in both who we are and how we care for each other. Cantor Shira Nafshi, my partner both professionally and personally, sang an original composition, Power of One, the chorus of which goes: “Get up, get down, get onto your feet; use your voice your hands be the words on the street; don’t just say it be it do it; l’takein et ha-olam, fixing the world starts today, with the power of one.” The song moved the mayor so deeply that he invited Shira to sing it at the 2011 prayer breakfast the following month.

    A local printer provided “Love Your Neighbor” signs, many of which still grace windows and doors throughout the town, over a year later. This isn’t a surprise, for loving your neighbor is the sentiment that defines this town.

    Most of my adult life I lived in San Francisco, New York City, or northern New Jersey, all places far more diverse than Concord, New Hampshire. And yet, there are times that Concord feels like more of a mixed salad than any of those other places.

    The author, Rabbi Robin Nafshi is the rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, NH.

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  • The Power of Memory: Remembering Cantor William Sharlin

    Posted on November 11th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    This week we lost another luminary of Reform Judaism, Cantor William Sharlin.  Some of my earliest Jewish memories are of Cantor Sharlin.  He was cantor at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles for his whole career.

    Cantor William Sharlin z"l

    My parents belonged to Leo Baeck when I was born.  Cantor Sharlin officiated at my twin sister’s and my baby naming. (I admit I don’t remember that).  We were consecrated there. I have memories of that joyous evening, marking the beginning of my Jewish education and receiving my own mini Torah – which I still have. While soon after that, my parents made the decision to shift their membership to another congregation, they maintained their relationships with the clergy at Leo Baeck through their ongoing and very active involvement in the Los Angeles Jewish community.

    Many years later, as a second year student at HUC-JIR I had the honor of studying with Cantor Sharlin. He offered an elective class in Torah chanting. While I am not a very confident singer, I wanted to both learn how to chant more proficiently and to experience learning with him. While I still haven’t become a proficient Torah chanter – I need lots of practice before doing it (unlike Rick who can cite chant from the tikkun) – the memories I have of the stories Cantor Sharlin told, the conversations we had about Jewish music, and the impression he made on me as model member of the Jewish clergy remain with me today.

    I am compelled to share one of those memories with you.

    It was the first day of our Torah chanting class. Cantor Sharlin was trying to get to know each of the students in the class.  He went around the room, asking us to share a bit about ourselves and especially our Hebrew names. Given that it was a class in Torah chanting, he wanted to know and use our Hebrew names when it was our turn to chant.

    When it was my turn to share a bit about myself, I didn’t really need to say so much. Cantor Sharlin knew exactly who I was. He remembered me as Mark and Marsha’s daughter.  So, I shared a bit about where I had gone to university, what I was hoping to get out of the class. I  was about to say, “and my Hebrew name is…” when Cantor Sharlin stopped me.

    “I know your Hebrew name. It’s  הדסה בתיה, Hadasah Batya. And your sister’s name is דבורה שושנה, Devorah Shoshanah.”

    My classmates and I were astounded!

    Over 20 years had passed since our baby naming!  How many other babies had he named in the two plus decades? How many b’nai mitzvah had he trained? Weddings officiated?  How was it possible that he could remember our names?

    Author, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE

    As a rabbi who has officiated at not nearly as many baby namings as Cantor Sharlin had at that point in his 40+year career, and one who cannot remember the names of all those babies, I am even more inspired by Cantor Sharlin. The attention and focus he must have given to each of these rituals, to make them meaningful and special for each family surely must have contributed to his ability to remember names. In that moment he taught us all what it means to be a member of the clergy.

    On a final note, it wouldn’t be right to leave this blog post without some music from Cantor Sharlin. My favorite piece is one that he arranged with Debbie Friedman and can be heard in NFTY albums of days past, Lo Yarei’u combined with Lo Yisa Goy.  You can read about it and hear just a piece of it here in this URJ Ten Minutes of Torah by Cantor Kay Greenwald.

    May Cantor Sharlin’s memory be a blessing and may his music bring joy and inspiration to us all for many more years to come.

    This week’s post was written by  Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE and originally appeared on her blog Rabbi Laura.

     

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