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  • A Jewish Journey to Panama

    Posted on March 18th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Jewish life in Panama

    American Teens in Panama

     

    Last month, I had the opportunity to lead the 11th-12th graders of my synagogue on a mission to Panama.  We had been learning about various Jewish communities across the globe all year as part of our post-confirmation class, and this would be our chance to experience Jewish life abroad firsthand.  The trip was designed to combine elements of Jewish learning with a few more “traditional” tourist experiences.  It was quite an endeavor to coordinate such a trip, but all the effort was well worth it.  This was a “once in a lifetime” kind of experience that enriched the lives of all who participated.

    After a red-eye flight to Panama from San Francisco (with a brief six hour layover in Las Vegas, where my students swear they saw Ryan Seacrest…), we were picked up at the airport and driven to our first destination – Congregation Kol Shearith Yisrael.  We spent a beautiful and inspiring Shabbat with this vibrant liberal Jewish community in Panama City. The congregation welcomed us with open arms, not to mention fed us very well!  Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik and Ernesto Motta were kind enough to give us an overview of the history of the synagogue and Jewish life in Panama as we sat down to a delicious traditional Panamanian Shabbat dinner – rice and beans, sautéed beef, salads, and, let’s not forget some of the best tasting challah we ever had.

    Author Rabbi Joshua Lobel (center) Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik (left) and Ernesto Motta (right)

    The services were so meaningful, even though not one word of English was spoken. The service was held in Hebrew and Spanish, but we were all able to follow along, particularly because the melodies were all familiar to us.  More than anything else, the Shabbat services at Kol Shearith Yisrael truly underscored the concept of amcha, of Jewish peoplehood, for my students; that wherever you go across the globe, you can find a synagogue and feel at home.

    Over the next couple of days, we took in a couple of the popular tourist attractions of Panama, including taking an educational cruise on the Panama Canal, visiting the Embera, a local indigenous Indian village, and strolling through Casco Antiguo, one of Panama’s oldest cities.  Each sight was more breathtaking than the next. But the last day of the trip would prove to be the highlight of the entire experience.

    An essential part of this voyage was an opportunity to engage in the sacred work of tikkun olam.  After searching for just the right project, we made arrangements with a local orphanage to come and paint their fence and make a donation to the children.   Now, when we agreed to this, I had imagined a plain, worn, wooden picket fence.  However, when we scouted out the location, we found a much bigger challenge in front of us – a huge metallic enclosure with hundreds of thin bars, some of which were rusty!  But we buckled down, bought all the necessary materials, and spent the entire day hard at work, sweating it out in 95 degree heat and humidity until we had succeeded in painting the fence a vibrant lime-green. As we were working, the toddlers of the orphanage were waving and calling to us from the windows, shouting encouragement in Spanish, driving us to work even harder. It was immensely gratifying to see the transformation of the façade of the orphanage.

    The service project also provided one of my favorite moments of the trip. As they painted the fence, the teens starting singing in order to pass the time.  In the beginning, they chose to sing different pop songs from artists you would expect – Justin Beiber, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and more.  But as they were painting, all of a sudden, a different melody rang out and my face broke into a wide grin.  Here in Panama, painting a fence, my teens were singing Mi Chamocha.  Oseh Shalom followed, then Shalom Rav, and Veshamru.  Something about this work resonated with them as young Jewish leaders. In their hearts, they knew they were performing an intrinsically Jewish task – creating, quite literally, a brighter world for the underprivileged children of Panama.   They weren’t only doing a nice thing. They were doing the Jewish thing!

    By any measure, this trip was a fantastic Jewish experience, one that our teens will never forget.  I encourage every synagogue to explore a mission to a community outside of the United States. In particular, there are congregations in Latin American and the Caribbean that long for a greater feeling of connectivity and relationship to synagogues in the U.S.  But believe me, the benefits for our teens are much greater.  During a standard vacation, we bring back souvenirs, little trinkets to remind us of our voyage.  But during a journey like this, our teens bring back something much more valuable – a stronger understanding of the concept of Jewish peoplehood, the satisfaction of having a lasting impact on a community, and, perhaps most importantly, a greater sense of their own Jewish identity.

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

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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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  • 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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  • 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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  • Can Women Pray Out Loud? Some Rabbinic Sources

    Posted on October 24th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments
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    I remember when I first seriously looked into the textual basis of “Kol Ishah.”  I used my computer concordance of all of rabbinic literature (here defined as Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli and midrash collections) to look for the term.  I expected to find a long list of sources.  I found three hits.  I thought, “Well, I must have looked it up wrong.”  So I tried “kol ha’ishah”, “kolot nashim” and other variations.  No matter what I tried, I still I came up with just three hits in all of rabbinic literature.  And each of those citations is a repetition of just one statement.  So the prohibition comes down to this single statement:

    Anat Hoffman of Women at the Wall Being Arrested

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

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

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

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

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

    Author: Rabbi Judith Abrams

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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  • Gilad Shalit vs. Pessimism

    Posted on September 21st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    I find this time of year hard, really hard –as I feel I should. Returning year on year to the same list of sins and faults, taking account of what I have done and more likely not done in the last year, and wondering about my own mortality weighs heavily on my heart. They are powerful and potent, not entered into lightly. Last year I was able to get behind the idea of real change, seeing possibilities and renewal. This year, less so. My communities have been struck by too much cancer, too much financial hardship, too many broken relationships for me to truly believe as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, “If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.”

    This pessimistic view lingered through the rabbi’s sermons –which were both hopeful, and through the family time, and the joyful communal meals into the first days of the New Year. I was not happy with this state of affairs but no amount of meditation, prayer or spiritual conversation was bringing about a change.

    But one never knows from where strength will come.

    Gilad Shalit

    Gilad Shalit

    On Wednesday, I chanced on a tweet by Reuven Werber, recommending Gilad Shalit’s message for the New Year. Like so many who followed Shalit’s ordeal and reveled in his release, I was curious to know what Shalit would share. He describes this past year, one which has been truly one of renewal. He writes about the exceptional moments like being a guest at the NBA and the mundane moments walking the streets and being recognized or even occasionally anonymously. His optimism is profound.

     

    “During the past year and the previous years in I have learned to look at things from a different perspective. In general, I try to see the glass as half full, and this is also what I wish for the people and the State of Israel. People can suddenly find themselves in extreme situations or unexpected crises. I believe people should prepare themselves mentally for the possibility that such situations may arise. Even if they are not certain what they are preparing for, they should be aware that things can change dramatically at any given moment. This awareness helps people cope with such changes.

    If and when such an extreme situation arises, you must deal with it as calmly as possible and avoid doing things you will regret later. You must overcome.”

    The cynic in me wanted to dismiss this as naïveté, but the reality of Shalit’s survival and his strength suggest something significantly more profound. If the liturgy is remote and abstract Shalit’s words are embodied in the particular and the clearly horrific. The context and experience that frames these words gives them exceptional meaning and power. Shalit’s words resonate with the positive psychologist, Martin Seligman’s research that suggests that optimism is essential for longevity and the ability to flourish in life. Shalit’s words resonate with the wisdom of Rabbi Nachman.

    But Nachman battled to find the joy and meaning in life, it did not always come readily to him. It is easy to be an optimist when times are good, the economy strong, the sun shining, our bodies healthy, our communities strong. Much harder to achieve is the ability to hope in face of difficulty, to see possibilities even when the world seems closed off.

    But Shalit’s optimism is no blind vision. As he explains, “Faith can help of course, but it must be accompanied by an awareness of reality.”

    As I enter into Yom Kippur I will bring with me Shalit’s words. They are my prayer for myself, for all of us, that we may remain optimistic in face of our realities that may not be changeable in discernable ways, for that is the place from which renewal is possible.

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  • Five Rosh Hashana Videos that Get the Job Done

    Posted on September 11th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    It is a busy time of year, a Hebrew school classes, choir rehearsals, service plans and sermons. Yet no small number of Youtube videos with holiday themes keep popping up and demanding my attention. There are the inevitable holiday parodies and pop songs that can’t be missed, the video instructions for braiding round challot, and numerous holiday greetings from that of President Obama to that of our very own President Ellenson. But among these types of popular holiday videos are also those put out by synagogues to help connect with community and prepare for the season. Here are a few of my favorites with an explanation of what I think they are doing well.

    While it is easy to imagine a synagogue based video as a sort of infomercial for their community all my favorites moved beyond the most obvious approaches and broadened out the message. Temple Emanuel of Beverley Hills for example, embraced the message that a new year is like a new book. This fairly somber effort set the tone for the holidays but the inclusion of clergy as well as staff including the custodial workers serves as a reminder that this message is for everyone and the video quality suggests a well run professional place.

    Temple Judea in Tarzana took a more light hearted and direct approach. Carrying on their tradition of musical riffs on popular songs, they redid one of the summer’s most popular hits with a parody that hits on many important holiday themes –family, shofar, the challenge of services- while not being shy about promoting their approach to Jewish life. The impression left by the video is of a place that is open and playful about modern Jewish living.

    Ikar the non-affiliated community in Los Angeles forsook the direct branding almost completely. I was not wowed by this video, it is simply a series of shots of a person in a hoodie blowing shofar. But it made my shortlist because it took the Jewish action out of the synagogue and engaged many different people in different settings in the actions of Jewish life. Without explicitly saying so, it offers an inclusive and expansive vision of community.

    Lastly, I came across this video by Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel outside of Philadelphia. Yanoff has a whole series of videos that feature him talking straight on camera hoping to engage the community. In this edition, he invites the community to help him crowd source one of his High Holiday sermons. He does a good job of succinctly explaining the concept and providing concrete instructions on how to get involved. Did it work? I don’t know, as of this writing I had yet to reach him for comment but maybe he is just too busy sorting through the myriad of submissions.

    Finally, a bit of fun. This offering from the Aliyah department for France is a Jewish take on the summer hit Call Me Maybe. Even with my limited high school French, it is a catchy tune, with familiar themes, beautiful people and beautiful views.

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