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  • A Jewish Journey to Panama

    Posted on March 18th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
    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.

  • The Changing Face of America: Love Thy Neighbor

    Posted on November 18th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    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.

  • Jewish And… Youth, Diversity and the Future

    Posted on January 10th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder


    It seems like coincidence, but I don’t think it is.

    On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, respectively, two distinct but very similar videos dominated my social media community. Both videos focused on the experience of teens proud to be Jewish and gay. In and of itself, this is not particularly notable, but the context for both was. Both teens focused on how the national synagogue youth movements in which they participate, USY and NFTY respectively are the places where they feel most able to be completely themselves.

    The first video was a speech that the outgoing USY president, Daniel (D.J.) Kaplan gave at the national USY convention and was posted by David Levy and shared widely from his blog. Levy, himself a graduate of USY and now a professional in the Jewish community, wrote “When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be able to get up in front of my USY friends and make a speech like this, but I wasn’t able. Seeing a leader do so makes me incredibly hopeful for the future.” The second video, which was posted by many of Reform folk in my network (you may have been one of them). Often those who posted it wrote little more than “YOU MUST WATCH THIS!” or “Amazing.” Some like Rachel Gurevitz used it to write about how inspired by and proud they are of NFTY.

    To my mind these videos are not just inspiring or hopeful, they are also instructive.

    I thought of these videos sitting in shul on Shabbat morning. One of my husband’s students at the local day school was celebrating his bar mitzvah. The son of a Jewish Ashkenazi father and a Korean mother, he stood on the bimah wearing a colorful Hanbok, the traditional Southern Korean dress as well as a batik tallit. After beautiful Torah and Haftorah readings he shared insights about the parasha using wisdom gleaned from stories from both his Korean and Jewish ancestors. Brachot were offered in Korean on behalf of his grandparents who were unable to be there.  Though few in the congregation understood, many people were moved to tears by the emotion that came through. Afterwards many of the adults spoke with reverence of the interweaving of Korean cultural elements into this traditional Conservative service. Since Shabbat I have checked in with a number of the kids who attended and asked them what they thought of the service. Not a one mentioned the Korean elements, and when I probed they simply took in stride, noting that there was nothing strange about it, it was just, as one girl said, “it is just who he is.”


    There is no question that the videos that made the rounds last week owe a great deal to the LGBTQ rights movement in this country, but it seems to me that there is more. Young people today, more and more, are growing up with multiple identities. In earlier generations, people often felt compelled to choose sides, privileging one identity over another. But all of these young people are unwilling to choose. Their allegiance to the Jewish community comes because they are welcome to be fully themselves within the Jewish world. They are Jewish and…..


    For the last two summers, I have worked at Camp Be’chol Lashon which stresses the global diversity of the Jewish community and serves a predominantly ethnically and racially diverse group of kids. This fall, I was invited by a local rabbi to speak about the camp and one of the campers, a member of the synagogue joined me. She explained that unlike any other place in her life the camp was the space where she could be Jewish and African without having to choose.


    In an era of multiple identities, creating spaces that are just Jewish is not enough. It is not easy to create spaces where some but not all the values of the community are shared but where the differences are not just tolerated but celebrated. These teens suggest that we can and have created spaces where our young people feel comfortable being Jewish and…  In contrast to a vision of Jewish life as parochial or internally focused, this accepting approach has the potential to make Jewish space not only attractive and engaging, but also a prime example of how to be fully human.






  • Jewish Peoplehood: The World Union of Progressive Judaism

    Posted on February 16th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    English, Russian, German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian and Hebrew.

    This past Shabbat I prayed with the international community that is the World Union of Progressive Judaism. The t’fillot were spirited following the familiar rubric. The passion and commitment of the congregation came through in the level of participation. But it was the language –the diversity of it- that really stood out.

    It is easy to dismiss “Jewish Peoplehood” as just the latest of trends in organized Jewish communal life. But behind the slogans lies a complex reality of global Jewish diversity. There were no quotes around those praying together, we are Jewish peoplehood. The diversity of our languages of prayer spoke to the complexity and beauty of the reality of Jewish peoplehood, a reality that moves beyond slogans and embraces the challenges and possibilities of seeing ourselves as a global community.

    Sitting with my young daughter, I reveled in the many different languages spoken from the bimah. As each reader came forward, we discussed the language and considered the fact that there are Jews not only that can speak these languages but that live in so many different countries. On this most simple level it is indeed cool to remember that there Jews everywhere and to recognize that this is not just an abstract concept but an embodied reality. Our world is as Thomas Friedman has pointed out, increasingly flat, we communicate and connect with people around the world all the time. Our Jewish world must mirror that reality. Global Judaism provides the means by which we can help make these connections. If Americans who increasingly see themselves as global don’t see their Judaism as global, then they are likely to see Jewishness as a marginal or parochial element of their identity. If however, we embrace the global Jewish reality, not only for ourselves but our communities, then Judaism will be a passport that they take with them as they enter into global connection.

    At the same time as I was inspired by the diversity in the t’fillah, as I listened to various readings in languages which I do not understand at all, I was aware of my own discomfort at literally not being able to comprehend what was going on. My literal inability to understand, while a minor perturbation in scheme of things, points to the larger challenge of engaging with global community. People from other places, even when they share a commitment to liberal Judaism, have different ways expressing and experiencing Judaism. Embracing peoplehood means that we will inevitably experience some disconnect. Acknowledging the places where we differ is essential if we are to truly embrace global diversity and not simply impose our own vision of self on others. Anticipating and accepting that some of these differences may make us uncomfortable is critical for building a sense of Jewish peoplehood that goes beyond slogans.

    Our ability to come together as a people across our differences resonated loudly during the group aliyot which called to the Torah individuals whose native languages mirrored the diversity of the congregation. Chanting the brachot in Hebrew, the differences in inflection and intonation were notable but the unified meaning came through loud and clear.