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  • Sacred Stories: History as Torah

    Posted on April 24th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Septima Collis courtesy of National Museum American Jewish History

    The study of Jewish history  is the study of Torah.

    For decades I struggled with the theological and textual core of Judaism and so I took refuge in the study of Jewish history. I assumed that this form of Jewish study would allow me to engage while avoiding the pesky textual and theological questions that troubled me so. I was of course mistaken.

    In delving into the lives of women and men from the 19th century, I read their letters and diaries, wedding invitations, accounts of birthday celebrations. These were the stuff of daily life, sometimes seemingly inconsequential but more often poignant and powerful. Quite unexpectedly, I came to see in history a way to work my way back into the world of rabbinic text. These lives that I was studying, Jewish to the core, were their own form of commentary. As I began to read them as a dialogue with the theological and textual issues that concerned me, new avenues of understanding unfolded. Each Jewish life individually and also collectively gave me insight that helped me unpack complexities and renew a connection to Torah.


    Yet too often there is a chasm that divides the study of Jewish history and the study of Torah. The former is meant of course to be a study in fact while the latter one of spirit, a significant difference that does challenge us when bringing them together for the purpose of making meaning.


    But the Sacred Stories project, a joint collaboration between CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders program and the National Museum of American Jewish History, is showing how bridging that chasm enriches us all. Sacred Stories is a weekly Torah commentary that engages the core artifacts of the American Jewish historical experience. Each week a rabbi connects an element of the Torah portion with a particular artifact found in the museum. Working with the museum professionals to edit the pieces ahead of publication, I have been amazed at how drawing connections between items as mundane as report cards or muffin tins can shift the way I understand a familiar text. I have been equally astonished by the way a piece of biblical text can shift the way I see sometime as familiar as the Statue of Liberty or the Liberty Bell.


    In many ways the project is an experiment. I know of no other such historical Torah commentary. It is a collaboration that is pushing expectations and established norms by bringing together the history of the Jewish experience with the text of the Jewish experience. And yet anyone who has ever sat with someone in a dark moment and invoked the experiences of the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, or delivered a sermon that draws from the parsha to illuminate a contemporary struggle knows that the living experience of the Jews is never apart from Torah. And all that separates our studied attention to here and now from the study of history is the passage of time.


    Jumping from ancient textual past to the present bypasses and disregards the value and potential wisdom of thousands of years of lived Jewish experiences. The Sacred Stories historical Torah commentary shows us the value and potential of taking the opportunity to see the study of Jewish history as Torah.


    Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, the editor of this blog, is currently working with Clal and the National Museum of American Jewish History on the Sacred Stories Torah commentary.


  • Educating the Modern Rabbi: A Conversation with Michael Marmur

    Posted on August 29th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    The New Year is nearly upon us and this means that the new school year is also beginning. Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting with Michael Marmur, Vice President from Academic Affairs at Hebrew Union College to talk about educating the modern rabbi. -your editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Pictured from left to right: Tonya, trip translator; Sarah Fishman, HUC-JIR rabbinical student; Jaqui McCabe, HUC-JIR education student; Yael Rooks-Rapport, HUC-JIR rabbinical student; and Rabbi Misha Kapustin, leading Seder in Simferopol, in the Crimea region of the Ukraine.

    RAM: One of your main roles as Vice President for Academic Affairs is overseeing the training of rabbis. When the College opened in 1873, the goal was to train leaders for the realities of a new kind of Jewish community that was emerging in the United States. How does the College-Institute today envision the role it plays in educating rabbis?


    MM: The Rabbinical school curriculum is poised between different and sometimes competing desiderata. One, of course, is providing a basis of knowledge and the skills necessary to access the texts and concepts that a rabbi needs in every situation. These skills are essential to whatever a rabbi does and provide a critical foundation. Another element of the curriculum is the acquisition of practical tools that the rabbis need to survive and thrive. Yet another is the development of spiritual sensitivity and the inner life. From yet another angle, we want our rabbis to be engaged in the great moral and social issues of the day, and to be acquainted with the changing face of the Jewish community. Trying to balance these and other considerations is both complicated and exciting work.


    RAM: It is fair to say that we are currently experience a period of significant change in the Jewish world. Is this new reality changing the way the College-Institute educates its students?


    MM: First off, it is important to note that curriculum is always a few years behind the world it serves, and this is not accidental. If we were to teach our students just based on current trends or predictions it would be laughable. If we took a look at the predictions made over the years we know that many of them turned out to be quite wrong. That having been said, there is always a need for change. The days when you could assume (if it was ever right to assume)  that you would be ordained and start off as an assistant in a congregation, then graduate to become the senior rabbi in another larger congregations are over. It will be the story for some of our graduates but by no means for all of them. We can’t even assume that those who do get to the big pulpits will do so by following this path. Take Andy Bachman whose work with Brooklyn Jews and on campus was outside the congregation and now leads a congregation, or Rachael Bregman in Atlanta who works for The Temple but whose rabbinate is outside the walls of the Temple.


    RAM: So how is the College-Institute helping address this shift?


    MM: We are trying to educate ourselves about the changes which are taking place “out there” on the field.  We are in conversations with Hillel, for example, about what needs to happen in the consciousness and expectations of our students which will make them the kind of Hillel rabbis that they want to be. We are looking at changes taking place within the traditional congregations where the majority of our alumni still serve, and outside those traditional frameworks too. While continuing to fulfill our traditional role, we want to broaden our self-understanding. Our job is to serve Jews where they are while building models of where they yet might be.


    RAM: Does this mean changing the curriculum?

    Dr. Michael Marmur Vice President for Academic Affairs at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

    MM: Yes and no. We are now offering classes in areas which were not prominent in our curriculum – there are good examples to be found on each of our campuses. If you look at new possibilities in service learning, spirituality, management and leadership training at the College-Institute happening right now, I think you will be surprised and impressed.Our students spend time reflecting on their roles as leaders and grappling with issues such as intermarriage,  so that they have given the issue significant thought before they are faced with real decisions to be made. More and more students are given the opportunity to integrate their learning with the lives waiting for them “out there”. But at the same time, the more uncertain the scene the prospects becomes the greater the need to shore up core competencies. The where and why people want a rabbi might be changing a great deal but they still need the rabbi to know Jewish texts, to be a tradent of Jewish tradition. Without real knowledge and understanding of that core material the rabbi is ill equipped to be flexible as the settings demand. Folks need rabbis who are equipped with timely tools, but also rabbis who relate to timeless truths. And the very finest examples of people involved in congregational transformation and community engagement model this blend of capacities and passions.


    RAM: Are there limits to what can and should be taught?


    MM: Of course. There is a strong core of knowledge that one needs to become a rabbi but there are things that just need to be learned in the field and one only knows what those are going to be when you encounter them. For example, we want every graduate to know how to hold a balance sheet and read a budget but a specific course in new trends in bookkeeping is only going to be of use to a certain subset of experienced professionals.


    There has always been a range of opinions in the school about the personal and spiritual dimensions of being a rabbi. The founders of the school may have wondered if we are willing and able to tackle these aspects. Many of us now are aware that we cannot ignore them. There are interesting initiatives in the College-Institute which relate to these dimensions too.


    We have recently generated an interesting document listing the learning outcomes our faculty is looking for in our students. It is a challenging and stimulating list, and yet I am sure we have left many of the intangible things off the list. If our students come away with a sense of privilege at the opportunity to spend a life of service and Torah, and a wish to use and improve the tools they have been provided with, our work has not been in vain.


    RAM: Any final words going into the new school year?


    MM: To all our students, faculty, staff and of course our alumni, may it be a year of learning and growth. Shannah Tovah.



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

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

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

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

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

    Author, Melissa Cohavi

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

    Centropa Summer Seminar 2012

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

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

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

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

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

    by Rabbi Judith Abrams of Maqom

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

    Author Judith Abrams

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

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

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

    by Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman

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

    Author Geoffrey Mitelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami

    How We Create Boundaries and Maintain Perspective

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

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

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

    Author Paul Kipnes

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

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

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

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

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

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




  • 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.






  • God and Twitter 2: Spiritual Innovation and Connection

    Posted on June 27th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Last year during the High Holiday services at Temple Emanuel of Beverley Hills California, Rabbi Laura Geller paused during her sermon and asked those assembled to take out their cell phones. Contrary to expectations, she did not ask them to turn them off, instead she asked them to turn them on. The theme for the holy season at synagogue was, “What are you doing here?” Smart phones in hand, over a thousand people joined in the conversation with Cantor Yonah Kliger (@CantorYonah) moderating an online conversation that mirrored the lively live discussion led by Geller. The entire dynamic of the service changed. At best, a rabbi leading a traditional conversation from the bimah can hope to engage a handful of people, who may or may not stay on topic. Here everyone was involved and limited to 140 characters, people were considered and deliberate about what they shared.

    At first glance it can easy to dismiss Twitter. Small bites of conversations not necessarily joined in linear progression have the potential to be devoid of meaning. But playing with the medium, it is clear, that the format also lends itself to innovation. Last week I described how Twitter is enhancing the traditional work of Jewish professionals, but Twitter is more than just a way to do the expected in a different format, it is an opportunity to do the unexpected.

    In the Spring of 2010, Rabbi Oren Hayon (@rabbihayon) gathered a group of rabbis to retell the story of the Israelite experience in Egypt. Setting up accounts for Moses, Pharoh and many other biblical players, the story unfolded in Tweet the Exodus (@tweettheexodus) a narrative that had nearly 1,500 followers and received attention in the Wall Street Journal and on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Such a broadly collaborative and interactive retelling would be impossible to imagine in any other forum.

    Traditionally Elijah the Prophet visits Jewish homes on the first and second nights of Passover, but uses Twitter to let see what that often elusive angel of old does throughout Passover. As Rabbi Laura Baum (@JewsOnline) explains throughout the 8 days of the holiday, “We had him in various places, he would go on 8-9 cities a day and we would photo shop him in.” Instead of having the holiday fizzle out in malaise of matzah menu madness, this creative use of Twitter maintained the aspect of interactive anticipation that is meant to infuse the sedarim.

    In this era of being overloaded with information, time and again, Jewish professionals cite Twitter as a means by which they can vet articles and information to help make sure we are getting to the material that we want to focus on. It was this element of Twitter that led me to propose the idea of tweeting the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia to the Jewish Women’s Archive (@jwaonline). The Encyclopedia, which is housed on their site is an incredible resource of exceptional and diverse content. Taking up the idea, JWA recruited about twenty people to choose an article a week during American Jewish Heritage month, to summarize it in 140 characters and link to the source. The project caught one quickly and soon large numbers of people were delving into Jewish history and sharing info on more than 200 articles. Not only did it bring in new readers and feedback to the JWA but it engendered conversation about serious Jewish history in a democratic non-hierarchical format.

    Another one of the consistently reported upon benefits of Twitter is that it allows users to connect with others who you might never otherwise connect with. One such person for me is Reverand Naomi King (@RevNaomi) a skilled user of social media and a Unitarian Universalist minister. Writing on Patheos, a religion site, she explains how Twitter can be used for what she calls, “Digital Faith Formation.” Using a Twitter application called Tweetchat, she brings together experts with those interested in discussing “particular texts, or to speak to particular emotional, spiritual, or social issues.” By locating these conversations in the virtual world of Twitter, she is able to connect across location with a range of people that simply could never come together. As she explains,  “Using a few free and inexpensive tools, people of faith also have a chance to live so openly that others who are seeking can actually find them.” What she is describing is that far too elusive ability to reach in Jewish parlance, “the unafilliated.”

    The use of hastags (#s) is another element of Twitter that is allowing broad conversations to happen. The # symbol in front of a word in the Twitter system allows one to signal that a particular topic is being discussed and to add to a broader series of comments about this topic. A few years back for example JewishTweets (@JewishTweets) introduced #shabbatshalom. Now you don’t need to be on the streets of Jerusalem to feel as though everyone is in on the Shabbat spirit.

    Hashtags allow more much more than list formation. They are a means to virtual participation. Were not at the Women’s Rabbinic Network? Missed out on a session at NATE? You can follow along by following the hashtag associated with the conference and seeing what people have to say. Recently, Collier Meyerson (@WoodyAllenNot)  in the New York office of my organization, Be’chol Lashon, participated in a conference in that city. Sitting at my desk in San Francisco, I monitored the reaction to her presentation on Twitter. As people commented, I chatted with them, (@bechollashon) adding my thoughts. As an organization, we were able to use Twitter to augment and shape the perceptions that were created face to face.

    In the days before Shavuot, a new tradition is emerging that uses the #Torah hashtag to create an international Torah study free for all. Rabbi Mark Hurvitz (@rebmark) keeps hoping that the concerted effort of Jews around the world to send out significant numbers of tweets with the #Torah tag connected will result in Torah trending, or rising to the top of the list of popular Twitter topics. So far it has not, but given the dispersion of Jews and the diversity of our approaches to Torah, this may be as close as we can hope to get to a recreation of the gathering at Sinai. Several of the conversations in which I participated as we “Tweet[ed] Torah to the Top” this year, were as profoundly meaningful as they were direct. And there is no other forum in which so people of such diverse backgrounds, in so many geographic locations, could ever get into serious Torah conversations.

    18 months ago, I did not see any of these wonderful ways to use Twitter to innovate spiritual connection, meaning making and engagement. Given the vast network that is Twitter, I have no doubt missed many other great innovations. And given that Twitter is still in its infancy, I feel certain much more will unfold. Let me know what I’ve missed, and keep me posted on what develops.


  • Happy on the Fence this Israel Day

    Posted on May 9th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments



    יושב על הגדר
    רגל פה, רגל שם

    Sitting on the fence, one foot here, the other there

    -Arik Einstein 1982


    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.

    In 1982, I spent part of the summer much like I did so many other summers in my childhood hanging out with friends, watching too much tv, sitting on the beach or by the pool-in Israel. My mother was born in Tel Aviv in 1940 and came to Canada in her twenties. We would return many summers to see the sites and hang out. In 1982, Arik Einstein sang an easy, breezy song about seeing the good things in life from his position sitting on the fence. As I made my way through high school, the song would become my anthem; the title resonating with how I understood my life. I grew up in Canada, part of a well established, large Canadian Jewish clan. I lobbied Parliament, and took part yearly in the sugaring off of the Maple trees. I also spoke fluent Hebrew, walked around with a large tome of Ben-Gurion’s speeches, and knew the twists and turns of Masada well. I grew up one foot here, the other there.


    Much has been written in the last few weeks about the commitment of the American Jewish leadership to Israel. Einstein’s words are resonating with new meaning.


    In 2006, I spent a year at the Mandel Leadership Institute as a Jerusalem Fellow. I worked closely with Rabbi Daniel Gordis. I learned a great deal in that relationship, but one of the points where he and I differed was in our understandings of what it meant to be a rabbi. For Gordis, being a rabbi meant defending our tradition at every turn. I had grown up with the shadow of the Holocaust casting a pall over the real sense of divinity I knew from my own experience. I had spent a decade in academia, struggling to understand how to make sense of a tradition that is so fundamentally patriarchical and yet astonishingly meaningful. My road to the rabbinate was paved in doubts, rebellions, and frustrations. I felt my mission as a rabbi was to help people through their own complex struggles. This vision of the rabbinate was one that was affirmed for me throughout my time at HUC, where we as Reform leaders in training were encouraged to wrestle with texts. It was affirmed by learning from future colleagues in the field and the ways in which they dealt with contemporary issues, like intermarriage. Reform Jews, it seemed to me, see having one foot here and one foot there, inside and outside of tradition engaging and questioning as quintessentially Jewish.


    Reading Gordis’ recent critique of young rabbis and their critical approach to Israel and questioning of Zionism, I have been revisiting the conversations we had about the rabbinate. Back then, my vision of the rabbinate, though grounded in some measure of experience and a great deal of theory, was in its infancy. To attend Jerusalem Fellows, I had hopped on a plane immediately following ordination. Our conversation about the real work of the rabbi was still imaginary. But what I imagined then has indeed come to pass. The work I do as a rabbi, formally and informally, gains much of its strength and credibility by being open to struggle. This struggling is, I continue feel, fundamental to being part of the Reform movement and to being Jewish. Throughout our history, Reform has understood that modern Jews do not have a single frame of reference. Ours is a community that believes it is possible to live with one foot here and one foot there. Anyone who has ever climbed a fence knows, doing so can be at times be little uncomfortable and unstable. Yet we persist in having one foot here and one foot there because we understand the value of conversation and of multiple points of view, moreover we see this type of learning and talking as fundamentally Jewish.


    Nearly two years ago, I moved to San Francisco. Having never lived in California, I was told time and again, that it would be a shock to my Jewish system. The only place I have found that to be true is in regards to Israel. Earlier this year an Israeli think tank declared our region one of the hot spots for Israel de-legitimization. There are attacks against Zionism at the University of California at Berkeley. Within the Jewish community the rancor has reached such a fevered pitch that our Board of Rabbis began a campaign for civil discourse. I have learned to be cautious whenever discussions of Israel arise. I have been attacked for not being pro-Israel enough and for being pro-Israel at all.


    But San Francisco is also home to some wonderful creative and intensive Israel education initiatives that seek to engage beyond slogans. As Michal Morris Kamil recently told The Jerusalem Report (in an article by Renee Ghert-Zand in the May 23, 2011 issue), “We now know that kids don’t need to be protected from multiple narratives. In fact, exposing children to different perspectives gives them tools to deal and cope with diversity as they grow up.” I recently participated in a day of learning about pedagogy for teaching about Israel, run by BASIS - The Israel Education & Engagement Initiative in Bay Area day schools. The theme throughout the day was opening up the complexity of Israel for students. Two of the presenters, Jonathan Ariel and Rami Wernik, are leaders of Makom, an educational initiative of the Jewish Agency which encourages wresting with the big questions. It is not comfortable. It is messy. But it is the way forward. And it resonates with the complex approach to Judaism that is so fundamental to Reform Judaism.


    As I prepared to write this piece I went back and reread the Einstein’s lyrics. At the end of Arik Einstein’s song, he suggests that sitting on the fence you can see both sides but ultimately you see nothing at all. To quote another Israeli classic pop song, ”I’m sitting in San Francisco by the water and I feel far away.” I am far from the day to day of Israeli life, but I remain connected and engaged. I feel some of Gordis’ concern about the disengagement with Israel and the wonder of Zionism. But my rabbinate has been built on a belief that sitting uncomfortably on a fence is a good thing. I have learned that sharing my struggles about modern Jewish living is critical to my ability to engage others in understanding kashrut, sexism, prayer, Talmud or any other Jewish issue. Einstein’s metaphor still resonates strongly for me with regards to Israel, but his conclusion does not. I sit on a fence, one foot here and one foot there, and my discomfort sharpens my vision and my ability to share it.




  • Films for Jewish and Israel Education

    Posted on January 31st, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    A Filipino who speaks Yiddish.

    Arabs living in Jerusalem speaking in Hebrew about identity.

    A Jewish grandmother returning to home of her youth –in Djerba.

    These are some of the people I’ve encountered recently through the new Israeli arts site

    The importance of the arts for Jewish education is an axiom among those of us who make Jewish learning a central element of our lives. YouTube and services like Netflix have made it possible for us to access a growing amount of artistic content for use in connecting with and inspiring our communities. Yet much of Israeli film continued to lay beyond the reach of those of us in the US, either because it was not available for viewing on our systems or because of the language barrier. Enter The site’s claim that it is “Omanoot is Israel’s HULU, Amazon, iTunes and virtual MOMA all in one” is a bit grandiose but it does hit its mark of making “Israeli, literature, and visual art) accessible for cultural, educational, and entertainment purposes,” by streaming many films, providing subtitles, searchable indexes and educational materials.

    Moving far beyond the Hasbara films of the Israeli foreign ministry, the site provides a great deal to explore. But I was particularly intrigued by how the offerings might be used to enhance Jewish education. The founders of Omanoot worked with artist and master educator Robbie Greengrass of Makom in conceptualizing the site. The thoughtfulness has paid off. Though the educational materials are for the time being quite limited, the lesson plans that have been posted are particularly strong. Mixing classical Jewish sources with contemporary ones, pairing when appropriate Jewish and non-Jewish sources, and providing educational activities for different settings. A particular favorite of mine was a lesson that used Israeli Reggae Band Hatikva 6’s song “If I Met God” in conjunction with Bob Marley’s “Forever Loving Jah” to open up conversation about the nature of the Divine.

    But the site should inspire educators far beyond the prefab lesson plans. Nor should be limited to Israel ed moments. The content on the site is appropriate for opening conversations on many topics. For example, Yossi and Jaeger about gay Israeli soldiers, for example is available for streaming here and quite relevant as we look towards the repeal of DADT.

    The short lesser known films from the students at the religious film school Maalot, are especially easily adapted for classroom and youth group triggers. The Yiddish language film A-Maiseh which looks at a moment in the life of an elderly Jew and the young Filipino who cares for him might be used in a class on aging or on immigration –not necessarily Israeli. Of interest in this short piece are not only the dynamics between the police and the illegal immigrant but those within the family and among the friends. A class on world Jewry would undoubtedly warm to the story of Aunt Diya, who with scrimping and saving makes her way back to Tunisia to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer in the synagogue she grew up in on the island of Djerba. The story is at once very familiar to those who know the genre of similar roots films retracing Jewish life in Europe and at the same time new and novel given the setting and the customs. Students with whom I watched the film had little knowledge of Jewish life in Arab lands and were curious not only about Diya’s reasons for leaving but also for going back.

    I highly recommend to the bookmark list of any Jewish professional who knows the value of the arts to make deep connections and lasting impressions.