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  • Eradicating Modern-Day Slavery

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

    This week’s post comes from Rabbi Rachael Bregman, who writes on an issue we cannot afford to ignore. -editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    An 11-year-old girl in five-point shackles is escorted into a courtroom. Her crime? She was caught in the back of a van with a 43-year-old man who had paid for 30 minutes of her time to do whatever he wanted to with her.
    Where was the man when the girl was in court? He’d already been released, fined $50 for misdemeanor solicitation and set free.

    The little girl – because at 11, what else can we call her – belonged to a pimp who had three other girls in his possession. After she had run away from home, the pimp took her in, and now she was “paying him back” for a roof over her head, her clothing and some food.[1]

    This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but slavery still exists today, and this is what it looks like.

    The Facts

    According to the U.S. State Department and the International Labor Organization, there are between 21 and 27 million slaves in the world today – more than at any other time in history.  Of them, 25 percent are women, men and children – thousands in the United States – who are victims of forced sexual exploitation. And while not all those who work in prostitution are victims of human trafficking, many are, especially children.

    “Runaway and throwaway”[2] children are easy prey for traffickers. One out of every three teens will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home, and the younger a girl[3] is, the more likely she will be sexually victimized.

    A pimp will attempt to break a girl’s will though physical and verbal abuse to prepare her for a life of prostitution and separate her completely from her previous life,[4] making the child completely dependent on him or her and enslaved to the sex trade.

    This is happening not just to someone else’s kids; the victims could be my kids and yours. There has been a marked rise in the sexual exploitation of kids from middle- and upper-income backgrounds.

    “Any child who is feeling lonely and isolated is at risk,” Judge Peggy Walker of the Douglas County Juvenile Court said. “Kids run away to the city and sell their bodies for drugs or alcohol or a place to stay, [and] their parents are generally stunned, believing that sexual exploitation is something that happens to someone else’s child.”[5]

    The Johns can look just like you and me: Of the men purchasing sex, 75 percent are white and of upper- or upper-middle-class.[6]

    Author, Rabbi Rachael Bregman

    Our Motivation for Change

    A century-and-a-half ago, President Abraham Lincoln declared, “…upon this act [of emancipating all slaves], sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty G-d.[7]”

    Lincoln’s claimed authority not just from the Constitution, the U.S. military, the citizens of this nation and G-d on high; he characterized the act as one of justice itself.

    As Jews, the call to end human slavery goes beyond merely justice. Among our religion’s central rallying cries is, “remember, you were a slave in Egypt,” reminding us of our freedom and the great responsibility to protect others who are enslaved which comes with it.

    We sing about redemption from slavery in the daily prayers[8]. G-d commands us to free the captives, that slavery is wrong, and that, as Jews, central to our identity is ridding humanity of the practice.

    We celebrated 150 years since the date of the Emancipation Proclamation on Shabbat T’shuvah, the special Shabbat which falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During those days, we prayed, we repented and we did acts of justice to save our own souls. When we commit to tzedakah (here, “justice”), we are breaking the cruelty that exists within us and the world and transforming it into compassion, and in doing so, we are changing our very nature.[9]

    Justice is protecting the slaves in our world. Today, we both yearn and are commanded to turn the world, ourselves and wickedness around toward good. We are the ones who have committed these crimes, and we are also the ones who can protect their victims. The power is in our hands.

    How You Can Make a Difference

    It is incumbent upon us to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), the cornerstone of the U.S. effort to combat modern-day slavery. This act, currently stalled in the Senate, will allow us to make sure the protections for the slaves of today are renewed and expanded upon.

    Simply go to, sign your name and do your part to protect those who suffer the fate from which we have been freed. And simpler still, come to the Child Trafficking Summit: Education to Action on Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. at The Temple to learn more and get involved fighting this fight.


    This piece originally appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times

  • Welcome the Stranger: Grandpa and the Meaning of Ruth

    Posted on May 22nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    With Shavuot upon us, Jews around the world prepare for reading the biblical story of Ruth. For Rabbi Seth Goren the biblical story and the message of the holiday have a highly personal meaning.

    The story of Ruth resonates strongly with me in part because of its similarity to the account of how part of my family left Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather was born in the village of Obodovka, then a part of the Russian Empire. His father ran the town’s general store and was relatively well off. After the Russian Civil War broke out in 1917, the central government ceased paying its employees, and the local postmaster, who was not Jewish, could not afford food for his family. Nevertheless, my great-grandfather allowed him to make purchases on credit so that the postmaster’s family would not go hungry and starve to death in the frigid Ukrainian winter of 1918-19.

    Rabbi Seth Goren

    One day in May 1919, just a few weeks before Shavuot, word spread that a band of Cossacks was riding toward the town bent on attacking the local Jewish population. My great-grandfather loaded the family onto a wagon and began heading westward. They were intercepted by the postman, who informed my family that they were heading in the precise direction from which the Cossacks were coming. “Come with me,” he said, “I’ll hide you in the basement of the post office.” My grandfather and his family remained hidden for the next two days, during which time they heard the postman repeatedly ward off Cossacks, telling them that there were no Jews in the building. When they finally emerged, all of the other Jews of Obodovka were dead, with my grandfather and his family being the only survivors. In this way, my great-grandfather and the postman, strangers to each other’s traditions as surely as they were neighbors, had saved each other’s families.

    Looking back, the histories of both my family and our people hinge on relatively small acts whose broader implications could not have been appreciated at the time. Had Ruth and Naomi not taken responsibility for each other, King David’s genealogical line would have foundered, and the entire course of Jewish and world history would be completely different. On a more personal level, if not for the relationship between my great-grandfather and a Ukrainian postman nearly a century ago, my family line would have ended in an Eastern European shtetl like so many others did. In both cases, it is difficult in retrospect to imagine events unfolding any differently. Nevertheless, these episodes show how even a small act of caring for a stranger can reverberate generations later and thousands of miles away.

    We cannot always anticipate how we will welcome others emerging from their isolation or where we ourselves will stumble upon sanctuary when we are lost among the unknown and unfamiliar. The unexpected twists in the lives of Naomi, buth and my grandfather could not have been predicted in advance. There will be times when we will be strangers, as we were in Egypt, and times when there will be strangers among us. Nevertheless, deliverance, both for ourselves and for those whom we help, is possible when we take care of each other and provide a haven to the stranger who seeks shelter among us.


  • A Mother’s Day Tribute to Mothers and Jewish Values

    Posted on May 8th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Sara Goren with her granddaughter, Seth's daughter

    Jewish mothers often get a bad rap. Comedians, movies, books portray Jewish moms as the biggest impediment to the development of healthy Jews. Yet, when I started to ask around, there are lots of us out there who see our mothers -Jewish or not- as essential to our growth into the proud Jews we are today. What follows are three moving tributes to three wonderful moms.

    We would love to hear more, feel free to share your comments on what values or teaching that you learned from your mom and how they made you into the person you are today.  -Ruth Abusch-Magder, editor


    Lessons from Estelle

    One of the biggest lessons I learned from my mother, Estelle or Essie as every one called her, was really a lesson in feminism although she wouldn’t characterize it that way, but it really was.  My Mom had me later in life.  She was already in her forties.  My older sister was in college and she felt her child bearing days was over.  She grew up in an era before the Great Depression and got married soon after high school.  She worked as bookkeeper from the age of 16 out of necessity not having the luxury of a college education.  Even after she married, she worked in the family business, was active in the life of the community, as Hadassah president, Sisterhood president, temple fundraiser and took care of her parents as well. She raised my sister and ran a household.

    Bernie and Estelle Eger 50th Anniversary

    She was active in National Council of Jewish Women and so she taught me by example to be involved Jewishly.  But my mom would also say to me, “Don’t be any man’s schmatta.”  By that she was trying to tell me to be my own person.  Go to School. Find a career. Be self supporting.  It wasn’t a dig at men or marriage (My parents were happily married 58 years until my father’s death!).  But it was her way of conveying the importance of being your own independent woman!  And she taught me well. I was the first to graduate college in my family and then of course to go on to seminary and the blessings of a Rabbinic calling!  I am no one’s shmatta today. I am my own person and I treasure my mom’s advice and encouragement to grow and learn and embrace the world. –Denise Eger


    Learning to be a “mom”

    I came out to my mother as gay when I was 27.  While I’d like to say that this particular step out of the closet took superhuman levels of courage on my parts, that’s not exactly (or even remotely) true.  More accurately, my comfort sharing who I am flowed from many of my mother’s attributes; because of her nurturing love, her subtle kindness and her perseverance in the face of challenge,  it was far more natural to share than to withhold.

    Getting older, I find that I, too, carry these qualities that allowed me to be open with my mother.  They enable and strengthen my rabbinical life, from pastoral conversations to community building.  For this reason, perhaps my mother’s greatest ability was how she was able to mold me into the kind of person she is.

    About a year ago, I became a father to a daughter.  Since then, I’ve been struck by how many people have asked me, “Since you’re a single man, how are you going to make sure she has good female role models?”  I suppress my urge to give a snarky response, smile politely and say, “I think we have that covered.”   -Seth Goren


    What I Learned From My Mom


    One of the most important things I learned from my mom was to tune into and value feelings.  My mom would always say to me,  “Don’t keep it in, it will fester.”  Even though I didn’t know what “fester” meant, I understood by her statement that she not only saw me, but felt me.  I was always a little surprised that she was aware, often before I was, that I was hurt or concerned about something.  (She’d also say “mother’s always know…”) She intuitively knew that experience was layered and that there was more going on than what appeared on the surface. She taught me pay attention to what lies below. This skill has profoundly influenced

    Marlene Berkson Kornick -Jill's Mother

    my work as a rabbi.  I’m not afraid of feelings and teach that becoming aware is a first step toward wisdom and change.  Also, this was probably why my love and enthusiasm for Torah study has been so deep. I teach that the surface layer is only one part of reality and by delving deeper into the nuances and multiple meanings of the text, we can learn more and more about our own souls. –Jill Zimmerman





  • Posted on July 14th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Camp Rabbi, Camp Ima Phyllis Sommer

    There has been a great deal of discussion of late about women and the rabbinate stemming from the difficulties that the female rabbinic graduates from the Jewish Theological Seminary faced in finding jobs this year. But the conversation has pushed out beyond that, opening up questions of mothering and professionalism for those who are leaders in Jewish life. This week Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs as Ima on the Bima weighed in from her vantage point as an accomplished professional and mother of four. With her permission I have reprinted here and invite comment and conversation about family-work balance for those of us who serve the Jewish community.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder


    Recently, I noticed a tweet from Rabbi Jason Miller, sharing with me an article written on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog.
    I read it at about 5am, while nursing the baby. A little ironic, no?

    It struck me particularly hard, since I have had a little bit of a difficult week in terms of balance. Let me explain.

    I’m currently serving on faculty at camp. With me at camp are my husband and three children (the oldest is a camper, so I’m not only not responsible for him, I don’t even get to see him very much!), and we are accompanied by a teenage babysitter. The babysitter generally shepherds the two older kids to their activities, while my dear husband spends his time with the baby. Often, the baby accompanies me to programming as well, since he likes very much to be the center of attention! Camp is a great place for my family – everyone has something that they enjoy doing, and we fall into a nice routine of sharing our lives with our friends at camp.

    For various reasons, my husband kindly agreed to go along on a 3 day camping trip with one of the older units. He left early Monday morning. On Monday, my babysitter started to feel a little ill and began to run a fever…so she went home, ideally just overnight, to speed up her recuperation (she is fine and will be back soon, I hope!). So…I was left all alone with my kids AND my responsibilities to camp. So far, so good. I’ve weathered this minor storm, my friends have helped out and pitched in, and it’s been fine. I am definitely looking forward to both of them returning to share the work, but I am not overly upset about how this has gone. But it’s definitely on my mind, making sure that everyone gets what they need from me.

    Yesterday morning and this morning, the three kids accompanied me to morning tefillah (prayer). The older two sat quietly during the service (You’ve got to love the outdoor chapel that makes a little bug hunting during tefillah possible) and the little one was snug in the sling. (I got Sammy to snap this picture for me right before tefillah began, because this blog post was ruminating around in my brain since I had read the article at 5am.)

    I do not know the writer of this article. And I do not actually feel that her post was, in fact, an appropriate response to the post that she cites, a post about young mothers in the rabbinate. Instead, I feel that Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer is trying very much to attack other mothers while justifying her own choices. This is remarkably common and prevalent on the internet – there are so many “mommy bloggers” who want to judge, rebuke, comment upon, and generally dismiss anyone who makes choices different from their own. The comments that I received when I posted this article on Facebook helped me to feel a little less alone when reading Chasya-Uriel’s post – it was definitely a case of “I thought it was just me.” But I was relieved to know that I am not the only one insulted by her simultaneous dismissal of my rabbinate and parenthood.
    She writes:

    “I don’t think congregations are concerned with how motherhood might interfere with a mother’s ability to do the job as rabbi; rather, I suspect congregations are concerned with hiring someone who is obviously allowing a rabbinic job to interfere with motherhood. And I have to agree. I would rather see at least one parent at home full-time with her/his baby or toddler — ideally the birth mother, unless the child is adopted. This is what is best for the baby.”

    Wow. This is quite a statement, Chasya-Uriel. There are some truly remarkable jobs (not just the rabbinate) held by mothers of young children. Do you also feel that mothers should not be doctors, lawyers, professors, social workers, teachers, artists….? And are you honestly telling me that fathers cannot be full-time caregivers of their children, if that is what works for the family? (Oh, and by the way, that IS what works for my family.)
    Chasya-Uriel continues: “I do think that ima eventually belongs on the bima.”

    Ouch. “Eventually”????

    And then:

    “I agree with Rabbi Levy that all women, mothers or not, should be given the same chance to serve the Jewish community as their male counterparts. But women and men who are parents should be prioritizing serving their babies and toddlers before they prioritize serving the Jewish community. We also need to honor the unique relationship a new mother has with her baby. The attachment formed, especially when breastfeeding, is unparallel to that of the second parents, whether a father or another mother.

    We need to allow what rabbinic work we have accomplished up until now to be put on hold, trusting that we will be much better mothers because of our earlier experience as rabbis. If we have set up our lives in which we tell ourselves that we “have” to work or attend school while having a baby, perhaps it is time to reexamine our lives and reprioritize so that we can find a way to be with our children.”

    Oh my goodness.

    I am both a mother and a rabbi. Some days I’m more ima. Some days I’m more bima. (See blog title.) Some days, I’m trying to make it all work. But I don’t think I’m doing it wrong. I just know that I’m doing it. I’ve created four wonderful little people and my husband and I delight in their growth of body and spirit. We definitely juggle, we definitely argue over who goes where and when. My children do not play multiple sports or attend a lot of extra programs. I do serve in small ways on the PTA but I’m not in the classroom helping out. I don’t “do it all” but I do what I do. I try to do it all as well as I can, with as much love and attention and energy as possible. My children are washed and fed and cared for and loved by their parents. Most of their care is done by my husband or by me, or by Grandma or Bubbie & Zeyde, or some of our wonderful team of babysitters and friends who help us out. My congregation never fails to share my delight when my oldest sings in the Junior Choir or the baby accompanies me to Torah Study on Shabbat morning. I am often scolded for not having them around, since many people feel love and “ownership” of my children. I feel so lucky and blessed to have so many people who care about the well-being of my children and my family.

    There is absolutely no question that I would be a different rabbi if I did not have children. Would it be better for my children? Would it be better for my career? Would it be better for my congregation? Would it be better for the Jewish people?

    I strongly believe that the answer to all of these questions is NO.

    Dear Chasya-Uriel,
    Please enjoy the time that you are spending with your daughter. Cherish every moment. Please know that many people (women and men) who came before you have enabled you to spend that time and make that choice.

    Please know that many others have made choices different from yours. I do not judge you for your choice. Please do not dare to judge me for mine. I am intensely proud of the life I lead. I work incredibly hard at all that I do, trying to be the most fulfilled person that I can be – while loving and growing and raising my family. I respect and admire my friends in all forms of their rabbinate – women and men who are juggling and balancing and maintaining remarkable families, careers, lives.

    Our choices change over time, we make new decisions based on the situations in which we find ourselves. Lives change. Goals change. Purposes change. Focus changes.

    Please remember that like the rabbinate, motherhood comes in all styles.

    Enjoy yours.

    I am most definitely enjoying mine.



  • Pride: The Modern Jewish Family

    Posted on June 13th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Rabbi Victor Appel and Family

    This is LGBT Pride month. HUC-JIR is proud of all of our LGBT alumni. As a tribute, this week we are reposting a piece by  Rabbi Victor Appell the Specialist for Marketing, Outreach & New Communities for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Congregational Consulting Group. His story, while highly personal, speaks to both traditional and contemporary visions of Jewish family. This post originally appeared on the URJ blog and is reposted here with permission.

    They Needed Parents, We Needed Children

    When my partner and I were adopting our first child, the adoption agency required that all families it worked with take a class. The class was about becoming a multi-racial family. At one session, the presenter, an adoptive parent herself, prepared us for some of the questions we would be asked, often by perfect strangers. As two white men planning on adopting an African-American child, we knew we were in for it. We have gotten just about every sort of reaction. At my pulpit, one congregant actually asked if we were going to raise our son as a Jew. Did she think that because Avi was black, we would raise him as a Baptist? I didn’t ask. Sometimes we get strange looks and sometimes on Sundays, black women, still in their church finery, stop and give us tearful hugs while we are shopping in Target.
    Sometimes, people ask me if my children are adopted. These people usually answer their own question before I have to. But my favorite question is, “So, did you want to have children?” I am tempted to respond that we adopted by accident, or that we woke up one day and found we had a child, or that the condom broke. Last time I checked it was pretty difficult to adopt a child “by accident.” Fortunately, the inner rabbi wins out over the snarky gay man and I politely reply that yes, Colin and I have always wanted children.

    Rabbi Victor Appell

    In fact, on our first date we talked about our desire to one day become parents. When people ask me why we adopted our sons I say because they needed parents and we needed children. As Jews, we knew we wanted a family in which we could pass on thousands of year’s worth of traditions and values. We dreamed of raising Jewish children, of blessing them at the Shabbat table, of them chanting the Four Questions, of raising children who would become menschen.

    It was not so easy to become a family. At first, we assumed that like so many other Jewish couples, we would bring home a baby girl from China. We soon learned that no foreign country allows openly gay people to adopt internationally. The only way to do it was for one of us to adopt as an individual and work with a social worker who was willing to go along with the ruse when working with a foreign adoption agency. Plenty of gay and lesbian couples do this but this was not how we wanted to begin our family. Turning our attention to domestic adoption, we were turned down by a large adoption agency in Chicago, where we lived at the time. They had no experience in working with gay couples and did not want to get our hopes up. The next agency was willing to work with us though they had only worked with one lesbian couple before and did not seem prepared to work with a male couple. At an information session, they handed out a price list. White baby boys were out of our price range, as were white girls. Hispanic children seemed to be on sale and African-American children on clearance. Welcome to the world of domestic adoption.

    Eventually we found our way to a wonderful agency that placed African-American and bi-racial children. Here, everyone was the same price. We knew we had found the agency that would help our family of two become three. Remarkably, nine months after completing the paperwork, we brought our three day old son home. At the time, Illinois would not allow two people of the same gender to adopt a child simultaneously. But they could consecutively. Yes, I know, this makes about as much sense as asking me if I planned on raising my son a Jew! So, I adopted Avi first, and then six months later, Colin also adopted him. Though this “minor” indignity cost us twice as much in legal fees as heterosexual couples, we have a birth certificate with both of our names on it.

    When I was looking for my next pulpit, our search was limited to states which not only allowed but were receptive to gay adoption. We wanted a little brother for Avi. Florida, which prohibits LGBT people from adopting, was out of the question. Our search led us to New Jersey. Though New Jersey has yet to pass marriage equality, it has some of the gay family friendliest laws in the nation. Here, we pursued a public adoption. Despite the beurocratic frustrations of working with a public agency to create a family, our being gay was never an issue. In fact, the social workers used to vie over who would do the home visits. They all told us how much they loved we way we had decorated our home. Hey, I’m happy to wear a stereotype when it serves my purposes! Again, in just nine months from beginning the process Lev completed our family.

    I cannot imagine being told that because Colin and I are gay that we would not be fit to be parents. Just like any other parents, our days are filled with getting the boys off to school in the morning, checking homework in the afternoon, and reading bedtime stories in the evening. And our weekends are filled with taking our boys from one sporting event to another. Our sons have never met a sport they did not like! And Colin is the coach of Lev’s t-ball team. What do you think of that, Florida?



  • Confronting Family Stress at Passover

    Posted on April 8th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.

    I often think that Passover is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. Both are holidays for which there is significant preparation, anticipation and expectations. Both are holidays when we make a special effort to reach out to family and gather together in celebration. Both have rituals and customs but also meanings that go beyond what is openly stated and done. And both holidays share much in the way of culinary and entertaining/ritual advice to be found on how to do the holidays ‘right.’ But one place where Christmas has the advantage is in the acknowledgement of  how the reality of these expectations and family gatherings –or in many cases lack there of- mixed together with the pressure of doing it ‘right’can create its own stress and disappointment.

    In addition to helping Jews understand the importance of Passover, it is incumbent upon Jewish professionals to help provide tools and frameworks for coping with our anxieties and the very real complexities of the holiday. Recently, I spoke with Sarah Spencer a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco and a director of Camp Be’chol Lashon who pointed out that many of the rituals and forms of the Seder provide a fantastic structure for dealing with difficulties. Discussing her understanding of the Seder as a model of how to create diverse community, I have a new appreciation for how the Seder might provide a some clues to diffusing the tensions it creates.

    1.     Our stories are the starting point, they resonate with other and echo through the generations. The whole reason to have a Seder is to tell our story so that we can embrace freedom and revelation. Long before Sigmund Freud made it popular, Judaism recognized that in order to be free we need to In order to be free we need to tell our story. We must speak of that which is difficult in order to move forward. But we need not see this speaking, nor even the existence of difficulties as out of the ordinary. Indeed according to our traditions, each of us is obligated to recall our places of slavery and darkness. The presumption is that we all have those places and difficulties and that we all have the potential to move beyond them. Keeping this in mind, we can embrace the Seder not for the perfection it represents but as the opportunity to move forward which all of us need.

    2.     We are opening our homes to strangers. The assumption that we know those who are sitting around the table, is often just that. When real strangers join us at the table, we understand that there will need to be listening and patience to help bridge the lack of familiarity and we work towards doing that. If however, those at the table are family, we may not extend the say level of courtesy and patience. Given that there are many families that come together only a few times a year, and even those who know each other well may make assumptions about who the others at the table are, we would do well to approach those invited to Seder as though they were strangers and treat them with thoughtful courtesy as opposed to presuming we already know and understand them.

    3.     Ask questions. Many of them. How are we to know the strangers with whom we travel? How are we to understand the stories others tell? As Spenser reminds us, asking questions is the essential ingredient for speaking across differences. An expert in diversity and community building, she reminds us that asking questions about differences is the only way to really understand and engage with others. The asking can start before the Seder. Talk with guests and ask how they want to make this night different from other nights. Using the four questions as a guide, encourage the framing of question of curiosity not of accusation. Remind yourself and your guests that questions can lead to hurt or openness; the difference lies in how we ask and how open we are to answers.

    4.     There are 4 children. We know this so well that sometimes we forget that at every table, and within each of us, there are indeed 4 different children. If we are hoping just to have wise sons and daughters gathered then we have not really prepared and anticipated the difficulties that are inevitable. If we can step back and remember that the challenges, the indifference, the inability to pay attention is not personal, but universal then we can gain important perspective on the matter and formulate responses that are appropriate and able to be heard not just reactive and ignored.

    There is no short cut around the stress of Passover. The tensions are built into the anticipation and the importance of the holiday. Yet if we are able to frame and understand the difficulties within the contexts set up for us by our tradition, then we will find that we hold many tools for approaching the hard places and setting ourselves free.



  • The Power of the Breath

    Posted on October 25th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    For Jewish professionals, Cheshvan is both a moment to catch our breath and to catch up. This week, Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Shaare Emeth in St. Louis captures beautifully the struggle of trying to do both.

    Rabbi Andrea Goldstein

    This moment.  So much gratitude for this quiet, unexpected, peace-filled moment.  Sitting in the rocker with Lila.  Her long limbs – usually in constant motion – curled up softly in my lap, so still.  Her mass of slightly damp red curls nuzzled under my chin.  Inhaaaaale … the inside of my nose is filled with the aroma of “no more tears.”  No tears.  No fighting.  No struggling.  No words.  Just her breath.  And my breath.  And I am present.

    Breathe in.

    And so happy.

    Breathe out.

    I am here.

    Breathe in.

    Just here.

    Breathe out.

    Just don’t forget to return those library books tomorrow.


    And that bulletin article.


    Oy, that article.  What I am going to write about?  Does anyone even read them anyway….

    Lila stirs on my lap.  She is too big to find comfort in the crook of my arm for much more than a moment.  I know that.  And I squandered this time with inconsequential thoughts of tomorrow.  And just like that, my happiness is gone.  Replaced by anger … frustration … disappointment for what’s been lost.

    I need to forgive myself my wanderings.  I need a break from a judging mind.  I need just enough strength and humility to return to my breath, my intent, my present … again … and again … and again … and again … and again.

  • What do we tell the children? Autism in a Jewish Family

    Posted on June 17th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 7 comments

    All too often we as individuals and as community leaders battle with expectations of perfection that can create unreasonable pressure for our children and families. While we understand that the perfect Jewish family is a myth, there is often silence when it comes to speaking about the challenges we face. This week, we have the pleasure of reposting a piece by Deborah Greene wife of Rabbi Fred Greene (HUC-JIR  NY 2001) While in general it is our practice to post the words of our alumni directly, we felt that Deborah’s piece spoke to a family reality that she and Fred share together.

    Fred Greene

    What follows is a tremendously inspiring story of strong thoughtful parenting. It is a wonderful model for talking with kids about hard issues of all sorts. It is hard to overestimate the power for our communities of seeing that they are not alone in their struggles. This piece was orginally posted on Deborah’s blog Puzzled.

    Deborah Greene

    To Tell or Not To Tell

    “We, the one’s who are challenged, need to be heard. To be seen not as a disability, but as a person who has, and will continue to bloom. To be seen not only as a handicap, but as a well intact human being.” (Robert M. Hensel)

    The summer we told Yael about her autism. Her sister Leora by her side.

    As parents, we are faced with many difficult conversations. Amongst them, there is the “don’t do drugs” talk, the “don’t drink & drive” talk and of course there is the good old-fashioned, highly anticipated “birds & bees” conversation. Most of us spend a good amount of time thinking about how to get these conversations just right. We look for the best books, ask friends how they handled these conversations with their own children & seek out guidance from trusted sources. If you are the parent of a child with autism, you also need to tackle the “telling my child that they have a lifelong developmental disability” conversation. I can promise you that this particular conversation is one of the most intimidating, nerve-wracking & anxiety inducing conversations of all.

    You see, this particular conversation will help to shape how your child will see himself or herself for years to come. You want to impart the knowledge of who they are and why they are different without making them feel that their disability defines them. You want to help them understand their struggles, without making them feel limited in their capabilities. You want them to see themselves as “differently-abled” and not “disabled.” In addition, you want to help to ensure that they themselves won’t use their autism as an excuse, a “get out of jail free card” so to speak.

    Then there are the other components of this conversation. When do I tell my child? How will I know when the time is right for them to handle this information? How much or how little do I share? Do I share this information with their friends & classmates? The list goes on & on.

    Fred I began to think about having this conversation with Yael towards the end of her 2nd grade year. We knew that upon entering third grade, the social gap would widen significantly. We were already seeing her friends surpass her both socially & emotionally. What were seen as “little quirks” by her peers before, were now being seen as “strange” or “weird.” We also felt that it was becoming important to try & help her understand why she always had a teacher aid, went to social skills groups & needed occupational & other therapies. I guess you can say that we felt as if we wanted to help create a picture out of the many different puzzle pieces that made up her daily life.

    So, I talked with her therapists, began looking for good books and hit the web in search of a “how to guide” to having this conversation with Yael. We waited until the 2nd grade school year was over. Then, we waited for the perfect opportunity, believing we would know it when we saw it. Alas, the picture perfect moment never seemed to present itself. There always seemed to be something about it that we felt wasn’t “quite right.” Truth be told I think we knew that we were going to change our daughter’s perception of herself, and her sister’s perceptions as well, for the rest of her life. No matter how the conversation went, she would now know herself not simply as a person, but a person with autism and that scared the heck out of us. Read the rest of this entry »