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  • Spiritual but not Religious

    Posted on January 30th, 2013 Special Contributor No comments

    “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” When I heard that phrase from a student or prospective congregant, I used to suspect they were pushing me away, holding me safely at arm’s length.  On January 14, I heard an interview with Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson on Fresh Air, and he gave me something new to consider.

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

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

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

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

    Your hands are full of blood!

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

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

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

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

    Author: Rabbi Ruth Adar

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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.



  • Friday, the Rabbi was Outed!

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


    Often experience we have as students training for Jewish professional lives can leave strong impressions and mold our vision of our professional selves for years to come. This week, guest Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb a community rabbi based in Boulder, CO and working tikkun olam and tikkun atzmi writes about how a student internship shifted her perspective.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder


    It was unexpected and I was unprepared.   At Friday night services in front of a room of hundreds of congregants, I was “outed.”  Yes, outed!*

    I remember my heart beating fast and being afraid. I thought, “Why did this have to happen?  What does my sexual orientation have to do with this job? Will these folks still like me? Will they still welcome me into their community? Will they now think of me as other?”  I had hoped to pass (really) thinking that then I would be fully accepted and function more easily.

    It was the beginning of my third year of rabbinical school and a rabbi at my internship at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the world’s largest GLBT synagogue, introduced me to the community and “outed” me as a heterosexual!

    Author, Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb

    Upon reflection some 7 years later, this moment was one of the most profound experiences of my year as a Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinic Intern at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. I “approached” and more fully empathized with the experience that many of my CBST congregants (and GLBTQ Jews for that matter) live(d) through at home, school, synagogue and work. To my unexpected relief, the CBST community welcomed me with open arms and celebrated my rabbinic efforts. In many ways, the congregation was my rabbinic midwife. Unfortunately, not all GLBTQ Jews are fully welcomed or accepted for who they are as God created them.

    And so, it was with eagerness, enthusiasm and excitement, I accepted the invitation to participate in a post chaggim retreat of the rabbinic interns who had served at CBST over the past 15 years.  I looked forward to connecting with fellow travelers and rabbis (straight as well as GLBT) who courageously served and were transformed by this GLBT congregation and in turn have sought to transform the Jewish world, little by little. The world has changed dramatically in the past 15 – 20 years, in bold ways that I would neither anticipate nor imagine.

    Rabbi Ruthie Gelfarb

    Rabbi Ruthie Gelfarb

    The history books will tell the big picture story of how the United States moved from exclusion and silence to more mainstream acceptance of GLBT right. But each of us interns had our own personal stories to share and on the retreat we did. For me awareness real began, in 1987, the year I graduated Harvard College, a small group of students shly organized Harvard’s first Gay and Lesbian meal table in a residential college dining hall. While it seemed odd to me at the time, I now see it as the start my understanding. Returning to college to work as a rabbi and Senior Jewish Educator at the University of Chicago, I was aware of how much had changed. I spoke at the GLBT interfaith spirituality group, counseled queer Jewish students on applying to rabbinical school, and worked with reform, conservative and orthodox Jewish students –of all sexual orientations – to show Paper Dolls, a film about transgendered individuals who live and work in Israel.

    Upon reflection, I realize that some of the lessons I learned at CBST are particular to GLBTQ communities, but many more apply broadly to the Jewish community and inform my rabbinate.  I learned these lessons viscerally and not just intellectually.

    Creating a truly welcoming community takes a lot of work. A “welcoming” community looks into itself to better understand its prejudices, assumptions and fears. And then, a welcoming community reaches out to, makes visible, intentionally plans for and hopefully celebrates the uniqueness of its members.  I’ve made and continue to make lots of mistakes along the way. I try to learn from the experts— unique Jews themselves- be they gay, straight, single, married, parents, childless, adoptive/adopted, working class, affluent, ethnically and racially diverse, blended, or interfaith. To quote the Grammy winning band Coldplay, “No one said it was easy, but no one said it would ever be this hard!” Well, that’s the leadership task I and we’ve accepted for ourselves. It is hard work & holy work!

    *Outing = The act of disclosing one’s true sexual orientation without a person’s consent.

    Note: HUC-JIR alumni in attendance at the interns retreat in addition to Ruth Gelfarb were Rabbi Melissa Simon and Cantor Jason Kaufman.


  • High Holiday Tickets, Video-Streaming, and Mission

    Posted on July 29th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    As technology makes its way into every aspect of modern life, each community has to consider how to engage with the multitude of possibilities. This week’s guest bloggers Rabbi Robert B. Barr and Rabbi Laura Baum are pioneers in working with technology on multiple fronts to connect and expand their community. Through their work they are creating models that can be used in many settings.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    At this time of year it’s not uncommon for boards of congregations to reconsider their policy on High Holiday tickets.  For some congregations, ticket sales are a significant revenue stream.  For other congregations, tickets encourage unaffiliated individuals to join.  Some congregations use tickets to ensure that members have paid their dues in full, while others have dispensed with tickets all together.  Tickets at the High Holidays are used by congregations for a variety of reasons.  While we each may have our particular bias regarding High Holidays tickets, we probably can agree that there is no one “right way” to handle tickets.   Each approach has different outcomes – intended  and not.

    Rabbi Robert Barr

    Given that the notion of video-streaming services is a relatively new phenomenon it is worthwhile to consider it through the lens of ticket sales.  There is no one answer to whether a congregation should stream, why they should stream, and who their audience will be.  Streaming isn’t “one size fits all.”  There are different approaches that congregations can take which would reflect their values and sense of mission.

    At, we will stream the High Holidays for the fourth year.  Since our launch, our online services have been viewed by tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries around the world.  When we started streaming, our audio and video quality were not great, but people came online anyway, and they appreciated having the opportunity to “attend” the High Holidays.  Some came because they were homebound, others because they could not afford synagogue membership, others because they appreciated our unique liturgy and philosophy, others because they were geographically isolated.  The reasons were endless.

    One woman and her mother attended online and learned the power of online video streaming – all of a sudden a family separated by miles could attend services together.  A woman in DC who had to work watched our streaming services from her office, called her mother in Florida and told her to click on the link, and the two had a very powerful moment listening to the sound of our shofar together.

    Over time, we’ve needed to improve our technology and make significant financial and time investments in the technology – as people’s expectations continue to increase and technological change happens in what seems like nanoseconds!  We’ve also had to wrestle with meaningfully connecting to both our bricks-and-mortar congregants and those watching online.   By deciding to video-stream, there is a responsibility to ensure that the online participant has a quality experience.

    Rabbi Laura Baum is an initiative of Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH.  Our brick-and-mortar congregation’s vision is to be a spiritual home, a meaningful voice, and a humanistic resource for people worldwide, seeking a contemporary Jewish identity and experience.

    With that vision in mind and with funds available after 30 years of fiscal responsibility, our congregation decided to boldly launch an online congregation.

    We do not use technology for its own sake.  We use technology because it helps us move our congregation’s mission, vision, and values forward.  Just as philosophy guides our Jewish practice, our philosophy guides our use of technology.

    Each year, a few more congregations decide to video-stream.  For some, streaming doesn’t make sense.  After all, if you require tickets for the High Holidays why would you offer ticketless High Holidays online?  Some congregations still want to be able to stream for their members who may be homebound or travelling during the holidays.  Those congregations may offer their streaming on a password-protected basis, essentially requiring a “ticket” to watch.  For others like us, we never had tickets at our bricks-and-mortar congregation, so streaming for everyone made sense.  Beth Adam was so committed to reaching out that it expanded its rabbinic staff specifically to serve the needs of the online community.

    Lots of questions arise in congregation’s board rooms about streaming.  Are we encouraging folks not to join?  Are we sending a message to our members that they are footing the bill while others get it free?  Why would someone show up if they can watch it at home?  What does my congregation have to offer online that will be more enticing than showing up?  Can we afford the technology?  How will having video equipment in our sanctuary interfere with the experience of those physically present?  Do we have volunteers and/or employees who can invest the time in this?  How can we protect our members who do not want their attendance to be broadcast on the Internet?  What are the copyright issues if we stream and archive words and songs that others have written?  Will those watching online feel like participants or like voyeurs?  What will the quality look and sound like?

    Just like discussions about membership, tickets, and liturgy, there is no one answer when it comes to technology.  What we have found, though, is that a significant investment of time, energy, and resources is important not only in creating the technology – but also in thinking about how the technology fits with the philosophy, mission, vision, and values of the community.


  • God and Twitter: Helping Clergy Do What They Do Better

    Posted on June 21st, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments

    A few weeks ago, Rabbi Marci Bellows (@moosh2) got into a bit of trouble with the members of her youth group. Her sin? Not sending out a Shabbat Shalom tweet on a particularly Friday night. She was a little surprised by the outcry of disappointment. In the many months of sending out these Friday messages she had never heard back from any of her youth group followers. She was not in the least bit sure they were paying attention to her many Twitter missives. But clearly they were.

    Twitter is a social media that allows users to broadcast short messages no longer than 140 characters and followers to track these short bits of news and commentary. In October 2009, I (@rabbiruth) made some predictions on the ways Twitter might be used in a congregational setting. At the time there were a handful of rabbis, cantors and educators to be found using Twitter. While the specifics of that post have not materialized, Twitter has become a valuable tool with particular benefits in Jewish professional life. Today, there are many HUC-JIR alumni on Twitter, not to mention, accounts for HUC-JIR (@hucjir & @hucinci). Talking to some of those that tweet, it is clear that Twitter is playing a powerful role in the ways Jewish professionals do their jobs and live their lives.

    Avid Twitter users are often, like Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr (@FrumeSarah) who blogs and uses Facebook, or Rabbi Mark Hurvitz of (@rebmark) who has a professional focus technology, are heavy users of social media more generally. But experimentation and exploration is part of Twitter. At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Cantor Yonah Kliger (@CantorYonah) is a clergy leader when it comes to social media. He is still figuring out how best to use Twitter, as he explains, “I don’t think five years ago I understood power of Facebook or the potential. So when Twitter got into our consciousness I got this feeling I would get it, I wanted to get in earlier in the game, so now I have a presence and I’m taking a wait and see approach.”

    Even as he experiments with Twitter, Kliger has a clear strategy of mixing short personal and professional missives. Sharing about his kids and the upcoming adult b’nai mitzvah is part of his larger strategy for reaching out to families with young children. Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, (@lizwood1982) of Reform Temple of Forest Hills, New York, employs a similar approach. As she explains, “I tweet both personal and professional things from my account and I do so consciously and conscientiously.  I want my congregants to know I’m a person with a life…  Similarly, I post about our congregational activities because who I am is tied to my professional life as well.”

    One of the strong benefits Twitter allows Jewish professionals is the ability to broadcast their message far beyond their immediate community. As Wood explains, “we are quickly learning that people may not walk into our doors on a whim, but they will look us up online and when they can follow our activities on Twitter, they get a great sense of who we are.  People have told us they’ve come in to our events because of Tweets they saw.” For Rabbi Laura Baum (@JewsOnline) of Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, a bricks and mortar congregation that sponsors the online, Twitter is an essential element of building the virtual Jewish community. The first year, they tweeted updates from the Seder as each of the rituals took place in real time. “We heard from all sorts of people that this was the only Seder they had,” says Baum. Now tweeting the Seder is a regular practice as is tweeting Shabbat services and the High Holy Days. When Bellows writes an article she is able to use Twitter’s system of tags to alert groups, like those working for marriage equality or women’s rights, that she has posted a piece on the topic. This reaching out has helped her build a following that extends far beyond the traditional synagogue crowd and is global in reach.

    Twitter also creates real communities of support and connection for Jewish professional. Hurvitz points to the ability of Twitter, which unlike Facebook does not expect one to know someone before connecting, to allow him to “meet” “people from various Jewish “flavors” and in parts of the world that I had not encountered before.” Though not everyone chats with others on Twitter, those that do speak of strong ties that develop. Einstein Schorr does not necessarily expect those who don’t tweet to fully believe the depth of connection she has felt from a virtual community but for her the coming together has been significant, “At times of profound sadness, I have felt a kinship with a global community that was completely unexpected.”

    Twitters limitation, that you can only use 140 characters, which as Wood explains, means that “it’s hard to always get your point across in a way that you know can be either meaningful, or even useful.” But as Kliger points out, “the structure of the 140 characters is an interesting limitation on how we convey our thoughts with hands or paper we would have had difficulty limiting. It makes you mindful of how you communicate your thoughts and ideas.”

    Twitter is enhancing the work that many Jewish professionals do. Still sitting on the fence about whether to get involved? Hurvitz says, “Just do it!” Though Einstein Schorr warns, “It’s addictive.”

    Next week: Twitter and God Part II: Opening Up New Possibilities, a discussion of how Twitter is creating new modes of Jewish engagement.

    If you are looking for information on how to get started on Twitter, you can follow the step by step instructions written by Twitter or a great informative post on the topic, or  follow this link for a short video.


    For those already on Facebook and looking to consolidate a variety of social networks in one place consider a service like or


  • Welcoming Others

    Posted on May 3rd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    We learn in Midrash Tanuhma B, Hukkat that in paving the way for the people of Israel to make their way across the wilderness to Mt. Sinai, God smoothed out the landscape lest mountainous terrain make the people of Israel weary on their way to revelation. This vision of paving a smooth path for people toward the Torah is one that I would venture to say guides most Jewish professionals. Yet, those who we are trying to embrace often feel somewhat weary from the obstacles they encounter.

    Closing the gap between welcome we hope to extend and the welcome people experience is the work of the Jewish Welcome Network. Based in San Francisco, the Network emerged from the Bay Area communities’ need to address the diversity of those connected with and interested in connecting to the Jewish community. Founding Executive Director Karen Kushner, is aware that communal Jewish professionals don’t always recognize the ways in which newcomers or returnees to the Jewish communities encounter the community. Often being welcoming isJinterfaith Karen Kushner2 equated with watering down the content of Judaism. Kushner, who comes from a family with many rabbis, values the work of Jewish professionals and the values of our tradition. She works with Jewish professionals to consider how, even as we uphold the norms and practices of Judaism, we can help others hear our message of welcome.

    Based on her years of experience, as a therapist and with diversity of the Jewish world, Kushner has put together a significant library of materials on many topics that can help pave a smoother journey. According to Kushner, just putting a series of pamphlets in the lobby that signal that not everyone who walks in the door looks the same, knows Hebrew, has traditionally Jewish grandchildren, for example, can make a big difference to how people perceive their welcome. What I like about these booklets is that they are available online for easy download. They can be printed up in multiple copies for a waiting room or called up on demand in anticipation of a particular counseling or family concern. For example, Kushner’s most recent booklet explains in a straightforward, though not simplistic, manner, the meaning and rituals of

    Kushner also runs a listserv that keeps Jewish professionals connect, learn and grow with regards to creating welcoming community.

    As we count down towards matan Torah I hope that we will all be blessed with the ability to remove the barriers from those journeying towards the embrace of our tradition.