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  • Can Women Pray Out Loud? Some Rabbinic Sources

    Posted on October 24th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

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

    Anat Hoffman of Women at the Wall Being Arrested

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

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

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

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

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

    Author: Rabbi Judith Abrams

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

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

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

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

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


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

  • Music In Modern Israel

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

    Music always offers a wonderful way to connect to Israel and the diversity of Jewish life. As we look toward the marking of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, we offer this tour of ancient and modern music as seen through the eyes of Cantor David Berger of Congregation Tikvat Joseph of Manhattan Beach CA.


    This year I have the unique privilege of spending nine months in Jerusalem studying at the Hebrew University and teaching at the Hebrew Union College. Within a few blocks of my apartment in Jerusalem there are more synagogues than you can imagine.

    Situated right between the old alleyways and courtyards of Nachla’ot, and the bustling shopping of Ben Yehudah, my temporary home is just about a block away from the first Reform synagogue in Israel, Kehilat Har-El, on Shmuel Hanagid street. Bouncing between all these different types of Jewish communities gathered together in such close proximity, I am continuously reminded that the sounds of Judaism are so much more diverse than any one community can ever contain.

    Author: David Berger

    Some of these places preserve melodies that have been sung for hundreds of years, accompanying the community through different historical eras and geographical locations. Other places experiment with new types of musical expression, reaching out to the “secular” Israeli population by following the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – “May the old be renewed and may the new be holy.” I wish that I could personally take you with me on a tour of the exciting Jewish sounds all around my Jerusalem apartment, but instead, I’ll share some of those sounds and sites with you using Youtube.

    We’ll start at the “Great Synagogue Ades of the Glorious Aleppo Community.” This stunningly beautiful building in Nachla’ot is the center of the Syrian Jewish cantorial tradition. Every Saturday night, from Sukkot until Pesach, members of the community gather at 3:00 AM and sing piyutim (liturgical poems) and psalms for four hours in a ritual called “Bakashot.” After a whole night of singing, the community starts their Shabbat morning service at 7:00. It is quite the undertaking to visit, but the spirit and joy of the community makes it all worth it. Check out this video to get a sample of this Bakashot ceremony (filmed in 1976, but things haven’t really changed much).

    Moving from Nachla’ot to my favorite music store on Ben Yehuda Street, Hatav Hash’mini (The Eighth Note), I would love to share some of the newest Israeli popular music that takes Jewish texts and melodies once limited to the synagogue and gets them on the radio.

    Sagiv Cohen has combined traditional Yemenite melodies with contemporary pop arrangements on his new album Hal’lu. Listen for his Yemenite pronunciation of Hebrew on this recording of the 150th psalm.

    The New Jerusalem Orchestra released a live recording of their inaugural concert, lead by the incomparable Rabbi Haim Louk, the leader of the Moroccan cantorial world. This unique ensemble brought together Jazz, Arabic music, Classical music and modern Israeli music – something that has never really been done before. Listen to their recording of “Ya’alah Ya’alah,” a classic Moroccan festive song.

    Etti Ankari has been a major figure on the Israeli popular scene for 20 years. After six albums of beautiful, secular songs, she went through a religious transformation, and recently came out with an album of original melodies to religious poetry by Rabbi Yehudah Halevy (1075-1141). On this extraordinary album is a touching setting of Psalm 23 – watch her in a live performance here.

    Going back up Ben Yehuda Street, there is a new major Jewish institution on King George Boulevard, right next to the Jewish Agency building. Beit Avi Chai ( is a center that offers an unbelievable array of concerts, classes, programs and exhibits around issues of Israeli culture, Jewish tradition, food, music, theater… It is impossible to keep up with everything that goes on there. Check out this small sampling of exciting videos on their Youtube channel.

    Guy Zuaretz (an Israeli TV star) singing “Cuando El Rey Nimrod” in a concert of Ladino music:

    Here is a group performing the text “Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” from Psalm 23 to an Arabic melody:

    Here is a jazz ensemble performing a classic, nostalgic song made popular by North African Jewish singers about the city of Barcelona:

    Look around their Youtube channel – it is a tremendous treasury of the newest and coolest Jewish culture coming out of Israel today.
    For one more synagogue visit – I want to take you to an exciting new place called Nava Tehila

    This relatively new community meets once a month for Friday night services and offers continuing classes on Jewish spirituality and kabbalah. Mostly using their own melodies, this community reaches out to Israelis in a musical and spiritual language that feels natively Israeli. They post videos of their musicians performing many of their new melodies so that people can come to synagogue prepared to sing. Check out this melody for Psalm 98, part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service (and then look around the rest of the site)

    I wish that I could bring you into more places – but for now this taste will have to suffice. Jerusalem is alive with Jewish music and Jewish prayer that never ceases to amaze. Just when I think I’ve heard it all – I wander into another place and find myself enthralled with something I’ve never even imagined. As I enter my last few months of time here in Jerusalem, I wonder how I will be able to bring this music back to my synagogue in California. As Reform Jews, we are committed to an ever-expanding vision of Judaism. This year at your Passover seder, when you recite the words “L’shanah Haba’ah Birushalayim” – “Next year in Jerusalem” – and you think about the sounds and sites of the holy city, may you be inspired with a vision of Judaism and Jewish music that celebrates all the diversity and excitement Jerusalem can bring.

    This piece originally appeared on the American Conference of Cantors blog and was reprinted with permission.



  • Singing the Praises of our Mothers: A Tribute to Women Cantors

    Posted on August 10th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment


    Cantor Barbara Ostfeld

    Hebrew Union College has been in the forefront of  educating and empowering women to take leadership roles in Jewish life. 36 years ago, the HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music invested its first female cantor. Their voices have changed prayer for all of us, women and men alike. This week’s guest post by Cantor Erik Contzius describes a tribute to the voices of Jewish women throughout the ages.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Cantor Erik Contzius

    36 years ago, HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music  invested its first female cantor, Barbara Ostfeld. Since that time, women have greatly influenced the modern cantorate as well as the musical liturgy of the synagogue. Cantor Ostfeld was a true pioneer, becoming a role model to those women who immediately followed her through the halls of Hebrew Union College to today, where over half of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) is comprised of women.

    In honor of this double-khai anniversary, the American Conference of Cantors honored those female cantors in the ACC who joined from 1975-1985 at the American Conference of Cantors-Guild of Temple Musician’s annual convention in Boston in June, 2011. All of these women, each pioneers in her own right, were acknowledged for their contributions as well as their trailblazing at the convention. Presentations were made, a special service was performed, and I was fortunate enough to be included in honoring these well-deserving women.

    I was initially approached by my friend and colleague, Cantor Claire Franco, who asked if I would compose a choral work in honor of the ACC’s “Imahot,” marking the occasion most appropriately with a new song. I was very flattered and honored, but initially felt uncomfortable—as a man, was it right for me to attempt to give musical voice describing the path these women traveled? Upon further reflection, in an age of post-modernism and perhaps post-feminism, I was able to reconcile being asked to write such a work, but under one condition: In lieu of selecting a text from our rabbinic heritage, which would undoubtedly be written by men, I sought to find a text in the female voice, by a female voice.

    Dina Elenbogen

    With the help of another friend and colleague, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, I was introduced to a very talented writer and poet, Dina Elenbogen. I explained to Dina the need for a text which would give acknowledgement to women claiming their own voice and place in the role of a Cantor. I described it as a journey towards empowerment, acceptance, and leadership. Despite having a limited deadline, Dina’s talent came through, and a poem was born which painted a very powerful image, one of female strength and artistry, equal but distinct from men, and as Dina was inspired by my ideas, I was in turn inspired by her words.

    The result of this combined effort was the work, “A Woman’s Voice” (to listen see below) The choral work, written for Soprano and Alto choir and piano, was premiered in Boston by the very women whom were to be honored. They gave life to Dina’s words and my music, and the congregation of cantors and synagogue musicians was very moved by the gesture.

    I’m only 42. It doesn’t seem that young, but in regard to the modern cantorate, it is. But what it means to me is that for most of my life, the cantorate has not been biased towards one gender or the other. In fact, having grown up with a rabbi who filled both the role of rabbi and cantor, I was unaware of the cantor as a profession until I met my first one at a regional NFTY convention: Cantor Pamela Siskin. I recalled this strong memory to the cantors I was conducting for the premiere performance and how that memory paved the way towards my entering the profession myself.

    I anticipate that the influence and uniqueness that women have brought to the modern cantorate, and therefore to Judaism entirely, will only be magnified in the next 36 years to come. And that special voice, a woman’s voice, melded with the men’s voice which already is here, will continue to make beautiful music for the Jewish people. As it is written: “Sing a New Song unto God.” The song has become new and will continually do so as long as we see both men and women for the equals they are.

    To listen to a recording of click on this link: A Woman’s Voice

    A Woman’s Voice

    In the beginning      a whimper

    Pounding of heart-steps

    Whispers of open fists

    Prayer notes in stone

    Pounding of heart-steps

    Chirps of morning songs

    Prayer notes in stone

    The language of angels


    Chirps of morning songs

    A girl stands at the threshold

    Hears the language of angels

    Her own music breaking


    A girl-woman stands at the threshold

    Chants the first words of Torah

    Her own voice breaking

    Into stones with burning names


    When a woman chants the first words

    She finds inside her own voice

    Stones with burning names

    A cry becomes a scream


    She finds inside her own voice

    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    A cry becomes a scream

    A song of abundance


    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    When a woman reaches the highest note

    In her abundant song

    Even the stones begin to tremble.


    —Dina Elenbogen, March 2011

  • 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.


  • Prayers for 9-11

    Posted on April 27th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 5 comments

    Liturgy is an essential element for clergy planning memorial tributes, but in looking ahead towards the 10th anniversary of 9-11, several rabbis noted that the complexity and immediacy of the events might not be addressed by the traditional Jewish liturgy. In looking to fill this void I turned to Alden Solovy. A member Temple Beth Emet-The Free Synagogue in Evanston IL, Solovy has been blogging meditations and tefillot with contemporary themes and traditional resonances on his blog To Bend Light. He took up the challenge of creating liturgy for our communal needs at this time and writes in this second in a series on 9-11 of the challenges and possibilities that emerge.  Please let us know if you choose to use any of these prayers or offerings. And as always you are encouraged to send ideas and materials to add to the conversation.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder


    In the past two years I’ve written more than 150 new t’fillot, meditations and liturgical poems. Some take classic themes and put them in a modern voice (for example, “Israel: A Meditation”) and others take modern themes and give them a classic voice (for example, “In Memory of an Organ Donor”). Others take a new look at specific spiritual triumphs and challenges.

    Alden Solovy

    Writing prayers to commemorate 9-11 raised a variety of questions, among them:

    • Whether or not to use particularly charged words, like hero, victim or terrorist?
    • What voice to use, first person or third person, the voice of the witness or the survivor?
    • Whether or not to make distinctions – among others – between those who were on planes, those who were in targeted buildings, those who were in target zones, first responders, family members and those of us who witnessed from across the nation?
    • How or if to relate to the terrorist in prayer?

    For the most part, these prayers illustrate my answers. Two of these offerings are Yizkor prayers. The intent of creating Yizkor prayers is to provide family and friends with an ongoing liturgical response to their losses. Note that the Yizkor prayer for first responders has an intentionally broader focus than 9-11.

    Here they are, followed by links to several other prayers that may be useful to you in the context of developing a 9-11 commemoration.


    For 9-11 Survivors

    G-d of the survivor,

    G-d of the mourner and the witness,

    Grant solace and peace to those still held by physical, emotional and spiritual distress from the attacks of 9-11. Release them from visions of death and destruction, from guilt or shame, from fear or anger. Bind their wounds with Your steadfast love. Lift them on Your wings of kindness and grace.

    Blessed are those who have found peace.

    Blessed are those without tranquility.

    Blessed are those who speak.

    Blessed are those who stay silent.

    Blessed are those who have healed.

    Blessed are those who suffer.

    Blessed are those who forgive.

    Blessed are those who cannot forgive.


    Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, Source of strength for survivors of violence and tragedy in every land and in every age. Blessed are You, Rock of Israel, Source of hope and comfort.


    To the Terrorist

    You who would hold the sky captive,

    The sea prisoner,

    The land in chains…


    You who hide in caves,

    Retreat to the wilderness,

    Disappear behind false names and forged papers…


    You who smuggle guns and arms,

    Hide rockets in cities and bombs in homes,

    Build weapons against the innocent and the bystander…


    You whose designs are destruction,

    Whose plans are fear,

    Whose joy is hate…


    You who harden your hearts

    And wrap yourselves in death…


    What evil has robbed you of your love,

    Your compassion,

    Your goodness,

    Your humanity?

    What lies have invaded your minds

    So that you choose to die in order to kill?


    We who love our lives and liberty

    Stand firm and strong against terror.

    We will defend our nation and our people.

    We will protect our land and our homes.

    And we pray for you to find hope and comfort

    In lives of peace.


    At the Hand of Terror: A 9-11 Yizkor Prayer

    Creator of all,

    Source and shelter,

    Grant a perfect rest under your tabernacle of peace

    To ______________________ (name in Hebrew or your native tongue),

    My [ father / mother / sister / brother / child / wife / dear one/ friend ]

    Who died [ in / during / because of ]

    The 9/11 attacks on the United States.

    Remember the works of his/her hands

    And the message of his/her heart

    Remember all those who were lost in the terror of that day.

    Grant their families peace and comfort for Your name’s sake

    And for the sake of those who perished.

    Bring an end to violence and terror,

    Speedily, in our days.

    May the memory of _____________________ be sanctified with joy and love.

    May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life,

    A living blessing in our midst.


    Yizkor for First Responders

    G-d of the selfless,

    G-d of the strong and the brave,

    Grant a perfect rest among the souls of the righteous

    To ______________________ (name in Hebrew or your native tongue),

    My [ father / mother / sister / brother / child / wife / dear one/ friend ]

    Who died in service to others [ in / during / because of ]

    _________________________________________________ [name of event such as:

    [the 9/11 attacks on the Unites States, the Mount Carmel forest fire, etc.].

    May his/her  dedication to protecting life serve as a shining lamp of  love

    And the works of his/her  hands bring us all merit in heaven.

    Bless the souls of all who have died to save others,

    Civilians and professionals,

    The trained and the untrained,

    In every age and in every land,

    Men and women who answered the call of honor, duty and service.

    May the memory of _____________________ be sanctified with joy and love.

    May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life,

    A living blessing in our midst.


    Other prayers that may be useful in developing a 9-11 commemoration are:

    All of these works are © 2011 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved. Please see “Share the Prayer!” for permission instructions.


  • Towards an Engaged Jewish Future

    Posted on March 21st, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Being an alum of HUC-JIR means being part of a community of intellegent engaged Jewish professionals. When those professionals come together and share their passions and ideas, there is untold potential. A recent gathering of the Rhea Hisrch School of Education alumni capitalized on that potential. This week we welcome Rabbi Lydia Medwin who shares her reflection of the learning that went on.

    In a recent Day of Learning for RHSOE alumni, we spoke together on the topic of Jewish community – what it was and how to facilitate its being built.  After a communal breakfast, the alumni (which included a group of alumni who were video-conferenced in from New York) sat together with five panelists, who spoke about Jewish community from different vantage points: Community of Practice, Community of Learners, Community in Worship, Community through Action, and Community through Technology.  Each panelist presented on the ways in which they approached community building, followed by a question and answer period guided by the organizer of the day, Josh Mason Barkin.  The panel was followed by breakout groups where we discussed the implications of our previous conversation.  After lunch, we reconvened to brainstorm about ways in which we might further the goals of community building for our synagogues.  The following is an overview of what I perceived as the major take-aways from the day:

    Rabbi Lydia Bloom Medwin

    The sustaining and nourishing of the Jewish community is one of the foundational concepts upon which our synagogues stand.  It is a idea that includes nothing in particular, and everything in reality.  In some ways, it defies definition, because it’s so close to the center of everything that we do and are.  For what would a synagogue be that felt no sense of community?  Judaism emphasizes the community – we need a minyan of 10 people to pray a full service; we need a community to celebrate births and funerals and everything in between; we need each other to fill many of the basic commandments of our tradition.  And think of the implications – when we forge a thick social fabric, we also weave meaning into our lives, create a safe place for those who are alone, afraid, and in need, establish a refuge from the outside world in which we can consider a different kind of world, one that is slower, more thoughtful and self-reflective, one in which we are heard and in which our voice counts.  We can seek the Divine in community in a way that is different from our private seeking.  We can make changes in our innermost selves when we allow other people to join us on our journeys.  We can also begin to make some of those changes in the outside world, in our public lives, with the help of our community.

    And yet, as Jewish professionals, we struggle every day to help facilitate this sense of community.  We try desperately to imbue in our congregants a feeling that we need their presence to be fulfilled, and that they need us in many ways too.  We try to convey the message that they belong to the Temple, and that the Temple, their Jewish community, and indeed the entire Jewish people, belongs to them too.  They are, in fact, the Jewish people – not an idealized, Fiddle-on-the-Roof type of Judaism that (may have) existed long ago; not the small group of Ultra Orthodox Jews that our so many of our congregants consider the “real deal religious Jews;” and not us professional Jews that many have handed over their Jewish identities to.  Some clergy and educators risk sinking into resignation and despair when considering this uphill battle, and if we continue to think about community in the same old way, they will have reason to be sad.  Jewish community can no longer be about professionals planning programs for congregants.  It can no longer be about the professionals knowing what is good for our congregants.  It is not about a show and it is not about perfection.  Jewish community IS about getting into deep conversation with each other, one cup of coffee at a time.  Jewish community is about collaboration and making decisions based on broad-based consensus.  It is about creating a place where people can come to take off their masks, to share what matters in their lives, to not always be right but instead to just be.

    There is great power in the Jewish community – we are diverse, resourced, smart, and innovative.  We are risk-takers and, despite our geographic spread, we are quite hamishy.  We have much potential in our offerings to greater numbers of our own congregants, in addition to those thousands of unaffiliated Jews out there still in search for a spiritual home.  We need to re-envision community at every level, from its implications for how we make decisions to the values we hold up as most important.  We need to look serious at alternate models of membership and dues payment.  We should reexamine our stance on B’nai Mitzvah and its real relevance to our Jewish youth as disconnected from religious schools.  We should also take another look at the way we bring ever more people into the center of the synagogue, into leadership training, and into a way of life that emphasizes experimentation, honest self-reflection, and a devotion to helping our congregants discover their own gifts and promote areas of growth.  Most of all, we need to highlight the importance of relationship – between clergy and educators who work towards the same goals, between professional staff and lay people whose teamwork make the Jewish world go round, and between lay people and lay people who actually build the social fabric of the Jewish community in rich and colorful ways.  For while we can facilitate this process, the professional staff of a synagogue cannot fabricate community building for our communities.  Jewish lay people must be highly involved if we are to see the reemergence of an organic, holistic, and healthy Jewish community of tomorrow.

    It was these kinds of conversations that were just beginning to emerge at our most recent Rhea Hirsch School of Education Day of Learning hosted at HUC-LA recently.  While the work ahead of us is great, the reward is greater.  I hope this conversation will be continued in the months and years ahead.

  • 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.

  • Prayer for Difficult People

    Posted on October 3rd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments


    The holidays are the highest stress period for those of us working as professionals in the Jewish world. Some of the most difficult people in our communities only show up once a year, but then they come en masse.  The people who are normally difficult show up more frequently. And throughout, the increase pressure and time commitments can deplete our patience. As the High Holidays of 5771, fade into the regular rythms, Rabbi Mark Sameth (HUC-JIR ’98) shares his thoughts on dealing with difficult people. Mark is a congregational rabbi in Pleasantville, New York, and tweets on Jewish Meditation from Fourbreaths.

    Rabbi Mark Sameth

    The rabbis taught – as if it might have escaped our attention – that everyone has a yetzer ha ra, and everyone a yetzer tov; everyone has an inclination toward the bad, and everyone an inclination toward good. It may sound defeatist, but the rabbis were optimists. The fact that the definite article ha appears in the term yetzer ha ra and is absent in the term yetzer tov was understood as meaning that, although we may incline toward the bad situationally, or predictably in certain specific interactions, the issue is not characterological; our general inclination is toward the good.

    Still, every once in a while we do meet someone who could be described as a toxic personality. It can be very damaging to be with such people. There are strategies and resources to deal with such destructive personalities. For readers of this blog – rabbis, cantors, and educators – one such very good resource is Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior (Alban Institute).

    Difficult people should not be ignored, cannot be ignored. But focusing too much energy on them comes at a cost. The unspoken needs of less obstreperous people who might actually benefit from our help can be overlooked. And focusing too much energy on difficult people comes at another cost as well, a very personal cost, which we would do well to be mindful of especially at this season. We can spend so much time and energy focused on a few difficult people and the teshuva they need to make, that we overlook our own need for cheshbon nefesh, overlook our need to make our own teshuva. Difficult people can keep us very busy – and the yetzer has no greater tool than busyness.

    Our tradition understands the yetzer as wily in the extreme. We need therefore to be even more artful in our own choice of responses. Sometimes the yetzer needs to be called out, confronted. Sometimes it can be reasoned with. Sometimes it responds only to threats. Sometimes it is susceptible to diversion. Sometimes it can be sweet-talked. Sometimes it will quiet down if we throw it a bone, or let it ride in the back seat. And sometimes it can be thrown off its stride if we can get it to laugh.

    In that spirit I offer the following prayer. Seriously. And may the coming year be a little less difficult for all of us, and for all of them.

    A Prayer for Difficult People

    O God, Creator of difficult people, bless me with the strength, fortitude, wisdom and equanimity of spirit to deal with the difficult people You have placed in my life. Grant me the ability to see the next disaster well enough in advance to dodge, divert, or otherwise disable it before it happens, or at least to minimize its ill effects. May my buttons be hidden from view so that Your difficult people may not so easily press them next time as they have done so very well of late. May You grant sufficient insight to Your difficult people in order that they may come to understand – speedily and in our day – how truly difficult they are, knowing they would surely turn from their difficult ways were they possessed of even the slightest bit of self-awareness. Open the hearts of these Your difficult people to feel compassion for the pain and stress which, sometimes by their actions and oftentimes by their mere demeanor, they have caused in my life, are causing in my life now, and without Your divine intervention seem inevitably ready to cause again. Open their eyes, O God, so that they may see the truth of the situation as You and I, O God, see it: that I am not fundamentally an unhappy person, and that my unhappiness therefore rests with them and with their oh so difficult ways.

    O God, Creator of difficult people, it has no doubt come to Your attention (through the prayers of others) in spite of all You know about my good heart, my good intentions, my good work, and my just overall basic goodness that I am myself at the moment considered a difficult person in the life of another one of Your creatures (maybe more; I didn’t get the whole story). Putting aside for the moment the irony of that one, causing pain and suffering is, of course as You know, the last thing I would ever want to do. Help me therefore, O God, to no longer be the difficult person in someone else’s life. Whether through my need to express myself, or my difficulty expressing myself; whether because of my tendency to criticize, or my need to say that everything is OK when it’s not; whether because I am perceived as expecting too much, or expecting too little; whether through my tendency toward compulsiveness, or toward inattentiveness; due to the way I express my anger, or to the way I express my love;  whether because I never seem to be there, or because I always seem to be there; whether because of my need for orderliness, or my need for spontaneity; because I feel the need to be alone more these days, or because I feel a greater need to be with people; because I always want to talk, or because I never want to talk; because of the way I express my fear, or because of the way I express my desire. O God, Creator of difficult people, help me – knowing so very well how it feels – help me to not be the difficult person in someone else’s life. Rabbi Mark Sameth

  • What is God? Praying to One

    Posted on September 2nd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    More than at any other time of year, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, demand that we grapple with our understanding of God. This week, Rabbi Larry Bach of Temple Mount Sinai, in El Paso TX, writes about his struggles with the liturgy and the evolution of his understanding of the Divine.

    Rabbi Larry Bach

    As we move into Yamim Hanora’im, some of us will find ourselves face-to-face with a familiar dilemma: the challenge of praying “face-to-face” with a God who is so intensely personalized in our liturgy. “God as Person,” it seems to me, is even more present in the machzor than the siddur. This is certainly true for North American Reform Judaism today, where experiencing the polyvocality of Mishkan T’filah year-round sets us up for a jarring experience upon returning to Gates of Repentance, so thoroughly (almost uniformly) couched in the language of dialogue.

    My own struggles with saying “You” while in prayer are an outcome of my explorations in the world of Jewish mindfulness. Through meditation, prayer, study, and observation, I’ve come to experience God not as other, but as All. Ein od – there is nothing else. How then, to speak to a separate being, a “You” when experience tells me that it’s all One?

    One option, which has worked for me up to a point, is to mentally “translate into monist.” While speaking to God as Other, I attempt to offer a running, internal commentary, hearing kavvanot in my head that allow me to reflect on the theme of that  particular prayer through the lens of my own theology. Often, these kavvonot present themselves in the Bronx-inflected lilt of my teacher, Sheila Peltz-Weinberg, a master at praying aloud in this way. As I speak the words, “Cause us, O Eternal God, to lie down in peace, and raise us up, O Sovereign, to life renewed…” my mind might be offering this prayer: “May this evening be one of attunement to YHWH, the Breath of All Life, and may that attunement manifest in me as a sense of peacefulness. Resting peacefully, may I be restored in body and spirit, so that I can stand up tomorrow with energy and strength to meet the day.” This practice works well for me on many levels, not the least of which is “keeping my head in the game” and not drifting toward a mindless rehearsal of words, disguised as religious leadership.

    And yet, what is so satisfying intellectually can sometimes leave me cold, emotionally. And since I believe that prayer is as much about the heart as the head, I’m going to try something very different each year. I’m going to offer up each “You” with all my heart and soul, and see what arises. My kavvanot as I take on this practice will come from two teachers, Alexander Susskind of Grodno (d. 1793) and Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943).

    Susskind, a Lithuanian Kabbalist, wrote Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avodah, which explores various aspects of prayer and mindfulness. The selection below is anthologized in Yissachar Dov Rubin’s T’lalei Orot:

    When you say baruch atah imagine that the Creator is actually standing there, in your presence. That’s what’s implied in the second-person singular form, atah. This intention is an important part of praying, praising, and offering thanks. Don’t just “go through the motions!” Have it in mind when you say “Blessed are You…” that there really is a “You” confronting you. After all, “The fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

    The second text comes to us by way of the Warsaw Ghetto, and is from Sefer Aish Kodesh, the Shoah-era commentary of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno (1889-1943). On the opening verse of Ki Tezei, Shapira offers a beautiful and creative Hasidic rereading.

    “When you go to war against your enemies…” When you are in a bad place, in “wartime”…

    “..put ‘YHWH, your God’ in your hands…” Pray “You” from the depths of your heart. Take refuge in the fact that “YHWH is your God,” and that divinity is present to you, personally…

    “…and return, come back.” We pray, “Bring us back, O YHWH, to You,” and God says, “Return to me.” How is that accomplished? When we make God present in our prayers, we and God are returned to each other.

    Together, these teachings have helped me to recontextualize my struggle against saying “You” when I pray. I find in them – particularly in the Piaseczner – an invitation to be more imaginative at prayer. These mystics understood ein od just as I do (l’havdil….they understood it far more deeply!), and yet they invest their “You” with power and meaning. With their teachings in my repertoire, I find myself less concerned with reinterpreting my way toward some “theological correctness” when I encounter the metaphor of God as Other. Instead, see it for what it is: a metaphor.

    In saying “Blessed are You” to some Other, I no longer feel as though I’m denying reality as I understand it in light of my meditation cushion; rather I am affirming it in a new and profound way.