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  • The Ten Commandments: What’s The Point?

    Posted on May 13th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Often times I see the “Ten Commandments” displayed on boards in synagogues, above the Parochet, on walls of praying spaces, in religious school classes- each commandment followed by an exclamation mark, for example:
    You shall not kill! ! לא תרצח
    You shall not Still! לא תגנוב!
    Even in places where the exclamation mark is not actually printed, it could be heard in the tone of the imperative form, as we are traditionally accustomed to read it.
    Could it be read differently?

    Author: Rabbi Oshrat Morag

    Placing a question mark
    In her poem “We All Stood Together” , Merle Feld describes how in Sinai, men and women have witnessed the revelation and received the Torah together. However, as the poem continues, a voice of frustration arises; due to lack of time and availability (staying home and taking care of babies) women’s interpretations throughout Jewish history were not documented. This poem represents the first stage of what feminist theologians such as Rachel Adler and Judith Plaskow (among others) describe as the realization of inequality which leads to critic. In the second stage, feminist readings of traditional texts try to reconstruct the lost voices; as readers of texts as well as writers of texts, giving voice to women in texts along with suggesting new ways of reading texts, or listening to them.
    The first stage includes the realization that traditional texts are the product of male interpretation; reflecting their theological, social, cultural understandings. Feminist approach to those texts often places question marks on what is considered “facts” or the “truth” in order to create possibilities for different interpretations which represent women’s experiences. The interpretation of עשרת הדיברות as I would like to suggest here, puts such a question mark.
    The “Ten Commandments”, and for that matter all commandments, are named in English “commandments”- meaning, orders that come from a hierarchal status, in this case from God. In Hebrew the word מצווה comes from the root צ.ו.ה meaning to order, however the use of the word mitzvah refers explicitly to God’s orders . The notion of commandment might be expected in a patriarchal theology where God is hierarchal; He is a Ruler, a King, Lord of Hosts. A God in those images can only speak to us in orders, in commandments. The power of figures such as kings and rulers lies in the ability to put sanctions and punishments on us, should we not follow the commandments.
    Language is limiting human expressions of theological experience, as it is a representation of human experiences and knowledge and a reflection of those on the image of God. Jewish feminists, motivated to add women’s experiences and knowledge to the Jewish conversation , produced other images of God , suggesting mostly non-hierarchal ones. When viewing God as non-hierarchal I would like to place a question mark on the terminology of “commandments” and ask which word might be most fitting to replace it.

    Taking away the exclamation mark
    The “Ten Commandments” are not named “mitzvoth” in Hebrew but rather are called: דברים (in Shmot 20:1) or דיברות (for example in Bavli Shvuot 39a), meaning some form of speaking. God is speaking to all the people in Sinai and sets ten basic points to what might be considered ground rules for the affirmation of the covenant between us. These words are followed by Parashat Mishpatim, in which the words, that are very general, turn into more elaborating sentences- describing the ideal moral behavior.
    In that light, God could be imagined more as a Guide, or as an Educator who is trying to teach us how to create a just and moral society, and how to become good-doing individuals of that society, rather than a Tyrant who orders us how to behave. The image of an Educator or Guide bears somewhat of the authority that I find easier to accept, since it suggests an authority that is based on experience or knowledge that I don’t share or understand, as well as the good intention for my well-being and that of society . God sets before us many more teachings throughout the Torah, and towards the end, in Parashat Re’eh, we are given the Choice ; we have learned what is right and what is wrong, we are aware of the consequences for following each path, but at end it is our choice to make and we are held responsible for it.
    Using the terminology of “teachings” for “commandments” does not come to devalue their meaning or content. I used to say that as a religious person I feel commanded to follow God’s commandments. By changing the terminology I do not feel any less committed to follow the teachings; if anything it enhances my sense of partnership in the Covenant. Changing the terminology is simply asking to take away the exclamation marks that we supposedly have at their end. By doing so, we open new possibilities for reading the “Ten Teachings”.

    Moving toward the point
    In formal and informal education, we assume, or more accurately, hope that the seeds of values that we plant in the minds of children grow with them along the years. We sometimes see the results specifically in difficult situations; should the right choice be made we know the values have been well implemented and correctly applied.
    Viewing God’s teachings in that light, a point takes the place of the exclamation mark, which enables us to read the “Ten teachings” not as orders but rather as a prophecy of our behavior. It may be perceived as if God shares with us our future selves, as if God says to us :

    I am your God. (I took you out of Egypt as salves and now you are the People of Israel)
    If you follow my teachings (and not the teachings and values of [American] Idols)
    You will remember Shabbat. (that it is a sacred day as well as a social one).
    You will honor your parents. (they are your Guides as well and want the best for you)
    You will not kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or lie, or covet. (Because whenever an instinct or a drive to do wrong appears, you will make the right choice).
    With a point at the end.

    We All Stood Together/ Merle Feld

    My brother and I were at Sinai
    He kept a journal
    of what he saw
    of what he heard
    of what it all meant to him

    I wish I had such a record
    of what happened to me there

    It seems like every time I want to write
    I can’t
    I’m always holding a baby
    one of my own
    or one for a friend
    always holding a baby
    so my hands are never free
    to write things down

    And then
    as time passes
    the particulars
    the hard data
    the who what when where why
    slip away from me
    and all I’m left with is
    the feeling

    But feelings are just sounds
    the vowel barking of a mute

    My brother is so sure of what he heard
    after all he’s got a record of it
    consonant after consonant after consonant
    If we remembered it together
    we could recreate holy time
    sparks flying


    Rabbi Oshrat Morag currently lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina and is pursuing a doctorate in Feminist Theology at HUC-JIR.


  • The Christian Bar Mitzvah: A Rabbi’s Take

    Posted on January 16th, 2013 Special Contributor 2 comments

    Last week, this article,The Sisterhood’s Christian Bar Mitzvah: Can Jewish Ritual Be Borrowed?, was flying all about the internet, causing quite a bit of commotion among my colleagues. I read it with interest and, quite honestly, some amount of discomfort. Because at first glance, the idea of a non-Jew borrowing such a definitively Jewish ritual caused a near-paralyzing pain in mykishkes.


    The motivation behind the article was a clip from the new TLC series, The Sisterhood, a reality show showcasing the lives of five pastors’ wives in Atlanta. In the second episode, Pastors Brian and Tara Lewis reveal that they are “throwing him [their 13-year-old son] a Bar Mitzvah…a Christian Bar Mitzvah.”

    Rituals, throughout history, have been borrowed, shared, appropriated, reappropriated, co-opted, and just plain stolen from neighboring cultures, faiths, and ethnicities. The idea of syncretism is, therefore, not a new one. Yet, when someone takes one of “our” rituals, it feels like a personal attack.

    Author: Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

    My experience with the Rabbis Without Borders program has had a profound influence on my ability to recognize the possibility of multiple truths in other faith communities. In other words, you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right — an idea explored by my teacher, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, in his book by the same name. Prior to my involvement in this cutting-edge think-tank, my views were far more narrow-minded and I lacked a framework in which I could understand much of the current American religious landscape. So while my initial reaction was a visceral one bordering on revulsion, my second reaction was far more reasoned.

    The notion of marking the crucial point in a young person’s life when he or she becomes responsible for his or her own religious decisions, beliefs, and behaviours is a wonderful thing. There is no reason why it ought not be universally celebrated in each and every culture and faith community. At age thirteen, or thereabouts, the critical thinking skills evolve to a much greater extent and the teen is beginning the long, though essential, process of establishing an identity separate from the parents. It is the terminology, however, that becomes problematic. To call something a “Bar Mitzvah” has certain societal implications; the first of which being that the individual is Jewish. And in the case of Pastor Brian and Tara Lewis’s son, he isn’t.

    On Monday, I participated in a lively, if not frustrating, conversation about this very topic on Huffington Post Live. The panel included Pastors Brian and Tara LewisDr. Julian Baggini (philosopher), Dr. Ron Lindsay (ethicist/secular humanist), and me.

    Borrowing Bar Mitzvahs

    If only we had been discussing the topic with which host, Josh Zepps, had led the program: the decision of which faith traditions to celebrate in marriages between faiths. That would have been an interesting and insightful dialogue. But Pastors Brian and Tara don’t exactly consider themselves an interfaith marriage. They see themselves as “true Jews.” They used their appearance as a platform for their own legitimacy and to witness to others with their understanding of Christianity.

    So here is my question for you? What are your thoughts about a Christian Bar Mitzvah in the way I described? As a coming-of-age ritual meant to sanctify one’s reaching the age of religious obligation?

    Oh, and one final thing:

    The cake doesn’t have to be in the shape of a Torah.
    The term ‘bar mitzvah’ is Aramaic, not Hebrew.
    And for the record, Pastor Brian, one absolutely does give up being Jewish when accepting Jesus as the Messiah. That Jew is considered an apostate.

    Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s piece originally appeared on her blog This Messy Life. She is the editor of the CCAR newsletter.

  • Building Your Own Ketubah

    Posted on December 5th, 2012 Special Contributor 1 comment

    A Modern Ketubah

    At Congregation Beth Adam and (our bricks-and-mortar synagogue in Cincinnati and our global online synagogue), for more than 30 years we’ve been writing new liturgy reflecting our values as modern Jews.  As a community, Beth Adam’s members have invested energy and resources in publishing services that speak to a contemporary Jewish experience.  Our services give voice to a Judaism that celebrates personal autonomy, values diversity, and appreciates the evolving nature of Judaism; our liturgy has been core to defining our community’s uniqueness.

    Recognizing a need, a small group of Beth Adam’s members joined together to write a ketubah that would be consistent with our voice.  One of our congregational values states: we value acknowledgement of each congregant’s religious and spiritual journey supported through our unique liturgy.   Our goal has always been to say what we mean and mean what we say.

    For a ketubah, that meant challenging ourselves to think about the nature of modern marriages and how to speak about them in a poetic and meaningful way.  We sought to create a text which would give expression to Judaism’s ever-unfolding religious experience and promote humanistic values of intellectual honesty, open inquiry, and human responsibility.

    Rabbi Robert Barr

    Before setting out to write our own text, we learned about the past and how our ancestors approached their Judaism.  Dr. Samuel Greengus from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion came to Beth Adam and taught us about the traditional ketubah and its basic structure and legal aspects.  Not surprisingly, our congregants quickly noted that the traditional text is far from romantic or egalitarian – and that it is not meaningful to most people today.

    While certainly there are many options for modern ketubah texts available these days, we sought to create a ketubah that was more customizable.  Recognizing that “one-size-fits-all” doesn’t make sense when each relationship is unique, we decided to use a model similar to a Chinese food menu or the Build-A-Bear ® store – completely customizable.  We created a series of categories (love, marriage, home, family, and traditions) and then within each category provide multiple sentences that people can choose from for their ketubah.  That means that each ketubah is a reflection of each individual couple’s sentiments and vision for their marriage.  Creating the ketubah also provides a great way for engaged couples to reflect upon their relationship and to envision their hopes for the future.

    Of course, we also recognize the diversity of families – and it goes without saying that we created a document that works for every kind of partnership, whether straight or gay, interfaith or Jewish-Jewish.  We also provided options for couples who already have children and want to acknowledge and celebrate the blending of their families.  The texts work well for first or subsequent marriages.  We think our ketubot are a perfect fit for many unaffiliated Jews, Reform Jews, secular Jews, humanistic Jews, and interfaith couples looking to capture their most important feelings on their wedding days.

    Author: Rabbi Laura Baum

    For example, in the section on family, interfaith couples may include this sentiment: “We hope to welcome children into our family and will raise them with kindness and patience, creating a family that reflects the best of our individual traditions.”  Families with step-children may include: “We are patient and kind to each other and each other’s children.”  And others may choose not to mention children in their ketubah: “We are creating a family that embodies our shared values of compassion, respect, and individual responsibility.”

    Beyond personalizing the text, couples can choose from several artistic looks and can select to include a biblical phrase as a decorative element.  All of the choices are made available to people at our new website.

    As rabbis, it is amazing to be part of a community that has created a liturgy in which we say what we mean and mean what we say.   It is exciting that from here in Cincinnati, we are helping people around the world give voice to their dreams for their future together.  Our ancestors created services and documents that reflected their beliefs and the world in which they lived.  We have that same opportunity and responsibility today.  We are thrilled that through the Internet, we can now share these texts with those outside the walls of Beth Adam – providing others with a chance to give expression to their unique Jewish journey.

    Authors Rabbi Robert Barr and Rabbi Laura Baum serve both Congregation Beth Adam and

  • Serious or Silly: Making Meaning from Jewish Superstitions

    Posted on August 6th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 7 comments

    By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

    Do you spit three times when you see a funeral procession go by or even when you hear good news? Or do you feel compelled to pull on your ears if you sneeze while speaking about someone who is dead? And do you tie a red string on a baby’s crib to keep the evil eye away?

    Most likely, you’re either thinking- “Oh my goodness, I thought I was the ONLY one who did that,” or you may be thinking, “that is ridiculous and just some crazy superstitions.”

    Author: Emily Losben-Ostrov

    Well, despite the fact that one of our central prayers- the Aleinu reminds us to strive for the day when, “superstition no longer blinds the mind,” we, as Jews, have many, many superstitions. For some of us, the superstitions can be seen as mere customs, such as “throwing salt over your shoulder if you knock over the salt shaker, or uttering certain words to prevent something bad from happening like saying, “Ken-eyin-o’hara.”


    Personally, I’ve been interested in Jewish superstitions and Jewish magic for as long as I can remember, but it even became part of my rabbinical world when I took Dr. Susan Einbinder’s class “Magic and Popular Belief in Medieval Ashkenaz” in the Spring of 2007 while a student on the Cincinnati Campus. In this incredibly interesting course we studied all kinds of texts and learned about Jewish traditions on the “power” of amulets, reciting various psalms, and eating “magic foods” and much more.

    A few months ago this course became a practical issue at my congregation when a debate ensued over an upcoming meal. A recent widow had donated some of her untouched leftovers from when she had been sitting Shiva. Two other women wanted to use that food for a synagogue function and two different women couldn’t possibly dream of eating that food, holding fast to the idea that “you never take food from a Shiva House.” Was this a real custom or simply a ridiculous superstition? Was it even food from a Shiva House if the widow was no longer sitting Shiva? As you can imagine, there were more opinions than people involved in this debate. The particulars aside, the bigger issue was, how do we, as Jews look at superstitions?

    What I learned was that, it didn’t matter what the superstition is, because to one person it is a custom, an important tradition that ties them to their Judaism and to another person it was simply “ridiculous” or antiquated act or belief. In many ways, some of what we do for certain holidays or dealing with death may now be considered custom, but could have at sometime been considered mere superstition. And just as we liberal Jews decide which mitzvot have meaning, for many of us, we decide which superstitions or customs also have meaning. When I pull on my ears after sneezing while speaking of someone who passed away, I do it because my grandmother used to tell me to do it- it connects me to my traditions my history. I don’t know that I believe in any repercussions from not doing it, but I am just compelled to do it and it makes me smile and think of my beloved grandmother.

    To deal with the debate from the women in my congregation, I began doing some research, posed a question on Facebook and then even offered a class entitled- “What’s a Jew to do- A look at the differences between superstitions, customs and laws.” The class afforded us the opportunity to get to the real meanings behind what we do. Not only was the class fun and really successful, but I also learned about more Jewish superstitions than I could ever have imagined!

    So let me know what you think, do superstitions help highten your sense of Jewish tradition? Or do they take away from the real business of Jewish life? I’d love to hear your opinions and add your superstitions to my growing list. In the meantime, here is a list of 10 more of my “favorites:”

    1. You should never have a baby shower or buy anything for a baby before it’s born. (In fact, we don’t even say “Mazel Tov, but rather B’sha’ah Tovah to a pregnant woman.)
    2. If a child is laying on the floor and you step over him, you must walk back over him or he won’t grow anymore (my mother was a strict enforcer of this one!)
    3. A pregnant woman is not supposed to go to a cemetery.
    4. Don’t open an umbrella in the house (or it will rain at your wedding).
    5. Don’t put a hat on the bed or there will be a death.
    6. IF you eat an olive, you have to have at least two (a lone olive is only eaten as part of the meal after a funeral).
    7. Don’t put shoes on a dresser or a table or bad luck will ensue.
    8. Never sew clothes while someone is wearing them and if you must, tell the person wearing the clothes to chew on a string.
    9. When you move into a new house you must make sure to have a broom, salt, sugar, loaf of bread (or flour) and of course a mezzuzah, and it’s even more good luck to move in right before Shabbat.
    10. Give Tzekadakah to someone embarking on a trip (especially to Israel) to ensure his safety as he becomes a “Shaliach Mitzvah” and donate the money while away. (Though this could be up for debate as for being a superstition, or a custom.)

    When it comes to Jewish superstitions, these are just the tip of the iceberg. What other superstitions do you know and even hold by? Or do you think these are all just “bubbe-meizas” (old wives tales) that no longer hold a place in our Jewish tradtion? While I don’t need to become any more superstitious, God-Forbid; I’d love, God-willing, to hear what you have to say!

  • How to Teach Moral Wisdom

    Posted on August 1st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    דאמר רבי ישמעאל בר רב נחמן

    עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה

    מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה ט פסקה ג

    Rabbi Yishmael Bar Nachman said:  Derekh Eretz preceded the Torah by 26 generations

    -Midrash Rabbah Vayikra


    Summer camps and beach holidays, ice cream and blockbusters; even as we relax and indulge the march towards the High Holy Days has begun. The practical components not withstanding, the spiritual journey is complex. Elul is still weeks away, but Tisha B’Av has just passed and opened the doors of contemplation.

    Baseless hatred was the cause of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and even if we are not inclined to rebuild we cannot fail to recognize the corrosive power of negative speech and mean spirits. How tenuous the life of a community when we all do our best, kal va’khomer, all the more so when malice and negativity invade.

    Before there was a Temple, before there was Torah, there was derekh eretz- the way of the land, the natural path, simple wisdom. It was straying off that natural path, into the briar patch of pettiness and small mindedness that got us stuck and created destruction. If we want to do teshuvah, really repair the wrongs, then we need to return to the way of the land, to the simple wisdom that would have us make right and thoughtful moral choices in the world.

    This is the drum that psychologist Barry Schwartz beats loudly. Known for his work on choices, he has recently turned his attention to common place wisdom. Schwartz traces the origins of practical wisdom to Aristotle, who saw it as a combination of moral will and moral skill. As he explained in a recent TED talk, “A wise person knows when and how to make an exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to use these [moral] skills in pursuit of the right aims.” Someone who is wise, knows how to improvise and does so in a way that helps not hurts others. This kind of wisdom can, for example, turn a hospital janitor into an essential element not just of hospital maintenance but of patient care and wellness, for the janitor who goes against her supervisor’s directive and does not vacuum the waiting room, allows the family sitting vigil to catch vital moments of sleep.

    Critically, Schwartz, contends that practical wisdom can and should be taught. From where he stands that learning comes through experience and through being allowed to try and fail. But there is also a need for mentoring. Or in the words of our tradition,

    “רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה.” (משנה אבות ג יז


    Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: without Torah there is no derekh eretz, without derekh eretz there is no Torah. –Pirkei Avot 3:17

    Derekh Eretz may have predated the Torah, as practical wisdom which knows no religious or tribal boundaries ought to, but it is the specific precepts of Torah that shape our understanding of what is right.

    When he was setting down the foundation for modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch took the phrase,  תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ Torah with derekh eretz, (also from Pirkei Avot) as the basis for his vision. He focused less on the element of derekh eretz as practical wisdom but on the element in our tradition that sees it as engaging in the world, earning a living and abiding by the customs of the general community. As he explained in his commentary on Avot, “Derech Eretz includes everything …this term especially describes ways of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order. It also includes the customs and considerations of etiquette, that the social order generates as well as everything concerning humanistic civil education.” His main concern was making sure that observance of Torah did not eclipse the practical elements of modern life.

    For modern Reform Jews, Hirsch’s understanding of derekh eretz in well within our grasp. On the whole, we are successful in the boarder world, we participate in the social and communal fabric of modern society with ease and achievement. But it is possible, that if we focus exclusively on that understanding of derekh eretz alone, we will miss out on the other fundamental meaning of the term, its link to Torah and the power that comes from the combination of the two.

    Tisha B’Av opens up a conversation about what pulls apart that which is most precious to us, it reminds us of what hangs in the balance with our simple actions, like speech. Derekh eretz is the beginning of the redemption, the use of the common wisdom that keeps our tongue from speaking evil our lips from telling lies. But as essential as derekh eretz –in both its practical wisdom and engage with the secular world meanings- is, it is only a starting point. We step from this general wisdom in Av into the rituals of Elul, the blowing of the shofar, the singing of slichot, culminating in the very particularistic rituals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that define for us clearly the blueprint that is Torah and Jewish practice.

    Derekh eretz is essential to creating community and success but it does not happen in a vacuum. As Schwartz reminds us, it must be learned and reinforced. His worry about lack of leadership, overlooks the resources we have at hand. The means to moral wisdom is available to all of us if we remember that ein Torah, ein derekh eretz. Leadership that is rooted in the precepts of our tradition, in the teachings of Torah, in the rituals and rhythms of Jewish life will not only inspire but guide and instill. As modern Reform Jews, we would do well to reinterpret and reembrace Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s charge. We already know how to navigate the practical elements of modern life, but if we want to ensure continued moral and communal success, we need to reaffirm talmud Torah with derekh eretz.


    Moral Wisdom, Torah, Limits of Rules



  • Jewish And… Youth, Diversity and the Future

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

    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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






  • 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.


  • Remembering 9-11: Ten Years Later

    Posted on March 10th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    A few weeks ago, I was part of a conversation with an interdenominational group of rabbis about how we will mark the tenth Yahrzeit of 9-11. I was somewhat surprised with the range of and complexity of emotion that emerged from our collective psyche. The only easy observation from that discussion was that there is need to think about how we will approach this anniversary. To help understand how that thinking is emerging, I turned to the community of HUC-JIR alumni for some initial opinions and insights. Planning is only in the beginning stages, so what follows are early thoughts. It is my hope and intention to return to this topic again in the coming months. I welcome your thoughts and input on this topic; your insights, liturgical and ritual suggestions can all help build thoughtful  remembrances.

    –Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.

    9-11 vacillates between personal loss and collective experience of tragedy. We all remember where we were on 9-11. We all live with the consequences, reactions to and realities of that day. Judaism has in it distinct rituals and liturgy for both individual and collective losses. But those events that affect us on both the communal and individual level are not directly addressed by our tradition. How then, as we approach the tenth Yahrzeit are we to memorialize 9-11?

    Where we were ten years ago does impact how we think about memorizing that day.  David Adelson, of East End Temple in Manhattan, had been at the congregation for just over a year when the planes hit the twin towers. His own experience and memory 9-11 is integrated with those of the community that he continues to serve as well as personal. On his days off that fall he was a volunteer chaplain working at the recovery center. The immediacy of the events touched even the little and disconnected elements of congregational life; Adelson recalls that three shabbatot later he stood waiting with the family of a bat mitzvah outside the synagogue they could vividly smell of fire and smoke from ground zero. Though he is only beginning to think about how to mark the tenth anniversary, this mix of personal and collective will undoubtedly be important.

    In 2001, Mary Zamore was working in Westfield, New Jersey at a congregation that was deeply affected by the destruction of the Twin Towers. A few years later she moved to serve a congregation just west enough of Manhattan that the congregrants were not as directly touched. In Westfield, post 9-11, “when you met a new person, you would compare notes on where you were that day,” explained Zamore but that did not happen as frequently in Morristown. On the 5th anniversary, she preached a sermon on healing but realized that her congregants may have experienced the event differently than she did in Westfield. Sarah Hronsky was still in rabbinical school in 2001 and missed out on what continues to be remembered as one of the most meaningful and spiritual services in the history of the congregation. Recognizing the difference between our own experiences and the memory of the congregation is a theme raised repeatedly.

    Many communities have not focused on 9-11 as a day of particular congregational significance in recent years. When Steven Sirbu came took a pulpit in Teaneck NJ, in 2003, he welcomed the broader community into the congregation for an interfaith memorial service. But since then the local Committee for Patriotic Observances, which marks Flag Day, Memorial Day and the like, has taken on the communal observance with only token clergy representation. Many congregations have been marking it on the closest Shabbat though some like Adelson’s have let it slip by in recent years and he is not expecting it to become an annual event. “This 10th, may be the last 9-11, service we do for a while,” according to Adelson. For some, like Hronsky, who has family in the military, it is not just about what happened ten years ago, it is about what is happening now and the sacrifices being made which are, in her words, “important for us to remember as a country.” Several rabbis, who spoke off the record and who are only beginning to think towards the fall, feel that the memorial needs to be interfaith to send a message of unity and common purpose. Yet in some settings, like the JCCs or Hospitals, remembering 9-11 may fit into the institutional setting.

    On a practical note, Sirbu pointed out that for many congregations, Hebrew school will start on the eleventh of September this year, opening the question of how we might communicate this memory of loss with people who have no memory of the event itself. Teaching such things to children is difficult. Those like Adelson in New York can point to the skyline and speak to the loss through experience but as Zamore points out, “we have to be careful when we talk about New York. It is not an abstract place for our kids, the way it might be for those in Chicago, but a place where they and their families go all the time. We need to be thoughtful not to paint it as a place of danger.” She recommends that we turn to the lessons learned by Jewish educators from our collective experience teaching the Shoah and other recent tragedies.

    Every congregation will have to find their own way in this new and still forming understanding of what occurred on the 11th day of the 9th month of 2001, which involved four planes, a handful of terrorists, many heroes and much loss. As Hronsky point out, we would do well to share our experiences and plans, our liturgical suggestions and poetic readings, so that we can help each other craft both memory and meaning.

  • In Praise of Grandma, Bubbe and Nona Superstitions

    Posted on January 24th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.

    Bubbe Meises, literally, grandmother tales, have come to be synonymous with superstition. And superstitions are by modern standards ridiculous, right?

    Maybe. Or on the other hand. Maybe Not.

    A few years ago when my family moved into a new house in a suburb of Chicago, Rabbi Michael Weinberg and his wife Jody brought us a house warming gift, a basket with bread, salt, and honey. The bread and salt, they explained, were traditional while the honey was in honor of the quickly approaching New Year. I have since learned that the tradition of bread and salt seems to likely draw on historic Russian customs of presenting honored guests or new brides with bread and salt as a sign of hospitality and welcome signifying the prosperity of a full larder.

    Calling this practice a bubbe meise is not necessarily out of place. While we cannot know exactly how Jews came to adopt this general Russian custom it is not hard to imagine it being passed down in the doing from mother to daughter. As modern Jews, we are unlikely to believe that the bread and salt will be the cause of prosperity, so it is possible to understand it as a superstition.

    But that need not mean dismissing this or other similar grandmother tales as valuable to our contemporary Jewish lives.

    Instead of rejecting bubbe meise (and by implication the women who believed in them) might we not learn from the process by which Reform Judaism has grappled with the Torah passed through the generations of men? The stories that our grandmothers told one generation to another resonated for them. They held kernels of wisdom and understanding. Distancing ourselves from those truths and those understandings closes off paths to engaging and meaning. In other words, can we look at the specific grandmotherly tales and belief, examine the ways in which they do and do not resonate for us today? Can we reengage and reinterpret with them as we do with tallit or standing for Torah reading?

    I believe very strongly that we can and should.

    Recently I was asked to bring a spiritual presence to a housewarming for a woman who had moved into a new home after a difficult divorce. While our modern Reform liturgy offers pieces borrowed from other places to contextualize the hanging of a mezuzah, the grandmother tales offered inspiration that not only spoke directly to the situation but also drew from similar contexts in different times and places. Drawing on the North African and Yeminite traditions involving the making of candle, we lit and broke candles to symbolize from which this home represented a break.  Considering the salt and bread, we not only connected to the historic hopes for prosperity but also delved into the ways in which bread and salt represented to transfer of holiness from one centralized fixed place, the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem, to the multiple homes that it has lived since.

    Before we dismiss the bubbe meise, consider what might be lost if you do.