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Updated: 40 min 27 sec ago

Who By the Sword?

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 05:00

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer always sounds so harsh, Gerald Zelizer writes. But is there a way to understand it as a description of the randomness in the universe?

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First (Probably) Annual Rosh HaShanah Sermon Round-Up

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 13:00

What did Reform rabbis talk to their congregations about this Rosh HaShanah? Based on my totally non-scientific survey, Israel was far and away the most popular topic. (Read on for links to sermons by rabbis Block, Bob, Davidson, Gropper, Gurvis, A. Hirsch, Kipnes, Kaufman, Ottenstein, and Prosnit.) That is true many years, and given the Gaza conflict this summer it is not surprising that it was true again this year. Many of sermons focused on what American Jews can do so support Israel. Others included a discussion of anti-Semitism as part of their analysis. Many were aimed at helping congregants better understand the situation.

Although the popularity of Israel as a topic was not a surprise, the number of rabbis who choose to speak about depression, mental illness, and suicide was. (See rabbis Bretton-Granatoor, Joseph, and Kuhn.) A few referenced the suicide this summer of actor Robin Williams; others choose to tell their own personal stories. I found these to be among the most powerful of the sermons I read.

Among other sermons I particularly enjoyed:

  • Rabbi Joe Black on the role of the synagogue;
  • Rabbi Andi Berlin on human imperfection and treatment of those with disabilities;
  • Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl on the importance, and challenge, of honoring our parents;
  • Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz’s unique exegesis of Geraldine Brooks’ novel about the restoration of the Sarajevo Haggadah, People of the Book: A Novel;
  • Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin’s discussion of the challenge of faith;
  • Rabbi Elyse Goldstein’s rebuke (my word, not hers) of “post-denominational Judaism”; and
  • Rabbi Seth Limmer’s manifesto (my word, not his) on “unorthodox Judaism.”

A quick note about process: I thought it would be interesting and fun to collect Rosh HaShanah sermons given by Reform rabbis this year. I was half right. It was tremendously interesting.

It was less fun that I had hoped because collecting sermons is harder than it looks. Congregations hide sermons in different places on their websites. They post them in different media (text, audio, video). Even those who post texts do so in an impressive variety of formats.

This is, to be clear, an idiosyncratic and personal collection of sermons. It is by no means representative or comprehensive – but neither is it selective. I have included every sermon I received. My research methods (if they can be called that) were simply to post a request on the Reform Rabbis email list, and to look at those sermons I found in my regular online travels. That means that a rabbi is far more likely to be included in this “roundup” if, for example, she is a Facebook friend of mine or worked with me at the Religious Action Center.

Further, I have only included sermons for which I was able to obtain a written text. Although many rabbis have now made audio and video of their sermons available, and while I’m sure that is a far better way to experience them than reading them, it’s hard to edit video and certainly to do so (as I have done most of this project) while participating in a series of conference calls. Other congregations do not post sermons immediately.

To give readers a feel for each sermon, I have selected a paragraph (sometimes a bit more) to include here. I want to be clear that the sections are mine alone; I am sure that in some cases the rabbi might take issue with the paragraph I have chosen to represent their sermon. And that points to another challenge with this project. Many of the best sermons do not lend themselves well to this format. In some cases, a sermon is so tightly constructed that excerpting one paragraph (sometimes a bit more) makes no sense. That also means that sometimes I have had to choose between selections that really capture the essence of the sermon and those that make sense standing on their own.

I hope you will enjoy all these sermons, and find them as meaningful as I did.

▪              ▪              ▪

Rabbi Melanie Aron, “Religion is Good for the World”
Congregation Shir Hadash (Los Gatos, CA)

In order to bring honor back to piety, liberal religionists of all faiths need to reclaim the name of religion. By proponents of liberal religion, I do not mean politically liberal, but liberal in allowing for pluralism, for there being more than one path up the mountain. And to do that we Liberal Jews, Liberal Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists need to become much more serious about our religion. As long as we think and act as if those other guys are the real thing and we are religion lite- we will never wrest religion from those who pervert it and we will continue to allow the desecration of God’s name.

Rabbi Larry Bach, “Opening Day”
Temple Mount Sinai (El Paso, TX)

And here we are, proving all four of those angels right, day after day. We are capable of incredible acts of lovingkindness…and also of devious deception. Sometimes we fight for justice and right…and sometimes we fight, so it seems, just to fight. This past year we’ve seen the brutality of beheadings in the Middle East, and the beauty of a sleepy head resting on a fellow commuter’s shoulder on the Q train to Brooklyn. Yes, we are all these things, Kindness and Truth, Justice and Peace, mixed up together. As another verse (Ps 8:5) has it, we are “little less than angels, crowned with glory and honor.” Except when we’re not. Because we are also capable of being rather beastly creatures. Actually, in light of some of the behaviors of which we’ve shown ourselves capable, that’s not really fair to the beasts.

Rabbi Andi Berlin, “I Am Rebecca”
Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple (Cleveland, OH)

Our tradition is rich with embracing the diversity of the human condition. Jacob, with his hip wrenched by a divine being, leaving him disabled for the rest of his life, Moses, so severely speech impaired he had to have Aaron speak for him. Sarah, so anxious after giving birth she had another woman and her child banished from her sight. Aaron, his failure of faith so great it nearly killed the Israelites standing in prayer before the golden calf. And the majority of our matriarchs were actually barren before they gave birth to our patriarchs.

Look at heroes! Their imperfections did not tarnish their greatness. In fact, it is through their imperfect human condition we are given a heritage honest and full and beautiful, one that speaks to who we REALLY are as human beings. But, somewhere along the way, as a people tossed about homeless and oppressed, as a people fighting for survival in each generation, we seem to have become afraid of our flaws. “We are intelligent!,” we tell the world, strong, mentally healthy, able bodied, well off.

Rabbi Joe Black, “The Sweet Taste of Engagement”
Temple Emanuel (Denver, CO)

I’ve been a rabbi now for 27 years. For the first 20 years of my rabbinate, I was taught and I taught others that the best way for a synagogue to operate was to design and offer the most innovative and creative programming possible. The more options we had, the more successful we would be. Temple Emanuel surely has a history of amazing and creative programming for which we are regarded in the highest esteem throughout our movement and beyond.

But I don’t believe this anymore. The world has changed. Synagogues are now competing with the many other options Jewish involvement that are being offered in our community. People don’t join congregations for programs – we join because when we walk through the doors of a synagogue we feel that we are part of something important, sacred, meaningful and bigger than ourselves. A synagogue should be a community where we confront, celebrate and come to understand the most important aspects of our lives.

Rabbi Rick Block, “The New Middle East”
Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple (Cleveland, OH)

Realistic Jewish optimism is not an emotion; it is a value. It is not a prediction, but a profound, unselfish commitment. We, too, are called to realistic Jewish optimism. It is our privilege and sacred duty to stand with Israel and encourage others to do so, not because it is perfect, no nation is, but because its cause is profoundly just, and because it is ours. No matter how ignorant or misinformed some may be about the history and facts of the Middle East conflict, we must remain informed and inform others. We must fight anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head. We must be critical consumers of media and speak up, speak out and advocate for Israel….

Rabbi Steven Bob, “The Israel Challenge”
Congregation Etz Chaim (Lombard, IL)

The most significant way of standing with Israel is standing in Israel. Rather than sitting in America and saying we care about Israel, we need to meet Israel face to face. We need to demonstrate our support for Israel by going to Israel. If you have never been to Israel you need to go. If you have not been to Israel in many years, you need to go again.

Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, “Honoring Your Parents is the Hardest Commandment”
Central Synagogue (New York, NY)

The Hebrew word for “honor”—kavod—comes from the root for “heaviness.” To honor is to give the proper weight and significance to those who raised us. If you sometimes wobble under the burden of honoring them, you’re probably doing it right. I hear many inspiring stories from our members who quietly live out this commandment, with its weight, every day.

Honoring is substantial and sometimes cumbersome. But if you feel the heaviness of it, you will ultimately feel the lightness of it. For our tradition reminds us that this essential act of honoring our parents is the key to a long and good life.

Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana, “Bindings: Our Struggle with God”
Congregation Beth Israel (Portland, OR)

It wasn’t just Jewish texts that led me back to God. That is too cerebral. It was the combination of humility and gratitude which opened the path. Humility is not an easy thing for us humans. We are too proud of our accomplishments. I wrote some of these words on a cross-country flight–and it is easy to be so very impressed with the technological prowess that lifts me high above the clouds, soaring like some giant eagle – only with my iPad out so I can work on my writings. We sure are impressive beings. And a little boring. But as I often say, religion teaches us humility. It reminds us constantly that we are not all there is – not the greatest force in the universe. And it is only with humility that we can experience gratitude. With humility we can acknowledge that we do not deserve all the good, all the beauty, all the wonder that we receive. But we can appreciate it -and we can be grateful for it

Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson, “The Voice from Moriah”
Congregation Emanu-El (New York, NY)

But there is more you and I must do. Even as we defend journalistic and artistic freedom, we must denounce any expression of it in the media or in the opera house which confuses terrorists with their victims. Similarly, we must defend Israel against the “new” anti-Semitism that masquerades as anti-Zionism. The repugnant mangling of history likening Israel to Nazi Germany reeks of anti-Jewish hatred. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us, “Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism, but demonization is.” Israel’s policies can be legitimately criticized by fair minded observers, but the criticism must be legitimate and it must be fair. And in conversations with our friends or coworkers or college-aged children or grandchildren, we must insist on it.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger, “Awaken My Soul”
Congregation Kol Ami (West Hollywood, CA)

The challenge this New Year’s Eve is the same for each of us. Through Torah, prayer, reflection, and meditation; by rebuilding our relationships to one another, to the Jewish people and to God we can restore balance to the world. We can as Professor Buber teaches us overcome the evils that human beings create by committing to live a different kind of life. By setting down the past, and walking through the opening of a new day and a New Year; through this holy day season and for the next Ten days try to restore our spiritual balance. Through making teshuvah and the call of the Shofar we can awaken to a new day and yes, a new world. By recommitting to our covenant, our Jewish responsibilities we too will have a stake in restoring balance to the world and ourselves. At this New Year we must awaken ourselves, our souls to the cause of justice, and hope. Of combating the evil we create. We can heal the world if we begin to heal ourselves through teshuvah.

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, “Authentic Reform”
City Shul (Toronto, ON)

With such an eclectic congregation, and a Rabbi who hasn’t flown the Reform flag for so many years, it’s fair to ask: why not be totally independent of any movement affiliation? Why not do our own thing, just be “City-Shul” Judaism? There are several other downtown congregations who do that. The big buzzword today is “post-denominational Judaism.” Why have we chosen to identify officially with a denomination at all? It seems so last-century.

Here’s why: because a shul should be more than just its own self. It should be a sum greater than its parts. Congregants should feel as if their community expands beyond Toronto. The shul should be able to offer more resources than just its own Rabbi and its own small staff; it should have access to advice, friendship, professional collegiality, useable curriculum, idea banks, conferences that enrich and enliven, resources for growth and stimulation, online and print media, and a communal influence which goes beyond its own doors; a chance to be “big” even if you are small, to be a liberal voice of Judaism for Toronto and all of Canada, and to affiliate with a plethora of camps, youth groups, programmes and people who will be inspirational and influential for our future as a shul.

Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, “Refuat HaNefesh”
Congregation Shirat HaYam (Nantucket, MA)

So if one discovers that the weight of the world is pressing down – for whatever reason it might be happening – it is critical to find a way to reach out. We have to train ourselves and those around us to speak out about depression. How often have we called in sick to work? We are not afraid to reveal that we have succumbed to a virus, or the flu, or a cold. But in all the years of being a “boss,” while I might have heard someone say that they needed a “mental health day” and understood it as a claim to being “burnt out” or exhausted, I have never once heard someone call in depressed.

How does one break free of the abyss? It is, almost always, through another person. And that person needs to withstand the grief, and the darkness, and the sadness, the pain – and help. And it so very hard to watch another suffer, and some cannot do so. But those that can, really help.

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, “There is No Hope, But I May Be Wrong”
Temple Sholom (Chicago, IL)

I cannot offer a solution to all the challenges we are facing. All I can do as your rabbi is offer a Jewish framework that speaks to me and – I hope – speaks to you. You see, hope is a very Jewish concept, in its own way. We like to joke that Jews are pessimistic and depressed, the “ever-dying people” in the words of one historian. Or as modern author, Aaron David Miller, puts it, we follow “the cosmic oy veh.” This is not the whole picture, however.

There is a reason that the National Anthem of Israel is called, Hatikvah, “the hope”. Hope in Israel is not an attitude. It is a necessity.

 Rabbi Fred Greene, “Israel, Anti-Semitism, and Our Response”
Temple Beth Tikvah (Roswell, GA)

 For every anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish act, we return with a greater resolve to observe a mitzvah. We will not just complain or make a new Jewish joke, but will make a Jewish choice that can change the world. We will show greater support for Israel. We will be more generous to agencies that reflect our values. We will be inspired to light Shabbat candles and invite our non-Jewish neighbors to celebrate with us as we reclaim our truth to be an Or L’Goyim – a light unto the nations. We will become ambassadors for light, warmth, tolerance and mutual respect.

Rabbi Daniel Gropper, “Hidden in the Tunnels”
Community Synagogue of Rye (Rye, NY)

Above all else, we must never fall into “victim mentality.” The book of Job reminds us that so much is out of our control. What is in our control is how we choose to respond. It behooves us to notice that the largest pro-Israel demonstration this summer happened not in New York or Toronto but in a city without Jews – Calcutta – where thousands of Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense. This summer in China, social media was reportedly overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Beyond the support offered by the U.S., Canada and Australia, one of the most powerful condemnations of the link between Jew-hatred and Israel-hatred was expressed at a rally in Berlin by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Among the protesters were thousands of Kurds, Syrian Christians and Africans. As far as those countries that have assailed Israel, think twice before you make your next overseas vacation plan or business decisions. Most of all, we need to tell Israelis that they are not alone, that we stand with them shoulder-to-shoulder, that we admire their courage and that we will advocate their cause here and around the world.

Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz, “Unbound: The Year of Unraveling”
Temple Shir Tikva (Wayland, MA)

Thus, not only do we cradle, comfort, clutch, clasp, compel, coerce one another – we connect and commit to one another in a covenant – binding and raveling our lives up with the lives of those we know and those we will never know. Perhaps then we might stand together in the tragic gap, in the meanest moments of eternity, fending off and ripping up this Book of the Great Unraveling,

Rabbi Eric Gurvis, This Summer in Israel
Temple Shalom (Newton, MA)

This summer sharpened my thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It forced me to concretize some of my thinking about the Israel I love. First: I believe that as a Jewish community it is incumbent upon us to care about Israel and her people. That does not mean we must support all the policies and decisions made by Israel’s elected officials. As Americans, most of find ourselves at odds with the policies and decisions of our elected leaders at one time or another. But we do not walk away from our country. Neither can we walk away from our people.

Given our people’s history, and the rise of global anti-Semitism, to which I’ll return on Yom Kippur, it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to support our brothers and sisters in Israel as they face isolation and despair that peace may never come.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, “The Gaza War: Three Principles”
Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (New York, NY)

… I believe in compromise. Compromise is not a weakness. Stubborn inflexibility is a weakness. To live is to compromise. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved by force. If it is to be resolved, it must be through political agreement. No one is going anywhere. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have anywhere else to go. Let us hope that the war opened new opportunities for a political solution and that courageous leaders will pursue them.

But if the conflict is to be resolved by compromise, how do you compromise with a force committed to your destruction? Is it possible to compromise on your demise? Is there a middle road between being and not being: to be and not to be at the same time? Can those who deny Israel’s right to exist be placated – whether their animosity is expressed in its violent Middle Eastern form or the more genteel Western version found in some universities, NGO’s, political establishments and international forums?

Rabbi Neil Hirsch, “Wake Up”
Temple Shalom (Newton, MA)

Let us disrupt our spiritual boredom, taking time to meditate during these days together, we touch glimmers of something greater than ourselves, something essentially sacred. Breathing is natural, and prayer is hard. And so on this holiday, let us try to merge the two together. Let our minds and hearts be awake. Sure, our minds will wander. We will get fidgety. Let us be kind to ourselves. When that happens, gently bring your mind back to simple attention.

Rabbi Jennifer Jaech, “Does Prayer Work?”
Temple Israel of Northern Westchester (Croton on Hudson, NY)

Maybe the point about prayer is not so much the words we say, but the fact that we have to come together to say those words. In the Jewish tradition we don’t pray a complete service alone. We need nine other adults with us – a minyan – in order to pray a complete service. That’s why we have a minyan at a house of mourning, so that the mourners do not have to leave their house during shiva in order to say kaddish. It is very moving to see how the loving presence of others provides comfort during a time of loss, and that’s the real power behind the mitzvah of attending a minyan in a house of mourning.

Rabbi Rachel L. Joseph, “We are Shattered Vessels – Embracing Holiness”
Congregation Beth Israel (Portland, OR)

Perhaps one of the reasons we feel safe and acknowledge our brokenness tonight is because Jewish tradition itself gives space and honor to our broken places. There are powerful Jewish teachings that instruct us not to run away from our pain or our lost longing, not to try to hide our brokenness – rather to embrace it and to wrest meaning and blessing out of it. In fact, some teachings even indicate that the way toward healing and transcendence is through bringing our whole selves to God. Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, a rabbi and spiritual teacher of the early 19th century aptly said: “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.”

Brokenness is not a curse, or a punishment. It is the cost of being alive. In fact, experiencing brokenness makes us more human. What’s more, our brokenness may enable us to reach higher than we ever did before

Rabbi Paul Kipnes, “The Truth about Israel, Gaza, and Escalating Anti-Semitism: 7 Things To Do Starting Today”
Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA)

So when we reflect back on this war, think not only about the power politics of Hamas, Iran, Qatar, Egypt, and the United States. Think about [my niece] Yonina, and the other people whose lives were turned upside down because they were called to defend the Jewish state. And think about a 24-year-old Max Steinberg, who grew up in Woodland Hills, whose life was sacrificed on the altar of Hamas’ contemptuous calculations that God still wants martyrs.

Let us also think about what the mothers in Jerusalem and the mothers in Gaza know only too well. That their children are too precious to go to an early grave; that if there were a way, they would embrace the path toward peace. Most Jews instinctively know that to be a Jew means to balance paradoxes – security and morality, realism and vision, self-defense and self-critique (quoting Yossi Klein Halevi).

Rabbi David Jay Kaufman, “Israel and the Jews: Jewish Identity in a Time of Crisis”
Temple B’nai Jeshurun (Des Moines, IA)

And there is more good news. First, not only do we as a people survive, but the Jewish state continues to thrive. Israel has the ability to wrestle with choices of how to respond to threats. There is little doubt that it can defend itself against most of them and respond substantially to all of them. 66 years ago, when Israel was founded, and during the wars of 1967 and 1973, there were concerns that the Jewish nation would not long survive.

The question now is not if it will survive, but how. Today we can ask, “What will Israel be like a decade from now? How about when it celebrates its centennial?”

Rabbi Audrey Korotkin, “Darkness and Light”
Temple Beth Israel (Altoona, PA)

At this time of year especially, when we look at the darkness around us, we must consider whether that darkness is, at least partially, emanating from within. Whether it be anger or resentment, pride or stubbornness, inner darkness can never be hidden. It is always visible, whether we like it or not. Other people recognize it, whether we like it or not. So ask the darkness to teach you what you need to know about yourself.

Rabbi William I. Kuhn, “Rabbi Nachman and Mental Illness”
Congregation Rodeph Shalom (Philadelphia, PA)

As we enter this New Year tonight and begin the process of t’shuvah – of turning inward – to examine our community and ourselves, let us lift up the often taboo topic of mental illness. If the whole world is a very narrow bridge for so many, how we can be the handrail, their source of support and strength?

To repair this brokenness within our community, we need to first recognize that mental illness exists and bring it out into the light. Mental illness is not talked about enough in the community at large and it is even more stigmatized within the Jewish community.

Rabbi Seth Limmer, “Unorthodox Judaism”
Chicago Sinai Congregation (Chicago, IL)

This is the essence of Judaism. Many today call it Reform Judaism; that almost belittles our time-tested—and remarkably traditional—approach by ascribing it a title created in recent centuries. Instead, we might simply call our practice, inherited through millennia, unorthodox Judaism. Orthodoxy—in the realms of religion, politics, and economics—is defined by conforming to the established truths of previous generations. Greek gives us “orthodoxy”: orthos means “proper”; doxa “teaching.” At its literal root, any orthodoxy maintains it has found the true teaching, the proper opinion; orthodoxy is a commitment not to change. Emil G. Hirsch, concluding an epic arc of sermons on the meaning of his Judaism, taught that, “Judaism is not a static religion,” that our religion “has always developed and grown”.

We who gather in the congregation he built eschew any aversion of evolution, any constrained commitment to the practices of the past that potentially proscribes new opportunities for the future. We at Chicago Sinai Congregation know orthodoxy is anathema to Judaism.

Rabbi Evan Moffic, “How to Make Peace with Your Regrets”
Congregation Solel (Highland Park, IL)

To accept our regrets is not always to condone a choice we made. It is not to pretend we were necessarily right. Rather, it is to accept that the choices we made have made us into the people we are. To accept our regrets is to accept ourselves.

Rabbi Jordan M. Ottenstein, “Israel and the Zionist Movement: At a Crossroads; Our Role in Helping them Realize a Bright Future”
Beth-El Congregation (Fort Worth, TX)

We are some of the few Jews in all of history who have been able to enjoy the existence of an independent Jewish state. Controversy should never cause us to take this for granted nor cause us to lose our connection to this state. Rather, it is important to be a vocal critic of Israel when the time is right. It is just as important, however, to know how to voice this criticism. Unabashed, naïve, unfiltered criticism of Israel is not healthy to the debate, and yes, I do believe that anti-Israel statements by some in the non-Jewish community are often thinly veiled attempts at being anti-Semitic without outwardly saying so. So, it is up to us, as Jews, to guide the debate, disagree with Israel when her actions do not seem to fit with Jewish values, but disagree from a place of love, not animosity. … [F]or the last sixty six years, we have had the opportunity to have our own state: our own Jewish state, in our homeland, in Israel. We must not forsake it, nor may we criticize it without remembering our connection to it and its value to, not only the Jewish people but to, all humanity.

Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit, “Emerging from our Barricades”
Congregation Beth Am (Los Altos Hills, CA)

But I’m not only talking about the physical barricades and bunkers – tunnels and bomb shelters – I also want to use these holy days to think about the bunkers and barriers that we have become entrenched in, specifically regarding Israel. This after all is the season of Chesbon HaNefesh – personal soul searching – and t’shuva – turning (and returning) to the best we hope to be. I worry that too many of us use periods of war in Israel to become more locked into our own thinking rather than grapple with ideas that challenge our beliefs. Sometimes, sadly, we’re more eager to go on the offense and criticize the beliefs of those who think differently, than to listen carefully and learn from one another.

Rabbi David Segal, “The Closing of the American Jewish Mind”
Aspen Jewish Congregation (Aspen, CO)

One of the main reasons we don’t foster a healthy Israel conversation among college students, let alone within congregations, is that we have substituted pro-Israel advocacy for Zionism. Zionism’s goal was to change the status of Jews in the world with regard to power, agency, and responsibility. “Statehood was a means to that end, not an end in itself” (Goldberg). Now we can’t see past the question of supporting or criticizing the state, as if that’s the substance of Zionism. We’ve forgotten, or never learned, that Zionism is not just about Jews having the power to defend ourselves – it’s also about Jews having the responsibility to treat others who live within our power in a Jewish way. It’s not just about creating a Jewish majority – it’s also about shaping that society to reflect the values of Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, “The Poem That Leads Us Backward”
Temple Beth Am (Bayonne, N.J.)

Perhaps teshuvah means: not that we move forward in our lives, but that we move backwards. Because teshuvah comes from the word shuv, which means to return. To see where you are, and to feel a sense of discontent about where you are. It means to go back to the place where you once were – not geographically, perhaps, but spiritually. It means to retrace your steps. It means to go back to the inner place that really defines who you are. It is like when you lose something. You lose your keys; what do you do? You retrace your steps, until you return to the place where you left them.

The same thing is true of faith. You lose your faith; you retrace your steps, until you return to the place where you left it. And the same is true of your self. If you lose your self, you retrace your steps to the place where you lost it, and there you resolve to find it

Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman, “The Zealotry of Abraham”
Synagogue of the Summit (Frisco, CO)

Having had the experiences we Jews have had in the world and certainly also from within our own ranks, we understand that the zealot is ever correct and righteous in his own eyes. He does not question his purposes or his right to do what he does. Nor does he pause to consider the harms he may visit on others who do not share his vision of the world. He cannot be challenged over what he believes, for he knows, with absolute certitude, that his deeds are perfectly justified and that his is the ultimate answer for him and everyone else to every problem or circumstance which might arise in human experience.

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, “What a Wonderful World”
Sinai Temple (Springfield, MA)

Life confuses us. Life bruises us. Life really bruises us and so many other good people. But we keep going because, as the song [“To Life…L’chaim” from Fiddler on the Roof) suggests (confusing, blessing, bruising us) in between life blesses us.
Or put it this way: In between the confusing and the bruising parts, life can bless us.

Take it one Jewish step further: As Jews, we are determined to find those blessings and embrace them with our hearts and souls. That is why the same tradition that gives us U’netane Tokef and the judgment that it would be just as well for humanity not to have been created also offers us another perspective.

Remember, dark as the world could be, the sages who wrote U’netane Tokef also never stopped saying the morning prayer. “Praised are You, God,” they would say. “You create the world fresh and new every day. You do so with mercy and love.”

Rabbi Eleanor Steinman, “Count Your Marbles: Honoring Jewish Time”
Temple Beth Hillel (Valley Village, CA)

The radical innovation that Judaism offered the world was the notion that time is sacred.

In Hebrew, the word for sanctification is kadosh. We often translate this word as holy or holiness. Holiness is achieved is by separating a part from the whole and using ritual, naming the part kadosh, holy. The first time this word is used in the Torah it is about Shabbat. “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done.”

Shabbat is our weekly divider and our greatest time reminder to mark Jewish time…. Shabbat is the gift that keeps on giving, every week, 52 weeks per year. For 25 hours, we have permission to disconnect from our hyper-connected world. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday we get to make Shabbat different. And I do not necessarily mean that we need to observe Shabbat in ways that are onerous or even what one might expect.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner, “For the Sake of Our Children”
Leo Baeck Temple (Los Angeles, CA)

Us, as humans, who are given a mission in Genesis to be shomrei adamah, guardians of the earth. Us, as Jews, who are commanded to choose life. Us, as Americans, who have the greatest moral obligation, because we consume the most, and because we have the standing to affect more people than any other nation. We have to create a new American way of life. Now. The rest of the world is emulating us. We must set a life-affirming instead of life-destroying example.

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, “Taking Care of Our Selves and Our Souls”
Congregation Beth Am (Los Altos, CA)

In many ways, Rosh HaShanah, with the blasting wake-up call of the shofar, is like the activity monitors in a FitBit or an Apple Watch: rather than an external device that beeps at us if we sit still for too long, Rosh HaShanah comes once a year to wake us up, reminding us that we have a soul, that we need to reflect, to own up to our missteps, and to approach the new year with a commitment to growing and learning from the year that has just ended. In the words of John Maxwell, “we cannot become what we need by remaining what we are.” As Jews, we have the gift of teshuvah, of a regular opportunity to keep evolving as husbands, wives, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, grandparents, and friends.

Rabbi Stephen Wise, “Kol Aravim Zeh B’zeh”

We have, as Rabbi Kushner writes, invisible lines of connection between every Jew. We care deeply about the Jewish people, connected together around the world. When I prepare someone to enter our covenant as a Jew by choice I remind them when they step into the waters of the mikvah, then the waters here touch the shores of every land where Jews live. We are interconnected beyond whether we actually know a Jew personally, we know them because we are similar. No matter our skin colour or country of origin or the way we say our blessings, we are all Jews.

Transformation that Sticks: How to Create Long-Lasting Change in Your Education Programs

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 08:00

The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

In March of 2010, our congregation was approached by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation) and invited to begin a process of transforming our synagogue’s learning programs for children in grades K-5.  We eagerly accepted the offer and began our work with two consultants they provided us from Brandeis University – Rachel Happel (now our Director of K-12 Learning) and Dvora Goodman – who were local experts in experiential Jewish learning.  Together we engaged in a process of reflection, visioning, best practices research, and dreaming of what could be.  The result was our decision to close down our old religious school (which we deemed to be beyond repair) and to launch our new learning and engagement model, Mayim, in the fall of 2012.

Along the way we encountered many successes and exciting developments, and, of course, many setbacks and disappointments.  In reflecting on our process, we can identify a few lessons we learned that may be helpful to you if you are considering your own education or engagement transformation at your synagogue:


  • Assess your institution’s readiness for change, and match the scope of your change process to that readiness. When we began in 2010 we had just completed a congregation-wide survey, and we understood that there was widespread support for making substantive changes to our K-5 learning programs.  This gave us the freedom to put everything on the table as potentially changeable.
  • Establish your vision. At the outset of our process, we realized that we couldn’t reimagine elementary learning without better understanding how those years fit into the bigger picture of learning for all children ages 2-18 in our congregation.  Once we were able to articulate the values and principles of all our learning programs, we able to set about transforming the K-5 experience for children and families.
  • Be sure to include key stakeholders at appropriate times in the change process. We knew that our core team of trained educators would be driving our change effort and that we also had a wellspring of talented people in the congregation (e.g. teachers of children with special needs, school administrators, change management consultants, etc.) who could share their gifts with us in meaningful and fruitful ways.  So too, there were many who cared deeply about our learning programs – faculty, parents, and lay leaders to name a few – and would want to be involved in supporting the change.  Important tip: not all of these people should be involved at every stage of the process.  Plan carefully who should be plugged in and when.
  • Break down your own assumptions about what your learning programs need to look like. We have a ton of assumptions in our heads, even if we’re often not aware of it, including set ideas about when and where learning “should” happen, what topics need to be covered, and who should be teaching them. Do everything possible to dispel those assumptions, and hold one another accountable for doing so.  Offer incentives for being the person who frequently asks, “Why do we have to do it that way?”  We explored what may have seemed like outlandish ideas (e.g. let’s do all of our K-5 learning during school vacation weeks) and gave them serious consideration.  This helped to reinforce the notion that everything was up for consideration and that there were no previous assumptions that couldn’t be challenged.
  • Don’t rush the process. Once people get excited that change is coming, there will be many who want it to happen immediately.  There will be people who just want you to pick a new “product” without having arrived at it through a thoughtful and deliberate process.  Avoid the temptation to placate those people.  One person suggested that we pick the title of the new program first and then shape it around the title. We thoughtfully disregarded that suggestion.
  • Pilot, test, and experiment. Once you have a vision of the types of changes you’d like to effect, find ways to test those in small groups or for short periods of time.  See how these new models play out in real time, and leave room in the process to adjust your end goal based on what you learn from these experiments.  We ran a project-based learning pilot with our 4th graders during which they created an entirely new siddur to use in our K-5 programs.  We learned immensely from that experience and had something concrete to point to when rolling out the new model, which often utilizes project-based learning.
  • Be flexible and adaptable. Few things ever work as smoothly in reality as they look when drawn up on paper or envisioned in our minds.  Set expectations that changes will continue after implementation because, of course, there will be facets that need tweaking.  If possible, set aside time and financial resources to support needs that you can’t yet imagine but will surely crop up when you attempt to implement your changes.  We ended up having to hire a new position just two months into our new program, a role we had never imagined until we saw the need in real time.
  • Change enough for real transformation to occur. To paraphrase the teaching of educational theorist, Joseph Schwab, if your change is focused on only one or two elements of education – the teachers, or the students, or the context, or the curriculum – then your change effort will not likely take hold in a thoroughly transformational way.  All of the facets of the learning experience must be considered and changed in harmony with one another for real change to occur.

Also, remember that during their 40 years of wilderness wandering our ancestors longed to return to Egypt.  Make your change substantial enough that it will be less painful to keep moving forward towards your Promised Land than it will be to return to the old way of doing business.  Otherwise, in a matter of time, you may find yourself running a program that is almost identical to what you have in place right now.

Most importantly…have fun!

Rachel Happel is the Director of K-12 Learning at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA.  Prior to that she was the Director of BIMA and Genesis – two residential summer programs for teens at Brandeis University.

Todd Markley has been one of the rabbis of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA for eight years, previously serving at Westchester Reform Temple and the URJ’s Youth Division.

Read more about Mayim, the reimagined K-5 program, on Temple Beth Shalom’s Mayim website.

Is El Al Breaking U.S. Law With Gender Segregation?

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 06:40

Following the delay of several El Al flights after haredi Orthodox men refused to sit next to women, a New York rabbi and attorney claims that some of the airline’s policies may violate U.S. law.

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Grim Week for Animals as Jewish and Muslim Rituals Coincide

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 05:00

It’s not a great week to be a chicken or a goat. Thanks to a fluke of the calendar, a Jewish ritual slaughter and a Muslim sacrifice occur within a single day of each other.

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Synagogue Leader's Car Torched in Atlantic City

Wed, 10/01/2014 - 15:00

A synagogue leader’s car exploded in a suspected arson attack in Atlantic City, N.J.

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Nita Lowey Wants Probe of College Programs for Anti-Israel Tilt

Wed, 10/01/2014 - 06:45

The ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee asked the U.S. Department of Education to insure that college programs receiving federal funds not include an anti-Israel bias.

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Lowey: Federally funded college programs must not have anti-Israel bias

Wed, 10/01/2014 - 04:58

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee asked the U.S. Department of Education to insure that college programs receiving federal funds not include an anti-Israel bias.

U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) in a letter sent Monday to Education Secretary Arne Duncan requested that standards of accountability be adopted so that any college or university receiving Title VI funding not have an anti-Israel slant.

“Incidents of anti-Semitism have spiked worldwide in recent months, including many that were borne out of protests against Israel’s acts of self-defense against the terrorist group Hamas,” Lowey said in the letter. “It is vital to ensure that academic programs do not become tilted against Israel in a way that engenders anti-Semitism or criticism of Israel that devolves into the defamation of the Jewish people.”

Lowey urged the Department of Education “to immediately adopt standards to prevent imbalanced programs, particularly those that may spread anti-Semitic attitudes, from receiving funds.” She also asked Duncan to look into excluding programs that have an anti-Israel agenda.

The Higher Education Act Title VI funding was established to enhance the study of foreign language and international studies at colleges and universities.

What the Day of Atonement Meant to One Hasidic Woman

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 11:00

For married women belonging to the Satmar Hasidic sect, getting ready for Yom Kippur means a special visit to the ritual bath — and wearing white.

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The Days of Awe, Community, and “Relational Judaism”

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 08:00

Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, a distinguished Hasid, told a parable about the Days of Awe of a man who is lost in the woods. Just when he is losing hope, he runs into another person and is filed with joy, exclaiming “Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering for days.” His fellow responds by saying that he, too, has been wandering, and is sure that his way is also the wrong way. He reassures, him however, that working with each other, they can find a new way out – together.

This story underscores a core principle of the Days of Awe: They are inherently relational. The word “relational” is in danger of becoming so overused as to become meaningless, but it is critical – and during these days of teshuvah (return, repentance) and s’licha (forgiveness), the central role of relationship in Judaism comes even more into focus. These are the very days in which we reflect deeply on our relationships to others; who have we slighted? With whom must we repair? The focus of these High Holidays is actually a reminder that Judaism calls individuals into relationship all year round.

Ron Wolfson has given the Jewish community a great gift in his book, Relational Judaism. He has sparked a conversation and challenged our Jewish congregations and institutions to ask a fundamental question: Are we bureaucratic organizations that offer programs? Or are we communities of people, in meaningful relationship, bound by common purpose?

Most of us have experienced institutions and congregations as bureaucracies that relate to us through programs. We are billed for services, attend events, etc. Too often, after an event or a program, we are no less connected to others in our midst. Yet, most of us have also experienced powerful, sustainable Jewish communal engagement. Thankfully, many of us have shared authentic learning, profound spirituality, and meaningful work for social justice, in the context of relationships with others with whom we grew and learned. The other women, men and children with whom we shared these sacred experiences become the ones in whom we confide, to whom we turn, with whom we rejoice.

The challenge to all our congregations is how? How do we focus on fostering sustainable relationships, rather than simply running more events and activities? So many synagogues get caught on a programmatic treadmill. In their desire to reach more people, they offer more and more programs. But what their constituents yearn for is true connection; what they seek is, indeed, “relational Judaism.”

One critical first step is to change our definition of success. To what extent are we measuring our constituents’ deepening connections to one another? As we challenge our communities to deepen peoples’ engagement with meaningful Jewish experiences, we should also be focusing on the extent to which we are strengthening their social networks within our communities.

The High Holidays give us a profound opportunity to examine our own communities and ask how “relational” they really are. Are we participating in experiences of tefila (prayer) that bind us to others? Or are we sitting anonymously in a pew? Are we attending activities or are we sharing profound experiences of meaning and purpose that not only enrich our lives, but actually connect us more deeply to one another? These are the kind of difficult questions a “relational” Jewish community asks itself.

Another Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov famously pointed out that the miracle of living is that a person reaches out simultaneously in three directions at once: inward toward self, upward toward God, and outward toward others. These Days of Awe challenge us to ask: Do our communities succeed in fostering such a miraculous way of living?

See also: “There is Still Time! Preparing for the Days of Awe for Real” from the Wexner Foundation

8 Facts About Jewish Indiana

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 05:00

8 Facts About Jewish Indiana

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What Has Become of the Historic Synagogues of Indiana?

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 05:00

Here is the history behind four of Indiana’s historic synagogues.

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A Rude Awakening in Indiana's Marshmallow Country

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 05:00

A synagogue in an Indiana town that once produced mountains of kosher marshmallows is marking its 125th anniversary. Even though the shul is long shut, that’s reason enough to celebrate.

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Belgian far-right party to push for ritual slaughter ban

Mon, 09/29/2014 - 16:03

(JTA) – Belgium’s far-right Vlaams Belang party said it will submit a bill proposing a blanket ban on ritual slaughter.

The Vlaams Belang made the statement Monday in reaction to a Cabinet minister’s announcement on forbidding the slaughter of animals in temporary slaughterhouses as of next year throughout most of the federal monarchy.

The new regulation announced on Sunday by Ben Weyts, Belgium’s minister for animal welfare, was disappointing and insufficient, the party said.

In a statement on its bid to ban ritual slaughter, Vlaams Belang wrote, “If the minister won’t take the initiative on this matter, Vlaams Belang will.”

Weyts’ ban was seen as designed to stop the killing of thousands of sheep in provisionary slaughterhouses that Muslims operate annually for other Muslims ahead of the Eid al Fitr holiday.

Some members of Belgium’s Jewish community said it would not affect Jewish slaughter, or shechitah, which is performed at licensed and permanent abattoirs.

Religious laws in Islam and Judaism require that animals be conscious when their necks are cut. Throughout Europe, the practice is under attack from animal rights activists who find it cruel and far-right movements that view it as an unwelcome foreign custom.

In addition to seeking to curb immigration into Belgium, Vlaams Belang is also a supporter of independence for the Flemish Region, one of the three autonomous parts that comprise Belgium.

The party won 3.7 percent of the vote in the federal elections earlier this year and 5.9 percent of the vote in the elections for the Flemish parliament. But in 2007, Vlaams Belang emerged as the country’s third largest party with nearly 12 percent of the vote in federal elections.

Virtually all other Belgian political parties consider Vlaams Belang a pariah movement and will not enter in power-sharing agreements with it, making it impossible for the party to enter the government.

Political analysts say the party has lost many votes to the center-right movement of Weyts, the New Flemish Alliance.

Kiev's Oldest Synagogue Hit by Firebomb

Mon, 09/29/2014 - 14:32

Kiev’s oldest synagogue was the target of a firebomb that burst into flames outside the building.

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Muslim Sheep Killing Endangers Kosher Slaughter

Mon, 09/29/2014 - 11:42

The Muslim custom of killing sheep at temporary slaughterhouses jeopardizes all ritual slaughter in Belgium, a Cabinet minister there warned.

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Muslim custom puts all ritual slaughter at risk, Belgium official says

Mon, 09/29/2014 - 09:54

(JTA) — The Muslim custom of killing sheep at temporary slaughterhouses jeopardizes all ritual slaughter in Belgium, a Cabinet minister there warned.

Ben Weyts, Belgium’s minister for animal welfare, made the warning Sunday during an interview with the VRT broadcaster about a ban that will go into effect next year throughout most of Belgium on the slaughter of conscious animals at improvised abattoirs.

The ban is believed to be designed to prevent the slaughtering of some 20,000 sheep annually at impromptu slaughterhouses operated by Muslims for their coreligionists ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

The practice, Weyts said, violates European Union legislation “which permits the slaughter of conscious animals only for religious reasons and in authorized slaughterhouses,” and therefore could jeopardize all slaughter of conscious animals.

“Because of motions by animal welfare organizations that hang over our heads, there is uncertainty,” Weyts said. “If they go to court, they will win right away and that will be a total situation of chaos because then only stunned animals may be slaughtered.”

Muslim and Jewish religious law both require animals be conscious when their necks are cut, a practice animal rights activists describe as being cruel.

The ban announced by Weyts is expected to have no effect on the Jewish community, which performs kosher slaughter, or shechitah, “only in permanent and licensed slaughterhouses,” Michael Freilich, editor in chief of the Flemish-language Jewish monthly Joods Actueel, told JTA.

Still, Rabbi Menachem Margolin of the European Jewish Association, a Brussels-based lobby group, vowed to fight to repeal the ban because it “endangers freedom of worship in Belgium,” he wrote in a statement.

A spokesman for the European Jewish Association told JTA, “Most of the proposed laws against ritual slaughter are usually proposed against Muslim slaughter as there are a lot more of them. But issues such as these have a tendency to turn into laws against kosher slaughter as well.”

Man Fires BB Gun at Baltimore Jews Leaving Synagogue

Sun, 09/28/2014 - 09:01

A man fired a BB gun and shouted ‘Jews, Jews, Jews’ at three teens leaving a Baltimore synagogue in what police are investigating as a possible hate crime.

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October 6 – GreenFaith Certification Learning Session

Sun, 09/28/2014 - 08:00

Transformation. New members. Cost savings. Relevancy. Spiritual growth. Culture shift.

When GreenFaith recently interviewed 15 graduates of the Certification Program, these words were echoed again and again.

“The thing about GreenFaith is that it works. There a lot of programs that are a mile high and an inch deep, but this is a mile high and a mile deep. After having gone through it, you’ll see a tangible difference: improvement and growth in your faith community, more credibility in this work, and the ability to lead more confidently.” – Margy Clarson, Green Team member at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, Triangle, VA

Join us for a webinar on October 6th at 8:00 p.m. ET to learn more about the GreenFaith Certification Program!

GreenFaith Certification is a comprehensive environmental program that helps your community be transformed into a religious leader for the environment. With processes that work, over 200 free resources, one-on-one consultation, and networking with other faith communities, the Certification Program offers more than any other program in the country.

During the learning session, We’ll share with you the benefits and results of the program, and you’ll hear from a participant. You’ll also learn of some tuition subsidies that are available to help offset the cost.

Your congregation could be next! Register for the Certification webinar today—even if you can’t make the webinar live, we will send you the recording.

Unidentified man fires BB gun at Baltimore Jews leaving synagogue

Sun, 09/28/2014 - 07:56

(JTA) — A man fired a BB gun and shouted “Jews, Jews, Jews” at three Jewish teens leaving a synagogue in Baltimore in what police are investigating as a possible hate crime.

One of the pellets from the BB gun struck a window of the Bais Hamedrash and Mesivta of Baltimore, a traditional Orthodox institution located in Baltimore County, in Thursday’s incident.

The gunman, described as being “possibly of Middle Eastern descent,” drove away after firing the gun and shouting at the pedestrians on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

“We want to stop that. We want to let people know that’s not going to be tolerated in our communities,” Cpl. John Wachter, Baltimore County Police told the local CBS affiliate WJZ.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger told WJZ that if the suspect is caught he could be charged with a hate crime in addition to other criminal acts.