by Rabbi Josh Weinberg
Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Eternal [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day.
Walk around Zion, circle it; count its towers, take note of its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may recount it to a future age.
In the olden days, Jews from the Galilee or Ashkelon – or maybe even as far as Alexandria – would come on foot, in a caravan of pilgrims, to Jerusalem. Three times a year Jews would embark on this sacred pilgrimage, reminding them of the centrality of Jerusalem, of the need to offer something of themselves in sacrifice, and of the importance of being part of something much larger than themselves or their own small community. In the days when a lit torch provided the bulk of inter-village communication, the pilgrimage was a source of social interaction, a time to share stories of success and failure, and to see those with whom one did not regularly come into contact. I can only imagine the feelings – physical and emotional – as one approached the foot of the Temple Mount, sacrifice in hand, joining the sea of fellow white-robed pilgrims, all ascending to offer a modest portion to God.
The Torah tells us that this journey should be a chag for God. Although it is generally translated as “festival” or “holy day,” chag also can mean “pilgrimage.” The word comes from the Hebrew root ח-ג-ג which means to go around or to circumambulate. Indeed, during many ancient customs, Jews would walk around the altar as part of the ceremony of sacrifice. Islamic culture picked up this motif, too, using the same word — Hajj (חג’) — to refer to the circumambulations around the Ka’abah in Mecca that is part of a journey known colloquially as a “pilgrimage.”
Tonight begins the holiday of Sukkot, when many of us will shed the comforts of shingled roofs and insulation for our sukkot – temporary outdoor structures where we will eat, socialize, and spend time during the coming week. For many of today’s North American Jews, though, the notion of pilgrimage has fallen by the wayside, left solely to the pages of Torah and history.
For many Israelis, the modern State of Israel afforded the opportunity to reinvent Jewish life as it was known in the Diaspora. The early pioneers and founders of the Jewish State aspired to reintroduce ancient customs, promoting the idea that the modern state is the continuation of the biblical kingdom, and actively renewing the experience of Jewish sovereignty and ownership of the Land of Israel. The three pilgrimage holidays – Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot – took on this altneu (old-new) meaning. Shavuot became a time to bring forth our own bikkurim (first fruits), Passover took on a whole new meaning as a holiday of freedom for the worker, as well as a spring festival, and Sukkot – for some – once again became a chance to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Early in its history, the modern State of Israel reinstated a multi-day march during which military units, youth groups, and citizens from various backgrounds came together and camped in the Judean Hills on the way to Jerusalem. Today, it is a symbolic walk around Jerusalem, largely seen as belonging to the national religious movement, especially those who wish to see the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and a reinstitution of the sacrificial rite. For the rest of us, it is a day on which to avoid driving in Jerusalem to steer clear of the procession that gridlocks the ancient thoroughfares.
This January, Jews throughout the world will have an opportunity to vote to send modern-day pilgrims to Jerusalem as delegates to the 37th World Zionist Congress, the body that convenes every five years to elect officers and develop policies of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and the Jewish Agency. A large delegation of Progressive and Reform Jews in the World Zionist Congress will ensure not only that our values – including gender and religious equality – are represented in the work of the body, but also that such organizations in Israel receive a portion of the funds available from the WZO and the Jewish Agency. It is imperative, therefore, that you pledge now to vote for ARZA (which represents Reform Judaism in the World Zionist Congress) and cast your vote in January’s WZO election. Please join us in supporting this important pilgrimage for our own day.
Chag Sukkot Sameach!
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), which, in 2008, was part of a coalition comprising the largest faction in the World Zionist Congress.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf told his synagogue he is gay in an eloquent open letter. Menachem Creditor writes that the reaction of the shul’s lay leaders is even more momentous.Click here for the rest of the article...
The wife of the Brooklyn-born chief rabbi of Chabad in Sydney apologized unreservedly for offending a child sex abuse victim on the eve of Yom Kippur.Click here for the rest of the article...
Gil Steinlauf, the married senior rabbi at Adas Israel — a large and historic Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C. — has announced that he is gay.Click here for the rest of the article...
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf struggled for decades with an identity that he only acknowledged publicly this week.
On the Monday after Yom Kippur, Steinlauf, the married senior rabbi at Adas Israel — a large and historic Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C. — announced that he is gay. In a letter sent to congregants, Steinlauf wrote:
With much pain and tears, together with my beloved wife, I have come to understand that I could walk my path with the greatest strength, with the greatest peace in my heart, with the greatest healing and wholeness, when I finally acknowledged that I am a gay man. Sadly, for us this means that Batya and I can no longer remain married, despite our fidelity throughout our marriage and our abiding friendship and love. As our divorce is not born of rancor, we pray that together with our children we will remain bound by a brit mishpachah, a covenant of family.
Even as a child, Steinlauf recognized a “difference” in himself, he wrote, but never let that difference define him or his choice of a spouse. Steinlauf has been married for 20 years to Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, Director of Social Justice and Interfaith Initiatives at the Jewish Community Relations Council. The Steinlaufs, seen in the video below at a July “Stand Strong With Israel” rally, have three children.
A letter of support from the congregation’s president, Arnie Podgorsky, accompanied Rabbi Gil Steinlauf’s letter. He wrote:
Together with the other officers of Adas Israel, I stand with Rabbi Steinlauf. Our synagogue is strong, large, and inclusive–a big tent with room and respect for all. Rabbi Steinlauf, along with the rest of the clergy, will continue to advance new paths to Torah, making Judaism and its tools for a beautiful life more accessible for more Jews. We will continue our diverse approaches to worship, from the traditional to the innovative. At the same time, we understand that Rabbi Steinlauf will be undergoing a challenging personal transition in the coming months, and we extend to him patience and a generous spirit.
Podgorsky said that Rabbi Steinlauf shared his news with the officers of Adas Israel earlier this fall. “We determined together that he would see the congregation through the High Holy Days in the customary way, and then make his news public,” Podgorsky’s letter stated.
Steinlauf has been the senior rabbi at Adas Israel since 2008, having served previously as a rabbi at Temple Israel in Ridgewood, N.J., and Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio. He graduated from Princeton, studied at Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and was ordained in 1998 at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Adas Israel counts among its congregants journalists Jeffrey Goldberg and Franklin Foer. In a post Monday on The Atlantic’s website, Goldberg put Steinlauf’s announcement in context:
Rabbi Steinlauf fell into an odd liminal moment in history. If he were a 25-year-old rabbi, there would be no drama here, no nothing, in fact, because he would simply be a rabbi who happens to be gay. The Conservative movement of Judaism has changed over the past decade or two in unimaginable ways. I have trouble picturing a synagogue that wouldn’t hire a gay rabbi. On the other hand, if he were 60 years old now, with the same identity, he most likely would have been able to glide toward retirement, his secret intact.
Foer, Goldberg wrote, noted that “Rabbi Steinlauf has just discovered the most dramatic possible way to break the Yom Kippur fast.”
A 2006 decision from the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards paved the way for the ordination of gay rabbis and the recognition of same-sex unions in the Conservative movement.
A former house guest was charged in the fatal stabbing of Ronald Fischman, an ordained cantor, in Fischman’s Philadelphia home.Click here for the rest of the article...
NEW YORK (JTA) — A former house guest was charged in the fatal stabbing of Ronald Fischman, an ordained cantor, in Fischman’s Philadelphia home.
Jonathan Williams, 33, was arrested Thursday — two days after the stabbing — and charged with murder, burglary and other offenses, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Williams had been a house guest at Fischman’s northwest Philadelphia home but had been asked to leave, according to police reports obtained by the Inquirer. He broke into the house after 11 p.m. on Sept. 30, according to police, and was confronted inside by Fischman, then stabbed him multiple times in the neck, shoulder and knee.
Fischman, 54, a Pittsburgh native, was an author and editor at GGIS Publishing & Media in Philadelphia. He had published two original books and ghostwritten eight biographies and memoirs, according to his website.
A graduate of the Jewish Theologial Seminary’s H. L. Miller Cantorial School in New York, Fischman had served as the cantor at Temple Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue on Long Island.
He was a member of the Mishkan Shalom synagogue in northwest Philadelphia, where he had blown the shofar and read from the Torah at Rosh Hashanah services this year, Rabbi Shawn Zevit told the Inquirer.
“It is a terrible loss,” Zevit told NewsWorks Philadelphia. “There is a lot of shock and grief. He was a very beloved member of our community.”
Former Temple President Martin Vesole explores Judaism and reform in the 21st century.
(PRWeb September 03, 2014)
Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/09/prweb12138575.htm
(JTA) — A swastika was painted on the wall of a Spokane synagogue during Yom Kippur.
The swastika was painted on the concrete wall of Temple Beth Shalom’s enclosed courtyard on Saturday while services took place inside the building, according to local reports.
Spokane Police are investigating the incident; they are reviewing the synagogue’s security camera footage, according to reports. The swastika will be removed “immediately,” the synagogue’s rabbi, Tamar Malino said in a statement.
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (JTA) — A Dutch municipality ordered the eviction of 270 Jews from a camping site that is overcrowded with followers of the fugitive rabbi Eliezer Berland.
The order was issued Friday by the island municipality of Texel in the country’s north in connection with the arrival of 300 Orthodox Jews from the Breslov Hasidic sect ahead of Yom Kippur to a Jewish-owned camping site with a capacity of 30 people, the Noordhollands Dagblad daily newspaper reported Friday.
The visitors came from various countries to spend the holiday with Berland, who was arrested in the Netherlands last month.
Berland, the founder of the Shuvu Bonim religious seminary, fled Israel to Morocco and from there to South Africa last year amid allegations that he molested two female followers, including a minor. Israel requested his extradition; he is staying in Holland while justice authorities review the request.
Berland and his followers arrived ahead of the weekend at Camping Dennenlust, which belongs to a Jewish couple, Avraham and Rivka Pranger.
Out of consideration for the religious sentiment of the campers, Mayor Francine Giskes gave the Prangers until Sunday for their site to adhere to its legal capacity, Noordhollands Dagblad reported. She consulted several mayors in the region on how to approach the matter.
Avraham Pranger told the daily that he and his wife did not know 300 people would descend on their small business and that the guests kept multiplying despite the couple’s request that they find an alternative arrangements.
“It all began with a reservation by a rabbi from Amsterdam and 30 of his followers,” he told the daily before Yom Kippur. “We are totally overrun, but these are fellow Jews and I can’t just chase them away. I think it’s through social media the message spread.”
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Hundreds of Palestinians from Gaza prayed on the Temple Mount — the first religious visits from Gaza allowed by Israel since Hamas took power in the strip in 2007.
Some 500 worshipers prayed Sunday at the Al-Aksa Mosque for the Muslim holy day Eid al-Adha, which began the previous day.
Israel reportedly granted 1,500 permits for Palestinians age 60 and older to pray in Jerusalem for Eid al-Adha.
The permits were granted in the wake of this summer’s 50-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
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?Click here for the rest of the article...
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.
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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.
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.
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