Photo by Dusty St. Amand

Latter Day Jew Wants Jews to Hear His Story of Love and Conversion


“I was raised Mormon, poor, in the Midwest; turned out kind of gay, got a little cancer, then converted to Judaism. Try putting all of that in a Tinder profile,” writer-comedian H. Alan Scott quips in the trailer for “Latter Day Jew,” a documentary-in-progress about his life’s journey.

The film will follow Scott, 35, as he prepares for his bar mitzvah at the Reform Temple Akiba in Culver City on Nov. 9.

In the trailer, Scott stumps a prospective party planner when he jokes, “How do you feel about a public bris?”

In his Silver Lake apartment, the comedian turned serious when asked why he was drawn to Judaism.

“I love the questioning, that I have freedom of thought, that I can question God, that I’m belonging to a community,” he said. “And I find Shabbat to be a very beautiful, spiritual sort of ‘timeout.’ Of course, I just also love challah bread.”

Scott was sitting in his living room, which sported an Israeli flag, books on Judaism and the Jewish icons he has loved since childhood (Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Nora Ephron and Lenny Bruce). One of his arms was adorned with a tattoo of TV’s “The Golden Girls,” including Bea Arthur, another of Scott’s Jewish celebrity fetishes. (He has a podcast devoted to “Golden Girls.”) His black-and-white cat, Frasier — named for another of his favorite shows — wore a magenta collar affixed with a gold-sequined bow tie.

Scott grew up in not-very-Mormon Kirkwood, Mo., a St. Louis suburb where, he said, “people would ask me if I had three moms.”

In a telephone interview, his one and only mother, Kathleen Giamanco, said she was abandoned by her parents at the age of 8, sent to an orphanage, and then adopted by a devout Mormon family. She said the Mormon upbringing she gave her son was much less strict than how she was raised.

Yet, Scott chafed at the beliefs of the Mormon church, especially its emphasis on the afterlife. “That’s a waste of time, because we’re here right now,” he said. “I’d rather focus on what I’m having for dinner.”

Scott’s baptism, at age 12, was hardly a religious experience. Decked out in a white robe too tight for his chubby adolescent physique, he was lowered into a hot tub by a hunky young missionary. “I wasn’t thinking about anything except that my head was just a couple of inches away from this attractive man’s member,” he said.

Scott’s baptism, at age 12, was hardly a religious experience.

Later, while studying at DePaul University in Chicago, Scott confided to his Jewish academic counselor that he was drawn to Judaism. She promptly forwarded him to local rabbis and Scott began reading about the religion in earnest. He continued his studies into his 20s, while working as a stand-up comedian in New York.

He thought he had plenty of time to convert — until he began feeling a persistent pain in his groin. Just after he moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2012, Scott was diagnosed with testicular cancer and endured grueling rounds of chemotherapy.

It was at that time he decided to convert to Judaism, he said, not because the cancer made him face his mortality but “because I had the time. There was nothing grounding me and I felt lost.” He also thought the time was right to convert because he aspired to become a father one day and wanted to raise his child in a religiously grounded home.

His Jewish psychiatrist suggested he reach out to Rabbi Zach Shapiro at Temple Akiba, who happens to be gay.

“H. Alan asked me if it was common for a young, single male to convert to Judaism, and I said, ‘No, it’s not,’ ” Shapiro recalled. “He’s an incredible young soul with lots of questions.”

Temple Akiba Cantor Lonee Frailich agreed: “To see this particular person on such a unique and different journey — and do it with such grace and humor — is a beautiful thing.”

While there are no statistics on the number of former Mormons who have converted to Judaism, Rabbi Emeritus Fred Wenger of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City — that city’s largest synagogue — said he has presided over the conversions of about 60 former Mormons over the past few decades.

Devout Mormons feel an affinity for Jews, in part, because of their own exodus, due to religious discrimination, from upstate New York to the Midwest to Salt Lake City, Wenger said.

Andrew Reed, a Mormon and a professor of Jewish studies at Brigham Young University, noted that the Mormon church — formally known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — donated land for two Jewish cemeteries in Salt Lake City in the 1860s, as well as space for local Jews to hold High Holy Days services. The church’s love for the land of Israel also led its leaders to send an emissary to then-Palestine in the 1940s.

But, Reed said, there have been some rifts between the Jewish and Mormon communities, one of which resulted from Mormon church members’ pursuit in years past of their belief that they could posthumously baptize Holocaust victims such as Anne Frank.

Wenger said he has spoken to church officials about discontinuing Mormons’ proselytizing efforts aimed at Jewish youths.

Scott said he also took issue with the posthumous baptisms, as well as the church’s support of California’s Proposition 8, approved by voters in 2008, which would have banned same-sex marriage. A federal court in 2010 ruled the proposition unconstitutional.

About two years ago in Los Angeles, Scott professed his commitment to Judaism before a beit din, or rabbinical court, and then immersed in the mikveh at American Jewish University to complete his conversion.

“I love the questioning, that I have freedom of thought, that I can question God.” – H. Alan Scott

After he emerged from the water, Scott recalled, he started to shake and cry. Initially, he thought he was having a panic attack. “I kept thinking, ‘What have I done? Have I gone too far?’ ” he said. “But then I realized that it was this complete embracing of the history of Judaism and Jews. It felt so right.”

Thereafter, Scott struggled to understand how he could be “a good Jew and give back to the community.” He attended retreats of the Jewish organization Asylum Arts and, among other efforts, twice visited Israel, where he met with gay activists.

Then he met with director Aliza Rosen, who had created a CBS series on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey that Scott wanted to feature on his “Talking Crime” podcast.

Rosen recalled that during their first dinner together, she was “completely distracted because he was wearing this very prominent Magen David necklace. I asked, ‘What’s the deal with the Jewish star?’ He went on to tell me his whole story. I put down my fork and said, ‘We’re making a documentary.’ ”

Scott, who writes about gay issues and other topics for publications such as Newsweek, said he is saving jokes about becoming Jewish for his upcoming one-man show, which will be filmed as part of the documentary. He quips that his conversion means he’s finally gone Hollywood.

“In doing this documentary, I want to create a story for the Jewish community,” he said. “I want it to be an affirming story about what’s great about being a Jew.”

What the Movie ‘Titanic’ Taught Me About God


As Tolstoy might have observed, every secular Jewish family is secular in its own way.

When I was a baby, my parents chose to settle far from the neighborhood where the synagogues were. “Why,” my father asked, “would we choose to live in the Jewish ghetto?”

On the other hand, each spring my father led a brief seder from the Maxwell House haggadah. Each fall I asked for a Christmas tree and was refused. And, I had a bat mitzvah.

I always will be grateful for my loving, supportive, open-minded, secular Jewish parents. They didn’t flinch when I announced my career choice: poet, with a backup plan of musician. And they had no issue with my dating non-Jews, or women for that matter.

But it was a different story when, in my early 20s, I found myself falling in love with the most unlikely partner of all: God.

How did this happen? I blame it on a combination of two things — a semester-abroad program and the movie “Titanic.”

It happened in my senior year of college in New York City. I recently had returned from a semester “abroad” on a schooner in the middle of the ocean. This was a surprising turn of events. I had never been on a sailboat before and, in fact, I was frightened by deep water. But I had always been drawn to what frightened me, so when a friend casually mentioned a semester-abroad program on a tall ship, I signed up.

Those six weeks at sea were full of wonder. We learned celestial navigation — aiming sextants at the moon — and took turns cooking dinner for our shipmates in the tiny galley. Some nights, dolphins trailed the boat, braiding their green bioluminescent streams through the water. Recorded music was not allowed, and when I played my violin on the deck beneath the stars, my shipmates gathered around me in silence.

I returned to New York for my senior year with arms like Popeye’s and a new perspective on the miracle that is our planet. It was from this place that I took the subway to 72nd Street and bought a ticket to the newly released “Titanic” movie. With sea air still clinging to my clothes, the story may have felt more real to me than to some of my fellow New Yorkers.

So when the Titanic hit the iceberg, splitting her hull like a banana, and when half of the ship began to sink rapidly, pulling the other half after it, I was beyond terrified. It was all too easy to imagine myself on that deck, knowing the freezing water awaited.

I watched, unable to move. On the part of the deck that had not yet sunk, a string quartet played. Beside them, a preacher cried out: “Save us, God!” Shaking, shivering, screaming, holding his arms to the sky: “Dear God, save us!”

I knew with utter clarity that in the moment of my greatest fear I would have put down my violin and gone to that preacher and prayed with him.

When I left the theater, I walked back uptown on Broadway, that river of taxis trailing red lights behind them. A light, cold rain fell.

I was full of questions.

I wouldn’t be seeking a miraculous rescue.

Who was this God I would be calling out to? I wouldn’t be seeking a miraculous rescue. It was about something larger than myself. My impulse to call out had to do with accepting the power of the sea, the vast sky we had sailed beneath, night after night. And it had something to do with relinquishing my own sense of self, joining something beyond me.

But if my instinct was to orient myself to this mystery in the most heightened circumstances, I thought, why wait for a disaster? Why not call out to God in joy? And for that matter, why not think about God in even the most casual moments, like walking home from a movie?

And so it was that I began to fall in love with God. I did not know what that meant. All I knew was that I was at the beginning of a new voyage.

Twenty years after that rainy night on Broadway, I’m still on that voyage.

And I’m still in love.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

There’s No Such Thing As A Sinner


Some of us turn to the Sun and strum over our bodies in the shape of a rood. We play hymns over our hearts, passed down and over our DNA for generations.

Some of us turn to the moon and pluck lavender from our gardens — naked and howling. We write love songs to the low-hung clouds, as we sniff in a tidal wave that never was, along with the skin of an unfound planet home to yet nameless life, along with a hummingbird’s hiccup, all in a gust of wind. All in one inhale, we fill our hearts with the humid air, only hardly conscious of why exactly it makes us feel so full.

Some of us, move about only as much as we must to be able to spend the rest of our lives sitting, cross-legged, cross-eyed, our consciousness streaming across nebulae. Embodying everything — inclusive of nothing.

And most of us, we’re never really sure who or what we’re holding up so high. But despite this, we concede. With certainty, not always in God, but in our worship, however it is we worship, we worship.

We’re never really sure who or what we’re holding up so high.

And then, some of us won’t cross anything except that crossroad that leads to that one spot where you can get dope for ten a gram. We kick our leather feet through concrete dust and ash and scream “BURN IT ALL TO HELL!” as we tip our cups and the crown of our heads backward in a contrary bow.

And we scream to whom exactly?

Well, we’re not really sure who or what we’re holding up so high that we’re trusting that they could burn it all to hell. … We’re not really sure how high we’ve got to get to figure that one out. But despite this, despite our best efforts to flip the mountaintop upside-down and into a syringe, our subconscious concedes, and we, too, worship.

We may run to God or with wolves, by the light of violet flames, or into concrete caves, we may run however we like, but we may not outrun our mortal allegiance to worship, bringing us to our knees someway. Somehow. However it is, we worship.


Hannah Arin is a junior at Pitzer College pursuing a double major in religious studies and philosophy.

Rabbis Share Wisdom in Yom Kippur Sermons


In their 2017 Yom Kippur sermons, rabbis of varying denominations touched on such current events as the recent wave of devastating hurricanes and even the recent solar eclipse, all to motivate, inspire and prompt introspection. Some drew on biblical text and espoused messages of tolerance and the importance of engaging others in difficult conversations amid a divisive political climate.

Here are excerpts from some of those sermons.

Rabbi Steve Leder

Wilshire Boulevard Temple

When you only have 15 characters per line to sum up a person’s life, you have to distill that life down to its most essential elements. You want to know what really matters? Walk through the cemetery and read the headstones.

It almost always comes down to a few, simple words: Loving husband, father and grandfather. Loving wife, mother and grandmother. Loyal friend. Loving Sister. Loving Brother. That’s it. No resume, no net worth. We matter when we love our family and our friends. It sometimes takes death to remind us that life really is that simple.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Donniel Hartman [president of the Shalom Hartman Institute] has pointed out that in its very opening chapters, the Torah has explained that sometimes the reels will feel like they are rolling together and that sometimes they won’t feel that way, and that we need to master both of the resultant types of faith experience.

In Chapters 2 and 3 of Bereshit, God is an intimate and invested presence, molding the human with his hands, enlivening the human with his own breath, planting a garden to satisfy the human’s needs, and, when necessary, castigating the human for his transgression. But the first chapter is thoroughly different. There, God is majestic, regal and distant, creating worlds through his speech, and then leaving the day-to-day operations in the hands of the creature who possesses His likeness. … And in the hands of a fair degree of mazel. “Take both of these visions,” the Torah is saying. “You will need them both to maintain your spiritual fire and your sanity.” 

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh

Temple Israel of Hollywood

In the Book of Ruth, in our Bible, Ruth’s son becomes King David’s grandfather. That’s some yichas! According to the rabbis, one of King David’s decedents will announce the messianic age. Listen, I’m not sitting around waiting for the Messiah to walk through the sanctuary doors, but it’s a profound teaching that the Messiah will come from a non-Jew, Ruth, who was welcomed into the Jewish community. When we close ourselves off, when we don’t eat with the other, we don’t encounter the Ruths in our midst, and we prevent any possibility for the Messianic age to come.

Rabbi Ken Chasen

Leo Baeck Temple

Time, temperament and turning. Three tools that our tradition has gifted to us to help us rebuild our sagging spirits. They’re the ice packs and stretching regimens we need in order to make it through the process of living in one piece. When the miles are piling up, and you are feeling and fearing just how destructible you are — don’t just keep running. Give a little something back to yourself from our Jewish tradition.

Remember how not to become paralyzed by the present … how to wear your tallit of your assuring past and your tallit of your promise to the future simultaneously. Embrace the power that lightness of soul can unleash for yourself and others. And start changing the world by changing yourself … for real … because the love you’ll feel for yourself, and the belief you’ll gain in the potential for human growth, will transform your vision of what is possible for this world.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy

Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue

The recent solar eclipse reminds us of the promise of renewal, not only for ourselves, but for all who share the same sun and moon and stars. At this moment of alignment, we are given an extraordinary opportunity to cleanse ourselves of the blame and anger that prevents us from seeing that.

“A human being is part of a whole, limited in time and space, and even though we experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest.” This, as Einstein reminds us, is an optical illusion. That which is concealed has been revealed, if but for an instant, if only we will open our eyes, our minds and our hearts into a greater consciousness, a “mochin d’gadlut.”    

Rabbi Noah Farkas

Valley Beth Shalom

[Holiness] fills our world and floats in the background, and many of us never know that it is there. If you only live your life trying to achieve one thing — happiness — you are living along a single axis. Your life is broadcast in black and white.

But if you understand that happiness is a means and not an end, if you understand that there is a greater world out there more cherished and sacred than happiness alone, if you see yourself in service to something greater, then you can live in many dimensions at once. Your life is no longer broadcast in black and white but in full streaming Technicolor.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Congregation Or Ami

Last May, congregants from Congregation Or Ami stood together in a small sanctuary in Cuba, in a small sanctuary in Santa Clara. Only 20 Jewish families still live in that small community. We were inspired as the community leader, David, who proudly spoke about how they keep Judaism alive. Teaching the rituals. Using their small kitchen as a gathering place to make tsimis and kugel, rice and beans, and chicken soup. Against declining odds, they are sustaining a community, a community devoted to [God].

Rabbi Simcha Backman

Chabad of Glendale and the Foothill Communities

One of the confessions we make on Yom Kippur is:  For the sin which we have committed before you by a glance of the eye – besikur ayin.  What’s wrong with the glance of an eye?  This is a deep sin of looking at something or somebody with the glance of an eye and then thinking “I got it” while in reality you got and saw nothing.  For until we shut our eyes and recognize the true depth of our fellow human beings, we don’t get it at all.

And this leads us back to our central Yom Kippur message: The deeper you see yourself and those around you, the more you can forgive.

And this brings us to Yizkor.  Sometimes we had a less than perfect relationship with our parents.  Perhaps our father was a bit strange, or I had an overbearing mother.  But we need to have the strength to look past these superficial elements and truly appreciate the depth of people.

For those of us whose parents are still alive, don’t wait until it’s too late.  Make the extra effort to connect with them on a truly deep level and overlook the less than important things.  Do that today.  For those of us who are saying Yizkor – think of all the good moments and reconnect on a spiritual level. 

May it be a year in which our eyes stay shut, so that they can remain truly open.

Rabbi Joshua M. Aaronson

Temple Judea

Judaism is the most optimistic religion in the world and Jews are the most optimistic people in the world. What, you ask, how can that be? Is the story of Jonah optimistic? How can we be optimistic in the face of the destruction of the Temple not once but twice? How can we be optimistic after millennia of anti-Semitism, of expulsions? Where is optimism in the face of pogroms and the Shoah?

The answer is you. Despite all these things, all this tzuris, you are sitting here, in this sanctuary. You are the guy with boat after the flood in Houston. You are people pulling survivors from the rubble of earthquake in Mexico. What Jonah failed to realize — and what I think we fail to realize — is that our story is not the story of the destruction of the Temples or the expulsion from Spain or the Shoah. Our story and our religion is the story of what happens between those events — the boats that come to save us. That’s who you are. That’s who we are.

Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Kehillat Israel

Peg Streep, who writes about unloved daughters, says, “Forgiveness is not the goal. Healing is the goal.” For me and for many others who have suffered abuse and betrayal, this is the absolute truth. Forgiveness is not the goal. Healing is the goal. The action we take in the face of our suffering is to heal and to make meaning out of our own pain.

Staff Writer Ryan Torok contributed to this report.

Rabbi Steve Leder’s Yom Kippur sermon: What Have I Learned About Death?


The letter came from Hillside cemetery in June…the kind of letter that always gets my attention: “Buy now, price increases on July 1st.” I’ve been to Hillside 500, 600 times, maybe more. But this time was different. This time it was for me. It was for Betsy. I was buying the last piece of real estate we will ever inhabit.

I looked at a few different Leder Plot possibilities. Which should it be? Fountain, bench, path or tree adjacent? “This one,” I said to the sales woman, after wandering and pondering for a few minutes. A double plot between the fountain and the bench. Section 5, row 11, plot 8— my eternal coordinates.

I stood on my little rectangle for a good long while. I felt the breeze. I imagined Betsy bereft, Aaron and his future wife, Hannah and her future husband, their children, my grandchildren, sitting beneath a green awning on white folding chairs while some other rabbi helps them tear the black ribbon, utter the words, and turn a spade of dirt upon my plain pine casket. They will be sad, they will get back into a dark limousine, loosen their ties, kick off their shoes and journey home to bagels and stories, a flickering candle and Kaddish. They will cry and they will laugh and I, will be gone….

It is a strange thing, it is a sobering thing, to stand upon one’s own grave.

Tonight is supposed to make us feel the very same way. Yom Kippur was designed by the sages as an annual rehearsal for our death. We neither eat nor drink because the dead neither eat nor drink. We wear white to remind us of the white burial shroud into which a traditional Jew is sewn upon death. We begin with an empty ark, the word for which in Hebrew is aron—which is also the word for casket. The three Torahs we hold represent the bet din, the three judges in the heavenly court above.

We begin Kol Nidre staring into an empty casket, standing before the court of eternity. We end Yom Kippur afternoon with the very same words that are recited when a person dies “Adonai Hu HaElohim—Adonai, is God.” When the Yom Kippur prayer book asks, “Who shall live and who shall die?” The answer for each of us is, “I will.”

Unlike most people, Rabbis don’t have the luxury of thinking about death only once a year on Yom Kippur or a handful of times over decades of life. On July 15th I completed my 30th year as your rabbi. This means many wonderful things, but it also means thirty years of seeing death up close. So what have I learned from 30 years of death that I can share with you on this evening when we are commanded to consider our own deaths in order that we might change our lives?

1.

The first thing I have learned about death might surprise you, which is, there are many things worse than dying. I have held the hands of hundreds of dying people. It might amaze you to know that not once, not one time has any of them been afraid. There are rare exceptions but most people die at the end of a very long life or if young, after a long, debilitating illness. Age and disease have their own rhythm and power. They teach us, they carry us along, preparing us and the people we love for death. For most, death comes as a sort of peaceful friend.

Most people are ready to die the way we are all ready to sleep after a very long and terribly exhausting day. We just want to pull the covers up around us and settle in for the peace of it all. We are not anxious about sleeping. We are not depressed. We are not afraid. The rabbis called death minucha n’chonah—perfect sleep. Disease, age, life itself prepares us for death and when it is our time, death is as natural a thing as life.

Here’s some good news. This means if you are afraid of dying it is not your day. Anxiety is for the living. And when it is really your time to die, you will be at peace and welcomed into the arms of God.

2.

If life is good then death must be bad is the way most people think, but it really isn’t so. I am not for a moment trying to make sense of the death of a child or anyone who has not been granted his or her full measure of life. But generally speaking, is more really better or is there something about death that defines the essence of life itself?

Imagine a world without death. Without death to what would we aspire? Could life be serious or meaningful without mortality? Could life be beautiful? “Death,” said Wallace Stevens, “is the mother of beauty.” The beauty of flowers depends on the fact that they soon wither. How deeply could one deathless “human” being really love another? It is the simple fact that we do not have forever that makes our love for each other so profound.

And finally, without death, would there be such a thing as a moral life? To know that we will die means we must stand for something greater than ourselves in life. It is death Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steve Leder Kol Nidre 5778 Sermon that makes us human in the best sense of that word. We contemplate death on Kol Nidre in order to become our best, most human selves.

3.

There is a difference between prolonging life and prolonging death. When I am summoned to the hospital by a family that must decide whether or not to allow some procedure, amidst the stress, chaos and confusion I ask a simple question. Is this going to prolong your loved one’s life or prolong your loved one’s death? It is loving to prolong life; a chance to live and love and laugh again. But it is cruel to prolong death.

If you are wondering how you will know whether you are prolonging life or prolonging death. I can tell you only this. You will know. Then you must have the depth of love and courage within your heart to act upon what you know. To truly love someone is sometimes to let them go.

4.

Jews don’t know Shiva. I am not sure when it happened, but most reform Jews have lost touch with what Shiva is really supposed to be. Sitting Shiva is supposed to ease the burden on the mourners. This means we are supposed to take care of them after the funeral. They are not supposed to throw a party to entertain us.

The rabbis knew what they were doing when they mandated seven days and nights of being taken care of by the community, of staying home, staying put, taking the time to remember, to pray, to say Kaddish. When someone you care about becomes a mourner help organize the food, the parking, the chairs, the everything needed for the Shiva at their home.

When you arrive at the Shiva, do not approach the mourners. Just be close by so they can summon you if they wish. If they do, do not distract them by avoiding the subject of their loved one’s death. Talk about their loved one, share your memories. They want to remember. They need to remember, to talk, to let it out, to grieve.

A man whose thirty-year-old daughter died in a car accident said at the Shiva as he looked around the room at the people who came to comfort him, “This changes nothing. But it means everything.” Showing up matters. Hear me reform Jews–Hold a proper Shiva, and I promise Shiva will hold you when you need so badly to be held.

5.

Be you. People who are facing death or mourning do not really want or need us to approach them with drawn faces and whispered sympathies. They need us to be with them in death who we are with them in life. If you are a hugger, hug. If you are a joker, joke. If you are a story teller, tell stories. If you are a feeder, feed them. If you are a Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steve Leder Kol Nidre 5778 Sermon doer. Do for them. Just be who you are and have always been for them. That is what people need and want. They are sad enough without your sad face. Tell them the funniest story you know about their loved one. When mourners laugh, it means they will survive. When it comes to death, laughter is a gift.

6.

There is an old joke about the French that says: “The French are like everyone else, just more so.” Death makes everyone more so. If a person was private in life, she will be private when dying. If he was a wise-cracking optimist in life, he will be a wise cracking optimist in death.

If your family was tight, loving, and supportive in life, your family will be thus as you face death. If your family was dysfunctional, distant, and fractured in life, it will pull together briefly to make funeral plans and get through the day, but soon enough, it will be fractured again.

People and families face death exactly the way they face life—this is sometimes times terrible, and sometimes beautiful, but it is almost always true and it is best not to expect otherwise.

7.

Anyone who thinks the shortest distance between two points is a straight line does not understand grief. Grief is not a linear process with sadness diminishing each day until it clears up like some infection. Grief ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows. Sometimes we can stand up in it, other times it pulls us under, thrashes and scares us, the world is upside down and we cannot breathe.

When that wave called grief comes, it is best to float with the pain and the emptiness, give in to it, be with it, take your time, and then stand up again.

We lose so much to death. Half our memory is gone with the only person on earth who shared our memories of that incredible trip, pizza from that little place down the alley, the babies’ first stumbles across the room, that old white Ford we took cross country when we were young and had no money.

We lose the only mother, the only father we will ever have. We lose so much love to death and if that love is real, and deep, the grief is real and deep.

Grief is not a race to be won or an ill to be cured. To deny grief its due is to deny the love we have for those we have no longer. Do not fight grief when it comes. Float with it…then, stand again.

8.

The rabbi does not write your eulogy after you die. You write it with the pen of your life.

9.

When my friend Debra’s mother died recently I asked her what she learned from it all. Her answer? “Nobody wants your crap.” We spend so much of our lives working, working, working to buy so much that amounts to—nothing.

I sat next to woman on a plane back to LA from Cincinnati. I don’t usually talk to people on planes because I have to lie about what I do in order to get any peace. In this case I was honest and the woman immediately handed me her card. She owns a nationwide business called Everything But the House. She sells the stuff in people’s homes after they die. Their children don’t want most of it. No one they knew wants it. The business nets over 120 million dollars a year.

We spend our lives acquiring things we think matter—mostly they don’t. Filling ourselves up with things is like trying to eat a picture of food.

A group of American tourists visited one of the most famous Eastern European Rabbis of the last century known as the “Chofetz Chaim,” in his little town of Radun. When they arrived, the Rabbi was in his small study with a rickety desk and a few books.

One of the incredulous tourists said, “Rabbi, where is all your stuff?” The Chofetz Chaim smiled, “Where is all yours?” “But we are just passing through,” the man answered. “So am I,” the rabbi said with a wise nod.

Death is a powerful reminder to buy less, and to do more, live more, travel more, and give more instead. No one wants your crap.

10.

The afterlife might be real. Judaism has a lot to say about the afterlife and much of it is contradictory. Views range from Ezekiel’s resurrection vision in the Valley of Dry Bones that take on flesh, to the transmigration of souls, which is Judaism’s version of reincarnation, to heaven and hell scenarios in the Talmud, to the rationalist and humanists who say there is no afterlife. It is easy to say we live on in memory—but the truth is, at some point there will not be a single person left alive who remembers us.

So what can we credibly say about the other side?

I have seen about 800 dead bodies. A body is not a person. It is a vessel. There is so much more to us than our bodies. But where does the soul go? I do not know. But I have heard too many stories, real stories, to dismiss the possibility of an afterlife.

My wife’s best died fifteen years ago. Every year, every year on her friend’s birthday Betsy sees a lady bug. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Perhaps not.

Lorin told me this story. “At one of my grief group meetings, we had to go around and answer ‘If you could say one thing to your spouse right now what would it be?’ I said ‘Please, keep showing me signs you are here with me.’ I returned to my car. Out of the 100s of songs in my iTunes library, Springsteen’s Promised Land started playing – the one song Eddie told me he wanted played at his funeral.”

These stories and the hundreds of others I have heard bring me great warmth and hope and strength.

Dreams, butterflies, lady bugs, a smell, a vision, a song, a soft breeze in a hard moment– -these reminders may or may not be a presence, but they are real and they are to be treasured…they are their own afterlife. More we cannot know….

11.

Headstones. Kafka was right when he said “The meaning of life is that it ends.” It’s true. Death is a great teacher because it informs the living about what really matters. We are here tonight to think about what really matters.

When I walk through cemeteries I am always struck by the uniformity of the inscriptions on headstones. Sure, there are a few funny ones—like Rodney Dangerfield’s which says: “There goes the neighborhood.” Or Mel Blank’s that says “That’s all folks.” But mostly, headstones mention the same few things about people.

When you only have 15 characters per line to sum up a person’s life, you have to distill that life down to its most essential elements. You want to know what really matters? Walk through the cemetery and read the headstones.

It almost always comes down to a few, simple words: Loving husband, father and grandfather. Loving wife, mother and grandmother. Loyal friend. Loving Sister. Loving Brother.

That’s it. No resume, no net worth. We matter when we love our family and our friends. It sometimes takes death to remind us that life really is that simple.

And so, this simple prayer:

God, we stand tonight before our open grave, before an open book, before You. Help us, as we imagine our deaths, to make the most of our lives.

Rabbi Ken Chasen’s Yom Kippur sermon: Time, Temperament and Turning


Most everyone I know who gets in their regular exercise by running, as I do, has their marathon story. I mean, if you’re determined enough to destroy your feet, your ankles and your knees in the name of physical fitness, you’re surely determined enough to do it for 26.2 straight miles at some point in your life. I have countless family members who have that photo of themselves crossing the finish line. I have friends with the photo. Our former rabbi, Leah Lewis – she has the photo. I had to have it, too.

My marathon story goes back to 2001, when I was living in New York. I’d been a fitness runner for years by then, and I decided that this was my time. My temple had just hosted the rabbi of the fledgling Reform movement in the Former Soviet Union, and we learned that he had to serve four different communities, separated by many hundreds of miles, with a combined budget of just $72,000. I remember thinking to myself: “I’m going to double their budget this year. I’m going to run the New York City Marathon, and I’ll get my congregants to sponsor me… to the tune of $72,000.”

The hubris of a young rabbi. $72,000 would have been a mighty mountain to climb if I’d promised my congregants I was going to end world hunger with their money. For the purposes of building Reform Judaism in Kiev, let’s just say I had identified an ambitious goal. But undeterred, I set out to train. I called up a congregant of mine who had run the New York City Marathon several times, and I asked him what I needed to do to transform myself from a 4-mile kind of guy into a 26-mile kind of guy. He helped me find the right running shoes, learn the right hydration patterns. But most of all, he taught me that the challenge of running a marathon isn’t actually the running of the marathon. It’s getting to the day of the marathon in one piece. He explained that I would need to be very disciplined about how I built up my mileage, or else I would end up injured, and that would be that. So he laid down the law. You can only run four days per week. Most of those runs shouldn’t be longer than four or five miles. Only once per week can you attempt a distance longer than that. You can never attempt to run a full marathon in practice… in fact, you’ll never run more than 19 miles until it’s the day you have to run 26. You must stretch. You must ice. These are non-negotiable rules, I was told.

Some of you know I can be a little competitive when it comes to athletic endeavors. So of course, I decided that the rules were for mere mortals. I started training, and I got that runner’s high. I felt my cardio capacity growing explosively. I was indestructible. And indestructible people who have a busy congregation to run can 2 get by, I figured, with just a little stretching, and maybe with icing just when there’s an abundance of time. One day, still more than four months before the marathon, I headed out for a 12-mile practice run. And I was feeling it. My heart fitness was so great, I was barely breaking a sweat. I could have kept running forever.

Long about the three-mile mark, I felt a pretty sharp pain in my right knee. “I’m a marathoner,” I remember thinking. “There’s supposed to be pain.” So I kept running. Nine more miles. By that night, I couldn’t walk down the steps in my house without a rail.

The doctor told me I had iliotibial band tendinitis. That’s a fancy medical term for what happens to idiots who pile on too many miles thinking they’re indestructible. He said that if it was just about my heart health, I was ready to run the marathon already. But I had to stop running immediately and let the tendinitis heal, or I’d never make it to the starting line. “But I can’t just stop,” I protested. So against his better judgment, he permitted me to cross-train – to ride a bike and use a StairMaster… fitness activities that involved no running, so I could maintain my cardio readiness while waiting for my body to heal.

Only my body never healed. Every time I tried to resume running, usually sooner than doctor’s orders, I would try another long run, and like clockwork, each time at the seven-mile mark, my knee would flame. This went on for months, until I finally surrendered, accepting that the Reform Jews of Kiev would have to get by without me.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand that our lives are a lot like training for a marathon. The hardest part is just getting through the process in one piece. You have to be really disciplined about how you build up the miles. You have to stretch. You have to ice. Otherwise, that will be that.

Or at least that’s how it often feels. Being a rabbi – your rabbi – means that I am often called upon for “marathon training counsel” when you face the longest runs of your lives. When the marriage ends. When the business collapses. When the doctor’s news is devastating. When your child suffers. When the money dries up. When you stumble away from the grave and enter that incomprehensible tomorrow.

Most of us aren’t so good about stretching and icing while weathering the lifeshaking moments. We tell ourselves, “Just keep piling on the miles. Keep going. Be active. Be strong. Be indestructible.” Of course, our very essence as humans is that we are destructible. Try though we may to flee that fact, we have this day to offer its sober reminder. We are destructible – it’s guaranteed, in fact – so how we navigate the forces that take us apart has an enormous impact upon what our short lives will be like, and sometimes even upon how long our short lives may last.

And let’s be clear – the forces that take us apart aren’t only in our personal lives. Some of them are in our collective life. I have spoken with so many of you about this, and I can see it in your eyes even now. The state of our country and our world, beset with a growing tribal hatred that threatens our serenity, our safety, and the very character of our nation, is literally savaging our souls. We aren’t sleeping as we should. We’re on edge, afraid, hostile. And we feel like we can’t even afford a moment’s respite, because everything is just too tenuous to permit looking away. And so we’re caught up in a relentless tension pulsating in the public sphere – and feeling like our only option is just to keep pushing, keep fighting, keep piling on the miles.

I’m not sure if there’s a special name for iliotibial band tendinitis of the spirit. I am sure that most of us are suffering from it. And it means that our souls can barely walk sometimes, and yet we keep forcing them to run. Like the young mom who recently told me, “I can’t have even one more new burden placed upon me right now… I will snap.” A lot of us feel that way.

So what can we do about it? Well, these holy days have included a number of answers that we, your rabbis, have sought to propose. On Rosh Hashanah eve, Rabbi Berney urged us to seek refuge from a violent and scary world by more intentionally choosing words and actions that reduce the dangers, especially to women. The next morning, we considered how “rehumanizing” others – particularly those with whom we disagree – can free us from the hatred that is being stoked inside of us. Last night, Rabbi Ross reminded us of how our trust and faith in being a part of something bigger than ourselves can be a source of tremendous sustenance and comfort. Our tradition is, of course, filled with wisdom designed to help us get through the process of living in one piece – to help us build up the miles in a way that makes us stronger, not more feeble.

This morning, I want to propose three more disciplines, drawn from our tradition, for finding equanimity and resilience when we are pushing ourselves through the longest runs of our lives. This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list; so much of our tradition is aimed at this goal that it would be impossible to share all of Judaism’s insights on the subject. But these three, I believe, are well suited to this particular moment, when the collective public marathon and the separate personal marathons of our lives are converging in a manner that demands some conscious strategy for self and soul preservation.

It so happens that the three all start with the same letter… three Ts. The first discipline is time – and by this, I mean Judaism’s profound understanding of time and our positioning within it. Many great Jewish thinkers have attempted to describe the Jewish concept of time, but my favorite to have done so in recent years is my dear friend, colleague and former classmate Rabbi Yael Splansky, who serves as senior rabbi of her 4 longtime synagogue in Toronto. Rabbi Splansky wrote these words two years ago as part of her announcement to her congregants that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in her early forties at the time – a wife and a mother, and also her community’s spiritual leader. So she knew that her news was going to land hard. To create the context for revealing her diagnosis, she wrote the following: “Jewish resilience is a distinct kind of resilience. It has to do with time. When the Jewish People is faced with adversity, our greatest evidence that we can endure it is the past and our greatest motivator to endure it is the future. We can carry on because generations before us have proven that we can; we must carry on because future generations depend on it. This is a kind of faith that even the most unattached Jew carries with him wherever he goes. It’s a faith that resides not in the neshama (the soul), but in the kishkes (the gut).”

Rabbi Splansky is suggesting a version of faith that is hardwired into us Jews, even the most God-averse among us. Her teaching reminded me of a story written by the legendary giant of modern Hebrew literature, Shai Agnon. In his story Pi Shnayim, “Twice Over,” he describes a man paralyzed by a decision he has to make on Yom Kippur eve… which of two tallitot he should wear to services. One was a tallit he inherited from his father-in-law upon his death. It was wrapped around one of the many holy books his father-in-law left to him from his majestic collection. This tallit held the power of the past – when wrapped inside it, he could hear the voices of his ancestors and feel the old world reaching to him. The other tallit had no such history. He had purchased it for himself when he made aliyah to Israel, and he imagined it carrying the story that was still to come in his life – the future that was yet untold. It would someday hold the kind of gravity and power for others that his father-in-law’s tallit held for him.

So there he stands, with Kol Nidre eve beckoning, and he needs to choose. Will he wear the tallit of his past or of his future? He suffers over his decision, laboring over every imaginable angle worth considering. Finally, in an act of surrender, he simply closes his eyes, grabs for whichever one happens to land in his fingers, and he rushes off to the synagogue. The trouble is: when he gets there, the sanctuary is empty. He had agonized for so long that services were over. He had missed Kol Nidre because he couldn’t choose between the tallit of his past and the tallit of his future. And he describes himself as “an apothecary, so long at work mixing powders for a drug, that in the meantime the patient dies.”

This is what Judaism teaches it is to be paralyzed by the present. When we are most demoralized and overmatched by the moment, feeling overwhelmed by the consequence of the instant, Judaism, with all of its rituals and blessings for moments in time, is there to remind us to wear both tallitot at the same time. Past and future – for the present, no matter how enormous it may seem, is situated amid so much more. The past reminds us that we can endure. The future reminds us why we must endure. Not to fix it all, but to do our part.

It is exactly as was taught by Rabbi Splansky, who thank God is now well again. And with both tallitot draped around our shoulders, hugging us in our moments of greatest fear and doubt, we are steadied enough to see: the matters that are plaguing us have been experienced and discussed and lived through for thousands of years. And with just a little humility before the grand rush of time, we can look to the future with tremendous hope, even in our darkest hours, because our small contribution to advancing love or peace or wisdom – we can still make it, even while dying. Our brushstroke on the painting of the human story.

A second discipline – having to do with our temperament. When we are most troubled either by dark challenges in our personal lives or in the world or both, we are often inclined to become pretty dark ourselves. It feels frivolous, unserious – maybe even oblivious – to remain light. But our tradition has long pointed to the corrosiveness of that impulse. Not only does it make us more miserable than we need to be. It makes us less effective, less capable of inspiring ourselves and others.

When the great 20th century Orthodox rabbi, Aryeh Kaplan, was asked whether the Talmud had jokes in it, he replied, “Yes, but they are all old.” So perhaps our ancient rabbinic literature is not your best source for cutting-edge humor, but that doesn’t mean it devalues humor. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Talmud records the story of a rabbi named Beroka Hoza’ah, who would from time to time be visited by the prophet Elijah when he was in the marketplace. Once, he asked the prophet, “Is there anyone in this marketplace who has a share in the World to Come?” Elijah answered, “No,” but soon, two men walked by, and Elijah said, “These two… they have a share in the World to Come.” So naturally, the rabbi rushed over to ask them what they did for a living. “We are comedians,” they said. “When we see people who are depressed, we cheer them up. And when we see two people quarreling, we strain hard to make peace between them.”

I can’t say whether our people’s historical propensity for comedy was a response to that teaching. What I can say is: when our tradition teaches the importance of laughter, even in times of great trouble, it’s not suggesting some sort of gratuitous silliness. After all, one of the deepest spiritual voices of Jewish history, Reb Nachman, famously taught, “It is a great mitzvah always to be happy.” Now, you have to understand that Nachman had his own well-chronicled struggles with depression and despair, so he surely wasn’t arguing for mindless giddiness. He was encouraging the discipline of retaining a lightness of soul – one which unlocks our capacity to deepen human connection and possibility, and to disarm conflict, just as the marketplace comedians in the Talmud strove to do. And let’s be honest – you already know that Nachman was right, because I’ve seen you… laughing through your tears while telling a story at the bedside of your dying loved one… leaning on your sense of humor when you lost your job… bursting out in laughter while sharing remembrances at the shiva house. We don’t laugh because we 6 don’t understand the seriousness. We laugh because it is a great mitzvah always to be happy, and we discover that if our souls are able to touch joy while facing the height of the pain, we will remain able to touch joy while living with the pain.

If this still feels tone deaf to the difficulty of this moment in our world or in your personal life, consider the following excerpt from an obituary that was written last year upon the death of the Holocaust’s survivor of all survivors, Elie Wiesel: “Mr. Wiesel,” it read, “was liberated from the Buchenwald camp as a 16-year old but at his funeral he was remembered for a legacy little known by those outside his immediate circle: he loved to laugh.” Indeed, news reports about the funeral described the eulogy delivered by Ted Koppel, who was one of Wiesel’s close friends over many decades. He told listeners about how funny Elie Wiesel was – about how they were always working to come up with ways to make each other laugh.

If times weren’t too dark for Elie Wiesel to retain a lightness of soul, it’s certainly not too dark for us right now. For the sake of bringing peace and changing hearts, including our own, let us strive to follow his example.

Which leads us to the third discipline – the one that brings us all here today. In Hebrew, it’s called teshuvah. In English, we often translate it as “repentance,” but what it actually means is “turning” – as in “turning” ourselves back toward our higher impulses, realigning our actions with our values. That’s what this season of the High Holydays, with its crescendo on this Day of Atonement, is supposed to be about. Most of us think about this as an exercise in guilt – a rigorous time of admission and often shame over what we’ve become and not become. Sounds like the kind of activity more likely to drain our resilience than restore it. But that’s not what our sages teach us to see in these days. To them, teshuvah – turning – was about rebirth… our rebirth… and what could be more renewing for our souls than that?

The great pioneer of the Musar movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter, pointed out that “the Midrash teaches, ‘Everything that came into being during the six days of Creation requires improvement’… Our world is a world of transformation. When we are improving and refining ourselves, we are in concert with the Divine plan – fulfilling our purpose for existing in this world…. Not only is the human being created for this purpose, but he is also given the ability… to attain this supreme goal.” That’s what Rosh Hashanah was supposed to trigger for us. We were to be as new creations ourselves – birthday of the world, birthday of us – and then to spend these first days of our new lives working tirelessly to transform.

Every single one of us knows how hard it is to live up to that vision. All you have to do is think about “those sins.” You know the ones I’m talking about – the ones you now accept as habits. They’re the sins you think and pray about every year, because they 7 don’t change. You feel ashamed of them, but in truth, you’ve learned to tolerate them in yourself. You’re not so keen on tolerating them in your children, who have learned them from you, or in other people throughout the various corners of your life. But in you, they’ve become regrettable expectations. You annually announce to yourself your intention to defeat them. And then you’re back again a year later, sitting here with them in embarrassment, just as you did the year before.

Just imagine if this year, you managed to break that cycle with even one of “those sins?” Imagine what it would feel like to transform yourself – to transcend yourself? It would be one of the greatest accomplishments of your life. It would revolutionize your relationships with the people you love the most. And it would prove to you the capacity for human change – right at the moment in our world when we so desperately need to believe again in that capacity. Want to change a broken world? Start by asking yourself: “Who am I to change a broken world?” Maybe if you can change the broken you – and I, the broken me – we might truly believe that redemption is possible for the broken we.

This is precisely what the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber meant when he wrote: “In the (person) who does teshuvah, creation begins anew; in his renewal the substance of the world is renewed.” That’s the power of this day, this season. Use it well – then take it home, turn it into real change, and kindle in yourself an optimism about what is possible for all of humanity that will revive your flagging hope. If ever there was a moment for doing the real work of human change – this human’s change – this is that moment.

Time, temperament and turning. Three tools that our tradition has gifted to us to help us rebuild our sagging spirits. They’re the ice packs and stretching regimens we need in order to make it through the process of living in one piece. When the miles are piling up, and you are feeling and fearing just how destructible you are – don’t just keep running. Give a little something back to yourself from our Jewish tradition. Remember how not to become paralyzed by the present… how to wear your tallit of your assuring past and your tallit of your promise to the future simultaneously. Embrace the power that lightness of soul can unleash for yourself and others. And start changing the world by changing yourself… for real… because the love you’ll feel for yourself, and the belief you’ll gain in the potential for human growth, will transform your vision of what is possible for this world.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, we are taught: “God said, ‘Since you all came for judgment before Me on Rosh Hashanah, and you left (the judgment) in peace, I consider it as if you were created as a new being.’” You made it. The new year is here, and you’re in it. Be a new being.

A damaged home in Loiza, Puerto Rico.

Physician Brings Relief, Finds Religion on a Mission to Puerto Rico


A few days before heading to Puerto Rico last month to pitch in with relief efforts following Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island on Sept. 20, Lori Shocket was running on the treadmill in her Thousand Oaks home, sweating, her mind racing.

It wasn’t nerves.

She and her husband, Neil, both licensed physicians, have more than 15 years of volunteer experience, responding to natural disasters in places like Haiti, Guatemala and even Houston, where Hurricane Harvey hit in August.

But mid-workout, a thought struck her: Something about this time was different.

“I realized we would be in Puerto Rico on Yom Kippur,” she said from San Juan via spotty cellphone coverage.

Even though Shocket calls herself “mostly not religious” and the couple isn’t affiliated with a synagogue, Shocket had scoured the internet for a place to attend services on the island while still on the treadmill.

“It was important to me to seek out a service on Yom Kippur,” she said. “I felt it was important to connect to a Jewish community when you’re putting yourself in an uncompromising, uncertain situation.”

After several attempts, she finally spoke to Diego Mendelbaum, the religious leader and community director of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Puerto Rico in San Juan.

“He instantly told me, yes, you’re welcome to come to services,” she said.

Then she mentioned that her group of 10 also needed a place to say. With the island ravaged and accommodations hard to come by, Mendelbaum offered up the JCC ballroom, its event space, as a place to stay.

Founded in 1958 by American Jews, the JCC of Puerto Rico serves 130 families in and around San Juan, the capital. It has a sanctuary, a ballroom for events like b’nai mitzvahs and weddings, a cemetery, a Holocaust memorial monument, a garden, a religious school and an active youth group associated with Young Judea. Puerto Rico as a whole is home to approximately 1,500 Jews.

The Shockets arrived on Sept. 29, erev Yom Kippur, in one of the first waves of volunteers flown in by Project Hope, a global health education and humanitarian assistance nonprofit organization they had worked with previously. Their impact was almost immediate.

Just an hour before taking off for Puerto Rico, they secured a leukemia medication they had been asked to procure for a 59-year-old man who was in desperate need of the life-saving drug. When they stepped off the plane in San Juan, they were met by the patient’s nephew, eager to get the medication to his ailing uncle.

“He was incredibly grateful,” Shocket said.

Shocket’s group rented cars at the airport and drove straight to the JCC. Upon arrival, they were greeted by warm smiles and a chorus of nearly 100 chanting voices in the middle of Kol Nidre services.

“We just dropped our bags and followed the music. It was a very cool way to begin this whole process and this mission,” she said. “People knew who we were and they were very warm when they met us. Everyone was dressed beautifully, and we were filthy and gross with our big backpacks on.”

Mendelbaum, although not ordained, functions as the JCC’s de facto rabbi in leading services. He also runs a small law practice in San Juan. He was there to welcome Shocket and her colleagues. In a phone call with the Journal, he praised them for interrupting their busy lives.

Lori and Neil Shocket at the JCC of Puerto Rico.

“I think that it’s a mitzvah, and it’s unbelievable,” he said. “They stop their lives, they stop earning money for their own sustenance to help people in need and volunteer. There’s not much to add to that. It’s the ultimate in tzedakah.” 

Mendelbaum said this year’s services made for an inspiring showing, perhaps “more meaningful” than past years, given the circumstances.

He told the Journal that almost everyone in his congregation has at least some damage to their homes in the form of fallen trees, downed power lines and flooding. Most, including his family, he said, are “living uphill” without electricity, and some don’t have running water.

The JCC itself incurred some flooding and damage to its garden and outer gates. Many congregants, about half by his estimation, fled to Florida or other parts of the United States to stay with family.

After settling in, Shocket and her fellow volunteers got to work, setting up a base in the ballroom, laying out medical supplies they brought and their own drinking water and food. They slept there and showered in a basement bathroom normally reserved for the center’s security guard. With the building’s electricity running on diesel generators and a finite amount of fuel, there was no air conditioning.

“It’s freaking hot and miserable,” Shocket said, adding that it was difficult to sleep there. “And I’ve been to a lot of developing countries and dealt with heat and humidity.”

For the next week, Shocket and company woke up early each day, sneaking out before 7 a.m. when services began in the adjacent sanctuary. The days all started with a stop at the local Walmart, stocking up on as many supplies as possible. Wearing scrubs and flashing medical-volunteer paperwork, they were allowed to bypass snaking lines that kept people waiting for hours. Their main relief target was Loiza, a small coastal municipality just over 20 miles east of San Juan that was gutted by the storm. Mendelbaum and JCC volunteers have donated more than 1,200 tarps to Loiza residents so far to serve as makeshift roofs for damaged homes.

“It was important to me to seek out a service on Yom Kippur. I felt it was important to connect to a Jewish community when you’re putting yourself in an uncompromising, uncertain situation.” – Lori Shocket

“The farther away from San Juan [you go], the worse it is and the harder it is to communicate with cellphones,” Shocket said.

In Loiza, Shocket and her group used walkie-talkies. They spent most of their days going back and forth between the two cities, making Walmart runs and delivering prescription medicines, water, food and other supplies to people in schools made up as shelters.

Shocket said people in San Juan were waiting in line for more than two hours for a cold Coke at a Burger King, one of the few restaurants still open.

Most of the medical conditions Shocket has encountered in Loiza are chronic. People need their prescriptions filled. Stress and the struggle to fulfill basic human needs like hygiene also are evident, she said. One of her patients, a diabetic amputee woman, told her she hadn’t showered in over a week.

“She gave me detailed instructions on where to find her favorite perfume at her house and I got it for her,” Shocket said.

Shocket told the Journal that she draws inspiration from the strength of San Juan’s Jewish community in the midst of such trying times.

“To see that community getting together in the middle of all this desperation — because, remember, the people in the sanctuary are victims, too, and have lost homes, businesses — to see them still in shul listening to music and davening, it was pretty incredible,” she said. “Despite everything, they’re still there. That was special to me.”

To donate to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico, visit projecthope.org or jccpr.org.

Las Vegas Metro Police and medical workers stage in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 1. Photo by Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

The Truth That Blinds


Waking up to the news of the Las Vegas shooting, I saw headlines touting “the five things to know about the shooter.” As if that was all there was to know. And there I was, along with everyone else, gorging myself on quick sound bites of information that gave me the illusion that I knew the story.

It happens this way every time there is a shooting, a terrorist attack, a tragedy: We become submerged in facts, in the hope that it will help us cope, bring us understanding.

I’m not saying facts aren’t important. I love facts and data. I have an arguably unhealthy obsession with data of all kinds — historical, political, personal. But the more data I collect, the more I am convinced that I understand something — that I have conquered it. And then there’s nothing left to say about it.

Yes, facts are a necessary framework. But they can also obscure our vision.

The rabbis and sages knew this as they compiled the midrashim. They worked to reveal not the facts of the Torah but its silences and omissions — the places where story breaks down. Midrash brings those silences to the forefront.

Consider Genesis 22: God says to Isaac, “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac … and offer him up there.” Abraham says nothing in response to this horrifying request to murder his son. Those who know a bit about Abraham know this is out of character. He argues with God consistently; he is not afraid to push back. But here, Abraham is silent.

Rashi responds to this challenging moment. Perhaps when God asked Abraham to take his son, Abraham said, “But I have two sons,” to which God said, “Your only one.” Abraham’s clever response may have been to suggest that each son (Isaac and Ishmael) is the only son of his mother, to which God may have said, the one “whom you love,” with Abraham insisting, “But, God, I love them both,” with God finally confirming that Isaac is the one.

Rashi reads Abraham’s silence midrashically. He’s less concerned with the facts of the story than with what is absent. He suggests that the silences must not be ignored, and that there is more than one story residing within them. They are opportunities for meaningful dialogue.

Rashi is not resolving the silence of Abraham; nor is he answering the question of why Abraham took Isaac up the mountain without pushing back. Rather, Rashi is presenting one possibility, pointing us toward what is missing in the text rather than what appears readily. Focus on what you don’t see, he suggests. He is moving us to dialogue. A midrashic response is never a final answer or revelation of fact. Each response implies the existence of another. It’s what keeps the text alive.

But what about the most compelling absences of our day — the ones brought about by violence and suffering? What about recent tragedies?

After catastrophes, we struggle with unanswerable questions. We do so with fervor and intensity, but the impulse quickly becomes negative as we impose story and speculation onto absence.

My inclination, upon hearing about Las Vegas, was to scan the available data and categorize it. It’s a convenient practice, but also dangerous: Once we do this, we stop listening and talking. After a mass shooting, we rush to identify a perpetrator’s gender, ethnicity, religion, mental health — perhaps at the expense of things less obvious. We lose story when we do this, and losing story means losing our way forward, toward a time when such events are no more.

It happens this way every time there is a shooting, a terrorist attack, a tragedy: We become submerged in facts, in the hope that it will help us cope, bring us understanding.

“I did not witness the most important events of my life,” says the character Jakob in Anne Michaels’ novel “Fugitive Pieces.” “My deepest story must be told by a blind man.”

It’s a line from a book to which I return continually. Jakob, years after witnessing the extermination of his family, is writing his memoirs. But he finds that it is precisely what he saw that is most impossible to articulate.

He has no words. He knows nothing — although he saw everything — and he won’t pretend that he does. He acknowledges, instead, the dangers of claiming to know the complete story.

In a world where we imagine we are blind to nothing given the pervasiveness of visual images, we privilege quick data over silent reflection and humility. We strive desperately to put together the pieces of each puzzle, leaving no gaps. We recoil from the idea of blindness.

Until we can acknowledge what we don’t know, we will be blinded by what we do know. 


MONICA OSBORNE is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. Her book, “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma,” will be published later this year.

Temimah Zucker is a licensed eating disorder therapist in New York.

Yom Kippur fasting poses dilemma for those with eating disorders


Fasting on Yom Kippur was the easy part for Temimah Zucker. The real challenge came after sundown, when her first bite of food reminded her that the fast was only temporary — she would have to eat, that night and every night thereafter.

It was Zucker’s first ritual fast since her eating disorder diagnosis two years prior. Although her rabbi and therapist deemed her fit to fast, forgoing food on Yom Kippur was a gamble that could have sent Zucker back to compulsive calorie restriction.

“It was torture,” she said. “I was reliving this major behavior that I’d been working so hard not to do.”

Fasting on Yom Kippur is a delicate matter for observant Jews recovering from eating disorders, whether or not they partake in the ritual: Many meet the halachic criteria for illness that exempts them from the fast, but eating on the holiest Jewish day feels unwarranted, even sinful, to those for whom fasting is a way of life.

Zucker, now fully recovered and a licensed eating disorder therapist in New York City, facilitates a support group for Orthodox women that addresses Jewish rituals such as fasting in the context of eating disorder recovery. Zucker said the idea for the group stemmed from her own recovery experience, during which she noticed a lack of treatment spaces that understand Jewish practice or incorporate Judaism as a source of healing.

“I like to connect the themes of Yom Kippur to my [recovery] journey,” Zucker said. “There’s a lot [in the holiday] about being on this precipice, not really knowing what’s to come, and being really stripped raw in your connection to God and mortality.”

“I like to connect the themes of Yom Kippur to my [recovery] journey. There’s a lot [in the holiday] about being on this precipice, not really knowing what’s to come, and being really stripped raw in your connection to God and mortality.”

— Temimah Zucker

Zucker said many women in the support group question why, if fasting is a way to connect with God, they are discouraged from doing it every day. Zucker addressed the question in an article for The Times of Israel, in which she argued that the underlying motivations for fasting and calorie restriction are different, and fasting beyond the circumscribed holidays would dilute the ritual’s meaning.

At the Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment facility in locations around the country that opened a Jewish track in 2009, patients often want to fast as an excuse to restrict calories and lose weight, said Jewish community liaison Sarah Bateman.

Bateman said the Renfrew Center approaches Yom Kippur on a case-by-case basis, weighing factors such as a patient’s mental state and how long they’ve been in recovery before approving a request to fast. Many Orthodox women who are too ill to fast require a dispensation from a rabbi, Bateman said, and the Renfrew Center makes an effort to contact rabbis who are familiar with eating disorders in the Orthodox community.

Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser of New York became an accidental eating disorder expert when an Orthodox family enlisted his help in facilitating their child’s recovery. Now a go-to figure for eating disorder guidance in the Jewish community, Goldwasser said he focuses on spirituality as an anchor for those in need of healing. For example, he adapted a prayer for those who must eat on Yom Kippur.

“Since your messengers allowed me to eat on this holy day, I ask You, please accept my eating as part of my service to You,” the prayer reads. “And, when I will eat this year, may it be considered as though I fasted the entire day.”

Goldwasser said he tells eating disordered individuals who seek his counsel that it is a mitzvah for them to eat on Yom Kippur, as Jewish law commands us to guard our health. God does not care much whether we fast on Yom Kippur, Goldwasser said, but rather whether we repent for our deeds and better our ways.

Still, in some cases, the rabbi’s advice does little to assuage the sense of failure that often preoccupies those with eating disorders.

“I told one young woman she had to eat on Yom Kippur, and she said, ‘I can’t believe it. I don’t do anything right, and now I have to mess this up, too,’ ” Goldwasser said.

Community is the best remedy for those who feel apprehensive about eating on the holiest Jewish day, said Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City. It holds group healing and meditation sessions for those with life-altering illnesses such as eating disorders and facilitates a network for people with similar conditions to share strategies and support.

“It’s so important not to suffer alone or in silence,” Weintraub said. “Helping somebody else is the best antidote.”

Weintraub, like Goldwasser, dismisses fasting as the most important aspect of Yom Kippur. The holiday’s themes of new beginnings, second chances and the imperative to reckon honestly with our behavior are all accessible to those who cannot fast, he said.

“The idea [of Yom Kippur] is not to have that relentless fantasy that we are in control of nature,” Weintraub said.

Relinquishing control is one of the High Holy Days themes that Zucker found meaningful during eating disorder recovery, and she revisits it each Yom Kippur.

“When you have an eating disorder, there are a lot of questions about what’s going to happen next — ‘Am I going to recover?’ ‘Am I going to live this year?’ ” Zucker said. “I told myself I may not be totally in control, but I can still make choices that are going to be best for me and my life.”

Photo from Wikipedia

Jewish identity beyond bagels and lox


As always, the time for panic about Jewish religious identity is now.

That’s been true for some 3,000 years. Judaism has never been great at retaining a crowd. Since the Exodus from Egypt, Jews have been fractured and fractious; censuses of the Jews in the books of Exodus and Numbers famously show identical numbers, despite the passage of years. Even when we’re not assimilating, we’re winnowing out ourselves somehow.

But a new poll from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows that American Jews younger than 30 are particularly unlikely to identify as religiously Jewish (47 percent); the rest identify as culturally Jewish. That contrasts sharply with Jewish seniors, who identify as religiously Jewish rather than culturally Jewish by a 78 percent to 22 percent margin. Furthermore, fully 37 percent of all Jews in the United States refuse to identify an affiliation with a particular religious movement; they identify as “just Jewish.”

These numbers aren’t particularly shocking — another PRRI poll from 2012 showed that only 17 percent of Jews found their Jewish identity in religious observance, and only 6 percent found that identity in cultural heritage or tradition. Most shocking, only 3 percent said they found a general set of values in Judaism. Fully 46 percent cited a belief in “social equality” separate from Judaism as somehow creating a Jewish identity.

The effort to somehow carve off Jewish religious activity from Judaism has been ongoing since the Enlightenment. But it’s a project destined to fail. That’s because the unifying factor among Jews has been religion. Trash the Torah, trash the identity. We can find values of social justice in John Rawls or Robert Nozick; we can find “culture” in Woody Allen movies. But we can’t find a common identity.

Jewish identity isn’t merely a shared reference to a set of movies or foods. It’s a set of values springing from religious identity — from God. That doesn’t mean that you have to keep kosher or turn off your phone on Sabbath to experience Jewish identity.

But it does mean that you have to respect the notion that Judaism is concerned with such matters — and more importantly, that Judaism reflects God’s immanence in the world, and that the revelation of His presence passed down from generation to generation is worth honoring.

Over the course of the holiday season, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, we work to recognize this truth. And then we celebrate this truth during Sukkot. When we sit together in the sukkah, we aren’t just eating good food and enjoying good friends. We’re not just hanging out with family. Sukkot isn’t an outdoor meal at the Olive Garden. It’s a representation of the fragility of our world — a metaphor rebuking materialism. It’s a reminder that all the things we value mean nothing without the God who infuses our lives.

And it is our task, collectively and individually, to experience the joy of knowing God. The Torah commands us no fewer than three times to rejoice on this holiday. And as Maimonides says in “Guide for the Perplexed,” we have the capacity to experience joy in what we understand of God, when we turn our intellects to Him.

Jewish identity isn’t merely a shared reference to a set of movies or foods. It’s a set of values springing from religious identity — from god.

So, how do we understand God on Sukkot?

First, we understand that there is a meaning behind the material world. Atheist materialism posits that we live in an accidental universe devoid of meaning, and wander through it alone in deterministic fashion. Sukkot and the history of the Jewish people rebuke this notion. We are participants in history, and our participation matters. We know the sukkah is temporary, but we beautify it anyway because we have been commanded to do so.

This is a uniquely Judaic notion, and one that animates even the most atheistic, secular Jews who spend inordinate amounts of time fretting over “social justice.” Why bother unless we have independence of action and a mandate to better our world?

Second, we understand that our heritage doesn’t spring from ourselves. We honor our ancestors with the ushpizin — we remember Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. We are not the source of our tradition or our values. They come from a more ancient source.

Finally, we understand that God cares about all of us. We are commanded to pick up the lulav (palm frond), along with the hadas  (myrtle) and the aravah (willow) and the etrog (citron). According to the midrash, the lulav represents those who study Torah but do not do mitzvot; the hadas represents those who do mitzvot but do not study; the aravah represents those who do not study Torah and do not do mitzvot; the etrog represents those who both study and do mitzvot. Why not pay homage to God with the etrog alone, then? Because the Jewish people are composed of all of these sorts of people — and only together, recognizing our inherent worth and value to God, can we stand before our Creator. We can’t leave one another behind.

All of which means that Sukkot is an ideal time to reach out to our fellow Jews who see themselves as cultural. God doesn’t care; they are welcome in the sukkah. It is their job to join with us, no matter our different priorities; it is our job to infuse our sukkah with light, so that they may see a world filled with the presence of God, not merely an ancient superstition with bagels and lox.


BEN SHAPIRO is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

A woman praying during a Women of the Wall service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Oct. 24, 2014. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90

Worried about Jewish pluralism in Israel? So are Israelis, new poll shows.


For non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews worried by the Israeli government’s unfriendly policies toward them this year, a new poll has some good news.

The 2017 annual survey by Hiddush given to JTA ahead of its release Monday offers indications that the Israeli Jewish public is as supportive as ever of religious pluralism, if not more so. Few are happy with how the state handles religion, and record number would like to disentangle Judaism and politics.

“When you look across the years, there is a consistent high-level, and on many issues a growing level, of support of freedom of religion and equality,” said Hiddush CEO Uri Regev. “As a result, the gap between the public and the political leaders is growing.”

The Rafi Smith Institute in July conducted the survey for Hiddush, a group that promotes religious pluralism in Israel, based on a representative sample of 800 Israeli Jewish adults. The margin of error is 3.5 percent. Hiddush has commissioned a version of the survey since 2009.

Many of this year’s findings are in line with those of previous years. Notably, 65 percent of Israeli Jews support giving Reform and Conservative Judaism equal official standing to Orthodox Judaism. Among secular Jews, who account for some 40 percent of Israeli Jewry, the number was 92 percent. Such a radical move would amount to dismantling the Chief Rabbinate, Israel’s haredi Orthodox rabbinical authority, which controls marriage and other Jewish services in the country.

Also, 84 percent of Jews agree Israel should uphold the freedom of religion and conscience promised in its Declaration of Independence, 67 percent support state recognition of non-Orthodox marriage and 50 percent would personally prefer it.

Haredi Jews trying to prevent a group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and Women of the Wall movement members from bringing Torah scrolls into the Western Wall compound during a protest march in the Old City of Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At the same time, the survey reveals a significant spike in support for separation of religion and state. Fully 68 percent of Israelis Jews embrace this principle, which Regev said they interpret as entailing a depoliticization of religion rather than a more complete American-style division. Support is up 5 percent from last year and 13 percent since 2010.

Zooming in on recent government policies on religion and state, the Hiddush survey found 73 percent of Israeli Jews oppose the new conversion law, which grants the Rabbinate a monopoly over officially recognized Jewish conversions in Israel. Were the government-backed nation-state bill to pass, for the first time enshrining in law Israel’s status as a Jewish state, 65 percent want it to explicitly protect religious freedom for all.

The survey did not ask about the agreement to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, which the government retreated from in June, outraging many Diaspora Jews and inspiring petitions now being considered by the Supreme Court. But a June survey by Hiddush found 63 percent of Israeli Jews oppose the government’s action.

In general Israeli Jewish support for separation of religion and state and pluralistic policies is correlated with secularity and voting for more left-wing and less religious parties. Voters for haredi political parties overwhelmingly oppose both.

Despite recently escalating political rhetoric and legislation aimed at weakening the Supreme Court for its alleged disregard of Israel’s Jewish values, the survey found widespread support for the principles underlying many of its recent rulings and, at least relative to other government institutions, for the court itself.

An Israeli soldier walks among haredi Orthdox men in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, June 6, 2008. (Lara Savage/ Flash90)

The Supreme Court last week broke the Rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher certification and struck downlegislation from 2015 meant to delay efforts to increase the rate at which haredi yeshiva students are drafted into the military.

According to the survey, public support for opening the kashrut market to competition with the state acting as a supervisor continued to rise, to 80 percent of Israelis Jews. Among secular Jews, the number was 95 percent with 80 percent backing the introduction of non-Orthodox certification. As in previous years, 83 percent think yeshiva students should be required to do military or national service, though a third would settle for national service and 14 percent are OK with some exemptions.

Asked for the first time this year which institution they most trust, a plurality of Israelis, 39 percent, chose the Supreme Court over the government, the Knesset, the Rabbinate or the rabbinical courts. The least trusted institution is the government followed by the Rabbinate.

The survey indicates that the state’s handling of issues of religion and state is one cause of its lack of public support. A large majority of Israeli Jews, 78 percent, are dissatisfied with the current government on such issues. Only a majority of voters of the Mizrahi haredi political party Shas are satisfied.

According to Regev, there is growing frustration in Israel with political kowtowing to the haredi parties. After their opposition led to the suspension of the Western Wall deal, the parties in July pushed through a law allowing state-run mikvahs, or ritual baths, to bar non-Orthodox Jews from entry. In September, they brought to a sudden halt repair work on trains tracks across the country by threatening to bolt the government over the issue, wreaking havoc on the workday commutes of tens of thousands of Israelis.

A Jewish couple standing underneath the chuppah during their wedding in a synagogue in Paris, France, July 21, 2013. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

However, Regev predicted, the haredi community will continue to call the shots as religion and state issues remain low on the priority list of most Israelis. A Channel 10 poll ahead of the 2015 election found that for most Israelis cost of living and social issues would be the main determinants of their vote, followed by security. Only 9 percent said they would vote primarily based on religion and state issues.

Hiddush Chairman Stanley Gold called on Diaspora Jews to step in. The Hiddush annual survey found 55 percent of Israeli Jews support American Jewish involvement in religion and state issues.

“Jewish Diaspora leaders concerned for the future of the Jewish people and concerned with strengthening Israel as a Jewish and democratic state must partner with Israeli organizations working in this field to bring about the necessary change: Full freedom of religion and conscience and total equality, regardless of religious identity,” he said in a statement.

Regev — who last week issued a statement signed by dozens leaders from across Judaism’s religious spectrum calling for sweeping reforms to Israel’s official religious establishment and its policies — suggested a shift in focus to those issues that most affect the daily life of Israelis. In a survey last December, Hiddush found that the Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriage and divorce in Israel is by far the most important religion and state issue to Jews, while prayer at the Western Wall is by far the least important one. The same survey found that 60 percent of Israeli Jews support American Jewish involvement in the marriage issue.

“There is dissymmetry between areas Israelis feel are important and the focus of many American Jews in the past few years,” Regev said. “But Israelis are frustrated with the status quo when it comes to marriage and so are more open to Diaspora intervention.

There are reasons to believe religion and state issues will not remain on the Israeli political back burner indefinitely. According to Hiddush’s annual survey, Israeli Jews think the political conflict between haredi and secular Jews is among the most challenging in the country, at least as much so as the one between the political right and left. Seething secular anger has erupted at the ballot box before, notably with the rise of Yair Lapid in 2012 and his father, Tommy Lapid in 2003.

“Politicians should be wary,” said Regev. “They don’t know when the hurricane is going to hit. It hit before, it will hit again, and it may be this time around.”

Varied community/congregation at the Western wall

Two Jews, Three Opinions by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan


Two Jews, Three Opinions by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

There’s an old joke that underscores our almost impish impulse for our streams of Judaism to deviate no matter what: One pious Jew was stranded on a desert island and built two synagogues. When rescued, the crew members asked, “There was only you and your limited resources, so why two  places to worship?” The Jew answered, “One was for me to pray in. The other one I wouldn’t be caught dead in.” Hmm, maybe the “other congregation” had a different way of handling the Mourner’s Kaddish. I have been reciting it for my father who died last December. In some synagogues, only the mourners rise to recite it, while in others everyone stands and says it to support the mourners or to say it for those who passed but have no survivors to say it for them.

I have said this prayer in both kinds of congregations, and I have mixed feelings about each procedure. On the one hand, if a few other people and I rise to say it, I feel acknowledged that yes, I am stepping through the peculiar passage of my first year without my father. Anyone who still does not know I had lost an immediate family member can later ask who I am mourning for and potentially become an additional source of support. On the other hand, I feel self-conscious drawing such attention to myself, like a scarlet “M” has sprouted on my forehead.

In the “other” synagogue, I feel more protected and less vulnerable as mourners and non-mourners alike participate in this ritual. But I feel that this dilutes my feelings or minimizes them as they are “distributed” across the group. What do you non-mourners know about my feelings and those of the others grieving? The intention, of course, is fine, but it reduces the significance of the ritual for me. If everyone is carrying it out, then I am not doing anything special to mark my relationship with the deceased or to drive home yet again to myself the reality of the loss. I feel deprived of the power of this ritual.

If I and some other hapless survivors of another ship wreck had joined the Jew stranded on that desert isle, as a rabbi I would have instituted the following compromise: Everyone rises but only the mourners actually say the prayer.

But wait, I hear an objection from the Chair of the Board of Trustees: “That’s not the way to do it! Everyone recites, but only the mourners rise.” Alas, we will need two synagogues after all.

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan photo

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died (Pen-L Publishing, 2014) a series of true anecdotes capped with the deeper reasons she chose her vocation. For more details including reviews, you can go to the publisher’s page or to amazon.com. There is also an audio version of Encountering the Edge: the Audiobook. Comments to the author are welcome by email or via her blog, Offbeat Compassion. She has recently authored a second book, Curiosity Seekers which is gentle science fiction about an endearing couple in the near future (Paperback or Kindle).

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practice (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting January, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2).

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

Information on attending the course preview, the online orientation, and the course will be announced and sent to those registered. Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is October 18th.

If you are interested in teaching for a session, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have completed three or more Gamliel Institute courses should be on the lookout for information on a series of “Gamliel Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. We plan to begin this Fall, in October and November. The first series will be on Psalms. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact us –  register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

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Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Photo from Wikipedia

Study finds more than half of young Jews have ‘no religion’


A new survey examining the religion of Americans shows a growth in the number of Jews of no religion, compared to findings of the PEW survey of American Jews from four years ago. It also shows that the numbers of Jews claiming to be Reform and Conservative are declining while the number of those who identify with no denomination is on the rise.

The PRRI survey found that among the 2.3 percent of Americans who identify as Jews, about a third are “cultural Jews.” The study found that among those under age 30, fewer than half, 47 percent, identified as religiously Jewish while 53 percent are Jews of no religion (which this study calls “cultural Jews”).

The main part of the study deals with the general state of religion in America, naturally focusing on changes concerning Christian America. White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., the study tells us, “now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country.” Moreover, “fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian.”

What follows is an attempt to explain some of the data concerning the Jewish community and the possible implications of it.

1.

The most dramatic finding of this study concerns the “Jews of no religion,” as PEW’s study, Portrait of Jewish Americans, referred to them in 2013.

PEW reported that 22 percent of all Jews are such people of “no religion.” Namely, Jews who do not respond to the question — What is your religion? — by saying Jewish, but do indicate in a follow-up question that they are Jewish in some other way.

The PRRI study indicates that the number of such Jews is rapidly growing. It calls these Jews “cultural Jews” and explains that 1.5 percent of Americans “identify as Jewish when responding to a question about their religious affiliation.” An additional 0.8 percent of Americans “identify as culturally but not religiously Jewish.” So about a third of all Jews are cultural Jews.

“Cultural Jews” are the PRRI study’s version of “Jews by no religion” from the PEW study. “To identify culturally affiliated Jews,” the PRRI study explains, “we asked all respondents who claimed no formal religious affiliation the following question: ‘Do you consider yourself to be Jewish for any reason?’ Any respondent who said ‘yes’ or ‘half’ was classified as culturally Jewish.” This methodology is practically identical to the one used by PEW to identify “Jews by no religion.”

So according to PRRI, about a third of all American Jews are people who have no specific answer when asked about their religion. What does this mean? A paper I wrote for JPPI a while ago argued that calling these Jews “cultural Jews” would be a wrong choice: “Jews ‘not by religion’ are not ‘cultural’ Jews, they are disconnected Jews,” I wrote, based on the clear-cut data from PEW.

Here is more from what I wrote three years ago:

There can be no doubt that the data point to the possibility that about a quarter of American Jews will find it much harder to pass on their Jewishness to the next generation (and the one after that). Those who reacted to the Pew survey have taken care — and rightly so — to emphasize that there are many exceptions in the Jewish story and that among “Jews not by religion,” too, there are those strongly committed to the Jewish people. The statistical picture, though, does not change because of anecdotal exceptions. The value of a comprehensive quantitative study is precisely that it allows us to adapt policy to large groups.

What changed from PEW to PRRI? I assume nothing much, except that now it is not “a quarter” of all American Jews — it is a third.

1a.

Or maybe something else changed.

Prof. Uzi Rebhun noted that according to PRRI the share of Jews in the U.S. slightly increased, from 2.2 percent (PEW) to 2.3 percent. So it is true that the share of Jews not by religion among the total Jewish population increased, according to PRRI, but so did the total number of (adult) Jews in the country (a 0.1 percent increase is equivalent to an absolute growth of some 250,000 people over a period of only three years).

Hence, we can make another assumption by way of interpreting the data: some Jews are, indeed, becoming less connected (cultural Jews), but at the same time there are also people who avoided identifying themselves as Jews in the past and now feel a need to identify as such and connect themselves, albeit weakly, to the Jewish people.

2.

The change is clear when PRRI examines the differences between age groups. “Among Jews under the age of 30, fewer than half (47 percent) identify as religiously Jewish, while a majority (53 percent) identify as culturally Jewish. In sharp contrast, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of Jewish seniors (age 65 or older) are religiously Jewish, while 22 percent identify as culturally Jewish.”

To understand what this means, I will refer you to another JPPI study, by my colleague Shlomo Fischer. When we spoke yesterday, Fischer reargued his case: this change reflects a change in what Jewishness means in America. For many Americans, it is no longer a defining feature of identity — it is an anecdotal fact of which they are proud (as the PEW study proved), but not much more than that.

“Jews of no religion,” he wrote, “accept their Jewishness as a matter of fact, like having blue eyes. It does not enjoin much of a sense of solidarity or any normative commitment to the welfare or continuity of the Jewish people or to Jewish culture.”

What changed? In the PEW study, Millennial Jews (born after 1980) of no religion were 32 percent. In the PRRI study, Jews of no religion under 30 are 53 percent. So nothing changed, except the even higher numbers. These numbers present the organized Jewish community with a challenge of abandonment that is not even close to being resolved.

3.

Denominational belonging of the Jews is always a topic of discussion, and the new study presents us with a question. Its denominational portrait is significantly different from the one presented four years ago by the PEW Research Center. The main question we need to ask as we look at the numbers is as follows: is this a result of a different survey methodology and articulation of questions — or the result of rapid changes in the community (of course, the same question should also be asked about Jews of no religion).

If the latter is the correct answer — if what we see here is rapid change — there are more worrying signs in this study for the two main Jewish progressive movements, Reform and Conservative. Reform Judaism still tops all other denominations in numbers, but the gap is shrinking. Seven points down in four years is significant. Conservative Judaism is also continuing to shrink. It is now not much larger than Orthodox Judaism.

4.

When we look at denominational questions, age is again the key to understanding the trends. To make it easy, here is a table of how Jews older than 65 define themselves and how Jews aged 18 to 29 define themselves. Note how among young Jews the Orthodox group has already surpassed the Conservative group and is getting close to the Reform group. Also note that close to half of all younger Jews do not belong to any denomination.

“Jewish seniors are about 10 times as likely to identify as Reform as they are to identify as Orthodox (35 percent  vs. 3 percent, respectively).” Among Jewish youngsters, the difference is just 5 percent. Three Orthodox for every four Reform.

Where is this going? Easy: “More than six in ten (62 percent) Orthodox Jewish parents say they have at least three children living in their household, compared to 17 percent of Jewish parents who identify as Reform who say the same.”

5.

The study is based on interviews with more than 100,000 Americans. Most of them are not Jewish. But changes among them will have a huge impact on America, and hence on Jewish America — and also on Israel. One such important change is the decline of white evangelist America. “Fewer than one in five (17 percent) Americans are white evangelical Protestant, but they accounted for nearly one-quarter (23 percent) in 2006.”

This group is one of the most supportive of Israel in the U.S. and is considered by some right-wing Israelis to be even more important than the Jews of America when it comes to backing its security and strategic needs.

But as Israel ponders its future relations with America, as it worries about trends concerning American Jews, and about trends concerning the American left, it ought to also consider these larger changes that could reduce the influence of evangelical whites (in the shorter term: 35% of all Republicans, more than a third, identify as white evangelical Protestants).

Words Matter…Dammit!


The violence in Charlottesville was scary, upsetting, vile and – unfortunately not surprising. 

The United States has become a country deeply divided by wealth, education, color, religion, opportunity and politics. It should not be surprising that people feel threatened by the stranger they do not know. The more separate we are from each other, the more fearful and suspicious we have become of the other.

It doesn’t help when our President spends so much time defining what is real and what is fake news, rather than condemning obvious hatred. He is better than this and this is a distraction we can ill afford. The stakes are too high for us to make a mockery of justice and the freedoms that our constitution guarantees us.

The book of Genesis teaches us to be like Abraham and embrace the stranger – whatever the price.

Our Jewish legacy is that we are a people of the book, a book that reminds us that words matter. The beginning of the book (i.e. Genesis) teaches us to be like Abraham and embrace the stranger – whatever the price. Today is the day to break down the boundaries between us and them.

When we started the Pico Union Project four years ago, I sensed it was time to bring multiple faiths and cultures together under one roof. I had no idea how critical it would be to create a space for people to get to know each other, without judgement or fear. This is what I’ve learned:

  • We can do better
  • Anything is possible.
  • We can say yay when everyone else is saying nay
  • It’s better to focus on service than ‘serve us’
  • Upward mobility is not just a dream, it’s achievable.
  • We are honored when we honor all of creation.

The American way – the Pico Union Project way, begins with YOU and includes all of US.  If you have yet to check us out, The PUP doors are always open -and our eternal light is always on!


Craig Taubman

The Pico Union Project is a multi-faith, multi-cultural center committed to living the principle to “love your neighbor as you want to be loved.” We recognize that in order to love, you must first get to know your neighbor.  We use spirituality, arts, and a deep commitment to community activism as tools to draw individuals together, deepen a sense of self-awareness, and open eyes, minds, and souls to the value and potential of our community.

 

Can we change the Swastika to mean something different?


Recently, I came across a commercial charging humanity to change the Nazi symbol into a symbol of peace by a T-shirt company called Teespring and KA Designs. They suggested this symbol we have come to know as a symbol which reflects hate, devastation, tragedy, and murder can be redesigned by repurposing it for a symbol of tranquility and love just by coloring it a multitude of pastel pink, green and blue colors and willing it so.

My first reaction to this suggestion was visceral. It was filled with pain and disgust. It felt like I was being manipulated versus inspired. I have learned that when I get that feeling that lives deep inside my gut, that feeling which tells me something is wrong or untrue, I should listen to it.

I spent a great deal of time reflecting on my negative reaction to this suggestion. After all am I not a self evolved person who has the ability to transform hatred into kindness if I wish it so? Am I not evolved enough to see this suggestion as a transformation versus a disfiguration? Is it really so bad that a group of folks want to redirect our thinking when seeing the Swastika to reflect peace versus hatred and murder? After all, the Nazis took an innocent Eastern symbol which originally meant “Good Fortune” in Hinduism and Buddhism, when turned clockwise, and twisted it to mean hatred and anti semitism.  Why can’t we turn this back around to a new meaning of peace and love? Isn’t it just a symbol, aren’t symbols what we choose to make them, and how we choose to give them meaning? Is it so radical to think we cannot rededicate the most radically perverted symbol in the world to mean something different- to mean love?

The way we communicate with one another is complex and nuanced. We use words, eye contact, gestures, body language and symbols to create tone and to tell our stories. Yes, a symbol is the meaning we dictate it. A symbol carries with it stories, lives, human narrative and communicates our deepest selves. A symbol showcases history and human connection. The suggestion that a symbol which stood for lives being broken, ended, gassed, burnt, wiped out and destroyed can suddenly be erased to mean something different is erasing the very stories affected by that symbol as well. We don’t transform ourselves because we change what that symbol means, we merely lose ourselves. Transformation is the ability to take something and change it, shift it, redesign it, not delete, obliterate or ERASE it.

The suggestion that the Swastika could represent love when it was designed to represent hatred is preposterous and not because of what it is asking from us, but because of what it is taking from  us. While I applaud those who want to switch the meaning, you cannot switch a meaning without erasing the first one. You are not asking us to transform, you are actually asking us to regress. By asking us to erase it’s original meaning, you are asking us to erase the stories that assembled because of and in spite of that symbol.

Essentially, you are asking us to forget. And that’s why my gut turned. Because you are asking too much. I imagine the Eastern originators of the Swastika symbol felt the same way- like their stories had been hijacked by a black cause that created suffering versus the enlightened meaning it was meant to inhabit. When the Nazis stole their symbol, they stole and erased their stories as well – just as you are asking to steal and erase ours.

You are insulting us by assuming evil could be erased. You are not asking us to redesign our thinking,  you are asking us to stop thinking, to stop communicating our stories and who we are because of- rather- in spite of that symbol. Because that symbol carries with it the stories of those times, and by erasing those stories, you erase those people, my people. You are asking us to forget them. You are asking us to discredit them.

A symbol carries the weight we associate to it. And in this case, it carries the stains that bleeds on it as well. If you want to change thinking, create a different symbol that carries with it a new weight and reflection of that communication of peace, don’t insult us to believe our stories associated with that horrid symbol can merely become erased just because we will it so.

The Nazis chose to steal this symbol. It was hijacked. It cannot be reinvented without hijacking the stories behind the symbol as well. You are asking us to have our truths stolen away, to have our history expunged, to have our records erased into oblivion. You are asking us to change the symbol’s meaning, which essentially pirates our stories just as the Nazi’s stole the originator’s stories.  The end doesn’t always justify the means. Changing the swastika meaning doesn’t change the result that occurs because the action is well intentioned. In this case, the result is  the feeling of having our narratives deleted, our truths and lives inconsequential all over again.

When healing from pain, we can’t negate it’s existence to become enlightened, we must acknowledge the pain first, then reposition ourselves around it, and redesign something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to reflect the lessons learned and the knowledge acquired out of the ashes. We don’t pretend the pain never existed by coloring it a pretty pink and willing it so.

Religion Deserves Respect


I wrote a couple of blogs last week that generated a lot of comments. I received messages on jewishjournal.com, Facebook, Twitter, and email. One of the blogs was about political affiliations, so I expected those, and the other one was about an F List celebrity, which I knew would generate a dialogue. I love it when readers reach out to me. We don’t always agree, but when they feel strong enough about my words to share their own, it matters to me. Comments are always encouraged.

There is a woman in Tennessee who comments quite often. She is quite religious and does not comment without mentioning Jesus and keeping me in her prayers. We disagree about everything, and frankly I think her views on certain things are nothing shy of crazy, but she is always respectful and kind. I am a person who thinks life is better when you have faith. It can be faith in God, yourself, or the Green Bay Packers. It doesn’t matter where faith lies, just that you have it.

I am Jewish and write for a Jewish publication, but this woman in Tennessee is certain Jesus is the key to happiness. It is actually quite charming and I admire her conviction. I know nothing about her or her life, other than the fact she lives in Tennessee and thinks Leann Rimes is the greatest human being to walk the earth since Jesus. Crazy to be sure, but God Bless her for having faith and never wavering, even though other readers on my blog go after her quite often.

Last week after Tennessee commented on my post, a long time reader replied to her comment. In it she questioned Tennessee’s faith, saying her opinion was not in line with her religion. I found it to be offensive and rude, so I let everyone know with a rather colorful choice of words. In a time where there is so much religious hate in the world, I simply could not let anyone come to my blog and attack anyone’s religion. My religion is attacked every single day and I wasn’t going to allow it.

I have no problem with people not sharing the same opinion, and people don’t have to agree with everything I write, but to attack someone’s beliefs is not cool. I am of the opinion Leann Rimes is a sociopath who needs to be medicated and perhaps hospitalized. Just my opinion, but this is America, and this is my blog, and I have the right to write whatever I want. If Tennessee thinks Leann is an angel who should be sainted, good for her. Her opinion can be questioned, but not her faith.

To tell Tennessee her opinion makes her a bad Christian is not only idiotic, but it is hurtful. I let the woman who commented know where she could put her opinion of Tennessee’s faith. I then got a series of tweets from the woman who attacked religion, and she was not pleased with me. She let me know she was a longtime reader and to lash out at her was not only uncalled for, but unkind, and mean spirited. I immediately felt bad about my response as it really wasn’t nice.

I didn’t know who the woman was on Facebook, but on Twitter realized she is a lovely lady who has been reading my work for a very long time. She has always supported me and made an effort to stay connected. That is irrelevant however because whether or not I knew her, my attack should never have happened. Two wrongs don’t make a right and rather than go after her, I should have explained myself in a kind and articulate way, which is what happened on Twitter.

I told the reader I was offended by her bringing the woman’s religion into her comment, and she understood why I reacted like I did, and explained it was never her intention to upset me or offend Tennessee. I escalated the situation by losing my temper, which was a real shame. These are two lovely women, with different views, and my approach should have been to diffuse not ignite. It ended up being an important moment and I have been changed for the good by it.

To Tennessee, thank you for keeping me in your prayers. I appreciate that very much and wish you health and happiness always. To Sally, thank you for calling me out and teaching me something. Please accept my apology and know that I will be more thoughtful moving forward. Opinions may differ, but religion deserves respect. Have a great weekend everyone. Be safe, be kind, say sorry, count your blessings, and keep the faith.

 

 

Rabbis must navigate politics and morality


Like many others, I read Rabbi David Wolpe’s op-ed on politics and the pulpit with a sense of profound ambivalence (“Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit,” June 9). I found myself caught between ovation and objection.

The ancient rabbis begin in a similar place. Religion has no place in the public square because the town center is full of sin, it is depraved and consumed with self-interested politicians. “Be wary of the government, for they befriend no one unless it is out of self interest.” (Pirkei Avot 2:3).

The English word for holy spaces, “sanctuary,” comes from the Latin “sanctus,” meaning separate. Religion is a refuge against all that’s dirty and repugnant in the world. We come to the sanctuary to find comfort in one another’s embrace, protection from the harshness of the political world.

There is a something comforting about hunkering down against the weekly tweetstorm. Something heartwarming and freeing to not be bothered by CNN for a few hours. It feels good to rest.

However, our tradition forbids us to pray in a room without windows. We must be able to look outside and see the hour, including the pressing hour, the sha’a dakhaq, upon which our world is squeezed ever more presently.

The rabbis tell us, “Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.” (Shabbat 55a). There is no sanctus in Judaism, nothing takes us out of the world. There is only kedushah a sense of holiness that pushes us back into it.

Hence my ambivalence toward the good rabbi. Every leader must make a decision for his or her community, and I believe ultimately that the false distinction between religion and politics makes both worse. It makes religion a reverential Polaroid of ancient times. It makes faith static, metaphysics frozen, and theology moribund. If religion has nothing to say about the world we live in, if it addresses no reality outside our door, especially when that reality causes anguish and pain, what then do we need religion for? We risk slipping into the great void where all our windows become mirrors.

A state without a transcendent moral ethic of religion can become imperiled. George Washington, in his farewell address, understood that, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” One of Washington’s great fears was that a society that is based in freedom would eventually free itself from morality and succumb to the bare clash of naked self-interest. As my teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l writes, “Religion … acts as a check on the State’s politics affirming that that which is harmful to the general good is impious and must be altered immediately.”

Religion is a durable good for society; it can hold the conscience and aspiration that make democracy work. Religion gives a tailwind to those who want to see that the injustices of yesterday cannot dictate the freedoms of tomorrow. The rabbi’s role is not to pick winners and losers in both party and personality, but to be the navigator, making sure that both congregant and congressman do not run aground on shoals of selfishness.

I fear, however, that Washington is proving to be right. In an article in the Atlantic Magazine, Peter Beinart shows convincingly that as Americans participate less in religious activities, the more polarized our politics become. “For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict,” Beinart concludes. “It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.”

It is because religious spaces like synagogues are some of the only platforms of mediation today between those who look and act enough like us so that we can listen to differing points of view. When we hear a rabbi teach an ethic of selflessness, transcending the ego in service to ideals higher than our own narrow desires, we can build havens of communication and solidarity in the chaos of the political world.

With the loss of these religious spaces we easily lose our affection for one another. Without sacred humility we lose the capacity to hear one another. If we leave all politics at the door when we enter the synagogue, then we lose a crucial nurturing structure that knits together our society.

Church and state can and should remain separate. But religion and politics are joint authors of our book of life.


Rabbi Noah Farkas is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; founder of Netiya, a Los Angeles Jewish nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture through a network of interfaith partners; and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

A view of the KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue in 2013. Photo by Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

80% of Reform rabbis are Democrats. That’s higher than any other clergy.


The vast majority of Reform and Conservative rabbis affiliate as Democrats, according to a new study.

The study, published Sunday by Yale University, found that more than 80 percent of Reform rabbis, and about 70 percent of Conservative rabbis, affiliate as Democrats. Both were among the top five most Democratic clergy of the Jewish and Christian denominations in the United States, with Reform rabbis topping the list.

Among Orthodox rabbis, nearly 40 percent identify as Democrats and a quarter as Republicans.

By contrast, Evangelical pastors are almost all Republicans, as are most Baptists. The Black Protestant African Methodist Episcopal clergy, as well as Unitarians, are heavily Democratic. Catholic priests are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

The study’s findings reflect existing data on the politics of American Jews. Solid majorities of American Jews consistently vote for Democrats — 70 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in the November presidential race — with polls showing that Orthodox Jews are more likely to vote Republican. Reform Jews have been on the front lines of protests against President Donald Trump.

Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of the American Jewish population, various studies show. One-third, or 35 percent, of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, 18 percent identify with Conservative Judaism, 6 percent with other movements and 30 percent with no denomination, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Yale study also shows that rabbis’ political views track with congregants’ views on policy. For example, 40 percent of Orthodox rabbis are Democrats, and some 40 percent of Orthodox congregants are pro-choice, while about 30 percent of congregants believe gays and lesbians should be legally allowed to marry. Likewise, large majorities of Conservative and Reform rabbis are Democrats, and large majorities of their congregants are pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA earlier this year that Reform rabbis’ generally liberal politics are a reflection of their Jewish values.

“The idea of Jewish spiritual community being about feeding the hungry, clothing the homeless, caring for the stranger — these are fundamental core pieces,” Jacobs said in January. “If we don’t talk about those things in our religious communities, we’re irrelevant.”

Orthodox Jews also cite Jewish values in explaining their support for Republicans, noting a preference for the GOP on Israel and conservative support for school choice programs and religious exemptions for various government mandates.

In total, the data cover 186,000 clergy, including approximately 2,700 rabbis. The data were collected via denominational websites cross-referenced with voter registration records. Some denominations and religions — including Mormons and Muslims — are not included due to lack of reliable clergy lists.

The data also show that the Reform rabbinate is the second-most female of any denominational clergy. Forty-five percent of Reform rabbis are women, as opposed to an average of 16 percent across the denominations surveyed. About a quarter of Conservative rabbis are women; nearly all the Orthodox clergy are men.

An analysis of the data by The New York Times found that rabbis on average lived in the most affluent neighborhoods of any clergy. The median household income of Conservative rabbis’ neighborhoods is nearly $100,000 on average, compared to a national median household income of $53,000. The Times article noted that average neighborhood income does not necessarily reflect pastors’ salaries.

Dating 101: Politics and Religion


I have been dating “George” for several months and for the first time in my life I am not in a rush to define it. He calls me his girlfriend, which is lovely. We are in an exclusive and committed relationship that matters to me, but I am not searching for labels or declarations. That is new for me because as a hopeless romantic I am so hopeful that my view of relationships has been distorted.

I have loved men who were unworthy of me. By unworthy of course I mean they should never date. Ever. I have not been interested in men who were probably good for me. I have cried more tears than anyone should, yet I am certain I will find love. I will meet someone wonderful who gets, deserves, and appreciates me. We will build memories that are happy rather than sad. It is just a matter of time.

When it comes to George, I have never been treated so kindly by a man. He is sweet, attentive, supportive, and lovely. He does not look like anyone I’ve ever dated, and he is not Jewish, which is how I have always rolled. He is a republican, which is how I never roll. We have nothing in common and were raised very differently, yet we are in a relationship and it is all really quite nice.

I am at a point in my life when I understand how hard it is to simply have nice. Nice is a wonderful word to describe a relationship and I don’t think people understand how important it is to have things be nice. To be clear it is not boring, just nice. We are respectful of each other’s opinions and communicate without fear. I enjoy his company and how he treats me. Most importantly, he makes me laugh.

There is however, one unsettling thing. When we talk politics, I find myself wanting to punch him in the face. We are on different pages and it makes my lower back spasm. The truth is no matter how much George thinks he is a Republican, I think he may actually be Independent. Perhaps I am one too! He believes his views are patriotic, but they are actually not at all in the best interest of the country.

I like him, but politics are a road block. I used to think I could never date a man who wasn’t Jewish, but it turns out dating a republican is much harder. It could just be me getting nervous that everything is good and therefore I’m finding things to sabotage. It could also be that I’m simply not able to date someone so different on two very important subjects of politics and religion.

It is hard to know if I am making the right choices. On Friday night George came with me to Shabbat services. He held my hand while I prayed, participated in the traditions, and met my Rabbi. It is great that he is open to my faith and will celebrate with me. I appreciate it, but we will undoubtedly speak about the political drama of the week, and I will struggle to not punch him. Oy vey.

At this point in our relationship I need to either jump in or get out. I want very much to set aside politics and focus on the nice, but I am not sure I can do it. I am open to all perspectives, but am struggling with politics, which is strange because I was certain it would be religion that got in my way. George is not a religious person. He believes on God, but does not practice any faith.

That makes things surprisingly easy. I am a practicing Jew, but I do not need him to practice with me to be satisfied in my faith. It is enough that he supports and respects how I practice Judaism. Having him at services with me was lovely. He was comfortable and open to all of it. This is a wonderful man who checks a lot of my boxes. I want to make it work, but will I be able to?

Can you fall in love with someone who is fundamentally different from you? Can you build a life with someone who’s political perspective changes how you view them? Should you invest in someone who you want to change? I adore this man but politically we are beyond not being on the same page, we are actually reading different books. It seems silly, but is a real struggle.

The internal battle I thought I would face over religion never happened. Instead my struggle is political, but love should never be political. Should it? I believe people should think, feel, and believe whatever they want. I also believe in love, and love is grand. The most important thing in love is respect, so can I love someone who’s views I don’t respect? It is all rather complicated.

The problem is that I have written here many times that love should not be complicated. My past relationships have always had something that was complicated, and the complication ultimately ends things. I am in a relationship now where the complication has been front and center from the beginning. There are no surprises. I knew what the differences were right from the start.

Time will tell if this complication brings us closer together or tears us apart. George is of the belief it makes us interesting as a couple. He is also a republican, so what does he know? Oy! It has been a wonderful weekend with George. We went to temple, hung out with my son, and enjoyed our time together. As for the future, he might be my bashert so I am putting politics aside, and keeping the faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo from Pexels

For our faith to grow, we must celebrate its roots in nature


When our ancestors received the Torah, they stood at a mountain. When we celebrate receiving the Torah on Shavuot, we will stand in the pews. They looked at the sky; we will look at the ceiling. They were warmed by the sun; we will be cooled by the air conditioning.

I am a rabbi in a synagogue. But before I am a rabbi in a synagogue, I am a rabbi in the world.

Increasingly, our Judaism is walled in, confined to the fixed seats in the standard rooms designed with vaulted ceilings and an elaborate ark. There are variations — some sanctuaries have windows of clear or stained glass, seats that move or are fixed and bolted, men and women sitting separately or together. Nonetheless, they are resolutely indoor spaces. We invoke the stars as we look up to the lighting fixtures. As Churchill said, we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.

But outside is the world. Essayist E.B. White once wrote that everything changed the day man walked on the moon because instead of going outside to see the moon, people watched it inside on their television sets. That peculiar reversal afflicts Jewish worship, as well. We bless the natural world without being in it. We praise God’s creation as we sit in concrete boxes fashioned by human beings.

For generations, this was accepted and understood. Today, I believe we will lose young Jews if we do not take Torah to the streets — and to the beaches, to the mountains and to the forests.

Nearly three centuries ago, Chasidism revitalized the spiritual life of Jewry. There is a reason Chasidism grew up in the forest, as there is a reason why Jewish camping is the most successful modern movement in Jewish life. If you live in a city, at night you see the magnificence of the lights — a testament to the grandeur of humanity. If you go to the country, you see the canopy of constellations — a testament to the grandeur of God.

Which is more likely to inspire the devotion that is the wellspring of Torah?

This is hardly a new idea. Judaism was born in the desert; we are a people of tents and star-sewn nights. Wandering by fire and smoke, we scraped manna from the ground. As we entered the Promised Land, crops and harvests shaped the cadences of life.

Today, numerous groups are recalling our origins, such as Wilderness Torah, synagogues that create trips and experiences, and groups like Chabad that consciously practice outdoor worship. In Los Angeles alone there is Nashuva in Temescal Canyon, Open Temple, the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue with beachside services, and others. And when at Sinai Temple we inaugurated our millennial initiative earlier this year, it was understood that it had to focus outside our walls. Inspiration lives more in clouds than in concrete.

As the rabbi of a mainstream congregation who understands all the challenges of parking and building maintenance, I want those of us comfortable in our seats to start pushing the walls outward. We have to send our clergy and train our laypeople to initiate prayer anywhere and everywhere. There should be minyanim at the mall, blessings in the bar and Torah under the trees. Even large synagogues must increasingly create small, organic experiences particularly focused on the outdoors: shabbatonim at camps and retreats, morning minyan hikes, Shabbat services in the park as we now do for families on Friday evenings. Grander possibilities, too, may take hold: worship cruises or Shabbat at the Hollywood Bowl.

Younger people are not drawn to the spaces their elders have created. They are drawn to the world — to the bustle of people in the market and the stillness of solitude on the mountaintop. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist wrote. Our love of nature looks beyond the beauty to its Source. It is a therapeutic value and a spiritual imperative.

The Torah begins with human beings in a garden, and cultivating nature is part of our tradition, as well. Planting and reaping and sowing are the rhythms of the Jewish year. This holiday of Shavuot is the culmination of the harvest. This was the first day when Israelites would bring fruit from the “seven species” of the Land: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8). Having grown the food, offering it was a product of their labor and their love.

We are accustomed to study on the holiday, but surely we also should touch the soil and understand anew that the Torah began not in urban structures but on hills and pastures. On this holiday of Shavuot, we stood at Sinai, amid thunder and lightning. The power of the natural world enfolded Israel and prepared them for the spiritual peak of history. The Torah may be studied, cherished and taught indoors, but it was given in the immensity of open space.

The return to Eretz Yisrael, to the land of Israel, was a renewal of the Jewish connection to the earth. We in the Diaspora more fully embrace our tradition and our past when we cleanse our souls by dirtying our hands.

There are great advantages to buildings — the gathering together, the fixed place for community, the facilities and, of course, dryness and comfort. Many are artistically and sensitively rendered. No one would advocate abandoning our structured communities. The place of spaces for worship, as for all sorts of gatherings, is certain and secure. Buildings give us classrooms, opportunities to memorialize, a sense of fixed and settled places.

But we have to grow past the walls, to create flash mobs of Torah, where spontaneous and genuine learning happens.

When I first went to Camp Ramah as a child, I came home and asked my father, the rabbi of a large congregation in Philadelphia, why we needed a building. I had just prayed all summer long next to a tree, and it had a power beyond what I found in my home synagogue. My father told me that when he was growing up, neither he nor his friends felt as accepted as the Irish Catholics of Boston. The non-Jewish community worshipped in magnificent churches and the Jewish community believed, all across America, that if one day our synagogues could be as grand, we would be equal. So when his generation grew to adulthood, they wanted buildings as beautiful as the Christian churches, to show they had arrived. The fact that you don’t need them, my father said, means we succeeded.

Jews have long since arrived. The structures of modern Jewish life are stolid, imposing and sometimes genuinely magnificent. But we inhabit a rich, blooming garden of a world. To live in Los Angeles and never pray on the sand, or while hiking a trail, is to turn one’s back on so much that God has given.

When my niece, a rabbinical student, was married, we celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat in the forest. We sang “Lecha Dodi,” and it was possible to envision the mystics of Safed, where the prayer was written, watching the sun setting over the mountains. I saw the shadow tracery of the branches dance on the ground as the sky darkened. Shabbat did not come through the window; it came through the world.

I cannot move our Saturday morning service to the middle of Wilshire Boulevard or to Will Rogers State Historic Park. There is no place for a thousand congregants or the various accommodations that must be made in a modern city. But it is time to begin to think about when we can step out of our building. As we do taschlich by the ocean, we should create regular opportunities to touch the earth, to pray on a mountaintop or by a beach, to walk and learn, to remember that God’s first and greatest act is creation.

The story is told of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th century Jewish thinker and leader, that late in life he told his students he was off to hike in the Alps. When they asked him why, at his advanced age, he would undertake such a difficult trip, he answered: “Because I am soon to come before God. And when I do, I know God will say to me, ‘So, Shimshon, did you see My Alps?’ ”

When God asks if we offered praise in the beautiful corners of his world, let us be able to answer “yes.” Take your prayer to the park, your minyan to the mountain and your blessings to the beach.

Will returning to nature “save Judaism”? Who knows. But it will certainly save some Jews.

There is a blessing in our tradition for seeing natural wonders — oseh ma’aseh bereshit  the One who accomplished the work of creation. Let us step out from behind the walls, throw our arms and voices up to the sky, and bless God, whose miracles fill the earth. 


David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple. His most recent book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).

The Halacha* of Mayim Bialik


*Halacha (noun): set of Jewish religious laws

“It’s my job to be a public person and I get that,” actress Mayim Bialik told a packed crowd at the Barnes & Noble book-signing of her third book, Girling Up: How to Be Strong, Smart and Spectacular (Penguin), a manifesto, of sorts, for girls going through puberty. Somebody in the audience had just asked her how she dealt with the pressures of fame.

“But,” she continued, “it’s not my job to be super-anything.” (Still, it might be noted that she is donning a superhero cape on the cover of “Girling Up.”)

The actress-comedian-author-neuroscientist-feminist-Zionist is somewhat of an anomaly. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a celebrity who wants to be as authentic as I do. Like I literally posted a photo of me holding a toilet bowl brush,” she said, referring to a Facebook post where she’s holding aforementioned toilet bowl accoutrement.

“I posted that because I don’t want to be that celebrity who’s like, ‘I’m supermom!’ I’m not.”

Bialik, a real-life scientist, plays a neurobiologist in what’s being hailed as the most watched show on television today: “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS. But, in a culture downright obsessed with celebrity, she’s the polar opposite of a Kardashian. She wants (and makes a solid effort) to display her humanness, her Jewishness, her flaws.

In some ways, the 41-year-old actress wrote her newest book for herself, although perhaps a younger version of herself. “I think I basically wrote the book that I wish I had when I was in this age range and going through all those changes,” she told the Journal.

Bialik is still going through changes – not to mention a divorce in 2012 to her now ex-husband – but, when undergoing major life events, she turns to Judaism for answers. On Kveller, an online community for moms, grandparents and women, Bialik wrote a post about Rabbinit Alissa Thomas-Newborn of B’nai David-Judea, the first woman to be hired as Orthodox clergy in Los Angeles.

Well, when I was getting divorced, I spoke to male rabbis. I spoke to their wives. I spoke to therapists, and mentors, and other women who had been divorced. But there were questions I longed to ask a woman who was trained in halacha. I needed her then.

“The Big Bang Theory” star said if she weren’t acting, she probably would’ve pursued a rabbinical career. She first became aware of this yearning at the age of 15, she wrote on her website GrokNation. Bialik admits that had her life path been different, she could’ve easily pursued a rabbinical education at Yeshivat Maharat, the first yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox clergy.  

I am now a PhD-holding divorced woman and a mother of two sons. I support myself and my children by being a full-time actor. My chance to be a rabbi is gone; my life is meant for something different. But I still remember, understand and feel the desire to lead.

“How do you balance your religion with your science?” It’s a question raised time and time again with Bialik. To her, science and religion go hand-in-hand. During the author’s Q&A, it was, inevitably, one of the questions asked. “The snarky answer is: I just do,” she quipped, before delving into the physics of faith. There’s a hint of sermonizing in the way Bialik speaks. As one might expect, there’s science, fact and logic embedded in her diction. And also, there’s something deeply Talmudic. Listen to her full response here (with a gratuitous animation):

Israeli Light #3 – Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem of Holon, Israel


I received two urgent emails on Friday morning, May 5, asking me to contact Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, the Rabbi of Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol in Holon, Israel with whom my congregation was in a sister synagogue relationship. Both asked me to extend Galit my emotional support.

One came from Rabbi Nir Barkin, the Director of Domim, a program funded jointly by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) that links Israeli synagogues with Diaspora congregations. The other was from my ARZA President, Rabbi Joshua Weinberg.

Earlier that day in Jerusalem, Rabbi Noa Sattat, the Executive Director of Israel’s Religious Action Center, asked me to give Galit a hug for her that night when my leadership tour would be spending Shabbat with her congregation.

None of the three explained what had occurred that provoked them to reach out to me. I am well aware of how challenging Galit’s work is and I assumed they were just encouraging me to be as supportive as I could be.

Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem began this Holon Reform community located southeast of Tel Aviv five years ago. A thriving city of 250,000 mostly secular middle-class Jews, it is fertile ground for the growth of non-Orthodox liberal Judaism. Given Galit’s keen intellect, open heart, liberalism, and her infectious enthusiasm, if anyone can build a community there, she can.

Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol does not yet have its own building. It rents space for services and classes and has enormous potential to be a center of Reform Jewish life in Holon. Its congregants include people of every walk of life and many highly educated and professionally productive members. For example, the community’s chair is Heidi Pries, a researcher, and lecturer at Tel Aviv University School of Social Work. Her husband Ori is a lead web developer in a Tel Aviv-based web company. Another member, Anat Dotan-Azene, is the Executive Director of the Fresco Dance Company and her husband Uri is the tech director of a leading post production sound studio for Israeli television and film. Another member, Michal Tzuk-Shafir, is a leading litigator in the Israeli Supreme Court and was President Shimon Peres’ (z’’l) legal advisor. Her husband Nir is an industrial engineer working as an information systems manager. Galit’s husband Adar is the former chief inspector of civic studies and political education of the Israeli Ministry of Education and is the soon-to-be manager of teachers’ training at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In association with her congregation, Galit created a Reform Jewish elementary school that is a part of Israel’s national secular school system. More than 100 children are enrolled in kindergarten, first and second grades and a grade is being added every year.

Despite all the activity, Kodesh v’Chol faces substantial financial and space challenges because unlike Israel’s orthodox synagogues and yeshivot, the Reform and Conservative movements receive no government funds due to the political hegemony of the Orthodox political parties.

In the secular city of Holon, Galit did not anticipate what was to take place the night before my leadership group joined her for Shabbat services, which turned out to be the reason for the two emails and Noa Sattat’s concern.

Galit’s elementary school had been offered classroom space in a Holon public school for this coming year by the Holon municipality, and a meeting was planned on the night before our arrival with all the parents. However, four uninvited parents from the public school that was hosting Galit’s congregation’s school crashed the meeting and began screaming obscenities against Reform Judaism, Rabbi Cohen-Kedem and the planned-for presence of the students in the local public school building.

They viciously threatened Galit and warned that the children themselves would be in danger should the congregation’s school be on the premises. They said that they would spit on the children.

Galit confessed to me that she lost her cool, but when I asked what that meant, it was clear (recalling Michelle Obama) that though Galit was deeply offended and upset by the behavior of these parents, ‘when they went low she went high.’

Galit called the principal of the school and though apologetic and embarrassed, she would not take action against the offending parents.

Galit called the municipal authorities who had given the Kodesh V’Chol School its space and demanded that they find new classroom space. At this time, we are waiting to learn where the school will be housed.

I and our group were stunned, but in hindsight, we should not have been surprised. The Reform movement in Israel still has a long way to go in establishing itself as broadly as possible.

At the moment the Israeli Reform movement attracts 8% of all Israelis. According to surveys, however, when Israelis are asked about their attitudes towards Reform and Conservative Judaism, between 30% and 40% say that if there were a Reform or Conservative synagogue in their neighborhood, they would attend.

I told Galit how proud I am of her for the dignity and resolve with which she stood her ground and responded with moral indignation to those offending parents. I was moved as well that she placed the welfare of the children first. She refuses now to use this public school out of concern for the well-being of the children.

I also expressed my own conviction that this ugly incident could be a watershed moment for her community.

When word spread of the Thursday night encounter, many more families showed up for services. There were more than a hundred men, women and children singing and praying together. The children came under a tallit for a special blessing. Modern Hebrew poetry and music was sung along with music from the American Reform movement. The service was warm-hearted, upbeat and joyful.

Galit delivered a passionate and moving sermon based on two verses from the weekly Torah portion Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) – “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart” and “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”

She did not mention the incident from the night before, but everyone understood the context of her remarks.

Galit represented the very best of Judaism generally and the Israeli Reform movement specifically.

That was a Shabbat service I will never forget and Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem has shown herself to be one of the bright lights in the firmament of Israeli leaders.

Photo from Pexels

Shabbat mitzvah, party of two


“Whadadya say we celebrate God tonight … if you know what I mean?”

This, from my husband on a recent Shabbat. He’s not a Borscht Belt comedian, but he always sounds like one when he uses the “if you know what I mean” line.

After 17 years together, he doesn’t always get what he’s after with this, but unless I’ve already fallen asleep while he’s talking, it still makes me laugh a little. This time, the setup intrigued me.

“We’re going to celebrate God by having sex?” I asked in a surely-you-jest tone.

“Yes. You’re supposed to have sex on Shabbat. It’s a mitzvah.  Maybe even a double mitzvah!” he said, wiggling his eyebrows like an Irish Groucho Marx.

“OK, relax,” I said, laughing a bit more than usual at the thought of rabbis deliberating this and how they might have had a vested interest in making sex worthy of extra credit.

I don’t remember if we went for it that night, but it definitely made me curious if the whole sex-on-Friday-night-as-mitzvah angle was real.

Point of order: Before I met my husband, like more than a few Jews transplanted from New York City whom I’ve met, the only part of Judaism I was intimately familiar with was the food.

Yom Kippur featured cloyingly sweet and cheesy noodle pudding, softball-size bagels slathered with cream cheese like buttercream on a cupcake, topped with slippery, salty lox. Passover had matzo balls, tongue-stinging horseradish and pyramids of macaroons, not the très chic “macarons,” but thick, chewy, sweet almond-flavored macaroons. Rosh Hashanah meant sodium-enriched brisket with mushy carrots and gribenes, one of the few Hebrew words I knew, the other being rugelach, which I now know is Yiddish.

I couldn’t tell you what people ate or did on Shabbat, however, because I didn’t even know what it was until I was cast in “Fiddler on the Roof” in high school and then watched the movie. At dinner, Golda lights two candles and mysteriously waves her hands around and sings. Tevye joins and they earnestly serenade a table of dark-haired children about God protecting them. The camera pulls back and the whole village sings, too. In my defense, nothing like this ever happened in Westport, Conn., in 1982.

Although I wouldn’t have been identified as “self-hating,” I definitely wasn’t thrilled with being Jewish back then. It was a fact about me I had no control over that consistently made me “other.” When I moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, I was so struck by how many Jews I met and how unapologetic they were. It was pretty fabulous.

Then I met my husband, a big fan of Judaism, and we had two children who we sent to a very happy Jewish preschool. Contrary to my childhood, our boys don’t have any negative associations with being Jewish. Through familial osmosis, if you will, I’ve learned about the religion. But apparently, according to my husband, not everything.

Always looking for a fun-loving way to prove him wrong, I did some sexual sleuthing. Turns out, since the Second Temple and apparently under the influence of the pleasure-seeking Greeks, the Talmud encourages men to “engage in physical intimacy with their wives.” As far as the “double mitzvah,” although there is a XXX-rated novel with the title, this is largely anecdotal, discussed at length by Jewish day school boys the world over.

The Talmud reference to my husband’s claim made it legit enough for me to accept that he wasn’t just “producing me,” as he calls it whenever I try to talk him into doing something he doesn’t want to do.

Not that I don’t want to have sex, by the way. I know I’m a woman and I’m not supposed to like it, but I do. It’s just, Friday night? Really, dudes? Because after a week — including, but not limited to, a two-hour daily commute, packing 10 lunches, making five dinners (OK, three), loads of laundry and visiting my mother in her Alzheimer’s home, where, despite dementia, she always remembers to ask, “Why does your hair look like that?” there’s nothing I want to do more than strip and dance around our perpetually unmade bed to Avinu Malkeinu.

I kid. True, Friday night is not my first choice to couple up with my husband. I’m spent and often pass out reading to my youngest. Nevertheless, and as much as it pains me to give credit to an all-male body of decision-makers, these guys were on to something with their getting it on “on the regular” encouragement.

I researched happy marriages for several years for a book I was writing, and guess what lands in the top three key elements of any marriage lasting more than 10, 20, 40 years, right up there with showing up for each other and listening?

If you guessed any activity you do together that ends with a solid “… if you know what I mean,” you get a gold Star of David. We should all be fruitful and multiply! Even when we’re done multiplying. Baruch HaShem!


Dani Klein Modisett is a comic and writer, most recently of the book “Take My Spouse, Please.”

President Donald Trump displays an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty on May 4. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Trump acts on politics in the pulpit with executive order


President Donald Trump’s executive order to weaken a prohibition against religious and other nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates has driven a wedge between Jewish religious leaders. Some cite it as a victory for First Amendment rights while others view it as a threat to the separation of church and state.

The prohibition is a 1954 provision to the federal tax code known as the Johnson Amendment, which bars nonprofit organizations from certain political activities.

On one side of Trump’s action are clergy, such as Rabbi Marvin Heir, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who argue that religious leaders should speak out on issues they support. Hier once was censured by the Federal Elections Commission for violating the prohibition.

“We should fully honor the separation of church and state, but that has nothing to do with giving a sermon,” said Hier, who led the prayer at the White House ceremony on May 4 when Trump signed the order and who spoke at the president’s inauguration. “When you’re a rabbi or a priest, and you feel strongly about an issue, you can name names! And you can say don’t vote for him! It wouldn’t be such an aveira,” he said, using the biblical Hebrew word for sin.

Other Jewish leaders and institutions, however, expressed dismay at the order, saying it sanctioned oppressive behavior and undermined the role of clergy as unifying figures. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), a social justice advocacy group representing 900 Reform congregations across the United States, called the order “dangerously broad.”

Rabbi Joel Simonds, the RAC’s West Coast director of policy and associate rabbi at University Synagogue, said that while the pulpit should be used to rally against injustice, “justice isn’t partisan.”

“There are plenty of organizations and communities that can be partisan and that can speak out,” Simonds said. “But we have a unique place in our society and in our community to not dehumanize the other … and to preserve that safeguard [between church and state].”

The Johnson Amendment is named for then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas), who later became vice president and president. It forbids nonprofits from endorsing or opposing candidates, contributing to election campaigns or otherwise influencing legislation with public statements. Violating organizations may see their tax-exempt status revoked — although the Internal Revenue Service has seldom enforced the rule.

It does not prevent religious organizations from expressing views intended to support one side of an issue.

The president’s executive order, titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” instructed the Treasury Department not to single out religious organizations for speaking “about moral or political issues from a religious perspective” when similar activity would not be considered a violation by a secular nonprofit.

The language used in the order was a relief for those concerned that Trump favored granting religious institutions even wider latitude. In February, he had vowed to “get rid of and totally destroy” the amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast. (Only Congress can fully repeal it.)

For those who had anticipated a more drastic measure, there still was plenty to dislike about the president’s action.

“I’m concerned about what drove this executive order,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder and senior rabbi of the synagogue IKAR. “I believe that if this administration were really concerned about religious freedom, that this would not be the step that one would see.”

Brous pointed to the rising tides of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as issues of religious freedom that demanded action from the White House.

“There are actual vulnerable religious minorities in the country right now that need protection, and this executive order is a bit of a dance with the players who created the ‘War on Christmas’ in order to play to the [conservative] base, and to create the sense that we are getting the back of those religious figures,” she said.

The order also directs federal agencies to consider amending the mandatory inclusion of birth control in health insurance policies offered by private employers, a change widely sought by the religious right.

The Orthodox Union (OU), a national organization that supports the Orthodox Jewish community, applauded the order for giving people the right to incorporate personal religious views into workplace policy.

Nathan Diament, the group’s executive director for policy, said supporting religious freedom had been a White House priority until Barack Obama took office in 2009.

“[President Trump] is reasserting religious liberty as a primary consideration for how the executive branch implements law and policy,” Diament said. “We don’t have as Jews the same view [as Christian groups regarding contraceptive coverage]. But we do believe religious freedom needs to be protected — and the Obama administration could have but chose not to.”

Diament added that the OU supported the Johnson Amendment and likely would not have supported the executive order had its language been more aggressive. “We’re concerned about rabbis in synagogues being pressured into taking political stances that they may not want to take and may divide their community,” he said.

Hier pointed out that clergy making political statements is already a fact of life, an assertion that Brous agreed with. Moreover, Hier said, if someone came along who really was threatening — a candidate who was anti-Israel or a supporter of Louis Farrakhan, leadero of the Nation of Islam, were his examples — there would be an obligation to speak out.

When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984, Hier found himself in such a scenario. Jackson had referred to New York City as a “Hymietown,” using a derogatory term toward Jews.

“We condemned it and basically said that nobody should vote for him because it indicated to me the commitment to anti-Semitism,” Hier said.

Shortly thereafter, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a nonprofit organization, received a warning letter stating that it had breached the Johnson Amendment. That encounter informs Hier’s opinion of the law today.

Brous agreed with Hier that clergy should not shy away from bad political actors. But she disputed the need to oppose them at the pulpit. “There’s a candidate that’s been trafficking in racism and bigotry and misogyny of all forms, and I did not need to stand up ever and say vote for this person or vote for the other person.

“It’s enough to say, this is about democracy versus authoritarianism, this is about decency versus indecency, this is about moral right versus moral wrong, without having to hold people’s hands and pull the lever in the voting booth.”

Still, Hier conceded, if Congress repealed the amendment, he doubted that a rabbi would have much influence over his congregants: “People don’t adopt policies based on what the rabbi says. That we have to leave for the time of the Messiah.”

He said that he would not weigh in on future elections from his station. But for those who don’t want to hear about politics when they go to pray, Hier joked “they shouldn’t join a shul.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous. Photo by Donovan Marks/Washington National Cathedral

It’s time to reclaim religion


This is a transcript of a speech delivered at TEDWomen 2016.

was a new mother and a young rabbi in the spring of 2004 and the world was in shambles. Maybe you remember. Every day, we heard devastating reports from the war in Iraq. There were waves of terror rolling across the globe. It seemed like humanity was spinning out of control.

I remember the night that I read about the series of coordinated bombings in the subway system in Madrid, and I got up and I walked over to the crib where my 6-month-old baby girl lay sleeping sweetly, and I heard the rhythm of her breath, and I felt this sense of urgency coursing through my body. We were living through a time of tectonic shifts in ideologies, in politics, in religion, in populations. Everything felt so precarious. And I remember thinking, My God, what kind of world did we bring this child into? And what was I as a mother and a religious leader willing to do about it?

Of course, I knew it was clear that religion would be a principal battlefield in this rapidly changing landscape, and it was already clear that religion was a significant part of the problem. The question for me was, could religion also be part of the solution? Now, throughout history, people have committed horrible crimes and atrocities in the name of religion. And as we entered the 21st century, it was very clear that religious extremism was once again on the rise. Our studies now show that over the course of the past 15-20 years, hostilities and religion-related violence have been on the increase all over the world. 

But we don’t even need the studies to prove it, because I ask you, how many of us are surprised today when we hear the stories of a bombing or a shooting, when we later find out that the last word that was uttered before the trigger is pulled or the bomb is detonated is the name of God? It barely raises an eyebrow today when we learn that yet another person has decided to show his love of God by taking the lives of God’s children. In America, religious extremism looks like a white, anti-abortion Christian extremist walking into Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and murdering three people. It also looks like a couple inspired by the Islamic State walking into an office party in San Bernardino and killing 14. And even when religion-related extremism does not lead to violence, it is still used as a political wedge issue, cynically leading people to justify the subordination of women, the stigmatization of LGBT people, racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This ought to concern deeply those of us who care about the future of religion and the future of faith. We need to call this what it is: a great failure of religion.

But the thing is, this isn’t even the only challenge that religion faces today. At the very same time that we need religion to be a strong force against extremism, it is suffering from a second pernicious trend, what I call religious routine-ism. This is when our institutions and our leaders are stuck in a paradigm that is rote and perfunctory, devoid of life, devoid of vision and devoid of soul.

Let me explain what I mean. One of the great blessings of being a rabbi is standing under the chuppah, under the wedding canopy, with a couple, and helping them proclaim publicly and make holy the love that they found for one another. I want to ask you now, though, to think maybe from your own experience or maybe just imagine it, about the difference between the intensity of the experience under the wedding canopy and maybe the experience of the sixth or seventh anniversary.

And if you’re lucky enough to make it 16 or 17 years, if you’re like most people, you probably wake up in the morning realizing that you forgot to make a reservation at your favorite restaurant and you forgot so much as a card, and then you just hope and pray that your partner also forgot.

Well, religious ritual and rites were essentially designed to serve the function of the anniversary, to be a container in which we would hold on to the remnants of that sacred, revelatory encounter that birthed the religion in the first place. The problem is that after a few centuries, the date remains on the calendar, but the love affair is long dead. That’s when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that’s completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.

Religion is waning in the United States.

Across the board, churches and synagogues and mosques are all complaining about how hard it is to maintain relevance for a generation of young people who seem completely uninterested, not only in the institutions that stand at the heart of our traditions but even in religion itself. And what they need to understand is that there is today a generation of people who are as disgusted by the violence of religious extremism as they are turned off by the lifelessness of religious routine-ism.

Of course, there is a bright spot to this story. Given the crisis of these two concurrent trends in religious life, about 12 or 13 years ago I set out to try to determine if there was any way that I could reclaim the heart of my own Jewish tradition, to help make it meaningful and purposeful again in a world on fire. I started to wonder: What if we could harness some of the great minds of our generation and think in a bold and robust and imaginative way again about what the next iteration of religious life would look like? Now, we had no money, no space, no game plan, but we did have email. So my friend Melissa and I sat down and we wrote an email, which we sent out to a few friends and colleagues. It basically said this: “Before you bail on religion, why don’t we come together this Friday night and see what we might make of our own Jewish inheritance?”

We hoped maybe 20 people would show up. It turned out 135 people came. They were cynics and seekers, atheists and rabbis. Many people said that night that it was the first time that they had a meaningful religious experience in their entire lives. And so I set out to do the only rational thing that someone would do in such a circumstance: I quit my job and tried to build this audacious dream, a reinvented, rethought religious life which we called IKAR, which means “the essence” or “the heart of the matter.”

Now, IKAR is not alone out there in the religious landscape today. There are Jewish and Christian and Muslim and Catholic religious leaders — many of them women, by the way — who have set out to reclaim the heart of our traditions, who firmly believe that now is the time for religion to be part of the solution. We are going back into our sacred traditions and recognizing that all of our traditions contain the raw material to justify violence and extremism, and also contain the raw material to justify compassion, coexistence and kindness — that when others choose to read our texts as directives for hate and vengeance, we can choose to read those same texts as directives for love and for forgiveness.

I have found now in communities as varied as Jewish indie startups on the coasts to a women’s mosque, to Black churches in New York and in North Carolina, to a holy bus loaded with nuns that traverses this country with a message of justice and peace, that there is a shared religious ethos that is now emerging in the form of revitalized religion in this country. And while the theologies and the practices vary very much between these independent communities, what we can see are some common, consistent threads between them.

I’m going to share with you four of those commitments now.

The first is wakefulness. We live in a time today in which we have unprecedented access to information about every global tragedy that happens on every corner of this Earth. Within 12 hours, 20 million people saw that image of Aylan Kurdi’s little body washed up on the Turkish shore. We all saw this picture. We saw this picture of a 5-year-old child pulled out of the rubble of his building in Aleppo. And once we see these images, we are called to a certain kind of action.

My tradition tells a story of a traveler who is walking down a road when he sees a beautiful house on fire, and he says, “How can it be that something so beautiful would burn, and nobody seems to even care?” So too we learn that our world is on fire, and it is our job to keep our hearts and our eyes open, and to recognize that it’s our responsibility to help put out the flames.

This is extremely difficult to do. Psychologists tell us that the more we learn about what’s broken in our world, the less likely we are to do anything. It’s called psychic numbing. We just shut down at a certain point. Well, somewhere along the way, our religious leaders forgot that it’s our job to make people uncomfortable. It’s our job to wake people up, to pull them out of their apathy and into the anguish, and to insist that we do what we don’t want to do and see what we do not want to see. Because, we know that social change only happens when we are awake enough to see that the house is on fire.

The second principle is hope, and I want to say this about hope. Hope is not naive, and hope is not an opiate. Hope may be the single greatest act of defiance against a politics of pessimism and against a culture of despair. Because what hope does for us is, it lifts us out of the container that holds us and constrains us from the outside and says you can dream and think expansively again, that they cannot control in you.

I saw hope made manifest in an African-American church on the South Side of Chicago this summer, where I brought my little girl, who is now 13 and a few inches taller than me, to hear my friend Rev. Otis Moss preach. That summer, there had already been 3,000 people shot between January and July in Chicago. We went into that church and heard Rev. Moss preach, and after he did, this choir of gorgeous women, 100 women strong, stood up and began to sing: “I need you. You need me. I love you. I need you to survive.” And I realized in that moment that this is what religion is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about giving people back a sense of purpose, a sense of hope, a sense that they and their dreams fundamentally matter in this world that tells them that they don’t matter at all.

The third principle is the principle of mightiness. There’s a rabbinic tradition that we are to walk around with two slips of paper in our pockets. One says, “I am but dust and ashes.” It’s not all about me. I can’t control everything, and I cannot do this on my own. The other slip of paper says, “For my sake the world was created.” Which is to say, it’s true that I can’t do everything, but I can surely do something. I can forgive. I can love. I can show up. I can protest. I can be a part of this conversation. We even now have a religious ritual, a posture, that holds the paradox between powerlessness and power. In the Jewish community, the only time of year that we prostrate fully to the ground is during the High Holy Days. It’s a sign of total submission. Now, in our community, when we get up off the ground, we stand with our hands raised to the heavens, and we say, “I am strong, I am mighty and I am worthy. I can’t do everything, but I can do something.”

In a world that conspires to make us believe that we are invisible and that we are impotent, religious communities and religious ritual can remind us that for whatever amount of time we have here on this earth, whatever gifts and blessings we were given, whatever resources we have, we can and we must use them to try to make the world a little bit more just and a little bit more loving.

The fourth and final is interconnectedness. A few years ago, there was a man walking on the beach in Alaska, when he came across a soccer ball that had some Japanese letters written on it. He took a picture of it and posted it up on social media, and a Japanese teenager contacted him. He had lost everything in the tsunami that devastated his country, but he was able to retrieve that soccer ball after it had floated all the way across the Pacific. How small our world has become. It’s so hard for us to remember how interconnected we all are as human beings. And yet, we know that it is systems of oppression that benefit the most from the lie of radical individualism.

Let me tell you how this works. I’m not supposed to care when Black youth are harassed by police, because my white-looking Jewish kids probably won’t ever get pulled over for the crime of driving while Black. Well, not so, because this is also my problem. And guess what? Transphobia and Islamophobia and racism of all forms — those are also all of our problems. And so too is anti-Semitism all of our problems. Because Emma Lazarus was right.

Emma Lazarus was right when she said until all of us are free, we are none of us free. We are all in this together. And now somewhere at the intersection of these four trends — of wakefulness and hope and mightiness and interconnectedness — there is a burgeoning, multifaith justice movement in this country that is staking a claim on a countertrend, saying that religion can and must be a force for good in the world.

Our hearts hurt from the failed religion of extremism, and we deserve more than the failed religion of routine-ism. It is time for religious leaders and religious communities to take the lead in the spiritual and cultural shift that this country and the world so desperately need — a shift toward love, toward justice, toward equality and toward dignity for all. I believe that our children deserve no less than that.


SHARON BROUS is founder and senior rabbi at IKAR Los Angeles

The Case Against a Kosher Casket By David Zinner


[Ed. Note: Again this week, I am presenting a previously published blog entry. We are working on improving the presentation of the blog articles for readability, style, and appearance. I would appreciate hearing from you about this blog, particularly if you are having any difficulties, problems, or issues accessing or reading it. If you have any comments – or a blog submission, please contact me at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org. — JB] 

Kosher Casket

A Kosher Casket?

A Kosher Casket?

Kosher means fit or proper for ritual use, but unlike the biblical delineation of which foods are kosher, there are no biblical rules to give guidance regarding manufacture of kosher caskets. The Talmud contains dozens of occurrences of Hebrew words that are translated to English as “casket”, “coffin”, “bier”, “chest” and more. But nowhere in Jewish writings is there a discussion of what makes a casket kosher.

Tachrichim (shroud or burial garment) manufacturers have suggested that there are “kosher” tachrichim dependent on the observance level of the workers and certifying that the product was not made on Shabbat. The rationale for this seems slim for tachrichim, and even slimmer for caskets. Basing Kashrut on worker’s level of observance is a novel approach not practiced in kosher food manufacturing. More interesting and fruitful pursuits to define a kosher casket might include looking at working conditions, wages and health benefits of the employees, as well as the environmental impact of the manufacturing ingredients and process.

Simple & Inexpensive

The Talmud directs that all aspects of funeral and burial should be kept simple and inexpensive, and by extension fit and proper. BT (Babylonian Talmud) Moed Katan 27a- 27b contains an extended discussion of funeral practices and a story about Rabban Gamliel. This discussion can open a window to the meaning of ‘Kosher’ in relation to a casket.

Formerly, they were wont to bring out the rich [for burial] on a dargesh [a tall state bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets] and the poor on a plain bier, and the poor felt shamed: they instituted therefore that all should be brought out on a plain bier, out of deference for the poor.

 Without knowing the difference between a dargesh and a bier in Rabban Gamliel’s time, the implication is clear – the dargesh is fancy and affordable to the rich; the bier is simple and used by those who are poor. The dargesh made it easy to carry the body and to show off wealth. The bier (Hebrew – mitah) is a simple stand or platform that holds and/or carries the body.

Jewish Law (Halachah)

The Shulchan Aruch allows for burial with or without a casket, but gives no indication of how to determine if a casket is Kosher. Rabbi Mosha Epstein in his Taharah Manual of Practices quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Feinstein could find no source for an all wood casket. He cites Rambam, yet Rambam in his Book of Judges – Laws of Mourning – 4:4 says: “It is permissible to bury the dead in a wooden casket.”

In the 1960’s, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America negotiated funeral standards with the Jewish Funeral Directors of America. The Orthodox Rabbis were successful in incorporating taharah, tachrichim, Shmirah, and ground burial into the standards. They failed in their attempt to include simple plain caskets.

Plain Pine Box

It was only 60 years ago that an expensive all wood casket became acceptable in the Jewish community. Our Moed Katan example goes back over 1,700 years. We should pick up Rabban Gamliel’s cause and champion a simple casket (or none at all) as a return to less expensive funerals and burials.

David Zinner is the Executive Director of Kavod V’Nichum (honor and comfort), and of the Gamliel Institute, and serves as instructor for the non-denominational Gamliel Institute, a nonprofit center for Chevrah Kadisha organizing, education, and training. In his role as executive director Zinner co-teaches courses on Chevrah Kadisha history, organizing, taharah and shmira (sitting with the deceased until burial),  and building capacities in Jewish communities that enable all participants to meaningfully navigate these final life cycle events.

David Zinner

David Zinner, Executive Director of Kavod veNichum

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          GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama [Comfort], online, evenings, in the Spring semester starting March 28, 2017.

CLASSES

The course will meet on Tuesdays (and three Thursdays in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). The date of classes will be from March 28 to June 13 2017. Please note: due to holidays, classes will meet on Thursdays on April 13th, April 20th, and June 1st. There will be an orientation session on Monday, March 27th, 2017.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.

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TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar. Taste of Gamliel gives participants a “Taste” of the Gamliel Institute’s web-based series of courses.

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

Learn from the comfort of your own home or office.

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and students can see each other’s live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, participants raise their virtual hands to ask questions, and the moderator calls on and unmutes participants when appropriate. We’ve been teaching using this model for seven years (more than 250 session). We use Zoom, a particularly friendly and easy to use platform.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. Online sessions begin at 5 PM PST; 8 PM EST.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

On registration, you will receive an automated acknowledgement. Information and technology assistance is available after you register. Those who are registered are sent an email ahead of each webinar with log on instructions and information for the upcoming session.

You can view a recording of the sessions, uploaded after each session, so even if you need to miss one (or more), you can still hear the presentation.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700   

Attend as many of these presentations as are of interest to you. Each session is about 90 minutes in duration. As always, we plan to hold time for questions and discussions at the end of each program. 

Again, the entire series is free, but we ask that you make a donation to help us defray the costs of providing this series. The suggested $36 amount works out to $6 for each session – truly a bargain for the valuable information and extraordinary teachers that present it.

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

Suggestions for future topics are welcome. 

The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The Gamliel Institute offers five on-line core courses, each 12 weeks in length, that deal with the various aspects of Jewish ritual and actions around sickness, death, funerals, burial and mourning. Participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America, with Israelis and British students joining us on occasion.

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Looking ahead, hold June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Register, and make your hotel reservations and travel plans now!

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017

Registration is now open. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study and more.

The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals as part of your full conference registration. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. Please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options. Contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org
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DONATIONS:

Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.

Past blog entries can be searched online at the L.A. Jewish Journal. Point your browser to http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/, and scroll down. Along the left of the page you will see a list of ‘Recent Posts” with a “More Posts” link. You can also see the list by month of Expired and Inspired Archives below that, going back to 2014 when the blog started.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Pro-Israel supporter in New York City. (photo credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Young Jews in America and Israel: Rising levels of religiosity, widening political gap


Conferences are a good way of meeting people and listening to what they have to say, often based on information that they have and you don’t. So last week, at the JPPI conference on the future of the Jewish People, I listened attentively to Prof. Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University as he presented a few numbers from a paper he authored with Ariela Keisar of Trinity College. He then kindly agreed to send me the slides that the two of them presented at the conference of the Association of Jewish Studies back in December of last year.

Like many papers, it has a fancy name: Contrasts and Comparisons of American and Israeli Jews: Millennials Under Scrutiny. Like some papers, behind the name there is information. In this case, it’s information about a group that the professional Jewish world is highly concerned about: millennial Jews in Israel and America. The two studies by PEW, in America and Israel, have comparable numbers to work with. So the authors decided to compare these two groups.

They are different, of course. Beginning with the fact that some Israeli millennials are still serving in the military while their cousins in the US go to college. Continuing with the fact that most US millennials are still single (90%) while their Israeli cousins have already begun getting married (31%) and having children.

DellaPergola and Keisar have discovered a few interesting things about Jewish millennials in the two largest and most significant Jewish communities today. For example: that religiosity among Jewish millennials is on the rise – a result, no doubt, of the demographic composition of this group compared to other groups of Jews (that is, it is more heavily Orthodox). The authors looked at the percentage of Jews agreeing with three statements: Weekly attendance at religious services; Religion is important in my life; I believe in God or universal spirit.

Take a look at the graph: younger Jews in Israel are becoming more religious, and so are younger Jews in America (in which you can also see a clear difference between Jews that were and were not “raised Jewish”).

Gap1

In a similar way – looking at the number of Jews who agree with three statements – DellaPergolla and Keisar examined the sense of peoplehood among younger Jews. The statements are: Being Jewish is important in my life; I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews around the world; and I have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. In this case, the response is split: those raised as Jews – in Israel or America – feel more Jewish than the older generation. But the sense of peoplehood among those who weren’t raised Jewish is in decline (this should not come as huge surprise).

Take a look:

Gap2

The Israel support index is based on positive responses to two statements – and in this case it is possible to make the case that maybe the questions do not reflect exactly what the authors claim (support for Israel). The statements are “Caring about Israel / Living in Israel is essential to my Jewish identity”; “the Israeli government is making sincere efforts to bring peace with Palestinians.” Clearly, the first statement is direct and reflects support or identification with Israel. But the second question is trickier: does disagreeing with the contention that a certain Israeli government is making a sincere effort to achieve peace make a person less supportive of Israel? In recent JPPI studies we asked groups of Jews the same question and found what DellaPergola and Keisar also found: that Israel’s efforts are not considered sincere by many Jews in other countries. But they show us that the lower the age, the higher the skepticism of Israel’s sincerity.

The same doubt can be raised about the index they call Jewish Nationalism and which is based on the following three questions: Settlements help Israel’s security; God gave the Land of Israel to Jews; I do not think a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully. Why do I find this index somewhat problematic? Because the first and third statements are political in nature, but the second is a cultural-theological question. In other words: the authors inadvertently assume that believing in a God-given land is connected with believing in the benefit of the settlement project. And while this assumption is probably valid in the real world – I do not think it is valid in the world of ideas.

DellaPergola and Keisar examined other questions, but sticking to politics, their last graph is the most interesting – as it paints vividly what we recognize as the growing political gap between young Israelis and young Jews in the US.

This graph uses again the “Israeli efforts for peace sincere” statement, but adds to it the mirror image statement “Palestinian efforts for peace sincere.” The index based on these two statements shows the percentage of difference between sincere Israeli and sincere Palestinian efforts, among young Israelis, young “raised Jewish” American Jews, and young American Jews (including those who weren’t raised Jewish). The result is a graph that tells the story of a growing gap. Young Israelis have much more confidence in Israel’s sincerity compared to the sincerity of the Palestinians, while US Jews don’t see as much difference between the sincerity (or lack thereof) of Israelis and Palestinians.

Here it is:

Gap3

What do we learn from this? That Israel might be successful in convincing its youngsters of its narrative, but it fails to convince young American Jews that it still wants peace. If young Jews in America, as they grow older, will view Israel as a country that doesn’t pursue peace, it will surely make it more difficult for them to support it – no matter if they are correct in their conclusion or widely off the mark.

The abuse of Halacha: Keeping Halacha under control


Judaism is in trouble. More and more of the unacceptable is being done and said in its name. Besides causing infinite damage to Judaism’s great message, it is a terrible desecration of God’s name. And all of this is seen and heard by millions of gentiles watching television, browsing websites, or listening to the radio. Many are repelled when they witness horrible scenes in which Jews attack each other in the name of Judaism. Media outlets around the world portray religious Jews in most distressing ways. While it cannot be denied that anti-Semitism plays a role and tends to blow the picture out of proportion, the unfortunate fact is that much of it is based on truth. Non-Jews are dumbfounded when they read that leading rabbis make the most shocking comments about them, thereby demonstrating gross arrogance and discrimination. Even worse, many of them read about rabbinical decisions that seem to lack all moral integrity. 

Twenty one years ago, Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in the name of Halacha (Jewish law), claiming that the prime minister was a rodef (someone who is attempting or planning to murder) because he brought all of Israel’s citizens into mortal danger by having participated in the 1993 Oslo accords. Amir therefore believed that the prime minister deserved the death penalty according to Jewish law. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Arabs in a mosque because he believed that Judaism obligated him to create havoc in order to stop Arab terror attacks, which had already killed thousands of Jews. Several years ago, the book Torat HaMelech was published. The authors, learned rabbis, argued that it was permissible to kill non-Jews, even without proper trial, if they became a serious potential threat to Jewish lives. Minorities such as the LGBT community are being insulted by powerful rabbis who seem to be ignorant of the multifarious circumstances of fellow human beings. Less than two weeks ago, a most important and brilliant ruling issued by the Tzfat Rabbinical Court in 2014, concerning a get in which a woman was freed of her agunah status, was suddenly challenged by the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Israel. The latter completely ignores the fact that such a move is not only halachically intolerable (See Rabeinu Tam….) but undermines the very institution of Jewish divorce itself. And so on. 

How can it be that such things are carried out, or even expressed, in the name of Judaism and Jewish law? Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of Judaism is fully aware that nothing within genuine Jewish law would condone, or even suggest, such outlandish ideas and immoral acts. 

Why does this happen? 

Throughout the years, several rabbinical authorities have made the major and dangerous mistake of reducing Judaism to a matter of law alone, a kind of Pan-Halacha. They sincerely believe that Judaism consists only of rigid rules. In this way, they are paradoxically similar to Spinoza, who was also of this opinion and therefore rejected his faith. He referred to it as obsessive, a type of behaviorism, and an extreme form of legalism. (See, for example, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus III, IV, and XIII.) That Spinoza made this claim is one thing, but the fact that these learned rabbis agreed with him is an unforgivable blunder. Nothing is further from the truth than labeling Judaism a legal religious system without spirit, poetry, and musical vibrations. This is proven by the almost infinite amount of religious Jewish literature that deals with non-halachic matters. 

The main reason for this terrible mistake is that these rabbis have failed to study the basic moral values of Judaism as they appear in the book of Bereishit (Genesis). It is well known that, with a few exceptions, this book does not contain laws; it is mainly narrative. To appreciate this, one needs to consider the following. 

In this first biblical book, we encounter Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov as the foremost players. They are considered the first Jews in history. But this makes little sense. How could they have been Jews if the Torah was given only hundreds of years later to Moshe at Mount Sinai? Although a Jew is a Jew even if they do not observe the laws of the Torah, it is still the Torah that defines them as such. How, then, could the Patriarchs be full-fledged Jews when the Torah was denied to them? Would it not have been logical to have given the Torah to Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and their wives long before Moshe? Only upon receiving the Torah could they have been real Jews! So why was it withheld from them? (Even though some midrashim claim that they did observe several commandments, it is clear that this was done voluntarily.) 

The answer is crucial. No law, including divine, can function if it is not preceded by a narrative of the human moral condition and an introduction of basic ethical and religious values. These values cannot be given; they must develop within, through life experiences. No academic instruction, not even when given by God, would be of any benefit. Such ethics need to develop gradually, on an existential level, and predicated on innate values that God grants to each person at the moment he or she is born; a kind of categorical imperative in the human soul. 

More than that, laws become impersonal and therefore dangerous because they cannot deal with emotions and the enormous moral paradoxes encountered by human beings. As a result, they run the risk of becoming inhuman and even cruel. 

It is for that reason that God did not give the laws of the Torah to the Patriarchs. First there was a need to learn through personal trials and tribulations. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs had to see with their own eyes what happens when people are not governed by law. But most important, they had to become aware of basic moral values, such as the fact that all human beings are created in the image of God, that all are equal, that human life is holy, and that there is only one God Who is at the root of all morality. Only after people have been deeply affected by these ideas and values can law be introduced as a way to put it all into action. 

It was only after the existential, moral turmoil in which Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov frequently found themselves, as well as their often problematic encounters with God, that a virtuous and religious awareness was born. This consciousness continued to work its way, with all its ups and downs, through the bondage in Egypt, the Exodus, and the splitting of the Reed Sea. Not until that point was there a chance that the law could be received and be beneficial when given at Sinai. And even then it was not very successful, as recorded in the many disturbing biblical stories about the Israelites failing to live up to the law in Moshe’s days and long afterwards. 

But it is not just the fact that narrative, ethical values, and encounter with the Divine are necessary to have before the law can be given. There is another important message: no law, including divine, can function without constantly and continually taking guidance from these former values. There is almost nothing worse than divine law operating on its own, without primary, innate moral values. It runs the risk of turning wild and causing great harm. It needs to be constrained. 

This is the purpose of Sefer Bereishit. (See Netziv’s introduction to Bereishit in his Ha’amek Davar.) It is a biting critique of the halachic system when the latter is applied without acknowledging that these prior moral values are needed in order to function. The book of Bereishit, then, keeps Halacha under control. It restricts and regulates it, and ensures that it will not wreak havoc. 

Truly great poskim (halachic arbiters) cannot lay down their decisions on the basis of Jewish law alone. The Shulchan Aruch (Codex of Jewish Law) by Rabbi Yoseph Karo, and the Mishneh Torah of Rambam can become dangerous if applied in a vacuum. What these poskim must realize is that they need to incorporate the great, religious moral values for which Sefer Bereishit stands. 

To be continued. 


Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.

Being Leonard Cohen’s rabbi


I last saw Leonard Cohen a few months ago. He had asked me to come to his place. After brief pleasantries, he said to me, “Reb, I am getting ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. I have some questions for you.”

He and I had spoken about “Hamlet” more than a few times. I knew the play and especially the soliloquy were close to his heart, and, at that moment, closer than ever. He knew he was soon not to be, at least in this frail frame. I remember thinking to myself, “I have to remember every word we say.”

We spoke longer than we ever had before, maybe four or five hours straight. Children and grandchildren genially punctuated our talk. Adam and Jessica popped in, with young Cassius Cohen in tow, commanding the room with a series of pointed questions and comments. Lorca came in. Viva lit up the room. Leonard shed his age and frailty for a moment and took on a mantle of joy. 

Rebecca De Mornay, his former fiancée, stopped in. He tried to convince her to come to synagogue. We had some dinner and cookies. He asked me if I wanted to listen to the album he was working on. He played me tracks from “You Want It Darker” from his computer. I particularly remembered the title song, and also “Steer Your Way”: 

Steer your path through the pain
That is far more real than you
That smashed the cosmic model
That blinded every view
And please don’t make me go there
Tho’ there be a god or not

Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought

If you are familiar with Lurianic Kabbalah, and its main heretical interpretation, Sabbateanism, you will understand this album, these two songs, and I think much of his body of poetry and lyrics. I think that whatever drew Leonard to me, for me to be his rabbi these last 10 years, was that for each of us, Lurianic Kabbalah gave voice to the impossible brokenness of the human condition. The pain of the Divine breakage permeates reality. We inherit it; it inhabits us. We can deny it. Or we can study and teach it, write it and sing its mournful songs. 

Leonard and Anjani

I met Leonard and his then-partner Anjani Thomas when I officiated at the wedding of Larry Klein and Luciana Souza in August 2006. Larry had produced the album “Blue Alert,” with music by Anjani and lyrics by Leonard. 

After the wedding, I was seated next to Leonard and Anjani. They interrogated me thoroughly. Leonard listened carefully. He had this slight grin when he listened. He could see the opportunity for wit, either from himself or from a game discussion partner, a mile a way. Leonard was interested in my brand of Judaism, which I called at the time Post Orthodox Neo Chasidic. He chuckled at the acronym. 

I called my wife, Meirav, after the reception (she was in Israel) and asked her if she had heard of Leonard Cohen. She almost fainted long distance. “I used to cry myself to sleep when I was in high school, writing poems and listening to his albums.” “Oops” I thought. 

I did some research on Leonard that week and was astounded. I bought and listened to several of his albums, got his songbooks. I ordered his books of poetry and sank into them. I listened to “Blue Alert” in enraptured silence, and again when my wife returned from Israel. 

I was very, very moved by that album, and everything else. I was deeply touched by him. I realized, ruefully, that I had been in the presence of a Great Man. Oh, well. 

I was more than astounded — flabbergasted? — when Leonard and Anjani walked into shul the next Shabbat. Turns out that Anjani wanted to come for more of the spiritual psychology and she encouraged him to come, knowing this was something with which he would connect. Leonard was hesitant about joining a synagogue. They became regulars, attending weekly. 

Anjani and Leonard also started attending my Monday night classes, Jewish spiritual psychology dharma talks. I taught Mussar, gave talks on Chasidut and led meditations. I did not know yet that Leonard was a Buddhist monk. I probably would have been self-conscious leading meditations in front of him had I known. He would sit in the front row, shoes off, in his signature suit, tie and fedora, eyes closed, listening, radiant. I asked him what he liked about my teachings. What in particular?

“It’s not just the words,” he said. “You are a healer.” I was taken aback. 

Leonard and Anjani stayed for lunch after services. Anjani and my wife became close friends (and remain so). Leonard and I became close but never chummy. He actually was much more comfortable around my wife, whom I think he truly loved. He and I only talked about deep stuff until it hurt and we had to stop. We weren’t able to chitchat. 

Deep discussions

The congregants loved Leonard. He was genteel, even chivalrous. He enjoyed the community — the music, the food and the vibe. I asked him once why he liked Ohr HaTorah and he said, “Because you are not uptight.”  

A congregant once said to him she was happy that he had found a place to practice his Judaism. Leonard then pointed over to me and said, “It’s not because it’s Jewish. It’s that man that I come for. I would follow him if he were flipping burgers.”

I don’t understand that, but I can tell you what I think. Leonard (he called himself Eliezer and me “Reb”) pushed me hard to explain my take on the kabbalah. 

Lurianic Kabbalah sees the breaking of the vessels as the poetic truth that defined the breakage of the human being. When I took over the mysticism class at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, around 2003, I worked my way through Scholem’s classic “Sabbatai Sevi” and saw the inner truth in kabbalah’s greatest heresy. Leonard also had read this heavy tome, and nearly everything on kabbalah that I had read. (He and I both studied from Daniel Matt’s masterful translation of the Zohar.) 

We both had seen the terrifying obsidian luminosity. We shared a world of Divine absence, except for a shattered residue. We shared a common language, a common nightmare. I think Leonard finally found a rabbi who spoke the truth from which he wrote. I spoke about it unafraid because I think I was more afraid not to speak this truth. Like Leonard a bit, I guess. I was a good teacher. He, on the other hand, was a great poet. What took me a half-hour to say, he could say in three words. 

We often came back to one issue of dispute. By temperament, but maybe more as a professional obligation, I offered a path of repairing the broken vessels. I think Leonard could not accept that suture. Spiritually, I am somewhat equipoised between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism — topics about which we spoke often. Leonard often took the Gnostic turn. He said to me that the human condition is mangled into a box into which the broken soul does not fit. We all chafe, terribly. 

After many of those discussions, I told him that I thought some of his poems were liturgy (especially his “Book of Mercy”), liturgy of the breakage. He told me that he thought everything he wrote was liturgy. I was a professor of liturgy, and I considered him the greatest liturgist of our time, and one of the greatest of all time. 

Where from? Leonard’s grandfather was a Talmid Chacham, a Talmud scholar. Leonard let me borrow a copy of a sefer his grandfather wrote. A true rabbinic classic — and beautifully written. As far as I know, it remains untranslated and unavailable. 

I told him about my tentative connection with Rav Yakov Leib HaKohain, a spiritual descendant of the Donmeh, a self proclaimed Neo-Sabbatean. I broke off but Leonard kept up. I honesty felt a bit nervous learning from a Sabbatean, neo or not. Leonard had no such qualms. 

Soul of a poet

Once in an old radio interview in Canada, the interviewer asked Leonard if he had ever considered changing his name. He said, “Yes, to September.” She said, in some surprise, “Leonard September?” and he said, “No, September Cohen.” I think I knew him well enough to know that he wanted to say “Elul” (the month before the Days of Awe).  For those afflicted with the bittersweet sadness of the broken soul, Elul is a time of intense inner scrutiny preparing for the Days of Awe. 

Often after services, he asked me if I wanted to hear a poem. “Gladly,” I would say. Once, we sat down and he recited a poem, classic darkly luminous Cohen. Short lines. Couplets. Maybe 20 stanzas, perhaps more. Serrated edge of a murder weapon used on a guy who had it coming to him. 

After soaking in that one, I asked him how long it took him to write it. I had known him for about a year, so I thought, “A month?”  I truly think he said, “Fifteen years.”  He also recited for me one time many unpublished verses of “Bird on the Wire.” Like thousands, I guess, I still sing that song to myself. Just another drunk in the midnight choir. 

He sent me poetry he was working on (I think I was on a list) until the week before he passed. He wrote me on Friday that he wished he could come to shul to hear my new series of talks on a deep dive into Genesis. He died on Monday. 

Once at lunch, he asked a group of people if they would like him to recite a poem based on a sermon I gave. People expected a brief “Book of Longing” kind of gem.  This poem also had maybe 20 stanzas. He wrote that one in about a week. 

Leonard and the Muse

Even though Leonard and Anjani split up a couple of years ago, most of the time we knew Leonard, he was with Anjani. She brought him to the house. We would prepare meals and celebrate holidays together. 

It was sweet and funny to think how ordinary it was. One Thanksgiving, we had Leonard and Anjani and David and Rebecca Mamet over. The women were in the kitchen preparing food and the men were on the back porch drinking whiskey. 

Not so ordinary was that we on the porch eventually talked about where our ideas come from, because people always ask us. Fewer people ask me, but people ask me nonetheless. 

Leonard said, as he often did, that if he knew where his poems came from, he would go there more often. We all spoke about feeling that we were in the service of the Muse (the Bat Kol). We tried to channel her. We had to be careful around her. I remember we all stopped talking at once, agreeing silently that she did not want people talking about her as if she weren’t listening in. We said enough and stopped and went back to drinking and swapping jokes. Man, I loved his laugh. He would have a visceral experience of pure joy at a punchline. The torment would cease for a moment. 

One night when we had them over, Leonard asked Anjani to sing from “Blue Alert.” Anjani sat at our baby grand, Leonard across from her softly singing along with a beatific look on his face. Meirav and I barely dared to breathe. The words, the piano, the voices — I was transported to another world. I had the strangest thought: “Now I understand music.” When Anjani sang “The Mist,” Meirav and I broke into tears. Then they started tearing up. Then Anjani said, “He wrote that when he was 17.”

A giving man

Let me tell you how generous Leonard was. First, after I knew him about a year, he gave me one of his fedoras, right off of his head. 

Second, when our synagogue was scraping bottom during a brutal remodeling of the dilapidated building we bought, Leonard (with several other families) came to the rescue. He was very generous (always handed his checks in person) and appreciative of the work my wife (the designer and general contractor) was doing. On one of this visits to the building, he spent a full afternoon with Meirav. He delighted in everything we had done, especially the café and the preschool. He visited with the kids in the pre-kindergarten. (The teachers almost fainted.) Got some of the lentil soup that he loved — he liked to call it “Jacob’s stew.”

He often signed his emails “Old Priest” and so I called myself “Old Sarge.” He got a kick out of knowing that I was a sergeant in the Marines a million years ago and hearing some of the stories from my military days. When we talked politics, he would quote a line of his: “Oh, and one more thing. You won’t like what comes next after America.”  

A few more things. He aimed to be a vegetarian but made exceptions every time my wife made her Yemenite lamb soup. One Passover seder, he testified to the benefits of yoga and showed us poses, including standing on his head. He loved the music at Ohr HaTorah (handcrafted by our music director, the rebbetzin). One year, he brought all of the singers and not a few of the musicians on his tour to our High Holy Days services. We saw him at one point standing up and dancing. I read from his “Book of Mercy,” and do so every year. 

Leonard and Judaism

People asked how could he be Jewish if he was a Buddhist monk. He told me Zen Buddhism, at least the kind that he practiced, was not a religion. It was a tuning fork for consciousness. He was a devoted Jew, a learned, deep and troubled one — a genius. He had candles lit every Shabbat. I received photos of candles lit on the tours. 

Once when he was at the monastery with Zen master Roshi up at Mount Baldy, a group of Chabad guys trekked up there during Chanukah to return him to Judaism. They found him in his robes, I think he told me. He told them to shush, took them to his quarters. His Chanukah candles were sputtering. They had brought some whiskey with them. He had plastic cups. And then he told them about his Judaism and his meditative path. The way that Eliezer told me the story, they got mellow, sang and danced. The Chabad guys left a bit drunk, more than satisfied that the monk was still Jewish, and maybe a little chastened. 

Farewell

One day, with his children’s permission, maybe I will be able to write about that conversation that began with “Hamlet.” As I write these words, my heart is too heavy, too broken. I knew Leonard’s soul and feel it in my own. He knew mine. I think he sought me out to tell me his version, and invited me to tell him mine. I saw us as a couple of quasi-Sabbatean Neo-Chasidic kabbalists sharing a thick, dark night in that “Bunch of Lonesome Heroes”: 

“I’d like to tell my story,”
Said one of them so bold
“Oh, yes, I’d like to tell my story
’cause you know I feel I’m turning into gold.”

A new vision for the secular left: How do we need to change ourselves in order to change reality in


I am a human rights professional, peace and anti-occupation activist and have been committed to these values for as long as I can remember. All these years, my colleagues and I have been working to change the reality in Israel by removing the blindfolds of Israeli society, exposing the wrongdoings and violations of the occupation, the discrimination against those who are marginalized in society (such as Palestinian citizens of Israel, African asylum seekers and migrant workers), and the implications of the dire social and economic gaps between the center and the periphery.

But there is a blindfold we are ignoring: the one covering our own eyes.

Our blindfold is made up of two layers. The first is the inability to see what is looking at us in the mirror: most of us are Jewish, white, Ashkenazi, secular. We are the privileged elite: Israel was built in our image and our image only, in culture, narrative, politics, history and traditions.

The second layer is a result of the first: our blindness to the validity of points of views that are different from ours, points of view that are deeply rooted in worlds of justification that are sometimes the opposite of ours — not liberal, not leftist, not secular. Our expectation to change everything around us is flawed so long as it insists on avoiding the need to change ourselves, to remove these layers of blindness.

My vision includes a first step: to remove my blindfold before or at least concurrently to the process in which I ask other Israelis to remove theirs.

I have to face the mirror, acknowledging the many privileges that come with my white skin and blue eyes, and understanding that these privileges mean power, even though in the complex reality of contemporary Israel, we, the left, feel most of the time powerless. We must also admit to our own orthodoxies, the kind that in other groups, we tend to condescendingly disrespect. We have our own kashrut (being vegetarian/vegan, not buying products made or grown in the settlements); we have our own practices (going to the annual/weekly protest against the occupation); we have all sorts of rules of behavior and politically correct language, and we so easily judge anyone who does not comply with them. Just like any other group.

We must also proactively work to see and hear the voices and justifications of those who are not like us: Mizrachim, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, right wing, Arabs, Ethiopian Jews, Russian-speaking Jews. We must listen, without trying to persuade or convert, yet without compromising our values and ideology. I have learned that listening opens up so many windows of understanding and empathy.

To make this change, we, the secular left, must also proactively release the power that comes with our privileges: to engage in social change from a humbler approach, not to be the sole leaders, and to be able to join the causes identified and framed by others who may be different than us. Once we release power, a space is made for the articulation of other visions that stem from very different worlds of justification. In this process, we must not be intimidated by the fact that for some, honor and dignity come before equality, and tradition and family are more important values than universalism and secularism. Despite these differences, we can still collaborate, finding shared values and common good to achieve the changes needed to make this a better place.

And so I begin with myself and my professional context. As co-director of the Department for Shared Society at Sikkuy, I am working to promote education for shared society with a focus on Jewish-Arab relationships. In Israel’s sectoralized educational system, to even talk about shared society and Arabs in the religious and ultra-Orthodox streams is a challenge. In order to succeed at this task, I needed to understand that we, as outsiders of those communities, can’t dictate to them what education for shared society means, and how it should be done in their communities. 

Instead, we need to release power: to enable leading educators from within these communities to articulate the problems and proposed solutions, emerging from their own sense of urgency, in dialogue with my colleagues and me. For this purpose, Sikkuy has convened, with the help of Shaharit, a group of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox educators who have expressed their concerns with the way their education system raises children to treat Arabs, and have engaged in a conversation with them as to how they view the problem, and what could help create a solution. 

In this group, I have a voice, but it is not my voice that dictates the conversation: The dialogue is one of listening and sometimes arguing, but at the end of the process, they will decide what the outcome will look like in their community. 

Releasing power is not an easy task. It does not mean giving up on my identity; on the contrary, it can provide a strong base for my identity to dwell securely and even proudly alongside other identities. But it does mean giving up on my power to decide how to frame the struggle, my power to choose the actions and partners, the strategies and stakeholders. Once this process is in place, we can then reconvene, a diverse group comprising many voices, identities and powers, and begin the task of addressing Israel’s most aching issues, in conversation, together.


Gili Re’i has nearly two decades of work experience in non-profit organizations in the fields of education, social change and human rights. Formerly the Deputy Director of The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), since 2015 she has been working at Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, as co-director of the department for shared society.  While at ACRI, Gili was a member of the steering committee of a dialogue group between human rights professionals and Sephardic Ultra-orthodox rabbis and educators, facilitated by Shaharit.  Gili resides in Jerusalem with her family and also serves as the co-chair of the Parents Committee at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem, where both her children are students.   

This is the third in a series of essays by writers connected to Shaharit (shaharit.org.il), an Israeli nonprofit that brings together activists to re-imagine local and national politics. Shaharit’s leaders come from across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum of Israeli society, and work together to create policy and strategy built on open hearts, forward thinking and shared vision: a politics of the common good.

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