November 18, 2018

Fear: A Poem

I am different
I am unique
I am Jewish
People think of me as an outsider
People want to kill me
Because of my religion
Because of who I am
Hiding in the back of my house
Afraid and lonely
Terrified that the Nazis will break down the door
Horrible and vicious people
They killed my friends
Tortured them
They took their belongings
Fearing that they will steal my identity
Grasp my belief in God and shatter it
Like plucking all the feathers off a chicken
They will strip me of my religion
Taking my away from me
Who had dreams
Who once had dreams to travel the world
My is the town’s rabbi
A stout man with a silver beard that drops down to his chest
Passionate about Judaism and angry at the world
Praying every night
Praying that our family will be safe
A sacred, meaningful scroll to us
A piece of junk to them
The Torah
Hiding in a secret compartment in the back of our house
Guarding it with all of our lives
A scroll constructed ages ago
The Torah defines us
I am Jewish

Paul Kurgan is an eighth grader at Mirman School.

Awed by Days of Awe? Keep the Holiness Going

The Open Temple, a Jewish community in Venice that blends arts and Judaism, was one of three L.A. nonprofits to win an UpStart Accelerator grant. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Lori Shapiro

At Open Temple’s break-the-fast meal in Venice, a young man introduced himself.  

“I’m not Jewish, but I’ve been on a six-day fast and I saw that your Yom Kippur Urban Retreat was happening at the same time,” he said. “I attended your entire observance and want you to know that I feel that this has really deepened my cleanse and what I was hoping to get out of it.  Thank you so much. You inspired me to want to keep it going. Yom Kippur is awesome!”

Indeed, the Days of Awe are exactly that — awesome. We emerge with a sense of wonderment about our bodies, our place in the universe and connection to community. After experiencing this outsider’s expression of his natural Jewish high, I wondered: How can we keep this party going?

In a part of town where every corner along Abbot Kinney Boulevard offers a different cold-pressed juice option to cleanse our bodies, I return to the fundamentals of Jewish ritual life and the way Judaism invites all of us to experience regular cycles of individual and communal catharsis, cleansing and renewal.

This year, Open Temple offers an invitation to all into the “Yom Kippur Katan” observance, an opportunity for us to “turn and return” inward monthly to our Yom Kippur awareness and rededicate our lives and our bodies to their purest forms.  

Yom Kippur Katan, a 16th century innovation, originated in the mystical city of Safed. Rabbi Moses Cordovero (aka the Ramak, an organizer of Kabbalistic thought) is credited with beginning this observance, which is first cited in Isaac Luria’s “Seder ha-Tefillah.”  This observance occurs the day before Rosh Hodesh each month (with the exceptions of Chesvan, Tevet and Iyar because of Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Nissan observances), or the Thursday before, if the day of observance falls on Shabbat.

“Following the custom of the very pious, one must repent and make restitutions both in money and personal acts, in order that one may enter the new month as pure as a newborn infant,” said Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (aka the Shelah haQaddosh).  

Yom Kippur Katan is like an invisible track keeping us steadily moving forward through the spiral journey of the Jewish year.  

Liturgically, we recite Selichot during the afternoon (when tallit and tefillin are also ritually worn). If engaging in communal observance, a reading from Exodus is included. We listen as Moses pleads for God’s compassion: “Why, God, should Your anger flare up against Your people, whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand?” (Exodus 32:11). We are asked to role-play as stand-ins for Moses in the modern era — fast and pray, with liturgical recitations from the Viduii and Avinu Malkeinu — and then return to our lives bearing a deepened awareness of our hand in the maelstrom of corruptive destruction and redemptive potential.    

What will the High Holy Days of 5780 look like if we spend a year dedicating ourselves to this observance? How can we transform our communities, our families, ourselves?

While it’s fairly easy to purchase bottles of greens or charcoal water to ingest every two hours, what might it mean to press some deeper meaning into the cocktail?

Los Angeles is filled with “After Burns” — communal post-Burning Man gatherings. Yom Kippur Katan is the yearlong cycle of After Burns for the Jewishly curious.  

A Blessing for 5779:  May we deepen our observance of the revelatory High Holy Days experience with an awe-awareness spanning the next 11 months — and may our skin be all the brighter from it.

Yom Kippur Katan Calendar, 5779
For each Yom Kippur Katan observance, choose whether to engage in communal or private ritual. Choose to fast with no water, with water or with a juice cleanse. Keep a journal to check in each month: set goals, name challenges, monitor personal growth.

Oct. 8: Rosh Hodesh Chesvan (no observance): Schedule an hour to journal and reflect upon the High Holy Days experience.
Nov. 7: Rosh Hodesh Kislev.
Dec. 6: (no observance): Rosh Hodesh Tevet. Light hanukkiah and meditate upon the light.
Jan. 6: Rosh Hodesh Sh’vat.
Feb. 4: Rosh Hodesh Adar I
March 6: Rosh Hodesh Adar II (bonus this year!)
April 4: Rosh Hodesh Nissan
May 2: Rosh Hodesh Iyar (no observance; no fasting in Nissan): Reflect upon freedom and civil liberties in our lives.
June 3: Rosh Hodesh Sivan
July 2:  Rosh Hodesh Tamuz
Aug. 1: Rosh Hodesh Av
Aug. 29: Rosh Hodesh Elul

Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founder and artistic director of The Open Temple in Venice.

Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

Check out this episode!

Widows, Orphans, and Strangers at the Border

“You will not undermine the justice due to a stranger or an orphan and you will not seize the widow’s garment as collateral.” Deuteronomy, 24:17

“Fathers and mothers have been humiliated among you, strangers have been cheated in your midst, orphans and widows have been wronged among you.” Ezekiel 22:7

“There is no greater or more glorious joy than bringing joy to the heart of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers.” Maimonides, Hilchot Magila v’Hanukah, 2:17

On June 11, U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions ordered immigration judges to cease granting asylum in the United States to fugitives from domestic abuse and gang violence. This act should shock the conscience of every American, but for Jews it is a particular outrage.

Why does our Torah, echoed by our prophets and sages, exhort us repeatedly to care for the orphan, widow, and stranger and warn of catastrophes for those who ignore the call? In the patriarchal society of the ancient Hebrews, widows, orphans, and strangers were people without protection. They were socially naked, vulnerable, and, according to Jewish values, owed the community’s help.

Vulnerability is no shame in Judaism. We are all “the weak.” We are temporary, puncturable, fleshy creatures, puny even by mammalian standards. We are not made, as tigers are, to hunt alone. We are made to form communities, to speak, and to care. Our founding story of slavery and redemption reminds us of that mutual dependence and obligation which offers whatever glory humans can attain.

Women and children who live in countries where domestic abuse and violence are not taken seriously by authorities and where everyone but the most privileged is subject to impressment by brutal gangs are “members of a particular social group” with a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The Geneva Convention of 1951 and U.S. law allow such people to find asylum here.

Yet, when such families present themselves at the border of our country, they have been pulled apart. Children are yanked out of their parents’ arms and forced into detention without explanation, often by people who cannot communicate in the child’s language. They are kept away from parents for months at a time, inflicting trauma that will reshape their brains and wound their hearts for a lifetime. This has been happened to all border-crossers and asylum-seekers since May when Attorney General Sessions declared a “zero tolerance” policy for every person who is caught or who presents themselves without documents at our borders. Previously, such families could remain together until the parents could make their case in court. This brutality does not reflect ‘how things have always been,’ it is a terrible new policy of the current administration.

Now Attorney General Sessions has said that women who have been beaten, raped, mutilated, or threatened with death by domestic partners and been routinely ignored by authorities in their birth countries don’t count as persecuted people who need our help. He has said that teens who have been threatened with torture, including sexual violence, if they themselves do not aid the perpetrators of such violence cannot count on us either.

We American Jews cannot allow this to stand. The fugitives from patriarchal violence who arrive at our borders are the widows, orphans, and strangers of our day. They are precisely the people we are commanded to help—those who, because of their position in society, are denied the political means to defend themselves where they are. We whose ancestors found sanctuary here are obliged to be the welcoming neighbors for whom those ancestors prayed.

There is much we can do. We can support a bill introduced by our state’s Senator Diane Feinstein, the Keep Families Together Bill along with the Help Separated Children Act (S2937) and S2468, which provides free counsel for children in immigration court. We can call and write the office of the U.S. Attorney General. Every day. We can march today with Families Belong Together.

We learn in Gittin 61a that, “The Rabbis taught, we support the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, and visit the non-Jewish sick with Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, because of the ways of peace.” We also act on behalf of the widow, orphan, and stranger, no matter where they are from.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: curiosity and other values

Prolific author Joseph Telushkin discusses some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, including a need for more curiosity.

“If people are only going to read things that reinforce what they believe… they’re going to end up demonizing the people that disagree with them.” -Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

From left: David Suissa and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Check out this episode!

Rabbi Killed in West Bank Shooting

Screenshot from Twitter.

An Israeli rabbi was murdered in a drive-by shooting on nearby the Havat Gilat outpost.

The victim, 35-year-old Rabbi Raziel Shevach, was driving along Route 60 close to his home in the outpost when gunmen fired 22 bullets at his car as they drove by. Shevach was stricken multiple times in his neck and chest, and eventually succumbed to his injuries at Kfar Saba Meir Medical Center.

A friend of Shevach’s, Rabbi Yehoshua Gelbard, told Haaretz, “Rabbi Raziel was a rare combination of a smart student and devoted to God, who was kind to everyone who surrounded him.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the shooting.

“I am expressing my deep sorrow and sending condolences to the family of Raziel Shevach, who was murdered tonight by a despicable terrorist,” said Netanyahu. “Security forces will do everything possible to reach the contemptible murderer and the State of Israel will bring him to justice.”

Indeed, Israeli forces shut down Route 60 and have been searching for the terrorists that murdered Shevach.

Yesha Council chairman Hananel Dorani blamed the Palestinian Authority for the terror attack due to their policy of paying terrorists. Hamas had nothing but kind words for Shevach’s murderers.

“We bless the heroic Nablus operation which comes as a result of the Zionist occupation’s violations and crimes at the expense of our people in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” the terror organization said in a statement.

Islamic Jihad praised the attack as well.

Shevach leaves behind his wife and six children. His oldest child is 11 years old and his youngest child is eight months old.

Jedi-ism and Judaism

The loudest noise coming out of Hollywood this holiday season is “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Even if the last thing you want to do is see another “Star Wars” movie, you might be interested to know about the secret message embedded in this film that the Jewish people have known for 2,000 years.

Everyone knows from the title that it’s a story about “the last Jedi,” but even if you’ve seen the film you may not know that saving Jedi-ism is a lot like saving Judaism. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Master Yoda would have been an awesome rabbi was the first thing I thought when the Jedi master made his surprise appearance in an iconic scene.

Luke Skywalker, the Jedi hero who saved the galaxy, is broken by the destruction wrought by rogue Jedi warriors. Menacing torch in hand, Luke approaches the Jedi Temple and its small library of ancient texts. Suddenly, Master Yoda’s ghost appears.

Everyone in the theater expects Yoda to stop Luke. But director Rian Johnson does exactly the opposite of what we would expect in a “Star Wars” film. Yoda incinerates the Jedi Temple with a bolt of lightning. Cackling, Yoda reminds Luke that Jedi wisdom is more than a temple and books. Luke will not be the last Jedi.

For 1,500 years, Judaism was organized around the Temple. Around 2,000 years ago, that Judaism broke. Hanukkah celebrates a brief return to the glory of Temple-centric Jewish life. But within a few generations, the Hasmonean dynasty was more Roman than it was Jewish. The Temple was inaccessible to most Jews, its authority a corruption magnet. Tragically, we were exiled as our Temple burned to the ground. Judaism should have ended in the Temple’s smoldering wreckage.

The rabbis saved Judaism by moving Jewish life from the Temple to the Talmud, reimagining Judaism as a decentralized, wisdom-based, accessible religion — the secret of Diaspora Judaism.

Johnson (and Yoda) did the same to the Jedi religion by burning the Jedi Temple to the ground.

The soul of every conflict in “The Last Jedi” dances around this question: How to reconcile the past, the ancient, calculated and wise with the future, the fresh, impulsive and creative?

To Luke, The Force is broken. Jedi-ism is a failure — it must end forever. Yoda disagrees because The Force and Jedi wisdom are eternal, with or without a building or books. The Jedi will live on through a new Jedi hero — Rey.

Very rabbinic.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was supposed to tell us Rey’s story. The postmodern Jedi warrior who reawakened The Force with her courage and kindness in the previous film was an orphan. But surely her parents were special in some way? Luke Skywalker was an orphan until he discovered his father was Darth Vader, in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Rey is a Luke Skywalker–type hero. Surely, Rey would discover the identity of her parents in “The Last Jedi,” the second of a trilogy.

Master Yoda would have been an awesome rabbi.

Instead, Rey’s nemesis, Kylo Ren, divulges that her degenerate parents sold her for beer money. Rey is literally no one from nowhere. Yet, Rey is a gifted Jedi. “The Last Jedi” tells us that there is no birthright to The Force and Jedi wisdom. They are accessible to all.

Before the final credits, we glimpse the ancient Jedi texts stowed aboard the Millennium Falcon. Apparently, Rey took the books before Luke and Yoda burned down the temple. When I saw those books, a new thought popped into my head.

Yoda was rabbinic, but he was wrong. The Jedi religion would disappear if it relied entirely on an oral transmission from Master to Padawan. Yoda was stuck in the same stagnant vision of the Jedi religion as Luke.

Rey is the Jedi hero we have been looking for. Ancient wisdom must not be discarded nor can it be entrusted to our fickle collective memory. Wisdom must be portable and flexible enough to take on our journey. The great rabbis of post-Temple Judaism knew this and turned us into the People of the Book.

Yoda would have been a great rabbi. But Rey is the visionary rabbi who preserves the past by reimagining a place for ancient wisdom in the future.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

The surprising history of a one-time Charles Manson house

Fifteen years ago, Chabad of Pacific Palisades set up a summer camp on a sprawling two-acre estate located in Rustic Canyon. Originally, the estate belonged to American humorist Will Rogers, but had since traded hands, boasting an impressive list of tenants- from Rogers, to Dennis Wilson (drummer of the Beach Boys), to the Hormel Family (as in Hormel Food Corp., the manufacturer of Spam).

“The Hormel family owned the property. They lived there for a while, but it was vacant and they graciously allowed us to use it for a summer,” said Rabbi Zushe Cunin, head rabbi of Chabad Pacific Palisades.


When Cunin first visited the estate, he couldn’t tell you why, but something felt imbalanced. “In kabbalah,” said Cunin, “there’s both positive and negative energy working together.” So he conducted a spiritual “exorcism” on the property: carried a Torah around the grounds, affixed mezuzahs on the doorposts, and cleansed the space.

This was before he knew the history of the house.

14400 W. Sunset Blvd.  If you Google this address, the first entries that pop up are real estate sites.

But if you scroll down, navigate a little deeper, the history of the house starts to unfold. Steven Gaines, author of “Heroes and Villains,” once described the property as a “palatial log-cabin style house.”

In the spring of 1968, Wilson — the Beach Boys’ drummer — picked up two female hitchhikers on the side of the road and brought them back to his house. Later that night, Charles Manson and the “Family” moved in.

When the Manson Family moved in, Wilson scaled back his lifestyle, traded in his master suite for a modest bedroom. Meanwhile, the Manson members bunked in his spare rooms. At first, the arrangement was great. “I live with 17 girls,” Dennis Wilson bragged during a 1968 interview with Record Mirror. Wilson and the Family were getting on like a big, cultish Brady Bunch. But that ruptured quickly.

Soon, Wilson single-handedly was supporting the cult members, paying for virtually everything, from food to gonorrhea treatments (and there were lots of treatments). Wilson spent more than $100,000 on the Family before he decided enough was enough. So Wilson skipped town, stopped payments on the house and left the Family to face eviction. Manson was livid with Wilson. The members then opted to relocate to Spahn Ranch, a 500-acre property in western L.A. County, a longtime shooting location for Western films that later became the notorious plotting ground for the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders.

When residents vacate a house, each leaves behind a residual fingerprint, something that connects all the tenants, energy swapping from one person to the next. That’s the strange quirk with real estate. It has the ability to connect a patchwork of people: from the satire of Rogers, the cult of Manson, the Spam of Hormel, to the Baal Shem Tov of Chabad.

“Spiritually, there were all kinds of energy going through that property,” said Cunin, decades after Manson and his Family were evicted. “The idea is, when you feel weird negative energy, there is also the potential for positive energy. It is up to us to redirect the energy.”

When Chabad used the house, the property looked like a time capsule, stuck in 1968. The cabin had shag rugs and sickly green walls. Bedrooms were stacked with bunk beds and zebra-print carpet. There was a pool on the premises, filled to the brim with dirt, and probably the most sinister relic left behind was a mannequin in the garden. By then, the mannequin was a fixture of the property. Sporting a lopsided wig and go-go mini skirt, her wooden body splintered from being left outside too long in the elements, not encased in a store window. Frozen in some faraway stare, a commercial smile paired with lidless eyes have witnessed residents, over the years, move in and out.

Eventually, a new family bought the house. “I met them once, but I don’t know their names,” Cunin said.

Why I’m Not a Rabbi

I never thought I’d find myself in the position of deciding whether or not to be a rabbi. After all, I came from a secular family and from a young age I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer.

But after four years of studying creative writing in college and one summer working at a literary nonprofit in Manhattan, I found myself in a crisis that would eventually lead to the rabbi question.

I was 21 years old and writing was the center of my life, to the exclusion of almost anything else. A good writing day made me feel like a good person. A bad writing day made me feel like a worthless excuse for a human being. This, I began to sense, was a form of idolatry; writing could not be the most important thing in the world. Life had value apart from words on a page!

Meanwhile, I had begun to grow interested in my Jewish heritage. And I’d also begun to fall in love, inconveniently, with God.

So, at 21, I decided to stop writing entirely. Instead, I would build my life around something eternal.

I quit my job, left everything I knew and traveled to Jerusalem for the first time, with nothing but a backpack and my violin. There, I enrolled in a progressive, coed yeshiva called Pardes.

I ended up staying at Pardes for two years, studying Torah during the day and playing music in clubs or on the street at night. By the time I left, there was no question about what was at the center of my life as I prayed, studied Talmud and led Friday-night services.

When I returned to the States, I continued to play fiddle; I began to teach Torah; and slowly, very slowly, I also began to write. Like an athlete learning to hold her body correctly after a bad injury, I had to craft my sentences carefully, watching for signs of too much ego or ambition. But I was able to build a serious writing practice back into my life.

I continued to write, play music and teach Torah through my 20s, without feeling a need to choose between these sometimes disparate ways of life. But as my 30th birthday approached, I realized I was going to have to make some decisions.

What was I? An artist who loved Jewish texts and traditions or a rabbi who loved music and writing? I knew titles like “rabbi,” “musician” and “writer” were never fully accurate, that every human transcended a simple title. But I also understood that they mattered. I sensed that the path I chose would define the way I spent my days, how I paid my rent, and what was appropriate to say in public.

I found that when I leaned toward one possibility, the other self would materialize strongly. When I placed art out front, the Hebrew letters shone through, seeming to be the inner essence of that practice. But when I foregrounded the sacred books, I would feel the gentle curves of my violin’s body, notes inside my fingertips, poems burning on my tongue.

I agonized over this decision for months.

In the end, as silly as it sounds, it was cursing that finally led me to decide not to be a rabbi. I am not particularly foul-mouthed, but I wanted to be able to drop F-bombs with impunity, in my writing and in my life.

Really, looking back, I see that this was symbolic. I wanted to be able to say anything, from the esoteric to the vulgar, without the pressure of representing my people and my tradition.

So I finally recycled the rabbinical school application.

Thankfully, Judaism is not terribly hierarchical, at least in the communities in which I live and work. As a layperson, I can lead services, teach the traditions, counsel seekers, and officiate my students’ bar and bat mitzvahs.

Thank goodness for all the rabbis who bear the honor and the burden of communal representation. As for me, I’m just a wandering melamed, grateful for the tools I have to find as much holiness as I can in the world: Torah, music and writing down the meditations of my heart — from the sacred to the profane. n

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

SOUL BITES: Highlights from Shabbat Sermons

Photo from Pixabay.

Rabbi Ari Lucas, Temple Beth Am

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations that the Hollywood mogul had serially abused women sexually, and repeatedly created situations where women saw themselves as having to choose between submitting to his unwanted advances or give up any hopes of a career in Hollywood; in the wake of all the publicity his actions were getting, many women have taken to social media and posted: “MeToo”. And the floodgates opened.

In Parshat Noah, God opens the floodgates of the heavens in response to the corruption He witnesses on Earth. The text tells us vatimalei ha-aretz hamas – the land was filled with hamas. We’re not certain what the word hamas means in the Bible. In other contexts, it appears to mean corruption or injustice. Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator on the Bible claims that hamas refers to stealing and “taking women by force.” According to his interpretation, some kind of sexual violence leads God to regret at having created the world such that God chooses to start over with one family.

The way we speak and behave are reflections of the choices we make. The earth may continue to be filled with hamas – way too many stories of sexual violence. But God has promised never again to purify the land with floodwaters, so the responsibility falls to us – the rainbow after the storm – to do the work of pursuing justice and uprooting evil from our land. Let’s continue that work together.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ohr HaTorah

This week’s Torah portion, Noah, has a verse that has become a foundation for the spiritual and mystical approach to prayer. In Genesis 6:16, we find God saying to Noah, “Make a tzohar (light) for the teivah(ark).” The Hebrew word “tzohar” has two basic interpretations in the Talmud: “radiant gemstone” and “skylight”, but they both mean “a source of light.”

Jewish commentators have creatively mistranslated the word “teivah” in Genesis 6:16, that refers to Noah’s “teivah” (ark), as “word”, so that we can read this verse “put a light in the ark” as “make a light for the word.”

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that when one places the radiant light of consciousness into a word of the prayer book (or any sacred text, for that matter) one perceives “worlds, souls and divinity.”  The letters, the pronunciation of a word of the prayer book or the Bible, are a vessel that holds an inner depth.

I think that one must first have some experience in a contemplative practice so that one can reach deep within. We have to be able to create that skylight of consciousness to illuminate the hidden chambers of holy words.

And we must take the time to enter into the holy books like a spelunker. It is dark in there, and the journey inward is tough, and maybe boring, but then you detect that the atmosphere has changed. You find yourself in this cavern, thick with souls, words and divinity.

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick, Mishkon Tephilo

Most people forget it’s there, but at the end of Parshat Noach is the story of the Tower of Babel.  The Torah states that for many generations after the flood, the people of the world were unified in both language and matters – namely, building a tower to challenge the heavens.  God – worried there’d be no end to human achievement if this trajectory continued uninterrupted – decides to confuse the people, “so that no one would understand the language of their fellow” and thus cease being so productive.

However, the Hebrew word for “language” is “Safah”, which can relate to a culture’s unique language or the collection of words a person speaks. And the word for “understand” here is “Shama”, which is more often translated as “listen.”  With this in mind, one could translate this line so that it reads “no one would listen to the words of their fellow.”  In other words, God knew the best way to keep us from achieving greatness would be by having us not listen to one another.

We often get so caught up in our own narratives that we fail to listen to the narratives of others.  As Jews, our tradition teaches us that no one should go to bed hungry, sleep without a roof over their head, or suffer without medical care.  However, as humans, we may differ in how we prefer to achieve these goals. Imagine how much more we could achieve if we saw the Tower of Babel not as a punishment, but as an invitation:  if we actively listen to one another, nothing can stop us from achieving whatever we desire.

Helena Lipstadt (Guestspeaker), Beth Chayim Chadashim

A rainbow always comes as a surprise. Usually after rain and when the sun comes out. What do you say when you see a rainbow? “Wow,” “it’s unexpected,” “magical,” “beautiful.”

Ten days ago I was in Poland. It rained nearly the whole time I was there. My friends and I were walking around in the drizzle and suddenly we turned around and saw a rainbow in the sky behind us. Wow! The rainbow made us feel happy and hopeful.

This was my sixth trip to Poland in six years. It is the place my family comes from. In the middle of the 20th century, Poland was the site of an enormous flood of anti-Semitism. The Polish Jewish community was almost completely destroyed in this flood, including my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. There was no ark to hold this community.

I never expected to find rainbows in Poland but I did. The rainbow – an ineffable combination of fire and water – is shocking in its possibilities. It is once again a sign of change, of hope, of beauty. A surprise, when it appears. Everything depends on our being able to see it. See it and remember our time of floating together above the flood in one, life-saving ark.

Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple

I’m going to talk about Harvey Weinstein.

We read this morning the story of Noah, which by the way, if you read the verse carefully, is in part about sexual immorality. But we don’t know the name of Noah’s wife. It isn’t until Abraham comes along that [Sarah], the female partner is named. Just as the female partner is named in the original intention of creation with Adam and Eve and then somehow falls out of the picture. And that is a lesson, both in how easy it is to erase and how important it is to restore. About how often through history women didn’t have names and voices and position and power, and what that can mean.

When you sexually violate someone, you are taking part of the core constituent of their identity, part of their soul and saying it’s yours and not theirs. Remember the biblical word for sex is yada – to know – to know someone. So what are you saying when you violate them? “I know you. And you’re worthless.”

When you have monsters of ego and desire, it is our responsibility as Jews, as human beings, not to just laugh over stories like this or have a prurient interest or to read about them because after all it’s interesting, but to be outraged and to speak up and to say how wrong it is.

It is a long way from Noah’s wife to Sarah. We are the children of Sarah. It is our job to teach that to the world.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR

It strikes me this year is maybe what’s happening is that the story of the tower of Babel is coming to drive home the lesson of Noah, that there’s power in community but the real danger comes from uniformity. It comes from when we’re all so busy working for some greater goal that we’re silent when we see things happening along the way that are cruel, that are indecent, that are simply wrong.

The world sometimes finds itself upside down. Sometimes what’s normative is what’s wrong. And what’s right is to stand up and to speak out against whatever that pervasive culture is. Whether that culture is in the White House or whether that culture is in the studio offices.

This is incredibly hard to do because these challenges sometimes lose us friends, and they sometimes lose us our jobs. They sometimes lose us opportunities and deals. But resistance is built into the Jewish ethical and moral and religious system.

We’ve seen over the last few weeks exactly what’s at stake when everybody knows what’s happening but few, too few, are willing to speak about it. We’ve seen the dangers of silent complicity. The Torah of Noah is that it’s not enough to just stay decent and to not join in to the evil.

It’s not enough to just be good in times like these. We also have to find the courage to defy God, to defy colleagues, to defy authorities, to defy anyone who’s willing to contribute to the normative practices that are so toxic in our current climate.

#MeToo: No More To Violence and Degradation

Rabbi Yoshi ZweibackRabbi Yoshi Zweiback granted me permission to share his moving and meaningful #MeToo sermon from Friday, October 20, 2017 at Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, California:

“This is the line of Noah: Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.”

It was good that Noah walked with God. It was good that he was blameless in his age. It was good that he was a righteous man.

Because no one else was.

According to our tradition, Noah was the only righteous man of his generation. Everyone else was pretty much disgusting.

Our Torah portion this week tells us in fact that the whole world had become corrupt.

The great medieval commentator, Rashi, tells us that the Hebrew word “וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת” refers to a particular type of corruption – ערווה, usually translated as “liscentiousness” – sexual depravity.

WATCH: Soulful Shabbat Service Oct 20 2017 with Rabbi Yoshi’s sermon

Rashi notes that according to the midrash, ערווה so offends God that it leads ultimately to indiscriminate punishment, the “end of all flesh,” a punishment that is meted out on good people and bad people alike. It, in the words of the midrash, is something that הוֹרֶגֶת טוֹבִים וְרָעִים – it kills both the righteous and the wicked.

What a parasha for this week.

Like many of you I’m sure, I’ve been reading one #metoo story after another on facebook.

Friends, classmates, colleagues sharing horrifying stories of aggression, discrimination, degradation, humiliation, and violence.

Details of Harvey Weinstein’s behavior and the degree to which so many were complicit in it continue to emerge. There is a corruption, a type of ערווה in this town, in the entertainment industry, and – more broadly – in our world, that is gross, disgusting, nauseating.

How should we respond? What should we do? How can we make things better?

Although I had a mother and I have a sister, a spouse and three daughters, it is very difficult for me to relate personally to so many of the stories I read.

I’ve found it helpful, though, to simply try to listen to the experiences of others.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Margaret Renkl shared a moving piece about her own experiences. A few years back, she found herself sitting around her kitchen table with her sons. The subject of travel came up and her boys asked her why she hadn’t backpacked around Europe like their father had.

Here’s what she shared with them:

“It’s dangerous for a woman to camp alone,” I finally said at the table that night. “There are women who do it, but I’m not that brave.”
My children grew up with stories of their father’s adventures. They did not grow up with stories of mine. I didn’t tell them the story of the 16-year-old family “friend” who babysat while his parents and mine went out to dinner the year I was 11, how he followed me around the apartment, tugging on my blouse and telling me I should take it off, pulling at the elastic waistband of my pants and telling me I should take them off, how I finally locked myself in my bedroom and didn’t come out till my parents got home.

I didn’t tell my children the story of walking with my friend to the town hardware store when we were 14. I didn’t tell them that my friend used her babysitting money to buy a screwdriver and a deadbolt lock to keep her older brother out of her room at night.

I didn’t tell my children the story of my first job, the job I started the week I turned 16, and how the manager kept making excuses to go back to the storeroom whenever I was at the fry station, how he would squeeze his corpulent frame between the counter and me, dragging his sweaty crotch across my rear end on each trip…

There is nothing unusual about these stories. They are the ho-hum, everyday experiences of virtually every woman I know, and such stories rarely get told. There will never be a powerful social-media movement that begins, ‘Today I ate breakfast’ or ‘Today my dog pooped and I cleaned it up’ or ‘Today I washed my hair with the same shampoo I’ve been buying since 2006.’ We tell the stories that are remarkable in some way, stories that are surprising, utterly unexpected. The quotidian doesn’t make for a good tale.

And maybe that’s why the avalanche of stories on Twitter and Facebook this week has been so powerful. It started on Oct. 5, when The New York Times first broke the story of accusations of sexual harassment against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, but it became a juggernaut 10 days later, when the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Within minutes the hashtag #MeToo was all over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — over 500,000 times on Twitter and 12 million times on Facebook in the first 24 hours alone — and the deluge shows no sign of slowing. The numbers keep ticking up as women tell the stories of men who used their power to overwhelm or coerce them.” (“The Raw Power of #metoo “-NY Times, Oct 19, 2017)

There is a terrible corruption in this world.

In this week’s Torah portion, God gets so fed up with humanity that She decides to start over, to destroy Her creation and begin again.
Our parasha tells us that Noah was indeed righteous.

But he is criticized by the rabbis who contrast Noah’s behavior with the behavior of Abraham. When Noah is told that God wishes to destroy the world, he says nothing. He builds the ark and saves his own family but he does nothing to address the core issue, the fundamental problem, the corruption that so angered God.

And maybe that’s one of the lessons for us. It’s not enough to be upright in your own behavior. Of course each of us at work and in our interactions with others wherever we are should behave according to the highest standards of our tradition and be particularly careful not to degrade, humiliate or harass – ever. But our tradition requires us to go farther: we have to actively work to build communities where the norms and standards of upright behavior in this regard are widely embraced so that we can build a world where 14 year old young women don’t need to put deadbolts on their bedroom doors.

On a closed facebook page for Reform rabbis, I read many stories of female colleagues across the country who have felt uncomfortable in their own shuls because congregants or co-workers had made comments about their dress and their appearance. They shared stories of being hugged or kissed at the oneg when they didn’t feel comfortable with that type of touch.

We can and we must do better. And we have to help each other as a community to do better.

If you didn’t hear Rabbi Knobel’s powerful and moving High Holy Day sermon about gender violence, you can find the video of it on our website ( And if you heard it, watch again and think about it in the light of what we’ve seen over the past two weeks.

And I invite you, if you feel comfortable doing so, to share any of your experiences and any suggestions you have about how we can make this sacred space more comfortable for you and about how we can work together to change things in our City of Angels where so many of those awful, awful stories we’ve been reading took place. And then we must change things more broadly so that the violence and degradation, the terrible corruption that led God to want to destroy the whole wide world will become a distant memory so that no woman or man will ever again have to say “#metoo.”

Thank you to Rabbi Yoshi and Stephen Wise Temple for all you do: 

“We make meaning and change the world.”

אנחנו יוצרים משמעות ומשנים את העולם.

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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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….


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.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ Yom Kippur sermon: That Time I had it Out with God

Or “Where are You, God? Where are You?”

Six weeks ago, Congregation Or Ami partner, 49-year-old Jennifer Richmond, celebrated the successful completion of a yearlong course of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Four weeks ago, she finished her parent speech for her daughter’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah, which included the sentiment: “I’m here, let’s celebrate my child.”

Three weeks ago, with growing pain, Jennifer was back in the hospital

The evening of the Bat Mitzvah, her husband rolled Jen into services in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank by her side, and they watched as their daughter became a Bat Mitzvah.

On Sunday Jen went into the hospital.

On Tuesday she died.

We buried her just before Rosh Hashana.

And then I had it out with God.

Esa einai el heharim mei-ayin yavo ezri? Ezri mei-im Adonai, oseh shamayim va’aretz. (I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will come my help? My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of heaven and earth – Psalms 121:1-2).

So God, I needed your help. Where were you?

I flew up to the mountains last month, in a 10-seater plane, to find you. My wife Michelle and I soared around the beautiful Alaskan glaciers up near Denali, the highest peak in America. We came to walk amongst your unsullied creation. Landing on the pristine white snow, breathing in the clean fresh air, Michelle and I shared a moment of holiness with You. As the prophet Isaiah exclaimed, M’lo chol haaretz k’vodo (The whole earth is filled with Your majestic glory – Isaiah 6:3). Up there, on the mountain, we witnessed Your wonder. But down here, in the midst of it all…

Dear God, I need Your strength. Where are you, God? Where are you?

Back at home, I went to the ocean. I seem to experience You most powerfully there. Let me hear Your waves crash on the seashore, let me look out at the sea’s vast expanse, watching a ripple propel itself along until it becomes a wave gaining power, and I am in awe. In the Midrash, that rabbinical teaching, the primordial Adam in the earliest days of Creation, stood transfixed on the seashore, gazing out over its vastness and beauty (Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 3).

At the ocean, I too understand Your greatness. And when You take out Your divine paintbrush and just at the right moment, as the sun kisses the horizon, You paint in pinks, purples, and yellows, and oh that orange, my heart bursts open and like the Psalmist, I sing songs of praise to You: Mah gadlu ma’asecha Adonai (How great are your works, O God – Psalms 92:5). You, the One they call Borei Yom Valaila (Creator of day and night) – You are awe-inspiring!

And then I have to leave. And that’s when it begins to get difficult. And then things… like this… happen. And it all stops making sense. YOU stop making sense. And when I need comfort most, I can’t find You. And I wonder, where are You, God? Where are You?

When hurricanes hit

Dear God, why can’t You keep hurricanes from destroying homes and uprooting lives? Although I reject the foolish who falsely claim that You were punishing the gays and the abortionists, still I was shamed by Your silence, Your absence. Where were You, God? We needed You.

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 You.

David proudly showed us Your Torah in their beautiful ark. There in Cuba, where very, very few can read Hebrew, Torah called out to us: Tik’r’i, read me. Darsheini, interpret me. So we did. I placed the Torah scroll in the arms of 75-year-old Jay Hakakha, a mission participant. Jay’s still small voice had regaled me throughout the trip with almost miraculous stories of his fleeing Iran before it fell.

Then, while unrolling this rarely used Torah, You God and I, we talked. I prayed, “Please, lead me to the perfect passage.” And miracle of miracles, You answered my prayers, as the Holy scroll opened right there, to the most famous of sections, to the intersection of Genesis and Exodus. It was as if You were reminding us that after the incomparable splendor of creation, our people still experienced the typical but painful ups and downs of life: when people make good choices and bad, when they sin and repent, live and die.

We read at the end of Genesis about how in the face of the famine in Your Holy Land of Israel, Jacob and his children were directed down to Egypt, where Jacob’s son Joseph was already second in command. You saved us from the famine, for which we were grateful, only for us to fall, years later, into the maniacal arms of Pharaoh, a new king who knew not Joseph.

For four hundred years we toiled in Egypt. Beaten down, enslaved, left as trash on the roadside of life. But then You sent Moses, Miriam and Aaron, who did the “go down Moses, way down to Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.” You sent signs and wonders, ten plagues that would blot out the sun, and turn the Nile to blood. You faced down the megalomaniac sitting on the human throne, who acted as if he were a god, forcing him to open up the borders and let us go in or out as we wished. And so we did. And when our path was blocked by mighty Yam Suf (the Red Sea), You told Moses to lift up his arms, which he did, and You promised to split the seas, which You did. And our people walked forward upon dry land. Hallelujah!

Make those plagues stop coming

But God, those plagues keep coming. Please make them stop. The cancer cells keep splitting and multiplying. This time they took a beautifully soulful, intelligent businesswoman, mother, wife, daughter – 49-year-old Jennifer –who died just days after her only child celebrated her Bat Mitzvah, before they even had a chance to reminisce. The plague of darkness keeps blotting out any glimpse of a cure for these diseases. Too many dear ones, like David and Jerry and others, died this past year, and too many wonderful people keep suffering.

God, at that Bat Mitzvah, I held my head up high, as I held your Torah up high, and I carried Your people forward. I am lifting up my arms, but the seas, they aren’t splitting. Where is the dry land for us to walk through?

Where are You, God? Where are You? Sometimes You seem so far away.

Then I heard You

And then, when I was exhausted from running to bedsides and from helping a new widower figure out how to get through, when my rage had run its course, when my soul was scorched with sadness and my voice hoarse from yelling at You, when I thought I had no more tears to shed, then, in the quiet of my home, in the depths of my broken heart, I heard You, whispering ever so quietly that I almost missed it.

I heard Your kol d’mama daka, that still small voice inside, repeating one of my favorite verses in all of Torah, Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, behold, [I God] am in this place (based on Genesis 28:10), and in this moment too. I am here, if you let me in (Menachem Mendel of Kotzk).

So I wiped my tears, and held in check my fear, filled my lungs with deep breaths, and, like a young child to his father who seemed so far away, I asked, “Where were you God? I felt so alone. While the hurricanes hit and we were collecting donations to buy food for the Houston day camp… while centuries old Caribbean synagogues were near destruction… while that mother had to experience her daughter’s bat mitzvah in a wheelchair with an oxygen tube in her nose… I couldn’t find you. Where were You?

God finally speaks

And then suddenly, You enveloped me, like a tallit wrapped around my heaving shoulders. You held me close, and again let me cry. And ever so quietly, compassionately, You said:

“Remember when you woke up that day at 4 am, after that long night of consoling others, how exhausted you were and yet you kept going until 10 at night? Did you ever wonder where you found the stamina to go on?

“When in the depths of your sadness you guided her husband to decide whether or not to issue a Do Not Resuscitate order in the hospital, when you encouraged their daughter to climb into the hospital bed so her mom could wrap her in a hug… Did you ever wonder where you found that strength and courage?

“My child,” God said to me, “back in the beginning, on that sixth day of creation, when I said, ‘Come, let us make humanity in our own image’ (Genesis 1:26), I knew that like a parent giving a 16-year-old the keys to the new car, I was giving you control of my new world. As parents, we can teach and guide, critique and caution, but once we give the keys to our kids, we control less than we would like, way less than I would like. Granting you humans free will came with the requirement that I pull back. You now have the ability to assert your will over Mine.

“But God,” I asked, with renewing confidence and a little bit of chutzpah: “You are ha’eil hagadol hagibor v’hanorah (the great, powerful, awesome One – Deuternomy 10:17). You created the majesty of the mountains, the beauty of the ocean, and the intricacies inside the human body. Why didn’t You do it differently? Give us free will but ensure that life would turn out well? Like when I had that backgammon app on my smartphone, and I could play on the hardest level, but I was always winning 96% of the games. Couldn’t you make life like that?

Just then God laughed. And then I remembered, how when I was losing a backgammon game, I would just hit “start over” and the game would reset, but my winning stats remained.

“Is that what you want,” God asked, “a cheat to game the system? A hack to hone your play in the game of life?

Why do you insist on blaming Me?

“You don’t like the hurricanes? Follow the science and see how your actions are destroying my world, leading to mega-events that flood your cities.

“You don’t like the floods? Follow my Torah and legislate in ways that preserve the land so that the marshes and grasses can still absorb the overflow and channel it out to the sea.

“You don’t like the earthquakes? You home-owning Californians each must sign a piece of paper when you purchase a new home, testifying that you know it sits on or near an earthquake fault. If you chose to live there still, is it My fault? If you don’t spend the money to retrofit your buildings, or don’t allocate the funds to fix the levies and drainage systems when everyone knows they are grossly in disrepair, and then hurricanes devastate, why do you insist on still blaming Me?

“It’s all there,” God said. “I left you instructions. In the Torah, you learn about how to care for others fairly. And in your minds, you have the wisdom to figure out how to cure everything, from cancer to the common cold. I even gave you chicken soup to carry you along while you put the other pieces in place. But you have to make a choice: to choose people over profits, prayer over personal acquisition, thoughtful planning over expansive growth.

“You humans have unmatched ability at genius. You can sit a soldier down in a room in the Midwest, and using a joystick and flatscreen, he or she can guide a missile on the other side of the world, dropping it on its target, one foot in diameter, with the precision of a brain surgeon. Why won’t you use that same genius, giving your scientists unlimited research dollars to finally cure cancer, ameliorate the ravages of Alzheimer’s, and destroy the darkness of depression? I implanted that wisdom in your minds. So it’s not up to Me. You just need to focus on building up medicine and scientific research. And for God’s sake – for My sake – fix your fakakta health care system so that everyone is cared for, so that prevention is primary, and diseases are eradicated, and then you will see the costs will go down. I, God, can’t be rofei hacholim, Healer of the Sick, if you keep interfering with the delivery systems I try to inspire within you.

I am with you

“So while Jennifer sat in the wheelchair, with her husband right by her side, who do you think that empty seat right next to him was for? Elijah? That was for me,” God whispered. “I was there – I’m everywhere. With you. With them. With that amazing bat mitzvah girl. Giving Jen the ability to endure the pain and make it through the Bat Mitzvah. Her husband the capacity to find joy in the moment. I was with those congregants who found strength to hold up my Torah for so long over the Jennifer’s lap so that from her wheelchair she could watch up close as her daughter chanted and became a woman. I was with the people who arranged the shiva meal so the family didn’t need to. Whose idea do you think it was to invite everyone to email stories so that the village could make a book of memories of Jen to bequeath to her daughter? Yours? Really?

“I know you feel lost and alone. And it saddens Me. And I know you wish I was the kind of god who gave you free will but still make the stats look amazing. I sometimes wish I could too. But I’m here. I’m always here.

“So when you want to feel My presence, sit up and be compassionate.

“When you want to feel my love, speak up, against your own comfort and privilege, and create equal justice for all.

Rise up, against your own inertia, and change your life, by inviting Me to be part of it.

“Then the world may be a little calmer. And your lives will be a little holier. And perhaps the significance of these Holy Days of repentance will change because you will have less to apologize for.

“And then you will realize, you will really know – you will even feel it deep inside you – that I love you b’chol l’vavi uv’chol nafshi uv’chol me’odi (with all My heart, My Soul of souls and with all of Existence.

“And I am here, with you. Now. And always.”


This was originally posted on Paul Kipnes’ site.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy’s Yom Kippur sermon: I’m Still Here

Mazel Tov! If you are sitting here in a seat this morning, it means that made it, and YOU ARE STILL HERE! No one can take that for granted, as I am sure that Dr. Ruth, Steve Kivo, and many others in this room who have battled with life threatening illness can tell you. Many of us come into this room mourning loved ones who have passed away this year, and we know that getting here requires not only determination and attention but a certain amount of good luck. Thank God-, as we should, every day.

As you may have noticed, I’m also still here. Last year’s Yom Kippur sermon was to be my final sermon, but…Heneni- Here I am. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I asked the question “Why am I still here?” and I could not fully answer except to say “I think the answer will be revealed during these ten High Holy Days.” It has. I am here because I could not face this High Holiday season without you.

And why are you still here with me? I was completely prepared to hand over these High Holidays to a successor. “Lo Alecha l’gmor, you do not have to complete the task, but neither may you desist from beginning it” was the theme of last year’s Yom Kippur farewell. A search committee went into gear, and I finalized arrangements for my house in Santa Fe. I even had a fantasy of spending the High Holidays as a rabbi on a cruise ship somewhere, perhaps the Caribbean. But as the world whipped itself into frenzy over the last months, I realized that one more time; we needed to ride out the eye of the storm together.

Even at the Gala in late May, I still had hopes for a lightening strike hire of a new rabbi. But the winds of change were already buffeting this community. A week before, our beloved Cantor had lost all of his belongings in a house fire caused by a careless neighbor. He was devastated. It did not seem to be an appropriate time for Cantor Marcelo to forge a relationship with a new rabbi right before the High Holidays. After all, as he often points out, after seventeen years, our relationship is his longest relationship.

Neither was it the best time for me to be visiting Israel as usual.

Every summer, I attend the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem during the first two weeks in July. I did not register, as I planned to be moving to Santa Fe. By early July, the city of Jerusalem was on High Alert. An Israeli policeman had been stabbed in the Old City, and the response was to alter the rules and put metal detectors at the entrances for Arabs onto the Temple Mount. This is not the simple security precaution that it appears to be, but a question of “Who’s in charge here?” challenging a long-standing arrangement with the Jordanians. Tempers over the Temple Mount reached a flashpoint, and the Middle East once again stood on the brink of war. To add to the tension, most of the one hundred and seventy five rabbis attending Hartman were furious because Netanyahu’s government, bowing to ultra-Orthodox pressure, had just cancelled a compromise allowing egalitarian worship at the Southern end of the Western Wall.  This did not seem to be a formula for a relaxing vacation.

By mid July, I realized just how much I needed one more summer of Shabbat on the Beach.

Each Shabbat was spectacular, as the skies changed from tear drop sunsets to a womblike cloud, to a sparkling canopy of stars. Thanks to global warming, we never even used our parkas. I felt your warmth and support as we huddled in a circle, with blessings for healing and infinite versions of Ose Shalom. I do not know if I would be ready to leave now if we had not exchanged so much love and blessing this past summer.

By the time we reached Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, it felt as if the entire world was in total chaos. Tensions with the North Koreans grew as one nuclear missile test followed another in rapid succession. Bigotry and hatred were rampant in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. A week later, much of the American West was on fire, and you know how nervous fire makes us here in Malibu. And then, Hurricane Harvey, a “once in a hundred year” storm, struck Houston, followed a week later by Irma, another monster hurricane that barreled up the Florida peninsula. In the same week, an 8.1 earthquake toppled Oaxaca, and the temblor was felt throughout Mexico. Fires raged close to home in Pasadena. Maria struck Puerto Rico.

And then, I understood why I am still here.

I AM HERE TO SAY ONE LAST “UNETANEH TOKEF” PRAYER TOGETHER WITH YOU. I am here in answer to the question: How can Judaism help in times of trouble? I am here to remind us that we are not the first nor the last people to face crisis, and that the truths revealed in this prayer, written 1000 years ago, continue to guide us.

Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom… Now we declare the sacred power of this day…

Hayom-Today is the day that we stand, together, and acknowledge, as a community, that we are not in control. In this era of flexible, fungible truth, one Truth stands firmly beyond all doubt. Eventually, no matter what, we will face death.

All of humanity is founded on dust, of dust they are made, and to dust they return;

It is not a question of “if”, but “when”. At the end of the day, our lives are not in our own hands. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer reminds us that death is always over our shoulder, and we are ultimately not in control.

On Rosh Hashanah all is written and revealed

And on Yom Kippur the course of every life is sealed.

-How many pass on, how many shall thrive,

who shall live on, and who shall die,

whose death is timely and whose is not.



And there was, right in front of our eyes on National TV.

“But why, Rabbi,”  “Why does one house stand unscathed and the next house is flooded to the rooftops? Why does one person suffer absolute loss and despair while I am safe in my bed in Malibu? Why?

There is a paradox embedded into the liturgy of Yom Kippur. On one hand, it is our deeds that determine our fate.

True it is that you are our judge;

You alone can reprove, you alone can know,

You alone are witness to all deeds… 



The shofar of Rosh Hashanah rouses us to examine our actions. These ten days give us the opportunity to return, correct and make amends, so that we will be judged favorably “by justice’s eyes”. We are to be judged on our merits, and strive to improve.

But there is also a random, chance factor at work. The biblical Yom Kippur ritual, which we read this morning, speaks of two goats, one which carries the sins of the whole community into the wilderness, and one (the lucky goat) who gets to be slaughtered as the Yom Kippur sacrifice. Which goat is which? Literally, it is luck of the draw. Why does one house burn and one does not? Sometimes, it’s random, just plain luck. The rabbis loved the pun of Yom Kippur- and Yom Ki-like-Purim. Purim is the plural for the word PUR, meaning  “lots” or dice, and it was by a roll of the dice that the day of Adar 14 was chosen as the day to annihilate all the Jews. Our Purim victory is celebrated with feasting and parties, “we won, lets eat” with no mention of God.  Yom Kippur is day a day of abstinence and fasting that acknowledges God’s sovereignty and dominion over all. They are two sides to the same coin, and we stand at this moment of Yom Kippur to remember that ultimately the short straw will be ours.

How can we live with this fatalistic premise?

TTTTTTTTT!!!!(Sound shofar) The sound of the shofar, calling us to action, holds the key.

But teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah

Make easier what God may decree,

Make easier what life holds in store,

Make easier facing the world,

Make easier facing ourselves. 

Oh, we already knew that. Rabbi, You repeat that every year, we just heard this on Rosh Hashanah! But I am here, THIS year, one more time, to share these tools with you as never before.


The essence of the Unetaneh Tokef  prayer provides  our  Emergency Preparedness Kit. When disaster strikes, which we know it will, we ask ”How can tshuvah, tefilah and tzeddakah help me in this situation?” This is not a magic formula.  No words or actions can wipe out the cruel decree of loss and death, but our actions can make “easier what life has in store”. Let’s open the kit one more time, with the images of the past few months before our eyes.  Get ready, as “This is real, and we had better be prepared”


The screen on the dashboard in my new car has an arrow that curves and turns around, pointing the other way. That’s our sign for tshuvah, as we literally turn and make the necessary changes. These weeks of category four and five hurricanes hurtling across the Atlantic have put “an inconvenient truth” before our very eyes. Climate change, no matter how much we deny it, is real, and its normal effects are exacerbated by human actions. Of course, we can find the odd study that disagrees, but the force of these hurricanes feeding over rapidly warming waters is strong evidence that human change is needed. We cannot cancel the decree, hurricanes will happen- but we can ameliorate the situation through our actions. We need to turn, and change, before all of our coastal cities are underwater.

Tshuvah means that we must be able admit our mistakes. If we cannot, and “double down”, the situation will be exacerbated until change is no longer possible. Ego is the enemy of tshuvah. as we do not want to be seen in a bad light. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we traditionally read the story of the prophet Jonah, who turned away from God’s instruction to go to Nineveh to offer the sinning citizens a chance of repentance. Jonah had already prophesied their destruction, and did not want to look bad if they repented. When the reluctant prophet Jonah finally delivers God’s message under duress, the King of Nineveh, Israel’s enemy, immediately asks for forgiveness, and changes his ways. But even a sojourn in the belly of the whale does not cure Jonah’s ego as he sulks in a hut outside of the city.  Eventually God loses patience, and the self centered Jonah ends up alone, living under a dead vine.

Tshuvah means not only to repent, and to turn, but also to forgive. I do not know what my “legacy” is, but if I have to choose one line that I have contributed, it is this:

“God made families so we can do tshuvah.”

Everyone, in every family has an issue with someone- a parent, a sibling, a cousin, a branch if the family that we no longer speak with, though we are not quite sure why. Why can’t everyone be just like me? Tshuvah allows me to turn and ask, “What is my part in this situation? When do I need to say, “I’m sorry”, and when do I need to forgive? Families provide us with an opportunity to practice our tshuvah skills at all times. When we forgive, we free not only the offending party, but ourselves. I love this poem by Marge Piercy:

We forgive those we firmly love
because anger hurts…

We forgive because we too have done the same to others…
or because anger is a fire that must be fed
and we are too tired to rise and haul a log

How long are you going to haul that log of resentment around with you? It probably has no place in this year’s paradigm. Tshuvah, the ability to turn, change and forgive, makes the world go round.

T’filah- Prayer

Nestled into the toolkit is a small prayer book. Some prayers are written on paper. Others are written on our hearts.

When a fire or a hurricane strikes, we do not enter into a complicated philosophical dialogue about God and the efficacy of prayer. We pray, we beseech, we give thanks for our very lives. “Please God, send help soon, this water is rising so fast.” “ Please make sure that my mother in Florida, who I can not reach by phone, is protected.”  And then “ Thank you, God,.. Our home is gone, but we are grateful to be alive, and in this shelter…”

The Gospel choir that went from shelter to shelter in Houston, giving people a chance to praise God for their lives, even though their belongings were in tatters, particularly moved me. Song will get us through.

And then, there is liturgy; prayer written long before us that reminds us that we are not the only ones to suffer a storm. “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me”…Modah Ani l’fanecha- I give thanks before you. These words are engraved upon our hearts. In a moment of crisis, they are your protection and salvation.

Tzedakah- Charity and Justice

This tool holds the ultimate key. In a moment that seems difficult beyond belief, “secure your own mask first” but then, reach out and help someone else. Slamming into Texas just a few weeks after the racist debacle of Charlottesville, Hurricane Harvey gave us the opportunity to see the true character of America. Neighbor helped neighbor, and no one in rescue boats asked for immigration papers or established priorities based on the color of one’s skin. It rained on rich and poor alike, as huge houses flooded and hovels were destroyed. Volunteer rescue squads, from the “Cajun Navy” to fleets of private planes from all over the country, made every effort to see that no one was left behind. The veneer of separation was stripped away, and we were reminded, once again, that we are “all in the same boat”. Can we remember once the rain stops falling?

Crisis and disaster are not new to the Jewish people. The seeds of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer were planted after the destruction of the Temple, and legend has it that the prayer became High Holiday liturgy around the year 1000CE in response to the persecution of the Jews in Medieval Europe. Each generation has passed it forward, in response to the exigencies of the times. It has been an honor to serve as your Rabbi for these past twenty-one High Holidays, and I can only hope that the seeds planted here will be passed on to our children’s children’s children.

There is a famous story of Honi HaMagal, a Jewish sage of the First Century:

One day Honi the circle-drawer was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi asked: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.”

Usually, this is where the telling of the story ends. There is, however, another chapter that seems so relevant to this last Yom Kippur sermon.

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him, and he slept for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and Honi asked him, “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied: “I am his grand-son.” Thereupon Honi exclaimed: “It is clear that I have slept for seventy years.” Shaking himself awake, he then mounted the great grandchild of his donkey, and returned to his village. There he inquired, “Is the son of Honi still alive?” The people answered him, “His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.” Thereupon he said to them: “I am Honi the Circle-Drawer,” but no one would believe him. He then repaired to the beit ha-midrash [study hall] and there he overheard the scholars say, “The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer”. Whereupon he called out, “It’s me, Honi I am he!” But the scholars would not believe him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed for mercy, and he died.

No, with God’s grace I am not dying, just retiring, and I hope that when I return to visit, you will still recognize me. But the time has come to let the seeds that I have planted be harvested by the next generations, just as I have brought the fruits of my teachers, who came before me, home to you.

I would like to end this, my last sermon, with homage to Leonard Cohen, a great Jewish poet who died this past year. May his words guide our farewell:

I’m not looking for another as I wander in my time
Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me
It’s just the way it changes like the shoreline and the sea
But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie

Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye

May we all be sealed for another year in the Book of Life.

Poem: A Prayer for the Victims

A candlelight vigil is pictured on the Las Vegas strip following a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 2, 2017. Picture taken October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Our hearts are breaking, God,
As our nation buries innocent souls.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving family members

In this time of shock and mourning.

Send healing to the injured

And strength and wisdom to their doctors and nurses.
Shield them from despair.
Ease their pain, God,
Let their fears give way to hope.

Bless us, God,
Work through us.
Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy
With a renewed determination to end gun violence

And a renewed faith in the goodness of our society.
Shield us from indifference
And from our tendency to forget.
Open our hearts, open our hands.
Innocent blood is calling out to us to act.
Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed
With all our hearts and souls.
Teach us perseverance and dedication.
Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair.

God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.

RABBI NAOMI LEVY is the spiritual leader of Nashuva in Los Angeles. Her most recent book is “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul” (Flatiron Books).

Two Jews, Three Opinions by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

Varied community/congregation at the Western wall

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 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).




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).


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.


You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at 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, or phone at 410-733-3700.


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, or


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, or email



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 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 (



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

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

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


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.



If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email 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.


Video: Do You Think Science and Religion Can Coexist?

SoulPancake, a popular YouTube channel, recently asked me to participate in a discussion with other faith leaders about the environment. That was something I could not pass up.

The interviewer is Zach Anner, a self-proclaimed “climate change idiot” who is on a mission to, “find out what the hell climate change is and what people across America are doing (or not doing) about it!”

In this Earth Your While adventure, Zach talks with a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Reverend about their religion’s perspective on caring for the environment.

Transgender Jewish Educator Shares Her Rebirth in Torah

Yiscah Smith Photo courtesy of Yiscah Smith.

Chana Rosenson first saw Yiscah Smith from across the room at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where Smith was teaching and Rosenson was spending a year visiting as a rabbinical student.

Something about Smith struck Rosenson. She turned to a friend and said, “I don’t know who she is, but whatever she’s got I need to get for my soul.”

Smith soon became Rosenson’s teacher and mentor, and on a recent late-June evening she sat in Rosenson’s living room in Calabasas to lead a class on Chasidic wisdom and Jewish text. There was no institutional sponsor or promotional message for the event. Instead, Rosenson explained to her guests, “I just wanted to share her with as many people as I possibly could.”

Just over 25 years ago, when Yiscah Smith was still Jeffrey “Yaakov” Smith, with a long beard and six children, she left a life as a Chabad educator in Jerusalem. After 10 years living a secular life in the United States, Smith returned to religious life as an observant transgender woman and a nondenominational Jewish educator.

At the recent gathering at Rosenson’s home, Smith sat in front of a semicircle of about a dozen people from various L.A.-area neighborhoods and congregations, wearing an ankle-length blue dress that matched her eyes, her dark hair falling to her shoulders. For two hours, she wove together Torah passages, Chasidic teachings and her own personal journey in a lesson that was part Torah study and part self-help seminar.

“Authenticity is a process,” she said. “Trust the process — that God does not want you to live anybody else’s life.”

Underscoring her sermon was the idea that making peace with oneself is a prerequisite for fully understanding Jewish wisdom.

“God, Torah and the truth are aligned only when one is honest with oneself,” she said.

Smith came by that lesson the hard way. In an interview shortly before her lecture, she spoke with the Journal about her personal journey.

Jeffrey Smith grew up in a nonobservant Jewish household in New York. After visiting Israel for the first time as a college student in 1971, Smith became inexorably attracted to Jewish spirituality.

“I began to encounter my soul, and I really, passionately wanted to inquire more and practice more,” she told the Journal.

But she had known from early childhood that she identified more as a female than as a male. Delving deeper into traditional Judaism, she faced a spiritual paradox, trapped between her gender identity and her religious one.

“The more I started to access that place of inner truth, the more I felt like a fraud,” she said.

Back in the United States and studying toward a master’s degree in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, Smith soon discovered the Chabad Lubavitch movement and became a regular at its headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Smith recoiled from the movement’s strict gender roles but was attracted to the community it provided.

“The day I put on a black fedora and long black coat, the day I stopped shaving my facial hair to grow out a beard was one of the saddest days I can remember,” Smith wrote in her 2014 book, “Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living.” “I looked in the mirror and all I could think was, ‘What have I become?’ ”

Still living as a married man, Smith moved to Jerusalem but soon found she no longer could keep up the charade. She built a home “that outwardly looked like the model Orthodox Chasidic family,” regularly hosting dozens for Shabbat dinner. Meanwhile, Smith said she felt increasingly isolated and alienated as a woman living inside a man’s body.

“There was no place for a transgender,” she said. “There was no place for me to go to the rabbis and engage them in the narrative of, Where do I fit in as a woman who senses I’m in someone else’s body? Where does Jewish law identify me? Where do I sit — what side of the mechitzah? Who do I study with? Who do I dance with?”

Smith went through a divorce in 1991m moved to the United States, and spent a decade living a secular life, languishing without community or direction.

“I felt I had the key out of the prison, but I did not yet have the wherewithal to actually put it in the door and let myself out,” she said.

She was working as a barista at a Starbucks in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2001 when her 50th birthday came around and she decided she’d hit her “spiritual rock bottom.”

“That was the day that I decided, ‘I can no longer breathe any more breath into someone else’s body,” she said. “I had no more energy left to live a lie.”

Smith resolved to live as the woman she’d always known she was. One of her first acts after beginning her transition was to light the Shabbat candles, an act traditionally reserved for women. Though Smith’s childhood home had been mostly secular, both her mother and grandmother had lit Shabbat candles.

“I didn’t even have to really think about it — where else do I begin but light the Shabbat lights?” she said.

After that, “it just all came back,” she said. “That’s the road I’ve been on since.”

For the past 16 years, Smith, 66, has made “a daily commitment” to “becoming faithful to my inner core, my inner self, the image of God.”

These days, Smith teaches Chasidic texts at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and lives in Nachlaot, a warren of cobblestone alleys with a large population of American expatriates.

Though she no longer defines as Orthodox, she observes Jewish law as best she can. She hopes to carve out a new understanding in halachah that will account for a transgender woman living a Torah lifestyle. Despite the challenge, she’s confident that hers is a winning battle.

“The halachah has a flexibility to it,” she said. “It’s like a rubber band. It stretches, it contracts, it expands, with time it moves. And I didn’t trust that process because I myself was so insecure. Now, I’m able to say, ‘The rabbis need to address what’s really going on.’ And if it means a different interpretation, if it means an addendum, then that’s what we do. The halachah is strong enough. It has weathered 3,400 years of changes.” 

America’s only nuclear-qualified, Navy veteran, transgender rabbi is not happy with the president’s tweets

Rona Matlow served in the Navy for 22 years before leaving to become what she calls “the only nuclear-qualified, transgender rabbi.” Photos courtesy Rona Matlow

On Wednesday, in our offices near this city’s Dupont Circle, the staff at Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. were opening the mail when a request came in from a veteran asking that we change her first name on our records from Jaron to Rona.

“I just immediately did it without a second thought,” said Lauren Hellendall, a membership team member, said Thursday. “Then I thought about the significance of it because of the president’s announcement yesterday. I found out after doing some research that Rona Matlow was a Life Member of Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., and I thought it would be invaluable to share her story as a dedicated Jewish veteran.”

On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to enlist or serve in the military, surprising both service members and Pentagon leaders.

“I went upstairs to our public relations department, and they just took it from there,” Hellendall said.

Rona served 22 years in the Navy as both enlisted and as an officer in its nuclear power program — in submarines, nuclear cruisers, frigates and a destroyer. She retired with the rank of lieutenant commander when she decided that the Navy had taken too much of a toll on her.

After leaving the Navy, Rona was ordained as a rabbi by the Academy for Jewish Religion and started volunteering as a chaplain for the veteran community. In 2015, she started to address her gender dysphoria and begin her transition.

I asked Rona, who lives in the Greater Seattle area, how she felt about the president’s announcement.

“I was absolutely devastated and furious,” she answered. “Immediately I was very worried about the 15,000 active duty trans personnel that are currently serving in the military. I have talked to service members with 19-plus years of service who would be kicked out of the military without a pension.”

Rona also told me that since the announcement, she has been reaching out to people in the Jewish and transgender community – making sure that their needs are met. She says she is available to anyone in the transgender community who needs support right now.

“It costs well over a million dollars to train a pilot. Kicking these people out is incredibly more costly than keeping them in,” she said. “Even if [the military] paid $30,000 for the surgery, they would have to pay a million dollars training a new pilot. That’s absurd.”

“I was also happy to see that Dunford and Mattis are supporting our service members,” said Rona, referencing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Immediately after the president tweeted about the ban, Dunford said there has been no change in policy “until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance. In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.”

Mattis, who was on vacation and caught off guard by the president’s tweets, reportedly was “appalled” by Trump’s call for a ban.

“These tweets are ill-informed, ill-advised, and they were made without the backing or consultation of the Chiefs of Staff or Congress – such a policy has to be made with both of them,” said Rona.

Rona is right. Tweets are not the way to make policy. We urge the president to sit down with his Joint Chiefs of Staff and defense secretary to develop a policy with the backing of research as well as regard and respect for the individuals who have served our nation with honor.

Until then, Rona will proudly tell anyone that she is “the only nuclear-qualified, transgender rabbi,” and we’re proud to have her.

Anna Selman is the programs and public relations coordinator for Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. and an Army veteran.

Here is the Chief Rabbinate’s ‘blacklist’ of American rabbis

Rabbi Avi Weiss leading a vigil and march in New York City in remembrance of the three Israeli boys who were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank days earlier on June 30, 2014. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has a list of some 160 rabbis it does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants.

To get married in Israel, immigrants must prove they are Jewish to the Chief Rabbinate, often via a letter by a congregational rabbi attesting to the immigrant’s Jewish identity. This list comprises rabbis whose letters were rejected during 2016. Rabbis from 24 different countries appear on the list, which includes several prominent American Orthodox leaders.


Rabbi Seth Farber: The Chief Rabbinate’s blacklist isn’t defending Judaism. It’s undermining it.

David Benkof: There’s no ‘blacklist’ of rabbis

JTA has transcribed the list of 66 United States rabbis into English, and has listed the 60 verifiable names below in alphabetical order, along with denomination.

JTA obtained the list from Itim, an organization that guides Israelis through the country’s religious bureaucracy, which has called the list a “blacklist.” JTA’s publication of this list should not be viewed as an endorsement.

Below is the list of United States rabbis, in  alphabetical order by first name. Several of the rabbis have died, but may have written letters attesting to congregants’ Jewish identity while still alive.

Alberto Zeilicovich, Conservative
Alexander Davis, Conservative
Alfredo Winter , Conservative
Amos Miller, Conservative
Arthur Rulnick, Conservative
Arthur Weiner , Conservative
Arthur Zuckerman, Conservative
Avi Weiss, Orthodox
Barry Dolinger, Orthodox
Baruch Goodman, Orthodox
Bernard Gerson, Conservative
Dan Ornstein, Conservative
Daniel Kraus, Orthodox
David Rosen, Orthodox
David Wortman, Reform
David Zaslow, Renewal
Eli Kogan, Orthodox
Eliezer Hirsch, Orthodox
George Nudell, Conservative
Gerald Serotta, Reform
Gil Steinlauf, Conservative
Harold Berman, Conservative
Irwin Groner, Conservative
Isaac Lehrer, Conservative
Jacob Max , Orthodox
Jason Herman, Orthodox
Jay Rosenbaum, Reform
Joseph Potasnik, Orthodox
Joseph Radinsky, Orthodox
Josh Blass, Orthodox
Joshua Skoff, Conservative
Ken Carr, Reform
Kenneth Roseman, Reform
Leonard Gordon, Conservative
Leonid Feldman, Conservative
Marcelo Bronstein, Conservative
Mario Karpuj, Conservative
Melvin Sirner, Conservative
Michael Pont, Conservative
Michael Siegel, Conservative
Morris Allen, Conservative
Paul Plotkin, Conservative
Paul Schneider, Conservative
Paul Yedwab, Reform
Peter Grumbacher, Reform
Pinchas Chatzinoff, Orthodox
Sam Fraint, Conservative
Seth Adelson, Conservative
Seymour Siegel, Conservative
Shay Mintz, Orthodox
Shimon Paskow, Conservative
Shimon Russel, Orthodox
Stephen Goodman, Reform
Stephen Mason, Reform
Stephen Steindel, Conservative
Steve Schwartz, Conservative
Steven Denker, Reform
Yaakov Kalmanofsky, Conservative
Yaier Lerer, Conservative
Yehoshua Fass, Orthodox

Rabbis should aim higher than politics

We’ve all become obsessed with politics. Politics now colors every aspect of culture, including our personal lives. It colors how we see friendships, how we judge each other, how we judge ourselves.

So, naturally, it’s tempting for rabbis to follow suit and inject politics into their Shabbat sermons. The problem is that politics also has become ugly and divisive. That ugliness and divisiveness consumes us all week, assaulting our email inboxes and Twitter and Facebook feeds.

When I come to synagogue on Shabbat, do I really need to be reminded of all that ugly and divisive stuff? Or do I need spiritual nourishment to help me rise above it and get to a deeper place?

As much as we can try to make politics holy, the reality is that politics is inherently divisive. That’s because we always will disagree about how best to use the power to govern.

If a rabbi, for example, speaks against illegal immigration because it violates the “Jewish value” of honoring the law of the land, what will he or she have accomplished except trigger a congregational food fight? Liberal congregants are sure to scream about other Jewish values such as “caring for the stranger,” and then the gloves are off.

It’s my Jewish value against your Jewish value.

Keeping politics off the pulpit doesn’t mean shutting off the synagogue from the outside world. Rather, it means filtering that world through a spiritual and unifying lens. When my rabbi spoke after the Bernie Madoff scandal, he unified us with his electrifying talk on Jewish ethics. When Jews were murdered brutally in suicide bombings in Israel, he helped us grieve and talked about defending ourselves with strength but without hatred.

He wasn’t picking sides on political choices.

A rabbi can light up our compassion and our humanity without introducing politics. If the issue is the homeless, for instance, the rabbi can inspire us to open our hearts and not ignore their plight.

As soon as the rabbi starts endorsing a certain proposition against homelessness, however, that’s when it becomes divisive. Why? Because well-meaning people will disagree about how best to address the problem, and some congregants may even be upset that the rabbi did not present “the other side.”

But here’s the good news: A synagogue is not just a place for sermons, it’s also a place for debate. So, during the week, any synagogue can host a lively discussion on any number of controversial issues, including how best to fight homelessness. People can bring their own ideas and argue it out.

That debate is perfectly appropriate for a Tuesday night. But for Shabbat? I don’t think so.

Shabbat is about the sanctity of separation. It’s about tasting eternity. It’s an opportunity to experience our unity with God, with one  another and with humanity. From their pulpits, rabbis ought to help us taste that unity and that eternity. That’s hard to do when the topic is the latest political controversy in Congress.

As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote recently in the Journal, “All we hear all day long is politics. Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper?” That something deeper also means something more uplifting and unifying.

For the past few years, political controversies have torn our community apart. Families have been divided, friendships have been strained, Shabbat table conversations have been poisoned. If anything, rabbis ought to use their pulpits to help us heal from those wounds.

Rather than remind us of our political divisions, which we experience all week, spiritual leaders ought to challenge us to look for the validity and the humanity in those with whom we sharply disagree. Of course, that can be difficult, but isn’t that when rabbis earn their keep — when they help us do the difficult?

It’s easy to talk about changing the world; it’s a lot harder to talk about changing ourselves. It’s easy to rail against a politician to a congregation that already despises him; it’s a lot harder to inspire that congregation to transcend their contempt for a higher ideal.

Politics will never make us more humble. It can consume us, but it will never unite us. Politics is not there to inspire us to become better parents, better children and better friends. But when I come to hear my rabbi speak on Shabbat, that is precisely what I’m looking for.

A(nother) response to Rabbi David Wolpe

David Wolpe is a well-regarded rabbi who likes speaking out on public issues. So it is a little odd, to say the least, that he is now saying that rabbis *shouldn’t* speak out on public issues. This piece is deeply wrong, but it is wrong in interesting ways:

1) As alluded to above, Rabbi Wolpe doesn’t believe it himself. He very loudly attacked the Iran Deal two years ago, even though it was more of a technical issue far outside rabbinic competence (unfortunately revealed by his comments). He has given sermons on, for example, whether a mosque should be built near the 9/11 site. Somehow those are things to talk about, but, say, stripping 23 million people of health care to give a tax cut to billionaires is off-limits, or preserving the earth by fighting climate change must be ignored, or dealing with child refugees from Central America is unimportant. That silence speaks volumes. Put another way, Rabbi Wolpe is not staying out of politics: he is making a political decision about particular issues. That is his right, but then he should be upfront about it.

2) Rabbi Wolpe correctly says that he as well as other rabbis are besieged with requests to speak out or work on issues and they cannot engage with all of them. Absolutely. But rabbis are not unique on this: everyone has pressures on them, and everyone must pick their spots. I literally get dozens of petitions, fundraising appeals, and event invitations every week. I’m not so special, and neither are rabbis. It is one thing to say “I cannot be all things to all people.” It is quite another to say “I will be no things to anybody.” And that is particularly the case when the rabbi assumes the position of a public intellectual: he or she cannot do that and then protest that they should not be responsible for political opinions.

3) Most importantly, as Aryeh Cohen has pointed out, the piece seems to convey a narrow concept about what speaking and doing rabbinic politics means. If all Rabbi Wolpe is saying is that he does not want to harangue his congregation from the pulpit, more power to him: people come to shul to davven, not to sit through a political advertisement. As the older rabbi in the terrific Ben Stiller/Ed Norton movie “Keeping the Faith” says: “People want to be led: they do not want to be pushed.” But that is often the least relevant aspect of what rabbinic politics is.

Rabbis can use their non-pulpit time for political engagement. They teach students in religious and day school. They serve as an exemplar for civic participation: they need not demand “here is what you must do,” but they can show by their actions “here is what I am doing and why it is important to me.” Most importantly, they teach their congregation in many ways. We are too bound up with the Heschelian-prophetic model, which, as I think Rabbi Wolpe correctly fears, can quickly become self-righteousness. But a rabbi can work with congregants to engage the critical Jewish texts that bear on crucial public issues. Torah has things to say about these issues, sometimes appealing, sometimes appalling. Rabbis can learn *with* their congregations, and can say what they draw from the panoply of texts, traditions, and practices that comprise the history of our people’s engagement with God. If they present these materials and history in a rigorous and intellectually honest way, and reach a strong conclusion about it, then that is not “doing politics from the pulpit.” It is doing Torah. Indeed, if a rabbi isn’t doing that, one wonders what he or she IS doing and why they got into the business in the first place.

When the history of this era is eventually written, there will be a detailed record of what Jews and their clergy did during this age of democratic and moral decay. History’s view of those who take the attitude that it was not something for them to get involved with will not be positive.

Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches, among other things, property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.



A response to my critics

I thank my colleagues and friends Rick Jacobs and Noah Farkas, and many others, who wrote in response to my opinion piece “Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit” in the June 9 edition of the Jewish Journal. I offer the following points:

1. “Moral issues” are almost always “political stances I agree with” and “partisan politics” are stances with which I differ. Self-righteousness is a potent drug, and politics has enough of it without adding religion, as our Founding Fathers knew. The passion with which you hold a conviction says absolutely nothing about its correctness. Nothing. Even-handedness feels tepid and uninspiring, but for that reason it is all the more important. We demonize each other by pulpit pounding proclamations of “Torah true” positions. Using the rabbinate to promote policies is exploiting one form of authority to enforce another.

2. Every rabbi should preach values, of course. Values are not policies and not embodied in politicians. This past Shabbat, I spoke about Judaism and the sin of racism. Policies to combat racism are a more complex matter. There are studies, statistics, successes, failures — in other words, solutions best left to those who master the field and know something, and to our capacity to argue as citizens. I’ve spoken and written about immigration, war, poverty and other issues to clarify values but not to endorse policies. Congregants often know more about specific policy issues than I. Rabbinic training does not provide the gavel to judge between the economic contentions of John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman. Gun control measures, however much I may favor them, were not outlined in the story of Korach or the Book of Proverbs. Colleagues who miraculously locate the policies of their party in each week’s Torah portion are no more credible than so-called kabbalists who find in the Torah’s “codes” predictions of the future or confirmations of the past.

3. I’ve asked several correspondents a simple question and received not one satisfactory answer: What policies do you support on major questions that differ with what you would believe if you were not a religious Jew? If Judaism supports all the policies you believe anyway, can’t you be at least a little suspicious that your politics are guiding your Torah, and not your Torah leading to your politics?

4. Politics and campaigns are inherently divisive, and never more than now. If as a rabbi you have a perfectly homogenous shul, then I congratulate you on your frictionless life. But I have too often heard of people leaving shuls feeling politically disenfranchised by the rabbi’s preaching. Synagogues should not be tax-exempt campaign offices.

5. Yes, I know Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Honestly, I do. But issues like slavery and civil rights are very rare, once in a generation, and invoking them for everything from social welfare policy to Dodd-Frank to the methods of vetting immigrants is both dishonest and cheapening a great moral legacy. If you are using the march on Selma to religiously validate your views on the minimum wage, shame on you.

6. Many people privately ask about my political views and I’m happy to answer. But not from the bimah. As a rabbi, my task is to bless, to teach values and texts and ideas and rituals, to comfort, to cajole, to listen and learn, to grow in spirit along with my congregants, to usher them through the transitions of life, to create a cohesive community, to defend the people and land of Israel, and to reinforce what most matters. The great questions of life are not usually political ones. When political questions do arise, the rabbi should clarify the Jewish values involved and expect congregants to decide which candidates and policies best fulfill those values. Aren’t there enough disastrous examples in the world where clergy set public policy for us to be humble about our political wisdom?

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):

Rabbis dish on the seder plate

For most Jews gathering next week for Passover, the items on the seder table are as familiar as the story of the Exodus. Which is too bad, given the richness of their history and the multitude of meanings they can embody as times change. To get beyond the traditional explanations for matzo, charoset and the rest of the Passover seder’s usual suspects, area rabbis have offered new interpretations and revelations about some of Judaism’s most beloved symbols.


While so very fragile, lengthwise the eggshell becomes strong and can withstand surprising pressure. This is because it is a natural arch. Leonardo da Vinci described an arch as “two weaknesses [that] are converted into a single strength.” By supporting each other, the weak segments redistribute the crushing forces upon them and become the strongest structure in engineering.

The purpose of an arch is to act as a passageway, whether for light through a window or people over a threshold. The Passover egg commemorates the passageway from sure death into new life. Its shape symbolizes the great power created when vulnerable individuals are united into a single strength, embodying the talmudic axiom, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”/“All Israel is responsible for each other” (Shavuot 39a). Its perfect arch reminds us that God designed us with the ability to bear heavy burdens while remaining full of light. The arch of the Passover egg is the ancient strength of aqueducts and bridges. It is the means to take us from here to there, to enable us to cross over. Is it any wonder why, to mark the covenant between God and humankind, God chose the rainbow arch? The egg is the very architecture of community.

— Rabbi Zoë Klein, Temple Isaiah


There is no explanation of charoset in the haggadah, but in the Mishnah, one suggestion is that it represents the mortar the Israelites used during their forced labor. Still, it seems odd that the food’s complex deliciousness would be a symbol of oppression, and other, more positive explanations abound.

Since talmudic times, charoset has been associated with the women of the Exodus who, one midrash says, took fish and wine to their husbands in the fields to seduce them into bearing more children even while they were enslaved, a time of danger and despair.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out that all of the ingredients in charoset appear in the Song of Songs, which we read on the Shabbat of Passover — sacred poetry about love and taking pleasure in the beloved.

Or charoset may simply exist to offset the burn of maror — it sits on the seder plate throughout the narrative of our suffering and oppression as witness to the sweetness that people create even in the worst of times.

The ingredients for charoset are as different as the Jewish cultures that prepare it.  No matter our differences, we all need the sweetness of hope and love to balance doubt and pain.

— Rabbi Amy Bernstein, Kehillat Israel


Confronted with our contemporary political and religious climate, the karpas at the seder contains a crucial lesson for us. The word “karpas” means fine quality wool, as the verse in Megillat Esther indicates when it describes the woolen tapestries of King Ahasuerus as “chur karpas u’techelet.”

With this definition, Rabbeinu Manoah of Narbonne offers a stunning suggestion that karpas at the seder symbolizes the wool coat of Joseph gifted to him by his father Jacob (see Rashi Genesis 37:3). We dip the vegetable (usually parsley, celery or potato) into saltwater to re-enact the brothers’ act of dipping Joseph’s wool coat into blood to deceive their father after they had sold Joseph down to Egypt.   

Before we celebrate how the Jews proudly left Egypt, we take the karpas to reflect upon how the Jews sadly got there in the first place. Jealousy, polarization and divisiveness led to our troubles. One central goal of the seder is to address the divisiveness that plagued us then and now — symbolized by karpas — and repeal and replace it with respect, tolerance, inclusiveness and friendship — symbolized by the enterprise of sitting around the table together.

— Rabbi Kalman Topp, Beth Jacob Congregation


The Almighty called to the children of Jacob
“I have taken notice of you
And seen your suffering
And sent to you my prophet
To relieve you of your maror-bitterness.

I carried you on eagles’ wings
And shielded you from the pursuers’ arrows
So that whenever you taste the maror
You will remember
Who I am
And who you are
And why you are free.

As I took notice of your ancestors
I call upon you today
The descendants of slaves
Who know the heart of strangers
And their fear and desperation
And do for them as I have done for you
And liberate them
The oppressed and the tempest-tossed
The poor and the discarded
The old and the lonely
The abused and the addict
The victim of violence and injustice
And everyone who tastes daily the maror-bitterness
That you know so very well.

As you sit around your seder tables
I call upon you to act
With open, pure and loving hearts
On My behalf
And be My witnesses
And bring healing and peace.”

— Rabbi John L. Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood


One anomalous item on the seder plate is the zeroa, according to the Jerusalem Talmud a shank bone, which is roasted and represents the special Passover sacrifice that was at the center of the festival’s observance in Temple times. Because sacrifices may be offered only from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and because that Temple no longer exists, we create a replica of the sacrifice, but we do not eat it, only pointing at it. We physically aspire to something that remains beyond our reach.

How paradoxical that what is beyond reach is the zeroa (literally “the arm”), recalling God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm” that liberates us from slavery. At the seder table, where it is our hands and arms that do the pointing, we embody God’s liberatory lure. God persistently frees the oppressed and lifts the fallen, but only through us, with us. It turns out that the real image of God’s commitment to human dignity and freedom is not on the plate at all. The outstretched arm and hands are our own. So, this Passover, arm yourself and give God a hand.

— Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University


Each year at our sedarim, we dip a bit of karpas into salt water — and in some ethnic traditions, into vinegar or lemon water. The bitter liquid reminds us of the deep pain, sweat and tears that accompany hardships such as slavery and oppression. As we dip, we reflect on our ancestors’ pain, modern examples of oppression and times in the past year when our tears flowed freely. Many of us will dip a second time into the salt water at our seder with a hardboiled egg, which serves as a sign of spring and birth. Just as our Israelite ancestors left Egypt by crossing through the saltwater sea to enter the vastness of freedom, the salt water and egg dipping can be for us symbolic of a mikveh, a spiritual cleansing, an acknowledgement of the sweetness that lay ahead.

Salt enhances sweetness. Think salted caramel or salted chocolate. Dipping in salt water acknowledges suffering and bitterness, but also that there, too, will be a time of healing and celebration of freedom. Think, too, of the Dead Sea. It is so bitter nothing can live within it, but within it lies powers of healing. As we dip into salt water this year, may we recall our pain and suffering and exit into renewal, healing, feeling refreshed and free.

— Rabbi Sarah Hronsky, Temple Beth Hillel


Passover is such a grand holiday — why should its central symbol be a cracker?

The rabbis identify the matzo with humility. Unlike bread, which is puffed up, the matzo lays flat, shorn of ego. But Passover is not a holiday of humility, but of slavery and freedom. So, why matzo?  

Ralph Waldo Emerson once recorded in his journal something his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, said to him: “ ‘Hurry’ is for slaves.”

To be a slave is to have no control over your own time. The Israelites baked matzo because they had a brief moment, a slice of time, the beginning of true freedom, but they were not yet there. Matzo is the sign of a people soon to be free: the bread of affliction but also the bread of transition — from being a slave to liberation into the service of God.

— Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple


When are the Jewish people going to be able to drink with joy from the fifth cup, Eliyahu’s Cup, during the seder? When we have prepared the world for redemption. Preparing the world for redemption, however, requires tremendous effort and faithfulness to our people’s mission. Where do we start? The haggadah gives us a brilliant place to begin. Immediately after we pour the Fifth Cup for Eliyahu, we open our front door. What a strange custom, right? But it sends a message to our generation: We can help prepare the world for redemption by opening our hearts to one another. Why is the door normally closed? Because we’re in pain. So we close the door on each other — parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. Right after opening the door during the seder, we read a passage from Psalms, a dire warning to those who forget that we are all children of the Creator and must act righteously with one another. My blessing for all of us is that we avoid the consequences of failing to act righteously toward one another and instead pave the road to the redemption of the world.  It’s all there in the Cup of Elijah.

— Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Pico Shul


Since the 1980s, many Jews include Susannah Heschel’s tradition of adding an orange to the seder plate as a symbol of people marginalized in the Jewish community. Heschel chose an orange because, as she said, “in a whole orange, each segment sticks together.”

Over the years, I’ve added to that tradition, and you can, too, with just a few words and actions:

“Tonight, let’s squeeze some orange juice upon the charoset, that already sweet promise of freedom, that symbol of the mortar our ancestors used when they were slaves. In so doing, we offer a reminder that those who some call ‘outsiders’ among the Jewish people — including LGBTQ Jews, Jews by choice, Jews of color, Jews from other traditions, Jews who are adopted, non-Jewish family members — have actually become part of the mortar that holds our people and our traditions together.”

[One person at each table squeezes some orange juice on charoset as we say:]

Evan ma-ah-su ha-bonim ha-y’tah l’rosh pinah.

“The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22).

[Each person takes a slice of orange to eat, as we recite:]

Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam borei pri ha-eitz.

“Blessed are You, God, creator of all, who created the fruit of the tree.”

[Each person eats a slice of orange.]

— Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim

Ambassador nominee Friedman apologizes in rabbinical forum

David Friedman. Photo by Michael Friedson/The Media Line

On the eve of what is expected to be the most contentious confirmation hearing for any Trump appointee beneath the cabinet level, ambassador to Israel-designate David Friedman finds himself not only targeted by the political left – an obvious situation for any appointee of this administration – but also in the exceptionally rare position of being a Jewish designee vilified by hundreds of Jewish clergymen and women.

[This story originally appeared on]

The Media Line has learned that one month ago, the would-be-ambassador met with a contingent of some twenty members of the New York Board of Rabbis led by Executive Vice President Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, in an effort to clear the air. Several rabbis who attended the session were of one mind concerning the gravity of Friedman’s controversial statements and admonished that such assertions, despite his promises and protestations, would not be easily expunged. Nevertheless, the rabbis agreed they would support whomever is approved by the Senate.

The angst beyond the political divide is not without reason. Friedman’s road to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv wound through his attorney-client relationship with the new president for more than fifteen years during which time the seasoned litigator was able to withdraw statements found inappropriate to a court of law. But absent commensurate experience in diplomacy, Friedman learned during the course of the campaign that inflammatory and hurtful statements could not be as easily erased in the court of public opinion.

Already labeled a firebrand and radical by the left because of his refusal to embrace the consensus two-state solution for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Friedman infuriated Democrats by calling Barack Obama a “blatant anti-Semite” and incensing more than a few Republicans as well when he crossed a line sacrosanct among Jews, invoking a Holocaust-era image declaring members of the left-wing lobbying group J Street to be “worse than kapos,” Jews who cooperated with the Nazi regime in order to survive. This, when already vilified for his history of personal support for the settlement movement and right-wing causes.

Unlike other Trump appointees who were merely the subject of negative newspaper editorials and critical talking heads on cable television, Friedman quickly became the target of a well-organized and highly-focused Internet campaign by J Street that included a petition asking Senators to reject the nomination.

Friedman, meanwhile, launched a campaign of his own apparently aimed at introducing the actual man to those being influenced by what was fast becoming a conventional wisdom of its own.

Yet, all shared the belief that Friedman must be allowed the opportunity to be heard before passing judgement on his fitness for the position. In fact, according to former Board of Rabbis President Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of the Conservative Temple Emanu-el in Closter, New Jersey. “It’s un-Jewish to not afford him a hearing [but] this does not mean I wasn’t profoundly troubled about the statement [about Kapos]. Confirmation is contingent on the hearing. He needs to be heard. He needs to have a fair hearing.”

According to Potasnik, Friedman did, indeed, apologize for his use of the inflammatory words and sought to explain the context in which they were made. But while none of the participants were able to assess whether the effort was enough, it was evident that Friedman successfully convinced his audience that he is a serious player who understands that he would, as he told the group, “be the ambassador for all segments of society,” and not just those who share his conservative thought.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, spiritual leader of the influential Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform congregation, seemingly sought to separate the political differences between the liberal community and Friedman, from the matter of his troubling statements. To be forgiven for the latter, he stressed, would take time and consistency. Regarding the policy issue, he noted that “the role of the ambassador is not to make policy but to explain the policy of the administration set by the President and his foreign affairs team.” On that score, Hirsch told The Media Line of his concern that, “His stated positions are at odds with fifty-years of American policy [that] happens to be the positions of a sizeable majority of American Jews.”

The rabbis agreed that the second issue – the kapo comment – was more problematic and, according to Hirsch, demands “a compelling, comprehensive and consistent response which is not a one-off statement. If he is ultimately confirmed and becomes the ambassador, this is an area he will have to address over and over again and cannot simply be a one-off statement.”

Rabbi Elie Weinstock of Manhattan’s iconic Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue (Orthodox) agreed that Friedman deserves to say his piece and answer questions “including why he called J Street ‘kapos.’” Weinstock told The Media Line that he “left the meeting with a positive feeling that David Friedman…knows how to deal with the different segments of the community. There can be healthy disagreement. I can see him doing a good job as American ambassador to Israel.”

Despite the issues, the Board of Rabbis group left unambiguous the fact that, as Rabbi Hirsch said, “Of course I will support the ambassador who receives the confirmation of the Senate and the confidence of the American president.”

While the outcome will only be known at the conclusion of the process that begins on Thursday, Rabbi Potasnik summed up the feeling echoed by others. While being clear that he was not issuing an endorsement of Friedman, he did assess that the nominee “understands the complexity of the Jewish community…I think he should be heard.”

Rabbi seeks royalties for Japanese Olympic gymnast’s ‘immodest’ use of his melody

A Jerusalem rabbi said he would seek royalties from Japan’s delegation to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro for its allegedly unauthorized use of a melody he composed.

Rabbi Baruch Hayat, according to the Shirunt website of Israeli songs, composed the melody to the popular song “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’od” to words attributed to the late founder of the Breslover Hasidic movement, Rabbi Nachman.

A recording of the melody, played by a klezmer band, featured in the performance of Sae Miyakawa, a 16-year-old Japanese gymnast in the Rio Olympics, that ended on August 22.

But in an interview published Thursday by Ynet, Hayat said that the gymnast never asked his permission to use the song, which he added he never would have granted because he considers her performance immodest and incompatible with the values promoted by the 18th-century rabbi who is believed to have been the author of the lyrics.

“It’s a disgrace,” the 70-year-old rabbi told Ynet, adding he will “fight for what he is owed” in terms of royalties. “This was not exactly the intention of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, to have his words play at the Olympics,” he said of the routine, which featured only the melody of the song. “And it’s not very modest.”

As a head of a yeshiva, a religious seminary, he said, he finds the use of his melody “inappropriate. Clearly, this is a matter of sanctity that cannot be used for just anything. It is known in Hasidic circles that melody also has sanctity.”

The lyrics of the song translate as, “The world is a narrow bridge;
the important thing is not to be afraid.”



Ivanka Trump’s rabbi among Republican convention speakers

Speakers at the Republican National Convention are scheduled to include the rabbi who converted Donald Trump’s daughter to Judaism and the pastor who said Bernie Sanders needed to embrace Jesus.

On Thursday, the Republican National Convention released a list of speakers as notable for who is absent as it is for the inclusion of a number of speakers close to the Jewish community.

Topping the list, presumably because he will lead the convocation at the launch of the convention, is Pastor Mark Burns, a televangelist who has become an important surrogate for Trump among evangelicals, who initially were wary of Trump because of the secular values he seemed to embrace as a reality TV star.

Christian conservatives have warmed to Trump over the campaign, in part because of the intercession of Burns and others in the evangelical community.

At a March rally for Trump in North Carolina, Burns spoke of Sanders — the first Jewish candidate to win major nominating contests — while warming up the crowd waiting for the candidate.

“Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t believe in God, how in the world are we gonna let Bernie … really?” Burns said. “He gotta meet Jesus, he gotta have a coming to Jesus meeting.”

Sanders, who this week formally ended his campaign to win the Democratic nomination and endorsed Hillary Clinton, has said he believes in God. Burns later told The Associated Press that he did not intend to insult Jews and the comment had “nothing to do” with Sanders’ Judaism.

Also listed among the speakers is the modern Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who converted Ivanka Trump before her marriage to Jared Kushner. Lookstein is among the most prominent rabbis now involved in a political struggle with the Israeli rabbinate over its refusal to consider the conversions of a large number of American Orthodox rabbis.

Other speakers of note to the Jewish community are Michael Mukasey, the Jewish attorney general under President George W. Bush who has said most of the world’s Muslims are interested in imposing religious law on the world — a message that jibes with Trump’s broadsides against Islam.

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has long been a favorite of Republican Jews for his moderation on social issues coupled with a tough national security posture, will speak, as will Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator and Iraq War veteran who has become a favorite of the pro-Israel right in recent years.

Also, Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker who is very close to Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israel casino magnate who has pledged tens of millions of dollars to Trump’s campaign. Gingrich will be one of several vice presidential contenders at the convention; Trump is set to announce his running mate on Friday.

Absent from the speakers’ list are an array of Republican luminaries who are wary of associating with Trump because of his broadsides against minorities and women, as well as his departures from the party’s Orthodoxy, particularly his favoring a drawdown of U.S. influence overseas.

Among those close to the Jewish community who will not be attending or speaking are former President George W. Bush, and the 2008 and 2012 nominees, respectively Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.