March 20, 2019

Women Praying at the Kotel Is Normal

Members of the activist group "Women of the Wall" pray with a Torah scroll during a monthly prayer near the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City July 24, 2017. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS.

“When Adar begins, joy increases.” But not at the Kotel. 

I was there for Rosh Chodesh to celebrate with Women of the Wall (WOW) on its 30th anniversary. Over the years I’ve prayed with WOW whenever I am in Jerusalem on Rosh Chodesh. Being with friends, praying out loud, is meaningful and normal for me. 

But after Friday morning I wonder what “normal” means.

Last week, Jerusalem was plastered with billboards: 

“Keep the Kotel Normal.”

Some excerpts, roughly translated: 

“For 30 years the Reformim have desecrated the holiness of the Kotel. A handful of women create provocations for recognition in a movement that encourages assimilation. Our struggle is not just about the Kotel; their next targets will be conversion, marriage, kashrut and other religious issues. This a struggle about the Jewish character of the state of the Jews. Friday these women will celebrate 30 years of activity. They intend to bring a thousand people to the Kotel, causing damage to generations. The only way to protect prayer conducted according to halachah is if thousands of Jews come to the Kotel this Friday.” 

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox students, teenaged boys and girls, were bused in, making it impossible for the more than 500 women who came with WOW to pray. We were spit on, pushed and, in several cases, physically assaulted. Some of the women had panic attacks; it is a miracle that no one was trampled to death. But even more terrifying, and ultimately more tragic, was the hate in the faces of these ultra-Orthodox girls. They were indiscriminant about whom they shoved, including several older women, one of whom is a famous Orthodox scholar. Our more than 200 male supporters also were harassed. It was clear we were in danger, with the police unwilling or unable to keep us safe. So for the first time in 30 years we stopped midway during our prayer and with great difficultly worked our way toward Robinson’s Arch, where we completed the service. 

Keep the Kotel normal. Is this what “normal” will look like?

“What is provocative about wanting to pray at the Kotel?”

Why are these ultra-Orthodox rabbis so fearful of “a handful of women” that they brought busloads of young religious students to stop us from praying? It had to cost a lot to bring buses and coordinate this campaign. Who actually paid? Was this outpouring intended to send a message before the elections? How dare the police blame WOW for provocation? What is provocative about wanting to pray at the Kotel? Especially now, when, after all those years, the right of women to pray out loud wearing tallit and tefillin has been affirmed by the courts. 

In contrast to the Friday experience, the evening before was celebratory. One of the tributes was a video from former chair of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky, who said: “The compromise we negotiated in 2016 will eventually be implemented. It is only a matter of time.” Another highlight was WOW’s honoring the paratroopers of 1967. As they received their award, one said: “This award should go to you. We captured the Wall and then we gave the keys over to generals who gave the keys to one of the most extreme factions in Israel. We didn’t liberate the Kotel. It is still a prisoner. You are the paratroopers who will liberate the Kotel.” 

This anniversary is a testimony to how much we’ve accomplished in 30 years. First, we have put the issue of religious pluralism at the center of the Jewish conversation. Second, our persistence and our willingness to compromise has brought us close to our goal. Leaders of many of the major parties in Israel (except Likud) responded to the events with a commitment to implement the Kotel Compromise negotiated in 2016 but later frozen by the government under ultra-Orthodox pressure. Third, on March 6, the attorney general clarified in a precedent setting letter to the Rabbi of the Wall: “Your claim that women’s prayer with a cantor is not in accordance with local custom is
not correct.” 

In other words, the way Women of the Wall want to pray is in accordance with “local custom,” i.e. normal. 

May the time come soon when “normal’ means there is more than one way to be a Jew and there is room for everyone at the Kotel. Then joy will really increase.  

Laura Geller is Rabbi Emerita at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Embrace Ancient Wisdom, Not Modern Politics

Let’s escalate the “Tikkun Olam and American Judaism” debate by elbowing tikkun olam aside and targeting American Judaism directly. The issue isn’t really tikkun olam pro or con — everyone wants a better world. Debating “tikkun olamism” — making a value the value — risks getting pedantic. 

What’s problematic is BlueJews blurring liberal American Judaism and liberal Democratic politics. It’s rabbis politicizing their pulpits, educators politicizing their schools. The real issue is American Judaism’s hyper-Americanization. We are where we live. As that Incredible Cheapening Ray called American pop culture degrades civilization, vulgarizes language, sexualizes interactions, corrodes family ties, coarsens ethics, polarizes politics, ramps up hysteria, its black magic warps American Judaism, too.

Alas, the thoughtful debate these issues require has degenerated into another blue-red, liberal-conservative duel — meaning Reform, Conservative, Renewal and “just Jewish” versus mostly Orthodox. A young Brit, Jonathan Neumann, helped jump-start this overdue debate in his recent book, “To Heal the World? How the Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” David Seidenberg’s erudite but irrelevant rebuttal proves that tikkun olam is becoming a red (or blue) herring. Seidenberg’s interesting history of the value’s value in Religious Zionism sidesteps Neumann’s real critique of American Jewry. Seidenberg sounds like a surgeon admiring his handiwork at the patient’s funeral. It doesn’t matter how tikkun olam functioned before — beware the dysfunctional way liberal politics is hijacking Judaism now.

You know you’re a BlueJew if:

• You’re viscerally more pro-choice and anti-Donald Trump than pro-Israel.

• You applauded Barack Obama’s Iran deal but couldn’t cheer Trump’s Jerusalem embassy move.

• Trump gives you more agita than the Ayatollahs, Nasrallah, Abbas, Hamas or Pharaoh.

• You get why the liberal Jewish agenda tracks Democratic Party politics.

• The to-march-or-not-to-march Woman’s March mess distressed you more than a Palestinian terrorist’s recent rape and butchering of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher, and you mourned the 17 people killed in the Parkland shooting while ignoring the 13 Israelis murdered by Palestinian terrorists last year.

• Your rabbi’s Kol Nidre sermon bashed Trump or Israel instead of challenging your congregation spiritually.

• Your synagogue supports asylum seekers more generously than poor Jews.

• You know more about Ruth Bader Ginsburg than the Book of Ruth or Asher Ginsberg — aka Ahad Ha’am, the Zionist thinker.

• You get virtue-signaled when you attend Jewish events, with the speaker making some obvious crack establishing “us” in the room as enlightened, unlike the boobs beyond, be they Trumpistas, Republicans or the Orthodox.

• No pro-Trump Republican would be comfortable in your synagogue or your seder.

This is a vision test, not a loyalty test, asking what do you see, what really makes you see red?

Most American Jews’ deep-blue hues make sense. People are like pasta: We absorb the flavors of the sauces we swim in. Living in Blue America steeps BlueJews in the concerns of their place at this time. Hurricane Trump is like a Category 5 storm that lingers, creating a perma-conversation topic, especially among his critics — about 80 percent of American Jewry.

Here’s the culture clash everyone fears debating. America threatens Judaism by not threatening Jews, while Jews often fail as Jews by succeeding as Americans.

We made it. We fit in. So even when we “do Jewish” — with those ever-dwindling time dollops we devote to being Jewish — our Jewish spaces, conversation topics, accents and obsessions are thoroughly Americanized. Earlier generations were illiterate (when you know you should know something but you don’t know it); today, we’re Jewishly a-literate (when you don’t even know or care what you don’t know).

“Beyond a lack of Jewish authenticity, we’re barreling down the wrong way of what should be a one-way street. Jewish values should infuse our politics, but partisanship shouldn’t poison our Judaism.” 

Injecting a legitimate passion for liberal Democratic politics into all facets of an ever-thinning Jewish life at least gives us something to talk about — and our rabbis to rile up congregants about. Yet it’s hypocritical when American Jews who advocate separating church and state blur their Jewish and political identities. If it’s arrogant to assume God is pro-life or pro-settlements, how can you assume God is anti-Trump and pro-Dreamers?

Constantly form-fitting our 3,500-year-old tradition to the ever-shifting progressive platform will strip Judaism of its own distinct shape. Neumann notes that in the 1960s, the haggadah had to be pro-civil rights, then anti-nukes, then green. Now, it better be immigrant-friendly. Beyond barring anyone from your seder who dares to disagree with you politically, what do we gain by reducing timeless documents to political tracts, christening Democratic Party orthodoxy as Jewish theology?  It certainly inhibits many BlueJews from confronting liberal allies who bash Israel or endorse anti-Semites.

Beyond a lack of Jewish authenticity, we’re barreling down the wrong way of what should be a one-way street. Jewish values should infuse our politics, but partisanship shouldn’t poison our Judaism. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg emblazons “Justice, justice you shall pursue” on her Supreme Court chambers, she’s headed in the right direction, integrating her Jewish values into her worldview. But if we emblazoned her partisan statements, such as “He [Trump] is a faker,” on our synagogue walls, our temples wouldn’t be sanctuaries. Our eternal tradition should transcend a prosaic political agenda.

As a way of life, Judaism is in constant conversation with politics, but it requires nuance, proportion. Sometimes, as when Rabbi Richard Hirsch gave Martin Luther King Jr. free office space in Washington, Jews should take moral-political stands as Jews. But in our era, when so much gets politicized, couldn’t we all benefit from sabbaticals — er, cease-fires — from our constant battles? Keep politics relevant, not dominant.

We’re debating our identity’s gravitational center: Is it theological or political, Jewish or liberal, tradition-enriched or headline-driven? Those Jewishly-centered view the world through blue-and-white-colored glasses, not all-blue partisan prisms. When you visit an Israel awash in guns, instead of railing about gun control, can you respect a society that can control its guns? When you see an Orthodox rabbi dressed in black and white, can you see the grays, appreciating aspects of his traditional life, rather than just disdaining him through your black-and-white lens? When you read the Bible, can you appreciate its deeper meanings without judging every word by the editorial line of The New York Times? And when you read about Birthright’s donors, rather than resenting Sheldon Adelson’s conservatism, can you marvel how he and liberals like Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman check their politics — temporarily — to cooperate for our Jewish future?

I’m not proposing Jewish blinders to replace liberal blinders. And I don’t fear a creative, confusing mashup — just, please, respect boundaries, proportionality, directionality, keeping politics in the voting booth and religion in the synagogue whenever possible. Dismissing Michael Chabon’s slur against intramarriage as a ghetto of two, let’s embrace our time-traveling, big-question-asking kosher honeycomb of millions of people interconnected with one another and with beautiful values and stories streaming across millennia. Keep Judaism rooted in yesterday’s big ideas, unpolluted by today’s partisan poisons.

Finally, a reality check. How are we doing by treating our pulpits as political platforms and our synagogues as big-chandeliered, high-ceilinged cathedrals of the Democratic Party? Seems to me we’re driving young Jews away in droves. Maybe they’re seeking some respite, some ancient wisdom, some thoughts deeper than our kneejerk reactions, some perspectives wider than our increasingly narrow and narrow-minded partisan positions. Rather than grumbling how the next generation is letting us down, maybe TooBlueJudaism blew it and is letting them down.

Gil Troy, a distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University in Montreal, is the author of “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow.”  

Religious Zionism and the Specter of Racism

Photo by Pixabay

Words from a broken, loving, and hopeful heart.

The recent explosion in anti-Semitic expression including acts of anti-Semitic violence in numerous quarters around the world is not only frightening and alarming, it is eerie and perhaps even ominous. The inevitable and logically-necessary descent of rabid anti-Zionism into the exclusion and even hatred of Jewish people is in plentiful evidence, and rabid anti-Zionism continues to provide an obscene, self-righteous veneer to anti-Semitism. Which is not to say that the “left” is the only worrisome quarter, for plainly it is not. We are living in a time when we need to be vigilant, to be unflinching in calling out anti-Semitism, to be strengthening old friendships and actively cultivating new ones. It’s a serious time.

Human nature is such that when a particular group feels besieged and targeted, when it feels that the world has abandoned its ethical and civil codes in its behavior toward it, that this group then responds by loosening its own commitment to these very same ethical and civil codes. Not out of the belief that “two wrongs make a right” or that “you have to fight fire with fire.” Rather out of the belief that the rules just aren’t the rules anymore, that we have entered an amoral jungle, a time and space which simply exists outside our normal ethical commitments. This is a very human response. It is the way of human nature.

And this is precisely the reason that God gave us religion. Religion’s revolutionary and radical claim is that there is no such time and there is no such space, that there is no such thing as the amoral jungle, that human beings – even when engaged in a state of warfare – are always accountable to the norms of God-fearing, God-loving, God-revering behavior.

Last week’s appalling decision by Habayit HaYehudi, the political party representing Religious Zionism, to join electoral forces with Otzma Yehudit, the Kahanist political party whose platform is rooted in and founded upon racial hatred, is a precise manifestation of this awful tendency of human nature that religion was intended to correct. (Much has been written in recent days about Otzma Yehudit’s ideology and politics. I think that Yossi Klein Halevi‘s essay summarized it best. The defense that HaBayit HaYehudi is offering is that the State of Israel and Zionism itself are under siege from enemies both within and without the State, and electoral victory must be assured even at the cost of bringing the racists out from the political cold and into cabinet-level power. This represents of course, nothing less than the utter rejection of the mantle and responsibility of religion, rendering HaBayit HaYehudi’s claim to be the “Religious Zionist” party a mockery and a sham.

And frankly, it renders its claim to be a Zionist party at all to be a mockery and a sham, certainly in the sense that Israel’s Declaration of Independence which guarantees that the State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”, is considered a foundational Zionist document.

It is heartening that numerous important and influential thinkers within the Religious Zionist community have condemned this turn of events. Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein and Rabbi Benny Lau have been among the most public and courageous. And it is heartening that many American Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (through Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman) have expressed their grave concern, in particular over the Prime Minister’s catalytic role in the political merger. (The National Council of Young Israel is one of the few organizations that has expressed its support for what has happened, and individual Young Israel synagogues must now express outrage at their leadership.) More voices of ethical and religious clarity are still needed. Absolutely including yours. Perhaps the worst outcome can still be averted.

There’s no underestimating the importance of this political moment in the history of our beloved Medinat Yisrael, and even in the history of Judaism as a great world religion. Yes, we must love and support Israel, and confront anti-Semitism, but לא כך – not this way. For the sake of all that we hold sacred, never this way.

Does the Media Have a Problem With Religion?

As a religious Jew, I constantly feel attacked by the media. All too often, their stories come across as anti-religion, choosing the side of the nonreligious and attempting to make believers in God look like idiots and bigots.

Take, for example, the appallingly unfair perception of the Covington (Ky.) Catholic High School boys who were filmed wearing Make America Great Again caps at the March for Life rally on Jan. 18 in Washington, D.C. Because many of the kids appeared to be Catholic (and white, and anti-abortion, and Trump supporters, and male), the media jumped on their backs, portraying them as privileged racists. A few days later, it surfaced that the video had been heavily edited, that a group of African-Americans identifying itself as Hebrew Israelites had provoked the boys, and that the boys, predominantly a boy identified in media reports as Nick Sandmann, weren’t mocking or trying to intimidate a Native American and Vietnam War-era veteran identified as Nathan Phillips, who appears in the video beating a small drum. (The anti-abortion rally coincided with an Indigenous Peoples March at the Lincoln Memorial.)

A few days earlier, the media were in an uproar over the news that Vice President Mike Pence’s wife was going to work at an “anti-gay school.” This school is Christian. By that logic, every religious school that follows biblical principles should be labeled as “anti-gay.” 

I have been scorned because I am religious. I wrote an article about my conversion to Judaism for a now-defunct website geared toward women called xoJane. I got hundreds of comments from seemingly secular people who told me I’d converted just to be with my husband, that my outfit in the photo was ugly and that I was brainwashed. 

“Whether someone believes in God or not shouldn’t be an invitation to attack them.”

My husband was approached by a major literary agent who heard him on the radio program “This American Life” but promptly dropped him after she assumed he would write about being pro-God. I often submit pro-God essays to publications, but only the religious Jewish media outlets want to publish them. I know that I’m a talented writer and my husband is an amazing comedian. But we don’t speak up because people might dismiss us as being bitter and not talented enough to “make it.” 

Movies and books about individuals who left Judaism often are released and receive worldwide attention and acclaim. It doesn’t matter that many of these people came from abusive homes or that they’re mentally ill. The media seem to eat up any anti-Jewish news. 

The attacks on believers in God are contrary to how pro-God our country is. U.S. demographics reveal more than 70 percent of Americans consider themselves Christians; 80 percent believe in God.  

I was a devoted atheist for 10 years, and I willingly became an Orthodox Jew. It was not because I was in love with a Jewish man or was forced into it. It’s because I believed the Torah was the ultimate truth and it could enhance my life in ways I never could have imagined. Today, when I think about the path my life could have taken, I’m thankful to God that I found him and Judaism. It has made me a better person, one who welcomes others into her home, gives to charity, volunteers her time, loves her husband, cares for her animals, eats ethically and does not judge others for their beliefs. Most of the religious people I know are the same. They’re some of the kindest, most wonderful people I’ve met, and they will go out of their way to do good. Why are the media portraying us differently?  

I hope there comes a day when religious people can feel free to join whatever party they choose and read the mainstream media without feeling disdained or mocked, at best, and attacked, at worst. We are living in radicalized times, when people are increasingly polarized. Whether someone believes in God or not shouldn’t be an invitation to attack them. 

All human beings have value, no matter what their beliefs (or lack of beliefs) are, and shouldn’t be despised for attempting to live their lives in the best way possible and to pursue happiness. It’s not the American way.

My Jewish Mid-Life Crisis

By definition, a mid-life crisis is an emotional crisis of identity and self-confidence that can occur in early middle age. I am 52 years old, so likely past middle age, but I think I am having a crisis of some kind. I am questioning everything, and while I am confident I am clear on who I am, I am struggling to figure out what it is that I want, specifically in my personal life. I should know, but I don’t.


I used to think I wanted to get married again, but the older I get, and frankly the longer I am divorced, I’m not sure I want to. It has been 22 years since I was married and so it could be that I have just given up on the idea. I simply don’t think about it anymore, and I used to. I can barely muster the strength to go on a second date, which makes the chances of my getting married quite slim.


I have always been a woman of faith, and define myself as a Jew, but I am feeling a heightened sensitivity to everything Jewish. Ever since the murders in the Pittsburgh I have been on edge. I make a concerted effort every day to shake the uneasiness I feel, but I can’t. I got upset about something stupid someone I care about said about being Jewish, and I completely overreacted. Or did I?


I am not questioning my faith, but I am questioning how I view it and if I want it to be public versus private. It is bizarre. I had a bout of anxiety last week when I said Good Shabbos to someone, worried I had said out loud where people could hear me. The feeling I had then made me feel not only more anxious, but ashamed that I panicked about something to do with my faith.


Ugh. I am boring myself with this already and need to figure it out because it is effecting how I live my life. I am struggling. My life is markedly different with this crisis hanging over my head. I am questioning everything about myself, which is unfair to me, and I really need to be kinder to me. It can sometimes be easier to be kinder to others than to ourselves, and that is a real shame.


I need to cut myself some slack and I need to sort this all out. I have changed and I am sad about it. I hate that I second guess myself on things that shouldn’t be given any thought or attention. The back and forth in my own head is exhausting. Is anyone else going through something similar? I imagine there is, but I feel alone and am suffocating from all the questions with no answers.


My mother is coming to visit next week, and will surely provide clarity and comfort, but I am really the only person who can answer my questions. The most important question I have is when will I feel safe? When will I freely embrace my faith without fear? When will I stop second guessing everything? When will I date with an open mind to match my open heart?


I am going into Shabbat today with a real desire for peace. I want to quiet my mind and stop overthinking. I want to be free of worry. Impossible for a Jewish mother to be worry free of course, but you know what I mean. I am a good person and a proud Jew and I know this uneasy feeling will pass. I am blessed, and a little crazy, but everything will be okay as long as I am keeping the faith.

Response to Pittsburgh? Let’s Go to Shul This Shabbat

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

What is the proper response to Pittsburgh? Grief, yes. Sorrow, yes. Anger, yes. Resolve, yes. Unity, yes.  Surprise, no. Fear, no. My dear rabbi, Rabbi David Wolpe, likes to say that we in America live in a golden age of Judaism after 2,000 years of persecution, fear, torture, murder, hiding and being on the run from land to land.  Now we are living in a country where we are generally treated with warmth and respect by our Christian, Muslim and other non-Jewish neighbors, friends and strangers. We need to be grateful for this.

During the martyrology service this year on Yom Kippur I reflected on how our forebears dared to worship in public, despite Roman orders not to, and paid the ultimate price for it, sometimes in unbelievably cruel ways. Yet the synagogue I attended was nearly empty. It’s a funny thing about freedom — some things we just take for granted. I do. We all do.

Two other prayers stood out for me during the same service. One prayer was for our fellow Jews in other places who are being persecuted. Miraculously, I could not think of one country where this is systematically occurring on a daily basis. Anti-Semitism, yes. But active persecution –even in countries that don’t particularly like us — no, partly because we have been driven out of many countries and are choosing to leave others, because finally after 2 millennia we have a choice. Perhaps it is because we have the United States on our side and countries would face sanctions and far worse. Perhaps because we ourselves have the will and means with which to fight back.

The other prayer is that we should be in Israel next year. But how many Jews have never been to Israel, actively criticize it, don’t support it or don’t stand up to the insidious anti-Semitism that is the BDS movement or to the bullying of our children on their college campuses? As I said, some things we just take for granted.

“By going to synagogue this Shabbat, we can show our resolve and we can thank God for living in such a wonderful country.”

I do not mean to imply that I am saying I am “religious.” I am not, by standard measures, but I am proudly a Jew. I was reading the Wall Street Journal Saturday morning when I happened to see a friend’s text about “what happened in Pittsburgh.”  So the first thought I had, after I had the chance to digest the news, is that I should have been in synagogue that day and I vowed that I would next Shabbat. I texted my kids and told them they should go, too. My brother asked me if we had armed security at our synagogue. The answer happens to be yes, but I go to a high-profile temple (I do not wish to get into the politics of that whole issue except to say that I think we could all agree that no one needs a personal arsenal of military assault weapons). Not every synagogue might make this choice, and law enforcement has vowed to increase its presence. The good news is that 99.99% of Americans are not sociopathic anti-Semitic killers with personal arsenals. So our response shouldn’t be fear.

My suggested response to Pittsburgh? Let’s go to shul this Shabbat.  Let’s fill up ALL the synagogues this Shabbat. Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, LGBT, it doesn’t matter. If you normally go to synagogue, bring your children. If they usually go, have them bring their friends. Bring your friends. Bring your neighbors. By going to synagogue this Shabbat, we can show our resolve and we can thank G-d for living in such a wonderful country. By doing so, we can exercise our precious First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly all at the same time.

G-d bless America and the Jewish people.

Dr. Joel Geiderman is the former vice-chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is the California chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Dating 101

I went on a date this week with a man I met online. While speaking on the phone before meeting, we talked about religion. He referred to himself as spiritual, but not at all religious. He also said if forced to label himself, it would be agnostic. I told him I believe in God and was a practicing Jew. He said there were things about Judaism he thought were interesting, but was not a fan of organized religion as a whole.


I shared I would never have a Christmas tree, and he shared he hadn’t had one in over twenty years. I told him I like to go to temple for Shabbat services and celebrated Jewish holidays. He said he’d accompany me if he was there as simply someone to have by my side, and not to convert. It was an easy and open conversation. I’m trying to think outside the box, so we made a plan to meet for drinks. He is 55, divorced with one adult child, has a dog and a cat.


A Jew and an agnostic walk into a bar. They say hello, order drinks, and sit down for a chat. After five minutes of small talk about traffic and weather, the agnostic asks the Jew what she thinks about Jesus. The Jew replies that she doesn’t often think about Jesus. The agnostic then tells the Jew he “thinks about Jesus often and how he died for his sins”. The Jew reminds the agnostic that he said he was agnostic, and the agnostic tells the Jew religion and Jesus are not synonymous and can be separated from each other.


The Jew, also being a lady, then spends the next 30 minutes listening to the agnostic talk about Jesus. By talk of course he speaks of his hair, clothes, sacrifice, and most importantly, how Jesus didn’t want to ever be considered a Jew. The Jew tells the agnostic it was lovely to meet him and she enjoyed the drink, but she was going to have to head out. The parting words of the Jew are “take care’. The parting words of the agnostic are “Jesus loves you.”


I am a woman who gains strength through faith, so I would never judge someone based on what they believe. To each their own and I feel strongly that religion is personal and everyone can worship in whatever way brings them comfort. I am Jewish and I take comfort in private prayer and being with my tribe at services. That’s how I roll. I am not an expert on Jesus, but I am quite certain that even Jesus was confused by this guy and was shaking his head while watching our date..


My dating life has always been interesting, but lately it has taken a bizarre turn. You can’t make this stuff up, so I have to wonder what it is about me that attracts such dating. I would like to think it is because I am kind so perhaps these people simply need kindness. I asked Jesus about it, since he was clearly on my date with me, and he just laughed. He actually laughed out loud, told me he was sorry, then laughed some more. Sweet Jesus is awesome. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Friday. Be safe out there and remember to keep the faith.

Non-Jewish at the Jewish Journal

When I thInk of religion, I think of a painting my brother drew when he was 8 years old. It’s a picture of my childhood church, where I was baptized and my parents were married. There, in the middle of a center pew, is my stick figure family, fast asleep. He titled the painting “Snooze Town at Easter Mass.”

Although my parents aren’t devoutly religious, they forced us to go to Christianity classes and Mass once in a while. They believed Mass provided good family time and connected us to important values. My siblings and I usually sat in the pew scowling, not the least bit interested in what the priest had to say. Why did we have to be here? Why did we surround ourselves with people we didn’t actually know?

Last year, after contemplating my own beliefs, I decided to give up Christianity altogether, not out of boredom but out of an inability to connect the details of the Bible (which I did not believe in) with the values my parents and I found important. I believed in honesty, generosity, love and compassion. I just didn’t believe in the story of Jesus Christ, our supposed savior. I freed myself to live by my own personal beliefs. I meditated at a Buddhist temple every week, not in an effort to convert to Buddhism but to reflect on my own thoughts. It wasn’t until I started my internship at the Jewish Journal this summer that I realized I had been missing something.

In a strange way, interning at the Journal felt like the obvious next step in my spiritual journey. I had learned at the Buddhist temple that putting myself in an environment where I didn’t fit in (surrounded by Mandarin-chanting strangers) was the perfect environment for me to learn about myself. I thought of the internship as a double win: I would learn about journalism and about Judaism. I did not expect the people at the Journal to be excited about their work. If religion wasn’t exciting, what could be exciting about writing about Judaism?

On my first day, I was welcomed into an extraordinarily friendly workplace, but also into an entirely new religious community.

At the editorial staff meetings, one person would mention the recent work of a certain rabbi and at least one other person would add on something else they knew about that rabbi. Someone would mention a kosher restaurant, and everyone would nod because they had already been there.

The names of rabbis, synagogues and even certain Jewish families made up the common vocabulary. I felt as if I had walked into a family discussing what was happening in their relatives’ lives. And that is how I came to know the Journal: a bunch of hardworking people writing stories about what they valued most — their own family. What I had been missing, what I had been wanting, was a family like this one. For me, religion had always been too much about personal beliefs and not enough about community.

And the community made the religion exciting. I learned where all the writers got their passion when I covered my first event, a protest on Tisha B’Av against the separation of immigrant families, led by the organizations Bend the Arc, IKAR and Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE). I realized that the work of the Jewish Journal matters. The only way to solve these bigger issues is for people to unite and work together, and the first step to that process is raising awareness about what’s happening in the community.

Throughout my time at the Journal, I realized how much I missed out on by growing up without a religious community. I saw how facing the world’s most daunting questions with others creates unbreakable relationships. The strength of those relationships showed in the way everyone knew each other, in the excitement to celebrate the High Holy Days, and in the passion of the writers. I never knew religion could be so exciting, so unifying.

So thank you, Jewish Journal, not only for welcoming me into your staff, but for showing me how religion can power such a unified, loving community.

Evita Thadhani is a high school junior at Milton Academy in Massachusetts.

Episode 101 – Science is a Myth

Science and Religion. The ultimate standoff. It’s hard to imagine two more dichotomous extremes, right? Well, maybe not. Maybe these age old rivals have much more in common than we have been led to believe. Maybe the mythologies that make up religion have nestled in them some deeper truths. Maybe science is a mythology of its own.

Do the two not ultimately attempt to answer the same underlying questions: How was the universe created? How did life on earth begin? How does our consciousness work? What is morality?

Regardless of your personal beliefs, it’s hard to deny that both Science and Religion are extremely captivating.

But whereas the mythologies of religion have been refined to perfection, its stories inducted into sacred canons, crafted into bestsellers, science has been left to the scientists. The mythologies of science have been and are still being written in dry, technical, unapproachable language bereft of any poetic prose that will both enchant the reader and do justice to the vast knowledge scientists possess in 2018.

This ambitious mission is exactly what it seems Dr. Oren Harman took upon himself to accomplish in his new book, “Evolutions: 15 Myths that Explain our World” .

Dr. Harman is a professor in Bar Ilan University, where he’s the Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society. He studied in Harvard and received his PhD with distinction from Oxford University. His fields of expertise include the history and philosophy of biology, the theory of evolution, the evolution of altruism, the cultural history of science and more.

Harman’s work featured in Science, Nature, the New York Times, The Economist and many other honorable platforms.

Prof. Oren Harman joins 2NJB today to talk about his very own mythology of science.

Oren’s books on Amazon

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!

Discussing God in Human Terms

The biography of God has been written many times, starting in the Torah and continuing over the millennia that have passed since the words “In the beginning” — or, more precisely, the Hebrew word that is transliterated into English as b’reshit — were first written with a quill pen on a sheet of parchment. And the Bible is not the only best-seller whose hero is the Almighty.

Yet Reza Aslan, a distinguished scholar of religions, has succeeded in showing us a provocative new way of thinking and talking about God in “God: A Human History” (Random House). At the core of his book is a simple but powerful insight — we have no choice but to conceive of God in human terms, and not merely because the Bible depicts the Almighty as creating Adam “in our image, after our likeness.”

“It turns out this compulsion to humanize the divine is hardwired in our brains, which is why it has become a central feature in almost every religious tradition the world has known,” writes Aslan, who comes from a Muslim background but briefly converted to Christianity. “In fact, the entire history of human spirituality can be viewed as one long, interconnected, ever-evolving, and remarkably cohesive effort to make sense of the divine by giving it our emotions and our personalities, by ascribing to it our traits and our desires, by providing it with our strengths and our weaknesses, even our own bodies — in short, by making God us.”

Aslan’s intellectual honesty is on display in the paragraph just quoted from “God: A Human History.” When he refers to “the divine,” he uses the pronoun “it” rather than any of the other names of the deity.

Aslan is one media-savvy scholar who does not confine himself to the ivory tower. He appeared frequently on CNN as a commentator on world affairs and as the host of the “Believer” series until a visceral tweet about the 45th president prompted the network to cancel his show. He put his expertise to good use as a consultant on HBO’s series about the end times, “The Leftovers.” And “Zealot,” his revisionist biography of Jesus of Nazereth, topped The New York Times best-seller list.

So Aslan is not afraid of controversy, but he is also careful about what he is and is not arguing in the pages of his new book. “This is not to claim that there is no such thing as God, or that what we call God is a wholly human invention,” he writes. “Both of the statements may very well be true, but that is not the concern of this book.” In fact, he readily affirms that he is among those who “choose to believe that there is something beyond the material realm — something real, something knowable.” But he also warns that “[f]aith is a choice,” and he insists that “anyone who says otherwise is trying to you convert you.”

But he also insists that if there is one thing that all religions share in common, it is what he calls “the humanized God,” that is, a deity whose characteristics are like our own. “The Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Indians, the Persians, the Hebrews, the Arabs, all devised their theistic systems in human terms and with human imagery,” he writes. Even when psychologists and other scientists inquire into the beliefs of devoutly religious people, they find that true believers “overwhelmingly treat God as though they were talking about some person they might have met on the street.”

“Religion is first and foremost a neurological phenomenon.” — Reza Aslan

Inevitably, Aslan looks far beyond the Bible to show us how the divine has been perceived and depicted by human beings, starting in the distant past and continuing to our own times. He argues that the single oldest image of God, which is found in a cave painting that dates to as early as 18,000 B.C.E., is a humanoid form with “the legs and feet of a human being, but the ears of a stag and the eyes of an owl,” an example of deity known to science as “the Lord of the Beasts.” But he insists that the very first image of God can be linked to the deity that we find in the Tanakh: “Even the Hebrew god Yahweh is occasionally presented as the Lord of the Beasts in the Bible,” he writes, citing a passage in the Book of Job in which God boasts of his authority over the animal kingdom.

But Aslan drills down just as deeply into the inner workings of the human brain to explain why not only the Lord of the Beasts but the very idea of the divine entered human civilization. “Religion is first and foremost a neurological phenomenon,” he explains. And it arises from a specific brain function that “encourages us to use ourselves as the primary model for how we conceive of everyone else.”

Thus he conjures a moment in pre-history when a real-world version of the biblical Eve notices a tree in the forest with a trunk that has grown into a shape that resembles a human face. “She transforms the tree into a totem: an object of worship,” Aslan writes. “She may bring it offerings. She may even start praying to it for help in netting her prey. Thus religion is born, albeit by accident.”

The Jewish contribution to the human history of God, as Aslan sees it, can be found in the writings that were brought back from the Babylonian Exile, that is, the compilation of older texts was eventually canonized several centuries later as the Hebrew Bible. And Aslan judges it to be “an extraordinary development in the history of religions,” an idea of divinity that represented a quantum leap from the primitive monotheism that was briefly practiced in ancient Egypt.

“This was a new kind of God, both singular and personal,” he writes. “A solitary God with no human form who nevertheless made humans in his image. An eternal, indivisible God who exhibits the full range of human emotions and qualities, good and bad.”

Aslan proves himself to be a benign controversialist. After conducting us on a wholly fascinating tour through the history of religion — and after smashing more than a few icons — he ultimately defers to our own free will. “Believe in God or not,” he concludes. “You need not fear God. You are God.”

Reza Aslan will discuss “God: A Human History” with Jewish Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch on April 22 at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Visit for tickets and information.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Convicted Murderers Receive Reduced Sentences Because of Their Victim’s Religion

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A core precept of justice in America and around the world is the simple concept of “equal justice under the law.” However, not all countries follow this model.  In Iran, equality and justice are secondary, determined by your religion rather than your rights.

A recent trial involving robbery, murder and conspiracy reveals the depth of the problem.

Following six years of investigation and trials, three murderers accused of robbery and murder of a 64 year-old Jewish man in Tehran, known as “Hatef,” were handed their sentences by the Iranian judiciary. According to the Iranian Penal Code which is influenced by Islamic tradition, the typical punishment for murder is death by hanging or life imprisonment. However, the same code prescribes that the life of an individual outside of the Islamic faith is not equal to the value. As such, the three men who were convicted of a brutal homicide were sentenced to up to 20 years and lashes, an extremely light conviction in light of the brutality of the crime.

One of the convicted murderers, known as “Houman” was a neighbor of the targeted victim and reportedly knew him for years. Houman allegedly hatched the scheme and recruited the others to assist him. During the course of a home invasion, the elderly Hatef was bound to a chair. In his testimony, one of the convicts expressed regret about this situation and confessed that he had suggested that they release the man before exiting the property. However the suggestion was ignored and Hatef, who lived alone, decidedly was left to die in his own home.

In the subsequent weeks, Houman allegedly contacted his partners, informing them of the foul smell of the victim’s decomposing corpse. They reentered the property and disposed of the body. According to the testimony of one of the perpetrators, Houman then developed a new plot to purchase the victim’s property by engaging a man who resembled him. Months later when the victim’s relatives inquired about him, they learned that Hatef no longer lived there and were handed escrow papers by the new owner, documents that confirmed the sale of his property.

Following years of police investigations and trials, the judiciary branch reviewed the case. Reportedly, Hatef’s nephew had demanded justice and punishment for the perpetrators. Despite a series of confessions and considerable corroborating evidence, the perpetrators were given light sentences simply because the victim was a Jew and his life therefore less valuable than that of a Muslim.

Most justice systems predicate on the notion of fairness. In some societies such as the US, crimes intended to harm someone based on a trait such as their faith actually incurs more severe penalties because the incident is perceived to have a wider range impact. Enhanced penalties are intended to serve as a deterrent, intending to discourage would-be criminals from committing crimes. But the opposite effect is achieved in Iran.

Criminals in Iran can rest easy knowing, if their victims are non-Muslims, they might get away with murder.

Born and raised in Iran, Marjan Keypour Greenblatt is a human rights activist and founder of the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities (ARAM) in Iran.

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!

Dr. Micah Goodman: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Israeli scholar Micah Goodman weighs in on the world’s most intractable conflict — and his ideas for a solution. He explains it all in his bestselling new book, Catch 67, which uses philosophical insights to tackle the Israel–Palestinian conflict.

“Everyone always talks about solving or not solving the conflict. What about shrinking the conflict?” -Dr. Micah Goodman


David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman in the studios

From left: David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman

Check out this episode!

In Search of a Prayer During a Trying Time

Photo from Max Pixel.

Last Wednesday I had anterior cervical discectomy and fusion surgery done on my neck. Two of my discs were bulging so badly they were pushing on my spine. My arm had been numb for several months and even though I did physical therapy for over a year in an attempt to avoid the surgery, I could longer wait and the procedure was finally scheduled. Four hours and six screws later, I am recuperating nicely and the benefits of the surgery were instantly felt. I woke up with no numbness or tingling in my arm, and am thrilled with the results.

My procedure was done at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. When I checked in for surgery I immediately asked if I could see the rabbi from the Spiritual Care department for a prayer. I clarified that if a rabbi was not available, I would happily pray with any member of the clergy. I simply wanted to pray with someone dedicated to God, and the religious affiliation was not that important. As I sat with my son and told him how much I wanted for the rabbi to come and say a prayer, and he assured me it would be fine and we could pray on our own, but not to worry because someone was coming.

I was waiting for the nurse to arrive to insert an IV when Chaplain Phil Kiehl walked in. He introduced himself and said he stopped by as he had heard I wanted to pray with him. I almost started to cry I was so happy to see him. He sat with me and my son and took time to get to know us. He asked about the operation, who the surgeon was, who the anesthesiologist was, what my pain was, and what the goal was. After we chatted for a few minutes he joined hands with me and my son and gave what can only be described as a perfect prayer.

It was kind and honest and made me feel very safe in my faith. It was a prayer of compassion and blessings. When Phil left the room, me and my son turned to each other and both said it was the most wonderful prayer and had left us feeling happy and at peace. I went into surgery feeling comfortable with my medical team and embraced by God. The following day as I rested and waited for the doctor to give permission for me to leave the hospital, a woman from the clergy office stopped by. Her name was Rebecca Stringer and she was paying me an unexpected visit to check in on me as she heard I was leaving.

She had a beautiful smile and a warmth I could feel. Her soul was visible and I was profoundly moved by her. We spoke about prayer and the importance it has in both of our lives. We spoke about our children and she shared she had lost a child to cancer. Her beloved little boy had passed away and she spoke of him in a way that painted a picture of love. This angel has a remarkable mother who is rooted in prayer and faith. She helped me more than she could ever know. We did not share the same religion, but we shared a life of faith which was respectful and embracing in a way that I wish it could be for everyone.

She held my hand and said a prayer that made me cry. I will forever remember her generosity of spirit and the feeling it gave me. Her words brought me real healing. We may practice different religions, but we pray to the same God and our exchange was special. I am a woman of faith and have experienced many blessings, but this was a rare moment of an authentic spiritual connection to another human being. We were sisters in prayer and I felt God holding onto us. When you can connect through God, without the judgment of religion, it is remarkable.

When Rebecca left my room I had a feeling of gratitude in the wake of her grace. My surgery was a success and I thank Phil and Rebecca for their kindness. Prayer is personal and mine is generally private, but my prayer this week had company and it was lovely. There is power in prayer and when voices join together it is wonderful. I feel great and am getting stronger each day. I was terrified going into the surgery and am relieved it is over and went so well. Life is good and good health is a blessing. I am grateful, happy, healthy, and keeping the faith.

Ilana Angel writes the Keeping the Faith blog at

Motherhood, Surgery, Reflection & Faith

I’m having surgery on my neck tomorrow, and look forward to finally feeling better. It has been a long road to get here and even with all the challenges and difficulties I have faced, this is the first time I feel scared and nervous. I kicked cancer’s ass, but screws in my spine is daunting and has thrown me into a place of deep reflection, mostly about my job as a mother.

Motherhood is a remarkable thing. I remember the moment I was told I was pregnant. I made all these promises to myself about the kind of mother I wanted to be. I had so many plans and dreams for my son before he was even born. I wanted to be a mom from the time I was a little girl and always thought I would have a lot of kids. Life can change dreams.

I have one remarkable son who is a truly wonderful human being. Both because of me, and in spite of me. I am proud of him and it has been my greatest honor to watch him grow up and become a good man. He is 22 years old and has a very bright future. He is a smart kid, but I worry he’ll never fully understand how much I love him. Perhaps he won’t get it until he is a dad.

The anticipation of my surgery has me thinking, and no good can come of that. I remember every time I was unkind or impatient. Every mean thing I ever said about his dad. The times he took care of me because I was sick. The times he watched me cry because my heart was broken. The times I couldn’t afford to get him what he wanted. All of it is vivid and feels heavy.

He will drive me to the hospital and be there when I get out of surgery, which makes me feel both grateful and sad. It is my job to take care of him, but over the past few years he has been taking care of me, and that is hard for a parent to come to terms with. I don’t ever want to be a burden on my child. I want him to be free to live his life and follow his dreams.

I want to hold him tight and tell him a million things, but that seems somewhat morbid. I’m not dying, I’m just having surgery. It is a procedure my surgeon has done hundreds of times with great success. There is nothing to worry about, and tomorrow when my neck is repaired and I feel amazing, I will have forgotten about how scared I was and focus on my blessings.

I will check in with you over the weekend when I am home, and appreciate your prayers and good wishes. I asked the hospital if I could have a rabbi come say a prayer with me before the procedure and they were surprised. Apparently they are not allowed to offer a clergy visit because it is an invasion of privacy, which is a shame. I pray and welcome the visit for a prayer.

The hospital said they would make the request. I let them know if a rabbi wasn’t available any member of the clergy, regardless of their religion would do. I just want a person of faith to pray with me. We all pray to the same God and I asked for an act of faith not religion. How different would our world be if people were able to have faith without religious judgement?

If I can get through the day without crying it will be a miracle. I feel emotional and happy, yet at the same time feel sick to my stomach and am unhappy. To be expected, but not at all a comfortable feeling.  I am going to count my blessings, believe everything will be fine, trust my brilliant son knows how much I love him, and hope he knows he is the reason I am keeping the faith.







Religion in an Uber

I love a cocktail, and because I am a complete lightweight, I use Uber. It is easy and inexpensive, as long as they don’t nail you with their bogus surge pricing. Important to note that if you book an Uber and it cancels on you, then you rebook it 30 seconds later and there is surge pricing, complain to them because that is both lame and unethical. This however is not a blog about Uber pricing, but rather about my recent Uber driver.

If you are interested in people’s stories, talk to your Uber driver. I have met some wonderful people while riding in their cars. I’ve been driven by a Drake lookalike who was so handsome I stuttered when we spoke. There was a grandmother making extra money to help her single mom daughter, who was so great I moved to the front seat. There was a woman who is raising 9 children and drives to get a break from her kids. Uber is great.

Saturday night I went out for dinner with a friend. He drove to my place and we took an Uber to sushi. When we got in the car there was something in Arabic playing and didn’t sound like music, as much as chanting, so I asked if he was listening to prayers, because that is what it sounded like. He told me it actually was prayers, I told him they were beautiful, and somehow we went from prayers to not all Muslim’s being extremists.

I’m not sure if my positive reaction to the prayers made him open up, but he felt compelled to say not all Muslim’s were bad, and many speak out against extremists who are bringing harm to their faith. He wanted me to explain to him why the media never talks about the brave few who are willing to speak out. I didn’t have an answer, which I think made him sad. I appreciated that he wanted to be heard, and felt bad the ride was so short.

We live in a time when it is difficult to be a lot of things. Life has levels of complication when you are gay, black, Jewish, or transgender, to name just a few. It makes me happy when people are proud of who and what they are, so it was great that this man was comfortable enough to play prayers for strangers. He asked me at one point if I was Muslim, and I said no. I didn’t tell him I was Jewish, which I am ashamed of.

I’m not sure why I didn’t say I was a Jew when he asked me if I was Muslim. I’m not sure why I would even have said I was Jewish in that moment. I am proudly and openly Jewish. I say openly because I have many Jewish friends who are quiet about their faith.  It struck me as odd that I would choose this moment to be quiet and not share. I respect his bravery, but am sad for thinking it requires bravery to speak of religion.

Religion has always been something we need to be careful with I suppose. It brings people together, and tears them apart. If fuels love and hate on both small and epic levels. At the end of the day I’ll continue talking to Uber drivers, because connecting to a fellow human being matters, and exchanges about religion can be enlightening if we allow them to be. Sometimes talking to a stranger inspires you to keep the faith.


Writing Out Loud

I’m not one to make resolutions because they set us up for disappointment. Rather than put all my eggs in one basket on January 1st, I simply try to do my best each day. I say a prayer, cross my fingers, and try to be brave enough to take leaps of faith. It is easier said than done of course, but as long as I try I am proud of myself. It doesn’t matter if I accomplish everything I set out to, but it does matter that I put myself out there.

The past year was full of challenges and blessings for me. I have no complaints because everything led me to blessings. I am thankful for the life I have and grateful to have this platform to share myself with all of you. I have discovered over the many years I have been writing for the Jewish Journal that my life is better when my readers relate to my words and share theirs in return. We are all in this together and I value your input.

In 2018 I will write about my always entertaining yet pathetic dating life, my lack of a sex life, my empty nest, my weight, my fascination with the train wreck that is Leann Rimes, my faith, my religion, (faith and religion are not the same thing), becoming a vegan, my son, my cat, my hopes, my fears, my cancer, and everything else that comes along because there is nothing I won’t share with an open heart and a shot of tequila.

I am going to write more often, and not only about what is going on in my life, but what is going on in the world. There is a lot to say and while I have always been open and honest, I’m going to take things to a whole new level and really blog out loud with no fear and no filters. I am excited about a lot of things and sharing them with you is a blessing that continues to inspire me to keep the faith.



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

Photo by Dusty St. Amand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Movie ‘Titanic’ Taught Me About God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was full of questions.

I wouldn’t be seeking a miraculous rescue.

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

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

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

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

And I’m still in love.

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

There’s No Such Thing As A Sinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we scream to whom exactly?

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

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

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

Rabbis Share Wisdom in Yom Kippur Sermons

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

Here are excerpts from some of those sermons.

Rabbi Steve Leder

Wilshire Boulevard Temple

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

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

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

B’nai David-Judea Congregation

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

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

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh

Temple Israel of Hollywood

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

Rabbi Ken Chasen

Leo Baeck Temple

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

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

Rabbi Judith HaLevy

Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue

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

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

Rabbi Noah Farkas

Valley Beth Shalom

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

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

Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Congregation Or Ami

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

Rabbi Simcha Backman

Chabad of Glendale and the Foothill Communities

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Joshua M. Aaronson

Temple Judea

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

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

Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Kehillat Israel

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

Staff Writer Ryan Torok contributed to this report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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

A damaged home in Loiza, Puerto Rico.

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

It wasn’t nerves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He was incredibly grateful,” Shocket said.

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

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

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

Lori and Neil Shocket at the JCC of Puerto Rico.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To donate to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico, visit or

The Truth That Blinds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yom Kippur fasting poses dilemma for those with eating disorders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Temimah Zucker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish identity beyond bagels and lox

Photo from Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how do we understand God on Sukkot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

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



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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.

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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.