Author Archives: Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

About Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Rachel Gurevitz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, MA. In her congregation she is helping individuals to nourish and deepen their own path to positive Jewish living. Her passions include working on interfaith interaction and cooperation, music, chant, and meditation, and Jewish mysticism. Rachel was ordained at Hebrew Union College where she completed the rabbinic studies she began at Leo Baeck College, London. Prior to this, she received her B.S. and Ph.D. degrees from University College, London, researching, consulting and publishing on environmental and sustainable development education from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

If ‘Trolling’ Is A Symptom, Have We All Become infected?

Last week, as I began my annual exploration of Jewish ethical wisdom on the use of speech, or lashon hara, I found myself confronted with a response from some high school aged students that I hadn’t expected. I asked if they knew what ‘trolling‘ was. One of them responded, ‘trolling is fun. Its fun to get a rise out of someone.’ Upon further probing, the response was qualified. ‘Only if its someone you know well; a friend that you are just teasing, and you know that you haven’t crossed a line.’ ‘How do you know?’ I asked. The answer to that question wasn’t so clear.

I have to be honest, I was pretty taken aback. I took them to the pages of the Daily Stormer (a neo-Nazi website) and showed them the original post that led to a ‘good old fashioned trolling’ of named individuals in the tiny, Jewish community in Whitefish, Montana, last December. I told them about the photographs that identified individuals, their children, and edited them with yellow stars on their clothing. I told them of the bombardment on social media and more with hateful, threatening words. Trolling, I explained, is not fun.

In reality, this is not a new phenomena. It is just that, in the age of social media, it is possible for a great many more strangers to target an individual, an ethnic or religious group, all under the guise of free speech. Milo Yiannopolous, notorious alt-right troller, was eventually shut out of Twitter for the viciousness of his online tweeting. But, until he finally crossed the line of speaking in positive terms of what is legally regarded as statutory rape, many celebrated his taking of the right to free speech to its outer reaches.

In local schools, swastikas and Pepe the Frog are showing up on bathroom walls. Kids are feeling emboldened to tease other kids because of their ethnicity or religion. What I have observed in speaking with some of the Jewish teens in my congregation is that some of this is not what we would regard as traditional anti-semitism or hatred toward minority groups per se. Rather, it is simply ‘fun’ to use words and symbols that can get a rise out of someone and make them feel uncomfortable. How schools and communities confront these trends and restore civility, respect, and ethics on how we speak with each other is no easy task, as essential as ongoing efforts are.

Finding Equilibrium Through the Practice of Kindness

Many of us are feeling buffeted by politics, angry dynamics in public discourse, and fears of what may lie ahead. In the midst of unsettling times, our congregation, like many, have been navigating these waters and asking ourselves what role a faith-based community can play in providing for the needs of our people. There is more than one answer to that question, and different communities are charting different paths. In my congregation, we’re placing the practice of kindness at the heart of our deliberations. While that might sound like a rather obvious, or even simplistic affirmation, it is, in fact, so much more.

Take, for instance, our monthly Spiritual Journey Group. A small group of people who seek out learning and reflection that can help guide their everyday living, we have had profound conversations about empathy, and about the role of loss in our lives in enabling us to deeply experience kindness. We’ve experienced Buddhist-inspired Metta meditation and talked about the equanimity that can come from centering our own ways of responding to others with kindness, even as we witness hatred and thoughtlessness being expressed more openly. It is a radical spiritual act to place kindness at the heart of how we act and where we place our energies to walk our own walk.

We’ve also expanded the way we perform acts of loving-kindness in our community. Like many congregations, we used to have a small, dedicated group of volunteers who helped a family in mourning at a shiva, brought meals to those recovering from illness, etc. This year we launched CBS Cares, creating a means by which everyone in the town of someone in need is informed when helping hands are required, without invading the privacy of our members. The whole congregation is now part of a network where we have the opportunity to take responsibility for our neighbors at their time of need. This provides a shift in awareness that helps to foster a desire by more people to be part of  a communal effort.

Our social action team recently hosted a wonderful gathering that has inspired new people to step forward to expand the ways we help the homeless and the hungry, involve more of our members, and reach out to organizations that are supporting the urgent needs of refugees. The message is clear… we are not interested in amplifying the voices of those who would divide us, but want to make our work to respond to the most vulnerable with kindness more impactful.

How a Trip to Cuba Changed My Perspective

I just returned from a congregational mission trip to Cuba yesterday. It is quite possibly one of the most interesting and eye-opening journeys I have ever taken. Less than 24 hours after my return I’m still absorbing all of the experiences and only just beginning to sort in my mind what these experiences meant and what I learned from them. Cuba is a country of complexity and contradictions. It is some of what you have heard or imagined it to be, while also being entirely different from much of what you have heard or imagined. It is a place where the people are far less free in many ways and yet more free in other ways than we are in the USA.

Ours was a mission trip and so we visited three Jewish communities and a residence for pregnant women, bringing both goods and cash to help them do their work. The more substantial communities are in Havana, but we also visited with a representative of the 18-strong Jewish community of Cienfuegos. In addition, we learned a great deal about Cuban education, health care, international relations, economics, political history, and more, from our wonderful guide Manuel.

READ: Why There Is No Chabad House in Havana

As some of the members of my community began to reflect on their experiences on the last evening of the trip, I was most struck by what one said to me: ‘As much as this trip has changed my perspective on Cuba, that was something that I expected to happen. But I didn’t realize how much it would change my perspective on the USA.’

We get comfortable with our particular perspectives and the lenses through which we look upon the world and upon others. It can be hard to shift that perspective, particularly if we only ever read the same sources for news, only have meaningful conversations with the same friends and people who think just like us. I think that is why an integral part of Jewish wisdom has always been not just what you study but how you study it; traditionally Torah and Talmud were to be studied always in havruta – with a partner. Two people – at least two perspectives. And it is why the Talmud includes the minority opinions on matters being debated and discussed and not only the majority point of view.

Don’t Let the Light Go Out!

Last night our congregation’s chant meditation group met to contemplate light as we arrived at the cusp of the darkest day of the year and looked ahead to the festival of Hanukkah. Many of us in our community have been struggling to see bright times ahead or feel optimistic about what may lie ahead in the USA and beyond as we  enter 2017. So the meditation, the inspiration of people chanting together in harmony, and the kavvanot (intentional teachings) that interspersed the chanting provided some timely inspiration and a reminder of ways that we can sustain our own light when we feel we are in darker times.

When the temple stood in ancient times, the olive oil-fed seven-branched menorah was to be kept alight at all times. Likewise, the fires of the altar. Of latter, it is written in Leviticus 6:6 ‘A perpetual fire will be kept burning on the altar; it shall not go out.’ Chanting that phrase over and over in Hebrew to a melody created by master of Hebrew chant meditation, Rabbi Shefa Gold, we felt the energy in the room intensifying.

Over the centuries, commentators extrapolated a broader, more symbolic meaning to this verse to respond to what seemed like an unnecessary repetition. If a fire is called ‘perpetual‘ then why reiterate that ‘it shall not go out‘? And, once the temple has been destroyed, how do you obey a commandment to do something in perpetuity when the physical object to which it refers no longer exists?

One answer was to think more allegorically about what a perpetual light represents. Keeping the faith, holding on to hope, thinking about what kinds of things sustain us and enable us to keep going… these are all ways that we can transform something concrete into a timeless idea. And it is an idea that has helped make Hanukkah such a potent festival of symbolic relevance in every age. While the Maccabee military victory that lies at the heart of the Hanukkah story in the books of Maccabees may have been miraculous in the sense that such a small band defeated an Empire’s army against all odds, that is not the story that most highlight at Hanukkah time. Instead it is the miracle of the oil – sufficient only for one night but, in fact, lasted for eight, that is first found in rabbinic conversations in the Talmud, a couple of centuries later. That switch in focus was partly pragmatic – encouraging others to follow the example of the Maccabees when living under the Roman Empire wasn’t going so well for the Jewish people – but it was also a genius move that turned the festival from the remembrance of a purely historic event into something that would be symbolically inspirational for all the challenging and dark times that Jews would find themselves living in for centuries after.

When a presidential candidate is misinformed about late term abortion

In recent weeks there has been a great deal said by presidential candidate, Donald Trump, that has caused deep upset and anger among women in particular. But last week, during the final presidential debate, he shared a perspective on late term abortion that, beyond being so utterly misinformed, created a dangerous misperception that must be corrected. It also lacked any iota of compassion for the incredibly painful and heart-wrending decisions that women have had to make in the latter stages of a pregnancy.

Language is incredibly powerful. As you would expect, the language used when this issue comes up as a political, legislative question, can be highly charged. Proponents who believe that abortions after approximately 20 weeks should be banned entirely under any circumstance will often use the term ‘partial term abortion.’ As Dr. Jen Gunter, an Ob-gyn who blogs at Dr. Jen Gunter: Wielding the lasso of truth explains, “you cannot be partially born.” You are either pregnant or not, delivered… or not. ‘Late term’ is defined by law in terms of weeks in states that do not permit these abortions or place limits or procedures in place before such an abortion can be performed. Dr. Gunter further clarifies by explaining that “…only 1.3 percent of abortions happen at, or after, 21 weeks, and 80 percent of those are the results of catastrophic defects with the fetus.” (2012 stats from CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

All of this goes to say that the picture painted by Trump of a late term abortion that involves ‘ripping a baby’ out a mother at 9 months, is a complete fallacy. And it is a dangerous one. People vote for legislation, are influenced in how they think about candidates for the Supreme Court, and make judgments about women’s choices, based on their understanding of this issue. So it is of vital importance that we understand what we are talking about.

First, when we look to Jewish law and opinion on this issue, we will find that it does not make any distinction between abortions performed early in a pregnancy and those performed later. Traditionally, the sole concern that would receive approval in Jewish law for an abortion is the health of the mother. This always takes precedence, until the point at which the crown of the baby’s head has emerged during birth, at which point it is given equal status as a life to the mother. These determinations begin with a source in the Torah (Exodus 21:22) that presents an example of case law where, if a pregnant woman is injured while two men are fighting and miscarriages, a fine is due. Had Torah considered it to be the murder of a life, the judgment would have been of a completely different order.

How Tech Innovation Both Defines and Challenges Our Identity

Back in August, when I last posted for this blog, I was on my way to visit the URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy in Byfield, MA, for a day. I got to sit with some of the campers at lunch – a group of boys who were loving their film, robotic, and game design workshops. One of them told me that he’d seen a video about a robot that can write a Torah scroll in a fraction of the time it takes a human . Take a look at it here.

We took a moment to be in awe of some of the things that robots are being designed to do these days. But then, I have to admit, I needed to voice my discomfort at this particular example. It somehow felt less ‘holy’ to me to have a robot write a scroll. Why is that? If the robot can write more perfectly, why is that ‘less’? Is it something to do with the skill and effort of the traditional scribe? Or the sense that the scribe is the embodiment of over 2,000 years of tradition? On the other hand, this will certainly reduce the cost of a scroll, making Torah more accessible to Jewish communities around the world.  And then I started to wonder about things like the practice of the scribe going to the mikveh for a ritual immersion before filling in the names of God on a scroll. My lunch partner had a simple answer: ‘We could make the robot waterproof!’ But if the robot can’t make a mistake in writing out God’s name, why would that matter? And a robot can’t be ‘spiritually’ prepared to carry out an act, because it has no soul. Right?

The details of this case study are less important than the questions that it raises.  Kevin Kelly, author of ‘The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape our Future” presents the following insights:

… we’ve been redefining what it means to be human. Over the past 60 years, as mechanical processes have replicated behaviors and talents that we thought were unique to humans, we’ve had to change our minds about what sets us apart. As we invent more species of AI [artifical intelligence], we will be forced to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about humans… We’ll spend the next three decades – indeed, perhaps the next century – in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking ourselves what humans are good for. If we aren’t unique toolmakers, or artists, or moral ethicists, then what, if anything, makes us special?(p. 48-9)

Who Am I? And Other Great Questions that Science and Religion Explore

Today I’m off to the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy in Byfield, MA. It is just an hour away from my congregation. We are blessed to have one of the most innovative new camps of the Reform movement almost on our doorstep, and a number of our students have already taken advantage of this incredible resource in its three years of existence.  If you’ve ever wondered how to get kids, who sometimes seem so hard to impress, to really and truly experience awe, Sci-Tech Academy is a great place to visit. Flying drones, biotech and forensics, game design, robotics, film, and so much more… awe and wonder are built into the DNA of the camp, quite literally (the kids create an amazing DNA sculpture of all of the values that will imbue their summer together that sits next to the Ark as they gather for tefilah (prayer) every morning).

This year I’m especially excited to visit their open day because our congregation is one of the 11 recipients of a ‘Scientists in Synagogues‘ grant from Rabbi Geoff Mitelman’s innovative ‘Sinai and Synapses‘ project. We’ll be spending the next year and a half (and beyond, I hope), considering how Science and Judaism can collaborate in ways that give us new ways to consider essential questions of life. I can think of no question more essential than ‘Who am I’?

When we understand the opening chapters of Genesis not as a history but as a mythical response to this essential question, they reveal some ancient wisdom that pertains to the nature of humanity. Who we are, what our purpose is, why and how we are capable of both good and evil, love, jealousy, creativity, destruction, and so much more. These narratives have guided religious and philosophical considerations of what it means to be human for centuries.

Today, technological innovation, whether in medical innovation, or in computer technologies (and particularly in Artificial Intelligence), are challenging us to revisit assumptions about the essential nature of humanity. The ability to initiate change at the genetic level, the ability to ‘know’ through our relationship to an exponentially expanding web of networks, and to enhance our ability to make connections and see patterns with A.I., cause us to question what remains essentially core to being human. Our investigations will likely reveal much that remains the same, while also demanding new answers.  This is the topic of study for our congregation. Located along a corridor of tech and medical research concentrated between Boston and Central Massachusetts, our congregation is filled with individuals whose professional lives touch on aspects of these core questions of existence on a daily basis.

I am excited by what we may discover through the programs that we are planning, the conversations we will have, and the new ways that we will bring Jewish wisdom and text into relationship with cutting edge science and technology.  That is what happens at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, and this juxtaposition can open doors to a whole new way to be in awe of our world and our existence. And that, truly, is a religious experience.

What Korach can teach us about Brexit, and other political rebellions

I’m writing this post as I’m about to depart for Europe. First stop, London, and then on to Portugal. In preparing for a celebration of my mother’s 70th birthday, and the opportunity to share some Torah at her congregation in London, I found that Parshat Korach gives us a great deal of food for thought at this moment, both in Europe and here in the US.

In reviewing commentaries, midrashim, and other insights of the early rabbis regarding the attempted rebellion of Korach and his followers against Moses’ leadership, we find political intrigue to match anything hitting our news headlines today. It seems that there really is nothing new under the sun. In the biblical account it is God that settles the matter rather than a Referendum or a democratic vote. I think that is because the authors of our tradition, and certainly the rabbis who followed, understood that the path of Korach would have led to anarchy and the destruction of any sense of peoplehood before it had even been created. ‘Why are you the central authority?’ he challenges. ‘If we are a priestly people, surely we are all entitled to take up the mantle of leadership and take the people in a different direction!’

Of course, today the situation isn’t quite so straightforward. We do value democracy and autonomy, and ‘we the people’ have been given the responsibility to make political decisions that will shape our future. But are there insights we can draw from the debates and discussions of centuries past about the conflict between Korach and Moses that can help us think more clearly about the choices we are facing today? Is there a middle way, where the only response doesn’t have to be ‘you are wrong and I am right’? Is there a way to authentically acknowledge and identify the concerns that drive some toward extreme voices who make false promises, such that we might actually come together over those legitimate concerns without resorting to extremism, or legitimizing the extremists who so easily play on our concerns?

What the Stanford Rape Case Can Teach Us

Like a great many others have over these past few days, I have read the incredibly powerful letter written by the young woman who was raped by Brock Turner. In past weeks it has felt like we have been riding several tides of outrage… outrage expressed in politics, presidential campaigns, and by the masses who are drawn more to the outrage than to thoughtful ideas that could address the concerns that drive the outrage. Then, last week, the outrage over the shooting, to keep safe a small boy, of a gorilla in a zoo. In the latter example, the fact that the tragedy of a momentary turn away from one child to attend to another led to the unfolding of such a terrifying scene for a mother and a tragic consequence for a gorilla should more properly have been, in my opinion, a time for extreme empathy and not outrage. But how easy it is to press the outrage button these days as the knee-jerk response to emotionally and socially complex situations.

However, in the case of Brock Turner’s rape of a young woman, the sentencing that was passed down and the reasoning for it may well be an appropriate cause for communally-expressed outrage. To those who have pondered what responsibility the young woman might have for what transpired, given her heavy drinking on the night in question, I think one brief comment I saw is the response you’ve been looking for: “A hangover… she expected a hangover.”

Taking full responsibility for how a young woman’s life was turned upside down and for the choice to sexually attack someone… it is the absence of a clear and deep statement of responsibility, and an understanding of what Turner did to this woman, that has caused the outrage. His father’s letter to the court reflects on his son’s deep remorse over the events of that night but it is couched in so much irrelevant information in defense of his son that it is not at all clear that this father, let alone his son, truly understands that it is the heinous crime of sexual assault that Brock has been found guilty of, or what that truly does to a woman who is the victim of such an assault.

A Memorial Day to Remember

Last night we moved from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut – from Remembrance Day to Independence Day in Israel. We are just a couple of weeks away from Memorial Day in the U.S. Ask many in the United States what happens on Memorial Day and you might hear answers like “Sales,” “BBQs” or, along many of the beaches and lakes in our part of the Northeast, “beaches open.” Perhaps, if you live in a town like ours, you might hear “Parades”… our town has done a beautiful job of involving all the local Scout and Brownie groups, school marching bands, and local civic groups, along with veterans, to ensure that we still have a meaningful Memorial Day parade, stopping at four local cemeteries en route for moments of prayer and reflection.

But last night, our 7th-12th grade Chai school students got a taste of Memorial Day, Israel-style. In the opening words of our two young Israeli emissaries, Omri and Lihi, there is barely a soul in Israel who does not know someone who has been killed or injured while serving their country. Yom HaZikaron is not about wars of yesteryear, and it is not symbolized with patriotic flag-waving followed by business as usual. It is a day of profound sadness and deep reflection on the cost of creating and keeping safe a country that has continually been surrounded by aggressive neighbors and terrorist groups throughout its short history.

As our students sang songs, lit memorial candles, learned about individual soldiers who had died in the line of duty, recited Kaddish and sang Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem), and stood in silence for the sirens that sound all across Israel, this was experiential learning that was deeply moving.

Last year, I was in Israel for Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut with members of our congregation. The depth of feeling and the scale of the impact across communities was something we were privileged to witness by attending the remembrance service in Misgav, where our tour company owners lived. The following day, our Yom Ha’atzmaut was somewhat subdued. For our young leaders, their relatively recent experiences of serving in the Israel Defense Forces were too close and too raw to be able to segue into joyous celebration so soon after remembering their losses. And yet, they recognized that the nation of Israel, as a whole, needed these days to be side-by-side so that no-one would lose sight of what they had been fighting for. Reflecting on the juxtaposition of these two days in my travel blog of our trip, I wrote:

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