Monthly Archives: December 2011

Teaching Our Larger Communities About Chanukah

Last year, just before Chanukah, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman came to me for some assistance.  Her four-year-old daughter had come home from school and asked her to explain the meaning of Chanukah.  Although the reporter had grown up in New York City and had many Jewish friends, she didn’t feel equipped to adequately answer the question.  She also realized that if she felt this way, there certainly must be others with a similar lack of “Chanukah knowledge.”  That’s where I came in; the reporter asked me to write a piece that would help well-meaning, culturally curious parents answer their children’s questions.  Here’s what I wrote:

My 6-year-old daughter, Noa, was particularly thrilled by Chanukah last year. She became more excited each night, as the number of candles we lit increased. The last night was enthralling, as she set each candle in the menorah that stood next to the window in our living room.

Chanukah (meaning dedication) comes at the darkest point of the year, waking us from our apathy and reminding us to be in awe of all of the small and large wonders in our lives. In the darkest of days, we have the amazing capacity to bring light — to bring goodness and peace — to those we encounter.

We light a menorah in our window for eight nights, adding one candle each night so that by the final night we have all eight candles and the helper candle, used to light the others (called the shamash), sparkling through the glass. By lighting the candles in the window, we don’t merely retain our light — rather, we shine it out onto the world.

But why the eight nights and eight candles? The story of Chanukah is one to which we can all relate.

It is the story of the small and righteous winning out over the large oppressive forces in the world. In 165 B.C.E., after discrimination, forced assimilation and violence, a small group of Jewish fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, won religious freedom from the large Hellenistic Assyrian army, led by the King Antiochus.

The rabbis responsible for writing the Talmud centuries later, who were living in a time when a military solution to oppression was not feasible, were uncomfortable simply celebrating a military victory, and therefore emphasized a more spiritual dimension with the legend of the oil. We are told that after the war, when the Maccabees went to rededicate our temple, there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one night. Yet, amazingly, this small cruse of oil lasted for eight days, enough time for our people to acquire more oil. Similar to Judah Maccabee’s tiny army, the small amount of oil would not dissipate.

Today, we eat special fried foods that symbolize the miracle of the oil — specifically potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly doughnuts. We also play a game called dreidel. Each side of this unique top is engraved with a letter symbolizing the line “A great miracle happened there.”

Traditionally, teachers were paid during Chanukah in gelt (coins), and therefore it also has become customary for children (and adults!) to enjoy chocolate Chanukah gelt.

Whatever story we choose to tell our children — whether it is one of victory over oppression or of miraculous oil — the essential message is the same. Sometimes life is rough. Sometimes people are mean, hurting us and getting us down. Yet, in the end, goodness will win out.

We all have a powerful inner light — represented by the candles of the menorah. It is our job — even in the darkest of days — to remain dedicated to allowing our light to shine bright, illuminating our world and bringing us to a better tomorrow.

Posted on December 16, 2011

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How Transparent Should We Be?

Why Do Infomericals Work?

If you ever watch infomercials, you know that what they really sell isn’t just an amazing product — it’s the fact that you get to see how the product works. And in his article “The Pitchman,” Malcolm Gladwell introduces us to Ron Popeil, the maker of some of the most effective infomercials ever. What Popeil discovered was that infomercials really sell transparency — a sense of confidence and knowledge in our ability that leads us to say, “I can do this!”

Think about a VCR. Is there anything more frustrating than seeing that blinking “12:00″? What frustrates us isn’t the VCR itself — it’s that it feels totally and utterly impossible to penetrate. And as Gladwell says, if Popeil had been the person who had invented the VCR, and presented it like his other products, the tape wouldn’t be inserted behind a hidden door — it would be out in plain sight, so that if it was recording, you could see the spools turn. The controls wouldn’t be discreet buttons; they would make a reassuring click as they were pushed up and down, and each step of the taping process would be identified with a big, obvious numeral so that you could set it and forget it. (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 24)

What Popeil realized was that we want to know more than just the “what”– we’re also very focused on the “how”. We like feeling that we’ve learned some arcane knowledge (“oh, so THAT’S how that works!”), and since knowledge is often power, if we get to see how something works, we feel more equal to those who already had the knowledge — everyone now knows how this product works; not just the creators.

Are There Times We Shouldn’t Be Transparent?

But are there times when it’s better not to know how something works? Are there times when we should protect our knowledge and not share it with others?

There’s a Jewish source that explores these questions — Numbers, Chapter 18. When the Israelites were wandering through the desert, they always carried with them the “Tent of Meeting,” the place where God dwelt. For most of their wanderings, any Israelite could go into the Tent at any time. But in Numbers 18, God creates a “hierarchy of holiness,” preventing everyone except the priests and Levites from entering the Tent, and putting the vast majority of the Israelites out of the loop if they wanted to see what the priests and Levites were doing:

Let no unauthorized person [enter the Tent]…Any unauthorized person who enters the Tent shall die…[and] the [other] Israelites shall no longer come forward to the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 18:4,7,22)

Clearly, God wanted to keep most of the Israelites out. God doesn’t seem to think that transparency is a value in and of itself. So the question becomes: when is it important to be fully transparent, and when is it important to keep our knowledge protected?

This is a huge question for us today. We love sharing what we’re doing through Twitter and Facebook, but if we share too much, we become vulnerable to problems like identity theft. We are constantly in a struggle between sharing knowledge and protecting it.

When Do We Open Up Our Knowledge Base?

Ron Popeil realized that selling transparency was more profitable than selling products. At some point, we have to decide when our secret knowledge needs to become open to all.

During the time the First Temple stood, only the priests themselves — a very small group — had access to the knowledge about how they should perform their duties. They kept their knowledge private. But a few centuries later, the specific details of the priestly duties were written down and later became the book of Leviticus — a text any of us can study today, allowing anyone at all to study in detail how the priests did their job. So what began as protected knowledge has become totally open to anyone who picks up a Bible today.

So here’s the question: what are the implications when protected knowledge — whether it’s how a particular product works or the specifics of what the priests were doing — becomes open to all? And how do we determine if certain kinds of knowledge should be easily accessible or hard to come by?

Posted on December 15, 2011

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Jewish storytelling: not just at the kitchen table, but about the kitchen table

I was recently sharing my excitement about Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home, during a Friday night sermon.  The premise of the book is how we can learn so much history from the very ordinary objects in our homes.  He writes:

Looking around my house I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me.  Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to those two.  Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon?  And why do forks have four tines and not three or five?  There must be reasons for these things… I heard a reference on the radio to someone paying for room and board, and realized that when people talk about room and board, I have no idea what the board is that they are talking about.  Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me.

I started to turn these questions in my head, and to think about the Jewish home this way.  A few years ago Vanessa Ochs wrote an article in which she proposed ways of categorizing the things in a Jewish home.  Her categories, I realized, also provide ways that enable us to use our everyday household objects to tell the story and the history of the Jewish people and, more specifically, our personal family histories.  The first category is ‘Articulate objects’.  These are the self-evident items that might tell you that you are in a Jewish home, like a mezuzah on the door, a menorah, a challah cover.   The specific ones that we have may tell a personal story, but the objects themselves tell more of the ‘official’ history of Judaism.

The second category she calls ‘Jewish-Signifying Objects’.  For example, it is not unique to Jewish families to have photographs of the grandchildren in abundance.  However, the university graduation photos of every one of my grandmother’s children and grandchildren all lined up on one wall tells a social history of the first generation of her family to get a college education, and the enormous value that a Jewish parent places on education in general.

The final category is what Ochs labels ‘Ordinary objects transformed.’  These are things that might be found in any household, but in a specific context take on the role of klei kodesh – holy objects that we use for sacred purpose or mitzvot.  An ornate white tablecloth that is wrapped in plastic and taken out once a year is more than just a nice, white tablecloth.  Used on Rosh Hashanah it is being used for the act of hiddur mitzvah – to beautify the mitzvah of making a festive meal.  I use my home computer for all kinds of things, but 99% of the time that I am on Skype, it is to connect with my parents, in part an expression of kabed avicha v’et v’imecha – honor your mother and father.

I can’t wait to read the rest of Bill Bryson’s book so that I can walk from room to room in my home and tell the stories and the history of our society through the ordinary objects that I see.  But it is also great fun, and a great way to do Jewish storytelling, for each of us to look around our homes for ordinary and everyday things that tell our Jewish stories.  Give it a go, and I’d love for you to post some of your personal and family Jewish stories about some of the ordinary things in your home in the comments here.  I’ll cross-post some of the best ones on my personal blog too.

Posted on December 14, 2011

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Who Are Our Brothers?

Early in this week’s parashah, we find Joseph in search of his brothers. He’s already dreamt, and reported on, his notable dreams. His siblings have already developed a contempt for him, unable even to speak a kind word. Now his father, Israel, has sent him on a quest to check on their wellbeing as they pasture the flocks.

So Joseph walks to Shechem. Not finding his brothers or the flocks immediately, he begins wandering about in the fields, hoping to come them. Instead, he happens upon a man (or the man happens upon him), who asks, “What are you looking for?” Joseph answers, “I am looking for my brothers.” To which the unnamed man responds, “nas’u mizeh.”

“Nas’u mizeh,” is usually translated, idiomatically, as “they have travelled from here.” That is, they’ve gone someplace else. But zeh, the demonstrative pronoun, is most literally translated as “this.” “They have gone from ‘this.’” Rashi asks the question, “What’s the ‘this’ from which they’ve travelled?” And he answers: “They have left behind the sense of brotherhood.” Joseph is looking for his brothers; in fact he is without brothers, alien and alone.

“Brotherhood” is a term rooted in family, but family is not the last word on brotherhood and sisterhood. It is possible to lose a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood, even with one’s own siblings. Conversely, we can cultivate a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood with people with whom we do not share a parent. Much what’s good about the many religions of the world is the way that they encourage their adherents to expand their notion of which “others” are in fact “brothers.”

In El Paso, we have a tremendous opportunity to practice extending our view of “brotherhood.” The people of Juarez, a terribly violent city these past several years, ought to occupy an important place in our consciousness. We are bound up with them economically and geographically. Many El Pasoans are brothers with Juarenses in the most literal sense, sharing the bond of blood. And yet, the presence of an increasingly militarized international border strains our capacity to act, or even feel, like brothers. For decades, El Paso reaped the benefits of its proximity to our larger and more colorful neighbor on the southern bank of the Rio Grande…and now, there’s talk of undoing the “sister city” relationship El Paso and Juarez have had for decades. Nasanu mizeh. We have departed from the sense of shared responsibility and shared destiny that characterize our relationship with our brother and sister Juarenses.

The geographical proximity of El Paso to Juarez brings this issue into stark relief, but readers anywhere in the world might stop and think about those brothers and sisters for whom they no longer feel a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood. Are there people, or groups of people, whom you ought to care for in that way, but don’t? What might you do to reclaim that sense of shared belonging?

I’m a huge fan of singer-songwriter Tom Russell, who lives in El Paso and writes music about the border. I’ll let him have the last word this week, singing “Goodnight, Juarez,” and reminding us (wherever we live!) that a piece of our soul is lost when we go to sleep peaceful and secure while our brothers and sisters suffer…

Posted on December 13, 2011

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Gotta Love It

jewish experience at yonah schimmel

RENA members having fun on the Lower East Side

My husband spent Sunday afternoon at a NY Jets football game with his buddy, Dan. He told me about a scene two rows in front of them that left him shaking his head. A dad who was accompanied by two young sons watched the game intently while his younger son (maybe six years old or so) stood on his seat facing the stadium audience with his back to the field for three quarters of the game.  While the stadium entertainment crew tried to whip up the crowd with cheers and chants, the child raised his arms to the crowd to be a combination cheerleader/conductor. He was having a great time.

My husband reported that the dad was both tolerant and amused by this activity. Yet, my husband wondered: why did the dad bother bringing the kid, when he wasn’t really engaged by the football game?

I viewed this differently. It didn’t matter that the child wasn’t watching football – his experience was fun. He will come away with a warm feeling of having spent a fun day with his dad, and memories of the stadium being a welcoming place to spend a Sunday afternoon.

So it goes in life. We each find our way through the experiences that are imposed on us as children through the pathways most appealing to our tastes and interests. We may not necessarily do or learn what is expected of us, but as long as we can have compelling experiences, we come away with warm and positive memories. On a certain level it doesn’t matter if we didn’t fit into the pre-assigned pegs, as long as we were comfortable and conversant enough in the experience to come back for more.

It seems to me that this reflects on our model of Jewish education. We are so content-driven; we can miss the value of memory and experience. For all kinds of good reasons, the typical Jewish school endeavors to “educate” our students with as much Jewish knowledge as we can cram into the short space of time we are given with our students.

But maybe that model of Jewish learning is backwards. What if, instead of assuming that enough Jewish knowledge will secure our children’s Jewish future, we focus on the quantity and quality of their Jewish experiences?  And what if we conceived of those experiences not as “pegs” into which we must squeeze each learner to make them come out “right,” we observe them to see what adventures they can find in the experiences we enable for them.

So what if the child stands on the chair backwards and cheers with the crowd and doesn’t watch football? Perhaps he will settle down to watch the game when he is older, and he is happily at home in the stadium because of his early experiences.  Perhaps he may not even come to love football like his dad, but he will carry forever the warm memory of being with his dad on those cold fall game days.

So what if a child’s favorite part of being in synagogue is the experience of being part of a community that is engaging and fun? As children grow older they can settle into their seats to learn the why’s and how’s of Jewish behaviors.  Maybe they won’t grow up to want to be engaged in all the same ways as their parents, but they will be at home and comfortable and happy enough to want to learn more.

We’ve had this debate for years – how to do Jewish education in America. But all the studies support what this child at the football game demonstrated – experience matters. And the learner is central to the experience. Good Jewish camps provide this opportunity. So should our other vehicles for Jewish learning.

Last week I participated with RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) in their annual conference. We spent half a day on the Lower East Side of New York City doing a geo-locating game, using a new iPhone app that guides participants through a walking tour of the historical sites of the area, while enjoying the tastes and landscapes of the neighborhood. Visionary educator David Bryfman of the Jewish Education Project gave us a window into new possibilities outside the classroom setting.  We spent a morning learning at Behrman House about the use of an online classroom to create fun, learner-driven experiences.

It’s the tip of the iceberg – we need so much more.  But if the child who cheers with the crowd loves the stadium experience, and the child who dines on Gus’s pickles and Yonah Schimmel’s knishes tastes the history of Jewish immigration and leaves wanting more, we’ve done an awful lot. And that’s a good bit more than happens in most Jewish education classrooms.

Posted on December 12, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Towards An Embracing Community

Last week I had the privilege to lead a conversation with 20 or so Jewish young adults in Boston on behalf of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies.  The topic that I had came prepared for was an exploration into the philosophy behind the legalism of Judaism: Why does Judaism emphasize commandment? What is the value of mitzvah as commandment in our day and age? I had prepared source sheets outlining various approaches from thinkers such as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. Joseph Soloveitchik and Nachmanides.

As soon as we began the conversation I quickly realized I needed to drastically shift my

Larry David tried to go to services without a ticket once but that did not go so well

priorities for the evening. It became clear that what was pressing on the minds of these intelligent, engaging and thoughtful young Jewish adults was the cost of admission to the Jewish community. Why is it that one of the first things they encounter upon entering a synagogue is a membership request form? Why can they not attend a Rosh Hashanah service without a ticket? One participant described her dismay at having attempted to visit the historic synagogue in a European city and being told to come back later for the official tour and that it would cost $54.

While it was possible to explain the technical ways in which Jewish communities are organized and how they are financed in distinction from religious traditions that have a central organizing body that funds individual meeting places, the emotional strength of their feelings of not being welcomed and embraced remained true. Is it possible to rethink the way we structure charitable giving in our communities or perhaps the way in which it is communicated? These are not simple questions with simple answers.

It was with this backdrop that I read a story in the New York Times entitled “Loans Without Profit Help Relieve Economic Pain.” This story details an age-old Jewish practice that within the context of a depressed economy and a severely hurting middle class, seems radical and counter-cultural. The thought behind this practice might very well be the redemptive force behind constructing a radically embracing community.

Loans with no strings attached

Jewish communities in fulfillment of the Biblical command to offer financial assistance to each other (Exodus 22:24) have established free-loan societies in every time and place throughout history. Indeed, some of the first communal organizations established in America were these free-loan organizations, called Gemachs (an abbreviation for the Hebrew “gemilut chasadim,” acts of loving kindness).  The oldest one being the Hebrew Free Loan Society of New York established in 1892. People are offered small, interest-free loans with a weekly installment plan for repayment. The idea is simple with tremendous implications.

Imagine a society where when someone is suffering they know they can turn to the community for support. This sounds simple but in our cultural context this is not so simple. Paycheck late this week? Did not get the overtime hours this month you thought you were getting? Unexpected illness or house repairs? Where do you go? You could go to a paycheck loan storefront and be charged interest of anywhere up to 390% of what you borrowed. You could ask friends or family assuming they have the spare money to help you in the moment. No matter how one examines it, your options are limited.

Thus, the brilliance of the Gemach. Coming up short this month? Here is the help you need, with no interest. What do we ask in return from you? Nothing, except when times get better for you, remember to help others who are in need like you were. As the rabbi interviewed for the story in the New York Times said “You help the people who are struggling. And you try to preserve their dignity.”

To help others with no strings attached. To have as your aim the preservation of their inherent dignity. These are the ingredients necessary for the building blocks of creating a radically embracing community.

Posted on December 9, 2011

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Who Needs This Bar Mitzvah Anyway?

It was dry inside the Avalon Theatre in Washington, D.C.’s Chevy Chase neighborhood. The audience for the 22nd Washington Jewish Film Festival sat mesmerized as they watched the opening night Israeli film, “Mabul” (“The Flood”).

Israeli film "Mabul" tells the story of a family in crisis.

“Mabul” tells the difficult story of an Israeli family whose eldest son is severely autistic. After 12 years of living in an institution, Tomer is abruptly sent home and arrives just before his younger brother’s bar mitzvah. Tomer’s presence creates havoc within the family and challenges the tolerance of the residents of the village where Yoni, the younger brother, lives with his parents.

Throughout this heart-wrenching drama — overflowing with scenes of  bullying, infidelity and a near-death drowning experience — you see Yoni practicing his trope. His Torah portion is Noach, from Genesis 6. We experience the metaphorical emotional flood that comes in waves during the course of the film.

“These are the generations of Noach. Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted. Noach walked with God.”

Several months ago, Adam, an autistic 21-year-old had his bar mitzvah in our synagogue. Adam also sings in our temple choir; during rehearsal, he sometimes mimics other members. However, he is always in tune and on pitch. During his bar mitzvah ceremony, the cantor stood next to Adam for support as he chanted his entire portion without hesitation. The young man simply sang back the trope exactly the way his teacher had chanted it. Exactly. With the same intonation, the same rhythmic cadences, the same beautiful phrases. As a community, we experienced a miracle!

In “Mabul,” the bar mitzvah creates expectations and tensions for this family in crisis. As I watched the film, I pondered whether it was necessary to pursue this once-in-a-lifetime ritual given the family’s challenging situation. Who needs this bar mitzvah anyway?

We, the audience, need this bar mitzvah in order to celebrate. Yoni and Tomer’s family needs this bar mitzvah in order to function as a family again. The community needs this bar mitzvah in order to validate its traditions.

And as in every good film, in “Mabul” everyone is transformed and redemption takes place inside the house of worship. In spite of all the evil that surrounds these characters, just like in the story of Noach the good dominates.

“And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations.”

Yoni begins to chant his Torah portion and the sounds of his older brother, Tomer, follow his lead. Together, as brothers, they share this long-awaited bar mitzvah. Two by two. Heart to heart. Trope by trope.

Posted on December 7, 2011

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Miracles Abound

Hanukkah (the first candle is lit on the evening of Dec. 20, 2011) is the Jewish holiday which celebrates miracles. One custom at our home is that on each night of Hanukkah we light candles, say blessings, and then, before any gifts are exchanged or dreidels spun, each member of the family shares a miracle story. What is a miracle? A miracle is better defined as “an event whose cause is inexplicable by the laws of nature or science, and is therefore attributed to the Divine.”

Miracles sound different to the very young than they do to adults, and, frankly a miracle is in the eye of the beholder. They are, most often very personal, and from any other person’s perspective, could just as easily be attributed to good luck. I remember twenty years ago, during my interview for Rabbinical school, I was asked the question, “Do you believe in miracles?”

“I said, “Yes.”

“Was the Red Sea’s parting a miracle?”

“I don’t believe I can really know which event is or isn’t a miracle,” I answered, “For me, it’s enough to know that they happen.”

I’ve come to this comfortable place about miracles. If someone has a story to share that he or she considers miraculous, I ask myself the question, “Is there any harm in me accepting this as miraculous? What if I’m wrong?” Truth is, I’m wrong about so much about ‘factual life’ that the harm in being wrong once more is not a dangerous risk. Consider the following story a former congregant shared with me about her mother who stayed home with her grandson so that mom could return to work:

Bubbe Shirley spent (‘Bubby’ is a Yiddish term of endearment for grandmother) every day with Benjamin, and they loved each other very much. It was Bubby Shirley that took little Benny to and from pre-school, who took him to the store, sang songs with him, and best of all walked along the beach picking up shells with Benny. It was terrifying to the whole family when Bubby Shirley discovered that she had stage IV breast cancer, that the tumors had metastasized, and that her lungs and liver were compromised. The clock was ticking. There was no sense in operating, but there was time for a family trip. Bubby Shirley took her daughter and grandson to Florida, where on another walk along the beach she and Benny found their biggest shell ever, a conch shell in which one can hear the sound of the ocean or blow into it and make a deep trumpet sound.

Soon after Bubby Shirley died. Her daughter was beside herself, not just for her own loss, but her son’s.

On the first day of kindergarden Benny’s mother was in the kitchen crying, her mother should have been here for this. She pulled herself together, for Benny, and went to his room to leave. Benny sat on his made bed with his Barney backpack on, and the conche shell to his ear like a telephone.

“OK, Benny, it’s time to go.”

“Shhh,” he said, “It’s Bubby Shirley.”

Benny’s mother thought that maybe he was worried about taking such a big step without his grandmother. Perhaps she could find out what specifically he was worried about.
“What are you telling her,” she asked.
 “I’m not saying anything. She’s talking to me.”

“What is she saying?”

“She said that she’s fine and that you will be too,” and with that he hung up the shell and was ready to go.

Is there a great risk in believing that a connection between heaven and earth was being made? My opinion is ‘no’. I prefer to suspend judgement. The troubling things in life have a way of seeming bigger than they really are, why not allow the miraculous a chance as well.

Hag Urim Sameach (Happy Holiday of Lights). May this season fill you and yours with the sense of the closeness of the miraculous.

P.S. Inspire others. Post a miracle story.

Posted on December 6, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Liberal Judaism is Experiencing a Renaissance

Last week, I was having a conversation about the future of Judaism at an informal gathering of Jewish professionals, Jews who work for various Jewish institutions. One man stated, “I have dedicated my life to working for the Jewish people and educating the next generation, but it’s all for nothing. Within a couple of generations, only Orthodox Jews will be left.” I was jarred by his assertion and countered that I too have dedicated by life to working for the Jewish people, but am quite convinced of the opposite. I believe that liberal Judaism, non-Orthodox Judaism, is experiencing a renaissance.

In my work at Rabbis Without Borders at Clal, I am privileged to work with talented and creative rabbis, from all streams of Judaism. These rabbis are a diverse group. They span the age range of early thirties to mid sixties, represent different geographical regions of America, and have different kinds of rabbinates. In fact, about 50% of the rabbis are not in pulpits. They are working in Hillels on university campuses, in day schools, in non-profits, and in their own independent projects. While many in the Jewish community moan about the drop in membership rates at traditional synagogues, very few people are paying attention to the numerous new ways rabbis are reaching people. Their creativity takes my breath away.

Using traditional Jewish texts and liturgy, Rabbi Shefa Gold and Rabbi Andrew Hahn are each creating distinctive new ways for Jews to express their spirituality through meditative chanting. Their musical styles are different and unique. Shefa builds harmonious chants which can be sung over and over in a meditative style. Andrew’s chants are based on the call and response style of Indian Kirtan chanting. Both are beautiful expressions of Jewish liturgy and faith. Both are gaining traction and appealing to Jews and non Jews alike looking for spiritual uplift.

Rabbi Laura Baum has created an online community at www.ourjewishcommunity.org. It is a first of its kind. While some question the impact an online experience can have in someone’s life, Rabbi Baum relates stories of how her community brings people together. She brought tears to my eyes when she read a letter from a woman thanking her for broadcasting a Rosh Hashanah service on the web. The woman wrote about how she was feeing lonely at work on Rosh Hashanah. So she searched the web for some kind of service or something Jewish to connect to and came across the live stream of Rabbi Baum’s service. Since it was about time for the shofar service, she called her mother on the other side of the country and together they listened to the shofar being blown. Without this experience, neither one of these women would have connected to the Jewish community that day, and they would have missed a powerful moment of connection with each other.

Rabbis are also finding new avenues for Jewish expression that are not necessarily spiritually based. Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, who also writes for this blog, explores the intersection between Judaism and science in his writing and teaching. We need liberal rabbis like him who can grapple with traditional text and use them to shed light on biomedical issues and ethical concerns that arise today. Inspired by the Jewish call for social justice, Rabbi Alana Suskin has been a major leader in the Occupy DC and Occupy Judaism protests. Social action continue to be an extraordinarily meaningful way for liberal Jews to connect with their Jewish tradition and to build community with one another. Look at the number of Jews who attended Kol Nidrei services at the Occupy Wall Street protests this past fall. The thousand Jews who were there showed up because this was an expression of their Judaism. Many of them would not have shown up at a synagogue.

This is just a small sample of the innovations I have witnessed in the past few years through Rabbis Without Borders. Far from dying, I think liberal Judaism is stretching itself in new ways. According to a report by Jumpstart there has been a record number of Jewish start ups, over 600 initiatives serving more than half a million people across North America founded in the past ten years, the Jewish Innovation Economy. This is incredible.

I cannot tell you what liberal Judaism will look like in a couple of generations. It may look very different than it looks today. But I do know that it will continue to exist and even flourish. Liberal Jews will continue to have synagogues, since synagogues have been and will always be important places to gather to learn and pray just as churches are in this country. But liberal Judaism will also take place in a variety of other settings too: on line, in retreat centers, in people’s homes and in public venues. I for one am very excited to see what the next few decades bring.

In addition, it is my hope and prayer that the vast divide that seems to be growing between liberal and more traditional Jews is bridged. In his column this week, Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The New York Jewish Week, wrote an article highlighting the lack of communication between liberal and Orthodox Jews. He calls upon both communities to talk to each other more, “There are discussion groups between Jews and Christians, and Jews and Muslims; how about a few more between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the community?” I could not agree more. Some of the most amazing experiences we have had among the rabbis in our Rabbis Without Borders gatherings are when the stereotypes we have of each other break down.

If my colleague who declared that liberal Judaism was dying out could be in dialogue with the rabbis and communities I have worked with, he would have a greater understanding of the richness and creativity inherent in liberal Judaism. He may not like all of the new developing trends, but I think he would have to agree that these communities are living and growing Judaism. We are strong, and we will continue to go from generation to generation.

Posted on December 5, 2011

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The Secret of the Universe

As I walked through the streets of New York City one chilly morning last April, a young woman with a big smile threw her hand in front of me and cheerfully yelled:  “Free bag! Want a free bag?”

“Sure.” I thought. “I can always use an extra reusable cloth tote.”

The bag she handed me was cream in color, featuring black print across the front that read: “The Secret of the Universe.” This seemed perfect!  I had just finished a three-day conference with Rabbis Without Borders, where 22 rabbis from across the country and beyond the denominational boundaries had come together to wrestle with how to bring meaning to our lives and the lives of the people we touch.  And here I was, with a few hours to spare on that windy day in Manhattan, running errands before my flight back to Austin, and a friendly blond woman was offering me a simple cloth bag that would disclose the answer to that very question with which rabbis have struggled for millennia.

I peered inside the bag and pulled out a card. “The secret of the Universe” – read the card – was Bobbi Brown concealer.

On the surface – just like the literally superficial makeup this bag was advertising – this whole notion of finding “the secret of the universe” seems like a cliché, maybe even silly.  But, in truth, Bobbi Brown’s marketing people are onto something – something beneath the skin. They are tapping into our deep human desire to unlock meaning in our lives.  Framed in this way, I don’t think any of us would call it silly. When I sit with folks who are battling cancer, struggling to heal traumatized relationships, or searching for a transformative career change, the question of “meaning” is far from silly; it is essential.

But Judaism teaches us that the answer to the question — “What is the secret that gives our lives meaning?” – isn’t found in a magical compact of make-up used for concealing. Rather, it is found on the opposite end of the spectrum – in deep and honest revealing. That’s the deeper truth of Jewish wisdom: “the secret” is located in sacred connections, holy experiences, and loving relationships that don’t conceal – but rather reveal – goodness and light.

The Mishnah of Pirket Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) teaches:  The world stands on three things: On Torah, on Avodah (purposeful prayer) and on Gimilut Chasadim (Acts of loving-kindness.

Torah: The climax of our Jewish narrative is the moment of Revelation on Mount Sinai, when God spoke face to face with Moses, revealing a language of justice, peace, and love to the Jewish people.  We recapture that experience of revelation each time we sit down and study Torah with a chevrauta – a study partner – bringing new understandings to our texts and creating a space for our Jewish language to continue to evolve. The act of studying with a partner reflects the tremendous value Judaism places on encountering other human beings in sacred relationships that permit us to reveal the depth of our souls.

Avodah Purposeful Prayer: Originally, in the time of the Temple, Avodah referred to the sacrificial offerings. Our offerings now come in the form of communal connection and recitation of sacred texts. When we truly engage in purposeful prayer, we experience the potential of revelation — we both reach out to the mystery of God, and also reach inward to connect with the mystery of our souls.  In doing so, we strive to reveal our deepest feelings to the one who needs to understand us best – ourselves.  Life can be disheartening and scary, yet when we come together in passionate communal prayer, we support one another and gain strength and inspiration to do the revelatory, healing work that our society so desperately needs.

G’milut Chasadim Acts of Lovingkindness: The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman, taught that there are moments in each of our lives when we become worn down and are unable to simply spring back and find meaning in life. Rebbe Shneur Zalman explained that when those moments arise, we must go out and share kindness with another human being. Visit a resident in a nursing home. Volunteer in a soup kitchen. Spend time in an inner-city school helping children learn to read. When we engage in selfless acts that elevate others, we reveal God’s love and goodness to all those we touch. In that moment, not only do we bring light to others; we become filled with light ourselves.

Bobbi Brown just might have the secret to concealing an annoying pimple, but when it comes to searching for the secret to the universe, I vote for revelation over concealment and Jewish wisdom over elegantly packaged make-up.

Posted on December 2, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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