Author Archives: Rebecca Schorr

Rebecca Schorr

About Rebecca Schorr

Ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow and the editor of the CCAR Newsletter. Writing at her blog, This Messy Life, Rabbi Schorr finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccaschorr.

Being Truly Present

Ask anyone who knows me and he or she will tell you that I love my social media.

Yes, I’m one of those people. I blog. I tweet. I pin. I update. I link. And tumble and everything else in-between. (And if you have no idea what any of this means, you are not alone.) No, I don’t share what I had for lunch (usually) or every single brilliant and adorable gem uttered by my children. I do share snippets of my life as well as articles that I find interesting, conflicting, thought-provoking.

no cell phones

Bruce Feiler’s recent piece “The ‘I Dos,’ Unplugged,” which discusses a new movement to ask wedding guests to attend sans phones, is one such article.

What drew me to this piece is the notion that not every moment needs to be captured in real time; an idea with which I agree but often feel as though I am in an ever-shrinking minority. Feiler explores the numerous reasons why a couple might choose to ask their guests to check their cell phones at the door — quite literally. For me, the most compelling argument is that against the backdrop of a society that sees every moment as shareable are couples who want their friends and family to experience their sacred moment rather than simply record it. As one groom said, “A wedding is about having people paying witness…How can they do that if they don’t even hear your vows because they’re too busy taking pictures?”

Quite honestly, I was relieved to learn that there is an increasing backlash against the current trend. Because some moments really are meant to be lived in real time rather than posted in real time. I don’t want guests to tweet the play-by-play of what’s happening under the chuppah; I want their focus to be on what’s happening. Other moments are meant to be private as well. How focused can a parent-to-be be on what is happening in the labor room if he or she is too busy tweeting “she’s crowning!!”? And really, do we really need to know that?

In his most famous work, Ich und Du (“I and Thou”), Martin Buber, one of the preeminent theologians of the last century, divides the human experience into two categories: I-It and I-Thou. Buber posits that our lives are enhanced and defined by our relationships – with our goal of being in relationship with God as the Ultimate Thou. Surely it is in these moments, when we invite God into our midst, that we ought to remove any distraction that will prevent the I-Thou moments from blossoming.

Posted on June 11, 2013

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Dairy Queen

Sometimes the most challenging part of being a committed Reform Jew is seeking ways to incorporate Judaism into our home life in ways that are meaningful. Complicating matters for our family is that our oldest child, Ben, is on the autism spectrum. And so incorporating anything into our regular routine can prove to be challenging for one who thrives on consistency.
Shavuot, which begins at sundown this evening, has always gotten the short end of the stick in our household. Although it is one of the three major festivals on the Jewish calendar, it has been the hardest to observe with our kids. Reform communities tend to have the main celebration during the evening service at the beginning of the holiday. But for families with young children, and those with family members who go to bed very early, evening observances are often out of the realm of reason. Not because the family is not committed to observing the holiday, but because it is simply not possible given the current circumstances. And that is certainly the case in our home.

So while I, as an adult, crave the spiritual and intellectual experiences that Shavuot has the potential to give me, my children need something different. And I, as the parent, am charged with creating a Shavuot observance that will inspire them and become part of our family’s story.
shavuot

It takes a different shape each year as the needs and developmental stages of our kids shift. There is, however, one constant; ice cream.

The tradition to serve dairy foods on Shavuot is long-standing and has several explanations for its origin. Whatever the reason, it became clear to me that a great way to connect my kids to this tradition was to serve ice cream. One year it was an ice cream cake in the shape (sort-of) of a Torah. That happened once and only once. Over time, it has become our tradition to have a sundae bar for dinner. With crudités, cheese, and crackers as a forshpeis. Sparkling limeade and a fancy table set with flowers and crystal send the message that it is a night unlike other nights. By candlelight, God-willing, our conversation will include discussions of Torah, ancient and modern. Suggestions of how we might still hear God speaking to and through us will be shared. And in the morning, a breakfast of milk (still with the dairy theme) and Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Donuts. Because I ate them for the first time at my very first all-night Shavuot study session as a kid. Because they were a favourite of my grandmother, z”l, and it keeps her memory alive for my children. Because the study of Torah is never-ending.

Traditional? Not in the normative sense. But it is our family’s tradition. While they are young. And when they are ready for a more conventional observance, that is what we will do. Though I suspect ice cream will still be involved.

Posted on May 14, 2013

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#Torah Without Borders

As of this writing, the following topics are trending on Twitter:

  • Jason Collins
  • #talkaboutyourcrushnight
  • Pacific Rim
  • #SexyThingsGirlsDo
  • #confessionnight
  • #SC1
  • Nancy Pelosi
  • #honestyhour
  • Colbert Busch

 

(Yeah…I had to look up more than a couple too.)

What determines which topics trend on Twitter?

Trends are determined by an algorithm and are tailored for you based on who you follow and your location. This algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help you discover the hottest emerging topics of discussion on Twitter that matter most to you. ~ Twitter Help Center

In other words, it seems to be an objective way to rank information from subjective sources.

mount-sinai

In 2009, Reconstructionist rabbi and web developer, Shai Gluskin, decided to leverage Twitter and its algorithm by using it as a way to bring Torah to as many people as possible on the evening of Shavuot. As he expressed it then (on Twitter):

Are you in? A 49th day of omer prep for Shavuot #Torah fest. Goal: get many tweeting Torah and see #Torah trend in top 10 during the day.
 

It has yet to happen. Each year we have tried. And, if the sole goal was to reach the top ten, then each year we have failed. But along the way to the trending goal, some wonderful things happened that cannot be measured by algorithms or scales or charts:

Real Torah was taught. In 140 characters or less. Each year that I have participated, I have discovered wonderful teachers of Torah and sometimes in the most unexpected places. Other perspectives have caused me to reconsider my understanding of certain verses. And engaging in discussions of Torah with people of all streams of Judaism all across the world feels as though I am part of the Living Torah. It is, truly, like being at the foot of the Mountain.

Now, for the fifth consecutive year, we are ready to learn and teach and share once again. As Rabbi Mark Hurvitz, one of the most vocal advocates of this cyber-initiative, reminds us: Some people wonder why we might do this. Did not Hillel say that among our primary tasks is (Avot 1:12) loving mankind (all of humanity), and bringing them (all) close to Torah. אוהב את הברייות ומקרבן לתורה?

This year (2013:5773), our event is scheduled to begin May 14. You can learn more and indicate your interest on our Facebook page and, if you would like to join us on our climb, sign up on our event page.

Teaching Torah isn’t limited to rabbis or scholars or Orthodox Jews or even Jews. There is Torah within each one of us. What if for one amazing day we could focus our conversation not on #SexyThingsGirlsDo or Pacific Rim but on bringing forth sacred truths and sharing them straight to the top of the Mountain?

Posted on April 30, 2013

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It’s Over…or Is It?

Passover has passed us over and last night’s dinner was a veritable chametz-fest.

bread
“But wait!” you shout, “Passover isn’t over; today is the 8th day!”

Or is it??

If you observe 8 days of Pesach, then indeed today is the 8th day. But for those who observe 7 days, today is the day after the 7th day.

And no, that is not the same thing.

Why all the confusion? A simple question (“How long is Passover?”) should have a simple answer. But few things are that simple.

Let’s return to where it all started. As it says in the Good Book:

These are the set times of the Eternal, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time: In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offereing to the Eternal, and on the fifteenth day of that month the Eternal’s Fest of Unleavened Bread. You shall eat unleavened break for seven days. The first day shall be for you a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. Seven days you shall make offerings by fire to the Eternal. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. (Lev. 23:4 -8 )

Nowhere in the Torah does God mention 8 days. As far as Jewish law is concerned, Jews who are permanent residents of Israel, regardless of their affiliation, observe Pesach for seven days. This is true of even the most stringent.

So, if seven days was good enough for God, where does the idea of eight days arise?

In ancient times, our people were not working from a firmly fixed caledar. The beginning of each month was determined by witnesses actually sighting the first sliver of the new moon. Once the new month was declared, word had to get out to the entire country. As Israel is not a large place, communication could be handled simply by bonfires. After some tricksters built some ersatz bonfires, authorized runners were used to take news of the new month from town to town.

Once we were exiled from our Homeland, calendar issues got a little trickier given that we did not have access to today’s means of instantaneous communication. Getting the message to Jews living outside of Israel was difficult. The lunar cycle takes either 29 or 30 days to complete its cycle. In order to make certain that Diaspora Jews would be no more than one day off, the Rabbis decided to add an additional day to the holidays. This is a good example of how the Rabbis made Jewish life livable in the Diaspora so that we could remain true to our customs and beliefs.

With our modern technology and tremendous astronomical knowledge, we are now able to predict the moon’s cycles in advance. However, the custom of adding the extra day to the festivals (known as Yom Tov Sheni shel Galuyot) has become a powerful tradition.

The Reform Movement, during the nineteenth century, sought to emphasize the basics and eliminate redundancies in Jewish practice. This extra day of the holidays was a good example of such a redundancy. Since the Torah commands a seven day observance of Pesach, and we know which day is which, it made good sense to drop the added (and not Biblically-ordained) eighth day.

What about contemporary Reform practice? The official position of Reform is to observe Pesach for seven days, as the Torah dictates. Individual Reform Jews, if they are accustomed to observing eight days for this festival, are–of course–free to do so. This practice binds us closer to both the original Biblical practice as well as to ALL Jews living in Israel. (The one exception being Jews come from a 8-day tradition and then make aliyah.)

So for Reform Jews around the world and the Jewish community in Israel, Pesach 5773 came to an end one hour after sundown last night. And if seven days wasn’t enough time to finish all five pounds of matzah, here are some interesting ideas of what to do with the left-overs: 20 Things to Do With Matzah

For those of you still observing Pesach, “Moadim L’simcha Times of Joy!” And for the rest of us…the Countdown to Sinai has begun!!!

Posted on April 2, 2013

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Conflicted

Passover is coming and, as always, it is causing a certain amount of anxiety for certain members of the family. The issue? Kitniyot.

kitniyotLet’s take one step back and define chametz as understood by the rabbis. There are only five grains that according to Jewish law, can ferment and become chametz. These are wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. [Times have certainly changed. When I was young, I can't imagine where one might have found spelt. Today, spelt bread can be found in my neighborhood market.] It so happens that matzah can only be made using one of these five grains. Traditional Jewish law forbids eating, owning, or deriving benefit from these five grains in any amount and in any form throughout the holiday — with the obvious exception being when they are used to make matzah.

So far so good.

About seven hundred years ago, Ashkenazic practice began to forbid the consumption of rice, millet (yeah, I had to look up millet too), and legumes (e.g. peas, beans, alfalfa, lentils, carob, soy, and peanuts). Corn was added to the forbidden list at some point. These foodstuffs were termed kitniyot. Even before this practice, there were Talmudic discussions about the status of rice and millet, with a notable amount of disagreement.

Refraining from eating kitniyot during Passover used to fall strictly along ethnic lines. In the last several years, however, more and more Askenazic Jews have started to question and reject this practice.

I am conflicted. I didn’t used to be conflicted. That’s not to say I enjoyed abstaining from kitniyot or even that I agreed with the prohibition. I felt strongly, however, about upholding the culinary traditions that have been in my family for generations.

But life is more complicated when it’s touched by Asperger’s. Everything is affected by it. Eating habits are especially affected by it. For several years, I have been wondering if it is really worth it to engage in a practice that was described by several Rishonim, such as Rabbenu Yerucham (Beit Yosef OH 453), as “foolish.”

A couple of years ago, we decided to open up our food choices to include the consumption of kitniyot. And while this makes for more plentiful menu options with the prohibited foods being limited to the five grains (wheat, oats, barely, spelt, and rye), Passover has lost something for me. Maybe because it no longer feels like such a hardship. And while Passover is not intended to be an exercise in asceticim, there ought to be some sense of deprivation in order to have some understanding of our ancestors’ experience. Without the ban on kitniyot, it feels like a corn-filled free-for-all.

If corn is OK, what would be the reason for not eating corn tortillas? Regular chocolate? If rice is OK, are Rice Krispies forbidden? I worry that Pesach isreduced to abstention from bread and pasta. Nothing more.

And so I struggle in finding a way to honor the traditions of my ancestors while respecting my son’s challenges. Maybe that struggle is where I will find the most meaning this Passover.

Posted on March 19, 2013

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

Increasing Purim’s Joy

Purim is coming and the inhabitants of my house are giddy with anticipation. It has long been a favorite holiday in our family. We talk about costumes for weeks ahead of time. We take annual Purim pictures of the kids in their costumes. Marathon baking sessions ensure adequate supplies of hamantaschen for eating and sharing. And the kids take special pleasure in sending packages of hamantaschen and other goodies to friends and family, near and far. That’s before the actual holiday even arrives, bringing with it feasting, megillah reading, and shpielling.

Amid all the frivolity and hoopla that accompanies Purim, however, is a serious obligation; feeding the hungry.

img-food-basket

The commandment to provide food for the poor finds its basis in the Purim story itself (Esther 9:22). The Gemara (Megillah 7a) offers the necessary guidelines; it states that one must distribute gifts to the poor. And not just to one person but to no fewer than two needy individuals. Such gifts can be in the form of money or actual foodstuffs. So important is this oft-overlooked obligation that the Rambam places a higher value on the act of caring for the poor than on any other aspect of the holiday.

It is better for a person to increase gifts to the poor than to increase his feast or the mishloach manot (gifts of food) to his neighbours. There is no joy greater or more rewarding than to gladden the heart of the poor, orphans, widows and strangers. For by gladdening the hearts of the downtrodden, we are following the example of the Divine.
(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah 2:17)

Once upon a time, the organization formerly known as the Jewish Fund for Justice established a special fund to help women successfully overcome barriers to becoming economically self-sufficient. The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty distributed funds to agencies that worked with ow-income women, providing them with skills and assistance in order to help them improve their economic situations.

Why women?

Because women are disproportionately at risk for falling below the poverty line. Across all racial lines.

  • In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty.
  • 13 percent of women over 75 years old are poor compared to 6 percent of men.
  • The poverty gap between women and men widens significantly between ages 18 and 24—20.6 percent of women are poor at that age, compared to 14.0 percent of men.

The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty no longer exists. But there are many worthy organizations in every community that are working tirelessly to gladden the hearts of the most vulnerable in our society. Won’t you consider increasing the joy of Purim by assisting those in need as our Tradition demands of us?

Posted on February 19, 2013

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Lacking Knowledge

I have a confession to make: I know very little about the African-American experience.

There. I’ve said it.

The Great Migration

Just over fourteen percent of the United States population self-identifies as African-American and the majority of my knowledge comes from Alex Haley’s Roots and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

Maybe it is because of my age. Or where I was reared. I grew up in the 70s and 80s. In a suburban community whose racial diversity did not include blacks.

But that is no excuse.

It’s no excuse because as a member of ethnic/religious minority, I should know better. I should know how much minority members yearn for others to know their story. I should know better because our individual oppressions ought to be a point of commonality. I should know better because I am a better American when I know the narratives of my neighbors.

Our Torah, this very week in fact, goes into great detail about the boundaries for owning and releasing slaves. Though the Biblical understanding of slavery varies radically from the subjugation and oppression by the slave owners in the Black South, it can serve as a catalyst to search deeper into the realities of slavery in the United States.

On the advice of a fellow book-lover, I picked up The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Migration, a recent historical study on the migration of blacks from the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast, and West between the years of 1915 and 1970.

Did you know that there was not just one wave of black migration in the United States, but two of them?

Me neither.

I am a highly-educated person. Or so I thought. But my education is clearly lacking as I’m still in the first few chapters and have already exceeded the sum total of my knowledge of atrocities in the post-Civil War South.

I am drawn to the story with both a reluctance and intense curiosity of a reality that stands far outside my own experience. My naiveté and ignorance shame me as I read, from the comfort of my secure societal position, of those who were treated in ways that are in direct conflict with my image of a unified nation. Perhaps because though America was plagued by a violent Civil War, the country seemed to learn very little in the process.

It does not escape my notice that my self-motivated education comes during Black History Month. There are some who would argue that Black History IS American History and, therefore, does not need a designated month. There is some validity to that position. But sometimes it’s in the marketing. And if setting aside time to focus on those stories that are unknown to us is what will bring those stories back into our collective conversation, then so be it. Such attention can serve only to open dialogue and cultivate understanding.

Posted on February 5, 2013

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Make the Pledge…Equally

With Purim just a month from now, the internet is just starting to entertain with the usual, and welcome, plethora of videos, jokes, and other expressions of frivolity. A rather lively, and creative, one was brought to my attention by a colleague and, after a preliminary viewing, I showed it to my nearly-thirteen year old son.

He thought it was pretty cool. I did too. But what was troubling was this:

Me: Those cantors did a fantastic job with the vocals, don’t you think?
Ben: There were cantors in that? I didn’t see any.

Ben didn’t see any because he has only attended synagogues that have female cantors. Additionally, he is used to rabbis who sing. Really sing. So when he said he didn’t see any cantors, it wasn’t a conscious statement of gender-bias. It was an innocent statement based on his life experience.

To me, there is little difference between a child growing up to think that all rabbis are male and a child who grows up thinking that all cantors are female. Both beliefs are problematic — not mention incorrect in the liberal Jewish community — and some serious education is required in order to rear future generations whose beliefs regarding gender accurately reflect the vocational landscape. Because such gender-exclusivity exists in every discipline.

Earlier this month, The Atlantic ran a piece “A Simple Suggestion to Help Phase Out All-Male Panels at Tech Conferences” with a follow-up, “The Panel Pledge: A Follow-Up,” a few days later. Senior Editor, Rebecca Rosen, brings attention to a pledge, developed by Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, for men to take. This pledge asks men to forswear participation in any all-male panels in an effort to stem the homogeneity that so frequently occurs.

empty conference chairs

Having sat through many single-gender presentations, I see great value in this and I especially appreciate the approach. Having our male counterparts partner with us in challenging the status quo is a powerful statement. But I can’t sign the pledge. I can’t sign it because, of course, I am not a man. And I would not sign it because I think that it does not go quite far enough. A simple expansion of the parameters would call for a gender-balanced panel; one with men and women, with no all-male or all-female panels. There are, certainly, some legitimate exceptions to the mixed-gender panel. As a general rule, however, we need a pledge that calls upon women, as well as men, to take a stand. Because an all-female panel does a disservice to future generations as well.

Posted on January 22, 2013

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Driving Lesson

The light turned green. But the cars ahead of me stayed still. Perfectly still. The light turned yellow. And then red. Yet, I hadn’t move a single inch.

By the time that the light turned green again, there were more than a few cars behind me. And yet, we didn’t move. Only this time, there was some honking. Impatient drivers with no other way to express themselves.

image

It wasn’t until the third light cycle that the reason for our lack of movement became clear. At least, that is when it became clear to me. There had been an accident just beyond the intersection. Until the cars could be safely towed to the side of the road, traffic was stopped. But there was simply no way to know this unless you were sitting in the very first car at the light.

I’d like to think think that if those drivers behind me knew that people had been involved in an accident, they might have refrained from honking. And provided a sense of calm to those who were clearly shaken by their experience.

So too it is in life. We encounter people each day, but without seeing or knowing what is happening in their lives that might cause them to behave in a certain way. Without that clarity, their behavior might seem perplexing, rude, or even downright hurtful. If only we were to step back and give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than reacting out of frustration, we might provide a calming force in the midst of their despair.

Posted on January 8, 2013

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Learning from Experience

Technology is a marvelous thing. And the many creative ways Jewish professionals have incorporated it into Jewish communal life is amazing.

Over the past few months, I have had two online experiences that I had occasionally criticized in the past. But for reasons of necessity, found myself doing: watching a worship service and watching a life-cycle ceremony.

Last Yom Kippur, having had left the morning service with my five-year-old son in tow, I broke my own rule of unplugging on Shabbat and the holidays and sought out an online service. Just because my little guy was done for the day didn’t mean that I was. It took me a few tries as the first few attempts landed me in services that I’d never attend in person. It seemed to me that if I wouldn’t attend a place IRL that I’m certainly not going to like the virtual experience. But then I found the live-stream from Central Synagogue (NYC). Enabling me to hear familiar melodies, liturgy read with passion and conviction, and words of challenge and inspiration.

At the end of November, my sister-in-law went into labour ten days ahead of her scheduled C-section. Due to my own complicated family situation (with a child on the autism spectrum), I was unable to fly to Dallas for my nephew’s bris. Thanks to the rabbinic team at my brother and sister-in-law’s shul, a live-stream of the ceremony was provided for those of us who were unable to make the trip.

Sitting alone with my computer isn’t the way I want Yom Kippur. It isn’t the way I need Yom Kippur. And watching my nephew be entered into the Covenant of Abraham on a screen isn’t the same as being there.

But in both cases, second best was, indeed, better than nothing. Without synagogues that make worship services available online, my Yom Kippur would have been utterly devoid of the sanctity and liturgy my soul needed. Without those same synagogues that are open to the request of a far-flung relative, I would not have been able to witness this first lifecycle event in my nephew’s life.

I once feared that such innovation would encourage people to choose virtual attendance over physical attendance. That concern, I now recognize, was grounded in ignorance. A true lack of understanding based on the unknown.

In the end, it was one word that convinced me. Amein. It was being able to say “amein” in response to the mohel at my nephew’s bris that showed me the weakness of my long-held bias. No, it wasn’t the same as being in the very same room. But my “amein” was said. And God heard it, even if they couldn’t.

Posted on December 11, 2012

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