Category Archives: Jewish People

The Jewish World At My Door

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Journalist Simone Weichselbach Winner of the 2013 Be’chol Lashon Media Award

I love the idea of the global nature of the Jewish world a lot. I love the reality even more.  For one weekend each year, the international community with whom I normally connect via Skype, email, and Facebook materializes in person. Each spring, Be’chol Lashon—the organization where I serve as the Rabbi-in-Residence—convenes a Think Tank in San Francisco. A small group of leaders are invited to come together to study, connect and learn. Each year we focus on a different topic and bring together those whose experience and knowledge can help us move the conversation about the global nature of Jewish life and the diversity of our community.

We will begin tomorrow night, much as we always do, with welcoming Shabbat together. The tunes will be Ugandan, Sephardic, American and European Ashkenazi. Rabbis will sit with poets, scholars with activists, secular with religious, Spanish speakers with Anglophones.  Old friends will be reunited and new connections will be made. At the service on Shabbat morning, there will be many rabbis but no single leader. Throughout, the energy is bound to be tremendous.

To state the obvious, those who come together are a diverse group. There is no single vision of what Judaism is, no agreement on how we express our Jewish identities and as a result there are challenges as well. There is no easy agreement on how we pray or even if we should pray at all. Each of must confront the assumptions we make about Jewish community and identity.

Last year when our focus was Latin America, I sat up late into the night with two rabbis, both Argentinean born one serving a community in Mexico the other in Panama. We discussed the complex issue of what is meant by the term Latino. Our understandings differed greatly based on geography and reading of history. I was sharing that in the context of American life, those coming from south of the border, rightly or wrongly, are seen as part of the broadly based Latino community. To my colleagues this was absurd, they see themselves as no different than me—a Jew of European decent, not Latino at all. For several hours we pulled apart the nuances of language, geography and history. It was a productive conversation, helping me to understand how much our context shapes our assumptions and complicates communication.

At Be’chol Lashon, we embrace our differences seeing the core of the flexibility that has allowed Judaism to flourish over the generations in so many different environments.

This year our theme this year is leadership. Throughout the year we work in partnership with UJA/Federation in New York City, for example, to identify and nurture the leadership of Jewish groups that are outside the Woody Allen/Al Jolson mold. Building on our experience and expertise, we will be taking time throughout the Think Tank to talk about models of leadership and to learn together about ways to strengthen our abilities. During Shabbat we will study biblical models of leadership. On Saturday night we will celebrate 5 young leaders, musicians, artists, activists and journalists whose work exemplifies the best of what the growing multicultural Jewish community has on offer. On Sunday, we will be hearing learning how our own stories hold the key to our success.

For those who lead small communities, the opportunity to participate brings many blessings. Participating in the Be’chol Lashon Think Tank  gives all leaders the opportunity to acquire new skills. They get to take time to reflect  and strengthen their ability to succeed. But for those, like the leaders of the tiny Adat Israel Reform community in Guatemala City,  for whom it is a life line. They are deeply knowledgable –on a recent trip we spoke for hours about the value of Reform approaches to halakah. But much of their learning is from books or online. They do not  have ongoing interaction with other Jewish leaders. The opportunity to connect with other Jews is the essential antidote to religious and cultural isolation. To share their own experiences validates and strengthens their sense of belonging to the Jewish people.

For all in attendance, being together in one place challenges and shapes our understanding of K’lal Yisrael, the totality that is the complex diverse global people of Israel. To learn from the strength of others and also from their challenges is a unique opportunity. Each year my sense of what is Jewish is stretched. Jewish leaders are always talking about the need to open ourselves to the complex modern reality, to question business as usual and to look to the future. The Be’chol Lashon Think Tank is a wonderful model.

 

Posted on May 2, 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.

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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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Mission Driven Rabbinate

I recently read a lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, delivered at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in 1968 at the South Manchester Synagogue in Manchester, England. Rabbi Lamm was invited to speak about the contemporary rabbinate and in it he bemoans the diminishing and diminished role of the rabbi in American and English synagogues. He decries the relegating of the rabbi to a purely functionary position:

Unfortunately, in the eyes of our contemporaries and even, alas, our own eyes, we are no longer Rabbanim in the grand tradition, but professional generalists in charge of communal trivia, pious superficialities, and ritualistic irrelevancies. We have, under the impress of an all but inexorable sociological development, yielded one realm after another of special and significant rabbinic competence. We have surrendered our Halakhic positions to the Yeshivot and Rashei Yeshivah; mahshavah [Jewish thought] to the professors of religion and theology; and communal leadership to the professional fund-raisers and executives… What we are left with is enough to discourage any intelligent man — a required weekly sermon; ritualistic “prayers” dutifully pronounced at official occasions and listened to by no one, probably not even by the Deity; minor counseling; Hebrew school supervision; and the development of just enough dignity to stand on when our own spiritual “authority” is challenged… No committed and ambitious young man should ever aspire to become a functionary in an arid community; certainly not to become a parish butterfly.

The traditional American synagogue is sinking under the weight of apathy and disinterest. The very thing that used to bring American Jews in large numbers to synagogue life is now turning away the new generations: formality at the expense of spiritual feeling; procedure at the expense of passion and committee, sub-committee and task forces at the expense of mission. I firmly believe that declining membership numbers, fundraising woes and empty seats are symptoms of a much larger problem that once addressed will help alleviate those immediate issues.

A solution that would go a long way in addressing these systemic issues would be developing more mission driven synagogues and more rabbis articulating and living by their own personal mission. Neither mission driven synagogues nor mission driven rabbis are anything new. There are synagogues and rabbis throughout North America whose work and purpose is deeply inspiring and transformative. We just need to cultivate more of them.

What a mission driven synagogue is I will leave to another blog post in the future but for now I would like to focus in on a mission driven rabbi. A rabbi who lives and breathes his mission is a rabbi who does not see his or her job only to offer quality sermons or run a good staff meeting but sees his or her work as bringing forth a vision of Judaism in the place in which he/she works and in the lives of the people he/she leads. A mission driven rabbi can be inspiring at times, motivating at other times and sometimes frustrating to the people he/she leads because that rabbi will not compromise the mission even though adapting it to the particular place is desirable.

Mission driven rabbis are often accused of having an “agenda.” The word itself means nothing more than having a list of things to get done but has taken on a negative connotation. It has come to mean the rabbi wishes to hoist a particular platform unto their community. This is absolutely not what being mission driven is all about. To be mission driven is to articulate the vision and then be able to incorporate the feedback of the community to make it home grown and sustainable. It is to offer a compelling picture for the future and empower the entire community to actualize it.

A mission that answers the spiritual needs of the membership and that speaks loudly to the needs of the larger community is a mission that motivates people to support the institution, to join the institution and to want to simply be in the room.

Rabbi Lamm began his speech by declaring that: “I believe we have slipped into a rut, but we are not lost. We are in many ways stricken, but not irreversibly. I submit that we can still recapture our commanding role as spiritual leaders and effective guides if we bestir ourselves–before it is too late.” May this truly be so.

Posted on April 26, 2013

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The Torah of second chances

Back Camera A couple of years ago, after several years of trying to get all the way through the counting of the Omer, I built an Omer-counter with a foolproof reminder system – my son.  It’s based on the Christian advent calendar in that  it’s a series of forty-nine boxes (seven rows of seven) which  has randomly placed toys inside the boxes. NO more forgetting to count in the evening! Every night, I have an excellent reminder, and so I do not lose my chance to say the blessing when I count, or worse yet, forget altogether and have to quit counting for the year.

Back CameraIt’s a yearly frustration for lots of people who try to keep up with the Omer – it’s easy to screw it up and lose track, and according to the tradition, if you mess up, well, hey tough. You’re out of luck.

That’s why it’s odd that about a month into the Omer (today, in fact) there’s a little known holiday that’s about  …second chances.  Pesach sheni ( or “second passover”) is a biblically based holiday that happens because, as is related in Numbers chapter 9, when God commands the Israelites, a year after the exodus,  to bring the passover offering, there were certain people who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and so, could not prepare the Passover offering on that day.

They approached Moses and Aaron and said, “We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of God in its appointed season among the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7).  After these people approached Moses and Aaron, God tells them that from then on, if anyone is ritually impure on passover, or is unable to keep passover for some other reason beyond their control, “he shall keep the passover unto God in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” (Numbers 9:11)

Pesach sheni is a strange holiday. We don’t really observe it – mostly because  there isn’t really anything to observe  – there’s no requirements, since we no longer bring sacrifices. And yet, it’s sort of a shame. Here we are, in the midst of a period where every day counts, where there are no second chances, where you have to get it exactly right, or you lose your chance (at least until next year), and there’s this holiday that interrupts it for the purpose of giving a second chance for a holiday that occurred a month prior – and not only that, but it’s the only holiday we have the sole purpose of which is to make up for a holiday that someone missed out on.

What is that all about?

Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn is cited by his son-in-law as saying that, “Pesach Sheni teaches us that ‘Nothing is ever lost: it’s never too late!”  and then the latter Schneersohn goes on to say, “Our conduct can always be rectified. Even someone who is impure, who was far away and even desired to be so, can still correct himself.” He continues, “Given the significance of Pesach Sheni, one might ask: Why was it instituted a full month after Pesach, in the month of Iyar? Wouldn’t it have been better to atone for our deficiencies at the earliest opportunity, in Nissan?”

“We can answer this question by comparing the spiritual characteristics of Nissan and Iyar. Nissan is the month of revelation, the month during which God revealed His greatness and redeemed the Jewish people despite their inadequacies. Iyar, by contrast, is the month of individual endeavor, a quality that is exemplified by the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer. The theme of Iyar, self-refinement initiated by the individual himself, is in keeping with the nature of Pesach Sheni, the festival in which an individual who was not motivated by Pesach is given an additional opportunity to elevate himself.”

So, two things:

First, the key to pesach sheni is precisely that it does occur a month later, during the Omer. Unlike the first Pesach, which is a national holiday, Pesach sheni is an individual’s holiday. The second thing is the way in which Pesach sheni came about – unlike well, pretty much everything else in the Torah, it isn’t initiated by God, given to Moses and Aaron and then passed on  to the people. Instead, Pesach sheni is initiated by the people themselves, by a group of individuals. In fact, I know of really only one other case like this one: the daughters of Tzelophechad (which also appears in the book of Numbers, farther along, in Numbers 27), who challenged a law of inheritance whereby only sons could inherit, even if there weren’t any. They  brought their challenge and God told Moses that they were right and amended the law.

I think that that parallel to the daughters of Tzelophechad is the key to why this is the only holiday that is a “make-up” for another holiday.  It’s not just that it’s a group of individuals who want a make-up. It’s that  these individuals saw a specific wrong that they wanted addressed, and they wanted it addressed for the sake of justice to individuals who have no control over being excluded from the nation.  In the case of Tzelophechad’s daughters,  the case is their sex; in the case of pesach sheni, it’s because they were doing another mitzvah ( caring for the dead). But the important thing is that  these two cases  are things which exclude them from the body of the nation in some crucial way. It is because of this that they  take their complaint to God, and God answers them, “Of course, you are right.”

IN recent days, when we have seen so much change so quickly  both in the Jewish community and out of it in regards to gay marriage and inclusion, this is a message that we should all take to heart. Pesach sheni isn’t merely a second chance for the individuals who were excluded, but is a second chance for the nation to include in its inheritance and in its moment of revelation everyone who throws their lot in with the Jewish people. Because even God can make a mistake, and even God can admit it and rectify it.

 

Posted on April 24, 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

A Modest Case For Civil Marriage Equality

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Political discourse finds expression everywhere it can. People discuss their convictions over dinner, at water coolers in the office, in the gym and nowadays through their Facebook profile picture. When the Supreme Court began hearing arguments on two cases related to same-sex marriage people began to change their profile picture to a symbol from the Human Rights Campaign to express their support for complete civil marriage equality. Facebook was painted red as the red logo with an equal sign in the middle became ubiquitous. Those who did not change their picture were almost making a political statement by doing nothing.

I chose not to modify my Facebook profile picture out of a sense of discomfort with politicizing the medium of a profile picture on Facebook. Yet, nonetheless, this is an issue that has great importance. How should a sensitive, politically aware and thinking Modern Orthodox individual approach the topic? There are a multitude of approaches, attitudes and perspectives and what is written here represents no one else other than myself but is one direction that I offer for contemplation.

220px-Chupah_closeupMelissa on the blog Redefining Rebbetzin contributed her thoughts to the issue and I would highly recommend people to review what she has to say because it is a perspective sorely missing from the current discourse in the Modern Orthodox (or broad Orthodox) community. She essentially argues that there is a fundamental distinction between what we call “marriage” in civil language and what we call “marriage” in a religiously framed Jewish language and they are not the same thing. One can argue for equal rights and protections under civil law for all types of people without needing to compromise the internal theological language of a particular faith tradition.

I believe Melissa is correct in her assessment and that many religiously conservative Jews conflate the two types of marriage and imbue civil marriage with an aura of holiness and sacredness that it does not possess. Perhaps this is an area where many Jews have inadvertently adopted the dominant outlook of the religiously conservative Christian community endowing a mechanism of the state with religious significance.

In addition, I would offer another thought to further the discussion. The words of the German pastor Martin Niemoller are powerful in the sentiment they convey, which should be a guiding principle for all historically conscious Jews:

When the Nazis came for the Communists, I remained silent; I was not a Communist.

When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I remained silent; I was not a trade unionist. 

When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew. 

When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

This famous poem by Pastor Niemoller represents the sentiments of all too many German citizens who did not protest the increasing restrictions of civil protections and liberties by the Nazi government. Each increasing restriction was targeted towards specific minority groups so that others could distance themselves from a sense of responsibility because they were not of that group. Additionally, many people in 1930s Germany (and other parts of Europe) did have significant political, philosophical or theological differences with many groups that were being targeted and of course many were just simply prejudiced towards some minority groups to begin with.

The lesson Niemoller conveys is that when the state begins restricting its protections and rights from one group, or in the case of Nazi Germany actively persecuting one group, it does not take long for other groups to become implicated. The path of civil restrictions with plenty of requisite rationalizations and justifications rarely ends at just one minority group.

Jews, of all minority faith communities, should be hyper-sensitive to the danger of restrictions of civil liberties, protections, rights and benefits against any one minority group. We know, perhaps more than any other faith community, what it means to be denied privileges, rights, benefits and protections because of a litany of justifications and rationalizations. Those justifications changed throughout the course of Jewish history dependent on time, place and culture (i.e. scientific, political, religious, cultural) but they all served the same goal: To deny the Jewish people the same place in the fabric of civil life that others had.

Therefore, it seems both possible and responsible, to both always be on the side of the increasing of civil liberties and protections while firmly holding true to the unique outlook and language of our religious worldview. To do both is to be simultaneously in tune with the imperatives drawn out from two millennia of victimhood and to be faithful to the halakha as understood through the ages.

Posted on April 12, 2013

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Unleavened Equality

I will never forget the moment when my daughter came out. She was 5 years old. We were eating dinner as a family. My daughter put down her fork, placed her hand on the table, looked at my husband and me, and said “Mommy, Abba, I’m not going to marry a woman.”

Our daughter had come out as straight.

My husband and I both felt that it was important not to make any assumptions about our kids’ sexual orientation, and to make a concerted effort to reflect that value in conversation. So when we spoke about marriage with our kids, we always said, “If you fall in love with a man or a woman and want to get married,” etc. Turns out that, at least at this point in our kids’ development, both our son and daughter identify as straight. But it could have been different, and we knew that from before they were conceived.

Last week, when I changed my Facebook profile picture to an equality sign made out of matzah, my daughter asked what that was all about. I explained that the United States Supreme Court was in the process of discussing marriage equality and Prop 8 — the same legislation that our family protested four years ago when we lived in California — and that the equality sign affirms that both gay and straight couples who love each other should be able to get married. Her response? “Well, of course.”

But the matzah equality picture actually reflects much more. At our Passover seders last week, Jews throughout the world said “In every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt as part of the Exodus.” In other words, we are called upon to not simply understand the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom as the trajectory of our ancestors; rather, we must experience it as our own journey, allowing the story to seep into our very being and inspire us toward further action in our day. In every generation, we must remember our history — and we must use it as a catalyst, inspiring us to have the courage to move humankind to the next stage of liberation.

That next stage of human liberation is right in front of us. The matzah illustrates that this is not merely a secular issue: This is a Jewish issue as well. As a rabbi, my support for marriage equality is not in spite of my religious convictions; rather, it is because of my religious convictions that I stand strong on this issue. In every generation we must remember our oppression and we must work tirelessly to prevent the oppression of others. This is the Jewish way.

I have stood under a chuppah with many loving couples, creating a meaningful space for them to publicly celebrate their deep connection, transforming their partnership into a marriage. I long to live in a country that supports my ability as a rabbi to affirm the love of two consenting adults — whether gay or straight — who want to make a holy commitment to one another.

The word for marriage in Hebrew is kiddushin. Loosely translated as sanctification or holiness, kiddushin literally means separating, making distinct. From my experience working with couples, I can guarantee that each marriage is distinct. They each come with their own blessings and their own challenges. What they have in common is love. Commitment. A desire to spend a lifetime together. A dream of creating happiness with one another. A promise to hold each other up in difficult moments. A conviction to leave this world a little better than the couple found it. Each couple I have married truly believes that they live a more enriched, more meaningful life together than they ever would apart.

Is this kind of holiness limited to straight people? Of course not. It takes love, kindness, respect, a desire to support and build something greater than oneself, the courage to look inward and expand outward, a sense of humor and whole lot of work. Anybody who has a healthy marriage can tell you about that work. Because marriage is really hard. Why would we deny committed, holy love to courageous, determined people simply because of their gender?

My daughter may be straight, but even were she gay, my dedication to this issue would not stem from its impact on my own family. I am passionate about marriage equality because there are many, many people throughout these United States who are currently being denied simple rights that so many of us take for granted.

In every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt as part of the Exodus.

It is time to mobilize, to part the seas and walk together to the promised land that the founders of our great nation dreamt into existence. It is time to help our nation become a place that is truly built on “liberty and justice for all.”

Posted on April 5, 2013

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A Contemporary Story Of Redemption

“My father was a wandering Aramean.” With this quote, from Deuteronomy 26:5, we begin not only the Maggid (story-telling) portion of our Passover seders but also the very ontology of Judaism as an ethnicity. We originated as a wandering people and, for much of the past 2000 years, have remained a people dispossessed of a homeland, expelled from one location to the next. Migration is interwoven into our national fabric; it is part of Jewish DNA.

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That is why I find the paucity of Jewish voices about domestic immigration reform so troubling. Congress is on the verge of addressing comprehensive immigration reform for the first time since the 1980s, but where are our Jewish organizations in this effort? To their credit, the Religious Action Center, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and other large organizations have passed resolutions and issued press releases supporting immigration reform. But where is the passion? Where is the zeal? The Jewish community certainly has it when it comes to issues impacting Israel; in recent years we have mobilized in highly effective ways for Darfur; and most recently have been at the forefront of gun control reform. But on an issue that speaks so deeply to our national consciousness—from the biblical mandate to care for the stranger to our historical experience of exile and persecution—we should be leading immigration reform efforts, not retroactively offering words of support.

Reports this past week suggest that a deal in the U.S. Senate is close at hand, but there are still political battles to be fought. Perhaps most significantly, some members of Congress are still reluctant to include language creating a pathway to citizenship for the eleven million illegal immigrants currently in America, preferring instead a secondary “residency” status. We know first-hand what second-class status means. If we truly care about human dignity, if we embrace the “tzelem Elohim,” the spark of divinity, within each individual, then we ought to speak out in favor of opportunities for full citizenship in the immigration bill.

As we enjoy the last days of Passover and begin the sacred work of purifying our bodies, hearts, and minds in anticipation of Shavuot, let’s commit ourselves to purifying this nation of its immigration blight. Let’s ensure that decent, hard-working people don’t have to live in the shadows, terrified that deportation and exile lurk just around the corner. The transition from exile to redemption is the foundation of our national story. Let’s celebrate this core aspect of Judaism by leading the charge in immigration reform, so that eleven million people likewise can experience a contemporary redemption here in America.

Posted on April 1, 2013

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Spicing Up Your Seder

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As a rabbi who also happens to be a mother of small kids, I am often asked for creative ideas to enliven a seder. I have decided to dedicate this post to sharing some of these ideas. Feel free to pass it around, and please use the comments section below to share some of your own creative rituals.

The truth is, our family’s seders are long – very long – and our kids are back and forth from the table all evening. They are present for the pieces that are meaningful to them, and they play during the sections that feel more “adult.” I believe that just as it is important to engage the kids in the seder rituals, it is also important to engage the adults in deep thought and discovery. It is also vital for our kids to see that the seder is not simply a pediatric ritual, but rather an experience that speaks to people of each and every age. Therefore, this list includes ideas for both kids and adults. Enjoy!

  1. Karpas: This is my number one suggestions for keeping a seder strong. When we dip parsley in salt water, we say “borei pri ha’adamah” – the blessing over the fruit of the earth. This means that we have actually created an opening to eat any “fruit” that comes from the earth, i.e. vegetables – broccoli, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus… even strawberries dipped in chocolate! In fact, since we’ve already dipped in salt water, we figure we might as well keep up the dipping – which is what the well-to-do in Greco-Roman times did at their symposium banquets, the main inspiration for the seder.  So… balsamic vinaigrette, salsa, olive oil, mayonnaise – anything that you can dip vegetables in can make this section even more fun. In our family, we have found that people are much more willing to engage in rich seder conversation when they have a full plate of appetizers in front of them. We are excited to hear all questions, but “When do we eat?” is far less relevant, because we are grazing throughout the entire seder.
  2. Mah Nishtanah: Did you know that, according to the Talmud, you are only obligated to ask the Four Questions if other questions have not yet been asked?  The Four Questions exist as a way of sparking a questioning environment. In addition to singing these questions, we can do other things to inspire questions as well. The rabbis of the Talmud speak about clearing the host’s plate before s/he has eaten in order to attract people’s attention and invite questions (Why in the world are you doing THAT?) We too can do things a little bit differently to get the questions rolling. Put odd toys on the table. Wear something strange on your head. Once people start asking questions, rewarding questioners with candy and other goodies (thrown across the table, of course!) is a great way to keep the inquisitive nature of the conversation ripe.
  3. Speaking of Questions: Pre-plan some of them. Look through the Haggadah.  Look online. Ask your Rabbi. Come up with some key discussion topics that will engage your guests in deeper and more creative thinking. An example: How can matzah be both “the bread of our affliction” and a symbol of our freedom? How can one item symbolize both concepts, opposite in nature? Discuss!
  4. Costumes: Invite guests to come dressed in character. Or, better yet, provide a costume box to enable people to grab some garb before they sit down.
  5. Passover Poetry: Invite your guests to come with their own Passover haikus.  Haikus are fairly easy to write, and can be very funny and also incredibly poignant. Incorporating a range of haikus, written by guests, can add to the creative vibe of any seder. Got a really creative guest list? Invite them to come with a “poetry slam”-style piece on the topic of “slavery” or “freedom.”
  6. Turn Your Table into a Beit Midrash: Bring articles, Jewish texts, and poetry and pass them out to your guests. Have your guests sit with a chevrutah partner and learn their piece for 10 or 15 minutes, and then regroup and invite each partnership to share what they have learned.
  7. Niggunim and Songs: Don’t be afraid to sing, and others will follow. Song inspires the soul, and even a song leader who is not a Broadway star can enliven a seder with spirit and joy.  There are great resources online for traditional seder songs, as well as Passover lyrics written to modern and funny melodies.
  8. We Were Slaves in Egypt: Tell the story in your own words. Put down the Haggadah, and place yourself into the world of ancient Egypt. WE were slaves… when we left Egypt, were we scared? Were we excited? What did we bring? As we stood at the sea, what did we see? There is the possibility here of inviting guests to take on different roles, speaking from the “I” perspective, and reliving the voyage of our ancestors. Invite one guest to serve as the moderator. (Oprah Winfrey style!)
  9. Now We Are Free: Invite guests to bring an item that represents their freedom.  This could be an object that reminds them of an aspect of freedom, or it could be something that represents an aspect of their lives that would be very different if they were not free. Ask guests to put their item on the table and share its story to your seder community.
  10. Don’t Be Afraid to Move: The seder doesn’t have to happen at a dinning room table. Some years, we have done the whole first half of the seder in the living room, Bedouin style. This enables guests to sit on couches, chairs, and on pillows and back-jacks on the floor, and invites kids to move around, while still participating in the discussion.
  11. Scallions Aren’t Just For Eating: There is a Persian custom of hitting each other with scallions during Dayenu. The scallions represent the whips of our oppressors. Although this may seem a little morbid, young and old alike have a wonderful time violating social norms and slamming each other with green onions.
  12. Orange on the Seder Plate: The orange on the seder plate has come to symbolize full inclusion of the GLBT community, as well as women, in modern day Judaism. Encourage guests to consider how we make our communities open and welcoming of people who may seem different from us. This can include folks with disabilities, people who are intermarried, divorced, struggling financially, etc.
  13. Become Elijah the Prophet: Tradition tells us that we have a cup for Elijah at our seder, in the hope that he will come and usher in the messianic age. We don’t need to wait for the messiah to bring an end to injustice, slavery, and destruction.  We can connect with the piece of Elijah that resides in each of us, and work for a better tomorrow right here, today. Invite guests to articulate what they can do to create more light and more holiness in our world.
  14. Miriam’s Cup:  Tradition teaches us that a well of water followed Miriam wherever she went, and quenched the thirst of the people Israel. We call our Torah a “mayim chayim,” living waters, because the customs of the Jewish people sustain us emotionally and spiritually and fill our lives with meaning. Invite guests to speak about a particular experience that has sustained them this past year.
  15. Modern Day Slavery: On Pesach, we tell the story of our people’s trajectory, our people’s movement from the pain of slavery to the joy of freedom. There are people today, right here in the United States and throughout the world, who are still enslaved. We call this human trafficking. Educate guests about the realities of slavery today, and encourage them to take a stand in fighting these horrifying modern atrocities.

Chag Sameach! May we all be blessed with meaningful and dynamic seders, and may the entire holiday of Passover be sweet. Next year in Jerusalem!

Posted on March 22, 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

Hand me my tiara, please

As a rabbi and an activist, I often get called upon to speak at interfaith events of various sorts.  Over the years, I’ve been jealous of the fact that clergy from other faith groups are easily recognizable. tallit-e1319482273707

Run a list through your head: what does a priest or minister wear? A Buddhist monk? a nun? OK, then think rabbi. Often rabbis will wear a tallit. And that bugs me.

Initially, I just thought to myself, that it “looked funny.” But the more often I saw it, the more it bothered me. A tallit isn’t a rabbinic garment. It’s a Jewish garment. All Jewish adults should be wearing their tallit daily.

So, if we don’t wear a tallit, what should a rabbi wear to identify herself?  Perhaps the answer is that we ought not to be trying to single out the rabbis. Although the Jewish tradition views the rabbi (or at least the tzadik, which is, as well know, not necessarily the same thing) as a kli kodesh, a holy vessel, a rabbi  is not really supposed to be different from the rest of the Jewish population. She is someone who,  yes, models behavior for the community, but her primary role is to be deeply immersed in the laws and traditions of Judaism, and to teach them. Rabbis are just people who have learned the intricacies of Jewish law and practice and the attitude should be “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!” But  she is not apart from the community – anyone can be that person, if they are willing to put in  the time and study, if they are willing to make their life a holy vessel.

At the same time, our tradition does recognize that the rabbi should be respected for the role they play. But it seems to me that perhaps the way to do it is not to repurpose a garment which during prayer serves the purpose of making the individuals wearing it almost anonymous – when one looks up after completing one’s prayer of Amidah and sees a sea of wool tallitot around one,  there is a certain sense of being a single part of a larger organism. And perhaps this should instead of serving as an opportunity to demonstrate our importance- look, I’m a leader! – maybe we should reconsider, and as clergy, instead of  pointing ourselves out, maybe we should take off the tallit, and when we represent the community to the world, be just another Jew, without a special costume, to represent that we could indeed be any Jew, that all of us should be working toward a more perfected world, and that anyone who wants to do so, can, just by stepping up.

And if that doesn’t work, well, when I proposed this on facebook, a friend told me he’d get me a mitre. But I have to say, I’d really prefer a tiara. Or maybe a cape.

Posted on January 30, 2013

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Taking The Plunge

It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.

The_Crossing_fo_The_Red_Sea

This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.

In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:

Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.

Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.

Israeli_legislative_election,_2013_ballots

We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process.  Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?

Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.

After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.

Posted on January 27, 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

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