Saturday, October 31, 2009

And you shall be a blessing

Last night I, the cantor and CBE had an opportunity to do something wonderful; celebrate the upcoming (now completed) marriage of two individuals. Our longest-serving building and grounds person, who has been with us for 17 years, married his bride this evening, and last night we welcomed the two of them before the open ark for blessing.

This was somewhat controversial because neither of them are Jewish. Both are wonderful people who have been a part of the Jewish community for years (the bride worked at the Kutz Home in Wilmington, and the groom has obviously been a part of our congregational family for a very long time), but with neither being themselves Jewish (but rather considered ger toshav, or 'resident non Jews', by virtue of coming from Christianity, one of the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths), are they entitled to a blessing from a congregation's bimah?

For me, the answer was a simple 'yes'. We bless non-Jews from our bimah all the time and it is permitted by both tradition and the Reform movement to have non-Jews participate in worship services, at least to some limited capability (see this responza for more info). Furthermore, we know that a great deal is permitted by the traditional viz. non-Jewish participation for the sake of preserving peace between neighbors, including burying non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries with Jewish funeral rites.

All of this is especially relevant for this past week's Torah Portion, Lech Lecha. In it, God informs Abram as he sets out for Canaan that "in you shall all families of the earth be blessed". One could see, then, an imperative on our part to bless non-Jews in our midst, especially those who have contributed to the health and sanctity of the community.

Our bride and groom certainly fit that category; he has been a beloved member of this congregation, more than a 'mere' employee but truly someone who has served as the bedrock of the synagogue, caring for it as if it were his own home and its people as if they were his own family, and she has contributed to the well-being of the members of our Jewish community.

I know that many of us would see this (no matter how much they love the two individuals) as a slippery slope leading toward porous boundaries and a breakdown of conviction, and I appreciate that notion; we must always be watchful of the precedents we set, to avoid violating the religious sentiment of the congregation, and more to the point, to not uproot the ethics of the synagogue. But when two people have contributed to the care of the Jewish community at large, and one of the two has specifically labored with love and kindness for the betterment of the synagogue--his synagogue--can there really be any doubt? For me, the opportunity for us as a congregation to bless these two wasn't just a nice thing to do, but was the right thing to do, an opportunity for us to remind ourselves that, when someone takes the sanctity of synagogue life as seriously as he does, when someone cares for people the way they do, then truly all of us are blessed.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


So tomorrow I will be installed in the job I've been doing the last several months.

Installation is a funny thing. For one, it's a funny word to use for the employment (or I suppose, authorization) of a rabbi for a community. I suppose it's less pretentious than "ascension" or "we do whatever he says now" (which would, of course, be a patent lie), but it does sound like the installing rabbi should be bringing a hammer and nails or something.

There's an interesting commentary here about the nature of the installation. The short version: we put a lot of emphasis on celebrating a rabbi who hasn't really done anything yet and who's relationship with the congregation is still nascent. I don't go with the author's thesis that it somehow is supposed to 'put the congregation in their place' or otherwise assuage the leadership of their guilt when they undermine the rabbi's authority. I do think we spend a lot of effort on the transitional moments, and that's a good thing.

Mind you, I'm not personally comfortable with this kind of stuff--as I've said a few times, I'm interested in the work and doing the work and don't expect or look for recognition. But for a congregation--especially one that has had very consistent and long lasting leadership--acknowledging these moments becomes critical, in the same way any life cycle event is critical to the life of the individual.

So tomorrow will be a good and, hopefully, joyous day. With the Emeritus installing, my father leading the service, and people from Shir Ami and CBE present, it should be a really lovely moment. I'm especially looking forward to seeing people from so many different parts of my rabbinate, who have shaped me and continue to inspire me. And I'll be missing those who can't make it: coworkers, teachers, friends.

Below is the congregational charge the past and current president will be reciting, along with the congregation, which better speaks to this moment than any other blather I could share. Hopefully we'll all live up to each others' expectations...

As a rabbi in Israel
As a teacher of Torah to our congregation
Our hope for you is holiness;
Our prayer for you a sacred reflection
of the purpose towards which we all strive.

Be among those who cherish the truth,
Who banish falsehood with their faith.

Be a teacher of sacred words with your deeds.
Guide our children that they may grow
to appreciate the timeless legacy of Jewish living.

Be the same, within and without –
searching with your heart,
and strengthening us with your hands.

Aspire always to be loving, compassionate, humane and hopeful.
Become the prayer for goodness that is ever upon your lips.

Be Yisrael – a model of the sacred struggle we all must embrace.

Be Yisrael – a bearer of God’s goodness;
A blessing to all whose lives you touch.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The most important Jewish woman (almost) no one has heard of.

So I was starting my work on my thesis (on creative liturgy and piyyutim) and was banging around ideas with my advisor when he said "...and of course, the poetry of Ruth Brin."


Ruth Brin is, arguably, the most important Jewish liturgist (male or female) of the 20th century. You can't pick up a siddur from any of the non-Orthodox movements without feeling either her direct influence (e.g. one of her poems) or indirect influence. Without Brin, I would argue, there would be no Marcia Falk, no women's voice in liturgy today (which means no Kol Haneshama or Mishkan T'fillah), and we would be the poorer for it.

Am I being hyperbolic? Probably, but her influence is everywhere, and I'm an unabashed fan. Not long after this conversation with Dr. Sarason, I found an old copy of Interpretations in the basement of the Klau Library as part of a book giveaway. It was a gem of a book (you can find it as part of Brin's anthology Harvest, which is still available.

Interpretations , for those who don't know, is a collection of English poems Brin wrote in the 1950s as an interpretive response to every weekly Torah portion, plus all the holiday portions. Accompanying each is the text from the Chumash (usually Hertz) that she cited. There on the pages before me were the poems written by a fiercely, profoundly bright, worldly, Jewishly literate woman, the product of the midwestern Reform Movement (specifically, from St. Paul), a graduate of Vassar, a daughter of two immensely smart people, who was just as comfortable with the wilderness of Minnesota as the wilderness of Sinai. In every one was a hiddush, a new interpretation, interweaving the rabbis and a very modern viewpoint to create a fully accessible, poetic understanding of the sidre.

Needless to say, I fell in love with her poetry instantly. I've used her liturgically countless times, teach on her poetry all the time (or use it to teach the text), and always find new insight whenever I go back to these pieces as well as her other poetic works.

I've often called her a proto-feminist--she used masculine language for God, she only took up wearing Tallit and Kippah later in life, and her poetry often echoes with the issues of the 1950s more than today (atomic war, the still newborn state of Israel, the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, the aftershocks of World War II and the Holocaust)--but (like Penina Moise before her) she created and presented an idea of a fully engaged Jewish woman in congregational life: not only in philanthropic works or the education of children but in her own self growth, and in the liturgical life of the synagogue, something that I'm still amazed to see shuls struggling with today.

Ruth Brin died this past week--ironic and poignant for me, as I was about to teach on her on Sunday. I never had the chance to meet her (though I've talked to people who have). I pictured her as witty, sharp-edged (in the best sense), thoughtful.

Bahiya Ibn Pekuda wrote that "days are scrolls; write upon them what you want to be remembered." Brin has written a whole host of scrolls, and has added to the wealth of Torah. May she be remembered for blessing.

Friday, October 9, 2009

More on Ben

I was reminded by Jeff Berger, an old NFTY buddy, that Ben had set up the Clearwater Initiative, and that the family had asked for donations there in lieu of flowers or other tzedakah. I'll be making a donation from my discretionary fund, and I encourage those of you who are reading this blog (whether you knew Ben or not) to make a donation to this charity.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


I really wanted to be posting about Simchat Torah and how excited I am for it (and I really am very excited) but I've found myself thinking all week about my old friend Ben, who was killed in Afganistan recently.

Ben and I were very good friends in High School; we met through youth group (specifically, NFTY's New England branch) and, like many good high school buddies, we drifted away after I graduated. I kept in touch distantly, through friends of friends, for a little while. And like many, we reconnected a year or two through Facebook.

I wasn't surprised to see that he had committed himself to a life's work of Tikkun Olam, or that he had joined the US Army. From the distance of the internets it seemed as if he had continued to be that person he was in High School: smart and funny, self-effacing and dedicated. It was a blow to discover he had been killed, doing what he had dedicated his life to fulfilling: making this world a better place, bringing water infrastructure to remote corners of the globe. It was heartbreaking to see old friends mourning his loss, and though our relationship was pretty remote at this point, I felt it. How could I not? Here was a peer, someone young, not even married, and now he's simply gone.

His loss doesn't affect me directly; I haven't talked with him (save perhaps an email or two) in well over 10 years. If it weren't for Facebook, the odds are that I wouldn't even know he had departed this world. But I do. I think of the house I visited and the family who took me in and how much pain is in that home. I think about his fiancee (who I've never met) and the empty house she has to come home to. I think about what his final moments were like. I think about his friends who are mourning him deeply and with a sadness that, as Ruth Brin wrote, takes them down to the darkest depths. I think about what Yizkor will be like for them this year, as they try to say Kaddish through tears and anger and make sense of something utterly senseless. Mostly, I miss my friend.