Friday, December 31, 2010

Another New year!

As they say in Israel, happy St. Sylvester's Day!

For whatever reason, I never hear Jewish people make New Year's resolutions at Rosh Hashanah, despite it's emphasis on introspection and reflection versus December 31st and it's focus on Revelry. No idea why that is, perhaps someone will write a rabbinic thesis on it (or a Phd on how Jews celebrate non-Jewish occasions vs. Jewish ones).

In any event, any opportunity to make a cheshbon nefesh,an accounting of the soul, is a good one, especially when it falls on Shabbat (of this the Chasidim and Puritans were in agreement, I think--that the Sabbath allows a good opportunity for self-reflection).

So, what's your hope for next year? Me--well, I did most of my reflecting back in the fall, between Rosh Hashanah and my personal review. I signed a new contract with CBE so I'm happy to continue my service here. I'd like to deepen and strengthen the relationships in my shul--do some scuba diving, rather than windsurfing--and perhaps relax the innovation, but I know that's a strong tendency within myself. I'd like to read more for myself (just got a Kindle so here's hoping that helps). I've been blessed to connect with people from many different parts of my life recently (i.e. not just the Wilmington crowd, who are lovely too), and that's been nice, so I'm hoping to do more of that. I'm sure there's other stuff but I can't think of it in the moment. Fortunately, I'll have another chance to reevaluate next week.

May you be safe in your celebrations tonight and tomorrow, and may Robert Burns' words ring true:
And there’s a hand my trusty friend !
And give us a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Katzav and Justice Served

Moshe Katzav's conviction finally came through today. Did it bring Israel and Judaism to a new low? In many ways, yes; the President of Israel is supposed to be the Head of State, the best of Israeli society, the symbolic exemplar for the Jewish state (and one could argue, by extension, the Jewish people); Albert Einstein was asked to serve, at one point. Instead, we had a monster, a bizarro-like mirror image of Zionism thrust into our face.

On the other hand, Justice prevailed--even when the institutions of democracy are stressed to the max, and the distractions of hostile neighbors and the all-consuming matzav threaten to sink our little brave country into oblivion--tzedek, not power, won the day. "Happy are they that keep justice, that do righteousness at all times" (Psalms CVI, 3). Katzav made me sad; Israel and her judiciary made me proud.

Prosecution likely to seek ‘severe’ sentence for ex-president, jurists say - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Online Rabbinic Ordination?!

There have been other attempts to 'think outside the box' with rabbinic ordination in recent years, including HUC's sharing courses across campuses through videoconferencing, Hebrew College and the Academy offering some of their courses online, and the like. But now Chabad (who else?) is offering full smicha online. As Hayim Herring (of Tools for Shuls fame, who pointed this out to me) asked: how long before other movements follow their lead? Why do they always get there first? And is it even a good idea? What do you think?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Don't Meet Them Where They Are

So if you read the Huffington Post (or follow pretty much any liberal rabbi on any social media) you've probably seen Shmuley Boteach's op-ed enthusing over the idea of Rabbi as advocate and nudge. To wit:

Rabbis must begin broadening their roles away from the ceremonial and toward the provocative. You're given a pulpit. Use it. Get up there on Saturday morning and belt out a sermon about the high rates of divorce in your synagogue and how you expect husbands to be gentlemen who compliment their wives daily. Tell the women that dignified dress has always been the hallmark of the classy Jewish woman. Announce that outrageously lavish weddings violate Jewish values since they make those who can't afford one feel like they've let their children down.

Stop being merely a rabbi and become an organizational entrepreneur. Put on world-class debates in your synagogue that make people take a side on intermarriage, women's roles, and softening support for Israel.

Now, this is all well and good, and I don't entirely disagree. In fact, I agree in spirit: I've always understood my role as rabbi to be an advocate for the tradition (yes, even in a Reform setting), and as one whose duty is to bring Jewish meaning to people's lives. And, as you have seen, I have no problem saying things that I find provocative in some way.

However, it's not exactly as easy at it looks. For one thing, this is not a new issue: David Einhorn was run out of his pulpit in Baltimore for preaching against racism--in the 1860s. Likewise, plenty of rabbis of an older generation (and congregants who remember) have talked about the great social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s--especially regarding race relations, like school busing--and describe the efforts of social justice rabbis as largely unheeded. The rabbi could preach against white flight and for supporting the black community all he wanted, it seems, but his congregants were going to move to the suburbs and enroll the kids in private school regardless. It would seem to me that we often see the social action successes through rose colored glasses; the efforts best remembered were "safe" choices (rallies in support of Soviet Jewry or Israel) or "easy" (volunteering at soup kitchens). The rabbis who were truly successful as social justice advocates, provocateurs, and voices of justice--let's use Jack Stern as an example--were those who had earned the implicit and explicit trust of their congregations and memberships, and were just as capable in their 'ceremonial' and pastoral roles as they were at speaking prophetically.

So then I stumble upon this article at Zeek. Truth be told, I somehow sent it to myself but am not sure how (which means I either have learned how to send myself articles from the future or this was a kind of update I don't recognize. Or, you know, someone's hacked my gmail). Nevertheless, this happened to approach the subject of advocacy from a similar vein; that is, how do we engage as a Jewish community? Social Justice and Advocacy seem to be where young Jews find a great deal of meaning (big surprise there; the Religious Action Center was only conceived on that idea back in the late 50s, so, you know). Do we meet people 'where they are' and create programs for engagement that happen to be social justice in nature, or do we create meaningful social justice programming (through, say, community organizing) and let people come to it?

This is especially relevant in terms of Rabbi Boteach's op-ed. For one, are we missing something by being 'too' welcoming to our congregants, failing to challenge them in some meaningful way? Likewise, how much social action programming is fluff at worst, or doesn't actually move the chains in any meaningful way? Finally, who decides what is meaningful? Is it the rabbi advocating from on high, or the committee that chooses to do what is easy and sustainable, or is there another way?

I happen to be a big fan of community organizing, at least in theory. To define 'on one foot', the idea that, rather than have a person or community impose their values and set an agenda, to create a venue where needs can be shared and realistically responded to by the community. What's especially great about it is that it can be used in politically diverse settings so it doesn't become about pushing a 'liberal' or 'conservative' agenda; it also creates the opportunity for the most buy-in (those in need get what they really need and are empowered by the process, while the providers make a significant, measurable difference in the community), and while it requires much more work, has a bigger payoff. And, even better, it gets us out of the trope of doing what is personally satisfying only.

Because Rabbi Boteach is right in his diagnosis of the problem; our focus is too much on ourselves and our materialism and not enough on creating meaning in our own lives. And as an overall Jewish community, we're too quick to latch onto pseudo-needs and quick-fix programs than do the hard work of building lasting relationships and creating a framework for engagement. However, the solution that he advocates--provocation--is the wrong one. Rather, we're called to connect and inspire those who would participate and encourage them to find meaning in Judaism and put it into practice.

David Ellenson's Webcast on "The Ground Zero Mosque"

Now, you may think this is old news already. But with some folks continuing to see Muslims as a 5th column against the West (and even dislike the idea of Muslim Superheroes), it's worth continuing to visit this subject. So, I present Dr. Ellenson's discussion of the matter from November 9th. Enjoy!

Baruch College - Digital Media Library

Monday, December 27, 2010

Law and Morality

So it's a snow day here in Wilmington, but despite that I traipsed across this article thanks to Jewish Ideas Daily.

For those who've studied with me you've heard me ask the question (posed once to my HUC class by Dr. David Aaron) whether one can speak of Jewish ethics in the abstract or whether it all comes down to Halakha. The article (linky below) describes a symposium dealing very much with that question; that is, do ethics inform Halakha or vice versa?

What comes out of the article, at least for me, is a terrific Orthodox framework for dealing with those advocates for racism (e.g. our friends the 5o rabbis) that still allows for a fairly strict understanding of the text.

The follow-up question for me, then, is whether the inverse could be true as well. That is, can we use Halakha to create an ethical framework that works in the liberal/Progressive, (Post)modern Jewish communities like my own?

Law and Morality

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Welcoming Interfaith Families: A Gift That Keeps on Giving - Reform Judaism

While it's already on my blogroll, this entry from the Reform Judaism Blog, I felt it was worth reposting, especially after posting Shosh's blog entry. The tone is a little "we told you so", but I'm glad that others are getting on the Outreach Bandwagon.

Welcoming Interfaith Families: A Gift That Keeps on Giving - Reform Judaism

by Arlene Chernow and Vicky Farhi
URJ Congregational Outreach Specialists

Recently, we read an article by Edgar Bronfman encouraging the Jewish world to welcome interfaith couples and families. Yasher koach for your intentions, Mr, Bronfman, we are in agreement and have been since 1987. That was the year that Rabbi Alexander Schindler z''l, President of the then UAHC, changed the view of interfaith marriage by urging our UAHC congregations to "Take the issues of intermarriage out of the house of mourning and bring it into the house of study. " This was the beginning of the URJ's groundbreaking, signature Outreach program.

The cover of the URJ Outreach brochure Intermarried? Reform Judaism Welcomes You states that "each interfaith love story is unique." The phrase "interfaith love story " goes a long way to communicate the acceptance that couples will find in URJ congregations. It acknowledges the fact that couples do not choose who they will fall in love with and that they should not be judged for the path that their life takes.

The URJ Outreach program has always worked on two levels: through congregations and directly. We work through congregations by training our congregational lay leaders and staff members on the best ways to welcome interfaith couples. We provide programs, resources and share the best practices we have learned over the last thirty years. We reach interfaith couples directly though programs like the successful Yours Mines and Ours in the Boston area, A Taste of Judaism which is offered all over North America, interfaith programs in congregations across the United States and Canada and our many publications developed for use in our congregations.

The URJ also provides religious school teacher training programs to encourage sensitivity to the needs of children with one Jewish parent who are being raised as Jews. We have developed a comprehensive training model for the important people who answer the phone and get sensitive first questions like "My husband is Jewish, but I'm not. Can our children come to your school?"

A few years ago during a congregational Yom Kippur service, Rabbi Janet Marder took another bold step by inviting parents who are not Jewish to ascend to the bima for a blessing. Since that year, many congregations have adapted this blessing to thank those in their own congregation who are not Jewish and yet raise Jewish children.

Over the years since Rabbi Schlindler first challenged the status quo of the Jewish world, interfaith marriage has become accepted by leaders in our URJ congregations. At the Houston Biennial in 2005, Rabbi Eric Yoffie urged congregations to thank the non-Jews for the gift of raising Jewish children. The task that we have now is to reach more of the couples who aren't aware of our programs. We agree with Mr. Bronfman that we must continue to strive in our efforts to welcome and integrate interfaith families to our congregations. We must remember that for each interfaith family, it is as if the journey has never happened before. We thank Edgar Bronfman for his interest, and invite him to join us in our efforts to reach interfaith couples.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Go Brandeis!

Why am I praising my sister's alma mater? For their response to Westboro Baptist Church, as described in the article below from "Oh, you want to come protest us because we're diverse and Jewish? Okay, that's cool--we're going to throw a party and raise money to support an LGBT organization. Stop by for a kosher hot dog. Doesn't go so well with hate, though."

Thanks to Ellie Dankner for the head's up.

Students at Brandeis University are preparing to meet the Westboro Baptist Church's threatened picket of its Hillel center on Friday with their own day of activities that they're calling “Celebrate Brandeis.”

“The soul of Brandeis is found in our common values, including the need to stand strong against hatred and bigotry. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. These values compel us to affirm our support for Hillel, and all of the Brandeis family,” said Rachel Goldfarb, who is a Brandeis senior and the spokesperson for Friday's activities. “The day’s events will focus on the positive things that come out of our community, to demonstrate how strongly the WBC has misunderstood our campus.”

The Topkea, Ks.-based Westboro Baptist Church is notorious for its inflammatory views about gays and non-Christian religions, and protests outside of military funerals and gay-rights events. The group on its website said it plans to do a picketing tour of area schools and a Wayland mosque.

Last Monday, Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz sent a letter to the university community to let them know the group would be making its way to the front entrance of Brandeis on South Street.

“As a community, we stand united in opposition to the vile expressions of this group,” wrote Reinharz. “I urge all members of our community to focus on the inclusive values that Brandeis stands for rather than WBC’s hateful agenda, knowing that what WBC seeks most is attention.”

Goldfarb said the day's events will begin at 8:30 a.m. and will feature “speakers, performances, and other programming by a wide range of campus leaders and groups.” There's a Facebook group dedicated to the event, and those who want to support Brandeis' efforts can sign an online petition.

The Brandeis community is also pledging money for Keshet, a Boston-based Jewish group that supports gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people. So far, people have pledged $1,500, said Goldfarb.

According to the Westboro Baptist Church's website, the group plans to picket on Friday outside of Framingham High School from 6:55 a.m. to 7:25 a.m.; the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland from 7:50 a.m. to 8:20 a.m.; Brandeis University Hillel from 8:45 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.; and Harvard Hillel from 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

The group also plans to protest on Saturday from 6:45 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. before Framingham High's Saturday night production of “The Laramie Project.” There will also be a Friday performance of the play about the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man, in Laramie, Wyoming.

The Framingham community has also used the planned picket as a catalyst for community forums to increase dialogue about free speech, issues that affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual communities, cyber-bullying, and suicide. The high school and Framingham community will hold a candlelight vigil and rally on Saturday night from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m just before the 7:30 p.m. performance of “The Laramie Project.”

Megan McKee can be reached at

Dining in Delaware: Upscale restaurants open for Christmas

As a public service to those Members of the Tribe who will be engaging in the traditional Christmas Feast of Chinese food (or who decide to engage in more exotic fare, like, um, NOT Chinese food) allow me to offer this listing of places available to the American Hebrew in Wilmington DE and its surrounding towns. Thanks to Shoshana Martyniak for pointing it out.

Dining in Delaware: Upscale restaurants open for Christmas | | The News Journal

Thursday, December 23, 2010

People of the E-Book? Observant Jews Struggle With Sabbath in a Digital Age - Uri Friedman - Technology - The Atlantic

Especially interesting to me, as I'm probably about to get a Kindle...

People of the E-Book? Observant Jews Struggle With Sabbath in a Digital Age - Uri Friedman - Technology - The Atlantic

Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are? - By Shankar Vedantam - Slate Magazine

A really interesting article at Slate (though a tad too snarky at the end for my tastes). It's been often reported that Jews score lower on the usual surveys of worship attendance than our Christian neighbors...perhaps this isn't true after all? More importantly is the question of what it means to participate in religious communal life. Clearly, for Non-Jewish Americans, there's some sense that there's a 'correct' answer; that is, to go a-churchin'. Meanwhile, we in synagogue/Jewish affiliated life wring our hands and gnash our teeth. Perhaps we should be asking different questions, like, what does it mean to connect with Jewish community, and how do we create said community? Anyway, enjoy the read.

Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are? - By Shankar Vedantam - Slate Magazine

Last comment on Xmas, really

Have you checked out my friend and board member Shoshana's blog? You really ought. Very worthwhile (though it's also worth remembering that we all make mistakes--including well-intentioned ones--and should be forgiven for them...).

David Broza Concert

Went to the David Broza concert at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington DE. It was nice to see so many members of the Jewish community there (I joked a few times that we should have had the concert on Saturday--now instead we'll see each other at the Regal Theaters, perhaps watching Tron?)

Other observations:

  • Only in Wilmington would someone in the front rows return the guitar pick after the performer dropped it.
  • Great to see so much enthusiasm from both those who have seen him before (this is concert 2 for Marisa and 2 or 3 for me) and those who have never seen him.
  • There was a Shir Ami contingent at the concert, and of course they were dancing!
  • You don't know 12-bar blues until you hear it sung in the original Hebrew!
For those who don't know David Broza, he's really one of the most dynamic performers ever; very intimate but also overwhelming, filling the space with his guitar, playing folk, rock, blues and flamenco in three languages (including the poetry of Townes Van Zandt ) among others. Better than describe, I'll include links to few videos (though you can see more recent ones on his home page), one exhibiting his peace activism (going back to the lat 70s) and the other reflecting his more romantic, poetic/artistic side

Yihye Tov (It Will Get Better)

Bedouin Love Song

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

With Rotem Bill Still In Dispute, Sharansky Seeks A Deadline Extension | The Jewish Week

Remember the Rotem bill? That law that would give the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate total control over conversions to Judaism? It went away right? Well, it's baaa-aack!

Not that we need to worry about Bibi cutting a deal with the Orthodox establishment, right? Right?

“We are having conversations with Rotem and others and we are still in the midst of these efforts,” he said. “I cannot tell you what the outcome will be because people change their minds.”


Article linky below.

With Rotem Bill Still In Dispute, Sharansky Seeks A Deadline Extension | The Jewish Week

Monday, December 20, 2010

If I post 3 times in one day does that mean I can take the rest of the week off?

Or does it mean that Darkman appears in the mirror?

(sorry, did I just show my age with that reference?)

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of the United Kingdom, is retiring in 3 years. I love his books (despite his dim view of liberal Judaism) but find this critique--perhaps more of the institution than of him--intriguing. And an appealing one. Why do we need to have someone who speaks for 'all' the Jews of the British Commonwealth--or anywhere else? As frustrating as it may be for some (and in some circumstances), I find it refreshing that we don't have one voicebox, one person who has to keep all the different cacophonous voices in check. Or to put another way, would the rebuke on the dictum of those 50 rabbis in Israel have come so fast and furiously from Progressive, Secular and Orthodox voices if there was a "Jewish Pope" (or if you prefer sports analogies, a Players Union Rep)?

Then again, the gig does sound pretty good. Hrmn...

Scholars In Residence: Benefits and Challenges

And on a totally different note: here's an article on the subject of the Scholar-in-Residence by Erica Brown in Text and Texture (I'm not going to quote the article here as it's waaaay too long to do so--just go check it out at the link). I like how she identifies the assumptions and sacred cows of such programs, and gets to what's wonderful--and what really isn't--about these events, and asks questions that many people don't bother to ask (should synagogues even have SIRs?). I didn't see much in the way of collaboration between synagogues/institutions of SIRs, but with the need to save on costs and a new generation of Jewish professionals trained in collaboration coming up, I'd think we'd see more of this kind of thing...

Facebook, Lashon Hara: questions and implications

So NPR posted this article to their Facebook profile. From their "All Tech Considered" blog, the article in question is entitled "100 People I hate on Facebook".

Seems a bit harsh, but with Mark Zuckerberg named Time's Person of the Year, with all his efforts to get us to rethink things like privacy etc, it's worth exploring the idea viz. Lashon Hara, or gossip.

It's a topic I've brought up before, most recently this past high holidays, and one I spend a lot of time thinking about, especially because of the damage it can cause (cf. Wikileaks). But I also wonder: if teh interwebs are changing the way we communicate in general, as well as some other fundamental ideas (have a conversation about paying for online content with some web natives, like teenagers, and you'll see what I mean), what are the broader implications in terms of lashon hara? We've seen cyberbullying; but are there other elements as well? Could there be productive elements to eliminating lashon hara? What do I mean? There's a Chasidic saying that the telephone teaches us Torah, in that 'what is said here is heard there'. If we took that attitude with our online personae, would that begin to change our day-to-day encounters as well?

So: what do you think?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

DADT Gone!

As seen here, among other places.

Amen, amen, sela.

As promised, my Christmas "The Rabbi Speaks"

Or, how the Rabbi got in trouble. :)

As broadcast tomorrow on WDEL (1150am).

Shavua Tov!

“Putting the Christ Back in Christmas And Why It’s Good for the Jews”

At this time of year I think of the Christmases I experienced in high school and college. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, I would go to my friend Michael’s house and help with the tree-trimming. On Christmas Eve I was always invited to his family’s Christmas party; we’d dress up and gather, visit with peers and adult family members and friends. The party broke up around 11, when they would go to midnight mass, and I would go home. The next day would bring the stereotypical Jewish experience: visiting family, maybe chinese food, a movie, and the inevitable phone call from my buddies at around 3pm when they couldn’t stand being with their families any longer—they always knew I was free.

Does that surprise you? Is it odd that the son of a rabbi, who would later become a rabbi, used to visit with a Christian family as they’d celebrate their festival? For me, it’s not. Nor was this just a way to express teenage rebellion. Rather, it’s a fond memory of participating in something quite profound and meaningful. Here I was, surrounded by people at one of their most sacred days of the year, enjoying their company and witnessing how meaningful and powerful this day was, and feeling honored that they chose to share it with me in some way. There was nothing coercive in this moment, no sense that, by participating, I was expected to betray my own faith tradition, or that theirs was in some way superior. It was the sharing that happens between real peers, with a healthy respect for each others customs and differences, without any sense of condescension or pity. And it was a mutual relationship; in return for their hospitality, Michael and his family (along with my other Christian friends) were invited to my confirmation, my ordination as a rabbi, Rosh Hashanah lunches, to sit shiva with my family when my grandfather died, and other meaningful, sacred moments.

I bring this up because of the controversies of late regarding what to do about Christmas celebrations in the public sphere. We’ve gotten used to them by now, I suppose: the most recent being West Chester’s struggle with their Old Time Christmas celebration and whether to call it a ‘holiday’ celebration, or Philadelphia going back and forth over the appellation for their winter lights. I even read of one office that hung a menorah on their office Christmas tree in a hilariously ill-thought out attempt at diversity and inclusion.

The right-wing media have made great hay over the so-called ‘war on Christmas’ the last several years, but those of my generation know these trends predate our recent experiences with whether to say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” (never mind the British “Happy Christmas”, which just sounds like a war on Charles Dickens). As a child I had to endure cringe-worthy so-called Holiday Concerts. You know the ones: they’re really Christmas concerts full of yuletide schlock like “jingle-bell rock” and soaring music from Handel’s “Messiah” with “I Have a Little Dreidle” thrown in for good measure. Like the menorah on the Christmas tree, or the image of a Ham for sale labeled “Delicious for Hannukah” (thank you Walmart), or Ms. Burns, my first grade teacher, giving me a note from David, Santa’s Jewish elf, these attempts at inclusiveness were truly painful to experience; as if Chanukah were Christmas’ red-headed, slightly awkward cousin, and needed help meeting girls at the school dance.

It’s for that reason that, God help me, I’m going to sound like a right-winger on this one, or at least Garrison Keeler: it’s time to put the Christ back in Christmas.

Specifically, it’s time to stop trying to equate Chanukah with Christmas, and let it stand on its own two feet; and it’s time to stop using inclusion as a form of coercion. What do I mean? Well, let’s take it a piece at a time.

First, let’s start with Chanukah: it’s not Christmas. It’s not even one of our high holidays. Oh, we’ve tried to make it like Christmas—gift giving and all. But the reality is, it was never meant to be a high holiday, the way Christmas—Christ’s Mass—is. The better comparison would be Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, just as Christmas is, for Christians, the birthday of Jesus (that is, God Incarnate) and the beginning of a New World of Faith. Chanukah is July 4th, only swap out fireworks and barbecue for fried food and gambling. This is why Chanukah songs always sound so clunky compared to Christmas music, but put Handel’s Messiah against Sulzer or Levandowski’s arrangements for the high holidays, and it’s a totally different story. If local government is amenable to celebrating Chanukah in the public sphere—and I think they ought to be—then let’s celebrate it on its own terms: as a holiday that celebrates liberty and freedom from religious persecution, and the overthrow of distant tyrants by patriots. What could be more American than that? Freeing Chanukah from the tethers of Christmas would allow us to share ourselves and our faith tradition, teaching our non-Jewish neighbors not only something about ourselves and our commonalities, but our differences as well.

And that leads me to the second point: inclusion as a form of coercion. For years, the Anti-Defamation League put out materials that claimed we were ‘just like everyone else’, and our Christian neighbors have bought into that notion to such a degree that they do themselves, and us, a disservice by it. Christmas is a Christian Holiday; it is by default, exclusive. It celebrates a narrative that is not a Jewish story: the coming of a God-made-flesh who would die to relieve the world of the burden of sin. There is nothing Jewish about that story--our sins are our own responsibility as individuals, and we specifically forbid any such act of martyrdom. And yet we as a society would gloss over those differences, for what? To avoid uncomfortable conversations? To smooth over any roughness of difference? It is our dissimilarities that give us the opportunity to see the world differently and share our true selves with one another--why would we want to minimize that? More than shopping trips, carols and slaughtered evergreens, it is our refusal to acknowledge these differences and our attempts at assimilation--making everything the same--that strains our relationships. That is, after all, what the Maccabees were fighting against.

So let’s be intellectually honest with ourselves. Let’s celebrate Chanukah for what it is: a time for Jews to cherish our freedom from religious and cultural tyranny. And let’s celebrate Christmas for what it is: a time for Christians to rejoice. And most of all, let’s celebrate our diversity and our full cacophony of voices--we may sing from different hymnals, but what harmony we make together!

Friday, December 17, 2010

One more Christmas link before I share my thoughts

One more link, this time to Arnie Eisen's comments on HuffPo, before I share my "The Rabbi Speaks" (I'll post it motzei Shabbat).

This Christmas will be the first since Justice Elana Kagan's reply to the member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who inexplicably asked her how she had celebrated Christmas last year. She replied, without missing a beat, that "like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant."

That line became instantly famous and beloved among American Jews -- and not only because the wit and honesty it exhibited seemed to presage a career on the court of which Jews and other Americans would be proud. Something else got expressed at that moment: The fact that a future Supreme Court justice was so totally comfortable in her own skin as a Jew, so utterly confident of her standing as an American, that she could not only aspire to serve on the nation's highest court but confess her enjoyment as a Jew at Christmas. It was an important moment, all the more so for being light-hearted; it expressed part of what is uniquely precious about being a Jew, or a Christian, in America.

I understood, as a boy growing up in one of Philadelphia's ethnic neighborhoods, that I had just as much claim on America as the Catholics whose church stood on the corner three blocks away or the Italians who strode down Broad Street in the Mummers' Parade on New Year's Day. My at-homeness in the United States did not come despite ethnic and religious differences such as these but because of them. My family and I took our legitimate places side by side with other Americans by virtue of the hyphen in our identities. We proudly put out flags on the Fourth of July, attended interfaith services on Thanksgiving morning, and displayed brightly lit Hanukkah candles in our windows. Some of our neighbors put candles in their windows too, others whom we knew to be Jews did not light candles or display them, and still others -- more and more, as I got older and the neighborhood changed -- had Christmas decorations both inside and out. They included the Ukrainian families with whom we were friendly despite the fact, as my parents relished telling me, that Jews and Ukrainians had not gotten along well in the old country. This was America. We publicized the miracle of Hanukkah in our windows without hesitation.

There were some awkward moments at Christmas, I confess. What should I do when singing Christmas carols in elementary school assemblies? I wasn't bothered by the fact of the songs. Christian teachers led us in recitation of the 23rd Psalm in class each morning, if memory serves. That's how I learned about "Judeo-Christian America." The prayer seemed to fit right in with the Pledge of Allegiance and "The Star-Spangled Banner." I don't think I was bothered, either, by the fact that Hanukkah was represented in school assemblies only by a token song or two among what seemed to be dozens of Christmas carols. Hanukkah menorahs would sometimes appear that way in department stores, I noticed: a modest appearance dwarfed by giant Christmas trees and pervasive holiday decoration.

I knew Jews were a minority in this country. It was a point of pride for my parents and teachers that we clung faithfully to traditions such as Hanukkah in the face of so much Christmas -- and a source of pride in America that we could do so, for the most part, unmolested. Even as a teenager I followed with interest the Supreme Court cases that drew the line between legitimate public expression of Christmas as an American holiday, beloved of the country's majority, and illegitimate state support for observance of Christmas as a religious holiday. Trees were okay on civic property by this reasoning. Creches and crosses were not.

The distinction jibed with my comfort in singing "Silent Night" or "Adeste Fideles" during school assemblies -- and my discomfort at bringing my lips to form words such as "Christ the Lord." Mid-song, I'd turn in an instant from full-throated performance to barely audible mumbling and look around furtively to see if Christian friends and teachers had noticed the switch. (I also wanted to find out if Jewish friends had taken the same evasive action I had.)

I love Christmas carols to this day. Not just the secular ones, sometimes written or performed by Jews, that make it perfectly okay to enjoy the holiday without ambivalence or embarrassment: "White Christmas" or "Walking in a Winter Wonderland." I enjoy the religious tunes just as much: the "rum pum pum pum" of "The Little Drummer Boy"; the dignified, comforting waltz of "Silent Night"; the grandeur of "Adeste Fideles," undiminished in my mind by a rendition lacking the triumphant affirmation of its last three words. It matters that Jesus was a Jew, of course. I feel the pride of many Jews in being connected to his courage and his teaching, whatever theology and history have gotten in the way over the centuries. As a religious Jew, I relate easily to the satisfaction Christians take in focusing themselves and the country for one short spell on the values that should be guiding us year-round -- and appreciate why some religious Christian friends recoil in horror from the merchandising that often seems to drown out hopes for "peace on earth and goodwill among men," let alone obedience to God's will. I like to sing, and the songs are good. The world needs brightening this, as every, December. Hanukkah lights can use the help of Christmas cousins.

Some Jews, I know, have trouble with the holiday. They get tired of clerks at the check-out counter thoughtlessly saying to their kids, "And what do you want Santa to bring this year?" They resent not being able to enter a store, or ride down a street, or turn on a radio without being subjected to what can seem propaganda for a holiday, a religion, a vision of America in which they do not have a part. The holiday can be particularly hard for Jews who are married to Christians. Negotiation over celebration of Christmas is a notorious point of discord. (Exhange presents? Decorate a tree? Spend Christmas Eve at the in-laws' house? Have Christmas dinner with a ham on the table?) Crossing boundaries is a lot easier when the boundaries themselves are clear.

I won't be going to a Chinese restaurant this Christmas Eve, or (my family's custom) catching a movie, or attending one of the many churches in New York City that offer midnight concerts to the public. For this Christmas Eve falls on Friday night: the Sabbath. That "holy night" and holy day lend purpose and beauty to every one of my weeks and remind me, along with other members of the "people that keeps the Sabbath," of God's intentions for Creation. Oh well. Maybe next year.

Personal Prayers for Israel - Reform Judaism

by Rabbi Daniel Allen Executive Director, ARZA

With rumors that the conversion issues are again on the table, as the hold on the Rotem Bill ends, we at ARZA know that each of you will want to take action. (Learn about the Reform Movement's past efforts to defeat the Rotem Bill on the URJ website). The time is not ripe for press releases and a massive letter writing campaign, though ARZA will tell you when it is! It is time to speak from our love of Israel. We hope you will help us to engage people's hearts and souls, as we move towards deepening support of an Israel that we embrace, and embraces us all. In order to increase advocacy in our congregations, we're collecting personal prayers for Israel that might elevate awareness and inspire action.

Please post your prayers for Israel in the comment section [here]. ARZA will collect them and share many of your heartfelt sentiments with our extended family in Israel and the United States.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Mazal Tov and more from Keshet

A quick Mazal Tov to Ben Litwin, a member of CBE, who (like his brother before him) was just inducted as an Eagle Scout. The court was held at CBE tonight and I got to participate, which was a really lovely thing to be a part of that life cycle event for this bright teen.

Having said that (and without being critical of the local troop or the family at all) the Boy Scouts are not my favorite organization because of their stance on LGBT issues (a position increasingly complicated with the imminent overturning of CA Prop 8, DADT and the recent spate of bullying attacks). This is especially sad because they really do a lot of great stuff, especially viz. creating a healthy identity for boys (as they become men) and a safe space to explore not only practical skills and community service but what constitutes manhood. There's a reason many synagogues used to host Boy Scout troops, and that's the reason I was glad to be a part of this Eagle Court. And, seeing the kids from my own community who are in this troop and clearly find meaning in the experience, I imagine I'll be at more courts (and hosting more) in the future.

So, to strike a little balance, I'm adding Keshet's Video from the GA in New Orleans, as part of their "Do Not Stand Idly By" efforts (and if you haven't, please go and add your name to their efforts to combat discrimination against LGBT individuals).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

And so that we're being equal

And since we talked about the boys, it's worth talking about the girls as well. Thanks to my colleague Rabbi Eve Rudin and HUC-JIR for pointing out this article in the JTA by Penny Schwartz on a cross-denominational conference of women rabbis, including Rabbis Sally Priesand, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Amy Eilberg and recently ordained (invested?) Orthodox "Rabba" Sara Hurwitz.

NEWTON, Mass. (JTA) -- Lynne Kern knew at 13 that she wanted to be a rabbi, even though in 1970 there were no female rabbis to act as role models.

So Kern became a writer, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

But she never forgot her passion, and in 2001 she completed her rabbinic studies and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Now, four decades since her bat mitzvah, Kern is working with filmmaker Ronda Spinak on a documentary about female rabbis. Kern was behind the camera in Boston last week filming a panel discussion by the first four women to become rabbis in their respective denominations.

The latest addition to the group was Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who had the title, a feminized version of “rabbi,” conferred upon her about a year ago by a Modern Orthodox rabbi, Avi Weiss.

The Dec. 6 event was the first time that the four women -- Hurwitz, Reform Rabbi Sally Priesand, Reconstructionist Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Conservative Rabbi Amy Eilberg – had ever appeared together. An audience of 600, men and women, packed the sanctuary at Temple Reyim, outside of Boston, for the program.

“These women were part of my narrative, part of my story that I tell," Hurwitz told JTA. "To be standing in front of these real pioneers, it was an overwhelming sense of awe.”

The Dec. 6 program, titled "Raising Up the Light," was sponsored by the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts. In a stirring tribute, 50 female rabbis from around the region who were in the audience were called up to the bimah to join the panelists at one point during the event.

“When I started, there was no one. I was alone,” Eisenberg Sasso said. “Now I wasn't alone anymore.”

Priesand was the first woman to break the rabbinate barrier in the United States when she was ordained by the Reform movement in 1972. The Reconstructinist's Eisenberg Sasso followed a year later. It was more than a decade before Eilberg's ordination in 1985 by the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Today there are 167 female Reconstructionist rabbis -- approximately half of the rabbis ordained by the movement since 1974. The Conservative movement has 273 female rabbis worldwide among the total of 1,648. The Reform movement says it has 575 female rabbis in North America.

The first woman worldwide to receive the title of rabbi was Regina Jonas, a German woman who was ordained in 1935. She never had a pulpit but worked as a traveling rabbi for a time, eventually dying at Auschwitz in 1944.

Hurwitz is the only Orthodox woman with the title of rabba; Weiss has said he will not bestow the title upon future female graduates of the institute he is launching to train women. The main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association, the Rabbinical Council of America, has ruled against the ordination of women as rabbis.

With the barriers in the non-Orthodox movements long broken, some female rabbis say it’s time to move beyond talk of how they were pioneers to discuss how they are influencing the general Jewish community.

“It's time we got beyond how innovative it is to have women rabbis,” Rabbi Barbara Penzner, who was ordained in 1987 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, told JTA. “These are women who've made significant contributions to Jewish life.”

When Priesand started out, she was the only female student at Hebrew Union College. Now she’s the rabbi emeritus at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J., where she served as the spiritual leader for 25 years. Priesand credits women not only with pushing their way into the rabbinate, but also with changing the way men practice the trade, making male rabbis more open and nurturing.

Eilberg's rabbinic work has been focused largely in pastoral care through hospice, spiritual direction and conflict resolution. She also directs an interfaith dialogue program in Minneapolis.

While these are areas not exclusive to women, Eilberg said in an interview, the responsibilities require deep listening skills -- skills with a strong resonance among women of her generation.

In interviews for her documentary with more than 25 female rabbis, Kern found a common thread in their pursuit of creating community through prayer while engaging in social action.

Anita Diamant, founder of a Boston-area mikvah called Mayyim Hayyim and author of the best-selling novel “The Red Tent,” said that many of the ceremonies observed at the mikvah by women and men owe a great deal to the insights and efforts of female rabbis who were ordained in the last 30 years.

Hurwitz, whose ordination was met with a sharp rebuke in some Orthodox circles, is the only one of the four first female rabbis who does not embrace full egalitarianism. Women cannot perform some ritual roles in Orthodoxy, she said, such as leading certain parts of the prayer services. But, she noted, women can serve in significant rituals and lifecycle events, such as officiating at weddings and funerals.

Hurwitz is now the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, which trains Orthodox women to become spiritual leaders, and a member of the rabbinic staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where Weiss is the spiritual leader.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, does not believe that Hurwitz’s breach of the Orthodox line on female rabbis will lead to a shift within that community on the ordination of women. And outside the Orthodox community, he said, some congregations have concerns that the rabbinate is becoming feminized and, as a result, men are retreating from synagogue life.

Synagogues increasingly are being perceived as women's prayer spaces and not male-friendly, Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman found in a 2008 report published by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute.

Sasso Eisenberg, who yearned for the company of women during her student days and early years as a rabbi, said a sense of sisterhood is very important to her. But she also feels strongly that women should not focus on setting a separate table.

“Ultimately what we want to do is bring women's voices and stories to the traditional table of Jewish life,” Sasso Eisenberg said.

Communication session and Jewish boys

Had a great session lunchtime today over at the Siegel JCC. Thanks to Jewish Federation of Delaware and the J for taking the time to have the staffs of all the local Jewish agencies and organizations over to do some learning, in this case about communication and office relationships.

Last Friday I had a great conversation with a congregant over coffee about what we could be doing to engage our Jewish youth, especially our boys. It's become trope at this point: boys are engaged by the process of Bar Mitzvah and see it as an end unto itself ('today I am a man!'), but disengage from religious school, confirmation, youth groups and other forms of Jewish youth engagement, while continuing to get conflicted messages from the media about what it means to be a 'man'.

There are increasing efforts to engage boys while still maintaining a sense of egalitarianism. Moving Traditions (the folks who brought you "Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing") are working on a parallel program for boys that emphasizes ritual, physical engagement, and creating a safe space to talk about what it means to be a Jewish Man. Likewise the Berman Jewish Policy Archive is putting resources forward as well.

So what can we do to engage our boys?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Kinderlach, sweet kinderlach!

So today, a quick mazal tov to Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, my classmates, who are welcoming their fourth (!) child into the covenant today. As it says in the Talmud, may he live to see his world fulfilled!

And since we're on the subject of welcoming children, thought you might want to look at this article in the Washington Post on American Jews and adoption.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Good article in NYT on Chevra Kadisha

Saw this article online (and resposted by some friends, like Mayyim Chayim in Boston and Menachem Creditor--see blogroll). It's an article that comes up with some regularity (and has for the last 20 years or so, I'd guess) as boomers (and younger) start losing their parents and loved ones and turn to Burial Societies for help and for meaningful ritual, either along with or in place of funeral homes. I like that these traditions are less and less being considered "Orthodox" and increasingly are understood to be another tool to help the bereaved (and the community) engender meaning and find support. And for participants, it's a way to confront their fear and anxiety over death, as in the case with this person:

“I have to admit, the first time, I wasn’t quite ready for what a dead body looks like,” Ms. Rubenstein said.

“But you get over that quickly,” she added, receiving nods of assent from the others. “And for myself, knowing that I will be in the hands of people who care about me,” she continued, glancing around her, “that’s what I want when it’s my turn.”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Kivie Kaplan

With all this talk about Human Rights (including a discussion tonight for Jewish Women's International), the subject of Kivie Kaplan came up. Anyone who grew up in the Reform Movement in New England--especially if they went to Camp Eisner--will know the name. A Jewish philanthropist and lifelong Reform Jew, he was a board member and eventually president of the NAACP (from the mid-50s until his death in the 70s). Can you imagine such a thing today? He remains a giant of social justice and an inspiration for us that has, sadly, been forgotten by too many, especially in an era where we spend too much time thinking about our own vine and fig tree and not enough reaching across color and religious divisions to seek real solutions to what ails us.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Reform Movement Think Tank

So about three weeks ago, the Reform Movement held a Think Tank, which was livestreamed across the internets for all to see and engage. At CBE we made a program of it and gathered a nice group of 20 or so to learn about the future of Judaism, technology, engagement, and the like.

Sadly, their system got totally overwhelmed by the number of people tuning in, so we ended up having the conversation ourselves (thankfully between my PEER experience and going to enough Biennials, and having some very smart friends--have you looked at their blogs in my blogroll?--I kinda knew where the conversation would go). Despite that, it was a great discussion, and now you can see the whole thing at the above link.

Sermon for Human Rights Shabbat

Here's my mini-sermon for the Friday of Human Rights Shabbat:

This week is Human Rights Shabbat, commemorating the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 62 years ago. It’s a Shabbat that’s near to my heart because of my connection to Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization I joined several years ago and continue to support, partly because of the cause, and largely because my friend and colleague Rachel Goldenberg encouraged me and brought me into the group. We all have friends, I’m sure, who manage to get us into things we don’t anticipate.

It’s a fitting Shabbat, and not just because it was ratified this date. This week’s portion shows us Judah confronting Joseph over his immanent enslavement of Benjamin, their brother.

Usually when we read this portion we focus on Joseph’s testing his brothers, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t look at Judah as well. He doesn’t know this vizier is his lost brother; he only sees power, power being utilized in a capricious fashion. Speaking against that power—remember, Joseph is second only to Pharaoh—is not only audacious, it’s unprecedented. It should result in Judah’s imprisonment and possibly death. Instead, Judah’s advocacy moves Joseph to tears. Yes, Joseph is testing his brothers, but his brothers are testing Joseph as well; has he allowed power to undermine his values as a child of Israel?

As Jews, especially in America, we have seen ourselves as advocates of Justice. And advocacy is desperately needed. We need it in a world where Liu Xiaobo’s seat at today’s Nobel Prize award ceremony, as he remains imprisoned. We need it as a people when some 50 rabbis sign their names to a teshuvah banning Jews from renting or selling land to non-Jews in Israel. We need it as a country as the Senate fails to overturn Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

This Shabbat many of our teens are in Washington DC with the Religious Action Center doing advocacy work, learning how important it is to us as Jews, and what happens when we keep silent. I hope we can learn from their experience, and learn to live like our namesake Judah, speaking truth to power. Amen.