Thursday, December 31, 2009

Once in a blue moon - Blessings for 2010!

If you've been paying attention the last couple of days, you'll have heard some fuss being made about this New Year's Eve being a 'blue moon.'  This phrase has changed its meaning over the centuries, but these days it is defined as the second full moon in a single month, or as the third full moon in a season that has four full moons.  Tonight's moon is the second full moon of December; the first occurred Dec. 2.

Though the expression "once in a blue moon" is used to describe extremely rare events, blue moons aren't all that unusual, occurring every 21/2 years or so. But a New Year's Eve blue moon is somewhat more remarkable -- we haven't had one since 1990.  Another titbit of information - Blue moons of this sort aren't actually blue in color (which I was a bit disappointed to learn).

Wikipedia informs us that: The earliest recorded English usage of the term "blue moon" was in a 1528 pamphlet violently attacking the English clergy, entitled "Rede Me and Be Not Wrothe" (Read me and be not angry): "Yf they say the mone is belewe / We must believe that it is true" [If they say the moon is blue, we must believe that it is true]. (From this we also learn that the ancestors of my homeland had terrible spelling!)

Some interpret this "blue moon" as relating to absurdities and impossibilities, and a similar moon-related adage was first recorded in the following year: "They would make men beleue ... that þe Moone is made of grene chese" [They would make men believe ... that the moon is made of green cheese].

One thing that this little splurge of media attention has done is to bring many more people's attention to what the moon is doing on any particular night - how many thousands will look up and notice (hopefully, if the sky is clear) a beautiful part of our night sky this evening?  They are getting just a taste of something that, if we are tuned in, is a gift of the rhythm of Jewish time each and every month - we run on a lunar calendar.  Each announcement of the new month brings us a dark sky with the merest sliver of light, waxing to its fullness in the middle of the Jewish month (note that our major holiday of Pesach begins on a full moon - 15 Nisan), and then waning again.  We bless the month in our liturgy, and some Jewish communities practice the ritual of Kidush levana - Sanctification of the Moon - about a week later when the moon is fully visible.  At B'nai Israel, our monthly Rosh Hodesh group - a women's spiritual study group - honors the tradition of the new moon being a 'holiday' for women, and a time to come together to connect and engage.

Tonight is the 14 Tevet, in a month with 29 days.  Look up at the moon tonight, and the next night, and the next... feel the rhythm of turning, ebbing, flowing, spiraling... onward and into 2010.
Blessings for health, happiness and wholeness to all.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Prayer by a Jewish Woman: In solidarity with Women of the Wall

Tonight, our last blog in solidarity with Women of the Wall is a prayer, written by Becca, created last week at our Rosh Hodesh group program.

Dear God,
I am a Jew and I celebrate my life as a Jew.
Dear God,
I am a woman and I celebrate the joy of being a woman,
and dear God,
I am both Jewish and a woman and can only imagine embracing both passionately.

I want to draw closer to You, to learn more about how to learn Your truths, Your love, Your trust in the people of this world.  I want to understand more and cannot get enough of Your Presence.

Dear God,
I am a Jew and a woman and I want all of that, and I celebrate becoming that Jewish woman, growing and blossoming in Your love.

I am thrilled to know that I, and my Christian male bell choir director, and my Conservative daughter, and my atheist son, and all the other people who I have not yet met - that we are all loved by You.

And I sing Hallelujah!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My Bat Mitzvah Miracle: In solidarity with Women of the Wall

Tonight's blog, in solidarity with Women of the Wall, is written by Barbara Levine:

Most of my life I was religiously non-observant.   Born Jewish, growing up in Brooklyn NY, I was connected Jewishly in my heart, but not ritualistically.  After marriage and children, we moved to Connecticut and eventually joined B’nai Israel. I almost never went to services – not even on the High Holy days. My children grew up at B’nai Israel since we wanted them to have the Jewish education I never had.  Each  had a Bar or Bat mitzvah. I was then, and remain to this day, very spiritual  in my outlook.  

After Rabbi Prosnit became our Rabbi, I began to study with him and questioned ‘why should I be Jewish’ as a faith.  I already believed strongly in God and prayer. But I hadn’t felt a comfortable fit within any worship community.  I felt challenged by Rabbi and committed myself to attend Friday night services every week for a year, no matter what.

I remember feeling uncomfortable and afraid, thinking people would notice and question, ‘why is this woman coming here all of a sudden?’  I thought they knew each other  and would see me as the outsider – the interloper.  Instead, after less than a month, I realized that I was a regular and loved services.  The clergy and others saw me as one who could be counted on to be there.  For over 10 years morning or evening I rarely missed a service or weekly torah study. I belonged and people knew me.  It was a good fit!

After much time and study, I decided I would attempt to have a Bat Mitzvah.  Cantor Gilbert believed I could do it even though my paralyzed vocal cord inhibits my ability to speak loudly, much less chant.  My portion in Vayetze – Jacob’s dream meant a lot to me.

Before the Friday evening group Bat Mitzvah service, I went to the local mikvah for the ritual of purification by immersion in water. I had wondered what the mikvah experience felt like.  This was a perfect time to do it.  Basya, a very pregnant busy mother with many children, was the mikvah attendant.  I was overwhelmed (in a good way) by the loving, caring attention I received from her. We spoke about my expecting a miracle that my paralyzed vocal cord would be healed, in front of the congregation, when I got to chant my Torah portion. I believed God might  heal my voice from weak and gravelly to strong and melodic thus inspiring whoever was there.  She disavowed me of that belief in a very loving way and showed me that just because I thought God would want to use me for a miracle, that might not be God’s plan.  Her words of wisdom astounded me.

The Bat Mitzvah was wonderful and many of my loved ones – family and friends were there.  My voice remained the same.  But I was overjoyed and uplifted, not disappointed.  Over time I recognized the many real blessings I received.  I had my miracle.

Later, I wrote about the mikvah experience and my Bat mitzvah for the Jewish Ledger and Reform Judaism magazine.  Still later (perhaps 2 or 3 years on), I was at a lecture sponsored by Ahavas Achim (the local Orthodox synagogue).  I got to talk with the guest speaker and somehow she heard that I had written the article about the mikvah experience.  I was really surprised she was so excited to meet me.  She then shared that she and others had read my article about the kindness and wisdom of the mikvah attendant and the Many Blessings of my experience.  She used my article to convince many Orthodox, and other women, to go to the mikvah.  And she thanked me!

Friday, December 25, 2009

The power of inclusion & exclusion: in solidarity with Women of the Wall

Part of a solidarity blog series for Women of the Wall.  Each piece is written by a member of the Rosh Hodesh group of Congregation B'nai Israel.  Tonight's blog is by Heidi Gassel.

My first memories of Temple are sitting high in a balcony with other children and women during Purim. I remember being sad that I couldn't be with my daddy who was sitting below with all of the other men. I looked at my bright polka dotted grogger but it just wasn't fun. Even though I was just three years old, I still remember crying "Dada" and my mother comforting me. My father died unexpectedly of pneumonia just five months later.

My mother continued to bring all four of us to the orthodox synagogue. She made sure that her three daughters and son were involved in the Orthodox Synagogue and part of the community. She encouraged my then teenaged sisters to be active in the youth group and they ran for office. My sisters ran for Treasurer and Secretary and won. Even though they were active in their jobs, they still had to sit up away from the men. I continued to ask why we were not allowed to sit on the main floor. I remember feeling left out and not as important as the men.

One night, after a youth group meeting my mother noticed that some teenaged boys from New Haven were about to head home during a giant snowstorm. We lived near Mystic, CT and this is not a short ride especially for an inexperienced driver. My mother insisted that the boys stay with us where they could be safe - she probably saved their lives. The boys had guitars, sat by the fire and had a sing a-long with all of us. I was only four but I remember feeling very spiritual about the jewish melodies they sang.

The boys slept downstairs, the girls slept upstairs; it was very innocent. The snow was cleared by the morning and the boys got home safe and sound. Shortly after, my mother got a call from the Synagogue. She was called a brazen hussy, she was told she was no longer welcomed in the orthodox synagogue and that her daughters were no longer elected officials for the youth group. My sisters were devastated.

I didn't know about this until some years later when my sister Michele, alav hashalom (may she rest in peace), was on her death bed. She told me the entire story, from her perspective. We had just had an argument about organized religion. I then realized that the day the orthodox community denounced her and our family, was the very day that she no longer wanted to practice Judaism. That was the day the jewish community lost my sister. Two very strong, smart and spiritual jewish people were lost due to such sexist standards and that's really a shame.

My siblings are much older than I am. My mother joined a Conservative temple. I was happy sitting with everyone else. A year later, a reformed temple opened up in Groton. It was at the Reform temple that I felt connected for the very first time. The Rabbi was young and funny. I remember waiting for each of his sermons...I remember sitting on the edge of my seat and then falling off in laughter as he performed puppet shows. His sermons challenged me, provoking thought...I was only six or seven years old! The cantor played guitar, it was wonderful.

We stayed with this Temple till I was 12. We were very poor in a rather wealthy community. I found acceptance from the Rabbi. One day he announced that he was moving away. I remember crying. One day, shortly after he had gone I was attending hebrew school. My teacher was female and a mother of one of the other children. She made a callous comment about my clothing and snickered at the fact that I wore the same clothing last week. We didn't have money for a big wardrobe and it was bad enough that I got these comments at public school but to receive it from a grown woman from our congregation...was humiliating.

I told my mother I wasn't going back. And I didn't. I was not to be Bat Mitzvah-ed. I would not be wearing the tallit. I remember seeing my brother's Tallit and Tefillin when he was Bar Mitzvah-ed in the conservative temple. The Tallit was passed down to him. It was my understanding that I would not get to wear a Tallit in the conservative temple; my brother told me how special the tefillin was and told me not to touch it.

When I was 18, I moved to Chicago on my own. I did not know a soul there. I was lonely and yet one Friday night I walked into a synagogue. I didn't know anything about the synagogue but I just walked in. And, I was home. The music was didn't matter what sex I didn't matter what denomination it was. I was home when I was there. I would go from synagogue to synagogue. And I always felt like I was home when I heard the music.

I met my soulmate a few months after moving to Chicago. One day I was talking to his niece. She told me of her Rabbi and how he inspired her. She told me he was funny and thought provoking all at once. As I was about to tell her that he sounded like my childhood Rabbi the words "Rabbi Knobel" flowed out of both of our mouths simultaneously! Over a thousand miles away, and there he childhood rabbi!

I went back to hebrew school and started to learn again. Unfortunately I had just joined a touring post alternative band and wasn't able to continue. I do plan on going back someday. I do want to read Torah and I do want to wear the Tallit. I feel fortunate to be in a day and age when I will have the opportunity to wear a Tallit and that our daughter will be able to as well. I have seen many beautiful tallitot and admire the art.

Rabbi Peter Knobel and Cantor Jeff Klepper,1983 

In 1997, Rabbi Knobel married us and Cantor Klepper played melodic guitar at our wedding. It was the same music I remembered from childhood. My very favorite memory of our wedding is when the Rabbi wrapped the tallit around me and my bashert. We were soul-mates, foreheads touching, wrapped in beautiful judaic culture, wrapped in history, wrapped in a tallit I felt safe and at one with my bashert. It is a beautiful memory.

It wasn't until we had our daughter that I realized some things about being a Jewish girl in 1960's America. We had a really nice naming for Madison Michele who is named after my late sister. But I found out that in the 50's and 60's when my sisters and I were born, just my father went to the synagogue to name us. It's kind of sad to think of the birth of a daughter as being less significant than the birth of a son. I'm happy to be a part of a community where I can sit where I want, wear what I want, and to be a mother who can tell her children that we all have these opportunities. Our daughter and son can sit with us and wear what they want and enjoy the sermons and music of a male Rabbi, a female Rabbi and a female Cantor.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Touching the Torah: In solidarity with Women of the Wall

Part of a solidarity blog series for Women of the Wall.  Each piece is written by a member of the Rosh Hodesh group of Congregation B'nai Israel.  Tonight, Beth Lazar reflects on meaningful moments drawing close to the Torah.

My cousins are Reconstructionist Jews and I went to services with them.  They sang some of the same tunes that we sing at B'nai Israel and they also have a Saturday morning Torah study group that meets before Saturday morning services, to study and discuss the portion of the week.  I felt very at home at my cousins' temple.

My cousin also took me to a gathering of Conservative and Orthodox Jews who rented space to have Shabbat and Festival services.  We went to pray with them for a Passover Shabbat service.  The leaders of the service noticed that I was a new face, and asked me to dress the Torah after the reading.

I have a T-shirt with a picture of women dancing with the Torah at the Western Wall.  It is my hope that someday that drawing become a reality.  And all Jews can pray together here in the USA, and Israel.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My First Tallit: In solidarity with Women of the Wall

Part of a solidarity blog series for Women of the Wall.  Each piece is written by a member of the Rosh Hodesh group of Congregation B'nai Israel. Tonight, Rabbi Gurevitz shares a reflection:

I grew up in an Orthodox synagogue.  As a young teen, I watched the boys in front of the mechitzah with envy.  I wanted to be fluent in reciting prayers that no-one ever taught me.  I wanted to wrap myself in a tallit and cover my head to have intimate conversations with God.  I was not permitted to partake, and so I chatted with friends, I yawned, I ignored the hushes when our voices rose too much - what did they care?  Our voices didn't count anyway.

Fast-forward 13 years.  In adult bat-mitzvah classes with a woman rabbi.  We studied texts and made tzitzit.  We talked about wrapping ourselves with the presence of the Shechinah.  We talk about the tzitzit connecting us to the covenant and our heritage.  Our heritage.  I am invited to reclaim my heritage.

In an ethnic arts and crafts store in Swansea, Wales.  Hanging on the wall - a large cloth, banded with stripes, like a Tallit.  But these bands are fire orange and black.  And, at the boundaries of the fire and the black, the colors merge - not hard, firm boundaries, but blurred, permeable boundaries.  This is my tallit - my first tallit.

It transforms my prayer and, soon, it will transform my life.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

To be Holy in the sight of God: In solidarity with Women of the Wall

Part of a solidarity blog series for Women of the Wall.  Each piece is written by a member of the Rosh Hodesh group of Congregation B'nai Israel.  Tonight's blog is written by Marjorie Freeman, who grew up in a Reform congregation.

As a school girl, I attended - participated in - services every Saturday morning.  All the adult women wore hats, the men were bare-headed, in order to show respect.  I studied Jewish history, the holidays, ethical teachings, and the bible - with more intensity each year.

In my senior year of High School, our class read key portions of the Torah each week, coming together ready to present our own view of the meanings.  After heated discussions, our teacher present the 'official' Reform interpretation, which we sometimes respectfully disagreed with.  But isn't that the Jewish way?

At the end of the year, four of us, two girls and two boys, were chosen to give 'sermonettes' the Friday evening of our graduation ceremony.  It was such an honor to be chosen, but also so scary!  What topic to choose, how to write something worthy of the congregation and the rabbi's attention? How to stand up in front of so many people and speak the words?

Never once did it occur to me to question why two boys and two girls.  We were the top students in the class; it was obvious why we were chosen.  Yet this was 1962 - none of us had ever heard of a bat mitzvah, let alone a woman rabbi.

My sermonette was on the first commandment - everything follows from 'I am the Lord your God.'  All the other commandments, all the ways of righteousness, of helping others, of doing good.  "I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.'

Now it is for us to do the same for each other, and to worship God together and to be Holy in the sight of our God.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My first experience at the Kotel: In solidarity with Women of the Wall

Part of a solidarity blog series for Women of the Wall.  Each piece is written by a member of the Rosh Hodesh group of Congregation B'nai Israel.

My first experience seeing the Kotel was after sundown on a Yom Kippur.  We were on our way to a Break Fast with a very close friend from home - a kid I grew up with who was like a brother.  I was to have been visiting and traveling with him but, after making Aliyah, he went into the army.  So when I arrived I went to his apartment and was staying with his roommates.

He came home for the holiday and we went to his friends for Yom Kippur.  Of course, I didn't even get to sit with him in Shul either.  So after sundown we went to Yerushalayim and the Old City before joining other friends to eat.  I actually was on the rooftops looking down, and then we went into the plaza of the Kotel.  I'm glad I was with 'family', even though he didn't come in the women's side, but was waiting when I was finished.

Yom Kippur services, Yizkor (memorial), my prayers, and the notes at the wall, and being with a person who is family, was the perfect first time to have this incredible, moving experience.  It was still early, and the Kotel was quiet and still, and fairly empty.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

To Pray in a Tallit. In Solidarity with Women of the Wall

Part of a solidarity blog series for Women of the Wall.  Each piece is written by a member of the Rosh Hodesh group of Congregation B'nai Israel.

Wrapped in the 'arms' of God
Embraced in love and intimacy ...
Easing into the secure comfort
I am free to pray with all my heart ...

God's voice pours out of me
as I feel the Breath fill my body ...
Sometimes there are tears of joy or sadness
But always there is a feeling of 'coming home.'

One of the most powerful times of prayer was in the beautiful space of a chapel at a Christian Retreat Center.  This was clearly a sacred place.  God was in this place and, yes, I did know it.  Freedom to be who I am, a Jewish woman of faith ... welcoming sisters.

How ironic that Jewish women do not have that freedom to pray so safely in 'our homeland', at one of the most sacred sites of the Jewish people.  How sad to realize that 'my people' would not honor my right to pray, abuse me and treat me as less than human.  Maybe they are not 'my people'.  Does God listen to and answer their prayers?

Praying with Women of the Wall, Rosh Hodesh Tevet, Dec 18, 2009

Lisa Grant is a member of Congregation B'nai Israel, and Associate Professor of Education at Hebrew Union College, New York.  Lisa is currently in Israel and, after seeing last night's blog entry dedicating the coming week to solidarity blogs with Women of the Wall, she sent me this eye-witness report of being one of the women praying this Rosh Hodesh, on Friday morning at the Kotel.

I arrived in Israel on Thursday night and woke up early Friday morning to attend Rosh Chodesh Tevet services with the Women at the Wall.  In the pouring rain, we were well over 100 strong, with women of all ages, students, mothers, grandmothers.  We gathered at the back of the Women's section at the Kotel, clustered tightly under umbrellas and joined together in prayer surrounded by a chorus of voices shouting out bitter epithets ranging from the rather mild "Shame" and "scum" to the more shocking "Die" and "You're the reason why the Intifada happened."  We were not deterred by either weather or curses and managed to raise our voices together in prayer.  There were a number of police in our midst, who mainly kept telling us to keep our tallitot under our coats.  When we finished Hallel, we began a slow walk out of the Ezrat Nashim towards Robinson's Arch for the Torah service.  On the way, we sang songs of faith and strength in support of our right to freely express ourselves as Jews in the Jewish state.  We were joined by a couple dozen men who walked with us in solidarity.  Other men continued to shout at us and spit on us while the police looked on.  

I shared my umbrella with two young women who kept saying "this is so sad. It just makes me want to cry."  A sad statement indeed, that there were men (and some women) who found it more important to throw insults and slurs our way than to direct their hearts into their own prayer. On this 7th day of Hanukkah we sang out for religious freedom and the right to pray peacefully and respectfully in this most holy of sites that belongs to the entire Jewish people. 
Lisa D. Grant
Associate Professor of Jewish Education
Hebrew Union College - New York

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A week of blogging in solidarity with Women of the Wall

In the coming week there will be a new blog each evening from a member of the Rosh Hodesh group of B'nai Israel.  Last night, at our Rosh Hodesh program, some women wrote a response to the recent arrest of Nofrat Frankel last month at the Rosh Chodesh Shacharit service of Women of the Wall.  Each woman was asked to reflect on a range of experiences: the experience of being at the Kotel, the experience of praying in a tallit, or a time in their lives when they were aware of their inclusion or exclusion from Jewish community as a woman.  Each woman shared something personal, spiritual and deeply moving.  Below is the sermon, delivered on Shabbat, December 18, dedicated to standing in solidarity with Women of the Wall this Rosh Hodesh Tevet.  Please visit us each night to read another solidarity blog.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Standing in Solidarity with Women of the Wall

Last week, a call went out Israel, the USA, and Europe, to make yesterday, Rosh Chodesh, Tevet, a day of solidarity at venues around the world in support of the right of women to pray at the Western Wall in "dignity, in safety and in shared community."  Why did such a call go out, and what was the response?

First, a little history, courtesy of Phyllis Chesler, an American, Jewish feminist:  21 years ago for the first time in history, 70 Jewish women prayed together out loud as a group at the Western Wall (or "Kotel") in Jerusalem. Women have always prayed at the Kotel, often silently, and alone. What made this service radically different, certainly transcendent, was that we not only prayed aloud but we also chanted from the Torah.  The group consisted of women of every Jewish denomination, but many of the founding leaders were Orthodox women – educated Orthodox women, and the group’s way of praying, including their Torah reading among a group of women only, was then, and has remained, entirely within the remit of halachah – Jewish law.

Phyllis Chesler, describing that first time, tells us: Some of us donned tallesim (prayer shawls) and head coverings, many of us did not. We were radiant, overwhelmed, humbled, united.  However, once the ultra-orthodox men and women understood that Jewish women were chanting from a Torah, they began hurling unholy and terrifying curses at us which fouled the very air. Threats of physical violence quickly followed. We made it out safely: this time, the first time.

As the group continued to meet, early morning, once a month, every month, at Rosh Chodesh, the response of the ultra-orthodox who have claimed the Wall as their own, personal synagogue, became increasingly violent.  Metal chairs were thrown over the mechitza at the women, curses were shouted out.  Women of the Wall, as they called themselves, decided to go to the Israeli Supreme Court, asking for permission to conduct their women-only service, on the women’s side of the mechitza, and read from the Torah, for 11 hours a year – one hour, once a month, on Rosh Chodesh.  Women around the world rallied in support.  Artists created tallitot to help raise money for the cause (and tonight I wear the Women of the Wall Tallit), tambourines for Women’s Seders, and much more.

Phyllis Chesler tells us: The Israeli Supreme Court would ultimately render three decisions. The first decision, in 1994, sent us to the Knesset where, I kid you not, the guys tried to banish our prayer group to rubble-strewn Arab areas of Jerusalem. We returned to court and, in 2000, rejoiced over a unanimous three judge decision in our favor. The state immediately appealed this decision. We then faced nine judges. In 2002, four judges were in our favor, four opposed us--and the fifth and decisive vote against us was cast by none other than the great liberal and humanitarian, Chief Justice Aharon Barak, a man who has been able to find justice for Palestinian Arabs, both Christians and Jews but not for Jewish women.  This 2002 decision ordered the government to build a prayer site for us at Robinson's Arch, which is mainly an archeological and tourist site.

I have attended a Rosh Chodesh service at the wall – about 5 years ago, when I was in Israel for a summer program.  Even before we left for Robinson’s Arch for a beautiful Torah service where a young woman had her batmitzvah (and her grandmother came up for an aliyah for the very first time in her life), as 70 women began to quietly sing the Hallel prayers at the Kotel, I witnessed a bearded man stand on a chair and start hurling abuse at us – ‘You are worse than the Christians!’  ‘You are prostitutes!’ he hollered in Hebrew.  Two soldiers came over to our group and told us we had to lower our voices.

Things have been pretty quiet for the Women of the Wall in recent months.  So quiet that, last month, they wondered if perhaps the ultra-Orthodox at the Wall had stopped paying attention.  And so, when they’d reached the end of the morning prayers without hearing any abuse, they thought they’d take out the Torah and see if they could continue without moving to Robinson’s Arch.  It became evident in moments that they could not.  As they packed up and started to walk away from the Kotel to continue, as usual, at Robinson’s Arch, Nofrat Frankel, an Israeli medical student and Masorti/Conservative Jew, holding the Torah, was surrounded and taken to the on-site police station, apparently for wearing a tallit which, they claimed, was forbidden (incidentally, halachah states that women are not obliged to wear a tallit but absolutely does not state that it is forbidden).  She was told that a criminal file was being opened on her, and that she was banned from the Kotel for two weeks.

And so, once again, women of every Jewish denomination, as well as men, are rallying to stand in support of Women of the Wall.  Last night, we dedicated B’nai Israel’s Rosh Hodesh group program to Women of the Wall.  After studying the history, and the recent events, each of us wrote a personal reflection that related to the issues at hand.  Tonight I want to share just the topics.  But each piece was powerful and moving, and needs and deserves to be seen and read in its entirety.  And so, beginning Saturday night, for 8 days, in echo of the 8 days of Chanukah that we complete tonight – our festival that celebrates and remembers our reclaiming of our Religious Freedoms – one of these pieces will be posted on our congregational blog, shma koleinu (which, if you still haven’t found yet, can be easily accessed via the link on the front page of our temple website).

There is a beautiful piece on the experience of praying with a tallit.  It begins:
Wrapped in the ‘arms’ of God, Embraced in love and intimacy… Easing into the secure comfort, I am free to pray with all my heart…

Another woman writes of a moving experience at the Kotel on a quiet evening, on the way to break fast at the end of Yom Kippur.

Marjorie Freeman writes of her experience, growing up in a Reform temple, with new-found appreciation for a sense of inclusivity she felt from childhood.

Barbara Levine reflected on her experience of an adult batmitzvah, and the powerful ritual of mikvah that she chose to have before that special day.  Highlighting the beauty of existing in a pluralist Jewish community, she tells of the day that she met an Orthodox woman who had been so deeply moved by the article she wrote about her mikvah experience.  So much spirituality from a willingness for all of us to open up to the God-moments that we can find in each others’ expressions of Judaism.

Beth Lazar writes about visiting synagogues of different denominations in the USA, and the bond of connecting to the Torah rituals in each one, praying that all women everywhere will one day be able to feel that connection.

Heidi Gassel shared some deeply moving parts of her biography, and some of the life-changing moments of inclusion of exclusion experienced by her and members of her family in the context of Jewish community.

Becca writes a powerful prayer, celebrating the fullness of being Jewish and a woman, calling on God’s presence, and singing praises to a God that embraces and loves all of us.

And I wrote about my first Tallit, how I came to wear one, and how it transformed my prayer and, subsequently, transformed my life.

Nofrat Frankel, and all the Women of the Wall, we stand with you, we rededicate ourselves to support the cause of Women of the Wall, and we rededicate ourselves as Jewish men and women to embrace and celebrate a pluralist Jewish community, committed to being mindful of when we are guilty of erecting unnecessary barriers of exclusion, wanting to see the day when all of us, every part of Klal Yisrael, is able to explore and express our Jewish spirituality without fear.

Friday, December 18, 2009

8th candle: Emanating sparks of light, dispelling darkness

The 8 blogs of Chanukah. Each night a new blog from the community of Congregation B'nai Israel.

Tonight, the eighth and last blog of Chanukah is brought to you by Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon and Rabbi Nir Barkin of Kehilah YOZMA - the sister congregation of B'nai Israel in Modi'in, Israel.  Yozma means 'initiative', and the name of the congregation is also an acronym standing for Yahadut Zmaneinu Moreshet Ha'am, meaning 'Judaism of our time, heritage of our people'.  You can learn more about the congregation, including ways of supporting the community, here.

We welcomed the month of Kislev at YOZMA with an intensive study weekend in the northern part of Israel focused on the subject of “Understanding the different approaches to Faith and Belief in Judaism” Kislev is the month dedicated to the celebration of light! It comes at a time when the days are the shortest and the nights are the longest in the calendar year. The lighting of the Chanukah candles reminds us of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the amazing victory of the Jewish people over the tyranny of the Syrian ‐ Greek rule. Light brings a sense of clarity, joy and warmth into our lives. Light is a universal symbol of hope and faith.

At one of the workshops we participated in an exercise in painting. The exercise demanded of us to work with the concepts of light and darkness. It was a fascinating experience for all of us. We learned that darkness descends from the margins into the center and that light radiates out from the center towards the margins. When we think about the movement of light in this way and apply it to the spiritual and emotional realms of our lives we can begin to understand our potential for rekindling light into our darkest moments. When we observe the margins carefully we can try to recognize what outside influences cause the darkness to descend upon us and respond appropriately. And then once we realize that we have the ability to spark light from our inner self ‐ from our own center ‐ we can illuminate brand new regions of our daily lives.

In chapter 2 of the Midrash Pesikta Rabbati, (a collection of stories and explanations of the festivals and other special occasions) we learn that: “There are seven dedications that have been achieved by light : The creation of the world by moonlight, the Tabernacle and two Temples by the seven‐branched menorah, the festival of the Maccabees by the eight‐branched menorah, the walls of Jerusalem by torches, and the millennium by the sevenfold light of the sun”.

Let us suggest an additional dedication making the grand total of eight to parallel the eight days we celebrate Chanukah: As we the members of YOZMA light our chanukiot this year – with the awareness that our many friends and supporters will also be lighting their chanukiot across the sea – together, let us all dedicate ourselves to finding that inner light that shines in our centers and bring it forth into the world.  How so very bright our days will be…

Chag Urim Sameach – Happy Chanukah!
Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon and Rabbi Nir Barkin

Thursday, December 17, 2009

7th candle: God, Humanity & Redemption through partnership

The 8 blogs of Chanukah. Each night a new blog from the community of Congregation B'nai Israel.

Tonight, the seventh blog of Chanukah is brought to you by Dr. Lisa Grant.  Lisa is a member of both Congregation B'nai Israel and Beth El.  She is Associate Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, on the New York campus.  Lisa has done extensive research and writing on Israel education.  She regularly chants Torah at B'nai Israel on a Shabbat morning, and has contributed in many other ways since her arrival in our community two years ago, teaching adult education classes and giving several divrei Torah at services.  She is married to Dr. Billy Weitzer, Senior Vice President of Fairfield University, and they have two adult children, Hannah and Nate.

Hanukkah is one of the most celebrated holidays in American Jewish life and there are probably more Jews who know at least one Hanukkah song than for any other holiday.  Even public school Holiday concerts often include a Hanukkah song such as “I Have a Little Dreidl” or “Light One Candle” or my all-time favorite for the silliness factor Debbie Friedman’s “I am a Latke.”  But my favorite Hanukkah song is a Hebrew one and my holiday celebration would be incomplete without singing it at least a few times over the eight nights. It’s called “Mi Yimalel” or “Who Can Retell”. 

I learned this song as a child and confess that I didn’t give much thought to the words for many years.  It has a lively tune with simple words that are fun to sing in a round.  The song doesn’t mention the miracle of oil; it doesn’t talk about religious freedom.  It’s just a gleeful celebration of the heroes who rise up in every age to save the Jewish people from disaster.  Here are the lyrics as they are usually sung in English with the more literal translation included in parentheses:

Who can retell the things that befell us? (heroic deeds of Israel)
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage (arises)
Came to our aid (To redeem the people).
Hark!! (Listen!)

The second part of the song is translated much less often.  These words name Judah Maccabee as the hero of that time long ago, but say that now all Israel must unite together to redeem themselves.

In those days at this season
Judah the Maccabee saved us.
Now in these days all the people of Israel
Must unite and rise to redeem themselves.

The song was composed by Menashe Ravina a Ukrainian Jew who made aliyah to Palestine (pre-State Israel) in 1924.  It is one of hundreds of folk tunes that were composed throughout the 20th century to express and embed Zionist ideology into Israeli culture.  The song is based on a biblical verse from Psalm 106 that is also part of traditional liturgy both in Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) and the Hymn of Glory that Orthodox and some Conservative congregations sing at the end of Shabbat morning services.  Here’s that verse in Hebrew, transliteration and English translation: 
:Iœ,ŠK¦v§T›kŠF ‹gh½¦n§J³Ãh v·²u«v±h ,IÉrUc±D k‡K©n±Óh h½¦n
Mee y’maleil g’vurot Adonai, Yashmi’a kol t’hilato

Who can tell the mighty acts of Adonai?  Who can declare all God’s praise?

As a Labor Zionist, Ravina embraced the notion that it was up to human beings to save the Jewish people, not God.  For Ravina, saving the Jewish people meant building up the Jewish State. So Mi Yimalel is a celebration of the classical secular Zionist notion that the Jewish people, not God will be the ones to reclaim, resettle, and re-establish Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel

At an earlier point in my life, I think I would have endorsed these words more strongly than I do today where they raise profound questions for me theologically and ideologically. I’m not  at all sure we Jews should or could go it alone, without God’s help in our individual lives and in our collective future.  I’m also not altogether comfortable thinking about Jewish history as simply a string of disasters that require salvation.  There’s much much more to celebrate than that.  But, in the meantime I still sing this song, joyfully at Hanukkah.  I sing it because of its history and also because I believe that as God’s partners, we are ultimately responsible for  here in America, in Israel and all other places where Jews dwell.  

The lyrics to the song are included below as are two youtube links to hear two very different renditions!

Chag Urim Sameach!! May the lights of Hanukkah bring you happiness during this festive time.

Mi Yimalel
?v®b§n°h h¦n i¨,Ut k¥t¨r§J±h ,IÉrUc±D k‡K©n±Óh h¦n
/oŠg¨v k¥tUD rUC°d©v oUe²h rIs kŠf‰C i¥v
v®Z¨v i©n±z‹C o¥v¨v oh¦n²h‹C
/v¤sUpU ‹gh¦aUn hˆCF©n
k¥t¨ra±h o‹g kŠF Ub¥n²h‰cU
!k¥t²D°h±u oUe²h s¥j©t§,°h
Mee y’maleil g’vurot Yisrael, otan mee yimneh?
Hein b’chol dor yakum ha’gibor
Go-eil ha’am.
Ba’yamim ha’hem ba’zman ha’zeh.
Makabi moshiyah u’fodeh
U’v’yameinu kol am Yisrael
Yit’ached yakum v’yiga’el.

Who can retell the things that befell us? (heroic deeds of Israel)
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage (arises)
Came to our aid (To redeem the people).
In those days at this season
Judah the Maccabee saved us.
Now in these days all the people of Israel
Must unite and rise to redeem themselves.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

6th candle: The Lights Won't Go Out in Afula

The 8 blogs of Chanukah. Each night a new blog from the community of Congregation B'nai Israel.

Tonight, the sixth blog of Chanukah is brought to you by Emek Medical Center - Hospital of Peace, located in Afula, which is a partner region with Fairfield County.  In cross-communal partnership, with the local Federation, we have had an ongoing relationship with Afula and with the Emek Medical Center.  More information on how you can contact them is found at the end of tonight's blog.  Here is their Chanukah message, and some information about their work from Dr. Orna Blondheim, Director.

The Lights Won't Go Out
A candle in the wind; violent, whipping, swirling gusts … moving rocks and water before its mighty force.  People cower before the maelstrom, covering their eyes, turning their backs so as not to see, not to hear … waiting for quiet … when it is safe to raise their heads.  Not only does the single candle inexplicably continue to burn, but another and another join it – standing defiantly in the face of the onslaught.  When the first should have been blown into oblivion, now eight glow; challenging, mocking the forces set against them.  Darkness should have prevailed, but the flickering lights would not go out.  Those little flames would not submit to the power that should have engulfed them.  Many have tried to explain this improbable resilience.  Many pray for stronger winds … instead of simply enjoying the light in the dark.  Those who choose to move closer to the stubborn flames are treated to warmth and illuminations of wonders within the light.  Move closer to the radiance or turn away, the choice is yours.  When the winds die down and the dust settles and people are no longer afraid to raise their heads – they will see that the candles are still burning.  Within that glow is a life force, more obstinate than any tempest.

We are an infinitesimal component of the flame and we know that you too have felt the warmth.  Stay close and together let's stand firm against the winds.

Dear friends,
It is most encouraging to see the improved facilities and 

expanded services that Emek has achieved over the past 
several years. Our growing family of friends around the 
world has played an important role in our ability to better 
serve the people of Israel. Since October 2000 the trauma 
from unprecedented terror has affected us all. Emek 
Medical Center has stood firm in the eye of the hurricane 
and managed to maintain its standing as an island of sanity. 
We have proven over the years that all the people of our 
region, Jews and Arabs alike may depend upon us to treat 
every patient with unprejudiced dedication. Despite the 
strains on our limited resources, we have, with essential 
help from our friends, been able to meet some of the many 
challenges we face and we hope that more of you will be 
joining our family.

I am so proud of the entire staff of this institution, as it is 

thanks to their dedication and sensitivities that Emek has 
repeatedly been voted #1 in patient satisfaction. Despite 
the loving care we provide and even with the completion 
of our West Tower, approximately 50% of our patients are 
still hospitalized in sub-standard conditions. Israel’s health 
care establishment is in the midst of an acute economic crisis. 
Every hospital has been affected and Emek’s ability to maintain 
its level of services is being eroded. The immense challenge 
facing us today is to continue growing while increasing our 
level of efficiency without negatively affecting our high medical 
standards or our excellent patient relationships. Most pressing 
of all is our need for more operating theaters. Our current surgical 
facilities cannot cope efficiently with the normal caseload of a 
growing population and every mass casualty terror event only 
exacerbates an already critical situation. Plans are now drawn 
for a new Surgical Complex that will eventually include 12 
ultra-modern Operating Rooms, a new Sterile Supply Unit 
and various surgical departments. Our primary focus, in order 
to answer immediate needs, is to first build and equip 4 — 6 
new Operating Rooms. Funding will determine the rate of 
further progress. We salute all of our friends who have joined 
us in our quest .to provide better healthcare for our people.

Click here for more information about the Emek Medical Center, 
or to offer support.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

5th candle: Raise it up!

The 8 blogs of Chanukah. Each night a new blog from the community of Congregation B'nai Israel.

Tonight, the fourth blog of Chanukah is brought to you by Rabbi David Nelson.  Rabbi Nelson will be our scholar-in-residence, March 19-20, 2009.  He is Rabbi and Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Bard College. He is a Fellow at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and was the Associate Director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He is the author of Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World, published by Jewish Lights.

You probably know that each night we light a Hannukah menorah (also called a Hannukiyah in Hebrew), we light one candle the first night, two the second night, three the third night, and so on. But you probably don't know the origin of this practice. In the early days of the period of the Talmud (that is, the first few centuries of the Common Era), there was a dispute between two groups of rabbis, one called Beit Hillel and the other called Beit Shammai. Beit Shammai held that the proper procedure was to light eight lights the first night, and to decrease by one light on each successive night of the holiday, while Beit Hillel claimed that we should start with one light on the first night and increase by one each night until all eight are burning on the last night. As we know, Beit Hillel won the argument, and theirs is the procedure that we follow. But the question is "why?" 

Beit Shammai based their ruling on a similarity that they saw between Hannukah and the festival of Sukkot (Booths - the harvest festival that we celebrated earlier in the fall). The law required that 70 animals be sacrificed in the Temple during Sukkot, starting with 13 on the first day and decreasing by one each day (so 12 on the second day, 11 on the third, and so on). Beit Hillel based their view on a general Jewish principle that we may increase in holiness, but we may not decrease.  

This general principle, which we see in clear, visual terms as the nights of Hannukah progress, strikes me as a wise rule for life in general. Each of us holds dear something that we consider "sacred."  It may not be something "religious" in the traditional sense. It could be the love we feel for those close to us, or the passion we have for learning, or the commitment we have to improve the state of our world. The principle articulated by Beit Hillel directs us always to increase the amount of that holiness in our lives.

Whatever it is that we care most about, we should always try to do more of it in the future than we have done in the past.