Monday, December 20, 2010

Have a Jewish Christmas?

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, at, wrote a fascinating blog piece last week entitled, 'What's a Jewish Christmas?'  Actually, I found myself mostly fascinated by some of the comments it elicited; I found myself largely in tune with the questions and observations raised by the article itself.  It begins by noting that a restaurant in Philadelphia is promoting 'A Very Jewish Christmas' on December 25th, with two evening sittings for an Asian-inspired meal while movies are playing on their flat-screen TVs.  Rabbi Hirschfield asks the question:
Is Chinese food and a movie simply a way for Jews to insulate ourselves from the larger culture? A way in which to make sure that we have an agreed upon way to occupy ourselves while the majority celebrates "their" holiday? For some, that is almost certainly the case, and perhaps that is enough. But perhaps there is more.
Here at B'nai Israel, we also decided to pick up on this theme, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  We're ordering the Chinese Food in for a congregational meal and a movie at the Temple on Christmas Eve, as a communal event after our Kabbalat Shabbat service (call Lynn in our office at 203-336-1858 to register!).  I'd thought about doing this after Christmas fell on Shabbat last year.  There are times during the year when I join congregants who are going out for a meal after services.  Before I get flamed for doing this as a Rabbi, for me this is my way of doing oneg Shabbat - the pleasure of a meal in the company of friends in the congregation.  I don't go shopping on Shabbat, but I will sometimes go out for a meal.  Last year, after I'd led Shabbat services, a group of us went over to a local Chinese restaurant.  Lo and behold, at least 50% of the restaurant was filled with my congregation! (some who'd been to synagogue first, and some who hadn't).  I might have doubled my community that night if I'd just started off the night at the restaurant and led services there!  So, this year, I thought we'd bring the food to the synagogue, and do two kinds of Jewish in one evening.
Rabbi Hirschfield is exploring the question of whether, to do this kind of thing, means that Jews are, in some way, 'observing' a religious holiday that isn't ours to observe.  But, and I think he is right on the button when he suggests:

Perhaps, this American Jewish custom is also a way of acknowledging that here in America, Christmas is "our" holiday too". I am not suggesting that we buy into a theology of Christmas or even of its traditionally Christian practices.  I am simply suggesting that like the vast Christian majority among whom Jews live in America, it is a day which reminds us that we can celebrate the fact that others are celebrating. We need not fear that as we once had good reason to. In fact, we can delight in it, and not simply because it is a "day off".
We can celebrate that for the first time in the entire 2000 year history of the Jewish Diaspora the religious and cultural celebrations of others are safe and comfortable for us. We can choose to honor them in any number of ways. We can volunteer our time so that Christians can more easily take the day off, we can take a moment to consider the remarkable and unique beauty of "someone else's" holiday, etc. The list goes on and on, and when Jews do those things, it really is a very Jewish Christmas.

Several of the comments on Rabbi Hirschfield's blog were from Jews who were clearly turned off by what they perceived to be a Rabbi advocating this Jewish 'observance' of Christmas.  I don't think that was what he was doing; rather, simply observing what already is the case for many Jewish families.  Many times in the Mishnah - the first collection of rabbinic rulings and discussions where early rabbis were trying to figure out how to apply Torah law to the reality of the Jewish community of their day - the advice was given, 'go out and see what the people are doing'.  Often this advice was applied when there wasn't an obvious 'right' or 'wrong' to a question of practice - we aren't talking about morality or ethics here.  The advice was sometimes applied in a situation where, pragmatically, the Rabbis were looking to understand what the cultural norm in their community was and, where possible, have Jewish practice fit alongside it rather than be set up in opposition to it.

In the case of Christmas in America, I think there is a sense that Jews being together for a meal (whether Chinese or otherwise) is a way of participating in the feel good, coming togetherness of this season.  I know that for many in my community, being Jewish is something they are proud of, but at the same time become uncomfortable when being Jewish comes at the cost of having to block out or guard against participation in the dominant culture of which we are a part.  And when we are talking about family time, friends going out to dinner together, we are not talking about taking on a religion or belief system that is not ours - we are talking about something much more sociological.

A case in point... a conversation I overheard at a coffeeshop last week among three young Christian women.  Apparently at least one of them was going somewhere nice and hot over Christmas.  They were looking forward to a non-denominational service of gratitude that would take place around the pool of the resort on Christmas Day, but apparently one member of their party (perhaps a mother, mother-in-law or friend?) didn't feel like they were really doing Christmas unless they went to Church.  The three women were expressing their feelings that the meaning of the holiday for them was about family, friends and celebration - the pool felt like a much better place for this than having to get dressed up to go to a strange Church.  As one put it, 'I believe in a God who is everywhere... and I certainly feel God's presence on the beach!'

Now, I'm not here to comment on degrees of religiosity or the deeper meaning of Christmas to Christians.  Clearly this group of women didn't have Jesus on their mind.  But, whatever we may feel about that, they represent a large number of Americans who see Christmas in a very similar way - family, friends, food, celebration and appreciation.  And it is that that so many Jewish families are tuning into and doing in their own, uniquely American Jewish ways on Christmas.

At B'nai Israel, we wish everyone a good holiday season, especially to our Christian staff who work in our offices and our building, and to many of our member families who will be helping the Christian members of their family celebrate the holiday.  To all the rest, whether it be a Chinese meal or something else - B'tai Avon - Enjoy your meal!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Why the repealing of Don't Ask Don't Tell is a spiritual matter too

This Shabbat we were blessed with some very good news from our government.  Finally, the policy, 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' has been repealed.  This is the policy by which men and women who serve in our Armed Forces who are gay or lesbian could only do so at the cost of keeping this part of their identity secret.  It meant much more than simply not talking about it; it meant being especially careful about where they were and who they were with in public space in their time off too - anything that might be construed as a public revelation of their sexual identity.
Lt. Dan Choi, a courageous advocate for repealing DADT
The Reform movement took on this issue as a social policy matter that our Religious Action Center lobbied on because it was matter of basic decency and human rights that this discriminatory policy be abolished.  But it is also a spiritual matter.  Perhaps what has troubled and yes, even angered, me the most about the debates that have been heard on the Senate floor, is the complete lack of comprehension of what it means to ask someone, and especially someone who lives in the kind of closed environment of an army barrack or base, to hide one piece of the essence of who they are.  Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla), for example, was quoted in the press as having stated: "I was shocked at how well this has worked for a long period of time," Inhofe said. "We have a saying in Oklahoma, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' Well, this isn't broke, it's working very well."

The Senator clearly has absolutely no concept of what it feels like to be hiding in public as a gay man or lesbian woman.  He clearly has no inkling of the effect it has on the nature of one's friendships, one's relationship to parents, grandparents and siblings, to be keeping a piece of oneself secret for fear that the information may become public and bring an end to one's career.  And the Senator clearly cannot imagine how, when one no longer has to hide, the ability to simply fully 'be' is a soul-expanding, spiritual experience.  Whatever one's faith, the ability to be whole, and the inner peace that comes with a sense of the integration of the parts of one's life, and the ability to be fully present to others in the sense of the spiritual 'I-Thou' relationship that Martin Buber wrote of in his famous book of the same name... this is as central an aspect of the spiritual life as any other I can think of.

I am delighted that this terrible policy is now gone.  I look forward to seeing it bear further fruits as it becomes equally evident that other things denied gay men and lesbian women by the Federal government, purely on the basis of sexual identity, simply have no place in a modern, civilized democracy in a country that claims that all citizens are equal under law.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Poem for Shabbat

In the wonderful world of social networking, whether it be on Facebook, Twitter, or via this blog, the connections made between people who might never ordinarily meet can be deeply enriching.  While, like so many things connected to new technology, there is the 'dark side', on the whole I have found it to be a great blessing to both reach out and be reached by the world of connections facilitated by these still relatively new technologies.  In truth, there's a spiritual quality to the possibilities for me - I have made some very special connections with people over sharing thoughts about faith, poetry, and life experiences.

This is all in preamble to today's blog offering, which is a re-posting from a sweet and spiritual blog, - a blogger based in Skokie, IL.  Stacey shared a poem for Shabbat a little while back on her blog.  We connected via twitter and, exploring her blog, I found some wonderful, down-to-earth heart-felt observations and sharing about life, and a sense of the spiritual in the everyday.  That's my kind of blog. I look forward to reading more in the coming months, and I hope you will too.

In the meantime, here is her poem for Shabbat.  May we all be blessed with stepping across the threshold, into a peaceful Shabbat.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz
A poem for Shabbat  by Stacey Robinson

And so we stand
On the edge of this week

Pebbles strewn at our feet
The distance between us an endless heartbeat
The difference like night
Like day
Like light and darkness

Like God
Who separates the days
And brings us
Ever and always
To this holy edge

To this Shabbat

Where we stand
Trembling with effort
Weary from a week filled with
Noise and action and movement
Restless and driven
From one moment to the next
Until we are brought to this edge

This endless and always edge
To this Shabbat
Sacred and at peace
We pause
We breathe
At rest

With God
With one another
In a flickerflame of candle light
The setting of the sun
From one breath to the next
One heartbeat
We stand on the edge and cross into the infinite
As one
Into peace
Into Shabbat

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rabbi Santavitch is coming to town (with some help from a shmelf)

My brother runs 2002 studios ( - a music and content production company.  Its a very diverse company that does everything from original composition and arrangement, to recording and engineering albums, to voice-overs, to computer games ... anything where sound is needed in any multi-media context.  Recently he was asked to contribute the music to a seasonal computer game, originally called 'A little helper: Christmas Collect', my brother suggested to the game designers, 'Why not add a Chanukah option?'  Sure enough they did.  You now have the option of answering the question 'What are you celebrating?' with either 'Christmas' or 'Chanukah'.

When you select the 'Chanukah' option, you are introduced to the scenario: 'Rabbi Santavitch is packing his Chanukah and holiday season gifts onto his snow mobile to take to the local Jewish Community Center for his Jewish and multifaith friends.  Whilst on his way to the community center, he didn't notice his presents falling all over the frozen lake ...'

We discover that it is our job to play the part of the shmelf who wants to help out by skating over the lake, collecting the gifts.

Obviously, we're having fun with the Santa story, but this is one of those Chanukah moments that I really love; a Jewish expression of the universal spirit of gift-giving and helping to spread some light and happiness around.  Its not deep but it is an important part of the wider culture of this season and, so often, when families fret about how to make Chanukah 'compete' with the Christmas season, what we're missing is that the piece that everyone wants to be part of is the spirit of giving and receiving.  Its fun, it feels good, and we want to be a part of it too.  And I'm not bothered about borrowing from the broader culture in this playful way.  We all get the joke.  And the wonderful irony of Chanukah is that, if you look at just about every single feature of 'traditional Chanukah celebration' (the menorah, the latkes, the dreidle, the tune of Maoz Tzur...) you'll find that we've borrowed every single one of them from another culture (the Canaanites, Eastern Europe, a medieval gambling game, the earliest form of which has been traced back to Anglo-Saxon England in the Tenth Century, and a medieval German marching tune!)

Its a cute little game that is - beware - rather addictive.
So... a little gift from the Gurevitz clan - play the game here.  Enjoy, share with your friends and a very happy 7th night of Chanukah!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hanukkah: Shining a Light on Freedom of Religion

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, falls on December 1st this year.  The Festival of Lights, originating in the celebration of the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greek Empire and the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE, has come to symbolize many eternal and universal themes over the centuries, particularly themes of hope and creating light in dark times.  In American life today, it is not unusual for these eternal and universal messages to be blended with contemporary concerns.  
So, for example, a Jewish environmental group ( launched a CFL light bulb campaign a few years ago, re-reading the ancient story of the miracle of the little jar of oil found in the desecrated Temple by the Maccabees that lasted for eight nights instead of the expected one.  

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism draws lines of connection between the themes of Hanukkah and many contemporary social issues, urging us to use some of our time and resources to go beyond the donut-, latke-eating, and present-giving norms, and see the festival as inspiration to make a difference on issues of economic justice, and children’s issues, among others (

This year, a press release about another connection between the Festival and contemporary issues caught my attention.  In the time of the Maccabees, there had been many years of cultural assimilation, with Jews in the land of Israel absorbing and incorporating aspects of Syrian-Greek culture.  The rebellion came when there was a shift in Syrian-Greek perspective, and traditional Jewish practices and rituals became forbidden.  The Maccabees were fighting to restore their freedom to practice their religion.  While the story is more complicated than that, the theme remains all too relevant today.

This November, former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, launched a global education program ‘Face to Faith.’  In a press release from his Faith Foundation, he explained: “Face to Faith connects students aged 11-16 from different schools in 15 countries across the world via video-conferencing and a secure website. The program aims to break down stereotypes and broaden horizons by engaging students of different cultures, religions and beliefs in discussing global issues from different perspectives.”  A number of schools across the USA are already involved.  But I was also encouraged and moved to learn that Mr. Blair is launching the program in Israel on the first night of Hanukkah at an event at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, along with their Muslim counterparts from the El Gazali School in Um el Fahm.

What an inspiring message for us all this year at Hanukkah!  The respect for religious freedom necessitates our interacting with each other and learning about each other.  Every Spring for the past three years, I’ve been involved in a program that brings Jewish, Christian and Muslim teens together to learn more about each other.  This coming year, on April 3rd, the Council of Churches Bridge Building Ministry will be running their Annual Youth Conference (contact to learn more).

As we light the candles each night of Hanukkah this year, think of another faith group that you wish to know more about.  Commit to reading something online ( is a wonderful resource), find a local class, visit another place of worship, invite a faith speaker into your community, or organize an interfaith dialogue program between members of your community and that of another faith.
May the light of your faith shine brightly and contribute to a more tolerant, compassionate, and loving world.
Happy Hanukkah!

This article was published this week in several local town newspapers in Fairfield County by the Hersam Acorn consortium.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Meditating on the Menorah for Chanukah

This Chanukah, I will be spending the first few days of the festival at a silent meditation retreat.  The retreat is being held at The Garrison Institute and will be led by Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg.  It isn't specifically a retreat on the themes of Chanukah.  Rather, the focus will be on some of the central themes of meditation practice - cultivating compassion, generosity and integrity.  But for me, personally, there is a connection to the spiritual message of Chanukah.

The story of the little jar of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days instead of one is the eternal story of keeping the flame of hope alive, even in dark times.  Rabbi Akiva taught that, once the lights of the menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem could no longer be kept alight at all times, following the destruction of the 2nd temple in 70 CE, we now had to understand the commandment to keep the fires burning at all times as a metaphor for the fires of the spirit and faith within.

In Jewish tradition, we are blessed with the practice of Shabbat - a weekly opportunity to replenish our little jar of oil that can help to sustain us.  Our lives can become so busy and stressed that we fail to allow the space to just breathe and notice where we are.  To take one day, or even one hour, to simply be and reflect can help us refocus on where we are, who we are, and where we want to be in our lives.  Meditation practice is one way to create a vessel to help us to do this on a regular basis in our own lives.  Taking an extended period of time in a meditation retreat can help deepen the practice and expose us to the possibilities that the practice can reveal to us.

Many cannot afford the luxury of a 4 day retreat - this is my first in over 6 years.  For me, it is a time of re-dedication to my own spiritual practice.  Chanukah means dedication, originally referring to the re-dedication of the Temple after the Maccabees regained control of Jerusalem from the Syrian-Greeks.  For me, it is a way to keep the fires burning at all times, ensuring that they do not go out.

Below is an opportunity to bring just a little meditation into your celebrations of Chanukah this year - just 15 minutes from Rabbi Miriam Klotz, from a podcast from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality.  You can find more podcasts and meditations at their website here.

Happy Chanukah - may your light within never go out, and may you be like the shamash - the one who lights the flames within others by the things that you do and the way that you walk in the world.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Rabbi Myriam Klotz - Chanukah Meditation .mp3
Found at bee mp3 search engine

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Women's Torah Project - celebrating a 'first' in the Jewish world.

On October 15,2010, the Women's Torah Project, the joint work of 6 sofrot - 6 female Torah scribes - from all over the world, was brought together and completed for the Kadima Reconstructionist congregation in Seattle, Washington.  Below, a short video tells the story of this wonderful project.

Women's Torah from Sasha Perry on Vimeo.

The full story of the Women's Torah project can be found at  On their website is the following poem to mark the culmination of this wonderful achievement:

The Torah Completed by Women

Together we worked,
Embellished it all,
Together, we wove, many pieces;

Together we joined,
The parchment -- each line,
Accurately, singing its praises;
That moment in time,
His-tory was changed,
By her work, which was honored and cherished;

To set a new stride,
Carried forward by one,
Whose insight was never daunting;

That beautiful sight,
Not fathomed before,
Was ordered by deep emotion;

And witnessed by many,
Like on Mt. Sinai,
Proclaimed -- by the spirit, there, present;

A dream that was high,
We knew its dear meaning,
Much more, than just fulfilling;

With love and affection;
The pinnacle reached:
The contract with G-d -- Unbroken!

So let it be told --
In words very Bold --
The Torah -- Completed -- by Women!

by I. Penn, Oct. 2010
Sisters of the Torah Siyyum Oct 13 – 17, 2010
Seattle, Washington, USA

Kol hakavod!  What a wonderful achievement!

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz (with thanks to Judith Lessler at B'nai Israel for sharing this)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

#Epicthanks - Happy #Tweetsgiving 2010: Turning Thanksgiving into Thanks-living

Last November, when I was still a newbie blogger, only 2 months old, I came across a wonderful project from a group called Epic Change.  From their website, they tell their story:

Epic Thanks is a global celebration that seeks to change the world through the power of gratitude. Founded in 2008, the original TweetsGiving celebration was imagined and implemented by six volunteers in six days, and quickly became the #1 trending topic on Twitter as thousands of grateful tweets from across the globe filled the stream.
But the truth is TweetsGiving was never about twitter or social media. It's about the gratitude in our hearts, and the transformative power our thankfulness can have when we share it with one another. It's about cultivating a deep sense of those remarkable souls who create hope in our world. That's why this year, TweetsGiving becomes Epic Thanks.
Over the past two years, from the gratitude of thousands, this global event has built two classrooms and a library in Arusha, Tanzania, where the twitterkids, led by local changemaker Mama Lucy Kamptoni, learn and grow at one of the best primary schools in their country.
Epic Change inspired me to write a blog for Tweetsgiving last year, and I shared a brief meditation for Thanksgiving.  This year their Epic Thanks site goes live at 12pm on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving (the same time that this blog is set to post, as are many more who are on board this year's project).  Using Social Media, the project encourages everyone to spread some gratitude around by tweeting, posting on Facebook, and blogging on what you are thankful for.
President John F. Kennedy said "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them", and Matthew Henry, C17th pastor taught: "Thanksgiving is good but thanks-living is better."  The traditional Jewish prayer that we wake up to is 'Modeh Ani lefanecha... Thankful am I before You, Living and Eternal God, who has restored my soul to me in mercy; great is Your faith.'  Sensing that God has entrusted our soul within our bodies, we are inspired (literally 'breathed into') as human beings to do something purposeful with this gift of life.  
If you are blessed with the ability to sit down for a good meal, among family or good friends, this Thanksgiving, add to the bounty with some 'Thanks-living'.  Make a donation to Epic Change, or another cause dear to your heart that will make a real difference in the lives of others.  Share the things you are thankful for with those around your Thanksgiving table, but also on your Facebook page or on twitter (and use the #Epicthanks or #tweetsgivings tags when you do!).  Commit to doing one act of kindness, one deed of giving in your local community, in the coming week.  
(Congregants of B'nai Israel - we are still collecting for our 'Kindle a Light' program, and your gift of a Stop and Shop card of $10 or up will be distributed to the elderly in need in the community.  You can drop them in at the Temple office any time next week).
Happy Thanksgiving
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Monday, November 22, 2010

Let's do the Time-Warp Again? A Response to Bruce Feiler

This past weekend's 'Style' section in the New York Times contained a couple of thought-provoking Jewish-themed pieces.  I'm leaving the one about Bar mitvah studies on the Web to our Director of Education, Ira Wise, who has written a great blog response here.  The other article that caught my eye was 'Time-Shifting Holidays', written by Bruce Feiler.
In this latter piece, Feiler confesses that, having brought the family together for Thanksgiving, which they celebrate a day late, they then conclude '...the following day when we celebrate all eight nights ofHanukkah in one madcap afternoon.'

Feiler acknowledges that he has heard the disapproval of a Rabbi who critiques this pragmatic decision because it makes the family dining room the hub of Jewish life instead of Jewish community in the wider sense.  Toward the end of the article, the Rabbi gets to speak again, this time somewhat acknowledging the good intentions of bringing a seasonal Jewish festival into the home at a time when the extended family is present to share the celebration, but encouraging the individual elements of that family to seek out a community where they can also celebrate at the appointed time back in their various home towns.  I rather like that answer (although I might not have been so begrudging in the way I would put it).  

But it seems to me that there is much of importance that is left unsaid.  That a Jewish family wants to take advantage of the hard-to-find opportunities to be together to acknowledge and celebrate the Jewish in their lives is important and admirable.  Jewish organizations and community professionals can be thinking of resources that we might provide to help families make these festival celebrations meaningful in their home settings.  For those who live far from a synagogue community, there are other models of creating Jewish community with non-family members (the chavurah - a smaller, less structured gathering of families from a geographical area - being the most obvious model), and there is value in doing so.

What struck me about Feiler's piece, and the other piece that highlighted the use of technology to facilitate bar and bat mitzvah training without the need to be part of a Jewish community (although, as Ira shares in his blog, the technology is valuable in many ways within the context of synagogue community life too), is how little was conveyed about the purpose of being part of a larger Jewish community.

Too often I hear critiques of the kind expressed in these articles where the argument 'but you  are separating yourself from the community' is presented as a fait a complis - it is assumed that everyone knows what that means and that those who make an active choice not to join a community are either woefully ignorant about the centrality of community in Judaism or are intentionally choosing a scaled-down, privatized (and implied is often 'selfish') version of what our faith has to offer.

I assume neither of these things.  I think that articles like these provide wonderful opportunities for synagogue communities and Jewish professionals to think more deeply about what makes being part of a Jewish community meaningful in the lives of Jewish families and individuals.  And then to think about how to get better at conveying this meaning to those who haven't 'drunk the Kool-aid' yet.  That's not just those who are not yet affiliated with our communities, but also those who are affiliated but have done so with the narrow agenda of giving their children a Jewish education through to the end of middle school and who haven't been adequately exposed to the far greater potential that exists for their entire family in engaging with the community in a more holistic way - one that will continue to be meaningful when their children have grown up and left home.

How we do that is not something easily conveyed in a brief, sound-bite blog answer.  Its something that is experienced more than described, so the first step is about getting better at sharing the experience, so that others will want to have that experience too.  Congregants who have fallen in love with celebrating, doing social action, comforting, learning, and sharing life's transitional moments (birth, weddings, bar mitzvah, funerals of loved ones etc.) in the context of community are some of the best ambassadors of meaningful Jewish community life.  I love seeing members of our congregation post something on their Facebook about their anticipation of a community event, or sharing the pleasure of having just returned from one; if I'm seeing it on their wall, then so are all their other Facebook friends.  When that leads to a trail of comments and 'likes', the feel good of Jewish community life can become infectious.

I recently heard about a wonderful email sent out by one person to a group of others about our Young Families Chavurah - a great opportunity to start experiencing meaningful Jewish community life while our children are still very young, which meets at B'nai Israel every Shabbat morning from 9.15 a.m.-11 a.m.  This young mother hadn't had an opportunity to attend with her children since the program started, but she'd heard such great things about it that she was looking forward to her first opportunity to do so, and hoped other families would join her family in tasting this experience for themselves.  There is no flyer and no email that the professional staff of our synagogue could have created to better convey the potential of participating in the chavurah than this one mother's email to her peers.

We've still got plenty of work to do at B'nai Israel, but one of the things we've learned is the importance of putting the structures and means of communication in place so that everyone in our community can access community living, and be a part of sharing that experience with others.  This blog is just a little slice of communicating that message and, if you're looking for your way in to the experience of being a part of a vibrant, Jewish community, I hope we can help you find the gateway that is right for you.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Monday, October 11, 2010

Speaking to our GLBT Youth - a pledge to do better

This sermon was delivered last Friday at Congregation B'nai Israel. It is posted on the blog today in honor of National Coming Out Day.

On September 24th the Jewish Standard, the Jewish newspaper of Northern NJ, published an engagement announcement. We get the Jewish Standard because it covers the area where Suri lived until this Summer, and where she still teaches part-time. The announcement caught my eye because one of the young men in the announcement was Avi Smolen, one of Suri’s students some years back, and the son of the past Head of Middle School. And it caught my eye because they were announcing his engagement to another young man, Justin Rosen. We delighted in the announcement. These two young men met at Ramah camp, and both are working or training for professions in Jewish community service.

The following week, the newspaper published an editorial explaining that, after an unnamed group of Orthodox Rabbis met with them, they were apologizing for publishing the announcement, for any pain and consternation it caused, and would not be publishing same-sex engagement or wedding announcements again. Since that announcement, the newspaper has been deluged with letters, has met with a larger group of Rabbis from all denominations, has had this story covered in almost every Jewish publication, and many non-Jewish ones such as the New York Times and the Huffington Post blog. The editors have since stated that they may have been too hasty in their decision…

I think we are all aware, this Jewish story emerged in the very same week that a young gay man from Northern NJ took his own life, and so this story has taken on significance far beyond being a parochial Jewish community issue.

In recent weeks, the media has helped to make us aware of the tragic suicides of several teens. All were subjected to relentless bullying or humiliation and all were gay. The death of Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University, gained most attention, due to the shocking circumstances where two students recorded and broadcast a private encounter to their friends. But there was also Asher Brown, 13, who shot himself when the anti-gay bullying at school became too much for him. Billy Lucas, aged 15, hanged himself in his grandmother’s barn, following unending taunting and bullying at school because of his sexuality. Seth Walsh, 13, also killed himself by hanging, as did Raymond Chase, an openly gay 19-year-old student at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. Unfortunately, these are not rare occurrences, although they’ve received more attention recently; approximately 1/3rd of all teen suicides are gay teens.

We can all, I’m sure, feel the enormous pain of parents who lose a child this way. We can feel for these poor young men who felt so isolated or humiliated or doubtful that it would ever get better and they would ever be able to enjoy their lives that they were driven to such extreme measures. But, if we really care about these young men and feel pained by these stories, then we have to do something more.

Many GLBT adults have stepped up in just these past couple of weeks, gaining new confidence that there is something that they can do to make a difference in the lives of our youth. Something about these recent events, and the fact that so many suicides were publicly acknowledged in the media in such a short period of time, has enabled a new grassroots response to spring up remarkably quickly. Dan Savage, who is better known as a syndicated sex advice columnist, launched a simple and powerful project called ‘It Gets Better’. He and his husband posted a very honest and heart-felt youtube where they shared that they had both experienced bullying and challenges as awkward teens, but yet they had kept going and made a life, and found each other. Beyond the teenage years, they said, ‘it gets better.’

Dan explained that he realized that we had allowed those who won’t permit GLBT adults to speak directly to teens and who, by doing so, make us invisible, to control access for too long. But today’s technology, and especially youtube and facebook, means that we don’t need to ask permission. Since launching the ‘It Gets Better’ channel on Youtube 2 weeks ago, the channel has been viewed well over 1 million times. Dan’s video has been viewed over ½ million times and there are literally hundreds of short youtubes that have been posted on the channel by ordinary GLBT men and women, including teens and college students, all speaking directly to teens, sharing some of the difficulties they went through but telling them that they are not alone, help is available, and things will get better.

Turning to Judaism, and the Jewish community … what is our role? Aside from offering a social commentary, why is this Shabbat sermon material? The Union for Reform Judaism, the Religious Action Center, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and NFTY have done much work in recent years to ensure that Reform Judaism stands for Judaism that is welcoming and open to all, where everyone is seen as an equal with a God-given soul, and where no-one should have to hide some aspect of that soul and essential self in order to belong and fit in.

In addition to the advocacy of the movement for civil marriage for all, equal protections in the workplace, and equality recognized in all aspects of Federal and State law, we understand, as Reform Jews, that an essential aspect of one’s spirituality and religious expression is deeply connected to being able to feel whole. Being open about who one is, and who one shares their life with, is an aspect of that spiritual wholeness. And so, for Reform Judaism, the inclusion and equality of the GLBT community is a matter of religious and not only social or political significance.

When one is talking about the spiritual, there is nothing so painful and jarring as looking at the face of suicide. People can endure terrible things, but when the spirit is crushed and one feels so deeply trapped, it can seem that there is only one way out. When the spirit is so utterly crushed it can seem impossible to reach out and seek help.

That is why we must do more to ensure that the GLBT experience is a visible and explicit part of our communities – school communities, youth communities, and religious communities.

Now, I know that it must seem to many of you that this is something of a non-issue at B’nai Israel; after all, here I am on the bima addressing you all this evening. Suri and I publicly celebrated our marriage with this congregation this Summer, and we were delighted to share that with our community.

But the truth is, even I am self-censoring in how and when I share this aspect of self. Someone who is heterosexual doesn’t usually hesitate to refer to ‘my wife and I’ or ‘my husband and I’ in the normal flow of conversation. A heterosexual norm is implied and not something worthy of special attention when a man says ‘Susan and I saw a great movie last night’, or ‘My wife and I just returned from a fabulous vacation’. Yet, when I open my mouth, I am always conscious that these basic sentences are potentially charged, depending on my context. Each time I am potentially ‘coming out’ and each time, in so doing, I am making homosexuality a visible rather than invisible part of the everyday landscape. And there are many times when I self-censor and question whether it is wise or appropriate to do so. I think this is because, to some degree, I, like many other GLBT people, carry a degree of internalized homophobia where to say something that is a completely natural flow of conversation for a heterosexual person becomes ‘making a point’ or ‘pushing a homosexual agenda’ or is, in some other way, seen as a political act beyond simply mentioning who you went to the movies or on vacation with.

And one of the places where I self-censor the most is with our youth. I worry about whether their parents will react. I worry about whether I’ll get pigeonholed as ‘the lesbian rabbi’ and what that will mean for my ability to reach people and do my job. But what I have come to realize in these past few weeks is that this self-consciousness and self-censoring in certain situations essentially makes me invisible as an example of a GLBT Jew to some in our community. And that is what the Jewish Standard in NJ is doing when it decides that it will not publish our engagement announcements. When Suri and I wrote our letter to the newspaper, we acknowledged that we had been guilty of waiting for someone else to be the ‘first’; we didn’t want to draw attention to our celebration, the way that others delight in a NY Times listing, or an announcement in a community newspaper. And, in so doing, we have failed our teens.

Last night, at the temple board meeting, we voted to sign Congregation B’nai Israel on to a pledge from Keshet, a Boston-based grass-roots organization committed to the full inclusion of GLBT Jews in Jewish community. The full text of the pledge is on our Temple website, and specifically on our GLBT outreach page. The pledge reads as follows:

Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives

‘As members of a tradition that sees each person as created in the divine image, we respond with anguish and outrage at the spate of suicides brought on by homophobic bullying and intolerance.

We hereby commit to ending homophobic bullying or harassment of any kind in our synagogues, schools, organizations, and communities. As a signatory, I pledge to speak out when I witness anyone being demeaned for their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. I commit myself to do whatever I can to ensure that each and every person in my community is treated with dignity and respect.’

Our congregation has had a GLBT outreach group, Kulanu, for nearly 7 years. Some of its members are known to you, and others are not. We run a program for BIFTY almost every year, and we aim to run an educational event for the whole congregation each year. We are available as a resource to any adult or teen who needs support, and both Rabbi Prosnit and I want to be there for anyone who is struggling with their sexual or gender identity, experiencing homophobic bullying, or is a parent wanting to know how to help their child. We also want to celebrate with you as you recognize your true self and God-given soul; Rabbis in our movement have written blessings for coming out, for it is indeed a blessing to feel more complete and whole for who you are. This Monday is National Coming Out Day – we want to celebrate the diversity of identity that is part of the tapestry of humankind, and not only mourn the tragedies.

I pledge to do better by our teens. The cost of invisibility, whether in society at large, or the Jewish community in particular, is just too high.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Seven dances for Simchat Torah in the Youtube Era

On Simchat Torah (literally 'Rejoicing of the Torah'), one of the ways we rejoice is by dancing with the Torah.  Traditionally we do 7 hakafot - 7 circles, or 7 rounds of singing and dancing before we read the closing verses followed immediately by the opening verses of the Torah.  In Kabbalah - Jewish mystical teachings - these 7 cycles are associated with the 7 lower sephirot of the Tree of Life.  These vibrate with the energy of 7 attributes of God and we, made in God's likeness, also possess these attributes.  At our synagogue, each of our cycles is accompanied by our wonderful B'nai Israel Band striking up another tune, but we don't really pick up on different energies or styles for our 7 dances; we begin a little more sedately, but then we bring things up to a lively tempo and we largely remain there for the rest of our celebration.  Its a great atmosphere, and we try to ensure that as many people can dance with a Sefer Torah as possible.

But this year I thought I'd explore the idea of these 7 different energies/attributes through associations with dance on the blog - something that is possible in this Youtube Era.  And so, with a little help from Google, this year's Simchat Torah blog is a journey through the 7 hakafot as 7 dance images that reflect the 7 energies of the sephirot.

Hakafah 1: Hesed - the Dance of Love
Free-flowing, generous, all-encompassing; like the waves lapping on the shore, over and over...

Hakafah 2: Gevurah - the Dance of Power
Hard-edged, bounded, firm, strong, staccato...

Hakafah 3: Tiferet - the Dance of Beauty
Graceful, balanced, blending, soulful...

Hakafah 4: Netsach - the Dance of Eternity
Vision, expansive, unfolding, embracing...
The artwork of Francene Hart, Visionary Artist

We are surrounded by spiral every time we step into relationship. Guided by love and respect, spiral fearlessly into what might just be one of the most important dances of life. Know that in loving you will be loved.

Hakafah 5: Hod - the Dance of Splendor
Explosion of sensation, joyful fulfillment,  elegant, spirit (ruach)...

After an overdose of streptomycin to treat a high fever at the age of two, Tai began to lose her hearing. She didn't realize this until she tried to join a group of friends in a sound-distinguishing game. She was five by then and other kids were going to normal schools. Little Tai, thrust in deep depression and solitude, had to go to a primary school for the disabled.

Life had to carry on but a young heart sobbed on in a soundless world… All until one day when a teacher at the special school brought a drum to class and started to beat it, Tai was thrilled by the rhythmic vibration that passed over her body from under her feet. She was overwhelmed and simply bent over to the wooden floor: It was the most beautiful sound in the world to her.

 To again experience such a feeling, Tai would press her little face to a loudspeaker and imagine the dance on TV. It was her language and the only one, to express her understanding of the world. From then on, Tai became obsessed with dancing...

Tai's outstanding performance brought her to the world stage. She is the only Chinese dancer to have performed both at Carnegie Hall inNew York and La Scala in Milan. And a poster of The Spirit of the Peacock by her at Carnegie Hall is the only one from China.

Now when the curtain rises, the lights come up and the music fades in, there is Tai in the elegant flowing dress signature to the piece. She moves with her impressionistic interpretation of that precise-stepping and extraordinary land bird. As if in a silent wood, on a green lawn, or by a gurgling brook, with expression of face and body she captivates with physical interpretation and spirit

Hakafah 6: Yesod - the Dance of Foundation/Life Force
Righteousness, justice, inclusion, connection...

There are so many Dance Foundations to choose from, focusing on all kinds of dance of all kinds of communities.  The following clip from the American Dance Wheels Foundation felt like a particularly appropriate interpretation of life force; something unexpected, yet powerfully integrative:

Hakafah 7: Malchut - the Dance of the Shechinah
The earth, the moon, the apple orchard, the rainbow...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Super Sukkahs - the Sukkah re-imagined at Union Square, NYC

If you are in NYC or able to head down there this Sunday or Monday, make sure you check out Sukkah City at Union Square -
See the Sukkah re-imagined and renewed with the 12 winning entries of a competition that has born fruit to some very creative and imaginative designs.  This was a project initiated by Reboot, who are often finding innovative ways to reclaim and re-make ritual into something very contemporary and thought-provoking.

Take a look at the sukkah city website, and see them up close if you can.  Perhaps they will inspire you to try something a little different this year in your Sukkah; perhaps you'll try your hand at creating a Sukkah for the very first time - it's a great thing to do with family or friends, and a lot of fun.

At B'nai Israel our structure is a bit more conventional, but we let our kids go to town in the creative inventions they construct to decorate for us.  Sukkah decorating is from 5-6pm, followed by a dairy, pot-luck dinner, and then a service for the whole community at 7pm.  If you are in the neighborhood, do join us!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How to ensure your Yom Kippur isn't an epic fail

Rabbi Donniel Hartman published a thought-provoking piece this past week entitled 'Yom Kippur: Why it doesn't work outside of the synagogue' .  He argues that Yom Kippur has been a profound failure as a force for change within individuals and communities who spend the day in synagogue.  He notes, 'The passion, seriousness, and devotion which accompany many of us throughout Yom Kippur, peters out into a form of amnesia during the break-fast meal as we return to our behavior of yesterday.'
Hartman goes on to say, 'The problem with Yom Kippur in the synagogue is that it is too complete and comprehensive. It creates the myth of putting all of one's life and behavior up for judgment, where we confront every one of our failings and repent for them all. The list of sins in the vidui is too extensive to have any impact on the life of a real person. For a prayer, and within the isolated environment of the synagogue, it is fine. As a force for facilitating change in real life, the comprehensive nature of our service makes it impossible to be a significant factor in everyday life.'

I think he's right about this.  One of the reasons why I, and others, have used blogs and other events and programs during the month of Elul, is to provide vehicles to help those who want to engage more deeply in a spiritual practice that can help us to really work on aspects of ourselves that we want to change.  It simply isn't possible to just show up on Yom Kippur and expect anything of great meaning or significance that will have any lasting impact on our lives or our community to happen in those 24 hours.

But while I've been focused on preparing, reviewing, and taking time to reflect on aspects of our selves in advance of the day, Rabbi Hartman's proposal for the day itself and what happens afterwards, is also sage advice:
If Yom Kippur is to be the force that our tradition aspires it to be, it must cease to be the end and culmination of the process, and instead serve as its beginning. The purpose of the all-inclusive lists cannot be to ask an individual to review all of his life, but to create a menu from within which every individual can find one dimension, one quality that they can commit to working on.

As a Rabbi working in a large Reform congregation, one of my roles is to lead the congregation through the liturgy of the day.  And there is a great deal of liturgy.  There is a place for the almost constant rhythm of words and music maintaining the momentum of mood and focus but, as a congregant, I do not recommend reciting all those words and all those pages along with those leading the service.  To do so leaves no room for the kind of work that Rabbi Hartman advises we simply begin as those words bring our failings and weaknesses to the surface.

When something appears on the page that resonates with an aspect of your self that you want to work on, take time to sit with it and consider how you will try to do things differently - don't worry if the congregation moves a few pages ahead; you'll join in again with the rhythm when you are ready and, in so doing, you'll help to provide the pulse of the prayer that hums in the background as someone else in the room takes some time out for introspection and private prayer.

For me, a walk is an important part of the day too.  It can be quiet, alone time, to continue to look more deeply at some aspect of teshuvah that has risen to the surface for you this year, or a time to meditate, or sit under a tree and make space for a deeper awareness of the Godliness that is all around us, inspiring us and encouraging us to reach toward our highest self.  But it can also be walking or sitting with a partner or a friend.  Some of my most meaningful Yom Kippur experiences have involved reflecting out loud on the things that I am contemplating, with a non-judgmental witness who listens, and then asks me to bear witness to their struggles.

For others, some time on Yom Kippur is for being spurred to commit or recommit to important work in this world.  At B'nai Israel, our early afternoon discussion provides a forum for some of these themes - this year, on our engagement with Israel.

We also have a new Afternoon service that will provide space and meditative opportunities, when we stop with the words on the page, and invite congregants to take themselves to that deeper place of honest and authentic introspection.

But the question still remains... what will come next?  Donniel Hartman's invitation - to choose one thing that you wish to work on and commit yourself to it over the coming weeks and months - awaits your RSVP.  But, like the rhythm and hum of the prayers on Yom Kippur that provide the vessel of a potentially meaningful day but do not provide the meaning in and of themselves, we need to create vessels for ourselves to make our commitments into realities.  It might be to commit to a nightly written reflection, or a morning prayer to begin each day with a kavannah - an intention, or a calendar where one marks off days or tasks that we have set ourselves to help us fulfill our commitment; perhaps 30 minutes of meditation, examining our trait and creating greater mindfulness as we go about our daily activities.  Choose one thing, and choose a vessel that can help provide the structure you need to make this Yom Kippur a meaningful one; meaningful because it was about so much more than just surviving the day - it was the day that the turning began, for this is the true essence of teshuvah.