Sunday, August 29, 2010

Elul Reflections 7: On Inwardness

Today's blog entry is cross-posted from Dani Shapiro's blog, 'Moments of Being'.  Dani Shapiro is an accomplished author whose most recent book's include Black & White (Knopf, 2007), Family History (Knopf, 2003) and the best-selling memoir Slow Motion.  Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Bookforum, Oprah, Ploughshares, among others, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. 
Her new memoir, Devotion, was published in February, 2010, and is now a national bestseller.  It is a spiritual memoir that has touched me deeply in its honesty and openness to reveal a journey of spiritual seeking that shares with us the spiritual wisdom found in practices such as yoga, meditation, and Torah study but ultimately is about a faith that arises from the many moments of being that are part of the tapestry of our lives, when we bring awareness to these moments.  It is a book about questions more than answers and, in this way too, it speaks to me.  On Rosh Hashanah morning I will be sharing excerpts from Devotion, as we journey together to find ourselves in the words of an ancient liturgy that needs some translation into the moments of being in our everyday lives if we seek to make our tradition alive and vibrant, responding to our questions and our lives as twenty-first century Jews.
As I read Dani's blog posting of August 18th, I found her inner reflections and awareness of habits and behaviors that do not serve her if allowed to become out of balance to resonate deeply with some of the spiritual practice that I have been sharing in these Elul Reflections.  Again, like her memoir, Devotion, I am inspired by the honesty and truth revealed by these reflections.  May they inspire us in our inner reflections during this month of soul-searching.

I've long understood that I need to spend a certain number of hours a day alone.  If I'm not by myself, in a quiet room, reading, writing, thinking, doing yoga, staring into space, taking baths, for the better part of each day, I start to feel all jumbled up.  Uncomfortable.  Awkward and irritated, as if something is chafing me from the inside.  I am almost always running a monologue in my head--something I've learned, in my meditation practice, is often nothing more than detritus and noise.  But in order to move past the running dialogue, I require a great deal of solitude.  I've learned, over the years, to be able to move in and out of isolation, into family life, social life, community life, and then back out of it, back to the cave where I do my work.

But.  (You knew there was a but coming, didn't you?)  I had the recent realization that inwardness doesn't always serve me well.  It's necessary, crucial for a writer to be inward-looking (and by this I don't mean navel-gazing, but rather, the capacity for intense, interior contemplation).  But it's equally important for a writer to look outside herself.  Lately I have noticed myself trapped in my interior life when, in fact, what was going on all around me was interesting, possibly even useful and important.  When I am thinking, rather than using all five senses--seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching--I am not really using my whole instrument.  We are observers, aren't we?  We carefully watch and listen to what is swirling all around us, and that in combination with our interior lives is what ends up making something rich happen on the page.  If a writer is entirely trapped inside herself, the result can be stultifying.  If a writer is entirely outward-looking, the result can be superficial and thin.  The goal, I think, is to balance oneself in the fulcrum between thinking about life and actually living it.
Dani Shapiro

Friday, August 27, 2010

Elul Reflections 6: Disordered Love & Pride

In 'Jewish Spiritual Guidance: Finding Our Way to God', by Carol Ochs and Kerry Olitsky, a chapter on 'Encountering Temptation and Sin' offers some different language for thinking about sin.  Building on the definition of sin that I offered in Reflection 2, and the practice of divesting ourselves of behaviors and habits that no longer serve us that I described in Reflection 4, here are two examples based on these sections of Ochs and Olitsky's book:

Sin as Disordered Love
Dante wrote, 'Set love in order thou that lovest me'.  This is about priorities.  We have to work on having loving relationships with people.  If we are able to experience love in this world as a way of experiencing God's love, we can become more open to both giving and receiving love.  We open ourselves to being a channel and become more aware of the things that we do or say or think that create barriers to the flow of love.  Sin can be the refusal to love, to recognize that we are loved, or jealousy in love.  We can begin by asking ourselves whether the things we do and the priorities we set - the ways we order our lives - reflect the love that we seek or the love that we want to give.  Do we love work more than family?  Do we love the things that we acquire more than we love the community of which we want to be a part?

Sin as Pride
Pride is when we put our self in a place where we ascribe our accomplishments and all the dynamics of our lives to ourselves.  In doing so, we become disconnected from the complex and interconnected web of life of which we are such a tiny part, and disconnected from experiencing Grace.  When we place ourselves in the center of our universe we are, paradoxically, isolating ourselves.  We can be left feeling alone.  When we forget how what we do is completely interrelated with the lives of others our forgetfulness can lead to hurtful and thoughtless behavior toward others.  We can ask ourselves, 'Do I recognize the gifts that come my way through my connections with others?'  Or 'Do people sometimes experience me as insensitive because I don't notice how I'm affecting others?'

For all these sins, we seek to learn, to change, to return to a place of balance, and to open ourselves to the fullness of experiencing love, to the fullness of being present to another and, in so doing, to reaching toward fulfilling our potential as human beings.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Elul Reflections 5: Rosh Hashanah Kanye West style

A little bit of light relief today - one of this year's Rosh Hashanah musical spoof videos.  But the message is no spoof - a nice little message in 'paying it forward' or, in the language of Pirke Avot (sayings of the fathers - a chapter of the Mishnah), mitzvah goreret mitzvah  - one good deed leads to another.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Elul Reflections 4: How is moving home like preparing for the High Holydays?

The blog went a bit quiet this past week, as I was busy moving home - the second time in 2 months.  We moved out of my partner's home of 24 years in New Jersey last month, had 4 weeks of transition with some items in storage while we packed up the condo that I have been renting in town near the synagogue, and moved into another rented condo with a bit more space this past Thursday.  The following reflections are edited from a sermon I gave shortly after the first move, in which I realized that our preparing, packing and moving process shared a great deal in common with the rhythm of the Jewish year from Elul through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, up until Succot.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

When it came to packing up the house in New Jersey, there was a great deal of effort involved with a house that had been a home for a family for 24 years.  For 4 weeks we sorted, divided, divested, and boxed.  It took 4 solid weeks to get things ready for the move.  We had to decide what we didn’t need to bring with us, what we wanted to have available almost immediately, and what we were willing to store away in the hope that it could be of use in the future when we finally buy a house.

When I moved out of my rented room in NYC to Blackrock, 4 years ago, it took about 2 days to pack.  But you acquire a lot of stuff when you’ve lived in a large house for 24 years, where 4 children have lived and grown into adulthood.  The longer you’ve been in one place, the more stuff you are likely to have acquired, and the longer you need to really go through it and decide what to do with it all.

Having packed for 4 weeks, we took a 10 day vacation - the timing might have been a bit crazy in the midst of such an enormous move, but this was really our only opportunity to get a break this Summer.  But the truth is, when you’re doing something as intense as packing up a house for 4 weeks, its good to take a break, to take stock, and also to take in the sweetness of the life transitions that are enabling or requiring this work to be done.  And they were a very sweet 10 days.  

Finally, the moving trucks came.  Things started a little later than they should have done which ended up making for a rather nerve-wracking evening.  The late arrival of the trucks in the morning meant that they ended up driving up from NJ during rush hour, further delaying matters.  Aside from making for a long day, why did this matter?  Because the gates that provide vehicle entrance to the unloading bays at Public Storage lock automatically at 9pm.  Two full trucks arrived at 7.30pm in the midst of a thunder storm, to be followed in the next 1.5 hours by two more intense thunderstorms where work had to cease for 5-10 mins at a time.  At 3 mins to 9 we ran over to our moving guys – ‘the gates are closing, the gates are closing!’ – you have to pull the trucks out now!  With one truck unloaded, they pulled out just before the gates became permanently closed.

Except that it wasn’t a complete closure.  The pedestrian gate remained open and, luckily for us, the unloading bay we needed for the second truck that was unloading into a second unit, was right by that front gate.  The unloading diligently continued until the job was done.

So what does this have to do with our High Holyday season?  The month of Elul is preparation time – there is wisdom in a tradition that understands that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur become more meaningful and more transformational if we enter them having prepared.  What does ‘prepared’ mean?  It means looking at the landscape of one’s life and reviewing what one has acquired – not material things, but habits, behaviors, baggage.  Sometimes there are things that we recognize that we need to divest ourselves of entirely – these are behaviors or habits that add nothing to who we are or what we do in the world; some of them are just plain wrong, but others might have served us at previous times in our lives, but we realize that we have become locked into some habits that no longer serve us now.  We have to examine ourselves to be able to identify what these are and decide what we will try to do about them, and that takes time. 

4 weeks to organize stuff, divest, pack boxes – 4 weeks to review the emotional and spiritual stuff of our lives.

Then we arrive at 1st Tishri – Rosh Hashanah.  We talk about a Sweet New Year.  Rosh Hashanah is not only the Jewish New Year, but it is also the beginning of the 10 days leading to Yom Kippur.  If one really engages in personal reflection and assessment for 4 weeks – a very intense activity – one needs some release – to recognize the sweetness that comes with letting go of the past, apologizing for misdeeds, cleansing and consciously allowing the New Year to be a time of meaningful transition in our lives.

And then Yom Kippur arrives – the big day.  We gather up all our stuff and present it to the big moving company in the sky – please help to take care of this stuff for us!  As the day unfolds we engage with the words and thoughts and the silences and we review the progress we are making.  But we travel with a lifetime of stuff and we realize – even after all that preparation – that there’s still more to do.  As the day draws to a close, we read in our liturgy – ‘the gates are closing, the gates are closing!’  We have no choice but to exit with the rest of the community at the final shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur.  But if we still have work to do, the truth is that the gates aren’t really closed.  There is still a way to continue.  Our tradition gives until Succot to continue what we may have started so that we really can feel able to enter into a New Year having dealt with our stuff – at least some of it – and can begin afresh.

The reflection pieces on this blog offer an invitation to reflect on the 'stuff' of our lives and prepare ourselves, so that we can enter into a Sweet New Year, and can begin again, feeling that we have made some progress in divesting ourselves of things and habits that we do not want or need. Put a little time aside each day to journal, or take a reflective walk; take time to talk with a trusted friend, make the calls and reconnect with the people that you feel distanced from.  Find one new thing that you would like to commit to in the coming year to enrich and enhance your social connections, family connections, community and congregational connections, and spiritual life.  In the words of the psalmist, ‘Teach us to treasure each day; that we may open our hearts to your wisdom, teach us to treasure each day.’

Monday, August 16, 2010

Elul Reflections 3: Walking on a path

I don't remember the origins of the following story - perhaps something drawn from Zen Buddhism?  But I find it one of those life-resonating parables:
A seeker comes to a fork in the road and finds a wise, old man sitting there.  'Which way to enlightenment?' the seeker asks the wise, old man.  'Take the road on right,' answers the wise, old man.  The seeker takes the path on the right and, after walking on it for some time, out of nowhere there is an almighty 'Splat!'.  He does not know what hit him, but he stumbles back to the fork in the road somewhat battered and bruised.  'Old man, did you not say that this was the path to enlightenment?'  'Yes', answers the wise, old man.  'Take the road on the right.'  The seeker is confused but, thinking perhaps he had made an error further down the path, turns and goes back down the path on the right.  After walking on it for some time, out of nowhere yet again there is an almighty 'Splat!'  Once more the seeker makes his way back to the fork in the road, feeling sore and demoralized.  'Old man, what are you trying to do to me?  I ask you for the road to enlightenment; you keep telling me to take this path on the right, and each time out of nowhere - 'Splat!' - and I am bruised and battered from my experience.  Are you sure that this is the right road?'  The wise, old man replies, 'Yes, my child.  The path to enlightenment is just a little way past 'Splat!'

Enlightenment is not typically the spiritual language of Judaism.  But there is the notion that, by returning to contemplate the path we are walking down in life, and desiring to refine our behaviors and our priorities, we may come a little closer to understanding the meaning of our lives and our purpose.  But the road of life is often strewn with moments of 'Splat!', where we find ourselves battered and bruised by our experiences, whether they be things that we brought upon ourselves by our own choices, or whether they came out of the blue and were completely beyond our ability to control.

We can expend a great deal of energy railing against the things that challenge us and bring us down.  We can wonder 'why me'?  These are very human responses to the difficulties that we face in our lives.  But the parable suggests that any meaning we make of our lives, and any understanding we have of our purpose and who we are must necessarily be able to withstand the times when life goes 'Splat!'  If we can only believe in God when life is good, when we can only give something to others when everything is going right in our lives, and if we can only keep anger at bay when nothing is provoking us, then we still have a way to journey before we come to a place of deeper meaning and understanding... a little way beyond 'Splat!'

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Elul Reflections 2: Another of those difficult words... sin

There is no doubt that the High Holydays, and this month of preparation leading to them, places before us some challenging stuff.  And that, in many ways, is how it should be.  But just as, in the first of this seasons' reflections, I offered a way into the idea of prayer for those who find prayer challenging, it is important to grapple with a number of the challenging aspects of the spiritual work of this season because sometimes we let preconceived ideas about what they mean get in the way of making this work spiritually meaningful and transformative for ourselves.

And one of the biggest words that challenge us at this season is SIN.  Just as with prayer, there is more to be said on this than can be encapsulated here, and so it is a theme I'll return to during the month, offering different ways to get past some of the commonly held misconceptions of this word that can get in the way of our willingness to examine ourselves and re-center ourselves as we prepare to enter into a New Year.  But here, in a nutshell, is one of the ways that I understand sin.  Sin is where we misidentify what we need to fill the hole we feel inside; our behavior, our reactions to someone, our craving or desiring of certain material things, are attempts to respond to a yearning that is, at its core, a spiritual one, but which we have misidentified as something else.  We know that we have misidentified our need because, however much we try to address our dis-ease, our sense of anxiety, or anger and frustration, our sadness, our pain..., with the wrong things, the feelings don't go away.

In future Elul Reflections I'll return to this theme with more specific examples.  But when you pause today for a period of meditation or reflection, consider this definition of sin, and allow some of the uncomfortable feelings that all of us, at times encounter, to arise.  Over time, if you allow yourself to sit with them for a while and watch where they come from - what encounters are you replaying over and over again, what story do you weave to 'explain' the feelings that you have... give yourself permission to examine these more closely and more lovingly.  If we get lost in the narrative we are more likely to continue to perpetuate the same stories.  If we get angry or frustrated with ourselves at our shortcomings or weaknesses, it is harder to heal.  But noticing the feelings and learning, over time, where they come from, can create the space we need to ask for guidance on how to heal so that we don't continue to repeat the cycle of behavior over and over.  And that is where we can draw on prayer to help us.  May I feel healed; May I remain calm and centered; May I be at ease...

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Elul Reflections 1: Beginning the Conversation

The four Hebrew letters that spell the month, 'Elul' are encoded, our tradition teaches us, with multiple meanings, each an acronym using these four letters.  The one that is best known is shown above - 'Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li' - I am my beloved and my beloved is mine.

As we enter this month, with an invitation to reflect and prepare for Rosh Hashanah - The Jewish New Year - and Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement, Elul comes to bring us an important message.  The essence of love is also the essence of prayer - it is all about relationship.  But many of us find the idea of a relationship with God difficult.  We may not feel it; we may not know how to create it; we do not know what to say, or we feel foolish 'saying' anything to the Divine Presence which we cannot define or grasp.  We may have some clarity about what we don't believe, but far less about what we do.

Beginning is the hardest part.  The questions and the doubts get in the way.  But what if, today, on the 1st of Elul, we responded to the invitation by committing ourselves to a month of spiritual practice? Something each day that we read and reflect upon, a time set aside for meditation or prayer.

Prayer can be a loaded word.  It conjures up images of subjects addressing kings on thrones - that is the ancient language in which many of our Jewish prayers were cast, and it takes time and practice to break through the allegorical barriers of the words and see the human desires, hopes, and yearnings that they point toward.  But we can start with something simple.  This month of Elul is a time to return to matters of the spirit; to brush away some of the distractions of the material world, at least for a short time, to remind ourselves of who we truly are, who we wish to be, and to ask ourselves whether our daily actions and deeds are truly reflective of the call of our soul.  We come to realize that we've been feeding some of the emptiness we feel with the wrong things, and we know they are wrong because the emptiness or the unease, the fears and anxieties aren't going away.  Before we can spend some time trying to understand what lies behind these feelings and how we might address them, it is good to first spend some time affirming what we seek.  These can be different things for different people, but I suspect most of us would seek to affirm the following:

May I feel protected and safe
May I feel contented and pleased
May my physical body support me with strength

These affirmations are from Sylvia Boorstein, a Jew who is a practitioner and master teacher of Buddhist meditation, and they are her rendition of some of Buddhism's 'Metta' affirmations - a practice of lovingkindness.  The practice can help to calm our own minds and bring clarity to the spiritual desires of our own hearts.  The next step is to bring to mind loved ones and friends and ask these things for them too.  Eventually, over time, the practice invites you to bring to mind those you have difficulties with; those you find it less easy to love or even to like.  I offer these affirmations here because I find that they resonate with the deepest yearnings of the soul and are quite universal.  For those of us who get a little stuck with 'Blessed are You, O God, Ruler of the Universe...' they offer another way in to reach toward the Divine.

In Dani Shapiro's spiritual memoir, 'Devotion', which I will be referring to on several occasions during this High Holyday season, she describes her first experience of being introduced to this practice with Sylvia Boorstein.  Unsure of the metaphysical question - whom are we addressing - Sylvia explains that we don't need to have worked that out; perhaps we are simply expressing a wish.  As Dani reflects upon this answer, she writes:
But really, what did it mean to fervently, wholeheartedly name a desire?  May you feel protected and safe.  To speak out of a deep yearning - to set that yearning loose in the world?  May you feel contented and pleased.  Could a wish be a less fraught word for a prayer?...  Maybe faith had to do with holding up one end of the dialog.

This is how we begin.  A daily practice, whether using the affirmations above, or simply sitting quietly and finding a way to express the deepest yearnings of your heart.  Let us begin the conversation and see where, during this month of Elul, it may take us.

During this month I will continue to post some of these reflective pieces, and they will be interspersed by postings from other clergy and educators at Congregation B'nai Israel, and postings from congregants who will offer their own reflections and experiences of the High Holyday season.  Please do use the comments to reflect on any of the postings, or email me at if you have a longer piece that you would like to share.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What We Can Learn from Chelsea and Mark's Interfaith Wedding

Since the 'big wedding' of the year, last weekend, I've had a number of people email me or facebook me and ask, 'Rabbi, what do you think?'  I often think that one of the questions behind questions like this is 'Is it good for the Jews?'  But I'm not sure if that's the right question.

There is no question that such a celebrity, high-profile wedding that sees a Methodist Minister and a Reform Rabbi co-officiating together on a Saturday evening before sundown pushes a lot of buttons.  Reading many of the comments to blog pieces by Rabbis who have shown acceptance and have chosen to highlight the blessing that Jewish tradition and ritual was a part of a Clinton wedding, a lot of the buttons pushed have been those of Jews who see a wedding like this as an undermining of Judaism.  The Rabbi, James Ponet, who officiated is showered with insults (we often see him referred to as 'rabbi' by those who vehemently disagree with his decision to participate).

On the other hand, there are those whose buttons are pushed in a different direction - some are bloggers who are part of an interfaith relationship, or others who leave comments sharing how wonderful it was for them to be able to honor both of their faith traditions at this important life-cycle moment, or how painful it was to be unable to find someone who would do such a thing when they themselves had sought out someone.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, Co-President of CLAL, has both written on this topic and appeared yesterday on the Today Show to speak about interfaith marriage.  He used an image that I think conveys a reality that we see among some of the Chelsea/Mark generation rather well.  He said that some people today are choosing 'the bazaar' over 'the cathedral', by which he means that we see a growing trend toward picking and choosing rituals and spiritual wisdom from different places and not necessarily feeling a need or a pressure to 100% embrace one modality only.  And so, while we can certainly discuss whether or not we think this is 'good' (see, for example, the Editorial in this week's Jewish Forward), the reality is that this is, and this is the American spiritual 'marketplace' that we are increasingly finding ourselves in.

'So, Rabbi', I am asked, 'What do you think?'

Well, I think lots of things.  And I'm going to continue to be more descriptive than prescriptive in my thoughts.  Here are some things to bear in mind, which I hope will provide a useful framework for judging one's own reaction to the news of Chelsea and Mark's wedding and the co-officiation that took place:

1) Jewish law and tradition about marriage evolved out of an ancient biblical tradition.  What is now understood as a halachic Jewish wedding has it roots in practices that we find in the Torah, but is distinctly different from those practices.  As circumstances and the culture of the society around us has changed, so has Jewish practice.  We don't, for example, continue to practice Levirate marriage (the practice of a brother of a deceased husband taking the widow as his wife).  The practice of having more than one wife was effectively banned within the European Ashkenazi tradition in the 11th century.  It continued in parts of the Sephardic world leading to a situation when families where a husband had multiple wives arrived from Yemen to the State of Israel in the 1950s, creating a conundrum for the fledgling state (they allowed these men to keep the wives they had, but could not marry more, and the law of the land became one wife only from then on).  We also know that marrying non-Jewish wives was commonplace in the Biblical state of Israel, although distinctly disapproved of by the spiritual leaders of the time (Ezra, for example, upon seeing the extent of intermarriage when he returned from the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the 1st temple, ruled that Jewish men should divorce their non-Jewish wives).

2) Even within rabbinic law, we can trace a debate among the early generations of Rabbis regarding intermarriage.  While it is clear that none approved, a majority recognized the outright prohibition as a rabbinic innovation, whereas the Biblical law only specified not marrying with the 7 Canaanite nations when the Children of Israel entered Canaan.  This is clearly about maintaining the identity and tribal integrity of this fledgling people, and maintaining a specific cultic code of practice that was distinct from the rituals, gods, and beliefs of the surrounding nations.

3) We sometimes hark back to a time when no-one would think of 'marrying out'; the consequences were too severe - one would be cut off from one's community and we remember a time when a parent would tear their clothes and mourn their child as if dead.  While there are some who wish our Jewish tradition and community held more influence over the cultural, spiritual and ethical lives of our young people today, most are grateful that most parents no longer act as if a child has died if they marry a non-Jew.  The truth is, the times we are harking back to are times before Napoleon provided the innovation of civil marriage.  While the change did not happen overnight, for centuries if a Jew married a non-Jew, the almost inevitable outcome was the conversion of the Jew to Christianity.  One could only get married in a Church or a Synagogue (or, in Muslim lands, in a Mosque).  Therefore, there was a stark reality to a Jew 'marrying out' truly being cut off from the Jewish community if they did this.  And this was an enormous loss to a parent, equivalent to the death of their child.

4) Now we live in a time when the stark and dramatic consequences of a Jew marrying a non-Jew is no longer so apparent.  For those concerned about the vibrancy and continuation of the Jewish community, these are real concerns.  Many Jews who marry non-Jews are lost from Jewish communal life, and their children are not raised with a Jewish identity (more often the case if a mother is not Jewish).  But we know that there are thousands of Jewish families in the USA where one parent is not Jewish.  Many are raising children who are actively engaged with the Jewish faith and community.  Speaking only of Congregation B'nai Israel, I have heard many passionate Confirmation speeches of youth of interfaith parents who are distinctly aware and proud of their decision to embrace Judaism and continue their learning to the end of High School.  I have friends and colleagues who grew up in an interfaith household who have gone on to become Rabbis and Jewish Educators.  We certainly cannot take the continuity of Jewish peoplehood and community for granted, but neither can we write off the families of interfaith couples.  They enrich our communities and strengthen us when they choose to make Jewish community their spiritual home, and that is something to celebrate.

5)  The decision of a Rabbi to officiate at the wedding of a Jew and a non-Jew is very complex and personal.
a) For many, it is black and white.  Halachah, as it has evolved over the centuries, does not recognize such a marriage as a Jewish marriage and, therefore, a Rabbi who is wedded to traditional halachah will not view their participation in such a wedding as a possibility.
b) There are those who will officiate if they believe what they are doing is part of welcoming a couple into the Jewish community.  Some make specific stipulations about expectations, or require the couple to attend an Introduction to Judaism class together, or provide them with a year's free membership of the synagogue to help encourage their participation in communal Jewish life.  Others simply ensure that the conversation about faith in the home and hopes regarding the upbringing of children are discussed as part of pre-marriage counseling, and emphasize the importance of maintaining a commitment to their pre-marriage understandings.
c) There are still some others who will contemplate co-officiating with clergy of another faith because, while they recognize that this blending and mixing of traditions is a less likely route to an identified and engaged Jewish family unit, they feel that to deny the Jewish person who is authentically wanting to honor their faith and heritage, who clearly feels identified with it, is to counter-productively push them away.  There are times when it becomes clear that a young person has little personal investment, but is being pressured by parents to do 'something Jewish' - that is a more complex situation that requires pastoral guidance and counseling.  Many Rabbis would not contemplate officiating at a ceremony under these circumstances, while others see doing so as the means for them to gain access to the couple to engage in the kind of pastoral counseling that they need.

6)  A consideration of alternatives?  While I truly believe that each Rabbi has to come to terms with their own practices on the matter of officiating an interfaith marriage, and that a plurality of responses is ok because Jewish community is strengthened by being an open-sided tent with many entry points and many places within a spectrum to enable Jews (and their non-Jewish spouses) to find their place, I find it unhelpful to denigrate Rabbis who either do or don't officiate.  Such knee-jerk reactions deny the complexity of the context in which clergy work in the USA today - 'the bazaar' that Rabbi Irwin Kula described - and the tensions between tradition and change that all Rabbis are constantly responding to (even Orthodox Rabbis - just see the recent statement about homosexuality from the Orthodox rabbinate recently released).  Rabbis who officiate are not facilitating the growth in interfaith marriage.  When a couple come to a Rabbi about a wedding, we do not have any influence on whether the marriage takes place or not.  There are Unitarian ministers, Interfaith ministers, Justice of the Peace, and 'friends who have become Universal Life Ministers for the purpose of officiating at a marriage', among the choices available in the spiritual and religious marketplace of North America today.  That is not necessarily a reason to acquiesce to the request - as I said, it is complex - but this is a reality.  This is not the world of the shtetl, or even of Twentieth century USA, where Jews were barred from some Universities, golf clubs, country clubs, residential areas etc.  To deny the relevance of any of this larger cultural context when considering questions of interfaith marriage is to leave out the landscape in which Jewish adults are living their lives today.

And so, I've attempted to describe the landscape.  I hope it provides useful food for thought for those who are considering their own perspectives on these issues, whether Rabbis or lay people.  And I invite your comments, additional perspectives, and thoughts to be posted here.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Monday, August 2, 2010

Don't Stop Believing - Jews do Glee

I've been following the facebook postings of a colleague and old friend of mine from back in the UK these past couple of weeks as she shared her family's exploits.  What's so interesting about that?  Isn't that what Facebook is for?  Well this particular family has been doing something a bit more remarkable than just reporting on their family vacations and what they made for dinner (not that I don't love when my friends share these things too; its just unlikely to make the grade as something I'm going to share on my blog!)

Bebe Jacobs and her family have been singing together for many years.  Bebe, when I was in the UK, did some educational work and training for the Leo Baeck College (Rabbinical seminary for Progressive Rabbis) and the Center for Jewish Education.  She now runs her own practice as a Parenting Coach.  Like myself, she was both a member of our Jewish Renewal chavurah and a member of a Reform synagogue in North West London.  Her husband, Lawrence, is a retired dentist and acts as part-time Cantor to a Masorti (Conservative) community in North London and in Glasgow, Scotland.  They have three children aged 27, 24, and 21.

This past weekend they appeared as 'Jacobs St', in 'Don't Stop Believing' a 'Britian's Got Talent'-type show that has been inspired by the Glee craze, focused specifically on singing and dancing amateur groups.  Jacobs St. beat out 8000 entries to make it to the live semi-finals.of this show hosted by one-time Spice Girl, Emma Bunton.    First, a little preview to introduce the Jacobs Family:

Next, their live performance last weekend, where they gave it their all:

Ok, so they didn't make it to the finals.  But it gives me a big smile to see how much fun they were having.  There was also a wonderful buzz in the Jewish community and Jewish press about their achievement (see, for example, The Jewish Chronicle).  And the comments of the judges were, I think, interesting in what they picked up on and emphasized.  How wonderful to see a family doing this together - putting that togetherness and unity above the need to single out someone; where being part of something meant more than winning.  And so great to see what, on the surface might look like 'a typical North-West London Jewish family' be part of a mainstream popular show like this.

I think Jacobs St. are a pretty inspirational family.  They shared their passion, their love, and their values with us.  In just a few minutes of TV exposure, they encapsulated so much Jewish wisdom about family, the power of singing together, and being part of something that is greater than anything we can possibly be as individuals, whether that be in the context of a family, a group of committed friends, or a community.  And they also taught us that there is no such thing as 'typical'.  We might not be part of a group of friends or a family with a talent like Bebe's family for singing together, but we each have gifts that we can share.  Take a moment and think about what is most precious, joyful, and special that you share with your family, or your closest friends, or your community.  Label it, feel it, share your appreciation for it, and enjoy it!