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