Friday, March 25, 2011

Israeli Women Win European Basketball Championship!

Just wanted to share a feel-good story today.  Anyone who knows anything about Connecticut know that we are very proud of our Huskies - the UConn basketball teams.  Basketball is pretty much the only US game this (British) Rabbi follows, and only because congregants (thanks Val and Linda!) initiated me a couple of years back with some live games watching a truly outstanding team.  But today I found myself cheering for another Women's team when I cam across the following news:
Israeli women’s basketball club Elitzur Ramla beat France’s Arras 61-53 last night to capture the EuroCup. Their amazing run makes them Israel’s first women’s club to capture the European Championship.
It is the first time that an Israeli team has won this competition since the guys did it back in 1977.
You can read more of the story at the IsRealli blog.
Go Team!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why is this Women's Seder different from all others?

If Purim is over then it must be the season for the Women's Seder!  The pre-Passover timing allows for women who have, traditionally, had their hands rather busy doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes work at the family Passover Seder, to enjoy creating and leading the ritual aspects of the Seder.  A pre-Passover Seder has also enabled some of the wonderful creativity - prayers, writings, stories, and music - that have emerged from the Women's Seder ritual over the decades to make their way into family and other communal Seders.

The first Women’s Seder took place in Haifa, Israel and Manhattan, NY in the USA in 1975.  The story of the early years and the text of the first haggadah written for the Women’s Seder can be found in ‘The Telling’, by E.M. Broner.  These early Seder gatherings represented the coming together of second wave feminism with Judaism as women who had previously felt excluded from a Judaism that was perceived to be patriarchal and exclusionary began to reclaim their heritage and Jewish women’s spirituality.  Sally Priesand had been the first US woman to be ordained as a rabbi in 1972, and Jackie Tabick was the first to be ordained in the UK in 1975.  The times they were a’changin’.

Since those early years, the tradition of a Women’s Seder has spread far and wide and has evolved considerably.  Many local communities have created their own haggadah, weaving together borrowed poems, stories, and songs with their own new liturgical writing and composing.  One organization based in New York City, Ma'yan, was instrumental in the spread of the Women's Seder internationally, with the music of the greatly missed Debbie Friedman, z'l, creating a phenomenon where, for a number of years, over 500 women a night would fill a room for 2-3 nights in a row for the Ma'yan Seder.

While a traditional haggadah makes no mention of the women who were so important to the unfolding of our people’s story of the journey from slavery to freedom, a Women’s Seder haggadah tells of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, Yocheved and Miriam.  While a traditional haggadah only retells the discussions and interpretations offered by male rabbis and scholars through the centuries, a Women’s Seder haggadah weaves together the words of women, and returns our voice to our people’s history and heritage.  Women have always passed on their wisdom and Jewish practices from generation to generation, and the Women's Seder at Congregation B'nai Israel always includes structured sharing of stories, questions and answers, where our bat mitzvah students share their stories with older generations and vice versa; its a multi-generational gathering.

This year’s Seder is different from all of our previous Women’s Seders at Congregation B’nai Israel; this year we welcome our Christian and Muslim sisters in faith to join us for a Seder ritual that celebrates the themes of Freedom and Peace, weaving together the inspirational sources from our three faith traditions. This Seder is inspired by the pioneering work of Rabbi Arthur Waskow and The Shalom Center who formulated the first Seder for the Children of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in 1999.  Our Rosh Hodesh group has spent the year in a series of interfaith interactions with women from local churches and Muslim communities, and we look forward to welcoming them all to our Passover Seder.  The goal is not to provide a 'model Seder' for the benefit of our sisters-in-faith, but to use the Passover Seder model and message to weave together lessons, songs and inspiration from all three faiths to inspire us to think and engage more deeply with the Passover message.

The Seder takes place at Congregation B'nai Israel, Bridgeport, Thursday, March 31st, 7:30 p.m.  It is free and open to all women from the local community.  RSVP to reserve a seat with

I hope to see you there!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Friday, March 11, 2011

Purim in St. Petersburg!

'Tis the season.... for entertaining Youtube videos of Purim spoofs galore.  There are a couple of gems this year and you can check them all out at our Congregation's website on the Purim Page (just scroll down, but check out our Adults-only Beach Ball Party on March 19 at the top of the page - everyone is welcome; none of our programs are for members only).

But this morning I saw a posting on that mentioned one Youtube that I hadn't seen yet from the Hillel of St. Petersburg, Russia.  Check it out!

Here's the translation (from the original posting on
Hello, I’m Liya Geldman. I’m a senior student at cinema and television university in St. Petersburg. As you know Russia is a multiethnic and multidenominational country. But do Russians really know traditions of other cultures? Today we came here to find out if they know what Purim is.
- Do you know what Purim is?
- Hello, do you know what Purim is?
- Hi Julia, do you know what is Purim?
- Hello, what is Purim?
Doesn’t anyone know what Purim is?

Purim! Purim! Purim!
Purim! Purim! Purim!

Celebrating Purim!
Zenit and Haiduck (Russian soccer teams),
Student and coach,
Human and spider,
Patient and surgeon,
NYC, Moscow and Saint Petersburg!

Purim! Also celebrating in Barnaul
People from Penza and Tomsk,
On Kamchatka and in Kerch,
And possibly even on the moon.

Purim! Let’s put some make up on!
Whether you are old or young,
Even if you hadn’t slept for 3 nights
It’s Israeli mega-carnival!

Purim! We highly recommend it.
The plot is twisted,
It happened almost 3000 years ago
So it might be hard to remember
Where’s good and where’s bad

So choose for yourself who’s good and who’s bad
Here’s the Mordehai the Jew, King Ahashverosh.
Where’s Vashti? The Tzar’s ex-wife?
But maybe Hamman could be the Bad Guy?

Imagine for a while that we’re in Babylon,
Who’s the star on this dark sky? Esther!
Here’s a lesson for now and in 600BC
If you’re brave, you’ve got the power!

We’ll scream together Mazal Tov!
Our glass is full to the brim.
With what? Lets fill it with wine
And drink it all up.
And during this Purim we’ll change the world!

I hope you get the 'feel-good' that I felt watching Jews in Russia celebrating Purim.  Oh, today we'll merry, merry be, and nosh some hamentaschen!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What does an American Muslim look like? Remembering one special soul

Congressman Keith Elllison spoke passionately and powerfully today at Peter King's congressional hearing about Radicalized Islam in the USA.  In distinction from the distasteful background to these hearings (see my earlier post this week), Congressman Ellison reminded us that every American Muslim is an individual and it is  incumbent upon us all to stand up in the face of Islamophobia, or any kind of racism that talks about a 'them'.  He did so by telling us about one particular American Muslim, 23 years old, who was a first responder at the Twin Towers on 9/11.  His testimony speaks for itself.

No-one would deny our obligations to keep America safe and to root out terrorism.  But when we forget that for every radical in any group there are many more stories like these, and try to tar an entire community of millions with the brush of extremism, we are guilty of racism, plain and simple.  There are more and less effective ways to identify terrorists and terrorist plots, whether they be within the USA or beyond our borders.  Holding a congressional hearing contributed not one iota to that goal.  Congressman Ellison helped communicate that message loud and clear.

Rabbis for Human Rights just released a first set of youtube videos of Rabbis of all denominations speaking out against Islamophobia.  You can view them here.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Monday, March 7, 2011

'Today I am a Muslim Too' - A Rabbi at the Times Square Rally

Equipped with a rain jacket and umbrella in anticipation of the damp afternoon forecast, I headed down to Stamford yesterday lunchtime to take a bus into New York City with members of the Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies.  This is a diverse and wonderful Muslim community that draws members from across Fairfield County.  Members from this community were the first Muslims to partner with our Fairfield County 'Tent of Abraham' interfaith dialog group when we started our three-faith community programs 5 years ago.  We have since partnered with them many times, and their teenagers participate with our teenagers in an annual Teen Interfaith-Interaction program every Spring.

Why was I spending my afternoon with this community on a trip into New York City?  At relatively short notice, a multi-faith coalition had come together for a rally yesterday afternoon near Times Square to protest the congressional inquiry due to start this week, chaired by House Homeland Security Chair, Peter King, looking into Radicalized Islam in the USA.  King has claimed that Muslims within the USA are an increasing threat because they are being radicalized on our home turf, and Muslim communities are not cooperating sufficiently to identify and root out these radicalized elements.  It is important to know that these claims have been challenged by government departments who work with Muslim communities on a regular basis.  For a balanced article on this inquiry and the lead-up to it, a good piece in the Washington Post last week is worth reading.

As residents of Connecticut, in the wake of a fringe evangelical group parading outside a Bridgeport mosque shortly before Ramadan last year with placards declaring that 'Islam is the Devil', and a mosque in Hamden being vandalized last week for the third time in a year, the concern that Muslim American citizens are being targeted and victimized solely on the basis of their faith is something that should be of concern to everyone, but especially to other minority groups, faith-based or otherwise.  As Jews, we should always be especially concerned when we see anything that looks like government-sponsored stirring up of popular opinion and fear toward one group of citizens.  And King's inquiry certainly looks like that to many people of faith.

The rally organized in New York City yesterday was an interfaith effort, with Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Buddhist speakers (apologies for any omissions).  Rabbis for Human Rights was one of the supporting organizations who tried to help get the word out at what was short notice to pull a rally together.  Nevertheless, despite the short time-frame and the appalling weather, about 500 people attended the rally.

My bus-ride down to the city was a wonderful opportunity to listen and hear about many of the experiences of the men, women and children who were attending the rally.  Mothers coming with their children because they don't want their American-born children to grow up hearing from their government that they are somehow less American or more suspect because of the faith that they practice; friends who have reduced their international traveling because of the scrutiny and treatment they have experienced at the airports; debates that Muslims have among themselves about profiling (we were all of the opinion that one should profile for violent fanatics, and there are ways of better identifying potentially dangerous individuals, but faith or ethnicity were not very good indicators of these traits).  We also talked about what it was like for one Egyptian-born woman who just happened to have gone home to visit her sister when the Revolution happened; we talked about the ethical components of the Halal food industry (our Kashrut agencies could learn a lot from our Muslim colleagues on this issue).  And then we helped each other figure out what statements we wanted to put on the placards that our coordinator, Dolores, had brought, and what images would accompany them.

The placards turned out to be a wonderful idea, especially as the youth who were with us produced some beautiful and moving statements, simply put.  When we reached the rally we ended up in the front of a second area that had been partitioned off on the side of the road where the rally was taking place.  With their placards hanging over the barriers, a number of news channels and photographers came by to capture our group.  The ethnic backgrounds of the members enabled them to do interviews with the press in English, Spanish and Urdu.  Calmly we expressed our love for all peoples, and our objections to an inquiry that is divisive and detrimental to the safety of millions of American Muslims who are peace-loving; people we are proud to call our friends and neighbors.

The vibe was very positive, and we found ourselves engaged in conversations with others who had come to the rally; Muslim, Quaker, Christian, Jew.  There had been a very small group that identified themselves as tea-party connected who had intended to counter-demonstrate but they seemed to disperse quickly.  We found ourselves being greeted by one woman who was very concerned that we knew the Truth about Jesus and was not satisfied to hear Muslims tell her that they loved Jesus and the love that Jesus taught; our lack of belief in her particular understanding of Jesus was something that troubled her greatly.  We politely took her literature and were able to continue with our main purpose for being there when the wonderful police officer stationed at the front of our section politely suggested she move on.

A couple of hours later, the rally almost over, we made our way out.  The rally made but a small dent in the rhetoric that I am afraid we will have to listen to in the coming week.  Realizing that they could not stop the inquiry, many Muslims are now trying to participate so that they can communicate the message that they want to be heard; it is too dangerous to leave this inquiry in the hands of those who have already drawn dangerous conclusions devoid of factual information and seemingly unaware (or, God forbid, uncaring) about the potential consequences of their words to spur more violence against Muslim communities in the USA.

I urge all people of faith to speak out against King's inquiry.  It is a misplaced and misguided response to the real, ongoing concerns about terrorism, fundamentalists and fanatics.  Targeting the entire American Muslim community is wrong, and dangerously so.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz