Friday, June 29, 2012

Reform Women Rabbis Being Heard

In the midst of much activity in Israel in the ongoing push to ensure that women are not silenced or made invisible in newspaper media or public advertising, the celebration of a Reform woman rabbi winning a Supreme Court case to receive public funding, and the ongoing travails of the Women of the Wall seeking the right to pray in peace at the Kotel – the Western Wall in Jerusalem – there is much to write about these days about women and Judaism.  And there is plenty to say about female leadership in Jewish community, both lay and professional.
Rabbi Sally Priesand
Launched less than a month ago, Kol Isha: Reform Women Rabbis Speak Out, is a new blog that provides a new vehicle for Women Rabbis to reflect on their own experiences as female clergy, and reflect on these larger issues that affect women’s’ experience in the wider Jewish world.
Kol Isha is Hebrew for ‘Voice of a Woman’.  It is a contested concept intraditional Jewish law, whereby a man cannot hear the voice of a woman, but even in traditional circles there is much debate as to the specific times and contexts to which this precept applies. Is it at all times, just in prayer, only for certain categories of prayer, or just when singing, for example. Among progressive Jews, equality of genders has overridden this precept, as it has in many contemporary societies.
Why just Reform Women Rabbis? The blog was launched as a project of the Women’s Rabbinic Network – an auxiliary of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body representing Reform Rabbis in the USA.
The first blog was posted on June 3rd – the precise date of the ordination of the first woman Rabbi in the USA, Sally Priesand.  Sally guest posted the first blog.  There are about 30 women Rabbis now providing daily postings, many of whom are blogging for the first time.  Just as with this blog, we Rabbis who blog have found that this medium provides an effective way of getting beyond the borders of our own local communities, sharing our voices and reflections on Jewish wisdom, culture, spirituality, and life with an audience that is literally global.  I know from the stats on this blog, that I have readers from South Africa, Israel, Russia, Argentina, Great Britain, Spain, as well as from all over the USA.  I also know from comments and private email correspondence that I have both Jewish and non-Jewish readers.  I’ve met people who have attended programs that I’ve run in the community who have told me that they came to their first Jewish event with me after many years of no explicit Jewish connection, after having read my blog for several months.  And I’ve had individuals reach out to me with pastoral needs online, in response to something that I wrote that they found on my blog.
So, what are our women Rabbis writing about?  Well, go and take a look for yourself.  But among the topics covered in these past couple of weeks, there are reflections on body image, relating to our teenage girls, balancing work and family life, pregnancy and miscarriage, supporting a sick child, leaving congregational positions, being a chaplain to the prison population, and several reflections on 40 years of women in the Rabbinate.
While most women who are Rabbis will tell you that, in the work they do in their communities, they are ‘Rabbis’ and not ‘Women Rabbis’, there is no question that women have transformed the face of the rabbinate in more than just its appearance.  Just looking at the topics above, this is clear.  In being true to the essence of who we are, we cannot leave any one piece of our identities behind, and our gender informs how we live in this world, what we see and experience, and how we relate to others.
Forty years on, we celebrate the place of women in the Rabbinate, we reflect on the journey and where we still hope to go, and we share our experiences and insights.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nora Ephron: A Look at the Reflections

Cross-posted at a new blog - Contributions from Rabbis from across the denominations - check it out!

There is no question that, from the perspective of a consumer of popular culture, the most important thing to say about the passing of Nora Ephron is that a great writer, with a great eye and sharp wit for observing daily life, has left us. I'm sure for her family the most important thing to say is that a sister/mother/wife has left their world. After reading the obituary in the NY Times, and then Abigail Pogrebin's intimate and charming reflection in The Forward, I was struck by the complete absence of mention of her Jewish identity in the former followed by a fascinating claim to her being 'utterly Jewish' in the latter. Pogrebin interviewed Ephron for her 2003 book, 'Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish': She said she thought of herself “as a Jew, but not Jewish.” She wasn’t in denial about her Jewish identity, just indifferent to it...

Later in her article, Pogrebin shares: "She was relieved her two boys didn’t request bar mitzvahs. “First of all, because of my feelings about religion, and second of all, because they’re so expensive, and third of all, because nothing is more awful than a divorced bar mitzvah.”

And yet, Pogrebin concludes: "For all her Jewish disconnection, she felt utterly Jewish to me."

I think I know what she means - how can you watch 'When Harry met Sally', especially with the ever-so-Jewish Billy Crystal, and not feel a Jewish sensibility and wit oozing from the script? I listened to her book, 'I remember nothing: and other reflections' as an audio book about a year ago. While I don't recall any explicitly Jewish content, there was no mistaking (just as there is no mistaking listening to Woody Allen) that these were the words of Jewish woman.

For Ephron, 'Jewish' was a cultural label she owned but did not put in the top five list of labels she would use to describe herself, and it certainly was not a religious framework that she consciously lived by and engaged in.

I find myself reflecting on the way we Jews like to list and identify with our people; especially our people who have left a mark on our world or our cultural consciousness. It is not unique to us, by any means - a quick glance on reveals many collections of books about remarkable Christians, men and women. Yet, when I read Pogrebin's touching reflection, I am left with a sadness about the Jewish experiences of Nora Ephron. That the worst excesses of bar mitzvah are what come to mind as the quintessential Jewish ritual, gratefully avoided, points to an absence that is deeper than the choice to observe or not observe Jewish rituals. I'm not interested in ritual for its own sake, only as a vessel for significant spiritual reflection and expression and, in the context of Judaism, especially as a communal activity. Those are things that are hard to express in language, and so some of the rituals and traditions of Judaism provide a shared vocabulary through which we can not only make space in our lives for such experiences, but share them with others too.

Perhaps if Pogrebin hadn't written a piece about Nora Ephron being 'utterly Jewish', I would have just read the NY Times obit and would be focused solely on that which Nora herself would probably prefer we pay attention to - her incredible legacy of writing and her ability to make us laugh at ourselves, time and time again. But when I reflect on the Jewishness that is expressed in Pogrebin's piece, I begin to think about expressions of the spiritual life. And I don't think its even a sadness that I might have as a Rabbi that it wasn't Jewish in the traditional sense of observance. I think its more that I am left wondering how the spiritual life was lived and expressed altogether. Because, ultimately, that is what feels like an essential part of human existence to me, and that is why I'm doing what I do, and my hope is that Nora had some way of accessing and expressing that too, especially in the last difficult months of her life.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Blessings beyond Borders - an interfaith tale

Last Saturday evening I was given an opportunity to be part of a truly wonderful celebration - the Sweet 16 party of a very special young woman.  As I explained to the guests gathered there that evening, this was an evening of firsts for me.  We don't really make much of the 16th birthday in the UK, probably because 18 is not so far away.  In the UK, 18 takes on greater significance as it is the legal drinking age.  So last Saturday was my first ever Sweet Sixteen party.  Another new and special part of the experience for me was that this Sweet 16 was celebrated Puerto Rican style.  As I learned in preparing for the event, there are variations on the rituals that have become associated with this celebration - Brazilians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and other Latin American countries all utilize slightly different symbolic acts and objects to represent the transition into womanhood.  Traditionally, these events took place at the age of 15, and so the celebration would be called a Quinceanera.  In North America, the celebration has often shifted to the age of 16, influenced by North American Sweet Sixteen celebrations.  At the celebration I attended, two key ritual moments involved replacing a ribbon in the young woman's hair with a tiara, and a pair of flat shoes with high heels.  Another part of the tradition is for a priest to offer a blessing, often presenting a bible and a crucifix necklace.  And this is where I came in.
Cinderella's shoes
The young woman in question is Muslim.  Desiring to celebrate her Puerto Rican cultural roots, but minus the religious traditions of Catholicism, it might have been challenging to involve either a Priest or an Imam.  Much of the family was practicing Catholic, and many of the women from the Islamic community were present for the celebration too.  It was a wonderful interfaith and intercultural gathering in and of itself.  But why add a Rabbi to the mix?

I was invited to offer a blessing at this particular Sweet 16 after getting to know this young woman these past two years through our Tent of Abraham interfaith activities.  We had met on several occasions - adult and teen discussion programs, Rosh Hodesh group and Muslim women's study and celebration gatherings, and Iftar (evening break fast) during Ramadan.   And so it was that, in the week leading up to the celebration we spoke on the phone.  In preparing some words of blessing, I asked her to reflect on significant moments in her life up until now that seemed to her to have shaped her life and her faith.  She spoke of her father's death at an early age, and later reflecting more deeply on taking responsibility in the world during a time that her mother was unwell.  She spoke of the values that were most important to her - trust, loyalty, compassion, friendship.  She spoke of her belief in one God, who could be addressed and experienced directly by every person.  These words and more were the sentiments that I reflected back to her.  In the mix, as per a request from her and her mother, I explained how the rituals and the celebration compared with Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies.  Just as the evening was filled with many firsts for me (I even began with a few sentences of Spanish - a language I have never studied or spoken before - thanks to the assistance of one of our Puerto Rican staff at the synagogue!), I explained that I was sure that the presence of a Rabbi to offer the blessing was a first for everyone there.  It became an opportunity to learn from and about each other.

In the mix was the Priestly Blessing, an English interpretative rendition by Debbie Friedman, a Rashi interpretation on the blessing, and a blessing over the food sung in Aramaic and English. In just 5 minutes I had the opportunity to share some rich Jewish traditions and prayers with many who may never or rarely had any direct experience of Judaism before.  This was taking Jewish wisdom public in a whole new context.  These were blessings beyond borders.  It certainly was a blessing for me to attend and participate in this wonderful young woman's special evening.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Snapshots of Congregation B'nai Israel

This sermon was delivered on Shabbat, June 1st, as a reflection on serving Congregation B'nai Israel for the past six years.  I will be moving on to Congregation B'nai Shalom in Westborough, MA, beginning July 1st.  I will continue to blog at this address.

Rabbi Prosnit often jokes, upon returning to lead services the first Shabbat after taking a vacation that ‘this will be the ‘what the Rabbi saw on his vacation’ sermon.’  But, while we get the joke, the sermons are always insightful and I always see the world in a new light or learn something new from listening to those reflections.  Because Rabbi Prosnit, who I have learned so much from these past six years, knows that a good friend does not make you endure a sitting of the 875 photos that they took on their holiday; rather, they pre-select a handful of the most unique and memorable moments worthy of sharing.
 When I’ve been on a journey and return with my collection of snap-shots, I tend not to be the kind of traveler who has images like ‘there’s me in city X’, or ‘there’s me next to statue Y’.  I like to take in the scene, and learn from the unfolding of the human or natural scene before me.  I want you to see what I saw through my eyes when I was there.  And that’s what I want to do this evening.  This isn’t the ‘What I’ve learned about being a Rabbi’ sermon.  This is the ‘This is what Jewish community looks and feels like’ sermon.  I’ve sifted through thousands of days, scenes and moments from the past 6 years here at B’nai Israel.  Too many to count and too many to do justice to all of you, what you have created together, and how you have inspired me.  All I can do is select a few snapshots.  This is my mini photo-montage of my journey with Congregation B’nai Israel – the memories that I take with me, created by each and every one of you.

Shabbat morning minyan

The first picture is a little out-of-focus.  That’s because I’m still rather bleary-eyed at 8am.  As many of you know, I’m not a morning person.  But, such an incredibly unique and blessed community is our Shabbat morning 8am minyan that I believe that I’d be a regular attendee even if I didn’t have to get up to the lead the service.  Cantor Blum knows that when I lean over to her just before we start the service and say, ‘let’s sing ‘Open up our eyes’ before the Shema this morning,’ that I need a little extra help fully awakening to the day that week.

In this slightly blurred snap-shot, you’ll see a teenager reading Torah on the anniversary of their bar or bat mitzvah.  Or perhaps one of the many adult Torah leyners we have up at the reading desk.  If you notice that the shot looks a little more blurred where their hand holds the yad – the Torah pointer – its because sometimes they get nervous.  But they do it anyway, and they inspire others, from time to time, to step up and say that they are ready to have a go.

But I also want you to take in the scene at the back of the chapel.  There’s a couple of rows of women – they are some of our senior members.  They are there every week.  They’ve been through a lot; losses and challenges in life.  But they are there for each other, and they help each other get through.  And they didn’t stop praying.  In fact, its after some of those losses and challenges that they began.  Seeing them there, praying together, helps me to pray.

Our teenagers

In the next snap-shot its hard to pick out what to focus on.  Actually, unless you were there, its hard to tell from the image what exactly is going on – it’s a group of teenagers and the scene looks a bit chaotic.  Its hard to tell what they are doing, but you can see from the laughs on their faces that everyone is having fun.  This is a Monday night during my class with our Eighth Graders.  You know, its not an accident that I’ve spent 6 years running the 8th grade program.  It wasn’t intended as Rabbi Prosnit’s version of hazing the new Assistant Rabbi.  Its actually the gift that I received from our Educator, Ira Wise.  We value our teens, and bar and bat mitzvah is not a destination, its just one stop on the journey.  And when one of your Rabbis is responsible for teaching the 8th grade its because we really care and we want you to be a part of it. 

In my photo, on this particular night, things look a bit different because it’s the night when members of BIFTY, our Youth Group, come storming in and ‘kidnap’ my students for night to give them a taste of our High School youth group community that they will be invited to become a part of that night.  I’ll tell you what I see in this picture, and what awes me every time.  A group of teenagers – 14, 15, 16 year olds maybe.  And some of those kids were my 8th grade middle class students just last year.  And tonight they are leaders.  They are team-building, and they are instructing and guiding, and they are helping and including.  And I get a glimpse of something that is so much more powerful than just fun and games.  I get a glimpse of the remarkable young people in our congregation; not only may they be the leaders of our community in the future – they are our leaders today. 
I see them in BIFTY, I see them at Merkaz.  And they inspire me and give me hope.

Nursery and young children

The next picture is one of the few places in the synagogue building where I feel tall.  There are some adults in the room – a couple of teachers and our Pre-School Director, Alexa Cohen.  But I’m feeling tall because I’m in a pre-school classroom with a class of 4 year old children.  We’ve got our hands and legs stretched out in all different directions (demonstrate).  We’re being trees.  Because its almost Tu Bishvat – the festival of trees.  Tu Bishvat often falls in February and so, when I come in and ask them what special holiday is coming up soon, I’ve learned not to be surprised when they tell me ‘Valentine’s Day’. 

In fact, its very helpful when they remind me that 3 and 4 years take in everything from the world around us.  It reminds me that being a Rabbi today means that we always have to respond to the times and the culture that our community is living in.  We can’t stand still, and we have to make the ancient Jewish rituals, holidays and wisdom relevant in today’s world.  That’s what Rabbi Nicole Wilson-Spiro has done in providing a weekly Shabbat morning Young Families Chavurah which combines a totally contemporary take on parenting Jewish children with the gift of family time on Shabbat.  And that’s what Elaine Chetrit does with our elementary-aged children on Friday evening at Mishpacha Shabbat.  Celebrating with these groups gives me joy.

Adult learners

If the next shot looks a little unfamiliar and a little… Christian… that’s because we’re at a Retreat Center on the CT shoreline.  30 women have gathered for a one day retreat.  Its probably the most intensive kind of adult learning experience that I’ve taken a snap-shot of, but I could have chosen so many others, with men and women, experienced learners and complete beginners, figuring out their relationship with Jewish community, traditions, ethics, and taking a look at what they believe, what inspires them, and what feeds their spirit and their soul.  Some are engaging in the hardest kind of learning of all – being complete beginners at Hebrew with Elaine, or the festivals and other basics in the Parent Learning Circle. 

Its not easy being a beginner at something when we’re adults and so accomplished in other areas of life.  But the snap-shot of the retreat will always stay with me.  Its partly that the setting is so beautiful.  Its also a place where I’ve worked and led services with my soul partner and master teacher of creativity – Suri.  But more than that, it’s the deep sharing and connecting that is so beautiful; its what’s possible when we dispense with the ‘small talk’ and engage in ‘big talk’ with each other.  This snap-shot is full of spiritual awakenings.  Learning with these adults nourishes my spirit.

Board/committees/lay leadership

I wasn’t actually present for this next snap-shot.  But it’s a group of people with charts and to-do lists in front of them.  The photo may not look very exciting – a group of people sat around a table, talking and planning.  Everyone has something to contribute and everyone is pitching in with their particular skill set and passion.  Some of these people knew each other before this photo was taken. But some are meeting for the first time, or getting to know each other better.  They are planning a big party, and by all accounts, they did an amazing job!  But while I have and continue to thank everyone who had a hand in an incredible gala this year, this kind of scene at our Temple is just a touch-stone for all of the lay leadership that makes things happen around here each and every day. 

Committees who are doing our caring work, visioning the future of our Religious school education, helping with our family-focused celebrations and mitzvah day, making sure that we can pay our bills, and helping our amazing facilities manager, Abby Rohinsky, with all the juggling of activities, tasks and maintenance involved in running a place like this.  And then, our course, there is our Board and Executive.

I’ve worked here under three Presidencies – Richard Krantz, Amy Rich, and Mark Kirsch.  And now Mindy Siegel prepares to take up the reigns.  Each so different in their styles, and each so delightful to partner with in our work here.  Countless people who, even if its just to do one thing one time, step up to offer of themselves to make this holy community happen.  We couldn’t do it without members and their financial support.  But that isn’t enough.  We couldn’t do it without a quality professional staff.  But that isn’t enough. 

Just as in the Torah Moses asks for contributions to build the Mishkan – the place where God will dwell among them – from those whose hearts move them, so those who volunteer of themselves are giving from their hearts to create this place where God dwells among us.  When I look at this snap-shot I am inspired to work harder and offer more too.


The final snap-shot hasn’t been taken yet.  I’d like to break with sanctuary protocol just this once and take it now.  Its all of you.  

When I arrived, I sang a short blessing at my installation.  So taken was I by the warm welcome I received when I arrived 6 years ago, and by my sense of genuine caring and community that I felt here, I adapted a blessing that is traditionally said when you see beautiful and amazing things in nature.  The blessing says, ‘Blessed are You Eternal our God Ruler of the Universe, who has such as these in Your world.’  This is a beautiful snap-shot that I see before me, and you have been my blessing.  Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, Shecacha lo b’olama, shecacha lo b’olamo.  Amen, Selah.  Thank you.