Categories
Healing High Holy Days

We Cannot Breathe Until All People Can Breathe

I have lived in Louisville, Kentucky for over ten years, working on countless projects with the mayor’s office, the Louisville Metro Police Department, and even the FBI, to try to bring healing, justice, and peace to this city. It is therefore with profound sadness, horror, rage, and disgust that I watch what is unfolding in this “city of possibility,” that crowned itself as “compassionate.”

My current work in Louisville—as Director for Program Development with Interfaith Paths to Peace—has led me to support the interfaith peace-making and justice-seeking efforts in this city. Clergy of all faiths have been intervening to de-escalate tensions between police and protesters, often inserting themselves between them to protect their right to peacefully demonstrate.

What small shreds of hope we still had were crushed by the announcement of the Attorney General that no charges would be made against the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor. The double standard of the law is glaring, and the city is grieving. Because of the forced curfew, those grieving are being arrested for exercising their right to protest because of a curfew that is imposed to perpetuate the stereotype that people of color are dangerous, when the last several months have demonstrated that they were peaceful and supported by clergy from across the community. 

Squelched grief has become a ticket to a non-socially isolated jail and fines that perpetuate debt and social inequality. It is just too overwhelming to see the glaring contrast between the ease with which a protester, clergy or lay, can be arrested and the inability to indict a police officer that turns off his camera, falsifies documents, and shoots a woman dead in her home for just sleeping.

And so, here we are, approaching Yom Kippur, reflecting upon our sins and the need to atone—our rabbis teach that we should confess our sins in the plural because even if not all committed the crime, all are guilty for not trying to stop it—and so it is. We confess—ashamnu. We have sinned.

We sin as a nation when we call ourselves a democracy but maintain an electoral college that was created to perpetuate slavery and the belief that people of color should not have the same voting power as white people.

We sin as a nation when we continue to enslave people of color… when this nation continues to target them and imprison them so that they can work without pay to fuel the profits of our privatized prison system and the corporations that derive profit thanks to the slavery amendment of our constitution.

We participate in the sin of slavery every time we buy something from any of the countless companies that rely upon unpaid prison labor.

Today, in between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we collectively confess our sins: the sins of this nation, for each of us who vote and pay taxes in this country and in this city, each of us are responsible for what is happening.

And today we affirm that we all share responsibility for our current reality—and as clergy we decry our continued complicity with these sins. And today, we join our brothers and sisters of all faiths, to publicly confess these sins and to reclaim the prophetic voice that calls upon us all to atone, make amends, and work for justice, peace, reconciliation, and a new start where all human beings are recognized as created in the Divine Image.

As we approach Yom Kippur, who amongst us can say that we have not sinned? 

Each of us has contributed in some way to the rapidly growing weight of our nation’s collective sins.

For the sin of children in cages and mothers with forced sterilizations.

For the sin of police officers who murder and are only sometimes held accountable if someone is videotaping.

For the sin of thousands upon thousands of deaths due to a virus that we have collectively refused to manage appropriately.

For the sin of destroying this Earth that was given to us to safeguard.

For all these sins and more, we confess—we are guilty.

Our sins continue to be an alphabet of woe, and this week, we add another shocking sin.

For the sin of failing to indict or charge officers who turned off their cameras, falsified documents, and murdered Breonna Taylor: we confess—ashamnu.

For the sin of remaining silent and failing to use tochecha to rebuke our brothers and sisters who support policies that perpetuate the systemic racism that leaves each of us with blood on our hands.

For all these sins and more, we confess our guilt and ask for Your help in making amends and working to atone and be worthy of forgiveness.

Our hearts break as we watch the consequences of our failure to act and our willingness to accept our divisions…our hearts break as we see what happens when we choose “shalom bayit” (to keep the peace) rather than to speak out against injustice.

We cannot breathe under the growing weight of our collective sins. We cannot breathe alongside our brothers and sisters. We cannot breathe until all people can breathe. Until all people can sleep soundly in their homes without worrying that their tax-funded dollars will pay for police officers to come and kill them in the middle of the night and not get charged.

This Yom Kippur may we confess, atone, and begin the difficult work of making amends, seeking justice, and becoming worthy of forgiveness.

Our rabbis have taught us to kindle light where there is darkness. As we grieve the darkness that continues to thicken and suffocate us all—let us find the strength to kindle light.

Blessed is the Source of Light who made us holy with commandments and ethical principles and who commands us to kindle light in the darkness.

Here in Louisville, we have begun a new interfaith ritual that I pray will radiate out into our country. In the midst of our communal brokenness and with our diverse experiences and perspectives we invite you to hold our city, and indeed our nation, in prayer, presence, and love.

The flame represents our common humanity and the different candles our unique expressions of its light. Since Wednesday, September 23rd and through the election season, we are asking everyone at 8:00 PM to light a candle and stand at a street corner in their neighborhood, or outside their home, or from their window to light a candle of hope and as an expression of love and healing prayer.

May each of us, enveloped in despair and rage, draw strength from these lights, kindled across our nation, and may this Light inspire us to rise up with the righteous and prophetic rage that needs to be expressed and channeled into the work of justice and healing.

May this new year usher forth the healing, peace, and justice for which we all pray, and may our prayers inspire us to act and make amends. 

Rabbi Dr. Nadia Siritsky, MSSW, BCC, is Director of Program Development and Engagement at Interfaith Paths to Peace in Louisville, Kentucky.

Categories
High Holy Days

Un’taneh Tokef for 5781

Let these words of our prayers ascend
As we stand embodied, virtual, in our homes, on this screen, alone, together.

Knowing You are God, not knowing what that means…
We proclaim the sacred power of this day,
The sacred power of the shofar’s blast,
The power of the internet connecting us 
While the power of an infinitesimally small virus reshapes the meaning of what human power can and cannot do…
It is awesome and full of dread. 

Our prayers proclaim: You are Judge. You inscribe and seal.
This year we say: We are judged by our own choices, fates sealed by our actions. 
Will we remember all that we have forgotten? 
Will we remember civility and respect, conversation and kindness?
Will we remember the dignity of personal responsibility, the privileges and obligations of belonging to a community?
Can we awaken in time to our own soul truth: that every moment bears the promise, the opportunity of t ‘shuvah, of choice, of change, of return?
What will fill our Book of Memories in this year to come, when so much is still possible?

A Great Shofar will cry–t’kiah!
A still small voice will be heard.
But will we hear it? Will angels tremble? Will we, with our better angels, tremble? Will we awaken to wisdom and compassion? Or will we remain like slumbering sheep? 

On Rosh HaShanah it is written; on the Fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many will pass away from this world; how many will be born into it.
How many of us will rise with compassion; how many of us will drift into numbness.
How many will be stricken with a novel virus; how many will be thrust into novel life paths.
Who will reach across barriers with love, and who will have barriers hurled upon them?
Who will recognize the ways life has given them advantages, and who will help others gain advantage?
Who will fall in love, and who will stumble in hate?
Who will find new perspectives, and who will see the world through a prism of banality?
Which book will you write yourself into this new year?
We have this as our guide: Tzedakah is the route of connection to others. T’filah is the route of connection to Source. And Tshuvah, is connection to the root of the soul[1]. These are the ways we choose life. These are the ways we choose love. These are the ways we choose You.

Rabbi Annie Belford has served Houston’s Temple Sinai since 2009 as Houston’s first full-time female solo pulpit rabbi. She is the mother of three amazing souls, loves visiting our National Parks, and is a proud member of the CCAR Committee for Worship and Practice. 

Rabbi Debra Kassoff has made her rabbinic career primarily in Mississippi, first at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life and since 2010 with Hebrew Union Congregation, which she originally served as student rabbi, in a previous century. She is also the new Director of Member Engagement for Mississippi Public Broadcasting Foundation. She lives in Jackson with her family.


[1] Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, Orot HaTeshuvah

Categories
High Holy Days

God Knows Us by Name

God numbers the stars; God calls them each by name. (Psalm 147:4)

Imagine that. The vast numbers of stars, the infinite number of them, not just in our night sky, in our Milky Way, but beyond—star after star after star. They are not mere dots in a dark sky to God. They are individual lights, each special in the eyes of the Holy One. How much more, then, are we, created in God’s own image, b’tzelem Elohim, בצלם אלוהים, important to God as who we are. Each person, with our quirks and talents, our strengths and our sins, each of us, unique before God, named and beloved.

My friend Gino grew up on a small farm. She tells me that when you know sheep from the time of birth, you can tell them apart. It’s like looking at a group of dogs of the same breed, she explained; if your dog is among them, or if they are all your dogs, you would see their individuality, to call them by name. 

I asked her about this because I’ve been thinking about the Un’taneh Tokef, the prayer we read during the High Holy Days. It is often thought of as ominous: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” Part of the reason it might frighten us is its pure honesty: “Who will pass on and how many will be created; who will live and who will die?” The reality is that every year, babies will be born and some of us, whether gathered in shul saying these words or in the larger world, will die. Everyone who is born will someday die. And this prayer makes us face that awe-full truth.

The Un’taneh Tokef describes the underlying metaphor of the Days of Awe: the Book of Life. “May you be written for a good and sweet year,” Jews wish one another at the New Year. What is this Book?  God remembers everything, the Un’taneh Tokef proclaims, even that which has been forgotten by humans, by those of us whose memories God is keeping for us. God will open our book of memories and read. There is no escaping our past; there is a Book of Life for each of us, and it bears the signature of every human being.    

“All who enter the world will pass before You like sheep. As a shepherd searches for his flock, and has his sheep pass under his staff, so too will You record and recount and review all living beings as You have them pass by. And You will decide the end of all creatures, and write down their sentence.”

Scary stuff, indeed.

But the image of God as shepherd suggests otherwise. God as judge, as prosecutor, suggests a Divine urge to judge us. God as shepherd, however, is a Holy One who wishes to care for us, each of us in our foolishness and wayward behavior. What is the point of the shepherd’s staff? To make sure that no lamb goes astray, gets lost in the field or wilderness. God’s staff is there to ensure that each of us is included. 

God as “author and sealer, recorder and recounter” might also be less judgmental than traditionally understood. Perhaps our Book of Life might be like a journal, kept for a class. Each year, God takes each of us aside, and reviews our progress. “How’s it going?,” God asks us. “No, really. I know you’ve been working on being more honest in your relationships. Any trouble there?,” God might say. Or, “How is your energy being split between work and family? I know they are both important to you.”

This is a time to look honestly at ourselves: our goals, our failings, our hopes, our regrets. This is God as a Teacher, a Coach, a Parent, putting an arm around us and saying, “Let’s look at your life together. How might it be better? I, God, the Holy One of the world, am here to help.” “For you want them to turn from their path and live.”

If God knows the stars by name, God certainly knows me. Not just my name, but me. The Divine knows the divinity in me, and the not-so-divine. At the turning of the year, God warns us not just that some will die, but that most will live—and how? Can we accept God’s guidance to return to ourselves through repentance, turn to God through prayer, and reach out to others through righteous action. These will not prevent us from dying, but will show us how to live, how to attain a good name, a name that God will be honored to pronounce. 


Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She may be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com.

Categories
High Holy Days News

Rabbi Hara Person’s High Holy Day Message to CCAR Members

As CCAR members prepare to celebrate the High Holy Days and lead services safely distanced but spiritually connected to their communities during the coronavirus pandemic, Rabbi Hara Person shares her gratitude for their deep commitment to strengthening the Reform community.


As these really strange High Holy Days approach, I keep thinking about that Baal Shem Tov story about going into the forest, finding just the right place, and the right prayer, and lighting the fire, and saving the people from danger. And how every subsequent generation loses a little bit of original ritual but it’s still enough.

Together, we are writing the next chapter of that story, in which, many, many years later, our people once again face incredible danger.

In this new story, it wasn’t clear what to do at first. The elders recalled bits and pieces of old stories, but there were many conflicting versions and no concrete direction. The rabbi didn’t know what to do and so she had to figure it out as best she could. There was no longer a forest—it had long ago been turned into a suburban development and a sprawling mall. As for the special prayers, those hadn’t been part of the rabbinic school curriculum when she was a student. And she couldn’t light a fire, as no one wanted to risk starting another wildfire. So the rabbi wove together the bits of the different stories she had heard, and talked to her wise colleagues who offered ideas and suggestions, and brought together the community.

Because of the great danger, they were spread out in many different places, each person participating in the service remotely through a computer. She told them the story of the past as best she could, and offered up prayers. The community participated with open hearts, and their fervent hopes for a better future reached right from their souls up to the heavens. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t way things had been done in the past. But it was enough.

What we’re doing this year, no matter how different it is from the past, is enough. All the planning you’re doing, all the incredibly hard work you’re doing to make these holidays happen, to keep your community connected, and to take care of them, is enough. Everything you’re doing to take care of yourself, and to take care of those you love, is enough. 

These High Holy Days are going to be different than ever before. They definitely won’t look like the Holy Days of yesterday. But that’s okay. We’re adapting to the present. Despite the strangeness of this experience, you’re still opening up your heart and creating space for others to open theirs. You’re enabling people to gather in creative and virtual ways. You’re helping them speak the yearnings of their souls. Yes, it will be different, but because of your careful work, it will still feel familiar and comforting.

It’s a lot. It’s really a lot. If you’re feeling exhausted and wrung out from all of this, you’re not alone.

Thank you for facing this moment with courage, creativity, and hope.

Thank you for pouring the best of yourself into making these upcoming Holy Days the best they can be under the circumstances.

Thank you for what you are doing to strengthen our community and our people at this difficult time, in all the many ways you are doing so.

Thank you for caring for our college students, our elderly, our sick, our youngest, our newest, our noisiest, our quietest, our bravest, and our most afraid.

Thank you to those just starting your rabbinic careers in a way that no one could have predicted, thank you to those for whom this will be the last time leading High Holy Day services, and thank you for those in retirement for being role models, mentors, and cheerleaders as we navigate unfamiliar terrain. 

Thank you for being part of our rabbinic community, for supporting each other throughout this time, for sharing your ideas and your concerns, your resources and your love.

And thank you for doing all this while balancing your own families and loved ones, perhaps schooling and playing with your children, caring for your parents and other family members, maybe dealing with the loneliness and isolation of distancing, trying to take care of your own health and wellbeing, dealing with fears and anxiety about your financial security and livelihood, perhaps mourning those you’ve lost, the tremendous turmoil of postponed or radically different life cycle events, no summer camp, cancelled plans, and that doesn’t even cover it.

I’m going to end, therefore, with a plea—once the holidays are behind us, please make time to recover. Take time to replenish your souls and nurture yourself. Please take care not only of those you serve and those you love, but also of yourself.

The forest, the fire, the prayers are all being reinvented this year, and how lucky we are to have your leadership in doing so in such a myriad of ways. And it is indeed enough.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Executive of the CCAR.

Categories
Social Justice

What Does It Mean to Go Outside?

What does it mean to go outside? We wonder that every day facing the complexities of COVID.  Must we wear a mask while walking down an empty sidewalk in the stifling heat? Do we risk dining in our favorite restaurant on the patio? What if the only table available is just inside the door, a short breath from fresh air? This year, we were stuck inside so much, and for such good reason, we wonder whether it’s even worth it to venture outside.

Our Torah teaches us what it means to go outside. Especially in this week’s portion, Ki Teitzei, which literally means, “when you go outside.” The Torah portion is about our group decision to go outside our borders: the full phrase ki teitzei l’milchamah, “when you go out in battle,” teaches us the rules of warfare.  Thousands of years of interpretation reinforce that our Torah portion speaks not of defending ourselves against an invading army, but of an optional war, freely undertaken, for purposes of expanding our borders. In keeping with this reading, ki teitzei, “when we go outside,” is about a choice freely made. It is entirely optional to “go outside.” We who today feel safer inside understand this choice. How often have we thought it might make sense to stay at home rather than braving a trip into the great unknown? It is for this very reason many of our children will be going to school by going nowhere: instead of going outside and risking the spread of the pandemic, they are staying inside their homes for school, and for the safety of all.

The COVID-19 crisis is not the only menace discouraging people from choosing to go outside. We know this from the events of Kenosha. We should have learned it from George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. Or Eric Gardner. Or Rekia Boyd. Or Amadou Diallou. Or Medgar Evers. Or Emmett Till. Or any of the thousands of human beings lynched without legal repercussions in our nation since even before the July Fourth of our founding. If in the last few months many of us have learned that the simple act of going outside is not so simple, this is something people of color have known—have feared—for generations.

This year, I spoke to my children about going outside: keeping their masks on and staying in small groups. For generations, my African-American friends had to talk to their children about what happens when you go outside; this is a very different version of “The Talk.” Mamie Till-Mobley had this talk with Emmett, discouraging the behavior that got him killed, namely speaking to a white woman in Mississippi. Brian Stevenson explains how his mother would read his siblings the riot act before the seemingly simple act of shopping at a grocery store. This “talk” is about the danger of going outside.

A different Torah portion with the name teitzei, “Going Out,” speaks to this issue. In parashat Vateitzei from the book of Genesis, we learn what happens to Jacob’s daughter when she goes outside. Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob whose name we know, ventures outside at the beginning of the tale. We are not told why. However, once outside, a local man named Shechem sees her, becomes infatuated with her, and rapes her. Learning of this crime, some of her brothers are rightfully outraged; her father, Jacob, simply arranges for Dinah to become Shechem’s wife. He marries her off to her rapist. Such were the rules that governed society at that time: in a world that considered women property to be owned—to be used—by men, both her rapist and her father followed the fashion of the day. Shechem’s rape of Dinah was justified because she was a woman and he was a powerful man. She had to remain married to him for the rest of her life, to carry his children, to sleep in his bed, and to take care of her rapist until her dying day.

We would hope that our Torah commentators took compassion upon Dinah. That was not the case until our twentieth century. Instead, traditional commentators scorn Dinah’s very act of “going out.” Knowing that the norms of society were that women were property to be kept indoors, they knew Dinah’s deed violated societal expectations. The rabbis blamed Dinah, saying “She was asking for it.” The sad truth is that ours, in this instance, has been a misogynistic, victim-blaming tradition. Instead of expressing horror at the crime committed, our forebears questioned Dinah’s desire simply to go outside, and blamed her for the violent act of rape inflicted upon her.

Our American tradition isn’t much better; perhaps is best described as equally horrifying. There is no real way to explain the proliferation of deaths of Black people at the hands of police other than to say it is a societal norm. We do not need to go back to Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old killed by the police—who remain unpunished—for playing with a toy gun at a park, and compare that with the arrest of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a white man who was taken very much alive despite letting his arresting officer know he had a loaded gun in his back pocket. No, now we need look only to Kenosha. Jacob Blake is a Black man, whom, we are told may have had a knife in his car. Who was purportedly trying to break up a fight, and who was paralyzed when shot seven times by a police officer. Other officers of that same department allowed a seventeen-year-old boy to illegally carry a long gun through town, cheered him on, gave him water, and walked right past him after he shot four people, killing two. White people can commit crimes and live, but police can be judge, jury, and executioner for Black people. This is the norm, the expectation, in America. This is the ugly truth each and every Black person must confront, the fear they carry in their hearts every time they desire simply to go outside.

In the twentieth century, modern commentators—not surprisingly with women at the lead—rejected millennia of tradition that blamed Dinah for her own rape. These new voices went outside the traditional limitation of interpretation, rejected the past, and demanded more for the future. They had the courage to say our ancestors were wrong, and that their misogynistic expectations and organizations of society could no longer be celebrated or perpetuated. Thanks to these leaders, who took us outside the bounds of our own people’s limitations, we can read Dinah’s story today not just as a cautionary tale about male power in the time of the Torah, but about the power of interpretation to enforce unacceptable societal expectations.

In the twenty-first century, we are long overdue to reject the racist societal norms of America. There are voices, leaders, who challenge our traditional understanding that police serve and protect, that our society is colorblind, and that opportunity is equally available to all. These leaders and voices call on us to go outside our own comfort zones, to learn truths to which we have been blind, to confront realities that our comfort, our privilege, and our skin color perhaps prevent us from seeing. Especially us—I’m speaking as a white, cisgender-presenting male—especially we, whom, for most of our lives feel protected by the police except for when given a speeding ticket, we need to reject, to decry, and to change what have become unacceptable societal norms of racism. We need to learn about this history of policing, police brutality, the current data about policing, and be part of the efforts to change a system that is entirely broken.

What does it mean to go outside?

Sometimes going outside is dangerous. It was dangerous for Dinah, a woman, to leave her home in a world where men deemed her merely a possession. It was dangerous for Jacob Blake, who nearly lost his life due to inexplicable yet societally acceptable police conduct. Going outside was dangerous for Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, who went out to protest police shootings and were killed by a suburban teenage enforcer of society’s norms. And yes, it’s dangerous to go outside in the age of COVID. And, yes, it’s dangerous to go outside the norms we have taken as given all our lives: America is equal, police are here to help, white supremacy went away after successes of the civil right movements of the sixties.

It is dangerous to go outside. And we have the option to stay inside. We know we have that choice. We also know we will be judged by the choices we make. Choose wisely. Choose life, our Torah teaches. That you and your children, and your neighbors and the stranger and the oppressed might live long upon the land we have inherited. Go Outside.



Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation and is on the CCAR Board of Trustees. Rabbi Limmer is the co-author of
Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice.

Categories
High Holy Days Social Justice

Hearing the Shofar As a Wake-Up Call is a Sign of Our Privilege

This Elul, a group of Maine rabbis have been posting videos of shofar soundings from across the state. Many of us are talking about the shofar as a wake-up call. An alarm bell. A reminder that the holidays are coming.

The implication, of course, to waking up at the sound of the shofar is that we need a reminder. A reminder of what is broken in our world. A reminder of how we ourselves have fallen short. A reminder that we had better get to work, because Rosh HaShanah is coming. The need for a reminder implies that we live through the rest of the year with the privilege to forget the pain and suffering that exists in the world. The ways that we as a people, as a society, have gone astray. The need to hear the shofar means that we have been able to close our eyes.

The killing of George Floyd, and more recently the shooting of Jacob Blake, are a shofar sound calling us to attention. But, the shofar has been wailing continuously for years, for decades, for centuries, we just have not heard it. As Jacob Blake’s sister, Letetra Widman said, “So many people have reached out to me saying they’re sorry that this has been happening to my family. Well don’t be sorry because this has been happening to my family for a long time, longer than I can account for. It happened to Emmett Till, Emmett Till is my family. It happened to Philando, Mike Brown, Sandra.”

As the powerful lynching memorial in Montgomery, with its hanging steel rectangles reminiscent of coffins reminds us, we don’t know the names of all those who were murdered. The slaves who were bought and sold and beaten to death were known by name to their families and friends, but their names are unknown to us today. We have the luxury of needing the shofar to wake us up.

When the murder of George Floyd ripped through our national consciousness like the blast of a shofar, I, like so many concerned white people, went to a Black Lives Matter protest. I wore my social justice tallit, the one made by members of my congregation with colorful quotes about equality and justice. My family and I listened to speakers and marched and held up our signs. And then, like so many others across the country, we lay on the ground in silence for eight minutes and forty six seconds. The time it took George Floyd to suffocate to death. As I lay there on the pavement, next to my seven-year-old son, I was powerfully reminded of the Grand Aleinu on Yom Kippur. During that holy time of the year I bow on the ground, face down, before the Holy One blessed be God, who spread out the heavens and established the Earth. It is a voluntary act of humility. A reminder that there is something bigger than myself in this world. I need that reminder, because my heart doesn’t catch in my throat every time I see a police officer, because I don’t worry about my safety when I walk through the trails in my neighborhood, because I don’t have to remind my children of how to act respectfully before they leave the house each day.  Choosing to be reminded, choosing to lie face down, comes from privilege and is born out of the willful ignorance of the day to day lives of others.

Shofarot: A Prayer for Righteous Anger, from Mishkan HaNefesh

Misery for breakfast;
morning coffee with the news of distant deaths –
because someone’s always suffering,
and there’s bound to be a crisis raging somewhere,
or a quieter catastrophe
barely at the threshold of our notice.
We’re accustomed to the feeling
of something going wrong.
Like static in the background,
tuned out so we can get on with our day.
And it’s just the same as yesterday
and nothing can be done;
so there’s not much point
in getting too upset.

But if something were to shock us
like a baby’s piercing wail or a fire bell in the night,
like a punch in the stomach
or a puncture in the eardrum,
like a savage call to conscience
or a frantic cry for help –
would we scream like a shofar
and get mad enough to act?
“When a ram’s horn is sounded in a city do the people not take alarm?”

So let us get mad.
Let us scream.
Let us be punched in the stomach.
Let us end, for once, without a nechemta.



After ordination, Rabbi Asch worked as a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation. She currently serves as the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine and Assistant Director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. Rabbi Asch serves as Vice President for Leadership on the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
member support mental health

Rabbis, Can We Talk?

Life in the ministry is one of contrasts. There can be great joy, a sense of fulfillment and purpose, and also loneliness, frustration, and pain (Hileman, 2008, p. 121).

Clergy families experience stressors that are unique to their situation, including lack of privacy and heightened visibility, extra expectations and higher standards, significant time demands, frequent moves, and intrusiveness and boundary ambiguity (Cooper, 2013, p. 2).

I don’t think that most of us need academic articles to tell us how uniquely challenging it is to be a rabbi and, for many of us, to be part of a rabbi’s family. In ways large and small, those of us employed by organizations and congregations have experienced such “loneliness, frustration, and pain.” And now that we are living in Covid-world, these feelings are multiplied seven-fold.  

All of this, of course, is exacerbated by the ongoing challenges, stresses, and too often injustices experienced by women, people of color, LGBTQIA colleagues, older rabbis, the unemployed, and the underemployed. The rabbinate can be the best of callings and the worst of jobs. We find ourselves having to navigate through the constantly changing landscape of working for/with bosses we are tasked with leading. Reflecting back on his career, one of our most respected and “successful” past-presidents once said, “The rabbinate is the perfect place to have your heart broken.”

Studies have shown (Kress, J.S., et al., 2007), and most of us can attest to the unique meaning and fulfillment that comes from serving communities as rabbis. I have felt so very blessed to be part of people’s lives in their most joyous and most tragic moments, playing a unique healing and transformative role unavailable to persons of other helping professions. And I would imagine that you have felt so blessed as well. For many, this balances out the unique challenges we face and the hurt we endure.

But there are moments in our lives when this is not enough. Many, like myself, have had difficult if not devastating experiences in our organizations and congregations. Many, like Joseph, have risen and transcended; many have not, framing themselves as failures and despairing of ever having a satisfying rabbinate again. And even in the absence of such, so many of us know the pervasive feeling of being alone.

Through surveys and conversations, CCAR has heard you.

I am honored and grateful to have been welcomed into the CCAR staff as a Special Advisor for Member Support and Counseling. I, along with our amazing colleague, Rex Perlmeter, am here for you. I bring to this position my thirty-nine years as a congregational rabbi, my experiences of advising and nurturing other rabbis and cantors, and my ongoing training as a marriage and family therapy intern. I am offering to walk with you–and, if desired, your family–as you cope with the emotional issues with which you are dealing in your professional and/or personal life. And of course, our conversations are totally confidential.

Final words (for now)–a story:

A man walked into a psychiatrist’s office, fell onto the couch and, with deep sadness, blurted out, “Doctor, I hope you can help me. There is no joy in my life. I constantly feel depressed, unworthy, and filled with despair. Nothing, but nothing lifts my spirits.” Said the psychiatrist, “Sir, I have just the remedy for you! Go to the theater tonight where Carlucci the Clown is performing. He brings laughter to every face and joy to every heart. I guarantee you that Carlucci will lift your spirits!” Said the man, “Doc, you don’t understand. I am Carlucci!”

Have you ever felt like Carlucci? I have. So often we have found ourselves fulfilling the needs of others while hiding and suppressing our own. Loneliness bears down as we feel unable to share our vulnerabilities and self-perceived failures with our peers and with others who understand, sometimes even with those closest to us.

And so, in the words of a great Jewish sage, “Can we talk?”


Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff, D.D., R.J.E, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey. He is certified as interim clergy by the national Interim Ministry Network, and he is currently pursuing an MS degree in Marriage and Family Therapy through Capella University.

Cooper, N. (2013). Resilience and clergy families (Order No. 3604924). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1477549275).

Hileman, L. (2008) The unique needs of Protestant clergy families: implications for marriage and family counseling.Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10(2), 119-144, DOI:  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19349630802081152

Kress, J. S., Cohen, S. M., & Davidson, A. (2007). Perceptions and roles of conservative rabbis: Findings and implications related to identity and education. Journal of Jewish Education, 73(3), 191–207. https://doi-org.library.capella.edu/10.1080/15244110701653967

Categories
High Holy Days

Seeking Anew

I never thought this would happen again.

Five years ago, after my congregation received the newly published Mishkan HaNefesh, I made it my mission to carefully evaluate every page to determine what prayers, songs, and meditations would speak to the souls of my congregants. I relished evaluating the exquisite reflections and poems and marveled at the stirring interpretations and commentaries.

This appraisal process was mostly exhilarating thought I admit at times it also was exhausting. Such a bounty in the machzor required discernment in selecting elements for each service that would be elevating and inspiring. 

Once I finally determined the scope of every Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur service, I unexpectedly felt sad. I thought I would never again have the opportunity to begin the High Holy Days with such an open mind and spirit.

Such has been the case for the Yamim Noraim for the past four years. Sure, I tinkered with the order of prayers; pruning some readings and changing some melodies, but the scope of each service was largely unchanged.

Not this year. Not with the pandemic and the impossibility of gathering in our sanctuary. Not with livestreaming and the necessity of reimagining every aspect of the High Holy Days 

The themes for the Days of Awe are timeless: celebration, self-examination, repentance, forgiveness, transformation, and renewal. But we are living in a time of pervasive anxiety and uncertainty about our present and future.

So, just like in 2015, I am compelled to start fresh. I am putting aside my well-used copies of Mishkan HaNefesh and looking only at an unmarked machzor; searching again for the prayers, poems, and reflections that will embrace and uplift my congregation.

Despite the pandemic, and in spite of the effort it takes to reimagine our High Holy Day services, I am thankful for this opportunity. For in beginning anew, I become a seeker once again. I have trust that the rich expressions of spiritual yearning in Mishkan HaNefesh will guide the hearts of my congregants. 

I am strengthened by Larry Hoffman’s exhortation in a June webinar for our rabbinic chevrah to have faith in ourselves; to have confidence in our ability to seize this moment and create meaning for those we serve. To which I say: Amen!  Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik!    


5781 will be Avi Schulman’s fortieth year leading High Holy Day services.  He is the rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, California.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Open the Gates: A Reflection during Elul 5781

The month of Elul, leading up to Rosh HaShanah, is a time of increased soul-searching and God-searching. Traditionally, it is also a time when we draw closer to those we love, those we have hurt, and those we want to celebrate the New Year with. As this year, 2020, brings with it distance instead of closeness, and yearning instead of fulfillment, we tap into prayer to connect with our loved ones, ourselvesand God. Here, Rabbi Nicole Roberts shares a poem about preparing spiritually for the High Holy Days during this unprecedented time.

אדון הרחמים
בשנה הבאה
פתח לנו שער בעת נעילת שער
שערי חיבוקים ושערי פנים מלאים
שערי ביתינו ושערי חברינו
שערי סבא וסבתא ושערי משפחה רחוקה
פתח לנו שער כי אנחנו
רוצים לראות את פניך גם בתפילה
וגם בחיוך של אדם בלי מסכה

Adon haRachamim—dear God of mercy
In the coming year,
P’tach lanu sha’ar, b’et n’ilat sha’ar—
Open the gates for us, open them wide:
The gates to hugs and unmasked faces,
The gates to our homes and tea with a friend,
The gates to visits with grandparents,
And our family overseas.
Open the gates for us, open them wide,
That we may once again see Your face, not only in prayer,
But in the full-faced smiles of those we hold dear.



Rabbi Nicole Roberts serves North Shore Temple Emanuel in New South Wales, Australia.

Categories
chaplains Healing mental health

Bikur Cholim: Bringing God with You on Your Visit

“One should follow the attributes of the Holy One of Blessing…Just as the Holy One of Blessing visits the sick as it is written with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision: ‘And the Eternal appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre’ (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick.” (Sotah 14a)

Bikur cholim is, of course, a large part of our job as rabbis, especially these days during the midst of the pandemic.  And the visiting is hard, because it is all virtual. We don’t get to be like God and visit Abraham while he was sunning himself outside his tent as he healed from his formal, ritual entry into the b’rit with God. And yet, we know how important our presence is, even an online one or a phone call. The visit is real, even if the technology is virtual.

As someone with chronic illnesses, both “physical” and mental, I am often on the receiving end of bikur cholim. Whenever I am in the hospital, I always ask for a visit from the chaplain office, Jewish or not; I like a chance to talk theology and theodicy, and I find relief in a visitor that is concerned for me, but not so upset at my illness that I have to comfort them in return. Over the years, I have (as I am sure many of you have), collected favorite “what not to say” sayings. One chaplain (a lay person, not Jewish) came into my room as I was recovering from a medication reaction. With a big smile, she said, “Hi, I’m Marie, from the chaplains office. I understand you are Jewish. I love the Jews!” It’s hard to follow up on that. I mean, I want to be loved, but…

We all know, at least in theory, that bikur cholim is all about the “I-Thou” moment, the being together, person-to-person, recognizing the Divine in the other, and opening ourselves up to the other, to risk showing who we are, the Divine in ourselves. And truly doing that, creating that safe, gentle holding space for the sick person to just be—well, that, after a while may be, not only moving and profound, but also exhausting. Being vulnerable is risky; it may be frightening. And in the midst of all the other things one has to do these days simply to keep one’s congregation, one’s nursing home or other job function, summoning all that energy to be fully present when calling/ Zooming with yet another sick person may simply feel like too much. 

Instead, we text or email: “I’m thinking of you.  R’fuah sh’leimah.” And that is not nothing. Being remembered matters, at least to me, when I am ill. It is not, however, the same as the gift of your presence—even if our time together is only a short phone call. The warmth of your voice on the phone (even just a message on my voicemail) feels healing, and I save it for months to play back in hard moments; if we actually connect, you might make me laugh for a moment or let me cry in your presence. All of this matters more than you can imagine.

And all the more so when my illness is psychological and not just physical.  From the depths of my depression, I do not have the energy to reach out, to figure out what I need and ask for the help I need. When you extend your hand, it can be a lifeline into my abyss. 

In the time that I have been struggling with my depression (over 35 years and counting!), as well as my struggles physically with my stroke and its aftermath, I have been visited by rabbis and friends of all sorts. So many of them, of you, have talked with me, made jokes, sat with me in silence (although most people find that hard to do, it is necessary at times; a good thing to remember!). And many, virtually all of the rabbis, as well as my best friend, who is an Episcopal priest, have offered to pray for me, to put me on their Mi Shebeirach list. I was, and am, always grateful for that; praying for me, for anyone, is, in my belief, is a way of placing me, metaphorically, from one’s heart into God’s hand. But in that time, only one person, a rabbinic friend, has ever offered to pray WITH me at that moment. 

And that is also what I needed. When I am depressed, it is not just that God feels hard to reach. It is that when I reach out to God, I experience a deep, dark, whirling abyss, and I fear that I shall fall into in, falling forever into nothingness. I can’t pray. But if someone were to pray with me (and sometimes I find the strength to ask a clergy friend to pray with me), then I have a hand to hold. My theology, my belief feels tenuous at best, but when you pray with me, I can lean on your faith, as it were, if only for a moment.  And that is a blessing.

I know it might feel awkward to ask each person: would you like me to say a prayer with you? But if you don’t ask, you don’t know. Some people might just like to say the Sh’ma together, or sing whatever Mi Shebeirach your community is using, while others might like a Psalm or a prayer you make up in the moment, just for that person or family. Especially in these days, when we cannot hold the hand of the person we are visiting, offering a prayer as part of our bikur cholim may be yet another way of connecting with those who are hurting. It is bringing the Holy One of Blessing right there, into the FaceTime call.


Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs.  She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.  She may be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com