Books Israel

Fragile Identities in Dialogue: What is Zionism today?

I grew up in an age when the State of Israel was touted as the panacea for the lost American Jew. We celebrated Yom haAtzmaut as fervently as we celebrated Purim. The most exciting skits put on by our day camp counselors all ended up with the characters realizing they could just go to Israel. It was messaged, both subtly and not-so-subtly, that the greatest move we could make as a Jew was Aliyah. The State of Israel was a modern miracle. I do not remember the word Zionism crossing anyone’s lips, but I was certainly raised a Zionist.

When I ventured to Israel for the first time as a senior in highschool, I came back fully bought into the triumphalist Zionist narrative of the State of Israel as the culmination of all Jewish history; the reclamation of Jewish strength; the realization of Jewish sovereignty, and, soon, in vague whispers, the messiah. Then I went to college in Gambier, OH, and I found that there was another side to the story – a reality of oppression inflicted by the State of Israel upon the Palestinians that wasn’t justifiable.

In search of answers, I returned to Israel for my junior year abroad in 2004-2005, and now off the rails of the high school Israel-as-Disneyland experience, I was free to see a much broader spectrum of Israeli life. Busses exploded blocks from my dorm in Beer Sheva; religious extremists refused to leave their settlements in Gaza, threatening to tear apart the country; Bedouin were rounded up and forcibly settled in the Negev against their will, often in abject poverty. I returned from that experience confused and concerned. Why had I been taught this State was the answer to all my questions about Judaism? What even is Zionism, and do I want anything to do with it?

Dr. Joshua Holo, the dean of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, writes in the upcoming release from CCAR Press, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, that Zionism “seeks to guarantee Israel’s existence and its Jewish and democratic character…(and) merely reflects the fact that Jews and Judaism are tightly bound up with the Land of Israel.”

Regardless of the inner conflict, the crack at the foundation of my relationship to Israel, I still feel bound up with the Land of Israel. After writing a graduate thesis on the development of secular Israeli identity, and spending my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, I am no longer surprised by the disappointments the government of Israel consistently bring me. It no longer hurts when my very Jewish identity is denied authenticity by that same government. My anger no longer burns so strongly at the continued and worsening oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government. It has all become old hat, and as predictable as the rest of the Jewish calendar.

Coming from the perspective of a Jewish educator, in her chapter from The Fragile Dialogue titled, “Educating for Ambiguity,” Rabbi Dr. Lisa Grant, writes, “Just as all would agree that God, Torah, and shabbat are integral to Jewish experience but that different Jews have different beliefs and practices, the same can be said about Israel. There is no one right way to engage with Israel, but engaging is an essential aspect of Jewish experience.”

Words are slippery creatures. Jewish tradition has spilled much ink arguing over the definition of one word or another. Once a word referring specifically to the lofty dream of a new nation State for the Jews, upon the accomplishment of this goal it has now spun into a multitude of different amalgamations: Religious Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Classical Zionism, Anti-Zionism – and, as these writers discuss, Liberal Zionism.

I’m not sure if I’m a Liberal Zionist, but I am sure that no matter what I do, the State of Israel is as basic to my daily thoughts as Torah and the Jewish calendar. Although I no longer see the State of Israel as a miracle (just as I no longer think that Moses literally parted the Red Sea), I can not cut the ties that bind me to her. So I must join the conversation, and welcome all the voices, from Religious Zionists to Anti-Zionists, but also be willing to stand and put my own relationship with Israel into words.

During Purim we celebrate the story of the victory of the Jews of Persia over their oppressors, and also look critically, even ashamedly, at the end of the book of Esther in which these same Jews massacre 75,000 of their enemies. If we can manage this confusing and confounding tradition each year, we can celebrate the accomplishments within the contemporary State of Israel, as well as protest the moral failings we see in its government.

Andy Kahn is entering his fifth year as a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He has served as the CCAR Rabbinic Intern and is currently the Rabbinic Intern at East End Temple in New York City. 


Neither Babylon nor Jerusalem: Jewish Argentina

America and Israel loom large in the contemporary Jewish world. Conversations about global Judaism tend to focus on one or the other, or the connection between the two, but rarely touch on the other thriving, vibrant Jewish communities around the globe. If the Northeast Corridor is modern day Babylon, and Jerusalem is, well, modern day Jerusalem, what of the rest of the Jewish world? What of the Jews of my hometown Tacoma, WA, or the Jews of Wellington, New Zealand? Thanks to a generous program put together by the Joint Distribution Committee, this past week I was gifted the experience, along with nineteen other HUC-JIR students, to get an inside look at one of these far flung but vibrant Jewish communities, that of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The past half-century has been a difficult one for Argentina in general, and the Jewish community in particular. After a military dictatorship, devastating terrorist attacks on two Jewish landmarks, and a financial collapse, the community has risen from the ashes of their past to collectively build a bright future. After having run this gauntlet of historic horrors, they have emerged as energetic, optimistic, and most of all unified.

The week was spent touring many important landmarks and organizations that undergird and house the Jewish community both spiritually and pragmatically. We were greeted by organizations that provided social services for the most needy of the community, from childhood to eldercare, and honored all aspects of Jewish Argentina’s spiritual world, from maintaining now-defunct community buildings in rural areas to supporting new ventures, like their soon-to-open Reform seminary. Throughout our trip we witnessed the ideal of kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh embodied in a Jewish community which celebrates pluralism and finds ways to build together across economic and philosophical divides.

I returned home with new Torah from the wonderful community I was exposed to in Buenos Aires. This Torah was the necessity of collective local narrative. Argentinian Jews regularly make use of their history as a touch point for identity across all divides. The descendants of the Jewish Gauchos who raised cattle outside of the urban world as a way to escape a tumultuous czarist Russia and Eastern Europe, and of those who fled the horrors of World War Two, all viewed themselves as a single people. Through the horrors of the 20th and 21st century, the community was bonded together by trauma and internal support in reaction to the trauma. Their Judaism was not one of division by lineage, but one of connection through shared experience.

In a country as big and diverse as the United States, it is impossible to speak of a truly shared American identity. Each region, each city, each town, has its own story. These individual stories, which fuel the identities of Jewish Americans, must be lifted up and shared; must be used to create local and Jewish pride within each community. Like the Jews of Argentina, we must connect through our own shared histories, so that when we disagree, we can do so safely in the knowledge that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. This local Jewish identity can then be used not only to strengthen local communities, but also as a way to connect to our more distant neighbors, by comparing and contrasting our stories and selves, delighting in the points of similarity while discussing and learning from the points of difference.

This incredible trip opened up a world to me that may be closer in kind to that of many American Jews than Israel. The small but mighty Jewish population of Buenos Aires has a great deal to teach those Jews living neither in Babylon nor Jerusalem. As we step deeper into the uncertainties of the twenty-first century, these smaller communities throughout the world will have a great deal to teach us about their already-developed local Jewish identity. We need only be willing to learn.

Andy Kahn is entering his fifth year as a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He also served the CCAR as an intern during the last three academic years.



Why I Wear a Yarmulke

While I was riding the subway home from school yesterday, six very large white men stepped onto the subway together. There was no act of violence, no hate speech, no physical sign of them having any leanings towards white supremacy, but I was immediately scared and watchful. I wondered if they had seen my yarmulke.

As the men stood there chatting it was a moment of revelation for me. I could have quickly and quietly taken it off and secreted it into a pocket, and for all intents and purposes they would have seen me as a smaller, less masculine version of them. I chose to continue wearing it. Why, I wondered, in the face of even just a psychologically invented fear, did I continue wearing it?

In the moment, my brain fired off a series of answers. I like that it reminds me, and others, of who I am. I like that it represents my connection to the Jewish people. I like that if I do something good, or kind, people will associate it with Jews at large. I like that the folk etymology (which is almost certainly an ex-post-facto invention) is a Hebrew-Aramaic mashup meaning something to the effect of “Fearer of the King.” And fear I do feel.

Very recently, for the first time, fear for my safety almost drove me to remove the little crocheted piece of cloth from my head. Blocks from HUC-JIR in New York, at my partner’s workplace, someone had defaced the New School’s student dorms by spraying swastikas on the doors of Jewish women and women of color. The same day, a friend of mine from college was walking through Washington Square Park, also just blocks from the campus of HUC-JIR in New York, and was accosted by a man who stopped and stood directly in front of her, stared at her, laughed in her face then said, “You’re funny looking, Jew. Ugly Jewface.”

Hate crimes have been on the rise for the past year, and sharply in the past week. It’s undeniable, even though some may try to argue that they aren’t any more prevalent, but are just being reported by the media more often. I haven’t seen any reports of physical violence against Jews during this spate, but there certainly have been on other people targeted by the newly emboldened white supremacist masculinists (or, as others refer to them, the alt-right).

Americans are living in a fear right now that has been a lifelong reality for many due to institutionalized homophobia, misogyny and white supremacy. It is time that we as Jews do some heshbon haemunah. Do we really believe in tikkun olam as a theological principle? Is yirat ha’shamayim (or, yirat hamelech) something we give lip-service to, or an idea we take seriously? To put our theological money where our mouth is in relation to these concepts is to look at the new reality we are facing in America with a gaze set well beyond parochial interest. It is to reclaim who we are in this place and in this time. If we are the Nation of Israel, and our God is the All-Powerful force which created Heaven and Earth, and all of humanity, we must accept that our partnership in this project is to fix that which has been broken in the universe, not just in our own enclaves. In other words, as the prophet Micah said, we must “preserve justice and do righteousness.” To do this is to put the fear of God above other fears, which is to see the forest for the trees, and to realize that our action (or inaction) today has an impact well beyond the life and time we are currently inhabiting.

So I will leave my yarmulke on, and it will serve the purpose its folk-etymology intends. I will wear it, and use the fear I feel to remind me that there is much work to be done to fix that which has been broken. Even though we may not see the task completed, and the process will be hard and scary, it is incumbent upon all of us to never stop working.

Andy Kahn is a fourth year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He also served the CCAR as an intern during the last two academic years.


The Sacred Calling: Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling of Traditionalism

“Ultimately, I think that anyone of any level of Jewish literacy can find something in The Sacred Calling that will inspire them to see the possibilities offered by the Reform world to join this fight, and to take this fight out into the world at large.”


The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, newly published by CCAR Press, examines the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted upon all aspects of Jewish life. Andrue Kahn, rising 4th year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York and author of The Sacred Calling Study Guide, talks about the impact that both women rabbis and the book itself have made in his own life.

Q: Describe your first encounter with a woman rabbi.

A: Growing up, I don’t think I ever encountered a woman rabbi. Certainly not at my synagogue, which was a very small synagogue in Tacoma, Washington. There were women on the bimah, and cantorial soloists, and women from the congregation that would share music or words, but there was never a female rabbi. I don’t remember encountering one until I was an adult.

One woman rabbi that, since adulthood, has impacted my life is Rabbi Lisa Rubin. When I met her, I was already thinking about becoming a rabbi, but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go to rabbinical school, or get a PhD in Jewish studies or something to that effect, and she really pushed me to apply to HUC-JIR. She married me and my wife and we remain in contact with her. She really embodies the kind of rabbinate that I want, and she’s an incredible mentor and woman.

Q: How has the presence of women rabbis influenced our Jewish communities? Do you see changes in Jewish life attributed to women entering the rabbinate?

A: I think that there was a lot of stagnation in the Jewish world for a while because people, and especially people in leadership positions, had become comfortable in their roles. I think the experience of being a woman in America pushes women to work harder, think harder, and, unfortunately, to prove themselves in a world that is still mostly dominated by men.  And women, having to fight to break into this world dominated by men, broke boundaries and stirred up new innovation that the people who were in seats of power (who were all men) wouldn’t have done. And having to break through that glass ceiling of traditionalism made it inherent that they become more creative, and more comfortable with breaking boundaries.

Q: You wrote the study guide for The Sacred Calling. How is the book structured?

A: The structure of The Sacred Calling is really great in that it starts out looking at the history of women in Judaism in general. It examines women who attempted to and often succeeded in taking leadership roles in Jewish history, and then goes on to look at the process of allowing women to become rabbis from within the Reform Movement. Eventually, it examines the process from within the Conservative and Reconstructionist Movements. From different women’s points of view, we read the stories of the initial struggles of the past, as well of women who are still struggling with inequality in the rabbinate (in both pay and leadership positions).

Q: What surprised you about the book? Did you learn something you didn’t know before?

A: Reading about the influence of Reform rabbis on ritual was really, really interesting and surprising, in that I had never thought about the fact that women who would break through the boundary of becoming a clergy member would, of course, also have to fight to have their needs met in Jewish ritual and liturgy. Because of this fight, breaking boundaries would create this great blossoming in our nation that we’re still benefiting from. Just the idea of having to reinvent everything to suit underrepresented voices allowed for innovations in different kinds of rituals.

Q: What do you believe is the importance of the book?

A: For me personally, the importance of The Sacred Calling is that I, as a man, take so much for granted, and therefore assume that the struggles presented in the book aren’t as present as they clearly are. Women still struggle against a male-dominated society. And it might happen a little less obviously, but there are still issues specifically faced by women that men don’t often get to hear about in the detail that we find in this book. I also think that it could be very powerful for women in the rabbinate and outside the rabbinate to read the stories, and to know that there are people facing these issues. This book is full of stories of women who have had these kinds of experiences, from ancient times to today (when we are still fighting against issues with family leave, equal pay, and even just daily sexism).

The Sacred Calling Study Guide

Andrue Kahn, a rising 4th year rabbinical student, is doing a student residency at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle, and in the coming year he will be the organizing rabbinic intern at East End Temple in Manhattan.

Excerpted from the filming of the official trailer for The Sacred Calling. Watch the official trailer now.

Reform Judaism Technology Torah

Na’Aseh V’Nishma: Podcasting the Aural Torah

In an age of video and universal sensory stimulation, podcasts are a strange niche. They require us to only listen, and as the success of so many of them has shown, there is an audience that wants to only listen. One of the greatest images of the Golden Age of America is the family gathering around the radio to listen – to the news, to the Lone Ranger, maybe even to a surprisingly realistic broadcast of War of the Worlds, with which Orson Welles displayed the true power of the spoken word, sending the population who was unaware of the fiction of the radioplay into a frantic tizzy at the news that aliens had invaded. Listening, as everyone with even the slightest understanding of Judaism knows, is one of the key components of our tradition. “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” “Listen, Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”  “We will do, and we will listen,” said the Israelites in acceptance of God’s covenant in Exodus 27:4, effectively founding Judaism.

It is therefore unsurprising that so many people most renowned for their podcasts are Jews: Sarah Koenig of Serial, Robert Krulwich of Radiolab, and the seemingly omnipresent Ira Glass of This American Life, just to name a few. This connection was not lost on us when we set out to make what has become Nü Rabbi, but it certainly added to our confusion as to why (at the time) there were no Progressive Jewish podcasts with similar structure. So, we set out to make one.

Initially, we thought we’d interview the rabbinic luminaries of our Reform world about hard-hitting topics. And then we tried to book those interviews. Needless to say it didn’t work out so well. But while trying to practice our interview and microphone skills on our classmates, we discovered something all the more precious: The voices and opinions of the up-and-coming rabbinical and cantorial students at our school. And thus was born Nü Rabbi – a play on “New Rabbi” and the oft-heard phrase “Nu, Rebbe?” when a particularly insistent question is asked of a Rabbi. In effect, what we have ended up creating is the beginning of a Mishna for our day and age. The Tannaim are ourselves and our classmates – discussing, windingly and in many different manners, some of the most pressing issues of our day. Our first issue was, just like in the Mishna, prayer.

Mahu t’filah?”– what is prayer– we asked ourselves and our colleagues, and the beautiful Torah spilled forth. But this was only the beginning of our journey. We then had to learn the editing software, to commission music and art, to figure out how to make it all flow together into something imminently listenable. As of now, we think we did a pretty good job. Four of our classmates (Stephanie Crawley, Dan Slipakoff, Harriet Dunkerley, and Samantha Frank) and a recent ordinee of JTS (Rabbi Jessica Minnen) all contributed the Torah of their hearts, and the combined product, the stitching together of all of them with the help of the connecting thread of Quincy Ledbetter’s wonderful music, is a rich aural page of mishna. Listen for yourself, and let us know what you think!


Andy Kahn and Josh Mikutis are both rabbinical students (’18) at HUC-JIR in New York, and are both three-time recipients of the Be Wise Grant in Jewish Entrepreneurship. This coming year, Andy will be the organizing rabbinic intern at East End Temple, and Josh will be working at the 92nd Street Y.

Books Social Justice

The Message of the Sacred Calling: Our Journey to True Equality

I grew up in a time and place where it was made perfectly clear that boys and girls were equal; that anything a boy could do, a girl could do, and vice versa. To exclude someone based on gender was wrong, and to make pre-judgments about someone’s capacities based on gender was similarly wrong. I played with and learned with girls on equal footing. My doctors have, for whatever reason, primarily been women. My academic advisor in college was a woman. I thought that feminism had won. I thought that gender inequality was an issue only within the most backwards areas of society. Then I married a woman. Only in the sharing of all parts of our lives was I made aware of how unequal the world continues to be. By having the kind of relationship where we freely share our experiences and feelings, I was made privy to the aspects of women’s lives that most men only come in contact with by being perpetrators of misogyny. I realized that I had been blind to the constant of catcalling and unwanted advances women experience daily. Even the issues of women receiving less pay or fewer chances for advancement simply because they are women had not been clear to me. By having it relayed to me first hand, I was able to finally see the deep inequality that continues to this day.

We recently celebrated the redemption of the children of Israel from Egypt during Passover. That moment of the parting of the sea and the escape from slavery was only the beginning, though. Not only did the Israelites have a forty year trek through the wilderness once they were first liberated, they then had to establish their true sovereignty in the land of Canaan, which took many more generations. The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate mirrors this trek. Our trek through the wilderness has ended, and women are now seen as normal in the Reform rabbinate. In some recent years, there have been more women ordained than men. But we are only now beginning to enter into the tachlis of establishing truly equal representation and treatment. Pay inequality, arguments around family leave, and the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, messages women receive about their clothing, appearance, reproductive choices, or public female persona all persist in the lives of many female rabbis. Sacred Calling cover

We face two great dangers today in the fight for gender equality: taking for granted the progress that has been accomplished, and willfully ignoring the advances made by women. Brave women like Rabbi Sally Preisand, the first woman ordained rabbi in the United States, being willing to take those first steps and push against the stained-glass ceiling so long ago began a charge towards equality. Today, we often hear people claiming that this equality has been accomplished – that the battle is over. Some even claim that the push for gender equality has gone too far, and wish to repeal some of the strides made towards women having full equality.

It is sometimes difficult for me to know, as a man, how best to be an ally. It is both my battle, and not mine at all. It is not mine, in that I can not ever truly know the struggles women face in our society – I can only listen, believe, and try to understand. It is not mine to tell women what they ought to do in order to continue this struggle. It is mine where I am invited to take part as an ally. It is mine to do whatever I can to remember and remind others that gender equality has yet to be accomplished, even though I, as a man, may not experience the inequality first hand. It is mine to make it clear that I am open and ready to learn, listen and believe what I am told. It is mine to call out and quash those perpetrating acts of gender inequality.

The Sacred Calling celebrates the many accomplishments of women in the rabbinate over the past four decades, but also sounds a clarion call to our community that the work is not done. As a man who spent many decades unaware of the continued struggle women feel every day, The Sacred Calling helped to reveal to me the work that is still yet to be accomplished, specifically in the Jewish world. Through giving authoritative voice to the women of the Jewish world, The Sacred Calling represents one more step in the direction of equality. The greatest message tying together the many beautiful essays of the book is that in order to continue to persevere, we must listen to, and believe, the calls of our colleagues, leaders, and friends.

Andy Kahn is a rising fourth year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He also served the CCAR as an intern during the last two academic years.

Andy’s photo credit: Rick Karp

News Reform Judaism

Seker: A New Take on Progressive Jewish Outreach

At its outset, the Reform movement placed great emphasis on aesthetic and decorum. Fitting in, becoming a seamless part of the fabric of the larger society, was of the highest importance. Almost 200 years have passed, during which these goals have been met, most of all in the United States. Some worry that we’ve done too good of a job of fitting in, and are losing ourselves amongst the nations, much like the disappearance of techelet from our tzitzit. Seker, my project for Progressive Jewish outreach in the public spaces of New York City, is directly in response to both the early Reformers and the contemporary Jewish leadership fearing the continued loss of Jewish identity amongst the younger generations of the American Jewish population.

Seker began as a series of conversations between myself and my classmates during our first year of rabbinical school in Israel. These conversations circulated around a fairly simple question: If Chabad is so successful with its public Jewish outreach, why are we not doing it too? A new program at HUC-JIR in New York, the Be Wise fellowship, offers students the opportunity, and funding, to try to answer questions such as this. I applied for one of these grants to fund my project, which mainly consisted of a website, a portable table, a copy of Mishkan T’filah, a couple of sets of t’fillin, a banner and some business cards. Once this seemingly endless winter finally broke, some of my classmates and I hit Washington Square Park, Union Square Park and Prospect Park to speak with anyone interested in learning about t’fillin or Judaism in general.

Kahn SekerDuring five afternoons of tabling, an incredible diversity of people came up to us to ask questions about Judaism, to ask what the t’fillin were, to even try them out. We had individuals ranging from a male Orthodox Jew who just hadn’t wrapped yet that day, to a woman who grew up Chabad who had never been allowed to wrap, to a non-Jewish man who was intrigued by the practice. The goal of this project was not to sell people on t’fillin, or anything for that matter, but rather to raise public awareness of Reform Judaism. The t’fillin were merely the lure to catch the eye of the curious, much like the Seker/Seeker play on words.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned in this project so far is the deep grasp the work of the early Reformers still has on the psyche of the movement. Many people I spoke with, and continue to speak with, about this project are flabbergasted by the use of t’fillin. “But why t’fillin?” is a common refrain. It is as if I am proposing to schect animals in public – people seem simultaneously offended and confused.

T’fillin, although not a part of most Reform Jews’ upbringing, are a distinct, eye catching, and unique Jewish ritual object. Unlike the hannukiah or shofar, they are used on a daily basis. Unlike mezuzot, they involve mindful action and physicality. They are the ultimate immediate and impactful experience. Their interesting construction, with the many tiny scrolls of Torah passages hidden inside, are a mystery and invoke curiosity in even the most cynical investigator. All of these qualities make them an ideal outreach tool.

Unconventional and countercultural as this project may be within the Reform movement, it sparked the interest of the public immediately. If the goal is to raise awareness and start conversations, Seker has been a total success. As leaders within the movement continue to brainstorm new and innovative ways to reach out to their communities, this model can serve as an example of an engaging and different mode of expanding the reach and visibility of Reform communities throughout the country.

Andy Kahn is a rising third year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He was with the CCAR as an intern during the last academic year and will be back again as a rabbinic intern during the coming academic year.  

High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

A New Year, A New Experience: Leading my First High Holy Days with Mishkan HaNefesh

In an interview for Sh’ma Journal in 2012, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi stated that he saw the Hasidic idea of “Rebbe,” as opposed to the ordained leadership role of a rabbi, as a fluid one. Rabbi Schachter Shalomi remarked, “I believe that in our day, living as we do in a democratic context, we need different people — men and women — in a community to function as rebbes at different times, helping people grow in their relationships with God… Mostly, I try to listen to what people say, how they say it, and when they say it, and then I ask what lies behind these presentations. What does this person’s neshamah (soul) need in order to live more harmoniously with God and creation?”

This High Holy Days, I was stepping into this position for the first time. This was only temporary, as Rabbi Schachter Shalomi would have it, but with definite purpose. As I approached Erev Rosh HaShanah, I was terrified. Had I picked the right prayers? Would my voice cause people to rush out of the room covering their ears? Would I come off as pompous, self-righteous, distant? Would I alienate this room full of college students at a Hillel just now finding its footing? This tornado of anxiety whirled around in my head, leaving me physically quaking as I began the service. Although I looked out at a sea of unfamiliar faces sitting with solemn expressions, unsure if they were solemn because of my terrible leading of prayer, or because of Rosh HaShanah, I tried to focus on my role: delivering the meaning of the holiday in translatable terms.

Sooner than I thought, the service closed without a hitch. My wife beamed with pride. Many strangers approached me thanking me and telling me I did a great job. Of course, this was expected – I couldn’t imagine these individuals saying anything disparaging no matter how much I had butchered their expectations. Then a woman, a stranger herself to the community just passing through on a road trip, came up to me and said, “You didn’t even look nervous at all! I would have been a mess up there.”

Now, that comment I hadn’t expected. Then I thought back and remembered Rabbi Schachter Shalomi’s idea of inhabiting the space of the Rebbe. Somewhere at the start of the Amida, I had entered a state of flow. The role of Rebbe had been placed on me by the many eyes switching their gaze from the machzor, to me, and back to the machzor, and I had stepped up to the challenge, similarly gazing down to the machzor, then back to the congregation, then back down to the machzor. In this exchange we entered into a moment of relation via the words of Mishkan HaNefesh.

The new machzor was my bridge into gaining a level of security in this new, alien situation. Had I been reading from Gates of Repentance, I almost certainly would have had greater difficulty finding my way into the role. The baggage that I carry connected to Gates of Repentance would have weighed me down significantly. Instead, I had been given the gift of ownership. Mishkan HaNefesh contains a great deal of alternative readings, from essays to poetry, written by people of all stripes. My services contained readings from individuals as disparate as Samson Rafael Hirsch and Richard Feynman. As the shaliach tzibbur, the prayer leader, I was given the opportunity to pick from the many different elements of the machzor to attend to what I thought the community’s neshama would need. Not only this, but I was also able to use the digital files of the machzor to help myself.  By importing them to my iPad, I was able to alter the machzor itself to fit my needs. Instead of having a binder full of papers, I was able to smoothly transition from page to page, removing pages I was not going to use, highlighting readings I intended on doing or had handed out to participants to do, and typing in iyyunim and congregational directions so that I could read them clearly.

Combining the multivocality of the machzor with the technology of my iPad, I was able to design a service that would speak to the congregation, as well as guide me through the motions of leading without my having to remove myself from the moment. I simply needed to continue scrolling through the digital files, knowing that I had prepared them with great thought beforehand.

In this way, Mishkan HaNefesh gave me the tools to successfully occupy the role of Rebbe for this community’s High Holy Days. I was able to take the time well before the services to reflect on what a congregation such as Gettysburg Hillel would need, choose from the machzor the pieces that fit best, and then allow myself to inhabit this new role with the machzor as my guide and bridge to the community. Not only did I come away from this year’s High Holy Days having accomplished a new feat on my way to becoming a rabbi, I was also able to be a part of some of the most meaningful services I had attended in my life. The community at Gettysburg Hillel had a great willingness to participate, welcomed those from outside of the college, and gave me the gift of accomplishment by entrusting me with their High Holy Day services. The warm community of Gettysburg and the utility of Mishkan HaNefesh ushered me into 5775 with a feeling of gratitude and accomplishment by providing the environment for my first step into the role of the Rebbe. May this year be one of great experience and accomplishment for all!

Andy Kahn is a second year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. He is currently the intern at the CCAR. 

For more information on Mishkan HaNefesh, click here or write to

Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

Hin’ni: The First Step Into the High Holy Day Pulpit

Last year I was in Jerusalem for the High Holy Days. The experience of being in Israel for this focal point of the Jewish year, especially as it coincided with my entering into Rabbinical school at HUC-JIR, provided a new layer of meaning to the holidays for me. Praying with my community while looking out into the Old City through the gorgeous windows of Blaustein Hall in Beit Shmuel, I was drawn to connect to the past of our people. For millennia, the hill that I was gazing upon has been the central focus of this very service. Our ancient predecessors worshiped the same God, at the same time of year, by making animal sacrifices on the hill framed right in front of the entire HUC-JIR Jerusalem community, where our eyes rested as we prayed through our traditional liturgy.

The High Holy Days are often described as an ominous period that evokes reflection on mortality and the worth of our lives. As Rabbi Ismar Schorsch wrote, quoted in the Rosh Hashanah Morning portion of Mishkan haNefesh, “we gather again in the fall against the backdrop of a natural world that is beginning to wither in order to contemplate what the passage of time means in our own lives.”

I have never felt this theme of the High Holy Days as acutely as I do now. In stark contrast to last year, in which our services were planned out and led by the faculty of HUC-JIR, this year the responsibility is all mine. In the coming weeks I will, for the first time, be leading a community in their High Holy Day worship. No musical accompanist, no senior authority to follow – just myself. This is a humbling prospect, and one that certainly makes me contemplate the path that led me here.

The majesty and power of the High Holy Days has often been lost on me. As a child, I looked forward to Yom Kippur only for the annual break-fast we held at my house with our community of friends. Dramatic, operatic choirs and music, prayers speaking to a king-like God of which I saw no proof in my life, and sweating in an overcrowded sanctuary, did not draw me into the spirit of teshuvah, nor did it make me feel connected to the tradition being put forth. Instead, I felt alienated and, for many years, stopped attending High Holy Day services altogether.

Now, it is my turn to be the one leading a community of people who may or may not feel completely alienated by the service they are going to attend. More likely than not, most of the people in attendance at the small Hillel where I will be leading are going to be searching for a sense of home, a sense of community, and a sense of meaning. They will want the familiar, but will also want to be engaged in something that intelligently challenges their worldview. They will be searching, as I have in the past, for something that connects them our tradition in the way they have heard others speak about the transformative power of the rituals and liturgy. When I consider the fact that it is my responsibility to bring this about, the opening to Hin’ni speaks to me more than it ever has before: “Here I am. So poor in deeds, I tremble in fear, overwhelmed and apprehensive before You to whom Israel sings praise.”

Many of my classmates are in a similar position. Some are going to other Hillels, some are going to small communities throughout our country from Wyoming to Arkansas, all with the same new experience of the High Holy Days awaiting them as fall arrives. Each location has its own set of circumstances around the days, but the main theme is the same: We are no longer congregants in the pews, we are now leaders on the pulpits.

mishkan_hanefesh_520x250I feel incredibly lucky that, in spite of my apprehension and fear, I have the opportunity to make use of the new Reform machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, as my guide for leading this community. Although I grew up using Gates of Repentance, I still associate it with the alienation and frustration of my earlier years. It is a wonderful coincidence that for my fresh start with the High Holy Days I am gifted the experience of using a new form of our tradition as the foundation for my leadership. We are in this together, and both of us are pretty new to the task. I hope that Mishkan haNefesh and I will be able to provide the students of Gettysburg College Hillel meaningful holiday worship that invites rather than alienates, that inspires rather than bores. I look for to writing further about this experience after the gates have closed, and we are on solid footing in 5775. Shanah Tovah!

Andy Kahn is a second year Rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York, and is also a Rabbinic Intern at CCAR Press.

Books Rabbis Reform Judaism

Introducing “Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions”

In anticipation of the forthcoming publication of Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, CCAR rabbinic intern Andy Kahn interviewed editor Rabbi Paul Citrin.

Lights in the Forest is unique as an anthology of essays by a variety of authors on Jewish theological and philosophical questions. What spurred your interest in creating one?”

A volume that made a large impact on me was something published by the American Jewish Committee in the mid-60s called the Condition of Jewish Belief. It was a symposium compiled by editors of Commentary magazine where 38 rabbis from all of the streams of Judaism responded to five theological concerns. I found it to be tremendously interesting and helpful as an undergraduate student in Los Angeles. It recently dawned on me that there was nothing like that on the market today. I looked at 12 different publishers that produce Jewish books and there was nothing that came close to it, by which I mean a collection of essays by various contributors not targeted for either children or graduate students in philosophy.

The questions in the book are stimulated by real questions that congregants ask their rabbis. I find that there is a core of Reform and Conservative Jews who want to be well-grounded in Jewish tradition. Their Jewish knowledge and identity is a central part of who they are, even if they don’t have all of the formal education they may desire. This volume will help strengthen that serious commitment.

LITFXXX_Page_1 “This book is full of essays on topics that might seem a little heady. There are questions of theology, Jewish peoplehood, conceptions of humanity in general. Who is this book intended to reach?”

My hope was that such a volume would not only stimulate individuals, but that it would also be a resource for group study in synagogues and in learning communities. I can see it being used in synagogue-based adult education class or chavurah study groups, or in a Confirmation class of teens. This text is meant to be a goad towards wider discussion and deeper thought. It also doesn’t need to be read cover to cover in a few sittings. It can be read selectively and over time. Each essay can stand alone to a reader, while the whole collection together helps to provide a wide-range of perspectives on the deep theological issues present. Because of this it has broad appeal and is very accessible. Even people who do not necessarily consider themselves seekers may indeed find a light of curiosity or deeper interest turning on. I hope that this accessibility and flexibility will help to bring greater interest to our movement.

“What led to you picking the contributors who are included?”

We tried to find a wide and representative range of the rabbinate. It covers two generations of Reform Rabbis with people ordained 1974 all the way up to 2013. We strove for gender balance, and also for some geographical variety. We have one Israeli contributor, and one currently working in Hong Kong.  There are contributors who are pulpit rabbis, Hillel rabbis, and academics. Although the language is meant to be easily accessible for the non-technical reader, we have a wide variety of writers who thought a lot about these questions.

“What need or niche do you see this book filling?”

At the time I made this proposal I had been on the pulpit for 38 years. My experience as a congregational rabbi was that many Jews want something that is both an intelligent and a communicative discussion of key theological ideas from a liberal perspective. I think that clarity of theology helps to ground Jews in their connection to Judaism and the Jewish community. Theology is what yields values, and when we have values firmly rooted in our faith system we can take actions rooted in our theology and our values.

Aside from the Condition of Jewish Belief as an inspiration, often I have used a little vignette spoken by Rabbi Israel of Rhyzin about two people entering a forest. One person had a lantern and one did not. The two meet, and the one carrying the lantern is able to illuminate the path of the one travelling in the dark. When they part company, one is left alone in the dark once again. Rabbi Israel of Rhyzin says that from this we learn that everyone must be able to carry his own light. My hope is that this book will provide light for people’s paths to provide a wider horizon of ideas and permission to enter this debate and discussion of what Jews believe, along with further study.

About Lights in the Forest and the free downloadable discussion guide.

Rabbi Paul  J. Citrin  was ordained  by the  Hebrew Union  College– Jewish Institute of Religion in 1973. The focus of his rabbinate has al- ways been in congregational life. His passions are education, Israel and social justice. He is the author of a children’s novel, Joseph’s Wardrobe (UAHC   1987), Gates of Repentance for Young People (co-authored  with Judith  Abrams, CCAR,  2002), and  Ten Sheaves (Create  Space 2014). He serves the Taos Jewish Center on a monthly  basis.