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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
LGBT News Social Justice

The Supreme Court Today Accepted the CCAR’s Position: Title VII Bans LGBTQ Workplace Discrimination

Just less than a year ago, the CCAR joined with other faith groups in submitting an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County.  At the time, I shared a message about what that brief said.

Today, the Court decided the case.  By a 6-3 vote, it held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bans workplace discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.  People who assume that the Court always votes on strict ideological lines will probably be surprised by this outcome and by the fact that Justice Neil Gorsuch, regarded by many as a safe conservative, authored the majority opinion.

One reason we keep producing amicus briefs is that neither this nor any other court can be so easily catalogued.  While judges have ideological tendencies, most of them do attempt to apply the law.  This decision used some very traditional legal reasoning to determine that the Civil Rights Act means what it says: treating a man differently from a woman, or vice versa, violates the law.  If a woman who is attracted to man cannot be fired for that reason, neither can a man who is attracted to men.  End of story.

Our brief dealt with whether there might be occasions where someone might not have to obey this law for religious reasons.  We said any such occasions were few and far between, and certainly didn’t come up here. The Court agreed with our second point.  If and when that question is legitimately presented in the future, we will again be prepared to share our views.

In the meantime, our most basic position was affirmed: federal law protects LGBTQ individuals from discrimination.  For today, that is reason enough to rejoice. 

Categories
News Social Justice

The Messy Truth of Legacy

Racist Realities and the Need to Stop Romanticizing

All of us are capable of racism. The first family of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are no exception, and neither are we. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’” (Numbers 12:1). In a sensitive and thought-provoking Torah commentary, Rabbi Hannah Goldstein acknowledges Miriam’s contributions while still holding her accountable for her ugly behavior in this particular passage:

“Our Biblical heroes are often flawed, and we can learn as much from their missteps as we can from their positive example. This is also true of so many of our historic heroes, as no record is uncomplicated and without stains. I imagine that Miriam’s belittling of her sister-in-law wounded her brother deeply, and it certainly revealed something quite problematic about her character. But Miriam also remained the protective sister who placed Moses in the water and watched over him until his safe rescue from the river. She was the bold musician who confidently led the people in song and dance when they safely crossed into freedom; she was the nourishing force that quenched their thirst in the desert. Few leaders are without fault, but in our reading of the text, we acknowledge the messy truth of legacy. We can both confront the painful shortcomings of our heroes and make room to celebrate their virtues.”

For far too long we have selectively celebrated our contributions to the Civil Rights Movement while conveniently forgetting or ignoring examples of our failures. Yes, there were brave and righteous Jews who marched in Selma, donated generously to the cause, and even gave their lives in the struggle against segregation and Jim Crow. Yet there were also far too many of us who were complicit and complacent with racist regimes. Too many of us were silenced by fear of what would happen if we stood up and spoke out. Too many rabbis were more afraid of losing their jobs than losing their self-respect. We need to allocate more time to reflecting on racist realities and less time to an overly romanticized version of how heroic we were.

Today’s growing chorus of voices proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” compels us to do more than demand an end to police brutality, terrorist attacks on Black Churches, and appalling disparities in income, education, housing, and health care. Like the disturbing sibling story in this week’s Torah portion, our current moment calls on us to consider the unsolicited comments, nasty quips and cruel utterances that we have hurled within our own families and within the greater family of the progressive Jewish world.

Painful testimonials of how congregants, or prospective congregants of color, were spoken to with condescension, suspicion, and ignorance demonstrate that we have tremendous work to do in making Jews of Color feel at home in our congregations. 

Over the past few weeks, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center have made a number of videos and conversations about these experiences available. Improving the way we engage with Jews of Color was already a priority for our Movement but the most recent killings of black citizens at the hands of police and former police have added a greater sense of urgency to this self-scrutiny. 

Just because we Jews have experienced oppression doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of saying or doing racist things. Our history of enduring injustice does not constitute immunity from engaging in it. The fact that Miriam was a slave in Egypt didn’t prevent her from making racist comments. Being a religious minority doesn’t preclude us from enjoying privileges of whiteness, making unwise choices, and saying foolish things. 

God of Grace and Goodness, grant us the humility to admit when we have been wrong, the integrity to confess unflattering chapters of our history, and the tenacity to confront racism and bigotry both within and without the congregations we call home.

 May this be our blessing and let us say: Amen.


Rabbi David Wirtschafter serves Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky.

Categories
Healing inclusivity News Social Justice

B’rit Olam, Racial Justice, and Black Lives Matter

When Donald Trump stood in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church and declared martial law, we witnessed birkat HaShemBirkat HaShem is cursing the name of God. Birkat HaShem is blasphemy. And the one who commits it is a megadef.

In his sanctioning the use of tear gas, flash-bang shells, and in the firing of rubber bullets on American citizens who were exercising their Constitutional right of peaceful assembly so that he would have a clear path to a church as his stage and a bible as his prop, I condemn as a megadef the President of the United States. With a bible held sanctimoniously in his hand while simultaneously condoning violence and threatening far worse against the very people he is sworn to lead, I accuse him of cursing the name of God. 

God has held my broken heart every day of the eight since Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, may his memory be for a blessing. The God I trust is the One who spreads sheltering wings over all the people in the night, guarding them, guiding them, and granting them peace. The God I pray to takes note of our afflictions and takes up our struggles, hears our prayers for every illness, wound, and pain. The God I cry out to listens when we call for the voice of liberty to be heard and for the oppressed to be redeemed.

The Eternal of my faith requires me to pursue justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. As I followed the President’s march from the White House to his staged photo opportunity in front of St. John’s, I witnessed his pursuit of retribution, not justice. I witnessed his love of violence, not mercy. In his faithless taking up of the sacred word of God, I witnessed blasphemy and no humble walk with God. 

As our cities burn, the God I believe in calls us to think deeply about the uprisings. God commands an honest accounting for the real reasons behind them. God demands our dedication to overcome them. We are a nation physically gripped and emotionally exhausted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no end in sight. Its economic impact is devastating. Given 400 years of evidence, further proof of racial inequity and injustice was unnecessary, but the pandemic has laid bare the socioeconomic truth that African Americans, Latinx Americans, and Native Americans are being disproportionately infected and dying, and people of color are experiencing even greater unemployment and underemployment than they were before. In communities of color, the suffering is greater. Recovery will take longer, if it comes at all.

Emmanuel Levinas taught us that our responsibility to the other is infinite. Our responsibility is of such a magnitude that it drowns out the noise of anything we’ve accomplished. There is nothing to rest on. Since Ferguson, some of us, the CCAR, and the Movement have made limited progress in understanding our own racism, the racism of our institutions, and the malignant, systemic racism in our country. But let’s not kid ourselves. Nothing is dismantled and infinitely more is demanded. 

So I share the following points:

1. Our covenant is eternal. God commands us to be in the struggle for the rest of our lives. And by our lives, to inspire and guide our children to carry on for the rest of their lives. We can’t ever turn away.

2. Black Lives Matter. To BLM, in our context, I suggest a second BLM: 

B = Believe.
L = Listen.
M = Maintain support from behind Black and Brown leaders.

3. Locate God now. The cries we hear are God’s cries. The tears that fall are God’s tears. God is reaching for help to raise this burden from God’s shoulders.

4. We are commanded to be in the struggle for the rest of our lives. The covenantal relationship is forever. A b’rit olam. Covenant is not convenience. But it is rooted in chesed. Not sappy chesed, not “loving kindness,” but chesed how Rabbi Brad Artson teaches it: Chesed as resilient love. The root of our covenant with God, the basis of our covenant with each other, is a resilient love that invites us surpass ourselves and to risk growth.[i] The resilient love of our covenant means we can be a part of great team, a team where no one plays just for themselves and everyone plays for each other. Keep showing up.

These ideas are based upon the same text: Moses at the burning bush.[ii] Larry Kushner teaches us the burning bush was not a miracle. The bush was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention. Only when Moses really paid attention, did God reveal himself to our teacher…There is another world, right here, when we pay attention. [iii]

Here is our test: Pay attention. Believe and listen to the experiences of people of color, especially Jews of Color. Check our motivations and resist that temptation of white privilege, to pretend we have Superman capes. Our test is to maintain support from behind black and brown leaders.

Last point, same text: Moses at the bush. From the depths of hell in the Warsaw Ghetto, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Esh Kodesh, gave his disciples a gift: he taught his Chasidim that the covenant is not only eternal. It is also interdependent. God needs us. When God called, “Moses Moses” from the burning bush, God did so desperately and without pause, like one who struggles beneath an unbearable weight. When God cried out to Moses, God was asking for help. God was asking for relief from the unbearable burden of witnessing the suffering of humanity. [iv]

Rather than teaching a simplistic faith or the belief that suffering is somehow part of some greater, cosmic plan, the rebbe reminded them that we are in an interdependent, covenantal relationship with God. The b’rit binds us together forever. When God called, “Moses Moses” from the burning bush, God did so desperately and without pause, like a person struggling beneath an unbearable weight. When God cried out to Moses, God was asking for help. God was asking for relief from the unbearable burden of witnessing the suffering of humanity.

Our responsibility is infinite. The covenant and chesed’s resilient love demands we stay in this for the rest of our lives. Believe. Listen. Support from behind. God is crying out from the burden of witnessing this suffering.

The God I believe in cries out to us now. The God I place my faith in calls us to pursue racial equity and justice in our country, in our cities, and in our synagogue. The God I turn to and the God I invite you to be in relationship with is the God who commands kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name and the opposite of birkat HaShem. Let us sanctify and make holy the name of God by the ways we live our lives. As it is written, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, am holy.

Amen.


[i]  Bradley Shavit Artson, The God of Becoming and RelationshipThe Dynamic Nature of Process Theology
[ii]  Exodus 3:1-4:17
[iii]  Lawrence Kushner, God was in This Place, and I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality, & Ultimate Meaning 
[iv]  Esh KodeshVayikra, March 16, 1940


Rabbi David Spinrad serves as the senior rabbi of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. He loves to laugh and believes the covenant is rooted in a love that is greater than the sum of our individual parts.

Categories
member support News

Canceling In-Person URJ Reform Summer Camp and Programming: An Act of Collective Love

When news broke that the Union for Reform Judaism made the most difficult, scientifically-based, values-based decision not to hold in-person camp this summer, my heart broke. 

Yes, I was proud that like leaders should, URJ and camp leadership consulted widely with medical, government, and Jewish leaders, weighed the changing data and options, waited until a decision needed to be made, and then planned a compassionate roll-out to honor the soon-to-be broken hearts of the campers, staff, and their parents. This incredibly difficult decision was an act of love.

Yes, I was proud that the ReformJudaism.org website offers age-differentiated advice to help parents talk to their children and that we can use as we provide pastoral care for them too. 

But I love camp. It helped form me. Camp Newman is my home away from home, where I rejuvenate every summer. 

Then, as our HUC-JIR pastoral counseling faculty taught me in rabbinic school, I looked around to figure out who else—camp professionals; URJ leadership; our rabbinic, cantorial, and educator colleagues; Jewish leaders, camp friends; and friends whose children were so looking forward to camp this summer—might be suffering, perhaps silently—and may be in need of pastoral care.

To my rabbinic colleagues and Jewish leaders everywhere, before sharing what I wrote, I ask: Would you join me to reach out and offer rachmanut (loving support) to our camp professionals, our URJ leadership, and of course to our camper and camp staff as they suffer through this heartbreak? 

Here is what I wrote:

Dear Camp Professionals and URJ Professionals

by Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Repeat after me:
I am compassionate.
(I am compassionate.)

I care about them so much.
(I care about them so much.)

So I am saving lives.
(So I am saving lives.)

I am heartbroken.
(I am heartbroken.)

I can share my sadness.
(I can share my sadness.)

So I can hold their sadness too.
(So I can hold their sadness too.)

I am a role model.
(I am a role model.)

And I influence others.
(And I influence others.)

So I am teaching us all responsibility.
(So I am teaching us all responsibility.)

I am being strategic.
(I am being strategic.)

I am planning for the future.
(I am planning for the future.)

So I’m stepping back so we all can move forward.
(So I’m stepping back so we all can move forward.)

Because I am compassionate.
(Yes, I am compassionate.)

And I am heartbroken.
(And I am heartbroken.)

But I am responsible.
(But I am responsible.)

So I am saving lives.
(So I am saving lives.)


•••

Finally, to our Camp Professionals and URJ Leadership:

We too are heartbroken. But we are thankful for everything you considered and did to try to avoid this day.

Forgive us if we act out. We, too, are in pain.

But never forget that we appreciate that you were thinking about us and our safety when you and our camping world made one of the hardest decisions your career and all our lives.

Thank you for doing what you did every summer previously: making hard decisions to keep us all safe. You make us proud. And we love you.


Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California. Recently, he wrote about conducting a funeral in the time of COVID-19.

Categories
News Social Justice

Why the CCAR Fights to Keep Contraception Free

During CCAR Connect in March 2020, many of us learned from Nancy Northup, President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, about “The Pursuit of Reproductive Rights as Human Rights.” In her keynote presentation, she discussed two important cases going before the Supreme Court this term. One of these could determine the availability of contraception to large numbers of Americans. The CCAR has just joined in a brief amicus curiae to the Court insisting that women continue to have a right to free contraception.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandates that group insurance plans make contraception available at no cost. If a house of worship or a religiously affiliated employer does not want to offer contraception coverage, it can notify the government, and the government will provide that coverage directly to the employees. In the Hobby Lobby case of 2014, the Court extended this opt-out to certain for-profit businesses.

Since then, the federal government has issued regulations that would allow any employer of any type that claims “moral objections” not only to opt out of having its insurance provide free contraceptive coverage but to ensure that the government could no longer provide that free coverage either. In other words, any employer that so desired could keep its employees from getting free contraceptive coverage, despite the ACA’s mandate. The federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a nationwide injunction preventing these regulations from taking effect, and that injunction is before the Supreme Court now in two cases that have been effectively joined as one, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania.  

Working with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the CCAR joined a brief filed by several religious organizations, including some Muslim, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, and a number of Jewish ones. It highlights how there is support for contraception in several religions. Allowing employers to use their own religious beliefs to deprive employees of contraceptive coverage would favor one person’s religious persuasion over others. In the words of the brief, “In a religiously pluralistic society, a woman’s contraception coverage should not depend on the religious or moral beliefs of her employer or university.”

It is appropriate that this brief is being filed during chol hamoeid Pesach, this season of our freedom. Contraceptives serve various health benefits, not all directly related to pregnancy. But perhaps their most important contribution is expressed in this sentence from the brief: “Improved access to contraception enables women to achieve their educational and professional goals, earn more income, and enjoy more stable marriages.”  In other words, limiting the ability of Americans to access medically reliable contraception will interfere with the freedom of women. During Passover of all times, that cannot stand. We in the CCAR have long realized that such limitations are inconsistent with our Jewish values. Today, we said as much to the highest court in the land.


Rabbi Thomas M. Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA.

Categories
Healing Holiday member support mental health News Passover Pesach Prayer Rabbis spirituality

The World as It Is: Passover 5780

The World as It Is: [1]: Coronavirus has forced me, like many people, to change my exercise routines. Instead of a half hour on the elliptical, I’m taking hour-long walks in the neighborhood. Sad as I was to give up the gym, I’m finding great pleasure in the walks. I have always loved springtime, and there’s the most magnificent quartet of large hydrangea trees, all fully in bloom, along my route. Often, I find myself struggling to reconcile the visible natural world, so pointedly alive this time of year, with the invisible natural world, so toxic to our lives now.

The very best moment of any of these daily walks came last week. My walk takes me past several congregants’ homes, but I hadn’t run into any until the day that my path crossed with a congregant, around my age, and his aging father, who has rather advanced dementia. He’s moving slowly, using a walker. Nevertheless, father and son were walking to the end of the street to have a look at the magnificent tulips in bloom at the corner.

In this most difficult moment in America, and in the personal life of their family, father and son together created a beautiful moment. 

Judaism offers blessings for everything. One that may be unfamiliar is the blessing for seeing something particularly stunning in nature, be that a uniquely handsome person or a magnificent landscape. The words of that blessing, though, don’t express that purpose as obviously as they might: Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shekacha lo b’olamo, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, for this is how it is in the world.”

While the blessing is intended to recognize beauty, its words suggest acceptance. We praise God for making the world as it is—with the bitter and the sweet, the devastating pandemic and the unwelcome opportunity for personal growth, the debilitating illness and the drive to continue appreciating life, the loss of life-sustaining employment and the personal reinvention that may emerge. The horrors of dementia and the beauty of the tulips.

Passover asks us to do exactly that.

Matzah is known to most of us as “the bread of freedom.” Yes, it’s true: Torah tells us that our ancestors had no time to let the bread rise as they were escaping Egyptian bondage [2]. Paradoxically, though, matzah is also “the bread of affliction, the poor bread, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt [3]. After all, slaves aren’t given time for the luxury of giving their bread the time to rise.

When I ask people, “What does the matzah represent,” the answer is almost always the same: I hear the story about leaving Egypt in haste. I almost never hear the quotation we read each year at Seder, “the poor bread.” Perhaps that’s because we wish to accentuate the positive. I wonder, though, if it’s a reluctance to accept the world as it is, warts and all.

The Seder ritual is full of such symbols. We eat the bitter herb together with the sweet charoset, reminding us that one must taste the bitterness of bondage before finding sweetness in liberation. We behold a roasted egg, symbol of the Jerusalem Temple, burned to the ground with a fire so hot that even its stones walls exploded. The Temple in ruins is Judaism’s symbol for the reality that we live in an imperfect, unredeemed world. The world as it is, as God created it, is filled with poverty and injustice—even slavery, with human beings trafficked like commodities for free labor or worse, for unwilling prostitution. And God knows, this unredeemed world today includes a devastating pandemic and the hardships of mass unemployment that accompany it.

Our Seder also invites us to open the door to Elijah—that is, to the prospect of redemption, of a better world to come. A custom that many of us have adopted is not to fill Elijah’s cup in advance, but to ask every participant at the Seder to fill that cup, symbolizing our collective responsibility to bring redemption. This year, we’ll have to do that in much smaller groups or even virtually, but the symbolism remains powerful. We can make the world better, even in this difficult time.

We are livestreaming worship services from the homes of clergy and volunteers. Yes, we miss being together—and even the inspiration of bringing our Sanctuary into our homes, which we have enjoyed in the last few weeks. More importantly, though, we will better protect ourselves from the virus and model the most important step that everybody can take to stay well: Stay home.

Some of us can volunteer in ways that lighten the burden for others. I’m grateful to be part of an effort by the congregation I serve, our city, and the Clinton Foundation, to feed families in need during this crisis.

I do not know why this world is as it is, with all its beauty and splendor, with all its cruelty and devastation. I do know that we must all do our part to enhance the service and caring, to soften the meanness and suffering. And even during these most difficult days and weeks that will stretch into months and perhaps even years, let us praise God for creating the world as it is.

Amen.


[1] I am grateful to Alan Goodis, whose song, Shekacha lo ba-olamo, inspired this reflection.
[2] Exodus 12:39
[3] The Passover Haggadah


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is the editor of  The Mussar Torah Commentary, CCAR Press, 2020.

Categories
News

Gam Zeh Yaavor: Uplifting Each Other during a Time of Crisis

Gam Zeh Yaavor. According to the Jewish folktale, this was the inscription inside Solomon’s “magical” ring, which if a happy person looked upon, made her sad, but if a sad person looked upon, made him happy. In reality the ring had no magic, only wisdom, reminding Solomon, and us, that all things and events are transient.

Gam Zeh Yaavor. “This too shall pass.” The question of this moment is not “if,” and we simply cannot answer the question of “when?” The compelling question is how shall we respond during the passing days, weeks and months? Recognizing that even though we know that we will traverse this crisis (gam zeh yaavor) doesn’t mean that we should ignore how we get there.

If anything, history, and especially Jewish history, is a guide to what we should try to avoid during a time of pandemic. If so-called “social distancing” (a poor term given that there is nothing “social” about distancing ourselves from one another) requires our physical separation from one another, then our every effort must be to work at social contact and interconnection.

For some of us that is easier because we have a significant circle of family and/or friends. But for others in our community, social distancing risks social isolation. We who constitute the synagogue community are dedicated to making sure no one passes through this period in such isolation.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav taught that at times “the entire world can seem like a narrow bridge.” Our choices are constricted and we feel we are hanging over a precipice. At such a moment, he taught, “the most important thing is not to give in to our fear.”

“Fear not, for I am with you. Do not be frightened, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).

“Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant; do not be dismayed, Israel.” (Jeremiah 46:27)

The phrase, “Al tira—Do not fear,” is repeated so often in Hebrew Scriptures that Maimonides claims that “Al tira” is one of the 365 negative commandments of the Torah (Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Taaseh 58; and in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 7:15).

Fear is a normative emotional response. Scripture certainly isn’t expecting us to simply turn this emotion off. But what we do with our fear IS a matter of choice. There is a Divine force that will strengthen and encourage us if we choose not to give in to our fear. Fear can be immobilizing. Fear can lead us to shut down, to turn away the efforts of those who are reaching out to us. And in an environment such as ours, the daily changes in information and reportage, recommendations and policies can lead us to stop listening or to stick to failed approaches.

Yet, paired with our faith in “decisive action” and our desire “to do something,” fear sometimes leads us to act precipitously rather than calming ourselves and awaiting greater insight and understanding. And fear can also be seductive. It leads some to find “answers” and “explanations” by seeking to blame someone, some group. Fear too often is used as a permission by some to vent their fears, sometimes violently, at others. We Jews are all too familiar with this tendency in human history. Gaining control (if not full mastery) over our fear is what we all seek, and we do that best together, not separately; communally, not individually. Social isolation, isolation from human faces and words, isolation from the attention and concern of others will surely injure each of us even if the virus does not.

If we must keep our physical distance, then we must also bridge the divide that separates us in every other way. As Solomon taught in the Book of Proverbs: “Worry in a person’s heart will bring one low, but a choice word will lift one up.” We can’t offer ourselves that choice word—only another person has that power.

Each of us is equipped with the means of uplifting the others around us. The visage of a smiling face happy to see another, the comfort of a familiar voice, the sincere inquiry into the well-being of another, the genuine offer to assist. These are the tools we have been blessed with to lighten the burden and help make this time pass.

Gam zeh yaavor!

Keyn y’hi ratzon.


Rabbi Serge A. Lippe was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1991 and has served as the spiritual leader of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue for the last 23 years. He is the editor of Birkon Artzi: Blessings and Meditations for Travelers to Israel, published by CCAR Press. 

Categories
Healing mental health News Torah

The Salted Offering: Grief’s Place on the Altar

Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi wrote this piece to share with colleagues in the Hillel world (and beyond) via Hillel International’s Office of Innovation. 


I’ve been crying a lot these days. Many of you have been, too. From the increasingly distressing news, to the demands of homeschooling our young children, to mourning the loss of the senior year we had dreamed of for so long, much brings us to tears.

I have to admit, I wasn’t very comforted when first I turned to this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Vayikra. Detailing the circumstances and forms of the various sacrifices our people were commanded to bring to the altar of the Temple, the parashah starts right in with details for which animals to bring at which times, how they would be slaughtered, and what type of expiation would be thereby attained. Collective guilt, blood and sinew, the recognition that closeness requires sacrifice: the truths contained in the priestly sacrifices seemed both too distant and too close to home.

In this global crisis, there’s too much blaming, shaming, finger-pointing, and hoarding; and yet, we see also glimpses of collective responsibility, from sewing homemade masks to calling nursing home residents barred from welcoming in-person visitors. The porousness of our bodies confronts us everywhere we look; I could spin into despair, and then I hear my youngest singing, “Happy Birthday to Someone,” each and every time they wash their little hands, and I smile. On the tree-lined sidewalks of my Brooklyn street, as flowering trees begin to blossom, I find myself shuffling away from my neighbors; and then I recall with fear and gratitude the closeness to this disease of my friends and students and colleagues who are healthcare workers.

What a time to read of the sacrifices of our people—and their awe, which we understand so differently now—of our bodily fluids and the precarious barrier between life and death.

And then a particular verse caught my eye:

וְכָל-קָרְבַּן מִנְחָתְךָ בַּמֶּלַח תִּמְלָח וְלֹא תַשְׁבִּית מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹהֶיךָ מֵעַל מִנְחָתֶךָ עַל כָּל-קָרְבָּנְךָ תַּקְרִיב מֶלַח

 “You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Vayirka 2:13).

Immediately photos of emptied grocery store shelves flashed in my mind. No milk. No flour. No bread. No toilet paper. No disinfectant, or paper towels, or vinegar, or pasta, or frozen vegetables, or medical masks, or latex gloves. Salt in plenty.

A precious preservative, salt represents an everlasting covenant, a relationship between God and the people that stands the test of time, as the Ramban notes. But there is another meaning, and it comes from the story of creation.

In the beginning, all was chaos, and the waters were united. It was not until the second day that God “separated water from water” (B’reishit 1:6‒7).

Imagine how it felt for those waters: united for the eye-blink of an eternity, before there was anything at all, anything but God and the unformed void, there were waters, confusedly one. Suddenly, God begins the great act of creation, and in that act of creation, God made something new for the waters: distance, separation.

In what seemed to some a moment, in what seemed to others an agonizingly slow few weeks as the COVID-19 virus spread across the globe, the human family faced a new and stark separation. We tribal creatures have retreated to separate abodes, water divided from water.

According to the Midrash, the inevitable consequence of this separation was…tears:

אָמַר רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה לֹא פֵּרְשׁוּ הַמַּיִם הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנִים אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּה

Rabbi Berechyah said: “The waters below did not separate from those above except with weeping” (B’reishit Rabbah 5:4).

Here it is: the salt. According to the wise rabbis of our tradition, the salt we offer at the altar, the salt that accompanies all our sacrifices, has its origins in the tears of separation. The salt of the waters before creation, the waters that became sea and sky, were salty tears of grief.

What does it mean, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to season our offerings with salt? It means we bring our tears to all that we give in this crisis, and that is okay. It means that what connects us to God and to tradition and to the Jewish people, spread out as we are and isolated in our individual homes, is not only the gifts we bring, but our griefs and our disappointments as well.

Indeed, says the great Torah commentator Rashi, when God saw the disappointment and sadness of the lower waters, God decreed that the salt of the sea would forever be offered upon the altar, linking what is below to what is above, what is mundane to what is holy.

It can be this way for us, too. During this crisis, we can maintain our holy and life-giving distance, and we can mourn the loss of closeness, community, and contact. We can sacrifice what is needed, the “fat” of our material resources, and we can season those offerings with our feelings of loss.

Our tradition demands much of us: no longer the precisely rendered fats and juices of bulls and rams and turtle-doves; instead, a daily, rhythmical, cyclical attention to the blessings (quotidian and extraordinary) that surround us, and a scrupulous quest to engage in practices ethical and collectively beneficial. In such times as these, the demands of tradition can ground us. But without the salt of our grief and disappointment, we risk being crushed under their enormity.

Vulnerability is frightening. And it is deeply human. From the Torah and from modern thinkers like Brene Brown, we can gain much from looking at our vulnerability as an offering we can make alongside our resilience, strength, and pragmatism (all of which we need right now).

Ask yourself today: What sacrifices have I made to benefit the public good during this crisis? What sacrifices have I made to preserve my own safety, the safety of those I love, or the safety of my neighbors and community?

Light a candle. Breathe in for a count of four. Focus on a sacrifice you have made. Now breathe out for a count of four. As you watch the flickering flame, as you see its smoke rise, know that your sacrifices are linked to the sacrifices our people have made in the past.

Ask yourself today: What offerings have I withheld from my family, my friends, my community, at this time? How might I safely contribute my gifts?

Have you forgotten what talents and skills you possess? It’s easy, in times of high anxiety and widespread fear, to focus on what we cannot do, on how powerless we might feel. Imagine yourself, picture yourself, at your most skillful and competent. What characterizes you at your best? Make a list of these attributes. Brainstorm one action you might take to use that skill as a gift to others, whether they be folks in your household or in the wider world.

And, finally, ask yourself now: What griefs and disappointments have seemed “too trivial” to voice during this crisis? While it is true that this pandemic affects us differently, with very real and dire unique consequences for the chronically ill, the disabled, the poor (the list is far too long), we may also be holding on to grief unrecognized. I have spoken with wedding couples blessed to have one another, and yet grieving the celebration they have been forced to downsize or cancel. I have heard from students with secure places to live and plenty of food, and yet grieving the commencement ceremony they had pictured for four long years. Your griefs and disappointments are real, and need not be placed on a scale of “worst” or “hardest.”

And so the Torah reminds us: make your sacrifices, for the sake of the whole people, but do not omit the salt from your offerings. Your grief has a place on the altar.


Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, PhD, spent the first years of her rabbinate at New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. She is currently transitioning into freelance and other rabbinic work; learn more at rabbinikki.com

Categories
Death News

A First Funeral During the COVID-19 Pandemic: What We Did

To my colleagues and community,

I officiated at the funeral of a wonderful man who, while fighting cancer, was felled by COVID-19. This appears to have been the first COVID-19 death at the cemetery where this funeral was held. Preparing for this funeral was intensely complex as the mortuary/cemetery and I were creating a protocol ex nihilo, as we went along. I fully expect that the cemetery and my personal practices will evolve as we learn more about this disease and as the numbers of dead increase dramatically. I am documenting what we did with colleagues to help you think through how to navigate this challenging situation.

I am a Reform rabbi—married, heterosexual, with children—working in a synagogue. I share this because these realities inform how I engage with tradition/minhag/halachah and how I make my rabbinic decisions. I recognize that the compromises and decisions I made will not speak to some.

What did we do?

  1. We had a burial.
  2. We held a community minyan service over Zoom and the oramiLIVE.com livestream (over 400+ people attended).
  3. Per the family’s wishes, we will hold an in-person memorial service once people can be together. 
  4. I offered to accompany the aveilim to the grave for another ritual, after their tests come back negative.

Who can attend the burial of a deceased who had COVID-19?

We decided that family members who were in his presence, and thus at risk of infection, would not be able to attend until they tested negative. This included his wife, children, parents, and in-laws. (I do not believe I would have officiated if they insisted on attending.) They considered these options:

  1. Holding his body with a shomeir present, testing family members and waiting for results, and then burying later.
  2. Burying with a rabbi with or without other family members.
  3. Cremating, holding cremains until family could gather for burial.
  4. Livestreaming (FaceTime, Google hangouts, etc.) the graveside burial for the family only.
  5. Livestreaming the graveside burial for the community.

Ultimately, the rabbi and a few other family members attended. At the last minute, the wife/children decided to use Facetime to participate.

How We Maintained Safe Distancing

We made it clear to all—mortuary personnel, family attending—that we would maintain a strict policy of six to 10 feet of physical distancing. Sometimes it took repeated reminders to get everyone to stay at a distance; this is expected in a culture of caring through close presence and touch. My agreement with myself, the family, and most importantly, my wife, was that I would be exceedingly machmir (strict) about this.

  1. For this first funeral, my wife attended to be my monitor. While machmir about distancing, there were moments when my desire to comfort had me almost let down my guard. With a gesture and sometimes a loving pull, she reminded me to stay back.
  2. Mortuary personnel were instructed not to approach close to cars or people. A hand up in a “stop” gesture.
  3. Siddurim: I prepared prayer sheets and emailed them to attendees. That way they did not need to accept the siddurim from the personnel. (The cemetery says they wipe them down after each use.)
  4. Family attendees brought their own shovels, borrowed from neighbors, and personally wiped down. (The cemetery says they wipe them down after each use.) Attendees completely covered the casket before leaving.
  5. Family attendees remained at one side of the grave, appropriately spread out, I was at the other.
  6. K’riah: No direct aveilim (mourners) were present. I had the aveilim cut up a black shirt and pin it to their clothes; over FaceTime I led them in the blessing and instructed them to tear.
  7. Washing: I brought a reusable bottle of tap water to wash my hands before leaving.
  8. Kaddish/Minyan: Between the attendees, my wife, myself, Jewish personnel, and the family at home, we had a minyan for Kaddish. In truth, had we not had the Minyan, I would have had them recite Kaddish anyway. 

How Did We Prepare the Body?

The deceased was received from the hospital morgue in a special bag that protects against spread of disease.

  1. I consulted with knowledgeable infectious disease and emergency room doctors about whether a body can transmit disease. They told me that there would not be the spray like from a cough or sneeze, but the body can hold onto disease like an inanimate object. The length of time of infection from a deceased with COVID-19 was as yet unclear. However, they strongly suggested we refrain from touching the body or washing it.
  2. Keeping bag closed: To minimize infection, we decided not to open the body bag (I do not know if the mourners knew this). The brother-in-law of the deceased approved that identification using the hospital tag would be sufficient.
  3. Tahara (preparing/washing the body): With mourners and family members, we decided not to do tahara because, (a) we did not want to endanger those who do the ritual (if medical personnel do not have sufficient personal protection equipment/PPE, surely those doing the ritual would not), (b) we did not want to take PPE away from the lifesaving work of medical personnel, (c) medical advice was that while washing, splatters or droplets might be dangerous.
  4. Tachrichim (dressing the body): The mourners initially wanted him buried with special clothes from home. Deciding that transporting and disinfecting these clothes represented an added risk, we agreed to do a modified tachrichim. The deceased was kept in the sealed bag, and the bagged body was wrapped in linen shrouds. A tallit, provided by the mortuary (purchased by family), was appropriately placed around the shoulder part of the deceased, with tzitzit cut as traditional . The necklace the family wanted him buried in—transferred from the hospital with his other personal items—was laid on the wrapped body in the coffin.

How did we care for the deceased community?

It became very clear that this death affected people in multiple ways and on multiple levels. The needs of the community felt similar to certain tragic deaths in Israel: it involved the whole community in multiple ways (forgive the imperfect comparison). 

  1. Like after most deaths, they lost a dear friend, family member, co-worker;
  2. This was the first deceased they knew of this pandemic. This death made the pandemic more real and personal;
  3. They were horrified though understanding that the aveilim were unable to attend their loved one’s burial (many were worried about this happening to them in the future);
  4. They recognized this is just the first of many, many more deaths to come;
  5. They were struggling with their inability to offer condolences and support in usual ways—with hugs, attending minyanim, sending food, visiting the aveilim, etc.

What we did:

  1. We held a community minyan service over Zoom and the oramiLIVE.com livestream (over 400+ people attended). While called a minyan, we understood this would also be an unofficial community memorial service as well as a moment of group therapy.
  2. Cantor Doug Cotler and I led the minyan.
  3. We invited six people to speak for three minutes only. We interspersed with prayers and songs. We said Kaddish.
  4. I spent time betwixt and between counseling people through the complex emotions. Consulting with congregant-therapists helped me prepare for this.
  5. Also: I took care of myself. Sleeping in, taking time off, prescheduling therapy, and exercise.

Finally, I thank the leadership of the cemetery I worked with and our local clergy colleagues for working diligently to create, revise, and re-revise the protocols for preparation and burial for this evolving pandemic.


 Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.