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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.

Categories
CCAR Convention News spirituality

‘Isolation Need Not Mean Loneliness’: President Ron Segal’s CCAR Connect 2020 Opening Remarks

Each year at CCAR Convention, it’s customary for the CCAR President to address the rabbinic membership. However this year, given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCAR was forced to cancel our annual Convention and move the event online. Below is the address that CCAR President Ron Segal gave to the digital gathering of Reform rabbis who gathered online throughout the country in this time of change and need.


The date on which I delivered my first address as CCAR President was April first. April Fools Day; the parashah was Tazria-Metzora. “Could it get any worse?,” I remember thinking. 

And…here we are.

Considering the present reality of our world and the fact that, this year, I have the great privilege of sharing a few comments in front of a desktop monitor, I realize now how unimaginative I was! 

If ever there was a time when Tazria-Metzora was fitting for the time in which we are living, surely it is this year. With the exception, perhaps, of a handful of U.S. Senators, who could possibly have imagined such a reality: a time when every one of us has essentially been isolated from the camp until such point all have been declared clean. Determining how best to lead our communities while also in isolation is surely not something for which most of us were prepared or trained. This is surely unfamiliar turf for all of us.

These past several months and, no doubt, the months still to come are a staggering reminder about the unpredictability of our world. While recognizing that too many of our colleagues have previously experienced tragic manifestations of life’s caprice, we convene today with the knowledge that all of us—no matter where we live, no matter the nature of our rabbinate, regardless of our age or station in life—each and every one of us is confronting the same unfamiliar, anxiety-ridden, fear-inducing, individually isolating, community-rending pandemic.

I don’t know about you, but I will honestly share that, to be a rabbi at this moment feels overwhelming. Even with the forced cancellation of numerous trips, appointments, meetings, and community functions, and a calendar that at first blush might seem more open than it has in years, it feels like we have never been busier. For in addition to the heightened relational and pastoral needs of those we serve, we are also now buried under an enormous list of decisions to be made on how to transition every aspect of our complex roles and organizations into an online, virtual format. Further, trying to sift through and extract helpful guidance from traditional sources and the constant stream of articles, news programs, op-eds, Facebook posts, and non-stop emails has felt like drinking from a firehose. It’s been…a lot friends, has it not?  

Assuming my conversations and interactions with colleagues are representative, I would daresay that many of us might presently describe our inner life as one of pizur hanefeshpossessing a scattered soul understood by some of our sages to be the consequence of having to simultaneously devote one’s attention to too many things for a sustained period of time, resulting in an inner life that feels scattered, out of balance, and far from the spiritual ideal.  

I think about the 250 or so rabbis and IJS alumni whom I join each weekday for a virtual, half-hour guided meditation in the hopes of merely trying to center myself, and I am further convinced that there are countless scattered souls among us.

However, I also believe that colleagues are eager and need more than ever opportunities to address our own feelings of isolation and to regain a sense of internal balance. Whether through meditation, exercise, reading, or any other means, we surely recognize and understand we will be better equipped to lead during this time of uncertainty and physical separation if we can do so with a calmer soul and more equanimous spirit. I found these very sentiments affirmed in the conclusion of a poem written and posted on RavBlog by our colleague Lance Sussman this past week. “We Shall Prevail: A Poem for Unprecedented Times” ends with these words:

“Now is the time to collect our inner selves
and to be strong alone
until the time comes again
when we can be strong together.

Until then
until that day
Let us resolve that we shall prevail.”

And of course, we will prevail, just as rabbis have done throughout history. Each of us will soon come to a point in time during this pandemic and isolated existence when the number of urgent decisions we have to make will diminish, and the course for our respective communities will have been charted, and…we will actually be able to stop, catch our breath, work on unifying our souls that feel so very scattered, and come to understand and internalize what I know we have been saying repeatedly to those in our communities, that “isolation need not mean loneliness.”  

During this period which none of us has ever known, even as we continue to support those in need, I also believe that ‘to prevail’ means we must not allow this unexpected window of time to pass by unappreciated, without discovering anew the simple miracles of daily life too often obscured from sight. Liberated from the grueling routines that have dictated our lives for however many years, might not this moment awaken in us a spirit of renewed curiosity, hopefully greater humility, and an appreciation that, though physically distant, we are in truth “alone together,” convening both individually and collectively at the same time. 

I genuinely believe we need this heightened awareness to confront as a rabbinic community what is increasingly understood to be a watershed moment in our history, when the character and nature of future Jewish communities as well as where and how Jewish communities convene are being defined literally before our very eyes.

Throughout Jewish history, with every disruption in the world, rabbis have reshaped, redefined, and recreated Jewish life and expression to ensure Judaism’s survival and continued relevance. I know I am not the first to suggest that the time has come for us to do so again. For with each Shabbat service we appropriately and necessarily livestream, every adult learning session and Hebrew class we offer online, all of the b’nei mitzvah students we now tutor solely through Skype or in Google Hangout rooms, every committee meeting, board meeting, and convention which we hold via Zoom, even the instances of pastoral outreach to those whom we can no longer reach in person…with all of these monumental efforts that many have been forced to implement for the first time, we have, albeit unintentionally, also helped to dramatically expand accessibility to Jewish life and to ensure Judaism’s relevance more than ever before.

In his column printed in last week’s Forward, our colleague Jeff Salkin astutely noted ‘The coronavirus is transforming Judaism… This is our Yavneh moment, a time when we have] to rethink Jewish life, expression, and service.” We surely recognize that, when this pandemic eventually passes, neither we as individuals, nor our congregations, or agencies, or Hillels, or communities, will be—or can be—the same again.

Though nothing can replicate the spiritual and emotional significance of physically being together in community, or ever replace the efficacy of actually reaching out to hold the hand of someone in need, still, having employed new modalities to connect with and engage people throughout our communities, including those who had previously determined our congregations’ or organizations’ offerings were either too limited or not in their budget, having discovered new and creative ways to respond to the needs of our diverse community, we need to understand and greet this moment with an open-hearted and open-minded spirit, not with a sense of foreboding. This is a defining moment in the life of the Jewish community and the ways in which we as rabbis and Jewish professionals respond now, and how we must continue to respond in the future, are how we will foster appreciation, nurture greater loyalty, and most significantly, ensure our and Judaism’s continued relevance. 

So here we are, members of our CCAR, alone together, “Zooming” in hopefully from some comfortable place, connecting in a manner we did not originally intend and could never have predicted. Unquestionably, many of us are greatly missing the long-anticipated opportunity to reconnect and learn and pray together with one another in Baltimore. However, this moment provides us with another opportunity, to realize the words of parashat Vayakhel read just this week and bring to this virtual Mishkan that we are building together across the miles the sincere and genuine gifts of our hearts. Among those gifts is surely one of gratitude for the members of our Convention Planning Committee (under the leadership of Chair Alex Shuval-Weiner and Vice-Chair Amanda Greene) who have labored for well over a year to plan our in-person gathering. Certainly, gratitude goes as well to our talented CCAR professional leadership for making the courageous decision to convene online and especially to Betsy Torop and the entire CCAR staff, who planned and executed this online convention in two weeks’ time, while also working from their homes.

This moment is a unique opportunity for the CCAR, for unexpectedly, a new window has opened and provided us a glimpse of where—and how—we as a Conference must surely continue to evolve in order to remain accessible and relevant to all of our CCAR colleagues in the future, to all of our CCAR colleagues.

With Pesach a little more than two weeks away and thoughts of virtual seders already in mind, perhaps new inspiration might emerge this year from the theme of liberation—liberation from the rushed, often stressful routines of our lives and communities (at least until a month ago), and a transition to the next still-to-be-defined period in Jewish life.

Having personally had the great honor of working closely with an incredibly dedicated CCAR board and gifted staff, I have great confidence in the CCAR’s ability to help shape and successfully guide us into this new moment, confidence that is significantly emboldened by the fact we are led by Rabbi Hara Person. I could not have asked for a greater privilege than to serve in this capacity as Hara assumed the responsibilities as our Chief Executive. Brilliant, thoughtful, reflective, and strategic, Hara is precisely the right rabbi and leader to help us navigate the next era in the life of our Conference. With her steady hand and our shared spirit of curiosity, trust, and faith in one another, we will emerge from this unprecedented moment, prepared to define anew and write this next chapter together. May it indeed be so.  

Thank you for the sincere privilege and honor of continuing to serve as president of the CCAR.


Rabbi Ron Segal is President of the CCAR and senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs, Georgia.

Categories
News Reform Judaism Responsa

Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency

During the unprecedented need to quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCAR Respona Committee has responded to questions about technology and creating virtual minyans during this crisis and created this guidance. Additional Reform responsa can be found here, and the CCAR Statement on the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here.

5780.2: Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency

Question:

May we rely on technology to create a virtual minyan in a time of crisis when we cannot gather in our synagogues?  If so, what are the criteria for constituting a valid virtual minyan?  How does one recite Kaddish in a virtual minyan?  At what point do we know it is appropriate to discontinue the virtual minyan and return to a physical minyan?  (submitted by numerous CCAR members)

Answer:

Although we have a recent decision[1] that rejects the virtual minyan, we are now in an emergency situation.  In an emergency situation a bet din is responsible for taking action for the welfare of the community, and may issue a temporary ruling (hora’at sha’ah) to prevent the kahal from going astray.[2]  People will certainly “go astray” by turning to all sorts of sources of comfort if we do not ensure that the kehillah kedosha, the holy community, can continue to function. 

The minyan and participation “outside” the minyan:  The essence of the minyan is the reciprocity of the social contract – the shared obligation that binds all ten individuals to one another, transforming them from a number of individuals into a community, a virtual bet Yisrael.  The halakha translated that conceptual essence into a physical one by mapping it onto a space, requiring the members of a minyan to be in one room together.[3]  The majority view in the halakha is that the individuals who constitute the minyan must be in one room, though some authorities hold that it is sufficient for them to be able to see each other, thus including, e.g., the individual who is visible through the window of the synagogue. 

            Now, however, we are in a situation where people may not gather in one room.  Therefore, for the duration of this emergency, we permit the convening of a minyan by means of interactive technology, i.e., technology that enables all members of the minyan to see and hear each other.  Two widely used examples of this type of technology are Zoom (available as a smartphone app) and Microsoft Teams.  In essence, therefore, we are requiring the use of Zoom or Teams – or any app with the same capabilities that may appear on the market now – to constitute a virtual minyan.  (As always, and especially in this time of economic distress, we presume our congregations and all of our people will adhere to all intellectual property and copyright laws as they obtain software.)

            As long as there are ten people connected in an interactive manner, any number of additional people may also be “present” passively, via live streaming.  In accordance with the precedent of 5772.1,[4] we do not count these individuals in the minyan.  In our current context, the obstacle to counting the livestream viewer in the minyan is that s/he cannot be seen or heard, and therefore cannot be an equal participant in the minyan’s underlying social contract.  Additionally, there is no way for the service leader to know how many people, if any, are watching a live stream, and therefore no way of knowing whether a minyan is “present” in the absence of ten interconnected members. 

            We affirm that one who is viewing a livestream should still respond to all the prayers; this is considered the same as having recited them.[5]  The same is true for the livestream viewer who recites the words of the Mourners’ Kaddish along with the service leader.[6] 

            The CCAR plenum has never taken a stand on whether a minyan is required for public prayer, but its importance has been a given for most Reform rabbis and their congregations.  In a 1936 responsum, Jacob Mann advised that “every attempt should be made to have a full minyan,” but allowed congregations to rely on the Palestinian custom of fixing a minyan at six or seven.”[7] Many small congregations rely on this responsum.  Some congregations of varying sizes disregard the minyan completely.  We are not saying now that every Reform congregation must adhere to the requirement of a minyan of ten, but we encourage it, even in small congregations, as a way of bringing the community together.[8] 

Torah reading:  All parts of the service can be conducted in a virtual minyan with the obvious exception of actually reading from the Torah scroll.  As a further hora’at sha’ah, it is sufficient to read from a printed text without any aliyot.  However, this is still a fulfillment of the mitzvah of Torah study and requires a b’rakhah (although all authorities agree that if one has earlier said la’asok be-divrei Torah, this requirement is merely for the honor of the community[9]).  Under these present circumstances, we suggest reverting to the practice set forth in the Mishnah:[10] The first reader recites the blessing before the reading, and the last reader recites the blessing after the reading.  An alternative practice, for those who do not want to use the Torah blessings for anything other than reading from the scroll, is to recite la’asok b’divrei Torah before reading from the printed text.  Either way, we also strongly encourage including serious Torah study in addition to the reading.

The duration of these temporary procedures:  Finally, at some point in the future, we know that this health crisis will end.  When the authorities stop restricting attendance at public functions, this hora’at sha’ah should be set aside.  People should return to the synagogue and the practice of interactive virtual minyanim should cease. We realize that some people may be fearful, but we rely on experts in these matters. “As rabbis, we are not competent to render judgments in scientific controversies.  Still, we do not hesitate to adopt ‘the overwhelming view’ as our standard of guidance in this and all other issues where science is the determining factor.”[11]  Nevertheless, individuals in the most vulnerable populations (especially the elderly with pre-existing medical conditions) may benefit from live streaming.  In these circumstances, the precedent of our earlier responsum, 5772.1, offers sufficient guidance. 

Joan S. Friedman, CCAR Responsa Chair
Howard L. Apothaker
Daniel Bogard
Carey Brown
Lawrence A. Englander
Lisa Grushcow
Audrey R. Korotkin
Rachel S. Mikva
Amy Scheinerman
Brian Stoller
David Z. Vaisberg
Jeremy Weisblatt
Dvora E. Weisberg


[1] 5772.1 A Minyan Via the Internet, https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-responsa/minyan-via-internet, accessed 15 March 2020.
[2] Yad H. Mamrim 2:4.
[3] Pesaḥim. 85b; Yad H. Tefillah 8:7; Shulḥan Arukh OḤ 55:13.
[4] We note also the supporting precedent of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, OḤ 55:15:2001: Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet, https://www.rabbinicalas sembly.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/ReisnerInternetMinyan.pdf, accessed 15 March 2020.
[5] Shulḥan Arukh OḤ 55:20.
[6] CJLS OḤ 55:15:2001.
[7] American Reform Responsa #3: Less Than a Minyan of Ten at Services.
[8] On the history of the minyan in Reform Judaism and its importance, see “The Minyan” in Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (NY: UAHC Press, 2000), 19-22.
[9] Magen Avraham 139:15.
[10] Megillah 4:1.
[11] Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century, vol. 2,5759.10: Compulsory Immunization.

Categories
Books News

New CCAR Press Book ‘Inscribed’ Provides A New Look at the Ten Commandments

It is not an exaggeration to characterize the Revelation at Sinai as the prime foundational experience in the life of the Jewish people. At Sinai, Jewish law, peoplehood, theology, and ethics were all conceived simultaneously amid thunder, smoke, and the blare of the shofar. With the first syllable reverberating from the mountaintop, Israel assumed a new relationship with their God, who would—for all time—be their unique, transcendent Teacher.

But for the Jewish people, the mechanics of revelation do not unfold merely in a vertical dimension between the Commander and the commanded; Torah is also revealed in the horizontal dimension, through the democratic, communal bonds between study partners. From Sinai until now, in every Jewish community, each successive insight that Jews bring to their study of Torah makes it possible for God’s self to unfurl in new ways. In this way, the beliefs and practices of Jewish life take on sharper clarity in every generation of Israel’s peoplehood.

Initially, of course, our Israelite ancestors were not eager to embrace their relationship with God’s word; they cowered from God’s voice and retreated from Sinai, leaving Moses alone to receive the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:15–18). Despite Moses’s high hopes about the inspiring power of divine speech, its sheer force terrified the first generation of God’s students huddled at Sinai’s foot and might have ironically led to their spiritual impoverishment if the people hadn’t quickly developed the skills of interpretive and imaginative Jewish learning.

Creativity and innovation are critical skills for Jewish learners, and these skills were inculcated in us by Moses himself at the very beginning of our relationship with Torah. Looking down at the frightened Israelite masses at the base of the mountain, Moses must have realized quickly that, in order to worship an invisible God who demands faith in the not-yet possible, he would have to nurture Israel’s capacity for interpretive imagination. Moses needed to demonstrate that the exercise of Jewish learning can bring the impossible and the intangible into being—and so, immediately after the commandments are revealed, he goes on to teach his homeless, landless people about cisterns, vineyards, and olive groves (Deuteronomy 6:10–11).

The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (B. Makot 23b–24a) suggest that at Sinai, the Israelites heard only the first two of the Ten Commandments directly; the rest were heard only by Moses and translated faithfully to the people. But Moses refers to the entire Decalogue as having been heard by “every one of us who is here today” (Deuteronomy 5:3), not only those who stood at the mountain. Thus, each subsequent repetition of the words of Torah comprises a miraculous, eternal act of religious witness, and every opportunity for learning Torah is an endeavor of radical imagination. For the generation of Sinai, this meant molding their minds and hearts to accommodate things that did not yet exist; for us, the imaginative work of Torah study may mean imagining versions of ourselves that do not yet exist, and then working to bring those selves into being.

Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments, a new publication from CCAR Press, was conceived to simultaneously recognize the primacy of the Sinai moment and embrace the multivocality of contemporary Jewish learning—both within and beyond the Reform Movement. The book presents two or three chapters focusing on each of the Ten Commandments. The essays are written by a diverse group of authors, who explore the ways in which those timeless utterances led to the formation of law and ethics, and continue to inform the lives of modern Jews. The contributors represent a broad range of religious beliefs and professional specialization: in chaplaincy, law, technology, journalism, social activism, and the armed services. They live all across the United States and serve many different sorts of communities and constituents; the diversity of these contributors helps give voice to the richness and variety encoded in the Revelation moment, and their voices highlight the ongoing impact and eternal relevance of Torah that flourishes in today’s world.

Although we can fairly assume that God’s words no longer sound the way they did at Sinai, their echoes still continue today. And, in a beautifully ironic turn, millennia after our ancestors hid from the sound of God’s voice at Sinai, today we hold a unique ability to keep that ancient sound alive each time we learn or teach the words of Torah. Our willingness to remain attuned to the hum of a holy presence in the world is what preserves our heritage as a timeless nation of learners. As we continue the process of sacred study that began at a smoke-wreathed mountain in the desert, the work of radical spiritual imagination inscribes itself continuously into our hearts and minds.


Rabbi Oren J. Hayon serves as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas. He is the editor of Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments, now available from CCAR Press.

Categories
LGBT News parenting

A Thank You Note to My Son

Rabbi Peter Kessler is senior rabbi at Temple Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Here, to honor Transgender Awareness Week and the transgender community, he shares an open letter to his son, Floyd.

Dear Floyd,

I loved spending the past weekend with you at Alfred University. Your freshman year is off to a stellar start!

Your dad and I could not be prouder of you as you continue your journey to becoming a responsible adult. I’d like to tell you some of the reasons I am so proud of you, and your adjustment to life off at college.

Floyd Kessler with his college art project,
Jack, the puppet

We have always been a “different kind of family.” You never had any issues adjusting to a world that may have looked at you sideways as you had two dads. You were always kind, polite, and were more interested in changing the world rather than fighting change. When you told us that you were born into the wrong body and were transgender, I was brought back to the time in the 1970s when I was your age and told my parents that I was gay. They were frightened that I would be cast aside by friends and family, unable to have a happy life, and that I would not able to become a parent. I helped prove to them that my life was just beginning—and that happiness would certainly come my way.

But you have taken that story to another level. You came into our lives and taught us how to become loving parents, strong allies of the disadvantaged, and open to any possibility that you brought home, even when you told us that you were transgender. We supported you by taking you to therapists and doctors to guide you, and you supported us with your words of encouragement, worrying more about us than yourself, and allowing us to walk with you on this often difficult journey.

Floyd Kessler’s artwork on display
at the Art Association of Harrisburg

Of course you were blessed with an open loving congregation, kind and caring friends, and KESHET, the national organization that works for LGBTQ equality in all facets of Jewish life. Your involvement with KESHET and your openness to help everyone in the trans community who comes to you for advice and support makes me proud of you every day.

Now you are becoming an adult, and while you still hug us and love us unconditionally, as your parent I must thank you, and tell you that you are an inspiration to any parent blessed to have a son like you. We are proud of the person you are becoming, and we’re proud of your artistic talent as you create the pieces that chronicle your story into becoming the person you needed to be.

Floyd, thank you for being an amazing person, one committed to making the world a better place, and someone I will always love unconditionally.

With love and admiration,

Papa