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Machzor Blog: Parades and Prayer Books – Considering the Music in the New CCAR Machzor

Many years ago, even before I thought of attending cantorial school, I applied for a job with Macy’s department store in New York City to be an associate in the 346036616_640
division responsible for the Thanksgiving parade. As part of the interview process, I was told how planning for the parade goes on year–round, with the next year’s parade preparation beginning the day after the current parade concludes. The giant helium balloons are just barely in their crates, the marching bands aren’t even back on their planes, and the Thanksgiving festivities are being organized for the next year!

For many of us who lead services, the planning of High Holidays is a similar venture. True, there are no marching bands and giant helium filled balloons, but the preparation for these Yamim Noraim– the Days of Awe – is a continuous, ongoing process. As a cantor, I am constantly reviewing new music, thinking of new liturgical possibilities, and along with the rabbis envisioning how to bring the message of the High Holidays to our community in ways that will enrich all of our lives and touch our souls.

One of the challenges cantors face in the planning of our High Holiday services is the incredible wealth of musical material from which to choose. The palette of 991091
Jewish music is ever widening and broadening as each year new compositions are composed. One of our roles as shalichei tzibur – messengers of the congregation- is to determine which musical settings of our prayers meet our needs and the congregation’s in best portraying the text. An ongoing question as I
prepare for the High Holidays is: “Does this setting of this particular prayer meet the specific needs of my community at this moment in the liturgical arc of the High Holidays?” This requires that I cull through many musical settings of these prayers always attempting to find balance between tradition and modernity, contemporary music and Mi Sinai tunes, the familiar and the unknown.

At the present time, I serve as the cantorial representative to the CCAR’s editorial committee for a new High Holiday machzor. This new High Holiday prayer book will feature substantial changes from Gates of Repentance and is the first High Holiday prayer book written for the Reform Jewish community in over a generation. Based on the layout of Mishkan Tefillah, the new machzor features the now familiar multi-vocal approach to prayer by featuring Hebrew text, an English translation, interpretations of the prayer, and in many cases additional explanation and illumination. The new CCAR machzor not only presents modern interpretations of many of the High Holiday prayers, but it also includes many traditional ancient and medieval liturgical poems (piyyutim). As a member of this committee, I am constantly aware of not only of the theology and philosophy presented by the editors and authors of this new machzor, but I try to imagine what will the services actually sound like. As part of this project I wonder: How does the addition of new text and new prayers affect the sound, the music, and the melody of the High Holidays? Are we as cantors prepared to meet the musical, artistic, and liturgical challenges that a decidedly 21st century machzor proposes?

An illustration of these very real challenges is manifest in the presentation of the text for Avinu Malkeinu. Gates of Repentance includes some of its verses, but the new machzor attempts to include more of the traditional text as it informs the liturgical and theological movement from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur. How will we adapt the much loved and familiar setting of Max Janowski’s Avinu Malkeinu to a new machzor, for example?

Listen Listen1

Will this traditional interpretation of Avinu Malkeinu fulfill our needs as a community of worshippers alongside contemporary interpretations of the same prayer?

Listen Listen2

Will comparatively new settings of Avinu Malkeinu better serve our needs as a congregation as they present a different view of the text?

Listen Listen3

Perhaps an Avinu Malkeinu that mixes traditional melody with contemporary harmonies will be an Avinu Malkeinu that provides the mystery and majesty we seek during these Days of Awe.

Listen Listen4

We as a community of clergy and congregants need to not only explore the musical settings currently available, but we need to encourage a new generation of composers to share with us their interpretations of our hallowed prayers. The new CCAR machzor will pose both considerable and exciting challenges to our High Holiday worship, and as a community we will meet these challenges by re-imagining tradition while considering the new. As we look forward to publication of the new machzor perhaps the words of Rav Kook may serve to guide us: “May the old become new and may the new become holy.”

  1. Avinu Malkeinu, by Max Janowski. Sung by Cantor Lisa Levine. From Gems of the High Holy Days.
  2. Avinu Malkeinu, traditionalmelody, arranged by Elliot Z. Levine. Sung by The Western Wind with Cantor Alberto Mizrahi. The Birthday of The World, Part II: Yom Kippur (WW 1872).
  3. Avinu Malkeinu. Composed and sung by Cantor Meir Finkelstein. From Sh’ma Koleinu.
  4. Avinu Malkeinu. Composed and sung by Cantor Ramon Tasat. From Teshuva Liturgical Explorations for the Days of Awe.

Cantor Evan Kent, a 1988 graduate of the HUC Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, has been the cantor at Temple Isaiah for twenty-five years.  Evan is also on the faculty of HUC-LA and is a doctoral candidate at Boston University where he is studying how music at Jewish summer camps helps to inform Jewish identity. In July 2013, Evan and his husband, Rabbi Donald Goor, will be fulfilling a life-long dream of making aliyah to Jerusalem.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email

This blog post appeared previously on the URJ Ten Minutes of Torah.

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Israel Blog: Flames of Passion

Reform Mechina Students in Jaffa
Reform Mechina Students in Jaffa

On Rosh Hashanah 2006, following the Second Lebanon War, I spoke about my sense that I could simply stand at the bimah, say “Israel,” sit back in my seat, and we would all witness fireworks as people reacted from all sides with their feelings for, against and about Israel. It’s a sad reality that for so many in our Jewish community, Israel evokes such strong and passionate feelings. For many, there is a sense that we can no longer talk with one another civilly about the subject. In the round of house meetings held throughout my Temple Shalom community two years ago, we learned that one wide-spread concern is that civil discourse is all-too absent in our society these days. In the coming weeks, we will launch a project in which we will have the opportunity to direct our questions, feelings, concerns and passions about Israel into what we hope will be a congregation-wide opportunity for learning and civil discourse. We will have an opportunity to hear the first of a number of incredible speakers who will help us to move beyond headlines and talking heads to learn, and then challenge ourselves to engage one another in facilitated conversation around what we’ve heard and the questions, concerns and passions we each have.

However, as I sit here in Jerusalem, I am drawn to a different sense of the power of passion when it comes to Israel. It is the power of the passions of people I have met over the past week during the CCAR Social Justice and Solidarity Mission in which I was privileged to participate, and in the days since as I have shared coffee, meals and conversation with both friends and strangers from many walks of life in and around Israel, and in more recent days, Jerusalem. There are passions here beyond those found in the political sphere, which came to a head of sorts with last week’s elections. Yes, one can easily tap into abundant passion surrounding discussions of politics. And there is the fever which sweeps Israeli society around its sporting events (I write as the Israel Soccer Cup Final is beginning at Teddy Stadium across the street from where I am sitting and writing these words.) Rather, I am speaking about the passion I encountered in the people, of all ages and of many different backgrounds I have met during the past week.

Some examples: At the beginning of our CCAR Mission we met with the students at our Israel Progressive (Reform) Movement’s Mechina in Jaffa. In Israel, the mechina programs, which abound, are a sort of gap-year for high school graduates, before they begin their military service. The Hebrew word mechina means “preparation,” and the concept behind these programs is to give these young people an opportunity to learn, and do community service, all while maturing a bit before they enter the Army. The Reform Mechina program, has grown from 4 participants in its first year a decade ago, to the 50 students currently in the program. They study Judaism, Jewish texts and explore their Jewish identity, and they spend much of their time volunteering in the Jaffa area — in schools, in community centers, in nursing homes, and in many more settings, working with Jews, Christians and Arabs. These incredibly impressive 18-19 year olds choose to spend a year of social and communal service, for which they pay, while deepening their identity and sense of commitment.

Tira, an Arab-Israeli village in the center of Israel. Dr. Fadila was raised in Tira, one among a number of Arab-Israeli Villages in an area known as “the Triangle,”

Dr. Dalia Fadila
Dr. Dalia Fadila

a wholly Arab area located in the heart of Israel. She received her Masters degree and Doctorate focussing on minority identity and status in society at Bar Ilan University (functionally an Orthodox institution) in Ramat Aviv. Dr. Fadila was the first Arab-Israeli woman to be appointed to a position in higher education in Israel. She has served in various teaching and administrative positions at Al-Qasemi Academy, an Arab College of Education in Bake El-Gharbiya, another Arab village in “the Triangle.” She served for a time as Acting President of the college and currently serves as Provost. An expert on organizational development and a researcher of American literature, women’s literature and ethnic studies, Dr. Fadila is deeply concerned with promoting quality education for Arab students and has established a network of private schools for teaching English called Q Schools – English Language and HR Development which utilizes a unique approach to learning/teaching English suited to Arab students and stemming from the need of these students to develop personally and professionally. The Q stands for quality. Sitting in her school in Tira, we watched and listened to a woman who believes she can changes the lives of young Arab students, and the Arab community through her network of Q Schools which to date has touched the lives of some 2000 students in just a few short years. Listening to Dr. Fadila was like watching flames dance as she captivated us and inspired the members of our group with her passion for education and with her belief that education can change lives and the world. While she is realistic that life for Israeli Arabs has a ways to go, she believes that change will be advanced by instilling a sense of pride, confidence and self-esteem, along with the tools for young Arab students to prepare themselves for life and careers in the 21st century. Dr. Fadila also serves on the faculty at the Israel Defense College in Herzilya. She is a tireless, passionate educator who is changing the world around her one life at a time.

Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz
Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz

There’s also Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, a young modern-Orthodox rabbi who is standing up to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and its Kashrut supervision as he seeks to help shopkeepers and restauranteurs run quality establishments without having to get caught up in the often tangled web of intrigue surrounding kashrut certification in Israel, which is widely known to involve extortion and graft. Or I could write about Elyasaf, a young social entrepreneur who has engaged in creating a number of start-ups in this “Start-Up Nation,” the most recent being Salon Shabazzi in Jerusalem’s Nachlaotneighborhood. The establishment hosts an alternative radio station (a remnant of 2011′s social protest movement); allows local artists and craftspersons to display and sell their wares, provides a cafe for the neighborhood which is also a meeting place for an incredibly diverse range of people; and by the way, has a washer and dryer in the basement, which neighbors are free to use. Elyasaf’s passion is for bringing people together — young and old, gay and straight, men and women, Christians, Muslims and Jews — you get the idea. And it is working!

Elyasaf at Salon Shabazzi with CCAR Mission members
Elyasaf at Salon Shabazzi with CCAR Mission members

We can be passionate about our feelings and concerns surrounding Israel. But this week I learned that there is abundant passion in Israel — for Israel and for change in Israel. These are stories we need to hear. We have to look and listen beyond the headlines and the politics which can all-too-often be discouraging. These are the stories of real people, real Israelis — Jews, Christians, Muslims and others whose passion can light flames in and for us to carry beyond the all-too-frequent challenges that many feel about this neighborhood over here.

More to come . . .

Rabbi Eric Gurvis

Rabbi Eric Gurvis the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Newton, MA. 

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Israel Blog: Finding the Israel I Fell in Love With

CCAR Social Justice Mission members at Ayalim village of Adiel near Berrsheba
CCAR Social Justice Mission members at Ayalim village of Adiel near Berrsheba

Shalom from Jerusalem! Late last night I finished a rather intense week of touring, meeting and learning with a group of 17 other Reform rabbinic colleagues from the Central Conference of American Rabbis on a “Social Justice and Solidarity Mission.” Starting with my arrival Monday afternoon, straight through to the end of Shabbat our days were filled with mifgashim(encounters with other people); visits to sites which, for the most part were new to us; visits to show solidarity in various communities, especially with our colleagues in the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the Israeli Reform movement); actions (such as our freedom ride on Jerusalem’s buses to protest and fight against segregation and discrimination against women; and more.

There’s so much to share, but for now I’ll confine myself to just one piece of our journey. On Wednesday evening, we visited the community of Eshelim, outside of Beersheba. Alongside of Eshelim, a community of some 100 families, sits a “village” associated with the Ayalim movement. I first encountered Ayalim in the summer of 2010 on a day-long tour entitled “Start-Up Nation” (led by Saul Singer, one of the authors of the book by the same name.) during my studies at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “The Ayalim Association was founded in 2002 with the goal to strengthen existing communities and social involvement in the Negev and Galilee. TheAssociation’s role is to revive and renew the Zionist idea in the 21st century. Ayalim achieves this goal through the establishment of student and entrepreneur villages. This is young social entrepreneurship fosters the connection between people and land, and between the individual and society.” (from the Ayalim website)

The young people of Ayalim whom I met in 2010 were literally building their new community, Yachini (near the Gaza Strip) from the ground up. They were building their future homes, their community meeting center, studying at universities, and devoting 500 hours of annual community or social service in one of a number of

Some of the homes built by the Ayalim students at Adiel in which they now live.
Some of the homes built by the Ayalim students at Adiel in which they now live.

ways to the communities around them. At the end of that visit toYachini, I remember remarking to my dear friend and colleague, Arnie Gluck, “This is the Israel I fell in love with back in 1976!”

During last Wednesday’s visit to Adiel, the first Ayalim village (now 10 years old), I found myself inspired yet again. We toured the village, met with Ayalim students and leadership, and learned of some of the vision this remarkable program is trying to realize:

1. Creating new communities in Israel to help settle parts of Israel (within the Green Line) which are as yet uninhabited.
2. Creating student villages in difficult neighborhoods in cities wherein the students can help address difficult social problems (such as in Kiriyat Shemona where theAyalim community has helped clean up a derelict neighborhood, driving our drug dealers, crime and other challenges to the community while creating a youth center for children where they can engage in productive after-school activities.)

Ten years into the program, there are some 1000 Ayalim participants in 14 villages with the vision of adding at least two more sites per year. At the outset, students at Ben Gurion University distributed flyers hoping that maybe 25-50 students would come to hear about their dream. Over 500 turned up, and now, there are 5000 applicants each year for the approximately 800 spots available.

However, what inspires me is more than the statistics, which by themselves are impressive. What truly inspires is the passion of the Ayalim participants. These are the new chalutzim, the new pioneers, who are taking up David Ben Gurion’s call to settle the Land of Israel and build the Jewish State, based on Jewish values, concern for the other, and a commitment to social justice. Ayalim is an apolitical organization, and it sets its sights only on communities and sites within Israel. In a time when we are so often challenged by the political and geo-political challenges faced by Israel and within Israel, these young people are the living embodiment of what I believe is the true dream of Israel’s founders, and the values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

The young visionaries/activists I have met in my two Ayalim visits are committed to the Israel of which so many of us dream. And they are building it, brick by brick, and relation ship by relationship. Their commitment and tenacity is infectious. And, theirs is a story which must be told! Surely Israel faces numerous challenges, both from within and beyond her borders. This week’s elections, while surprising, do not indicate any certainty about Israel’s directions in the months and years-to-come.

The Ayalim motto at Adiel – and they believe it!
The Ayalim motto at Adiel – and they believe it!

During the past week I was reminded, both by the elections and more importantly by the various people I met, both Jews and Arabs, that Israel is a place which continues to surprise me. The students of Adiel — the Ayalim village near Beersheba, along with the many other people and places I visited, rekindled that spark which was lit so powerfully when I lived here in 1976-77. The Israel of which we dream is completely possible in the eyes of the Ayalim students. They are not starry-eyed. They are tenacious and they are committed to a better tomorrow for Israel and all who live here. May they continue to go “from strength to strength!”

More to come . . .

Shalom from Jerusalem!

Rabbi Eric Gurvis

Rabbi Eric Gurvis the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Newton, MA. 


CCAR in Israel: Highlights of Two Days


Undelivered cell phone kerfuffles did not hinder the important in-person conversations with HUC-JIR students. On our January Tikkun Olam and Solidarity Mission in Israel, CCAR incoming VP for Program, Debbie Bravo, co-chair Ariana Silverman, and I engaged with Jerusalem HUC-JIR students about their hopes for their careers and how CCAR supports them. They are excited to access our lifelong learning resources and opportunities for chevruta.

For some, these contacts have begun with relationships with many of you who have taught them, inspired them, mentored them and encouraged them in their rabbinic journeys. Indeed, on one side of Debbie Bravo sat a young man she knows from NFTY GER and on the other side sat a young woman she met as a unit head at Harlam.

I look forward to meeting them again on their respective stateside campuses over the next four years as each member of the CCAR rabbinic staff generally meets with almost each class, on each campus, each year, making approximately 20-25 times conversations over the course of each student’s seminary time. When possible, CCAR leadership volunteers also spend time with students. Over the course of these years our student members receive an orientation to CCAR and most importantly we develop personal relationships with each of them. In addition their student memberships enable them to access our teleconferences, webinars, newsletters as well as Convention. L’hitraot often in the years ahead.


Wednesday, by Rabbi Danny Gottlieb


100_8323Yesterday afternoon we visited one of the 14 student villages built by the Ayalim Foundation, which was established 10 years ago by five young people in memory of two friends who had been murdered in a terrorist incident.  The mission of the foundation is to build student villages as part of a larger plan to create communities in places that need them, such as deserted or difficult neighborhoods.  The students who live in the villages, in return for subsidized accommodations, accept an obligation to volunteer in the local community in a variety of ways that serve to strengthen the social fabric and the educational standard of the community.  They tutor children after school, support learning disabled children, provide after school activities and social programs, as well as being role models for the children in the neighborhood.
The village we visited, just south of Beersheva, was home to about 80 students of the Ben Gurion University.  The students volunteer for 8 hours a week in the local community, as well as one Friday a month when they help to clean up the neighborhood.  And also, during the Pesach and summer semester breaks, they volunteer to build the village.  You see, the village, which began with a single pre-fab building, has been expanded into a complete village, with 40 apartments, a student center, moadon and public square, all of which have been built by the students themselves (under the supervision of a construction foreman, of course…) A small alumni village exists alongside the student village, and there are plans to expand the alumni village. Financial support comes from a combination of private philanthropy, federation support and government grants.
In its 10 years of existence the Foundation has seen over 6000 students through its program.  These students have touched the lives of more than 25,000 children in the communities of which the 14 villages are a part.  At present, there are 5000 applications for 800 available spaces for next year.
4453260338_6f73a51f68_oThe other part of the Ayalim Foundation’s mission is to assist in the development of the Negev Region, which is seen as both the fulfillment of David Ben Gurion’s dream and the key to the future development of the State of Israel.  The Negev has vast land and solar resources, and is the center for cutting-edge research in conservation, eco-system and energy sustainability.  The idea is that if the students build the village and help to develop the local community themselves, they will feel a part of the community and they will choose to stay in the region.  And according to Danielle, a 22 year-old student from Jerusalem, it is likely that she will do just that.
The Ayalim Foundation belief is not that “if you build it, they will come” rather, “if they build it, they will stay!”

Rabbi Danny Gottlieb is the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco, CA.  He is currently participating on the CCAR Solidarity and Social Action MIssion to Israel, part of the CCAR Leadership Travel series.

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Our Day of Solidarity: CCAR Leadership Trip to Israel

To meet people who live in the area surrounding Gaza and to hear the personal stories reinforces the complexity of the situation demonstrated through their real life experiences.  Our mission visited Moshav Netiv HaAsarah, Kibbutz Kfar Aza and the town of Sderot on Election Day. AlanKatz1

Raz Shmilovitz, a tour educator and farmer from Netiv HaAsarah spoke of his parents being part of this community when it was established in 1975 in the Sinai. The uprooting of the moshav after the peace treaty with Egypt led to their present location on the northern border of Gaza within the original boundaries of Israel. They chose this locale so that no one would dispute their right to live on that land.  He used an expression based on two Hebrew words which have similar pronunciation but different spelling.  “If you don’t work (eebeyd with an ayin) the land, you will lose (eebeyd with an alef) the land.  Another member, Roni, spoke of her participation in The Other Voice, continues to believe that they must dialogue with Gazans.  During Pillar of Defense a friend from Gaza called her to ask how she and her family were doing.  She calls herself a realist and not a dreamer.  According to her the dreamers are those who think they can continue in the present state of affairs.

At Kfar Aza, Chen Avraham, who works for the IMPJ, came back to the Kibbutz to raise her son in this wonderful environment.  Now her challenge is to keep his perspective to not hate all Arabs.  During the war a rocket landed just outside of her grandmother’s home who was safe with her caretaker in the shelter but found her bed covered with ash and broken glass. From both of these places we were able to look out across the border, a few hundred yards away, even seeing a few Gazans who were chased away from approaching too closely.

In both communities many of the women and children were evacuated but others remained.  We witnessed people of tremendous resilience as many continue to suffer from traumatic stress disorders.  And yet on this sunny day we saw children and adults seemingly living a normal life.  At Netiv HaAsarah an artist designed a peace mosaic to which we able to add pieces of ceramics.


In Sderot, a town most heavily bombarded in the area we met with Noam Bedin of the Sderot Media Center.  His message was to get out the truth on what he called the “rocket reality.”  Not only has the greater area had over 12,000 rockets shot during the past 7 years since the disengagement from Gaza, but 97% were shot from civilian areas.  He also spoke of the many dilemmas such as the mother who hears the alert while in a car and has to decide which child to pull out first to bring them to a shelter.  Anat, who works with Noam, was evacuated from a community just across the border from Netiv HaAsarah, which now lieAlanKatz3s entirely in ruins.  She loves the area but spoke of the anxiety and fears that she and others have at such minor things as a clicking sound which reminds them of the tzevah adom (Red Alert) warnings.

Noam summed up his feeling as we looked at a playground and soccer field surrounded by bomb shelters.  His claim is that those images together are in and of themselves an abomination.

Rabbi Alan Katz is the Rabbi of Temple Sinai in Rochester, NY.  He is currently traveling in Irsael with the CCAR Israel Solidarity and Social Action Mission, part of the CCAR Leadership Travel series.

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An Interfaith Prayer for an Interfaith Crowd

Rabbis Steve Foster & Steve Fox at the National Prayer Service 2013
Rabbis Steve Foster & Steve Fox
at the National Prayer Service 2013


This week I attended the National Prayer Service in the Washington National Cathedral on the day after the Inauguration. The service was beautiful and moving, a dignified end to a whirlwind of parades and inaugural galas.  However, as we sat in the pews of the National Cathedral, with its soaring vaulting and stained-glass windows, I couldn’t help my mind from racing with questions around the issue as to whether a national prayer service is appropriate?

Can you gather together a room full of rabbis, priests, pastors and imams to actually pray together for a national leader?  Are we being disingenuous to sit together in a church as prayers are offered for our country that do not reflect our own beliefs?  Can we pray together without leaving each other out?  Does prayer even belong in a national setting?

On the National Cathedral website, the spokeswoman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee said, “President Obama’s own faith has played an integral role in his life, his commitment to service and his presidency, and this important tradition will celebrate the values and diversity that make us strong”.

That statement, and for that matter most of the press covering the National Prayer Service, seems to mix a multitude of issues.  President Obama, a person of faith, wants to worship in his “own faith” with his ministers in his tradition; so, how do we respect his tradition?   How do the faith leaders of the National Prayer Service decide on appropriate prayer to respect Mr. Obama’s traditions, while still “celebrating the values and diversity that make us strong”?

The issue of appropriate prayer in interfaith settings has been the subject of discussion recently among CCAR members, with colleagues and scholars sharing many thoughts on all sides of the questions:

Do we try and find a common prayer?  Or do we pray in parallel, each along the lines of our own traditions? 


For me the answer is simple—we each pray in our own tradition.  The opportunity to gather with religious people of many faiths in the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (the National Cathedral’s actual name) requires us to open our ears, minds and hearts to respect someone else’s tradition, to allow each to pray in his/her own way, and to appreciate the celebration of diversity and inclusiveness.  The success of inclusivity at the National Prayer Service from the diverse group of clergy and other religious leaders comes from the commitment to gather together in support of something harmonious and peaceful.

In this instance, as President Obama’s tradition involves his belief in Jesus, we respect this tradition and do not expect him and his clergy to expunge the name of Jesus from their prayers, just as we do not expect clergy of other faiths to pray from our traditions.  When there is a Jewish president, the rabbis leading the service should expect and deliver the same—a service guided in Jewish tradition, with clarity as to our expectations of other clergy.

You can call it a National Prayer Service or a joint prayer service or whatever you like.  But as each of us sit in the National Cathedral or in our churches, or synagogues, or mosques, or even in our own living rooms, we each invoke our own prayers in our hearts to guide President Obama through his second term.

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Faith in America’s Future Includes Our Faith.

Inauguration 2013
Inauguration 2013

I was honored today to represent the CCAR at the Inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States of America, as he was sworn in for his second term.  Words cannot really describe the experience of viewing the ceremony with my own eyes – and the experience was at certain times surprisingly emotional. It was quite moving to watch Mr. Obama, his family, and the representatives of the American government walk through this ritual with all of the pageantry that has developed since the inauguration was moved to January back in 1933.  But even before the ceremony began, the crowd in our area burst into spontaneous cheering as Tuskegee Airmen walked by us to their seats.  Once the program began, speakers honored the legacy of great Americans from the founders of the Republic to Dr. Martin Luther King.  It was touching when entertainers of several generations including James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé sang American patriotic songs and a Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco, shared his work.

All morning I was struck by the confluence of old and new; the diversity of America’s population as represented by the people all around us; our country’s history and legacy intersecting with our need as a nation to be reenergized and rejuvenated.

As honored and humbled as I was to receive the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s invitation, I know that the invitation was actually meant for the 2,000 rabbis of the CCAR, the rabbis who lead Reform Jewish life in North America and other places around the world.

Each invite I have received from the White House for a briefing or a meeting with key leadership or even for the Chanukah celebration serves as an important

With Newark Mayor Corey Booker at Inauguration 2013
With Newark Mayor Corey Booker at Inauguration 2013

recognition of the key leadership role that Reform Rabbis play in American Jewish life.  The arrival of that White House envelope on my desk means that the United States Government has recognized CCAR members as thought leaders and community builders in all aspects of the Jewish community, in every major Jewish organization, and on the ground working with their community members from all walks of life every single day. The honor bestowed upon CCAR Rabbis who were present today is one of the many ways in which CCAR Rabbis reinforce our roles as intermediaries between policy makers in Washington and our congregations and communities.

The theme of the 2013 Inauguration was “Faith in America’s Future”.   Most people will understand this to mean that President Obama’s second term should be looked forward to with “faith” (i.e., hope).  I believe “faith” has a secondary meaning for us as Jews.  If you interpret the word “faith” as do many of our rabbis and their community members (i.e., religion, culture, spirituality or the like), then my invitation to the inauguration as a CCAR representative makes perfect sense.  Faith in America includes our Jewish Faith.

As we send President Obama into his second term with our heartfelt prayers, we should each take this moment to reenergize and rejuvenate, as we move forward to face our the challenges of our communities with a faith that is grounded in tradition, while at the same time inclusive and forward looking.

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Machzor Blog: A Sin By Any Other Name

11505867Folks out there – colleagues and laypeople alike – feel quite strongly about the use of the word “sin” in the new machzor. Or so it seems from the feedback we’ve heard in the piloting process.  But these strong feelings about the word “sin” fall into two opposite camps.  There are those who object to the English word sin because of its Christian overtones, the sense it carries of permanence and of somehow being stained.  Others suspect that our decision to largely use other words (though not exclusively) such as “wrong” reflects a kind of moral relativism where nothing can be catagorically labeled as, well, a sin.

 The three words that are predominately used in the Torah and in our liturgy are cheyt, avon and pesha.  According to a baraita cited in Tractate Yoma 36b, each of these words refers to a distinct kind of sin.    Cheyt refers to inadvertent sins.  Avon references deliberate sins.  Pesha, the most severe, refers to sins committed as a way of rebelling against God.

 In our Kol Nidre service, these terms are translated in one place as “wrongs,” “act of injustice,” and “moral failures.”

The word most often used throughout the liturgy is cheyt, and the translation utilized by the new machzor most often is “wrong.”  This word seems to address both those who are looking to the machzor to provide clear moral standards, as well as those who fear that the word “sin” doesn’t carry with it the possibility for change.

Here is how the Vidui Rabbah is translated in the Kol Nidre pilot draft, page 47a:

 For the wrong we have done in Your presence by the spoken word,

And for the wrong we have done in Your presence through insincere promises….

 In the draft for Yom Kippur Minchah, we introduced a very different translation of the word cheyt.  Drawing upon the oft-cited etymology of the word as derived from “missing the goal” the pilot draft, page 50a and b, offered this translation:

 For missing the mark in Your presence through a selfish or petty spirit,

And for missing the mark in your presence through stubbornness.

 Maybe it was the absence of a commentary or explanation below the line, but this creative way of translation cheyt was viewed as highly objectionable, and laypeople and rabbis alike told us that this translation simply will not work.

Even the best translation and the most insightful commentary below the line cannot fully unpack the notion of sin, or wrong, or failure.  In the same 300px-Kol_Nidrei-2Talmudic sugya referenced above the Rabbis are bothered by the fact that the order of the three primary words for sin in High Priest’s confession doesn’t make sense in light of their own definitions.  For the Rabbis, the order to sin, in increasing severity, should be cheyt, avon, and pesha.  This therefore should be the correct order of the High Priest’s confession.  But Leviticus 16: 21 prescribes that the sins transferred to the scapegoat by the confession are avon, pesha, and cheyt.  Likewise, in Exodus 34:7 (the verse that forms the basis of our selichot prayers), God is described as nosei avon, va’pesha v’chata…

The Talmud solves the problem in an ingenious way. Rabbah bar Shmuel said in the name of Rav: The halakhah follows the view of the Sages. Moses was saying before the Holy One of Blessing, “Master of the Universe, at a time when Israel sins before you and then repents, transform for them their deliberate sins into inadvertent sins.”

In other words, the order of sins in the Torah comes not to teach us the order of the High Priest’s confession, but rather to teach that repentance has the power to change the order of what we’ve done, to transform even deliberate and rebellious sins into less severe inadvertent sins.

With regard to our translations then, might we say that teshuvah can turn “sin” into “wrong,” or even in to “missing the mark.”

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.


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Arming Rabbis? Not in My Time, I Pray.

Yes, I have fired a gun on more than one occasion; most recently at a training range on a Kibbutz in Israel* in 2009 and early on as a teenager at target practice with a friend and his dad.  The experiences unnerved me; the echoing boom, the kick of the weapon and even more, the thought that the gun I fired, no matter how small, had the potential to take a human life.

Mourning in Newtown, CT
Mourning in Newtown, CT

My limited experience with weapons affirms for me the sentiments I have been hearing these past two weeks from my colleagues, friends and so many grieving families across the nation.  Guns are far too easy to use — and misuse — and we must continue to demand from Congress reasonable regulations for guns and assault weapons.

The “solution” suggested last week by the NRA- placing armed guards in schools- is beyond absurd. Even since Newtown there have been other mass shootings, including in a church, to which Gail Collins of the NY Times said in context of the NRA’s comment, “We will await the next grand plan for arming ministers.”

Not in my time, I pray- may we not see armed ministers, rabbis or school security guards.

For decades the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) has decried “the power of the NRA in controlling the debate on gun control” (2000) and called upon “the U.S. Congress to eschew the support of the NRA and to vote their support of stringent gun-control legislation”(1987).

Our resolution has not changed; we continue to support meaningful gun control legislation that will stem these senseless episodes of mass violence.  In the CCAR’s recent public statement about the Newtown shootings, we expressed our condolences to whose who suffered losses, sympathies for those wounded, and fear that the NRA will continue to thwart not just legislation, but even conversation, about the need to stop the gun violence.

But expressing these feelings is not enough.

Reform Rabbis who are on the front lines of Jewish communal life can join together, and with clergy of other faiths, to advocate in support of meaningful gun control nationwide and in their own communities- (studies indicate that “states with strong gun laws and low rates of gun ownership had far lower rates of firearm-related death”).  At the CCAR we remain committed to providing rabbis with resources on ways that they may advocate and organize, such as in partnership with Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.

Importantly, the CCAR also provides our rabbis personal support and resources as their communities turn to them for religious and pastoral comfort in time of tragedy.  Our volunteer Rabbis on Call and Rabbinic Hotline, as well as CCAR’s Rabbinic Staff, support rabbis who themselves offer prayer and comfort to their communities.  We also provide resources grounded in Jewish text, theology, and philosophy on subjects ranging from the sanctity of life to the abhorrence of violence.

Our rabbis also benefit from the strength of partnership.  At the end of last week, the CCAR joined forces with the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative Rabbis), and the Religious Action Center to provide hundreds of rabbis the opportunity to learn from other leaders in our faith; including one of our rabbis who is serving Newtown as the Director of Spiritual Care at Danbury Hospital; a rabbi and advocate for Faiths United Against Gun Violence; and from the Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

In the CCAR’s latest statement, we expressed our understanding that comprehensive laws cannot stop all gun violence.  But we must continue to act in the words of our tradition: “one who saves one life saves a whole world.”

*Important footnote:  As to the incorrect statements made last week by the pro-gun lobby, Israel is actually a country with strict control over weapons in the civilian population.





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Machzor Blog: Piyyutim and the Machzor

There was a time, more than century and a half ago, when piyyutim were seen largely as a kind of cultural burden to be cast aside in order to make the service shorter and more meaningful.  Early liturgical reformers argued that the siddur and machzor had grown too lengthy and no longer inspired modern Jews.  Piyyutim – medieval poetic extensions of the traditional prayers, with allusions incomprehensible to the average congregant – were first on the chopping block. The irony, however, lies in the fact that the piyut was itself a sort of liturgical reform.  While earlier generations of Jews were unable to change the statutory service itself, piyyutim allowed for an imaginative embellishment of that service.  It highlighted and expanded particular parts of the liturgy.  It added additional opportunities for congregational singing.  It was, in short, an early version of the “creative service.”

Over the past decade, there has been a growing phenomenon in Israel centered around the rediscovery and revival of medieval piyutim – not just in the synagogue (in fact, largely not in the synagogue), but rather in the cultural realms largely controlled by self-defined “secular” Jews.  Once seen primarily as an impediment for the modern worshiper, piyyutim are now being studied and sung by local “kehillot sharot” / singing communities that gather weekly in homes and community centers.  These groups combine community building, ethnomusicology, history and text study.  New CDs by popular artists are constantly being released with new musical settings to these piyyutim. Piyyut festivals in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have drawn hundreds of people of all ages.  The interest in reviving piyut is fueled in part by the small but significant programs and projects that driven by native-born self-described “secular” Israelis rediscovering the Jewish bookshelf, and reclaiming Jewish heritage on their own terms and in their own way.

There is an amazing website that has a staggering collection of recordings of piyyutim from dozens of different communities, explanations of the piyyut’s authorship and history, and the lyrics.  One piyut alone might have a dozen recordings made from paytanim, chazanim and congregations.  The most robust part of the site is in Hebrew only, but a significant selection of materials is available on the English language part of the site.  Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York convened a conference a few years back aimed at bringing the piyyut phenomenon to America, and some materials that emerged from that effort are also on the English language part of the site.

Creating a new Reform machzor that will be used for the next 30-40 years requires us to pay attention to this growing piyyut revival. From these creative efforts, our congregations may find new models for re-introducing this classic poetry to the Reform synagogue.

The new openness to expanding the number of piyyutim is found in several places within the machzor, but most especially with the selichot prayers of Yom Kippur, particularly the most fully developed version in Kol Nidre.

So here are two piyyutim that we have included in the draft of the new machzor, and a link to one traditional and one contemporary recording of each.  Enjoy.

Here is Yonatan Razel singing Adon HaSelichot (Chatanu lifanecha.)

Here is the same piyyut sung in the traditional style of Jerusalem Sefardi community.

Here is Meir Banai singing his arrangement of Aneinu.

And the same piyyut sung by the Cochin Jews of India.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.