Categories
CCAR Press omer Prayer Shavuot

CCAR Press Interview: Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar on ‘Omer: A Counting’

Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL, shares insights on writing Omer: A Counting. It is available as a print book, an inspirational card deck, a print book and card deck bundle, and as a companion app on Apple, Google Play, and Amazon.


What is the Omer? What spiritual meaning can it provide for contemporary Jews?
The seven weeks of the Omer offer an invitation to walk a spiritual path from constriction to expanse. On the holiday of Shavuot, we will explore seven spiritual principles: decision, discernment, choosing, hope, imagination, courage, and praying. Each one, powerful on its own, can be a sort of north star and illuminate a path toward personal and spiritual growth.


How do you suggest that someone who has never counted the Omer before get started? How can Omer: A Counting enhance their practice?
For forty-nine days, or seven weeks, we take on a discipline, an obligation to mindfully enter the day, to be aware of its potential power to matter, to make a difference, to count for something. Awaken your routine with intention, with attention.


To get started simply begin or end your day with a moment of thought. Perhaps you sit in a beautiful place in your home, perhaps you leaf through a book that’s been inspirational to you. Perhaps you just take a walk or look out the window. It doesn’t have to be for a long time, even five minutes will do. And you say to yourself, today I make myself count for something good.


The book is divided into seven spiritual principles. How did you come up with these principles? What is their significance?
I offer an original set of spiritual principles for the seven weeks of Omer, listed above. These principles are points of light to illuminate a path towards spiritual awareness as we attempt to be free from what enslaves us.


Was there something new that you learned while writing this book?
It was very powerful for me to articulate the seven spiritual principles as stepping stones. Each one can be an entire practice on a spiritual path that sometimes feels more like a zigzag than a straight line. For example, every internal change begins with the spiritual principle of decision: we decide to behave a different way, to live a different way, to interact in a different way.

Rabbi Kedar is available to teach online on topics in her books. Email bookevents@ccarpress.org for more information.


Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, Illinois. She is the author of two CCAR Press books, Omer: A Counting (2014) and Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry, and Mindfulness Practice (2019).

Categories
CCAR Press Passover Pesach Poetry Prayer

CCAR Press Interview: Jessica Greenbaum on ‘Mishkan HaSeder’

Jessica Greenbaum, coeditor (with Rabbi Hara E. Person) of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah, shares her experience working on the Haggadah. Mishkan HaSeder is available as a print book, ebook (Kindle and Google Play), and now as a Visual T’filahTM.


How did you come to serve as a coeditor for Mishkan HaSeder?

Mishkan HaSeder was one of those long-gestating dreams. I met Rabbi Hara Person in 1990, and as we became friends and I reveled in the poems she had paired with Torah text in the Women’s Commentary, it seemed inevitable that we would also pair passages of the Haggadah with poetry —and for the same reason, to feel closer to the text. We also knew that by choosing poets of any faith, time, and place, their work would reflect the universality of the story of the Exodus. We wanted participants to feel the seder as a microcosm for the human experience.

Mishkan HaSeder contains a wealth of poetry alongside the seder text. How did you choose which poems to include?

From her work with the The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and other texts, Rabbi Person had a clear method. We looked at every page of the Haggadah and then distilled meanings, symbols, and philosophies found at that moment in the seder. To find poems that reflected or refracted those ideas, we cross-indexed them with our own knowledge of poets and poems, with online databases of poems, and we thumbed through books upon books. It’s not hard to find poems that have a relationship to the story, but finding the very right ones that pop open the moment to new understandings and resonance—that was our goal, and it was thrilling. Like Torah, the story of Passover is ever-expanding; we wanted to find poems that sparked this dynamism.

What role can poetry play as part of the Passover experience?

Emotional intimacy! For example, Mishkan HaSeder’s very first poem, by Karl Shapiro, imagines a 151st psalm (there are only 150 in our liturgy) that begins, “Immigrant God, You follow me.” From the start the reader is offered, within this story of moving toward freedom, an example of freedom to reimagine one’s relationship to God and to the story. “The 151st Psalm” is followed by Jane Hirshfield’s great poem “Optimism,” which begins “More and more I have come to admire resilience”—because not only does Passover embody resilience, but so does survival for peoples all through time. When the Haggadah instructs us to honor the stranger, resilience is needed there as well, to strengthen our resolve against forces of exclusion on any number of levels.

What makes Mishkan HaSeder different from other Haggadot?

Many wonderful Haggadot offer paths from the traditional liturgy to a deepened awareness of the living presence of the Exodus story in the present day. One thing Mishkan HaSeder holds is an entire second Haggadah within it; people who want to conduct a seder with very little of the traditional liturgy can lean on the poems themselves to reflect the signs and wonders of the story. And because readers are used to understanding poems through a very personal scrim, participants can come to the evening knowing that their individual sensibilities have a seat at the table and a voice for the discussion. Mishkan HaSeder can also act as the salt and pepper at the table—the poems sprinkled within whatever text a host chooses.

Did you learn something new while editing the book?

I was grateful to become more conversant with the traditional liturgy and the relationship of one part of the seder to another. There will always be more to know, of course, but each layer of understanding offers new layers of discovery—and new ways of feeling profoundly connected.

Learn more about Mishkan HaSeder at mishkanhaseder.ccarpress.org


Jessica Greenbaum is a poet, teacher, and social worker. She is the coeditor, with Rabbi Hara Person, of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah.

Categories
Healing News Prayer

‘Fear of Antisemitism’: A Prayer of Hope


During Shabbat services on Saturday, January 15, 2022, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants were taken hostage for nearly twelve hours at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. His fortitude, strength, and bravery led to Rabbi Cytron-Walker and his congregants’ safe escape. During this terrifying incident, thousands of Jews and supporters gathered virtually for a Zoom vigil to send Rabbi Cytron-Walker and those involved prayers and strength. Rabbi Hara Person, Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, read the following prayer, “Fear of Antisemitism,” written by Rabbi Marc Katz, during the vigil. Many who attended have reached out inquiring about the piece. We share Rabbi Marc Katz’s words here in hopes that they bring you hope and strength in the face of adversity.

“Fear of Antisemitism” appears in the Supplement to L’chol Z’man V’eit: For Sacred Moments, a recently published expansion to the CCAR clergy manual that contains prayers, readings, and rituals for a wide variety of contemporary situations.  


“Fear of Antisemitism”
As in so many times throughout history, 
our Jewish community is surrounded by uncertainty. 
Unsure of what danger, what vitriol, what violence might await us,
in this era of rising antisemitism, 
we call upon You, God, 
to be our partner:

When we face enmity, 
fill our hearts and those of our detractors with love.
When we meet bigotry, 
puncture the ignorance surrounding us with truth.
When we see only shortsightedness, 
open the eyes of the blind.
When fear overcomes us, 
show us the light of courage.
When we feel alone, 
find us hands to soothe us. 
When we seek to turn inward, 
find us partners with whom to stand in solidarity.

We stand in the footsteps of our ancestor Beruriah —
praying not that the wicked will disappear, 
but rather that their wickedness will. (BT B’rachot 10a)
Let those inclined to hate 
question their intolerance, 
break their fanaticism, 
and burst open their narrow-mindedness. 

Guide our leaders to speak out, 
our law enforcement to stand firm, 
our judges to rule justly. 
Let all those who profess faith 
walk with us along this unsteady and rocky path, 
and let us, in turn, 
walk with them along theirs. 

We are a people blessed with perseverance, boldness, and fortitude.
Help us to tap into these virtues. 
All darkness will disappear 
when we join our light with the lights of others.
May this happen speedily in our day 
so that we, along with all humanity, 
find our place each under our vine and fig tree
and none of us shall be afraid. (Micah 4:4)

Rabbi Marc Katz serves Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Categories
CCAR Press Prayer Rabbis

New Times and Seasons: A Supplement to ‘L’chol Z’man v’Eit’

Rabbi April Davis is the editor of the new supplement to L’chol Z’man v’Eit, the CCAR’s clergy manual and life-cycle guide. In this blog post, she reflects upon her own experiences using L’chol Z’man v’Eit and offers a glimpse into the supplement’s contents.

לַכֹּל זְמָן וְעֵת לְכׇל־חֵפֶץ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם׃

A season is set for everything; a time for every experience under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

I received my copy of L’chol Z’man v’Eit from my rabbi, Andy Klein, when I was ordained in 2015. In the note that accompanied the gift, he told me that I would be part of people’s most tender and intimate moments and this book would be my guide. Looking back on my seven years in the rabbinate, it truly has been. Holding the binder, taking a few pages on the run, or using the electronic version on my iPad, I have joined people in marriage, named babies, led conversions, and stood at hospital bedsides. I know you have, too. It is a steady companion as we navigate traditional and new sacred moments with the many people we serve.

Published in 2015, L’chol Z’man v’Eit/For Sacred Moments: The CCAR Life-Cycle Guide offered traditional rituals and new blessings to clergy in joyous and mournful moments. Not only were some of the resources new, but the guide was published in a unique format: a binder with pages that could be removed and reordered as necessary. It was also released as a digital PDF. In both the substance and the design, the old was made new and the new was made holy (Rav Avraham Isaac Kook). 

True to the design and intent of the original, we can and should continue adding content to reflect our changing rabbinates and our rapidly evolving world. Today we are called to witness and bless increasingly diverse moments. Sometimes we are present at an unfolding tragedy; at other times we bring Judaism and joy to a new situation. For everything there is a season, a time for every experience under heaven. To that end, CCAR Press decided to publish an update to the guide in the form of a print and digital Supplement. I was honored to serve as editor of this project. The goal of the Supplement to L’chol Z’man v’Eit is to recognize even more of those times and seasons and mark them as sacred.

Including new material for all facets of the life-cycle, the print Supplement is designed to fit into the existing guide (instructions are provided on the first page). The digital Supplement is available as a separate PDF or integrated into the original PDF manual. In the Birth section, there are prayers and rituals for people hoping to conceive or experiencing miscarriage, premature birth, the illness of a child, or adopting an older child who is able to participate in the ceremony. There is unique liturgy for a marriage that includes children, along with new rituals for divorce and ending relationships.

Expanding the Healing section are prayers for minor illness or injury, a sick child, eating disorders, addiction, assault, and abortion. The Mourning section includes new meditations to address communal loss and the death of a hurtful parent along with a framework for the funeral of someone who died by suicide.

On the communal level, we are often called on to address both our congregations and the communities in which we live. For the congregation, we included rituals such as a reconsecration ceremony and a prayer for people leaving a community. Outside the doors of the synagogue, there are rituals for people moving into or out of a residence, a child leaving home, people moving in together as a step in their relationship, and an individual entering long-term care. Most of the Community section, though, is devoted to the difficult moments we face in the world. Organized into three parts—In Times of Fear, Acute Crisis, and When Healing Comes—there are multiple meditations and readings for a variety of difficult situations. Natural disasters, climate change, gun violence, racism, and antisemitism are specifically addressed. 

The supplement reflects the creativity and generosity of CCAR members. Committee members Rabbis Carolyn Bricklin-Small, Alan Cook, Lisa Edwards, PhD, Jen Gubitz, Marc Katz, and Ben Zeidman, and CCAR editor Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, were partners in seeking the moments to be reflected in the Supplement. Through searches of the CCAR and Women’s Rabbinic Network Facebook pages, online requests, and direct questions posed to our colleagues, we created a list of the most needed blessings and readings. We then compiled these from various sources, with some previously published, but many others written specifically for the Supplement.

Colleagues who have solemnized these new life-cycle moments contributed their wisdom. In particular, the Community section is a powerful collection of reflections from those who have been in the midst of crises. Their rituals and readings have been tested under difficult circumstances and generously shared. I am grateful to everyone who contributed to this Supplement and, especially, to the committee and to Rabbi Pilz for their effort and dedication. It is my hope that this Supplement moves us towards finding and marking holiness in every time and season. I am adding the pages to my guide and know that they will be part of many tender and intimate moments of my rabbinate in the years to come.


The Supplement to L’chol Z’man v’Eit is available as a print and PDF bundle at ccarpress.org. It can also be ordered together with the original edition in print, as a PDF, or as a print and digital bundle.


Rabbi April Davis is a rabbi at the Center for Exploring Judaism at Central Synagogue in New York City

Categories
CCAR Press Prayer Technology

Creating the World of Visual T’filah

It was Friday morning, the day after Yom Kippur. Even though we were exclusively worshiping on Zoom throughout the High Holy Days, I felt a sense of peace and contentment, and a strong connection to the Temple Sholom family. All of our services were held using Visual T’filah. Without machzorim in hand, we were able to truly pray as a community with our electronic devices. I was very tired after all the preparation leading up to the Holy Days and after leading so many different types of services, but Shabbat comes every week, ready or not. I could have reused a previous Visual T’filah Shabbat service I had put together, but I had a strong desire to create a new service. And then it dawned on me that crafting a Visual T’filah service is a form of praying for me, in and of itself. 

I start with a set of Mishkan T’filah Visual T’filah slides from CCAR Press, which have all the prayers from the prayer book. I focus on the service as a whole and explore the feeling I want the day’s prayers to convey. What is going on in the world around us? What inspiration can I glean from the Torah portion? Should the service be upbeat and celebratory, or more contemplative and calming?  What do we, as a community, need this particular Shabbat? 

Next, I focus on one prayer at a time. What is this particular prayer saying to me today? I look through my collection of photographs and art to find the image that best portrays that feeling. I also search through my collection of music to find just the right melody to enhance the feeling of the prayer as it speaks to me. As I work on each prayer slide, finding the best way to arrange the text around the picture, the words of the prayer permeate my soul. I am praying as I create each slide. 

For example, the Mi Chamochah has many different melodies. Many of them are joyous. Others are more contemplative. The celebratory melodies reflect the excitement of the Israelites finally making it to the other shore and rejoicing in their newfound freedom. I see the more contemplative melodies reflecting amazement and awe. “Wow. Did we really make it? Are we really safe now?” I choose a particular melody based on the emotion the congregation might most benefit from that Shabbat. 

Then I attach a visual. I often use visuals containing water for Mi Chamochah. It doesn’t have to be the Red Sea; it can be a river or an ocean. The visual helps me—and the congregation—feel as if we were there with the Israelites on their journey. As I put each prayer slide together, playing the music to make sure it goes with the visual, I find myself praying the Mi Chamochah as I compose the slides. I feel completely immersed in the message of the prayer and experience connection to God through those words.

Some of the images I use are photos. Others are graphics. Sometimes I choose more abstract images to allow for each person’s imagination to explore the words of the reading or prayer.

Shabbat is about creation. In the Kiddush we read, Zikaron l’maaseih v’reishit —“A reminder of the work of Creation.” Made in the image of God, each Shabbat I create a prayer world, for myself, and for the congregation.


Rabbi Michele B. Medwin, DMin serves Temple Sholom in Monticello, New York. Her Mi Shebeirach Prayer for Chronic Illness appears in Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer

How Can We Build a Life of Meaning? Reflections on S’lichot

The S’lichot prayers are traditionally recited on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah to help prepare us for the soul-searching and transformation that we hope to do during the High Holy Days. S’lichot is thus the opening scene of our efforts each Jewish year to build a life of meaning, a life of consequence. 

We want to break through the routines to which we have become accustomed. As we entered adulthood, we developed certain habits that served us well at the time. Some of these are still valuable practices that serve important functions for one reason or another, but many others are useless, pointless, or even counterproductive. Sometimes we develop workarounds that achieve what needs to be done in the moment but not necessarily in the best way. There is a story about a person who takes their car to a mechanic because the brakes aren’t working. When they come back the next day, the mechanic tells them “I couldn’t fix your brakes, but I made your horn louder.” Isn’t that what we have often done when facing challenges in our lives? We did the best we could, patching things over in order to carry on.

Real change is hard. In fact, it’s well-nigh impossible unless there is some sort of burning internal or external motivation. If the doctor were to say to us, “You have one year to live,” then we might go home and, after pouring ourselves a stiff drink, actually decide to change everything, living in a completely different way than we had been up to that point. There are other dramatic moments in life that can compel us to spontaneously reject everything that we have always done and move in a completely different direction.

Yet I don’t think that S’lichot is trying to push us to impetuously change our lives 180 degrees in one evening. So don’t trade in your Ford Explorer for a Porsche. Don’t buy a plane ticket to India in order to spend the rest of your life in an ashram. Don’t book your seat next to Elon Musk to fly off to Mars. Rather, I would argue that what Judaism is asking us to do on S’lichot evening is to evaluate and reevaluate our lives in order to try to realize our full potential for lasting fulfillment.

Several years ago, I was the editor of a CCAR Press volume titled A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path. Our goal was to get people thinking about what Reform Judaism could mean in terms of how we find meaning in our lives. Though published before the pandemic started, the chapters remain timely and relevant. As we enter a reflective mode during this S’lichot season, I hope this book can inspire us to create positive change, both in our communities and in ourselves.

We are reminded by the words in the prayer book that we are granted the gift of life, a gift of uncertain duration but of certain laborious effort. However much we protest or negotiate, this short time is all we get. For many, fate overwhelms, truncates, or destroys their journey. To the best of our knowledge, this is the one life that we have, and we have a sacred obligation to make the most of it. And so, let us pray that this new year 5782 may be a year of wisdom acquired and shared, a year of virtue and the strengthening of our characters, a year of mitzvot and the meaningful practice of ritual, and a year of community and the sharing of our commitment to making the world a better place. May God’s presence in our lives this new year strengthen our souls and renew our spirits.


Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, PhD, serves Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley in Sun City, Arizona. He is the editor of A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer Technology

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: Why Make an App from a Book?

These days, books go far beyond print volumes—they can be converted into many digital formats. Perhaps the most straightforward digital form of a book is an ebook; CCAR Press has over a decade of experience creating a variety of ebooks, from basic reflowable text to enhanced, interactive, multimedia versions. However, there are often compelling reasons to put in the extra time and resources to transform a book into a standalone app.

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press in 2019, was a perfect candidate for this transformation. Rabbi Debra Robbins’s book guides readers through a meaningful practice that she created, introducing daily meditation and reflection into their lives.

With our busy lives, a meditative practice is always a challenging new routine—we often need a bit more help to begin and maintain such a practice. Our new app, Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart, includes a variety of features designed to help in this process. When you first open the app, you are presented clearly with the basic steps and flow of the process, with a user interface that strives to emulate the meditative tone of the practice. Rather than asking the reader to figure out which is the current daily Reflection for Focus, the app knows the date, performs some calculations based on when Shabbat occurs, and automatically delivers the intended reading for the day.

There are also other features of the app that simply could not be a part of a print book. One of the most enriching is the inclusion of a variety of beautiful musical settings to verses in Psalm 27, some of which are original to this project. One can listen to the same music for a week, diving deeply into the complex layers of each piece, or listen to a new song each day. Similarly, each new day reveals a meditative image, often photos taken by the author or her students, in vibrant color. The app also includes a mediation timer, with the option to choose visual and audio cues, as well as a daily reminder to engage in the practice, both of which are extremely helpful features that could never have been a part of a print work.

This is perhaps the most beautiful app that CCAR Press has created to date. While many of our previous apps are nicely designed and function well, they focus on delivering a large amount of content in an easy-to-access way. The Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app was designed specifically to convey an emotion, a sense of peace and calm, commensurate with the intentions behind the practice. It is our hope that the content of this incredible work, along with the carefully crafted experience of using the app—with all of its helpful features—will allow individuals and groups to enter this High Holy Day season with an open heart and a more meaningful experience.

Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart can be downloaded from the Apple and Google app stores. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is available as a print book and ebook, with a free companion study guide.


Rabbi Dan Medwin is Director of Digital Media at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer

Pervasive Peace: A Musical Prayer for Erev Rosh HaShanah

Here we go again. It’s just a few weeks from the High Holy Days, and hopes of worshiping in a post-COVID world of congregational togetherness are quickly being dashed. Communities that planned to hold communal, indoor, and possibly maskless prayer services are reassessing. Whatever happens on the individual congregational level, it will be another year outside the bounds of what we once thought as normal for holy day worship.

We have been dreaming of our spiritual reunion with each other for the upcoming holy days; that blessing appears to be postponed. Perhaps, all the more, we should pray for blessings beyond our wildest dreams. We know these are unprecedented times. Most of us could not have imagined the losses and suffering that the pandemic would bring. For those of us who have lost friends or family to COVID—for those who lost income, livelihood, personal connections, mental health, stability—it can only be described as a nightmare.

This Rosh HaShanah, let us renew our hopes in large and beautiful dreams of peace, the kind of peace that means wholeness, health, renewal, vitality, and resilience.

To share that prayer together on Erev Rosh HaShanah 5782, Rebecca Schwartz, cantorial soloist at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, created a new musical setting for my short prayer “Pervasive Peace.” The prayer reads as follows:

Pervasive Peace

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ, אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ וְאִמּוֹתֵֽינוּ
שֶׁהַשָּׁנָה הַבָּאָה תָּבִיא שָׁלוֹם מֻחְלָט וְשָׁלֵם
,עַל כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵבֵל
.מֵעֵֽבֶר לְכָל חֲלֹמוֹת הָאֱנוֹשׁוּת

Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha, Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu,

Shehashanah habaah tavi shalom muchlat v’shaleim

Al kol yosh’vei teiveil,

Mei-eiver l’chol chalomot haenoshut.

May it be Your will, God of our fathers and mothers,

That the year ahead bring a pervasive and complete peace

On all the inhabitants of the earth,

Beyond all the dreams of humanity.

The prayer uses a classic formulation—Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha…, May it be Your will…—imploring God for specific blessings. This formula is typically used in the Rosh HaShanah seder alongside dipping apples in honey, connecting the sweet ritual to the chain of traditional prayers for the New Year.

“Pervasive Peace” was written before COVID, but it took on a deeper meaning of peace as healing medicine last year as the Jewish community experienced our first pandemic High Holy Days in lockdown. It has, yet again, taken on a longing for renewal as we move toward our second High Holy Days under returning public health restrictions.

Rebecca’s music captures both the hope and the longing that the words are intended to convey. We envision cantors using the prayer to open and set the tone for Erev Rosh Hashanah. Hear Rebecca sing the music in this video. An MP3 file is available for download. The sheet music can be purchased on oySongs.

Singing “Pervasive Peace” might also be paired with reading an associated prayer written last year called “Wildly Unimaginable Blessings”:

Wildly Unimaginable Blessings

Let us dream
Wildly unimaginable blessings…
Blessings so unexpected,
Blessings so beyond our hopes for this world,
Blessings so unbelievable in this era,
That their very existence
Uplifts our vision of creation,
Our relationships to each other,
And our yearning for life itself.
Let us dream
Wildly unimaginable blessings…
A complete healing of mind, body, and spirit,
A complete healing for all,
The end of suffering and strife,
The end of plague and disease,
When kindness flows from the river of love,
When goodness flows from the river of grace,
Awakened in the spirit of all beings,
When God’s light,
Radiating holiness
Is seen by everyone.
Let us pray—
With all our hearts—
For wildly unimaginable blessings…
So that God will hear the call
To open the gates of the Garden,
Seeing that we haven’t waited,
That we’ve already begun to repair the world,
In testimony to our faith in life,
Our faith in each other,
And our faith in the Holy One,
Blessed be God’s Name.


“Pervasive Peace” lyrics © 2019 by Alden Solovy, music © 2021 by Schwalkin Music (ASCAP).

“Wildly Unimaginable Blessings” © 2020 by Alden Solovy.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press. Read more of his writing at tobendlight.com.

Rebecca Schwartz is Cantorial Soloist and Music Director at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA. She is a professional singer, guitarist, and award-winning songwriter. Hear more of her music at rebeccasongs.com.

Categories
CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer Rituals Technology

CCAR Press Author Interview: Rabbi Debra J. Robbins, on ‘Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27’ and the New Companion App

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, shares her thoughts on the process of writing Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year (published in 2019 by CCAR Press) and creating a companion app (just released for Apple and Android).

What inspired you to write Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27?
I did not set out to write a book about Psalm 27. The book emerged over several years from my own practices. I first began reading the psalm daily in Elul, then I began writing about it daily, and then I added time to sit and sing. I kept reading it all the way to Simchat Torah. Eventually, I shared some of my reflections and they resonated with people; I realized my personal practice could be embraced by others. Thanks to those who encouraged me, it became a book.


What was the most challenging part of working on Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27?
There were three things that were challenging in creating Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27. First, it was really hard to work on a book while also working full time at a congregation! Second, because I didn’t set out to write this as a book, figuring out how to organize all the reflections into something coherent and comprehensive was a big challenge. Finally, I think the most difficult aspect of working on this book (or I imagine any book) was feeling confident enough to be vulnerable—to put my words, my ideas, my heart in print for others to see.


Was there something new that you learned while writing the book? Did any of your own practices change?
I have always found that unpacking/studying Torah was meaningful in a small group or with a partner. I discovered, however, that I could also have some powerful insights about my life and the psalm by giving myself time to sit alone with the text and reflect on it, both in writing and in silence.


Do you have advice for readers on how to strengthen their own reflection practices?
For me, ritual really helps build a practice. It can feel awkward at first to sing along to a recording with no one else in the room. It can be hard to keep writing or sitting for a full five minutes. It’s easy to resist taking the time to be forgiving, to remember an insight, or to give thanks. But as it is with good ritual, once we get in a routine, it can become a habit, and then hopefully easier (in some ways), opening up possibilities for great insight and commitment.


How do you recommend that readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27?  
The book itself contains suggestions for how to use it, and there is also a study guide available with source sheets. New this year, and something so exciting, is a smartphone app that will help readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 even more easily. It has writing prompts and photos for each day, a built-in timer and daily tracker, and individuals can read or listen to the psalm and each of the reflections. It also has amazing music.

Why was the app created?

We created the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app in response to requests from many people who have used the book, laypeople and clergy alike, since it was published. People wanted to be able to easily stay on track and have the music readily available. The live sessions we shared showed that they liked having someone lead them in the blessing, hearing the psalm read in different voices, and listening to the Reflection for Focus instead of reading it. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their feedback and encouraged us to develop this twenty-first-century digital tool for spiritual practice.

What makes the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app unique?

The app is so special because it has not only the words from my book, but it also includes the voices of talented musicians and cantors who have written music to accompany Psalm 27 and the photographs of friends and family members whose eyes have captured the beauty of Psalm 27 out in the world. The app also has a lot of really cool functions that reflect the values of the book. One example: you can choose between doing the writing segment electronically or, better yet, you can write by hand on paper and then store a photo of your writing. You can choose a preferred sound for your meditation timer, and you can easily give yourself a prompt at the end of the practice so your experience will more easily stay with you all day.

Who helped with the app’s creation?

Rabbi Dan Medwin, CCAR Director of Digital Media, was the mastermind of the app. His combined skills as a rabbi and a technology expert allowed the development team to create something that is truly spiritually engaging in a realm where that is often a significant challenge. We were also fortunate to have some teenage campers test the app this summer, and thank goodness they did. They not only had some great innovations to add but caught a lot of bugs! Thanks are due as well to a generous donor who gave us the resources to make this possible.

How can people best use the app?

I hope people will use the app in a variety of ways. It can be a complement to the book or it can be used on its own. It is super flexible. If someone wants to listen to the various musical settings, that is easily done. If they want to hear the blessing only in English, they can do that too. Or, if someone prefers to listen to either a male or female voice read the psalm in Hebrew or English that’s possible as well. What I hope most is that people will use the app to do the real work of this season, open their hearts, and then be moved to continue that spiritual work into the new year.

To further enhance your practice, check out the free downloadable study guide and the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app, now available for Android and iPhone!


Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, from CCAR Press.

Categories
Holiday Poetry Prayer

Three Weeks of Sorrow, Seven Weeks of Consolation

Sorrow and joy meet on Rosh Chodesh Av. Rosh Chodesh—the first of each new Hebrew month—is a minor festival of rejoicing. We take note of the cycle of the moon, the grandeur of creation, and the gifts of God by signing Hallel Mizri, the Egyptian Hallel. At its core are Psalms 113 through 118.

There’s a jarring contrast between the joyous and often raucous singing of these psalms with the general mood of the period. Tishah B’Av, our national religious day of mourning, commemorates the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. It’s a day of tragedy so profound in the eyes of the rabbis of the Mishnah that they went to great lengths to attach other disasters to this date.

In Masechet Taanit 4:6, we read: “On the Ninth of Av it was decreed upon our ancestors that they would all die [in the wilderness] and not enter the land; and the Temple was destroyed the first time [by the Babylonians], and the second time [by the Romans]; and Beitar was captured; and the city [of Jerusalem] was plowed, as a sign that it would never be rebuilt.”

The tradition of linking catastrophe to Tishah B’Av continued in later periods. Some say that the Jews were expelled from England on Tishah B’Av in 1290 CE, that the deadline in 1492 on which Jews in Spain needed to leave or convert was Tishah B’Av, and that the First World War began on Tishah B’Av.[1] Perhaps most startling: The Hebrew date that Treblinka began operations as a death camp was Tishah B’Av.[2]

The Talmud decrees: “Not only does one fast on the Ninth of Av, but from when the month of Av begins, one decreases acts of rejoicing.”

Even before Av begins, some Jews observe a three-week period of mourning, called “The Three Weeks,” from 17 Tammuz until Tishah B’Av. The Mishnah relates that on 17 Tammuz five catastrophes also befell the Jewish people, and the day is observed by some as a minor fast.

Right in the middle of the three weeks, Rosh Chodesh is observed, as always, with song and praises. “Hallel in a Minor Key”—an alternative Hallel that I created with music by Sue Radner Horowitz—was written for moments like these, when joy and sorrow meet.

This liturgy began with a question last winter: How can we sing God’s praises fully as we move into the second year of COVID-induced, socially distanced Passover seders? In the writing, the question expanded: How do we sing God’s praises after a profound personal loss? How do we praise God when our spiritual calendar places joy and sorrow side-by-side? How do we find a voice of rejoicing when our hearts are in mourning?

My personal experience with this contrast still informs my writing. My wife Ami, z”l, died of traumatic brain injury just before Passover. The religious expectation of our calendar was brutal. After two days of shivah, we were expected to shift into the spiritual joy of Pesach, celebrating our liberation from bondage, singing Hallel as part of the Passover Seder and then again at services. Although it was twelve years ago, that experience of contrast was a core motivator for creating this liturgy (read more about the creation of “Hallel in a Minor Key” on RavBlog).

After Tishah B’Av, the rabbis have given us seven weeks of healing, seven weeks in which special haftarot of consolation are chanted. Here are several prayers for the season:

  • 17 Tammuz: “The Temple
  • Rosh Chodesh Av: “Hallel in a Minor Key” (A PDF published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, including the sheet music, can be downloaded here.)
  • Tishah B’Av: “In Sorrow” from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day (CCAR Press, 2017)
  • Seven weeks of consolation: “Tears, Too Close: A Prayer of Consolation” from This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer (CCAR Press, 2021)

It is said that God permitted the destruction of the Second Temple because of sinat chinam, the baseless hatred of one Jew against another. Throughout this season, let us pray for the well-being of all of the people of Israel, and everyone, everywhere. “Let Tranquility Reign,” from This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, includes a line from Psalm 122: “For the sake of my comrades and companions I shall say: ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the House of Adonai our God I will seek your good.”


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press.


[1] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/946703/jewish/What-Happened-on-the-Ninth-of-Av.htm

[2] https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/7-tragedies-that-befell-the-jewish-people-on-tisha-beav-598199