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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. 

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Machzor Blog: “I’m Not A Sheep”

IMG_0361“Please Dad, tell them I’m not a sheep.” Those were my teenage daughter’s parting words to me as I attended the first “Think Tank” in 2008 for creating a new machzor for our movement. All invited to that meeting were asked to reflect upon what we wanted to see in our new High Holy Day liturgy and convene congregants in advance to glean ideas as to what was meaningful and problematic in their worship experience.

What a challenge it is for the machzor editors to be responsive to numerous perspectives, while being faithful to Jewish tradition and creative in the spirit of Reform Judaism! Based upon the pilot editions, I believe they are definitely on the right track. Our congregation experienced both, the Rosh HaShanah morning service during a mock Yuntif service in April, serving apples and honey for flavor and we incorporated the Yom Kippur afternoon service into our actual worship this past fall. Many of the suggestions from that original Think Tank are incorporated into the draft editions. Let me be more specific.

Our congregation enjoys Mishkan T’filah. Having the traditional prayer, transliterations, creative alternatives and commentaries to enhance our High Holy Day GalaApplesHoney2
worship experience was desired. One of my members offered that just as a child likes to hear the same story read repeatedly, as a comforting part of bedtime ritual, he/she also likes different books. So too, our machzor needs to offer customary spiritually nurturing opportunities, whether through spoken word, Torah text or musical expression. Faithful translations that attempt to be literally and poetically correct invite access to tradition, along with creative alternatives, which add perspective. There is still a challenge to be careful lest a “contemporary” prayer be appropriate for 2013, but irrelevant 20-30 years from now. I am recalling the “coal miner’s prayer” from the UPB and Vietnam War era references in Gates of Repentance.

All will agree that Avinu Malkeinu is one of the central prayers of the High Holy Day experience. The cadence of reading and the melody that Moshe Rabbeinu whispered to Max Janowski are expected by our worshippers. Offering paths to the familiar, along with creative expressions is critical and our editors have done that.

But altering the Shofar service by scattering its three sections strategically throughout the service? What’s that all about? Going into the process, my members looked forward to creative, perhaps even radical thinking in the spirit and tradition of Reform Judaism to be part of the process. Much to my surprise, when we piloted Rosh Hashanah and experienced the new format, it met with almost universal positive reaction. Should this change become permanent, the first year will be a shock. The second year will be a bit disconcerting and by the third it will be Reform tradition.

Annually as the Holy Days approach, colleagues on line ask about Yom Kippur afternoon alternatives to Gates of Repentance. So I was delighted to pilot the service in that time slot this past year. Though we did not read Torah, a simultaneous study group, led by Rabbi Barbara Metzinger resonated to the teachings in Leviticus 18, which suggests that our people are open to Torah text diversity. One desire expressed by my members from 2008 was to focus on Jewish values. Having the middot allowed us to learn and grow, as well as creating the feel of what is typical during Shabbat. The two worship experiences should be different, but not completely.

 Our group wanted the editors to deal with the word “sin.” I know they are still struggling with how to best translate chet. So far they are not wrong, but may have missed the mark.

Finally, there are many theological issues to creating a liturgy that leaves room for the spectrum from customary beliefs to extreme doubt, as reflected by my microcosm of the movement. Some reject the words of Unetaneh Tokef and no matter how much you provide in teaching or metaphorical form, it does not fly. Still, others embrace it. Alternative theological opportunities abound in the early editions. But, alas my dear daughter, “We are Your flock; You are our shepherd.” is still to be found, but maybe, if you ask nicely, the rabbi may elect to read the Nelly Sachs poem on the other side of the page.

Bob Loewy is rabbi at Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, LA since 1984, currently serves as Program Vice President for the CCAR and grew up in the Reform movement.

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



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.


Machzor Blog: Wrestling With God

ShofarOne of my favorite things about Judaism is struggle. We are the People who are destined to struggle with God (Am Yisrael). This is our inheritance—a good thing! That said, when it comes to the High Holy Days, I often wish there were just a little less struggle involved.

The concept of God and the practice of maintaining a meaningful relationship with God are challenging on any day of the year. But the language of the High Holy Days, especially as it defines and describes God, has always added to that challenge for me. As a high school student I was so alienated by God’s roles as presented in U’n’taneh Tokef especially, but really throughout the machzor, that I would simply choose not to attend High Holy Day services. As a late-teenager and early twenty-something, these images of God significantly contributed to my decision to identify as an atheist. I simply could not relate to this anthropomorphic, male, judge. In rabbinical school, no longer an atheist, I spent individual class sessions, seminars, and even an entire semester wrestling with the God imagery of the machzor, not only for myself, but so that I could attempt to support others in their journeys through the Yamim Nora’im.

cairo_genizaLanguage is at the heart of this God struggle. The words used to capture and define an experience as vast as God will of course be inadequate. And, while the original Hebrew of the traditional machzor is an obstacle for me, the English of Gates of Repentance turns a fence into a solid wall. Each year I am more frustrated with our outdated text, and ever more eager for our movement’s new machzor.

This year, our congregation piloted the draft Yom Kippur afternoon service from the new machzor. It turns out that my enthusiasm is not unfounded. I felt immediately more at home in this service than I do in Gates of Repentance. As I do, our new prayer book understand the service experience as a journey—almost a choose-your-own adventure. There are multiple options for different prayers, opportunities for individual reflection, and even guiding questions for small group discussion. I see each of these approaches as a way of helping service participants to overcome the obstacles of accessibility that are, I think, inherent especially in High Holy Day prayer.

And then there’s the language. In an earlier post to this blog (“Faithful Translations”), Rabbi Leon Morris draws our attention to the incredible care that has gone into the translation of Hebrew text. I find these translations infinitely richer and more accessible than their equivalents in Gates of Repentance. But for me, it’s the recognition of struggle that is present in so many of the English alternative readings that really supported me in my own prayer on Yom Kippur afternoon. These readings both honor and elevate the challenges of the big concepts of the Yamim Noraim—forgiveness, starting over, living up to our own potential—as well as of course the challenges of the imagery used to describe God.

A most excellent example of these readings is Avinu Malkeinu: A Prayer of Protest, written by Rabbis Janet and Shelly Marder (reprinted in Rabbi Leon Morris’ post to this blog, “How ‘current’ should a prayer book be?”). Avinu Malkeinu is not a prayer that I find too difficult as a result of its presentation of God—thanks, in large part, to the study I did with Rabbi Richard Levy as a rabbinical student!—but by the time we reach Yom Kippur afternoon, we have recited this prayer at every service of the High Holidays, we are exhausted and hungry, and it’s just plain difficult to find the same kavanah [intention] for this final repetition that we may have had for the earlier recitations. This Prayer of Protest was, both for me and for several of my congregants who commented on it afterwards, a shot in the arm as we moved into our concluding services. It reminded us to look around the room and see the people with whom we were sharing this moment. It reminded us of our purpose for being present in the synagogue on Yom Kippur afternoon. And, of course, it reminded us that this process of struggle, this protest, is a tremendous gift. Ultimately, it reminded us of who we are. We are Am Yisrael, the People Who Will Struggle With God.

Rabbi Rebekah Stern is the Assistant Rabbi at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame California.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.

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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.

General CCAR Prayer

Love and Loss: Leaving the Pulpit

When I walkJewishCenterNWJerseyed to the end of my driveway the day after Sandy, my neighbor across the street was already standing at the foot of hers.  Together we surveyed the huge pile of detritus that lay in the street between us. The winds had uprooted the old maple on my front lawn and caused it to fall on the telephone wires between my house and my neightbor’s.  Two telephone poles had snapped like twigs, pitching the transformers into the street and causing a brief fire to flare in the middle of the road.  We had been lucky, my neighbor and I agreed.  The damage could have been much worse.  The tree could have fallen the other way and landed on my house.

“Someone was watching over you,” said my neighbor.  Another neighbor came by, picking his way over the fallen wires. He stood looking with us for a moment before observing, “Someone was watching over you.”   What terrible theology, I thought to myself. Does this mean Someone wasn’t watching over the people whose houses burned to the ground in Breezy Point? Or the people down the Jersey shore who had lost everything to the storm surge? The thing about being in the rabbinate all these years is that you see sermons in everything, including morning-after storm damage.  I didn’t feel a need to share my theological disagreement with my neighbors because I knew I had a place to express my ideas.  Assuming the upcoming bat mitzvah would go on as scheduled, I could easily make a linkage between my neighbors’ theological conclusions and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Do you really see the hand of God in these so-called Acts of God? How do you understand the damage done to the innocent?  This would all dovetail nicely with the d’var Torah the bat mitzvah had already prepared.

And this reaction would have come and gone routinely were I not leaving my congregation this coming June.  Instead, a new and painful feeling intruded itself: “What will I do when I no longer have the pulpit as a forum?”  Most of the time, the idea of retiring from my congregation after 19 years (33 total years since ordination) seems more theoretical than real.  As I look at next September’s calendar, I note with gratitude that I won’t have to spend yet another August writing sermons for an obscenely early high holy day season.  As I read the newspaper, I automatically reach to cut out an article that seems like a good idea for a high holy day sermon, then remember  that I won’t be writing those sermons next year.  I usually allow myself an awareness of the prospective gain but not the loss.  But as I stood looking at my tree in the road, a moment of anticipatory grief had leaked through.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis BlogAs much as I have complained over the years about not having the time to write sermons, not having any ideas, feeling uninspired, having other things that felt more pressing, I confess that I have come to enjoy preparing sermons for this particular congregation. I have worked in congregations where people came to services like critics to a Broadway show, but not this congregation.   They come not as critics but as students, open to what I have to say and interested in taking something away with them.  Sermons are just another piece of our relationship.  And it is that relationship I will miss.  When a 9th grader says to me accusingly, “How can you not confirm me? You named me, you bat mitzvahed me,” the loss – both hers and mine – lives for a moment between us.  When a congregant says, “Next year, you can still lead our Sisterhood retreat because you will be our Rabbi Eminence [my very favorite corruption of Emerita],” I silently react defensively.  Does she really think I am leaving the temple so I can come back and lead a retreat, I ask myself?  But in the next moment, I let my armor slip and share in her conflict,  accepting that this is just her way of holding on when she doesn’t want to let go.

When the Board emailed the congregation about my leaving, they used the word “retirement.” I balked for a moment. This isn’t really retirement for me.  It is just leaving the synagogue so I can devote more time to my private practice and experience weekends without work. The word “retirement” just makes my leaving them more palatable. But on second thought, I realized that  they are correct that this is my retirement. I am not interested in another pulpit.   If I wanted to continue in the congregational rabbinate, I would stay where I am. But I know the time has come for me to go.

When I told one of my sons about that pang of loss at not writing sermons, he replied unsympathetically, “So you’ll start a blog.”  Thank you, CCAR, for this invitation.

Rabbi ElleBlog-RabbiEllenLewisn Lewis ( has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals.  In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision.  After her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, she served congregations in Dallas, Texas, and Summit, New Jersey, where she was named Rabbi Honorata.  Since 1994, she has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ (  

Rabbi Lewis is also a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey and in New York City. She received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies ( and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (  She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors ( She can be reached via email at or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.