Categories
High Holy Days

In the Middle of the Night: A High Holy Day Clergy COVID-19 Confession

Can I be honest? In these past months, I have lost more sleep, wrestled with more anxiety, and endured new levels of second-guessing myself, all because the intersection of High Holy Days and the coronavirus pandemic has upended finely honed planning and practices. Where once many of my fellow rabbis and I felt pressure over sermon writing, now, like so many colleagues around the world, we are stressing out over megabytes needed and minutes to cut, and platforms to stream on, and prayers to preserve. And then one late night, this confession came forth. Perhaps it speaks of your truth too:

In the Middle of the Night:
A High Holy Day Clergy COVID-19 Confession

In the middle of the night 
I am feeling the fright
About how to do this right—
My High Holy Days COVID-19 rewrite

Can I be an inspiration?
Will I shine a comforting light?
Will the internet hold up
Providing sufficient megabytes?

Are my kavannot kosher?
Are my stories too trite?
Should we prerecord or livestream
At the temple or offsite

What passions can I convey
From my living room as I sit tight?
What comfort can I bring
Streaming from a distance satellite?

Will I uplift enough souls
To make my community unite?
Will my sermons make them think
Or will they just cause a dogfight?

Can my services really stem
The feared membership flight?
Will my appeal really raise Tzedakah
From each philanthropic socialite?

Did we think it all through
Was our preparation airtight?
Did I fail to strategically plan
Without sufficient foresight?

Will I fall to the virus
The thermometer’s rising Fahrenheit?
Or from something unexpectedly random
Like a West Nile virus mosquito bite?

Have I already ruined Yom Kippur
Like a wayward satellite? 
Will I watch it come crashing down 
Like a fiery meteorite?

Will I later kick myself
With 2020’s hindsight
After I quickly crash and burn-
Oy, I’m getting stage fright

Yes, I’m trying for homeostasis 
To be patient and polite
But my heart’s being attacked
By anxiety’s lymphocyte

So as I ride the rollercoaster
Like a frightened suburbanite
I’m trying to discern the future 
Like a soon-to-be extinct Canaanite

Worrying, when we gather together 
For Rosh Hashanah’s first candlelight
Will my rabbinate already be over
Before I step into the limelight

Like all my clergy friends
I’m trying to breath through the fright
Though the pressure’s overwhelming
For us clerical leading lights

I know our people have the desire 
And a massive spiritual appetite 
So I wonder what else can I bring
During this moment of irreligious blight

What else can I offer
That will make my community delight?
Oy, I’d better calm down
So I don’t seem so uptight

And I’d better get some sleep
Hours after midnight
So I can get up and get working
At the first morning’s light

Just one more thought…
What if… 

My sermons are ready
And the chanting seems right
And the Torah’s all rolled 
And my machzor’s in sight
Will it all be for naught
Even if I get it all right
Because I simply forgot to send
The congregational Zoom invite?

Anxiety, I hate you
But at least you’re my constant friend
I’ll see you every night
Until these High Holy Days end.


Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Categories
High Holy Days Poetry

Hin’ni: Here I Am, The Confession of a Broken Heart

I am here.
I am here.
I stand before the open Ark and
the eternal scrolls of our people
dressed in white light.
I stand ready to enter into the Holy Days,
to offer prayers that urge me
to live better, kinder,
ever present to the pain of others,
to become a compassionate vessel, trustworthy
holding hope in the midst of despair.

Hin’ni
I am here, I am here.
I stand on the edge between earth and heaven,
between what I know and what I can never understand,
between life and life everlasting.
Mortality hovers, a rippling presence,
always there, lingering, waiting, holding.
I am here.

Hin’ni
I am here
I stand resilient, determined,
though I have been taken down,
forced to live a different way.
The rhythm of life has been altered.
Time unfolds and morphs, expands and stands still.
I have been called to be present, to pay attention.
What have I learned?
What have I done with the time I have been given,
glorious time of never-ending possibility?
Have I squandered the beauty, the radiance of life,
an offering to my inner being?

Who am I?
Where have I gone astray?
Am I worthy to pray with my people?
May I be worthy to pray with my people.

Hear my plea,
grant me the faith, courage and wisdom
to enter into cheshbon hanefesh:
the fragility and humility of self-examination.

Hin’ni,
I am here, I am here.
May this fractured heart, softened
and hold love and compassion,
in a way it never has before.

Hin’ni, I am here.


Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation BJBE in the Chicago area and is renown for her creative liturgy. Her work explores the need for meaning and purpose in our busy lives, creating an intentional life, spiritual awakening, forgiveness, as well as inspirational leadership and creating the synagogue for the twenty-first century. Her latest work includes Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice, available for purchase through the CCAR Press.

Categories
mental health

‘Coming Unglued’: Losing and Finding Myself during a Pandemic

Rabbi Cohen is well known for her involvement in national mental health outreach in the Jewish community using traditional Jewish values/ middot of compassion and respect as a model for reaching out to people with mental health issues. She is a determined advocate for those with mental illness and their families. She sees her work as both opening the topic and continuing the conversation. Here, she shares a feeling so many of us can relate to during this uncertain timethat of feeling unmoored—and the ways in which she\ copes.


The ribbons on my book, Talmud Bavli, Masechet B’rachot, fell off. There were two of them, one red, one blue, pasted to the inseam of the volume, so I could mark my place—my places, actually, since I learn this tractate with three different chavrutas, as well as having been through it twice in the Daf Yomi cycle, B’rachot being the first tractate in the Talmud. “Let’s start at the very beginning. . .“ “From what time does one say the evening Sh’ma?”

Because I am learning B’rachot with three different people, I had stopped exclusively using the ribbons as place markers; Post-its, it turns out, mark page and text well. My chavruta mostly do not know Aramaic, the language of much of the Talmud, and mine is a bit rusty (much better since beginning the Daf Yomi project, but probably not quite as good as my Hebrew and Aramaic were in rabbinical school). Therefore, the edition of the Talmud we are using is the Koren, which has the traditional version opening from the right, Hebrew style, and an annotated English version (with occasional pictures!) opening from the left. Sometimes, I would use my ribbons to mark the Hebrew daf; sometimes, they would mark an important explanation that we needed some pages later; other times, the blue ribbon would stay on a page with a puzzling picture: Did the editor think we could not imagine a donkey with saddlebags without an illustration?

And now, I have come unglued. Or, at least, my ribbons have. They lay across the white page of my journal, marking nothing. It seems right, somehow, that now is the moment they would lose their bearings, as it were, because, well, haven’t we all? Except for Shabbat, which I mark with candles, Kiddush, Motzi, Havdalah, it is hard to know what day it is. Morning runs into afternoon into sleep and morning again. I check my calendar anxiously, to make sure I haven’t missed an appointment. Is that meeting tomorrow, or this afternoon? I am trying to write a little every day. Am I יוצא (yotzei) having fulfilled today’s obligation, or was it yesterday I fulfilled it?? I think of my ancestors, who marked time by the dawn, by the stars, by the phases of the moon. How did, I, with my Google Calendar and clock on my phone, get so lost in space and time?

It’s not that I don’t have some standing appointments. Somehow, however, it’s not the same as having them in person. My weekly lunch date with a friend has become an occasional picnic on her front porch, carefully distanced, floating from day to day, depending on the week and our schedules; it no longer shows up as a “repeat weekly” on my phone. We have to seek each other out, this friend and others. I plan walks “with” friends, each of us on the phone, in the early mornings before it gets too hot. I hear the traffic in their neighborhoods, while they hear me going up and down the hills in mine. It is not the same as exercising together in person, deciding to take one more lap around the park as we hash out the problems in our lives and in the world, but it is something.

My therapist, who is still a regular appointment, baruch HaShem, appears to me on FaceTime from her kitchen or backyard, looking slightly more casual, but still there. I have finally figured out how to place a tissue or sock over the small image of myself in the corner of screen; it’s well-nigh impossible to do therapy while looking at myself. But teletherapy is still odd, different. The silences which are so normal, so important, so rich in a therapy session feel even more awkward on screen. The focus feels strange: on the one hand, my room, my home is filled with distractions from therapy and our relationship, making it hard to go deep into whatever I am wrestling with; on the other hand, having the screen filled with my therapist’s shoulders and head makes me realize how much time I spend looking at her knees during a typical session—a way of being with her, but not too intensely as I struggle with difficult material. And still. I lose track of time and days: Am I seeing her tomorrow? Or was that yesterday? And what is there left to talk about? The silence grows. A new way of coming unglued—I feel less connected to her, and that frightens me.

My chavrutas connect me, however. We check in with one another, some more deeply than others. Over the years, we have learned one another as well as B’rachot. “You say you are fine, but you don’t sound fine,” one of us might say to the other. או חברותא או מתותא (o chavruta o m’tutah), the rabbis taught: friendship/companionship or death. We argue and push and pull, laugh and wonder and struggle over the daf in front of us. What were the rabbis thinking? How does this prooftext possibly prove anything? What is the connection between the daf and our practice today? And underneath, before, and after, we hold one another with a Torah of presence: I am here for you. Sometimes we use words; sometimes, just this gentle “holding” is enough to give each other strength. 

So, these are the people in my life to ask “Where am I?” I have come unglued. I have lost my “place,” not just in the Talmud, but in my life right now. Where am I?

My enormous whiteboard looms large and colorful in my room; I am storyboarding my book in different-colored dry-erase markers. The ideas are flowing well, and I am frightened: I seem to be committing myself to actually writing a book. It has moved—no, I am moving it—from theory to possibility to something I can see myself doing. How did this happen? Who am I to write a book?

This is where I am—and I’m coming unglued. Am I crazy to think I can do this? My mind is running away…

And my circle of people responds: Here is where you are. At the beginning of the process of writing a book. We believe in you.

You play bridge with us and take virtual walks with us, say my friends.
You listen to us and make us feel heard and loved. That is where you are. 
Your place is beginning chapter 6, says my chavruta. Or page 124. 
Your place is inside yourself, says my therapist. It’s okay.
And all respond: Breathe. We believe in you. In your project. In your book. In you. 

Perhaps the ribbons will mark new space—in my book, about mental illness and Judaism, and about me becoming unglued.



Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She can be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com
.

Categories
Economy

Wandering in the Wilderness: Jewish Leadership, Values, and Partnership during an Economic Crisis

Perhaps this is your congregation: Your board is very worried as membership and school fees are slow to come in. Their search for solutions has started: Cut all employees’ salaries for the coming fiscal year by a set percentage? Significantly decrease the congregation’s contribution to employee health insurance? Lay off employees?

We Jews have a long history of wandering in the wilderness, the unknown, but it does not necessarily make difficult financial decisions during this crisis easier. Both professional and lay leaders wonder how to find a path forward in a manner reflecting the sacred partnership between employer and employee.  

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic is not going away and, in fact, could get worse. As a result, downsizing or payroll reductions are part of current congregational conversations. Amid this stressful context, principles of equity and fairness can get lost. Instead, we urge Jewish professional and lay leaders to ensure that short-term fixes do not become worse than the problem. These fixes can break trust in the sacred partnership among clergy, staff, and community, harm the reputation of our congregations, and can lead to smaller, disconnected communities down the road.

First, the best practices of decision-making must be utilized. We are all operating, perhaps fearfully, in new territory. The health and well-being of the congregation is a shared communal responsibility—neither the rabbi nor the staff nor the lay leaders nor even the biggest donors can ensure congregational health alone. With that recognition, a process of careful, collaborative decision-making is needed. What sometimes appears to take too much time in terms of consulting with all stakeholders, gathering options, ensuring that there is understanding and acceptance allows the board to move fast once the decision is made. Furthermore, transparency—who made the decision? what factors were evaluated?—leads to more trust from stakeholders as well.

Second, keep equity in mind and bias at bay. While most claim gender is not a factor in employment, we often see this bias in unspoken assumptions. Sometimes these come straight from the worst assumptions in business—that an “ideal” worker is one who can devote the most time to work and has no other priorities. Under this fallacy, anything less than a full-time position is devalued (“if it’s so important, why isn’t it full-time?”) and employees with childcare responsibilities are assumed to be less committed. Bias also comes from assumptions that the woman’s salary is the “second” salary of the household and, therefore, not as needed (“let’s protect the male ‘breadwinner’ salaries at the expense of the ‘second’ salaries”).

A third consideration—we should not assume a fixed pie of assets or a fixed set of job descriptions and that there is nothing a congregation can do other than cut salaries. Here too, good processes can help. Some congregations have moved up or added to their fundraising calendars (successfully) to ensure their budgets are intact. For others, the congregation has been able to find creative ways to cut costs or shift personnel to new tasks (i.e. Zoom guru.) And, when budget cutting is unavoidable, consulting with those affected is crucial: Is health care coverage and pension more important than salary; is furloughing better than shifting to fewer hours; even gauging interest in early retirement or voluntarily reduced hours. Brainstorming with the Jewish professionals might reveal ideas that the board leadership have not considered. 

Our top suggestions to promote equity in a crisis:

  1. Check your bias—reflect on what assumptions go into how reductions and downsizing are decided.
  2. Double-check after scenario planning that there are not unintended consequences that particularly harm women, people of color, and other vulnerable populations—and then track this data. Correct, if needed, before continuing with the decisions. Repeat this process when re-staffing occurs: Who is brought back to full pay or full-time?
  3. Equity and equality are different. Fairness does not mean everyone is treated equally. People have different needs and are in different situations (i.e., across the board pay reductions are far more devastating at the lower end of the pay scale).
  4. The most highly compensated can take the lead on pay reductions or voluntary give-back donations. Publicize this broadly. This does not mean breaking contracts or strong-arming employees, however. Concessions should be free-will offerings.
  5. Balance between the economic health of the community and of the clergy and staff. For communities where the economic impact has not been so harsh, it is incongruous to insist on pay reductions. On the other hand, in communities hard hit, difficult decisions made in partnership are necessary.
  6. Consult with key stakeholders (community, clergy, staff, board, and other legal and financial experts) throughout the process. Go slow to go fast.
  7. Consider transparency at every step to build trust.
    • Make the decision-making process transparent (i.e., this is who we consulted) even when employment outcomes are private.
    • Consider the timing of announcements and the sharing of information, as well as the balance of what is private versus appropriate so that everyone feels included and supported.
    • Consult with affected parties how outcomes should be communicated (i.e., when layoffs are announced; with names or just positions; by whom and to whom).
  1. Trust is hard to build and even harder to rebuild—assume the relationship is a long term one and act accordingly. Even those laid off from a congregation often stay as members and are part of the community. The ripple effects of broken trust—feeling unfairly treated—will permeate the larger community.
  2. Remember that decisions made now accrue to the reputation of the congregation. These can both create stronger reputations when a crisis is handled well or can harm a reputation when decisions are poorly made. And, of course, this reputation affects future relationships among clergy, staff, the board, and the community.

At times of crisis, we want to move quickly, reacting immediately. However, that can yield unintended damage. In this wilderness, the financial unknown, we must lead with our Jewish values, utilizing the best practices of process to ensure equity and maintain the sacred trust in our communities.



Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the Executive Director of Women’s Rabbinic Network, co-leading the Reform Pay Equity Initiative, and her most recent anthology is
The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic (CCAR Press: 2019). Andrea Kupfer Schneider is a Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Women’s Leadership at Marquette University. 

[1] An earlier iteration of this article appeared in The Forward, Scribe Blog on July 7, 2020. This is based on a presentation available in the URJ Tent, produced in partnership by the Union for Reform Judaism, National Association for Temple Administration, Women of Reform Judaism, and Women’s Rabbinical Network on behalf of the Reform Pay Equity Initiative with funding from the Safety Respect Equity Coalition.

Categories
Books CCAR Press High Holy Days

Reading ‘Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27’ during a Pandemic

Read the same psalm every day for fifty days?
The same one we read last year? 
Using the same book and the same practice?
Yes. Yes. Yes and yes.
Get a new notebook or open a new computer file.
Sharpen your pencils or find your new favorite pen.
But yes, return to the psalm, return to the book, return to the practice
(this is after all the psalm for the season of return, t’shuvah).

Why? 
Because the world has changed.
Because the ways we see or hear,
experience and reflect on the same words have changed.
We know it to be true from our experience,
reading the same Torah portions in their annual cycle.
We see a character or situation from Genesis in a new way
because of something or someone we encountered or considered.
We understand the ethical demands of Leviticus differently
because we are sitting in a different chair, the light is brighter or dimmer,
we’ve lost or gained: a friend, a few pounds, some perspective.
And so this year, as we make our way in a world infected with COVID-19,
we hear, read, experience Psalm 27 again.

Who has not felt fear that the deadly virus will approach us, ravage our bodies? (27:2)
Who has not waged a battle against the enemy, scrubbing, wiping, wiping again, hands and handles, with disinfecting bleach? (27:3)
How many of us, confined to our homes, small or large, alone or with others, have not imagined being in a better place, a Palace? (27:4)
Who has sought out a hiding place, a fort or cave of pillows and blankets, constructed by children or adults, a shelter for body and soul? (27:5)
How can we sing, knowing it spreads disease with vengeance, needing the balm of music to tamp down the fear, still the heart, calm the breath, fill the soul? (27:6)
Will a face be recognized behind this mask? (27:8)
Who have we abandoned? (27:10)
On these chaotic days that merge one into the other, when voices of leadership sow discord, who has not noticed that facts are seen as fiction and fiction becomes fact? (27:12)
And what about gratitude for those who have followed the right path, stayed home or gone to work, first responders, caregivers, grocery store workers, truck drivers? (27:11)
When did we last cry out the Psalmist’s prayer?
Protect me, protect my loved ones, my coworkers, the most vulnerable, all of us.(27:7)
Are we ready to affirm the ancient words? Fill us with hope, keep us patient as we wait, for we have strong hearts and we have courage, we have each other, and we have You and Your light; we can wait, hopefully. (27:14)

The psalm is the same but the world is not, and none of us is unchanged. If you are new to the practice, welcome. If you are returning, welcome back. The Invitation (page xv) will help you get focused and organized (you have until August 21). This year, in response to readers and rabbis, there is a Navigation Chart to help match the Reflections for Focus to specific days of the season, as well as a Study Guide with textual passages and activities to accompany each verse. We have also provided a musical recording of Kavei El Adonai composed by Cantor Richard Cohn. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is available from CCAR Press, and I welcome you to join with my congregation, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, weekly to engage in the practice online. We will be meeting Wednesdays at 9:00 a.m. CT starting August 19; details will be available at www.tedallas.org



Rabbi Debra J. Robbins has served Temple Emanu-El in Dallas since 1991 and currently works closely with the Social Justice and Adult Jewish Learning Councils, the Pastoral Care department, a variety of Worship initiatives, and teaches classes for adults. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Ethics

The Mitzvah of Choosing Life during the Coronavirus Pandemic

In the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 22, we are taught:

“When you build a new house you shall make a parapet (a guardrail) for your roof, so that you do not bring blood guilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”

In traditional Middle Eastern architecture, homes are often single story and built with flat roofs. Those roofs are often play areas for children or places to relax at night. But, they can be dangerous were someone to wander off near the edge and fall. The Torah states that it is the responsibility of the homeowner to place a fence, a guardrail, or parapet surrounding the roof in order to prevent unintentional harm to others.

Most of us understand that it is our responsibility not to place others at risk of bodily harm or especially in mortal danger. We don’t drink and drive or buy faulty baby equipment or give dangerous toys to children.

Most of the time, we are able to avoid endangering others. But this pandemic has challenged many of our assumptions. We should all be very aware that personal choices we make might have very negative consequences for those around us, both those close to us, as well as total strangers. It is challenging to think of ourselves as sources of danger in the outside world. But it’s true.

It is up to each of us to wear face masks, insist on social distancing, and be meticulous in pursuing personal hygiene. We are constructing metaphorical parapets surrounding ourselves. This is not easy. We are social beings, and we thrive on human contact, but we must sacrifice for the well-being of all.

My synagogue, Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois, made the difficult decision not to meet in person for prayer for the upcoming High Holy Days. We are sad knowing we will not be able to greet each other warmly, see our friends and family, pray together, and sing as one congregation. But we simply could not risk the health and safety of any one of us. Many congregants have written in support of that decision.

Of all the rules of Jewish law, one commandment takes precedence over all the others. To save a life overrules all other requirements. It is a command—a mitzvah—to protect human life. It is also true that Judaism never allowed faith to deny the truth of science. In Jewish thought, there is no conflict between the Biblical narrative and the discoveries of Darwin, Einstein, and others. Indeed the greatest of all Jewish theologians and legal authorities, Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides, was himself a physician.

There are those who are choosing to deny what medicine and science tell us about Covid-19. There are those who would make a partisan political issue of wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing. There are those who might call coronavirus harmless.

In contrast, we must take this pandemic very seriously. It is up to each of us to insure our own well-being and the health of our family and loved ones, but we are also responsible for our neighbors, community, and larger society.

Elsewhere in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 30, we read:

“I place before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life! So that you and your offspring shall long live and endure upon the soil that the Eternal your God swore unto your ancestors”

We must choose life.
Be safe.
Be healthy.



Rabbi Samuel Gordon serves Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday Machzor Technology

Beyond the Service: Five (More) Things to Consider for Online High Holy Days

A few years ago, in the midst of chemotherapy treatments, I could not attend High Holy Day services at my synagogue. My family attended as usual, and I stayed home, turned on the computer, and watched the livestream. It gave me the perspective to say with confidence that streaming would never be a satisfactory replacement for in-person services. With High Holy Days 5781 going all or mostly online in most communities, here are five things I had to figure out for myself; addressing them will make a huge difference for our communities this fall.

  1. Distractions. In our own sanctuaries, we make an announcement or put in our handouts a reminder to silence cell phones, and the peer pressure of being in a theater-like setting is enough for most people to comply. But at home, we are asking people to be on the very screens that we want them to avoid in synagogue. More than that, unlike the online Shabbat services we’ve been doing for months now, High Holy Day services aren’t just for the most dedicated among us. Rosh HaShanah falling on a weekend will help limit work distractions, but how many people will try to stream Yom Kippur services while also working from home and, perhaps, homeschooling their children? Consider a reminder—and a how-to—not just on connecting to the livestream, but on turning off distracting notifications: news apps, emails, text messages, and more, that will drag them away from the service mentally if not physically.

  2. Physical machzor. Visual T’filah is beautiful; it has been a lifesaver, and I wish it had been part of the livestream in the year I was home. I was lucky to have my own machzor on the shelf; I’m not sure I would have continued streaming without it. But the High Holy Days are about personal reflection; Mishkan HaNefesh allows eyes to wander and enhances individual prayer in the midst of community prayer. During a choral piece, how many of our congregants watch the cantor or choir the whole time, and how many are reading something else on the page? Our machzor encourages reflection and prayer, and especially in a year that is already strange, anything we can do to enrich that is important. If our congregants don’t already own a machzor, we should be thinking about how to get a copy into their hands.

  3. Busy hands. I’m a doodler and a fidgeter. In the sanctuary, the machzor gives me something to hold onto. But when streaming services, the machzor sits on a table in front of me, so my hands are empty. I do not participate as fully as I do when I’m in the sanctuary. People will be tempted to pick up their phones to play a game, or to read a nearby magazine, or to fold laundry. What could we encourage people to do instead? I did hand lettering during the High Holy Days I was streaming, creating artwork out of words from the machzor. I copied out, by hand, readings or lines I found especially meaningful. I wrote prayers. What can we give to our congregants to keep them in the mental space of the service, when they are surrounded by a million other things they could be doing?

  4. Kids and others. In the year I stayed home, during the daytime services, my husband took our children to the synagogue. For the evening services, I was home with the kids while he went to synagogue. Even though the kids (then three and almost one) were in bed when the services began, I missed a lot until they (eventually) fell asleep. I could not have done it during the day when they were up. How can we support families with young children at home, without the ubiquitous babysitting or children’s programming? While some congregations might simultaneously stream children’s programming, many won’t be able to. What resources can we provide in order to entertain, educate, and spiritually nourish children so that their parents can focus and pray? What resources can we provide to parents to empower them to get their kids connected and engaged?

  5. Connection. The High Holy Days are about connecting with God, but they’re also about connecting with other people and with clergy. I missed this part the most, in my streaming year, and we’re all feeling it now. Maybe we want to encourage congregants to (virtually) chat with each other during services. Maybe we can have someone periodically post pre-written discussion questions—or questions about the sermon—during the service. Maybe we can add High Holy Day programming that isn’t services, like small-group Tashlich (one of few things I attended in-person that year), or physically distant picnics, or apple picking. Maybe we’re making more phone calls than usual, and having board members call the congregation not just to say “shanah tovah,” but to really work on connecting, encourage religious school classes and other auxiliary groups to hold themed hangouts, or having breakout group receptions or discussions during or after the service.

It’s really hard to feel connected at a time when we’re used to being with our biggest crowds, and instead, we’re alone in a room. I won’t pretend it was fun when I did it a few years ago, but working together and planning ahead, the experience could be a new way to engage, reflect, and pray together.


Rabbi Jessica Barolsky lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her family, where she is a member of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. She is grateful that CEEBJ has been livestreaming services for many years.

Categories
General CCAR parenting

Not All Jewish Genetic Screenings Are Created Equal

While most of us are appropriately immersed in issues relating to Covid-19 or racial justice, let me bring your attention to a different matter of life and death. Recently I experienced a series of very personal “aha” moments, but with professional ramifications as well. 

            In January 1986, our son Joshua Daniel died after only living for six months. The cause of death was recorded as an “unknown degenerative neurological disorder.” Our Israeli geneticist hypothesized that it was likely genetic, but beyond the scope of the pre-natal testing for Tay- Sachs and other diseases that my wife, Lynn, and I had taken. 

            We nonetheless risked having more children and were blessed with two healthy daughters, Sara and Mica. Sara recently married and Mica is engaged. Prior to their weddings, I stressed the importance of being fully tested for so-called “Jewish Genetic Diseases.” Sara went to her doctor in Houston, explained the family history, and asked for a full Jewish genetic screening. She was pleased when the results came back completely negative. 

A few months, later Mica utilized the JScreen program, based in Atlanta at Emory University, also available to anyone in the United States. Her results revealed a positive indication for a disorder, the symptoms of which sounded eerily similar to what ended her brother’s life. This was the first potential “aha” moment, a clue to solving a 34-year mystery. 

However, our focus is on the present. With almost all disorders on Jewish genetic screening panels, your partner must also be a carrier—and even if both are carriers there is only a 1 in 4 chance that a baby will be afflicted. Her fiancé, a Jew by Choice, will now be tested, but it is unlikely, with his Sikh Indian biological heritage, that he is a carrier, THOUGH NOT IMPOSSIBLE

The next “aha” moment came when Sara discovered that her testing at the doctor’s office in Houston did not include the disorder that Mica’s revealed. She then utilized the JScreen protocol, which showed she was not a carrier of that particular disorder, though she was positive for another less serious disorder. Subsequently, her husband also used JScreen for testing, revealing no problems.

My second “aha” is the new knowledge that not all Jewish genetic screenings are created equal:

  • Simply suggesting to couples we counsel to seek Jewish genetic screening is not enough. 
  • Simply asking a doctor, even a Jewish doctor, for Jewish genetic screening is not enough. 

I have subsequently been looking at programs for Jewish genetic disease screening throughout the country. Though I am by no means an expert, I have gained a better understanding of what is available and how we can best serve young couples with whom we engage.

First there is a misconception about the number of Jewish genetic diseases for which we should be concerned. We all know about Tay-Sachs. However, there seem to be others that receive prominent attention and are typically screened: cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular atrophy, Gaucher disease, Usher syndrome type 1, glycogen storage disease type 1a, familial dysautonomia, Canavan disease, lipoamide dehydrogenase deficiency, Bloom syndrome, Walker-Warburg syndrome, maple syrup urine disease, Fanconi anemia, Neiman-Pick disease, mucolipidosis IV, ABCC8 hyperinsulinism, Usher syndrome type 3, nemaline myopathy, and Joubert syndrome. 

However, we should urge our couples to ask for what is often called “advanced” or “expanded” Jewish screening panels, which is what identified the potential problems for both of my daughters. For example, JScreen currently covers 226 disorders, including 101 Jewish disorders (47 Ashkenazic, 37 Sephardi-Mizrahi, and 17 common to both). Compare that to my older daughter’s first screening of 165 disorders, which missed 67 of those considered Jewish disorders. 

Who should be screened? Obviously two born Jewish partners need to be tested but let me stress that ALL couples should be screened. Sadly, I have been the rabbi for a couple, whose son died of Tay-Sachs with the mother’s genetic background being Ashkenazic Jewish, but the father’s a combination of Irish/Italian/Catholic lineage. In addition, now that we know all screens are not equal, those who did not have the full advanced screening initially should be re-screened, prior to having any more children. 

I have become a big fan of the JScreen program. (www.jscreen.org)  Any couple throughout the country can avail themselves of their test kit, with a doctor’s order that JScreen collects on behalf of the patient. Through subsidies, they make it affordable for those with and without insurance. After viewing an educational video and submitting a saliva sample, individuals receive screening results, along with counseling from a professional genetic counselor. Based upon my initial survey, there are some programs that also do similar advanced screening, but I am not aware of any that serve the entire country. 

Epilogue: Lynn and I decided to be tested by JScreen in the hope that we would have a more definitive understanding as to Joshua’s cause of death. Unfortunately, it will remain a mystery. While I tested positive for the same disorder that we thought it might be, Lynn did not.

Regardless, this is clearly a matter of pikuach nefesh for our community. If anyone would like to communicate with me privately about this, I would welcome it. 

To learn more about JScreen or to request their free rabbi folder, visit www.jscreen.org.


Bob Loewy is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, LA; married to Lynn; proud father of Karen Loewy (David Widzer NY ’00), David Loewy, Sara Loewy (Paul Belin), Mica Loewy (Jasjit Singh); grandfather of Judah and Elisheva Widzer; and looking forward to more.

Categories
Books Social Justice

What Can Jonah Teach Us About #BlackLivesMatter?

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020). In this post, he reflects on what Jonah can teach us about the current moment. 


As we read numerous times throughout his eponymous book, Jonah flees from his moral responsibility, his sacred calling. When God calls Jonah to bring righteousness to Nineveh, and to save countless lives, he shirks his prophetic duties. When pressed to stand and represent the ideals of faith and repentance, Jonah flees. Why should we continue studying this man and his book? How can he, in his capricious self-centeredness, inspire us to be representatives of peace and understanding? 

I’ve thought a lot about Jonah lately amid the tumult that has affected our nation. We, as a country, are suffering greatly. Extreme partisanship, racial divides, and lackadaisical, apathetic leadership have led America down a dark path. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police was a symptom of a greater problem we face—the lack of interest in introspection and the unwillingness to look at the meta-issues our nation struggles with. Intellectual stagnation has taken hold; the race to find consensus in the lowest common denominator has replaced the active search for reconciliation. 

As I worked on writing my commentary on the Book of Jonah, I wrestled deeply with its ethical lessons. On the surface, Jonah is the antithesis of what we want in our leaders. His earthly cowardliness seems to stand at odds with his heavenly mission, and his constant deviation from his task shows that, perhaps, he is not up for the job. But this is precisely the brilliance of the Book of Jonah. Out of all the prophets featured in the Hebrew Bible, Jonah is the only one who seems to be like a regular human being. He has limits, he has scars, he has foibles. 

And through his failure, we see ourselves. His life is a mirror to our soul. 

But also, through Jonah’s failures—and there were many—we see the potential for spiritual growth and healing. During the prophet’s sojourn in the great fish, he reflects in quarantine, in complete darkness, on what must be the lowest moment in his life. The walls are closing in around him (literally, the gills of the fish move in and out at a steady pace, marching against the pressures of the sea), and Jonah seemingly has no options for escape. He has but one tool in his arsenal: he prays. And he prays. And he prays some more. And then he is released to complete his mission. Jonah proclaims God’s message to Nineveh, saving the city and its inhabitants. 

As I write in my book: “We have the capacity to improve the world while striving for spiritual fulfillment and further attachment to justice” (page 118). Jonah sought to escape his obligations; we shall embrace them.

At this current, challenging moment, we should pray as Jonah prayed. Our prayer should strengthen our deepest moral resolve to serve as listeners, humble allies, and bold mobilizers. At times of great import, much like what we are witnessing today, we must remove ourselves from the negative forces that bring us down so that we may elevate others. In other words, it seems as if we are to ruminate in great, dark quarantine inside fishes of our own making. Now more than ever, we need to engage and embrace those who are truly hurting. Unlike Jonah, we can charge ahead with empathy and passion. The #BlackLivesMatter movement should rouse us from our spiritual lethargy, galvanizing us to push society forward to end inequality and bigotry.

Let us hear the call and be leaders for positive change. 

The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary Official Book Trailer from CCAR on Vimeo.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press

Categories
High Holy Days Prayer spirituality

Our Avodah (Work) during the Coronavirus Pandemic

The CCAR Committee for Worship and Practice had dedicated its work for 2019–2020 to the question: What are the spiritual practices and needs of Reform Jews—both non-ordained and ordained? We began meeting and working last fall and winter—and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

And so, after taking a short break to adjust to an altered reality, we dedicated two of our meetings to the questions: What is the meaning of our avodah in the year of the pandemic? and What is our avodah especially during the High Holy Day season this year? 

We learned that what we as rabbis are asked to do is similar to the work of translation: We need to go back to our core theologies, spiritual practices, communal commitments, and ethical callings—and then we have to “translate” those into a new language of Zoom, Facetime, Vimeo, and Google Meet. As Reform rabbis, we are intimately familiar with the practice of translation. It is one of the first skills we practice in rabbinical school, and it forms the basis of our work after ordination: translating the wisdom of our tradition, originating in languages and cultural frameworks vastly different from our own, into an idiom that our communities can understand and appreciate. In this way, we help Torah to adapt itself to every generation.  

As we begin to prepare for the High Holy Days this year, with many of us learning an entirely new language, we found it helpful to be guided by questions—questions we want to share with you, our colleagues, along with some preliminary answers (far from being exhaustive!): 

Core Theologies, Spiritual Practices, Communal Commitments, and Ethical Callings: What Remains the Same?

  • We as clergy still model spirituality and spiritual practices.
  • Pre-existing relationships matter. It is much easier to maintain pre-existing relationships, than create new ones.
  • While some people enjoy active participation, others still simply join to watch.

Name What Hurts: Which Changes May Be Painful?

  • There is an immense pressure on clergy to learn many new skills, especially technical ones, in a short time. 
  • Virtual communities in a time of social distancing collapse the boundaries between our private and our synagogue lives.
  • Virtual communities sometimes encourage passivity, we “show” rather than “share.” 

Lean into the New: Which Changes Might Be Inspiring and Insightful?

  • The visual components of prayer become center piece. 
  • One-on-one prayer, counseling, and meetings allow for a new intimacy. 
  • Virtual communities allow us to demonstrate our vulnerability and imperfection, and this promotes connection. 

Comfort: What Can We Learn from the New Centrality of Our (Jewish) Homes? 

  • Private, personal, and home rituals and prayers gain new importance in the lives of Reform Jews. 
  • Showing our homes on screen also gives us an opportunity to share the sacredness of our own homes—this can be a form of hidur mitzvah.  
  • Leading our services from home allows for a more improvised and spontaneous experience of prayer. 

Familiarity: What Can We Learn from the New Centrality of Jewish Time? 

  • Jewish time has taken on a renewed meaning. The cycle of the holidays, the Omer, and above all Shabbat, help us differentiate between days that seem otherwise indistinguishable

While it might not have been a big surprise, it is still worthy for us to reiterate: our work is sacred work, and it has always been “mediated”—that means, it has always been communicated through books, phones, videos, touch, smiles, words, livestreams, and melodies. Our core theologies, spiritual practices, communal commitments, and ethical callings remain the same also in the time of the coronavirus.

However, during a time of prolonged distancing and a potentially altered reality to return to, we are asked to do the work of “translation”: to ask, once again, how we can make sure that our Torah may enrich, comfort, and engage our people. This is the work we do.