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Gender and the Rabbinate: Difficult Issues

In the final session of the recent two-day CCAR conference on “Gender: Difficult Issues,” there were no epiphanies.  Instead, we acknowledged that while gender is more fluid than we had once thought, it also can seem more intransigent.  As we talked, we concluded that looking at these difficult issues requires a multi-layered approach to gender.

In the early days of women in the rabbinate, most of us thought that once the novelty wore off, people would relate to male and female rabbis in similar ways. Now we know that they do and yet they don’t.  A story will illustrate. I think of the time I ran into our colleague Rabbi Howie Jaffe in the local supermarket. Two congregants of his passed by and commented on what a terrific guy he was (and he is!), helping out his wife by shopping for her in the middle of the workday.  I remember saying to him, “You know, if you were a  female rabbi, they would have walked past and said to each other, ‘You see? You hire a woman and she’s at the store instead of being at the Temple.’”

This idle comment reflects the deepest layer of gender attitudes and perhaps the one that offers us the greatest challenges.  It reflects the fantasies that exist in the unconscious primitive mind.  In this part of the brain, the Mother Rabbi as the source of unconditional love is enshrined in a way that the Father Rabbi is not.  The Father Rabbi may elicit a desire to feel protected and guided, but when you cry – and sometimes before you cry – it is the Mother you turn to for comfort and sustenance.  The only problem is that no one ever has the perfect mother.  Some are lucky and have a mother who is “good enough” (the idea that the mother only needs to be “good enough” to raise a healthy child is a concept offered by the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott).  Real mothers come too late or too early and offer too much or not enough.  So real children necessarily feel deprived and, by extension, so do adult congregants who unknowingly respond to those emotional triggers.  The Father Rabbi in the supermarket might make you feel safe and cared for, while the Mother Rabbi sparks your old feelings of deprivation by putting her family’s needs ahead of yours.

These responses to rabbinic gender aren’t as neat as I make it appear in this story. People can develop a mother transference to a male rabbi or a father transference to a female rabbi. But for this moment in time, it gives us a way of thinking about how our gender affects our rabbinates, what our gender arouses in the people we serve, and what gender inspires in us.  Because these attitudes about gender are unconscious, they aren’t available to us and people aren’t aware they are acting on fantasy. To them, in that moment, it feels real.

Knowing that gender triggers these deep fantasies can help us grasp the practical implications and guide us in our responses. One implication has to do with rabbinic comings and goings. People who are sensitive to deprivation often react strongly to rabbinic absence, whether a long absence when the rabbi goes on vacation or a shorter absence when the rabbi goes to her child’s soccer game instead of going to the bar mitzvah luncheon.  While it is important for rabbis to spend time with our families and to have time to ourselves, we need to think carefully about how we present those needs to our congregations and constituents. It would be nice to think that they want us to lead whole balanced lives and that they are thrilled when we spend time recharging, but even members who have the general appreciation that rabbis have personal needs are likely to feel specifically deprived if their personal event is sacrificed for rabbinic personal happiness.  If you say, “I can’t officiate at your baby naming on that day because my son has a soccer game,” you are more likely to trigger deprivation and anger than if you say, “I wish I could officiate on that day but I am not available.  How about the following Sunday?”

Another implication – this for more discussion another time – has to do with contract negotiation.  Negotiating with a congregant who (unconsciously) yearns for your unconditional love will be highly charged.  Contracts are by definition conditional.  For some members, negotiating with you is like having to pay mother for her love.  And there are also the feelings (often also unconscious) that we bring to these interactions.  Are we wishing for unconditional love ourselves when we negotiate?  Or are we so afraid of wounding our congregants that we hesitate about getting our own needs met, leaving us the ones feeling deprived?

“Gender: Difficult Issues” was an apt title for our two-day conversation.  It was only the beginning of an ongoing conversation we need to have with ourselves, each other, and our leadership.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis (www.rabbiellenlewis.com) 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 (www.jcnwj.org).  

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 (www.cmps.edu) and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (www.acapnj.org).  She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org). She can be reached via email at rabbiellenlewis@rabbiellenlewis.com or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.

 

 

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CCAR on the Road General CCAR Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis: Immigration Reform Lobby Day in DC

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Lobby Day in DC

(The CCAR “Gang of Ten”: Rabbis Michael Namath, Baht Weiss, Sam Gordon, Esther Lederman, Greg Litcofsky, Ari Margolis, David Adelson, RAC Deputy Director Rachel Laser, and Seth Limmer)

 It started as a question: as part of our Rabbis Organizing Rabbis campaign for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, would colleagues be interested in journeying to Washington, D.C. for a Rabbinic Lobby Day on Capitol Hill?  If so, would Senators and their staffs be willing to meet with national representatives of CCAR, even from out of state? If so, would we as rabbis be able to make any impact on the success of the legislation’s passage through Congress?

The answer to all these questions, I discovered on our first Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Lobby Day,  is a resounding: YES.

May 22 was an auspicious date for many reasons. We knew it was one of the final days Senators would be in town before their June recess.  We knew we had a team of ten colleagues taking trains, planes and automobiles to meet up at our Religious Action Center.  But we didn’t realize that late in the evening on May 21 the Senate Judiciary Committee would vote S. 744 [the bi-partisan bill for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, or CIR] out of committee by a margin of 13-5.  When we entered the halls of Congress, our Senators all knew that a vote on CIR was coming their way.

After a thorough prep session at the RAC, our day began by meeting Senator Daniel Bennet [D-CO], one of the members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who championed CIR.  Led by David Saperstein (and together with our allies from the UUAA) we thanked Senator Bennet for his leadership, asked him how we could help ensure the passage of the Bill, and charged him (as he was happy to hear) to “get this work done”.

From that session, our own CCAR “Gang of Ten” fanned out over Capitol Hill to meet in smaller groups with the offices of  seven key senators.  We heard interesting messages from two other members of the Gang of Eight with whom we met: Dick Durbin [D-IL] charged us to help secure the vote of his IL colleague, Mark Kirk [R-IL]; Robert Menendez directed our focus to the House of Representatives, where his staff feels this legislation will face serious and sustained opposition.  Angus King [I-ME] also reiterated a call to ensure the overwhelming passage of CIR in the Senate to put real pressure on the House.

Our teams also scheduled appointments with Senators whose previous statements and records led us to believe we would have to work hard to gain their support. In many ways, it was in these sessions where the real learning of the day took place, and where the greatest optimism was found.  Joe Donnelly [D-IN], heavily influenced by the support the Catholic Conference of Bishops has put behind CIR, was encouraged to hear more faith groups speak of the moral arguments for the legislation he is leaning to support.  His colleague, Dan Coats [R-IN, who had expressed dismay for President Obama’s DREAM act], turns out to be focused on the realism of CIR’s border-security measures, but seeks a comprehensive solution and is very open to the possibility of supporting S. 744.  (Coat’s Legislative Director especially asked us to be vocal on the issue of why this bill didn’t provide “amnesty”, as that was the biggest negative public perception he felt his office needed to overcome.)  Kay Hagan [D-NC], one of five Democrats who voted against the DREAM act, wouldn’t commit to a position, as she faces re-election in a state turning towards the other party.  It was curious that we felt more encouraged by our meetings with “swing”  Republicans than Democrats…..

The most interesting meeting of the day was with the office of Mark Kirk [R-IL].  The importance of Kirk’s leadership in widening the bipartisan support for CIR could be crucial, we had been told when meeting with Durbin’s staff.  So it was with great hope and a sense of urgency that Chicago’s own Rabbi Sam Gordon began our session setting forth a compelling case.  As conversations continued, we learned that Senator Kirk was open to supporting S. 744, and potentially even inclined to do so.  The early and vocal advocacy of the faith community, we were told, was a large reason why.  As the meeting became more and more encouraging, I felt emboldened to share the following with the Senator: thanks to Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, we already have a network of sixteen committed colleagues throughout Illinois who are poised to come out and support and help Senator Kirk arrive at (and keep to) the right vote on this issue.  Sam Gordon listed the many cities in which Rabbis Organizing Rabbis can really make a very public difference for the Senator, and Kirk’s people widened their eyes at the opportunities, took business cards, and pledged to be in touch.

I learned a lot from a tremendously full day in D.C.  From Rachel Laser and the RAC Staff, I learned how important it was, before going to Wasington, to advocate publicly on a local level (I was fortunate enough to have an Op-Ed published on Immigration Reform in the Jewish Week).  Sitting with Senators and showing them my public commitment and leadership definitely made a difference.  From my Just Congregations community organizing training I learned how having people on the ground in states gave us greater power and opportunity when talking with Senators.  From the Senators and staffers with whom we shared such fascinating conversations, I came to understand how much of a real difference it makes in the policy and legislation of our nation that we as rabbis went door-to-door on Capitol Hill.

And, lastly, I learned how invigorating it was to walk through the halls of Congress with my colleagues, making a real difference in the governance of our country and the ways its people are able to enjoy justice, peace and civil liberties.  I can’t wait to do it again.

 Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.  

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Books General CCAR Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

Mishkan T’filah for Children: Creating a New Siddur for Families and Schools

I have always wrestled with the siddur.  However, I thought I had reached my peace with it, until I was asked to write Mishkan T’filah for Children.

My HUC year in Israel was the first time that my Hebrew was good enough to actually understand the prayers that were ingrained in my memory.  The first time I read the familiar Hebrew words and understood their translations, I found myself unable to pray.  The God that I believed in wasn’t the all-powerful “Male Sky God” that the rabbis seemed to know – a God who is “King of the Universe,” who is “High and Exalted,” and who we beseech to “rule over us in steadfast love and compassion.”   This was not my God.

Like many of us, I would decide that the words didn’t matter as much as the people and the places.  I wasn’t the first Jew to not believe the words in every prayer, and I surely will not be the last.  I teach prayer and encourage students to grapple with the words.  I lead prayer and find ways in my introductions and chosen melodies to explain and add meaning to the text.  And I pray, often turning off my mind to let my spirit soar.  And for me, it worked.

That was, until Rabbi Hara Person reached out to me and asked if I would consider writing Mishkan T’filah for Children, a siddur intended for grades k-2 and me.   Though I teach prayer, and lead prayer, writing a movement prayer book was a very different prospect.  I had read enough Sasso and Kushner to know that children’s books could provide diverse images of God, but could a children’s prayerbook successfully do the same?  Was there a way to show those varying theologies while still staying true to Reform Movement prayer?   What was the balance between keeping the words of our tradition, and encouraging different ideas and concepts to emerge?

I have to give credit to my husband, Rabbi Joel Abraham, for his help at this point.   “Why does God have to be the “Creator of Peace,” he asked.  “Why can’t God just be the “Peace”?   Indeed why not?

How many different classes and programs have I taught where we explore the many different images of God that are part of the Jewish tradition?  Why can’t a prayerbook for children share that variety?  Indeed, a key component of the “regular” Mishkan T’filah is its inclusion of different English readings that give a variety of God images.   Even the traditional siddur, with in the limitations imposed by the culture that created it, reaches for diverse images of the Divine.

And so, I began to work.  We would still refer to God as “Ruler of the Universe,”  but find places where God was also the Light, the Peace, or the Artist.  I added images of God “tucking us in” and “helping us be strong and brave,” and kept images of God as “Creator of Miracles” and “Giver of Live.”  We would praise God for being holy, and also recognize the Holy Spark with in each of us as God as well.

It is an incredible gift to have your theology challenged.    The process of writing Mishkan T’filah for Children was just that for me – not only my own voice, but the voices of parents, children, and clergy loud in my mind, questioning each word that I chose.  Did this image of God to too far? Should I be more daring and go farther?    I teach my students that we are Yisrael – the Ones who Wrestle with God. It is an incredible gift to be invited to engage in the struggle.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham, RJE, is the Director of Education at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, NJ.  She is also the author of numerous Jewish curricula and children’s books, and works extensively as a consultant for a variety of Jewish Summer Camp grants and projects.  Most recently she served as the Jewish Educational Consultant on the Foundation for Jewish Camp Specialty Camp Incubator.  

Order Mishkan T’filah for Children by July 15th to receive a special pre-publication discount of 25%. Also forthcoming from CCAR Press is Mishkan T’filah for Youth, intended for grades 3-6.

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General CCAR Machzor News Prayer Rabbis

Machzor Blog: What’s in a Name?

L’chol Machzor, yesh shem…

MHaNefesh webWe finally have a name to call our new Machzor!  Mishkan HaNefesh.  As we turn each year to our prayerbook for the High Holy Days, we want to ensure the name would and could reflect not only its contents but the experience of these days as well.

The title of our Shabbat, Weekly, and Festival Prayerbook, Mishkan T’fila led the way.  The choice, years ago, of “mishkan” captured the desire to move beyond the “gates” into the sanctuary, the inner circle of prayer.  It gave access to the many voices and layers of the liturgical experience and reminded us of the centrality of the communal experience within sacred space, even when that space is a prayer book.

Yet, as we have learned, the prayer book itself cannot guarantee the efficacy of prayer or any worship.  It will take the individual within the context of the community to find meaning and value.  Thus, when what name should be linked with mishkan arose, the idea of hanefesh which connects to one’s inner life and what we call a human being became a fitting complement.

The Editorial Core Group made up of the editors:  Rabbis Eddie Goldberg, Shelly and Janet Marder, and Leon Morris; along with our Cantorial colleague, Evan Kent, as well as Hara Person, Peter Berg and me; unanimously supported by the CCAR Board, sought to capture what these Days of Awe seek:  t’shuvah, celebration, renewal, personal challenge and reflection, reaffirmation of communal connection to the Jewish story, among others.

As the introduction to our High Holiday Prayer Book notes: “We hope that this Machzor will be a “place” where the spiritual lives of individuals and the religious framework of the community meet….The focus of the Days of Awe is the inner life, each person’s sacred core—the divine essence breathed into us, which the Bible calls nefesh (Genesis 2:7).  Jewish tradition gives us tools for helping the nefesh (soul) grow and improve: t’shuvah (repentance) and the work of cheshbon hanefesh (accounting/taking stock of the soul).  Our Machzor guides and celebrates this personal journey of transformation and renewal…” while it also recognizes the profound significance of the communal experience.

It is our desire that within every community and congregation, each nefesh can find him or herself within this Machzor just as we hope this particular Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, will be found within our community and congregations as a means to give voice to our heartfelt aspirations and sacred work we engage in throughout the holiday season.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher is at Temple Israel in Boston, MA, and is the Chair of the Machzor Advisory Group.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

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Ethics General CCAR News Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

Coming Together in Times of Crisis

As we all try and process the horrors of the Boston marathon bombing, we must remember to stop and appreciate the good works that often gets overshadowed by the seemingly endless parade of horrible we read about each day.

Volunteers removing the flooring at West End Temple after Superstorm Sandy.
Volunteers removing the flooring at West End Temple after Superstorm Sandy.

Almost six months ago almost the entire east coast was rocked by Superstorm Sandy.  While many of us have picked up and moved on, two New York-area congregations, Temple Sinai in Massapequa and West End Temple in Neponsit, are still picking up the pieces.  Like many coastal-area homes and businesses, the synagogues suffered severe storm damage which included extreme flooding and loss of property.

We are proud to announce that the CCAR has donated over 400 new copies of Mishkan T’filah, the Reform Movement prayerbook, to the synagogues to help them to continue to move forward in their rebuilding process.

“We were heartbroken when we saw how the storm had ravaged these synagogues and uprooted the lives of people in their communities,” said Rabbi Steven A. Fox, Chief Executive of the CCAR. “We donated these prayerbooks to help individuals and congregations heal.”  He continued “As creators and publishers of Mishkan T’filah, we understand the important and powerful role that prayer can play in bringing a community together and allowing them to feel whole again.”

Colleagues helping colleagues - Rabbi Margie Slome surrounded by, l to r,  Rabbi Hara Person, Rabbi Amy Ehrlich, Cantorial Intern Amanda WInter, and Rabbi Steve Fox.
Colleagues helping colleagues – Rabbi Margie Slome surrounded by, l to r, Rabbi Hara Person, Rabbi Amy Ehrlich, Cantorial Intern Amanda WInter, and Rabbi Steve Fox.

Rabbi Marjorie Slome of West End Temple was thrilled to receive the new prayerbooks, as extreme flooding destroyed her synagogue’s entire library. “We are so grateful for the CCAR’s generous support and donation to our temple,” said Rabbi Slome. “Receiving these books is truly a blessing as we rebuild.”

The CCAR facilitated the donation of the prayerbooks with funds donated by Rabbi Jonathan Stein, Immediate Past President of the CCAR and Senior Rabbi at Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan.

For Rabbi Stein, supporting these synagogues in their time of need was a given. “When I heard about the storm’s destruction; it was almost a visceral response,” he said. “I instantly committed myself to make this gift happen.” He continued “This is the kind of thing we do for each other in times of crisis.”

“During the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, as we at Temple Sinai reached out for help and there were many who embraced our wet hands.  As our community helped us we helped our community.  It is was not easy for us to say: “We need help”.  But, we soon learned that there are two sides to tzedakah – to give and to receive, both with dignity and humility.  Temple Sinai has been blessed to receive help/tzedakah from individuals, synagogues, and non-profits near and far.  One such is the CCAR.  With the CCAR’s contribution of Mishkan Tefila (prayerbooks) a renewed sense of worship has been given to us.  Knowing that the CCAR responded to our need, our members have a sense of connectedness which never before existed.  We are eternally grateful to the CCAR for their contribution,” said Rabbi Janise Poticha of Temple Sinai.

Flooding at Temple Sinai after Superstorm Sandy.
Flooding at Temple Sinai after Superstorm Sandy.

The CCAR’s donation is just one of the many ways that the Reform Jewish community has come together to support one another in times of need.  In the days and weeks after the storm, CCAR member rabbis, who serve both congregations and community organizations, galvanized their memberships to provide on-the-ground support and supplies to those in some of the hardest hit areas. The Union for Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have also played a leading role in the Jewish response to Sandy, including raising more than $750,000 for disaster relief efforts and coordinating donations of essential supplies to synagogues, community centers and families.

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Books Machzor Prayer Reform Judaism

Machzor Blog: Controversy For the Sake of Heaven

IMG_3949What do you we think people should want to hear rabbis speak about on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur?  Do they want to be comforted and soothed – reminded of the power of hope, the possibility of happiness or finding the means to peace? Or do they wish to be aroused and challenged by the brokenness in the world, the myriad needs of the Jewish community and the wrongdoing in their lives?

 The insight of one of my teachers in rabbinic school was that a rabbi’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  Most people I’ve met are fine with the first half of the dictum, but every year I hear from people who don’t want to come to services to be disturbed.  It reminds me of a joke about a new rabbi who sought advice from the synagogue Board about what she should talk about for her first High Holy Days.

 The president said, “Talk about something to do with being Jewish.”

“Great,” the rabbi replied, “I’ll talk about Shabbat.”

“Maybe not,” one Board member offered, “A lot of our members don’t observe Shabbat. They might take offense.”

“How about talking about Israel?” the rabbi offered.

 “What?!”, said several on the Board, “Do you want to create controversy the first time you speak? We have people here with such different ideas about Israel.”

“All right, I’ll talk about why people should study Torah more for themselves, not just send their children to Religious school,” said the rabbi.

“I don’t know,” some trustees said, “Why make people feel bad about what they don’t do.”

“In that case, what should I talk about?”

“Rabbi, just talk about being Jewish.”

IMG_4029Each person has different yearnings and needs for what they seek during the Days of Awe. Every one of us seeks both comfort and challenge, to be put at ease and goaded to action.  It is likely that at some point on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur you will hear a prayer, music or teaching you do not like, troubles you or challenges what you believe.  Instead of lashing out against those who offer a different point of view, use the strong feelings you have as a motivation for further reflection, conversation and respectful debate.

You do not need a rabbi or prayer to provoke you. Indeed, this is a time when our souls should be stirred. The weeks before and during the Days of Awe are a time for deep, inner, spiritual reflection. Honest self-appraisal (חשבון הנפש) cannot help but confront us with challenging questions. Have I been honest about my faults? Have done all I could for others?  Am I the man or woman I want to be? Is the person others see truly the person I am? What do I hide from others – and why?  Indeed, if you come to the synagogue expecting to be moved, but take no time before or during services for true self-reflection, the point of these days will be lost.  The goal is not to feel that we are bad. Rather, the purpose of these days is to become the best we can be and to seek a world that ought to be.

The Days of Awe, then, are inherently meant to trouble and disturb, to uproot and challenge. This is not, however, controversy for its own sake, but for the sake of Heaven. Such debate, our sages teach, will endure (Pirkei Avot 5:17).  May it be a time of good and blessing, but also one that forces us all to face the hard truths and unmet needs of our lives, our families, our people and the world. 

Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz serves the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

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Books General CCAR Machzor Prayer Reform Judaism

Machzor Blog: The Holy Days? Yup, It’s Time…

CloudsOur congregants usually know a good bit about the link between a Pesach Seder and freedom, that to be in a sukkah is to celebrate the beauty and fragility of our lives in nature, and that we honor bravery and frivolity on Purim, dedication and faith on Chanukah.  When asked about the High Holy Days, most know to focus on what it means to begin again with a New Year, to pray for the future of our world and community, and to do soul searching work in our strivings to try again to hit the mark.

Why is it that on these Holy Days our synagogues are full to overflowing – do they come just to observe the New Year and repent in public?  It is true; they gain strength in connection to one another and find comfort in doing the sacred work with others. I know that many of us lead great worship – but that can’t be the reason so many show up.  The cynic in me could say it’s because they’re “supposed to.”  But I have to believe that some are coming because they are searching for God. 

What kind of God, I don’t know – and perhaps they don’t know either.  But if they might not always articulate it, during the Holy Days our people are looking for a deeper understanding of God.  Our liturgy is certainly focused precisely on God – more so than the other holidays we celebrate; prayer after prayer, kavanah after kavanah, vidui after vidui.  Many of my congregants will tell me that they don’t believe, or that they believe in something more general and of the “spirit” — still they come and sit through hours of recitation, song, and sermon – all of which are focused on God.

What does this mean for us cantors and rabbis?  We often get so caught up in the choreography and the theatre, the seamless cues and flawless singing, the profound yet intimate sermons and reflective iyunim – that we forget that our congregants need tools to find their way to the Divine.  Do we as clergy focus enough on the challenges and opportunities we all have with the God of this liturgy?  Do we give our congregants the tools to dig deep into the realm of belief and faith?

They come to us with questions, even if not openly articulated: If God created this world, on this New Year, why is it so broken?  If God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved one, is the pain that I experience in life to be considered a sacrifice as well?  How can I be written into the Book of Life if I do not “believe” in the way I think I’m supposed to believe?  

We, as clergy, always find the timing of the Holy Days difficult (but they’re always right on time) – perhaps our frustration is also with the fact that we don’t have ample time to teach about these Days, to dig deep, to study the rituals and texts, to examine Un’taneh Tokef and B’rosh haShanah yikateivun – how can we live with such a powerful God, and still hear the kol d’ma’ma daka

IMG_2568The High Holy Days get lost in the shuffle of summer’s transition into fall.  We should use them as an opportunity to directly engage in a conversation about God, and the new machzor may be the tool with which we can initiate these conversations with our congregations: Conversations about belief, faith, and the different pathways to, and expressions of God in our lives. 

A few years ago Rabbi Rachel Cowan spoke to the Commission for Worship, Music and Religious Living, and reflected on the fact that many congregants don’t feel comfortable talking about God – they assume we, their clergy, have the God thing all figured out and therefore are embarrassed that they don’t and don’t know how to ask us.  Maybe now is the time to begin these conversations using the unique texts of our Machzor as our guide and facilitator.  Let’s begin again.

Cantor Rosalie Boxt is the cantor of DC-area Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Maryland, is the Director of Worship for the 2013 URJ Biennial, serves as a member of the URJ Adjunct Faculty and is on the faculty of Hava Nashira.  She is a past vice-president of the ACC, and serves on the Executive Committee of the URJ Kutz Camp.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

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Ethics Gun Control News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Gun Safety Is a Jewish Issue

images-1Gun safety is a Jewish issue.  Since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, Jews have played a prominent role in advocating for gun safety.  There are, to be fair, Jews on the other side of this debate and some in between.

Nevertheless, a compelling case for sensible legislation aimed at reducing gun violence can be framed from the Jewish tradition.  The Torah urges us to conduct ourselves scrupulously and safely (Deut. 4:9:  “Take utmost care and watch yourself scrupulously”) and commands a homeowner to build a railing around the roof “lest you bring bloodguilt upon your house if anyone should fall from it” (Deut. 22:8). From this precept the Rabbis concluded that a person should not keep wild dogs, shoddy ladders, or other dangerous objects in the home lest they cause bloodshed (Babylonian Talmud (BT), Bava Kamma 15b).

The Talmud forbids a person to sell weapons to anyone who might use them inappropriately (BT Avodah Zarah 15b). After John Hinkley attempted to assassinate President Reagan with a handgun in 1982, Orthodox Rabbi J. David Bleich wrote a powerful open letter to the Jewish pawnshop owner who unknowingly sold Hinkley that handgun:

“Jews ought to be in the vanguard of those seeking to impress upon our legislators that handguns are indeed ‘stumbling blocks’ which must not fall into the hands of the ‘blind.’” (“Should Jews Sell Guns?”, referencing Leviticus 19:14, “You must not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind.”).

safe_image.phpOur Movement must continue to lead the way on this issue.  In February, the RAC (Religious Action Center) helped organized an interfaith call-in; thousands of people of all different faith traditions picked up the phone to put religious pressure on our legislators, and another such day is being organized for April 9th.  The URJ seeks partnership with Pastor Rick Warren; they also got Mike Bloomberg to promote the message for NFTY.

What might sensible gun safety legislation look like? 

One.  Universal Background Checks should be utilized in every gun sale, including guns sold online, at gun shows, and through private sales.

Two.  Ban the Sale of High-Capacity Weapons and Ammo Clips to Civilians.  No legitimate self-defense or sporting purpose exists for these military-style, high-capacity weapons and magazines.

Three.  Gun Trafficking Should Be Made a Federal Crime.  Currently, prosecutions only happen through a law that prohibits selling guns without a federal license, which carries the same punishment as trafficking chicken or livestock.  Existing laws must be enforced more effectively, and new laws–with harsher consequences–drawn up to criminalize gun trafficking.  We would like our legislators to propose a (remarkably!) modest limit to the number of gun purchases to one gun per person per month.

We should also work Movement-wide and with partners within and without the Jewish community to initiate direct discussion with key players in the firearms industry, meeting with manufacturers and distributors to request their adoption of responsible practices:  imprinting firearms with Firearms Identification Numbers; researching new technologies such as “smart guns” (guns that only owners can fire); and video recording all gun purchases at the point of sale.

By 2015, it is projected that annual deaths by gun in America will exceed traffic fatalities for the first time in history, at around 33,000.  That’s more than ten times the victims of 9/11, each year for the conceivable future, unless we stand together and demand change.

Gun violence has besmirched not only the honor of our country, but also the honor of responsible gun owners.  The   intransigence of a politically influential minority has impeded our ability to save thousands of lives each year with just a few common-sense measures–measures favored by a majority of Americans.

To be a Jew is to hope.  To lead a community of faith is a hedge against despair.  And to champion the cause of Reform is to believe that change is never impossible. 

I for one still hold aloft the Divine promise of the Prophet Micah, of a day when each of us “shall sit beneath vine and fig-tree, with none to make us afraid” (Micah 4:4).

 

Rabbi Jonathan Blake serves Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY.

Categories
General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Unexpected Detours: The Rabbinic Career Path

One morning a few weeks ago, orange detour signs appeared on both ends of my street, making it a challenge to get to  my office.  Road closed – detour, they say, local traffic only.  This is going to be a pain, I thought, when I first saw the signs. I didn’t realize how fascinating it would become. I didn’t realize how much I would learn from the response of patients coming to my office A few people reported inching around the detour sign in hopes that they could get through to my office. One person gave up in advance and parked on a side street.  Another person called in a panic, announcing that she would not be returning for future appointments until the detour cleared.  A few people called in advance to find out whether it would be possible to get through.

Everyone reacted in character, I realized.  It was such a graphic example of how we respond to unanticipated obstacles.  Do we forge ahead? Do we skirt around? Do we avoid?  Do we become paralyzed?  I was reminded of the Midrashic rendition of the groups of fleeing Israelites when they arrived at the Red Sea.  Who wanted to return to Egypt? Who wanted to turn around and fight the Egyptians?  Who wanted to run off to a certain death in the desert? Who wanted to dive in? Like the Jewish people, we have all learned different ways, some healthy and some not, of negotiating the detours that have blocked our paths.

76154_456196075821_3347695_nVery few rabbis have a career with no detours.  I learned a long time ago that no matter the kind of rabbinate you think you are going to have, that is rarely the one you end up having.  Sometimes that is because external circumstances don’t correspond to your needs in that moment.  You want a solo position in the New York metropolitan area but so do 100 other rabbis.  You want to lead a JCRC but the position has fallen victim to Federation budget cuts.  You were hired to be an educator but now the congregation wants to expand the position to include youth group advisor.

Sometimes your personal needs become obstacles in your rabbinate.  You always thought you wanted to be a congregational rabbi but you need more personal time.  Your spouse or partner wants to move and there are no rabbinic positions available in the new location.  You love your small remote congregation but you are single and there is no one to date for hundreds of miles.  You have children now and the perfect job has taken a back seat to the requirement to earn a living.

Or maybe you yourself have changed.  You once loved the challenge of crafting a sermon every week but now you have come to dread it.  You never thought you would enjoy pastoral counseling, but sessions with your constituents have become the highlight of your day.  You love walking through the door of the hospital room but you can’t bear the thought of one more Tu Bishvat Seder.  You jump when the phone rings, praying that it isn’t another funeral. Or you realize that funerals are the most satisfying part of your work.    You have enjoyed working with college students but now you want to forge relationships with people who don’t leave every four years.

I remember joining a professional supervision group because I felt like something was missing in my rabbinate.  I wasn’t sure why, but I wasn’t having the rabbinic experience I had hoped to have.  It was a great relief to join a supervision group and get help with how to be with my congregants. I never intended to finish the program and become a psychoanalyst, but the more I got into the training, the more compelling it became.  The training not onlyenhanced my rabbinate and made me a happier rabbi,  it also made me realize I wanted something different. The training had changed me – or maybe I had already begun to change and the training encouraged it to happen.  I realized I could no longer stay doing what I had been doing. The obstacle in my path had become too great.  I was lucky that I didn’t have IMG_2756to do a complete career about face. I was able to move to a part-time pulpit as I finished training and began my practice.

We know now that few people will have only one career over a lifetime.  People who enter the rabbinate are no different.  When I had my HUC interview in Jerusalem in 1974, Dean Spicehandler looked at my college transcript and commented, “I see you changed your mind about your studies a number of times. What is to say that you won’t change your mind about the rabbinate, too?” In my naivite, I gave him an honest answer:  “Nothing, “ I said.  I think I also remember telling him that I would never be a congregational rabbi because I didn’t want to do funerals.

You can understand, then, why no one is more surprised than I that I have spent 33 years  in the pulpit rabbinate.  I don’t know what kind of rabbinate I anticipated having, but I know this wasn’t it.  There have been detours large and small along the way.  Some have challenged me more than others. But somehow, this path has led me where I needed to go.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis (www.rabbiellenlewis.com) 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 (www.jcnwj.org).  

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 (www.cmps.edu) and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (www.acapnj.org).  She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org). She can be reached via email at rabbiellenlewis@rabbiellenlewis.com or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.

Categories
News Prayer Reform Judaism

Welcoming the New Machzor: Ideas for Purchasing and Engagement


MHaNefesh web
At our congregation in Atlanta, we have already made our arrangements to purchase the new MachzorMishkan HaNefesh – even though it won’t be ready until Rosh HaShanah, 2015. Why? First and foremost – this innovative Machzor will be transformative for our congregation.We have piloted drafts of the Machzor, and are excited to have the real thing in our hands for the High Holy Days.

But we are also making the necessary arrangements to welcome the Machzor into our congregation because the savings are simply too good to pass up! For congregations and institutions that make a 25% deposit by April 1, 2014– the double volume (one for Rosh Hashanah and another – a different color – for Yom Kippur) will cost only $25.20/ set. This is a 40% savings from the list price. That gives us all plenty of time to consider the manner in which we will pay for our new Machzorim.

CCAR has worked very hard to keep the cost of the Machzor as low as possible, and as close as possible to that of Mishkan T’filah. The decision to divide the book into two volumes is a direct response to feedback from Mishkan T’filah. With this kind of a large project, so much goes into the development of the material that whether it is bound in one or two volumes factors very little into the cost and is not reflected in the pricing.

Regardless, buying new prayerbooks is surely a challenge for most of our congregations and communities. But there are creative ways to make it possible. As you begin that journey, I offer the following possibilities:

For congregations in which individual members purchase their own prayerbooks:

 • Consider including the price of the Machzor in High Holy Day materials for 2013 or 2014.

 • Include the price of the Machzor on the dues statement for one year, at the beginning of the fiscal year.

 • Purchase the Machzorim, and sell them to members at the list price or higher as a fundraiser (for example, $36 or $50); use the income to purchase more Machzorim or other siddurim, such as Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning.

 For Congregations in which the synagogue purchases, stores, and keeps the prayerbooks:

 • Consider moving unrestricted endowment funds into a restricted prayerbook fund.

 • Find a donor to purchase the books, and put a book plate acknowledging that donation, or find 5-10 donors at a smaller level, acknowledging each in a book plate.

 • Allocate funds from the synagogue budget over the next three years.

 • Invite affiliate groups, such as Women of Reform Judaism or Men of Reform Judaism, to help manage or raise funds for the project.

 • Combine forces with a Kol Nidrei appeal (allow a check off for one or multiple Machzorim, which is not a big increase over whatever else someone is able to donate).

 • Hold a gala dinner (honor someone if you prefer), and sell bookplates instead of a tribute book.

 • Sell bookplates over the course of 1-2 years.

 • Allocate funds from annual events, such as Purim Carnival or Chanukah Bazaar to a Machzor fund.

 A final note: I have found that the best way to “sell” the Machzor is to “engage” with the Machzor. To that end, consider the following:

 • Consider piloting one of the High Holy Day services (Erev Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah, Erev Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur Minchah, Yizkor).

 • Incorporate poems, prayers, and readings into divrei Torah, Board Meetings, Shabbat services, bulletin articles, etc. (permission from CCAR requested).

 • Invite a member of the editorial committee to have a Skype conversation with your Board or Ritual committee.

 • Include links to RavBlog (Ravblog.ccarnet.org) – CCAR’s blog, featuring Machzor related posts – in your synagogue newsletter. Invite your members to subscribe to the CCAR blog so they can be part of the process.

 • Offer learning opportunities related to the Machzor using materials from Machzor: Challenge and Change, a resource pack of materials on Machzor themes.

For more information on ordering Machzorim, engaging your constituency, or participating in piloting, please send a note to Machzor@ccarnet.org or feel free to email me at pberg@thetemple.org.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.

Rabbi Peter Berg is the Senior Rabbi at The Temple, in Atlanta, Georgia, and is the CCAR Membership Liaison to the Machzor Editorial Team.