Categories
Social Justice

What Does It Mean to Go Outside?

What does it mean to go outside? We wonder that every day facing the complexities of COVID.  Must we wear a mask while walking down an empty sidewalk in the stifling heat? Do we risk dining in our favorite restaurant on the patio? What if the only table available is just inside the door, a short breath from fresh air? This year, we were stuck inside so much, and for such good reason, we wonder whether it’s even worth it to venture outside.

Our Torah teaches us what it means to go outside. Especially in this week’s portion, Ki Teitzei, which literally means, “when you go outside.” The Torah portion is about our group decision to go outside our borders: the full phrase ki teitzei l’milchamah, “when you go out in battle,” teaches us the rules of warfare.  Thousands of years of interpretation reinforce that our Torah portion speaks not of defending ourselves against an invading army, but of an optional war, freely undertaken, for purposes of expanding our borders. In keeping with this reading, ki teitzei, “when we go outside,” is about a choice freely made. It is entirely optional to “go outside.” We who today feel safer inside understand this choice. How often have we thought it might make sense to stay at home rather than braving a trip into the great unknown? It is for this very reason many of our children will be going to school by going nowhere: instead of going outside and risking the spread of the pandemic, they are staying inside their homes for school, and for the safety of all.

The COVID-19 crisis is not the only menace discouraging people from choosing to go outside. We know this from the events of Kenosha. We should have learned it from George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. Or Eric Gardner. Or Rekia Boyd. Or Amadou Diallou. Or Medgar Evers. Or Emmett Till. Or any of the thousands of human beings lynched without legal repercussions in our nation since even before the July Fourth of our founding. If in the last few months many of us have learned that the simple act of going outside is not so simple, this is something people of color have known—have feared—for generations.

This year, I spoke to my children about going outside: keeping their masks on and staying in small groups. For generations, my African-American friends had to talk to their children about what happens when you go outside; this is a very different version of “The Talk.” Mamie Till-Mobley had this talk with Emmett, discouraging the behavior that got him killed, namely speaking to a white woman in Mississippi. Brian Stevenson explains how his mother would read his siblings the riot act before the seemingly simple act of shopping at a grocery store. This “talk” is about the danger of going outside.

A different Torah portion with the name teitzei, “Going Out,” speaks to this issue. In parashat Vateitzei from the book of Genesis, we learn what happens to Jacob’s daughter when she goes outside. Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob whose name we know, ventures outside at the beginning of the tale. We are not told why. However, once outside, a local man named Shechem sees her, becomes infatuated with her, and rapes her. Learning of this crime, some of her brothers are rightfully outraged; her father, Jacob, simply arranges for Dinah to become Shechem’s wife. He marries her off to her rapist. Such were the rules that governed society at that time: in a world that considered women property to be owned—to be used—by men, both her rapist and her father followed the fashion of the day. Shechem’s rape of Dinah was justified because she was a woman and he was a powerful man. She had to remain married to him for the rest of her life, to carry his children, to sleep in his bed, and to take care of her rapist until her dying day.

We would hope that our Torah commentators took compassion upon Dinah. That was not the case until our twentieth century. Instead, traditional commentators scorn Dinah’s very act of “going out.” Knowing that the norms of society were that women were property to be kept indoors, they knew Dinah’s deed violated societal expectations. The rabbis blamed Dinah, saying “She was asking for it.” The sad truth is that ours, in this instance, has been a misogynistic, victim-blaming tradition. Instead of expressing horror at the crime committed, our forebears questioned Dinah’s desire simply to go outside, and blamed her for the violent act of rape inflicted upon her.

Our American tradition isn’t much better; perhaps is best described as equally horrifying. There is no real way to explain the proliferation of deaths of Black people at the hands of police other than to say it is a societal norm. We do not need to go back to Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old killed by the police—who remain unpunished—for playing with a toy gun at a park, and compare that with the arrest of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a white man who was taken very much alive despite letting his arresting officer know he had a loaded gun in his back pocket. No, now we need look only to Kenosha. Jacob Blake is a Black man, whom, we are told may have had a knife in his car. Who was purportedly trying to break up a fight, and who was paralyzed when shot seven times by a police officer. Other officers of that same department allowed a seventeen-year-old boy to illegally carry a long gun through town, cheered him on, gave him water, and walked right past him after he shot four people, killing two. White people can commit crimes and live, but police can be judge, jury, and executioner for Black people. This is the norm, the expectation, in America. This is the ugly truth each and every Black person must confront, the fear they carry in their hearts every time they desire simply to go outside.

In the twentieth century, modern commentators—not surprisingly with women at the lead—rejected millennia of tradition that blamed Dinah for her own rape. These new voices went outside the traditional limitation of interpretation, rejected the past, and demanded more for the future. They had the courage to say our ancestors were wrong, and that their misogynistic expectations and organizations of society could no longer be celebrated or perpetuated. Thanks to these leaders, who took us outside the bounds of our own people’s limitations, we can read Dinah’s story today not just as a cautionary tale about male power in the time of the Torah, but about the power of interpretation to enforce unacceptable societal expectations.

In the twenty-first century, we are long overdue to reject the racist societal norms of America. There are voices, leaders, who challenge our traditional understanding that police serve and protect, that our society is colorblind, and that opportunity is equally available to all. These leaders and voices call on us to go outside our own comfort zones, to learn truths to which we have been blind, to confront realities that our comfort, our privilege, and our skin color perhaps prevent us from seeing. Especially us—I’m speaking as a white, cisgender-presenting male—especially we, whom, for most of our lives feel protected by the police except for when given a speeding ticket, we need to reject, to decry, and to change what have become unacceptable societal norms of racism. We need to learn about this history of policing, police brutality, the current data about policing, and be part of the efforts to change a system that is entirely broken.

What does it mean to go outside?

Sometimes going outside is dangerous. It was dangerous for Dinah, a woman, to leave her home in a world where men deemed her merely a possession. It was dangerous for Jacob Blake, who nearly lost his life due to inexplicable yet societally acceptable police conduct. Going outside was dangerous for Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, who went out to protest police shootings and were killed by a suburban teenage enforcer of society’s norms. And yes, it’s dangerous to go outside in the age of COVID. And, yes, it’s dangerous to go outside the norms we have taken as given all our lives: America is equal, police are here to help, white supremacy went away after successes of the civil right movements of the sixties.

It is dangerous to go outside. And we have the option to stay inside. We know we have that choice. We also know we will be judged by the choices we make. Choose wisely. Choose life, our Torah teaches. That you and your children, and your neighbors and the stranger and the oppressed might live long upon the land we have inherited. Go Outside.



Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation and is on the CCAR Board of Trustees. Rabbi Limmer is the co-author of
Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice.

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
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
Conversion General CCAR Healing Rituals spirituality

Handwashing Ceremony for Online/ Virtual Conversion

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and social distancing remains in effect here in New York City, we are still faced with many rituals we cannot complete in person. One of these rituals is the Beit Din/Immersion process for our conversion students, which we usually would convene at the mikvah. Given that our community had a number of students who were ready to complete their conversion studies, but no solid estimate as to when we could safely return to the mikvah, we wanted to give these students an option to ritualize their conversions virtually. (It should be noted that all of our students will have the opportunity to go to mikvah in the future, should they wish.)  

Clearly, we could conduct the Beit Din via Zoom, but what ritual could we employ to mark the moment?  I had two basic criteria: 1.) The ritual must be comfortably completed while in quarantine. 2) It must incorporate water, thereby echoing the mikvah though not necessarily approximating it. As such, I created this handwashing ceremony to accompany the virtual Beit Din. The bonus with this ritual is that the handwashing blessing can be woven quite seamlessly into these students’ lives going forward. Please feel free to use this ritual and/or adapt as you see fit.

Items needed: 
-Ritual Hand Washer or Pitcher or Cup
-Towel

  1. Take a moment to consider this water ritual. Think about the waters that have flowed through the history of Judaism, and continue to flow through us still. God created the earth by separating the waters. God remade the Earth with the flood generations later in the time of Noah. God redeemed the Israelites from slavery and ushered them to freedom, as they moved through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Our Patriarchs and Matriarchs often met at the well.  Relationships were initiated by the water, marriages made in its reflection. Isaac dug wells to connect to the memory of his father.  Jacob discovered his inner strength at the well.  It is said that Miriam was accompanied by a well of water, and it is said that water sustained our people through those long days and nights in the desert.  Water renews. Water revives. Water nourishes the body, mind and soul. Today, this water bridges past to present, as you immerse your hands in its flowing stream.

  2. Take the ritual washer in your hands. Think about its significance for this moment, and then reflect on a time when you might use it again.  How are the two connected? How will this washer tell part of your unique Jewish story? 

  3. Fill up the washer with water. (Ensure you have a clean towel nearby).

  4. Close your eyes. Breathe in this moment. Honor the work, the time, and the energy you have expended to reach this milestone. Honor your agency in this process. Recall your journey. Let the memories flood your mind as you think of those who have joined you on this path, those who have supported you, and those who have served as your guides.  Acknowledge them in your heart.

  5. Now, as you prepare to wash, recite these words from Ruth (Ruth 1:16, 17): “Ruth said: Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you.”

  6. Lift up the washer in your right hand.  As you pour from right to left, recite these words (from Ruth) with each pour:

    -Pour 1: “For wherever you go”
    -Pour 2: “I will go”
    -Pour 3: “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.”

  7. Now move the washer to your left hand.  As you pour from left to right, recite these words (from Ruth) with each pour:

    -Pour 1: “Your people will be my people”
    -Pour 2: “And your God my God.”
    -Pour 3: “Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”

  8. With your hands wet, lift them up and allow the water to drip freely from them. (Our prayer is called “n’tilat yadayim” for the lifting of the hands). One way our handwashing prayer has been interpreted over the years is through the lens of action; we wash to remind ourselves that the work of our hands is essential to the work of repairing the world. Our hands have the power to do good. Our hands have the power to build bridges. Our hands have the power to help and heal and comfort.   

    With your hands raised before you:

    -Reflect on the power and capability of your own hands.  
    -Reflect on your evolving identity and how your Jewish identity will impact the work of your hands.  
    -Reflect on the tradition and heritage you now officially carry.  How will your acceptance of Judaism inform your choices, your priorities, and your perspective?


  9. Recite N’tilat Yadayim:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ,
מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו
וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָיִם.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al n’tilat yadayim.

Blessed are Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.

10.  Dry your hands and rejoice in the moment!

Together we will offer the Shehecheyanu, our prayer of gratitude for having reached this milestone:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ,
מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ
וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.



Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin
 is a rabbi and mother of four. Sara currently serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City as an associate rabbi. She is a contributor to
 The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate (CCAR Press). 

Categories
Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Mourning the 100,000 Americans Who Have Died of COVID-19

Together with Americans of all faiths, we mourn the 100,000+ people who have died of Covid-19. We share in the grief and sorrow of this unimaginable and still-growing milestone, as well as all the losses to Covid-19 around the world. We join with our Reform Movement partners and faith communities of all denominations around the country in calling on our communities to include a moment of remembrance in our upcoming worship services. The full statement about the weekend of prayer can be read here, along with a call for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance  on Monday, June 1st, at noon local time to pause and remember all those who have died.

We offer these beautiful words, written by Alden Solovy, for your use at Shabbat services, interfaith gatherings, or a special Yizkor service.

One-by-One: A Prayer as the COVID Death Toll Mounts

By Alden Solovy

God of consolation,
Surely you count in heaven,
Just as we count here on earth,
In shock and in sorrow,
The souls sent back to You,
One-by-one,
The dead from the COVID pandemic,
As the ones become tens,
The tens become hundreds,
The hundreds become thousands,
The thousands become ten-thousands
And then hundred-thousands,
Each soul, a heartbreak,
Each soul, a life denied.

God of wisdom,
Surely in the halls of divine justice
You are assembling the courts,
Calling witnesses to testify,
To proclaim
The compassion of some
And the callousness of others
As we’ve struggled to cope.
The souls taken too soon,
Whose funerals were lonely,
Who didn’t need to die,
Who died alone,
Will tell their stories
When You judge
Our triumphs
And our failures
In these hours of need.

God of healing,
Put an end to this pandemic,
And all illness and disease.
Bless those who stand in service to humanity.
Bless those who grieve.
Bless the dead,
So that their souls are bound up in the bond of life eternal.
And grant those still afflicted
With disease or trauma
A completed and lasting healing,
One-by-one,
Until suffering ceases,
And we can stop counting the dead,
In heaven
And on earth.


© 2020 Alden Solovy and www.tobendlight.com. Reproduced with permission.

Categories
member support Rabbis

To the HUC Graduating Class of 2020: Be Lifted Up and Uplift Others

As the Hebrew Union College class of 2020 finishes while under quarantine, Rabbi Karen Fox, Instructor of Practical Rabbinics at HUC-JIR’s Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, shared this advice and words of encouragement for this new class of rabbis, who officially became rabbis on Sunday, May 17, 2020.


With the honor of conveying our trust in you, comes the responsibility to convey a truth to you; to tell you that you are both fully ready to become rabbis—and that you will never be fully ready, and that no single person here is. As you enter the rabbinate in an uncertain, frightened, and frightening world of COVID-19, may we be courageous enough to acknowledge that we do not know all the answers. However, we partner with each other in our search for strength and wisdom.

I have lived through a time of political assassinations; war protests; 9/11; California fires, earthquakes, and floods; the recession of 2008; the attacks on Charlottesville and Pittsburgh—and now I am living with all of you through this global pandemic. My career has allowed me to celebrate countless weddings, baby namings, bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, and camp openings; and to witness many forms of synagogue and community creativity. It was and still is a joy and an honor to be a rabbi. Today, I want to offer you my words; word of encouragement, inspiration, and hope in light of the realities that have already marked your lives.  

In this week’s Torah reading, B’midbar, Moses forms the Israelites into a coherent whole with the words, s’u et rosh kol adat Yisrael—“count every single one of the people of Israel” (Numbers 1:2). The text cries out: Darsheini—“interpret me.” We move beyond the parashah, the “literal meaning of the text” and highlight different ways those words can be interpreted: 

  1. S’u et rosh kol adat Yisrael—”Stand up to be counted, in your own way.” The medieval commentator Rashi explains that we count the people because each single “person gives to the mishkan, ‘the portable sanctuary,’” and each single “person’s contribution matters” (quoted after “Contemporary Reflections,” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 810.). In the last session of the Senior Seminar on campus, each of you wrote about the ways in which you want to contribute to our contemporary mishkan, the “evolving Jewish community.” One of you shared, “I want to empower people to arrive at their own translation of the traditions; I want to welcome each person back into the holy Jewish community.” And yet another one of you summarized, “I want to move gracefully into the unknown together.” Yes, teach us to reconsider what it means to count, each in our own ways.
  • S’u et rosh literally means: “Extend the head.” What does it mean to extend your head and to assert yourself as a leader in this time? Psychotherapist Rabbi Edwin Friedman wrote, “’The basic concept of leadership requires the leaders’ will to take primary responsibility for their position as “head.” If they work to define their own goals and selves, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow” (Edwin H. Friedman, “Leadership and Self,” in: Generation to Generation, p. 229). In truth, Freidman might have declared, Stick your neck out sometimes! Take clearly defined positions. Invite those who disagree to continue to communicate and engage them with kindness. Assert yourself as a Jewish leader by defining your g’vul, your “boundaries.”
  • S’u et rosh: “Reach out with head and heart.” When life is filled with uncertainty, fear arises. In March, you described your fears: “Our world has become a dangerous place. We are witnessing another rise of antisemitism, climate change, gun violence. How can we guide amidst our own fears?”; “I’m worried that my flaws will raise their ugly head at inopportune moments”; “Do I know enough? Am I ready to fail sometimes?”; “I’m really afraid of being lonely.”

By raising those questions, you have already demonstrated your reflective qualities. Be that reflective facilitator for your community, friends, and family. And when you need strength and courage, do not wait. Reach out and get support from a psychotherapist, a spiritual director, a mentor, a professor. Extend yourself to them and know, chavruta tatzil mimavet“connection saves you from psychological and spiritual demise.” 

  • A final interpretation of s’u et rosh: “Be uplifted and uplift others.” Chasidic interpretations detect a deeper significance in the use of the term s’u, “lift up:” “The real counting of Israel points upward. The text demands: “Lift the head,” not simply “count.” This lifting raised people up to the highest rungs of awe and love, directing their hearts to the Holy One. Lift your eyes to the mountains and receive strength from above” (Yosef Bloh, “Ginzey Yosef,” in Leader Green and Rose Mayse (ed.), Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Volume II, p. 5). Uplift yourself through the ways that nourish you—and may your spiritual strength uplift others.  

Soon everyone will know what Jews have known for centuries: We need deep teaching, we need each other, we need a minyan, we need a community of shared purpose to carry us through tears and trauma, joys and celebration. We need to connect, to embrace, to be embraced, and to appreciate what human beings give each other: empathy, vulnerability, love, and hope. With open hearts, s’u et rosh—”Be lifted up and uplift others.” Welcome, rabbis. 


Rabbi Karen L. Fox is Instructor of Practical Rabbinics at HUC-JIR’s Skirball Campus in Los Angeles. She is the principal of Rabbi Karen Fox: In Context, a private practice targeted to clergy of all faiths, providing a safe, compassionate and confidential place for clergy to be heard, reflect and strategize.

Categories
Death Technology

Zooming through Grief

Walking through the valley of deep darkness during a global pandemic was never a thought that rose to my mind from the moment my mother, Linda Kellner, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2018…until it did. Numerous times during the last two years, her cancer had stopped responding to treatment and I tried to brace myself for the moment darkness would fall. There was always another treatment, a light of hope, and more time for my mom to “build memories.”  In early March, as COVID-19 news flowed like lava, I began to worry about my mom contracting the disease. “Mom can’t get this. Her immune system is compromised. Can you do treatment on Long Island instead of trekking to the city? Be sure to wear a mask. Try not to come into contact with anyone,” I repeatedly said to my parents. 

Then, the report from my mom’s doctor exploded like a bomb. Her cancer stopped responding to treatment. “We have something else to try but comfort care may be the best option.” The fighting heart beating inside my mom gave her strength to try, until it gave her strength to decide that it was time. Time to stop the chemicals, stop the pills, and pray for comfort in the time she had left.

The Kellner family on a recent family vacation.

In the moments she was making these decisions, states were shutting down, schools were closing , and the world was changing around us. I realized that it would not be COVID-19 that would take her life but the cancer raging out of control in her body. I would not be by her side to hold her hand, to sing her out of this would into the next. My brother and I would not be with my father as he cared for her with his compassionate heart. We would not be together as families often are. This loss would not be the same, this grief, unique to this time and this place. 

As her daily hours of rest turned to eternal rest on April 14, 2020, and the shadows creeped into this new valley in which we descended, there was so much anxiety. Because my mom died in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, her funeral would be delayed ten days. The anxiety and the pain surged. “Would Zoom work for the funeral? Would there be enough cell coverage? Would anyone there be able to figure it out on a phone? What would happen if it poured like the forecast predicted? I am not going to be able to shovel the earth,” were the questions and thoughts raging through my mind.

Then it was time. Zoom worked. Hundreds of people attended from all over the country. People who were my mom’s students, mentees, family, friends of the family, my congregational community, showed up. Technology gave us a gift that would we would not have considered under “normal” circumstances. On motzei Shabbat, we logged into Zoom again for shivah minyan, then Sunday night another. Throughout these painful moments many of our dear colleagues shepherded us through moments of memory and prayer, creating a community of comfort found in one-inch squares. No, there weren’t the conversations to distract me or friends entering my unlocked door, but there was prayer, music, and memory, and an opportunity to say Kaddish. The week of shivah continued with some personal, private opportunities to say Kaddish. Each day helped to build a ramp up the mountain of the valley enabling me to see a glimmer of light.

Kaddish is healing whether you say it physically together or “socially distanced.” Knowing people are showing up for you and are there for you is what gives those familiar words their healing power. I was surprised how Zoom shivah could bring healing. Yes, I had led a Zoom minyan earlier in the pandemic for a congregant and did the best I could to create meaning for the mourners. For me, shivah was both virtual and real. As I lifted my eyes to the mountains, God’s help came through today’s tool of connection. In a time of rough waters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom steadied the rocking ship and tied together a grieving family with a supportive community. In our loneliness we found community, in our darkness we found light, and, in our pain, we found healing.

The power of the Holy, Mysterious One works in remarkable and inexplicable ways. Sometimes through Zoom, but always through hearts of compassion who reach out with needle and thread to sew together a broken heart.


Rabbi Rick Kellner is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio. 

Categories
Economy omer Shavuot Social Justice spirituality

Economic Stability: An Ageless Quest

Last fall, my husband and I ordered a new sukkah decoration straight from Israel. The package arrived with a free magnet, imprinted with the image of a woman holding an umbrella, walking in the rain. The magnet had one word on it. Sasson (“joy”). It took me a moment, and then I realized my cultural gap. Living in New Jersey, joy is not the word I associate with rain. However, in Israel and other arid climates, rain is pure joy, because it is desperately needed. 

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, includes a section on the holidays, a calendar chiefly driven by the agrarian cycle. Theses verses are relevant to modern Jews because, thousands of years later, we still celebrate the holidays, albeit with layers of development around our rituals, but at the core, these holidays are still the same. But to be honest, the descriptions of the biblical holiday sacrifices, meal and fruit offerings, and animal sacrifices, do not resonate when compared to my modern observance of Judaism. 

For example, the parashah describes the counting of the Omer, the annual schlepping of grain offerings for seven weeks. This daily offering of grain bridged the barley harvest of Passover to the wheat harvest of Shavuot. But how do I count the Omer today? Do I schlep a bundle of barely to the Temple, to be offered, in recognition of God as source of all? Not at all! Today, an app on my phone sends me a reminder every night at sundown, and I count the Omer, with words. Done. 

Given the vast differences between now and biblical times, it is easy to forget how scary the harvest cycle would have been for our ancestors. In the winter they waited nervously to see if there would be enough rain to sustain the growth of their crops to feed their family and their animals. Then after the rains of winter, once the crops were planted, it was a waiting game. Would they be able to harvest the crops before something bad happened? The possibilities for failure were endless: too much heat, not enough water, locusts, or some other plague. It was a precarious time.

As the modern plague of COVID-19 unfolds, we are foremost concerned about life and health. However, we also hold our breaths as we watch the world’s economy spin out of control. Therefore, this year, while we count the Omer, we also count our balances in checking accounts and retirement funds. We wait to see if jobs will continue or salaries will be cut. And we deeply understand the fears of our ancestors, who prayed to be sustained by their storerooms. The biblical fears are near to us as ever. Our holidays, with their deep agrarian roots, are ultimately about the basic human need, shared by every generation, to have enough to sustain us, even when times are tough.

This desire for economic stability and sustenance is voiced in the following passage, added in some communities historically, at the conclusion of the daily morning service.

First, the community would read the passage from Exodus 16 about the manna and then add something like this example: 

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁתַּזְמִין פַּרְנָסָה לְכָל עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וּפַרְנָסָתִי וּפַרְנָסַת אַנְשֵׁי בֵיתִי בִּכְלָלָם, בְּנַחַת וְלֹא בְּצַעַר, בְּכָבוֹד וְלֹא בְּבִזּוּי, בְּהֶתֵּר וְלֹא בְּאִסּוּר, כְּדֵי שֶׁנּוּכַל לַעֲבוֹד עֲבוֹדָתֶךָ וְלִלְמוֹד תּוֹרָתֶךָ כְּמוֹ שֶׁזַּנְתָּ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ מָן בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ צִיָּה וַעֲרָבָה:

May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to provide sustenance for all Your people, the House of Israel, and sustenance for me and all the members of my household, with pleasantness and not with suffering, with honor and not with degradation, through permissible activities and not forbidden activities, so that we will be able to serve You and to learn Your Torah, just as you sustained our ancestors in the wilderness with Manna in a dry and desert land.[1]

Our Torah portion and this liturgical addition are examples of the human desire for economic stability. Our tradition does not suggest we merely pray for sustenance, but rather balance our longing for stability with financial literacy, community resources, educational opportunities, and generosity to others through tzedakah

Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Elders, 3:17 teaches these famous words from Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya: 

אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין קֶמַח.

If there is no flour [meaning ability to earn money], there is no Torah. If there is no Torah, there is no flour [ability to earn money]. This is frequently interpreted as: the religious, spiritual, and ethical teachings of Torah must co-dwell with the mundane matters of earning money and sustaining ourselves. One realm should not exist without the other. 

The line in Pirkei Avot just before the flour/Torah teaching adds: 

אִם אֵין בִּינָה, אֵין דַּעַת. אִם אֵין דַּעַת, אֵין בִּינָה.

If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge.

Perhaps, at this time of economic instability, we can read these lines together to understand that economic stability must be built on the best of Jewish values and the best of secular financial knowledge. 

May you and your loved ones know health and financial security, Torah and generosity, and therefore know sasson, (“joy”).

[1] Robert Scheinberg, “Money and Transaction in Jewish Liturgy and Rituals” in Mary Zamore, ed., The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic (New York: CCAR Press, 2019), 335.


Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the editor of and a contributing author to two acclaimed CCAR Press Challenge and Change anthologies, The Sacred Exchange: Creating A Jewish Money Ethic (2019) and The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic (2011). The Sacred Table was designated a finalist by the National Jewish Book Awards. She is also the Executive Director of Women’s Rabbinic Network.