Categories
High Holy Days News

Rabbi Hara Person’s High Holy Day Message to CCAR Members

As CCAR members prepare to celebrate the High Holy Days and lead services safely distanced but spiritually connected to their communities during the coronavirus pandemic, Rabbi Hara Person shares her gratitude for their deep commitment to strengthening the Reform community.


As these really strange High Holy Days approach, I keep thinking about that Baal Shem Tov story about going into the forest, finding just the right place, and the right prayer, and lighting the fire, and saving the people from danger. And how every subsequent generation loses a little bit of original ritual but it’s still enough.

Together, we are writing the next chapter of that story, in which, many, many years later, our people once again face incredible danger.

In this new story, it wasn’t clear what to do at first. The elders recalled bits and pieces of old stories, but there were many conflicting versions and no concrete direction. The rabbi didn’t know what to do and so she had to figure it out as best she could. There was no longer a forest—it had long ago been turned into a suburban development and a sprawling mall. As for the special prayers, those hadn’t been part of the rabbinic school curriculum when she was a student. And she couldn’t light a fire, as no one wanted to risk starting another wildfire. So the rabbi wove together the bits of the different stories she had heard, and talked to her wise colleagues who offered ideas and suggestions, and brought together the community.

Because of the great danger, they were spread out in many different places, each person participating in the service remotely through a computer. She told them the story of the past as best she could, and offered up prayers. The community participated with open hearts, and their fervent hopes for a better future reached right from their souls up to the heavens. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t way things had been done in the past. But it was enough.

What we’re doing this year, no matter how different it is from the past, is enough. All the planning you’re doing, all the incredibly hard work you’re doing to make these holidays happen, to keep your community connected, and to take care of them, is enough. Everything you’re doing to take care of yourself, and to take care of those you love, is enough. 

These High Holy Days are going to be different than ever before. They definitely won’t look like the Holy Days of yesterday. But that’s okay. We’re adapting to the present. Despite the strangeness of this experience, you’re still opening up your heart and creating space for others to open theirs. You’re enabling people to gather in creative and virtual ways. You’re helping them speak the yearnings of their souls. Yes, it will be different, but because of your careful work, it will still feel familiar and comforting.

It’s a lot. It’s really a lot. If you’re feeling exhausted and wrung out from all of this, you’re not alone.

Thank you for facing this moment with courage, creativity, and hope.

Thank you for pouring the best of yourself into making these upcoming Holy Days the best they can be under the circumstances.

Thank you for what you are doing to strengthen our community and our people at this difficult time, in all the many ways you are doing so.

Thank you for caring for our college students, our elderly, our sick, our youngest, our newest, our noisiest, our quietest, our bravest, and our most afraid.

Thank you to those just starting your rabbinic careers in a way that no one could have predicted, thank you to those for whom this will be the last time leading High Holy Day services, and thank you for those in retirement for being role models, mentors, and cheerleaders as we navigate unfamiliar terrain. 

Thank you for being part of our rabbinic community, for supporting each other throughout this time, for sharing your ideas and your concerns, your resources and your love.

And thank you for doing all this while balancing your own families and loved ones, perhaps schooling and playing with your children, caring for your parents and other family members, maybe dealing with the loneliness and isolation of distancing, trying to take care of your own health and wellbeing, dealing with fears and anxiety about your financial security and livelihood, perhaps mourning those you’ve lost, the tremendous turmoil of postponed or radically different life cycle events, no summer camp, cancelled plans, and that doesn’t even cover it.

I’m going to end, therefore, with a plea—once the holidays are behind us, please make time to recover. Take time to replenish your souls and nurture yourself. Please take care not only of those you serve and those you love, but also of yourself.

The forest, the fire, the prayers are all being reinvented this year, and how lucky we are to have your leadership in doing so in such a myriad of ways. And it is indeed enough.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Executive of the CCAR.

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
mental health

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Categories
Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our top suggestions to promote equity in a crisis:

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

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



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

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

Categories
Poetry Prayer

A Prayer of Courage and Consolation

Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is a poet, spiritual counselor, inspirational speaker, and author of CCAR Press publications Omer: A Counting, published in 2014, and Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry, and Mindfulness Practice, published in 2019. In this unprecendented time of senseless racist killing, violence, and unrest, she shares a prayer for courage, originally published in Amen.


Holy One of Blessing,
grant us the courage and resolve
to speak when there is hatred,
to act when there is confusion,
to join with others in building a world of safety,
understanding, and acceptance.

Because there is hate, dear God,
help us heal our fractured and broken world.

Because there is fear, dear God,
grant courage and faith to those in need.

Because there is pain, dear God,
bring healing to the shattered and wounded.

Because there is hope, dear God,
teach us to be a force for justice and kindness.

Because there is love, dear God,
help us to be a beacon of light and compassion.

As it is written:
Be strong and let your heart have courage. (Joshua 1:6)
Depart from evil, do good, seek peace and pursue it. (Psalm 34:15)


Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, Illinois.

Categories
Poetry Social Justice

‘I Can’t Breathe’ and ‘A Psalm for Our Cities on Fire’

As we watch with heavy hearts the events of late May and early June and witness innocent Americans exercising their right to protest fall victim to police violence, we pray for an end to racial injustice and power structures designed to silence, suppress, and kill people of color. We pray for healing, and we remain aligned with Black and Brown communities in the fight to end injustice. In the words of Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who shares a psalm here, “It’s time for action; we’re way past time of debate.” 

Encouraged by the teachings of Pirke Avot, which teach us that “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” we remain committed to social justice, and we remain committed to teaching and promoting anti-racism. We encourage you to read the CCAR’s statement on racist killings.

Here, we share a poem, written by Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, and a psalm, written by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, in reaction to these tragic events.


I Can’t Breathe
By Rabbi Lance J. Sussman

I can’t breathe,
The knee of oppression
Is on my neck.

I can’t breathe,
The air of my city
Is filled with tear gas.

I can’t breathe,
I am filled with rage
And the smoke of burning buildings.

I can’t breathe
Because the air is filled with contempt for people of different colors.

I can’t breathe
Because my country is suffocating
And the air of democracy is getting thinner and thinner.

I can’t breathe
Because I am grieving for America
And praying its dreams aren’t dying
In the streets of our nation tonight.

A Psalm for Our Cities on Fire
By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

A Psalm for our cities on fire
Aflame with the fires of fear
With anger burning ‘bout brazen brutality:
From a kneed neck Floyd’s breath snuffed out over there

A Psalm for our cities on fire
Veering vigorously toward violence and hate
Preventing protests that promote another vision:
Of justice that we all must create

A Psalm for our brothers and sisters
Who fear for their lives, black and brown
When they jog, shop, go to church, or go bird watching
With their hands held up high, or when lying down

A Psalm to remind us ‘bout justice
And the debasement that threatens their lives
Because our silence can no longer silence
The real pain of widowed husbands and wives

So Pray for our cities on fire
And sing out songs of protest ‘gainst hate
But since lives, they are holy and matter
It’s time for action; we’re way past time of debate


Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rabbi Paul Kipnes is leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

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
Death Technology

What I Have Learned Officiating at a Funeral Over Zoom

Many rabbis are being called upon to perform funerals remotely or online during the coronavirus pandemic. Here, Rabbi Daniel Cohen shares learnings from holding a funeral over Zoom. For reflections upon shivah minyan held over Zoom, Rabbi Mara Nathan has shared her experience here.


Aside from Jewish values and the decision that need to be made regarding virtual funerals, I have found that some seemingly mundane elements can make the difference between a service that feels smooth and hopefully, comforting, and one that feels like just another Zoom call. Here are some of practical considerations I’ve embraced.

Perhaps the most important thing I do during the initial intake conversation is reframe the entire approach. I acknowledge directly the sadness of not being able to be together. Often I have shared the Talmudic dictum not to publicly display the chanukiyah at a time of danger. We are not only encouraged, but instructed, to find a path that mitigates the risk. This explanation has been effective in helping families feel they are “not doing anything wrong.”

The rest of the intake tends to run pretty similarly to in-person funerals with the exception of being clearer than ever that I need to know who is speaking, and in what order, well before the actual funeral, not only so I can determine how many and which readings to include, but also so I am clear who I will be calling on and unmuting during the service.

Here are some steps that have proven most effective in our community:

  • Create a Zoom link that the family can share with others.
  • Set Zoom settings to require that everyone remain in the waiting room until we are ready to begin.
  • Make sure participants are muted when they arrive.
  • Select the setting that does not allow people to unmute themselves.
  • I ask the family to send me photos of their loved one. I put together a Powerpoint of those pictures along with Kaddish and other prayers, Psalms, or readings I want people to be able to participate in. Showing some pictures before we formally begin the service has been a powerful way to help close the physical gap people are feeling.
  • Ask the family to log into Zoom 15 to 20 minutes early. This helps make sure they are all comfortable with Zoom and allows their windows to be at the top of the screen when the “speaker view” is selected.
  • Five minutes before the scheduled time, we cut k’riah. Our funeral homes have not been providing families with ribbons, so people are cutting their shirt or pinning a strip of cloth on their clothing to cut. I’ve asked our local funeral homes to begin providing ribbons to families.
  • Once people are admitted from the “waiting room,” I show the family pictures, welcome everyone, and acknowledge to all attendees that this is far from ideal, but that it is a fitting tribute to a loved one to do everything possible to keep people healthy and safe.

In most cases, by the time I have finished the initial conversation with the family, they have decided not to have anyone at the cemetery except the funeral director. For a recent funeral, one of the adult children went to the cemetery but stayed in his car. I have yet to be asked to be physically present at the cemetery.

I verbally call on and unmute each person when it is their turn to speak. A few times families have taken advantage of Zoom by sending me a short video montage to share during the service. It initially struck me as odd, but it has been such a powerfully beautiful tribute that I’ve started suggesting it to families.

I have El Malei and Kaddish on Powerpoint slides and put those up when the time comes. For Kaddish, I share that having everyone read together creates a cacophony, but that the power of hearing others outweighs the awkwardness. I unmute everyone and then lead Kaddish with them all reading as well. It’s chaotic, but it’s also quite moving.

After Kaddish, I put up a slide that has information about sending donations in the deceased’s memory and any shivah information.

Most families have wanted to have the chance to spend time together on Zoom after the service. To accommodate this, I have identified someone who will take control of muting and unmuting speakers. That allows me to leave, but it also ensures there is some structure and that they can stay on and spend time together. The first time I did it, a granddaughter of the deceased volunteered to manage it. After the service she became emotional, realizing that she was so focused on the technology, she wasn’t able to be fully present. It was a powerful insight neither she nor I expected. I have since begun asking the families to identify someone who is not a family member to assume this role.

A few conclusions:

  • By acknowledging up front that a Zoom funeral is far from ideal, and offering a values-focused rationale for the approach, people become quite understanding and appreciative.
  • By including photos and prayer slides, families not only feel “invited in,” but they also appreciate the additional effort. That, in turn, helps them feel cared for.
  • By rigidly structuring the speakers, I’m able to keep some semblance of order.
  • By including the Kaddish slide and unmuting everyone, the family feels surrounded by the love of family and community.
  • By allowing people to speak after the formal service is done, the mourners feel that love and connection even more.

Zoom funerals are far from ideal, but every single time I have done a Zoom funeral, the family has later shared their surprise at how meaningful and moving the experience was.

We all have to take into account the religious boundaries we have set for ourselves and deal with other philosophical issues. In this time of COVID-19, I have chosen to focus more on the emotional and spiritual needs of mourners at a time when they cannot embrace one another. This is what has driven my approach.


Rabbi Daniel Cohen is the senior rabbi at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, New Jersey.

Categories
chaplains congregations Death member support Prayer Rabbis Rituals

Holding a Digital Shivah Minyan in the Age of COVID-19

For as long as I can remember, I have begun every shivah minyan by saying something like this: “The measure of a community’s strength is not how they gather for celebrations, but how they show up for each other in moments of sadness and pain. It’s easy to show up for something fun and joyous, but when we make our presence felt at the low points, we demonstrate our connection and commitment to each other.” So, what do I say now when it is impossible to be physically present even for our closest relatives and friends? To be honest, I don’t change the script much other to acknowledge that if we could, we would be there. It is essential that we acknowledge the unique nature of the moment we are in. No matter where you live in this world, no matter how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit your community, we are all suffering. We are all separated from those we love, from our regular routines and from the Jewish rituals that structure so much of our professional lives. At the same time, we are grateful for the ability to innovate our rituals to meet the moment we are in, just as Jewish leaders have done for thousands of years.

Zoom and other video conferencing platforms have been a God-send at this moment of social distancing. But they are also cause for stress, confusion, and mishap if not used adeptly. Here are some insights I have gathered from leading shivah minyans on Zoom.

  1. Create a Zoom meeting with a simple password. New security features on Zoom create an automatic numeric password. Change the password to make it easy to remember. When sending the link, either highlight and bold the link and password or edit the invitation to include only the link, the password, and relevant phone numbers. 
     
  2. Make sure the immediate circle of mourners is comfortable with the platform. Determine whether they will be using a computer, a tablet or a phone. Insist that they download the software or the app to their device beforehand. Offer to help them do a test run or suggest that they connect with someone in their circle who has experience with the program. Avoid comments such as, “It is really easy to use,” or “You should have no problem at all.” I have found that less tech savvy people, particularly seniors, find Zoom to be confusing. There are many prompts that don’t feel intuitive for everyone. 
     
  3. Advanced Zoom features to consider: The waiting room function allows you to get on early with the immediate family and make sure they are set. It can also protect against Zoombombers. Mute folks upon entry as well. It’s best to maintain control of people’s mute function in general. Offer to record the service. It is easy to upload and send as a link to the family afterwards. On the other hand, I would encourage people to leave their cameras on, but remind them that they can be seen. It is very comforting to see all those faces together. 
     
  4. How do we lead a technically successful shivah minyan on Zoom? There are several options. The CCAR has graciously given us free access to the flipbook version of Mishkan T’filah for a House of Mourning . If you share the flipbook link, prepare ahead of time to give the digital page number (which is different from the print book pagination). If you plan on using the screen share option, displaying pages as needed, it is ideal to have a second person in charge of that function. Plan ahead to cut and paste the link to the flipbook into the chat feature of Zoom:
    https://www.ccarnet.org/publications/mishkan-tfilah-for-the-house-of-mourning/ 
     
  5. How do we lead a spiritually and emotionally successful minyan service on Zoom? This is the easiest part! People are grateful to be together. People are moved to see each other’s faces. People are incredibly forgiving of any technical awkwardness. In leading the service, I start by explaining all the technicalities listed above. I let people know that they will be muted for most of the service. And then we begin. Keep the service as concise as possible. All Hebrew should be read or sung so people can keep up. All English readings should be communal. (All this is done with the participants muted.) However, when it comes to Kaddish, I have followed the advice of others and unmuted all the participants. It is awkward and clumsy with the time delay. But it is also incredibly moving to hear everyone’s voices. It is a great source of comfort to the mourners as well. 
     
  6. One final note. The most important part of an in-person shivah minyan is the gathering before and after. The sharing of stories and memories is so cathartic. There is an option on Zoom to make someone else  co-host of the meeting. Plan this ahead of time with a member of the immediate family. This will enable the group to stay on after the service and allow you to leave the meeting. People can linger and share stories about the person they have lost for as long as they like. Just remember to finish recording before you get off or it won’t save.

We rabbis are perfectionists by nature, yet this is definitely not a time when we can expect to be perfect. But by leaning into our compassion, our patience, and our creativity we are still able to offer comfort and connection to our people in their time of sorrow and loss.


Rabbi Mara S. Nathan is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas. 

Categories
member support News

Canceling In-Person URJ Reform Summer Camp and Programming: An Act of Collective Love

When news broke that the Union for Reform Judaism made the most difficult, scientifically-based, values-based decision not to hold in-person camp this summer, my heart broke. 

Yes, I was proud that like leaders should, URJ and camp leadership consulted widely with medical, government, and Jewish leaders, weighed the changing data and options, waited until a decision needed to be made, and then planned a compassionate roll-out to honor the soon-to-be broken hearts of the campers, staff, and their parents. This incredibly difficult decision was an act of love.

Yes, I was proud that the ReformJudaism.org website offers age-differentiated advice to help parents talk to their children and that we can use as we provide pastoral care for them too. 

But I love camp. It helped form me. Camp Newman is my home away from home, where I rejuvenate every summer. 

Then, as our HUC-JIR pastoral counseling faculty taught me in rabbinic school, I looked around to figure out who else—camp professionals; URJ leadership; our rabbinic, cantorial, and educator colleagues; Jewish leaders, camp friends; and friends whose children were so looking forward to camp this summer—might be suffering, perhaps silently—and may be in need of pastoral care.

To my rabbinic colleagues and Jewish leaders everywhere, before sharing what I wrote, I ask: Would you join me to reach out and offer rachmanut (loving support) to our camp professionals, our URJ leadership, and of course to our camper and camp staff as they suffer through this heartbreak? 

Here is what I wrote:

Dear Camp Professionals and URJ Professionals

by Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Repeat after me:
I am compassionate.
(I am compassionate.)

I care about them so much.
(I care about them so much.)

So I am saving lives.
(So I am saving lives.)

I am heartbroken.
(I am heartbroken.)

I can share my sadness.
(I can share my sadness.)

So I can hold their sadness too.
(So I can hold their sadness too.)

I am a role model.
(I am a role model.)

And I influence others.
(And I influence others.)

So I am teaching us all responsibility.
(So I am teaching us all responsibility.)

I am being strategic.
(I am being strategic.)

I am planning for the future.
(I am planning for the future.)

So I’m stepping back so we all can move forward.
(So I’m stepping back so we all can move forward.)

Because I am compassionate.
(Yes, I am compassionate.)

And I am heartbroken.
(And I am heartbroken.)

But I am responsible.
(But I am responsible.)

So I am saving lives.
(So I am saving lives.)


•••

Finally, to our Camp Professionals and URJ Leadership:

We too are heartbroken. But we are thankful for everything you considered and did to try to avoid this day.

Forgive us if we act out. We, too, are in pain.

But never forget that we appreciate that you were thinking about us and our safety when you and our camping world made one of the hardest decisions your career and all our lives.

Thank you for doing what you did every summer previously: making hard decisions to keep us all safe. You make us proud. And we love you.


Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California. Recently, he wrote about conducting a funeral in the time of COVID-19.