General CCAR News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Nourishing the Jewish Spirit at Summer Camp

As I reflect on my two weeks as rabbinic faculty for the 6-7th grade session Shomrim, I am truly moved by the experience. I think I am one of the vatikim, having spent some 13 years growing up and serving on staff at Camp Swig, and nine summers on rabbinic faculty at Camp Newman.   With all of those experiences, this summer I felt the magic of Camp Newman in some new ways that I’d like to share with you all.

Quality of Staff:

There was a quality among the staff that showcased new levels to the Newman experience. From the morning shtick when Hebrew man appeared along with the presentation of a middah/value for the day, through the programming and how staff treated campers, deep Jewish soul instruction was present in a very engaging and delightful way. The songleaders were a team – no one stood out as the “ego” or super star. Everyone worked seamlessly together. What came through was incredible support and collaboration.

Having been at Camp Newman for some years, I felt as well the very high quality of the staff. The staff always love the campers, however in addition, I experienced a very high level of programming where the value of the day integrated into whatever program we were doing. Simple blackberry picking became an experience in cooperation as they picked for each other. Kindness for campers frequently moved me to tears. There was something set into the very fabric of the session so that children with various challenges were not only tolerated by the other campers, but loved. I witnessed again and again how a particular child, who would otherwise be ignored or teased in the non-camp world, was joyfully accepted.

DSC_6678-300x200As a former songleader at Camp Swig, I always pay close attention to the musical repetoire and how songs are taught. I saw that there was some experimentation with teaching songs in the Chadar Ochel with a powerpoint system allowing for both learning new songs, even more complex songs, but still making space for the current custom of dancing around. I also was thrilled with the sound system on the basketball courts for Shabbat. The quality of singing, the gentleness of the older campers toward the younger campers, and the method of leading dance from the small stage in the middle, made for a safe and exhilerating Shabbat.

This is a Reform Jewish summer camp and the campers really know their prayers. They exhuberantly bless the ritual washing of their hands, they are pretty ecstatic about the blessing before eating and even more joyful singing Birkat Hamazon with its inclusive prayer for our cousins, the children of Ishmael. There is some shtick, but it is precious shtick and kept at a respectful pace by the blessing leaders.

In the 6-7th grade session I worked with, the campers really knew the basic meaning of each prayer and were eager to lead, to write their interpretations and to participate in story telling.  We would pray at the Creek on Shabbat Morning till the end of Amidah and then walk up to another place for Torah reading. There was a trust among the counselors and the campers about respecting the beautiful space and participating in prayer there. The way I saw it, gently tossing pebbles into the water and watching the rippling out of circles was like the impact of Camp Newman and the broader affect it has on their lives.

Perhaps more than any other summer, I feel a calm intentionality from the senior staff. Rabbi Erin is a grounded presence. She always knows what is going on and what needed to go on – aware of both a specific child in need, as well as the perspective of how the camp is running and how the staff is collaborating. You feel here calm, grounded, aware presence directly when she speaks at Shabbat services and you sense it by how she speaks with all of us. Ruben creates a stable and vibrant energy from the first loving chorus of “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” at the start of camp that only builds till the last night when campers shout with everything they’ve got, “I love being Jewish.”

At the start of my two weeks here, Rabbi Paul Kipnes spoke to the faculty about how we fold into an already working system. It was a very meaningful talk – reminding the faculty that we are here not for our own ego gratification nor to make things how we think they should be, but to respect what has been going on and flow into that stream. Putting egos at the door and seeing ourselves more as open vessels created within me even greater appreciation for all the work that had been put in place.

Before even arriving at camp, I was sent, along with all faculty, the names and email information of the leaders, the Rashim, of the session I’d work with along with the invitation to contact them. What a great thing! It took no time at all to email them just to check in and say how happy I was thinking of being at the session with them. In addition, we were invited to collect some texts on a particular value or “middah.” This too made me feel that I could be part of the collaboration with such talented young leaders.

As I near my 25th year of Rabbinic Ordination, I know, hands down, that Jewish summer camp is the very best way to nourish the Jewish spirit. As rabbis, we can preach our best sermons, we can sing our songs, we can shmooze at onegs and do all the things that we are supposed to do to feed our congregants’ Jewish identity. However, I am convinced that it is the high quality of Jewish learning at Camp Newman, the loving counselors and specialists and the grounded, organized and deeply committed leaders who are the ones who make the magic happen.

Rabbi Nancy Wechsler-Azen is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, CA.  


General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Week One: Thoughts from a New Rabbi

Being a seasoned rabbi of nearly five weeks and an experienced member of a clergy team for five days, I can honestly say that I have learned a great deal in such a short period of time.  You always hear from veteran professionals in any field that the real schooling comes after you receive a degree.  You always are told that the real teachers are those individuals whom you encounter every day.  Whether they are co-workers, patients, clients, or congregants, they are the ones who teach you how to do what you have always wanted to do well. 

I’ve learned that my passion for Judaism and commitment to the rabbinate allows me to embrace what it takes to be a rabbi, but it doesn’t make me a rabbi.  What makes me a rabbi are those moments of connection with others, those endless hours of planning, processing, and programming, and those difficult times in which you must say “no” so that you can honor the importance of self-care.  

In my first week of a rabbi, I even offered to work on my day off, simply because, in part, the congregation was waiting for me to start moving forward with the planning and implementation of the year to come.  The calendar meeting was postponed until I arrived, the ritual committee wanted to discuss the coming year, and mailings that would have been sent out months ago were held off until the entire clergy team could give their input.  I had to come into work on my day off.  I needed to show that I was responsible, eager, and committed.  What I quickly learned was that the best way to show that I was responsible, eager, and committed was to actually take the day off.  I needed to enjoy sleeping in, wearing my shorts, going to lunch with my wife, and spending time with my dog.  Both my Senior Rabbi and Executive Director reminded me that I need to not only take care of myself, but to create boundaries now that will become difficult to set later.

 I’ve learned how important it is to collaborate with not just your fellow clergy, but your administrative assistants, bookkeepers, membership coordinators, program directors, and even custodial staff.  In order for our congregations to be communities of welcoming, centers of Jewish life, and places our congregants want to be, we must act with humility, show our love and compassion for others, and treat each other with the same dignity that we seek to be treated. 

As rabbis, young and seasoned, we all advocate for a Judaism that is vibrant and enduring.  Perhaps what I have learned the most in my first week as a rabbi is that we have so much we can learn from each other.  My rabbinate will never be your rabbinate, and my conception of what it means to be a rabbi will never be your conception – and nor should it be.  Yet, our visions can be integrated and we can grow and enrich our rabbinates because of each other.  The best mentors are those who strive to connect with those whom they are mentoring, and the best mentees are those who both listen to their mentors, but also challenge them to challenge you.

It’s been a week and I’ve learned so much in such a short period of time.  As we quickly approach the month of Elul in less than a month, I can only wonder what other reflections I’ll glean in the weeks to come.

Rabbi Phillip (PJ) Schwartz is the assistant rabbi of Temple Israel, Westport, CT.

News Rabbis

Our Sisters, May We Become Thousands of Myriads: The First Ordination of Yeshivat Maharat

Ordination of Yeshivat Maharat.  Photo by Anne Cohen
Ordination of Yeshivat Maharat.
Photo by Anne Cohen

It was a beautiful Sunday and a perfect day for an ordination. The hall was crowded, and everyone joyfully hugged and wished each other a mazel tov. There was a ritual, some spirited singing and clapping, giving of documents, speeches, and of course, food. Just like every other ordination I’ve been to.

But this one was special. On this day, at this event, Rachel Kohl Finegold, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, and Abby Brown Scheier, the three women who were graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, were ordained. Three women who are Orthodox. Three women who will be working in Orthodox synagogues and communities are each called now “Manhiga hilchatit ruchanit v’Toranit” or Maharat.  They were ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss, senior rabbi at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, halachic posek and professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University, and Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, their Rosh Yeshiva.  As they were ordained, the women were each  “found worthy and granted authority to teach and determine halachic rulings for the Jewish people, and has been ordained as a spiritual leader and a decisor of Jewish law.” With these words, the three women were authorized to render halachic judgements for the community.  Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the Yeshiva’s dean and Rabbi Weiss’ first ordinee, who blazed the path to this day, called up each woman by name, and blessed each one under a banner embellished with the blessing “At hayi l’alfei r’vava”- “Our Sister, may you become thousands of myriads.”

Each ordination was followed by standing ovations, cheering, clapping. As each woman spoke, with the joy and light of Torah streaming from her soul, all present were carried into the reality and power of the moment. Blu Greenberg presciently spoke of this possibility. And we were there, to see, to witness and to celebrate.

As a Reform rabbi, I found myself wondering about my fascination with this moment, about the reason for my own tears, about the sense of witnessing history in the making. Accompanied by David (Rabbi David Ellenson), and with our trailblazer Rabbi Sally Priesand sitting just a few seats away, I could not help but reflect on how our world and our community have changed.  I found myself wishing that I had been present for Sally’s ordination, even though at the time I was a 16 year old girl who knew nothing about the historic events unfolding in Cincinnati in 1972.  But even though I have been present to witness the remarkable emergence of women’s rabbinic leadership in the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Renewal movements, even though my work brings me into daily contact with the reality of the lives of women Reform rabbis, even though women rabbis may not be seen as something new or innovative in the liberal Jewish community, I still felt the profound historical power of the day.  I felt deeply that I was witnessing something that for so long and for so many had only been a distant and unattainable dream. Rabba Sara Hurwitz herself said it, “Halom halamti-I dreamed a dream.” Many have dreamed this dream and most of those dreams have not been fulfilled. Many wish they could have become a mahara”t.

Yet, on Sunday, I witnessed women, Orthodox women, taking their rightful place as religious, halachic and spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community. On this day, many dreams came true.

After the ceremony a friend mentioned that she thought the day would soon come when this ceremony wouldn’t be seen as so significant or so filled with history. I had to disagree. I still marvel at the reality of 686 women ordained as rabbis at HUC-JIR in the past 41 years. I don’t ever want to forget how amazing it is, how radical a reconceptualization of Judaism and of leadership it required.  But I do think that one day, we will know that this is normal; that women in religious leadership, no matter what movement they may belong to, are an essential and vital expression of our community’s values.  I don’t ever want to forget the struggles of individuals who blazed the trails in order for me to become a rabbi. But I do want to insure that women rabbis are an integral, integrated and recognized part of the landscape of Jewish leadership, that they claim their rights and responsibilities as legal and religious leaders, that they and their communities see their work as sacred work, that their presence in the religious sphere will have an immeasurable impact on current and future generations. No, I don’t ever want to forget how revolutionary the ordination of women as rabbis and mahara’ts is.  But I do want them to be completely normalized, accepted and celebrated.

I celebrate the rabbis and lay leadership who brought the dreams of this yeshiva and the possibility of women’s ordination into reality, who contributed their halachic and financial resources to create this innovative seminary.  I rejoice in the ordination of Rachel, Ruth, and Abby, and in the fact that all three of them have positions within their communities, and two of them will be working as part of a clergy team in Orthodox synagogues.

It was an ordination like so many others I’ve been to.  And it was an ordination like none I’ve ever seen.  It was the ordination of women rabbis, something so regular and normal. And it was the ordination of Orthodox women as Maharats, remarkable and innovative.  I remember how revolutionary, radical and controversial our ordinations were at the time. I remember how hard my predecessors worked to pave the road for me, and I know how hard my contemporaries and I worked to pave the road for our younger colleagues.  There is still much to do, but we have also accomplished so much. But I take none of it for granted. It has all been a dream.

But it’s real.

And that’s why I celebrate.

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson is the Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

General CCAR News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Gender and the Rabbinate: Difficult Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Ethics Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Lobbying for Immigration in Sacramento: Reform CA in Action

What does it mean to be part of a movement? What could it look like if we actually moved together?

On Thursday May 23rd forty-two Californian Reform Jews answered that question as we gathered in Sacramento for a day of lobbying and learning. A beautiful mix of clergy and community members, we took our message of justice and equality to the State Capitol. Our day was filled with individual lobby visits to thirty Assembly Members and state Senators as well as a meeting with Governor Brown’s office and with Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. That morning, as we stood together on the steps of the Capitol, preparing ourselves for this ambitious day of meetings, we offered words of prayer. Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff from Stockton reminded us that although we pray in separate synagogues, we offer the same words, to the same God, for the same reasons. As we sang Shehecheyanu, we not only thanked God for bringing us to the Capitol to do justice, we thanked God for bringing us together as a movement.

It was the first lobby day of Reform CA, a new initiative for the California Reform Movement to act powerfully together for justice in our state. Over the past 18 months, more than 120 Reform rabbis and communities have come together to create Reform CA with a goal of restoring the California dream.  Once upon a time, California represented openness, fairness, and equality; progressive thought, investment in education and infrastructure, and cutting edge innovation. A family could move to our state, afford a home, send their children to excellent, publicly-funded schools and colleges, and find meaningful, well-paying jobs. Some of us remember living the California dream, while others of us grew up hearing stories of the California that once was. As a project of all the social justice initiatives of the Reform Movement: the Peace and Justice Committee of the CCAR, the Religious Action Center, and the Union for Reform Judaism’s Just Congregations, we feel called to come together as a Movement to play a role in repairing the California dream. We are joining with one another to address systemic issues of injustice that hurt our families and our brothers and sisters across lines of race, class, and faith. As Rabbis who were ordained together and work down the street from one another, it took Reform CA and our collective passion to act for justice to bring us together and reignite within us the that flame of partnership.

We were in Sacramento to press for just immigration reform in our state, specifically passage of the TRUST Act, which would remedy the effect of the Secure Communities program, a federal law which has created a climate of fear in the immigrant community and has adversely affected law enforcement’s ability to make our towns, cities and state safer. Currently, immigrants picked up by police for minor misdemeanors – something as small as a broken taillight – can be held for deportation. The TRUST Act will help address the shortcomings in our current immigration system by permitting deportation holds on undocumented immigrants only if they have a serious or violent felony. This legislation will restore the trust between immigrant communities and local police and aid the continued fighting of crime in California’s towns and cities.

We learn in Pirke Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” but our immigrant brothers and sisters are forced to live in the shadows and separate themselves from the community and the California dream. We hope that we will continue to march together on the path of justice as we exit the walls of our individual institutions and join together as a unified movement.

 Rabbi Rachel Timoner is Associate Rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles, CA.

Rabbi Joel Thal Simonds is Associate Rabbi at University Synagogue, Los Angeles, CA.


Reform CA Sacramento Lobby Day


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

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis: Immigration Reform Lobby Day in DC

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Lobby Day in DC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CCAR on the Road Ethics Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Serve the Eternal With Joy

4583201560_2797e92db7_oThe Psalmist calls to us, “Serve the Eternal with joy!”

For three days, participants of the Consultation on Conscience heard from pollsters about faith and Tikkun Olam; we sat at the feet of US Ambassador Susan Rice, Sister Simone Campbell and “Nuns on the Bus,” and Rabbi Sharon Brous to discuss the role of faith in our pursuit of progressive social change; and we learned from staff at the Religious Action Center about how to lobby more effectively, about outstanding local social justice programs for our communities, and about the energetic Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Campaign for fair and humane immigration reform. We discussed violence against the human spirit, were weighted down with stories of gun violence and human rights abuses, and discussed how to face the obstacles of cynicism, callousness, and despair.

For a group of Balfour Brickner Rabbinic Fellows, we added powerful stories of the moments that called us to social justice; for some it was being bullied and beaten up years ago in high school; for others, it was the recognition we had been that bully. Powerful, prescient, evocative stories about the Divine spark bursting our hearts open and demanding we respond to the great moral injustices of our day with compassion, fortitude, and determination to make tikkun real.

And then, after sowing tears of pain and trauma, we responded to the call to Serve the Eternal with joy:

More than 20 of us went to a local Washington, DC bar where young professionals head after work. Teams of people were engaged in a karaoke competition, the contemporary version of a camp sing down.

What were a bunch of serious, social justice rabbis to do?

With words projected on the screen against the backdrop of contestants adorned in costumes from the fanciful Village People to the absurd Rocky Horry Picture Show to the romantic Dirty Dancing and music blared through the room, we danced.

934150_10151582488811113_1513506451_nIt was powerful, joyous, effervescent. With laughter and movement, humor and a bit of awkward brilliance, we belted out lyrics to Time Warp and Time of My Life; we paused in the midst of our learning and pursuit of social justice to touch a different—and yet vital—part of our souls that longed to soar.

It was funny and fabulous and rejuvenating. And some of our colleagues can dance! For a few hours amidst the sacred work of the Consultation on Conscience, we opened our hearts and joyously sang a new song unto God.

“It’s astounding;
Time is fleeting;
Madness takes its toll.
But listen closely…”

Let’s do the time warp again!

Rabbi Michael Latz is the senior rabbi of Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis, MN.

Ethics Gun Control News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Gun Safety Is a Jewish Issue

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

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

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

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

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

What might sensible gun safety legislation look like? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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I Preferred the Book

bibleThe Bible is inherently cinematic. it has the global story filled with dramatic tension, complicated personal lives, special effects, war, comedy, power, surprises, and much more. It is Game of Thrones with more violence and sex, but without Peter Dinklage.

So when The History Channel’s The Bible miniseries was announced, I was curious to see how a modern television version might put out a sweeping run of biblical stories. Along with millions of Americans, I watched the 10 hours of The Bible and I found those key elements – it was dramatic (the overbearing score reminded me of that), intense (the constant violence made sure I knew that), and passionate (all the shouting made sure I was aware they were playing IMPORTANT characters).


The Bible was produced by Mark Burnett (from Survivor) and Roma Downey (from Touched by an Angel) as a….well, passion product. They hope to bring over a billion new readers to the Bible. To help you on your journey there is the companion website, and they have created a merchandising machine – a companion novelization (Stephen Colbert had something to say about that), soundtrack,, DVD (on sale today!), mobile app, and more. Their “passion product” has also become a money making machine.

But while they attempted to make a family-friendly, marketable Bible for today, there were some areas of significant concern. And areas where I would have wished things were different.



With a disclaimer at the beginning, the series plays a little fast and loose with the written Bible story. But who is to say what is accurate? Is the literal word? And even if it is, how does one represent conflicts and contradictions? It is a rewritten version for the purposes of condensed story telling. We do that when we tell any Bible story – leaving out sections, modifying for our audience. The teller tries to convey the “Truth” of the story without as much concern of the “truth”.

This is found in all cinematic storytelling – it is the big historical flaw in the “biopic”. Conversations, characters, timelines, events, facts are made up for the benefit of the narrative flow. For example, Roger Ebert defended the The Hurricane and distortions in biographical films in general, stating “those who seek the truth about a man from the film of his life might as well seek it from his loving grandmother. … The Hurricane is not a documentary but a parable.” From Lincoln to Argo to The Iron Lady – every biopic is flawed on its history. And so it is with The Bible.


Since people often remember movie versions (accessible, condensed, visual) over the page, The Bible may be how some learn about and remember the Biblical tale. That is the nature of biopics. We are perhaps doomed to have a generation that thinks of Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs and to live with its flaws.

Sex and Violence

The Bible mini-series was made for the long-term market. It will be shown in Christian Sunday Schools across the country. Sex is a no-no in that setting. So Lot doesn’t sleep with his daughters. David’s cuts off the Philistines’ foreskins – but it is only alluded to those already in the know. Sex scenes are only hinted at, but never shown. In this way it is nothing like Game of Thrones.

But violence. Apparently violence is just fine anywhere. So this production amps up the violence. Every battle, stabbing, stoning, beating is emphasized. Extra conflicts and battles, including a gladiator fight, are introduced. One of the angels (perhaps intentionally the Asian one) does a double-bladed stabbing in fine action film formula. Just as I always imagined the angels. While not as gory as the Mel Gibson pseudo-horror flick The Passion of the Christ, it is plenty bloody.


caiaphas-the-bibleThe Bible mini-series is about the Hebrews and the Israelites, but until the New Testament, it isn’t about the Jews. They may be Abraham’s or Moses’ people, but they are not a religious people. When Isaac is born there is no discussion of circumcision (too sexual anyway). When he is almost sacrificed, the animal doesn’t even have horns to become a shofar or to be caught in the thicket (like the text clearly says). When the Passover story is told, every single ritual aspect is omitted. But whenever a “religious” (i.e. bad) Jew is shown in the New Testament section, he is always wearing a tallit. Apparently, Jews wore their tallit gadol (the one over shoulders) all the time  in Jesus’ time.

Clearly some thought was put into the prayers and Hebrew said in the series. It isn’t gibberish. But L’cha Dodi in the morning before reading scripture? While one wouldn’t count on the Judaism to be very accurate (Keeping the Faith takes place in modern times and they made tons of errors), I don’t think the High Priest walking among dead bodies was a good choice. But some things I liked. Intentional or not, the Last Supper is clearly NOT a seder as they are happily munching on bread and there is no matzah in sight.

I was naturally concerned on how Jews would be portrayed in the Jesus scenes. It appeared some efforts were made to limit blame to Caiaphas and the Priests among the Jews. It is certainly not any more antisemtic than what one already thinks of the written Gospels. At one point, the guards restrict who can appear before Pilate in the “Crucify him!” scene setting up a favorable crowd (sort of like entry to nightclub). No one shouts, “His blood be upon us and our children!” But the series won’t be doing any favors for Jewish-Christian relations.



The role of women in the Bible text is, at best, mixed. The miniseries doesn’t seem to make much of an effort to positively portray anyone woman in the Genesis story and others: Eve, Lot’s Wife, Sarah, Delilah. As the story goes on, there begin to be positive women models – typically in a role as a good wife or mother – Miriam, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Rahab (pictured), Samson’s mother (although she is inconsistent). The New Testament women are very strong – The Virgin Mary (played by Roma Downey as an older woman), Mary Magdalene, Pilate’s wife.

Positive stories with women at the lead are completely omitted such as all the other women in Moses’ life, Deborah, and Esther.


the-bibleRarely are Biblical characters portrayed as shorter, dark-skinned Middle Eastern types in American and British films.It is no different here. But they aren’t blond and blue eyed either. The beards are dark even the skin isn’t swarthy. Jesus, however, looks like a movie star at all times – even when bloody and beaten – especially around the average looks of the “Jews”.

But the racial issues is noteworthy because in contract to the “white” actors in all the leads, several roles were cast otherwise:

  • The Angels – Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel are White, Black, and Asian.
  • images
  • Samson – For no reason I can gather, Samson is a very dark-skinned actor. This is not color blind casting as his mother is also played by someone black. With the Philistines being completely white, it sets us an interracial tale or as one article called, a Mandingo fairy tale.
  • the-devil-on-history-the-bible-barack-obama-leadSatan – Much has been made how the actor playing Satan looked like Barack Obama. You be the judge from this picture. Let’s accept Downey and Burnett’s claim it is not true. But what is true is that the actor playing Satan is not dark skinned and was made more “black” for the role. So even if it isn’t anti-Obama, it is a bit racist.


A note on other casting. Saul should be very tall and handsome according to the text. David should be a red head. Saul wasn’t that good looking or charismatic (above right). And in fact, Saul, David, and Jonathan in the series are all brunettes and all are 6’1”.


The Old Testament scenes have a very basic theology.

  • Trust in God
  • Trust in God
  • Trust in God
  • The land of Israel is “ours” thanks to God’s promise

The New Testament scenes have an overriding theology too.

  • Trust in Jesus

Such an approach makes sense given the diversity of churches that they hope will use the video. The basic Zionistic element of Abraham and Moses and David is in keeping with a standard religious right approach to Israel today. Christians are more frequent visitors and to Israel than Jews (some say 58% to 25% of visitors). Israel is a big part of the ultimate belief in Jesus’ return and this fits nicely with Christian Zionism.

The Mini-Series

As a mini-series it was fair. Like many mini-serieses it was often plodding – parting of the sea, Sodom, road to Golgotha – as scenes dragged. The Samson story was interminable. The need to jump from story to story made for curious omissions. A novice to the Bible story would have trouble following big chunks, despite the smooth narration of the great Keith David. The actors were also always reminding you that this was the Bible with their extremely intense portrayals, which were always followed by more violence. And it was not in any way “inspiring”.

While it has nice costumes and sets and animals that feel “biblical,” it also was clearly limited in its budget. Crowd scenes were enhanced with CGI that didn’t match up to the final battle in The Lord of the Rings. Other times, the scene was tightly cropped and poorly realized such as Samson destroying the arena. Most notably was how few Hebrews were standing on the shore of the Sea when Pharaoh’s army approach. It wasn’t 600,000. I’m not even sure it was 60.


When fast-forwarding through the commercials, I kept stopping at the preview for The Vikings thinking the show was back. I guess if it is more than 500 years old, one bearded guy looks like another.


The series got incredible ratings – the most-watched cable entertainment telecast of the year. The ratings did skew older in age.

Therefore, Hollywood and TV will now embrace religious themed productions since they are sheep. Even with all its controversies, The Passion of the Christ still made $600 million in box office. As this is mostly clear of such issues (even the ADL hasn’t said anything), expect numerous religious and biblical focused shows. There is a lot on the way already including the Jesus of Nazareth miniseries from Michael Landon, Jr.

This was a decently done, but generally slow and bombastic telling. It didn’t live up to the cinematic version in my head when I read these texts.

Read the book. Not the companion book, but the actual book.



Rabbi Mark Kaiserman is currently living in Southern California where he is the Interim Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley.  This blog originally appeared on RaMaKBlog.

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Machzor Blog: Am I Really This Bad? Am I Really This Good?

Once, while prepping for the High Holy Days at a student pulpit, I had the following conversation with a well-meaning cantorial soloist:IMG_0361

“I want to write a new melody for Unetaneh Tokef,” the soloist began. “It’s such a dirge!”

“Well, actually,” I said. “This prayer is about God sitting on the Throne of Glory, deciding who shall live and who shall die.”

“Oh,” the soloist said. “I guess that’s okay then.”

In that moment I realized, not only the importance of educating our lay-leaders, but also our own reluctance to say or do anything in the synagogue that might drive people further away from Jewish life. This is particularly challenging during the High Holy Days, when we are supposed to be engaged in rigorous self-examination.

Given that the High Holy Days are also that small window in the Jewish calendar when we have our community’s undivided attention, both clergy and laypeople are uncomfortable with the discomfort that the liturgy of the High Holy Days is supposed to arouse. However, I firmly believe that the season of cheshbon hanefesh and the call to teshuva are also part of Judaism’s balanced spiritual diet.

Strangely enough, one of my primary concerns during my involvement in the creation of Mishkan HaNefesh has been limiting the discomfort of a new machzor. Given the steep learning curve my congregants encountered with Mishkan T’filah in weekly Shabbat worship, I am concerned with how they will adjust to a new format when they only use it twice each year. As a member of the Alternative Readings Sub-Committee, I sought out texts that were thought-provoking but also “readable.” Our congregation’s pilot group was vigilant about pointing out sections that were difficult to follow.

However, if our mission is really to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” we need to retain some of the spiritual discomfort that is endemic to the Days of Awe, so that we might strike a balance between recognizing our flaws and realizing our potential.

The tension between these two elements is beautifully played out in the Vidui in the new Kol Nidre service. As we recited the short confession, my pilot group noticed the shift from the more abstract, “Some of us kept grudges, were lustful, malicious or narrow-minded,”  (Gates of Repentance p. 269), to the harsher, more specific “We corrupt. We commit crimes. .. We are immoral. We kill” (Mishkan HaNefesh Kol Nidre draft p. 45a). Some worshippers were actually offended by the direct accusation of crimes they did not commit.

“Why does it say, ‘We kill,’” one man said. “I don’t kill!”

Just as jarring was the iyyun (readingencouraging us to praise ourselves al ha-tikkun she-tikanu l’fanecha (for the acts of healing we have done). Set up like the al cheyt, this reading states lists a number of acts of tikkun olam we may have committed in addition to our sins,  “For the healing acts by which we bring You into the world, the acts of repair that make You a living presence in our lives” (p. 49b).

It is a brilliant and beautiful reading, but for us it was just as spiritually troubling as the Al Cheyt. Just as we didn’t like being accused of wrongdoings we had not done, we didn’t want pat ourselves on the back for righteous acts we had failed to do. We felt that the reading should be written in a tense that made it sound aspirational rather than congratulatory. In a way, however, this text also allowed us to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, serving as a reminder of all we may have failed to do on that list!

Engaging with this Machzor in its formative state was an incredible opportunity to think about the messages we need to hear—or are uncomfortable hearing—during the High Holy Day season in order to inspire us to perform teshuva. Both the confessional texts and the congratulatory texts allowed us to ask ourselves the same essential questions: “Am I really this bad?” “Am I really this good?”

It also made me think about the messages my congregants hear from the pulpit. I’m told that rabbis give the same High Holy Day sermon, over and over again. I’ve realized that mine is not “you are good” or “you are bad,” but “you can change.”

Leah Rachel Berkowitz is the Associate Rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC.

She served on the Alternative Readings Sub-Committee of the Machzor Committee. She blogs at