Monday, September 22, 2014

Do Not Live Amongst a Talebearer, A Lesson of What is Really Important in Jewish Law

I find it fascinating that according to Jewish Law, we are specifically proscribed from living amongst and participating in social interactions with those who gossip. Yet, not only are we NOT adjoined not to live with those who believe differently than we do or who do not observe Kashrut or Shabbat, but rather, there are long discussions throughout Jewish law about how we interact with these neighbors, how we are to do business with non-Jews in a scrupulously honest matter, and so forth .

Let’s really think about this a bit. For example, in learning about how one creates an intentional community (as described in Masechet Eruvin) there are long discussions about the inclusion of property owned by non-Jews in communities where Jews reside and need to negotiate movement on Shabbat, about how one can or cannot take over ownership/rights to such property in business arrangements, with the approach of Shabbat, no less, and how one can or cannot carry and move things in a community with mixed populations. This is all to say that we have always understood a couple of basic truths:

1. We will live in areas that have mixed populations of Jews and non-Jews.

2. There are regulations that we must follow to maintain both the integrity of those relationships and the adherence we, as Jews, have to a life of MITZVAH individually as well as collectively.

3. These regulations are designed to maintain our own community as well as good relations with others, as we are told elsewhere that we should always give some of our resources (Tzedakah) to non-Jewish causes, we are not to take advantage of ANY human being in our midst, and so forth.

As I often teach my students, we cannot be an OR LAGOYIM in the corner of ME’AH SHEARIM – think about the statement. In other words, we HAVE to be part of the big vast world in which we live in order to truly have an impact on it. This is truly a responsibility. It means finding ourselves in spaces in which keeping Kashrut or Shabbat might be a challenge, but this we do. Further, we are to do it without compromising the integrity of others in our midst, for ALL HUMAN BEINGS, according to our belief as Jews, are created by THE CREATOR of all!

WHAT WE ARE NOT TO DO is to become insular and subject to the ills of society such as tale-bearing, gossip and doing damage to others around us in use of our words, our business practices and any other of the “24/7 Mitzvot” that govern the very way we live our lives with consistency and in the spirit of Mitzvah. We are enjoined to follow this practice both in terms of other members of the Jewish community and all members of society.

In the Jewish world, we find ourselves in the period of Selichot for ALL of us at this point, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Mizrachim, Jews of all ideological movements, and so forth. Take a moment at some point to really look at the Vidui and notice HOW MANY of these missed marks in our lives are about these 24/7 Mitvot. Then notice how Religion too often in our fractured world has such a bad name due to extremist expressions, which unfortunately do plague ALL of our religious groupings. Look back at the Vidui. Imagine (in the words of John Lennon) if we would all truly observe these practices – that is stop ourselves before spreading a rumor, hurting someone else with our words, speaking falsely, and participating generally in such activity either actively or passively.

IMAGINE… what such actions would do to curb bullying, help our fellow human beings feel better about themselves and maybe eventually others as well, and change the tone and the impact of our interactions with others. What steps we would all be taking to truly heal our fractured world – to do the real and dedicated work of TIKKUN OLAM.

As 5775 is ready to dawn, let us all imagine what a world we could all help to make if we continue to work on our personal religious and ritual selves as well as intentionally create community with those who will heal it and not compromise the collective. Shanah Tovah U’Metukah to all and may this coming year be a one of healing words and actions for all of us.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Empowered or DIY Judaism

What interesting times these are for practicing Jews. I guess we are actually still practicing… and figuring out what we want to be when we grow up. We (specifically my husband, Ken and I, though I am sure I speak for many of us here) have raised our children in a home in which we are intellectual, ritually involved, spiritual, thinking, exploring and yes, practicing Jews. We are aware of the recent PEW report with all of its foreboding data analysis. We know that large synagogues and communal agencies are losing ground. Simultaneously independent minyanim, different learning options, and so many additional individualized expressions of Jewish engagement are sprouting up all over. Maybe we can no longer correlate these numbers of Jewish involved people with official Jewish-affiliated numbers. If this is the case, how do we keep track of who is doing what? What criteria do we implement to do so that is truly reflective of the status of the spectrum of American Jewry at this present time?

I recently completed reading a critically timely and important book, EMPOWERED JUDAISM by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer (USA: Jewish Lights, 2010). Further looking at the other books available from this particular publisher, there are words like Rethinking, Building and Engaging utilized in titles about Jewish being. So, maybe we no longer identify ourselves by belonging to Beth Israel Synagogue or Beth El Temple or Sha’arei Tfilah Congregation, but rather by what we DO in our lives and the process of engagement with which we are involved – you know, the Judaism we live.

Kaunfer speaks at great length in his book about our educated and engaged Jews who are sophisticated and knowledgeable and need to be involved in their Jewish experiences, not sit passively and have someone else do it for them. Many years ago, I actually had a Rabbi yell at me when I was running Learners’ Minyanim in a synagogue because then “what would the purpose of the Rabbi be if everyone knew what to do?” I was nothing short of flabbergasted at the time but realize after reading Kaunfer’s book that there was definitely that expectation among too many that Jewish clergy would be “doing Jewish observance and prayer” for their flocks. Our 20-somethings and 30-somethings, according to Kaunfer, do not see themselves as flocks. I guess I never did either and this is why I was empowered in my own Jewish search before the name was bestowed on the process. Fortunately for our children, they can now name what they were guided towards in our home.

As a Jewish professional, I have always felt we are too absorbed by numbers. What is wrong where we use a Geiger-counter type of mechanism to say 1,100 people attended this service or that program and thus we deem it to be a success! Do we ask about impact; do we check in to see what has changed in their lives as a result of attendance; do we follow up in terms of the quality of their lives? One of the programs that Kaunfer brings to task is the much-touted Taglit Birthright program that takes college and young adult aged members of our community to Israel for a 10-day program, which is clearly to be lauded for the work it does. I always wondered “what next?” Now we have NEXT, the program that follows up with these 20-somethings, and guess what… they too test their success by the number at this picnic or that social or a given Shabbat dinner. After this wonderful and inspiring living experience in Israel, does it really come down to that? What about ongoing learning programs (that can be cyber delivered as an option, if that helps), what about ongoing commitments to local Tikkun Olam projects… just indications that I am “living my Judaism in a meaningful and empowered way!” and doing so on a continual basis! That, to me, and to my understanding of Jewish Law, would be success!

As an educator, parent and person who is a practicing Jew who lives Intentional Judaism (see earlier posts on this blog), I want to know how the impact I have made on my students is part of a process in which they continue to grow, explore and experience themselves as Jews and human beings. This is accomplished through a process of ongoing engagement with them, not what we call “splash” (one time) programs! What is the ongoing process in which they are engaged? How are their daily lives enriched? What are they seeking? How are they using their knowledge? These questions go beyond data and statistical variables.

My experience is that more and more of our 20-somethings and 30-somethings know this intuitively whereas too many of my generation missed it. I have always been drawn to places of Jewish energy more than performance and to individual empowerment as opposed to sitting as part of the “flock.” This, to me, is precisely WHY we have so many texts and guides and writings on HOW TO DO Judaism, and parenthetically this is PRECISELY why I get so jazzed about learning and sharing them with others.

I often run into former students in various places and they will share memories in my classes. There are texts they remember, amazing AHA moments and such. BUT, and this is most important to me, they all tell me how I taught and showed them how to own their Judaism and use it in empowered ways. They will often then proceed to share with me what they are doing in their lives to accomplish just that. This is Kaunfer’s point, I believe. It is not enough to show up and be counted, but know what you are doing and why. If we use these latter criteria as our marker of success, I am so much more optimistic about our future than the PEW report adherents are. I believe our success is that we are still practicing and isn’t that the point!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

FINDING YOUR VOICE: What I learned from Zora Neale Hurston

In between my teaching, reading and learning, being there for family and involved with community and in the midst of all of the aspects of just generally engaged life, I go on a scavenger hunt through my children’s bedrooms – all of whom are now no longer living at home – looking for a good book from time to time that is not in my personal library. My most recent find was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, which three of our children read in their later high school years. At first it was difficult to get into the book, as the language was distinctly Hurston’s and one of her many compelling contributions to our bird’s eye view of her world as a black woman generally during the first half of the twentieth century.

Of particular note is the explanation in the biographical outline included at the end of the book that she was all but forgotten and passed over and her voice almost not heard, if it were not for the efforts of Alice Walker. She brought Hurston’s important work to the public’s attention 13 years after she was buried in a pauper’s grace in 1960. Hurston had received awards and acclimations during her impressive literary career, but this was not enough to sustain or protect her in her later years when she was forced to work as a domestic just to survive because in those days, whatever literary world was available to the world of the black/African American population, it was basically only accessible to men. How sad!

Hurston’s voice is critical to our understanding of what it meant to be a black woman in a world where there were limited if any choices and one’s own destiny was most often not in their own hands, but determined by the circumstances in which they were trapped. Her voice is quiet and polite but loud and striking in its own way. It is explained by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Afterword that while men had been writing epistles of the social situation of their people, Hurston wanted to share a lone voice through a narrative of a real person. She was a novelist, not a social scientist as Gates explains, and perhaps, the world was just not ready for her honest and painful voice in which the action and inaction of so many readers in terms of their own understanding of her reality might be too much to absorb, as they see this reflected in her words.

The picture that Hurston paints with her words and distinctive dialect are about the inner battle of a woman named Janie, who is seen one way but in terms of her own internal reflection is quite focused on her two things that have to be done. She writes that there are “two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” And this is precisely what she does. Hurston is true to herself through the characterization of Janie, who is contained by a different type of shackles than the physical ones of her predecessors but works just as hard to throw off the cultural and psychological ones that would threaten her well being. Her spiritual and personal fortitude are her only weapons and it is here that her voice is most powerful.

I wrote some time ago about Yalta, the woman in the Gemara who smashed 400 jugs, perhaps because she too could not find her voice in a male-dominated world. I felt a great admiration for this woman who found a way to make herself heard, and in a very physical way showing strength and sense of purpose, no less. Her action was clearly understood by the male world in which she lived. This is the lesson of Hurston’s Janie, who comes to treasure life in a way that most of the people around her never could. While others may define her actions in terms of the larger social context, she knows that they come from a much deeper place.

In our world today, where there is so much more freedom and so many choices and a great deal of liberation for us, it is important to remember that there are still too many Janies, Zora Neale Hurstons, and Yaltas, still waiting for whatever juxtaposition of circumstances will present that will allow their voices to be heard.

We have to remember that these are our sisters and … brothers in our human family and use our voices to help them find theirs as Alice Walker did for Zora Neale Hurston and her Janie.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


This post will be relatively short as I would much rather everyone go to

and listen to what Douglas Murray has to say. (Thank you PF for bringing this to me!)

I am often so hyper-aware of the many different aspects of our love for, admiration for, frustration with and questions about Israel and how it handles the ongoing threats to her existence.

Yes, I and many of us do expect and hope for better, as indicated in a recent completed curriculum I have developed in dealing with Human Rights issues in Israel. Those of us who approach our vision of and for Israel from a foundational set of Jewish values do in fact expect so much of this remarkable country and its people and that is okay.

However, and this is critically important, we can never compromise Israel’s well-being – not in terms of our perspective as Jews, as Americans, and as human beings. Our world desperately needs Israel; don’t ever forget that!

Wanting to be better is one thing. Hoping and trying to be better is noble. Protecting the right to be is something completely different, and this we must always preserve and maintain.

And now, I turn this posting over to Douglas Murray and so many others who have expressed their outrage at the condemnation Israel seems to evoke just for trying to continue to be all of the things we want from her and so much more.

Am Yisrael u’Medinat Yisrael Chai!

Friday, August 22, 2014


As a Modern Orthodox Jew, I often find myself standing too far to the right or too far to the left or without much of a standing at all in a world that is defined too often by extreme positions. How sad! When I remember the Orthodoxy of my childhood, it was gentle, open, and caring. People did not ask what went on in the bedroom or your kitchen or your home and then judge you on it – that was between YOU and G-D. Unfortunately, today in our world in which there is EXTREMELY too much EXTREMISM, the intended quality of life and support of community that Orthodoxy meant and means to so many is getting lost in the details which occupy too many conversations and force people too often into categories of “accepted” or “not accepted.” Years ago, a friend of mine schlepped (such an appropriate word here, thanks MG) me to a meeting at which women were trying to make matches (shidduchim) between young men and women they know. The wonderful Rebbetzin (who is quite religious and observant by every measure you can come up with) got frustrated with questions about white tablecloths and whether or not and how the mother of the girl covers her hair and just lost it – she basically said this was shtuyot (craziness) and NOT what being an Observant Jew is about. She and her husband remain one of my favorite Orthodox Rabbinic couples until today.

Those of you who know me could sit together and we could get frustrated, angry, share many laughs and/or cry a bit about this phenomenon. That being said, I want to share a wonderful personal story about TWO ORTHODOX SHULS of which I am very proud. We are members of both!

Several months ago, one of our daughters became engaged to the love of her life – and now I will have a new daughter-in-law. Needless to say, living in the Orthodox world with a gay child has its challenges. It has recently brought us untold joy. One of our shuls, Mekor HaBeracha, is ALWAYS amazing regarding every possible issue of human needs and comfort and this is due to the able and menschlach leadership of its Rav, Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch, who is no less observant than other Orthodox Rabbis – he just observes BOTH the Mitzvot between him and G-d as well as those between people, also dictated by Ribbonu shel Olam and teaches about them equally. From the moment we announced Rachie and Liz’s engagement, there were Mazel Tovs, hugs and just a wonderful celebratory feeling. We all felt blessed and grateful that the shul community could be part of and add to our simcha.

Additionally, we belong to Young Israel of Elkins Park, where I, to be honest, do not always feel so comfortable, given my knowledge, profession, life view and politics. That being said, I respect the standards that are maintained and continue to be part of this Kehilah along with our many wonderful friends. My husband and I spoke long and carefully crafted how we would present this news to the people in our more centrist/leaning to the right Orthodox shul community. We were having a big engagement party and we wanted to invite our friends but knew that not all would be comfortable. We carefully indicated this to people and received one of four responses. Either they said they would come, needed to check in with their spouse, would have to think about it or did not think they could come. That being said, everyone WITHOUT EXCEPTION was kind, caring and respectful and wished us Mazel Tov. When the party did come, there were over 90 celebrants present to rejoice with our family and our daughter and her fiancĂ©e. Not only that, but we were able to sponsor a Kiddush in BOTH shuls in honor of the many semachot in our family, including the engagement of Rachie and Liz. And in BOTH shuls, everyone wished them Mazel Tov, including our “black hat” Rabbi and his wife. Honestly, we have received nothing but validating and wonderful feedback and caring reactions from all we know with only two sad exceptions – who are not part of either of these communities, but rather within extended family connections.

I want to be very clear. We have been respectful, advocated for our children and acknowledged that this may be a problem for some – all simultaneously. The reaction we have received has been respectful of us in turn, loving for our children and acknowledging of our position in our communities.

In a sadly explosive climate where we hear too many stories of intolerance, I want to state how extremely proud I am of both of our synagogue communities and that with respectful approaches, shared knowledge, and understanding of our most foundational Jewish principles of protecting and celebrating life, we CAN all live together in a meaningful and validating way, just as is intended for our Jewish community.

I know there are other communities out there like ours, so please consider sharing wonderful stories of acceptance and validation with all you know so that our voice is not eclipsed by others who would attempt to shout us down.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, August 8, 2014


Back to my Gemara learning! I am in the middle of ERUVIN, the Masechet about boundaries. You may remember – I already spoke about great processing lessons and what wonderful teachers are from its pages. So, now I am in the middle of a very complex and detailed discussion about how ERUV, in this case the placing of loaves of breads by all of the households of a courtyard or area is negotiated in terms of allowing movement and sharing on Shabbat.

Basically the Halachic (Jewish legal) concept is this: On Shabbat, movement is one of the 39 forms of activity that is forbidden – carrying, moving or otherwise changing the location of various things. Further, there are limits in terms of how far an individual can move them self, either directly or indirectly. That being said, there are so many extenuating circumstances and needed accommodations that are required to facilitate movement and comfortable living during this period of time. Therefore, there are extensive discussions about how one encloses an area with a stated and intended boundary of string and wood posts or dividers, or indicates a shared area by placing a food item (usually bread, though many other options are permitted and discussed) in a designated place.

Within this discussion, issues regarding non-Jews that live in the shared area are indicated and questions about a Jewish member of the community who forgets to do his part to create shared space are also broached. Within the details, one can begin to glaze over, but there is something critical that is becoming clearer and clearer as the one who studies this text (me, in this instance) continues to make too many charts to be clear about which Tanna or Amora (the various Rabbinic teachers and authorities) said what, who agrees with whom, and the various leniencies that are provided by different authorities, and so forth…

THIS IS ABOUT COMMUNITY!!!!! That is the important take-away lesson. How does one create community in which every member is equally invested and taken care of in a way that is healthy and appropriate? Further, how does this community function on Shabbat as such with the given that there will be non-Jews – that is, people who are not part of this Shabbat community – living in our midst? THIS CAN AND SHOULD BE ACCOMMODATED and it is just that in the pages of our Talmud!

What a wonderful lesson for us today, and so needed, to be sure, as we watch our world around us crumble in too many regions! We are inundated by ISIS, the crisis in Israel and Gaza, the Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, and the list goes on and on... Too many stories about too many horrible and troubling disasters that threaten so much in our world in which we have advanced so far. Rulers so removed from reality and who don’t have their citizens’ safety at heart, dictators who forge ahead in building their own empires, terrorist leaders who dictate what their subjects must do from far-away-safe hotels. What are we to do?

When our Rabbis of the Talmud were engaged in these discussions and deliberations, it was based not just on the texts they studied but on the reality they saw. They sat with the people whom they were instructing, they lived in communities that would feel the impact of their rulings and they LISTENED to each other and processed what was said and even changed their minds (often!) based on the observed and experienced reality. Those pieces of string and loaves of bread were real – representative of a COMMUNITY that was bigger and more valued and validated because of the people who made it up – rich or poor, learned scholar or water carrier, young and old, Jew and non-Jew.

They all lived together and here too there are details about which method of creating an intentional community is more reasonable for a rich person, a poor person, a traveler, or an individual based on where their house was actually located in the courtyard. When one stops to consider this, the details about whether or not one uses a loaf of bread or a smaller piece, or goes to place it in a location or sends someone else to do so, or …. it is not about these things per se, but rather the people who need COMMUNITY to be there for them and to be part of it!

One of the most beautiful texts of Torah which we say every day as we enter our shul – the gathering place of our prayer community – is “Mah Tovu Ohalecha” – How beautiful are your tents of Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel?” It is important to remember the source of this statement. It is attributed to Balaam, the prophet that was sent by Balak to curse the Jews. However, he saw how beautifully and peacefully they lived and could not help himself – thus the words of blessing of COMMUNITY!

I am thinking of the many Palestinians whose own rulers do not see their daily reality for what it is. I am thinking of the Iraqis who are huddled in make shift camps fearful of yet another potential genocide. I am thinking of the multitudes of individuals who are held hostage by the Ukraine/Russian conflict. And of course, I am holding my Israeli friends and families in my heart along with all people who are suffering in our fractured world.

Years ago, a student of mine asked quite innocently, “Why can’t we all just make sure the leaders/decision makers/ those who do not get it have a good night of sleep and then share some coffee and doughnuts and relax together, you know, get to know each other? Hmmmmm, maybe they need to learn a text together – involving a string and a loaf of bread!

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

About Israel and Clarifying our Thinking About Hamas

Before reading anything I write, please go to this link:

In Istanbul, rowdy groups have been going around Jewish areas and screaming: "Now it's your turn Jews, get out!"

THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOUR POLITICS! THIS IS ABOUT TERRORISM! Consider this scenario. Three Israeli teenage boys are on their way home and are abducted and killed. Sweets are handed out in the street of Aza and there is mass celebration. One Palestinian boy is beaten and killed and Israelis apologize and take an accounting of their own tactics. In the meantime Palestinians come to the home of the family of one of the Jewish children killed and Jewish Israelis go to the Palestinian home. This is a story of people coming together and wanting peace and for the terrorist fueled fighting to stop!

I have often written on this blog and lectured and spoken about the need for us to hold Israel, that Israel that we fiercely love, accountable. I have written also about the MANY MANY organizations and initiatives in Israel that help bring Palestinians and Israelis together, encourage inter-religious dialogue and understanding and the critical importance of looking at the work of places that foster this understanding as well as the multitudes of people who participate in all of this attempt to heal our fractured world. In doing so, I often become the persona non gratis as the "right" consider me too liberal; and the "left" claim my love for Israel clouds my eyes. I have always and will continue to advocate for innocent citizens, social justice and human rights AND to maintain a reality check about the notion that Israel, with all of its warts that are out there for all of us to see, is doing its best to respond to these overwhelming challenges -- presented by its own people, refugees seeking asylum, and those who are not protected by their own government.

LET US MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT! HAMAS IS NOT PART OF THIS EQUATION! HAMAS IS A THREAT TO ALL OF US. Benjamin Netanyahu speaks publicly and often about the sorrow and horror at the loss of ALL lives, Palestinian and Israeli, in this horrible situation. In the meantime, HAMAS HANDS OUT SWEETS AND CELEBRATES AND REFUSES TO ACCEPT CEASE FIRES!

It is critically important for ALL OF US to be extremely careful in not adding to harmful rhetoric. HAMAS IS NOT A PARTY TO PEACE, NEGOTIATIONS OR ANY TYPE OF SUSTAINABLE REALITY FOR ITS OWN PEOPLE much less the Israelis or anyone else.

Please, I beg of you, whatever your politics, at this critcial and very frightening hour, please do not "flip" to either side of the spectrum of heated arguments. Speak on behalf of humanity! Speak on behalf of the country and government (with whom we will not always agree) who IS CONCERNED about the various groups involved and who has supported SO MANY projects and involvements throughout its land that brings together people from these different groups to better be able to live together. Remember, other terrorist chapters of history that need not be repeated here and their dire outcomes. For that matter, remember how HAMAS came into power in Aza in the first place and the many Palestinians who claimed they only wanted to send a message of warning to the PA -- not hand the government over to HAMAS.

May G-d (Allah for Moslems)-- the ALMIGHTY ONE that each of you believe in guide us through these troubled times and help all of us to resist this horrible threat that is compromising and so dangerous to our sense of humanity. May we all learn from the citizens who continue to come together in Israel and throughout the world to try to maintain a sense of shared purpose in these dark times that cause so many to question their loyalties.