Friday, November 15, 2013


Together at our congregation we celebrate making transitions. Every week, we mark the transition from weekdays to Shabbat by the ritual of lighting candles. The transition from childhood to Jewish adulthood is signalized by the ritual of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

From time to time, we have the simcha of performing the public ceremony in which “new” Jews are welcomed into the fold of the Jewish people. It is a joyous occasion when they are called up the bimah to hold a Torah scroll, binding their destiny to that of the Jewish people. This ritual of welcoming is the culmination of a long journey-- in the case of some people it’s many years in the making. The formal process of their conversion begins with a meeting with the rabbi and their admission into the Introduction to Judaism class.

Our candidates have gone through a process that lasted almost two years. They studied together, attended services and Temple activities, and shared their path towards Judaism as a class. It is very rewarding to teach the Introduction to Judaism class, and I wish that all Jews could hear the commitment of these men and women. They are thrilled to learn about our rituals and traditions. They marvel at the depth and intelligence of our faith and the wisdom of our tradition. We could all learn from their passion and dedication.

After they completed the Introduction to Judaism class and passed the final examination, they were ready to be brought before the bet din, a three-member rabbinical tribunal. We travelled to Indianapolis where we constituted the bet din with Rabbis Pfeffer and Siritsky. Immediately after the bet din agreed that our candidates were suitable, all three candidates immersed in the mikvah at Congregation B’nai Torah, and they emerged as full-fledged Jews. It is now time for us as a congregation to welcome them.

Our tradition uses a beautiful idiom to express conversion to Judaism. When someone becomes Jewish, we say that s/he has been “welcomed under the wings of the Divine Presence.” As a congregation, we will provide a tangible representation of those “wings,” so it is very important for everyone to attend the service on Friday, November 22.

After the ceremony, however, we should not treat them differently. Judaism has always taught that people who convert to Judaism are just like those who were born Jewish and they should not be reminded that they chose Judaism as adults. In recent years, the distinction between “Jew” and “convert” has been replaced by “Jew-by-birth” and “Jew-by-choice” to teach that we are ALL Jews -- regardless of our unique life-path. Furthermore, one can say that we are all Jews-by-Choice because we are continuously choosing Judaism in our lives and the example of our “newest Jews” should inspire us all to want to make that choice tomorrow yet again.
Please, share how you have "chosen" Judaism in your life.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Indignation is Not Enough
Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League blasted Alice Walker over her new book, The Cushion in the Road. I was asked to write a book review explaining why the Jewish community finds Walker’s writings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict offensive. I explained that for most Jews there is no significant difference between Jews in America or Israel- as far as Jewish identity is concerned. Any attacks on Israelis or any misrepresentations of their freely elected leaders are felt by Jews all over the world as an attack on us (please follow the link below to my book review).
Despite our differences of opinion about Israeli politics and despite our various views of Zionism, the State of Israel is a place with which we, as Jews, have a personal relationship. We have family and friends who live there; our friends have family who live there. We all know someone in Israel or know someone who does. In sum, we all have a personal relationship with Israel.
It is natural and understandable to feel offended by Anti-Israel views but indignation is not enough. Indignation must lead to action: Each of us is responsible for educating our friends and neighbors about what the State of Israel means to Jews and how it has changed Jewish identity. So, what can you do?
1.    Be alert and don’t give in. Understand that when people speak against a specific Israeli policy, there is usually more to it. Remember: don’t just agree with the critics of Israel, many of them have other motivations, usually Anti-Semitic ones. But in order to be alert, we also need to do some homework, which brings us to the next thing you can do to strengthen your personal relationship with Israel.
2.    Be informed –Not just about current events but about whatever area you are interested in. If you like soccer, learn about Israeli soccer. If you are a physician? Take time to learn about medical advances in Israel and volunteer at Hadassah or other hospitals. IF you are in a book club? Don’t be afraid to suggest reading Israeli novels or non-fiction. You a news junkie? Subscribe to Israeli news feeds. The more you know about life in Israel, the better equipped you will be to speak up for Israel.
3.    Chavayah, great Hebrew words that means “experience of a life-time.” Get your own chavayah, your very own life experience of Israel! You like to travel? Next time, instead of China, Russia or Paris, make a trip to Israel, not with a tour, but go on your own; it is safe and everyone is kind of family! Your chavayah will stay with you forever! But more importantly, when you have that chavayah, you must share your chavayah with others, Jews and non-Jews alike. We must tell the story of our relationship with Israel with everyone –especially with those who, in good will, want to know why we find Anti-Israel ideas so offensive. They need to hear our personal stories, and they will understand and become our allies.
As the only free country in the Mideast, Israel is making progress toward a more just and equitable society for all its inhabitants. Many people in Israel are trying to live up to the high expectations and demands our tradition has set forth many millennia ago, “tzeddek, tzeddek tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord God is giving you.” (Deut. 16:20).

Monday, September 2, 2013

Tallit or Not Tallit?

Where does the tradition of wearing a tallit originate? The wearing of the tallit comes from the third paragraph of the Sh’ma. In Numbers 15:38-9 we read: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: They shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments…And this shall be tzitzit for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of God, and perform them.”
            The tallit is a ritual object that attempts to address this commandment. You may wonder, what is the “third paragraph” of the Sh’ma? In the traditional prayer books, the Sh’ma has three sections. Early on, the Reform movement eliminated all but the first –probably to shorten the prayer. The first paragraph, the Veahavta, is the basis for two ritual objects: the mezuzah, and the t’filin -both ritual objects discarded as “superstitious” by early Reform rabbis. The mezuzah and the tallit have seen a comeback in recent decades. Among Reform men and women, the wearing of the tallit became more common.
            For years, however, women were not allowed to wear a tallit while praying at the kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. In the past few months, the controversy about women praying at the Western Wall intensified. As a result of a recent Israeli court ruling, women praying at the kotel are allowed to wear whatever Jewish ritual objects they please as well as to read from a Torah scroll. Women can now freely wear a tallit. Beautifully decorated tallitot have been crafted of the finest fibers to adorn the shoulders of Jewish women here and in Israel. For “Women of the Wall” wearing their pomegranate-embroidered silk tallit has become a symbol of their defiance of the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.
             I know that many among us would sympathize with their struggle. Yet wearing a tallit at our congregation seems to be reserved only for b’nei mitzvah students on their special Shabbat. It seems odd that this wonderful symbol of religious freedom is absent at our worship services. It is time we make a change and join the rest of the Reform Jewish world. Fortunately, we will have a chance to wear a tallit on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, during the Kol Nidre service.
             The tallit is traditionally worn during all morning and afternoon services, and in recent Reform practice by those called for an aliyah, even during the Erev Shabbat service. Yom Kippur is the only time of the year when it’s customary for all Jews to wear a tallit at night –since the command of tzitzit applies during the day. Some believe that the custom began with Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (thirteen century) based on the fact that during Kol Nidre we say selichot, penitential prayers. There is a beautiful Midrash that links selichot with the wearing of a tallit. According to the Midrash, when Moses prayed to God to forgive the Jews after the sin of the golden calf, God “wrapped Himself in a tallit” and showed Moses how to pray. Despite the obvious fact that this is an anachronistic and anthropomorphic tale, it teaches that wearing a tallitreminds us of being kind and merciful towards each other, like God was towards the Jews then.
              Thus, wearing a tallit is not to be seen as giving in to some “superstitious” practice, but it can be tangible way of showing solidarity with Jews asserting their religious freedom in Israel. I invited you all, men and women alike, to bring a tallit (or wear one of our congregational prayer shawls available at the doors to our sanctuary) and wear it during Kol Nidre. Show your care and support for Women of the Wall!
              Learn more about Women of the Wall and our support for their cause.

Please, take the time to share your comment on wearing a tallit below!


Thursday, August 8, 2013

On the Road to Renewal

As you might have noticed, all Jewish holidays are “early” this year – our High Holidays will be a late-Summer holiday! In the few weeks left until our holy days arrive, our tradition calls us to enter our synagogues ready to accept our shortcomings and to welcome repentance and forgiveness into our lives. We call the preparation “heshbon ha-nefesh” (lit. “taking an inventory of the soul”), our spiritual “homework,” during which we look at the year that has passed. As we reflect on our past actions, we find joy mingled with disappointment. We yearn for a sense of renewal.
This spiritual exercise begins by letting go of the inescapable fear of discovering what we have done and what we have allowed ourselves to become. Many of us are seduced into focusing merely on what we have achieved, on what we have done well. But our tradition calls us to take a measured look at our actions and our relationships –- in our family, our congregation, and our community. 
As the summer comes to an end, the natural world also enters as a time of transition; it is a time to bridge the lazy days of summer to the crisp fall mornings filled with autumn colors. We are part of nature so it can also be a transitional time between who we have become and that person whom we long to become. It is a bridge between regret and repentance, between guilt and renewal. It is a time that holds the promise of change.
Let us begin our spiritual homework and take a few minutes every day to reflect on the year that has passed, and to ponder the good deeds we have done – but let us also be sure to remember our omissions, our shortcomings as Jews and as human beings. Once we have done an honest spiritual retrospection, we will be ready and able to approach the New Year in the spirit of humility and repentance.
Shanah tovah, may the New Year bring spiritual renewal, joy, health, happiness and peace to us all.
How are you preparing for the High Holidays? Do you have any "family" traditions that help you get in the right frame of mind? 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Social Interactions or Social Networks?

A couple of month ago, during the annual convention of Reform rabbis, we were addressed by Dr. Ron Wolfson, who teaches Jewish education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Wolfson spoke about his new book, Relational Judaism. His talk was so powerful that it inspired many of us to buy the book right there (and have it signed by the author). One of his main points is that Jews who attend Jewish programs and activities not always make a personal connection with those institutions. For sociological reasons he explains in his book in great details, despite our 24/7 connectivity, what Jews seems to seek most in the 21st century is “relationships,” more princely, personal contact.
In a recent blog published on the Forward, Dr. Wolfson writes, “No doubt that the social media platforms such as Facebook […] have enabled many to create and support relationships among friends and family. Jewish organizations are just beginning to marshal the power of these platforms for building online communities and for encouraging face-to-face communities. Finally, it turns out the best fundraisers in the Jewish community all agree that relationships are at the heart of securing funding.”
Let me be clear less we trivialize Wolfson’s contribution to Jewish communal life and the challenges we face. We are not talking about passing acquaintances –we would be pressed to find a congregation who sees itself as unfriendly and does not care about establishing relationships. Wolfson challenges us to switch the focus back to basics. We must ask ourselves, does what we do as a congregation foster lifelong relationships that can develop within communities and that will lift us up and beyond our own individualism? Relationships must be based on listening to one another’s needs and on shared experience, and through commitments to work side by side and to join together in prayer. Needless to say, the relationships Wolfson’s book promotes are those that require face-to-face encounters.
Echoing the title of his book, Wolfson blogs, “I believe the time has come for us to shift the paradigm of engagement from programmatic to relational.”
I would encourage everyone in our congregation to read his book first and then begin a conversation about our future together. I share Wolfson’s concern that Judaism will not survive in the 21st first century if we continue the paradigm of the past. Paradigm changes are not easy but necessary.
I invite you to post your comments here. Please respond: Have you read the book? Are you planning to? In the coming year, I would like to hold some forums with those interested, to share our thoughts about how we can switch the paradigm at our congregation. I hope to hear from all of you.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Jewish View of Guns and Violence

Many sections of the Hebrew Bible constitute a testimony to the great violence, which people had to endure in Ancient times. War and insecurity were the norm, not the exception. The ways in which our ancestors referred to God reflected their violent surroundings: God is Adonai Tzeba’ot, “Lord of Hosts,” and Yish milchama, “Man of War.”
In the midst of such violent times, our people were able to create a system of values that helped them develop a more just and equitable society. So, why can’t we? Why can’t we end the violence in our cities and schools that destroys so many innocent lives? We are blessed with freedom from invasion and constant war; we live in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known, so why do acquiesce to laws and regulations that make mass shootings in our malls and schools possible? Why do we continue to tolerate the laws that the gun industry has written, which do not represent Jewish values?
Recently, after a 20-year hiatus, gun legislation has resurfaced. It is too early to tell what will come of it or if anything will change for good, but the fact that the U. S. Senate is discussing it, on a bi-partisan way, is encouraging. All Reform Jews may not agree on every aspect of the divisive political issue that gun violence invokes, but we must all learn and struggle with what our tradition teaches about the use of weapons in general, and guns in particular.
The Torah is remarkably contemporary in its approach to the issue. After all, the issue violence perpetrated with weapons meant for defensive purposes only is not new –the misuse of weapons is as old as weapons themselves. How does Judaism deal with this issue?
One of the typical case studies found in the Torah is that of the “blood avenger.” If someone committed manslaughter, he could flee to a “city of refuge” and be safe from revenge. The cities of refuge could control who brought weapons into the city, with the understanding that the “blood avenger” may be tempted to violate the refuge status of the city. In this case, the rabbis of Talmud were in favor of regulating and controlling access to weapons (follow the link in my blog and read M. Katz’s piece on for a study of the relevant texts).
Katz concludes: “the risk of allowing weapons to fall into the hands of unstable people who may actually misuse them outweighs any consideration of defense.”
Just to be clear: The Jewish tradition is not pacifist. We Jews have had armies and weapons of all kinds, not only in Modern times but throughout the Middle Ages and back into ancient and Biblical times. Self-defense is a Jewish value. You can certainly protect yourself, says our tradition, but not at all costs. If in our eagerness to protect ourselves we facilitate the acquisition of weapons for illicit goals, then we are liable for the damage those misused weapons cause.
In the light of what our tradition has taught since ancient times, I cannot see how we can support the radical agenda of the gun-lobby and be true to our religious tradition. The approach of our tradition is not radical, but rather sensible and measured. According to our tradition, Jews are allowed to own weapons for personal use, but always keeping in mind how having this or that weapon affects others: other Jews, the mentally ill, criminals, and the safety of our cities and towns. Judaism is very different from American individualism. I find it very hard to understand survivalists and those prone to conspiracy theories –they seem so foreign to our tradition. We do everything as a community. Judaism is an ethical system based on balance approach and compromise. Judaism values the individual contributions to the greater cause of the Jewish people and by extension to society. Our ancient faith teaches us that we are better individuals when our community is better.
I fail to see how high capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons placed in the hands of individuals without universal background checks contributes to a built a better society. Plainly stated: If they do not contribute to the goal of a better society, they go against our Jewish values.
Our sages taught, kol yisrael arevim ze bazeh, all Jews are responsible for one another. The time has come for our nation to heed and learn the lesson of our tradition: We are all responsible. If violence plagues our malls and schools, we may not be guilty for the actions of others, but we are all responsible. In a democracy, we have no excuse, whether we own guns or not, whether we live in the safest neighborhoods or not, we are all responsible.
Please, join the discussion.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Passover and Immigration

Passover and Immigration
This week I have been thinking about the similarities between the story of the Jews in Egypt and immigration policy in our country. Here are some thoughts:
  1. During Joseph's time we had free entrance of Jews into Egypt, a welcoming government; we were provided with food and resources. As a result, the Jews settled in Goshen and prospered. 
  2. During Moses' time: Jews were considered resident aliens, and were enslaved, and their babies could be killed at will. We were also deprived of our freedom of movement ("Let my people go," was Moses' cry). The Torah is clear that things deteriorated, “and a new Pharaoh rose who did not know Joseph.
I understand that Ancient Egypt was not a democracy and that policies changed often capriciously, but I see an striking and troublesome parallel between what our ancestors experienced in Egypt and what many immigrant communities have experienced in America in the past 120 years. As in Egypt, there was a time (roughly until WW I) when MOST immigrants were admitted to our country -we had an "open immigration" policy. But beginning in 1924, things changed dramatically. The total volume of Jewish immigration from 1881-1914 was 2,400,000, overwhelmingly from Eastern Europe. It went from 119,000 in 1921 to 2,755 in 1932! Immigration policy to the U. S. has never been back to welcoming laws pre-1924. Visit to learn about immigrants' stories and to find out if YOUR ancestors would have been admitted had they tried to immigrate to our country under current law.
During the Seder we read,  “In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as though we personally went out from Egypt.” Re-living this journey helps us appreciate our own freedom anew, but it should also teach us to empathize with all of those who live in fear and are seeking their own promised land. 

What is your immigration story? Share it with us below.

Follow the development of the our movement's joint action for sensitive comprehensive immigration reform at

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Caring Community

Some years ago, due to various reasons, our congregation discontinued the Sisterhood and Brotherhood. Both organizations brought people together and fostered a sense of community; they also made it possible to help each other through difficult times in life as well as to rejoice together. Although our dedicated volunteers have shifted their time and efforts to other important areas of our congregation, some of the needs those organizations used to address are currently unfulfilled.

Auxiliary organizations are based on the Jewish value of solidarity. The culture of service to others has a strong basis within the history of Jewish communal life. For instance, classic rabbinic texts underscore the importance of the mitzvah of bikur cholim (visiting the ill or suffering). All members of the community are obligated to engage in bikur cholim

We read in the Talmud that when one of Rabbi Akivah's students was ailing no one would come to visit this person. Finally Rabbi Akivah himself went to the ill student's bedside and began to sweep and make some order. The student subsequently recovered and credited his recovery to Rabbi Akivah's visits. This tale reminds us of our power to bring wholeness, refu'at hanefesh (healing of the spirit) through our presence and our caring. Through the example of his actions Rabbi Akivah taught that reaching out to others in bad times is a mitzvah that we all must consider. 

The caring presence and concrete assistance of a caring person can help heal another. It is also a wonderful way of engaging members of our congregation in mitzvot that bring holiness into each other’s lives. In order to honor this ancient tradition, our congregation is coming together again. In the next few months we will launch a new program focused on compassion and care. We are still working on the details, but it will include visiting the sick, delivering some meals, and providing support in times of sorrow as well as of simchah –happiness.

We want to be as effective as possible, but in order to do so, we need everyone’s involvement. I welcome your input. Please, share your thought in the comments below.
I am curious to know what would you like to see happen. What do you think our members need? How would you like to participate? Let us come together once again and create a stronger community.

Thursday, January 31, 2013


Jewish humor is essential to Jewish culture. In America, the strongest influence comes from Yiddish culture. Some Yiddish words may sound comical to an English speaker. Terms like “shlemiel” and “shlimazel” are often exploited for their humorous sounds, as are “Yinglish” words such as “fancy-schmancy.”
         Among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, the powerful were often mocked subtly, rather than attacked overtly—as Saul Bellow once put it, “oppressed people tend to be witty.” For instance, a story was told that after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, a government official in Ukraine menacingly addressed the local rabbi, “I suppose you know in full detail who was behind it.” “Ach,” the rabbi replied, “I have no idea, but the government's conclusion will be the same as always: they will blame the Jews and the chimney sweeps.” “Why the chimney sweeps?” asked the befuddled official. “Why the Jews?” responded the rabbi.
         Humor and Jewish tragedy play a central role in the celebration of Purim. We laugh at the plans of Haman, who ALMOST destroyed all the Jews. We are never told exactly why Haman hates the Jews; it seems that Haman’s hate is innate to his personality. Neither the text nor our tradition ever explains why Haman hates the Jews ... The question is as old as our people: Why do they hate us?
         The traditional answer is basically that “they are out to get us.” It teaches that the “enemy” of the Jewish people is always out there waiting, hiding. This is quite a depressing view of our history, but quite popular even today. Nowadays, it can be a person or a country or both. The insistence on this troubling view of the world prompted the eminent Jewish historian Salo W. Baron to coin the phrase “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” (The word “lachrymose” comes for the Latin word for tear, lachrymal; in English it is an adjective that means given to tears or tending to cause tears). Baron thought that there was more to the Jewish experience than persecutions.
         Let’s turn to the story of Purim. The selected reading of Jewish history fostered by the supporters of the lachrymose conception of Jewish history can be seen in how the story of Purim has been told to us in school.
         The story of Purim has a less popular side: The Jews killed more Persians than Persians killed Jews! We read in the megillah:
         “And the king said to Esther the queen, ‘The Jews have slain and destroyed five hundred men in Shushan the capital, and the ten sons of Haman.’”
         There is something positive in celebrating the survival of our people; however, stressing only the persecution and survival of the Jew on Purim and making no mention of this violence seems, at the very least, disingenuous, and, at most, chauvinistic. Fostering Purim as the festival of our survival, while knowing how many people WE killed, seems rather unsettling. For many centuries now, books, teachers and rabbis have inculcated in us the lachrymose conception of Jewish history and have implanted it at the center of many of our dearest rituals and celebrations – Purim being a prime example.
        As we celebrate Purim this month, let us rejoice and be merry, and let us boo Haman and eat his “ears.” But let us remember that the story of Purim is also a story of our triumph over our enemies, and be mindful of the “other” side of the story, because with victory, then and now, comes the responsibility to be a “holy nation” and a light of peace unto the peoples of the world.
Where do you come down on this debate? Is Jewish history a succession of persecutions and tragedies? Or is Jewish history an inspiring example of how to respond to adversity and misfortune? Why do they hate us? Are we still at risk? Are we still the victims of history? What do YOU think?