Welcome! Listed below is an archive of bi-monthly messages from our rabbis. Each message first appeared in our monthly newsletter, Kol Ha’Kehilah (The Community’s Voice) and is listed by issue date.
Caring for the Ger, Meriting Revelation
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, May/June 2017
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, March/April 2017
Jewish Wisdom for Times of Upheaval
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, January/February 2017
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, November/December 2016
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, September/October 2016
Time of Abundance
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, July/August 2016
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, May/June 2016
Values-Based Decision Making (VBDM)
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, March/April 2016
Jewish New Years
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, January/February 2016
Reflection on Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Announcement
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, November/December 2015
The work of Rosh Hashanah
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, September/October 2015
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is not characterized by parties and fireworks in the sky. The action is internal. We examine our chata’im, the moments where we’ve missed the mark. We strive to do teshuvah, often translated as “repentance,” but meaning, “return.” This season is an invitation to return to our personal paths, to correct the places we’ve strayed.
Sometimes in order to know that we need to do teshuvah, we must receive tochecha, rebuke. Leviticus 19:17 commands, “You shall not bear a grudge, but must rebuke your neighbor.” This verse immediately precedes the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It hints that rebuke is an important aspect of love.
I have been blessed since arriving in Eugene to receive instructive tochecha from many. As I learn my role in this community, it is not surprising that I have offended and upset people. I am deeply grateful to those who have approached me to give me constructive feedback.
I have no doubt that as I continue to serve this community; I will continue occasionally to miss the mark. That is part of the growing pains of this rabbinic transition. When that happens, please let me know. It is only through the process of hearing how I misstep that I can do my own teshuvah.
I also want to invite the community into teshuvah with me, opening a conversation about Israel. It can be painful and frightening publically to discuss Israel. No single person could do justice to the topic. After the High Holidays, I will convene an Israel Program Task Force, comprised of people with diverse political opinions about Israel. The members of that group will receive dialogue training, and then that group will be responsible for planning regular Israel programming. My hope is that this will include both cultural programming and controversial conversations. If you are interested in being part of this initiative, please contact the office.
As we move into the Days of Awe, may we give and receive feedback in a spirit of love, seeking to strengthen our bonds with each other and with the Divine.
The Three Weeks
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia, July/Aug 2015
In many cultures, midsummer is a time of heightened apprehension. In the ancient Israelite culture which shaped our Jewish calendar, the midsummer months of Tammuz and Av are the two most mournful months of the year. This is in part due to agricultural reality: in our ancestors’ desert culture, midsummer was a time when rain was a distant memory, and the land was parched.
Two somber holidays occur during this time. According to our tradition, on the 17th of Tammuz, the Romans breached the walls of the city of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. They destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem 3 weeks later, on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). Mythologically, the scouts assigned by Moses brought back their discouraging report about the land of Israel on Tisha B’Av, causing the Israelites to wander for 40 years. Historically, the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 were both initiated at Tisha B’Av.
This is a season of tremendous upheaval. In many ways it is appropriate that the Rabbinic transition is occurring now. Any apprehension about the community’s transition is certainly real and valid. Those feelings can also be keyed to what I would call a cosmic Jewish unease at this time of year.
Yet this is also a time of tremendous hope and potential growth. There is a teaching that the Messiah is to be born on the 9th of Av. Out of the ashes of destruction sprout the seeds of redemption. Eventually, rain comes again. The most joyful (though little known) day in the Jewish calendar comes right after Tisha B’Av: Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av, the “Jewish Valentine’s Day,” which is actually the day that we’ll be holding our first Shabbat in the Park of the summer.
The following month, Elul, is the time of drawing near to each other and to the Divine in preparation for the Days of Awe – the holiest days of the year.
This task of mindfully moving through mourning and anxiety to come to a place of love and community is exactly the process that we are instructed to internalize every summer, and it is the process that faces our community now. It is not a process that can be rushed or ignored. The months of Tammuz and Av are truly for mourning. But the hope is that we can make this journey through these months and come to a time of fruitfulness and new growth. I look forward to taking on this task together.
Freedom and Human Dignity
Rabbi Yitzhak, January/February 2015
“In a free society some are guilty
but all are responsible.”
— Rabbi A.J. Heschel
Honoring life, human dignity and freedom are foundational to our Jewish system of values. In Genesis we learn of humanity being created B’tzelem Elohim – In the Divine Image. This is the foundation for the Jewish view of the sanctity of life and the dignity every human being must be accorded. In Exodus we read the story of liberation revealing the Divine Will as a force for liberation and release from oppression. This liberation story, while being focused on the Hebrew Tribes, was to be understood as a foretelling of a future redemption for all humanity. Universal freedom is an aspiration that has long been a cherished value and vision of our Jewish tradition.
While we know that our world is yet far from the fulfillment of these aspirations, we must never forget that working toward their fulfillment is a primary task of the Jewish soul.
In recent weeks we have been forced to take an accounting of the status of freedom and human dignity and the value of human life in our national condition in America.
There has been a light shining upon the powerful and tragic realities of racism and unequal justice under the law. Within a few short weeks we witnessed the death of several unarmed African American men at the hands of apparently inadequately trained, or inappropriately hired law enforcement officers. Those tragedies were then followed by the shocking outcomes of grand jury refusals to pursue criminal charges. What is perhaps most amazing and awful about all of this is that this has long been business as usual in our country. It is only because of the extraordinary media coverage of these recent killings and the massive demonstrations throughout our nation that we have had the opportunity to wake up to a troubling reality that has perpetually brought suffering and anguish to our African American fellow citizens.
Black young men are at a far higher risk of being harmed and/or unjustly incarcerated in our inadequately just Justice System. We have been starkly awakened to this powerful and painful discrepancy, and with awareness comes responsibility. It is my hope that, as members of the Jewish community, we will do what we can to be ever-present allies to the African –American community and to work alongside others who seek to correct the failures of our current system.
The task of Tikkun Olam doesn’t ever end, and we have an important opportunity to join with others to make this a safer and more just world for all members of the human family in our country. The Jewish community is speaking out and numerous Jewish organizations are developing resources to address this pressing situation.
There are some issues that seem so big that we can wish to turn from taking up an effort. We must understand, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel so eloquently stated, “In a free society some are guilty but all are responsible.” I know that among my own personal responses to these recent tragedies, I once again renewed my membership in the NAACP in the hope that my expression of solidarity would count for something and that I would be better informed through their resources about the urgency for change and opportunities to participate in making change happen. In the NAACP’s recently released report Born Suspect we find this statement, ”The NAACP believes that law enforcement officers have an important and noble role to play in every community across the country. And we appreciate the great work done by the majority of officers who uphold their commitment to equality and fairness. Yet the prevalence of so many incidents of police brutality, police killings, and racial profiling-particularly of young men of color- serves to undermine the entire system of policing and damages the credibility of police work. Racial profiling further creates a deep divide between communities and law enforcement officers. It breeds mistrust and ultimately leads to decreased public safety for all.”
I hope that we will all seek to rid ourselves of whatever subtle remnants of the sickness of racism we yet carry in our own hearts and work together in healing our society. For so many people, this is no less than a matter of life or death.
Ukraine & The Pale: Jewish Remnants and Renewal
Rabbi Yitzhak, January/February 2014
As you may have heard, Shonna and I recently returned from a very special journey to Ukraine. Fortunately our travels there ended before the eruption of the huge demonstrations in Kiev and the political turmoil that has recently made the headlines.
Each day of the six days we spent in Ukraine had profound meaning and each was worthy of a chorus of Dayenu – “This would have been enough.”
Our first evening began with meeting the other participants for the dedication ceremony of the new Hatikvah Center for Progressive Judaism in Kiev. We met Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, the truly extraordinary leader of that community, as well as
other members of the international delegation gathering for this momentous occasion. Representatives from The World Union of Progressive Judaism came from the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Israel and Great Britain to join in this celebration.
The following morning, Friday, we went together to the site of Babi Yar a place of horrible destruction of thousands upon thousands of Jews and other Ukrainians who were victims of the Nazi onslaught. That Friday happened to be the day of Ukraine’s annual national day of commemoration of the horrors of Babi Yar and the broader loss of lives during World War II. Ukraine has a terrible history of anti-Semitism and it was important to acknowledge the profound depth of that shadow even as we prepared for the kindling of new hope at the Hatikvah (The Hope) Center. After leaving Babi Yar, we were taken to a Jewish kindergarten where the beautiful faces of young Jewish children singing Hebrew songs lifted our spirits toward a hopeful future. The parents and grandparents of these children were denied any Jewish education under the period of Soviet rule. The phrase l’dor vador, “from generation to generation,” takes on new meaning in Ukraine. Tradition is passed from the youngest generation to their parents and grandparents rather than from parent to child.
Friday evening, with the onset of Shabbat, the community celebrated Simchat Torah, as the Torah scrolls were brought into the new sanctuary and placed in the Ark for the first time. I had the joyful honor of leading the community in singing “Am Yisrael Chai –The Jewish People Live,” a song written by my teacher Reb Shlomo Carlebach z’l, which was the encouraging anthem for Soviet Jews in decades past. Adding to the specialness was that it fell on Shabbat Bereishit, the “In the Beginning” Shabbat when the very first words of Torah are read. Perfect timing for a new beginning for the Kiev progressive Jewish community.
The remaining days were equally filled with meaning as we visited Berdichev and Medziboz, two very significant centers of Jewish learning in our history. The final day was spent on a journey to the small town of Snovsk (today Shchors), the birthplace and childhood home of my beloved father z’l.
I cannot do justice to the meaning of either of those two days in a short article. I hope to find ample opportunity to share about those transformative days in the future.
Shonna has created an exhibit of photos from the journey, which are on display in the TBI Gallery. I hope you will find time to have a look and consider the meaning of this journey – a journey that represents a glimpse into the unknown past that so many of us who have family history in that region share. Perhaps it will be a window into your past as well.
People, Programs and Relational Judaism
Rabbi Boris, March/April 2014
One of the most powerful experiences many of us have are those moments of entering into a new relationship; that point when we discover a shared interest or passion with a new friend, when we first hold hands with our loving partner, or when we gain new insights from a powerful teacher, a spiritual service or a group of like-minded people. These are the times when we connect with others and want to stay connected because of the ways that these relationships give our lives strength and meaning. In our Jewish community, we depend on these relationships, and while we need good programs and meaningful services, it is the relationships that form out of all that we do at TBI that keep us coming back.
“Relational Judaism” is a hot concept in the current conversation about the state of Jewish institutions and congregational life. As the recent Pew study on American Jewish life showed, Jews are connecting less and less with not only Jewish community, but also with each other. While it may seem like common sense, Relational Judaism is the idea that our communities can only survive and stay strong if we focus above all on building relationships within all that we do; it is not only about creating exciting programs, increasing membership, or “bringing more people in the door.” Like so many other synagogues and Jewish institutions, we do need money to survive, and we should continue to have great programs and classes. Yet, even more, we need each other.
Dr. Ron Wolfson describes the religious roots of Relational Judaism in his much-talked-about book of the same name. As he describes it, Judaism does not see joining a Jewish community as a “contract” as you would have for a health club or cell phone service, but instead, as a “brit” or covenant. A contract is an agreement to complete a task or obtain a product, yet when the task is complete (or a newer, better phone comes along) the relationship is over. A covenant, however, is about relationship, and it is about the long term vision. Like the covenant of marriage or the deepest of friendships, one hopes the partnership is lifelong.
We are in the midst of a rabbinic search, which will not only determine the future leadership of this community, but will also help us lay out a vision for the kind of relationships that we hope to build in TBI’s future. Personally, I am excited about the opportunities that the community has to examine what we are doing well, and also what we can improve as we set goals and move closer to creating our ideal community. The parlor meetings and the many upcoming conversations are just the beginning. While it is admittedly a somewhat odd time for my family and me, it is also a time for me to be proud of what I have accomplished so far as one of your rabbis.
Many of the programs that I have helped bring to TBI have been been above all about this vision of Relational Judaism and promoting a true covenantal relationship among all of us. In addition to all of the wonderful havurot and social groups which already have brought such strength to our community, we now have seasonal Shabbat potlucks, weekly summer picnics and many new opportunities for meeting others. J-Net, our growing group of Jews in their 20s and 30s is allowing those who might not have found a place in synagogue life to come together to socialize and connect. The Brotherhood has made a place for an often underserved group in our community and allowed them to learn and support each other. The Melton School is going strong, and has allowed the diverse set of students to explore their Jewish identity and learn from the core of Jewish tradition. No’ar Hadash (our new youth group), the summer camps, family and all-school programs that Gretchen and I have organized are working to create community and build relationships among the younger members of our community. In addition to these groups, our new website allows social networking and promotes easier and wider outreach, as it acts as an extension of our “real world” family here at TBI.
There are so many great ideas for new programs and ways of engagement as we look into TBI’s future, but thankfully our task does not necessary mean only adding something new. We simply need to work on building the relationships we already have and finding ways to allow more people to connect in meaningful and authentic ways. I support the ongoing rabbi search because it allows for opportunities to gather together to hear each other’s stories and vision for TBI’s future. When each of us can share our experiences and learn from each other, then we can grow closer together as a caring and holy mishpacha, a family. Wherever the next few years may lead, I hope that it can bring us to a place of greater connection, and build the kind of true and enduring relationships that will guide our community and keep it strong.
A Matter of Life and Death
Rabbi Yitzhak, May/June 2014
Many years ago I joined a delegation of clergy from around the state in a meeting with Governor Kitzhaber to request that he grant a stay of execution for a man being held on Death Row. The governor made it clear in that meeting that he felt a responsibility to follow the will of the people of Oregon who had elected him and who also had voted to approve capital punishment as a practice in our state. The advice of the governor was that we work to review our public policy by engaging in discourse with those in our communities. The execution took place.
Several years later when again confronted with an impending scheduled execution, Governor Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the Death Penalty as he could not again take upon himself the moral responsibility to determine the death of a person. His moral objection to capital punishment was the overriding determinant in his calling for the moratorium, which will continue until he leaves office in January, 2015 unless he again seeks office and is re-elected. He asked that during this moratorium we, the citizens of Oregon, engage in discussion about the policy of maintaining the death penalty.
This most serious matter must become a part of our communal conversation. We are members of both the Jewish civilization as well as members of our American civilization and our tradition has valuable wisdom to contribute to the public discourse.
What does Judaism have to say about capital punishment? Our rabbinic sages took a seemingly unquestionable imperative of Torah that calls for capital punishment for many crimes and searched to establish so many protections against the use of capital punishment that it became virtually impossible to utilize it as a punishment. They honored the Torah through allowing the Torah text to stand as a powerful reminder of the depth of seriousness that the taking of any life holds. They worked to bring G-d’s wisdom, compassion and justice into this world by making sure that we as a collective would not become takers of life. The brilliance and profound ethical sensitivities of our sages found expression in varying views. Their great debate elevated and refined the thinking of the sages who participated in the discourse. The discourse continues to this day for our Torah is a Living Torah.
Our sages took seriously the weight of allowing or disallowing capital punishment in their time and place. Their discourses in the Mishna and other rabbinic texts point to the diversity of viewpoints they held. We have the same responsibility to examine our own thinking and to participate in the shaping of public policy on this matter of life and death that is ours to decide for our time and place.
Today we must ask ourselves questions about the fairness of our system in terms of racial and economic factors, in terms of whether or not our current policy is economically feasible in light of the disproportionate funds that capital punishment drains from our underfunded justice system and above all, whether we can morally accept capital punishment as a state policy. Does it reflect our ethical values? Is our society elevated or diminished through the practice?
The questions are profoundly personal and yet it is our responsibility to engage with the questions. In a couple of weeks TBI will host an important opportunity to engage in this crucial discourse. We will host the annual meeting of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, OADP. I am very enthusiastic to say that Professor Richard Stack, the author of a recent book Grave Injustice: Unearthing Wrongful Executions, will be the keynote speaker. I am enthusiastic because of the value of Richard’s important contribution to the public discourse and on a very personal level, because he is my very beloved cousin.
I hope that our TBI community will take full advantage of this rare opportunity to join with citizens from around the state to engage in this discourse which in many ways defines the moral character of our society.
It truly is a matter of life and death.
Why We Tell Stories
Rabbi Boris, July/August 2014
Of all the programs we have at TBI, from Shabbat services to holiday celebrations, classes and social events, one seems to hold a special power for many people, and not surprisingly, also attracts the biggest crowds. This American Jewish Life, the monthly program when we honor a member of our community with an opportunity to share their life story, has connected deeply with so many of us. We connect with it because it allows us to learn more about many of the people we meet in our wonderfully diverse community, but also because it gives us a chance to participate in one of the most core human acts: to listen to stories. As we hear people share their lives with us, we participate in a unique kind of learning, one that allows us to see ourselves in the experiences of others and to gain new insights into ideas and issues in our own lives. These stories, like all stories, are a natural path for us to make connections and find meaning for ourselves. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt once said, hearing a story will “reveal meaning without committing the error of defining it.” With a story, truth finds its way to us through the path of life, and through listening to the journeys of others we find our own place in the greater web of our community.
This year as we celebrate the 80th anniversary of TBI, we are blessed that this will be a year of telling stories, and of listening to and responding to the insights that they bring. It is a time to look back into the history of our community to find the experiences that helped create the diverse spiritual home that we have today. This is the year when we can be reminded how our stories, both those of our own lives and those of our community, have held together Jewish life throughout the generations.
On its most basic level, the role of stories and storytelling in the Jewish tradition is to pass on the history and traditions of our people and community. This is of course true across all faiths and cultures. Yet there is also a deeply spiritual and uniquely Jewish purpose to stories; that they should elevate people’s faith and inspire them to live more meaningful and spiritual lives, and teach them mussar haskel, ethical understanding. Through hearing the experiences of others, we can better know how to act in our own lives, and can learn how to live each moment with compassion and meaning.
Of course the Torah is stories, as are the classic folktales, the midrashim, and the endless stories from every Jewish community around the world. Yet none of these stories could exist without all of our individual stories; the experiences, the joys and challenges that brought us to the place we are today. One could even argue that the entire goal of Jewish experience, the most important part of learning and listening, is to add our own story, our experiences, our relationships, to the story of the Jewish people–all we need to do is look at a page of Talmud or any book of Torah commentary to find this truth. While Judaism needs ritual, belief and action, it is the stories that hold it all together.
There is a classic tale from the Talmud (a story about stories!) that reminds us how the entirety of Jewish practice and belief owes itself to the memory of the experiences of those who came before us: Two writers rushed into the beit midrash, the study hall of the Rizhiner rebbe. They wanted him to write the preface to their respective books, one on Jewish law, the other on aggadah, the tales and lore of the Talmud. The law scholar was sure that the rebbe would see him first because of his expertise on Jewish ritual and practice. However the rebbe said that he would see the storyteller first, telling him: “Our Torah begins with stories, were it not for the stories, we would have no basis for the mitzvot that follow.” It is the stories that bring to life all that we do and makes sure that others can learn from our experiences.
As we reflect on the history of the TBI community in the coming months, we need to remember this timeless call to hold on to the past even as we and our community move ahead. Come to an oneg and shmooze with other members of the community, join us for Torah study and add your own voice to the voices of our tradition, or respond to one of our official requests for you to share and record your experiences at TBI before our anniversary celebration in the fall. I hope that you will take the time to share your stories in our 80th year, and may we all know the true blessing of listening to and learning from each other!
Let Hope Grow
Rabbi Yitzhak, September/October 2014
So many emotions are stirring as I write this newsletter message. Today there is a cease-fire that may or may not hold. Hope and despair sit side by side in my heart. They take turns speaking, but in truth the last several weeks have not given much of a voice to hope. Israel has been shown for its great strength and its shocking vulnerability. Hamas has been shown for its cruel callousness and wicked tactics. Innocent and tender lives have been destroyed in Gaza by a terrible combination of elements. Young Israeli soldiers have lost their lives in battle. What can hope say to all that we have seen?
My heart turns to our spiritual cycle for some guidance. Elul, this month characterized by S’lichot, prayers of repentance, followed by Tishrei with its Days of Awe, gives us time for introspection, self-critique, Teshuva.
This year we have to ask ourselves some very hard questions as we search our souls in the shadow of war. Our prayers of confession for wrongdoing are said in the plural. We ask forgiveness for the mistakes, the miscalculations, the missed opportunities, the shortcomings that found expression through our actions, inactions, our speech, and our silence. The entire Household of Israel, whether in Israel or the diaspora, shares in responsibility for our collective spiritual condition. Even though we recount our mistakes through prayers spoken in the plural, we each as individuals must search ourselves to ask what we can do differently going forward. What can I do to better serve the Source of Life? We must ask the personal questions about our own life’s contribution to perpetuating a human condition that fuels destructive behaviors and war.
I want to suggest that every one of us who has been touched by the pain of this war do an act of Tzedakah that moves our collective reality to a more wholesome place. I want to ask you to consider giving some Tzedakah to an organization that represents healing from the pain and loss we have suffered. One particular organization in Israel that I believe most directly gives a voice to hope is Hand in Hand, an Israeli school system that is completely bilingual with Hebrew and Arabic, has a faculty of Arabs and Jews, and is educating its student body toward cultural appreciation and friendship.
If you can use a little hope, go to the Hand in Hand website and see what the creative side of human potential looks like: www.handinhandk12.org.
May this coming year be a time in which we at last experience the Blessings of Peace,
Shana Tova, Rabbi Yitzhak
Light Amidst the Darkness
Rabbi Boris, November/December 2014
After a busy month of holidays, we head into the month of Cheshvan, making our way through the ever-darkening days of fall and winter. This month is commonly called Mar Cheshvan, the “bitter month,” because it is the only month with no holy days or special occasions that occur. While a time of physical darkness, it is not necessarily a time of spiritual darkness, as it is also a time to gather in the experiences, teachings and inspiration from the High Holy days and try our best to hold onto their light.
Nevertheless, there is one event that we remember every year in early November, a tragic day which began one of the the most painful parts of our recent history. On November 9th and 10th, 1938, 76 years ago, Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” took place. The days took a horrible toll on the German Jewish community; over 260 synagogues were destroyed and thousands of Jewish businesses were damaged by the Nazis and German civilians. The aftermath of this terrible day led to the Holocaust, and the eventual murder of over 6 million Jews and countless other innocent people.
Today we live in a world that is much safer for the Jewish people, but like those horrible days in 1938, there are still places in Europe and the Middle East where calls of “death to the Jews” are all too common, and ever-dwindling Jewish communities are being threatened with destruction. We can’t forget events such as Kristallnacht, but it is in how we remember events such as these, how we bring light into the darkness, that the Jewish future will be determined.
While the greatest tree needs darkness to sprout, it can only survive on light. With the memory of Kristallnacht, we can reflect on who we are as a Jewish community, and stand with those Jews who continue to experience hatred and are not allowed to freely practice their faith. With time in these months to reflect, hopefully we will see that our lives, and the Jewish future are filled with a light, a light that can grow even from the greatest darkness.
Here in Eugene, we will have an opportunity to reflect on the story of the Holocaust and its meaning for our time, with a presentation in support of “Unspeakable,” an animated documentary portraying the journey of Holocaust survivors, November 9th at First Christian Church. More information can be found at www.unspeakablefilm.com.
We Are All Artists
Rabbi Boris, January/February 2013
Over the past few months, our humble synagogue has been blessed to be filled with artistic images of life and culture, from the hills of Jerusalem to the flowing curves of hand painted wedding ketubot, to the moving photographs of heroic women from around the world in Mobility International’s “Brilliant and Resilient” exhibition. I was especially moved and surprised by the incredible talent of so many of the artists in our community whose art was displayed during our recent Chanukah exhibit. What a joy to walk down the hall and be surrounded by such color and creativity!
I believe that art is as necessary to our experience as a spiritual community as the sounds of prayer and music that fill the sanctuary on Friday nights. The entire experience of prayer and spiritual connection is often as much influenced by what we see around us as the words we say. There is a very good reason why the mystics of Tsfat who created the ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat to welcome in the day of rest were said to stand on the hills of their village as they sang Lecha Dodi and prayed and danced with joy. For them the power of the sights and experience of being outdoors was a necessary inspiration for them to connect to God and to each other.
The architect Frank Lloyd designed one of his most well-known places of worship, Beth Shalom Congregation in Philadelphia, to remind worshipers of a “luminous Mt. Sinai” as they sat amidst the towering multicolored glass walls. Our own sanctuary is bordered by the full wall of windows looking out into the courtyard garden, bringing the ever-changing images of the outdoors (and often the sounds of rain) into our prayer space. And the most recent addition, the beautiful and flowing words of “Ufros Aleinu” now grace the front of the sanctuary inspiring all those who gaze up at the ark to reflect on the “tent of peace” which we create when we gather together as a community. While there is still room on our sanctuary walls for more art and color, I know that as our community grows, our building will be filled with even more of these inspirational pathways into experiencing the world.
Judaism sees our lives as art, and the work we do in the world as the most deep and authentic artistic expressions. There are many artists who see their art as the most honest expressions of their spirituality and faith. Archie Rand, a well-known painter who is known for his paintings on Jewish themes including a series on the weekly Torah portion, sees art and religion as almost inseparable modes of expression. He once wrote in Hadassah magazine: “Belief is an essential component of artistic creation. Sometimes people think that passion, emotion, enthusiasm, subconscious psychological activity can exist totally removed from spirituality. You can’t function as an artist and not have faith.”
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of art to our experience as a spiritual community and we need to remind ourselves that even if we have never picked up a paintbrush, we are all artists. The works that we create–the relationships and the experiences of our lives that we paint on a daily basis are the ways that we make sense of what we see, hear and know in the world. As Jews, we are asked to be artists of interpretation, given the opportunity to take each moment to ask questions, challenge each other and create life anew. This is what the rabbis did when they wrote commentaries on the Torah, and this is what we do when we take on the challenge and joy of making meaning from our traditions and heritage.
Ultimately, Judaism asks us not just to sit back and watch other create, but to be artists ourselves, part of the act of creation, of interpretation and of the search for meaning in our lives. We have to make Judaism our own, and can only do this when we understand the need to use the “palate” of our individual lives, experiences and values to add color and layers to the traditions that are handed down to us. We are continuing the work of creation through all the work we do in the world, but we first have to be present enough to see where the world needs our help. As the poet Marge Piercy writes: “Bless whatever you can, with eyes and hands and tongue. If you can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.” There is a time to be observers, and there is a time to take out our paint brushes and create. May our works of art bring more peace, joy and compassion into the world.
Cuba: Possibilities & Questions
Rabbi Yitzhak, March/April 2013
It’s been over a month since our TBI travelers returned from Cuba. I have since had some occasions to share about the journey with our congregation, but many people have expressed interest in further chances to learn about the mission. As you may know, we traveled to Cuba under a special license for a Jewish Religious and Humanitarian Mission.
Each day we were in Cuba we had opportunities to connect with members of the Cuban Jewish community and learn about their history, their current situation, and to some degree, their hopes and needs. We brought with us a significant supply of medicines that are needed in Cuba as well as some consumable medical supplies, children’s clothing, art supplies, wheelchairs and walkers. These materials were greatly appreciated and many were immediately distributed to people in need.
More than what we gave, I feel certain that we received. It was a great honor to meet with the stalwart and visionary leaders of the Jewish communities of Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santa Clara. Each of these communities has within it extraordinary leaders who have envisioned the possibilities for their struggling communities. They have lived through times of religious repression and have emerged from those times with strength and clarity to build for the present and future. They were, in a word, inspiring.
It was particularly meaningful to visit these individuals and communities during Hanukah. The symbolism of the miraculous oil that lasted beyond any reasonable expectation was paralleled by the human spirit of these Jews. Against all odds they kept their Jewish identity alive and were able to sustain it until a rebirth became possible. That rebirth is now underway.
A bit of history. In 1959 there were perhaps 15,000 Jews in Havana. Within two years almost ninety percent of the Jewish population fled Cuba due to the insecurity brought on by the revolution. Within those two years all of the religious functionaries of the community left for the U.S.A. and the once lively Jewish community had become barren. Its main synagogue developed the tradition of having prayer services with what became known as a “Cuban Minyan” meaning a quorum for prayer services made up of seven or eight people and two or three Torah scrolls. This was the situation for many years until the Joint Distribution Committee started to send teachers from Argentina to help the Jews of Cuba gain knowledge about Judaism and the many traditions that give depth to Jewish identity.
When we attended the Shabbat service at Patronata, the main synagogue in Havana, we were impressed by the large attendance, the skillful prayer service leadership offered by a young man and two young women and, the friendly and familiar atmosphere that we entered.
With all of this said, there was also a much more difficult side to the experience of the journey. There is widespread poverty in Cuba. Many of the ideals that their revolution sought have been attained. There is almost one hundred percent literacy now, universal health care, housing, although terribly run down, for all, and at least subsistence rationed food for all. It was painful also, to be aware that the population in Cuba has no free press, extremely limited access to the internet, a lack of freedom of speech and a denial of many other basic human rights that are needed for the human spirit to flourish.
I realize that I was only in Cuba for eight days and am far from an expert on the subject of Cuba, its human rights, its economy or just about anything else about Cuba. What I do know is that I came away with a deep sense of dissonance and questions about why we as United States citizens are continuing an embargo that must surely make life increasingly difficult for our neighboring Cubans. What are we gaining from adding to their suffering? These disturbing questions require answers. Our policies have real, although perhaps immeasurable impacts. I hope to seek out answers to these unsettling questions. In the meantime I also hope to keep in my memory the beauty that I saw in the faces of the people, the music I heard everywhere, and the great human spirit I witnessed on this journey.
WOW!! This is Big!
Rabbi Yitzhak, May/June 2013
WOW is the acronym for Women of the Wall who have led the Jewish people into a time of transition in our self-understanding as the Jewish People. Let me explain. For decades now the Women of the Wall have been praying each Rosh Hodesh, New Month, at or near the Kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Jerusalem Temple’s courtyard. These women are very knowledgeable and devout Jews. Through these many years they have been determined to assert their right to have access to the holiest prayer site of the Jewish people and to pray in the way they understand as honoring both historically traditional practices as well as their well-grounded understanding of the emergence of modern interpretations of our tradition.
They have been stifled, scorned, and abused over the years by others who do not recognize the legitimacy to their claims and practices. They have been targets of violence, verbal abuse and even arrest for asserting such activities as wearing a tallit, reading from a Torah, or singing aloud within earshot of men. Most recently the women were told that they would not be allowed to say the Mourner’s Kaddish at the area of the Kotel where they have been gathering to pray.
Finally the determination of the Women of the Wall, the outrage of North American Jews, and a growing dismay in Israel has led to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recruiting the highly respected national hero, and current head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, to find a solution to this ongoing and increasingly bitter dispute between Jews at our most sacred site.
Sharansky has just brought forth a proposal after several months of diplomatic shuttling between varying communities and hearing the views of representatives of various streams of Jewish understanding. While the proposal will still need the approval of Netanyahu’s government, it has already gained tentative approval from the Rabbi of the Kotel as well as the Women of the Wall. This in itself is a tremendously hopeful breakthrough toward Shalom Bayit, Peace within the Household of Israel. If approved, a major construction project will be undertaken to create an equally dignified space within an expanded plaza to accommodate expressions of Judaism that are more in line with the sensitivities and thinking of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism. It is time that we as a people acknowledge the full breadth of Jewish religious expression and honor the pluralistic nature of our healthy and vibrant modern Judaism.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to the Women of the Wall who have born the brunt of the painful process that has finally led to this much overdue national discourse. May they be blessed with a deep sense of fulfillment in knowing that they have served as a transformative force for the well-being of the Jewish people. As we celebrate this 65th year of Israel’s existence, may we all gain hope through seeing progress made toward peace within the Household of Israel.
For more on Women of the Wall:
Creating a Congregation of Learners: Introducing the Melton School
Rabbi Boris, July/August 2013
In Judaism, life cannot exist without learning. We mark our days, from the most holy of moments, to the simple pleasures and struggles of daily life with an understanding that study, with all of the insights, challenges and questions that it entails is the glue that brings meaning to our lives. This core part of Jewish tradition, torah lishmah, “learning for the sake of learning,” has kept our communities strong throughout the generations, and has been the constant push to help us fix what is broken in the world.
The blessing said before study says it all: “La’asok b’divrei Torah”. We give thanks for the joy of “busying ourselves with Torah”. When we sit and learn Jewishly, we don’t give thanks for receiving any sort of simple truth, or learning a few important facts, instead we remember that the best learning should take real intellectual and emotional work. Study should challenge us, should bring meaning to our lives and ultimately should even cause us to rethink who we are.
In our community, this kind of deep and meaningful learning should be accessible to everyone. It should be seen as an opportunity for all members of the community, from the children in our Talmud Torah, to active members, to those who rarely step foot inside the walls of our synagogue. Everyone should be able to participate in this powerful part of Jewish life.
In this “Congregation of Learners” everyone is a vital participant in the creation of Jewish life and the community is a place where study becomes something that extends well beyond the walls of the synagogue.
In response to the changing nature of Jewish communities and their relationship with learning and adult education, TBI will be offering a new program starting in the fall, the world-class adult education program, The Melton School. This international network of schools was created over two decades ago to fill the need for quality adult Jewish education, providing a core program of Jewish literacy classes for people of all knowledge levels and backgrounds.
As a model for community learning, Melton has not only created more literate Jews, but also has strengthened synagogue leadership, and has had an impact on all levels of Jewish community life. Since Melton was developed to be non-denominational and pluralistic, participants range from Hebrew School parents who want to join in the commitment to learn along with their children, to community leaders, people interested in conversion, non-Jews interested in learning more about Judaism, and members of the Jewish community who simply want to expand their Jewish literacy. It is not an introduction to Judaism class, instead new learners and more Jewishly-knowledgeable students are able to study together in the unique environment that Melton creates.
The learning in Melton is serious, and there is a commitment to stay part of the program for the two core years, but there are no tests, and participants are invited to do as much “homework” and additional learning as they feel comfortable. I invite everyone to explore what the Melton School has to offer, and to look at more of the details of the program on the TBI website. Simply follow the link on the home page. You can also sign up on our preliminary list and let us know which days and times work best for you.
Torah Lishmah, learning for the sake of learning. It has the power to change our community, and it has the potential to strengthen us all. I look forward to joining you on this journey as we build a congregation of learners!
Rabbi Yitzhak, September/October 2013
On this page, the Rabbinic Transition Committee will post the minutes of our committee meetings as well as resources our committee has consulted about successful rabbinic transition processes. To ask questions, let us know what you think, or get more involved in the rabbinic transition, feel free to reach out to any member of the committee, or to email chair Michael Griffel who can share your message with the rest of the committee (email@example.com).
You can read a review of the early events here.
Committee meeting minutes
Resources on rabbinic transition
94%: What It Means to Be Proud
Rabbi Boris, November December 2013
There has been much talk over the past few weeks about a survey recently conducted by the Pew Research Center on American Jews’ identity, religious practices and beliefs. While there have been many studies in the past including a well-publicized “Jewish Population Survey” in 2000, this most recent one is the largest survey in decades, and some would argue, also the most useful. It says much about the current state of Judaism in America, and brings to light some of what is working in the organized Jewish community and also some of the challenges we will encounter in the years ahead.
It has always been difficult to estimate the number of Jews in America, since Jewish identity means so many things to different people. Nevertheless, the new survey found that there are 6.7 million Jews in America, far more than the 5.2 million found in the last survey.
Another important statistic: while ten years ago 93% of people who were raised Jewish
and identify as Jewish said that their religion was Judaism, today only 78% do.
And this is where things get interesting. The term “religion” for those surveyed, does not seem to be only about theology, God or religious practice. In fact only 39% of people who said Judaism is their religion are sure that God or a “higher power” exists. Yet, these Jews by religion (not necessarily “religious Jews”) believe that Jews “have a special responsibility to care for other Jews” (72%) and give to Jewish organizations (62%), and as expected, more also end up marrying other Jews (64%). In a way, religion seems to signify connection to community, values and tradition, more than specifically a connection to God.
But here’s the most remarkable number of all: 94%. This is the percentage of American Jews who say they are proud to be Jewish.
How can this be? With so many unaffiliated Jews, and a large number with little or no connection to Jewish practices or beliefs, nearly all Jews are proud of their heritage. What has changed over the years are the various ways that people can identify as Jews, and how others relate to the Jewish community. Unlike in the Old Country and even in the early years of Jewish immigration to America, in contemporary America, being Jewish is a choice. People do not need to act or even identify as Jewish. While some stay connected to Jewish life and community, many don’t. But nearly all are proud. Compare this to 1937, when quite the opposite would have been found, when Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote: “The average Jew today is conscious of his Judaism as one is conscious of a diseased organ that gives notice of its existence by causing pain.” Oy, have things changed.
There is a lot that we can take from this survey and there are many challenges that the American Jewish community and TBI need to work on. But it can also give us some hope. What it says to me is that our goal to become a more welcoming, a more diverse and a more creative community — both here at TBI and in the greater Jewish world — is what has allowed such a remarkable number of Jews to be proud of their identity. The more “doorways” we can open into Jewish life, the more ways that we allow people to identify and connect as Jews, then the more people can say “I’m Jewish,” even if each person might have a different reason why.
I am proud of what we have done in our community to be a welcoming and diverse “Center for Jewish Life,” and I also know that we are not alone. There is such an incredible growth and flourishing of Jewish life in America, with a new understanding of spirituality, music, education and Yiddishkeit — Jewish culture and life. So, I think we are all doing something right, and we as a community and a people are in just the place we need to be.
What can we learn from this new survey? Stay proud of the way that you are Jewish or connect to Jewish life, and be proud that there are so many ways to be. Beyond belief, practice, politics, theology and everything else that we could be worried about, this is what will keep Judaism strong long into the future.
Accepting the Darkness
Rabbi Boris, November/December 2012
As the weather cools and we head into our homes for extended periods of time, we often feel a sense of comfort and safety. Separated from the chill outside, we find sanctuary in the coziness of home, and the familiar pleasures of the winter months. Yet this dark season can also be a time of changing moods, of separation, of loneliness and sometimes, painful emotional suffering. For many in our community, it is nearly impossible to feel a sense of safety and comfort. For those who suffer from severe depression and mental illness, the darkness of winter can often hide or bring about some of the most difficult feelings. This is an issue that affects all of us. Yet bringing to light this reality of community life can bring us to a greater understanding of our own sense of self, and lead us to even greater ways of supporting and bringing healing to others in our community.
In the Jewish world, we are open about so much, and can discuss honestly the important health issues which people encounter in their lives and in those of their families and friends. Food and eating issues, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and even death are painful and traumatic issues dealt with by members of our community, and we can talk about them even through the suffering they create in our lives. Yet the shame attached to mental illness, the fear of labeling ourselves or those we care about, often prevents open discussion about this important issue. We Jews love to talk, but we don’t talk enough about the suffering that can be found in the mind.
A quick look at the statistics should help us realize that these issues affect nearly everyone in our community and our society. As Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen writes in his article “Judaism and Mental Illness,” one in four families has someone who has experienced a serious mental illness. One in ten people has suffered from mental illness themselves, most often severe depression. And interestingly, he also points out that unlike the general community, mental illness in Jewish communities seems to be equally spread among both men and women. Mental illness knows no bounds. With this in mind, when we sit at a Shabbat service or chat with people in the hallways of our synagogue, more than likely the person next to us has personal or family experiences with mental illness.
Being affected by mental illness, whether yourself or someone in your family, can be one of the most isolating of experiences. There is such a stigma that we have as a society with mental illness, and there is often shame and fear in discussing it with others. Unlike physical ailments, problems with the mind are still so much less researched and far more mysterious. We are still figuring out not only how to cope with them, but also how to discuss them with others. It is much easier to say a family member is physically sick, then to say that you don’t know what is going on in their mind. Even the Talmud recognized the suffering that many people with mental illness feel, of the sense of being blocked and deeply isolated from others: “All the gates are locked except for the gates of an ona’ah [a person crying out in emotional pain]”
(Baba Metziah 59B).
My sister dealt with mental illness for much of her life. She was diagnosed with manic depression in college and went through years of mania, psychotic episodes and severe depression. Even after intensive therapy and medication, the demons of her mental illness eventually caught up with her and she ended her life right as I was heading off to graduate school. This is an experience that has changed the entire course of my spiritual path, and led me to the choice to help others through the challenges they experience in their lives. Yet I know that my experience is not entirely unique, and I share this familiarity of mental illness in my family with so many others in our community.
The first step in community healing is to recognize that each person we encounter has a story, and most likely a story with some amount of pain. We can understand that we all live with imperfect minds, that we are all broken. Yet when we come together as a community, to both recognize the brokenness in others and also be brave enough to share our own experiences, then we come to a place of true community understanding and connection.
Rabbi James Simon wrote a beautiful blessing that I hope we can all take to heart during these dark winter months:
May we open our ears so that we can hear the pain in the voice of those who are mentally ill. May we open our eyes so that we can see what is going on in front of us and truly see the suffering in the eyes of another. May we open our hands to act on what we see and offer help to those in need. May we open our mouths to respond to the emotional pain in those who suffer, and may we offer healing words of love and comfort.
May this deep recognition bring healing and comfort to all in our community.
Days of Awe
Rabbi Yitzhak & Rabbi Boris, September/October 2012
As summer draws to a close, ripened apples tumble into backyards and our thoughts turn to the changing seasons. We are stirred by the cycles, ever-present, pulsing inside the earth, pulsing inside ourselves. It is a time of shedding layers, of reflecting on the harvest of our year, and of considering the cycle on which we now embark.
At this time of the year, when the new moon of Tishrei awakens as a silver sliver in the sky, we move forward in our annual tradition of communal celebration, inner reflection, prayer and contemplation. It is a time for gratitude and appreciation for what we have accomplished in this past year, a time for embracing the “now” of our current state, a time for visioning our individual and collective future. What will we set our aspirations towards? What is the inner work we must do to improve our family and relationship dynamics, our contributions to our larger community and the world? What will we shape as our collective vision for our congregation’s wellbeing, and how will we focus our collective efforts towards tikkun olam (healing the world)?
There is much work to be done. Our world is calling us into action, but also we must do the individual work of our inner selves, as each of us yearns for healing on many levels.
We invite you all to join us with open hearts, a spirit of reflection and meaningful engagement as we usher in the New Year together. With warmth and kindness, compassion and acceptance, together we will shape a sacred space creating a vessel for experiencing the Days of Awe.
Together we will celebrate the High Holy Days, the Yamim Noraim, as a time for transformation of ourselves, our congregation, our world. We are excited to embark on this next new cycle of our life, and look forward to greeting you with candles and wine, ancient and newly born melodies, and warm hearts.
L’Shana Tova Tikatevu – May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.
Rabbi Yitzhak & Shonna
Rabbi Boris & Sarah
Creating Our “Social Network”
Rabbi Boris, July/August 2012
In an experience only available to us in this day of Facebook and Twitter, I recently stopped by another small synagogue called Temple Beth Israel for a brief gathering before Shabbat, joined by people from over 15 different countries, all of whom I had never met before. Even though it was hours away from the start of Shabbat in Oregon, one could look around and see the flickering candles which had already been lit by others, marking the entrance of Shabbat in other communities around the world. In an adjoining room, a Torah study class had recently been completed, and in the courtyard, in the past week, a Jewish rock band had played. Standing next to me was a Hasidic Jew and a tall woman with jeans and a rainbow kippah, and right outside the doorway of the synagogue was – Jerusalem.
This odd and surprisingly powerful community exists only in a virtual world called Second Life, and since it was “founded” in 2006, the community has grown to hundreds of members and visitors who stop by for religious services, learning groups and social gatherings. While this community may seem like a laughable invention of the internet age, its diversity and ability to provide access to very real-life learning and connection is actually a fascinating and important model for the changes taking place in the Jewish world and in our very own community. Admittedly, Second Life did not keep my attention for more than a few visits, but for many, this “second life” is an important part of their Jewish life, and provides a very real way to connect with Jewish learning, with Jewish practice and with each other.
We are all part of different communities in our lives, and for many of us the way we stay connected to these communities is not always through face to face contact. Email accounts are now as common as phone numbers, and Facebook has become a popular meeting place to share updates of our lives with those near to us, and those both physically and emotionally farther away. In the past, Jewish communities by necessity were much more connected, and when there was a lifecycle celebration, a death, or any important moment in the community, word of mouth and maybe a poster or two was enough to bring in the crowds. Jewish people stayed connected, not only because everyone lived closer together, but because synagogue life for many was the true center of life.
The TBI community is blessed to be a place where spiritual and social connection and learning happen on all levels of congregational life. Yet we can always do more to provide ways for people to connect with each other and create a community which brings the joy of Jewish life into our homes and into the “rest” of our selves; our interests, daily needs and challenges. Technology and social networking can serve as a starting point.
Over the next few months we will be introducing the new TBI website which will be more accessible and easy to use, with more dynamic content including photo galleries, interest and support groups, videos, blogs, classified ads to share skills and “goods and services,” Facebook-style social networking and in the near future, even podcasting and live streaming of services and community events. The goal is to make everyone in the TBI community find more ways to connect and learn from each other and gain meaning from Jewish tradition, to find more “doorways” to living and celebrating Jewishly. Of course, we hope that the groups and relationships that can be strengthened on the web will serve as a catalyst for real-world connections and action, but it will also allow those who are not physically able to be part of the TBI family and not lose the connection.
One example of this opportunity to remain connected to the TBI community is Kesher (“connection”) a new initiative of TBI to allow those people who have left the area, such as college students and former members, to stay connected with the TBI family. While the details of Kesher are still being worked out, its “home” will be on the TBI website, as a place to share memories, update each other on life cycle events, all while staying informed of current happenings at TBI. If we are truly building a dynamic and life-changing community, then these connections should not end when someone leaves Eugene.
Hillel’s famous advice “Do not separate yourself from the community” is not simply a reminder of our obligation to others, but it is also a call to bring our community into all parts of our lives, to know that true community means to search for and gain strength from all the connections we make with others. Jewish community is prayer and religion, but it is also everything else that’s important in our lives. The more we can do to make Judaism both a lived faith and a true “social network” of support, friendships and action, the more meaningful Judaism will be for all of us.
Rabbi Yitzhak, May/June 2012
Many of us think of ourselves as spiritual rather than religious people. There is something difficult in the word religion that many struggle with. Perhaps there is a sense of confinement and restriction, limitations and obligations. I’m really not sure what it is that is so bothersome about the word “religion.” Perhaps it’s because so much destruction has been caused in religion’s name. It’s something I wonder about. In contrast the same people may very well feel quite good about recognizing themselves as “spiritual” while not “religious.” This word somehow implies openness and freedom, something much lighter and more natural and easier to carry. It connotes something more accessible and certainly no less valuable than being religious.
Religion seems a bit stuffy, stiff, even museum-like as opposed to having the vitality of a flowing spirituality.
I remember in the sixties how so many young adult Jews were seeking and finding a spiritual life in Eastern religions. They found little spirituality in their inherited Jewish tradition and yet had a profound yearning for a life in which their spirituality could be lived fully. The Jewish thing was too cumbersome and loaded up with Jewish American cultural complexities that did not appeal to the spiritual seekers of the time. “Jewish religion” seemed to require learning a difficult foreign language in order to pray, and prayer itself was so formalized and formulated that it had little or no meaning for most American Jews. These Jews had no real sense of the history of the development of those prayers or any other personal framework with which to embrace their inherited religion. It was a pretty hard sell to get the attention and commitment of those young spiritually hungry folks. Obscure Jewish traditions were not selling well and anyway, who needed the dangers of anti-Semitism as an add-on? It made a lot of sense to go seeking in the worlds of Sufism, Sikhism, Transcendental Meditation, Yoga and so forth. This was soul food without all of the difficult to manage baggage. As the well-known spiritual teacher Ram Das, Richard Alpert, once famously said, “I’m Jewish on my parent’s side of the family.” He spoke well as an exemplar of that generation. These seekers sought and they found.
After those years of exploration many have come back with a deep awareness of the richness of having a spiritual practice. With freshened eyes some have discovered the spiritual practices so rich and ubiquitous in their inherited Jewish traditions. If you scratch a little bit beneath the surface of many of our leading contemporary rabbis, you will find seasoned practitioners of yoga, meditation and other practices they found on their journeys. Many have integrated the lessons learned through that period of intense spiritual focus and have enriched their Jewish lives and understanding, gaining sincere and insightful appreciation for Jewish practices through perspectives learned elsewhere.
Do we have “spiritual practice” in Judaism? Yes.
Let me give a couple examples of Jewish spiritual practices drawing a bit from my own life experience. I remember as a young child being taught about the tradition to immediately upon awakening into the morning say, or actually sing, a sweet little melody with the words beginning, “I give thanks…modeh ani”
WOW! What a great way to enter each new day. What a simple yet powerful practice. That practice can be a mood shaper for the morning and in the long run, perhaps influence character development toward the cultivation of a deep sense of gratitude. This simple, yet wonderfully precious practice could easily be lost if we did not see it for its simple and beautiful essence. It could be overlooked in the immensity of our tradition, or disregarded because of the Hebrew barrier, or the general “too muchness” of our ancient tradition. We can miss the opportunity to experience the countless Jewish spiritual practices that are or can be made accessible. This simple practice is about the wonderful human capacity to turn our hearts toward gratitude as a first thought for the day and to cultivate a sense that our individual life can address the All of Life with a sense of connection and appreciation.
I love that we have that tradition in our treasure box of spiritual practices. How about this one: Stopping and pausing for a few seconds before munching on a snack or partaking in a meal. Pause and be present to consider what it is that is resting on the plate before you. It is life itself that has grown in the fields, in the orchards, perhaps been on a long journey in the sea before arriving through many human efforts to come before you as nourishment. Our tradition offers a spiritual practice to pause and acknowledge this wonderful moment of anticipation of nourishment. We bless the mystery of life that sustains us through these wonderful ways. We remember the trees, the field, and the water and all the ways that life has brought us this nourishment. We may take only a brief moment to reflect on this awareness as we say a short blessing perhaps in Hebrew, or in English. Consider the worth of a spiritual practice that cultivates our personal connection and dependence on the vitality of life in all of its forms as they support and sustain our own life. We dwell for a moment in a sense of awe at the mystery of life. We are part of a great oneness, and it is that awareness which our tradition nurtures in us. If we are not comfortable with the Hebrew, don’t let it be a barrier to the experience of uttering a blessing. The essence of blessing is completely accessible and available for our frequent use in developing a spiritual practice that can elevate our sense of the value and meaning of our lives and the All of Life.
A Place of Belonging
Rabbi Boris, March/April 2012
It has been said before that the diversity of our community is one of its greatest blessings. Within the walls of this synagogue, there are people with a range of religious beliefs, family backgrounds, life experiences and political views. As a liberal Reconstructionist congregation, this diversity is part of what makes our community work, as we are constantly teaching and learning from each other’s differences. Yet the diversity of our community is also in how we connect with our tradition, in the “doorways” that we enter into to our Jewish world, and how we choose to join ourselves to the continuity of Jewish life. There are many ways to do this. In fact, a core value of Reconstructionism is that Judaism is an “evolving religious civilization” made up of all aspects of a culture; not only prayer and religious ritual, but also arts and music, food, learning and study, and social action. In a civilization, there is a place for everybody.
These experiences of Judaism are not just peripheral aspects of being Jewish, but are essential to living a spiritual life. For some, this spirituality may come from the joy of prayer and song during our music filled Friday night services. For others, spiritual moments can be found in intellectual discourse, on the trail observing the natural world, or while working with others on a volunteer or social action project. There are even some who most connect to religious and spiritual life by being iconoclasts, who hold on to Jewish tradition and to God by “smashing the idols” of religious hypocrisy to search for more meaning in Jewish life. These different ways of connecting may seem like an obvious part of being in a Jewish community, yet recognizing all of them as authentic and meaningful spiritual paths can be a constant reminder that there is a place for each of us in the growing TBI family.
Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement said, “One cannot be a Jew without actively belonging to the Jewish people.” I hope that people walk into TBI with the understanding that while this is a community of faith, it is most importantly a community of belonging. I am endlessly proud of our welcoming and diverse community, yet I also know that we should be constantly striving to make sure that each person can connect with this community in a way that reaches to the core of his or her unique identities and interests. From support groups and play groups, to knitting circles and informal sports teams, we can make sure that everyone finds a place here that fits. We are excited to be adding some new programs and more opportunities for connecting informally with other people in our congregation the next few months: Shabbat potlucks, family programs such as Havdalah & a Movie nights, and activities utilizing the blessings of our wonderful city and natural areas including ongoing Holy Hikes and Shabbat in the Park during the summer. Each of us can feel that we belong here, not just as members or participants in services or programs, but as builders of the community, not just as observers, but as a vital part of the story of this community, and of the Jewish people.
As Harold Kushner puts it well, echoing the words of Kaplan: “Judaism is less about believing and more about belonging. It is less about what we owe God and more about what we owe each other.” Let’s continue to make TBI a community where we can all find our place, where we can all belong.
Serving the Needs of the Community
Rabbi Yitzhak, January/February 2012
In recent years it has become the custom at TBI to begin committee, staff and board meetings with a blessing, “Blessed is the Eternal One our G-d sovereign of all, who sanctifies us through the mitzvot and has given us the mitzvah to serve the needs of the community.” After the prayer is spoken and a sense of higher purpose has been invoked, the participants turn to the hard work of addressing the various needs of our community.
Whether the blessing is uttered at the beginning of a meeting of the Tzedakah V’Chesed committee, concerned with responding to the needs of those who have fallen upon difficult times, or to open a meeting of the office staff that seeks to operate as an efficient and effective team at the core of daily operations, or at the start of a meeting of the Board of Trustees, our volunteer leaders charged with oversight for the entire organization, holding a vision for our community, supporting our programs and carrying the responsibility for our fiscal well-being, the blessing is spoken with sincerity, and calls us all to work together with a sense of high and sacred purpose. We are fortunate to have our lives enriched by these opportunities to serve.
Even though there is great personal reward for participating so actively as volunteers, I am often concerned for those who have stepped forward to carry so much responsibility for our communal well- being. I know that they find meaning and fulfillment through much that they do, and the doing of a mitzvah is its own reward. At the same time, I see their need for much broader communal support and participation in carrying the load. It has been of particular concern to see their stress and strain as they put forth a great effort to put our financial house in order so that we can meet our needs and continue to thrive as we have so beautifully over the years. I am moved as I witness the dedication of these volunteers who have demanding jobs and family responsibilities as well their volunteer activities at TBI. Yet somehow, they find the time to contribute their energy to building and maintaining our sacred community.
Their service is a remarkable and generous gift from the heart. I urge you to be generously responsive in every way to their requests for your participation and invitations to support the community through giving your time and your financial resources when called upon. Better yet, don’t wait to be called upon. Step forward and call our board and staff leadership and make known your willingness to do what you can to build this community.
It is essential that we all understand that no one will build our community beside us – all of us together with the help of G-d. It is an error in thinking to consider membership in a sacred community as no more than a purchase of services. Sacred communities are built upon a covenantal sense of shared responsibility for shared values and not on a sense of a fee-for-services type of relationship. We have many challenges to meet and they are well worth meeting. Together we have created a very beautiful and vibrant community and together we must continue to care for its well-being and flourishing. May we each enjoy the sweet joy that comes from fulfilling the mitzvah, La-asok B’tzorchei Tzibbur, to serve the needs of our community.
Return to the Home of your Soul
Rabbi Yitzhak, September/October 2011
“Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul.” The words to this song written by Reb Shlomo Carlebach z’tzl, beautifully describe the essence of teshuvah, the spiritual work that Jewish tradition calls us to engage in during this elevated season of the yearly cycle.
The month of Elul, which we have just entered, is understood to be an auspicious time for accomplishing the personal growth, change and healing needed to improve our lives. This month which immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time dedicated to making a personal inventory of our thoughts, feelings, and actions and reviewing the possibilities for self-improvement, turning toward our highest potential.
This month, in a series of Sunday afternoon classes, Rabbi Boris and I will offer guidance and resources for the process of engaging in the work of teshuvah in our class, Preparing the Heart for the High Holy Days. I am looking forward to this course for a number of reasons including the opportunity to work closely with Rabbi Boris in preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe.
Soon we will be gathering as a community to celebrate the renewal that is experienced during the Days of Awe. The month of Elul grants us the time to prepare ourselves and do the essential work of teshuvah. This involves rectifying and resolving difficulties and dissonances in our inter-personal relationships as well as our more inward personal relationship with The One Who Gives Us Life. The degree to which we each attune ourselves to the purpose and possibilities of this season, will significantly impact the quality of what we are able to experience together during these High Holy Days. Just as the quality of an orchestra’s music is determined by the sum total of effort of all of the individual musicians, so it is with a community in prayer seeking to be a Kehilat Kodesh, a holy community. Let us each do what we can to prepare ourselves for the deep spiritual work ahead for our community and the Household of Israel as we seek to elevate our lives through the process of teshuvah.
I wish you all a season of joyful growth, trusting in the human capacity to grow and change and trusting that as we do our work Hashem will bless our efforts to return to the home of our souls.
Shana Tova Umetuka, May you be blessed with a Sweet New Year.
A Time to be Thankful
Rabbi Boris, November/December 2011
As we settle in to the months after the High Holy Days, we have some time to reflect on what we have gained from this holy season. We have moved from the sweetness of the New Year, to the introspection of Yom Kippur, and had some time to harvest the spiritual fruits of the High Holy Days through the experience of Sukkot. And then we make it to November.
November is often a quiet month. This year, in the Jewish calendar, it is divided between two months – a large piece of Heshvan, a month with no holidays, and Kislev, the month of Chanukah. But of course, the month also brings us the American holiday of Thanksgiving. It is the one day that is celebrated by Americans regardless of religion or cultural background, and as people in the Jewish community, come Thanksgiving Thursday, many of us will take the opportunity to enjoy a festive meal with family and friends.
Today Jews from all denominations celebrate Thanksgiving, but for many years there was a hint of controversy in the Jewish community about whether Jews should be celebrating such a day. In some communities, it was believed that Jews should not participate in “idolatrous” practices done by non-Jews, and therefore, they could not participate in a non-Jewish religious celebration. But was Thanksgiving a religious holiday? Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a preeminent Torah scholar wrote a responsa, a commentary, in the 1950s stating his belief that the holiday was not a religious one. Instead, the issue was that we should make sure not to make it a mitzvah, a commandant, to celebrate it on a yearly basis. According to Feinstein, Jews can have a turkey (or a tofu one), but no one should ever say that they are required to! Other scholars agreed that Thanksgiving was not a religious holiday and could be freely celebrated by Jews. Soon Jews from all across the religious spectrum were celebrating the holiday, safe in the knowledge that sitting down to the holiday meal was permissible according to Jewish law.
But of course, not all of us need the reminder of Jewish law to understand why Thanksgiving can be such a holy day. While it is true that Thanksgiving was historically and remains a non-religious holiday, in many ways, it is at its source a very Jewish day. It is a day about blessing. It is day when we are reminded of the things and the people whom we are thankful for. We give thanks for good food, health and community, but unlike our usual Jewish holidays, we don’t do this through prayer or even by going to a synagogue. Instead, we simply sit, eat, shmooze and enjoy being together. On Thanksgiving we celebrate the bonds of family and community, but also the blessing of living in the patchwork quilt of America.
As Thanksgiving approaches, may the blessings of community that we share with all people bring us joy as we make our way into the cold winter months.
Appreciating Blessings at a Time of Change
Rabbi Maurice, May/June 2011
As I write this, I find myself at a loss for words. After the long rains of winter, spring has finally arrived, and with it I have entered the home stretch of my tenure as one of TBI’s rabbis.
I find myself noticing and appreciating things at TBI with the heightened awareness of one who knows that soon I won’t be experiencing these moments, at least not in the same role. Sometimes this happens while we’re singing one of our beautiful songs in strong voice together during a Friday night service. Or as we celebrate each major holiday. Or when I’m giving a blessing from the heart to one of our b’nai mitzvah students. These days I often find myself looking at the faces of members of our congregation with an added sense of awe at the goodness and inner beauty that I see shining out from the people who form the web of community that makes TBI special.
I am bracing for the grief I know I will feel in letting go of my role as one of TBI’s rabbis, and at the same time I’m excited for the many good things that I sense are coming with this transition. I’m excited about Rabbi Boris Dolin – about what I’ve heard about him from colleagues and from people in our community who’ve met him, and about the chance I and my kids will get to learn from him in the years ahead. I’m looking forward to the chance to be a more present father to my kids, and the chance to spend more time writing, teaching at the university, and working on other projects. Perhaps most of all, I’m excited that our family will get to continue to make our home in Eugene, and part of that feeling stems from our love of TBI. When Melissa and I were making up our minds about whether to take the job I’ve held for the past 8 years, one of the things we realized was that if I hadn’t become a rabbi and we had moved to Eugene for other reasons, TBI was a congregation we would have joined in a heartbeat.
So let me close by reflecting back to you some of the things I cherish about our congregation. I love TBI’s mix of different approaches to Judaism. Granted, even as an eclectic congregation we are clearly located somewhere on the liberal end of the spectrum of Judaism. Within our tent one finds fantastic influences from different streams of Judaism: uplifting music and joyful prayer; studious rigor and discussion; passion for social justice and inclusivity; a love of Israel that’s capable of handling mature discussions about peace and justice in the region; and a commitment to environmental responsibility. Our Senior Rabbi is a diamond and our Board is hard working, constructive, and highly functional (not to be taken for granted!). Our facilities are beautiful and practical. Our staff gets along well and continually turns straw into gold. This is a beautiful community, one worth supporting and strengthening into the future. It was so before I had the good fortune to join it as a rabbi, and it will continue to be after I become a congregant. May we go from strength to strength!
Rabbi Yitzhak, March/April 2011
Our world and our lives are constantly transforming, constantly changing. The current political upheaval in Egypt and the broader Middle East shows how dramatically within a short time, a nation and an entire region of the world can transform.
We are constantly witnesses and participants in the ongoing process of responding to and creating newly emerging realities. While change occurs on a grand and global scale, the changes in our lives generally requiring our greatest share of attention often take place within the more intimate sphere of family and community.
Our TBI community is now in a dynamic process of significant change. On a personal level, I am experiencing many deep and mixed emotions as my dear friend and colleague for the past seven years, Rabbi Maurice, will soon be leaving his rabbinic post at TBI. Accompanied by our heartfelt love and blessings, Rabbi Maurice will be moving forward on his life path together with his and our beloved Melissa and their children, Clarice and Hunter. While I will greatly miss the joy and fulfillment of working with Rabbi Maurice, I am consoled by the fact that this precious family will continue to be members within our congregation. I know that I speak for our entire community in saying, “May they be blessed for all of the depth of goodness that they have brought to our congregation and community over these past seven years and may they continue to thrive in good health with abundant blessings, fulfilling the goodness of the yearnings of their hearts.”
While moving through this threshold of change, our congregation is also engaged in the process of seeking to hire an Associate Rabbi to join our staff. We will continue to cultivate a strong and vital program that builds upon the progress made in past years. Naturally, we are hopeful as we meet with the fine candidates who have applied for this position.
Times of significant change and transition can be challenging. Our tradition recognizes the unique challenge of change and transitions through a simple, widely practiced tradition. The placement of a mezuzah on our doorpost, our point of transition, is a reminder to cultivate our faith in an overriding Unity even as we move across thresholds of change. We can too easily forget our faith during points of challenging life transitions and become susceptible to feelings of fragmentation. The Sh’ma, Judaism’s central declaration of faith in a Unity of All, is placed within the mezuzah to serve as a reminder as we move from one place to another, from one stage of life to another. The word mezuzah is derived from the root word zuz – move. Life is a constant unfolding, an endless flow of movement and change. Our spiritual task is to remember our faith in the Unity of All. In doing so, we can greet the flow of life’s changes with a quiet inward and even sweetly joyful faith.
TBI: It Matters
Rabbi Maurice, January/February 2011
As I enter my final seven months as a TBI rabbi, I’ve been paying close attention to all that we do as a synagogue and a center for Jewish life. The sheer amount of activity is mind-boggling, and the quality of so much of it is inspiring. Do you know all that goes on in your Jewish community?
Let me offer a snapshot of just some of it. Since the High Holy Days, we’ve celebrated b’nai mitzvahs, worked with people considering becoming Jews-by-choice, officiated weddings and funerals, and sat shiva with mourners. Our Talmud Torah teachers have worked with our 137 students, engaging them in prayers, Torah, discussions, artwork, and field trips. Our Talmud Torah principal traveled to a Springfield school and a home school center to educate about Judaism.
Our rabbis, lay leaders, and musicians created warm and inspired Shabbat services. Our Sisterhood hosted Sunday Cafés that have drawn dozens of Talmud Torah parents and guests into the building during religious school hours. Families filled our Sukkah to the brim as we celebrated the holiday (with heaps of ice cream). We reached out to new and potential members with lunch in the Sukkah and a brunch.
There’s more. TBI participated in the Global Day of Jewish Learning, which drew over 100 participants into a day of study taking place simultaneously in over 400 locations worldwide. Sister Helen Prejean (author of Dead Man Walking) led an interfaith discussion on religion and the death penalty. As part of an interfaith community effort at improving inter-religious dialogue, Imam Khalid Al-Fallatah gave a presentation on Islam, and Rabbi Yitzhak introduced a dozen UO students from the Persian Gulf region to our Torah scrolls, providing them with what may have been their first experience in a synagogue.
Jewish art exhibits graced our walls – first Phil Decker’s photographic study of the Lower East Side of New York City, followed by the stunning prints by Shrage Weil. Adults came to TBI to learn: Saturday morning Torah study ran strong. People learned Talmud, studied Jewish prayer and spirituality, and participated in Martha Ravits’s monthly Jewish book group. We hosted a presentation on Jews in Italian Renaissance Art, and we screened numerous films.
Volunteers visited the sick and distributed aid to individuals in acute need. We held Senior Brunches in our social hall. Rabbi Yitzhak and Shonna began preparing for a spring TBI Israel trip with over 30 participants. We supported teens seeking to study in Israel, and we responded to the Carmel region fires. Meanwhile, our Board worked hard to plan a way for us to meet the challenge of paying off our wonderful building, and began the search process for a new rabbi too.
So much activity, so much life. TBI. It matters.
When Do We Choose Life?
Rabbi Yitzhak, November/December 2010
The whole world watched closely the stunning rescue of thirty three miners in Chile as they each emerged from the depths into the embrace of family and friends and their anxiously waiting community. The task was not complete and the world would not fully breathe freely until every precious individual had safely surfaced.
How rare it is that the world pauses to consider and to feel the significance and value of individual lives. We have become so used to daily reports of bombings and bloodshed through wars that our sensitivity to the preciousness of a single life can be lost.
How stunning it was to witness the mobilization of resources from around the world all focused toward saving these thirty three miners. What a strange dissonance results when considering the simultaneous massive focus of minds and resources toward the destruction of countless lives in the wars that continue to rage in our world.
The rescue of those thirty three miners was a powerful reminder that we humans continue to have an innate compassion and desire to affirm the value of life even though many of our societal choices appear to deny that elevated aspect of our nature.
Further bringing these questions to the foreground of my mind was the remarkable visit to TBI by the Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Sister Helen Prejean. As she shared her thoughts and led a discussion about the death penalty, she explored the connection between spirituality and social justice.
Sister Helen is the author of Dead Man Walking, the well-known book made into an Academy Award winning movie. She is a passionate force calling for the abolition of the death penalty. This down-to-earth dynamo told her own story of awakening to the injustice and cruelty of capital punishment as she personally witnessed and extensively studied the usage of capital punishment in our country.
Sister Helen inquired about Judaism’s views on capital punishment and Rabbi Maurice and I shared some of the teachings from our tradition. In our primary text, the Torah, capital punishment is designated as the punishment for many crimes. However, through our oral tradition, the rabbis have essentially eliminated it from usage by creating extraordinary standards of evidence, not even accepting a confession, and numerous other limitations. Essentially Judaism acknowledges the natural anger and moral outrage resulting from a capital offense. It also greatly legislates against its usage, yet it remains in the law as a powerful symbolic statement of moral outrage, not as an available recourse. The concern that one innocent person’s life might be taken through human error is addressed by a powerful statement made by the great scholar Maimonides, “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”
Today there is significant danger that innocent people will be executed because of errors or even patterns of racism found in the criminal justice system. As of May 2009, 133 people in 26 states have been released from death row since 1973 after evidence of their innocence emerged. Many of these cases were discovered not because of the normal appeals process, but rather as a result of new scientific techniques, investigations by journalists, and the dedicated work of expert attorneys.
I intend to continue learning and examining this important issue that helps to remind us of the value of life, even as the world continues to be filled with life denying forces. It is ours to resist that denial and to affirm, however and whenever we can, the biblical imperative, “Choose Life.”
The Mitzvah of Being Happy
Rabbi Maurice, September/October 2010
This time of year when the High Holy Days return, Judaism prods us to engage in an all-systems self-assessment. The theme ofteshuvah (repentance, or return to living in harmony with the Divine) dominates. The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur repeatedly draw us into moral and spiritual self-examination. And yet, during this season the tradition invites us to make some time to examine ourselves in every way – not only in terms of our righteousness. The invitation is to look at all of our habits and patterns: our health, our work life, our family life, our friendships, and perhaps most importantly, our happiness.
Yes – our happiness. Reb Nachman of Bratslav, the great Hasidic master, taught that it is a mitzvah – a sacred obligation – to be happy. This philosophy is based on a trust that authentic happiness only can take root when a person is living in harmony with the Divine will. And what is the Divine will? I like the prophet Micah’s response to that question. “…what does God require of you? Simply to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
This passage from Micah is usually read as a summary of one’s moral obligations in this world. But what if it’s actually a simple formula for becoming happy? The duty to seek one’s own happiness is not an argument for selfishness – rather, it’s a proclamation that God wants us to be happy, and that real happiness won’t come from cruelty, selfishness, injustice, arrogance or materialism.
In order to be happy – really happy – one of the first things we have to do is be honest with ourselves. It’s hard to find happiness if we’re denying something important, or avoiding something we need to face, or pretending to ourselves about something. We need some measure of serenity to find happiness, and we can’t have serenity if we can’t look at ourselves truthfully. Once we are truthful with ourselves about the patterns in our lives that are causing us distress, we can begin the holy work of seeking true happiness. Our tradition teaches that we can call out to God – however we might conceive of God – and ask for help discerning what steps we need to take on that path towards greater harmony and serenity.
Although Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come to us in an air of seriousness and sobriety, they are quickly followed by Sukkot, a holiday in which God commands us to be ach sameach – deeply happy! The payoff from the deep self-assessment that culminates in Yom Kippur is the inner peace and joy of Sukkot. May we be blessed with the courage to seek happiness.
Sharing Our Spiritual Journeys
Rabbi Yitzhak, July/August 2010
This is my first opportunity to write a newsletter article since Shonna and I returned from spending nearly six weeks living in Jerusalem. I look forward to sharing with you about our journey during the High Holy Days as our time in Israel had a profound impact on our lives. While tempted to write about our journey, I will focus instead on some thoughts and experiences I’ve had since returning from our travels.
I returned to TBI the day of our annual auction; I was touched by the realization of how glad I was to see the wonderful people I work with and a vibrant gathering of so many TBI members. My eyes were refreshed by the time away and I viewed with new perspective the vitality and goodness of life at TBI.
More recently, our community shared with four very devoted members of our congregation as they celebrated their adult B’nai Mitzvah. After two years of focused learning Nina Korican, Nathan Philips, Lucy Zammarelli and Patti Zembrosky-Barkin shared in leading a Shabbat morning service, reading from the Torah, and offering us glimpses into the richness of their individual spiritual journeys that led to their joining together in this special rite of passage. The enthusiasm and joy felt in our sanctuary and social hall were palpable. Family members came from great distances to join in this precious occasion and there were many moments during the service that caused the near depletion of our Kleenex supply.
After the service, I was approached by nearly a dozen members who wanted to sign on to have an adult B’nai Mitzvah. I also heard that some folks were already teaming up with friends to share in the process of learning and to follow the model established by our quartet of celebrants. Conversations flowed about how inspiring it was to hear about the life journeys that their friends had traveled. How rare it is to learn something about the inner depth of life experiences that have brought each of us to share life at TBI. How rare it is for any of us to consider our own spiritual autobiography let alone to share its outline in community.
Along with Rabbi Maurice, Nina and others, I am hoping to find ways to cultivate an environment at TBI in which we have opportunities to enrich our relationships by learning more deeply about each others lives. As well as formulating a program for adult B’nai Mitzvah, we are also hoping to introduce a Friday evening speaker’s series, borrowing its name from a program at Havurah Shalom in Portland called “This Jewish American Life.” The series will feature members of our congregation sharing their spiritual autobiographies and giving all of us a chance to marvel at the Mystery unfolding in each of our lives.
As we live the day to day of our lives, we can so easily forget the wonder of it all. What were the critical turning points and insights that brought us to where we are on our journeys? Is there some valuable wisdom gained along the way that may be of help to others?
While a congregation is an organization, it is in its deeper essence a community of people, a gathering of life stories. The way we value the community very much depends on the degree to which we know and value one another and the stories that are our lives.
Women of the Wall
Rabbi Maurice, May/June 2010
In December 1988, a group of Jewish women prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Calling themselves Women of the Wall (WOW), they gathered at the women’s section of the Wall, took out a Torah scroll, and chanted from it.
As Dr. Phyllis Chesler described it, “The participants came from Israel, the United States, Europe, South America, and Australia; represented every religious denomination of Jewry … and every political persuasion… Some of us donned tallesim (prayer shawls) and head coverings, many of us did not. We were radiant, overwhelmed, humbled, united.”
Many in the ultra-Orthodox community have objections to women chanting from the Torah, and over the 22 years that WOW have come to the Wall to worship and chant Torah, people have cursed at them and thrown trash and even chairs at them. Today, former Jerusalem City Councilwoman, Anat Hoffman, heads WOW, and the group continues to express its love of Torah at monthly Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) celebrations, with prayer and Torah readings, at the Wall.
Today in Israel there is a conflict raging between ultra-Orthodox groups on the one side, and a coalition of non-Orthodox religious Jews and secular Jews on the other. The ultra-Orthodox groups have been seeking to expand their control over more aspects of ordinary Israelis’ lives. For example, Jerusalem city busses in certain areas now have gender-segregated seating, despite Israeli laws forbidding the practice. Conversions to Judaism by Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and other rabbis are still not performed in Israel, nor can any of those rabbis perform weddings that are state recognized. More than half in my rabbinic graduating class were women, yet in Israel none of them would be allowed to officiate at a Jewish funeral.
And yet, Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that Israel “will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience” for all its citizens. The more Israel allows a narrow segment of the spectrum of Jewish religious expression to dominate and define what constitutes “official” or “legitimate” Judaism, the more young American Jews will find Israel to be out of touch with their own Jewish modes of expression. Israel needs strong support from the Jewish Diaspora, and Diaspora Jews are overwhelmingly identified with non-Orthodox movements. Alienating them is a mistake.
Please join me in supporting Israeli groups that advocate for Israel to honor its Declaration of Independence and properly recognize all the movements of Judaism as equals. One such group, Hiddush, is online at hiddush.org. You can also support the courageous Women of the Wall by visiting the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) at irac.org. As we approach Shavuot, celebrating the giving of Torah, let us stand with those Israelis who stand for the freedom to express their Judaism − their love of Torah − in an atmosphere of pluralism and mutual respect among the Jewish movements. Let us stand with the Women of the Wall.
Let There Be Peace
Rabbi Yitzhak, January/February 2010
This past month I have found myself called upon to assist with sorting through an extraordinary number of interpersonal conflicts. I have come to see in each of these situations how good hearted people can arrive at points of conflict due to a lack of understanding of the highly nuanced perspective or experiences of others.
Tradition teaches that we all have within our lives a world of thought, a world of speech. In the world of our thoughts we can create narratives about others that are incorrect. Often we build our world of thought based on false assumptions. We may at times even attribute motives for the behaviors of others. From this powerful incubator, the world of our thoughts, we give birth to words. It is at that point of transition from thought to speech that we are guided by our tradition to be exceedingly careful.
Words are seen as building blocks or elements of reality. They become established in the world and take on a power of their own. “Word” in Hebrew is “davar,” which also means a material “thing,” a reality. Just asHashem created the world through speech – “Let there be… and there was…,” so it is with our capacity to speak. Words are powerful creative forces that have the capacity to bring more truth, clarity, and understanding into the world, or to add to the confusion and dissonance of life.
When we choose to move our thoughts into the realm of speech, we have an obligation to utilize our speech as a tool of inquiry to test out the accuracy of our thoughts. This is best done by speaking to the person with whom we are in conflict. Repeatedly in my recent experiences I have witnessed the capacity for honestly spoken words to clarify confusion and to bring people closer to one another, increasing understanding and shalom.
Through these recent experiences, that have literally filled my days, and at times nights, I have had the opportunity to witness and to participate in processes that elevated relationships rather than diminished them, giving honor to people rather than disgrace, creating harmony where there has been painful dissonance.
I urge us all to be mindful of the worlds of thought and speech within us. To ask ourselves if our thoughts are correct or if they may have a measure of assumption and the possibility of distortion within them. I want to urge us all to be willing to address our words as directly as possible to those with whom we may feel conflict and to speak them with a healthy measure of humility, recognizing that we do not yet know the response we will hear. We may learn something surprisingly new and significant, giving us a deeper understanding, dissolving incorrect assumptions and bringing about a sense of shalom. This guidance from Jewish tradition will help us to create together a Kehilat Kodesh, a highly conscious community.
The Heart of Israel
Rabbi Maurice, March/April 2010
When the January Haitian earthquake struck, the Israeli government quickly dispatched a critical relief team to help. People all over the world were in awe of the skill, compassion, and expertise that the Israelis provided. By many news accounts, the Israelis were the fastest to get organized upon arriving into the chaos. Israel sent over 220 people, including search and rescue units, EMTs, medical personnel, police, social workers and therapists.
They speedily set up a first class field hospital capable of treating 500 patients a day. Rescue crews pulled Haitians from collapsed buildings while Israeli doctors treated wounds and delivered babies. Ultra-Orthodox volunteers with ZAKA, an organization known for searching for body parts following terrorist attacks within Israel, went to Haiti and worked straight through the Sabbath because it is a mitzvah to violate the rules of Shabbat if doing so will save human life. At the time of this writing, Israeli cabinet ministers were considering inviting Haitian orphans to be eligible for adoption by Israeli families. This skillful compassion in the midst of crisis is something Israelis are great at, and it is a side of Israel that isn’t often seen in mainstream media.
In the days that followed this expression of compassion, the cynical (and typical) propaganda politics of the Middle East emerged. Israel-haters floated meshuggah conspiracy theories, including one extremist Islamic group that warned that Israeli teams had gone to Haiti in order to harvest human organs for Jewish use (!). Others accused Israel of responding solely out of a desire to gain good international press. Meanwhile, some in the pro-Israel camp forwarded emails trying to score political points by claiming that Israel had stepped up for Haiti, but the Arab/Muslim world had done little by comparison. (The truth is that Saudi Arabia made the largest financial aid gift of all Middle Eastern states, $50 million, and countries like Jordan quickly dispatched a field hospital and six tons of relief supplies. Jordan also has had a 700 member UN peacekeeping force in Haiti for a long time, and 3 of their soldiers died in the quake.) As has always been the case, the reality is that Israel is neither the devil that its worst critics paint it to be, nor is it the shining jewel in the crown of humanity, as some of its most ardent advocates claim.
In Haiti Israelis showed a dimension of who they are that we who live outside Israel generally don’t see, because the only aspect of Israel that fascinates media is the Arab-Israeli conflict. But there’s so much more to Israel than the conflict. (The same could be said of the Palestinians.) Israel’s support to Haiti is an opportunity for us to stop and look at the larger picture of who and what Israelis are. Israelis put their hearts on display in Haiti, and they have big, generous hearts. And they’re good in a crisis and eager to help when distress calls are sounded in other parts of the world. People who know Israeli society well, whatever their political positions on the conflict, know that this is nothing new.
For decades, Israel has made a commitment to offer aid and emergency support to countries around the world, and what Israelis have done in Haiti is part of that larger story. (You might want to look up MASHAV, the Israel Agency for International Development Cooperation. Over 60+ years, MASHAV’s humanitarian relief division has aided over 140 countries.) What we saw Israelis do in Haiti was something that shouldn’t be distorted by the conspiracy theories of Israel-haters, nor should it be cheapened by silly attempts at political point-scoring by Israel’s advocates. Let the mitzvah speak for itself.