Our Jewish American Journey

I am sharing a d'var torah that I wrote for Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel on July 5th, 2013. The inspiration came from a Jewish Women's Archive conference I attended in late June. All feedback, and thoughts are welcome.



Parshat Matot-Masei

Yesterday, we celebrated July 4th, a day that represents freedom in our American History.  Nowadays,  we look forward to July 4th as a day when we gather with family and friends, enjoy the weather, maybe bbq and watch concerts and fireworks either in person or on television. We may lose sight of the events that took place which granted our country it’s freedom.  

Interestingly, in this weeks torah portion Matot-Masei we read about the Israelites who are on the cusp of reaching the promised land of Canaan, they have been on a 40 year journey, through the desert, towards freedom.

Here we are, at the end of the book of numbers, and we are reaching the end of our wandering from Egypt to the plains of Moab. As we stand here, we take a moment to look back on where we came from and to look forward toward Canaan, where we are going to.

Torah gives us the opportunity to annually reflect on what it means to live in the Diaspora, and about the challenges that face a refugee in the wilderness.  As we read the stories in B'midbar (the desert) we see a lot of themes of what it means to be an immigrant in a foreign land. We learn about the battles, the challenges, and we learn about the victories.  

The second name of this double torah portion, Masei, means a journey. And here, the torah outlines the major events of our journey towards Canaan. We start Numbers chapter 33 with the lines: These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt in their legions, under the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded their starting points for their journeys according to the word of the Lord, and these were their journeys with their starting points.

I’m curious to think about what is our


not as Jews entering the promised land, but as Jews entering America in pursuit of the American dream.As American Jews, we are often stating two identities. While we all may have been immigrants at one point, we now consider ourselves to uphold strong identities and loyalty to both our country and our religion. I want to think back to a time when that may not have necessarily been the case. To a time when we fought to be one or both of these identities we hold dearly today.

When Jews from Eastern Europe began immigrating to the United States in the early 1890's it was not an easy passage and it was one which challenged the identities that they held.  Similarly to the Israelites, as they look towards Canaan, these immigrant Jews coming to America had a glimmer of hope in their eyes of what they imagined ‘the American dream to be’ as they voyaged to a better world.But, when they arrived, they faced many challenges as they fought to provide for their families in a place where they didn’t know the language, and the customs were different from their own.

By choosing to adapt to life as an American, there were ways in which these Jews  made sacrifices of their Jewish traditions in order to live in an American society.  A large one of these decisions was whether or not to keep sabbath as the "american" day of rest was not Saturday, but rather Sunday.Early on in their journey, people were asked to choose their religion over there need to feed their families and in many cases their need for work and money became the main priority as they struggled to adjust to a new environment.

I want to share with you a version of the prayer for the Sabbath candles that was re-written in a Jewish supplications for women book published in the year 1916 while many were struggling to uphold their religious and family obligations. It is titled: “A New Supplication for Candle Lighting in America”  and was written to be said after saying the candle lighting prayers.

“I ask you, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that you should guard and shelter
me, my husband and my children from Sabbath and holiday desecration. Send us
to our livelihood in pleasure and not in sorrow . . . and we shall by no means due to
livelihood not be able to make the Sabbath or holidays weekly and we shall be able to rest on the holy days and serve you with all of our hearts."

Annie Pollard, Education Director at the Tenement Museum in NYC and a well versed writer in this topic wrote an article titled: Working for the Sabbath, in which she analyzes this adapted prayer.

Annie says:
In adapting to American conditions, immigrant women were cognizant of changed economic conditions and displayed a certain sense of flexibility in accommodating to the urban environment’s economic demands and secular enticements. In carrying out their role in the family religious economy, some women hewed to Jewish law and others forged their own sacred economies.. Despite variations in reconciling the Sabbath to the new economy, most immigrant mothers and wives performed the religious work of preparing for the Friday night dinner and collectively profoundly shaped family and neighborhood patterns.

By looking at the shift in how religion was able to be practiced among new immigrants at the turn of the century we can see the struggle these early immigrants had between choosing whether their American or Jewish identity was more pressing to them and their economic situation.Today, we have the ability to hold strong to our identities of both nationality and religion. But, have we simply forgotten what it means to be a foreigner? Have we forgotten what it means to be strangers in a strange land? (Don’t worry I’m not going to talk about Immigration Reform tonight, rather I want us to think about our Jewish American immigration)

Ok, now I’m going to ask you for some help, don’t be shy.

By a show of hands how many of you here today know the history of your own immigration story? (no really you can raise your hands, …... thank you, you can put your hands down) Now, by a show of hands, how many of you here today know with confidence that the youngest generation of your family knows that immigration story? Now look around. (Thank you, you can put your hands down)

I feel that the future generations of American Jews often forget to ask where they came from. To some, it may seem like the distant past, to others it may only be a generation before. But for many we may not know first hand the voyage of our own American Judaism.  

I know that in my own family my great-great-grandparents immigrated here in late 1890’s and early 1900’s. When they got here they lived in NY city. One grandfather was an embroiderer, and the other a hat maker, one grandmother owned a dry goods store after the death of her husband, and the other died young. The upward mobility and assimilation of their children happened quickly. On one side, my great grandparents went to college, and made careers for themselves in engineering and teaching, and on the other side my grandfather was the first to go to college. They all believed in education and hard-work but along the way the

American piece

of their identity won out.They came here being cultural Jews, which means they lived along the Jewish life cycle span and observed holidays. Because they lived within a Jewish community, they never had to be intentional about being Jewish, it was all around them.

But slowly, over time, since they were cultural and not synagogue going Jews their families assimilated quickly, meaning little religion at all. Since Americans held many cultural and religious identities, religion became a choice. And so my great grandparents on my mothers side chose to belong to a conservative synagogue, so as not to lose the religion.While I grew up in a reform synagogue, much like KI, religion became out of my mothers conscious decision to carry on traditions and to hold on to our past, and our Jewish values.  

I often find that today, when we are freely able to hold onto our Jewish identities along side our US citizenship,  this narrative of our own immigration is sometimes forgotten. I wonder how we ensure we are teaching our Jewish values to the future generations of American Jews. It wasn’t until I thought to ask my grandmother, this past week, that I uncovered my own link of Jewish Immigration.

As a Jew of a younger generation and a future Jewish leader this troubles me. As Jews isn’t it our obligation to teach the past to future generations? We are a people who certainly like to talk, and share our stories. Why then are the youngest generations among us lacking in their own Jewish history? Have we simply forgotten to share our stories with them?

This year in working with the 7th graders at KI one of their core classes requires them to interview a Jewish adult, other than their parents, that they know. We spend time as a class coming up with questions to ask their interviewees. The kids are genuinely interested in what it means to be a Jewish adult and why people have made certain choices regarding religion in their lives. I wonder how it would change them if each adult in their lives was willing to share the stories that they know about their family’s immigration and their ancestors personal struggles and stories of where they came from.

While we aren’t still wandering the wilderness of Maob, or navigating the hard working conditions of the lower east side, we must not forget what it means to be a newcomer to a foreign land.And we must take alongside us the reminder that we are the links to our past and our future. We serve as the reminder to not take for granted our ability to be both freely Jewish and American at the same time and to empathize with the conditions new Americans face today. For just as we were slaves in Egypt, so too were our families the ones who paved the path for great opportunity.

We must not forget that just as we read about our journey in Torah to the promised land, we take a moment to reflect back and revisit the many places we stopped along the journey through Egypt so too should we continue to share the story with ourselves and our future generations of how we got to be American Jews.

Shabbat shalom!



High Holiday D'var Torah in time for the election!

Here is one from the beginning of school for my Jewish Traditions class, but as it is election appropriate I will share! 

As the days of awe or Jewish high holidays approach I am struck by the idea of communal responsibility. As jews we are accustomed to the idea that we each have the power to change our own fate by partaking in mitzvot, or good deeds. During the high holidays we are judged for the good deeds that we have done, and repent for the times when we have sinned. We undergo personal teshuvah or return by asking for forgiveness in our lives, we apologize to our loved ones, and we reflect on ways we have transgressed promising to renew our committment to torah and righteousness. We are given the opporunity to pray for mercy and inscription in the book of life. But what would it look like if the high holidays were about communal forgiveness and responsibility?

In reading Eliyahu Kitov's "The Book of Our Heritage" he speaks not only of the individual but additionally of the communal. He writes, "Each person has merits and transgressions. If one's merits exceed his transgressions-- he is a tzadik; if one's transgressions exceed his merits -- he is rasha; if both are equal-- he is beinoni. The same applies to each country. If the collective merits of its inhabitants exceed trangressions, it is deemed a just country.  If their transgressions exceed their merits, it is deemed iniquitous. And the same applies to the entire world. .... if a countries transgressions exceed its merits, it is subject to immediate destruction. This judgement is not quantitative one however, but a qualitative one."

But how do we measure a countries transgressions? How do we know if our merits exceed our transgressions? In the United States where we have varying opinions on how we inact freedom and whose opinion is right it certainly seems like a hard task to judge. Do we measure by what laws seem just, what attitudes seem appropriate, or what acts of kindness outway our policies? If our whole country felt that each decision they made would be judged in terms of merit or destruction would they we be able to work together for the sake of the countries survival?

As I watched the democratic convention this past week I related to Past President Bill Clintons speech when he cited the mere fact that the discussions revolving around the upcoming election has changed from statements about the issues our country is facing to statements about individuals themselves. Bill said, he was not raised to hate replublicans whereas implying that todays generations are taught that their opinions vary so much from the oppossing party that they don't even attempt to see the goodness in the others opinion and therefore we have become a divisive country rather than one which works together.

Bill says, " Though I often disagree with Republicans, I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate President Obama and the Democrats. After all, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to my home state to integrate Little Rock Central High and built the interstate highway system. And as governor, I worked with President Reagan on welfare reform and with President George H.W. Bush on national education goals. I am grateful to President George W. Bush for PEPFAR, which is saving the lives of millions of people in poor countries and to both Presidents Bush for the work we've done together after the South Asia tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake.
When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better. After all, nobody's right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day. All of us are destined to live our lives between those two extremes. Unfortunately, the faction that now dominates the Republican Party doesn't see it that way. They think government is the enemy, and compromise is weakness. "

How are we suppossed to live in a divided country like this? When we view eachother as the 'other' and not see ourselves as sharing responsibility for our countries merits how will we face gods judgement together? It seems that politics in our country has turned into the blame game more than ever before because we find ourselves in a depressed situation where we have dig ourselves out and each party thinks that they have the answers and if elected they will enact them. What we don't realize is that we have so much work to do just to speak the same language again. Each party talks about hope, and change and the capacity to build greatness while each party maintains that  they will not give in to the opposing side. Regardless of who is elected we must committ to working together to shared goals of kindness and the qualitative goals not the quantitative numbers for either side to achieve. In order to be a country that is worthy of other nations respect we must take communal responsibility for the transgressions we have communally committed.

As Kitov shows each person plays a role in this communal judgement. He says, " Each person should therefore see himself-- during the entire year-- as if he were half meitorious and half guilty. Likewise (should he see) the entire world as half meritorious and half guilty. If he commits one sin-- he tips the scale of guilt for himself and the entire world and causes its destruction, as well as his own. If he commits one mitzvah, he tips the scale of merit for himself and for the entire world and causes its salvation as well as his own.' Kitov sites Rambam with this idea.

This is not the first time in Jewish history where destruction for sin was at stake. In the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah Abraham pleads with god to save the cities if he is able to find righteous men, when he is not able to find enough rightous men the cities are in fact destroyed. I fear that our country too may get to the point where we are no longer able to outway our merits with our transgressions. Everyday that we continue to produce hate for one another is another day when we are not moving forward towards mitzvot.



Tol'dot:The Ethical Actions of Authority (Genesis: 25:19-28:9)

After a hiatus to focus on life pursuits I’m back to tackle the torah!

In our Lives:
I think the shock of hearing about unethical news in our lives comes from our own struggles with what to do when faced with tough ethical decisions. Do we stand up for what is right, or hope it fades into the background (and that no one notices)? The news lately has been a series of tragedies and lies: The Penn State scandal, presidential candidates fumbling their way through policy positions they don’t seem to understand, big banks continuing to post record profits, or the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme we have seen questionable ethics. We have seen the use of power and authority in our government acting unethically or amongst private companies who don’t look out for the best interests of even their employees!

When we hear of such news we wonder if we ourselves would act better? How are we educating future generations? Are we teaching (by example) to only look out for ourselves? Do we consider how these acts of deceit effect others? Ultimately it seems the truth inevitably comes out but at what sacrifice? For me, when thinking through decisions where ethics are at play I like to think that I consider who will get hurt, what would by the favored outcome, and is it “just”? Not all decisions are easy but all should treat people fairly. And I think the consequences should adequately reflect appropriate punishment for unethical choices. Otherwise we are simply letting power breed power in our society. And if you aren’t sure what to do heed my mother’s advice “you get more flies with honey” it works every time!

Occupy wall street has been an interesting way to think about the consequences of treating US citizens indifferently by big businesses. While I am unclear of their demands and the common message they represent it is clear that Americans are unhappy. The economic gap has grown to 99% vs. 1% where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer and some of those in power are seeing to it that this discrepancy remain. Occupy wall street and other Occupy movements are working to regain the people’s right to democracy, to voters views mattering and being heard. The popularity of this movement has signified to me that injustice has consequences and people have re-recognized their ability to hold others accountable for their actions.

From the source:
The upcoming parshat this week Toldot deals with the story of brothers Jacob and Esau and with common themes of stealing, hatred and lying. But the plot runs deeper as the lies are intentional and done with power by authority. Rebekah, mother of twins Jacob and Esau tricks her husband Issac into giving the birthright to the younger son Jacob since he is her favored son (and Rebekah thinks more deserving of the blessing). Rebekah, acting authoritatively in her roles as wife and mother lies and aids Jacob in stealing the birthright. But as a result of this act Jacob must leave his family due to what he has done and Rebekah is without her favored son. I think this can serve both as a lesson to those with power to act ethically since the consequences of selfish acts can be grave, and to those without power to not just go along with what the authority says but to stand up for justice and to ask yourself if the act is ethical and if not what you can do about it! While the reasoning behind Rebekah’s acts may be for a more favorable outcome of Issac’s blessing. I am more concerned with the lying and deceit that those with power partake in (as shown above). If in fact Jacob was the better son to receive the birthright then it should have been bestowed upon him because of his merit and not by way of an unethical act. Jacob is the one who is held accountable for Rebekah’s actions not Rebekah even though she assured Jacob this would not be the case. These actions seem similar to Americans having to carry out their promises to banks or fulfillment of laws even though the banks and the rules keep changing and not upholding their end of the deal. It cause me to question if those in authority don’t even lead by example who will?


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Homelessness/ Loneliness: What does Tisha B’av have to do with it?

On Tuesday August 9th, the Jewish people observed Tisha B'av. In all honesty I’ve never been to a Tisha B’av service, and only have a brief understanding of what the holiday is all about. But I do know it is about mourning for the literal and metaphorical destruction that has been caused and looking forward to “olam ha’ba” the world to come.

So I’m gonna try to unpack this holiday a bit for myself and hopefully for you. Here goes….

In our lives: Each year my close friend sends a very personal message in the spirit of Tisha B’av on her own challenges that are acting destructively in her own life and reflects on how to turn these challenges into a positive light. Each year I’m able to learn about her current struggles and am pushed to see the world through her eyes and reflective process where she finds the good out of the bad and continues to strive towards building this positive energy.

As with Yom Kippur it is tradition to fast on Tisha B’av since you are consumed in a full day of prayer and mourning. Fasting reminds us of physical pain which to me represents the pain that our people have felt each time there was further tragedy on this historic day of tribulations.

Reflecting: For me, the destruction of the first and second temples and the expulsion of Jews from Spain and England all of which occurred on the 9th of the Jewish month of Av symbolize a greater feeling of homelessness. Here is a full list of the losses on Tisha B’av (the 9th of Av). Homelessness doesn’t necessarily have to mean without a physical home for prayer as it may have meant for the Jews in 586 and 516 B.C.E. it can mean many things. It can mean feeling alone, or left out from your family, or community. When we feel like we don’t fit in we may feel physically and spiritually homeless, or uncomfortable. Loss in our lives can create this feeling as well whether actually losing a home, a job, a parent, family member, or a friend we mourn that which we no longer have. Our home which once was is no longer and our morning consumes us.

Where to go from here: I think a good amount of reflection on our lives and the ways we interact with others allows us to grow spiritually. If we continue to live our lives without a healthy self-check and evaluation of where we are and where we are going we can wind up being very distant from even ourselves. Tisha B’av is about morning communal loss. But you can choose to bring that closer to home by evaluating the ways in which you have been destructive to your home, your family, your friends, your professional relationships. Are you working on building the new “metaphorical” temple or are you tearing down the walls around you? Where do you turn towards home? Do you feel homeless or at a loss for what once was? On Tisha B’av the Jewish community mourns with those who feel alone and defeated. But the next day we pick up and begin to hope again for the beit hamikadash (house of the holy).

“I think it's important to recognize that we can't just hope. We can't just have faith that mashiach will come. We have to be proactive. We must examine who we are, what we're doing, and what we need to do to be worthy and meritorious of the next step in our cycle.” Cindy Kaplan Tisha B’av thoughts 2010.

So whether you feel lonely or without a home, or whether you are grateful to have a life where you feel uniformly whole we each could gain something from reflecting on destruction and rebuilding within our lives. Don’t just mourn take steps towards repair, and then we truly will live in a holy world.

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Reinventing Rituals: June, A Month of Pride and Same-Sex Marriages

This post originally appeared on Pursue. It is the second in a series on reinventing Jewish rituals (which I will be writing for Pursue). To read the first post on memorials/yartzeits, click here.

June is full of irony: not only is June Pride month, but it is also the unofficial start to wedding season. So many are still fighting for equal marriage. As I write this, lawmakers in Albany are struggling to garner enough votes to make same-sex marriage legal in New York state (see resources to get involved at the end of this post).

As someone who works at the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue, CBST (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah) I see firsthand how the denial of civil rights affects our families. I also get to see what an amazing tribute it is to the Jewish tradition to have so many people who are deeply rooted in religion, spirituality, and tradition create a community unique to them. Instead of allowing themselves to be turned off by communities who are still figuring out their “stance” on homosexuality, they have a home where their whole identity is able to come together and thrive with others who accept them for who they are and don’t focus on how they do not fit with the “heteronormative” family.

Within Judaism, what does it mean to have a same-sex marriage? What are some of the opportunities for reinventing this ritual? Rabbis debate this topic just as many states debate same-sex marriage bills across the country.

Much of the contemporary Jewish conversation on same-sex marriage draws on pieces of Torah and explains how to reinterpret them in an inclusive way for our same-sex couples, namely, the “be fruitful and multiply” directive. Rabbi Arthur Waskow asks, “Can we not interpret this as ‘to be fruitful and expansive emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually rather than biologically?’ Furthermore, same-sex couples may not have the biological ability to reproduce but with modern technology this no longer means they do not have the ability to create a family.

As Jewish movements struggle with the issue of same-sex marriage in their own communities, countless conversations occur amongst rabbis as to what clergy groups’ official position on same-sex marriage should be. The Reform movement in 2000 voted to adopt a resolution stating “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”

What do “appropriate” Jewish rituals look like? The basic Jewish marriage consists of the following (in a nutshell):

Marriage Contract (Ketubah)
Canopy (Chupah)
Exchanging Rings
Seven blessings (Sheva Brakhot)
Breaking the glass

While Rabbis change their stances according to their various interpretations of Torah it is important to make sure LGBTQ Jews have a place they can turn for rituals in their lives, including marriage. If you have a litany of weddings to attend this summer, you’ll realize pretty quickly that every wedding is different and dependent on the couple’s custom, so there is a lot of room for interpreting these different components and imbuing them with meaning based on the couple’s values.

Because the traditional Jewish wedding choreography is gender specific, a re-imagining of the different components of the marriage ceremony is necessary. This can be done by same-sex and heterosexual couples, all in the name of promoting marriage equality.

Listed below are some variations of the basic rituals and traditions to get an idea of how you can change your own ritual to be LGBTQ inclusive. Hopefully you’ll see some of these at weddings this summer season!

(From Central Conference of American Rabbis Working Group on Same-Gender Officiation)

One person circles the other 3x, then they switch, and they take hands and circle together for a total of 7x.

Couple holds the cup together.

Exchanged and prayers recited, with language such as… “by this ring are you consecrated unto me before God and these witnesses in the spirit of our people,” or “this is my beloved and my friend.”

Breaking the glass:
Broken together, or two glasses broken.

To recognize the continued struggle for equality:
Because so many gays and lesbians sadly still know the oppression and pain of hiding, because so many gays and lesbians still lack equality of civil rights in our world, we break a glass/glasses on this day of celebration to remind us that even in this hour of great joy, our world is still incomplete and in need of healing. May the time be soon, speedily and in our day, when all who are in hiding shall be free and all who are in exile shall come home.

May the shattering of these glasses by _________ and ___________ remind them and us to work towards this time of wholeness, this tikkun, for ourselves and our world. Amen.

How will you be re-imaging the Jewish wedding this summer?

Take action today towards equal marriage rights in New York:
Join friendfactor
Call your senator!
Video: CBST Rabbi Kleinbaum in active protest with Hasidic Rabbi in Albany

List of LGBTQ friendly synagogues- Keshet
Resources for Torah related learning- Jewish Mosaic
Kulanu: All of Us A Program and Resource Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Inclusion by the URJ Press

See you in July! Tacklingtorah will be taking the week after Pride off to re-coup abroad!


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Shavuot: Torah and Technology

Reflections on a Jewish Holiday you didn’t learn about in Hebrew School.

Please let me know if you learned about Shavuot in after-school Hebrew School. I certainly did not but yet it is one of the main Jewish festival holidays. It is also the holiday of “education” so to say. We celebrate receiving the torah and honor this gift by studying all night long! We also eat dairy which may cause some fellow lactards to mourn not celebrate. But nonetheless blintzes and cheesecakes allow us to learn all night with our Jewish community. Read more about why dairy on Shavuot:

Learning is an essential piece to Judaism. And in my own Jewish journey I’ve begun to understand that even more essential then learning what the torah teaches is questioning how it relates to our own lives. In that vein...

Here are my rushed reflections (apologies) on Shavuot this year:

A friend asked in her Facebook status, "What does Shavuot represent for you? (and/or, what are secular shavuot in your life)?" To which someone replied, "there is no freedom (Pesach) without responsibility (Shavuot)". This struck a chord for me. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how technology plays a role in our lives. We take communication freedom for granted. We lose sight of building relationships and community with the multi-tasking we’ve become accustom to.

More and more we are reliant on 24/7 internet access. Rather than testing our own memory and knowledge we quickly “google” our question. Rather than call, or meet someone in person we text or email. I’m not so sure computers are ample supplements for human contact. They certainly make information freer (relating to Peseach) but where is the responsibility (Shavuot) to one another and to our commitment to study and cumulative knowledge? Are we losing the skills we once had with our gadgets that do everything for you? How do we maintain our own brain power? Are we damaging ourselves by becoming spaced out from spending too much time with our devices?

On Shavuot we reconnect with the torah to remind ourselves of it’s vast teachings and application to current problems in our world. Shavuot can really focus on any theme you’d like and is just the practice of spending time studying torah (as well as something about the book of Ruth? I’ll have to look into that.) We thank God for giving us this gift of knowledge, and we remind ourselves of our responsibilities to learning the teachings of Torah. I suggest that this year we try and remind ourselves of the responsibilities we still have even with the current connection freedoms we’re accustomed to.

Let us remember the importance of family and friendship and not let take a backseat to our games, and phones, and emails. We have a responsibility to maintain our lives even with the advances that help us do so. We can’t forget math just because we have calculator access. Nor can we forget how to maintain conversations without the constant status updates, and notifications from our apps.

I’m currently reading a book in which a family takes a six month hiatus from their electronics in order to bond and remember what a communal home is like. ( The Winter of Our Disconnect by: Susan Maushart) It is very eye opening to me how my relationships with people have changed due to technology. It is often a background instead of the fore-front. If a text comes in the person your with becomes third wheel. Or even a news, sports or game report. iPhones have become like coasters on a table and they barge in whenever our attention spans drift. We no longer look up when we walk outside or read books when we travel, etc. Lately when out with friends the phones make just as much of an appearance as when you're alone which breaks my heart especially when I do the same. We also assume that people must respond instantly as well, because they have the capability to do so.

I certainly didn’t grow up this way but I see it becoming more and more of a problem among younger generations. Let us remember our responsibility to one another with our full attention so that we can prioritize the freedom we have been given. With remembering our responsibility to one another we will be able to build our capacity for knowledge from one another as well.

Inspiration for the post subject of Jewish learning/ Shavuot/ Technology and how it affects our lives/ skills…

Not sure this reflection was focused enough on Torah. To be perfectly honest I got a little distracted by multitasking electronics during this post. Since Shavuot will relate Torah to the topics which are at hand for you currently I felt it was appropriate. Comments appreciated. Hag Sameach!

Finding ways to celebrate together:

College students not learning enough

in other findings….

The Tanakah is a free app download in honor of Shavuot, check it out (irony to use your electronics to further learn Torah)

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Reinventing Rituals: Memorializing our Soldiers and Loved Ones

When we think about rituals, we often think about traditions that have been handed down over generations. However, this isn’t entirely true. All rituals were at some point brand-new and have caught on because they have brought meaning into the lives of those looking for a concrete way to mark the passage of time or an event in their lives.

There are common rituals in Judaism that we observe at lifecycle moments such as a bris (welcoming a male baby into the Jewish covenant), bar mitzvah (entering Jewish adulthood), wedding, and death. And then there are ceremonies that have developed over time. Many liberal movements began to incorporate similar ceremonies for women such as a brit bat (Hebrew naming ceremony) or a bat mitzvah. More recently, we’ve begun to see ceremonies which mark different challenges in our lives such as healing services or prayers for a new home.

As our religion evolves with our society we can question where there are moments in our lives that we can turn to ritual to find comfort in an occasion where we mourn or celebrate. Was there ever a moment in your life that you wished you knew what to do to either reflect or pray for what was happening? Those are times when a ritual may have been helpful. Rituals can act as something tangible to hold onto, like ritual objects, or serve as a way to come together around communal prayer in order to bring peace and significance to a certain moment.

As part of a new series on the Pursue blog, I will be examining the reinvention of rituals in our lives. How do we as young Jews either embrace traditions and/or start our own? Whether buying a new car, shifting into a new job, hearing of a natural disaster or experiencing a miscarriage, there are moments in our lives where we may not know where to turn and how to pray. For these times we can create meaningful rituals for ourselves which incorporate our own practices of Judaism with the reinvention of rituals.

Ritual #1: In honor of Memorial Day let’s examine how we honor and memorialize those we have lost in our lives, both the known members of our own communities and the unknown members of our global community. Judaism has several rituals when it comes to honoring the dead. We may choose to name a new child after those we have lost, or purchase a book plate, plaque, or seat in a synagogue we belong to. Those are all tangible items through which we can show our appreciation and memory for the lost individual in our lives. For an ongoing ritual, many people observe a Yartzeit or annual anniversary of the death by lighting a memorial candle and saying Kaddish in synagogue to show that we continue to be in mourning regardless of how much time has passed since our loss.

Memorial Day is often regarded as the start of summer rather than a meaningful national holiday. On a day where we rejoice in the extra day off from school or work and bask in the outdoors and at barbecues, how do we reflect on all of those who gave their lives for our country? How do we “memorialize” them? Both personally and communally we have losses in our lives that are greater than we realize and greater than the rituals we currently maintain for them.

I often find the easiest way to reinvent a ritual is to break it down first in order to discover what it is I’m marking. This way the ritual I create can be most meaningful to me for the particular occasion I’m observing. On a personal level, this July I will lead the graveside service for my uncle’s unveiling (one year Yartzeit) and will have to discover what it is that is meaningful to say for my particular family. On a communal level, this week I will reflect on the lives lost by American soldiers engaged in wars overseas and what I pray for their future.

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives in Brooklyn led a workshop for CBST’s (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah) Transforming Beitecha Conference last month in which we discussed developing Jewish rituals. She taught the group a good technique to use to determine if rituals still apply to the needs of today’s Jews. You can use a formula to ask questions of what the ritual is about and then determine who it is for and who is being left out. This way when you look to re-invent a ritual you will have a clearer understanding of the initial goals.

Let’s break down Yartzeit and its meaning in our lives (you can do this for yourself with whatever ritual you want to break down):

Case #1
Yartzeit is defined as: annual memorial for loss of a loved one
Who: the mourner observes a day of memory for the deceased
What: a symbolic candle is lit
Where: at home or in synagogue Kaddish is recited three times
When: on the Hebrew date of death annually
Why: to remember a loved one
How: alone or communally candle is lit and prayers are said

Then take a moment to decide what your personal goal in observing a ritual may be, since this may decide how you observe the ritual. When I observe Yartzeits in my life I like to spend the day remembering what that person brought into my life and the positive memories that I still have of them. I also like to have tangible objects like pictures or clothing that remind me of them close by so I can find comfort in their continued presence in my life.

Does Memorial Day have a Jewish connection in your life? Why do we celebrate Memorial Day? What are rituals we can create to better understand our link as Jews and as Americans to this historic day of honor and memory?

This Memorial Day I invite you as American Jews to think about how those within your own community have honored our country. Maybe your father, grandfather, great-grandfather served in either World War II, Vietnam, or the Korean War. Maybe you know someone who is serving now, a friend or peer. What does this connection to people who fight for America mean to you? Whether they are close to you or not, whether you believe in our current wars or not, what does it mean to have people give their lives for your safety? And how do you show your appreciation and honor those who put their lives at risk by protecting and acting for a more just world? This year I will reach out to my peers who I know have served and express my gratitude as I continue to pray for peace. For me, ritual is finding meaning in and expressing my gratitude for the things I have and the people in my life. Other goals may be to read about or share stories with those who have fought as American soldiers or to attend an event that honors the men and women who fight today.

What actions will you take? And how will you remember those whom you personally have lost and whom our country has lost this year?

You can find this series on "Reinventing Rituals" cross-posted at Pursue:

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What it means to Leave a Legacy: Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

In our lives:

This past week we have seen a “modern” example of sacrifice upon hearing the news of American troops killing Osama Bin Laden. All week I reflected on what Osama’s life meant and the legacy he would be remembered by. Reading countless news articles caused me to question, was Osama happy? And, although the US spent a decade hunting him, did our country do the right thing by killing him? These are not easy questions, and there may not be easy answers.

What Osama has in common with every other living person is the search for meaning in his life. This Shabbat I read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life That Matters.” Kushner speaks of those who search for personal success as often finding themselves lonely. Osama was certainly successful in accomplishing his goals, but did this render him happy? I find myself feeling empathetic towards a man who couldn’t see past his own hatred and caused one of the most tragic events in US history. Kushner says of infamous biblical character Cain’s selfishness, “ He becomes a wanderer on the face of the earth, with no place to call home, with no community to support or comfort him. The original looking-out-for-number-one man, like all of his descendants, is condemned to spend all of his days unconnected.” (p.63) I can only imagine life for Osama this past decade was isolating, as he became the world’s most hated man due to his terrorizing actions.


Conversely, I turn to history in search of what leaving a positive legacy might look like. This month is Jewish American Heritage Month. In order to honor the women who have been influential in Jewish History the Jewish Women’s Archive has created an encyclopedia of Jewish Women. As part of a larger education initiative, JWA has invited influential Jewish Tweeters to promote knowledge, and share what they learn about these women through twitter and other social media. When I read about the lives these women have touched and the work they have accomplished it makes me proud to have these leaders in the Jewish community. It shows me as a society how far we have come in our recognition of Jewish Women’s influence in our culture, and celebrating their accomplishments in their own fields. It appears to me that these women achieved both success and happiness by following their passions as Kushner suggests is the answer to finding the life that matters. See what’s being said on twitter: #jwapedia.

This week the torah says....

I turn to Parshat Emor to provide insight for what it means to leave a legacy as it speaks about both sacrifice, and honoring the dead. The torah talks about whom we honor and how we do so. Priests or Kohanim are particularly guarded from being in the presence of death as they are seen as holier than others. This is a continuation of Parshat Kedoshim in a series of explanations of what Jews do to maintain holiness and how we honor G-d.

We learn about retribution for blasphemy, and for murder. “ if anyone kills any human being, that person shall be put to death. One who kills a best shall make restitution for it: life for life. if anyone maims another (person): what was done shall be done in return—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. [….] but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I adonai am you G-d.” (Leviticus 24:17-22). Parshat Emor helps me come to terms with how to maintain holiness in our society may still be by having to eliminate those who have caused undue harm upon the innocent. I hope America regains it’s sense of justice in Osama’s death. However, even more importantly I hope that we continue to celebrate those who do achieve great accomplishments in their lives to further our society and our Jewish culture. Let us rejoice in a world where women are recognized for their contributions and where we are thankful for the gifts that we do have and let us not waste any more time on what seemed to be a necessary sacrifice for our country’s safety.



The Modern Haggadah Part 2: New Voices and the Reactionary

This year I tried something new at my family’s Seder. We used a new Haggadah! After researching various Haggadot, I picked: The Wandering is Over Haggadah: Including Women’s Voices, created by, and the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. These two organizations represent my liberal Jewish values, and the voices of various Jews, including Jewish women. I thought talking about women’s rights’ as part of our annual reflection on liberation would be a good first choice for my family due to the many strong women and emphasis on education our family has.

While I did not expect it to be a smooth transition, I was shocked by the backlash I received. The argument against a newly introduced Haggadah was that I had re-written Jewish history, and that Judaism is about tradition, the story of the past, and not the current political struggles we face. It caused me to question how we successfully enact change. If things are to remain stagnant in our history and we are simply to retell the past what purpose does that serve? What are we learning, discussing, and how are we using our history to create change? I recognize that change is slow, but to me learning about our Jewish past ensures that we as Jews have empathy for others current need for liberation.

One of the most common phrases repeated in torah is “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We learn as Jews not to oppress the stranger. That phrase from the Torah is Jewish tradition, and a value that we are told to pass on, it is a piece of our history. Do we recognize the strangers in our current society? Are we able to understand their need for liberation and how we as Jews can ensure that they are not oppressed since we faced a similar fate in Egypt?

I learned that storytelling is only a powerful tool if we are highlighting all our voices. This new Haggadah never once changed the rituals, and history of the story that my family was used to, instead it added the narrative of women in both biblical times and liberation that is more recent. Aren’t the stories of the women who were present also needed to get the full picture of our Jewish history? Just because past Haggadot may have been written in a different time, where men dictated the story, does not mean we still live in that world today. As we make ripples towards change, we need to make sure our goals for equity are synonymous with our actions.

We have the ability to highlight voices that were a part of the Passover story such as Shifra, Puah, and Miriam who saved Jewish babies from being killed in the Nile. Their actions helped lead the Jews towards liberation! I refuse to stand by hearing the history of my ancestors and learn nothing from it except a heart-warming story of our freedom. The story in the Haggadah teaches me to fight for others’ liberation and justice. It teaches me to discuss reforming policies in our country and to help the stranger around the world. I struggle with how to create change with the reactionary’s aversion to new ideas.

If you did one thing this year at your Seder, I hope it was prompting discussion on current needs for liberation. Change happens slowly but when we tell our story of liberation we do so to challenge ourselves and others, to remember our own liberation, and why it is important to feel as if we were personally slaves in Egypt. By remembering our enslavement, we “recall” what history has taught us, and what it feels like to be the other. When we tell the story of liberation, we strengthen our need to not stand idly by in others’ struggles towards freedom.

Further reading:
Nytimes article: Put yourself in the story of Passover
Nytimes article: An Oyster on the Seder plate
JWA: Jewish Women's voices in the seder


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The Modern Haggadah: re-telling the Passover story

By: Elyssa Cohen, Tacklingtorah and originally posted at Pursue: Action for a just world. (I'm starting to write with Pursue, so be sure to share and comment on my posts!)

This year, how do we incorporate current abuses of civilian rights with our Jewish ancestors’ fight for freedom?

With Passover quickly approaching it’s a good time to stop and reflect on the power of storytelling. Our stories have the ability to create change. What is the story that your family tells on Passover? Has the same Haggadah been used annually since you were in utero?

Now’s the time to change! Many Jewish organizations are taking time to consider re-telling the story of Passover as a social change agent for current struggles of freedom. Evaluating the story of Passover gives us the opportunity to reflect, and share a story of an oppressed people in the vein of both remembering and not allowing history to repeat itself. What is the narrative of those who are currently oppressed?

Who has the ability to share their story, and who’s listening?

As young Jews acting for social change are we at liberty to speak of a narrative that may not be our own?

Isn’t Passover the best opportunity we have to share with a large number of people the causes we care about? I hope this year you are able to step up and create awareness within your family about those who are fighting for their freedom today. Create your own modern Haggadah, and tell the new story of freedom. We know that personal stories have the ability to garner a certain amount of empathy for people to connect with strangers, but I don’t anticipate everyone going out and writing their own Haggadah about Libyan families. The good news is you don’t have to write your own Haggadah from scratch, but you can make it personal to account for the social justice work that you do! Choose this year to talk about the fight within the LGBT community for marriage rights and transgender equality, healthcare equality, civil rights in Egypt, Libya, freedom from world hunger, the Japanese struggle as they repair from natural disaster devastation, to name a few.

While the original freedom story remains stagnant, our world around us changes and we as the next generation of Jewish leaders have to bring those around us towards liberation.

The new way to celebrate Passover is by creating your own Haggadot, so go ahead get rid of the Maxwell house Passover Haggadahs and treat yourself to freedom for the future!

It’s a Do-It-Yourself narrative this year. Over the next week, Pursue will share reflections on current issues of liberation, and ideas for additions to your Passover seder.

In the meantime, here are some resources for your own modern Haggadot. I challenge you to inspire your family with new traditions:

Compiling your own meaningful texts

Incorporating multi-media into your Seder

The Wandering is Over Haggadah, from ‘Jewish Boston’

Elyssa Cohen has been involved in social justice work since high school, when she founded a chapter of the ADL’s education program “A World Of Difference” at her public school. Elyssa has always valued a strong sense of community, and has been involved in a variety of different organizations whose mission reflects this goal. Elyssa was a Jewish Organizing Initiative fellow in Boston and worked as the Community Organizer of Keshet, an organization working for the full inclusion of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals within the Jewish Community. Elyssa is happy to have moved back to NY and to have joined the staff at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in the West Village. Elyssa is in the constant pursuit of justice! Check out more of Elyssa’s Jewish social justice writing at

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