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Please click below for a copy of Rabbi Elliott's Rosh Hashanah sermon

09/25/2017 11:59:48 AM


Prepare me to be a Sanctuary Rosh Hashanah Day 1



Prepare Me To Be A Sanctuary

I am going to be talking today about immigration, but before I begin, I would like to do a survey.


Think for a moment about the story your family tells about coming to the US.

I realize this may be complicated.[i]


It might be many stories, each from a different branch of our family.

For many parts of this story is unknown, perhaps forgotten or even erased.


But for this survey just pick one story or the dominant story that you tell about your family’s path to America.


Raise your hand if your family came to the US before 1921?

Raise your hand if your family came to the US after 1921 but before 1965.

After 1965?


Coming to America legally through Ellis Island is the dominant narrative of Jewish immigration.


Until 1921 the US allowed relatively unrestricted immigration.


But after 1921 a system of quotas was implemented that drastically limited legal immigration.


This system was implemented to limit the entry of suspect nationalities: Italians, Poles, Slavs and Jews.


To give you an idea of the bias in those quotas – Great Britain and Ireland were allotted about 63,000 slots.

Russia was allotted only 2,000 slots.


These quotas cut immigration in half.


In 1921 120,000 Jews entered the US legally.

In 1924 after all the quotas had been instituted only 10,000 Jews entered the US legally.


This however did not stop Jews from coming illegally[ii].



Bnai Keshet member, Cythnia Green recently shared with me the story her grandfather Henry who came to US in the 30s.

One of eleven children,each of the boys had a different path westward to avoid the Polish draft.


After stops in Belgium and France unable to get a visa for immigration and looking for any opportunity to enter the US, he came instead on a tourist visa.

Like many other undocumented immigrants when his tourist visa expired he stayed put, trying to live below the radar.

He fell in love. He got married. He had a son.


One night immigration agents came into his home in New York and while his two-year-old son slept, arrested him.

Having over stayed his visa, neither his marriage nor his son protected him.

Having committed no crime other than living in the US without legal documentation

Henry was eventually deported in 1938 to Poland.[iii]


There are countless stories today similar Henry’s.

Stories of immigrants who have established families in the US but are threatened with deportation.

Stories of people seeking a safer life for themselves and their family but who cannot find a legal path to immigration.


In 2017 there has been a 38% increase in immigration arrests relative to 2016.


Different from practices under both the Bush and Obama presidencies these deportations are not focused primarily on violent criminals or security risks.


In 2017 there has been 150% increase in the rate “non-criminal” immigration arrests.[iv]


It is only because Henry Greene again tried to reenter the US through the backdoor that we know his story.

In 1938 he left Poland again, travelling to the Dominican Republic and was met there by his wife. They had a second wedding ceremony.

Because Henry was no longer illegally in the US, this marriage reopened the door allowing him to return to the US.


The story of Jewish settlement in the US is not typically told as part of the narrative of illegal immigration, but for many it was.


Even for those who came to the US by way of Ellis Island, most travelled here under precarious legal circumstances.


Almost all of my ancestors had to hire smugglers, illegally cross multiple borders and pay bribes just to get on ships heading for the US.


If your family came from Eastern Europe before 1921 it is unlikely that their entire journey was legal.


If your Jewish family came here after 1921 and before a loosening of immigration quotas in 1965 it is highly likely that all or part of their immigration was illegal.


Here are a few of the stories I have heard from Bnai Keshet members:


Joan Streit’s parents came to the US in the 1930’s along with dozens of other relatives from Germany, all with forged papers.


May Benatar’s father was smuggled on a ship from Cuba to Florida in the late 20’s.


Betsy Tessler’s grandfather originally entered the US illegally by crossing the Canadian border.


Elliana Goldberg’s parents came to the US as refugees in 1951 but had to lie about their involvement with Communist politics to be allowed entry.



Immigration has always been a part of the Jewish story.


Ivrim is the Hebrew word for Hebrews.

It is the name given to us by the Eyptians.


It is not an accident that is sounds like the word we use in our prayers for a transgression, avera.

Both share the root ayin, vet, resh.


A common translation for our name ivrim or Hebrews – is border crossers.

Commentators have long suggested that when the Egyptians called us ivrim it was derogatory and had a connotation of transgression similar to calling someone an “illegal”.


But the name Hebrews has served us well.


Our willingness to pursue safety regardless of borders

has been a critical to Jewish survival.


For the majority of Jewish history, wherever we resided, our legal status was precarious.


Our “welcome” was often conditional, unofficial and temporary.

We were invited into a region to fill holes in the labor market.

We lived with the potential of being expelled for political reasons or to fill coffers through the confiscation of our property.


Jews have survived, over and over again because of our willingness to seek safety regardless of laws or borders.


Theology of Immigration

Think for a moment about the theological significance of God’s first commandment to the first Jew, to Abraham, that he leave his land of origin, his father’s land and travel to a new land.


Why couldn’t Abraham, the Jewish story, have begun in Ur of Chaldees, his land of origin?


Or why couldn’t the story of Abraham just begin in Canaan?


Think about how Abraham’s world-view must have broadened by leaving the land of his birth.


By having to live with people who’s culture was foreign to him?


How might his journey have solidified his understanding of God as one?


How might it have exposed cultural assumptions?

Uncovered universal truths?


How might the experience of being separated from his relatives have opened him to relationship with God?


Even after he got to the Land, he eventually was uprooted again, risking even God’s promise to seek shelter in Egypt and avoid famine.


In the Torah the word for immigrant is ger or stranger.

It is used to describe the people who dwell within the Israelite borders but who are not Israelites.


Where as the Egyptians called us Hebrews.

We called ourselves ger - strangers when recalling our time in Egypt.


We are commanded once to love our neighbor.

We are commanded twice to love God.


But the commandment to love the stranger is backed up at least 36 times.


The Torah is obsessed with the wellbeing of immigrants.


There must be something essential to be learned from being an immigrant, from crossing borders.


Perhaps it is the vulnerability immigrants experience?

Perhaps it is the perspective of being an outsider?

Perhaps it is the wisdom that comes from navigating through a foreign world?


The Torah offers a unique theology of immigration.

First, Torah teaches that the experience of immigration, whether “voluntary” like Abraham or “involuntary” like the Hebrews, is an important path to knowing God.


Then it teaches that loving the stranger is not only about fairness but also about increasing our proximity to God.


Finally, when we ourselves are not immigrants Torah commands us to get closer to this spiritual access point, by being close to immigrants. Loving the stranger.


Caring for the stranger is a path to finding God.


In Deuteronomy it says:

“Cut away, therefore the thickening of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For your God Adonai upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[v]


The spiritual path is summed up:

Simply quit being callous.

Open your hearts, let go of stubbornness and self-centered pride.

Look around you for those who are mistreated or in danger and help them.


Room for improvement

To say that American immigration policy is need of improvement is an understatement.


The last major immigration reform, which offered amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants was signed in 1986, by Ronald Reagan.


Over the past 30 years, through divided & united governments, through Democrat or Republican controlled Congresses there has been no significant immigration reform.


And the world has changed a lot since 1986.


The world is moving more and more toward free movement of capital, free markets and free trade;


Toward a world where ideas travel with increasingly little restriction across borders;


A world in which corporations are relatively free to choose the country with the lowest tax rate, or least restrictive regulations and call that place home;


It such a world, it seems to me an extreme contradiction that people are not free to follow these markets, to pursue work and ideas across borders, to choose the place they call home.


The assumption that borders are more sacred than people allows us to distance ourselves from the suffering of others.


A focus on tightening immigrations laws and securing borders allows us to imagine that the injustices and suffering in other places can be kept from impacting our lives. That they are not our responsibility.


But just like markets aren’t contained within countries, neither are conflicts.


We can’t continue to derive economic benefit from people in “far away” countries while ignoring their political upheaval, poverty and oppression. 


The refugee and immigration crises of our time expose the limits of this thinking.


Just like Jews have done historical, people who are in danger, whether political or economic, will seek safety.


They will take great risks to assure a better life for their children.


And like water, they will find the cracks in any wall.


In a world where nearly every purchase we make is international.

Where we have steady access to goods created by low cost labor in conditions that would be illegal in the US.


In a world where we benefit from a concentration of wealth within our own country’s borders, I believe there are two moral paths.


One path, would be to use our wealth to massively invest in aid to developing governments, diplomacy and global cooperation.

To assure that wherever people live they have a measure of basic economic security, human rights and access to just governmental representation.


The other path is to work increasingly to open borders allowing people to vote with their feet, which systems of government and which economies offer justice, safety and opportunity.


There is little evidence that we are moving closer to either of these paths.




For What Purpose

Many of us are living lives that are the fulfillment of our parent’s, grandparent’s or great-grandparent’s risks & sacrifices.  


Our freedom, prosperity, safety, and in many cases our existence – came about because a previous generation took the risk in a moment of uncertainty, to come here.


I have thought often about the risks my grandfather Eddie & great aunt Sophie took to leave Ukraine at 13 & 15. About the courage and fear that their parents must have felt sending them the money to make this risky journey by themselves.


Think for a moment about the risks and the sacrifices that were made by your ancestors so that you might sit here right now.


For what purpose did they take this risk?


What risks and sacrifices might be required of us in this moment of relative security?


This is one way of understanding the core question of Rosh Hashanah.


Have we lived up to all the risks, sacrifices and courageous life that preceded us and allowed us to reach this moment?


What more should we be doing in our short lives to live up to all that came before us?


It is not only that the Torah commands us repeatedly to protect the stranger, but also that our own ears are especially attuned to hear this commandment.


As Jews living in America today our history and our relative security make us uniquely positioned to respond to the experiences of refugees and immigrants.


The stories of undocumented immigrants in the United States today are remarkably similar to our own.


Like Jews, they have fled violent circumstances, fled unstable and sometimes corrupt governments.


Like our ancestors their poverty has required them to be resourceful.


The undocumented immigrants living in the US, have like us, been willing to take great risks to protect the future of their families.


Like Jews before them, when official doors were closed they looked for alternative paths to find security.


It has been widely reported that the current administration will announce a cap of 50,000 refugees to be admitted to the US in 2018.


This would be the lowest number ever set since the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980. This in the face of the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.


But our work should not just be limited to expanding the number of refugees allowed entry into the US.


We need to be advocating on behalf of immigrants already here in the US who are being threatened with deportation.


It is tempting but false to imagine that there is some meaningful line that can be drawn between clearly oppressed refugees and less deserving immigrants.


We need to work to help realize a rational system of immigration that strives for maximal opportunity for all people.


This is the work we need to do, but after so many decades of failed attempts, after a year of demonizing immigrants whether from the Middle East or from Central America, I am not hopeful that this is the moment we will succeed in realizing an expansive vision.


Sanctuary Movement

But, we can succeed at buying time, at slowing down the process of arrests and deportations of immigrants.


There are a growing number of churches, synagogues and other houses of worship that are offering sanctuary to individuals fearing deportation.


Offering sanctuary is not a special legal status nor does it require breaking the law.


There is no legal loophole that allows congregations to offer special protections to undocumented immigrants.


Rather there is a long-standing policy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, to avoid arrests on congregational property.


In some cases sanctuary buys time for the individual to seek a deferment or another resolution that will allow them to maintain their residency.

Sometimes the public attention itself seems to open up new possibilities.



When Is A Law Unjust

I want to take a moment to address the question of law.

I trust there are some lawyers among us.


Jews despite our history as border crossers tend to support the rule of law.


There is a rabbinic teaching dina demalchuta dina, a halachic principle that guides us to follow the laws of country we resided in, sometimes over Jewish law.


It has been argued by some that undocumented immigrants, just by being here, have broken the law and that this alone should be reason enough for their deportation.


The question has also been raised, how do we decide which laws we support and which laws we resist or perhaps even break.


I will offer the following as a starting point for this conversation.


Laws that discriminate, laws that put human life in danger and laws that degrade our humanity are worthy of our scrutiny, and quite likely should be resisted.


The current system of deporting undocumented immigrants is carried out in a discriminatory way that often targets people of color.


It deports people facing meaningful danger in their country of origin.

It erodes human dignity by incarcerating individuals for years before deportation and by tearing apart families.


The sanctuary movement is one of those rare opportunities, when one action to defend individual dignity can have profound public impact.


Like Rosa Parks refusing to participate in segregated bussing.

Or like students in Mississippi trying to register black voters.


But unlike those actions, carried out by individuals and groups, becoming a sanctuary is something we can only do as a synagogue.


We Are A Sanctuary

I am proud that the Board of Bnai Keshet voted unanimously last week to declare Bnai Keshet a sanctuary congregation.  


It should be noted that while there was considerable unanimity that this declaration is line with our community values, there was also strong concern that we take action in a way that preserves and protects our commitment to all the core values of this community.  


And I am proud to say we aren’t the only synagogue in America who has made this choice nor the only congregation in NJ.


I am happy that the Board could take this step knowing that many congregations in the area have pledged their support.


As more and more congregations offer sanctuary this act of welcome has the power to change the framework within which immigration is discussed


From danger to welcome

From risk to opportunity

From compliance to obligation

From scarcity to gratitude.


We are a synagogue community that is good at acting with compassion.

The Sanctuary Movement is an opportunity for us to amplify that compassion publicly.


The power of the Sanctuary Movement is driven by the moral authority that comes from acting compassionately.


There has never been a case of the US justice department bringing charges against a congregation for offering to house an undocumented immigrant.


The longstanding policy of ICE to not arrest immigrants on the property of churches, synagogues or mosques is a clue that these arrests might not only look unjust – but might indeed be unjust.


Amanda Morales Guerra fled Guatemala in 2004.

She was fleeing violent threats including the threat of kidnapping from a military faction that had wanted to recruit one of her brothers.


She is 33 and the mother of 3 children all US citizens.


For many years she has been checking in regularly with ICE.


But last month she was told that when she next showed up she should come with a one way ticket back to Guatemala.


Still fearing a return to the instability of Guatemala she chose instead to accept the offer of sanctuary extended to her and her children by Holyrood Episcopal Church in New York.[vi] 


Abraham was not only the first immigrant in the Torah but also the first host.


It should be noted that immediately following Abraham’s choice to welcome strangers into his tent he receives blessing and the promise that Sarah will give birth to Isaac.   


The strangers he welcomes into his tent are transformed into messengers, into angels.


Embodied practice

When we take action that brings us into new neighborhoods, actions that change our environment, that invite relationships with strangers, people we might not have otherwise met we are transformed in ways that could not happen, no matter how well-intentioned we may be, from an intellectual distance.


A few years ago I visited Ghana.

Before I ever met children who had been enslaved, I knew I opposed slavery.

But travelling to Ghana and meeting those children transformed this knowledge into heartfelt commitment to fight human trafficking and the poverty that invites it.


AJWS invited me to Ghana not because it was an efficient way to build a school for children freed from slavery, but rather as an efficient way to transform my heart.

They understood that sending me physically to Africa would change my public engagement in America.


This also happened when we observed Tisha B’av at the Elizabeth Detention Center.

Praying outside its doors, expanded our understanding of what it means to be detained for months or years of one’s life awaiting deportation.

It revived our memory of what it has meant in previous generations to not have legal status, to be vulnerable.


This transformation happens when we invite the homeless into our building with IHN, when we feed the hungry with MESH, when we help build homes in Paterson.


If we host an individual seeking sanctuary, it will transform our understanding of the issues related to immigration.

It will concretize the challenges faced by the undocumented.

It will help to reset our thinking about what a good immigration policy would look like in ways that we cannot predict.



We can’t know whether opening the doors of our congregation as a sanctuary to an individual or family, facing deportation will transform immigration policy.


But we can trust that becoming a sanctuary congregation will transform us.


I look forward to seeing this transformational journey unfolds with you.





[i] This is particularly true for people who are adopted or for individuals whose ancestors were slaves and came here against their will.

[ii] After The Closed The Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965, by Libby Garland. 

[iii] When Henry Green received his citizenship – he didn’t stop looking for ways to bring his family to the US. One of the family members he helped to bring was his nephew Harold Greene who immediately served in WWII helping with counter intelligence. He later worked in the Kennedy administration to help draft Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Who served as a federal judge and delivered the AT&T anti-Trust ruling.  And it goes without saying that had the safe entry of Henry Green to the US only brought his grand-daughter Cynthia, that itself would have been a blessing. 

[v] (Deut. 10:16-19)

09/25/2017 11:51:42 AM


Please click below for a copy of Rabbi Elliott's Rosh Hashanah sermon

Poetry of Life Sermon Erev Rosh Hashanah


I especially want to welcome anyone here for whom this is your first Rosh Hashanah with Bnai Keshet


We are so glad you came and we hope you will keep coming and join our community.


Not to make to big a deal about it but this is my 16th Rosh Hashanah at Bnai Keshet.


I know there are some here who have been to every Rosh Hashanah with Bnai Keshet since it founding in 1978.

It is great to have you here as well.

This is Bnai Keshet’s 40th Rosh Hashanah.


Again not to make too big a deal of it, but I have now spent more Rosh Hashanahs here than anywhere else in my life.


With the retirement this year of Rabbi Steven Kushner in Bloomfield and next year of Rabbi Alan Silverstein in Caldwell, I will soon be the most senior rabbi on Bloomfield Ave. corridor.


I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that no one says to me any more:You look too young to be a rabbi.


The poem by Nikki Giovanni that Phoebe just read is about facing the process of aging. As it might be new to you I am going to read it again:




i know my upper arms will grow

flabby it's true

of all the women in my family


i know that the purple veins

like dead fish in the Seine

will dot my legs one day

and my hands will wither while

my hair turns grayish white I know that

one day my teeth will move when

my lips smile

and a flutter of hair will appear

below my nose I hope

my skin doesn't change to those blotchy



i want my menses to be undifficult

i'd very much prefer staying firm and slim

to grow old like a vintage wine fermenting

in old wooden vats with style

i'd like to be exquisite I think


i will look forward to grandchildren

and my flowers all my knickknacks in their places

and that quiet of the bombs not falling on Cambodia

settling over my sagging breasts


i hope my shoulder finds a head that needs nestling

and my feet find a footstool after a good soaking

with Epsom salts


i hope I die


by the life I tried

to live

I love this poem. I love the image of her shoulder finding a head that needs nestling.


I love the final line, “I hope I die warmed by the life I tried to live.”


And I love the way Nikki Giovanni reads the aging features of her family into her future.


I like noticing the features that my son Akiva shares with me and my father. We all share a chin and brow with many of my cousins, aunts and uncles.


I love that my son Sam is so obviously the child of my wife Sarah.

But I also take note of the ways Sam’s childhood photos look remarkably similar to my own.


That my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and older cousins, have aged well, does not stop me from noticing that they have aged, that we are all aging.


As I approach 50, I now know with perfect certainty, as many of you have already experienced.

That in a blink of an eye we will all be much older.

God willing.


I love how this poem expects and even embraces what might feel like the less attractive inevitabilities of aging.


Is it really Rosh Hashanah again?


The “surprise” that it is again Rosh Hashanah, shouldn’t really be a surprise.

Wise friends have been warning us for years that time speeds up the longer we live.


Wisdom demands we realize that just as the next weekend is always only a few days away, next year will be here in a moment.


Rosh Hashanah celebrates this cycle even as it tries to wake us up to the truth that the repetition of these cycles in our lives –

will one day come to an end.


Embracing the rougher truths of aging helps us to embrace our mortality.


Embracing the brevity of our lives, can help us to appreciate the power of being alive in this moment.


As Nikki Giovanni puts it we should appreciate;

- the good fortune of living without the sounds of bombs falling

- the comfort of finding a head that needs nestling on our shoulder

- the feeling of warmth whether from a bath

or from a life well lived.


I want to read again the second poem that Phoebe shared.


It is a poem about the experience of being alive

It is called, “Before Words” by Dan Bellm




A baby is singing in the morning

before anyone is up in the house


Before he has decided

which of all the languages he will speak

he is trying the sounds of his voice

in the first light


He hears a man

come up the street collecting bottles

just ahead of the garbage truck

straining uphill

to throw them away


He hears the shriek of glass

It is like the vessels of Creation

breaking in God’s hands


He hears the wind around the house

and in the wind

every word he will ever say

and what will stay unsaid


and stops to listen to silence

and sing to it

the way the body addresses the soul

lending it shape

lending it comfort and sorrow


The body wants to be useful

and the soul is so wide


This is the way we awaken

He remembers he is alone

and cries for us.


I also love this poem.

I try to make it a practice to only share poems with you
that I love.


I love imagining the sounds of the world as they might be heard by a baby who does not yet know language.


I am touched by the image of parents being awoken at the end of this poem by this baby as he notices his aloneness.


I can easily imagine these parents, arising from their sleep,

to hold their baby and ease his cry of loneliness.


Dan Bellm wrote this poem as part of a series inspired by the weekly Torah portions.


This poem was written for Bereshit, the first passage of the Torah which we will read at the completion of these holidays

in just a few weeks.


This poem is about the power of experiencing the world anew.


It imagines how very young ears might hear the sound of God’s first creation.


In the breaking of glass, it is referencing the mystical teaching that before our world came into existence there were multiple attempts at creation. That even our own world was created with brokenness.


I like how these two poems reverberate with experience of being alive and with the themes of Rosh Hashanah.


Nikki Giovanni’s poem resonates with themes in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy that remind us of our own mortality.


Dan Bellm’s poem about birth and awakening raise up the primary metaphors of this holiday of rebirth and renewal.


Three times tomorrow after blowing the shofar we will say:

Hayom Harat Olam – Today the world is reborn.


Many of us come Rosh Hashanah services seeking the comfort of tradition but the message of this holiday’s liturgy is that everything can change.


Not only do we have the potential to change, and be reborn to new patterns and behavior, new habits, new passions, renewed relationships.


But the very world is being reborn.

Our community, our society, our universe is changeable and renewable.


The themes of mortality and renewal that we will pray and meditate over as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

affirm seemingly contradictory messages.


We will die. And We will be reborn.


We are part of an eternal cycle. And We can change.


Tomorrow will be here soon. And Live in the present moment.


Life is sacred. And Life is fleeting.


The tension between these themes is intentional.

Our effort to hold them all at once or even one after the other is meant to help us open up to mystical and spiritual truths that cannot really be spoken.


One of the greatest rabbis of my lifetime, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, alav hashaom, calls these truths that must be whispered.


One of these truths is that life flows through us.


That life actually passes through us from generation to generation.


That this has something to do with God.

Reb Zalman taught it like this:


Our entire life and everything we do is nothing but God, Godding,

Godself as us.The best we can do then is to make our life a good ride for God, to consciously devote our actions to that purpose.


And this is the call of Rosh Hashanah to consciously devote our actions to the purpose of making our life a good ride for God.


Of attuning ourselves so that we are part of a chain of goodness, a cycle of liberation, a history and future of love.


Both of these poems end with the hope for loving embrace and human touch.


Through out these Days of Awe we reach out in embrace during the priestly blessing wrapping our tallitot and arms around each other.


I hope that this will not be our only moment of embrace.

That this Rosh Hashanah we also feel embraced by our tradition.

Embraced by our community.

And Embraced by our knowledge that life flows through us.


Leshanah Tovah!


Tisha B'Av Service on July 31st in Elizabeth, NJ

07/25/2017 10:26:37 AM


Friends, Tisha BAv is the most tragic day in the Jewish calendar. The historical moments that it marks, whether the destruction of the Second Temple or the expulsion from Spain, remindus of the Jewish history of being forced to migrate and of

Rabbi Elliott Responds To Anti-Semitism Rise

03/02/2017 04:46:28 PM




The recent surge in anti-Semitism and attacks on the Jewish community is unprecedented in contemporary American life. These terrifying actions have included over 80 bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and Jewish Day Schools. Each bomb threat requires preschool children to be removed from their classrooms, elderly and disabled individuals (for whom mobility can be challenging) to quickly exit, and many others to disrupt their lives because of the real potential for violence. JCCs and other institutions have had to dedicate resources to being prepared for possible threats and keeping their members and staff safe. This week a synagogue in Indiana found that a bullet had been shot through the window of a religious school classroom. All of this is happening at the same time as horrible desecrations of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, and the spike in anti-Semitic graffiti in places as close by as South Orange. These actions are terrifying and should be treated with the same seriousness as any terrorist action.  

It is painful and frightening to be living in a moment where anti-Semitism is rising on both ends of the political spectrum in the US. I am dismayed to live in a moment where I feel the need to clarify that fighting anti-Semitism and protecting Jews from discrimination is a central commitment of our community. I am disheartened to not see clear and universal denunciations of these incidents by all of our elected and civic leaders.

I do find hope in many powerful statements of support from the broader faith community. I am especially inspired by stories of Jewish-Muslim solidarity that keep rising to the surface at this moment. Organizers of the rebuilding of a mosque burned down in Tampa were initially mystified by the abundance of donations they received coming in multiples of 18, and were then moved to realize that all these gifts were coming from Jews. Likewise, it is profound to hear of the thousands of dollars donated by Muslims to repair desecrated Jewish cemeteries. I am inspired to hear stories from my many colleagues in Philadelphia of working side by side with clergy of all faiths to raise tombstones. These acts of solidarity feel especially important knowing there has also been a dramatic rise in hate crimes in recent months against many other minority communities.

Please know that Bnai Keshet was already in the process of reviewing and strengthening our security procedures, including meetings and calls with specialists from the ADL and our local police department. We are moving forward with heightened urgency and attention.

Bnai Keshet has always affirmed our commitment to klal yisrael – to the Jewish people as a central value. We stand in solidarity with our local JCCs and with our colleagues around the country who have been suffering on the front lines of these attacks. We must demand that our elected and civic leaders do everything in their power to root out this domestic terrorism. We will continue to look for ways to express our solidarity and to take action together as a community. I encourage you to take this opportunity to offer support to the ADL and to our local JCC. If you are not already a JCC member this is a moment to consider joining.


With Love & Courage,

Rabbi Elliott

Currently In Israel - Some Thoughts

02/03/2017 12:29:12 PM


Practicing ThankfulnessInterfaith Thanksgiving Service November 20, 2016

11/21/2016 10:53:56 AM


יוֹדוּךָ יְהֹוָה כָּל־מַעֲשֶׂיךָ וַחֲסִידֶיךָ יְבָרֲכוּכָה:
145:10 All your creations, YHVH will thank you, and your loved ones will bless you.
Some days I wake up more thankful than others.
I trust this is true for most of us.
Some days I not only feel ungrateful for what I have
but resentful of it.
I don’t want to get up and face the challenges of my family
or my job
or the daily news.
I want something simpler.
In the Jewish tradition
there is a prayer we are supposed to say
at the moment of waking.
Even before we have opened our eyes
or gotten out of bed.
Modeh ani lefanecha melech chai vekayam shehechezarta bi nishmati bechemla rabah emunahtecha.
I am thankful before You
Power of life and existence
Because you have returned my soul
in loving care
Great is your faith in me.
Saying ths prayer not only expresses my gratitude t
hat I am alive,
Waking to a new day
it also asserts that God has helped me to remember I have a soul.
No matter how I feel
I remember that there is a part of me
that is connected to the eternal.
Finally, it ends with a declaration of God’s faith in me.
Modeh Ani  - is a great prayer to start the day with.
I often forget!
But when I remember to say it
in that not quite fully awake moment.
I am thankful,
I am alive,
 I feel my connection to all
and I know I must have a purpose.
It usually helps me to put my good fortune,
or temporary feelings of misfortune, in perspective.
This is the most basic Jewish practice of gratitude.
But next week is Thanksgiving
so I am going to teach you a very advanced gratitude practice.
It might be too hard.
If so just go back to the first prayer practice I described.
Ps. 145:10
י יוֹדוּךָ יְהֹוָה כָּל־מַעֲשֶׂיךָ:
Is usually translated
All your creations God, will thank you
The psalmist imagines everything on earth thanking God.
It is possible to thoughtfully misread this line.
“They will thank you God
for all of your creations…”
This reading suggests that we must be thankful for EVERYTHING, for every aspect of creation.
Every aspect of creation.
The good and the bad.
There are in fact teachings and prayers
that ask us to be thankful not only for what is right in the world but also for what is wrong.
The pleasant and the unpleasant,
good and bad,
blessing and curse – all of existence. (kol)
Such teachings are rooted in the idea that everything is connected,
that everything has a spark of the divine and that everything, every person,
every experience can teach us something
and should be greeted with gratitude.
Offering thanks for everything and everyone
might seem especially hard to some of us right now.
Maybe after this election there is something that made you angry.
Or maybe when you think about who will be gathered around your thanksgiving table,
it might seem  
especially hard to imagine being thankful for certain guests.
Like I said before this is advanced practice.
The advanced nature of this practice
is especially true for anyone who has experienced real suffering,
and all of us at some point experience suffering.
If this practice of offering thanks
even or difficult things and difficult people
were sold in stores it would come with a warning
Practice only under spiritual supervision.
Thanking God for everything
does not mean
God made all the horrible things we experience for a reason.
Or God causes suffering.
It takes real chutzpa to say that we know anything at all about God
and I believe it is potentially blasphemous
to say that God is making people suffer.
For this “advanced practice”
that I’m inviting us to try this Thanksgiving
It is enough to say:
I have faith that the world is good.
I am alive and I am thankful to be alive.
I am awake enough to notice my suffering.
Just as I am thankful for the good of life,
I will try to see what happens
when I offer thanks for the challenges of life.
I have tried offering thanks for things in my life
that I are unpleasant.
And I have noticed how it helps me reorient.
I will share one very personal example.
I have children with ADHD and other special needs.
To be clear I love my children
and feel grateful to have them in my life.
But having a child with special needs can be very hard.
It is harder than most people who have not experienced it might realize.
There are moments that my primary feeling is not gratitude but anger or resentment or frustration.
Moments when if I were 100% honest I would tell you –
I wouldn’t choose this challenge.
And you know what I didn’t choose this challenge.
But it is my challenge
And when I can remember to express gratitude for it…
Everything opens up.
The resentment softens.
I notice the compassion and patience and understanding that has been born from this experience.
I remember how grateful I am to have these boys in my life.
We can do the same thing with family members who are challenging. Or with politicians we disagree with. Or sometimes with more intense misfortune and suffering that can be a part of life.
Trying to greet the truth of our existence with gratitude is not the same as wanting or accepting every hardship or annoyance.
Rather it is a reorientation that allows us to notice:
What opportunities might exist in the moment?
How might this challenge reveal my purpose?
Where is the holiness in this person I find difficult?
What have I learned even from my failings and tragedies?
Is there any meaning in this pain?
I think that there is something in the willingness
to at least ask the question –
how can I be grateful for Everything Existence has brought me –
that for me leads to loving others and blessing God.
But like I said – offering thanks for everything, even hard things, is advanced practice.
Never hesitate to return simply
to just offering thanks
for everything that is easy and good and wonderful
about being alive.
Modeh ani lefanecha melech chai vekayam shehechezarta bi nishmati bechemla rabah emunahtecha.
I am thankful before You - God
Power of life and existence
Because you have give me a soul
in loving care
Thank you for
Your great faith in me.

Thoughts on Election Results

11/09/2016 01:13:59 PM


Know that a person must pass over a very, very narrow bridge,

and the fundamental principle is not to make oneself afraid at all.


ודע שאדם צריך לעבור על גשר צר מאד מאד

והכלל והעיקר שלא יתפחד כלל


Nachman of Bratslav



Dear Bnai Keshet,


This morning we woke up with a real sense of fear and heartbreak. Having heard from many of you we know this apprehension was not because a Republican won and Democrat lost. Rather, there is a genuine sense of anxiety that the rhetoric of this election has attacked core American and Jewish values, and specifically the values of our community at Bnai Keshet.

While it is easy to get caught up in our own worries, we should acknowledge that some of us, some of our neighbors, some of our relatives, may have more reason than we do to feel afraid. Immigrants, people of color, Muslims have all been especially singled out during this campaign. There have been promises to roll back LGBT rights and reproductive rights. All of this has happened in an environment that included a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism and misogyny. Now is a time for us to reach out with love to each other and to those who have reason to feel especially anxious.

Now we have a responsibility to come together. We have an obligation to stand with those who may feel attacked. We have an opportunity to replace the fear of fear with love and support born from our faith that every human being is a reflection of the divine.  

Tonight we invite you to join us in reflection and prayer.

7:00 PM Bnai Keshet

8:00 PM First Congregational Church

We will be gathering first at Bnai Keshet to share and pray as a synagogue and then walking down the street to First Congregational Church for an interfaith prayer service with several other local congregations.

We will both strive to make ourselves available throughout the rest of this week if you need to call and speak with a rabbi. 


With Love,

Rabbi Elliott & Rabbi Ariann


Shema: Radical Outreach - From the Inside Out, Rosh Hashanah 2016

10/04/2016 06:24:23 PM



Shema – Yisrael – Adonay – Eloheynu – Adonay – Echad
This is our truth.
This is our teaching.
If Hebrew had capital letters, this is a sentence in which every word would be capitalized.
Maybe every letter.
It is personal and universal.
Six words.
Shema - Listen –
Listening begins internally.
We must begin listening alone.
The physics of hearing happen inside our head.
Tiny membranes and bones in our ears
Translate the world’s vibrations into sounds
And our mind makes meaning.
The command Shema demands that we pay attention.
When we say the Shema we are listening for the vibration of God’s oneness.
But the second word of the Shema
Yisrael directs our concentration outside of our self.
We declare ourselves part of a group.
This group actually.
Shema Yisrael reminds us that listening is not only an inward task.
Most of our listening practice is done in relationship to other people.
We listen to their stories, listen to instructions and listen to their ideas.
When we say the Shema, the second word, Yisrael
proclaims our relationship to each other.
Together we commit to listen for God’s oneness.
It’s possible to discover God alone.
But, the path of Yisrael is to join together,
as we struggle to know God.
Shema Yisrael Adonay
The third word of the Shema requires us to listen in a particularly challenging way.
Esoteric even.
We do this by pronouncing the third word incorrectly.
Like a young reader who comes to a word they do not recognize and inserts their best guess.
All this focus on listening and we never get to hear
the actual name of God!
We say Adonay with such intensity.
It is so much a part of our prayer,  
but it might as well be a holy version of the kinds of bleeps used on the radio to mask curse words.
Adonay – means Lord.
But the prominence of this metaphor in prayer
has less to do with its meaning
than its value as the chosen bleep
pronounced in place of the most powerful
four-letter-word in existence.
It is hard to listen to the Name beneath the bleep.
But we intuit
that the third word of the Shema,
the name Yod Hey Vav Hey,
is an attempt to describe everything in existence with just four letters.
It is the unspoken name for the unnamable.
It means Being with a capital B.
It means Existence.
It means Was, and Is, and Will Be and Always.
All - Ways.
Shema Yisrael Adonay - In just three words –
we take a journey from our inward experience,
to our relationships with others,
to our name for the most Universal concept imaginable.
The name we call God describes the universe.
It means all existence,
as it has ever been,
as it ever will be,
and as it is at this very moment.
But no sooner does the Shema bring us to the universal,
than does it slam us back into our communal and personal experience.
When we say Eloheynu –our God,
we are saying that Adonay­ YHVH,
the four letter description of all space time
  • is Eloheynu Our God.
We are declaring a communal experience of that cosmic name.
Real lived Experience.
Experiences of suffering and experiences of liberation
and all the life in-between.
This connection between experience and revelation is proclaimed
when we conclude the Shema
 quoting God:
“I am Adonay your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be your God; I am Adonay your God.” [1]
When we say Eloheynu our God,
It grounds us in our historical narrative.
We have suffered.
We have been slaves.
We have been excluded.
We have endured pogroms.
We have survived mass genocide.
And our suffering
Is part of our understanding of Adonay Eloheynu
the All/Universe/Existence  our God.
we were brought out of the slavery for a purpose.
We remember our suffering and our liberation.
We were enslaved and we are freed.
The Temple was destroyed and we rebuild.
We were expelled and we have found new homes.
We were murdered and yet we live...
Again and again we have survived
And our liberation comes with a purpose.
Listen to the first commandment
– the first words of revelation at Sinai –
“I am Adonay your God
who brought you out of Egypt to be your God.”
Where is the commandment?
The commandment is to listen
to how God emerges from our people’s experience.
We have listened and truth about God has been revealed.
Ever since Sinai,
 We have been in a state of ongoing revelation.
We have abandoned idolatry.
We have replaced sacrifice.
We have re-imagined worship.
We have drashed, and explained and interpreted.
We have written and rewritten prayers.
We have studied and sang niggunim.
We have enlightened.
We have reconstructed Judaism.
Shema Yisrael Adonay Eloheynu
– it’s all there in those four words.
That alone could be our prayer.
The words we live by;
the words we teach our children.
Listen – Yisrael – All Existence – Is OUR God.
Dayenu – It would have been enough.
But the Shema does the craziest thing.
It adds a fifth word –
Shema Yisrael Adonay Eloheynu Adonay
 - it repeats itself.
We repeat YHVH the name of God.
If YHVH describes All the Universe for All Time,
What more could be added by its repetition?
It is at this moment in the Shema that the Universe
becomes Universal.
It is through the repetition of the word Adonay that we declare.
Even though we came to this truth
through our experience,
this truth goes beyond our experience.
And we emphatically strengthen the point with the final word– Echad - One
Adonay Echad - YHVH is One.
The universe is unified.
The truth of everyone’s experience is One.
All truths
of all peoples are connected.
Adonay is One directs our spirit outward
towards everyone.
Our truth is not only for ourselves but for all humanity.
It binds us to humanity.
And the word Eloheynu our God
now means everyone’s God,
Everyone who is trying to understand
how all this Universe fits together.
How all this Life, is One.
This past Christmas Eve at Bnai Keshet, we hosted a dinner for 10 families who had fled the war in Syria.
We served Chinese food.
We were compelled by our Jewish story.
We recognized our experience in their stories.
Adonay is One.  
At the end of the evening, a Syrian man about my own age named Mohamed said through an interpreter:
“I am so grateful to be here.
I want my children to know that all the sons of Abraham are our brothers. This is not something my children could have experienced in Syria, but they saw it today in this synagogue.”
And we saw it.
Adonay is One.
The Shema is not only the motto of our people.
Our purpose is to share the truth of the Shema.
We Jews have needed to be in survival mode for a long time. And we have gotten really good at it.
We have worked hard for thousands of years to keep our traditions alive, to keep our children alive;
to keep ourselves alive.
We have struggled to pass on this truth.
Adonay is One.
From generation to generation.
The program for protection and survival is part of our Jewish operating system.
They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.
Yes, anti-Semitism still exists.
We must be vigilant in response to its presence, whether in Europe or the Middle-East, or on college campuses.
But we now live at an amazing time in Jewish history.
A moment and place where we are that:
we can afford to turn the dial slightly away from
protect, preserve, survive
and slightly towards live, teach and share.
Judaism has powerful truths to teach.
Truths embodied in the Shema but not limited to it.
Important understandings of the universe and God
and the nature of existence
that are needed not only by Jews,
but are needed by all of humanity.
This is a moment, in fact, when Judaism’s preservation and continued revelation will be best served by turning the gaze of our religious practice outwards.
We need to do better at sharing the Judaism we love.
Traditionally we read Torah not just on Shabbat,
but on Mondays and Thursdays.
This tradition developed because those were the market days. 
The Torah was read, our truths were proclaimed
In the market, where everyone went to buy their necessities on the busiest days of the week.
Today it would be some combination of the farmer’s market and the mall on Black Friday.
It has been a long time since we lived in a place
where we could share Judaism that openly.
But right now, at least in America, it is a time when we can safely share our truths.
We can bring our Torah to the marketplace.[2]
For anyone who might be starting to feel uncomfortable,
let me just say now, I am not talking about proselytizing.
I am not talking about trying to make anybody be Jewish or convincing anyone to leave their religious paths or traditions.
And let me also be clear,
I’m not even sure what this will look like.
Every interfaith service we have ever participated in is moved by this idea.
Three years ago, when we joined with local synagogues
and celebrated Hanukkah in downtown Montclair.
That was something like what I imagine.
Last week, I tried sitting outside of Starbucks with a sign on my table proclaiming I was a Rabbi offering free advice.
That was an effort to figure this out.
I am not giving this sermon about taking our Torah to the marketplace because I have figured out how to do it.
Rather, I am giving this sermon
because I think we need to figure out how to do it.
For our own good, we should proclaim the Shema
and everything it stands for
in some version of the contemporary marketplace.
To start with, it is what we believe!
The God we believe in is a universal God.
Alright, to be clear, we aren’t 100% sure what we believe.
BUT that we honestly admit this
is one the great strengths of Judaism.
Whatever we believe,
we certainly don’t believe
it only applies to us.
We understand that when truth dwells within us,
it is shared through us. (Ex. 29:45-46 p.131)
Our truth does not belong to us alone.
Adonay is One is a shared truth.
When we conclude the Aleynu we sing:
Vene’emar: Vechayah Adonay lemelech al kol ha’aretz.
Bayom hahu yihyeh adonay echad ushmo echad.
One day we will figure out as a world
that YHVH, Adonay, All Universal Existence
is the truth that rules the earth;
and on that day everyone will understand
that the many names we have for God and Life and Existence are all One.
And we will name that truth - One.
This belief is central to Judaism, but for Reconstructionists
And, I think, for most contemporary Jews, it is especially true.
We believe that our teaching is our unique path
but on a shared trip.
When Mordecai Kaplan began describing Judaism as a civilization, he was trying to find a language
that would allow us to hold on to our Jewish identity
as we embraced our American identity.
This was radically important
in a world that rewarded assimilation and integration.
But today it is not just Jews
who are bi-cultural and multi-civilizational.
The world has caught up with the Jewish dilemma Kaplan was describing.
Everyone lives hyphenated identities.
It is taken for granted that we can legitimately claim multiple cultural and identity allegiances.
The multifaceted nature of our identity is celebrated
as a source of enrichment, not contamination.
Yes, living with other cultures and religions comes with challenges,
but we are here, in this particular synagogue,
because we embrace the rewards
that come with those challenges.
So right beside our worries about assimilation and intermarriage,
Also exists our acceptance of assimilation and intermarriage.
We want to live with people who are different from us.
We want to interact in diverse communities.
We want the richness that comes from being with people different from ourselves.
Our actions imply we think the rewards are worth the risks.
When I talk about bringing Judaism to the marketplace,
I am saying that for us to maximally benefit from the diverse reality of our life,
we have to take our whole Jewish selves into the world.
We have to be open not only to learning from others,
but ready to let others learn from us.
When we teach others about what it means to be a Jew,
our own Judaism is transformed.
Try it.
Try explaining to someone else what it is like to be Jewish, what it brings to your life.
Take a second and rehearse in your mind your
“Why Be Jewish”
elevator pitch.  
When I do this,
I notice myself questioning my own descriptions of a meaningful Jewish life and asking:
Is that true? Do I really believe it?
Is it what Jews actually do
or just an idealized concept of what Judaism should be?
To the degree I realize my words are true,
they strengthen me.
To the degree
I don’t live up to my own descriptions of Jewish life,
they admonish me.
I say to myself:
If Shabbat is so great -
You should celebrate it more diligently.
If prayer is so powerful - why don’t you pray more often?
I remember when I was a kid, how my parents
would make us help clean the house when we had guests.
It seemed like we were covering something up.
I would say,
These are our friends, right?
Or our relatives who love us for who we are, right?
What would be so bad about them visiting our house
and it being messy like normal?  
But the bottom line was:
my parents were unhappy with our normal mess.
When we had guests coming,
they saw the messy corners with new eyes.
When I describe what is great about Judaism
to someone who isn’t Jewish,
if I notice embarrassment or perhaps hypocrisy –
I feel compelled to clean up my own house.
To demand that the Judaism I practice
and that the Jewish communities I am a part of
live up to the hype.
That they be every bit good enough that I can invite guests and relatives in with pride and confidence.
Intermarriage is not only a threat.
It can be an opportunity.
I believe Judaism has been well served
by the members we have gained
because they were introduced to Judaism
by someone they loved.
If it weren’t for intermarriage it is unlikely that Liz Lipner would be our President, and she has been a great President.
And she isn’t our only President or Board member
who chose Judaism after being introduced to it by a loved one.
I do not mean to underplay the challenges of building sustainable Jewish identities in an assimilating culture.
But I do want to raise up the truth that
it is a two way street.
And the Jewish people have been enriched by those who have chosen to be Jewish.
And By those who without explicitly converting, have nonetheless
dedicated their lives to raising Jewish children.
We have been blessed by those who have tied their fate to that of our people.
I am so grateful to everyone here today,
whether born into Judaism or not,
for having shown up to celebrate together
and to help build this community together.
Turning outward has brought valuable imports.
Judaism is a better religion today than it was 100 years ago because we have shown up to the market place of ideas as consumers.
We have embraced ideas that enhance
and sometimes change our Jewish practice.
Judaism is better because we listened to the demands of the women’s rights movement not just as Americans but as Jews.
It is a better religion because we have Bat Mitzvah
and full participation by women
and women rabbis.
And we are only beginning to see the benefits of these changes.
And we could tell the same story about our embrace of democratic practice, or marriage equality or the values of the civil rights movement.
And this is not new – Jews have always imported values & ideas
And we have also as exported values & ideas.
The world is better because
we have exported monotheism,
prayer as an alternative to animal sacrifice,
the importance of preserving minority opinions,
and the idea of Shabbat
known as the weekend.
The Jewish community is hyper-focused on Jewish continuity.
We are ultra concerned about preserving our Judaism for our children.
But what we are preserving
is not some museum piece from the shtetle.
It is not Anatevka.
It is not just bagel kitsch.
It is this Judaism that we are practicing today
in this community.
IF we aren’t satisfied with this Judaism,
then we should change it, not pass it on.
IF we are excited and moved by this Judaism;
if we are grateful to have inherited it or found it;
if we do want to pass it on to our children
then we should ask ourselves:
Why don’t we want to share it more broadly?
Why don’t we want to share it with everyone
who is interested?
Why don’t we look for people who might love Judaism
as much as we do?
How can we better embrace everyone who walks into the doors of our community for whatever curious reason?
How can we make it as easy as possible once someone has walked in the door to explore and practice Judaism
at whatever level they feel ready to embrace?
How can we practice sharing what we love about our Judaism?
How can we bring our Judaism to the public square?
– just to share it  -
Just to make its presence accessible to those
who might never have the reason to come into a synagogue
or be lucky enough to marry into a Jewish family?
If our ancestors were willing to publicly proclaim
Shema Yisrael Adonay Eloheynu  Adonay Echad
When they were being killed for being Jewish.
Shouldn’t we find a way
to publicly share this truth
at a moment when we can freely celebrate
being Jewish?
Shema – Yisrael – Adonay – Eloheynu – Adonay – Echad

[1] Much of my learning about the Shema is based on the teaching of Arthur Green, Radical Judaism. See p.132

[2] I am told this idea has been offered by Rami Shapiro.

Back for Sabbatical

08/01/2016 11:54:43 AM



It is wonderful to be back at Bnai Keshet and to be welcomed with the warm embrace of our community! I feel such good fortune to be a part of this community and to serve as your rabbi. I want to begin by offering my deep gratitude to everyone who stepped up while I was on sabbatical and, in particular, Rabbi Ariann. I know that my sabbath from normal responsibilities meant more service for many. It is a testament to the strength of our community, volunteer leadership, and staff, that I can dedicate myself for several months to study outside the synagogue and that life within our synagogue can continue to thrive.

Many have asked what my sabbatical was like. The answer is: productive and meaningful. Sabbatical allows for time to do the important, sustaining work we all long for, but rarely carve out space for, both professionally and personally. My primary areas of focus were liturgy, music and, of course, my family. With these and other endeavors during this time, I tried to work on things that would continue to sustain and transform my service as your rabbi well after the sabbatical.

With Rosh Hashanah 5777 on the horizon, I am eager to continue our work together strengthening our community and doing our part to strengthen Judaism. I am so glad that as a rabbi I get to do the work of building our Jewish community and our Jewish future together with you.

I can’t wait to catch up with all of you personally.

With love and gratitude,

Rabbi Elliott

Letters regarding Rabbi Elliott's Sabbatical

01/29/2016 12:03:25 PM




Dear Friends
Exodus tells us “[Y]ou may plant your land for six years and gather your crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it.”  This concept is called the shmita, or sabbatical. To this end, Rabbi Elliott will be going on sabbatical from February 1 until July 15, 2016.
The synagogue is in good hands. For many months, we have been planning to ensure that Bnai Keshet’s spiritual life and programming will continue in an uninterrupted fashion.
Rabbi Ariann will be assuming the role of spiritual leader of Bnai Keshet for these five and half months. Having been with us for four plus years, she is ready and able to provide leadership to the BK community. In addition, we have established a planning committee to coordinate activities and to assist Rabbi Ariann as needed.
Shabbat services will continue normally, with a regular Friday night and Shabbat morning schedule. Because of Rabbi Ariann’s invaluable role with our Bet Midrash, our services will usually be lay-led when school is in session, with the exception of b’nai mitzvot. If you would like to be a service leader, signups are available on the BK website.
We hope that you will join us as we wish Rabbi Elliott a healthy and meaningful sabbatical. We look forward to his return in July.
Liz and Marty

Dear Bnai Keshet,
As I prepare for my sabbatical it is with mixed emotions. I am still fueled by the joy of celebrating Akiva’s Bar Mitzvah with the synagogue. Like any parent, I feel such pride and delight to see the way my son stepped into this transformational moment. Slightly different than many, I had the opportunity to be embraced by the community as rabbi and as parent. My gratitude for this embrace is inexpressible.
Likewise having been at Bnai Keshet for more than 13 years, I am keenly aware of how lucky I am. It is an extraordinary Jewish community that I have the privilege to serve as Senior Rabbi. I love being your creative partner in building vibrant rooted Jewish life. Bnai Keshet has become not only the community I serve, but also the community to which I belong.
Sabbatical is meant to be a kind of quiet interruption. For me this will be a chance to study and explore ideas that need more time to sink into than my typical schedule allows. It will also be an opportunity to notice the rhythms of my own Jewish life and areas of interest when I temporarily take off my rabbi hat. I have faith that just as Shabbat’s interruption brings depth to the week, this sabbatical will bring increased meaning to my ongoing rabbinate.  It is nonetheless hard to leave.
My hesitancy about stepping back is eased, by my knowledge that Bnai Keshet is such a strong community. Further, I know that with Rabbi Ariann the congregation will have ongoing strong rabbinic leadership. The synagogue has a powerful cadre of leaders and is in great hands. I am confident that Bnai Keshet will continue to grow in my absence. .
Finally, it is much easier to temporarily step away because I know that I get to come home again. While I am not yet certain what fruits my sabbatical will bring I feel grateful knowing that we will share them together.
Rabbi Elliott

7 Things I Learned About Teshuva From My Sabbatical

12/23/2015 03:58:51 PM


Rosh Hashanah 2010

Hello. Shannah Tovah! I missed you.

As most of you know I was away last year on sabbatical. My sabbatical was in many ways a life changing experience. My gratitude for this opportunity is enormous.

The fact that this time away coincided with our nation’s recession; a time when many in America, and some of you, were out of work or experiencing financial challenges changed the experience of my sabbatical. It heightened my awareness of my very privileged position. My awareness of privilege was further sharpened by the knowledge of poverty in the world which makes life so precarious for many that even taking a day off, never mind months, might mean considerable hardship.  I tried to be constantly mindful of this privilege, working hard to take full advantage of this sabbatical opportunity to develop myself as a rabbi and as a person.

I am also aware, that I could not have this experience alone. My wife Sarah offered support and flexibility as we planned this time. I was offered mentoring and guidance from many teachers. I am thankful to Rabbi Darby for the grace and dedication with which he acted as the sole rabbi for Bnai Keshet during my absence. But most importantly I could not have done this without you.

This congregation had to commit significant resources to make my sabbatical possible and be willing to have a different kind of year while I was away. I know that many positive things emerged in my absence, and I am also aware that in certain ways this was a difficult year for the community. I also know this was an absolutely necessary experience for me. My gratitude to this community for making it possible is enormous.

Thank You!

And for any way in which my absence caused pain or harm to anyone here, I sincerely ask forgiveness.[1]

When I shared insights about sabbatical with a small group of you this July and with others of you individually, I have reflected on the relationship of sabbatical to other examples of interruptions in people’s lives. Some of these like my own are welcome: a year in a new town, going off to college, starting a new career, having a baby. Others are unwelcome and painful interruptions: a year of divorce or repairing a broken relationship, a period of unemployment, time spent battling or recovering from illness. These periods of interruption can be profound when they lead us to re-evaluate who we are and how we exist in the world. They force us to examine what we care about most.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also meant to interrupt our lives in just this way.

With the hopes of sharing a little about my sabbatical with you framed by these Days of Awe, which are a kind of annual micro-sabbatical, I want to offer this list of 7 things I learned about teshuva – or personal change, while on sabbatical:

  1. Don’t get let the trip you planned get in the way of the trip you are on.

We went to Israel for a lot of reasons but a major one was to strengthen our children’s sense of themselves as Jews and their connection with Israel. I worked hard to introduce my kids to the Jerusalem I love, the Old City, the shuk at Mahane Yehuda, the Western Wall on a Friday night.

But if you asked my kids what they loved about Jerusalem they would tell you first, the swimming pool on Emek Rafaim St., second, the abundance of ice cream and third the day we spent trying to escape the heat in Zedekiah’s tunnels where they pretended for hours to be archeologists.

            We stayed in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City at a Bed & Breakfast. Every morning we were served breakfast on their roof which had a magnificent view of the Dome of the Rock. From the beginning the kids were attracted to the shiny golden dome that dominates the skyline of Jerusalem. Early in the morning, on our last day, I was finally went with my son Akiva to look at this holy Muslim site atop the Temple Mount.

It was remarkably quiet. Tourists are not allowed during Muslim prayer time, so there only a few Muslims present, and hardly any tourists. As we approached to within about 20 yards of the Dome of the Rock, Akiva said, “It is so beautiful, I could drop to my knees.” And then he did it, he dropped to his knees. My son was finally having a spiritual moment in Jerusalem it just happened to be at a holy Muslim site rather than a holy Jewish site.

            And the truth is, it was a beautiful and holy moment. The contrast between this quiet serenity and the noisy, frenetic, crowded experiences we had at the Wall couldn’t have been greater. I came to this moment with my own history, with all the baggage you could imagine about Jerusalem, the Western Wall, The Temple Mount, and with my own hopes and expectations. All of this could have gotten in the way of me noticing or accepting this holy moment that was right in front of me.

It is so easy to get caught up in judging our experiences in relationship to old expectations, rather than simply being with what is. Often the experience or insight we are looking for is right in front of us but we have to be willing to be present with the moment as it is rather than as we had hoped it might be.

            Rabbi Richard Hirsch told me– “You think you are taking a sabbatical, but in fact the sabbatical takes you.”  Be open mindful on these days of awe, the experience you came to looking for may not be the experience you get. The experience you have may be the one you need.

  1. Be wary of casting blame

We all have a lot of excuses for not working on our personal issues, but one of the most common and most accepted in our society is that we are busy. “Oh, I’d love to – FILL IN THE BLANK – but I am just so busy these days. Swamped at work! The kids are all over the place! I am so over-committed!” And of course it is true – which is what makes it such a dangerous excuse.

As I prepared for my sabbatical I had a lot of personal goals – things that I wanted to do in my life, that I felt I never had enough time for because I was so busy. Things like exercise more, deepen my spiritual practice, and work to make our house feel like more of a home. And though I wouldn’t quite have admitted it, I often excused my failure to do these things by blaming work.

Sometime around the end of October, I remember realizing – alright, I have more time, I have more spaciousness, I am not going to meetings several nights a week but yet I still haven’t improved these habits of self-care. I had to face the facts that however busy my normal life might feel, it was not solely to blame. With my normal excuse unavailable, it became clear that the responsibility for making these changes was my own. It was at this moment that I really got started.

            On the Yamim Noraim our liturgy doesn’t leave a lot of room for blame. It doesn’t say, we have sinned before you by closing our heart or by deceit, but it wasn’t our fault. It simply says we have done wrong and we should change. Yes we should look carefully at what seems to get in the way of us making change, but in my own experience, it can be far too easy to stop once we have found this impediment rather than starting to figure out how to work around it. It is far too easy to say: “I have let myself down but – aha! I have an excuse! My work, my family, my personality is to blame!” When what we really need to say is, “Good! I think I figured out what is getting in the way of change, so now what do I do?”  The problem, the challenge, the character trait – might or might not be to blame. What is important is our desire to change and renewing our effort to make that change.

  1. Fake it till you make it,

One of the things I did last year was work part-time doing community organizing with Paterson congregations in the coalition New Jersey Together of which Bnai Keshet is a member. The need to take action in Paterson is as profound as the group is diverse. One of the biggest issues there is a feeling of insecurity and fear in the face of crime. I remember at one of our first community meetings a young teen stood up as said, she was angry that her parents wouldn’t let her go out at night because it was unsafe, but more angry that her parents were right.

In response we developed a Safe Streets Campaign. When Deputy Police Chief William Fraher came to our assembly to respond to our demands that officers be deployed to walk the beat in the 10 block corridor between and around our member churches of St. Paul’s Episcopal and First AME Zion, we could tell that we were not the type of community group he was used to dealing with. Unlike the perfunctory community police forums, with either narrowly defined interest groups or disconnected individuals, we had a room filled to capacity with over 150 Protestants, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, African Americans, Hispanics, Whites, and Arab-Americans, clergy and congregants across a diverse economic spectrum. And we ran the show. We set the agenda. After telling our story, we asked, Deputy Chief Fraher if he would commit to our Safe Streets plan with a simple, Yes or No.

You should know, in our preparatory meetings with Officer Fraher he had consistently represented himself as anti-community policing. Officer Fraher is a big, tall man, with a shaved head. He has a tough, no-nonsense way of communicating. To him community policing sounded too touchy-feely, like asking officers to join in basketball games and offer counseling to kids in need.  But something in our action, perhaps our assertive but respectful dialogue or the stories of fear and crime that were shared, perhaps a projection of power; led him when we asked, “Will you commit foot patrol officer to be part of this partnership?” to say, “YES”. Our community policing plan has now been expanded throughout the city even in areas where we have no member congregations.

I’ll tell you a secret. We didn’t have a lot of power and we didn’t think he’d say, “Yes,” but we asked anyway. We did our research, we stated our demands, and we held the police and each other accountable to these demands.

When it comes to teshuva you don’t have to wait until you’re sure of your success to try. If you are unsure you can make the change in your life that you need, try any way. Fake it. Act as if you can. Take action and this will inevitably create a reaction. And in this action you may find your way to holding yourself accountable.

  1. Sometimes the hardest thing to do, is nothing

I spent a lot of time last year meditating. In addition to my daily practice I went to two different weeklong silence retreats for rabbis. Yes you heard right – Rabbis – Silent – One Week!

We tend to think that when we are talking, we are really doing something. Many of us have jobs where all we do is talk. Many of us feel like we have to talk to understand ourselves. “Let me just talk this through with you.” Or “I’m just thinking out loud.” But I have noticed that very little of the noise in our lives, even the talking, is very real communication. For me at least, alI the talking, music, news programs, television, even silent voice in my mind, when I read newspapers and books can actually be an escape from being present with myself, my fears, my emotions. Talking can be used fill to up the moment, leaving no room for the fears that emerge when we remember just how narrow this bridge of our life really is.

At the conclusion of each of these week long retreats we had a ritual of re-entering into speech, in which each participant got to speak to group. In each case, I couldn’t speak without weeping. After seven days, I am finally asked to say a few words and all I could do was weep. I think for me, the experience of truly being with myself, of coming to peace with my own mind was so delightful and in its own way so heartbreaking, that tears were perhaps the only honest thing that I could have offered in the moment.

Being quiet is a great way to become reacquainted with ourselves and it is a good way to start noticing how our minds work. In silence we can notice message tapes that are constantly being generated by our minds. With a quite we can to consider if these messages are productive; if they are messages we want to react to. If you want to make change, being quietly mindful of your thoughts and internalized messages is a great place to start.

  1. Sometimes the hardest thing to do, is nothing Part 2

So the truth is meditation is really not the same as doing nothing, meditation, at least at my level, is still a lot like doing something. But trying to stop being a congregational rabbi for a year, that was a whole other kind of learning to do nothing.

One of the deepest teachings for me of the last year is about what happens when I stop doing all the things that I usually do to affirm my purpose in life. A great majority of these can be summed up in the title Rabbi. Last year I stopped giving sermons, leading services, tutoring bnai mitzvah, performing weddings, counseling the bereaved, going to meetings at the synagogue, answering emails that begin “Dear Rabbi,” writing newsletters… You get the idea.

I’ll be honest, I often let my self-worth and self esteem rise and fall in relationship to my sense that I am impacting people, my community, the world. When things I am a part of go well, I feel energized, powerful and contented and when they go badly I blame myself. Regardless of the fact that my presence, my involvement may have been only one small factor in its success or failure. I am humbled by the obvious truth that the synagogue survived without me. Many of us work hard to assure ourselves that our lives have meaning and that our existence matters. Some of us work because we are afraid to stop, afraid of what might arise if given space.

We should work hard. And we should strive to have an impact, but we should do so with the humble understanding that we are but one, the world is large, and our successes or failures are not completely under our control. They are impacted by many other people and conditions. None of us are so critical or so important that we can’t stop, that we can’t cease from our constant labors.  

If President Obama can find time in his day for basketball, time in his week for a date, and time his calendar for a vacation, so can we. If as it says in our tradition God worked for 6 days to create the world, but on the 7th day shavat vayinafash, God rested and was re-ensouled,  shouldn’t we also find time to do nothing, to rest and find our souls?

Sometimes the change we need is just a break. Sometimes our rejuvenation will only emerge from rest.

  1. The Text is For You.

As a rabbi I get to spend a fair amount of time studying Jewish texts, but very little of this is really for its own sake. When I sit down, to study the weekly Torah portion, I know I better find something to say pretty quick or I won’t have a devar Torah on Shabbat.

Last year I spent a lot of time studying Hasidic masters and in particular Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. I was moved by what it felt like to read this text only for myself. To read commentaries on the weekly parsha and have the most important question be, how does this resonate with the life I am living?

   Jewish prayer and Jewish ritual is filled with text. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are experiences overflowing with texts. These texts, these prayers have power. They have thousands of years and millions of Jewish lives behind them. But this real power is dependent on how we treat them. Can we read and listen to these texts with the belief that our lives really do hang in the balance? Can we read them with the assumption that we are doing something profound and meaningful, rather than perfunctory or hollow?

Most of the prayers we do on Yom Kippur we repeat 5 times over 24 hrs. The assumption is that we might find truth in one of these prayers or for that matter in all these prayers, each time we read them.

When you are working to create change the texts of our tradition, the Torah, the prayers are your friends. When you are suffering, when you are faced with a challenging question, when you are in doubt, when you are looking for resolve, try sitting with a text – the liturgy or weekly parsha is a good place to start but really it could be any text. Sit with this text and look for connections to your life at this moment. You are bound to find it.

Our tradition instructs us regarding Torah, “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.”[2] The Jews have always used the Torah to speak to their lives and to express their values, and guess what?-- We are the Jews!

Number 7: What’s the Real Point Anyway?

More than two years ago, when Sarah I were hatching a plan for my sabbatical, we were taken off guard by how stressful it was. Here was this tremendous opportunity and yet judging by the tone of our conversations, you might have guessed it was an immense burden. What we discovered was that the many options opened up by this interruption brought to the surface all the aspirations and all the rough spots in our lives.

Should we go away for the year, or be home so that Sarah could develop her career? If we go to Israel or somewhere else will our children thrive or suffer? If I follow one passion, one area of study, what others will remain neglected?

At some point I realized that whatever the program, where ever we lived, whatever I studied, it would be secondary to the never ending work of learning how to be human. The things I wanted to work on most: whether study, meditation & organizing, or spending time with my family, exercising and eating right, were all important before the sabbatical and will remain important my entire life.

The word teshuva, means turning but it specifically has a connotation of returning. The assumption of Judaism is that we are all perfect the way we are, we were created in the image of God and that we all have our own unique mitzvah to perform in the world. But somehow we get diverted from our path, we get distracted chasing after pleasant things or running away from hardships.

Teshuva is at its core our effort to be fully alive. Of course we need a way to make a living, and we need to do things that are fulfilling, and of course we have obligations to fulfill, but none of that is really why we are here. We push ourselves to achieve, to accomplish, to accumulate but these things fade, as we also will fade. We are alive for such a short time and our lives will never be replicated. We are here to become fully human, fully ourselves, each in our own holy way.

The work of teshuva was important last year, and will be necessary next year, but we can only do it now. Teshuva is not about trying to be something we are not, but rather about being exactly who we are. It is not about getting somewhere else, it is about being here completely, right now.

Teshuva means coming back to this.


[1] My thanks to Rabbi Toba Spitzer for sharing her sermon, "Seven Things I Learned About Teshuva From My Sabbatical” with me. Many of her ideas were helpful to me in shaping my own thinking. In a few cases I have used her wording almost verbatim without direct attribution. Her sermon can be found at

[2] Pirkey Avot, 5:26

Coming together in response to a hard week

11/20/2015 02:52:43 PM


Dear Chevre,

This has been a heart-wrenching week, with the bombing in Beirut, the bombing of the Russian airliner, the horrible attacks in France, yesterday’s attack in Israel and the hostage crisis in Mali.

Simultaneously we have seen a weakening of resolve to welcome Syrian refugees, themselves fleeing terror. Yet, the response of the organized Jewish community has been remarkably unified in its steadfast support of welcoming Syrian and other refugees fleeing persecution. Many of these statements of support point to the prejudice and fear that in 1939 lead the majority of Americans to oppose permitting even Jewish refugee children into the United States.

For more on what you can do to respond to the refugee crises click here for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. For a fuller discussion of our own family refugee stories and how this impacts our approach to this moment in history join us this Shabbat.


Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Elliott

Israel: Opening our Hearts

10/16/2015 04:23:42 PM


Israel: Opening our Hearts
There is a line in our Torah service that always draws my attention towards Israel. Just before opening the ark we sing the words:
אַב הָרַחֲמִים הֵטִיבָה בִרְצוֹנְךָ אֶת-צִיּוֹן תִּבְנֶה חוֹמוֹת יְרוּשָׁלָיִם:
 Av harachamim hetivah virtzonech et tziyon tivneh chomot yerushalayim.
I translate this line as: “Source of Compassion, may it be your will to act in kindness towards Zion and to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.” The last words of this line, “rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,” particularly because they are repeated, always make me pause. I often struggle with the concept of walls, thinking about them on one hand as metaphors for security and safety, but on the other hand of separation and insecurity. Sometimes I quietly change the second repetition of this line to, tivneh shalom yerushalayim  - rebuild the shalom of Jerusalem, as a balancing prayer for security and safety.
One of the most disturbing things about the current situation, the recent stabbings and violence in Jerusalem and Israel, is that it is indefensible. It cannot be walled off. The very randomness of it makes it nearly impossible to defend against. Such violence is also morally indefensible. I will say this as clearly as I can, I see no justification for the use of violence. I believe that violence always leads us farther from security and peace. It inevitably displaces thoughtfulness, trust and hope, with fear.
Living here, in the safety of New Jersey, where indeed no walls are needed for security, I think we have to be especially careful about building walls of indifference. I believe in our safety we are obligated to remain open-hearted. We have to mirror the God we pray to when we say:
אַב הָרַחֲמִים הֵטִיבָה בִרְצוֹנְךָ אֶת-צִיּוֹן
Source of Compassion, may it be your will to act in kindness towards Zion.
We have to remain willing to feel pain, to be sources of compassion, directing our kind will towards Israel. As before and as in the future, the desire to amplify compassion does not silence the many other feelings that may arise for us about Israel. Still, I believe that there is no path towards peace or security without such compassion.
Many of us have loved ones and friends living in Israel right now. I know full well that the empathy this creates does not necessarily line up directly with feelings of compassion. I encourage us to be especially present for each other, but particularly for those with loved ones in Israel. I would like to remind you that Adam Pollack, Mikaela Itkin-Weinstein and Ilan Ackelsberg, three recent Bnai Keshet High School grads, are spending the year in Israel.  Keeping our hearts compassionately open is its own prayer and support to those who are afraid or suffering in Israel.
With love and blessing, Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Elliott

PS – What to do?
In many ways, our ability to offer more than moral support is limited from this distance, but I want to offer a few options.
First, I continue to believe that the most powerful thing we could do as a congregation is to express our support for Israel by travelling there together. I continue to solicit partners in planning such a venture.
More immediately, I can suggest one unique effort of supporting the businesses that are struggling because of the decreased willingness of Israelis to be out in public in this uncertain and terrifying atmosphere. Eat 4 the Sake of Jerusalem. This website asks you to support restaurants in Jerusalem by buying meals, falafels, etc. that are then distributed freely. The goal is to support these businesses and offer random acts of kindness from afar.
Most importantly, I encourage you to continue to give to the organizations that you believe most effectively protect the security of Israel. For me, this is the New Israel Fund, which I believe has consistently laid down the groundwork for a more stable future.  Use the emotions you feel now as an impetus to give to the organizations in Israel that can represent your hopes for peace and security.
Finally, I strongly encourage you to take the time to get your news about Israel from Israel. I have found my subscription to Haaretz to be invaluable when I want to go beyond the inevitably two-dimensional reporting on this issue available through American media.  Likewise, I recommend to you again The Promised Podcast. The commentators on this weekly podcast could all be your next-door neighbor, but instead have chosen to live in Tel Aviv. I find their commentary thoughtful and they are uniquely positioned to understand the American Jewish perspective and also to challenge it.

Ratzon & Purpose     Rosh Hashana 5776

09/17/2015 02:03:47 PM


Ratzon & Purpose
Rosh Hashanah 5776 – September 
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman

Leshana Tovah!

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack 
And you may find yourself in another part of the world 
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile 
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife 
And you may ask yourself 
Well...How did I get here? 

And you may ask yourself 
What is that beautiful house? 
And you may ask yourself 
Where does that highway go to? 
And you may ask yourself 
Am I right?...Am I wrong? 
And you may say to yourself 
My God!...What have I done?! 

Thank you, David Byrne.
Leshana Tovah to you and to all of the Talking Heads.
It is that time of year again where we ask: 
How did I get here? Where does this highway go? 
How am I right? How am I wrong?
What have I done and what am I meant to do? 

The Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noach , tries to help us think about our purpose in life by commenting on the following teaching:
[matai yagi’u ma’asai lema’asei avotai]
“Each and every Jew must ask: When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors, Abraham, Isaac & Jacob.” [And we will add] “Sarah, Rebecca, Leah & Rachel”

Shalom Noach asks, “How is this even possible?”
How could our deeds ever reach the greatness of our ancestors?
These are the founders our religion? 

And our ancestors are also our parents, grandparent, great-grandparents – 
generations who immigrated to America, who fought wars, who pursued freedom and equal rights.

And we have inspirational ancestors like Martin Luther King, Golda Meir, Adrienne Rich, Mordecai Kaplan, Leonard Cohen. 

We are obliged to ask:
“When will my deed reach those of my ancestors?” 

Shalom Noach begins his answer by saying: “Truthfully we don’t really expect to reach their level of greatness, we just have to try to connect at our own small level to their actions.”

Or perhaps the important thing is not reaching the level of their deeds, but simply aiming high. 
We are obligated to say: “When will my deeds reach the greatness of my ancestors?” 
to assure we don’t fail by setting our sights too low.

From the moment we are created each one of us has a unique role and purpose in repairing the world, a unique mission given to us from Heaven. 
No one can fulfill someone else’s mission. 
Even the simplest person has a unique mission that no one else is able to complete. 
Every person, though their role is small and simple must see to fulfilling their mission completely.
Happy are they who, while in this world, discern their earthly mission and fulfill it properly….
This is what it means that “Each and every Jew must say: When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors?” 

Just as our ancestors, our heroes and our role-models fulfilled their remarkable and holy purpose, so too must we complete the mission that only we can do.

Most of us, most of the time, don’t give a lot of thought to what our purpose is. 

We may find ourselves, letting the days go by… 
Lives filled with tasks, some of our own choosing and many that feel imposed: 
commuting to work, paying the bills, doing the laundry, making dinner, helping kids with homework, staring at email, fulfilling social obligations.

The banality of our daily life does not inspire us to look too deeply at our purpose.
And truthfully it can be a little frightening, this business of looking closely at our lives, let alone asking what our unique purpose might be.
But there are moments… perhaps at a reunion with old friends, when the question arises: “How did I get here?”

Or at the funeral of loved one, contemplating the meaning of their life and our own, when we find ourselves asking: “Where am I going?”
Or after reading an extraordinary book… 
“Is what I am doing right? 
Am I missing what I might uniquely offer to the world? 
What do I want do with my life?”

But though the question of our personal purpose may enter our mind for a moment, we rarely reach a point of clarity and the urgency of the question fades.

The Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur interrupt our daily routines with an opportunity to think about the why of our lives. 

Our liturgy asks us not only to contemplate our wrongs but to consider our renewal, to return to what matters most, to know that on this day our world and all its options can be reborn.
The Days of Awe are meant to be a mini-retreat for considering our purpose.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to be part of a program for Jewish social justice professionals. 
We were tasked with articulating our personal purpose.

As should be obvious by now, I am encouraging you this Rosh Hashanah, to see if you can articulate your own purpose. 

Since I am asking, I feel obligated to share what I wrote at that retreat, though I am a little embarrassed by its predictability.

I wrote: “My purpose is - Spiritual, courageous and loving pursuit of shalom and justice for all people.”

Honestly what else would you expect from a rabbi like me? 
Maybe that it is obvious is a good thing, but every time I say it out loud it makes me feel vulnerable.

On Yom Kippur we read the story of Jonah and the whale. 
God speaks directly to Jonah and tells him: 
“Your purpose is to be a prophet and to help the people of Ninveh repent.” 
Jonah famously runs away in the opposite direction of his God given purpose.

Maybe Jonah runs away because acknowledging his calling was just too uncomfortable. 
Because it made him feel exposed. 
Announcing a personal sense of purpose can feel contrived and flies in the face of cool nonchalance. 

Honestly, I have always been a little suspicious, or maybe just jealous of people who seem to have it all figured out and know exactly what they want in life, pursuing it with a single-minded purpose.
I remember in college feeling somewhat in awe of friends who would say things like: “I am studying linguistics because I’ve always known I want to do work with artificial intelligence.”

I had no idea what I wanted to do. No sense of a clear calling.  
I majored in American Studies, very much the major of those who only knew they should finish college.

But at that retreat for Jewish justice leaders, I thought a lot about my purpose. 
I tinkered with it, adding and subtracting words like “humble” and “Jewish”, “dedication” and “truth”. I chose “shalom’ because it meant “peace” but, even more so, “wholeness.” 

Part of what I like so much about the Slonimer Rebbe’s teaching that each of us has a unique mission, is that we don’t have to get obsessed with a grand purpose. 
It might be that the expression of our purpose is quite simple. 

I like how my articulation of purpose applies to the work that I am doing now as a rabbi but also to the work I did before I was a rabbi.
What I really like about this articulation of purpose is that it feels equally clarifying to me as a parent and a friend.

As you consider your purpose this Rosh Hashanah, here are a couple of simple questions suggested at that retreat to test your articulation of purpose:

1.    Does living into this purpose bring me joy?
2.    Does living from this purpose contribute to the world?
3.    By investing my creativity and my precious life energy into living this purpose do I contribute to myself as well as others?
4.    Even in the face of disappointment or failure and when the world is looking hopeless, does my purpose motivate me to continue forward?  
Judaism addresses the question of purpose by asking:
“What do I yearn for in my life?”
“What does God desire for me?”

Both of these ideas are described in prayer and in rabbinic writing using the concept of ratzon. 

Ratzon is a hard word to translate to English because it can mean so many things. 
It means both the wish for something and the willingness to achieve it. 
It implies yearning with love and deep joy. 

Ratzon includes physical and practical wanting. It is the desire for a perfect peach or a glass of water on a hot day.

Ratzon in prayer is deep wanting, yearning for a better life, for love, for success, for meaning and for certainty of purpose.

If you are familiar with the word ratzon, it is likely from hearing it in prayer. 
Ken yehi ratzon is kind of a more formal amen, usually translated “May it be God’s will.”
When we put our arms around each other and pray for safety, happiness and peace – the same blessing that parents offer to their children on Shabbat, we conclude each line with ken yehi ratzon. 

Rabbi David Jaffe teaches that imbedded in the word ratzon is the root ratz – to run; to want something so clearly that we run towards it naturally, sometimes independent of our thoughts. 

Increased yearning and desire, is both a goal and a vehicle for spiritual growth.  Cultivating the awareness of the distance between the world as it is and our desire for the world as it could be.

Determining our personal ratzon –noticing what we most yearn for in our life is hard because so many of us are cut off from knowing what we honestly want. 
Because others – teachers, parents, friends, siblings, advertisers, society in general – 
put so many of their own expectations on us that we confuse what we want with what others want for us. 
The spiritual practice of ratzon is recovering our sense of what we deeply want.  

The sweet spot in the Venn-diagram of “search for purpose”, is finding the place where our yearning desire overlaps with God’s yearning desire.

We learn in Pirkey Avot:
Align your ratzon –with God’s ratzon so that God may act through you. 
Adapt your ratzon –to God’s so that God may impact the ratzon of others through you. - Avot 2:4

Let’s think about the question: “What does God desire for me?”

I realize that to even consider that God has a will or that God has a purpose for us is moving into theologically challenging territory for many of us. 

A short tangent on Reconstructionist theology: Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, could not believe in a God that was somehow separate from the universe and able to act independently and directly in the world. 

Rather, he understood God to be woven into the actions of the universe and somehow more than the sum of their parts. He described God as the force that propels our experience towards wholeness, peace and meaning. 

He uses the word “force” to help us move away from the understanding of God as a noun and towards an understanding of God as a verb that we experience through the realities of our existence.

Aligning our will with God’s will means responding with integrity to the truth of the forces that shape our existence and honestly acknowledging all the claims that reality makes on our life; both its limitations and its possibilities. 

Rabbi Rami Shapiro commenting on ratzon as described in Avot 2:4 suggests: 
“God’s will is reality, the way things are at this very moment. Aligning with God’s will means working with what is rather than what you wish things to be. 
Adapting your will to God’s will means acting in accord with reality.” 

Our congregant Alma Schneider started her own cooking business & blog, “Take Back the Kitchen”. She also started “Parents Who Rock”, a terrific community program and fundraiser. She has 4 kids, one with a complicated special need’s diagnosis - Prader Willi Syndrome.

So I asked her – “Would you want to write a little about where you find purpose as one of our congregant speakers on the topic this Rosh Hashanah?” After a little emailing back and forth, she wrote:

“Hi Elliott and sorry for the delay. As much as I would love to do this, I have to be honest; I have had a really rough end of summer with my son and every time I think about doing this, I imagine myself bursting into tears. I am so raw with him. Can I take a rain check?”

Clear purpose comes from recognizing the truth of what is. 
Clear purpose comes from serving those we love.
For many of us this is the window into what into what it feels like to find the alignment of our ratzon with God’s ratzon. 
It is the feeling to look for as we search for purpose in all aspects of our life.

I encourage you to think about where your deep yearning aligns with God’s as you understand it. 
If you prefer, where your ratzon aligns with reality. 

Let’s consider the story of Esther and Purim.  
We aren’t told a whole lot about Esther’s motivations for entering the competition to marry King Ahashveros. 
Perhaps she was just trying to respect the wishes of her Uncle Mordechai? 
Or maybe she was just trying to assure herself a good life? 
A life of security and luxury under the King’s protection. 
Maybe she had always dreamed of being Queen? 

When she first hears of the Kings decree to kill the Jews, she seems unwilling to accept it. 
Mordechai sends Esther a message charging her to plead with the King for her people. 

Esther thinks her uncle is crazy. 
Doesn’t he know that anyone who approaches the King without being summoned can be killed? She reminds him that she has less power than he might imagine, that she has not been summoned for 30 days. 
Why should she risk her own safety for a task that is so great, so insurmountable? 

Mordechai replies:
“Do not think that your fate is separate from ours. 
That you alone can escape the reality of this decree. 
Wake up! Pay attention! We are in real danger!
Who knows, perhaps you have attained a royal position for just this purpose?!” (Esther 4:14) 

It is often the choices we make without really knowing their meaning – accepting our first job, moving to a particular town, having a child, that determine how our purpose will be expressed.  

And just as often, realities we have no control over and do not chose, innate skills and preferences, the ups and downs of the economy, our health, and the needs of a family member.
Just as often these realities determine our purpose.

Circumstances, not entirely under Esther’s control: becoming queen and the decree to kill her people determined Esther’s purpose.

Esther’s story is not told from God’s perspective. In fact, God is absent from the story of Purim. 
The Jews have to figure out how to save themselves, how to act in alignment with God’s will all on their own, without directions.

Esther has to evaluate the reality of her power and its limits, the dangers to her and her people, and discern her purpose.

Similarly, our own stories are not told from God’s perspective. Our task in life is to look honestly at the reality we live in and the yearnings of our hearts and ask: “what purpose might we serve?” 

I would like to end with the words of one my favorite prayers said at the conclusion of the Amidah.
Yehiyu leratzon, imrey fi, vehegyon libi lefanecha Adonai tzuri vegoali

May it be that our ratzon,
 aligns with THE ratzon. 
That our purpose is expressed by the words we speak.
May it be that the yearnings of our hearts will be acceptable.
That we come to know and feel its alignment with reality.
May our unique purpose be revealed to us. 
May it be redemptive for us, for our people and for the world.
Ken yehi ratzon

1 Thank you to Rabbi Jonathan Slater and the IJS for sharing this text with me.

2 Thank you Selah, Bend The Arc, and Rockwood for this set of questions.

3Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, Aley Shur II, p. 257-258

4According to Rabbi David Jaffe,  “this dynamic affects women in a particular way.  One aspect of women’s oppression is that many girls and women are taught that their complete worth lies in taking care of others.  This message can make it difficult to know what one really wants separate from the needs and desires of others.”  

5Rabbi Rami Shapiro, commentary Ethics of the Sages

Last Challenge Lab! Go Study! Oh and take a nap.

05/21/2015 11:26:31 AM


Last Shabbat Challenge
Go Study! Oh, and take a nap

Out tradition teaches that the mitzvah of studying Torah leads to all other mitzvot. Yes Shabbat is supposed to be relaxing and yes it is supposed to be fun. It is also supposed to give us space to learn. It is a chance to deepen our understanding of the Jewish traditions out of which Shabbat emerged. It is meant to be an opportunity to contemplate our relationship to community, to holiness and to our souls. Some would call this spirituality or the quest for holiness.


Learning “Torah” on Shabbat need not be limited to Jewish sources. I have heard stories that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan the founder of Reconstructionism used to read sociologist John Dewey on Shabbat. The point is to make time for learning that brings you out of your normal sphere and has the potential to expand your heart, mind and soul.


What “Torah” do you want to learn? How might you be able to find time for it this Shabbat? Think about the ways some of our previous challenges, like refraining from using electronics, might make space for a different kind of learning.


This Shabbat experiment with adding a little study to your day. 
(Oh and since I haven’t had a chance to say it, take a nap.)

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Shabbat Challenge Lab 6 Sing! Chant! Make music and enjoy the silence

05/14/2015 01:23:58 PM


Shabbat Challenge Lab 6
Sing! Chant! Make music and enjoy the silence

Song has long been a part of Shabbat. We actually recite a psalm during Shabbat services that begins with, “A song for Shabbat”.  For generations, songs around the table before and after a nice meal were the center of Shabbat practice. You know this joy if you have ever sat around a table singing songs with friends or family.


Even so, many of us feel awkward about singing or inviting our family or guests to join us after dinner in song. This challenge is meant to help you past that awkward moment. Now you have an excuse to invite someone to join you in song.


Start with something simple. It is more important that you and any one joining you can do so easily. “This Land Is Your Land” can be just as fun and spiritual as “Shalom Aleichem” especially if everyone knows it. Many traditional Shabbat songs have no words at all - a niggun is a wordless melody. It allows you to sing without getting caught up in the words. Likewise, the chants we sing as part of services or in the Bnai Keshet chanting circles help us, through their simplicity, to sink deeper into meaning than longer songs with many verses.


Of course singing doesn’t require a Shabbas table or a campfire. You might also come to services to sing or come to chanting this Saturday. You should also remember that you don’t need company to sing all by yourself, and it can be a quite meaningful. Finally, wherever and however you sing enjoy the silence after and between songs.

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Shabbat Challenge Lab 5: Finding Time for Your Soul: Pray, Meditate, Breathe, Refresh & Re-Soul

05/07/2015 09:54:56 AM


Shabbat Challenge Lab 5
Finding Time for Your Soul: Pray, Meditate, Breathe, Refresh & Re-Soul

What can you do this Shabbat that will help you reconnect with your soul?


It is rare that we make it through a Shabbat here at Bnai Keshet without singing Veshamru. It is part of the Friday night liturgy, we sing it when we repeat the Amidah Saturday morning and we sing after services before we bless the wine. This song-prayer is all about the power of keeping some kind of Shabbat practice. It ends with the line, “…for in six days did YHVH make the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day God stopped,  vayinafash.


Typically this word vayinafash is translated as “rested” our prayer book translates it in a really nice way, “on the seventh day God stopped and drew a breath of rest.” This translation is connecting to the root word nefesh which means breath. But nefesh also means soul. We could read this line as “on the seventh day God stopped, and re-souled.”


Putting aside the challenges of what it means for God to re-soul (or breath or rest for that matter) this line is meant to be an inspiration for what we might do for ourselves to keep Shabbat.  What practices might you try that would help you to feel more connected to your soul? What might help you to breath restfully?


Traditionally, Shabbat services were meant to be this kind of practice. Prayer and blessings are meant to help us find the time to remember that we have a soul and listen to it. Meditation and study also can help us reconnect with what is in our heart when life feels expansive.


This Shabbat I invite you to find a time to pray or to pray with soul. Or find a time to meditate. Or if you have another practice that helps you to breathe with ease and connect with your spirit try that.

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Shabbat Challenge Lab 4 Go Outside!

05/01/2015 10:23:35 AM


Shabbat Challenge Lab 4
Go Outside!

This weeks experiment is increase the amount of time you spend outdoors amongst the trees and the grass, with the sky above your head.
Go for a walk, a hike or a bike ride. You can sit outside or eat outside. The weather should be terrific. 
When you are outside appreciate the beauty and think about your connection to this world. Consider ho you are a part of all this and how your time outside impacts your spirt.

Thoughtful Words from Richard Freedman

BK Chevre,


Webster’s provides a simple online definition of Shabbat as simply, ”The Jewish Sabbath.” Albeit dated, the 1994 edition on my workplace bookshelf provides no definition at all! What is a Shabbos hungry Jew to do? If left to our own curious devices a ready-made excuse of stress and the speed of modern life will surely swallow up yet another magical opportunity to enhance our weekly practice. The natural place to turn for answers comfortably falls to one’s institutional memory and upbringing. My own childhood experience of Judaism and Shabbat range from a weekly observance filled with candle lighting, challah and kiddush to no observance at all. As my childhood family drifted further into the liberal diaspora of the American Jewish experience, a feeling of liberated jubilation filled our home as we could literally eat or do anything.  What young man turns away from the allure of a world with less rules….. As I aged, the feeling of freedom that was initially so intoxicating transitioned to a notion of emptiness and thus began my exploration for a different version of the Shabbat experience. The Shabbat experience I was looking for was not a replication of my more formal early childhood practice but rather a way to connect with a more global and historically Jewish experience as a true day of rest and reflection. But what do I do when the snow is falling just right or the sun is shining brightly on Saturday morning?


I have found great meaning in spending a part of my Shabbat morning walking/hiking through the woods in Eagle Rock Reservation, contemplating both the week that has been and the possibilities of the one to follow. Our local parks and wooded areas offer wonderful spots, within walking distance, to sit and gaze out on Manhattan or to experience a meditative moment. If you are lucky, a local critter will be right next to you collecting a Shabbos acorn or two.


There are Jews that find a sense of Shabbat solace hanging off of mountaintops, sailing or skiing as I have admittedly included as a part of my seasonal weekly sojourn. The key is to take the experience and marry it with a tangible practice, such as a meditative moment or quiet walk. Any journey along the Shabbat highway is a worthy trip indeed! This weekend as the flowers bloom and the trees abound with the fresh greenery of spring try and schedule an outdoor moment and  honor both it and yourself with a uniquely Shabbat experience. Shabbat is a weekly gift that our tradition offers but its beauty can only be realized through practice. I am suggesting that you try an outdoor moment as a way to further engage your sense of the Jewish Sabbath, or simply to begin one. Have fun finding the outdoor experience that speaks to you.


Good Shabbos! 

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Shabbat Challenge Lab Experiment 3 - Avoid Spending Money

04/22/2015 02:24:46 PM


Shabbat Challenge Lab
Experiment Three: Avoid Spending Money

Money can so easily stress us out. We worry about not having enough to pay the bills. We argue with loved ones about what to spend money on. We spend countless hours obsessing about material objects that we would like to one day buy. We get anxious about missing a good deal or spending too much on something. We work hard to earn more money. I am sure none of this is news to you.


This Shabbat the experiment is to make some choices to help you reduce your need to spend money. In my family we have tried for a long time to avoid excessive dealings with money on Shabbat. In practice this has meant that we don’t normally pay bills or go shopping. On the other hand we have decided to not worry too much about spending money if it helps to facilitate a nice family activity like going to the zoo or a museum. For us the main goal is to step out of the consumption cycle.


I have often been able to just leave my wallet at home on Shabbat. I often drive on Shabbat but will simply take along my driver’s license and one emergency credit card. I still feel much lighter without the cash and extra credit cards.


This week consider how are you going to avoid spending and commerce on Shabbat? How might you reduce the likelihood of needing to pay for things? How might this impact how you spend your time? Consider how this influences the quality of your Shabbat?

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Shabbat Challenge Lab Experiment 2 - Shabbat Unplugged

04/13/2015 09:00:38 AM


Shabbat Challenge Lab
Experiment Two: Shabbat Unplugged

Our next experiment is simple. Pick a technology or electronic device that you use during the week and turn it off or put it away. I highly recommend you start with something that, no matter how much you like, you also know causes you stress. Perhaps your laptop computer? Or email? Or maybe even a smartphone?


Shabbat is meant to be a time when we refrain from work and live in the present moment. Let this Shabbat be an opportunity to explore the freedom that comes with turning off just one device or type of technology. Set an intention as to when it will be turned off and when you plan to turn it back on. You might choose all of Shabbat or just Friday night or Saturday morning.


Both what you choose and how long should feel like a gentle stretch. This is just for fun and learning, so notice how your plan works. What is pleasant about it and easy? What is not so pleasant or challenging? What might you do differently if you tried it again?


For inspiration please read this piece by Zach Lipner about turning off email.


We Are Not Slaves - FreEmail


Time seems to move so quickly these days. The pace of life, specifically the pace of the workweek has accelerated with the introduction of technology. There is a curious contradiction here: we are always wired – even when we are wireless. We never really relax, never take in the sights, sounds and feelings of life. We just blow through life, one day after another. I imagine that the slaves in Egypt felt the same way…always working, struggling to survive in a world that allowed no rest.


But we are not slaves. We are free; free to choose how to spend our time. Yet, all too often, we allow ourselves to be slaves to time. The 24/7 work week, kids week, family week, home repair week have taken over our lives. We live in the moment and that moment is dictated to us by our cell phones and computers. (Does this remind you of a Twilight Zone episode?”).In my opinion, the key to breaking this cycle is about relationships, not with people, but with our phones, e-mails and social networks.


About 5 years ago, I made the decision to abstain from e-mails and other forms of electronic communication on Shabbos. As many of you know, I truly work in a 24/7 business. The hospital never closes and I am expected to be available all of the time. However, that does not mean that I have to engage the business. What I found is that more than 99% of the time, the e-mails, texts and calls can wait.


It took a little getting used to. That sense of control is hard to relinquish. The paranoia that the business might be looking for me took some time to abate. The curiosity that I might be missing something important was not easy to control. But I did it and my colleagues and friends understand and respect that preference. Now, as I go through my week, I can’t wait to turn off my phone on Shabbos. I look forward to disconnecting each week. Looking back over these years, the reality has been that I am not so important. Oh well, my self-esteem will survive.


Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said “In physics, time is quantified, measured with a clock. But pure time, real time, cannot be quantified; it is pure quality“  Shabbos for me is pure time. It is not about doing, it is about being. Being with family, being with friends, learning some Torah and Talmud, listening to the ballgame on the radio, floating in my pool, taking a nap and not being interrupted by the phone, text or e-mail.


What a wonderful experience of not being a slave to time.

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Shabbat Challenge Lab Experiment One: Light! Beverages! Food!

04/10/2015 01:01:02 PM


Shabbat Challenge Lab
Experiment One: Light! Beverages! Food!

For this first week of our Shabbat Challenge Lab we are inviting you to add to your Shabbat by including more light, more good drink, more good food and more anything else that might deepen your sensory experience.  The blessings on Friday nights are centered around material things that are meant increase our joy: candles, wine and challah. (For those not eating bread products during Passover, matzah is our challah this Shabbat.) Think for a moment what a difference candles would make to your ability to enjoy an evening if you had no other lights. Or what it might mean to have two loaves of bread, a glass of wine and a nice meal when you might otherwise be hungry.
Shabbat is sometimes called a taste of the World to Come, the world as it should be and the sensory aspect of this metaphor is not an accident. We are meant to actually have more pleasing experiences on Shabbat than we do the rest of the week. 
So Part 1: Think about ways you can heighten the beauty and tastes of your Shabbat. Perhaps plan a special meal or dessert. Or light candles or have flowers. Feel free to think creatively about what you might add to your Shabbat that will help appreciate it at physical and sensory level.
Part 2: Offer a blessing.  Part of the power of blessings in general and on Shabbat in particular is that they help us to mindfully set an intention before acting. When we say a blessing we are purposefully delaying our gratification or our action so that we can better appreciate the sensation and its meaning in the moment. 
If you don’t already say the Friday night blessings here is a link to guide you. Sing along or read without a melody. Use the Hebrew or transliteration, but somehow give it a try. 
If you already say these blessings or prefer a different option – try finding a way to offer words of appreciation for the special items you have added for enjoyment. This might be a spontaneous prayer or short toast. Or it could be a few moments of silence. The goal is through words, prayer, ritual or silence to acknowledge that the goodness you have prepared and are about to experience is for the sake of sweetening Shabbat. 
Finally – remember this is a wholly unscientific experiment. You can’t mess up. The data need not be quantifiable. If you don’t like wine choose another beverage. If you prefer sushi over chicken soup; no problem. If you take inspiration from Passover and decide to eat while reclining on the sofa instead of at the table; why not? Your playfulness is a Shabbat worthy part of the process.  

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Shabbat Challenge Lab

04/10/2015 01:00:02 PM


Shabbat Challenge E-News

Thank you for joining the shabbat challenge

You are receiving this email because you were signed up, or a family member signed up, for the Shabbat Challenge.

Thank you for signing up to be part of our shabbat challenge lab!

Our first experiment is still a few days away but with Passover almost here we 

wanted to send you a couple of extra tidbits.


Immediately below, an article by Alma Schneider, Passover-Aggressive Or Just Clueless? Passover Faux-pas and How to Avoid Them This Year.


This is a great Passover Seder Etiquette primer in case you are unsure how to be a 

great guest. Or in case you just need a helpful orientation to pass on to your 

own guests. Her advice is great though I personally might err slightly more on the 

side of encouraging a little questioning and debate.  That said, I have noticed open 

rebellion at some Seders to my questions and comments so maybe I’m just the kind 

of dangerous know-it-all this primer was written for.


Also an article on Reconstructing Shabbat by Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Shabbat – A Reconstructionist Approach


This is a lovely account of Rabbi Brenner’s own struggles to find an authentic 

Shabbat practice. If you are familiar with some of the more traditional Shabbat 

customs you might enjoy his unique take and willingness to reconstruct. If you 

haven’t had much Shabbat practice in your life one important thing to notice is that 

even us rabbis are struggling, experimenting and trying to figure out a Shabbat 

practice that works for us.


Look out for your invitation to join our Shabbat Challenge Facebook page coming 



Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover,

Rabbi Elliott

Passover etiquette
by alma schneider

Passover-Aggressive Or Just Clueless? Passover Faux-pas and How to Avoid Them This Year

By Alma Schneider

Passover is upon us! The one week holiday is the celebration of the Jewish peoples' liberation from slavery, initiated with two days of a special ritualistic meal called a Seder. The most
commonly known ritual is that bread or any leavened food product is forbidden since the Jews were on the run and did not have time to let the bread rise. Jewish people remember their haste to escape by eating a cracker like bread called Matzoh during the week of Passover.

Most Jews and non-Jews are familiar with the basics of Passover etiquette such as not bringing homemade bread as a hostess gift or talking during the Seder. What about the less obvious “mistakes” of the Seder itself and the remaining days of Passover?

There are numerous opportunities to unintentionally offend a friend or family member during this festive, yet complicated, holiday. Fortunately, however, most are remedied with, like
everything else in life, common sense and timely communication.


.................. click to read more

Israel Hitlamdut - Rosh Hashanah 5775

09/29/2014 08:06:13 PM


My last day in Israel this summer, wasn’t supposed to happen. But when the US suspended flights to and from Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv, and my carrier followed suit, my stay was involuntarily extended. At first this was no big deal. I was rescheduled the next day for almost the same flight. But when that flight was cancelled, my carrier told it would be 5 days before I could leave Israel.
Those 5 days included my son Akiva’s birthday party. Me being in Israel during a war with Hamas left my wife Sarah unfazed.  Still I knew that leaving her alone for a birthday party of hyperactive 12 years old boys was not an option.
So I found the cheapest available flight on El Al to Europe, that, plus overnight layover and three transfers got me to New Jersey before Shabbat and before Akiva’s party.
On my final day in Tel Aviv, a few rabbinic colleagues in the same boat and I, borrowed the hotel bikes and rode from the Tel Aviv port south along the Mediterranean Sea. We spent the morning exploring the alleys of the Old City of Yaffo and the shuk at its base. We bought guilt offerings for our families at home and drank fresh squeezed juice.
As happened almost everyday I was in Tel Aviv there was an azakah – the sirens went off, warning us to seek shelter. There was no obvious bomb shelter, so we did what we had by that point become pretty good at and followed the local Israelis. We landed in a two room bike shop with bikes hanging at crazy angles from the domed middle-eastern ceiling. As we entered, one of the tattooed bike shop employees directed a young pregnant woman to the corner of the room, behind a counter, that he claimed was the safest spot.
I felt more nervous during this azaka than the previous half dozen. Perhaps because I was supposed to be gone. Perhaps because for the first time I doubted the strength of this shelter that clearly predated the Israeli construction codes for safe rooms.
Or maybe I was just projecting fear and worry for the young pregnant woman.
I was especially grateful when I heard the reassuring booms of an Iron Dome interception and soon after the quieting of the sirens.
Before I go on – I would like to ask you to take a moment and notice where your attention is right now? What is going through your mind? How do your muscles feel? Your breath rate?
I have hardly begun to share insights from my summer in Israel, but perhaps you already notice your heart reacting compassionately to this story. Maybe you are sympathizing with the pregnant woman I mentioned or with your rabbi or with the rabbi’s wife?
Maybe your mind was focused on our relative safety in that bike shop protected by Iron Dome and you are thinking of Israel’s southern residents closer to the Gaza border, who often have only seconds to respond to missile attacks.
Or maybe you are thinking about residents of Gaza who had no shelters?
Over the next year we will be exploring the value of practice in relation to strengthening our middot our ethical and spiritual characteristics. Simple virtues like patience, kindness and trust. The very foundation of this kind of practice is hitlamdut. I would describe hitlamdut as mindful introspection. To practice hitlamdut is to approach whatever you are doing with curiosity and an assumption that in this moment there is something to learn.
With mindful curiosity, we notice how even minor comments or irritations can trigger our emotions and lead to responses of anger or impatience or envy: reactions that are out of line with our best and most wholesome intentions.
When talking about Israel hitlamdut is very useful to practice. Israel is tightly bound to our feelings about the survival of Judaism, our memory of the Holocaust, our fears of anti-Semitism, our pride as Jews and how we want to be perceived as Jews in the world.
I have been trying to practice hitlamdut. Listening and speaking with over 85 individuals during my trip was a great opportunity, to observe my own thoughts and emotions. I often forgot my intention to practice hitlamdut. When, I remembered, I was often embarrassed by my internal reactions of impatience, irritation, sometimes boredom.
Writing this talk I again tried to practice hitlamdut.  Unsurprisingly, I noticed my mind engaged with many of you in imaginary conversation. I noticed, regret as certain ideas were put on the page or abandoned or cut. I noticed my convictions careening toward self-righteousness. I noticed concern that I could say something that might harm my relationship with you as your rabbi.
Knowing that I can’t say it all, we have planned many more opportunities to discuss Israel this year. I have invited many more speakers. I trust we will get to practice mindful curiosity. Why not start practicing now?
RESPONSIBILITY---Teshuva means taking responsibility for our actions. It means taking responsibility for our responses to things we don’t control. It means acknowledging our responsibility for determining the meaning of our experience.
My talk today is centered on several people I met in Israel who embody this kind of responsibility.
One was Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent journalist and author. He describes himself as a perpetually frustrated centrist.
When we met with Halevi he shared his view that two commandments drive two competing and dominant Zionist narratives. Both of these narratives describe things that are true. But both can also distort.
One narrative is rooted in the commandment to remember to blot out Amalek.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt… How he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and he cut down all the stragglers.”
Haman the villain of Purim is taught to have been a descendent of Amalek. This commandment teaches that we have real enemies and if we fail to address them we will pay the price in future conflicts.
Suicide bombings, missiles, tunnels all make it easy to see Palestinians as a dangerous and frightening enemy. The frightening expressions of anti-Semitism we witnessed this summer reinforce our experience of danger. At it’s best this commandment encourages us to take seriously our responsibility to protect Jews against real danger.
But the discourse of “remember to blot out Amalek” often leads to blaming the entire conflict on Palestinians, Arabs and anti-Semites. The violence it justifies tends to relinquish rather than take responsibility.
The problem with this narrative is that it too easily cast Israelis only as powerless victims.
The second dominant narrative is driven by the commandment “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
This commandment reminds us of the many ways we have been abused as a minority. At its best it encourages us to resist discrimination and oppression of others.
But Yossi Klein Halevi taught that this narrative while useful in protecting the rights of minorities had its downside as well.
His critique of this commandment created a big opportunity for me to try and practice hitlamdut. I love this commandment and I noticed myself defending it while he was still in mid-critique. Even, now I worry about damaging the power of this important commandment.
But Halevi pointed out that the discourse driven by “remember you were strangers,” tends to blame the entire conflict on Israel.
What at first appears like taking responsibility becomes martyrdom, and the more we look on through this lens the easier it is to imagine that everything is Israel’s fault and that they alone can solve this conflict. This discourse minimizes the responsibilities of Palestinians to be part of the solution. It casts Palestinians only as disempowered victims and is used to excuse violence directed at Israelis.
Both narratives get used to displace blame and relinquish responsibility.
Israelis and American Jews use these narratives to lay blame entirely at the feet of their ideological foes.
Halevi spoke of trying to find a center path. A path of responsibility without victimhood or martyrdom.
What does this look like?
Halevi doubts Israel will find a useful negotiating partner in the next several years but still believes Israel must prepare to end its role as occupier. As examples of what Israel can take responsibility for without a partner he suggests freezing settlement growth and addressing issues of institutionalized discrimination against Arab-Israelis.
We are used to hearing Jewish leaders in America talk about our responsibility to Israel but Halevi didn’t flinch from speaking about Israel’s responsibility to worldwide Jewry.
He said that this responsibility meant supporting multiple forms of Jewish expression and practice, not just Orthodoxy.
It meant actively engaging, debating and listening to Jews outside of Israel because Zionism is an ideology of the Jewish people not only of Israelis. He said that Israel has the obligation not to make other Jews ashamed.
Perhaps this is a good time to notice if you are still practicing hitlamdut?
To notice your reaction to Yossi Klein Halevi.
If you agree with him does it make you feel good or validated?
If you disagree, what arises?
Are you arguing with him?
Are you arguing with me?
Our reactions are mostly hardwired. They arise involuntarily.
A colleague of mine described her tendency to reflexively defend Israel saying:
“Of course I love all children, but I love mine the most.”
Something similar could be said of our critical tendencies,
“Of course, I’m annoyed about the mistakes of others, but I hate my mistakes.”
The Jewish value that I think most useful for encouraging us to take responsibility is,
kol yisrael aravim zeh bezeh – that all the Jewish people are responsible for one another, our fate is woven together like the woof and warp of fabric.
Kol yisrael aravim ze bzeh – We Jews are bound together and responsible to each other.  We need each other and have the power to impact one another.
I believe that when it comes to issues like anti-Semitism, freedom of religion, and Israel – our experience confirms how tightly we are bound together. It is part of why we react with such emotion when other Jews disagree with us on these issues. 
Our lashing out at one another hurts because it is a violent attempt to rip those we disagree with out of this shared fabric of mutual responsibility.
Again consider the things you heard from other Jews that most angered you this summer. In what way was your response a desire to distance yourself from them?
What might it have been like to instead assume you are dependent on them and bound together by fate with them? To ask yourself, what am I pushing away and what would it mean to instead accept it as something I need to hear?
Two people this summer pushed me to think more expansively about this idea of mutual responsibility.
One was Bob Lang head of the Efrat Religious Council. Efrat is a village in an area historically referred to as Judea. It is one of the oldest and most established settlements in the West Bank. I use the term settlement because unlike Jerusalem or the Golan Heights this land though controlled by Israel since 67 was never annexed. Thus, though the Israelis who live there maintain the rights of citizenship they are governed by a set of laws and regulations that are quite different from the rest of Israel.
Bob Lang believes that living in Judea is a matter of spiritual significance and religious obligation. He believes that returning the West Bank to Palestinian sovereignty would be a disaster.
Still, he speaks about his Palestinian neighbors with respect. He argued that Israel could more meaningfully meet the humanitarian needs of these neighbors if the West Bank was annexed and made subject to the same laws and regulations as the rest of Israel. 
I have to admit that when listening to Bob Lang I noticed skepticism arising like a lightning storm.
But while I disagree with him on many issues, I came to trust his respect for his Palestinian neighbors as genuine because he was willing to take responsibility for the implications of this vision. He believed that the Palestinian residents of the West Bank, and even of Gaza should be given full citizenship and voting rights.
Many who support a two state solution – are afraid of precisely this outcome: afraid that were all Palestinians in Israel controlled territories to be given a vote that it would mean the end of the Jewish state and that the typically higher birthrates of Palestinians could lead Jews to become a minority in Israel.
Bob Lang was willing to face this fear as part of his vision for Israel. He thinks the fate of the Jews in Efrat is inextricably tied the fate of his Palestinian neighbors. That whether there is one state or two, Israelis and Palestinians will be required to work together on so many levels: economic, environmental and criminal that separation is a harmful fantasy.
He has faith that if Jews do lose the demographic battle in 50 years, that during those 50 years of working together Jews and Palestinians could forge an alliance of mutual self-interest.
I heard something surprisingly similar from Sheerin Alaraj, who lives in the village of Al-Walaje. The land of this village just outside Jerusalem was annexed after 67, but the people were not, meaning that they were not offered citizenship. The security wall in Israel is being built to completely surround this village and when completed is planned to have one checkpoint, that those who live in the village will have to cross to leave whether going to the West Bank or to Jerusalem. 
Sheerin is an observant Muslim who wears hijab - a headscarf. She has worked in Sudan to help respond to violence against women there. She is an exuberant and energetic woman, who managed to say things I hated to hear with such honesty and forthrightness that though difficult, remained with me for days.
One such comment that she made was that she had to admit she often did not know who to fight first or more vigorously, men or Zionists. Don’t get me wrong as a man and as a Zionist I wouldn’t want to fight with Sheerin on either account.
For Sheerin the continued existence of Israel wasn’t a priority, but she said that if it was important to Jews then they needed to find a way to live side by side with the Palestinians.
She said, and that we should realize that groups like the Islamic State are our common enemy. That Jews needed the Palestinians as allies if they meant to stay in the region. She, like Bob Lang, thought that moving to a one state solution with equal rights for all residents or Holy Landians as she liked to call them was the most just solution.
But, she said that even if we believe in a two-state solution we have to start treating each other like we would if we were moving towards a single state.
That only with this kind of mutual respect would the Israelis and Palestinians be able to effectively unite against fundamentalist groups that threatened them both.
Again I invite you to notice your reactions to the ideas of Bob Lang and Sheerin Alaraj. How does one being a male Orthodox Jewish settler and the other a female Palestinian Muslim impact you? What feeling of trust or distrust arise when hearing their perspectives?
Another common, but distorting framework about this conflict is that of an existential battle between two enemies in which only one can win. There are only two-sides in this model and you are either with Israel or against it.
Bob and Sheerin offer what I believe is a more useful narrative of shared fate.
I believe that our thinking about Israel must not only include our interconnection and responsibility to other Jews - but also to every inhabitant of the land.
Over the last year many in the synagogue have read Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land. He manages to critique while still reminding us of what a miracle Israel is.
Reading this book together is on the BK calendar. Though Shavit leans to the Left, he is a pragmatic realist seeking wisdom equally from the center and the right. When he speaks of ending occupation, he doesn’t offer a clear prescription for action, only a challenging diagnosis of the problem:
Shavit says,
“There are only four paths from this junction:
1) Israel as a criminal state that carries out ethnic cleansing in the occupied territories;
By which he means an Israel that in one way or another preserves Jewish majority rule by displacing Palestinians from its territory.
2) Israel as an apartheid state;
Here he describes what it would mean to indefinitely maintain a status quo in which 4 million Palestinians of the West Bank & Gaza have no citizenship or representation in Israeli government, which so significantly governs their lives.
3) Israel as a binational state;
This one person, one vote scenario is the one that both Bob Lang and Sheerin Alaraj seem to embrace.
Shavit fears this would erase the Jewish majority and threaten the very meaning of a Jewish homeland.
Or 4) Israel as a Jewish democratic state retreating with much anguish to a border dividing the land.”
Shavit believes as do I that the majority Israelis still prefer the 4th path. (p.399)
But preferring it is not enough to make it happen.
And many are afraid that the longer the status quo of increased settlement  and increased Palestinian birthrate continue the less likely a two solution becomes.
The perspective that most resonated with me, I heard from Ali Abu Awwad. Ali is just a few years younger than me. He spent four years in Israeli prisons for throwing stones at soldiers during the first Intifada. In prison he came to embrace the practices of nonviolence as taught my Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King. He has remained true to those principles after being shot in the leg and after the death of his own brother during the second intifada.
Ali argued that you cannot be Pro-Israel or Pro-Palestine unless you are first and foremost Pro-Solution. For him this means repudiating violence and pursuing engagement with the hopes of reconciliation.
Ali said, if you are Jewish and support peace you must come with him to stand by the checkpoints and witness the crimes he witnesses.  And he said that he and other Palestinians must go with Jews to Sederot to witness and condemn the damage done by Kassam rockets fired from Gaza.
So what are we to do? What does it mean for us as Jews living in America to be Pro-Solution? To take responsibility?
I believe that the opportunity for a two-state solution is narrowing. I feel we should act with urgency. But what will it take for us to play our part as pioneers as chalutzim for a solution? All the more so when the shape of that solution is less and less clear.
It is not an easy question to answer.
I believe that whatever path we pursue must embody the ends we seek. That violence though on rare occasions, justifiable, is never moral, never righteous.
It closes the hearts of both its victims and its perpetrators.
I would like to see Israelis elect leaders who are willing to keep taking risks towards a solution. Just as earlier generations of Israeli leaders acted with incredible bravery and creativeness to found a democratic Jewish state, I would like to see Israeli leaders courageously thinking beyond the status quo to preserve a Jewish state. 
I have similar wishes for the Palestinians that they might embrace leaders like Ali Abu Awwad.
But my wishes are not easily translated into action. It isn’t clear how to be a responsible pioneer for a solution especially, here in the United States.
That is part of reason I try to visit Israel often. It is why I am thinking about ways that I can heed Ali’s call to go back to Israel and visit S’derot and visit checkpoints.
Being in Israel during the war was stressful. But I am glad that I had the opportunity to be there. Being there even as a tourist helps us to understand the experience on the ground in ways that are utterly obscured from the US. Being in Israel even when there isn’t a war is not always easy, but it is the one thing that always helps me recommit to engagement.
So if we want to deepen our synagogue’s connection to Israel the question is not whether we should go to Israel but when.
Another option that we have as American Jews is to support groups in Israel who are doing the work we believe in. For the most part this means giving money.
Maybe we should give money every time we get worried about Israel or after every challenging conversation. Giving money can help keep us accountable.  We can notice, is our giving proportionate to our passion?
I give my money to groups that seem to most effectively fight for human rights, religious pluralism and democracy for all the inhabitants of Israel.
I believe that these are the groups who are tilling the earth and planting the seeds that are most likely to blossom into a secure and peaceful Israel.
But perhaps the most important thing we can do is get better at speaking to each other about Israel with humility. When we listen to each other about Israel we should practice hitlamdut and assume we can learn from everyone.
We should recognize that even our most heartfelt beliefs and hopes may be wrong. 
Humility demands that we treat statements of certainty or absolute truth about the future security of Israel with skepticism.
What would it mean, if when listening to people with whom you disagree or when reading those Facebook posts that push your buttons, to instead of constructing rebuttals, to ask: How is this person right? What are they saying that I need to hear?
Too often, when debating about the situation in Israel we talk as though every word we say matters. I think we would be better off to assume that nothing we say matters.
Yes, debating and sharing analysis, can help set the direction for action, but too often our heated debate replaces action all together.
There is good reason to be skeptical that our debates will impact the facts on the ground. But we can be certain that when members in our community feel attacked or silenced for sharing their beliefs, that real damage has been done to the Jewish people. Being able to listen to each other with kindness and respect matters far more than the content of anything we say.
So notice again, one last time how you feel now. What thoughts are going through your mind?
I hope that my own comments have modeled mindful speech.  I have tried to speak with honesty and purpose, with clarity about my own responsibility as a rabbi to you.
I have ended, as I knew from the beginning was inevitable, with much more that needs to be said, but I am looking forward to this New Year with confidence knowing that our community will continue the discussion.
Shanah Tovah

Many thanks to Rabbi Toba Spitzer. Her writing and ideas about frameworks and narratives for discussing Israel very much influence my own approach to this sermon. 

I am also grateful to the organizers of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association Mission to Israel and to Encounter

Swimming and Teshuva - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

09/29/2014 07:58:33 PM


Some of you know that since my sabbatical I have taken up swimming.

I discovered swimming by accident.

When my kids were little I had to put on my own swim suit to get them into the water for their swimming lessons at the JCC. If things went well, I would do laps in the open lane. One day I swam 12 laps, the next week 14. No big deal but after a while I noticed I felt more awake and energized on days I swam and I started going when the kids didn’t have lessons.

In the past I had always found swimming boring, but perhaps because I was also learning about meditation, I found the experience of being in the water to be peaceful and even spiritual.

I should get this out of the way, as a swimmer I have no great ability. If you want to know something about how to be a good swimmer don’t ask me. But as a rabbi it is my job to think about teshuva. Teshuva is the work of aligning our actions with our best intentions and I find it comes up a lot as I swim laps.

Seven things I have learned about Teshuva while swimming:

1.Don’t be self-centered.

The truth is, no one really wants to hear about swimming. It took me a little while to realize that for the most part when people asked about my swimming, they were just being nice. This question is just so kind when I think about it. It usually means that whoever I am talking to is really trying communicate something like,

I care about you and want to connect enough to inquire after your interests.  It is a shame that in response to such kindness I often would obliviously launch into an answer about all the recent details of my swimming life. This is not such a nice thing. I have learned that the thoughtful thing to do after a brief response is to ask the person I am talking to about what they care about. If they truly are interested in swimming, which is rare, they will come back to it.

Teshuva requires that we start by taking responsibility for ourselves but we aren’t supposed to stop there. Our internal gaze and focus is meant to be transformative so that we can change the way we impact others.If you aren’t at all interested in swimming, keep in mind that almost everything if we pay attention to it, teach es the same lessons. Running, hobbies, your vacation, your job, raising kids. The important part is paying attention

2.Balance is more important than strength

Body size is not a great predictor of how well someone swims. It didn’t take me long to realize that there are swimmers who in one way or another didn’t appear to be in great shape who could swim much faster than folks who were slim and muscular.

For almost a year I swam with no instruction. I used my arms like giant propellers attached to a surfboard. I kicked furiously. Over time, I found that I was able to swim longer and longer distances, but my speed remained slow. It turns out that swimming hard isn’t as important as balance. With proper technique the body moves more into alignment and glides more easily through the water. 

Teshuva is about finding balance. For most of us the goal isn’t to never be angry, but to be angry less and to balance that anger with compassion. Judaism teaches that we should mindfully search for balance. Even good things like humility and tzedaka-giving financially, can be over done.

Sometimes we get so caught up in striving to do better that we don’t stop to consider how to find balance? We expend extraordinary effort doing what we have already done but with more energy and we wear ourselves out. Instead we need to consider, how can my behaviors move more into alignment so that I can appropriately glide through challenges.

3.Everyone in the world is our coach

It is hard to imagine that I could have figured out any of this on my own.  As a gift, a friend paid for me to meet with a swim coach.

(As an aside, I am sure this was at least in part so that I would stop asking her if she had any swimming tips – another reminder that no one, even other swimmers, really wants to hear about exercising.)

The coach not only taught me better technique, but she was able to see what I was doing in ways I couldn’t. One thing she would tell me to do (and she told me this for years) was to lift my elbows higher out of the water. It could be pretty dispiriting on a day when I thought I had been doing this really well to hear her tell me I had a long way to go, but she was right. She could see my elbows and I could not.

The people in our life, who give us feedback, sometimes with kindness and tact and sometimes so harshly that we have to work hard to consider the message – they are our coaches. They may not always be right but they see us in ways that we cannot.

Part of the work of Teshuva is to assume that we can learn from everyone. To mindfully consider the messages that come to us from others. In particular, when people we love and trust tell us through words or actions that we need to do something different, it is a good sign that we have more work to do.

4.Who you surround yourself with makes a big difference

There are days when the other swimmers in my lane are slower than me. On such days it seems like I finish each set of instructions with ease. I have time to wait for others to catch up and I feel pretty good about myself as a swimmer. There are other days when I can barely keep up with swimmers in my lane. I am at the back of the line and just catching up when the next set of laps begins. Over time I noticed that I could swim at the exact same pace and feel radically different about myself and my ability, because I was judging myself in comparison to whoever happened to be in my lane.

The self-satisfaction that I feel when others are swimming more slowly and the self-judgment I feel when others swim faster than me often has nothing to do with the reality of my own effort, technique or progress.

It is our nature to judge ourselves in relation to those around us, but when it comes to teshuva we need to be able to find independent measures of our own progress.  Some teachers suggest that we should actually write down the things we have done well or not so well each day, so over time we can notice trends and notice progress. This is called heshbon hanefesh - an accounting for the soul. And like good accounting it is supposed to give us a more honest measure of our moral challenges and progress.

Also, since we are bound to measure ourselves in relation to those around us any way, it really is important to consider who you are spending your time with. Maimonidies taught that it is natural for a person’s character and actions to be influenced by the norms of their friends and associates. Therefore we should make a point of to be in the company of good people.

5.Leading is harder than following

In my swim class we are all divided more or less by ability into different lanes. In each lane the faster swimmers are supposed be in the front and the slower in the back. Sometimes I have to work hard just to keep up at the back of the lane. But sometimes, I can help lead. And you know what, it is much more challenging to be the first person at the front of the line leading than to be second in the line following. I don’t know how much is about hydrodynamics and how much is psychological, but leading is harder.

When it comes to teshuva there is no shame in following.  If someone you know is great at helping others, or giving tzedakah or fighting for social justice and you can improve your own effort by joining them and following their lead, that is great. Go for it.

But sometimes you will find that you are the best person to lead. That there is no one but you who can do the right thing in this circumstance or that you are in some way uniquely qualified to help others do what is right. And you know what, it is harder to be at the front of the line or to blaze a path. It requires having confidence in your own abilities. It means accepting that you will work harder. But it gets easier and you learn faster and you get stronger when it is your turn to lead.

6.Everything matters but I can usually only focus on one thing at a time.

It seems obvious but every part of our body is interconnected. I have learned what I do with my arms or where I position my head, how high I lift my elbows or how I swivel my hips – all these things impact how I swim. Ideally the body should move gracefully, with the fluid rhythm of a great dancer.

But though everything matters – most of the time I find the best I can do is to carefully focus on one aspect of swimming at a time. So I focus on my breathing for a lap or two, then my stroke and then my alignment and so on. After a while I try to do it all at once, but I am really relying more on muscle memory and in some ways just hoping it all kicks in.  Concentrating on everything at once more closely resembles trying to just stay aware of what I am doing without letting my mind wander.

This year, the synagogue will be engaging in a practice called Tikkun Middot –repair or strengthening of our ethical character traits. We will as a community work to strengthen traits like humility, kindness, organization, honoring others and trust. And though all of these things matter and they are all inter-related

we will work on them one at a time.

Each month, we will have classes and talks, readings and practices that we can bring home with us to help us to focus on just one of these traits.It is not that we will forget about kindness when we enter the month of patience. But by having worked hard on this technique and this ethical muscle in particular we will be more able to use it when it is called for. And since everything really is connected, the work you do on one trait will inevitably help you when turn to the next trait.

7.There is a lot to learn if you really pay attention

All last year I was studying this Tikkun Middot curriculum. Experiencing for myself what it felt like to work on these soul traits that I would be teaching to the synagogue. So for a month at a time I would be trying really hard to pay attention to honoring others or being kind or patience. I was surprised how week after week, the interactions I had in the pool, which were often only a few seconds long, were the ones I most noticed.

No matter which middah I was working on the quiet of the pool and the lack of outside stimuli between laps helped me to notice that even very short interactions could be improved. I had to figure out, how can I remain polite and respectful as we figure out who should lead and who should follow? Or, when being asked what lap we are on, I might notice the difference between turning to face someone while answering and turning away when answering, so that I could begin my next lap more quickly. These aren’t the most important things in the world but for that hour, in that lane it can make a difference.

More importantly by choosing to be mindful of one single character trait, I found I had the opportunity to learn about it no matter what I was doing. That spiritual practice didn’t have to be tacked on as another task but could be a part of my activities all day. Maybe swim class isn’t the most important place to practice faith or trustworthiness. But noticing how much I could learn even from these very brief and simple interactions, helped me realize much room for improvement there must be in the more complex relationship and emotionally rich places of my life. Not only that, my efforts to pay attention to these characteristics in the pool spilled out into the rest of my life.

Mordecai Kaplan the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism taught that the Torah we study within the synagogue walls should impact our lives outside the synagogue.

So whether you swim or run, walk the dog or paint, study the sports page, cook or eat at fine restaurants, play poker or just have a deep commitment to napping – I encourage you to look at that activity and ask yourself, what does this thing that I am already doing have to teach me about the rest of my life? How can I make what I am already doing my spiritual practice? And how can I use this hobby, passion or habit to practice being a mensch, to deepen the character of my soul?

Wishing you a sweet year! Leshanah Tovah!

Jewish Renewal and Reconstruction in Israel - July 22, 2014

07/22/2014 05:24:17 PM


Ruth Calderon

One of the most inspiring things about this trip has been to see the flourishing of creative Jewish life. We  had the opportunity to learn with the recently elected Knesset member Ruth Calderon, inside the Kneset as part of her weekly Bet Midrash. It is, in no small number of ways remarkable to have a non-Orthodox woman teaching Talmud in the halls of the Knesset.

Kobi Oz

At the end of our trip we got to sit in on a daily Talmud study lead by Kobi Oz, lead singer of a very popular band Teapacks. Though not quite as popular, imagine sitting in on daily Talmud class with Bob Dylan. Kobi Oz, a Tunisian Jew who grew up in Sderot and is at home in contemporary hipster Tel Aviv sat with a minyan of secular Jews studying Talmud for its own sake. This is an open group at Alma (also founded by Ruth Calderon) that we were able to join.

We also heard from Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist leaders here in Israel about how the question was no longer one of only fighting to be acknowledged as a legitimate form of Jewish practice. This they said was a battle that was being won, with increasing, though still small numbers of rabbis even being paid by the Israeli government. The World Union of Progressive Jews, an international organization to which but the Reconstructionist and Reform movement in North America are members, has doubled in size Israel.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the leader of the Israeli Movement of Progressive Judaism said that our work has moved beyond just being accepted and that we have to play a serious and strategic role in protecting not only pluralism but democracy. That too often Judaism is used as justification for an anti-democratic discourse in Israel. He said that we are the ones that can rewrite that discourse so that Judaism is understood as supporting democratic values and human rights. In other words he said our battle has moved from one of about our status to one about our values.

He was explicit in saying we need to do this not only for Jews but for the 1.5 million non-Jewish residents of Israel. He was also the first person I heard who spoke instead of speaking of the tragic death of three Israeli teens and one Palestinian, said simply, "We must mourn the four Israeli boys who died."

I have more that I might mention - the wonderful and moving "secular" davening of Bet Tefillah Israeli, or Nava Tehillah founded by former Bnai Keshet Rabbinic Intern Ezra Weinberg. More about the kindergartens at Mevakshei Derech, a Reconstructionist congregation that is helping to bring the synagogue into relationship with Israelis who might never have entered in such a synagogue in the past. But the big story is that progressive Judaism is flourishing and taking up space here in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago and suggest great possibilities for the next decade.

Sirens and Red-Alerts in Tel Aviv - July 18-21

07/21/2014 02:55:15 PM


Since arriving in Tel Aviv we have experienced a handful of alerts. It is a surreal experience. One evening I was having a beautiful dinner at the Namal/Port overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, when our meal was interrupted by a siren. We got up quickly and went into the safe room connected to the kitchen. After only a few minutes the sirens stopped. A couple of minutes later we were all back at our tables, the sea on one side, with pleasant food and company. We checked our phones for information only to see the news of then just announced ground invasion into Gaza. 

Each subsequent alert, some longer, some with the clear sounds of the explosions associated with the Iron Dome defense system followed a similar pattern. You are aware that the country is at war, but in so many ways life goes on as usual. One is aware that here, despite the sirens, we are really quite safe but that farther South, where the sirens do not provide sufficient warning, preschools just spend the day in safe rooms. That even farther South in Gaza, Israel's efforts to stop the missile attacks in Gaza often have severe collateral damage and that now, also in Gaza Israeli soldiers are risking their lives as part of this mission to destroy Hamas' ability to continue firing these rockets that almost never land.

Amongst our group of rabbis, one of my colleagues has a son now serving in the IDF and likely in Gaza. As we go about our program we all think of this young man, who I know from his summers at Camp JRF. We were also told by the owner of a Druze restaurant we stopped at in the Galilee that he had two sons serving in Gaza. 

So the real danger for these soldiers is often on my mind. I pray that their service is in fact leading towards greater safety. Last night, while watching the Israeli news I saw snippets of the funerals of other IDF soldiers. The images, with words from family and children were incredibly emotional. Each day it gets a little harder to bifurcate, between the tour and experience that is right in front of us and the broader knowledge of the current situation.

Visiting the Greenhouse at Kibbutz Ein Shemer - July 20

07/20/2014 04:01:41 PM


Visiting the Ecological Greenhouse at Kibbutz Ein Shemer
An environmental coexistence/common-existence project. 


The Greenhouse was started by Avital Geva.  His story is shared in Dreamers written by Yossi Klein Halevi (Avital shared with us that he had not in fact yet read this chapter). "At this ecological greenhouse we are working to improve the environment, create energy, educate and do a little tikkun olam." "We have more than 400 Arab and Jewish Israeli kids coming here from the area each week. Much of this education is side by side rather than integrated. But some motivated by parents is integrated. He holds a corn sprout in his hand. He says that with its seed, sprout and root it contains the entire Torah. "We try to teach teamwork rather than money or ego without saying it explicitly."

Esra, an Arab-Israeli, 23 year old law student who works here shares with us some complexities of the 20% of Israeli citizens, 1.5 million people  who are Arab/Palestinian. "We feel outside of, and still part of, Jewish Israeli culture and broader Palestinian culture."She is part of a group encouraging Israeli Arabs to serve in Sherut Leumi - Civil Service.  This option allows them to serve Israeli society without violating the taboo of serving in the army. It gives them benefits and status typically reserved only for those who serve in the army. She describes it as an important part of the civil rights movement of Arab Israelis. 


The sign in Hebrew is a play on words based on an Arik Einstein song. It says, "algae and I will change the world". 


The Greenhouse will be exhibiting at the NY JCC this autumn. 


Yihab and Yuval in Yaffo - July 18

07/20/2014 03:42:42 PM


I am touring Yaffo with Yuval, an Israeli guide who moved here during Oslo inspired by the hope at that time.  His son goes to the Weizmann school in Yaffo, which is split equally Jewish/Palestinain.

Also with Yihab our Palestinian guide who was born here in Yaffo. His family has lived in Yaffo close to 600 years. But most of his family fled in 48 and now are scattered throughout the Arab and Western world.

Yihab tells a remarkable story of growing up angry but coming to find himself in relationship with Israelis. Building enormous, sulcha-dialogue groups (thousands of people) during the 2nd Intifada. He tells an amazing story of his family disowning him for this, but finally participating in this dialogue. Here he tells of his greatest m test from God, falling in love and eventually marrying an Israeli. After having a child he started a Jewish/Palestinian pre-school in his father's home. Everyone understands how surreal it is to tell this story in the current circumstances. 

Yuval speaks to us in English and Yihab in Hebrew.

Fri, May 24 2024 16 Iyar 5784