Moral Unorthodoxy – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 – Rabbi Jason Nevarez

On a brisk day this past Spring, I had the privilege of taking my children, Ethan and Sophie to Ellis Island –the very place their grandfather traversed in 1908, from the town of Vilna, Lithuania. As we took the ferry from Battery Park, we sailed right around the Statue of Liberty. They were in awe of her sheer size, understanding that it was this magnificent monument that greeted new immigrants and refugees, welcoming them to their new home in NY and beyond.

ellis-island-immigration-museum-2_cLady Liberty’s image stayed with us as we disembarked at Ellis Island and proceeded with the self-guided audio tour. They both immersed themselves in the experience — carefully examining every room we entered, every photo we saw. Sophie focused on the faces of the children and the short narratives that accompanied their photos. She couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that her great grandpa George could ever have endured the treacherous journey. How could she ever imagine living a life filled with such harshness, suffering, and an arduous journey to a completely unknown new land.

This short journey to Ellis Island resonated deeply, the faces remaining with all of us after our departure. Soon after we were back home, another image, that of three-year old Aylan Kurdi, came searing into my mind. Aylan, whose parents valiantly tried to flee Syria to give him a life, literally and figuratively, never made it to a new land. Rather, he washed up on a Turkish shore in his tiny red t-shirt and blue shorts. He drowned, along with his five-year old brother and mother when his desperate father could no longer keep their heads above water, having been battered by unrelenting waves that their rubber raft simply could not sustain.aylan-kurdi

Aylan, of course is just one singular member of the vast global refugee population that has flooded our media for the last several years. But, this small boy tore into my consciousness, a boy who, at three years old, spent his entire life trapped in a world of horrific violence and utter despair. This boy who tugged on my (and many) heartstrings, will never get the chance to kick a soccer ball. He will never go to school, wrestle with a difficult math problem, cut class, go on a hike, or learn to hate broccoli. As I recalled his image, I wanted nothing more than to undo the unbearable pain that had been brought to his family, his community and later, to the world at large.

And all of a sudden, it became clear to me – the world’s shofar had sounded for me and others with Aylan. What all the numbers, statistics, media sensationalizing couldn’t do – the image of Aylan did in an instant.

Aylan’s story moved me so much that I joined 15 other rabbis in August on a fact-finding mission to Berlin, a hotbed in the midst of the current refugee crisis. One of my first experiences there was a visit to a remnant of the Berlin wall, where photographer Kai Wiesenhofer created an exhibit called, “War on Wall”, a profound exhibition of faces and war-on-wallstories of injured refugees plastered on a remaining section of the Wall. In his introduction, he states: “It is a paradox of war that the image of a single person makes the biggest impression upon us; the one whose face we can see, the one whose name and fate we can actually recall. The bigger the number of victims, the less we are touched emotionally. Instead of increasing our consternation, large numbers somehow numb the reality of it. Numbers are abstract- people are not.”

Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon calls this paradigm “psychophysical numbing” – if I can’t do everything, I’ll do nothing. Almost daily, newsfeeds and subsequent rhetoric in support or opposition of refugees became commonplace – I, too, became numb – “that’s their issue”, I recall, thinking to myself several times.

And then one day, a small boy who washed up on the shores of Eastern Europe, broke through the numbness.

The reality IS that most of us walk through this world focused on just trying to get through the day while we seek to quiet the issues that stir intense feelings within us. While we may stop for a moment to acknowledge the pain, the tragedy, or the need, many of us (including myself), shake our heads and quietly keep on walking.

For a moment, Aylan awakened us, surely me, too late to the horrors of a crisis fueled by our own indifference.

As a society, we’ve sh-childrenbeen here before. We woke up to the insanity of this country’s gun culture four years ago after parents and families had to bury 26 innocent young souls
gunned down in their classrooms just 25 miles from where we gather this evening. It was too awful, too vivid for us to walk away at that very moment. But soon after, our Facebook feeds quieted, we shook our heads, brushed away tears, and kept on quietly walking. We did the same after Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Fort Hood, Charleston and Orlando.

We shake our heads, angered, concerned….and quietly keep on walking.

We acknowledged the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in our country when Trayvon was eric-garnerkilled, and our laws didn’t change.  Our social media exploded again when Eric Garner died in a strangle-hold, or Freddie Gray, who was shoved into a police van with such blunt force that he suffered spinal cord injury and ultimately death. And most recently, the events in Charlotte last week continue to feed this seemingly endless cycle, leading to further loss of innocent civilian and police lives, further inciting violence and disdain for those in blue. For a moment, we become outraged, vocal, sorrowful and motivated and soon after, we keep on walking….

Paradoxically, as a Jewish community, we stand proudly, for years, fighting for the rights of the African-American community– from the days of modern theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking with Dr. King in Selma, exclaiming, “I felt like my feet were praying.” Yet, the latest iteration of organizational justice for the African-American community, the Black Lives Matter movement, blindsided the Jewish community with the recent unveiling of its social and political policy agenda. It portrays a strategy well beyond police brutality, and accuses Israel of genocide and apartheid, seeking to hijack important work that addresses deeply rooted societal challenges, with a platform that brings about contempt and bigotry toward Jews. Few leaders spoke up, and many of us just kept on walking….

Even locally, in our own backyard we see homeless on the streets of NYC or Mt. Kisco, and immigrants who occupy local street corners in find work so they can sustain their families.
immigrants-on-street-cornerWe may take notice for a moment, but do we truly acknowledge that they, too, are our neighbors? Chances are, we keep on walking….

It is a harsh and never-ending cycle. Truly the world would be so much simpler if all we continued to worry about was soccer or baseball, dine in or take-out, iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. And yet here comes Aylan’s image in my mind, again and again – shattering complacency, and pushing me (and perhaps some of US) to remember how fragile this journey we call life, truly is; to stop walking, turn around and face one another with an outstretched hand.

The blasts of the shofar come every year to not only wake us up (which I have charged you with in the past), but for me this year, the sacred voice of the shofar calls us to STOP walking away, take notice, and act.

In the book of Deuteronomtzedek-tzedek-tirdofy, we are commanded: “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof – justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20). Our mandate for being a free people is the ongoing pursuit for justice – fighting for the rights and ensuring the dignity of the other. Judaism takes the pursuit of justice in earnest, emphasizing the word tzedek, justice, in Torah, two times, one right after the other.

But could the sages of our Torah have possibly understood the enormity of this task in 2016? Think of how many news alerts we receive in the course of one day. Could they have ever fathomed the spiritual confusion that comes when we carry tiny screens with us everywhere, notifying us in real time to every act of human cruelty, every tragic story, violent protest, – every possible political poll? Never before have we had access to so much input. How could we be expected to even hold it all, let alone act?

Joan Kantor, beloved congregant, friend, and teacher in our Religious School, recently penned a Letter to the Editor in the NY Times, responding to an op-ed entitled: Scrutinizing Our Frenzy. She notes, “Once again, I have to make room in my busy schedule to respond to your article about being busy. Don’t you people understand that I don’t have time for this? Do you really want me to admit that my crammed, stressful to-do list days are an excuse not to face who I am on the inside? I have so much going on, so many places to run to, so much to worry about. Can’t you just leave me alone and let me “not be”?”

Joan has it right. Today, there is no question that we have reached the saturation point. No surprise, then, the growing backlash to the world’s refugees crisis or our country’s race relations. Or the divisiveness that has radiated, on these issues and more, fed by our current political cycle. If we can’t make space and time to honestly look at ourselves and make self-care a priority, how can we move from a state of psychophysical numbness to one of compassion, empathy, and action?

Over these Days of Awe, we are charged to look within and to take inventory – looking deep to acknowledge both the pain and the progress.

In this inventory of our culture, I do see the growth: our unprecedented ability to treat illnesses; outstanding advances in science, medicine and technology, the newly opened forum to address gender questions, the seemingly endless charitable organizations that work hard to make an impact every day, creative solutions to end water crises in Israel that are shared with developing nations….and let us not forget WAZE! Thanks to Israel’s Start-Up Nation!

As I also take stock of the pain and the hardening of the heart: millions dead, victims of war, hatred, religious extremism and terror, and better technology to weaponize hatred and kill more efficiently and effectively – I see a significant imbalance.

What a dynamic tension: in the past century, we have learned how to think deep: I have witnessed children in our own congregation printing in 3D, and watched some of the greatest medical advances to date. Robots are communicating and teaching each other; whole cities have moved off of electrical grids and are now powered by wind and air; online stores are providing information about our genes that will make it accessible to learn more about our health.

But somehow, we have not yet figured out how to feel deep, to build stronger bridges of humanity. We have yet to overturn the U.S. legacy of racism and temper this world’s attraction towards anti-Israel, anti-Jewish vitriol. We lack the sechel, the common sense and political capital in figuring out how to protect children in our classrooms and malls and theaters from disturbed young individuals armed with weapons of war or how to provide our own citizens equal opportunity of access to all that our country has to offer.

We can send rovers to Mars, build self-driving cars, but we can’t muster the collective will to care for the world’s most vulnerable: refugee children, leaving them no choice but to venture into a raging sea on broken inflatable rafts?

We tout ourselves as the most powerful generation ever to inherit this earth, yet we still convince ourselves of our personal powerlessness. Friends – this is a “moral crisis”.

SO…what can we do to stop, take notice and act? How do we harness our creative genius and frame it in the moral choice to stop walking and turn to face our fellow human?

A critical first step is to let our empathy lead us to moral action. Our capacity to see all moral-actionhuman beings as reflections of ourselves, not as “other” will make a difference to the person at the other end of a gun barrel, or those holding on for dear life to a raft that has no business crossing the rough sea. Or to the parents who fear that their children won’t make it home from school; and reduce the fear that emanates, on either end, between a police officer and a person of color. Empathy is what allows the divine to dwell between two people – for love to overcome hate, peace to overcome violence.

In 1967 at an interfaith conference in Washington, DC protesting the War in Vietnam, Rabbi Heschel told a story about his first encounter, at the age of seven, with the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, which we will read tomorrow morning. He recalls sitting in class, reading the story from the Book of Genesis. When the moment comes that Abraham holds the knife over his son’s throat, Heschel begins to cry. By the time the angel cries out: Abraham, Abraham, lay not your hand on the child! he is sobbing uncontrollably, overcome with terror. ‘Why are you crying?’ the Rabbi asks him. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed!’ ‘But rabbi,’ he says, ‘supposing the angel had come a second too late?’ The Rabbi comforts him, explaining that an angel cannot come late. “My friends,” Heschel notes decades later, “an angel cannot be late. But we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late.”

While we may not be able to bring an end to war, oppression, and hatred on our own (I am well aware), the reverberations of the shofar blast mandate us to actively seek out and do our part. We can change the fate of the world and its people by choosing not to come too late.

That frenzy referred to in the NY times Op Ed is the focus on all we think we need to do and be. It precludes us from seeing beyond ourselves and it burns us out physically, spiritually so much so that we may render ourselves helpless. Yet we can turn our best intentions into meaningful, sacred deeds if we choose to stop, take a breath and look up. Here are a few concrete actions steps to support our mandate in 5777:

  1. Use the internet and social media to learn what people are feeling, and get caught up on the issues that are important to the community that you want to support. Use your voice, skills, connections and gifts to educate others.
  2. Ask yourself: am I bringing moral conversations home and making space for my loved ones, my children to think deeply and take steps with causes I, or we, are passionate about? Am I deliberately looking up to see where my part is needed?
  3. There are many tangible ways that you can make a difference right here in your spiritual home through participating in our social justice initiatives. Any one of our leadership can help guide you to the many opportunities here at TST.

Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate, Rav Kook’s timeless message is key here. He says: “Purely righteous people do not complain about evil; they add justice. They do not complain about heresy; they add faith.” (Rav Kook, Arpelei Tohar, p. 39)

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue! Pursuing justice still affords us time for work, our families, summer camp, vacations, theatre, and our sporting games. And as I already mentioned, there are people in our own community, perhaps even our own homes, who desperately need us to pay attention, with our love, time and resources. I believe there is room in our hearts to hold all of this.

Commit to not quietly walking away today….or tomorrow. A sweet boy in a red t-shirt and blue shorts stopped me in my tracks. Together, let’s turn our best intentions, our concern and sometimes anger, now into moral action.

I close tonight by offering a prayer, which I hope will motivate us towards next steps in this New Year of 5777 and beyond:

Mi Shebeirach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu

God of our Fathers and Mothers, Source of Creation

This year, help us to STOP walking away.

Know that while we come together during these holy days to be in community with one another, our liturgy, inspired by You, calls us to turn our moral crisis into moral action.

Help us identify our wealth of skills, knowledge, influence and resources, and turn them into deeds that support the human condition and human dignity.

Help us to motivate ourselves, and one another, so that we can infuse this world with much-needed justice, light, empathy and healing to bring about wholeness in humanity.

Amen. Shana Tova.


From Megillah to Madness…and Back Again: AIPAC 2016


On the eve of the Festival of Purim, before we listen to or read the Megillah, partake in libations and festive affairs, and recall the strength of our Purim heroes, I thought it would be an ideal time to reflect on my recent experience at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference. Throughout the Policy Conference, I had a chance to (re)connect with many congregants, colleagues, and friends. The energy was elevated, and the tension palpable. Over 18,000 came together to show their support and love of Israel.

First, some framing with regard to my general thinking on Israel and AIPAC:

  1. I believe that we, as a collective Jewish people, stand taller and prouder today because of the amazing and incredible work that Israel does in many areas.  It is continually innovative, forward thinking, and visionary in spite of constant threats on its borders and throughout the region.
  1. More Americans, regardless of religious or race affiliation, should support the work of AIPAC. Why?
    • AIPAC is one of the few places that supports bi-partisan conversation and work towards a common goal, further promoting the success and safety of the Jewish State. And this “bipartisanship” nourishes our ethical obligation to see the humanity in the other.
    • America needs Israel.  Israel needs America. AIPAC works unfailingly to strengthen these two democracies’ joint work in critical and meaningful ways.

At this year’s Policy Conference, I connected with and learned from African American state legislators, as they passionately spoke about the enormous impact IsraAid has had on their communities – coming to the relief of some of the poorest communities in the U.S. last year during the worst floods seen there in over 1000 years.

I also learned about the unbroken commitment to Israeli ingenuity. For example, SoftWheel is a company that is supporting wheelchair-bound individuals by putting suspensions in the actual wheel or wheelchairs – meaning no more flat tires and increase comfort for those in the chairs! And this technology is starting to be used in bikes and cars! The company was founded by IDF veterans, and supports our US vets as well – incredible genius as just one example of the extraordinary innovations from Israeli society working in partnerships with the U.S.

In addition to these impactful take-aways, the conference is commingled with countless sessions on everything Israel: education, policy, diplomatic relations, social justice, lobbying – you name it. And this year, delegates had an opportunity that witness something that only comes about every 4 years: to hear from this year’s presidential candidates LIVE.

Since I have been a rabbi I have stayed away from commenting on partisan politics. I believe that the job of a rabbi is to foster sacred space and enable others to feel free to voice their own opinion, without judgment or reservation. Yet besides being one of the spiritual advisers in my congregation, I am also a father of two. And as a father, I feel responsible to teach my children that when there is wickedness in our midst, we must stand up and recognize it. Whether at home, in our school or local communities – even the political arena, it is our moral and religious imperative.

I believe that it is vital for any U.S. Presidential candidate to illustrate their commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. And I deeply value that 4 of the 5 current candidates understood how important it was to showcase his/her platform on the U.S.-Israel relationship, and how they would actualize their vision come January, 2017. Additionally, I feel that AIPAC had every right, as a bipartisan lobbying group, to invite all candidates, regardless of rhetoric. After all, they are vying for the highest office in our land, and should be afforded an opportunity to engage with a crowd that has a desire to know where they stand on this strategic partnership with America’s closest ally.

Upon reflection, all of the candidates promoted their deep love and commitment to Israel, through either substantive or strategic proposals (Clinton and Kasich, and at times, Cruz), or through personal narrative (Trump). The 3 republicans voiced their strong opposition for the Iran deal, which seemed to serve as a centerpiece for their remarks. Some of them also focused their statements on policy failures by the current administration, rather than lay out any substantive plans. Some brief highlights: Cruz quoting Talmud, Clinton bringing on (Pure)im, Kasich on his relationship with Sharansky, and Trump boasting about his Jewish grandchildren. For me, both Clinton and Kasich spoke passionately, with experience and commanded-ness, about the U.S.-Israel relationship, both of their vision making reasonable and short and long-term strategic sense.

Yet, while substance was provided during most of the speeches, sadly, the wickedness we have seen throughout this election cycle reared its ugly head on Monday night as well. As anticipated (and boy he did not surprise), I experienced an early Purim Shpiel of sorts – outrageous declarations, silly cheers and boos, all of which caused many to mask our truest selves, and sew confusion over who is good and who is wicked. As a glass half full guy, I was hoping for a muted response and ideally, in advance of the policy conference, a voice that would distance AIPAC from potential inflammatory statements from Mr. Trump, and given the organization an opportunity to model their theme: #cometogether. Sadly, it never happened. Nevertheless, the next morning, AIPAC leadership stood front and center and shared much of what needed to be said. I felt, at least, it was a good start and much-need teshuvah (repentance) (click here to read the remarks):

They condemned Mr. Trump’s incendiary remarks against President Obama and misguided rhetoric. I stood proud in that moment, in contrast to the great discomfort I felt as he approached the center of the arena to share his 15-20 minute oratory.

Truth be told, “wicked” is a term identified who those who seek to bring others down; those who seek to find the worst in others. I believe our tradition would certainly qualify Mr. Trump as such. From his call on banning all Muslims from entering the United States, to his lengthy evasion to disavow support from David Duke, his pervasive and persistent misogyny, proposals to make torture legal, and a call to kill the families of terrorism suspects (to name a few), there is no doubt in my mind that his campaign has, and continues to inspire and unmask those who promote these injustices. 

This evening, we will read the Book of Esther and recall that good triumphed over evil: King Ahasuerus first seduces the people of his kingdom with lavish parties – his people grateful for his seemingly “audacious hospitality”. It is at that moment that the King elevates the wicked Haman (boo) to a position of great power. Haman eventually manufacturers an edict to kill the Jews in his kingdom, but Mordechai, a Jew living in Shushan, senses Haman’s potential power and refuses to bow down. All but Mordechai prostrate themselves before Haman.

It is at the moment that I believe Mordechai spoke great truth to power. On Monday evening, I thought of my children and the messages I wanted to convey to them. And as I write this, I am able to draw inspiration from our narrative. We must not bow down and kneel to those who inspire hatred and overlook calls for violence. This is our mandate and our sacred responsibility.

So, what can we do when our political landscape affords bullies the platform to dominate public arenas? As a Jewish people, we look to our tradition, to God, and to the world around us. And, as a modern Jewish community determined to learn from those around us – we listen, we learn, and we act.

Our Rabbinic teachings note: “Silence implies consent.” We will not and cannot be silent. Our “more perfect union” is indeed, not so perfect. And as progressive Jews, we have a moral imperative to become more involved with groups like AIPAC, not less. We must make our voices heard, and demand more of our elected officials. We must not remain silent. We must not stand idly by. There is no room for hate. Our child deserve more.

I hope you will join me at next year’s AIPAC Conference (click here to register NOW) to add your voice in advocacy, and in support and love for the Jewish state.

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Sacred? And On Who’s Authority? Israel Sabbatical Post 3

The Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem has always been a place of “questionable” sacredness for me. The allure of our biblical narrative and journey has drawn me there time and again….taking many groups and individuals to experience a piece of US that still remains. Upon approach, its positioning is majestic – a reminder of a powerful symbol of inspiration for so many. Yet, even as I stand in awe of its physical greatness, place notes of prayer and healing in the wall, and recite words of Tehillim (Psalms), I, myself, struggle with its sacredness. 
Perhaps it’s because of my own inner struggles with its attachment to a sacrificial time that is not in practice today. Perhaps, moreover, in today’s world, the Kotel has become a politicized arena between Haredim and other – religious nationalists, IDF soldiers, progressive Jewish men and women (from Israel and broad), and non-Jews (many who are not even aware of the challenges).   
Today, the physical greatness I speak of is tempered by the smallness in its current form of welcome to anyone outside of the accepted fold. I offer you two incidents that happened to my family and I while here on my sabbatical: 


Site of the Shomrot HaSniut – modesty guards

  In this picture, you will see a women, standing near a table. These tables, new in the past few months, are placed in strategic locations, adjacent to each security entrance to the Plaza of the Kotel. They are manned by Shomrot HaSniut (guards/overseers of modesty). For as long as I could remember, women would lap the women’s section of the Wall to remind newcomers to cover their bare arms and legs. Yet, as time progresses, the overseer’s reach has expanded greatly – through the entirety of the Plaza. 

Our first incident occurred when we were taking a family picture on the plaza (far removed from the Kotel men’s and women’s sections). Two women approached my wife (who was wearing a sleeveless shirt) to ask her to cover. After a firm retort (in Hebrew) from both of us, they sheepishly retreated. Their goal: do not allow any woman they deem immodest to enter into their expanded holy space. 

The second occurred as we entered with a friend visiting from the states. On this day, we had no desire to approach the wall. Rather, we were making our way to a tour of the Western Wall tunnels (a must do on your next trip to Israel)! A young Haredi woman (not more than 25 y/o) approached our friend (in a tank top and skirt), and asked her to cover up). In my take of sniut (modesty), there was nothing immodest about her dress. Regardless, she was aware of the customs of the area and brought a shawl to place over her bare shoulders. As I tried to interact with the “modesty guard”, she kept focusing on our friend, making it clear she was speaking to her directly. I asked the woman if she was a “ba’ala hakotel” – the owner of the kotel? She wouldn’t answer. I asked her several more times. She finally noted that her role was to oversee modesty in this sacred place. As she threw some insults my way over my own rabbinate, our interaction continued to get heated over the next few minutes, as we were not giving in to her demand. The chief rabbi of the Kotel recently noted that the entirety of the plaza is now to be treated as a synagogue, hence their new and far more aggressive directive. 

As we moved away from her, the shomeret hasniut followed us into the entrance of the tunnels, continuing to harass us by telling the male guard that our friend should not be allowed anywhere near the walls in the tunnels until she “covers up”. Appearing as he now experiences this on a daily basis, he “yes’d” her and told her to leave. 

While the above experiences were not detrimental in any way for us as a family, my children (for the first time) experienced internal bias Jew to Jew. It brought up lots of questions for them, and furthered the wrestling they, and we, are continuing to do throughout this incredible summer in Israel.  

Some final thoughts about the current administrators of the Kotel and holy sites: 
1. The Kotel is NOT a synagogue. Rather, it is a national historic site, a place for prayer, for wonder, for holiness for ALL PEOPLES. 

2. It appears as though people are welcome to pray at the plaza so long as they adhere to the rules and don’t challenge the status quo. 
The leadership of the Kotel has the potential, the capacity to bring thousands of Jews and others back to the Kotel. In an open letter to the Women of the Wall the other day, the chief administrator of the Kotel said: “The Kotel is bigger than all of us.” I believe that wholeheartedly. So make the welcome match the grandeur of this site, without minimizing one’s own practice and identity. 


Writing notes to put in the Wall


Ethan placing a note at the Kotel

 Until my next post….

Biblical Change Agents

The following was a piece I wrote for the weekly URJ publication: 10 Minutes of Torah, published on July 6, 2015:


I join Rabbi Kushner in celebrating these nashot chayil, “women of valor.” They paved the way for future generations not only in gaining access to their inheritance, but also in bringing about amendments to the current legislation; amendments that provided greater access to relatives sharing in their clan’s inheritance. In our modern language, we might refer to them as “change agents.”

In her book, Midrashic Women, Judith Baskin describes the daughters of Zelophehad well. According to Baskin, they are “canny and competent women who trusted that divine mercy would transcend the mutable norms of a human society in which women were subordinate human beings . . . allowing them to shape their own destinies.”1

In addition to achieving a tremendous feat impacting land inheritance for women, today, they push us to rethink fate. They ask us to consider what is right, just, and relevant when faced with traditional approaches that may no longer serve a greater good. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah inspire us to do the footwork and push the boundaries, even if it brings us into uncomfortable places. They model the potential for us: to enter into the holy centers where we fight for what we believe is just.

From these heroic biblical change agents, we learn some important lessons:

  • Bringing about change takes a shared vision, even though there may be periods of time when one has to stand alone.
  • Resolving conflict includes a demonstration of evidence and facts coupled with a sensible attitude and approach to advance a positive and worthy outcome.
  • Emotion has great impact. The five daughters place their facts into meaningful context and deliver them with conviction and passion.

In reflection, take a moment to ask yourself the question: What cause(s) have I stood up for lately? Change can be challenging to enact, even when the need for such is increasingly urgent. But our tradition challenges us, each and every day, to not wait upon others for the changes we hope to see. As we change our ways, so too, the ways of the world. Be the change!

1. Judith Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature (Hanover-London: Brandeis University Press, 2002)

From Intolerance to Simcha: Israel Sabbatical 2015 Post 1

It has been approximately one week since our arrival in Israel for my summer sabbatical, and over 3 weeks since my mother’s passing. I have entered this sacred land with mixed emotions…trying to find a balance between this mourning period and releasing from the tensions that have part of my life these past months. And yes, while the Jerusalem air, warm days and cool nights offers a sense of calm and shlemut (wholeness), truth told, it is a work in progress, and for today, I will label it: “dynamic tension”.   
I wanted to share an interesting encounter I had this past Shabbat while spending this time with our ultra orthodox cousins, who live in the city of Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh (for those who might not be familiar), is a sleeper community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These most recent years have found this community filled with tensions between secular and religious, religious and ultra religious, and the list goes on. Beit Shemesh, for me, has served as an incubator for such connections and subsequent tensions. 

For our first shabbat in Israel, we shared this experience with our cousins at their home in Beit Shemesh – a fully shomer shabbat, shome mitzvot experience – just what the doctor ordered! My cousin, an orthodox rabbi by smicha (ordination), but a computer programmer by day, knows my love for Carlebach music and prayer – so we headed to the Carlebach minyan. Shuls (synagogues) are a plenty in this community, and while the energy of this type of minyan was not his cup of tea, he was gracious in his offer to come with. 
The evneing started with such energy and beauty….singing and joyous momentum (on the men’s side) as we sang through the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat – no less than 4 times of men being pulled up to dance around the service leader. Truly joyous! Yet, given the happenings of the past few weeks and tensions between these Jewish religious sects, something miraculous was occuring before my eyes: hasidim, religious zionists, and modern Orthodox were davening (praying) together – singing, clapping, and dancing. 

The height of my observation (as an outsider to this community) was the interaction between some of the Chasidim and immediate former MK (member of Knesset) Dov Lipman. Dov spent the past few years as a member of the Yesh Atid party, heading a ferocious campaign to enforce cumpulsory military service for the ultra orthodox community (they are not currently obligated). One might think it would be a challenging place for him to enter. Rather, what I witnessed were pats on the back, smiles, and positive and supportive conversation for Dov’s presence in this sacred moment. I witnessed, first hand, the joy of welcoming Shabbat trumping the feelings and challenges that have been clouding this community for quite some time.

For me, the gift of Shabbat is to leave behind the everday challenges we are obligated to/responsible for. Rather, barriers are removed, and we are ignited with the 3 flames: 2 are those that help us to make that sacred distinction between everyday and holy; the third ignites the best within us so that we may actualize our greatest human potential: v’ahavta l’recha komocha – love your neighbor as yourself. 

Getting ready to put a note in the wall at the Kotel

Though I am just at the beginning of this incredible journey, so may lessons have already been learned. I look forward to sharing more about my incredible learning time at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem….stay tuned! 


Feet Don’t Fail Me Now! Israel Adventure: Days 5 and 6 

The last of the spring rains seem to be behind us, and the crisp morning air served us well as we had an intense day of hiking and biking ahead of us. 
After our delicious breakfast, we headed to the far reaches of the north of Israel, into the Golan – overlooking the Syrian border, not two miles from where we stand. While the border closest to us was quiet on this Friday morning, several weeks ago, mortal shells were landing as ISIS insurgents battled in nearby Syria. The group had a profound awareness and appreciation for not only how close the borders are, but how important the security needs are in the region. 

Overlooking the Syrian border

Soon after, we began our morning hike along the Zavitan hiking trail. We traversed the volcanic and rocky landscape into beautiful waterfalls. Along the way, we saw ruins of old Syrian bunkers, strongholds for their military operation pre-1967. The hiking was intense and awe-inspiring, getting us more excited for what would be waiting for us on our bikes in the afternoon.

Hiking the Golan



After a quick falafel fill, we got on mountain bikes and spent much of the afternoon biking along the mighty Jordan River (but if you blink, you’ll miss it)! Along the way, we witnessed every day Israelis, with friends and family, enjoying their days off, picnic-ing, some escorted by their four-legged friends. You might think you were in Pound Ridge Reservation or another domestic nature preserve, as all were going about their day, seemingly unengaged of the daily unrest that lies beyond their borders, or the at-large anti-Semitic global rhetoric. But for them, it was another day of living life and finding gratitude and sharing it with their loved ones. 


After a fantastic and tough ride, we prepared to welcome Shabbat. Nir, our guide, crafted a wonderful beginning to our Shabbat experience. We were invited to a local Israeli home, where we shared in preparing dinner and engaging in rich conversation. Before eating, we had a festive Kabbalat Shabbat service (complete with travel guitar) and lots of singing, followed by an incredibly delicious Shabbat dinner, both in meal and in dialogue. A wonderful evening was had!
We had a leisurely wake-up this Shabbat morning, and stretched our mind, bodies, and souls with Shabbat Yoga. New to some, but enjoyed by all! 
After some down time, we enjoyed another bike ride through the Galilee. This time, the terrain was hilly and meandering, but worth it for the many images we were able to acquire! As usual, we stopped for tea along the way (Israeli style), and even were able to ride through a kibbutz dairy farm. It was surely a day for new sights and smells!
As Shabbat came to a close, we made Havdalah overlooking the Hula Valley, and at truly authentic Israeli dude ranch/steak house.
The news came this evening of the earthquake in Nepal. Our collective prayers and thoughts are with all those who were affected by this natural tragedy. 
Tomorrow, we head to the ancient city of Tzfat and begin to make our way to Tel Aviv.  More to come….