Tuesday, November 22, 2011
After a hiatus to focus on life pursuits I’m back to tackle the torah!
In our Lives:
I think the shock of hearing about unethical news in our lives comes from our own struggles with what to do when faced with tough ethical decisions. Do we stand up for what is right, or hope it fades into the background (and that no one notices)? The news lately has been a series of tragedies and lies: The Penn State scandal, presidential candidates fumbling their way through policy positions they don’t seem to understand, big banks continuing to post record profits, or the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme we have seen questionable ethics. We have seen the use of power and authority in our government acting unethically or amongst private companies who don’t look out for the best interests of even their employees!
When we hear of such news we wonder if we ourselves would act better? How are we educating future generations? Are we teaching (by example) to only look out for ourselves? Do we consider how these acts of deceit effect others? Ultimately it seems the truth inevitably comes out but at what sacrifice? For me, when thinking through decisions where ethics are at play I like to think that I consider who will get hurt, what would by the favored outcome, and is it “just”? Not all decisions are easy but all should treat people fairly. And I think the consequences should adequately reflect appropriate punishment for unethical choices. Otherwise we are simply letting power breed power in our society. And if you aren’t sure what to do heed my mother’s advice “you get more flies with honey” it works every time!
Occupy wall street has been an interesting way to think about the consequences of treating US citizens indifferently by big businesses. While I am unclear of their demands and the common message they represent it is clear that Americans are unhappy. The economic gap has grown to 99% vs. 1% where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer and some of those in power are seeing to it that this discrepancy remain. Occupy wall street and other Occupy movements are working to regain the people’s right to democracy, to voters views mattering and being heard. The popularity of this movement has signified to me that injustice has consequences and people have re-recognized their ability to hold others accountable for their actions.
From the source:
The upcoming parshat this week Toldot deals with the story of brothers Jacob and Esau and with common themes of stealing, hatred and lying. But the plot runs deeper as the lies are intentional and done with power by authority. Rebekah, mother of twins Jacob and Esau tricks her husband Issac into giving the birthright to the younger son Jacob since he is her favored son (and Rebekah thinks more deserving of the blessing). Rebekah, acting authoritatively in her roles as wife and mother lies and aids Jacob in stealing the birthright. But as a result of this act Jacob must leave his family due to what he has done and Rebekah is without her favored son. I think this can serve both as a lesson to those with power to act ethically since the consequences of selfish acts can be grave, and to those without power to not just go along with what the authority says but to stand up for justice and to ask yourself if the act is ethical and if not what you can do about it! While the reasoning behind Rebekah’s acts may be for a more favorable outcome of Issac’s blessing. I am more concerned with the lying and deceit that those with power partake in (as shown above). If in fact Jacob was the better son to receive the birthright then it should have been bestowed upon him because of his merit and not by way of an unethical act. Jacob is the one who is held accountable for Rebekah’s actions not Rebekah even though she assured Jacob this would not be the case. These actions seem similar to Americans having to carry out their promises to banks or fulfillment of laws even though the banks and the rules keep changing and not upholding their end of the deal. It cause me to question if those in authority don’t even lead by example who will?
Thursday, August 11, 2011
So I’m gonna try to unpack this holiday a bit for myself and hopefully for you. Here goes….
In our lives: Each year my close friend sends a very personal message in the spirit of Tisha B’av on her own challenges that are acting destructively in her own life and reflects on how to turn these challenges into a positive light. Each year I’m able to learn about her current struggles and am pushed to see the world through her eyes and reflective process where she finds the good out of the bad and continues to strive towards building this positive energy.
As with Yom Kippur it is tradition to fast on Tisha B’av since you are consumed in a full day of prayer and mourning. Fasting reminds us of physical pain which to me represents the pain that our people have felt each time there was further tragedy on this historic day of tribulations.
Reflecting: For me, the destruction of the first and second temples and the expulsion of Jews from Spain and England all of which occurred on the 9th of the Jewish month of Av symbolize a greater feeling of homelessness. Here is a full list of the losses on Tisha B’av (the 9th of Av). Homelessness doesn’t necessarily have to mean without a physical home for prayer as it may have meant for the Jews in 586 and 516 B.C.E. it can mean many things. It can mean feeling alone, or left out from your family, or community. When we feel like we don’t fit in we may feel physically and spiritually homeless, or uncomfortable. Loss in our lives can create this feeling as well whether actually losing a home, a job, a parent, family member, or a friend we mourn that which we no longer have. Our home which once was is no longer and our morning consumes us.
Where to go from here: I think a good amount of reflection on our lives and the ways we interact with others allows us to grow spiritually. If we continue to live our lives without a healthy self-check and evaluation of where we are and where we are going we can wind up being very distant from even ourselves. Tisha B’av is about morning communal loss. But you can choose to bring that closer to home by evaluating the ways in which you have been destructive to your home, your family, your friends, your professional relationships. Are you working on building the new “metaphorical” temple or are you tearing down the walls around you? Where do you turn towards home? Do you feel homeless or at a loss for what once was? On Tisha B’av the Jewish community mourns with those who feel alone and defeated. But the next day we pick up and begin to hope again for the beit hamikadash (house of the holy).
“I think it's important to recognize that we can't just hope. We can't just have faith that mashiach will come. We have to be proactive. We must examine who we are, what we're doing, and what we need to do to be worthy and meritorious of the next step in our cycle.” Cindy Kaplan Tisha B’av thoughts 2010.
So whether you feel lonely or without a home, or whether you are grateful to have a life where you feel uniformly whole we each could gain something from reflecting on destruction and rebuilding within our lives. Don’t just mourn take steps towards repair, and then we truly will live in a holy world.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
This post originally appeared on Pursue. It is the second in a series on reinventing Jewish rituals (which I will be writing for Pursue). To read the first post on memorials/yartzeits, click here.
June is full of irony: not only is June Pride month, but it is also the unofficial start to wedding season. So many are still fighting for equal marriage. As I write this, lawmakers in Albany are struggling to garner enough votes to make same-sex marriage legal in New York state (see resources to get involved at the end of this post).
As someone who works at the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue, CBST (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah) I see firsthand how the denial of civil rights affects our families. I also get to see what an amazing tribute it is to the Jewish tradition to have so many people who are deeply rooted in religion, spirituality, and tradition create a community unique to them. Instead of allowing themselves to be turned off by communities who are still figuring out their “stance” on homosexuality, they have a home where their whole identity is able to come together and thrive with others who accept them for who they are and don’t focus on how they do not fit with the “heteronormative” family.
Within Judaism, what does it mean to have a same-sex marriage? What are some of the opportunities for reinventing this ritual? Rabbis debate this topic just as many states debate same-sex marriage bills across the country.
Much of the contemporary Jewish conversation on same-sex marriage draws on pieces of Torah and explains how to reinterpret them in an inclusive way for our same-sex couples, namely, the “be fruitful and multiply” directive. Rabbi Arthur Waskow asks, “Can we not interpret this as ‘to be fruitful and expansive emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually rather than biologically?’ Furthermore, same-sex couples may not have the biological ability to reproduce but with modern technology this no longer means they do not have the ability to create a family.
As Jewish movements struggle with the issue of same-sex marriage in their own communities, countless conversations occur amongst rabbis as to what clergy groups’ official position on same-sex marriage should be. The Reform movement in 2000 voted to adopt a resolution stating “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”
What do “appropriate” Jewish rituals look like? The basic Jewish marriage consists of the following (in a nutshell):
Marriage Contract (Ketubah)
Seven blessings (Sheva Brakhot)
Breaking the glass
While Rabbis change their stances according to their various interpretations of Torah it is important to make sure LGBTQ Jews have a place they can turn for rituals in their lives, including marriage. If you have a litany of weddings to attend this summer, you’ll realize pretty quickly that every wedding is different and dependent on the couple’s custom, so there is a lot of room for interpreting these different components and imbuing them with meaning based on the couple’s values.
Because the traditional Jewish wedding choreography is gender specific, a re-imagining of the different components of the marriage ceremony is necessary. This can be done by same-sex and heterosexual couples, all in the name of promoting marriage equality.
Listed below are some variations of the basic rituals and traditions to get an idea of how you can change your own ritual to be LGBTQ inclusive. Hopefully you’ll see some of these at weddings this summer season!
(From Central Conference of American Rabbis Working Group on Same-Gender Officiation)
One person circles the other 3x, then they switch, and they take hands and circle together for a total of 7x.
Couple holds the cup together.
Exchanged and prayers recited, with language such as… “by this ring are you consecrated unto me before God and these witnesses in the spirit of our people,” or “this is my beloved and my friend.”
Breaking the glass:
Broken together, or two glasses broken.
To recognize the continued struggle for equality:
Because so many gays and lesbians sadly still know the oppression and pain of hiding, because so many gays and lesbians still lack equality of civil rights in our world, we break a glass/glasses on this day of celebration to remind us that even in this hour of great joy, our world is still incomplete and in need of healing. May the time be soon, speedily and in our day, when all who are in hiding shall be free and all who are in exile shall come home.
May the shattering of these glasses by _________ and ___________ remind them and us to work towards this time of wholeness, this tikkun, for ourselves and our world. Amen.
How will you be re-imaging the Jewish wedding this summer?
Take action today towards equal marriage rights in New York:
Call your senator!
Video: CBST Rabbi Kleinbaum in active protest with Hasidic Rabbi in Albany
List of LGBTQ friendly synagogues- Keshet
Resources for Torah related learning- Jewish Mosaic
Kulanu: All of Us A Program and Resource Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Inclusion by the URJ Press
See you in July! Tacklingtorah will be taking the week after Pride off to re-coup abroad!
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Reflections on a Jewish Holiday you didn’t learn about in
Please let me know if you learned about Shavuot in after-school
Learning is an essential piece to Judaism. And in my own Jewish journey I’ve begun to understand that even more essential then learning what the torah teaches is questioning how it relates to our own lives. In that vein...
Here are my rushed reflections (apologies) on Shavuot this year:
A friend asked in her Facebook status, "What does Shavuot represent for you? (and/or, what are secular shavuot in your life)?" To which someone replied, "there is no freedom (Pesach) without responsibility (Shavuot)". This struck a chord for me. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how technology plays a role in our lives. We take communication freedom for granted. We lose sight of building relationships and community with the multi-tasking we’ve become accustom to.
More and more we are reliant on 24/7 internet access. Rather than testing our own memory and knowledge we quickly “google” our question. Rather than call, or meet someone in person we text or email. I’m not so sure computers are ample supplements for human contact. They certainly make information freer (relating to Peseach) but where is the responsibility (Shavuot) to one another and to our commitment to study and cumulative knowledge? Are we losing the skills we once had with our gadgets that do everything for you? How do we maintain our own brain power? Are we damaging ourselves by becoming spaced out from spending too much time with our devices?
On Shavuot we reconnect with the torah to remind ourselves of it’s vast teachings and application to current problems in our world. Shavuot can really focus on any theme you’d like and is just the practice of spending time studying torah (as well as something about the book of Ruth? I’ll have to look into that.) We thank God for giving us this gift of knowledge, and we remind ourselves of our responsibilities to learning the teachings of Torah. I suggest that this year we try and remind ourselves of the responsibilities we still have even with the current connection freedoms we’re accustomed to.
Let us remember the importance of family and friendship and not let take a backseat to our games, and phones, and emails. We have a responsibility to maintain our lives even with the advances that help us do so. We can’t forget math just because we have calculator access. Nor can we forget how to maintain conversations without the constant status updates, and notifications from our apps.
I’m currently reading a book in which a family takes a six month hiatus from their electronics in order to bond and remember what a communal home is like. ( The Winter of Our Disconnect by: Susan Maushart) It is very eye opening to me how my relationships with people have changed due to technology. It is often a background instead of the fore-front. If a text comes in the person your with becomes third wheel. Or even a news, sports or game report. iPhones have become like coasters on a table and they barge in whenever our attention spans drift. We no longer look up when we walk outside or read books when we travel, etc. Lately when out with friends the phones make just as much of an appearance as when you're alone which breaks my heart especially when I do the same. We also assume that people must respond instantly as well, because they have the capability to do so.
I certainly didn’t grow up this way but I see it becoming more and more of a problem among younger generations. Let us remember our responsibility to one another with our full attention so that we can prioritize the freedom we have been given. With remembering our responsibility to one another we will be able to build our capacity for knowledge from one another as well.
Inspiration for the post subject of Jewish learning/ Shavuot/ Technology and how it affects our lives/ skills…
Not sure this reflection was focused enough on Torah. To be perfectly honest I got a little distracted by multitasking electronics during this post. Since Shavuot will relate Torah to the topics which are at hand for you currently I felt it was appropriate. Comments appreciated. Hag Sameach!
Finding ways to celebrate together:
College students not learning enough
in other findings….
The Tanakah is a free app download in honor of Shavuot, check it out (irony to use your electronics to further learn Torah)
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
When we think about rituals, we often think about traditions that have been handed down over generations. However, this isn’t entirely true. All rituals were at some point brand-new and have caught on because they have brought meaning into the lives of those looking for a concrete way to mark the passage of time or an event in their lives.
There are common rituals in Judaism that we observe at lifecycle moments such as a bris (welcoming a male baby into the Jewish covenant), bar mitzvah (entering Jewish adulthood), wedding, and death. And then there are ceremonies that have developed over time. Many liberal movements began to incorporate similar ceremonies for women such as a brit bat (Hebrew naming ceremony) or a bat mitzvah. More recently, we’ve begun to see ceremonies which mark different challenges in our lives such as healing services or prayers for a new home.
As our religion evolves with our society we can question where there are moments in our lives that we can turn to ritual to find comfort in an occasion where we mourn or celebrate. Was there ever a moment in your life that you wished you knew what to do to either reflect or pray for what was happening? Those are times when a ritual may have been helpful. Rituals can act as something tangible to hold onto, like ritual objects, or serve as a way to come together around communal prayer in order to bring peace and significance to a certain moment.
As part of a new series on the Pursue blog, I will be examining the reinvention of rituals in our lives. How do we as young Jews either embrace traditions and/or start our own? Whether buying a new car, shifting into a new job, hearing of a natural disaster or experiencing a miscarriage, there are moments in our lives where we may not know where to turn and how to pray. For these times we can create meaningful rituals for ourselves which incorporate our own practices of Judaism with the reinvention of rituals.
Ritual #1: In honor of Memorial Day let’s examine how we honor and memorialize those we have lost in our lives, both the known members of our own communities and the unknown members of our global community. Judaism has several rituals when it comes to honoring the dead. We may choose to name a new child after those we have lost, or purchase a book plate, plaque, or seat in a synagogue we belong to. Those are all tangible items through which we can show our appreciation and memory for the lost individual in our lives. For an ongoing ritual, many people observe a Yartzeit or annual anniversary of the death by lighting a memorial candle and saying Kaddish in synagogue to show that we continue to be in mourning regardless of how much time has passed since our loss.
Memorial Day is often regarded as the start of summer rather than a meaningful national holiday. On a day where we rejoice in the extra day off from school or work and bask in the outdoors and at barbecues, how do we reflect on all of those who gave their lives for our country? How do we “memorialize” them? Both personally and communally we have losses in our lives that are greater than we realize and greater than the rituals we currently maintain for them.
I often find the easiest way to reinvent a ritual is to break it down first in order to discover what it is I’m marking. This way the ritual I create can be most meaningful to me for the particular occasion I’m observing. On a personal level, this July I will lead the graveside service for my uncle’s unveiling (one year Yartzeit) and will have to discover what it is that is meaningful to say for my particular family. On a communal level, this week I will reflect on the lives lost by American soldiers engaged in wars overseas and what I pray for their future.
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives in Brooklyn led a workshop for CBST’s (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah) Transforming Beitecha Conference last month in which we discussed developing Jewish rituals. She taught the group a good technique to use to determine if rituals still apply to the needs of today’s Jews. You can use a formula to ask questions of what the ritual is about and then determine who it is for and who is being left out. This way when you look to re-invent a ritual you will have a clearer understanding of the initial goals.
Let’s break down Yartzeit and its meaning in our lives (you can do this for yourself with whatever ritual you want to break down):
Yartzeit is defined as: annual memorial for loss of a loved one
Who: the mourner observes a day of memory for the deceased
What: a symbolic candle is lit
Where: at home or in synagogue Kaddish is recited three times
When: on the Hebrew date of death annually
Why: to remember a loved one
How: alone or communally candle is lit and prayers are said
Then take a moment to decide what your personal goal in observing a ritual may be, since this may decide how you observe the ritual. When I observe Yartzeits in my life I like to spend the day remembering what that person brought into my life and the positive memories that I still have of them. I also like to have tangible objects like pictures or clothing that remind me of them close by so I can find comfort in their continued presence in my life.
Does Memorial Day have a Jewish connection in your life? Why do we celebrate Memorial Day? What are rituals we can create to better understand our link as Jews and as Americans to this historic day of honor and memory?
This Memorial Day I invite you as American Jews to think about how those within your own community have honored our country. Maybe your father, grandfather, great-grandfather served in either World War II, Vietnam, or the Korean War. Maybe you know someone who is serving now, a friend or peer. What does this connection to people who fight for America mean to you? Whether they are close to you or not, whether you believe in our current wars or not, what does it mean to have people give their lives for your safety? And how do you show your appreciation and honor those who put their lives at risk by protecting and acting for a more just world? This year I will reach out to my peers who I know have served and express my gratitude as I continue to pray for peace. For me, ritual is finding meaning in and expressing my gratitude for the things I have and the people in my life. Other goals may be to read about or share stories with those who have fought as American soldiers or to attend an event that honors the men and women who fight today.
What actions will you take? And how will you remember those whom you personally have lost and whom our country has lost this year?
You can find this series on "Reinventing Rituals" cross-posted at Pursue: http://www.pursueaction.org/rituals-renewed-memorializing/
Friday, May 13, 2011
In our lives:
This past week we have seen a “modern” example of sacrifice upon hearing the news of American troops killing Osama Bin Laden. All week I reflected on what Osama’s life meant and the legacy he would be remembered by. Reading countless news articles caused me to question, was Osama happy? And, although the US spent a decade hunting him, did our country do the right thing by killing him? These are not easy questions, and there may not be easy answers.
What Osama has in common with every other living person is the search for meaning in his life. This Shabbat I read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life That Matters.” Kushner speaks of those who search for personal success as often finding themselves lonely. Osama was certainly successful in accomplishing his goals, but did this render him happy? I find myself feeling empathetic towards a man who couldn’t see past his own hatred and caused one of the most tragic events in US history. Kushner says of infamous biblical character Cain’s selfishness, “ He becomes a wanderer on the face of the earth, with no place to call home, with no community to support or comfort him. The original looking-out-for-number-one man, like all of his descendants, is condemned to spend all of his days unconnected.” (p.63) I can only imagine life for Osama this past decade was isolating, as he became the world’s most hated man due to his terrorizing actions.
Conversely, I turn to history in search of what leaving a positive legacy might look like. This month is Jewish American Heritage Month. In order to honor the women who have been influential in Jewish History the Jewish Women’s Archive has created an encyclopedia of Jewish Women. As part of a larger education initiative, JWA has invited influential Jewish Tweeters to promote knowledge, and share what they learn about these women through twitter and other social media. When I read about the lives these women have touched and the work they have accomplished it makes me proud to have these leaders in the Jewish community. It shows me as a society how far we have come in our recognition of Jewish Women’s influence in our culture, and celebrating their accomplishments in their own fields. It appears to me that these women achieved both success and happiness by following their passions as Kushner suggests is the answer to finding the life that matters. See what’s being said on twitter: #jwapedia.
This week the torah says....
I turn to Parshat Emor to provide insight for what it means to leave a legacy as it speaks about both sacrifice, and honoring the dead. The torah talks about whom we honor and how we do so. Priests or Kohanim are particularly guarded from being in the presence of death as they are seen as holier than others. This is a continuation of Parshat Kedoshim in a series of explanations of what Jews do to maintain holiness and how we honor G-d.
We learn about retribution for blasphemy, and for murder. “ if anyone kills any human being, that person shall be put to death. One who kills a best shall make restitution for it: life for life. if anyone maims another (person): what was done shall be done in return—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. [….] but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I adonai am you G-d.” (Leviticus 24:17-22). Parshat Emor helps me come to terms with how to maintain holiness in our society may still be by having to eliminate those who have caused undue harm upon the innocent. I hope
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
While I did not expect it to be a smooth transition, I was shocked by the backlash I received. The argument against a newly introduced Haggadah was that I had re-written Jewish history, and that Judaism is about tradition, the story of the past, and not the current political struggles we face. It caused me to question how we successfully enact change. If things are to remain stagnant in our history and we are simply to retell the past what purpose does that serve? What are we learning, discussing, and how are we using our history to create change? I recognize that change is slow, but to me learning about our Jewish past ensures that we as Jews have empathy for others current need for liberation.
One of the most common phrases repeated in torah is “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We learn as Jews not to oppress the stranger. That phrase from the Torah is Jewish tradition, and a value that we are told to pass on, it is a piece of our history. Do we recognize the strangers in our current society? Are we able to understand their need for liberation and how we as Jews can ensure that they are not oppressed since we faced a similar fate in Egypt?
I learned that storytelling is only a powerful tool if we are highlighting all our voices. This new Haggadah never once changed the rituals, and history of the story that my family was used to, instead it added the narrative of women in both biblical times and liberation that is more recent. Aren’t the stories of the women who were present also needed to get the full picture of our Jewish history? Just because past Haggadot may have been written in a different time, where men dictated the story, does not mean we still live in that world today. As we make ripples towards change, we need to make sure our goals for equity are synonymous with our actions.
We have the ability to highlight voices that were a part of the Passover story such as Shifra, Puah, and Miriam who saved Jewish babies from being killed in the Nile. Their actions helped lead the Jews towards liberation! I refuse to stand by hearing the history of my ancestors and learn nothing from it except a heart-warming story of our freedom. The story in the Haggadah teaches me to fight for others’ liberation and justice. It teaches me to discuss reforming policies in our country and to help the stranger around the world. I struggle with how to create change with the reactionary’s aversion to new ideas.
If you did one thing this year at your Seder, I hope it was prompting discussion on current needs for liberation. Change happens slowly but when we tell our story of liberation we do so to challenge ourselves and others, to remember our own liberation, and why it is important to feel as if we were personally slaves in Egypt. By remembering our enslavement, we “recall” what history has taught us, and what it feels like to be the other. When we tell the story of liberation, we strengthen our need to not stand idly by in others’ struggles towards freedom.
Monday, April 11, 2011
By: Elyssa Cohen, Tacklingtorah and originally posted at Pursue: Action for a just world. (I'm starting to write with Pursue, so be sure to share and comment on my posts!)
This year, how do we incorporate current abuses of civilian rights with our Jewish ancestors’ fight for freedom?
With Passover quickly approaching it’s a good time to stop and reflect on the power of storytelling. Our stories have the ability to create change. What is the story that your family tells on Passover? Has the same Haggadah been used annually since you were in utero?
Now’s the time to change! Many Jewish organizations are taking time to consider re-telling the story of Passover as a social change agent for current struggles of freedom. Evaluating the story of Passover gives us the opportunity to reflect, and share a story of an oppressed people in the vein of both remembering and not allowing history to repeat itself. What is the narrative of those who are currently oppressed?
Who has the ability to share their story, and who’s listening?
As young Jews acting for social change are we at liberty to speak of a narrative that may not be our own?
Isn’t Passover the best opportunity we have to share with a large number of people the causes we care about? I hope this year you are able to step up and create awareness within your family about those who are fighting for their freedom today. Create your own modern Haggadah, and tell the new story of freedom. We know that personal stories have the ability to garner a certain amount of empathy for people to connect with strangers, but I don’t anticipate everyone going out and writing their own Haggadah about Libyan families. The good news is you don’t have to write your own Haggadah from scratch, but you can make it personal to account for the social justice work that you do! Choose this year to talk about the fight within the LGBT community for marriage rights and transgender equality, healthcare equality, civil rights in Egypt, Libya, freedom from world hunger, the Japanese struggle as they repair from natural disaster devastation, to name a few.
While the original freedom story remains stagnant, our world around us changes and we as the next generation of Jewish leaders have to bring those around us towards liberation.
The new way to celebrate Passover is by creating your own Haggadot, so go ahead get rid of the Maxwell house Passover Haggadahs and treat yourself to freedom for the future!
It’s a Do-It-Yourself narrative this year. Over the next week, Pursue will share reflections on current issues of liberation, and ideas for additions to your Passover seder.
In the meantime, here are some resources for your own modern Haggadot. I challenge you to inspire your family with new traditions:
Compiling your own meaningful texts
Incorporating multi-media into your Seder
The Wandering is Over Haggadah, from ‘Jewish Boston’
Elyssa Cohen has been involved in social justice work since high school, when she founded a chapter of the ADL’s education program “A World Of Difference” at her public school. Elyssa has always valued a strong sense of community, and has been involved in a variety of different organizations whose mission reflects this goal. Elyssa was a Jewish Organizing Initiative fellow in Boston and worked as the Community Organizer of Keshet, an organization working for the full inclusion of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals within the Jewish Community. Elyssa is happy to have moved back to NY and to have joined the staff at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in the West Village. Elyssa is in the constant pursuit of justice! Check out more of Elyssa’s Jewish social justice writing at www.tacklingtorah.blogspot.com.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
In our lives:
Sometimes we are hit close to home by sudden tragedies in our lives. Whether hearing of a sudden illness or a tragic death often we are left searching for answers to questions that are unexplainable. Tragedy is hard to comprehend, and sometime we simply do not have answers. We struggle with finding words to try to comfort the mourner. And truthfully there is nothing we can say to make the pain of such losses disappear. Think of a time when you learned of tragic news in your own life or in the life of someone you are close with. How did you react? Were you even able to respond?
I recently learned of a college classmate of mine who was tragically killed along with her husband and mother-in-law this past summer in a head on collision. Their 4-month-old daughter survived the crash. This young woman was bright, and always bubbly. Right after college, she became a wife, and then a new mother. She was a beautiful soul on the inside and out. As I reflect on her death, it is hard to comprehend both because of how untimely it is, and because of her inherently good nature.
One of the reasons religion appeals to people is because sometimes as we search for answers we draw on stories found in religion for the ability to explain the unexplainable. While they may not offer explanations, these stories can show us examples of circumstances where we can learn about ourselves through understanding the struggles of our ancestors. We may seek these stories to provide cultural/ spiritual guidance for how to live a fulfilling life. The stories of Torah can provide a feeling of being linked to a larger past and current community as people look for a shared experience.
I learned a great deal from my friend Nabilah at Brandeis. She was a practicing Muslim, and her family was originally from
Nabilah writes in her blog, “What's more interesting is that God has asked us to interpret the Qur’an on our own to be able to guide our own lives. I mean how much more leeway can you get from a religion than that?” Nabilah Khan, (July 11, 2007)
Nabilah searched for answers by seeking her own interpretations of the Qur’an. This week I turn to torah portion, Sh’mini to seek answers for myself to explain the loss of a beautiful, questioning soul.
From the source:
Sh’mini teaches of the power and ability of G-d for both good and evil. We see G-d instantly take the lives of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu because they disobeyed him. Moses struggles with how to comfort his brother Aaron. These two deaths act as a lesson for the Jewish people to practice the laws set upon them by G-d. While Moses does not understand the extreme action that G-d took in taking these young lives he finds it challenging to elicit a response both as a leader and a brother in order to help Aaron. Aaron has no response for Moses's comforting words, as the text says, vayidom Aharon (and Aaron was silent).
In Judaism we use ritual practices to provide comfort to the bereaved. The hardest thing is to continue living after experiencing the sudden death of a loved one. The mourner is lost not knowing where to turn, what to say, how to act, and how to continue going about our daily lives. In Judaism, it is customary to sit Shiva for seven days of mourning after a death. Shiva is communal, and the mourners are cared for by their community. It is also customary to sit in silence until the mourner talks. This is because we cannot possibly offer any words that would explain the loss or pain one feels in mourning. Silence is the only sense we can make of tragic events. Sometimes there are no words of explanation, just a continual search for meaning. As we see in Sh’mini Aaron’s silence is profound. This reaction teaches us that silence is an appropriate response for traumatic events which we cannot find answers for. Our shock and silence speaks louder than words ever could.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
In Our Lives:
Sacrifice. What does the word even mean? In today’s definition, is a sacrifice more similar to a compromise or a selfless act of justice? What do we ‘sacrifice’ these days? We may find giving up our most valuable possessions of our time, food, money, goals, or our own needs may feel sacrificial. If this is the case, are sacrifices even quantifiable?
When it comes to self-sacrifice there are those who keep everything to themselves and look out for only his/her self. Then there are those who are too giving to the extreme that they forget even their own needs. Both for the self-centric and the extreme giver, I often think we need guidelines for how to maintain a healthy balance of the sacrifices we each make in our lives in order to maintain a caring community and larger global society while still fulfilling our own needs.
When learning a Jewish practice called Mussar I engaged with rituals/ mitzvot (teachings) such as patience, and equanimity. The main idea was that each of us has an inclination towards good and an inclination towards evil or yetzer hatov, and yetzer hara. By engaging with this Jewish social justice practice of Mussar, one could balance between the two inclinations. This was done by asking yourself the question; ‘how am I serving the other?’ This question allowed me to consider the struggle of the other and to self-evaluate my reactions by accounting for how the other may or may not feel cared for in the situation. What is the other person’s burden? Just in asking yourself this questions requires a more sympathetic approach, and the ability to best serve the other.
From the source:
As we turn to a new book of Moses, Leviticus, we learn from the past two weeks torah portions (Vayikra, and Tzav) the value of sacrifice in biblical times. I dare to say the language surrounding the meaning of a sacrifice has changed quite a bit from what it is today. The torah shows the ways in which Jews became closer to G-d through the acts of these animal offerings. Today, instead of object sacrifices, we may offer our evil inclination as sacrifice. We may sacrifice this innate selfish or evil impulse in the hope of achieving either connection with G-d, our people, or in a broader sense in our goals of achieving global justice. A commentator on Vayikra states, “Those individuals who perform a single mitzvah draw themselves and the entire world toward righteousness.” Another commentator citing, “ When we want to draw close (l’hitkarev) to G-d, we must offer something of our own, that is, our ‘evil inclination.’” 
May we each continue to sacrifice for others in our lives in the hope that our actions will bring us closer to a more just, and righteous world.
 Comments this week come from The Torah A Women’s Commentary edited by: Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (pg. 588)
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
In our lives:
Have you ever thought about how your life revolves around a series of relationships that are in constant flux? A “relationship” is such a vague term. Some of us have easily 20, 50, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of relationships. A “relationship” is defined as the relation/ association between two or more people which may be either fleeting or enduring. Relationships can be professional, personal, intimate, interpersonal, or theoretical. In other words, you have some sort of relationship with every person, organization, and to everything that you encounter.
Recognizing an abundance of relationships in our lives is easy. More importantly, how are our relationships cultivated and applied? The Jewish Organizing Initiative taught me the true power of relationships. I went from viewing the word “relationship” as exclusively applicable to dating, to a world in which I view my entire existence as it relates to my “relationships” with other people, organizations, communities, and things.
The Jewish Organizing Initiative helped me learn how to tell my own story, how to have a one-to-one (an intentional conversation), how to evaluate my own and other’s self interests, and many more skills which strengthen relationships. Organizing skills allows every conversation I have to be both strategic and fruitful. I spent the year building on, putting into practice, and creating a vocabulary for skills that create change among individual people, and entire communities. It is amazing the collective power that relationships can create. Think about those you choose to help, or what organizations you choose to donate your money to. If someone you have a good relationship with asks you to prioritize their particular cause, and it is in line with your own self-interests then most likely you will do whatever you can to help!
JOI taught me not only how to listen, and identify the challenge, but how to research, connect and apply solutions to systemic problems. These skills all came back to thinking critically and strategically about my relationships. Think about this… two people who share a similar problem may not be able to find a solution, but by sharing their problem with others, and by cultivating relationships, you may find that 200 people share the same problem. Now, you have built power through relationships, and have a need for systemic change. A community organizer may help to orchestrate relationship building among communities. The organizer may enlist the community to start a research campaign, and develop a solution where the community can hold those in power (i.e. government) accountable to the proposed solution. The collective people may ask that action be taken in a public forum. And that is powerful! Change like this could not be achieved without the power of relationships. Never underestimate the power of people and the ways in which individual relationships can build that power. So, share your story and think about who you know and how you can help each other make a difference!
From the source:
Last week in parshat P’Kudei we see a glimpse into the relationship between G-d and Moses. G-d trusts Moses with leading the Israelite people, and Moses in turn trusts G-d’s power. Throughout the book of Exodus, we have seen strengths and weaknesses in the relationship between G-d and Moses, and Moses and the Israelite people. But, as we complete the construction of the tabernacle, we see how the power of relationships has affected Moses, G-d, and the Isaelite people. They have learned from their mistakes and have begun to work together. They have proven to one another their ability to do great work,
“ Just as G-d had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks—as G-d had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them.” (Exodus 39: 42-3)
These relationships rely on one another to achieve their common goals of holiness. They want to be able to feel G-d’s presence in a collected space (the tabernacle). In order to feel G-d’s presence the Israelites must abide put faith and trust into their leaders, and rely on one another to collectively build a holy site. Just as Moses uses community organizing by working through his relationships we too can help strengthen our campaigns when we collectively use our relationships to create united power.
How are you using your relationships to organize power, and create change? Are you constantly thinking about how to strengthen your relationships? Are you looking for ways to create change, and do you ask those around you to help you do so? No? Take the time now to figure out what it is you will fight for! And who will you ask to join the movement? Want to learn these skills?? JOI is now accepting applications from passionate Jews looking to fight for change! www.jewishorganizing.org
Thursday, March 3, 2011
In Our Lives:
Where do we feel spiritual? Do we need rituals to feel spiritual? How do we physically or emotionally get to a place where our souls feel thoroughly nourished? Spirituality is individual and yet many may feel the ability to reach an inner peace when doing similar rituals or upon seeing similar sights. Unlike other religions Judaism doesn't have a specified place in which people travel towards on a journey, like the hajj towards
Our current world is constantly tuned in to our "gadgets"; computers, phones, and e-readers consume our days at work, home, or school. I find more people I know seem to be walking around in a daze or utterly dependent on their iPhone/iPad/ Blackberry for the latest media update. It becomes easy to forget what it is like to connect in person anymore, and even when we are in person the “gadget” has begun to take precedence! Spiritual connection either with ourselves or with others seems to be quickly becoming a thing of the past. Does anyone take the time anymore to sit and reflect? There is not necessarily a link between religion and spirituality, one does not need to be religious to be spiritual; you can have an innate sense of connectivity without participating in any religion. But, how do we expect to solve our own challenges anymore or find a way to see the bigger picture of our own lives if we are buried in updates of Jennifer Aniston’s new hairdo?
How do you highlight your values, and find meaning in your life? You may feel most in touch with your own and others spirits during meditation, or in a shared contemplative space, or even by engaging a friend or family member in deep conversation. It is all about reminding ourselves what is important to our well being so that we can prioritize what to make time for. Finding ways to be spiritual may help us figure out how to eliminate our stress, be present with nature, people, or our own thoughts. By allowing ourselves to be fully present we continue to strive towards our best selves. Try focusing on one thing fully, unitasking instead of multitasking. Reach out to those who may need to hear from you. Take comfort in the spaces around you. And allow the power of making time to change your outlook by allowing yourself the art of reflection. In other words: unplug and relax! You may find you learn more about the ways you do enjoy to spend your time then by losing all your time to updates which aren’t pertinent to your life and values. This week is national 'unplug' Shabbat. Join the challenge and take advantage of life before the cell phone. I unplug every week and find myself craving Shabbat every other day of the week. We live in a world where we are constantly accessible to work, school, and there is an expectation of an instant response. Imagine what making time for family and friends again would look like and how much your connections with others would strengthen.
From the Source:
Abraham Heshel, a famous Jewish philosopher argues in his famous book The Sabbath that Shabbat is a “sanctuary in time”. Meaning there is no specific physical place but rather for Jews the weekly gift of time allows us to find ourselves in a greater connected world, or Olam H’aba, the world to come. This past week the Torah portion Vayak'heil continues to talks about the creation of the mishkan/ or tabernacle. The tabernacle was a sanctuary which Jews built and prayed in after the exodus from
Join me in The Challenge: http://www.sabbathmanifesto.org/unplug
A great book about Shabbat in today's technological challenges: The Sabbath World by: Judith Shulevitz http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/books/review/Goldstein-t.html
Monday, February 21, 2011
Upon descending the mountain, Moses sees the idolatry himself. Did the Israelites not have enough faith in Moses to wait for his return and delivery to them the words of G-d? “He (Moses) became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus, 32.19) Moses who earlier defended the people worshipping the calf to G-d saw his dream of leading G-d’s chosen people to the Promised Land shatter like the tablets upon witnessing this wicked act. Moses is disappointed in his people. He must rebuild the mutual faith and trust between himself and his community in order to perpetuate a great nation. In this moment Moses learns that being a leader is not only about his dreams for his community, but rather about how he works with his community together towards success.
What does this teach us for our own lives? How do we handle disappointments?
Like Moses, we often hold great expectations for ourselves, and for others. In fact, we are taught to do so. Throughout childhood we are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” No child answers ‘I want to barely get by’. Instead, we dream of being doctors, lawyers and professional athletes. As time goes on, we are faced with challenges, and disappointments. Maybe we never grow tall enough to be a basketball player, or we realize we fear public speaking. We, like Moses, realize that when things don’t work out according to our ideals we must learn how to cope and work towards the best of our abilities. We turn our love of sports into a hobby instead of a profession. We relentlessly work on that which can be improved, always striving for our fullest selves.
Moses reevaluated the situation and returned with a renewed faith. Taking his disappointment in stride, he shifted his expectations. With his community at the forefront, Moses decides how they can move forward together. He picked up his dreams of leading a people to become a great nation and went back to G-d. This time G-d had Moses craft tablets, which G-d inscribed. “The replacement tablets, unlike the originals, will be a joint human-divine effort … reflect(ing) the perfection of G-d, the second set reflected the will of G-d and the ideals of G-d filtered through the limitations of human beings and the reality of human experience.” (Kushner, p. 43)
Like Moses, we can learn from our mistakes. We may not live a life without failure but we can choose how we respond to challenges. We can find determination within ourselves to reevaluate and renew what we had before it was broken. We may alter our dreams but keep the lessons of our disappointments with us. Through our response to disappointments, we can learn more about who we are and who we want to be. Our dreams change as we grow, and we determine if the dreams we once had align with our current goals and search for happiness. In times of disappointment, Moses was carried on by his devotion and love for his community and by G-d. Moses was able to forgive that which had happened, and realized limitations. He continued to persevere and create new dreams. We too can emulate Moses’s ability to move past challenges. We can rely on our community to carry us through the struggles we face within our lives and strengthen our ability to create new dreams.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Trying out a new blog format, feedback welcome!
In our lives:
February is Jewish Disability Awareness month. Awareness itself is an interesting term to wrap your mind around, it makes me ask: how are we building “awareness” and about what specifically? Are we being ‘aware’ just by engaging in conversations about disabilities? How do we talk about disability, in what context, and what actions are we taking in our society to help those who may have different physical or mental challenges. I took this week to reflect on what it means to be able-bodied, the ways in which each person is a gift, and the varying individual tools each person has at his/her disposal. Many organizations in the Jewish world are doing work to think through how to integrate Jewish Disability Awareness month within their own communities. See links below.
When it comes to talking about disabilities I am always struck by the importance of language. Have you ever thought about the negative association formed with words used to describe several handicaps? The implications from these words such as handicap, disabled, wheelchair bound, amputee, retard, etc, are all negative. Language is important, especially when it affects how we view people. One way to combat negative connotations of language is to state the person first rather than the handicap. For example the man who is blind vs. the blind man. This shows that it is only one aspect of his identity rather than the defining factor. Given that every person is differently able, and we each have different strengths and weakness it seems unfair to label someone who only has one arm, or will never surpass a third grade reading level as disabled, why not label each person as unique? Idealistic, I know, but I still feel there is a better way to describe people then by pointing out their limitations first. Instead of the girl with brown hair it becomes the deaf girl. When we talk about disabilities there is a certain amount of sorrow or unspoken pity for those who can’t do certain tasks. Take a minute to think of how exceptional those who are disabled would feel if we took the time to ask questions about their challenges and how they can accomplish something instead of making our own assumptions about their capabilities.
When I reflect on why it is important to have a month where we think about the disabled among us I think about the individual tools we each possess. It is naïve to think that we can do everything on our own; we must look to the support of others to help us iron out our own strengths and weaknesses. We each have gifts, and we each have a set of tools, it is figuring out how to use them well, and how to learn from others that is the real challenge. We are each only as able as we let ourselves be. There is so much that we can learn from one another if we are willing to both ask for and accept help. Those with physical or mental disabilities are just like everyone else with their own strengths and weaknesses. Think of those you admire who have amazing talents. Are even the extremely gifted able to do everything well? Or is there something in particular that they shine at, and other things which they struggle with? We must figure out how to use our resources to the best of our abilities including allowing others to support us in the ways where we may not be as ‘able’ as our friends, family or neighbor.
With everything we do we must look to those around us and be open to learning. When we think we can do everything on our own we lose the ability to be positively influenced and changed by others. I think we give up our own self growth when we assume we have no need for others help.
From the source:
The past two weeks Torah portions, T’rumah and T’tzaveh talk about how the Jews did and should build the tabernacle, or sanctuary. Building is something we must do together, when we build or create we use our own tools to make something spectacular. To me, building is similar to learning from each-other. One builds together the same way one learns from the teaching of others. We rely on the wisdom and abilities of those that came before us and the unique gifts that we can bring to the table. Whether you are brilliant, musically gifted, an artist, an economist, a pop-culture guru, etc. everyone has a passion and the ability to share; it’s what we learn from one another that builds our individual character. So the next time you see someone struggling don't pity them but rather offer your skills and look for what you can learn from them as well. I guarantee the only thing standing between you and those around you is fear and the inability to see past differences. Think positively and ask the person in your midst to share their gift with you.
"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him (yidvenu libo)…And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them."
(Exodus, 25:1, 2, 8)
While the text deals with the specific building of a tabernacle, we also see pieces of how God asks for the gifts of the people to be shared with him. Showing us to not only be appreciative of the gifts that are offered to us, but also to be receptive of where these gifts come from. Our gifts are our passions and we must always remember how much we have both to offer and to learn from each person among us. By interacting together we can achieve holiness similar to that which comes from the building of the tabernacle.
As we continue to read the story of Exodus, I'm reminded that last week we celebrated both Moses’s birthday and date of death on Friday, the 7th of Adar. Moses, while a memorable Jewish leader in history was ‘slow of speech’ implying a lisp or speech impediment. Yet when Moses is remembered we speak of his strengths and accomplishments. In fact his brother Aaron often spoke on his behalf, but it was Moses who was the visionary and whom God choose to lead the Jewish people on their journey. Let us not forget the skills we can share with the world and the ways in which we can be open to the teachings of those among us whether able-bodied or disabled.
And you shall be a blessing.....
Debbie Friedman’s lyrics:
L'chi lach, to a land that I will show youLeich l'cha, to a place you do not know
L'chi lach, on your journey I will bless you
And you shall be a blessing
L'chi lach, and I shall make your name great
Leich l'cha, and all shall praise your name
L'chi lach, to the place that I will show you
Union for Reform Judaism Jewish Disability Awareness Month related blogposts
North American Federation for Temple Youth JDAM Resources
Religious Action Center engages with JDAM
Gateways Jewish education for children with disabilities
Follow #JDAM on twitter