“Not Lost in (Cyber-) Space”

Rabbi Galit Levy-Slater, June 2018 Published in Jewish Community Chronicle (Long Beach)

My friends and members of my congregation will be the first to tell you that I am “not your grandfather’s rabbi.”

I was raised in a family and an environment that gave me an insight into the horrors of the holocaust to which few American Jewish children were exposed.

My grandfather, Judge Justin Woodward Harding (you can Google him) was the US judge portrayed by Spencer Tracy in the film, “Judgment At Nüremberg.”  From him I learned things that even with today’s knowledge are not known by many who did not live through that time.

That said, no one could have prepared me for the journey I ultimately embarked upon years later: to study to become a cantor and to have held a cantorial position for 18 years; to decide at the age of 65 to study and be ordained a rabbi; to create a new, innovative and progressive synagogue within my community.

My synagogue, Beit HaLev, is small.  There are only a handful of Jewish people who choose to be affiliated with any congregation in my community, and last year, due to several unforeseen circumstances, we had to suspend conducting “live” services in our community clubhouse.

I had been live streaming our live services in the clubhouse with inconsistent success.  The WiFi in the clubhouse often did not work. So when we were unable to do live High Holiday services because our upstairs room was inaccessible and the alternate site (my own apartment) also became inaccessible because the streets were being repaved and there was no parking, I did all the High Holidays online.

When I began this journey, no one said it would be easy.

But it is getting easier and the adventure is filled with surprises.  By happy accident – and I am often told that there are no accidents – I discovered that my live streamed Facebook Shabbat services, broadcast from my home, are viewed by people from all over the world; my live stream congregation has grown to around 130; on Yom HaShoah I had over 850.

I will have live High Holiday services this year; but I will live-stream them as well for my global cyber-space congregation.

American Jewry is facing a falling-away from many brick-and-mortar synagogues.  I hope with all my heart that the pendulum swings back one day; but there are places in our shrinking world that are seeking spirituality any way possible and if Jews in places like Uganda, Pakistan, Brazil and India can find me on their electronic devices, I will continue to bring the beauty of our religion to them any way I can.

UJUC Creates a Bridge

Rabbi Ivan Browner, UJUC Founder writes from Tokyo, Japan

In today’s day and age, we as a people find ourselves closer together in so many ways.  Advances in Technology and engineering, allow me to type this blog, and instantly share it with people all over the world at the push of a button.  Unfortunately, with all this newfound closeness, we also find the division between people further than ever before. With the same push of a button, religious, social and ideological differences deepen between people, families, and nations with devastating effects.

One can just turn on the news and see the underlying tension heating to a boiling point.  It seems we are living in a tinderbox, and with the freedom granted to us by Technology; we all now have a large book of matches in hand.

Religions that were created by spiritual tenants of brotherhood and love have now become a platform to divide the world and its people into small subcultures.  And each of these subcultures is all claiming to have the light of truth on their side as too why they are correct, and the others are not.

In Judaism, we see bitter infighting between many of its denominations on the fundamental and expressions of what it means to be a practicing Jew.  The Ultra-Orthodox in Israel is denouncing less observant Jews as “Non-Jews.”  The Women Of The Wall are fighting for acceptance and facing unbearable violent reactions when attempting to Worship at the Temple Mount.  And it is not just found in Judaism, Every one of the world’s religions are fighting both within and without.

Because of this, many people feel lost or ungrounded in their approach to finding Closeness with Hashem within the context of their religious faith.  For the most part, people are genuinely saddened, feeling as though their spiritual life is floating in a rough ocean and they are desperately looking for dry land and safety. They reach out to their religious leaders for a calming spirit and are met with dogmatic answers that are speaking at them and not to them.   These responses reinforce their feelings of separation and leave them searching for a solution that resonates with their soul, not just the intellect.

Enter the UJUC –

A Group of Progressive Jewish Spiritual Leaders saw a need for this cycle to be broken and together formed the UJUC “Union of Jewish Universalist Communities.”  Our vision is to build a bridge in our communities for people, of all faiths, backgrounds, creeds, and colors to cross the divide that has been facing people of faith. The UJUC welcomes all who desire a deepened sense of Spiritual Connectedness to God and our Fellow Man and Woman.

Although the Lens of the UJUC is from a Jewish perspective, the Tenants of Jewish Universalism do not demean but welcome another’s view on how they approach God and spirituality.

The Spiritual Leaders of the UJUC all have a different position in their respective communities. Some are Rabbi’s of a Brick and Mortar Synagogue, some Religious Teachers, some Cantors and Musical Directors, some Chaplains while others minister to their local group of congregants.  The need of each community is undoubtedly unique, but all are tethered together in an eternal quest to know a broader purpose in life and closeness with the Divine.

In my home in Tokyo Japan, my UJUC Affiliated Chavurah has an active outreach focus on opening doors and find similarities of our Jewish Spiritual Path with many of the ancient Spiritual Traditions found in Asia.

My open door policy has led to a deep friendship and has facilitated many shafts of common ground with the Buddhist and Shinto Practitioners of Japan.

I have recently had the honor of speaking at a graduation commencement celebration of Zen Buddhist Priests, as they completed their formal training and received their Inka or “Teaching Certification” They welcomed me as a teacher of Judaism with open arms, as we discussed concepts of Jewish Meditation and the practice of Jewish Spirituality.  We were able to find many points of connectedness between the practice of Zen and Spiritual Judaism.  All of us that participated in this commencement celebration felt a bond of connection and love.  And by the time I was done, the head teaching Monk called the Jews “Brothers of the Buddhist Community.”

It is with this spirit of community that the UJUC seeks to enrich the lives of all people, Jew, and non-Jews alike.  Only together hand in hand can we continue empowering common ground between people of all faiths.  Together is how we build a bridge, and a linked bridge is stronger than a single bridge.  Together we will be stronger as a family, than as isolated individuals.

Please join us for this great work and help to build a bridge for the world.  We are all “Tzelim Elokim” created within the Image of God.   Now is the time we return to this fundamental truth and foster peace, understanding, and respect for all people.  That is the mission of focus of the UJUC… and it has begun.

Charity Overload

By Rabbi Deborah Reichmann

Give now! Crowdfund! It’s my birthday, donate to my fundraiser! Support my cause! We can’t do it without you! Your donation will save a life!

It is relentless. It has stopped prodding our consciences. It isn’t even an annoyance anymore, it has become another thing that we ignore. We are pulled in dozens of different directions, from family, from friends, from neighbors, from organizations we belong to and those we don’t. We are asked to act politically, environmentally, socially and globally. We should give time, resources and money. Especially money.

And yet.

There are real needs. There are causes worth supporting. Truly, not giving is not an option.

There are demonstrable benefits to being a giver–we feel better about ourselves, we get better about being grateful for what we have, we deepen our friendships and strengthen our communities.

How do we balance? How do we choose?

We pin all the worthwhile causes to a bulletin board and throw darts at it.

We take the first come first served approach.

We work from inside out–give to the causes that affect us personally and then move outward from there.

Honestly, it all works. But, the real trick is to find a system that works for you. One that maximizes your ability to have impact, as well as your sense of personal satisfaction.

Judaism, of course, has something to say about this.

The Hebrew word for charity is tzedakah, but that is a poor translation of the word. The root of tzedakah, is tzedek, which means justice. In Judaism, the primary force behind ma’asim tovim (good deeds), is a desire to create a more just society.

If every cause that comes our way has merit, how can we turn any down in good conscience? We can, because we must. Jewish law dictates that one must give 10% of our income to the poor (after taxes). That said, we must not give to the point that we become needy.

Maimonides organized the levels of charity:
Giving begrudgingly
Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
Giving after being asked
Giving before being asked
Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient doesn’t know your identity
Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

It all counts as charity, even giving begrudgingly, but the goal is to create a world where no one has a great need, and indeed, we all support each other in doing the best we can.

Throw that dart. Write that check. It’s worth it. It is always worth it.

“Til Death or Faith Do us Part”: Seven Things You Should Consider Before Your Inter-Faith Marriage

By Rabbi Daniel Betzel

 

If we were to meet in my office to discuss your upcoming inter-faith marriage, here are some of the ideas I would want to share with you:

 

First, I would want you to know that you have done NOTHING wrong by falling in love with someone from another faith tradition.  You are not rejecting anything; you are actually choosing something in addition to what you already have and who you already are.   As you prepare for your upcoming wedding, I would encourage you to be certain to respect yourself, your family, your family’s tradition and then to be sure to extend that some level of respect to your future spouse and his/her family and tradition.

 

Here are seven ideas or concepts that I would encourage you and your future spouse to consider:

 

  1. CONSIDER PRE-MARITAL COUNSELING: We know that all relationships take work—and sometimes very hard work!   Furthermore, many interfaith marriages take place at perhaps the most secular-oriented time in a person’s life.  It is very easy to underestimate the role that your family’s faith and tradition will play once you have children and you and your spouse age.  Pre-Marital Counseling provides you and your beloved the time and space to explore issues, talk freely with each other, and get to know each other on an even deeper emotional/spiritual level.  The more you understand yourself and your spouse, the more likely you are to create a meaningful and mutually joyous path forward.

 

 

  1. DON’T IGNORE THE DIFFERENCES/DISCOVER AND CELEBRATE YOUR DIFFERENCES: Sometimes it is easy of us to pretend that there are no real differences and that love will conquer all.   In my experience, once the glow of the wedding days begin to fade and usually by the time the first child is born,  tensions between your faith traditions can arise.  Please consider getting very clear about those issues that you do not want to compromise on and get those out on the table before the wedding.  Getting very clear about what is important to each of you is the first step toward understanding each other on a deeper level.  Once you clearly understand each other, you will be in a much better position to accept and even celebrate the differences.

 

  1. TRY AND SEE WHERE YOUR PARENTS ARE COMING FROM: Sometimes parents are not initially happy and supportive when they learn that their child is marrying out of their faith.  Try and remember that almost all parents love their children and want the best for them.  Also, please remember that your parents may be afraid that your marriage to someone outside of their faith may take you away from them.  They also may worry that any eventual grandchildren may be raised in another faith.  Be mindful of how and when you speak to your parents about your wedding plans.  Be certain to re-assure them of your love and that you are not rejecting them or their faith.  Usually, most parents will come around and soon learn to love your future spouse as much as you do.

 

  1. DISCUSS NOW HOW YOU WILL RAISE YOUR CHILDREN: Naomi Schaefer Riley in “Interfaith Unions: A Mixed Blessing”, reports that less than 50% of those she interviewed reported they discussed in which religion they would raise their children BEFORE they were married.  It is almost always easier to discuss these issues before the fact.  I would encourage you and your beloved to take the time now to envision how your future family will look and function.  Will your child attend Hebrew School?  Will you celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah?  Will you child be baptized?  Have a bris and/or baby naming?  These topics can be the catalyst for greater understanding and mutual respect.

 

  1. DISCUSS YOUR UPCOMING CEREMONY: As an inter-faith couple, you will have many choices to make regarding your wedding ceremony and reception.  Will you purchase a Ketubbah (Jewish Marriage Contract) and will it be read during the ceremony.  Will you work with your clergy to incorporate elements of both faiths into your ceremony so that both families can feel connected and comfortable.  Are there specific rituals, music, and readings that can make both families feel included?

 

  1. DISCUSS HOW YOU WILL CELEBRATE HOLIDAYS?   Holiday celebrations can be very tricky.  How do you remain true to yourself and still compromise with your spouse so that all feel included and valued.  How do you welcome family members of other faith traditions into your home and make them feel comfortable while still remaining true to yourself?  It can be a very difficult balancing act; however, if you remain committed to yourself and each other, you will be able to find a mutually satisfying path forward.

 

  1. COMMUNICATE! COMMUNICATE! COMMUNICATE!: Did I previously say that it is imperative that you stay in communication with yourself, your spouse, your families, and your friends?  You are embarking on one of the most wonderful journeys of your entire life.  It is probably not too surprising that many interfaith couples find it difficult to discuss their religions in depth once they have agreed to get married.  Many have expressed the concern that if they start down this path, the discussion may turn into a very heated argument that could even threaten the couple’s future.  Try and resist the urge to not be aware and conscious about your differences and your needs and the needs of your future spouse.

 

Mazel Tov and Be’chatz’l’cha!  Congratulations and the Best of Luck!

 

If you would like to discuss this or any other issues regarding your connection to Judaism in greater detail, please reach out to one of the UJUS Rabbis found on the UJUC website at www.ujuc.org.

 

A Life Well-Lived by Rabbi Ken Hahn

My 94 year old cousin died recently. He lived a great life, and it could truly be said about him, he died with no regrets. I was struck by the tributes he received. He was very successful in business; he earned a lot of money in his life and supported a great many philanthropic causes. At the end, however, that’s not what I heard about; his business acumen and wealth were not what people cared to speak of. What I did hear about was a man who cared about everyone… everyone. I heard about a man who asked you a lot of questions when he was with you, about your experience, your successes and travails and who really wanted to hear the answers. Sh’ma… he listened. And he was right in there with you when trouble came knocking on your door. He had an open heart, and an open checkbook if that’s what was needed.

I heard about a man who was truly humble, even though he had no reason to be. I saw a man who embodied grace, who suffered the loss of his brother 11 months ago with equanimity, even though he and his brother had spoken every day for the past 65 years, no matter where each of them was, whether down the road or in vastly different time zones.

My cousin was born in another era. He didn’t always want to change with the times, but change he did. Vis-a-vis his Jewish identity, he and his family kept kosher; they devoutly went to synagogue every Shabbat, and all three of his daughters married Jewish men. Not long before his death I spoke with him about the fact that his youngest grandchild was just recently engaged to a non-Jewish woman. “How did he feel about that?” I asked. His reply came quickly. That’s the way of the world these days, and he offered his tacit acceptance.

More than anything, for his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, my cousin in the words of one of his daughters, offered that Sukkat Shalom, that sense of sheltering peace. Being in his presence, knowing he was there made everyone feel safe and warm. We could all go to sleep happy and comfortable, knowing he was available if need arose.

In short, my cousin lived a good life, and he was rewarded with a good death, with all of his many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren making pilgrimages to see him in his final two weeks of life. (Why wait until the funeral to see a dying relative? Why not see him when he’s still here and able to communicate, offer his wisdom, share his love, hear how he made a difference in your life?) With his three daughters at his bedside. Dying quietly in his sleep.

I reflected on what it is to lead a good life and looked to Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages), that very remarkable and I dare say unique section of the Talmud. I found this, which I annotate here, from Ben Zoma:

Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.

Who is strong? One who subdues himself.

Who is rich? One who loves what is.

Who is honored? One who honors others.

My cousin embodied these statements. 

I hope the light that shone in my cousin’s heart has not gone out, but rather transformed into another beacon. May his memory be a blessing and an impetus to spur all of us to expect nothing less than the highest expressions of wisdom, strength, wealth and honor, from those down the street and those in high places.

Dance Partners

Rabbi Diane Rose
Those of us who are part of progressive spiritual groups and participate in interfaith activities often speak of the belief that all religions are here to serve the same purpose in different ways. Whether we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu… aren’t we all searching for answers, working toward peace, and living our lives according to a structure that reminds us to connect to our communities and to our inner-worlds? I believe the answer is yes.

We cannot deny, however, that our Books and Teachers don’t always preach this. Yes, we can stay safe and quote Leviticus:

“The stranger that sojourns with you shall be as the home-born to you, and you shall love him as yourself.”

Or Hillel:

“What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man.”

Or Jesus:

“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

or the Quron:

“We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 48).

But we can just as easily point out the opposite from each religion. The Israelites were not to adopt any rituals from their neighbors and in fact were to destroy their altars, pillars, and sacred trees. The Gospel of John has some not-very-nice things to say about Jews, and the Quron outlines some serious doom and gloom for non-believers.

But I still hold on to my belief that all of our religions have been dancing with each other since humanity first asked the question, “Where did we come from?” I hold on to the idea that our goals are (or at least used to be) the same, and that we have learned and borrowed from each other since we first searched for a God. So it is really refreshing when we find those undeniable interconnections between religions or cultures. Think of the incredible similarities between the stories of Gilgamesh and Noah, or the many religions with creation stories that begin with the world being a dark, watery emptiness.

Well, I may have a new one, and I learned all about it at… a Luau.

“Ha” in Hawaiian means “the sacred breath of life.” When we think about common Hawaiian words, many include “ha.” Alo-ha, Ha-waii, O-ha-na, Ma-ha-lo. These words aren’t just about a greeting, a place, a family, and a thank you. They are infused with the idea that when we speak to one another, our sacred breath is acknowledging the sacred breath of the other.

I find it interesting that in Judaism we have S-ha-lom which not only includes a “ha” but also closely matches the meaning of Aloha. Aloha is known as hello and goodbye, but it also means love, compassion, warmth, and friendliness (think of when people say “the spirit of Aloha”). Shalom similarly means hello and goodbye as well as peace (as any kid who had a Jewish education can tell you), but the root of Shalom, Shin-Lamed-Mem, means complete. Shalom is the completion of the soul… the way to peace. Doesn’t Shabbat Shalom mean a lot more than just a peaceful Shabbat? Two complex words at the center of Jewish and Hawaiian spirituality.

Of course, we cannot discuss “ha” without talking about Avram. In the Torah, God gave Avram a “ha” and Sarai an “h” (hey) as well when God blessed them as God’s own and promised them they would be the parents of a peoplehood. Their names were affected by God, the sacred breath of life now infused in them.

Maybe this is a stretch, but even just the word “ha” in Hebrew (which means “the” ) could have a spiritual connection. Everything definite has the letter hey in front of it. Each item, person, place, even adjective, with the “h” sound is as sure and true and real as our breath. Maybe not connected to Hawaiian language, but I like it anyway.

I wish the Hebrew word for breath/spirit was Ru-cha instead of Ru-ach. If it was, I’d be doin’ a mic drop. Maybe it’s close enough that we have to flip the letter chet and the “ah” vowel so it at least looks like Ru-cha?

Now, I don’t know if Hawaiian culture and Jewish culture ever danced around one another early enough to affect each other in these ways. It would be fascinating (for someone smarter than I am!) to find out if the trading and emigrating communities ever ended up in the same place at the same time. But even if they didn’t, I am going to add a little extra “ha” to my Hebrew and infuse the sound with my belief that we all share the same sacred breath of life.

And with that I say, S-HA-lom and Alo-HA to you. 🙂

What is Jewish Universalism? Why does it matter?

Rabbi Blane writes:

To answer those questions, I need to revisit a bit of personal history.

When I first conceived of Jewish Universalism, it was during a transitional period when I declined my synagogue’s offer of a contract renewal in January, and I had to remain in my position until July. For Rabbis and Cantors, those months are a time of soul searching- and job searching. We tend to just “walk through the motions” and show up and perform our duties but often devoid of much spirit or “Neshama” (soul). Many nights I couldn’t sleep and I awoke at 3am to stare at the ceiling and wonder what would I do to provide for my family and my spirit.

Over the course of three years as Rabbi of that Conservative synagogue (and fifteen years prior to that as Cantor and Spiritual Leader of several other synagogues), I came to reject Conservative theology. It simply did not feel like home.

Despite it’s great scholarship and the fact that it is the best place to learn rituals and liturgy, Conservative Judaism eventually caused me great pain. The hypocrisy was exasperating and exhausting. We were kosher in the synagogue to the extreme, but most of the congregants were un-kosher outside. No food collection for the poor-even canned goods- that were un-kosher were permitted in the synagogue. Our membership was dying in that community, so we discussed selling the building and moving to a nearby town where the pickings might have been better. But that would never happen- the leaders of the shul (a/k/a those few who did everything) would not have it. We fought battles over playing music at Services, over Bat Mitzvah girls covering their heads, about the role a non-Jewish family member might play at a B’nai Mitzvah, about changing/updating prayer books, and on and on. Everything was a battle.

And anytime someone new would show up for a worship service, they would only stay about an hour and then they were gone. Our Shabbat morning Services were often three hours long.

And so, during those last months of that waning contract I had the opportunity to envision what Judaism truly meant to me, how I believed G-d intended it to be shared and how I might best transmit it as a teacher to all the people for whom I knew it simply was not resonating.

My background as a Yeshiva student during my formative grammar and High School years gave me broad perspective on living as a traditional Jew- although that was in reality never to be my path. In college and subsequently for years afterward, I drifted away from Judaism. I rarely went to synagogue, ate “treif” (un-kosher) and indulged in a poor artistic lifestyle which consisted mainly of writing music in the days and playing gigs in the evenings.   So after a Jewish Yeshiva education and college, there was a span of about ten years, until I was married and my first daughter was born, during which I gave little thought to my Judaism.

But then something awakened.

When marriage and children came along, faith re-enters the sphere of importance. This “life-event” Judaism  awakens in many, many Jews. I imagine it happens across all religions. It is a rather common phenomena and of course, for those of us in the position of Rabbi or Cantor, those are the times of greatest opportunity to welcome, teach and bond. And we only have a narrow span of years to reach them, because as we know after a Bar or Bat Mitzvah occurs, synagogue affiliation is simply over.

How sad it is then, when people become ready to re-explore their Jewish heritage, members of the Jewish community often are unwelcoming, display ill-will, are judgmental, speak Lashon Hara (“evil tongue/gossip”) and even openly spar with one another. Even today, Synagogues can be exclusive and expensive. And when it comes to the Conservative Movement, many shuls are typically in severe membership decline and comprised of mainly the elderly.
How many Conservative synagogues today still don’t try to adjust to the needs of their communities? Their ritual committees restrict the participation of  interfaith couples, refuse to meaningfully adapt their Hebrew School curricula, to shorten the length of Services to make them more resonant and on and on.

All of the current discussion surrounding whether or not Conservative Rabbis should officiate at Interfaith Weddings seems silly and even irrelevant. It’s all way too little and way too late.  Conservative rabbis who would officiate at Interfaith ceremonies subject to certain “pre-conditions” are frankly irrelevant to mainstream Jews.

Below, I share links to articles from the past year, which illustrate the sad state of a substantial portion of progressive Judaism and how the Movements struggle. Even their connections to Israel have become more and more challenged.

In April 2016, many Reconstructionist rabbis formed their own association in protest of the Movement accepting Rabbinical candidates who’s partners were not Jewish:

http://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/19-Reconstructionist-rabbis-form-offshoot-over-intermarried-rabbis-BDS-450701

In June 2017, the Rabbis at BJ, the iconic Conservative synagogue in NYC, came out to support officiating at Interfaith Weddings- with certain “conditions.”

http://www.jta.org/2017/06/16/default/rabbis-at-influential-ny-synagogue-to-officiate-at-intermarriages

Described by a Conservative Rabbi as the “issue of our time,” the BJ decision faces pushback from the rest of the Conservative Movement.

http://jewishstandard.timesofisrael.com/this-is-the-issue-of-our-time/

The Jewish Renewal Movement is in disarray as their Board quits and rabbis there is a vacuum and a lack of authority.

http://forward.com/news/376098/mystical-jewish-renewal-movement-faces-fresh-divisions-3-years-after-founde/

Progressive and Liberal Jews reevaluate their relationship to Israel and Zionism and make America their first priority.

http://www.timesofisrael.com/jewish-millennials-increasingly-putting-zionism-second-and-america-first/

The egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall is scrapped, much to the joy of the Ultra Orthodox who claim the wall for the Orthodox only. And of course, the matter of Jewish Conversion, performed by non-orthodox or non-Israeli sanctioned rabbis occupies a rather large part of the debate.

http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/fuchs-focus/reforms-naked-agenda/2017/07/10/

http://jewishstandard.timesofisrael.com/charedi-rabbi-explains-why-he-opposes-the-western-wall-deal/

And last but not least a McCarthy-like “list” has been issued comprised of American Rabbis who’s Jewish Conversions are not to be recognized in Israel.

http://www.timesofisrael.com/here-is-the-chief-rabbinates-blacklist-of-american-rabbis/

So again what is Jewish Universalism?

JU is a practical, authentic Jewish response to the turmoil described above- a non-judgmental, all-inclusive, kind and loving Judaism. Jewish Universalism is not filled with angst, does not demarcate lines-in-the-sand, or foster restrictions. In JU, you and your partner and family can just be yourselves. We are happy to have you- and we want to teach you and learn from you. We are pluralistic/multi-denominational (it means you don’t even have to be Jewish to worship with us). We rise above the fractional fray within the mainstream Jewish World, roll up our sleeves and get to work!

Our mantra as Jewish Universalists is “Hear oh Israel, Hear oh Humankind, the Lord is G-d and G-d is one!”

We exclude political discourse from our religious worship and gatherings at a time when the lines between Church and State are increasingly blurred and it’s all too easy to fall into the trappings of taking political sides.

We trust that our JU Doctrines embrace everyone who would like to be a part of our vision- a vision of true “Oneness,” a vision of non-exclusivity and a vision of respect and harmony for all people regardless of their faith, or even lack thereof.

As eighteen Jewish Universalist Rabbis who serve their communities understand, we are blessed to be called to service without the restriction of a particular Jewish Movement’s dogma that prevents us from truly meeting the needs of the modern Jew.

And that’s who we are. We welcome you all!

Transforming Fate Into Destiny

May 17, 2017 Rabbi Dina London

Recently, I attended a performance at the Goodman Theater in Chicago called “Destiny of Desire,” a take on the Spanish soap opera. The playwright, Karen Zacarias, was quoted in the playbill as saying, “Destiny is different from fate.  Destiny is what your life can be if you realize your potential, if you believe in your potential and you go for it.  Destiny is not something that happens to you; it’s something you have to strive for.  Unlike fate, which is something that’s sealed and locked, destiny is fluid and can evolve.  Who you were and who you can become is within your grasp…”

In the Torah, at this moment in time, the Israelites are experiencing their sojourn in the desert.  In just a few weeks, they will gather at Mt. Sinai to witness the revelation of the 10 commandments.  Their fate could have been to lose interest in their culture of old, ignore Moses, and wander forever, but their destiny, what they had to work for, was getting their people to the promised land.  As Rabbi Levi Meier says, “Torah teaches us that our fate is not predetermined by circumstances of nature or nurture.  You can always create your destiny.”

But, it is important that we realize that there is no “date with destiny.”  Destiny doesn’t just appear on our calendar, waiting for us at the nearest Starbucks.   Rabbi Yosef Dov Solveitchik teaches us (in “Who by Fire, Who By Water”) to distinguish between goral, fate, and yi’ud, destiny.  He says that our mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny, from an existence that is passive to one that is active and influential.  To me, what that means is that destiny equals the creative response to the impermanence of life.

As Jews we understand this need for using creativity to move through our existence.  For instance, we have many approaches to naming…not naming a baby until the eighth day (high infant mortality throughout much of history), changing someone’s name if they are very ill to fool the angel of death, etc.  The Jews of Alsace were said to have come up with the idea of “change of place, change of luck.”  If your fate in your current location doesn’t look promising, don’t be afraid to pick up and re-create your life somewhere else.

Though they may not know it, when Jews say “Mazel Tov,” what they are really saying is “may the stars be favorably aligned for you.”  But astrology isn’t just about the fate that the energy of the stars and planets bequeath upon you.  No, our birth chart asks us to take the ever changing alignments and creatively mold that energy into our destiny.  In other words, “the mazel we are born with is elastic, ” says Rabbi Avi Weiss in “Who by Fire, Who by Water.”

After a 9 year hiatus, I’ve been binge watching Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix.  Amidst the soap opera nature of the show, if you listen carefully, each episode aims to relay a teaching.  And, in season 5, Episode 14, the main character, Meredith Grey, sums up the response we must have if destiny is to trump fate.  “We have to keep reinventing ourselves…almost every minute…because the world can change in an instant.  And, there’s no time for looking back.”

The Changing Face of Religion in America

April 27, 2017 | Rabbi Judy Ginsburgh

Earlier this year, I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Dr. Diana Butler Bass speak on two different occasions.  She is an author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.   Her latest book is called “Grounded: Finding God in the World, a Spiritual Revolution.”

During her talks, she discussed statistics about religion today.  In a poll taken in 1960, only 2 percent of the American population said they were unaffiliated and did not identify with any religion.  In 2015, a similar poll was taken and almost 28 percent of the American population said they were unaffiliated and did not identify with any religion.  Dr. Bass also pointed out that up until 2012, the majority of the people in the United States identified religiously as White Protestants.  By 2012, America was becoming a diverse religious place to be.  We were seeing a decline in such things as “Jewish neighborhoods”.  No longer did people of similar religion and culture live in the same areas of town.  Christians lived next to Jews who lived next to Hindus and so on.  Neighborhoods were also no longer black or white, but instead a diverse mixture of people from all races, cultures and religious backgrounds.

In 2012, no one religious group made up a majority of the “pie chart.”  Even the White Protestants, who previously held the majority position made up less than 50% of our total religious American demographic.  During this 50 plus year span of time from 1960 to 2012, the Jews steadily occupied about 1 to 2% of the religious population in America.  Dr. Bass’ conclusion is that, with no one religion having a majority of the population, American religion is no longer as diverse as it once was…but is instead, becoming pluralistic.  We are intermingling, we are talking more, people feel more at ease to explore, share and question (something we Jews have always done).  As far as religion goes in America today, we have moved from diverse to pluralistic.

Dr. Bass also pointed out that less and less of our younger generations are affiliated with a religious institution.  However, just because there is a decline in institutional religion, this does not mean that we are not connecting with personal spiritual experiences.  The majority of our younger generation claims to feeling “spiritual” as opposed to “religious.”  There has been a steady rise in the number of people who admit to having had a “spiritual” experience.  In the 60’s about 24 percent of the population said they had gone through a spiritual experience. In 2009, about 50% of the population admitted to having had a spiritual experience.  Statisticians speculate that today, in 2017, that percentage would increase even further to about 54%.  In this present time, more and more people are experiencing something spiritual.

So, what does this mean for our congregations?  How are we, as clergy and congregational leaders, supposed to continue to keep our congregations vital and meaningful and engage our younger generations?  Dr. Bass suggests that we help our congregants to see the wonder of our world…the beauty and awe that exists all around us.  When people were asked where they felt most spiritual (especially the younger generation), the most common answer was in nature.  Not in a synagogue, not in a church, not in the safety of our homes, but outside soaking in the awesome power of God.  

Our Jewish camps continue to grow stronger and reach more young Jews than ever before.  They get it.  This may be the key to reaching our younger generation.  While at camp, they feel a spiritual connection with nature and they experience the awesomeness of God.  They want to make a difference in the world and social justice, fairness and equality are of the utmost importance.  These things are all at the forefront of our Jewish camp movement.  Our younger Jews do not need a special building to be able to feel God’s presence.  They do not need a particular prayer book in order to pray.  They feel God everywhere.  God is no longer a man in the sky with a long robe and a beard.  In our modern world, a distant God who lives in heaven will no longer do.  This distant God is being replaced by a more intimate, spiritual God. God is in a sunset, a rainbow, an ocean wave, a baby’s cry.  God is present in our joy and in our suffering. God is essence…..God is energy….God is beauty…God is love….God is healing…God is strength….God IS!  Dr. Bass states that the only God that makes sense today is a God of compassion and empathy who shares the life of the world.  

God is truly everywhere.  God is in each one of us.  God is here, with all of us, in our world…we need only look around to see it.  Amen.

I will be continuing this discussion of God and spirituality at our congregational Torah study.  These are some of the questions we will discuss:

Are you “spiritual” or “religious” and how do you define these two terms?  How and why do you pray? How do you personally see God?  How does God affect your life?  Where is God?  Do generations relate to God differently?  If so, why?  I invite you to consider these questions and feel free to share your feelings privately or in community.  These are questions that need to be answered by each of us in order for us to continue on our most fulfilling religious or spiritual journey.  

Purim: A Chance to Let Loose

February 23, 2017| by Rabbi Linda Goldberg

Purim comes not a moment too soon, March 11-12, this year. While I always look forward to its approach as a sign that winter is nearly past, this year observing Purim seems especially relevant. It offers a fine occasion to remember our heritage, to do some good for people close to us, to do good also for those in need, and to have full-on fun. What could be more welcome in these crazy times.

Four key mitzvot (commandments) associated with Purim are well crafted to enhance the joy both for the community and for the individual.

First mitzvah is to hear the story, found in Megillat (Book of) Esther in the Bible. For sure, the meaning of the holiday is missing if we do not know or recall the story. What happened was deadly anti-Jewish forces in ancient Persia, led by a wicked advisor to a foolish king, threatened to eliminate us. But thanks to brave action from heroes (including Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai) and well-timed help from circumstance and/or providence, we prevailed. It is a sequence that has occurred with significant variations over the years, so it resonates. And because we know that it did not always end so well for us, we rejoice thoroughly in this case when it did.

The other mitzvot are found in Esther 9:22, and they include giving gifts (generally of food) to people who are close to us, showing them that they are important to us. Also, we make sure that our elderly or sick friends, family and shut-in neighbors are not neglected and do not miss out on the rejoicing.

Next mitzvah is to give presents for the poor, so even people whom we do not know personally have their needs met as we celebrate our good fortune. My preference is to give to our local food bank, the remarkable Food Bank for Westchester. My colleague, Rabbi/Cantor Diane Rose, also posted a great suggestion to make up packets of necessary items to pass along to the homeless.

The fourth mitzvah is to rejoice, feast, and generally have a great time. In our synagogue we traditionally enjoy hotdogs and beer at our Purim celebration; and this year we will have a klezmer band playing. We also dress in costume or at least wear silly headgear.

This year to go along with the klezmer theme, my husband and I are dressing as Chasidic rebbes and are planning to dance until we drop.

In the past, I have been Vashti (Esther’s predecessor queen) as a biker chick – per the photo, being carried away by my handsome gorilla, King Kong. I’ve also been Rosie the Riveter and a personal hero, Bruce Springsteen. When dressed as Bruce, I try to chant my chapter of the Megillah as I imagine he would; otherwise I try to chant in the voice of the character whose dialog I’m reading.

While I have heard explanations for wearing costumes ranging from the metaphysical (God was hidden, so we are hidden) to the literary (dressing up is a recurrent theme in the story), I think it’s just fun to hide your everyday self in a costume and have a good time.

I hope you are inspired to enjoy a wonderful holiday this year, showing gratitude for our blessings by being joyful and making others happy too. Please include your favorite customs and practices in your comments and show us your photos.
Chag Purim sameach! Happy holiday of Purim!

Festivals of light, now more than ever

December 16, 2016 by Rabbi Deborah Reichmann

Festivals of light, now more than ever

I was going to start with a tirade. Railing against the hatred and intolerance I see spewing from all sides. Bemoaning the sorry state of the world. I won’t. It’s not that these things aren’t happening, but ranting won’t make it better. In fact, studies show that venting can add to depression, isolate individuals and make for a bleaker outlook.

There is enough dark right now just because our days are short, and the sun is weak (in the Northern hemisphere). Our traditions, our cultures and especially our religions know this about this time of year. That is part of why we all celebrate something during these dark days.

On December 24, after sundown, the eight day Jewish Festival of Chanukah begins:
We light the first Chanukah candle.
We celebrate the memory of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd Century BCE.
We celebrate the unlikely victory of a small group of Jewish rebels against a mighty Greek army.
We share the stories of the Macabees and eat latkes and spin dreidels.
We revel in the warmth of our traditions and the warmth of family and friends.

This year, with Christmas eve coinciding with Chanukah we have an opportunity to add to our joy. Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and other winter festivals are not in competition with each other, but an acknowledgement of humanity’s search for universal love. In the middle of the darkest days of winter we all seek the light, both literally and metaphorically. The short days make the candles seem brighter and the lights on the trees more magical. The festive colors and sweet smells add brightness to all our lives. We come together to celebrate life, to celebrate community, to celebrate the triumph of light over dark.

From a Jewish Universalist point of view, the traditions of Chanukah are an invitation to all, to Jews and non-Jews, to join together in praising the values of perseverance, dedication and the sanctity of life. This is the season to open doors and share our holidays with our neighbors and wrap ourselves in the warm comfort of friendship and family. The world is full of strife, as it is always. Perhaps this year seems darker than most, perhaps not. But, each chanukah candle is a rallying cry to seek the good in all people. With each flame we promise to do better ourselves. The ultimate Chanukah gift we can give each other is our dedication to improve this world and make it better for our children and grandchildren. We can be the light in these dark days.

Finding Unity in Faith

By Rabbi Diane Rose | November 10, 2016

Whether you wore a hat with an H or one that ordered you to make America great again,

Whether you are pro-choice or pro-life,

Whether you live in rural Texas or urban Los Angeles,

There is one thing we can all agree on…

This country is divided.

People wept at the thought of their candidate losing, or maybe more to the point, at the thought of the opposition winning, unable to imagine how the people of their country could possibly elect the other.  In the backs of some minds, we wondered if the sun would even still rise if our candidate didn’t win.

I can relate. I was one of them.

But the sun did rise, and it rose for ALL of us.  Children got ready to learn and teachers got ready to teach.  Hurrying parents ran out the door with coffee cups and toast in their hands. Restaurant deliveries were made and babies were born, in red states and blue.

Whether your candidate won or lost, your world kept going.

When we feel disoriented in a divided country, a divided community, or a divided home, it’s essential to find places to come together and find peace, even if it’s just for a moment. You might find it in a yoga class, a book club, a card game, or a spiritual community, but I hope you find it somewhere.

I find this comfort in my spiritual community.  Now, spiritual institutions aren’t always without their own personal struggles. Goodness knows we have all experienced communities that are suffering with some sort of divide of their own.  But religious communities should be a place to get away from all that.  They should be caring and supportive even when the going gets tough.
They should be where we go to come and leave our worries at the door… A place to be lifted when you are down, and a place to lift others when you are up.

Wanting this ideal spiritual center to exist is why I became a Rabbi with JSLI and why I am now part of the UJUC and call myself a Universalist Rabbi.  I didn’t want to be a part of a movement that constantly points the finger at another with disapproval.  I didn’t want to be a Rabbi required by my movement to act or love or preach in a certain way.  I didn’t want to be told what I or my community should or should not believe.  I didn’t want to be told what my non-Jewish members could or could not do… And that is the heart of Jewish Universalism.

The UJUC website says:

JU believes all paths to the divine are equally Holy and that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth.

JU believes Judaism is a constantly evolving spiritual practice.

JU asserts that all people who follow the dictate to love your neighbor as yourself are “chosen.”

JU embraces Interfaith Families and unconditionally welcomes all people to participate in our Jewish worship and rituals.
In other words, come as you are.  We will meet you where you are, and you will be embraced.

So, whether your candidate won or lost last night, I hope you can find a safe place to navigate this divided country of ours. Let’s create safe environments for ALL of us to share and rejoice and weep where no belief is understood as “the chosen one” whether religious or political. If nowhere else on this planet of ours, let’s be together in our churches, synagogues and mosques, with an eye toward the future, an eye toward peace, and a helping hand for those who need us.

Some Final Reflections on the Holiday Season – How Sukkot Symbolizes Letting Go

October 28, 2016 | by Rabbi Kenneth Hahn

What does the holiday of Sukkot have to do with letting go of our need to control outcomes? First of all, before we get to that, what is Sukkot anyway? Like many Jewish holidays, it combines historical, spiritual and agricultural elements. It’s the holiday where we build these temporary structures, called sukkahs, or booths, and when we shake the lulav (a willow branch, a myrtle branch and a palm branch all tied together) with the etrog (a large lemony fruit).

Fundamentally, as we decorate the sukkah with fruits and vegetables, we are celebrating the harvest. In fact, sukkahs are thought to be reminiscent of the temporary structures farmers would inhabit while living in the fields during the harvest season. It may well explain why one guideline determining whether or not a sukkah is kosher is how close to the ground the walls come. The rule is that the gap between the ground and the bottom of the walls cannot be more than the width of a goat crawling on its belly. That makes a lot of sense if the goal of a sukkah was to protect you while sleeping outside during the harvest when you would not want to be disturbed at night by a wandering animal.

Another determinant of whether or not a sukkah is kosher is that you must be able to see the sky from within the structure. In other words, living in the sukkah should feel a lot like living outside, i.e. feeling like you’re a part of nature. Here, perhaps, we come to the crux of the matter.

When Jews shake the lulav, we are actually doing a rain dance, and why do a ceremony praying for rain even while we’re bringing in the harvest? Because we’re all neurotic and already worrying about the next harvest as we’re bringing the current one in. If it doesn’t rain, there will be no food, and we won’t survive without food.

Interestingly, it’s not coincidental that Sukkot comes RIGHT AFTER Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Here’s why. During the ten Days of Awe from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur we are instructed to “get clean” with people by asking for and granting forgiveness. Once we’ve done this and have essentially purified ourselves, then it’s time to pray for rain, the really important culminating act that helps ensure our survival.

Judaism teaches that we can and should do our best to purify our souls, that this can help lead to a better outcome, but that ultimately it’s out of our hands. We purify ourselves; then we pray for rain. We understand, though, that whether or not it rains is beyond our control, but we pray for it anyway, and we recognize our limitations in determining what will happen.

The history of humanity it seems is the attempt to control outcomes, to deal with our fear of survival and satisfy our sometimes greed-filled need to insure a better situation for ourselves. We generally fail to recognize that even as we try to control more and more, and propagate the illusion that we can, we are still and forever will be subject to the random vagaries of life and the universe. Oh well. Maybe that’s why the ceiling of the sukkah has to be partially open to the sky, to remind us that we are vulnerable beings, and even though we would like to dominate the natural world, it has a funny way of asserting its control over us.

The Return of a People within Our People

By Rabbi Elisheva Irma Diaz, MTS, DD | October 1, 2016

To be exiled is to be separated from ones familiar everyday life and surroundings. It is waking up one morning and feeling the breeze of a homesick life in a foreign place. If you are on a vacation or on an occupational venture you know you are returning home moreover, to be forced from your home knowing you may never return is quite different. Notwithstanding is the idea that in this case, the reference is made to being exiled not only from our home but worse from our identity. No matter where we find ourselves, after generations, we have inner questions and feelings deep in our heart. This is the yesterday, today and tomorrow of the Benei Anusim (Hebrew: children of the forced ones)

Many of these now Crypto Jews immigrated to the New World; we call today the Americas, or the Western Hemisphere. A large percentage ended up in Latin American Countries. In Mexico alone there was an increase in numbers especially in the central valley and as the far as the Northwest. In the sixteenth century, members of the famous Carvajal family of Nuevo León were tried for relapsing into Judaism; and several of them, including some women, were burned at the stake. This communicated a message to all (Hispanic) practicing Jews.

Practicing Judaism could cost them their life and the lives of their loved ones. The only way to protect ones family was to hide even the idea of being Jewish. The best way to achieve this was to hold back this information from new generations bringing them up in Catholic homes and allowing them to be taught as if they were Catholic. Of course this repeated itself over generations and still does today. Over years this bred a people with a hidden Jewish bloodline, suspicious Jewish names within our families pop up, Jewish paraphernalia found in a Grandparents home and maybe even a few intriguing family photos with relatives that have held on to tradition with the mixture of Hispanic/Latino culture. Perhaps growing up we heard a unique language “Ladino” (Judeo Spanish) a language spoken by our ancestors. It sounds very similar to Spanish and can be followed easily so it never raises questions. We hear and learn well known “Dichos’ (Spanish for sayings) that we find later are very Jewish. Last and definitely not least, we find ourselves attracted to Israel, Judaism and realize we feel at home around it. Simultaneously as time goes on there is a definite cry from our Soul that may lead us to interviewing relatives, building family trees, DNA testing and searching until we find what we know is home for us. This is how it starts and this is the very venture that brings us back home to our Jewish identity.

Today throughout Latin America “La Sangre llama/Chama” (Spanish; The blood is calling) and many Latinos are quarreling within themselves about who they are. They may not understand what it is they feel but with enough courage and probing will find what they need to find for their personal journey. Although not all can be expected to leave generations of rich tradition and culture some will decide to return to their Jewish heritage. They will not leave what they know but through no fault of their own will bring it with them. Perhaps we eat tortillas instead of pita bread or Tamales during Christmas and Chanukah and so on. This will make them different, this will in most cases cause a red flag in Jewish Communities that sometimes can lead to being treated as an outcast and the one returning questioning themselves. This is the portrait of many Hispanic Jews hungry for home.

SACRIFICE OR BLESSING?

Will their decision to come home be a sacrifice or a blessing? This decision to embrace our Jewish roots can lead to long time friends leaving us, close family members distancing themselves and the constant undercurrent of uninformed murmuring about you. On the one side of the spectrum some in your past (more than not) reject you and on the other side in an effort to join a Synagogue community the rejection may be just as fierce if not worse. One may battle within themselves wondering if they did the right thing and for a while it is one of the hardest decisions you have ever made until one day you realize; “You are who you are” Whether you are too different or too similar you are “dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t”. An epiphany hits you and you remind yourself sometimes daily that your ancestors were robbed of their identity and their honor was destroyed. You think about the heartache and suffering they endured and something inside of you stands to attention and the rest is History. You are a Jew and you come with a rich packaging of tradition that only adds to the beauty of G-d’s creation. No one forced you, your parents protected you but “your blood called you” (La Sangre te llamo).

You answered and you will not allow what happened to your ancestors to happen again. No one will rob you and future generations from your identity. Now what was a sacrifice becomes the biggest blessing of all.

PROPHECY FULFILLING ITSELF

The Torah teaches us that we will all be restored. Something is stirring within our diaspora at the very same time when anti Semitism is once again on the rise. It is called; Las llamadas de sangre (Spanish; the calling out of the blood) Crypto Jews are searching, finding and confirming who they are. They are bringing honor to their ancestors as they decide to return to their roots.

Today you can walk down the street in Mexico, New York, Los Angeles everywhere for that matter and pass by many people who are Hispanic Jews and haven’t any knowledge of it. In some cases they may know about it and not want to uncover it because of the risks involved.There are many Latinos coming to the forefront and should be welcomed by the Latino Community and the Jewish Community alike.

Why? Because when it is all said and done, you cannot be stripped of what is inside of you. From generation to generation Jewish Blood will cry out. This is prophecy documented throughout the TNK (Tanach; Hebrew scriptures).

To my Jewish Community I would say; when we return, welcome us warmly for this came with much sacrifice and to the Anusim, the Crypto Jew, you are Crypto no more. Should you decide to join our community, do it proudly, do not apologize for your past and have courage. Do not allow the sins of the past, and any effort to erase who you are to prevail again.

May this New year 5777 bring yet a new level of enlightenment to the House of Israel.

Significant Other

By Rabbi Steve Blane | September 21, 2016

Jewish Universalism is not a finite concept. Yes, we have a mission and we have doctrines.  At present, we have fourteen rabbis around the world who represent our ideas and principals. But we are not an island.

We do not stand before G-d or humankind and represent that we know G-d’s purpose for us nor that we are the group through which the divine source of everything can best minister to the needs of the Jewish and Interfaith Community.

We are much more significant than that.

You see we are open to change and to evolving to embrace the paradigm of modern Judaism. We do not fight it or struggle to “put the genie back in the bottle.” It is much more constructive, meaningful and productive to embrace change, support it and figure out how we can learn and grow from it.

I hear again and again with greater frequency as time passes from members of our community and from Rabbinical and Cantorial School candidates and their Rabbinic mentors that Jewish Universalism is the future of modern Judaism. The mainstream world might not quite accept that concept as of yet, but it doesn’t matter. To millennials, denominational distinctions have become irrelevant and in severe decline. Millennials choose to believe in what they will, and as testimony to that mainstream Jewish Seminary enrollment is way down while ours (www.JSLI.net) is way up. I need not comment at all on the decline of synagogue membership or attendance.

However, JU is in the right place at the right time to meet the challenges of the Jewish future. In JU we do not build a metaphorical fence around the Torah” in order to protect the commandments or mitzvot. Rather we scale the fence and enter into Torah itself and interpret it to make it relevant to all people- without fear, rancor or disrespect.

I was recently in conversation with an Evangelical Christian friend as we discussed our faiths. It was quite fascinating to engage in such discourse- I encourage all Jews to do so. He asked me why it simply was not easier to just “accept that Jesus is the Messiah and the fulfillment of ancient prophesy.” I responded that, why not just accept that for Jews, it is not easier and it would simply not be Jewish. Short and to the point is as good as I can do on that question because Evangelicals can not accept a faith without Jesus. I believe that often respectful discourse is best obtained by moving on to the subject of weather as quickly as possible 🙂

We are not Unitarian Universalists- but Jewish Universalists. True to our Jewish history, faith and rituals while welcoming all people to join us in learning and participating in our worship.

In a world filled with anxiety and a growing lack of the ability to engage in civil discourse, we are a beacon of change, hope and continued relevance to the world at large and a Jewish community that struggles with adapting to the light speed changes of modernity.

G-d Bless you and Shana Tova 5777!

NOT BY BREAD ALONE!

By Rabbi Nancy Tunick | Sept 1, 2016 Reprinted with permission from Temple B’nai Israel, Alabama

President James Garfield was quoted as saying “Man cannot live by bread alone, he must have peanut butter.” That is not the original conclusion of the famous biblical quote “Man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord does man live,” spoken by Moses as he continues the review of our 40-year desert journey, though I’m sure peanut butter would have been gratefully received by our ancestors after decades of manna.

This part of the week’s Parshah had me considering what are the necessities in life? Food, shelter, clothing, health, education…. Where in your list would God and spirituality fall?  We recognize that we need to meet our basic needs in order to keep our physical bodies functioning, but then what?  We work at jobs, sometimes 2 or 3, to pay our bills.  We carry our children and grandchildren to school and to activities that broaden their education and their worlds.  We buy or rent homes, spend too much money for clothes and shoes and food.  But what do we do to feed our souls?  Do we recognize the moments in our lives that are touched by God?  Do we stop to fill our souls with beauty and love?  Do we carve out time to study, meditate and pray?  What would our lives be like if we created our own daily schedule that not only included breakfast, lunch and dinner but also included a morning meditation, mid-day study and an evening prayer.  Would we feel a shift in everything we do?  Is this what attending Shabbat services is meant to fill in your lives….an hour of spirituality set against the other 167 hours of the week?  How can we bring this one hour into a daily curriculum so that we can prioritize the reason why we are really here.

“Man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord does man live.” Moses is telling us that meeting our physical needs is not the purpose of life.  That would be like saying keeping your car running is the reason you have a car, when really you own a car in order to get from place to place.  Meeting our physical needs keeps us running, but why are we running at all?  It’s not for the sake of just staying functional.  It’s to connect to what is beyond us and to infuse that spirituality into our physical lives and world.

The title of this week’s Parshah is Eikev which translates to mean because, and the Parshah starts with “Because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.”  Moses is reminding us that our ancestors made a deal with God.  The deal was, and still is, that we will take actions to promote righteousness on this earth and he will be with us.  Those actions require more than just to keep our physical bodies fed, sheltered and clothed.  Those actions require us to be kind, help strangers, study, give, and be mindful of our connection and covenant with God.

God feels like a parent throughout much of Torah. We even refer to him as our Father and we are children of Israel, b’nai Israel.  After we brought Sarah and Louis into this world, I started to see more intense correlations with our relationship to God and that of a parent to a child.  Scott often reminds our kids that a parent’s greatest responsibility is to prepare his children to leave home.  It seems so counterintuitive that learning to let go is one of the best ways to love.   And that teaching children to be independent of you is as or more nurturing than holding them close in your arms as they gain skills and the ability to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their own actions.   That is an incredibly challenging lesson for me on a daily basis as my first thought is to help, help pave the way so that they are comfortable and secure.  But as children grow into the people they are meant to be, comfort and security may be overrated.  That is true for all of us at any age.  When we read the review of our desert journey over these weeks, Moses sounds like a parent giving his children advice before they head off to college or a speaker who has been asked to give the graduation address.  He is basically asking the question, “How do you learn to be a person who not only keeps running but also heads in the direction of the promised land or peace (which may be synonyms.)”  Moses tells us that God is here for us but that does not relieve our responsibility to take action.  He also says that everything is not all love and support from beyond.  God chastises us for not reaching to be who we are meant to be.  He sees our rebellion and still helps us, but not by making us more comfortable, but rather by pushing us toward bigger and more frightening challenges.  God is always there for support and love, but only if we recognize that there is more to this life than what we see.  There is more to how we spend our days than feeding our bodies, we are meant to feed our souls.  While journeying through the desert for forty years, God provided for our physical needs and we were able to learn and connect in a curriculum that prepared us to be more independent in the promised land.  The manna is about to disappear because we are entering the land of milk and honey, but milk and honey and peanut butter can be a real distraction from righteousness and connection.  Once we meet our physical needs with figurative manna, we are challenged to recognize that all of our gifts are from God, the ones that keep us running and the ones that keep us searching, and that we are meant to journey forward with joy and hope and not just park and celebrate excess.

So as we face our week, let’s pack our cars and head off to college. We can create our own curriculum for peace that includes precious time to study and learn, to give and love, to quiet our minds and open our hearts.  As we begin to prioritize the reason we are here, that is when the journey really gets good!

Argue with the Torah!

By Rabbi Diane Rose | August 22, 2016 Reprinted with permission from coolshul.org

Sometimes it’s hard being Jewish, and even more difficult being a teacher of Judaism.

What do I tell my Bar and Bat-Mitzvah students when we read in their Torah portions that the God we pray to washed away all of human and animal kind except for one family?  Or opened up the earth and swallowed not just rebels but their households?   Or didn’t just save the Israelites but made the Egyptian army get stuck in the mud so they would drown?  These portions can send our students running, and I must say it’s hard for me not to run too.

So, what do we do?  Well, we follow the advice of the author and Torah scholar George Robinson who said, “To fully understand the Torah as given, we would need to fully understand the world into which it was thrust.”  So, I ask my students questions such as: Who do you think wrote the Torah?  Why do you think the people were meant to be afraid of God?  What is the essence of the lesson we can take with us in a modern context, now hopefully evolved enough not to have to be frightened into action? 

You’d be surprised by the wisdom hiding in a 12 or 13 year-old’s mind.

Well, last Shabbat, we had a portion that is full of text that is easily loved.  After all, the ten commandments are there, the Shema the first paragraph of the V’ahavta are spoken, all pointing us in the direction of living spiritual, noble lives through a filter of love. 

And yet… at the end, we have something that trips me up, especially as a Universalist Rabbi.

Moses is speaking to the people of the many nations they are to defeat once they enter their promised land.  He says, “… and you shall strike them; then you shall utterly destroy them: you shall make no covenant with them, nor favor them; neither shall you make marriages with them; your daughter you shall not give to his son, nor his daughter shall you take to your son.  For he will turn away your son from following Me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord burn against you, and He will destroy you quickly.  But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their sacred trees, and burn their engraved images with fire.”

Now, I became a Rabbi through JSLI, and I chose to be a part of the Jewish Universalist movement because I believe deeply in the Universalist ideals.  On the UJUC website (www.ujuc.org) it states, “JU teaches that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth and that God equally chose all nations to be lights unto the world.  We reject the concept of a G-d who would choose among G-d’s children… JU embraces Interfaith Families and unconditionally welcomes all people to participate in our Jewish worship and rituals.”

Imagine if today we, as Jews, entered a new land, completely destroyed all non-Jewish religious houses, shrines, and articles and burned it all to the ground.  What if we acted as the Torah suggests here, as if our religion was to be the only one and refused to spend even a tiny bit of energy finding ways to leave peacefully side by side with other religious practices?  What if we denied their right to exist?

Doesn’t sound very Universalist, does it?

And what about the refusal of interfaith marriage?  Now, I know that many Jews still do not approve of interfaith marriage, but again, this directly goes against the doctrine of Jewish Universalism.  I was taught, and I believe with every fiber of my being, that when an interfaith couple seeks me to officiate their wedding, my role is not to judge them or tell them a set of requirements they must meet in order for me to be satisfied that the couple will be “Jewish enough.”  My job is to create the most loving, embracing, comfortable, meaningful Jewish experience I can for them.  My job is to create a sanctuary of sorts for the non-Jewish partner to explore his/her spirituality without fear within this Jewish experience. My job is to help both members of the couple leave my presence knowing that Judaism can be a nurturing, understanding, flexible framework, and that choosing to live their lives within that framework  could and should feel like falling into a large embrace.  My job is to honor and acknowledge the non-Jewish partner, not frightened him/her away with a judgmental, Rabbinic glance.

Anyone who has ever worked in a synagogue with interfaith families can tell you that very often, it is the non-Jewish parent who volunteers for the Chanukah party, runs the Purim Carnival, brings the family for Shabbat, and makes sure the child studies for her Bat-Mitzvah.  By making sure Judaism’s umbrella is large enough to cover all of us, Jewish or Jewishly curious or related to Jewish, we are better ensuring the survival of this most amazing peoplehood than if we shoo them away or treat them as secondary citizens.

I understand that in a different time, when the Jewish peoplehood was in its infancy, that we may have had to behave in a certain way to stay together.  But in this time in history, teaching that all religions have a place in this world is what I, and the Jewish Universalist movement, are all about.  The lesson of this Torah passage isn’t to fear or destroy the unfamiliar.  The lesson is to hold on to the beauty of our faith, share it with others, and learn from others with open hearts.  If Judaism has wisdom to offer, it will survive not out of fear, but out of its own merits.

Summer Change

By Rabbi Galit Levy-Slater | August 7, 2016

A visitor recent attending my services asked, “You’re very new. What are you, Reform?”

The answer I gave him, “We are Universalist,” gave him pause, so I continued, “We do not believe in ‘labels’.”

My Jewish education has been as diverse as the demographics in which I was raised. I am a native Californian who became a Jew-By-Choice at the age of 33. I grew up in Hollywood, studied voice from the age of 11, sang operas by the age of 15 and spent several years performing Musical Theater, acting, dance, modelling . . . you get the idea.

My early Jewish education was through the Reform Movement, with the objective of becoming a cantor.

During one summer in the mid-1980’s I took an Ulpan at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) and eventually the Cantorial Workshop, taught by Cantor William Sharlin z”l through Hebrew Union College.

Most of my cantorial career was with Reform congregations until I was hired by Congregation Sholom of Leisure World in Seal Beach, a Conservative shul, where I remained until this year.

My association with Congregation Sholom was more of a familial one than a “hired gun,” as my husband would say. Over the years, I saw many rabbis come and go; some retired, some semi-retired, some students who only stayed for a year or two before moving on to more lucrative positions.

During those years I moved into Leisure World and viewing all those “commuter rabbis” who had no ties to the community, I made the decision to become a rabbi and serve the entire Leisure World community, those affiliated with my shul as well as those not affiliated.

I found a school, based in New York, that offered a rabbinic program that fit my situation perfectly.

I found Jewish Universalism .

I was familiar with Universalism, but what is Jewish Universalism?

It is not Reform; it is not Orthodox; it is not Conservative; it is not Reconstructionist; it is not New Wave; it is not Humanist; it is not Renewal; it is not Ashkenazic; it is not Sephardic; it is not Am Mizrachi.

It is all of them.

And it is none of them.

Rabbi Steven Blane, Founder of the Union of Jewish Universalist Communities:

Jewish Universalism – comprised of progressively minded Rabbis and their communities wherein all are welcome to belong, participate, and nurture the greater good without any obstacles, requirements or strings- just compassion and love for all of humankind through the lens of Judaism.”

My new congregation, Beit HaLev, House of the Heart, accepts Jewish people, people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” interfaith members and we have members who are non-Jewish but who find our worship services meaningful.

Jewish leaders all over the world have been bemoaning the merging and the closing of synagogues due to an overall lack of interest and a feeling of exclusion. In Jewish Universalism we offer progressive combined with traditional liturgy, and the embrace of Am Yisraeil.

Just Say… Yes!

By Rabbi Diane Rose | July 1, 2016

Reprinted with permission from coolshul.org

Yesterday I became a Rabbi.

Okay, that’s totally not true. I actually became a Rabbi nearly 6 months ago.  But I haven’t felt like a Rabbi.  Not for even one minute.

“Didn’t you start feeling like a Rabbi while you were teaching Bnei-Mitzvah students?” you may ask. 

Nope.

“What about all those times you led Shabbat?” 

Not then either.

“Giving sermons?” 

Uh-uh.   

“Well, what about when people called you Rabbi?”

That made it worse.

I’m an excellent student, but I find that much of the information I learned in Rabbinical school flowed into my brain and then back out at an alarming speed.  I know my Jewish knowledge isn’t as deep as I would like.  I know I stumble over my Hebrew sometimes.  I know there are a million facts I don’t easily recall.  I’m hard on myself.  My inner dialogue says, “Some Rabbi YOU are.”

I felt like a fake…until yesterday.

I became a Rabbi yesterday because yesterday was the first time that I spent most of the day in the waiting room of a hospital with a member (a very special member I should add!) of my community who didn’t want to worry alone.  And in spite of having plenty of things to do, I was surprised to discover there was nowhere else I wanted to be and nothing else I wanted to do.

The call to be a clergy person, of any faith, is a call to be present for others. True, it’s a call to share in joyous births and weddings and rites of passage, but it’s also long hours in a waiting room doing little but schmoozing, saying a healing prayer (sometimes out loud, sometimes only in my head), and holding someone’s hand.  It means being hopeful for the best but being prepared for the worst.  It’s means saying YES. YES to the moment, YES to the situation, YES to the truth.  YES to just being there.

So… YES, I spent most of yesterday waiting.  And while I waited, I found myself, for the first time, saying YES to being a Rabbi, because for the first time, I truly knew what that word meant to me. No grand service was needed.  No adoring congregation.  No students.  No one wanting advice.   Just YES to being present.  YES to being support.  YES to being a friend.  This is being a Rabbi to me. 

I think we all feel like fakes sometimes.  We withhold information or remain silent out of fear someone will figure out what we don’t know.  We don’t feel ready for the roles we have taken on either professionally or personally.   And no matter how many years of schooling we have, or how much experience we have, or how much love we have, or how many people call us by a title, we can’t truly own those roles until we internally find that knowing… until we look inside and say YES to ourselves.

The opportunity of Shabbat is the opportunity to shut out the noise of the world (just like in a waiting room), and for a brief moment admire our own perfect imperfections.  As the stars emerge in the sky tonight and our Shabbat/July 4th weekend begins, we are invited to say YES to our complete selves… our gifts, our flaws, our achievements, our goals, and our short comings.  We are invited to say YES to our passions and our fears and YES to the unknown.  We are invited to say YES to our private challenges and YES to the many challenges of this world.  We are invited to say YES to whatever tomorrow may bring.  We are invited to say YES to the truth and YES to knowing who we truly are.

This Shabbat, the only title I am probably going to hear is the title of “Mom,” but that’s okay.  For as the sun comes down tonight, I am going to say YES to the mom in me and the Rabbi in me, and YES to everything I was, everything I am, and everything I could be.  YES to my positives and to my negatives and the amazing opportunity to grow. YES to my life.

What will you say YES to?  Comment to this post with your own YES!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Diane

Words of Torah

By Rabbi Em Mueller | June 28, 2016

Reprinted with permission from rabbiem.com
Sim Shalom On-line Synagogue
Sh’lach l’cha: Numbers 13:1-16:41

In this Torah portion, scouts go into the land that God promised to our ancestors. The Israelites have been at Mount Sinai; they’ve wandered through the wilderness; they’ve committed offenses and suffered plague and drought and overabundance. Finally, they approach their destination. Moses send ten men into the land to “see what kind of country it is; are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”

We are told they scouted the land all around and returned after 40 days (hmmm interesting number!). They reported to Moses and the whole Israelite community that the land does flow with milk and honey, and they brought some fruit back with them. However, they said, the people are powerful, the cities fortified and large. The entire land is filled with people. We can’t attack them; they’re stronger than us. We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.

Well, needless to say the whole community got terrified; wished they’d died in the desert, or returned to slavery.

Only two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, said that they should go forward. They said that the land they scouted is very good, and “if God is pleased with us, God will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to use; only you must not rebel against God.

While reading this I couldn’t help think of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. The impulse to leave came from the “Britain First” movement, which reminds me a lot of Donal Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, or anyone not white. It’s an insular way of thinking.

On one hand, I can understand the fear that the British character will be absorbed into a general European character; or here in the states, that we need to “take back” our country from illegal foreigners.

I’m not saying God will provide; but I do think that the desire to build walls and close ourselves off from the “other” arises from fear. Facts provide very different responses: that people fare much better and economies are much stronger when there is more freedom, not less.

Perhaps God’s role in any of this is giving us the strength within our own hearts to open the door to the stranger, to welcome new experiences, to rise above our fears.

May this week be filled with open doors and kindness.

The Feminist Torah

by Rabbi Diane Rose | June 19, 2016

There is so much going on this week in Parshat Nasso, it’s hard to even know where to begin.  So, I’m going to focus on 3 elements that I am going to attempt to tie together in the name of feminism.  Now, This is definitelynot a favorite parshah for feminists, but I am actually going to do my best to turn it into one.

In this parsha, the ordeal of the sotah (going aside) is outlined by God.  It goes like this:  If a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful – innocent or not, he takes her to the Priest with an offering.  The Priest sprinkles dust from the ground of the tabernacle into a vessel of holy water.  He lets down her hair and musses it up (in a degrading way, not a Pantene commercial kind of way).  Then the Priest tells the woman to swear to her innocence and he announces that if she is innocent, the curse of the waters (the dusty water he created)  will have no effect on her if she drinks it.  If she is guilty, the magic potion will make her thighs fall away and her body swell (believed to mean she will become infertile).  The Priest writes these curses on a scroll and then dissolves the text into the waters. The woman drinks these waters of “bitterness.”  If her body swells, she’s guilty.  If nothing happens, she is innocent.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  This section of the Torah sounds far from a feminist statement.  However, I wonder if the complete opposite is true.

Most commentators agree that this process was probably never carried out, or that if it was, the cursed waters had no chance of making the woman’s body swell or her thighs fall.  Whether you believe in human or divine authorship of Torah, one thing is clear to me, whoever came up with this system of determining innocence or guilt wanted the families to remain intact and for the woman to be perceived as innocent, whether she was or not.

Even Imagine that perhaps a WOMAN author wrote this, or at least, God’s feminine voice.

See, here’s what’s really going on from a feminist point of view — Allow the men to feel they are in control. Allow them to think they have humiliated this woman.  Allow them to think that the truth is about to be uncovered in a most demeaning way.  Allow them to believe in the magical properties of the water… but actually, the men are duped.  The woman has zero chance of being biologically affected (unless her guilt allows some psychosomatic symptoms to appear).  Maybe even the priest knows she will be safe!  I can hear the priest now, whispering to some poor feminine soul standing there scared out of her mind, “Don’t worry, I have to do this to appease them, but nothing is going to happen to you.  Just play along.”

So, Is it possible this was a woman’s idea?  A feminist idea?

The next section of this Torah portion deals with the rules for when one takes the vow of a Nazarite, giving himself or HERSELF completely to God.  That’s right, I said HERSELF.

The Torah clearly states that either a man or woman can make this special vow.  Yet, the following 19 verses, which outline the rules and regulations of becoming and being a nazarite, use only male pronouns.  HE shall separate HIMSELF from wine.  Shall no razor come on HIS head.  HE shall be holy.  The Torah makes a choice here, long before the days of saying “he or she” to describe these acts in the masculine only.   The Torah adheres to the male pronoun even when women are specifically named and included.

So, this made me think… well, how often does the Torah remain in the masculine when the feminine is supposed to be implied? Even God is mostly referred to in masculine pronouns and possessives, but is the entire Torah like this moment?  Is it ALL supposed to read “he or she”?

Before this chapter is even over, we have the Priestly Blessing.  God tells Moses to tell Aaron that he should bless the children of Israel (assuming this includes the ladies too) using the following words… words used and beloved, since these ancient times, that are now essential pieces of Judeo-Christian practice…

Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishmerecha — God will bless you (masculine) and protect you (m)

Ya’eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka – God will shine HIS face upon you (m) and be gracious to you(m).

Yisa adonai eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom – God will lift HIS face toward you (m) and place in you (m), peace.

All of this is in the masculine, both as it refers to God and in the masculine form of the word “you”.  But by what we learned just a few verses ago, this masculine form very well implies the feminine too.

For modern men and women, no matter how much we try not to give God a gender, or to think of Jewish practice as being for men alone, all of this masculinity weighs on us.  Even if we know there is a feminine aspect of God, understand the feminine of these rules, are aware of the feminine existing beneath the surface of all of those male pronouns… we just can’t FEEL it in our bones.  We women feel excluded.  We can’t help but feel like visitors in this male Jewish world.  But let’s try this, with all of that femininity that is implied being brought front and center…

Ladies AND gentlemen, imagine you are about to be blessed by the words of God.  This is a feminine God.  A God that knows these waters will cause no harm.  A God who welcomes women into complete service for Her. A God who wants to protect you with Motherly love.  The priest raises his (yes HIS) hands before you and says:

SHE will bless you, brothers and sisters, and She will protect you.  SHE will shine her face upon all of you and be gracious to you.  SHE will lift her face to yours, Her sons and Her daughters, and will implant within you an inner-completeness known as “Shalom”.

How does that feel?  Any different???

Shabbat Shalom to all of you.  May we all embrace our masculine sides, our feminine sides, and never forget that the Torah is for all of us.

Little Grains of Sand

by Rabbi Nancy Tunick | June 9, 2016

It’s almost summer, and we have a couple of beach trips planned. The first thing my kids

want to do when they get to the beach is build sand castles. There are a couple of

different varieties. Louis likes to use the bucket molds where you pack the damp sand in

and then turn it over to form a perfect castle structure. Sarah likes drip castles, so first

you build a mountain of sand and then you get some very wet sand and drip it on the

structure. Both are beautiful in their own ways and both castles are made from thousands

of grains of sand. If you scooped up a handful of sand, you would have about 10,000

grains in your hand. So these castles are one structure made up of literally of at least

100,000 grains of sand….and in some cases, maybe even 603,550.

This week’s Torah portion immediately brought sand to mind as it is called Bamidbar

which can be translated to mean in the desert. It’s sort of like the beach without the

ocean. And it is the first section of Numbers where Moses is taking a census and

determining the number of people in each tribe and also determining what each tribe’s

responsibilities and contributions will be as they travel across the sand as one community.

This is where the idea of being connected to each other seems so important. Moses is

forming one community…..one castle….from 603,550 Jews. Each person has an

individual contribution but each individual contribution is not complete without the other

603,549 contributions.

When we are at the beach and it rains, my kids and I turn to puzzles. Have you ever

looked at a puzzle piece as it if were an individual work of art? Each piece has its own

unique color and shape regardless of how it fits into the big picture. But when you snap

it into place, it becomes part of a beautiful whole. The goal is to build the picture on the

box, to create the whole. But there is never a better time than building a puzzle to

recognize the value of each individual piece. Have you ever spent hours with a 1000

piece puzzle only to be unable to complete it because one piece is missing? Each

individual piece clearly leaves a hole to fill. And interestingly though nearly every

puzzle you can buy is of a beautiful scene or picture, each individual piece is not

necessarily beautiful. Some are with lovely colors and shadings, but some are totally

black and some have odd shapes and edges. But though some are ugly, strange or

unexpected, they fit together to make something beautiful and complete.

Often times, life feels like a puzzle, particularly when distressing or unexpected things

occur. And without seeing the big picture, it’s hard to imagine why something so black

or irregularly shaped should even be in our puzzle of a life. And it isn’t until after the

puzzle is complete, that we see the value and absolute necessity of each piece. So maybe

that’s faith. Faith is defined as the complete trust or confidence in someone or

something. So maybe faith is the complete trust or confidence that God has the box and

not only can see the image that we’re building but actually painted it.

This brings us back to the Shema, the most powerful of prayers, that says the Lord is our

God and the Lord is One. Is that really reinforcing the idea that there is only one God

versus two or three or ten Gods, or could it be that the Shema is saying that the Lord is

One with us all….every grain of sand, every puzzle piece, every soul traveling through

the desert and traveling through life today….that we are one with each other and one with

God, even as each one of us maintains our individuality and contributes to the One in our

own unique and irreplaceable way.

So as we face our week, let’s focus on our unique purpose, our unique part of the picture

that is this beautiful life. And if we look at each moment and each other knowing that we

are connected, then even our darkest times become more manageable and our joys that

much brighter. In the words of American poet Julia Fletcher Carney, “Little drops of

water, little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean, and the pleasant land. So the little

minutes, humble though they be, make the mighty ages, of eternity.”

How Good It Is

By Rabbi Judy Ginsburgh | June 5, 2016

As presented at the PRIDE worship Celebration on June 5, 2016 at City Hall in Alexandria, Louisiana.

Hine Ma Tov uma naim

Shevet achim gam yachad

How good it is that we gather

All together peacefully.

How good it is that we share

That we care, respect and love.

 

This song really says it all.   Hine Ma Tov — How good it is — that we are gathered here peacefully as a community to share, to care, to respect one another and to love.

We are here for the good of our community. Our community here in Central Louisiana is diverse and I have always been proud of how inclusive and caring we are. Each and every member of our community brings blessings and talents with them to make our community a better place. And we are all the richer, because of that.

We are all created in God’s image, but who are we to decide or judge what that “image” is? What does God’s image look like? Is God an old man in a long white robe with a beard? Is God a beautiful woman with angel wings? Is God black or white? Young or old? Male or female? Gay or straight? We don’t have the answers to these questions and the answers really don’t matter. What matters is that we are ALL created in the image of God. We are all God’s children and we all have the holiness and the goodness of God in us.

 

I wrote a song a number of years ago to teach children to be kind to one another and to find the good in each and every person….the first part of the lyrics are:

“There’s a little bit of God in each and every one of us, all we have to do is look inside. There’s a little bit of God in each and every one of us, it shouldn’t be too hard to find.”

There is, indeed, a little bit of God in each and every one of us. We have to look beyond the outside and delve deeper to discover what makes us who we are. We can spend a lifetime trying to figure out who we are and what we were put on this earth to do. But, we need to have the freedom to be our authentic selves.

I love this quote by Dr. Joy Ladin. She says, “We all have to become ourselves – not just once, by growing from childhood into adulthood, but throughout our lives.”

 

May we all have the courage to become ourselves – to evolve into who we truly are. May we all continue to open our minds and hearts to understanding, to sharing, to supporting, and to loving. May we all continue to see that each and every person matters. And may we know that each and every member of our community contributes to the whole to make Central Louisiana the vibrant and diverse place we call home. Amen.

Are We Home Yet?

https://coolshul.org/2016/05/31/are-we-home-yet/?fb_action_ids=10209324697025583&fb_action_types=news.publishes

By Rabbi Diane Rose| May 31, 2016

Reprinted with permission from coolshul.org

Close your eyes…

Oh, wait.  If you close your eyes you won’t be able to read this. Okay, read this, try to remember it, and then close your eyes.

Imagine you are standing before God.

Pause!  I heard that.  Those voices in your head that say no to the idea of God just spoke up.  Those knee-jerk reactions that tug at our hearts and minds and wrinkle our brows with dismissive contempt just woke up. That intellectual side (you know, that side loves Bill Maher), just hollered that it’s silly to even entertain a notion such as God.  And that internal conflict recalling every zealot and extremist who has ever used the word “God” to his/her advantage just flared up.  Yes, they are all there.  Let’s acknowledge all of those voices and try to let them go.  Let’s put down that baggage and live lighter for a second.  I’m not going to tell you in this posting that God is “real” anyway, so relax and go back to the exercise…

Imagine you are standing before God.  Allow yourself to fully accept this Presence before you.  Don’t change the word God. Stay with it for a moment.  Exist within belief.  Keep your eyes closed and don’t worry what God looks like.  Just sense this Energy as light and heat, warming your skin, illuminating your thoughts, activating every cell of your body.  This presence isn’t frightening or threatening, but comforting.  Free-fall into this promise of peace.

Now…

Are we “home”?

When we were in the womb, we were completely warm and supported without worry or care.  From the moments of our births, everything changed.  Now we are searching, fighting, wanting, needing, worried, stressed, busy, fearful, hungry (just to name a few!).  And as we grow up and become educated (or not), choose mates (or not), have children (or not), and live in one place (or another), we keep making choices following the human desire to make life better for ourselves. There is a constant seeking for more… maybe more money, maybe more love, maybe more peace, maybe more fight, but our commonality lives within “the more.”  But what are we really looking for?  Isn’t it, in some ways, to find home, wherever and whatever that it?  Aren’t we desperately hunting for a way to again be completely warm and supported without worry or care?  To return from where we came while still being alive?  To find an inner-understanding that feels like home.

In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, he says, “The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams…  And this dream is the basis of that most profound expression of the American psyche, the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling the bases. And that famous shortstop Odysseus also played this game, propelled around the world by the same dream, of returning home in the end, transformed by the journey and healed by it as well. And the truth is, every time we come home, home is different, and so are we… We spend most of our lives, I think, in this strange dance— pushing forward to get back home.”

When I studied music, we talked about song and sonata form in the same way.  We hear a section of music and are pulled away from it to something other, and then we are returned to the familiar but we don’t experience it the same way the second time.  I recall my music professor saying, “It’s like going to college.  You leave for school, then come home for the summer.  You are standing in the exact same same room you stood in for 18 years of your life, but now it is totally different because of your experiences.”  In this scenario, home is oddly unsatisfying.

Maybe all of the running around we do in our lives is simply to find “home.”  We all know it doesn’t matter how much money we have or whether or not we have a wonderful marriage or even amazing children or an interesting, lucrative career.  We can have all of that and still be searching, searching, searching.  There is no perfect place to be home or perfect situation to call home.  Home is internal.  Home is a practice.

And this is where God come in.

Those of you who know me know I do not care whether or not God exists.  But I do believe that life is more three-dimensional when I can imagine that God is real.  When I can pretend to be standing before that Presence.  When I can feel that inner-knowing, and in that frame of mind, ask myself, “What’s next?” 

If, for a little while, we could truly believe in God, and truly connect with that energy, what would we think about ourselves?  Would we still judge ourselves so harshly?  How much compassion would we have for our spouses, our children, our parents, our enemies? What apologies would we realize we owe?  What would we regret saying or posting or suggesting? 

Discuss this with God.  Debate and argue with God if you must, but at least give yourself permission to “believe” for a minute or two.  Give yourself permission to define yourself and your surroundings as you believe a loving God would.  Give yourself permission to “go home.”

It doesn’t matter if God is real.

I’ll be searching for my way “home” this Friday at our Cool Shul Shabbat (click here for info) and again this Saturday morning online through Sim Shalom (click here to join in).  Come on by on Friday or visit the stream on Saturday.  I’d be honored to be a part of your journey toward home.

One Rabbi’s View of Jewish Universalism

by Rabbi Kenneth Hahn

Even those of us who are members of the Jewish Universalist movement often wonder exactly what the phrase means. I’ve been thinking about the concept of Jewish Universalism quite a bit lately, and here’s what I’ve come up with. Jewish Universalism has everything to do with making Judaism more accessible to anyone who would want to embrace it. This can, in practice, be a challenging proposition though, because of the tribal nature of Judaism.

It is critical to remember that Judaism was originally a tribal religion, and the religion was an integral part of the Israelite tribal culture. In this way, Judaism is much more like the Navajo religion than say Christianity or Buddhism, which are clearly based on universal principles, love in the case of Christianity and the Four Noble Truths in that of Buddhism. In fact, we Jews often refer to someone we suspect or know to be Jewish as a, “member of the tribe.” For this reason, converting to Judaism has never been a simple or straightforward proposition because it not only entails learning about and embracing a new religion, but it also means becoming part of a tribe into which you weren’t born. Can a Hopi become a Navajo? Yes, but it’s not as simple as, for example, saying you accept the teachings of Jesus and being baptized.

In addition, Judaism has its own language of ritual, two actually. As blessings in the standard liturgy of the various movements are written in both Hebrew and Aramaic. So, in addition to everything else, to become Jewish often means learning Hebrew, or at least enough to make some sense out of the sanctuary experience in most synagogues.

Becoming part of a tribe and learning a new language are huge obstacles to participation and engagement. Sadly, these obstacles don’t apply only to non-Jews but to many, many people “born into the tribe” today who are unfamiliar with Hebrew and don’t understand Jewish liturgy, and for whom all of it feels quite devoid of meaning. This is surely a partial explanation for why the affiliation rate of American Jews is now somewhere around 35%, and it is continuing to drop each year.

Rather than thinking of Judaism in tribal terms, we could locate it in the great panoply of world religions that we think of as Wisdom Traditions. If all these wisdom traditions were saying the same thing, that would be one possible conceptualization of universalism, i.e. all the world’s religions are fundamentally teaching the same things, so if we start with Judaism, we’ll arrive at universal truths, just through a Jewish lens. Maybe this is accurate, for there are certainly many teachings among the world’s religions that are similar. But I don’t think this is actually descriptive of the true nature of things. Instead, I believe Rev Zalman’s z”l notion of the world’s religions is more apt. He imagined them as different organs of the body, none better than another, in the same way a heart isn’t better than a liver. They just do different things and have different purposes. Of great importance to note, just as the body cannot survive without either organ, it could likewise be argued that the world needs the wisdom of every religion for its survival, and now more than ever.

So, let’s return to the concept of Jewish Universalism. Judaism has its own special wisdom to offer the world, a wisdom born of a people who over the course of 3000 years put great thought on how to live in relationship with the land and how to create a stable and just community in that context. That is a particular kind of wisdom that needs to be promulgated universally. Because of Judaism’s tribal nature, however, not only is this great wisdom lost on non-Jews; today it is virtually lost on many Jews, as well.

As Jewish Universalists, we strive to make Judaism accessible to all because we recognize that there is no value in excluding anyone for any reason. Instead, we seek to engage people where they are, without judgment, and encourage them to pursue a greater understanding of and engagement with Judaism, if that’s their desire. In practice, this means being open to anyone who comes to us with a genuine wish to add some aspect of Judaism to how they live, how they observe the rituals in their lives and how they want to understand the world around them.

More than this, if we truly believe that Judaism has something special and particular to offer the world, something the world may in fact need more than ever right now, then why would we want to keep that wisdom to ourselves? Why not spread it around, not with the intention of promoting Jewish tribalism or creating more Jews (proselytizing and conversion), but rather with the most honorable intention of all, repairing the world.