Jewfem Blog

So.... I'm becoming a Rabbi..... a Reform Rabbi

So this week I did something really new. I began my journey to become a Reform rabbi. For the next four years I will be studying at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. And I am positively ecsatic.  You probably have questions. The most common question I've received so far is, why Reform and not Conservative? There are several ways I can answer this question. My primary answer is that the Reform movement is the only place where I think a woman can truly be free to be a whole person. And as a woman, I place that high on my list of priorities! There are all kinds of people serving as Reform rabbis -- with all kinds of identities, cultural backgrounds, and practices. During my first conversations about taking this path with Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, a beautiful rabbi who actively combines compassion and scholarship, Rabbi Lisitsa described HUC as the ultimate "big tent", the only place in Judaism where everyone truly can belong. She also showed me how  many Reform rabbis keep Jewish practice with no visible distinction to Orthodox Jews. They keep Shabbat, kashruth, and ritual immersion practices and engage with Jewish law. One of my most esteemed mentors, Rabbi Professor Rachel Adler, is a brilliant scholar whose commitment to halakha is unquestioned, and deeply compelling. Everyone has a place, and that is a powerful vision. This is a place where nobody is judging your practice. It is where you are fully embraced for being who you are. That is so refreshing, so new, and so healing for me.  The other question that I get is about abandoning Orthodoxy. Most of my Orthodox feminist friends have been loving and accepting, and I keep hearing from them that it is clear that this is exactly where I belong. That has been a beautifully validating experience. I feel like I have been fighting for a long time to find or create a suitable spiritual home. And it seems clear that this is it. Still, other people have been  less generous. One Orthodox friend told me that this will delegitimize me. Yes, of course it will, in the eyes of certain Orthodox self-assigned gate-keepers. I have been called "Reform" for much of my adult life, in a way that uses the word as a slur. Orthodox feminists in general are called "Reform" as a way to delegitimize them all the time. Most of the time, the response is, "I am not!" But now, my response is, "I take that as a compliment!" To be Reform means to place human compassion before all else, to understand that we must be human beings before we are Jews. I am so excited about  the idea of really living that way, and being surrounded by people who also live that way. And rather than internalize the notion of delegitimizing the other, we should figure out ways to truly see one another, to understand what is the ethical force driving each other. Rather than internalizing the hate, we...

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How I learned what it means to be a rabbi -- warts and all

On my first two days of rabbinical school, I arrived late. Two days in a row, despite starting my day at 5AM to arrive at HUC by 8:30, I failed this most basic task of getting there on time. The first day, I completely miscalculated the traffic, and was cursing myself for half an hour on the 2-kilometer stretch of the 443 from the Pisgat Zeev exit to Ramot. The next day, I left half an hour earlier, and *only* arrived ten minutes late. Only. I spent most of that drive practicing my apology to the head of the school. I walked in on the first day, towards the end of the tefilla, the morning prayer service, and gave an embarrassed nod to him, Rabbi Ofek Meir, who was sitting in the front row. He smiled gently, with a clear gesture of reassurance. He was smiling and breathing – as opposed to me. I was not smiling and not breathing. On the second day, walking in earlier in the service when Ofek was smack in the middle of leading a soulful rendition of the Shema blessings using his gifts with the guitar, I stood at the door for a few moments to catch my breath and take it in. There, I began to fully appreciate the extraordinary moment I was in. it wasn’t just the beautiful singing and musical accompaniment that filled the room. It was something deeper, a genuine spiritual intention that was contained in this space. My excitement at the thought of being here for the next four years swelled, and began to overwhelm all else. This is tefilla without any power dynamics mixed in, I thought. This is what it sounds like when there is no coercion, no judgment, no exclusion. After the tefilla, I walked over to Ofek and tried to apologize again for being late. He wouldn’t hear it. “You come from Modi’in, right?” It was as if he knew what I was going through before I did. He reassured me and said it was really fine. “Fine for you, “ I said, “but not for me.” He smiled. It really was all okay to him. This entire exchange was completely new for me. What is the word for this? Acceptance. Ah, yes, acceptance. The idea of accepting a person as they are, of accepting myself as I am – such a basic thing, it is often so elusive. Acceptance is not something that the Jewish community often trains itself in. At least not in the places where I have been circulating until now.   I was remembering my first day at work, 19 years ago, at a Jewish communal foundation. It was my first job after completing my Master’s degree in Jewish education. It was also my first attempt at holding down a job with three little children at home under the age of five. I was eager, anxious, and green. I walked into the front door, on this glorious first day, and greeted the...

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Responses to the responses on becoming a Reform rabbi

  In the day (!!)since I announced that I am studying to become a Reform rabbi, responses have been overwhelming. I’ve been chatting with people around the world, each with their own story about connection, community, spirituality, and Judaism. The vast majority of those responses have been resoundingly supportive. And this is not only from Reform friends. Many of my Orthodox friends have been incredibly understanding and even sharing in the excitement. Despite all the predictable naysaying Orthodox gatekeepers who have been doing their thing (some you can see in the comments on my previous post, or on my FB page; I left them in because it is important to know what kind of discourse is out there, what we’re all up against), despite all that, I have been receiving an incredible amount of support, even from places where I thought the reaction would be harsher. I am so relieved about that. My biggest worry was that Orthodox feminist activists would see me as the one who jumped ship, and leave it at that. But for the most part, I’ve been getting a lot of love, and that makes me really happy. I see us all as fighting the same fights but from different corners. On the other hand, some Conservative, (Masorti) and Reconstructionist friends are a bit upset that I passed over their denominations. Especially stinging was the fact that I wrote that I felt Reform is the “only place” where women can be truly free. If there is one word that I regret in my original post, it is that word “only”. I would like to change that to say the “best”, or “one of the best”, instead of the “only”. I will not change the post now because that would be intellectually dishonest. But I do think that I was wrong to write it that way. I have some wonderful mentors and friends around the Jewish world. Professor Alice Shalvi, for example, who became Conservative after decades of work as an Orthodox feminist, is someone I consider an incredible role model. I think I came off too dismissive of the work of feminists in other denominations, and I’m very sorry about that. I would like to emphasize how much I consider feminist activists across denominations to be allies.  This is where the work is. I’m not here to trounce on hard-working women trying to change the world. I want to work together. That is the vision. I’m sorry that I didn’t do a better job of emphasizing that in my original post.

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The Four Daughters for the feminist seder

Here is my own take on the Hagaddah:  "For four daughters did the Bible speak: The Curious One, who excitedly asked everyone, 'What is this amazing looking Matza?' and asked the same about every item on the table and in the world. The Passionate One, who loved the scents, colors, and flavors of the seder table and all the people around it, who sang and danced with all her heart, who put on plays with her cousins and laughed so hard the back-door neighbors heard her and looked forward to hearing her voice every year. The Caring One, who lovingly went around ensuring that everyone had what to eat and a hug to go with it, who never sat until everyone else was safe and happy. And The Sad, sometimes Angry One, who remembered all the hurts and pains of women who came before her, the ones who never achieved freedom, the ones who were neither seen nor heard. She sat through the seder praying for healing for herself and her people, whoever they were.  And the first three daughters loved and accepted the fourth daughter, and they were so grateful to have her with them. And they were all grateful for the presence of the other, knowing that each one enriched her.  Happy Passover 

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My feminist struggles with Yom Kippur

“I always say I’m sorry when I’ve hurt someone,” a man told me proudly in a recent conversation, a reflection that seemed appropriate in advance of Yom Kippur, which is so focused on repentance. “It’s the most important thing,” he said, looking me squarely in the eye with a mixture of impassioned education and nuanced reprimand. He is right, of course. And this is the season, I suppose, for all that — for remorse, apologies and open hearts. There is something beautiful and tender about all this, as members of the Jewish community engage in genuine and sincere introspection. Still, I looked at this man, an Orthodox leader who is esteemed in his community and has a regular spot on the podium and the bima to speak or lead services, and thought to myself, “You never apologized to me.” Like all Orthodox men who are so easily counted and heeded, who have a voice and a place and are free to participate in the community practically any way that their hearts desire, he has never asked for forgiveness from the women and girls in his community, the ones who sit upstairs behind glass, or in the back behind the curtain, desperate for even a glimpse of the activity in the sanctuary. I have never heard an apology like that from an Orthodox man. I have never heard of a rabbi get up in shul and say, “On behalf of all the privileged men, I’m sorry to all the women for all the silent suffering that you have endured for so many generations as the community stripped you of your voice and your power.” I realize that this is a very un-Yom Kippur-like thought for me to have; so much ego, so much wanting, so much self-centeredness. A proper Yom Kippur reaction would have been more self-effacing, and magnanimous, more embracing and accepting, more gracious and grateful. That’s what women — especially Orthodox women — are so well-trained in doing, not only on Yom Kippur but all year round. We are taught to put our own egos aside for the sake of the collective, to ask for little if anything for ourselves, to not want so much but to just do for others. To even think that perhaps men should apologize to women sounds so, well, unfeminine, doesn’t it?  READ MORE AT THE JEWISH WEEK      

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A Kidnapping That Made Israel Into One Family: How Three Boys United a Country in Death

Modi’in — With news that the bodies of the three kidnapped boys — Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16 — were found near Hebron, a collective sigh of grief has been released throughout Israel. It is one of these moments that brings both tragedy and closure — the former, which Israel already has in excess, and the latter which is far more elusive. It also brings a certain degree of vindication at the end of a 17-day period of aching unknown and seemingly endless scenarios, one worse than the other. But while these events have exacerbated tensions and added anxiety-filled narratives to a country overflowing with conflict, they also highlight some of the most important and inspiring aspects of life in Israel at a time when we can all use some sources for optimism, and reminds Israel of some important lessons as we go forward. These past two and a half weeks since the three boys disappeared on their way home, after one of them called police to say, “We have been kidnapped,” Israelis everywhere have been walking on eggshells. Even as Israelis continued life almost as normal, concern for the boys dominated the public consciousness everywhere. Prayer vigils united even those not prone to praying; bar mitzvahs and weddings included mentions of the boys; meetings and conversations on mundane and non-mundane agendas incorporated updates and exchanges about the search. This collective anguish in some ways epitomizes life in Israel. There is this constant sense of family connection, sometimes to the extreme, but always genuine in its care for victims whose crime is being a Jew. This kidnapping, coming so shortly after the release of Gilad Shalit, also brought out a particular kind of panic. The thought that we were going to be subjected to another indefinite period of waiting, in which the threat of long-term kidnappings hangs over the heads of Israelis, inducing unbearable guilt and tortuous uncertainty, was at times too much to bear. The sight of the mothers going to the United Nations to plead for their release — a scene that is especially sad in retrospect now that we know the boys were already gone — was both empowering and frightening. The mothers, especially Rachel Fraenkel, demonstrated remarkable poise and strength, but also revived images of Noam Shalit traveling the world to release his son, hinting that Israel may once again be in it for the long haul. I think it’s in some ways easier to deal with the certainty of death than with that kind of indefinite unknowing. Thoughts of Ron Arad, whose fate so many decades later is still unknown, hang over Israel’s head like a flock of vultures. The enormous emotional and spiritual toll that these stories take on Israel is in some ways what makes Israel who we are. Read more: http://forward.com/articles/201082/a-kidnapping-that-made-israel-into-one-family/#ixzz38vvmtrNI

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We don't do forgiveness well

The High Holidays don’t work for me. I know that Yom Kippur is supposed to be the holiest day of the year, and I’ve read and listened to many great ideas about how Yom Kippur is supposed to work on supreme spiritual issues and in sanctifying relationships and community. And I’ve been trying it out for a few decades now. But it just doesn’t work, and I think I finally figured out why. The Jewish people would like to have a special day for forgiveness, but the fact is, we really don’t do forgiveness well at all. Our entire calendar is dedicated to not forgiving. Every holiday is filled with rituals and practices and texts that urge us to remember the sins that others have committed against us since time immemorial. We remember what the Egyptians did to us over three millennia ago, what the Persians did to us over two millennia ago, what the Romans did to us beforeJesus created a new religion. One of the top six commandments of memory is aimed at the Amalakites a nation that doesn’t even exist anymore and attacked us before we even knew what “Israelite” meant. We remember what the Christians, the Spanish, and of course the Germans did to our ancestors (heck, 70 years isn’t even that long ago). This is what Jews do best: we remember, and we do not forgive. We create elaborate mechanisms with special foods and blessings and hundreds of pages of text in order to remember. We are the masters of remembering what others have done to us. In fact, the most recent moment of ingrained remembering was just last week. Yes, Rosh Hashana is called “Yom Hazikaron”, the day of memory, and one of the pinnacles of the five-hour service is the afternoon amidah with its blessing of “zikaron” which reminds us of things that have happened in the world since the time of Adam. Seriously. And now, ten days later, we’re supposed to let it all go? How the heck are we supposed to know how to do that? For 364 days of the year, we have no mechanisms at all for letting go of anything. In fact, the opposite is true. We invest all our resources and energies on insuring that people don’t let go. A person makes a personal choice to let go, to not be bothered by acts of Jewish memory, is considered detached from his Jewish identity. The Jews spend millions of collective dollars on programs for “Jewish memory”, a hot catch-phrase in Jewish education, based on the idea that to forget means to lose a piece of who you are as a Jew, to stop belonging to the Jewish people. In fact, the entire existence of the State of Israel is based on the fact that for 2,000 years, the Jewish people collectively remembered a place that few had actually been to during that time and looked nothing like what our ancestors experienced. Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/forward-thinking/163365/we-dont-do-forgiveness-well/#ixzz28j7yvlR9

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What is Jewish feminism to me?

What is Jewish feminism to me? It’s a mission. A calling. An identity. A life purpose. To borrow a French term, it’s myraison d’etre. Or to borrow a Buddhist term, it’s my swadharma, the ideal that connects the work that I do in this world with my divine spark. It is the key that fires the engine in my soul. It is the spiritual ideal that wraps up my entire being reminds me that I am here on this earth because God decided that I need to be here, in this person, in this identity. Jewish woman. That is everything to me. It is all that I am. It wasn’t always this way. This is an identity in two parts, two parts that sometimes coexist, sometimes fight, sometimes mutually empower and sometimes mutually deflect. One part, the Jewish part, I was born into, without a say in the matter, while the other part, the feminist part, I chose as an adult, following a journey that included pain, struggle and discovery. One part is ancient but the other is relatively recent — in definition, at least, though not as an ideal. One part has definitive, authoritative texts and rules while the other has a different kind of textual heritage, the writings of women creating ideas out of their own lives. Yet both are divinely inspired. And the place where the two pieces overlap is, in my opinion, the place where the shechina rests. The Bible’s Ruth epitomizes that place for me, the place where the core of Judaism and the core of feminism overlap and melt into each other. Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/153458/jewish-feminism-means-reaching-out/#ixzz1pwinHmuF

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Adolescents trying to talk to God: On discipline and prayer in school

When my fifteen-year old daughter, Avigayil, came home with detention for skipping morning prayer, I was devastated. It wasn’t just that in her pluralistic community school, where there are supposedly choices for everyone, I did not think detention for missing prayer was a possibility. It was not just that the angry note from the principal came without warning, without even a prior phone conversation to discuss my daughter’s spirituality or attendance record. What shocked me most was the newfound knowledge that Avigayil had no interest in prayer at school. If the people of our synagogue got wind of this, I thought, they would undoubtedly say, the principal must have the wrong kid.

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