Guest-post by Ben Greenfield, a rabbinical student (YCT) and writer based in New York City. His writing on Jewish-Muslim architecture, medieval Hebrew art, and Rabbinic romance have been featured on Jewish Ideas Daily.
5 Tips for Leading High Holiday Services in Prison
Last week, a colleague and I led Rosh Hashana services at Rikers Island, the massive East River prison complex in which New Yorkers house some 14,000 of their more suspect neighbors. We slept on the floor of a jail classroom, from which we withdrew to chat about the season, share kosher airplane meals, and attempt to serve some 60 Jewish and non-Jewish congregants.
1. Don’t bring glass bottles of Kedem grape juice.
A rookie mistake, quickly confiscated. And while hardcover siddurim are OK for the chapel, don’t think that makes them safe enough for the cells.
One inmate requested I put in a good word about him receiving a pair of Tefillin. While they’re usually permitted, he let me know why he is an exception. A few inches below the tail ends of his payos, two sunset pink scars slash across his neck. The state is worried that he’ll hang himself with the holy black straps.
For Jews at Rikers, the sacred is in constant residence with the darkly violent. Tefillin is a noose, kiddush wine a shiv. One inmate seamlessly wove memories of studying in Old City yeshivot with troubled (hallucinatory?) visions of kidnappings in broad daylight and his desire to start a new life in Iran. At Rikers, comfortable symbols of Jewish life become morbid reminders of the new reality. No glass bottles here.
All of us at Jewschool wish you a year to come of blessing, justice and righteousness. May we all merit our blessings and be grateful for them, whatever that means to you.
This via our friends at HEEB, just in time for Rosh Hashanah, an exchange on the nature of forgiveness, leadership, judgement and God between an angry Jewish voter and New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner.
What can we pray about Syria? As the United States looks to enter the fray of a Syrian civil war, concerned American Jews and Israelis are penning responses in prayer. Shared here are two recent liturgical creations, by very different authors: The first is by Rabbi Barenblat, a Renewal rabbi at of Congregation Beth Israel in Massachusetts and the author of The Velveteen Rabbi. The second is by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a leading figure in the religious Zionist movement and head of the Petach Tikvah hesder yeshiva.
Both rabbis ask for both sides to display compassion, mercy, humanity and brotherhood to forestall further loss of innocent life and unnecessary revenge upon the other. That said, the Cherlow prayer leaves me a mite uncomfortable by invoking Number 35:33, that killers be killed. Nevertheless, his draft is reportedly being read by the Bnei Akiva youth movement across the religious-national world. Movement secretary-general Danny Hirshberg said on settler media, “The Israeli public needs to look beyond the screen of hate and enmity to see the pain of those civilians being hurt by the Syrian tyrant.”
Read both below the fold… More »
1 % Camping in Arizona
1% Blowing shofar on a mountain top
1% Celebrating our birthday
1% Awkwardly running into our boss at mid day yoga after “taking the day off
1% Going to a newly legalized same sex wedding
6% Shit, it’s Rosh Hashanah?
10% School, even though we technically have the day off
20% Feeling crabby that we can’t go to $425-$450 services
20% Apple picking and apple related activities
30% Feeling guilty about not going to services, but knowing it will make us crazy if we go
Introduction: Halakhic Insights from Outsiders
I’m always intrigued when individuals or groups of people who are meticulously observant of some law system – particularly Halakhah – perceive themselves as not observing something even though they understand it to be the law. They are quite observant in general and they acknowledge that the particular practice is the law, but just don’t do that practice. Often, I find that if these people are really listened to and empowered with legal language, they turn out to possess some insight into that law. It’s not that they randomly disregard it; it’s that they intuit that the law is being misinterpreted or misapplied, that it shouldn’t actually be understood as the law, and that if the halls of interpretational power had better-constructed avenues of access, such that more diverse vantage points and experiences were represented, communal perception of Halakhah would be much different.
I suspect that one fascinating example of this is the laws of yichud, the restrictions on men and women from being physically alone together, in private. My anecdotal perception is that in much of the modern, observant world – let’s say, people who pursue higher, liberal arts education and work in the general workforce while maintaining life practices of mitzvot – yichud is not at the top of the halakhah heap. Even people who do observe sexual prohibitions that are counter-cultural in their integrated world still often disregard yichud. More striking, they’ll sometimes make fun of it, telling dinner party stories about that baal teshuvah friend who was staying with a family for Shabbat and kept clandestinely going down to open the front door whenever the dad went out, and then the mom would close it and wonder how it got open, hahahaha, isn’t that ridiculous how frummies can get out of hand (say the people who send someone down every 10 minutes to look for the late guest, because of course they – we – won’t press the buzzer on Shabbat).
That’s interesting to me. People of this sort will generally construct their lifestyles around a deep commitment to halakhah, sometimes at great sacrifice; they would find it small-minded, offensive, and perhaps anti-Semitic for someone to mock their practices; they don’t dispute this particular practice’s identity as a halakhah, yet they consciously do not observe it and sometimes mock those who do. What’s going on there? More »
crossposted from Justice in the City
Yesterday, in the Jewish tradition, was the “Sabbath of vision.” It is named after Isaiah’s bleak vision described in Chapter One of his eponymous Scripture. Isaiah, speaking, no, screaming at those who would sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem declares in the name of God: I am tired of your sacrifices, I am sated already with the fatted calves that you offer, your offerings are now abominations to me. I no longer wish for you to celebrate festival days and Sabbaths. When you reach out to me, when you raise your voices in prayer, says God, I will ignore you, I will turn a blind eye. Why? First you must “Learn to do well; demand justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”
Finally, Isaiah turns to the city of Jerusalem and wails: “O! How the city full of justice, where righteousness dwelt, now dwell murderers!” It was not a true question, of course, it was the strangled scream of a prophet pointing to the everyday injustices, which led to the larger injustices, all hidden behind a veil of righteousness, of holy celebrations and fatted calves upon the altar and the smell of spices in the Temple. More »
“Perpetrators, we can point ‘em out/So if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out!”
–Beastie Boys and Nas, “Too Many Rappers“, 2009
We find ourselves on the cusp of Tisha B’Av, our day of national grief and anger over homelessness, exile, and abandonment, and our day of painful soul-searching over our complicity in our plight. The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, we always read the beginning of the book of Devarim, which is, at its core, a book of educational rebuke of Israel as they prepare to enter the land and assume political responsibility and sovereignty. The core midrashic work on Devarim, the Sifrei, glosses phrase after phrase of the first couple of chapters of the book with the explanation that the proper way to read or stage Moshe’s words is as words of rebuke – divrei tokhekha. This moment is ripe, then, to explore one of the Torah’s most difficult commandments– the mitzvah of rebuking one’s neighbor.
“Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart; rebuke – really rebuke your comrade; do not bear sin on their account. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellows; love your neighbor as yourself: I am YHWH” (VaYikra 19:17-18)
We live in a conflict-averse world. Progressive communities, especially, often put a premium on everyone being comfortable, sometimes using the language of “safe space” not to enable the voiceless to air their rebukes, but to prevent anyone from having to be rebuked. In that context, we should be jarred by the Torah’s words: true rebuke is necessary for the purpose of generating love, safety, and trust, of disengaging us from the hostility and distrust that produce alienation and violence. The Sages highlighted how crucial it is to persist in this core mitzvah of confrontational peace-making, insisting that the doubled language (“rebuke, really rebuke/hokheach tokhiach“) teaches that one must continue to rebuke the person four, five, or however many times are necessary (Sifra Kedoshim 2/BT Arakhin 16b). Lest we adopt a flip attitude, and think that rebuking is as simple as “saying what I have to say”, the Sages warn us gravely that we are not fulfilling the mitzvah if we humiliate the other person, and that this is what the Torah means by adding “do not bear sin on their account”. If you feel hostility, rebuke them to make peace, but don’t embarrass them.
I participated in Women of the Wall’s Rosh Chodesh Av service this morning. Here’s an attempt to capture what the experience was like for me.
Supporters of the Conservative movement’s college organization, KOACH, have been trying for the last several years to convince the movement’s congregational organization, USCJ, to keep supporting it. It seems like this saga is finally over. USCJ has decided to shut down Koach. As Rabbi Elyse Winick, former Koach director, says, “To our great dismay, while there has been sufficient response to continue on a very small scale… KOACH as we have known and loved it must now come to an end.” For the last several years, USCJ has consistently said they didn’t want to run Koach. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been much effort put into improving the quality of Koach or finding another source of support. It’s impressive Koach managed to stay around this long.
When USCJ put together their strategic plan in Winter 2011, the leaders of USCJ wanted to cut Koach. They said that they didn’t have funds to continue Koach, Koach wasn’t doing well under USCJ, and Koach didn’t really fit with the types of things UCSJ wanted to do. Koach students and alumni protested, and so USCJ kept funding Koach without seriously trying to improve the program. In June 2012, USCJ again tried to defund Koach. The reasoning was unchanged. After more protest, USCJ’s leaders said the protesters would need to personally fundraise to keep Koach alive for another year. The fundraisers got the necessary $100K and Koach survived for another year. Here we are in June 2013, and USCJ is once again saying that it doesn’t want to run the Conservative movement’s college campus programming.
While there is a lot to criticize about USCJ, I really can’t blame them for trying to close a program that they don’t have the interest, infrastructure, or money to run. The question is why others keep asking USCJ to be the savior of Conservative Judaism on college campuses? More »
Sometimes when I go to Jewish events that I know will include a question and answer session, I make a chart that looks like this:
# of times someone asks a question that is not actually a question ( __ )
# of times speaker is interrupted by someone in the audience ( __ )
# of rants by audience members ( ___ ) *
This chart has come in particularly handy at conferences, but can be applied on a holiday such as Shavuot, if you write. (It also makes an excellent drinking game.)
I spent Shavuot at the JCC in Manhattan, which, if you have not attended a tikkun there before, can be really overwhelming. It’s super crowded, especially in the areas with the cheesecake and water and coffee. The offerings are pretty diverse: yoga, films, art, speakers, and more traditional learning situations with chevrutah. I came because I was in the neighborhood, and also for the 10 pm session with Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson (RKE in this piece, for the sake of brevity here), director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, called “Women of the Wall, Pluralism in Israel, and American Jews.”
RKE began by asking the audience about the values that motivate their activism (“I just don’t want someone to say that my voice can’t be heard,” said one woman,) and also about the values that they felt Israel should embody, which were no surprise in a liberal Jewish crowd: equality, democracy, justice, respect, Judaism, co-existence, pluralism. “I am worried by what I see in the news,” said RKE, before giving a brief history of the actions of Women of the Wall, beginning in 1988, when the group gathered at the Kotel for the first time. In 1993, the group attempted to read Torah for the first time at the Wall, resulting in the arrest and detainment of group members. (The Torah reading happened, outside the jail near Jaffa Gate, while members of the group and allies waited for folks to be released.) ”There was a feeling of being vulnerable, and yet so strong,” said RKE. The events continued to escalate after 1993, and American Jewish support for WOW grew. RKE: “Seeing Jewish women being taken away by Israeli police in a Jewish state? How can it be?” More »
Shavuot starts tomorrow night (Tuesday, May 14th) ! Here’s a list of what’s happening where. Did we miss anything? List it in the comments.
(obligatory picture of cheesecake)
Austin’s Annual Jewish Community Tikkun Leil Shavuot
Community Tikkun at the JCC of the East Bay (Includes family programming a supervised space for children to sleep over.)
Larger list of Bay Area stuff
Brookline Community Tikkun Leil Shavuot at Congregation Kehilath Israel. (Sessions and teachers here)
Isabella Freedman- Shavuot: This Year’s Revelation and Hazon: Torah of Food
Accessible from NYC
Mishkan Chicago: Sha.voo.ote: Revelations in Creativity, Politics, Spirituality & Torah
5773 Lakeview Tikkun Leil Shavuot
Upper 16th St Tikkun (Fabrangen, Ohev Sholom, Segulah, Shirat HaNefesh, Tifereth Israel)
Shtibl Minyan retreat at Brandeis Bardin campus of the AJU
Community Tikkun at Temple Beth Am
Montgomery County, Maryland
Tikkun Leil Shavuot with Moishe House MoCo and Congregation Beth El Montgomery County
5th Annual Shavuot Tikkun Leil: A Joint Torah Venture among Beth Israel, Gates of Prayer, Shir Chadash
Shavuot Across Brooklyn
Tikkun Leyl Shavuot at the JCC Manhattan (Upper West Side)
Yiddish Farm (New Hampton, NY)
Community Tikkun Leil Shavuot
Tikkun Leyl Shavuot at Penn
Santa Rosa, CA
Congregation Beth Ami
Downtown Tikkun Leil Shavuot
Onion gets hacked by Syrian propagandists, responds with funny article. The Onion got hacked, sending out a bunch of nonsense tweets such as:
To which they responded with their usual aplomb. HT BoingBoing
Is Yiddish dying? Uh, no.
Is Jack Rosen hijacking the AJCongress? Does anyone care?
Dvora Myers on Unorthodox Gymnastics comments on the chutzpah it takes to thanks God for not being a woman ironically. What do you think?
Doctor Who is a Jew? Come on Tablet, can’t you do any better than that?
And here’s a kickstarter to translate for what sounds like a completely fascinating book. I can’t wait to read it.
If you can read Yiddish literature only in English translation, Joseph Opatoshu’s 1921 novel, In Poylishe Velder (In The Forests of Poland),is one of the most important works of world literature with which you’re probably unfamiliar. A vast panorama of Jewish life in Poland during the 1850s, Opatoshu’s novel concentrates on backwoods Jews who live among gentile peasants rather than in Jewish communities in cities or shtetlekh. Touching as it does on hasidism, heresy, pre-Christian Polish folk customs, wife-swapping, messianism, and Polish nationalism, this book will change the way you think about Jewish life in Poland. Those parts not set in the forests or on the road take place in the court of the Rebbe of Kotzk, the last of the classical hasidic leaders. The Rebbe and his court are portrayed so convincingly that even members of the book’s original audience often forgot that they were reading a novel and not an intimate history of hasidism in Kotzk. It’s the price that Opatoshu had to pay for writing some of the best prose ever published in Yiddish.
Of course, I consider myself the last of the Kotsker Hasidim, so perhaps it’s just me.
A couple of days ago, I was interested to see an article on Times of Israel asking the question, “Why is it easy to keep kosher but so hard to diet?”
I have to admit to having wondered myself. He offers the example of a woman who made her diet work for her by using kashrut, “I once heard of someone who wanted to lose weight but was having trouble laying off late night sweets. So what she would do is eat a little piece of meat at night and then she wouldn’t find it difficult to refrain from eating dairy desserts,” and then posits three reasons why he believes it’s easier to keep kosher than diet: Kashrut has a defined list of what you can eat and what you can’t; Keeping kosher is for life, dieting is seen as temporary; and Keeping kosher is highly habitual.
Each of these has its points – as someone who didn’t grow up keeping kosher, but has now for many years, I’d have to say that each of these points makes some difference. Yet, while keeping kosher has a list of things you can and can’t eat, so, in many respects, does dieting (don’t eat sweets, don’t eat fried and fatty foods); most people know that dieting is for life, and, I suspect that if one actually was serious about the dieting, it would also become habitual.
I actually think that the reason kashrut is easier for rather different reasons: it’s a communal effort. True, in many shuls, there are people who keep different levels of kashrut, but generally when people are eating together, there’s some minimal level of recognition for the person’s kashrut – at the very least, picking a restaurant where the person can eat, or making accommodations for them in one’s home. The rabbis were no fools. Americans love to think that everything is about the individual, and, even better, the individual will – but in reality, what we do with other people is an exceptionally powerful force.
This guest post by Eliana Fishman is part of an ongoing dialogue, which starts with the original post by Eliana Fishman and continues with the response by Raphael Magarik.
Thank you so much, Raffi, for continuing this conversation with me. I respect the thoughtfulness and passion that you bring to your relationship with Israel.’
I work very hard (as I’m sure you do) to ensure that my halachic practice reflects my values. I am not always successful, but I try. Text helps me explore what my values are, and how they define my practice. Both Masechet Pesachim and Rav Ovadyah Yosef’s teshuva give voice to what many American Jews have forgotten is a possibility: We can live religiously authentic, meaningful Jewish lives without a direct relationship with the modern state of Israel because our redemption is not about Israel.
American Jews and Israeli Jews are, simply, different. Look at central coming-of-age experiences: Non-Chareidi Israelis come into adulthood through military or national service, while (and this is a generalization) the American Jewish coming of age experience involves a college education. Religious American Jews subdivide based on praxis and attitudes towards gender, while religious Israeli Jews subdivide based on praxis and attitudes towards Zionism. With different sets of values, shouldn’t our halachic practice also be different? Neither geographic practice needs to be defined as better or worse. They’re just different. We can use differences in Ashkenazi and Sephardi halacha as a paradigm. Each community defined their practice based on their geographic and sociological norms. We can do the same. Israel should not dictate my religious practice, and vice versa.
Previous NHC Fellows
Short of a J-Street conference or a Limmud event, you’d be hard-pressed to find an annual gathering that attracts as many Jewschool writers as the National Havurah’s Summer Institute. This, my friends, should be reason enough to register right this moment.
But a little context always helps, so here is some more description to further entice you:
Now in its 35th year of empowering local do-it-yourself, community-based Judaism, the National
Havurah Committee is gearing up for what promises to be an incredible Summer Institute. With
over two dozen courses, a social justice fellow, two extraordinary artists-in-residents, and
dozens of local havurah communities represented, the National Havurah Summer Institute guarantees you an unparalleled experience which is equal parts spiritually, intellectually, and culturally fulfilling.
Whether you enjoy midnight walks in the woods, guided meditations, heated (but respectful!)
theological debates, hands-on crafts, in-depth chevruta text study, late-night sing-alongs and
spontaneous jam sessions, alternative prayer experiences, early-morning hikes, community
discussions about social justice, or just meeting some of the most thoughtful and creative
individuals you will ever meet–all against the idyllic backdrop of breathtaking rolling green mountains and a sparkling lake in Southern New Hampshire–the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute promises to deliver an experience that will both uplift and inspire.
As if this alone were not exciting enough—there’s more!
If you are a college student, we invite you to participate in our special college program, where
you will work together with your peers, guided by two talented facilitators, to cultivate new
leadership skills. The College Leadership Program is specially designed to empower current college students to build and sustain Jewish communities on their campuses.
For recent college graduates between the ages of 22 and 32, the National Havurah Summer Institute offers the NHC Fellows Program (formerly, the Everett Program). This program offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with fellow young Jewish leaders in order to share and build your skills together. All NHC fellows will receive free tuition and room-and-board and will participate in additional programming geared particularly to the specific interests and needs of participants in this group.
As a former participant in the Fellows Program, I can personally attest to the extraordinary impact that it has had on my life. In addition to introducing me to a cohort of wonderful new friends, the then-Everett Program helped me think critically and creatively about building vibrant, relevant local Jewish community and inspired me to return home (then Minneapolis) to start a new Havurah. Incidentally, one of this year’s institute’s planners met her now-fiancée when she was an Everett Fellow. So apply now, and who knows where this simple act may lead you??
The deadline for the NHC fellows is May 1, so if any of the above speaks to you, apply right away! General registration can be found here.
This guest post by Raphael Magarik is a response to Eliana Fishman’s post on why American Jews shouldn’t say Hallel on Israel’s Independence Day. Raffi studies talmud, Hebrew, and dance as a Dorot Fellow in Israel.
I appreciated reading your articulation of why American Jews shouldn’t say Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut. It’s thoughtful and learned; we would be lucky to have more discourse like this around Israel.
I hear the depth of your personal and familial debt to America, and I think it’s important to honor that. I say parts of Hallel on Thanksgiving (as does the Spanish Portugese Synagogue); it might be a practice you’d like to adopt.
That said, I see things a bit differently in terms of Yom Haatzmaut. You think we shouldn’t say it because Hallel requires a situation in which “the entirety of the Jewish people (or what Chazal considered to be adequate representation of the entirety of the Jewish people) faced life-threatening adversity.” We Americans weren’t redeemed by the establishment of the state: ergo, we shouldn’t say Hallel (with worthy detours through later interpretations).
Now, on textual grounds, I think you flatten the sources considerably. On Megillah 14a, R. Yehoshua b. Karcha is cited as implying that one could recite Hallel on the transition from slavery to freedom (otherwise the logical inference doesn’t work), and even in Pesachim, one of the examples cited (Chananya, Mishael and Azarya before Nebuchadnezar) does not seem to fit the rubric you’re describing (are three individuals representative of the whole people?). And I don’t think you’ve adequately accounted for Channukah here, either. More »
This is a guest post by Eliana Fishman, who lives, works, and prays in Washington DC. (See the response by Raphael Magarik here.)
What is the American Jewish story, and how do we tell it?
The question of whether or not to say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut has become a symbol of the division between religious Zionists and religious anti-Zionists. Religious Zionists, in particular followers of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut with a blessing, while religious anti-Zionists do not say Hallel at all. On Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgical choice represents political orientation. This binary leaves American Jewish congregations in a bind. Is Yom Ha’atzmaut a day when American Jews can pray together? How can a community committed to a multitude of opinions around Zionism also share liturgy?
I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Not because I am an anti-Zionist (I’m not), not because I have lefty politics (I do), and not because I’m not a daily davener (I am). I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut because I am an American Jew. Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut is not about Zionism, and it’s not about joy over the establishment of a Jewish state. Hallel is about narrative.
One of the earliest references to Hallel’s recitation is in Masechet Pesachim 117a. The Talmud explains that Hallel is not about simple joy, but about the narrative of redemption. A baraita specifies six cases where the entirety of the Jewish people (or what Chazal considered to be adequate representation of the entirety of the Jewish people) faced life-threatening adversity (e.g. at the Red Sea, when Joshua faced the Canaanites, when Deborah and Barak faced Sisera, etc). In each situation God redeems the entirety of the Jewish people, and a prophet established Hallel. The seventh instance that the baraita brings is either a summary, or a distinct case. The unnamed chachamim state that in each and every era that the Jewish people experience danger, Israel’s prophets establish the recitation of Hallel, and, when the people are redeemed, Israel says Hallel because of their redemption.
In each of these cases Hallel is recited first for extreme danger, and then for redemption. There is never any sense of “redemption is about to occur”, or “redemption is continuous”. Additionally, according to this baraita, Hallel is only recited when the entirety of the Jewish people are redeemed.
Did the establishment of the State of Israel redeem the entire Jewish people, or did it redeem only Jews in the land of Israel? Were American Jews redeemed on May 14, 1948? In order to answer that question we have to explore what redemption may or may not have occurred with the establishment of the State of Israel. I have three possible responses to that question—the Holocaust answer, the Arab army answer, and the continual answer.