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Is Smoking Kosher for Passover — and What About Pot?

Wed, 04/01/2015 - 09:44

Smoking is one of those topics that ties rabbis up in knots, and marijuana just clouds the issue even more. And that’s before Passover gets added to the mix.

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Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Backs Off 'Obama Is Haman' Rant

Wed, 04/01/2015 - 08:59

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin reversed his earlier comparison of President Obama to the biblical villain Haman, saying that Iran — not the president — is comparable to the ancient enemy of the Jews.

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More Than Words on a Page: Social Justice in our Prayer Books

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 17:00

When I left for college my freshman year, I was nervous about exploring a new Jewish community. However, I immediately felt at home as I walked into my university’s Hillel’s Conservative Friday night services and saw the Siddur Sim Shalom, the prayer book that I had grown up with. The siddur offered me a sense of comfort and familiarity in an otherwise completely new setting.

When I began exploring humanistic Judaism, the humanistic Shema, (Shema Yisrael Echad Ameinu, Echad Adam – hear Israel, our people is one, humanity is one) allowed me to connect my humanistic Jewish values in a familiar framework. Similarly, when I first discovered Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, “the first LGBT Prayer Book for every occasion,” it provided me with the opportunity to connect my queer identity with a nuanced prayer book that still contained elements familiar to me from my upbringing. What I’ve learned over the years is that prayer books can be sources of comfort. More importantly, however, they can be tools for change and social justice.

With that in mind, I was excited to learn of the Reform Movement’s new machzor (special siddur or prayer book for holidays), Mishkan HaNefesh. The new machzor for the High Holidays includes a number of inclusive elements, including a gender-neutral blessing for trans individuals; the use of the term couples, instead of bride and groom, to be LGBT-inclusive; and prayers affirming the divine essence in people with disabilities. The prayer book includes passages allowing for doubt, questioning and even anger, a mix of traditional and modern prayers and transliterations for all the Hebrew liturgy so people can follow along, regardless of their knowledge of Hebrew.

Hara Person, Publisher and Director of the CCAR Press and Director of Strategic Communications, explains that this new machzor was written to engage a wide, diverse audience:

“The High Holy Days are the time when we grapple with the big questions about life and death, faith and hope, forgiveness and anger, loss and new beginnings.  Our hope was to create many possible doorways into the High Holy Day experience, so that people can find meaning in different ways depending on who they are and what they’re struggling with, what’s on their minds when they walk in. For some people it may be the liturgy itself, for others it may be beautiful translations, or the poetry. For some it may be the intellectual engagement with the commentary on the bottom of the pages, or they may find inspiration in a study text or meditation. And for others, the gorgeous woodblock art by Joel Shapiro may offer a point of connection and meaning. “

Prayer books have the power to change attitudes. The High Holidays are usually the most well-attended services of the Jewish year. Having an inclusive prayer book, like Mishkan HaNefesh, at the service creates a space for people who are too often marginalized in religious settings: LGBT individuals, individuals with disabilities humanists and more. Updated inclusive language challenges us to reflect on our own use of language in our everyday lives and how we can work to be more inclusive in every day in our communities. Most importantly, this new machzor emphasizes a long-standing aim of the Reform Movement: fostering a Jewish community that is welcoming and inclusive of all people, regardless of their identities.

Over the thousands of years of organized religion, prayer has been a key component of most faiths. The words in our prayer books, which are meant to guide our prayers, symbolize the vision we see for the world. And the vision in the Mishkan HaNefesh is a beautiful one: a world that affirms the shared humanity—the divine—in each of us.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Compares President Obama to Haman

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 15:44

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a prominent American-Israeli Orthodox rabbi, compared President Barack Obama to Haman, the villain of the Purim story.

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The Joy of Gene Saks

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 12:04

Gene Saks, director of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and countless other plays, has died at 93. Ben Ivry remembers Saks’s reputation as a creative artist and a Jewish thinker.

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Relational Judaism: How Building Community Helped Us Change Our Dues Model

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 09:00

By Dani Robbins

My career has taken me to multiple cities in several states, and each time I’ve moved, I’ve looked for a new religious home by calling around to local synagogues. I found it off-putting, however, when the people on the other end talked to me about money before they welcomed me or invited me to visit. By the third or fourth call, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way our congregations welcome prospective members.

Imagine my delight, then, in learning that my current congregation, Congregation Beth Tikvah, was considering changing its dues model – really turning it on its head. I’ve been reimagining the financial future of Jewish congregations for years, so I was thrilled to participate in the congregation’s efforts to do so.

For years, Congregation Beth Tikvah, which was founded upon and employs egalitarian values in all its endeavors, has been moving toward a relationship-based model – one in which the congregation builds a community of enhanced relationships, both among members and with the congregation, moving away from fee-based dues and tickets. Although we didn’t know it at the time, relational Judaism was the lens we used when we eliminated the committee that approved dues reductions, selected our new rabbi, and began to consider whether a new funding model was right for us.

Upon his arrival in 2011, Rabbi Rick Kellner helped us put relational thinking at the forefront of our actions and vocabulary, and encouraged us to adopt it within our community. Under his leadership, we expanded programming for young children and seniors, and finished building a new sanctuary and social hall that had begun before he arrived. Both efforts attracted new families, and our community grew.

Along the way, we found that our existing financial model no longer fit our needs. Eager to learn about alternatives, when the URJ announced its new Community of Practice (CoP), Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st-Century Congregation, we signed on. Launched in March 2013, the CoP enabled us to learn from one another, other congregations, and experts brought in by the URJ. Ours was one of 17 congregations in the two-year guided program, which included an in-person gathering, periodic webinars, individual check-ins, and shared resources.

Our CoP committee explored various financial models. We looked at our congregation’s history and culture. We discussed definitions of “dues,” “member,” and “transaction.” We challenged, argued, and debated each other, ultimately building consensus. Though we started out talking about money, we ended up talking about community. We studied congregations that implemented new models, reading their literature and interviewing their members. We talked about who we wanted to be and to what kind of community we wanted to belong. We held formal and informal gatherings to engage constituents. We wrote letters and articles. We sought and received feedback.

We learned that promoting engagement and providing connections among members are more vital than any funding discussion possibly could be. In fact, at one point, we committed to changing our language, and now are moving toward deepening relationships and engaging with each other, our congregation, and our faith. Our goal was no longer about changing congregational dues models; it was – and is – about changing our congregational culture. Finally, we made formal recommendations to our board, and presentations to our fellow congregants, received suggestions, and revised our recommendations accordingly.

It was daunting, nonetheless, to recommend a process that potentially would allow people to participate in our congregation without supporting it financially. We knew various outcomes were possible: we could lose significant income, gain significant income, lose income but gain members, or lose members but gain income (though we all doubted that this last possibility would come to pass). We trusted that if we created a place and a space in which everyone belongs, something magical would happen, and everyone would, indeed, feel like they belong.

So we jumped, and the net appeared.

Our plan included changing our language to change our culture, evolving from the word “dues” to the term “membership commitment.” Importantly, we provided guidance about the annual costs to sustain programming, as well as how people could give below, at, or above that level.

What happened? Some people gave less, and some people gave nothing but still joined, which also was part of the goal. Some people gave more, and some gave a lot more. One thing is for sure: We’ve left the transactional model behind. No one who calls our congregation to inquire about joining is told about dues.

We’re not finished yet. Our movement toward relational Judaism laid the foundation for a culture of philanthropy that will continue to evolve. It remains to be seen whether we will need to introduce a more formal process to engage donors. For now, though, it’s safe to say that our committee is delighted with where we are and where we’re going. We are currently just one family shy of last year’s membership numbers, with almost exactly the same income. We did it!

We changed our words. We changed our culture. But we didn’t change our income.

Dani Robbins is part of the Reimagining Financial Support Community of Practice Committee at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, OH. She grew up in New Rochelle, NY, in a fiercely secular Jewish household. Her parents were always worried the Italian boys she dated would convert her. Today, she serves as a nonprofit leadership consultant and is happily married to a man who is neither Jewish nor Italian. Her daughter becomes a bat mitzvah later this year.

JOSHUA NELSON & the Kosher Gospel Choir return for a Rockin'...

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 06:02

Joshua Nelson brings his extraordinary message of hope, unity and spirituality through kosher gospel; a marriage of Jewish religious lyrics and meanings, with the soulful sounds of American gospel...

(PRWeb February 26, 2015)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2015/02/prweb12542064.htm

New Shmuley Boteach N.Y. Times Ad Urges Obama To Go Tough on Iran

Sun, 03/29/2015 - 14:30

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach published a full-page advertisement in The New York Times calling on President Obama to refrain from appeasing Iran.

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Chasing ‘The Messiah’ and Bruno Schulz's Long-Lost Novel

Sun, 03/29/2015 - 06:00

A restless rabbinical student in Jerusalem, Niles Elliot Goldstein, became obsessed with the art of Bruno Schulz, who was killed by the Nazis. What happened to his biggest project, ‘The Messiah’?

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After Grave Desecration,Tunisian President Vows to Protect Jews

Fri, 03/27/2015 - 07:54

In the wake of the desecration of a Jewish sage’s grave, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi promised a European rabbinical body he would protect his country’s Jews.

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Western Wall Cleaned for Passover

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 12:20

Workers at the Western Wall removed the notes placed in the cracks by worshippers in advance of Passover.

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Turkey Unveils Great Synagogue as Jewish Community Fades

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 11:13

When the domes of Edirne’s abandoned Great Synagogue caved in, Rifat Mitrani, the town’s last Jew, knew it spelled the end of nearly two millennia of Jewish heritage in this Turkish town.

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Reform Leader Reiterates Unconditional Support for Israel

Mon, 03/23/2015 - 06:48
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: US-Israel relationship transcends partnership; reflects fundamental values and strategic priorities of both nations

Abdu’l Karim Ewing-Boyd Extended Interview

Fri, 03/20/2015 - 12:00

Watch more of our interview with Abdu’l Karim Ewing-Boyd about the nineteen-day period of fasting leading up to the Baha’i new year.

The post Abdu’l Karim Ewing-Boyd Extended Interview appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Show Us Your Audacious Hospitality: Apply for a URJ Belin Outreach and Membership Award

Thu, 03/19/2015 - 11:00

“Audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so people don’t feel excluded. It’s an ongoing invitation to be part of community – and a way to spiritually transform ourselves in the process.”

– Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism

It’s not always easy to offer the sort of “audacious hospitality” Rabbi Jacobs encourages, but many Reform congregations are rising to the challenge. These exceptional congregations excel at welcoming seekers and engaging prospective and current members – and the URJ is looking for the ones that do it best. Once again this year, we’ll honor eight congregations with Belin Outreach and Membership Awards for creative, original, and outstanding initiatives that promote audacious hospitality. From now through April 30, your congregation can submit an application for a 2015 Belin Outreach and Membership Award. Winning congregations will receive a $1,000 cash award and will be recognized at the URJ Biennial in Orlando, FL, in November.

The Belin Awards – generously funded by David Belin, z’l, the inaugural chair of the URJ-CCAR Joint Commission on Outreach and Membership – are an opportunity to highlight the remarkable innovation and inspiration that exist in our congregations. Here’s a look at some award-winning entries from recent years:

  • Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head Island, SC, created Outreach: Welcoming Interfaith in Every Generation to engage, educate, and honor the many temple members whose lives are touched by interfaith relationships. Program components include workshops designed to educate grandparents on their role in the lives of grandchildren in interfaith families, matches between interfaith and host families for holidays and Shabbat meals, and special group outings to engage non-Jewish spouses,
  • Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, FL, won a Belin Award for Mommy Minyan, its innovative Jewish learning program for mothers with young children. Designed to promote Jewish education and relationship building, Mommy Minyan is organized around three tracks that meet in various locations – at the synagogue, in restaurants, and in members’ homes – and at different times of day so that both working moms and stay-at-home moms can participate.
  • Temple Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA, developed Membership Drive: Strive for 225. Looking to attract new members to its small community, the synagogue offered congregants certificates for six months of free temple membership to share with their friends and family. Guest members were invited to participate in all areas of synagogue life and in several events exclusively for them, including a brunch and a Shabbat dinner. At the end of the six months, the congregation hosted a “graduation” picnic, where guest members were invited to join the congregation.

Looking for additional ideas about how your congregation can reach out to the unaffiliated and those new to Judaism, deepen ties to existing members, and offer audacious hospitality to everyone who steps through your doors? Visit The Tent, the Reform Movement’s communication and collaboration platform.

For more information about the URJ’s Belin Outreach and Membership Awards, contact Jessica Ingram.

Florida Synagogue Defaced by Swastika Vandals

Thu, 03/19/2015 - 07:47

Vandals defaced a synagogue in Hollywood, Fla.

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Why My Congregation Hosts “A Taste of Judaism®” Classes – and Yours Should, Too

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 09:00

by Rabbi Marc Katz

Over the past few years I have had the pleasure of hosting A Taste of Judaism® classes at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y. The first time was at a local restaurant; the second was in the synagogue building. Over the course of teaching this class, I have learned a number of important lessons and have seen many benefits. When it works, here is what congregations and participants can get out of the class.

  1. Students begin to build a scaffolding for later study.
    Learning works in cycles. Students hear terms, then revisit them. They think they know something, but later realize they don’t know as much as they think they do, which prompts them to commit their learning to memory a second time. I have found that the structure of A Taste of Judaism® – spending one class each on Torah, God, and the Jewish people – provides a wonderful framework for further study, whether through independent reading or classes such as a longer Introduction to Judaism course. It’s as if students have a newly minted filing cabinet of Jewish knowledge. Later, they’ll learn something about prayer and stick it in with the rest of those mental files labeled “God”; they learn about social justice and file that information with “how to relate to the Jewish people and the world at large.” Taste of Judaism® students who go on to take more in-depth classes tend to be more engaged, excited, and remember much more than their fellow students.
  1. It’s a fun challenge / thought-experiment for instructors.
    I studied for five years in rabbinical school and have spent countless hours learning about Torah, God, and the Jewish people. I could teach a many-weeks-long course on any one of these topics. Yet, as an instructor, I somehow had to condense each topic into only a few hours. As I taught about God, I had to decide which of the many voices in our 3,000-year-old tradition to incorporate. Would I teach what people said about God in the Middle Ages? Would I incorporate modern thinkers? Would I leave time for personal exploration? Students understand they won’t learn everything in three sessions, but they expect to be given a cogent and intact view of the broad strokes of any topic. Teaching this course allowed me to examine what I thought were the central facets of God, Torah, and the Jewish people and impelled me to communicate them effectively. I’m a better teacher and rabbi because of it.
  1. The course helps you meet many people who you would not ordinarily encounter.
    Because of the nature of the course, I was introduced to so many stories that I may not have heard otherwise. Longer basic Judaism courses are made up of primarily three categories of people: couples who want to raise their children as Jews, people interested in conversion, and Jews who want to learn more. In addition to these three categories, A Taste of Judaism® included others: clergy from other faiths, Christians who wanted a wider understanding of all religions, atheists who wanted to better know what they were rejecting, people exploring the conversion process but who were not ready to commit to a full class, and newly engaged couples in interfaith families who were not interested in raising their children as Jews but wanted to better understand the Jewish side of the family. Because of this diversity, the conversations were often richer than I imagined, the questions more insightful and creative, and the energy palpably different than anything I had encountered before.
  1. It is a great introduction to the multiple entry points of Judaism and the Jewish community.
    The three-fold structure of the course lets students know that Judaism is multifaceted and that it has a space for them even if they don’t connect with one part of the religion. If a student doesn’t believe in God but loves the intellectual rigor of the Torah class, or if he isn’t analytical but is inspired by learning about social justice, he will realize there is a place for him in Reform Judaism. If done correctly, he will also understand his place in the community, not only intellectually but programmatically. To accomplish this, the class on God should include an explanation of local prayer services, and the class on Torah should end with students receiving resources on classes for further study.

I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to teach this course and look forward to teaching it again in the future. The course is best run a few weeks or months before a longer course so students have something to turn to after study. For both students and teachers, the URJ’s A Taste of Judaism® class is an extremely valuable experience, and I urge congregations to apply.

Rabbi Marc Katz is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Interested in hosting this free, three-week class in your community? Consider making A Taste of Judaism® a permanent part of your congregation’s outreach strategy to unaffiliated Jews, non-Jews, intermarried couples, and adult children of intermarriage. The Union for Reform Judaism offers advertising grants to help jump-start your effort.  Learn more about the class and apply for an advertising grant.

Not Your Bubbe's Brooklyn

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 06:00

‘Brooklynite,’ a new superhero musical based on characters created by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, has arrived. But is it a nuanced look at gentrification or a symptom of it?

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Making Change Where it Counts: Voting for the Prophetic Ideals of Liberal Judaism in Israel

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 05:00

by Rabbi Jack Luxemburg

“And Moses assembled the entirety of the Jewish people …” (Exodus 35:1)

Whether a Tabernacle in the desert or at the Temple in Jerusalem, vast numbers of our people would gather to celebrate and experience Jewish life on a grand scale. This past February, I had a somewhat comparable experience. It was exhilarating (occasionally frustrating), and confirmed the critical importance of Reform Judaism having a strong, purposeful presence on the world’s Jewish and Zionist scene.

During the week of February 15, I met with representatives of the various Zionist Federations that are part of the worldwide Reform Movement — the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), ARZENU Canada, and ARZENU representatives from Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, South America, and Australia. Also present were the leaders of the Israel Reform Movement and prominent members of our “faction” (in Hebrew, si’ah) – who represent the Israeli political parties, Labor and Meretz. Together, we reviewed resolutions slated for a vote on in the Va’ad HaPoel, the “working committee” of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). Many of these resolutions addressed issues of major importance to all of us who are committed to seeing the prophetic ideals of our Judaism realized in the political culture and the character of Israeli society.

Because we had a strong Reform presence, we were able to pass significant resolutions. The resolution regarding oversight of the Settlement Division, which demands greater transparency regarding its projects and funding, drew worldwide attention, as did a resolution insisting that the WZO, itself, reflect the pluralism of Jewish life around the world.  These breakthroughs would have been impossible without the work of our si’ah. The resolution came out of committee due to the strong and vocal support from ARZA and our ARZENU partners, and thanks to our advocacy, it passed a floor vote.

This experience proved that when we are present to give voice and substance to our vision of Israel as just, democratic, egalitarian, and pluralistic, we Reform Jews can be agents for positive change. Our partners in Israel and from around the world are counting on us — members of URJ congregations across the United States — to be successful in our WZO election campaign. Smaller progressive Jewish communities expect us to be strong advocates on their behalf. Our partners in Israel are counting on us to support the ARZA slate with a strong vote so that the Israeli Reform Movement will get the support and recognition it deserves, in terms of both financial resources and appointments to positions of influence in Israel’s national institutions.

Not all of us will be able to attend the World Zionist Congress in person. But we can be participants. We can vote online for the ARZA slate and encourage others to do the same. With enough votes from supporters, we can send a large delegation that will have influence appropriate to being the representatives of the largest congregational movement in the Jewish world. We can do this. We need to do this. Let’s demonstrate to the world our movement’s Ahavat Zion – our loving concern for Israel — by voting in the World Zionist Congress elections. Let’s really get engaged and involved. This way, we can have a strong voice in shaping the future we share with all the Jewish people — in America, Israel, and around the world. VOTE ARZA!

Rabbi Jack Luxemburg is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD and senior vice-chair of ARZA.