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This Museum Teaches Torah — Through Taxidermy

Thu, 05/07/2015 - 12:00
Eight ibexes, three lions, two bears — and one rabbi? Sure, why not! Join us on a virtual tour of Torah Animal World, possibly the most unusual museum in Brooklyn.

A Budget Far from the Moral Document We Need

Thu, 05/07/2015 - 10:00

In response to the U.S. Senate passing a budget yesterday that would cut vital programs for the poor and repeal the Affordable Care Act, RAC Director Rabbi Jonah Pesner issued the following statement:

We condemn in the strongest terms yesterday’s Senate passage of a budget that would significantly cut funding for crucial programs that help our most vulnerable as well as strip away affordable health coverage for so many Americans. Just last week, I spoke on Capitol Hill as part of an interfaith coalition of Jews, Protestants, Catholics and Muslims highlighting for members of Congress and their staff our unified call for a faithful budget that would maintain safety net programs that are vital to our country’s most vulnerable populations. With the passage of this budget, the Senate has failed to commit to lifting struggling workers and their families out of poverty.

In Deuteronomy, we are taught if ‘there is a needy person among you… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your kin.  Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient.’ We have long supported efforts toward a balanced budget generally, as long as such efforts do not undermine addressing needs within our communities or compromise the security or economic well-being of our nation. Unfortunately, this budget does not meet that standard. We will work as the appropriations process moves forward to ensure that those Americans most in need receive the support they deserve.

As people of faith, we advocate for a moral budget that protects the key programs that lift so many Americans out of poverty each year. Our federal budget has a significant impact on the 45.3 million people, including millions of children, living in poverty in this country.

For more information and to learn more about the Senate’s budget and the federal budget process:

Check out the RAC’s economic justice page to learn more about our work to combat economic inequality.

The De-Jewification of 'Dr. Zhivago'

Thu, 05/07/2015 - 05:00
The Dr. Zhivago musical on Broadway might make poor Boris Pasternak turn over in his grave. Anna Katznelson explains why.

ShivaWatch: Sudden Tragedies in Chicago, Mexico, and Nepal

Wed, 05/06/2015 - 16:14
In synagogues last week, we read about how Aaron was comforted after the sudden, untimely deaths of his sons. And in the media, we read of an outpouring of comfort to the families who lost sons and friends as shivas commenced. In Chicago, Illinois, Joshua Ozersky, PhD, 47, was found dead in his hotel room, […]

Nina Mandel Named Head of Reconstructionist Rabbis Group

Wed, 05/06/2015 - 11:36
Rabbi Nina Mandel of Pennsylvania has been appointed the new president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

Living in the Hyphen – Confronting Internalized Racism

Tue, 05/05/2015 - 13:02

by Rabbi Jen Gubitz

A version of these remarks was delivered by Rabbi Jen Gubitz on May 1, 2015 at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA. 

It was an image out of a utopian movie. Children seated in organized rows. Some dressed in traditional African garments. A vast array of what you could see: skin tones, hair color, height – and, of course, a vast array of what you could not see: religion, ability, disability, personality, and socio economics.  Children all singing together: “Jambo, Jambo, Jambo, sana, jambo. Jambo, jambo, jambo watato, jambo.” This was a 1974 song by Ella Jenkins using basic Swahili that meant: “Hello, hello, hello, everybody, hello” sung as part of the yearly celebration focused each year on a different part of the world – this time Africa.

The year before that we dressed in red, white and green and did traditional dances from Mexico. And the year after that, wandering through the halls in kimonos, we practiced the sacred art of a Japanese tea ceremony and the origami folding of a 1000 Cranes.

It was a public school created after the Civil Rights era as a means to bridge racial, ethnic and socio-economic gaps through Fine and Performing Arts and Multicultural exploration.  It was exceptional and it was well before Crayola came out with its box of Multicultural (a.k.a. skin tone colored) crayons. Some children came from the neighborhood where the school was located, of which some were white, hispanic or asian, but many were black. I was actually bussed in, as were many of the other white children from neighborhoods as far as 30 minutes away. It was a reverse commute from what we understand bussing to be today. While I was and sometimes felt in the minority as a Jew, I did not know that I was, nonetheless, actually in the majority because I was white. In fact, while I knew I had white skin, I had no idea what it really meant to be White with a capital W.  Until perhaps 7th or 8th grade while watching the results of the OJ Simpson trial at school during Show Choir.  The Show Choir was the most diverse group in the school – and I could feel the sharpness of divided reactions emerge among kids who had grown up together singing in swahili, playing our orff instruments, and raising our voices with utopian choral music that praised the rainbow of American society.  That’s when I learned I was White with a capital W.

And so today, I share with you the sadness of extremes that exists in the hyphen of our Torah reading calendar. Achrei Mot hyphen Kedoshim. This week is a double portion.  Achrei Mot (After Death) hyphen (-) Kedoshim (Holiness.)

Achrei Mot, after death. Freddie Gray’s death by police brutality, officially deemed murder and homicide by Baltimore’s Chief Prosecutor.  A brutal and senseless loss like so many others.

Achrei Mot Freddie Gray.

Achrei Mot Eric Garner.

Achrei Mot Michael Brown.

Achrei Mot Trayvon Martin.

Achrei Mot an endless list.

Hyphen.

Kedoshim, holiness.  As Baltimore residents take to the streets, “Not on our watch,” they say.

Kedoshim, holiness. As clergy from around the country, such as members of T’ruah – Rabbis for Human Rights – flew to St. Louis to join hands with an interfaith community marching in the streets of Ferguson and this week also in Baltimore.

Kedoshim, holiness. As people called in orders of pizza to feed protesters.

Kedoshim, a little boy hands a police officer water;

Kedoshim, safe houses for teens to come to to talk about the issues under one roof;

Kedoshim, blacks and whites cleaning up together after riots.

Kedoshim, holiness. As Baltimore convulsed in protests-turned-to-riots, “Not like this,” said Freddie Gray’s mom. “I want justice for his death but not like this. Don’t tear up the whole city.”

Somehow Achrei Mot, even after Freddie’s tragic death, his mother has found her way beyond the hyphen to Kedoshim.
Achrei Mot hyphen Kedoshim.

After these deaths, I find myself primarily still in the hyphen for I did not suffer a loss and I did not protest. Of all the kids with whom I grew up, I have one black friend. I have barely any friends who are not Jewish and mostly friends who are rabbis, which is about as homogenous as one can get. I’ve become one of those people who at times will lock the door when I see a man of color approaching late at night.  I could justify that away with our increasing need for caution these days, but I also know the assumptions in my head that are inherently racist.  When I encounter a black person well dressed in a suit and tie or heels, and when I encounter a black person wearing a hoodie. More often than not – I am in the hyphen.

In my family, there are two career paths: serving the Jewish people, which my parents and I love and serving low income, predominantly African American children in public education settings. My sister teaches minutes away from Ferguson. My brother and his wife are building in New Orleans a school modeled on the very school in which we grew up. I’ve always sought a way to merge their work with mine. I’ve chosen this active use of myself tonight, not because I hope you will assuage me of any guilt nor to guilt you; nor do I need reinforcement that, of course, I also reside in the work of Kedusha. I know that. Rather, I use myself, my faults, my internalized racism – as a model and as a call to action for myself and for us all.

Where are you in the hyphen? Though we share not the same precise streets as Ferguson or Baltimore, would you run into the streets if we did? Well guess what? We actually do. We have those same streets. It cannot go ignored or unsaid just how highly segregated Boston truly is and just how possible those events of Baltimore or Ferguson could easily take place here.

Where are you in the hyphen? In what ways do you have thoughts, fears, and opinions that are known as internalized racism? I ask not because I think you if you do these things you are inherently a horrible person but because we all have them within us and we rarely admit it. But how often do you cross the street or lock those doors? Do you refer to a neighborhood as shady – when what you really mean is that black people live there? Do you celebrate gentrification because it means better restaurants and hipper coffee shops? (I’m guilty of that.) Have you ever used language like “the hood”, “that’s ghetto”, “those thugs”? Yes, the Jewish community suffers our problems in how others believe false truths about us, but do we realize how lucky we are not to be suspected of shoplifting, racially profiled, and never in danger when wearing a hooded sweatshirt in the chilled night air?
This past week at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience – I was inspired by Rabbi Susan Talve, a social justice giant in downtown St. Louis, and Aaron Jenkins, the Executive Director of Operation Understanding DC, an organization that brings together black teens and Jewish teens for a year long process of discomfort and exploration of racism and anti-Semitism. They pushed us to consider our assumptions, our internalized racism, and what we can do about it. We do not yet have this particular organization in Boston –  but there is capacity and I think urgency. On Monday, I’m speaking with Operation Understanding’s Founder and St. Louis Jewish community leader, Karen Kalish, to see in what ways our community might push this forward. This project would be for me, both personally and professionally, a way to move beyond the hyphen.

A final teaching:

The order of our parshiyot, our Torah portions, is Achrei Mot Hyphen Kedoshim Emor. After Death, hyphen, there is Holiness. And then – Emor – Speak.

You do not have to wait until next week when we read Emor – to take action. Emor, speak up. Emor, speak up about the internalized racism you find within yourself. Wonder: what are my assumptions? What assumptions have I taught my children? What assumptions do I hope to challenge and change?Emor, speak up when you hear others using the language of racism and otherness. “Thug” these days – is tantamount to the “N word” – sometimes they don’t even know they are using it. Sometimes they do.

Check out Jews United for Racial and Economic Justice. Watch the video “Talk about the Talk.” Educate yourself on the issues.

Emor, speak up so as not to further normalize language and behaviors that are clearly not working for our world – and that elongate indefinitely that hyphen that separates us from them. It is a hyphen that continually reinforces the black community’s unequal status in America.

Rabbi Talve entreats us: “find YOUR Ferguson, find that sleepy suburb that is ready to erupt, and jump in together to save all our children.”

And may we journey together from Achrei Mot hyphen to Kedoshim to Emor – from senseless deaths to communal equality and holiness and to speaking out for justice.

Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz is the Assistant Rabbi at Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA, and a former Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. 

Dr. Zhivago on Menu at Rabin Medical Center Russian Tea Room Lunch

Tue, 05/05/2015 - 12:45
The Russian Tea Room was the perfect venue to host a “Broadway Luncheon” for the launch of the new musical “DOCTOR ZHIVAGO.”

Court Lifts Temple Mount Ban on Yehuda Glick

Tue, 05/05/2015 - 11:04
A Jerusalem court lifted a restraining order barring activist Yehuda Glick from visiting the Temple Mount.

Op-Ed: Striking Down Marriage Equality Bans Would Protect Religious Liberty

Mon, 05/04/2015 - 15:46

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, had an op-ed published last week in the Jewish Journal titled “Op-Ed: Striking Down Marriage Equality Bans Would Protect Religious Liberty.” He writes,

Love. Commitment. Trust. These are the values that form the basis of a marriage. Yet, the equal right to civil marriage has been denied to loving, committed same-sex couples throughout our country’s history.  As the Supreme Court considers oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case that could result in civil marriage equality in all fifty U.S. states, the country stands at a crossroads: will the nine Justices finally decide to uphold the civil right of same-sex couples to marry?

As a Rabbi and the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the advocacy arm of the largest Jewish denomination in America, I am inspired and motivated by the commandment “you shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong… nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute” (Exodus 23:2-3). We are not commanded to pursue justice for ourselves. The justice that we must pursue is a universal justice—a justice for all people.

For too long, our country has dealt unjustly with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Marriage equality bans are just one of the many ways in which states have sought to enshrine discrimination into law simply based on who people are and the gender they are attracted to.

Continue reading in the Jewish Journal.

Israel's State-Sanctioned Adultery List

Mon, 05/04/2015 - 15:19
The Israeli Rabbinate’s marriage blacklist, which includes the names of women accused of adultery, is a violation of human rights, argues lawyer Susan Weiss.

The Scheidt Seminar: Learning and Bonding With My Peers

Mon, 05/04/2015 - 14:00

by Jonathan Cheris

After two years as executive vice president of Temple Sinai of Roslyn, I am about to become president of this sacred place that is my home away from home. Thanks to the work of the incredible leaders in whose footsteps I follow, our membership numbers are growing and our programs are thriving – all evidence that a brick-and-mortar religious institution still matters in a digital world. With the encouragement of my rabbi, Michael White, I recently attended the URJ’s Scheidt Seminar for incoming congregational presidents, a weekend-long retreat held at a suburban conference center outside Atlanta, GA.

For two years, I’ve been outlining the High Holiday speech I plan to deliver this fall. For two months, I’ve been engaging more deeply with temple elders, seeking an easy and rapid transition into the temple presidency. For two weeks, I’ve been feeling increasingly stressed as I begin to deal with some major issues that will need to be addressed during my two-year term.

A member of the congregation since 2001, I was drawn into the temple’s leadership shortly after the death of my father in 2003, grateful for the support the temple community had provided to me and my family during his illness. Joining the temple’s leadership ranks was a natural extension of other volunteer activities I was already pursuing. Since then, I’ve served as brotherhood president and held other posts related to the congregation’s membership, administration, and marketing. Ten years ago, I helped to rebrand the temple as “My Sinai,” and worked to empower staff and other leaders to brand around this wonderful name. My family, too, is happily engaged with our Temple Sinai family: My now 17- and 20-year-old children benefitted greatly from their religious education and the temple’s incredible teen programs, and eight years ago, my wife became an adult bat mitzvah.

On the way to the Scheidt Seminar, the private shuttle bus from the airport to the conference center overflowed with conversation as we began to get to know each other.

“Where are you from?”

“How big is your membership?”

“When do you become president?”

“How many rabbis do you have?”

Once at the conference center, I continued introducing myself to some of the 92 other participants who’d traveled from congregations throughout North America. I also met members of the URJ staff, and immediately felt their warmth. Now was the moment I’d been awaiting – I was at the Scheidt Seminar, meeting new people and ready to learn.

That evening, Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), spoke brilliantly, sharing leadership concepts that apply to congregational presidents and beyond. As he spoke, the stress of the previous two weeks began to lift as I realized I was among peers – a leader among leaders – and an actor on a stage larger than my own congregation or my own Long Island backyard. To gain the most from this opportunity, I decided to limit my social media usage and fully embrace the URJ training and the Judaism that came with it.

On Friday, we were grouped based on synagogue size. My group of 18 – yes, there were 18 of us – came from large synagogues and quickly bonded as friends, coworkers, warriors, debaters, scholars, all things Jewish. The day’s sessions featured wonderful teachers, leaders, warm human beings, and a lot of learning centered on leadership, financial stability, engaging young families, and real-world case studies.

URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs joined us as Shabbat began for the first of a few memorable worship services. During the aliyot on Saturday morning, attendees were called to the Torah in three distinct groups: those who had been active, engaged Reform Jewish youth leaders; those who were raised in the Reform Movement but never imagined being a congregational president; and those who were raised outside the Reform Movement. I chose the second group for myself and was surprised that the third group was the largest, which provides a glimpse into the tremendous opportunities that exist for the modern Reform Movement.

Throughout the weekend, we continued to bond – as Jews and as presidents, sharing the similarities in our lives and in our congregations. During our final session, as we locked arms and swayed to Jewish songs, I was grateful for the many sacred connections I’d made, and I embraced each one. Like the others in my Scheidt community, I returned home more confident, empowered, and ready to lead my congregation, which I now understand is an essential link in North America’s Reform Movement. I look forward to seeing many of them when we meet again in Orlando at the 2015 URJ Biennial this November.

Jonathan Cheris is the incoming president of Temple Sinai of Roslyn, Roslyn Heights, NY.  He tweets at @LeadingWithGuts.

Rabbi's Speech Sparks Vandalism at Copenhagen Church in Gunman's Neighborhood

Mon, 05/04/2015 - 09:23
A Copenhagen church was vandalized in an anti-Semitic event hours before a rabbi was scheduled to speak there.

Rabbinical School of Hebrew College Alumna Rabbi Elyssa Auster Named...

Mon, 05/04/2015 - 04:36

Serves as Director of Jewish Life at Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, D.C., and visiting rabbi at B’er Chayim Temple in Cumberland, Md.

(PRWeb April 02, 2015)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/hebrewcollege/elyssaauster/prweb12623721.htm

How Tots Helped Our Small Congregation Grow

Sun, 05/03/2015 - 09:00

By Harriet Skelly

In 2013, Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley, CA, was at its lowest membership in 15 years. Several years earlier, we had implemented a new, low-cost dues structure in the hopes that it would help increase the membership. At about the same time, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, visited the Bay Area and spoke with local congregational presidents about audacious hospitality, relational Judaism, and “going outside the walls.” I was intrigued by his language, but still didn’t really get it. I was just stuck on how to find unaffiliated Jews in our area to bring into our congregation.

A few months after the meeting with Rabbi Jacobs, I was manning Shir Ami’s booth at the Castro Valley Pride Festival when an interfaith lesbian couple with a nine-month old son approached me. As we chatted, I learned that they were looking for a place to bring their son to learn about being Jewish – but sadly, I had to tell them we didn’t have programs for children under age 5.

I encouraged them to come check us out anyway and gave them our schedule of activities, but right there and then – as they walked away from the booth – I decided that our congregation had to create something for families like theirs.

That encounter led me to understand that, as an aging community with very few students in our religious and Hebrew school, our congregation needed to attract families with young children. In September 2013, I learned that the URJ was forming Communities of Practice (CoP), bringing together members of various congregations for 18-24 months of guided learning around congregational change on a topic of shared interest. Shir Ami was accepted into the Community of Practice that focused on engaging families with young children. At the time, we had 49 member families with nine school-aged children, and we wanted to learn how to attract unaffiliated and diverse families with young children.

After meeting that young family at the Pride Festival, I’d been tossing around the idea of offering a free, monthly program for children under 5 and their parents or guardians. In addition to being fun and educational, it would provide a peer group for young families and – perhaps most significantly – get them in our doors. I invited one of the membership co-chairs to join me in this experiment, and after attending the CoP kickoff in Chicago, she presented what she’d learned to Shir Ami’s board of directors.

Although the board was hesitant to offer anything for free – that was really thinking outside the box! – they gave us their blessing to implement the program I’d envisioned. For starters, we asked a few members who are parents of young children to brainstorm with us. As a result of those sessions, Tot Talk was born.

Held once a month, Tot Talk is scheduled for a Sunday when religious school is in session and a rabbinic intern is present (we don’t have full-time clergy at Shir Ami). The one-hour session starts at 11:30 a.m., the time the school breaks for oneg, which lets the tots interact with the big kids, and lets their parents check out the environment and mingle with each other before the session officially starts at about 11:45 a.m. Parents and guardians are required to participate with their children in the session, which usually includes a welcoming song, a read-aloud story tied to the theme of the day, and a hands-on project – usually making something edible! At the end of the session, every family leaves with their project and a handout that includes information about the session’s topic and links to related topics (we get a lot of our ideas from ReformJudaism.org).

The first family to attend Tot Talk in January 2014 was the interfaith family I’d met a few months earlier at the Pride Festival! Since then, tot participants have ranged in age from nine-months to 4 years in any given session, and six of the participating families have joined our congregation. This effort has boosted our membership to 65 households, with 17 students (excluding the Tot Talk children) enrolled in our religious school.

I attribute some of this growth to the Tot Talk program itself. The rest I attribute to the CoP, which is where we learned to market the congregation (using the URJ’s free marketing materials), advertise our programs on our website’s home page, and go “outside the walls” to meet people where they are. Although we know that potential congregants are not just going to show up on our doorstep, when they do, we’ll greet them with audacious hospitality!

Harriet Skelly is president of Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley, CA.

Applications are now open for the URJ’s next round of Communities of Practice. Learn more about the process to determine whether it’s right for your congregation, and apply now.

14 Rabbis Join Baltimore March for Freddie Gray

Fri, 05/01/2015 - 18:29
Fourteen rabbis in the Baltimore region will join a rally and march for “police reform and justice for Freddie Gray.”

Converting to Judaism

Fri, 05/01/2015 - 12:30

Despite the sometimes lengthy and challenging conversion process—and concerns that converted Jews are not “100 percent” Jewish—many converts to Judaism find fulfillment and a sense of identity in the Jewish faith. According to Shmuly Yanklowitz, an Orthodox rabbi and himself a convert, Judaism will need to become more inclusive and more accepting of converts if it is to to survive in the 21st century.

The post Converting to Judaism appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

With New Bill, Time for Action to Raise the Wage

Thu, 04/30/2015 - 14:00

This week, the Raise the Wage Act was introduced in Congress to raise the minimum wage to $12.00 an hour by the year 2020. On the occasion of the bill’s introduction, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

We applaud today’s introduction of the Raise the Wage Act sponsored by Senator Patty Murray and Representative Bobby Scott. The bill would gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $12.00 an hour by 2020, reflecting a commitment to ensuring all workers receive a fair and decent wage. In addition, the bill will index the minimum wage to help maintain its value for low-wage workers and provide stability and predictability for employers.

No one in America should work full time and still earn wages that keep them rooted in poverty. Yet that is the reality for too many of today’s minimum wage workers. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour translates to an annual salary of $15,080—below the poverty line for a single parent with one child. It is nearly impossible for many families to make ends meet on those earnings.

Our Jewish tradition tells us that “one who withholds an employee’s wages is as though he deprived him of his life” (Baba Metzia 112a). As workers seek each day to provide for their families, let us help ensure that the minimum wage assists them in doing so.

As Jews, we heed the moral call to end economic injustices. Raising the minimum wage is an important way to lift so many working families out of poverty.

The last time Congress raised the minimum wage was 2007, when the national minimum wage increased to $7.25 an hour from $6.55 an hour. The time for a raise for so many of America’s workers is long overdue.

Urge your Members of Congress to support the Raise the Wage Act today and check out the RAC’s economic justice page to learn more.

Missing Israeli Hiker's Father Jets to Nepal To Join Search

Thu, 04/30/2015 - 09:10
The father of the last missing Israeli in the Nepal earthquake arrived on the scene to help in the search as the Chabad rabbi of Nepal flew a helicopter to bring food and water to stranded hikers.

The Early Weeks of Pregnancy Do Not Need to Be a Period of Isolation

Wed, 04/29/2015 - 17:00
The early weeks of pregnancy are typically a period of taboo and isolation, says fourth-year rabbinical student Nicole Auerbach. What if we started talking about the fear and uncertainty that accompany early pregnancy? .

South African Jews Blast Israel for Blocking Minister's Trip to West Bank

Tue, 04/28/2015 - 16:01
Two South African Jewish organizations criticized Israel for refusing an entry visa to South Africa’s minister of higher education.