Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Steven Chester’

Wednesday the Rabbi Went Birding

February 1, 2012

Today we took our former rabbi on his first birding trip.

You know those moments — maybe real, maybe in a dream — when completely unconnected  parts of your life suddenly bump into each other?

Birds! Judaism! All I needed to fill out the circle was to find a literary agent standing amidst the sandhill cranes. Stranger things have happened.

In any case, Sam and I had long planned to introduce Rabbi Steven Chester to birding now that he is basking in the leisurely fields of retirement. It just happened that the date we picked came two weeks after the start of my new job at… Golden Gate Audubon Society.

It was a gorgeous day — sunny, warm, not even a breeze until the mid-afternoon. We’ve been on birding trips in the past where it was so cold and foggy outside that the kids refused to get out of the car to see any birds. Today was the opposite of that.

Sam and Rabbi Chester / Photo by Ilana DeBare

We saw:

  • Lots of ducks, including cinnamon teal, which were Rabbi Chester’s favorite. These rich brown birds look like someone dipped them in cocoa or cinnamon.
  • Stilts, which I love for their dramatic black and white contrast. (It doesn’t hurt that this also makes them easy to identify.)
  • TONS of black-crowned night herons. Now, I’ve seen individual night herons before. But they must have really liked this patch of marsh in Merced National Wildlife Refuge, because there seemed to be another heron every five feet or so. At one point there were nine within our field of vision, perching among the reeds, motionless as gargoyles.
  • Sandhill cranes! Snow geese! Tundra swans! Giant birds that are 100 percent guaranteed to impress novice birders, or your money back.
  • A bald eagle flying overhead as we ate lunch – wow.
  • And, as we packed ourselves into the car at the end of the day, a flock of snow geese soaring in formation like Blue Angels over our heads.

Black-crowned night heron / Photo by Ilana DeBare

How many snow geese can you count? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Rabbi Chester had a great day. He brought his point-and-shoot camera, which has an impressive zoom, and practiced wildlife photography for the African safari he and his wife Leona plan to take later this year. Cranes and herons are certainly not as exotic as lions or elephants, but they are a heck of a lot more accessible.

So what’s the news behind this blog post?

Rabbi Chester: For those of you who know him, I’m happy to report that he’s enjoying retirement. He’s contemplating several writing/photography projects. At Leona’s request, he has joined a group that goes bowling once a week! But he’s also looking forward to returning to Temple Sinai as a congregant once he’s done with his year of staying-away-to-give-space-to-his-successor.

Me: With two weeks under my belt, I’m loving my job at Golden Gate Audubon. So far I’ve managed to set off the burglar alarm and program my voicemail greeting as the incoming message for the whole organization. But beyond those little bumps, it’s all good. My colleagues are really talented. The office is funkily nice. My job involves a variety of different tasks, some of which are familiar (press outreach) and some of which involve learning new skills (managing the web site and social media).

I tagged along on a GGAS birding event for kids at Lake Merritt  last Saturday and posted photos on the GGAS Facebook page. You’re welcome to view them here. It wasn’t the Central Valley, but hey — we saw a night heron there too, as well as a lone tufted duck that somehow makes its way to Oakland from Eurasia each winter. And this was just a ten-minute walk from BART and City Hall.

One beauty of birds is that they are such an easy way for anyone to connect with nature, even in the middle of a city.

Sandhill cranes / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Snow geese in flight / Photo by Ilana DeBare


A Jewish lay chaplain

October 27, 2011

A female, Jewish, lay chaplain at our local hospital? Who knew?

I’d never given much thought to chaplains one way or the other. Fortunately I’ve spent very little time in hospitals — much less in prisons or the military — and the word chaplain conjured up images of a middle-aged Christian man, someone like Father Mulcahy in MASH.

So I was intrigued when the editor of our temple bulletin approached me during high holiday services and asked if I’d like to interview a young woman in the congregation who is working as a chaplain at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.

Jennifer Mahru

Jennifer Mahru, 33, is one of only seven participants in an intensive, year-long, on-the-job chaplaincy training program at Alta Bates Summit. It turns out that Jewish chaplains are pretty common. But lay chaplains like Mahru — who are not ordained clergy — are very unusual.

Mahru, inspired by her relationship with Temple Sinai‘s recently-retired Rabbi Steven Chester, had initially considered enrolling in rabbinical school. But she didn’t want to leave the Bay Area. And she realized that the parts of rabbinic work that spoke most deeply to her – pastoral work and counseling – could also be done as a hospital chaplain.

“I wanted to be there for people when they most need it, when they are vulnerable or ethically challenged,” she said.

Alta Bates chose Mahru from among 65 applicants for the training program, apparently on the strength of her experience as a hospice volunteer at the Jewish Home of San Francisco and her plans to go to graduate school in theology next year.

Mahru works a 40-hour week, assigned to different hospital units, and is on call for 24 hours every week or two. She gets called in for any death in her unit, even if the family doesn’t specifically request a chaplain. As a trainee, she meets weekly with an experienced chaplain supervisor and takes part in lectures and case study discussions with her fellow trainees.

Barely two months into her chaplaincy, Mahru already has enough stories to fill a book – patients who are furious or terrified about facing the end of life, others who simply want a friendly chat, nurses who need to grieve about a death on their ward. She ministers to people of all religions, whoever is in her assigned unit on a given day.

With non-Jewish patients, Mahru introduces herself as “one of the chaplains” and doesn’t mention her Judaism unless asked. If patients want her to pray with them, she does so in language that doesn’t compromise her own beliefs. If patients ask for clergy from their own faith, she arranges for that.

“Part of the challenge of clinical pastoral education is learning where you draw the line,” she said. “A Catholic patient may want to say the Our Father and Hail Mary, but I won’t say those words if they aren’t real for me.”

“I don’t have the right to tell anyone that their beliefs are wrong,” she continued. “If they say, “I’m going to hell because I sinned,’ I don’t tell them ‘There’s no such thing as hell.’ “I go with what they’re feeling, which is regret. I may ask them, ‘What are you regretful about?’ Or ‘It sounds like you’re in a really tough space right now. Do you want to tell me why you’re so upset?”

Most of the time, Mahru’s non-Jewish patients are delighted to have her there. One day may find her sitting with a bereaved Hindu family as they sing hymns in a language she didn’t understand. Another may find her accompanying a Catholic priest as he baptizes a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. Sometimes, though, there are moments of friction.

Once Mahru was praying together with an evangelical Christian woman who asked, “How come you don’t pray in Jesus’ name?”

“We all pray differently,” Mahru said. “Prayer can be helpful no matter what words you use.”

“Not unless you are praying to the real and true God,” the woman responded.

So far, Mahru’s biggest struggle is not with skeptical patients but with her own self-judgment:

“I struggle with thinking, ‘Was my visit good?’ But I’m learning that, a lot of the time, you don’t know that. And you’re not going to know that. You can have a visit that is not so spectacular, but a patient looks back on it months later and feels like it made a diffeernce. There’s no instant gratification. You have to be secure that what you offered was enough. That’s my biggest challenge, because we want people to praise us.”

Her reward is the opportunity to support people as they confront questions of mortality and vulnerability that are often shunted aside in daily life.

“Being in the hospital brings up a lot of emotions for people,” Mahru said. “They’re scared, they feel feel like they’ve lost control over their body, they’re alone…. We live in a society that likes to fix things. Being with these people means going into scary places we don’t usually want to go.”

In Conversation: Rabbi Steven Chester

May 31, 2011

One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the third in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif.

Rabbi Steven Chester

Rabbi Steven Chester, our senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, is retiring after 22 years at Sinai and 40 years in the rabbinate. Seventeen years ago, he conducted our daughter’s baby naming ceremony. Earlier this spring he officiated at my adult Bat Mitzvah. We’ve known he was retiring for a long time — this is actually his second attempt at retirement, since his first got derailed by the recession — and I felt lucky to have the chance to study with him for my Bat Mitzvah.

Rabbi Chester was in fact the reason Sam and I joined Temple Sinai. We had just moved back to Oakland from Sacramento and were “congregation shopping.” We walked into his office, saw the United Farm Workers poster on the wall and felt his personal warmth, and we were hooked.

Rabbi Chester combines that personal warmth with a commitment to social justice, powerful public speaking skills, a “big tent” approach to Israel that welcomes both AIPAC hawks and J Street doves, an intellect that moves easily from ancient Jewish history to contemporary novels, and a humanistic theology in the tradition of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

And let’s not forget a sense of humor that, every Purim, gave us our rabbi in drag as Esther Chester.


Q: You’ve spent 40 years in the rabbinate. Do you view Judaism differently now than when you entered? 

A: I don’t view Judaism differently, but the ways that people manifest their Judaism have changed. People are much more inward today.  If you want to hang a word on it, they’re more spiritual, whatever that word means.

Reform Judaism of the ’60s, when I was in rabbinical school, was completely social-action oriented. Rabbis spoke about social issues and how Judaism connected to those issues, but they did not speak about prayer or God. The movement’s emphasis was 80 percent on the social action side of Judaism and 20 percent on the inward side – on self-fulfillment, prayer, and God. That’s been the major change.

In Jewish life and especially in liberal Jewish life, we’ve always balanced on two tightropes. One tightrope is the tension between particularism and universalism, or between Jewish issues and universal issues. The other is between individuality and community. It’s not that the values have changed, but the weight put on one or the other has changed.

Q: Is that change for the better or the worse? 

A: Ten years ago, I definitely thought it was for the worse. One would go to conventions and there was a preponderance of workshops on turning inward and self-searching rather than the outward and community action. Now social action is coming back and there’s more of a balance. That’s positive. There has to be both.

Rabbi Chester leads Becca's naming ceremony in January 1994 / Copyright by Ilana DeBare

Q: How about you personally? Has your relationship to Judaism changed over these 40 years? 

A: My relationship to tradition has changed. I’m not speaking theologically; I’m speaking ritually. I’ve become more traditional in the service, where davening or body movement has become more significant, and where there’s much more Hebrew in the service.

I look much more to text than I did in my early rabbinate. Very little text was dealt with in the ’60s and ’70s. Now the emphasis is that when you do something, you base it on text. You’re looking at text and examining text.

In terms of Jewish values, I haven’t changed. My emphasis remains the parallel relationships (with people) and not the vertical relationship (with God).

I’m much more concerned with what Judaism says and with what I do — the Jewish values by which I live my life — than with prayer. My main connection is still to the social, and to social justice.

“I still see people as basically decent”

Q: You’ve spent 40 years dealing with people in moments of intimacy, trauma, and joy. Do you view human beings differently now? 

A: No. I view people as basically good. I try as hard as I can to not be judgmental. There are some people who have difficulties – family problems, psychological problems and so on — that prevent them from reaching their true potential as a person. But I still see people as basically decent.

One thing I’ve learned in my rabbinate is: Don’t react immediately, and don’t overreact. Listen to what someone is saying and then try to figure out why he or she is angry. I’ve learned that if someone comes in very angry about something in the congregation, generally there is something going on in his or her personal life – illness, divorce, conflict in the home.

The congregation may be the one place where this person feels a sense of ownership, and so takes out his or her frustration on the congregation.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise in being a rabbi?

A: What they didn’t teach in rabbinical school that surprised me was the practical aspect – from budgets to how boards work. That was probably the most difficult thing to understand.

The second thing that surprised me, and still angers me, is what I call the “gas station” approach. People bring their kids in for a bar or bat mitzvah, and when the last one is done, they leave the congregation. What angers me isn’t that they don’t have an interest in Jewish life, but chant the phrase, “We don’t use it any more.”

If everyone thought like that, where would the next generation of children go to be educated? It’s a very selfish way of looking at things. If the majority of people did that, we would have no synagogues.

Another thing that surprised me — and that I now understand — is that you can’t play the numbers game. If x number of people come to services or take a class, then your job is to make it a meaningful experience for them. You can’t say something is not a success if it only has 10 people and not 40.

I’ve served three different sizes of congregations, and you’re essentially going to have the same percentage of people actively participating. I no longer judge in the way I did when I was young. My first high holiday sermons were, “You all should be coming to services more!” Well, that doesn’t do any good. As a matter of fact, all it does is take away from the importance of the other points you want to make in the sermon.

You want to be creative and try to bring people in. But you can’t lament that not everyone is going to be doing everything. That approach will destroy you. You’ll be emphasizing the negative as opposed to the positive.

Rabbi Chester and me before my Bat Mitzvah service

God as a part of us, not as a puppeteer

Q: I liked your phrase about being more “horizontally” focused than “vertically” focused. Let’s talk about the vertical. What’s your conception of God? 

A: Someone once said about Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The ineffable name of God was mensch (man). That belief is the touchstone of so much of what Heschel wrote and did.”

I don’t believe that God is in control of my life like a puppeteer. I go back to some of the Chasidic rebbes who said that when we are born, a piece of God is placed in each and every one of us. And when we bring out our potential, then God is present. God is acting through us. When there is evil in the world, it’s not that God isn’t there – it’s that God has not been activated. That part of the human being, godliness, has not been activated.

Do I believe God can heal people, as it states in the mishaberach? No. But I do believe that when I reach the end of my rope, when I feel helpless and hopeless, there is something inside that gives me extra strength. That, to me, is God.

But there are also times when I hear the cantor sing and all of a sudden, my mind goes back to the traditional belief that God can heal or answer prayers. Because there are emotional moments when things happen in our lives, and we sometimes need something more concrete to rely on.

One doesn’t have to believe in one way. One can be eclectic. We are human beings, and we are not consistent. Those of us who are parents are not consistent in parenting; most of us don’t have only one kind of art in our house; we eat different types of foods. Why do we always have to be consistent about our belief in God?

In the old temple building, three or four times a week I would go sit in the Harpham Chapel and look at the colors of the stained glass windows. I knew the times of day when the colors would bounce off the white of the walls, with the colors mixing. Did I say a formal prayer? No. I would just look at that, the awe and the wonder of it, and God would be touching my life.

It comes back to Heschel, and that every facet of life is a miracle or godly. Heschel said that when we say blessings for everything, it isn’t because God needs the blessings. It’s that we need the blessings to realize the miracle of everything God has given us.

Rabbi Chester and adult b'not mitzvah (from left) Ilana DeBare, Karen Tanner, Jane Simon and Sydney Firestone, May 2011

A personal story behind decades of grief counseling

Q: You’ve spent a lot of time over the years working with people in moments of grief and mourning. What drew you to this? 

A: It’s not that I really l dwell on doing grief counseling. It’s something I became qualified to do. But the reason why may be a little bit deeper.

I had a girlfriend my first semester in college — a brilliant young woman, a year ahead of me at UCLA, second violinist in the L.A. Philharmonic, a talented, bright, sweet young lady. She was probably my first love. I was home in Pomona for winter vacation and I received a call from her mother, saying she had fallen off a horse and was in the hospital and probably wouldn’t be able to go out New Year’s Eve.

Then, before I had a chance to go in and visit her, I received a call that she had died.

I went to the funeral – it was the first funeral I had been to, ever. I was a pallbearer. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor and as we walked to the grave, I vividly remember her mother yelling, “Why did I ever survive the Holocaust? Why did I ever survive?”

We did the burial, and I didn’t go back to the house afterwards. And because I didn’t know what to do or how to act, I never visited her parents or contacted them again. I always felt tremendous guilt about that.

I think that may be one of the reasons, subliminally, that I started taking classes in grief and death counseling and became pretty well qualified to do this. In Stockton, I was one of the co-founders of a hospice and became the grief counselor for the hospice.

I know somewhere down deep it had to do with my own failure as a human being and as a young man – I was 18 years old – and not knowing how to handle that particular situation.

That’s also why in Stockton, and sometimes here in Oakland, I used to do a death and dying class for 10th graders. I wanted them to know how to act when they went into a house of mourning – not to be afraid, and to know what to expect if someone died in their family.

Creative chaos and the outlook for Judaism

Q: When you think about what Judaism will be like in 10 or 20 years, are you optimistic or pessimistic? 

A: I’m optimistic.  I don’t think Judaism is going to die out in the United States. More people are interested in it. How it’s going to look is another question.

The only other time in Jewish history that’s comparable to the Jewish American world today was 2000 years ago – only today you don’t have the oppression that existed in Roman times.

Back then you had the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Essenes and the Zealots, and the secularists who wanted to become like the Greeks and Romans.

Today you have Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, secular, Modern Orthodox, Ultra Orthodox, Chasidic Ultra Orthodox, non-Chasidic Ultra-Orthodox, Renewal – all these things.

I call it creative chaos. It’s all very positive. The question is, where is it all going to go? Not just Reform Judaism – but what will all of non-Ultra-Orthodox Judaism look like 20 years from now? I have no idea.

Jewish values aren’t going to change. But how are they going to be manifest? And with all these developments in technology, how are we going to retain a sense of community? Do we want to become Facebook congregations?

One of the beauties of Judaism has been that we have been able to adapt. Mishnah was an adaptation, Talmud was an adaptation, Chasidism was an adaptation, Reform Judaism was an adaptation.

They were all responses to what was happening in the society, both internally and externally. That’s why we survive.

The heart of being a rabbi 

Q: What is the secret to being a good rabbi? What would you tell a young rabbi entering the rabbinate today? 

A: That’s a difficult question. Because I’ve loved what I’ve done. I’d do it all over again, mostly in the same way.

But the specific answer would be – love Judaism. Love being Jewish, teaching Judaism, love other Jews. Love the Jewish people, even with all our mishegas (craziness). That would basically be it.

You have to love what you’re trying to give to people. Also, you have to have respect for people — faith that they will try to further what you as a rabbi feel is significant in Jewish teachings and life.

Q: Is there anything you would change about your rabbinate? 

A: I am thrilled this congregation grew the way it did, almost doubling in size. However, it’s difficult to have a large congregation when you’re the type of rabbi I want to be. Essentially I’m a pastoral rabbi. I believe in seeing people as soon as possible. I fit in other things between appointments or at night. So I end up working many hours a week.

My first congregation, 100 families, was very intimate and I knew everyone. My second congregation was 325 families and I knew almost everyone.

Then, as I came here, to a larger congregation, both the congregation and I lost some of that intimacy.

I ended up not doing every bar and bat mitzvah, not interacting with the families in the same way as in a smaller congregation. If this congregation had stayed at 500 or 550 families, that probably would have been more fitting to the type of rabbi that I am.

To see the growth here is very thrilling and gratifying. But you become more of a CEO-type, and sometimes why you became a rabbi falls a little bit to the wayside.

About a month ago I had a day all filled with what I would call “real” rabbinic duties. I counseled a person who was going through tremendous difficulty, then had a bat mitzvah rehearsal, then I taught a class at night that was really thrilling.

That night I came home and said, “Today was a day that I really felt that I did what I went into the rabbinate to do.”


This is the third in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. You can read the first interview with Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin here and the second interview with Rabbi Andrea Berlin here


Bat Mitzvah!

February 27, 2011

After fifteen months of preparation, it was a wonderful day. The forecasters’ feverish predictions of snow did not pan out, and the weather was crisp and clear. All the logistics (caterer, sound system, flowers etc.) went smoothly. There was a great turnout of about 120 temple regulars and friends from various parts of my life. Like at a wedding, one of the fun things was seeing people connect who knew each other from elsewhere but didn’t realize they also both knew me.

The service itself went well. I had a couple of minor flubs — I blanked out on the blessing for the tallit, and then I lost my place once during the Torah reading when I distracted myself by turning to greet the people doing blessings. But other than those bits, things went smoothly. The most stressful part was the Hebrew chanting; after I was done with that, giving my d’var Torah in English felt like a pina colada by the pool. My favorite moments were the d’var Torah and carrying the Torah scroll around the room while people reached out to kiss it with their prayerbooks or tallit. It was fun to be able to greet everyone that way, and to know that, at that point at least, all I had to do was put my feet in front of each other and not fall down. Easier than chanting.

Rabbi Chester said the most warm and gratifying things, both publicly at the bima and then during the private moment when he blesses the bat/bar mitzvah while the cantor sings. I’ve sat through many 13-year-old b’nei mitzvah services, including my daughter’s, and always itched with curiosity about what the rabbi was telling them.

Now I know…  he’s giving them the winning lottery numbers for the coming week!

Seriously, the part of his blessing that was most meaningful to me was when he said that if I were 40 years old rather than in my 50s, he would be pushing me to go to rabbinical school. It isn’t a career I ever considered, but it felt like ultimate praise coming from him, as well as a recognition of my commitment to Judaism. When he got to delivering the Hebrew part of the blessing, I bowed my head and he told me (I forget his exact words here) to picture the blessing that I need, and to envision myself in that state.

People really liked my d’var Torah. I’m going to post it on the blog in a separate entry, directly after this one. You can access it by clicking here. When writing it, I felt a strong urge to write a credo, or some overarching declaration of What Ilana Believes about life, God, Judaism, ethics, West Bank settlements, women’s rights, whatever. I opted to resist that urge and just focus on the Torah portion, which I believe in retrospect was the correct decision.

After the service, we had a delicious lunch catered by Temple Sinai member David Darwish, with desserts baked by my chavurah. That evening, my brother and sister-in-law hosted a small dinner with a cake by the amazing Paul and Marcia Masse, of Masse’s Pastries in Berkeley (who also happen to be former Julia Morgan School for Girls parents).

My Bat Mitzvah cake / Photo by Rob DeBare

I had given the Masses a photograph of my poppy-embellished tallit, as well as some pictures of the blue chultza shomrit (shirt) we wore in Hashomer Hatzair, the youth movement that was really the start of my Jewish identity. So the cake imagery represents my Jewish path, from teenage years through becoming a Bat Mitzvah. The Masses did an awesome job.

Now, the day after, I feel mostly tired and relieved that all this organizing is over. I am so happy that my group of adult b’not mitzvah is continuing to meet and study — that this was not the end of the process. I’m also looking forward to chanting Torah at other services in the future. That feels like the best of both worlds — the challenge/honor of reading Torah, but without having all the to-do of party planning.

Don’t get me wrong — the party aspect of this certainly was fun. And it was nice to bask in the appreciation and congratulations of my community, especially at a time when I’m accumulating rejection notes from literary agents and not making much headway in figuring out a new career. Actually, it was more than nice. It was wonderfully affirming to feel such support at a time when other spheres of life are challenging.

But still, I look forward to chanting Torah in the future without a party. Just as part of a congregation.

The incomplete Bat Mitzvah

February 24, 2011

I haven’t posted in a week, since my last entry on floral stress, and it would not be too far-fetched to assume that I succumbed to heart palpitations brought on by last-minute Bat Mitzvah preparations. Not true.

I have actually had a hectic and somewhat emotional week, but hardly any of it was related to the Bat Mitzvah — there was a lovely weekend visit by my Rhode Island sister and her family, a trip to L.A. with my daughter to look at colleges, and the death of a long-ailing uncle of mine in Orange County. (Suffice to say that this may be the only college-application trip in history to include a shiva visit.)

In any case, I’m back — both physically and mentally. I had my second dress rehearsal today with Rabbi Chester, which went well. I learned how to work the new sound system in the temple’s social hall, so I can plug in my iPod and play an Israeli pop music mix during the kiddush luncheon. (Thank you to Danny, Lisa and Yonit for sending me music! I had a blast learning new songs and making up the playlist.)

I even wrestled the Floral Question into submission, picking up six inexpensive orchids at Trader Joe’s that will look just fine in front of the bima.

Yes, a Bat Mitzvah orchid / Photo by Ilana DeBare

In an effort to share as much of the experience as possible, here is a photo of the biggest orchid. It looks like daffodils, but it’s an orchid, honest. It is locked in our bedroom right now so the cat doesn’t eat it before Saturday.

Tomorrow I’ll buy two challot (one for Friday night services, one for Saturday), bake some cookies and assemble cheese and fruit plates for Friday night, and review my Hebrew prayers and chanting.

Amidst all this bustle, there are some things that feel incomplete.

I realized a while ago that I would not learn everything I wanted to learn by the time of my Bat Mitzvah service.  I can reel off a list of Jewish stuff I wanted to do/learn but have not gotten around to, such as:

  • Go to a mikvah (ritual bath)
  • Go to services at an Orthodox shul, to compare with the Reform liturgy
  • Learn and incorporate into my life some Hebrew blessings over daily events like waking up, getting dressed etc.
  • Learn more about the Biblical prophets (nevi’im)
  • Learn some of the history of Chasidism and its legends…

But you know what? I’m totally okay with not having gotten to all this.

Unlike many 13-year-olds, I don’t see becoming a Bat Mitzvah as the conclusion of a process — or as the end of my Jewish education. It’s more like a gate along a path. I look forward to continued reading, learning, participation. My little group of adult b’not mitzvah will continue meeting and studying with Rabbi Chester up until his retirement in June. The four of us are also planning to read Torah together during services sometime over the summer, so we’ll be required to keep our Hebrew chanting up to par.

I’ll also keep this blog going. I won’t change the name: Once you become a Bat Mitzvah, you remain a Bat Mitzvah. And the “midlife” part? I’m not sure precisely when midlife gives way to the next stage of life, or even what the correct term is for that next stage  — late-life? retirement? cronehood? AARP membership? — but I am certainly not there yet.

So Midlife Bat Mitzvah it will continue to be, at least for the forseeable future.

Meanwhile, if you’re in the Bay Area, please feel free to join us for services at Temple Sinai this Saturday at 10:30.

And if you’re not nearby…  I’ll do my best to share the day via the blog. Thank you for accompanying me along this path!

Bat Mitzvah dress rehearsal # 1

February 15, 2011

Yesterday was the first of my two “dress rehearsals.” Well, no dress, not even my tallit, but I ran through the entire service on the bima with Rabbi Chester – basically, me reading and chanting my sections of the service and him saying “la la la” in his typical joking way whenever the cantor or congregation was supposed to chime in. 

The bima at Temple Sinai (actually an old photo -- the bima, or dais, was recently lowered and widened to be wheelchair accessible)

It went really smoothly. The sanctuary’s acoustics for speaking are great. (Even better than singing in the shower!) And I know my Torah and haftarah chanting down pat: The only glitch was a brief moment of total brain collapse when I couldn’t remember which of the many baruch atah adonai melodies to use for the haftarah blessings.

I wasn’t sure that I’d really need one dress rehearsal, let alone two. I mean, I’m not 13! But there’s a bunch of minor maneuvering that it’s helpful to practice. (Where on the podium do I stash my speech? Which mike to use when I turn to face the ark?)

More significantly, the rehearsal was worthwhile as a way to get used to being on the bima.

I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking over the years in bookstores, classrooms, and big auditoriums. But the sanctuary felt grander – the stained glass windows, the eternal lamp, the knowledge that people had filled this room every Shabbat for 80 years and other similar rooms for 2,000 years. 

It echoed, both literally and figuratively. 

I wasn’t really able to take all of that in, though. I was too busy trying not to lose my place in the Torah scroll, groping for the right haftarah blessing melody. I didn’t look up from the prayerbook for the first two-thirds of the rehearsal – and I’m someone who knows that you need to look at the audience when giving a speech.

It was basic let’s-get-through-this survival mode. It was like a wedding where the bride and groom are so keyed up with nervous excitement that they don’t remember any of their conversations with guests. And they never get a chance to taste their cake. 

By the time I got to my d’var Torah, I started to relax. And giving a sermon is so much easier than chanting Torah and haftarah – it’s in English! 

I suspect that the second rehearsal next week will allow me to loosen up further. I’ll be able to let go and open myself up more to the power of the tradition.

By the time of my actual Bat Mitzvah service, I’ll have a better chance of enjoying the (metaphorical) cake.

For me, at least, the rehearsals aren’t about getting it right – they’re about having the time and opportunity to realize what I’m doing and what it means.


January 12, 2011

Hooray! I met with Rabbi Chester this morning and he approved my d’var Torah, the talk I’ll give on my Torah portion.

Okay — as my friend Sara K. said later in the day — it was not real likely that, given my writing skills, he was going to toss my speech in the trash. But still, I was nervous. I felt like a 13-year-old watching the teacher read her composition.

I had struggled a little bit writing it, mostly with my own expectations. Certainly the d’var Torah of a 53-year-old should be far better than that of a 13-year-old. And given that I’ve been involved in this Bat Mitzvah process for more than a year, I felt that it had to be REALLY GOOD. No, not just good — outstanding.

Part of me also felt a compulsion to make some sort of grand statement about my own beliefs — a “This I Believe” about the possibility of being both spiritual and an atheist, or about how West Bank settlements are an outrageous violation of Jewish ethics and morality, or some such jeremiad.

I managed to fight off that urge.  A d’var Torah, after all, is supposed to be about the Torah portion, not about me. (Oh, you mean, everything in life isn’t all about me? I’m crushed.) But that still left me feeling that my drash had to be outstanding. Brilliant. Harvard caliber. Or — since 53 > 4 x13 — at least four times as good as a 13-year-old’s.

Fortunately, all these years of being a parent have taught me something, which is the concept of “good enough.” If you have raised children within the past decade or two, you’re probably heard of “good-enough parenting” — an antidote to oppressive yuppie perfectionism where parents (usually moms) flagellate themselves for sins such as bringing Trader Joe cookies rather than home-baked ones to the class potluck.

I am used to being a good-enough mother, not a perfect mother. So rather than write the perfect d’var Torah, I decided to write a “good-enough” d’var Torah.

That worked. I got it written. Rabbi Chester seemed to like it. He even laughed a couple of times. (Thankfully, at the places where he was supposed to laugh.) He handed it back to me and said it was good to go.

Whew! Now if only he were a literary agent reading my novel manuscript….

Why Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia aren’t Jewish

September 25, 2010

I’m taking a class on Jewish history with our rabbi, Steven Chester – actually, less a class than a frenzied 100-yard dash across the surface of Judaism, since we only meet for an hour a week. 

(I still live in that old college paradigm where class = three hour-long lectures a week, plus a section discussion, plus research papers. But hey, this is adult ed. We adults are not necessarily smarter than college students. We just have less time.) 

We’re currently back in the Biblical phase of things, talking about Abraham and Joseph and Moses and what historical evidence exists for various episodes of the Old Testament. 

One point made by Rabbi Chester particularly struck me – that Judaism didn’t really become Judaism until well after the Biblical period. 

Judaism as we know it is not just the Torah. It’s not just the laws given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. It’s not even the combination of Torah and prophetic writings that Christians call the Old Testament. 

Judaism is all that plus the rabbinic commentaries and interpretations that were built on top of the Bible like so many floors of an apartment building – the Mishnah, the Talmud, the generations of rabbis commenting on and interpreting the Bible. 

Fragment of Mishnah commentary by Maimonides / University of Manchester

Judaism doesn’t have fundamentalists in the sense that Christianity does – people who look only to the literal word of the Bible to guide their lives. Even the most ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects rely on rabbinic commentaries for interpretation of the Bible. 

Granted, the ultra-Orthodox seem to feel that legitimate interpretation came to a halt about 1,500 years ago. And parts of the Talmud may seem weird, obscure or outdated today. But at the time it was compiled, it was a flexible effort to adapt centuries-old Mosaic laws to the realities of contemporary life, including forced exile from Jerusalem. 

Prayer replaced ritual sacrifice. Multiple synagogues replaced a single Temple. The implications of Biblical injunctions were discussed, debated and interpreted. 

“You have ‘an eye for an eye’ in the Torah — primitive desert law,” Rabbi Chester said in one of my Bat Mitzvah study sessions with him last spring. “Then Rabbi Hillel comes along and says, ‘That means the value of an eye for an eye.” 

So Judaism is not simply an unwavering adherence to an ancient code of laws. It is interpretation and adaptation of those laws so that the spirit remains true, but the details meet the present era. (As a Reform Jew, I would argue that we need to keep interpreting and adapting, and not stop in 5th century Babylon or 16th century Poland.) 

Now, let’s flash forward a millennium or two to 21st century America, where the U.S. Supreme Court is polarized between two schools of thought: 

  • Conservative justices like John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas who claim the U.S. Constitution means only what the framers literally wrote, and
  • Moderates/liberals who believe in interpreting the Constitution to address modern-day issues like gay rights, abortion, and a complex global economy that requires government oversight and regulation. 

I was thinking about this while reading a recent New Yorker story on the judicial philosophy of Justice Stephen Breyer, whose new book attacks the view that the federal government should do nothing more than the founding fathers specified in 1787.

Making Our Democracy Work, by Stephen Breyer

Journalist Jeffrey Toobin wrote that Breyer: 

“gives a comprehensive denunciation of a purely originalist approach, noting first the difficulty of divining what the framers might regard as the legal status of ‘the automobile, television, the computer, or the Internet.’ And he argues that the framers themselves wanted the application of the Constitution to change with the times.” 


Is it more than historical happenstance that three of the four liberals on the Court  – Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan – are Jewish?

A happy new year, but less so for Isaac

September 10, 2010

The Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah is one of the most powerful but also most disturbing episodes in the Bible – the Akedah, or sacrifice of Isaac. 

You know the story: God tells Abraham to prove his devotion by sacrificing his son Isaac. (Cue up Springsteen singing “Prove it all night.” Or if you want to be more literal, Dylan at the start of Highway 61 Revisited.) Abraham takes Isaac to the top of Mt. Moriah, and when the boy asks why there is no lamb for the ritual sacrifice, he says only that God will provide the lamb.

Ram spice box

Abraham ties Isaac up, gets out the knife and is prepared to kill him when, in perhaps the original instance of deus ex machina, an angel shows up and tells him to stop. Miraculously a ram appears in the bushes to take the place of hapless Isaac. 

This is horrible on so many levels. What kind of God would make such a demand on a parent? What kind of parent would go along with such a request, without even a protest?  

How can Judaism glorify and praise Abraham’s mindless – inhuman – obedience? What kind of psychological scars would this incident have left on Isaac? And what about the ram? 

In one of the first high holiday services that I attended at Temple Sinai, Rabbi Steven Chester gave an entire sermon on the Akedah from the point of view of the ram – who committed no sin, harmed no one, was merely going about his ramly grazing when he was casually eliminated, collateral damage in God’s game of chicken with Abraham. 

In all honesty, I don’t remember the details of any other high holiday sermon. But I remember that one. 

Of course there have been all kinds of justifications of the Akedah over the centuries: 

  • God never really meant for Abraham to kill his son. He was just testing him.  

That’s nearly as bad in my book. Why should God design such a vicious test? Isaac may not have perished physically, but I suspect he suffered a death of the soul – betrayed by his father, toyed with by God. Like the ram, Isaac was collateral damage. 

  • Abraham never meant to go through with it.  He was just testing God.  

Ditto. How dare Abraham use his son as a pawn in his chess game with God? 

  • The point of the Akedah story is not that God asked Abraham for a human sacrifice, but that in the end God repudiated human sacrifice. For that historical era, this was actually a progressive and humanist statement.  

Well, that holds a little more weight with me but not much. The Akedah story isn’t just about human sacrifice, but about unquestioning obedience to God – about setting aside reason and even the deepest human bonds of love to carry out God’s will. 

And we know where that leads today – to suicidal jihadis, Quran-burning preachers, zealots who murder abortion providers, the dust of 9/11. 

If I ever get my current two novels sold, I have a germ of an idea for the next one: Not giving away any details, but it would be a modern take on the Akedah. 

Now, none of my thinking on this is remotely new. There is loads of anguished  writing about this. Rabbi Chester, in fact, has over the years made a personal project of collecting poetry and fiction on the Akedah. 

In that sermon that made such an impression on me, he quoted from Yehuda Amichai’s poem The Real Hero about the ram: 

The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,
who didn’t know about the conspiracy between the others.
As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a song in his memory—
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.

(You can find the full text of The Real Hero here, from a U.C. Press translation by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell.)

The British poet Wilfrid Owen wrote about the Akedah in 1916 in his Parable of the Old Man and the Young, which is more about World War I than about the Bible. (Owen died on the battlefield two years after writing this poem.) You can find Owen’s poem, and a couple of others about the Akedah, here

Much more recently (hot off the electronic presses, in fact!) rabbinical student and poet Rachel Barenblat just posted a cycle of poems about Abraham, Sarah and Isaac on her blog The Velveteen Rabbi. Here’s one of them that I particularly love. But it’s worth visiting her site to read them all

6. The angels say

Avraham failed the test.
For Sodom and Gomorrah he argued
but when it came to his son
no protest crossed his lips.

God was mute with horror.
Avraham, smasher of idols
and digger of wells
was meant to talk back.

Sarah would have been wiser
but Avraham avoided her tent,
didn’t lay his head in her lap
to unburden his secret heart.

In stricken silence God watched
as Avraham saddled his ass
and took Yitzchak on their last hike
to the place God would show him.

The angel had to call him twice.
Avraham’s eyes were red, his voice hoarse
he wept like a man pardoned
but God never spoke to him again.

Gospel Shabbat!

April 30, 2010

Wow! Blog readers, I wish you had been there tonight. My synagogue had a special Friday night service – the first-ever performance of a Gospel Shabbat composed by Stephen Saxon, a cantor and jazz musician from San Ramon, California. 

It was amazing. While a typical Friday night service might draw 50 to 100 congregants, the sanctuary was packed with about 700 people, both Temple Sinai members and visitors. It felt like a high holiday service: Our rabbi even joked, as he introduced Saxon, that it was time to sing Kol Nidrei

Gospel Shabbat at Temple Sinai - (from right) Cantor Stephen Saxon, Cantor Ilene Keys, Rabbi Steven Chester and singers. Photo credit: Robin Nasatir

Saxon was accompanied by an a cappella choir called Flying Without Instruments, as well as a quartet of gospel musicians from nearby Oakland churches. He had basically set an entire Shabbat service to gospel music – taking each major prayer (the Barchu, the Sh’ma, the Amidah, the Mi Shebeirach etc.) and creating an English-language gospel version of it. 

He got the whole room singing immediately with an opening “Hallelujah” composition. In between the musical numbers, he introduced and explained each part of the service. People were on their feet – swaying, singing, clapping – for much of the evening. 

It felt slightly jarring to hear familiar Hebrew prayers sung in English to music from such a non-Jewish tradition. I wished there had been a little more Hebrew — more “Adonai” and less “Lord.”

But it didn’t feel compromised or heretical – the Hebrew translations were accurate in meaning if not literal, and Saxon’s introductions also made clear that this was all in the structure and context of a Jewish Shabbat service. Overall it was uplifting and inspiring, and engaging in a visceral way that doesn’t often happen with more traditional Reform services. 

Sometimes it’s good to take familiar things and put them in an entirely new context. 

And the gospel context is so rich – the legacy of African-American oppression and transcendence, the great music, the way you are caught up and carried along in the rhythm and choruses. 

Classical Reform Judaism is often focused on “head.” This added epic doses of heart, gut, and even hips. 

Rabbi Steven Chester – our senior rabbi, with whom I’m doing my Bat Mitzvah studies – added a political context during the closing benediction when he spoke about Arizona’s controversial new legislation allowing police to stop anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. 

He noted that both gospel and Jewish traditions stand against oppression and discrimination, and he read a statement by the Reform movement opposing the Arizona law.

Gospel Shabbat musicians Photo credit: Robin Nasatir

But I’m straying afield. Back to the Gospel Shabbat – it was moving, uplifting and inspiring. I’d love for our temple to host  it again, maybe several times a year. And I could easily see this receiving an enthusiastic welcome at both synagogues and churches across the country. One of Saxon’s aims with the service, in fact, was to deepen interfaith understanding and connections between Christian churches and Jewish congregations.

Dozens of people stayed after the service officially ended, swaying and clapping and continuing to sing the final song, Saxon’s gospel transformation of Oseh Shalom.

I was one of them. I went home singing it

Saxon has a web site with some of his music, and you can listen to his Gospel Shabbat compositions here.  But a caveat — the online versions are him singing solo, and they are a pale shadow of how things sounded at temple with the live choir, the band, and a sanctuary full of hundreds of people singing.

Listen, but add your imagination.