Posts Tagged ‘Temple Sinai’

In Conversation: Rabbi Yoni Regev

December 28, 2014

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 fifth in an occasional series of interviews with the clergy of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif. 

Rabbi Yoni Regev

Rabbi Yoni Regev

Rabbi Yoni Regev started serving as Interim Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sinai in summer 2014, his first pulpit after ordination.

At age 31, Rabbi Regev is older than many new rabbis since he is Israeli and served in the Israeli army before enrolling in college and rabbinical school. His wife, Lara Pullan Regev, is also studying to become a rabbi and serves as Director of Jewish Living and Learning at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. It’s unusual to have an Israeli-born rabbi serving an American congregation, so I asked a lot of questions about that!

Q: How did you decide to become a rabbi? Your father is a rabbi in Israel. How did that influence your decision?

A: My father was a rabbi and we were overtly Reform, which was unusual in Israel. I grew up going to the Reform movement’s kindergarten and then the early TALI schools as they were developing. (TALI is a Hebrew acronym for public schools that have Jewish enrichment, which were run by the Reform and Conservative movements.) My mom was a teacher in one of them, so it was an all-encompassing experience for us.

A lot of my parents’ friends were also rabbis and professionals in the Jewish community. In a lot of ways, it was all I knew. We had guests every Friday night. I remember the lively discussions around the table – politics of the day, politics of the Jewish world. My mom is a great cook and has kept a book since before my parents were married of every person they’ve hosted in our house, cross-indexed with what she prepared and what they like to eat and what they don’t like to eat.

Q: It sounds like she is not just a great cook, she is an obsessive-compulsive cook!

A: No, she is a hostess who takes things seriously. She cares about people feeling welcome. She would know that if someone last came to dinner in 1999, and enjoyed a particular rice dish, they might enjoy that rice dish again.

Q: Did your dad lead a congregation?

A: When I was first growing up, he was on the faculty at at Hebrew Union College [the Reform rabbinical school]. Born and raised in Tel Aviv, he was raised completely secular and first became exposed to Judaism through the Reform movement as part of a U.S.-Israel student exchange.

He was selected by his high school principal for an exchange program that involved going to Camp Swig in 1968, which was a transformative time for him. He became very involved with the nascent Reform movement in Israel when he came back. He became a youth group leader, and later decided to follow that up with rabbinical school.

I always enjoyed going to services with him. He would sometimes lead services at HUC. In 1989, he founded the Israel Religious Action Center, which is the Israeli counterpart of the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C., and which served as the legal arm of the Reform movement in Israel and in many ways its social advocacy arm as well. He served as its founding director through my years in high school and then was appointed as president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism in 2001.

Q: Quite a pedigree! It’s like being the son of a Chasidic rebbe.

A: It was all very natural for me. That said, my sister – who grew up in the very same house – couldn’t care less and was never excited about attending services. She’s a musician and now a pastry chef professionally. So that did not rub off at all on her.

Q: What was it that appealed to you?

A: It wasn’t just my father. The issues he was involved in – battles over “who is a Jew,” battles for conversion recognition, battles for freedom of religion in Israel – were things that were in the press and were hot topics all the time.

At the end of the day, I realized that being a rabbi combines all the things I feel passionate about – work with a community, daily study, and bending your mind in new directions. And I always loved the stage and being in front of people.

What I was drawn to as I was ending my army service was music. I had imagined I would follow the path to cantorial school. But almost as soon as I came to the States [for university] and started being involved in the Reform movement, I realized I loved singing but it wasn’t what I wanted to do full time.

Rabbi Yoni Regev considered becoming a cantor before he became a rabbi.

Rabbi Yoni Regev considered becoming a cantor before he became a rabbi.

Q: I was surprised to hear your dad is a sabra, because you have no Israeli accent. You have an American accent.

A: I always had that. My mom is American. She made aliyah in 1978. My sister and I were raised bilingual at home, speaking Hebrew with my father and English with my mom. My sister speaks English fluently but doesn’t sound American. So you could attribute it to my singer’s ear, but I have a suspicion it was influenced more by watching a lot of TV, because I don’t have my mom’s accent.

Q: In one of your high holiday sermons, you mentioned your decision to become a Reform rabbi in America rather than Israel. There is such a need in Israel for for an alternative to the poles of completely secular or completely Orthodox. It seems like it would be a very attractive place to be a Reform rabbi. What made you come to the U.S. to work?

A: As someone who related in the American vernacular, I felt I could explain the realities of life in Israel in a way that people could hear them. Also, I always felt I would do better working in a team and being part of an established institution. In Israel, it’s still very much a start-up kind of approach [in the Reform movement].

One interesting thing is that since I started school, the interest within Israel in becoming a Reform rabbi has spiked incredibly. Ordination classes of one or two were common in the 1990s, and four was considered a big class. Now they are ordaining much bigger classes. This is coinciding with a deep need within Israel for rediscovering authentic Jewish roots. For a long time, the notion was that … religion was really reserved for the Orthodox. If you weren’t Orthodox, you shouldn’t touch it. But we’ve started seeing people in Israel coming to the Reform movement for b’nei mitzvah and wedding services. Even though there is no legal recognition for [non-Orthodox] weddings, people are yearning for egalitarian, meaningful services.

The other part of [how I chose to work in the Untied States] was that I ended up meeting my wife Lara. She’s from L.A. and she was also applying to rabbinical school. At that point we decided our path would have us here.

Q: What’s it like to experience our liturgy in a language that you understand fluently? I know enough Hebrew to recognize most of the words, but it’s still not comfortable for me. I have to puzzle out the words.

A: For me as a Hebrew speaker, on the one hand, it’s so much clearer. But as I learn about the history of the liturgy, I realize how much I’ve glossed over because it’s so easy to understand. I’ve sometimes failed to see the liturgical work that went into structuring it. Reading it in English, I rediscover some of what the Hebrew means.

Q: Is it less mystical when you understand it and it seems part of daily conversation?

A: So much of popular culture and music in Israel comes from liturgy. Part of it is an earlier generation of people trying to reclaim ownership of the traditional Jewish sources by popularizing them, like psalms that made it on the pop charts.

Think about the Shma that we sing anytime we’re not using the organ. Tzvika Pik, who is sort of a Bob Dylan in Israel, wrote that melody for a festival. He also wrote the melody for Adon Olam that we use today, which was played on the radio in Israel.

So what’s it like to understand it? In some ways, it may breed a little bit of contempt or lack of attention. But I always try when I pray to find at least one thing that I haven’t noticed before.

Q: One question I ask all the rabbis I interview: What is your personal view of God?

A: The easiest answer is that I believe in a God that is the source of creation and the source of everything we see around us in the world. At the same time, I struggle with the God of the Bible, who doesn’t pay very good attention, who gets angry too easily, who seems to have created us with all kinds of faults.

The great challenge is that so much of our faith is built around prayer and a kind of immediate personal relationship with God. Our prayers are deeply personal and invoke a centuries-old covenant, which is continually rededicated between us and God. It’s a reciprocal kind of covenant.

If we don’t buy into that kind of relationship, then in some ways prayer becomes an act devoid of meaning. Yet I’m a big believer in prayer – not just because of the kind of transformational power it has on people, but because I believe it does have an effect on God.

Q: So you think there’s a God who listens and responds to prayer?

A: I didn’t say that. I don’t think that’s how it works. And I very much like the framework of Reform theology, which says that waiting around for God to act and for the Messiah to redeem this world is not what God expects of us.

Rather, prayer is in many ways an internal call to action — an understanding that the work of creation is in many ways done, but caring for this world is an imperative left to us.

In some ways it would be so much better if like most Ultra-Orthodox Jews, we could just say “It’s in God’s hands, I’m not in charge, God put down a rule book and I’m just going to follow the rules, and anything that happens is God’s will.” That’s very freeing. But then so much of the exploration and responsibility for what we see in the world around us is taken out of the picture.

I can say with some confidence that there is a God that set the universe in motion. And that in order for life to have meaning, God set the universe in motion with the intent to care for what happened after that. Our work is to reach back and find the connection between us and the God who set it in motion.

In times where people find comfort in another image of God, I don’t deny it. I don’t pretend to have a definitive image of God. When I’m called upon to provide comfort in the name of God, I bring God as close as I can and allow that to mean whatever it means to the individual who needs God. I don’t see a paradox or dishonesty in that, because we don’t have an answer one way or the other.

Rabbi Regev (right) leads a program for the Temple Sinai preschool / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Rabbi Regev (right) leads a program for the Temple Sinai preschool / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Q: How about the other big question. What do you think happens after death?

A: If nothing else, we are at peace. We are relieved of the weight of being alive.

There’s a lot of comfort in the traditional view that we are gathered up with our ancestors, and I try not to make that too literal or embodied. The idea that we are connected to this chain of people who came before us is meaningful. Those who have passed live in our hearts and minds, and thus live in our midst. Honoring our dead and celebrating their lives is one of the things that gives our own lives meaning. We pass that on to the next generation, and thereby matter in some deep and lasting way.

That’s one of the reasons I decided to focus very strongly on re-examining our approach to Jewish burial as part of my senior work [in rabbinical school]. I recently published an article discussing the need to re-examine burial and death — specifically how we have lost touch with the generational connection meant to take place as part of the burial process.

Q: What are we not doing that we used to do?

A: The roots of of Jewish burial have almost nothing to do with how we practice today, which derives from Europe in the middle ages.

At its root [in Biblical times], burial was a family affair. You had a family or clan burial plot – usually a cave. When you died, you were laid to rest in this burial cave for a year. At the end of a year, the family would return for what was the original yahrtzeit and perform the final act of unreturned mercy – gathering up your bones and placing them in an ossuary with your ancestors’ bones, so you would be physically gathered up with them.

As a living person, you had a deep understanding of where you came from and where you were going. Your relationship to the deceased did not end with their death.

Today, my grandparents on one side are buried in Israel and I don’t get to visit them as often as I’d like. My grandparents on the other side are still living, but their parents are buried in Rochester N.Y. and Providence R.I. I’ve been there once or twice. When I have children, I doubt they’ll ever go.

In major metropolitan areas, the ability to bury within an hour of the city has almost completely disappeared. So you are not able to visit, to interact, to be connected with the deceased. Cremation is not any better. It’s much worse for that purpose.

This is a broader question that society is going to have to face. Societies have changed and there are so many more people alive now. There are more people who are going to die in the next century than have died up until now in all of modern history…. The earth can sustain that amount of burial, but not in cities.

Q: Are you suggesting we go back to ossuaries?

A: We have to reimagine what it means to be gathered up to your ancestors. The family unit has become so fluid and so fractured that saying you are going to have a connection with your family burial place is simply unrealistic. But it’s a kind of responsibility that communities can take upon themselves in a way that families cannot.

There are different ways to do that. Temple Beth-El in Boca Raton has a mausoleum on the synagogue premises. They have found that people enjoy making a visit to their loved ones a part of visiting the synagogue. Unlike the rare visits to the cemetery, connecting death with the ongoing cycle of life demystifies it and engenders a better connection through the generations.

Q: I would ask this question of any rabbi. But particularly as an Israeli rabbi working in America, how do you feel American Jews should relate to Israel?

A: That is a question I feel very strongly about. American Jews have been given short shrift as far as their relationship with Israel. For a long time, the paradigm has been that we derive part of our authenticity from Israel, and since we live comfortably here, we owe some sort of tax on our comforts to support our beleaguered brothers in Israel.

Unfortunately, this means we have ceded the kind of responsibility and investment in the fabric of Jewish life that was envisioned in founding the state of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.

One of the great truisms of the Israeli political psyche is, “You don’t live here, you’re not exposed to the terror that we live with, your kids don’t go in the army – so butt out. We know better. This is our life.”

I don’t think that’s extraordinarily wrong. There are security realities that simply can’t be judged from the outside. At the same time, I do believe that Israel is the project of the Jewish people. For us to feel a sense of ownership over that project, we have to be given a bigger stake in the game than being cheerleaders on the sidelines.

Q: Should American Jews be allowed to criticize Israeli policy, particularly around the settlements and the peace process?

A: Up to a point, absolutely. The notion that any criticism from within exposes us to a weakened position facing the outside world is a form of self-delusion. If your positions are so weak that they can’t withstand a real critical debate, then you’re obviously not standing on a very strong foothold. Any political system that rejects dissent out of hand is one that is deeply uncertain of itself.

That said, there is truth to the reality that American Jews – as well as Americans and Europeans in general – do treat Israel with a different set of standards. They apply a standard that is far, far stricter and disproportionate relative to other democracies.

Look at what’s happening right now on border of Turkey and Syria, in Kubani. Thousands of ethnic Palestinians are being put to the sword, but I don’t see demonstrations in San Francisco. I don’t see people in the Port of Oakland blocking Turkish or Syrian ships from coming to port. There have been 160,000 civilians killed in the civil war in Syria, and no one is marching down the street over that.

At the U.N. Human Rights Council, nearly half of all condemnations are against Israel. Is Israel perfect? No. But does it commit half of all human rights violations in the world? No. Is it worse than Sudan? Than Darfur? No. Would I even put it in the same sentence as those countries? No.

Q: I believe that Israel as an issue is going to be increasingly challenging for American synagogues, because Israeli politics keep moving further and further to the right. There will be a schism between Israel and many U.S. Jews if we don’t get any kind of peace settlement and end up with de facto annexation.

A: That’s a true and very challenging perspective. The collapse of the ‘90s peace movement left a vacuum of political aspiration for peace in Israel that has been very hard to replace. The disillusionment has been crippling. When I was growing up, parents would always say, “By the time you grow up, peace will have come and you won’t need to go in the army.” I don’t think anyone says that anymore.

The ingredients [for a peaceful settlement] are there. Everyone knows the basic premises for peace. But it has to become more costly for both sides to go on fighting than to make the sacrifices for peace. So far, it’s been too costly to make the sacrifices for peace.

Any actual peace will require both sides losing significant standing. And since both sides still want to win, we don’t have peace.

Q: As American Jews, what can we do? Do we just have to wait for Israel and the Palestinians to bloody each other enough?

A: Partly, we need to have that conversation – that it’s too costly to not make peace. We need to say, “We believe that peace is necessary, justice is necessary, equality is necessary.”

Carte blanche for the established political system in Israel has not proven successful. But do I think boycotts or divestment are right? No. The solution is not withholding funds but giving funds, in a more directed way. Voting with your pocketbook rather than using it to slap someone down.

Q: So we should fund the institutions of civil society there?

A: Yes, in a non-apologetic way. In a Jewish way. We’re pretty smart people. All we need to do is change the equation a little bit.

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. Click on these links to read previous interviews with  Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, Rabbi Andrew StrausRabbi Andrea Berlin, and Rabbi Steven Chester


Passover and the courage to change

March 13, 2012

Earlier this year, I took part in a Shabbat service where women from Temple Sinai wrote personal, modern versions of the traditional prayers. Sinai member Karen Marker wrote a version of the Mi Chamocha (Who is like you?), the prayer where we praise God for parting the Red Sea and taking us to freedom.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

It struck me as a wonderful reading to incorporate into a Passover seder. And so, since we are at the time of year when some of us start preparing haggadot for Passover, here it is.

Note: It is helpful in reading this to know that Karen chose to undergo a conversion to Judaism (including immersion in a mikvah) because she had not been raised as a Jew, even though her father’s side of the family was Jewish.


By Karen Marker

This is a true story
of a prayer forgotten and remembered.
It is the story of my grandfathers
who stood on the edge of the waters
in Lithuania, 1890, at age 13,
in  Sweden, 1903 , at age 22,
on the ground of the only things they  knew
of religion and  war,
the anger of  neighbors,  the mandates of rulers,
accusations, burning villages, the loss of  fathers.

This is a prayer for everyone who is more afraid of drowning in the place
where they are standing than stepping into the darkness
and  seeking a radical change.

This is the prayer for those who yelled at their god:
Why have you enslaved us to restrictive religious practices and persecution?
My grandparents
who knew nothing of each other,
nor of us yet to be born of their children,
cast off their religion and country
believing that the waters would part and carry them
to their dream of open space, liberation,
political, civic, and economic freedom.

They set sail as millions followed after,
took on new names and a new language,
never looked back when they started over.

This is the story of the miracle that happened.
You sent hidden wells with my grandparents
into their new world,
in the libraries and the classrooms,
in  protests and in conversations.
You sustained them
in the wilderness of the not-so-perfect world on the other side.

Michomocha. Who is like you
that even in forgetting we remember?

This is the story of the mikvah
where I  immersed and touched no edges,
three times curled up as a fetus
in the embrace of living waters.

When I arose
I had found my voice,
and the stories of my grandparents.

Who is like you
Oh god who gives us the courage
to step into the waters,
gives us the miracle of starting over
and returning.


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 Andrew Straus

July 27, 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 fourth in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif. 

Rabbi Andrew Straus may be 50 and a veteran of three congregations, but he’s the new kid on theTemple Sinai block, having taken over as senior rabbi on July 1st after the retirement of Rabbi Steven Chester. Still, less than a month into his rabbinate here, it’s already clear to me that he is a wonderful addition to the Sinai community.

Rabbi Andrew Straus

Rabbi Straus — whose wife Karen and three children accompanied him from his previous pulpit in Tempe, Arizona — brings warmth, humor, energy and intellectual vigor. During his first Shabbat service at Sinai, he turned the d’var Torah into a room-wide back-and-forth on that week’s Torah portion.

He seemed to already know the names of half the attendees, and the other half he learned by asking them to introduce themselves as they made comments. I suspect that two decades from now, people will be saying the same thing about Rabbi Straus that they said about Rabbi Chester: I can’t imagine Temple Sinai without him. 


Q: Tell me about why you became a rabbi.

A: I was entering my senior year at Brandeis, about to graduate with a history degree. I didn’t want to go to law school, and I didn’t want to pursue a PhD. So I said, ‘Let me find the longest graduate program that will put off the real world longer than anything else.’ And rabbinic school was another five years of graduate study.

That’s the joke answer, although there’s some truth to it. But more seriously,  I was looking at what I wanted to do with my life. I loved working in the Jewish community, so I started looking at getting a master’s in Jewish education or possibly in Jewish social work. At that time they would teach you education, and throw in a little bit of Judaism. Or they would teach you social work, and throw in a little bit of Judaism. The major focus was on the professional degree, not the Jewish studies.

What I wanted was to study Judaism in a more serious way – and then figure out what to do with it afterwards.

What I’ve since come to realize is that the rabbinate allows me to dabble in all of those areas. I get to do the social work stuff and the counseling; I get to be involved in education; I get to be involved in community organizing and community issues. Sometimes I think I’ve become a jack of all trades, though I’m not sure I’ve mastered any of them.

Q: What kind of Jewish upbringing did you have?

A: I grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where my parents were very involved in the Jewish community.  They don’t use the term ‘refugees’ to define themselves, since they left Germany right after Kristallnacht and didn’t go through the camps. But that experience certainly shaped them and how they were involved in the Jewish community.

I very clearly remember going down to New York for Israel Day parades or for Free Soviet Jewry day marches. I remember the Yom Kippur War, just before my Bar Mitzvah, sitting with my father at the J.C.C. and making calls about who was going to donate what to support Israel. I remember some of the doctors in the community leaving to go to Israel for the Yom Kippur War.

For my parents, it was very important we have Shabbat dinner together. And more often than not, we went to Friday night services together too.

Q: Was your family Reform or Conservative? 

A: It was a Conservative congregation, a very liberal Conservative congregation. The first Shabbat that Conservative synagogues were allowed to count women in a minyan, our congregation was doing it, and at the first Shabbat where the Conservative movement gave permission for women to read from the Torah, we called women to the Torah.

Choosing Reform Judaism

Q: What drew you to become a Reform rabbi rather than Conservative? 

A: At the time, the Conservative seminary was not accepting women, and that didn’t make any sense to me. And at the time, it was understood that you would be shomer Shabbat — traditionally observant of Shabbat and kashrut and the mitzvot. If you didn’t do those things, it could be grounds for expulsion.

I didn’t want someone forcing me to do those things. I might choose to do them – but I didn’t want someone forcing me.

I realized that, if that’s where I was, it was really more of a Reform Jewish attitude than a Conservative one. So maybe I belonged at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Q: Are there parts of Reform Judaism that remain uncomfortable for you?

A: Growing up as a kid, I remember going to my aunt and uncle’s Reform congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts, and walking in and hearing the organ and the big choir and thinking, ‘God, I’ve walked into church!’

I’m not sure I could be in a fully classical Reform congregation – one that was still using the Union Prayer Book with services largely in English, where the cantor is hidden and there’s a pipe organ with a large professional choir. But the (Reform) movement has become much more traditional over the past 30 to 40 years. This embrace of tradition made it much easier for me. And I think I’ve become more liberal.

Rabbi Straus leads an interfaith program at Temple Emanuel in Tempe, Arizona / Photo by Temple Emanuel

Q: What are your favorite aspects of being a rabbi? There are so many different components of this job – the pastoral counseling, the Jewish scholarship, the social action, the interfaith work. 

A: Of the things you mentioned, I certainly enjoy the social action, the Jewish education, the pastoral counseling. If I could eliminate all the administrative pieces, that would be great. But that comes with the territory. I love teaching, I love counseling, and the social justice stuff often gets me jazzed, especially when you can see where it makes an impact on the community.

Broadening the meaning of Kashrut

Q: Do you personally feel more of an affinity for the spiritual/reflective aspect of Judaism or the tikkun olam/community-building aspect of Judaism? 

A: I’m not sure I see the two as separate. I understand Judaism as asking us to be God’s partners in healing this world. My understanding of the mitzvot is they are designed to help me live a conscious life – to help me think about these issues both interally for myself and the Jewish community, and for the external community. If I can use kashrut as an example, I think kashrut is about conscious eating. What am I about to eat? How was this animal slaughtered? Am I eating dairy or am I eating meat?

It takes an instinctive part of who I am – as an animal, I have to eat – and brings it to the head and heart. My pet dog doesn’t use his brain when he eats. I’m a human being, and I have to use my brain and my soul when I sit down to eat.

Q: I feel that kashrut often emphasizes the letter of the law rather than the meaning. I can understand putting attention into buying local, or into how food is produced. But that’s totally different from separating milk and meat and using margarine rather than butter at a meal. 

A: What I find really interesting is this whole new movement called eco-kashrut. The Conservative movement has taken the lead with a new certification called Hechsher Tzedek or Magen Tzedek.  Traditional kashrut only looks at the last ten seconds of an animal’s life – how is it slaughtered? The Conservative movement is saying that’s not enough. We have to look at how that animal is treated through its entire life, how the workers in the slaughterhouse are being treated, how the farmers are being treated. There’s a lot of wisdom to that.

In my own home, we eat very little meat. But when we do, we don’t look at whether it has been properly shechita’ed (slaughtered), because most meat in America today is slaughtered with relatively little pain — which is what kashrut is really about — but we do look for natural or organic or free-range. We expand the definition.

This doesn’t fit my Orthodox brothers’ categories. But it fits my categories, and it fits what you were saying about looking at the broader picture.

A God constrained by the laws of nature

Q: Let’s take a leap into the abstract and talk about God. What is your conception of God? 

A: It’s very much an evolving conception. I often joke — but am also serious — that the day I think I know with absolute certainty who and what God is, that’s the day I’ve stopped growing as a human being and a Jew. That’s certainly the day I should get out of the rabbinate, and probably the day I should die.

I am very much influenced in my thinking about God by writers like Mordechai Kaplan, Harold Schulweis, and Harold Kushner. They teach that God is not a supernatural God who can come down and fiddle in the laws of nature.

Kushner has written that we ultimately have to choose between a God who is all-just and a God who is all-powerful. And given that choice, I choose a God who is all-just. This means that God has created the world in such a way that the world operates by certain laws – the laws of genetics, physics, chemistry, all those laws that scientists are discovering on a regular basis.

It’s not that God chooses not to interfere with those laws, but that God cannot intefere with those laws. So when someone gets cancer, I can’t blame God for that cancer. At the same time, it means God doesn’t pick and choose and say, ‘Mrs. Schwartz, you’re going to be cured from your cancer but Mr. Cohen, you’re going to die from your cancer.’ That’s got to do with all the other scientific laws.

Where is God in all that? God is with the scientists and doctors inspiring them to discover cures or provide the best possible care that they can. God is with the community saying, ‘How do we support Mr. Cohen and Mrs. Schwartz through their healing process, and how can we be God’s partners in doing that?’

Q: If God is with the doctors studying cancer, is God also with the vandals who come and break into Mrs. Schwartz’s house while she is in the hospital? 

A: No. I would argue that the vandals – or the terrorists, or whoever you want to substitute into that sentence – are people who have chosen not to listen to the will of God.

Q: But people who do horrible things often believe they are hearing God. Think of all those popes who carried out crusades and pogroms in the name of God. 

A: That’s not the God that I believe in. The God I believe in couldn’t possibly condone actions like that. And that goes for the jihadists, crusaders, or whomever you want to substitute there, who says ‘I’m acting in the will of God.’ No God that I believe in could condone that.

Q: But they’re as confident as you are in their view of God. Why should I put greater credence in one, rather than conclude it’s all subjective and everyone is making things up to justify what they want to believe? 

A: There is admittedly an element of subjectivity. That’s why I can do the interfaith work I do. Because I believe that ultimately there is not just one path to God. I don’t believe there is ultimately just one ‘true religion.’

Judaism is the best way for me to understand my role in the world and my relationship with God. Committed Christians find that Christianity is their way, and committed Muslims would say the same thing. But to me, any religion that teaches hate and violence in the name of God goes beyond the realm.

Baseball as a metaphor for spirituality

Q: In your own life, do you feel that you have ever communicated with God or experienced the presence of God?

A: I’m not sure I would use the word ‘presence.’ I might use the word ‘ force.’ But yes. There are moments when we sense that force. As Danny Syme once taught me, when we think about love, we can’t see it, touch it, smell it, or feel it with any of our five senses. But we all know when we’ve been in the presence of love and when we’ve felt loved.

It’s the same thing with God. We can’t experience God with any of our five senses. But we know when we’ve been in the presence of God. Although often we don’t know it till after the fact.

Q: Have those moments for you been in prayer, or in nature, or in driving the carpool? 

A: Rarely in driving the carpool! But there are times when a kid will make a comment, or I’ll see a beautiful sunset while driving. There are moments while teaching. There have also been moments when I’ve been with families in a hospital room, saying a prayer, and something happens.

Each time it’s different. But there’s a sense: God was present in this moment.

I often use an analogy of baseball. The greatest baseball players right now are batting 350, which means they only get a hit 35 percent of the time at bat. They go right back to the dugout 65 percent of the time. But they know – to get that hit, they’ve got to work on their batting 350 days a year. And they’ve got to be willing to fail time after time after time.

The same thing is true for us in our experience of God. Too many of us walk into the sanctuary and think that every time we’re going to get a home run.  If you think hitting a baseball at 90 miles per hour is hard, true experiences of God are harder yet. So as a community we have to learn to say: When I open myself up to those possibilities, more often than not, nothing will happen. I’ll go right back to the dugout. There will be those times I get a single. Very rarely will I get a home run.

As my father would say: If I go to services, the odds of having a deeply spiritual experience are pretty slim. But if that doesn’t happen,  hopefully there’s been some beautiful music. And if there wasn’t beautiful music, maybe the rabbi said something that was intellectually stimulating. Or maybe I saw a friend and it was a great social experience. And if worse comes to worst, maybe there was something good to eat at the oneg.  There’s lot of different reasons to come to services.

“It’s not just about Shabbat or Passover”

Q: You did a lot of interfaith work in Arizona. What is one thing you wish more non-Jews understood about Judaism? 

A: That Judaism is not monolithic. And that Judaism today is not Biblical Judaism. That what they read about in the Hebrew Bible — what they call the Old Testament — is not how any Jews worship or practice today.

Q: What do you wish more Jews knew about Judaism? 

A: I wish they would get the sense that Judaism is a way of life, with something to teach us about almost every aspect of our lives. While we might not always agree with it, we have an obligation to study and learn from it. Judaism can help us make our daily lives richer and more meaningful. That’s part of what I think Orthodoxy gets. It’s not just about Shabbat or Passover, but about how to see the world through Jewish eyes.

The other piece I wish more Jews would pick up on is Shabbat. When I work with people for conversion, I hear time and time again ‘Ahh! My life is so much richer now that I’ve embraced Shabbat.’

I don’t necessarily mean an Orthodox understanding of Shabbat, but an understanding that  ‘I can take a seventh day. I can take Shabbat and make it holy, in whatever way that word means for me – make it special. I don’t have to do chores and I don’t have to go to work.  I can make this a special day for me and my family.’


This is the fourth in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. Click on these links to read previous interviews with  Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-MuchinRabbi Andrea Berlin, and Rabbi Steven Chester

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


Fame! fortune! chanting!

May 3, 2011

Yeah! The big call just came!

Okay, calm down. It was not a New York editor phoning to beg me to publish my novel with them.

It was our temple’s cantor, back from her sabbatical, asking me to chant a verse of Torah during high holidays this fall. And not just any verse — the first aliyah on Yom Kippur.

This is a verse that in recent years has been chanted beautifully by a congregant in her 90s. It seems she decided to bow out this year and the cantor thought I would be a good replacement.

I’m very excited. Our temple draws a big crowd on high holidays — so big that we rent the 3,000-seat art deco Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland. But honestly, I’d be just as excited if I were chanting in some religious school multi-purpose room that holds 50.

Apparently the cantillation for high holiday chanting is slightly different from the rest of the year, as are the prayer melodies.

I’ll get started learning the Yom Kippur portion this summer — after I chant Torah in July with Karen, Sidney and Jane, the three other women who became adult b’not mitzvah at Temple Sinai this year.

Now… back to waiting for the call from that hypothetical editor. I won’t hold my breath, though. It’s harder chanting Hebrew when you don’t let yourself breathe.

In Conversation: Rabbi Andrea Berlin

April 21, 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 second in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif.

Rabbi Andrea Berlin

Rabbi Andrea Berlin came to Temple Sinai in 1998 and recently moved to a regional position with the Union of Reform Judaism. She exudes an infectious delight in Jewish learning, and inspired near-groupie enthusiasm among both adults and teens taking a class in medieval Jewish thought with her.

Rabbi Berlin, 40, has two children with her husband Jon. She was the rabbi for my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, but I had never asked about her own beliefs until we did this interview.

Here Rabbi Berlin talks about her hybrid socialist/Orthodox upbringing, her personal connection to (and anger at) God, the challenges of navigating Middle East politics as a congregational rabbi, and the trend toward “cyber-Judaism.”


A “socialist Reformadox” upbringing

Q: Tell me about your Jewish upbringing. Were you raised Reform?

A: I was raised as a socialist Reformadox.

Q: That’s a great label! But what does it mean?

A: We’d have to start with my dad, who during World War 2 spent half his time in the United States and half his time in England. His birth father was an Orthodox factory owner who made women’s coats in England. The man who raised him here was an atheist socialist and one of the major movers behind the Ladies Garment Workers Union.

My dad came into the marriage with my mom being non-practicing, but having both socialism and Orthodoxy as very strong passions, with socialism the most predominant. My mom grew up in New York Orthodox family…not Orthodox herself but very involved in Judaism. Passover showed all the variety of my family.

Q: So tell me about Passover in your family.

A: We worked out of the regular Maxwell House Orthodox haggadah, with supplements from the union haggadah – not the Union of Reform Judaism, but union as in AFL-CIO  It had a lot of pro-labor, pro-union, freedom-for-the-working-class type poems and songs. Then as we got more and more involved in the Reform movement, we would bring home the Reform liturgy. It was all over the place.

I grew up having bacon and eggs, but God forbid you ever put milk on the table with the bacon because that was just not kosher. As I’ve become more religious, I’ve dragged my parents along in the process.

I went to Reform religious school in third grade. It took a while to get there. We started Orthodox, and then went humanist. When I came home and explained that God was the opiate of the masses, my parents decided to try Reform.

Q: What made you decide to become a rabbi?

A: I don’t know. I was very, very young. When I was nine, I was tall for my age so when we would play house, I would always have to be the mom. I would have to do the dishes, which I didn’t like. So the bargain I struck with my non-Jewish neighbors was that if we could play temple first and I could be the rabbi, then we could play house and I would be the mom. That’s one of my earliest memories.

Communicating with God

Q: Let’s jump straight to the serious stuff, like I did with Rabbi Mates-Muchin. What’s your conception of God?

A: It changes every day. I have both an immanent [personal] and a transcendent conception of God.

The immanent one is probably the more difficult to articulate. It’s instinctual, a gut relationship. I very much feel God’s presence. I feel I can communicate with God and, if I am quiet and open and humble enough, I can get a sense of God and of direction.

Then there’s a transcendent belief where God is the force behind Creation. It was a conscious, decisive force with the intent of creating the world. I believe that God is ever present, but God’s relationship to the world has vastly changed over the history of humanity.

Q: Focusing on the transcendent — God as a force behind Creation. Is there something you would call a mind?

A: I think there’s a consciousness. It’s something so vastly different from anything we can comprehend that to call it a mind would be giving it attributes that are probably inappropriate. We can probably perceive .009 percent of what makes this thing.

Rabbis Andrea Berlin and Steven Chester at a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Sinai

Q: Did this consciousness communicate with our forefathers and the prophets? Was Abraham actually talking to some one or some thing? 

A: The reason I’m hesitating is that I have a foot in both doors.

If I were answering from my religious instinct, I’d say that Abraham certainly received communication from God. I’m not sure it would have been in words, but the medieval Jewish philosophers talk about God placing thoughts and images in the minds of the prophets.

On the other hand, looking at it from my academic view, Abraham didn’t exist. But the Torah still contains divinity even if Abraham didn’t exist. It was a way of giving us very important information that we needed to have through the voice of this Biblical character.

Torah as holy, but not to be taken literally

Q: When instructions like the Ten Commandments were conveyed to the Jewish people, were those actually the words of God, or of a prophet, or of a writer of the Torah?

A: I think there’s a divine spark in all of it. I would make a very sharp distinction between the written and the oral Torah [rabbinic commentaries].

To me, the oral Torah is an example of human beings struggling with written words. This is where I would break from Orthodox theology – I don’t believe in the infallible tradition, that somehow the oral Torah, everything a rabbi would come up with, was handed down by God at Sinai. I do believe that our brains are holy, our seichel [wisdom]  is incredibly holy, so that must come from God. But we invent it in each era.

Q: What do people mean by “written Torah” and “oral Torah?”

A: The written Torah ends at the end of Deuteronomy. The oral Torah is Talmud and Mishnah and the codes and everything that comes after. With written Torah, I feel it’s irrelevant where it came from – the fact is it’s holy, and we’ve treated it as holy. Whether written by God or human beings, it was designed to be studied in concert with our human instinct. Therefore it is a living, ever-evolving book. The mistake we make is to take it literally. As long as we don’t do that, it can have a holy influence in our world today.

Q: Let’s take some of the stuff that you wouldn’t follow today, like stoning people. 

A: Not only shouldn’t we take it literally, but we’re meant to struggle with it. I also think it’s possible that God has evolved. God’s relationship with humanity has changed – not only because we’ve changed, but why couldn’t it also be that God has changed as well?

Even though God exists out of time, God is learning about human beings as we’re growing. So I don’t necessarily think that God today would repeat that you take a child outside the gates and stone him if he curses his father.

Q: But do you think God actually had anything to do with that rule or was it just what people did at that time?

A: I teach Torah from a historical perspective, where we look at the Near Eastern codes. So when the authors wrote that, they were borrowing from what they knew of society. At the time, it was the only way you could maintain order and control.

But talking about me personally? I think it’s irrelevant. Even the words that cause me pain are holy and I have to treat them as such – that doesn’t mean follow them, but argue with them and change them. The rabbinic tradition I share is called pilpul, where you change the words so much that you come out with the opposite conclusion. The unholy thing would be to ignore them.

Q: And those words are holy because they’re our tradition? Or because they were inspired by God?

A: Because they exist in a holy book, inside the Torah. Even the words I believe are wrong are holy.

Different holy books for different people

Q: Would the words in any holy book be equally holy? Are the words of the Quran or Hindu scriptures equally holy?

A: To Muslims and Hindus, yes. But Torah is mine. It’s holy for me.

Q: So is there an objective God or truth? An imam says “the Quran is holy,” and a priest says “the Gospels are holy” —

A: Judaism teaches that I am bound to Torah because my people accepted it. I chose to accept it; it’s a covenant I have with God and the Torah. It does not apply to someone who does not want to join that covenant. It’s not the same theology as saying, “This is a holy book, everyone needs to adhere to it.” Only the people who are part of the covenant need to adhere to it.

Q: But if there was a God powerful enough to create the entire world, wouldn’t that God have created one set of moral rules for the whole world? 

A: No, I don’t think so. I return to the text. When the Ten Commandments were given, it says that “God spoke all these words, saying….”

The question is why those two words [said and saying], why the redundancy?  God spoke the Ten Commandments to one community so we’d all hear them together, and also said them individually in everybody’s ears because we all learn and hear differently.

While that was true for the Ten Commandments for the Jewish people, I feel it was also true for the greater objective truth of the world. There can be this one God but because we’re all different, we’re going to understand God differently. And what’s nice is that the fundamental principles that thread through all these books are the same. You can’t murder. You can’t commit theft. There are things you can’t do, and they’re pretty consistent across the board.

Walking with God while climbing Half Dome

Q: Let’s talk about your immanent or personal sense of God. Is this  something you’ve always had? 

A: As long as I can remember. It’s not consistent with any sort of intellectual attempt to articulate or understand it.

Q: Does it come to you at particular moments, like through praying or being in nature?

A: It’s like any relationship. I always have it, but there are times when I access it more often. It ebbs and flows. There are times I feel more distant from it, usually when I’m angry.

But it’s also something I talk very little about. My job as a congregational rabbi is to help people articulate their own views of God. So I don’t bring mine into that, since it would disrupt that process. It’s very rare that I actually talk about my relationship with God.

Q: Well, now you get to talk about it! It’s interesting to me because it’s completely alien from my experience. I have never experienced anything remotely Godlike on a personal level except a sense of being part of the universe when I’m in nature.

A: It might be the same thing, only we have different labels for it.

Q: I’d still say on my end, it’s pretty minimal. So… what is it you actually feel?

A: It’s hard to define. A closeness to an entity. It’s different from a human being, but I assume the feeling of being in relationship is similar. I feel I am “in relationship” to something else.

When you were talking, I remembered when I climbed Half Dome and there was this moment when I was exhausted. I had my pack on, it was hot, I couldn’t get enough oxygen – I was done. I ate a fruit bar and found my second wind. But from that time until we got to our stopping point, a couple of hours, I was walking with God. It was suddenly crystal clear to me. The mountains around me still had snow on them, and I felt like an artist was standing next to me showing me his work. It was an incredibly powerful experience.

On a more mundane scale, this morning I led minyan [prayers]. When I’m davening, I don’t always pay great attention to the words, but when I do, it’s almost like reading a diary given to me by someone else. Then in the moment when we’re quiet, I really do feel like someone is listening to me.

And often during the day, if something comes up, I can communicate to God and I feel like I’m being heard.

Q: Does God respond in terms of giving you answers?

A: Not answers. Sometimes I get a sense that I’m being cared for. Or there are coincidences that couldn’t possibly be coincidences. It feels like what Rabbi Larry Kushner calls “the invisible lines of connection.” It feels like there’s something bigger there than just a coincidence. That will often give me confidence about what my next step should be.

Q: When you pray, are you praying FOR things? Are you praying that your new job goes well? That God will be there for you? Are you talking to God?  

A: When I teach Torah study, I always pray that I’m accurate and that the class is exciting! So basically, I pray that I’m not going to make stuff up.

I pray for strength. Usually it’s not about getting something; it’s about what aspect of myself I need. I do always pray that Jon and I can raise our children to be happy and healthy mensches. We’ve gone through some very frightening health crises with them, and I’ve prayed very hard at those times.

Q: But during a typical morning minyan? 

A: There are prayers of supplication and prayers of benediction — benediction meaning “gratitude.” So most of my prayers are prayers of gratitude where I think about the kids, about Jon, my sister or friends. Sometimes on a Friday night I’m looking around the congregation and thinking about the work I get to do and am grateful for that. I always close with a “happy healthy mensch” prayer for the kids.

Q: Your sense of being cared for by God — is it fleeting or does it stay with you? 

A: Again, I would compare it with a human relationship. My sister lives in Boston. When I talk to her, she’s right there. But when I’m giving the kids a bath, she’s not in the front of my mind. The same thing is true with God.

Rabbi on the (relative) right

Q: How would you describe your Jewish practices compared to the majority of Reform rabbis? You are the most traditional of our three rabbis at Sinai.

A: I am to the right of most of my colleagues on everything — politics and ritual. With maturity, I’ve become a lot more relaxed. I used to be very uptight about what I thought Jews should and shouldn’t do, but age changes things.

For example, I keep less strictly kosher now than we used to. I don’t mix milk and meat when we’re at home, although I’m willing to do it when I’m out if I can’t avoid it.

Q: Given your preference for tradition when it comes to ritual, why are you a Reform Jew rather than Conservative?

A: The philosophy. I might choose to practice this way [traditionally], but I absolutely believe in Reform’s intent of combining Torah with seichel — our common sense and ability to interpret.

I love that we don’t lose the forest for the trees, that we don’t allow the letter of the law to corrupt the intent. I love the way we do holidays. I love the way we mobilize around social action. That’s a huge reason why I’m a Reform Jew. I believe the Torah’s basic mission is to bring light to the world, and how else are you going to do that if you’re not out in the street actually doing it? I love the way we do education. I love the way we allow modernity to enhance our Jewish experience.

Q: Have there been challenges as a congregational rabbi who is on the more traditional side?

A: Being politically right has been more of a problem. It’s mostly around Israel. I was raised with the understanding that Jews supported Israel, period.

Q: And Jews shouldn’t ever criticize Israel? 

A: If I’m not living there, I’m hesitant to do so. There’s plenty of criticism of Israel, but you still need to stand behind her and her survival.

Q: How does that come out in congregational life?

A: People take umbrage with our curriculum in preschool and religious school, or with the sermons. Rabbi Chester usually gives the pro-Israel high holiday sermon. People talk to me about it afterward, complaining, and don’t realize I’m actually to the right of where he is. Or they’re uncomfortable with the word  “Israel” itself – forgetting that’s our name, who we are, having nothing to do with the country. But people react to it in our prayers and that’s hard for me to navigate.

I can listen to people say whatever they want about God and there’s no personal response from me. But Israel’s a different story.

Q: Well, God’s a little more powerful than Israel! 

A: I believe in the two-state solution. I don’t want to sound like Meir Kahane. And thinking about people in the world, the Palestinians are probably in the most precarious situation. We need to take that into account.

But what I have trouble with are people who start the conversation with the premise that Israel’s existence is not a foregone conclusion. I find that here [in the Bay Area]. And I don’t know how to be a caring professional rabbi around that discussion.

The coming of cyber-Judaism

Q: Off of politics and back on ritual…  where do you see Reform Judaism going with ritual? The movement as a whole is more traditional than it was 20 years ago.

A: I believe we are heading toward post-denominational Judaism, where the lines between the movements are much more fluid. How that will look, I have no idea.

Cyber-Judaism is going to have a huge influence on brick-and-mortar Judaism, and I don’t think cyber-Judaism is delineated by denominations. Rather than Reform ritual, we’ll be looking at “modern ritual” that encompasses Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, Conservative, Modern Orthodox — ritual that will bring the movements into a more intimate working and sharing relationship.

Q: What do you mean by cyber-Judaism?

A: Communities will evolve from people knowing each other in person into the cyber-world, or from meeting in the cyber-world into knowing each other in person. Even right now, I can think of several colleagues who have become very close in the cyber-world and they see each other at conferences. I can see the same thing happening with congregants.

Q: Would it replace going to services?

A: I’d see it as a supplement. I know we have live Web streaming, but I don’t think people will find it sustainable in terms of getting what they get from bricks and mortar. But socially, that’s how we’re going to network, and synagogues will do a lot of their business in the cyber world.

Q: What is your hope and fear for the next generation? 

A: My fear is like this old rabbinic story. A man goes to his rabbi and says,  “I can’t get to services so much – I live far away, and it’s so cold and there’s snow, so I daven at home and that’ll have to be okay.” And they’re sitting there and the rabbi moves one ember out of the fire and they sit in silence and watch the ember die.

That’s my fear – that being together in ritual and prayer cannot be recreated in the cyber world. It’s like a spark of flame. You have to be present to be ignited with that flame.

My hope is that we will figure out a way to use cyber-Judaism to underscore and enhance the values of Judaism. To use it as a mobilizing force around political issues, or the needy or literacy. If we can use it to keep people in touch when not physically together, that would be fantastic.

Anger at God

Q: Anything you’d like to talk about that I haven’t covered?  

A: The one thing I’d like to follow up on are the times that I get really, really angry at God. Mostly it’s when we bury kids. I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven God for the times we’ve had to do that.

But what’s important for people to know is that I’ve never found any reason in Judaism to feel threatened by expressing that emotion to God.

Q: Meaning you’ve never felt like a bad person for being angry at God? 

A: Yeah, or that God’s going to take vengeance. My tradition gives me the right to be very angry at God.

Q: Have you ever gotten an answer? 

A: No. And that’s probably why I can’t forgive God. If God expects me as a woman to bring children in this world, and as a rabbi to help people go through that kind of loss, I deserve an explanation. And it’s one I’m never, ever going to get. So it makes me mad.

Q: A lot of people would simply say, “I don’t believe in God.” 

A: I wish I could. Then I wouldn’t be so angry.

Q: Well, do you ever step outside yourself and say, “My connection with God could just be a neurochemical reaction?” 

A: Of course! But it’s irrelevant if that’s what it is.  You could also say that falling in love is a neurochemical reaction, but I‘m not going to divorce Jon.


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

My d’var Torah – Vayakhel

February 27, 2011

Here’s the text of the d’var Torah (interpretation of Torah) I gave at my adult Bat Mitzvah service at Temple Sinai  on Feb. 26, 2011. My portion was Vayakhel, from the Book of Exodus, 35:1 – 38:20. There is a brief audio clip in the middle of this post that you may either choose to hear or skip.

For more about my Bat Mitzvah service (including some photos), see the previous blog post.


This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel, which means, “and he gathered together.” It comes near the end of the book of Exodus, right after that unfortunate incident in the desert where the Israelites lapse into idolatry and build a golden calf. 

In Vayakhel, Moses gathers the people together and tells them to bring all kinds of personal treasures to build a tabernacle to God. Before anything, though, he orders them not to violate the Sabbath – Shabbat is so important that it must not be infringed even for construction of a house of God. Then the people go out and bring their treasures – dyed ram skins and dolphin skins, fine linen and goats’ hair, gold earrings and nose rings. (I am sure there were a few Israelite moms and dads who were quite happy to donate their teenage daughters’ nose rings.) 

The people end up bringing so much stuff that Moses has to tell them to stop – an unexpected turn of events that probably strikes envy into the heart of anyone who has ever led a fundraising campaign. (And there are a few of you in this room today!) 

The portion continues with a very detailed description of all the components of the ark and tabernacle  – the curtains, rings, boards, hooks, pedestals and so on — as the construction work is overseen by the master builders, Bezalel and Ohaliab. 

There were several things that struck me about Vayakhel. The first is that it is almost a mirror opposite of the preceding portion, the debacle of the golden calf. In the golden calf episode, the Israelites donate their jewels and treasure to create an idol that is a travesty of holiness. In Vayakhel, they donate their jewels and treasure to create a truly holy structure. It is one of the rare moments in the Torah where the people actually do the right thing! Rabbi Elliott Kleinman points out that it is not jewels and treasure – not material possessions — that in themselves are immoral. It is what people choose to do with their possessions. The contrast between these two consecutive sections of Torah highlights this choice. As individuals and as a society, we can use our abundant resources to serve false gods of ego, prestige and power. Or we can use those resources to do good and enhance our world. 

The second thing that struck me with Vayakhel was the importance of Shabbat, a point that has been emphasized by many of the commentators. Here the Israelites are about to build a house for God – can anything be more important than that? — and yet Moses tells them, before he says anything else, that they must stop that work on Shabbat. 

Vayakhel tells us that we may not profane the Sabbath even for God. Yet Jewish tradition also says there is one thing for which we may break the Sabbath – to save a human life. 

Thinking about this, I picture Jewish values as a pyramid of holiness – at the top, more important than anything, is preserving life. Just below that comes Shabbat, a time for rest and contemplation. Only under that come the physical trappings of what people typically think of as religion – the buildings, altars, prayerbooks, ritual items. 

Rabbi Abraham Heschel described Shabbat as itself a kind of sanctuary or tabernacle. Just as Bezalel constructed the tabernacle, we construct Shabbat – only we build it in time, not in space. We build it anew every week, and that has served us well. For the past 2,000 years, Jews have had neither a Temple nor a tabernacle – but wherever we went, we could construct space for holiness in our lives by observing Shabbat.   

The third thing that struck me with Vayakhel was the very detailed physicality of it – the vivid inventory of blue, purple and crimson yarns and tanned ram skins that the people were asked to bring, the mind-numbing recitation of all the screens and hooks and boards assembled by Bezalel. The Haftarah portion for today is remarkably similar, a description of the architect Hiram building Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. 

Both the Torah and Haftarah portions read a little bit like a shopping list for a trip to Home Depot. Hiram, for instance,  assembles “two pillars, and two bowls of capitals that are on top of the pillars, and two networks to cover the two bowls of the capitals on top of the pillars, and 400 pomegranates for the two networks, two rows of pomegranates for each network, to cover the two bowls of the capitals that were on top of the pillars….” 

It reminded me of when we remodeled our kitchen – that is, if, when we talked to friends about the remodel, we had chanted our process in Biblical trope: 

Chanting (click to listen to audio file)

Seriously, though, what are we supposed to make of this long, long construction manifest? 

As a Reform Jew, I believe that the Torah was written by human beings – humans who were wise and inspired, but were also creatures of their era. So we can speculate about some of the points that the author of this section was trying to make. 

I suspect he was trying to impress listeners with the power of a God who warranted such opulence and craftsmanship, much as the builders of medieval cathedrals tried to convey the grandeur of God in their tall spires. He was also probably trying to show how Bezalel and his craftsmen followed God’s instructions down to the exact cubit – as the rest of us should follow God’s mitzvot to the letter. And, as someone who was probably a member of the priestly class during the First Temple period, the author may also have been using the details of the tabernacle’s construction to justify the décor and rituals of his own era. 

But let’s step back from historical conjecture and think about what to make of this today, in our own lives. 

Despite that initial bow to the primacy of Shabbat, this portion is about the importance of place and setting in spirituality. There is so much attention to detail – those hooks, those boards, those 400 pomegranates – not 300, not 500, but 400, and two rows of them for each network. All these material details – the number of pomegranates, and how many rows of them for each network – are part of creating a very particular setting that will foster a connection to the spiritual. 

It’s a little paradoxical. The idea of spirituality is to get beyond the physical. And certainly people can have transcendent experiences anywhere – on an empty beach, a crowded subway, a seedy bar at closing time. So theoretically, it shouldn’t matter whether we are standing around in the wide open Sinai desert or entering a tent with dyed ram’s skins and golden cherubim and 400 pomegranates. 

But it does. That’s one of the lessons of the golden calf episode – as human beings, many of us paradoxically need physical cues to help us transcend our physical selves. An altar, a priest, a whiff of incense. God and Moses learned that lesson, and gave the Israelites a tabernacle to fill those needs in place of a calf. 

What do we as individuals need today? It varies. Some people find spiritual nourishment in group prayer in a synagogue or church. Others meditate or listen to music. Still others turn to nature – a walk in the redwoods or along the ocean. 

I’d put myself in that last category. I enjoy the music, community and tradition of services, but I typically get much more of a sense of transcendence from being in nature. That’s where I get a sense of the miracle that is the universe, and an understanding that I am just a small part of it all. 

It’s Christian transcendentalists like Thoreau who get a lot of the attention for finding spiritual nourishment in nature, but I’m not the only Jew who feels that way. Here is an excerpt from a Jewish writer whose home I visited last summer. 

She wrote, “It’s not imagination on my part when I say that to look up at the sky, the clouds, the moon, and the stars makes me calm and patient. It’s a better medicine than either valerian or bromine. Mother Nature makes me humble and prepared to face every blow courageously.” She didn’t get to see much nature – only a tree through a dirty window, and even that only occasionally. She was Anne Frank. 

In any event, take the time to think about what that setting is for you. Then assemble it with all the care and diligence of Bezalel assembling the tabernacle. Construct it in both space and time. You can start small – a half-hour walk alone by the bay on Saturday afternoon? Fifteen minutes of meditation before work in the morning? Keeping a Debbie Freedman CD in your car to play on your commute home? 

Like the Israelites whom Moses gathered together in Vayakhel, we remain charged with assembling our own tabernacles, in space and in time. We remain charged with creating our own opportunities for spiritual reflection. In today’s hectic world, spiritual moments won’t happen automatically – we need to build them as consciously and deliberately as Bezalel crafted the tabernacle. 

So bring your dyed rams’ skins and your golden nose rings. Bring your favorite Mi Shabeirach melody or your favorite path in Redwood Park. Bring 15 minutes of your lunch break or two hours of your Saturday morning. 

There is a phrase in this portion – where it talks about people bringing their offerings to build the tabernacle, it uses the phrase “kol chacham lev.”  “All who were wise in their hearts.” Some commentators like Nechama Leibowitz have suggested that the hearts of the repentant Israelites were even more important an offering than their gold jewelry and dyed rams’ skins. 

May we be wise enough in our hearts to build the kinds of tabernacles we need to nourish ourselves today. 


Rabbi Chester typically asks adult b’nei and b’not mitzvah to say a few words about what led them to undertake this process – at the age of 53, it’s not something that my parents asked me to do, and I certainly don’t need any fountain pens!

 For me, this process was essentially an effort to fill in a gap in my Jewish identity. I grew up in a very assimilated family that did not belong to a synagogue, and I found my Jewish identity as a teenager in Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist Zionist youth movement affiliated with one of the kibbutz federations in Israel. I lived on a kibbutz for half a year after high school, and in Jerusalem for 18 months in my 20s. So I had a fairly strong understanding of modern Israel and its politics, modern Hebrew, and Jewish history and culture. 

What was missing was an understanding of the religious aspect of Judaism. As our family became more and more involved with Temple Sinai, and its wonderful community, I wanted to feel competent and conversant in the prayers and liturgy. I wanted to wear a tallit, but also to feel like I had earned the right to wear it. 

And I wanted to feel like I could pass Judaism on to the next generation – that if, God forbid, there was some Holocaust-type catastrophe and I was the only adult Jew left in the room, I could lead Shabbat services. 

It’s been a fun and stimulating process. I’ve articulated some of my own beliefs and deepened my understanding and love of Judaism. I met with Rabbi Chester individually and with our group of three other adult b’not mitzvah. I’ve also used my blog about the process to have extended conversations with our temple’s other two rabbis, and to have wonderful online conversations with many of you here today about issues like God, Torah, and my incredibly cute cat. If I haven’t managed to browbeat you into reading the blog by now, I encourage you to take a look and subscribe. I’m going to keep going with it, even after we’ve all gone home today and the caterers have cleaned up the last bit of cream cheese. You don’t stop being a Bat Mitzvah after the ceremony, and you don’t stop being “midlife” until… um, when, I don’t know, maybe someone here can enlighten me on that! 

The Academy Awards don’t start until tomorrow night, but I’m going to get a jump on the thank-you speeches.  I’d like to thank the people who helped me prepare for today. I’ll start with Rabbi Chester, who spent an unbelievable amount of time with me, both individually and as part of our group of adult b’not mitzvah. I feel privileged to have  come in “under the wire” with my bat mitzvah before his retirement. Thank you to Cantor Keyes, who is on sabbatical right now but taught me my prayers and chanting before she left, and Cantor Saxon who led the musical part of the service today and contributed the Peace Prayer from his original Gospel Shabbat. Thanks to Ophira Druch, whose Hebrew class I took last year. I’d like to thank Rabbis Mates-Muchin and Berlin for their support, and in particular for their time and willingness to discuss their personal beliefs in my blog. 

Thank you to Sydney, Jane and Karen – the other adult b’not mitzvah whose personal journeys and questions helped deepen my own process. Friends Barry and Judy, who are fellow co-founders of the Julia Morgan School and all around inspirations to me. (And Judy’s mom Evelyn, who stepped in at the last minute to represent the previous generation in handing down the Torah.) Our chavurah, who are a veritable bar and bat mitzvah baking factory – we will have baked desserts for 11 kids’ bnei mitzvah by the time this generation is grown, and I hope we bake for another couple of adult b’not mitzvah after mine. (You potential b’not mitzvah know who you are.) 

I also want to share my appreciation of the New Israel Fund – an organization that so perfectly expresses my own values and visions for a just and democratic Israel – in my Bat Mitzvah invitation, I asked people to forego gifts but instead consider donations to New Israel Fund or to Temple Sinai. There is a table with information about NIF in Stern Hall which you can visit during lunch or on your way out. 

Finally – family. My brother and his family, who provide love and support – I feel so fortunate that you live nearby. My out-of-town relatives who are here in spirit. In particular, my Solomon cousins who are saying kaddish in Orange County today for my Uncle  Bob who died earlier this week.

And finally, Becca, whose own Bat Mitzvah was an inspiration to me,  and Sam, whom I love so much and who has been 110% supportive of me during this process and in anything else I have ever undertaken. 

Shabbat shalom.

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.

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.