Shavuot retreat in the Hudson Valley

RB NEWI am so excited to be able to share this news: I'm partnering with some of my dear colleagues-and-friends (and their communities -- Rabbi David Markus of Temple Beth El of City Island, Rabbi Brent Spodek of Beacon Hebrew Alliance, and Rabbi Ben Newman of Shtiebel) on a Shavuot weekend retreat in the Hudson Valley.

Come join us on retreat for Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai as well as the first fruits of the growing season.

To celebrate, we'll be traveling to Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, NY, where we’ll gather with other seekers for an incredible opportunity to connect with powerful teachings, beautiful music, stupendous natural surroundings and each other.

We're also particularly excited to welcome scholars-in-residence Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz, co-founders of The Gefilteria, a new kind of food venture launched in 2012 with the mission of reimagining eastern European Jewish cuisine and adapting classic dishes to the values and tastes of a new generation.

What revelation awaits you this year? What are the emotional, intellectual and spiritual “first fruits” that you want to uplift and be thankful for? Join us, and open yourself to transformation!

Highlights include:

  • Incredible teachers (see the bios on our webpage!)

  • Daily opportunities for spiritual practice

  • Robust Children’s Program

  • Amazing hiking and more

Costs are intentionally low to enable maximal participation. And, thanks to the fine folks at the Schusterman Foundation, financial aid is available -- to apply please email BHA Administrator Faith Adams at

Here's the Facebook Event page for the retreat, and here's a full description of the weekend. Register by clicking on the "Register Now" button at the top or bottom of that pageJoin us!

Sweetness from an extraordinary Shabbaton

Vayakheil-Pkudei-768x1024Many people, upon turning sixty, might choose to celebrate by throwing a party... or taking a trip somewhere... or perhaps trying to pretend the milestone birthday away. Not my friend and Bayit co-founder Rabbi Evan Krame.

What he wanted for his sixtieth birthday was to learn with Rabbi Art Green, one of the Jewish world's shining lights -- and to share that learning with the community he co-founded (The Jewish Studio) and with friends, ranging from elementary school buddies with whom he's still in touch, to more recent rabbinical school friends like me.

So he planned a Shabbaton with Reb Art as the scholar-in-residence. He invited Shir Yaakov to come and share his music. And a group of his (and my) friends and colleagues stepped forward to lead prayer and offer our spiritual, musical, and liturgical gifts.

We spent Shabbes at Rockwood Manor, a house near the Potomac where I saw what were for me the year's first signs of spring -- daffodil shoots poking from the ground, flowering trees just beginning to bloom. 

Reb Art taught several times throughout the weekend. He taught texts from two Hasidic masters (the Sfat Emet and the Me'or Eynayim) about the mishkan (the dwelling-place for God's presence, sometimes translated as "tabernacle") and about the inner light that enlivens Torah. R' Evan interviewed him on Saturday after lunch, and we all got to bask in the learning from that conversation about God and journey and spiritual life.

A rotating group of about a dozen rabbis and musicians co-led prayer four times over the course of our 24 hours together. (I was among them -- I got to share my "Listen Up, Y'all" on Friday night, and to lead part of the service on Shabbat morning.) This group had never led prayer together before in this configuration. I don't know how the davenen felt to the kahal (the community), but for me as one of the leaders it felt both seamless and real. Seamless as though we had been sharing leadership for years, and real because we weren't "performing," we were honest-to-God praying. (Which is as it should be!)

I think the reason it flowed so smoothly was that we were leading lich'vod (in honor of, or for the reason of,) Shabbat, and God, and the friend-and-colleague who had brought us together. None of us was leading in order to shine as an individual gem. We were leading together in order to create something more than the sum of our parts. (As I write these words it occurs to me that that's not unlike the mishkan, the tabernacle, described in the Torah portions we've been reading -- for which each person brought their own gifts as a free will offering.) That was deeply nourishing for me. 

Our Saturday morning davenen was inspired by the last verse in the book of Exodus. When we were in rabbinical school, our friend and colleague Hazzan Daniel Kempin wrote a musical setting for that verse, which we taught at the start of the morning. Five of us each gave over a vort, a short teaching, about that passage over the course of the morning -- each of us shining light on a different facet of what that verse could mean. R' Evan had commissioned sketchnote artist Steve Silbert to illustrate that verse, and Steve's artwork offered a visual accompaniment to our words and our prayer.

On Shabbat afternoon, during the time between one learning session and another, some folks did yoga, while others went for a walk, while others chatted in the sunshine. (I sat in the gazebo with a handful of friends and studied some gemara with another of my Bayit co-founders,  Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, which was delicious.) Reb Art taught one final time, about the red heifer and connecting with the supernal light of Torah. As the day grew dark and Shabbat prepared to depart, we harvested blessings from our time together that we will carry forward into our weekday lives. And then we made havdalah, singing our way into the new week.

I'm grateful to R' Evan for choosing to celebrate his birthday in such an extraordinarily generous way: sharing food and prayer and song and learning with so many (including me!) It was a beautiful weekend, and one I know I will carry with me for a long time. 


Image: the Torah sketchnote commissioned from Steve Silbert.

Four Worlds

 4worldsWhen you hear the phrase "the Four Worlds," what comes to mind?

Maybe you think of action, emotion, thought, and spirit. 

Maybe you associate the four worlds with the Tu BiShvat seder, which is often organized as a journey through the four worlds.

Maybe thanks to Tu BiShvat you associate the four worlds with the four seasons of the year, or with the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire. 

Maybe you associate the four worlds with the four letters of God's holiest name, יהו׳׳ה.

Or maybe the phrase doesn't mean much to you, or leaves you confused. 

The four worlds paradigm is core to Jewish renewal as I've experienced it over these last many years. For a while now I've been wanting to craft a short, (hopefully) clear explanation of the four worlds to share with y'all.

There's a new page on the Bayit website that I hope will serve this purpose: The four worlds.

If you're familiar with the four worlds: does this description work for you?

If you're not familiar with the four worlds: does this description make sense to you?

If you have questions, we'd love to hear them. Let me know!


Related: A teaching from Joel Segel on equalizers of heart and soul, 2016

Building together, and the rotating rebbe chair

Bayit-logo-fullcolorWhen the seven of us came together to form Bayit, we brainstormed not only the kinds of projects we want to take on, but also the kinds of structures we need to build in order to support the work. Our bylaws offer a governance structure that's not quite like anything else I've experienced elsewhere, and I'm super-excited about it (because yes, I'm the kind of geek who gets excited about nonprofit governance!) It also feels emblematic of much that we hope to do and be.

Bayit has seven Founding Builders. At any given time, we have a board chair and vice-chair, as is standard on most boards of directors. We also have a secretary and a treasurer, and an ethics chair who leads our ethics committee, and those latter three roles last for a year. But the chair and vice-chair roles will rotate quarterly. We all get a turn.

At our December Senior Builder meeting we picked a first board chair, and the next person down the alphabet gets to be our first vice chair. In late March, the vice chair will become chair, the next person in line gets to be vice chair, and the first chair gets to be a regular founding builder like everyone else. It's also built into our bylaws that anyone who wants to do so can "pass," so no one is obligated to serve in the chair or vice-chair role if it's not a good time for them to take that role on. But everyone is entitled to a turn. Serving as board chair is something each of us gets the opportunity to do.

Bayit's founding philosophy is that we're all builders. That's core to our vision, both within the organization (in how the seven founding builders relate to each other, and to the other folks who collaborate and build with us) and in the organization's relationship with those who (we hope) will embrace and use and adapt and respond to the resources we'll provide. We want to live our values and to model mutual empowerment and healthy collaboration. As we rotate board roles, we each get the opportunity to grow in different ways, and to collectively take responsibility for balancing our skill-sets and energetics around the board table and across the organization.

EMPTY-CHAIRWe made this choice with loving awareness of one of the stories people like to tell about Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers: the story of the rebbe chair and the Shabbes tisch. (I've told this one before, but it's worth sharing again.) Reb Zalman used to hold a regular "tisch" on Shabbat. A tisch (טיש‎) is a festive gathering around the table, often featuring food and a l'chaim (a toast) and singing and hearing the rebbe give over some Torah.

At the beginning of the tisch, he'd be sitting in the "rebbe chair" at the head of the table. And when he was done teaching, he'd ask everyone to rise, and all move over one seat, and whoever was then in the rebbe seat became the rebbe, and whatever they had to teach, the table received with the same attentiveness they had given to Reb Zalman. And so on, and so on, until everyone had had the opportunity to sit in the rebbe seat and to experience being in the rebbe role.

A rebbe, taught Reb Zalman z"l, doesn't have to be a singular individual in a position of power. Rebbe can be a role we fullfil for each other, a role into which each person is nurtured and nourished to grow.  The person "in the rebbe chair" isn't the permanent vertical top-down leader. The person occupying that leadership role is meant to be a fount of inspiration and collective guidance -- and that inspiration and guidance can, and should, and arguably must, come through each of us in turn. This means it's the job of each of us to honor our own rebbe spark -- and also to let it go so that the flow can come through others, too. 

Each of us can be the rebbe, and can honor the rebbe spark in the others around the table. Each of us can be empowered to lead, and to support others in leadership. Each of us can be a builder of the Jewish future of which we dream. That's part of what I understand Reb Zalman's vision to have been, and that's the activating philosophy behind Bayit. So tell us: what do you want your Jewish future to be, and what tools do you need in order to bring that vision to life? 


Coming in 2018: Beside Still Waters from Bayit and Ben Yehuda Press

UnnamedOne of the things I'm most excited about in the secular new year is a new publishing partnership between Ben Yehuda Press -- the press that published Open My Lips, and will publish Texts to the Holy this spring! -- and Bayit: Your Jewish Home, the new nonprofit organization I recently co-founded with six colleagues and friends.

The first book published jointly by Bayit: Your Jewish Home and Ben Yehuda Press will be Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal, a volume to support the journey through grief and remembrance, and you can pre-order a copy now.


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One of the things I'm already loving about working with Bayit is that the Senior Builders span the denominational spectrum. I serve a Reform-and-Renewal shul; one of my fellow Senior Builders comes from the Conservative movement; another serves in a Reconstructionist context; still another comes from Orthodoxy. We have roots in, and connections to, all of Judaism's major denominations -- as well as to the trans-denominational world of Jewish Renewal. I'm hopeful that those roots and connections will help us collectively meet needs that aren't otherwise being met in the Jewish world. We're beginning our work with three keystone projects -- Publications, “Doorways” (a curated lifecycle resource), and a "Builders' Blog" (exploring how real innovation "works" in the Jewish world) -- and there are others in the pipeline about which I'm equally excited. 

This Publications project arises out of several things that are important to me: serving as a conduit for the flow of Jewish Renewal texts and materials into the world, and the editorial work that was my passion before I entered rabbinical school. I couldn't be more thrilled about this first book that we're bringing to print, and about the fact that it's coming out in partnership with Ben Yehuda Press.  Here's a description of the book:

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal invites a timeless journey both classical and contemporary, spanning illness, death, grief and remembrance.  This volume offers individuals and communities an easy-to-use, emotionally real and textually elegant companion for aninut (between death and burial), shiva (mourning’s first week), shloshim ( first month), yahrzeit (death-anniversary) and yizkor (times of remembrance).  It includes resonant new translations, evocative readings, complete transliterations, and resources for circumstances often overlooked in other Jewish texts (miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide, when there is no grave, abusive relationships, etc.).

Developed in Jewish renewal’s trans-denominational spirit, Beside Still Waters is crafted for use in synagogues inside and outside the denominational spectrum, in hospitals, chaplaincy and pastoral contexts, funeral homes and home observances.

The volume features contributions from some of my favorite writers, artists, spiritual directors, and liturgists, among them Trisha Arlin, Alla Renee Bozarth, Shir Yaakov Feit, Rabbi Jill Hammer, Rodger Kamenetz, Irwin Keller, Rabbi David Markus, and the teacher of my teachers Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l. (Some of my own work also appears in the volume as well.) The full contributor list is online here (and also at the bottom of our book announcement on FB.)

You can pre-order a copy at the Ben Yehuda website, and you can read more about the book via the announcement we just posted on Facebook.

Thanks in advance for sharing my joy!



Nava Tehila at the #URJBiennial, and renewal everywhere


A glimpse of where and how I davened on Friday morning.


One of the highlights of my URJ Biennial was davening last Friday morning with Nava Tehila.

This is not surprising. Longtime readers of my blog know that davening with Nava Tehila has long been one of my favorite things in the universe, anywhere. Let's see: great music -- check. Deep heart-connection -- check. Awareness of the flow of the matbe'ah (the structure of the service) -- check. Attunement to body and to silence -- check. Balance of contemplative and ecstatic -- check. Davening with Nava Tehila feels like coming home.

I love how they set the worship space up, in concentric circles with space in the middle, a kind of emptiness echoing the ancient holy of holies. I love how Dafna and Yoel work (wherever they are) with a cadre of holy levi'im, musicians who aren't just accompaniment but are part of the active leadership team. I love their melodies and harmonies. And all of these add up to more than the sum of their parts. Every time I daven with Nava Tehila, I come away with my heart and soul feeling recharged, reconnected, and rejuvenated, and my body buzzing from the dancing and the joy.

It was neat to daven with them at a gathering explicitly created by and for Reform Jews, and to see that they don't change what they do in any way based on the denominational identity of the community with whom they're davening. And I know that last week they were at the USCJ, the big gathering of Conservative Jews, doing the very same kind of thing -- and, I'm guessing, meeting with every bit as much joy and enthusiasm and wow! as they heard from the Reform crowd on Friday morning.

When I say that renewal flows through all of the denominations, this is part of what I mean.

Colorful tallitot are everywhere, for instance. Not only the rainbow tallit that Reb Zalman z"l designed so many years ago, each color of the rainbow representing one of the seven "lower sefirot" or aspects of divinity -- though I saw a bunch of those at the Biennial, as I do everywhere! (And I'm guessing most people have no idea who designed that tallit or what its origins are -- though if you're interested, here's the story, which I love knowing.) But the very fact of multicolored tallitot was one of Reb Zalman's innovations in the first place, back in the 1950s. Now they're a natural part of Jewish prayer life almost everywhere. 

And renewal melodies are everywhere. I can't tell you how often I've encountered a liturgical melody by Rabbi Shefa Gold -- come to think of it, we sang one on Friday night at the URJ Biennial before dinner in the ballroom where I was seated! Her melodies are known and sung across the Jewish world (and as with the tallitot, most people may not know where they come from -- it's easy for melodies to seem miSinai, as though we received them with Torah at Mount Sinai.) There are other renewal composers whose work is becoming part of the canon, too, like Shir Yaakov. And, of course, Nava Tehila, who share both their melodies and their way of davening not only in their Jerusalem home but in places they visit around the world.

Beyond the music, renewal modes of davenen (prayer) are everywhere. If you've ever been to a chant-based service, a contemplative service, a service that drew on Jewish meditative or mystical teachings, a service where people danced in the aisles, you've had a brush with some renewal ways of connecting with prayer. (I say "some" ways, rather than "the way," because there is no single way to pray in Jewish renewal. That's why as a renewal rabbinic student I was expected to learn how to lead prayer-ful worship using any prayerbook there is, from full-text to minimalist, across the denominational spectrum... and to pray not only with books and received liturgy but also with silence, and music, and the unfolding prayers of the heart.)

And the flow of renewal continues.  Renewal as it's unfolding now contains elements of what came before, remixed in new ways. I see Svara: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva as part of the flow of renewal. The Institute for the Next Jewish Future, the Jewish Emergent Network, the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute are all part of the flow of renewal. (Some of these people and places may self-identify as part of the renewal of Judaism. Others might not choose the term "Jewish renewal" to describe what they do. But they're all part of renewal from where I sit.) Bayit: Your Jewish Home -- the new nonprofit organization I'm co-founding; stay tuned for more on that! -- is part of the flow of renewal. And so are many other places and spaces besides.

Renewal flows through all of the denominations, and in and through post-denominational and trans-denominational spaces, too. As software developers say, this isn't a bug, it's a feature. It isn't an accident or a mistake -- rather, it's part of renewal's core design. Renewal was never meant to be a denomination. Renewal is a way of doing Jewish, a way of approaching Judaism and spiritual life, that can enrich and enliven Jewish practice of all flavors. I've been saying that for years, but there was something extra-special for me (as a rabbi who serves a Reform-and-renewal shul) about living out that belief at the Biennial this year. 



Visions of Renewal: Vayera and renewing our Judaism


Shabbat shalom! Thank you for welcoming Rabbi David and me into your synagogue and into your community this weekend. 

We named our weekend together "Visions of Renewal." I want to unpack that a bit. Why "vision," and what's "renewal"?

Over the last few years, as Rabbi David and I have traveled the U.S. and Canada, we've noticed that Judaism we all inherited often feels like a Judaism of receptivity. We've all received a tradition that others created.  Receiving can feel passive – like we receive the news on TV, or receive the family constructs into which we're born.  It just happens.

But this week's Torah portion, Vayera, is about a quality of vision that's not passive but active, literally a making-seen.  "God caused [Avraham] to see, on the plains of Mamre, as he sat in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day."

"God caused Avraham to see."  As we'll learn in tomorrow morning's Torah study, this Torah portion is about how Avraham sees, how we see, what he saw, what we see and why.  The upshot is this: in changing how he sees, Avraham changes his life.

We can spend a lifetime talking about Avraham, but I want to talk about us.  What do we see and tend not to see?  What covers our vision?  What can we do to make our vision clear?  That's the work of spiritual life: clarifying and renewing our vision so we can act in the world.  

When we look at spiritual life, do we see something obligatory? That's the classical view -- we do things because God commands us to do them. Or we don't, because those who brought us Reform Judaism rejected that paradigm. I serve a Reform shul not unlike this one, and most of my congregants tell me they don't feel "commanded." But then do mitzvot simply become irrelevant? (Spoiler alert: I'm going to say no.) Whether or not we see mitzvot as obligatory, they can renew our hearts and spirits. 

The Hebrew word מצוה / mitzvah is related to the Aramaic צוותא / tzavta, "connection."  Whatever your beliefs or disbeliefs about God, to me the key thing is how we connect – to God (whether far-above or deep-within), our ancestry, each other, our hearts and souls. If we see the connection hiding in each mitzvah, might that change how we feel about doing it -- or how we feel while doing it?

What about prayer: do you see liturgy as something you do because it's written in a book -- or something you don't do because it's written in a book? Do you see holidays as something you do because they were given to you -- or something you don't do, because they don't speak to you? Do you see spirituality as something that the rabbi and cantor give to you? Whether or not you were raised Jewish, do you see Judaism as something you either keep, or let go?

What if we could see all of this -- mitzvot, prayer, holidays, spiritual life writ large -- as something we actively make our own? The practices we name as התחדשות / hitchadshut, "Renewal," are about doing just that: making  it our own, renewing and being renewed.  Renewal isn't a brand or label. It's a way of living our Judaism, refining our capacity to see the richness and authenticity of spiritual life hiding in plain sight... and actively making it our own, so both our souls and our traditions can shine.

Take a step back and look at tonight's prayer service. Maybe you noticed chant, weaving of Hebrew and English, uses of silence, a focus on joy, themes popping out of the words – like vision, chosen for this week's Torah portion (Vayera) – a mix of ancient music and modern music. These reflect the spiritual technology we call "davenology" -- from the Yiddish "daven," to pray in meaningful ways attuned to spirit and heart. Renewal seeks to infuse prayer with heart -- and to infuse our hearts with prayer.

To use a metaphor I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager, prayer is a meal and liturgy is a cookbook. We can't eat a cookbook. Renewal teaches: what matters is what helps us have a spiritual experience that actually connects us.  That's why we'll use Hebrew words, English words, sometimes no words. Classical words, contemporary words. Poetry, music, dance...  This isn't experimentation for its own sake: it's for the sake of deepening our experience of prayer.

Judaism is more than prayer, and Renewal is about more than "just" renewing our prayer lives. We bring this experiential approach to everything. One tool we use for that is hashpa'ah: in English, "spiritual direction." The Hebrew hashpa'ah comes from the root connoting divine flow. A mashpi'a(h) helps others experience the flow of divinity in the real stuff of their lives – family, work, faith, doubt, health, illness, sex, you name it.  About everything in our lives, we ask, "where is God in this?"

It's a big question.  When I began my training as a spiritual director -- both Rabbi David and I hold that second ordination -- my teachers asked me about my spiritual practices, and I started making excuses. "Well, I know I should be praying three times a day, but life gets in the way..." And my mashpi'a stopped me, gently, and said: I'm not asking you to tell me what your spiritual practices aren't. What are you doing in your life that opens you up? 

We can vision our spiritual lives negatively, in terms of what we don't do – we don't come to services "enough," or meditate "enough." But then our spirituality is negative, based on what we lack.  What if we actively vision it positively, based on the lives we actually live? If we're washing dishes, if we're folding laundry, driving the carpool, buying groceries: where is God in that? (We'll talk more about infusing ordinary practices with holiness in Sunday morning's session "Spirituality on the Go.")

Another of our tools is the collection of teachings, texts, and perspectives that come to us from Zohar and kabbalah and the Hasidic masters. These exquisite teachings can change the way we read Torah, how we experience time, how we live our lives.  We'll use these tools to study Torah tomorrow morning, tomorrow night when we enter into Jewish angelology, and on Sunday morning's session on "Mitzvah and Mysticism."  All of these are about connecting, actively changing how we see.

Davenology, spiritual direction, and mysticism are among the Renewal spiritual technologies especially near and dear to our hearts.  And here's the thing that's most important to me – not as a rabbi, but as a seeker like you: you don't have to be a rabbi for Renewal to enliven your spiritual life. You don't even have to be Jewish. These tools can help all of us transform our vision: whoever we are, wherever we're coming from, whatever we do or don't "believe in." 

That's what this weekend is about.  "God caused Avraham to see."  It's about seeing different, and being changed for the good.

On this Shabbat Vayera, this shabbat of active vision, may our eyes be opened to see what's been hiding in plain sight. May the Holy One cause us to be active partners in seeing the Judaism we yearn for, and bringing it into being in a world that needs us more than ever.


Offered at Temple B'nai Chaim in Wilton, Connecticut, where Rabbi David Markus and I are scholars-in-residence this weekend.

Visions of Renewal in Connecticut

White-1One of the great joys of being an unofficial ambassador for Jewish Renewal is getting invited to share spiritual technologies that have deeply shaped my life and my rabbinate with new communities that may not yet have experienced them.

Over the weekend of November 3-5, Rabbi David Markus and I will be scholars-in-residence at Temple B'nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut!

We'll be there over the weekend of parashat Vayera (the Torah portion is named after its first word, "And God appeared" or, more broadly "And God caused Abraham to see") so we've framed our introduction to Jewish Renewal through the lens of vision. 

We'll be co-leading a musical, poetic, uplifting Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night; offering a Torah study on Shabbat morning; gathering with the community at 5pm for se'udat shlishit (the "third meal" of Shabbat, where we'll "dine" on poetry and song themed around yearning at that most poignant time of the week), havdalah, and some learning about angels in Jewish tradition. On Sunday morning we'll offer two short programs on "spirituality on the go" and on the mysticism of ordinary mitzvot.

Here's the full schedule for our weekend, and here's a Facebook event where you can indicate if you're coming. If you're in or near Connecticut and are able to join us, we'd love to see you there!

A very special New York City Shabbat

This coming weekend I'll be in New York city for two very different and very special Shabbat experiences.


The first is Shabbat By the Sea with Temple Beth-El of City Island. You can read about it in the TBE newsletter. The short version is: 7pm on Friday night at the home of TBE members Ken and Steve Binder, 2 Bay Street on City Island. (If it rains, we'll meet at the shul instead.) I was blessed to be present for Shabbat by the Sea last year (here's their post about it) and it was a highlight of my summer. I can't wait to return and to dance in my Shabbes whites with TBE friends as we welcome Shabbat by the water's edge. There's nothing else like it. 

The second is a Shabbat In The Garden adventure co-sponsored by TBE of City Island and by another Jewish Renewal community called Shtiebl, which will take place starting at 9:45am on Saturday at the New York Botanical Garden (meet inside the main gate, 2900 Southern Blvd). I'll be co-leading a contemplative morning Shabbat service with my friends Rabbi Ben Newman of Shtiebl and Rabbi David Markus of TBE. (Here's the Facebook event where you can RSVP; wear walking shoes and dress for the weather.)

The first time I came to City Island I was delighted and surprised. It feels entirely unlike what I associate with the phrase "New York City" (or "The Bronx"), which just goes to show that New York is vast and contains multitudes and is perennially surprising, maybe especially to outsiders like me. (Though I get the sense even some lifelong denizens of the Five Boroughs don't know City Island either.) I've never been to the New York Botanical Gardens but I'm guessing I will find them equally beautiful. 

The coming Shabbat is a special one. It's called Shabbat Mevarchim Elul, the Shabbat immediately preceding the start of a new lunar month -- in this case, the lunar month of Elul, the month that leads directly to the Days of Awe. The name Elul can be read as an acronym for the phrase "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" -- a quote from Song of Songs that can be understood as an expression of love between human beloveds, and as an expression of love between us and the Divine.

Join us by the water's edge and in the garden of Shabbat. (And in the garden on Shabbat!) Let intimate encounter with the Divine be the updraft that lifts you into heightened readiness to prepare for the High Holidays. Join us as we savor high summer in two of New York City's most beautiful places. Join us as we seek the Face of the Beloved through song, dance, contemplation, and just plain being. I look forward to seeing you there.

A week of learning and togetherness

34933977923_59b899ca49_zWhen I come down to breakfast, I find two friends at the table enjoying coffee. It takes approximately five minutes for us to wind up in a halakhic conversation. It's about the psycho-spiritual, halakhic, and pastoral implications of seeking to speak truth -- with intimates, and with the larger world -- while taking care not to commit lashon ha-ra (malicious speech).

The friend who's making breakfast laughs: the minute you add a third rabbi to the table, halakhic conversations cannot be far behind! Later breakfast conversations (over continuing cups of coffee) include concepts of God through a Four Worlds lens, and how one's needs in briyah (the realm of thought) might be different from one's needs in yetzirah (emotionally, relationally.)

And that's just the first morning. Another morning over coffee we talk about Jewish organizational life and spiritual bypassing. We talk about the Jewish future we want to co-create, and about projects we want to take on, and about who's doing meaningful and innovative work in our field that feels real. We talk about different Hebrew options for same-sex wedding liturgy.

And in between the deep conversations about the Jewish future, we cook meals and spend time together. One afternoon we rent rowboats and go out on the water. One evening we marvel at fireflies and fireworks over a lake -- tiny lights moving and gleaming, juxtaposed with enormous chrysanthemums of sparks that paint the night sky and then disappear into smoke.

We sit with our various machzorim (high holiday prayerbooks) -- Days of Awe, Harlow, Machzor Chadash, Kol HaNeshamah, Wings of Awe -- and sing snippets of melody and high holiday nusach. We share high holiday ideas and questions, talk about things we've done that have worked and things we want to try differently this year in the communities where we serve.

Our high holiday conversations oscillate between tight focus and granular detail (melody choices, when to use nusach, how do you do this prayer?) and macro questions: what does it mean to do "good"? If our souls are pure each morning, why do we need the Days of Awe at all? (We all agree that we do, but some of those whom we serve might not think so: how do we tend to them too?)

We learn with Rabbi Jeff Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, which is predictably extraordinary. With him we take a deep dive into mussar (ethical and spiritual self-improvement) and halakha around our dining room table. We sharpen our text skills and hone our spiritual responsiveness through deep encounters with text and with tradition, ably guided by his wisdom.

We learn a gorgeous R' Shlomo Wolbe text from the book Alei Shur about the idea that there are appointed times, of closeness to God and of distance from God. The Three Weeks (which begin next week) are a time when we recognize our distance from the Holy One. Far worse than distance, R' Wolbe teaches, is the condition of not even realizing that the distance is there. 

Another beautiful Wolbe text speaks about Torah as the path to shleimut, wholeness. Through Torah study and more importantly through doing mitzvot, he says, we transform our lives into living laboratories. In pursuing Torah learning and service, we become overflowing springs of renewal, we ascend toward holiness, and we become who we're meant to be.

We learn a text from the Maharsha about how it takes 21 days for a chicken to gestate or an almond tree to flower. He riffs on 21 days, exploring two three-week corridors in Jewish time: the Three Weeks (bitter) and the weeks between Rosh Hashanah and Hoshanah Rabbah (sweet), and how both of these can be doorways to God's presence and to purification of one's soul.

And we learn a text from the Afikei Mayim that riffs off of the Alei Shur, the Maharsha, and a few others that we had studied together, exploring the idea that God cries with us, and that Tisha b'Av is a day of closeness between us and God, as is Shemini Atzeret -- though one is a day of rejoicing and the other is a day of sorrow, they're both days of intimate connection. (Wow.)

We study questions of transgender and halakha, delving into texts from Talmud and Rambam, a heartwrenching 13th-century poem by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, a pair of teshuvot from the Tzitz Eliezer, excerpts from a book by Edan Ben-Ephraim, and more. We grapple with our tradition's various ways of dealing with gender, relationship, and identity over the centuries.

What a profound luxury it is to spend time with chaverim (beloved colleague-friends), diving deep into liturgy and halakha, practice and purpose, for hours on end. Our learning will benefit the communities we serve, but even more than that, it enriches and enlivens our hearts and souls as Jewish clergy (rabbis and hazzan). Truly this is Torah study lishma: for its own sake.

I'm endlessly grateful to The Jewish Studio for creating and sponsoring this fantastic week, and to my hevre for learning with me and davening with me, laughing with me and harmonizing with me, pushing and pulling me toward insights I would never have reached on my own, and for feeding not only my body but also my heart, my mind, and my neshama -- my soul. 

Renewing Judaism

Tallits-135Renewing Judaism happens everywhere. That's one of the things that was affirmed for David and me during the Listening Tour: the renewing of Judaism is, and always has been, bigger than any organization. And that's exactly how it should be. The renewing of Judaism is organic, and multifaceted, and it’s all over the place. Those of us who are ordained in the lineage of Reb Zalman z”l are obvious and visible stewards of that renewing. But the renewing of Judaism is so much bigger even than the growing community of clergy who self-identify as part of that lineage.

Renewing Judaism means spiritual technologies that enliven Judaism. Matching aliyot of Torah with a theme that arises from the text, and offering a blessing rooted in those words and that theme. Making use of chant as a spiritual technology, maybe cherishing melodies from Rabbi Shefa Gold or from Nava Tehila. Offering a meditation minyan or integrating Jewish contemplative practice into our spiritual lives. Practicing hashpa’ah (spiritual direction). These are some of the spiritual technologies that have arisen over the last few decades -- and I can't wait to see what the next ones will be.

Renewing Judaism means liturgical creativity. Davening bilingually. Chanting in English. Interweaving classical liturgy with contemporary poetry. Setting ancient texts to new melodies that open them up in new ways (e.g. “Mi Chamocha” to “The Water is Wide”), and setting new texts to ancient melodies (e.g. contemporary poems in haftarah trope). Exploring the spiritual ramifications of using different names for God (not only Lord and King and Father but also Shekhinah, Source, Wellspring, Mother, Beloved). Passionate use of both words and silence. Praying with our bodies. Explorations and experimentations with liturgy and with prayer that seek to open the heart and enliven the soul. These are (some) expressions of how renewing our prayer lives can renew our Judaism in all four worlds of body, heart, mind, and spirit.

Renewing Judaism flows inside the denominations of Judaism. The renewing of Judaism flows in the Reform movement: my own shul is part of the Reform movement, and is a place where the renewing of Judaism flourishes.The renewing of Judaism flows in the Conservative movement: when we met with Rabbi Brad Artson at Ziegler as part of our southern California Listening Tour stop, we learned that he studies Zohar daily with the aid of his own handmade poster of the sefirot! The renewing of Judaism flows in the Reconstructionist movement: RRC hosted us in Philadelphia on the Listening Tour for a deep and rich conversation about precisely that. The renewing of Judaism flows in Orthodoxy: the existence of Yeshivat Maharat, ordaining Orthodox women, is a sign of renewed Judaism in the Orthodox world. (Indeed, Yeshivat Maharat hosted us as part of the very first weekend of the Listening Tour, back in May of 2015.)

Renewing Judaism flows outside the denominations, too. There are many independent communities and organizations where the renewing of Judaism is unfolding (Rabbi David’s shul on City Island is one of them. So are Romemu in New York City, Kehilla in the Bay Area, and Or Shalom in Vancouver, all of which we visited on the Listening Tour). During the Listening Tour we met with folks from all three of the other trans-denominational seminaries -- Hebrew College, the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, and the Academy for Jewish Religion in California -- because the fact of pluralistic rabbinical education is part of the renewing of Judaism. Pop-up shtiebls, home-based havurot, innovative projects like Lab/Shul (NY) and The Kitchen (SF), The Jewish Studio (DC) and Judaism Your Way (Denver), all are part of the renewing of Judaism.

Renewing Judaism is a movement, in the sense of “something in motion.” It's the flow of inspiration, creativity, innovation, and change as those manifest in modern Jewish life -- ideally rooted in and balanced with deep love of the tradition as we’ve inherited it. It's both grounded and creative, and constantly re-articulating the right balance between those two qualities, between roots and wings. The renewing of Judaism affirms that Judaism isn’t (and has never been) static or unchanging: change is core to Judaism and core to authentic spiritual life. (After all, as our liturgy teaches, God every day renews creation.) Our task is figuring out how to balance change with constancy. Sometimes that means our Judaism takes new forms. Sometimes it means that we reinterpret or re-enliven old forms. But tradition teaches that every day God's voice continues to sound from Sinai. If we open ourselves to it, we -- and our Judaism -- are constantly being renewed. 

Renewing Judaism is bigger, and richer, and deeper, than any single organization could contain.  On our travels around North America, and our videoconference conversations with people around the world, we sought to hear not only from those who self-identify as part of “Jewish Renewal” as it has existed until now, but also from people outside of that frequently insular bubble. We sought to hear the voices of people who were once connected with ALEPH and for one reason or another walked away. We sought to hear the voices of people who are engaging in the renewing of Judaism by other names: those who are renewing Judaism in ways aligned with ours in spirit and heart, no matter what name they use for what they do. We learned some extraordinary things about what the renewing of Judaism means to you, and about what you yearn it could yet become. Stay tuned: I'll share more about that in the next post in this series.

Today is Reb Zalman z"l's third yahrzeit. I offer these initial reflections on the depth and breadth of the Judaism he helped to inspire in his memory. May his memory continue to be a blessing.

Glimpses of Shavuot 5777


Isabella Freedman, where I just spent Shavuot.

Back when I first started blogging, I used to write about every retreat I attended. I was so thirsty for connection with Jewish tradition and with God! I kept a paper journal tucked into my tallit bag, and I wrote down everything. When I got home I would type up excerpts from my handwritten notes and turn them into blog posts. Everything was surprising and meaningful and new.

These days it tends to be my job to help to create the container within which the retreat experience unfolds. The teachers whose words I so thirstily drank in are now colleagues, and in many cases friends. And I'm no longer writing things down during every spare moment. All of these shifts have changed my ability to share retreat experiences with all of you. Still, I will try.

The first thing I want to remember from Shavuot 5777 took place before the retreat even began: I was part of the beit din, the rabbinic court, presiding over a conversion. After an extraordinary conversation, we walked together, singing Pure Heart, to Lake Miriam for mikveh. When the new Jew emerged from her third immersion, she was radiant with light.

I want to remember the two nights of davenen in the Isabella Freedman sanctuary where years ago I experienced most of DLTI. Both nights I sat with hevre, beloved colleague-friends, with whom I had the deep pleasure of singing in harmony, guided by Shir Yaakov's gentle presence and beautiful melodies and by Shoshana Jedwab's rich and resonant drumming.

I want to remember the late-night learning on the first night of Shavuot. In the wee hours of the morning I was in the beige yurt, where Rabbi David Evan Markus taught a lesson on how "why" grew up in Torah. And then I taught a lesson on eit ratzon, "a time of will / a time of yearning," and the giving of Torah, and what it means to say that God yearns to give.

I want to remember how it felt to wake, after a three-hour catnap, to daven hallel outdoors by Lake Miriam. I want to remember Rabbi Jill Hammer's's gorgeous Torah service on the first morning, and how she mapped the blessings that went with the first three aliyot to the three mother letters from Sefer Yetzirah, and paired each with a different color / texture of chuppah.

I want to remember the first afternoon of Shavuot: both attending Rabbi David Ingber's beautiful teaching in which he shared classical (midrashic and Zoharic) texts on suckling / nursing and the revelation of Torah, and then going for a walk with two hevre afterwards in the glorious sunshine, and unpacking his teaching and its meaning for us as we walked.

I want to remember teaching after dinner on the second night about the silent aleph and revelation (including that text from the Ropcyzer about seeing God's name in the face of every human being, which I've shared here before, as well as a variety of other texts about the aleph and revelation.) It was so sweet to share teachings that I love and to harvest responses from the room.

I want to remember sitting with three dear friends outside the sanctuary on the second morning of the holiday, arms around each other, singing and laughing through tears. And I want to remember doing "waking dream" work with Reb Eve in the gazebo beside the lake that same morning after davenen was over, and the images that arose for me, and what those images meant.

I'm not sure any of the words I've just written actually capture for you what the Shavuot retreat experience was like at Hazon / Isabella Freedman this year. In a certain way, the holiday retreat experience is ineffable: it's as much about the experience, the melodies and conversations and the early-morning mist over the water, as it is about anything I can chronicle or describe. 

Even if I can't write about it in a way that really conveys what the experience was like for me this year, I'm grateful for the opportunity to take a deep dive into one of the three great ancient pilgrimage festivals, and grateful to have been given the chance to help create the retreat experience for some 250 others, especially in such a beautiful and holy place.


Passing the Flame Forward: A Letter from Rachel and David

19333512771_598cf38f7e_z (1)In early 2015 it was announced that we would serve as the next co-chairs of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.  Today we announce that we are stepping down. Our term will end in July.

When we began, we saw four key goals.  First, to help steward ALEPH through the complex aftermath of the death of Reb Zalman z”l, whose third yahrzeit soon approaches.  Second, to offer hundreds of people around the world ways to express hopes, dreams and longings – and bring their hearts and ideas back to ALEPH for integration.  Third, to support in tangible ways the continuing flow of Jewish Renewal for today and tomorrow.  Fourth, to model a stewardship that saw our roles as temporary and sought our successors quickly.

We did much that we came to do.  Along with Board colleagues and staff, we spent 15 months on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, taking stock of who and where ALEPH and Renewal are -- how the renewal of Judaism has spread and matured, what is cherished, what should change and what must never change.  It was a tremendous blessing to journey into those deep places together.  We took hundreds of pages of notes, and brought what we learned back to ALEPH, the Ordination Program and OHALAH (the association of Jewish Renewal clergy).  Some of those ideas are starting to take root now.

Behind the scenes, ALEPH evolved a new governance system aspiring to be more inclusive.  We established an Advisory Council to harness the wisdom of elders, teachers and visionaries across the Jewish landscape to support Judaism’s ongoing renewal.  ALEPH laid the foundation for a Communities Council so that ALEPH Network members -- communities, organizations, and individuals -- could help set a new bottom-up agenda for how to support ALEPH communities in the future.  ALEPH began strategic planning with Reverend Bill Kondrath, a consultant specializing in midwifing faith-based organizations through major transitions, including and especially the death of a charismatic founder.  

In the public realm, the magic of the 2016 Kallah happened at Colorado State University: 37% of attendees were first-timers, and brought the joy and “juice” of Jewish Renewal home with them. ALEPH began planning the 2018 Kallah.  (Stay tuned for more information soon.)  New spiritual communities joined ALEPH – both “new” ones (started from scratch), and existing ones rooted in Reform and Conservative denominational contexts.  New programs and projects sought ALEPH affiliation.  ALEPH was featured in a variety of publications and podcasts.  ALEPH began developing new initiatives, including Clergy Camp and Tikshoret (an education platform to bring tastes of Jewish Renewal to a broad online audience), while also better supporting beloved ALEPH stalwart programs and initiatives.  Finances improved, and funds were invested wisely and securely.

Perhaps most importantly, as co-chairs, we said from the start that we wanted to model stewardship that flows in ways we learned from our teachers.  We created a Nominations Circle, on which we did not serve, and asked that it immediately seek successors for the Board and its leadership.  We felt that, especially in this era after Reb Zalman’s life on this plane, it would be important for many reasons to fulfill this intention to serve with all our hearts while making way for the next turning.  The time for that next turning has now come.

For the confidence, volunteerism, and support ALEPH received during our time of service, we are grateful beyond measure: these are tremendous gifts, and we thank you for them.  We are especially grateful to ALEPH’s executive director Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, ALEPH’s deputy directors Tamy Jacobs and Steve Weinberg, their predecessor David Brown, Lynda Simons, and Ming Shem-Lu, who have nourished ALEPH and have done the very hard work of bringing ideas and relationships to life.  They are ALEPH’s unsung heroes, and they deserve wild applause for their dedication and hard work.  We are grateful to our teachers, and their teachers, and their students, and the students of their students – both within and beyond ALEPH – for so very much that has come through them over the years.

The work of renewing Judaism, by its nature, is never complete (Pirkei Avot has something to say about that).  The next phase of this ongoing journey now is for our successors, to keep that flame burning bright in ways that perhaps today can scarcely be imagined.  We wish them every success and blessing as they dream and lead forward.

With blessings on this Omer day of chesed sheba yesod (lovingkindness in foundation),

Rachel and David


 (Cross-posted to David's website and to Kol ALEPH.)


Shabbat, renewal, and you

A d'var Torah offered at Congregation Bet Ha'Am in Portland, Maine. Offered aloud by me; jointly written by me and Rabbi David


 Welcome home.

Why am I welcoming you home when you live here and I'm the visitor? I don't mean welcome home to Bet Ha'Am; I mean welcome home to Shabbat – or more aptly, welcome home into Shabbat – because Shabbat is a homecoming.

Rabbi David and I are delighted to join you as scholars in residence, or maybe scholars in homecoming. This weekend we hope to share with you tastes of Renewal, starting with the renewal we call Shabbat. For six days we busy in our doings; on the seventh day, we come home to our sense of being human beings. 

When we can "just be," when we really know that we're enough just as we are, we can touch that loving miracle of spirituality that Jewish mystics call the World to Come, right here and now. That's what I mean by coming home.

Now I freely admit to y'all – and I say y'all as a good south Texan transplanted to southern New England, now visiting southern Maine – that not every Shabbat in my life lives up to this ideal of a homecoming. But tonight, singing and praying and being with y'all even for this short while, I feel the supernal Shabbat becoming that feeds my soul – and I feel at home here with you.

This sense of inner homecoming is Renewal – both the lower-case "r" of experiencing the love and joy we call the renewal of spirit, and the capital "R" of Renewing Judaism, and its umbrella organization -- ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal -- that Rabbi David and I call home. And these two Renewals are linked. A Judaism that is vital and vibrant in body, heart, mind and soul – what we call the Four Worlds of Jewish spirituality – is the quest and passion of Jewish Renewal.

Tonight we want to share with you how we see two Renewals as linked with the theme of our weekend together – holiness, for Parshat Kedoshim – and the heart of Parshat Kedoshim, to love our neighbor as ourself / ואהבת לרעך כמוך. How does Renewal relate to holiness and love?

Continue reading "Shabbat, renewal, and you" »

A welcome message to Bet Ha'Am

For those who are interested... here's the welcome video we made to introduce ourselves to the community at Bet Ha'Am, where we'll be Bernstein scholars-in-residence this weekend. Over the course of three minutes, we talk a little bit about Jewish Renewal and the tools we've found there for harvesting joy and meaning in Judaism, and we close with the song that will be our musical theme for our weekend together:

(If you can't see the embedded video, it's on YouTube here.)

To everyone at Bet Ha'Am: we're both driving north today, and hope to make it to you safely despite the projected rainstorms. We look forward to being with y'all for Kabbalat Shabbat tonight and for the weekend to come!

And to everyone else, Shabbat shalom and blessings from our hearts to yours.

Deep Ecumenism and Being a Mixed Multitude

Multitude-WebOne of the things I love about the Passover story is that every year the story is the same, and every year I hear it anew. (This is true of the whole Torah, too, but I knew and loved the Pesach story before I knew and loved the whole Torah.) Every year we retell how we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And every year, something different about the story leaps out at me and says pay attention.

This year the thing that leaps out at me is the erev rav, the "mixed multitude" that went forth with us from Egypt. When we left Mitzrayim, tradition teaches, we did not leave alone. A mixed multitude came with us. One tradition holds that some Egyptians chose to leave with us, to strike out toward freedom and self-determination. Another tradition holds that even Pharaoh's daughter came with us, and in so doing acquired a new name: Batya, "Daughter of God."

I imagine us as a vast column of refugees walking together into the wilderness... and in that great crowd of people were people who were born into this community, as well as fellow-travelers who chose to accompany us on our journey toward freedom. Together they redefined identity, so everyone became an insider, not divided by label or practice. This is the story that constitutes us as a people, the story we retell every Pesach, the story we allude to in the kiddush every Friday night and in the Mi Chamocha prayer every single day -- and in this core story, we are a mixed multitude. From the moment of our formation as a community, we are diverse.

Immediately upon leaving Egypt, we came to an insurmountable obstacle: the Sea of Reeds. On Monday night, Ben Solis-Cohen gave a beautiful d'var about Nachshon ben Aminadav, the brave soul who took the first steps into the waters. Nachshon kept going until it seemed that he would drown, and then the waters parted. This is a story about trusting in something beyond ourselves and getting through adversity we didn't think we could get through. Because in and of ourselves, we couldn't. As a theist, I would say God accompanied us, and therefore we became more than we thought we could be. That language may or may not work for you, but what matters is this: when the journey ahead seemed impossible, we found the courage to keep going, and the impossible became possible.

This is the story that constitutes us as a people, and it's not entirely an easy story. After we came through the sea, the waters rushed back in and swept away the Egyptian armies that had pursued us. Midrash teaches that God rebuked the angels for rejoicing, saying, "My children are perishing, and you sing praises?" Both "we," and "they," are equally God's children. The story that constitutes us as a people demands that we ask what price is being paid for our liberation, and by whom. Whose bondage or suffering is the price of our freedom and comfort, and what right do we have to exact that price?

It's our job as Jews to rejoice in our freedom, and it's our job to look at this system, this community, this nation, this planet, and ask how and whether we're complicit in the suffering of others who are not yet free. What is the price of our spiritual freedom, and who is paying that price, and what can we do about that? And considering our complicity isn't enough. It's also our job as Jews to work toward liberation for everyone. Until everyone is free, our liberation is incomplete.

The mixed multitude who left Egypt included people who were not Jews... as our Shabbat dinners here include those who walk on other spiritual paths. On most Christian calendars today is Good Friday. In their tradition, today commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross. In their tradition, the price of spiritual freedom for humanity was the death of the rabbi they call Jesus who was both human and divine.

For our Christian friends, tonight is a dark night that will give way on Sunday to the brightest of new dawns. The emotional journey of going from Good Friday to Easter does for them what the emotional journey of Pesach can do for us. Remembering the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborns -- remembering the Egyptian army swept away in the Sea of Reeds -- impels us to recognize the preciousness of this life, and to cultivate openness to growth and change.

Following the teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l, I want to suggest that the best way we can relate to Good Friday is not by trying to be Christian, but by being all the more Jewish. This is what he called "deep ecumenism." From the authenticity of our spiritual practice, we can walk alongside others in theirs, partaking in a universal human journey that has multiple forms. And that journey would be darkened and diminished if even a single one of us didn't take part.

Every religion, Reb Zalman taught, is like an organ in the body of humanity. We need each one to be uniquely what it is, and we also need each one to be in communication with the others. If the heart tried to be the liver, we'd be in trouble, but if the heart stopped speaking to the liver, we'd be in even more trouble! Each community of faith -- including those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or secular -- needs to live up to its own best self, and each needs to be in dialogue with the others.

Humanity hasn't quite mastered this yet... but the rest of the world could learn a lot from Williams campus life. When the Chaplains' Office organizes a multifaith prayer experience after the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and Muslim mosques. When Williams Catholic, or Williams Secular, or the Feast, shows up to cook Shabbat dinner for WCJA. When Feminists of Faith gather on a Saturday afternoon, as we will do here on April 29. This is what it means to be a mixed multitude: not because we're stuck with each other, but because we embrace each other. Because our pluralism is part of who we are.

On Sunday night we'll enter into the seventh day of Pesach, which tradition says is the day when we actually crossed the sea. We'll remember how after crossing that sea, Miriam and the women danced with their timbrels, singing in gratitude to the One Who makes our transformation possible.

That's our job too: to sing out in praise. To cultivate gratitude and joy, without ignoring the things that are hard, either in our past or in our anticipated future. Miriam and the women are my role models in that. They'd experienced trauma and loss, they were on a journey with an unknown destination, they were carrying their whole lives on their backs -- and they danced anyway.

Miriam and the women teach me that no matter what I've been through and no matter what challenges lie ahead, there is always reason for hope and rejoicing. "Look around, look around: how lucky we are to be alive right now!"

This is the story that constitutes us as a people: a mixed multitude, welcoming and diverse -- growing and becoming, taking a leap of faith singly and together -- grappling with systems of oppression -- supporting each other on our various spiritual paths -- aware that transformation is always possible -- with hearts expansive enough to hold both life's adversity and life's joy.

We live into this story through every act of tikkun olam (healing the world) that we do singly and together: in our learning, in our fellowship, in our activism, in our prayer, in our community-building. Each of these is a step on the road to Sinai, a step en route to the land of promise awaiting us all.


This is the d'var Torah I offered tonight during dinner at the Williams College Jewish Association.  (Cross-posted to Under the Kippah: Thoughts from the Jewish Chaplain.)

Image: "Multitude," by Sam Miller. (Source.)

Davening: together, even when we're apart

2900184206_c61c8e8622_zMany years ago when I was in rabbinic school I used to daven one morning a week with a telephone minyan of rabbinic school friends. We were all in the eastern time zone, in states scattered across the country. We used a conference call phone line. We took turns leading davenen. It was a gift to me to hear the voices of beloved hevre, not to feel alone in my spiritual practice. Of course, the technology posed some challenges. If we wanted to sing along, we had to mute our own phones, otherwise our voices would cancel each other out. And eventually that telephone minyan came apart at the seams. Still, it was sweet, for a time.

In more recent years I've participated a few times in davenen via zoom, the videoconferencing app we use in ALEPH for Board meetings and other conversations. I have powerful memories of the Monday morning after Reb Zalman died, when the rest of the ALEPH Board was together in Oregon and I was far away in Massachusetts. I joined them via zoom that morning, and davened and sang and wept with them. I remember feeling like we were truly together. Of course, it helped that I knew everyone in the room; we were already a community. I remember being grateful that there was a way for me to be with them from afar.

The technological tools available to us for this kind of virtual community keep evolving. One recent morning shortly after I arrived at work at the synagogue I opened up Facebook to share a piece of synagogue news on my shul's Facebook page, and saw that Shir Yaakov was davening the morning service on Facebook Live. As is usual for me these days, my early morning had not offered me time for davenen. Early mornings in my house, these days, are all about getting myself and my kid fed and dressed, packing our lunches, making sure we both have what we need for the day ahead, and getting him on the schoolbus on time.

But here was one of my hevre davening in a way that I could join. It felt like a reminder from the universe of how I really ought to begin my work day! So I put on tallit and tefillin and sang with Shir. In the chat window alongside the video there was a steady stream of comments from others who were davening too. He asked us to name the places we were in, and the places for which we were praying. I saw the names of friends across the continent, and the names of people I don't know. From time to time a wave of little hearts would flow across the screen as people clicked on Facebook's "heart" button to share their love.

After the minyan ended I found myself thinking about how davenen connects us across places and times. Part of what's meaningful for me in davenen is knowing that others are singing these words too -- or perhaps other words that evoke these same themes -- around the world. As the hour for morning prayer moves across the globe, daveners enter in to morning prayer, together and alone. And there's also a way in which davenen connects us not only across time zones but across time -- some of these words have been recited in prayer for centuries, and will be recited for centuries to come. 

In in the world of assiyah (geographically), those of us who joined this Facebook Live minyan were all over the place. But -- at least for a while -- in the worlds of yetzirah (emotion), briyah (thought), and atzilut (spirit), we were all together. Sometimes when I gather with community in person, we're in the same place physically but our hearts and spirits aren't necessarily aligned. Someone's distracted, someone's focusing on this morning's news, someone's grieving, someone's angry with someone else in the room -- there are all kinds of reasons why we can be disconnected. But at its best, prayer connects us both in and out -- with ourselves and with each other -- and also up

("Up" is a metaphor, of course. As I taught my students last night in our intro Judaism class, Judaism's God-concepts include both transcendence and immanence, the Infinite and the relatable. God is in the vastness of spacetime, and as intimate to us as the beating of our own hearts. My favorite metaphor for God these days is Beloved. The God to Whom I need to relate right now is the One Who sees me and loves me in all that I am. Prayer doesn't always connect me with that One... but as with any other practice, the only way to reach the times when it "works" is to keep doing it even at the times when I feel like it "doesn't work.")

At its best, prayer connects us with our deepest selves, and with our Source, and with each other. No matter where in the world we are. Even when we feel most alone, when we "log in" to the cosmic mainframe (that's language Reb Zalman z"l used to use), we're connecting with the Network that links us all. Prayer can remind us to open our hearts. It can attune us to the subtle movements of soul. And though sometimes when I pray with others I feel that I am still alone, sometimes when I am praying alone I can remember that what appears to divide us is illusory, and what connects us -- always -- is infinite and deep.



Visitation, a tele-davenen poem, 2008

Returning home from a week in ALEPH-land


Every year I struggle to figure out how to describe my week with this particular subset of my ALEPH / Jewish Renewal community, and every year my words come up short.

This is even more true than it used to be now that with Rabbi David I am co-chair of ALEPH. This means both that our time here in Colorado is longer than it used to be -- we gathered for a Board meeting last week, before the Shabbaton, which came before the smicha (ordination), which came before the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy -- and also that our time here in Colorado is more densely-packed with commitments, conversations, and appointments than it ever was before.

Looking back on the last week, my first thought is that I can hardly believe it's only been eight days. Surely I have been away from home for a month! It feels this way to me in part because each day is so packed (morning prayer, meetings, lunch meetings, more meetings, then afternoon prayer, then more meetings, then still more meetings, then evening prayer, then yet more meetings -- not to mention the impromptu meetings in the lobby, the elevator, by the fireplace, in the meal line...)

There's also a way in which gathering with the same community year after year causes time to telescope -- it shrinks and expands, linking now with then and then and then. Of course every year there are new faces: new students in the ALEPH ordination programs, new members of OHALAH. And every year a few of the faces who used to be with us are absent. Even so, the gathering of this community creates a kind of psycho-spiritual container that is palpably the same container each year.

And time takes on a strange quality inside that container. Is it 2017, or is it 2011, or is it 2006? On the Sunday of this trip I found myself thinking: is this the day I was welcomed in to the community (I remember exactly how I felt as I stood in line to walk beneath that chuppah as a baby rabbinical student), or the day I was blessed on my way out of the community, or the day when I got to be a part of the transmission of smicha? And of course it was none of those -- but it was also all of those, all at once.

The last eight days have been dense and rich and full. They've contained countless conversations about the pace of change, and organizational transitions, and the future of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal. They've contained Board meetings and conference sessions, and learning with this year's keynote speaker Rabbi Benay Lappe. We've shared with the OHALAH community some of what we learned over our fifteen-month listening tour (we're working now on the report from those travels; stay tuned.)

One afternoon I went to the hot tub, surrounded by snow, and wound up talking there with colleagues about real-life ethical and halakhic questions we have faced around weddings, Shabbat, and brit milah. We talked about balancing competing values, about integral halakha, about gender and ritual, about ethics and how we make choices. It was an extraordinary conversation, and afterward we cleansed our palate by singing one of Reb Zalman's niggunim and one of Hazzan Jessi Roemer's melodies.

One night I went to a friend's room and held the space and bore witness as some of her dearest beloveds tied tzitzit and tchelet (blue threads) on the tallit she would wear during her rabbinic ordination. Another night I gathered some of my beloveds in my room and together we tied tzitzit and tchelet on my newest tallit, a creation made just for me by my dear friend Rabbi Shulamit Thiede of Not My Brother's Kippah. On still other nights I sat in the lobby with friends and sang songs until far too late, with joy.

I've been privileged this week to bear witness to the smicha (ordination) of a class of mashpi'im (spiritual directors) -- and also the smicha of a new cohort of clergy, a hazzan and four rabbis. I've been privileged this week to take part in some extraordinary davenen, learning new melodies and savoring familiar ones, singing meaningful words in harmony with beloved hevre who care as much as I do about the words and their meanings and how they can connect us up and in and through.

As a special treat, twice over the last week (once before the Board meeting began, and once on Shabbes afternoon) I made it into the mountains with friends to walk and to soak in the natural beauty. That was a gift too. It's all too easy to come here and never leave the confines of the conference hotel, and while I am primarily here for the community and the hevreschaft, sometimes it is sweet to experience those collegial friendships in the setting of the natural world instead of the hotel halls.

This week I've had countless conversations. I've davened, I've learned, I've taught, I've kvelled. And now I am on my way home, physically exhausted but spiritually uplifted, grateful for this community and for the spiritual gifts they have enabled me to receive.


Prayer for the Musmachot


These are the names of the daughters of Israel
Who came into the womb of narrow unknowing
Each with her household, to be rebirthed anew,

Called by name at the moment of becoming
No less than the stars that shine in their time
By which to count a promised people of light.

Birthing took time, but they’re vigorous in living
And giving life-giving life from essence of soul,
The single point of light that is light before light.

It did not merely appear in your wild and waste:
You saw, daring to turn toward flame of heart,
Standing open to touch and tend the holy,

Hearing your name as never before called from the
Name as never before spoken, becoming in all ways
Within you What is Becoming always within you,

Now ready to shine as never before, for you as the very
Top of the mountain that glowed with the radiance of
Birth herself in truth and love and pain and hope.

These are the names of the daughters of Israel
Come to lead from narrow unknowing to rebirth anew
With eyes wide open – daring to turn aside and see

The flame of heart, to help all of us stand open to
Touch and tend the holy, to hear and become –
Next links in the unbroken chain of always becoming

Now given to their care, placed on their shoulders,
Hearing their names as never before, leaning back into
History’s hands: from where we stand, go forward.

Dedicated with love and blessing to the
ALEPH Class of 2017

Rabbi Rachel Hersh
Rabbi Diane Lakein
Hazzan Jessi Roemer
Rabbi Susan Shamash
Rabbi Jennifer Singer

Rabbi David Evan Markus & Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Co-Chairs, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal



Off to Colorado once again

Eleven years ago at this season I made my way to Colorado for my first ALEPH Ordination Programs student Shabbaton and OHALAH conference. I experienced the ritual that welcomes incoming students and blesses outgoing students, on the Sunday morning of the day of the smicha (ordination). After the Shabbaton, I attended my first conference of Jewish Renewal clergy.

I've been back every year since, even the year when I'd just been hospitalized for strokes. The only January gathering I missed was the one when my son was a newborn. (Coincidentally, that was also the only year the conference moved away from Colorado -- that year OHALAH experimented with holding the gathering in St. Louis instead.)

Six years ago this winter I myself was ordained on the day between the ALEPH student Shabbaton and the OHALAH conference. And two years ago I was privileged to participate in the ordination as part of the chain of transmission through which Reb Zalman z"l's legacy flows. Those two experiences of blessing and transformation are highlights of my life.

These days I always go to Colorado a few days before the Shabbaton and conference, because that's when the ALEPH Board of Directors has our annual winter meeting. This year we'll spend that meeting entering into capacity-building and strategic planning with the Reverend Bill Kondrath, with whom I had the pleasure of learning last summer at Clergy Camp. I'm excited about working with him toward a vibrant future for ALEPH and for the renewal of Judaism.

Last year was my first OHALAH conference as co-chair (with R' David) of ALEPH. We discovered that the conference is a somewhat different experience from this vantage. I'm expecting that this year will be similarly booked chock-full of meetings (both scheduled and impromptu), though I'm hoping to make it to at least a few conference sessions, and to get time to connect with a few friends.

If you'll be at the ALEPH Board meeting in Broomfield, or at the Shabbaton that follows it, or at the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy, I look forward to learning and dining and davening and harmonizing and simply being with you in the coming days! And if not, I look forward to connecting with you once I return home from my week away. Thanks for bearing with me while I'm on the road.