Teaching in Tikshoret

This winter, ALEPH is launching a new adult education program called Tikshoret: Contemporary Connections in Jewish Learning. (The name tikshoret comes from the Hebrew root which means connection -- the idea is that these classes will connect participants with our tradition's many riches.) The classes will be offered online via zoom videoconferencing, will be relatively brief (a few sessions, rather than a full semester), will be affordable (an accessible taste of Jewish Renewal Torah), and should be a lot of fun. And fortunately, our first Tikshoret class is being taught by someone who won't mind if we're still working the bugs out of the system as we go -- me. 

Feb 17, 24, March 2 & 9 – 8-9:30pm Eastern (US) Time

Writing the Psalms of Our Hearts
Instructor: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Rachel-squareThe psalms are a deep repository of praise, thanksgiving, grief, and exaltation, one of our communal tools for connecting with God. In this class, each of us will become a psalmist. We’ll awaken our spirits and hearts by praying select psalms together, warm up our intellectual muscles with writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we each write our own psalms. After sharing our psalms aloud and sharing our responses to each others’ work, we’ll close by davening together once more.

Learn more about Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Cost: $125


All are welcome. If you would enjoy writing a handful of psalms, I'd love to have you in the class!

Upcoming classes will be taught by Shoshanna Shechter-Shaffin ("Eve and Lilith: Secrets of the Creation of the Divine Feminine"), Hazzan-Magid Steve Klaper, Rabbinic Pastor Dr. Simcha Raphael, and Rabbi David Zaslow -- more information about each of those classes will appear on the Tikshoret page on the ALEPH website, so check that out (and when you go there, a window will pop up inviting you to join the ALEPH mailing list -- that's the easiest way to ensure that you'll get updates on forthcoming programs and events.)

Jewish Renewal in Tablet

Tablet-orangeTablet magazine ran an article last week about Jewish Renewal.  I'm honored to be quoted in that article along with several other people whose voices and perspectives I respect. Some of the material from our interview about which I was personally most excited (talking about Jewish Renewal's "spiritual technologies" e.g. chant, davenology, sage-ing, hashpa'ah / spiritual direction) didn't make it into the piece, but it's a good article and well worth reading. Here's a taste:

While Renewal insiders are proud of the numbers of communities that affiliate with Aleph and with the growing number of students at their rabbinical school, which admitted 25 students in the last year, they also argue that Renewal’s influence can’t be counted in numbers of bodies alone.

Schachter-Shalomi hoped that Renewal would “be a virus.” According to Ingber, he hoped it would “infiltrate and infect as it were as many places as possible.” His legacy, Ingber said, “is that much to the chagrin of his students, he didn’t care about trademarking stuff. Reb Zalman was not a copyright, trademark kind of person,” even if it meant Renewal would not receive due credit.

As a movement centered around one man’s persona and charisma, Renewal is now at a critical juncture in a post-Reb Zalman era. “Everything that happens now in Renewal on some level was generated by Reb Zalman,” Magid explained. The consensus is that there is nobody who could or should take this place. “His whole upbringing was prewar Europe,” Magid added. “I think that that makes it impossible” for anyone to replace him. Like Carlebach and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, so, too, Schachter-Shalomi: These men bridged old Europe and new America, and nobody can do that anymore.

But if Schachter-Shalomi is irreplaceable, what’s in store for the movement?

Read the whole thing here: Can Jewish Renewal Keep Its Groove On? (I expect you will not be surprised to hear that my answer to that question is a resounding "yes!")

A week in ALEPH-land

I've been away from home for a week, in the Brigadoon of ALEPH-land. First there was an ALEPH board meeting; then a glorious Shabbaton (Shabbat weekend retreat); then the smicha (ordination) of new clergy; then the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy. Every single day was jam-packed, from early morning until I fell into bed at night. I can't recount the whole thing, but here are glimpses.

The board meeting opened with morning prayer and song, and we sang again every time we began a new session after a break. I love this about this board -- that we break for prayer; that we break into song. The song which became our refrain was "Ivdu Et Hashem b'Simcha" ("Serve God with joy!") What a perfect mantra for our board service, and for the work we try to do across ALEPH writ large. 

On Friday night I sat between two of my dearest friends, resplendent in our Shabbat whites to welcome the Shabbat bride, and we sang in harmony all the way through the service. Singing these beloved words, alongside beloved friends who care about the words as much as I do, with their beloved voices intertwining with mine, always feels like coming home. This time was no exception. I am so blessed.

Saturday afternoon began with mincha (the afternoon service), where the leaders read from Torah in a way I had never seen before (sharing only a verse or two at a time, in both languages, and then offering a related meditative question for us to sit with.) There were sensory delights: mint leaves for scent, dried fruits to eat, white Colorado stones to turn and hold in our hands. That service led seamlessly...

...into se'udah shlishit (Shabbat's ritual "third meal") which was a beautiful feast of niggun (wordless melody), story, and song...which in turn segued seamlessly into ma'ariv (the evening service) which we sang in the weekday melodic mode facing the windows where the darkening sky was visible, which in turn led right into havdalah. As always when I bid farewell to a Shabbat with these friends, I wept.

One morning's davenen was billed as a "barbershop quartet" service. Two women and two men sang in a cappella harmony, encouraging us to harmonize and to join in, blending weekday nusach, other melodies we know for our daily prayers, and secular doo-wop melodies in a fabulous tapestry of sound. Another morning we sat in a circle with a rabbi-drummer and sang liturgy and niggunim, interwoven. 

Somewhere in there were evenings with friends, a guitar or two, hours of singing, and laughing until my belly ached with happiness. One night in a hotel room (probably annoying the heck out of the other folks on our floor!), one night in the "firepit," the lounge adjacent to the lobby with the fireplace and cushy chairs. Prayers, folk songs, Hebrew songs, Yiddish songs -- so many melodies and harmonies!

One night there was a kirtan ma'ariv with Rabbi Andrew Hahn, the Kirtan Rabbi. We sang his gorgeous Shviti chant (a setting of one of my favorite lines from psalms, which I have written about before, and which has even sparked poetry). I had been blessed to hear his chant a few months ago before it was released into the world, and I loved hearing it (and singing it) in this context, with this community.

On my last morning in Colorado I went with David to the Reb Zalman Meditation Room. We met up with Hazzan Steve Klaper there, and together the three of us davened the morning service. We sang, and the room reverberated with our words and our intentions, and we ended with "Ana B'Choach," the prayer we learned from Reb Zalman which asks God to untie our tangled places and help us be whole.

There were countless meetings. Some formal, some informal. Some planned, some arising spontaneously as someone found me or us in the lobby and wanted to talk. There were Listening Tour sessions. There were meals with old friends and new. There was absolutely not enough time to connect with everyone! How I wish I had mastered the art of bilocation, so I could be in two places at once.

As always, I return home with a feeling of profound gratitude for having found this hevre, this community of beloved colleagues and friends. I wish we'd had more time. I'm already looking forward to this summer's ALEPH Kallah (July 11-17, Fort Collins Colorado, preregistration is now open!) when I will get to learn and teach and study and pray and dine and sing and rejoice with these friends again.


Tu BiShvat Resources for Our Living Planet

Cross-posted from Kol ALEPH, the blog of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.


This year we (at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal) rededicate ourselves to caring for our living planet as a place of holiness. Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees (coming up on January 25), is a natural opportunity to link our deep ecological values with the life of the spirit. Here are some resources which we hope will bring added meaning to your Tu BiShvat:

  • Rededication (pdf) - a new liturgical poem for Tu BiShvat by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
  • Blessing for Tu BiShvat (pdf) - a prayer from the original Tu BiShvat haggadah, offered by Rabbi David Seidenberg at NeoHasid.org
  • One page flowchart haggadah (pdf) - a one-page printable flowchart haggadah, offered by Rabbi David Seidenberg at NeoHasid.org
  • A digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat (slideshow / powerpoint) - a new digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat, intended for projection on a screen (to save trees!)  Liturgy, poems, prayers, video, and more. That same haggadah is available online via slideshare:

May our celebrations of Tu BiShvat bring us closer to healing our living planet and connecting us with the One Who enlivens and sustains us all.

A poem for the new ALEPH musmachim

On January 10, 2016, ALEPH ordains nine new Jewish clergy – five rabbis, two cantors, and two rabbinic pastors – after having welcomed 24 new students, the largest incoming class in ALEPH history.  This poetic charge is dedicated to our newest clergy, and their students, and the students of their students, as they take their place in the ancient flow of transmission.



Your Turn



You made a choice and took a turn
Long before you saw the flame

Was God's own angel dressed in drag,
Concealed within a bush so low

The last place one would think to look
To find an upward homing beacon.

You turned to face that glow: you couldn't see
The path ahead. For all you knew

You too might be consumed. God
Becomes What God Becomes, and so do you

Who in the end discovered that
Refiner's fire would yield not ash but gold.

At first they might not see or hear.
Some never will: it's less a risk

To keep the One they surely know,
The certain One they don't believe,

Than peel the habit from the feet
That seems most safe though shackling,

As you have done despite yourself
Because you dared to turn aside

And be rewritten from within, a scroll
Emblazoned on your skin for all to read.

They might read it wrong: we see things
Not as they are but as we are.

As you will know, and may your knowing
Light your way, as for your teachers

Behind you now, sending you
To prime the pump of heaven's flow.


God's own angel dressed in drag: Exodus 3:2. Refiner's fire: Malachi 3:3. At first they might not see or hear: Exodus 6:9. The certain One they don't believe: From Reb Zalman z"l, after Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Peel the habit from the feet: Reb Zalman & Netanel Miles-Yepez, A Heart Afire 47, following Besht on Exodus 3:5. You dared to turn aside: Exodus 3:3. A scroll emblazoned on your skin: Psalm 40:8. Not as they are but as we are: B.T. Berakhot 55b. Your teachers behind you now: M. Avot 1:1.

14 stanzas – יד, the hand of smicha.


Written by Rabbi David Evan Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, ALEPH co-chairs, for this year's class of ALEPH musmachim (ordinands). Cross-posted from Kol ALEPH.

Co-writing poems has turned out to be one of the unexpected joys of co-chairing ALEPH with David. We've written a few of these so far during our tenure, including The Angels of San Bernardino. I've written poems for ALEPH musmachim (ordinands) before -- including Becoming, 2009 -- but this is the first time I've co-written one.

This year marks five years since my own ordinationI offer my deepest congratulations to those who are becoming rabbis, hazzanim, and rabbinic pastors today.

Against spiritual bypass: statement concerning Marc Gafni

When I was admitted as a rabbinic student at ALEPH, the very first thing that happened was a phone call from ALEPH's head of hashpa'ah / spiritual direction. She interviewed me in order to discern who might be a good spiritual director for me. Every ALEPH student is required to be in spiritual direction during the years we're in the program, and we're strongly encouraged to remain in spiritual direction afterwards, too. (ALEPH also ordains spiritual directors; I hold a second ordination as a mashpi'ah.) 

As far as I know, ours is the only seminary which requires students to be in spiritual direction, to be actively engaged in the work of discernment and teshuvah, throughout our training. One of the reasons why we do this is that we stand firmly against spiritual bypass -- the misuse of spiritual practice or spiritual language to avoid facing painful realities. Reb Zalman z"l used to speak strongly against what he called "whipped cream on garbage:" putting a pretty face on something which is rotten underneath. 

All of this has been on my mind lately given the resurgence of Marc Gafni. ALEPH has released an official Statement of the Jewish Renewal Movement Concerning Marc Gafni. Here's how it begins:

The latest attempted re-emergence of Marc Gafni as self-described spiritual leader galvanizes all who care about genuine spirituality to stand up for high ethical standards, protect the health and safety of students and congregants, and confirm the accuracy of the public record.

Marc Gafni is not a rabbi or spiritual leader recognized by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal...

The whole thing is here: Statement of the Jewish Renewal Movement Concerning Marc Gafni -- please read and share widely.



Generosity at the end of the (secular) year

Logo-squareAt this time of year, every nonprofit organization I know of is hoping for end-of-year donations. A lot of people do their charitable giving during December so that they can get a tax write-off for the (secular) year now ending. ALEPH is exceptional in many ways -- I've never served on any other board where there is so much love, caring, and song! -- but in our hopes for fiscal support at this season we're just like everybody else. 

ALEPH and Jewish Renewal changed my life. They gave me a spiritual home and a connection with the Holy One of Blessing. They gave me a rabbinate and the opportunity to serve my community and the world. I can't overstate the impact ALEPH and Jewish Renewal have had on me.

I started blogging not long after I'd found Jewish Renewal, so even those of you who've been reading me since 2003 never knew the "pre-Jewish-Renewal" Rachel. I was spiritually thirsty, and spiritually lonely, too. I was simultaneously desperate for connection with God and tradition, and afraid that the connection I yearned for was impossible. I didn't think I would ever be able to become a rabbi. I wasn't sure I would ever feel spiritually at-home. Then I found Jewish Renewal. Everything else, as the saying goes, is commentary. 

I'm not in a position to become an ALEPH minyanaire, but in addition to donating my time as board co-chair, I donate money as I am able. I hope that you will join me. As you're considering your end-of-year giving, please consider supporting this organization that I love. You can read more about what we've been doing and what we're planning to do next: The Legacy Continues.

If you've ever benefited from a teaching I've shared here; if you've ever used one of my Torah poems, or a piece of liturgy I shared here; if you've ever used my haggadah, which I've been sharing online for free for more a decade; if your spiritual life has been enhanced by Velveteen Rabbi in any way -- please know that all of that is possible because of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal. Thank you for donating to ALEPH as your finances permit. May your generosity arouse the flow of shefa (divine abundance) from on high, and may you rejoice in knowing that you are supporting a vibrant and innovative Jewish future!


The Angels of San Bernardino: prayer after a shooting


The angels of San Bernardino
Were busy on their appointed rounds:

One hovering atop each blade of grass
Calling forth its skyward stretch,

One ready to tap the lip of each baby
About to be born into holy amnesia,

One giving directions to a lost passerby,
One restarting a paralyzed heart,

One for each shooter’s right shoulder
Desperate to redirect their savage aim,

One at the lifeless feet of each victim
As God took them with a kiss and a tear.

Help us to feel the angels now among us
Even when they seem absent or late.

Help us draw strength from their presence
Even when we feel most alone and unsure.

Help us be Your messengers for each other,
Your holy agents of justice, healing and hope.


Rabbi David Evan Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Co-chairs, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal


Busy on their appointed roundsTradition imagines that each angel is created for a single mission or purpose (Gen. Rabbah 50:2).  Hovering atop each blade of grass –“Not even a blade of grass is without an angel that taps it and says, ‘Grow'” (Gen. Rabbah 10:6). Tap the lip – From the Talmudic legend that all babies learn the wisdom of holiness in the womb, but before birth an angel touches the lip and they are born forgetting what they learned (Talmud, Niddah 30b).  One giving directions to a lost passerby – When Joseph was lost looking for his brothers, the angel Gavriel redirected Joseph and changed the course of history (Rashi Gen. 37:15).  Lifeless feet of each victim – An angel attends the feet at the moment of death (Deut. Rabbah 11:11). God took them with a kiss – No less than for Moses himself (Talmud, Bava Batra 17a).


This liturgical poem, co-written by ALEPH's co-chairs, originally appeared at Kol ALEPH.

The freedom seder, feminist seders, and transformation

Yesterday afternoon I gave a talk as part of Colorado University's second biannual Embodied Judaism Symposium, "Freedom Seder: American Judaism and Social Justice." I spoke about how Rabbi Arthur Waskow's historic 1969 Freedom Seder helped to pave the way for the feminist seder movement and for a broader shift in how we understand seders and the story at their heart -- and about how that work was, and is, a core part of Jewish Renewal.

For those who are interested, here are the slides from my talk. Video should be forthcoming on YouTube -- stay tuned!


Thanks again to the folks at CU for inviting me to speak. It was an honor to represent ALEPH among such luminaries as Professor Riv-Ellen Prell (Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota), Professor Adam Bradley (Founding Director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at CU-Boulder), and Rabbi Arthur himself.

The gift of another Listening Tour Shabbat

22492482020_0a22a8a39b_zIf you've been reading this blog lately you know that my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus and I are traveling around North America on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour. We're visiting congregations and communities, visiting rabbinic schools (both trans-denominational, e.g. Hebrew College -- and denominational, e.g. the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College), holding big open mic sessions and small curated conversations, and learning as much as we can about the landscape of Jewish Renewal and about people's hopes and dreams for the future of Judaism writ large.

Celebrating Shabbat on these trips is turning out to be really special for me. One reason for that is that everywhere we go, I am reconnecting with friends who I don't see often enough. My ALEPH hevre (colleagues and friends) live all over the globe, and while it's wonderful to study and daven with them via zoom or Skype, it's far sweeter to be together in person. Another reason is that that everywhere we go, I get to relax into the capable hands of someone else's service leadership and let the liturgy and the melodies carry me. (That's a real treat for a working pulpit rabbi. Usually it's my job to help create that experience for others.)

22627246571_14423cc8d9_zEverywhere we go, I get the opportunity to see some of my Jewish Renewal friends and teachers in the places where they live and serve, which offers me subtly different glimpses of them than I typically see on retreat. I love getting to see my hevre in their home contexts!

And everywhere we go, I know I'm with other people who invest in Shabbat in the same ways that I do. That's spiritually nourishing for me in ways which are difficult to verbalize. All weekend long, I get to daven surrounded by some dear voices, and faces, and neshamas (souls.) In Philadelphia, that was extra-sweet for me because I was davening in the shuls of some of the very people who most taught me how to enter the flow of the liturgy and really pray.

On Friday night at Mishkan Shalom, Rabbi Shawn Zevit led a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat. At the start of that service, the experience of singing Yedid Nefesh -- that gorgeous poem of love and yearning -- cracked my heart right open and let the balm of Shabbat flow in. I had the opportunity to share a few poems during Friday night's service -- including "Texts to the Holy," (a poem I posted here in slightly earlier form as "Missing You") which I had never read aloud to others before. Friday night's davenen opened me up in beautiful ways.

On Saturday morning at P'nai Or davenen was led by Rabbi Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler. We began with an opening niggun which I know like the back of my own hand but hadn't heard in a long time. The simple experience of singing harmony for those familiar notes was sweet. By the time we got to the lines in Nishmat Kol Chai which assert that everything within me sings praise, those words were entirely true. Shabbat morning's davenen filled my cup to the brim. And then, after a potluck lunch, we held an open mic session for more than 50 people who shared with us their hopes and dreams for the future of Jewish Renewal -- holy wow.

22492480910_3eb7303f97_zPart of what's fun for me is that each of the services we've attended thus far on the Listening Tour has been entirely different from the others. Each has featured a different siddur (prayerbook). Each has been led by people who were ordained in different places. (Of this weekend's davenen leaders, two hold dual ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and from Reb Zalman z"l whose work inspired and grew into the ALEPH Ordinations Program; one was ordained by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.) Each has featured different melodies, choices of instrumentation, and styles of prayer. And each has been an authentic expression of Jewish Renewal, because there's no single way to "do" Renewal.

People keep asking how we're managing to do this listening tour on top of jobs and other commitments. This year of traveling and active listening poses a lot of challenges -- from the emotional and intellectual effort to be receptive listeners, to ordinary logistics, to grasping the awesome scope of all people hold Renewal to be (and want Renewal to be).  But the work is its own reward: I can't imagine a better way to spend these weekends.

Not only because it's amazing to get to hear from so many people about the Jewish future they yearn for (though it is) -- not only because we get to have these incredible conversations about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal and the future of heart-centered innovative Judaism (though we do, and how cool is that?) -- but also because we get to experience Jewish Renewal Shabbatot in all of these different places. Each Shabbat on this tour has its own ta'am, its own flavor. Each one comes with different melodies, and harmonies, and insights, and sweetness. And each one is a gift.


Symposium on the Freedom Seder

EmbodiedjudaismThe very first time I went on a Jewish Renewal retreat -- a week-long retreat at the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality, which was then in Accord, NY -- I spent my mornings studying Jewish meditation with Rabbi Jeff Roth (now of the Awakened Heart Project) and my afternoons talking tikkun olam /healing the world with Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center. I knew Reb Arthur's work already because I had read his book Godwrestling. I suspect that's where I first learned about the Freedom Seder.

The Freedom Seder was held on the third night of Passover, April 4, 1969, the first anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, in the basement of a Black church in Washington DC. About 800 people took part, half of them Jews, the rest Black and white Christians. (If you're interested, the text of the original 1969 haggadah is available online -- and here's a terrific NPR piece: In Freedom Seder, Jews and African Americans Built a Tradition Together.)

This November, the Freedom Seder and its legacy will be celebrated at Colorado University in Boulder with their second biannual Embodied Judaism Symposium, Freedom Seder: American Judaism and Social Justice on Thursday, November 12 from 4:30PM – 6:30PM on the CU-Boulder campus. The symposium will explore American political activism and religious practice in the wake of the 1969 Freedom Seder.

I'm honored to be included among the speakers at that symposium. Reb Arthur will be there and will speak about the original Freedom Seder and its impact on twenty-first century struggles for social justice. I'm planning to speak about how the Freedom Seder used the particularistic Jewish language and frametale of the seder in order to express a vision of justice and a world redeemed, as well as the impact of the 1969 event on the last few decades' worth of feminist seders.

Adam Bradley, Associate Professor of English and Founding Director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at CU-Boulder, will explore how the 1969 Freedom Seder’s core principles of grassroots social action, prophetic vision, and cross-racial collaboration are linked to the burgeoning hip hop culture of the mid-1970s. And Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, will address the cultural politics of the Freedom Seder and how the event challenged particularist understandings of Jewish ritual, recasting Jewishness as a radical platform for building bridges across race and religion.

I'm looking really forward to this symposium and to hearing what all of the other presenters have to say. If you're in the area and this sounds interesting to you, please join us! The Embodied Judaism Symposium is free and open to the public. However, space is limited, and RSVPs are required, so please email CUJewishStudies@colorado.edu or call 303.492.7143 to reserve a spot.

Ten years with the angels


The year is 2005. I am at the old Elat Chayyim -- in its original campus, the Catskills hotel in Accord, NY. It is "smicha students' week"  and I am not yet a student. I'm spending the week with the ALEPH Ordinations Programs community: learning with them, dining with them, davening with them.

This is part of our mutual discernment process: is this the right program for me? (I know in my bones that it is.) Am I the right fit for them? (I pray with my whole heart that I am.) I am staying in a room with two students and another applicant. I don't yet know that I will begin the program in the fall.

DLTI -- the Davenen Leadership Training Institute -- is meeting during this same week. I will realize, years later, that this must be their third session of four. Their facility with leading prayer, and the way their energies and harmonies interweave seamlessly, would not be possible during week one.

But at this moment I don't know that, and I'm mostly just awed by the way they lead prayer. This is the first time in my life that I hear weekday nusach, the melodic mode used for weekday davenen, and I fall in love with it instantly. It's also the first time I ever hear an invocation of the angels at bedtime.

One night, my room-mates who are in the program sing it to the two of us in the room who are applicants. The melody is by R' Shlomo Carlebach z"l. "In the name of God, the God of Israel -- on my right is Michael, on my left is Gavriel..." When did anyone last sing me a lullaby? It brings me to tears.



The year is 2010. I am once again at smicha students' week -- this time at Pearlstone, a Jewish retreat center outside of Baltimore. I am spending two weeks there with the entire AOP community. It will be my last summer residency as a rabbinic student. It is also my first summer residency with a baby.

My mother spends a week there taking care of the baby so that I can go to class. She brings him to me when he needs to nurse, and otherwise she strolls him around the grounds, reads him board books, plays with him. One night she asks me the name of the beautiful Israeli folksong I sing him at bedtime.

It takes me a moment to realize that she means this piece of traditional liturgy, set to R' Shlomo's melody. I explain that this is an invocation of the angels -- Michael, Gavriel, Uriel, Raphael -- to watch over us while we sleep. Part of the liturgy of the bedtime shema. Every night, she listens to me sing.



The year is 2015. I am perched on the edge of my son's bed. "Do you want me to say the prayers tonight, or do you want to say them?" I ask. Tonight he wants to do them himself. He blesses everyone. He sings the shema. And then he sings me the angel song, in Hebrew and in English.

Some of the Hebrew words are a bit garbled. And I have no idea what he thinks an angel is. But in this moment, I am awestruck. Ten years ago the idea of invoking the angels of wonder, strength, light, and comfort was new to me. Five years ago, it was new to my mom. But this is not new to my son.

For him, this is ordinary. A natural part of the bedtime routine, just like saying "God bless..." and singing the shema. And sometimes now, before his own bedtime, my son sings the angel song to me -- just as my friends did, bringing me to tears in that dorm room at the old Elat Chayyim, a lifetime ago.



Related:Bedtime angels, July 2015

Brought to you by diner coffee

I think of myself as pretty good at working with people remotely. I was a relatively early adopter, internet-wise. I've been online for well more than 20 years. I spent three years on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization with no physical address, working with colleagues all over the globe day after day via purely internet-based tools. And yet I can't deny that there is a different energy, a special spark, which arises when I can sit down with someone face to face. Maybe especially if our brainstorming is fueled by a neverending stream of surprisingly decent diner coffee.


This is a photograph of my current favorite diner. This diner is on a relatively nondescript Main Street sort of highway in a smallish upstate New York town. We happened on it purely because the town in which it is planted is roughly midway between where I live and where my ALEPH co-chair lives. And besides, its chrome and mirrors gleam so appealingly on a sunny day! (And when you walk inside, you're greeted by a giant statue of a guy holding a gargantuan coffee mug.) Every so often, when we can swing it, we get in our cars and we each drive a couple of hours, and this is where we meet up.

It's enormous, and although there's frequently a healthy crowd, I've never seen it full. Maybe that's why they don't seem to mind when we show up, order breakfast, and then spend hours with laptops thanking the waitstaff when they come to top off our cups. It was at this diner, some months ago, that we first dreamed up a list of hopes for ALEPH six months, a year, three years hence. It was at this diner recently that we opened up that plan again and marveled at how many of those hopes and dreams are (with help from Board, staff, teachers, and the Holy One of Blessing) coming to pass.

Lately we've been joking that when we issue that State of Jewish Renewal report next summer at the ALEPH Kallah, we should indicate on the flyleaf that it is brought to you by this diner's neverending stream of coffee. Most recently it's where we met with Rabbi Andrew Hahn, "the Kirtan Rabbi" (about whose work I have posted before), to talk about next summer's Kallah, innovation space and the integration of serious text study with heart-centered Renewal spiritual technologies, and more. We only make it there every few months, but it's already becoming my diner-office-away-from-home.

I don't mind working remotely. On the contrary: I love the fact that when the ALEPH Board meets, I see friendly faces (on my computer screen) who are in a variety of locations and time zones. I love the fact that I get to work with terrific colleagues around North America and around the world. But there really is no substitute for facing a friend across a formica diner table, warming one's hands on a cup of joe in a satisfyingly chunky diner mug, making to-do lists and riffing off of each other's ideas, and then together -- dual laptops open, shared document cursor blinking -- diving in and getting to work.


A Jewish Renewal Simchat Torah

The sanctuary is full of people. A voice calls out "Ana Adonai, hoshia na!" ("Please, God, bring salvation!") and the whole room echoes it. "Ana Adonai, hatzlicha na!" ("Please, God, help us!") and the whole room echoes it. And then the band strikes up and everyone is singing "Aneinu, aneinu, b'yom koreinu" ("Answer us, answer us, on the day when we call!") Then the band shifts seamlessly into a wild whirling Hasidic niggun, and the whole room is singing, and all along the aisle people are standing with their hands raised to make a kind of London Bridge, and people dance beneath the raised hands carrying Torah scrolls. All around the sanctuary there is dancing: circle dancing, spiral dancing, people hoisting the Torah scrolls up like a wedding couple. The whole room is singing and dancing and rejoicing as though the Torah were the most joyful thing imaginable. It is wild. It is sweet. It is a kind of celebratory Jewish mosh pit. It is unlike anything else I have ever experienced.

Welcome to Simchat Torah at Romemu.

Here's the livestream. The Torahs come out of the ark around the 35-minute mark. Scroll to minute 45 to get a sense for what the hakafot were like. (If the embed isn't showing up for you, you can go to the video.)

One of the challenges of smalltown life is that it's not always easy to convene a quorum when minor holidays roll around. Maybe especially when those holidays come at the tail end of a dense and action-packed season of religious observance. The final holiday in the long round of fall observances is Simchat Torah, the festival of "rejoicing in the Torah." On Simchat Torah we sing and dance with the Torah. Sometimes we read the end of the Torah, followed immediately by the beginning.

Some communities unroll a Torah scroll from beginning to end, and people (wearing protective gloves so as not to hurt the parchment) hold it up in a giant circle, and then someone looks for a blessing for each person based on the verses near where their hands happen to be. (We did that here, some years ago.) Many communities dance seven circuits of the room while carrying the Torah -- one for each day of the week, one for each color of the rainbow, one for each of seven sefirot  / qualities of God.

Sometimes there's a special aliyah, an "ascent" to the Torah, for children. Sometimes there's constant singing and dancing. Sometimes the Torah is carried in a kind of festive parade around the sanctuary, preceded and followed by kids waving flags. One way or another, Simchat Torah is meant to be big, celebratory, raucous, joyful...and those things can be hard to provide in a small town shul, especially one where most people (including me!) have never experienced a big Simchat Torah celebration.

Plus, by this time of year, a lot of people have holiday fatigue. First there was Selichot, then the  cemetery service, two days of Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah, five services on Yom Kippur, a week of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret services with Yizkor, and what, you mean there's another holiday after all of that?! The last few years, it's been challenging to get anyone to show up for Simchat Torah. So we've let the holiday go, at least for now. In a small town community it's hard to do everything.

I had resigned myself to not having a Simchat Torah this year. But then I had an unexpected opportunity, at the last minute, to celebrate Simchat Torah with friends at Romemu, my friend Rabbi David Ingber's big Jewish Renewal shul in New York city. The invitation came, and I thought "...wow, that sounds amazing, I wonder whether that's possible?" Against all odds the stars aligned and I was able to make the trip. And holy wow, am I glad that I did. It was every bit as awesome as I had hoped.

During ma'ariv, the evening service, some of the niggunim which became liturgical melodies had a hauntingly familiar ring to them. Oh, wait, that wasn't festival nusach, that was the "Gilligan's Island" theme! And the theme to the "Brady Bunch!" There was a lot of laughter, and that was a wonderful way to begin the evening together. Laughter, and prayer, and singing with our arms around each other. The evening service was short and sweet and delightful -- a warm-up to the main event.

And then Reb David (Ingber, not Markus -- I am blessed with a lot of Reb Davids in my life) spoke about Simchat Torah. It's been a difficult week, he said. In a lot of places. And yet on this day we sing and dance with the Torah -- in the manner of the Hasidic masters, who also knew profound suffering, and who made the existential choice to sing and dance and rejoice not as a way of ignoring the suffering, but with full awareness of our broken places. We bring our brokenness into the dance.

And then the ark was opened, and the Torah scrolls came out, and Reb David invited everyone in their 70s to come up and lead the first hakafah, the first circle-dance with the Torah around the sanctuary. And a voice called out "Ana Adonai, hoshia na!" and the room echoed the traditional call-and-response which is part of our liturgy of celebratory psalms. And the voice called out "Ana Adonai, hatzlicha na!" and the room echoed. And then the band began to play, and everyone began to dance.

When the call came for everyone in their 40s to come up and lead a hakafah, I went. We sang the call and response, and the band began to play, and I joined the chain of people who ducked, laughing, to dance beneath the raised arms of the community. The human tunnel stretched halfway around the sanctuary. And then when we emerged from beneath those raised hands, we joined hands and danced a hora, a grapevine dance, a spiral dance, circles within circles with the Torahs in the middle.

I did a do-si-do with one of my best friends, and then with one of my beloved teachers, and then with my friend again. I danced and sang and spun until I was dizzy and out of breath and my heart was pounding like the bass and the drums and my heart vibrated like the saxophone and guitar. I collapsed into a seat, laughing and singing. I got up and danced again. I hugged people I love who I don't see very often (none of whom knew I was coming to the city, because this was such a last-minute miracle.)

This is what it means to be a Jew: not only to wrestle with Torah, not only to study and argue with Torah, but to dance with Torah. To dance with our story. The last letter of Torah is ל and the first letter is ב and when we put them together, end-to-beginning, we get לב, lev, which means heart. Torah is at the heart of who we are, and even when our hearts are broken, we embrace our story, we embrace each other, and we dance. By the time we had danced all seven hakafot, my whole being was uplifted.

And this morning I rode that spiritual updraft all the way back home.

20 minutes of Reb Zalman's wisdom on Yom Kippur

Back in 1988 Reb Zalman spoke on Yom Kippur at Fellowship Farm. That talk has been edited and remastered, and ALEPH has just released a 20-minute recording, broken into different tracks for easy listening. There's a sample track on YouTube; the rest is available as a digital download for anyone who donates any amount $5 or more.

I just made a donation and am downloading the recording now. Speaking as co-chair of ALEPH, I hope you'll donate as generously as you are able, to help support the work of Jewish Renewal which is so central to my spiritual life and to my heart. Donate and receive a download link here.


Track Listing

  1. Releasing Vows on the Body (3:01)
  2. The Torah of Yom Kippur for Our Day and the Psycho-Halachik Process (12:20)
  3. Davvenen Process (1:03)
  4. Torah in the Middle (0:49)
  5. God Save the Queen (Omnam Kayn) (1:05)
  6. Metaphors for Letting Go (1:52)

G'mar chatimah tovah - may you be sealed for goodness in the year to come!

I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776

One of my most consistent childhood memories is saying my prayers before I went to sleep. I can still remember the pattern of the wallpaper on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom, and the gentle dip of the bed from where my mom would sit next to me.

I would sing the one-line shema, and then say my litany of "God bless." I began with "God bless Mom and Dad," then named my grandparents, then named my siblings and in time their spouses and children. At the very end, I would ask God to bless "all my aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and everybody else, Amen."

I'm not sure what I thought it meant to ask God to bless someone. But clearly being blessed by God was a good thing, and I didn't want anyone to accidentally get left out.

There's a blessing called Oseh Shalom which appears throughout our liturgy. Here are the words as you may have learned them:

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָּׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן:

"May the One Who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say: Amen."

In many communities around the Jewish world today, including this one, another phrase is now added. That phrase is וְעַל כָּל יוֹשבֵי תֵבֱל -- "and all who dwell on Earth." Adding that phrase to Oseh Shalom is a little bit like what I did in my childhood bedtime prayers: "and everybody else, amen."

Why am I so invested in praying for "everybody else, amen"?

Continue reading "I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776" »

Three moments of Shabbat morning gratitude



We have set up a circle of chairs behind the synagogue, surrounded by mountains and wetland and field. At the beginning of morning prayer the air is chill, but by the time we reach the bar'chu, the formal call to prayer, some of our folks have scooted their chairs into the patch of shade beside the small cement wall. When they turn east, they turn to face the wall -- and suddenly our little cement wall becomes the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. (It even has little finger-sized holes in it where one could place kvitlach, petitionary prayers!) I will never see that wall the same way again.



During the Amidah, the standing prayer which is central to every Jewish service, there is a place (called the Kedusha) where the prayer calls us to imitate the choirs of angels singing "Holy, holy, holy." There is a custom of rising on our tiptoes with every repetition of the word kadosh, holy. As I am singing the Kedusha, a wee plane begins to take off from the tiny North Adams airport in the meadow behind the shul, rising into the sky precisely as we are lifting up onto our tiptoes. It is as though the plane is an angel, being buoyed by our prayers. It is as though we are angels, singing praise up into the sky.



We sing Mi Chamocha -- the prayer which our ancestors sang after crossing the Sea of Reeds -- to the melody of "The Water Is Wide," and we intersperse the Hebrew with the words of that folk song. This is a tradition which Rabbi David brings from his synagogue on City Island, and it has become my favorite way to sing that prayer, especially when we're together and can sing it in harmony. The water is wide; I cannot get o'er. But when I know that God is with me -- when I know that I am loved by an unending love -- then whatever comes, whatever life brings, I know I won't have to cross the waters alone.


Article about my rabbinic school


There's a lovely article by Rachel Kurland about the ALEPH Ordination Programs in the Jewish Exponent this week. Here's how it begins:

California students call in at breakfast. East Coast students sign on during lunch. European students check in at dinner. Israeli students log in at night. Some even chat at 2:30 in the morning.
The ALEPH Ordination Program is not like any other rabbinical school or seminary. The program teaches people from all over the country and the world. And this year, the school will be teaching more students than ever...
Here's the part of the article which resonated most for me -- these are quotations from the dean of the program, Rabbi Marcia Prager:
 Rather than just living with what Prager called “a schmear of Judaism,” Jewish Renewal embraces all aspects of Jewish expression for the body, mind, spirit and soul. 
“For me personally, Jewish Renewal as an approach to Jewish life has offered us a way to blend tradition and innovation, to bring artistry, creativity, engagement, joy, passion, embodiment, to all the forms of Jewish expression that make up Jewish life,” she said. 
According to Prager, this incoming class is comprised of a generation of students who are passionate about learning and committed to making a contribution to the world for the future of Jewish legacy, and students are attracted to what she called the “heart-centered” learning style of the program. 
She added that students must not only be masters of text but of heart and soul, which is why they choose to study with ALEPH.

Read it here: ALEPH Ordination Programs Welcomes Largest Incoming Class.

(And if that interests you, you might also enjoy a post I wrote last year: What was the ALEPH rabbinic program like?)

A Vidui (Before Death)

Jewish tradition contains the practice of reciting a confessional prayer daily, annually, and before death. Some years ago, while in the ALEPH Hashpa'ah (Spiritual Direction)  program, I was assigned the task of writing my own. After I was blessed recently to have the opportunity of sitting with someone who was leaving this life, I was moved to revise and share the prayer I had written.

Vidui (Before Death)


Dear One, Source of All Being --
my God and God of my ancestors --
life and death are in Your hands:
hear my prayer.

I reach out to You
as I approach the contractions
which will birth my soul
into whatever comes next.

As my soul chose to enter this life
in order to learn and to love
I prepare now to leave
through an unfamiliar door.

I'm grateful for my place
in the chain of generations.
Grateful for teachers and friends
who have inspired and accompanied me.

I've made mistakes.
Lift them from my shoulders
and bless me with forgiveness.
I open my heart to You.

Help me to let go.
Help me to release regrets
so they don't encumber me
where I'm going.

All who have harmed me
in body, mind, or spirit
in this incarnation or any other --
I forgive them.

May all whom I have harmed
in body, mind, or spirit
in this incarnation or any other
forgive me in turn.

Help my loved ones to know
how deeply I have loved them
and will continue to love them
even when this body is gone.

God, parent of orphans
and defender of widows
be with my beloveds
and bring them comfort.

Into Your hand I place my soul.
You are with me; I have no fear.
As a wave returns to the ocean
I return to the Source from which I came.

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד

Hear, O Israel; Adonai is our God; Adonai is One.





The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur -- and of every night, 2011.

A prayer before departing this life, 2013.

When we are mindful


Judaism believes in the particularity of time, that certain times have special spiritual properties: that Shabbat has an extra degree of holiness; that Pesach (Passover) is the time of our liberation; that Shavuot is a time unusually conducive to revelation. But they have these special properties only when we are mindful. If we consciously observe Shabbat, Shabbat has this holy quality. If we don't, it is merely Friday night, merely Saturday afternoon...

That's Rabbi Alan Lew z"l in the book I reread slowly each year at this season, This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Every year I start rereading the book around Tisha b'Av, the day of deep brokenness which launches us in to the season of teshuvah, repentance or return. Every year I find myself drawn to some of the same passages I underlined last year or the year before -- and every year some new passages jump out at me, too.

This year the first new thing I underlined was the quote which appears at the top of this post. I've been thinking a lot lately about sacred time, and about how being aware of where we are in the rhythm of the day and week and the round of the year can help us attune ourselves to spiritual life... and also how being unaware of where we are, or ignoring where we are, can damage that attunement. It's as though lack of mindfulness were a radio scrambler which keeps us from hearing the divine broadcast.

One of the things I love most about my Jewish Renewal hevre (my dear colleague-friends) is that we are jointly committed to seeking mindfulness. To living with prayerful consciousness, as my friends and teachers Rabbi Shawn Zevit and Marcia Prager taught us during DLTI. Knowing others who care about this stuff as much as I do is restorative. It lifts a weight of loneliness off of my shoulders. My hevre inspire me to try to be the kind of person, the kind of Jew, the kind of rabbi, I want to be.

There's much in ordinary life which pulls me away from the awareness I want to maintain. Away from consciousness of Shabbat as holy time, and of its internal flow from greeting the Bride to rejoicing in the Torah to yearning for the divine Presence not to depart. Away from consciousness of the moon and the seasons, and from the process of teshuvah (repentance / return.) Ordinary life is full of obligations, frustrations, distractions, and a whole world of people who don't care about the things I love so deeply.

Sometimes it's a little bit alienating -- carrying this tradition around with me like an extra pair of glasses, an extra lens which shapes the way I see everything in my world, all the while knowing that most of the people around me don't have this lens and probably don't want it, either. Sometimes it feels like an exquisite gift -- as though I had the capacity to see a layer of beautiful magic which overlays all things, because I'm willing to open myself to this way of seeing and this way of being in the world.

Without mindfulness, Shabbat becomes plain old Friday night and Saturday. Without mindfulness, the new moon of Elul coming up at the end of next week is just a night when we'll be able to see a surprising number of stars. Without mindfulness, Yom Kippur doesn't atone -- it's just a long day, maybe one we're spending with grumbly stomachs saying strange words in a language we don't understand. I don't want it to be like that. Not for me, not for you who are reading this, not for anyone.

There's nothing wrong with plain old Friday night and Saturday. (And so on: plain old new moon, September days instead of the High Holidays...) But because I've tasted the transformation that's possible when consciousness of holy time enlivens those hours and makes them new, I want to make these holy times more than "just ordinary." I want to sip that nectar again, and to come away with my spirit renewed. Because I know that diving deep into Jewish sacred time sustains me like nothing else.

What our tradition is affirming is that when we reach the point of awareness, everything in time -- everything in the year, everything in our life -- conspires to help us. Everything becomes the instrument of our redemption.... The passage of time brings awareness, and the two together, time and consciousness, heal... This is precisely the journey we take every year during the High Holidays -- a journey of transformation and healing, a time which together with consciousness heals and transforms us.

Here's hoping. May it be so.


Elul begins in one week. Rosh Hashanah begins five weeks from Sunday.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.