Tears for Our Country

-Deanne Scherlis Comer

I, like so many, am weeping at the words I heard yesterday from the leader of our beloved country.

Moreover, I am wondering if any of the president’s supporters who have any shred of moral credibility left are looking at themselves in the mirror and asking, “What have I done?” And when will other members of that coterie of his inner circle show some backbone and call out, loudly and clearly, the heinous words and actions that have tarnished this presidency?

This is the time to be an “upstander” and not a “bystander” in our daily interactions as well. Our children, whose footsteps are shaping the path of our nation’s history, are listening.

This is the time to remember and honor all those who have stood up and fought against Nazism, Fascism and global genocides at any level.

March by white nationalists carrying torches in Charlottesville. Photo:

White nationalists marching in Charlottesville. Photo: All InOne News video.

This is the time to remember the diminishing number of Holocaust survivors who are the heroic remnants of the horror inflicted by racial and ethnic hatred.

This is the time to feel empathy for the African Americans who still feel the inequalities, for the moderate Muslims who feel threatened, and for the undocumented, law-abiding immigrants who want a fair opportunity and path to citizenship.

My father fled the pogroms of Communist Russia and always cautioned me about speaking out on issues I believed in. He felt that as a Jew, I should keep a low profile. “Well,” I told him, “Elie Wiesel believed that even if no one is listening, we need to yell against injustice so others don’t change us!”

So, as a human being, as the daughter of an immigrant, as an American Jewish woman, as a mother, as a grandmother and as a Holocaust educator, I will continue to speak my mind.

Hillel said, “If not now, when?”

Deanne Scherlis Comer is past chair of Abington School District’s Holocaust Curriculum Committee and is an education consultant for the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center of Delaware Valley.

New Temple Hillel Director Promotes Jewish Diversity

Temple Hillel

Temple Hillel.

The new executive director of Hillel at Temple University, Daniel Levitt, 33, grew up in New Jersey, but has served as director of Hillel and the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) judaic educator at the University of Guelph in Ontario since 2012. Before that he was campus rabbi of Vanderbilt University Hillel. He got his semicha (ordination) Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2010 after graduating in 2005 from SUNY Binghamton (BA).

I met Levitt on a bus in Israel, heading south to the desert where we were part of a new campus initiative called Israel Engaged Campus. Temple is one of five schools selected to participate in this pilot program, whose mission is to educate college students about the State of Israel, its culture, history, art, science and technology.

“I don’t want Israel to be the only point of entry for Jewish students,” Levitt said when we talked previously. “In Hillel my job isn’t to sell one option or one way to be Jewish, but to have a broad and diverse marketplace of ideas and opinions.”

It was during his undergraduate years at Binghamton where Levitt claims he began to engage in critical thinking and learned the value of questioning one’s assumptions and deeply held beliefs:

I came to college with a very specific worldview. I felt very strongly about my religious beliefs. I came to realize, after intense study, that no question about belief, about faith, has to be scary.

Levitt sees his role at Hillel as providing a way to “nudge students in a direction of less certainty and more questioning”:

I never thought it was possible to question the existence of God. But college taught me there is equal value in alternative perspectives. If you don’t accept that possibility then you don’t have the ability to learn from others and learn humility.

The word “humility” came up many times during our conversations. Although Levitt identifies as Modern Orthodox, he is exceptionally open to new ideas, new interpretations and new ways to find one’s own way to be Jewish:

Jewishness, that is, Jews considered as a culture, a tradition, a people, is far larger than Judaism, the religion. In fact, the religious aspect of Judaism can often serve as a barrier to students joining Hillel and becoming involved.

Our mission is to develop young Jewish adults to take leadership roles in their communities. Hillel is a community that wants the involvement of Jewish students, no matter their Jewish background. There is no dogma here.

Levitt shared an anecdote about a former student who grew up with a Conservative rabbi and identified as an atheist, but enjoyed the traditions of Judaism like going to synagogue on the High Holidays like Rosh Hashanah. After studying with Levitt and getting to know him at Hillel, the student realized that the rabbi at his hometown was his “parents’ rabbi.” And even though the student was not modern Orthodox or even particularly religious, he embraced Levitt as his rabbi and as a role model.

The IEC Seminar group poses in front of the Susan Dellal Center for Dance and Theater after experiencing a modern art performance by the international dance group BatSheva.

The IEC Seminar group poses in front of the Susan Dellal Center for Dance and Theater after experiencing a modern art performance by the international dance group BatSheva.

It is not surprising. When I first met Levitt I would want to embrace him, or shake his hand, but as a Modern Orthodox Jew, he told me he refrained from such intimacies with women other than his wife, Naomi. However, in conversations we had and at the table of our Israel Engaged Campus meetings, Levitt’s voice was always a moderate, reasonable, but impassioned one. Levitt brings a rich intellectual background to Temple campus, but he also brings a humanistic spirit infused with critical inquiry and marked by humility.

Levitt said, without hesitation, that his parents have been his greatest influences in life: “They modeled an engaged religious Jewish life that prioritized Jewish values along with Jewish observance.”

Levitt also said his wife Naomi, a nurse, has taught him kindness, patience and to try to greet everyone with a smile. The two have three children: Yonah, 5; Leah, 3; and the baby Atira, 1. Another influence is his mentor at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Rabbi Avi Weiss. Levitt said that unlike himself, Weiss was the master of pithy statements that did not undermine the complexity of Jewish thought.

The famous Jewish religious leader, Hillel, is known for standing on one leg and summarizing all of Judaism to a Roman challenger: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

When I posed this same question to Levitt — stand on one leg and tell me what is Judaism to you — he was characteristically sincere, long-winded, intellectual and moderate: “I don’t have that gift of the sound-bite that my mentor Rabbi Weiss has.”

No matter: Levitt brings his own style, humor and intellect to Temple’s Hillel. It is marked by a thoughtfulness and depth of thought and yes, humility, well beyond his years.

With his new life here in Philadelphia, Levitt sums up his goals:

For me, I want to be the catalyst for students’ own personal growth. I don’t want to hand them Judaism on a silver platter. They should be challenged and supported at Temple Hillel. I want them to feel confident in the choices they’ve made. Students have to remember that Judaism is not monolithic: We’re a diverse, open community.

Penn State Hillel’s Aaron Kaufman Wins Top Professional Hillel Award

Aaron Kaufman

— by Alex Bolotovsky

Aaron Kaufman, executive director of Penn State Hillel, is one of seven people to win the 2013 Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. The awards were given during Hillel’s professional institute, held this year at Washington University in St. Louis.

The Example of Excellence Award is given each year to professionals in various stages of their careers, who have offered especially innovative approaches to enhancing campus life for Jewish students. “Although receiving this award is a great honor and one that I very much appreciate, the student leaders of Penn State Hillel, our staff, and the student body are the ones who are owed this award,” said Kaufman.

More after the jump.

Our mission at Penn State Hillel is to provide enriching Jewish experiences to students at Penn State, so that they can go on to enrich the world; we take this mission seriously and strive for excellence each day.

Rob Goldberg, Hillel’s Vice President for Campus Services, said as he presented Kaufman his award:

A dedicated mentor, generous friend, and respected colleague, he volunteers time to unselfishly help others at Hillel, while also supporting colleagues throughout the network. He is committed to mentoring and supervising emerging professionals.

The president of Penn State University, Rodney Erickson, agreed that Aaron is a great leader and mentor: “Aaron has been an outstanding executive director of Penn State Hillel, and our students and community have benefitted greatly from his leadership and mentoring.”

Kaufman attended the University of Michigan, where he received a degree in Judaic Studies, Cultural Anthropology, and Studies in Religion, as well as a Master’s Degree in Social Work. He has worked in Penn State Hillel since 2007, and previously was the director at Eastern Michigan University Hillel, and the associate director at Cornell Hillel.

Republicans have a major Jewish problem

Originally published in Politico

In the last two weeks, the Republican Party has demonstrated that it is simply out of touch with the majority of American Jews. First, its standard bearer selected a running mate who has been criticized by the Jewish community for his plans to end Medicare as we know it and gut the social safety net. Then, its 2012 official party platform took policy stands that are the opposite of those held by most Jews. When you add on RNC Platform Chair Gov. Bob McDonnell mixing up former President Ronald Reagan with Rabbi Hillel — well, the GOP has proven that there isn’t much room in their tent for most Jews.

But if that weren’t enough proof of the wide chasm separating the Republican Party from most American Jews, two of their representatives emerged in recent days as poster children for why Jewish voters do not trust or support the GOP. Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) made his outrageously offensive statements on rape — the policies of which are now enshrined in the GOP’s official platform. Akin then bucked party leadership — including Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan — to remain a candidate for the Missouri Senate seat. And, according to a news report broken by POLITICO, Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) and several of his colleagues took a less-than-kosher nighttime dip in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) during their Israel trip last summer — behavior that reportedly enraged House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress.

As Americans begin to tune back in to politics in the coming weeks, they’re going to see a Republican Party that is more extreme than the one they last saw two and four years ago. To put it plainly, the GOP of 2012 will help reinforce why most American Jews will be backing President Obama.

GOP Platform Mistakenly Attributes Rabbi Hillel Quote to Reagan

Republicans have long idolized former President Ronald Reagan but now, according to Buzzfeed, they seem to be confusing him with one of Judaism’s important sages – Rabbi Hillel. According to Buzzfeed:

— by David Streeter

Republicans have long idolized former President Ronald Reagan but now, according to Buzzfeed, they seem to be confusing him with one of Judaism’s important sages – Rabbi Hillel. According to Buzzfeed:

The Republican Party’s 2012 platform misattributes a quote from Hillel the Elder, the Mishnaic sage, to former President Ronald Reagan.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell read the platform’s preamble after the conclusion of the platform committee’s business on Tuesday:

We must answer Ronald Reagan’s question: “If not us who? And if not now, when?”

But Reagan was loosely quoting Hillel the Elder’s guidance in the Jewish text of Pirkei Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers).

If I am not for myself, who will be?
And when I am for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?

Expanded Clergy Skills Being Cultivated at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Michael Gross confirmed as a rabbi during RRC graduation tallit ceremony

(Philadelphia) An accrual of timely major changes in clergy training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) became apparent at the 2010 ceremonies graduating new rabbinic and cantorial clergy, and masters degree students. RRC is the seminary and movement founded upon the rational teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. His articulate demystification of the development of Judaism and the Jewish people afforded the conceptual grounding for the evolving nature of contemporary Jewish practice and clergy training.

Photo: Michael Gross confirmed as a rabbi during RRC graduation tallit ceremony
As an alumna, it was healing to hear Reconstructionist Rabbinical College President Daniel Ehrenkrantz observe out loud that RRC had long been a place where “the head was celebrated over the heart.” Coming to rabbinic  training as a board certified social worker, it was uncomfortable being prepared to serve those suffering, celebrating, growing and developing as people and as Jews primarily by means of utterly fascinating scholarly studies.

Major Expansion of Training Modalities

So nice to hear from President Ehrenkrantz that’s all shifting! In the age of the internet where clergy are no longer primarily needed to serve as human hard drives stuffed with Jewish information, remaining relevant, useful and appreciated increasingly involves expanded skill sets.  So, while not as extreme as the shift from priesthood officiants in the sacrificial system to scholars of Jewish law, the changing nature of Jewish clergy training at RRC announced is excitingly substantial. There’s a lot that’s interesting to relate to you.

Being a trendsetter in Jewish life is not new for Reconstructionist Judaism. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was the first American seminary to graduate homosexual Jewish clergy and to incorporate matters of gender studies in its curriculum. And, after an extensive tenure, Dr. Lori Hope Lefkovitz is leaving her RRC chair in Jewish Women and Gender Studies for another in Jewish Studies at Northeastern University. Her RRC position was envisioned by students and faculty back in the early 1990’s as part of the original Jewish Women’s Studies five year plan. Now that’s planned change – from ideal to realized within one generation!

Visual evidence of the advancement of women in the rabbinate sat front and center on the bima before all, seven women and two men, now known as Rabbis and and a Hazzan. Rabbi Deborah Waxman and Isabelle Dekonick also rose for their certificates in Jewish Women’s Studies, given by RRC in conjunction with Temple University.

At the graduation ceremony President Ehrenkrantz announced Rabbi Mordecai Liebling (RRC ’95) would be heading “a new Social Justice Organizing Program to invest rabbinical students with the clarity of purpose, vision and voice to become uniquely effective, spiritually strong leaders in the drive toward social justice and environmental sustainability.”

RRC also offers parallel training in how to foster understanding among people of all faiths under the supervision of Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, with a special emphasis on Jewish-Muslim engagement.  Additionally, RRC maintains Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism, and also the Center for Jewish Ethics.

Can a Rational Seminary Incorporate Spirituality Training?

Spirituality ceased to be a scorned term shortly after the World Trade Center was attacked. We all were hurting in some undefined place within ourselves for which the term soul seemed most apropos. Help for those sore of soul, seeking in regard to important life issues, including one’s relationship to God, is known in Judaism as hashpa’ah, the field of Jewish spiritual direction. This was first introduced outside of Hassidism by Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who has by now taught or lectured at most Jewish seminaries in North America. RRC now provides formal individual spiritual development of clergy students, under the supervision of its former academic dean, Rabbi Jacob Staub.

In social work school we were taught to respect that “all change is difficult.” Honored on the RRC graduation dais, prominent scholar and author Dr. Paul Mendes-Flor of University of Chicago and Hebrew University, was introduced by an usual quote from his own work: “Nothing Jewish shall be considered alien.” Hopefully this was a comforting thought to some of the rationalist old guard lay leadership of the Reconstructionist movement after the invocation, when Dean of Students and Chair of Contemporary Judaism, Dr. Joel Hecker invoked angels in his benediction. When those graduating opened their collective presentation by speaking of their “immersion in the Divine,” a former RRC board member to my right softly groaned, “Dear God, what’s becoming of this institution!” He then chuckled aloud at the expletive he’d so unconsiously uttered.

But fear not, the more things change, the more some things remain the same. Upon requesting ordination photos for this article, the public relations person sent them with the following clarification: “RRC does not use the term ‘ordination’ because it has the connotation of a divine intervention or intentionality that is not part of Reconstructionist Judaism.” Nor is there the laying on of hands that I experienced in receiving years later in addition to my RRC graduation, the honor of lineage smichah as rabbi, mashpi’ah (spiritual director) and shlikhah (emissary) from Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. Smichah is the tradition of ordaining rabbis that derives from Moses’ laying his hands upon Joshua in passing on the mantle of leadership. Instead, as pictured, students have developed an accommodation to the RRC policy, not just the receipt of a diploma, but also  students placing on each other the mantle of a tallit to mark the spiritual passage from student to graduate. And yes, the two rituals do feel remarkably different – one powerfully confers a profession, the second connects one’s Source of support and inspiration all the way back to Sinai.

Keeping Rabbis Relevant in Changing Times

RRC’s evolving clergy training model does seem to be the epitomy of Kaplanian thought in action during these sobering times of diminishing numbers of traditional clergy jobs. Stories in the press abound on alternative lay-led minyanim that are arising, interspiritual, pan-denominational and virtual seminaries, a growing trend toward lay-led rights of passage, and growing numbers of synagogue mergers. So it was heartening to listen to the mostly outside-the-box career accomplishment of earlier RRC graduates receiving Honorary Doctorates, having distinguished themselves by their longevity in the field and their significant impacts upon American Jewish life. To paraphrase from their introductions, the individuals honored were:

  • Rabbi Sandy Berliner for her role as a leader in hospice care, with seniors and teenagers here in the Philadelphia area.
  • Rabbi Deborah Brin, one of the first Reconstructionist rabbis raised in a Reconstructionist home and community and one of the first lesbian students and rabbis out of the closet.
  • Rabbi Robert Feinberg had the most wide-ranging rabbinate, for 20 years as a navy chaplain, in Jewish Federation work he had the applied goal of overcoming the divide between secular and religious organizations, and he served as a congregation rabbi;
  • Rabbi Dale Friedman, honored pioneer in service to elders who has taken a significant role in the development of chaplaincy training for RRC students through her programs Jewish Visions of Aging and Jewish Pastoral Care, and service as founding head of Hiddur, Center for Jewish Aging;
  • Rabbi Bonnie Goldberg has infused Jewish learning into Philadelphia’s Jewish agencies, offered pioneering professional participation in the early stages of Birthright Israel, always reaching beyond boundaries of one population or agency to endorse a communal vision;
  • Rabbi Andrea Gouze, part of the early generation of Jewish women who took on a congregational rabbinate before women were widely accepted in the pulpit has also had active involvement in the Association of Jewish Chaplains, working on the professionalization of Jewish chaplaincy.
  • Rabbi Barry Israel Krieger, an early and ardent voice leading the RRC community to consider environmental concerns.

In Just One Generation

Amazing to take in that it has only taken one generation for women and gender studies, spirituality, GBLTQ inclusion, Jewish chaplaincy, and other forms of non-pulpit communal service to become core to clergy training. Congratulations to the administration, lay leadership, staff and faculty and mazel tov to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s new graduates.

Reconstructionist Rabbinical College 2010 Graduates as pictured from left to right.

  • Back row: Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, Cantor Manel Frau-Cortes, Rabbi Nehama Benmosche, Rabbi Sandra Hendin, Ph.D., Rabbi Evette Lutman, Rabbi Michael Ross;
  • Front row: Rabbi Sarah Newmark, Rabbi Julie Pfau, Rabbi Allison Peiser.