A Community Holds Candlelight Vigil in Face of Hate-Based Activity

Candlelight vigil at Ambler Church of the Brethren. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor

“Hate has no home here,” Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, said to a room of around 300, during an interfaith candlelight vigil in response to recent anti-Semitic and racist attacks.

[Read more…]

AN INTERFAITH CONVERSATION Unraveling the Jewish Catholic Relationship

Temple Sinai, St. Alphonsus Church and St Catherines of Sienna will be hosting an event to explore the evolving relationship between the Catholic and Jewish communities.   Join us as the directors of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University, Dr. Philip Cunningham and Dr. Adam Gregerman, guide a discussion of the significant statements produced in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s publication of Nostra Aetate – an opportunity to learn, to respond and to build friendships within our community.

Friends, family and neighbors are invited for an insightful and uplifting evening.

St. Joseph’s University has provided this conversation about the newest statements on the Catholic-Jewish relationship. “A Genuine Gift of God” – Pope Francis.  Internationally, many important statements were issued to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council declaration, Nostra Aetate (“Declaration on the Church’s Relationship to Non-Christian Religions”), which made possible a new and positive relationship between Jews and Catholics.

Join us as the Directors of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations, Dr. Philip Cunningham and Dr. Adam Gregerman, guide participants in small-group Catholic-Jewish dialogue about portions of the fascinating new statements.

RSVP’s are encouraged so that we may adequately prepare for the evening.  Respond [email protected].


Children Teach Us Something Important on the Basketball Court

I recently went to the Wells Fargo Center to watch some kids play a pickup game of basketball. It was not your typical basketball game, however, but not because the kids were playing on the home court of the Philadelphia 76ers. This was a game involving students from the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr and the Al Aqsa Islamic Academy in Philadelphia. It was also the bar mitzvah project of Ari Abramovitz, a middle-school student at Barrack. [Read more…]

In-depth Intro to Judaism Class Starts This Week

Carrying the Torah scroll.

Carrying the Torah scroll.

By Charles B.

I’m the product of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. While my father had a bar mitzvah ceremony, and I was brought up in a primarily Jewish neighborhood, I had no formal religious upbringing or training. What I learned about Judaism, I learned from my friends who were b’nei mitzvah, and my neighbors who observed the Jewish holidays and attended synagogue. When I was 18, I left home for college, and for the next 40 years was totally divorced from any religious affiliation or practice.

While I have had a successful career, married a wonderful woman, have two grown children that I am very proud of, and have good friends, I have expressed the feeling over the last several years that there was still something missing in my life. My wife, a Presbyterian, encouraged me to explore and take the first steps to rediscover the “faith and rituals” I had experienced as a child living in a Jewish community.

Lighting Shabbat Candles

Mother and daughter lighting Sabbath candles.

I decided to take a course in introductory Judaism and Hebrew sponsored by the Conservative movement and taught by local Conservative rabbis. It is a 30-week course that is taught annually at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Many of the students who took the course were there to convert from the outset (mostly because of marriage commitments). I did not make the decision to convert until I had almost completed the course. What I learned from this course was that the beliefs and principles that took me almost 60 years to formulate, are the tenets and practices, and the moral and spiritual compass that Judaism provides.

As importantly, this course provided me with the tools and foundation to move forward on my journey. I am now studying with a rabbi, attending services regularly, and incorporating the lessons learned from this course into daily practice. The overall experience from this course has been transforming, both intellectually and spiritually. The practice of Judaism nurtures me, and provides me with the fulfillment and guidance I have searched for.

Editor’s Note: Charles has successfully completed the Introduction to Judaism class, and will soon be taking the step of formally converting.

The Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy is a 30-week “Introduction to Judaism” course sponsored by rabbis of the Conservative movement in the Philadelphia region. The next cohort will begin on Wednesday, September 14, 2016. The course is designed for Jews and non-Jews, singles and couples to learn more about Judaism (history, language, culture). Interested students have the opportunity to convert to Judaism under Conservative auspices following successful completion of the course.

The Reform movement also has an Introduction to Judaism class.

Congregation Beth Israel Joins GreenFaith Environmental Program

Temple Shalom of Aberdeen, N.J., another participant of the program, working with young members of the congregation to plant seeds in the community garden.

Congregation Beth Israel, a Reconstructionist Jewish community based in Media, Pennsylvania, has announced its participation in the GreenFaith interfaith program for environmental leadership. Beth Israel is the first Reconstructionist congregation to join the GreenFaith certification program, joining more than 65 other houses of worship.

The GreenFaith program follows a two-year certification process that includes programs for spiritual practices, physical stewardship, and environmental justice. Beth Israel has already completed several audits of its energy usage, waste handling, and grounds maintenance.  

The synagogue recently completed an overhaul of its heating systems which included conversion of the heating plant from oil to gas, replacement of old inefficient equipment and upgrade of the building’s controls and zoning capabilities. The results:

  • a better heat delivery;
  • a projected 30% reduction in fuel usage and related emissions; and
  • an expected reduction of more than three-quarters in heating costs.

All of this will save more than $10,000 per year.

More after the jump.
Other efforts have included installation of more efficient lighting systems, more extensive recycling, and educational programs for religious school students and the general congregation.

Future activities within the certification process will include:

  • spiritual and educational programs within the Beth Israel community and with other communities;
  • further improvements in sustainability and environmental impact of Beth Israel facilities and its members’ homes; and
  • programs to address the environmental burdens on disadvantaged communities.  

Beth Israel’s teen community has already begun Walking the Walk, a nine-month interfaith dialogue and service project that involves teens from local Jewish, Muslim, and Christian congregations and will include urban gardening with Urban Tree Connections.

“As Jews we know that we are both a part of the whole and responsible for the whole. We are global citizens with a Jewish mandate right here, right now, to protect the earth,” Beth Israel Rabbi Linda Potemken said. “The GreenFaith process offers Beth Israel a creative, practical and spiritual approach to fulfilling our responsibilities in a concrete, structured fashion.”

“I’m delighted that the Beth Israel community has chosen to undertake the rigorous GreenFaith certification process,” Beth Israel President Jennifer Lenway said.  

Beth Israel has always been an engaged, diverse community whose values include building a better world as well creating a community for our members, practicing the traditions of our heritage, and providing education for our children and adult members. The spiritual, stewardship, and justice components of GreenFaith will support all these missions.

Pope Resigns for Health Reasons

Pope Benedict XVI is resigning for reasons of health, effective February 28. This is the first time a pope has resigned in 600 years.

Benedict has been recognized by Jewish leaders for clearly stating that the Jewish people are not responsible for the death of Jesus. Although this has been an official church policy for at least half a century, there is a detailed account in the Pope’s book.

When the Pope, a German, was first elected, there was concern in the Jewish world, since he had been a member of the Hitler Youth and the German army during the World War II era.

Book Review: The Rabbi Rami Guides

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Each of the four Rabbi Rami’s Guides from Spirituality & Health Books is a keeper. Rich in refreshing touchstones for meaningful daily living, each pocketsize volume of the Rabbi Rami’s Guide series offers a roughly 120 page essay. His contemporary theologies are liberating and inclusive and he offers us specific actions that make the world a better place in sometimes subtle and delightfully surprising ways. The first three titles are Parenting; Forgiveness; and God, and the fourth begins with a commentary on Psalm 23 which then informs the author’s understanding of two of our best know mitzvot, in fact the two cited by Jesus as most important, which Rabbi Shapiro uses as a starting point for creating a lovely interfaith learning opportunity booklet. (See Mark 12:28-34, then Deut. 6:4-5 and also Lev. 18:19)

More after the jump.

Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What am I here to do? Why? For those who wonder, or raise children who wonder, the Rabbi Rami Parenting Guide offers lively and livable parental approaches to these five primary questions. He also offers a powerful critique of the range of stories available for reading for children:

An unhealthy story is a story that leaves your children feeling superior to others, or frightened of others who are different from themselves. An unhealthy story is one that excuses violence, exploitation, the dehumanization of people, or inhumane treatment of animals. An unhealthy story is one that places your children in a world of perpetual conflict where friendship is rare if not impossible, where love is limited, where race, religion, creed and ethnicity determine the value of a person rather than what she does, where collaboration is dismissed as starry-eyed idealism…..”

Rabbi Shapiro then contrasts two Shel Silverstein stories The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece to show how even a great author’s work bears reflection and screening.  The second half of the volume weaves his clear-eyed parenting philosophy with specific stories from a variety of traditions, as well as of his own construction, that he recommends as holy and healthy. Each is brief and affords great opportunity for meaningful family discussion.


Rabbi Shapiro has a long and distinguished career in the pulpit, founding innovative Jewish organizations that teach meaning, spirituality and menschlichkeit (Yiddish the state of being an honorable, ethical person), as perhaps the first rabbi to have a website when the Internet was founded, and more recently he both teaches Bible at Middle Tennessee State University and directs Wisdom House, a center for interfaith study and contemplative practice in Nashville, TN. So it is not surprising that the Rabbi Rami series also pilots a fourth, dual volume of essays, Psalm 23 & Jesus’ Two Great Commandments. While I see great interfaith study and dialogue potential in this volume, this is his expected audience for this book:

I suspect that most readers of Matthew and Mark, and most readers of this Guide, are neither rabbis nor even Jews. And because I think this is true, I fear you may overlook some of the deeper insights Jesus meant to teach when he chose these two mitzvot as the chief commandments of the Torah and his touchstone texts. It is my wish to make plain the deeper meaning of his teaching by placing it in the Jewish context in which it was spoken by Jesus and heard by his fellow Jews, and in this way enhance your understanding of Jesus’ message.

I can only begin to imagine what an eye-opener study with Rabbi Rami must be for students of all faiths. For example, his explication of a verse in Psalm 23, “I shall not want”:

…does not mean, “I shall not desire,” but rather, “I shall not lack.” The Hebrew verb echsar (Lack) is in the future tense, suggesting that freedom from want comes only when you realize that God is your shepherd. Why? Because it is then that you realize your desires, endless and endlessly satisfied, are a distraction seducing you from your true calling and trapping you in the narrow and lifeless worship of the next big thing.

With God as your shepherd, the chains of idolatry are severed. You are now free to be what God is calling you to be: a source of blessing and liberation for the world…..you will have everything you need to fulfill God’s desire-that you will have everything you need to become a blessing to others by liberating yourself and them from narrowness.

Rabbi Rami channels the Good Shepherd in ways healthy and holy; he appreciates that spiritual development is a process of awareness and personal growth. In his commentary on the Psalm 23 verse “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,” Rabbi Rami Shapiro takes to where we may not all have gone before: “The first step is to rest, to lie down, because the way to blessing and liberation isn’t simply an outer journey, but an inner one as well.”

For “He restoreth my soul”, Rabbi Rami transduces the text to reveal another of its infinite possibilities for the non-dogmatic reader:

What does it mean to be a breath-bearer? It means to breathe life into the world as God breathed life into you. This is what the Torah reveals when she tells us, “The ineffable One placed the earthling in the Garden of Eden to till it and protect it’ (Genesis 2:15). The garden is the original state of creation but without you, the earth grows hard and lifeless, incapable of birthing plants or herbs (Genesis 2:5)…

And in regard to “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His names sake…”:

David…is not saying that God acts for self-aggrandizement, but that God acts on behalf of all reality, for God is all reality….A path is righteous if walking it breathes life into life, if it blesses and benefits creation, and if it fosters love, justice and compassion.

Teshuvah and Forgiveness

In the Rabbi Rami Guide to Forgiveness, the term takes on an expanded meaning grounded in the author’s training in Buddhism, life experience and psychology. Pratityasamutpada is “co-origination. It means that everything is connected to everything else and happens altogether.” Although he doesn’t cite it, those who study Kabbalah recognize the related teaching of the Hebrew term for stone, ehven.  “If a soul is like a ben (ven), son/child, cleaved from the av (ehv), father/parent…can you picture that God would separate a part from God’s essence?” No, I can’t.  Can you? This is why the Budda’s conceptualization rings helpful on this topic.

Deftly wielding the language of living at the level of soul, Rabbi Rami doesn’t have us wait for others to confess how they’ve hurt us. He shows us how to heal ourselves through specific questions that restore us to living in the moment. This approach to removing toxic encounter hangovers is useful, and in my opinion, sufficiently only as a complement to the Jewish practice of teshuvah. Teshuvah, in brief, is where we return to those we’ve hurt, own up, are received with respectful listening and the necessary time is taken to process and restore relationships to good health. What do when teshuvah takes quite a long time? Rami’s volumes are subtitled “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” let him show you the way.  

Book Review of OyMG: Jewish Girl, Christian Camp, Holy Moly

OyMG by Amy Fellner Dominy

OyMG is a provocative, important read and discussion for contemporary Jewish parents and clergy – first. Then give it to your teens and students to read and discuss with you. Issues of intergroup dating, in this case Jewish Christian dating, are vibrantly and frankly portrayed in this compelling teen novel format. You will cringe and cry and sigh and wonder and wish you had it in your hands sooner. I couldn’t put it down.

More after the jump.
It’s important for parent groups to get together to discuss this topic, inter-dating that is a vast reality in the melting pot reality that has finally arrived for most Jewish families. Amy Fellner Dominy tells it like it is and has all the characters of inter-dating scenarios spelled out so we can fully identify with their perspectives – the grandfather who collapses, the evangelical Christian grandmother who is after the Jewish girls; soul, the young couple, respectively Jewish and Christian who are in love, and the private school scholarship opportunity that challenges the Jewish girl’s willingness to keep a firm hold on her Jewish identity when a longed-for prize looms close at hand.  

Parents and educators, after you read and discuss this book with each other, then give it to your students/children ages 14 and up to read. There’s a discussion guide on the author’s website, Amydominy.com.  

I recommend you discuss the story closely with youth and encourage youth groups to take up the book for discussion as well. When with teens, your own, classes or youth groups —  listen for their ideas and values. Teens and adolescents won’t be able to take in your views unless you first listen theirs respectfully. When we meet youth where they are in their emotional, spiritual and physical lives and reflect back their views and experiences without judgement or they will be less likely to hide their actions and intents.

How to set them up not to resist our hopes and dreams, which can lead to their potentially endangering themselves, as well as losing their sense of commitment to Jewish lives and families, is not easy. Please blog-in with our views and approaches. While visiting South Africa, several women and men said their parents had phrased things very clearly and helpfully for them. “While we hope you will find a Jewish person to date and marry, we recognize the numbers are small here. So when you date, do be very clear with a non-Jewish person that you can’t marry someone who doesn’t first become Jewish, because having a Jewish family is one of the most beautiful and important things for you.” And, more often then not, , I meet South African spouses born in other traditions who are now Jewish and in many ways more involved Jewishly than even their own Jewish partners.

Relationship shift happen of necessity as we move from the commanding position of parenting children to guiding young adults. We will create dating policies for our youth, curfews and more to try to keep them safe and in line with our values and to keep them safe.  Even so, as a parent, step-parent and step-grandparent, I have noticed that it is our caliber of relationship with them will prove the most effective tool for holiness and happiness, safety and good decisions to prevail. Try OmGD, it will definitely create the basis for necessary discussion, parent-youth, teacher-student, and book groups, too.

OyMG is a tough subject presented in an open-hearted way with a fast-reading, compelling narrative. In the months since reading it  I’ve found myself recommending this powerful novel to many parents, educators and clergy as well as to teens who study with me privately.   I know the author would like it to just be put straight into the hands of teens, which you might elect to do. Hopefully your relationship with your children, grandchildren or students is such that a holy and healthy discussion of crucial matters for their lives like dating, is one of your important goals.  

OyMG by Amy Fellner, Dominy Walker & Company, Hardcover 256 pages, $16.99/$21.00 Can., Ages: 12 and up

Reflections on July 4

–by Rabbi Carl Choper, President of the Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania

I recall one year when I was  serving as a Hebrew school teacher, I was provided with a book to use in teaching Jewish history.  It was a volume of a two-part series, the first part on Jewish history before modern times, and the second on Jewish life in modern times.  The author, Abba Eban, had chosen a particular date to use as the demarcation between modern and pre-modern Jewish life:  July 4, 1776.

At first I thought it was strange that the author would choose the founding of a country which at the time had at most 3000 Jews in its population as the event that defined the beginning of modern Jewish life.  But, as the author pointed out, on July 4, 1776 the United States of America became the first country in modern times to grant full citizenship to Jews.  That made it the beginning of a new era in Jewish history.

On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island wrote then President George Washington, saying in part:

“Deprived as we [the Jewish People] heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine;”

More after the jump.
President George Washington responded:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

To be sure, the United States was marked by many other limitations then as now.  In particular, the new society which promised religious liberty also practiced slavery.  Racial biases continue to afflict us to this day.  But at least on July 4, 1776 a step was made towards creating a national political structure built on the assertion that  a society could thrive when it first allowed individuals to participate with all their personal diversity.  Individuals did not need to be what their government told them they needed to be.  Rather, the government was to be shaped by society’s individual participants in loud and raucous conversation.  So has been the ideal, yet to be achieved.  But on July 4, 1776  – in Pennsylvania, no less – a step was taken towards the attempt, and the world has not been the same.

Since 1790 many attempts have been made to give voice to this vision and to advance it.  Also many attempts have been made to roll it back.  All of this continually provides the context for many struggles within our society, and the work of The Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania.