Attending Yom Kippur Services Online


Rabbi Milgram practices blowing the shofar as Kabbalah4all.com‘s leader David Aharon Curtis prepares to begin his service.

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, my ankle was too swollen and painful to even hop over to the car to attend  the services. That created a rare rabbinic opportunity for me: attending free High Holiday services on-line.

I did not know what to expect at all, as I had only accidentally tripped over the possibility, when researching a quote online earlier in that week. Here is how it works, at least with Kabbalah4all.com, and the golden-voiced, inclusive service leader, composer of Jewish music, David Aharon Curtis.

Everything on the website, including Shabbat and festival services year-round, is for free. I registered as a member, and downloaded the evening section of the High Holiday Prayerbook, (machzor). Before sundown, I logged in for the Rosh Hashanah evening service.

More after the jump.
What were the services like? The liberal, gender-inclusive services were led by Curtis from what looked like inside of his home, in front of a sweet setup of holiday candles, a menorah, pomegranate and shofar.

It turns out that David Aharon Curtis has been streaming services for eight years already — what a boon to those in hospice or otherwise homebound. Some, it seemed, even gathered in small minyanim (groups of 10 or so) in remote areas without synagogues, tuned in and were able to have a service in this way.

The prayer books, provided as PDF downloads are interlinear: The transliterations, English and Hebrew, are not opposite each other, but rather are in the learner-friendly line-by-line approach. There are also lovely spiritual kavvanot, contemplative explanations, written in the text before each prayer.

The leader rarely showed his face, so one could mostly focus on praying along with the service leader’s lovely voice. A few nature slides and pictures of a Torah or shofar dominated the screen.

In the video to the left you can see an example of the leader’s approach to the Shema, a central prayer in most Jewish services. It’s easy to follow along in the English and transliteration, the leader chants in the Hebrew and occasional Aramaic of the Kaddish, using mostly traditional and a few contemporary melodies. I recognized a few melodies as attributable to Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory. My husband, raised in South Africa, was delighted at the relative absence of talk and simple presence of authentic prayer.

As David Aharon Curtis pointed out in his brief talk at the end of the service, while one can have a sense of connection and community in an on-line service, it’s difficult to meet and mingle afterward. The approach does seems to be catching on, a wide variety of free live-streaming High Holiday service options come up in a key word search, among them the radio broadcasts from New York’s Temple Emanuel and Central Synagogue.

Nashuva, a post-denominational California community that meshes spirituality with social action, is live-streaming their Kol Nidre service, to led by Rabbi Naomi Levy at 9:45 pm tonight. A well-known author and actist, Rabbi Levy is author of several books including Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration. In addition, there are a growing number of synagogues and havurot providing Shabbat and holiday services on-line to members in good standing; these typically require a password for viewing.

For those who are housebound, or far from a congregation this Yom Kippur, or at any point in the Jewish year and your Jewish practice permits it, services on-line will be a great help.

Counting the Omer: A Modern Revival of an Ancient Jewish Practice

Omer calendars for Israel and Diaspora courtesy of Judaica artist Jonathan Kremer.

— by Carol Towarnicky

As Passover approaches, an increasing number of modern Jews are preparing not only for their annual seders but also for “Counting the Omer,” an ancient practice of blessing each of the 49 days between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot.

An Omer is a measure of barley. In Biblical times, the Counting of the Omer marked the time between the barley and wheat harvests. Every night during that period, farmers would wave an Omer to plead for an abundant crop. Over time, the agricultural ritual was replaced by liturgy, and the counting became a way to mark the Israelites’ journey from bondage in Egypt to revelation at Mount Sinai. For the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Counting of the Omer became a time of spiritual exploration and cleansing, a way to prepare the soul for revelation. The mystics divided the time into seven weeks, with each week containing a specific spiritual quality. On each of the 49 days, two of the qualities intersect with each other, making each day is unique.  

After the jump: Rabbi Yael Levy’s book on the subject
Rabbi Yael Levy, founder of A Way In, a Jewish Mindfulness Center based in Philadelphia and author of Journey Through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer (Volume 1), has re-imagined the counting as a Mindfulness practice: paying attention not only to each day as it passes but also to the individual spiritual qualities that were assigned to it by the 16th century Jewish mystics.

“The counting helps us to pay attention to the movement of our lives,” says Rabbi Levy. “Counting the Omer helps us notice the subtle shifts in our lives, the big changes, all the yearnings, strivings, disappointments, hopes and fears.”

Journey Through the Wilderness is available in paperback through Amazon, and as an e-book via Smashwords and other e-booksellers. The publication includes daily blessings in both Hebrew and English and teachings and intentions for each day.

A Way In is also offering a range of online and social media support for individuals who wish to count the Omer, including free daily emails, blog entries and Facebook posts and insightful Twitter messages and reminders.

Rabbi Levy has been exploring the Mindfulness potential of Counting the Omer for more than a decade, in particular during time she spends each year backpacking alone in the red rock desert of southern Utah. She also leads an annual five-day retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, that takes place at the end of the Omer 49-day period.  

Rabbi Levy points out that the Hebrew word for “desert wilderness” — midbar — is written the same as the word for “speaks” — medaber. “The mystics teach that when we leave our routines, habits and expectations and allow ourselves to go into the unknown, to traverse the wilderness of mind and spirit, we open ourselves to receive Divine guidance.”  

A relatively new development in Judaism, Jewish Mindfulness combines meditation, movement and spiritual practice that draws on Jewish text and tradition. As part of A Way In, Rabbi Levy leads twice-monthly contemplative Shabbat services, weekly meditation “sits,” retreats, classes and individual and group spiritual direction, plus an online community.  

A Way In Jewish Mindfulness program grew out of Rabbi Levy's work at Mishkan Shalom congregation, a Reconstructionist synagogue in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia where Rabbi Levy has been associated for 19 years. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Levy has co-led retreats in Alaska for Jewish professionals through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She is also a spiritual director to rabbinical students in both the Reconstructionist and Reform movements and in private practice.

Film Chat: The Other Son

— by Hannah Lee

Last night, I was fortunate to watch The Other Son at the Bala Cinema, before the whole township closed down for Hurricane Sandy. My family declined to join me, thinking it too sad to watch a movie about two babies switched at birth (because of a Scud attack to the hospital’s region in Haifa) and one son growing up with a professional Israeli family and the other with a Palestinian family barely eking a living on the West Bank. The premise was wretching, but it was also beautifully acted, especially the expressive face of the Palestinian mother played by Areen Omari. Directed by Lorraine Levy, a Frenchwoman, it tries to give a human face to the Middle East conflict. It was filmed in Israel, and shown in French as the dominant language (with English subtitles), and supplemented by Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

Spoiler alert after the jump.
Joseph is the musician son of an Israeli Army colonel, Alon Silberg, and a physician mother, Orith.  At age 17, a blood test for Joseph being drafted into military service proves that he is not their son. Their baby was switched with another baby born premature the same day by a Palestinian woman, Leïla Al Bezaaz, who was visiting her sister. This other son, Yassin, has just passed his baccalaureate exams in Paris and is expected to commence his medical studies.  He plans to return to the West Bank and, with his older brother, Bilal, open a hospital there, so other families would not have to grieve over a child dying from inadequate medical care, as happened to their brother, Fariz (circumstances not detailed in the film).

The shock of mistaken identity is intensified for these two families who are on opposite sides of the political war of existence.  Is Joseph, who’d had a brit milah and a bar mitzvah and who was the star pupil of his yeshiva still a Jew? No, said his Rabbi sadly, but he only need to immerse in a mikveh, under the supervision of three rabbis. So, was Yassin who’d been raised by Arabs a more authentic Jew than he was?  Does he exchange his kippah for a suicide bomb?

Yassin better learn Hebrew, taunts the border guard, who’d presumably been informed by their Army superiors.  Both fathers, Alon and Saïd, struggle to cope with the devastating news, and Bilal lashes out at Yassin, for being an enemy in their midst. But he was the same person as before, with the same dreams, responded Yassin. The two mothers, Orith and Leïla, are the harbors in a storm, the ones who quickly adapt to the cruelty of fate, and caution their men for love and acceptance.

A special visa from Colonel Silberg allows Yassin to seek out Joseph, who’s selling ice cream (poorly) at the beach.  Yassin offers his more agile sales technique and Joseph gives him half his day’s earnings, which Yassin noted was almost a full month’s wages for his father, an engineer who works as an auto mechanic (because he’s not allowed to work outside of the West Bank).

When Joseph attempts to visit Yassin at his home, he is welcomed but to the neighbors he is labeled the nephew from Paris. When Leïla realizes that the Silbergs did not know of his intentions, she calls them with the news. The Silbergs race to the border at dusk, and it was poignant to watch the Colonel race-walking along the border fence, in an effort to find his son before he comes to harm.

Spoiler alert: In the climactic scene, Bilal gets to visit Tel Aviv, but the boys are attacked on the beach and Joseph sustains a serious abdominal cut and needs emergency care.  When he awakens, Bilal, who’s also been bloodied in the attack, tells Joseph that he’d alerted his parents. Which ones, queried Joseph, with a weak smile. It’s the bizarre and charming premise of the film that people have hearts big enough to adapt and welcome new members into the circle of loved ones. I’m not convinced it’s a fitting metaphor for the troubles of the Middle East, but it’s a delightful conclusion to the film for me.

LimmudPhilly: Strong Participation, Maccabeats Ovation

“Outside the box and over the top interesting”, is how participant Ron Siegel, described his 2012 LimmudPhilly this past weekend. “National leaders and the best of local teachers came out and gave their best. We were like drinking it up.” Exclaimed 20 and 30-something Anna and Beth Silver. Sophie Mellon added: “Just today, I learned how to encounter a homeless person in one session, Jewish traditions about creating social change in another, and then I attended a Jewish theater event, a very hot Maccabeat concert, and the discussion at lunch about Jewish values and health insurance, I learned a ton.”

More after the jump.

Some 80 teachers and waves of participants made LimmudPhilly 2012 a profound success. Saturday night was described by many as when the Maccabeats brought everyone to their feet in the rare ecstasy of high quality concert passion that becomes great woven with soulful prayer.

Co-chairs Brian Cohen and Sara Levy and the rest of the winning leadership team ensured quality control from facilities to the incredible diversity of sessions and perspectives. From the presence of Ami Eden, head of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, to the Shabbat prayer lab given by Syd Schwartz, a senior fellow at CLAL, to Gail Twersky Riemer, founder of the Jewish Women’s Archive, into the innovations of 24/6 a Jewish Theater Company and art forms and scholarship of every form, we all saw PhillyLimmud continuing to evolve in healthy and holy ways. Plus, Helen Plotkin ran a beit midrash par excellence. Focused volunteers, a good many teens were helping everywhere one would look.

LimmudPhilly also drew participants who love Limmud from New York, Washington, DC and beyond. Chairs from other Limmud Conferences were present, as well, taking notes. Young Limmud for the youngsters is what we all wished Hebrew school could have been.

At the Philadelphia Jewish Voice table Ronit Treatment had brought the famously kosher insect locusts for viewing, and a poster with recipes and their history in our Biblical tradition. It was wonderful meeting so many creative, engaging, spiritual and intellectually active Philadelphians.

Something to be proud of: Limmud Philly. See you next year!  

Honoring Our Veterans


— by Hannah Lee

Today we observe Veterans Day.  May we all remember and honor the service given to our country by these brave men and women in uniform.  They upheld the values of our country and, as young as they were when sent into service, they gave it all they had.  We owe it to them to remember their service.

On October 18th, I attended a ceremony dedicated to the 14 Jewish chaplains who’d fallen during service to the United States.  Their names are engraved on a plaque that was on exhibit that day at the National Museum of American Jewish History and a week later was installed on Chaplains Hill at Arlington National Cemetery.  The moving moment for me was the sight of the aged veterans, in full military regalia, snap to attention and salute the flag while we recited the Pledge of Allegiance.  Being a child of the 60’s, I grew up in an era when we distrusted authority (and anyone over 30).  Saying the Pledge was perfunctory and maybe also ironic.  Singing the national anthem invariably induced some jokester to call out, “Play ball.”  But it was no joke for these veterans of America’s wars.  They remember their fallen comrades and why they were posted to foreign lands, regardless of whether it was the right strategic move.  The values they upheld were of civic and religious freedom (and the “pursuit of happiness” which our religious forefathers did not mean the right to shop until we drop).

More after the jump.

The 14 Jewish chaplains include:

  • World War II: Rabbi Alexander Goode; Rabbi Herman L. Rosen; Rabbi Henry Goody; Rabbi Samuel D. Hurwitz; Rabbi Louis Werfel; Rabbi Irving Tepper; Rabbi Nachman S. Arnoff; and Rabbi Frank Goldenberg;
  • Cold War Era: Rabbi Solomon Rosen; Rabbi Samuel Rosen;
  • Vietnam and Southeast Asia: Rabbi Meir Engel; Rabbi Joseph Hoenig; Rabbi Morton H. Singer; Rabbi David Sobel.

Recently, when I attended a private tour, “Journey on the Silk Road” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cynthia John, who’d created this tour, referred to the Holy Roman Empire (quoting Voltaire, says my young friend) as “not holy, not Roman, and not even an empire.”  Later, I asked John to elaborate but she only had time to say that the Mongols, who’d transformed far-flung agrarian societies into an urban one based on commerce, were an example of a real empire.  Nobody loves his emperor, but people have managed to forge strong allegiances to other entities, whether a religious icon, a culture, or a sports team.

My Rabbi has said that one can deduce much about other people’s values by their passions.  So, what do we know about people who wear apparel– even religious garb– emblazoned with an athletic team’s name? That they value sportsmanship or the thrill of victory (or maybe the agony of supporting the underdog team)?  Just how different are the various teams from each other?  A similar example of artificial distinction occurred during the recent political discussions about gerrymandering in my state, when I heard one woman express her wishes thus: we should just use rectangles in drawing our electoral districts, because then we would be sure that they are fair (or at least, not subject to political jockeying for power).  When I was first introduced to maps as a child, the states with the straight lines were the easiest to remember and to draw.  But, they do not connote any real distinction between the bordering states.  More socially relevant were the rivers and mountains which may have contributed to variations in dialect, climate, and terrain.  

At the museum ceremony, Rabbi Lance Sussman of Keneseth Israel Congregation spoke about the historical role of Jews in the American military, from Asher Levy petitioning to serve in the militia in New Amsterdam in 1657 (appeal initially denied, later granted) to the Jews who served in the American Revolution to a Jew being in the first graduating class at West Point (one of two graduates!).  In World War II, there were 500,000 Jews in the American Army, compared to a half million Jews who were conscripted in the Soviet Army.  One overlooked fact by revisionists who question the minor public role of American Jewry in the rescue of Jews from Nazi-controlled lands is that American Jews served at double the percentage of its share of the national population.  Their view was that the best way to help was to ensure victory for the Allieds, to defeat the Nazis.  These Jews served with bravery and distinction.  Of the 14 rabbis honored, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode was one of four chaplains (including Reverend George L. Fox, Reverend Clark V. Poling, and Father John P. Washington) who gave up their lifejackets when their ship, the USS Dorchester foundered and later sank in 1943.  They were honored as “the Four Immortal Chaplains” and were depicted on a U.S. postal stamp in 1943.

We do not have mandatory military service, so most Americans feel distant from our soldiers and other members of the armed forces.  A contrasting case in point was the Israeli public’s view of the release of Gilad Shalit, held captive as a political prisoner in Gaza for 5 1/2 years by Hamas militants.  Israelis overwhelmingly approved of the deal that exchanged one Israeli soldier for 1,027 Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners.  With mandatory national service, every Israeli is but one degree of separation from an active Israeli soldier.  The negotiations for Shalit’s release were based on a tacit promise to all Israeli parents that their government would watch over their soldiers.  Their government would not forget them in captivity or in memorial.  

An Odyssey From Amsterdam to Philadelphia

By Hannah Lee

As a companion program to the Rembrandt and the Faces of Jesus exhibit now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) hosted a lecture on the journey taken by Sephardic Jewry from the Old World to the new one.  William Pencak, Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, gave the standing-room-only audience (many at the NMAJH for the first time!) a historical tour that featured the role of the Dutch in Amsterdam and in Philadelphia.

More after the jump.

Painting of Mikveh Israel, 1775-1783, Synagogue of the American Revolution.

Rembrandt’s Jews in the Synagogue, The Jewish Museum

First, Professor Pencak wanted to rebute “The Jewish Rembrandt” exhibit held in Amsterdam a few years ago that attempted to deny a Jewish influence on Rembrandt’s works.  In Rembrandt’s “Jews in the Synagogue” of  1648, the people depicted in the painting are garbed in robes and hats as did the Ashkenazic Jewish refugees to Amsterdam, not like the cosmopolitan Sephardic Jews who sought to blend into upper class Dutch society, as in the “Portrait of Jan Six” of 1654.  In “Balthazar’s Feast” of 1635, there is Hebrew inscription on the upper right corner, but the words are written erroneously in a vertical instead of horizontal direction.  In “Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law” of 1659, the two tablets are depicted according to Jewish tradition, not the Christian imagery of the time.

Next, Professor Pencak gave a brief overview of the Jewish expulsion from their homes in Spain, Portugal, and England.  Of the Dutch nation of the Netherlands, then comprising of Holland and Belgium, Amsterdam in Holland became the center for Jewish life.  The Ashkenazic Jews started arriving about 30-40 years after the Sephardic Jews, and by the 1670’s  there were separate synagogues for Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry.  

The Jewish community was tight-knit, with the Sephardic synagogue documented exacting a tax of ½ of 1% of a family’s income.  Of some 3,000 Jews who lived in Amsterdam by the end of the 17th century, over half of them received relief from the community.  The Netherlands was not uniformly tolerant of Jews, with the rural states less so than the urban centers, including Antwerp in the Belgian half.

The Jews thrived in Amsterdam, with the first synagogue established in 1618.  The first Jewish play and the first book of poetry were written there.  The heretical philosopher Spinoza was excommunicated along with 766 other Jews in the 17th century for immoral behavior, which later included intermarriage with the Ashkenazic Jews.

The Dutch’s main economic interests were in the New World colonies of Brazil, Curaçao, and Surinam (formerly the Dutch Guyana) that focused on sugar plantations, which brought Jews into involvement with the African slave trade.  Enjoying equal rights, Jews comprised up to a third of the population in Brazil at the time.  In 1654, Jews were chased out of Brazil and many went back to Amsterdam, but one ship of 23 Jews got diverted and landed in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York).  

Director-General Pieter Stuyvesant was a Calvinist (Dutch Reform Protestant) and a former soldier who banded with the Dutch clergyman to protest the arrival of the Jews.  However, their appeal to the Dutch West Indies Company was denied and the Company insisted that the Jewish refugees stay, in part because they were Dutchmen and in part because Jewish investors had influence in the company, and the Company even offered to support the new arrivals if they proved unable to support themselves, according to Jewish communal values.  

New Amsterdam became the colony of the Duke of York (the brother of the British King Charles II) in 1664 and being a Catholic, he extended religious freedom to all, including the Jews.  When Asher Levy asked for burgher rights as a freeman, it was a right enjoyed by Jews in the Netherlands, and when freemen got the right to vote in 1664, so did the Jews.

In the 1730’s, the Jews started coming to Philadelphia, with the German Jews —  the Levys and the Franks — being prominent.  Nathan Levy built the first cemetery at Mikveh Israel on 8th and Spruce Streets, although they found that in colonial America, they had to build walls for their cemeteries in an attempt to preserve the headstones.  These German (Ashkenazic) Jews adopted Sephardic rites of worship.  When Mikveh Israel built its first synagogue (after the cemetery, because Nathan Levy’s young child had died) in 1782, its location was moved because of protest that its proposed site next to a church would offend the Dutch Reform Protestant congregants.  Prominent Philadelphians such as Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris contributed to its building fund.  

Whereas the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, experienced split loyalties during the American Revolution, there were no Jewish Loyalists (loyal to the British crown) in Philadelphia and Jews served prominently in financing and otherwise supporting the revolutionaries.  Haym Solomon was especially appreciated for his skill in converting foreign currencies into a form usable by the colonists, but he did not stand up in his synagogue on Yom Kippur to raise funds for the Revolution.  This myth was raised by an audience member and refuted by both the Professor and Rabbi Albert Gabbai, the current spiritual leader of Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in this nation.

An audience member asked about the role of the Mennonites, who are known to be a very tolerant group, but the Professor pointed out that the Mennonites were never in a position of political power.  Jews, in fact, were never in a position of political power, so they were so often slandered as scapegoats for the ills of society.

The President and CEO, Michael Rosenzweig, then invited the members of the audience to tour the new museum, which highlights the journey of Jews who’d fled from turmoil and travail in the Old World to earn stability and prominence in this New World of ours.