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

What Do You Know about Love?


— by Goldie Milgram

The setting is Sheila Gogol’s Amsterdam salon, in preparation for Tu b’Av, the Jewish holiday of love.  I always feel so fortunate to teach here, knowing the loving curiosity and wisdom those present will contribute. We begin with  the Tikkunei Zohar approach – a soul needs two wings to fly. In Europe, one wing – yira, is readily accessible – respect for the awe/fearsome nature of the Godfield. To fly, in the balanced way to which Jewish tradition would have us aspire, we need the other wing – ahava, love.  

More after the jump.
     Sheila has convened many cultural creatives – artists, authors, poets, musicians, scholars, healers… Skillfully guiding us in sacred chant is one of the first women cantors of the Netherlands, now further ordained as Rabbi Nava Tehila. Our host has brought in a young filmmaker too, who recorded the salon for a possible bit of televised documentary. There is some chutzpah to having love as our topic, because it will likely first evoke for some the holes in love caused by the murder of over 100,000 Dutch Jews — their parents, siblings, partners, children and more — by the Nazis and some Dutch collaborators. Among those attending the salon, I knew to be those who, as toddlers, had seen their parents shot before their eyes, hidden Jews fostered as children among gentiles, and more. Present also are American, Canadian, South African and other ex-pats and some who are not Jewish and are drawn to the topic, and also those who sense they are born with Jewish souls because not enough Jewish women survived the war to bear all the returning souls, as well as loving partners

    In preparation for this session, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, whom I serve on shlichut (as his personal emissary), pointed me to The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis, indeed a good conceptual trans civilizational grounding. Our salon begins with the direction that if the Jewish mission is to live mitzvah-centered, rather than self-centered lives, (kedoshim tihiyu), then the healthy evolution and alignment of self is essential for our entelechy of avodah, sacred service in life, to be realized.

    Next level – (the complexity of) love within families. On the road over the years to come, b”H, many of you will hear the example story I shared at this point, true and newly minted for telling. For me, it was rather what Sheila shared that blew the Ruach HaKodesh through the room. She described a never- opened box of family pictures, from before the Shoah, in the bottom of a closet, I believe it was near a four-year old granddaughter’s doll house. A box that no family member’s soul could bear opening. I, and others, nodded; we, too, have such boxes at home. One day she entered the room to discover her granddaughter had found the box, opened it and arrayed the pictures within her play. “Look at my family!” with such love she yet includes them, marveled her grandmother. Gasps of joy resounded to this incredible, holy sharing. This, I believe, is what Rabbis David Wolfe-Blank, z’l and Elliot Ginsberg (in his essay in the volume Seeking and Soaring) would view as the ultimate expression of the miracle of lifsoakh, leaping over- the Pesach consciousness that releases parts of us once enslaved.

    Europe is so different this visit. Jewish grandchildren are being born here; young marrieds and singles identify and meet; new minyanim, programs, and synagogues are here. Alive! hah!! We Jews are soooo alive. I just had to write that out loud.

    The next level is based on a quote I first saw in a teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’l: “When love of each other is practiced by the Jewish people, the heart of the Shechinah is healthy.” Here my Hubbatzin Barry offered a true story of how he shifted a ChaBaD tefillin ambush from an I-It to an I-Thou encounter. With every variety of Jew in the room, the respect necessary for emerging into Tu b’Av the next day from these levels of love was present already and heightened in this study of his story. Barry’s story will appear in the next Reclaiming Judaism Press book: Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning (with 60 contributing authors and edited by yours truly and Ellen Frankel, with Peninnah Schram, Cherie Karo Schwartz, and Arthur Strimling). (Release date is Nov. 6, 2012).

    So from where is love derived? Ahavah and Yirah are, indeed, foundational mitzvot. Our dear friend, the profound healer, mashpi’ah, artist and author, Carola de Vries Robles now brought us to Rabbi Shefa’s Gold’s chant of the tefillin/ Jewish wedding verses from Hosea, the v’eirastich li. I loved her idea and so shifted to guide our study of how the seven core phrases of this prayer might be a pathway of love that leads us through relationship to “know God.”  

    Now we chanted Amar Rabbi Akiva which emphasizes the mitzvah of loving others… to “love one’s neighbor as one might best love oneself.” We were almost up to appreciations (among them a young man, Edgar, sketched our portraits brilliantly. I will forward his website when I can get into my Facebook page where he wrote to us). So we committed to walk the streets of Dutch life on Tu b’Av not as icy-hurting Jews, nor as dangerous fiery zealots, rather as “warm cubes, our souls flying with aware Yirah and radiant Ahavah – the kind that  within our body/mind/spirit such that Ahavah and Yirah meld beyond earthly struggles to where “Adonai echad u’shemo echad.”

Hopefully during our seven weeks here in Europe we will have time for more installments. Do write back if you wish, and feel free to forward this posting with proper attribution. With love and prayers for safety and healing in the wake of US storms, earthquakes and for all everywhere who face life’s many joys and challenges.  

Win Up To $9,000 in Prizes from the Philadelphia Jewish Voice

The Philadelphia Jewish Voice will be giving away a fabulous commitment ceremony/wedding package and other prizes this month! For a chance to win, simply join our free mailing list or update your registration. You can register online at http://www.pjvoice.com/subscribe.htm or sign up in person at the Philadelphia Jewish Voice’s table at the Philadelphia Pride Parade this Sunday, June 12 from noon to 6pm on Penn’s Landing.

The grand prize is transferable, so even if you are not personally planning on tying the knot, this prize is a terrific present to celebrate the union of your friends.

Prizes:

  • Grand Prize: Commitment Ceremony Package ($9,000+ value) including:
    • Commitment Ritual conducted by Philadelphia Jewish Voice Living Judaism editor Rabbi Goldie Milgram.
    • Preparation Sessions Six free hour-long planning sessions with Rabbi Milgram for the couple (and wedding planners, musicians, garment, food and invitation designers, etc. if desired), in person or phone/Skype/webcam depending on availability. Rabbi Milgram will facilitate creation of custom-designed ritual, vows and contract of spiritual commitment to complement your legal documents. These sessions will include spiritual support for your relationship which can be an open non-religion-specific spirituality or Jewish.
    • Wedding Cake designed and donated by Ciao Bella Cakes.
    • $1,000 in Flowers provided by Vandergrift Floral.
    • Dress or Accessories. $150 gift certificate to Paris Chic Bridal Boutique.
    • Honeymoon. One night stay at The Lippincott House Bed & Breakfast.
    • Cocktails for rehearsal party (up to 10 people) by Foodwerx.
    • Hair, Make-up and/or Hot Lather Shave (on-site) courtesy of Jacen Bowman.
    • Pillows engineered for your body weight and size by Pittman Pillows.
    • Photography with images on DVD by Kim Volcy Photography.
    • Five Hours of Party Service to staff your party courtesy of Beth’s Party Service.
    • Entertainment Services for your wedding with DJ and Karoke for five hours from Two Sisters Entertainment.
    • And More…. Additional details will be announced on the Philadelphia Jewish Voice as they become available.
  • Second Prize: Free Yoga lesson from Philadelphia Jewish Voice Art & Culture editor Lisa Grunberger.
  • Third Prize: Two free tickets to Theatre Ariel’s performance of ten 10-minute never-before-produced plays, 7pm this Sunday evening, June 12 at the Bristol Riverside Theatre. This prize will be awarded at the Pride Parade. Please indicate your cell phone number so we can notify you if you win.
  • Consolation Prizes: All subscribers who enter their complete address will be mailing an I read the Philadelphia Jewish Voice” bumper sticker, so that you can show your support of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Details follow the jump.


Rules:

  • Deadline: June 30, 2011
  • Eligibility: Limit one entry per person. Multiple entries will disqualify you. No purchase required. Staff and board members of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice and the Deal Monitor and their immediate families are not eligible.
  • Commitment Ceremony:
    • The couple must obtain their own attorney and execute any relevant legal documents to secure the flow of your estate and health-care rights under the jurisdiction where they reside. If their marriage is legal where this ritual will take place, then they will need to register accordingly prior to this ritual.
    • If the couple is Jewish, then Rabbi Goldie Milgram must approve or provide the Hebrew language that will appear in your ketubah (marriage contract). The couple must pay and secure their own artist to illustrate their ketubah.
    • The couple is responsible for the cost of Rabbi Milgram’s lodging, meals and transport for the weekend of your ritual from wherever she happens to be in the world at that time to wherever her next assignment happens to be.
    • Rabbi Milgram does not co-officiate with other clergy.

Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Creating beautiful, meaningful, spiritually authentic rites of passage, including Commitment Ceremonies has long been an important part of Rabbi Goldie Milgram’s life as a clergy person and we are fortunate to be able to share her experience with you.
Secularly, Dr. Goldie Milgram has long been a gender-rights activist. She also travels internationally as a teacher of spiritual health and non-profit leadership. She received the American Cancer Society Most Distinguished Couple Award for her work in publication education during a previous marriage where she anchored and invented the first public health talk television for NBC TV 40. She has offered programs under the auspices of the United Nations, Esalen, Rancho La Puerta, the New York Open Center, 92Y, universities and communities world-wide.  Wearing her Jewish hat, “Reb Goldie” as her students affectionately call her, holds a doctorate from New York Theological Seminary and is a twice ordained rabbi – a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and she also holds the private smichah (ordination) of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal. Dr. Milgram directs, ReclaimingJudaism.org and is author of numerous works including the first fully gender-inclusive work on Jewish ritual: Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Jewish Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life (Jewish Lights Publishing).
Rabbi Goldie Milgram can be contacted at [email protected]

Good luck.

Circumcision Update

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram  

As world health organizations move toward saving lives through re-introduction of circumcision in developing nations for AIDS prevention, a San Francisco ballot proposes a ban on circumcision under age 18. Since the matter compromises freedom of religion, Jews and Muslims are particularly closely monitoring the process.

While male converts report a negligible loss of sensation, the rite is valued for its spiritual impact. Its meaning is perhaps best expressed as a father once put it to his son at a ritual known to this reporter: ‘Son, most men wrestle with this huge impulse to use muscle instead of mind over difficult matters. We circumcised you today because we love you and know that Judaism is the greatest of all treasures that we can pass on to you. Circumcision means to always remember that you are a Jew, and that to be a Jew means to think first, to check out your ethics before you act. Ezekiel said: ‘In your blood live.’ May this be the only blood that is ever shed in your name.”  Accordingly, when a Jewish man looks down, his commitment to a mitzvah-centered life, rather than a self-centered or sex-centered life is literally engraved in his flesh.  Circumcision is a sign of how much value parent(s) place upon their son being Jewish. It is also part of how a male convert affirms his own “member”ship.  

In the accompanying video dialogues with PJVoice Judaism Editor, Rabbi Goldie Milgram and Rabbi Bonnie Cohen discuss the issues around circumcision, Rabbi Cohen's training as a mohelet (mohel – a circumcision professional), her invention of a physical tool to teach the best methods of circumcision, and also ways to make the baby comfortable during the procedure.  

More after the jump.

Background on Rabbi Bonnie Cohen  

In the early '90's Rabbi Cohen apprenticed to become a Mohelet (feminine grammar for mohel, one professionally trained to do Jewish ritual circumcision). She was surprised to learn that there were no training tools for perfecting surgical technique for infant circumcision, doctors routinely practice on babies. Responding to the need she spent many years developing a proper training tool that is now available.  

Biographical background:  

Rabbi Cohen has changed hats many times over her professional career weaving together a breath of experience along the mind – body – spiritual pathway. For many years her focus and area of expertise was health and nutrition although religion always occupied a major part of her life.  As a young woman she attended psychiatric nursing school but immediately focused on nutrition and other natural healing modalities. She combined hands-on work with nutrition that she taught at the Swedish Massage Institute in New York City, and had offices in NYC, Woodstock and New Paltz, New York.  

Bonnie Cohen was a student of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (z"l) who encouraged her to share her expertise on nutrition and natural healing alternatives with Jewish women. She is grateful for the opportunity to learn with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and to have received rabbinic ordination from him and ALEPH:  Alliance for Jewish Renewal, in 2000. Included in the qualifications Reb Zalman listed on Rabbi Cohen's' ordination certificate is, "practitioner of the sacred healing arts."  

Rabbi Cohen was director of a not for profit educational organization, supported by a wholesale natural foods bakery, that designed and implemented nutrition workshops throughout the New York tri-state area. Beginning in the mid '70's, and for the next thirteen years, she oversaw the total day-to-day operations of large health food stores with juice bars and deli-counters; and then she became interested in Jewish education.  

Bonnie was blessed to work with a dedicated team of visionaries creating the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in Woodstock, New York. She began as the only teacher, teaching all grades plus a special education class and accomplished the impossible; she made Hebrew school fun. The WJC went on to become a powerful magnet for Jewish education in Ulster County, NY.

Rabbi Cohen lived and worked in Woodstock, New York for thirty-two years and then spent eight years working outside of the United States. Upon her return she noticed the exponentially larger number of children with learning disabilities than before she left. After researching the problem and pondering solutions she created, "Thirteen", a mentoring protocol, and Feeling Good – Pass It On, a teaching protocol, to assist those with neurodevelopmental challenges focus and overcome disabilities.  

For further information please contact Rabbi Cohen at [email protected].

Framing an Inclusive Jewish Reaction to the End of Osama bin Laden

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

These questions keep arriving in my in-box in one form or another:

Would Judaism condone celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden? And would our religious sources lead us to advocate tracking down and killing his adherents as well?

Reactions to these questions that I’m reading this week have varied from those who, like the biblical Aaron, fell silent; those who followed the lessons of Purim and celebrated; and those who have offered moral observations.

Frankly, having served as a 9/11 chaplain, celebration was not my first response or concern. How does one respond to the necessary killing of one who perpetuated such evil? What might a prayer might be for a departing soul of someone who has exceeded the status of enemy, for one who had become committed to evil behavior. And an answer came when I prayed for guidance. I posted it to Facebook where a minyan is always present:

May the soul of Osama bin Laden be relieved of all its evil proclivities on its journey into Mystery. If, heaven forfend, such flawed souls return at some point to embodied life, may the m’sadei gaver[et] (that Which Guides our footsteps) set that soul upon the work of universal kindness.

More after the jump.
What Helps the Human Spirit

The human spirit needs and continually creates ways to dispel the seeping damage of trauma. Jews know a great deal about this subject and we have developed imagery that can be helpful. Mme Collette Aboulker-Muscat, z’l, and her students have cultivated forms of psychotherapy and spiritual direction along these lines. Oleg L. Reznik, MD writes about her method: “In the short mental imagery exercise, an image is used to give a micro-shock that overcomes a person’s defenses (an inner wall that one builds to maintain a status quo, not the defenses of psychodynamic model), and initiates an inner movement in the direction of healing.”

Our tradition’s powerful images are part of our reservoir of strength and spiritual resilience. The prayer above feels to me in part derived from an image I learned from Simcha Paull Raphael, in Jewish Views of the Afterlife. As I recall, there he teaches how the Zohar, drawing on I Samuel 25:29, conceives of an after-death catapult, kaf ha-kelah, for tainted souls that shakes the departing soul of its errors and essence, and is sent off by God per I Samuel, “like a rock inside of a sling.” And while my emotional prayer was for the soul of one who has done great evil not to return, some of our sages saw just that as the task of such a soul, to return and find ways to expiate the wrongs created.

Further, from working with abused persons where empowerment is part of recovering from victimhood, there is the Talmudic story when Beruriah’s husband Rabbi Meir prayed for thieves he’d just witnessed to be struck down, and Beruriah protested, suggesting they rather pray for the thieves to change their ways. Might a moshiach (messiah) spark be each person who can go outside the box as a holy game-changer, in this case like Beruriah? What I appreciate about Beruriah is her offering an option that is not deadly, while also not denying his feelings or their expression. Why pray only moshiach ben david and not also moshiach bat david, when every spark is needed. (Decoding moshiach as “mei-siakh – from dialogue,” being one way the path to a more peaceful paradise on earth can proceed.)

Amalek, More than an Enemy

It seems reasonable to view Osama bin Laden (ObL, here-on) as a manifestation of Amalek and I am among those relieved and glad his soul has been sent for cosmic cleansing and rerouting. Outside the White House during our President Barak Obama’s announcement we saw live our Purim narrative almost on replay, save for in Megillat Ester the gallows are a prominent feature. Purim analogizes Amalek and Haman and teaches us

  1. the importance of leading for survival from where you are planted, and
  2. that for those who saw to the hanging of the villain, and the rest who survived by taking up arms to stop those continuing to follow the orders Haman had stimulated the king to issue.

For then, we learn: “there was – orah, v’sasson,v’simcha, v’yikar – light, joy, celebration and gladness. And it continues – keyn tihiyeh lanu – so may it be for us. We recite this verse weekly in Havdalah as Shabbat ends; in this way our practice is reinforced for challenging times, it’s all part of the Jewish healing plan, in my humble opinion.

Hear that? So may it be for us. So no need feel guilty about celebrating if that is how your soul handled the news. It’s one of the normal human reactions. In Deuteronomy two mitzvot are delineated to address the matter: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, upon your departure from Egypt’… ‘You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget.'” Spoofing, stomping, hooting, celebrating, it’s all right there in Purim.

So, some would counter, how do we account for Proverbs 24:17: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, when [your enemy] stumbles, don’t have a glad heart.” Purim’s spiritual practices also underscore that there are difference between the Egyptians (conventional enemies enforcing the laws of their paradigm in the sense of Exodus) and the Amalekites (terrorist, preying on the defenseless), between Haman and say the nations with whom we warred for Israel’s 1948 Independence, between a consummately evil terrorist leader who targeted innocents, such as ObL and the heads of state in the Middle East struggle for territory. Amalek is a unique category that teaches us when such folks manifest they are to be wiped out.

In fact, the Talmud shows not only Miriam, but also God facilitating celebration in regards to the drowning of Pharaoh and his forces. While in recent decades Talmud Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b have been drashed to opposite effect, it is instructive to look at them (one is in the name of Rabbi Yochanan and the other in the name of Rabbi
Yonatan):

“And they did not draw near one to the other all that night” – Said Rabbi Y…: The Ministering Angels sought to say the Song. Said the Holy One of Blessing: The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you say the Song?!

While with this, the Talmudic sages resolve that God does not celebrate the deaths of evil persons, for humans, R’Yose bar Chanina explains that God facilitates our celebration of the death of an evil one. Later in the tradition Shmot Rabbah 23:7, Eliyahu Rabbah, Tanchuma Beshallach 13, and Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 41 indicate that God
refused the angels’ praise because the Jews were not yet home free, not because the Egyptians were drowning. These have God saying not that “the works of My hand are drowning in the sea,” but rather “My children” or “My legions” are at risk in the sea. And, playing in the background is the Book of Proverbs 11:10, (in Hebrew, Mishlei) which observes: “When the wicked are destroyed there is rejoicing.” Trauma requires thoughtful therapeutic attention, multi-modal integration and release – collective and individual. The Jewish people are very aware of this.

And for some, silence is the only sane response in a seemingly insane world.. For those who fell silent, like Aaron, as in marriage, prayerful marinating in the torah of our experience is part of knowing God.

Our tradition gives us a further sense of how hard it is to be God, no less to aspire to the level of Godly compassion. The sages imagined a time when God asked for a blessing of Rabbi Yishmael b. Elisha, a High Priest:

Rabbi Yishmael b. Elisha said: I once entered the innermost part of the Temple to offer incense and I saw that God, the Lord of Hosts, was seated on a high and lofty throne. He said to me: Yishmael, My son, bless me. I said to Him: May it be Your will that Your compassion should suppress Your anger and that Your compassion prevail over all Your other attributes so that You should treat Your children with the attribute of mercy and You should stop short of the strict letter of the law for them. And God nodded to me with His head. [Translation of Hershey Friedman, from his article in Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor, Vol. 17, March 1998, 36-50.]

Embracing a Bigger God

While a Jewish Federation executive, I also directed a small Holocaust archive, filming the depositions of survivors and Allied soldiers who lived in Cumberland County New Jersey. A woman who survived Auschwitz told me that when the Nazis would tell the Jews at line-up to sing, that they would do so from the
Haggadah, intoning the V’hi Sheh’amda:

And this it is which has stood by our ancestors and us. For it was not one alone who rose against us to annihilate us, but in every generation there are those who rise against us to annihilate us. But the Holy One, blessed Be, ever saves us from their hands.

As time went on, I mentioned to her an understanding of the Shmei Rabba, the Great Name, the Tetragrammaton. The Name is composed of every form of the verb “To Be.” And it occurred to me then that perhaps God consciousness represents the Infinite Potential for Change embedded within creation. At that she wept to have a face of God in which she, a survivor of the greatest of the Shoah‘s horrors, could believe.

Also in this way, we can reread Abraham negotiating for Sodom and Gemorra and Moses using the 13 attributes, and even Reb Levi Yitchak’s Kaddish where he stroshers (threatening through pressure) the Holy One of Blessing.

Levels of Consciousness – Which, When, Why?

In discussion of the Purim practice of becoming spiritually intoxicated “ad lo yada,” until one cannot distinguish between Blessed be Mordechai and Blessed be Haman, Rabbi Eli Fisher on his blog teaches two perspectives that are apropos our questions. One is that being non-judgmental is an important skill up to the point that it becomes a value that makes judgment and justice impossible on this plane of being. There is right and wrong from which we live here.

Rabbi Fisher describes another level of consciousness. He teaches that the Ishbitzer school of Hasidus addressed a ‘aveirah lishmah – a sin done for its own sake,’ as part of introducing the category of “beyond-good-and-evil.” In this, once one achieves a state of consciousness where all is perceived as pure manifestation of God, we no longer experience ourselves as autonomous beings, rather as a being of God’s pure, instinctive ‘ratzon-desire’. In this state, “ad lo yada” means experiencing Haman as coming from that place. It means experience the holy Midwife, the face of God, in every character of life and Torah, where harsh behaviors also shape who we are becoming.

Hmm. Could that perhaps be why if one sees Buddha on the road the injunction is to slay him? It was perhaps from such a perspective that acts like the suicides by Jewish communities during the crusades were later prohibited by the rabbis. Which is a long way around to the words of King David in Psalm 97:10, “You who love God, hate evil.”

What Would Maimonides Do?

If evil is the differential between a conventional enemy and a rearing of the face of Amalek, then is it justice to track down and kill those who take up with Al Qaeda? Judaism offers a framework for contemplating this issue. David Hartman and Jonathan Molino, in Judaism and Modernity, point us to Hilchot Melachim vi, 1 and 4, where
Maimonides expresses the view that only those who turn down the opportunity for peace, once offered, must be killed. They note that in his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides carefully upholds the humanity of every person, focusing on behavior, while respecting personhood.

For Maimonides, when “Amalekites” agree to and actually change their behavior, when they honor the Noachide laws of ethical living that pertain to all of humanity, they are not to be killed. (A fine would be levied in his model, if the situation occurred in the Land of Israel.) Here the Rambam becomes a holy game-changer focusing on justice and serious shift.

My hubbatzin, Barry Bub asks as he reads my numerous wrestling drafts of this article: “Isn’t that essential…to still search for the humanity in the followers of bin Laden? To offer them a chance to change? Aren’t, Barry asked,many likely too be brainwashed young people, or impoverished foot soldiers most happy to receive minimal pay? Yes and the alienated and ignorant and those lost on path…surely some, and clearly not all.

Some are just as sociopathic as ObL, at least based on their behaviors. While Torah enjoins us to act for life, to save ourselves, how we do that surely requires that we and those representing us be careful and humble in judging even while maintaining full pursuit.

How do we proceed now, knowing that the Berlin wall fell; apartheid ended. Wonders do happen. A Jewish state was voted into existence by the United Nations after we were nearly annihilated by Hitler’s forces, The Infinite Potential for Change, Be Blessed.

So it is to Emunah – faith, that is HaMakom – the Place to which this investigation presently lands. You know as well as I, that even among friends, we have to be holy mirrors to help keep one another ethically aligned, and few if any among us are likely inclined toward evil action. Even though we are so far in our evolution from the level our sages ascribe to God consciousness at It’s best, I invite you to pause and imagine R’Chanina formulating a prayer for us.

Nu? Please share. What did your spiritual imagination have him pray? Trust what comes.

Written in memory of Andrew J. Alameno, the son of my 1980’s ski partners – Dr. Carmen and Grace Alameno. Andy was murdered during the 9/11 assault on the World Trade Center.

Reframing the Hanukkah Christmas Dilemma

Rabbi Goldie Milgram

In memory of my father Samuel Milgram and his birthday on the third Hanukkah Light

When almost all your congregants raise their hands to the question “Do you have a Christmas tree up this season in your home?” it’s quite unsettling for a rabbi. This happened to me back in 1989 in a rural pulpit. The Hanukkah-Christmas dilemma full-blown. What to do, if anything?

A creative program came to mind during a night of troubled dreams. The president of the congregation, ever a supporter of my tendency towards R&D on behalf of the Jewish future, organized everything perfectly to my specifications. And the congregants came, almost all of them.

More after the jump.
First, we set up the synagogue president’s dining room perfectly ready for Passover.

Then we set up her basement, perfectly ready for Christmas with a whole set up borrowed from a pious Christian neighbor.

Then we set up her den with menorah, dreidl, Hanukkah decorations and foods.

Perhaps you can intuit why this particular set-up, a month before Hanukkah and Christmas which fell close together that year.

Bringing in the Light of Spiritual Intimacy and Understanding

As each couple arrived for the program, they received a questionnaire suggesting they go to the Passover room, if raised primarily Jewish, and the Christmas room, if raised primarily Christian. And there to sit quietly and sing along with the music, look at the tree, the art, the food, allow memories to arise and then answer a series of questions.

To the best of my recollection the questions were:

1. Please list all holiday and religious symbols in this room and  their meaning to the best of your knowledge.

2. Make a list of those with whom you’ve primarily shared this holiday with over the years and how that is for you.

3. What are your favorite foods for this holiday?

4. What are your most and least favorite customs and practices for this holiday and why?

5. Is this a holy day for you and what makes it holy for you?

Now, if you are in the Passover room please go to the Christmas room and vice-versa, turn this page over and answer do the same as you did here, answering the questions as well for that room as duplicated on the other side of this page. When you have been to both rooms, we will meet up in the Hanukkah room for a discussion of our findings, three couples will explain why they either a) have a Christmas tree and a menorah in their home, b) have only a menorah for this season c) have neither. We will conclude with a Hanukkah teaching with Reb Goldie.

What Do These Symbols Tell Us?

It was so moving to watch laughter and tears flow softly as congregants moved from room to room experiencing the differences among the holidays. The sharing was profound and interesting. What does the wine mean on the seder table? Jews would say joy, several Christians reported it symbolizing the blood of their Lord Jesus. Wine in Judaism actually symbolizes the joy of the gift of life, the life-force itself.

The painting of Jesus on the Cross that we were given to put up in the room with tree, presents and carols, Yule log (both aflame in fire place, and a yummy cake), Wassail bowl, etc. Jews reported sadness and some fear at seeing a young Jewish man dying a horrible death as a religious symbol, Christians reported the symbol of what their Lord Jesus did for them that their sins might be forgiven.

We listened to each other, educated each other, forgave each other our misunderstandings, appreciated fears of loss of identity, of family connections and histories, made room for respective persecutions across the ages. The power of Passover, one of our major holy days, became so palpably meaningful it seemed to all present. Dealing with the bitterness of slavery and taskmasters of old, within and present employers on the metaphor level. The importance of a holy day that values the tears of effort and pain shed on the way to eliminating slavery. Breaking the bread of affliction, the matzah over our hearts to led in the Light of healing…and so much more.

Balancing a Festival against a Holy Day – Ahhh, We Get It

Christmas tree envy was indeed described and receded as the program progressed and a striking concept emerged through our studies. The Hanukkiah, the menorah, is mentioned twenty-seven times in the Torah. Precise details of its construction are given when Moses is alone on the mountaintop, listening to G*d and seeing the Architect’s vision (Exodus 25:31-40). The menorah, then, becomes a symbol of this listening and holding of the Light of awareness that began for him at the Burning Bush. The menorah’s original shape is, indeed, that of a tree.

More on Menorah as Inspiring Metaphor

Torah (The Five Books of Moses) is called a Tree of Life and is made of the original light filtered, condensed, formed into creation, and encoded in letters dancing with energy. The menorah symbolizes the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the awareness it only takes one person of vision to lead the way to face the pharaoh’s of our times and all times, the menorah is our Burning Bush. Its light is God as Torah, filtered through the prism of your soul and actions, focusing us on the mission of the Jewish people, to live mitzvah-centered, rather than self centered lives.

The original menorah had seven branches. The Hanukkah menorah has nine, to commemorate the Maccabees’ eight day festival for rededication of the temple, plus one extra branch for the shamash, a helper candle to ignite the others.

What about the miracle of the cruse of oil lasting eight days? This and many other stories arose long after the event, entering the realm of our tribal sacred myth. The Hanukkah menorah, however, does recall miracles-that there was enough “oil,” then and now, enough of the Jewish soul left after so much assimilation and trauma, to rededicate ourselves to the covenant of living as Jews. Even today a huge menorah engraved with scenes from Jewish history stands outside Israel’s parliament, an enduring symbol of that dedication.

The Seleucid Empire, part of the Greek Empire and its intent for homogeneous practices among its citizens, had enacted edicts prohibiting Jews from living our Torah. We were prohibited at peril of death to observe the sabbath, have a Jewish name, keep separate milk (the gift of life) from meat (life taken away), and worse. Hanukkah also symbolizes the courage it takes to trust and maintain our ways. We are one of the longest continually existing peoples on the planet with much of depth, importance and beauty to transmit across the generations. We exist for a purpose.

On the Roman arch of Titus, commemorating the conquering of Jerusalem, the Romans are shown carrying off the menorah in triumph. Those Romans didn’t know that the most precious part of all had been left behind, carried in the soul-sparks of our people, every one of us a branch of a hidden menorah, carrying the light of Torah.

Through our congregation’s program and studies we became a menorah of community in the room; each soul a candle burning brightly with a vision of God’s light coming into us as inspiration for living mitzvah-centered lives.

Making Each Night of Hanukkah Remarkable

We began to brainstorm how to make each night of Hanukkah a gift of awareness, spiritual growth, family and friend connection, and caring beyond our immediate circle. Jewish families, someone noted at that program, tend to randomly come home with gifts for our children throughout the year. Those presents are one way we show love and recognition of the interests and abilities of our child. On Hanukkah, we realized, the present is how we receive and utilize the light of Torah.

To transform from consumer consciousness to mitzvah consciousness on Hanukkah, over the years with communities, we’ve brainstormed:

On the first candle of Hanukkah some of us venture with into attics, closets and garages to find surplus things – bikes, tv’s, vcrs, computers; and after school and before lighting the menorah, brought these goods to family service professionals who know those in need…

Some of us focused on saving energy and care for the planet by putting in more efficient light bulbs, having energy audits, doubling up on blankets and lower thermostats for another day of Hanukkah…

Some hold an Israel arts evening as the Hanukkah candles glow, each family showing something they’ve acquired to symbolize the miracle of Israel realized in our times in their hearts and homes….Some also hold out a light to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and hold a Hanukkah fundraiser for joint learning centers and summer camps…

The fifth candle might include an invitation to bring a photo of Hanukkah family times past, to tell and video stories of those no longer with us whose lives added light to our own… Some consider our own inner light on Hanukkah, is our spark dim or bright? What do we need to do to heal in order to become better able to serve and savor in this life?

By the sixth candle some of us take our tzedakah boxes (where we regularly drops coins and bills to accumulate for charity) and open them to count what has accrued over the year for distribution. Each person brings information about a good cause and those present become a holy allocations committee, sometimes adding Hanukkah gelt – funds dedicated with care on Hanukkah…

The seventh candle might involve bringing a menorah, candles and home-made latkes over to share at a shelter for abused women and children, homeless persons, or a home for elders…

The last night of Hanukkah, as eight lights blaze in the menorah sometimes we do an Internet search on the meaning and places in Torah and Jewish literature and history of  our Jewish names and make or give a piece of jewelry to honor the freedom we have to hold those names dear…

The eighth night is also a time to dream of peace and good lives for all, to discuss and donate to causes that work for education, well-being, the environment and peace. The root letters of Hanukkah come from the term for education and dedication. All ages who can be present for such discussions increase the light of understanding and let it fuel constructive action.

How the Christmas Tree Question Received Closure

My first pulpit showed me how to cast light on making Hanukkah spiritually meaningful. On the Shabbat of Hanukkah they brought their handmade menorahs from a congregational workshop and in front of the lights dedicated themselves to advancing their learning and practice. Each year I taught a series on one of the ten major aspects of living a mitzvah-centered life – Prayer, God, Torah, Shabbat, Hebrew, Halachah (guidelines), Mitzvot (actions to engage in and refrain from), Life Cycle Rituals, Peoplehood and Hebrew, our sacred language wherein so much wisdom and light abides. These teachings became my first three books.

My first congregation’s farewell service to launch me into a new career chapter as a seminary dean offered closure on the original Christmas tree question. After a quilt with a square of learning from each family was presented as part of the ritual, the president asked, “How many present put up a Christmas tree for the family at your home on the holidays?” As I recall, one new member family and one long-time member family raised their hands. I encouraged them to go to extended families for Christmas with love and joy, bearing and receiving gifts if that is expected. Their own homes had become Jewish homes with a tree of the light of Torah, the menorah at the center of their holiday season.

Blessings this Hanukkah to experience and increase “de”-Light.

See the Reclaiming Judaism Website for books by Rabbi Goldie Milgram.

Updated Article: Expanded Clergy Skills Being Cultivated at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

(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.

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 in his address and newsletters about the continued evolution of studies at RRC.  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 as the Sadie Gottesman and Arlene Gottesman Reff Professor of Gender and Judaism 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, ’99, Ph.D. and Isabel de Koninck 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 Mordechai Liebling, ‘85 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, ’82, Ph.D. 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, including the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College which now provides formal individual spiritual development of clergy students, under the supervision of its former academic dean, Rabbi Jacob Staub, Ph.D., '77

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-Flohr 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 Chair, Department of Modern Jewish Civilization and Associate Professor of Jewish Mysticism, 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.

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, and later as mashpi'ah (spiritual director) and most recently as 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 Sandra 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 Dayle 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 should be Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism;

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.

Searching for Lior at the Special Olympics

I was to say the least, concerned. Among the two thousand Pennsylvania Special Olympics athletes, plus coaches, parents and volunteers streaming by, so far nary a Jewish star or kippah to easily indicate someone to interview for this paper.  Wait, wait, Lior Liebling’s name is on the participant list. I know him; he’s Jewish. We’re in the same congregations and he was the star in  Praying with Lior, a film that documented his bar mitzvah as a person with Down Syndrome.

photo by Barry Bub, MD

Best to seek out the Philadelphia County banner within the one-mile-long opening parade. Hmm, Lior isn’t marching with them, but another handsome teen begins dancing about me with an American flag, saluting me repeatedly. I pause my search to make his acquaintance but he continues his dance without responding. “I’m his mom, he’ll need me to speak for him.” This woman, marching draped affectionately over the shoulders by two youthful participants, explains the doctors had told her to institutionalize her son for life within twenty four hours of his birth. “The doctor said
he would never walk, communicate or be able to function in society.” Special Olympics programs are sport and health educational programs for those from age 8-80 living with intellectual impairment caused by inherited conditions, various diseases, malnutrition, accidents, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Now look at him!’ The flag-twirling lad’s mom gestures with visible love and pride. “My son goes regularly for practice with our neighborhood Special Olympics team. You must have faith the Lord won’t give you more than you can handle,” she explains and continues: “Seek out all possible resources, be persistent, don’t listen to the nay-sayers, never give up. He is constantly growing and changing.”

So where is Lior? Could he be marching under another county? Yes! The Philly coach says to look for him with the Montgomery County contingent. Better hustle up to their spot in the parade.

“Say coach, I’m looking for Lior Liebling or do you know if you have anyone Jewish in your delegation?” This woman, a twenty-something coach self-identifies as half-Jewish but non-practicing, and indicates Lior hasn’t joined the parade yet. She introduces me to a Jewish Special Olympics basketball player. He’s a member of Beth Shalom, tells me he had great bar mitzvah and loves music. When he’s called away by his coach to join a team cheer, I bow in appreciation for his time and the parade moves on.

It’s getting toward evening, might as well look for Lior at the opening ceremony. The Penn State Marching Band and cheerleaders at the main gate herald the inpouring of 2000 participants plus surely well over a 1000 volunteers, coaches and family members into the football stadium. Amy, a radiant young athlete is carried onto the field by a Penn State football player who towers over me by at least two feet, his biceps the width of trees. The big screen on the scoreboard displays Amy’s symbolic joy as the crowd roars. Soon county delegations rise, cheer and sit in waves, as the Special Olympics roll of counties is called. Up and down the bleechers I roam seeking Lior, all-the-while taking in the sight of excited youth and adult participants from intellectual disabilities overtly apparent and not, as well as every race, religion and culture within Pennsylvania. Hmm…maybe Lior didn’t make it, even though he’s on the list? Better e-mail his family to check; I’ll ask if they want to we meet up for Shabbat dinner, that would be special.

It’s morning and a new day. I’m at Track and Field where a coach said Lior is listed in the program. While scanning for Lior, I see Amy in a cabana tent chatting, it would be nice to find out more about her. Her mom is with her and upon seeing my press pass and being introduced to my husband Barry Bub, a physician who teaches healing healthcare communication skills, she tells us a bit about Amy’s history. A neonatal test had revealed Down Syndrome and a heart condition; the neonatologist advised her to abort the fetus. “So I changed doctors; that doctor didn’t want to deal with this, that much was clear. I wanted this pregnancy so much. I thought, Well, I’ll deal with problems as we come to them. I really want a child so I’ll keep this fetus.” Amy’s sister Erin adds:  “Tell people she’s just my sister, like a normal sister relationship, we play, we fight, we kiss and make up. Amy teaches me to be more caring and responsible, to realize others have more problems. I wish every teen would take a turn volunteering at the Special Olympics; this sure puts my own problems into perspective.”

There aren’t many parents present. I wonder aloud to Amy’s mom as to whether it’s because with so many Special Olympics volunteers, parents of some participants might see this as the rare chance for a  weekend off themselves. Amy and Erin’s mom sighs and agrees, “I haven’t had such a weekend yet, possibly when she’s older. That would be good. I’m fortunate, my husband and parents are supportive. My sister, too, she’s a speech therapist and that is also helpful.” Still thinking about religion and spirituality I inquire, “Do you participate in a faith tradition?” The mom looks at me oddly, “We belong to a church, we go sometimes.”

While Special Olympics athletes must qualify as intellectually impaired, my husband now declares me to be “belief-challenged.” True enough. I’ve been asking individuals whether they belong to faith communities, initially almost missing that it is the Special Olympics experience itself that is a living faith community. Special Olympics is a faith community without religious auspices, a community that has faith in each life’s evolving nature within the holy context of support and affirmation within skillful boundaries.

Here at the Special Olympics each athlete strives to attain his/her personal best and reaches out to help the other athletes to attain theirs. While there are various awards, an important one is for finishing in one’s category, be that basketball, long jump, equestrian skills, swimming, tennis, bocce, and much more. Writing this, my eyes rest at the swimming area upon a perhaps thirty-something woman with evident Down Syndrome and other disabilities laboring heavily on a walker to reach her starting position. Her coach helps hoist her up and in the water she swims flat out as near perfect to a pro as I can discern.

Over at the basketball games, an apparently non-verbal near Leonard de Caprio teen look-alike with stares through me. He begins wordless repeated sighing in response to my asking if his team is up next. A coach comes over and explains when the young man, his son Evan does speak, he verbally cuts and pastes remembered lines from movies to communicate. Out on the court Evan runs, leaps, guards a lad who has the ball, who then passes it to him. Aw, he misses the rim shot. Coach Clyde, we learn, is also Evan’s father and with his mother also has an older son with Asperbergers. The referree’s whistle blows, coach/father calls out, “Evan, you can do better than that, you know you can.” He turns to us and explains: “You learn to see past the handicap; they want to be treated like everyone else. He’ll lay back and take the easy road unless he’s pushed. They’ll try to manipulate you just like any other teen.”

There’s no alcohol available and clearly none is needed here for happiness. Spirits soar as each person’s abilities have room to shine. On a tip from a coach who thought he saw Lior at the long jump awards, we head to the outdoor track to find that now wheelchair races are underway and Lior’s group is off visiting other sports. Just one man stops his wheelchair six inches short of the finish line. His coach moves to face him, just behind the line: “You can do it Daniel, I know you can. One more push and you’ll have completed the race, done your personal best. Come on, just a bit more.” Silence. “Daniel, you know you can finish this race.” There no indication that this man, whose physical appearance is tiny, contracted and frail, is even listening…the heat is extreme, who would even want to finish? The sun feels so direct I begin to wonder if my fingernails will sunburn atop the camera zoom. The crowd, at a distance, realizes he’s begun moving again before I do and I’m barely six feet away. The cheering is building in volume, feet rhythmically pound the metal bleechers: “Go, Daniel, go, Daniel…yes, YES!” They’re on their feet for him and yes, his back wheels cross the finish line! Phew…I’m exhausted. As his coach wheels him toward the reward podium, a teen first aid volunteer brings a cup of ice-water and shakes his hand, “You did it! That was great!” She turns to me with an aside, “Volunteering here is the highlight of my year; I always come out.” At the podium, a state trooper in full regalia confers Daniel’s participation medalion to Miss Pennsylvania Teen Dairy Queen. Daniel he bows his head as she places it around his neck and immediately his thin arthritis ridden arms go up in the universal symbol for a triumphal personal best. He finished the race!

Bing! An email about Lior: “He’s there on his own. Thanks for reaching out to us.” So he’s here for sure. Ok, but where?

“Why did you decide to race backwards?” my husband asks as Daniel comes towards the stands. “Because one of my feet drag and stop the chair when I try to race forwards.” Daniel points at two men leaning against the stands behind us, “Ask my coaches, they’ll tell you.” Coach Don readily explains, “Riding backwards, it’s Daniel’s innovation.” Actually, what does a Special Olympics coach do? “I help them understand the rules, practice, loosen up before the games begin, ensure they stay in their lane, administer their medications and help them remain emotionally appropriate. We go through training programs to work with these athletes. Perhaps most significantly, we help them learn how to be part of a team; that’s not always easy.” How did Don get involved? “I have a son with autism. Most coaches here have a family member involved.” Day job? “Scale inspector.”

Don adds one thing more: “I also train future coaches.” He then pins the microphone onto the man beside him, James, who proudly shows me his Assistant Coach tag. Daniel began as a Special Olympics athlete, referred by the special education class teacher in high school. He works in a factory for those with special needs and represents athletes on the Special Olympics board. When his father died he used his inheritance to buy his own home and lives alone. “I am very happy with my life,” Daniel tells us, “I have everything I need. I also hope to take courses one day to become a full coach.” I don’t ask if he practices a religion. What for? The man is the epitomy of spirit.

We head to the stands, maybe Lior’s up there. Against the railing a photo is underway, a young woman wearing a bronze medal in a hug with a probable grandmother and perhaps her mother? I call out a hearty congratulations and they turn to meet us. Turns out to be her grandmother and her aunt Alia, who is her guardian. “Her father died in a tragic accident, and my niece suffered brain damage from chemo and radiation therapy for cancer as a child. Her mom couldn’t care for her, so we took her and her mother visits every week; we’re her guardians. Pointing to the athletes she notes: “Raising these children isn’t for everyone, yet for some of us, it’s a gift to be able to do this.” Alia, along with parent after parent we encounter throughout the weekend describes the experience of community within the Special Olympics as a turning point for the child, from introversion and isolation, to friendships and belief in themselves as worthy people with unique skills and talents. “Through preparing for the games her muscle tone has improved, as have her balance and social skills. She’s now 19 and a total blessing in our lives. Community and support, that’s the critical factor, the turning point. You have to give them a chance. She’s in a job training program at local pizza and coffee shops. Give them a chance, it will bring you such joy!”

Barry looks at me, “I’m heading over to check out the equestrian part of the games. I suppose you’re going to keep looking for Lior?” A random woman with Down Syndrome watching the games beside us reaches out to hold my hand, so I answer him: “I’ll see you later, honey. Let me know what it’s like over there.” As though she’d been evesdropping on my soul, my new hand-holding Special Olympics game date kisses my hand and says: “We play for fun; that’s how you win at life.”

One of the great koans in Judaism is an injunction by Reb Nachman of Breslov, mitzvah gedolah lihiyote b’simchah tamid, “the greatest mitzvah is to live in perpetual happiness.” By God, she’s got it. I think she’s got it! Here, politics and religion are invisibly trumped by support, courage, and persistence. I hope by now, that even I’ve got it.

A favor please. Should you should happen to see Lior, please let him know Reb Goldie sends regards.

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.