“The Ruined House” – A Collision Between Traditional and Contemporary Jewish Life

A Sapir Prize-winning novel, The Ruined House, by Jerusalem-born Ruby Namdar, is a highly imaginative and illuminating portrayal of the struggle between the spiritual and corporeal domains of mankind. It tells the story of two houses: the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, host to the soul of a people, and Andrew P. Cohen, host to the soul of a man. Both houses flourished, until outside forces and inner flaws laid siege to their protective walls leaving them lying in ruins. [Read more…]

May the Angels Carry You

— by Reb Simcha Raphael

I am pleased to announce the release of my most recent book, May the Angels Carry You: Jewish Prayers and Meditations for the Deathbed

This book provides a collection of traditional and contemporary Jewish prayers, meditations and sacred readings designed to offer comfort and solace for those wrestling with dying and the approach of death. May the Angels Carry You is a simple, practical and functional deathbed manual for people on an end-of-life journey, for family members who accompany them, and for professional care-givers in search of practical tools for Jewish patients.

Honoring the legacy of Jewish deathbed practices and inspired by the spiritual insight of Jewish renewal, this small volume — the third in the Albion-Andalus “Jewish Death and Transition Series” — is a valuable and unique deathbed resource for contemporary Jewish life. Among material included in this book are:

  • traditional and innovative Vidui prayers;
  • an essay entitled “What Does It Mean to Pray for Someone Who is Dying?”;
  • Prayer for When Life Support Is Being Removed” and
  • a Foreword by Rabbi Nadya Gross.

In this book of deathbed prayers and meditations, Dr. Simcha Paul Raphael provides us with powerful insights into Jewish tradition. His look at the role and power of prayer as life ebbs provides the reader with a foundation for comfort, compassion and caring that links us with a sense of the sacred. His desire to have us ritually engaged with life’s last passage serves as a practical tool for the mysterious journey at the end of life. May The Angels Carry You guides one’s soul with a sense of dignity and celebration of the gift that is our life.

—Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, Director, Jewish Sacred Aging

Saying “YES” When You Really Mean “YES”, and Saying “NO” When You Really Mean “NO”

We are combining yoga and psychology to determine your true boundaries. Yoga invites us to quiet our minds so that we can listen.  It allows us to connect deeply with what we truly want.  Psychology incorporates various strategies to create and ultimately maintain appropriate boundaries. We will use both modalities to discover how to have more effective limits in your life, in order to feel authentic and powerful in each and every interaction. There is something in this workshop for everyone who ever struggles with setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries in their personal and professional lives.

Here are the details: May 2nd, from 1-4 p.m., at The New Leaf Club, 1225 Montrose Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010. The cost for the workshop is $50. Please RSVP to me at [email protected] if you can come so we know how many chairs to set out there to welcome you! No mats or previous yoga experience necessary. Feel free to wear comfortable clothing–we can’t wait to see you.

Dr. Amy Alfred is a licensed psychologist in Narberth with 25 years of experience.  She sees individuals, couples, and groups who come in with a variety of concerns, including self-esteem, relationship issues, anxiety, depression, conflict resolution, grief and loss, abuse, and chronic illness.  Amy finds that a common thread underlying many of these issues is the need to create and maintain appropriate boundaries for optimal functioning.

Julie Pogachefsky has been teaching yoga since 2001.  She received her 200 hour teaching certification at Wake Up Yoga and her 500 hour Pranakriyateaching certification from Yoganand/Michael Carroll.  Julie is also certified to teach Yin Yoga and is in the process of finishing her PranakriyaYoga Therapy Teaching Certification. Julie challenges your mind to expand beyond its current ideals and perceptions in order for you to find more space and freedom in all aspects of your life.    

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.