Mussar: A Contemporary Path to a Spiritual Judaism

— by Miki Young

For many spiritual seekers, the complaint about Judaism is that it doesn’t seem like it has what it takes to be a springboard for a life of meaningful relevance. The lack of easily accessible contemporary theology seems to create a great divide between honoring the ancient and finding a way to appreciate the practice of Judaism as an integral part of everyday life. Other traditions and practices such as Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness seem to give both solace and a sense of growing personal empowerment that many Jewish practitioners seek in a harried time.

More after the jump.
Mussar, a daily spiritual practice based on an ethical concern for others does, in fact, tether that bridge between Jewish spirituality and religion.  Developed in 18th century Eastern Europe, Mussar which literally means “discipline” offers practitioners a way of looking at the world which transforms everyday actions into moments of holiness.

“I wanted to feel more spiritual about my life,” said Phyllis Jacobs, a student of Mussar Leadership, a program of Beth Zion Beth Israel in Philadelphia for the last four years. “But as a Jew I didn’t really know exactly what that meant. With Mussar, I’ve discovered a Jewish spiritual discipline with guideposts and reminders that help me to look at what’s important to me in the world, how I treat people. Mussar helps me to see something everyday that makes me feel like I am connected to something bigger than myself. In many ways, Mussar helps me to navigate my everyday life in a way that makes me more the person I really want to be.”

The pursuit of spirituality, defined as living a life that seems to offer a sense of something “bigger than oneself,” is a commonly expressed sentiment by those who attend the Mussar Leadership groups, held throughout the area and via videoconference in different parts of the country.  The tenuous connection often raised is how does practicing Judaism as an individual or even in a minyan really set the groundwork for that spiritual connection?

“Mussar is an incredible impactful practice for all of us who are living in an ethically, spiritually bankrupt society,” said Rabbi Ira Stone, who is considered one of the few contemporary Mussar theologians and authors in North America. The daily practice creates a very centered sense of mindfulness with regard to how we impact each other and the responsibility we must take for our own behavior and for each other. “Mussar is not the end but the beginning of a spiritual path,” he added. “It is a compelling reason for people to reengage in classical Jewish text and practice in a way that is often missing in the non-orthodox world.  And, I think through that engagement, we could actually save the world.”

The practice of Mussar is “catching on.” Synagogues of many different denominations have lectures, workshops and ongoing classes. At Mussar Leadership those classes are offered at synagogues and independent groups that are identified as Conservative, Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform and unaffiliated.  Currently there is also a group of Rabbis in LA who are studying Mussar for their personal and communal development as well as training to be facilitators of the practice.

Many group participants said that their connection to Judaism has deepened as a result of attending Mussar groups.  “As part of this group, my level of study and interest in Judaism has certainly increased,” said Carol Daniels, who is training to be a Mussar madrich or group leader.  “I now study Torah and have a daily reflection of gratitude that has allowed me to use my own religion as a guide in my life that wasn’t available to me before.”

In addition to the benefit of becoming much more mindful about the responsibility a person has to society as a whole and to the individuals around him or her, participants say that the experience has given them a much deeper connection of community.

For Martin Jacobs who participates in a Mussar Leadership group at Or Hadash in Ft. Washington, what has been most valuable is finding connections with others and opening himself up to share the experiences of day-to-day life in a very safe, supportive environment.  “The insights others are able to give me about how I choose to live and act give me a very different viewpoint than I have by myself,” he said. His fellow group member Marianne Adler agrees.  “The group is key,” she said. “When I miss it I don’t like it.  Being part of the group is essential because I get to listen to everybody else and everybody has different things to work on and everybody brings something different to the group.”

Mussar Leadership groups are held at Beth Zion Beth Israel in center city and around the area.  For more information, email [email protected] or call 215-735-5148.

Additionally, Reclaiming Judaism is offering distance-learning certification programs for Jewish Educators that incorporate training in Mussar title 3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah and Mussar.  

Stu Bykofsky Candidates’ Comedy Night, 2012

The 22nd  annual Stu Bykofsky Candidates’ Comedy Night, a benefit for Variety, the children’s charity, was held this evening at Finnegan’s Wake.   Since this is primarily a political blog I didn’t take notes on the speakers who aren’t running for office.  As always, this is not intended to be an exact transcript, just rough notes I took at the event.  It would be impossible to capture every joke, especially the longer, more involved story jokes, but I made an effort to provide some idea of each candidate’s routine.  

Photo: Steven M. Falk, Philly.com

Details after the jump.

Text implies a direct joke, notes in brackets are condensations or gists.  Actions or extraneous activities are in italics, as are candidates’ names.  Read your local newspapers for more exact accounts of the event.


Photo: Bonnie Squires

Tom Smith (R), candidate for Senate
Running against incumbent Sen. Bob Casey (D).

[Tom Smith was brave enough to go first as a stand-up comedian.  He had a clever slide show which featured a head-shot of Smith added to all the slides of stock or iconic photos.]

I am new to politics and most people in Philadelphia aren’t familiar with me.  My father died when I was 20 and I had to look after the family so I couldn’t go to college but I sent my daughters.  [shows a slide of what he would have looked like if he had gone – his face superimposed on someone wearing a college tshirt holding a beer mug].  

My wife is with me, as you can see I let her get a new dress for the event [American Gothic painting with Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s photos in it].  

I worked in a coal mine [Smith’s face on the front of Thomas the Tank Engine, pulling a load of coal].  

I had big dreams [his face added to a picture of the Beverly Hillbillies].  My wife and I adopted four children so a family could stay together.  

People say I am a Tea Party candidate but there are a lot of things about me you don’t know [his face added to an Occupy Pittsburgh group photo].


Photo: Bonnie Squires

Rep. Bob Brady (D), PA 1st Congressional District

[Congressman Bob Brady told a couple of jokes which we can’t repeat here. He made Stu Bykofsky the butt (pardon the pun) of one a “pee and poop joke.”  Another jokee was about an attorney going to a brothel.]

Incumbents do comedy every day, make fools of ourselves every day.  This is for the kids.


Photo: Bonnie Squires

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA)

[Senator Bob Casey appeared in shirt-sleeves!  He made fun of himself for being dull, quoting verbatim a front page New York Times article which talked about Casey’s galloping eyebrows as the way in which he registers excitement.]

Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D), PA 13th Congressional District, sent a surrogate, Neil Deegan.

Top reasons Allyson can’t be here tonight:

  • Still at PennDOT waiting for her voter id card
  • Getting new copy of the Congressional ladies’ room key made for Kathy Boockvar
  • Prepping Mayfair office to hand over to Bob Brady
  • Painting bike lane in front of Stu’s house
  • Getting mani pedi with Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Nancy Pelosi
  • Measuring drapes for Corbett’s office
  • Looking at Pat Toomey’s office
  • Needed a haircut for the DNC.

Photo: Bonnie Squires

Kathleen Kane (D), candidate for Pennsylvania Attorney-General
Running against David Freed (R)

[jokes about her Irish heritage and her hometown of Scranton]
[joke about thinking Finnegan’s Wake was an actual funeral wake]
[joke about doctors]

In Scranton the obituaries are the Irish social pages.  People clip them out and put then on the refrigerator.   They often have headlines, like “101 Year Old Woman Dies Unexpectedly.”

I took my son to an Eagles game.  We saw empty seats up front and moved up to them.  They were next to an older man.  He told us he and his wife had season tickets for years but she died a few days ago.  I asked if a family member didn’t want to come with him.  “Oh, no,” he said, “they’re at the funeral.”


Photo: Bonnie Squires

George Badey, Democratic candidate for 7th Congressional District

[George Badey, who was raised in South Philadelphia and is an avowed Mummer, had a very funny routine.  Badey is the Democrat running against Republican incumbent  Congressman Pat Meehan.]

[told “the neighborhood I grew up in was so tough” jokes – it is now in Brady’s district]

I went to high school in South Philly.  Pat Meehan went to the Chestnut Academy.

Chris Christie is in the hospital.  He has that flesh eating bacteria.  He only has 13 years to live.

Fidel Castro’s successor will be his idiot son, Fidel W. Castro.

Bill Clinton and the Pope died but there was a mix up and Clinton went up and the Pope went down.  When the mix up was fixed and the Pope was going up and Clinton down they passed and the Pope told Clinton he was looking forward to meeting the Blessed Virgin.  Clinton said “You just missed her.”


Photo: Bonnie Squires

David Freed (R), candidate for Pennsylvania Attorney-General
Running against Kathleen Kane (D).

Thanks to Kathleen Kane for picking up the tab.
I went to college with Cecily Tynan.
Fan of Philly sports teams [joke about the 1996 Phillies being bad team].

People say I am too close to Gov. Corbett – he wrote my jokes.  [fakes a phone call from Corbett].  

Hello, Governor?  
Yes, Risa Vetri Ferman’s here — she’s sitting right next to me.  
No, she still won’t run for Attorney General.

[joke about Ed Rendell telling people the statue of Billy Penn is of him]

[calls Daily News columnist John Baer a gossip columnist]

[Photo: Dave Freed seated with Montgomery County D.A. Risa Furman.]


Photo: Bonnie Squires

Kathy Boockvar (D), candidate for PA 8th Congressional District
Running against incumbent Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R).

I want to show that I can be funny on purpose and not just by accident.

I wanted to find a job more popular than being in Congress but the TSA didn’t have any opening and Elliott Spitzer already has a co-host.  

Things more popular than Congress right now:

  • Lawyers
  • Chick Fil A’s new branch at the Sea of
  • Gaililee
  • Paris Hilton
  • Porn
  • The IRS
  • Polygamy
  • The idea of being abducted by aliens
  • The oil industry
  • Bank of America
  • BP Oil during the Gulf oil spill

Photo: Bonnie Squires

John Featherman (R), candidate for PA 1st Congressional District
Running against incumbent Rep. Bob Brady (D).

[John Featherman was very funny with jokes about being Jewish and his “mixed marriage” to an Asian woman].  

Two Chinese people had a white baby but everyone knows two Wongs don’t make a white.

A union friend wanted to find a whorehouse where the prostitutes got to keep more of the money than the madam.  They finally found one and the union friend asked for a pretty young blonde but the proprietor said he had to take 62 year old Ethel, because of seniority rules.

Comedian Joe Conklin

Intermission with comedian Joe Conklin who told some good jokes and did impressions of political figures.  He also gave a shout out to the girls from Club Risque and said they were the only ones there with bigger [breasts] than Bob Brady.


Photo: Bonnie Squires

Rep. Pat Meehan (R), PA 7th Congressional District

[Congressman Pat Meehan, the Republican incumbent being challenged by Badey, also had a very funny routine.]

Stu thought the Variety Club was a dating service.

My opponent George Badey is a mummer.  He wants to go to Washington, wear satin pants, a feather boa and lipstick.  J. Edgar Hoover already did that.

Anthony Wiener got in trouble for sexting.  He was trying to decide whether or not to resign.  He was in, he was out, he was in, he was out, now he’s holding his own.  Bill Clinton oversaw Wiener’s wedding.  
When the scandal broke he called Clinton to apologize — for what, copyright infringement?

Three political figures were driving through Kansas and ended up in Oz.  [missed the name, possibly George W. Bush?] went looking for a heart, Joe Biden for a brain, and Bill Clinton said “Where’s Dorothy?”

There is an auction for a restaurant gift card which Emerald Capital bids more than the card is worth, then ups that bid when Stu includes a gift basket.


Photo: Bonnie Squires

Dr. Manan Trivedi (PA), candidate in PA 6th Congressional District
Running against incumbent Rep. Jim Gerlach (R).

When I ran in 2010 I spoke at this event and told a lot of jokes about being an Indian-American.  I won’t do that this year.  [fakes a telephone call and answers in stereotypic Indian accent] “Dell Technical Support.  This is … Mike …. In …. Kansas City.”  

My wife is from a very traditional family.  When they heard I wouldn’t be a full-time doctor while I am running for office they asked for three chickens back.

Jim Gerlach and Paul Ryan work out together — they practice their Atlas Shrugged poses.

[spelling bee joke]

Unlike Todd Akin, I know when my time is up.

Special guest, comedian Steve Young tells jokes

Congressman Jim Gerlach, Republican, 6th Congressional District, sent surrogate Kori Walter, district director.

Mitt Romney bet me $10,000 that I wouldn’t do this.

[He told several jokes that fell flat and asked if the audience was drinking enough.  As he left the stage Stu told him you never blame the audience if your jokes don’t get a laugh, always use self-deprecating humor.]

Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, Republican, 8th Congressional District

[Fitzpatrick was taking two of his daughters to college this weekend and so wasn’t sure he would be able to attend; a surrogate, Andre [did not catch last name], was there just in case, but Fitzpatrick told his own jokes]

One night in Washington a robber held me up and said “give me all your money.”  I told him I was a Congressman and he said  “In that case give me all my money.”

Is Mitt Romney here tonight?  Coming in I thought I saw a car with a dog carrier on top.”

[discusses his Irish heritage, family from county next to Limerick.  Says Limerick known for a particular kind of poem.  Tells three.  One about Paul Ryan has a line “grandma just must go.”  One about Romney being robotic but “I saw him cry when he sold his 3rd yacht.”  The last one is about Obama and says he will be a judge on American Idol next year.]

Jim Foster, Independent candidate in 2nd Congressional District
Running against incumbent Rep. Chaka Fattah (D) and Robert Allen Mansfield, Jr. (R).

[Mostly talks about himself, jokes about Chaka Fattah, and says West Mt. Airy is Stepford on the Wissahickon]

Robert Mansfield, Republican candidate for 2nd Congressional District, sends surrogate Ned Green.
Running against incumbent Rep. Chaka Fattah (D) and Jim Foster.

[says he met Mansfield in the 1990’s on another political campaign, Mansfield was homeless then].  Says Mansfield isn’t there because he has a lot of injuries from being in Iraq and is seeing a brain specialist today.

Personal notes:
Smith, Casey, Schwartz/Deegan, Kane, Trivedi, and Boockvar did well.   I was surprised by the Republican candidates telling Romney/Paul jokes.  That seems unusual.

There were a lot of jokes/comments at Congressman Chaka Fattah’s expense.  That is because two years ago he was a presenter and gave an awful, mean-spirited rant.  He wasn’t there tonight.  This would have been an opportunity for him to do something self-deprecating and make a comeback but he didn’t.  (Hint:  There’s always the Star Trek, evil twin/goatee trick that Community has picked up on.)

It was nice to see two women on the stage.  Maybe one of these years Congresswoman Schwartz will join us in person?  Kathleen Kane’s routine had a homespun, Lake Woebegone feel to it.  Boockvar was a little edgier.

The girls from Club Risque paraded from one side of the room to the other about three times, which is the standard from the other years I’ve attended, but this year they were wearing clunky shoes and the sound was disruptive.  

Cross-posted from Above Average Jane. Photo Credit: Bonnie Squires.

Immigration “Reform” Discussed at Panel

The impact of racism and fear over immigration on local economics and politics will be the topic of a panel discussion, held at the Liberties Bar, 709 North Second Street, 2nd floor, on Thursday, February 23, 2012, at 7:00 PM.
The panel discussion will be sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), the Philadelphia chapter of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and Philadelphia Jobs with Justice.

More after the jump.
 
The panel will include:

  • State Representative Babette Josephs;
  • Wendell W. Young IV, President United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union Local 1776;
  • immigration attorney David Bennion, Esq.; and
  • immigration activist Jessica Hyejin Lee.

The panel will be moderated by Judi Bernstein-Baker, Executive Director of HIAS Pennsylvania.

See flyer for more details.