Sunday, April 13, 2014

Engaging Seders: Give Each Guest a Seder Responsibility

Passover invites us to place ourselves within the story of the Exodus from Egypt. In the Haggadah we read: Bechol or vador chayav adam lirote et atzmo k'eelu hunyatzah mimitzrayim - in each and every generation a person must see him/herself as if he/she went forth from Egypt. The Seder calls us to journey personally to the promised land, from hopelessness to hopefulness, from pain to healing, from oppression to freedom.

As such, the Seder itself needs to involve every person, a feat easily accomplished with one quick email sent to your guests. Imagine asking guests to prepare to share something specific during the Seder. Your email sent even the day before the seder could delineate his/her role, giving each one time to think about a meaningful presentation.

Here's Our Pre-Seder Email
Our pre-Seder email looks something like this. Like we did, you should substitute your guests' names for descriptions that fit. Use our suggestions and/or make up your own. In parentheses after each assignment, we suggest times in the seder to make the presentation. To remember the story, check out pages 7-9 of my friend's online Haggadah.

Dear family and friends:

Lest our seder become boring, we are asking each of you to come prepared to participate actively in our Seder. We will be using a Haggadah but the really meaningful experience will come from what each of us bring from our own lives to the Seder.

So here are your seder participation assignments. Plan for a 3-5 minute presentation. Feel free to email or call me if you have questions or have something different you would rather share. But please, take time to prepare. And know this: no prepared sharing, no food for you. Enjoy preparing:

Infant: You are baby Moses in the basket on the Nile. Have your parent(s) create a costume for you, with a basket to "float" in. Your older sibling(s) - or your parent(s) - can help reenact the Nile moment. [Maggid - telling story of the Exodus]

Video Gamer: You are an accomplished video game player. Your challenge is to connect the games you play with the Passover Seder. Choose one of your favorite online games; print out a few screen shots. Prepare to explain the game, how it works, and two ways that this game illuminates lessons relevant to the story of Passover and the exodus. [Before Yachatz - Creating the Afikomin]

Musically Inclined Child/Adult: You are a lover of music and especially musical theater. Choose one or two modern songs or Broadway show tunes that shed light on the journey to freedom in any of its forms - physical freedom, emotional freedom, spiritual or economic freedom. Be creative. Come with copies of the lyrics or a recording of the song. Be ready to play or sing these songs and to share how they harmonize with the teachings of Passover. [Before Dayeinu]

Dramatically Inclined Child/Adult: Before we sit down to the Seder, please gather all the children and prepare a short dramatic play about the exodus story. I am attaching a brief review of the story. Use costumes from our costume box or clothes from mom and dad's closet. [Maggid - Telling the Story]

Musician: You can provide musical accompaniment during the Seder where possible and comfortable. Music and words for Dayeinu and other prayer and songs can be found on the internet. Any modern songs you can play that talk about freedom would also be appropriate for our Seder. [Throughout the Seder]

Middle School Student: What have you learned in your history class about ancient Israelite or Egyptian culture? How can lessons from history in general help us love better lives today? You be the teacher and teach us. [Before Maggid - Telling the Story]

Person Who Visited History Museums: You recently history visited museums depicting _________ {fill in the blank}. What did you learn there that sheds light on the important lessons past and future of the Seder/Passover story. (Perhaps guests can report about a visit to a Holocaust museum, museums recounting the civil rights movement, locations of Japanese internment, important places in the LGBT rights movement or other similar locations.) [Before Ten Plagues]

Older Teen or College Student: You are learning about communities struggling with their own enslavement, their own Egypts. Teach us about one such community in the world today. Where is their Egypt, that dark, narrow place which torments them? Who is their Pharaoh, the one most responsible for their oppression? How can we be the Moses and Miriam to help lead them to freedom or how can we help nurture their own leaders? [Before Matzah]

Parent of Young Child: As a new parent, you have an opportunity to use the Seder to mold your child's spiritual life. What are one or two spiritual lessons you hope will enhance his spirituality in the coming years of Seders together. [After Urchatz - Symbolic Washing]

New Parent: As a new parent, this is your first Passover with your child. What are kind of world do you promise to strive to create so she won't have to wander so much in life? [After Rachatzah - Symbolic Washing]

Person who Visited Israel: Tell us: In what ways is Israel the Promised Land still today? During your visit, when did you feel like you were spiritually enlivened? Though our people reside in the Holy Land, in what ways are we still wandering in the wilderness? [Before Nirtzach - Next Year in Jerusalem]

Older Adult: Over the years you have celebrated many a Passover, each time focusing on the unique issues of the moment in life. Share with us one example of a Passover gone by which was particularly meaningful in the way it captured the lessons and values of the festival. [After Urchatz - Symbolic Washing]

Older Adult: Over your years you have seen pharaohs rise and fall, enslaving physically and/or spiritually peoples or individuals. Similarly, you have seen people make it to the promised land of freedom. Share with us one example of a journey to freedom - personal or national - that you witnessed in your lifetime. [Before Maror - Bitter Herbs]

Photographer: The Haggadah speaks of four children, representing four ways of connecting to Judaism. Print four pictures - your own or those of others - that capture an interpretation of four ways of engaging Judaism. You may use pictures of people, animals, places. Explain how these teach about Jewish living. [Before Four Children]

Businessman: The karpas or greens are dipped in salt water. The karpas - and the egg - represent the promise of spring and of new life and new hope. From your work in the world of business, share with us how a new spring is dawning for the world through these efforts. [Before Karpas]

Lawyer: As someone who deals with the laws of our nation/community, you know how laws can enslave and laws can free. Describe one way that the law is still used to oppress one subgroup in our country. Explain what is happening to change this law. [Before Ten Plagues]

Medical Professional: You work in healthcare. Access to adequate healthcare and the lack thereof is a plague for our generation. In what ways have you seen access to healthcare become more of a plague and what are hopeful signs that the plague is lifting? [After Ten Plagues]

Grandparent: You have a grandchild and are anticipating celebrating Jewish life with her. What are central Jewish ideas and values that you hope to pass onto her as she grows. How is a Passover Seder an opportunity to do so? [Before Yachatz - Breaking the Matzah]

Thank you all ahead of time for preparing. We will weave your presentation throughout the Seder. Your efforts will make our Seder that much more engaging.

See you all at the Seder.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Why Rabbis Need Rabbinical Conventions

I’m just back from the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention, a gathering of 600 Reform Rabbis from all over the United States, Canada, Israel, Europe, South America and elsewhere. Four fabulous days of inspiring worship, thought-provoking speakers, pastoral skill-building sessions, and insightful study of our Jewish texts.

I return home with Evernote(books) filled with ideas and insights for the many roles I live as an American Reform Jewish congregational rabbi. In fact, each day was so packed with large plenary gatherings and small group meetings that my mind was working in overdrive from 7:00 am through midnight.

One of the most poignant events occurred at a location twenty-minutes away from the Convention Hotel. That night, eleven people gathered at a local restaurant in a private room for dinner.

The dinner took place during intentionally set time for “dinner with friends and colleagues.” Along with other sessions and the plenaries, this dinner allowed us to address one of the most significant reasons we rabbis need to attend rabbinical conventions: to find solace and strength in the company of colleagues.

Over dinner, we laughed, joked, kvetched, kvelled, commiserated and counseled each other. We reflected upon the distinctive role and responsibility of being a rabbi in our contemporary Jewish community.

As we played musical chairs - switching places between courses – we shared triumphs and tribulations. This one sought advice on how to deal with a particularly thorny pastoral problem, while that one teased out new approaches for a difficult issue of organizational governance. These two compared notes on the challenges of youth engagement as those two shared strategies for keeping our own young ones from becoming too encumbered by the challenges of living in the Jewish public eye.

These four discussed new ways to think about the congregational rabbinate, while those four debated the perspective on Israel in Avi Shavit’s book, My Promised Land. From the personal to the professional, the macro to the micro, we wove memories of our past through the realities of the present and into the hopes for the future.

I left dinner sated: full of delicious food, helpful advice, meaningful insights and a clear sense that the shared challenges we face are surmountable because we have others to guide and support us.

Why do rabbis need rabbinical conventions?
While being a rabbi is an especially rewarding profession, it can be challenging, exhausting and emotionally depleting. Only in gatherings of rabbinic colleagues can we let our metaphoric hair down – of course, I have none left because I shaved my hair to raise money and awareness to fight pediatric cancer (but that’s another blogpost). In this safe space among people who know and understand can we find sessions and support to rejuvenate ourselves and lift each other up spiritually.

So four days away is both a short time and a lifetime, because in those brief moments away from the 24/7 responsibilities of leading a sacred community of our holy people we regain perspective and gain new perspectives to dive back in and lead and partner anew.

So to my dinner companions – my friends – I say thank you for rejuvenating me.

To our CCAR leadership and the Convention Program Committee, I say Todah Rabbah (thank you so much) for creating moments to find new meaning.

And to my synagogue – Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) – I offer my profound appreciation for making it possible to leave and come back. I and we will benefit greatly from this experience.

Monday, March 24, 2014

I'm Going BALD ... for Kids with Cancer

I have so much hair... It may not look like much, what with my crown peaking through. But I'm really okay with my unadorned cranium.

Because, compared with kids with cancer, I'm really one hairy dude.

So when I was asked to put my few follicles on the line to raise awareness and funds to combat childhood cancer, I jumped at the chance to test my supposed lack of vanity.

On Tuesday, April 1st - one week from today - in the midst of a Rabbinical convention, I will be shaving my head, along with 36+ other rabbis. 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave.

I agreed to do this shave for Superman Sam, a sweet and funny 7 year old who contracted refractory acute myeloid leukemia. The son of a pair of rabbi friends, Sam got a bone marrow transplant, was doing really well. My friends, dearly connected to Sam's parents, organized this event to ... just be able to do something more.

And then, something horrible happened. The leukemia came back. And over their blog, Sam's parents shared the story of how they had to tell their son, a sweet wonderful 8 year old, that he was going to die. Sam died on December 14, 2013 at 12:33 am. His mother wrote ""He died peacefully and calmly and quietly at 12:33 a.m.," she wrote on her blog. "He was not in fear or in pain. And for that I am eternally grateful."

We missed the deadline to find a cure for Sam and his family. And we are missing the deadline for too many other kids too.

More children are lost to cancer in the U.S. than any other disease—in fact, more than many other childhood diseases combined. Before they turn 20, about 1 in 300 boys and 1 in 333 girls will have cancer. Worldwide, a child is diagnosed every 3 minutes. In the 1950s, almost all kids diagnosed with cancer died. Because of research, today about 85% of kids with the most common type of cancer will live. But for many other types, progress has been limited, and for some kids there is still little hope for a cure. You can learn more at St. Baldrick's, a non-profit that organizes shaves to raise money for research.

So I'm joining together with 36+ other rabbis to shave our heads in hopes of raising money and raising awareness. My goal is to raise $5,000 before I go under the razor. We only have 7 days to do it.

Will you donate to my Shave for the Brave?
In Superman Sam's memory?
In honor of all those kids struggling with cancer?
In memory of those who we failed to help?

I'm tired of burying people, kids before their time. let's do something about it.

Please make a meaningful donation.
I'll make sure Sam's parents know the good that you are doing. And I'll send you a before and after picture too.

Donate here.  Donate NOW.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Changing the Conversation about Religion, Sexuality, Abortion and Justice

It’s time to talk about religion and abortion.
It’s time to talk about religion and sexuality.
It’s time to talk about religion and justice.


For too long, the extreme religious right has dominated public conversation about religion and sexuality in this country. As a result, an unprecedented number of bills are being proposed–and far too many are passing–that attempt to write one narrow-minded, dangerous religious view of abortion and sexuality into law.

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice believes that it’s time to tell the truth: most people of faith, like the majority of Americans overall, support access to contraception, sexuality education, and reproductive healthcare including abortion. We hold this view because access to education and services accomplishes two vital goals that are deeply grounded in both religious and democratic values:

  • Empowering individuals, couples, families and communities to have a healthy and fulfilling relationship–indeed, a sacred relationship–with sex, sexuality and reproduction.
  • Respecting the right and moral agency of each person to make personal reproductive health decisions according to their own beliefs and values.

As people of faith, and as Americans, we are called to seek for justice for all. Restrictions on access to sexuality education and reproductive healthcare are unjust because they disproportionately affect those already struggling – most often low income communities and people of color. Silence is no longer an option and it’s time for a change. Whether or not you identify as a person of faith, we need your help to change the conversation about religion, abortion, sexuality, and justice. Join us!

Today I pledged: 

YES! I believe that It’s Time to change the conversation about religion, abortion, sexuality and justice. Therefore, I pledge:

  1. To speak up and take action when religion is being used as a tool of judgment and shame rather than a positive force for compassion, health and healing.
  2. To help change the perception of religion by sharing the truth whenever I can: The majority of people of faith – in keeping with their religious values, not in spite of them—support access to contraception, sexuality education, and reproductive healthcare including abortion.
  3. To model a different kind of conversation, creating space for a more honest, thoughtful and mutually respectful dialogue on matters related to religion, abortion, sexuality, and justice.
Join me in taking the pledge. Its time for an open, honest, non-judgmental, conversation about religion and sexuality, abortion and justice.  Take the pledge here

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Be a Sanctuary (as God Intended)

[Cross posted at the Jewish Journal]

Where is God, and what does the Holy One want from us? These timeless questions animate so many of us spiritual seekers.

Of course, there are better places to look for an answer than in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36), unless you consider barbecuing as divine service. If you read Tzav literally, you come away with a clear sense that the Holy One has a soft spot for a good steak and some grain (perhaps baked into a delicious loaf of bread) to dip in some warm olive oil.

I’m all for a good steak now and then, but few believe that God was ever a red-meat eater ... or a vegetarian or vegan. Torah, perhaps updating the sacrificial practices of the Israelites’ biblical contemporaries, organized a hierarchy of sacrificial offerings to quench what was once understood as the religio-gastronomical desires of the Highest Power.

Yet, when later rabbinic commentators studied the sacrifices, they quickly rejected the notion that God actually wanted meat, fowl or grains. They argued that God instead sought out the intention with which the Israelites brought their offerings. For our rabbinic teachers, the sacrifices were merely the means through which the Israelites transformed themselves into servants of God.

It seems, though, that the Holy One might not really want the kavanah (intentions) with which we bring the offerings, either. No, the Holy One, Source of all holiness, just wants us to discover the holiness within.

We hear it in the words of that folk spiritual that inspires thousands in synagogues and summer camps. Combining “Sanctuary” (written by John Thompson and Randy Scruggs) with “Pitchu Li” (Psalm 118:19, arranged by Rabbi Shefa Gold), “Sanctuary/Pitchu Li” lays it all out for us:
Lord, prepare me, to be a sanctuary,
Pure and holy, tried and true. 
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you. Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek avo vam odeh Ya.
At Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA and at Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, we are learning to redirect our hearts. We are slowly learning to unlearn certain lessons from our past — that God wants a side of beef or is focused primarily on how we prepare our own side of beef — to discover that God wants us to open ourselves to the holiness within.

Too often, we look for holiness, and the Holy One, in places outside ourselves. A few Torah portions ago, when Moses climbed the mountain and seemingly disappeared for 39 or 40 days, the Israelites felt bereft and alone. Without someone to remind them that God is HaMakom (literally, “The Place,” meaning God is everywhere and everyplace), they felt abandoned. So they built for themselves an egel hazahav (a golden calf) to worship and embrace. Unable to recognize that the spiritual reservoir was found within, they created a false sense of security outside themselves.

When the smoke cleared, when the frenzy finally subsided, those who remained true to the spiritual journey heard a new call. It was couched in the form of a command to build a sanctuary where the Israelites could turn to be assured that God was always with them. The mishkan(the Tabernacle, a movable sanctuary in space), then, was really a compromise, the result of a failure of the wilderness generation to find what they needed within.

Today’s soul searchers — especially the Jewish ones — find spiritual strength in the one place that the wilderness-wandering Israelites failed to search. Today’s spiritual seekers learn anew that holiness and wholeness are no farther away than the depth of our own beings. Using theological language, the Holy One resides within us already.

Thus the prayer song “Sanctuary/Pitchi Li” redirects us from God outside and beyond, but rather to the Immanent Essence within. It reminds us that with regard to the Ein Sof (the mystical Presence that has no end), even our very bodies contain, and channel, the spiritual energy. We, who are created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), encompass within ourselves the holiness that exists everywhere. So wherever we go, we take our mishkan with us.

We need not focus on an external sanctuary because we are — or at least we can become — the sanctuary itself. It is our rediscovering of the holiness within, not bringing animal sacrifices to altars outside, that piques the interest of the Holy One. Then we will discover some answers: That immanence, not altars and animal sacrifices, may just be the essence of the Holy One.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Don't Lose Sleep... Stand Up and Walk!

We all lose sleep worrying about things.
For me, it's about
The health of my parents and inlaws
My kids' latest challenges
The illness facing a beloved member of our community

Fundamentally though I - like so many other American Jews - rest pretty easily because we know that as Americans, as Jews, and as human beings we are protected by the strength and democracy that is the United States. Most of us don't have to worry about being battered because of our religions. Being slammed because of our nationality. Being violated because of our gender.

Yet I have memories, vivid memories, of a different experience, born of stories told and shared about the horrors inflicted upon my European Jewish ancestors who, in the midst of World War II, were singled out for violence and murder. Just because they were Jews. And every time I read about the Holocaust or view a video or artifact from that time, I tremble with the burning question: why?

Why were humans so brutal and hate filled?
Why did newspapers, including the New York Times, so willing to bury truths abou the situation in the unread middle of the paper?
Why were American so silent in the face of Jewish suffering?

And I choke down the other, equally horrifying question:
Could it happen again?
To us?
To anyone?

Apparently hate is alive and well worldwide. 
According to Jewish World Watch, the Jewish community's hands-on leader in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities, in addition to the continuing deteriorating situations in the Sudan and in the Congo, 19 other countries worldwide are experiencing conflicts at high risk of escalating into genocide.

It is too easy to ignore what is happening. It is too easy to allow the baseless hatred to infiltrate across borders and through countries, murdering innocents for fun and political gain. Holocaust survivor and moral voice Elie Wiesel said that "the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." 

Na'ama Haviv, Assistant Director of Jewish World Watch, teaches that the opposite of hate is not love, but compassion. And boy, does the Or Ami community ever live with compassion! Thank you for all you do!

Would you make this vow with me?
Whenever I can, I will raise up my voice, and inconvenience myself, to endure that I can go to sleep worried about the first list and not survival of myself and my people.
Walk the Walk with Me
Join me on the Los Angeles Walk to End Genocide, sponsored by Jewish World Watch, on Sunday, April 27, 2014 at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm. Team Congregation Or Ami is putting together a huge delegation to again help lead the walk. Sign up today to walk, or if you cannot attend, sign up to to support our team.

Because the Shoah was atrocious.
Because genocide still rears it's ugly head in far off places like Sudan and the Congo.
Because never again needs to be more than a slogan. It needs to be a way of living. And
Because the opposite of love is not hate. It's indifference.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Get Naked

Cross posted on the Jewish Journal

You step out of the shower, towel off and stand before the mirror. It’s just you and your reflection … the naked truth. Your eye appraises without mercy. Under the bright lights, no imperfection can be concealed; no blemish disguised. Or …

It’s the morning after. Lights once dimmed now illuminate the room. In the light, there are no secrets. You bare yourself before your lover. Masks removed, the “physical you” awaits your lover’s judgment.

In these moments, we tremble. This is as vulnerable as it gets. Standing naked before the unforgiving eye, we worry about the verdict we know is coming. Anxiously we wonder: Am I enough or am I too much? Will he/she/I accept the unclothed me, or will I be rejected? Do I have a future with him/her/myself, or will I face the future hiding who I really am?

Clothing dresses us up but hides the naked truth beneath

In this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, Aaron, the Israelite Kohen Gadol (high priest), gets a stylish new set of clothing. Using only the best materials and colors available to the wilderness-dwelling Israelite community, the new priestly clothes ensure that Aaron appears strikingly handsome and powerful as he stands before the gathered Israelites. Having recently escaped from the drab drudgery of Egyptian servitude, the Israelite seamstresses now create a set of garments that arouse yirah and kavod (awe and respect). From this point forward, Israelite religion and its religious leadership present an image eliciting pride, pageantry and a sense of perfection.

Compared to the intricate design of Aaron’s Kohen costume, the regular Israelites are relatively naked. Sure, they have their own frocks, and some might even wear ones with some color and style, but in stark contrast to the Kohen Gadol, most Israelites are plain. Where Aaron dresses up for the Most High, the Israelites stand exposed before the Most Intimate One.

This is as it should be, because while clothing dresses us up, it only covers up the reality beneath.

Why detail Aaron’s divine duds?

Perhaps the detailed specifications and intricate design in Torah about Aaron’s clothing are designed with an ironic aspiration. Perhaps Torah wants to expose regular people — you and me — to reality: that even the fanciest clothing and impeccably matched accessories fail to dress up the most important part of ourselves. Every day, as we stand naked, exposed, we are forced to face reality. We need to figure out how to love our bodies, our souls and ourselves.

After the morning after

Some of us start the day worrying about which outfit to wear. Our time is better spent wondering how we will be received when we strip off our outer garments and stand before others. Without the clothing to conceal our faults and blemishes, we await our lover’s response and our own self-assessment. Am I enough or too much? Am I worthy? How must I change? Is there a future or …

We would do well to consider: Am I anxious about the verdict? Not happy with what I see? Plastic surgery cannot help here. Rather than cutting the skin, we need to reshape our soul. Instead of altering our physical shape, we do well to adjust aspects of our behavior and repair our relationships.

After the showers and the mornings after — in fact, at each moment of every day — we face a judging yet forgiving eye. We stand before the Holy One, who sees all and knows all.

It is time to clothe ourselves in holy living.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman of Baltimore, taught me recently the words of Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809-1879). Malbim reflects upon the detailed instructions given for building the Mishkan (the Tabernacle in the wilderness) and uses them to guide us toward the inner work we each need to do.

Sensing Torah’s desire to paint the Mishkan as more than a repository for sacrifices, Malbim understands Parshat Terumah to teach us to build a Mishkan within: “Each one of us needs to build a Tabernacle for God in the recesses of our hearts, by preparing oneself to become a Sanctuary for God and a place for the dwelling of God’s glory.”

So Get Naked and Discover

Clothes cover up the blemishes but holy living removes the anxiety of the nakedness we all bear. So even as you keep your clothes on, take a good look at your naked inner self. It is time to bare your soul and discover (recover?) the holiness and beauty within.