Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, May 12, 2022
In this Moment, May 12 - The Greatest Shul on Earth; Scenes from a Marriage I and II
In This Moment
Scenes from a Marriage I
Who needs Ingmar Bergman when our seventh grade classes have been celebrating Jewish marriage for a decade and a half! Year after year, classes have worked tirelessly to prepare their mock wedding ceremonies as part of the grade's innovative Jewish lifecycle curriculum, which was first developed in 2008 by educational director Eran Vaisben, along with Mara Hammerman. This year's class celebrated its mock wedding last Sunday. We did the class bris during the winter, the World Wide Wrap (the B'nai Mitzvah unit) a couple of weeks ago, and for their final lifecycle unit, on death, they will be visiting the cemetery next week. Despite all the challenges of this hybrid year, we got through the entire lifecycle. Birth, B'nai Mitzvah and death are all important, but the wedding always brings out their best! You can see below the lovely ketuba and huppah that the students prepared for last week's ceremony.
Each year, the class discusses the wedding customs in great detail and decides how to stamp their own mark on the proceedings. In a nod to to our commitment to egalitarianism, this year's students decided to have the bride and groom each break their own glass, simultaneously.
If you want to take a trip down memory lane, here's our collection of current and past 7th grade lifecycle albums. Somehow 2009-2010 has gotten lost in the shuffle - if you have any photos from that year, please send them my way.
Someone asked me recently if any of the couples from prior years' class weddings have ever gotten married in real life. As the great 20th century theologian Franz Rosenzweig replied when asked about whether he puts on tefillin every day:
Just so no one can accuse our services as being run like a circus, we have installed our own Big Top. Now we can truly be the "Greatest Shul on Earth." A floor has been put down, wi-fi access strengthened, sound systems prepared - and plans are for the TBE Ohel to be fully operational within a couple of weeks. In Hebrew, "Ohel" means tent, and a whole lot more.
[W]hen Israelis greet one another on the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, it is not shalom or a longer variation of it, but rather the colloquial "ahalan" that is most often heard. Ahalan, borrowed directly from Arabic, comes from ahal, one of many words for "family." (The cognate Hebrew word, ohel, means "tent," that is a place where a family lived.) What better greeting could be offered to a weary desert traveler than to be welcomed into the protective shade of a tent or the warm company of family. Indeed, Abraham is known for his generosity in welcoming strangers into his family tent. And though tents are now rare in Israel, the cordial greeting pays homage to a form of ancient hospitality. Some speakers add wasahlan, "and to the plain," perhaps contrasting with, say, rocky mountains, and therefore alluding to a place of comfort. A loose translation of the pair might be, "make yourself at home" and "make yourself comfortable. Klein writes that ohel is "usually connected with but probably not related to Arabic 'ahl (= relatives, kin, kinsfolk, adherents, inhabitants, people)."
So a tent is all about hospitality, comfort, family and warmth (and I suspect it will be pretty warm in ours at times), all qualities that we seek to bring into everything we do, particularly services. I'm especially excited that we will be able to have a number of our hybrid Shabbat services there during the coming months, so that we can gather with the safety that outdoor ventilation brings. We'll continue to use other venues for services as well, including the sanctuary, and when the weather is nice, our cozy outdoor spot on the other side of the sanctuary windows. The goal is always to pray with feeling -Kavvanah - which literally means intent. So we'll pray in-tent (and sometimes out-of-tent) with intent. But with the breeze of outdoor ventilation, our intentional, in-tent praying does not need to be so intense, so filled with anxiety as so many indoor gatherings are now, with Covid rates moving upward again.
The family and friends of Alan Kalter, as well as others who participated in the paddle raise, helped to make this possible, and in doing so, will keep us safer and possibly save lives. But whether or not lives are ultimately saved, doing all we can for safety's sake affirms the Jewish value of protecting those whom we love. In the topsy turvy world we live in, we can now find some comfort under the Big Top.
Veteran journalist Debra Nussbaum Cohen wrote a lengthy update in the Forward this week on how Conservative leaders are dealing with the tricky topic of intermarriage, in light of the movement's longstanding ban on rabbis' officiation. A number of rabbis are quoted in the piece, spanning a wide variety of viewpoints. The matter has been long since resolved in both Reform and Orthodoxy; but one of the great assets of Conservative Judaism is its desire to forge consensus through dialectic. There is always tension between tradition and change, and that tension is what fuels the movement's creative energy.
Can the center hold? And more to the point, should it, at least on this issue? Holding the line against performing intermarriages has been a contributing factor in the shrinking of the movement. Is a leaner - and some might say meaner - Conservative Judaism a good thing?
Nussbaum Cohen writes:
Rabbis on either side of the debate say its outcome will be consequential for the Conservative movement, which represents about 20% of American Jews, and is shrinking. Those who want to lift the ban say it alienates Jews who want to intermarry, pushing them to other movements where rabbis are free to officiate at these weddings — or away from Judaism altogether. Others maintain that lifting the prohibition would signal that Jews are free to bend Judaism to fit personal preferences, and result in a weakened commitment to Jewish life. And what meaningful distinction between Reform and Conservative Judaism will remain, others ask, if Conservative rabbis do not draw the line at interfaith marriage?
“The number of rabbis grappling with it is growing,” said Keren McGinity, who was hired by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the congregational arm of the movement, to serve as its part-time interfaith specialist in 2020. This year, her position was made full time.
The article shows that there has been considerable movement toward leniency over the past several years and that the time has come for a more intense conversation, which could lead to more dramatic change. The 2020 Pew Research Center’s surveyof the American Jewish community found that 61 percent of Jews married since 2010 wed non-Jews. We can't just dismiss out of hand nearly two thirds of the Jewish population - and a much higher percentage of the non-Orthodox population.
Our congregation continues to refine our vision, defining who we are and where we stand on the denominational spectrum. At TBE, we've always been on the more inclusive side of Conservative Judaism, and in recent years we have gone out of our way to welcome dual faith households, in ritual and worship and in our bylaws. We offer free membership for a year to all newlyweds, including those where one spouse is not Jewish. We offer special blessings for dual-faith couples here at the temple and worked closely with groups like 18 Doors,which provides guidance to couples and families.
For a wedding a few weeks ago, I wrote a congratulatory message that was read to the couple under the huppah. How could I not? I've known the bride since she was a child. In fact, the couple even used my father's portable huppah, which I've discussed in this context before. A few days later, I worked with another TBE-related interfaith couple about to be married, to develop their ceremony. It was a wonderful - and hopefully helpful - conversation.
Still, I've also had to deliver heartbreaking news to couples who have asked for my direct participation in their ceremony, and I've not been able to cross that line - a line that would likely result in my expulsion from the Rabbinical Assembly. I'm not prepared to leave the Movement.
In the end, for the most part, those who grew up here know that they will never be rejected by their home congregation and rabbi, even if I can't perform the wedding. Most understand that 20 minutes under a huppah cannot outweigh decades of unconditional love and support both before and after the wedding day.
The USCJ has had its own issues over the years, and TBE's departure from it years ago was justifiable. We've done just fine carving out our own identity - our niche in the local and national Jewish spectrum - with our unique approach to prayer and focus on cutting-edge traditional music. But it always helps to have a national movement to fall back on. And through my association with the Rabbinical Assembly, we have that. I'm not willing to let that go.
There are lots of wonderful things about Conservative Judaism, though I'm not crazy about the name and it can be a little wishy washy at times (OK, all the time). But it challenges us to be the adults in the room, to be thinking beings who take Judaism seriously and are willing to grapple with tough questions. We take tradition seriously; it anchors us, immersing us in authenticity, linking us to ancient stories and ethics - to Israel and to our eternal Hebrew language.
There are so many ways that Conservative Judaism is the right choice for today, embracing change and justice, while keeping Torah as our GPS - I'm not willing to give that up. Nor am I willing to be the reason TBE gives it up. With a nod to Women's League and Federation of Men's Clubs, it is really through its rabbi and cantor that TBE is bound to the Conservative Movement.
TBE is embarking on an important process of strategic planning. We need to. Our "2020 Plan," devised in 2012, expired two and a half years ago. The world has changed quite a bit even since 2020, all the more since 2012. But one thing that will certainly stay at the core of any updated plan that emerges, is the way we welcome the "stranger" into our tent. Now we even have the tent to prove it. How that spirit of inclusiveness aligns with our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves - a movement - has yet to be determined.
The ADL’s Crazily Irresponsible Crusade Against anti-Zionism - Is the ADL bending over backwards too far in its recent equating of anti-Zionism on the left with white supremacist antisemitism on the right?The arguments below have validity, but during a week after the Harvard Crimson endorsed BDS it is easy to understand why the ADL felt the need to make an adjustment to refocus on the dangers coming from the left. The authors write: By erroneously equating left-wing human rights activism to the powerful and fast-mounting threat of anti-democratic authoritarianism on the Right, Greenblatt and the ADL are actually helping to shift the focus on antisemitism away from where it belongs, undermining the much-needed concerted effort to protect the imperiled foundations of multiracial democracy in the U.S.
Pregnant women in America and Israel face starkly different choices – The Forward - America is the worst place in the Western world to be a mother. If Roe falls, millions of American women will have this broken system forced upon them. A better way for families is not an impossible dream — it’s what your Israeli cousins and colleagues live with everyday. Compared to Israeli policy, and the policy of every other wealthy country in the world, American policy is staunchly anti-family and anti-Mom.