Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Many people who are interested in Judaism come seeking answers about what Judaism is or how to learn more about it. When someone has made the decision to become Jewish, they may know a lot of the FAQs and the logistics of Judaism. But how do you teach someone how to begin a Jewish journey? How to live a Jewish life? How to feel comfortable living a tradition that you have chosen?

That is why I am so excited about this program, Empowering Ruth. It is a free program brought to us by the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) and is aimed at women who have already converted to Judaism. It is open to the whole community and being taught at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills on Tuesday nights at 7:30 -

Come join us and discover the many paths and ways to be Jewish, both in your home and out in the world. Come learn new and exciting elements of Judaism with more in-depth study. Partner with other women in our community and around the country to begin having some deep and meaningful conversations about what it means to be a woman who has chosen Judaism.

If you or someone you know is interested, please contact me (Rabbi Elizabeth Wood) at rabbiwood@rtfh.org to learn more or sign up.

I look forward to seeing you there and learning more with you!

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Last year, at this time, I wrote a post about what it meant to me to be in NY for the first time, remembering 9/11. You can read it here.

This year, the significance of the day has blown me away. It has been a decade. Ten years since our nation, our world, changed. Ten years since I sat with friends and watched our TV screens as the news unfolded. Ten years since we rallied as a community to pray, to heal, to sort through the literal and figurative debris of the mess that was left behind from that tragic day.

On Friday night, we had a service commemorating 9/11. We read pieces from the URJ website, the RAC website, and our prayerbook, Mishkan Tefillah. Reverend Julie Taylor, the Executive Director of Disaster Chaplaincy Services in New York City, spoke to us about the impact of that day and the tremendous efforts that her organization provided in the aftermath. It was moving and painful, all at the same time, to relive so much of that day.

Today, Sunday, was the first day of Religious School. The building was bustling and hustling with the sound of excitement and laughter (a few sobs from some nervous or scared kids, to be expected) and the building was overflowing with people. It filled my heart to see so many familiar faces, so many new ones, and such excitement and joy. As always, we had a worship service at the end of the day, and we took a moment to talk about heros, honor and making our world a better place.

Detective Yvette Maldonado (MSW) a 2nd grade level det. was present during our service. Dressed in the uniform she wore on 9/11/01, she stood with our kids on the bimah as they led our service. She stood as we spoke of the many heros and the fallen victims of September 11th. She stood as we spoke of the beauty and honor in our world that can be born out of ugliness and tragedy. We are so proud of Detective Maldonado, our congregant and friend, who used her social work background and her professional training at the NYPD to support families and victims on that horrific day and during the days and months that followed. A true hero, in our midst. What a wonderfully affirming day for our religious school children, to see such a role model and such a strong woman who did so much for our community and for NYC.

This day, these past few days, have been so moving and so emotional. So I end with a prayer: I pray that these children begin today with a sense of awe, excitment, hope, and wonder. I pray that these children grow up in a time and place where their fears are the normal fears of childhood, and not the fears of the world around them. I pray that we adults can support and nurture these children to become independent, responsible, compassionate, productive, and kind adults. I pray that these children live in a world that knows beauty and peace.

May this be G-d's will.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Accidental Educator

It's no accident that I'm an educator. I've always wanted to be one.
When I was a teenager, I thought I wanted to be a professional Jewish educator - so I met with an HUC student at the time to talk through those possibilities. She told me I'd make a great rabbi - so I thought about that, instead.
When I was in college, I majored (for a brief period of time) in Secondary Education. I wanted to be a high school teacher in the humanities and social sciences. But then I heard rabbinical school calling, and my passion for Judaism and I switched to Jewish Studies and kept Political Science. I taught Sunday School, and led youth groups. There was no denying it - I loved to teach!
My first job out of rabbinical school was as an educator, running my own religious school. Surprisingly, or not, this job is much less about teaching and a lot more about administering to details and people. I loved what I did, but I also wanted to be teaching more.
As a rabbi, I get to teach all the time, which I love. But being an educator is about teaching through a pedagogical lens, no matter what the subject.

I consider myself very lucky. I work at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills as a Rabbi Educator. I don't run the religious school, but I certainly work very closely with our Educational Leader and our Education committees to help guide the program. I get to lead, teach, and contribute to the vision of not just what, but HOW, we teach our children and our community. I love that I get to combine all aspects of my rabbinate into a way that fits with the community I live and work in.

Over the last two weeks, I was living and teaching Judaism firsthand while serving on Faculty at URJ Camp Eisner in the Berkshires. I would teach kids from all over New England, the US, and elsewhere about the values of living and loving Judaism - ideas of holiness, of God, of ethics. Oftentimes we would sit out in the sun, or under the shade of a tree to engage in these lessons and discussions. But we also lived together Jewishly - praying each night together, celebrating Shabbat as one community, learning Hebrew and taking pride in what it means to be Jews.

My summer was capped off last week with a two day Summer Institute conference at the Jewish Education Project UJA/Federation here in New York. Our congregation is involved with an amazing initiative called LOMED, and this summer institute was such a great opportunity for us to reflect, learn, and reorganize our thinking about what is yet to come with this wonderful project and this great initiative. We are part of the Coalition of Innovating Congregations and it was amazing hearing about what so many amazing congregations are doing, educationally, for their students and their families. We heard from dynamic speakers like Ron Wolfson, David Bryfman, and Dr. Rob Weinberg.

I love being in Education. Being a rabbi, or "teacher", allows me to explore Judaism through an educational lens. It is no accident that I am an educator and no coincidence that I became a Rabbi. After all, I get to combine those things which I am most passionate about. What are you passionate about?? What are you passionate about learning????

Friday, June 24, 2011

Summer camp: Memories of a lifetime

All I can think about, lately, is summer camp! It's that time of year when all the camps are starting up and I am reminded of my own experiences as a camper, staff member, senior staff member, and thinking ahead to my work this summer as faculty.

When I was 8 my parents sent me and my brother to Camp Young Judea in Waupaca, WI. It was my very first summer camp experience. And I LOVED it!!! I loved it so much that I had two friends come back with me the next summer. But soon after that, we stopped going to camp for various reasons.

Then, one summer, a good friend of mine from home (the same who attended camp with me that second summer at CYJ) wrote to me about all this fun she was having at Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Indianapolis, IN. Thank you, Becky Emery, for changing my life forever.

Over the next decade, I spent my summers at my "home away from home." I was a camper for two years, an avodahnik (someone who works around camp before entering college), a counselor, a specialist, a programmer, a driver, assistant head counselor and a unit head. It was here that I learned to be myself. It was here that I learned how to be responsible for myself and others and live in community. It was here that I learned to sing and pray and love God and Judaism and my own Jewish self. It was here that I connected with lifelong friends, rabbinical students and rabbis that would help lead and guide me on my own path to the rabbinate. It was here that many parts of my own identity were shaped and formed. There was a magic and power to it all.

Yesterday, I spent the day at Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA teaching the new summer staff various texts and exploring real-life questions and issues with them, in preparation for their summer ahead. It made me so excited to know that all of this magic was developing and happening at camps around the country this summer for future generations. I wish I could have stayed longer than one day - it wasn't enough! But I feel so grateful for the opportunity to be back up there later this summer for two weeks to work on faculty, advising a unit and teaching mini-courses, and spend time with kids from all over the country (including many from our very own congregation).

So I spent today writing letters to various staff members and kids around the country who are at different Jewish summer camps. Getting mail at camp is one of the most exciting things! And it makes me feel connected to them and to the various programs that are running right now. I also spent today reflecting on the huge role that camp has played in my life: yesterday, today, and how it will unfold tomorrow.

My brother never really loved camp. He couldn't understand why my parents (who themselves were campers and staff at various places in NY in the 1960's and 1970's) would send me there. Just for fun? Maybe. To get me out of the house? Perhaps. To meet new friends? Sure.
But I am here to tell you that summer camp changed my life and who I am forever in countless ways. It is an integral part of who I am as a professional, as a Jew, and as a human being.

Enjoy your summer, wherever you may be!!!!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shavuot: The day I received Torah from my ancestors

A few weeks ago, my grandmother called me. "Ketzelah" (Yiddish for "kitten" - my grandmother's nickname for me), she said. "Have you received a package yet?" "No," I replied. "Well, our family historian, the one who had the Chanukkiah that our family carried all the way from Russia and you received a few years ago...she has another treat for you. It's a prayerbook, from Vienna in the 1840's. Her aunt's brother-in-law was traveling during World War I and he found this prayerbook with an inscription on it to the same name as their last name. He brought it home with him and cared for it. Now, she wants you to have it." "Really?" I said. "That's incredible. I'm so honored. But, what am I supposed to do with it?" "Well, you can use it, and care for it, and perhaps one day pass it on, as well."

Today is Shavuot. Today marks the end of the counting of the Omer - the time between redemption (from Exodus) and revelation when we were giving the Torah from God. And Torah is our sacred gift - the special gift of the Jews. We receive Torah every Shavuot as if we were standing on Mt. Sinai - and it is our responsibility to pass it from generation to generation - to transmit that sacred gift for future generations.

When I got home this afternoon, a box was sitting waiting for me. It was so highly packaged that it took me ten minutes to even get into it. And for good reason. When I opened the padded box and unwrapped the acid-free paper, there was the most beautiful prayerbook I'd ever seen. The back and spine, covered in ivory. The front, ornately decorated. And right in the middle of the cover are the tablets of the Ten Commandments. This is no coincidence.

I undid the clasp and carefully turned the pages, worn with time and use. On the front was an inscription in Yiddish (with a translation):

I wish you my dear child that you should in the ______ of the far west have good luck.
From me your loved mother who wishes you luck and good mazel.
Family Name

I began to weep. Certainly, I am not worthy of such a gift of Torah. This prayerbook, which was born in Vienna in 1847, has traveled through time and space to end up in my little apartment in Queens. It has been through wars, through homes, through hands, spoken by my relatives lips, as they uttered the prayers of our ancient people. No, I am not worthy.

And then it hit me. Today is Shavuot. Today is the day upon which we receive Torah - the transmission of gifts of wisdom and Judaism from our ancestors. Today, we all stand at Mt. Sinai, trembling, feeling doubt and scared and unworthy to receive these gifts, these blessings which we are given. It took 164 years for this prayerbook to reach me, but now it has found it's home - in my home and in my heart, and in the continued tradition of my family.

It is my responsibility to accept this piece of Torah, this piece of wisdom, to care for it and to love it and to make sure that future generations know its worth and its beauty.

Ken Y'hi Ratzon - May this be God's will.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Happy 50th RAC - Consultation on Conscience

I don't know if you've heard, but DC was THE place to be this last week!
No, I'm not talking about the reaction to Osama Bin Laden's death (although there was much going on related to that). I'm talking about the 50 year celebration of the Religious Action Center and the flagship Consultation on Conscience conference.

In case you don't know, the Religious Action Center (RAC) is the hub of social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C. which educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on social concerns. (Read more here). The Consultation on Conscience is the flagship social justice event that brings together Jewish and public policy decision makers to discuss and report on vital issues, concerns, injustices, and events that are important in our Jewish lives and in our lives as Americans.

The conference was tremendously invigorating! I heard speakers ranging on issues of advocacy, civil rights, genocide issues, Israeli and Middle East politics, Planned Parenthood representatives and much more. It was a great chance to hear these speakers engaging our community, listening to our questions and thoughts, to meet other like-minded people with genuine concern for public and social policies, and to connect. Here are just a few highlights:

In my previous blog post, I talked about the importance of environmental justice in New Orleans and in our world. And, wouldn't you know it, Al Gore was our keynote speaker. He was engaging and entertaining, passionate and thoughtful. He spoke of the pure science of what we're doing to our environment - that it cannot be refuted - and how we need to be able to look our children and our children's children in the eye and tell them that we listened, we cared, and we took action to do all we could in order to stop damaging our world.

During one of the Forums, I sat in on a session about Advocacy in Jewish texts. Rabbi Jan Katzew, PhD, director of Lifelong Jewish Learning at the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke about the steps it takes to change someone's attitude into behavior that ultimately changes their character into caring more about social issues in our world. These values, he asserts, are ALL OVER our Jewish texts and we spent much of our time together delving into these sources, debating the importance of being a vocal advocate in our world, and our obligation as Jews to speak out.

I think the highlight of my conference experience was the final day of the conference that took place at the historic Sixth & I congregation. All day long, we heard speakers talk about issues near and dear to their hearts, like Senator Carl Levin on LGBT equality and Representative Rosa DeLauro on women's rights. I was CAPTIVATED by Sister Helen Prejean and her account of working with a death row inmate (made famous by the Susan Sarandon movie Dead Man Walking) that led her to be an ardent supporter of abolishing the death penalty. She combined spirituality, humanity, religion, and public policy. I cried, twice, listening to her story, her passion, and her dedication all from an encounter with another human being.

If you don't know about the RAC or the Consultation, you know a little more now. If you hadn't considered getting involved in these organizations or attending these types of conferences, I urge you to reconsider - they are always inspiring, worthwhile, and engaging. And if you sit by, idly, thinking little of the social injustices in our world and what they may have to do with you as a Jew or as a human being, I beg you to start opening your eyes.

Human rights issues, social issues, economic issues - they are all around us every day. It might be easier to turn away and focus on ourselves, but in that ease comes hardship for others. If you have the ability to help, even in the smallest way, do it. Make a contribution. Take time to educate yourself. Volunteer. Advocate. Challenge. Make a difference in the world we live in and the world we will leave to others.
Lo alecha ham'lacha ligmor v'lo atah ben horin l'hibatil mimena
It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to ignore it
(Pirke Avot 2:21)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Prophetic Justice in NOLA

Spillway Nature Trail Bayou

During our 4th grade Family Education session this last week at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills we were discussing the various characteristics of what makes someone like a prophet. The words inspiration, guidance, spokesperson, and leader all flew around our heads. But the one way to characterize a prophet which everyone agreed on was “seeker of justice.”

And I could not have agreed more – especially after my recent trip to New Orleans for the annual Central Conference of America Rabbis Convention which focused on the “Prophetic Voice in the 21st Century.” While many of the sessions were stimulating, engaging, and thought-provoking none of them compared to an elective day-long field trip that I took about Environmental Justice in the greater New Orleans area. This trip was organized and led by the Religious Action Center (RAC) and featured various organizations around New Orleans that are working to bring justice to many of the environmental calamities that have occurred in recent times.

Take, for instance, the community of Norco, just 25 miles west of New Orleans. Formerly a plantation/slave community, many of its inhabitants have resided there for generations, too poor to be able to move in search of better opportunity. When a chemical plant popped up LITERALLY across the street from their homes, the health conditions that arose from the proximity of living near all those chemicals were atrocious – cancer, skin disorders, etc. Thankfully, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade is a grassroots non-profit organization that works with these fenceline communities (homes literally across the fence from these plants and refineries) in their campaigns to make industry accountable for its pollution and to work on moving these communities to areas with healthier air, cleaner water and a better living situation for their families and children.

Then, there is the issue of bayou depletion. While many of us might empathize or bemoan the loss of natural plants, animals, and wetlands, I don't know of anyone on the tour who wasn't shocked to hear that all of this CONTRIBUTED to the horrific damage done to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Coastal regions naturally expect water and hurricanes to occur and the land is mostly prepared for that. But when humans come in and start depleting these natural resources, it only makes sense that during a catastrophic natural event, nature was unprepared to deal with the consequences of our actions. Bayou Rebirth is working hard to educate people on the importance of maintaining a natural environment, as well as actively learning how to plant and rebuild these areas.

Our day ended with a trip to East New Orleans. The large Vietnamese community there was greatly effected by Katrina and we toured the community with Daniel Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporation which works to educate about the devastation of homes and businesses after Katrina, as well as providing resources to those members still living there.

Finally, chef Susan Spicer of Mondo Restaurant invited us to join her and process what we had seen that day. She spoke to us of the effect of all of these environmental injustices (Katrina, the BP oil spill, etc) on the food and restaurant industry -unlike many chefs and owners who decided to leave in pursuit of greater opportunity elsewhere, she stayed in the community as an activist and promoter of New Orleans food industry. And, of course, we sampled her delicious food – the Cajun pizza was my favorite!

While processing, each one of us went around the room and used one word to describe what they day meant for us. While I cannot remember what everyone else said, I know that I agreed with them all - overwhelmed, enlightened, enraged, hopeful. My word was helpless.

The day left me feeling helpless that I hadn't known about these injustices and that I hadn't done anything to educate myself or others on these important communal issues. We talked about what it means to be prepared for disasters or environmental injustice and how we can begin to educate ourselves and take actions on the issues facing our own communities, as diverse as they are.

I applaud these prophetic organizations – they are seeking justice for those who are unable to do so themselves. They are standing up when no one else is listening and say – yes, there is still work to be done, but we can do it if we stand together and work hard and commit to our cause.

I applaud the RAC for offering a real hands-on experience for Rabbis and families at this convention to see modern-day prophets in actions. It was hard to leave many of my colleagues, the hotel and the sessions taking place that day, to leave the comfort of convenience and the world I knew.

But that trip transformed something inside of me. No longer can I be complacent about injustices within the environment or within my community. No longer can I be upset in the moment and then look the other way. No longer can I ignore my responsibility as a Rabbi and as a human being to pursue truth and seek justice in this world. It is my turn to speak up, to speak out, and to educate the world – which is still in desperate need of our attention and our repair.

Shenatan lanu hizdamnut l'takein et ha-olam: Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who has given us the opportunity to mend the world.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thanks for the memories #CCAR11

@FrumeSarah, @jazzrabbi, @imabima, @lizwood1982 tweeting at the convention

There are two things you MUST know about me at the outset of this post:
1) I am a joiner
2) I like people. I'm a people person.

So you can imagine how spectacular a five day long rabbinical convention is for someone like me. Connecting and reconnecting with colleagues on a professional and social level, interesting and stimulating programs and sessions, meaningful worship experiences, rejuvenation and renewal. It was exhausting and overwhelming and energizing, all at the same time. It is ALMOST too much to process. So I've provided a list for you of my TOP TEN moments at the 2011 Central Conference of American Rabbis Convention in New Orleans:

10) T'fillah - imagine in a grand ballroom with hundreds of your closest colleagues, raising your voice as one in prayer. Pretty spectacular!
9) Session on Congregational engagement - there's a neuroscience behind how people adapt to change and how we more easily help people break free of comfortable and predictable patters to innovate. VERY COOL!
8) NEW ORLEANS - Our opening keynote speaker Scott Cowan, President of Tulane University, spoke of the history and resiliency of New Orleans. What an incredible city. Not to mention all the amazing food and culture. Beignets at Cafe Du Monde, Etouffee at Cafe Bon Temp, Riverwalk restaurants on the Mississippi River....okay, maybe just the food!
7) Seeing old friends and reliving memories together. There is NOTHING like remembering inside jokes and stories from years gone by and laughing harder than you ever thought possible. It is the best!
6) Meaningful dialog with colleagues. Whether in a session, a momentary soundbite, or a meaningful hour-long discussion, these are the ways in which we process all the things we do in our jobs, our lives, and our Jewish movement. Invaluable.
5) The Women's Rabbinic Network dinner - an organization near and dear to my heart that promotes and upholds the distinct issues that women face and address as rabbis. It is uplifting and affirming, always.
4) Jazz on Bourbon Street - let's face it, you cannot go to NOLA without heading to Bourbon street and hearing some great music. The moment that Dixieland brass starts playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" you cannot help but get up and dance and sing!!! I know, I did :)
3) TECHNOLOGY - This is a biggie! From the CCAR smart phone app to visual t'fillah, to tweeting, blogging, texting, and more. Never in my life have I understood the importance of technology more than when I made such INSTANT connections with the colleagues that I've gotten to know well online (and not previously in person).
2) Environmental Justice Tour - I was hesitant to spend the majority of one of the days away from the hotel sessions, but this trip was unbelievable. I learned all about the injustices that the greater NOLA community faces (bayou depletion, fence-line communities, effects of Katrina, etc) and the organizations that work to rectify these issues. *Next blog post to follow on this most important learning experience*
1) Networking - This one is so important to me. I love people (see above) and to get the chance to learn with, meet, and connect with colleagues and friends throughout the country is hugely important to how we build communities, bounce around and share ideas, and support one another. Old and new connections are made and remade. Old and new experiences are lived and relived. I am so blessed to love what I do, to love those with whom I do it, and to be reminded of just how very lucky I am to do this sacred work and to share it with my professional community, my congregational community, and the Jewish world.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why a Blog?

In this world of e-mails, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, one might ask - why blog? If you want to let people know what you're doing, tweet about it. If you want to share pictures, links, articles, and notes, post them to your Facebook page - which is much like having a personal webpage that is constantly being accessed by all your friends. And if you don't want everything to be so public, but you need to get information out, e-mail is the answer! So, again, why blog?

I have to admit one thing - I've always thought that blogging is somewhat self-indulgent. Only a narcissistic ego-maniac could possibly imagine that everyone on the Internet would want to hear about what they think. But then someone pointed out to me that people are already doing that through other social media sites - constantly sharing their beliefs, their thoughts...even what they ate for breakfast. I had oatmeal and carrot juice, if you're curious.

But a blog (a shortened version of the word "weblog") is a unique chance for people to access more than a twitter post of 140 characters, more than a status update, and more than a personal email. It is a chance to really dig deeper into an issue, develop some points, and come away with some new and interesting information, hopefully. Recently, I took place in the CCAR's webinar on technology and the rabbinate, which was excellent, and they discussed the ideas of social sermons, outreach, and tools for engagement. That's when it hit me. Social media is a tool for having casual conversations with our "congregants" and the like. It's a way to get information out there, let people know what's going on, and reach greater audiences than ever imaginable. Blogging is much like sermonizing - only with the potential to reach a far greater audience than the people sitting in the pews.

And, you know what? It's really caught on! One of my dearest friends, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, was one of the first Jewish professionals to really get into the blogging world several years ago when it was just catching on. People didn't always understand what she was doing, but she did it anyway. And now, she's well-known for her technological and blogging skills on Judaism and parenting (two issues on which she's quite experienced and knowledgeable!) My good friend, Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, was recently featured in the Huffington Post for his blog "Are Rational Religious People all that Rare?" And the URJ features a fantastic blog with contributions from Jewish professionals, layleaders, clergy, and the like. Their subjects run the gamut of Israel, ritual and worship, interfaith issues, food, news, and living as Jews in the 21st century.

There are synagogues that blog. We have congregants that blog. And you have a rabbi that blogs. There are blogs on Judaism. There are blogs on shopping. There are blogs on music. There are blogs on every subject imaginable if you search for it. Clearly, it's a social medium that is popular, that is ubiquitous, and effective.

Why blog? Because in this age of information distribution and consumption, the blog is one of the most necessary tools in social media, and perhaps, in our engagement with others.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What's Judaism got to do with it?

A few months ago, I posted about Halloween and Judaism. This post elicited a lot of strong reactions about whether or not we, as Jews, should be addressing the celebration of non-religious holidays in our Jewish lives.
Well, here I go again...

Imagine, if you will, a late winter Wednesday religious school classroom, circa early 1990's. February 14th. The long dark brown conference tables have been pushed together across the linoleum floor to create a unified desk amidst the backdrop of yellow painted walls, chalkboards, and bulletin strips. A handful of students are waiting for the rabbi to come and join them to begin that day's lesson. One of the students pulls out her binder and opens it up, handing out Valentine's Day cards to everyone in the classroom. She keeps one in the binder, waiting to give it to the rabbi. "What are you doing?" one student shouts, "You can't give these out in Hebrew school." "Why not? I brought enough for everyone," the student replies as she looks dejectedly at her home-computer-printed cards. "Because, it's a Christian holiday. St. Valentine was Catholic. And we're Jewish!" The girl who brought the Valentines looks as though she is about to cry. The rabbi suddenly walk in to start class. The rabbi never received a Valentine's Day card that day from that girl who had worked so hard to include everyone.

I tell you this story because it left an imprint on my mind. I wasn't any of the major characters, but I sure was there and I witnessed it. And, for years, it left an imprint on me about how we, as Jews, deal with a secular holiday named after a Catholic Saint. If we don't address this issue, perhaps we aren't addressing the questions that many adults have about this type of situation, or how we deal with it when our children come home asking questions.

In modern, American, society, Valentine's Day is a day about love. Tell those whom you love how very much they mean to you, how important they are in your life, and how much you care about them. Certainly this is a Jewish concept - love your neighbor as yourself, honor they mother and father (which we do through loving them), performing acts of gimilut hasadim (lovingkindness). Christianity isn't the only religion that has the market on love - we Jews embrace it! Because love is not about what religion you believe in, how you celebrate a particular holiday, or what's acceptable or not. It's a human emotion.

So, how do we deal with a holiday that is named after a Catholic Saint, been secularized by card companies and flower shops, and still fit it into our Jewish world? We do what we always do - we embrace it!
Spend a minute or two and go to "My Jewish Learning" to learn what they have to say about celebrating it as a Jew. Or, go out there and have fun. Enjoy the day with your loved ones. Many dating sites and organizations (even for Jews) have speed-dating events, get-togethers and parties that night. Or, if you want to educate your children and families, start focusing on Tu B'Av (the Israeli day of love) that occurs during the summer. Start your planning early. The "Jewish Family Fun Book" is a great resource for thinking of creative ways to celebrate love.

Whatever you do - whether you link it to your Judaism or not, whether your question it's place in your life (either as a secular observer or as a committed Jew), or whether you use it as a day just to indulge in chocolate - be sure to remember that it's all about the love. And that value is one we can practice every day!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What's your story?


Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has stories they like to hear. How blessed we are, in the Jewish tradition, to be able to openly embrace our stories and make room for other stories to be told.

Stories come in all different packages and with all different labels. Some are stories we tell around a campfire. Some take place at bedtime. Some are stories we hear from our relatives, friends, neighbors, teachers and rabbis. Others are stories we read in books, magazines, or online. Sometimes we create stories in a class, or on our own and we share new ideas and new concepts with the world in great detail.

In Jewish tradition, we have a Book of Legends (Sefer ha-Aggadah) that come from our Midrashic and Talmudic traditions. Rabbis created Midrashim, or stories, to be able to better understand holy scripture in a way that made sense for their world. Torah text is sacred, and Midrashim gave these Rabbis the chance to try and understand many of the perplexing and challenging issues surrounding our sacred texts. The stories they told were holy and thus became a part of our own holy tradition.

I love telling stories. Whether in a sermon, at a family service, during a holiday, while teaching, or even informally, I find that stories have a means of engagement that go far beyond listing facts and figures. Stories weave together details, fantastical elements, moments of suspense and anticipation to create lessons - - or even just to entertain us. And EVERYONE loves a good story, whether young or old, learned or not, stories captivate our attention and stay with us.

More so, each one of us has a story to tell. Our lives may not be as fantastical as the stories we hear, or read, but they are OUR stories, nonetheless. And these stories are just as holy and sacred as our ancient texts.

As we approach this Shabbat, and pause to reflect on our lives (where we've been this week, where we're going), I urge you to think about your own personal narrative. What have you seen, experienced, learned, gained? What do you hope to add to that winding path that will eventually be the fabric of your tale? What is your story and what would you like to tell this world?

Monday, January 10, 2011

A deep, profound loss for the whole Jewish world

I realized something VERY important when I first began my friendship with Debbie Friedman. I realized that she was iconic. Not because she cultivated herself into an icon, or because she prided herself on her multitude of accomplishments. But because she lived deeply.
And out of that depth came a profound love of Judaism, music, and creativity. Her accomplishments made her iconic because she changed the world of Judaism and how people lived in it. She brought them out of themselves to connect to a greater community by singing, praying, and worshiping together in music they could relate to. She was unafraid to infuse Judaism with her own love of folk and guitar music - and the Reform Jewish world over the last 25 years is so grateful to her for that courage.

On Sunday morning, Debbie Friedman died, and I have been trying to get a grip on the many emotions that it is producing both within me and around me. I am deeply saddened to have lost the friend that I really got to know a few years ago. I am reliving my precious memories of her, sometimes crying and often laughing to myself.

But more than my own personal memories and feelings, I am astounded by the outpouring of emotion that her death has caused. I see it on Twitter, on Facebook, on blog posts, in articles. Whether or not people knew her personally, in passing, or were simply touched by her music, her legacy is everywhere in this Jewish world. The URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) is collecting tribute submissions on their homepage. Her funeral service will be streamed live on Tuesday morning. And NPR did a segment on her this evening, including some of her music.

Debbie was an inspiration for me musically, but also personally. She once commended me on singing her "Halleluyah" at a service she was at, commenting how hard it is for people to perform in front of composers. "That took guts - but you nailed it." As I developed a friendship with her, she would so often hear about my desire to pursue Jewish music and she would say to me, almost annoyed, "So what's holding you back? Do it already. If you love something, don't throw it away..."

Debbie, for me personally, inspires me to live courageously, to live fully, to love my music and Judaism, and my spirit all in the same breath. To thousands that have known her or heard her music, she allows us to live deeply, and to be courageous with ourselves. She changed the picture of Jewish music and really the face of Judaism in the latter half of the 20th century. And she will continue to live on in our hearts, our memories, our voices, and our breath.

"You are gentle, you are kind. And you may not know this, but it's you...."

Thursday, January 6, 2011

To pray

I woke up today with two thoughts in my head:
1) Why do we pray "for" something when we can literally try to *pray* something?
2) If life is all about the big picture, why do we focus so much on the details? How do we find a good balance?

I lay in bed this morning (the luxury of being on vacation) for about an hour thinking over these two things.
I meditated about the things that I want to actively pray - goodness, kindness, love, empathy, compassion, justice, health, peace. I want to pray, rather than pray for, so that the way I act in this world is felt rather than heard. Perhaps prayer does not require us to focus or direct our attention somewhere, but rather to be something, to transform ourselves into the best part of who we can be.

I also took time to think about the details. Sure, my head was swirling with the details of work that I must attend to in the next few days when I get back from vacation. But I also thought over the details of my life. I thought about my own personal resolution this year that has much more to do with who I am internally and the way I treat myself rather than some superficial promise. It's about improving who I am and the way I feel about my existence in the world. And I realized that this bigger picture begins with the details of my life.

As I got out of bed and checked my email, I found an evaluation from a master's class vocal performance. And NOTHING says details like an evaluation from a music school about your every sound, your every letter, your every breath. It was wonderful. The pieces I sang were great, but there were improvements that could be made in the details. There always are.

So, too, do we have lives made up of details that create a bigger picture of who we are, who we strive to be, how we choose to live. This morning, I pray love and understanding, knowledge and acceptance of the details in our lives as they transform who we are to who we will be.