Balancing Zeal and Vision in a World in Need of Healing

a d’var Torah for Parashat Pinchas by Esther Azar
Zeal — In this day many of us are fired up. It is easy to see the injustice. It shouts at us every time we open our Facebook feeds, it’s red face looks up at us from the newspapers at our feet. We march, we sing, we chant. We scream out in agony demanding change.

A while back I marched for Black Lives Matter. Walking amongst colleagues and friends, I felt a pain in the pit of my stomach. I wished for silence on those Manhattan streets, the blurred lights of the city mixing with my angst as those around me chanted, “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, these racist cops have got to go!” Standing at the intersection of activists and police officers, I suddenly understood my discomfort. My words rose to the surface as I turned to the person standing next to me. “What are we doing chanting at the men and women tasked with changing in this racist world? Our words of anger will not bring the change we need. Is alienating those that stand in their fear the way to help them see, or are we blinding them further?”At the very end of last week’s parashah [Balak], the bible’s zealous archetype, Pinchas, sees unlawful and unholy behavior dangerous to the community and acts, publicly slaughtering the Israelite man Zimri and the Midianite woman Cosbi as they consort before the Tent of Meeting. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) teaches that the angels ask God to punish Pinchas. Our rabbis also insist on a very narrow application of the zealotry displayed by Pinchas in his vigilante justice-seeking (Sanhedrin 72a). The Ishbitzer Rebbe, Mordechai Yosef Leiner (early 19th Century), explains that Pinchas, as a good student of Torah, knew that Zimri’s actions were so grave they demanded death. What he didn’t know was that Cosbi and Zimri were, in fact, soulmates. Zimri’s actions were in the name of heaven, and that is why Moshe himself did not stop them. Pinchas’ limited vision only allowed him to see one aspect of the situation. God understood that Pinchas’ actions come from a limited human understanding of justice, a binary thinking, and God honored this innocence and chose not to punish him.Our rabbis teach (e.g., Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer ch. 28 & 47) that Pinchas becomes Elijah the Prophet, who was also renowned for his zeal, but we might wonder how one who acted so questionably could bring a messianic age. God recognizes Pinchas’ limitations and his innocent conviction, and rather than punish him, God offers him a Brit Shalom, a covenant of wholeness. The root of shalom/peace, is also shleimut/wholeness. This gift that God bestows upon him doesn’t applaud his action; rather, God becomes the teacher I always dream of, the teacher that opens us up rather than pushing us down. Instead of reprimanding Pinchas, sending him into a spiral of shame, God offers him the missing piece. God enables Pinchas to move from limited sight to seeing wholeness, and in this moment Elijah is born.This vision of the whole, that recognizes the interconnectedness of all actions and sees beyond our limited perspective, is the messianic vision.This is the vision I pray for. I pray that when I stand across from someone who is acting out of fear, I can call them out of the darkness, and not through shame … rather by enabling them to see beyond their limited perspective. In the current climate, we need to lean into that potential to see wholly and use that vision – one of fully seeing and acknowledging all sides – to guide us forward. And we must speak from that expansiveness. It is a difficult journey, and the power intrinsic to zeal is tempting and, oftentimes, influenced by our own limited sense of power or ability to see “the other(s)” in wholeness. Messianic vision is able to see all perspectives and recognize the relationships that web them together. From this understanding (and stretching toward it) that true healing can manifest. In the coming days, I pray that we have the ability to see beyond our limited vision and see the pain of those we call “other” so that, together, we too can receive a Brit Shalom and bring deep healing to the world.

Esther Azar is Director of Family Engagement at Congregation Shaare Zedek in Manhattan. She is also my dear friend and we will, b’ezrat haShem, receive semicha together in January, 2018. This piece was posted in the weekly e-mail, Torah from T’ruah
I also encourage readers interested in exploring the complexity of the Korach story to read the commentary of Steven Greenberg, entitled Pinchas, Zimri, and the Channels of Divine Will in Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, David Shneer.

– Shabbat Shalom (JKS)

 
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Celebrating the American Ideal through the Lens of Parshat Balak

In 21st Century America, many of us are acutely aware of living at the confluence of multiple identities. We have increasing opportunities to celebrate and proclaim our overlapping identities, due, in large part, to the freedom that has always lived at the core of the American spirit – the America we celebrate each 4th of July with communal activities, parades, and music proclaiming the ideals of liberty and justice for all.  These American ideals, coupled with an awareness that our increasingly global existence is enhanced by diversity, are a recipe for abundance and promise. For example, as a woman and as a Jew, I have witnessed a half century of clear and intentional shifts in societal consciousness, hard-won by generations of American women and Jews, as well as other people at the intersectionality of oppression and discriminatory practices. As a result of when and where I was born, I am a beneficiary of the reduction in gender discrimination. In addition, because I was raised in a community where my “Jewishness” often made me different, and occasionally, viewed as suspect or worse, I am keenly aware of the ways in which my difference is now seen as interesting and appreciated. 

In this week’s parsha, Balak (Bamidbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9), we read another in a series of stories of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert. Along their journey from slavery in Egypt to the homeland which God promised to show them, the inhabitants of each kingdom through which they travel have varying reactions to the presence of this migrant People. In last week’s Torah reading, Israel sent messengers to the king of the Amorites asking to pass through their land, promising not to “turn off into fields or vineyards,” or to “drink water from wells,” but to cross through the territory along the king’s highway. (Numbers 21:27)  However, the Amorites greet the Israelites with animosity, and in the ensuing battle, the Israelites defeat them.

Balak and the Moabites, knowing what happened to the Amorites, begin to make assumptions about the characteristics and motivations of the Israelites out of a posture of fear and ignorance: 

וַיָּ֨גָר מוֹאָ֜ב מִפְּנֵ֥י הָעָ֛ם מְאֹ֖ד כִּ֣י רַב־ה֑וּא וַיָּ֣קָץ מוֹאָ֔ב מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מוֹאָ֜ב אֶל־זִקְנֵ֣י מִדְיָ֗ן עַתָּ֞ה יְלַחֲכ֤וּ הַקָּהָל֙ אֶת־כָּל־סְבִ֣יבֹתֵ֔ינוּ כִּלְחֹ֣ךְ הַשּׁ֔וֹר אֵ֖ת יֶ֣רֶק הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה וּבָלָ֧ק בֶּן־צִפּ֛וֹר מֶ֥לֶךְ לְמוֹאָ֖ב בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִֽוא׃   

Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean everything that is around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (22:3-4)

This posture of fear and ignorance sounds disturbingly familiar today, so strikingly similar to the latest American policies ~ travel bans on Muslims, dramatic reductions in refugee resettlement, treatment of undocumented students, and marginalization and abuse of migrant farmworkers. The country we celebrate this week for her ideals has begun to turn in fear from the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” whom we once welcomed, and, before that, whom we once were. Our government seeks to silence Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles, who calls to other nations to send “[t]he wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”* Refugees, our world’s modern-day “Israelites,” fleeing oppression and yearning to breathe free, are now being restricted from entering the United States. Despite the fact that we have far more information about refugees vetted to be resettled in America than the Moabites had about the Israelites, our government leads us in actions that grow like a cancer from the same unfounded fears. We have resources to share and ways in which to ensure abundance, just as they have gifts to share, and yet we are practicing the same narrow-minded ignorance as Balak and the Moabites display in this week’s Torah portion.

In our story of the fearful Moabites, Balak “hires” a sorcerer, Bil’am, to curse the Israelites. However, there is a difference between Bil’am and the modern day “sorcerers” who are being employed to do the bidding of a xenophobic demagogue. Bil’am was clear that he was only able to say the words that the Divine placed into his mouth ~ words of blessing rather than words of curse. Balak offered to pay Bil’am enormous amounts of gold and silver; he tried approaching the matter from various angles; he tried different strategies. And when he didn’t like it that things weren’t going his way, Balak yelled at Bil’am, “tweeting” bullying statements … 

It did not end well for Balak and the Moabites, but our American story is still unfolding and our ability to live into our American ideals is not in the hands of a king or a sorcerer. Our potential for compassion, kindness, generosity, and welcome is resident within us and is our heritage as Americans. Our ability to channel blessing from the Sacred Source is far stronger than the fear of those who come to curse. On this 4th of July, may we celebrate the America we aspire to be so that tomorrow and for as long as it takes, we actualize the blessings of liberty and justice for all.

*Words from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty

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See you at Sinai …

On Shavuot (beginning, this year, Tuesday evening, May 30th and continuing through Thursday), we celebrate what the rabbis called z’man matan Torateinu ~ the time our Torah was gifted. However, the roots of Shavuot in Torah relate to agriculture, not the receiving of Torah. A holy celebration on Yom HaBikurim ~ the day of first-fruits is to occur at the time of the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot*), the completion of counting the seven weeks of the Omer (barley harvest)**. The express purpose of this celebration is gratitude for the abundance of the season’s wheat harvest.

As an agricultural people, the Israelites experienced Shavuot as an opportunity to honor the connection between earth, God and human labor. With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., our land-based People became dispersed among nations. Over time, Shavuot was “reconstructed” by our great sages to serve as a celebration of the revelation of Torah at Sinai rather than a land-based, Temple ritual that must have Jordana Klein mount sinai - receiving the Torah (1)seemed less relevant to a land-less People.

A great gift of our tradition is the permission we are given to read and reread and interpret and reinterpret Torah, finding the relevance within the wisdom held both in the black letters and the white open space that surrounds them. In this expanse, we receive permission to once again reconstruct this Festival of celebration and gratitude with enough room for BOTH agrarian appreciation and Divine revelation.

In our kehilla and in our neighborhoods and surrounding lands, many of us garden or connect to the earth in a significant way. If we don’t have our own plot to till, we attend a farmers’ market or belong to a CSA (community supported agriculture) and connect with someone who directly sows, grows, and harvests the food we eat or the flowers that beautiful our homes. We are in tune with the rhythms of the environment as we learn, once again, to pay attention, care for, and appreciate the Earth. This is the Torah of the Earth.

In this spirit, you are invited to bring a dairy snack and any variety of your “first fruits” to share with the gathered community at rabbi Jessica’s home (see calendar for details) on the evening of the first day of Shavuot (7:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 31st). This could be a poem, a song, a story, a piece of artwork, or a treasured gift that has inspired the way you receive Torah.

See you at Sinai!

images-1

In Hebrew, the root שבע (shin-bet-ayin) is in the word sheva (seven), shavua (week) and shavuot (weeks).

**Bamidbar/Numbers 28:26, and first described in Shmot/Exodus 23:16

Artwork: Receiving Torah at Sinai, Jordana Klein

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Lag b’Omer ~ What Is It?

This gallery contains 4 photos.

Lag b’Omer … What is it? This is a question frequently asked, even by Jews, when mentioning the Jewish holiday of Lag b’Omer. To the English speaker, the first word sounds like “log” – the wood you place on a campfire. This auditory cue … Continue reading

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Honoring the Israeli State with Remembrance and Celebration

In central Ohio, this year, the Jewish community will gather at the JCC on Sunday, April 30, at 7 p.m. for Yom HaZikaron, and on Tuesday, May 2, at 6:30 p.m. for Yom HaAtzma’ut. Members of the Little Minyan Kehilla will attend both of these events and LMK member, Joanie Calem, who lived in Israel for many years, has been busy working with a team of folks to plan this year’s festivities, entitled ISRAELFEST: CELEBRATING JERUSALEM ON ISRAEL’S 69TH ANNIVERSARY.

More information about ISRAELFEST and links to both events can be found on LMK’s Facebook Page. The history of the modern Jewish holidays of Yom haZikaron and Yom haAtzma’ut and how they are marked in Israel and around the world are accessible through this short and informational  BimBam video.

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What Does it Mean to be Free? Responsibility … for the Freedom of Others

This is a crosspost from Faith in Public Life’s 100 Days of Justice (www.justice100.org), an initiative which partners with voices from diverse religious, racial, cultural backgrounds and LGTBQ  communities to widely share resources, stories and calls to action at both the national and state levels. This effort to stimulate cooperation and elevate issues of justice, compassion and the common good reached out to The Little Minyan Kehilla’s “Rabbi Jessica” for her perspective on the closing day of the Passover Festival.  

As the sun set on the Easter holiday this year, the festival of Passover continued with the commencement of the seventh day, which Rabbinic tradition suggests is when theIsraelites crossed through the parted Sea of Reeds. So central to our Jewish wisdom tradition is this story of redemption from slavery that it is part of our liturgy multiple times daily.  And each year, at Passover, Jews read in the Haggadah (Passover seder liturgy) these words from Torah (Exodus 13:8): “…this is what the Holy One did for me, when I went forth from Egypt.” Thus, this narrative of our movement from slavery to freedom, from narrowness to liberation, from constriction to expansiveness, is in our DNA… it is meant to inform our thoughts, our intentions, our behavior.

 The miraculous intervention of the Divine, clearly demarcating the end of Egyptian bondage and the beginnings of the long freedom journey to the Holy Land, can be viewed through many lenses in our 21st century lives. Because we are invited by Torah to truly embody and experience it, I try to feel it differently each year based on my life’s circumstances and the world around me. Our world and the complexities of life provide no shortage of material.

 During this year’s Festival of Freedom, I have crossed from Israel (where an intensive study and personal growth Sabbatical ended with celebrating the first days of Passover) to America (where I celebrate its conclusion). For reasons completely unrelated, my time in Israel allowed me a very real freedom from the first 100 days of the new administration. Privilege afforded me this freedom of physical movement and the opportunity to participate in full days (and nights) of study. Privilege also afforded me the self-care to “look away” from the constriction being perpetrated by this new administration. I have told myself that I have been “recharging my advocacy batteries,” and while this is absolutely true, it is equally true that my American privilege requires me to be a tireless advocate for those who are still enslaved. So as I sat down to write, I heard the voice of the prominent Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, spending the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. 

 First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 I have heard Niemöller’s words used often across the decades, but never so much as in recent months. The privileged among us have awoken to the reality that our freedom requires of us much more than thoughts and words of condemnation for the enslavement of others in the variety of forms it takes in our country today. Our freedom calls us to action and advocacy, to putting our bodies and souls behind the words of Torah so as to re-awaken the Divine Indwelling within our human community and inspire the miraculous to once again accompany us as we journey toward freedom.

 Jessica K. Shimberg is a senior rabbinical student (a self described “recovering litigator/emerging rabbi”) serving as spiritual leader of The Little Minyan Kehilla, a central Ohio congregation rooted in Earth-care and social justice and affiliated with Jewish Renewal and Reconstructionist movements.

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Preparing to Embrace Freedom … Leaving Mitzrayim … and Leaving Home to Journey Home

A Pesach love-letter and l’hitra’ot/see you soon to my dear kehilla and it’s friends, followers, visitors …

As evidenced by the extreme hiatus in posts on our Little Minyan Kehilla website, I have been on a “sabbatical” as Little Minyan’s “Emerging Rabbi” (senior rabbinical student, founding member, and long-time spiritual leader of this amazing kehilla/community). Since December 21st, I have been in Israel, mostly as a yeshiva student at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the extraordinary, egalitarian yeshiva in Jerusalem founded in 1972, and home of brilliant teachers and world-wide leaders in Jewish thought, talmidim chachamim, life-long learners from across the globe, alumni advancing Jewish education and leadership throughout the world, and, for the past four months, me and my chevre/cohort of now dear friends and fellow Jewish-learning enthusiasts, all of us studying Torah lishma* … for the sheer pleasure of learning.

For many reasons, it took me more than a half-century to take my maiden voyage to Israel. Zionism was part of my religious school curriculum, here and there, but not a part of my personal heritage (family lineage) or an emphasis in my wonderful Reform Jewish camp and youth group experience in the 1970s and ’80s. I was passionate about the music (including some Zionists songs I know understand much better, eg. Ufaratzta) and Torah and liturgy and Peoplehood throughout a long and arduous history, and the cyclical marking of time by holidays. My Judaism captivated and delighted me so much that as a teen, I wanted to be a rabbi or cantor when I “grew up.” Thus, I was excited to transfer, in 1984, after my freshman year with my camp friends at Indiana University, to a school founded under Jewish auspices during the same year Israel became a state (1948).

Being told for the first time as a college student, by more observant Conservative and Orthodox Jews at Brandeis University, that I was “less Jewish” or “not Jewish enough” and experiencing my first pitch for money from the bimah on Rosh HaShanah was so wounding and such a turn-off to an enthusiastic and, admittedly, overly-sensitive, head-strong, mid-western Jew raised in a small, fabulous, “crunchy-granola,” camping, modern-dancing, guitar-playing, philosophical, intellectual congregation, that my indignant 19-year-old self took a sharp turn away and ditched the opportunity to take even a single one of the plethora of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies classes offered at Brandeis. Nor did I participate in any further tefilla/worship or Jewish communal experience in my remaining three years on campus.

I thought I had been turned off of Judaism … I was wrong, of course. What I had experienced was my first encounter with Jews not “playing well with others” (other Jews) in the big tent of our People. (This will forever be an important part of the tikkun/repair I hope to be a part of as a rabbi … how to realize a more compassionate and tolerant, or, dare I dream, collaborative and vibrantly creative Am Yisrael.)

I began making choices that didn’t place my Jewish identity quite so close to the central pillars of my humanity and life’s journey. Having grown up as the “Jew in the fishbowl” in my mostly Christian community, and raised by parents who cared very deeply about better understanding and appreciating other cultures, nationalities, religions, I was very comfortable playing with others (outside the Jewish sandbox) and found my companions among people of many “walks of life.” These choices led me to embrace other important aspects of my core values and passions – music, environmental and social justice, law and conflict transformation, family.  All of these are, of course, fully compatible with, even amplified among Judaism’s core values, but in a universalist context, they felt more compatible with my 20-something self.

My journey “back” to Judaism was not long as I had never really left. I was committed to a Jewish home and raising Jewish children and joining Jewish community (i.e. “synagogue” during this section of my journey; now a more expansive term, in my view, and a primary impetus for creating the Little Minyan Kehilla … a way of living in community beyond the typical North American congregational experience.) This part of the journey I will leave for another time as this is the part of the story that so many of you already know in broad outline …

Why it still took me so long to get to Israel is almost entirely a matter of practicality vs. ideology. However, ideology has continued to be a sticky wicket (pardon a favorite metaphor) as a liberal, North American, human rights advocate. The behavior of the Israeli government (just as that of many governments, including and especially, these days, that of my own beloved America – land of the free, the one described so poignantly by Emma Lazarus on the base of Lady Liberty) is not one that I approve of in a number of ways. What I have learned, however, in living in this Land and traveling to many of its borders – along which angry Arab terror organizations press regularly – is that we (both on the right and on the left of political ideology and activism) who live far from the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict (words I am choosing deliberately) have a way of seeing the realities of Israel, its inhabitants, and its neighbors through a lens of absolutely unrealistic and ridiculously over-simplified perspective.  Having lived here for four months, I also know with certainty only that I don’t yet, and may never, from foreign shores, know enough to judge those whose job includes the security and continuation of Israel’s existence as a State in which Jews are guaranteed a modicum of safety from those who rise to eradicate us. And this is only the external threat to a vibrant Jewish homeland … the internal threat – the ultra-Orthodox stronghold on civil status and other matters, as well as worship opportunities (in a majority of the many prayer spaces I attended in synagogues and other locations where communities of Jews pray) where separate does not come even close to being equal access to Torah and tefilla and space in which to communally worship. This lack of access and different level of kavod I sensed for the brilliant women rabbis and scholars I was blessed to meet during me time here. There is still a long way to go before I would have, here,in this Land with which I have fallen so deeply in love, any chance of being the rabbi I can and want to be in North America. Yes, my friends, there is much to discuss and enormous nuances in the details, but this is my current articulation of what I hope to be an evolving understanding of how to hold enough space in my heart and practice as a liberal Jew with a “rabbinistry” that embraces the Divine in all wisdom traditions and religions and a supporter of the State of Israel.

I am overflowing with gratitude for the enormously transformative experience of living in Israel for the first time at age 51!  This Pesach, I approach the seder with fresh, nearly nascent eyes, having studied, before Pesach break, the evolution of this chag/holiday from Torah and Talmud forward. THIS year, IN JERUSALEM, I will celebrate this Festival of Freedom in myriad ways (including my first Orthodox seder hosted by my dear friend and teacher, Rabbi Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy and her amazing family, scheduled to conclude with Hallel/singing of praises around 2 a.m., and followed by post-seder learning in the tradition of the sages we read about in the Hagaddah who questioned and discussed all night until it was time to recite the morning Sh’ma)!! I have had the experience of participating in serious Pesach cleaning and watching the gargantuan cleaning efforts of every restaurant and store on my wanderings  throughout this amazing city. I am sitting at a table on a sidewalk along Derech Beit Lechem (literally, House of BREAD Street – very funny for the week when we do not eat leavened bread) in the Baka neighborhood having had delicious brioche French Toast and fruit with a friend from Toronto and listening to conversations in the background in Hebrew, French, and English (with myriad accents – British, American, and Australian, for certain), among other languages that I don’t recognize as clearly. I am a tourist and I am at home. I am a Jew in a country that operates in a rhythm I recognize so clearly and sweetly as my own. Every doorpost with a mezzuzah, every day counted in relation to Shabbat (today is Rishon/first day after Shabbat), every restaurant with a hand washing station with a special pitcher for netilat yada’im/spiritual and halakhic pre-meal hand washing …

So this year as we tell again through questions the story of the Exodus from slavery, I am working to release myself from the Mitzrayim/the narrowness of some very deep frustration and regret. First, I am practicing compassion and forgiveness and releasing the frustration I feel that so many of the spiritual and intellectual pieces of my Jewish heritage were redacted from the Judaism I received, predominantly by the German intellectualism of my most recent ancestors coupled with the Reform Judaism of the formative decades of my life. I did not live the lives they lived and I cannot continue to blame these ancestors for embracing their own sense of freedom that came from European Enlightenment thinking and less exclusionary (and, at times, very exclusionary) treatment of Jews both in Europe and in the United States in the centuries and decades in which my ancestors navigated their own Jewish identity and how they chose to practice that Judaism. 

Also, I am reframing the regret bordering on shame that it took me more than half a century to have my Shechechiyanu moment in Israel. It is precisely this age and this chapter of my life’s story and this masechet/tractate of my Jewish journey that has allowed me to see Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, with such new and old eyes and feel the vibrancy of Eretz v’Am Yisrael (Land and People) with such ferocious passion. And feeling like a teenager in my neshama/soul and very much like a middle aged woman in my body, I am also keenly aware of the fragility of “this one wild and precious life” (thank you Mary Oliver). Thus, I intend to use what is left of it to do the rabbinic work I have been called to do in North America (the U.S. in particular) and come back to Israel soon and often, B”H (with God’s blessing). 

Finally, I am embracing the freedom to be totally and completely Jewish without explanation to my non-Jewish neighbors and fellow citizens in my secular, Christian-centered hometown (Columbus), state (Ohio), and country (U.S.A.) and also to be totally and completely ME in Israel and in America and anywhere else I go without apology to my Jewish brothers and sisters who view Judaism through different lenses and levels of observance.

Freedom – Stopping to stretch and appreciate the extraordinary Negev desert view toward haYam haMelah (the Salt Sea otherwise known as the Dead Sea), Nisan 5777. and unapologetically ME here in Israel and wherever I travel and invite my Jewish brothers and sisters to see me as totally and completely Jewish without explanation.

As truly saddened as I am to leave my home in Jerusalem during chol ha’moed, I am also very excited to be completing this Festival of Freedom with all of you at home in Columbus. If home is where the heart is, my heart has now grown enough to hold two homes. May your communal seder be deeply meaningful and joyous. I am so grateful to all of you who have stepped into both new and long-held roles you have served so admirably in my absence and, I hope, you will continue to serve upon my return. I have been so delighted and proud of how you have maintained our kehilla and permitted me the pleasure of professional and personal growth so that I may serve you with even more joy and deeper understanding of our wisdom tradition and this Land that is so integrally linked with Torah, tradition, and our cycles of celebration and commemoration.

May your journey out of your own personal Mitzrayim this year be sweetened by the taste of freedom, and may your seders be filled with lively conversation, moments of contemplation, and may the questioning be abundant and engaging even if they don’t keep you up until it is time for the morning Sh’ma.

B’vracha v’Ahava ~ in Blessing and Love ~ בברך ואהבה,

Jessica

“Rabbi Meir said, anyone who engages in Torah study for its own sake (lishma) merits many things (which cannot be specified publicly). Not only that (i.e. the unspecified things), but (also) the entire world is worthwhile (creating) for him alone…It (the Torah) gives him kingship,…they (angels and souls of tzadikim) reveal to him the secrets of the Torah. He becomes like an increasingly powerful river…It makes him great and exalted above all of creation.” – Pirkei Avot, Ch. 6
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Bringing Light into Dark Times ~ Ancient Tradition AND Modern Necessity

An extraordinarily bright and hope-filled invitation from Little Minyan Kehilla member Jodi Kushins to participate in this season of light with our brothers, sisters, cousins of multiple faith traditions which bring LIGHT into darkness when daylight becomes sparse in our hemisphere. … Continue reading

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Viewing “Interfaith” Family Formation through a Progressive Jewish Lens

Our Little Minyan Kehilla has always been a welcoming home to those of us who wrestle with what it means to be Jewish in 21st Century America. Many of us have both danced intimately, lovingly with Judaism and also found “being Jewish” a dance that can conflict with ideas, people, and activities we value in our significantly secular lives.

Recently, a number of us have found the podcasts of Judaism Unbound to be both an outstanding resource and wonderful fodder for ongoing conversations. As their website explains, “Judaism Unbound … is a project that catalyzes and supports grassroots efforts by “disaffected but hopeful” American Jews to reimagine and redesign Jewish life in America for the 21st Century.” Eleven years after our founding as an independent minyan, eight years after our affiliation with the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, and well into our collaboration and affiliation with Jewish Renewal, Judaism Unbound has created a national forum for the type of Judaism we “do” at The Little Minyan Kehilla. 

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6 yr. old Asa fondly remembers LMK Yom Kippur services held at Columbus Mennonite Church in Clintonville.

Efforts to create regular opportunity for dialogue about the subjects and ideas raised through the podcasts were initiated by LMK member Nina Thomson after listening to three sequential programs on interfaith relationships. Nina and her husband, Jake Boswell, were raised in the same town and with different approaches to religion, and, as is the case with nearly all of our young families, their family is engaged in Jewish communal life as much (and, truth be told more so) because of the efforts of the partner who was not raised Jewish than the Jewish partner. Even with all of the reports of the decline of Judaism (and religion in general) in American homes, and the fears raised by Jewish grandparents and others about the negative impacts of intermarriage, the fact in our admittedly small sample population is that intermarriage can absolutely strengthen a family’s commitment to seeking Jewish community and experiencing Judaism in a very meaningful way.

To be clear, neither Little Minyan Kehilla or Judaism Unbound is “Judaism lite.” Both are committed to connecting people with Judaism in deeply meaningful ways. Whether through rituals steeped in millennia-old traditions or through entirely new LMK.Simchat Torah Sunshineparadigms that ancient Jewish texts could not have imagined, whether one’s Judaism is part of daily practices or a once or twice a year happening, and regardless of how one’s relationship with Judaism is perceived by halakha (Jewish law) or the statements of Judaism’s major American movements, Jewish wisdom tradition and sacred spiritual technologies are as relevant as ever in the 21st century, and as necessary to one’s psychological, intellectual, spiritual, and physical health.

In the spirit of the season, our next gathering on Saturday, December 3, Motzei Shabbat from 7:00 to 9:30 p.m., at the Clintonville home of Beth Conrey and Yutan Getzler will center on these questions:

  • What does a 21st Century “interfaith marriage” look like through a progressive Jewish lens?
  • How does Judaism manifest itself in an “interfaith marriage” in the age of what author Shaul Magid calls American “post-ethnicity,” where many of us are more likely to resonate with “spiritual humanism” than religious specificity?
  • In what concrete and constructive ways can we frame our languaging and practice of Jewish values within our homes and how does that interface with other values we hold dear?

Earlier this year, the Judaism Unbound’s podcast hosts and chief re-imaginers extraordinaire, Dan Libenson and Lex Rofes, explored these issues in 3 different still-jewish-mcginityepisodes (#15, #16, and #17), speaking with Dr. Keren McGinity and Paul Golin, and drawing on scholarship, studies and the lived experience of podcast hosts and guests to re-examine an age-old question. Please listen to the podcasts before you come (we envision this as the 21st century version of a book club). They can be accessed at http://www.judaismunbound.com/find-any-podcast-episode/. Consider taking notes about ideas you want to share or questions/concerns that arise as you listen.

Join Little Minyan Kehilla members for desserts, drinks and discussion at the home of Beth Conrey and Yutan Getzler.  Please note that the discussion is ADULT ONLY, however CHILDCARE will be provided on site with RSVP essential to ninathomson@yahoo.com. For further location information: contact bethconrey@gmail.com or littleminyan@littleminyan.com.

Posted in Calendar, Family, Hagim/Holidays, Lifecycle Ritual, Mini Minyan, Spiritual Seeking, Tikkun Olam, Torah | Leave a comment

What Being a Jew Means to Me ~ Spiritual Activism and Repose

Just as no emergency room doctor ever hopes for an accident, no clergy person ever hopes for desperate times. And … I cannot help but notice the dramatic uptick in people seeking my spiritual services (both personal and communal) in the days since November 8, 2016.

The offerings I provide as my community’s “rabbi”(as I working and studying toward ordination in January 2018) and as an interfaith communal leader in Columbus tend to be less visibly valued when life is humming along for folks. My peers from other faith communities confirm this apparent apathy (which, I posit, flows much more from our societal norm of “over-busy-ness” than from actual apathy) is not just a “Jewish thing” or the product of our Little Minyan Kehilla’s relatively small size. Even with mounting evidence of less desire for religious spiritual services, those of us in the “business” of teaching, modeling, and bringing forth the Sacred that is always present in our world continue to do the work we do to nourish souls and inspire hearts, within our communities and more Transitionbroadly, regardless of how many people show up. It is truly a calling (as opposed to a career) for most of us. As someone who left a career path promising sustainable income – even prosperity, I am keenly aware that those of us who do this work are called (in a way that cannot be ignore) to serve the soul-needs of what research tells us is a dwindling number of people interested in seeking faith communities to meet “tribal” or affinity needs, explore ancient wisdom, develop intimacy with ritual practices, or cultivate a sense of the sacred tied to any particular theology.

And yet, these are, I believe, basic human needs that we have either suppressed or met in alternate, non-religious ways. And at the same time as Pew research shows a tremendous rise in the “nones” or unaffiliated in our country, it also reports that a 2016 “study of the ways religion influences the daily lives of Americans finds that people who are highly religious are more engaged with their extended families, more likely to volunteer, more involved in their communities and generally happier with the way things are going in their lives.”  

No matter what studies show, I will continue to offer spiritual services in an accessible and progressively-oriented religious context rooted in Judaism. Although, at times, the fear-driven animosity and dangerous rhetoric of the current political climate devastate me, I am encouraged and enlivened by the growing outreach by individuals and groups to one another and the openness of even “secular” gatherings to receiving comfort and inspiration from clergy.

I will continue to spread hope and positivity always, even in the darkest of times and places (and even when it feels like noone is interested) not because “the Bible says so” or because I am an eternal optimist, but because I trust the possibilities inherent in our human ability to CHOOSE GOODNESS, and because I have faith in the ability of hearts and minds to open through shared experience and dialogue. In addition, I know that history bears jks-columbus-unitedwitness to human collaboration accomplishing goals which felt impossibly remote and which, each time, bent the arc of morality toward justice.*

In this light of trust, faith and knowing, I share the words I offered to the gorgeously hope-filled and loving crowd that gathered as “Columbus United” on Tuesday, November 29th at the Ohio Statehouse.

Dear Friends … I invite you to join me in grounding and centering ourselves in this moment in time and space: 

  • feel yourself firmly rooted in this action of unified civic responsibility;
  • bring your attention to your breath;
  • notice your feet planted upon our mother Earth, this land that, long before our ancestors arrived, was home to native peoples – Adena and Hopewell, then Wyandotte and Mingo, tribes of the Iroquois nation;
  • look around and notice who is near you and then expand your gaze across this extraordinary amalgamation of central Ohio’s diverse human beauty. It is both our commonalities and our differences that strengthen the fabric of our shared community here in central Ohio.

It is vital – now more than ever, that we see and engage beyond the borders of our neighborhoods, congregations, affinity groups, to see and meet and really know one another ~ to truly live into the sacred words of so many faith traditions to LOVE THY NEIGHBOR. And I’m not talking about the person who lives next door! I am talking about the person who looks different from me. The person who has a different skin tone than I do, or who can’t afford to buy groceries where I do, or who speaks with an accent, dresses, prays differently than I do. THAT is my NEIGHBOR. THAT is the person I LOVE. 

And, folks, I dare say, that includes the person who voted differently than I did. Let us channel our despair into productivity and progress, and turn our anger into compassion and conversation, even for and with those whose fear motivates them to vote in ways that we cannot stomach.

I am well-aware that I stand with you tonight as a person of privilege.

As a woman and as a Jew, only a generation or two separates me from the bonds of “other-ness,” however, I have grown up and lived comfortably in Columbus, insulated from the daily issues that challenge and frustrate and beat down and even kill my neighbors who were born into a different life circumstance than I. Tonight and as we move forward, I defer to those whose very lives and liberties are on the line as we create the agenda of this movement, and I stand with you in support of your dignity, integrity, and equal right to live safely and securely in our shared community.

Like you, my heart and my conscience called me to be here this evening. When we stand, united, there is a palpable energy that arises. The power of the collective voice, the compassion of the collective ear, the comfort of collective purpose, the strength of collective action, the inspiration of collective belief in basic American values ~ decency, dignity, fairness, justice, and equal rights under the law are what we demand of our elected and appointed leaders.

I can understand pessimism, but I don’t believe in it. This is not simply a matter of faith on my part, but of historical evidence. Not overwhelming evidence, I admit, but enough for hope to thrive, because for hope, we don’t need certainty, only possibility.**

With the pregnant possibility present here tonight, I offer this prayer,

El HaRachaman ~ Holy One of Womb-like Compassion

Let us embrace this whole muddied mess with fresh eyes,

with ears open to listening carefully and completely,

with hearts strengthened by brokenness,

with rhythmic breath deep enough to release narrowness, bitterness, and fear,

and with smiles fortified by new friendships and faith in the power of our collectivity.

“One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul” said poet Clarissa Pinkola Estes. “The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.”

May we take the soul-light of this evening together and share it ~ share it until it illuminates the darkness and brightens the lives of EVERY NEIGHBOR in our city.

* the well-known phrase, “the arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” used so poignantly by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was initiated by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and prominent American Transcendentalist born in 1810 who called for the abolition of slavery. Click here for an interesting literary chronicling of this phrase.

**inspired by a Howard Zinn essay reprinted in his book Failure to Quit. He explained, “I was inspired by my students of the Eighties. I was teaching a spring and fall lec­ture course with four hundred students in each course (and yet with lots of discussion). I looked hard, listened closely, but did not find the apathy, the conservatism, the disregard for the plight of others, that everybody (right and left) was reporting about “the me generation.”

Posted in Human Rights, LGBTQ, Liturgy, Spiritual Seeking, Tikkun Olam, Torah | Leave a comment