Counting the Omer

hayom chamishah yamim ba’omer.
היום במשה ימים באמר
today is the fifth day of the omer.

The Omer is this incredible time between the second day of Pesach and Shavuot – when we remember leaving Egypt and when we recall standing at Sinai.

After dark, each night, we say the blessing for counting the omer and then we say the new count, getting us one day closer to Shavuot. The Omer is meaningful to me for two reasons – (1) the limbo of this time as we have left the grasp of Pharaoh’s hands but have not yet affirmed a covenant with God. Until we stand at Sinai, we haven’t yet exercised our rights as a collective free people to opt into God’s rule.
(2) the mystical or kabbalistic notion that the Omer is also seven weeks of focused self-improvement. Each week is associated with one of the sefirot and then each day within each week (day 1 of week 1, day 1 of week 2, etc) is also associated with one of those same sefirot. Each sefira has its own set of values or emotional traits. As we combine the sefira of a given week with the sefira of a given day within the week. we end up with 49 permutations of sefirot, each with a slightly different nuance of values to dwell on that day, as we prepare ourselves for that fateful day at Sinai.

In the days leading up to Pesach, we try to clean out our chametz. In the three days leaving up to the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites stay away from the mountain and prepare by cleaning and separating themselves. We prepare in these 49 days by cleaning out our inner selves and our the ways we relate to others. I can’t think of a better way to get ready for reaffirming our relationship with God on Shavuot.

This year I bought an Omer Calendar – a little booklet that takes you through each day of these seven weeks and explains the combination of sefirot for each day and how that might translate into ways you could change your interpersonal actions.

For example, this first week’s sefira is chesed. And today, as the fifth day of the Omer week, is Hod. Today is Hod of Chesed.
Chesed, often translated as “loving kindness” is being present to someone else and being attuned to their needs in the moment. Hod is related to hodaah or thanks. So the goal for today is to be thankful for the present moment that you spend with someone – not what was or what could be, just the awe of right now.

I just spent a few hours driving with a good friends, as we headed up to the mountains for the Yom Tov that will bring Pesach to a close. I have found myself getting caught up in what could be better about life but in reflecting on this hod of chesed, I realize how special it is to have that kind of friendship where you can be in a car for hours and keep talking and telling stories. I want to let people in my life know how much I appreciate them, but I don’t do it nearly enough.

Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder’s omer guide ‘The 50th Gate – A Spirited Walk Through the Counting of the Omer’ offers this practice for today: “reach out and make contact for the purpose of experiencing the relationship itself rather than with some goal in mind. Engage in a positive conversation, full of compliments, recognition and gratitude, celebrating the relationship itself rather than what is could become.”

We Were Strangers Once

We're all in this together, after all.

We’re all in this together, after all.

Passover preparation this year was interrupted by horrible news: on Sunday, April 13, three people were murdered just outside Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas. From the news reports, it seems likely that a notorious anti-Semite chose that day to terrorize Jews.  Children were terrified. Three innocent lives were taken.

Here in the United States, this event was big news and the response was exactly what we would hope for in such a situation. Law enforcement rushed to the scene, and determined that the murders were indeed a hate crime. The President, religious leaders, and civic leaders rushed to the microphones to denounce the evil acts. The news services interviewed speakers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and local synagogues. All the public voices agreed: the acts and attitude of the murderer stand completely outside the law and the public will.

We have reached a point in American history where it is assumed that violence against Jews and people who spend time with Jews is a bad thing.

Unfortunately, while we have made progress in this area, others still suffer under the assumptions that they are less than human, dangers to society, or are “asking for trouble” simply by being who they are. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, more than half of all victims of anti-LGBT hate crimes in 2012 were transgender women. Transgender women of color are especially at risk of violent attacks. For example, Islan Nettles, a young trans woman who had worked her way out of homelessness and was looking towards a bright future was beaten to death by thugs on the street.

I had dinner with a young trans activist last week, to find out how things were going at the nonprofit where he works. He told me that he is haunted by all the murders, that every week brings word of more violence against trangender people.

And then there is the violence that isn’t categorized officially as a hate crime, because it originates in the legal system itself. Last May, Monica Jones was arrested on the street in Phoenix, AZ, when police profiled her as a sex worker because she was a trans woman of color walking on a public street. She was given a choice of a Christian “prostitution diversion” program or to be tried on charges of prostitution. Never mind that she isn’t a prostitute. Never mind that she is a student in good standing at Arizona State. Never mind that if sentenced, she faces placement in a mens’ jail where she is almost certain to be the target of violence. An Arizona judge convicted Monica of “manifesting prostitution” which means she fit the profile: in her case, she was accosted by police for “looking like a prostitute” and then she asked them if they were police. That is her “crime.”

There was a time in America when ignorant people felt free to ask Jews about our anatomy (“Have horns? a tail?”) a time when Jews were assumed to be deceptive, a time when Jews had to fear violence on a daily basis. There are, sadly, people who still hold to anti-Semitic beliefs and who act on those beliefs. But when the chips are down, as they were in Kansas this past week, American Jews can depend on the system for justice.

Transgender people face intrusive questions about their anatomy anytime, anywhere: “What surgery have you had?”  “What do your genitals look like?” They are assumed to be deceptive: “He used to be a woman!” “She isn’t a real she!” They are acceptable targets for jokes, for violence, and for ridicule in too many venues. However, the sad fact is that trans folk cannot depend on the system for justice; sometimes our law enforcement and legal systems are the source of injustice.

We’ve been there. We know what it is like to be despised outsiders. This Passover, let’s mobilize our resources to fulfill the commandment:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 20:21.

We Jews are still targets of violence. We are still misunderstood and oppressed by the majority culture at times. We could take our anger and fear and turn inwards. But instead we have the choice to obey the commandment and turn outwards, to reach outwards, and take the hands of those who are still labeled as strangers in our society. We are commanded to challenge bigotry and ignorance. We are commanded to speak up for the stranger. Because we know what it’s like.

I wish all our readers a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover, an energizing festival, empowering us all to work for justice.

Image: By Koshy Koshy, Some rights reserved.





The Spirituality of Hand-Washing


by Rabbi Wendy Spears

As we approach Passover, I’ve come around again to thinking about hand-washing. When I was growing up, my family didn’t do this part of the Passover seder ritual. I didn’t learn about it until I was an undergraduate participating in a student-led seder at Hillel. At that time, it seemed to me to be a pretentious substitute for just getting up from the table and going to the sink to get our hands good and clean before eating the meal.

But hand-washing isn’t really about physical cleanliness. It’s about spiritual readiness, marking the transition from the ordinary or difficult to the realm of the spiritual. It is truly a practice of mindfulness. It’s part of Jewish culture to wash hands upon leaving a cemetery. This is where hand-washing has gained ritual power for me.

The process of ‘laving,’ the particular way of moving the water back and forth between hands so that each hand is bathed three times, requires a lot more thought and attention than a simple washing with soap under a gushing faucet. As I leave a cemetery, I take a few moments at the washing waterfall to say a blessing, bathe my hands, and read the sentence from Isaiah 25:8. This gives me some time to separate myself from the death experience and put myself in the frame of mind to drive home to my ordinary routine.

Hand-washing is most powerful to me when I’ve heard memory sharing of difficult circumstances. I recently officiated at a funeral where the deceased knew of abuse to other family members and did nothing at all to aid the victims. One of the victims revealed the story at the funeral and was validated by friends of the deceased that the information was known, and yet, the deceased felt powerless to intervene due to his own complicated relationship with the abuser.

I felt the need so strongly to wash away the immediacy of sadness. I didn’t want to forget the story, rather to not have the emotions cling to me in the moment when I needed to be able to focus on driving. Laving my hands had the immediate effect of clarifying my minds and cooling my emotions. The anger and sadness for the victims was put on hold momentarily.

No amount of washing can remove the memory of pain and suffering. And yet, it can hold the memories at bay temporarily. The beginning of the Passover story deals with the anger and sadness of bondage in Egypt. When I view the hand-washing through this lens, I can become more spiritually prepared to walk the path of the story as if it happened to me. It’s a process of being more aware of nuances in the Exodus narrative. As a participant in this narrative, I will be redeemed from that which enslaves me, that which prevents me from feeling truly free.

It’s so easy to get stuck in the ordinariness of life, to feel bound to errands, chores, paperwork, the commitments of the day to day activities. Like Shabbat is an oasis of rest in the rush of the week, so has laving my hands with water given me a small spiritual space to be mindful that there can be blessings, joy, and healing, even in the midst of pain and suffering on many levels. For this small mitzvah (a Jewish way of doing and being), I have become truly grateful.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at


Remembering Rabbi Janice Garfunkel- by Margaret J. Meyer

Janice was a fighter. When she believed in a cause she threw herself into it. This was true whether she was actively championing civil rights, defending her beloved Israel, urging colleagues to preserve and observe tradition within Reform Judaism or, during her last months, literally fighting for her life. Though I could not claim to have been a close friend of Janice’s, our paths crossed many times in her all too brief life, and I came to know her well and admire her greatly.

Born in New Jersey to German refugees, Janice grew up in Dayton, Ohio. A strong Zionist from her youth, she didn’t just move there to “try it out,” but came on Aliyah, for a while living on Reform kibbutz Lotan, where my son Danny also lived, for a time. We worked together in the tomato fields. Back in the States, Janice studied at HUC – a bright, strong student, passionate about her ideals. Our student days overlapped in Cincinnati.

Determined to become a mother, yet without funds for expensive adoption or invitro programs, Janice did what she was best at: She researched every possibility. She discovered that as an Israeli she was entitled to invitro in Israel, basically for free. Off to Haifa she went – twice – to become the mother of two wonderful daughters. Later she encouraged others wishing to become parents to travel to Israel to pursue parenthood.

As a rabbi Janice served in Washington DC, at the RAC and also at a small congregation in Hagerstown, MD. While living in DC Janice became active in the lay led minyan at Adas Israel, where my son Jonathan and his family are active. I still recall my grandchildren and her girls chasing each other around the hall during the Oneg after Shabbat services when they were little.  When she wasn’t in Hagerstown on a week-end, Janice could be found at Adas, often chanting Torah or helping to lead services. After she left the DC area, she remained beloved in the Adas community which held a shloshim for her after her death.

Janice moved to Springfield, Ohio to be nearer family, serving the congregation that — how ironic – Marrianne Gevirtz had served before succumbing to cancer. It was a good move; Janice and the girls were happy in the community; they were near the larger city of Dayton with her parents and friends from her youth. But then illness struck. Janice was diagnosed with breast cancer. She bravely struggled on, continuing her rabbinical duties while undergoing treatment. After a while she seemed to be in remission and thought all would be well again when life took a terrible twist.

Janice’s cancer returned at the same time the Springfield congregation realized it had shrunk to the point of no longer being able to afford a rabbi. Once again, Janice researched. What would be the best for her and her girls? Her parents were elderly, her mother dealing with dementia. She decided she couldn’t remain in the Dayton area. Janice had a brother in Cincinnati so moved there, renting a home, finding doctors and treatment centers, and establishing her daughters, one of whom has special needs, in schools. We reconnected. Undergoing treatment, Janice nevertheless became an active part of the community, joining our Board of Rabbis, becoming a regular part of Adath Israel congregation, making many new friends through her daughters’ schools.

Once more she thought seemed to be in remission; once again the cancer came back, this time aggressively and entering the brain. Janice researched everywhere and everything; she interrogated doctors as to the best treatment, read articles, did everything possible to extend her life. She so wanted to be there for her girls. Even when she had little energy left – many of us drove her to doctors’ appointments and errands – she still remained a rabbi. You may have read her CCAR parashat hashavua columns written during her last days. She was thinking of the future; she still had questions, so many questions. In Parashat Noach, the last column she wrote – shortly before her own death, she asked:

“What are the ramifications, philosophically of recognizing that humanity might end some day? If we gain immortality through the good deeds we do, what if no one is left to remember or benefit from those deeds? How do we live our lives in the face of eventual, possible oblivion? Or does the rainbow promise mean we will never be utterly wiped out?”

We are richer for having known Rabbi Janice Garfunkel. Now we are left to remember and benefit from her life and deeds. May her memory be for a blessing.

Bald is Not Always Beautiful


Some thoughts on becoming a bald woman rabbi and why it doesn’t matter whether or not I’ll still be beautiful.

Originally posted on Pitbulls, Pearls & Pontification:

Since signing up to become a St. Baldrick’s shavee , I’ve heard many people say two things:

1: “I’m so proud of you!”

2: “You’ll still be beautiful.”

The first, of course is welcomed and appreciated. I’m proud of myself too!

The second, surprisingly, is not.

On a communal level, this journey was about the Sommer family and about Superman Sam and about saving other kids and other families from their fate. On a universal level it was about taking action – doing something – in a world where sometimes awful and tragic things happen and nothing can be done. On a personal level – for me – this journey was about being a good rabbi; a rabbi as moral exemplar, who does so by walking the walk; who doesn’t just say that saving lives is more important than looking beautiful, but who is willing to put her money (and…

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The Healing Power of Art

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min., CT

The day before Bob died, I was taking a quilt class. I was making one of the teacher’s patterns – I wanted to learn the technique and I wasn’t really interested in creating my own design. I came home with a small, almost finished piece. I had just the smallest bit of the binding still to stitch. But when I got home, Bob wasn’t feeling well and wanted me to take him to the ER. He looked at the quilt – a chair on the beach and asked, “Is that St. Martin?” One of the very last things he said to me, looking at the quilt, was “That’s cute.” It was his often said, positive response to my art projects.

My sewing machine and supplies sat in my car for another two weeks. Then they sat, untouched, in my house. My colored pencils and sketchbooks remained in their tote bag as I missed the last session in a class I was taking on drawing flowers. In the face of loss, I could barely contemplate getting through the day. There was no way I could do anything even remotely artistic. It was almost a month after Bob died when I started taking pictures again. I didn’t even use the digital Nikon he had bought me (us) a year earlier. I took my phone and tried, each day, to find something beautiful or meaningful to me. I had no words to share, but I could share images that reflected some of my emotions. Though the summer, I attended a bereavement support group and I took pictures. I had a structured journal and I was writing – raw words, words I haven’t looked back at, words that poured out my feelings – but it was in looking for beauty every day that I saw the good during my bad days.

Then after two months, I picked up my knitting. I didn’t have to think. There were patterns to follow. Muscle memory led me through and the meditative qualities of the work helped calm my raging mind. I figured out that patterns and prompts helped me. Rather than looking at a blank sheet of paper, they gave me a place to start. The result might reflect grief, or joy, or healing, or confusion, but there was a result. My goal was to not over-think, but to react and respond.


“Passing Through” Mandala

I explored self-discovery through mandalas. I didn’t do every prompt, but the ones I did do helped me. I used the mandala format to finish a sketchbook from The Sketchbook Project that I had bought last year and had planned to do last summer. I took a month-long on-line writing workshop. The daily prompts were not always interesting to me, but I wrote. Several times during the month, I responded to the prompt, then turned it around and wrote the opposite. Some of what I wrote ended up in a “Fiction Project” book and was sent off to the Brooklyn Art Library, a wonderful crowd-sourced library of sketchbooks, fiction, prints, photos, and other art. (You can find me on their site as “RavJulie.”)

Finally, I went back to my sewing machine. I had baby quilts that needed making. In addition, I had gone to the first meeting of my quilt guild last fall and signed up to take workshops. I didn’t even have my checkbook that night, but one of my friends had hers and she had one check left. She wrote the check so I could sign up.

A few weeks ago I was at one of the workshops. It was taught by Valerie Goodwin – an amazing quilter and teacher. (If you only click on one link in this posting, click on hers!) Her quilts combine art, maps, and architecture. The class was on”Haiku Quilts.” We each wrote a haiku (or several) that related to a place. We shared them with each other and then did small sketches based on a haiku. Finally, we each made a small quilt of our haiku as Valerie taught us her techniques.

I had been focused on ordering Bob’s grave marker and yahrzeit plaque, so perhaps it was no surprise that my first haiku reflected that. I wrote (and sketched) some others, but everyone in the class felt the first was the most powerful. It was challenging. It was cathartic.


cemetery paths
markers row by row – family
together again

It was, I think, the first in a series.

More than that, it was another reminder for me that art heals. Whether writing, painting, sketching, taking photographs, creating collages, knitting, quilting, or doing any number of other creative pursuits, art has been a source of healing for me and for many others. 



Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her blogging at:










A Biblical Space-Time Continuum: Mishkan Ohel-Moed


by Rabbi Wendy Spears

I am privileged to partake in learning Torah from student rabbis at the congregation where I am a member. As a group, we are reading each portion together and sharing the various commentaries at the bottom of each page of text.

During the last session, we read about the architectural and interior design details of the traveling tabernacle of the Israelites which they created in the wilderness while they were wandering. It was a place for God to dwell amongst them. It seems like these details were recorded in order to recreate this tabernacle at some point in the future. Creating this beautiful place in the midst of their wanderings was an amazing and cooperative effort.

The English words ‘tabernacle’ and ‘tent of meeting’ obscure the multiplicity of interpretations that can be found in the Hebrew. The first word in Hebrew is mishkan. This has a similar meaning to Shekhina, the in-dwelling presence of the Divine that is in all people, a presence that the Jewish mystical tradition also imagines as the feminine aspect of the Divine. It is similar in meaning to the modern Hebrew word shekhoona, a neighborhood or residential area. I understand from this that there is a sense of closeness, of intimacy, from this word. It is something that brings spirituality close to hand, so much so that you could reach out or reach in, and touch it.

The special tent (Ohel Mo-ed) in the wilderness, that the people could pack up and take with them wherever they went, was a place for God to live in the midst the people. It was a real place filled with holiness (a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night). The Place, ha-makom, is another name for God; it is somewhere in your own reality where you can find a sense of spirit, of wholeness, and of peace. It could also be a physical place where you experience the Divine.

The last word, translated in English as ‘meeting,’ is mo-ed in Hebrew. This word has to do with time, with being present in the moment. Mo-adim l’simkha are times of joy, celebrations and holidays. Ed is also the word for ‘witness’ in Hebrew, so mo-ed might mean ‘witnessing.’

This phrase Mishkan Ohel Moed seems more mysterious the more I think about it. It seems to recognize a concept learned relatively recently in science: Space-Time. It can be about setting aside a place and time for ourselves to begin to breathe slowly and deeply, to recognize the sacred all around us and inside of us. It encourages us to recognize beauty and create beauty, so that we see ourselves as beautiful and spiritual. It is also a community endeavor; when we are in relationships, we can experience holiness that we couldn’t reach alone.

The journey of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness is one of the core stories in Judaism that teaches us many of our values; hospitality, community, rest from work, the worthiness of adventure and pushing our boundaries. The idea of space-time certainly pushes our intellectual boundaries. It seems possible that the ancient Israelites were trying to express this idea with Mishkan Ohel Mo-ed, creating time and space to experience the sacred that was also portable across space-time. That is truly remarkable and worth exploring.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at