One Land, Two Conflicting Stories

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

It seems like everyone has become an expert in how to solve the crisis between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. With the 24/7 news cycle, the myriad details of this issue are examined, analyzed, and discussed ad nauseum. It is very easy to be an armchair critic from afar. However, there is no easy solution for this complex problem.

There are two groups of people who claim ownership of the country Israel: Jews and Arabs. Both groups claim to be indigenous people, and it doesn’t much matter which group was there first since both are there now. Jews claim the land based on the biblical and historical narrative that this is the place God promised to the descendants of Abraham. While much of the Jewish population was exiled from the land by the Romans, a remnant remained. It was the Romans who changed the name of the place from Judea to Palestina (a variant of Philistia, one of Judea’s enemies), as an insult to the conquered population.

The Jewish story has been one of longing to return to Israel over the course of their history from the Roman period onward. Jews lived in their ancient homeland under the governance of the Ottoman Turks and under the British Mandate. They accepted the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 to apportion the land to both the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs.

The Arab story is that they, too, are the indigenous people in the land and see themselves also as descendants of Abraham. Like the Ottoman Turks and the British, they see the Jews as European imperialist usurpers who must be expelled rather than tolerated. They don’t consider Jews to be indigenous people like themselves. They didn’t accept the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan.

These two narratives don’t combine well, and have been the underlying reason for the continuing conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Jews have given land for peace: the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt in 1982 and is Jew-free; Gaza was given to the Palestinian Arabs in 2005 and is Jew-free, and currently controlled by Hamas. A portion of the West Bank is under the control of Fatah.

But there is suddenly a glimmer of hope for peace. Mahmoud Abbas, the official voice for Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank said in an interview with Ha’Aretz newspaper in Israel (July 8, 2014), “I am totally committed to the vision of a two-state solution, normalization and peace with our neighbor – Israel.” Pretty astonishing, considering the history and the current conflict being staged by Hamas.

I continue to pray for peace between Israel and all her Arab neighbors. May it come soon in our lifetime.

#peace #Israel #Palestine #Hamas #Fatah #Abbas #MidEastConflict

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

A Prayer for Healing

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ

Vayivra Elohim et-ha’adam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem Elohim bara oto.

God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God created them. (Gen. 1:27)

May the One who created our ancestors in the Divine image, and blessed them with bodies of infinite variety, bless all who are in distress today.

From Divine Wisdom, Chochmah, grant each of us the Wisdom appropriate to our roles: to doctors, give skill; to nurses, give patience and perception; to caretakers of all kinds, give endurance and the wisdom to know when to seek help and where to find it.  Amen.

From Divine Understanding, Binah, grant us the understanding to see sufferers as they really are, to perceive the Divine Image within them even when it is hard to see. Whatever our own suffering, grant us the understanding that we are not alone, that sometimes it is in comforting another that we can find some comfort.  Amen.

From Divine Lovingkindness, Chesed, grant us lovingkindness, to listen to troubles as many times as they need to be heard.  Amen.

From Divine Compassion, Rachamim, grant us compassion for those who are sick in ways we do not fully understand. Give us compassion for those who are ill in ways that frighten or disturb us. And give us compassion for ourselves, when we fail to meet our goals.  Amen.

From Divine Kingship, Malchut, grant us the self-discipline to do what we need to do to guard and restore our own health.  Grant us also restraint in expressing our opinions: give us the humility to accept that sometimes we do not know what is best for others.  Amen.

From Divine Strength, Givurah, grant us strength to endure what must be endured, to persist in treatment if treatment is prescribed, to support those who are fallen ill with all of our strength, and finally the strength to accept those things which must be accepted.  Amen.

And from Divine Beauty, Tiferet, grant us the ability to appreciate the beauty in this world, no matter what troubles surround us. Let us walk daily among miracles with our hearts wide open to one another and to You.  Amen.

May the One who blessed our Ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel bless all who are sick, all who are troubled in mind, body or spirit, and grant them healing.  And we say, AMEN.

Image: “It’s Raining at the Broken Bridge” by Vinoth Chandar. Some rights reserved.

Member of the Tribe

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

I am saddened and fearful each moment due to the current situation in Israel. Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization which controls the Gaza Strip, is firing rockets at civilian targets in Israel. For my own family members, the Israeli people, and the beautiful country itself, I am anxious.

It’s challenging to feel connected to Israel if you’ve never been there. As a first-year graduate student, I lived in Jerusalem. It was an opportunity to see the places about which I’d only read, as well as experience life in all its complexity. Good thing I took Hebrew classes while at UCLA; I was able to communicate a little bit with my neighbors and the local shopkeepers. My Hebrew language skills greatly improved over the course of that year.

I enjoyed riding the bus from my 4th floor walk-up apartment to campus, buying fresh flowers and the English language newspaper The Jerusalem Post on Fridays, and walking all over the city by myself without fear of crime. All those soldiers with guns are there to protect civilians. And wow! Israelis certainly know what to do with a vegetable. It was easier to be a vegetarian in Israel than anywhere else I’d been before that.
When many of my clients talk about being Jewish today, they refer to holiday celebrations at Hanukkah and Passover, going to funerals at Jewish cemeteries, and attending bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies – either their own or those of family and friends. They rarely talk about some of the aspects that continue to engage me in Judaism: stories which express our values and history, new understandings of keeping kosher (Jewish way of doing and being), connections with Jewish people and places where we’ve lived over the course of our peoplehood. Wherever I go, whether at home in Los Angeles or traveling, I search out Jewish people, places, and experiences.

Heed these words from my colleague Rabbi Aaron Panken: “If you have plans to be [in Israel], come. If you do not yet have plans to be [in Israel], make them soon. . . Sign up now to reserve your place for a trip that will expose you to everything [Israel] is now and is becoming. If you cannot spend time in the near future, then it is incumbent upon you to become informed – read Haaretz or The Jerusalem Post, and try to stay on top of events as they develop. Only with a long-term commitment to reading regularly can one hope to become knowledgeable enough to understand the many aspects of Israel’s complex mélange of culture and faith, memory, and history.”

A sense of peoplehood is essential to being Jewish. This happens best by seeking out just those experiences that I’ve mentioned in the preceding section. And while it may seem unsafe to visit Israel at this particular moment of Hamas rocket fire, this situation will eventually pass. I encourage all my readers to make it a priority to visit Israel, either for the first time or again. It will help to connect you more strongly to what it means to be Jewish.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at
#Israel #Jewish #peoplehood

Women and Work: Who is Our Moral Leader?

Take a look at the non-fiction New York Times Best Seller’s list and you will find that #11 is “Lean In” and #17 is “The Confidence Code.”  Both books deal with the subject of women’s success in the workplace and obstacles to success.  On the one hand, we can be excited that authors are stepping forward and exerting some leadership in addressing the question of why women are still not advancing at the rate of men.  That’s a good thing.  What is a bit troubling is that both of these books examine what women are doing wrong and how we are responsible for our own dead ends and glass ceilings (my words not theirs).  I like that there are women leaders who are set to coach us on being more assertive and more confident.  I appreciate that these authors are encouraging women to harness and utilize their natural skills of team work, multi-tasking and nurturing to get ahead.  But in the bigger picture I miss an old-fashioned feminist voice.  Where is this generation’s Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.  In fact, why has Steinem, herself, stopped shouting?  We should maximize our talents and be more aggressive to get further.  But someone needs to spell out and remind everyone of the painful truth that misogyny is alive and well.  We need to be reminding ourselves how we should be raising our boys.  Yes, there are men in positions of power who are “gender blind” and who consequently give women a totally equal shake.  There are even men in positions of power who kvell at women’s success and go out of their way to help women get ahead.  But there are still many, many individual men and groups of men who use their power to keep women down, who harass women and who delight in repressing their advancement. Women’s equality is not a war that was won in the 1970’s and therefore is an achieved goal. Rather, the enlightenment of men and women on the subject of women’s true equality of opportunity in the workplace is a battle that needs to be fought again and again, an education that needs to be reaffirmed in every generation.  It’s like the study of Torah–you never finish.  Every year we read and study the meaning of stories like the brilliant coordinated efforts among Yocheved, Miriam and Batya in rescuing Moses.  It’s not a one time learning.  It’s a forever and over again thing.  

Give Away What You Want The Most

Give Away What You Want The Most

by Rabbi Judith Beiner

The medieval Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the ARI) is said to have recited these words before praying each day: “ Hareini mekabel/et alai, et mitzvat haBoreh, v’ahavta le’reeicha camocha. I am ready to perform the mitzvah to love my neighbor as myself.” In reciting this commandment, the ARI set an intention for prayer. In this case, he was seeking deveikut ( connecting with God- the ultimate source of love and meaning.) The Torah is specific in demanding that we love our neighbor; it is a duty which we set out to fulfill every day.
This directive is not always easy to follow. Our world is complicated; people commit heinous acts of cruelty, and we see illness and destruction every day. It can be hard to wake up in each morning, and greet others cheerfully and with any optimism, much less with love.
As a chaplain, I understand the challenge quite well. A significant number of the patients I see are in pain and suffering. Many are alone and lonely; others are frightened and defeated. The same can be true for the family and friends who hold vigil at their bedsides. I frequently engage patients in conversations, taking the time to listen and respond to their stories. I’ll take their hands and recite a mishebeirach. It is easy to see when someone is being comforted: they might become more animated or alert, they share intimate details of their condition or their lives, they squeeze my hands as I hold theirs and tears run down their face as they hear a prayer. And this scenario repeats several times a day, 5 days a week.
People often ask me how I hold steady, and how I manage to maintain control of my own emotions in the face of my daily experiences. I can admit that it’s not always easy. Yet I’ve found that when I bring someone comfort and healing, I receive it in return. As I fulfill that commandment to ‘love my neighbor, I am loved. And that’s how I get up the next day, and do it all over again.
The playwright, author and activist Eve Ensler teaches us: ‘Give what you want the most’ (one of the ten principles of the City of Joy Rather than resulting in deficits, giving others strength, comfort and love will leave our souls fulfilled.
May we be blessed every day to fulfill the Divine command to love our neighbors.

Ordained at HUC in New York in 1993, Judith lives in Atlanta, Georgia where she serves as the Jewish Family and Career Services ( Community Chaplain.


For Love of the Jewish People

by Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein

ImageAlmost nine years ago I began teaching Introduction to Judaism.  I was a second year rabbinical student at HUC, just back from Israel.  Fortunately for me there was a shortage of rabbis and more experienced rabbinical and cantorial students available to teach the class, so I was hired.  As I approach my tenth year of teaching, I am reflecting on the privilege of teaching students who are eager for knowledge about our tradition.  Some students are interfaith couples who have agreed to have a Jewish home once they marry–the non-Jewish partner may or may not convert.  Other students come to the class drawn by connections–spiritual, intellectual, familial–to Judaism. Some have been married to Jews for many years and are raising Jewish children.  Others are students I call “wandering Jews,” who didn’t get much of a Jewish education.  They are African-American, Catholic, LGBT, Muslim, Asian-American, Korean, Turkish,  Methodist, Iranian, and Israeli.  They are police officers, ministers, graduate students, grandmothers, journalists, attorneys, physicians, and teachers.  Some were raised without any religious tradition; others in a religious tradition with which they no longer feel comfortable.

Many students, like our biblical ancestor Ruth, choose to become part of the Jewish people because they love someone who is Jewish. This was the case with Nadya, who came to the US from Belarus.  Soon after arriving in the US, Nadya met and fell in love with David. David’s family, which also came from the FSU, had somehow managed to hold onto Jewish traditions and practices. When she met David and his family, Nadya writes that she “stepped into the world of joy, happiness, mutual understanding and respect.” Nadya and David married, and—as she spent more time with his family—she found herself moving closer and closer to what she calls “a radical and firm decision.”
“I want to become a Jew, I want to dive into the world to know and experience to the full extent what Jews believe in, how they managed not to lose their sense of Jewish identity, even thought they were forced physically and mentally to refuse all those values and beliefs they held. They managed to survive. For me this was the miracle that millions of people witnessed and made them to be admired….Every day I am coming closer to that moment when I officially enter the Jewish community, when I am part of this world with its own laws, rules, customs, values, beliefs, and morals. I have decided to be a Jew by choice. And the reason why I put the emphasis on the word officially is that I feel I am a Jew already. Every day I wake up and realize that this religion, this way of living, these symbols, values, morals, beliefs and rituals are so close to me that we are merging in one whole. Being Jewish is an ongoing process of learning. And what my husband and I build now is the assurance that all our values and customs will be transmitted to our children so that they will be able to continue what all Jews throughout the whole history of Judaism have managed to create and preserve and also to transmit this knowledge to their children to keep the religion alive.”

I saw the joy in Nadya’s eyes after she completed the ritual of immersion in the mikveh. I watched as Nadya held the Torah for the first time and recited the Sh’ma, tears streaming down her face. I saw, through Nadya’s eyes, the beauty and richness of Jewish tradition—which those of us born as Jews sometimes take for granted.

Nadya and others who choose to join the Jewish people come with open hearts and minds, energy, enthusiasm, respect, and wonder. They bring new perspectives to Jewish tradition. They ask questions which help us to see our tradition in new ways. To keep the flame of Judaism burning is sacred work—and it takes a lot of effort. We need people like Nadya to join us.

The recent Pew Study of Jewish Americans  raised important concerns about the future of the American Jewish community and had many in the Jewish world crying gevalt– although not everyone interpreted the findings so bleakly. The results of the Pew Study show  that we must make more of an effort to reach out to those who may want to join the Jewish people.  Zvi Zohar, a scholar at the Hartman Institute, suggests that we must do a better job of encouraging conversion.

We rejoice that Nadya—Shayna bat Avraham v’Sarah—is now our sister. May we encourage others to join her. May Nadya’s life as a member of Am Yisrael be long. And may the generations who come after her say, as did the poet Elisheva [Bichovsky] about her own journey from Russia to pre-state Israel:

When I die, let them say:
“She was a stranger who left her birthplace,
For she so loved the Jewish people…
May she find rest in the shadow
Of the eternal walls of Zion, our strength;
May she sleep a trustful sleep, be brightly blessed,
And from the heights of heaven,
May Judea’s sun shine on her forever.”

Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein is the Coordinator and Teacher for the URJ’s Introduction to Judaism program in the Washington, DC area.  She is an adjunct rabbi at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, and she is a chaplain for Jewish Social Services.


Small And Mighty

By Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith

At the recent Central Conference of American Rabbis meeting held in Chicago, I was asked why I choose to remain the solo rabbi at a small congregation in a very remote location.  I have served as the rabbi of Temple Emanu-el in Dothan, Alabama since July of 2007.  Temple Emanu-el is the only synagogue in a 100 mile radius and we have 69 member units.  We are located right in the thick of the Bible Belt where ignorance of Jews and Judaism is rampant, and getting kosher food or even finding greeting cards at the Jewish holidays can be a challange. We have learned to make do with what we have. For example, there is no mikveh nearby, so immersions are done in a natural body of water. When we need specific supplies, a group of us take orders and make it fun day. And as we rabbis of smaller congregations are acutely aware, our salaries and benefits tend to be lower than that of our colleagues in larger congregations which impacts not just our current circumstances, but our future as pensions are computed as a percentage of our salaries.

Yet most rabbis in small congregations love their congregations, love their work, and have no desire to leave.  Why?  Because of the close relationships we form with our congregants.  I know every single one of my congregants.  When I get the God-forbid phone calls in the middle of the night, I not only know who I am talking to, but I know their family and which of their friends I will need to be in touch with to help with the immediate crisis.  Because we are so small, we are like a large, extended family.  Yes, we have our differences, and there are occasional disagreements, but we all feel a close connection to one another.  This manifests itself in a spirit of caring that at times leaves me almost breathless. We are there for each other for all the good times and the bad.  B’nai Mitzvah are celebrated as a community.  The child or children belong to all of us.  Everyone bakes for the luncheon or Oneg, and everyone is invited to the service and everyone attends. Religious School Shabbat is one of the highlights of our ligturgical year, even though the majority of congregants do not have school age children. And when someone gets sick or dies, the community is there providing food (Do I need to say this?  We ARE Jews, afterall), comfort and even cleaning if it is needed.  And all this is done without a Caring Committee, because we are a Caring Community.  We worship and play together; we bowl, discuss books, study Torah, do social service projects, and eat countless meals together as a community.

And I have experienced the caring personally.  While Rob and I were in Chicago at the CCAR convention, Rob’s brother suffered a massive heart attack.  Immediately the congregation sprang into action.  Rob’s brother was never alone from the time he was admitted to the hospital, through his emergency surgery as congregants took turns staying with him until Rob and I could get back to Dothan.  Other congregants checked in on Rob’s elderly mother who is bedridden in a long-term care facility and was frantic at the thought of losing her oldest child.  Once Rob’s brother was released from the hospital, congregants brought him heart-healthy meals, drove him to the doctors, visited with him and helped out in innumerable ways.

I often describe our congregation as Small and Mighty because we are able to do so much despite being so small.  And it is because of our relationships to each other that we are able to accomplish so much. Everyone knows that they are needed and valued.  I believe that most of us in small congregations stay because of the relationships we are able to foster and for the keen sense of belonging that may not exist in a larger setting.

And it doesn’t hurt that there is no snow here, and we are only 90 miles from Panama City Beach.

RS Tu B'Shevat Seder IMG_8437

Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith serves as the rabbi of Temple Emanu-el in Dothan, AL and is dedicated to proving that there really is a vibrant Jewish life in the Deep South.