About rabbieag

Rabbi Ellen Greenspan is the Rabbi-Educator at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal. She moved to Montreal from New Jersey in 2014. She was ordained at HUC-JIR NY in 1986. A graduate of Smith College, Rabbi Greenspan is always ready for the next adventure!

For every thing, there is a season….

by Rabbi Ellen A. Greenspan

When my phone rang on a Saturday morning, I knew something was wrong because the friend whose name appeared on my caller ID does not usually use the phone on Shabbat.

“Hi,” I said. “Is something wrong?”

“Risa died,” Linda* blurted out.

Linda and I had both lost touch with Risa over the last five years or so, as our children were no longer in school together. Linda had been quite close with her at one time; I was the tag-along friend.

Risa had been instrumental in starting a Chevra Kadisha at one of our local Conservative synagogues. It has been in existence for four or five years, and a small group of dedicated volunteers will perform the sacred rituals of preparing a body for burial when a family wants their deceased loved one to receive this very traditional honor. Linda was a member of the Chevra Kadisha, and she and Risa had joked that whoever died first was lucky because the other would be able to do her tahara, ritual washing, part of preparing the body for burial.

“But it was a joke,” Linda said, tearfully.

Then, Linda asked me if I would be willing to serve as a member of the four-woman team that would do Risa’s tahara. They needed a fourth person; they wanted someone who had known and cared about Risa.

In Jewish tradition, preparing a person for burial in the traditional manner is considered the highest mitzvah, because the deceased cannot thank you; you get nothing in return other than the satisfaction of having performed the sacred ritual.

I was honored to have been asked – but also extremely nervous. I had seen a dead body before – but only at (non-Jewish) wakes, in coffins, ready for burial and once when I was present when a friend’s mother passed away at home after a long battle with cancer.

I had certainly never seen a dead person who was a peer, a friend.

I was the only member of the four person team who had never performed a tahara before. Not that the others had done many, but at least this was not their first, although none had done one for a peer, for someone who wasn’t “old” or who hadn’t died of a debilitating illness.

When Shabbat ended, I got in my car and drove, with a lot of trepidation, to the funeral parlor, about 25 minutes from my house. As instructed, I went to the back door of the funeral home and called Linda on her cell phone because the buzzer was not working. She let me in, and Bonnie, the leader of the tahara team, told me not to worry, to just follow their lead. I was given very little guidance before we began, but they did tell me:

  1. As much as possible, the tahara is done silently.
  2. Walk around the feet, not the head, if you have to walk around the body (which actually turned out to be impossible).
  3. Avoid passing anything over the body.
  4. Wearing a gown and latex gloves was my choice. (“Really?!” I thought. “And does it make me seem squeamish if I want to wear them?” In the end I wore both – and was glad I did).

We were ready to begin. They opened the door to the giant refrigerator where the body was waiting for us, in a white body bag, on a gurney. We wheeled Risa into the washing room, where the coffin had already been prepared with a special linen lining, a linen pillow filled with straw and dirt from Israel. Risa’s tallit was waiting, as were the linen shrouds in which we would dress her when we were finished with the washing.

We unzipped the body bag….and there was Risa, looking eerily like herself…but not. I had never seen a body look so still and cold. (Even before I touched her, I knew she was cold).

Tahara consists of two washings, one for actual cleanliness and the second for ritual purification.

The washing for cleanliness was hard, physically and emotionally. Dying is not a “clean” process, and a dead body is very heavy. I learned what the expression “dead weight” means. We had to wash every part of her. We did our best to honor Risa as we went about the very intimate process of cleaning her up. We removed her nail polish, washed her body, trimmed her nails and combed her hair. (Very carefully, because all the nail clippings and any hair that comes out when you comb has to be buried with the body). We tried our best to be gentle and loving, but it was a challenge for us – four smallish women – to avoid “manhandling” her body more than we would have liked.

The ritual cleansing felt much better. One of us stood at Risa’s head and read a psalm while the other three emptied our buckets of clean water over Risa’s body in a continuous stream. (If the stream of water flowing over the person is not continuous, you have to repeat the ritual washing – but we got it right on the first try).

After drying off her body, we had to dress Risa in her linen shrouds. I admit to questioning the wisdom of Jewish tradition requiring that the dead be buried in clothing – linen pants, a linen shirt and a linen jacket. It was not easy to dress the body in garments (both the shirt and the jacket) that go over the head. We struggled, sighed, tugged and prodded and eventually succeeded at our task. We covered Risa’s hair in the traditional linen hat, tied all the ties with the traditional slip knots, wrapped her in her tallit, and with some difficulty transferred Risa to the waiting casket.

The final step of closing the casket is not taken until the family arrives to say their last good-byes to their loved one.

While we were waiting for Risa’s family to arrive, we sat in a small kitchenette in the funeral home and debriefed. We agreed that we had done the best we could and that we had honored Risa’s memory.

Linda was upset that we were not better at the process. She said that when they were being trained, they had seen a video of a Chevra Kadisha doing a tahara that looked like a ballet. The process was so smooth, seamless, and beautiful. They never had to stop (as we did) to consult the written instructions, review the next step and make sure they were doing it right. This Chevra Kadisha, serving the non-Orthodox community, is only called upon a few times a year. A traditional community’s Chevra Kadisha might do 3 or 4 ritual washings a day. It will be a while before this Chevra Kadisha will gain that kind of experience, so in the meantime, they do the best they can to honor the memories of those whose washings they do.

I was honored to be asked to help with this intimate ritual. It was a physically and emotionally draining experience, but one that felt very powerful, sacred and satisfying all at the same time. It is not something I would run to do again. But if I were asked, I know I could not refuse.

*All the names have been changed.

The Akedah from Sarah’s Perspective

by Rabbi Ellen A. Greenspan

Thank you to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Amy Small of Congregation Beth Hatikvah, for giving me the opportunity to write this Midrash for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

The dramatic story of the Akedah, (Gen. 22:1-19), concludes as Abraham returns to his servant lads and travels to Beersheva. What strikes me about the end of the Akedah is that the text never mentions Isaac’s unbinding or his return to Beersheva with Abraham. In the very next passage of Torah, (Gen. 23:1-2), we read about the death of Sarah. I have written this story from Sarah’s perspective, to help us envision what happens between the binding of Isaac and Sarah’s death.


Isaac was so excited to go on a journey with his father. But I didn’t have a good feeling about it.

Abraham was too silent, deep in thought – leaving the two servant boys to gather the necessary items for their multi-day trek. Why would they need so much fire-wood?

Usually, when Abraham would go off by himself, he was open with me and would tell me of his plans – where he was headed, what he planned to do on his excursion. But this time…silence.

I only heard after the fact about everything that happened. I don’t know if Abraham would have told me at all, but Isaac confided in me after I asked him why he was so quiet and subdued when they returned.

According to Isaac, the trip started off normally enough. He and his father trekked through the desert along with two servant boys and a donkey to carry their gear.

Although when Isaac asked where they were going, Abraham was evasive – which really is not like him. He is a smart man and doesn’t usually venture into the desert with out a destination. It is too dangerous. But Isaac related to me that this time Abraham said something like “God will tell us where to go.”

Abraham puts a lot of faith in God. I used to think it was too much faith – way too much trust – until Isaac was born. He is such a gift. What a blessing to be given a child when I was long past the age of child-bearing. God predicted that we would conceive a son. Although I was skeptical, I have to give God credit and my gratitude. So, I thought, maybe Abraham’s relationship with God is OK.

But now…after the story Isaac told me…I am not so sure.

As they approached Mt. Moriah, Abraham asked the servant boys to stay with the donkey so he and Isaac could go up the mountain to pray. I’m still not sure how Abraham knew where to go – and Isaac didn’t seem to know, either. Isaac thought it was a bit strange that they should have to climb a mountain to pray when Abraham has taught him that God is everywhere. And Isaac also wondered why they were carrying so much fire-wood, a fire-stone and a knife.

When Isaac asked, Abraham used the God excuse again. “God will provide us with a lamb for the sacrifice.” Come on, Isaac thought, how is a lamb going to wander our way at the right moment, and on a mountain, no less? But, I know that when it comes to God, anything is possible.

But then, Isaac said, everything got weird.

“Father made an altar out of stones and the fire-wood and then looked around as if he were waiting for something. Then he grabbed me. He tied me up and threw me on top of the wood. I struggled and cried and made it very difficult for him, but he is stronger than I am.

“Then, he took the knife in his hand and raised his arm – and the knife – above my head.”

“Nooooo!!!! Father, what are you doing?” I called out.

Suddenly a voice came from above and told Abraham not to kill Isaac.

I am speechless. Horrified. What was Abraham thinking? Does he really trust a God that would require such a thing? I don’t want to believe in a God like that. I don’t know if I can possibly have any faith in God’s wisdom any more.

My poor Isaac. No wonder he is subdued. Traumatized is more like it…

Anyway, the end of the story is that Abraham found a ram caught in the bushes behind him. He freed the ram from the tangled branches and offered the ram as a sacrifice instead. Isaac brought back the horns…he showed them to me.

Isaac did say that Abraham was in tears, that he was clearly distraught over the whole thing. Abraham almost forgot to untie Isaac – but Isaac called out to him. It was as if Abraham was in his own world. Isaac said Abraham was startled when he cried out to him…like he was in a trance or something. But, Abraham cut the ropes with his knife, and Isaac freed himself – without Abraham’s help, really. Then they returned to the servants and the donkey in silence.

I am totally shocked that Abraham did not have one of his usual arguments with God. I mean…just last week, he was arguing with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah.

Now, when God asks him to do an unthinkable task…he doesn’t argue or question. I don’t know if I can go on…having faith in Abraham’s wisdom – or God’s.

The Akedah, by Pat B. Allen


By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

  • I am following in the footsteps of my colleagues and have chosen to write on the High Holy Day theme for today suggested by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer in her #BlogElul.

I am not a math person, yet when contemplating the word “counting” as part of my Elul reflection, I find myself a bit dismayed at all the things I count.

Do I have enough peaches from the farm stand to make this yummy sounding recipe for home made peach ice pops? (Lots of recipes on-line, but I tried one from a book I found in the library).

How many tomatoes are growing on my sorry looking tomato plants? (Not enough, but at least I have some)!

How many minutes did I run today in my effort to prepare for my first 5K in October? (A challenge from a friend to do a “Couch to 5K” program).

How many days until I send my daughter back to college in California (from our home in NJ)? She has not been home much this summer, and I am enjoying having her home for these last 2 weeks of the summer. But she is so eager to return to Pitzer College for her sophomore year that I can’t help but be excited for her.

How many shooting stars did I see when I was in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York with some college friends? Far from the city lights, we saw lots – and we didn’t even watch the sky for that long because it got chilly. It was the Perseid Meteor Shower, a reminder of G-d’s glory.

I could go on…. The things I count run the gamut from mundane to funny, from inspirational to depressing. “Counting” seems to be an unavoidable fact of life.

But, in this season of reflection and teshuvah, I am also counting my blessings. For my loving family, my amazing and supportive friends, good health and for life itself – all things that should not be taken for granted.


A Book is Like a Garden

by Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

I am a member of my alma mater’s LinkedIn group for alumnae. The discussions we have on this group page are wide ranging. Someone started a conversation about waste by asking “Do you hate waste as much as I do? How are you trying to eliminate waste in your life?

Five months later, the discussion is still going strong. We Smithies have discussed recycling, composting, “free-cycling” and, most recently, different ideas for sharing books – a conversation that got me thinking about how we share books in the Jewish community.

Most synagogues struggle with their libraries. We all want to have libraries – and most synagogues do have a room called “The Library.” But few have the budget to hire a librarian. All too often the synagogue library is a jumble of books with no one dedicated to organizing it and then maintaining the organization.

I do not have an answer to that conundrum, but we can benefit from some of the ideas that have been posted on this Smith College LinkedIn group.

Instead of a full lending library, we might consider creating a library of Jewish reference books that can be used by the rabbi, religious school teachers, congregants and maybe even members of the community at large. These books would have to be read/used in the synagogue library. Maybe there could be a system for getting special permission to borrow a book – but then you get into the whole question of who monitors books that go out to make sure they are returned.

All other books – novels, books of secular interest, current non-fiction, etc – could be “loaned” out on an informal basis. I know that many NYC buildings have “Take a Book; Leave a Book” shelves in their laundry or common rooms. That could work easily in a synagogue.

Through the LinkedIn discussion, I learned about a growing national movement of “Little Free Libraries” – written up in the NY Times. It struck me as such a fabulous idea for synagogues. It is simply a box and a sign: “Take a Book — Return a Book.” Each Little Free Library is a “house” just big enough to hold 20 or 30 books. The Little Free Library organization will even sell you a library box, and their website offers instructions for building your own. The box would sit outside your building – maybe at the curb, so as to be easily accessible. I could even see more than one box – maybe one for kids and one for adults. Maybe one for Jewish-themed books and one for secular ones. If bringing strangers to your synagogue door represents a security threat, how about sponsoring a Little Free Library in a local park, along your favorite bike path or near the local coffee shop? What a great way to “advertise” your synagogue – and serve the community at the same time. (Click here for more photos of Little Free Libraries).


God be thanked for books! They are the voices of the distant and the dead, and make us heirs of the spiritual life of past ages. (W.E. Channing)

Facing the Future

By Rabbi Ellen A. Greenspan

When I signed up for a turn to write a post for this blog, I was in a different place than I am now. I have thought about starting a blog and saw this as a great opportunity to try out blogging. I did not expect that my first post would be about my own “current events.” But…here goes.

Let me be upfront – I know I am infinitely lucky. I have a beautiful 19 year old daughter who is beginning to make her own way in the world. I am fortunate to be healthy, and I am connected to a wide circle of supportive friends, colleagues and family members.

But, at the same time, I am filled with trepidation since I just deposited the last pay check I will receive from my part-time congregation of twenty years. Leaving Temple Micah of Lawrenceville, (NJ), is my choice, but that doesn’t make the leave-taking easier or less sad.

I feel ready, as my daughter begins her sophomore year in college, to open the door to the next phase of my career. But the scary part is not knowing what lies behind the door. From the time my daughter was about two and throughout her growing-up years, I always had a 2nd part-time job in addition to Temple Micah, so that I was able to manage the equivalent of an almost full-time salary. I worked for a secular social service agency; I worked for two different day schools, and I worked for our local Federation. I have always worked for non-profits, but always on the education and program side of things. I recently made a brief and disastrous full-time foray into development. Although it was not a good fit from the day I began the job, I have renewed respect for my colleagues in the non-profit world who work so hard to raise money for the wonderful institutions and programs on which we all depend. But…I thought I had a job that would see me through the transition as I leave Temple Micah – and now I don’t.

So…what am I going to do now?

First of all, I am not going to panic. I am going to remind myself that although I was not successful in this attempt at working in the field of development, I am not a failure. I am a competent, respected rabbi – with a whole congregation of people who are going to miss me.

Second of all, I am going to network with everyone I can think of and send my resume to all the jobs that I can find that interest me – but I am going to be selective and only apply for jobs I think I can actually do and would enjoy. No more jobs that require a good deal of fundraising, that is for sure.

And finally, I am going to use this time to do things I haven’t had time to do in the past. I signed up to volunteer with Limmud NY. I am going to look into working for the Obama campaign. I plan to advocate for marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose.

I am NOT going to wallow in self-pity or dread about how I am going to survive without a pay check. And hopefully, by the end of the summer, I will have a new job.