About rabbigeffen

rabbi, mom, wife, daughter, pescatarian, activist, lover of broccoli and anything lime green, opinion holder, question-asker, knowledge seeker. Some people think I'm funny.

Tying the Knot(s) – Women, Tallitot, and Tzedek

By Rabbi Wendi Geffen, North Shore Congregation Israel

(This blog is a sharing of something we are currently doing at our synagogue.  It’s idea, I think, worth spreading.)

Last week, our sisterhood (The Women of NSCI) hosted their annual retreat.  It’s theme (since the portion was Tetzaveh) was “The Clothes We Wear.”  Inspired by the idea of a justice tallit I had created for myself*, the retreat chairs noted that at our synagogue, the tallitot available at services are of the “traditional” blue and white stripe design, and none of us had ever seen a woman from our synagogue put one of those on.  With this in mind, the group decided they would create 10 justice tallitot to give to our synagogue for worship services and Torah reading. Leading up to the retreat, I collected more socially responsible, fair wage, and women-crafted fabric from both India and Thailand.  Our sisterhood as a whole made a generous donation to AJWS as a way of assuring an explicit tzedek component in the process.  One of our members who happens to be an amazing seamstress affixed pieces of the socially responsible fabric along the top of and as corner squares on 10 larger swaths of white fabric.  At the retreat, sitting in groups of 4 with each participant responsible for one corner, thus one tzitit, women ranging from 40-nearly 90 years learned how to tie tzitzit.  They learned about what a tallit really is.  They heard about the fabric that was being used, stories from where it came from and who it supported.  The women learned about the different combinations of string twists and what they stood for. Then, when ready, we all declared in unison the traditional words to say before tying: “Lshem mitzvat tzitzit.” And then the tying began. Some chose the traditional 7,8,11,13 formula of tying and some the Sephardi 10, 5,6,5 style.  Each group was intentional in their choice and the kavanah/ intentionality they were bringing to their tying.  It was really something.  Looking around, I saw women with strings twisting in their fingers, heads down to focus on their knot-making, but the room still a-buzz with the beautiful sounds of women sharing their stories.  Some wondering what their own ancestors would think of what they were doing, some commenting that they themselves had never worn a tallit but now would try.  I found it deeply moving, and from what they’ve shared with me since then, they did to.

At the retreat, one of its leaders shared that she dreams that by next High Holy Days, she’ll be able to look around and see mothers and daughters, granddaughters and grandmothers, all wearing justice tallitot.  I share that same dream with her. The next step for us will be a series of workshops where individuals from our community can contribute tzedekah and make their own justice tallit.

If you have any questions or might be interested in bringing the idea of a justice tallit to your community, let me know.  I’m happy to share with you the details of our process.

*I spent some time in India this past summer as a part of an American Jewish World Service rabbinic delegation.  Much of time meeting with activists in that country, as well as volunteering in a rural village, re-enforced what so many of us already know: our market place is no longer the corner shop.  It is the globe. And Jewish tradition is clear that we are accountable to and responsible for the communities from which we consume.   As such, while I was in India, I purchased a swath of fabric traditionally hand woven and painted by women in a rural village and sold to me through an organization that provides those women in that village education opportunities, job training, legal advocacy, and fair commission so that they can empower themselves and improve their own lives.  I bought that fabric in particular because I planned to attach threads to its corners and tie tzitzit, turning the fabric into a tallit, so it could serve as a physical reminder to me of our unique obligation as Jews to bring people from the outside in and of our accountability to the world around us, in everything we do.  My tallit quickly became known as a tzedek or justice tallis.   And in particular, women (of all different ages) inquired as to how they could have their own “justice tallis” too.  And so was born what has a most powerful experience.

The High Holy Days, the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Rotten Tomatoes

(Originally published on The Huffington Post)

As Jews, we find ourselves in one of the most spiritually intense periods of the year – the Aseret Ymei Teshuvah – the 10 Days of Repentance carrying us from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.  Our tradition envisions that the gates of Divine Judgment open on Rosh Hashanah and close at Yom Kippur’s end, necessitating reflection and atonement for our sins in the past.  The Jewish liturgy offers an expansive confessional section called Vidui where the community verbally confesses together to any number of offenses.  This year, I’ll be adding a verse to list: Al cheit shechatanu lfanecha – for the sin we have committed against You by mindlessly reaping the benefits of slavery. 

Yesterday, September 22, 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln issuing the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, the first major step to rid the scourge of slavery in America forever.   In truth, though, the fulfillment of the ideal that the document envisioned has never been realized on American soil.  Systems of indentured servitude and forced labor continued throughout the decades, and although slavery is certainly illegal today, it endures nevertheless, and in fact proves just as, if not more brutal, albeit much more hidden.

According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 17,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States and enslaved annually. “Overwhelmingly, they come on the promise of a better life, with the opportunity to work and prosper in America. Many come in the hope of earning enough money to support or send for their families. They do not come to knowingly be enslaved. In order to afford the journey, they pay their life savings and go into debt to people who make promises they have no intention of keeping, and instead of opportunity, when they arrive they find bondage…By definition, they are slaves. Today, we call it human trafficking, but it is the slave trade.”[i]

Where can we find evidence of this slavery?  Look no further than American tomatoes. 

90% of the fresh tomatoes consumed in our country between November and May come from Florida and are likely harvested by forced labor. These workers picking tomatoes do not earn wages based on the government-established minimum hourly wage.  Instead, their income is based on how many tomatoes they can pick, and the rate of compensation is stunningly low.  Workers must pick and haul a staggering 2.5 tons of tomatoes in order to earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hour day. In addition, as Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights pointed out, “Forced labor and slavery in Florida is just the extreme end of a continuum of worker exploitation that includes sexual harassment, dangerous exposure to pesticides, wage theft, and violence.”[ii] 

Enter the Coalition of Immakolee Workers in Florida, a worker-driven grassroots organization working to legally end this horrific reality through its Fair Food Program.  “The market-based initiative seeks to improve the tomato harvesting wage floor and institutionalize a voice for farmworkers by requiring large food retailers to demand more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers, to pay a penny more per pound for more fairly produced tomatoes, and to buy only from growers who meet those higher standards.”[iii]

Many retailers have signed on to the Fair Food Program, including Taco Bell, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and McDonalds.  One notable hold-out however is Chipotle Mexican Grill.  Despite the fast-food chain’s claim of providing sustainable, integrity-based ingredients in its food, there is no way to assure that a Chipotle tomato was not harvested by slave labor.  Chipotle has said that they will pay the extra wage to the workers and only purchase tomatoes from appropriate producers, but to date, they refuse to sign a Fair Food Agreement, thereby refusing to commit to transparency, accountability, and third-party monitoring to assure their actions match their commitments. 

The process of true repentance demands not only a verbal pronouncement of the offense, but among other things, a commitment to assure that the offense will not be committed again.  We can all engage in this process by strongly encouraging Chipotle to take the next step and sign on to the Fair Food Agreement.  You can do this by taking a letter to the manager of your local franchise or clicking here (http://www.ciw-online.org/index.html#chipj25.) for information.  Among the countless Jewish teachings mandating fair treatment for the slave and other disenfranchised among us, Deuteronomy 24:14 commands: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land.”  Whether grounded in the teachings that have carried the Jewish people over the millennia or from the values written down by Abraham Lincoln a century and half ago, the ideal of freedom for all is still one, not only to which we must aspire, but one for which we are responsible in assuring is made fully real.

Trust/Faith – #blogElul 5 and 6

by Wendi Geffen

Like those before me, I am continuing along the path offered wisely by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer (aka @imabima) in her wonderful #blogElul endeavor.  That said, I am going to combine the themes of days 5 and 6 – trust and faith – since to me, they are, if not one and the same, integrally and inexorably tied together.

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Tomorrow, my oldest child begins Kindergarten, and I’m not sure who’s more nervous. My sweet, sensitive, 95-year-old-Jewish-man-trapped–in-the-body-of-5-year-old son has expressed numerous concerns, ranging from: “What if I don’t make friends?” to “Where will the bathrooms be?”   I tell him not to worry, that it won’t be so different from his cherished preschool in my synagogue (where everyone knows him, where is he most comfortable outside of our home) – but I know it will be completely new and very different.  He will not have the security blanket of teachers and staff who’ve known him since he was born, his small group of friends (none of whom will be in his kindergarten) or having me just down the hall in my office.  And this is where my anxieties kick in: What if he really doesn’t make friends?!  What if he really can’t find the bathroom?!

I know, I know.  Every yoga class I’ve taken to every Wendy Mogel book or article I’ve  taught in a parenting group instructs what I know I need to do: Take a deep breath, and as I exhale, let it all go: trust that he will make friends and find the bathroom, have faith that if he doesn’t, he’ll figure out solutions for himself and as a result, grow in a way that nurtures his self-confidence and faith.  And if the real and best desire is for my son to grow and mature with self-sufficiency and grace, then as I exhale, I will have to unclench my hand from his and then let him go through that Kindergarten classroom door without me.

This is, of course, not just about Kindergarten, and I hope it is not an issue limited only to me; it is yet another reminder that the sense of control to which many of us cling so tightly is nothing more than an illusion, perhaps even an idol, a false-god that ultimately only obstructs the real trust and faith we need to cultivate.

There are a lot of words for trust and faith in Hebrew, but the one I like best is emunah.  The root for emunah is AMN and a form of it (he’emin) is used in Torah to describe Avram’s faith and trust in God[1] – a faith that culminates in a lengthy covenant statement.  Of note is that the context of the covenant describes the promise of a great nation, but also includes the struggles that the people will go through – their significant oppression – and then their ultimate return.

When we trust and believe, we are not trusting and believing that everything will go according to our preconceived plan or vision; rather, we are trusting and believing that regardless of what happens, we will be able to navigate whatever path we tread; that the bumps and potholes on the road might have the same or even a greater potential for holiness than the smooth paths along our way.

The famous Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch interpreted the word amen (derived from the same AMN root) in a most meaningful way. More than “so may it be,” Hirsch said: “Amen does not refer to the contents of the pronouncement, but to the person.”  Really amen means “So may I be.”[2]

Tonight, while putting my son to bed, we sang Shema and V’ahavta and then, given the onset of this new occasion, we sang Shehechiyanu. As we finished the word “ha’zeh,”  I closed my eyes and took that deep breath.  I prayed for the trust and faith to embrace this transition in our family and my son’s life, and for the insight to walk along this next pathway with presence but trust and faith in my son’s strength as well.  “So may I be” and together we sang “amen.”


[1] Breishit 15:6

[2] Thanks to Rabbi David Stern in Dallas for first sharing Hirsch’s interpretation of amen.

The Willow Tree and Kaddish

The willow tree had a trunk spanning nearly six feet in diameter and towering what must have been 50 feet above our heads. The flowing branches and leaves hung down just above us, whispering their brushing swish-swish gently as they danced in the breeze.  Much of the base of the tree was covered with thick ivy clinging to the peaks and valleys of the rippled bark, and over time, climbing the trunk’s lofty heights. 

Under this immense tree is where I first saw them that late-Spring evening.  Usually, when I arrive at a home to lead a shivah minyan (a gathering of ten or more people in prayer enabling mourners to say Kaddish), I find the mourners and their visitors huddled around in the kitchen or crowded in a living room, but not this time.  This time, nearly all of them stood outside in the family backyard, on a lovely evening that teetered between crisp and comfortable, under a clear blue-lavender sky and lightly swaying, wispy willow tendrils.

The man who had died was beloved by his family and his community.  He was not young but not old, and his death came all too quickly. One of his children noted that the tree under which we stood had witnessed so much over the years, hosting countless family gatherings including the Brit Milah ceremonies of grandsons and even a wedding under the shelter of its foliage-reach – it had blossomed alongside the blossoming of the generations of their family.  And now, the tree beckoned us to stay under its protecting canopy again, so we clustered together for Kaddish.

“The Kaddish” is a little bit of a misnomer, because there isn’t just one of them – there are many.  Kaddish Yatom – the Mourner’s Kaddish is traditionally reserved for marking key moments as time distances the mourner from the death of a loved one.  Chatzi Kaddish is recited as a means of marking the end of one section of a service and the start of another one – it is the “semi-colon” of any service.  Kaddish Shaleim serves to mark the conclusion of a service and re-entry into the outside world.  There is a special Kaddish to recite after someone is buried – sometimes called Kaddish haGadol.  There is Kaddish de Rabbanan, the oldest form of Kaddish, to mark the conclusion of a course of study.

At the heart of all is the idea that we mark moments of transition by inviting holiness in.  After all, Kaddish – which literally means sanctification – comes from the Hebrew root meaning holy.    And we don’t discriminate either.  Moments of immense significance side by side with commonplace changeovers hold equal potential for a profound and imbued sanctity from the Jewish perspective.  And Kaddish is never about endings alone – it is always about endings and beginnings.  Kaddish is always bigger than we are, even when it marks a simple transition from one prayer to another, and as such, proves most significant in its rich, timeless and deeply rooted wisdom. 

And so, that evening at the end of one season and the start of another, we stood together to mourn, to pray, to give thanks, to laugh, to weep, to mark the end of a life and be charged to carry forth that life’s legacy in the lives of those who would go on living.  And the tree stood with us; it mourned and wept too.  Just as it had rejoiced alongside those who had sought its shelter before, as then and now, its branches swayed and shoots blossomed.  And the roots of that tree grew deeper and anchored it more firmly that day.  And just as the words of our faith called to us to praise the Source of All Being in all the shifts and changes throughout our own lives, that night, so too did the tree. 

(originally published in Pri haGeffen – www.rabbigeffen.blogspot.com)