My Hero, Rabbi Denise Eger

Denise Eger

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Many years ago, when I was the rabbi educator at Temple Emet of Woodland Hills, California, I often asked my students to name their Jewish heroes and explain why they made their choices. Sometimes they chose characters from the stories they heard or read, but they mostly chose people that they knew who had affected them in some profound way. This is true for me, as well. I have had many mentors, but one of my heroes is my colleague and friend Rabbi Denise Eger.
Two weeks ago, Rabbi Eger was elected as the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the union of Reform rabbis. She is only the third woman in the history of this organization to hold this position and the first openly LGBT person. Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a celebration and panel presentation in her honor at her synagogue Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California.

Rabbi Eger was not elected as president because she is a lesbian, but rather because of her wisdom, advocacy, and leadership in the Jewish community. In all of these areas, she inspires me. She has been my go-to person when I was crafting wedding ceremonies to celebrate my gay and lesbian clients, as well as for the heterosexual couples. She confirmed to me that love and family is what we make it to be, and that this personal commitment is very much a political statement. Every couple deserves to be celebrated and recognized in the spirituality and desire to be a family together along with the legal rights accorded to heterosexual couples. This is a civil rights issue. Rabbi Eger has been in the forefront in the fight for marriage equality, even at its most ugly and contentious. We prayed together often that marriage equality would be a reality in our lifetimes, and through her advocacy and leadership in this area our prayers are being answered.

Rabbi Eger has been a model for me on feminist issues. She was among the first rabbis I knew to struggle with God language that caused spiritual dissonance for women living Jewish lives. Her insight into prayer and theology helped me in my own spirituality as well as what I could offer to my clients and students. As a feminist, she has and continues to advocate on the issues of equal pay for equal work and family leave benefits. In my own career, she encouraged me to ask to be paid what I’m worth based on my education and experience and not to be intimidated when clients thought they should get a discount because I’m not a man. She inspires me in how she connects with other female colleagues; she taught me that we need to support each other in advocating for ourselves collectively – the “old girls’ club” is important for women in creating opportunities and mentoring of each other.

I am so grateful for Rabbi Eger’s friendship. When I’ve needed guidance in my rabbinate and about my family, she offered me her counsel and kindness. She demonstrates strength and courage in so many areas. Just as she has created a warm and welcoming community at her congregation, so has she nurtured me with warmth. Though we are not far apart in age, her wisdom is far beyond her years. She continues to be one of my blessings.
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

The Spirituality of Architecture and Furniture

by Rabbi Wendy Spearsliving room

We, the Jewish people, are all about our stories. I like to imagine my ancestors sitting around their fires in the wilderness, or around their fireplaces in their homes in all the places Jews have lived around the world, sharing the narratives that inform us about who we are. I see them comparing themselves to the characters in the stories, thinking about the motivations and actions of those people way back when. Those stories can be so exciting.

And then we have portions like T’rumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19) that are a shopping list and a blueprint. When I was looking at the commentaries for this portion, Bible scholars seem to agree that this description of the Tabernacle architecture and its furnishings are a remembrance of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem rather than actual instructions for building the Mishkan in the wilderness during the wanderings there.

The salient point for the instructions is near the beginning of the portion, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it.” (Exodus 25:8-9) Like the other peoples surrounding them, the Israelites also wanted a special place to worship their god that signified the grandeur and awe of that experience. This shopping list includes all the most beautiful materials they could imagine – fragrant wood, gold, silver, and blue, purple, and crimson fabrics.

Until I became a homeowner, I didn’t really appreciate architecture and interior design. When my husband and I began looking at homes where we would actually live, a lot of things came into focus that just weren’t on my radar. Not only the size of the rooms, but how the light came in through the windows at each time of day affected the colors in those rooms. There were rooms that helped me feel peaceful, and rooms that helped me feel energetic. How the kitchen was laid out affected how efficient we could be in preparing and cleaning up meals so that we had good time together as a family, talking about what’s important to us as well as sharing news of the day.

The various passages in Exodus that I used to find so boring I now see quite differently. Spirituality, now a personal, interior practice of the soul, is expressed in places as well as times. The space provides the environment where the soul can relax, feel connected to others, and be filled with a sense of awe. I have a new appreciation for the power of design of buildings and the furnishings that are inside them.

I think this shopping list and instructions are about bringing our best selves to foster our spirituality. As people rooted to the material world, it’s a challenge to create a place for spirituality every day. We talk a lot now about mindfulness practices, about getting into the place inside ourselves that brings us a sense of connection and appreciation for our outer places and inner spaces. Having a beautiful place to be and sit helps in this process. This is what the shopping list and instructions for the Mishkan represent for me today. I think about the feelings and thoughts I want to cultivate in my home.

My mindfulness practice each day begins at home, rather than at synagogue. My home is a reflection of my family’s values and personality, what’s important to us, how we make a comfortable space to relax, enjoy, and entertain. I made a shopping list when I furnished my home, as I do each time I want to change or add something. The most recent was about curtains – I needed brackets, rods, tiebacks, and the curtains themselves. I imagine the ancient Israelites doing the same when they wanted to create a holy place – the Mishkan. My home is my personal sanctuary; I want it to be beautiful and tranquil so that my mindfulness practice is easier. I strive to make space for where I want to be spiritually as well as for my family’s and my physical comfort. I imagine, then, meeting God in a holy place. And this text brings that into my consciousness.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com and on Facebook at Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.

I Am A Jew

Magen David Lacesby Rabbi Wendy Spears

I’ve been listening to the BBC radio news in regard to the terrorist murders in France. I am sickened by what has happened, both in the violence itself and the aftermath. In particular, I heard an interview with a Jewish woman in Paris who attended the rally at which the world leaders were present (sadly, no officials from the Obama administration other than the U.S. Ambassador to France). As this woman was standing in the street, the people around her were talking about why they had come to the rally. When it came to be her turn, she also said she was there because of the Jews who were murdered at the kosher market. As soon as the words came out of her mouth that she was Jewish herself, the people around her backed away from her as if she had the plague and didn’t say another word to her.

At the Golden Globes Awards ceremony on television this past Sunday evening, several of the winners talked about the murders of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo with a voice of support: Je Suis Charlie. None of them added Je Suis Juif – I am a Jew. Anti-Semitism is alive and dangerous in Europe. No one seems to be as concerned about that as they are about the murdered journalists. The four Jews who were murdered at the kosher market were buried in Israel. And French Jews are immigrating to Israel at double the rate that they did last year. The situation is indeed dangerous for Jews in France.

I also heard yesterday on the radio an interview with a German woman who was reflecting on the murders. When the interviewer asked her about German education on the Holocaust and current efforts to rein in anti-Semitism, she dismissed the question as unimportant to the issues happening today. The interviewer pressed her and she replied that World War II ended 70 years ago and had no bearing on her life or the situation in France. Anti-Semitism seems again to be part of the normal social landscape in Europe, and a minor topic in the minds of Europeans.

As a Jew, I am (of course) sensitive to anti-Semitism more than most of the Europeans being interviewed seem to be. I consider myself blessed, by the accident of my great-grandparents immigration to the U.S.A. instead of Western Europe, to be safe from anti-Semitism today. While the situation in the U.S. isn’t nearly as dangerous as it is in Europe, anti-Semitism is alive here. There were several incidents on college campuses in the fall, including the arrest of students in Ohio protesting at a student senate meeting about a resolution to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel. Under the guise of anti-Zionism, Jews are at risk. There are still moderate to high levels of security at American Jewish institutions all over the country. Vandalism of Jewish institutions and businesses has little to do with Israel and much to do with hatred of Jews. French Jews have been advised to avoid Jewish institutions and businesses altogether for their own safety. I’m thankful that isn’t the situation for me, and I pray that it won’t be.

In Jewish morning worship each weekday, there is a specific prayer that thanks God for making me a Jew. I continue to pray this with sincerity, especially in a fearful situation. I strongly believe that Judaism brings light and blessing to the world. I will continue to speak up against hatred of all kinds. What happens to me and my people easily spills over onto other minority groups. None of us are safe and secure on our own. We need the support and love of our entire citzenry for our society to be safe.

Rabbi WendyRabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

Let The Trees Teach You Torah

pomegranate-treeby Rabbi Wendy Spears

One of my favorite Broadway musicals is now a major motion picture. I’ve seen Into The Woods twice on stage and I’m looking forward to seeing Meryl Streep play the Witch, an iconic role played so brilliantly by the fabulous Bernadette Peters. One of the themes of the play is to be careful of what you wish, because it might come true.

The forest of European folktales is a dark and scary place, full of carnivorous animals that consider humans an easy meal as well as numerous other dangers that can catch the average walker unaware and unprepared. Certainly, Cheryl Strayed finds this to be the case when she walks the Pacific Crest Trail on her own as portrayed in her book and the film Wild. She faces down a bear and suffers through blistering heat and bone chilling cold. These experiences change her irrevocably, as are those who venture into the woods in European folktales. The characters are called to draw on their inner resources of intelligence and ingenuity, as well as their physical strength and perseverance. The folktale woods are places of magic and revelation, both about the world at large and the human psyche.

The trees in Jewish tradition aren’t clustered together as a dark and forbidding forest. They are the dry shrubs and scrubby trees of an arid landscape, providing shade and food. This wilderness, like the European forests, is also a place of magic and revelation; a bush burns unconsumed, a sea parts, and there is fire on the mountain. Jews recognize the wilderness as a place to participate in a revelation that God will continue to care for us and protect us. We experience awe as both wonder and a feeling that causes us to shake in our boots.

Historically, the trees that survive in the arid wilderness are the fig, the olive, the date palm, and the pomegranate. The pomegranate, with it’s abundance of juicy seeds, is by itself considered a symbol of abundance. It’s likely that Adam and Eve ate figs rather than apples, since figs are native to the environment of the Middle East. The honey in the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” refers to the sweetness of dates rather than honey from bees.

The Jewish festival of trees, Tu BiShvat (the 15th day of the month Shvat), begins the evening of February 3 this year. The medieval Jewish mystics expanded the holiday from simple tree planting and pruning to include a Passover-like seder that celebrates the turn of the seasons with 4 cups of wine (from white , to pink, to deep red), and a tasting of the various types of tree fruit (those with outer rinds or shells that are inedible, those that have inedible inner pits, and those that are completely edible inside and out) to increase our awareness and appreciation of trees and nature in general. It is also a time to share stories about trees.

Since we are dependent on trees, shrubs, and grasses for the balance of oxygen on our planet, let’s renew our celebration of Tu BiShvat with more tree planting in our own yards as well as in our community, and invite family and friends to share stories around a table with many kinds of fruit and wine. This is a great way to remind ourselves that spring is just around the corner, and to give thanks to God for all of our abundance and blessings.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

Oh, Hanukkah Songs! Where Are You?

hanukkahsongsby Rabbi Wendy Spears

As December rolled around each year while I was growing up, I remember my mom decorating for Hanukkah. We had a large and beautiful Star of David decoration, crusted with blue and silver garland and covered with blue light bulbs. While my family slept, I frequently crept out of my bedroom to switch on the electricity for the star and sit in the darkened living room with it. I thought about all the Christians who were celebrating the Christmas season with joyful energetic songs.

But the Hanukkah songs I heard growing up were the same five tired songs, over and over: Rock of Ages, I Had a Little Dreidel, Who Can Retell?, Hanukkah O Hanukkah, Hanukkah A Beautiful Holiday. Yuck! Their energy pales in comparison to the songs my family and I celebrate with now, such as Tom Lehrer’s Hanukkah in Santa Monica. It didn’t make it better to hear those old songs in Hebrew as well as English, or to be told that Hanukkah was a minor holiday in Judaism over which we shouldn’t really make a fuss. I always yearned for great Hanukkah songs in English that I could sing in December. I dreamed that they would add more musical joy to my family’s Hanukkah parties.

Music is so important to my spirituality. I remember things better when they are set to music. When I attend worship services at synagogue, it is the music that takes me to a feeling of connection to God and community. The words of the prayers don’t feel nearly as beautiful or spiritual without an accompanying melody. I remember the prayers with the music; when I’m trying to recall a particular phrase, I sing to myself in my head (don’t you sing the alphabet song when trying to remember the order of the letters?).

I was uplifted in 1983 when Peter Yarrow (of the folk music trio Peter, Paul, and Mary) wrote the Hanukkah song Light One Candle. It was the beginning of what has become a treasury of new Hanukkah songs in English for an American audience. My current playlist includes 38 songs. I am so excited to share them at my family’s Hanukkah party. The Indigo Girls version of Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah gets my toes tapping. Kenny Ellis’ Hanu-Calypso on the album Hanukkah Swings makes me want to get up and dance. I can easily sing along with Joe Black (Eight Nights of Joy) which brings a smile to my face. Check out Be A Light from Neal Katz for exactly the right spirit to make a happy family celebration of Hanukkah.

These new Hanukkah songs are accessible and add obvious joy to the holiday. They add an extra sizzle to my Hanukkah party as the potato latkes (pancakes) sizzle in the frying pan. I listen to them in the car during December as I go to meetings or on my errands. I am enthusiastic about sharing them with my friends and family members. They are available on iTunes. Like my Facebook page Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears and find more Hanukkah songs there.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

The Spirituality of Community

Community
by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Lots of people tell me that they are spiritually and culturally Jewish, but not connected to synagogues. It makes me wonder what this is about. As a Jew, it is so important to me to be a part of a community, and the synagogues are mostly the only shows in town. I ponder about spirituality separate from community. I’m not convinced a person can live a Jewish life separate from community.

I’ve written quite a bit about spirituality lately without really putting forward a definition. So here is my current working definition of spirituality. It is my sense of oneness and belonging with all that exists. According to the Hasidic master Dov Baer of Mezritch, we are all individual waves in the ocean of existence (thanks to my mentor Rabbi Ted Falcon for teaching me this). We often feel as if we are separate entities racing pell-mell toward shore; yet, when we turn around, we see that we are connected to the vastness of the waters. In addition, spirituality is my feeling of awe at beholding the grandeur of the natural world. It is also my feeling of wonder when beholding great works of art, both visual and auditory, and the miracles of modern medicine and technology. But Jewishly, these feelings are rather flat without others with whom to share them.

In the biblical book of Genesis (2:18), we learn that it isn’t good for a person to be alone; each person needs a fitting helper who reflects back the individual’s truth, standing opposite yet lovingly with his/her partner. This Jewish value is deeply a part of me. While other religious and spiritual traditions value extended periods of time that a person should spend alone to gain new spiritual understandings (such as taking a hermitage retreat), this hasn’t been an active aspect of Judaism. Life is with people, including all the messy emotions, thoughts, and physical connections. I learn from the wisdom literature to share good food and good conversation around a table, to love one another, and to do work that makes the world a better place. All activities experienced in the company of others.

Personally, I am most spiritually satisfied when I share important moments with others. Holidays, Sabbath, weddings, funerals, baby welcome ceremonies, study, are all more fun and meaningful to me in community. For me, spirituality, community, and Judaism are all interconnected. In the same way that you can’t pluck a wave from the ocean, you can’t really separate these three from each other. Celebrations and difficulties are shared, so the joys are greater and the challenges are less burdensome. What is your experience?

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a long-time community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.
#spirituality #community #Judaism #rabbi #interfaith

Thanksgiving 3 Ways

The-Shiksas-Sukkah-2012by Rabbi Wendy Spears

One of the things I love about Judaism is its emphasis on joy and gratitude. We are encouraged to see our lives as blessings. In America, we have the opportunity to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in the celebration of holidays. Pretty much everyone celebrates Thanksgiving, eagerly anticipating their favorite dishes – like marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes and green bean casserole with crispy onions. Similarly, the most well-known of the Jewish harvest holidays currently is Passover when we anticipate eating matzah ball soup with friends and family around the holiday table after we’ve told the story of the Exodus from Egypt. But it wasn’t always this way.

The Bible puts the autumn harvest of Sukkot front and center (also called Tabernacles in English). It was so important that it was often referred to as “THE Holiday.” Everyone who was anyone made sure to show up for Sukkot in Jerusalem when the Temple existed. Needs on every level were met – physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. I imagine there were parades, and shows, and parties every night in addition to the sensory spectacle at the Temple itself. People brought the best of their harvests to share, just as we aspire to bring the most delicious food to our sukkah.

The Sukkot holiday was so important during the biblical period that when the Maccabees conquered the Assyrian Greek garrison in Jerusalem and regained control of the Temple in December of that year, the holiday for which they rededicated (Hanukkah) the Temple was Sukkot. As my teacher Michael Zeldin taught my classmates and me, it was “Sukkot in December.” Since Sukkot was of 8 days duration, so is Hanukkah of 8 days duration. Sukkot is the bigger holiday, and we’ve lost sight of that in the way we celebrate Hanukkah in America due to its proximity to Christmas and that holiday’s influence on consumerism.

During much of Sukkot, my family and I host potluck dinners for friends and extended family members in our backyard sukkah (temporary shelter). We share news of the day and of our lives, and talk about our gratitude for our abundance and good fortune. We are mostly blessed with good health, ample livelihoods, meaningful relationships, and the ability to share delicious food and intelligent conversation around the holiday table. We are aware of all this wonder, and try to articulate our great appreciation for it.. Being outside gives us the opportunity to be a little bit more in tune with our environment. I am truly grateful for all the farmers, harvesters, truckers, and grocers who help bring food to my table. I’m aware, too, during California’s drought, how challenging this all is.

As American Jews, we are triply fortunate to be able to celebrate our gratitude for 3 months in a row. First comes Sukkot in October, then Thanksgiving in November, and Hanukkah in December. While everyone is familiar with traditional Thanksgiving dishes and Hanukkah latkes (potato pancakes), not so many of us are as aware of the abundance on our tables and with each other right now. This is a time of creativity and experimentation in creating something truly delicious to share. As I visit the farmers’ markets, I see 5 of the traditional 7 Species of the Jewish homeland available: grapes, pomegranates, figs, olives, and dates (the other 2 are barley which is harvested at Passover, and wheat which is harvested at Shavuot and here at Sukkot). There are also numerous varieties of apples, squashes, sweet potatoes, savory potatoes, and onions. I like butternut squash soup with pomegranate garnish; my family enjoys savory top sirloin with roasted potatoes and figs. This variety extends to our personal connections, with friends old and new, and our family. We tell our stories and reminisce about holidays and loved ones from years past. This time is precious and ephemeral. I am cultivating an attitude of gratitude more and more with my words and my actions. I am thankful for my many blessings.

#Sukkot #Thanksgiving #SquashSoup #7Species

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.