WANTED: Pied Piper – Dead or Alive

Pied Piper of Hameln

By Creator:Augustin von Moersperg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

by Rabbi Batsheva Appel
cross-posted on The Table

As we have turned our attention to our young people especially how to engage them in our communities and in Jewish life, repeatedly I have heard well-meaning lay-people and even some Jewish professionals say that the most important thing needed for the program is a “Pied Piper”. My immediate response each time is – no.

Why on earth would we want a Pied Piper? If we look at the story, the Pied Piper is:

  • Someone who lures children away from their parents
  • Someone who is willing to use children as pawns in his revenge on the townspeople for not being paid
  • Someone who treats children like the vermin he is paid to exterminate

Why would we deliberately look for someone just like that to work with our children?

We should instead look for:

  • Someone who can relate to children
  • Someone who is passionate about living a Jewish life and can transmit that
  • Someone who loves building community

If we don’t have anyone like that in our communities, then we should find someone who could fulfill all of these criteria and help cultivate them. We can arrange to have them mentored. We can encourage them to learn more about working with young people and learn more about Judaism. We can pay them appropriately [remember that the Pied Piper stole all of the children in Hameln because they refused to pay him for the work that he had done.]

We don’t need to wait for a Pied Piper to work with our youth. We don’t need to wait for the perfect person either. We do need to find individuals who can work with our young people now, even if we need to help them grow into the role.

Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the Associate Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, Arizona.

Moving & Jewish Stuff

In my years as a rabbi, there is one impulse that I have seen repeated over and over. If someone is moving or getting rid of things, anything that is remotely Jewish will be brought to the synagogue.

The definition of remotely Jewish includes not only the overtly Jewish things like prayer books, but also any artwork or tchotchke with a Jewish theme, any book or artwork or tchotchke made by someone with Jewish ancestry, anything that has any reference to the Bible, or anything with a Jewish star.

I’m thinking of this as I go through a move. The sorting is endless. What can be trashed and what recycled? Which organization accepts which items for donation, and what are their criteria? What am I giving to friends or to family? How can I make sure that the things that I love go to a good home, if it is time for me to give them up?

And that is what the synagogue can be, a good home for things that are Jewish. And isn’t it wonderful that people think of us as they make their transitions? How can we reach out to them at these times?

The picture is of something Jewish my grandmother, z”l, gave me.


Counting the Days


(c) Mark Robinson

by Rabbi Batsheva Appel

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor, we read not about counting down to a special date, but counting up. We read about the observance of Passover and then:

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days. [Leviticus 23:15 – 16]

On the second day of Passover, the omer, a sheaf of barley, is to be brought to the Temple to celebrate the barley harvest. Fifty days later, on Shavuot, wheat is to be brought to celebrate the wheat harvest. The period of forty-nine days is called the omer, the name for the sheaf of barley brought on Passover. To this day, every evening, Jews count the 49 days between the second night of Passover and the day before Shavuot and as they mark the passage of time they say a blessing, “who has commanded us regarding the counting of the omer”.

Because most of us no longer farm barley and wheat in Eretz Yisrael, we are now counting up the days for a different reason. If Passover celebrates our redemption from Mitzrayim and slavery; fifty days later, Shavuot celebrates revelation, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. The fifty days now ties not two key crops, but two key moments in our people’s life. God freed us from Mitzrayim, so we could receive Torah from God at Sinai. This change transforms the omer from a worry about the wheat harvest to an anticipation of Sinai. We anticipate Torah so much that we count the days.

Our sense of time is different than that of our ancestors. While we are accustomed to counting down the days, there are two things for which we count up the days, like counting the omer before Shavuot. Just as we yearn for Torah, we may yearn for these things as well. When someone is pregnant, we count the days, the weeks, the months, until we reach forty weeks, if everything goes well. Another time when a person might count the days is when counting the days of sobriety or abstinence. Again, there is yearning and hope in the counting. In counting the omer, in counting the days of pregnancy, and in counting the days of sobriety, there is more than a sense of anticipation; there really is a desire for something that transforms our lives.

Receiving Torah, through learning, transforms us as well. Our desire for all of these things has us do more than just count the days; we spend those days preparing for these events. We read, we attend classes and meetings, we speak with other people who can share their experiences at the same moment in their lives, and we prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually for the transformation as well. As we continue to count the days of the omer, and look forward to celebrating Shavuot and the gift of Torah, may the days be ones in which we prepare ourselves for the possibility of transformation.

Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the senior  rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation. Our Food Justice and Sustainability Project grows tons of organic produce for local shelters and soup kitchens, but no barley or wheat.

Being Fully Present – #BlogExodus Day 14













by Rabbi Batsheva Appel

Many thanks to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer who started #BlogExodus which began on the first day of the Hebrew month Nisan and ends today. The writing prompt for today is being.

cross-posted on The Table

We are always on. Our digital devices are with us constantly. They come to the table with us , they come to bed with us,  and they even come to the bathroom with us.  We are connected with people around the world, with information about everything at our fingertips, with  books to read or email to check or games to fill the time. When we are without all of these connections and all of this information, even for the time that it takes a plane to take off or land, it feels strange to us.

But even as we are always on how often are we being fully present? As we spend every moment processing emails to someone at work or sending texts to a friend across the country, how often are we fully present with the people who are face to face with us, in this minute, in this space? Barbara Fredrickson’s essay,”Your Phone or Your Heart”, in the New York Times Sunday Review yesterday, speaks of the physical benefits of these real, face-to-face connections.  

Passover, which begins tonight, is all about being fully present. What makes a seder work is not the Haggadah we choose or who asks the Four Questions or the symbols on the seder plate or the tastes of the matzah. What makes the seder work is that we take the time to make the real connections, be present with each other and share the big stories and our personal stories. The story of the Exodus from Egypt as well as the story of how, as a child, I broke my mother’s toe as she was baking cheesecake for dessert for the seder. The story of God redeeming us so that we could worship God and the story of how a Jew by Choice fell in love with Judaism and the Jewish people at a Passover seder many years ago.

I know the power of the Passover seder, the power of being fully present as we make connections and share our stories because of the number of people who have spoken with me about conversion and their stories almost always begin “I was at a Passover seder…”

Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the senior rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago.

Teaching and Technology

by Rabbi Batsheva Appel

The question of how to combine technology with teaching is nothing new. There is a well-known Hasidic story 


 from the turn of the last century where the disciples ask their teacher, what can we learn from the invention of the train, the telegraph, and the telephone? The rabbi answers: From the train we can learn that in one moment everything can be lost, from the telegraph we can learn that every single word counts, from the telephone we can learn that whatever we say here is heard there.

How would I update this story for the turn of this century? What can we learn from the invention of the smart phone, blogs, and Twitter? From the smart phone we can learn that despite multi-tasking, we still can’t dance at two weddings at the same time. From blogs, we can learn the power of being anonymous, which can empower us to say the important things that need to be said or can make it hard for us to remember to be a mensch. From Twitter we can learn lot of information is shared in just 140 characters and that information is recorded for posterity.

Technology can add so much to our teaching. When KAM Isaiah Israel made the decision to move our mid-week Hebrew program to a distance learning program that we call Ivrit@Home, people were very excited , because we were being very up-to-date, and very modern, after all our children are now learning on the computer in the middle of the week. I am very excited that Ivrit@Home is working for our families and helping us to accomplish our education goals, but we shouldn’t be so quick to congratulate ourselves. All we are doing is shifting one element of our Religious School program to the computer, not changing how our students are really learning. There is nothing new about a teacher working with a child individually. Ivrit@Home makes one-on-one instruction possible for every one of our students, but there is nothing new here. We are not even scratching the surface for what could be accomplished with technology.

In the Mishnah we read that each of us should see ourselves as if we had been redeemed from Mitzrayim, as if we had experienced the Exodus. What are the possibilities of recreating that experience for each of our students and ourselves using technology? We already tweet the Exodus, blog the Exodus, put pictures of the Exodus on Instagram and Pinterest. We can make videos or use animation to tell the story. What if we developed a role playing game about the Exodus? What could be possible in the future using virtual reality to recreate crossing of the Sea of Reeds?

The last thing that I want to close with is from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who talked about the role of the teacher. Because no matter what technology we use, whether quill on parchment, or printing in books, or writing in chalk on a chalkboard or sending out Tweets

Everything depends on the person who stands in front of the classroom. The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. The teacher is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the promised land, the teacher must have been there themselves. When asking themselves: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say?, the teacher must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything else is not textbooks, but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read: the text that they will never forget. [edited for gender neutrality, from On1Foot.org]

Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the senior rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago. She is intrigued by the possibilities of technology, is considered tech savvy, and uses a fountain pen.


From strength to strength

by Rabbi Batsheva Appel

After these things, someone said to Joseph, “Your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When someone told Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to see you,” Israel strengthened himself and sat up in bed. [Genesis 48:1 – 2]

Jacob’s responds to his son’s visit: despite his illness, he strengthens himself and sits up in bed. The Hebrew word here, vayitchazeik, is the reflexive form of the verb. The strength that Jacob gets from the visit is the strength that he summons himself. Joseph has only visited his father, but that visit makes a big difference.

Bikkur Cholim is the mitzvah of visiting the sick. In the Talmud, Rabbi Acha Bar Chanina says: “One who visits someone who is ill removes a sixtieth of their pain. [BT Nedarim 39b] We see that people who are ill show the same type of response today. It might be that a visitor is a welcome distraction from their pain or their worries or their boredom. It might be that a visitor makes them feel less lonely and more connected to community. Visits do make a difference and people do strengthen themselves.

When we do bikkur cholim we are not expected to explain anything [medically or theologically] or to fix anything. We are expected to be present for the person that we are visiting and take our cues from them. If they want to hear all of the latest news, then we offer that. If they want to tell us about their illness and the challenges that they face, then we listen. We are a reassuring presence for them, nothing more. We don’t need to spend much time to make a huge difference. In fact, a phone call or an email or a note or a card, can be reassuring, if we are unable to make a visit. And if they say that they don’t want visits or calls, we respect their wishes. But by being present for people who are ill or who are facing other challenges in their lives we help them to draw on their own strength at a time when they need it most.

As we finish reading the Book of Genesis with Parashat Vayechi, this week’s Torah portion, we say: chazak chazak v’nitchazeik “from strength to strength and may we be strengthened.” When we offer support and strength chazak to each other at times of illness and challenge, as well as support and strength chazak to each other at times of joy and celebration, then, v’nitchazeik we are able to strengthen ourselves and our community. The strength of our community is found in the connections that we have with each other, the support that we offer each other, and the ways in which our presence for each other helps us to strengthen ourselves.

Chazak Chazak v’nitchazeik “from strength to strength and may we be strengthened.”

Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the senior rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago.

Giving Tuesday? Thanksgiving in May?

Pears at the Farmers' Market

by Rabbi Batsheva Appel

We have entered our season of gratitude and excess, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.  There are the excesses of shopping, between Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday.  According to Charity Navigator the excess also means physical waste:

One million additional tons of garbage are produced each week between Thanksgiving and Christmas— a 25% increase in total waste during the holiday period then any other time of year.

There is a different sort of excess that is seen in our charitable giving and volunteer work.  This is also a time of year when we are most likely to donate money or time to our favorite charities. Charity Navigator in a their report, Year-End Giving Trends: 2012 Poll Results, based on a poll that they gave both donors and charities, notes that the average charity receives 40% of their yearly donations in these several weeks at the end of the year.

The need exists all year, but we concentrate our giving of time and money in just a small window of time.

Here are some of my thoughts about giving at this season:

  • Consider adding Giving Tuesday to the list of shopping days. There could be more people than you realize on your shopping list who would be happy to know that you donated money to a worthy cause in their name.
  • Unless someone gives you a shopping list, and you have double-checked that they still need the items on that list, give money or money equivalents.  Giving things might make us feel better, but it isn’t about us, it is about the people in need.
  • If you are giving things instead of money, give new things, not things that are all used up.  Yes, people are in need, but giving ratty clothing or expired food does not help and takes up the time of the people who are volunteering.
  • Volunteer your time as well as money, when possible.
  • If you give all year long and volunteer all year round, bless you.  You know that the need is with us constantly.
  • If you only donate at the end of the year or only volunteer at the end of the year, please consider creating a second period of Thanksgiving six months from now in May. Plan on donating a little something to the charity of your choice in May. Call the volunteer coordinator back and ask to schedule a time to work in May. The need is with us constantly, the organizations you donate to and work with will be delighted to accept your help outside of these few weeks at the end of the year.
  • Our work isn’t always about money or time, sometimes the work requires advocacy so that we can try to eliminate the need for our time and our money

Rabbinic tradition holds that our prayers of thanksgiving will never cease. Until there is no longer any need for our time or our money or our advocacy, we can extend our period of Thanksgiving to far beyond a few weeks at the end of the year.

Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the senior rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago.

Taking the Food Stamp Challenge

Red Pears & Persimmons

Red Pears & Persimmons
(c)Rabbi Batsheva Appel

by Rabbi Batsheva Appel

According to a report issued recently by the USDA, almost 15% of US households were food insecure in 2011. We already know that more people are using SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program = Food Stamps] than ever before.  There are many misconceptions about who receives SNAP benefits [almost half are children and another third are elderly or disabled] or how much the benefit actually gives a recipient [$134.85/person/month]. Yet even as this vital program keeps people from starving in our great country, there are calls to cut the program in order to save money.

I am taking the Food Stamp Challenge this autumn to bring attention to this important program.  The challenge is to live for one week on $1.50/meal for a total of $31.50. I will be donating the amount that I would usually spend on food to the Chicago Greater Food Depository. In addition, I am raising money to combat hunger.  If you go to this page, you can help me meet my goal of raising $1,134.

Our tradition speaks of how to balance the needs of the poor and how to support them:

If two poor people approach you, and one is hungry for bread and one needs clothing, you first feed the hungry person and then clothe the naked one…But if a man is seeking food and the woman clothing, we first feed the man because physical pain is worse than shame… [Translation by AJWS][ Aruch HaShulchan, Laws of Tzedakah, 251:10]

Physical pain is worse than shame. Our shame is that there are too many of us who do not understand the reality of families that run out of food with a week and a half left in the month, who go to Wal-mart at 11 pm on the last day of the month so that they can begin buying groceries at 12:01 am on the first day of the month. There are too many of us who do not understand who we are really helping with SNAP. And there are too many of us who do not understand how close many of us are to needing the help.

Rabbi Appel is the senior rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago. 

Practical repentance

old habits [old shoes discarded]

by Rabbi Batsheva Appel

Repentance, teshuvah, is a process. We recognize the wrongs that we have done and regret doing them. We communicate both our recognition and our regrets to the person whom we have wronged. We determine that we will not repeat the same actions. And when we are faced with the same situation, we make a different choice. Maimonides offers an example of someone who is successful at repentance: a man who has had an affair and finding himself alone with the same woman, still loving her and still able to rekindle the affair, choosing not to act on that impulse.

As a process, teshuvah is a difficult challenge for us. We do not want to realize that we have done something wrong and we do not want to face up to the consequences. Apologizing to someone makes us feel vulnerable.  Even when we do go through all the steps of recognition, remorse, asking for forgiveness, making restitution, resolving to never do this again, we can still fall down at the final step, again making the same choice that we resolved not to make.

So, we come back to our teshuvah each year, resolving the same things, wanting to make the same changes. We reflect, we are introspective, we are honest with ourselves, we really want to change…and we don’t. Sin, repent, rinse, repeat.

We do not always make the changes that we seek, not because of a lack of will or desire, not because of a lack of prayer or promises, but because of a lack of planning. We need the spiritual side of repentance, but we also need to be much more practical about what is happening when we go through the process of teshuvah.

Recently I read The Power of Habit: why we do what we do in life and business by Charles Duhigg.  Duhigg writes about how the habits in our lives shape everything for good and for bad. We wake up in the morning and do not spend much time about thinking about what comes next, because we automatically get ready for the day. If we had to think through the steps of each and every action of our day, the amount of time that we would need would skyrocket. We also have habits that are less successful for us, the habits that we wish we could change, smoking, not exercising, etc.

Duhigg delineates the steps in changing one a habit: we explore the craving that underlies the habit, we determine the cue for the habit, what routine we follow, and what outcome results. When we have all of this information, we can change the routine and change the outcome.

These steps work to help change simple habits like not eating a cookie every afternoon [Duhigg’s personal example] as well as the more serious habits that we are striving to change.  If we go back to the steps of repentance, we can add to them.  When we recognize what we have done, we can look for the cues, the routines, the outcomes. When we resolve to change, we can formulate a plan for exactly how we will make the change, instead of relying on sheer force of will or removing all opportunities to repeat the same action. Then when we are in the same situation, we can enact our plan and be truly repentant. If we are successful, we will have developed a new habit that sustains itself and replaces the old one.

Duhigg says that one of the keys to change is knowing that we have a choice. We have a choice.  We can choose repentance. We can do more than choose, we can plan and work towards our goal and make 5773 and beyond very different from the past year.

G’mar chatimah tovah! May you be sealed in the book of a good life!

Rabbi Appel is rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago. 


Faster, higher, stronger, holier

By Rabbi Batsheva Appel

The 2012 London Olympics starts this week. There is something engrossing about all of the athletes working to their highest possible level, trying to attain the Olympic ideal which is contained in the motto of citius, altius, fortius “faster, higher, stronger”.

The sense of dedication to this ideal pervades all areas of the lives of Olympic athletes. Even when support (financial and otherwise) is limited. Striving for “faster, higher, stronger” shapes: what they do each day, what they eat, what they have time for outside of their sport, where they live, the jobs that they are able to take, who their friends are, and how they are seen by their family, their communities, their countries, and the world. Each of the Olympic athletes works hard to achieve what they can, with the goal of “faster, higher, stronger”, even when four years of work culminates in a ten second race. Even when four or more years of work will only be seen by a few people who happen to be Olympic badminton fans or connoisseurs of slalom kayaking.

As Jews we have an ideal to strive for as well. Our ideal is sacrius “holier”. We see this ideal of holiness in many aspects of Judaism. During the the prayer we say each day about God’s holiness, the Kedushah, when we sing the words kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, “holy, holy, holy” there are some people who lift themselves onto their toes for each word. The rabbis speak of ma’alin bakodesh, “going up in holiness”; this small movement becomes a physical reminder of our striving for this ideal.

In Judaism, holiness is how well we live in the world, not how well we isolate ourselves from it. How well we treat all those who are powerless in our community. How well we treat each other. How well we treat the planet on which we live. How well we do what God asks of us. Just as the Olympics shapes the lives of the athletes who compete, when we make our ideal “holier”, it shapes all aspects of our lives.

I look at the Olympic athletes and I am struck by the fact that I will never do anything fast enough, high enough or strong enough to stand on a platform to receive a gold medal. The quest for “holier” is different. None of us has to wait for another Olympiad to see the results. We each have the possibility to shape our lives every day in our quest to be holier.

*I am saddened and angered that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will not permit a minute of silence in remembrance of the Israeli athletes who were murdered during the 1972 Munich Olympics. To claim that such an action will brings politics into the Games is a weak argument. If the Olympic ideals and values are worth anything, then acknowledging a tragedy that threatened those ideals is important.

Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago.