Remembering Rabbi Janice Garfunkel- by Margaret J. Meyer

Janice was a fighter. When she believed in a cause she threw herself into it. This was true whether she was actively championing civil rights, defending her beloved Israel, urging colleagues to preserve and observe tradition within Reform Judaism or, during her last months, literally fighting for her life. Though I could not claim to have been a close friend of Janice’s, our paths crossed many times in her all too brief life, and I came to know her well and admire her greatly.

Born in New Jersey to German refugees, Janice grew up in Dayton, Ohio. A strong Zionist from her youth, she didn’t just move there to “try it out,” but came on Aliyah, for a while living on Reform kibbutz Lotan, where my son Danny also lived, for a time. We worked together in the tomato fields. Back in the States, Janice studied at HUC – a bright, strong student, passionate about her ideals. Our student days overlapped in Cincinnati.

Determined to become a mother, yet without funds for expensive adoption or invitro programs, Janice did what she was best at: She researched every possibility. She discovered that as an Israeli she was entitled to invitro in Israel, basically for free. Off to Haifa she went – twice – to become the mother of two wonderful daughters. Later she encouraged others wishing to become parents to travel to Israel to pursue parenthood.

As a rabbi Janice served in Washington DC, at the RAC and also at a small congregation in Hagerstown, MD. While living in DC Janice became active in the lay led minyan at Adas Israel, where my son Jonathan and his family are active. I still recall my grandchildren and her girls chasing each other around the hall during the Oneg after Shabbat services when they were little.  When she wasn’t in Hagerstown on a week-end, Janice could be found at Adas, often chanting Torah or helping to lead services. After she left the DC area, she remained beloved in the Adas community which held a shloshim for her after her death.

Janice moved to Springfield, Ohio to be nearer family, serving the congregation that — how ironic – Marrianne Gevirtz had served before succumbing to cancer. It was a good move; Janice and the girls were happy in the community; they were near the larger city of Dayton with her parents and friends from her youth. But then illness struck. Janice was diagnosed with breast cancer. She bravely struggled on, continuing her rabbinical duties while undergoing treatment. After a while she seemed to be in remission and thought all would be well again when life took a terrible twist.

Janice’s cancer returned at the same time the Springfield congregation realized it had shrunk to the point of no longer being able to afford a rabbi. Once again, Janice researched. What would be the best for her and her girls? Her parents were elderly, her mother dealing with dementia. She decided she couldn’t remain in the Dayton area. Janice had a brother in Cincinnati so moved there, renting a home, finding doctors and treatment centers, and establishing her daughters, one of whom has special needs, in schools. We reconnected. Undergoing treatment, Janice nevertheless became an active part of the community, joining our Board of Rabbis, becoming a regular part of Adath Israel congregation, making many new friends through her daughters’ schools.

Once more she thought seemed to be in remission; once again the cancer came back, this time aggressively and entering the brain. Janice researched everywhere and everything; she interrogated doctors as to the best treatment, read articles, did everything possible to extend her life. She so wanted to be there for her girls. Even when she had little energy left – many of us drove her to doctors’ appointments and errands – she still remained a rabbi. You may have read her CCAR parashat hashavua columns written during her last days. She was thinking of the future; she still had questions, so many questions. In Parashat Noach, the last column she wrote – shortly before her own death, she asked:

“What are the ramifications, philosophically of recognizing that humanity might end some day? If we gain immortality through the good deeds we do, what if no one is left to remember or benefit from those deeds? How do we live our lives in the face of eventual, possible oblivion? Or does the rainbow promise mean we will never be utterly wiped out?”

We are richer for having known Rabbi Janice Garfunkel. Now we are left to remember and benefit from her life and deeds. May her memory be for a blessing.

My “private” pulpit pregnancy


On my way to performing a wedding during my first pregnancy (8 months along)

I vividly remember arguing with a fellow third year rabbinical student about the challenges facing women in the rabbinate.  He felt strongly that men face the exact same challenges as women when it comes to the rabbinic placement process. I said….”Are you ever going to have to interview for a job pregnant? Because I might.” Well, that shut him up (for a moment)! Pregnancy is of course a joy and a blessing and a…..real challenge for the working woman. The hypothetical scenario I offered my classmate actually came true for me just a few years later, when I interviewed for a job as a part-time solo rabbi…when I was 8 months pregnant.  Feeling a full-grown baby kick inside you while trying to compose thoughtful answers during an interview is something my male colleagues will simply NEVER experience. Thankfully, that interview went great and I was invited  to lead services for the congregation. So there I was, one month from my due date, large and in charge, leading services for a packed house. Anyone who has led services pregnant knows can sure tire a rabbi out.  By the Aleinu I was so out of breath and red-faced I had to sit on a stool for the rest of services.  Luckily everyone understood that thankfully pregnancy is not a permanent condition, and they hired me (and have been unbelievably supportive of me and my growing family for the past 2 years).

If it was up to me, I would remain in hiding for the duration of my gestational periods.  I consider this a private time, a personal time in the life of a family…but due to my ever-expanding girth and my job as a congregational rabbi, of course it could not be more public. All eyes were on me…and I don’t even ALLUDE to my pregnancies on facebook!  I’d rather keep my expanding self to MYSELF.  Because during my two pregnancies I’ve learned that not only am I a bit on the superstitious side (poo poo), I’m also not the kind of pregnant that can rock cute maxi dresses.  I’m large, substantial, and I take up serious space in the world, cankles and all. My personal life was very much on display, not to mention my physical limitations. By my second trimester, I could no longer lift or carry the Torah, and I drank about a liter of water by the time we got to Adon Olam each week.  But we made it through as a kehillah kedoshah, thanks to my amazingly menschy and helpful congregants.

Now that my newest addition is three months old (!!!) I’m happily back to work leading services each Shabbat.  Of course, as rabbis we are always on display, pregnant or not. When I receive (admittedly flattering) comments such as “Oh, Rabbi, it looks like you never even had a baby!” I’m constantly reminded that my male colleagues receive a much smaller percentage of comments about their appearance then we females do. So after being pregnant on the pulpit twice, I can again safely say to my old classmate, “Oh yes, I think women rabbis face unique challenges….!”


At my newest daughter Maya’s baby naming



ooh la la and oy vey: bringing up bebe

“NOOOOO!!! MINE!!!!” as of last week, this phrase has become a common refrain around our house. Ellie, our 18-month old who knows about 15 words, seems to know these two words the best of all. This Friday night, after a major babysitter fail, I brought Ellie to services at my synagogue. As I tried to concentrate on leading services, I heard her confidently assert this refrain as a congregant volunteer patiently tried to corral her in the hallway.  Concerned about Ellie’s seemingly impending diva-ness, I’ve taken to reading books on toddlers and their development. A big fan of the amazing resource on Jewish parenting, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, which focuses on helping kids deal with life with a positive (and Jewish) perspective, I decided to read another book on parenting by a Jewish author, Bringing up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman.

 I’m instantly drawn to this amusing, informative, and fast read introducing American readers to the typical French parenting style. Druckerman, struggling to raise three kids under the age of three in Paris, becomes entranced by the calm, commanding and endlessly chic French mothers in her neighborhood. She begins by describing an eerily familiar dinner scene, in which her 18 month old daughter trashes the restaurant …while all the French babies around them calmly sit and eat..vegetables and fish! Although we have become very, very good tippers since Ellie arrived, I still often dread going out to eat.  Druckerman perfectly describes the harried strategy for eating out with a typical American toddler- ordering right away, cramming food into your mouth while also providing entertainment, and asking for the check with your mouth still full of food.  I was immediately entranced by her descriptions of French creches (NURTURING AND NUTRITIOUS DAY CARE provided by the state!) wherein toddlers calmly and cleanly enjoy salmon mousse with a fresh vegetable starter.


Druckerman describes Parisian mothers who say “no” with authority and…kids who listen to them.  I’m concerned about Ellie becoming spoiled and so I appreciate many of the lessons on stricter French parenting, but at the same time I relate to Druckerman’s hesitation and anxiety about setting limits. As she puts it so beautifully, “I want my kids to be self-reliant, resilient and happy. I just don’t want to let go of their hands.”

Druckerman also briefly describes the challenge of teaching her kids about Judaism, as she decides not to allow her kids to eat pork, and she introduces them to Chanukah. She references Blessings of a Skinned Knee, and I think many of her anxieties about giving her kids more structure, both in their diets and in their behavior, would be assuaged by setting limits and providing structure within a Jewish background, as Vogel suggests. Like Vogel, Druckerman also acknowledges the importance of kids developing patience, and learning to deal with life’s disappointments. She describes French parents calmly quelling their children’s protests with the explanation, “C’est moi qui decide- It’s me who decides.” This, in addition to an important lesson about limiting snacks (Ellie’s diet is FAR too reliant on mini ritz peanut butter crackers, taken “to-go”), is something I will definitely incorporate into my fledgling bank of parenting skills. When confronted with another angry rendition of “NO…MINE!” I will try replying firmly but lovingly, “No, Ellie, that’s MY iphone…and It’s me who decides!”


Eliana, during an angelic moment

Rose Durbin is the rabbi of Knesseth Israel Synagogue in Gloversville, NY. She and her husband Matthew, rabbi of Temple Beth El, enjoy living in Glens Falls with their chatterbox daughter Eliana and their two cats. In addition to honing her parenting skills, Rose has also recently enjoyed watching Borgias season one (for the second time) and, surprisingly,  reading another great non-fiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Any new reading suggestions as she begins a three-day trip, sans toddler?!?!


By Sara Luria

I decided to call my mikveh project, launched a month ago, ImmerseNYC.

Oh New York — my birthplace, my home — I didn’t mean it quite so literally.

When I said I wanted to introduce New Yorkers to the transformational potential of water, this is not what I had in mind.


The destruction abounds:

boardwalks that were,

a carousel that seems to be floating in the East River (hadn’t my children just sat on those horse statues a few weeks ago?),

cars floating on the Lower East Side,

New Jersey stoops rising out of feet of sewage and sludge.


Immerse we did,

not on purpose, not to prepare for a wedding, or to become Jewish, or to celebrate retirement, or to mark the end of chemotherapy.


We were immersed against our will.


Rescue me, God,

for the waters have come up to my neck.

I have sunk in the slime of the deep,

and there is no place to stand.

I have entered the watery depths,

and the current has swept me away.

I am exhausted from calling out…[1]


A mother lost her grip for a moment and her two sons were caught in the current.

An elderly couple drowned in their car.


For these things, I sob,

my eyes, my eyes flow with water.[2]


Oh yes, there is water in me.

Recently, my baby daughter was crying, so I picked her up and held her

face-to-face, cheek-to-cheek.

One of her tears dropped onto my lip,

I tasted it.

My daughter’s tear actually tasted sweet to me.

I knew she would not be crying for long, her delicious smile would return any moment.

I appreciated the intimacy of her tear, her water, a drip in my mouth.


The fluidity of our world reminds us:

salty tears can taste sweet,

the waves recede, becoming the calm ocean once again,

the lights go back on, eventually,

even in the most remote places,

even for those who lost everything.


And on that day, we will immerse nyc.

On purpose.

For healing and to celebrate life.

To embody forgiveness of the element that leaves

death, life, and everything in between, in its wake.

[1] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, Psalm 69: 2-4.

[2] Adele Berlin, Lamentations, Lamentations 1:16.

Sara is in her final year of rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. A community organizer, birth doula, and former Mayyim Hayyim intern, Sara hope to integrate her passion for social justice and commitment to meaningful Jewish experience in her rabbinate. Sara lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Isaac, and their children, Caleb and Eva. You can reach her at

I heart AJWS

Taking a quick break from dancing in Senegal

Yes, AJWS worked its magic on me… and now I’m a woman obsessed. I went to Senegal in 2009 as a member of the AJWS Rabbinical Students’ Delegation to help build latrines in two villages (though I was more of the “dancing with the locals” type of volunteer then the “lifting heavy things” type of volunteer),  and to discuss social action with a dynamic group of fellow students. It was an amazing experience and it inevitably  inspired me to become a “social action rabbi.” I never thought I would be one of “those,” but the trip helped teach me that a rabbi, by definition, should be a “social action rabbi”- an unbelievably powerful message and one that has become an integral part of my identity.

I left Senegal (to go on my honeymoon, but that’s another story)  more fully devoted to making tikkun olam a bigger part of my life as a rabbi, but most importantly, as a JEW.  I mean,   don’t get me wrong, I had always been an avid volunteer….from high school (Camp Jenny!) all the way through HUC  (HUC-JIR Soup Kitchen!) but now I was driven to work towards social action in a whole new way…..and yet…..

is it just me or this mission to work towards tikkun olam  a bit… daunting?  Yes, it is not ours to complete the task, etc, etc… but when there are SO many worthy organizations and causes, it’s tough to even know where to start.

Having this personal connection to AJWS has helped empower me to jump in and incorporate the values of tikkun olam into my rabbinic role. Because of my experience with AJWS, I have tried to support this organization not only through tzedakah but also, most importantly, through education and through encouraging advocacy in my community, Knesseth Israel in Gloversville, NY. This weekend, we join hundreds of congregations and organizations across the country who are participating in Global Hunger Shabbat (GHS).

AJWS makes participating in this effort both easy and accessible because the provided resources  are incredibly high quality and user-friendly. Tonight, my community’s services will incorporate this prayer, this text study, an election-themed sermon, and this food aid fact sheet.  Last year, I’m not sure I was able to help my congregants feel connected to the issue of global hunger during GHS in the way I hoped. This year, we established an on-going food drive, began a local volunteer effort with a church soup kitchen,  and on Yom Kippur I gave a Hunger Games – themed tikkun olam sermon. Together this change in focus has helped our community to more personally embrace our mission as “social action Jews,”  so I’m praying that this year the message of GHS will truly resonate with everyone present. Thank you, GHS, for helping me be the “social action rabbi” I never thought I could be- and for making it so…easy!

Rose Kowel Durbin is the rabbi of KIS in Gloversville, NY (like us on facebook!!!). She lives in Glens Falls, where her husband Matthew is the rabbi of Temple Beth El, and her daughter (18 month old Eliana Rae) makes “cat” a 10 syllable exclamation. Rose is obsessed with THE VOICE (and AJWS, obviously).

Ellie hearts AJWS too! And her sunglasses.

The Elul I never imagined

by Jen Gubitz

In 5771, I missed Elul.

The final Elul of my rabbinical school career and I missed it. I didn’t even know the significance of the Hebrew month of Elul until my first year at Hebrew Union College’s Jerusalem Campus. But in just a few short years, Elul’s absence in the arc of my year was palpable.  It was as though I’d purchased an eleven-month Hebrew calendar that skipped right from Av to Tishrei.


When I went to lead Rosh Hashanah services for Brooklyn Jews’ unaffiliated 20s and 30s in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I was undeniably off my A-game.  Tefillah, normally one of my strengths, was an oddly detached experience: I missed cues, fumbled Hebrew, and felt empty and exhausted.  “Its okay,” my dear friend and co-leader Rabbi Marc Katz said to me, “I could tell you weren’t totally present because I know you, but I don’t think anyone else noticed.  Really…don’t worry.  I’m sure,” his pep talk continued, “you’ll have your head in the game for Yom Kippur.”  The sports metaphors were Marc’s, but an accurate description: since late-August I had been sidelined, and now felt like a junior varsity rabbi, on the disabled list, like a mere spectator with terrible seats to the central experience of the High Holidays.

When what I thought were mosquito bites turned out to be shingles, and a few days off of school to rest and recover became six plus weeks needed to heal, I turned to netflix and acupuncture.  I un-guiltily watched four seasons of Friday Night Lights (about Texas football – not Shabbat), moved into my acupuncturist’s office, and slept in twelve hour shifts.

And then I went back to school.  Too soon.  When post-viral fatigue set in, it wasn’t even clear I’d be ready to compete in time for Rosh Hashanah.  I assumed that the fatigue would be a lasting symptom; that I would never return to my normal self.  So again, I did not move from my couch for the week prior to the main event and suited up but an hour before services would begin.  They were ‘good enough’ Marc felt, and while for me – a non-practicing perfectionist who errs on the side of practicing – even I was satisfied to have simply gotten through the game.

And then on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I awoke.  The shingles on my face had more or less healed and the exhaustion I had known even the day before, but expected never to lift, in fact, lifted.  While I still took the next ten days easy, just as Marc had predicted, on Yom Kippur, in front of 600 people, we hit the ball out of the park.  During the Amidah standing prayer, facing towards the arc, I caught myself wondering: “Wait…if the rabbis are leading the main service across the street, who’s leading this one?”  It was a healthy dose of reality.


Enter spiritual director Rabbi Yael.

“Take a deep breath…” she urged. “Find a calming, centering place of being…and just tell me what’s on your mind.”

“I missed Elul,” I blurted out.  I had mentioned this to my mentor the week prior and he agreed.  Objectively speaking, I had been so sick throughout the entire month of Elul that I had missed every opportunity to teach and learn about Elul, and to really turn myself inside out for a good introspective cleaning.

“You missed Elul?  Wow.”

I told her the trajectory of events that seemingly led to my blunt statement.  I had spent the summer working as a Chaplain Intern at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  The experience was both amazing and treacherous.  A long subway commute in the New York City sweltering heat combined with the emotionally intense training program stretched me to realms beyond any previous experience.  I loved the opportunity to engage with patients, families and staff, and I pushed myself – too hard – it seems.

“Well, its no wonder you ultimately got sick,” Rabbi Yael noted.  “But I’m not sure you missed Elul, Jen.  I think you just had the Elul you weren’t expecting and never could’ve imagined.”

“But I didn’t get a chance to teach an adult education program about it!” I chimed in, rattling off a list of other Elul-esque things I had missed.

“So they’ll learn about Elul next year.  It’s okay.  Really.”

The Elul I wasn’t expecting and never could have imagined likely started on June 6, 2011 – the moment I stepped foot into Sloane Kettering.  That ‘turn yourself inside out for a good introspective cleaning’ occurred in the intensive learning sessions and intense patient encounters.

Sometimes our bodies can teach us and can force us to behave in ways our minds can not and will not.  It seems that my body felt the need both to expel some of what it had learned and to prevent me from doing any further exploration (for the time being at least.)  A cold would’ve been sufficient, I had thought early on.  But I tried to go back to school well before I was well enough, so no – a cold, it seems, would not have stopped me or adequately forced me to slow down and rest my body.

I was lucky to recover. I still have a few scars and a lot of gratitude to those who cared for me.  AND I know that my illness pales in comparison to much of the suffering our loved ones and congregants experience, or that my Sloane Kettering patients faced daily.

My calendar did not skip Elul in 5771.

It was certainly the Elul I never expected and never dreamed of…and it was an Elul I now cherish.

But I gotta say…Elul 5772…it was so nice to see you again.

Jen Gubitz is the assistant rabbi at Shir Tikva in Wayland, a product of URJ-GUCI, and loves teen engagement.  She is very religious about Indiana Hoosier Basketball, good coffee, poetry and puns.  And hopes never to get shingles again… although she wouldn’t mind watching another show start to finish….

Oodles of love! xoxo!

Me and Grandma (in one of her many stylish wedding suits) at my wedding, 2008. HAPPY HAPPY 95TH BIRTHDAY GRANDMA!

by Rose Kowel Durbin

Now that I’m a congregational rabbi, I start my own Cheshbon haNefesh (accounting of the soul) a lot earlier then I used to. I used to walk into services on the high holy days and really give my behaviour and actions in the past year a thorough going-over- and I have never been one to go easy on myself. I fully embrace the notion of humbling myself before God  so that I can truly focus on becoming a better person in the year ahead. This year, the process started a few weeks ago (yes, I thrive under pressure) when I started reflecting on how this year I want to  LIVE with perspective- instead of just appreciating my blessings inside my head and heart- actually living and acting in a way that shows this appreciation.

And thinking about how to do this leads me to  my wonderful Grandma, WHO TURNS 95 TODAY! Thinking about the way she lives her life helps me figure out  how I can be a better person in the year ahead- and how I can hopefully inspire my congregation as well.

  • Grandma gets so much  joy out of  her everyday routine.

I’m constantly bragging to everyone about how wonderfully my grandma is doing, mind, body and spirit. My aunt takes her to bridge twice a week to “keep her sharp-” and sharp she is- she admits (when forced) that she usually wins at bridge and is quite the sought-after partner (especially by the gentlemen!) She loves her bridge games, watching sports on TV and rooting for her Chicago favorites, reading books, checking her email, and getting together with her family members who live nearby. Grandma never complains of being bored and she appreciates everything she gets to do everyday.

  • Grandma doesn’t let distance stop her from expressing her love or from loving fully.

My grandma, of course, is not just “mine.” She has 12 grandchildren (not including spouses) and my daughter Eliana is her 11th great-grandchild (but definitely not her last), and we are spread out all over the country. In her room, she has shelves lined with photos of each of her grandchildren (her great-grandchildren each get a spot of honor on the fridge).  She has a special love for each one of us, even though we don’t get to see her as often as we’d like. Grandma feels so connected to Eliana even though she has only gotten to meet her a few times, but of course I send her lots (and lots) of photos and videos- and she always responds (via email, of course)! Grandma never forgets a birthday (or holiday) and always writes cards in her beautiful cursive handwriting.

  • Grandma gives you gifts you need (and gifts you didn’t even know that you needed)

My Grandma bought me the practical  laptop I requested for high school graduation, even though she really wanted to get me jewelry. A few years later, she went with her first instinct and sent me a pearl necklace  that I always wear whenever I want to look especially professional. I always could have gotten a computer, but I never would have bought myself these beautiful, grown-up pearls.

Ellie meeting her great-grandma for the first time at my brother’s wedding in San Antonio, Texas!

I’m so blessed to be 32 years old and have a healthy, vibrant grandmother who still sends me beautifully handwritten cards, AND cheerful emails on a regular basis. All signed of course, “oodles of love! xoxoxoxox!” Grandma, we love you. Here’s to a year of health and happiness and oodles of love!

And here’s to a healthy and sweet new year to all of you out there and your loved ones! May this be a year of appreciation for all of our blessings, and a heightened awareness of the miracles happening all around us. May this be a year of  striving to do good and to feel good about ourselves inside and out. May this be a year of perspective, of reflection, and of finding joy and holiness in the mundane of our daily lives. xoxoxoxoxo!

are YOU UnOrthodox?

When I was hired by my current congregation, I was 31 years old. Reform. Female. and VERY pregnant.  This type of rabbinical leadership just wouldn’t go over well in the Satmar ultra-Orthodox community Deborah Feldman describes in her controversial book UnOrthodox

Have YOU read it? what do you think?!?

which I read with voyourestic (though not literary) pleasure. As a Reform rabbi,  I often answer questions concerning ritual and worship with:  “Sure, we can try it that way. There are lots of ways to do things in our tradition.”   And yet, although I am a proud Reform Jew, I’ve always seen a lot to admire in the Orthodox world- the spirit in communal celebrations and family Shabbat rituals,   and the confident knowledge of our traditions and love for Jewish community. After all, I wrote approvingly of many aspects of Jewish life portrayed in this book focusing on the Chabad community  for my application to rabbinical school.  Now, Feldman’s book is not at all well-written- and while I happen to be quite a literary snob, I couldn’t stop reading it. Sure, I understand that this story portrays only one experience in the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Chasidic community- she happened to grow up in an unfortunate family circumstance, with absentee parents and a home devoid of affection.

The author of UnOrthodox at her wedding, and now….

I can’t judge the whole Satmar experience based on her book, but what I did gain from her observations was the community’s  fear of letting any secular influences, or any non Ultra-Orthodox Jewish influences,  into their lives.  They fear that even one small indiscretion towards a less stringent Jewish lifestyle could lead them completely off the one right path. At one point, the rabbi banned real-hair wigs (over the womens shaved heads) because wearing real human hair seemed too immodest. The rabbis kept issuing more and more extreme decrees for their community in order to ward off God’s wrath. Feldman’s grandfather teaches her that  God punished Jews with the Holocaust because of those who assimilated and/or acculturated with their greater communities. Feldman’s community seeks to become even more machmir (strict) then their ancestors in the old country, in order to evade future punishment. No outside cultural influence are allowed- Feldman often snuck out to local libraries to read innocent books such as “Little Women.” And it was THIS juxtaposition that I wanted to hear more about. How did it make her feel to be trapped in her world once she began to learn that other women had different choices?

She concludes the book, in which she leaves her community, very quickly- and that is exactly the part I needed more details about! Now that she has experienced the challenges of a secular education and the joys of freedom for herself and her son, does she want to make changes in her old community?  How will she live her life as  a Jew now that she is not a part of her fundamentalist community? Will she be able to rest easy knowing that other girls might feel trapped just as she did,  and do not receive an equal education?  Or does she believe that this ultra-Orthodox life is great for some people, and that the community should stay as is?   Was this book “good for the Jews?” Is that important? For one thing,this book definitely makes me grateful for my welcoming community that hired me and recognizes me as their religious leader. But I wish there wasn’t such a disconnect between these two worlds- sometimes it feels like we are too totally different religions, and and this memoir, as skewed as it might be, brings these jarring  differences to the surface.

Rose Kowel Durbin is the rabbi of Knesseth Israel Synagogue in Gloversville, NY. She currently needs some reading suggestions for her very first weekend away from her 14-month old toddler- now that she has read UnOrthodox, what do you suggest next?

Can she marry me?!!

When I got married in 1975, every wedding-related matter was analyzed
under two perspectives: Jewish and feminist. If we were going to
commit to the institution of marriage, the ceremony would certainly
need to be spiritually meaningful and thoroughly egalitarian.  We
(bride and groom) broke two glasses at the end of the ceremony, we
both wore wreaths in our hair (no veil! we’d discovered the wreath
idea in a Jewish marriage anthology), we wrote a ceremony with
egalitarian language, and of course we both kept our given last names.
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (z”l) was thoroughly in agreement.

In 1975, the decision about names, though obvious to us, was not so
easy to carry out. I particularly remember the huge battle we had with
the NEW HAVEN REGISTER, which kept insisting it simply could NOT print
my married name as “Portnoy” under our picture, I would have to be
“Mrs. Breen”. We eventually won that battle, and I still treasure that
wedding announcement, knowing what preceded it. And I have many more
stories about when we hyphenated our children’s last names!

Philip and I had been living together for a year (with another
housemate) before our wedding, and had decided that we would be
married  during his college graduation weekend, before we would be
leaving for Israel and my first year in rabbinical school. We
exchanged engraved watches as our “planning to get married” gift to
each other, since a diamond ring seemed like a ridiculous and
one-sided affectation. There was no “down on one knee” proposal. We
were very romantic, but as equal partners. And we thought seriously
about what we were doing, and what symbols mean.

The only “concession” I can remember is that my mother and aunt had a
small “bridal shower” for me. No men were invited, but Philip came
with me to the shower, and we opened all the kitchen and house ware
objects together. After all, I was not planning to be chief cook and
bottle washer!

Thirty-six years later (and still happily married to the same man), I
am astonished at what has happened to weddings. Not only are too many
of them still (more) outrageously over-priced, over-prepared, and
over-the-top, but we have headed backwards as far as egalitarianism
goes. I officiate at many weddings, so I am privy to the before,
during and (a little bit of the) after of weddings. I see a
proliferation of kitchen showers (“ladies only”), a serious reduction
in the number of women keeping their surnames (many look surprised
when I even ask the question at one of our pre-marital sessions), and
increasingly elaborate staging of marriage proposals by the groom (to
a bride with whom he has most likely been living with for several

I do my best to be polite about these couples’ choices, but there is
one new (actually, re-introduced) custom that has finally put me over
the top! That is the groom’s requesting “permission” from the bride’s
father (sometimes, parents) to marry the bride. Permission to do what
exactly? We’re still transferring ownership of the bride from parent
to groom? Why isn’t the bride asking the groom’s parents for
permission?  I would note that this is not just happening among Jewish
couples, but among couples of other (or no) religions as well. Many of
the parents of the bride are a bit surprised when they are asked.
These “boomer” parents could not have imagined asking their own
parents for such permission!

So what is going on here? I wish I knew. I keep thinking that it may
be that since couple’s lives change so little these days between
before and after their wedding ceremonies that they look for something
to differentiate the moment, something to acknowledge that something
IS actually happening. But that is supposed to be the religious
ceremony, at least for Jews who are marrying under religious auspices.
Same for couples who are not Jewish. And if the inclination to involve
the parents (as more than an ATM machine) is meant to be a meaningful
gesture then why not involve both sets of parents?

Why are brides putting up with this? Why do people seem to think this
is a “cute” idea? Every day, I feel more and more like a cranky old
feminist. But we worked so hard those many years ago to transform
traditions which demeaned women in so many ways, we tried to convince
others that symbols have power and reflect reality, we wanted to prove
that equality and love could go hand-in-hand.

Permission? Denied. Decide for yourselves. But you’re welcome to my blessings.

Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy

Hope is a commandment

by Miri Gold, Kehilat Birkat Shalom, Kibbutz Gezer, Israel

The euphoria has subsided, interviews are no longer exciting, the insults of the Chief Rabbi Amar are to be expected and the denseness of Shas Knesset member Nissim Zeev is discouraging.  Yet, a month after the unexpected but heartening decision by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to grant salaries to “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” in Israel, there is still a feeling that an important step forward towards religious pluralism in Israel has been taken. I revel in the “mazal tov” greetings from Israelis who are not involved in Reform Judaism, but who sense that something significant and important has happened.  A recent survey shows that 45% of the Israeli public supports the Attorney General’s decision, 35% are against, and the rest don’t care.  That means that most Israelis don’t object to the decision.

 Understandably—unfortunately—the ultra-Orthodox and the orthodox secular (those who are not observant but believe that the Orthodox have the patent on how to be Jewish) believe that one is a rabbi only if he (and of course there is no room to add “she”) is ordained by and approved “kosher” by the Rabbinate in Israel.  Trying to imagine a more tolerable response is like expecting the lion and the lamb to lie together. Nissim Zeev repeatedly tells listeners that he was once the rabbi in Great Neck, NY.  His congregants drove to synagogue, but at least, in his words, they respected him as their guiding light, they accepted him as the rabbinical figure who could steer them right. To him, anyone who calls himself or herself a rabbi is equivalent to one to takes the title of medical doctor without any training. Try to convince him otherwise!  I don’t see this happening.

Rather than despair or be discouraged, angry, insulted or hurt, I take the advice of an Israeli-born colleague who told me, when the court case was first brought to the attention of the media in September 2005, not to read the talkbacks and comments that might be very unsettling.  Instead, I think of Alice Miller, the young woman, a commercial pilot, who asked to try out to become a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force.  She won her case in the Israeli Supreme Court, and gained the right to try out.  She wasn’t accepted.  However, years later, there are women fighter pilots, navigators, etc. in the IAF. Alice Miller did her part to allow women the opportunity to be accepted on their merit to this very grueling process, and to find their places alongside their male counterparts in this elite group. For the last seven years, I have hoped that I would, like Alice Miller, move the wheels of justice forward, even if only an inch.

Rabbi Miri Gold with members of her congregation

 Now I realize that the results of this move took many more years to materialize. Therefore, I have no illusions that we will find salary checks for fifteen rural Reform and Conservative rabbis in the mail any time soon.  There will be red tape, threats to overturn the decision, and who knows what else to postpone implementation of the decision.  It will take more time until city neighborhoods have Reform rabbis, and only then will the financial burden on the Reform and Conservative Movements in Israel be somewhat lifted.  In the meantime, I repeat my mantra that hope is a commandment, and as Dr. Jerome Groopman has taught, we must  hope for a miracle but work determinedly for our goals as though we cannot expect a miracle to occur.  We can hope and pray, but we must continue to do our best to work for religious freedom, for justice, for parity, and for a rejoicing of pluralism in our beloved Israel.

Miri Gold was ordained from HUC-JIR Jerusalem in 1999 (the third woman ordained as a Reform rabbi in Israel). She serves as rabbi of Kehilat Birkat Shalom, a regional Reform synagogue based at Kibbutz Gezer. She petitioned beginning in  2005 to the Israel Supreme Court, demanding recognition as the rabbi of Gezer, and demanding a salary on par with the 16 Orthodox rabbis in the Gezer Regional Council. On May 29, 2012, the Israel Attorney General decided that the Ministry of Culture will pay salaries to rabbis of non-Orthodox council and farming communities. This signifies a major step forward towards achieving religious pluralism in Israel.