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 and on Facebook at Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.

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

The Spirituality of 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
#spirituality #community #Judaism #rabbi #interfaith

“my teacher said im not jewish”

5646829664_aedb670811_bSometimes I get inspiration from the search terms people use to find my blog. And sometimes I get angry.

I hope that the person who searched Google with this string found some comfort from a real live human being, but just in case anyone ever Googles it again, I’m writing this blog post and titling it “my teacher said im not jewish.”

To anyone who has Googled this:  There’s another blog post on my blog that will explain why some Jews get excited about who is “in” and who is “out.” That is theoretical stuff. You are dealing with real stuff, not theory. If someone says to you, “You are not Jewish” or “You are not really Jewish” here is what you can do:

1. First of all, ask yourself, “Do I feel a part of the Jewish People?” or “Do I love Judaism?” If the answer to either of those is “yes,” then:

2. Go to a rabbi and say, “My teacher said I am not Jewish. But I feel a part of the Jewish people!” or “I love Judaism!”  then ask:

3. In our community, how do we make this situation better?

The reason that you ask it that way is that different Jewish communities will approach this in different ways depending on the specifics. Maybe the teacher was just wrong and out of line. Maybe the teacher was correct about some technical matter of halakhah [Jewish Law] but forgot she was talking to a real human being. Most importantly, if it is a Jewish legal issue, then there’s almost certainly a way to make it better.

I’m not going to make pronouncements here on a blog about what exactly should happen, because I am not your rabbi.

If you are reading this because this happened to you long ago and you no longer have a rabbi, you need to GET a rabbi.

Do not be discouraged by this “technically, you’re not” business. Your rabbi (once you get one) has tools for making things right. You may have to work with him or her to make everything kosher. That is just how Judaism works – we are a religion, and a people, of doing, and we do things as a community.

To anyone who has made a pronouncement about someone else’s Jewishness:

1. Are you a rabbi? My colleague, I understand that you were conveying necessary information. I pray that you always consider the Jewish values of chesed and rachamim when you choose your words, and that you consider the comprehension level of your audience. Hurtful words have consequences for all of Am Yisrael.

2. Oh, you aren’t a rabbi? You are just a helpful person teaching others about Judaism? Understand this: You are out of your depth. You do not know as much as you think you know. The words you carelessly sling around may have chased away the parent of a future tzaddik. You may have caused hurt that could someday have terrible consequences for the Jewish people. The correct answer if someone asks you a question as important as “Am I Jewish?” is “Let me give you the phone number of a rabbi.” Even if you are really pretty sure they aren’t Jewish, just say, “Go talk to a rabbi.” If they are your student in Hebrew school, do not injure a child’s budding Jewish identity with cruel guesses. Go talk to the rabbi yourself.

I work at the edges of the Jewish community with people who are not affiliated with a synagogue. Usually they are not affiliated because they have a story to tell: a story about hurt feelings, a story about someone who rejected them or neglected them. Often what they were told was wrong, or it was delivered in such a way that they misunderstood, or it was delivered with cruelty so that they ran away in pain.

Anyone who is concerned about the survival of Judaism should be concerned about this matter. All human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  When the great rabbi Hillel was asked by an impertinent questioner to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. Go and study.” Kindness, chesed, is at the very heart of Torah.

May the person who made the original Google search “my teacher said im not jewish” find kind and knowledgable help in pursuing his or her Jewish destiny. And may all of us be part of the building of Klal Yisrael [all Israel] and not part of tearing her down.

Image: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Lance Neilson

Losing my religion

by Kari Tuling

Like all Jewish professionals, I read the recent Pew study with great interest: what does it have to say about our Jewish future?  What can we do to ensure continuity?

I also read it, however, in the context of my own life history. At the age of sixteen, I was deeply involved in my church and the president of my church youth group. At the age of seventeen, I left the church for good, vehemently disavowing anything having to do with religion.

What happened? What caused such a shift in attitude? And what insights might we gain from this experience, particularly as they relate to the Pew study?

Like many children, I had a best friend at school and we were inseparable. When we were eleven, just before my sixth-grade school year, her brother accused us of being lesbian lovers. I say ‘accused’ because this was a conservative community in the mid-eighties. There was, in that context, no worse crime to be committed.

We were of course much too young to be lovers in any sense of the term, so in retrospect it’s odd that anyone listened to him, much less believed him. But he had hit upon a partial truth: my friend was in fact a nascent lesbian. His mother panicked in response to his ‘outing’ of his sister and pulled her from our public school. She also forbade her from ever seeing me again, as if that would change anything (it didn’t).

Not only was I left to face the school year alone, bereft of my best friend, but also her mother’s rash actions only seemed to confirm the rumor. Scandalized, my fellow classmates pretended I didn’t exist. I was suddenly, inexplicably rendered completely invisible to my peers for an entire school year. They would ignore my speech, walk into me in the hallways, talk past me in the classroom. I was utterly, absolutely, completely invisible. I cannot even begin to convey the loneliness of that year.

That year, however, I did have two places of refuge: my family and my church. The teachers and youth group advisors would not let that behavior continue within the confines of our classrooms and lounge. There I was fully visible and known. There I could escape the choking loneliness of my school experiences.

Eventually, when our elementary school fed into the larger junior high school, the ban against talking to me was lifted and I made some new friends. By the time I was sixteen, I was ready to try and talk about my experiences in theological terms. I started asking questions in confirmation class – the pesky questions of a brainy and intense teen. I started looking for answers, and challenging some of the things that my pastor told me.

I suppose that, in my pastor’s defense, he probably did not know what had happened. I suppose that, in his defense, he was not aware of how hollow his theology sounded.

Regardless, his answers came up short, far short. He thought that it was fine to revile homosexuals, as they were sinners. They deserved what they got. And there were other issues as well: he didn’t seem to take my theological questions seriously. Or, for that matter, he didn’t seem take any females seriously. He spoke of infinite love – but then make it clear that this love was only available if you were the right kind of person. I didn’t dare tell him that I had been accused of being a homosexual. I didn’t dare tell him I found that accusation itself really confusing, as I didn’t think it was true. I didn’t dare tell him that I couldn’t see why it was such a problem if it were to be true. I just gave him a wan smile and looked for the door. Get me out of here.

Why did I have such a negative reaction to his answers? His worldview didn’t give me room to exist on my own terms. I had lost my best friend and become persona non grata, yet he seemed to think that such collateral losses were acceptable – necessary, even. I either had to reject what he was saying or reject my own life-experience. I chose to renounce my religion rather than renounce my life.

Eventually, I made my way to Judaism, to find a Reform congregation that was clearly committed to equality and compassion. I found a community that I could trust. I found a home. I found a community that would acknowledge that sometimes life goes wildly differently than expected, that would understand how trauma could haunt you, and that would affirm that life was worth living nonetheless. And eventually I was able to heal.

How does my story relate to the results of the Pew study? When congregants, religious school parents, and students make excuses and talk about how things like soccer practice or tap lessons keep them too busy to participate in the synagogue, they might not be telling the whole truth. It might not be that the programs or services are boring or inconvenient or any of the other excuses that are given.

What they might really be saying is: you are not talking to me about my real life and my real concerns. You want to teach me about ritual and dogma without explaining how it relieves my existential loneliness, or helps me find my way back to my family, or addresses my fear of dying without having found a guiding purpose for my life. And you appear to be blind to the ways in which your theology harms those who are marginalized.

Perhaps we might scoff and say, ‘there is no way that this family is thinking in those terms’ – but are we really, wholly certain we are taking them seriously? It could be that they are not meeting our criteria for a ‘real’ concern. It could be that they are not meeting our criteria for a ‘real’ Jew. If so, that’s our weakness, and not theirs. We should listen for the question within the question, the hidden assumption, and the closeted fears.

What I am suggesting here is something more than relational Judaism. Yes, relationships are a key part: whole-hearted participation in a community takes place in the context of trust, and trust presupposes a relationship.

But it’s not enough that the congregants know each other’s names – though that is indeed a good start. The synagogue needs to be a place of profound trust, where it is possible to talk about the really important parts of life: the difficulties and the triumphs alike.

In other words: the issues we face won’t be resolved through programs and initiatives. What we need is to focus on the core questions: Why are we here? What is asked of us? And before whom do we stand?

Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD, serves Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York and teaches Jewish studies courses at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh campus. She converted to Judaism in 1994 and was ordained by the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004. She received her PhD in Jewish Thought from HUC-JIR in 2013. She lives in Plattsburgh with her husband and her son.


Our Sisters, May we become Thousands of Myriads: Reflections on the First Ordination of Yeshivat Mahara”t

IMG_0897-1-1by Jacqueline Koch Ellenson

It was a beautiful Sunday and a perfect day for an ordination. The hall was crowded, and everyone joyfully hugged and wished each other a mazel tov. There was a ritual, some spirited singing and clapping, giving of documents, speeches, and of course, food. Just like every other ordination I’ve been to.

But this one was special. On this day, at this event, Rachel Kohl Finegold, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, and Abby Brown Scheier, the three women who were graduates of Yeshivat Mahara”t, were ordained. Three women who are Orthodox. Three women who will be working in Orthodox synagogues and communities are each called now “Manhiga hilchatit ruchanit v’Toranit” or Mahara”t.  They were ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss, senior rabbi at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, halachic posek and professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University, and Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, their Rosh Yeshiva.  As they were ordained, the women were each  “found worthy and granted authority to teach and determine halachic rulings for the Jewish people, and has been ordained as a spiritual leader and a decisor of Jewish law.” With these words, the three women were authorized to render halachic judgements for the community.  Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the Yeshiva’s dean and Rabbi Weiss’ first ordinee, who blazed the path to this day, called up each woman by name, and blessed each one under a banner embellished with the blessing “At hayi l’alfei r’vava”- “Our Sister, may you become thousands of myriads.”

Each ordination was followed by standing ovations, cheering, clapping. As each woman spoke, with the joy and light of Torah streaming from her soul, all present were carried into the reality and power of the moment. Blu Greenberg presciently spoke of this possibility. And we were there, to see, to witness and to celebrate.

As a Reform rabbi, I found myself wondering about my fascination with this moment, about the reason for my own tears, about the sense of witnessing history in the making. Accompanied by David and with our trailblazer Sally Priesand sitting just a few seats away, I could not help but reflect on how our world and our community have changed.  I found myself wishing that I had been present for Sally’s ordination, even though I was a 16 year old girl who knew nothing about the historic events unfolding in Cincinnati in 1972.  But even though I have been present to witness the remarkable emergence of women’s rabbinic leadership in the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Renewal movements, even though my work brings me into daily contact with the reality of the lives of women Reform rabbis, even though women rabbis may not be seen as something new or innovative in the liberal Jewish community, I still felt the profound historical power of the day.  I felt deeply that I was witnessing something that for so long and for so many had only been a distant and unattainable dream. Rabba Sara Hurwitz herself said it, “Halom halamti-I dreamed a dream.” Many have dreamed this dream and most of those dreams have not been fulfilled. Many wish they could have become a mahara”t.

Yet, on Sunday, I witnessed women, Orthodox women, taking their rightful place as religious, halachic and spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community. On this day, many dreams came true.

After the ceremony a friend mentioned that she thought the day would soon come when this ceremony wouldn’t be seen as so significant or so filled with history. I had to disagree. I still marvel at the reality of 686 women ordained as rabbis at HUC-JIR in the past 41 years. I don’t ever want to forget how amazing it is, how radical a reconceptualization of Judaism and of leadership it required.  But I do think that one day, we will know that this is normal; that women in religious leadership, no matter what movement they may belong to, are an essential and vital expression of our community’s values.  I don’t ever want to forget the struggles of individuals who blazed the trails in order for me to become a rabbi. But I do want to insure that women rabbis are an integral, integrated and recognized part of the landscape of Jewish leadership, that they claim their rights and responsibilities as legal and religious leaders, that they and their communities see their work as sacred work, that their presence in the religious sphere will have an immeasurable impact on current and future generations. No, I don’t ever want to forget how revolutionary the ordination of women as rabbis and mahara’ts is.  But I do want them to be completely normalized, accepted and celebrated.

I celebrate the rabbis and lay leadership who brought the dreams of this yeshiva and the possibility of women’s ordination into reality, who contributed their halachic and financial resources to create this innovative seminary.  I rejoice in the ordination of Rachel, Ruth, and Abby, and in the fact that all three of them have positions within their communities, and two of them will be working as part of a clergy team in Orthodox synagogues.

It was an ordination like so many others I’ve been to. And it was an ordination like none I’ve ever seen.  It was the ordination of women rabbis, something so regular and normal. And it was the ordination of Orthodox women as Mahara”ts, remarkable and innovative.  I remember how revolutionary, radical and controversial our ordinations were at the time. I remember how hard my predecessors worked to pave the road for me, and I know how hard my contemporaries and I worked to pave the road for our younger colleagues.  There is still much to do, but we have also accomplished so much. But I take none of it for granted. It has all been a dream.

But it’s real.

And that’s why I celebrate.

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson is the director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

The Ten Commandments for Smalls

by Kari Tuling

Having served six different congregations that were each under 100 families, I have become something of a small congregations expert. Based on that experience, I thought I would share the 10 commandments for successful small congregations:

  1. Stop apologizing. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect that your membership will be in the triple digits – but why should that be a problem? A congregation of 1,000 member units will have certain advantages (for example, the ability to run three targeted programs at once all in the same building) but you have your advantages as well. It’s possible for your rabbi to know everyone by name. It’s possible to tailor the religious school around a child’s individual needs. It’s possible to have the entire congregation attend a shiva minyan. And so on.
  2. Enforce turnover in your leadership. What is the fastest way to kill a congregation? Allow certain members to sit on the board indefinitely. You absolutely must – and I cannot stress this enough – create a mechanism for turnover and see to it that your newcomers are able to cycle through the leadership positions. Otherwise, three things will happen, to your great detriment: (a) newcomers will leave because they will see that they have no hope of being heard (b) the ‘perma-members’ on the board will eventually veto any and all new ideas (‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’) and (c) if someone persists and actually tries implementing a new idea, doing so will create an old-guard/new-guard split. New blood is necessary to the health of the congregation.
  3. Decide whether you are a havurah or a congregation. A havurah is a collection of families and/or individuals who come together to pray regularly and observe the holidays. It has a loose structure, without significant dues requirements. Usually, it is entirely lay-led. A congregation, on the other hand, offers a fuller range of community services, such as a calendar of religious education and support for lifecycle events. A congregation requires a much greater commitment of time and money to be successful. And a congregation requires a rabbi, even if it’s just for a handful of times a year, to do lifecycle events and provide expertise for your educational program.
  4. If you are a congregation, your biggest regular line-item expense should be the rabbi. This is true regardless of whether it’s a High Holiday pulpit or a full-time position. The quality and quantity of rabbinic time that you are able to offer your community will also define the quality and quantity of the education that you are able to offer. So, if you are spending more each month on the building than the rabbi, it’s time to sell the building.
  5. Consider splitting your treasurer in two. Have one person balance the accounts and another write the checks. It’s easier to recruit someone for half the job (eliminating the perma-treasurer problem) and you are much less vulnerable to embezzlement. You might think that your accounts are too small to be worthy of embezzlement, but you’d be surprised – I remember hearing of one case where the treasurer of a high school’s band booster club stole $20,000 over the course of six years. It can happen.
  6. You will need to hire someone to keep track of the office work. At minimum, the clerical aid sorts mail, checks messages, and copies things for the rabbi.  It does not need to be a large allocation of time or money, but you need someone to do it. But you should not rely entirely on volunteers to take care of the clerical needs of your congregation. This is true for the same reason you don’t rely on volunteers to clean the toilets – you need to keep these things on a regular schedule or else they start to stink.
  7. Do not allow your rabbi to do clerical work. Your rabbi is your biggest expense and your greatest resource. Do not waste that big money expense on something a high school senior can do. Every moment the rabbi babysits the copier is a moment the rabbi is not in front of a class or next to a congregant in the hospital – so insist that this resource be used well. While you are at it, also be sure to create a system for answering the office phone that does not rely on your rabbi.  One possibility is to have an answering machine or voice mail with a number that may be called in case of emergency. Another option is to hire an answering service, like what physicians use – these services are surprisingly inexpensive. 
  8. Establish regular office hours. Even if it’s only once a month, it is useful to have a clear time and place for doing Temple business. Have both the clerical/administrative person there as well as the rabbi. For example, I serve my congregation on a full-time basis; my assistant and I are both in the office four weekday mornings each week, for a total of 12 hours. The outgoing message specifies when the office is open and informs callers as to the timeframe in which they might reasonably expect a return phone call. 
  9. If your rabbi is part-time, then your president will need to run interference. Most people have an idea in their head as to what the rabbi does. But that image may or may not line up with what you have actually hired your rabbi to do. The demand is infinite whereas the supply is quite limited – and people who are hurting and in need of pastoral care might act out in strange ways. So your president’s first priority should be to protect the rabbi from unreasonable expectations.
  10. Identify potentially major donors in the community, create a defined vision for your congregation’s future, and go and ask potential donors to help make it happen.  Chances are there is someone in your community who has the kind of money to be a game-changer for your congregation. You must overcome your shyness and inexperience in asking for money and go ask in person for a staggeringly large amount. I’ve worked for communities where they have a significant endowment and for communities that do not. There is a world of difference between the two.  If you want to create continuity in your community and ensure a Jewish future, then first you need to learn how to go and ask for big money.

Kari Tuling serves full-time as the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, a small congregation of about 70 families located in Plattsburgh, New York. She also teaches at SUNY Plattsburgh, thanks to a congregational endowment.


by Kari Tuling

Does God reward good behavior?

When we read this week’s Torah portion, we encounter one of two sets of blessings and curses specifically related to the performance of the commandments.

First, if you do what is good and follow God’s commandments, then all will go well for you. But, if you reject God’s commandments, then a litany of curses will be upon your head. Many of them are quite graphic; they are intended to be frightening.

Specifically, the blessings are as follows:

  1. Fertility of the land (verses 4-5);
  2. Peace in the land (v. 6);
  3. Victory over external enemies (7-8);
  4. Divine individual providence, increase of the population, coupled with economic prosperity (9-10);
  5. The dwelling of the Shekhina in the midst of Israel.[1]

The Shekhina, by the way, is the indwelling presence of God, which during the wandering in the desert is represented by a pillar of fire or cloud. Though the Shekhina represents the spiritual realm, it is indeed a physical manifestation of God. The Israelites can see the Shekhina as it travels with them.

It could be said, in fact, that each of these blessings are a form of material reward.

And some of the commentators have had a genuine problem with that fact. It makes no sense to them. How can we gain material goods by doing what is right? How can it be that piety is rewarded with free stuff?

For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Abravanel (born in the 15th Century in Spain) asks the question directly:

“Why does the Torah confine its goals and rewards to material things…and omit spiritual perfection an the reward of the soul after death – the true and ultimate goal of [hu]man[kind]? Our enemies exploit this text and charge Israel with denying the principle of the soul’s judgment in the afterlife.”[2]

And he has a point. This issue has long been a point of attack by those who have sought to discredit Judaism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that Judaism is not properly a religion because the Jewish Bible makes no mention of an afterlife. In his view, only those traditions that promise a reward in the world to come can make a claim to being a true religion.

What are we to make of this? We have a couple of possibilities here.

Manuscript page in Arabic written in Hebrew le...

Manuscript page in Arabic written in Hebrew letters by Maimonides (12th century CE). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first possibility is that God really does reward us in our observance of the Torah. The great thinker Maimonides (who was born in the 12th century in Spain) takes this position:

“…These matters are to be understood as follows: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave us this law – a tree of life. Whoever fulfills what is written therein and knows it with a complete and correct knowledge will attain thereby life in the world to come. According to the greatness of his deeds and abundance of his knowledge will be the measure in which he will attain that life.”

The more that you know, the greater your reward will be. Maimonides was, admittedly, an elitist. But he continues, arguing that you will reap material rewards as well:

“The Holy One, blessed be He, has further promised us in the Torah that if we observe its behests joyously and cheerfully, and continually meditate on its wisdom, He will remove from us the obstacles that hinder us in its observance, such as sickness, war, famine, and other calamities; and will bestow upon us all the material benefits which will strength our ability to fulfill the Law, such as plenty, peace, abundance of silver and gold.”[3]

In other words, following the Torah will indeed make things go better for you, both in the material world and in the world-to-come.

How can that be? From Maimonides’ perspective, the Torah is the product of God’s overflow, distilled into human language. Its purpose is to provide guidance in response to the daily decisions that arise in the ongoing challenge of ethical living.

The best choices, of course, are those that are founded on a true understanding of the world.  For Maimonides, the Torah is the source of that knowledge, for the structure of Jewish law corresponds exactly to the very structure of creation. So, that’s why it is true that if you follow the Torah, all will go well for you.

But the problem with this point of view is twofold.

First, if God’s providence could be counted on to rigidly assign suffering to those who had committed the most grievous sins, then perhaps problems like extreme poverty would not be a problem. Such suffering could be rationalized as deserved punishment for wrongdoing. But that is not how the world works.

We know of people who are deeply knowledgeable about Torah who have seen sickness, war, famine, and other calamities. We know righteous people who have suffered.

Second, we know of problems within the Torah text itself that have caused difficulties. For example, one of the precepts of this week’s double portion is the law of the jubilee year:

“You shall count off seven weeks of years — seven times seven years — so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years… and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family…”[4]

On the face of it, this suggestion sounds like a great idea. The jubilee year would prevent permanent debt and see to it that no one would lose his or her family’s ancestral home. However, in practice, the problem was that in the years leading up to the jubilee, loans to the poor stopped. Why make a loan if it will be forgiven shortly thereafter, without receiving payment?

And the problem with that approach is one we understand: if no one can get credit for activities such as buying and selling land, then even greater harm is caused to the poor. So the rabbis enacted a takanah – a fix – that would see to it that these kinds of problems would be avoided.

So let’s consider our second possibility: this series of blessings and curses is a kind of covenantal language. In the Ancient Near East, covenant agreements would be enacted with a series of ritual gestures. It is a way of guaranteeing that each side of the agreement – in this case, us (the descendants of the Israelites) and God – will follow it.

To give an example, when I was a teacher, I enacted an agreement with my students who had been facing a difficult situation. Their teacher had left midyear and I was asked to take over the classroom. They were unnerved by the changes and needed reassurance. So together we created a covenant that specified what they would do and what I would do. We identified witnesses to our covenant – in the case of the covenant with God and Israel, it is the heaven and the earth that serves as witnesses. In our case, it was the Principal and Vice-principal. And we had blessings and curses. They were really more like incentives and punishments, really. Good behavior was rewarded at the end of semester with cake (their suggestion) and bad behavior was punished with an extra assignment (my suggestion).

The advantage of the covenant model is not that we can predict how life will unfold for us if we follow the commandments. Rather, the purpose of this structure is to remind us that the world does make sense, at the core of it, even in the midst of chaos.

Shabbat Shalom.

Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel of Plattsburgh and an adjunct instructor at SUNY Plattsburgh. She will receive her PhD from Hebrew Union College in June.

[1] Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, Behukotai II” (Jerusalem, Haomanim Press), p. 580.

[2] Ibid., “Behukotai I,” p. 572.

[3] From Hilkhot Teshuvah 9, 1, translated by Isadore Twersky, as quoted in Leibowitz., pp. 577-8.

[4] JPS translation.

Not a “Bark Mitzvah”

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

As a rabbi, I have had the opportunity to officiate and preside over all types of life-cycle events. I’ve done lots of weddings, my fair share of funerals, a good number of b’nai mitzvah and more than a handful of baby-namings. However, up to now I’ve only ever done one BARK Mitzvah- well what someone called a Bark Mitzvah…

Not the dog who had the Bark Mitzvah- but clearly Saki is a Jewish dog!

Now, before you write me off as a bizarre (or really “new-age”) rabbi, let me explain.  While I was in Rabbinical school a very dear friend of mine approached me and asked me about doing a “Bark Mitzvah” for one of her dogs. This friend of mine, who was in fact a certified dog trainer, was not crazy or eccentric; she just had a big heart and loved her dogs immensely. She was never blessed with children and in some ways her dogs became like her kids as she bestowed a great deal of adoration upon them.

I think my first reaction might have been to laugh or to say- “Are you serious?” But, I restrained myself. Instead, I asked my friend to explain her idea. As a committed Jew she didn’t want to make any form of a mockery out of Judaism or out of a Bar Mitzvah. However, she did want to find a way to celebrate the life of her aging dog whose health was failing and whom had brought her much joy. In fact, it was because she was so connected to her Judaism that she had to find a way to celebrate her animal companion through her faith, a way to honor her beloved pet through her Judaism.  After listening to her and trying to understand, I agreed to help her. I decided to officiate at what she called a “Bark Mitzvah,” or what others would deem, a “Blessing of the Animals.” I was adamant that this would be a service for humans, yet would allow us to honor her beloved dog.

I must admit, that the “Bark Mitzvah” was really a lovely day. We gathered at my friend’s home along with about 30 of her friends, some of whom also brought their dogs.  All the animals played in the backyard while we conducted a beautiful and moving service.  The ceremony contained standard liturgy with poems about dogs and the love they bring to humans. During the service we even paused to pray for the health of various animals in the lives of the people present and we even took a moment to give thanks for the animals people had loved who were no longer living. In lieu of gifts, people were asked to make donations to the ASPCA (though my friend’s dog did get a handful of shiny, new toys). Due to this event a very sizable donation was made to help animals in need. After the service we all shared in a delicious bagel brunch filled with camaraderie between both humans and dogs. We even left with a parting favor of stuffed animal- a dog wearing a yarmulke and a tallit!

As you read this you might think- “wow-that’s great– can you do a Bark Mitzvah for my dog?”  OR you might be thinking- This is the most ridiculous thing, bordering even on blasphemy.  To be honest, I myself was caught between both emotions…At the time, I didn’t “get it.”  Growing up, the only pets I had were hermit crabs- definitely not the same thing as a dog. So, while I appreciated the love my friend had for her animals, I didn’t really understand their impact in her life.

This is how George celebrates Hanukkah!

However, all that changed two years ago when my husband and I adopted our dog, George. I know it might sound a bit extreme, but our little dog has enriched our lives in ways I never could have imagined.  When I talk about him to “animal-people” they get it- they can appreciate how I speak of him in almost human terms. To non-animal people, I probably sound a bit “nuts.”

George has opened my eyes. I was greatly impressed by all of God’s creatures before he entered my life, but now I see God’s work even more fully in the unconditional love I receive from him.

This week, as we read the Torah portion of Noah, it is an opportunity for us to celebrate all of God’s creatures- an opportunity to give thanks for all kinds of animals. There are many ways to show our love for animals- including supporting organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund or the Humane Society. One way many congregations, including my own, will celebrate both this week’s parsha and our love and respect for animals is  by having a “Blessing of the Animals.” At my congregation it won’t be a “Bark Mitzvah”- in part because some of the animals coming don’t bark. However, it will be an opportunity to thank God for enriching our life with our companions of all species.

Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov is the Rabbi at Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, NY.  She and her husband Ruben love to spend time spoiling their dog- George!

Having it all

English: Fall Maples in Nara, Japan Português:...

English: Fall Maples in Nara, Japan Português: Bordo Japonês (Acer palmatum) durante o outono em Nara, Japão (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Kari Tuling

Tuesday being my day off, I took the opportunity to go pick out plants for my backyard landscaping project. I bought a Korean maple – one that looks like a Japanese maple, but with green leaves that turn rather than continuously-red leaves – and a bunch of grassy perennials. Today, Wednesday, the nursery will be delivering the tree along with 60 cubic feet of slate rock and 45 cubic feet of cedar gravel. I am going to make a Zen-garden-like dry riverbed that winds through a grassy flowerbed. Because I like to dig.

Tomorrow, of course, I will return to the office and do all the usual rabbi things: teach, attend meetings, set up events in the community, write a sermon. I am hoping that I might have a break in between meetings and picking up my son from school to dig a very big hole for the tree – but the project could end up waiting a few days if something comes up that demands immediate attention. Even so, I am not worried; now that the High Holidays have passed, I should be able to get back to it.

My life here is like that: an intermingling of rabbinic meetings and hole digging; of representing the Jewish community by giving a prayer at the Kiwanis club meeting and then being a mom while explaining the High Holidays to my son’s teachers. In a town of this size, my full persona is on view: not just my congregation, but also the whole community knows if I walk the walk.

Lately we have seen much in the way of discussion about women and having it all. There are genuine problems facing women who wish to take on challenging, interesting, and high-paying positions. The assumptions surrounding these positions are built up around the assumption of a worker who can commit everything to his or her position, relics of the days when positions were rigidly assigned by gender. Really, we could choose to structure these things differently. It is not necessary to insist that only people who work incessantly can be successful.

And there are those folks – there are many in my generation (Gen X), for example – who choose walk away from these assumptions, wishing to find a different path, one that is more humane in its structure. But that act of walking away is seen by many as a loss, as a less-ambitious approach to a career. It appears that there are no paths back to the fast track once you make your exit.

But is it necessary to define success in these terms and these terms only? What about those careers where the human touch is most valued? What, for example, qualifies as a successful rabbinical career?

One known and accepted career path is to take an assistantship at a large congregation right out of school, then move or get promoted to take on an associate rabbi position or a solo position at a mid-sized congregation, and keep moving up in size and scale until the summit is reached: senior rabbi in a truly large suburban congregation. A select few then move on to accept national positions within the movement itself, which is no small achievement.

Once upon a time, of course, all of these positions were held by men who were the primary wage-earners, who were married to women who was the primary home-keepers. So, much of what constitutes success in these roles is defined in those terms: success is measured in the size of the congregation, the size of the paycheck, and the size of the community. Bigger, of course, is better.

Similarly, rabbinical job listings are posted by size: to apply to congregations of X size requires Y number of years of experience.  As the congregation gets larger, so does the number of years required. It is indeed a convenient way to organize the information. But perhaps it also gives the impression that one should necessarily move up in size as one gains in experience. To choose to be small – would that not indicate a less-ambitious path?

If measured solely by size, then I suppose my current position could be viewed as ‘less than.’ I am in a small town, with a small congregation. Our school is small, our building is small, and our budget is small.

But that kind of assessment misses so many things. Specifically, it misses that this congregation has an active, educated, and involved population that gives the rabbi respect and autonomy. It misses that this congregation sits next to a major university campus, and that ideally the rabbi here should be willing and able to engage in genuine and sustained academic study. It also misses that this particular position requires that the rabbi be a community rabbi in the fullest sense – that is to say, the rabbi must be fully comfortable with the pervasiveness of the role itself, and that role requires a lot of emotional intelligence and interpersonal poise.

And it misses that this position offers extraordinarily rich non-monetary compensation in the form of time and flexibility.

In other words, I don’t just get to be a rabbi; I get to do that while also having time to think. And, of course, time to dig up my yard.

I have not always taken this view. At one time, before I became a rabbi, I had the impressive title (“Senior Manager of Marketing Communications”) and the impressive car (BMW 318ti) and the impressive address (Laguna Niguel, California).

Yet somehow, in this most lovely small town with a long winter, I feel so much more successful here. Why? Because I am living on my own terms, according to what it is that I value most: I have found a position with time to think, time to be involved in my family life, the opportunity to really make a difference in a community, and the opportunity to write.

Impressive? Perhaps, perhaps not. Satisfying? Yes, in the deepest sense.

Rabbi Kari Tuling serves a most wonderful small congregation in Plattsburgh, New York, where she is also working on her dissertation, learning to play piano, and digging up her backyard lawn. Not necessarily in that order.