Culture and Values

My first trip to Israel in 1982 was the fulfillment of a dream. As a child I had fallen in love with the idea of Israel. Finally, I could breathe-in the link between all Jews — past, present and future.

I remember standing at the Kotel (Western Wall) and feeling the bond of history and peoplehood course through my veins.  But that summer I also came to realize that something was wrong. I am a progressive Jew, accustomed to egalitarian prayer and ritual. My Judaism was not allowed at the Kotel, and not accommodated in Israeli law or culture. I felt like a Jewish outsider in the Jewish nation. The air of judgment became increasingly alienating.

I believe that my Reconstructionist Jewish views are an authentic expression of Jewish faith and practice. There is a danger in the legal and cultural codification of Orthodoxy as the only authentic Judaism in Israel. Pluralism, which honors the diversity of beliefs and expressions within Judaism, is extremely important in sustaining the health and well being of Jewish civilization.

The Kotel has come to represent a failure of Jewish pluralism and the Jewish-Democratic ideal of the modern State of Israel. This failure alienates many secular Israelis from Judaism, and many American Jews from Israel as our people’s spiritual home.

And so I was drawn to the Women of the Wall, joining them in monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer whenever possible. I have been there to witness the hostility of Haredi men and women, and even the police, whose intense presence has been unfriendly. Still, we sang our hearts out, above the enmity that surrounded us – even as members of the group have recently been arrested with increasing frequency. I witnessed Anat Hoffman’s arrest for carrying a Torah scroll in the Kotel plaza a few years ago, and the arrest of some women wearing a tallit. Each time I davenned with Women of the Wall (wearing tallit and kippah, as is my custom) I was moved by the beauty of the women’s prayer and the pain of the situation.

Rosh Hodesh Sivan, May 10, 2013, was a turning point. Arriving on a van arranged by Women of Wall, we found a new reality at the Kotel plaza. We did not wait in long security lines while guards looked for ritual garb in our bags, as had become standard. They ushered us through quickly. Police officers immediately escorted us through the plaza.

This time, the police were there to protect us, and their demeanor was entirely different. We faced the presence of many thousands of Haredi girls and young men who had come on the orders of their rabbis. Their early arrival succeeded in blocking us from the divided “synagogue” that is the Kotel prayer area. So the police ushered us to the front of the Kotel plaza. Ironically, this effectively created an egalitarian minyan – the men who came to support us, who would have typically been standing on the other side of the barrier, were now standing alongside us. A few ventured into the midst of our tightly assembled group.

While thousands of young men who came to protest shouted loudly and blew whistles, we sang in full voice. The sound of our own prayers filled our ears, and uplifted our souls. With police protection, we prayed freely with our preferred ritual garb — many kippot and tallitot, and some tefillin. We celebrated a young woman’s bat mitzvah and sang and danced with the bat mitzvah family. All of this was not possible just a month ago. The changing air of history was palpable.

Leaving the Kotel plaza, we faced the intense hostility of the surrounding Haredi crowd. As we were hurried onto a waiting bus, the dangers became more evident. When a large rock was thrown at the bus, along with other projectiles, and Haredi young men surrounded and banged on the bus, cursing us, middle fingers pointed our way, I was sickened by fear and grief. With police protection, we rode away to the comfort of Mamilla mall.

In the past two weeks, as the traumas from that morning have subsided, one feeling has emerged prominently. That is the joy from the chorus of our voices and the success of our activism. The prayers of Women of the Wall are an ascendant voice.

Thirty-one years and 26 trips after my first visit to Israel, my feelings of alienation are subsiding. The voices of Women of the Wall have elevated the struggle for Jewish religious freedom in Israel, and I am exhilarated to have the opportunity to be a part of it.








I was an unusually clumsy toddler. My parents were concerned about the frequency with which I walked into furniture, so they consulted doctors who diagnosed severe nearsightedness and eye coordination problems.  From the age of twenty-two months I wore glasses. Eye surgery and years of regular visits to eye hospitals for muscle-training exercises addressed the coordination problems. So I know all too well the importance of vision. I am grateful for my ability to see, and feel tremendous sympathy for those who cannot.

This year I welcomed cataract surgery — it enabled correction of my vision so well that I rarely even need reading glasses. What a blessing to be able to see! Given where I have come from, you can imagine my glee at newfound vision.

I also have an appreciation for the use of the term “vision” in the context of organizational planning.  We have to see where we need to go in order to get there without bumping into the furniture.

In the Jewish world today, there is a profound need to for clearer vision.  We are all experiencing dramatic cultural changes that impact our individual and communal needs and interests and beliefs and values.  The goals and programs of synagogues and Jewish community centers of a generation ago are no longer working very well.  Just as all of us with visual impairments have to have our eyes checked for updated prescriptions or procedures so that we can see, our community needs a check-up. What is our vision going to be?

We have to be willing to look beyond the borders of our habits and imagine a new horizon.  There is no time for trying to jury-rig our current way of being to try to force it to fit into some safe, known formula.  The needs of our times are too great. The conflicts and economic challenges in our world are impacting us all so greatly; the moral direction of our society is all too murky.  We need see our way through to a clearer sense of life’s meaning and purpose through religious devotion and spiritual community that guides and comforts us. If our spiritual communities can’t do this, then what purpose do they have?

Why pray?  How can I pray? These are questions that we need to address as individuals and as a community.  How can we mine the resources of centuries of liturgical innovation to help us craft a devotional experience that is engaging, meaningful and compelling. Our prayer should provide comfort, joy, reflection, renewal and direction.  The words of our siddur (prayer book) were created to do all this, and much more. But what good are they if we just don’t “get it?”   We need a new vision of prayer that touches the heart and the head.

Why should we educate our children in the heritage and traditions of our people? How should we? What is the goal?   The old model of Jewish education as a supplement to the home where Judaism was observed is no longer meeting this generation’s needs. (Jewish afternoon schools are often referred to as “Supplementary Schools”.) We need new a vision – towards clarity about why we teach our children what it means to be a Jew, and the facilitation of structures that engages the whole family in lived Jewish experiences. There is so much to be passed to our children – and us – from the riches of Jewish thinking about values and ethics and purpose and identity.  Clear vision will guide us to the gems of Jewish ideas and lessons – anything less will just keep us clumsily searching and frustrated.

Congregation Beth Hatikvah has been spending a great deal of time in the past several months on new visioning for our Shabbat/Friday night and for our Religious School. Two committees of our congregation’s leaders are bringing their experience in leading the synagogue and their life experience to parse these questions. Their courage to think broadly and outside of the boundaries of habit is matched by their smart and insightful contributions to the conversation and their devotion to the community.  A new vision is taking shape.

Four several generations, the sages of the Talmud were engaged in a dialogue about Jewish life and ideas. Their debates and insights shaped a new vision for the Jewish people during a time of tremendous change. Our dialogue and insights can be informed and inspired by them. In that way, our vision will be clear and forward-thinking and our future will be as strong as our past.

I have been thinking about the late 1960’s lately. I was ten years old in 1968. The civil rights movement was in full swing and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Profound counter culture movements (beatniks and hippies, etc.) reflected the rebelliousness of the era, ultimately influenced American culture.

The Vietnam war raged. We remember Kent State, Columbia and Berkeley from the protests and tragedies of that era. The 1968 presidential election was marred by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Black Power and feminism also radically impacted American.

We were never the same after those years.

What is it about times of upheaval, change and uncertainty that leads to positive and enduring change? What tools do we have to guide us out of the maelstrom of the chaos that enswirls us?

These questions resonate for me as I approach Parashat Vayikra, the opening chapters of the book of Leviticus. Our ancestors responded to the chaos around them by creating and refining ritual structures. In their attention to the details of the priestly rituals in the Mishkan, and then the Temple, they sought to collect the Divine energy that would help them to feel safe and secure. It offered them a window into ultimate meaning — the MIshkan was the place where the presence of the Eternal One dwelled; the place where their earthly lives could experience eternity. The priests guided the people there through ritual.

In our world today we are also experiencing turbulence, uncertainty, and fast-moving cultural changes that will shape the years to come. Change does not come easily.

Some have turned to fundamentalism to stave off despair or reject the emptiness of secularism. The desire for structures of meaning is understandable, especially with the light of Vayikra shining on it. Yet, all three Abrahamic faiths are being rocked by the loud voices of their extremist fundamentalist minorities.. Each faith community is struggling against  the destructive pull of a small, but loud few.

It is helpful to recognize that this trend is both old and new, explained by the context of our turbulent times. Yet, for most of us, such structures are not compelling or sufficient. Still, aspects of the religious rituals and lifestyles of tradition hold great potential for us too. We too seek the comfort of faith. We need the experience of meaning. Even when we are not choosing all of the answers of past generations, we are still asking the same questions.

In many ways we are engaged in the same search and the same process as the wilderness generation that is described in Vayikra. We are examining what we have received in the traditions of the past to shape the most meaningful and spiritually rich rituals. We are creating the mishkan yet again — our place for the indwelling of the Divine presence in our hearts and our lives.

American Jews have been bringing many forms of creative spirit to our rituals and customs. Israeli Jews have a special opportunity to mold and shape Jewish rituals from the places of our people’s birth. Many wonderful new creative forms of Jewish engagement  are emerging in an Israeli Jewish cultural renaissance. We have a great deal to learn from each other.

The poetry of Yehuda Amichai is one of the most beautiful tools to bridge our communities. He knew how to capture the earthly and the heavenly, in the chasm between the old and the new.  I conclude with a 1967 Amichai poem upon the reunification of Jerusalem.

On Yom Kippur 5728, I donned

Dark holiday clothing and walked to Jerusalem’s Old City.

I stood for quite a while in front of the kiosk shop of an Arab,

Not far from Shechem Gate, a shop

full of buttons, zippers and spools of thread

Of every color; and snaps and buckles.

Brightly lit and many  colored like the open Holy Ark.


I said to him in my heart that my father too


I explained to him in my heart about all the decades

And the reasons and the events leading me to be here now

While my father’s shop burned there and he is buried here.


When I concluded it was the hour of Neilah (closing of the gates)

He too drew down the shutters and locked the gate

As I returned homeward with all the other worshippers.

Yehuda Amichai

(from Achshav B’ra’ash (“Now Noisily) (Schocken 1975), page 11-12, translation by RIchard Silverstein

My love affair with Jewish learning began at an early age. I was an unusual kid who loved Hebrew school from the start. But my classmates didn’t share my affinity and my passion for yiddishkeit. I recall an early high school reunion where a group of old friends gathered around a table in a suburban Philadelphia catering hall. I noticed that all of us at that table had been members of the same Hebrew school class. Thirty-three of us were confirmed together in 1974.  Reuniting, we gravitated to one another as naturally as old family members would. Most notably to me was the fact that of all of the kids who were confirmed together, I was the only one who was Jewishly engaged at all.

Of course, at that point few of us were yet raising children, the entry point for synagogue affiliation for so many people. But still, the complete disconnection from anything Jewish was sadly striking to me.

Today’s Jewish leaders are wringing their hands about the next generation, fearing that the current model of synagogues is no longer appealing to the next generation. While many in my generation eventually found their way to synagogues, their Jewish connections are more tenuous for them and for their children.

There are several new trends responding to changing needs and interests of younger Jews.  One is the popularity of hands-on service work. Tikkun Olam (a kabbalistic term, meaning, “repair of the world”) is the buzzword and its appeal, as an expression of Jewish values, is transforming the Jewish narrative in our day. It has become a key element of this generation’s Jewish identity.

Looking back on my Jewish upbringing (my family’s life revolved around the synagogue), I can’t recall many experiences of going out into the world to help those in need. One exception was the annual Christmas volunteering at the hospital, when it felt like the staff humored us by giving us busy work because they didn’t really need us. In Hebrew School we collected tzedakah, but we had no personal connection to those who received it. It wasn’t so much about needy people; we gave our money to JNF for trees in Israel. We gave as much support as we could to help Israel and to efforts to free Soviet Jews. Jewish peoplehood was our cause.

Maybe that is why my classmates were so disconnected 15 years after our confirmation. In adulthood we entered an open, increasingly diverse world and embraced the freedoms of American culture. Our Hebrew school education had done little to help apply the values of Judaism to our world.  What we needed was Jewish engagement that informed out lives and infused our secular world with meaning.

That is why social justice work is so important.  It is the complement to the study of the ancient Jewish texts and ideas. Jewish texts teach tikkun olam as our responsibility for the world. The mitzvot/commandments are what make the work uniquely Jewish.  Social action infuses our Jewish communal life with ultimate value.

Recently, our synagogue participated in a Habitat for Humanity build sponsored by our community’s interfaith council. The experience was inspiring. Our volunteers spanned three generations. While adults laid flooring and painted, several teenagers did the back-breaking work of digging a ditch. Everyone gave the work their best effort and worked alongside the Habitat client who will soon have a remarkable opportunity to own their own home.  This wasn’t busy work — we knew we were making something happen that will transform lives.

We have traveled to New Orleans to rebuild after Katrina, and we regularly help to feed hungry people in our community. There is so much more we could do, including advocacy work to address the root causes of poverty and need. But our work is a good start, and it is also a living classroom for our children.

Today’s Jewish leadership is worried about the loss of attachment to Jewish peoplehood. I share that concern. But the “service work” trend can strengthen Jewish identity. This generation will, with our help, come to appreciate the value of the Jewish prophetic message to engage in social justice.  That is a powerful answer to the question, “why be Jewish?”

This is what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan meant when he talked of the value of living in two civilizations — the Jewish and the American. What a blessing that we are giving our children the opportunity to make Jewish learning come to life in this way!

This is it — it is Elul. It is the time of year when we are given the gift of an entire month to reflect on our lives in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. It’s like a good warm-up before a workout — when we have prepared ourselves during the month of Elul, we are ready to use our teshuvah (repentance/spiritual turning) muscles well on the New Year.

My kids have often reminded me of the need for good stretching before and after exercise. I’m not good at this — I am impatient to get to the bike or the treadmill and get my heart rate up. To be honest I have to admit that I am lazy about stretching before my workout. And I pay the price: my muscles complain and sometimes ache, and it’s all my own fault.

My kids and I recently took a four-day hiking trip on a beautiful mountain trail. It was steep and rugged. They are a lot younger than I am and amazingly agile. I thought I was in good shape — until I began this hike. But I was intent upon keeping up with them and not holding our journey back. In pushing forward, we all forgot about the necessity of stretching — that is, until I was limping from injury.

Now nursing my sore tendon, I am reminded once again of the value of warming up — getting ready, being prepared.

So here we are — we can enter the New Year unprepared and risk that the journey of teshuvah, repentance and renewal, might not work. It could even leave us bruised and alienated.  All those words…all those prayers — they are for us, that we might emerge into the New Year feeling a sense of possibility, hope and optimism — a renewal of spirit.

The month of Elul is a gift. On this, its first day, let’s unwrap its potential to help us heal our wounds, repair ourselves and be closer in the New Year to our very best selves.

An Elul journey can include prayers, meditations, journal-writing, etc.  Our spiritual practice belongs to us — the challenge today is to decide what it will be, and to try our best.

I wish you a Hodesh Tov, happy New Month. This auspicious month of Elul is the beginning of our journey.

You can help create healthy and sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond.
An opportunity to support Hazon.

You may know of my passion for great food: organic fruits, vegetables and unprocessed foods. Hazon, a wonderful Jewish environmental organization, is doing great work as a leader in the Jewish Food movement and environmental education. With the help of Hazon, we can create systems for sustainable, ethically produced, healthful food so that future generations can continue to enjoy the earth’s bounty, as we do.

Hazon raises funds annually through a Labor Day Weekend bike ride in New York. I will be riding in this two-day Hazon NY ride – on the “Recon Riders” team, to support Hazon’s inspiring work.

I invite you to contribute to this cause. It’s a great way to make a difference.

If you would like to donate to Hazon as a sponsor for my ride, follow this link:

Or checks can be sent to Hazon.
(Please include a memo designating your donation to Amy Small’s ride.)
Makom Hadash
125 Maiden Lane Suite 8B
New York, NY 10038

If you would like more information about Hazon, visit their website:

• Did you ever do something generous for someone selflessly, only to feel disappointed that your kindness or efforts were not acknowledged?
• Did you ever send an invitation that went unacknowledged?
• Did you ever contribute to a team effort only to find you’ve been suddenly displaced without conversation, explanation or warning?
• Have you ever been criticized in a way that seems like a personal attack, where the critic lacked the finesse to consider your feelings in the way the message was delivered?
• Have you every felt wrongly accused in a dispute, dismissed or mischaracterized by others?

Most of us could answer in the affirmative to at least one of these questions. Well-intentioned people sometimes forget their manners. We are human, after all, and we make mistakes. We may get sloppy in our interpersonal conduct when we are tired, distracted, hurting, or absorbed with our life issues. But we all share a hope, indeed an expectation, that these mistakes are aberrations, not ways of being in the world.

We all want to live in a world where people are considerate, grateful, communicative, kind and thoughtful. When we get up in the morning, that is the world that we hope to greet with each new day – where we feel connected, appreciated, and safe.

For ages we have been striving to learn how to become better people. This is where our patriarch Abraham steps onto the stage. Abraham and Sarah set off in search of a new covenant, in relationship with the Source of all Life. Yet, sprinkled into the opening narratives of our patriarchs/matriarchs are stories of painful interpersonal misdeeds. The Torah records our ancestors’ misguided actions so that we might learn from their mistakes. Ultimately, the Torah’s teaching, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) comes to direct our course.

We keep trying, and sometimes we get it right. In the sweep of history there have been good times and bad times. In good times, our accomplishments are awesome and holy. In other times, it seems as though humanity sometimes enters a warp of self-absorption or selfishness and even bad-temper. Then, people don’t always treat each other well. Some people act out from a place of hurt or fear. The challenges we face may cloud our view of the sacredness and awe that Abraham led us to seek.

It seems that we may be living through just such a challenging time.

Stephen Carter, in his 1998 book, “Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy” talks about “sacrifice and neighbor-love”: He reminds us that the command to love your neighbor as yourself is “the simplest of commandments and maybe the hardest one to follow.” It requires us to act with love toward others, which is a hard discipline to cultivate. Carter suggests that we get there by seeing this as a moral obligation that is absolute. “Why?”, he asks, “Because that other human being, whatever his or her strengths, weaknesses, and simple complexities, is also a part of God’s creation.” In religious terms, this discipline is sustained by a powerful sense of awe in glory of life and this universe.
We must come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude.

Just this week I had several conversations with some folks in our community about their own private hurts because of actions of others. The questions listed above describe the shape and substance of these hurts. Yes, mistakes happen. But one person observed that this feels like a cultural issue – there is too much self-absorption going around, she observed. I thought of Stephen Carter’s book, which had already been reverberating in my mind to teach again. I thought of the “civility campaign” of the JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) and the public divisiveness in our culture right now. It does seem that we need to recover our center – as a people commanded to direct all of our actions mindfully, in regard for each other’s feelings and humanity.

We are approaching the festival of Pesach (Passover.) It is not only about liberation from Egyptian bondage. Pesach envisions a world in which all people are freed from the “narrow places” (from the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim.) May this celebration renew our commitment to shaping a world where the expansiveness of God’s glorious world is ever-present, and we all act in accordance with the rule to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

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