Jewish World

Shloshim; The Meaning of Thirty
Women of the Wall, March, 2019

This past week I was filled with memories of my first visit to Israel in 1982, just before entering rabbinical school. I spent the summer studying in an Orthodox women’s yeshiva, which reinforced my beliefs and practice as a non-Orthodox Jew. And, while I loved Israel, I also came to certainty that I could not make aliyah. I wanted to be a rabbi and a progressive/observant Jew, which didn’t seem possible in that time in Israel.

It was sad that women in Israel could not fully express their Judaism with equality; and even sadder that it didn’t appear to occur to most Israeli Jewish women to even try. It was a man’s world. That was alienating.

When I returned to Israel after a long hiatus, in 2001, I found a new reality: women rabbis, and an awakening of the need for modern, egalitarian Israeli Judaism. I’ve been back over 30 times since then, immersing ever deeper into life in Israel.

In many visits since, I found a liberating experience as a Jewish feminist: prayers at the Kotel (Western Wall) on Rosh Hodesh (the New Month, a traditional women’ holiday) with Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall has been fighting to liberate the Kotel from the ultra-orthodox control granted by the Israeli government. For thirty years these courageous women have endured violence, arrests, and outrageous restrictions, and they have resiliently endured. They have inspired me to stick with them and do everything I can to support them and be engaged in the struggle for equality for all Jews in Israel.

This fight is not just about the Kotel; far from it. It is about what it means to be a Jewish state and a state for all Jews. It is about government funding for all synagogues and rabbis, not just orthodox. It is about conversion, marriage, divorce and burial. It is about the control of the “official” rabbinate of kashrut supervision (and the cost of food.) It is about compromise and peace. It is about Israel’s very soul.

The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has been fighting these battles in court and in the Knesset for years — with many important successes and accomplishments. But even those successes have not changed the status of the Kotel as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue ruled by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Rabinowitz, who often disregards even the courts and political victories of WoW. This must change.

For all those reasons I set aside my very busy schedule at Ohavi Zedek to be with Women of the Wall for Rosh Hodesh Adar II at the Kotel. It was to be a very special thirtieth anniversary celebration. I couldn’t imagine not standing with Women of the Wall at this critical moment.

I have been with WoW many times over the years. I was there on occasions when our prayers were truly joyous even as hateful ultra-Orthodox women and men blew whistles to drown out our voices and screamed curses at us. I was there when Anat Hoffman, IRAC Executive Director, was arrested for carrying a Torah in the Kotel plaza, as the police tried to grab the Torah from her arms and she would not let go. I was there when a riot broke out in 2013 as thousands of ultra-Orthodox teens — boys and girls — filled the plaza and surrounded us as a hostile mob. I was there when WoW was forced to gather in the back plaza, far from the Kotel in the women’s section, because thousands of ultra-Orthodox youth had filled the worship space near the Kotel. And I was there when eggs and water bottles were thrown at us, and was hit by an egg. I had heard that metal chairs were thrown at the women in the early days, and my heart goes out to the women who endured that and still didn’t quit.

None of that prepared me for the violence we experienced on Rosh Hodesh Adar II, March 8, 2019. Once again thousands of yeshiva students filled the men’s and women’s sections before we arrived for our 7 am prayers. I was among a few WoW supporters asked in advance to lead a prayer during the service. That meant arriving first and standing in the center, next to the prayer leaders. Small plastic stools were brought in for us to ascend when we were leading. Two small “snack table” size tables came out of a bag and were covered with a cloth, providing a center table for the leaders of the service. I stood alongside that table, next to a colleague and friend from our studies together at the Hartman Institute, and a woman I didn’t know was on my other side. During the hour we were there, we became bonded forever as we held each other, lest we would have crashed to the ground from the force of the pushing and shoving behind us.

First the girls behind me were loudly reciting Psalms to try to drown out our voices. It was nearly impossible to hear ourselves as a group. WoW had been denied in their request for a microphone. It got much worse when Rabbi Rabinowitz allowed the ultra-Orthodox men to use the Kotel’s sound system to loudly broadcast their prayers. We couldn’t hear ourselves at all after that.

Rosh Hodesh Adar II — which is supposed to be a time for gladness and joy, turned into a nightmare at the Kotel. Many thousands of yeshiva students — boys and girl, young men and women—were bused in and filled the Kotel plaza long before our 6 am arrival. They came at their rabbis’ instruction to disrupt what they were taught is unholy — our prayers. Nothing could have been more unholy than their angry, hostile, violent behavior toward us and towards the men who came to daven (pray) in solidarity with us (in the men’s section.)

The aggressive pushing, shoving, spitting and screaming, of the haredi girls was terrifying. The police were nowhere to be found. One of the girls was fiercely pushing me from behind with her leg on my bad left leg (after surgery following a break 3 years ago.) After about half an hour of enormous effort to hold still and not react while trying to pray with WoW, I couldn’t take it anymore and I pushed back with my good leg. That made her push me harder and spend the next half hour screaming in my ear and stepping on my right foot. The muscle aches in my back and my weak leg from the effort it took to not fall remain a reminder of standing for justice.

We had been able to pray together a bit when we started, even as they shouted and pushed. I led one Psalm at the beginning. But it quickly fell apart as they increased their pushing, shoving, kicking and even scratching and spitting, and the sound system began to drown us out. It became impossible to pray. It just fell apart. It took the police a hour to arrive in the Ezrat Nashim (women’s section) to rescue us — literally — and even then there weren’t enough of them and at points we had to push our way out. As we walked through the angry mob, some women in our group were pushed to the ground. Many of our women sustained bruises and other injuries.

We finally found peace in “Ezrat Yisrael,” at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Wall. There we read Torah, sang, danced and rejoiced for Rosh Hodesh Adar. Shaken, we seized a moment for healing and for joy. We still had one more hurdle — walking through the angry mob awaiting us as we exited to our buses on the street. We felt the Shechinah accompany us as we made our way back toward peace.

It was unspeakably sad! The feeling of dread I felt from such sinat hinam (baseless hatred) remains with me. I heard echoes of this very place in the year 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed; the rabbis taught that it happened because of sinat hinam. Heaven help us.

Anat Hoffman remained steady and calm in her leadership. She believes this was a game-changer— that the pressure on the politicians will change everything. May it be so!

Rabbi Rabinowitz, the official government rabbi of the Kotel, is, in my opinion, a cruel, sinful man. His behavior, which created this atmosphere of hostility and violence, is a Hillul Hashem — a desecration of Gd’s name. Even as I understand that these Haredim are reacting out of fear for the crumbling of their power, their behavior is reprehensible.

And – still, being with the Women of the Wall on Thursday night, Friday afternoon, and Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) was inspiring and uplifting. We learned, prayed, sang and reflected. It was a powerful three days together—masterfully shaped by the amazing WoW staff, under the leadership of Lesley Sachs, Executive Director of Women of the Wall. We are bonded on a sacred mission. And we will yet liberate the Kotel.

The three paratroopers from ‘67 — the iconic photo when they liberated the Kotel— have become major supporters of WoW. They were honored on Thursday night. One said (as I recall it), “We didn’t liberate the wall. We won a war with Jordan. But the wall is not yet liberated. Together, we will liberate it.” Not a dry eye in the house. They came to the Kotel on Friday am and were with other male supporters of WoW — on the men’s side— and were also attacked. Yizhar Hess, Director of the Masorati (Conservative) movement in Israel was attacked by boys who took his kippah and tallit and threw them down.

It is infuriating that the police blamed WoW for provoking the violence. Such a hateful lie! How could it be that the police not only neglected to protect us (though WoW leadership had begged in advance for their protection and to keep the peace), but then they also blamed the victims?

We can hope now that this moves the politicians to change the situation. I pray that all the good and caring and kind people of Israel will awaken to activism and thoughtful political choices when they vote next month. In any case, we are not giving up; not until the Kotel, and Judaism, is liberated from the hands of extremist Jews.

Lesley Sachs shared this poignant poem with us after our gathering:

Our heads were swimming with cacophony.
Yet, we heard you.
Our bodies were swept up in a violent wave of humanity.
Yet, we felt your gentle touch.
Our ribs were elbowed, our toes were stepped on.
Yet, your hands grasped ours with confidence

Thirty — Shloshim: that is how many years Women of the Wall have been praying and fighting for equality. Shloshim is also a significant Jewish number; it marks the conclusion of the first month of mourning after losing a close relative. It signifies a conclusion of one stage and an entry into the next. For Women of the Wall, for all Israelis, for all Jews, we enter a new stage. May this new stage be the conclusion, that there should not, must not be a fortieth anniversary of Women of the Wall, that we will have succeeded in the fight for Jewish equality.

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This post will be the 100th posting on  Somehow, that feels like a milestone.

But this blog has also reached a more significant milestone — it is moving to a new site,  hosted within the website of the new Deborah’s Palm Center for Jewish Learning and Experiences

I value all of you, my subscribers, and appreciate the conversation.

So please, check out the new Raviva home, and join me under Deborah’s Palm Tree.

I hope you will subscribe there.

For now, from this, Raviva’s first home, Shalom Uv’racha — Farewell and many blessings.

New posts will now be on Raviva’s new home site. I look forward to seeing you there!

Deborah's Palm Tree

Deborah’s Palm Tree

It’s Official!

Weekly classes in South Orange, NJ

Weekly classes in South Orange, NJ

is now offering Jewish wisdom in learning groups and programs in Northern New Jersey.

As I migrate the Raviva blog to my new site, here is one of the programs that Deborah’s Palm is offering — a weekly Sunday morning class “Your Jewish GPS” —  in South Orange, NJ.

Please visit:

The new site includes a page “Ask the Rabbi” — I’d love to hear from you!

This post was originally published on the blog for Rabbis Without Borders of

Jewish Star of David, at Magen David Jewish Congregation of Bradley Beach, New Jersey

It used to be that most Jews affiliated with a synagogue. My parents’ generation supported their synagogues and the organized Jewish community because they believed we were “one people”, responsible for each other. They honored their congregations’ rabbis and looked to them for guidance.  Yet, these norms have now evolved into entirely new realities, with changing values and assumptions.

My young adult children live in a very different world from the one in which I was raised. Few of their generation choose to be members of synagogues, and they dislike rabbis who lecture them about what to believe or do. But they are just the crest of the wave that includes many of my boomer generation, who increasingly reject commitment to synagogues. They respect rabbis only when they inspire and serve them in intensely personal and meaningful ways, often ‘in the moment.’

It used to be that rabbis who served Jews independently (derisively called “rent-a-rabbis”) were not highly respected within the community.  Yes, some individuals do call themselves rabbis yet lack communally recognized rabbinic ordination or appropriate knowledge and expertise. Yet, it is also the case that some very fine rabbis of upstanding credentials and experience are now functioning independently, serving unaffiliated Jews in a variety of ways.

Some rabbis consider this to be unfair competition with syn

agogues. Rightly so, they feel that Judaism is not a commodity that is bought and sold – it is a commitment to being part of the Jewish people, found within community.

The times, they are a’changin,” Bob Dylan sang:

Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

Your sons and your daughters

Are beyond your command

Your old road is

Rapidly agin’

Please get out of the new one

If you can’t lend your hand

For the times they are a-changin’.

Synagogues will certainly remain essential for Jewish community. Along the way innovative leaders are creating new modes of Jewish belonging and inspirational spiritual experience for the Jewish people and fellow travelers.

Now rabbis who are providing personalized, independent rabbinic services are spiritual leaders who are meeting people where they are to help them find Jewish fulfillment and connections. With skilled rabbis helping Jews and fellow travelers to find their way within the Jewish community, so much more is possible.  With professional rabbis offering this service to individuals and fellow travelers, there is room to build on the pride that 94% of surveyed Jews express at just being Jewish.

That is why I am excited to be going independent. Amidst Jewish communal hand wringing about the dramatic decline in affiliation rates, I am shifting into another gear as a rabbi. It is time to teach, guide, facilitate, officiate and lead from outside the box.

I will soon launch “Deborah’s Palm, A Center for Jewish Learning and Experiences.” I will also seek ways to collaborate with rabbis and communities within my area wherever possible. We are all in it together.  “The times, they are a’changin”.  The Jewish people and our fellow travelers need us.





This was first posted in the blog of Rabbis Without Borders on the website.

I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being  professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.

And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in

labshul 5774 torah service YK

New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.

That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.

Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.

We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.

I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation.  Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.

The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their  support.  It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.

(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)

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.

We’ve arrived!  Jewish women, that is. After generations of wilderness for Jewish women, two great events of the twentieth century helped to bring us to the Promised Land.  Both are being celebrated this spring, and it is a happy time to be a liberated Jewish woman.

Ninety years ago Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the innovative, courageous rabbi who dared to integrate the best of American values into Jewish life, brought his daughter Judith to the front of the congregation as a bat mitzvah.  It was the 1922, long before “Womens’ Lib” and feminism.  Judith was the oldest of four daughters, and at 12 years old, she was a still a child following her father’s directions. Only later could she become an activist, noted as an influential Jewish musicologist.

There is a tradition for men to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their becoming a bar mitzvah.  It’s a sweet and extremely meaningful life passageway. Judith Kaplan Eisenstein had a chance to embrace the role of bat mitzvah at a 70th anniversary service and celebration in 1992.  I had the privilege of being present at Judith’s second bat mitzvah, when the 82-year-old Judith read from the Torah (unlike her first time, when that was still unimaginable.) We still recall her heartfelt and moving devar Torah.  Those of us who gathered in a hall in Queens near the old World’s Fair grounds, were profoundly honored to share in celebrating not only a remarkable woman, but a life-altering moment in history that has changed American Judaism and women’s lives.

What a celebration of courage, innovation and Reconstructionism! Yes, that too — as Judith’s father, Rabbi Kaplan, was the influential rabbi who developed the ideas of Reconstructionist Judaism.

It took 50 years from Kaplan’s courageous revolution to reach the next great milestone.  In 1972 the first woman rabbi, Rabbi Sally Priesand, was ordained in the USA.  While Rabbi Regina Jonas had preceded Rabbi Priesand as the first woman rabbi, she had been ordained in Berlin in the 1930’s by a small, courageous group of liberal rabbis.  Tragically, Rabbi Jonas was murdered by the Nazi’s. Her story was nearly lost along with the community she so lovingly served in Germany of the camps. When Rabbi Priesand was ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, many people thought she was truly the first.  Of course, she was — for us American Jews.  Her ordination, with all of the controversy and publicity it generated, was indeed a liminal moment for us. American Judaism and American Jews would never be the same again. Women rabbis would begin to change the face of Jewish leadership and Judaism itself.

Forty years ago when Rabbi Priesand was ordained, I was just a one-year out from my own bat mitzvah.  I had already had the benefit of Judith’s 1922 milestone, and despite the fact that there were no female role models for me in the Jewish community; it seemed absolutely natural to me that a woman should be ordained. When I heard that Rabbi Priesand had been ordained, I instantly announced that I would follow her lead and someday become a rabbi.


I am deeply indebted to Sally Priesand and all of the women who walked the path before my rabbinic ordination in 1987. During those first 15 years many of them endured prejudice and resistance. But they brought open hearts, incredibly smart heads, unbridled courage and passion for leading the Jewish world with new talent. We have all been transformed by their leadership. The relational, nurturing style that they have brought to the rabbinate has more than changed Jewish communities – it has facilitated a continued vibrancy for a community struggling with rapid change.

A month from now I will celebrate my own milestone – 25 years in the rabbinate. Personally, I feel tremendous gratitude to Judith and to Rabbis Sally, and Regina and to my friend Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (the first Reconstructionist woman rabbi, ordained in 1974.)   What a great season of celebration. After the wilderness of generations, we have arrived. We thank the Source of Life for enabling us to reach this moment!


I was raised with pride for the accomplishments of Israel’s chalutzim, pioneers, in building and growing the land our people’s birth and rebirth. I had faith that Israel would live out all the best of what it meant to be a Jew.

On my first trip to Israel in 1982 I learned hard lessons about the divide between secular and religious in Israel. As a progressive Jew, I felt that I didn’t fully belong there, even though I loved the land and the people. I could visit, but I could never live there.

Thirty years later, I am very fortunate to be able to spend time studying in Israel. I now feel so much more that I belong there (though my life is firmly here), having visited many communities that are shaping new types of Israeli Jewish culture. The development of Jewish pluralism and progressive Judaism around Israel is very exciting.

There is a tremendous amount of creativity within Israeli society, as documented, for example, in the book “Start Up Nation.”  Israeli innovation is alive and well and, most importantly, the products of these new ventures are inspiring examples that have the potential to reinvigorate American ideas as well. In our American Jewish communities, there is a lot to be learned from new Jewish creativity within Israel.

I just returned from spending one week on the Metrowest United Jewish Communities Israel Center Experience.  A main goal of this mission was to visit a sampling of the many religious pluralism projects that our Jewish federation supports. Metrowest is a national leader for recognizing and supporting the tremendous importance of religious pluralism within Israel’s Jewish population. We fund a broad range of programs across Israel as a contribution to the Jewish character of the Jewish homeland.

I was like the proverbial “kid in a candy store” as we went from site to site meeting visionary leaders who are cultivating new approaches to Jewish learning and Jewish expression. Everything they do is a lesson to us for reinvigorating our Jewish communities.  Our Israeli counterparts are also eager to learn from our successes in creating adaptive Jewish communities. It is rich dialogue of family learning from family.

At one community we met a group of new “chalutzim“, pioneers, who are creating and guiding Jewish communities of secular Israelis in the heart of secular Israel, the Galilee. We studied this text by famous Zionist thinker, Berl Katznelson:

“A rejuvenating and creative generation does not discard the legacy of generations to the trash heap. It examines and checks, pushes away and brings close. And it holds on to existing tradition and adds to it. And it burrows under the junk heap, exposes that which is forgotten, polishes it from its rust, returns to the beginning of ancient tradition, which can nourish the soul of the rejuvenating generation. If, in the life of a people, there is something very ancient and profound, which can educate a person and immunize him from that which will come, how much can disengaging from it really be revolutionary?”

These chalutzim, pioneers, are searching Jewish tradition and texts to find spiritually rich Jewish expressions. I asked one young chalutz, pioneer, what his community does for bar mitzvah.  He looked at me with some embarrassment, and said, “We don’t know.”  “Wow,” I exclaimed, “how cool it is that you get to imagine what you need and create it using tradition and contemporary values. Wow,” I said, “how totally Reconstructionist!”  He sat up straighter and smiled and then began to share more about what they are considering and how they are experimenting. The exchange was too brief, but it got me thinking about our approaches to bar/bat mitzvah, and how we can learn from each other.

It is nice to have good news from Israel.  These visionary Israelis are creating it for us.  I am proud we support them and grateful that we can learn from each other. I’ll be back to learn from them this summer. More to follow!

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!

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