Commentary From Rabbi Susan Warshaw
Temple Bat Yam is a reform Jewish synagogue in Delmarva's Eastern Shore.

July Newsletter 2011

July 1, 2011

Dear Temple Bat Yam,

I am very excited about leaving for Israel this coming weekend. I am so blessed that my congregation understands my need for professional study and growth. A good leader is reflective, curious, and willing to continually be challenged.  My time in Israel helps me grow, think, and  learn!

I am off again to the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to study for three weeks in July. This year our focus will be on the idea of Jewish peoplehood. This is an important idea—-that although we Jews live in different countries we are still one people! We will look at this concept in many different ways: through biblical and rabbinic texts, through sociology and psychology, through a contemporary lens and also will imagine the Jewish future in this regard.

We are in class by 8.30 am and often go until 10 at night with a short break in the late afternoon. There is a study of rabbinic texts in a yeshiva style with a study partner. There are electives in the afternoon with a series of amazing professors from around the world. There are day trips to archaeological sites and evening presentations from Members of Knesset, Jewish thinkers, and authors.

It is a full time of growing, learning, and thinking. I want to thank my wonderful Temple and its leadership for the wisdom to know that rabbis need to study and recharge their batteries.

In my absence there will be rabbinic coverage. If you have an emergency please call our Temple president Stu Eisenman and he will contact the rabbi. Our wonderful cantors Cheryl Taustin and Phyllis Alpern will lead services on July 8 and 15. Cheryl will read and teach Torah on July 8; Bette Bohlman will read Torah on July 15. On July 22 Rabbi Don Berlin from St. Michaels will lead services and read Torah. Our Saturday morning services will continue with informal services and Kaballah study, led by members of the congregation.

So that I can share with each of you what I am learning and doing, I will be posting comments as often as I can on my blog:

I look forward to seeing you at services on July 29. Wishing you a wonderful few weeks!

Rabbi Warshaw

Rabbi Warshaw’s Comments for the Congregational Meeting, June 26, 2011

          It seems like I always start out my rabbi report with the words—“we have been so busy this past year at Temple Bat Yam.” And yet—every year that seems more and more true. When I talk to rabbis from much larger congregations around the country they are truly surprised at what our little temple by the ocean does. We are a

 rockin’ place!

          There is so much for us to celebrate this morning. Our core of volunteers is amazing. There are so many who do so much for our congregation. All I can say is thank you to each and every one of you who has reached out when asked, who has initiated a new program or event, or who quietly and anonymously has seen what needs to be done and just taken care of it. I encourage you all to lend your own special talents to Temple Bat Yam so that our community will continue to grow and flourish.

          This past year was a fantastic year for the religious school. We celebrated six B’nai Mitzvot. Our students continue to learn and grow, and each year seem to become more confident in their mastery of Hebrew and in their commitment to Judaism. We had a fun bus trip to visit the Jewish Museum in New York, and are planning this coming year on joining the Men’s Club to visit the new Jewish Museum in Philadelphia in the fall, and to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC in the spring. One of our priorities this coming year will be involving the young people who are post-B’nai Mitzvot in an exciting and meaningful Jewish experience.

          It just works out that there will be no 13-year-old B’nai Mitzvot at Temple Bat Yam in the next two years, but I am planning that we will continue to have adult B’nai Mitzvot. I will be teaching a class to prepare adults for a B’nai Mitzvah beginning in January with a B’nai Mitzvah date of May, 2013. Several of you have spoken to me about wanting to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah but are unsure. Well, let me tell you now, just go for it. It is NEVER too late. You will feel so much more secure in your Jewish knowledge after this study. And I promise you that each one of you will be successful and that you CAN do it. There will be more information about this class in the fall, but I urge you to think about it.

          Adult Ed is an important part of what we do here at Temple Bat Yam. This past year we studied Mussar (Jewish ethics), Talmud, Islam, we had a class called Questions About Being Jewish, and we had a wonderful group of Christian adults who came because they wanted to learn about Judaism. In the coming year we will continue with the Mussar group that is already in place, but will also start a new Mussar group. We will continue with our every-other-week Lunch and Learn Talmud study; in January I will teach a very exciting course, complete with DVD’s from leading scholars, theologians, politicians, and thinkers called Engaging Israel. Come and learn with us—-and please let me know if there are other courses or topics that you are interested in.

          There is a very exciting event coming up this December that I want to tell you about. It is the URJ Biennial which this year will be at Harbor Place near Washington DC. If you have never attended a Biennial this is the one to go to. I can’t tell you what an amazing experience it is to celebrate Shabbat services on Friday night with 5,000 other Jews. There are workshops and programs for every level of interest, and I know you will come back enthused and excited for Judaism and for Temple Bat Yam. I hope that our congregation will be well represented. You will be hearing more about this wonderful opportunity in the next few weeks. So set aside December 14-18. You will regret it if you don’t attend.

          One more thing—-if you have never been to Israel or would like to revisit this amazing country our Temple has a congregational trip at the end of October. We have an incredible journey planned for you, visiting Israel from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea,  from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea, and will also go to the ancient city carved out of stone in Jordan called Petra. We have space available, and would love to have ALL of you join us. Talk to anyone who went on our last trip and you will learn what a special journey this can be.

          Sometimes at TBY Board meetings we ask ourselves, why should any of us belong to a temple? So let’s talk about that a little. First of all, we are here for you for all that defines your lives. Community is so important, and Temple Bat Yam is a true community. We may not always agree, we may not always like each other, but we are always there for each other. Sometimes we don’t even know we need a community until we need it—-and during this past year I have seen our community support each other in amazing ways, from happy occasions to sad times, and everything in-between. Our community can be described in many ways—we are friendly, inclusive, and have someone at the door welcoming everyone to services; we love the beautiful music our incredible cantors provide, we are a community of learners, we are there when we get a call that a family needs people for a shiva minyan, or for a baby naming; we are there to celebrate with B’nai Mitzvah families, we are there when a loved one needs a MiShebeirach said for them, we are there supporting each other when a name is read for Kaddish; we are there at an oneg to help celebrate a birthday or anniversary. We may show our caring in different ways, but we ARE there, we are mispocha (family). We live by our Jewish values. That is Temple Bat Yam, and that is why we belong and support this very special place.

          Finally, I want to thank each one of you for the gift of being your Temple Bat Yam rabbi. I learn from you every day. I pray that I may serve you well, that I may be there when you need me, and that I may be able to support you in realizing a fulfilling and meaningful Jewish life.




June 2011 Newsletter: Shavuot


            There are many kinds of Jews in the world: there are Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews; Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox and secular Jews. Jews who believe in God and Jews who do not. There are Jews from the East and Jews from the West; there are Jews who pray alone, who pray in a minyan and those who do not pray at all. There are Jews from Jewish families and Jews from non-Jewish families. There are generous Jews and selfish Jews; Jews who eat deli and Jews who eat Chinese. With so many different kinds of Jews, what is it that keeps us together? What is it that makes us all Jews?

            The answer is Torah. The Torah belongs to all of us. As Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin writes, Torah “is our history and our destiny. It is our source of values, wisdom, and purpose, our common vocabulary, our narrative, our memory. Across the centuries it is the Torah that has bound us together. It is what Jewish life is based on. The Torah is the soul of the Jewish people. As long as we are Jews, the Torah is ours and we each have a share in it.”

            Even after thousands of years the Torah continues to be the foundation of Judaism. Through the symbol of Sinai, God and the Jewish people are joined. Through stories and lessons, laws and songs, the Torah reminds us of who we are. It is no wonder then that there is a holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah. That holiday is called Shavuot.

            Shavuot has both an historical and an agricultural explanation. Agriculturally, Shavuot marks the end of the spring harvest in the land of Israel. Grateful for their good fortune, the people of Israel would come to Jerusalem with much fanfare and celebration, bringing their harvest offerings to the Temple. The holiday is directly linked to our other spring holiday, Passover. The Torah tells us that we must count the days between Passover and Shavuot. The word “shavuot” actually means “weeks,” and refers to the seven weeks plus one day—adding up to 50 days—-that we count between these two holidays (called Counting the Omer). During this time the Israelites went from being slaves in Egypt to being a free people who accept the Torah at Mount Sinai

            Shavuot is unlike other Jewish holidays in that it has no prescribed mitzvot (Torah commandments). Rather, it is characterized by many minhagim (customs). Traditionally the Book of Ruth is read in the synagogue on Shavuot, as are the Ten Commandments. It is also traditional to eat dairy food such as cheesecake and blintzes with cheese and other fillings. No one really knows why we eat dairy foods on Shavuot; one explanation is that, just as milk is life-giving after the birth of a baby, so the Torah is life-giving after the birth of a nation. Another explanation is that King Solomon (in the Song of Songs 4:11) portrayed the Torah as being like “honey and milk are under your tongue.” It is also traditional to decorate the synagogue with greenery, plants, flowers, and leafy branches in honor of Shavuot. In many synagogues Shavuot is the time when young Jews renew their commitment to God and the Jewish people in a Confirmation ceremony.

            In the medieval period, mystics celebrated the holiday with a ritual called tikkun leil Shavuot. They would study the mysteries of Torah all night to prepare for the opening of the heavens at midnight. They believed that just then they could hear the echo of Revelation, still audible in the universe to those who knew how to listen—just like the echo of the big bang.

            Many congregations today observe tikkun leil Shavuot with study. And so our Temple Bat Yam is going to mark the holiday in this special way. On the evening of June 7 at 7.30 PM we will gather together, not for a service, but for study. And of course, to eat delicious cheesecake and cheese blintzes. I promise we will not go all night (as is the tradition) or even until midnight! Between eating and informal study in the social hall, we will be done by around 9.00. But we will have joined with Jews all over the world as we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It should be a fun and interesting evening. I hope you will all join us.          

From Jerusalem, February 2011

Jerusalem, February 2, 2011

I am sitting in the airport in Tel Aviv waiting to board an airplane for home after spending a week in Jerusalem studying at the Hartman Institute. Many flights to the US have been canceled because of bad weather in the mid-west, but it looks like mine is a go.

It has been an incredible week of learning with colleagues and from master teachers, of staying tuned to CNN to keep up with the latest developments in Egypt, and walking the streets of Jerusalem. The sharing with colleagues has been amazing, and some of the classes we have had in these past few days have been incredibly exciting, inspiring, and insightful. There are brilliant teachers here, and what they give to us is amazing. You will be benefitting from all I learn in the coming weeks and months. Our curriculum was based this past week on the ethics of various Jewish holidays—Shabbat, Sukkot, Hanukkah, Purim, Shavuot. We also studied Israel with all its contemporary challenges. This past Monday one of our teachers, Micah Goodman, presented a new way to think about the themes, archetypes, and origins of the story of the Exodus. It was one of the most insightful classes I have ever attended.

And of course Israel is always interesting politically. The big news here is what is happening in Egypt, which seems to have taken everyone by surprise. No one knows how it will turn out, or how it will affect Israel. The border between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai is long, and much of Israel’s foreign policy in the past few years has depended on a good relationship with Egypt. There are always interesting internal struggles within the country too. But no matter what happens, Israelis go on with business as usual and everything seems safe and very normal.

What I love to do most in Jerusalem is walk. Every time I come I spend as much time as I can exploring the city. This afternoon I was in the Old City where I went to the Wall. Sometimes I have ambivalent feelings about the Wall, but this afternoon it seemed the right place for me to be. I prayed for all in our community who need strength and healing prayers, and took time just to be in that space. I can’t go to the Old City without visiting my friends in the shuk (the market), and naturally doing a little shopping!


I look forward to getting home and sharing with you my time in this special place.






Temple Bat Yam January Newsletter 2011


            When you come to services, there is a lot to remember, whether it is Shabbat or the High Holy Days. Every service has its own pace and rhythm, although they share many prayers in common.

            Perhaps one of the most basic rules in the sanctuary is to stand when the ark is open or the Torah is in someone’s arms. It is a sign of honor and respect not to sit when the history, law, and teachings of our people—God’s revelation—is among the people. When a Torah is in the Torah stand or flat on the reading table, or being held by someone and they are sitting, then you can sit. What happens if you are in a wheelchair or it is difficult for you to stand? Of course, no one expects you to stand, but in that case you may want to sit taller in your chair as a sign of honor and respect.

            Another issue of synagogue etiquette is that of needing to leave the prayer space and re-enter. There are times when we are all called out of a service, maybe to deal with children or nature, but that does not mean you should just causally walk back in and sit down. This is where it is helpful to know the service. If there is no usher to guide you (and all Temple Bat Yam services will soon regularly have ushers!) remember this: if the congregation is standing in prayer this is not a time to stroll up and down the aisles. Standing indicates an important part of the service. It is not a time to be going in and out of the sanctuary. During the Torah service it is expected that congregants will not enter and leave the sanctuary.

            In our congregation we make both yarmulkes/kippot and tallitot/prayershawls available. Wearing a kippah is of course mandatory for men in an Orthodox synagogue and in most Conservative congregations as well. But it is optional in most Reconstructionist and Reform congregations. In fact, there was a time in many Reform congregations during the 18th and 19th centuries that you would have been asked to remove your kippah if you entered the synagogue wearing one.

            Kippahs and tallitot are worn to enhance the spiritual experience of services. A kippah is worn to remind you that God is above. It is a sign of holiness. It is a reminder of the crown of Torah and the crown of the High Priest in the ancient temple. A tallit has tzitzit, or fringes, on its four corners. They are knotted with special significance to remind us of the 613 commandments of the Torah. In some communities the tallit isn’t worn unless a person is married. In other communities tallitot begin to be worn after a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We wrap ourselves in a tallit to create a sacred space around us, and to remind us of the 613 commandments of the Torah

            Tallitot are worn only during services that occur in the day time (with the exception of Kol Nidre). The reason for this is that one is supposed to be able to see the tzitzit, and before electricity it was difficult to do this at night. Traditionally, prayer leaders wear a tallit for every service. The other time congregants are requested to wear a tallit is if one is called for an aliyah—to bless the Torah before the scroll is read.

            There is one other issue of synagogue etiquette that is perhaps more challenging to resolve: that is the issue of clapping during services. Sometimes we hear a musical piece or listen to someone read a passage so beautifully that we are moved to spontaneous applause. However, applause does not really belong in a prayer service. What is traditional is to say, outloud, “Yasher Koach”—-which means congratulations, well done. When we do this we retain the spirit of the service and also let someone know how much we appreciated their participation.

            I hope this has answered some of your questions about services. Stay tuned: next month we will talk about ten things you can do during services, and ten purposes of Jewish prayer. A Happy and Healthy 2011 to each one of you from Richard and me.



As many if you already know, I spent three weeks this past summer in Jerusalem. This was my first summer as a member of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative (RLI) of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This is an intensive three-year training program for a group of “hand-picked” rabbis from all denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Recostructionist.

            Our schedule was very full indeed. Each morning began at 8.30 AM and we often did not finish until after 10 at night. And then it was time to go home to study and prepare for the next day! We were blessed with the opportunity to hear from some of the finest minds in Israel and to wrestle with some of the thorniest, most complex and vexing issues facing Israel and the entire Jewish people.

            However, for me, what was most inspiring was to sit with other passionate and dedicated rabbinic colleagues. We debated issues, shared ideas, supported each other, learned from each other. One way of study in Judaism is by chevruta, study partners. Studying and learning together in this manner is intense, but what one learns from other members of the chevruta is amazing. The program continues through the year with weekly study with chevruta and also interactive classes via Skype (on the internet) from the Hartman Institute.

            The past few months at Saturday services at Temple Bat Yam we have been focusing on a study of Jewish Mysticism, or Kabbalah. The foundation text for Kaballah is called the Zohar. As a part of studying classic Jewish texts at the Hartman Institute we studied the Zohar. One of the fundamental beliefs in the Zohar is that not only do we need God, but God needs us to realize God’s potential in the world. We are not passive recipients of Divine decrees and judgments; according to the Zohar only when we take the initiative to act does God respond to our most heartfelt yearnings. We must invite God in; without our initiative God will remain distant and removed from the world. My colleague Rabbi Carnie Rose tells a beautiful story about our responsibility to motivate God’s immanent involvement in the affairs of the world.

There is a tale of a Chassid who-despite his best efforts-could not seem to connect with God. He prayed three times daily, kept Kosher, observed Shabbat,and performed all the mitzvot…but it was to no avail. Frustrated and on the verge of despondency, he sought the counsel and guidance of his Rebbe. “Rebbe—I  have tried everything and yet I cannot seem to make a connection with the Holy One of   Blessing. What am I doing wrong? Why don’t I sense God’s presence in my life?”

“My son, I have but one question for you. In all that you have done, in all that you have observed, in all that you have tried, have you once simply turned to God and earnestly invited God in? Have you ever extended an invitation to God to be part of your life?”

 Nedless to say, once awakened to this insight, the young initiate was quickly able to reframe his life and establish a deep, intimate and abiding relationship with God.

            As we enter the High Holy Days let us remember the teaching from the Zohar. Let us  invite God into the framework and fabric of our lives. And in turn, may each one of us, our families, our congregation, our community, our country, the State of Israel and the entire world be blessed by Divine abundance.

            Richard and I wish each one of you a Shanah Tova—a good, prosperous, healthy and peaceful New Year 5771.  

Gemilut Chasidim



Our congregant Bonnie Eisenman wrote this essay for the 19th Annual Kaplan Essay contest. Bonnie was one of the finalists in the competition. Her essay is so special that I would like to share it with you this month.—-Rabbi Warshaw

Our jeans were splattered with mud; we had bramble scratches running up our arms. My arms and legs ached from guiding the horse along the overgrown trail. Now, the trail ride over, the two other volunteers and I were sitting on the porch, catching our breath before the second shift of students.

The three of us were volunteering at the 4STEPS Therapeutic Riding Program, a horse-based therapy program for mentally and physically disabled students. We accompanied our riders in the ring and on the trails, keeping a general eye out for trouble while leading the horses. I’d stumbled into 4STEPS when I was searching for a Bat Mitzvah service project. Though I’d long since fulfilled both that and my school’s service-learning requirement, I was still there.

Michael and Larry—our riders—were still grinning from their jaunt through the woods as the program’s director walked them through the cool-down exercises in the ring. From the distance, you couldn’t tell that the two boys were autistic. They were simply laughing, grinning boys, perfectly at ease atop their gentle beasts.

Laura, Gina, and I were dirty, tired, caked with dust and the smell of horses. But we reveled in the feeling of gritty exhaustion. We were all there of our free will, and this was why we came: to see those smiles, to hear those laughs. There is something deeply spiritual about helping others, and it didn’t matter that the three of us came from different religions. Whether or not the others termed it as such, we all felt the everyday holiness of our service.

Judaism places a great stress on what our school system likes to call “community service.”  Helping others is part of gemilut chasadim, one of the three pillars of the world—the other two being Torah and avodah (service). Often translated as “acts of loving-kindness,” the term’s meaning is much broader than that simple phrase. “Gemilut” signifies reciprocal acts; “chesed” (the singular of chasadim) combines steadfast love and pure giving. Combined, the term connotes a covenant between people—it is a social responsibility. Our responsibility to aid each other supports our community; this is why gemilut chasadim is considered a pillar of the world. It carries far more weight than tzedakah, or charity. Unlike tzedakah, gemilut chasadim can be given to the rich or the poor, the dead or the living; it can take the form of a monetary donation, or be given as personal assistance. (Sukkot 49b) There is no prescribed minimum or maximum. Conceptually, it is also unique because its rewards are found in this world, not the next.

Those rewards are often small or subtle, but they are real: goodwill, a sense of joy, new connections between former strangers. Earlier, I invoked 4STEPS because there I experienced firsthand the transformation of an obligatory service project to a true example of gemilut chasadim. I befriended my fellow volunteers, the riders, and the horses; I relished the physical exertion and rejoiced as the students made slow but steady progress. The grin of a wheelchair-bound student first experiencing the swift freedom of horseback riding, the looks of awe as a “rain-dance” exercise actually prompted a sunshower—these, to me, were proof of goodness in the world, and they were reward enough. Years after I first started, I have seen how the parents of those autistic boys have thrown themselves into community service of all kinds; they are present at many functions and fundraisers. “Pay it forward” might be a slogan, but it’s true: gemilut chasadim serves the world, even (and perhaps especially) if we approach it one person at a time. Recipients of chesed are more able to pass on chesed in return, and thus loving-kindness gives birth unto itself.

When I saw the prompt for this essay—what facet of Judaism is most important for me to pass down to my children—gemilut chasadim immediately sprang to mind. Belief in God gives me an anchor, and I find solace in prayer; the tradition-steeped rituals and vibrant culture of the Jewish people give me pride. But for me, it is the goodness of Judaism that resonates most broadly. Time and again, we are called upon to welcome strangers, to help the needy, to love our neighbors as ourselves. The consistent call to righteousness is much of what makes me proud of my faith. And what better concept to pass on to the next generation than loving-kindness, which is meant to be practiced throughout one’s life?

And so I wish this to be my children’s inheritance. While I plan to raise my future children in the Jewish faith, they will ultimately grow into independent adults. Perhaps they will embrace Judaism as I have. Perhaps not. Either way, I hope that gemilut chasadim will be a pillar for them, just as it is a pillar of the world. It is possible to live without specific rituals or traditions, but recognizing our social responsibility to others is a crucial element to living a good life. Yes, I wish good health and success for my future children, just as I wish Judaism for them. But most of all, I hope that they will grow into happy adults with fulfilling lives, and the only way to be truly happy is to know that you have also brought happiness to others, and that your life is a good one.

Gemilut chasadim: loving-kindness; the social contract; community service. English does not have the precise words necessary to explain the concept in its entirety, but the sentiment remains. To my children, though they are yet unborn: may your lives be filled with acts of loving-kindness, and may you bring goodness with you into the world. Of all our species’ abilities, loving-kindness is our most powerful—more important than our material accomplishments, more potent than our technical prowess. It is nothing less than a pillar of our world.

Shabbat at the beach in Tel Aviv

Shabbat at the beach in Tel Aviv

Three Shabbats in Israel

One of the most interesting things about being in Israel is the choice one has of where to go for services on Friday night. I have been here for three Shabbats, and have had three totally different Shabbat experiences. On Friday night services are held early, so that one can go home or to friends for Shabbat dinner afterward (this is a format we will be experimenting with a couple times at Temple Bat Yam in the coming year).The first week I chose to go to Kol Haneshma, a Reform Congregation in the Baka area of Jerusalem. This is one of my favorite prayer services anywhere. The congregation is led by Rabbi Levi Kelman, an American who has lived in Israel for many years, and who established the congregation in 1984. It is a progressive, egalitarian congregation. The service is almost all music, and is lovely, contemplative, and joyful. It was the shul (congregation) where I davened (prayed) most often when I was a student in Israel, and it is always like going home when I go there.

            The second Friday my friends and I went to Tel Aviv to Beit Tefilah Israel, which in the summer meets in the port on the Mediterranean Sea. Beit Tefilah describes itself as a “young and fast-growing, liberal and independent community” which was established to reach out to secular Israelis “who are looking for new ways to explore the world of Jewish communal and spiritual life, free of any preconceptions or restraints.” Their service has wonderful music, with several musicians and singers and includes modern poetry and music along with the traditional prayer service. It was very moving to pray with about 700 other people on the shores of the sea. Beit Tefilah is THE place to be in Tel Aviv on a Friday night; families, singles, young  and old sat together and sang, prayed, danced, and brought in Shabbat as the sun set over the water. It was an amazing experience.

            The past Friday I had a totally different Shabbat experience. I attended a modern Orthodox congregation called Shira Hadasha (which means “a new song”) in Jerusalem. This congregation, although it is Orthodox and does adhere to Jewish halakah (law) actively includes women in the service. There is a mechitza (a curtain down the middle which separates the men and womens sections), but women lead parts of the service. Orhodox prayer books are used; in this congregation there are various editions of the prayer book, and so no page numbers are given out (because everyone is on a different page in their version of the prayer book). One has to know the service to be able to follow along. It is a lovely service.

            Three Shabbats, three different experiences. Only in Israel. And yet there is nothing like praying and celebrating Shabbat with one’s own community. I look forward to being with Temple Bat Yam this Friday, as we all, in our special Bat Yam way, celebrate Shabbat.


Study at Hartman and The Conversion Bill

Shavua Tov (a good week) to everyone from Jerusalem. Whenever I come to Israel I am touched and deeply moved by the story of our people. I cannot help but be inspired and awed by the spirit of the Jewish people and the stories of the sacrifices they made so that Jews can be free in their homeland.  And although I love Israel I also am aware that Israel has many flaws. As one of my colleagues recently remarked “no one loves to find fault with Israel more than its own people.” The difference between the criticism of those who love Israel and those who don’t is that those who don’t hold Israel to a higher standard. One of my teachers at The Hartman Institute where I am studying remarked last week that people may question the policies of Iran or China, but no one questions their right to exist. He also reminded us that Israel is a work in progress of which every one of us can be a part. Israel gives us the chance to fulfill our Jewish dreams and visions.

            I am almost at the end of my three weeks study at the Hartman Institute. Together with about thirty rabbis from the United States and Canada we are studying Torah in its broadest sense with leading scholars and extraordinary teachers from around the world. We are learning so that we can come home and teach and lead our congregations with deeper understanding and knowledge (see picture above of me studying with chevruta—study partners). One element of our study is a project called “Engaging Israel.” This project has the purpose of engaging rabbis and scholars in thinking about what Israel and Zionism should be. For the first time in 2,000 years Jews as a people are able to exercise self-determination. As one of our lecturers pointed out, Jews are now powerful, and this entails both risk and opportunity.

            The Jewish tradition has much to teach about these matters. Our texts have a vision of what a Jewish nation can and should be.  The Bible tells the story of our people’s failures to build the nation it envisioned. The modern State of Israel represents a second chance to realize the vision of the prophets, that of a just and compassionate nation that recognizes the dignity of all—a nation that is, as the prophet Isaiah envisioned— “a light among the nations.”

            Israel not only has a unique place and challenges in the world, but there are internal struggles too. This week the Conversion Bill introduced by Member of Knesset David Rotem went from being a simple way to fix a problem with Russian immigrants to threatening the entire Jewish people. (For an excellent article on this issue go to:  Many Russian immigrants to Israel are unable to prove that they are actually Jewish with paper work (their Bar Mitzvah certificate, their parents’ ketubah, proof that their mother was Jewish).  It has been said that they were Jewish enough to suffer and be killed under the Nazis, but not Jewish enough to be considered Jewish in the State of Israel. And in the State of Israel you have to be Jewish to be married by a rabbi, to obtain a Jewish divorce, or to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

            Hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants came to Israel to build a new Jewish life. When they got here they couldn’t marry because there is no civil marriage in Israel. The bill that finally emerged would have given the orthodox Chief Rabbinate control of the courts and set aside Supreme Court rulings that would have recognized conversion outside of Israel except for a short list approved by the Chief Rabbinate. This is not just a threat to Reform and Conservative Rabbis outside of Israel but it is also a threat to those Orthodox rabbis not approved by the Chief Rabbinate—and that is most of the rabbis in North America.

            The Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist  movements worked diligently to lobby Bibi Netanyahu and many members of the Knesset. On Monday I went to a meeting with rabbis from the (URJ) Religious Action Center, the Israeli Religious Action Center, leaders of the Conservative movement and others who were in Jerusalem to bring home the message of threat to the Jewish people.

            And…they and all the people in North America who sent letters and emails were able to make a shift in the direction of the bill. As of now the bill has been put aside until October. But make no mistake, it will be back and we must be ready to again fight for what we believe is right for all Jews. (See NY Times article:

            It is always an interesting time to be in Israel, but the past couple weeks have really been a chance to see up front some of the internal struggles and issues. What is amazing is that in some small way I felt I was a part of and a witness to important questions for all the Jewish people. Yes, Israel is a work in progress. As much as we in the Diaspora need Israel, Israel needs our voices and our support too. Each one of us can make a difference, and we can help to shape a country that is not only powerful, but also compassionate and one that shows dignity to all. And that Israel will truly be a light to the nations.