Shabbos Blessing- Week 34

I don’t mean to be repetitive here, but I really can’t get over living by the sea. Maybe it’s just because, despite the number of climates I’ve lived in, I’ve never lived near a beach before. I’ve lived walking distance from lakes, and I’ve lived within relatively close driving distance to the beach, but walking out my door and seeing the surf less than 10 minutes later is amazing. I’m honestly not even that much of a beach person, but there’s something so calming about walking by the water. And I’ve come to make sitting on a towel with my kindle part of my shabbat experience. Last shabbat I went swimming, and the water was clear in a way that I’d never experienced outside the tropics. I could stand where the water was up to my neck and still see my feet.


Tonight, I’ll get to experience a “Shabbat on the Beach” that a non-denominational group has organized here in Tel Aviv. I don’t know exactly what to expect, but I’m pretty excited to grab a siddur and walk up and enjoy whatever I find.


This week’s blessing is a few pictures from this morning:

For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, I woke up at 6. I thought about trying to go back to sleep, but I felt pretty darn awake, so instead I got up and went to the roof to watch the sunrise. IMG_1811.JPG

As I watched the sky slowly welcome the sun, I listened to the birds. There were few cars that early, so most of what I could make out was natural. IMG_1830.JPG

The sun popped up but its impact wasn’t yet felt. It was still dim, the light small and concrete. IMG_1846.JPG

Of course, it wasn’t long before that changed and the light ballooned into itself. I went inside and found myself wrapping tefillin, tying the memory of the peaceful morning into my prayer practice.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu, Ruach ha-olam, yotzeir or uvorei choshech, oseh shalom uvorei et hakol.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Spirit of the world, Former of light and Creator of darkness, the One who makes peace and creates all. 




Shabbos Blessing- Week 26

Real talk: I am writing this post as I stuff “oatmeal squares” (you know, the cereal) into my face. This is what happens when I don’t plan meal times properly, I shop quickly (because shabbat is soon) and hungry (because, as established, I don’t plan meal times properly) at a store that stocks some American products, and I get home to an apartment where I have very little in the way of “healthy, immediate, right now lunch.”


Like this amazing hummus in Abu Ghosh yesterday.

Ok. Having eaten a few large handfuls of supposedly-good-for-you-but-actually-probably-full-of-GMOs-and-definitely-added-sugars-and-generally-processed-and-oh-dear-why-did-I-eat-that cereal morsels, I am now prepared to slow down and offer all 10 of my fingers to the keyboard.

(For those of you who are new to how my brain works, welcome. I generally find it an entertaining place to be.)


This is a block from me: car and horse in the street, motorcycle on the sidewalk. Ok then.

I wasn’t sure if I would be in Tel Aviv for shabbat this week. I went to Jerusalem yesterday for our rabbinic consortium class, and I stayed with a friend to attend a program there this morning. I had an invitation for shabbat dinner with some lovely people but I decided to come home instead. It’s not that I don’t like shabbat in Jerusalem. It’s a lovely place to be, with great egalitarian davenning options and wonderful people with whom to share meals and company. I’ll be spending at least 2 of the next 4 shabbats down there and look forward to them. But, when it comes down to it, I just wanted time to continue to settle.

I’m not sure what feels unsettled about Jaffa at this point. I’ve been here for nearly a month now. My routine isn’t fully set, but it’s close. I guess what it comes down to is that I’m one of those introvert-extrovert cusps (to the degree that those distinctions mean anything), and this month has been an extremely introverted-dominant one for me. I’ve loved spending time with friends and exploring Jaffa and south Tel Aviv. I have also felt the need for almost as much quiet time at home as I can get my hands on. Soon enough, I’m sure I’ll “reset” to my middle ground norm, but for now, introverted is good.


Tel Aviv Shabbat– a little different from Jerusalem

I’ll be honest– there’s a lot on my mind these days. The program our consortium took part in yesterday, along with a number of recent conversations, all seem to be connecting to a similar place. That’s going to be its own blog post soon, if I can figure out a way to write it down. For now, I’m going to be gentle with myself and bring in this week’s blessing.

Week 26 comes from the first person I can’t really keep anonymous: my mom. I guess I could have said “my parent,” but, well, there it is. She sent me the lyrics to “Forever Young,” along with this message:

Here is a blessing from me, via our newest Nobel Prize winner, Bob Dylan. It’s one I’ve always loved. When I was young, I listened to Joan Baez’s version until the record was scratched! I love you!

“Forever Young”- Bob Dylan

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.


early spring at BINA

One of the lovely perks of my place in Tel Aviv is that I have a record player. It’s not the best, and the person who owns this place doesn’t match my tastes much. Still, he’s got some classics like “The Beatles” and Leonard Cohen and, yes, Bob Dylan. There is something that feels different about setting up a record to play as opposed hitting a button on a phone or computer, or even putting a CD or tape into a player. I like the process. I like the gentle way you have to treat the record and the player to bring the music into the space. It’s a good reminder of just how sacred music can be, whatever its source.

On the bus back to Tel Aviv an hour ago, I was listening to an episode of “On Being,” an NPR radio show produced in Minnesota that my mom and I have both enjoyed listening to for a long time. It so happened that the episode, an old one that I never got around to last summer, featured Mohammed Fairouz, a first generation Arab-American composer who’s barely out of his 20s. The episode is definitely worth listening to for its own sake, but I’m thinking of it now because he talked about song lyrics as poetry. In the same way that the lyrics to 19th century German lieder are considered poetry now, he thinks that “The Beatles” lyrics will be considered poetry by future generations. Poetry and prayer are so closely linked, and even though I’ve honestly never been a Dylan devotee, I can definitely see a prayerful poem in his lyrics.

This week, may we all help keep joy in one another’s hearts. May we sing one another’s songs so that none of us forgets our own. And may we all feel young enough to continue the work.


And may there be cookies for everybody.

Sunset in Jaffa

In Jerusalem, I felt like I lived with Jews.

Sure, there were Palestinians around. I would see them walking and driving occasionally in my neighborhood and often when I went into the Old City. I came to know a few in my ulpan, which is known to be among the most diverse offered in Jerusalem. But they were not everywhere. They were not a majority. Most women I saw wearing head coverings were Orthodox Jews. Most men I saw wearing long, robe-like garments were Orthodox Jews. It got to the point, over the course of the semester, where I often stopped noticing who had on a kippah and who was wearing tzitzit, because both were so commonplace. I expected to hear Hebrew rather than Arabic almost everywhere I went. I expected to hear the siren announcing Shabbat every Friday night. The neighborhoods in Jerusalem where I might have developed different expectations were largely barred to me. img_9182

In Jaffa, I feel like I live with Palestinians– some Christian, others Muslim. There are Jews here too, of course, but in my neighborhood I haven’t seen many. Jaffa has always been a little more mixed than some other areas, and it has gotten more-so recently as hipster Jews have moved into town. (Case in point: my marvelous apartment here came with a record player and a nice collection of albums.) Some Palestinians are upset about that (the Jewish influx, not the record players), while others view it as a potential for positive relationship building between two often-fraught communities. I have mixed feelings about living here. On one hand, I’m glad to be in a more diverse (and beautiful) environment. On the other hand, I feel a little bit like a gentrifying yuppie.


Three days ago, I got out of the cab and, with the help of a new neighbor, lugged my suitcases up the three-and-a-half floors to my new apartment. I started to unpack, and then, suddenly, heard two people begin chanting over loudspeakers.

I recognized the chant at once. It was the adhan- the Muslim Call to Prayer– emanating from the minaret straight ahead off of my balcony and from others nearby. “God is Greatest,” the muezzin sang. Allahhu akbar.

In the second blessing of the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish daily services, we speak of Ha’El Ha’Gadol (האל הגדול)- God who is Great (and mighty and awesome etc…).

“I acknowledge that there is no God but Allah,” the muezzin sang. Ash-hadu an-lā ilāha illā allāh.

In the sh’ma, the closest thing we as Jews have to a credo, we acknowledge that Adonai- God- is our God, and Adonai is one.

Not every line of the adhan tracks onto Jewish prayer and practice, and nor should it. But it is beautiful and it is a reminder, I think not only to the Muslim community, but to all of us who are nearby, to be present to something beyond ourselves. I am so sorry, that to some people, this beautiful sound evokes fear and distrust.


Yesterday, as shabbat came to an end, I walked along the small streets from my home to the sea, perhaps 10 minutes away. I passed by Palestinian children– screaming, laughing, arguing, cooperating children– kicking a soccer ball in the alleyway right outside my apartment. I passed by hijab-wearing women having picnics and pushing their little ones on swings in the park next to the water. I passed by Palestinian couples holding hands as they walked. I passed by Palestinian elders sitting on benches and looking out as the sun descended into the luscious, vibrant waves. I passed by Palestinian fishermen trying to catch a last bite before darkness settled over the shore.


I can’t help wondering how the newly-inaugurated American President would react to being in the neighborhood where I live. Could he see the beauty here, the normalcy, or would he only see fear and the potential for violence? I don’t pretend that there are no Palestinians who wish Israeli Jews, and perhaps Americans, harm. But they are not a majority.

In the US, the president is able to look at our Christian community and ignore the percentage that would act to harm others. He won’t do the same for our Muslim community. Thank God for lawyers and judges and for the tenacity of protesters.


I walked along last night, watching Palestinians in restaurants, Palestinians complaining as they climbed long flights of stairs from the sea to the park above, Palestinians stopping at crosswalks so that Palestinians and Jews and anybody else could continue safely. And I heard the call once again as I looked out over the sea. And I thought, I wish I could share this peaceful moment with everyone who is afraid of Islam. I wish I could make the centering, settling nature of the adhan into a balm to rub onto their hearts. But, for now, I am glad to be able to keep listening.

(*Travel post/fuller moving to Jaffa post coming soon. But this was on my heart and I have 700+ pictures to sort through, so for now, there’s this.)


Asher Yatzar

Just over five months ago, I had my first 24-hour on call as a chaplain at a large Trauma One hospital in California. I was so scared. I remember sitting at home the night before, trying to review everything I had learned during the previous month of Clinical Pastoral Education, hoping that it would be enough, certain that it couldn’t be. I didn’t know what awaited me. This first shift happened to be on a Sunday, which meant that for the entire 24 hours, I would be the only chaplain at the hospital. It felt like an incredible responsibility.

That day was difficult, and the night, although relatively quiet in the hospital, was quite loud in my mind as my desire to rest wrestled with my fear of sleeping through a page or a call. I really didn’t need to be concerned, since the one time I got a page, around 4 in the morning, I dressed and was halfway to the relevant unit before I even realized that I was doing.

At the hospital, over the course of my 10-week CPE program, I dealt with diverse experiences of life and death in a very tangible way. I learned from every encounter. I developed immense gratitude for the ability to walk and to breathe and to feed myself. I have many stories from the summer, but they belong to my patients and their loved ones. They aren’t mine to tell. My own story is.


For the last month or so, I’ve been dealing with a spat of health issues. Low grade back pain that I’ve had for over a year flared up significantly, I developed flank pain, I lost weight, and I found myself noting a number of other issues that alone I might have been able to ignore but that together became a beast. I was so scared. I didn’t know what awaited me. I made the mistake of consulting google and convinced myself that I had all kinds of diseases. I became my enemy.

The month was difficult. I went to the doctor (an English-speaking one, thank goodness). On his recommendation, I had more intensive tests done than I have for years. I went to a large Hebrew-speaking health center across town for more tests. I called clinics and my insurance company countless time. I fretted. I cried. As I waited for follow-up appointments and test results and insurance approval, my mind told me “You are Not Ok. Nothing is Ok. Everything is Wrong.”

I tried to keep everything as normal as possible on the surface, but I couldn’t always manage it. I had trouble writing. I had trouble sleeping. I had trouble eating. I couldn’t focus in class. I couldn’t relax at home. Sometimes I would forget that I was worried about my body and I would feel at ease and full of my normal creative energy. Then I would remember and the anxiety would sweep back in. My mind would tell me “You’ve developed a terrible disease while you’re on the other side of the world from your loved ones. Coming here was a mistake. Your body is breaking and you are alone.”

וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃ וַיַּ֗רְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָכֹל֙ ל֔וֹ וַיִּגַּ֖ע בְּכַף־יְרֵכ֑וֹ וַתֵּ֙קַע֙ כַּף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּהֵֽאָבְק֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ׃
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שַׁלְּחֵ֔נִי כִּ֥י עָלָ֖ה הַשָּׁ֑חַר וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֲשַֽׁלֵּחֲךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּֽנִי׃
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו מַה־שְּׁמֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹֽב׃וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃וַיִּשְׁאַ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֗ב וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹת֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. (Genesis 32:25-30

The Torah Portion this week, Vayishlach, includes this passage. When I was a child I learned that Jacob wrestled with an angel. But, as is the case with many childhood versions of these stories, the text is more complicated. The text itself says that Jacob wrestles with a man– an איש. Rabbis have gone nuts with these verses for a very long time, and for good reason. Who was this mysterious figure? Was it simply some man? Was it Esau? Was it, as Rashi thought, Esau’s guardian angel? Was it God? Or, was it Jacob himself?

Jacob, after all, is in a tough spot. He is going home to make peace with the brother whose birthright he bought and whose blessing he stole decades ago. He has separated himself from his possessions, his servants, his wives, his wives’ handmaidens, and his children. He intends to meet his brother the following day and has no notion of what awaits him. He cannot sleep. He wrestles until dawn.


Yesterday, I went to an appointment to get the results of the last test my doctor recommended. I sought to keep myself in the present, but the present was frightening, the potential future all the more so. There were so many things to worry about. I wondered if my symptoms were all due to stress. I knew they could be. I knew I could be completely fine. But I could also be dealing with something very serious. I sat in the waiting room, wrestling with my mind, cutting it off whenever it pointed into fear, telling myself “I am about to get more information and whatever it is will be better than not having information.”

The doctor looked at the results. He was silent for a long time. Fear pinned me. The doctor looked at me and spoke incredible words. My body has a few quirks, but nothing appears dangerous. There was, with the exception of PT for mild scoliosis that went unnoticed when I was a teenager, no need for further follow up at this time.


Early morning at the Egalitarian Kotel

Dawn broke. I didn’t get a new name, but I felt a blessing settle over me. My body has been holding my stress and my grief and my fear, and it is tired and it hurts. Someday, my body may hold serious illness as well. Most bodies do eventually. I can’t know how or when or if that will happen to me.

Jewish prayer includes a number of blessings for physical bodies, and one that I appreciate most, asher yatzar, speaks of the openings of the body, reminding us that if a passageway were to be open when it should be closed, or closed when it should be open, it would be impossible to exist. I thought of that prayer countless times over the summer as I witnessed the marvels of modern medicine opening and closing passageways on the body’s behalf, allowing life to continue and healing to happen. But these passageways are more than just physical, and many times I witnessed patients’ minds opening and closing to the possibilities of healing and of vitality and of hope. As a chaplain, I sought to accompany the patient and their loved ones– wherever their openings and closings– to allow each person to experience what was present, to cradle it with them, and to hand it back to them.


Today, waking up without a doctor’s appointment on the calendar, I felt an openness handed back to me. I let the worry-ridden part of myself pull away from the rest. It is still present, but it is not pinning me down and I am not engaging it on the mat. I am alive. I am here. I am enough. I am thankful.




Shabbos Blessing- Week 14

Two hours ago, I was in a little town about thirty minutes and several worlds away from Jerusalem. Now I’m here. Shabbat begins very soon. As seems to have been the case a lot lately,  I have a great deal that I would like to say, and this blog post will not be the time to say it. So on to the blessing:

This week’s blessing comes from old family friends who have known me since I was in preschool. They’ve been wonderful cheerleaders for me for most of my life and now, thanks to the wonders of facebook, it’s pretty easy to keep up with them and vice versa! They wrote: To a rabbi Cohen this is most appropriate and sent this picture of what’s called the priestly or Kohanic blessing:


This blessing’s translation might look familiar to many Christians as well as Jews, since it comes from the book of deuteronomy. I’ve heard it used in church services before, and here in Jerusalem it’s a regular part of most morning services. My first significant memories of this blessing come from my first rabbi, Leivy Smolar (z”l), who used to recite this only at what I thought of as the most precious of occasions. He blessed me with it at my Bat Mitzvah and a few other times throughout my childhood. Even though I have heard (and recited) this blessing on countless occasions throughout my life, a part of me always thinks of him when I hear it.

Now, you might think of Judaism as a religion, and you would be right, but the Kohanim are one of the remnants of the tribal nature of this whole shebang. In general, most Jews are what’s called “Yisraelim– Israelites.” Fathers (tribes are paternal, not maternal) pass down that status through the generations from one of the original 12 tribes (aka most of Jacob’s sons, with a few exceptions and a few substituted grandchildren). There are two categories of Jews who are not Yisraelim: Kohanim and Levi’im. The Kohans, since they’re all special and priestly, get a special blessing. My name is Emily Cohen. My father is a Cohen/Kohan. His father was a Cohen/Kohan. And so it goes back through the generations all the way to Torah (or so the story goes). That makes me what’s called a “Bat Kohan,” a daughter of a Cohen.


Rain means wildflowers!

There are a number of regulations regarding Kohanic status and privilege, and I won’t go into all of them, but there are a couple that I witness a lot. According to tradition, the first aliyah goes to a Kohan and the second to a Levite. And, here in Israel, the Birkat haKohanim (the Kohanic Blessing) is recited by a Kohan during morning prayer services.

This would be a good time to mention that the Reconstructionist movement doesn’t believe in this sort of classification. While it is wonderful to be conscious of one’s genealogy and to draw the good from it, the three “classes” of Jews, as it were, harken too much to a sort of caste system to feel appropriate for today’s age. There are also many Reform and Conservative communities (I can’t speak to Orthodox) who don’t prioritize giving a Kohan the first aliyah and that sort of thing. Personally, I very much appreciate my heritage, and I totally feel like a Cohen/Kohan, and at the same time I think when it comes down to it most Jews probably have a bit of Kohan in them and I don’t deserve the first aliyah anymore than anybody else does.

Ok. As usual these days, shabbat is moments away and so I will wrap this up and leave you with two rather marvelous gifts from the states that made me VERY HAPPY INDEED. Shabbat Shalom.



Shabbos Blessing- Week 13

It’s raining. Not metaphorically this time, as was the case when I first got here. Nope. These are real raindrops, falling from a darkening sky onto a darkening ground. Shabbat starts at 3:55 PM. 3:55 PM. That is not night time. Except that now apparently it is, because this is Jerusalem and it is December 1st and the 2nd of Kislev (in the Hebrew calendar) and this is simply a time when day is short. And it is a time when there is serious rain.

Fall/Winter just all of a sudden showed up here, and the rain came with it. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. On Simchat Torah, over a month ago, we changed a single line in the second blessing of the amidah, one of the central prayers of the morning, afternoon, and evening services. From Passover last spring until Simchat Torah, we said: “מוריד הטל– morid hatal– [God] causes the dew to fall.” On Simchat Torah, we started to say: “משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם– mashiv haruah umorid hageshem– [God] makes the wind blow and the rain fall.” Well, the shift worked.  The rain is falling. The ark is floating even more and animals are getting grumpy about it.


I’ve always loved the little bits of acknowledgement of the natural world peppered throughout the siddur. Often, in the States, they aren’t exactly accurate. We don’t have a proper rainy season in Philadelphia. Here, though, the weather-related snatches of prayer make a certain amount of sense.

I enjoy thinking of the crafters of our prayers being tuned into the rhythms of the natural climates around them. I enjoy the idea of them asking for rain and expressing gratitude for its arrival. And it’s not even just gratitude. The blessing where we talk about God’s bringing of rain is a blessing proclaiming God’s power. It comes into the prayer between lines about God giving life to the dead (or enlivening all life, depending on your tradition) and God offering lovingkindness. Weather is important. Rain is crucial. Water matters. Rabbi Arthur Waskow and many other teachers have a lot to say about that (and perhaps I will too in another post), but for now, I’m just glad to point out the connection. And to remind myself that, even if I am not having the most fun getting soaking wet walking about, the rain is good for the earth, and global warming hasn’t messed everything up so much already that the seasons are completely off.


Rainy balcony

This week’s blessing comes from one of my grandparents. I miss my Grandpa Ken every day. Today is actually my Grannie M’s birthday, her first without my Grandpa Ken. I’ve been thinking of her a lot today, as I have every day since his passing. Even as I miss the grandparents who are gone, I’m so grateful to still have grandparents in my life in both tangible and intangible ways. I know that a lot of people my age aren’t so fortunate. 

 May you find in the everyday the transcendent you are seeking.

I just had lunch with a friend from the States who lives in Jerusalem. We sat in a restaurant that, were it not for the mostly-Hebrew being spoken around us and the fact that my club sandwich centered around halloumi cheese instead of turkey or ham, could have passed for a cafe back home. We chatted about all manner of things and it felt wonderfully “every day.”

Yesterday, I went to Women of the Wall to celebrate the turning from the month of Heshvan to the month of Kislev. I felt a transcendence there, particularly in light of the death threats leveled this week at the leader of this organization and the leader of the Reform movement in the USA. The numbers were smaller than last month, and the security check was more thorough– I actually got patted down, and they not only opened every compartment of my backpack but opened my tallis bag– but those of us who were there made our voices heard.


(I’m in the pink raincoat back there.)

Tonight, I’ll brave the (hopefully) drizzle to go to Nava Tehila, and tomorrow morning I’ll brave it again to c0-lead Reconstructionist services. If any locals/Jerusalem visitors are reading, feel free to join us at 9:30 at HUC-JIR on King David Street. There will be signs, and a dairy potluck will follow. In the meantime, candle lighting is literally 3 minutes off. Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh tov, everyone.


We’re Still Here

“We’re still here,” I said to my best friend. We had been silent skyping. Video and audio were on, but there was nothing to say. The night was over. The race was called. We lost. My mind was everywhere at once. On my college roommate’s infant daughter, the one I met right before flying to Jerusalem, the one who I thought, with such joy, wouldn’t remember a time when a woman had never been president. On my mother, staying with her mother, who was born when women had only had the vote for 12 years. On my grandfather– a wonderful, liberal, social justice-seeking lawyer– who passed away last Saturday and whom I have been holding so close and missing so much and whom I knew would have been so happy to see Hillary elected. On a group of friends, camping together every memorial day weekend, and among them a neighbor whom I look to as a sign that, yes, there is such a thing as a politician in politics for the right reasons. On a group of rabbinical students, gathered in the wee hours of the morning, expecting a party and tears of joy, finding tears for different reasons as an unmarked map began to bleed. On an exquisite dawn with a crystal blue sky as the same rabbinical students stood in a golden courtyard and prayed, as I tried to work up the nerve to sing God’s praises at a time when I couldn’t imagine singing anything, as I said kaddish for my grandfather and for the sort of American progress he fought to forge. On what it meant to be so far away. On what was left. On where the fight was headed.


“We’re still here.” My Grandpa Ken was born in 1927. He was white and privileged and brilliant. His father was a politician. His lineage in this land went back to the 1630s in New Hampshire, making my sisters and me 13th generation Americans. He could have fallen right into the false nostalgia that Trump champions. The “Good Ol’ Days” when people like my grandfather were openly afforded more respect and more opportunity and more allowance than anybody else. (Of course they still are today, but many people try to hide it now.) At age 17, my Grandpa Ken learned Japanese in less than a year and was sent to Gifu to listen for insurrection right after World War II ended. My Grandpa Ken went to Yale and to Harvard Law. The CIA wanted him, but he didn’t want them. He could have looked at Trump and thought back to his youth and said “It was easier then.” He didn’t. He could have taken the $10,000 dollars my great grandfather offered him not to marry my Portuguese (Azorian) grandmother. He didn’t. He could have been skittish around people of color in San Francisco after a childhood largely lived apart from them in New England. He wasn’t. He was a Democrat. He pursued justice. He wanted everybody in this country and in this world to have opportunity.

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My Grandpa Ken was diagnosed with terminal cancer less than two weeks ago. We expected him to have months to live. Instead he went in a matter of days, passing in his sleep in his own bed in his own home. It has been terribly difficult to be here, away from family as I cope with the shock and grief that I would have in any circumstance but that are amplified by being apart from my loved ones. I am so sad that he is gone. I am so grateful that he didn’t have to experience a long decline that he would have hated. I am so glad that he didn’t have to see what happened this morning. He would have been so excited for Hillary. I don’t know what he would have managed to say about Trump.

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“We’re still here.” I kept thinking it to myself as the map turned red, saying it to myself as I walked Jerusalem’s stone sidewalks, feeling the words cut through the pain and the rage and the pulsing fear for myself and for my communities and for the people who carry less privilege than I do and who have so much more to lose. And it is so hard to be here, away from family as I cope with the shock and grief that I would have in any circumstance but that are amplified by being apart from loved ones. And I am glad to be far from home, because here at least there is no celebration. Here there are not the questions with each set of eyes that I meet of “Did you vote for her? Did you vote for him? Did you sit this out?”


Last Wednesday I woke early to fight for women to be treated as full people at the Western Wall. This Wednesday I woke early to witness a woman earn full equality in the White House. Last Wednesday my body was shoved about. My breath quickened with anxiety and purpose. This Wednesday my body was untouched but my heart tugged itself inward, crafting a shell from which to peer out into the world. How could the world be as it was? How could the hope and joy and excitement that had been building for months be turned to nothing? I wanted to close my eyes and open them to a new start. But there was no going back.

“We’re still here.” What do we do when it seems hopeless? We remember that our hearts can be safe in their shells but they will never be able to grow there. A heart can only grow if it is free, and anything that is free can be broken, and so we must place our hearts into one another’s care to risk and to thrive. And together, we must offer our hearts to our enemies until our eyes acknowledge mutual sparks of divinity. There is work to be done, and we need to fight, and our fights must be fed with love.


“We’re still here.” On Tuesday morning, I put two notes inside the Kotel. One was for my Grandpa Ken, who wasn’t a fan of religion but was a fan of me. The other was for all of us:


I don’t believe in a God that sways elections, but I believe in us. It is easy to feel that our votes did not count, that our voices were not heard, that our work was for nothing. But there is still work to do. This isn’t a time to bolt. It’s a time to buckle down to help those who can’t bolt. We have to hold each other up and we have to be there for those who will be hit hardest. This is not the time to give up. It’s the time to rise up.


“We’re still here.” We can’t always have our sages with us. My grandfather is gone. His legacy is not. The election is over. The work is not. The sun rose this morning and it was beautiful. It will rise tomorrow. We are headed into the unknown wilderness with the wisdom of what has come before and the hope of what comes after. The Israelites wandered there for 40 years. Luckily for us, we only have 4. May we be the pillars of cloud and fire that show one another the way.



Kol Haneshama T’halel Yah

כל הנשמה תהלל יה, הלליויה

Let all that has breath praise Yah, Halleluyah!


Last Wednesday morning, I went to the Kotel.

When a Jewish man goes to the kotel he can go to the men’s section. He can wear a kippah, tallit, and tefillin if he chooses. If he does not have these things, other men will likely offer them to him for his time at the wall. He may pray on his own or he may pray in a minyan, a group of Jews. These minyanim pray aloud, with men leading different sections of the service, and read from Torah. There are approximately 300 Torah scrolls on the men’s side of the wall, which means that it’s pretty easy to snag one if you’re a man wanting to read Torah.

The women, who have much less space allocated than than the men do, have 0 Torah scrolls. Women are not permitted to pray loudly. They are not permitted to read Torah. They are not permitted to wear tallitot or tefillin. They are not even allowed to pray aloud in organized minyanim.

Last Wednesday morning, I went to the Kotel wearing my tallis. Last Wednesday morning was Rosh Hodesh. For over 25 years, the Women of the Wall have been fighting against Orthodox control of the Western Wall, asserting that all Jews have the right to pray at the Kotel. Once a month, on the first or second day of the Hebrew month, they hold a protest at the wall and try to have a service. Their members have been arrested countless times and subjected to intense counter protests.

Last Wednesday morning, for the first time, multiple Torah scrolls were brought into the women’s section. Last Wednesday morning, for the first time, I saw Jews attack a Torah. I saw men with black hats shove a man without one to the ground. He fell so that the holy book his Jewish brothers sought to rip from him was cushioned against his chest.


Last Wednesday morning, I prayed over the sounds of small boys running around the women’s section with piercing whistles because their rabbis told them to. I prayed over the shouts of men and women who thought that what we were doing was wrong. I formed a barrier with my body to keep women who didn’t believe in the rights of other women from taking our Torahs away from us. I scolded a child who tried to rip my tallis away from me and tried to rip tefillin off of a female classmate. I bent to his level and calmly asked him to tell me what I was doing wrong. He screamed “מספיק נאצי!– enough, nazi!” in my face and ran off.


Last Wednesday morning, I helped other women who won’t pray with a mechitza– a gender binary-based barrier– to form a mechitza so that women who couldn’t pray without one still felt safe, as male photographers and counter protestors came to the women’s side of the wall. Last Wednesday morning, I saw men standing on chairs on the men’s side of the wall, holding prayerbooks, lending their support through their own prayers.


Last Wednesday morning, I used my body as a block, locking elbows with fellow rabbinical students to keep counter protestors from taking or defacing holy words. I felt immediate threat to my body as people were shoved into me and tried to shove through me, as they screamed at me for daring to pray. I felt my heart pound with life and with commitment to equal treatment. I felt my voice soar.

Last Wednesday morning, I heard the line “כל הנשמה תהלל יה, הלליויה- Kol Haneshama T’halel Yah!- Let everything that has breath praise God!” louder than I ever have. Last Wednesday morning, for the first time, I felt like a full person at the Kotel.


(This Wednesday, I had damn well better find out that being a full person while female is still possible back home.)



Shabbos Blessing- Week 8

(New to shabbos blessings? Learn more here!)

I’m going off book this week.

See, this week included the last holiday for what feels like a very, very long time. Hanukkah isn’t actually so far away– it starts a little before Christmas this year, I think– but after the slew of holidays that have peppered the last month, the notion of a 2-month normal stretch seems pretty crazy.


After Christmas in the US, people put out their Christmas trees. After Sukkot in Israel, people put out their scakh (the sukkah roofs!)

Simchat Torah means “Joy of Torah,” which is a pretty apt title for a holiday that’s all about saying: “We just finished reading the whole 5 Books of Moses! Let’s start over! Wahoo!” Celebration typically involves dancing about, singing, carrying Torahs around the congregation (and, often, out into the streets), and, naturally, rolling the Torah back from the end of D’varim (Deuteronomy) to the beginning of Bereshit (Genesis). It can be quite the party, and I was excited to experience it here.

At Nava Tehila, we once again prayed outside, and it was beautiful. We circled from Moses’s death at the end of the five books to “in the beginning” at, well, y’know. Anybody in the congregation who wanted to come up was welcomed for an aliyah. We celebrated people in all stages of their lives. Then, with the children seated on blankets in the middle of the congregation, we moved the chairs back and unrolled the entire Torah, each adult holding a small section up, tenderly circling the children with holy words. It was stunning. I’ve been lucky enough to see the entire Torah unrolled on a number of occasions, but it was something else to be part of it in this space outside, under a perfect autumn blue sky that lapped up the golden tan of the parchment, and early afternoon sunlight that nestled the dark ink so that it seemed to shine brighter than ever.

To unroll the Torah in that space and to sing would have been enough. Instead, a member of the congregation walked around from beginning to end and gave more or less a synopsis, lovingly summing up the goings on column by column. At the end of each book, we joined together in chanting the traditional words “Hazak hazak v’nithazak– be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!” That would have been enough.


Instead, more members of the community entered the middle of the circle and walked around, offering blessings to each and every person who wanted one. To get a blessing, all one needed to do was point to a random verse of Torah. That’s the amazing thing about holding the unrolled Torah. You can maybe, depending on how good your eyes are, read the columns across from your column. You can’t read your own. The angle is all wrong. I had a basic idea of where I was in the Torah (somewhere in Numbers around the priestly blessing), but I didn’t know exactly which verses my own hands were cradling. So, I pointed and hoped.

The blessing-offering woman, who luckily for me happened to be American, looked at the verse for a few moments and then smiled. “This is beautiful,” she said. “Do you know who Nachshon ben Aminadav was?”

Did I know who Nachshon ben Aminadav was? Yes. Yes, I did. For one thing, he shows up pretty dramatically in this Hamilton Haggadah song, so I think of him as being more-or-less Hercules Mulligan. For another thing, at RRC they call my class the “Nachshons.” The RRC curriculum is undergoing a pretty major shift, and my class has been the one to beta most of the new stuff. I could talk about that more, but it’s almost shabbat and I’m trying to think happy thoughts. In any case, I’m used to being the first into things.

So who was Nachshon? Well, according to Torah (Numbers 7:12) he was the first man to bring his offerings to the Tabernacle. But, like many things in Torah, that wasn’t enough information for the rabbis, so we have a great story about him. Nachshon, we say, walked into the Red Sea up to his neck, and only then did the waters part. He took the leap of faith that allowed the Israelites to be freed from Pharaoh.

I could have been holding any column of the Torah and happened to be holding that one. I could have pointed to any verse of the column and pointed there. It’s sorta like what happened at the kotel with the caper berry. I don’t believe in a God that made my finger point to that verse, but I do believe in a God that endowed creation with wisdom to draw connections and feel inspiration when it’s needed. And it was needed.


The woman giving me the blessing offered me what has carried me through this week, so, like I said, I’m going a little off-book and making this week’s Shabbos Blessing her blessing to me. I don’t know her exact words, but she said something along the lines of:

I don’t know you at all, but this makes me think that you’re like Nachshon. This verse is about a person who is very brave and takes risks for the good of the community. I want to bless you with courage as you take leaps and do things before others as a leader. They might be difficult. May your leaps be for the good and may you feel brave and supported. 

I feel like my entire time in Jerusalem so far has been about deciding when and how to leap and when and how not to. I identify incredibly strongly with Nachshon as a figure in my faith, and he doesn’t show up all that often in Torah, and so it feels like such a gift that I found him on Simchat Torah.

It’s been quite the week and I’ve got more to say, but shabbat is coming earlier and earlier these days, so I think I’ll save some of my other experiences for another time. Shabbat Shalom everyone. Here’s a pile of sleepy kittens to get you in the spirit.



Sniffling into Yom Kippur


I really want to sneeze. I’ve been sniffling and sniffling for the last couple days. I don’t know if it’s allergies or a cold or what. The entire time it’s been a drip drip drip kinda thing. I’ve gone through over a box of tissues. I’ve swallowed a dozen cups of ginger tea. I’ve been sleepy. When, once every couple of hours, I actually manage a sneeze, it feels awesome. But, most of the time, I get that itch in my nostrils and I hope and I wait and then…nothing.

In just a couple of hours, the sun will begin to set and Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, will begin. I’ve spent most of the day relaxing, drinking water, eating small meals in preparation for the fast, and trying to sneeze.


The thing about Yom Kippur, and, well, there’s a reasonable chance that I’ll look at this later and ask myself what in the world I was thinking, but here goes… the thing about Yom Kippur is that it’s kinda like a much-needed sneeze for the soul.

Life is busy. We have our routines, however freewheeling or regimented. Some of us have mindfulness practices where we take a few moments to reflect on things, but many more of us (too often myself included) do not. We sniffle. When things go wrong we suck them up, and when they start making their way out we suck them up again or wipe them away as quickly as possible so we can get on with things. We don’t want to sneeze because that’s a disturbance. People might look at us. We might have to say “excuse me.” They might say “bless you” (or, around here, “לבראיות”- for health). We might have to loudly blow our noses. We might even have to stand up with a hand over our noses and run to the bathroom for a tissue. It’s a disturbance. Afterwards, though, we feel better.

Yom Kippur is one heck of a disturbance. For over 24 hours we don’t eat. We don’t drink. We don’t bathe. We don’t put on lotions or other cosmetic products (some say this extends to things like deodorant). We don’t wear leather shoes. We don’t have sex (or, in some traditions, even share a bed with our partners). In short, it’s unpleasant. Afterwards, though, we feel better.

On Yom Kippur, stuff comes out. The sniffles turn to sneezes as we confess, as a community, what all of us have done wrong in the past year. We don’t confess our individual transgressions to our rabbis but rather confess our collective sins to one another and to God. There’s an accounting, a reminder that no one among us is fully guilty or fully innocent. We share responsibility for our communities large and small.We hold one another up.

Some people think of Yom Kippur as granting a blank slate for the new year. For me, it’s more about taking stock of the previous year’s successes and short-comings. It’s about moving forward into the new year with renewed conviction and perspective. It’s taking a full, deep, uninhibited breath after a sneeze, before the inevitable drip drip drips start up again.

Gmar chatimah tova–May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for good, and may your fast be meaningful.


PS- In additional to the traditional liturgy, there are some awesome alternative (social justice-focused) confessional prayers out there. Here are just a few for Jews and non-Jews alike: