Thursday, October 6, 2016

Debbie Stern and Elana Shaw: Mother-Daughter Welcome Team!

Anndee Hochman, For The Inquirer

Elan Shaw, left, and Debbie Stern, right
When Debbie Stern and her husband were first married, Friday night meant a kosher dinner prepared in their fifth-floor walk-up on Manhattan's East 89th Street, a turn-of-the-century apartment with a bathtub in the middle of the kitchen.

Amid religious disaffection, mother and daughter make it life's work to keep the faith
By the time Stern's daughter, Elana, was a teen, the family had decamped for Valley Cottage, N.Y.; there, Shabbat evening meant a challah from Rockland Bakery, an argument about whose turn it was to light the candles, and a twinge of adolescent annoyance during the parents' customary blessing of the children.

"I remember my mother wanting to put her hands on my head, and I didn't want her to," Elana Shaw says.

But the rebellion was short-lived. Today, this mother and daughter are not only observant Jews, but professional Jewish educators whose choices run counter to a widespread trend of religious disaffection.

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, one in five Jews describes him or herself as having no religion, and 62 percent say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture. Among Jewish respondents who have married since 2000, nearly six in 10 have non-Jewish spouses.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Jacob Staub's Op-Ed: Spirituality Contributes to Contented, Meaningful Life

Enjoy Jacob Staub's op-ed "Spirituality Contributes to Contented, Meaningful Life" in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

'Humans plan, and God laughs."
This Yiddish proverb is not as impious as it might seem at first glance. It declares succinctly an undeniable truth of the human condition: We are not in control. No matter how meticulously we plan, there are innumerable variables for which we can't fully account.
Often enough, we plan, and things turn out the way we want. And then we are tempted to believe that we are in control after all.
Our behavior certainly affects outcomes. If I consistently consume fewer calories, there is an excellent chance that I will lose weight. If you treat another person with kindness and compassion, you are far more likely to make a friend than if you are cruel. If your work performance is skillful and conscientious, your job security is likely to increase.
But not necessarily.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Bechukotai - Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner on Inherited Fears and Trauma

Mazel tov to newly ordained Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner. Here is the davar torah she presented on the shabbat preceding her ordinationat RRC, connecting the curses of the parshah - being fearful even when threats are not there - with her experience as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.
Parshat Bechukotai opens with a statement of conditional love. God announces:
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְו‍ֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם

“If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them: I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit. And I will grant peace in the Land, and you will lie down with no one to frighten [you]… I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be My people.”

BUT, God then says:
“If you do not listen to Me and do not perform these commandments,

then I too, will do the same to you; I will order upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases of hopeless longing and depression. I will break the pride of your strength and make your skies like iron and your land like copper. I will incite the wild beasts of the field against you, and they will utterly destroy your livestock and diminish you. Your roads will become desolate. I will bring upon you an army, and you will be delivered into the enemy's hands.”

This ancient litany of curses, known as the Tochecha, encompasses physical and mental illness, natural disaster and war. These plagues exist in our own time, of course, and I think that’s partly why the curses of Bechukotai speak real fear into our modern ears. But for me, what’s most poignant in the Tochecha is a more subtle threat that appears towards the end of the list, when God announces:
“And those of you who survive I will bring fear into your hearts… the sound of a rustling leaf will pursue you; you will flee as one flees the sword, but there will be no pursuer.”

The feeling of being pursued in the absence of a pursuer – fear unrooted in fact – is something I’ve been reflecting on lately, as I’ve begun to pay closer attention to my own experiences of fear and fearfulness.

For me, fear lives in the belly, a lump of low-level dread. And sometimes, when I am particularly frightened of some imagined future, it radiates up into my throat.

When I first began examining this fear in therapy a couple years ago, my therapist asked me: “What are you afraid of?” And, without planning on it, without any conscious thought behind my answer, I opened my mouth, and I said: “I’m worried everyone I love will be taken away from me and killed.”
To be clear: My fear is utterly irrational, ungrounded in my actual experiences of life and loss. I grew up loved in a safe, middle-class home in Toronto, never persecuted for my religion, never experiencing war or trauma. But, but: I am a grandchild of Holocaust survivors.
In recent years, researchers have been working on better understanding something called epigenetic inheritance: the fact that an individual’s lived experiences can leave genetic alterations in their DNA that can get passed on to subsequent generations. 
In one surprising study that confirmed the existence of epigenetic inheritance, researchers gave male lab mice electric shocks every time the mice were exposed to the smell of orange blossoms. The Pavlovian result was that the mice eventually grew to shudder at even a hint of the smell. This was predictable. The surprise, however, was that the children and grandchildren of these traumatized mice also instinctively feared the smell of orange blossoms, even though they had never received any shocks, any sort of negative conditioning.
Only last year, another study analyzed the genes of 32 Jews who had either been interned in a concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture, or who had had to hide during the Holocaust. It then analyzed the genes of their children and grandchildren, and found identical increased mutations for stress disorders in the survivors and their offspring.
It seems likely, then, that I didn’t only inherit my straight hair from my mother, or my light eyes from my mother’s father. I also inherited the memories of a trauma that I can never claim as my own. In the words of Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet, “I wasn’t one of the six million who died in the Shoah, I wasn’t even among the survivors. No, I was not in that number, though I still have the fire and the smoke within me, pillars of fire and pillars of smoke that guide me by night and by day.”
So: it seems I bear the bodily wounds of a trauma I never lived, always anticipating, on some level, an enemy who is not there.

And this is why Bechukotai is so heartbreaking for me –because curses– even curses that come true -are one thing. But to live in a fear that is rooted in belly and bone – a fear that does not protect us, precisely because there is nothing to be protected from – is a burden that no one should have to know, but so many of us do.

In reflecting on the nature of fear – how it lives inside, how it feels in the body – I’ve noticed that fear can act like a horse’s blinders – preventing us from looking up, looking around, noticing the blessings of our lives. When we do not feel safe – when we are curled into ourselves like an involute – we can lose the ability to feel that we are blessed, even if our lives are awash in blessing.
So what is the way forward? How do we honour inheritance, without allowing ourselves to dwell indefinitely in fear?

I want to bring you back to the parsha – because I think it offers us two possible ways out of the darkness of ungrounded fear.

Bechukotai opens with a list of blessings. But being blessed is not enough. To counteract fear, we also need gratitude – but not facile gratitude, not running through the streets lobbing thank-yous like bouquets of flowers. True gratitude requires and invites us to stop, look up, and notice blessing – to not be so focused on the imagined fears of the present, on the future we are so frightened of. If we can get out of the fear long enough to be present, to notice that we are, actually, all right, we can unclench. And breathe.

So that’s one way out of fear – through seeing blessing, through light.

The other way is to engage with the dark.
In Hebrew, the word for curse is klala. But the root of this word – kuf lamed lamed, kalal – is also the Hebrew verb to burnish - to polish to a shine.

If we allow tragedy to touch us – to not always live in fear of rustling leaf and the imagined blow, but rather to unclench and let the sting and the sweetness wash over us as they come – we have the opportunity to be slowly transformed.

Loss and grief and sadness are the effects of our modern curses, and the cost that comes with loving people. But loss and grief and sadness offer us the opportunity to let life rub against us, wearing down our rough edges, our spikes that we pushed out in anticipation of pain. Life, if we let it, can polish us to a sheen. From the beauty of our burnished selves, we can shine and reflect light to others. And see ourselves more clearly, the darkness and the light that surrounds us.

~Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner, June 4, 2016

Monday, May 16, 2016

Fair Trade Shabbat - Parshat Kedoshim: Expanding Mitzvot in the Supply Chain

Kippah Crocheter Angelica Marta works 
with MayanHands, supporting herself and 
her family. Photo: Dina Tanners
Kedoshim: A Favorite Pick-and-Choose Parshah
May 14, 2016 - Betsy Teutsch

This shabbat is designated Fair Trade Shabbat, coinciding with World Fair Trade Day. Some of you know I am on the Fair Trade Judaica Advisory Board, so I was eager to take on linking today's Parshah, Kedoshim, with Fair Trade Principles. And of course I provided slave-free Equal Exchange Kosher Fair Trade Chocolate to amplify my teaching. [IF you're reading this rather than hearing it in person... go shopping!]

Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27) is about an elusive topic, holiness. We sense holiness, but it is hard to define. Social justice advocates love this parshah because of its justice-promoting chestnuts, but there are also opaque and baffling instructions, as well as some we moderns find offensive.

First, some easy ones:

  • Peah – Leave the corners of your field for the poor. There is no upward limit. You could harvest a chevron shape, where the corners are the same size as the field, making it 50/50
  • No gathering of fallen fruits, they are for the poor and the stranger
  • No defrauding
  • No withholding of wages.
  • You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old
  • No falsifying of weights
  • You shall not wrong a stranger that resides in your land
Some less obvious paths to holiness:

  • You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed (though it does not forbid companion-planting, where one pairs two different kinds of plants, a beneficial practice , a standard in permaculture and sustainable agriculture)
  • You shall not mix two kinds of cloth (shatnez)
  • You shall not destroy the sidegrowth of your beard
And then the ones that are 180 from where we are today: inappropriate prohibitions, such as the one against male-male unions. In our world they are not only legal, but a celebrated source of holiness for those in loving unions, in many Jewish communities.

The text does not define holiness; we are to be holy, set apart, for God.

I would submit that holiness is , l’havdil, like pornography. You know it when you see it. You feel it.

Clearly achieving this holiness requires a lot of every day, ordinary attention to behavior in the material world. It is woven into our interactions with others. If we were to make up a list of ways to achieve holiness as we live our daily lives, some of these Levitical principles would likely make our list; others would disappear.

Here we are 2500 years later in a complex globalized world of 7 billion people. We can’t leave the corners of our fields for the poor, since we mostly don’t raise our own food, and the world's poorest people, many of whom do raise our food, concentrate in the Global South.

The Fair Trade movement seeks to utilize our everyday market transactions to help the poor improve their lives, according them dignity and ensuring they can meet their basic needs. The opposite? Said Zach Teutsch, when I first described fair trade coffee a decade or so ago, must be unfair trade.

Initially the movement has been known for coffee production,  Fair Trade products include many others kinds of consumable food, flowers, clothing, housewares, crafts, and even Judaica like Fair Trade Judaica's Bar/Bat Mitzvah Collection, kippot and tallitot.

There are ten basic principles of Fair Trade. They expand the holiness in our daily consumption – creating more kedushah and allow us to help people help themselves out of extreme deprivation, Rambam's highest level of tsedakah. Here are a few examples:

Transparency throughout the supply chain. It is easy to take advantage of people who are unaware of the retail value of their products. Asymmetrical information is a form of exploitation, the opposite of fair.

No child labor. This is not prohibited by Torah, it was the pre-industrial norm. It is illegal, now, but not uncommon. Likewise no slave labor. Fair Trade certification is an extension of kashrut supervision, which applies to food.

Safe work conditions, setting forth goals which co-ops can work to attain. Cheap clothes et al are produced in factories that cut every possible corner. (Contrast that with leaving the corners open for the needy….)

FT guarantees equal rights regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, HIV status. This is a much higher standard than Torah or secular law.

Environmental standards are integrated into FT, unlike the conventional food supply chain where workers, the land and water and ultimate consumers are exposed to pesticides. This too is a higher standard, and missing from conventional kashrut supervision.

Q) How might we integrate Fair Trade standards, a sort of “consumption kashrut”, into our personal and household lives? Does having worker justice, environmental protection, and gender equity guarantees feel like holiness? Is this a spiritual practice, or just a form of consumption tax? Or tsedakah?

Q) How to we integrate fairly traded products into Dorshei Derekh and our shul?
Sometimes FairTrade is costly – it cuts out the middle-men so can be competitive, but products are usually higher quality, ergo costlier.

Q) How to we resolve conflicting Value Based Decision Making – local vs. buying a fair trade product from far away, or cost, or kashrut labeling? Organic, for example, does not equal Fair Trade. Or a FT product might not have kosher certification. My husband David loves his Starbucks French Roast. It's kosher, but not Fair Trade. 

PS - Elite Chocolate has no supervision of its supply chain. You can help a recent Ashira Abramowitz, a recent Bat Mitzvah girl in Israel, petition Elite to raise its standards, 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Purim's GJC Tsedakah Collective 2016 - Please Participate!

This Purim, GJC and Minyan Dorshei Derekh will once again run our Mishloah Manot tzedakah collective project, continuing a tradition of over a decade. It allows us all to fulfill two of the important mitzvot of Purim: mishloah manot (giving treats to our friends) and matanot la’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor).

Here’s how it works:
  • You donate to the project – suggested minimum, $18, no maximum!
  • Donations can be made via PayPal or by sending a check made out to “Germantown Jewish Centre, earmarked for the Purim Tsedakah Project, to the office
  • The bulk of the proceeds is donated as tzedakah to three local organizations providing direct support to the needy.
  • A small percentage of the proceeds will be used to provide aFair Trade Equal Exchange Chocolate bar + clementine  each household attending the Charry Megillah Reading and/or the Dorshei Derekh evening Purim celebration Wednesday night, March 23.
  • We are dispensing with the tradition of clementine cartons filled with goodies; families have been reluctant to take them. Rather than waste food, we are “minimizing the waste and maximizing the mitzvah“. By purchasing Fair Trade chocolate, the mitzvah of helping the poor support themselves is integrated into the ritual of mishloach manot!
1. We will once again be supporting a Weavers WaWWCP Websitey Community Program, the community garden at Stenton Family Manor, a homeless shelter in Germantown.  The grant  helps a farm educator teach residents how to raise food.  The produce raised is used directly in the kitchen to feed residents.
2. We will be contributing to refugee resettlement, via the
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS-PAhias-logo

3. We will also support The Center For Returning Citizens, whose head Jondhi Harrell spoImage result for center for returning citizenske at the Stefan Presser Social Justice Shabbat this past January.
The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC) assists returning citizens in the transition from incarceration to society by providing job training, housing assistance, counseling services, legal aid, and referrals. TCRC helps individuals, families and communities with the adverse impacts of incarceration.