Keep Judaism Wonderfully Weird


Shaking the LulavYears ago, a colleague of mine told me that as a rabbi, I should try to make Judaism, “cool,” At the time, I knew I was put off by this comment, but only years later do I fully understand why. What I love about Judaism is that it is generally “uncool.” In fact, it is wonderfully weird. Sometimes it is edgy. Even counter-cultural. I am part of religious life because it is meaningful, not because it’s the hip thing to do on a Friday night.

An article caught my eye recently, entitled, Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’ The writer, Rachel Held Evans, criticizes flashy, trend-setting techniques to get millennials into churches. “The trick isn’t to make church cool,” she writes, “it’s to keep worship weird.” She goes on to share what most attracts her and other young bloggers to religious life. “I do not want to be entertained…I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.” She is intrigued by “those strange rituals and traditions” that have been practiced in her tradition for thousands of years.

Sometimes as a Jewish leader, I feel pressure to make Judaism seem cool. But the fact is—I want to keep Judaism wonderfully weird. Take this season of the High Holidays. My favorite parts of the liturgy and practice at this sacred time of year often appear the strangest, and take some time to get used to. One of the rarest is the practice of kneeling and then putting my face to the ground during a certain prayer during Rosh Hashanah; prostrating myself like a child’s pose in yoga, feeling the ground beneath me and my vulnerability as a human being. I relish this because I want, at that moment, to feel a bit small with a sense of the grandeur of the world outside of me. My family loves the ritual of tashlich. We throw breadcrumbs into a creek to symbolize our shortcomings over the past year—with full knowledge that this ritual was borne out of a desire to appease water demons.

When sukkot begins, I shake the lulav: that strange collection of four natural species we bring together inside our little autumn hut (sukkah). Who doesn’t feel a little awkward shaking it in all directions? I love this ancient, agricultural ritual for all of its quirkiness. It connects me to the earth. It reminds me how interdependent we are with the natural world, and I become cognizant that the livelihood of others is tied to the whims of the weather more than mine will ever be.

It is not, actually, the endurance of the rituals alone that propels me to keep practicing them. They are relevant to me because they contain kernels of wisdom, and I bring my contemporary consciousness to them as Jews always have. They are not flashy or slick, hip or even always fun. Some are even difficult. But they are authentic.

The famous Rav Kook wrote that, “The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.” That is what an “ancient-future” community looks like; always looking back to discover the sources of our wisdom while we discern how that tradition continues to inform us in the present day. That doesn’t mean that we should keep doing exactly what we always did, or in exactly the same way. Our job is to renew and reconstruct where necessary, and make the ancient come alive in a new generation with contemporary relevance.

Whether Jewish practice is new to you or familiar, whether this is your first High Holiday season or your fiftieth, embrace the quirkiness. Try something new. Don’t worry if it’s not all flashy, or if you find that you need to slow down your mind to take it in. Hopefully, the experience will bring introspection, meaning and depth to your life. Above all, find out why we practice the way we do. Ask questions. Most people probably have the same questions you do. Reshape rituals and add your own flavor. As Evans puts it, “[Rituals] don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”  

SORRY: The Hardest, And Perhaps Most Powerful, Word


Child Holding Sign That Says SorryOne of my favorite children’s books for Yom Kippur is Jacqueline Jules’ The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story. It’s about the Ziz, an enormous bird with dark red wings and a purple forehead. The Ziz’s giant wings are always knocking things over. One day, after the Ziz mistakenly knocks over a big tree with his wings and the tree then knocks over another tree, which smashes a children’s vegetable garden, the Ziz goes to God and asks God how he can make things better.

God instructs the Ziz to search the earth and bring back “the hardest word.” The Ziz stretches out his big red wings and goes off to search, coming back to God over one hundred times with a variety of words. Each time God sends the Ziz back out, insisting that there is still a harder word.

Finally, the Ziz, discouraged, flies back for one last discussion with God:

“What word did you bring this time?” asks God.

“No word,” the Ziz says quietly.

“No word?” God asks.

“No,” the Ziz says sadly. “I’ve come to say I’m sorry. I can’t find the hardest word.”

“You can’t?” God asks.

“No,” Ziz shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” God asks.

“Yes.” Ziz nods his big purple head. “I’m sorry.”

“Good job!” God says. “You found the hardest word.”

“I did?” wonders the Ziz. At this point, the Ziz is very confused.

“Yes,” God says. “The hardest word is Sorry. While the other words you brought were hard, Sorry is the hardest.”

I love the story of the Ziz because it draws our attention to a universal aspect of human nature: the difficulty of apologizing. Elton John pointed out this fundamental truth years ago with the title to his song “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.” And if you’re like me and you’re old enough to remember the TV show Happy Days, you may recall how Fonzie, the cool guy who all the guys wanted to be like and all the girls wanted to date, struggled whenever he had to even admit that he was wrong, let alone apologize. In one episode, when Mrs. Cunningham, a woman Fonzie greatly respects who’s like a surrogate mother to him, tells him that he has to be an adult and apologize to a guy named Roger, Fonzie finally says: “Alright look, I went a little nutso, alright. So the whole thing was my fuhvv-vu-vu…and I’m really suzz-zzz-zzz. Alright?”

Apologizing was SO HARD for Fonzie that he couldn’t even pronounce the word “sorry.” I, for one, can relate. And I know that I’m not alone. Mental health professionals have pointed out that many people view apologizing as a sign of weakness. The perception is that the person who apologizes is the “loser,” whereas the person who receives the apology is the “winner.” Apologizing can make us feel vulnerable—like we’re losing power, or even control. Like Fonzie, most of us don’t like the feeling of not being in control—too often we let our pride get in the way and prevent us from apologizing.

But in reality, apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It takes strength to exhibit the moral character necessary to offer an apology, thereby admitting that you’ve hurt someone or done something wrong.

And think about it: Have you ever regretted apologizing to someone? If you’re like me, then you probably haven’t, or at least not often. For most of us, the time leading up to offering an apology is stressful, but once we’ve gotten over the hump of saying “I’m sorry,” it’s usually a big relief. In the best of situations, an apology is accepted. But even when an apology isn’t accepted, when it’s offered sincerely, we at least have the consolation of knowing that we’ve tried to make things better.

On the other hand, have you ever regretted NOT apologizing to someone? For most of us, the answer to this question is “yes.” Surely, if we take the time to think about it, we can all point to times when we didn’t say “I’m sorry,” even though we now wish we had.

The Jewish New Year is an ideal time to reflect on the year that has just passed and think about those people to whom we owe apologies. Jewish tradition urges us to recount the people we’ve wronged in the past year and to apologize and ask for forgiveness before Yom Kippur. “Sorry” may be the hardest word, but it also has the potential to be one of the most powerful words—a word of restoration, a word of healing and a word of starting over.

I can think of several people I want to apologize to before Yom Kippur for things I’ve done in the past year: my husband; my children; some friends and colleagues. I know that apologizing won’t be easy, but I also know that it’s worth it, and that the year ahead will be better because of it.

What about you? Have you ever regretted apologizing? Have you ever regretted NOT apologizing? Do you plan to apologize to anyone in preparation for Yom Kippur?

Making It Count


Snapshots of memorable moments

I am a counter and a list maker. I use the calendar on my phone/computer and I have a paper calendar. I create a to-do list each week and sometimes add things I have already accomplished for the simple pleasure of being able to cross it out. I have a countdown app on my phone that provides me with the exact amount of time, down to the second, until an upcoming event. I am fascinated by the fact that time never changes and yet five more minutes until recess or your lunch break feels interminable while five more minutes with someone you love is never enough.

We all mark time in our lives in different ways: Facebook reminds us of birthdays, there are myriad apps to download and calendars in every size and color if you’d rather a physical book. If we take a step back from our ever present and much appreciated technology, we are reminded of the passage of time with every sun rise and set, with the changing of seasons, the warm fresh spring air following a difficult winter, even the beautiful and mysterious patterns of the stars in the vast inky blue on a clear night.

And so we all count, individually and collectively, slowly moving along with time, whether we like it or not.

Naturally, Judaism spends a lot of time contemplating and marking the passage of time as well, especially this time of year. On Passover we celebrate freedom, the bonds of cruel slavery broken as the Israelites follow Moses and Miriam out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land. We know the story, we’ve heard it, perhaps have even seen the animated version (I highly recommend The Prince of Egypt). Passover is both the culmination of this tale of slavery and the beginning of a new era of freedom and peoplehood.

So it only seems natural that Judaism would begin a count, called the “omer,” beginning on the second day of Passover and counting the 49 days leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the moment on Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Torah, the story of the Jewish people and the laws, values and ethics by which to live. Each day Jews around the world say a blessing for this count as we move ever closer to the next defining moment in our collective life as a community.

Whether you vigilantly count the omer each day or you have never heard of this before, it is an interesting concept. While we often assume that the biggest moments in our lives deserve that special mark on our calendar, a card and maybe flowers, the counting of the omer suggests that remembering the journey, taking that brief moment for a simple blessing, a moment of perspective, also counts (please, pardon the pun).

These in-between moments aren’t always splashy or exciting; no one is parting a sea or forming a nation every day. Just like the Israelites wandering through the desert, we complain, we bemoan our busy schedules, worry about what’s to come, wonder if we made the right choices. And this lovely April, all of that pent up energy collected during a particularly vicious winter has been released and we are all running around, making up for lost time, attending that that spring dance recital or those little league baseball games, maybe soon a weekend visit to your favorite beach. And just as those dark, dreary, snowy winter weeks moved at a snail’s pace, these lovely spring days seem to be flying by. And how often are we simply going through the motions, waiting for that next big event, cruising on autopilot?

So perhaps this year, amidst the craziness, on those average, nothing-special days, find a single moment and simply notice it, make it count. Give yourself a rest from the worry, from the anticipation or excitement of what’s next. It is the joy we find for ourselves in the most mundane of moments or the peace we create in a single deep breath that allow us to embrace, prepare for and celebrate the most life-changing events that we put on calendars and count down with apps. The tick of time will always be constant, but we can choose how we spend it, even if only for one brief tock. So this year I’m going to count the omer and try my best to make it count as well.

Falling in Love…with Family


Granddaughter and grandfatherMy friend’s daughter is dating someone from a different faith and her grandparents are upset. The daughter called me and asked for advice. We talked about how people often participate in religion because of guilt or shame. For today’s society, guilt or pressure from families no longer works. In America, where everything is marketed so that you “need it now,” my philosophy is to make sure that the Jewish family is as welcoming, interesting, educational and inviting as possible. The family should be welcoming, not just because the new boyfriend or girlfriend is at the table, but for everyone. If a person has miserable memories associated with the family, they are not going to be inclined to practice Judaism when it is their turn.

If there is a new (or potential) family member at the table, make sure that the newcomer is having a positive and enjoyable experience. The family’s goal with any guest should be to put on their best version of themselves. In short, every parent’s goal should be to make the new family member fall in love with the family—its rituals, customs and craziness! Grandparents can tell stories of how important Judaism is to them and why they love it. Keep it positive, appreciative and most important, non-judgmental.

Maybe new family members will understand why the Jewish family has worked hard for so many years to maintain the beauty of Judaism. Maybe it’s the silliness. Maybe the bonding or the joy of special foods. No matter what, make it pleasant. Make it a wonderful memory. And if it gets awkward, just smile and plan to laugh about it the next day. We all have at least one annoying relative—just smile because they aren’t going to change just because you wish they would.

Talk to your parents and grandparents and tell them to show off a bit. Tell them to keep all interaction inviting. Tell them that you love them and you have so many positive family memories. Tell them you want your new (potential) family member to have these great memories too. For instance: “Grammy and Pops, I love you. I hope that he falls in love with you too. It will be easy since you are so loveable! And please get to know him. Ask him questions so you can learn how wonderful he is.” A positive tone with a little flattery should go a long way toward new wonderful memories.

Good luck and keep us posted! We want to hear about your family experiences, questions and advice.

The Real Menshes on Benches


I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.

One of the rules for this toy is that a “true mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoples’ faces.” The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.

My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they don’t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruach—the spirit—of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.

Dickinson Park

Rabbi Ari and her kids at Dickinson Square Park

My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a “calm body” as we like to say.

On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little. But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people can’t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldn’t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, “I am visiting my grandma and papa” which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.

During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.

After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, “Your children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.” They didn’t say, “Next time, you could try the Quiet Room.” Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.

Sukkot Reminds Us to Treat All Visitors as Honored Guests


This blog post was reprinted with permission from j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California

Welcome at the doorI recently visited a San Francisco synagogue for the first time. I rang the bell and a teenage girl came to let me in.  She wasn’t working there; she was just doing her homework. She welcomed me with a warm smile and asked if she could help me. We chatted about her schoolwork and life at the synagogue, and then the rabbi came running out to meet me. He was in the middle of Bar Mitzvah lessons and apologized for his delay in welcoming me. He didn’t know I was a rabbi or what I was doing there; it appeared that this is how he welcomed anyone walking in the door. I explained that I was fine—just a bit early for a meeting. The night went on in this fashion. I have to admit that I was a bit flabbergasted. I had to wonder, why shouldn’t every encounter be this way?

What came to my mind that night is that this synagogue clearly practices and teaches what some have recently been calling audacious or radical hospitality. They went out of their way to make sure I was treated like an honored guest. This spirit of embrace is ingrained in their culture to the extent that even a teenager is among the initiated! We all know people who seem to go far above and beyond what might be considered polite or inclusive. And we know how encountering such an individual has the power to change our outlook. Those of us who work for Jewish organizations struggle to figure out how our institutions can reflect this value. We may have the best programs, the most beautiful services, the best school. But at the end of the day, what supersedes everything else is whether or not people feel in each and every personal encounter that they matter.

Sukkot is the Jewish season for nurturing this quality of openness in ourselves and our institutions. We move out of our homes into huts, and we invite people to join us in these temporary, yet holy spaces. The holiday goes by many names: the Feast of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, and He-Chag (the holiday). But if we stress the injunction to welcome those in need into our sukkahs, we could also name it the Festival of Hospitality.

In a few weeks, we will read in the Torah about Abraham and Sarah in another kind of shelter, their tent in Mamre [Gen.18]. Three strangers passed through, and amidst a culture in which a stranger could be a major threat, they invited them in. They rushed to greet them, washed their feet, and fed them. The strangers turned out to be angels telling Sarah of her pregnancy. But the beauty of the story is that Sarah and Abraham had no idea that their visitors were divine guests. This is how they treated everyone they met. A midrash on the apocryphal book of Jubilees makes this connection between the holiday of Sukkot and Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality clear. It tells us that part of their preparations for their holy guests was, in fact, building the first sukkah to shelter them.

What would the world look like if we treated everyone we encountered as worthy of our attention? What would our Jewish communities look like if every person who walked through a door were greeted like Abraham and Sarah’s guests? What would the world look like if we treated even people we don’t know across the globe with that degree of humanity?

Sukkot is the holiday of the open tent. It seems it should be the most accessible holiday, but unfortunately it is also one of the harder holidays to celebrate. Not everyone has the space or strength to build a sukkah. If you are fortunate enough to have one, imitate Abraham and Sarah during the remaining days of the holiday and welcome someone who has never been to a sukkah or doesn’t think he knows enough about Judaism to partake. There is a kabbalistic custom to invite ushpizin, ancestral, transcendent guests, into the sukkah.  But even more important is filling your sukkah with real, flesh-and-blood visitors. This Sukkot, may we go above and beyond to make people feel like the divine guests that they are—when they enter our institutions, our work, our homes and our tents.

Creating Positive Community Memories



This year on Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue tried something new. All of the kids were invited onto the bima to witness the blowing of the shofar. It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces while the shofar sounded. My daughter even jumped back a little at the sound initially. It was a sight to behold on many levels. First, I loved seeing all of the kids at the synagogue. Most of them were in awe of the Torahs, the Rabbi and the shofar. Second, when I spoke to my son later, he said he never realized that there were that many people at the synagogue. He seemed impressed that there were that many people observing the holidays. Since he attends a school with very few Jewish kids, he felt excited that “he wasn’t the only one” observing the holiday. Third, the Rabbi said that the twisting shape of the shofar is like life – there are ups and downs, twists and turns that keep going on a unique journey. Again, watching the kids comprehend this concept was gratifying.

I know that for a long time, synagogues would keep the kids in a different area of the building during services so they didn’t disrupt the adults and the prayers (I suspect the parents liked having a “break” from the kids, too). Some congregations create a group that prays and another group that discusses. There may be another group for the teenagers and another group for the toddlers. Unfortunately, some kids grow up thinking that synagogue is just for kids. I think that this is all fine and good but at some point, we should all be together.

I learn so much from the whole community: from my kids, from my friend’s 92- year-old-grandmother, and from the pleasant gentleman two rows back with a great smile. Our kids should see what their future looks like and we should look back on our childhood with wonderful memories. The good memories are what keep us going so we can manage the twists and turns of life.

Many people are part of the community of their neighborhood, preschool, elementary school, gym or office. I find that these communities are wonderful but fleeting; the people move, the kids grow up, the gym down the street offers a better deal or people get new jobs. The Jewish community is a little different on the holidays. No one has to send out an invitation, but lots of people show up to celebrate the holiday. We see families grow up and evolve. A hug from an old friend is commonplace. We may hear a tune that reminds us of a relative or humorous incident from childhood.

I know that many communities have a Jewish Community Center (JCC) which is a great place to find community. While I am not a member of a JCC, I find that my Jewish community IS my center. It is the most consistent presence in my life besides family. I don’t love everyone there but I enjoy a little something of everyone, young and old. Best of all, we all are collecting and reliving some very positive memories.

Our New Year’s Apple Picking Event


Kids blowing shofars

One of my favorite things about living in the Northeastern United States is apple picking. Relating to the Rosh Hashanah tradition of eating apples and honey, an apple picking event is a wonderful opportunity to build community.

Apple pickingIn mid-September, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia co-sponsored an apple picking event on a Sunday morning in Chester County with jkidphilly. It was a beautiful day and the orchard (Highland Orchards) was a wonderful spot. I was fortunate enough to be working with Robyn Cohen from jkidphilly and we assisted the kids in making a fun craft.

Did you know that with a small plastic horn blower and a paper plate, kids can make their own shofar? The kids decorated the paper plates with apple stickers and crayons and behold, the shofars were fabulous. The kids could make some noise with their new shofars and it didn’t bother anyone! And if they got a little “energetic” there was a playground right next to our picnic tables for them to let off a little joyous energy.

Family making shofars

The parents and kids were able to mingle and learn a little about the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. I particularly love the comparison of a shofar to an alarm clock—waking us up from our daily activities and alerting us to the new possibilities of the fall, a New Year and renewed spirit. There is something special about the fall sunshine on an orchard that warms the soul. Apples are so sweet and the kids love being involved in harvesting the fruits of their labor. There were over 25 families who attended the pre-Rosh Hashanah apple picking in Chester County. If you are interested in attending similar events, please email and let us know. We look forward to hearing from you!

Making Shavuot Meaningful


On Shavuot, Jews celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. If you didn’t grow up Jewish, or even if you did, you may not know much about Shavuot. Although Shavuot is one of the Shelosh Regalim (the three Pilgrimage Festivals), equal in importance to Passover and Sukkot, it’s less commonly celebrated than the other two holidays. Maybe this is because Shavuot doesn’t have a well-known home component, like the Passover Seder (celebrated by more Jews than almost any other Jewish ritual) or the sukkot (huts) some Jews build outside of their homes on Sukkot. Maybe it’s because Shavuot comes at the end of the school year, so even if you have kids in a Jewish preschool, religious school or day school, there’s not as much time available in the curriculum to focus on Shavuot. Whatever the reason, I for one would love to see a change, and for more people to learn about Shavuot, and celebrate the holiday in meaningful ways.

In that spirit, as Shavuot approaches, I have seven suggestions for how to make the holiday more meaningful. Why seven? Because Shavuot marks the fiftieth day after the start of the counting of the Omer. (We begin counting the Omer, which links Passover to Shavuot, on the second night of Passover.) Shavuot (which means “weeks” in Hebrew) marks the completion of counting seven weeks of seven days.

1. Read the Book of Ruth. Traditionally, the Biblical Book of Ruth is read in synagogues on Shavuot. Ruth’s story is read on this holiday for several reasons:

a. The Book of Ruth describes the harvest season and Shavuot is also known as Hag HaKatsir, the Harvest Festival.

b. On Shavuot, when Jews celebrate God’s giving—and the Jewish people’s accepting—the Torah, we read of Ruth’s willingly entering into the Jewish faith and thus, according to Jewish understanding, a life of Torah.

c. The end of the Book of Ruth describes the lineage of King David, who is Ruth’s great-grandson. According to Jewish tradition, King David was born and died on Shavuot.

Even if you don’t go to services on Shavuot, you can read and discuss the story of Ruth with family members or friends. Ruth is often celebrated as the first Jew by Choice, but as I argue in my recent blog, I think she really should be celebrated as a woman in an interfaith marriage who helps to ensure the Jewish future.

2. Study the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are traditionally read from the Torah at Shavuot services. Take time to read the Ten Commandments and learn about them. If you have younger kids, your family can decide what Ten Commandments/Rules should be followed in your home. Older kids and adults can discuss how they feel about posting the Ten Commandments in public places such as court houses. Click here to read the position the Anti-Defamation League took on this issue in 2005.

For fun, check out Godcast’s Ten Commandments song or bake a Ten Commandments Challah.

3. Attend a Tikkun Leil Shavuot. There’s a wonderful custom of staying up all (or part of) the first night of Shavuot to study Torah. One of my personal favorite Shavuot experiences was when I was living in Jerusalem and I spent all night learning at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot and then at sunrise walked with the rest of the people attending the Tikkun to the Kotel for the morning service.

Look online to see if a synagogue or other Jewish organization near you is having a Tikkun.  Or host your own Tikkun and invite friends over to study Torah.

Cheesecake4. Make (and eat!) Dairy Foods. It’s customary to eat dairy foods like cheesecake and cheese-filled blintzes on Shavuot. Some say that this is because the Bible compares Torah to “honey and milk…under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). Another explanation is that when the Israelites received the Torah and learned for the first time the laws for keeping kosher, they didn’t have time right away to prepare kosher meat. In order not to eat meat that wasn’t kosher, they ate dairy. And so, on Shavuot, when the Giving of the Torah is celebrated, many Jews eat dairy in commemoration of how the Israelites ate when they first received the Torah.

In keeping with the tradition of eating dairy on Shavuot, after dinner on Shavuot I like to put out different flavors of ice cream and bowls with all kinds of toppings for everyone in my family to make their own ice cream sundae. My kids love doing this—and so do I!

5. Bake a Special Challah. Even those familiar with the braided challot for Shabbat and the round challot traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah may not be aware of the tradition of having specially shaped challot for Shavuot. This Shavuot, bake a challah in the shape of the Ten Commandments, as mentioned above, or in the shape of a Heavenly Ladder, a Torah or Mount Sinai (where God gave the Torah to Moses). To learn how to make these challot click here.

6. If You Have Young Children, Read Books Related to Shavuot: Check out PJ Library for a list of Shavuot books.

7. Attend a Shavuot Service. In Israel and most Reform and Reconstructionist congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for one day. In Orthodox and most Conservative congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for two days. In many congregations, Confirmation (a group ceremony, generally at the end of tenth grade, celebrating the completion of a religious curriculum) is celebrated on Shavuot. Not only is Shavuot near the end of the school year, but the association of Shavuot with the Giving of Torah is thematically connected to the study of Torah acknowledged at Confirmation as well as the idea of students committing themselves to a life of Torah. You can look at the websites of local synagogues to find out when their Shavuot services are being held.

Chag Sameach! Have a happy holiday!

RE-READING RUTH: Not “Ruth and Her Conversion” but “Ruth and her Interfaith Marriage”


A version of this blog post was reprinted in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and can be read here.

The Book of Ruth“Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

These words, spoken by the young widow Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, are among the most well known and most powerful words in the Bible. They express Ruth’s commitment to Naomi—and to Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God. With this declaration, Ruth the Moabite cast her lot with the lot of the Jewish people, and she recognized the God of Israel as her God.

Often Ruth is spoken of as the first convert to Judaism. Of course Ruth’s “conversion” wasn’t like the conversions of today. Ruth didn’t attend an Introduction to Judaism class (I can’t imagine that any such classes were offered in Moab!); she didn’t appear before a Beit Din (a rabbinic court); and she didn’t immerse herself in the mikveh (ritual bath). And in fact, throughout the Book of Ruth, even after Ruth makes her declaration of commitment to Naomi, the people of Israel and the God of Israel, Ruth is constantly referred to as “the Moabite,” reminding us, the readers, that Ruth was still seen as an “outsider.”

Even if we are to accept that Ruth converted to Judaism (at a time long before conversion as we now know it), the timing of Ruth’s “conversion” is noteworthy. Having lost her husband and two sons, Machlon (Ruth’s husband) and Chilion (who was married to another Moabite woman, Orpah), while living in Moab, Naomi was preparing to head back to Israel. She told her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families, and Orpah followed her instructions. Ruth, however, clung to Naomi, and when Naomi told her to “return to her people and her gods” as Orpah had done, Ruth responded: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go….”

By the time Ruth made her famous declaration to Naomi, Ruth’s Israelite husband was already deceased. This was after Ruth’s marriage, not before it. This means that Ruth’s marriage to Machlon, which lasted about ten years, was an interfaith marriage! I can only imagine that Ruth’s great love for Naomi was based on the fact that throughout the period of the marriage and beyond Naomi accepted Ruth for who she was—making Ruth feel valued and loved.

So often today I hear a Jewish mother lament when her son marries a woman who isn’t Jewish: “She’s a lovely girl. If ONLY she were Jewish…” I can only imagine how this must make the daughter-in-law feel: that she’s not quite good enough, that she’s second class. That’s not how Naomi treated Ruth. While the text may go out of its way to call her “Ruth the Moabite,” to Naomi she was simply “Ruth”: beloved daughter-in-law. And what a remarkable mother-in-law Naomi must have been for Ruth to want to leave her own land and her own people to return to Naomi’s homeland with her after Machlon had died.

Just imagine what it would be like today if Jewish parents—and the Jewish community as a whole—could be as non-judgmental and accepting of their children’s interfaith marriages as Naomi must have been of Machlon’s marriage to Ruth. Surely some of the children-in-law, like Ruth, would fall in love with their extended Jewish family and the Jewish people and religion, and choose after a period of time to become Jewish. We see this happen all of the time: Someone who’s had a Jewish partner for a number of years converting after truly knowing what it means to be Jewish. (As a rabbi, I would much prefer that someone wait to convert until they’re sure that it’s right for them, rather than converting to appease a prospective in-law or just make things “easier” when getting married. A conversion just to make someone else happy seems to me to be “empty” and insincere.)

Of course even if parents-in-law and the Jewish community are non-judgmental and accepting of interfaith marriages, not every partner in an interfaith marriage who didn’t grow up Jewish is going to convert. Some people won’t convert because they still practice another religion, and others will decide—for a variety of reasons—that conversion to Judaism isn’t for them. And that’s OK too! Our community needs to honor those who’ve chosen to marry Jews, but who haven’t chosen Judaism for themselves—just as Naomi showed Ruth respect throughout the time that she was married to Machlon. As Naomi realized throughout the marriage, it wasn’t her place to tell her daughter-in-law how to live her life or what choices she should make. Naomi loved Ruth for who she WAS—not for what she WANTED Ruth to be.

At the end of the Book of Ruth, Ruth gives birth to Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Ruth “the Moabite” who was in an interfaith marriage to Machlon is the great-grandmother of David—not only a great King of Israel, but the progenitor of the Messiah.

Soon it will be Shavuot. It’s customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. It’s quite appropriate to read the story of a woman who demonstrated her loyalty to Judaism on the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. As Shavuot approaches, I will celebrate Ruth, who wasn’t raised Jewish, from our Jewish past. And I will also celebrate all of those people in our Jewish present who weren’t raised Jewish: those who’ve chosen to convert to Judaism as well as those who’ve chosen to join their lives to the Jewish community in less formal ways (by marrying Jews, by raising Jewish children and by participating in the life of the Jewish community). All of them, like Ruth before them, help us to ensure the Jewish future.