What’s Wrong with Saying “Jewish Community?”

  

volunteers at soup kitchenBecause I have tweens in my house (today that means 7- and 9-year-olds), I have pop songs playing in the soundtrack of my brain all day. As I write the title for this blog, I am thinking of Demi Lovato’s “What’s Wrong with Being Confident?” My question is: What’s wrong with saying “Jewish community?”

You’ll hear some Jewish leaders talk about the Jewish community as if it’s one enterprise that needs saving and fixing. Even here at InterfaithFamily, we want the people we work with to feel connected to the “Jewish community,” to feel part of it and to know how to access it. We are open to the idea that “Jewish community” can be your dining room table with friends or a synagogue sanctuary or a soup kitchen with volunteers if it’s sponsored by a Jewish organization. However, I have a problem with the language.

If we start with the word Jewish then some of the people at these events automatically may feel other or not included. Jewish modifies the word community. It is a community in this case because it’s Jewish. I don’t believe we can have an inclusive community—a community that respects, honors, sees and appreciates everyone—if we start with what some of the people are not.

Can we start with community and modify that with Judaism? A community is made up of the people coming together for a shared purpose. Maybe they are coming together for comradery around Shabbat or for social justice inspired by religion or for prayer or holidays. Judaism is a civilization that everybody can experience, learn about, try, be inspired by, commit to, carry on, speak about and support. Some of the people who take part in Judaism will be Jewish by upbringing and continue to make the choice to engage and affirm. Others will be Jewish through a conversion process, meaning that they made a decision to identify as Jewish. Others in the community cast their fate with the larger Jewish enterprise and are aligned with their Jewish family through marriage and partnership but do not call themselves personally Jewish.

I want people to engage with Judaism: a living, dynamic civilization with a land, language, history, texts, foods, cultures, music, rituals, traditions, customs and more. I want people to engage with community around these aspects of Judaism because Judaism is done with people. I hope people will call themselves Jewish with pride and raise children who see themselves as connected to Judaism and as the next link in the chain of tradition. But, if we keep saying “Jewish community,” I feel we are putting the emphasis on the wrong thing. We become ethnic and exclusive more than open and diverse.

Maybe you say that people know that the phrase “Jewish community” means a community gathering for the pursuit of Jewish living and learning more than a community of Jews. I say language matters and by catering to inclusion, we will emphasize that each person who shows up to engage with Judaism is equal and good enough—and a blessing.  

 

My Macaroni & Cheese Lightbulb Moment

  

Boy eating mac_cheeseAs I have admitted before, I see the whole world through an interfaith family lens (see my past blog post HERE). I am so uber-saturated in this work that I am always thinking about the experience of the partner who isn’t Jewish who is connected to someone Jewish and what it means to have interfaith families as full members of congregations. So, when I was on a four-hour flight to meet with the other seven rabbis who direct InterfaithFamily offices around the country, I saw an ad that stopped me in my tracks. It is the new Kraft Macaroni & Cheese ad (which might understandably be torture to watch mid-way through Passover!).

The tag line is, “It’s changed, but it hasn’t.”

What does mac & cheese have to do with supporting interfaith families exploring Jewish life, our tag line at IFF? When interfaith families are truly part of a community doing Jewish (notice I don’t say Jewish community—this will be the subject of my next blog post), will the community and the experience of Judaism change? Will there be anything recognizable about Judaism in the generations to come? Will the recipe have changed so much that it becomes a different thing altogether? To continue the food analogy, will interfaith families be a sweetener and add something healthier for the overall enterprise of Judaism?

I hope that when interfaith families are members and leaders of their communities, everything will change for the better. We will frame liturgy and worship in new ways, cognizant that we need to give meaning because many people there are still learning (yes—this should always be the approach, but interfaith families dictate this approach). We will continue to adapt and change liturgy as it feels outdated and offensive to our diverse communities.This has been the Reform tradition since the beginning. We say what we believe.

Much of prayer is poetry and isn’t literal but is evocative. Our language will change and it should feel palpable. Those who visit a congregation’s website should sense change and it should feel inspiring and positive. We can look to the experience and narratives of those who didn’t grow up with Judaism to enrich the context and lens by which Judaism is now taught and lived.

What do you think? When interfaith families are truly part and parcel of a community, do you sense that their inclusion changes the community over time? Can you point to the changes? Is it so normative at this point that we have a diverse community that we take this fact for granted and have moved past it in some way? As always, more questions than answers and lots of right answers.

 

David Gregory Bares His Spirituality

  

CJP Interfaith conversation

“I feel I’m Jewish not just because I’ve chosen Judaism but because Judaism has chosen me.”
–David Gregory, April 5, 2016

You might recognize David Gregory from his time as NBC newsman or as Meet the Press moderator. But he visited Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston Federation–a supporter of InterfaithFamily/Boston and leader in interfaith issues–this morning in the role of author, husband and father. He was joined by Dr. Erica Brown, an extraordinary Jewish author and teacher. Gregory and Brown were interviewed by CJP President Barry Shrage about interfaith relationships and Jewish life.

Brown made a good point early on in the conversation: So often, it’s not Jewish ritual or prayer or the organized Jewish community that puts off people who are not Jewish. To a newcomer, it’s the inside jokes, that “tribalism” about Jewish culture—the very thing that makes many Jews feel pride—that can be so isolating.

Many of us have seen this play out, whether you are the Jewish one, joking about a Jewish stereotype or using insider lingo, or you’re the one hearing it and not quite feeling part of the conversation.

Gregory is in a unique position to speak on the pulse of interfaith relationships having felt like both insider and outsider. He is the product of an interfaith family (he was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father) and it was his wife’s strong Protestant faith that inspired him to explore his own faith and religion. After a great deal of religious and spiritual exploration, he said, “I feel more Jewish than I ever have in my life.”

It’s time for Jews to change their thinking, Gregory said. As his wife Beth put it: “I know what you are but what do you believe?”

Unfortunately, he points out, the idea of appreciating Judaism for its vibrancy, community and spirituality is an “elective.” The more powerful conversation on the table is still the endurance of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, so it can be difficult to steer the conversation toward the richness of what Judaism has to offer; the “what you believe” rather than the “what you are.”

Gregory is by no means saying that it is futile to embrace and share the notion that Judaism has a great deal to offer those who are not already engaged, however. He challenged those in the room from Jewish organizations to think about creating inroads to the Jewish community that have authenticity for interfaith couples. Brown also pointed out that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, as every person and couple is unique.

What was most compelling about the conversation was hearing Gregory talk from experience. He does not claim to have the answers for anyone else, but he has been on quite a journey with his personal relationship with Judaism. Its importance has the power to bring him to tears and to propel him forward on this intellectual and heartfelt journey with his family.

Why I Go to Church

  

Sarah Tasman at a church service for Interfaith Harmony

You might find it hard to believe but I love going to church. I don’t go very often, but the times that I have been, I have found it very moving and spiritual. I have prayed and spoken with God in a variety of settings: in the desert, in the forest, in the ocean, in non-denominational campus chapels, in hospital rooms, on my yoga mat, though conversations with my friends and colleagues who are ministers and chaplains of other faiths and yes, in a church.

Sunday, January 31, 2016 I had the opportunity to worship with the community at Calvary Baptist Church and to give a sermon and the benediction. The clergy team, the choir and the congregation warmly welcomed me and I felt right at home. What helped was that I had been there before to speak to an adult education class and that my colleague at Calvary, Pastor Erica Lea, had spent a lot of time sharing with me about the congregation and the service so I knew what to expect. Not only did she let me brainstorm sermon ideas with her that would resonate with the congregation but she encouraged me to be myself and to share my own words of Torah (scripture) and to teach from my heart.

Rabbi Sarah leads church service

Rabbi Sarah Tasman (center) offers the benediction

The occasion for my visit to Calvary Baptist Church was Interfaith Sunday, a service in celebration of the UN Resolution on Interfaith Harmony Week. I spoke about sowing the seeds of interfaith harmony. In the physical sense, I connected the idea of planting seeds to the Hebrew month of Shevat. There is a teaching that the seeds that are planted in the month of Shevat (in winter) will bloom in Nissan (the month of spring time, in the time of Passover, redemption and freedom). Interfaith Harmony doesn’t happen overnight. It must be achieved by planting seeds and nourishing those seeds to blossom.

In the metaphorical sense of sowing seeds for Interfaith Harmony, I spoke about building relationships. I drew inspiration from the recent Torah portion from the book of Exodus in which we read about Moses’ relationship with his father-in-law Yitro. Yitro was a Midianite priest, and he served as mentor and counsel to Moses, the leader of the Israelites.

The relationship between Moses and his father-in-law is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of interfaith harmony in our tradition. Though they come from different faiths, they understand each other’s language and liturgy, each other’s spiritual practice and each other’s laws. Moreover, they understand something universal: how important is for spiritual leaders to have support and mentorship of their own.

I have been blessed with guidance and mentorship from spiritual leaders of other faiths and I have found time and time again how valuable those relationships are in my life. As I think of the support Moses received from Yitro, I am reminded of the support I received from my high school guidance counselor, Dr. Melanie-Prejean Sullivan, who is now Director of Campus Ministry at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, who helped me understand my calling. I think of Rev. Sheila McNeill-Lee who was my Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor at Sibley Memorial Hospital when I was chaplain intern, who helped me to articulate my beliefs, the value of self-care and how to check my assumptions. I think of my dear friend and interfaith collaborator on creative expression and spirituality, Erin Brindle, who is an art therapist. I also think of my new colleagues at Calvary including Pastor Erica Lea and her team.

During my chaplaincy training, a colleague who is now a Presbyterian chaplain led us in what has become one of my favorite spiritual experiences which I recreated for the community at Calvary. At the end of my sermon, I invited all of the congregants to write their prayers on paper flowers and then bring them up to the altar and place them in a glass vase. Together we planted our own seeds for interfaith harmony by offering up a beautiful bouquet of our prayers. I truly hope that the seeds we planted at Calvary that day continue to be nourished through conversation and discussion and community partnership.

Finding Prayer at Creating Change

  
Ari at Creating Change

From left: Rabbi Shoshana Conover from Temple Sholom, Rabbi Judith Golden from Or Chadash & Rabbi Ari Moffic from IFF/Chicago

I have a confession to make: For a while now, I’ve been pretty anti-Jewish prayer. I know that may sound startling coming from a rabbi. But I’ve kind of been dreading Friday night services lately. All that rote Hebrew that many people aren’t following and don’t understand what they’re saying. Now that I’ve been working with interfaith families, I am especially aware of the barrier that Hebrew creates and have wondered about all different ways to get over that wall. Many in the Jewish world think that some of our prayers (especially ones that have the words “v’tzivanu,” like the Shabbat candle blessings) can only be said by Jews and this poses other problems for those in our families who want to join in and are not sure where they fit.

Friday night services can have highs and music definitely helps get into the mood of the often universal and timeless themes in the liturgy. Sometimes it’s nice to just be with others and feel a sense of camaraderie, joint mission and shared purpose. It’s good to put my phone away for an hour and move at a different pace. Taking a deep breath, being in a beautiful space and hearing words from our tradition can be good for the soul. But, actual liturgy or communal prayer has been my nemesis for a while.  

In fact, I was wondering if we could start a congregation with no prayer. There would be no Friday night or Saturday morning “services.” We would come together when we were up for it and looking forward to it for experiences of meaning. A bar or bat mitzvah service could involve a few major words of our faith tradition like the Shema or our Kaddish because a couple of prayers are transcendent. Their sound and their words are wholly evocative and needed. But, the core of the life cycle event would be to read from the sacred Torah scroll, to interpret the ancient text, to share who this child is at this moment and to celebrate a coming of age. To say words that feel compelling, engaging, inspiring and relevant. This is what has been going on in my heart and mind lately.

And then I was invited by A Wider Bridge to help lead Friday night worship at the Creating Change Conference in Chicago. I was invited because InterfaithFamily/Chicago works for inclusion and our mission aligns with the mission of this massive conference. I was invited because I am a proud ally for LGBTQ people within the Jewish world and non-profits in this realm. I was honored to help plan a service with Rabbi Shoshana Conover from Temple Sholom and Judith Golden from Congregation Or Chadash. But all did not go smoothly, and you can read multiple news stories about the drama and trauma that happened that night at the conference. I am still not sure what to do when you find that you agree with a group on so many grounds but have a major schism of belief in an area that is fundamental to your world view. But, the political pieces aside, I have to report that something happened to me in that service.

There was no guitar. Judith sang with emotion and feeling and it was participatory. I. Was. Moved. I felt it. I think other people in the room felt it (and maybe that’s why we, the prayer leaders, felt it). We sang for purpose. We sang for freedom. We prayed for help from the Source above. We were in the moment. We weren’t thinking about what we need at the grocery store. We were there together. A new group. People from all over the world and from all different backgrounds. Pluralistic. Egalitarian. The beat was contagious. Clapping and moving, smiles and swaying. Maybe because each of the prayer leaders desperately, and with all of our hearts and souls, wanted every person in that room to feel supported and part of it and included and loved—the vibe went out and it reverberated back.

I got my prayer mojo back. Now, how to keep it?

I had a few takeaways from this experience, and here’s what I suggest might make prayer more meaningful for me and possibly others:

  1. Services should be short and sweet.
  2. Services should include singing throughout and songs should be sung through enough times that people can catch the tune.
  3. When there are readings, have people who are representative or people who “get” the reading, read them.
  4. Think about who is sitting around you and pray with them.
  5. Look at the people around you and see what vibes you can get from being in the same space.

Thank you Creating Change for reminding me that I love to pray with other people. I’m sorry there was so much tumult. I’m sorry there was so much pain. I pray we will all know peace.

Will We Automate Religion in 2016?

  

Marjorie PrimeI just saw the play Marjorie Prime written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Kimberly Senior at Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, IL. The premise of the play is that it’s the age of artificial intelligence, but 86-year-old Marjorie is worried that her memory may be fading. That is until the appearance of Walter, a mysterious and charming young visitor programmed to help Marjorie uncover the intricacies of her own past. As Walter’s true nature is revealed, new levels of complexity emerge, leading to profound questions about the limits of technology and whether memory might be a purely human invention. Walter is a Prime—a robot of sorts who can act like Siri times a million. He is sort of like a person and the lines between robot and human are blurred.

Certainly writers and thinkers from Kurt Vonnegut to present day Martine Rothblatt have been wondering about these same questions. I recently heard a report on NPR which details how cars are going to become “smarter and smarter.” In the years to come, our refrigerators will be able to sense when we need milk and that will alert the grocery delivery service to bring it over. The lines between thinking and computing will be hazy. Much of our lives will be able to be automated. Ordering food, house cleaning and driving cars could all be automatic. They will not involve us having to think, plan work or do.

So, where does this leave religion? Being a rabbi is one job that I don’t think can be automated. When I sit with a couple to talk about their families, how they were raised and what’s important to them, we need to see each other and sense each other. Emails, Facetime and following each other on Facebook definitely fills in gaps and builds rapport quicker than before these technologies were used. It helps me get to know couples and get a sense for their vibe and their style, but nothing replaces one-on-one time together.

Marking lifecycle moments from the promises and hopes two committed adults share in front of their family and friends to the arrival of a baby, to honoring someone’s life at the time of their death, or studying with someone and helping them to ritually announce that they want to identify and live as a Jew: These are times that we need to be in person. With that said, there have been dozens of times during these events when someone has set up an iPad with Skype so that an elderly grandparent or a friend far away can “be” there with us.

There is a power in gatherings. Joining your voice with others, knowing that those standing with you share something important is the precious part of community. Judaism is about the senses: it’s about holding, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and tasting. You can get an app for sounding the shofar or lighting a virtual menorah but there is nothing like seeing the flickering flame in a window with the dark night behind it. There is no other noise like the alarm of the ram’s horn during the long blast marking the end of an epic day of prayer.

So, while I cannot wait to see what phones, cars and refrigerators will be like in the next five or so years, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace the moments of humanity when we need one another to be close. I don’t think a Prime or any version of Siri will replace humans coming together to try to organize, mark, find meaning in and celebrate life…do you?

My Vision Board Came to Life

  

Ponce City Market

It was just over a year ago that my partner, Mercy, and I were dreaming and praying as we co-created a vision board for the year 2015. Vision boards are one of my favorite ways to create sacred art; a display of what I want to manifest in my life in the coming year. After journaling and sharing our wishes with each other, Mercy and I glued pictures, colors, words and shapes that represented our hopes and dreams for the coming year onto a big white board. This process allowed me to surrender my wants over to the universe and open myself to the organic unfolding of my life.

Malka and Mercy

Mercy and Malka

My job and her schooling were coming to a close, and I was getting anxious about what would happen next. At the time, I was working as the interim Hillel Director at Vassar College and Mercy was completing her graduate program; we were gearing up for our next adventure together. There were so many unknowns—where would we get work? Could we both find jobs in the same city? What if only one of us found a job? Would we be able to find fulfilling work that paid a decent salary? How do we know if we should apply for jobs that we find to be less exciting? It was a very stressful time for both of us.

The combined images on our board served as a constant reminder of our dreaming process and kept us focused on our hopes for our next jobs. We wanted to live in a warm climate, walking distance to nature, with farmer’s markets and bike paths. We wanted jobs that were spiritually fulfilling, close to home and that offered good health insurance. Affordable housing was important, and a progressive queer community was a must.

After months of searching, interviewing, traveling, rejection letters, job offers, tears and a ton of prayers, our visions finally came to life!

We moved into a tiny apartment in Virginia Highland, GA, this summer, just a block and a half from the entrance to the Beltline and a short walk to Piedmont Park. We have found spiritually nourishing communities, beautiful hiking trails and delight in the Tiny Doors Project.

And, most important, I found the job of my dreams!! I love the work that I do at IFF. It’s one of those jobs where it doesn’t feel like work, and every day is full of exciting adventures and creative opportunities.

Malka at her new office

The new IFF/Atlanta HQ!

I am blessed to serve as a resource and guide for folks in interfaith families and relationships as the Director of IFF/Atlanta. I am honored to support and empower them as they make Jewish choices, meeting them where they are at in their lives and decision-making processes. Officiating at lifecycle events has been truly life affirming. As I work with Jewish organizations to become more welcoming and inclusive, I have found some incredibly supportive community partners!

And, I am thrilled to announce that we have just signed the lease to our new office space in Ponce City Market!! What a gift to have found a space that is a 10-minute walk from my home in the center of town.

While our office itself is quite small, just large enough for four comfy chairs and an end table, it is perfect for intimate conversations with couples, meetings with my fabulous project manager, Laurel Snyder, and catching up on emails. But, the best part is that we have access to so many incredibly funky spaces and conference rooms. There’s a meditation room, complete with pillow rocks (yes, big pillows that look like rocks) and a cozy space for intimate yoga classes and grounding meditation sessions. We are also looking forward to taking advantage of the indoor picnic table area—a perfect spot for catered meals, book groups and conversations. Lastly, we are already planning Love and Religion workshops and movie nights in the hidden party lounge.  With a big, long couch, silky pillows and a popcorn machine, it feels like the inside of Jeannie’s bottle!!

Atlanta office

To celebrate, we are hosting a fabulous Hannukat Habayit: a festive Housewarming Party, on Sunday, January 10, from 2-4pm. The entire community is invited (get more info here) to help us bless and toast our new home at Ponce City Market, and hang our mezuzah from Modern Tribe! We will be enjoying live music by the Pussy Willows, provided by the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, and will serve refreshments from the award-winning chefs of the Ponce City Market.

Working as the director for InterfaithFamily/Atlanta has been beyond my wildest dreams. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve in a dynamic and diverse city. Living and exploring in Atlanta has been a true gift.

As 2015 draws to a close, Mercy and I are preparing to create our 2016 vision board. In preparation, we created a blessings jar—a spiritual “thank you” container, acknowledging the Divine for the many gifts we have received. On colorful slips of paper, we are reflecting upon 2015 and sharing our deep gratitude for: our adorable apartment, our incredibly awesome jobs, our spiritual teachers, health insurance, bike paths, healthy colons, colorful dreidel spandex, etc.

Next week, during the winter solstice, we will, once again, journal and share our wishes with each other and then glue pictures, colors, words and shapes that represent our hopes and dreams for the coming year onto a big white board. I’m curious to see what 2016 brings.

My Transdenominational Family

  
Sarah's family

The Tasman-Hathaway clan gathers for Shabbat dinner at our wedding weekend in Martha’s Vineyard, June 2012

When I think back to where I first experienced my love of Judaism, I remember instantly my many summers at Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Indiana. Camp was my first experience of celebrating Shabbat with friends (I can still smell the fried chicken and the Shabbat candles), of singing songs in Hebrew at the top of my lungs at song session, and of guitar strings gently strumming during Debbie Friedman’s version of the V’ahatva prayer at evening services.

I’ll admit it, I was bit of a nerd: I loved our daily Jewish educational programs, our evening and Shabbat services written by the campers, and the fact that every building and every item on our daily schedule was called by its Hebrew name. In college, my co-counselors and I were responsible for coming up with creative ways to teach Judaism to our campers. Thanks to that preparation, whenever I am asked to teach now, I try to think about what would make the session engaging and interactive for participants.

As a rabbi and Jewish educator, when I think back to what made camp so influential for me, it was the notion that Judaism and Jewish practice could and should be something meaningful—Jewish learning could and should be accessible and fun. It seems simple, but it is really quite profound. And to this day, I credit my experience of camp for instilling in me these values and the charge to make Judaism creative, meaningful and accessible for all I teach.

When people ask me what kind of rabbi I am, I almost always say I’m a community rabbi. I was ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, a transdenominational program in Newton, MA (right near the InterfaithFamily headquarters!). And when people ask me what transdenominational means, I tell people about my own family (and I find this resonates for many other families as well): We’ve got a very wide range of Jewish involvement from secular, Orthodox, American, Israeli, Humanistic, Conservative and Reform members of the family. We’ve got family members who have converted and some who have not, and many of my family members are intermarried or are in interfaith relationships.

When I realized that my diverse family was a microcosm of the Jewish community, I began to see the reality of the Jewish community as a beautiful, multifaceted, sometimes challenging whole, and I wanted to be in a position that would allow me serve as much of the community as possible.

I am thrilled to have stepped into the role of director to launch InterfaithFamily/DC this summer. I am grateful to be serving the DC, MD and VA communities where I have the opportunity to work with community partners, be a resource to other clergy and can help connect interfaith couples and families with the Jewish community. I look forward to meeting you, working together and building community here in the Greater DC area.

Please be in touch with me via email, the IFF/DC Facebook group (coming soon!) or at one of our upcoming events over Rosh Hashanah! Join me and the Jewish Food Experience at a Sephardic Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner at the Heights on Sunday September 13 or come and help us decorate the InterfaithFamily/DC sukkah at the SukkahVillage at the JCC of Greater Washington on Sunday September 27.

Warmest wishes to you and your family for a Shanah Tova u’Metukah—a happy healthy and sweet new year!

-Rabbi Sarah Tasman

One Thing We Can’t Control

  
Harriet and Malka

Rabbi Malka (right) with her grandmother, Harriet

My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.

A week later, I found out that my colleague’s wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37.  N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.

Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?

We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”

As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldn’t be added to that dreaded death list.

I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesn’t serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.

I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.

What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of N’s death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.

Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.

Making Challah and Conversation in Philly

  

By the IFF/Philadelphia Team: Robyn, Wendy and Robin

Robyn leading the group

Rabbi Robyn Frisch helps the group follow the steps to getting a perfect challah

Challah is the yummy braided bread with which many Jews begin Shabbat dinner. For those who grew up Jewish, the smell and taste of challah often invokes fond memories of family meals. For those who didn’t grow up Jewish (along with those who did), including challah with your Friday night dinner can be a fun and easy way to bring Judaism into your home.

In the Greater Philadelphia area, there are many grocery stores and bakeries where you can buy a delicious challah. But the best challot (plural for challah) are those that you make yourself—the ones you can smell baking in the oven and taste while they’re still warm. They’re the ones that may not be braided perfectly, but are made with lots of love.

Our staff in the Philadelphia office of InterfaithFamily heard from a lot of people that they wanted to learn how to make challah. And when our people ask for something, we want to deliver (or should we say “rise” to the occasion)! First, we arranged for “Challah and Conversation” to meet at Robyn Frisch’s house on a Thursday evening (so that everyone could have their challah for dinner the following evening). Next, we needed to decide what challah recipe to use. So, one morning the three of us got together for a little bake-off. We tried out a few recipes, and ended up deciding on a recipe that was a combination of different ones we had used.

Then Wendy went shopping… and after buying 30 bowls, 30 measuring spoons, eight packages of bread flour, yeast, salt, sugar, eggs and vegetable oil to make the challot (along with wine, cheese and snacks for the “Conversation” part of the evening)… we were ready!

Making challah

Everyone got their hands dirty

“Challah and Conversation” was a great success. Everyone learned how to proof their yeast, knead their dough and then punch it down before they braided it. In between the kneading and the punching—while the dough was having its “first rise”—we had time to learn about Friday night Shabbat rituals in general, and challah in particular. For example, have you ever wondered why challah is braided? Why it’s traditional to use two challot on Friday evening? Or why the challah is covered with a cloth? The “Challah and Conversation” attendees now know the answers to these questions and many more!

Many people have told us that they want to make their own challah but they’ve never baked bread before and they’re afraid they’ll mess up. They’re scared of words like “proofing,” “kneading” and “punching” when it comes to baking. We promise you that once you make challah with us, you won’t be scared. The result will be delicious, and your family and friends will be impressed! So keep an eye out for our upcoming “Challah and Conversation” programs and come join us for one of them.

And by the way, you don’t have to worry if you have challah left over after your Shabbat meal. It makes delicious French toast!

Conversation

The “conversation” part of the event

Read on for Ruth Schapira, IFF/Philadelphia Advisory Council Member’s account of the evening, and then get our not-so-secret recipe!

Scoop, beat, pour, and mix—then knead, fold, knead, fold. It’s the methodical way that you’d make a dough for challah, and the process itself seems quite mechanical, if you were doing it alone in your own kitchen.

Challah rolls

Ruth’s finished challah rolls

But making challah with 20 people in someone’s home is quite a different experience, and creating challah with people who are doing it for the first time is exhilarating. The program, sponsored by IFF/Philadelphia and held in the Director’s home, attracted a demographic that would be the envy of any Jewish outreach movement. Four young millennial-aged couples attended, with a smattering of some young singles, older folks and a mom with her two kids—their common interest was in “doing Jewish.” That was the foundation upon which connections were built among those who shared Shabbat stories along with flour and measuring cups that were set aside at stations, like in some amazing challah bake-off on a Jewish Food Network show.

The event was called “Challah and Conversation” and by the end of the night, there was plenty of both. The environment was open, accepting and casual which allowed participants to feel comfortable asking about the many beautiful and significant rituals surrounding Shabbat. There was curiosity about egg-checking (for kashrut), traditions for candle-lighting, the custom some choose to follow for “taking challah,” and questions like: Why do some people tear the challah and not slice it with a knife? Why is salt sprinkled on it? Why is the challah covered? What is the “Parent’s Prayer”?

The most outstanding experience from the evening was not the beautifully braided specimens in personal aluminum baking dishes, ready to be baked that everyone was taking home. Nor was it that everyone would get to savor the experience all over again when that unmistakable luscious challah smell filled their homes the next night before the Sabbath. What was undeniably special was that people came together in the true spirit of learning and community, and shared an experience that brought them that much closer to Judaism, and that much closer to one another.

Here is the challah recipe we ended up using:
(Find more great recipes on our food blog!)

Couple with challah

Check out our perfect challot!

Ingredients:

  • 3 to 3½ cups bread flour
  • 1 package yeast
  • ¾ cup lukewarm water
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 4-6 Tbsp. sugar (depending on how sweet you want it)
  • 3 eggs (2 for the dough and one for egg wash before baking)
  • 6 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • Optional: poppy seeds, sesame or cinnamon

 

1. Dissolve package of yeast in ½ cup lukewarm water and let sit for 5 minutes.  (This is how you “proof” the dough.)

2. Measure the flour into the bowl. Make a well.

3. Pour the yeast mixture into the well and let stand 5 minutes.

4. Blend in the salt and sugar.

5. Combine two eggs, oil and remaining ¼ cup water and mix together.

6. Add the liquid mixture to the flour and stir until flour is moistened.

7. Turn out onto a well-floured board using flour to dust the board and your hands. Use up to another cup of flour to handle the dough. Knead by hand until smooth. Let rise on the board (you can cover with dish towel) about 1½ hours or until doubled in bulk.

8. Punch dough down and divide into three sections and braid.

9. Cover and let rise at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while the dough is rising.

10. Brush with beaten egg mixed with a few drops of water and, if you want, sprinkle with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or cinnamon.

11. Bake on middle rack of oven at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes (ovens heat differently—bake until light brown).