How to Be Inclusive

Torah scrollA few weeks ago, my son was reading Torah at a Saturday evening service. It is a very small service of 15-20 people and a nice opportunity for him to read without a large audience and to practice reading before his Bar Mitzvah next year. My in-laws who live a few towns over decided to attend. They were excited for him. The Rabbi saw them and asked if they wanted to have the aliyah for my son’s torah reading. They both said no.

At first I thought they were uncomfortable because they were taking an honor from someone else. So I looked at them and said, “There is no one here, go ahead.” They said no thanks again. I was perplexed. They are both Jewish and have participated in synagogue life elsewhere. They are completely comfortable in a synagogue and knew most of the people in the room.

An Aliyah is an honor within the Torah service. It allows the honoree(s) to stand beside the Torah reader (their grandson) and witness his reading. I also always think it is fascinating to be up close and personal with the Torah. (I always am amazed that this beautiful scroll is in every synagogue in the world and created by hand. When you factor in the longevity of the text…it is really cool.) I thought my in-laws would be thrilled to be up there with their oldest grandson and to watch him read from the Torah. Wouldn’t they want this honor?

The concept of a Jewish person not wanting to accept an honor in a synagogue struck a chord. I recently wrote a blog about the beauty of the blessings given by someone who is not Jewish during a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In many congregations, someone who is not Jewish cannot say a blessing for their child. My feeling is that the person who is not Jewish and blesses their child and the child’s Jewish learning is making a wonderful statement of support to the community. So why wouldn’t my in-laws want to participate?

Then I remembered my days in high school choir when we were in churches singing our hearts out. Sometimes there would be communion after we sang. Being raised in a strict Jewish household, I would refuse to participate even though I was the only one from the choir that wouldn’t go up to the altar. I had a friend who was also Jewish but she did go up for communion. We spoke of it once and she said she didn’t feel comfortable sitting on the pew when everyone else was kneeling or taking communion. I always remember this conversation and that one person’s comfort is another person’s discomfort.

Now, as I often think about welcoming a person of a different faith inside a Jewish institution, I have to remember: Sometimes people want to participate, and sometimes they want to opt out. Either way, we should do all in our power to make them feel comfortable whatever their preference.

I have been thinking about my in-laws since…we only do what we are comfortable doing. We all have different experiences and influences. Certainly no one should be forced to do something when they are uncomfortable. Religion is obviously a very personal decision and experience. My in-laws were not mentally prepared for an aliyah and this isn’t a synagogue where they are members. I get it—it wasn’t right for them. Still, I know they were very proud of their grandson and his ability and intent to carry on the traditions.

While many synagogues are re-evaluating the role of the family members from various religions during various ceremonies, we must realize that not every person who isn’t Jewish will WANT to participate. Some people think that their synagogue doesn’t need to offer options because, “Why would a person who isn’t Jewish want to participate?”  My response is: Let each individual decide what their comfort level is. We all have to remember that welcoming means offering options for inclusion. And, by simply offering the option for participation, the community sends the message of welcoming.

My Dream Guest List for Sukkot

I love the holiday of Sukkot! As a congregational rabbi, Sukkot—which comes just five days after Yom Kippur—offers me a welcome break after the pressure of High Holy Day sermons.  Plus, Sukkot is a lot of fun. I always have a great time putting up our Sukkah in our backyard in the days following Yom Kippur and then decorating it with my kids.

And I love inviting guests to our Sukkah—both real guests as well as ushpizin. Ushpizin (Aramaic for “guests”) are Biblical guests that are symbolically “invited” into a Sukkah, a different one each night of the festival. The traditional list of ushpizin includes Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. (Other lists include the four matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah—and other Biblical heroines.) There is a ritual formula for “welcoming” the ushpizin and it is traditional to learn about and discuss the Biblical guest of the evening.

SukkahMany people expand on the custom of welcoming ushpizin and use Sukkot as a time to discuss who they would like to welcome as guests: people who have been part of their own lives or people they have never met, living or deceased.

This year as I prepare for Sukkot I have been thinking about who I would want to invite as ushpizin—that is, who I would want to invite for dinner in my Sukkah. As the Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, I have been thinking in particular about people in interfaith relationships and people with relatives in interfaith relationships (individuals from Biblical times as well as groups of people from modern times) that I would like to have as ushpizin. Here is my list:

1. Tziporah: Tziporah, who we read about in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, was a daughter of a Midianite priest. Tziporah married Moses and was the mother of his two sons. I would ask Tziporah what it was like, as a non-Israelite, being married to a man who went on to become the leader of the Israelites. When she first met Moses she thought he was Egyptian since he had come to Midian from Egypt, where he had been raised in the Pharaoh’s palace as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter and from where he had fled when it was discovered that he had killed an Egyptian taskmaster. What did she think of this man, quite possibly the first person she had ever met who was not from her own people? Was she concerned when she married him that he was not a Midianite? What was it like in her day to be married to someone from a different culture and who worshipped a different god? Did they ever discuss their different backgrounds and beliefs?

2. Ruth: Ruth, whose story we read in the Biblical Book of Ruth, is often viewed as the first Jew-by-choice since she accepted the God of the Israelites as her God and the Israelite people as her people. In the Book of Ruth, Ruth said to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16)

I would ask Ruth why she, a Moabite woman, married an Israelite man in the first place. Then, after her husband (Naomi’s son) had died, why did she choose to leave her homeland of Moab to go to Israel with Naomi? What did it feel like for Ruth to leave behind everything that was familiar to her and did she miss her family when she left? What was it like to give up the beliefs and ways of her people? What was it about the people of Israel and the God of Israel that drew her to them? When she raised the twin sons that she had with Boaz (a relative of her deceased husband, as was instructed by the laws of levirate marriage), even though they were Israelite, did she teach them anything about Moabite culture or tell them about her Moabite family?

3. Parents who did not grow up Jewish who are actively involved in raising Jewish children (whether or not they have chosen to become Jewish themselves): I know many parents who grew up practicing other religions (some of whom still practice them, others who do not) who are raising their children as Jews. If I had such a group in my Sukkah, I would ask them to discuss the sacrifices they have made by committing to raise their children in a faith tradition different from the one in which they grew up. How did they come to the conclusion that they wanted to raise their children as Jews? What are the challenges they have faced, as well as the rewards? I would thank them for their commitment to the future of Judaism.

4. Jewish parents whose children are in interfaith relationships: I would like these Jewish parents to be able to have an honest conversation about how they feel about their children being seriously involved with someone who is not Jewish. Surely some would feel disappointed—perhaps even hurt or rejected—and their feelings should not be ignored. Hopefully, though, they would understand that it is their adult child’s choice who they are going to date and/or marry and they would respect their child’s decision. I would encourage all of them to accept their children’s partners and welcome them into their family.

5. Rabbis and cantors who officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies: I would ask each clergy person to share his or her own reasons for officiating at interfaith weddings. There are many clergy, like myself, who did not officiate at interfaith weddings immediately following ordination, but rather began to do so after some time for a variety of reasons. (Read why I now officiate at interfaith weddings.) I think it would be fascinating to hear about my colleagues’ personal journeys and to hear from each of them the most rewarding, as well as the most challenging experiences they have had in working with interfaith couples.

6. Children growing up in interfaith households: I would love to invite a group of children of all different ages who are currently growing up in interfaith households. I would ask them what they find to be the most rewarding and what they find to be the most challenging about growing up as part of an interfaith family. In what ways, if any, do they find that having a parent who is not Jewish impacts their Jewish identity?

7. Dating, engaged and newly married interfaith couples: I would begin by asking them to share their experiences as interfaith couples. What are the rewards and what are the challenges? Have they discussed how they are going to raise children if they have them? How can they make Jewish choices while honoring the traditions of both partners? Can they discuss these issues with their parents?

Okay, I’ll admit it: While it is true that I would love to have a group of interfaith couples in my Sukkah, I’m also plugging InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s upcoming Love and Religion workshop that starts in October. If you and your partner or a couple you know may be interested in discussing questions such as these, then you should find out about Love and Religion here.

Chag Sameach (happy holiday)!  May this Sukkot be one in which we can all be welcoming and one in which we all feel welcomed!

What about you? Who are your dream ushpizin? If you could spend an evening with any person or group of people (real or fictional, living or deceased), who would you choose? What would you want to talk about?

Who Was I to Judge?

I admit it – I was raised to think that intermarriage is wrong. It has taken awhile but I now am embarrassed by some of the comments I might have made when friends told me they were marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish. I was insensitive. On this Yom Kippur, I want to ask for forgiveness from those whom I have offended. In many instances, I may not have said anything, but the negative thoughts crossed my mind and an expression of disapproval may have crossed my face. Again, I apologize.

In my defense, we all are evolving. We all say things that might have been inappropriate. I don’t lose sleep over insensitive comments I may have made 10 years ago. I was young. I was immature. I am not perfect. I try not to let guilt consume me, but there is a fine line between being conscientious and guilt ridden!

But here is something I hadn’t thought of until a few months ago: Our comments leave scars. I know that I offended some people and that they remember my comment or look of disapproval. So, even though I have evolved, I may have hurt their feelings and I suspect they still remember it. In fact, my act of disapproval may be the last (and only) thing they remember about me. Who was I to judge?

Book illustrationThis reminds me of the old Kabbalah story where a child says bad things about someone to a friend. Madonna and Loren Long have rewritten this story for today’s family in Mr. Peabody’s Apples. In this story, Mr. Peabody is an elementary school teacher and baseball coach, who one day finds himself ostracized when a child misinterprets an incident and then spreads rumors through their small town. Mr. Peabody silences the gossip by teaching the child how we must choose our words carefully to avoid causing harm to others. The child is told to take a pillow to the baseball field and tear it open. The wind is blowing and all of the feathers fly everywhere.  Mr. Peabody asks the child to collect the feathers and put them back in the pillow. The child tells him that it is impossible. Like feathers in the wind, we can’t put our words back in our mouths.

Since we can’t take our words or acts back once they are out there, this Yom Kippur I want to say:

1) I apologize for any words, actions or thoughts that may have been insensitive.

2) To anyone who might have offended me, I forgive you and know that we are all evolving. Hopefully, we can all evolve a little faster before we hurt anyone else’s feelings.

I wish for all of us that our personal journeys take us to a place of kindness and understanding. Happy New Year. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.

What Deathclock.com and Yom Kippur Have in Common

TimeNot long ago I was sitting at my computer playing around on the Internet and I found myself at deathclock.com, which bills itself as “the Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away … second by second.” All you have to do is enter your date of birth, your gender, your “mode” (whether you’re normal, pessimistic, sadistic or optimistic), your height and weight, and your smoking status. Then you click a button that says “Check Your Death Clock” and it calculates your date of death.

I didn’t put in my information to “check my death clock.” I was so freaked out by the thought of knowing my date of death (or at least what deathclock.com predicted as my date of death) that I quickly left the website, and promised myself I’d never go back again.

But the reality is that even though I don’t want to know WHEN I’m going to die, I do have to accept the fact that I AM going to die. Rabbi David Wolpe tells the story of a man at age 93 who continues to be comforted by the consoling words that his mother had said to him while lying on her deathbed, seventy years earlier: “Don’t be afraid. It happens to everyone.”

It’s a fact of life. …We’re all going to die.

And while I may never go back to deathclock.com, the reality of my mortality is something that I can’t avoid thinking about this time of year. Confrontation with death is one of the significant themes of the Jewish High Holy Days, and especially of Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur, some Jews wear a white kittel (burial shroud) over their clothing, which serves as a reminder of our mortality. And in synagogue on Yom Kippur, Jews confront death when we recite the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, describing “who shall live and who shall die, who shall live out his days and who shall not live out his days.”

What I love about Yom Kippur is that this “confrontation with death” isn’t morbid or creepy. Rather, we confront death so that we can be more fully present in life. When we recognize and acknowledge that life is precarious, we realize how truly precious it is.

Every year at this time I ask myself: What would I do if I were going to die tomorrow? How would I live my life? How would I treat the people I love? Is there someone to whom I would apologize? Is there someone with whom I’ve lost touch who I want to reconnect with? I try to use the answers to questions like these to inform how I act during the High Holidays and in the year ahead.

These questions and others that help us to become better people and lead more meaningful lives are ones that we should all be asking ourselves throughout the year. And for Jews and those who are part of Jewish families, they are questions on which we should especially focus this time of year.

Hopefully, all of us can use our answers to the question “What would I do if I were going to die tomorrow?” to inform how we live TODAY.

What about you? Are there questions you’ve been thinking about this time of year? I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

It’s Raining Coconuts!

CoconutsI have some really strange memories of childhood and unusual events. One of these memories is about the celebration of the first fruit on Rosh Hashanah. The custom is to enjoy a new fruit to celebrate the New Year and say a special blessing (Shehecheyanu) recognizing the blessing of arriving at this moment.

Our family would stay at my Grandmother’s (Gran) for Rosh Hashanah and eat our meals there. My mother always made sure there was a new fruit at the table so that we could say the Shehecheyanu. The tradition is that it should be a fruit that you haven’t had in many months.

One year, the new fruit was a coconut. With the chaos of five kids and several meals, my mother didn’t realize that we didn’t have any way to open the coconut. One of my brothers decided it was a good idea to throw the coconut from my Gran’s balcony onto the busy street. The rest of us thought this was a great idea. One of us went out to the sidewalk to make sure there was no traffic coming to give the “OK.”  (About now, you may be wondering where our parents were at this time and I have no idea, but I am sure they were busy with something.)

“All clear!”

“One. Two. Three.”

BOUNCE with a thud and a roll into the street!

The coconut didn’t break! We couldn’t believe it. We were laughing and watching for traffic. I come from a very determined family, so we threw it back up to the second floor balcony and tried again two more times with the same result. On the fourth time:

“All clear!”

“One. Two. Three.”

CRACK!

We did it! The coconut broke open into several sections. I don’t remember how we cut it up but I assume it involved some sharp knives and minimal supervision. Our parents may have been paying attention at this point but thought the whole scene was clever and funny. When we sat down for dinner, we said our Shehecheyanu blessing giggling and smiling the whole time. I’m not sure if Gran knew what we had done but she never said anything.

Every year after this inaugural event, my mother bought a coconut. Each year we hurled it off the balcony, laughing while watching for traffic. I love this memory and so do my four siblings. It reminds us of family, holiday and custom. The Jewish holidays have some customs that you may think are a little wacky in our American culture but the wackiness is what creates the memories. My siblings and I all laugh at our respective homes when we eat our “first fruit” of the New Year…especially if someone has a coconut.

To this day, I must admit I really don’t like coconut. But I do try to make every Rosh Hashanah out of the ordinary in hope that it becomes an “extraordinary” memory for my family.

I wish you an extraordinary holiday season with many wonderful and wacky memories. Share your wackiest below!

How Jewish New Year Resolutions are Different

According to a website called statisticbrain.com, the top five New Year’s resolutions people made for 2012 were:

  1. Lose Weight
  2. Get Organized
  3. Spend Less, Save More
  4. Enjoy Life to the Fullest
  5. Stay Fit and Healthy

When calculated for types of resolutions, they found that 47% of resolutions made were related to self-improvement or education; 38% were related to weight; 34% were related to money; and 31% were related to relationships. (The total comes out to over 100% because people made multiple resolutions.)

Like most Americans, I make New Year’s resolutions in December (or, in years that not procrastinating doesn’t make my list, I sometimes make them in January). And this time of year, in the Jewish month of Elul, I also engage in making resolutions.

MeditationElul is the month that leads up to the Jewish new year, and it is the month in which Jews are supposed to be involved in the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul – our spiritual preparation for the new year. It is a time to look inside of ourselves and engage in the process of teshuvah. Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentance” but it literally means “turning” – we seek to turn toward wholeness in our relationships with others in our lives, with God and with our true selves.

When I make my resolutions in the month of Elul (this year Elul occurs from August 7 – September 4), unlike in December, my resolutions aren’t about being thinner, healthier, wealthier and happier (not that I would mind any of those things!). Instead, I make resolutions about how I will relate to my family, friends and community and how I will engage in the world. I contemplate not just my physical wellbeing, but more important, my spiritual wellbeing.

One of the great things about the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh is that it’s something that everyone can do, regardless of their own faith tradition or lack thereof. (I don’t know of any religion or culture that wouldn’t encourage individuals to look inside of themselves and contemplate ways that they can be better people in the year ahead.)

If you are not Jewish, you may or may not be comfortable accompanying your Jewish partner or family to synagogue for the High Holy Days. And you may or may not feel connected to the at-home rituals that are part of these holy days. But you can still find meaning in the process of reflection in which Jews engage at this time of year.

I hope that as the Jewish New Year approaches, all of us will give ourselves the gift of taking time for cheshbon ha-nefesh, for the accounting of our own souls. May we recognize and be grateful for our generosity and goodness; and may we be honest with ourselves about those qualities that we need to improve – and may we seek to do so in the year ahead.

Are you taking time for yourself during the month of Elul to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh?  Have you made any resolutions for the year ahead? If so, please share them below.

Membership Has Its Benefits

Like many, I grew up in a community with lots of relatives and close family friends. I always knew that even though I wasn’t with my parents, there was always the likelihood (or inevitability) that there was a family friend or relative nearby. It definitely discouraged me from making a bad or embarrassing decision. More important, when I walked down the street, I felt loved and connected.

As a parent, I want that sense of connection for my kids. Though we are friends with some of our neighbors, our kids can no longer wander through the neighborhood as carelessly as we did 30 years ago. Our neighborhood doesn’t provide the same sense of a tight knit community as it did during my childhood. I know my neighbors well but I wouldn’t pick up the phone and call them for help when my washer breaks down.

Joining a synagogue was one of the first things that my husband and I did when we moved to our town. We didn’t know anyone and we felt like we needed an anchor. I have to say, it was one of the best decisions (and investments) we ever made. Developing close friendships within the synagogue took a few years but the more we participated, the more friends we made, and the more connected we felt. Through our synagogue membership, we became friends with people of all ages and backgrounds. Our kids know that they are being watched and loved. It is amazing to see that they appreciate this love of community even at a young age.

Synagogue event

Wendy, right, with synagogue friends

We have lots of friends outside of the synagogue and Jewish community, but those from our synagogue are particularly special to me. I think it’s because our shared experiences that there is a comfort level that can’t be matched. For all couples and families, including interfaith couples, finding a synagogue community with other couples or families exploring similar issues provides a place for dialogue, support and grounds for deeper friendship.

Several years ago I was on bedrest with my third child while my older two were still toddlers. The synagogue community stepped in to help by making meals, driving my kids and supporting me in ways that I never dreamt. Many of those that helped were people I barely knew before but became close friends just because they reached out to help.

My experience is not unique. This type of support is an added benefit of synagogue life. One friend was our synagogue president a few years ago. I once asked why she was doing all of this work for the synagogue. She replied that she had had cancer several years back and the synagogue community took care of her. She promised herself that she would “pay it forward” since people had been so good to her.

There are lots of benefits to synagogue membership but the most important one to me is community. You may not feel it the first time you walk through the door, but when it happens, there is nothing more valuable. If you would like to find out more about some welcoming synagogues in the Philadelphia area, visit our list of organizations. If you don’t see your synagogue on the Organizations tab of our Philadelphia page, but know it is a place that welcomes interfaith couples and families, email us at philadelphia@interfaithfamily.com.

Have you had a similar experience in your synagogue community? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.

Mazel Tov Adam Levine!

Adam Levine is EngagedYesterday I overhead the following conversation between a Jewish mother and her 10-year-old son about the recent engagement of Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine:

Mom: Did you hear that Adam Levine just got engaged to a shiksa?*

Son: He’s Jewish ** and she’s not…that’s a sin. It’s a disgrace to HaShem (God).

Mom: That’s right. I’m so proud of you for knowing that. And since she’s not Jewish, his kids will be goyim.* 

Son:  Really? That’s so awful.

Compare that conversation with the following, which I read just a few hours later on Jewishjournal.com:

Mazel Tov to Adam Levine and his brand-new fiancé, Victoria’s Secret Angel Behati Prinsloo….We wish them well!

Now, I have never met Adam Levine or Behati Prinsloo, and I don’t know much about either of them. But I do know that all too often when interfaith couples get engaged I hear conversations like the one I quoted above between the mother and her son—conversations disparaging the couple and their relationship.

I think that if we in the Jewish community continue to speak like that—to insult people who marry out of the faith by using derogatory terms and referring to their marriage as a sin—then it’s unlikely that they will want to become part of the Jewish community and to raise children that they may have as Jews. Like the Jewish Journal, I would rather wish these couples well. Rather than treating interfaith marriage as a threat, isn’t it better to treat it as an opportunity for the Jewish people to grow, evolve and thrive?

Would I like to see Adam Levine and every other Jewish man out there marry a Jewish woman? Sure I would. But that’s not always the way things work. And the fact is that Adam Levine didn’t ask me who he should marry—nor have any of the Jewish men at whose interfaith wedding ceremonies I have officiated. Instead, they’ve come to me already in love, asking me to officiate at their wedding ceremonies—asking me, in essence, to accept their choices and to be welcoming toward the women with whom they have fallen in love and chosen to spend the rest of their lives. I’m honored to be approached by these couples, and I embrace the opportunity not just to bless their unions but also to teach them about Judaism and to serve as a welcoming representative of the Jewish religion and the Jewish people.

So here’s what I have to say to Adam and Behati, and to all newly engaged interfaith couples:  Mazel Tov on your engagement! I hope that the two of you will be blessed with a long and happy marriage. Adam (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who grew up Jewish): I hope that you will explore your Jewish heritage and incorporate Judaism into your home and into your life in a way that is meaningful for you. Behati (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who did not grow up Jewish): I hope that you will learn about the Jewish heritage of your fiancé, and that you will feel embraced by the Jewish people.

I hope that the two of you will have honest conversations about the role religion plays in your lives, even if it isn’t always easy. And if you have children, I hope that you will seriously explore the option of raising them as Jews. For now, know that we here at InterfaithFamily, and many people in the Jewish community, are happy for you and we would love to welcome both of you into our midst.

************

*The terms shiksa (woman who is not Jewish) and goyim (people who are not Jewish) are sometimes, as in the case of this conversation, used by Jews in a pejorative manner.

** After I came home and Googled Adam Levine, I learned that his father and maternal grandfather were Jewish and he considers himself Jewish, but his mother is not Jewish. This means that according to traditional Jewish law, which requires that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish, Adam isn’t Jewish. So while I, as a Reform Jew, accept the idea of patrilineal descent and I recognize him as Jewish, ironically, the woman having the conversation with her son would not even consider Adam to be Jewish if she were aware of his lineage.

Don’t Call Me a “Rent-A-Rabbi”

marriage counselingRecently, a good of friend of mine suggested to an interfaith couple who was looking for a rabbi for their wedding ceremony that they be in touch with me. I met with the couple for about an hour and we had a great conversation, at the end of which they asked me to officiate at their wedding. I told them that I’d be honored, and over the next year we would get together several more times so that I could get to know them as individuals and as a couple before standing with them under their chuppah (wedding canopy) next July to unite them in marriage.

The other day, I saw my friend who referred this couple to me. “I’m so excited!” she exclaimed. “The rabbi of the bride’s congregation wouldn’t marry them because her fiancé isn’t Jewish. They were going to hire a ‘rent-a-rabbi.’ I’m so happy that they are going to be married by YOU instead!” While my friend meant to give me a compliment, instead I felt offended by her pejorative term “rent-a-rabbi.” I felt that she was implying that non-congregational rabbis who perform wedding ceremonies (or baby namings, B’nai Mitzvah, funerals or other life-cycle events) were simply doing so to “make a quick buck” and were of inferior quality to congregational rabbis. According to her logic, the only thing that separated me from the “rent-a-rabbis” that she disparaged was that she personally knows and respects me.

For the past ten years, since leaving my position as assistant rabbi at a large synagogue in order to spend more time with my family, I have officiated privately at life-cycle events – what some would refer to as a “rent-a-rabbi.” I’ve continued to do so over the past five years even as I’ve worked part-time at a small congregation. (My congregation, which I absolutely love, is made up mostly of members in their 70s and 80s, so it would not be an ideal “fit” for many of the young couples and families with whom I’ve worked privately. Plus, many of them do not live near the synagogue.)

The fact is that I’ve gotten to know the wedding couples I’ve worked with who are not congregants of mine just as well as I knew couples who were congregants that I married; and I’ve gotten to know the parents and siblings of the babies that I’ve named just as well as I knew the parents and siblings of babies that I named in my congregation. And whereas when I served over ten years ago as a congregational rabbi at a synagogue in which there were as many as a hundred B’nai Mitzvah each year, now that I only work with a handful of B’nai Mitzvah students a year I get to know them MUCH better than I ever could as a rabbi at a large congregation. When I work privately with B’nai Mitzvah students, I meet with them on a regular basis so that by the time of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah I know the student – and usually the parents and any siblings – very well.

This serves in contrast to when I was at a large synagogue and I was only scheduled to have two or three half-hour sessions with each B’nai Mitzvah student. At the congregation (which was often referred to as a “Bar Mitzvah mill,” another term I dislike), if the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and his/her family were not “regulars” at Shabbat services or other synagogue activities, I did not know them nearly as well as I know the students with whom I now work privately.

Just because many of the wedding couples, baby naming parents and B’nai Mitzvah students that I have worked with over the past decade do not belong to the congregation that I serve, their life-cycle events are no less important, meaningful and sacred to me as a rabbi – or to them. And I am certain that this is true of the vast majority of my colleagues who privately officiate at lifecycle events. Yes, we charge a fee for what we do, since we do not receive a salary to be available for these services as full-time congregational rabbis do. But just because we are paid directly for our services does not make the experience any less meaningful for anyone involved.

Over the years I have paid doctors, therapists, yoga teachers and a vast array of others for their services. They have almost without exception been caring and committed to helping and healing, often getting to know me on a deeply personal level – yet there is no doubt that they are entitled to compensation for their work.

I have heard people claim that when rabbis officiate privately at lifecycle events this makes it easier for people not to join congregations. Personally, I would love it if every Jewish person and family (whether every member is Jewish or the family is interfaith) would join a synagogue, but that is simply not the reality in which we live, and it is not the fault of so-called “rent-a-rabbis.” The fact is that in this day and age congregational life just isn’t for everyone – at least not at every moment of their lives.

There are a multitude of reasons why people don’t join synagogues, ranging from financial reasons (while the vast majority of synagogues will “work with” potential congregants to make membership financially feasible, this sometimes requires submitting tax returns and other personal information, which many people are not comfortable doing) to not feeling welcome to the fact that they simply are not interested. I cannot imagine that that the availability of non-congregational rabbis to officiate at their lifecycle events has very much to do with their decision not to affiliate.

When a wedding couple comes to me – either because a congregational rabbi with whom one of them is connected (usually his or her parents are members of the congregation) will not marry them because their partner is not Jewish or because they are not connected to a congregation – I strongly believe that the best thing I can do to increase the odds that they will become more involved in the Jewish community, and hopefully join a synagogue at some point, is to work with them and make them feel welcome. After all, they have many options besides going to a rabbi (such as hiring a celebrant or a justice of the peace) and by working with them I have the opportunity to expose them to the beauty of Judaism.

I feel the same way about the baby naming and B’nai Mitzvah families that come to me. I would much rather work with them and enable the parents of the baby or the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student to have a positive, meaningful experience than to turn them away. And when I am approached about officiating at the funeral of a Jewish person who was not affiliated with a congregation, I feel privileged to be able to help his or her family to mourn the deceased according to Jewish tradition and to bring honor to his or her memory through Jewish ritual. Is this really something to be looked down upon?

Ironically, when congregational rabbis officiate – for compensation – at lifecycle events for non-congregants (some rabbis’ contracts with their synagogues allow for them to do this, while others do not) they are rarely referred to as “rent-a-rabbis.” I think that the fact that I serve as a part-time congregational rabbi is another reason why the friend I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the one who had referred a wedding couple to me, did not view me as one of the “rent-a-rabbis” that she disparaged. But the reality is that congregational rabbis officiating for non-congregants who do not join their synagogues is really no different than non-congregational rabbis officiating.

There are many fantastic rabbis who do not work in congregations, perhaps because they work at other jobs within or outside of the Jewish community or perhaps because they currently are not employed, either by choice or by circumstance. Just because they earn money by officiating privately at life-cycle events does not mean that they are not talented, committed and sincere. So please, don’t call them “rent-a-rabbis.” Just call them “rabbis.”

What has your experience been? If you are married, were you married by the rabbi or cantor of a congregation to which you and/or your partner belonged, or the rabbi or cantor of a congregation in which one of you grew up?

Were you married by a rabbi or cantor (as a sole officiant or co-officiant) that you found outside of a synagogue setting? If so, how did you find this rabbi or cantor? And what was your experience with him or her like?

Have you ever used the term “rent-a-rabbi?”  How do you feel about this term?

The Spirituality of Mindfulness Meditation

If someone had told me two years ago that I’d be spending a half hour most days of my life sitting on a cushion focusing on my breath, I would have told them they were crazy!  (Then again, if someone had told me 15 years ago that I’d be living in the suburbs driving a minivan I would have told them they were crazy too.  Fact is, we never know what the future holds or what we may decide to embrace.)  But for the past year and a half I have been practicing mindfulness meditation.

I began my practice by participating in a MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) eight-week foundation course in the winter of 2011, and after developing a daily (well, almost daily!) practice of my own and attending a terrific Jewish Meditation Retreat led by Rabbis Jeff Roth and Joanna Katz of the Awakened Heart Project, I participated in a ten week practicum in which I trained to teach MBSR.

meditateMy study – and much more important, my practice – of mindfulness meditation has taught me a great deal. I originally enrolled in the MBSR foundation course a year and a half ago because I was seeking a way to reduce stress and anxiety, which are all too prevalent in so many of our busy lives. I realized that I was often running from here to there as if I were on a treadmill from which I’d never get off – work, errands, my three kids’ activities, you name it! I usually felt like my day was one big “To Do” list that I was trying to get through. And too often I wasn’t succeeding – let alone enjoying the moments in the process. Even on the days when I did “check off” everything on my To Do list, I usually ended up feeling exhausted and depleted, and not very satisfied.

I hoped that my MBSR practice would help me feel less stressed, more relaxed and more focused, but I never expected for it to be a spiritual experience. After all, I’m a rabbi. I find spirituality in prayer and Jewish ritual. I never expected to find spirituality in just SITTING!

But boy have I learned a lot. My mindfulness practice has taught me so much about the importance of being in the moment – of being truly present in my life. I have come to realize that my mindfulness practice is fully interwoven with my Jewish spirituality. After all, the blessings we say in Judaism are all about being mindful. For example, when I say HaMotzi (the blessing over the bread) before eating a meal, it causes me to pause and be mindful of how grateful I am to have my food, as well as to appreciate where it came from and the human work that went into creating it and bringing it to my table, and to recognize that eating is a sacred act. Or when I put my hands on my children’s heads on Friday night and recite the traditional blessings for children, I am mindful of how lucky I am to have them in my life as well as how fortunate I am to be part of a religion that spans thousands of years of history and thousands of miles of geography.

When I’m truly mindful, whether it’s during a meditation sit or going about my daily life, I experience a wonderful sense of spirituality. In a way, my meditation sits are like “little Shabbats.” Like Shabbat itself, they offer me a time to BE, and not just a time to DO. And just as the beauty of Shabbat can be carried into and infuse the other six days of the week, the beauty of mindfulness meditation has come to enrich the moments of my life when I am not meditating. I now have a greater sense of being truly present – and not just “getting things done” – as I move throughout my life.

Recently, the teacher of my MBSR practicum shared a beautiful saying in class. She spoke of how we are all human BEINGS and not human DOINGS – yet all too often we live our lives as if we were “human doings” and not “human beings.” For me, mindfulness meditation and Shabbat (along with blessings and many other rich resources from the Jewish tradition) help me to remember this and to spend more of my life BEING – truly appreciating the beauty in the world, and in my life – and not simply DOING. I find that my mindfulness practice hasn’t just enriched me personally but it has also enriched my relationships with others as it has enabled me to be more present for them.

These days, on my daily “To Do” list (which is still as long as ever!) I have a “To Be” entry, reminding myself to take time every day for meditation and contemplation. And I have no doubt that this is very spiritual!

What about you? Are there things you do that you find helpful to be more present in your life? Are there religious rituals that bring you a sense of mindfulness and gratitude? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.