Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
On the evening of Shavuot last week, congregants covering a wide range of ages gathered around a fire pit behind the Religious School of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. There, we were lucky enough to get a small taste of what the Midrasha (Hebrew High School) kids have been experiencing once a week for the last several school years.
It was Day Schildkret’s award-winning Fire Circle. Day explained that, up until recent times, it was common for people to gather around a fire in the evening. For thousands of years, the fire pit was a place for conversation, song, and shared community. With the advent of electricity, such experiences are rare, but our instincts and connection to fire have not completely faded away. It is still possible to look around the circle at the faces lit by fire and feel connected to those who have come before us.
Day spoke about the culture of the Fire Circle. It is a place for people to speak truth. And when people speak truth, it is important they know we have heard them. When someone speaks a truth and it resonates with those in the circle, they say, “Shamati,” Hebrew for “I have heard.”
It may seem like a small thing, but it is so common to feel that when we’re speaking, the next person is not really listening, but is planning how they will respond. That evening in the circle I experienced the visceral power of saying something deeply meaningful to me, after which there was a chorus of people saying, “Shamati.” Similarly, after speaking a person may add “Dibarti,” Hebrew for “I have spoken.”
Day spoke about the holiday of Shavuot, and the counting of the omer, the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. He spoke about leaving slavery in Egypt, and traveling until we were ready to accept the covenant at Mt. Sinai. He asked us to think about a narrow place we had been in the past, and what commitment we had made or were now planning to make in order to leave that narrow place behind.
As each person spoke about their commitment, Day handed them a piece of yarn they could tie as a symbol of that commitment.
Somehow, in the space of only an hour, with a group of people ranging from teens to retirement age, Day and the fire were able to create an atmosphere of openness and trust. I can’t even begin to imagine the depth and meaning this group has been able to achieve with high school students meeting consistently for two hours per week.
It is a rare and beautiful thing to encounter an experience like this Fire Circle. A number of adults remarked how they wished they’d had access to such an experience when they were in high school. I am grateful that those transitioning from childhood toward adulthood in our community have the chance to experience it now, and that I was able to have a taste of it, however brief it may have been.
5.22.13 at 8:00 am | It is a rare and beautiful thing to encounter an. . .
5.15.13 at 8:00 am | The Big One is coming. Once the shaking stops,. . .
5.6.13 at 11:01 am | Every cemetery that refuses the body is adding to. . .
5.1.13 at 8:00 am | I have to say, I’m not convinced I like this. . .
4.24.13 at 8:00 am | As one who often sits or stands in the back, I. . .
4.17.13 at 8:00 am | The interim solution can’t be separated from. . .
5.15.13 at 8:00 am | The Big One is coming. Once the shaking stops,. . . (65)
3.20.13 at 8:00 am | What struck me the most as Bialik spoke was how. . . (33)
5.6.13 at 11:01 am | Every cemetery that refuses the body is adding to. . . (19)
May 15, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
The Big One is coming. We Californians know it. We don’t know how big it will be, when it will hit, or where the epicenter will be, but we know another big earthquake will happen in our state. When it does, each of us will fall into one of three categories: Victim, rescuer, or bystander.
There are precautions we can take against being a victim, but there are no guarantees. Even if we strap down our water heaters, bolt our bookshelves to the walls, and take other measures, the fact is that if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can be injured or killed in an earthquake.
But once the shaking stops, those of us who are not killed or injured will find ourselves faced with a choice: Will we be a rescuer, or a bystander?
As we have seen with other disasters, when there is a large event impacting large numbers of people, professional first responders are overwhelmed. While they concentrate on areas with large numbers of people (city centers, sporting and other event venues), large fires and the like, those in the less dense, outlying areas, in particular, will be left to fend for themselves, at least for a while.
Who is going to check in on the elderly person living on your street? Who is going to know how to turn off the gas that you smell leaking from next door? Who is going to provide first aid to the neighbor with a broken leg? If you’re waiting for the police, the fire fighters, or the local utility company, you’re going to have a long wait.
That’s why we have CERT – Community Emergency Response Teams. These volunteers are trained to help in an emergency, when professional first responders are overwhelmed, and citizens need to fend for themselves for the first day or three.
Last weekend, I participated in an advanced CERT class on urban search and rescue. After a review of material from the basic class on first aid, splinting, etc., we received additional training on radio communications, breaking through barriers, securing victims to a board to carry them out of harm’s way, and systematically searching building interiors.
We then were put through our paces in two separate scenarios, in which we entered a dark building to find and rescue “victims” who were feigning various forms of injury, from leg wounds to complete unconsciousness. In order to get to some of them, we had to cut or break our way through sheetrock, screens, or other obstacles, or climb through windows, etc.
It was a lot of fun. But that’s not why I did it.
I did it because, when the Big One (or any other disaster hits), if I’m not a victim, I don’t want to just be a bystander.
I want to make sure my neighbors are safe, and to help them if I can. When the police and medical professionals do finally arrive, I want to be able to tell them the status of things in our area – who seems to be okay, and who needs their help the most.
Or, I want to be working in a shelter, where I can be tending to the needs of large numbers of people who need water, food, and a place to rest.
The last place I want to be is sitting at home, not knowing what’s happening around me, worrying, and wondering when the lights are going to come back on.
If being a rescuer rather than a bystander sounds good to you, then look up your local CERT organization, and sign up for the basic training. You don’t need to be particularly young or athletic. You don’t have to have medical or engineering knowledge. No matter your experience or abilities, there is a role you can play in CERT as a volunteer.
Be a rescuer, not a bystander.
May 6, 2013 | 11:01 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
CNN and other media outlets have been reporting the difficulty Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s family is having as they try to find a place to bury his body. Tsarnaev, of course, is the Boston Marathon bombing suspect who died after a firefight with law enforcement officers.
Not only are cemeteries refusing the body, but there are reports that a funeral home that handled the body briefly is receiving threats of boycotts.
Tsarnaev was a Muslim, and Muslim burial practices are very similar to traditional Jewish burial practices. The body is ritually washed, then dressed in shrouds. Prayers are said. Afterward, the body is buried, not cremated. The preference is to bury the body as soon after death as is reasonably possible. Throughout, the focus is on paying respect to the dead.
I can understand that survivors of the bombing, as well as friends and families of the survivors and those who died are angry. Many other people are angry. The bombing was a terrible act. And although nobody has yet been convicted of this act of terrorism, the surviving Tsarnaev brother has apparently confirmed that he and his brother were the perpetrators. There is little to no doubt that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is guilty.
There is also no doubt that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is now dead. His body must be disposed of in some manner. It must be handled by at least one funeral home, and it must be buried somewhere.
I understand some cemeteries don’t want the publicity associated with burying him. If they do so, they are likely to be subject to threats of boycotts, picketing, and even violence. The grave may be vandalized. Crowds might appear around the time of the burial, on the anniversary of the bombing, and at other times. It would be a big inconvenience, and may result in a loss of business.
However, Tamerlan Tsarnaev is survived by family members who are completely innocent. They had nothing to do with the bombing. But they have a dead family member they need to bury. They have a grieving process that cannot properly begin until that body is safely in the ground. Every cemetery that refuses the body, and every person who, in any way, thwarts the burial process, is adding to the pain of innocents. That is not okay.
Perhaps the best solution is to try to find a cemetery that will bury the body in an undisclosed, unmarked grave, at least for the time being. Perhaps a year from now, or in five years, a marker can be added to the grave. I know there are people in the media who will try to track down the location of the grave. Most likely, they will be successful in doing so, and say it’s because the public has a “right to know.”
But right now, innocent people have the right and the need to dispose of the remains of their family member. Whether or not you believe the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev deserves respect and rest, his family members deserve the ability to lay him to rest, and to get on with their grief.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a Muslim. There must be some Muslim cemetery, somewhere in Massachusetts or the surrounding states, which is willing to step up and do the right thing.
May 1, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Kavod v’Nichum, the organization that assists chevra kadisha groups, synagogues and others regarding mitzvot concerning chaplaincy, burial, mourning, and related topics, recently hosted a webinar titled, “Ritual Washing for Non-Jews After Death.” The webinar presenters were two Board members of Kavod v’Nichum: Rick Light from New Mexico and Rabbi Stuart Kelman from the San Francisco Bay Area.
One of the primary tasks of a chevra kadisha is to perform Taharah, the ritual washing and preparing for burial of a Jewish person after his/her death. As Jews have assimilated into American society, intermarriage and other interactions have increased, such that now there are many Gentiles who are active in Jewish life. They are spouses and partners of Jews, mothers and fathers of Jews, sisters and brothers of Jews.
They schlep kids to and from Hebrew school, they attend services, they host seders, and they do numerous other things that involve them in Jewish life. Many of them, when they die, want to be buried near their Jewish partners and relatives. Increasingly, we can expect they will ask whether Taharah can be performed on them after they die.
In response, Rick Light, in concert with Conservative Rabbi Stuart Kelman, is pioneering a new ritual, similar to Taharah, but different for non-Jews. He says he has not used this ritual yet, but he is in the process of finalizing a manual describing how to do it. One can imagine the first such ritual may take place in the coming year.
The webinar described the Taharah process as including the following five steps, which will remain in the new ritual, but which will be modified. They are:
The plan is to use English, rather than Hebrew, throughout the ritual, and to use what Rick Light calls “secular and generic Biblical readings” in place of the traditional prayers, as well as simple bows on the burial garments rather than the specially tied bows used in Taharah.
The new ritual has been carefully thought out. It does, however, raise the question, “Why do we need a special ritual at all?” Not to mention, “What makes a prayer ‘secular and generic’ rather than Jewish?”
First, most of the Taharah ritual is minhag, or custom. It is not required by halacha or Jewish law, and I am not aware of any law prohibiting Taharah from being performed on a person who is not Jewish. Nor did the hosts of the webinar or the participants seem to be aware of any such law. Why not just perform Taharah, and be done with it?
Upon further examination, there are a couple of places in which there are references, for a man, to his covenant with God as evidenced by his circumcision, but those passages could be removed. I frankly don’t see the need for rewriting the prayers wholesale, or changing the bows or other aspects of the ritual. I might feel differently if the prayers were changed to express gratitude to the deceased for so wholeheartedly supporting the Jewish people, but that does not appear to be the intent of any of the new, proposed prayers.
I am also uncomfortable with whether the people on whom this ritual will be performed will truly understand what they will be getting. If a Jew asks for Taharah for his or her non-Jewish loved one, will they, or the loved one before his/her death, understand that what they will actually be getting will be a new, modified ritual that differs in several ways from what a Jew would get? After all, it can be hard enough to explain Taharah to the uninitiated, let alone a new ritual like this.
I have to say, I’m not convinced I like this new ritual. In my mind, it either goes too far, or doesn’t go far enough. Either we should change as little as possible, eliminating just the phrases that refer to a circumcision, or we should create something entirely new, eliminating the pouring of the ritual water, using no special bows, and using English readings honoring the sacrifices the deceased has made in supporting the Jewish people.
What do you think?
April 24, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
When you attend a bar or bat mitzvah service, you might sit somewhere in the middle of the sanctuary. Or, maybe you sit closer to the front. Regardless, chances are you’re hoping to get a seat that allows you to take in all the action. Chances are, most of the time you think you’re pretty successful.
But as one who often sits or stands in the back, wearing a badge that identifies me as a person to whom people can come with questions, I can tell you, you may be missing plenty.
Take last Saturday, for instance. Toward the beginning of the ceremony, the bar mitzvah boy fainted. Of course, you would notice this no matter where you sat. I’m not mentioning this to embarrass the young man; I mention it because you need to know it to understand something that happened later on. The young man revived, and much to his credit, continued on with the service.
Later, I was standing in the back of the sanctuary, when a man came up to me. “Do you know that tall man up there?” he asked.
“No.” I answered.
“The tall one,” he insisted, “four rows up, next to the blonde woman.”
“No,” I confirmed, “I don’t know him.”
He then said, “Because he left this backpack here,” gesturing to a backpack resting against the wall inside the crowded sanctuary.
There was a brief pause while my brain connected this seemingly innocuous statement with the fact that, less than a week earlier, two backpacks had exploded at the Boston Marathon, doing tremendous damage.
“Ah,” I said, “we’ll move it.” I picked up the blessedly light – and therefore probably not containing a pressure cooker filled with nails, ball bearings and explosives – backpack and placed it in the back of the social hall, far away from the congregation but still visible so the owner could find it later.
The service progressed, and the bar mitzvah boy was now reading from the Torah scroll. One of the photographers came up to me and asked, “Shouldn’t he be wearing a tallit while he’s doing that?” I said that yes, he normally would be wearing one, and the photographer said, “I know he fainted, but if he had one on, it would make the pictures look better.”
Now, this is one of the things I love about going to services. Often, it helps me to gain perspective on life.
The bar mitzvah boy was trying to make it through what was probably the most important day of his life so far, without losing consciousness again. It was a hot day, and a heavy woolen tallit would not help him achieve that goal.
Just that morning in Torah study, we had discussed that one may choose not to perform a mitzvah (commandment) if performing it may endanger his or her health. Therefore, one could argue that the boy had made the correct choice according to halacha (Jewish law) in not wearing the tallit. If he fainted again, he could fall and injure himself. This rule exists because, in Judaism, we value human life above just about anything else.
Similarly, the man who had pointed out the backpack to me was acting in the interest of preserving human life.
Yet here was a photographer, concerned only with whether or not his pictures would look their best.
Perhaps I should have quoted Deuteronomy 30:19 to him: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.”
April 17, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Yesterday I listened to a conference call hosted by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) about access to the Kotel (Western Wall in Jerusalem). Or, more accurately, I listened to the first half of the call, since a meeting at work conflicted with the second half of it.
During the call, Anat Hoffman of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of the Women of the Wall, said Natan Sharansky’s plan to create a pluralistic place for prayer at the Kotel is an ambitious one, with many obstacles to its success. Women of the Wall, she promised, would not be one of those obstacles.
She suggested that one of the largest obstacles to the plan may be the Waqf which controls the Temple Mount. This is because the plan would likely require changes to the bridge that leads to the Temple Mount, and in the past the Waqf has been opposed to any changes to the bridge.
Hoffman said the true test of the proposed solution will be how friendly it is to Modern Orthodox Jews who want to pray there. She said the Ultra-Orthodox section is a place fewer and fewer people want to go to, so the new section needs to be welcoming to everyone else.
She said Israelis have become interested in this issue recently because they care about the silencing and segregation of women in the public square. She said, the Israeli media is finally discussing this topic.
Given the ambitious nature of the proposed solution at the Kotel, and the many obstacles that solution will face, Hoffman emphasized an important issue on which to focus right now is what will happen in the interim, as the proposal begins a process of refinement, discussion, approval and implementation, which is likely to take at least a year and possibly much longer.
As those who have been following the Women of the Wall are well aware, in recent months women have been arrested at the Kotel for wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) and for praying out loud in a group. Those detained at the most recent monthly such prayer service may have been surprised when the police requested they be ordered to stay away from the Kotel for 90 days rather than the 30 days requested in the past. They were certainly surprised when the judge refused the request, saying the women should not have been detained at all, and that if anyone was disturbing the peace, it was those who tried to interrupt their prayers.
It was a great victory, but it may be a short-lived one. Apparently the police are appealing the decision to a higher court, insisting that the detainments were proper and that the women be kept away from the Kotel for 90 days.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said it’s too soon to know the intentions of the new government, and what will happen as the Ultra-Orthodox and other groups try to remove parts of Sharansky’s proposal. Even if the plan is changed, he said, it has achieved the understanding that the status quo has to change.
He said the proposal included the following five conditions:
He stressed that the interim solution can’t be separated from the long-term solution, and that they must include the same values. Therefore, the police must not be allowed to continue to detain women during their monthly Rosh Chodesh services.
If you want to know how you can help support the Women of the Wall during this interim period, look for action updates on the Israel Religious Action Center website.
April 10, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
We’ve all heard stories of people who were turned off from Judaism by negative experiences with a synagogue, a rabbi, etc. “He wouldn’t even meet with us to talk about our marriage because my fiancé hadn’t converted yet,” or “They wouldn’t let me into High Holy Day services because I forgot my ticket,” or, “They were rude to me when my baby cried during the service.”
We also know that, generally, one bad experience isn’t enough to drive a person away from Judaism or synagogue life. These stories are often more about “the straw that broke the camel’s back” than they are about one unforgiveable sin on the part of the congregation or clergy.
Yet for many of us, the opposite is true. Many good things happen to us over the course of our synagogue life, and we hardly even seem to notice it. The people are generally friendly, the sermons are often meaningful, the cantor’s voice is inspiring. Sometimes it’s hard to notice how many things are going right, day in and day out.
Sometimes, something happens that is right, and it stands out. This is one such story.
At our synagogue, we have a minhag (custom) on the first Friday night of each month. Toward the end of the service, before we break for the monthly congregational dinner, the clergy asks everyone who is having a birthday that month to come forward for a group blessing. It may not sound like a big deal, but it means a lot to some people. There have been a couple of occasions when the clergy have forgotten to give the monthly birthday blessing, and boy, do they hear about it when that happens!
Last Friday night, after the birthday blessing and the end of the service, I was opening the sanctuary doors so the congregants could walk over to the dinner. As I was doing so, a man came up to me and said, “Is the service over already?” For some reason, he had gotten the time mixed up.
I told him yes, it was, and he asked whether there would be a second service. I told him no, we only have a second service on the third Friday of the month. He asked, “Did they do the birthday blessing?” I said they did, about five minutes ago.
He looked so downcast that I asked, “Is it your birthday this month? Did you come for the blessing?” He said he had, so I suggested, “Why don’t I take you to the rabbi, to see if something can be done?” He said okay, and he followed me inside.
Now, at this point I didn’t know what the rabbi would do. For one thing, that night we had on duty the rabbi who has been filling in for the last couple of months while our senior rabbi is on sabbatical, so I don’t know him very well. Second, rabbis are, after all, human beings, so they are hard to predict in any case.
But the rabbi sure seems like a nice guy, so I brought the distraught congregant up to the rabbi, introduced them, and said, “He just missed the birthday blessing.”
The congregant asked, “Do you think you could give me a blessing anyway?”
The rabbi answered, “Of course.”
So the rabbi blessed the congregant, and the look on the congregant's face was so happy, I was deeply touched. I thought, “This is an example of the clergy and the synagogue getting it right. This story deserves to be told.”
May there be many more such stories to tell.
April 5, 2013 | 2:43 pm
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
The Israeli news agency Ha’aretz has published a good summary here regarding what’s been happening in the last week or so in regard to the Women of the Wall.
The Women of the Wall is a group of women – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and other – who have been praying at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site, on the first of each Hebrew month for the last couple of decades.
Sometimes the women are allowed to pray unmolested. Sometimes, they have chairs and other things thrown at them. Sometimes they are detained and arrested, and sometimes individual members are ordered not to return to the Kotel for 30 days are more.
The latest chapter in the saga began when the police sent a letter to Women of the Wall, naming a list of actions that could get them arrested. One of the things the letter said they could get arrested for was saying Kaddish, the prayer we say for loved ones who have died. This created a good deal of concern, since nobody had ever been arrested for saying the Kaddish before. It looked like the police were going to impose even more onerous rules on the group than they had in the past.
After some negotiations – which, oddly enough, did not involve anyone from the Women of the Wall, the chief rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabiowitz, announced that no women would be arrested at the Kotel for saying the Kaddish. That’s good news on its face, but it leads to a rather ominous conclusion.
As Anat Hoffman, the leader of the Women of the Wall, is quoted as saying in the Ha’aretz story, the rabbi’s contradiction of the letter from the police “proves what we’ve been saying all along – the rabbi calls the shots.”
We Jews in the diaspora have been proud at pointing to Israel as a democracy in a sea of Middle East dictatorships. But whether or not a person is arrested, regardless of the law, is determined by the whims of a single man, even if that man is a rabbi, then that is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship.
The Women of the Wall, on the other hand, voted – that’s right, like one does in a democracy – to read Torah from a bound book at the Kotel this month, rather than read it from a Torah scroll, since that is forbidden by the rabbi.
Why should one dictator get to decide who can pray at the Kotel and what they can pray? Why were women allowed to pray unmolested one day (see my post about it here) and are arrested on other days? Because that is what happens when who the police arrest, when, and for what, is subject to the whims of a dictator. That is what happens when we surrender democracy to dictatorships.
The Women of the Wall will be praying at the Kotel again on Rosh Chodesh, Thursday, April 11. Those of us who value democracy over dictatorship should be praying with them in spirit, if we cannot be praying at the Kotel with them in person.