Rabbi’s Corner

Chanukah

By Rabbi Alana Wasserman

 

On the evening of December 18, 2022 (corresponding to the Hebrew calendar date of 25 Kislev 5783), Jewish people around the world will celebrate the first night of Chanukah. We will light the first candle of our Chanukiah (a 9-branched candelabra, also known as a Chanukah menorah), play dreidel, and eat latkes (potato pancakes fried in oil). Most importantly, we will retell the story of Chanukah.

While the holiday of Chanukah is a fun, lighthearted celebration, the story of Chanukah is much more serious. It is about fighting for religious freedom in the face of persecution. It is a story whose message rings true for us today.

In the second century BCE, Israel was ruled by King Antiochus, leader of the Seleucids. It was their mission to force all the Jewish people to Hellenize, thereby renouncing their own faith. If they did not convert, they faced death.

The Seleucid army was large, with massive weaponry. Yet, that did not stop a small band of Jews from forming their own army. Led by Judah the Maccabee (which means “hammer”), the tiny Maccabee army, with its limited amount of weapons and manpower, miraculously defeated the Seleucid army. After they won the Maccabean Revolt, the Jewish people returned to the Temple, only to find that it had been defiled by the Seleucid army. While cleaning the Temple, they discovered that there was not enough oil to light the menorah (the 7-branched candelabra). There was only enough oil to last for one day, but another miracle happened – the oil lasted for eight days. That is why, at Chanukah, we light a 9-branched menorah (one helper candle, called a “shamash,” and 8 candles to represent the eight days).

While the Maccabees were able to defeat the Seleucids, they were not able to eradicate anti-Semitism. Hate and prejudice have continued to pervade our world. That is why the story of Chanukah is still so important. It is a reminder for all of us to keep fighting against hate, no matter the odds. Whenever we witness prejudice, we must stand up and speak out, even if no one else does.

One of the best ways to fight anti-Semitism is not with heated words and weapons, but with things like latkes, dreidels, candles, and prayers. Celebrating our holidays is the best way to combat hate. By participating in Jewish life, we are not allowing fear and hate to dictate our future. Teaching others about our holidays and traditions will help as well.

Gishrei Shalom Jewish Congregation invites you to join us as we celebrate the first night of Chanukah on Sunday, December 18 at 5PM at the home of one of our members. For more information, please contact me at rabbi@gsjc.org.

This year may the light of the Chanukiah extinguish the darkness of hate. Happy Chanukah!


Lilith

D’var Torah For 10/21/2022

By Rabbi Alana Wasserman

Shabbat Shalom! Well, we are back at the beginning. This week’s Torah portion is the very first in the entire Torah: Bereshit. In this parashah, we read about the creation of the world, and all living things. And, right away, there’s something noteworthy. (Okay, so there are many noteworthy points in this parashah, but this is the one I wish to discuss tonight!) There are two stories of the creation of humankind in this Torah portion. In the first story of creation, we read, “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on the earth. And God created humankind in the Divine image, creating it in the image of God – creating them male and female,” (Genesis 1:26-27). In the second story of creation, we read, “God formed the human from the dust of the ground, blowing into his nostrils the breath of life: the Human became a living being… God said, ‘It is not good for the Human to be alone; I will make a fitting counterpart for him… So God cast a deep sleep upon the Human; and, while he slept, God took one of his sides and closed up the flesh at that site. And God fashioned the side that had been taken from the Human into a woman, bringing her to the Human,” (Genesis 2:18, 21-22). In the first story, male and female are created at the same time. In the second story, the female is created after the male as his companion.

In the second story, we know the male and female to be Adam and Eve. In the first story of creation, there are midrashim, stories created by our sages, that suggest that the female was not Eve, but another woman, named Lilith. Today, I would like to teach you a little bit about Lilith, as she is a controversial character in our tradition. 

For thousands of years, Lilith has been known to be an evil demon. Her role as a villain in Judaism was solidified in a Midrash called, “The Alphabet of Ben Sira.” In this midrash, God creates Adam and Lilith. Both are fashioned from the earth. Adam tells Lilith, “You lie beneath me,” to which Lilith responds, “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” As soon as Lilith realizes that they are not going to listen to each other, she says God’s name, and flies up into the air and flees. God sends three angels after her, telling them that if she wants to return, let her, but if not, do not bring her against her will.” When the angels find Lilith (at the Sea of Reeds, in the spot where the Egyptians would later drown while chasing after the Israelites), they don’t exactly follow God’s rules. They say, “If you will go with us, well and good, but if not, we will drown you in the sea.” Lilith replies, “I know that God only created me to weaken infants when they are eight days old. From the day a child is born until the eighth day, I have dominion over the child, and from the eighth day onward I have no dominion over him if he is a boy, but if a girl, I rule over her twelve days.” The angels then say, “We won’t let you go until you accept upon yourself that each day one hundred of your children will die.” She accepts it and swears to them that she will not have dominion over any child in any place where she sees an amulet with those angels on it.

As a result of this story, many pregnant women, and many households with newborns, keep an amulet above their beds, as a means of protection against the demon Lilith.

However, in recent decades, Lilith has undergone a “rebranding” of sorts. At the beginning of this midrash, Lilith says, “We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” She does not want to be submissive to Adam; she wants to be an equal partner in their relationship. This line affords us an opportunity to look at Lilith from a different perspective. Maybe Lilith is not a demon after all. Maybe, she is just a woman who wanted to be in an equal partnership with her spouse, and when he refused, she decided to do what was best for her, and leave, even if that meant that rest of the world would see her in a negative light. In viewing Lilith from this perspective, she is not a demon, but instead, a feminist icon.

As I said on Simchat Torah, “In Numbers Rabbah 13:15-16, we read, there are seventy faces to the Torah. We understand this line to mean that there are multiple ways of understanding the text.” Each time we read the Torah, or any of our texts, we can see something new and different each time. Was Lilith an evil demon, or was Lilith the first feminist? I don’t think there is one right answer to this question. But, what I can tell you is this: we can learn so much from this character who isn’t even mentioned by name in the Torah. Lilith reminds us that Judaism and its teachings are not stagnant. As I also said on Simchat Torah, “By using our own unique outlook, we are able to shed new light on the Torah. When we do this, the Torah is no longer an ancient text, but instead, a living document.”

As we begin a new year of reading Torah, I invite everyone to read our texts with a fresh perspective. You never know what you might discover. Shabbat Shalom!


Simchat Torah
Sermon 2022/5783

By Rabbi Alana Wasserman

Chag Sameach! When my eldest child started middle school, and her math curriculum grew increasingly difficult, I initially thought I would be able to help her. I loved math when I was her age, as I was pretty good at it. However, I quickly realized that I was way out of my element. She was learning the same material I had, but a new and completely different way.

Many parents nowadays complain, “how could they change math? How is that even possible?” Yet here we are. While I am not a mathematician, and therefore, cannot explain this “new math” to save my life, I can relate it to Torah. Math itself has not changed. 2+2 with forever be 4. However, the way in which math is taught has changed in order to keep up with the times. Children today are learning about STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math). This new math is mean to aid our youth as the field of technology continues to advance and remain a part of our everyday lives. Just as 2+2 will always equal 4, the words of the Torah will never change. However, just as math has had to adapt with the times, so too does our understanding of this ancient text.

In Numbers Rabbah 13:15-16, we read, “there are seventy faces to the Torah.”We understand this line to mean that there are multiple ways of understanding the text. But how can that be? The words of the text never change, so how can there be more than one understanding of the Torah?

Each individual approaches the Torah with their own life experiences. Throughout the ages, our great sages have helped us to understand the mysteries of the Torah. We have read through their commentaries and interpretations of the various Torah portions. No one commentary is the same. Yet we value each of their lessons equally, as each of their explanations has helped to shed new light on the same text.

The tradition of writing our own commentaries continues today, not just with various Torah commentary books, but with each of us. We each come to the Torah with our own perspectives, our own way of looking at things and understanding them. By using our own unique outlook, we are able to shed new light on the Torah. When we do this, the Torah is no longer an ancient text, but instead, a living document – one that we continue to look to as a guide for life.

In an article by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, called, “Seventy Faces to the Torah – and Grateful for All of Them,” (“Seventy Faces to the Torah” – and Grateful for All of Them | American Jewish University (aju.edu)), he writes that we mustappreciate what we have as Jews – a virtual treasure house of interpretations that give ever new meanings to the text of the Torah and provide us with an ample basis for resolving the moral dilemmas of our time. Let us also bless God for that heritage in the liturgy of the early morning service, “Praised are You, Adonai, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us to get involved in the words of Torah…Praised are You, Adonai, who teaches Torah to His People Israel.”

Tonight, as we celebrate Simchat Torah, we read the end of the Torah, and go back to the very beginning. As we prepare to embark on a new year of Torah reading, let us remember to not merely read the words on the page, but instead, to bring our own voices to the text. Tonight, we are not merely celebrating words on a page, but instead, an endless, timeless, living document that continues to guide and inspire our voices and our lives. Chag Sameach!


Can We Forgive Without an Apology?

Yom Kippur Sermon 5783 2022-2023

By Rabbi Alana Wasserman

Shanah tovah! I’d like to tell you a story called “The Cookie Thief,” from Chicken Soup For The Soul. It’s about a man who bought some cookies while waiting in the airport for his flight. After purchasing this snack, the man sat down, and another traveler sat down near him. The other traveler opened the bag of cookies that was sitting on the chair between them and ate one. The man could not believe it! This stranger hadopened his cookies and eaten one! Even though the man was clearly upset about this, he didn’t say anything. Instead, he proceeded to eat one of his own cookies. The other traveler then took another cookie! The man also took another cookie. This went on and on until there was only one left. With each cookie, the man got angrier and angrier. He could not believe the audacity of this other person. When there was only one cookie remaining, the other traveler broke it in half and gave it to the man with a smile. Minuteslater, after he has boarded the plane, the man opened up his carry-on, and found a bag of cookies. It turns out that he was not eating his own cookies, but the other traveler’sinstead. His anger quickly turned to shame.

While there are many lessons we can learn from this story, the lesson I’d like to focus on is one of forgiveness. Before realizing that he was the one in the wrong, the man assumed that he was in the right. He felt that he deserved an apology (and probably a new bag of cookies) from his fellow traveler. And, while the other person didn’t seem perturbed by this man eating his cookies, he deserved an apology. In this story, no apologies were given. Yet, it seemed like the other traveler had forgiven this man, even though he didn’t ask for it. After all, he shared the bag and split the last cookie with him! With a smile!

During this time of year, Jewish people around the world atone for their sins. Weapologize to those whom we have wronged and forgive those who have wronged us. There are a number of rules in the Jewish religion about seeking forgiveness, butapologizing and forgiving are not always so clear-cut. What happens if someone hurtsus, but does not apologize? What are we supposed to do with our unresolved feelings?

In the Talmud (Masekhet Megilla 28a), there was a Rabbi named Nehunya ben HaKana. He was blessed with longevity. His students wanted to know how he merited such a long life. He told them that every night, before going to sleep, he would forgive anyone who had hurt him. He said, “I never took my neighbor’s offenses to my bed.” Even if someone did not apologize to him, he forgave them anyway.

We can look to Rabbi Nehunya as an example of how to live our lives. I’m not saying that we should forgive everyone regardless of their actions. What I am saying is that we should not let the negativity of someone else’s actions towards us live within us. Rabbi Nehunya decided that no matter what someone else had done to him, he did not want to live with negative feelings in his heart. Rabbi Nehunya’s actions inspired this prayer that we can read daily from the siddur: “I forgive all those who may have hurt or aggravated me either physically, monetarily, or emotionally, whether unknowingly or willfully, whether accidentally or intentionally, whether in speech or in action, whether in this incarnation or another, and may no person be punished on account of me…” It takes a person of strong character to be able to forgive someone who doesn’t apologize. Maybe saying a prayer like this will help us to be more merciful, not just to others, but to ourselves as well.

Admitting we’re wrong isn’t an easy task. Seeking forgiveness for our wrongdoingcan be even harder. When we apologize we’re not just admitting that we were wrong, but we are also acknowledging that we hurt someone, and we must do the work to ensure that we never repeat that mistake. In Hebrew, this is called Selicha.

In an article from Tablet Magazine (an online Jewish magazine), called “Twelve Steps of Forgiveness: How can you forgive someone who hasn’t apologized?” author Susan Shapiro learns that Selicha does not always come in the form of a verbal apology. She also learns that forgiveness is not always about the person who wronged you. In this article, Ms. Shapiro goes on a “forgiveness tour,” as she calls it.

While I will not share with you all twelve steps of Ms. Shapiro’s “forgiveness tour,” I will share the ones that I think are the most important:

1. SEARCH FOR THE MISSING PIECES OF THE STORY: As the expression goes, “there are two sides to every story.” In the story I told earlier, the man who purchased the cookies did not realize he was eating the other travelers food. He was getting mad at the other traveler, not realizing he didn’t have all the information.

2. GET ANOTHER OPINION: If you have had a falling out with someone, and they haven’t reached out to apologize to you, find someone else to talk to about it, like a friend or a therapist. They may be able to offer you a fresh perspective on your situation, or help you work through your feelings.
3. STAY IN CONTACT: If the person with whom you had a falling out is someone close to you, staying in contact with them can help you find a way towards reconciliation. Remember, you may be missing some pieces of the story. By staying in touch, you may be able to gather some of these pieces.
4. LET ACTIONS REPLACE WORDS: For some people, saying “I’m sorry” is too difficult. While this is not an excuse, some people cannot face up to their mistakes. This does not mean that they aren’t remorseful. They may just be too ashamed. While they may not verbally apologize, they may show their remorse through their other actions. We need to look for those actions before we make snap decisions on the situation at hand.
5. QUESTION BEFORE CRITICIZING: Before assuming that the other person feels no remorse, Ms. Shapiro suggests that we ask them (in a neutral tone) how things are going for them before telling them how we feel. She writes, “In her book A Good Apology, Boston psychologist Dr. Molly Howes suggests you listen carefully to the answer to help comprehend their side of what happened, which may differ from your recollection. Hurt people hurt people... Before jumping into what’s bothering you, hear what they have to say, which may elucidate their behavior.” The person who hurt you may be going through their own personal turmoil, and that may have affected their behavior towards you.

In another Tablet Magazine article called, “Where’s My Apology,” by Marjorie Ingall, she writes, “… if you can do the work of self-reflection, and say what you have to say without requiring a certain response, you might find yourself feeling healed.” This can work for someone seeking an apology, but not getting it. This brings us back to Rabbi Nehunya, and the prayer for forgiveness for everyone who harmed him, whether they apologized or not. Ms. Ingall also quotes Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg in this article, saying, “Forgiveness is up to the victim (and the victim alone).”

Yom Kippur literally means, “Day of Atonement.” I love the word play here. “Atonement” is defined as “reparation for a wrongdoing.” But, if you look at the English word “atonement,” you can see three words: at one ment. Yom Kippur is a day for us to seek wholeness and peace. Whether we get a verbal apology, an apology through actions, or no apology at all, we can choose to find wholeness, peace, and at-one-ment, within ourselves. Forgiveness can be a path to get there.

Gemar Chatimah Tovah! May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good, peaceful, and whole New Year.

The Power of Positivity

High Holy Day Sermon 2022/5783

By Rabbi Alana Wasserman

Shanah tovah! I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a Yiddish folktale that was turned into a children’s book that has been distributed by the PJ Library. The book version is called, “It Could Always Be Worse,” by Margot Zemach. The story goes something like this:there once was a poor man who lived in a one-room house with his mother, his wife, and his six children. He often complained that his house was too small and too noisy. To seek guidance on this matter, he went to the wisest man in town, the rabbi, to ask for help. The rabbi thought about it, and then asked the man, “Do you have any animals?”

The man replied, “Yes! I have a chicken and a goose!” The rabbi told him to bring the birds into his house to live with his family. Even though he thought it strange, the man followed the rabbis advice.

A few weeks later, things were not better. The children were getting bigger and louder, the birds were in the way, making lots of noise, and there were feathers everywhere to boot! The man went back to the rabbi to ask for more help.

“Do you have a goat?” the rabbi asked. “Yes,” replied the man. “Bring it in to your home,” said the rabbi. “Are you sure?” asked the man. “I am positive,” replied the rabbi. So, reluctantly, the man brought his goat into the house.

As you can imagine, things continued to get worse for this poor man. Now, in addition to all the people in his house, the birds were clucking and flapping their wings, and the goat was running wild. It was noisy, cramped, and smelly from all the animals. He went back to the rabbi for better advice. Instead, the rabbi asked if he had a cow. The man knew the drill at this point, so he went home, and moved his cow into his house.

After a few more weeks, the poor man had had enough. He went back to the rabbi and said, “I can’t take it anymore! The house is a mess! There are animals everywhere! What is the point of this?” The rabbi told him to go home and remove all the animals from his house. The poor man ran home, excited to get rid of the animals.

That night, the man slept peacefully in his bed. The next day, he returned to the rabbi and said, “you have made life sweet for me. With just my family in the hut, it’s so quiet, so roomy, so peaceful… What a pleasure!

In the end, the man didn’t need a new house, or any magic spell to make his living situation any better. All he needed was a positive attitude.

While the new year is supposed to be a time of celebration, I often feel that the joyousness gets lost. At the High Holy Days, we focus on everything that we have ever done wrong in our lives and forget that this is also a time of hope for the future, joy, and gratitude. We are supposed to begin the new year with a positive outlook, whether it’s appreciating what we already have (like in the story I just told) or hoping (and working toward) something better in the coming year. After all, it says in the Talmud, “There were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av (Jewish day of love) and as Yom Kippur.”

Judaism is a religion of positivity. Most of our prayers are about expressing gratitude (i.e. Birkat Hamazon – we are thankful for the food we just ate, Asher Yatzar – we are thankful that we have woken up and our bodies work, etc.), peace (i.e. OsehShalom and Shalom Rav), and hope for the future. Saying these prayers helps to give us a positive outlook on life.

Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of Our Fathers, an ancient collection of rabbinic sayings) says, “Who is rich? One who is happy with their lot.” In other words, we should be grateful for what we have. Happy is the operative word here. Happy does not mean there isn’t any room for growth. Happy does not mean perfect. Happy means to be content with what you have, and at the same time, know that there’s always room for improvement. I think the story “It Could Always Be Worse,” proves that.

Waking up on the wrong side of the bed will pretty much guarantee a bad day for us. The same holds true for the new year. Yes, at this time of year, we are supposed to take a cheshbon hanefesh, and accounting of our souls. And, yes, that does mean that we are supposed to address all the ways in which we have failed. However, when we take a cheshbon hanefesh, we are also supposed to acknowledge all of our successes. At this time of year, we see God as “judge and arbiter,” as our prayer book says. We are supposed to convince God that we are worthy of being inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for another year. Why would God choose to do this for us if the only argument in our favor is that we have repented for our sins? We also need to remind God and ourselves of all the good that have done! When we do this, we set ourselves up for a positive new year.

On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we say a prayer called Vidui, which we commonly translate to mean “confession.” This prayer is an alphabetical acrostic of all the sins we may have possibly committed over the course of the last year. As we confess each of these sins, we beat our chests, as a way of punishing ourselves for our wrongdoing (for when we hurt others, we hurt ourselves as well). However, Rav Kook wrote in the Mishnah (tractate Maaser sheni, chapter 7, Mishna 10), “Just as there is great value to the confession of sins… there is also great value to the confession of mitzvot (our positive deeds), which gladdens the heart and strengthens the holy paths of life!” With that in mind, Rabbi Avi Weiss created a Positive Vidui, which I would like to share with you now.

ודוי חיובית | Positive Vidui, by Rabbi Avi Weiss • the Open Siddur Project פְּרוֺיֶּקט הַסִּדּוּר הַפָּתוּחַ

As we say goodbye to 5782, let us take with us all the positive aspects of the past year, and use them to catapult us into a new year of positivity. Gemar ChatimahTovah, may we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good, positive new year!

After The World Falls Apart

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5783 (2022-2023)

By Rabbi Alana Wasserman

Shanah tovah! As many of you know, my love of Broadway musicals has seepedinto a High Holy Day sermon every year. This year, there’s a small twist. Today, I am beginning with a song that was recorded on a Broadway cast album but was ultimately cut from the show. In Disney’s Frozen, after leaving Elsa’s ice castle, Olaf, the magical snowman, literally physically falls apart. While Anna is upset and concerned about her friend, Olaf would have sung a song about how falling apart isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The song is called “When Everything Falls Apart.” Here is an excerpt of that song:

OLAF:

When everything falls apart
And I’m as broken as can be
I don’t get devastated when decapitated
No, it just helps me see differently
Yes!

When everything falls apart
And the winds of fate seem cruel
What I’m most afraid of
Shows me what I’m made of
Which turns out to be pretty cool

(later in the song)
OLAF:
When everything falls apart
And it’s an awful, awful day
To sum up my thesis, when I fall to pieces
It’s a chance to look around and say
I’m gonna pull myself together in a better way

(later in the song)
KRISTOFF:
When everything falls apart
It’s just the world re-shuffling

Rosh Hashanah is a time for us to begin again; to look at things from a fresh perspective. It’s our chance to “re-shuffle,” as Kristoff would say. Sometimes, it may seem like our lives are falling apart, or the world is falling apart. Despite all the ways that things can go to pieces, Rosh Hashanah affords us a chance to rebuild in a new and different way. That is the message of Olaf’s song.

During these last two and a half years, there have been numerous times where it seemed as though the entire world was falling apart, especially with regards to COVIDand all its waves. When the pandemic was declared a national emergency, the entire world went into lockdown. Fear and uncertainty spread. Some people lost businesses;others lost loved ones. Today, we are still coming out of this pandemic, with our lives forever altered. It felt like COVID caused the entire planet to collapse. My question is: What do we do after the world falls apart? Let’s look to our own tradition to find some answers.

One of the best examples I can think of is the holiday of Tisha B’Av. Actually, it’s the day after that really catches my attention. You see, Tisha B’Av is the holiday that commerates the destruction of both the first and second Temples. To the Jewish people living during the destruction, it probably felt like all was lost. In fact, after the second Temple was destroyed, 90% of the Jewish population decided to completely assimilate into the Roman Empire. They chose to give up Judaism. They could not see a way for it to continue without the Temple. It was the remaining 10%, a tiny minority,that decided to take action. They reinvented and revitalized Judaism. It was because of this small group that our religion did not die when the Temple was destroyed. Due to their actions, it was reborn anew. While the Judaism we know today does not look the same as it did in Temple times, we are still here. Even though Tisha B’Av is a significant day of mourning on the Jewish calendar, we must remember that the next day, people took the opportunity to recreate Judaism anew. That is something worth celebrating.

That is how we look at Rosh Hashanah – the day that we, both as individuals and as a community, begin anew. Many of us have experienced that feeling of the world crumbling around us, with work, school, finances, relationships, or other facets of life. When this happens, what can we do to get through it?

Personally, I think we need to start by following the examples of our ancestors. The first thing they did after the destruction of the Temple was allow themselves to express their feelings of grief; they mourned the loss of the Temple, and what Judaism used to be. Whether coming out of COVID, or any other difficult situation in life, we need to allow ourselves the opportunity to express our emotions, especially those of loss. It is often the first step in moving forward. After their mourning period, our ancestors decided to take all the aspects of Judaism that they thought were still pertinent and bring it with them into the future. We need to do the same. Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to reflect on what has worked well for us in our lives, and what we need to change. As U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, once said, “You never want a serious crisisto go to wasteAnd what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

As we enter the year 5783, let us take these brave next steps in our lives: reflect on what was, say goodbye to what can no longer be, and work on what we want to come next. May this year be one of health, joy, happiness, peace, and rebuilding anew. Shanah tovah!


I Simply Cannot Do It Alone

Rosh Hashanah Sermon on the 50th Anniversary of the Ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand & Women in the Rabbinate

By Rabbi Alana Wasserman

Shanah tovah! The Emmys were on TV just a few weeks ago. How many of you watched it? I enjoy watching these shows: the glitz, the glamour, the comedy, the fashion. But what I look forward to the most is the emotional thank yous. “I have so many people I’d like to thank!” they all say, some with tears in their eyes. Each and every one of these individuals knows that they have accomplished something amazing, but they are also keenly aware of the humbling fact that they did not do it alone.

I’m sure many of you have heard the phrase, “No man is an island.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman rabbi to be ordained by a theological seminary. I’ve been thinking about her, as well as all the other people who paved the way for me, as well as the more than 1500 other women rabbis, and how we got to this point in history. This anniversary has also made me realize that our accomplishments in our lives are not merely our own. We must acknowledge the fact that none of us has been able to succeed without the help of others. When we accomplish something great, yes, we deserve the credit, but we must acknowledge the teachers who taught us, the people who came before us, and the friends, family and community that have supported us along our way. Without them, we would not be able to achieve our goals.

At the beginning of the summer, I received my copy of the CCAR Journal Summer 2022: The Reform Jewish Quarterly. For those of you who do not know, CCAR stands for the Central Conference of American Rabbis – the organization for Reform Rabbis, of which I am a member. This journal is a book sent out quarterly, filled with articles and poetry written by Reform Rabbis about various modern-day topics. This edition was devoted entirely to women in the rabbinate, in honor of the 50th anniversary. Not only is Rabbi Priesand the first woman rabbi in North America, but she is also the second woman rabbi in recorded history. While I have known about Rabbi Priesand for most of my life, I didn’t really know much about anyone else who helped pave the way for her to enter the rabbinate. Until recently.

As I said earlier, Rabbi Priesand was the second woman rabbi in recorded history. For many years, we thought that she was the first. Only when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 did we find out that Regina Jonas was, in fact, the first. Just last month, The New York Times published an article from their “Overlooked” series, called “Overlooked No More: Regina Jonas, Upon Whose Shoulders’ All Female Rabbis Stand.” Rabbiner (that was the title given to her to use as a female rabbi) Jonas was born in Berlin in 1909. She studied at the Academy for the Science of Judaism, a seminary in Berlin. The topic of her thesis was why women should be allowed to serve as rabbis. She cited Halachah (Jewish law) to support her thesis. The rabbi she studied under was ready to ordain her when, unfortunately, he suddenly died. A few years passed before she was able to find another rabbi who was willing to ordain her. Rabbi Max Dienemann said, “I testify to herthat she is suitable to serve as a rabbi.” Regina Jonas was ordained on December 27, 1935. She died in Auschwitz in October of 1944.

Years before Rabbiner Jonas was even born, steps were already being taken towards the ordination of women rabbis. In her Founder’s Day address this year at Hebrew Union College (the Reform Movement’s Rabbinical School), Rabbi Sally Priesand gave a speech (which was published in The Reform Jewish Quarterly). In her remarks, she acknowledged individuals who helped make it possible for women to become rabbis. She mentioned Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Hebrew Union College. She said that he believed in women’s equality. In fact, in 1875, the inauguralclass of HUC had a female student. Her name was Julia Ettlinger. Unfortunately, Ms. Ettlinger died at the age of 27.

Rabbi Priesand also mentioned Rabbi Stephen Wise, a prominent Reform Rabbiin the early twentieth century, who was also a supporter of women’s equality. In 1919, he wrote a letter to a young woman who was interested in the rabbinate, saying, “the fact that no woman has served as rabbi is no reason why no woman should so serve.”

Rabbi Priesand went on to mention Dr. Nelson Glueck, president of HUC while she was a student there. She said Dr. Glueck was “the man most responsible for my ordination.” She knew that the decision to ordain her would be made solely by HUC,under his leadership, and not the Union or the CCAR.

In another article in The Reform Jewish Quarterly called “Wives to the Rescue: The CCAR’s Epic Decision to Ordain Female Rabbis in 1922,” by Rabbi Carole Balin, we learn about another early step taken towards the ordination of women rabbis. Martha Neumark was a student at HUC when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Women were being ordained as Protestant ministers at that time as well. As Ms. Neumark continued her studies, the CCAR knew they were going to have to make a decision regarding the ordination of women. At the thirty-second annual CCAR conference, a decision was made thanks in part to the wives of some of these rabbis. While debating the issue, one of the rabbis decided to open up the discussion to their wives to get their opinions. According to the minutes of the meeting, three women spoke: Mrs. Frisch, Miss Baron, and Mrs. Berkowitz. All of them spoke in favor of ordaining women rabbis. The decision to ordain women was passed at that meeting by a vote of 56 to 11. Yet, despite this decision, Marth Neumarkwas not ordained. We still had a long way to go.

But we ultimately go there. Rabbiner Jonas and Rabbi Priesand broke the glass ceiling. However, they didn’t do it alone. They had everyone else I just mentioned (as well as others, I’m sure) to help them along their way. Just because no one did it before them does not mean that they did by themselves. They, too, had so many people to thank.

Recently, our synagogue’s book club read, The Year of Yes, by Shonda Rhimes. In her book, Ms. Rhimes shares the speech she gave when she received the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Breakfast. She said, I was getting the award in recognition of my breaking through the industry’s glass ceiling as a woman and an African-AmericanBut I haven’t broken through any glass ceilingsI’d have woundsHow many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared? How many cuts did they get?How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice? So that when it was my turn to runI didn’t have to fight as hardAnd when I hit finally that ceiling, it just exploded into dust.Like that. My sisters who went before me had already handled itMaking it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints. I just hit at exactly the right time in exactly the right spot.

Whenever we recite the Amidah, we mention our forefathers and foremothers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. We recognize the importance of remembering those who came before us. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.

For me, Rabbis Jonas and Priesand opened the door, so that I, and over 1500 other women worldwide, could follow our dreams and become rabbis. Now, we must heed the words of our great sage, Rabbi Hillel, who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” We stand at the ready to help open the door for others, whether it’s in regards to the rabbinate, or something else in our lives.

As we reflect back on the year that has past, I hope we all take pride in each of our accomplishments, both great and small. But I also hope that each of us takes the opportunity to acknowledge those who helped us on our way; those who came before us, those who taught us, who supported us, who helped us manage obstacles, and lessen the pain of breaking through. Let us acknowledge that they not only helped us to achieve our goal, but they continue to inspire us as we move on, and hopefully, help others in return.

Shanah tovah!

 

Story Rabbi shared at September 16, 2022 Services  

The Curse of the Blessings (click on the link)

 Blessings 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to top