My Sukkah is Soggy :-(

Image: A rain-soaked pergola. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

My sukkah (soo-KAH or SOOK-uh) is soggy. Actually, the sukkah-stuff is still in the garage; what you see in the photo above is the very wet pergola that becomes my sukkah every year with a bit of presto-change-o.  A big storm is blowing through the Bay Area, with heavy rain and strong winds, and bits of it are going to blow through for a couple of days more.

On the one hand, frustrating: NOW is the time to set the sukkah up, and frankly, unless I want the walls and the rugs and so on to blow down the hill and over into the neighbors’ yards, it’s better to wait. On the other hand, my back is still out from Yom Kippur (too much sitting in synagogue) so maybe this is a gift in disguise. Anyway, I am a Californian, and it’s against the law here to complain about water that falls from the sky for free!


An Unusual New Year

Image: Waveform of a heartbeat, artwork by geralt via

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not…

– The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, read on Rosh Hashanah

I’ve been distracted for the past several days. My brother Albert lies in the hospital after a very bad accident. He has not regained consciousness yet, but I am happy to say that we have gotten good reports from the doctors.

Obviously, the circumstances are extremely stressful. The family has gathered at the hospital, waiting for news and wishing we could do more. It’s a time of spiritual yearning. As most of you know, I converted to Judaism as an adult, so I don’t have any Jewish connections in this town. While I know rabbis in many cities, Nashville isn’t one of them. I arrived on Shabbat and Sunday evening would be Rosh Hashanah.

I staggered back into my hotel room after the first day and left a message for my rabbinic colleagues about the situation, including the fact that I needed somewhere to pray on Rosh Hashanah. One of my rabbis back home, Rabbi Yoni Regev, was ahead of me – in a few minutes I had phone calls from two rabbis at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, known as The Temple in Nashville. Rabbi Mark Shiftan invited me to services and Rabbi Shana Mackler made sure I had everything I needed. Both were very comforting; I was barely coherent when we first spoke.

(For my non-Jewish readers: We Jews are a communal bunch. There is comfort and strength and better prayers when a group of us are gathered together. While I have wonderful family here, for prayer I really needed a minyan. It is hard to put into words, but for an observant Jew, there is nothing quite like praying in the midst of ten or more other Jews.)

Because I am a teacher, of course, this is also a lesson:

  1. Every Jew needs a rabbi, and the usual way to have a rabbi is to join a congregation. My rabbi at home used his network to make sure that I had somewhere to go for Rosh Hashanah and pastoral care nearby. When I was too upset and scrambled to take care of myself, he made sure I had support. Without my congregation, I’d have been lost.
  2. It is OK to ask for help – it is imperative that we ask for help when we need it. Had I not put the word out that I was in distress, no one would have known I was hurting. It’s my responsibility to reach out when I have tsuris [trouble.] Privacy is fine, but secrecy festers.

My brother isn’t out of the woods, but the signs are good. I feel better about him, knowing that he has excellent care. Praying for him at services was a great comfort, too. If you would like to pray for him, your prayers are welcome; his name is Albert. He’s a big, sweet, strong man and God willing, he is on a path toward healing.

Wow, what a beginning to the new year! I wish each of you a Shanah Tovah, a good year, a year of blessing and peace, kindness and wisdom!

Albert Menefee




Obama in Dallas

Image: President Barack Obama (

President Obama gave a remarkable speech in Dallas yesterday. If you did not have a chance to listen to it, you can find the text of the speech here.

Usually when U.S. presidents give speeches at memorial services, the content is fairly innocuous. They seek to comfort, and avoid controversy at all costs. That was what I expected today when I flipped on the radio to listen.

Instead, I heard my President speak to many different constituencies, seeking to draw them together despite a week in which events have driven us apart. He spoke respectfully and very personally of each of the fallen police officers in Dallas. He acknowledged that they were killed as they watched over a peace march, a march that called the nation to witness the deaths of two men at the hands of police. He spoke to their families and fellow officers, but not only to them. He spoke as well to all those who marched peacefully under the #BlackLivesMatter banner, acknowledging that all is not well and that we all need to do more.

I am sure that there were some who heard that speech for whom it was “too much” or “not enough.” I can only imagine the care that went into crafting those words, walking the tightrope of agonies, but it was clear to me that he was trying to bridge that gap and bring us all together again.

So if you didn’t hear the speech, read it. Don’t settle for soundbites on the evening news; the whole thing ran to 40 minutes. It’s all worth hearing.

“We do not persevere alone. Our character is not found in isolation. Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down, it is found by lifting others up. – Barack Obama, 7/12/16

What is Bedikat Chametz?

Image: Compost Recycling Can, by Alexas Fotos.

The night before Passover, there’s a traditional Jewish ceremony called Bedikat Chametz.

Bedikat Chametz means “checking of chametz” and it has to do with making a last check for all the chametz in the house. That’s the stuff we’ve been cleaning out for the last month – all the products of the five forbidden-for-Passover grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye. By the last night, there shouldn’t be any left, but the traditional thing is to save a bit back so that you can “find” it and destroy it. I have a half-package of fettuccini pasta waiting for bedikat chametz at my house. Now I’m waiting for sundown – traditionally, 40 minutes after sundown on the evening before Passover is the proper time for it.

Traditionally, you take it outside and burn it. I live in fire country in California, and even in the springtime, my neighbors would rightly call the fire department if I started a fire outside. So I put the last chametz in the compost can, which technically isn’t mine – it belongs to the city. I thereby move it off my property, outside my domain.

(An alternative: My friend and teacher Rabbi Stephen Einstein reminded me that for families with children, bedikat chametz can make an enduring Passover memory. If you have children, consider making the hunt for chametz a hunt for hidden chametz (pieces of bread, perhaps) through the house) then either burn them up or deal with their removal as safety demands. Some families even offer a finders prizes for chametz.)

Then I say the prayer for nullification of chametz:

All leaven and anything leavened that is in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have observed it or not, whether I have removed it or not, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.

And once I’ve done that, any chametz left in my house is inedible trash.

We’re almost there: Countdown to Pesach!



Religion in the United States

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. – First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

Many of the refugees and immigrants who have built the United States of America were fleeing religious conflict, and our Founding Fathers wanted no part of established religion. Ironically, in the 227 years since that amendment was made to the Constitution, we have become one of the most religious nations on earth. The critical difference is that there is no established religion, no religion legislated to take official precedence and to benefit from tax revenues.

The majority of Americans are some variety of Christian. According to the Pew Forum, here’s the breakdown:

  • 25.4% of households identify as Evangelical Christians
  • 22.8% are Unafflilated (includes Atheists, Agnostics, and “nothing”)
  • 20.8% of households identify as Catholic
  • 14.7% identify as Mainline Protestant
  • 6.5% identify as Historically Black Protestant
  • 1.9% identify as Jewish
  • 1.6% identify as Mormon
  • 1.0% identify as Unitarians or other liberal faiths
  • 0.9% identify as Muslim
  • 0.8% identify as Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • 0.7% identify as Buddhist
  • 0.7% identify as Hindu
  • 0.6%, when asked, respond that they “don’t know.”
  • 0.5% identify as Orthodox Christians
  • 0.4% identify as “Other Christian”
  • 0.4% identify as “New Age” including Pagan or Wiccan
  • 0.3% identify as “Other World Religions”
  • 0.3% identify as following Native American religions


I confess that I find demographic information fascinating. I got all this information from a graphic on the Pew Forum website, but instead of arranging it by belief group, I’ve listed the groups by size. Some items that interest me:

  • Jews are definitely a minority. However, there are many religious groups even smaller than ours.
  • If we sometimes feel vulnerable, how must the people in even smaller groups feel?
  • Does the Jewish community have a responsibility to make sure that those “more minor” voices are heard in national discussions?
  • Do we have a responsibility to make sure that smaller groups are protected from persecution?
  • If we took an intersectional look at this list in terms of power and audible voices in the national discussion, how would it change? How do race, class, and similar factors intersect with religion?

What do you think? What does this list say to you?


YEAH! A Night of Music

Image: Ellisa Sun and her band play in my living room. Photo by Jimbo Scott.

Last night after Shabbat we hosted a house concert to raise funds for YEAH! (Youth Engagement, Advocacy, and Housing) a shelter and resource center for homeless youth in Berkeley, CA.  Their mission statement:

Our mission is to support young adults (18-25) in Berkeley who are currently homeless. We provide basic necessities, offer case management and counseling, linkages to education, employment and housing, and opportunities for meaningful community involvement.

In other words, they provide much more than a clean bed for vulnerable young people. They assist them in setting goals, building their lives, and making meaningful contributions to their communities.

Jaclyn Grant, the Executive Director of YEAH! joined us for the evening. Her pitch was low-key but her passion for this work shone through. Her clients are what is known to professionals as “Transitional Age Youth”: they are youth for whom foster care is no longer an option but who are entering young adulthood without the resources or the safety net available to young people whose families can provide guidance and support.

The small events that are a bump in the road for most young adults (making a security deposit on an apartment, for example) are full-on crises that can put these youngsters out on the street. Moving back home isn’t an option for them; there is no home to move back to.

If you’d like to help, it’s easy to donate online. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, YEAH! is looking for volunteers for many different roles: fundraisers, food preparation, food service, managing supplies, and interacting with youth.

The music was great, too. Ellisa Sun and her band played a set of jazzy, soulful music that made me forget how long my day had been. Her voice has an unearthly quality that lends itself beautifully to her songs. I never could guess quite where the music was going, but when it got there, I knew it was the only possible destination. I particularly enjoyed Angel’s Town, which you can click to hear on

I’m not going to presume to review Jimbo Scott. I’m his mama, so of course I think his music is wonderful. If you’d like to draw your own conclusions, you can hear some of his music on his Soundcloud page.

The crowd was small but warm, the evening was cool and clear, and the music was beautiful. All in all, it was a nice night: YEAH!

A Prayer for MLK Day

Image: Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking against the Vietnam War, St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota, 4/27/1967. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


A vidui is a Jewish confession of sin. We tend to associate this form of prayer with Yom Kippur and with the prayers of the dying, although a short vidui is part of the traditional weekday liturgy.

A communal vidui includes sins which I may not personally have committed, but which some in my community may have committed. By claiming them as my own sins, I underline that I am responsible not only for myself, but also for elements in our communal life which may have fostered the sin in our members.

I offer this vidui for my sins and those of my communities.

For all our sins, may the Holy One who makes forgiveness possible forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Arrogance, that makes it difficult to see our own failings

For the sin of Brutality, that makes it possible for us to stand by and think, “He must have deserved it”

For the sin of Credulity, in which we have believed “news” from unreliable sources

For the sin of Disregarding facts that were uncomfortable for us

For the sin of Executing those whose offenses did not merit their death, and for standing by as our civil servants carried out those acts

For the sin of allowing unreasoning Fear to dictate our behavior towards others

For the sin of Greed, underpaying for work or over-charging for services

For the sin of baseless Hatred, that demonizes entire groups of other human beings

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of willful Ignorance, not wanting to know things that are embarrassing to us

For the sin of Jailing massive numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, separated from opportunities to better themselves and their families,

For the sin of Killing the hope of young men who believe that their only futures lie in prison or the grave

For the sin of Laziness in speaking up, when we hear racist language

For the sin of Minimizing the discomfort of others

For the sin of Non-Apologies that didn’t express true sorrow

For the sin of Omission, when we failed to act upon our expressed convictions

For the sin of Presuming that someone has a particular role because of their skin color

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Quiescence in the face of the racist behavior of others

For the sin of Racism, in all its myriad forms

For the sin of Self-congratulation for acts of common decency

For the sin of Taking umbrage when someone calls us on a racist word or act

For the Unconscious acts which have injured others without our awareness

For the sin of Violence against other human beings

For the sin of using Words in ways that perpetuate racism in any way

For the sin of Xenophobia, fearing and hating those who seem foreign to us

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Yakking when we should have been listening

For the sin of Zoning out when we assumed this list wasn’t about us

For all of the sins of commission and omission, all the sins we committed consciously and unconsciously, for those that were simply accidents and those for which we failed to make an apology

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For it is through true acts of genuine repentance and a sincere desire to change that we will open the future before our nation: a future of fairness, justice and peace. May all troubled hearts be comforted, may all wounded souls be healed, and may we live to see the day when the scourge of racism is truly behind us.



This is a repost of an earlier post on this blog.