A Message for My Non-Jewish Readers after Pittsburgh

Image: White votive candles arranged in the shape of a Star of David. (Photo: FreedomMaster/Shutterstock)

“My Gentile relatives do not understand why I am so upset,” a convert said to me, “They keep saying, ‘But you don’t live anywhere near Pittsburgh!’ and I can’t make them understand.”

You may be puzzled by the degree to which Jewish friends feel personally threatened by the shootings in Pittsburgh, or by the length of time they feel anxious about it. This is one of the things about minority status: things hit close to home, even when the event is far away.

Many of your Jewish friends have had other experiences of anti-Semitism that were personally upsetting and this event has re-stimulated feelings from those earlier experiences. My synagogue was vandalized on Rosh Hashanah last year. My rabbinical school was vandalized before that. My friend Pamela Waechter was murdered in the 2006 shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation. Those are just a few of my personal experiences: your Jewish friends have had other experiences of things people have said to them or things done to people or institutions they loved. Pittsburgh came on top of whatever they were already carrying.

Some of your Jewish friends may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations. Intergenerational trauma has been documented in the decendants of Holocaust survivors and in the decendants of people imprisoned in POW camps during the American Civil War. Your Jewish friend may also be affected by family memories of trauma – we tend not to talk about those a lot, but you would be surprised how many of the Jews you know have family stories about fleeing death.

Judaism is like an enormous extended family. Anyone who receives a Jewish education learns Kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh, “All Jews are responsible for each other.” Rabbi Melanie Aron explains this concept by citing a story from the tradition:

“The people of Israel are similar to a ship. If there is a hole in the lower hold, one does not say, ‘Only the lower hold has a hole in it.’ Rather they must immediately recognize that the ship is liable to sink and that they must repair the hole down below.” – Tanna De Bei Eliyahu Rabbah Chapter 11

As a result, when there is trouble for Jews anywhere in the world, all Jews feel it. The best analogy I can offer is the way Americans felt frightened and angry after 9/11, even if they had no personal connection to any of the victims, even if they lived far away from any of the cities involved.

What can our friends do to support us? If you are not Jewish, but you have Jewish friends or relatives, give them a call or an email or a shout-out via Facebook and tell them they are in your thoughts. Be aware that the Pittsburgh shooting felt like both a personal loss and an existential threat to many of us. Offers of prayers and support are welcome.

As you would with any other shocking loss, keep the advice, theological statements, and political commentary to a minimum. “Where were you when you heard about it?” is a good question. “I wanted you to know that I care” is great. Letting them know that you are willing to listen to their fears without judgment or one-upmanship is wonderful.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join the ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center or donate to them. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-Semitism. Ten Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways against all forms of hate is a very tangible way of letting your Jewish friend know that you understand.

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What to Wear on Yom Kippur?

Image: Air Force Captain Rabbi Gary Davidson is wearing a kittel and puts on a tallit to lead Yom Kippur services for Air Force personnel stationed in South East Asia. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Central Command)

(If it’s not Yom Kippur, see my other article What to Wear to Synagogue?)

I noticed that the third most popular article on this blog on Rosh Hashanah was What to Wear to Synagogue. I suspect there may also be folks who wonder what to wear on Yom Kippur – or who get to synagogue and worry that they have worn the wrong thing.

Yom Kippur is a complicated day for clothing choices for Jews, because there is a wide variation of practice. For a visitor to an unfamiliar synagogue, you are unlikely to go far wrong with clean, tidy business attire. 

However, what you will see upon arrival at the synagogue may cover quite a range. Here are some choices you may encounter at a Yom Kippur service:

  1. Many people will wear “nice” business attire.
  2. Some may choose to wear canvas or plastic shoes, since traditionally there is a prohibition of wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur.
  3. Some may choose to wear a white garment that looks a bit like a modest lightweight bathrobe or a lab coat. It’s called a kittel, and it has multiple connotations. Bridegrooms may wear a kittel for weddings. A kittel is part of the tachrichim, the traditional burial shroud. It conveys a sense of both purity and mourning.
  4. Some may choose to observe the prohibition against “anointing” on Yom Kippur. Interpretations of this practice vary: women may refrain from wearing cosmetics, men may forgo scented products. Some individuals interpret it as including deodorant.
  5. Washing for pleasure is forbidden during Yom Kippur, but washing for hygiene is permitted. Individuals decide on precisely where to draw those lines themselves. You may see someone who appears to be having a “bad hair day” because they still have “bed head.”

Why would civilized people show up for a major religious observance with such grooming? This has to do with the five “afflictions” of Yom Kippur. Traditionally, on Yom Kippur Jews abstain from:

  1. Food and drink
  2. sex
  3. washing for pleasure
  4. anointing
  5. wearing leather shoes

In my own experience as an American Reform Jew, I’ve seen a few people groom themselves differently for Yom Kippur, and some people wear canvas shoes. A much smaller number wear a kittel. Most people wear tidy, clean clothing but nothing unusual.

The last thing that’s different about clothing for Yom Kippur is that you will see a number of people in synagogue wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, at the evening Kol Nidre service. At no other time does the Jew in the pew wear a tallit at night.

In most Orthodox synagogues, the tallit and kittel are seen as males-only attire. I say “most” because even in Orthodoxy, customs vary from shul to shul. Women dress as they do for any other service at that synagogue. How dressy they will be depends on the culture of that particular community. In general, women at an Orthodox shul wear skirts, not slacks.

For a visitor in any synagogue, the same rule applies as for other services: you are likely to fit right in wearing business attire. The important thing is that one be clean, tidy and modest. You want to dress in a way that will allow you and those around you to pay attention to prayer and the service, because after all, that’s the point!

Introduction to the Jewish Experience

Image: Me, lighting Shabbat candles. You’ll learn how to do this, and what it all means. (Photo by Linda Burnett.)

I teach a course called Intro to the Jewish Experience, a class that begins with Basic Judaism. It’s designed to equip students to participate in Jewish community, whether that’s the local synagogue or the local Jewish Film Festival.

For info on where and how to sign up, check out A Course in Basic Judaism!, which I posted last week. There is an online section of the class, which you may attend “live” or via recording, and a completely separate but parallel regular class that will meet at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA.

The class has three separate terms. Students are welcome to take them in any order. Each will also work nicely as a stand-alone course. Here are the topics covered, with the caveat that depending on the interests of class members and on opportunities for interesting visitors, there may be changes:

Fall Term: Jewish Holidays and Lifecycle Events (Oct – Dec)

  1. The Sabbath – Basic Concepts
  2. God, Covenant, & Mitzvah
  3. Spring Holiday Cycle: Purim, Passover, & Shavuot
  4. Fall Holiday Cycle: Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, & Sukkot
  5. National Holiday Cycle: Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, the Yoms, & Tisha B’Av.
  6. Death & Mourning as a Jew
  7. Bar/Bat Mitzvah & Jewish Weddings
  8. Welcoming New Jews: Bris, Brit Bat, & Conversion to Judaism

Winter Term: Israel & Texts (Jan – Mar)

  1. The Sabbath – looking at a text of Shabbat
  2. Ancient Israel – History & Archaeology
  3. Torah, Tanakh, and Midrash – Stories about Ancient Israel
  4. Rabbinic Judaism (70 CE – 800 CE) – History of the Rabbis
  5. Rabbinic Texts – What is the Talmud? – with text study
  6. Codes, Responsa and Law – How does “Jewish Law” really work?
  7. Anti-Semitism
  8. Zionism & Modern Israel

Spring Term: Traditions of Judaism (Apr – May)

We begin with the things that all Jews share, and then look at the great diversity in the Jewish world:

  1. The Sabbath: Havdalah 
  2. Synagogue, Siddur, and Service
  3. Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture
  4. Ashkanazi Judaism: History & Culture
  5. Mizrahim: Histories & Culture
  6. North American Judaism and Movements of Judaism
  7. Jews of Color
  8. Jews & Food, Jewish Social Action

As you can see, each term begins with the Sabbath. That will tell you how central I believe the day is to understanding Judaism. In the fall, we look at it as the biggest holiday in the Jewish year. In winter, we learn how to do Jewish text study by studying the Kiddush together. In the spring, it is the first of the three things the Jewish world has in common.

If this sounds like it might be for you, you can find more information and registration links here:

Online Class:

Class meets on Sunday from 3:30-5pm Pacific Time, starting on October 22. To register, visit the course page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.

Class in the San Francisco East Bay:

Classes will meet at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley on Wednesdays starting October 10 from 7:30 – 9pm. For more information and to register, visit the course’s page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
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Financial assistance is available for students who need it. Contacts are available in our online catalogue at Lehrhaus.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling Confused about the Jewish Calendar?

Image: A confused looking poodle. (Photo: R. Ruth Adar)

Here are some common questions and links to some basic answers:

  1. What’s Rosh HaShanah?
  2. When is Rosh HaShanah this year? (Sept 9-10-11, 2018)
  3. What is the Jewish New Year?
  4. What is Yom Kippur?
  5. Where can I find a Jewish Calendar?
  6. What is Elul?
  7. What is Tishri?
  8. Why is the Jewish calender so weird?

A Course in Basic Judaism!

Image: My first “Intro to the Jewish Experience” class, in 2009. Photo by Scott Wexelberg.

Right after the High Holy Days, I start my “Intro to the Jewish Experience” series over again.

Intro to the Jewish Experience is a course in Basic Judaism offered by Lehrhaus Judaica and taught by Rabbi Ruth Adar – me.
Who takes this class? People who for whatever reason never got a basic Jewish education and want one. They may be born-Jewish, they may be considering conversion, they may be marrying into a Jewish family, or maybe they’ve taken a job at a Jewish institution. This class will give a good foundation in the basics, and also some insights about how Jewish communities actually work.
My goal is to equip all my students for whatever Jewish connections they want in their lives.
Class in the San Francisco East Bay:
Classes will meet at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley on Wednesdays starting October 10 from 7:30 – 9pm. For more information and to register, visit the course’s page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
Online Class:
If Wednesday evenings are not convenient, we offer the same course online on Sunday afternoons from 3:30-5pm Pacific Time, starting on October 22. To register, visit the course page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
The course takes place in three terms, which may be taken in any order:
  • In the Fall (Oct – Dec) Jewish Holidays & Lifecycle Events.
  • In Winter (Jan – March)  Israel & Texts. (History of Judaism and Jewish Texts)
  • In Spring, (April – May) we learn about the the diversity in world Judaism and the similarities that hold us together, in a class we call Traditions of Judaism.

Information about the class is available at the class website, Jewish Experience Online.

 

What is Teshuvah?

Image:  An archer takes aim with a bow and arrow. (skeeze/pixabay)

Teshuvah means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah:”

  1. We notice what we’ve done wrong,
  2. We acknowledge that it is wrong,
  3. We take responsibility for it,
  4. We apologize and make amends, and then
  5. We make a plan for not doing it again.

SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that I aimed at something and I missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person I am for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when I am next in that situation.

Very Important:  The point of the teshuvah is not to beat ourselves up, it’s to make ourselves better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  According to Maimonides, until I am in that situation again and behave differently, I cannot be certain that my teshuvah is complete.

In Judaism, the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind. It does not matter how lousy I feel about what I did, it matters that I address what I have done with the people I’ve hurt and do what I can to make sure there are no repeats.

Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  Sometimes it means getting into treatment, or joining a 12 step group. A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat myself up, it’s to make the world better by making my behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. When I feel embarrassed at what I have done, that’s part of the process. Making teshuvah will help with the shame.

Each day of our lives is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.

High Holy Days for Beginners – 5779 / 2018

Image: Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs, FL blows the shofar to announce the new year. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Loving.

The High Holy Days are coming!

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 9, 2018. It will begin the Jewish Year 5779. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season will begin at sundown on August 10 with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Jews worldwide take the month of Elul to examine their lives in the light of Torah, looking for things about ourselves that need to change. For more about preparation, look at Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days and Teshuvah 101.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even accidentally, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”] Teshuvah 101 explains this concept in more detail – it isn’t about beating ourselves up, it’s about change for the better.

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against God. We atone for sins against other human beings through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

Tickets for Prayer?

Very important: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the holiday (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to direct you to a synagogue which offers free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services. Many non-orthodox synagogues stream services on the Internet.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays. If you are interested in an online basic introduction to judaism, check out Learn About Judaism Online.

In October I shall offer an online class, Introduction to the Jewish Experience, through Lehrhaus Judaica. The class meets on Sundays but is also available via recordings. (Full disclosure: I am the instructor.) I will post information about registration as soon as the new catalog is up.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5779!