A Mitzvah for Shmini Atzeret

Image: A laptop covered with post-it notes. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

The fall holiday cycle is almost done. Today is Shmini Atzeret, and then Jewish life will settle down for the quiet month of Cheshvan. Only one holiday, Sigd, twinkles at the far end of the month — otherwise it is quiet. It’s the longest such break in the Jewish Year, and it comes at a good time, because anyone involved in putting on all those celebrations is worn out.

Your clergy and staff at synagogue are exhausted from the past two years of Covid, Israel, political upheaval, rising antisemitism, and whatever has been going on locally in your community. This is a great time to write them a note about the sermon you liked, or the beautiful music, or something that went right. They have worked very hard and any expression of appreciation will be a blessing. Notes, emails, silly homemade postcards– it’s all wonderful.

The big thing is, if you’re happy about something to do with synagogue life, this is a great time to let your clergy know. They often wonder who notices things, and who cares. They hear about what went wrong but they rarely hear “thank you.”

To the person who says, “Well, it’s their job!” I have one thing to say: no, it isn’t “just a job.” It’s a labor of love, and particularly for staff, it is often a very poorly paid job. For clergy, it is months of work informed by years of training, and it is often done in tandem with volunteers who are full of good ideas and enthusiasm that have to be coordinated into a manageable whole. It’s WORK.

I am not a pulpit rabbi. I substituted for a colleague who was injured, so I had none of the preparations to do, just showed up to officiate for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even at part-duties, it was a big job, and I appreciated their thanks very much. In fact, those notes gave me a boost I needed after a stressful summer of other work — something of which they had no inkling. They refreshed my rabbinate more than they will ever know.

The expression of gratitude is a mitzvah: it restores the soul of both the speaker and the recipient. We are at the official end of the High Holy Day cycle. If there was anything you liked about your High Holy Days, whether it was the services, or the way the signups worked, or the call that was returned after you left a message, or someone’s cooking — this is a great time to say, “Thank you.”

The Tale of the Sick Dog

Image: My favorite picture of Jojo, who loves to sunbathe.

First, Jojo got sick. She threw up all over everywhere again and again. I felt sorry for her, and concerned. Her breathing was labored and she crouched as if in pain. She cuddled against me between retches, as if to implore: Help! None of this was her usual self; I was worried.

In the morning, I called the vet. Yes, they could see her at 3pm. Normally this would not be a problem but Linda and Jessica were both out of town.

I had to teach a class in Berkeley. I couldn’t take a sick dog, and didn’t know how long we’d be tied up at the vet. Moreover, Linda usually takes the dogs to the vet, because their office is inaccessible, and I have trouble mixing my cane with dogs. Jojo is heavy and would need to be lifted into and out of the car.

So. Many. Problems. I called Linda to get help thinking it through. She said, “Call Dawn!”

Dawn’s our friend and a fellow Jewish professional – aha! She could help me figure it out. She reminded me that a retired rabbi friend had offered to help me with classes – Yes! Then she offered to call him, so that I could work out the puzzle of how to get Jojo to the doc.

I called my son, who has two jobs and whom I try not to ask for things too often because he is busy and I don’t want to impose but sure, he would help, glad to help.

So I picked him up, and he picked the dog up, and we all three went to the vet’s office. He dealt with sad little Jojo while I got myself into the building and we saw the vet.

Turns out, Jojo is OK. No obstructions, no fever, just a tummy ache, likely from eating something in the garden – a Jojo experiment gone wrong.

There is a moral to this story. When we feel stuck, it is tempting to throw our hands in the air and say, “I can’t deal with this!” That is the moment to call upon friends: friends who can help, or friends who are calm. Get help thinking it through. Get help assessing resources.

I knew Rabbi Chester had offered to teach for me, but I needed to be reminded of it when I was in a panic. I knew Jim would say yes to helping, but I needed time to remember. I needed my whole village to make it through this puzzling, upsetting day.

And at the end of the day, Jojo felt loved (except by the vet, maybe.) I felt loved and cherished by my wife, my friend, my rabbi, my son, and the dog. I touched base with a friend I don’t talk with often enough. I got a chance to visit with my son. My class got a treat: Rabbi Chester is a wonderful rabbi and teacher.

Everyone in that chain of connections is part of my Jewish community. This isn’t the first time that they’ve saved me, and it won’t be the last. My synagogue is my rock; there are people I love and people I don’t love, but that is where I met most of the people who will show up for me when things are a mess.

None of us are equipped to live our lives like the mythical Marlboro Man, stoic and alone. Secular culture often idealizes the capable loner, but that’s bunk. We are social creatures, we human beings, and even more so, we Jews.

If you are reading this bitterly, and thinking, “I have no connections,” I offer you this: reach out to one person. Someone you know, someone not too scary, and exchange names with them. Be willing to show up for them, and then – voila! you will have a connection. Community helps with that, but it all starts with a friend.

I know you can. Years ago, I felt that I had to do everything alone. I spent most of my time drowning in anxiety. I still wind up back in that state, and I have to be reminded. That’s OK. I’m human too.

How Can A Regular Person Afford a Jewish Life? 8 Tips

Image: A small purse with a few coins spilled from it. (Croisy/Pixabay)

The end of summer approaches. Many of us can feel the approach of the High Holy Days just over the horizon. For those who are synagogue members, it’s dues-paying time. For those who are not, it’s how-do-I-find-services-I-can-afford time.

Anyone who lives a Jewish life for more than 10 minutes will notice that living Jewishly costs. Keeping Shabbat, for instance, can involve lost income, candles, and food. Keeping kosher can very expensive, since it can involve special food and extra dishes. Keeping Passover – oy gevalt! Have you seen what they charge for matzah? High Holy Day tickets, synagogue membership, bar or bat mitzvah, religous school for the kiddies, Jewish camp for the teens, travel to Israel – it is overwhelming.

Here are some ideas about coping with the cost of a Jewish life:

  1. Synagogue membership: Most synagogues do their best to balance the cost of keeping the doors open with the reality that most Jews aren’t wealthy. First, ask about the dues: how much? If that amount is impossible, consider it the beginning of a conversation. Ask about dues relief, aka financial aid. Different synagogues have various ways of making these decisions, but a good synagogue will have a dignified mechanism for helping you as much as they can. (It should go without saying that if we can give more than the bare-bones dues, we should do so precisely because others need help.)
  2. High Holy Day tickets: There is a large demand for seats in the synagogue for High Holy Days, far beyond the demand any other day of the year. Most synagogues have a limited number of seats, most of which are already occupied by members. Again, it’s worth asking about financial aid. But also, give the federation or other Jewish institutions a call, because it is likely that someone in town is offering services without a charge.
  3. Shabbat: Shabbat can be very simple; the most important ingredient is the sense that the day is different from all the others. Make it a day to connect with the people you love. Everything else follows from that. If you have to work, know that many Jews before you had to work on Shabbat, and worked toward a day when they would be free to take Shabbos off. Read the weekly parashahIf you are reading this article, you have access to the Torah portion through Hebcal or Sefaria. Also, many liberal synagogues stream services online every Shabbat, a boon for those of us who are not able to travel to services sometimes, and usually there is no paid gateway to those streams.
  4. Your Jewish Education: A Jewish educaton isn’t cheap. However, the Internet has brought about an explosion of Jewish learning opportunities for free. 10 Great Jewish Websites will point you to some of them. A word of warning: be picky. There’s a lot of good stuff out there and if what you read doesn’t fit your life, then try another site. My original purpose in starting this blog was to provide short accessible articles on Jewish topics for my Intro to Judaism students. You can use the search box on the left side of the screen to search for any topic.
  5. Your Child’s Jewish Education: It is a mitzvah (commandment) to educate our children. The same strategy for synagogues applies to religious school: have a conversation with the director about what may be available in financial aid. It is a community value to educate all our children. If it’s still out of reach, consider pairing with another Jewish family to celebrate holidays and observe Shabbat.
  6. Kashrut: Again, traditional kashrut (keeping kosher) is expensive. However, fruits and vegetables are naturally kosher unless they’ve been processed. Stay away from processed foods (a good idea anyway) which require big bucks for rabbinic supervision. The more dairy and meat, the more it will cost. But another thought: if at this stage of your life it isn’t possible to keep kosher, then don’t keep kosher yet. The day may come when you can. There are many good Jews who don’t keep kosher yet.
  7. Passover: The price of “kosher for passover” goods is a pet peeve of mine. The prices are outrageous. I recommend avoiding most processed Passover foods because they taste awful and aren’t good for any of us. Springtime is a time to celebrate fruits and vegetables, anyway. The commandment for the seder is to eat matzah, greens, bitter herbs, and to drink 4 cups of wine or grape juice. Some years I buy exactly that: a box of matzah, greens, herbs, and a bottle of grape juice. You don’t have to throw out your chametz (grain products.) Many people seal them up in a box, tape it shut, and open it at the end of the week. It isn’t “perfect observance” but since when do we all have to be perfect?
  8. Gather with Others: Many synagogues began as a small group of Jews who wanted to celebrate Jewish life. Rabbis are required for conversion to Judaism, but services can be led by any knowledgeable Jew. If you don’t have any knowledgable Jews, put together a book group or a reading group. Meet regularly to share what you are learning. Or get a siddur (prayer book) and take turns reading aloud out of it.

I hope you find something you can use in this list. If you have other ideas for making a Jewish life more possible on a limited budget, please share it in the Comments!

Wanted: Jewish Leadership!

Image: A red and white sign saying “Now Hiring.”

Only twice in the whole Torah does the phrase “lo tov” (not good) appear. The first is when God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The second is when Jethro sees his son-in-law, Moses, leading alone and says, “What you are doing is not good.” We cannot live alone. We cannot lead alone. Leadership is teamsmanship. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership,” 2012.

The best leaders lead by encouraging others, and by working as part of a team. Torah makes that point again and again. Moses is the leader, but he must work with the chieftains and judges. No matter how wise he is, no matter how holy he is, he cannot do the job alone.

Moses put a priority on raising up the next generation of leaders. He notices when Joshua son of Nun and Caleb come back from scouting the Land of Israel in Numbers 13-14, and alone among the spies speak encouragingly of the land, not just to him but to the people. He recognizes them as potential leaders – and God agrees with him, saying that alone of their generation, those two will survive to lead the next generation into the Land.

Moses had the foresight and the humility to see these young people as budding leaders of the Israelites. Where a lesser leader might have felt threatened by them, Moses nurtured them and their considerable gifts. He mentored them, especially Joshua, so that when Moses died, there was a new leader ready to step into those very large sandals.

Jewish congregations and other institutions last longer than any one life. We are mortal, and a wise leader will keep an eye out for the next generation or two of leadership. This is true not only for clergy but for lay leaders: good lay leaders don’t grow on trees.

Most successful lay leaders don’t start as president of the congregation. They start out small, working on a committee or two, getting to know people in the congregation, learning how things are done. They are more positive than negative. They look for ways to build up, not to tear down.

I have been the beneficiary of generous mentors, both clergy and lay. After I stepped out of the mikveh, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, but I wanted to be a part of things. I joined two committees: the Caring Committee and the Outreach Committee. I learned skills that continue to serve me well. I learned things about myself that I’m still working on, too!

I strive to “pass it on” by looking for likely young leaders and nudging them to take their place in the life of the Jewish people. If they are scholarly, I mention rabbinical school. If they are warm, practical types, I point them to a committee that I think might interest them. It’s not enough to simply be Jewish – we have to DO Jewish too, and part of doing Jewish is making sure that Torah continues after we are gone.

If you are in a position of responsibility in your congregation, never forget that part of your job is looking for your replacements, encouraging future generations of leadership. Yes, it takes humility: they’re going to do things in new ways, not always the way you want things done, but without them there is no future. 

If you are young or new and hope to build the future of your congregation, join a committee and get cracking!  Get to know people. Get some work done. If you have limitations, welcome to the human race. If you can’t figure out what you can contribute, talk to your rabbi or someone in leadership, and ask for help figuring out what you can bring to the party.

The Jewish People need you!

משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הֵם אָמְרוּ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים, הֱווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִּין, וְהַעֲמִידוּ תַלְמִידִים הַרְבֵּה, וַעֲשׂוּ סְיָג לַתּוֹרָה:

Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Torah.

Do You Know Where You Will Be for the High Holy Days?

Image: Man blowing a shofar, a ram’s horn.

Rosh HaShanah begins this year at sundown on September 20, 2017, two months from now.

Every pulpit rabbi is busy with sermons and service plans. Every synagogue staff is frantically busy with preparations.

For the “Jew in the pew” September may seem a long way off.

Are you interested in attending services this year? If you are not a synagogue member, now is the time to start thinking about where you would like to attend. For every person who wants a seat in an urban or suburban synagogue, there may be several people who want that seat. That’s one of the reasons that synagogues sell tickets for the big High Holy Day services. And that is why you should start looking for your service very soon.

Don’t want to “pay to pray?” There are probably free services available in your area if you live in a city in the U.S., but again, you may want to locate those services sooner rather than later. Call your local Federation or Jewish Community Center office and ask what they know about free High Holy Day services.

If you have been thinking that this is your year to join a synagogue, I strongly suggest that you visit synagogues before the High Holy Days. This has several advantages:

  1. Your dues will include your High Holy Day tickets.
  2. You will not be stuck in a strange synagogue for the High Holy Days.
  3. Summer is a good time to visit synagogues. The High Holy Days are a terrible time to visit synagogues.

If you are a synagogue member, now is the time to remind yourself that this is the most stressful time of year for synagogue office staff. In addition to their regular work, they are preparing mailings, service books, and handouts. As the membership agreements come in, they have to deal with people’s questions about tickets, their complaints about last year, their worries about this year, and assorted kvetching about the weather and the parking last year. If you aspire to be a mensch (and you should aspire to be a mensch!) BE NICE TO THOSE PEOPLE!

So yes, the High Holy Days are coming, and fast. Be menschen, that you may be sealed for goodness  in the Book of Life!

Sexism and the Rabbinate

Image: Rabbi Denise Eger, center, reading Torah during her installation as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, surrounded by other rabbis, March 16, 2015. (David A.M. Wilensky / Times of Israel)

When I first was ordained as a rabbi, I felt awkward introducing myself as Rabbi Ruth Adar. Despite the fact that I had just spent six years in school, a year overseas, a fortune in tuition, and significant blood and tears in preparing for the rabbinate, it felt presumptuous to introduce myself as “Rabbi Adar.” Several senior colleagues set me straight on that: Honor to the rabbi, known in Hebrew as Kvod HaRav, is a way of showing respect for the Torah in a rabbi’s head and heart, and to the years of dedication to the Jewish People.

Now, when people ask what to call me, I say “Rabbi Adar.” Sure, there are old friends who know me from before, but even they use the title when we are in public.

Lately I’ve noticed a practice that bothers me a lot. Male rabbis are usually referred to as “Rabbi Lastname.” Women rabbis, however, are all too often addressed as “Firstname” or “Rabbi Firstname.” This happens even when they are part of a group of rabbis: too often only the male rabbis get the proper title!

I don’t think that most of the people who do this are conscious of what they are doing. The same individual will refer to male rabbis as “Rabbi Cohen” or “Rabbi Josh” and then turn around and talk about “Sarah” or “Denise” as if the rabbi is just another member of the congregation.  They may even feel affection for that rabbi, but still they call her by her first name only, or by some form of diminutive. Worse, I realized that in some cases, I had picked up this bad habit.

My personal teshuvah on this issue is to always, always refer to rabbis in public as “Rabbi Lastname,” especially if they are women. I do this because sexism is wrong, and this is a way to model better behavior. I also do it because, as my senior colleagues taught me, these are individuals who have dedicated all they have, all they are, to the service of Torah and the Jewish People.

Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women In the Rabbinate from CCAR on Vimeo.

Mystery of the Inner Sanctum


Image: A glimpse through the door of an airplane cockpit. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

I snapped this photo during an airport delay and sent it to my nephew, the airline pilot. (He just made Captain; pardon me while I kvell.) I knew he’d understand my delight in grabbing the picture. The difference between us is that while I was getting a thrill from seeing the mysterious instruments, he knew exactly what he saw in the photo.

“Here is some fun information about your airplane while you wait… https://m.planespotters.net/airframe/Boeing/717/55151/N490HA-Hawaiian-Airlines … It looks like it was built Dec 2000.”

I love talking to an expert! I saw lights and switches; he saw readouts and clues. He told me things I never expected he’d be able to tell from one quick snapshot, and sent me to a website with everything I could possibly want to know about that particular aircraft. Who knew?

When something about Jewish practice interests you, but you don’t know quite what to make of it, ask your rabbi. We won’t think you or your question are stupid. Like my nephew, we will simply be delighted that someone is interested.

Always ask!

7 Rules For Calling the Rabbi

A conversation I had too often as a congregational rabbi:

  • Mrs. Cohen: Rabbi, why didn’t you visit Abe Levi in the hospital?
  • Me: What? Abe Levi was in the hospital?
  • Mrs. Cohen: Yes, last month! He had a heart attack! EVERYONE knew. He and Helen say they are never going to forgive you and now they are looking for another synagogue. I don’t know what they teach you in rabbinical school these days!

Unfortunately, I am not making this up. Many people don’t realize that in the USA, hospitals and other medical institutions are prevented by law from informing clergy when congregants are admitted to the hospital. Also, clergy cannot read minds and hear surprisingly little from the “gossip mill” in the synagogue.

Alternatively, I’d find out that someone was in the hospital and “hadn’t wanted to bother” the rabbi. If my congregant was in the hospital, I wanted to be “bothered”! If you don’t want us to visit, you can say so, but let us know something’s going on.

Here, as a public service, I offer these rules for calling your rabbi:

  1. Synagogues have methods of getting messages to rabbis in time of emergency; there’s usually something about it in the voice mail message. An emergency is (1) someone has died or (2) someone is in the hospital in crisis. It is OK to call your synagogue’s “emergency number” in either of those circumstances, even if the hour is very late or early.
  2. Hospitals in the USA cannot notify your synagogue about congregants who are patients. If you want your rabbi to know about your health, you will have to call the synagogue and tell them.
  3. Your rabbi wants to know that you are going in for surgery, even if it is surgery you don’t want to think about. Give them a call ahead of time and let them know.
  4. Your rabbi doesn’t need to know medical details unless you want to tell them.
  5. For things that are not emergencies (even miracles, like new babies) call during office hours.
  6. Call your rabbi during office hours if:
  • You would like a counseling session
  • You are planning a lifecycle event (the earlier, the better: A year ahead is not premature!)
  • You have happy news.
  • You have sad news.
  • You have received bad news.
  • You’d like to be more active at temple, but don’t know what you want to do.
  • You need somewhere confidential to talk something out.

7. If you need to leave a message for the rabbi, leave your phone number, spoken slowly and clearly. They may pick the message up at a time and place where they can’t look up your number.

Rabbis train for the rabbinate because we love Torah and we want to serve the Jewish People. Help your rabbi out by not requiring that they read your mind. Call the rabbi!



How Do We Raise Up a Leader?

Image: Large shoe, person trying to fill it. Drawing by Frits Ahlefeldt, via pixabay.com.

Recently a colleague quoted a 3rd century text in the course of a discussion:

“A friend can be acquired only with great difficulty.” It is from a 3rd century collection of midrash on Deuteronomy, Sifre Devarim.  I’d heard of it but never studied it. I was curious about the context – what kind of friend? what sort of difficulty? How could I resist?

Normally when I want to look up a rabbinic text, I go to my bookshelf. I don’t own a copy of Sifre Devarim, so I went online. I found a translation of the text, even though I could not find a copy of the Hebrew text. (That will have to wait until I visit the HUC library later this summer.) Still, here is a translation of the line in context by Dr. Marty Jaffee of the University of Washington. Note that the word chaver may be translated both “friend” and “study partner:”

Then HASHEM said to Moses:

Take for yourself Joshua b. Nun, a man with spirit” (Nu.27:18)—

take for yourself a virile type, like yourself!

Take for yourself” (Nu.27:18)—

this phrase actually implies an act of seizure,

for a study partner can be acquired only with great difficulty.

On this basis they taught:

A person should acquire for himself a study partner—

to declaim Scripture with him,

to repeat oral traditions with him,

to eat and drink with him,

and to whom he can reveal his secrets.

And, so He says:

“Two are better than one” (Ecc.4:9), and

“A three-ply rope will not soon be severed” (Ecc.4:12).

– from Sifre Devarim, Pisqa’ 305:1. Translation by Marty Jaffee.

So the rabbis of Sifre Devarim were asking themselves, “How did Moses train Joshua to be his successor?” Joshua needed to learn from Moses – how was that going to happen? The rabbis considered their own experiences with learning relationships. They may have been thinking about the critical problem of developing new leadership, and were looking to the life of Joshua to see how he grew into being the worthy successor to Moses.

Learning partnerships were very important to the rabbis. The word chaver that is usually translated “friend” in Modern Hebrew also meant “study partner” in Rabbinic Hebrew. We see in the texts that those were some of the most important relationships in their lives. There’s a story in the Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a, about Honi the Circle Maker. Honi fell asleep for seventy years, and when he woke up, he discovered that his son was dead and so were all his old study partners. He died of grief. The story in Ta’anit ends thus:

Rava said, “That is what people mean when they say, ‘Either companionship or death.'”

A line in Dr. Jaffee’s translation immediately reminded me of another text, possibly the most famous text on the subject:

Yehoshua ben Perachia says, “Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious.  – Pirkei Avot 1:6

This text makes a distinction between mentors and friends, the same distinction we see in the Sifre Devarim text.

  • “Make for yourself a mentor [rav.]”  The verb here is l’aseh, to make or to do.We usually think of the mentor “making” the learner into something, but here the focus is on the learner. A person is a mentor or teacher because we choose to see that person in that way. If we are unwilling to learn from someone, it’s very hard for them to do much with us.
  • “Acquire for yourself a friend [chaver.]” This verb is liknot, to acquire. A man also acquires a bride as in Mishnah Kiddushin 1: “A woman is acquired in three ways and acquires herself in two ways.” While some modern readers focus on acquisition in the modern sense and think, “It’s like buying a cow!” as one of my teachers (I wish I could remember which one) pointed out, in this acquisition, the cow has to give her consent. Truly intimate relationships require mutual consent, be they marital or intellectual.
  • Take for yourself Joshua ben Nun.” (Numbers 27:18, quoted in Sifre Devarim, Pisqa’ 305, above) The verb is lakakh, to take or seize.

Joshua needed mentoring, if he was to succeed Moses as leader. However, one cannot force another person to accept instruction from a mentor. One can learn from a mentor only by choosing to follow their lead. Therefore Moses needed to acquire Joshua as a chaver, a friend, so that they could learn together what God needed to convey.

The rabbis recognize, though, it is difficult to make a new friend. You don’t just march up and say, “We’re going to be friends” any more than you might walk up to another person and say “I’m going to marry you.” (You can try, but the other person may decide you are creepy and just run away!)

Moses certainly could have marched up to Joshua ben Nun and said, “Lookit, fellow, God says I am supposed to take you and make you into the next leader of Israel.” However, Joshua might easily have said, “No thanks,” especially after seeing how that role had worked out for Moses. The 3rd century rabbis saw that there was more to the Numbers 27 text than Moses walking up and saying “Tag, you’re It.”

While the message is rather subtle, I suspect that they were trying to figure out how to nurture good leaders without scaring them off or winding up with blowhards who wanted leadership for bad reasons.

Have you ever been mentored by someone? Have you ever been a mentor? Does this text seem to you to have something to say about mentoring for leadership – if so, what?


The One (Best) Key to Jewish Experiences

Image: A golden key. Public domain.

What single thing could most strongly improve the quality of your Jewish experience? It’s simple: learn some Hebrew.

Hebrew is as essential to Jewish citizenship as English is to American citizenship. Sure, there are American citizens who don’t speak English well, but much of the American experience is closed to them. The same is true for Jews and Hebrew: a person can certainly be a good Jew and not be able to read a word of Hebrew, but they will forever be on the outside looking in.

Total fluency takes time and effort. Fortunately, every little bit you learn has a big payoff:

Learn the alef-bet and reap these rewards:

  • The letters will cease to be squiggles and become familiar.
  • You will have the essential tool to move forward.

Learn a few greetings, and you will:

  • Be able to exchange greetings with fellow Jews from all over the world.
  • Have something to say to any Israeli you meet.
  • Begin to feel more connected to Jews everywhere.

Learn to read and understand a few simple phrases and you will:

  • Be able to order coffee on Dizengoff St. in Tel Aviv.
  • Know more Hebrew than most American Jews.

Take a conversational Modern Hebrew class and you will:

  • Be able to visit Israel and feel like mishpachah [family], rather than a tayar [tourist.]
  • Have the tools for ever-expanding conversational skills – just keep at it!
  • Open the door to Modern Hebrew literature.

Take a Prayer Book Hebrew class and you will:

  • Understand prayers, rather than just mouth them.
  • Be able to follow along as the Torah and Haftarah are chanted.
  • Open the doors to Jewish spirituality.

Take a Biblical Hebrew class and you will:

  • Discover that there’s much, much more to those stories in Genesis.
  • Begin to enjoy the rich poetry in every line of Hebrew.
  • Hold your own in any discussion about “what the Bible really says.”

Keep on studying and the vast universe of Jewish texts and experiences will open to you!

“But I’m not talented at languages!”

So what? You have probably learned many things in your life without being “talented” at them. One can learn to make toast without being a “talented” cook.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, the rabbis tell us that one good deed leads to another. So too, with Hebrew, every bit of progress leads to more progress. The sooner you begin, the sooner you will learn your letters and their rewards will begin!