You Shall Pursue

April 7, 2014

Maybe this is what it Feels Like to be a Rabbi

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Rabbinical School — Tags: — marleyweiner @ 9:42 pm

I had a remarkably good weekend at work. Some highlights:

  • Chatting about the current and recent past goings on at my alma matter with a Hebrew School teacher who is a current student there while observing a pretty intense game of Gaga.
  • Two words: Chocolate. Seder.
  • Playing Mishneh Impossible with the Hebrew High Schoolers and helping them frantically research answers to questions about Passover laws, customs, and rituals for fabulous prizes.
  • A handshake from an elderly dementia patient I have been visiting when I do my pastoral visits. Usually, he is completely non-responsive and today, we connected a little bit.
  • Watching two truly awesome young ladies that I have had the privilege of working with on their Haftorah speeches become Bat Mitzvah.
  • Hiding briefly under the table with a group of three year old girls at the dinner after family Shabbat. As they said “You can come to our party; it’s just for GIRLS.” Indeed tiny ladies, indeed.
  • Encouraging the father of one of our members to come to my adult Torah study class the next weekend that he is in town. He seemed really enthusiastic!

For the first time since I arrived at my student pulpit, I have felt a part of every aspect of this community. I recognize faces, I know stories, and I feel comfortable going up to every person, introducing myself, or asking them about things I know from the last time we spoke. It feels easy and natural, like I belong here. I know that this job is not all fun and games and beautiful moments of swelling joy and pride in my community. But when that joy and pride is there, it is the best job in the world.


March 16, 2014

Sermon: Jews, Crimea, and the Importance of Diaspora

Filed under: D'var Torah, Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:22 am

A few years ago, when I was living in Israel, I had the privilege of visiting Cairo with a group of friends during the Passover break (and yes, the irony is not lost on me). As part of our vacation, we went to the Etz Hayim synagogue in Cairo. The synagogue is beautifully maintained by a Muslim historical preservation group.

And while it was a joy to see a piece of Jewish history, I couldn’t help but mourn that there were no Jews left to pray in this synagogue, no children left to celebrate becoming B’nei Mitzvah, no couples to celebrate weddings. Most Egyptian Jews have immigrated to Israel, and built a life for themselves there, but there is a real loss of a community that has existed continuously for thousands of years.

And speaking of loss, in recent weeks, Ukraine has been in turmoil, and Russia has sent troops into the Crimean peninsula. One of my professors just came from a mission in the area, and she spoke movingly about the fear and confusion in the Jewish community during this time. People are scared, and confused. And on Wednesday, an envoy from the Ukranian Jewish community was refused a meeting with the Israeli government. And I worry, yet again, about what this means for the Jews.

According to current population estimates, there are about 70,000 Jews living in Ukraine, and about 17,000 of them live in Crimea. Before World War II, the Crimea was an area of remarkable autonomy for the Jews. There was agriculture, and yiddishkeit, and a thriving community supported by American philanthropy and a nascent Zionist can-do attitude.

But the War and Stalinism decimated that vibrant Jewish community, and now the Jews living there are mostly old, and there is only one synagogue.

The strength of the Jewish people has long been its interconnectedness. From the time of the earliest Diasporas, in Alexandria and Babylonia, there has been a tremendous amount of communication and movement between Jewish communities all over the world.

In the time of the Gaonim, the great early Medieval Rabbinic decisors in the 5th to 11th centuries, Jewish communities from Spain and Europe and even the Land of Israel wrote to the great academies in Persia, and so developed prayer books and practical marriage laws and many aspects of Judaism that we take for granted today. And as Babylonia shrunk in importance, the community in Spain grew in scholarship to take its place. And so to Eastern Europe, and so to America.

At the height of the Soviet Union’s persecution of the Jews, the American and Israeli Jewish communities worked together to protest and provide safe-haven for their Soviet brothers and sisters. In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel staged missions to bring the persecuted Jews of Ethiopia, Yemen, and Morocco to the land. We are unique among the nations in that our commitment to protecting our own is backed up by explicit national policy.

So then, why not just send planes into the Crimea, airlift out the 17,000 Jews living there, and bring them back to Israel? Besides the fact that Israeli governmental policy has moved away from such dramatic missions, I don’t think aliyah is always the answer.

In my opinion, we are a people that is strongest when we have a healthy relationship between diaspora, and Israel. We are a people that has grown into its own scattered among the nations, carving out a place of more or less autonomy, and more or less acceptance, always surviving, and sometimes thriving. We have always been, in the words of Mordecai Kaplan, a people of two civilizations, the Jewish civilization and the civilization in which we find ourselves, and in that hybrid comes our strength.

Author and co-developer of Birthright Israel Gidi Grinstein speaks of the Jews as a people of “flexigidity.” Our customs, our language, our Torah, has remained remarkably consistent over time, which contributes to our sense of continuity. But we are also a people remarkably good at drawing from the cultures around us, at creating fluid hybrid cultures that serve our contemporary moment. Without both of these aspects, without the ability to maintain our unique pocket cultures, we lose access to the brilliant variety of experience that makes our people so vibrant and so durable.

I think of American Jewish culture. Our opportunities to grow in creative writing, literature, theater, and music. Our brilliant thinkers and writers who are able to flourish and publish in a culture with separation of church and state. The way that klezmer and African and European music blended together to create the blues. The fact that someone like Michelle Bachman will use a word like “chutzpah,” even if she can’t pronounce it. America has been good to the Jews, and good for the Jews. And so was Egypt. And so was Spain. And so was Babylonia. And so was Prague.

And this is why it is our duty to use our voices and our influence to protect Jews in other lands of the Diaspora, and not just in Israel. This is why it is so important to keep writing, and speaking to Congress members, and sending money for rabbinic missions all over the Jewish world. Because our survival and existence depends on a multitude of experiences. It is how we have become who we are today.

Next year, I will be studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. And along with me, there will be several students from the Abraham Geiger Kolleg Institute of Potsdam in Germany. Yes, I will get to study with German rabbinical students. If that is not an example of a Jewish community resurfacing from the ashes, I don’t know what is. And I am sure that our shared studies will leave us all the richer. We as a community can come out from the ashes, if we support each other and help each other to grow. And we, as a community, will all be the richer for it.

December 4, 2013

Sermon Slam

Filed under: D'var Torah, Jewish Communitty, Patrilineal Descent — Tags: — marleyweiner @ 1:01 pm

I recently delivered a sermon about Hanukkah for Sermon Slam Philadelphia, an event like a poetry reading or a storytelling contest, but for sermons and other religious works. You can find a podcast of the event here. There were a lot of amazing, creative, and diverse works shared at this event, so please check it out. So many thanks to you guys for letting me share my preaching! And here’s the text of the sermon:

I’d like to start with a Hanukkah story, and one that you have probably never heard. In the days of Jason the High Priest, the days just before Antiochus the tyrant’s merciless attack on Judaism, several Jewish men were sent as representatives of Judea to the Herculean games at Tyre. They were sent with a hefty sum of money to fund sacrifices at the games, sacrifices to the god Hercules.

Imagine being those men. The honor and the privilege of representing Judea to the rest of the Greek world! The thrill of traveling to a new place, seeing the empire, and coming home as heroes, as champions. And yet, they have money in their pockets to sacrifice to Hercules. And so what do they do? What can they do? They can participate in foreign games, but they cannot bring themselves to worship foreign gods. The money never goes to sacrifices. Instead, it goes into the Greek war chest, to fund several new battleships.

I feel very close to the Jewish athletes from this story. Because I know what it means to feel the seductive pull of a broader culture. Those men most certainly spoke Greek, were gymnasia educated, and likely studied Plato and Aristotle. My native language is English, I was educated at Barnard, a secular college, where I majored in anthropology. I watch American TV, I listen to American music. My life, all of our lives, are deeply, strongly, American.

And that pull goes deeper for me than for many, especially future clergy. In this time of year, the time of light in the dark months, is hard for me. Because on Christmas, I’m going to be sitting in a church pew with my Presbyterian grandparents. I’m from an interfaith family, an overlooked but not uncommon occurrence among a new generation of American Jewish leaders.

The Maccabees did not like Jews like me. Their books rail against the Hellenization of their fellow Jews, calling them “evil” and “lawless” and claiming that they “abandoned the holy covenant.” Let alone marrying out.

The war of the Maccabees is not only a war against religious oppression. It is also a culture war, a strong statement against the forces of Hellenization. The Maccabees not only want to remain a free people, they also want to remain a people apart.

Given that, what does it mean to celebrate Hanukkah? How do I keep celebrating a holiday that commemorates a group that would have gladly driven my parents and me out on a rail?

For the answer, I wish to turn to this week’s Torah portion, to a man with many brothers, Joseph. Joseph who lives most of his life in Egypt. Joseph who takes on high positions of political power in court. Joseph who marries and Egyptian woman and has sons by her. And Joseph who, when the time comes, saves his brothers and welcomes them into his home with open arms.

Joseph is a master of “both/ and” thinking. He is a high ranking Egyptian official AND anxious to receive his father’s blessing. He is married to an Egyptian woman AND an interpreter of God’s visions. He straddles both worlds, and through the stretch and the straddling, he manages to save both the Egyptian people and his own family.

And so it is for me. I make one grandmother’s Christmas cookies and the other’s Jewish apple cake. I read Talmud, and then talk to my grandmother about how well I’m doing at my student “church.” I discuss atheism with my Jewish father, and kabbalah with my agnostic mother, and Aramaic with my atheist housemate who once wanted to be a priest. I study the historical context of the Lord’s Prayer, marvel at its similarity to the kaddish, and I can reel it off from memory because I learned it at a church Bible camp with my best friend when I was ten years old. And I am not alone. My Judaism filters down through both sides of my family, and all of my community, both Jewish and not, and it is the stronger for that.

What does this mean for us, we who come together to celebrate the great miracle that happened there? What is the miracle? I would argue that Hanukkah, is not yet another case of “they tried to kill us, we survived let’s eat” (although latkes are delicious). Rather, it is a powerfully complicated story about lines in the sand, and how those lines shift and move as the landscape also shifts, and how we ride that wave to lives rededicated to Judaism.

How do we know when to adapt, and when to stand firm? When can we act as the Jewish athletes, and go forth to the games, and when must we act as the Maccabees, and keep our Temple pure? Both are legitimate Jewish reactions to the same set of circumstances.

As actors in the broader world, we face these challenges every day.

Can we live out the Jewish value of Shabbat, in a world that favors being plugged in 24/7?

Can we live out the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, when our society remains jingoistic and committed to deporting undocumented teenagers?

Can we live out the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, in one of the few nations in the developed world that still executes prisoners, and bombs clinics in the name of saving babies?

Can we live out the Jewish value of communal responsibility, when so often our lives drag us away from one another, and make it so very difficult to commit to building a supportive and vibrant Jewish community?

And when should broader human values intercede; the value to protect the poor of all religions, the value to promote peace between all people, the value of honoring family and friends and loved ones, no matter what their religious background?

We must remember that we have tremendous power; the power to include and the power to exclude, the power to celebrate diversity and ecumenicalism and the power to celebrate our unique heritage. We are blessed, and cursed, to live in a world where the choice of where to draw our lines is truly our own. And while our lines in the sand may not be in the same place as the Maccabees, or the Jewish athletes, may we all have the power to stand firm in our convictions, knowing that we do so under the authority and blessing of God.

November 12, 2013

Rabbis, no Borders

This past weekend I was at a Rabbis Without Borders retreat. This organization is designed to bring rabbinical students from many different denominations together to discuss the issues currently facing the American rabbinate, and to brainstorm creative solutions, with people that we would not ordinarily have a chance to work with. My cohort included everyone from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a left-wing Modern Orthodox yeshiva in New York. The work was tremendously hard, but also tremendously exciting and freeing.

I came into the conversation feeling a bit defensive, because of my patrilineal status. I was worried that I was going to have to spend the weekend defending myself and my decision to not do mikveh. But. I was so very pleasantly surprised. My cohort went beyond tolerating me in their midst. They welcomed me. They empathized with me. And they saw me as a future colleague and ally towards building a vibrant Jewish community.

The Jewish community of the future needs many voices. And certainly I am not going to agree with all of those voices. Most of those voices will spend lots of time disagreeing with each other. But underneath each of those official positions there are individual human beings with a variety of experiences, and potentially an openness to seeing beyond official positions to the essential humanity of every person. The ability to see down to the humanity of many different types of people is a talent that goes beyond denominational lines. And this weekend, I was in a room full of people who possess that gift and are willing to use it in service of their rabbinate. Knowing that I will have allies outside of my denomination is a really powerful gift.

I think that is really the power of a program like Rabbis Without Borders; it forces the participants to see each other not as “Orthodox” or “Reform” or “Reconstructionist,” but rather as whole people who are really committed to serving the Jewish community. And while we were having the conversation within the context of revitalizing Jewish communal life and empowering our communities to control their own destiny, the program went so far beyond that frame. I have always been interested and invested in building relationships, ownership, and leadership in my future communities. But being able to strategize with people whose communities will need radically different things in the future was, and is, tremendously powerful.

More than anything else, I know that I am not doing this work of building the Jewish community alone. My partners, my allies, radiate out from my movement and throughout the community. There are now eighteen other future colleagues, from all over the Jewish world, that I can rely on in building the sort of Jewish future that I want to see. There is room for all of us, and all of our visions. And I am that much more excited about the future of Judaism because of it.

November 5, 2013

You Guys! I Did a Wedding You Guys!

A few weeks ago, I had the delight and privilege of performing my first wedding. Yay weddings! My dear friends H and K, who I have known for quite some time, called me last December with the announcement that they were engaged to be married and the request for me to do the wedding. It was a no brainer! I love these kids and was so amazingly blessed to help them level up to this new phase in their relationship.

The couple is both Conservative leaning and fiercely feminist, so it was important for them to have an egalitarian wedding that was founded in Jewish Law. As such, we worked together to create a ceremony based on the Brit Ahuvim, or Lovers’ Covenant, laid out in Rachel Adler’s book Engendering Judaism (learn more here!). The idea of this ceremony is to move the foundation of the wedding from traditional Jewish purchase law (how the traditional wedding works) to a wedding based on contract law. In other words, my friends bound themselves in a partnership to create a new life and family together. We spent nearly a year working out all of the details, and in the end it came off with lots of spirit, participation of family and friends, and love.

Doing weddings for friends is lovely, and stressful, and really exciting! From the beginning, I knew exactly what I wanted to say about both of my friends, and about their relationship. I was able to work in references to their favorite nerdy things  (in a moment of beautiful serendipity, I added a reference to xckd to my opening remarks, which perfectly matched the groom and groomsmen’s ties). I was able to craft something that felt like my two wonderful friends, and also like me, and it was a beautiful fit for all of us. Of course, with friends there is the added pressure to make sure that everything is good, because otherwise you have to see them socially, and well.

This weekend really reminded me of what a privilege it is to train for this line of work. I have the opportunity to be with people in their most emotional moments, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, and I get to shepherd them through that. And that is a true blessing.

And now, a picture of me looking all rabbinic and such:


July 10, 2013

Some thoughts from Camp

Filed under: Choosing Life, Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:49 am

There were finals, which ate my soul, and then I packed everything away into my car and went to New Hampshire. This summer, I am the head of Jewish Life and Learning (otherwise known as the “culture lady)” for an independent Jewish summer camp outside of Boston. And I have not had a moment to catch my breath until today. I’m at my day off, writing at a local Dunkin’ Donuts, and I LOVE my job.

The thing that is great about camp is that your curriculum MUST be creative, hands on, and practical, or it will not fly. We are building tower-and- fence settlements, and doing scavenger hunts, and tie-dyeing talitot. We are talking about speech ethics, and BDS (boycott, divest, sanction), and the importance of being a Jewish leader. I’m leading services, and helping the kids to lead services. And, more often than not, the kids seem to be enjoying themselves. They are talking to their counselors about the things that we do in class. That is huge.

It’s also my first time managing a staff. I have some really great counselors who are coming at our projects with a lot of enthusiasm and great ideas. I’m really blessed to have them, and I feel oddly protective of them and their growth as grownups and as teachers. I just really really really want them to be able to do a good job, and it’s weird not only being responsible for my own job performance, but for making sure that they are doing the best job possible as well.

Camp is strange, because it is simultaneously so transient and so stable. The counselors move in and out of the system as they age. It is very strange, at 25, to be considered one of the “old ladies” on staff and to have most of your colleagues be 18 and 19 years old. At the same time, these counselors are already veterans of the system; most of them have been at camp for eight, nine, ten years and they have so much to teach me about the way that camp operates. And into that deep commitment to camp tradition, I am trying to inject my own ideas, innovations, and trying to keep integrity to Jewish tradition and proper Jewish pedagogy as I see it. It’s a delicate balancing act!

Camp is also really really constant, just all the time. When I’m not teaching, I’m prepping, tutoring Bar/Bat Mitzvah students, helping that week’s Torah readers with their reading, planning an evening program (now I’m working on Tisha B’Av) and just trying to keep up with all of the different life and ritual pieces to infuse the life of this camp with Judaism. It’s a lot of work, but I’ve been fortunate that my co-workers have been so willing to help out.

And the kids. Oh my god, the kids. I wish I could post pictures of them and their fabulous (obviously I can’t because confidentiality) but the kids are awesome. They are excited and eager to learn and to ask me questions, which is just so gratifying. And it’s really cool seeing the older kids (who are 14 and 15) start to understand what it means to be Jewish leaders within camp. It’s such an important lesson for them to learn, and I’m so impressed with how seriously they take it. Plus they are just so GOOFY. It’s a delight watching kids being utter goofballs.

I think the structure and the busyness are actually really good for me. I’d been sinking into ennui and anxiety at the end of the finals period, because there just seemed like an overwhelming amount of STUFF to do. But what camp is teaching me is that I can get an absurd amount of stuff done, and make it work, even if things are not perfect, even if not every project comes off exactly right. The show goes on because it must, and I just have to throw myself into the process and hope for the best. And that even if my efforts fall short of my expectations, they can still produce amazing results. That is really powerful.

April 18, 2013

I was in Israel Last Week

And I was at the Kotel (the Western Wall of where the Second Temple used to be). And I wanted to share a brief reflection from that particular day.

I am pressed up against the warm stone, forehead to block, taking it in. The sounds of Hebrew fill my ears. On my right is a modestly dressed woman, most likely Orthodox. She is praying in French and Hebrew, and she is crying. I have a feeling that I am the only person in this entire plaza of people who can hear her, and I cannot understand what she is saying, except that she is earnest and scared and heartbroken. In my left ear is the sound of daily prayer as sung by a hazzan, a man. If I felt comfortable to sing, my voice could rival his in volume, although not necessarily quite in talent; he is good. I am silent.

My connection to God is through my voice. Back home, I enjoy few things more than leading kiddush at Shabbat meals, or leading a congregation in a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat. Five minutes ago, before pushing through the crowds of women caressing and whispering their joys and sorrows to this wall, I chanted to myself the Psalm of the Day. I was probably the only person in the entire plaza who heard my song. I was afraid that if I were to sing loud enough for the men to hear me the way that I can hear the hazzan, that I would attract looks, attention, trouble. I am silent.

April 1, 2013

Next Week in Jerusalem

Filed under: Jewish Communitty — marleyweiner @ 12:30 pm

Tonight, I am headed off for a week in Israel with the Goodman Camping Initiative to learn how to teach Israel history and culture to my campers this summer. Yayyyyyyy!

March 31, 2013

Out of Egypt

Filed under: Choosing Life, Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 12:48 pm

In our culture there are two quite distinct ways of defining oneself as a Jew. One way is primarily ethnic and secular and arises from the experience of being “other,” of not being Christian in Christian America… But the second sense of Jewishness arises from an attachment to Jewish religious traditions, including lighting the Sabbath candles, celebrating the Passover seder, and singing Hebrew songs.

The Educating Synagogue, Joseph Reimer

The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. A mixed multitude went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.

Exodus 12:37-38

This year was my first year hosting my family’s Passover seder (after many years of leading the seder at my parents house). Because my family is what it is, this year there were more non-Jews than Jews around the table. My mother, my cousin’s wife (who is the daughter of a pastor), my Presbyterian grandparents, my Wiccan roommate, my sister’s Presbyterian boyfriend, and my atheist former-Christian friend all joined the Jews  in making the journey out of Egypt. And today, I am going over to my grandmother’s house with my Jewish dad and sister to help her celebrate the resurrection of Christ with ham and lox and bagels. Welcome to my family!

In large part, I owe my faith to my grandparents. They are the only religious people in my family, they introduced me to scripture and houses of worship at a young age, and they have supported my journey into faith. Granted, my faith is not their faith, but we are family, and I recognize that part of family is things turning out well, but not exactly how you planned.

Intermarriage has been in the news a lot this year (and every year; it’s a contentious issue) but what the naysayers seem to miss is that the ship has already sailed. My family is what Jewish families look like. And it’s not just a matter of praying that somehow the children of these families make it through with a Bar/ Bat Mitzvah and maybe some Jewish summer camp. It’s about the multiplicity of our lives now. We have non-Jewish friends. We have non-Jewish family. And if we reach out to them and make them a part of our celebrations, we are that much stronger as Jews for having to explain our faith and our customs to those whom we love.

The trick is making sure that we, as people, know enough and have enough passion to be able to explain competently. It is not enough in this world to say that Judaism is doing what your parents and grandparents did, without meaning, without understanding, because what if your grandparents did exactly none of it? No, we must actively embrace Judaism, and build memories for ourselves and our children, and seek out the beauty of our tradition, because there is no easy path any more. We must find the path ourselves.

My cousins have a two year old daughter, who is just getting old enough to start to understand things a little bit. This year, I handed her the egg on the seder plate and she tried to crack it on the table. She laughed at the singing. She and her mom hid the afikomen, and then opened the door for Elijah. I think she had fun, although it’s hard to tell sometimes with two-year-olds. She’s the next generation in our complicated family, and I wish nothing for her but love and an understanding of the stories of all of her people.

March 3, 2013

Living Lomed

Filed under: Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 3:37 am

Living Lomed

This was written by a classmate’s mother. And it’s deeply important to hold on to stories like this. Our synagogues are supposed to be places of prayer, yes, but also learning and socializing and sharing and growing. They are called beit kenesset, house of assembly, and assembling looks different for different people. It’s so important to never forget that.

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