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Uncategorized June 28, 2012

Comfort the Disturbed, Disturb the Comfortable

“A spiritual leader must comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.”

Okay, so it wasn’t Moses.  But it might as well have been, because truer words have never been spoken.
Yes, as human beings we expect our spiritual leaders to be there for us in times of sorrow.  To run the funeral, be at the shiva, and chant the kaddish.  To answer the difficult questions, visit the hospital, and work through the tangled dilemmas with a smile, an arm around the shoulder, and soothing words.
But our spiritual leaders have another job.  To shake up the status quo.  Help us get off our laurels, where we’ve been chillin’.  Ask the difficult questions that we might not want to hear.  Challenge us in our relationships, in our decisions, in how we spend our money and our leisure time.  Help us rise to our highest selves by disturbing the comforts of the plateau.
Are we up for it?
Uncategorized January 18, 2012

Ask the Rabbi

I’m a huge believer in everyone acquiring a mentor for
themselves – in spirituality.  I have a
number of mentors.  Some are men, some
are women.  Some are relatives, some are
friends, and some are neither.
But I have only one Rabbi.
The word “Rabbi” is an English word that comes from the
Hebrew word “Rav.”  Rav means “great.”  It refers
to someone that is great – great in Torah knowledge, great in character traits,
great in wisdom and great in kindness.  Torah
leadership is characterized by the synthesis of those features: Knowledge and
ethics are indivisible.  The Torah is
full of character sketches of those that were great in Torah knowledge but not
character – they are not our heroes.
Our Rabbi is wise, humble, self-effacing.  He is spiritual and lives oh-so-simply.  He is straight as an arrow.  Ethereal, yet totally gets our world.  I honestly cannot imagine life without his guidance.  We ask him questions ranging from a point of
minutiae in Jewish law, advice on budgeting for our new home, whether it’s
ethical to forward an email without permission, and how to navigate family
conflicts.  We ask him how much to push
our kids and when to chill out, how to balance our adherence to Jewish law with
the widely divergent observance level of our friends, and whether it would be a
violation of the laws of lashon hara (not to gossip)
to share a story for a greater cause.
In the Orthodox world this concept is known as daas Torah – literally, the wisdom of
Torah.  It refers to the special insight
a person cultivates when they learn and live Torah.   Likewise, there is a broad range of how
often and how much any given person relies on their Rabbi’s advice and
guidance.  In the Chassidic world, there
is a more intense and closely bonded relationship, whereas in other points along the Ortho-spectrum the relationship might be less intense.  
It may come as a surprise that the Rabbis don’t control the
intensity of the relationship – the “student” does.  As well, the “student” controls who his/her
Rabbi will even be.  I remember people
asking me whether my Orthodox Rabbi “allows” me to do this or that.  I laughed; my Rabbi doesn’t allow or disallow
anything.  He is a public servant, not
its taskmaster.  My Rabbi only tells me
what to do if I ask and then I can go home and do whatever I want.  Nope, no 1984-type surveillance as far as the
eye can see…
So how to choose a Rabbi?
Many people choose their Rabbi one of two ways: by
inheritance (who married your parents or officiated your bar mitzvah).  Or, by association with a synagogue.  People join a synagogue for lots of reasons,
and the Rabbi comes along with the picture. 
Few actually “Rabbi-shop,” in search of a life mentor – but that’s the
course I recommend.
What to look for when Rabbi-shopping?
Any Rabbi worth his salt ought to be a
living example of Torah.  This includes:
honesty, kindness, scholarship, wisdom, selflessness, truth, humility. 
I want a Rabbi that has a closer
relationship with God than I do.  I want
a Rabbi who talks to God on a regular basis, who continues his education daily,
pursuing Torah study (as a student, not just as a Rabbi), who recognizes that
Jewish learning never ends.  I want a
Rabbi whose faith is so strong and unwavering that when I need encouragement
and strengthening, he reminds me, both in word and in shining example, what a
man of faith looks like.

To maintain a relationship with a
Rabbi-as-mentor, there must be mutual respect. 
I must feel that my Rabbi respects me, wherever I happen to be on my
Jewish journey, and that I respect him.


If I am going to be relying on my
Rabbi to help me navigate life decisions, my Rabbi needs to be accessible.  My Rabbi in particular happens to be of the
more old-fashioned variety – my husband walks into the study hall where he
studies Torah and asks him questions any day of the week.  Or we just call him at home.  He’s come over to our home on a dime to
discuss an issue.  A Rabbi that is not
accessible is like a fabulous diamond locked in a safe.

Life’s wisdom proven over time.

True Torah leaders are neither
elected nor hired.  They arise
organically, by virtue of one person at a time recognizing brilliance, caring
and greatness.  Each time we ask our Rabbi
a question we are overwhelmed anew with his sheer piety, insight, and spiritual
connectedness – as well as his genuine caring for us and our small issues.  Each encounter is another layer of gift wrap,
reminding us how very blessed we are to have a person like this in our lives.


Who is my Rabbi?  I shan’t tell.  He would never want to be publicly praised,
and I surely would never want to embarrass him. 
But with this I’ll close: if you are fortunate enough to have a Rabbi
that fills the above criteria, please know that you have a precious treasure in
your midst.

And if you don’t, please know that
the quest to find one is possibly the most important one you’ll ever undertake.

Uncategorized December 8, 2011


Once upon a time, there was a shul Kiddush.  And at this shul Kiddush were both Orthodox
Jews and non-Orthodox Jews.  Included on
the Kiddush buffet were gefilte fish, cholent, salads, crackers and dips.  Yes, it was a very wonderful Kiddush.
Some of the Jews at the Kiddush had learned of the custom not to eat fish and meat together
Others had not.  The wise Rabbi
had not taught it, since it was a custom, and many people at the shul were
driving to shul on Shabbos and eating cheeseburgers and other more obvious
non-Orthodox habits of the sort. 
Therefore, he was very selective about which points of Jewish law he
chose to share, so as not to overburden or embarrass his constituents.
One of these Jews, unschooled in the meaning of kosher
altogether, took his fishy plate and proceeded to load up on delicious,
steaming cholent.  Another Jew, aware of
the issue, but not quite as sensitive as the Rabbi, and with truly sincere and
good intentions, maybe, honed in on said Jew and proceeded to inform him that
he must use a new plate for the cholent, as the original plate was fishy and
therefore violated the fish/meat combo custom.
The wise Rabbi, observing the debacle from afar, shook his
head in dismay.
And thus was the term “fishplating” born.
Uncategorized September 23, 2011

The Jewish Family Experience (JFX)

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to blog about JFX.

JFX is an organization that my husband and I and some friends began 7 years ago.  We were back in Cleveland after having lived in Israel and Buffalo Grove, IL, and were running some Torah classes with some folks that my husband had met at bris ceremonies.  And they said:  “Who knew Judaism was so cool???  Will you teach our kids?”

And we said: “Yes!”

And JFX was born.

At this point we run 10 different kinds of programs such as Sunday school, Shabbat events, Bnei mitzvah, holiday celebrations, classes of all kinds, and Israel trips.  And that’s all very cool, and you can check it all out on our (shameless promo) website:  Be sure to check out the blog too – it’s fun.

But that’s just the face of JFX.  There’s a whole other part to us:  the soul.

Basically, we’re a family.  A community.  My husband and I, we’re like the parents.  And then there’s all this extended family.  They’re all my friends.  We like hanging out with each other.  We invite them for Shabbos and they invite each other.  We take care of each other in joys and sorrows.  No, we’re not all the same.  Some keep Shabbat and some go to Vegas Friday night.  Some keep kosher and others… don’t.  Some don’t gossip and some wear skirts.  Some kids’ go to day school and some to Hawken and some to public school.  Some wear kippahs and some lay tefillin and some are atheists.  But, I dunno, it works.

We’re not afraid to tackle some serious issues: G-d?  Developing a relationship with Him?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do good people do bad things?

And we all are investing our kishkes into our kids.  Making sure they stay Jewish.  Making sure they love it.  Making sure they find it cool, fun, and awesome.  Making sure they know the Rabbi’s cell phone number.

JFX is so special to me.  I feel humbled and loved and enveloped and grateful.

JFX… I love you.

Uncategorized August 29, 2011

Why Can’t Orthodox Women be Rabbis?

Received this from a friend of an acquaintance of my husband’s.
I don’t know the questioner, but I do know she is a woman who has been doing some extensive learning about classical Judaism.
The questioner is referencing the recent controversy around ordaining Orthodox women rabbis and what title might be used therein.
The email is printed with all errors.  Since I don’t know the questioner, I didn’t want to alter her words at all.
“First of all – what is the big fuss about a woman having a title?? Maybe
it’s because I grew up secular and am a grad student, but in my mind if a
woman does the same learning, she should at least be able to have some sort
of title attesting to that. It would be like me going to grad school and not
graduating with a degree. It looks like there are a few “orthodox” female
rabbi type people (Shlomo Carlebach ordained a couple I believe), and I
don’t see what the big deal is. They aren’t leading men in prayer, or doing
the minyan thing, they studied a long time, and they got some kind of
smicha…..why the controversy? Does it say in the Torah woman can’t be
religious leaders?
“I spoke about this with Leah once and she said “well there are female
religious leaders, they are just called Rebbetzins” and also “why do women
need a title? just being learned is good enough to do lots in the
community”….yes BUT first of all, a Rebbetzin is married to a Rabbi and
gets that title through the her relationship not of her own learning merits.
Not to say there aren’t great rebbetzins out there, but it is not a title
given due to completion of a rigorous program of study, nor is it something
the wife of a business man has ( no matter how learned she is). For the
second issue, I guess I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t be given a
title of some sort – they did the learning, they put in the work, why deny
them acknowledgment of that? Sure men learn without becoming Rabbi’s, but if
she wants to work with people and be a religious leader full time why not
let her have a title that makes her work easier?
“Personally, I would be stoked to learn from a woman, especially the whole
bedika cloth thing and whatnot – she would be the natural person for that I
would think. I have an acquaintance down here that is a girl rabbi ( not
orthodox obviously ;), she is soooooooo freaking awesome – she has had this
amazing life – daughter of a rabbi from a long line of rabbi’s, highly
educated, used to be an electrical engineer, sky diver, all around cool
lady, and super educated on jewish stuff….well educated to the extent she
found teachers to teach her. I just wish there were women teachers like that
in orthodox judaism. Anyways, if you can help me understand all this I would
be very grateful.
“I know I am writing with lots of crazy questions – but I love Judaism and am
soooo grateful to you guys for teaching us!!!! Just trying to understand
things that aren’t making sense 🙂

Dear Friend,
I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.  But it sounds like you are right up my alley: curious, passionate, respectful, and honest.  I would like to respond to your questions, partially from a place of philosophy, but also from a place of personal experience.  I’m not asking you to like or agree with my ideas.  In fact, if you grew up secular in America in the past 40 years, it would be shocking for you to even be able to stretch yourself to hear me out.  All I ask is intellectual honesty to see that this position has validity.
You ask, “What is wrong with a woman having a title?”  The answer is, nothing, as long as it fits.  So should a woman be called, “Rabbi”?  Let us discover what a Rabbi is.  I am a mom; are you?  The title “Mom” is quite specific.  It refers to a woman who has either biologically given birth to or fostered or adopted a child and is usually raising him or her.  If a man biologically birthed a child (problematic verb right there) or fostered or adopted, is he a mom?  No, he is not a mom.  He can never be a mom.  He can be a dad, an uncle, a friend, but he can never be a mom.  A Rabbi, by definition, is a man.  How do we know this?
The Torah, yes, that very Torah that women want to hold, march with, read from publicly, study, and teach, has some very deep lessons about men and women.  These lessons are both timeless and timely which means that sometimes they may not sync with the trends of the day, but by the same token they will never, ever become obsolete.  In thousands of years of Jewish history, the Torah is still practiced and observed faithfully.
The Torah states that men and women have different spheres of spiritual influence.  A man’s sphere of influence is in the external, public world, and a woman’s sphere of influence is in the internal, private world.  This concept is alluded to in the kabbalistic, mystical sources; in the Talmud, in the midrash and the like.  This is the oral law, not the written law (the Talmud and its attendant commentaries).  But everything in the Talmud, et al, has a hook and a source in the written law.
The notion that men and women are hardwired differently is no secret to us married folk.  But in the world of spirituality, people somehow fail to understand that there are laws of physics.  Judaism is not just a warm and fuzzy blanket, full of feel-good moments.  It’s not just haroset and matza balls.  Just as science, physics, and the USA have laws, Jewish spirituality has laws.  If you follow the laws you can reach a most exalted spiritual place.
The notion of external/internal spheres of influence affects both how men or women are influenced, and how they influence.  We see this difference in our very biological anatomy.  A man’s anatomy, his life force, is external and visible.  A woman’s anatomy is internal and private.  She accepts within her body the life giving force, nurtures it within, and creates life thereby.  This is not an accident.  All spiritual realities have their parallel in the physical world.
My friend, the Torah, yes, once again I reiterate, that very same Torah that everyone wants to hold, march with, read from, study, and teach, tells us that a man will find his main spirituality through public and external service, and that a woman will find her main spirituality through private and internal service.  What this means in practical terms in 2011 is that the public place of Judaism, the synagogue, is the place that men will shine, and the private place of Judaism, the home, is the place that women will shine.
Is one better than the other?  What’s better, funner, cooler, more prestigious: to shine at the synagogue or to shine at home?
Do you see that the very question is flawed, my friend?  Our goal is not fun, coolness, or prestige.  It’s spirituality. What better place to discover our set of instructions for spirituality than the very Torah we seek to disseminate?  Do you see the problem here?  The problem is not that women are lesser for shining in the private domain, the problem rather is that no one values the private domain simply because PRIVATE THINGS ARE NOT VALUED.
In our society, what glitters matters; secrets are freely shared; the moms, teachers, and other unsung heroes are simply under-appreciated and underpaid; and no one wants to be behind-the-scenes.  This is a serious indictment, not of Judaism or Orthodoxy, but merely of where our society’s values have run amok.
Say you have a loving relationship with a friend.  The two of you are at a dinner party and you start recounting the funny story of your flat tire, and your friend rudely interrupts you.  This is completely out of character; you’re stymied.  But you trust her, and she trusts you, so you are certain there is a good reason and that all will be revealed.
See, God and the Torah are my good friends.  In their company, I have always felt respected, valued, and appreciated as a Jewish woman.  Valued for my intellect and valued for my ideas.  Valued for having seven kids and valued for being a teacher of Torah.  If God is denying me the title “Rabbi,” well, I trust Him.  He’s never steered me wrong.  I know it can’t be disrespect or denigration, because that would be entirely out of character and wouldn’t jive with anything else that I know about Judaism.
My friend, I study as much Torah as I can.  I teach Torah and counsel couples in crisis.  I love God and try to bring others to love Him as well.  For all intents and purposes my job quite closely parallels that of a Rabbi.  But if you’re not the mom, you’re not the mom.  You can call yourself a mom and you can cook and clean and change diapers and volunteer at the preschool and do all the things that moms do, but if you’re the dad, you’re not the mom.
So what is my title?  Some call me Rebbetzin.  I think that’s a funny title, because there are so many women more learned than I.  I don’t want a title.  I don’t need a title.  Guess what?  Any Rabbi becoming one for the title and prestige ought find a new job.  Glory-seeking and the rabbinate ought to be allergic to one another.
And too, I want to always remember that the God that I am supposedly serving in this whole endeavor has arranged things such that the internal, private sphere is my primary spiritual path.  I pray that I never forget.
With love,
Uncategorized August 17, 2011


This post is inspired by Renee of Dr. Fried’s office!

So yesterday my son had an orthodontist appointment.  Which means that Renee asked me about 50,000 questions about Judaism.  And she made a comment that really made me sad.

She said that some of her friends feel that Orthodox people are hypocrites.

I asked her what she means and she mentioned an example (I don’t want to get specific due to the rules of lashon hara – gossip) where Orthodox people had done something wrong.

She said she thinks people expect Orthodox people to be “better than that,” to be an example.  Or at least that if they consider themselves to be “better than other people” they ought to at least live up to that notion.

This is problematic both logically and morally.

1. A hypocrite is someone who preaches one thing, and behaves in a way that is different from what he preaches.  Not all Orthodox people are preachers.  If a rabbi misbehaves, or a teacher of Torah, OK – that’s hypocritical.

2. Otherwise, this is called being “inconsistent.”  All humans are inconsistent.  Does anyone ALWAYS speak kindly?  Act morally?  Eat healthfully?  Of course not.  Some people gossip but eat kosher, others refuse to gossip while sitting at a non-kosher restaurant.  Both of these are inconsistent – but not hypocritical.  And still far better than doing neither.

3. The epithet “hypocrite” is very strong and negative, and should be used sparingly and carefully.

4. Just because someone is Orthodox, doesn’t mean he has a strong relationship with God or with a rabbi, which are things that will help deter bad behavior.

5. Judaism requires us to give the “benefit of the doubt” in a given situation.  That means if we see something that seems odd, we are required to say, “maybe they don’t realize that’s wrong, maybe I don’t have the whole picture…”  Otherwise, this is called being judgmental, which is perhaps just as bad as being hypocritical.

6. Anyone who is identifiably Jewish has a responsibility to understand that his actions will serve as an assumption point for all Jews of his affiliation.  So if you’re wearing a kippah/yarmulke, you’d better be driving courteously.  If you’re wearing a headscarf, you’d better wait in line patiently at Heinen’s.  Because right or wrong, others will judge all religious Jews by your actions.

And finally, we have to recognize that as Jews, we are constantly being assessed by the non-Jewish world.  How do we want them to view us?  To treat us?  Are we treating each other that way?

What are your thoughts on hypocrisy among Jews?

Uncategorized August 4, 2011

There Was An Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe

It appears that everyone wants to hear about large families (see yesterday’s comments).

So here’s my completely disjointed response to yesterday’s questions:

1. Some large families and some small families parent irresponsibly.

2. Some large families and and some small families find it hard to pay the bills.

3. Some Orthodox men begin their marriage by studying in kollel full-time (Kollel – a non-profit institution where married men study advanced Talmud full-time and receive a stipend to do so. It’s a Hebrew word that means “all-included” since the idea is that the families’ needs would be taken care of. Pronounced “KOE-lell.”)

4. Men who study in kollel receive a stipend for doing so.  Many also receive help from parents.

5. Men who study in kollel typically do so for a temporary number of years (before they have a lot of kids) at which point they seek employment in the “regular” world.

6. Most kollel men that I know (agreed, this is anecdotal and unscientific) are incredibly helpful with bedtime, bathtime, grocery shopping, diaper changing, and the like.

7. Kollel life is not for everyone.

8. Using birth control is a concession in Jewish law, intended to be applied in certain circumstances and at certain times in one’s life.  Using it too liberally or not liberally enough are both problematic in Jewish law, and therefore (weirdness alert) is done with the guidance and mentorship of a Rabbi – a huge factor in Jewish living that I talk about all the time (those of you who know me are smiling).
Is this weird?

Yeah, but if you have a Rabbi that you respect and are close to, there is seriously no more satisfying way to live life and make tough decisions with serenity, clarity, and wisdom.

Is it weird to talk to your DOCTOR about birth control?  Sometimes, but you do it anyway, because you need guidance, right?  Same deal.

I know Rabbis who have insisted that families use birth control even when they didn’t want to.

9. That having been said, having money or not is NOT a factor.  The mother’s mental health is the key factor. Don’t you know people who have grown up with very little by way of materialistic stuff, but in a loving, happy home (whether large or small) who are so happy and well-adjusted?

Of course if you are incapable of supplying your family with basic needs, this is a problem, but chances are that will impact on the mental health of the mother.

10. Would you agree that many of the things we think we need money for are not our basic needs?  Would you agree that our expectations are quite high?  I know I’m in this boat.  I think of how people were raised two or even one generation ago and am actually embarrassed.

11.  Being poor is nothing to be ashamed about.  The economy’s collapse proved that even really smart people with really expensive and impressive degrees could not scrape it together.

12. The reason birth control is not openly discussed in the religious world is because it is highly personal and considered immodest to be discussed casually.  This is a good thing.  The casual and open discussion of people’s most personal lives does not bode well for us. The first time a casual acquaintance asked me, “Are you guys done?” I almost passed out.  That said, my friends and I all knew that it was there if and when we needed it, again, with the guidance of a Rabbi.

13.  When you see families with “a lot of kids” – what do you think is their motivation?  If they don’t seem to have enough money, or seem sapped and zapped, why do you think they do it?  It can’t be easy, so what do you think is driving this?

14.  Any husband who doesn’t help his wife is doing wrong in the eyes of Torah.  This is true whether he thinks he’s doing a mitzvah by studying Torah when she needs him, or whether he’s off playing golf.

15.  Tuition in today’s day schools is a very big problem, bigger than me, that people much wiser than me are trying to solve, and deserves its own attention.  All I will say is that we, the parents, have created a monster by expecting a smartboard in every room, in-house, nutritious lunches, a speech, occupational, and whatever else kind of therapist available for free to each child in school, and many other amenities that were completely unavailable to the children of yesteryear.  We have very high expectations, then reel at the bill.  But again: this problem is way bigger than me, and I do not claim to have good answers.

16.  I feel that raising a large family is the most ideal and beautiful way (again: when possible) to raise wonderfully well-adjusted, unspoiled children who will become the parents of the next generation.

Tips on how I, personally, manage my brood coming soon… 🙂