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Additional Offerings from the RRA

Six Reconstructionist rabbis were asked to write on the subject “Welcoming the Stranger” for their colleagues, in the RRA Connections newsletters. We’ve collected their contributions below. 

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Creating a Culture of Welcome

(Originally published in RRA Connections)

When people would ask me to describe our congregation, I used to boast to them about the joyous seriousness of our davening; the dedication and intensity of our lehrhaus-style adult learning; the courage of our social action undertakings; and the pride our people take in being a reasonably successful experiment in creating Jewish sacred peoplehood.

Now I cut to the chase:  I say that our people take care of each other.  They visit each other at home and in the hospital.  They make dinner for the family of someone who is in some kind of deep trouble, whether it be health or otherwise.  They wave a wand and a shiva appears, from daveners to meals to follow-up after the mourning has concluded.  If the sick person or mourner is single or widowed, our community gets the word around and the person gets “lifted up.”  Congregants beyond driving age or capability get calls with offers for rides to services and classes, for as long as they are alive.  No one gets left out unless they really want to.

It wasn’t always so.  We used to work so hard on the showcase matters of congregational life that we forgot how painfully horrid it is to be incapable of taking care of oneself; of how lonely it is not to be contacted when everyone else is “doing fine” in their work, family, friendships, and especially in their interaction with their beloved Jewish community.  We forgot the fact that the more we kvelled about how great our programs, services, classes, lectures, and social action endeavors were, the more we were leaving out people who in many cases had done the heavy lifting in years gone by to make our current infrastructure possible.

I realize I am not talking about people “outside the tent.”  Indeed, there are countless folks out there who don’t even know how to walk into our building.  Answer: Through the front door!  But that is not an answer for someone who feels spiritually or mentally blocked from approaching that door. 

Yet while we are industriously working to get those people in; to go out and escort them through the portal if necessary; to speak to them from the moment they enter to the moment they leave; to smother them with kindness and hospitality; to make them wish they could even be left alone for a moment to contemplate the intensity of the spiritual-cultural phenomenon they’ve just encountered; to make sure they know we don’t care whether they’re straight or queer, white or brown, male, female, or other, Jewish or not sure…

While we are doing all of those holy things, we need to remember that some long-time members ofthe congregation can be the most estranged strangers of all.  They don’t know anyone any more.  Or they do, but they feel forgotten by a community that concentrates its programmatic resources on “young families” and “the future of our synagogue.”  They are not the future, but they are still the living present.  Sometimes they just need a ride or a phone call or a visit.  Or an indication that in the grand scheme of our “future,” they and their precious past contributions matter a whole lot to those of us who contemplate and constitute that future.

Being the Stranger

(Originally published in RRA Connections)

We are taught to welcome the stranger, “for you know what it’s like to be a stranger” – an outsider. In the deepest sense, we are all strangers to each other until we reach out to establish connections! My parents not only believed this, they also lived it: my father’s work as a comparative linguist brought people into our home from many parts of the world – Europe, India, East Asia, the Pacific Islands. When I was fifteen, we lived for a year in Indonesia where we were “adopted” by an Indonesian family. It seemed natural to me to become an ethnomusicologist, studying music in cultural traditions. After spending months in southern Alabama visiting people in their homes and churches (as the only white person and the only Jew), I wrote a dissertation on African-American religious folk music. I continued cross-cultural work in Florida and then in southwestern Pennsylvania. My decision to enter rabbinical school was fueled both by wanting to assist the Jewish community and by the desire to build bridges with the “other” as a Jewish leader. In addition to courses offered through RRC’s Multifaith Center, I spent a summer with the Pittsburgh JF&CS helping resettle Burmese refugees, and later became certified as a chaplain, assisting patients from both Jewish and other backgrounds. 

Here in Pittsburgh, through chaplaincy, spiritual direction, and as a congregational rabbi, I now count as colleagues and friends rabbis and cantors, Catholic priests and nuns, Protestant ministers, Muslim male and female community leaders, and adherents of other faiths – Bahai, Buddhist, Hindu. Together several of us founded the Greater Pittsburgh Interfaith Coalition (GPIC), now in its fourth year, which promotes multi-faith dialogue through public forums on topics such as compassionate relationships and care for the Earth.

Since the presidential election in 2016, however, I’ve seen a new element creep into this work: fear, and with it a sense of urgency that we must redouble these efforts or our civil society may not survive. This year the havurah I lead has focused on forming a supportive connection with a local mosque. I’ve also been invited to participate as the “Jewish voice” in interfaith church events and, during Ramadan, as a speaker on interfaith Iftar panels at several mosques in the region.

The big question I see is how to build on these experiences. “One-off” public events – panels, forums, and rallies – while important, don’t get to the heart of the issue, which is: How to forge ongoing healthy relationships among ethnic and religious groups? The Sisterhood of Salaam / Shalom offers one model: small groups of Jewish and Muslim women, with equal numbers from each faith, regularly get together informally in each other’s homes to “share life.” I’ve recently helped form a SoSS chapter in Pittsburgh. Project-oriented Jewish organizations, such as Repair the World and Bend the Arc, provide another approach: Jews working together in their communities alongside people of different faiths, ethnicities and ages to achieve local social justice objectives. It is these opportunities for long-term person-to-person interaction and friendship that will build lasting rapport and mutual support. I believe our most positive response to the fear of societal breakdown is to become ever more creative in reaching across cultural divides to welcome each other!



Including the Stranger

(Originally published in RRA Connections)

In 1997 the Colorado Jewish Federation undertook a demographic study of the Denver-Boulder Jewish population.  It discovered an affiliation rate of around 30%. In other words, a majority of Jews were, in effect, strangers in our own community.

One response to the study was the creation in 2004 of Judaism Your Way, a new Jewish organization dedicated to outreach.  I was hired to be its rabbi.  We became the first organization in Colorado to arrange rabbinic officiation at interfaith weddings and provide ongoing support groups for interfaith couples.  We also became the first Jewish organization to have a presence at Denver Pride-Fest, including hosting Jewish community services for Pride Shabbat at the Denver Jewish Community Center. 

But as important as these policy decisions were and continue to be, we learned that outreach as generally understood was insufficient if we were really serious about welcoming the strangers among us. Outreach is not simply a matter of bringing unaffiliated people back to Judaism.  It is also a matter of expanding Judaism to include people whose identities and experiences Judaism has never before considered seriously. In other words, effective outreach requires a commitment to the evolution and expansion of the substance and practice of Judaism itself. 

We’ve given a name to this evolution of Judaism – the Torah of Inclusion.  It is founded on the Torah’s account that the Torah was given to the Jewish people through the agency of an intermarried Jew, whose Midianite wife performed the circumcision for their son, the ritual of Jewish covenantal continuity.  In our services and life rituals, it involves teaching.  Most people, be they Jewish or of other faith and cultural identities, do not know what most Jewish rituals or prayers are about, other than they are traditions. It also involves supporting people to make their own Jewish decisions and standing behind them even when one doesn’t agree with them. Additionally, in our services, the Torah of Inclusion expresses itself in repeated reminders of unambiguous welcome, the use of non-theistic language, singable translations, and aliyot for groups whose identities aren’t universally welcomed in sacred Jewish space.  

A practice of unambiguous welcome and a goal of a maximally inclusive Judaism does not mean that there are no boundaries in our services and gatherings.  But at the heart of the Torah of Inclusion is our commitment to engage, challenge and reach beyond currently held theological, ideological, gender, race and class boundaries.  One symbol for this commitment is the mitzvah of tzitzit: by looking at our personal and communal fringes we remain mindful of how to behave covenantally as Jews. 

Remaining aware of the sacred work of inclusion in Jewish space is a practice that, like all spiritual practices, needs to be done over and over.  It is often uncomfortable work, both for those who are already at home within Jewish space, as well as for those who are used to not fitting in.  And, speaking personally, this way of being part of the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people is also exhilarating.


Hospitality and Spirit

(Originally published in RRA Connections)

My rabbinate has called to me an ever-expanding circle of spiritual seekers, God-lovers, and many who have felt excluded from traditional community practice.

As I reach out and invite my students onto a path of spiritual adventure and exploration, my intention is to let them know that their path is unique and precious, AND that we walk this path together. I let them know that Judaism can offer amazing and useful resources for transformation and a rich and beautiful language to express the ineffable.

My calling is to connect each of them with the wisdom of their own heart — to the Spirit of Guidance. I let them know that the spark of God is waiting within them to burst into flame, if only we might bring to it our loving, consistent and passionate attention. The best way I know to welcome others onto this path of transformation is by cultivating an inner radiance myself, and by offering Jewish spiritual practices that are beautiful, practical and compelling. I want to accept each of my students as fellow journeyers, in process. I look for their potential in order to draw it forth. I continually let go of judgment. As a teacher that works in groups I want to inspire collaboration and generosity, and I do that by appreciating our differences, our unique contributions. I want to let each person know how essential and integral they are to the whole. I want to express an enthusiasm for spiritual work that is contagious. I recognize resistance as an important aspect of that work and I am dedicated to unmasking that resistance in all its manifestations.

My model for sacred space is the Mishkan. In my leadership I am responding to the call that says,  ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם: — “Make for me a holy place so that I can dwell within, among, between you.” (Ex. 25:8) A holy place is one that invites and welcomes diversity, collaboration, humor, truth-telling, beauty, radical embodiment, and a spaciousness at its core. It exists for the purpose of calling in to that spaciousness the awareness of a great Mystery. However beautiful we make that Mishkan, it is really the spaciousness within it that will heal us. The Mishkan itself is the invitation, the lure, the beauty that calls us in to be transformed by Divine Presence. As rabbis, we bring all the rich and myriad forms of Wisdom, love, beauty and kindness in order to inspire us to step inside to the Holy of Holies, and finally surrender.

The art of hospitality calls me to learn many different spiritual languages so that I can find the one that speaks to the one who stands before me. The art of hospitality calls me to heal my own wounds of exclusion so that I don’t project them onto others. The art of inclusion calls me to cultivate curiosity about our differences, and awareness about my own triggers. I need to keep asking, “Who am I not seeing? Who has become invisible to me?”

I offer support and compassion rather than safety. The spiritual path is supremely risky as we let go of everything that we know and step into the unknown, as we let go of the small self and open to the vastness of our identity in God.




Welcoming Those Who Are Close

(Originally published in RRA Connections)

How do you know if you’re on the right path…this moment, and the next, and the one after that? How many of us, especially if we have over-obligated lives (as many of us do), find ourselves a little startled or even completely shocked that we are in the overgrowth, far from the trail that we had set upon last High Holy Days?

So much of our day-to-day existence is experienced in a sort of “fog of war.” That is why we may be excited to find that truly satisfying answer to long-term dilemmas facing our family or just come to a decision on what to have for dinner. We are often convinced that our choices are the best ones for us, but invariably they are based upon imperfect information.

Our Jewish heritage not only encourages us but also commands us to regularly examine our character, our thoughts, our behavior … our very lives themselves. From the weekday tahanun  prayer to Yom Kippur’s al het and everything in between, Jewish tradition guides us to examine our reality and to make adjustments.

The yamim noraim are a time when our tradition teaches us that God is more accessible. We also experience the joy of seeing so many people with whom we normally don’t have the opportunity to interact. Let us consider not the pain that we might recall in experiencing their absence from our lives during the rest of the year but rather let us receive the blessing, however fleeting, of their presence in our lives.

Many years ago, I was excited to be offered access to letters and documents of a close family member. One letter exchange has stayed with me ever since. It described the hurt that my close family member had experienced after the repeated visits from another family member. The author described feeling as if they were treated as a hotel for their relatives to use while acting as tourists. The response detailed how angry the relatives were in being accused of not being good guests while attacking my closer relative for not being good hosts. These family members had so little family to enjoy and yet they severed their connection with each other.

For so many reasons, I see this as a tragedy too commonly played out in our lives. Since we have such limited opportunities to share time together, we might consider reframing our expectations a little more closely toward the dynamic relationship before us. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who can say that I have been hurt by things that people have said or done to me, well-meaning or not. And I am sure that I have made mistakes in that arena, as well.

Let us focus on what is important in our world, considering what we have to lose and what riches we can gain by nurturing the relationships we have, beginning where they are right now. Perhaps we can consider each person, even familiar ones, deserving of our fulfillment of the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim , of “welcoming the stranger.”

The High Holy Days may be about creating an action plan to navigate to and ultimately to travel on an authentic path for the coming year (and beyond). However, in our navigating through the crowd, let’s not miss the beauty of each person we meet.

I look forward to sharing the path ahead — L’shanah tovah tikateivu.




When Family Are Strangers

(Originally published in RRA Connections)

My late brother was the “stranger” in my life. We were born on the same day two years apart but were so vastly different. It isn’t just the end of his life which sets us apart, it was his personality and the way he lived that made him a conundrum to me. He held responsible jobs for most of his life in spite of constantly fighting depression. Medication was helpful until it wasn’t and had to be adjusted. Those periods were fraught with anxiety and tension for him as well as for me and our family.

When someone so close warns you of suicidal tendencies, it isn’t like telling you about upcoming bypass surgery or the need for a change in blood pressure medicine. My heart stopped when that scary email arrived a few years ago. I wanted to get on the next flight and help him, but had to clear things at work first. After arriving, he was more stable but not overjoyed to see me. He wasn’t a great communicator in general, but his then placid attitude was baffling.

That visit brought on a few years of what I considered to be a return to normalcy. This was a mistaken impression on my part. Suffice to say that the medication probably worked well for a while and then began to fail miserably. He hid his downward slide from everyone, and then when he hit rock bottom he made a fatal decision.

Some of you may know people who have succeeded at committing suicide. I didn’t know many when I got the news that my brother had committed suicide. That makes him the ultimate “stranger” in my life and there was no way to reach him to work it out. Of course I was powerless to prevent this act, but it took a long time and counseling to come to that conclusion.

My reason for telling this story is not to engender sympathy but to talk about the encounter with a type of otherness that surrounds us. Mental health counselors can and do help many people like my brother, but to express the fact that suicidal individuals are truly different, neither bad nor good, but a category apart - the stranger among us.

One of my favorite verses, Deuteronomy 30:19, took on different meaning after my brother Sam committed suicide in May of 2016.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life , that you may live … ובחרת בחיים

Happily, it is my nature to choose life and I fervently hope that our entire family and yours does too.

L’shana tova tikatevu.