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October 17, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

A blessing for voting


Are we commanded to vote?

As a regular respondent in Moment Magazine‘s Ask the Rabbi column, when asked, I responded that yes indeed, it is a mitzvah – an obligation – to vote. While not commanded in Torah,

…voting is so important that one should sell one’s tefillin (phylacteries) —a symbol of one’s commitment to observing the mitzvot (commandments) —in order to do so. I would suggest that for us, today, voting is more than a right or a privilege. It is an obligation incumbent upon us as equal citizens in a democratic society.

During this election season I have been working hard to get out the vote, making phone calls to registered voters, encouraging them to exercise their right to vote. I receive a plethora of responses to my calls. Among the most distressing are those from people who tell me they do not plan to vote.  “Regardless of who you select, you must vote. It is your right, your obligation as a citizen of this country.  If we really believe in democracy, it is incumbent upon each of us to let our voices be heard.  We do that through our electoral process.  Vote!”

The most pride-filled moments of these calls are when I speak with a young adult, an 18-19 year old, for whom I know this will be their first time voting in a presidential election.  I ask, “are you excited about this opportunity to help select our next president?”  I encourage them to take that responsibility seriously. I want to say, “Mazel tov!”

My instinctual “Mazel tov” response triggered something for me: I, as a voter, view this civic obligation also as a sacred act.  It is worthy of a “congratulations!”  In the same vein, perhaps it is worthy of a blessing as well.

Others have written kavannot (meditations) to be read before voting.  Rabbi David Seidenberg wrote a Voting Prayer, and Michael Lerner has written a meditation before going to vote.  Yet, neither of these are constructed as blessings in accordance with Jewish tradition, which should start with these words:

…ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam…

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe…

Our Jewish tradition helps us mark many sacred acts with blessings. We say blessings for both ritual experiences as well as for day-to-day occurrences which are worthy of being elevated to and set in a sacred frame, such as seeing a rainbow, eating a first fruit of the harvest, or meeting a wise scholar.  Why not a blessing for voting?

So, I offer up this blessing:

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שמצפה מאיתנו לעסוק בעבודת אזרחות המדינה

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam,

she–me׳tzapeh me’itanu l’asok b’avodat ezrachut ha’medina.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe,

who expects us to engage as citizens in our country.

When you step into the voting booth – or before you seal the envelope on that vote-by-mail ballot – consider sanctifying the moment.  We are blessed to live in a time and a place in which we as Jews can freely vote. Treat that obligation with the reverence such an act deserves – with a blessing.

Not yet registered to vote? You may still be able to do so!

October 14, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

Doing our Sacred Work Together

This blog has been cross posted on the Union for Reform Judaism’s Inside Leadership blog.




What is “it?” What does “it” look like when we do “it” successfully?

Where do they intersect? Where do they diverge?

These questions are being asked in many circles: in the halls of Jewish academia, like HUC-JIR, Brandeis University and JTS; in the synagogue staff meetings, between directors of education, religious school principals, directors of youth engagement, youth group advisors, rabbis and cantors; in camp visioning and planning conversations; in central agencies such as the Jewish Education Project’s recent research and recommendations in Generation Now.

Without even knowing the answers, one thing Jewish educators of all varieties have come to understand is that we need to work collectively in both asking and answering these and many other related questions. Some Jewish education settings have already successfully eliminated those silos, creating holistic visions and structures for doing the work of education and engagement. No longer can we function in detached and erroneously separated silos of “youth engagement” and “Jewish education”, or “informal” and “formal.”

The recent merger of ARJE and RYPA is one way that Jewish educational leaders in the Reform Movement have taken action to create a more collaborative approach to our work. This merger brings together all Reform Jewish professionals who engage and educate youth in synagogues, camps, and other Jewish organizations. As one organization, the Jewish educational leaders of the Reform Movement are able to:

  • Serve as a collective voice for the Reform Jewish education, in all its varieties of settings
  • Authenticate in one professional association the close relationships that exist on the ground in our day-to-day work settings
  • Provide common support and advocacy for professionals who may have diverse portfolios yet collectively embrace the ARJE mission to advance the profession of the Jewish educator and inspire excellence in Jewish education
  • Create space for a diversity of professionals to network, explore curiosities, ideas, varied practices and approaches together through our rich professional learning opportunities

The grammars of “education” and “engagement” are distinctive. As a more diverse community, we, the members of the ARJE, are committed to learning from and with each other. We are committed to developing an understanding of each other’s vocabulary, each other’s practice, as well as each other’s successes and challenges.

In spite of these differences, what is most important is that our core values are aligned. We share a commitment to excellence in Jewish education, Jewish learning, and Jewish engagement. We share a vision of the future in which our communities are vibrantly living and learning Jewishly. We know we are stronger when we do this sacred work together.

How is your community is addressing these questions about engagement and education? What have you done to break down the silos that may exist? What have been your challenges and where have you been successful?


July 28, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

Words to Remember, Words to Live By

As I wait, in anticipation, for tonight’s HISTORIC nomination acceptance speech by Hillary Clinton, I am reflecting on the powerful words that have been spoken in the past 48 hours at the Democratic National Convention.

Last week, I was scared. Each night I went to sleep wondering, what has our nation become?! I did not grow up in a country that embraces xenophobia, racism & bigotry, bullying, and violence against those different than us in body, mind or faith.  We are supposed to be the country that fights AGAINST those things!

Jefferson ingrained our core values:

“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.”

Emma Lazarus words are inscribed on our Lady Liberty: ”

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This week has made me proud to be an American. Proud to stand on the shoulders who fought – and to support those who continue to fight – for freedom, democracy and for every human being’s God-given rights.

All these words make me think forward into our future – not just November 2016 and January 2017 – but into a future in which my children and (God-willing) grand children will live and prosper.

I’ve pull together what I think are some of the most poignant, salient and powerful words I’ve heard, so that I can come back to them, remember them, as we continue down this challenging election road. For when I get scared again, I know these words will give me hope, will inspire me to action AND participation in the democratic process.


First Lady Michelle Obama, July 26, 2016, Democratic National Convention

With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. We as parents are their most important role models….I want a president who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters, a president who truly believes in the vision that our Founders put forth all those years ago that we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story. And when crisis hits, we don’t turn against each other. No, we listen to each other, we lean on each other, because we are always stronger together.


President Bill Clinton, July 26, 2016, Democratic National Convention

Those of us who have more yesterdays than tomorrows tend to care more about our children and grandchildren. The reason you should elect her is that in the greatest country on Earth, we have always been about tomorrow. Your children and grandchildren will bless you forever if you do


Vice President Joe Biden, July 27, 2016, Democratic National Convention

That’s why, that’s why I can say with absolute conviction, I am more optimistic about our chances today than when I was elected as a 29 year old kid to the Senate. The 21st century is going to be the American century. Because we lead by not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. That is the history of the journey of America. And God willing, God willing, Hillary Clinton will write the next chapter in that journey. We are America, second to none. And we own the finish line. Don’t forget it.


Governor Tim Kaine, July 27, 2016, Democratic National Convention

“Thomas declared all men equal, and Abigail remembered the women. Woodrow brokered peace, and Eleanor broke down barriers. Jack told us what to ask, and Lyndon answered the call. Martin had a dream, Cesar y Dolores said si se puede, and Harvey gave his life. Bill bridged a century, and Barack gave us hope.

“And now Hillary is ready. Ready to fight, ready to win, ready to lead.


President Barack Obama, July 27, 2016, Democratic National Convention

We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way.  We don’t look to be ruled. Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that We the People, can form a more perfect union.

That’s who we are. That’s our birthright — the capacity to shape our own destiny. That’s what drove patriots to choose revolution over tyranny and our GIs to liberate a continent. It’s what gave women the courage to reach for the ballot, and marchers to cross a bridge in Selma, and workers to organize and fight for collective bargaining and better wages. (Applause.)

America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s about what can be achieved by us, together — through the hard and slow, and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.


July 10, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

Hate is hate, no matter who it is against

As I sat home yesterday afternoon watching various live streams of the #blacklivesmatter march in Fresno that went on for 5 hours, 6 miles of marching, I had mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I felt a tremendous sense of guilt.  I should be out there marching with them.  Showing my support. Standing alongside my fellow clergy to hear the pain, to help keep the calm, to show my own outrage at the senseless death and discrimination we see in our country today.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 6.43.57 PM

On the other hand, I was scared. Scared that what happened in Dallas would happen here in Fresno.  Those who love me most didn’t want me to put myself in the path of possible danger.

So, while not there in person, I was there in spirit.  I sat at home, obsessed, ceaselessly clicking back and forth between my Twitter feed, the live Facebook video streams, clicking through the TV channels to check which news stations were covering it live.

I took a brief break when my son and his girlfriend came over for a little bit.  We updated each other about what we had been hearing. We took a short respite for them to teach me how to hunt #Pokemon. We joked about how so many people in town were either out marching in protest or out hunting #Pokemon in their neighborhoods.  We laughed, and felt safe, and as if everything was normal.


It took me a long time to fall asleep last night. I was too worked up. Overwhelmed with emotions.

And this morning, I am realizing again why this is so gut wrenching for me.

Yes, Black Lives Do Matter.

Yes, All Lives Do Matter.

No one life is more important than any others, BUT…

NOW is the time for us to do the work to correct the wrongs being done to people of color, black and brown. Now is the time to look in the national mirror and see the victimizing and judging and profiling that exists, just because of the color of one’s skin. Now is the time to do the hard work of change!

I, as Jewish woman, am lucky. I can hide behind my whiteness. Yet, that wasn’t always true.  There was a time when Jews were also the targets of discrimination and hatred.  Perhaps if we had social media and hashtags then, we would have also said #Jewishlivesmatter.  We in the Jewish community are in a better, safer, more inclusive place these days. No, it’s not perfect. There is still anti-Semitism in this country.  Yet, for better or worse, we have achieved “whiteness” and hold “power” and empowerment in ways that we haven’t before.

How can we justify fighting against anti-Semitism and not fighting against racism and Islamophobia and other forms of marginalization, discrimination and hate?! Hate is hate is hate, no matter who it is against.

So today, I will walk.  Not march, but walk, with colleagues and friends from Faith in Community to hear people’s stories, to hear their pain, to offer support and consolation, to bear witness.  And God-willing, we will build bridges; we will give hope and love; we will find opportunities for reconciliation; we begin to find spaces of peace and safety, and make change.


July 5, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

What is in your Promised Land?

What is in your promised land?


Less stress.

No anxiety.

Breakfast burritos.

Mint chip ice cream cake.

Time and space to be creative.

Loving relationships.

Safety from violence.

URJ Camp Newman.


I’m home from camp. Clean and dirty clothes are still stacked up in their respective laundry baskets. The various accoutrements of our camp-style living are waiting to be packed up or put away.  Yet, I’m still thinking about the conversation I had on Shabbat morning with the Avodah-niks and CITs (rising 11th & 12th graders).

Parshat Shelach-lecha, Numbers 13:1-15:41, tells the story of the Israelite spies going ahead into Canaan, to see what they can learn about its inhabitants.  The scouts come back with differing  reports.  Ten of the scouts are pessimistic and doubtful, concerned that the giants living in the land will overcome the Israelites.  Only Caleb and Joshua are optimistic about the possibilities that lay ahead; it is a land flowing with milk and honey.

The parsha is traditionally interpreted to be about a test of faith in God, which Caleb and Joshua pass with flying colors, and the other scouts fail miserably.

Yet, I saw a different lesson in the story: a lesson about perception; a lesson about vision.

Caleb, Joshua and the 10 other scouts all witnessed the same things during their reconnaissance mission. Yet, they returned to the Israelite community with different visions of the Promised Land.

So too, with us, we each have our own visions of what the Promised Land looks like. The Avodah-niks and CITs, their visions were for spaces of safety and love and support. Spaces with yummy foods and community.

Together we noted that there may in fact be two different types of Promised Lands. The external Promised Land is where we find mint chip ice cream cakes and good friends, and supportive communities.  Our internal Promised Land is one in which we eliminate that which holds us back – stress or anxiety – and embrace that which projects us forward – creativity and love for others.

Promised Land

Neither of these Promised Lands is unattainable.

Both Promised Lands are within reach.

Together we have to do the work to make our visions into realities.

Camp does give our young people a taste of what those Promised Lands can be like. (Except for the breakfast burritos, but I hear the CIT’s are starting a campaign for those!)

Now that I am home, my work is to help make those visions for our Promised Lands a reality in the “real world.”

June 28, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

Hoops & Prayers

How do we develop kavannah, focus and intentionality in our prayers?

Practice, practice, practice.

Practice… shooting hoops!

That was our t’filah (prayer) experience this morning.

Consider what it takes to successfully make a basket. It takes focus, aim, perseverance.  So too with prayer.


This morning we practiced honing our kavannah skills by throwing hoops while offering our prayers. Three shots, three prayers, each one getting more focused than the other.

Once CIT’s prayer included:

From the 3-point line: Dear God, please help everyone I care for stay healthy.

From the free-throw line: Dear God, please keep my family healthy.

From dunking range: Dear God, please keep my mom’s scan’s clear.


The pairing of our physicality with our spirituality helped us explore what is hard and easy about prayer.  It helped us learn that sometimes focus just evades us, and that’s okay.  It helped us learn that prayer doesn’t necessarily get easier with time, and prayer practice may never make perfect. It helped us learn that making the basket isn’t what really counts, but rather the effort and persistence is what is important.

June 27, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

Bringing Torah to the Rabbi

Sometimes unforeseen circumstances at camp open up moments for learning.

Imagine 90 of us, teens and staff and faculty, sitting close together in the Pinat T’filah, a small enclosed amphitheater, with little room for movement or navigating around the space.


Our Torah arrived late to services (another unforeseen circumstance) and was sitting at the top of the amphitheater, while I, the rabbi, was on the opposite side with no easy or unobtrusive way to put the Torah in its place in the center on our makeshift ark/table.

As we approached the time for the Torah service, I was thinking: How am I to get the Torah to me so I we can do a hakafah (Torah processional)? How am I even going to walk around this tight space?  Then it came to me!

Rather than the rabbi bringing the Torah to the community. The community will bring the Torah to the rabbi.

I asked the teens to carefully, gently, lovingly pass the Torah from one another until it made its way all the way around the group, down to the last person who sat closest to me. As I explained the procedure for our hakafah, an amazing thing happened. Everyone’s eyes opened wide. There was a shudder of excitement.  The Torah slowly made its way around the group.  Some teens held back, too nervous to participate. Other teens leaned in, reaching out for a chance to hold, hug, kiss and pass the Torah.



In Jewish tradition the Torah is to be revered, not worshiped. The scroll is a sacred object, to be protected and cared for.  The Torah is second only to the life of another person.

To see our teens so lovingly and proudly carry the Torah around. To see them hug it, as if hugging a dear friend. And kiss it, as if giving it a “Shabbat shalom” kiss. The scene brought tears to my eyes.

Yet another moment of pride in our URJ Camp Newman campers, who are learning and growing as Jews, who feel comfortable being themselves, and who are immensely proud of their personal Jewish commitments.




June 24, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

Camp Newman pride

One of the things I love the most about serving on faculty at URJ Camp Newman each summer is the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of Jewish teens.

Consider this task:  draw a picture of a 7th-8th grader. What does she or he look like? What are his or her concerns?  How does she or he like to spend their time?  What do they think about Judaism and its role in their lives?

This summer’s CITs (counselors in training) were asked to do this task and this is what they created:



Do you see what I see?

A gender-neutral camper!

It’s a new day. Our youth leaders have a fresh and open understanding of what it means to be an emerging adolescent.  They know that we cannot assume that a young person identifies with how their body may present themselves to the outside world.  They know, that they – as CITs – and we – as adults – need to accept emerging adolescents for who they are and help them become who they want to be, who they are deep down inside.

This makes me proud. Proud of our youth, who are leading the way and teaching us about inclusivity. Proud of our camp, that creates safe spaces for our youth to learn and grow and explore the deepest recesses of their beings to find themselves.

In this month of Pride, I am proud of the progress we have made.  Let’s keep it up!

June 13, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

“Lo alecha” moment

I’m having another “lo alecha” moment right now.

One of my favorite ancient Jewish sages, Rabbi Tarfon taught:

Lo alecha ha’melacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben horin l’hibatel mi’mena

It is not our obligation to complete the work, but nor are we free to refrain from doing it.

In light of yesterday’s tragedy (that seems like such a cliché word these days) in Orlando, I’ve been struggling with what to do. I feel helpless.

Where do I start?

With teaching and advocating for tolerance of those who are different.  Aren’t we all different? I’m already doing that. Last night we participated in not one, but two peace vigils.  We gathered with interfaith friends and colleagues at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno and then again with Gay Central Valley to march and pray and cry and yell. Is it making a difference?


Do I  build bridges with my interfaith community, especially in support of my Muslim friends who are just as saddened and distraught?  I’m already doing that. I spent more time this weekend with my Muslim friends – at a Ramadan iftar than with anyone of any other faith. Is it making a difference?


With political action to put an end of the ownership of assault weapons? One presidential candidate says it’s too late to do that. “There are already millions of them out there.” Well, that’s an inane reason! When the AIDs epidemic was ravaging the world, did we say, “there are just too many sick people out there, so we don’t need to find a cure.”  With the numbers of people in our country who go hungry every day, do we say, “there are just too many hungry people out there to feed, let’s just give up on them; they’re on their own!” No! Of course not. And now, we are dealing with yet another mass shooting. Are all the emails and phone calls to our political leaders making a difference?

So, this morning, I’m stuck. I know I must continue to do the work.  I am not free to refrain from it!  But, where do I pick up and begin again?


June 8, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

Endless possibilities

How much has really changed in the world in the last 24 hours? Not that much, but yet a great deal!

As a woman growing up and living in a comfortable, Jewish family in California in the last part of the 20th century, I’ve been blessed.  Never did we go hungry.  Never did I worry for my safety as I walked down the street.  I had access and privilege.  My parents and grandparents taught me to do what is right, to fight for civil rights and social justice.  To help redeem the captive and oppressed. To help feed and house those in need.  To protect the safety of others. To demand equal freedoms for all human beings.  To do my civic duty and exercise my rights as a citizen of this country.

Never did I think that as a woman I couldn’t do what a man could do.  I knew women rabbis.  I learned about women political leaders, like Golda and Margaret.  Of course I’ve experienced chauvinism and the proverbial glass ceiling. Yet, I’ve always felt empowered.

Today feels different, though.

As I think about my 2 sons, my 4 nieces and 4 nephews, I feel like the world will be different for them.  The possibility that we can have a woman leader of the most powerful nation on this planet, overwhelms me, and I am filled with emotions.

I am filled with hope. Hope that what we’ve always said, that “when a woman sits in the Oval Office” things will change.

I am filled with anticipation for the months ahead. The hard work that we all must do to silence and marginalize the racism and bullying and bigotry. The hard work that we will do to advance the causes of civil rights for all.

I am anxious about the inevitable misogyny and double standards that will continue to arise in our public square conversations.

Today, I feel like the possibilities are endless and the stumbling blocks are being obliterated.