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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.

January 17, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

I didn’t think I’d be that woman

I didn’t think I’d be that woman.

You know, the canine version of the cat lady.

I have friends who lovingly and proudly refer to themselves as cat ladies.  They have cats and love them dearly.  I don’t question or besmirch that.  I’ve offered condolences to them on the loss of a cat. Honestly though, I used to think it was a little weird, and a bit much when I saw how grieved they were.  But now I don’t.

I never had a pet growing up. Well, unless you count the goldfish I would win each year at the annual Purim carnival. We’d bring those home and they’d live for a couple of weeks and then we’d give them the typical “burial at sea,” as they say.  No cats in our house, mom was allergic to them (I am now too).  No hamsters or guinea pigs.  No dogs, though I do remember my sister and I asking if we could have one.

So it was a bit of a self-revelation when ten years ago, after beginning a phase of life in which I would be working from home, that I found myself asking my husband if we might consider adopting a dog.  I had found that I was going a bit stir crazy being home alone all day. Rather than talking to myself, it seemed less lonely if I had a companion to talk to and keep me company. He was open to it, especially because he came from a dog family; he still talks about Wink. We decided a dog would be good for for our boys, who were 13 and 8 years old at the time, and me.

Cookie entered our lives in a big way.  We rescued her from the animal shelter, having been abandoned by a cruel person who left her along the side of a highway. Her days there were numbered.  We were probably her last hope.  We still laugh at how we didn’t realize how big she was until we got her home and realized her wagging tail would hit the walls in the hallway of our small home when she’d walk down it to find us.  We were never sure what her DNA make up was, yet she clearly had many features of a Great Dane.  Wow.

Cookie 2015


Well, this week, 10 years later, we had to say goodbye to Cookie.  We all knew she was declining.  Though we never knew her exact age, we guesstimated it at somewhere between 12-14 years old.  Among other things, she had a neuromuscular degenerative disease moving up her spine.  She could no longer stand long enough to get through a bowl of food. And one afternoon this past week, she just couldn’t stand anymore.  So, as a family we all said our goodbyes, both in person and virtually (thank you Facetime).  She laid her head on my lap and my husband held on too, both of massaging her favorite spots.

And for two days afterwards I was sad, grieving, missing her presence in the house.  The only thing that made me feel better was writing about her or talking about her with friends.  I had to sit my own little type of shiva for her.  In a way, I became that woman, that dog-lady.  I realized that it’s not such a quirky thing to love one’s pet and miss them when they’re gone.

So, this blog is a way for me to get some of my grief out.  Like a eulogy of sorts.  My kids have done it too, on their Facebook and Instagram pages, each in their own way.

My dear friend Rabbi Paul Kipnes helped me too, with this prayer he sent to me:

Mekor HaChayim, Source of all that lives, we come before You this day in sadness.

(Pet’s name), who brought us so much joy in life, has now died. (His/Her) happy times

in our family’s embrace have come to an end. We miss (pet’s name) already.


Help us, O God, to remember the good times with (pet’s name). Remind us to rejoice in

the happy times (he/she) brought to our home. Let us be thankful for the good life we

were blessed to give to (him/her).


We are grateful to You, Holy One, for creating (pet’s name), for entrusting (him/her) to

our care, and for sustaining (him/her) in our love for a measure of time. We understand

that all that lives must die. We knew that this day would come. And yet, O God, we

would have wanted one more day of play, one more evening of love with (pet’s name).


O God, as we have taken care of (pet’s name) in life, we ask that You watch over

(him/her) in death. You entrusted (pet’s name) to our care; now, we give (him/her) back

to You. May (pet’s name) find a happy new home in Your loving embrace.


As we remember (pet’s name), may we love each other more dearly. May we care for all

Your creatures, for every living thing, as we protected the blessed life of (pet’s name).

May (his/her) memory bless our lives with love and caring forever. Amen.

[Adapted from Prayers by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman and Rabbi Barry Block]

As I swept the floors this morning, I realized that there was already less Cookie hair gathering on the bottom of my Swiffer.  For 10 years I complained about her shedding.  “Our next dog won’t shed!,” I would declare.  But this morning, it didn’t seem so bad to have had to sweep up all that hair for these years.  She gave us a lot more than strands of hair.  She protected me from strangers at the door. Little did they know her big bark was meant more to be friendly than frightening. She gave all of us, including extended family members, confidence to be around big dogs.  She gave my boys someone to care for and love and take responsibility for.  She gave us unending love.

And we all loved her back. Hopefully our love gave her redemption from the cruelty of her prior owners. Hopefully our love gave her a sense of security and warmth. Hopefully it gave her knowledge that she was part of a family who would not give up on her.

So Cookie’s memory will bless our lives.  We will remember her.  Her unending love will continue to strengthen us all.


November 10, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

Not Quite Far Enough

We’ve come a long way.

Or have we?

Contrasting images from this past week keep swirling in my mind’s eye:

Snapshot 1:

This past week the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox rabbinic association, prohibited the ordination of women rabbis. RCA president Rabbi Shalom Baum justifies this decision by saying,

“…as the role of women in society advances, we must consider and encourage appropriate professional opportunities open to learned women in our community, as we find positive ways to express the beauty of Torah and the importance of its values that have been extant for millennia.”

Guys, this is the 21st century! Seriously. Have we not yet learned that “separate but equal” isn’t really equal?!

It is not surprising that Orthodox women, such as Rabba Sara Hurwitz are speaking out, and progressive rabbinic associations, such as the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network and Central Conference of American Rabbis are rallying in support of Rabba Hurwitz and her Orthodox colleagues:

…As such, we, the Women’s Rabbinic Network and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, hereby stand with unequivocal support of ANY woman, who after appropriate, rigorous study and counsel through a recognized rabbinical seminary is ordained by said institution. We applaud these women and their commitment to the study of Jewish law, history and culture for the sake of transmitting our sacred tradition to future generations. We also commend the rabbis and lay leaders who have taken the bold step of teaching, supporting and hiring these newly ordained women as clergy. We stand together with our new Orthodox colleagues who, together with us, work to ensure that Judaism is alive and thriving for all Jewish people who wish to be included in our sacred community.

Snapshots 2, 3, 4: Shabbat morning, November 7, parshat Chaye Sarah at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention.

With 5000 members of the Reform movement gathering together for Shabbat morning worship, women and men dance together with the Torah. The room is filled with joy and singing.  Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, Nashot HaKotel, joins hundreds of others in dancing with the Torah in her arms, her eyes twinkling and a wide smile on her face.


As she dances by me, I snap a quick picture and pray that the time will come when she can do this in her own home – our Jewish home – Israel, without the fear of harassment or arrest.

The Torah service continues with the honoring of Daryl Messinger on her installation as chairperson of the URJ. In its 142 year history the URJ has never before had a woman serve as chairperson. For a movement that is unerringly committed to egalitarianism, that has ordained women as rabbis since 1972 and cantors since 1975, this appointment has been a long time coming.

And finally, the Torah service ends, with the traditional hagbah and g’lilah, lifting of the Torah to show the assembled the words that had been read and dressing it. I was invited to participate in this honor with my colleague Rabbi Stan Schickler in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators. Despite this being a honor usually accepted by men because of the physical strength needed to do it, we decided I, as president of ARJE, should take it on.



I continue to be overwhelmed by the comments I have received since Shabbat morning.  Women have been simultaneously shocked that I could physically lift the scroll and proud of me and my accomplishment.  Yet, as my friend and colleague Rabbi Valerie Lieber wrote on Facebook:

people should not be surprised when kick-ass women like Laura can excel at it. Women like her and so many others are super strong and balance so much. We were built for this honor!

So, as I reflect on this past week and these snapshots about the role of women in Judaism, I am left wondering. How far have we really come?  We have come far.

But not quite far enough.

October 11, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

I will always love you

In honor of #NationalComingOutDay.


Back in 2011, the editors of Moment Magazine asked this question of their corps of rabbis:

What guidance would you give your child if he or she told you he/she was gay?

My response then and now is:

The first thing I would say to my child is, “I love you. I will always love you. You are created in the image of God, b’tzelem elohim.”

I would look to offer the same guidance that I would offer to my child if he/she were straight. I would want to make sure that he/she seek to create relationships that are grounded in Jewish values: loving and mutual, healthy and safe, caring and respectful.

My children – and the teens I work with – know that they can speak with me about anything, and I will be there for them, listen to them, and offer my support. Yet, sadly there are still challenges with living an “out” life. For that reason, I would want my child to have Jewish adult gay role models that he/she could turn to for support – someone with whom he/she could find a safe place to talk about the challenges, hopes, fears and dreams that they may share in common. As a parent, I would see it as my obligation to help my child bring that type of mentor into his/her life.

You are not alone. Whether you are questioning your gender identity, your sexual identity or your sexual orientation, there is someone in your life who will always say, “I love you. I will always love you.”


September 27, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

Sukkot is the first day

A colleague and I were joking together about how crazy it is that these Jewish holy days fall so close together. Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), is followed a quick ten days later by Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and then a mere four days later, the seven-day festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Booths), which ends with Simchat Torah, the rejoicing at the finishing – and beginning again – the annual Torah reading cycle.  Were we to have made our own holiday calendar, we might have spread things out a bit more evenly across the year. But, alas, it was God’s decision to make.  So, we live with the mixed blessing of a crazy 3 weeks with family and community to do all the good and hard work of observing and celebrating, praying and repenting, cooking and eating, building and dancing.

One might wonder why these holy days and holidays are timed so close together and what the spiritual message might be behind that.  This is not a new question. In fact, at least one ancient rabbi asked this question and addressed it in his Sukkot sermon.  This sermon is saved in a medieval collection of homiletical midrashim called Peskita Rabbati.

This rabbi begins his sermon with a question:

A comment on the verse, On the first day you shall take (Leviticus 23:40). Can the words the first day mean the first day of the month? No, for scripture has fixed the day as the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:39).

If you look to Leviticus 23:39, and read that verses in full, you will see that this rabbi is asking a question about what day is referred to when it says “on the first day you shall take the fruit of the tree…”. Is it the first day of the month – the month of Tishrei – which would be Rosh Hashanah? Or is it another day?  (Why the new year is in the seventh month is another blog post…)  The rabbi answers his own question by reading the next verse, Leviticus 23:40, where the day is clarified to be the 15th day of the 7th month, which is the 15th of Tishrei.  So, then, what does “first day” refer to in verse 39?  The first day of what? It refers to the first day of the Festival – the first day of Sukkot.

He continues his sermon:

But why should Scripture have shifted over from counting the days in the month  to counting the days in the festival? Rabbi Mani of Shaab and Rabbi Joshua of Siknin citing Rabbi Levi replied as follows: The matter can be explained by a parable – the parable of a city which owed the king its tax.  The king sent collectors to take up the money, but the people of the city would not pay what they owed the king.  Thereupon the king said, “I will go myself and collect it.”


When the people of the city heard that the king was on his way to collect the tax, the notables of the city went out to meet him a distance of ten parasangs and said to him, “Oh king, our lord, we acknowledge that we owe you money. But right now we have not the means to pay the entire amount. We entreat you, have pity on us.” The king, seeing that the were seeking a peaceful settlement with him, remitted a third of the sum the citizens owed.

When the king came within five miles of the city, the city councilors came out, prostrated themselves before him and said, “O king, our lord, we do not have the means to pay.” So the king remitted another third of the sum the citizens owed.

Then, when he entered the city, the very moment he entered it, the entire city, everyone in it, men and women, grownups and little ones, came out, prostrated themselves at his feet, and pleaded with him. The king said, “Suppose I ask for no more that one part in four of what you own.” They replied, “Oh lord, we have not the means.”

What did the king do?  He remitted the entire amount and wrote off their debt in full.

What did all the people of the city do then? They went, the grownups and the little ones, and brought myrtles and palm branches and sang praise to the king.

The king said, “Let bygones be bygones; from this moment on we shall commence a new reckoning.”

The application of the parable is as follows:  Throughout the days of the year, Israel sins.  Then on Rosh Hashanah the Holy One goes up on God’s throne and sits in judgment. What do the people of Israel do then? They gather and pray in synagogues and after reciting the ten verses asserting God’s sovereignty, the ten verses asserting God’s remembrance of God’s creatures, and the ten verses alluding to the shofar of revelation, they blow the shofar. Thereupon the Holy One remits one third of the punishment for Israel’s iniquities.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur those men who are notable for their piety fast as they avow penitence. Thereupon the Holy One remits another third of the punishment for Israel’s iniquities. Then when Yom Kippur comes, all Israel fast as they avow penitence, men, women, and children.  Indeed they avow complete penitence, for they put on white garments, even though they are bare of foot like the dead. They say to God: Ruler of the universe, we are two things at once: in our white garments we are like the angels who are eternal, but bare of foot we are like the dead.

When the Holy One sees Israel resolved upon complete penitence, God forgives all sins and writes off Israel’s debt to God, as is written, For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins (Leviticus 16:30).

When Israel see that the Holy One has made atonement for them and has written off their debt, what do they do? During the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot they go and fetch myrtle and willows and palm branches and build booths and sing praises to the Holy One. The Holy One says to them: Let bygones be bygones. From this moment on commences a new reckoning. Today is to be the first day in the new reckoning of iniquities. As Scripture says, On the first day (Leviticus 23:40).


This rabbi’s message is comforting.  He helps us see that God knows the work we do over the High Holy Days is hard and draining. To relieve ourselves of our debt – our sins and wrongdoings – is challenging.  Ultimately, God is compassionate.

This rabbi also offers us charge.  We must still remember the work of atonement we did during the first half of the month.  It is not until Sukkot arrives on the 15th of the month that the slate is really wiped clean.  There is still time to finish our spiritual and interpersonal work.

Sukkot is the first day of the new reckoning… the new accounting begins today.  May this week be one filled with joy and celebration as we sit in our sukkot, enjoying family, friends, and God’s sheltering, divine presence.  May they all be shelters of peace and calm as we look forward to good things in this new year.

September 9, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

It’s Dirty Work But We’ve All Got to Do It.

We have mud!  Still.

This summer my husband and I took a wonderful road trip through Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Washington.  It was all we hoped for; wandering in and out of small towns and across our beautiful country.  Yet, like most road trips, there is always some adventure that, while in the moment cuts the excitement, turns into a funny and warm memory. For us, this adventure involved Moab, Utah and red mud. Lots of mud. And our car stuck in it.


Eight weeks later, we still find bits of mud in the car.  It emerges from tiny crevices. There is still a thin, almost transparent coating of red dust on the floor of the car.  Will a complete car detailing get rid of all of it? How long will it continue to reappear?

Elul, and this period of recounting and reflection, is the time for thinking about all the other types of mud we have in our lives – that stuff that sticks to us, gnaws at us, makes us feel un-whole. That stuff we want to get rid of so we can really start the year off with a clean slate.  That stuff we want to wash away: the wrongs we’ve done, the wrongs done to us that still hurt, the behaviors or attitudes we want to change, the old patterns that don’t serve us well anymore…

This kind of “mud” is even harder to get rid of. It is not necessarily intuitive. Its something we have to learn how to do.  Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi tells a story about teaching a young girl about forgiveness.

The girl asked him, “How do you do it?”

Reb Zalman reflects on her question, thinking, “it was as if nobody had ever shown her how to do forgiving.”

So, he said to her, “Could you imagine that you have a beautiful shiny white dress on, and here comes this big clump of mud and dirties it?  You would want to clean it off, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, yes,” she said.

“Could you imagine then, instead of the mud being on the outside on your dress, the mud is in your heart?”

“Uh huh.”

“And being angry with people and not forgiving them is like mud on your heart.”

“I’d sure want to get rid of that,” she said.

“OK, how are you going to go about doing that?”

Reb Zalman then suggests that “she close her eyes, raise up her hands in her imagination, and draw down some golden light and let it flow over that mud on her heart until it was all washed away. In this way, she really understood forgiving.”

In Moab, as my husband and I finally pulled back onto paved road after 24 hours in the mud the wheels were shaking as we accelerated. The mud, caked on like clay, was effecting the axles.  Just like the young girl in Reb Zalman’s story, we too needed to learn how to get rid of the mud. “Get that car washed, and you’ll be fine,” was the advice we got from some of the locals.


If only it were as easy as getting car wash. Letting go of hurt feelings, changing those comforting-yet-not-healthy behaviors, and recognizing when pride and ego lead to hurting others take more than just meditation and prayer and visualization.  It takes support from loved ones. It takes patience and discipline. It takes faith in one’s own ability to grow and become a better person.  And it takes time.

That thin, almost transparent coating of red dust might remain there for a while.  But eventually, it will wash away.

August 6, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

The Ripple Effects of Peer to Peer Mentorship

Recently, I asked a group of colleagues to help me think about examples from pop-culture in which teens were mentoring other teens. It was surprisingly hard to come up with a genuine example of peer-to-peer mentorship. In the movie Clueless (1995), Cher (Alicia Silverstone) gives herself a project by becoming the self-appointed fashion and social-standing mentor to a new girl at the school in order to help propel that girl up the social ladder. In the Broadway show Wicked, we see a similar dynamic at play, when Glinda and Elphaba overcome their extreme dislike of each other and Glinda attempts to give Elphaba a makeover. And in The Hunger Games series, is any one teen really out there to help another teen for the sake of true and sincere mentorship? No, they build alliances with each other in order to survive, but in the end, there is supposed to be only one tribute left standing. It ultimately requires revolt and revolution to really get the tributes to work together and support each other.

Where are the examples of true mentorship – peers helping each other to learn and grow into their best selves? Are there times when adolescents can be there for each other, not to fight some dystopian revolution, but to create healthy bonds and build relationships with each other for the sake of a positive and worthwhile connection and enrichment? Yes there are! We may not see it happening in pop culture, but look around. It’s happening in our own communities.

peer mentor

The quintessential rabbinic text about mentorship is found in Pirke Avot 1:6, “Provide yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend.” In reading this text we often imagine a teacher who may be older or have much more life experience than ourselves. We imagine a more traditional mentor/protégé relationship.  Yet, for some congregations and communities thinking about how to revolutionize the b’nai mitzvah experience, the idea of finding a teacher from amongst one’s peers is creating significant impacts in their adolescent communities.

The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution is a network of congregational professionals, lay leaders and educational thought leaders seeking to bring renewed depth and meaning to Jewish learning. In the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, congregations seek to experiment with and create new models of preparation and engagement for b’nai mitzvah that are meaningful and relevant to young people and their families. In some congregations, that translates into a desire to not only transform the b’nai mitzvah experience but the post b’nai mitzvah experience as well.


Peer b’nai mitzvah tutoring is a more frequent model of mentorship that we see emerging in congregations. The Tzofim program at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, CA, is a peer-tutoring program designed to help the congregation’s newest young adults maintain their connection to Judaism and the synagogue after becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. Beginning as soon as the week after their own bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, 7th-10th grade students become tutors, and guide their own students through the process of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. Post b’nai mitzvah teens experience tangible ways to make an impact on the lives of others, while pre-b’nai mitzvah teens find mentors and role models with whom they can share concerns, ask questions, and gain guidance about the bar/bat mitzvah experience, while learning the prayers required of them to lead.

Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC runs a similar program for B’nai Mitzvah Madrichim in which 9th-12th grade teens experience the responsibility of a “real job”, earn minimum wage and work anywhere from 2-12 hours per month tutoring pre-b’nai mitzvah teens in the prayers, as well as Torah and Haftarah trope. The B’nai Mitzvah Madrichim program at Beth El has created a culture in the congregation in which younger teens often are heard saying, “When I am a madrich…”

Social justice work is another venue in which peer-to-peer mentorship has great potential. In the Detroit areas, families from participating congregations can enroll in the Peer Corps Detroit program as a way of completing their mitzvah project requirement for B’nai Mitzvah. Peer Corps Detroit is a paid mentorship program inviting Jewish teens (10th-12th grade) and pre B’nai Mitzvah students to work together at a service site in metro-Detroit over a 3.5 month long project. Through the mentor relationships, B’nai Mitzvah students participate in meaningful mitzvah projects, while the older teens learn applicable leadership and mentorship skills. Together they create genuine and long-term relationships with each other and with their service sites. The core ideas and structure of Peer Corps Detroit can be easily adapted to a congregational setting, especially: pairing older teens with younger teens in doing social justice work, providing older teens with meaningful and real leadership opportunities, as well as creating long term relationships with service sites.

In each of these instances, the institutions are learning lessons about youth engagement, about the value of peer-to-peer relationships, and about the subsequent impact these programs can have on adolescents, congregations and communities. The positive impacts include:

  • Building a culture in which the younger adolescents are able to connect with older adolescents in order to find guidance, ask questions and share life experiences together.
  • Older teens are finding a niche for themselves in the Jewish community or congregation. Whether it is in teaching or tutoring, social justice work, or a variety of other potential areas, these youth are learning that Jewish connections don’t end at thirteen.
  • Older teens are maintaining and strengthening relationships with adults who guide them. In each of these examples there are adults who support and supervise the older teens, providing them with training and learning necessary, and mentoring them in their own growth as Jewish teachers and leaders.
  • Older teens are continuing their own learning and growth. Whether it is learning additional prayers and trope, learning teaching skills, learning how to mentor, older teens come away with new skills and talents that can serve them well into the future.
  • Older teens are taking responsibility as they hold real leadership roles. They are held accountable for their work. Someone is relying on them to show up, prepared and ready to do their job. Again, this life skill in invaluable at this time in their lives.

The wisdom of our passage from Pirke Avot is that it recognizes the bilateral nature of a mentorship relationship. Both parties learn and grow; both are enriched by the experience and the relationship. Inspired by this notion, these communities are seeing that peer-to-peer mentoring programs that connect pre and post b’nai mitzvah youth to each other in significant ways have ripple effects in adolescents’ lives and in their communities.

I am sure there are other valuable peer-to-peer mentorship programs out there. What have you done in this area? What have you learned?

If you are interested in learning more about the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution and these innovations as well as others included in the BMR Interactive Innovations Guide, please visit You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find there.

April 26, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

Celebrate Unity without Uniformity

It was an honor today to be the guest speaker at the Jewish Federation of the Central Valley’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration.  It was a challenge to speak to an audience of 8-80 year olds, yet it was wonderful to see the generations of the Jewish community come together in support and celebration of Israel.  I am please do share my remarks here since there were some who were unable to be there and I know had wanted to hear them.

Celebrate Unity without Uniformity

As we mark the 67th Anniversary of Israel’s independence, I invite us to consider a challenge facing the Jewish people today: can we celebrate the unity of our support of Israel, without the expectation of uniformity of opinion?

I needn’t repeat the oft-told line about how many opinions a group of 10 Jews will have. It seems an impossible task. How can we celebrate our unified support of Israel when we collectively and individually continuously grapple with our own deep feelings about Israel?

If we consider the figures in our history whose task was to create unity among the Jewish people, one might think of Moses and Joshua, bring the Israelites through slavery into the Promised Land. Or King Solomon, bring the tribes together in shared worship at the Temple. Or Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the compilation of all our laws and rituals that are so enthusiastically debated in the Talmud and its commentaries. However, in my opinion, and most relevant to us today, the ultimate unifier of the Jewish people was David Ben Gurion, first prime minister of the State of Israel.

DBG Declaration of Indep

Ben Gurion was born in Duvche Green in Plonsk, Poland, a small shtetl between Warsaw and Gdnask. Plonsk had no paved roads, no running water and no high school. Despite the poverty around him, his father was fairly well off and they were “modern middle class family” for the time. Ben Gurion, taking a brave ideological stand as a young man, never learned Polish – rather he taught himself Hebrew because he always knew he would emigrate to Palestine. He made aliyah in 1906 at the age of 20, as part of what is known as the Second Aliyah.

Anita Shapira, in her recently published biography of Ben Gurion described him in these ways: Ben Gurion was:

  • An autodidact – that mean’s someone who is self taught; he was always surrounded by books
  • A boring writer and speaker
  • An inveterate pragmatist – a real practical person – who learned to generate power from weakness
  • Not a man without faults, he was known to have tantrums, but was at his best in a crisis, and often spiteful and held grudges. (Parenthetically, DBG wouldn’t let Chaim Weitzmann, another leader at the time, sign the Declaration of Independence because of their constant disagreements and differences of opinion)
  • He was a philosopher-king, inspired by Winston Churchill, the prime minister of England, and Vladimir Lenin, the communist leader of Russia who wasn’t known to be such a nice man, and the Zionist thinker and writer Micha Yosef Berdyczeski
  • He was a man of tremendous will power
  • And ultimately the midwife to the delivery of a nation

Consider Ben Gurion’s unfathomable task.

As he grew to positions of leadership in the Yishuv – the early Jewish settlement in Palestine – and eventually as a spokesman for Zionism around the world, he had to build unity amongst Jews of all types, Zionist factions, world politicians and political groups, and the residents of Palestine.  He knew all along that unity – even without uniformity – was the key to success.

For example, by the 1920’s Ben Gurion was taking a lead role is organizing the Jewish workers in Palestine. He knew that in order to build the country he needed an organized workforce; he needed to bring people to Palestine. He focused his efforts on mass immigration, declaring, “Over the next twenty years we must create Jewish majority in Palestine. That is the essence of the new historical situation.” (Shapira, p. 50)

Interestingly, at that time Ben Gurion also knew that the Arabs were central to this process too. He said, “The Arab worker is an organic, integral part of the country, just like one of its mountains and valleys. Therefore the destiny of the Jewish worker is linked to the destiny of the Arab worker. Together we shall rise or fall.” (Shapira, p. 83-84) Ben Gurion knew, according to Shapira, that he needed to address the complex situation of recognizing the “Arabs’ rights to complete national and political equality, but reject their claim to exclusive possession of the country.” (Shapira p.85)

Ben Gurion understood what it meant to build a nation, a state. He “saw himself not only as responsible for defense and foreign policy but also for forming a national identity for Jews who came from all over the world.” (Shapira p. 174) He had to find ways to bring together Jews from around the world who spoke different languages, ate different foods, prayed in different ways, yet were all unified in their desire for a homeland. He had to find ways to bring together Jews who were recent survivors of the Holocaust, those from North African countries who had been victims of different kinds of anti-Semitism, as well as North American Jews who were committed to the Zionist cause. How did he do this? By encouraging the development of a modern, shared, uniquely Israeli culture: by building Hebrew and the arts, literature, poetry, music, theater; by funding the research and academics, by challenging Jewish scientists to put Israel on the scientific map.


I can only imagine the how Ben Gurion felt, recognizing the weight of the task ahead of him in 1948. On that day, all he wrote in his diary was, “at 4 PM Jewish independence was declared and the state was established. Its fate is in the hands of the defense forces.” (Shapira, p. 162)

Today, as we celebrate Israel’s 67th birthday, we rejoice in those successes that Ben Gurion set in motion. The immense contributions Israel has made to science, medicine and technology, the award winning literature, movies and music, delicious wines and foods, the place that Israel holds in humanitarian work around the world. Yet, in the spirit of Rabbi Tarfon, the work is not yet done. We are yet to see complete civil rights for all Jews in Israel. Women are being forced to sit in the backs of buses. Reform rabbis are still not permitted to officiate at weddings in Israel. There are economic disparities between Ashkenazic, Sephardic, North African and Ethiopian Jews. As recently as 2013 Israel had the third highest poverty rate in the world. And we await the formation of a new government – one that will hopefully find appreciation for the unified support for Israel, with respect for differences of opinion and religious practice.

israel poverty

The current events in Israel have the potential to both bind us and divide us. In our 67th year of celebrating our modern homeland, I pray that we will find unity in our support for and commitment to Israel, that we will appreciate our differences in vision for her future and allow us all to engage in the positive work that will bring it to fruition and bring us all together.