What does a rabbi look like? Do you envision the rabbi of your childhood when you picture a rabbi? Is it an iteration of Tevye the lead character from Fiddler on the Roof? At the annual convention fo the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) this question was posed in a myriad of ways, especially as the work of the Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate led a program on creating cultural change. 45 years after the ordination of the first female rabbi in North America, too many people struggle to break that old image. One way Reform Rabbis the CCAR is changing the narrative is the hashtag and amazing photos, #ThisIsWhatARabbiLooksLike (I encourage you to search for this hashtag on your favorite social media platform).

By elevating the voice of the Reform rabbinate in the press, on social media, in the coffee shop, in the classroom, in the hospital room, and in the communal organization, Reform Rabbis are changing the perception of what a rabbi looks like.

A rabbi is tall. A rabbi is short. A rabbi is strong. A rabbi is differently able. A rabbi is a woman. A rabbi is a man. A rabbi is trans. This is what a rabbi looks like. Rabbis reflect the beautiful tapestry of humanity.

As I’ve been thinking and reflecting at the annual convention about these issues my amazing colleague at Temple Beth Hillel sent me the following photo and text.

“Ariela says, ‘this is Rabbi Ellie in the front.’”

As part of young Ariela’s imaginary play, one of her rabbis participates! This too is what a rabbi looks like.

And the next day this arrived:

“Today you are the top doll. She also said you like zebras.”

Thank God, children with the their profound imagination really understand what rabbis look like. May we continue to learn from them.

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When I was five years old I started piano lessons. For my parents, especially MY MOM, it was extremely important that music play a role in my life. I took lessons on my grandmother’s piano. My grandmother died when MY MOM was fourteen. That piano and music were one of the primary ways that I connected with her memory. The Chickering parlor grand piano had a prominent place in our living room, in fact it was the first thing that you saw upon entering our house in Los Angeles. I took weekly lessons and learned to plunk out notes. And in time I was playing Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and others.

When I was in third grade in my public school we had the opportunity to select an instrument for orchestra. I selected the clarinet. So for one academic year I played that woodwind. I would never become Benny Goodman.

The next year string instruments became an option and I switched to cello. Because I was able to read music, I was allowed this flexibility of instrument.

In the meanwhile, piano lessons were ongoing.

When we moved to Minnesota, I switched from orchestra or band to choir. Eventually as I got older, I think the tenth grade, my piano lesson days came to an end. I was still singing in choirs in my schools (for the record I attended public schools for elementary and secondary schooling). I did take guitar lessons for a bit, too.

When I went to college I elected to sing in the University Chorus for two years. In addition to a full academic course load, this was one of my extra-curricular activities. Music was always important to me.

Last year, I started taking guitar lessons again because I use my guitar in my work as a rabbi and I like it. (I have the greatest guitar teacher. (Happy to make a recommendation if you’d like. Use the ‘contact’ option to be in touch). Making music lowers my stress and I love it.

This past week, during Purim celebrations, I found myself as the page-turner. I am so incredibly grateful that I am able to read music and play multiple instruments. Thanks MOM and DAD for all of those music lessons. All of these years later they are still paying off.

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Sanctuary. A place of refuge and protection. Places of learning and growth are sanctuaries. Dance clubs where our bodies move to the wondrous pulse of music are sanctuaries. Movie theaters where we release our minds to the wonders, sounds, and sights of things real and imaginary are sanctuaries.
This week’s Torah portion is about the first sanctuary, the Mishkan, the tabernacle. A few weeks ago in the Torah reading cycle the Israelite community received the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai. We became a community who knew slavery, redemption, and formed society as a newly liberated community. There were lots of things the community needed and one of them was a place to worship, a place for God to dwell. “וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃,” “Make me for a sanctuary/Mikdash that I may dwell among them,” (Exodus 25:8). The Hebrew root, “shin-chaf-nun” found in the fourth Hebrew word of this verse and in the word Mishkan means something greater than dwelling or place to live. As it states in a comment on this verse in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary this root “indicates a moving, dynamic presence, not one tied to a fixed location.” This is because God’s presence is everywhere.
God’s presence was in the Mishkan. God’s presence is in places of learning. God’s presence is in dance clubs. God’s presence is in movie theaters. God’s presence is in each human being.
And so, like me, like so many of us, God too is weeping over the senseless tragedy that took place on Wednesday in a sanctuary, violating the sanctity of a place of learning, humanity and hope for the future. We cry for the souls taken. We mourn for the parents who will bury their children. We applaud the acts of heroism, great and small, displayed by teachers, school staff, first-responders, and human beings who did the right thing in a moment of chaos.
It is a fact that since the start of 2018 20 people have been killed and 30 people injured in school shootings.  This is not okay.
Through our tear-stained cheeks I invite you to join me in lobbying our representatives to enact gun violence prevention legislation. We must work together to support organizations like Do Not Stand Idly By, Moms Demand Action or Every Town for Gun Safety with our dollars, our volunteer service, and our grit.
There are sanctuaries around us and within us. We must work together to strengthen them so that we can all take refuge and find protection.
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An update on my Facebook-free phone

Facebook let me know that 11 years ago today I joined. A lot can happen in 11 years. I will spare you the corny Facebook video. As you may recall, I recently removed the app from my phone. It was quite honestly one of the best things I’ve done. This article agrees with me.

I’ve noticed the following things:

  • I look at my phone less
  • My battery stays remarkably more full throughout the day
  • There are times when I look to my phone to distract myself and I’ve ended up looking out the window or taking a few deep breaths
  • I read more news
  • I need to be mindful about when I upload a picture to my personal facebook page (I have the pages app because I use Facebook or work purposes) because I can’t just check something on my phone

For me, it is working extremely well not to have Facebook on my phone. Have you ever considered taking the step? I’d love to hear about it.

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Experiment: Facebook is off of my phone

In front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

I have just returned from a week in Europe, Berlin and Prague to be precise. And while there are many wonderful things that I observed, one thing I noticed is how much less Europeans seem to be staring at their phone screen. I also was staring at my phone screen so much less (perhaps because it was mostly in airplane mode). When I saw people in cafes, they were reading newspapers or magazines, lost in thought, or conversing with someone across the table. On public transportation people were gazing out the window watching the city go by. Phones were tucked away at restaurants, instead of being the requisite additional utensil adjacent to the fork.

Having some time away where I know I was looking at my own screen less I’ve decided to try this at home, also. As an experiment, I’ve deleted Facebook from my phone. Looking at my phone battery usage, I see that most of the time I am on my phone I am on Facebook and it is time to make a change. I can assure you that I am not abandoning social media entirely. I will still check Facebook on a computer or my iPad and I have a plethora of other social media accounts. The question will be do I turn to those other platforms without Facebook or do I just look at my phone less often? I’m hoping for the later.

Stay tuned for an update sometime soon!

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Temple Beth Hillel, Reach Out When You’re Ill

This article appeared in the Temple Beth Hillel publication, Hillel Omer.

“Reaching Out When You’re Ill”

Did you know that you can remove a sixtieth of a person’s suffering simply by visiting them? According to the Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b), we learn that by fulfilling the positive sacred obligation of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, we can ease the ill person’s suffering. Now, this might cause you to wonder, why not cram 60 people into the room to take away all of the illness? Good question. Rabbi Abba clarifies,each visitor removes one-sixtieth of the remaining illness so even sixty visitors would not remove all remaining illness.

Bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, is an immensely meaningful sacred obligation, and a vital aspect of the work that Rabbi Hronsky and I do as leaders of our congregation. There is just one catch, we need to know there is something going on with you or your family member.

There was a time that it was the job of the clergy assistant to call local hospitals and receive the lists of the admitted Jewish patients. Since 1996 and the enactment of the HIPAA laws, a rabbi can no longer know who is admitted to the hospital unless the patient or a patient’s family member provides the information. Though there is much happening during a hospital stay, please add contacting Rabbi Hronsky or I to the list.

No bikkur cholim visits are the same. In some cases an ill person may be too weak to have a conversation so singing and praying is all that takes place. Sometimes Rabbi Hronsky or I spend time offering our support to the caregivers, the family members sitting at bedside or in a waiting room. Other times we are able to speak on the phone to a patient or a family member and make arrangements for a visit once the ill person is at home or more stable.

While we hope all hospital stays are brief, it is our hope that we can be present for you and your family in these precious moments. Please make sure that your family members are aware of your relationship with our congregation and that it is appropriate for them to reach out to us via phone call or email.

May we have the opportunity to spend moments together celebrating and sanctifying life’s beautiful moments.


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Embracing Disruption

Below is the text of my Yom Kippur morning sermon, Embracing Disruption, delivered at Temple Beth Hillel.

A poor man walking in the forest feels close enough to God to ask,
“God, what is a million years to you?”
God replies, “My son, a million years to you is like a second to me.”
The man asks, “God, what is a million dollars to you?”
God replies, “My son, a million dollars to you is less than a penny to
me. It means almost nothing to me.”
The man asks, “So God, can I have a million dollars?”
And God replies, “In a second.”[i]

Time is money. Perhaps more so than any other time in history, we feel this pressure. Everyone wants more of both and we grown-ups work really hard to provide for ourselves and our families.

All of this happens while technologies change at a pace almost indescribable. Staying abreast of the newest trends, whether they be art, communications, media, or business, can be a full time job in and of itself.

As described in a recent New York Times article:

At certain moments in history, a confluence of technological and social advances creates the opportunity for a new field of innovation. That was happening at the beginning of 2009. A few months earlier, a reluctant Steve Jobs had been persuaded by his colleagues to allow other companies to develop apps for the iPhone. That happened just as Google Maps and GPS and other tools were enabling more wondrous mobile-based services. In addition, cloud services such as Amazon’s allowed startups to store and process large amounts of data without building their own infrastructure. The explosive growth of Facebook had encouraged people to create trusted identities and share things online. And as the 2008 financial crisis receded the overcaffeinated venture capitalists of Silicon Valley became frenzied in the pursuit of new potential unicorns.

The result was the blossoming of a type of economic activity with many kludgy labels—the “sharing” or “gig” or “on-demand” economy – that do not quite capture its disruptive and transformative nature.[ii]

Welcome to the disruption economy.

Here’s an example.

On a cool fall evening in 2008, four students set out to revolutionize an industry. Buried in loans, they had lost and broken eyeglasses and were outraged at how much it cost to replace them. One of them had been wearing the same damaged pair for five years: He was using a paper clip to bind the frames together. Even after his prescription changed twice, he refused to pay for the pricey new lenses.

Luxottica, the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, controlled more than 80 percent of the eyewear market. To make glasses more affordable, the students would need to topple a giant. Having recently watched Zappos transform footwear by selling shoes online, they wondered if they could do the same with eyewear.

When they casually mentioned their idea to friends, time and again they were blasted with scorching criticism. No one would ever buy glasses over the internet, their friends insisted. People had to try them on first. Sure Zappos had pulled off the concept with shoes, but there was a reason it hadn’t happened with eyewear. “If this were a good idea,” they heard repeatedly, “someone would have done it already.” …

None of the students had a background in e-commerce and technology, let alone in retail, fashion, or apparel. Despite being told their idea was crazy, they walked away from lucrative job offers to start a company. They would sell eyeglasses that normally cost $500 in a store for $95 online, donating a pair to someone in the developing world with every purchase.

The business depended on a functioning website. Without one, it would be impossible for customers to view or buy their products. After scrambling to pull a website together, they finally managed to get it online at 4 a.m. on the day before the launch in February 2010. They called the company Warby Parker, combining the names of two characters created by the novelist Jack Kerouac, who inspired them to break free from the shackles of social pressure and embark on their adventure. They admired his rebellious spirit, infusing it into their culture. And it paid off.

The students expected to sell a pair or two of glasses per day. But when GQ called them “the Netflix of eyewear,” they hit their target for the entire first year in less than a month, selling out so fast that they had to put twenty thousand customers on a waiting list. It took them nine months to stock enough inventory to meet the demand.[iii]

Warby Parker, Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, Facebook, and Google have changed the face of business in our country. This disruption economy is marked by the closing of one door and the eruption of another, often using technology. This disruption is impacts every aspect of our lives.

The word itself, disruption, connotes something negative. However, it isn’t. “The digital disruption of today compels new thinking and behaviors that “end” one trend while ironically giving rise to new awakenings that previously didn’t exist.”[iv]

The Judaism we practice today is a product of a disruption.  Let me explain. On Erev Rosh Hashanah I told you the story from the Talmud of Kamza and Bar Kamza and the lack of kindness that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  Just a little further on the page the Gemara continues[v], Abba Sikra, the head of the thugs of Jerusalem during the siege, was Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai’s nephew. Rabban Yochanan sent Abba Sikra a message, “come to me privately.”

He came and Rabban Yochanan said to him, “How long will you do this and kill our world with famine?”

Abba Sikra said, “What am I to do? If I say anything to the Roamns they will kill me!”

Rabban Yochanan said, “Show me a solution so that I can get out of this city, maybe there can be a small amount of salvation!”

Abba Sikra proposed, “Act as if you are sick, and have everyone come and ask about you and then bring something putrid and have it lay with you so that people will say you’ve died. Get your students together to bring you out, no other people should do it for you are the great Rabban Yochanan and we don’t want anyone to notice how light you are. Everyone knows a living person is lighter than a dead one.”

Rabban Yochanan did this. Rabbi Eliezer went in on one side and Rabbi Yehoshua went in on the other side. When they came to the opening the thug gate keepers wanted to stab him.

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua said, “The Romans will say, ‘they stabbed their rabbi.’”

The thugs opened the gates and Rabban Yochanan and his students went out of the city. There they approached the Commander, Vespasian and said, “Peace to you, O king, peace to you, O king.”

Vespasian said, “You have made yourself guilty of two death penalties, first, since I am not a king you have called me a king, and, also, if I am a king, why did you not come to me until now?”

Yochanan said, “You will be king, because if you are not a king, Jerusalem would not be delivered into your hand.”

A few moments later a messenger from Rome arrived. “Get up, the reigning Ceasar has died, and those dignitaries of Rome have placed you at the helm”

Before Vespasian left he asked Rabban Yochanan what he could give him. Rabban Yochanan asked, “Give me Yavneh and her Sages…”

Rabban Yochanan made a business proposal that would change history. And in doing so, he saved Judaism. As the siege of Jerusalem reached its climax the Romans burned the city to the ground and Jewish practice without the Temple was in crisis. Rabban Yochanan’ plan to have a learning center for all of the scholars of the age in Yavneh led to the establishment of Rabbinic Judaism, a Judaism that remembered the Temple, however, was adaptive to the reality of the time.

The adaptations that have happened to our tradition over the millennia have kept our religion alive and thriving though innovations in technology, worship, and scholarship.

Our own practice of Judaism, Reform Judaism, is a product of innovation. Reform Judaism came to be because citizens of Europe, predominantly Western Europe were struggling to balance the notion of becoming citizens of their nation state with their religious tradition. As society opened to the Jews in an Enlightened Europe, our forebearers created an authentic Judaism that was true to history while allowing for engagement in the modern world.

The Judaism we live every day is also innovative, especially here at Temple Beth Hillel. In your hand you are holding a product of 21st century Jewish innovation, Mishkan HaNefesh, a machzor for the 21st century. Our Early Childhood Center, our Elementary School, and our Religious School continue to update and change as educational theories and technologies advance. Rabbi Hronsky, our Music Team and I continue to adapt our worship experiences so that we can make prayer meaningful for everyone in our community.

And thankfully we have what Abraham Joshua Heschel called our palace in time, Shabbat. No other aspect of our tradition has held us together as closely as the observance of Shabbat. Shabbat connects us with God, with our family and our community, and gives us permission to disconnect from the pervasive technology and breathe.

We sing each week in V’shamru words from Exodus, “Six days shall tasks be done and on the seventh day, an absolute Sabbath, holy to the Eternal.”[vi] Shabbat is our break from the onslaught of media upon our minds and spirits. An opportunity to connect with the people we love and to connect with ourselves without distraction. Shabbat is a gift!

And Shabbat is a concept that is borrowed by other traditions because it is such a great idea! In his book Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin his experience at a weekend of silence with Benedictine Monks at the New Camaldoli Hermitage. Number five of the five life principles these monks believe is “renewal: this is accomplished by taking one day a week to turn away from daily cares (and screens) and appreciate the natural beauty around us.”[vii]

This New Year is just 10 days old. How will you create Shabbat for you and your family? I can tell you that it makes my soul sing to see so many people in our Sanctuary space on Shabbat. In fact, this might be the most crowded Sanctuary I’ve ever seen at TBH. When are you coming back? I get it, services might not be what you envision as part of your Sabbath observance, but you never know until you try (and by try I mean more than once).

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a sermon at the National Cathedral less than a week before his assassination in 1968.

He asserted that although we were embarking on a technological revolution, many were blind to the changes it would bring, and without some sort of moral framework we would have what he once referred to as “guided missiles and misguided men.” He said:

“One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”[viii]

The disruption economy is here to stay in our country and as Jews we know the benefits of this disruption to our practice. In 5778 may we strike the balance to care for our souls while engaging in the fast-paced technological world in which we live.  May we have a plethora of opportunities to welcome and celebrate Shabbat, and on this Shabbat Shabbaton, the Great Shabbat that is Yom Kippur, may we experience the spiritual renewal and refreshment we seek. Ken y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.

[i] http://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/videojokes/jokes/general/t/the-million-dollar-question-for-god.aspx

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/books/review/wild-ride-adam-lashinsky-uber-airbnb.html?_r=0

[iii] Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Penguin Books, 2016, 1-2.

[iv] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffboss/2015/11/23/5-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-disruption-economy/#6ebf5bb91e16

[v] This is my adaptation of Gittin 56a-b.

[vi] Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses. W.W. Norton& Company, 2004, 491.

[vii] Taplin, Jonathan. Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered the Culture and Undermined Democracy. Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 225.

[viii] Taplin, Jonathan. Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 11.

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