From Mishkan Tefilah, p. 207

My Jewish Leyning

This Shabbat, I had the immense privilege of leyning from the Torah.  It was only three lines from Deuteronomy 3, 1 – 3, but counter to all of my expectations back then, it was the first time I’d leyned since my adult bat mitzvah in 1996 — almost exactly 20 years ago.  I had actually hoped to read my bat mitzvah parsha which is Ekev, but this particular minyan doesn’t meet that week. So I read from Devarim (Triennial/3), instead.

Maybe for you, this might not qualify as a privilege, if it’s a regular part of your Jewish life. Maybe it’s so much a part that it’s more like a duty, or maybe even a complete non-event. But for me, it is a privilege.

Why do I consider it a privilege? First, because it is reading from a sacred text the way Jews have read from that text for over two thousand years.

Second, it’s a privilege because leyning has not always been something women were taught to do. I learned to be Jewish in the Conservative or Masorti movement, where women are taught to leyn and to daven (pray) in the same way men are.  And the Reform movement, of which this minyan is a part, took those strides long before.

But third, and perhaps most important to me at this point in my life, it is a privilege because it is a role in the  lifecycle of a particular Jewish kehilah or community.  The Gesher minyan is actually so small that everyone’s participation is necessary for its continuity.  And that makes me feel important.

I had not chanted Torah in years and could at this point only learn my lines from a recording whereas initially, I had learned the trope itself — the specific sequence of notes that relate to each word or phrase of the scroll.  But I rose to the occasion and did what I could.  Dayenu.



This week’s parshah at Temple Beth Israel is Chukat.  I know, I know.  I’m confused, but I’m participating in the Gesher service there and that’s what we’re doing.

So I was reading up about it and it’s a bit of a power-parshah.  It’s got

  • the death of Miriam
  • the red heifer (By the way, I recommend to anyone Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union if you’re interested in chewing the cud about that.)
  • the whinging Am Yisroel: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness and complaints about the miserable food (see Woody Allen on this — Two elderly women at a Catskill Mountain resort: “Wow, the food at this place is really terrible. The other says: “Yeah, I know, and such small portions.”
  • Moses striking, instead of calling to, the rock that then gushes water.
  • the bit about the seraph snakes and the miraculous healing seraph figure
  • the death of Aaron.

But I’m thinking of the penalty for disobedience:  being prevented from entering the Promised Land.  The thing is:  there doesn’t need to be a reason.  We will all be prevented from entering the Promised Land at some point.

I was an activist in New York for many years, working in local politics, in democratic socialist politics and more. Then I moved to Australia and miss out on lots of efforts coming to fruition.

Will  I make it to my daughter’s chuppah (if she choses that)? To know her children?  That to me is the Promised Land.  But, m’irtz Hashem I get there, surely the Promised Land will be her children’s chuppah.

There is always some future point we yearn for and to which we will not arrive.  Not because we’ve done wrong or not had faith.  It’s just the nature of being mortal.

Tzeitchem l’Shalom: Leaving the Party in One Piece

Some time ago, my daughter was invited to the bat mitzvah party of a fellow player on her Maccabi netball team.

The friend, and her  mother who coached the team, were very generous in inviting Abby along with all the other members of the team whether they were close friends or not.

Abby was nervous about going: she didn’t socialise with the girl and didn’t go to Jewish day school as most of the other girls did.  I took my job to be hearing and honouring her fears about not fitting in, I certainly had been there, and at the same time encouraging her to go.

Why encourage her to go when she felt awkward?  Because I believe that it is the role of a parent to act from our more worldly view.  That includes knowing that we can be anxious about not fitting in, and then find that one person we really get along with and want as a friend.  If you only do what you know, you only get what you have.  It also includes understanding that the experience of awkwardness, of difference, is uncomfortable but not fatal and part of life.

She was (and is) still at the age where I feel empowered to insist, and I did.  I told her she only had to go for one hour, and I would wait nearby the venue.

She rang me almost right away to say she wanted to leave;  I said no.  Just go say “mazal tov” to the bat mitzvah.  Just go find one person you know and say hi.  Just go get a drink and introduce yourself to one other person.  Just comment on the dance music or the food.

I can remember well being at gatherings where I didn’t fit in.  And what did I do?  I stuck around and felt “uncool.”  Seriously uncool.  On the fringe. Square peg round hole.  Took out my journal and sat in a corner.

I rang the mother and told her what was going on and she took steps to integrate Abby into the party, but pretty soon Abby rang again and asked me to take her home.  I want Abby to stretch her boundaries, but it’s also important for a young girl, especially, to learn to honour her feelings.

Abby knew she was uncomfortable and wanted out. Good for her. I took her home. Good for me.

Growing into Shabbat

Coffee Shop Rabbi

Shabbat on a card table. Shabbat on a card table.

How does a person begin to keep Shabbat?

Maybe you’ve read a description of Shabbat observance, and found it overwhelming or just plain impossible. Or perhaps you had relatives who did observe Shabbat, and the way they went about it left you feeling that it was a burden, not a joy.

And now it’s Elul, and the High Holy Days are coming, and perhaps some of you are thinking that you’d LIKE to keep Shabbat, but… (you fill in the blank.)

So let me suggest another approach. If you want to keep Shabbat, pick ONE THING on this list that you aren’t already doing.

1. Light candles Friday night.

2. Set aside some part of Friday night or Saturday for a family meal.

3. Go to services at a nearby synagogue.

4. Set aside the 24 hours of Shabbat as a “no-nagging” time zone, or maybe just Friday…

View original post 159 more words

My Jewish Web #4: It’s All A Gift – Websites for Giving

Moving to Melbourne just as our daughter Abby turns 12 has been quite an experience.  From living quite on the physical and spiritual periphery of the Jewish community in Perth,  we are now more in the shtetl and Abby goes from one celebration to another, not to mention preparing for her own.  In Australia, as in the U.S., the process of “planning the bar/bat mitzvah” has often meant planning the party.  Only once so far has Abby been invited to actually be attend the service (outside of our shul) or ceremony itself.

In the wonderful book Putting God on the Guest List: How to Claim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah (or the equivalent book he wrote for children), Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin tries to bring us back to the original purpose and meaning of becoming bar/bat mitzvah:  to recognise the coming of a child to an age at which s/he is a Jew in his or her own right, not just because they are the child of  Jewish parents (or at least one).  Salkin discusses ways of “putting the mitzvah back in bar and bat mitzvah,” and of  “keeping the party in perspective” that resonate with much of what our progressive community aims for.

Clearly, 13 (or 12) is not today what it used to be.  Although our children are (with any luck) still a long way off from marriage, it is still a rite of passage and time for celebration.  And these come in all kinds – small, large and lavish – sometimes dwarfing the spiritual passage entirely.

What Gives?

One of the ways we can affirm the Jewish nature of the event is in what we give the bar/ bat mitzvah.  Not having attended many of these events as a child or as an adult, I have found myself asking friends.  More often than not, they’ve told me they’re giving the youth money or a gift card. “From Gold’s?” I ask. But in fact, mostly the cards are for Smiggles, Itunes, Myer, and the like.

That’s fair enough for a birthday.  But the way I look at it, our kids have the rest of their lives to receive gift cards. Someone becomes a bar or bat mitzvah once in a lifetime and  I prefer to honour that simcha with a Jewish gift.


One way to do this is to give a gift of tzedakah in honour of the bar/bat mitzvah.  That could be a gift to a Jewish charity or to other organisations whose mission is consistent with Jewish values as the bar/bat mitzvah understands them.   Salkin also makes the case for the bar/bat mitzvah to give a gift of tzedakah in honour of reaching this rite of passage – an expression of the blessing of shehecheyanu.

There is of course an important role for material gifts. And in case you’re like me, and seek a wider range than our local Gold can provide, I thought I’d share some websites I have found that offer options in a price range all of us can afford.  (Disclaimer: The author has no stake in the companies named in this article.)

People of the Booko

Jewish books abound on every aspect of Jewish life and make wonderful gifts.  The Salkin book makes a good gift in advance of the simcha.  A friend of mine stockpiled copies of The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel , a favourite of mine, and gave one to every bar/bat mitzvah she knew.  I’m a great believer in supporting the dying breed of independent bookstore.  So before going online, if you’re looking for a book, I encourage you to try Gold’s, Readings or the local bookshop you know and love.  But if you can’t find what you’re looking for there, offers a good selection of Jewish books.  And although is not a Jewish website,  it is good to know about because it searches online book sources for your book and lists them in order of the combined price plus cost of shipping to Australia.

Hiddur mitzvah

We are instructed by the Sages to beautify the mitzvah. is a great resource for just this.   The portal hosts multiple stores from individual artists selling unique and often funny printed Jewish gifts.  I’ll bet you never considered a hamentaschen necktie (Adela Camille Sutton) or Girl with Torah mobile phone speakers (JudyWohlFineArt).  How about a Kabbalah design dart board (DoverPictura) or a “Talk to the Hamsa” iPad cover (SilberZweigArts)?  There is a dazzling array of gifts at any price — as little as $8.00 for a sheet of pomegranate “sweet new year” stickers your kids can afford, t-shirts, mousepads and posters in the $20s, and canvases and bags from a few dollars to hundreds.  A nice touch is that many of the products can be created online or just personalised with your own art or photos, or just customised with names and inscriptions.  The Tree of Life poster we chose and personalised with the bat mitzvah’s name turned out to be one of our friend’s favourite gifts.

Another website,, is a portal for original artists and designers where you can buy a one-of-a-kind tallis, a matching set of tzitzis, a mezuzah scroll scribed by a woman, and more.

The options are more abundant than ever. Explore and enjoy.

This article previously appeared in Hakol, the monthly newsletter of Etz Chaim Progressive Synagogue. 

Who Strengthens Our Steps

Strengthens Our StepsRecently, when I daven (pray) nisim b’chol yom (prayers of gratitude for daily miracles), one has been particularly meaningful:  ha-mechine mitzadei gaver — who strengthens our steps.

Not so long ago, I was restricted to sitting on the couch much of the day, cobbling together systems for making myself lunch and bringing it to where I like to eat it.  I made use of a kitchen bar stool to rest items in between the counter and the stove or microwave, a picnic backpack for transporting lunch, packed into sealed plastic containers, and a wine bottle cooler, in which I could to carry my coffee — in a plastic cup with a lid.  I hobbled around in a cast or moonboot, and was pushed around in a wheelchair for longer distances.  It was an experience which taught me a little about the challenges presented by that kind of a disability — having to plan each step, to think ahead to how I would get to where I needed to go, to get Abby to where she needed to go, and whom I would need to ask for help.

But for a month now, I’m actually walking, unaided, on two feet, and cycling again.  My steps have been strengthened through the skills of others and the natural healing powers of my body.  For this I am grateful.

Living on the Mitzvah Plan

Coffee Shop Rabbi

To climb out of a tough place, it helps to have a plan. To climb out of a tough place, it helps to have a plan.

Depression is an old companion of mine. It doesn’t run my life, but it shows up periodically and moves into the guest room of my mind, helping itself to my energy and attention.  In almost 59 years of living, I’ve acquired a lot of strategies for dealing with it (therapy, medication, exercise, meditation, etc) but one of the most powerful is something I call the Mitzvah Plan.

The basic idea is this: with 613 mitzvot to choose from, there are always mitzvot waiting to be done, from washing first thing in the morning to saying the bedtime Shema at night. Using the Mitzvah Plan, whenever I begin to be bothered with the thought patterns of depression, I look for the first available mitzvah and do it. Then I look for the next one, and I do that…

View original post 544 more words

Doing Jewish

Etz Chaim, You Make It Happen

I emerged full of hope from the Annual General Meeting of my shul, the Etz Chaim Progressive Synagogue in Bentleigh.  Naturally, our president and treasurer gave reports, and our administrator  had compiled an informative Annual Report, “You Make It Happen” with reports from our leaders and committees.   And how apt that cover is.

Many of us drew great inspiration from the words of our new rabbi,  Allison Conyer.  From her position at the dais, Rabbi Conyer called upon us as individuals to “open the door to your own Judaism,”  and as a congregation to “create a culture of questioning.”

Open Door,  Missing Mezuzah


Congregations are often desperate to bring in families with young children but  focus on the children and treat the parents as merely vehicles, bringing them into the world and transporting them to and from Hebrew school.  But “If you want children to be Jewish,” Rabbi Conyer pointed out, “you have to start with their parents.”  So often, children are sent to Hebrew school or even Jewish day school only to return home to a Jewish vacuum, where what they learned is not reinforced or even contradicted.  Sometimes it seems that Hebrew School serves to expiate parents for inattention to their own Jewishness.  

But to educate adults, we have to move congregants away from what she referred to as “pediatric Judaism” — that “dumbed down” Judaism taught to children who often are too smart for it even then.  A key part of that is working with the group she calls as inhabiting the Jewish community’s “black hole” — those between youth movement age and becoming parents.   This is going to be a very exciting few years at Etz Chaim.  I hope you’re lucky enough to be part of it.

Tablet Magazine: My Jewish Web #6

tablet-logo _ v2Is Paul McCartney planning to convert?
Jewish South African reflections on the life and death of Nelson Mandela.
A video about how to make the ultimate hamentaschen.
The best Jewish Children’s Books of 2013
An article about an Orthodox woman’s relationship with her wig.

On the Table

These are sample tastings from the buffet offered by, “a daily online magazine of news, ideas and culture.” is reader-supported and the only broadsheet-style website I’ve written about in my series on Jewish websites, and the truth is I’m only beginning to tap into its extraordinary value.  The site covers current events, has several distinct sections including News and Politics, Arts and Culture, Life and Religion.  These sections cover different beats and feature regular columnists, including Joan Nathan who writes about food, including recipes for holidays and year-round enjoyment. “Longform” includes book reviews, commentary, features and other longer pieces.  The Scroll is “Tablet Magazine on the News.”  It also has a section on Holidays that includes the basics of how to observe our major holidays and compiles related articles from the Tablet archive.

Interactive Tablet The Scroll

All the best websites take advantage of the internet’s ability to be interactive.  Vox Tablet produces weekly podcasts of audio interviews with authors and others on interesting topics such as “Four-Letter Words: Why Jews Have Led the Making and Defense of Obscenity in America” and a Jewish perspective on the threat that texting and other digital obsessions pose to family life.   As is the case with most websites these days, allows you to comment upon and share any article or media clip right then and there.  Maybe this piece was just what you were talking about with your daughter the other day.  Maybe that video clenches the case you were making to someone in the congregation after shul.  Readers can subscribe to newsletters and feeds from the different sections, as well as comment on articles, entering into a conversation with other readers.  An easy way to do this is on the Tablet Magazine Facebook page

I hope you’ll join me in learning with  I welcome your thoughts at


On One Foot: Jewish Texts for Social Justice – My Jewish Web #5

Rabbi Hillel was asked to summarise the entire Torah while standing on one foot.  His response: “That which is hateful to you, do not to others. All the rest is commentary. Now, go study.”

On1Foot is an amazing, open source web tool developed by The American Jewish World Service, for helping us all to explore the rich meanings of Rabbi Hillel’s words, and to develop our own social justice commentaries based on Torah and other texts.

We Jews are seldom at a loss for words, and never was that more in evidence than on this site.   On1Foot is an interactive database of 338 divrei torah and hundreds of classes based on 1811 Jewish source texts – all uploaded to this website.  The sources can be filtered by era – biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern and contemporary – and by category including tikkun olam, labour rights, the environment, poverty, ethics, migration, gender, sexual orientation, ethical consumption and tzedakah. The classes can be filtered by educational level from early childhood to adulthood.  And the divrei torah can be filtered by parsha, by holiday, by age level and by category.

Who Counts?

So, you’ve lucked out and are asked to give a d’var torah on, oh, just to pull one out of the air, Bamidbar.  Bamidbar is, in a nutshell, the census and camping arrangements of our tribes – troops — in the desert, and a d’var torah about that seems like it would be about as dry.  On1Foot to the rescue!  Seek, and you shall find several commentaries to inspire you, or even to use, addressing important issues about that census.  In particular, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster discusses those who were not counted in the census:  anyone not able, or deemed incapable, to bear arms or serve as a priest, namely women, children, the elderly and the disabled.  I broke my leg a month ago, and have experienced, baruch ha-Shem only temporarily, a taste of the exclusion from the mainstream of life, that physical impairment brings and many of us have experienced invisibility of one kind or another.

Al Pi Adonai, B’yad Moshe

But, try as we might, we cannot always find the right words to express ourselves.  When I hear callous government attitudes about asylum seekers and  — pregnant, young, old and infirmed – how Australia denies them safe shores, I long for better words than I am able to generate myself.  Here’s what I came up when I searched On1Foot:

“You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”  Exodus 22:20-23

This phenomenal resource is free for the taking.  But it is not only for us to take, but also to give.  As an open source database, we are all invited and encouraged to upload our own sources,  divrei torah and classes and the site makes that easy to do.

I hope you will avail yourselves of the immense resource On1Foot offers.  And hopefully, by the time I write the next article in this series, I’ll be back on two feet.