Stephen Philip Cohen, Ph.D.
, author, academic, and activist. Father of Rabbi Tamara Cohen, RRC ’14.
, founder of the Ottawa Reconstructionist Havurah, now Or Haneshamah.
May their memories and contributions to our community be for a blessing.
|Bryan Schwartzman, Communications Associate at RRC / Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
Welcome the stranger.
That value – or commandment – is woven into the fabric of Judaism and put into practice by Reconstructionist congregations across North America, including New Jersey’s Bnai Keshet. Over the past year, during a time of increasingly heated rhetoric against immigrants and Muslims, many members of the congregation have built relationships with a group of Syrian and Iraqi refugees living nearby.
That relationship-building is a continuation of the congregation’s history of engagement with refugee and immigration issues. For years, a group of members regularly visited with detainees at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Elizabeth, N.J. (The site has since been relocated.) Then, on Christmas Eve of 2015, the synagogue hosted more than 100 people from ten Iraqi and Syrian families for a “traditional” Jewish Christmas dinner of Chinese food
“What was so powerful about that night was we tried to share with our guests how much our families were in similar circumstances one or two generations back,” said Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, RRC ‘02, whose grandfather emigrated from Russia in 1912. He added that the congregation wanted to make a statement that, despite whatever disagreements may exist over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish and Muslim communities can and should be allies.
The dinner was a story in and of itself, but it represented just the start of a deeper commitment.
Bnai Keshet members Katherine McCaffrey and Melina Macall – who organized the Christmas Eve dinner – spearheaded a fundraising campaign to pay off one refugee family’s debts and travel costs.
The duo raised more than $7,000 in 72 hours.
Then, McCaffrey and Macall started the congregation’s Syria Supper Club
, which earned
coverage from National Public Radio.
“It’s a way for newly settled refugees to become partners in fundraising efforts and to use their own skills and talents to help themselves. It is also a wonderful opportunity for cultural exchange,” said McCaffrey, an anthropology professor at Montclair State University.
Here’s how it works: Families host dinners in their homes cooked by a member of a Syrian refugee family. Every attendee pays $50, which more than funds the meal, and the Syrian family takes home the rest. The most important part is that everyone enjoys the meal sitting together. Oftentimes, other Syrian refugees come as guests of the hosts.
“People are really attracted to this story, it is a connecting force,” said Rabbi Tepperman. “We are bringing the world a little closer to the world we envision.”
|.Rachael Burgess, Communications Associate at RRC / Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
It is that time of year when we begin to drift away from our new year’s resolutions. Some of us promise to make healthier choices for our bodies. Maybe we resolve to be kinder and more patient with our children or the adults around us.
Then life happens. We become distracted. Urgent things shift our attention. We are immersed in stress. We forget about our resolutions.
While we can’t control the world’s chaos, we can change how we interact with the stressors in our life.
To explore how to practice patience in stressful times, Director of RRC’s Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, RRC ‘82, teamed up with producer Jeannie Hopper to create a podcast miniseries called Spirit in Practice
This four-part podcast is co-hosted by Rabbi Fuchs Kreimer, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, RRC ‘85, and psychotherapist Barbara Breitman, who is the Director of Training for RRC’s Jewish Spiritual Direction Program.
In the podcast, guests from many walks of life pose questions ranging from how to find patience in a difficult situation to how to stay motivated as we work even when it drains us. A panel of religious leaders from various faiths weighs in to share how rituals and spiritual practice can answer these and other questions about everyday living.
For example, the first episode, launched on January 18, began with a question from a young activist. She was seeking the energy, patience, and courage to carry her through her work. She asked how she could sustain her community commitments, her loved ones, and herself through, as she put it, “the next four years, the next lifetime.”
In response, panelists shared experiences, reflected on practices, and read from texts that helped them to focus on the purpose for activism, to remember to trust their instincts, to recall joyful moments. The panelists were Rabbi David Jaffe, author of Changing the World from the Inside Out
; Kameelah Mu'min Rashad, Founder of the Muslim Wellness Foundation; and Roshi Enkyo O'Hara, abbot and founder of the Village Zendo in New York City.
We just launched episode two, From Anger to Love
, when Sister Catherine Nerney, Rabbi Liebling, and Celene Ibrahim respond to a young activist who is dealing with anger toward those who oppose his campaign and toward allies for not doing enough.
The variety of voices, traditions, and ideas from the panelists remind us that there are many tools and methods available to anyone coping with challenges.
The podcast is available now on the RRC website
. You can also stay up-to-date on new episodes through the Spirit in Practice e-mailing list
Spirit in Practice
is supported by the generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation.
|Many in the Jewish community (and across many religions) struggle with understanding the Bible. Many are even unfamiliar with basic Biblical stories. There are several reasons why people feel disconnected from these texts, but Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill, RRC ‘14, hoped to close that chasm. Rabbi Jaffe-Gill received a $2,000 Auerbach Grant to fund a bi-weekly Bible study called
Torah Study for Skeptics, which gathered together Jews and non-Jews in the Virginia Beach area, stirred lively conversations and brought Jewish tradition, culture, and thought to stories in the
Tanakh. Below is an excerpt from her report.
Torah Study for Skeptics
is a bi-weekly Bible study workshop in Maryland geared toward adults and teens with limited Bible study experience or who question previous lessons and meanings of the Hebrew Bible. Participation is open to Jews and non-Jews, though discussions emphasize interpretations rooted in Jewish tradition and culture.
The text for the program is the student edition of the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh
. All study is done in English with reference to Hebrew keywords to encourage interested participants to learn Hebrew. Students who attend all four sessions of the workshop will receive the Tanakh
to keep. Some participants bring a Christian Bible for private comparison of English translation and a few bring The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford)
for the commentary.
Each session of Torah Study for Skeptics
is freestanding, with participants attending or skipping sessions according to their own needs and schedules. There is no charge.
Texts are chosen according to a variety of criteria, not necessarily based on the parashat hashavua
(weekly Torah portion) in any given week. Selection criteria may include Jewish holidays; secular observances; current events; themes such as women’s status, tikkun olam
, Jewish identity, “toxic texts”; or group consensus on a text of interest, among others. The workshop facilitator often conducts mini-lectures on background information such as the PARDES levels (four levels of interpretation, from the literal meaning through mystical) of Torah study, theories on who wrote the Hebrew Bible, when the various sections were written, and major events in ancient Jewish history.
Liberal Judaism does not approach the Bible as historical fact or direct communication from a divine source, but instead as written and edited by humans and open to interpretation. Furthermore, the identity or formulation of “God” is up to each individual. The workshop encourages participants to draft original midrashim
. The facilitator often references Reconstructionist Judaism in discussions involving the God-concept and freedom of interpretation.
The primary goals of this program are:
Torah Study for Skeptics
- to give unaffiliated Jews an opportunity to study scripture outside a synagogue or worship service
- to provide affiliated Jews an opportunity for Torah study that may be different from what is offered within their congregations
- to reintroduce Torah study to Jews who may have been alienated from further study by their youthful experiences in synagogue and religious school, who lack institutional Jewish background, or who view scripture as irrelevant or spurious but who value their identities as Jews
- to make a tiny dent in the overwhelming lack of knowledge among diasporic Jews of foundational Jewish texts
- to excite in a few people an interest in learning biblical Hebrew
- to put copies of the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh in homes that would not otherwise have one
has met most of these goals. Workshop attendees are both unaffiliated Jews and Jews who are members of congregations. It has brought several Jews back into Jewish life. Many participants have said they learned things about the Bible and Judaism that they never knew or had been taught in a way they found disagreeable.
Two participants have even expressed interest in learning Hebrew and having adult bat mitzvah
Please look out for reports on the Innovation and Impact Team’s projects in future issues of
Reconstructionism Today. If you would like to discuss
Torah Study for Skeptics or other programmatic ideas with the Innovation and Impact Team, please contact Cyd Weissman, Assistant Vice President for Innovation and Impact and instructor of Jewish Education and Entrepreneurship at RRC-JRC. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215.576.0800, ext. 257.