How Jewish texts can help women — rabbis included —  through trying transitions

This book review first appeared in Lilith Magazine, Spring 2014Kaddish: Womens Voices

Rabbi-editors Sue Levi Elwell and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer invited women rabbis, scholars and activists to share the Jewish texts they
have found themselves applying in their own lives. The contributors to Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (Cascade Books, $26) include Julie Greenberg, Judith Plaskow, Blu Greenberg and Wendy Zierler. Rabbi Hara Person writes of raising a son and finding wisdom in stories of the biblical King David. Rabbi Rachel Adler observes her mother’s cognitive slide into forgetting, and the book of Lamentations is Adler’s benchmark. Rabbi Laura Geller looks back many decades to her divorce, examining it through the lens of Sarah and Abraham setting out on a journey when they were no longer young. And here is Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg on coming to a mature understanding of her professional role:

As a congregational rabbi I felt great pressure to be someone who was always interested in others. Always. The truth is I was not always interested. I also had to demonstrate how “spiritual,” “deep,” “serious and seriously Jewish” I am. Especially as someone in the early wave of female rabbis, I felt so compelled to get it right. Shoring up a persona of “spiritual” has a grave downside, like any persona — intellectual, manager, healer, etc. So much energy is invested in the persona, the false God, that the true God, the true life force, one’s unique passion, is concealed, and at worst, even buried alive….

At the Passover seder we are invited to lay back on super comfortable chairs or to just “lounge around.” Reclining as free people counters restlessness. We place the body in a position of repose, in a place of faith and trust. This posture opens a door to relaxing the fretting brow and the urge to pace the floor. When I am relaxed in my body, my mind is relaxed as well. I have a chance to ponder relationships, causes and consequences. I have the opportunity to live purposefully at whatever stage of life.

In the new book Kaddish: Women’s Voices (Urim, $27.95) editors Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas gather 52 reflections on the experience of mourning. Belda Lindenbaum writes here, “For some women it is no longer a lonely experience. Still, the road to understanding women’s spiritual needs and making room for them, both figuratively and physically, is a long one, and we have barely begun the journey. Most of the liturgy is wonderfully poetic. A phrase that is dear to me appears in the morning prayers; You have changed my mourning into dancing/You have removed my sackcloth and girded me with joy/So that I might praise You and not remain silent/God, my God, forever will I thank You. Is this not a paradigm for loss and acceptance? For me, it also speaks to women’s need to be seen and heard within Judaism. If God sees us and hears us, and acknowledges us as part of God’s community, then where is man?”

Religion Publishers Address New Issues to Court Millennials

By Kimberly WinstonJewishSocialJusticeWeb2

It’s a story as old as humankind—an older generation makes way for a younger one. That shift is now playing out in religion publishing, where books about social issues are moving away from divorce, abortion, marriage, and other baby boomer obsessions to focus on the environment, sexuality, poverty, immigration reform, and other problems that concern Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000.

Publishers also say they are now looking to capture readers who do not belong to a church or other religious institution—the so-called “nones,” or “unchurched.” Says Adrienne Ingrum, senior editor at Hachette Book Group’s FaithWords imprint, “There’s a new generation of Christians that handles the intersection of religion and social issues differently than the previous generation.” She adds that there is a “spirit of a rising group of under-40 activist Christians who are personally devout and Bible-centric, but not tethered to church. They find community online, at concerts and conferences, and their Sunday sermon is religion shelves at bookstores or They’re an exciting generation to read and publish.”

Who are these Millennials and what are their passions? According to polls from both the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute, they are a bundle of contradictions. Less likely to be religiously affiliated than their parents, many still are likely to say they pray daily. One quarter are married, half as many as their parents. Almost two-thirds say homosexuality should be accepted by society, and almost half say abortion should be legal in most cases. A higher percentage say global social issues such as sex trafficking, the environment, and poverty are more important to them than to their parents.

Perhaps most relevant to religion publishing, they have rejected the authority of religious institutions in favor of the authority of their own experience. “These are people who, by many traditional measures of belief in God and the Bible, look like people who are affiliated,” Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, recently told Religion News Service. “But in the survey they say they are not attached to a formal religious tradition and do not even identify with a nondenominational Christian church.”

An Evangelical Shift

All of that is reflected in books on religion and social issues, with many such titles coming from evangelical Christian houses—a newer development, since for the previous generation being an evangelical was more about personal piety than social activism. At Jericho, another Hachette imprint, the mission is to publish voices that come from outside church walls. In City of God: Faith in the Streets (Feb.), Sara Miles (Take This Bread) writes about urban ministry. The Invisible Girlsby Sarah Thebarge (Apr.) is about her encounters with Somali refugees to the U.S.; The Way of Tea and Justice by Becca Stevens (July) examines fair-trade practices. From FaithWords comesJesus Is Better Than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt (Apr.), who writes about finding God in unexpected places—such as in being the victim of a crime or confronting abuse. Ingrum says these young writers tackle the same subjects as authors who came before them, but with a focus on experience, not doctrine. “For the previous generation, credentials mattered,” Ingrum says. “Now that is much less the case. Life matters, voice matters, self-revelation matters.”

That emphasis on the experiential means a lot of books looking at how the author attempts to right social ills through the lens of faith. This season, a number of them center on orphaned and poor children. Andrea Doering, executive editor at Baker’s Revell imprint, which in April will publishHope Runs: An American Tourist, a Kenyan Boy, a Journey of Redemption by Claire Diaz-Ortiz and Samuel Ikua Gachagua, says these titles appeal to younger readers of faith because social justice issues are less divisive than culture war flashpoints like sexuality and abortion.

“No one is going to tell you they are for poverty or slavery,” she says. “Speaking out on those issues gives Christians a way to connect with the needs of the world. It is a sense of being for something, rather than being identified by what you don’t do” or don’t approve of. Other books with a personal point of view include Stolen: The True Story of a Sex Trafficking Survivor by Katariina Rosenblatt and Cecil Murphey (Revell, Oct.), Philip Cameron’s memoir of his work with orphans in They Call Me Dad: How God Uses the Unlikely to Save the Discarded (Higher Life, Apr.); and Rich in Love: When God Rescues Messy People by Irene Garcia with Lissa Halls Johnson (David C. Cook, Feb.), about Garcia’s family of 32 children.

Generational Change

Homosexuality is still a hot topic, but where authors of earlier generations focused on morality, this generation focuses on spirituality. “One trend we are seeing is publishing for those who have been harmed by or left out by religion,” says David Maxwell, executive editor at the Presbyterian publisher Westminster John Knox Press, citing The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart by Mark Achtemeier (June). “Another trend is publishing for seekers who may not have grown up in the church and come from a more socially liberal perspective,” he adds. Some of those seekers who identify as evangelical are looking to mainline Christian and even general interest publishers, “perhaps because traditional Christian publishers are not comfortable with some of the positions [these authors] would like to take in their writing. Westminster John Knox is beginning to attract some of them to our program.” Baker’s Brazos Press imprint tackles homosexuality in Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gays in the Church by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter (May). From the indie press Skyhorse Publishing comes The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christians by Kate Fagan (May); WaterBrook’s new Convergent line has God & the Gay Christianby Matthew Vines (May).

Millennials of faith are more interested in poverty, immigration, and the environment than their forebears, and titles are beginning to reflect that. These subjects, says David Zimmerman, associate editor at InterVarsity Press, “are not controversial compared to abortion and divorce, especially for a generation that’s grown up recycling and with conspicuous immigrant populations in their schools.”

Such topics are a particular emphasis for IVP, which is publishing Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World by Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel (Feb.);Broke: What Financial Desperation Revealed About God’s Abundance by Caryn Rivadeneira (Apr.); Let Creation Rejoice: Hope & Ecological Crisis by Robert S. White (June); and Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers by Dale Hanson Bourke (July). Zimmerman also sees a turning away from easy answers for social ills and a move toward practical ways of coping with them. “We don’t want our faith to land on top of cultural issues and stamp them into submission,” he says. “We want our faith to commingle with the era we live in, to help us make sense of it, to help us make it better.”

Evangelical Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, now a part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, has long offered titles that propose faith solutions to social problems, but Webster Younce, publisher and executive editor of the Nelson Books imprint, says those books are changing. “Our readers are as interested as ever in exploring how their faith can and should relate to social issues,” he says. “But now they seem less concerned with political approaches and partisan labels and more with taking action individually and in communities for the common good, locally and globally.” New from Nelson in April are Love, Skip, Jump: Start Living the Adventure of Yes by Shelene Bryan, about providing clean water for poor children; Hope Rising: How Christians Can End Extreme Poverty in This Generation by Scott Todd; and Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue and Redemption by Vinh Chung.

Another evangelical house, Moody Publishers, looks at racial diversity and creating unity inUnited: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity (Mar.), first-time author Trillia Newbell’s vision of what a diverse church might do. Paul Santhouse, Moody’s publisher, recognizes there is great racial and ethnic diversity among Christians, especially younger ones, but believes successful titles on social issues will tap into what connects them. “We like to see a natural expression of diversity in the authors we publish and are striving to achieve an ethnically neutral style,” he says. “That is how we demonstrate our shared identity in Christ.” Another evangelical publisher, Kregel, looks at race and other issues with Urban Apologetics: Why the Gospel Is Good News for the Cityby Christopher W. Brooks (June). American Baptist publisher Judson Press has Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color (Feb.) by Mi-hee Kim Kort.

Catholic Consciousness Evolves

The Catholic Church has a long history of social consciousness and activism. Orbis Books looks at social issues from a Catholic perspective, and with them also, says acquiring editor Jim Keane, the focus has moved “from the pelvic issues to the public.” He adds, “Younger generations are immediately wary of most expressions of public Christianity that focus on sexual issues, and that presents a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to interest them in or re-engage them with their faith traditions, while the opportunity is to bring to light the hidden secrets of Christianity,” among which he counts its positive view of ecology and its defense of workers and the poor. New Orbis titles reflect those concerns, including Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis by Christiana Z. Peppard (Feb.), Jesus Was a Migrant by Deirdre Cornell (Apr.), and La Verdad: A Witness to the Salvadoran Martyrs by Lucia Cerna and Mary Jo Ignoffo (May). Also from a Catholic worldview, Rizzoli Ex Libris is publishing Following St. Francis: John Paul II’s Call for Ecological Action by Marybeth Lorbiecki (Apr.). Such titles illustrate another trend, Orbis’s Keane says. “As recently as 30 or 40 years ago, a huge percentage of Catholic authors were priests of European descent. Today that is no longer the case. Our spring catalogue includes seven priests, but twice that number of women, as well as a large number of men and women of color.” And Urim, a Jewish publisher, weighs in with The Soul of Jewish Social Justice by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz (May), which examines how Judaism’s wisdom can be applied to such contemporary problems as education reform, immigration, and business ethics.

How might the subcategory of books on religion and social issues mature as Millennials age? IVP’s Zimmerman says to be prepared to tackle more issues that Millennials have been aware of since childhood, such as war, economic inequity, and racism. “I suspect there are things to be written about a culture of violence, and I hope there will be more breakthroughs in writing about racial justice and reconciliation,” he says. WJK’s Maxwell says he expects authors to explore the criminal justice system, the legalization of marijuana, the nature of marriage, and the interaction between religion and politics. And Revell’s Doering believes major change is on the way. “A decade ago, people like Brian McLaren and others in the emergent church movement said quite forcefully, ‘here is what the church is not.’ What you’re seeing now is the other shoe dropping, [authors who are saying] ‘this is what the church is.’ And it looks a lot like addressing real needs around us.”

This article first appeared in Publishers Weekly.

Continue reading “Religion Publishers Address New Issues to Court Millennials”

Special Evening at Pomeranz Bookseller

Redeeming Relevance in the book of numbers

Special Evening in Honor of the Recent Release of R. Francis Nataf’s Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Numbers and R. Zvi Grumet’s Moses and the Path to Leadership, Wednesday, MAY 28.

Rabbi Francis Nataf and Rabbi Zvi Grumet in a public conversation with Dr. Elliott Malamet, Co-founder of Torah in Motion on “Does the Torah’s Relevance Still Need Redeeming? The Prospects for Successful Contemporary Parshanut”


Doors open 8:00 PM

Formal program 8:30 PM

Book-signing 9:15 PM


Be’eri 5, 91201 Jerusalem, Israel


Review of The Night That Unites

by Jay Michaelson The Night That Unites

“The wise son, and to me, hands down the best new entry of the year, is “The Night That Unites,” published by Urim Publications and assembled by Aaron Goldscheider. At $39.95 per copy, it makes a good case for a downloadable app. But buy one copy for the treasure trove of insights, primarily from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Rav Kook, and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Like many interpretation-rich Haggadot, this one is not suitable for seat-of-the-pants, read-as-you-go use at the Seder. Rather, it rewards advance preparation; bookmark your favorite parts, and share them on the first night of Passover.

What “The Night that Unites” misses, interestingly, is the incongruity of its three primary sources. This trio is a motley crew indeed: the rational legalist, the nationalistic mystic and the hippie. Unfortunately, “The Night that Unites” often lapses into hagiography, whitewashing Soloveitchik, Kook and Carlebach into three barely distinguishable exemplars of everything good and righteous. Ironically, “The Night that Unites” unites too much. It would have benefited from exploring the productive tensions between these three luminaries, rather than glossing them over.

Still, I learned a lot, and considering that I’ve reviewed a dozen Haggadot in each of the last six years, that’s saying something.”

The full review of “All the 2014 Haggadah Info You’ll Ever Need” is on The Jewish Daily Forward

Rabbi Dov Lipman: Attempting the Impossible

From the JN BlogTo Unify a Nation

When Rabbi Dov Lipman was growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended a rally to free Soviet Jews when he was 13 years old. Each protester held a sign with a name on it; his sign had the name Yuli Edelstein.

Flash forward about 30 years, after Lipman becomes the first American-born member of the Knesset since Rabbi Meir Kehane was elected in 1984. Lipman is now an MK in the 19th Knesset; and the speaker of the Knesset is Yuli Edelstein.

At that time – when he was a young teen in Maryland and Edelstein was in a Russian prison — the idea of them both serving in the Israeli Knesset would have seemed impossible, Lipman told the attendees of a May 7 Valley Beit Midrash lecture at Temple Chai.

After Lipman became a member of the Knesset, his grandmother traveled to Israel and visited him in the Knesset building. She is a survivor of Auschwitz who entered Auschwitz in May 1944 (70 years, to the month, before the Temple Chai lecture). When she visited her grandson in the Knesset, his grandmother said that it would have seemed impossible when she was younger to imagine that there would be a Jewish state and that she would be there with her grandson serving in its government.

Lipman, a member of the Yesh Atid party led by former journalist Yair Lapid, said his dream to have Israel become a leader in tolerance, equality and the environment ­­– to truly be “a light of the nations” – may also seem impossible, but “the founders of Israel did the impossible,” too, and he is hopeful that he can help lead the country to that point.

(One thing, however, that he wasn’t optimistic about was the peace talks: The Palestinian Authority joining with Hamas makes it impossible to have peace talks, he said.)

Before entering Israel’s government, Lipman was an educator, and shifted his career choice to politics after becoming active in the 2011 haredi conflict in Beit Shemesh, after haredi men harrassed schoolgirls on their way to their Modern Orthodox school because they felt they weren’t dressed modestly enough. His new book, “To Unify a Nation: My Vision for the Future of Israel,” was published earlier this month.

Some of the issues that the party has tackled so far are proposing to legalize nonreligious marriages in Israel, with a civil union bill. Currently, all Jewish marriages are under control of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and about 9,000 couples each year leave Israel to get married in Cyprus, Lipman said; their marriages are recognized when they return to Israel.

But “Israel has to be a place where every Jew can say, ‘This is my home,’ ” he said. The law is scheduled go in front of the Knesset this summer.

Lipman’s role seems to be an Orthodox voice in the  secular Yesh Atid party. “I feel that if we work together, we can solve many of these problems together,” he said.

Another issue Lipman’s party is working on is  a bill designed to increase haredi enlistment in the IDF and participation in the workforceNot only will haredi and secular Jews have to work together to accomplish their tasks, but such an effort would also help people get jobs and get off charity, he noted.

He said that Lapid told him that they’ll never agree 100 percent on how the country should look, but they should work together on the 80 percent they do agree on and discuss the 20 percent they disagree about. “In the end, the country will not look 100 percent like he wants it to look and it won’t look 100 percent the way I want it to look, but let’s find a way to do it together.”

Another pressing issue concerns agunot (“chained” women whose husbands won’t give them Jewish divorces, leaving them unable to remarry). Steps are being taken to change the law to state that men who won’t grant their wives a divorce won’t be able to obtain passports or driver’s licenses – and other means of coercion without violence. (The audience at Temple Chai cheered that one.)

Questions from the audience included the response the Orthodox have in Israel to the Reform and Conservative presence there (that will take time, Lipman said, because these movements are so new in Israel) and the way Ethiopians are transitioning into Israeli society (the most important thing right now is helping the children with their education, Lipman said, because their parents didn’t grow up going to school and are unable to help them).

Lipman emphasized that an understanding between Israel’s secular communities and religious communities is crucial for the country’s future.

The Temple was destroyed because we didn’t get along with each other and we can’t rebuild it unless we get along, he said.

Prepare to be Surprised

by Yonoson Rosenblum Journey Together: 49 Steps to Transforming a Family

As I was reciting Tefillas Haderech on a recent early morning flight from Denver to Los Angeles, I noticed that the fellow across the aisle was reading his Psalms. I was confident that he would soon strike up a conversation, and, sure enough, five seconds later, he inquired, “Are you a rabbi?” 

From past experience with evangelicals, I knew that we would have a pleasant conversation, and find much about which we could agree politically and with respect to the parlous moral state of our world. And indeed, he began by telling me that former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, had spoken at the local university, Colorado Christian, and he had been impressed. 

But I confess that I also assumed that my conversation partner for the hour-and-a-half flight to Los Angeles would not be highly educated or too intellectually sophisticated, and that the conversation would consist mostly of my throwing out red meat in the manner of Rush Limbaugh.

I could not have been further off track. I soon learned that my traveling companion was a pilot (which explained his recitation of Psalms — “I know everything that can go wrong”), and held a PhD in geological sciences. He had headed a geological survey company that left him rich enough to retire at 40, and thereafter told his wife that he intended to devote the rest of his life to more spiritual pursuits. 

His wife, by the way, had finished her pathology residency in her early 20s. But they decided that he was making enough money for her to concentrate on child rearing. In addition to their own two biological children, when their youngest was ten, they adopted a child from Korea whose parentage would have left him as a permanent outcast in Korean society. 

I could not help but be impressed by the elevation of spiritual values above purely material ones, and in his wife’s case, the choice of child rearing above professional prestige. 

But there were more surprises to come. His son completed his doctorate at Cambridge University in one of the hard sciences, and his son’s wife had earned her doctorate in physics in the laboratory of Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest living physicists, but no great friend of religion. Her research was so important as to make her a vital national resource for the British government. For good measure, my new buddy’s brother is the chief economist in the antitrust division of the Justice Department. 

Nor has all this higher education — at places where atheism is the default position — been at the expense of religious belief. When his son told his wife that he didn’t think they could afford more children after their fourth, she told him not to worry, “G-d will provide.”  Continue reading “Prepare to be Surprised”

Discipline with Harmony: Parenting and Counting the Omer.

by Sarah Hermelinjourneytogether5

Years ago, when I was first starting my career in education, I taught a girl in her last year of high school. She was a doctor’s daughter, came from a good family, had many friends, earned excellent grades and did not behave with chutzpah. One night she was arrested along with her college-age boyfriend when he sold narcotics to an undercover police officer.

I found out the next day at school and was shocked. I also discovered that her parents, who could certainly afford to bail her out of the county jail, had chosen not to do so and, rumor had it, they were not even going to visit her.

I was floored. I was a young teacher, not yet a parent, and I was working towards my Masters degree in counseling at the time. I began to visit my student in jail, bringing her books and homework as an excuse to spend time with her and talk to her during what turned out to be a two-week stay behind bars.

Sitting in her cell, dressed in the standard-issue orange jumpsuit, she gradually came to terms with the fact that her parents were not going to bail her out (at least not right away). She also had to think about what it meant that they would not even come to visit her. She had to think about this so-called boyfriend. She had to think about her once bright dream of going to university drifting away forever. She had to think about what on earth she had done, and the situation she placed herself in.

Behind the scenes and unbeknown to their daughter or me, the parents were struggling to do the best thing for her. They were consulting night and day with professionals and had retained a good attorney who was later able to successfully argue that their daughter deserved probation for this first-time offense, given her age, her clean record, and, as I recall, the undercover police officer’s confirmation that she was not part of the sale. She was able to return to high school and later attended university.

Over the years, I have thought about this girl and her parents many times Continue reading “Discipline with Harmony: Parenting and Counting the Omer.”

A Review of The Unwilling Survivor

From the Life in Israel blogUnwillingSurvivorWeb1

I don’t even know where to begin with The Unwilling Survivor. That’s how good of a book it is.

The Unwilling Survivor, by Michael Kopiec, published by Devora Publishing, is an amazing book. It is a true story, but is written and reads like a gripping fiction novel. The story is tragic, it is courage, it is faith, it is honor, it is horrific and there are probably more words that I just cannot think of.

Misha Kopiec, the father of the author, tells his son this story, beside the deathbed of Liza, Misha’s wife and Michael’s mother, when they decide it is time for Michael to know who his father really is, how he survived the war.

Mishe was a Polish boy, in a Polish village, son of a Jewish-Polish soldier. Misha’s father was all about courage and honor and discipline. He trained his son in his ways, and Misha grew up seeing his father defend the family from anti-semitism, and was trained, by his father, to be prepared for any and every eventuality, with the knowledge that the discipline to stick to his training would be what would save his life in a world of anti-semitism.

And his father was proven right, time and time again.

Misha grew up and became a soldier himself. The story follows Misha as a Polish soldier watching the Polish army overrun dishonorably by the Germans. Eventually Misha ends up captured by the Germans, more than once, and escapes, more than once. Misha ends up on the Russian side and becomes a Russian soldier, and again ends up captured by the Germans. Misha, however, is a survivor, and an honorable one. He refuses to do anything that will harm other Jews, despite the difficulties that puts on his attempts to escape or survive.

Misha somehow survives, against all odds. the gripping story is how he survives as a Jew in the German POW camps, the Russian army, behind Russian lines, in Polish towns full of anti-semitism, in the ghetto, on a train full of Nazis – filled with both SS and Gestapo officers, on a POW death march, in work labor camps, with partisans with unknown loyalties…. He tells the most unbelievable stories. With Misha not being a religious man, he does not talk about the hand of God being what saves him rather than others, but later in the book he begins to realize that is survival was so unusual while so many around him, including his family, were killed, and near the end of the book he is made to realize that it is clear he is meant to survive.

To avoid giving away too much of the story, anything besides Misha surviving Continue reading “A Review of The Unwilling Survivor