It's the 7th of Adar: Reflections on Chevra Kadisha

The 7th of Adar is considered to be the date of Moshe's death, and it is a day for Jewish burial societies, known as the chevra kadisha, to reflect on and celebrate the important work they do in lovingly preparing bodies for burial. posted a week-long series of essays by contemporary Jews about chevra kadisha.  My essay is pasted below and can also be found here.  To find the other essays, search "chevra kadisha" on the website.  

I am a member of the Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha of Philadelphia.  If you would like to learn about this Chevra, contact Rabbi Linda Holtzman at


Taharah for My Aunt

I have been blessed to participate in chevrei kadisha in three different Jewish communities, and through the process of performing taharot, the ritual purification and preparation of a body for burial, I have learned about kindness and gentleness and experienced the deep calm that accompanies being present to the truth of our mortality. 

I’d like to share about a particularly special experience I had two years ago with tahara.   This was the experience of my first time performing a tahara for a family member.  When I heard that my Aunt Dina died, I drove to Upstate New York where she had lived to help prepare for her funeral.  Family members had not been present with Aunt Dina during her final days, and I noticed the desire within me to participate in her tahara.  In our hevra kadisha in Philadelphia, family occasionally ask to participate, so I knew that this was a possibility.  I contacted the organizer of the local hevra, who told me that I was welcome to participate and gave me directions for how to enter the funeral home.  She then added, “I just need to ask you one thing.  Are you shomer mitzvot (one who keeps the commandments)?”  I had never been asked that question and it took me a moment to sort out how to respond.  The organizer was an Orthodox woman who was serving as a gatekeeper for communal ritual, and my response would affect my ability to participate.  I answered, “yes”, knowing that she might not share my definition of shomer mitzvot– I’m a female rabbi married to a woman who turns on lights on Shabbat; yet, on the other hand, serving the Divine Beloved through Jewish practice is core to how my life is structured.  Thus, I felt that I was answering with integrity by saying “yes”.  This was one of those “better not to give too many details” moments.  

The three women who were members of the local hevra were warmly welcoming and grateful for my presence. They found out that I read Hebrew and assigned me the role of reading the ritual texts as the tahara progressed.  Aunt Dina had behaved in cruel and manipulative ways towards close family members (not towards me), and it was profoundly healing for me to witness the love and gentleness with which these women washed my aunt’s body.  One of the challenges in supporting Aunt Dina when she was alive, particularly for my father who was her little brother, is that she would turn against him when he tried to help her.  In this moment, the giving and receiving was pure.  

When performing a tahara, I have often noticed how the person’s face relaxes and she becomes more accepting of her death as we prepare her body.  This was true with Aunt Dina.  These women taught me that even a person who has been cruel deserves love and honor.  We are all equal in death.  

Following the washing and pouring of water, we dressed her and wrapped her in the white linen sheet and left her on the table for the funeral home staff to transfer her to her casket.  I realized that I had forgotten the jewelry that we had taken off of her in the room, so I went back.  I am grateful for that moment– the opportunity to lean down and give her a kiss.   

Here is a poem I wrote following Aunt Dina’s death.


My father tells me about his sister

I did not know

she kept their Mama on a respirator 

five weeks

ignored Mama’s let me die


years later 

she scolded you failed to return for Mama’s funeral


I did not know 

she stole 

a portion 

of his inheritance

while shouting you want to steal my money


She is dead.  He is sad.

I wash and prepare her for burial

wrap her in white

lean down and kiss her, then kiss her again


Remembering my grandmother Pauline

Today is my grandmother Pauline's 21th yahrzeit.  She died on the 3rd day of Chanukkah in 1996, when I was 24 years old.  She was the only grandparent I knew well, as the other three had died by the time I was 4.  I was living in Boston at the time and suffering from depression, which was in many ways connected to not having a clear sense of purpose.  Pauline's death brought me back to myself.  

When I got the call that she had died (she died suddenly-- had a heart attack after winning a game of bridge), I knew what I needed to do.  I bought a plane ticket to Florida, where she had been living with Arthur, my step-grandfather.  I helped Arthur make the arrangements with the funeral home to transport her body to New York, conducted a memorial service for her friends in Florida, found a rabbi who taught me how to conduct a burial, and flew with Arthur up to New York, where we met the rest of the family and buried my grandmother.  Pauline, a first generation American, had strongly discouraged me from becoming a rabbi.  It was "too Jewish" from her perspective, the perspective of one whose life project was learning to integrate into American life.  Yet, my grandmother's friends all said to me, "that was such a beautiful service! You should be a rabbi."  

In her life, she was not ready to bless my path to the rabbinate, yet in her death, she was.  I found the courage to navigate my way out of the depression and two years later, moved to Philadelphia to study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.  Today, on her yahrzeit, I am preparing to conduct a memorial service for a friend's uncle, and I am grateful to be a rabbi and grateful for the blessing of knowing my work in the world, to create sacred space and to serve God with joy.  

I recently wrote a blog post, "Serve the Beloved with Joy", for Mental Health Safe Space, a peer support Jewish community for those struggling with mental illness, which you can read here.  

Happy Hanukkah! Shabbat Shalom!

 With my Grandmother Pauline and Grandfather Nathan.  I'm the baby in pink in Pauline's arms.

With my Grandmother Pauline and Grandfather Nathan.  I'm the baby in pink in Pauline's arms.

Blot out the Memory of Amalek: Do not forget!

Amalek bracha band photo.JPG

This past Shabbat marked the 32nd anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah.  I had the opportunity to lead services at P’nai Or Philadelphia, the dynamic Jewish Renewal community founded by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and his students and colleagues in the 1980’s and now led by Rabbi Marcia Prager.  I love P’nai Or because it is a community to which I am invited to bring my full, authentic self:  she who dances, she who yearns, she who sings, she who cries, she who loves, she who shines forth light.  Here is the teaching I offered for this past week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, based on the maftir (the final few verses of the Torah portion), Deuteronomy 25:17-19. 

P’nai Or offered a workshop last year about the art of sofrut, writing and repairing Torah scrolls.  Each letter of a Torah scroll (there are 304,805!) is lovingly and precisely handwritten on parchment by a sofer (scribe), and the sofer performs many rituals in preparation for this act of sacred writing.  One of the rituals that my friend and colleague, Rabbi Kevin Hale, shared in his workshop particularly intrigued me.  He shared that each day, before beginning to write in a Torah scroll, he writes the word עמלק (Amalek) on a scrap of parchment and then crosses it out.  Amalek represents ultimate evil, the one who attacked the Israelites from behind, attacking the most vulnerable of the community at a time when they were tired and weary, having just left Egypt.  In Deuteronomy 25:19, we read: “you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.  Do not forget.”  The sofer literally blots out the name עמלק on a regular basis as part of preparing for his sacred task.  

Kevin shared that his teacher, Eric Ray z’‘l, had pointed out that the gematria (a mystical system of finding connection between words in the Hebrew Bible, based on assigning numerical values to the letters) for עמלק (Amalek) and ספק (safek) is equivalent.  ספק (safek) means “doubt”, and Kevin explained that the ritual of crossing out עמלק (Amalek)  is a way to acknowledge and release self-doubt.  He enters his scribal work, an awesome task, having consciously let go of the questioning: “am I worthy of this task?  Will this be good enough?”  

I went home from the workshop and began writing and blotting out (well, crossing out) עמלק as I began to write in my journal.  I also wrote and crossed out עמלק on a small piece of off-white fabric (pictured above) that I pin to my main backpack.  Just like my colleague the sofer, I am called to do sacred work.  My sacred work is in the realm of teaching, leading prayer and ritual, guiding organizations, writing, bringing communities together, parenting, cooking, caring for my home and body. In all these realms,  self-doubt can be paralyzing to me.  “Am I worthy to perform this task? Will I perform it well enough” are questions that often arise for me and hold me back.  I also carry a dread that my presence or actions might make things worse.  

I have come to appreciate that a powerful enemy dwells within.  My inner עמלק (Amalek) keeps me from bringing forth the best of my gifts.   It attacks me most when I’m tired.  It attacks the vulnerable part of me that yearns to take creative risks, to try new things, to explore, and it says, ”You can’t do that!“  It tells me: ”that’s not good enough to share with your colleagues and community“.  It distracts me from engaging in the work that I feel called to do. 

In recent months, so many of us have felt newly under siege: for me, it has been as a woman, a Jewish leader, a lesbian, a protector of a livable planet, an anti-racism advocate, a mother.  I have many practices for keeping the despair and fear at bay, but it still creeps in.  I get attacked from inside, which affects my ability to care for myself and loved ones.  

As I have shared on this blog, I heeded the call to rabbis to travel to Charlottesville to support the local community during the violent weekend in mid-August.  Being there was scary.  We didn’t know how much violence was going to erupt.  Yet being there, being a witness to a modern-day form of Amalek, was also powerfully life-giving.  Experiencing visible anti-Semitism and witnessing the rage of the white nationalists as well as the rage of those who had come to protest them, has propelled me to a new level of spiritual leadership.  It is time to stop being afraid to lead.  I have important work to do.  This is not a time for self-doubt, for allowing the inner Amalek to attack.  A time for humility, yes, for exercising wise discernment and caution, yes, but for letting self doubt and fear hold me back from doing my part in healing our world, no!  

One of the speakers at the 1000 Minister March in DC this past Monday spoke about the role of people of faith: “It’s not about speaking truth to power.  We, as people of faith, are power.  And we speak truth.”   It’s time for us to stretch outside our comfort zone and speak our truth.  The future of life on Earth is in the balance.  

May we remember each day to blot out Amalek.  May we work together to protect one another, particularly those most vulnerable, from the attacks of those who manifest Amalek energy, threatening and carrying out acts of hate and destruction. May we open the channels so that our inner light and love shine forth.  In the name of the Holy, Mysterious, Beloved, Great One, to whom we call in many Names, may it be so.  

The Reluctant Prophet who Saved the World

Here is a zine that I created last night, inspired by the book of Jonah and by the Biblical practice of wearing sackcloth in a time of grave danger.  A few years ago, I took a class at the National Havurah Institute during which we created a zine, and I learned about having the courage to share a first draft, as the editing process sometimes loses the initial raw power.  Here is my little book--first draft. Enjoy!  

If you would like to start the practice of wearing a piece of sackcloth, one place to find it is at a cafe that roasts its own beans.  Please share images and reflections on wearing sackcloth.  

And on another note, happy 54th anniversary to my parents, Morris and Susan.  I appreciate your generosity, courage, and commitment to learning and growing throughout the life journey. 

Witness from Charlottesville

I spent this past Shabbat in Charlottesville with a small group of rabbis as part of a delegation from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.  The rabbis and other spiritual leaders who went to Charlottesville fulfilled many roles, some on the front lines of the protests, some as witnesses, and some as protectors and nurturers.  There is much for us to learn from being present.

I felt called to play a support role.  One aspect was to be present with the local Jewish community,  The synagogue is very close to the park where much of the action was happening, and we could see small groups of neo-nazis walking by after our morning service on Saturday.  After services, congregants arranged for the Torahs, the precious holy scrolls upon which the five books of Moses are handwritten in Hebrew,  to be stored safely outside the synagogue before locking up the building.  A member of the congregation said, “a building can be rebuilt.  The Torahs are irreplaceable."  Among the treasured Torahs put away for safekeeping was one rescued during the Holocaust.

After services, my local host and I were attempting to walk over to a café where many of the visiting clergy were gathered; however, the timing was such that we could not cross the street and rather witnessed a parade of various groups of white supremacists, primarily younger men, marching down the street after their rally had been declared unlawful.  I saw medics leading journalists who had been pepper-sprayed to the medic tent at the church that had been set up as a safe space.  I saw groups of counter-protestors marching down the perpendicular street to face the white supremacists, and I even saw an older white woman in a tie-dyed shirt with the word "love" printed on it, standing right in the middle of the street they were marching through.  I left the area when mace was set off in the midst of the protesters, I’m not sure by whom.     

We then went to the safe church, where those who had come in the name of justice, kindness, and love could rest and get care as needed.  Over the course of the afternoon, there were times when the church went on lock-down because there was concern about violence in the immediate area.  There were also times when the clergy was asked to come outside and hold the space, for fear of who might be coming up the street.  

We have a tradition to chant a passage from the prophets each week at synagogue (the haftarah).  This past week's haftarah includes the following verse (Isaiah 50:11): “All of you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from My hand: you will lie down in torment.”   The prayer that flowed through me sitting in synagogue in the center of Charlottesville on Shabbat morning is that the flames of hate burning in these young men take the natural course of a fire, which is to burn themselves out.  Fires can cause damage while they are burning, and our work is twofold: to protect those vulnerable to flames and to not further feed the flames.  

How we do this work of facing the flames of hate is worthy of much discussion within and between our communities at this critical time in our world’s history.  We must resist the forces that work to separate us.  We must limit our consumption of news that is designed to get us worked up without giving us direction, and rather find channels to become knowledgeable and engaged as we work to protect our country.  A good place to start are two books that were written since Trump came into the presidency: On Tyranny by Tim Snyder and No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein.

My role in Charlottesville was to be a witness, a nurturer, and a keeper of the spiritual center.  I pray for each of us to find our voice and our special role in these times of transformation.  

I shared these words at a candlelight vigil in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia Sunday night.  We ended with a chant from Psalm 23, shavti b’veit adonai, which literally means, “May I dwell in the house of God.”  I understand this to mean, “may I know the deep abiding truth of our interconnectedness.”  The chant is composed by my teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold, and includes the English interpretation, I place myself in your care.”  To hear the chant, go to Shefa’s website: Trusting: Shavti b’veit Adonai.  

Annie McCormick of ABC news in Philadelphia created a wonderful story about the vigils last night:

Breathing Through: A Meditation for Opening our Hearts to Suffering

I have been fasting today for the 17th of Tammuz, the day when Jerusalem's walls were breached during the 2nd Temple period.  Fasting has helped me become more aware.  When I picked up my smartphone to read an essay about the violent crackdown on non-violent protests in Hamburg at the G20, I decided to read with the intention of getting out of my head and and allowing myself to feel the pain and the outrage.   Reading in this way helped me to stay present and kept me from swirling into despair.  What this meant in my parenting role is that my son experienced his Mom in that moment as sad rather than as disconnected and fearful.  For this I am deeply grateful.  

As parents, so much of what we teach our children is on a subtle, energetic level, and cultivating energy of connection and courage is one of the most important, yet mostly unacknowledged, ways we can nurture our children.  How do we cultivate nourishing energy when there is so much disturbing news, both on a local and global level, that it feels like we could drown in our sorrow and burn with our rage?

Here's a powerful practice from Joanna Macy, one of the great teachers of our times, for learning to open our hearts to the pain of the world as we connect into the living, breathing web of life.   I am including a link both to Joanna's guiding the meditation on video and also to her written text. 

Joanna Macy Breathing Through Video

Joanna Macy "Breathing Through" Text

I shared this practice today at our weekly Tuesday morning meditation group at Germantown Jewish Centre.  Those in Philadelphia are welcome to join us from 9:00-9:40AM each Tuesday in the library for meditation.