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  • 12 Jul 2022 2:47 PM | Muriel Dance (Administrator)

    Rabbi Janet Madden delivered at July 12, 2022 Governors' Meeting

    Of the six Torah portions named after central characters--Noach, Sarah, Yitro, Korach, Balak and Pinchas—Parshat Balak is perhaps the most perplexing: why do we have a parsha named for a Moabite who plots the destruction of B’nei Israel?

    The previous parsha, Chukot, concludes with the Israelites on the move, marching towards the land that has been promised them, having already defeated two kings in the Transjordan: Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan.

    Parshat Balak opens with the introduction of the prince of Moav. Balak deeply—and rightly—fears the approaching Israelites, who are now encamped just across the Jordan. So Balak comes up with a devious plan appropriate to the meaning of his name: “Devastator.” He sends messengers to the territory of the Euphrates, to his kinsman Balaam, son of Beor. The call for help informs Balaam that there is a people that has come up from Egypt and is so numerous that “it hides the earth from view.” Balak assures Balaam that he will be well compensated if he will “put a curse upon this people for me…perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed indeed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”

    Balaam’s name tells us that he is not “of the people”— perhaps he is uniquely set apart by his powers of prophecy and divination. And Balak is a true believer in the powers of Balaam. Although initially, Balaam refuses Balak’s offer, since he has been Divinely warned against taking up this task, by the third time that Balak appeals to him, substantially raising the promised compensation, and perhaps appealing to his ego, Balaam accepts the commission. And that is when it becomes clear both to Balaam and the Moabite dignitaries who accompany him that Balaam’s powers are indeed paltry compared to the powerful and protective Divine Presence that guides and shields the Israelites. Balaam’s expedition to curse the Israelites escalates in a series of three supernatural, surreal events during which the G-d of Israel takes over Balaam’s hearing, sight and speech: first, he hears the words of chastisement of his donkey, then he is able to see the presence of a potentially murderous Angelic Messenger and, finally, as he has already told Balak, his power of speech is shaped by the Divine: he blesses rather than curses the Israelites.

    I wish that I could say that the dramatic events of this parsha bring us to the moment when, moved by these miraculous events, Balack and Baalam are moved to join B’nei israel. For at each high place where he is expected to speak a curse, Balaam instead speaks a blessing, not only acknowledging that “The Lord their God is with them” but also saying of himself

    May I die the death of the upright,

    May my fate be like theirs!

    And, of course, he also pronounces the beautiful words that we pray in our morning liturgy:

    “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling, O Israel” (Num. 24:5).

    But, unlike those who come before this bet din, in spite of these praises, Balaam does not become another Yitro, casting his lot with the Israelites.

    The Rabbis, playing on the name Balaam, call him "Belo'Am" (without people; that is, without a share with the people in the world to come) and "Billa' 'Am" (one that ruined a people), a reference to his role in the Heresy of Peor. Tractate Sanhedrin imagines him as blind in one eye and lame in one foot—metaphors for his perceptual and moral failings—and states that he had no portion in Olam HaBa.

    But what about Balak? In full disclosure here, I am a lover of midrash and it is my joy to follow the breadcrumb trails laid down in Torah. And I know that in sacred texts, as in real life, we humans see only a part of the story. We never know how things will unfold in a future that we will not live to see. And so it is with the deep connection between this parsha named for Balak and the work of this Bet Din.

    While joining B’nei Israel is not the choice of Balaam or Balak, Midrash Ruth Rabbah tells us not only that Ruth and Orpah were sisters, but that both were daughters of Eglon, the king of Moab. And Eglon was the son of Balak. That is, Balak was Ruth’s grandfather, and as we know, moving further into the generations from our archetype for those who choose to join the Jewish people, from Oved, the son of Ruth and Boaz, Oved the great-grandson of Balak, comes Jesse and then David. And Solomon, for that matter.

    The lesson of this pasha, for me, is that it is inevitable that some will hate us and want to destroy us and some will acknowledge the power and beauty of our tradition. And, from the most unexpected places, in times and ways that we cannot imagine, some will choose to join the Jewish people. In the sacred process of finding their spiritual home, these people will not merely recite, with full hearts, the beautiful words:

    “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling, O Israel” (Num. 24:5).

    They will take up residence within the tent of our Jewish community. And we are so richly blessed by their choice.

  • 30 May 2022 10:33 AM | Muriel Dance (Administrator)

    Conversion Speech by Rabbi Jerry Goldstein, 5/29/22

    In the beginning there was silence. My deepest education into the sources of Judaism was at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. HUC, as we call it, is the oldest seminary in America for the training of rabbis. All the students in HUC are college graduates; I came from UCLA with a BA degree in philosophy and sociology. I began my studies at HUC in 1959, and in my five years at HUC I can remember no lesson ever on “Conversion to Judaism.” On that subject, there was silence.

    Perhaps we never studied “conversion” because it is never mentioned in the Tanach, our Hebrew scriptures – the Bible of the Jews. Nowhere in Tanach is there any mention of a conversion ceremony. Even in the book of Ruth, a book about the most famous convert in Jewish history, there is no ceremony. Ruth is from Moab, and she is always identified as a Moabite woman. But when her Israelite husband dies, she does not go back to her own Moabite parents. She stands with her already widowed mother-in-law Naomi and swears loyalty to the older woman: “Wherever you go, I shall go. Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be mine.” No ceremony. No witness. No Bet Din. No Mikveh. Poof, it’s done! The great grandmother of King David of Judea is a Jew by Choice. From her line shall come the great Messiah! And, there wasn’t even a certificate or document. Just a story in the Bible.

    ---

    My HUC ordination was in 1963. I began my professional rabbinate in Minnesota at historic Mount Zion Temple as the Assistant Rabbi. About 6 months later, one of the Sunday School teachers came to talk with me about her daughter Alice, a girl who had grown up in the congregation. Alice had met a wonderful young man and they were now thinking about marriage. “There’s only one problem,” Mrs. Friedman said as she leaned forward to whisper confidentially, “he’s not Jewish. What can we do? Can he become a Jew?”

    BINGO! The conversion silence was cracked open. Can Tom become a Jew? It’s a good question and in plain English. But I had no quick answer. I had to stall. “Mrs Friedman, I’d love to meet the couple in person. Please give me a couple of days to find the right answer for your question.”

    Naturally I made a beeline visit to my senior rabbi’s office to discuss the situation. How can Tom become a Jew? “It’s easy,” he told me. “Schedule a couple of meetings with him where you explain Judaism to him. Then you just convert him. The main thing is, just keep it quiet. Nobody needs to know. This is something private. Don’t embarrass the Friedmans!”

    OK, that’s the rules and he’s the senior rabbi in this temple. That’s what I did. And that’s when I began to really think about conversion and my rabbinic involvement. First, I met Alice and Tom in my office. They were indeed a nice young couple who were in love and wanted to marry. Tom was indeed a thoughtful young man of classic Scandinavian stock like so many people in Minnesota. Alice was a lovely young Jewish woman with normal allegiance to the faith in which she had been confirmed. They would both like me to officiate at their wedding, and it should be a Jewish ceremony like her parents had done. I was pleased.

    As it happened, on the day that I was to announce Tom’s conversion to Judaism in front of the tiny daily minyan at temple, my father-in-law was visiting us from LA. Carl was a long-time member of Temple Israel and he had served on his Temple Board as chair of the Religious School Committee. Spontaneously, I invited him to watch Tom’s conversion as an outsider. He had never been in the place where that happens. Carl knew nobody in the chapel, and nobody knew who he was. But he was thrilled beyond measure by what he saw unfold: a mature gentile man stood voluntarily in front of the synagogue ark and pledged allegiance to Judaism. My father-in-law was blown away! And I learned something I never ever forgot. Conversion to Judaism is a holy moment – ineffable! Not just for the ger, but for everyone in the room where it happens. Nothing embarrassing about it. It’s inspirational for all us Jews, even Mrs Friedman.

    ---

    On the subject of conversion to Judaism, here’s another famous Bible story from the book of Exodus. A bunch of so-called Hebrew people were slaves of the King Pharoah in Egypt. They were miserable in their terrible toil and yearned for freedom. As if by magic, a strong young man came into Egypt - and Moses was his name. He organized the slaves for a massive revolt against the slavery system. His famous demand to Pharoah was “Let my people go!” Unbelievably, without any precedent, Moses’ revolt succeeded. He led what the Bible calls “a mixed multitude” of former slaves out of Egypt and into the Sinai Desert wilderness.

    Who was in that mixed multitude marching out of Egypt 3,500 years ago?  Certainly, lots of them were Hebrews – but not all. Other down-trodden slaves were in the crowd. They too marched behind Moses. He led them all to the mountain called Sinai, way out in the wilderness. That’s where the whole mob of escaping slaves took on a new shared identity as followers of Adonai.

    What happened at Mount Sinai was a giant conversion ceremony. The Bible says that “all the people [at Sinai] witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking.” (Exodus 20:15-16) This was one of the all-time greatest sound and light shows. The witnesses were overwhelmed by the phenomena. With one voice they turned to Moses and pledged: Na-asey ve-nishma! Tell us what to do and we will listen!

    A whole lot of escaped slaves were suddenly melded into a new people called Israelites – those who struggle with God. We Jews of modern times are the heirs of those ancient Israelites. The Shavuot holiday we celebrate this week is our annual commemoration of the mass conversion at Mt Sinai when our ancestors were all welcomed into Jewish community and our communal faith – Judaism came into being. It asserts that all of us are Jews by Choice!

    ---

    In the contemporary world we are no longer silent about conversions to Judaism. We are out of the closet now. We rabbis greet these seekers of Judaism. We are ready and delighted to welcome new persons into the Jewish community. They enrich and enlarge our community by their inclusion. Each of these seekers is called a ger. They come for all sorts of reasons, and I am always amazed by their journey stories when unpacked before our panel of three rabbis in a Bet Din court hearing.

    Before I finish, let me tell you about the room where the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din regularly makes conversion happen. I’ve been in there dozens of times over the last 20 years, and I am always thrilled by the opportunity. Every conversion candidate is accompanied by a sponsor rabbi who has supervised the candidate and prepared them for this meeting. Even though we can’t arrange a fabulous sound and light show, the room at the American Jewish University does have a fantastic & beautiful glass mural of Mt Sinai spread across the front of the room and its two side walls. The ger is seated at a large table facing the overwhelming image of Mt Sinai with hundreds of Hebrew letters cascading down onto the mountain. We three rabbis serve as the three dayanim (judges) required for a Bet Din session. We sit at the base of the mural’s Mt Sinai, facing the candidate. Each of us is trained to listen for sincerity, integrity, and knowledge in the answers of the candidates. We ask no trick questions and no “got-tchises”; we are there to welcome the ger and not to embarrass or scare them. The scene is awesome and sacred.

    For the Bet Din session’s finale, family and friends are invited into the room. We all rise for the ger to read aloud to all of us a very moving statement of Jewish commitment which he or she has studied beforehand with the sponsoring rabbi. It usually brings emotional tears to my old eyes. What a privilege it is for me to be part of such a holy journey into Judaism! Then the ger seals the conversion by going directly to the nearby mikveh for immersion into the sacred living water - Mayim Chayim. This is truly a moment to remember!


  • 9 Jul 2019 2:18 PM | Muriel Dance (Administrator)

    Once or Twice in a lifetime, a man or woman may choose a radical leaving, having heard Lech l’cha — Go forth. God disturbs us toward our destiny by hard events and by freedom’s now urgent voice which explode and confirm who we are. We don’t like leaving, but God loves becoming.   These words were written by Norman Hirsh, and are in the siddur, Mishkan Tefilah.

    Leaving, becoming. Is it destiny? Perhaps. Transition and change, most definitely.

    There is a saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I don’t agree with that. I think transition and change are always happening, sometimes in large ways, and sometimes small, though to see it, we may need to slow down and look, as one might suddenly see a small flower growing out of the pavement. In our parashah this week, Aaron is leaving, it is his time to die. His son Eleazar is becoming the High Priest, as he takes on the mantle of his father’s work. This moment of transition and significant change is initiated by the instruction:  

        וְהַפְשֵׁ֤ט אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ אֶת־בְּגָדָ֔יו וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּ֖ם אֶת־אֶלְעָזָ֣ר בְּנ֑וֹ  (Num. 20:26)

    “Strip Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar. “

    Why mention the garments? The mention of the garments in the Torah may seem extraneous, but of course is not – this is necessary, Rashi says, to teach us that there is a relationship between these garments and Aaron’s death. Further, the Talmud, in Tractate Zevachim, describes a correlation, that each individual garment of the High Priest atones for a specific sin. I prefer Ramban’s explanation though, as in his commentary, he teaches a midrash in which the Rabbis ask, How could Moses strip Aaron of his garments in their proper order? Are not the upper ones always on top, and the lower ones always underneath? – We too might ask, how does this work – make a pile of clothing, and then sort them out to dress Eleazar in the correct order of layering the garments?  Ramban explains that God bestowed upon Aaron a great honor at the time of his death - that celestial garments first clothed themselves underneath the other garments, and then Moses stripped Aaron of the priestly garments in their proper order, and then put them on Eleazar in the proper order. What’s the concern? The concern is that Aaron should not appear naked, that this process should not dishonor him.

    Aaron represents the past that we must take care to honor. Eleazar represents the future that we must take care to nurture and protect. In between is the present in which transition and change occur.

    This too, is the path of one who comes to us, choosing to become Jewish, sitting before us. Their outer garment may be what we see, the actions of “doing Jewish” – the holiday observances – Passover, Shavuot, High Holy Days, Sukkot, Shabbat, the learning of Hebrew words, and prayers, perhaps wearing a kippah, or a star of David…but as a candidate sits before us, we know too, that underneath are the hidden layers, a leaving behind…perhaps of Christmas Carols and chocolate bunnies…and connection with it too, perhaps not so much about religion, but rather about family and tradition. The hidden layers… The questions so far unarticulated, the fear of not knowing enough, the hope of truly fitting in, of being accepted, the embarrassment of not knowing all the words, or what they mean, yet… The deep longing of a Jewish soul, born to parents not Jewish, of longing to be known, of words yet to be spoken. Even one who has taken the long journey, with years of study, years of immersion in Jewish life, and a longing for that final step, implies too, a certain leaving, feeling a little wobbly, a little uncertain. Wondering, how to speak to family, to friends, of their identity – yes, one longed for, but one that has yet to fully integrate past with future.

    A new Jew does put on a new garment, a new identity, but with the hidden garments too… of hope, uncertainty, fear, loss, …joy. Each, a gift, from the divine, like celestial garments, to be discovered, integrated, cherished, and worn with dignity.

    Those who have heard Lech L’cha, and come before us are navigating their way, and it is for us to honor their past, for without that past, they would not have arrived at our door, nor sit before us. And, it is for us, of course, to nurture and be there for them, as the steps they take in the present are precious, as these steps create a new future.

    The following blessing is from the Shabbat morning service in Mishkan Tefilah, and was written by Rabbi Richard Levy, z’’l:

    You are Praised, who rolls out the rough, raw clay of the universe into delicate vessels of light; and from nothing at all we could perceive in a world that has turned old, a shimmering new Creation right before our eyes made this moment just for us. How much of life reveals Your presence? How much Torah unfolds from each new flower, from each new wave that breaks upon the sea! You are Praised, who forms from the clay that cloaks our lives, the delicate vessels which contain our light.  Baruch atah, Adonai, yotzeir ham’orot.

    Rabbi Lisa Bock


  • 2 Jun 2019 6:38 PM | Muriel Dance (Administrator)

    Inspired by the Yom Iyun on May 7th 2019, a poem by Suzanne Gallant:

    I have a theory,
    You don’t have to agree.
    I’m not a Rabbi
    Or even a teacher of Judaica.
    I’m a simple student
    Who searches through Torah
    For truths to live by.
    So, here’s my theory.
    The first real converts to Judaism
    Were the recently escaped
    Hebrew slaves.
    They were clans, men
    Were circumcised as their
    Religious identification.
    There was only one other law.
    “Be fruitful and multiply”
    The rules were given at Sinai
    And we have continued through the millennia.
    We were a family.
    Religion came down the mountain,
    Told to Moses who, re-told them.
    Okay, given that concept
    Let’s examine Exodus
    Through that lens.
    Converts, today,  must partake
    Of the Mikveh experience.
    Might we view the crossing of the sea,
    Be likened to a mikveh?
    Even though the Hebrews
    Received the laws, after .
    Even though… okay,
    They were our ancestors
    Even though, they only chose
    To run with the group.
    They didn’t know they were Jews.
    Being Jewish came later.
    Accepting God’s laws
    Came first.  Doing them ensued.
    Making them fit or making
    One’s self fit the laws,
    That came later.
    First we had to learn.
    Something like today,
    Each of us must search.
    Each of us should study.
    Each of us must choose.
    Judaism isn’t easy.
    It is a struggle , finding one’s place
    Just like every convert. 



  • 11 Mar 2019 12:05 PM | Muriel Dance (Administrator)

    Religious life in America is going through a most significant transition. As many Americans are seeking new faith communities, switching religious traditions, and creating new communities of spiritual and religious engagement, Jewish leaders and their institutions need to be cognizant of these major transitions, open to working with religious seekers and young Jews who are exploring with their future mates and partners ways to move forward on their spiritual journeys. Today, we find many younger persons defining themselves as “religious nones”. As they move away from formal religious practices or question various traditional ideas about faith, our leaders must remain open to their concerns, questions and criticisms.

    One of the goals associated with 21st century American religion ought to be about breaking down silos of denominationalism in favor of building cross-institutional partnerships and programs. The Jewish community ought to model such collaborative behaviors as a way of assisting new Jews in finding their place and voice within Jewish life. Our communal and religious institutions must be open to welcoming and embracing those new participants who are seeking to become a part of our community. How we receive and engage individuals and couples will be a critical test of our own resiliency and openness to the stranger. We need to acknowledge in this current environment that the different models of Jewish expression and religious practice afford seekers multiple options. The availability of religious choice and the presence of a culture of experimentation are abiding features of the current Jewish scene.

    How we prepare and introduce Jews by choice to the Jewish communal roadmap will be another critical first step in helping these new Jews find their way within our community. Our institutional and cultural diversity ought to be seen as a key strength, as it demonstrates the multi-layered character of American Jewish life.

    How we manage the opportunities and appropriate roles for those individuals who at this time do not elect to become formally a part of our community, yet who are partnered or married to Jewish spouses, raises some important and challenging issues. Our fundamental goal ought to be focused on welcoming and including wherever possible these individuals within the life cycle experiences of their spouses, children and extended family.  Giving clarity and attention to the functions and roles that these folks can play represents another opportunity to demonstrate our community’s flexibility and openness.

    Professor Steven Windmueller, summary of talk  on delivered at Trustee Giving Circle Lunch, 2/26/2019



  • 2 Jan 2019 6:52 PM | Robin Podolsky

    At the end of the secular year, Christmakah (or Hanumas) celebrations have become, if not the new norm, at least common in the U.S.  While it is undoubtedly pleasant to celebrate festive occasions on an interfaith basis of good will, intermarriages – where neither of the parties convert, and accounting for more than half of American Jewish marriages now -- have become the elephant in the room in rabbinic circles. The underlying fear, of course, is Jewish assimilation. Will the children and grandchildren of intermarriage be Jewish? Who will fill the pews at our Temples and synagogues? How do you pass on a hybrid, “interfaith” religion? Or no religion at all, let them decide for themselves when they are older?

    Are American rabbis permitted to marry couples where conversion to Judaism has not – or not yet – taken place? For many Reform rabbis, and for trans-denominational rabbis as well, the decision is an individual one. Some rabbis ask for certain conditions: that the non-Jewish spouse must commit to bringing up any children of the marriage in a Jewish home where Jewish values and learning are valued. In other words, “Give us your children. Teach them, at least, to be Jewish.”

    Many rabbis optimistically believe that, with repeated contact with Shabbat candlelighting, with the joyous festivals, the Jewish way of life with its value of community and tikkun olam, and with a growing understanding of the whys and hows of the Jewish moral code, non-Jewish partners will eventually choose to convert. By that time, they will be well immersed and, today, well accepted in the Jewish community.

    For conservative rabbis, however, the choices available are very different. Until recently, they have not been permitted to officiate, let alone attend, intermarriages. However, now, in a move facing the reality of so many modern Jewish marriages, the Conservative movement has decided to allow their affiliated rabbis to attend intermarriage ceremonies. Not to officiate, mind you – perhaps that decision will follow – but for now, they will at least be able to attend the simcha.

    In a recent article in the Forward (“Conservative Movement Gives Rabbi Green Light to Attend Intermarriages,” 0ct. 22, 2018), writer Ari Feldman commented: “It is a long-awaited, welcoming gesture. Until now, conservative rabbis could not even hover in the back row if they wished to remain in the conservative movement.”

    So maybe the elephant is already out of the room. Perhaps now that we can talk about it together, we can find some useful solutions. In the meantime, Happy 2019!

    ©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.


  • 9 Nov 2018 2:16 PM | Robin Podolsky

    A decade ago (2008), Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky offered his own thoughtful and enduring article, written from a conservative point of view, on the subject of conversion — which he considered a preferable and potentially transformative alternative to intermarriage. “At a given moment,” he wrote, “a non-Jew is transformed from ‘outsider’ to ‘one of us.’ What changed that person?” What is the transformative moment?

     

    Kalmanofsky suggested that the prospective convert may have passed through one or more “doors” [inserted numbers mine}:

    1. “What doorway did s/he pass through, so that the s/he now counts in the minyan?

    2. Was it a religious doorway?

    3. An ethnic one?

    4. An intellectual affirmation.

    5. A faith act?

    6. A mark on the body?

    7. An orientation of the spirit?

    8. Does conversion depend on one’s self-definition?

    9.   Or upon decisions by others, like rabbinic courts?

    10. Or perhaps upon the informal willingness of Jews to recognize someone as family?”

    Those of us who are born Jews may also reflect on the multiple

    stages we pass through during the pathways of our lives?

    Do we find enriching moments — our own transformative doorways — along the

    way? Do we continue to grow spiritually? Or do we take the fact of Jewish birth our

    spiritual citizenship — for granted?



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