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How a book by a ‘Zen Rabbi’ became a High Holidays classic

(JTA) — Every few years I put out a call asking what people will be reading in preparation for the High Holidays, and usually one book tops the list: “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation,” by the late Rabbi Alan Lew. 

Published 20 years ago this month, “This Is Real” is an attempt by Lew, a Conservative rabbi trained in Buddhist practice, to get perhaps jaded readers to see the period that includes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot as a time for deep spiritual introspection — or, as he writes, a time to “move from self-hatred to self-forgiveness, from anger to healing, from hard-heartedness to brokenheartedness.”

If that sounds like the gospel of “self-care,” you’re not far off. Lew, who died in 2009 at age 65, came of age during the self-actualization movement, a serious attempt by psychologists to get people to live up to values that transcend their desire for wealth and status. By the time cosmetics companies, crystal sellers and lifestyle influencers took hold of the concept, it was derided as selfishness disguised as a spiritual journey. 

But Lew’s book grounds concepts of “self-discovery, spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness and spiritual evolution” in normative Judaism. “This Is Real” never strays far from a traditional Judaism that saw the period of prayer, reflection and repentance surrounding the holidays as a time for a moral wake-up call. 

That hybrid of the traditional and the much-maligned “New Age” continues to appeal to readers. Jewish educator Joshua Ladon, writing in the 2020 anthology “The New Jewish Canon,” calls the book “the handbook for American Jewish High Holiday survival,” comparing its influence to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s mega-bestseller “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Synagogues host book groups to discuss the book in the run-up to the holidays; the book’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, issued a paperback version only in 2018, suggesting its hardcover sales had remained strong for 15 years. 

Ilana Sandberg, a rabbinical student at JTS, recommended Lew’s book last month in a video for the seminary

She first read the book in the fall of 2020 as she was preparing to lead High Holiday services at Brandeis Hillel for the first time as the rabbinic intern, and considers the late author her “spiritual hevruta,” or study partner, in the lead-up to the holidays. The book, Sandberg says, is about “accepting this idea that we are ever-changing beings and there really is a possibility for change, for renewal as we go through the cycle of the year.” 

Lew was spiritual leader at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom from 1991 to 2005. Raised in Brooklyn and New York’s Westchester County, he was underwhelmed by the suburban Judaism of the 1950s and ’60s and, like many Jewish seekers of his era, turned to Zen Buddhism — at one point considering becoming a lay priest. 

“It was in a Buddhist monastery, meditating, that I realized who I really am. I am a Jew,” he wrote in “One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi,” a memoir he co-wrote in 2001 with his wife, Sherril Jaffe. “A Jew can use the practice of meditation to illuminate his or her Jewish soul.” 

Rabbi Alan Lew appears on the cover of “One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi,” a memoir he co-wrote in 2001 with his wife, Sherril Jaffe.

A poet and sometime bus driver, Lew was 38 when he enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the training ground for Conservative rabbis. In 2000, he founded Makor Or, a Jewish meditation center housed at his synagogue.

In “This Is Real,” he writes about the meditative aspects of High Holiday prayer. “When we sit in meditation with other people, breathing the same air, hearing the same sounds, thinking thoughts in the same rhythms and patterns, we experience our connection to  each other in a very immediate way,” he writes.  

But Lew’s version of the High Holidays is hardly passive or even gentle: Preparing for the holidays, as he suggests in the title, is hard and daunting work. The dreamlike opening sequence describes the “journey” of the High Holiday period as “fraught with meaning and dread.”

Ladon wrote that Lew’s book represents “the possibility of American Judaism, full of vitality and transcending boundaries.” Perhaps because of, or even in spite of this, it was mostly non-Orthodox Jews who replied to my recent social media post asking about their attachment to “This Is Real.”

“I’m really moved by the way that Lew takes the traditional images of the Holidays — the wake-up call of the shofar, the books of life, death and the undecided, the opening of the gates — and retells them in a way that they speak directly to my personal existential discomfort,” wrote Jonah Mendelsohn, an actor and writer who has been reading the book with fellow members of SAJ, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan. “The book has me facing my own insecurity and self-judgment in a way that isn’t always comfortable, but pushes me to change.”

Karen Paul, a fundraising consultant and former executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation, said a friend gave her a copy of the book the year her husband died from glioblastoma. 

“Lew’s comforting and relatable stories were precisely the roadmap I needed to begin to reshape my future,” she told me. “My favorite parable in the book is the day that the rabbi had to be on one side of the park for a [funeral] and the other side of the park for a birth. This is the dialectic of life, which, if we listen for it, applies to all that we do.”  

Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt of the Reform Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires in North Adams, Massachusetts, recommends the book for “folks who might not self-identify as seekers, but who are interested in approaching the holidays in a deeper or more informed way.”

“When I first read it, it changed how I experience this two-month window of time, and I love opening that up for those whom I serve,” she wrote me. “How can we harness this season to fuel our inner work so that we can emerge ready to grow and become and try again?”

But she, like others, notes that “This Is Real” isn’t without his flaws. She suggests that Lew “had some blind spots, notably around gender.” (Last year, Jewish blogger Shari Salzhauer Berkowitz criticized his “heterosexual, male” handling of the sexual dynamics in Ki Tetze, the Torah portion that includes instructions for soldiers taking women captives as “wives.”)  

The book also has admiring references to Rudy Giuliani — the New York City mayor turned RICO defendant — and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach — the songwriter who faced posthumous allegations of sexual misconduct — that read differently than they did 20 years ago. 

Barenblatt suggests pairing his book with a “contemporary and feminist text” such as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s recent book “On Repentance and Repair.”

Lew’s style — he glides between poetry and memoir, allegory and darshanut, or Torah commentary — isn’t for everyone. Many prefer Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon’s anthology “Days of Awe,” first published in English in 1948, a collection of mostly primary texts related to the High Holidays. Philip Goodman’s various anthologies for the Jewish Publication Society take a similar approach. The 1999 essay collection, “Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days” by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates is a corrective to books that ignore the central place of women in the liturgy. 

Many of these books seem intended for readers who are looking for inspiration in synagogue when their attention begins to flag. Lew invites you to read his book as a coherent narrative of a nearly three-month process from destruction (Tisha B’Av) to joy (Sukkot).

But for some readers, it is also a book to be dipped into and sipped from.

I have never finished this book,” Pittsburgh Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman admitted last month in a column recommending books for the High Holidays. “I read four or five pages. I stop and ponder over the meaning of existence and God and human growth and obligation and fallibility. Lew is poetic and instructive and guru-esque but also deeply personal; you feel you know him. The book’s title is perfect, and yet the book really will prepare you for the High Holidays, even if you, like me, never actually finish reading it. One might argue that this book, if properly read, is never finished.” 


The post How a book by a ‘Zen Rabbi’ became a High Holidays classic appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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How Ramban Can Offer Hope in Dark Times for Israel’s Future

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

report in January revealed that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was experiencing significant mental health issues with some of their members as a result of the October 7th massacre and war in Gaza, with some requiring in-patient treatment. Most of the affected soldiers had been exposed to the gruesome aftermath of the Hamas attack in southern Israel, seeing tortured and mutilated bodies, as well as witnessing their friends dying or wounded in the effort to clear the area of Hamas operatives.

According to the January report, 90 soldiers were deemed unable to continue their service and had been discharged from duty. The IDF’s mental health experts also expressed concerns about the broader psychological repercussions of the massacre and war over time, particularly for reservists who needed to transition back to civilian life. They warned of the potential for “functioning difficulties” and a pervasive sense of meaninglessness in daily life after active service in urban warfare situations, and voiced concerns for the long-term welfare of those who were serving and continued to serve.

Three months later, the grisly six-month anniversary since October 7th has come and gone. Sadly, the situation has not improved, and indeed, it may have worsened. Moreover, with many of the reservists now back in civilian life, the predicted malaise has filtered its way into Israel’s population. Add to that those affected by the massacre and war through displacement and bereavement, plus the uncertainty of a war that isn’t over and a very uncertain political situation, and clearly Israel is not in a good place.

The bitter taste left by the audacious terrorism of the massacre itself, which exposed a vulnerability that most Israelis had convinced themselves had been mitigated by impenetrable defenses, has been compounded by months of war, IDF personnel killed, growing dissatisfaction with Israel’s leadership, and an acute awareness that the world-at-large is not on the same page as Israel regarding the threats it faces.

Early last month, it was announced that the official state ceremony for Israel’s 76th Independence Day in May will not feature the customary fireworks display due to the ongoing conflict. Miri Regev, the government minister overseeing the celebrations, explained that the adjustments to the ceremony’s format were in response to the October 7th massacre and the ongoing war. She also called on municipal leaders across Israel to omit fireworks from their local celebrations.

This week, Regev revealed that the official state-sponsored Independence Day ceremony will take place without a live audience, and will be pre-recorded. This set-piece event, usually held at Mount Herzl as the country transitions from Memorial Day to Independence Day, will be held in advance and then broadcast as Independence Day begins — the first time this has ever happened since Israel’s establishment in 1948, marking a significant departure from tradition.

Against this backdrop of strife and difficulty, we must reflect on the deeper spiritual and historical essence of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Jewish heritage that has been at the center of Jewish faith and identity for millennia, and at the same time, a place of immense sacrifice and suffering. To this end, Ramban (Nahmanides) offers a profound insight in his commentary on tzara’at, the malady described in detail in Tazria and Metzora.

Tzara’at can only occur in the Land of Israel — which means, says Ramban, that it is not a natural disease, but rather a miraculous manifestation of Divine providence, highlighting the unique spiritual stature of Eretz Yisrael, where Divine presence is most acutely felt. Ramban also mentions that tzara’at on houses only came into effect in Eretz Yisrael after the Israelites, led by Joshua, had completed the full fourteen years of conquest and division of the land after crossing the Jordan River following Moses’ death.

If you paused at that point in Ramban’s commentary, you might think that this rule is connected to his previous point — namely that tzara’at is a manifestation of the Divine status of Eretz Yisrael. Given that the full sanctity of the land wasn’t achieved until after 14 years had passed—a period after which regulations like tithes and offerings began to apply –you might assume that the laws regarding tzara’at on houses followed a similar pattern, appearing only when the land’s full sanctity had been established.

However, Ramban offers a far more meaningful insight to explain this phenomenon: the reason why afflictions on houses did not occur during the period of conquest was not due to a lack of sanctity, but because a heightened state of God-consciousness is essential for witnessing a divine intervention like tzara’at.

But in times of war, when survival dominates thought and action, achieving such a level of spiritual awareness is nearly impossible. The fog of war not only obscures the ordinary course of events in day-to-day life, it also puts up a barrier between us and God — and in that state we are incapable of being sensitive to the sanctity that is so obvious in times of peace.

Over the past few months, as the fog of war has descended upon us and clouded our minds, I have worried that the incredible miracle of Israel will recede from our consciousness. We are all in survival mode, even those who live in the Diaspora — all of us fielding unbridled hatred, and wondering how it will all end. In moments of doubt, we wonder what lies ahead for Israel in the long term, now that the existential threat has been revealed as ever-present and far more vigorous than we had ever previously imagined.

It is in exactly times like these that we must remember the resilient spirit and sacred essence of Eretz Yisrael. As we reflect upon our current hardships, we must draw strength from the profound wisdom of Ramban. His teaching regarding those 14 foundational years must remind us that even when the fog of war obscures the holiness of the land, that holiness remains, waiting to reemerge once peace is restored. Just as Joshua and the Israelites persisted through years of conquest so that they could bask in the land’s holiness and glory, we too must persevere, maintaining faith that the trials we face today are but temporary shadows over the enduring light of our nation.

Israel’s story is one of overcoming great adversities, the unbreakable spirit of its people, and the deep, abiding connection to Eretz Yisrael. The challenges of war and social discord cannot and will not diminish the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael, nor can they permanently cloud the divine providence that has guided our history. The current conflict, as harrowing as it is, presents an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to this sacred land, recognizing it as a source of strength and hope for us all.

As we approach the period in our Jewish calendar celebrating redemption and the formation of our nation, both in ancient history and in modern times, and while we endure the greatest challenges we have faced for generations, let this be a time of reflection and renewal.

We must hold fast to the belief that peace will return, and with it, the full expression of our land’s holiness and elevation. In the spirit of those who came before us, let us bear these trials with dignity and strength, looking forward to a future where Israel can once again shine as a light unto the nations, its sanctity fully rekindled.

The author is a rabbi in Beverly Hills, California.

The post How Ramban Can Offer Hope in Dark Times for Israel’s Future first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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How Anti-Zionist Faculty Captured a University of California Campus and What It Means for the Future of Jews in America

McHenry Library at University of California, Santa Cruz. Photo: Jay Miller/Wikimedia Commons

“Let’s make it clear – zionism is not welcome on our campus” read a recent Instagram message, which was followed by raised fist and Palestinian flag emojis.

At first blush, this posting appeared to be one more bullet in the barrage of vitriolic hatred and harassment aimed by anti-Zionist students groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Israel’s supporters on campus, especially Jewish students, in the aftermath of Hamas’ genocidal attack on Israel last fall.

But that’s not the case. The above message shunning the campus presence of Zionism — and by obvious extension, Zionists, which the vast majority of Jews identify as — wasn’t authored by students at all.

Rather, it came from their professors — more than 100 of them — founders of a Faculty for Justice in Palestine chapter at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Let that sink in. A large group of faculty at one of the finest public university systems in the world is using a popular social media platform to proclaim the modern-day equivalent of the ubiquitous Nazi-era slogan “Juden sind hier unerwünscht” (“Jews are not wanted here”).

Even more chilling is the fact that the faculty group’s message was part of a larger post urging their colleagues and students to attend an on-campus “March Against Zionism” organized by an allied anti-Zionist student group, whose goal was “to make it clear that the racist settler-colonial ideology of zionism is not welcome on this campus!”

Like the student brownshirts in the early 1930s, who vilified and bullied Jewish students and professors until they were completely purged from German universities, the student organizers of the faculty-supported “March Against Zionism” threatened to — and actually did — disrupt a Jewish student gathering and harass its participants.

Much ink has been spilled discussing the explosion of antisemitic harassment on college campuses nationwide since October 7, with a lot of it describing the outsized role played by anti-Zionist student groups like SJP. However, a recent study conducted by my organization of the anti-Zionist activism of faculty at the University of California found that they play a crucial role in fomenting campus antisemitism, and nowhere is that more obvious than at UC Santa Cruz.

In fact, if one wants to understand how antisemitism could engulf US campuses at warp speed after the Hamas attack, one need look no further than UCSC and the faculty group that has committed itself to purging Zionism and Zionists from campus and collaborates with anti-Zionist student groups to get the job done.

Like its nine sister campuses and nearly 100 campuses across the country, UCSC became home to a chapter of Faculty for Justice in Palestine, or FJP, after the Hamas attack. Established in response to a call from the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), FJP chapters are intended to provide support for student groups like SJP and to engage them and their fellow faculty in advancing the implementation of an academic boycott of Israel (the academic arm of the BDS movement) on their campuses.

USACBI’s overarching goal is combating “the normalization of Israel in the global academy.” To that end, the organization’s guidelines call for boycotting educational programs in or about Israel, and canceling or shutting down pro-Israel events and activities; encourage academic programming and campus events that portray Israel in a wholly negative light, as a pariah state unworthy of normalization; and condone the denigration, protest, and exclusion of pro-Israel individuals on campus. All of these academic BDS-associated activities have had a devastating impact on students and faculty who want to study in or about Israel, or who identify with the Jewish State.

FJP’s anti-Zionist impact and the resulting harms have played out in two distinct campus arenas.

First, in its collaboration with SJP and similar student groups, FJP has amplified the students’ anti-Zionist messaging and activity, and given them academic legitimacy. For instance, FJP at UCSC was co-sponsor of an SJP-authored BDS resolution that passed overwhelmingly at a student senate meeting, during which Jewish students who opposed the resolution were prevented from speaking, heckled, and harassed.

Afterwards, the faculty group celebrated the resolution’s passage by posting a message stating: “Major congrats to y’all, and to every other UC student body that has voted to divest in recent weeks. WE KEEP GOING UNTIL PALESTINE IS FREE!”. UCSC’s FJP has also used its clout to protect anti-Zionist students from being prosecuted for abusive behavior, as when it joined in a statement calling on the UC Regents to drop charges against students who had unlawfully disrupted a Regents meeting with demands for the University to boycott Israel.

Second, FJP’s mutually beneficial collaborations with academic departments have significantly strengthened the anti-Zionist reach and impact of both FJP and the individual departments with which the group collaborates. Consider, for example, that it was academic BDS-supporting leaders of UCSC’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) department who founded the campus FJP chapter, that more than 60% of CRES’ principal faculty are members of the faculty group, and that an invitation to join FJP and help “organize for Palestine” has been prominently displayed on CRES’ departmental homepage since November. It’s therefore not surprising that CRES has become a primary beneficiary of the group’s political muscle in its time of need.

As documented in a recent report by my organization, CRES’ extensive use of departmental resources for anti-Zionist activism — including helping to establish and support an institute whose mission is to dismantle Zionism, publishing statements and hosting educational events blaming Israel for Hamas’ October 7 massacre, shutting down the department as part of a “global strike” against Israel, and much more — has raised significant concern among the UC Regents. Although CRES’ use of departmental resources for political activism is in violation of university policy and state law, UCSC administrators have been unwilling or unable to stop them. As a way of addressing the problem, the Regents have been deliberating over a policy prohibiting departments like CRES from using their university website for making political statements. Although it only deals with one small part of the problem, the proposed policy is a step in the right direction. And yet, for CRES and other politically motivated and directed departments, it is a step too far.

In an effort to thwart any attempt to limit their anti-Zionist activism, CRES and other UCSC anti-Zionist faculty deputized FJP to help spearhead an academic senate resolution calling on the administration to defend the faculty’s “right” to continue engaging in political advocacy (which they euphemistically call “public scholarship”), and to resist any attempt by the UC Regents to stop them. The UCSC faculty’s overwhelming support for the resolution now makes it virtually impossible for their administration to challenge CRES or other faculty whose anti-Zionist activism violates university policy or state law.

Think about it: Within a few short months, a faculty group that takes its marching orders from a nationally-coordinated campaign to rid US campuses of Zionism and Zionists has enabled the ideological capture of its institution by anti-Zionist faculty, and effectively neutralized administrative attempts to stop it.

The only hope of derailing this out-of-control train lies with the UC President and Regents, who have the authority to hold campus administrators accountable for not enforcing university regulations and the law. If UC leaders are unwilling or unable to exercise their authority, it won’t be long before the University of California, and in short order universities across the country, become wholly inhospitable and unsafe for their Jewish members, echoing the darkest chapters of Jewish history.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a faculty member at the University of California Santa Cruz for 20 years.

The post How Anti-Zionist Faculty Captured a University of California Campus and What It Means for the Future of Jews in America first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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Why Bravery Is Required to Fight for Israel — and It Comes From the Soul

The Israeli flag at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo: Hynek Moravec via Wikimedia Commons.

We are living in a time that calls for an almost existential bravery. Lies need to be corrected; real history needs to be taught; our most fundamental principles — freedom, justice, equality — need to be relearned. So why is it, you may have asked yourself, that many of the most seemingly confident people — those who incessantly crave the spotlight — have been silent about these lies, or worse?

It’s a question I have grappled with in the 10 years that I have been writing about antisemitism. And I’ve finally come to a somewhat obvious conclusion: Bravery has very little to do with self-idolatry, whether in the form of boasting, selfies, or narcissism. Bravery stems from the quiet confidence of a well-nourished soul.

I recently attended a bat mitzvah that confirmed this point. Despite the crass world that surrounds her, both online and off, the young woman on the bimah was preternaturally poised. She seemed to be listening to an inner voice that gave her the strength to rise above, and to understand what it means to be part of an ancient people.

And then with quiet dignity, she gave one of the most powerful speeches about Israel. She spoke from her soul, and as a result, she was able to touch the souls of many — to inspire their bravery as well.

Could all of this be happening to the Jewish people right now — most especially, the antisemitic response to Oct. 7, — because so many people have given in to the idolization of self-idolatry? The question nagged at me the rest of the evening. But I was also heartened. Nourishing the soul is something tangible that can be done. I have been thinking about this since my son was bar mitzvahed at a very unsoulful synagogue — yes, many synagogues are part of the problem — and I now have to renourish his soul.

Some initial thoughts:

1. Surround yourself with souls of beauty. People who have no need to be the center of attention. They are the quiet ones, the ones who do mitzvahs both large and small with no desire to take credit. Their dignity and serenity inspire both in those around them. Ridding ourselves of the toxic and narcissistic also allows us the space to renourish our own souls.

2. Nourish your own soul with nature, creativity, and artistic beauty. It’s not a coincidence that these dark times have been accompanied by a dearth of artistic brilliance. Creativity also stems from the soul, and one literally can’t create if one is too busy thinking about how many “likes” it will get on social media.

3. Don’t get caught up in the toxicity of self-idolatry. This is a mistake that I have made in recent years. Rather than turning away from the ugliness, I have tried to understand it: Why would people post inappropriate content on social media? The explanations run from today’s amoral culture to someone’s insecurities.

What I can do is continually try to nourish the souls of those who want to be nourished. That’s what I did when I first started on social media — post soulful art, poetry, design, etc. But this time, it will be Israeli art and design, helping to “normalize” the country in a way that should never have been necessary. But that is the task that G-d is giving each of us, and we need to be up for that challenge.

It’s not a coincidence that our greatest heroes have also been the most soulful, from Abraham, Moses, and David to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Great leaders are rarely narcissists. In many ways, they’re mutually exclusive.

But how can quiet confidence be heard in a world inundated with shock, pornography, and degradation? Many of us have been told that our lack of desire to compete with the loudest and ugliest on social media is a weakness. But as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it in discussing Moses’ lack of oratory skills: “What we think of as our greatest weakness can become, if we wrestle with it, our greatest strength.”

It is precisely the quiet, soulful ones who have the ability to tell the truth in a way that will be heard — who are able to “tell people what they do not want to hear, but what they must hear if they are to save themselves from catastrophe,” wrote Sacks. I believe many people left that bat mitzvah thinking about Israel — and the larger problem that Hamas and Hezbollah represent — in a different way. Perhaps they will now understand that today, silence is not an option.

And it will all be because the quiet dignity of a 13-year-old was able to touch their souls.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is editor in chief of White Rose Magazine. A version of this article was originally published by The Jewish Journal.

The post Why Bravery Is Required to Fight for Israel — and It Comes From the Soul first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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