Answering the call



Melissa lights the Chanukiah at JCC Manhattan with her fellow intern.

As I’ve mentioned, I have the immense honor of interning at The Center For Jewish Living at JCC Manhattan this year. I also have the honor of interning alongside a woman getting smicha at JTS who recently shared about a project she was asked to do for a class which I assigned myself — write an essay describing your rabbinic calling and putting it in a textual framework. So while this is in no way an essay, it is my reflection on that prompt – or at least what resonated with me afterwards.


We learn in Pirkei Avot that Avraham had ten tests, but the mishna is deliberately vague about what exactly those were. (I don’t like using the word test in this discussion, which I am pretty sure I have already written about, so I’m going to use the word trial from here.) Rambam brings a list based entirely on psukim, which resonates with me more than the options which rely more heavily upon midrashim.

Maimonides lists Avraham’s trials as follows:
1. God tells him to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.
2. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine.
3. The Egyptians capture his beloved wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
4. Abraham faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings.
5. He marries Hagar after not being able to have children with Sarah.
6. God tells him to circumcise himself at an advanced age.
7. The king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself.
8. God tells him to send Hagar away after having a child with her.
9. His son, Ishmael, becomes estranged.
10. God tells him to sacrifice his dear son Isaac upon an altar.

That tenth test is Avraham’s true hineni moment. The moment he can no longer ignore the calls, and begins to accept his relationship with God and his future as a leader of the Jewish people.

One of the most profound things I learned in looking at all the various iterations of this list, is how many of the trials were not so clear in the moment, but upon reflection become easily placed into the list.

That’s how I feel about my rabbinic calling.

There are so many moments throughout my life that were calls, some were very clear, but others were less so. And ultimately, I too had my hineni moment, the moment at which I could no longer ignore the calls and took a moment to really hear Hashem.

Interestingly, when I stopped to really think about them, I too had ten moments of feeling a call.

1. Before my Bat Mitzvah when I fell in love with being in shul, leyning, and leading tefilla. (Also, when I first began exploring feminism and what it meant to me in a Jewish context.)

2. Constantly being told as a teen that I’d be a great rabbi.

3. Debating what graduate school to attend and whether to do a dual degree at once or to wait and decide how to expand my MSW after completion.

4. Spending an entire conference with a small group of rabbinical students, and one of them saying “give me a call when you change your mind about becoming a rabbi.”

5. Reaching out to what I thought would have been the best choice rabbinical school for me and not hearing back. {It is a particularly good thing that this happened, since I ultimately left the Conservative movement.}

6. Embracing the “rebbetzin role” (and subsequently starting this blog) after meeting and marrying my husband, and continuing on our evolving religious path. (And having all those people who told me as a teen I’d be a great rabbi nodding their heads.)

7. Meeting Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg in Denver, who was then the Director of Recruitment for Yeshivat Maharat and first planted the seed.

8. Meeting Rabbi Avi Weiss the first time, where he casually mentioned attending Yeshivat Maharat while my husband attended Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

9. Listening to a podcast of a panel of future Maharat’s at Stanton St Shul while walking to Nishmat where I was falling more in love with text study every day.

10. An initial skype meeting with the esteemed and beloved Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Jeff Fox.

Once I was able to really stop and hear the call, to accept that this was where I was meant to be, answering hineni was the only choice. It was reflexive and instinctive, just as I imagine it was for Avraham. I had no idea what coming to Yeshivat Maharat would really mean. I had no idea just how difficult it would be on so many levels. I also had no idea just how rewarding it would be on so many levels. But I knew I had to say it. And I know I have to continue saying it.





Candle Confessional

Dear readers, it has been many months since my last confession.

Post by Melissa

I have a problem with lighting Shabbat candles in the winter.

There, I’ve said it.

Ahhh…. Feels like a weight lifted.

No really, it disturbs me that I just can’t seem to make it happen on a wintery Shabbat evening.  I’ve rushed home from work and am franctically getting ready.  The minutes tick away as I run around switching lights and then all of a sudden – its candle lighting time! I jump in the shower, determined to be out and ready in 18 minutes, and even when I am I’m just not in the mood to light after the hustle to get there.

I have to be calm and ready to embrace the holy rest in order to light.  If I am not in the right mood as I light, the flames don’t give me the same loving sensation.

So, am I alone here? Do others of you have a hard time setting the stage these cold early Shabbatot?

Excuse our Dust :)

Shavua Tov everyone!

Just a heads up – we’re planning a couple of cosmetic changes this evening and probably into tomorrow – so excuse us if things are a little weird/finicky/unavailable at certain points.  Hope you enjoy our little upgrades 🙂

— Jess & Mel

Well, two or three or four hours later – that went well! Looks like everything is up and running – let us know if you find anything that’s goofy!

Huge News for Orthodox Converts

This amazing news, shared by eJewishPhilanthropy (full text below also) is rapidly making its way around the web and the Jewish blogosphere.  However, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share it as well. I don’t even know what to say, other than that it is an amazing step in the right direction for Jews who underwent an Orthodox conversion and have the desire to make aliyah. Wow, just wow.


Shas and Jewish Agency Reach Agreement on Orthodox Conversion Aliyah

June 14, 2011 by Dan Brown
Filed under In the Media

In a letter dated yesterday, the Interior Ministry of the State of Israel notified the Knesset of a change of policy as to procedures for granting Oleh status to Orthodox converts. Instead of turning to the Chief Rabbinate for eligibility approval, it will now turn to the Jewish Agency for Israel.

According to sources close to the issue, Chief Rabbi Amar supports the move which also had to gain approval of [Shas] Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

This agreement represents the first real compromise between the Shas led Interior Ministry and Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky on a question of Jewish identity.

Many conversion questions are up in the air and the only forum actually dealing with the issue is the conversion roundtable chaired by Sharansky. This is only one of many issues, but it represents the first real agreement to come from the process.

Connecting to a Far Away Country

Post by Melissa

This week we celebrate two very big days for Israel, Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) and Yom Ha’Zicaron (Israeli Remembrance Day – think Memorial Day and Veterans day rolled together, and actually celebrated), and by we, I mean Jewish communities worldwide.

I teach in my synagogue’s religious school, and this morning we had a party for Yom Ha’Atzmaut. I attempted to prep my students by discussing Israel in a positive light. Reading a story about a boy who dreamed of planting trees in Israel after learning about a relative who was one of the early Zionists. Showing photos of Israel and reading about the sights. Having students who had visited the country or had heard stories from their parents who had visited, and in one case  gotten engaged, in Israel share the stories and experiences.  Yet none of this seemed to really drive home any message.  While they really enjoyed singing and eating cake, and the extra Israeli snacks I had brought in – the point of it being from Israel seemed lost on so many of them.  Half of them even drew five pointed stars on their Israeli flags, even though my aid and I corrected them and I had an Israeli flag hanging in the front of the room.

So my question for you faithful readers, is in this time of celebration and commemoration – how do you connect your daily life, to that of those in Israel?  How can we impart the beauty and value of this country on those who have not yet had a chance to visit or intellectually comprehend the importance of having a Jewish state?

My Family’s Legacy

Displaced Persons Camps in Germany - post by Jessica

In the beginning, I was in 7th grade, and through my class on World War II, I realized how what had happened in my family was connected to the greater picture of the Holocaust.

My mother’s father had a wife and child before the war. And siblings. As far as we can tell, he was the only one to survive in his village. He was captured as a Russian prisoner of war, taken to Siberia to work as slave labor, and survived, first because one of the other prisoners helped him, and later, when the Russians switched sides, through his skill as a tailor. At the end of the war, when he was allowed to go back, there was no one left. He found his way to a Displaced Person camp in Germany and there, he met my grandmother, who had been in hiding and on the run through much of the war. They got married there, and moved to Paris to try to find a new life for themselves. Luckily, one of my grandmother’s older sisters had married a South African Jew before the war, and so they had somewhere to go, some family to find. Some twenty odd years later, my parents met at a dance sponsored by the medical school my father was attending.

At some point, I realized that I’m not sure I would exist without the Holocaust. Certainly, my grandparents would not have met without it.

And yet, I feel that part of my family tree that is cut off, and so much has been lost, and, in a way, continues to be lost. I took a class in college, called “Religious Responses to the Holocaust” which touched on how to justify or understand religion in light of the Holocaust. My professor’s conclusion? There really isn’t a way to do it very well, in Judaism, at least not at this point. And Christian theology has barely dealt with the fact that this happened in Germany, a country that had been a center of Christian life for hundreds of years. It was a challenging class, to say the least, but it also taught me that it’s not just enough to remember – although remembering is vitally important. We have to find meaning, and that can be the really difficult challenge, even more difficult than wrapping your mind around the horror of that time.

Recently, my understanding of the Holocaust shifted again, when my husband was doing some genealogical work. His family is of the rare kind that they’ve been in America long enough that he thought he wasn’t related to anyone. This was, of course, wishful thinking. It’s now a personal story for him as well, not just for me.

Have I found religious justification? Of course not. Have I found some meaning? I struggle with it, but I can use my story as a small example – out of the ashes comes something new. This was a disaster for the Jewish people – let us go from strength to strength from now on.

How to tell who authored a post – FYI

We have received some feedback lately on not knowing who posted a piece on the blog so we thought it worthy of an extra post to clarify.

When was it posted?

Melissa blogs on Sundays and Wednesdays, and Jessica blogs on Mondays and Thursdays. If it posted on a different day, it is a special notice from us or a guest post.

Post by Jessica

Post by Melissa

Where is the photo?

Melissa posts photos on the right

Jessica posts photos on the left.

As of this week, underneath the photo it will also say: “Post by M/J” as appropriate.

How do I know if it is a Guest Poster?

It will be clear from the title of the post that it is a guest poster.  We have a few ideas and have a bit of time still before it gets to that point.  Guest posts will typically post on Tuesdays.

What if I am still not sure who posted?

You can check the tags/categories at the bottom of the post and it will be categorized, amongst other things, as either Jessica, Melissa, or Guest Post.

If after all that, you’re still not sure, feel free to e-mail us and ask – we’ll be happy to tell you!