I’ve been under the weather so haven’t had a chance to post in a while. I came down with this bug the day after returning from this gig in Zumbrota, MN. It was an absolute blast to play with Garison Keillor and well worth the hours of travel down and back. Maybe it was even worth a bad bug…..read coverage from the Zumbrota newspaper here! The photo below is by Rick Lewis.

Garrison and Amy_ 070


Sydne’s Conversion Talk

October 1, 2009

As promised, below you’ll find the talk Sydne Westorff gave on Friday night or her conversion. It was a glorious day at my home that day doing Beit Din and then mikveh followed by a celebratory meal.  As you may know, Karen, Sydne’s mom, converted and it was an added joy to perform these rituals with and for a mother and her adult daughter. It was so moving….We’re very fortunate to have people like Karen and Synde choosing Judaism and I hope it sweetens your entrance into Sukkot to read Sydney’s talk.

It is our tradition to begin the month of Tishrei by taking time to determine where we will stand with God and with each other when the new year begins.  We do so by looking both at our own life and by listening to Moses retell the story of how we became the People Israel.  We are here on Shabbat Shuvah, in a time between what was and what will be, to make a choice as to where our journey will go from here.  In order to prepare my self for this new beginning I have been reflecting back on the journey that brought me to today; a story of my own that joins me with this people.

Growing up in a Lutheran family there were times when I was deeply devoted to the teachings and other times when I found myself at odds with the tradition.  Read the rest of this entry »


September 9, 2009

My colleague, Rabbi Andrea London, with Julie Singer and Carol Wagner has created a course for the month of Elul for spiritual preparation for the High Holidays. Below is her teaching for the second week of that program (which includes many other components) which focuses on regret. This is an important step in teshuva and, according to Rabbi London, should not be left as a hurried practice sitting in services….if you’re reading this blog you already understand the great truth of that….

“How does one acknowledge sin?  One says: I implore You God…Behold, I regret [what I did] and am embarrassed by my deeds.  I promise never to repeat this act again.” [Rambam, Laws of Repentance 1:1, from Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days, Kerry M. Olitzky and Rachel T. Sabath]

Maimonides listed regret as the first part step necessary for teshuva..  S.Y. Agnon agrees with the Rambam about the importance of regret, as he wrote in the Days of Awe, “The essential purpose of teshuva is to regret the past and commit oneself not to return to that folly again in the future; for even if a man fasts frequently from Sabbath to Sabbath and performs every known form of chastisement, if he has not taken it upon himself not to return to his sin – behold, he is as one who takes a ritual bath while holding an unclean reptile in his hand.” [Siddur Derekh ha-Hayyim]

The following is a story to help us think about what role we must play during the month of Elul. Read the rest of this entry »

Exile and Expectations

August 30, 2009

Next are two pieces from works of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most sublime philosophers of recent history.  The first is a wonderful expression of a spiritual oxymoron – the more I do not feel I belong here given the human condition, the more I belong to the human condition. Often our questions about how we can live and stay hopeful in a world filled with so much suffering feel like questions which distance us from religion. Here, Heschel suggests the opposite, quite powerfully. He describes our distress as definitive as regards a religious perspective. How amazing a way forward!


The true motivation for prayer is not, as it has been said, the sense of being at home in the universe, but rather the sense of not being at home in the universe.

Is there a sensitive heart that could stand indifferent and feel at home in the sight of so much evil and suffering, in the face of countless failures to live up to the will of God? On the contrary, the experience of not being at home in the world is a motivation for prayer.

That experience gains intensity in the amazing awareness that God himself is not at home in the universe. Read the rest of this entry »

Taking Responsibility

August 30, 2009

Taking Responsibility

Taking responsibility means saying, “I can see that something is wrong. If it is my fault, I admit it and I am sorry. If it is not my fault, I will do what I can to help make things better.”

After Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the fruit of the tree, they were ashamed. Because they were afraid to take responsibility for what they had done, they hid themselves. Hiding is the opposite of taking responsibility.

There are many ways of hiding. We can pretend that we don’t see what is wrong: a mess to be cleaned up or the sadness of someone who needs extra loving. We say to ourselves, “I am too busy” or “I am too tired to help.” Read the rest of this entry »

Of Hidden Jewels

August 24, 2009

Next is a poem from the Minnesota poet Ruth Brin. Most of us at Temple Israel are familiar with her work through a collection entitled Harvest published by Holy Cow Press. If you find her work as moving as many of us do, please contact Holy Cow Press or Jim Perlman to purchase  the collection or to purchase one for someone in your life.

If you find something in your own collection that you’d like to share please post it here!


Loaded with everything I have done,

Burdened with suffering I have caused and the suffering I have endured,

I take breath and plunge into the dark cold sea.

Deeply, swiftly the burden pulls me down past the ghostly fish and the waving reeds

to a murky depth where I glimpse a gleaming jewel half hidden in the mud.

I grasp it, let go my burden, and begin to rise;

Rapidly I rise, feeling You draw me upward until I breach the surface and fill my bursting lungs.

Light fills the sky and shines on the moving waters.

The world You made lies before me like a great Torah, mystery and love rolled up within it.

Your light sets the jewel in my hand afire,

sparkling with my purest dreams.

Filled with the breath of life, dazzled with light, overflowing with love –

Your love reaching toward me, my love reaching toward You,

the love of all for one another –

Lord God, at this moment I have returned to You,

and You have returned me to life.

Ruth F. Brin, Harvest: Collected Poems and Prayers

On the Right Path

August 24, 2009

Rabbi Judah haNassi said:

What is the right path for a person to follow?

One that honors both self and other.

Be attentive in all you do;

do not judge one deed small and another great,

for you cannot always know their significance.

Be virtuous, even if virtue is costly.

Avoid sin, even if sin is profitable.

Remember three things and you will not err:

If your deeds shouldn’t be known, perhaps they shouldn’t be done.

If your words shouldn’t be shared, perhaps they shouldn’t be spoken

Act with attention, for all your deeds have consequence.


Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot

Elul Study Day 2

August 21, 2009

The next reading in our study is a poem by the late Debbie Perlman who wrote out of her own healing process and its connection to the Jewish tradition and calendar. May her memory be for a blessing and may we all use our own pain and search for ways to address it so fruitfully.

Remember to visit jewelsofelul for more readings and to post your thoughts here. I will moderate comments from out of town.


Rosh Chodesh Elul (2nd day)

Fighting the languor of sultry days,

We begin the turning, back to You;

Moving against the heat of our hearts,

Against the anger inside, we turn.

Call us to begin the examination, Healing God;

Call for us to remove the garment of our deceit,

The fears that bind us away from You,

Chaffing at our tender miseries.

In the month of Elul, we begin the unlayering,

Peeling piece by piece the accumulated detritus,

Shaking it free, holding it to the hot light

To scrutinize as the year begins its ending.

In the month of Elul, we uncover our secrets,

Examining them with a truthful heart,

Counting the pulse beats of our life,

The selfish pressures we apply and resist.

Call us to the consultation of our souls,

For You are a God of healing and mercy;

Call us to begin without delay,

That Elul might draw us near to You.

Debbie Perlman, Flames to Heaven: New Psalms for Healing & Praise

Elul Study Begins!

August 21, 2009

Many thanks to Maureen O’Brien who compiled the materials for this online study and who respectfully prodded until this posting got done! There is a website you can visit for more reflections: jewelsofelul.com and many more we don’t even know about! Please share y our thoughts and other resources you find here. I will approve and moderate comments as often as I can while out of town on vacation. Recite shehechiyanu now as you begin your preparation for the Days of Awe. Mazal tov o n choosing to visit our communal text study even this once.

Elul:  Making Ready (1st Day)

Rosh Hashanah does not burst in upon us.  From ancient tradition, the entire month of Elul, the month before Tishri, is a time of rethinking, study, and self-examination leading toward the Rosh Hashanah – Yom Kippur period.  Elul became a special time in the ancient Jewish community of Babylonia after the destruction of the Second Temple, during the period of the writing of the Talmud (100-500 C.E.).  The custom grew up that during Elul, ordinary Jews–not just the scholars and rabbis–would take time out from their work to join in study groups to read the Bible and rethink their lives.  Read the rest of this entry »

As always at camp, there is already much learning happening.  I’m with Tzofim, the younger campers who elect to sleep in tents for four weeks.  The tents, the vegetable garden and the enclosure for the little animals are all down a hill from the main campus and so the tent units (Tzofim and Moshava) are “downstairs”.  I was walking downstairs for the nighttime staff meeting at around 9:30 last night when I saw an unfamiliar silhouette moving in the night sky. When I looked closer I realized they were bats. Read the rest of this entry »