Back in Earthly Israel

I’m back in Israel. It takes a few days to adjust. I have affection for and familiarity with it, but it is a foreign country.

There is in Judaism an idea of Jerusalem shel maalah and Jerusalem shel matah—heavenly and earthly Jerusalem. I’m back in earthly Jersualem. There are all these little things to figure out. For example, unlike anything I’d ever encounter in Boston, I’ve been warned the Israeli police have been actively ticketing jaywalkers at an intersection near my hotel.

It’s summer, it’s dry, everything outside is hot and dusty. I’m not spending this trip in the center of the city but in a more regular neighborhood marred by traffic and litter and utilities and all the other evidence of humans living in cities that is hidden away when you go to Disneyworld or some other touristy or wealthy area.

Back home, Israel is a talking point (whatever side of “the issue” you’re on); when you get here, it’s just a place you’re visiting.

It’s the little, earthly things that are different. The app to get a taxi here is Gett, not Uber, and that’s new since last time I was here, and I didn’t understand how the payment worked, and the driver got annoyed at me. Sometimes people think Israelis are rude or trying to rip you off but I’ve been here enough to know that’s not the case, but the social norms are still foreign. The driver seemed to be annoyed that he was holding up traffic, which was actually nice compared to American Uber drivers who have no problem blocking the rest of the street while waiting for their customer so they don’t jeopardize a review… it’s just different. Not a big deal, figured out now, but when you touch down in a foreign country and aren’t part of an organized group, suddenly you have to think about stuff you never have to think about: how to order a coffee, whether or not you’ll understand the person at the store well enough to actually get the thing you wanted to order.聽

The use of English in Israel is funny. I speak enough Hebrew that I’m not obviously a tourist; some people will hear an accent or see that I have US credit card when paying for something and talk to me in English but it seems to be more based on the temperament of the person in the store. And the things that are in English seem to often be that way because it’s trendy. I was walking around a shopping mall, and there was a lot of English, not in a way that was helpful to foreigners but because stuff with English is foreign, as in, good. I mean like a restaurant name in French or Italian seems fancier in the States… a restaurant name in English seems fancier in Israel.

A long time ago it became a thing to call native-born Israelis “sabras,” based on name of a cactus that was prickly on the outside and sweet on this inside. That applies to Israel as a whole, really: the sidewalk outside is hot and dusty and inside the place you are going, it is cool and clean. There is, maybe even, something Jewish about this: we don’t big build cathedrals to look good from the outside, we make sure the people have hospitality inside. I don’t want to generalize too much about a whole country; people are people, and people in Israeli are mostly trying to be helpful and do the right thing just like anywhere else in the world. Maybe the electric plugs are different, but I can’t help feeling that there is still something about being in the Jewish state that matches with my Jewish values: still a little less capitalism, a little more sense community, people celebrate the same holidays. They sell the good glass Shabbat candle holders at the convenience store.

My view in Jerusalem so far has been less Kotel and Dome of the Rock than average apartment buildings with TV antennas and water heaters on the roof. But some of the trees have pomegranates growing on them!


Over the past year-plus I’ve been privileged to be part of the iFellows, a “master’s concentration in Israel Education” run by an organization called the iCenter.

iFellows is a program open to Jewish education, communal service, and ordination students from most of the schools offering such programs in the United States. It also includes as participants shlichim (emissaries), Israelis working in diaspora Jewish organizations. The program consists of three seminars over the course of a year, work with a mentor over the course of a year, an analytical paper, a practicum, and a trip to Israel. I also receive credit for an elective towards the Master’s of Jewish Education degree I am working on from Hebrew College. Almost all of it is paid for by the iCenter’s donors, including travel and lodging for the three seminars in the Chicago area. There is a stipend provided towards creating your own Israel experience.

Israel, and specifically my first visits to Israel in high school and college, were a major influence on my Jewish life and activity. So, I wanted my current program of study to serve the Jewish community to include an Israel component. On the other hand, one of the reasons I chose to attend Hebrew College’s cantorial school is that it didn’t require me to spend a year living in Israel, which would be too disruptive to my family. Being able to participate in iFellows, with a trip to Israel seemed like a good compromise.

Throughout the course of the program, though, it was so much more than a trip to Israel. One of the biggest benefits of the program was being able to develop personal relationships with students at other Jewish education and rabbinical/cantorial schools. It was a great chance to learn from them, network with other people similarly working to serve the Jewish people, and expand my knowledge of the Jewish world.

The program was also a way to develop further as an educator and leader, outside of Israel. The iCenter takes an approach of education as a primary goal (as opposed to advocacy on specific issues) and that resonated with me. My mentor, Dan Tatar, helped me work through lesson plans for classes I was teaching during the past year and asked me be a group leader in a singing event. The paper I had to write and practicum, for which I gave a short recital and talk about Israeli music, were experiences beyond what I would ordinarily have gotten through my cantorial school curriculum.

Finally, it gave me more perspective on Israel. What I realized the most is all the issues which lead to debates are even more active issues in Israel itself. It can seem on social media that Israel is a monolithic thing and people outside it can debate a certain policy or social issue. But really, all those issues are much more real inside Israel itself. It’s easy to get upset on Facebook that “Israel” is doing a certain thing I don’t agree with, but what I realized after exploring some of these issues further, including with Israelis, is that on pretty much every issue is complexity and different sides to the issue within Israel itself (the same as with any issue here).

Today I am starting on the final part of my iFellows experience which is the trip to Israel. The stipend doesn’t totally cover my expenses, but it makes it much more affordable. Since I’ve never done extended Jewish study in a traditional way (like in a yeshiva, as opposed to an academic institution) and since I’ve been hearing for years about Pardes which offers that type of study in English in Jerusalem, I’m headed there right now. As a final component of my iFellows requirements, I’ll be documenting on this blog my experience.

Oh, and one more benefit of iFellows: after flying to Chicago three times I’ve learned a few things about flying. Like, a shirt with pockets is really helpful when stuck in coach and not able to reach your bag. And that TSA PreCheck is totally worth it.

Blogging from the bar in Heathrow on my way to Israel!

Hallel v’Zimra in Chicago

I was fortunate to be able to attend a conference titled “Hallel v’Zimra: Jewish Liturgical Music, Present + Future” in Chicago over the past few days organized by the Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. It was in Hyde Park, a little neighborhood dominated by the University of Chicago, which hosted some of the programs along with two local synagogues, Rodfei Zedek and KAM Isaiah Israel (the latter of which is across the street from Obama’s Chicago house!).

The highlight of the conference was a concert which had so many of the leading synagogue musicians working today: great cantors like Alberto Mizrahi, Azi Schwartz, and Benjamin Warschawski; innovators like Joey Weisenberg, Yoel Sykes, Deborah Sachs Mintz, and Josh Warshawsky; and everyone in between. (Personal achievement unlocked: one of these artists gave me a CD when I was chatting with him after the concert, like I’m an influencer now!)

If I had to pick one thing, the conference was about answering the question: what’s the job that prayer actually does for us, anyway? (And by extension, what’s the job of a cantor?)

One theme that came up is the need to meet people where they are. (Not unlike what I talked about in my last blog post.) One speaker humorously noted that certain communities seem to want to be bored. That’s what’s comforting for them. My question is, if that’s what a community wants, why not give it to them? (I think there are probably reasons not to; it would be an interesting exercise to spell them out.)

Another theme is that of process vs. product, and that other “p” word, performance. Is the important part of this field all the work we do within the community to teach and give spiritual leadership (“process”) or just what we present on the bimah (“product”)? What’s the right balance between how we sound and how we feel? How do we inspire people not just when they’re hearing us, but into ongoing spiritual practice?

Is the cantor of the future just a specialization of rabbi? Or, as Cantor Matthew Austerklein suggested, is the rabbi the keeper of the oral tradition and the cantor the keeper of the written one? It’s counterintuitive that the cantorate is not about oral communication, but I feel that model resonates. What sort of cantorate is needed for the contemporary age (that is different from a few generations ago)?

What’s the job of prayer? Few non-Orthodox Jews today pray as fulfillment of an obligation. My teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader surmised that it’s hard for Jews to talk about God since the Enlightenment because we still associate it with being back in the ghetto. Rabbi Miriam Margles said that being human is hard. I tend to agree that prayer is our most time-tested technology for dealing with that–and any twentieth-century optimism that humans had solved the problem of life being hard, has faded away in the twenty-first.

The most interesting session I attended was about music therapy and the neuropsychology of music. Watch the video below to see, in an fMRI, your brain reacting in sync with music. Favorite melodies affect dopamine, even as they can be woven in new variants. Jewish nusach is a musical tradition that has figured this out already, organically. Liturgical music has the power to heal, and we already knew this. That’s certainly at least a big part of its job. It’s not a surprise that the evidence supports this.

The Tango Brain 2: Encephalic Aviation from Petri Toiviainen on Vimeo.


We’re half way there
Livin’ on a prayer

–Bon Jovi

I’m halfway through cantorial school.

I know about variations of Kaddish I never knew existed, tricky pronunciation issues in Biblical Hebrew, and the difference between Mishna and Midrash. Sometimes it feels like the more I learn, the less I know; I’m merely learning the outlines of thing that will take me more time than I have to truly master. I’m too far along to be an amateur, but not quite qualified as a professional.

The biggest thing I may have learned so far is how to listen. Part of this is technical, musical: getting better at singing in tune, knowing if an interval is a major third or minor sixth, hearing the voices of the congregation as I’m leading them. A bigger part of this is learning how to listen to what people are saying: students, colleagues, teachers, even friends and family. It’s been suggested that, as Jewish clergy, we learn this by listening to our texts, and by discussing them, especially in chevruta. My core beliefs about religion, politics, being a good human being haven’t changed so much as how they come through in relationship with others.

Not long ago, someone asked me what type of music I like to make. I didn’t have a good answer—whatever time I had for music, was the music that my teachers wanted me to learn. In the next half of cantorial school, I hope to do more to find my voice—to find my own personal brand of music-making that can give the people I am listening to, something to listen to. 馃檪

Sometimes the journey feels like a hike across a valley; I’ve started to climb to the higher peak on the other side. Original photo caption (source): Avalanche Lake (Glacier National Park, Montana) sits at the mouth of a classic U-shaped, glacially-carved valley. NPS Photo/Tim Rains.


My High Holidays Learning Experience

As you know from my last post, I find the High Holidays challenging. This blog is supposed to tell you something about my experience going through cantorial school and I so I want to be open about some of the specific challenges this year.

This year was musically challenging. In cantorial school there are two types of people: those with a strong music background who want to use that in service of the Jewish prayer; and those with a strong background in Jewish prayer who want to get their leading skills up to a professional level. To be clear, these aren’t rival groups; we’re great colleagues because we’re all trying to get to the same place, but for each of us there are different skills we need to develop to get there.

While I’m squarely in the second category (lots of Jewish prayer experience, trying to level up as a musician) I found myself working in a choir with musicians who had more formal training and experience than I did, and getting left behind in following the music. I felt a little bit like the second grader who is learning to decode and insists they can read all of Harry Potter.

As a prayer leader, I have two types of experiences: great experiences, and great learning experiences. I’m not just throwing out euphemisms to say that this was one of the latter: I have a much clearer picture of where I need to go and what I need to do to get there, in terms of work and getting feedback from my colleagues. And unlike the second grader mentioned above, I have the learning and study skills (I’m actually have material from my current education class about how humans learn open in another window!) to work on it.

Before and after Yom Kippur we wish each other an easy or meaningful fast, as we have greetings for other days, as we say “how are you?” and expect the answer to be “fine” (or better). This positivity has a purpose–I know I always feel a little better myself when I answer “how are you?” with an enthusiastic “great!”–and I think there’s also a time for acknowledging things aren’t always easy. Without that acknowledgement, we can’t ever support each other when things aren’t going well. That why I wanted to write this here. Yom Kippur, too, is a time to acknowledge our mistakes. And while I don’t think that needing to work on my sight reading is exactly a sin against God, or something that Yom Kippur atones for, it is a good time to refocus on what I need to work on professionally and academically in the coming year. Despite the liturgy, I don’t believe the gates are closed.

The Thing about the High Holidays

The Jewish High Holidays are such a strange and challenging phenomenon. Hundreds of people pile into synagogue, dressed in uncomfortable clothes, sitting uncomfortably close together, challenged to find parking. Even those of use who are familiar and comfortable with synagogue rituals find that we are in a different place that is not familiar. Not to mention with the holidays coming during the bustle of the start of the school year it’s hard to concentrate on religion. Those of us in careers outside of school seem to have an uptick in professional crises and those of us whose careers are in the synagogue sure do.

Ostensibly were are to be thinking about repentance, about sin and trying to be a better person. But I look around the room and wonder how many people are thinking about that. Maybe they’re thinking about family, and tradition, and those are good things, but not actually the theme of the holiday. What do people get out of these holidays? What obligation have they fulfilled? I spent the morning of Shabbat Shuvah, the Saturday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur at Shir Hadash, at a small Reconstructionist congregation and we actually discussed this: how people seem to feel that have fulfilled some obligation just by attendance for these few days. But is what Judaism asks really just to show up for the family tradition? Isn’t it asking us to truly reexamine our lives? Maybe even reexamine those very traditions we might be following yet not letting them newly affect us?

I have this idea that High Holidays could be more like a workshop in how to be a better person. We’ll keep the liturgy on hand as a reference, to prevent us from getting too caught up in faddish self-improvement, but run things differently: discussion groups, break-out sessions, inspring presentations, shared meals and drinks as part of the actual event. I’ve seen plenty of once-a-year conferences that manage to break up the day and serve lunch. It’s not as if there is no option to staying in our seats for hours, paging through liturgy few understand, and going home hungry. You’d come out of Rosh Hashanah inspired by the plans you’ve made; and ten days later— which is just enough time to realize sticking to that diet or not fighting with your spouse over that same thing is not going be easy—you come back to really recommit, taking your work so seriously this time you skip lunch without even noticing.

As we enter Yom Kippur, here’s the traditional greeting: G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May your fate be sealed for a good year to come.

It’s About Time

It’s about time I write another blog post here. It’s been almost a year.

But really, it’s about time management. Last year was a whirlwind. Lots of new classes, skills, jobs, experience, schedules. More than I could really do. It was kind of like: just say “yes!” to everything and see what sticks. Keeping up a blog, didn’t stick so much. What else was I doing: A cantorial soloist job. A teaching job. Singing in choirs. Singing solos. Re-learning to play guitar! Modern Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew. Mishna, Talmud, Nusach. Being a parent and a spouse (and a son and an uncle, etc.). Getting a new haircut. Freelance tech work. Services, conferences, concerts, shows. The summer was eight weeks of intense classes with no time to review, followed by driving 5,000 miles just for the fun of it. Oh, and I was in the hospital for pneumonia last year, too!

It was a lot of great experiences, but there was little I did as well as I could.

This year, my second year being back in school, I’m going to recommit to trying to do things better. I’m still going to do a lot, but maybe a little less, maybe not as much of it all new. There are 168 hours in a week, and I’ve thought about how many hours I need for different things. I need to account for sleep, because I fall asleep every night if I want to or not. And hopefully some healthy cooking and exercise, because those things get skipped too often despite best intentions.

And practice and studying. I need to get great, or at least really good, at the things I’m learning. There’s a place for surveys of knowledge, and that was last year; this year I need to see what I can master.

Also, my watch broke last summer. So I also need to fit in my schedule at the end of the summer a plan to get it fixed. 馃檪

Shemini Atzeret and Sanctifying Time

Happy Shemini Atzeret! It’s a holiday. I’m blogging.

The Torah says not to work. On Shabbat, while I don’t follow all the traditional rules, I don’t post online, e-mail, or type on a keyboard. That’s work: 诪职诇指讗讻指讛 (melakhah), the prohibited creative work that changes that state of the world. (As opposed to聽注植讘止讚指讛 (avodah), labor. No, leading services isn’t melakhah just because you’re a paid cantor.)

Last year, I went to work on some holidays, thinking: if my company wasn’t open, I’d be in synagogue. Now that I’m a “full-time Jew,” I don’t have an excuse, except that it can be really hard to make sacred time.

Shemini Atzeret is its own holiday because we celebrate one-day Biblical festivals for two days in the Diaspora, since ancient times when the Diaspora was Syria and Babylon.聽In Israel and in Reform congregations it’s concurrent with and overshadowed by Simchat Torah. There were historical reasons about seeing the new moon, but crucially, it means humans determine the days of the festivals. I learned last week this is why the festival Kiddush ends 诪拽讚砖 讬砖专讗诇 讜讛讝诪讬诐 (Mekadesh Yisrael vehazmanim, “sanctifies [the people of] Israel and the times [of the year],” whereas Shabbat, on a God-given seven-day cycle, doesn’t need Israel to make it holy, so Kiddush ends simply: 诪拽讚砖 讛砖讘转 (Mekadesh HaShabbat, “sanctifies the Sabbath”). I find it more authentic to be liberal with the extra day of a festival. I also believe it’s important to join a community, so, even though last night/today is the holiday in Israel/Reform congregations, I’ll celebrate Simchat Torah tonight/tomorrow along with my Conservative congregations.

When I used to go to work on holidays I wouldn’t say anything on social media: “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What I’ve found working in the Jewish community this year is that it’s more respectful to people to be honest about what I’m doing. Pretending I didn’t see an e-mail from my synagogue job when I’m checking e-mail is not particularly increasing holiness in the world. (I still avoid e-mail on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.) Maybe some synagogue won’t hire me someday because someone read this, and they expect the Cantor to be a model observant Jew. As a Jewish educator, I’d rather discuss what it means to sanctify holidays and observe mitzvot, and how Judaism can be meaningful and valuable even when it’s not easy and you’re not perfect at it.

And for those of you who find that Shemini Atzeret is the peak of your holiday season—maybe I’ll get better at sanctifying holidays next year.

Finally. Thankfully!

Cantorial school started last week. I no longer have a full-time job in the software industry and instead I’m a full-time graduate student in the Jewish world.

I was sitting in Panera in May 2010 with my laptop when I registered, which is as good a point as any to mark when I started thinking about a way to return to professional work in the Jewish community. Like all good things, COSEL wasn鈥檛 exactly what I had in mind when I started on that path. I guess my journey has taken me to where I needed to go.

Being in school is a little different as an adult. I like learning and am excited to be back in school. Like school at any age, there are teachers and books and classes, and the chance to grow and change. Also, at this level, school is a big, serious career investment. It’s more professional. Unlike high school and being overwhelmed with extracurricular activities, now being overwhelmed is more like starting a company and figuring out your business model. Compared to college, juggling family and self-care and practical issues is just like being an adult with any other job. More than some of the jobs I’ve had, it matters more now to dress and act professionally.

It’s also a change from seeing rabbis and cantors mostly as people at the front of the room to them being, well, almost everyone, all day, every day. We’re all just people who need to eat lunch and drink water and go to the doctor. And it’s going to be different now that, when I do go to buy a coffee or get a haircut, I’m doing so as a (student) clergy person, and I can’t take off my religious hat now that it’s the answer to “what do you do?” (Even if I actually still can take off my kippah. Especially for a haircut 馃檪 ). I’ve known this, but it’s even more obvious that clergy are people with the same characteristics that make all humans weird and beautiful.

In one of our activities, there was a chance to consider the character trait of 讛讻专转 讛讟讜讘 (hakarat hatov), gratitude, or more literally, 鈥渞ecognition of the good.鈥 Gratitude is the first thing Jews pray in the morning (modeh ani). It鈥檚 something I鈥檝e learned as a practice from contemporary mindfulness teachers, and something Cheryl has recently reminded me about, too. For too many of the past several years, while sitting in a corporate cubicle—acknowledging that I鈥檝e done some fairly cool things for what you can do sitting in a corporate cubicle—I鈥檝e been envious of people who have started businesses, traveled, learned, taught, sang, and done things other than collecting a salary and sitting in a cubicle. And yet I鈥檝e been anxious about doing anything else. My intention is to practice more gratitude. If I get frustrated about something, I need to be grateful for all the things I have, and especially the family, friends, and colleagues that have been amazingly supportive. If I get envious or anxious about something, I need to recognize how many things have already, and will continue to, work out. I hope to work on this more in the coming year.

As I used to sing in the Shira Kline song with the kids in tot Shabbat, 鈥Barukh atah Adonai—thank you God.鈥

National Havurah Committee Institute 2017

Thanks to the generosity of Gary Orren and the Merle Orren Scholars Transformation (MOST) program of Temple Emanuel I鈥檓 spending this week at the National Havurah Committee Insitute being held this year at the University of Hartford.

The National Havurah Committee is an organization of groups knows as 鈥渉avurot鈥 (the plural of 鈥渉avurah,鈥 from the Hebrew root meaning both 鈥渇riend鈥 and 鈥渕ember鈥) and has existed and been running this event since at least 1980. Many of the participants return to the Institute year after year, some for more than 20 years. Being at Institute is a little like grown-up Jewish summer camp; there are always activities going on (more than any one person can do). You sign up in advance for two longer classes which are held daily, plus there are various other workshops, activities, and experiences to attend. For example, I attended a workshop where I learned how to crochet a kippah (not that I actually can do it yet, but I can appreciate better how the ones I wear are made). For my main classes, I鈥檓 attending one on the 鈥淩ebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto,鈥漚 Polish Chasidic rebbe who uniquely bridged tradition and modernity in ways we can learn from, and most of whose works were lost until his manuscripts we found buried in Warsaw after he was killed in the Holocaust. My other class is 鈥淰isual Midrash鈥 taught by a professional artist where we鈥檒l get to work on parchment to create art.

Havurot are typically small, volunteer-member-run groups, either independent or part of large synagogue. The independent ones tend to function as synagogues for their members in term of having services, and overlap with 鈥渋ndependent minyanim鈥 that have been popular in recent years. It鈥檚 certainly a different approach to Judaism than being part of a large synagogue, but being here makes me realize that we鈥檙e all in the same boat: just as synagogues need to be participatory places with small communities to involve people, havurah members also participate in schools, camps, and synagogues for Jewish education and community. At a program last night, the Institute鈥檚 Liturgist in Residence Mitch Chefitz shared how at his synagogue, the few remaining Shabbat morning regulars always wait at Kiddush for the rabbi to bless the challah, an echo of the ancient past where the priests had a special role in the Temple; but what鈥檚 happening more and more today is 鈥減artnership Judaism鈥 where all of us are partners with God, and they’re looking for ways to do that.

Another interesting thing about this year’s Institute is that it coincided with Tisha b’Av, the sad fast day of the Jewish calendar, a remembrance of the destruction of Temple in Jerusalem. Being with a Jewish group that was marking the day made it more meaningful and I actually completed the fast. And, while many synagogues hold services outside of the sanctuary to symbolize the exile, being actually outside my synagogue did that even more. As the fast was drawing to a close, just before the sun began to set, I saw a rainbow over the campus. I searched with my phone and found (on and said the prayer for seeing a rainbow:聽讘指旨专讜旨讱职 讗址转旨指讛 讬讬 讗侄诇讜止讛值讬谞讜旨 诪侄诇侄讱职 讛指注讜止诇指诐 讝讜止讻值专 讛址讘旨职专执讬转 讜职谞侄讗直诪指谉 讘旨执讘职专执讬转讜止 讜职拽址讬指诐 讘旨职诪址讗植诪指专讜止—that God remembers and is faithful to the covenant (he made when showing a rainbow to Noah) and keeps his word. The idea that after a hard time we still have God’s covenant seemed like a very appropriate theme as the close of Tisha b’Av is soon followed by the season of Jewish holidays.

I鈥檝e heard about the Institute various times over the years and am glad I finally had a chance to attend. It鈥檚 given me Jewish experiences that are expanding my knowledge in ways I wouldn鈥檛 ordinarily have, and that no doubt I鈥檒l find myself reflecting back on in my future involvement in the Jewish community.