Welcome the Stranger

I am disappointed in myself and in my fellow human beings.  It was not until the pictures of 3 year old Aylan’s body washed up on the shores of Turkey hit the press that I woke up to the Syrian refugee crisis.  I educated myself and donated to HIAS but for the most part I continued on with my life.  My challenges have been a new job, new hometown, and I trying to get my two year old to eat some vegetables.  The terror attacks in Paris has brought the cause of the Syrian refugee to the front of my heart and mind.  I am sorrowed by the response of so many to close our doors to the refugees. The xenophobia is reminiscent too much of the holocaust, the Japanese interment camps… the fear of the “stranger.”  These arguments about the security risks of refugees have been used before, on Jews, as we were dying by the millions in concentration camps.

In Exodus 22:20 we are commanded not to wrong or oppress the stranger.  The Mekhilta explains that we have a two pronged responsibility: to welcome the stranger in practical ways (medicine, food, shelter, job training/placement) and to support the stranger emotionally, with our words, our culture and actions of welcoming.

I am deeply moved by the words of poet Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-Somali poet:


No one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
that anywhere
is safer than here.

Not My Own Master

I am standing outside the door to the little chapel trying to pray the amida.  My two year old daughter is darting in and out of the playroom the synagogue sensitively built right next to the chapel.  Each time she sweetly interupts me, I check on her, then attend again to my prayer.  It is futile and finally I laugh:  I am not my own master.

In my early twenties, I laughed as my teachers, the women who carved the path enabling me to find my calling as a rabbi, described the untracktable position of our textual tradition: Women are not their own masters. “A Jewish woman is not obligated to care for her father in the same way as a man is because she is not her own master.” (Tosefta kidushin 1:11)  “Women are exempt from positive time-bound commandments.” (Mishnah kiddush 1:7).  A woman does not have the freedom to desist from duties to her husband. (R. Yaakov Antoli, 13th c. France and Sefer Avurdraham,14th c. Spain)  My generation argued our exemption was social-generational, not divine.  We became versed in the texts and the ability to counter-argue from our tradition.  We volunteered to take on those obligations previously exempted for us.

My generation announced we too had stood at Sinai, we too were obligated to all the mitzvot. I graduated from rabbinical school and for ten years was the leader of a synagogue of 200 families. I have stood shoulder to shoulder with imans, priests and reverends as we led our community through a flood and grief.  Not once have I though of myself as too frail or distracted to fulfil my obligations to God or to my community.

I am laughing now, as I am sure God is laughing in heaven.  Our forefathers misunderstood God’s words: The servitude is not to our husbands, it is to our children.  Their needs are all consuming, leaving little room to make soup without stopping 12 times, let alone reciting the amida.  This is not unique to women.  I have spoken with male rabbinic colleagues who also raise their arms in surrender as their parenthood realigns their obligations.

Were we wrong to take on the obligations called for to become equal leaders?  I don’t think so.  Those obligations were alwasy there.  But now we are at the next step of evolution.  As women step equally into work obligations and men step equally into home and family obligations, we need to find a path for ourselves as obligated Jews who are not always our own masters. Our transition to equality is incomplete.

My two year old is laughing about something in the other room… have to go.




A true partner pushes up against us – Knegdo in Bereishit

Two days ago my husband looked at my blog and silently tsked tsked me.  We’ve been married for over seven years now and I know when he judging me even when few words are exchanged.  He said only “When was the last time you blogged?”  The truth is, I have not done any serious writing in a very long time.  I felt immediately defensive thinking: “I’ve been busy.  I had job search work, regular work, and a two year old daughter. Then I had new job responsibilities, packing and moving tasks, and by the way, I was in the middle of meeting my congregation’s needs for high holidays…. and I’m sick! I have a cold, snorfle.”  But I didn’t say any of that.  Instead here I am blogging.  My beautiful husband has a way of pushing me to be my best, to strive to grow outside my comfort zone, and bring my creativity to the foreground.  Pretty good husband, right?  Well we’re still working on those standard relationship struggles of whose turn it is to cook, clean, or change diapers.. but yeah… he’s a great husband.  His support goes beyond agreeing with me to the loving act of arguing with me.  He is my beshert because he pushes up against me.


This week our Torah portion is Bereishit.  God created our universe.  God created us.  God looked and saw that it was not good for the first human to be alone and so God decided to create and helper to be against him. ויאמר ה’ אלהים לא טוב היות האדם לבדו אעשה לו עזר כנגדו Gen 2:18 uses the words ezer knegdo, meaning literally “a helper against him.”  The rabbis looked at this strange grouping and realized the real truth gifted to us in these words:  A true partner rubs up against us, argues with us and pushes us.  Our tradition of Talmud study accounts for a thousand years of partners studying Jewish law with one another by arguing the points before them.  As the Jewish saying goes: “If two people agree, then one is not necessary to the conversation.”  The same is true of our lives as partners in love, as families.  Done with respect and sensitivity, the greatest gift we give to our partner is an opposing viewpoint.


IMG_3203Thank you to my beautiful husband, Tim, for being my ezer knegdi, my helpmate who pushes against me. Thank you for pushing me to write in the first places. Happy Anniversary My Beloved.  Seven years ago, on the weekend following Simchas Torah, we stood under the Chupah and joined our lives together.

My Mom’s Gluten Free Sugar Free Blueberry Muffin Recipe

My Mom has taken to her gluen free sugar free diet like a fish to water and has begun making up her own fabulous recipes.  I’m allergic to nuts but wanted to share this yummy blueberry muffin recipe she recently developed.  As Eliyana says “Delicious.”

Rena’s Blueberry Muffins (2 Weight Watchers Points Each)
1 cup almond meal, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp melted coconut oil (use microwave), 2 egg whites, 6 pkgs stevia, 1/2 tsp almond extract, 1/2 cup blueberries,

Topping: 1 egg white + 1 pkg stevia

preheat oven to 350F

Mix dry and wet seperately (except blueberries) then mix together thouroughly — makes stiff batter (like shortbread)

coat muffin pans with melted coconut oil and push dough against sides of pan to make tartlets, then spoon in blueberries and cook 15 min

drip/brush topping on blueberries and cook additional 4-5 min

Cool before eating

Rena's Muffins

Pride or Parenting?

I sat in determined silence on the chair as my child clug to me, screaming and crying.  The gentle reassurances, lollipops, and ipad that had distracted and calmed on previous visits to get her haircut were not working.  The hairdresser had already cut her own hand and was displaying Herculean patience with my daughter as she flung her head from side to side.

Eliyana has developed a genuine fear and true hatred of having her hair wet, combed, styled or cut.  She is two.  Usually when she says “no” I smile and rejoice that she has found her voice, is forming her own identity and will.  But the hair is my undoing.  I have been sensitive about my daughters hair since the beginning… joining facebook pages specific to white moms learning to style their black daughters’ hair, watching youtube tutorials, and seeking advice from African American women on the best products to care for infant hair.

I love Eliyana’s hair.  Everyone does.  It is fantastic — tiny tight curls that spring and play at one’s touch.  She is gorgeous.  So I’ve decided to let go of my own insecuritites about the world judging me and let my child have wild hair for a little while.  I’ll focus on eating vegetables instead!  God give me strength to care more about my child’s emotional and physical health than my feeling judged about her appearance.

Guest post from my husband: Tim Olivieri

For everyone’s convenience, I [Tim] have created a brief fact sheet. You’re welcome.
1. Friday’s SCOTUS ruling doesn’t compel clergy to officiate marriages that they disagree with on religious grounds. It’s already against the law to discriminate on the basis of religion. Yet, clergy can refuse to marry people who don’t belong to their denomination. So stop being stupid.

2. Thursday’s SCOTUS decision will keep in force the imperfect, but still successful, ACA which has resulted in tens of millions of uninsured Americans being insured. This is a good thing. Stop being stupid.

3. Canada has both universal health care and same sex marriage (the latter since 2005). It has yet to fall off into the ocean and its christian citizens have yet to be herded into FEMA camps. Stop being stupid.

4. If you’re thinking of fleeing to Australia you should be aware that they have incredibly restrictive gun laws. You’ll also be dismayed to know that since passing said gun control laws they have had one of the most dramatic drops in gun violence ever recorded. Stop being stupid.

5. The first amendment, and over two centuries of case law, guarantee you the freedom to practice your religion without government interference. It never has afforded you the right to impose restrictions on others to keep them from offending your religious beliefs. Stop being stupid.

6. If you’ve ever ranted against people flying the Mexican flag within our borders then you should be fully in favor of scrapping the government sanctioned use of a battle flag flown by people who started a civil war by attacking members of the U.S. Military. Why, exactly, do you get to celebrate a heritage of treason but Mexican-Americans aren’t allowed to celebrate their heritage? Stop being stupid.

7. If you spend any appreciably amount of your day getting angry about how other unrelated persons choose to handle affairs related to their genitals, you need to do some serious reflection. Until then, stop being stupid.

8. If baking a cake makes you a participant in a wedding then selling a gun makes you a participant in a murder. You can’t have it both ways. Stop being stupid.

9. The planet isn’t warming, it’s dying. All of the scientists say so. There is no”debate.” Stop being stupid.

10. And finally, if you are using the bible to justify your hatred of others and using its words to act like a complete idiot, you’re using it wrong.

Blessing of the People – My words at LGBTQ Interfaith Service

In the beginning, God created ADOM – a being in God’s image, formed from the clay of the earth, neither male nor female.  God hovered above Adom’s lifeless form, a cloud of light.  God breathed a ruach elohim, a divine breath, into Adom’s body. In that moment, the very essence of God’s light entered Adom’s soul, a tiny sliver of God, and Adom awoke to life.

This beautiful story is a traditional teaching in Judaism.  Later teachings explain how this first human came to be split in men and women.  I love this midrash because in the beginning God created a being with all potentials within it.  Into this being of all potential, God breathed life. God gave God’s own light into our souls.  To be in the image of God is to be all this potential before our final form emerges.

As a Jew, I have questioned God -Why this disease?  Why this waste of life?  Why this tragedy? Why me?  But I have never questioned the beauty of God’s creation.  In my very soul I know the truth… we are each here because the beauty of who we are reflects God’s divinity.  Each of us is unique, each with a role to play.  To remove any of us would destroy the picture of God’s creation.  To become our full selves, some of us must face terrifying prejudice.  Some of us must transform our outer shells to reveal that within us which longs to be free.  When we embrace our true selves, we embrace that light of God that sits in our souls.  Our task is to find and nourish the gifts God has given us, to live our lives fully, and to help those around us do the same.

I am the granddaughter of a holocaust survivor.  I know the evil that ravages in the guise of religion, of civility, of “social good.”  These are the masks worn to bully and spread hate.  All that evil needs to succeed is for good people to do nothing.  And so I am honored to be here tonight, as a rabbi, as a Jew, as a woman, and as a mother, to commit as an ally for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer rights.  We are the children of God, made in God’s image.  Who is mere man to question God’s wisdom?

Our lives are made of struggle and challenge, trying to find our path in life, trying to connect with God’s light.  A Jewish teaching recounts: For nine months an angel of God sat with us in the womb, a divine lamp shining, we studied all the wisdom of the world.  In the moment of birth, the angel reached forward and touched us just above our lips, leaving an indentation, and we forget everything we have learned.  We spend our lives studying, reaching for that divine learning that was once ours.  Our lives are ones of transformation, like the caterpillar into the butterfly.  This is God’s light within.

As a parent, I want my child to be all that she is meant to be, for all her potential to be brought into the light.  The challenge for my husband and I is to support her and refrain from building boundaries that hinder her from finding her true self… to nourish that tzil of God’s light within her soul that guides her to fulfill her unique role in creation.  We don’t know where her path will take her, but we know she will be fabulous.

At the time that equal marriage rights in America were first exploding in the media, my husband and I were on a waiting list to adopt.  We had been through years of fertility treatment torture.  We were volunteering at a home for severely neglected and abused children.  The biblical quotes of hatred and judgement spouted against gays and lesbians who wanted to marry and have families made no sense to us.  We were watching a nine year old simmer and explode after the abuse of his straight parents.  We were witness to a child with permanent brain damage after neglect from her straight parents.  A man and a woman do not make a family.  Love, respect and care make a family.

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher and theologian, taught that we can treat people as “it” or we can treat people as “thou.”  We can interact with others as “it,” as though they are mere objects, ignore a cashier while we talk on a cell phone, distance our emotions from those in need because they are not like us, float past them without interest or connection.  Or we can interact with our fellow human beings in an “I-Thou” relationship.  This is a relationship of deep mutual respect… of seeking to understand the other, of being present for them and truly seeing them.  In this relationship, the power of the connection and respect between these two people invites God into the relationship.  This is our challenge in life: to seek “I-Thou” relationships with others… to find ways to understand our fellow human being, and through this mutual respect to bring God into our lives.

Judaism has a tradition of reciting blessings throughout the day to remember God’s hand in all of creation.  There is blessing for seeing a creature or person of exceptional beauty: Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam sh-kacha lo ba-olam.  Blessed are you God who has made this in your universe.  There is a blessing for seeing that which is unique: Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam m’shaneh ha-briyot.  Blessed are you God who makes creatures different.  We all carry God’s light.  Our challenge is to do the work needed to let it shine illuminating God’s world, and igniting the light in others souls.  Deep respect for others while looking inward at our own growth is God’s path.

I will end my thoughts here tonight with a traditional Jewish blessing given by God to the people of Israel in the desert and said by parents to their children every sabbath:

Yevhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā
May God bless you and keep you.
Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāv ēlekhā viḥunnékkā
May God deal kindly and graciously with you.
Yissā Adhōnāy pānāv ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm
May God bestow [divine] favor upon you and grant you peace.
(Numbers 6:22-27)


Be’Ha’alotcha -God’s Divine Light is the Human Soul

A beautiful midrash describes creation:  When God formed Adam, the first human,  thousands of spirits tried to enter into Adam’s lifeless body but could not.  God then hovered above Adam’s body, like a cloud, and breathed a ruach elohim into his mouth and nostrils.  A divine light entered into Adam and became his soul.

Jewish tradition teaches that there is an essence of God’s divinity in all that which was created, the rocks, the rivers, the fish, the birds, and the trees.  But the Torah only gives credit to human beings for being created in God’s image. The vessel God created to be the human being, to hold that tzlil, droplet of God’s light, is unique.  We have choice.  We have intellect.  We have a kindness of heart that elevates us beyond mere instinct and survival.  We as human beings have been given the divine role within creation to be the lamps and lamp lighters in God’s gardenh.

Parashat be’ha’alotcha opens with God’s instruction to Aaron to “raise light” in the lamps of the menorah in the Sanctuary and is echoed in our Haftarah, Zechariah.  God instructs that  “the seven lamps [in the Tabernacle] give light toward the face of the menorah.”  There is a kabbalistic teaching that this menorah of light is in fact the human soul, which reaches out in seven branches towards heaven. The mystical interpretation rests on Proverbs 20:27 which teaches נֵר יְיְ  נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן “The lamp of God is the soul of man, searching all the inward parts.”

The soul of man is a lamp of God whose purpose in life is to illuminate the world with divine light  All aspects of the mishkan are symbolic in Jewish mysticism of the relationship between the physicality of this world and building on that structure to climb to the greater truth just outside this world. God provides us with the physical “fuel” that generates Divine light — the Torah and its commandments, mitzvot.  We are the lamps within the structure of the mishkan. We carry God’s light both to illuminate and to be lamplighters for others.

נֵר יְיְ  נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן   This sentence stays with me. God’s light is within our souls, and we search inwardly.  The word in the Hebrew for this inward direction is בָטֶן, belly button.  What is the belly button?  It is a point of connection.  In Jewish tradition Jerusalem is the navel of the world, the point at which the world grew and was nourished from God.  When we think of the human body, the navel is the source of deep connection to another human being. The bell button is a symbol of utter dependance on another to provide nourishment and protection.  As we are born, we grow into independence. That independence is actualized in our souls which have free choice, free will to act to make our lives our own.  God gifted us with the divine spark of life, and it is ours, to use as we wish.  But it can still be a point of connection, to God, and to our fellow human beings.

Human beings have been called the caretakers in God’s world.  We have been called God’s partners in creation.  To be God’s lamps on earth, is to carry the responsibility for bringing light into darkness.  “The earth was unformed and void and God said “let there be light”.  This refers to acts of righteousness.” (Gen Rabbah 2:5)  Judaism has a unique vision of humanity’s role.  Our task is to reach out to God while keeping our feet firmly planted on earth, much like the lampstand, the menorah, described in our Torah.  We stay connected to the earth through our tradition’s commitment to the mitzvot.  Every daily activity is to be mindful, the taking of food is partnered with a blessing, the sight of a waterfall or beautiful person, another blessing.  It roots us to the world around us, to our neighbors and community. As our roots connect to others through mitzvot, acts of caring, acts of communal responsibility, our branches rise upward toward heaven.  The light of our lamp reaches out to touch and ignite the lamp of another, and the finds God’s illumination.  What the menorah of our text teaches us is that we do not stand alone,  Our soul, the lamp of God shines in its connection to our fellow human being

My daughter falls asleep at night snuggled up beside me in her bed.  She fights against sleep until the last moment, rolling around, telling stories, asking for toys.  I have great sympathy for her: There is fear in giving control up to sleep.  It is why we sing the Shema as the last words on our lips at night.  Finally the moment comes when she moves closer towards me, her breathing changes and her body relaxes into mine.  She puts herself in my arms, physically and symbolically, trusting in me to protect her as she gives up control.  It is a time that I look forward to each night: that second she feels absolute trust in me, and lets go.  I am filled with gratitude for my blessings in this moment as I connect to my daughter at this deep level of trust and my awareness that God fills the room.

Martin Buber described this lamplighting, this connecting of one’s inner light with the light of another, as “I-Thou.”  When we interact with another person at the deepest level of respect and trust, we create a line of connection that then expands to bring God as a third line into the relationship.  נֵר יְיְ  נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן  God’s lamp is the human soul…  as it searches from within for connection…  We illuminate the world with the light God gifted to each of us as we connect to one another through acts of trust, of kindness, of giving, and care.  As we spread this light, we become God’s lamplighters, sparking the divine light in others so that they too illuminate the world.


Challenging Our Family Story

My daughter is an adorable outgoing two year old who loves connecting with new people in books stores, cafes, and parks.  Sometimes these new people ask me “where is she from?”  I always hold back the response I want to give “from God, like every child.”  These people are not rude or racist.  They are simply curious.  Yet there is an insensitivity to the question and I am just now putting my finger on what it is.  They assume that my daughter’s story is mine to tell.  I’m starting to understand my own hesitancy in answering.  There is an issue of privacy, not of mine, but of my daughter’s.  It’s her story too and she is not yet at a stage where she can decide what and with whom she wants to share.

The fact that our daughter is black and my husband and I are white is a sign for people that there is a “story” there.  Human beings are curious by nature.  Some questions are curtailed by social mores on privacy.  It seems that adoption is not.  I have heard parents compare the question of their child’s “origin” to asking a stranger if she gave girth naturally, with epidural, or by c-section.  It’s a great simile, clearly enunciating a common feeling of invaded privacy among adoptive families.

The truth is, our family story is one in constant flux and change.  I don’t know what answer to give when asked in that coffee shop or park.  A year and a half ago I created  a story of “how we became a family” as part of Eliyana’s sleep time ritual. I whispered it to her every night, snuggled in the dark, along with a song, a book, and the Shema prayer.  That story no longer feels right or true. The underlying theme was of two people who couldn’t have a biological child, were matched with a beautiful baby, and became a forever family.  There’s a fabulous bit about the airplane ride to and from Ethiopia, with accompanying engine sound effects, but most of the story is obsolete. I think it was more a story of transition. from infertility to parenthood.  It was never really our family story.  The family story I created today is about three souls born continents apart who came together to be the family we were always meant to be.  I kept the plane and the sound effects.  It’s Eliyana’s favorite part.

One day it will be up to Eliyana to decide how to handle people’s inquisitiveness.  I hope I can model for her pride, confidence, and compassion as she reaches for answers.  She is only now on the cusp of language.  I can’t wait to see what she has to say.  Most of all, I wonder how our family story will evolve as Eliyana enters as one of its narrators.  Will it be the same each night, or will there be changes according to how our day went?  Will she even want to tell the story?  How will it evolve as she grows older?  I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.  I do hope we keep the night time snuggle whispering part of the family story in the dark of bedtime… It’s my favorite part.


Family Story – For Eliyana at Bedtime

Once upon a time, before Mommy was called Mommy, and before Daddy was called Daddy… We were just two people.  We loved each other very much… but we knew our family wasn’t complete, not yet.   We yearned for you.  We looked for you.  We prayed and hoped and talked about you.  Our hearts pulled us toward you….  It was hard because we waited a long time for you.  But finally the day came, a telephone call, telling us you were waiting to meet us.  We got on a plane and flew to Ethiopia.  You were a little baby, with a big smile and sparkling eyes and you liked to take our hats off our heads.  We felt so happy. Daddy didn’t want to stop holding you.  He sang you lots of songs.  Mommy told you stories and giggled with you.  Finally we all got on a big plane, with a big engine, that went puh puh, puh, and you went puh, puh, puh too… all the way home.  We gave you a special name: Eliyana – God answered us,  Bracha after mommy’s grandfather, meaning blessing, and Nuhamin, your Ethiopia name.  Eliyana Bracha Nuhamin –And you call us Mommy and Daddy.  We love you very much and we are a family forever.