Being there for one another: Making a Shiva Call

Several years ago, in one of my first ventures into the world of online writing, my friend Jackie Lieberman and I collaborated on a post about making shiva call.

Shiva is the period of mourning after a funeral, a time when friends and community members comfort the mourners.

While many of us want to be there for friends and loved ones, we often just aren’t sure what to do. So often we think that our job is to “fix” things; to make them better. Shiva is a powerful reminder that so often the most important thing we can do is to be there for one another.

Fortunately, paying a shiva call is a skill that can be learned. Jackie recently shared with me that our post has continued to be of help to many folks who are searching for Jewish ways to comfort friends and community members.

I don’t think I could say it much better than we did back then, so please see here for our list of shiva FAQs.



Lamentations, Racial Biases, and the Confederate Flag: A South Carolina Rabbi’s Perspectives

(posted originally at August 2015)

What do we read when there are no good words? As I thought about the text to teach following the tragedy at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, my mind fixed on the nine murdered. Murdered in their church, a holy sanctuary of God. Murdered because of who they were – because of the color of their skin.

I turned not to the five scrolls of Torah, but to the book of Lamentations, called in Hebrew simply Eicha. Alas! Lament!

It is a text full of sorrow and outrage and pain. While the text itself was written in response to the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE, the emotions expressed therein still ring true.

Alas! “Bitterly she weeps.” Bitterly we weep.

Alas! “Zion’s roads are in mourning”

Mother Emanuel is in mourning. We, too, stand in mourning, in grief, in shock. Even two weeks later, we cannot believe that an act of racist terror could happen in a house of worship, a place where people go to find comfort, meaning, hope, and safety in the presence of God.

The scroll of Lamentations has a life beyond the words themselves. It is read at Tishah B’Av, the Ninth of Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples and has come to memorialize the massacres of the Crusades, the Jewish expulsion from Spain, and the Holocaust. As we read this scroll, we wrestle with the hatred that still exists in the world. It is a hatred that still breeds violence, even though we might have thought that change – not enough of course, but some – had come.

Some assert that the murderer is an isolated individual or a member of an extremist group. And yet, is he really acting alone? Ed Madden, poet laureate of Columbia, S.C., wrote in his recent poem:

he is from here
he grew up here
he went to school here
he wore his jacket with its white supremacist patches here
he told racist jokes here…
he learned his racism here…

he is not a symbol, he is a symptom
he is not a cipher, his is a reminder
his actions are beyond our imagining
but his motivation is not beyond our understanding
no he didn’t get these ideas from nowhere

Social science researchers painfully point out that these racist ideas are found in virtually all of us. Project Implicit, developed by researchers from top universities, is an online evaluation to measure implicit racism. Time and again, it finds that even those of us most consciously tolerant hold racial biases.

How I wish that those researchers would help us understand how to heal those biases we hold! Even we who, to quote the prophets, pray that “justice will roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream” likely hold beliefs or biases we wish were not there, which unconsciously or consciously affect how we live.

I wonder if part of the anger I feel is directed not only at this horrible crime but at the lingering hatred that remains in the very fabric of our society – and however unwanted, in our – in my – very heart.

As a state, South Carolina has focused on the Confederate flag flying on our statehouse grounds. This painful symbol began as a battle flag of the Confederate States of America, founded upon a premise that not all men are created equal.

In the 20th century, the flag was adopted by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups in support of the policies of Jim Crow and racial terror. It first flew on our statehouse in 1961 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. In 1962, the state government decided to leave it up as a protest against desegregation.

In 2000, the flag was removed from the dome and placed in front of the statehouse as part of a memorial to Confederate soldiers. Still, we see it when we drive in our capital or walk on Main Street, a banner of racial hatred at the heart of our state.

Republican State Representative Doug Brennon, who represents a conservative upstate district, said in a radio interview that there was a time when he passed that flag on a regular basis and didn’t think anything of it. But now, he said, “I see it on the license plate on the front a car, driving to a church where nine people died.”

The mere removal of a flag cannot a state change, but symbols are powerful. The banners we raise send a message of who we are and who we yet hope to be. I pray that our lawmakers will find the courage to take down the flag and that the change in symbol will signal a change in direction as a state and a nation.

Lamentations holds the hope of a new direction. The last lines of the book are so painful: “For truly You have rejected us, bitterly raged against us.”

Yet our ancestors could not bear to leave the ending there. They added another line, repeating the penultimate verse at the end of public readings of the book and turning the ending from one of unmitigated sorrow to the promise of hope: “Return us back O Eternal to Yourself and let us return.”

We know this line as Hashiveinu, that prayer of the possibility of change and transformation that flows through the High Holidays. It is a prayer that offers us the promise that we can look honestly at our thoughts and deeds, that we can make atonement, that we can turn in a new direction – from fear to hope, from hatred to love.

O, turn us to You and let us return to You, to one another, in love.

As our state motto puts it, dum spiro spero: “As I breathe, I hope.”

Returning Home to Camp Newman

Sharing the thank you letter I sent to the directors at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA following the wonderful summer I spent on faculty at my childhood camp. It was such an honor to be a camp rabbi!

Dear Ruben, Erin and Allie,

I wanted to write you all a (much) belated note and thank you so much for welcoming me and my family back home to Camp Newman last summer. We had such a wonderful time at camp.

I am grateful that I was able to give back to the community that is such a part of my identity. I loved every minute of being on faculty. Of course, nothing is like Shabbat at camp. But also, I loved the everyday camp minutes, so very many of them: going on the “Novernight” and telling stories at the campfire ring; participating in a Chayim girls cabin time; painting toenails with campers to prepare for Shabbat; checking in on a homesick camper; starting lanyards by the art tables; sitting with counselors and listening to their hopes and fears about college; mentoring rabbinic students as they prepared their first High Holy Day sermons; catching the “ah-ha” moments in the high school study sessions; working with campers to incorporate movement and art and storytelling into tefillah; getting to know and work with the talented and caring staff and counselors in my session and throughout camp. It was such a gift to be a part of camp.

Thank you also for caring so wonderfully for my children. The Camp Katan staff were so patient and understanding. My kids had a great time – and they still talk about camp all the time!

Writing this letter, next summer seems so very far away. But we know that it will come sooner than we might think – and we hope to be able to return home to Camp Newman again.

Wishing you all a shana tova,


Rabbi Leah Doberne-Schor

The Mezuzah: Our Reminder to Bring Peace to Our Homes

A Mezuzah at the Door

So you’ve bought a new home. Or found a new apartment. Perhaps you are moving into your own home for the very first time. Or, you are establishing a home together with your new husband, wife, partner or significant other.

Judaism has long recognized the dedication of a new home as a milestone in our personal lives. (Indeed, you can find many beautiful Jewish home dedication ceremonies online, including this one.)

Traditionally,  a Jewish home is not complete without a mezuzah on its doorpost.

You may have noticed that a mezuzah is often hanging neither vertically or horizontally, but rather is tilted at an angle. The origin of this custom can teach us about an important Jewish value: Shalom bayit, peace in the home.

The custom to hang the mezuzah at an angle began as the result of an almost one thousand year old disagreement. The great Torah scholar Rashi (1040-1105) ruled that the mezuzah should be hung vertically. He did this because in a Sephardic community, such as the one in which he lived, the Torah is held in a vertical position when it is read. On the other hand, Rashi’s grandsons lived in an Ashkenazic milieu. Because the Torah is laid in a horizontal position for reading in Ashkenazic communities, these grandsons ruled that the mezuzah should be hung horizontally.

In the spirit of compromise, the custom became to hang the mezuzah at an angle.

Put another way, at the very moment when we enter our homes, we are reminded of the importance of finding a way to live in peace with one another.

The point isn’t that we’ll always see eye to eye with the folks we live with; rather, it’s that we commit to working through our disagreements with one another.

The very first word on the mezuzah scroll is “Shema,” or listen. We make a commitment to listen to each other and to find a way to live in peace with each other.

Shalom bayit, like so many of our values, is not to be attained all at once. Rather, we make a commitment to work with our loved ones towards this goal each day, with its blessings, each day, with its challenges.

Each day, when we return to our homes, we see our mezuzah, our reminder of peace and compromise, our reminder of the type of home we would like to create, before ever we cross our threshold.


Kindling the Lights of Peace: A Meditation for Shabbat Candle-Lighting

Shabbat Candles

It is rare that I write the words I plan to speak during Shabbat worship at my congregation – Beth Israel in Florence, SC. In any case, even if I knew the words in advance, I would typically wait to post my remarks until after the Sabbath was over. However, this week feels different: I wanted to share this meditation before Friday night, that others might use it, if they so wish, when they light the candles for Shabbat.

After lighting the Sabbath candles,
many people wave their hands in a circular motion three times
and bring their hands to their face when finished.
A beautiful interpretation of this practice
is that it helps us bring
the light and peace of Shabbat
into our neshamas (our souls), our homes,
and our families.

Most weeks, I appreciate this personal practice.
But this week feels different.

These past weeks have marked
the beginning and escalation
of the conflict in Israel and Gaza,
the terrors of ISIS in Iraq and Syria,
and the outpouring of unaccompanied minors in America –
refugee children from Central America –
escaping violence and hunger.

In ancient times when our ancestors suffered in Egypt,
their cries reached the highest of heavens.
Even when we differ as to the political solutions to these crises,
is it not true that these cries have reached us as well?
Do they not circle ‘round the world and pierce our hearts?

Do we not hear the cries from bloodshed and violence;
hatred and fanaticism; hopelessness and intolerance?

Have we not had enough?
(Ever mindful that we who have had enough
are mere onlookers, opining in the comfort
of our living rooms!)

Oseh Shalom
You are the Maker of Peace.
Why is it that you don’t make peace here on earth?

Shalom Rav
You are the God of Peace.
Place Your Great Peace
Upon Your children
Upon the world, our world, Your world!

I’m not an expert at peace-making.
I simply know that what has been,
has not been sufficient.
And that what will yet be
must be, need be, demands
something different.

It is not enough to send the light from the candles
into my neshama alone this week.
Not enough at all.

This week, I propose that as we kindle the lights,
all of us present (not only those lighting the candles)
take our hands and circle them
such that even as we bring the light into our neshamas,
we also send it out into the world –
out into this room, into this town, and beyond.

I pray that the light and peace of Shabbat
meet those cries that are circling ‘round this world;
that it meet those cries with open heart.

I know that such an action cannot alone bring peace.
But I know that without an open heart,
without the care and concern
of people all around the world,
without attention and love
there will be no peace.

We are taught that the Sabbath
is the great symbol of and teacher of peace.
These lights we kindle carry its promise.
I don’t know how peace will come.
But I know that it must yet be:

“Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.”
– Yehuda Amichai

The Secret Shabbat Blessing

When I was an Assistant Rabbi, I would celebrate with the Early Childhood Program at their weekly Shabbat Party. A few parents would join their children for the festivities, and they would be invited to stay behind for a few moments with the rabbi.

The parents and students would gather with me in the front of the chapel, by the Aron (the ark that houses the Torah scrolls). Then came my favorite part of the morning:  I would instruct the parents to hold their children close, maybe even place a hand on their children’s head or shoulders. I explained to the parents that it is customary for parents to bless their children on Friday evening, often right after the candles are lit. I taught them the words of the traditional blessing.

I then asked them to whisper a “secret Shabbat blessing” into their children’s ear.  To go beyond the words on the page and find the blessing in their heart. The preschoolers kept wiggling and squirming, but the room became filled with laughter and smiles and indescribable sounds of happiness.

How often do we tell the people in our lives that we love them? And more than that, share with them how they are special to us?

This, in and of itself, is reason enough to bless each other. But there is another reason I think it important for parents to offer a “secret Shabbat blessing” of their own.  We may be used to giving compliments. “That’s a beautiful shiny bow you are wearing.” “You sat so quietly today.” “I like the truck on your T-shirt.” While a compliment is a form of praise, most only touch the surface. A blessing, on the other hand, connects us to something deeper – to who we really are.

We can bless our children for so many reasons. A (very) partial list might include:

  • because they tried their best (even if it didn’t work out)
  • because they worked hard and did better the next time
  • because they learned something new
  • because they acted as a good friend (sibling, helper)
  • because they were kind
  • because they were brave
  • because they shared (even when it was hard)
  • because they demonstrated a wonderful sense of humor
  • because they were a team player
  • because they were honest (even when it came at a cost)
  • because they asked a good question
  • because they learned how to make good choices

When we offer our children their own Shabbat blessing, one tailored just for them – based upon how we have seem them grow and learn and live in the past week – we show them that we notice them, we demonstrate that we value them, and we teach them that we love them for their successes and struggles and, indeed, their entire being, not just what shows up on the surface.

We teach them that we want them to grow up to be menschen (people of integrity and honor) and that we are there for them on that journey.

In essence, we teach them that they are loved and blessed because they have a beautiful neshama, a beautiful soul and spirit. That the Source of Life and Blessing flows through them – their breath, their life, their actions. That they are a gift from God.

This post also appears at

A Gift of Tzedakah: Perfect for the girl (or anyone) who has everything

tzedakah box

It’s May – time for Mother’s Day, graduation, and, looking ahead, Father’s Day. The question always comes up: What should I/we get?

This is a perennial question – asked not only for Mom, Dad, and grad – but throughout the year: for the birthday, the promotion, the bar/bat mitzvah, the wedding, the baby shower, the (fill in other special event here).

More and more I am turning to a traditional (and meaningful) Jewish custom: a tzedakah contribution in honor of the recipient.

When a donor makes a tzedakah contribution in someone’s honor, the organization receives a contribution, and it sends an acknowledgement card to the recipient letting him know about the  gift that was made in his name.

Here are a few reasons why I think this type of tribute gift is worth considering:

  • It’s always a good time to give tzedakah and take a step towards making the world a better place.
  • Jewish tradition encourages us to make tzedakah a regular habit. For instance, some people like to make a contribution every Friday before Shabbat. When we regularly honor or celebrate family, friends, and colleagues with tzedakah contributions, we also weave the habit of tzedakah into our lives.
  • A tzedakah contribution is a meaningful gift. It’s always the right size, never goes bad, and will never gather dust on the shelf. Additionally, we can choose a tzedakah organization that matches the interests of the recipient, increasing the significance of our gift.
  • We can inspire others to give tzedakah. The tribute card sent with our gift might inspire the recipient to think about giving tzedakah, and she might then continue the practice.

All Wrapped Up in Love: Incorporating a Tallit into Your Jewish Wedding


I have heard that many couples incorporate a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) into their wedding. What is the reason for this?

There are two main ways a couple can incorporate a tallit into their Jewish wedding ceremony:

  • they can use it as the canopy for the chuppah (marriage canopy)
  • the couple can be wrapped in the tallit for a portion of the wedding ceremony

Why do this?

When my daughter was a newborn, my beloved aunt made for her a beautiful baby blanket. The enclosed note read:”May she always be wrapped in love.”

As that small flannel blanket serves, for my daughter, as a reminder of abiding love, another four corned cloth serves, in Jewish tradition, as a reminder of an abiding, loving relationship: the tallit.

A tallit is a four cornered garment, with special knots at each of the four corners called tzitzit. Going back to the Torah, those tzitzit serve as a reminder of the sacred relationship that the Jewish people have with God and Torah. When we look at the tzitzit we are to remember the commandments and traditions of our people. (If you’d like to learn more, Rabbi Amy Scheinerman has a great explanation of tallit.)

Beyond this: if you were to ask someone who wears a tallit, or who remembers sitting next to a beloved grandparent or parent in synagogue who wrapped himself in a tallit, she might well share with you that the act of wearing (in the Hebrew, wrapping oneself) in that tallit helps her feel connected with, surrounded by, even enveloped by the loving protection of the Holy One.

A tallit can thus serve as a reminder of the Jewish home you are creating together.  Beyond this, it can be a way to consciously invite the loving Presence of the Source of Life and Love to surround you at the moment of your marriage. To be with you and guide you as you build your life together. Indeed, to help you wrap each other in love.

A Southern Springtime: Celebrating our Personal Redemption this Season of Passover

spring blossoms

Just look at what was I saw on my morning walk last week!

Growing up in Southern California, I never really understood the fuss about Spring. We didn’t have the magical week when everything, it seems, all at once blossoms, bringing forth pinks and whites and pale greens. Dusting our cars and driveways and screened-in porches with a coating of pollen.

The blossoms, the pollen, the shoots of leaves – the entire experience of a Southern Springtime – has given me a renewed understanding of Passover.

When we think of Passover, most of us tend to focus on the grand miracles of the holiday. We think of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, a story filled with signs and wonders. And, at the end of the seder when we open the door for Elijah, we express our hope for a future – one for which we work and wait – of a world redeemed, a miraculous time that will yet bring justice and peace for all.

Despite these grand miracles, Jewish tradition also places great emphasis on the miracles of the everyday. Indeed, the morning prayers are sometimes referred to not as daily blessings, but daily miracles. What are these miracles? Waking up in the morning. Opening our eyes. Going to the bathroom and finding, on good days, that everything works as it ought. Being created in the Divine Image – endowed with free will, intellect, and dignity. There is even a tradition of saying a hundred blessings a day – finding a hundred moments of gratitude and amazement.

In other words, rather than look for the miraculous outside of nature, Jewish tradition encourages us to look for the wonder embedded within the world.

I think we benefit from this encouragement. So often it can seem that our human nature – even without the added distraction of smart phones, texting, Facebook, and the like – causes us to be distracted and to forget to take note of the wonder that surrounds us.

The seder plate literally bring the signs of springtime into our homes and onto our dinner table. Pay attention to what’s right outside your window, it would seem to say.

For the signs of spring – the new growth, blossoms, sprouts – are not only miracles within nature. They point us to an another aspect of redemption: the potential – in all of life – to begin again, to grow anew, to branch out in a different direction, indeed, to transform our lives.

Even as we celebrate our ancestor’s redemption from slavery, even as we are called to work for the repair of the world, the season of Passover reminds us that we are also able to plant the seeds of change and rebirth in our own lives. This too, I believe, is a redemption worthy of celebration!

A Good Enough Passover

Stack of Matzoth from kosherstock;

Perhaps no holiday in the Jewish calendar comes with as much preparation. Cleaning. Shopping. Getting rid of certain foods. Stocking up on certain foods. Suddenly so many foods and products are off limits.

For some folks, a strict Passover celebration is a cherished tradition. If this describes you, there are many resources in print and online to help guide you through the steps to a joyful, and fully kosher, Passover.

However, there are others for whom an intense focus on the rules is either overwhelming, or, quite frankly, off-putting. If you find yourself in this camp, I encourage you to take a different path to your Passover celebration.

Remember the meaning behind the foodways: The special ways we eat at Passover are tangible reminders of the message of the holiday itself: the story of how we were redeemed from slavery in Egypt by a Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm, an eternal story of the need to bring an end to injustice and oppression.

The two main Passover food traditions – eating matzah and avoiding (and getting rid) of chametz (food with leavening) can both be tied directly to this story of liberation.  Remembering the reason why we celebrate can help keep things in perspective.

Matzah, called the “bread of affliction,” reminds us of the oppression our ancestors endured as slaves in Egypt.  It also connects us to the night our ancestors left Egypt in such haste they did not have time for the bread to rise. Now that we eat matzah in freedom, it can even be seen as a symbol of liberation.

Similarly, avoiding chametz (food with leavening) has a spiritual meaning. In his post Rabbi Eric Berk describes it this way:

“Have you ever watched dough rise in the oven, or have you ever just seen bread? Dough rises, and what results is ‘puffed-up,’ bigger than before. Full of air – or perhaps full of itself. That is exactly what chametz has come to symbolize. Philo, a Greek-Jewish philosopher, described chametz as ‘pride,’ because leavened bread is ‘puffed-up.’ Removing chametz on Passover from our homes, our lives, our families, is a struggle between who we really are now and who we can be once we strip away all the trappings of self-importance.”

(His article also does a great job of clarifying the complicated question of what, exactly, constitutes chametz.)

Take a few steps into Passover at a time: Passover need not be an all or nothing proposition. Instead, choose a few practices that you feel comfortable trying out this year.

You might start by eating matzah at seder or by having matzah available throughout the holiday. You might choose to remove all chametz from your kitchen, or you might decide to simply avoid foods like bread and pastries that are obviously leavened. You might experiment with matzah sandwiches at lunchtime. Or there might be another Passover food practice you’d like to try out.

Above all, create traditions that you cherish: For most of us, the connections that matter aren’t found in scholarly writings. We remember Passover not because it is an intellectual idea, but because it is a lived experience. Finding your own Passover foodways can be a powerful way for you and your family to connect with the foundational story of our people.