The Gay Child in My Daughter’s First Grade Class

February 18, 2016

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

It was a parenting moment that came much sooner than I thought it would. My six year-old looked over at me at the dinner table and told me that her teacher had said that a boy “can’t marry a boy, and a girl can’t marry a girl.”

I paused, chewing.

“Well, what do you think?,” I asked her.

“Well, I know that isn’t true.”

She knows that isn’t true because we have had gay couples at our Shabbat table. She knows it isn’t true because she has a friend with two moms, and because her little sister has a boy in her class with two dads. She knows that sometimes boys marry boys. She knows that gay people exist. This is 2016.

I responded by reminding her (and my two- and four-year-old, who were also at the table) what I’ve told my kids many times: It’s true that MOST of the time, a boy marries and girl, and a girl marries a boy. But SOMEtimes, it does happen that a boy marries a boy and a girl marries a girl. (I think that “married” is the only word they have for attraction and romance, not to mention domestic partnership.)

I told her that it made me sad that her Morah said that it doesn’t happen. It made me sad for the people who are gay. This is how Hashem made them, and this Morah is pretending they do not exist. What I didn’t tell her, is that I was most sad for the gay child in her class. Because chances are that yes, even in her Orthodox day school, there is a child, or children, who will later discover (or might already know) that they are gay. Think what it does to these children to hear their Morah deny their existence.

My daughter knew her teacher wasn’t right, not only because of the gay people in her life. She also had read, many times, our books by Todd Parr, such as The Family Book, which states unequivocally, “Some families have two moms; some families have two dads,” along with “Some families look like each other; some families look like their pets.” Also true.

My daughter had also recently read a book called And Tango Makes Three, a true story about penguins in Central Park Zoo. Two boy penguins are not interested in the girl penguins, but are interested in each other and become companions. They are sad when they discover that they do not have an egg in their nest, like all the other penguins. The zookeeper finds an extra egg that had no penguin to take care of it, and Tango is born, making their happy union into a family. My daughter got the message, that if it’s biologically true for penguins, it could also be biologically true for humans.

These books were baby gifts from a dear long-time friend of my husband’s, who happens to be gay. I have to admit that, while I was content to read the Todd Parr books to my kids right away, I hid away And Tango Makes Three for many years – six years to be exact. I had only just pulled it off the top shelf and left it around for my first grader to read. It was not because my children weren’t ready for the book, but because I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for what my children’s questions might be. I wasn’t sure of my own feelings about homosexulaity in the Orthodox community. I wasn’t sure how I would respond, how I would engage with my children’s curiosity.

What I’ve learned, as a parent and as an educator, is that many of these conversations can be quite simple. Especially with young kids, and even with older ones, the most important message is simply that gay people are here. They are all around us, they are among us, they might even be us. They are Jewish and not, Orthodox and not, married and not, with children and not. A simple dinner conversation, spoken in soft tones, and in six-year-old language, can make it clear to children that gay people are here, and that Hashem made them that way.

Thankfully the Orthodox community is beginning to address the reality that LGBTQ individuals are among us. But beyond that, I write this piece in order to model what it might look like to have conversations with our children about complex and difficult situations. LGBTQ issues are only one of many tough subjects that may arise around the dinner table. Be ready for other important conversations, too. Be ready to explain that we don’t drive on Shabbat while other Jews do, without demonizing or disenfranchising those other Jews, and without diminishing our deeply-held value of halacha. My daughter recently said that all Jewish girls wear skirts that cover the knee. I needed to address the fact that even though it is what we do in our own family, there are Jews who dress differently. Complex conversations like these also happen outside the Jewish realm, of course. We need to discuss racism in a way that children can understand, explaining that there have been times in history when people with a different skin color were treated differently, terribly, were even enslaved, and this is wrong. Somehow, we are well prepared with robust information for our children about why they shouldn’t talk to strangers and why it’s important that they work hard in school. Let’s also be ready to converse with them about the complexities of life.

The conversation I had with my children about homosexuality was not complicated. I didn’t quote psukim from the Torah, or enter into halachic discourse. There will be time for that. Parents of adolescents will need to take a more nuanced approach. However, if parents speak openly and honestly about these complex topics when children are young, then the conversations when they are older become less fraught, more open and honest.

And then there’s my daughter’s teacher. I think about what that teacher might have responded. Had she been adequately prepared and trained for this kind of question, she could have spoken about the fact that each person is created b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s image. She could have been honest about the fact that gay marriage is legal in Canada, and has been for over a decade. She might have even been able to voice her own discomfort (or the halachic difficulties) with gay marriage, while also acknowledging that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. But the teacher was clearly caught off guard, and was not prepared to offer any answer, hence she simply brushed the question aside.

I was inspired by this video from an Eshel retreat. I hope that someday, every LGBTQ Orthodox young person can say something like this: “I’m still a Bais Yaakov girl; I just happen to be queer.” I think about that gay child in my daughter’s class. Will that child find a safe space to be both Orthodox and gay? Will he need to bifurcate his identity, thinking that he cannot be both frum and homosexual? He will, no doubt, face many challenges. But let him at least be recognized, rather than invisible.

Let us urge our day schools to equip our children’s teachers with the skills and sensitivity needed to respond to their questions. Let us open the door for these conversations with our children while they are young, although it is never too late to start. Let us take responsibility for making our community open and honest about the fact that gay people are among us. Do it for the gay child in your child’s class… who could even be your own.


Another Perspective on Pregnant and Nursing Women Fasting

October 2, 2014

Guest post by Miriam Gedwiser

[I’d like to thank Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold for giving me this forum to respond to her post, and more generally to parallel conversations going on in various fora.]

Last year around this time my daughter announced to her preschool class that I was not fasting on Yom Kippur because I was nursing.  In fact I was planning to fast (and did), but I had mentioned to her that it would be a difficult one for me, and I was planning to spend most of the day in bed.  The physical drain from nursing her toddler brother was minimal at that point, but (unknown to her) I was pregnant.  When her pronouncement made it into the class newsletter I worried that I had indirectly, and inadvertently, contributed to the misconception that the pregnant and nursing women should, as a default, not fast.

Before I had children I shared that misconception.  When I got pregnant with my first child, I started to research the halachot and was shocked to learn that there was no blanket permission for pregnant women to eat – small quantities or otherwise.  Then my surprise turned to anxiety.  Like some many women in their first pregnancies, I was immersed in the American culture of aggressively safeguarding the prenatal environment from even a whiff of danger.  I got anxious from just walking past someone smoking in the street, lest the tar reach the baby.  How could fasting be OK?  I called a female advisor thinking that perhaps there was some off-the-books permissive ruling, only to get the same answer:  otherwise healthy pregnant women should fast, resting as much as possible, and break their fast if there was concern for the baby.

At this point I was, perhaps, a poster child for the inadequate approach to these questions Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold is pushing up against.  Faced with what seemed an uncompromising rule, I felt scared and alone, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice.  I fasted on Tisha B’Av by spending the day almost entirely in bed.

By Yom Kippur we had told our families about my pregnancy and I asked my mother what she had done when pregnant with me.  My due date was near my birthday so she would have been around the same stage of pregnancy when Yom Kippur came around.  She told me that she fasted and davened normally, which gave me some hope.  In the end I stayed home for most of the day out of an abundance of caution, coming to shul only for neilah.

I have been at various stages of pregnancy, nursing, or both every Tisha B’av and Yom Kippur since then, and have fasted each one (with, crucially, childcare support).  That this has worked for me does not mean it will work for everyone, of course.  But my story causes me to question Maharat Rachel’s assertion that no one can convince a pregnant woman to “FEEL differently” about fasting.  While the halachic advice I received did not succeed in changing my feelings directly, it did indirectly.  Fasting despite my apprehensions taught me that my body was capable of more than I expected, and that I did not need to be cut off from the central experience of the central day of the Jewish calendar during my childbearing years.

Of course I would have appreciated some more sensitivity along the way – perhaps the authorities I consulted could have suggested I speak to women who fasted about the experience (as I eventually did with my mother), or even shared their own stories.  Further, lack of sensitivity and poor communication might lead people who should not be fasting to fast and harm themselves or their babies, and I think Maharat Rachel has given powerful voice to that concern.  But there is an opposite concern that I fear is lost in the rush for sensitivity:  Overemphasizing subjective perceptions and anxieties will lead women who could have and should have fasted to eat instead.

The Shulchan Aruch (OH 617:2) rules that if a pregnant woman experiences a craving on Yom Kippur, the first step is to whisper in her ear that today is Yom Kippur.  If that works to pacify her, all the better.  If not, she is fed until her mind is settled.  What the contemporary equivalent of such a whisper would be for a woman gripped not by an irrational craving but by fear for her fetus is a delicate pastoral question.  But we can’t skip the whispering step.

Which brings me to shiurim.  The reason it is preferable for those who must break the fast to eat and drink in small quantities is not that small quantities are not really forbidden.  The halachah follows R. Yohanan’s position that “hatzi shiur assur min hatorah,”* even partial servings are biblically forbidden.  If even minimal quantities are forbidden biblically, just like larger servings, why are so many people going to sit with shot glasses of liquid and stopwatches this Yom Kippur, making sure they never consume a full shiur within the allotted time?  Because the smaller amounts, while still forbidden, do not accrue punishment – in the case of Yom Kippur, the punishment of karet (“excision”).

Ponder that for a minute.  The tradition treats eating on Yom Kippur with such trepidation that even those with a perfectly legitimate medical dispensation are advised, if possible, to eat minimal amounts. Just in case they really should be fasting, they will not be liable for the punishment.  This sense of dread is perhaps what led many generations of pregnant women, or infirm elders, to fast despite medical and rabbinic advice to the contrary.  It is what led my father, a”h, to look visibly shaken when he learned that his elderly aunt had been given her required medicine on Yom Kippur not with water (the doctor- and rabbi- approved plan), but with a high-calorie drink.  But more than that, the dread, the trepidation, the awe, are part of what leads people to stand in shul all day, to cry, to aspire to be like angels.

If the days of awe are to live up to that name, the discussion of fasting needs to take place under the constant shadow of fear and trembling, not just ways of peace.  It needs to recognize that while the consequences of someone fasting when they should not can be terrible, not fasting when one should is also terrible.  Sometimes a rabbinic figure’s job is to dissuade vulnerable people from endangering themselves.  But sometimes, his or her job is to persuade people –  like myself of six years ago – that pregnant people are still people, that people still need atonement, and that (unless medically counterindicated) we should fast.

May we all merit to observe the upcoming shabbat shabbaton (ultimate sabbath) in its fullest, and achieve a gmar hatimah tovah for ourselves, our families, and everyone.


Miriam Gedwiser teaches at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and is admitted to the New York bar.  She lives in Manhattan with her spouse and children.


Pregnant and Nursing Women Fasting on Yom Kippur – Reflections

September 29, 2014

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

It’s that time of year again. Jewish pregnant women around the world are talking to their doctors and to their rabbis (or perhaps their Maharats) about whether or not they should fast on Yom Kippur. They are asking friends who have done it what it was like. And maybe they are becoming concerned about whether they will make it through the fast, whether they will get to shul, whether they might need an IV, and whether they might even go into labor early, as one study recently reported. Nursing women are having similar concerns, about whether their milk supply might be diminished, or whether they might become dehydrated. Many women say that fasting while nursing is even more difficult than fasting while pregnant, which makes sense – you’re providing nourishment for not just a small fetus, but a few-month-old baby!

For some women, this is a no brainer. They fast easily, pregnant or not, and they know other women who have fasted through two, or three, or more pregnancies with no trouble. However, for other women, the thought (or previous experience) of fasting while pregnant or nursing is anywhere from worrisome to absolutely frightening.

What follows here is not a formal Teshuvah. This is an attempt to lay out some of the halachic and medical considerations as well as the metzi’ut – the reality – that may come into play when considering whether pregnant or nursing women should fast on Yom Kippur. (Tisha B’av and minor fasts should be discussed separately.)

Halachic considerations:

  • Yom Kippur is the only fast that carries the weight of a d’orraita – a Biblical commandment. We generally do not override a Biblical prohibition unless there is a clear sakana, danger. Women who do not have high-risk pregnancies are in no immediate danger when they fast, and the same is true for nursing women.
  • Halacha allows a cholah, a sick individual, to break her fast on Yom Kippur if fasting might lead to sakana, a life-threatening situation.  Even if medical advice says that it is safe for her to fast, the halacha trusts the individual’s instincts about her own body’s needs and allows her to eat if she says she urgently needs to. For normal pregnancies, it is difficult to know if and when a pregnant woman might cross over into the cholah category. Although it is generally not a life-threatening scenario, this category might be explored.
  • Even though the assumption is that pregnant women should fast on Yom Kippur, the halacha takes into consideration a woman’s psychological need – her yishuv da’at. This is specifically discussed with regards to her cravings, but we might expand the idea of yishuv da’at to include her concern for the wellbeing of the fetus. This is not an objective medical need, but her own feeling of being unsettled or troubled. No matter how many medical facts you throw at her, it might not make her internally feel secure about fasting.
  • The halachic principle of B’makom tzaar lo gazru might also be applied here. This means that if an individual experiences significant pain (physical or psychological) then there is room to be lenient on Rabbinic prohibition. This is what might allow a pregnant woman to eat or drink shiurim (small amounts every 9 minutes) so that she is only violating the Rabbinic-level fast, but she is still fasting on a Biblical level. She has not eaten or drank enough to be considered halachically “eating”.*
  • A pregnant or nursing woman is actively involved in the great mitzvah of Pru U’rvu, bearing children. We should do everything in our power to support her ability to continue to do so unhindered.


Medical Considerations:

  • Pregnancy is a unique case because it is a medical status which is global (affects the entire body), and varies greatly from person to person. It also occurs in such a high number of people in the population that it is felt to be common, even though it brings on significant changes and sometimes difficulties.
  • The most common risk of fasting while pregnant is dehydration, which may induce contractions. These contractions may lead to preterm labor, which is of greatest risk to the fetus between 22-32 weeks. Even between 32-37 weeks, the fetus may experience significant health difficulties if delivered early (low birth weight, incomplete lung development, jaundice). 
  • For nursing mothers, fasting may temporarily reduce milk supply, but will not undermine long-term ability to breastfeed.
  • People’s ability to tolerate fasting varies significantly. It often correlates with a woman’s physical stature, but not necessarily. A pregnant woman’s ability to fast will also vary with her pregnancy history of this particular pregnancy as well as previous pregnancies, or pregnancy loss.



  • Women’s experiences of pregnancy and nursing vary significantly. Some women feel their bodies are robust and resilient during pregnancy, and are confident that their baby is in no danger if they fast. Others feel concerned and worried that fasting will compromise their own health or that of the baby. These are not only mental thoughts, but can be visceral feelings, especially when it comes to a mother questioning the safety of her baby. Whether a pregnant woman is experiencing confidence or concern, no one can convince her to FEEL differently.
  • For a woman who is absolutely committed to breastfeeding, being told that she need not be concerned about the possibility of a temporarily diminished milk supply, because she can just supplement with formula, is extremely troubling and is a very real form of tzaar (psychological distress) for that woman.
  • Some doctors are not concerned about fasting after 37 weeks because the fetus is full term at that point. Since the biggest risk of fasting is that she will go into labor, there is no real danger. However, for a woman who is absolutely committed to a natural birth, being told not to worry if she goes into early labor is extremely troubling. Going into labor when dehydrated will increase the likelihood that she will need IV, or other interventions, and will decrease her confidence in her ability to push through (pun intended) the intense experience she will face.
  • For many women, the conversation with their rabbi and doctor goes something like this:

Woman asks rabbi: Am I obligated to fast on Yom Kippur?

Rabbi responds: Does your doctor say it is safe for you to fast?

Woman asks doctor: Is it safe for me to fast on Yom Kippur?

Doctor responds: Yes, there is no danger to you or to the fetus. But if you don’t feel well, you should break your fast.

Women tells rabbi: My doctor says there is no danger and that I should fast, unless I start to feel sick.

Rabbi responds: Then you are obligated to fast, since your doctor says it is safe. Fast as long as you are able to. If you absolutely need to break your fast, then drink shiurim.


Here are the difficulties in this typical scenario:

  1. Medical professionals vary in their opinions on this and many other issues. Some doctors have told me that they never advise a pregnant woman to fast, whereas others regularly advise it. When there is a range in medical opinion, often doctors will take their cues from the patient. This is generally good medical practice – good doctors listen carefully to hear what a patient is experiencing, and what they need. However,  some doctors believe that their religious clientele want to be told that they can fast. One doctor who has many Hareidi patients told me that she is “lenient” and “allows” her patients to fast. Her belief is that she is allowing the patients their full religious practice. However, doctors may not realize that if they were more medically “strict” and cautious, the halacha would respect this. And some women might even be relieved to receive the medical advice that they should not fast. 
  2. The woman in this scenario now has the onus of deciding when she is “sick enough” to need to break her fast. On Yom Kippur, if she is sick in bed, she will not be able to phone the doctor to ask if she needs to eat. She takes Yom kippur extremely seriously, and she now carries the burden of determining her own medical and halachic status. Even though the halacha trusts her own instincts, chances are she will wait as long as possible before finally taking it upon herself to break her fast. At that point, she might be very dehydrated, and she might have begun feeling contractions (I know some women who have driven themselves to this point), and drinking small amounts every 9 minutes might not be sufficient. She may need to even break her fast completely.

NOTE: It isn’t just the women of our own generation who delay breaking their own fast. The Aruch Hashulchan OH 617 points out, “In our time, it is known that the women themselves tend to say they do not need to eat…”

Imagine a conversation between a woman and her halachic advisor that was more of a give and take, where the woman could share her thoughts and hesitations. Imagine if she was told to speak to her doctor, not only to ask whether it was “safe” for her to fast, but to discuss her fears and her previous experiences with fasting. Imagine she also asked her doctor to specify what it might mean to “feel sick enough to eat”, what particular symptoms to look for, so that she would feel more empowered to make that decision on the day of.

Imagine, also, that a woman was encouraged to begin utilizing the possibility of drinking shiurim when her yishuv daat was disturbed, even before she felt very physically ill. If she thinks that she won’t make it through the day, how much better it would be for a woman to drink shiurim earlier, before she feels extremely ill. Then she will be more likely to be able to make it through the fast and still have technically kept the commandment of fasting.

 Many generations of pregnant and nursing women have fasted on Yom Kippur. Our halachic authorities, including the revered Shulchan Aruch, would not have advised women to fast if they thought it posed a serious risk. Is this simply a case where we modern women are more anxious about our bodies, and less trusting in their resiliency? It is possible. We are more accustomed to treating any discomfort by popping a tylenol, rather than just riding it out and trusting our bodies will get through the difficulty. However, it is also possible that women were not an active part of the halachic conversations, and that their own subjective experiences were not fully considered. And even if women’s experiences have changed, and we are accustomed to feeling comfortable, (and even fall into the category of istinis – someone who is spoiled or particular), shouldn’t the subjective concepts of yishuv daat and tzaar still apply, even if some women’s experiences are different than those of generations earlier?

I hope to someday write a full halachic article addressing this issue thoroughly, and citing the extensive sources on the topic. For now, I suggest that we, as a community, consider these important questions: Why are we telling women to fast until they are sick? And why are women going into early labor on Yom Kippur? Even on the day when we are commanded to afflict ourselves “Ve’initem et nafshoteichem”, I still believe that the Torah is “deracheha darchei Noam” – its ways are pleasant and beautiful. Surely, the Torah’s path must protect and respect the most treasured and Divine process that a human being can involve herself with, the miracle of birth.


*It is not clear that eating in shiurim constitutes only a Rabbinic prohibition. There is a machloket recorded in the Gemara (Yoma 74a) about this, and normative halachic codification accepts the opinion that eating less than a shiur is still a Biblical prohibition although not punishable. However, the Gemara elsewhere (Kritut 13a) permits a pregnant woman to eat less than a shiur. A further discussion of the various opinions is required. Please do not consider this blog post as “psak” or as a substitute for consulting your own halachic authority as well as your doctor or midwife.

Why Don’t the Women Sing in Shul?

July 18, 2014

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

Today, a friend told me of a question her three-year-old daughter asked her in shul on Shabbat:

“Mommy, why do only the men sing in shul?”

She was not referring to the fact that only men lead the davening or read from the Torah. She was noticing that when the tzibbur as a whole responds, or sings together, that only the men sing. My friend said that the question made her want to cry.

This phenomenon has bugged me for many years. In a typical Orthodox shul, the men sing, chant, mutter, even exclaim aloud at various points in the davening. The women sing beneath their breath, hum, or even whisper. It is as if we have taken the model of Chana, rak sefateha na’ot – only her lips moved but her voice could not be heard – and expanded it well beyond the silent Amidah into the rest of prayer.

Why don’t the women sing?

There is a possibility that it stems from concerns for Kol Isha. However, in Modern Orthodox synagogues, most women (and men) know that a group of women singing together does not violate the prohibition. There is also ample halachic evidence that even when a single voice is discernable within the group or when one woman is singing alone, the prohibition of Kol Isha does not apply in the context of prayer, education, or other holy activities.

So, why don’t the women sing?

I cannot speak for other women, but I can tell you why I don’t sing. It is not a halachic reason, but a musical one: I can’t sing in the men’s key!

It may sound like a simple, almost too simplistic answer. But for me, it is the truth. By the time the baal tefillah, hits those high tenor notes, I am silent on the other side of the mechitzah, having dropped my voice a long time ago.

For other women, there may be other reasons: some may feel shy; some do not enjoy singing out loud or would prefer to simply listen. But those of us who do try to sing find it almost impossible. When the baal tefillah is singing a lower part, we are in our upper range, struggling to sing an octave above him. And then as he moves to a climactic chorus, his voice soaring (along with so many other male voices on the other side of the room) it is just too high. It is then that we women need to dip down into our gravelly lower range to sing along. At that point, even if we are singing, no one can hear us, let alone can we hear ourselves. It feels as if whatever they’re singing over on the other side, where all the action is, makes our voices uncomfortable, and it is easier just to fall silent.

It is no wonder that davening in a women’s Tefillah fills me with a sense of relief. Many other women have told me they feel it too. Ah, finally. Just our key. We all sing aloud. Finally, we can hear ourselves, and each other. The room fills with women’s voices, strong and spirited.

Of course, there is more than a simple a choice of musical key that can cause some women to diminish their voice in shul. Some feel that the synagogue is not an atmosphere that is open and inviting to women. The choice of key is symbolic of the larger phenomenon – that the locus of control is elsewhere in the room. The decisions that are made as to how the service runs all come from a place to which we have no access. While it’s true that all the men in the room are also at the mercy of the baal tefillah’s choice in music and the gabbai’s choice in aliyah, we women know that these positions will never be open to us. I cannot simply wait until next week to choose my favorite tunes for Kedusha at Mussaf. I might indirectly influence the choice when my husband leads davening, and he chooses tunes he knows I’ll enjoy. Thus, it is only when I have an emissary on the other side that I feel I can have a voice. And even then…. Well, let’s just say my husband has a lovely tenor voice which does not jive well with my alto.

But maybe that’s just it. Maybe we women need male allies, advocates on the other side of the mechitzah, who will think of us, who will sometimes ask us what our preference is, and how we’d like to sing. It may sound patronizing, infantilizing even, to assert that women need this. But the reality is that if Orthodox women are going to have a voice in the typical Orthodox sanctuary, a musical say in the davening, it will only be with the help of the men.

I recall one particular time it did happen for me, when I was in Chicago, serving in a clergy capacity Anshe Sholom, on a Shabbat when the rabbi was away. As the baal tefillah was about to begin singing Lecha Dodi, he suddenly stopped. There was a long, silent pause, after which he looked across the mechitzah at me and mimed a total blank. He had choked. He simply could not come up with a single Lecha Dodi tune in that moment. I’m sure if the rabbi had been there, he would have started a tune. But our baal tefillah looked to me as the clergy who would have to step in. And without missing a beat, I began singing, and he followed suit.

Would it be so hard? I’m sure there are many musical women in our congregations who would jump at the chance to choose a tune, and yes, choose the key. Of course there are many Orthodox settings where women are leading Kabbalat Shabbat and other parts of Tefillah, but in situations where a woman cannot lead, at least let her lead from behind. I venture to guess that when the women’s voices are comfortable, we will more readily belt out Lecha Dodi – or Etz Chayim Hi or Aleinu – and that this will further our ability to feel like full participants in the room. I wonder what would happen if the women chose the key. I wonder if the men would begin to understand our experience. I wonder if we might create a beautiful harmony of the masculine and feminine voices in prayer, voices that could combine and together, reach the heavens.

Kol Kallah- The voice of a Kallah teacher

May 2, 2014

Guest post by Sarah Robinson


Almost as soon as I was married, I was asked by other women to study with them in preparation for their marriages as observant Jewish couples. The Kallah classes nightmare scenario outlined by Dr Maryles Sztokman was in my head for sure. The separation between spirituality and pleasure, brain and belief, personhood and obedience. I was sure it didn’t have to be that way.

Rejecting the role of teacher, I have preferred to form a learning partnership with the brides I have taught where each has her area of expertise. My expertise being my experience of marriage and relationships and hers of her self awareness and understanding of herself in relation to Jewish Law and to her relationship with her husband to be. It would seem that an insightful and informative one on one discussion between a married woman and one whose marriage is imminent cannot possibly be lecture format. How do you know where she is starting? Does she have positive or negative impressions, experiences shared by friends or family, a conflict right there already in the room?

Suffice to say I am not alone in this approach. I was extremely fortunate to attend an intensive seminar in March 2011 run and staffed by Jofa in conjunction with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat and incorporating presentations by Dr Batsheva Marcus the clinical director of the Medical Center for Female Sexuality and renowned sex therapist. collected like minded educators committed to both hunanising halacha and demystifying the sexual relationship in order to communicate honestly and in an educated way about both.

The greatest benefit of the course by far, was the creation of a group in that room which would stay in touch with each other, help explore sensitive issues, share knowledge, insight and understanding, and radically change the face of transmitting a unique, ancient and value filled approach to marriage much in demand by couples in our community. Many of us teach couples together and while both halacha and sensitivity can be effectively taught, the challenges of bringing each of the people truly into the room and attending to their sensitivities regarding halacha knowledge and self awareness is immense. This is the task undertaken by those who have participated in training and who continue to discuss and struggle with the tensions implicit in this area of living.

Sarah Hass Robinson is a licensed clinical social worker and Jewish educator in Manhattan

A Family Discovery – Yom HaShoah Comes to Life

April 28, 2014

As the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, I never heard the story of the murder of our family members directly from my grandfather – he never liked talking about it – but it was told and retold to me by my mother. She pursued graduate work in Holocaust studies, she lectured on the topic, she chaperoned hundreds of teenagers on visits to the camps and crematoria. So immersed was she in Holocaust literature that our bookshelves brimmed with the classics.

As for me, after all this exposure, I had somehow reverted to my grandfather’s silence. Not that I wasn’t willing to talk about it, but the fact was simply that the Shoah was a closed piece of my history, sealed and far away. The schools I attended did such a good job of Holocaust education, as did the summer camps – which would not let a Tisha b’Av go by without showing images of gas chambers or talking about the destruction of European Jewry – that I somehow felt saturated. I didn’t need to talk about it anymore.

Until now. My second cousin received an email from a gentleman in Israel. He had heard there were members of a Chanowitz family (my mother’s maiden name) in the United States. Since this man’s mother was a Chanowitz, he thought perhaps we were distant relatives. He knew his mother was the only survivor of her entire family, which had included nine children. But perhaps this was a cousin through his mother’s distant family.

He proceeded to tell his mother’s lineage and all the details of the family. As my mother read me the original email over the phone, I was in shock. This man’s mother, was none other than Asna Mera, who figured prominently in our family’s story, the story I had heard so many times growing up.

Asna was the second sister of my grandfather’s family. She was taken away in the first of the roundups, along with many of the leaders of the community. The story I had heard (and details are now being clarified) was that when the Jews had heard that there was danger, the entire Chanowitz family barricaded themselves in their home for protection. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. Asna insisted that they should open the door despite the danger, because it could be a Jew in need of protection. And so the other family members barricaded themselves into the back of the house while Asna opened the door. It was a German soldier, who immediately took her away. Asna was shot and buried in a mass grave in the forest, along with the rest of the group. She was just a teenager when she was murdered.

And now, we hear that Asna actually had somehow escaped and had made a life for herself in the former Soviet Union, that Asna had children and grandchildren, a family. My family.

And suddenly my family’s history, and my own, opened up again. Suddenly the tales of the Shoah were happening right here and right now. I felt the strange feeling of gaining family, of reviving the dead, of repairing a broken chain of my identity and of my family. It felt like a world reborn.

And then the realization hit: if this entire branch of my family could suddenly reappear, and could elicit such a feeling of rebirth and of hope, what of all the branches that never got to be? All the siblings who were, in fact, brutally murdered? Where are their descendants now? Where are all my dear cousins who should now be raising families of their own, as I am? And for the first time, I understood the loss. For the first time, I felt like a survivor.

The third generation is a strange place to be. It is the point where it is easy to step aside and allow the family story to be just that – a story rather than a living, breathing reality. For all these years, the Shoah was tucked away like a family heirloom. Now, it was suddenly dusted off and bequeathed to me, along with the loss and the void. It is my loss, too.

This piece originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News, April 24, 2014.

To read more about my family’s unfolding story, see this article from the Chabad Lubavitch Headquarters. (Our connection to Asna Mera’s family was made because of my family’s roots in Chabad.) My grandfather, Yisroel, is pictured at the right. 

Olympic Judaism

February 23, 2014

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

I know we’ve moved on to Pikudei, but I hope you enjoy my Drasha from this past Shabbat.

A bit of Olympic history for you:

When the modern olympic games were founded in 1894, only amateurs were allowed to compete. It was forbidden to play for any monetary gain. In fact, the 1912 Olympic decathlon champion Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Olympics.

Over the course of the 20th century, this idea slowly eroded, on mostly practical grounds. Athletes obviously needed to be funded in order to spend the time practicing and competing. They would avoid breaking the rules by having money deposited into trust funds rather than being paid directly. But slowly through the 1970s and 80s the rules were relaxed. In 1988, professional athletes were formally permitted.

It’s hard to imagine a world without baseball players on million-dollar salaries, or your favorite hockey player being paid to appear on a box of cereal. But in the beginning, there was a sense that the ideal athlete was an amateur, not a professional.

Why this fixation with the amateur player?

The word athlete comes from the ancient greek for “one who competes for a prize”. Ancient Greek athletes did, in fact, play for prize money. The word amateur, however, comes from Latin “amator”, or love. An amateur is someone who does it for the love of the game.

Our culture values the idea of the amateur, the person who acts out of love or commitment. Even when someone does something nice for me, I don’t feel as appreciative it if I think they did it out of a sense of obligation. We prefer good deeds that are done by choice. We consider it more noble to do the right thing because you WANT to, not because you feel you HAVE to.

It’s this tension between “have to” and “want to” that emerges from within our parsha.

We read about the beautiful and luxurious materials that were donated for the building of the Mishkan.

קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם תְּרוּמָה, לַיהוָה, כֹּל נְדִיב לִבּוֹ, יְבִיאֶהָ אֵת תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה:  זָהָב וָכֶסֶף, וּנְחֹשֶׁת.

“Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous hearted person shall bring it, [namely] the Lord’s offering: gold, silver, and copper.”

The verses refer over and over to nediv libam – the people gave whatever they saw fit, out of the generosity of their heart; there was no prescribed amount. And in fact, they were so moved to give that Moshe had to do something that has never happened in any Jewish fundraising campaign ever since. Moshe had to ask them to stop donating! They had given too MUCH. (Devarim 36:6)

Rashi, however, reminds us that not all these materials were voluntary donations. Here, he refers back to a comment he made in Parshat Terumah, when we are first commanded with regards to the building of the Mishkan:

“[The materials]  were all given voluntarily; each person [gave] what his heart inspired him to give, except [for] the silver, which they gave equally, a half-shekel for each individual.”  (24:3)

The only material that came through obligatory collection was the silver. A tax of one half-shekel coin was levied from each person, and these coins provided the silver for the Mishkan.

What does Judaism more greatly value – a voluntary act of commitment, or one that is done out of a sense of obligation?

Our Sages assert Gadol hametzuveh v’oseh m’asher eino metzuveh v’oseh – It is greater to be commanded to perform mitzvot and to do them, rather than to do mitzvah out of choice or religious fervor.

This concept famously plays a central role when discussing the many mitzvot from which women are exempted. A woman is not obligated in a host of mitzvot – sitting in the sukkah, hearing the shofar, and wearing tzitzit to name a few. But a woman may choose to do these out of her own volition, and we know that Jewish women en masse have taken upon themselves some of these very central mitzvot – hearing the shofar is the most widespread example. And, of course, there is a very interesting discussion happening right now in the Orthodox community with regards to women who might choose to don tefillin. (Another conversation for another time; find me at Kiddush – or on a future blog post…)

We do admire people who go the extra mile, who do a mitzvah out of nedivut generosity of spirit. My husband Avi and I named our second daughter Nedivah as a nod to this concept – Nedivah means generous, or giving. Avi and I deeply value this characteristic of nedivut, and we wanted to impart it to our daughter.

But ultimately, Judaism places a greater value on the idea of obligation, commandedness – Metzuveh v’oseh. This is symbolized by the fact that although most of the Mishkan was built using materials that were given from a deep and overwhelming sense of zeal and generosity, it also contained in it the machatzit ha’shekel, the obligatory donation that each person was required to give.

The voluntary donations clearly provided all the materials needed, even more than enough. Why was it important to also utilize the half-shekel coins in the building of the Mishkan?

For this, we return to our Olympic athletes.

We may admire amateurs. Their sheer love and passion is what drives them. But ultimately, that is not sustainable en masse. The Olympics had to recognize the need for the professional athlete.

A pro athlete may feel exhilarated during his time on the rink, or on the ski slopes. But if he wakes up one day and doesn’t feel like getting on the ice, he still has to do it. He has committed himself to this, and he must rise to meet that commitment.

Ideally, we should all be amateur Jews. We should live the values of the Torah out of sheer joy and love for it. We hope that our fire of religious fervor is lit constantly.

But we also recognize that sometimes we may lose our motivation, or the challenges of a Jewish life may be too great. We may not always be internally motivated to make the decision to do what is moral and right. It is then that we might become “professional” Jews. We might recognize that we each have a responsibility to contribute that half-shekel to the world. We are obligated to uphold Jewish values and to participate in Jewish life, even when our internal drive is not as strong.

It is that sense of obligation that is gadol – that is greatness. Metzuveh v’oseh, it is our commandedness that keeps us active and committed, that keeps our community going.

Ideally, even when we act out of a sense of obligation, this will lead us to rekindle the fire, so that we can become Jewish amateurs, and do it simply because we love it.