Baihlah and Lisa do Israel

Shalom from Tel Aviv!

Baihlah and I arrived in Israel Tuesday afternoon. We are having a great time. We spent much of yesterday visiting Jaffa, and will be heading to Caesaria later today, before moving on to Haifa tonight.

Thursday, October 18


Today, Baihlah and I went to Caesarea National Park. If you've never
heard of it, Caesarea was an ancient port city located on the
Mediterranean about halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. It was
initially built by King Herod a little over 2,000 years ago, then
destroyed and re-built repeatedly over the next couple of thousand
years by the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs, the Crusaders, and probably
a few other warring groups whose identities I can't remember. Which
all makes for some very cool archeology, if you're into that kind of
thing. You should check it out here:

After Caesarea, we took the train from Tel Aviv to Haifa and checked
in to the Port Inn Hostel.

Friday, October 18

Shabbat Shalom!

A very full day today. We got up first thing Friday morning to take a
train into Nahariya, where we caught a bus to Rosh Hanikra.

Rosh Hanikra is on the Mediterranean coast in far North-Western
Israel, bordering Lebanon. You can literally see Lebanon from the
shore. It's a beautiful network of limestone grottos carved out by the

After returning to Haifa in the afternoon, we hiked through the German
Colony and the sculpture garden. We then went on a two-hour mission to
find the Leo Baeck Center so that we could attend services at the
local Reform Synagogue, Ohel Avraham. Services were lovely, and the
Rabbi, Na'ama Dafni-Kellen, very welcoming. Afterwards, some members
of the congregation helped us figure out how to call a taxi so we
could get back to the Hostel. A really great day.

Tomorrow, we are going to the Bahai Gardens, then on to Akko!

We Were Strangers


We hear about refugees so much we may be inured to their tragedy and pain. Meanwhile they’re hiding in your city, starving in Uganda, being murdered in Myanmar, prostrate with dehydration in Sudan.

I can personally recommend the Jewish way of repeating a few chosen words first thing every morning. After a period of focus something comes along and pushes me to change words. Currently I am using this: When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Lev. 19:33)

From Abraham to today as Jews we have almost constantly been running from oppression, death, starvation somewhere in the world. The Holiness Code, international law and the stories we have heard with our own ears require us to respond to today’s refugees. When mothers and their children  run from murderers and rapists without time to pack a bag is no time to be singing a song about bootstraps.

Refugees are people who choose between flight and death. They are not just looking for better opportunities when they beg for admittance to a reasonably calm country. Their children will be taken, they will be tortured or murdered if they return and usually their home and crops have turned to ash.

I look back on my own childhood and while we were poorer than any church mice, I never worried about armed men storming down the hill into our yard and it never occurred to me there could be tanks on our road. Few of us can imagine the agony the world’s 20 million refugees have suffered through. While 91% of the world’s children attend primary school, about 50% of refugee children do so; 10-15% attend secondary school. What kind of world are we building?

Pesach is a Holy Day that pushes us toward responsibility:

  • To volunteer with the Winnebago County Literacy Council, call your local library.
  • Volunteer at and contribute to local food pantries
  • Contribute to United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 1800 Massachusetts Av NW #500, Washington DC  20036 (UNHCR)
  • Contribute to Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 220 E 42 St, New York NY  10017 (The Joint)
  • Contribute to URJ Religious Action Center, 2027 Massachusetts Av NW 20036
  • Write to members of Congress and demand that we provide the asylum required by our 1980 Refugee Act.

We of all people must provide a haven to the persecuted, to religious minorities, to the other. The strength of America comes from open doors, extended hands, welcoming words, smiling faces and generous pockets.

- Barbara Kuhn

Meet Tony Davila!


Meet Antonio Davila (Tony), who has managed physical operations at Beth Israel since 1991.  He loves country living, family, menudo and fortunately for us at CBI, his job!

Is Austin Home?

Austin proper isn’t home, but Tony and his wife bring their RV to East Austin and live there for much of the year. This allows for an easier commute to CBI. Originally from the Lockhart/Mendoza area, he prefers country living and he and his wife own five acres in the general Lockhart vicinity where they retreat for big family holidays or just to relax.

Family Life

Tony and his wife met in 1959 while he was working at a service station on E. 7th and she worked at a nearby bakery. It was pretty much love at first sight. They married in 1962, and on April 1st will celebrate 56 years together.

Tony was the third child in a large family—11 children—six sisters and five brothers. He and his wife scaled back a bit when they grew their own family and only have six children, all grown with families of their own. He has eight living grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The family all gathers on their land for holidays, fixing sausage wraps and menudo and, as Tony says with a chuckle, “blaring Tejano music.”

His Free Time

In his free time, Tony and his wife travel to the Texas coast, where he fishes, enjoys the peace of Gulf waters, and occasionally runs into familiar CBI families relaxing at the Gulf too. He says they haven’t been back to Rockport since the hurricane devastation but that Rockport was always their favorite Gulf destination. In fact, Tony says that if he ever wins the lottery, he wants to move down to Rockport and just fish and enjoy life.

He also loves watching old television shows in syndication—notably Andy Griffith and The Beverly Hillbillies.

His Job

Despite two knee replacements, one in 1999 and the other in 2003, Tony manages work with energy and efficiency. As Senior Custodian, he sets up all events, including pronegs, onegs, and bar and bat mitzvahs. He works Sundays through Thursdays in order to be on the job for Hebrew school and other Sunday activities. He loves his job, his coworkers, and the entire CBI congregation.

So this is Antonio Davila, one of the many reasons our congregation juggles multiple events so successfully. Thank you thank you thank you, Tony, for your contributions to Beth Israel!

Get to Know Your Sisterhood Newsletter Editor: An Interview with Lisa Meng


Q: Let's start with your life at long have you been a member of Beth Israel?

Lisa: 2011 is when I finally joined; I started going to services in 2010 and LJL [Living a Jewish Life class] in early 2011.

Q:  You immediately started going to LJL? That seems atypical.  

Lisa: I don’t know what spurred it exactly.  The thinking was probably along the lines of 

“I’m Jewish; I should probably go find out what that means.”

Q: Did you find that in LJL class?  

Lisa: I actually found out a lot of stuff in LJL; it was really a source of a lot of personal growth.  

Q: Would you care to expand on that? 

Lisa:  Before I took the class, I never realized how much of a Christian culture we live in and how much anti-Judaism there is; what you hear about Judaism has a negative flavor.  One of the eye-opening things [about LJL class] was that it presented Judaism in a very different light, which was very healing to me, because I think I subconsciously carried around a lot of internalized negative cultural beliefs [about being Jewish]. It helped me integrate that part of myself and find peace with it. 

Q: You said the LJL class was eye-opening and that it presented Judaism in a positive, not a negative, light; would you have expected anything else?  

Lisa: I am not sure what I was expecting going into it.

Q: You spoke of healing a part of yourself…

Lisa: I was having a conversation with [former CBI Educator] Rabbi Lippe about this… the word shalom – one definition or interpretation, in addition to peace, is wholeness. Part of [coming to terms with my Jewishness] is [the sense of] becoming my whole self; it turned out to be true.

Q: Tell me a little about your Jewish background growing up, because it sounds like there is a part of you that needed to be healed. 

Lisa: How far back do you want to go?  

Q: How about, start at the part that needed healing.

Lisa: Let’s go back to the anti-religious sentiment that I grew up with.  

Q: Towards Judaism or any religion?  

Lisa: Towards all religions, actually. My father was raised Baptist, and had a lot of negative experiences from that. My mother was halachically Jewish, and grew up with a rabid atheist father and a mother who practiced Judaism on the sly; she was not strictly observant, but she had some religious beliefs that she kept from her spouse. My maternal Grandfather’s mother was born into a Jewish Orthodox family in New York City around the turn of century; she rebelled and married a Greek Orthodox man. As a result of that marriage, she was disowned by her family. So when she was about 56, she turned the gas on, put her head in the oven, and killed herself. So my grandfather, who was probably destined to be a bitter and angry man anyway, blamed religion for that [his mother’s suicide], and he became anti-religious as a result.  At that time, being ethnically Jewish was a lot more important than it is nowadays.  

Q: What do you mean?

Lisa: My mother grew up in New York in the 1940s and 50s in a neighborhood that was 90% Jewish. She went to Jewish summer camp every year as a child. Her parents met at a Jewish resort. [In those days], It was easy to identify as Jewish culturally, even if not practicing. And even if not practicing, it was very taboo to marry out. I think a lot of that was due to anti-Semitism.  

Q: Let’s move forward to your Jewish upbringing and Jewish experiences growing up - or lack thereof…

Lisa: So…[very long pause] let me think about this. There basically wasn’t any…[another very long pause]…I think the closest my parents came [to giving us any religious exposure] was taking us to a Unitarian fellowship when we were kids, but they weren’t very into that…but as far as Jewish experiences, very few; and a lot were things that you would associate with the cultural, yahrtzeit candles, occasional use of Yiddish, cryptic references to religious beliefs. When the topic of hell came up, mom would say “we don’t believe in that.” For the longest time, I had no idea who she meant by “we”.  And the only family prayer I remember ever being exposed to was at holiday meals, when mom would say Ha’Motzi in Hebrew and then English before we ate. That was pretty much the extent of it.

Q: Did you know you had Jewish heritage?

Lisa: Of course; my mother was proud of her Jewish heritage and considered herself Jewish.  

Q: In what way did she demonstrate that pride?  

Lisa: That’s a good question…she certainly didn’t hide that aspect of herself. I don’t know how to describe it.

Q: So would it be fair to say you essentially grew up with no religious home life?  

Lisa: Yes.

Q: So you came to CBI in 2010, when you were past…young adulthood.  

Lisa: I was 44 the first time I set foot in a synagogue.  

Q: The first time you set foot in any synagogue? that was CBI at age 44?

Lisa: yes.  

Q: Going to a synagogue for the first time after 44 years is a dramatic shift in life. Was there some specific impetus that led to this, or a series of events that led to you walking into Beth Israel for the first time?

Lisa: There were several things. One was [long-term boyfriend] Kevin’s [unexpected] death [in a cycling accident in 2009]. For me, his death felt like it left a big hole in the Universe; for the longest time after he died, it was inconceivable to me how the sun could come up every day without him being there to see it. And I realized that I couldn’t live in a world where the life of someone who’d been so special to me had had no meaning. So not long after he died, I resolved to…maybe not believe, all at once…but to keep the door open to the presence of the Divine in my life. Because I realized that by not doing so, the only person I was hurting was myself.

Also, [another factor was that] my mother was doing a lot of genealogical research; that’s her hobby these days. And she was going through Yad Vashem records, and she found a relative who was an Auschwitz survivor who currently lives in Toronto. My mother found pages of testimony this relative had written for Yad Vashem about the deaths of her parents. They were Hungarian, and had been gassed at Auschwitz. My maternal Grandmother had immigrated [to the United States from Hungary] with her family in 1912, and almost none of the family left behind in Europe survived.  One of the survivors, who is named Hedy, is my mom’s second cousin. I remember looking at the page of testimony that Hedy had written and being profoundly moved. I think that’s a big part of why I was finally motivated to come to terms with the Jewish part of my self.

Q: So since 2010, when you first set foot in a synagogue, how have you evolved Jewishly? 

Lisa: As part of the LJL class, I went to [former CBI Assistant] Rabbi Olshein at the end of the class and said, “I want to convert”.  She told me, “you’re halachically Jewish; you don’t need to convert.”  I still felt like I wanted to make some kind of commitment to being religiously Jewish.  So I took Hebrew classes and Melton, and I started adult b’nai mitzvah class the next year, in 2013.

Q: When was your bat mitzvah? 

Lisa: June 7, 2014; the Torah portion was Behaalotecha. It was good; it had Moses in it and one of those great arguments with God.

Q: How have your religious beliefs and practices evolved?  

Lisa: At some point I decided I wanted to incorporate some level of Shabbat observance and some level of kashrut in my life; that was a challenge.  

Q: Previously there was none of either, right? 

Lisa: Correct; and observance of holidays … fasting on Yom Kippur, following dietary restrictions on Passover.  

Q: You had never been to a Passover Seder before? 

Lisa: No, I had not. I have a couple of siblings [who are practicing Jews]; my brother Ian moved to Rhode Island to go to Brown University when he was 18, and met and married a woman who was raised Conservative. So their family is being raised Jewish.  And my youngest sister had kind of a similar situation. She went to the University of Rochester in New York, and met and married someone who was Reform. So when I finally decided to set foot in a synagogue, I called my younger sister and asked her what to do. She said, “Just show up at a service, and if someone asks if you are Jewish, say ‘just the food’ and it will be no big deal.”

Q: You first went to a synagogue at age 44; so for 20 years you have had siblings who are practicing Jews and you never talked about it?  

Lisa: we talked about it, but they were far away, [all living on the East Coast,] so I never spent holidays with them. For most of my adulthood, all of my holidays were spent visiting my non-religious parents and Catholic in-laws on the West Coast. Ex-in-laws, actually, since I divorced my lapsed-Catholic, very anti-religious ex-husband in 2001.

Q: What do you see as your Jewish future?  

Lisa: I’ve been trying to shape that for a while now…and nothing is set in stone.  Do you want my fantasy Jewish future? 

Q: Yes.  

Lisa: I want to be able to walk to shul [for services] every Friday night [and] every Saturday morning, and turn off the cell phone and not turn it on [again] until Saturday night; I want to have a real Shabbat. I’ve been experimenting with trying to find meaningful Jewish practice for a while…it comes down to wanting to be more fully observant of Shabbat and Kashrut. I kind of have this goal of reading the Torah portion every week and doing that for at least one full cycle. I’d like to do mikveh on Erev Yom Kippur. I just find a lot of meaning in that.  

Q: Have you ever been to a mikveh? 

Lisa: Nope. I talked to Rabbi Epstein about that.  

Q: What did she say? 

Lisa: She was fully supportive. I told her that I wanted to do it to mark menopause - to mark that life transition - and she was really supportive.  She said, “You know you can go to Chabad and do Mikveh, but the ritual part of it you will have to do on your own.”  She said she would help me put something together for the ritual part.  

Q: Let’s talk about your current involvement at CBI; you have been very involved with CBI sisterhood; how did that particular role arise? 

Lisa: It was right after that stupid election last year; I had been a Sisterhood member off and on, but didn’t feel like [it was] something that…I don’t know how to put it…

Q: Let me ask it this way.  What’s meaningful for you now about Sisterhood?  

Lisa: A lot of women were pissed off and upset by that election. CBI Sisterhood put out a note [an article in the Sisterhood newsletter] that they were going to be attending the Women’s March last January.  I read that and I said, “I am so there!  Sisterhood is doing something I really believe in.”

Before that, my perception was that Sisterhood was doing stuff that I didn’t feel was having a significant impact in the world; that benefitted only our group [CBI members], and only particular subsets within our group [children’s camp scholarships, for example].  It just didn’t feel meaningful putting my energy into that at the time. I was looking for something that affected the [greater] community, and had a meaning and purpose I could get behind. On top of that, at the time, I had a sense of feeling very alone and a sense of wanting to join forces or find comfort in the company of people who felt the same way – which is exactly what happened, because I met several members of Sisterhood who I found a sense of solidarity with – a sense of like purpose.  

The NPR radio show, dinner party download, always closes their celebrity interviews with the same standard questions.  We are closing with the same questions.

Q: What question are you tired of being asked?

Lisa: This is not something that’s been asked of me a lot, but asked enough to be annoying… “What makes you think you’re Jewish?” especially when I was asked that by someone [who was] raised Jewish and had two Jewish parents, and hadn’t set foot in a synagogue in 20 years, while I was going through studying to become a bat mitzvah.  I mean, how Jewish are you if you were raised Jewish but don’t have your son circumcised, or you marry a non-Jew and raise your child in that religion, or you do not observe holidays or have any kind of Jewish observance on a personal level?

In contrast to that, I have enormous respect for people like [CBI members] Gretchen [Johnson] and Shari [Nichols], who were not raised Jewish, but live it every day.

Q: Tell us something we don’t know. And this can be either a personal thing that you haven’t shared with others before or it could be an interesting piece of trivia about the world.

Lisa: I have no unique knowledge.

Q: That’s not an acceptable answer.  

Lisa: Okay. I once rode my bike from Vancouver, British Columbia to San Francisco on a solo trip.

Q: you are into Harleys?

Lisa: No. It was human powered…a bicycle.  I am into bicycle touring; it’s a really nerdy hobby.  

Q: So let’s close with some more personal things about you, since we talked quite a bit about your Jewish life.  Do you want to share anything about work? other hobbies? your hot sex life?

Lisa: Here’s something…I swore I’d never get married again.

Q:  So you are divorced? 

Lisa: Yeah.

Q: Do you have any children?

Lisa: Nope. I’ve been divorced since 2001; so a long time.

Q: And you are never getting married again…

Lisa: That [marriage] was such a miserable experience. I swore I would never do it again. I’ve met so many women who feel the same way.

Q: Well, we will see if you ever get talked out of that.

Lisa: It would take a pretty special person to do that; I can say I am more open to that possibility now than I ever have been before – since getting divorced.

Q: Good luck in your non-marriage future, both personally and professionally, as well as your continuing Jewish evolution. Thank you for taking the time to sit down with your readers and share about yourself in this interview.

- Matt Levitt

Thoughts on a Woman of Valor


So I found out recently, since my Jewish education is never complete and always expanding, that it’s traditional for a husband to read Proverbs 31: 10-31 -- eishat chayil (Woman of Valor) —  to his wife on Shabbat. Which sounded sweet and old-fashioned, and reminded me maybe just a tiny bit of this threadbare internet piece called “The Good Wife’s Guide”. 

To be honest, once you read Eishat Chayil, you realize that’s not a particularly fair comparison. The Woman of Valor makes the Good Wife look like a slacker. However, for a couple of reasons, the Woman of Valor still gets a fair bit of side-eye in some circles. First, to a lot of women, she represents an unrealistic and unattainable standard of womanhood. And second, her value revolves around her status as a wife and mother, which not all women these days can relate to.

I have to admit, I myself used to do a fair amount of eye-rolling when I heard the words Woman of Valor. They sounded so old-fashioned. I mean, who ever uses the word “valor” in conversation? What does that even mean?

But the Hebrew phrase – eishat chayil – deserves a closer look. Sure, the word “chayil” can be translated as “valor”. But it can also mean warrior, or strength, or capable. And a Warrior Woman - a Capable Woman - a Strong Woman - projects a whole different image to the modern imagination.

It’s not realistic to take a text that was written over 2,000 years ago and compare its description of ideal womanhood with the lives of modern women. Nobody spins flax for a living anymore. But I think it is fair to look past those details and instead pay attention to the qualities of character they illustrate. We might not spin flax, but I know a lot of women (and men, for that matter — but that is a whole other article) who get up before dawn, feed everybody, make sure the kids get to school on time, then work a full day outside the home only to come home in the evening and make dinner, supervise homework, throw in a couple of loads of laundry, and stay up well past sunset making sure they finish everything that needs to get done. They do this day after day, even when it’s the last thing they feel like doing, because someone has to do it. And they often do it without recognition or thanks.

In my experience, Women of Valor aren't rare. Just last weekend at CBI's Welcoming the Stranger event, I met dozens of them. The Sisterhood board meeting last week was filled with them. Every time Shari leads a Saturday service, I think, Woman of Valor. When Gretchen chants Torah? Woman of Valor. Marsha, setting up meal trains for ill CBI members? Woman of Valor. Ruth compassionately saying goodbye to her dear friend, dying of cancer? Another Woman of Valor. Rabbi Epstein working so hard to pull together the MLK weekend symposium? Uber-Woman of Valor. And I could go on and on. We are so blessed to know so many of them.

So, after thinking about it, my perspective on Eishat Chayil has changed. I think it is a nice gesture, every Erev Shabbat, to take a few minutes and recognize the people in our lives who personify the qualities of a woman of valor -- strength; compassion; optimism; faith; industriousness. Recognizing the Eishat Chayil among us is sweet. It is maybe not so old-fashioned after all.

- Lisa Meng

Focused Eating for the Curious

Sacred Eating.png

Last month, I wrote about some of my general thoughts regarding eco-kashrut.  This month, I am sharing some of my day-to-day experiences trying to experience Godliness through food. 

For me, attention and focus are key in bringing holiness to the seemingly mundane.  It is particularly important for me to bring that focused attention to eating, especially my regular meals. 

In the fast paced world of 2017, however, one of the greatest challenges that many of us face is carving out inviolable time in our daily schedules for meals in which we are unplugged, not multi-tasking, and not rushed. Following are some of the challenges I face at each of the three daily meals. 

Carving out focused undistracted time for breakfast is generally not too difficult for me; however, I am not a morning person, so the mere process of being full awake at breakfast is an ongoing challenge for me.  At lunch, it is easy for me to become engrossed at work and eat lunch at my desk while working, barely aware of what food I am eating.  Dinner can also be difficult; since my work day ends fairly late, the preparation and planning prior to returning home at the end of the work day is key to a calm, focused meal. 


I have identified some tools and practices that are helpful to me in elevating eating from the mundane to more sacred.  Most significantly, I always try to pause and say the relevant food blessing(s) in both Hebrew and English before eating.  I have found the slower I say the blessing the better; and I particularly try to meditate on specific words of the blessing and meditate on the food itself – including the holiness of the entire supply chain, which resulted in the food being in front of me at that moment. I try to use the blessing before eating to deepen my sense of gratitude for the food, my body, and the way in which the food fuels my body.  While it can be easy to forget to say a blessing before eating, I have created a strong visual reminder by having the framed blessings hanging in front of me at my kitchen table.

For breakfast, I have come to accept that my level of consciousness will never be as high as at lunch or dinner.  I find that if I have prayed that morning prior to breakfast – particularly prayed the morning blessings – I am more present and aware for being fully appreciative of the first meal of the day.

For lunch, I find that I am much more likely to have a focused meal if I leave my desk at work; even better if I am able to leave my work environment completely.  And if I am able to escape into the natural environment – even just to a park or picnic table outside, I am most able to withdraw from life’s distractions and have a focused meal.

I have found the most significant factor in helping me raise dinner to a more sacred plane is the shopping and dinner planning prior to returning home from work that evening. One of the simplest ways for me to prepare dinner is with a crockpot.  I continue to find new, healthy, kosher meals that can be made in a crockpot.  It is an especially nice feeling to walk in the door at the end of the work day to the smells of a ready hot meal waiting for me.  When I have not made dinner in the crockpot and when I fail to plan for dinner preparation in advance, I try to make sure I have a structure in place to avoid slipping into eating unhealthy non-kosher fast food.  One way I try to do this is to ensure that the freezer is continually stocked with frozen healthy vegetarian meals from Gardein, Boca, Morningstar Farms, etc.  Although these are not my first choice for dinner, I I greatly prefer these meals over “fresh” fast food; and when I eat these meals I know my eating is consistent with my values.

Although the tools and practices above significantly impact the holiness of my eating, unfortunately my implementation of these has been far from perfect.  Nevertheless I remain committed to continually seeking to raise my eating to a higher sacred plane.

- Matt Levitt

Book Review: Here I Am


by Jonathan Safran Foer

On its surface, this book is about the collapse of a Jewish marriage. Over a period of four weeks, Jacob and Julia Bloch’s lives undergo a profound shift, as Julia discovers that Jacob has been having an affair. This upheaval in their lives and the lives of their three sons, Sam, Max, and Benjy, is complicated by the death of Jacob’s grandfather Isaac, a holocaust survivor, and the bar mitzvah of a reluctant Sam, the couple’s eldest son.

As if this wasn’t enough to occupy readers’ attention, the 571 page book parallels the story of the demise of Jacob and Julia’s marriage with the collapse of the Jewish State, caused by a catastrophic Middle East earthquake and the ensuing war. 

Beneath the surface, this is a book about what it means to wrestle with life’s biggest challenges, and what it means to truly be there — to be present for — those you love as those challenges unfold. Underlying the story is the paradox of what it means to be present for two conflicting or opposing states at once—to be both an American and a child of Israel; to have a bar mitzvah versus to become a bar mitzvah;  to be simultaneously at the end of childhood and the beginning of manhood. The title of the book — “Here I Am” — comes from the Hebrew “hineini”, which is what Abraham says to both his son Isaac, as he leads him to be sacrificed at Abraham’s own hand, and to God, as God asks Abraham to perform this sacrifice. Abraham, caught in the middle of a choice between being there for both God and his son, makes the only choice he can: to be present for them both.

The father in the story, Jacob, is never able to reconcile life’s inevitable conflicts, instead always wavering between options. He cannot make a decision to put his sick, suffering dog Argus to sleep; he can’t decide whether to help Israel’s fight for survival; ironically, he is even unable to start the affair that leads to his divorce—his involvement only went as far as a few text messages because he panicked about meeting the woman in person. As a result, Jacob never really becomes a fully actualized adult and remains unfulfilled.

If Jacob, by virtue of his complete inability to face and engage with life, is the most unlikeable person in the story, his children, especially 13-year-old Sam, in the end, redeem him. When Sam realizes that his parent’s marriage is ending, even though his parents have yet to tell the children themselves, it’s Sam who calls a family meeting with his brothers Max and Benjy, and gently breaks the news to them. It’s Sam who shares with his brothers the plan to delay his bar mitzvah as long as possible in order to prolong his parent’s marriage. And it’s Sam who orchestrates plans with his brothers for choosing who they will live with after the divorce.

Tragically, it’s Jacob himself who recognizes how his children succeed where he himself has failed. To illustrate this, Jacob recounts the story of Max’s bar mitzvah:

“Max’s portion was Vayishlach, in which Jacob — the last of the patriarchs — is assaulted by an unknown assailant in the middle of the night. Jacob wrestles him down and refuses to let go, demanding a blessing of him. The assailant — an angel, or God himself — asks, “What is your name?” As Jacob holds on to the man with all of his strength, he answers, “Jacob.”  Then the angel says, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel — which means ‘Wrestles God.’”

From the bimah, with a poise far beyond his years or mine, Max said, “Jacob wrestled with God for the blessing. He wrestled with Esau for the blessing.  He wrestled with Isaac for the blessing, with Laban for the blessing, and in each case he eventually prevailed. He wrestled because he recognized that the blessings were worth the struggle. He knew that you only get to keep what you refuse to let go of.

“Closeness,” he said, surveying the congregation. “It’s easy to be close, but almost impossible to stay close. Think about friends. Think about hobbies. Even ideas. They’re close to us — sometimes so close we think they are part of us — and then, at some point, they aren’t close anymore. They go away. Only one thing can keep something close over time: holding it there. Grappling with it. Wrestling it to the ground, as Jacob did with the angel, and refusing to let go.  What we don’t wrestle we let go of. Love isn't the absence of struggle. Love is struggle.”

That sounded like the person I wanted to be, but couldn’t be. It sounded like Max.”

The book itself is long and meandering, and a less determined reader would have probably given up on it long before I did. The story of Israel’s collapse, while meant to parallel the collapse of the Bloch’s marriage and echo themes within the book, is confusing and ineffective, and the story would have been much stronger and the book much shorter and more readable if it had been left out. But the book is redeemed by Foer’s beautifully lyrical writing, which on more than one occasion took my breath away. The writing is what kept me going to the end of all 571 pages, and made me go back, re-read and savor parts such as the section quoted above, again and again. If you like such writing, and don’t mind wading through 571 pages to find it, I would recommend reading this book.

- Lisa Meng

An Interview with Gretchen Johnson

Gretchen at Central Market South

Gretchen at Central Market South

L: I’m going to just start at the beginning. Are you originally from Texas?

G: Yes, I am. I was born in Dallas, and my family moved to Austin when I was a toddler. So I grew up here and I went to Austin High School and then I also went to U.T.

L: Oh wow…so a lifetime Austinite…that’s really cool.

G: Yeah. I moved to the Rio Grande Valley for a little over 12 years when I was in Teach for America, and then I came back again to Austin maybe about 6 years ago.

L: That’s neat. So is your whole family still here?

G: My mother and father are not still married but they both still live in Austin, and then my sister is living in Dallas right now.

L: So what year were you born? You’re 48?

G: 1969.

L: How old were you when you moved to Austin?

G: I think about 2 or 3, maybe.

L: And you have a sister?

G: Yes, I have a brother and a sister, but my brother died when he was 27. He was 2.5 years younger than me, and he died of leukemia. 

L: I’m so sorry to hear that. That’s awful. So your sister…is she older than you?

G: My sister is younger. She just turned 40. She just completed her psychiatry residency and she has a daughter who’s 5. So I have a niece.

L: So that’s your only niece?

G: Uh huh.

L: Do you get to see them in Dallas much?

G: Whenever I get a chance. It’s hard because I usually have to work on weekends and usually weekends are the only time she’s not working, you know? So it’s a little hard to coordinate as I would like, but a few times a year I do.

L: Are you going to see them for Thanksgiving?

G: Yes. They’re coming to town.

L: Cool. So when you were a kid, what did you most want to be when you grew up? Were you one of those people who knew from the time you were little what you wanted to do, or were you kind of searching around for a while, or were you in-between?

G: Well I probably searched around for a while, but I think that some of the things that I wanted to be I ended up doing. I think I wanted to write, starting from a pretty young age, and also I thought that I might become a teacher and I did teach for 12 years.

L: So do you still write?

G: I do. I’m not really published, but I’ve done NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) 5 times. But other than that, I mostly wrote things for when I was teaching, and I’ve done a D’var Torah a couple of times.

L: Were you a huge nerd in high school? Were you just one of those people who always had a book with you? What were you like as a kid?

G: Yes, I read very, very much…I started reading when I was probably about 4 and I just read all the time. When I was halfway through kindergarten, my father made a rule that he would not buy me any books that had less than 100 pages, because I’d finish them before we got out of the bookstore. 

L: (laughs) So you were a fast reader, too!

G: Yeah. So I was reading novels like the Wizard of Oz and things like that while I was in kindergarten. And especially during the time that I was converting, I started just inhaling books on Jewish themes. I think I read about 200 books on Jewish themes in the two years that I was studying for conversion. I only admitted to 50 at my beit din, because, I don’t know, I thought that sounded less…

L: Braggy? Which is so funny because you’re not a braggy person at all. But possibly more believable to say maybe 50.

Ok. So you weren’t raised Jewish. But were you raised in any religious tradition?

G: Yes. My parents converted to a lot of Christian denominations when I was a child…so I was baptized Presbyterian…actually all 4 of my grandparents I believe were Presbyterian. And so I was baptized Presbyterian, and then when I was in grade school, my parents were going to an Episcopal church near where we lived, and then when I was 10, my family converted to Catholicism. And at the Catholic church, there was a youth group leader who was more towards the evangelical side, pentecostal side, you know? I’m not sure how much the priest knew about what was going on there…but I definitely got exposed to that as well. 

By the time I was 16, I decided that Christianity wasn’t quite working for me, and I didn’t go to church any more. And my best friend at that time…well my best friend all through middle school and high school was Jewish. But when I told her that I didn’t want to go to church anymore, that I’d had enough, she said “Well I don’t think you should try to be Jewish, because you pretty much have to be born Jewish…it’s almost impossible to covert.”

L: She said that?

G: Yeah well that was more than 30 years ago, you know.

L: Did you have an interest though, at that point?

G: Yeah I think so.

L: So are you parents currently practicing Catholics?

G: No. My mom I think mostly goes to an Episcopal church now, and my father became a Buddhist. 

L: How did they feel about you converting?

G: They were very supportive, you know? My mom bought me this star of David (see picture of Gretchen with Magen David necklace) as a conversion present. She also bought my tallit for me. And they’ve both been to the synagogue several times. My dad has come to the Purim celebrations twice. And they were there a few weeks ago when I chanted Torah for the first time.

L: That’s really great that they’re supportive. 

G: Yeah.

L: So what do you do about Christmas?

G: Well…ok…so originally…when I was going through the conversion process, like when I knew for sure that I was definitely going to convert, I actually waited until after Christmas to tell the Rabbi.

L: I see…

G: Because I figured…I wanted to have Christmas one more time. I mean I know that I still go to Christmas, but I knew that it wasn’t going to be the same. I knew it wasn’t going to be my holiday. Not that I had any belief in the religious stuff, you know. 

But I think that when I was going through conversion that the thing that oddly I was most worried about was thinking oh, darn, that’s hundreds of Christmas carols that I could never sing again. Because singing and music was something that I really enjoyed, you know. But now I realize that there’s more singing in Judaism, because you sing during the entire service every week, so I feel a lot better about it now. But that was a concern at the time…that I thought I was going to miss Christmas carols.

L: So you were able to replace one with the other, and so the transition hasn’t been so bad because of that.

G: Right.

L: That’s good. So have you thought about learning trope?

G: I did take a trope class, and I chanted Torah a few weeks ago with no tape or anything like that.

L: So when you chanted Torah, was there a program that you went through to prepare for that?

G: That was mostly the trope class that we took with Ellen…I think it was a 10 week course…and then at the end of it kind of like for our graduation we each of us chanted a few verses of Torah.

L: Wow…that’s really cool.

G: Yeah. And right now I’m in the adult b’nei mitzvah class. In May, I guess officially that’s going to be my bat mitzvah service.

L: So what’s the date? I just want to make sure I don’t miss it.

G: I think it’s May 13th. After the Sisterhood Shabbat on May 12th.

L: So…what is it that drew you to Judaism?

G: Partly, it’s kind of mysterious. From early childhood maybe, I was drawn to it…like if I came across a book that had Jewish characters in it, I was just really fascinated. 

And then the other thing is that, out of the people that I made friends with at school, most of them as it turned out were Jewish. And I didn’t know it. Many of them were not very religious. And they didn't really talk about it. and so I did not know that they were Jewish until years after we became friends. But I went through an experience throughout middle school and high school where, one by one, I learned that a high percentage of the people who I hung out with were Jewish. 

L: Do you think there was something about them…maybe…the culture?

G: Probably. With my best friend, I would go over to her house and talk to her parents…they were really smart, interesting, educated people. They were college professors, actually. And so it was really interesting the discussions they would get into. I think I sort of like the view of morality…instead of everything being about whether you’re going to be rewarded or punished in the afterlife, basically it was just more of a focus on doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. And that made a lot more of an impression on me because you would still do the right thing, whether or not you believed all of the stuff.

L: Uh huh…it’s more ethics-based.

G: Yeah. And also, I think when I was probably in my early teens, they had a Passover Seder at the Catholic church that I was going to. And I went to that a couple of year in a row. And I thought that that was just the coolest thing, and it was near Easter time and I was like “Can’t we just do this instead of the Easter thing?”

L: What are the things you like most about being Jewish?

G: I like it that you’re always learning things. There’s so much more focus on education, you know. I like that it’s not as strongly belief-based as some religions, and so you have a lot more intellectual freedom. Really there’s nothing that you can’t discuss.

L: It’s not dogmatic.

G: Mm hm. 

L: Well. At least not Reform (Judaism).

G. Yeah. And I also like it being a little more action-based than belief-based.

L: What about things that you don’t like? Are there any things that have turned out to be problematic?

G: If there were any issues that I think that at first…you know that I didn’t necessarily agree with…the first one that came up during my conversion process was about forgiveness. I read this book “The Sunflower”…and basically they had a lot of Jews and Christians and people of other religions responding to the question of whether you should forgive serious crimes. 

The Christian position was yes, that you should forgive, because that’s what you do…It’s one of the most important commandments, I guess, that Christians are supposed to follow. And the Jews are saying, no, no…you shouldn’t forgive. So, I…I don't know, I wasn't too sure about that, because I felt like, in the first place, if you just hold on to your grudge and you don’t forgive people, you’re just going to be holding on to your resentment and that’s not going to do you any good. And in the second place, how is that going to motivate people to reform. But since then I’ve actually realized that there is a more diverse range of positions within Judaism than was necessarily apparent from the book.

L: I think I got a really different take-away from that [book] when I read it…because it’s true, you can see the dividing line right down the middle when you read the Jewish responses and you read the Christian ones…and Jews believe that a lot of the responsibility for being forgiven is on the person who transgressed. And to me, that makes more sense. It’s good to forgive…but the person has to prove that they’ve changed. That they’re no longer going to be committing whatever it was that caused them to injure others in the first place. So that was my take-away from it. 

G: Yeah. And I think I have a more nuanced understanding of that than I had at the time, but when I read the book, I was kind of shocked by it. I tried and tried to write a book report on that book…I just never …every time I wrote it I was just like…I don’t want to turn this in. 

Also, [out of] everything that I told my mother about when I was going through the conversion process …that was the only thing that she did not respond positively to.

L: Before you became Jewish, did you have any experiences with prejudice and discrimination? I mean on a personal level.

G: Yeah. So I am bisexual, and I originally came out when I was a junior or senior in high school [and] I realized that I was in love with a woman. This was like late ‘80s, early ‘90s…I went through the whole coming out process and was participating in the gay rights movement at the time.

L: So do you feel that gave you any insight into anti-semitism at all? Like did you feel more comfortable with that aspect of becoming Jewish?

G: Yeah, I think that I didn’t have any hesitation converting because of concerns about anti-semitism…and I think that I initially wrote in one of my assignments for class that Rabbi Rose was reading…by the way, I have no intention to be a closeted Jew.

L: That’s awesome.

G: So yeah I definitely um…it’s not something that I would try to hide from. You know in some cases, it’s kind of interesting because you know if you were born Jewish, maybe you want to be a little more discreet about it, whereas I’m like, what? You know, is there like anybody who doesn’t already know? 

L: How do you feel about the Jewish community in Austin? Do you feel like they’ve accepted you? Have you had any problems feeling integrated into Jewish life?

G: I felt pretty comfortable at CBI from the first …I made friends pretty readily…and so I think it’s great. I really feel like CBI is my family. Occasionally there’s certain issues that I don’t completely agree with, or different things that I want to change or add, but I feel like I can do that.

L: Is that with respect to Sisterhood, or with the Congregation in general?

G: Well, both. I went through the leadership development a couple of times, you know…also with Sisterhood I’ve had the opportunity to do some things that I’m not sure I would have gotten the opportunity to do as quickly if it had not been for Sisterhood. I’m on the board now, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a service because of the Sisterhood Shabbat…I don’t think that the mainstream of the synagogue would have asked me to do that as quickly as the Sisterhood did.

L: So let’s move on to non-jewy things. Ok, so you’re a big reader. Are there any other hobbies? Oh, you knit!

G: Yes. I do knit.

L: Ok...let’s see. So you read everything.

G: Yes.

L: What are your favorite books?

G: I read a lot of science fiction.

L: Who’s your favorite science fiction author?

G: I’ve been really into N. K. Jemisin recently. The Broken Earth trilogy. It’s an intense read. It’s not a light read. But that was really awesome. She already won the Hugo award for both of the first two books in the trilogy. And I have always been a big fan of Ursula LeGuin for the longest time. Octavia Butler. Samuel Delaney. Like back in my high school years.

L: Anything else?

G: Let’s see..what do I do during the free time that I don’t have…

L: That’s right, because you work a lot.

G: Yeah (laughs) I don’t know…I’m trying to think…like apart from the reading and the writing when I get the chance…and then I’m in a bunch of different activities at CBI.

L: You are! You’re involved in just about everything.

G: Yeah. And I’m involved with the Refugee Services of Texas. Oh yeah I go to IACT things too. Like the Red Bench.

L: When you’re not at work or synagogue, where are you most likely to be found?

G: You know…probably at home. Because …actually I’m an introvert. But I work in sales. And then I’m constantly doing group activities at CBI. So I feel like I’m pretty much just maxing out my introvert limit on a regular basis.

L: Oh I gotcha…

G: (Laughs) so I’m just …there’s not that many hours in-between, anyway. My schedule’s pretty crazy. I’m very frequently driving straight from work to CBI or CBI to work. 

L: So this question is completely out of left field…but what do your parents do for a living? Are they still working?

G: They’re retired. My dad was a state auditor. And then my mother…she taught for a while, and then she was a stay-at-home mom for a while…and then she got a job as a secretary, I think maybe at the business school at U.T, you know…and then she was actually a…so she got her clergy license…she was actually an assistant pastor. She was in charge of pastoral care at MCC for a while. So she’s never been a senior pastor or anything but she’s a retired pastor.

L: So the one thing we didn’t cover was your work experience with Teach for America. I’ve already asked you about that a little bit…you taught high school physics, was it?

G: Uh huh. Yeah.

L: For 12 years?

G: Yeah. And other assorted sciences.

L: Were you kind of a science nerd?

G: I was. So I have a triple major.

L: Oh that’s awesome.

G: I don’t have any graduate degrees, but I have a triple major in English, History and Physics.

L: So I think you’ve answered all of my questions…except for one more. So what do you now want to be when you grow up?

G: (Laughs) 

L: What are your future plans? If any.

G: You know I don’t know if I have it all figured out. I don’t know if I thought of a job that I can reasonably get paid for that would incorporate all of the things that I want to do, you know?

L: Have you thought about going to Rabbinical School?

G: I’ve thought about it. I think from a practical and financial standpoint, it’s an unwise idea…but yeah, I’ve thought about it.

L: That’s cool. I can picture you doing that. Just saying…(laughs)

G: (Laughs)

L: Alright. Is there anything else you want to share?

G: I think that’s all I can think of…

L: Yeah, we covered a lot! That was a good interview. Thank you.

Sisterhood Recommends: In Search of Israeli Cuisine, on Netflix


Netflix's documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine is a mouth-wateringly watchable hour and a half trip across Israel, visiting with Israeli and Arab chefs/restauranteurs about food. They speak with poetic pride of the virtues of locally sourced, fresh, farm to table concoctions and Jewish and Arab chefs pointedly address the capacity for healing, for creating peace as people eat together and share food. Highly recommend!

Watch the trailer here:


Eco-Kashrut for the Curious

The term “eco-kosher” has been around for over thirty years and has continually gained traction in every denomination of Judaism since then. While there are varying definitions of eco-kosher, I like to think of eco-kashrut as environmental compliance as well as halachic compliance.

Eco-kashrut is an important issue to me and I have done a fair amount of informal thinking about it for a variety of reasons...

  • I’m a Jew, so I like food. Like many Jews, I take almost any available opportunity to think about and talk about food.
  • I have a big appetite and I eat a lot (I won a stereo in a pizza eating contest my freshman year of college). Since I am often either hungry or eating, I have food on my mind a fair amount of the time – in particular, what I should eat and why.
  • In studying with Reb Arthur Waskow and Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi (who introduced and supported the concept of eco-kosher), I have been inspired by their wisdom and holy teachings.
  • I try to live a God-centered life; one of the most significant aspects of this for me is to try to live a life of blessing. There is a tradition that a Jew should say 100 blessings every day. Some nerdy folks with too much time on their hands have made calculations on how one reaches 100 blessings every day; every version of these calculations includes a large number of blessings before and after eating. One of the benefits/results of saying a blessing immediately before and after eating is that it causes me to pause and consider what I am about to put (or have just finished putting) into my body. This momentary pause before and after eating is an impetus in keeping eco-kashrut in my consciousness.

Compliance with traditional requirements of kashrut continues to become easier and easier in Austin. In the early days of eco-kashrut, the only way to get kosher meat in Austin was to be a part of the kosher meat buying co-op for the once-a-month delivery of kosher meat by truck from San Antonio. Today, there are a variety of sources for traditional kosher foods, primarily the kosher store at the Far West HEB. Sprouts is the latest entry in the kosher food market, as they now sell kosher ground turkey.

Kosher ground turkey at Sprouts in northwest Austin

Kosher ground turkey at Sprouts in northwest Austin

Although finding food that meets traditional standards of kashrut has become more accessible locally, thoughtful, deliberate eating based on eco-kashrut is more complex than ever. This is because tracing food from planting, through growing, harvesting, packaging, wholesaling (including possibly multiple levels), distribution, to final retail purchase isn't easy. There could be potential eco-kashrut “violations” anywhere in the supply chain.

Still curious? Tune in next month for a discussion of practical experiences in attempting to maintain compliance with standards of eco-kashrut.

For even more information on eco-kashrut:

Eco-Kosher: Jewish Spirituality in Action. By Rabbi Goldie Milgram
The Shalom Center – What is eco kosher? by Reb Arthur Waskow 

- Matt Levitt

An Interview With Sarah Avner


Sarah Avner, our Cantorial Soloist, has been involved with music most of her life. This came as somewhat of a surprise -- though some in Sarah’s family were musical, her immediate family was not. Growing up in Canada, she attended music school from 5th-8th grade.  In second grade she began begging her parents for a piano (as lessons could begin in third grade and she was jealous of her older cousin for playing). She felt most fortunate when her parents made the purchase of a 1903 Bell piano that had been painted baby blue by its original owners. It was a long summer watching her father take the piano apart, piece by piece, as he refinished it and brought it back to its original walnut finish.

Sarah was in orchestra in 5th grade and played the cello. The cello could only be taken home on Winter Break, and you first had to pass a test by playing “Hot Crossed Buns”. She passed the test the first time.  She played the violin, and stand-up bass as well. 

After graduating from Veterinary Technology school, Sarah moved to Austin in 1998, and while awaiting her papers (she was an illegal immigrant at the time) she volunteered at the synagogue office and sang in the High Holy Day Choir with then-Cantor Jaime Shpall. 

Between 1998 and 2003, Sarah would occasionally substitute for Cantor Shpall and loved doing it. When she got her work papers, she worked at some animal clinics, but gave it up when a secretary job opened at CBI, she applied and was hired. She took Hebrew, trope chanting class, and taught Sunday School. 

Sarah took several years hiatus from CBI when she moved with her family to Indiana where she was a stay-at-home mom to Jacob along with Zachary and then Rebekah. She also worked as the principal of the religious school at Congregation Adath B’nei Israel and decided it was time to pick up her guitar that had been collecting dust in a corner at home.

These days, Sarah's goals include studying Biblical Hebrew, liturgy, and more repertoire. Sarah wishes to teach more music and keep music alive at CBI.  For her, it is a gift to bring that to our congregation.

There may be challenges with her job, but she works with an amazing staff where everyone supports one another. Rabbi Folberg is very compassionate and understanding, and leads by example.

We are so happy to have Sarah lead the music and fill the sanctuary with her beautiful voice.

-- Carol Calvery

Book Review


There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream

By Ben Sidran

If you love music and are fascinated by the history of American music, this amazing book is a must read. Even for readers already aware of Jewish contributions to the American music scene, the profound shaping of American myths by Jewish immigrants and the immense role they played is detailed by Sidran, a musician in his own right as well as a historian and master storyteller. The myth of a sentimental, gentle old south, for example, found in popular songs like "Mammy," and "Swanee," revealed a longing for a safe and loving environment totally at odds with the tenements and recent shtetl lives of the immigrant songwriters, but authentic for them because that kind of safety was a shared dream. 

Sidran asks at the beginning of the book, how can we possibly understand twentieth century American popular music without understanding Jews' contribution to it?" And as it turns out, Jewish talent, creativity and values paired with intense will to succeed in their newly adopted land ended up impacting American thought and American identity in deeply complex and layered ways. From Tin Pan Alley to the current corporate dominance of what we listen to, Jewish voices continue to shape our collective sense of self. 

Sidran's history is long (605 pp) and densely packed with insider stories, facts and explanations but the back stories provided by the author make this book difficult to put down. And his joy at pointing out again and again and again the Jewishness of songwriters, performers, technicians, agents and industry honchos is barely concealed. He clearly gets a kick out of the sheer numbers of Jewish music people. 

This is a fascinating but highly academic work, thoroughly and impeccably researched. If you're looking for a stimulating and informative read, There Was a Fire is well worth your time. 

Sisterhood gives this book: five stars

Sisterhood gives this book: five stars

-- Laura Schulman

Some Thoughts on a Yom Kippur Sermon


If you were at Yom Kippur morning services at CBI on September 30th, 2017, you heard Rabbi Epstein's sermon. If you didn’t hear it, please read it. I promise, it won’t bore you, and it won’t disappoint.

For many of us, 5777 was an eventful year, beginning, oh, I’d say with the election results in November. Much has happened since then — the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court; the firing of Sally Yates as Acting Attorney General when she refused to support the Muslim Ban, and the subsequent fight over the ban in the courts that still rages today; the rescinding of the DACA program, leaving 800,000 undocumented Dreamers who came to this country as children in legal limbo; a ban on transgender service members in the military; the quiet start of construction on the border wall in Texas, right through the middle of a wildlife refuge; the establishment of a “voter fraud commission” led by John Kasich as a thinly-veiled excuse for voter suppression. I could go on.

But the thing that I remember most this year were my mother’s words right after the election: “This isn’t the country my grandparents came to as immigrants. It’s not the same country they loved.”

Those words broke my heart a little. But I am not the kind of person who allows a broken heart to break her spirit.

All of these things were on my mind as I listened to Rabbi Epstein’s sermon. She spoke with great conviction, and the strength of her words lifted me up. As she spoke, her courage bolstered my own. And I felt a desire to turn a sense of despair and hopelessness to action. She made me feel that, if we work together as a community, there is something each of us can do — no matter how small — to fix this broken world. 

Below is the letter I wrote to Rabbi Epstein in response to her sermon. It is just the seed of my own small desire to make a difference. But I hope it encourages those seeds you may have in your heart to grow, as well.

Gut Yom Tov.

Hello Rabbi Epstein,

I wanted to thank you for the very moving and passionate sermon you gave on Yom Kippur. It really inspired me to think about how I can become more politically active this year, and how we as a religious community can organize to promote social justice. I know there are other members of our Sisterhood who feel the same way. Even though we're all busy and over-committed, I'm hoping we can find some time to join you in whatever action you think we can take to make this country a fairer, more democratic place for all of its citizens.

One of the parts of your sermon that really stood out was how you made it clear that this shouldn't be a partisan issue. Whether we think people should be sitting or standing during the Shema, the important thing is that we are all praying the Shema -- together, as a community, in support of the same values. And one of those values is unmistakably that all human beings -- ALL of us -- are created in the image of God, and we all deserve the same rights and respect.

Your words were definitely on my mind last night when I went to a "Let People Vote" launch event that was organized by the ACLU. We are the very start of a grass-roots effort to fight unfair voting practices in the United States, State by State. (Actually, by "we", I mean eight people gathered in my neighbor's living room -- plus 600 groups just like us, all around the country.) One of the things that the ACLU made clear in their presentation was that we are to keep our actions non-partisan. Voting rights is an issue that affects all of us, because it is an issue of fundamental fairness -- in a Democracy, no single person's vote should count more than another's -- because we all have equal value and should have an equal say in our government. (Sound familiar?)

So in thinking about it this morning, it seems like our goals as a religious community may be in alignment with what the ACLU is trying to do here. The task of our little neighborhood group is to figure out how to fight gerrymandering in the State of Texas, and it looks like it won't be easy. Despite that, word is that 70% of all voters -- from across the political spectrum -- favor the establishment of independent commissions to redraw voting districts, in order to create a fairer, more representative government. And our little group's job, before the next legislative session in two years, is to convince the Texas State Legislature to do that.

So I guess my question for you is, would you be interested in helping us with this effort, as part of a non-partisan move towards social justice? And by help, I mean anything, no matter how small -- even if it's just spreading the word that we exist?

Here is the link to the ACLU's campaign:, if you'd like to check it out for yourself or forward it to anyone who may be interested.

Thanks again for an inspiring sermon, and may you have a sweet new year! - Lisa

Charlottesville, Take Two (or, You Have Got to be Kidding...)

Photo credit: Getty

Photo credit: Getty

The nazis are back in Charlottesville. Yes, really. Complete with tiki torches. Not in large numbers, and not for long, but there you have it.

And, I got nothin'. Well, I do. I have better things to do. Have you all seen this movie? It's awesome, and actually based on a true story, if you want to read the review. I think it's even on Netflix. Much more worth your time to see than whatever is going on in Charlottesville with...who? I've already forgotten. Oh well. Enjoy.

Welcome Sam Rosenberg to CBI

Sam Rosenberg, CBI Executive Assistant to the Clergy

Sam Rosenberg, CBI Executive Assistant to the Clergy

CBI has a new Executive Assistant to the Clergy -- Sam Rosenberg!

Sam grew up in Cherrywood, New Jersey, near Philadelphia, but moved to NY City for college, where he earned a degree in acting.  A couple of years after school, he discovered acting wasn’t how he wanted to make a living, and started taking temp jobs to forge a new career path. His second temp job was at a large Reform synagogue in Manhattan. He stayed through the High Holidays and discovered how much he enjoyed the job, had strength with it, and liked the people there. He soon became a permanent, full-time employee, a position he remained in for several years. After that, Sam went on to work at the Park Avenue Synagogue, also in Manhattan -- a Conservative temple this time. 

Through the course of his career, Sam experienced the spectrum of what went into running a large scale synagogue with a large congregation, and some of the nuances going from taking care of a Reform congregation to a Conservative congregation. He was exposed to a lot of the work that goes on, and in the process, found a career that he enjoyed.  He genuinely liked helping with events and fundraising, and enjoyed seeing the fruition of his hard work.  He discovered that as much as he enjoyed his time acting, this work fed his soul.

After living a decade in New York, Sam and his wife decided that they didn’t want to set down roots or raise children there. Sam’s wife had lots of family here in Texas, so though most of his family is still in New Jersey, they decided to settle here.  He loves Austin.

Sam’s job includes keeping the clergy’s schedule flowing, answering e-mails, scheduling and rescheduling visits and appointments, being an advocate for the clergy, and following up on the tasks that help make the clergies’ day run smoothly.

Sam is very involved in another important job -- helping with b’nai mitzvah planning, from meeting with parents to booking meetings with clergy, as well as making sure all runs smoothly.  He also has a lot of responsibility making sure all the material the rabbis use on the Bimah is prepared and ready for Shabbat services, from the R’fuah list and the Aliyot to the Kaddish list.

Sam was raised in the Reform tradition. He attended Temple Emanuel in Cherrywood, N.J., and was Bar Mitzvah'ed there, but didn’t really relate with his Judaism until after college when he went to work for the synagogue. That is when he embraced himself as a Jew. He also did a birthright trip to Israel. 

Sam feels that he can bring a lot of his experience and passion to his job and he feels he can increase efficiency and help streamline things so that the clergy suite runs effectively.

Thank you, Sam. Welcome to CBI and Austin!

Women of the Wall: A Report from the Front Lines

WOW is a grass roots organization dedicated to winning the right for all women “to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” 

Two of us from Cbi Sisterhood have direct experience with this movement--as tensions continue between Israel's ultra orthodox rabbis/communities and more liberal Jews, sharing our experiences feels increasingly important. 

Baihlah Rubin: Years ago I participated with CBI in sending W.O.W. photos of women holding the Torah. It was exciting then to support the right for ALL women to pray at the Kotel; how heartbreakingly different to actually enter the women’s section of the Kotel in May with a group of women and pray there. We were all physically searched at security for Torahs (such a security risk). Upon approaching the wall teenage Haredi women with covered faces (not unlike KKK) screamed and shrieked, calling us sinners throughout our entire service. 

Margaret Gewirtzman: We had just gone to the Memphis Civil Rights Museum where we experienced visuals of the violence and hate that happened in the States just a few years ago. Frightening. The Memphis trip was followed in short order by a trip to Jerusalem. One of the places we most wanted to visit of course was the Western Wall--from the moment we entered the security line to when we left the old city I literally feared for my safety from fellow Jews--ultra-Orthodox who so violently hate women who wish to pray out loud the words of the Torah. The impulse to remove the tallit that clearly signaled my association with W.O.W. was really strong--being on the receiving end of such blinding hate is incredibly unnerving.  What immense courage it takes for all civil rights workers to stand unwavering in the presence of such hate. Despite the legal ruling by the highest court in Israel allowing women egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, there has been a worsening of the harassment of women.

As members of the World Union for Progressive and Reform Judaism, we need to fight this oppression. For deeper understanding of these issues and ways to support the fight, please visit the Women of the Wall’s Website at

I Missed my Father’s Yahrzeit, and I Feel Horribly Guilty

Dear Yenta,


My father passed away a little over a year ago. Since I’d grown up seeing my mother light yahrzeit candles for her own parents on every anniversary of their deaths, and found it an enormously comforting way to remember my grandparents, I was hoping to continue the tradition for my own dad.

Well, I’m not the most organized person, and time got away from me. Before I realized it, it was the afternoon of my dad’s yahrzeit (which happened to be a Friday), and I still hadn’t gotten a candle for him. I live in a small town, and the only place nearby to find a candle was at my synagogue. So, right after work, I rushed down to the synagogue a little early before services, hoping to catch someone who would be able to open up the gift shop long enough to sell me a candle. But when I got there, I was told that the person who could open the shop wouldn’t be there until after sundown, Shabbat would have already started, and we couldn’t buy or sell anything on Shabbat. 

I ended up going home that night after services, lighting a tea light for dad, and telling myself he’d understand. But I still feel really guilty, and I really miss my dad. 

I know it’s only Jewish tradition that we light yahrzeit candles, and it’s Jewish law that we not buy or sell anything on Shabbat. But I can’t help wondering if the gift shop ladies could have found a way to observe Halakah, and still show compassion for my dilemma. What do you think they or I could do to avoid this situation in the future? (Other than keeping 10 year’s worth of yahrzeit candles stockpiled, which I now do.)

Thanks. - Still Grieving

Dear Grieving,

I'm so sorry about your father. Having lost my own father, I can say that the sadness never goes away, but it does get easier to manage as time goes on. Please don't beat yourself up too much about forgetting your father's yahrzeit. You are only human, and even with the best intentions, we all forget things sometimes.

Now, to answer your question. What could the "gift shop ladies" (who, I'm guessing, were most likely members of your congregation's Sisterhood) have done to be respectful of halakah, but still show compassion for your grief? It's a tricky one, so I brought in the big guns and asked an expert from our congregation -- Rabbi Rebecca Epstein --  to weigh in. Here's her take on the situation:

"In my opinion, the Sisterhood should give the mourner a yahrzeit candle on Shabbat as a gift, and then the person could always make a donation to the sisterhood at a later time. Now, of course, according to halacha, you wouldn’t light the candle once Shabbat had started, so that is another issue. I guess my opinion is that it is preferable not to buy and light on Shabbat, but if it is something that brings comfort and is of great personal significance to the mourner, I don’t think that person should avoid using the yahrzeit candle (nor should the sisterhood avoid providing it.) 

My guess is that a more halachically-minded rabbi might advise the letter-writer to mourn in another way, perhaps by attending shul and saying kaddish in a minyan, and plan to light the yahrzeit candle the next year. I think that is also a nice answer, and some people might find comfort in mourning in a more halachic manner. 

But the bottom line is, the Sisterhood should provide the candle gratis as a gesture of compassion to the mourner and leave it up the mourner as to whether they light on Shabbat and/or provide recompense to the Sisterhood in the form of a donation. In my opinion, they shouldn’t add insult to injury by making a halachic judgement on the mourner, and they don’t have to engage in sale on Shabbat. Although the Sisterhood might be concerned about word getting out that there are free yahrzeit candles, I would not think the community would abuse the goodwill here, and in fact I think more goodwill would probably be generated by the act of kindness.

Anyway, thanks for asking!  Interesting case to think about, for sure." - Rabbi Epstein

An Interview with Rabbi Epstein

Rabbi Rebecca Epstein at Congregation Beth Israel, Austin, TX

Rabbi Rebecca Epstein at Congregation Beth Israel, Austin, TX

Rebecca Epstein is our Educational Director and Rabbi. She has been a wonderful and engaging member of our rabbinical staff going on four years now. She was raised in Minnesota and went to college in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Q: What led you to become a rabbi?

A: “I think the biggest influence on me was that I lived in New York City on 9/11, and at the time I had just graduated from college and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was doing some different volunteer projects, and was also a modern dancer, so was taking dance classes. I was also teaching Hebrew school, and really wanted to give the Hebrew school kids a place they could come and feel connected to tradition and their community and feel positive after 9/11. This is what motivated me — to give back a sense of community and tradition.”

Q: You mention that you enjoy working with children. What was your own childhood like?

A: ”I was raised in Minnesota to a Jewish Dad and a non-Jewish mom. Mom was spiritual, but didn't go to church. I went to temple with my dad for the High Holiday services. Temple was the only religious place I went to.

I felt drawn to Judaism as a child. I loved the music, the tradition, and loved our rabbi ( one of the first female rabbis). I told my parents I wanted to go to Sunday school and wanted to be Bat Mitzvah’d.”

Q: What has been your biggest reward as a rabbi?

A: ”Teaching kids and adults, and watching them get excited learning about Judaism. Giving meaning to their lives — that is really special and rewarding. And I feel I can do that in many ways. Even sad events, like funerals — I can minister to those in need, and that is a privilege."

Q: What about your biggest challenge?

A: ”Getting teens excited. They are the future, and getting them involved is important for strengthening their identity, as they will be the future of the Jewish people.”

Q: What do you like most about CBI?

A: ”What's awesome about CBI is that people are excited to try new things. And what's really nice is that the temple gives me the freedom to try new things.

One example is that in January, over the MLK weekend, we are planning a program where we focus on welcoming the stranger. The whole weekend will be spent learning about Social Justice, and connecting this through a Jewish standpoint and also a current events standpoint. I am always excited working on a new project and trying something I haven't done before. That's a really cool thing.”

“Also, entering into my 4th year year here, working with the kids and families and getting to know them and building relationships has been very rewarding.”

Well, Rabbi Epstein, interviewing you has also been a rewarding privilege, and I feel blessed having gotten to know and learn about you.

Carol Calvery

A Jewish Star Wears a Jewish Star


Many of us saw the recent Billy Joel photo where he sports the yellow Star of David on his coat during a concert. This symbol of repression, hate, unspeakable horror was viewed by many, in the context of a 2017 rock concert,  as a message of pride -- something of a flip-off to the neo-nazis now sliming the streets of Charlottesville, Va and other towns in this country. 

The fact that Joel is Jewish made all the difference; the fashion house of Miu Miu was recently shamed into removing a line of clothes featuring yellow Jewish stars.
As far as I can find, Joel said something like it was time to stand up; spokespeople for Miu Miu offered no real explanations for their artistic choice. Are the choices supposed to speak for themselves? As nonverbal signals, with little or no verbal clarification, they remain open to interpretation.

If you don't know anything about Billy Joel's family history, here is a moving YouTube documentary of the Joel family's experience in Hitler's Germany.

The YouTube documentary is an hour, so won't take your entire evening. I was particularly interested in Billy Joel's nonverbals as he and his brother meet with the children of a nazi party businessman. We invite you to watch and then weigh in on the continuing life of the infamous Jewish star.

What do you think? How do you interpret these recent uses of the yellow star?

- Laura Schulman