Build Sanctuaries With Our Lives: On the Pulse Gay Nightclub Massacre

Pulse vigil

Photo by John Raoux/AP

Build Sanctuaries With Our Lives
Parashat Naso, June 18, 2016
First Narayever Congregation – Gay Pride Month

We are talking this week about sanctuaries. Creating sanctuaries. Building them. Staffing them. Bringing offerings to furnish and decorate them. Consecrating them. Blessing them. And hearing God’s voice in them.

First we count the Levites tasked with carrying the Ohel Moed, the portable sanctuary, through the desert on the way to the promised land. These are the ones that help make sure we’re always heading in the right direction, toward freedom, toward a better place, and that we’re taking with us all our holy things, not forgetting where we’ve come from, even taking the broken tablets with us – our injuries, our broken places, our losses.

Toward the end of the Torah portion, we hear about Moshe finally finishing setting up and dedicating the mishkan, and all the tribes bringing beautiful offerings toward this communal sanctuary. bringing of themselves. And of course, we hear the Priestly Blessing, given by God to Aaron with which to bless the people; and we hear how Moshe would speak with God and hear God’s voice from the Ark.

We encounter many different kinds of sanctuaries around us. There is of course this sanctuary, our religious space in which to focus on matters of the spirit, on prayer, on song, and community. We speak of offering sanctuary to those in need, to refugees, to those being pursued. Sanctuary as resting place. Even a sanctuary for animals, who are then protected.

Sanctuary means feeling something holy, connecting with others, feeling safety, understanding, and protection.

Last weekend, as you all know by now, the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida was attacked by a gunman bent on doing violence to LGBTQ people. In so many forums, I saw that for the LGBTQ community, Pulse and other gay bars and nightclubs are not just bars and nightclubs. They are safety, understanding, protecting, holiness, and community.

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How I’ll Remember Rabbi Ron Aigen z”l


My strongest image of Rabbi Ron Aigen is one that pretty much no one else got to see. A Friday afternoon, edging toward 4:30 p.m., the sun getting lower in the spring sky. Ron sits at his desk, several books open and face down. Hand-written pages in his small script in front of him. He’s working on his dvar Torah for the next morning.

I’m stopping at his office on my way out to say good shabbes, that he’s the last one left in the building and to lock up behind him. “Hey, got any texts to talk about the need for contemplation?” he asks, or “Have you read Ron Wolfson’s new book? What did you think? I’m talking about community building,” or “I’m trying to work out something about peoplehood and the next generation…” I put my bag down, sit in the chair opposite him, and we hash it out a bit. He listens intently, gazes at his computer screen, jots some notes.

I finally say I have to run to get my daughter from daycare. He wishes me good shabbes with a smile. I leave him there at his desk, surrounded by his favourite books, photos of his family, binders from training he’s completed, awards for his publications, his rabbinical degree on the wall and artwork from his haggadah. He was always the last one to leave on Fridays. I think he relished the quiet of the empty synagogue to gather his thoughts.

On May 8, we lost Ron suddenly to a stroke. He had just survived a heart attack mere weeks earlier. He was weeks from retirement, after serving Montreal’s Congregation Dorshei Emet, his one and only pulpit, for 40 years.

Ron was an amazing mentor, colleague, and friend to me over my four years in Montreal, two as his assistant rabbi. As a young rabbi just starting out, Ron believed in me. He shared with me his pulpit and leadership of the congregation he’d led for 40 years, even though at this time in his career he didn’t need to be generous. Ron treated me as a colleague and a peer, even though he had decades more experience.

He was wise and humble. His generosity pushed me to believe in myself and my rabbinic voice and my instincts.

And in this way, he made space not only for me, but for people of all stripes, creating a welcoming Jewish community that propelled congregants to find their own way in to Judaism. Indeed, he would try to match congregants’ skills and interests with whatever we were working on, to bring their expertise into Jewish life.

Ron was always learning, whether spending his summers in Israel learning Yiddish, or participating in the Hartman Institute’s rabbinic programs, or taking the latest Institute for Jewish Spirituality training, or just reading the latest book on progressive trends in the North American Jewish world. And he was always striving to enhance his spiritual practice. Through meditation, through music, through text, through contemplation, Ron cultivated his own spiritual life and tried to offer that path to the congregation. 

Ron could have retreated to his scholarship. An accomplished liturgist, he published a well-received siddur, machzor, and haggadah of his own translation, interpretation, and sometimes creation. A leading voice in the Reconstructionist movement, he could have left Montreal, taken an academic position at a rabbinical school or institute. But he preferred to stay with his people, to have his hands dirty with the work of the world. In a city where he was one of the only liberal rabbis, Ron created a haven for spiritual seekers, progressives, and the intellectually curious. He created a safe space for nuance – about religious life, about Israel, about ethical living.

I thought when I was ordained that I would surely do organizational work. Ron showed me an inspired vision of what congregational service could be. I feel grateful to have worked alongside him, and I hope to someday have built the kind of rabbinate he did.

Ron, your impact has been great. I will miss you, and our time spent thinking together in those quiet moments before Shabbat. Your memory is a blessing for us all. 

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Leading Creative and Engaging Passover Seders

seder plate

It’s that time of year again – planning for your Passover seder. Or avoiding planning for it. Or wondering whether you’ll insult/bore/entertain your family and friends with your seder choices this year. Here are some tips for leading a creative and engaging Passover seder, no matter what age your participants.

Tips for an Engaging Passover Seder

  1. Have the children help prepare for seder. They could make place-cards or cups of wine matzahplacemats (see one in this packet) that you can laminate, table decorations, prepare a short play or skit, learn Mah Nishtana and other songs, learn some of the blessings, cut vegetables, set the seder plate…
  2. Give homework. Have participants prepare a song, a skit, a drash (teaching), an explanation, a reading, a story.
  3. Buy time. To have interesting conversations or activities, people can’t be famished! For the karpas stage of the seder, when you dip parsley in salt water, have large trays of crudité and various dips to keep guests’ stomachs from complaining.
  4. Tell the story. The haggadah contains four different ways of telling the story, each beginning with a question, a response, and a praise of G-d. Add your own telling! Improvise your own play or use a script, for example from Sedra Scenes by Stan Beiner. Designate one person as Moses, one person as Pharoah, others as the other characters. A narrator can be helpful to move the story along.
  5. Ask questions. Liberate yourselves from the haggadah text and discuss it instead of simply reading it. What are ten things that plague us today? What do you want to be free from this year? Why does the haggadah tell us we should feel that we too were redeemed?
  6. Have fun. Sing silly seder songs. Make puppets for different characters. Do goofy things that make your kids ask questions – which, after all, is the point of the seder.
  7. Be inclusive. Give everyone a role, no matter their level of Jewish knowledge. Get the whole group involved in finding the afikomen or asking discussion questions.
  8. Use materials. Younger children will relate more to tactile materials. Sand paper for pyramids pictures, coloring sheets, cotton ball lambs, plagues puppets. A tambourine to shake once the Israelites cross the Red Sea, just like Miriam did. Wear costumes, use props.
  9. Try something new each year.
  10. Choose a good haggadah, or create your own! There are hundreds of editions. Choose one that’s right for your family. Some great ones are The Wellsprings of Freedom by Ron Aigen; A Night Of Questions, the Reconstructionist movement’s haggadah; A Different Night: the Family Participation Haggadah by Noam Zion and David Dishon. For interesting commentary and history of the haggadah, see The Holistic Haggadah: How Will You Be Different This Passover Night? by Michael Kagan; My People’s Haggadah by Lawrence Hoffman and David Arnow; The Women’s Seder Sourcebook: Rituals & Readings for Use at the Passover Seder by Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr, and Catherine Spector. Create your own at

Adapted from Rabbi Ron Wolfson

Remembering and Acting: Rosh Hashanah 5775

Remembering and Acting
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 – 5775
Congregation Dorshei Emet
Rabbi Julia Appel

I am squinting at a small square photograph. In it, my Bubbie wears tall hair and a long polyester dress, orange and green paisley, fabulous glasses. Her sister Rita stands next to her, taller hair, similar dress and pattern, from when Rita worked in accounting at the dress company. They are smiling at the camera. It’s a party. My mother is off at to the side, her long dark blond hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, mid-conversation. This one will go in one of the square silver frames I bought yesterday. I think it will make Bubbie smile.

My mother and aunt have gone through Bubbie’s photo albums to divide them up. Bubbie doesn’t look at her albums anymore. We’ve just moved her to the memory unit of the retirement community where she’s lived the last first years. She began forgetting where her room was in assisted living, and sometimes whether she’s showered that day.

The room is nice enough, but it is definitely just a room, not an apartment or suite, as her two previous rooms had been. She asked my mother soon after moving whether she was on a cruise and when she was coming home, which I thought was pretty insightful. There are some photographs up – mostly of her great-grandchildren, my generation’s children, plus her wedding photograph, and a painting I had made for her when I was 14.

So I’m standing at my parents’ dining room table, in the condo they bought once they’d sold out house, making several photo collages of old photos of my Bubbie, her clear cursive on the back. Winter, 1945, cousin Irene. Barbara, 1967.

She is losing her most recent memory, but her older memories are still intact, for now. I want her to look around her room and see people she recognizes. I want her to see her life and remember, who she is, that she had joy, that people love her. I give a special frame to an enlargement of a photo of her and my grandfather, kissing in their kitchen. He died a few months after I was born. In the photo, Bubbie is, impossibly, younger than my mother is now. Continue reading

Revealing Our True Selves on Yom Kippur: Kol Nidre 5774


Revealing Our True Selves on Yom Kippur
Kol Nidre 5774
Congregation Dorshei Emet
Rabbi Julia Appel

There is a legend, alluded to in our machzor and elsewhere, that the words of Kol Nidre have a hidden meaning.

“Biyeshiva shel ma’alah ubiyeshiva shel matah…Anu matirin lehitpalel im ha’avaryanim.”

“By the authority of the heavenly court, and by the authority of the earthly court; with the consent of the Everpresent and with the consent of this congregation, We hereby permit to pray with those who have transgressed.”

“Anu matirin lehitpalel im ha’avaryanim.”  – According to Jewish legend, ha’avaryanim, those who have transgressed, is a word play on iberyanim, Spaniards, referring to the Jews of Spain who were forced to convert to Christianity during the time of the inquisition in the 15th century.

So: we begin our Kol Nidre service by declaring not only that we permit praying with sinners (‘cause how else would any of us be able to come to shul if sinners were not permitted here??) but, and this would have had special
meaning in the 15th and 16th centuries, also we permit praying with Conversos, with those who have been converted to Christianity, with those who have seemingly turned their back on Judaism but actually, secretly, still hold the desire to be at Kol Nidre service. Still hold on to their hidden identity as a Jew.

After all, who can know anyone’s true reasons for what they do? We can outwardly pledge something for political or social gain but hold our true beliefs on the inside. Jews have had to do this throughout history – from the times of the Roman persecutions when Jews had to study underground or face execution, to the Inquisition and generations of secret Jews who lit Shabbat candles despite their publicly sworn Christianity, to the refusniks of the Soviet era who risked their lives for a piece of matzah to hold seder. Continue reading

The King and the Invisible Gates: Rosh Hashanah 5774


Sometimes, the obstacles are imaginary.

The King and the Invisible Gates
Delivered Rosh Hashanah Evening, September 4, 2013
Congregation Dorshei Emet
Rabbi Julia Appel

I want to tell you a story, a story I learned from my teacher Rabbi Art Green. It’s a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the first Chassidic rebbe – a mystic, a healer, a miracle worker.

It’s a story about a king.  A king all alone, sitting in his throne. The king sighs. “All I want is to be close to my people!” he says. “I know! Maybe no one knows I am here! I will bring my throne right up to the street, right where anyone can find me.” So he brings his throne right up to the street, right where anyone can find him. But no one comes.

The king sighs. “All I want is to be close to my people!” he says.  “I know! I will create an optical illusion – I will make the people see something that isn’t really here. I will make them see towers, ramps and moats, and gate after gate between them and me. And next to each of these imaginary gates I will place a treasure.”

So the king creates the illusion, of towers, of ramps and moats, of gate after gate leading up to his throne, that aren’t really there. And he sends out invitations to his people: “Come! Everyone is invited to visit me! But you must go through gate after gate to reach me, and whoever does, will get to visit with me!” Then he scatters treasures around each gate. It is a test.

What a challenge! The people begin to come, to try to make it through all these gates to see the king. The first one, the cook, comes and makes it to the first gate, but she stops there and looks down. “Oh my! What beautiful kettles made of shiny new copper and what beautiful oiled wood handles!” She picks up a kettle and carries it home, whistling as she walks. Continue reading

The Cry of the Shofar: Rosh Hashanah 5774

My sermon for the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5774.

Shofar image

The Cry of the Shofar
Congregation Dorshei Emet
Rosh Hashanah Day 1: September 5, 2013
Rabbi Julia Appel

The Torah describes Rosh Hashanah in the following way: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.”

We see here and elsewhere that the oldest name for the holiday is not “new year,” but “Yom Teruah,” the day of loud blasts, the shofar blasts.  The shofar defines the day, which otherwise is like every other holy day of the Torah. So the shofar is important. It has a message for us. What is the shofar trying to tell us?

On Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis of the Talmud teach, the shofar trumpets to announce the re-coronation of the King, of God. We shake with fear and awe as we proclaim the Greatest Sovereign’s reign anew. They quote God telling us to recite before God on Rosh Hashanah “verses of Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. Malchuyot (kingship) in order that you crown me over you; Zichronot (remembrance) in order that your remembrance should rise up before me for good; and with what? With shofar.” (RH 16a) There is authority, power, control.

The far away King, grand and stern. The trumpeting ceremony, the sovereignty. The Ruler deciding our fate. These become the meaning of the day and of the shofar. But what if these images are unrelatable? It makes the holiday unrelatable as well.

Today, I want to offer a different take on the shofar. It’s a counter text, a narrative of the holiday that is equally present in the texts and traditions of Rosh Hashanah, and yet is the very opposite of the far away king.

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Joining Dorshei Emet as Synagogue Educator in August!

I am so excited to announce that I will be joining Congregation Dorshei Emet as Synagogue Educator in August! In this role, I will be working on congregational holiday programming, high holidays, bnai mitzvah education, and children’s and families’ programming. I am thrilled to be joining such a wonderful team, and I am excited to be working with Rabbi Ron Aigen, Executive Director Robyn Bennett, and the rest of the Dorshei Emet team.

From the press release: Continue reading

My radio interview: Talking about liberal Judaism, non-denominational rabbi’ing, outreach, and women clergy

9435701-radio-microphone-on-blue-backgroundI had the pleasure of appearing on the Howie Silbiger Show on Radio Shalom this past Sunday night. Thanks to Howie for a great interview and a chance to discuss some of my favorite topics — the history of the liberal Jewish movements and the differences between them, what it means to be a non-denominational rabbi (“…but you have to believe in something, right?), how to change synagogues today to make them relevant in the 21st century, and the newly formed Jewish Women Clergy of Montreal.

Click here to hear the interview!

1:40  The interview starts

2:20 I talk about the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and what it means to be a non-denominational rabbinical school

3:30  I give the on-one-foot history of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements

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How not to say the wrong thing — on offering comfort in times of distress

A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with leukemia. She asked on facebook not to be inundated with concerned messages but for people to send her stupid kitty videos, cartoons, and things to make her laugh.

Her husband, a rabbi, recently posted this article. I think it is right on, and such an elegant way of expressing what is sometimes difficult to otherwise grasp: How to be sure you are offering comfort, instead of releasing your own discomfort at someone dealing with trauma.

Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

See the full article here.

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