Monday, September 8, 2014

Embracing Elul

And here is the D'var Torah I delivered this past Saturday, September 6, the 11th of Elul 5774: 

Embrace Elul

I’ve never, ever been good with this time of year.

There’s something about the way the weather changes and the smells shift; the vision of children heading off to their first days of a new school year.

There’s something about the transition from the heat-ridden, dog days of August to the steadier, intense pace of September. Summer’s over, fall has turned its head. And here we are, preparing for a new year.

I’ve never been good with this time of year … never in my entire life … and when my mother comes for the High Holidays she can tell you stories about just how excited I was to be going back to school each fall.

I would like to think that it wasn’t just about the overwhelming nervousness with which I approached a new school year, or the anxiety of a new teacher, new classroom, or new expectations.

I’d like to think that at some point, long before I ever articulated a desire to become a rabbi, my body knew that I was supposed to get utsy and unsettled at this time of year. My Jewish soul – my neshama ­– knew long before my intellect did. 

Because this time of year – the Hebrew month of Elul – is a time in which we begin preparing ourselves – mind, body, and soul – for the High Holy Days … that rapidly approaching period of intense retrospection, reflection, and renewal.

Elul is our warm up; our soul stretch … it is our chance to look back before we look forward.

Elul – the month in which we now find ourselves … is a chance for us to take stock of our souls and our choices. And that’s not an easy thing to do. 

And yet … for some of us, that shift is intrinsic and natural. Whether we are intellectually ready for the season … or not … our bodies and our souls are.

The process of teshuvah begins now, in these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Teshuvah encourages us to make repairs to our relationships, to ask others to forgive us, and to forgive ourselves for the wrongs we have committed. Teshuvah requires that we turn; that we physically turn to focus our gaze on the past … to look back on a year in which we were not perfect; a year in which we made mistakes.  

It’s a chance for us to think about relationships that are now broken, losses we have incurred, friendships in need of repair … and things we have said that we cannot take back.

And that’s difficult. It is so difficult.

When I look back on the last twelve months of my life I am astounded by what I see … and by what I remember! A year ago I was beginning the rabbinic search process, uncertain of where my husband and I would land. The stress and the tension that placed on us and our new marriage … and our relationships with others … was immense, and it went deep.

As hard as we tried to navigate that process with integrity and kindness, there were moments when the uncertainty of it all got the better of us; when we said things to one another and to our families out of fear and anxiety. 

We are human, after all.

I feel grateful every single day that I was given the opportunity to serve this phenomenal congregation … and we could not be happier settling into a life here in Seattle. And we know our families and all our loved ones back in LA are thrilled for us … and happy to see us happy.

But we know that the road here was not easy … because no road towards change is ever easy.

Looking back on the past twelve months, I see and know and feel the teshuvah that I must do – for my soul, and for my relationships. And … I know NOW that I know things today that I did not know then.

But that’s the beauty of being alive, of being human … isn’t it? Our flawed perfections, our minor tears. The scars and stories we bring to each day help us navigate this bizarre world of impermanence … and help us learn how to hit the “refresh” button and begin again; begin anew.

As we head into these next three weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I encourage all of us to embrace this month in which we find ourselves; the spiritual warm-up that is Elul. Let us embrace the utziness that may be brewing inside us, pushing us to reflect and let us not be afraid to look back on the path that led us here.

Let us be unafraid to let go of what we hold onto.

There are a number of ways to help guide us in that process:

1.     You could read a book! The one I’m slowly making my way through right now is This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, by Alan Lew. Find yourself immersed in a book that will make you think; that will push you to turn and look back at the past year and, hopefully, think about your place in the universe.

2.     You can make a “teshuvah plan” for yourself and your loved ones, which could take the form of going back through the year and thinking about its various tough moments … and then reaching out to those relationships that could use a little bit of repair.

3.     You can sign up for “Jewels of Elul,” a daily reflection piece penned by an individual … it will go straight to your inbox – sign up at … or Reboot’s 10Q … … or any number of online experiments aimed at reminding us to reflect each day.

4.     You can visit the graves of those on whose shoulders we stand … as Elul is traditionally a time when we visit the graves of our loved ones, whether to pay our respects or ask forgiveness

5.     You can wake up each morning and ask yourself, how do I make today better than yesterday? How can I greet the world with a little more kindness, more compassion? How can I feed my soul and nourish the souls of others?

Finally, you can listen … for the sound of the shofar, audible or internal, calling us to attention, pushing us to act … encouraging us all to begin that difficult process of reflection … so that we may enter 5775 as the people we wish to be. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Be a Blessing

I've been a little behind with posting things I've written ... let's chalk it up to High Holiday brain!

Here is the D'var Torah I delivered on August 23rd, Parshat Re'eh: 

Choose Blessing

I don’t want to read the news anymore.

I know that I have to – that I need to; that NOT ONLY is it good to be an informed citizen of this city, this country, and beyond … but also that my success as a rabbi depends in large part on my awareness of what’s going on in the world.

But I DON’T WANT to read the news anymore.

It’s too hard. It’s too depressing.

Every day it’s something else … and if it’s not an assault on my psyche of negativity, oppression, torture, and war from the MEDIA … well, then it’s the exact same thing on Facebook and Twitter … from people I actually know.

Even reading what they share is hard.

I don’t want to read the news anymore because even when I remind myself that these horrible things going on in the world are exaggerated … even when I tell myself they’ve been blown out of proportion … well, I still know that there are horrible things going on … in the world, and even in this city.


I started working as a rabbi here at Temple De Hirsch Sinai on July 1st and these past eight weeks … it has been really difficult to be a Jew. Al achat kama v’chama … how much the more so a rabbi!

The week we moved to Seattle the three Israeli boys were kidnapped near Hebron. The global Jewish community went bezerk – and with good reason – calling upon the Israeli government to find the boys and bring those responsible to justice.

Then a Palestinian teenager was brutally murdered by Israelis as a retaliation measure … and suddenly we all took a step back … and thought to ourselves, “wait, is this what we’ve come to? Is this now who we are?”

Only a short while later, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge …  which, as we all know, is still going on.

And for the past eight weeks it seems anti-Semitism has once again reared its ugly, irrepressible head. Protests and riots across Europe and elsewhere … tumult and violence have shown their faces not only abroad but in our own city of Seattle, too.

We read every day about things … horrible things … happening to innocent men, women and children. Not only Jewish … but Iraqi, Syrian, Christian, Muslim, gay, straight, searching and stable, young and old, rich and poor.

No one is immune.

And so, you see, this is why I don’t want to read the news. Because it would be so much easier to bury my head in the sand and tune it all out.  


From a young age we teach our children that the Jews are the chosen people; that we were selected by God from among all the peoples of the earth and held to a higher standard.

There is a midrash that teaches that the reason we Jews are God’s chosen people is because neither party could do any better. The midrash goes something like this: when the Israelites are wandering in the desert, God is searching for a people to accept the Torah. Each of the nations of the world is asked if they will accept the Torah, and each and every one says no … because its teachings – no murder, no adultery, no bacon, etc., - go against the tenets of their own societies.

And so, the rabbis teach, God comes to the people of Israel LAST, this tattered and desperate people wandering aimlessly through the desert. God holds Mount Sinai above their heads and cries out, “will you accept the teachings of the Torah or be buried by this mountain?” The people of Israel, realizing they have no choice if they wish to live, instantly respond: “it is a tree of life to those who hold her fast.”


This slightly absurd midrash has always highlighted for me the inherent tension of being Jewish and being a citizen of a multi-faith world. In many ways our Torah teaches that to be a Chosen Person is to be elevated above all others … and yet, we know that we are not alone in this world … and our collective success as a people depends in large part upon how we engage with those who are not a part of our Tribe.

It’s hard. At times it’s theologically and emotionally exhausting.

And yet … I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.


Being Jewish is about so much more than this; it’s so much more than the pain and the agony, the heart-wrenching anti-Semitism and the violence we see. It’s about so much more than anti-Israel protests and the BDS movement. It’s about more than “us” vs. “them.”

We Jews have so much more going for us than what the news reminds us of every day.


In parshat Re’eh this week, Moses says: see, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing will come when you follow God’s commandments and the curse will surely come if you choose the way of other gods. As you enter this land that you do not know … choose blessing. Choose life.

Following the teachings of our faith is NOT easy. Even the rabbis knew this; they assert through their tongue-in-cheek midrash that no other nation in the world would be crazy enough to take on this burden; the burden of our sefer Torah.

And yet … (pause) and yet …  

The richness of Judaism … the beauty of community … the language of our sacred prayers … the melodies of our songs … the feeling (pause) of studying Torah together … the blessing of knowing our shared story, of sharing our triumphs and challenges…

Makes all of this worth it.

It reminds us that there is so much to be proud of. So much to love. So much to gain.


It makes getting up in the morning, coming to work, and touching the lives of those within this congregation … all worth it.


Nobody said it was easy … no one ever said it would be this hard. Oh, take me back to the start … sings the band Coldplay.

In about one month, we get to go back to the start when the sun finally rises on the new Jewish year.

May it be for all of us a chance to reconnect with ourselves and with our community.

May it be a reminder of the richness, the depth, and the beauty of this extraordinary religion.

And may it help us rise above the negativity, the pain and the uncertainty, the violence and the fighting.

May it be a new day for all of us … Kein Yehi Ratzon.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dvarim: Telling our Stories

Kabbalat Shabbat – Parshat D’varim
August 1, 2014 
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Raise your hand if you know the name of the first female rabbi ever. (pause)


If you answered Sally Priesand, well … good guess, but she’s not it.

Rabbi Sally Priesand was the first woman ordained by the Reform Movement in America, by the school that just ordained me, Hebrew Union College, in 1972. But – she is not the first known woman rabbi of all time.

That title – that honor, belongs to Regina Jonas.

Has anyone ever heard that name – Regina Jonas?

Rabbi Regina Jonas was ordained in Germany in the year … 1935.

She was born in 1902 and perished at Auschwitz in 1944. Regina Jonas left a legacy that stretches all the way to this day – for it is an indisputable fact that my being here with you this evening is in some way connected to this this inspiring woman, this intrepid rabbi. I want to tell you her story … because it is my story. It is your story. And story is at the center of this week’s Torah portion, D’varim.

Many don’t realize that the roots of Reform Judaism stretch all the way back to mid-19th century Germany … when Abraham Geiger and his contemporaries were questioning what it meant to be both a Jew and a modern citizen of the state. No longer citizens of the shtetl relegated to the outskirts of both land and society, the modern Jew was pushed to evolve his or her Jewish practice in order to thrive.

The creation of new, liberal synagogues – places that often mimicked the customs of churches and pushed the boundaries of Jewish practice – coincided with the founding of the Wissenschaft des Judentuums – a progressive branch of education that focused not only on Jewish history and rabbinic literature, but also German culture, science, arts, and European history at large.

The historian Amos Elon wrote, “The purpose [of this modern type of beit midrash], "was to bring ordinary Jews into the orbit of German culture and at the same time reinforce their Jewish identity by bridging the gulf between secular and religious education.”

The Hochshule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums – the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies - was ground zero for Reform Judaism’s intellectual and spiritual roots. As a seminary, it served as a training ground for liberal rabbis. And eventually, Regina Jonas became a student there, uplifted by this progressive and accepting atmosphere infused by Torah.

Rabbi Jonas’ thesis was titled, “Can a Woman be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” Jonas argued that yes, one could, and her private ordination in 1935 demonstrated that she proved her theorem.

For several years Regina Jonas served God and community, all while Europe hovered on the brink of World War II. In 1938 Berlin, Regina wrote, ““If I confess what motivated me, a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind: my belief in God’s calling and my love of humans. God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender. Therefore, it is the duty of men and women alike to work and create according to the skills given by God.”

Jonas was deported to Terezinstaadt in 1942. She and her fellow prisoners Viktor Frankl, the famous psychoanalyst, and Rabbi Leo Baeck, a leader of the German Jewish community, were tasked with greeting incoming trains and providing counseling to frightened and bewildered Jews as they arrived. During her two years at Terezinstaadt, Rabbi Jonas presented dozens of lectures on Judaism and Jewish topics. She functioned as a rabbi – as a scholar and pastoral presence – under the worst imaginable circumstances.

When she perished at Auschwitz in 1944, she had no children. She left no tangible legacy. Few people knew of her, and those that did added little to the history of the Wissenschaft des Judentuums. It was not until the early 1990s when the discovery of papers – including her rabbinic thesis – shed light onto her incredible past … and scholars, lay people, and clergy slowly grasped who this woman was … and found themselves, past and present … in her story.


Regina Jonas was on the mind of many women and men of every denomination of Judaism last Thursday, July 24th, when she was honored with a plaque at Terezinstaadt. In a moving and emotional ceremony, those gathered chanted El Maleh Rachamim in her memory, asking God to grant her eternal peace.

Present for this ceremony were Regina Jonas’ fellow first women, each from their own respective denominations. Rabbi Sally Preisand was there, joined by Rabbi Amy Elberg, ordained in 1985 by JTS, the Conservative seminary; Rabbi Jacqueline Tabick, ordained in 1975 by Leo Baeck College, the liberal seminary of England named for the same rabbi that once served Terezin’s prisoners with Rabbi Jonas, and also involved was Rabbi Sara Hurwitz, the first known woman ordained through an Orthodox seminary.

These names – these individuals – are people on whose shoulders I stand; on whose shoulders we all stand. Indeed, they are trailblazers … pioneers … women who faced backlash resistance, roadblocks, and torment – from peers, family, friends … yet kept pushing forward so that we could tell their stories.

So that we would be inspired by their stories.

Especially today … when the world seems darker, more dangerous, and more hostile each day.


In this week’s parsha, D’varim – words – our text begins to recount our story. Moses, knowing that he will soon part from the people as they move forward without him, engages them in a series of reflections and retellings of their journey.

The book of Deuteronomy seeks to teach us – we who study this text year after year … we who belong to and believe in community – lessons for the future. Through the retelling of our story, the text reinforces our commitment to and Covenant with God.

The text itself reminds us just how essential it is to tell our story. To know on whose shoulders we stand. To remember our past … so that we may look to our future. 


Each and every moment of our lives we have an opportunity to tell a story.

Each and every moment of our lives we are able to share words – d’varim – of inspiration, challenge, humor and hope.

May we choose our words wisely.

May we use our words to inspire others.

May we always remember on whose shoulders we stand.

And may we be blessed with the ability to continue telling our stories … and the stories of our people … for generations to come.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Shades of Gray

Many years ago, I worked as the arts and crafts specialist at the family camp I'd attended with my own family for many years. Just on the cusp of my twenties, I was young and silly and thought I knew everything. My own work with teens over the last decade has taught me these things don't change.

The first summer I worked there was incredible. I loved and was loved by staff, campers and families, and it was a fantastic, positive summer of work and growth. The second summer, however, things were not as great. My new supervisor and I weren't as good a fit, my responsibilities were different, and I found that the culture of this camp had shifted in a way where I didn't feel quite as comfortable. Some of it was hard to articulate; these changes existed in feelings, not fact.

A situation arose in which I was accused of things that, from my perspective, I simply had not done. Unfortunately, my supervisor handled things poorly, I was dealt with way too harshly, and when push came to shove my parents and I concluded I could no longer finish out the summer in my position. The air was too thick with animosity, I felt emotionally unsafe in my work environment, and no one saw an opportunity to start fresh.

I was devastated. I was quitting a job for the first time and felt like a failure. I was certain that this would stay with me for life; that it would haunt me forever. (And it has - just not in the way I'd anticipated)

However, I also felt completely let down by a group of people who had held some significant presence in my life since childhood. I did not understand how they could treat me so poorly, or back me into a corner where I felt my only option was to quit.

And so, my prevailing feeling became one of anger and defiance. When I quit, I quit in a maelstrom of strong-woman fiery passion, where I made sure my point of view was heard loud and clear.. I had done nothing wrong, they were the villains, and I was leaving with my head held high.

Looking back, I'm pretty impressed that nineteen-year-old me was such a rabbi-in-training; that I had the guts to stand up to the big boss and say, this is not okay, and I am leaving because this situation has become untenable. So, bravo to that.


As I reflect on this moment in my life - to date the only job I have ever quit - I realize just how brash and arrogant I was.

The reality was this: I was a young, immature kid who probably did something stupid and my immediate supervisor didn't like me very much and so she exaggerated the story and I got a bigger slap on the wrist than I should have.

I would love to believe that I was somehow superior; that I was in the right, that there was black and white and I was good and they were bad. But that's [likely] not entirely correct.

Sometimes we hold ourselves to a higher standard because we are taught and conditioned to believe we are better than the circumstances we find ourselves in. Sometimes we are arrogant, complacent, or just have a bad attitude. Sometimes we have to reel ourselves in, take stock, and hit refresh.

I share all this as a long introduction to an article in the Times of Israel that has circulated on Facebook and Twitter today, shared below. I share all this as a way of reminding those who read this blog that I am human, and we all are human, and being human is sometimes really, really hard. I share all this because I truly believe that these words are powerful, that they cut to the heart, and that we as individuals and as a community must always remember just how many shades of gray exist in our lives and in our work.

The article is below, and I look forward to reading your comments.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Perspective is Everything

This past Friday evening - July 4th - I gave my first drash at Temple de Hirsch Sinai in Seattle. It was awesome. I'm sharing it here with all of you and look forward to sharing many more sermons, divrei Torah, and life musings in the future:

Shabbat Shalom.

The father of one of my closest friends has a blog he updates fairly often, titled “Perspective is Everything.” This blog chronicles Michael’s daily activities, musings on life, love, family, and politics, and often serves as a platform for a cause about which he is passionate. Normally, a blog like this might make me feel as though I was peeking into someone’s online diary, snooping around someone’s personal business. But Michael’s blog is unique … Michael himself is incredibly unique … and the blog’s tagline should tell you why:

Living with a Disability … What a Blessing.

For as long as I’ve known him, Michael has lived with advanced MS – Multiple Sclerosis. Over the last decade I have watched his physical health deteriorate. Today he is bound to a wheelchair, unable to work or drive; he needs round-the-clock supervision and help doing even the most mundane tasks.

And yet – Michael genuinely considers himself to be truly fortunate. He sees himself as deeply blessed. And when you ask him whether he sees his cup as half-full or half-empty, he will look at you with his huge, Matinee-idol grin and tell you, “neither … because my cup runneth over.”

Perspective is everything, Michael constantly reminds me. What could have been the most horrific curse on his body and his family – he has chosen to see it as a blessing. (pause)

How we choose to view the world around us defines who we are; it sets us on a path toward our future, no matter what roadblocks stand in our way. For many of us, it’s simply natural to wallow in pain and despair when life goes awry, when we are delivered hard news, or when our greater, global community suffers. But for others, those very curses can be spun into blessings and opportunities. For them, it’s all about perspective.

This week’s parsha, Balak, shows us the people of Israel inching closer to their Promised Land. The parsha is named for the evil Moabite king Balak, who sees the Jews as a threat and hires the sorcerer Balaam to curse them.

Balaam sets out on this “cursing mission” on a donkey – one who miraculously speaks to him over the course of their journey. Balaam finds three separate vantage points from which he attempts to curse the Jews – three separate visuals on the people Israel. Yet three times, only blessings emerge from this non-Jew’s mouth, culminating in Ma Tovu O’halecha Ya’akov Mishkenotecha Yisrael – how good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel – a prayer that, today, opens our morning liturgy.

The text tells us that it is God who intervenes; that it is God, working through angels and talking donkeys, who spins these curses into blessings.

Balak, the Moabite king, is … disappointed … that this hotshot sorcerer couldn’t actually do what he was hired for. He calls out to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them three times! Now, flee back to your place. I said I would honor you greatly, but God has prevented you from receiving any honor from me.”

In parshat Balak, curses are spun into blessings because God intervenes.

Today, thousands of years later, how can we spin that which plagues and stymies us into blessing and opportunity? (pause)

It’s not an easy task. We cannot simply snap our fingers and choose to suddenly view the world through a totally different lens. We are human beings, and we are infinitely more complex and dynamic than that.

However – we can begin by shifting our perspective. We can remove our shoes and step into those of another. We can look at troubling, frustrating situations from alternate angles and vantage points – just as Balaam attempted to do on his “cursing mission” – and move forward with that information as our guide. We can always see a different side.

For example …

We can look at today – at the Fourth of July – as a noisy, crowded circus of hot dogs and Americana. Or – we can see it as a celebration of our nation’s independence; an opportunity for family and friends to gather together on a warm summer evening.

Or …

We can take what is currently happening in Israel, this horrific and tragic escalation of violence, and quietly, angrily sit in our frustration and hopelessness. Or, we can shift our perspective ever so slightly, reach out to those with whom we disagree, and seize an opportunity to foster dialogue; to pursue peace in the face of war. (pause)

Again, none of this is easy. None of this just … happens overnight. And sometimes we really do have the right to sit and wallow in our anger and despair. But in parshat Balak, we are reminded that it is possible to spin curses into blessings; that we can shift our perspective; that we are capable of adapting, regrouping, and … starting over. (pause)

On March 5th of this year, our friend Michael posted the following on his blog: “Today … is an unusual anniversary. Today … is the anniversary of my diagnosis of MS. It is the date that my life, and the life of my family and many of our friends, was forever changed. Although some of the changes have been quite dramatic, they are not all bad. In fact, many of the changes have been quite positive and that makes it an anniversary worth celebrating… Today is my thirteenth anniversary. Today I feel grateful for what I have learned from living with a disability. It has truly been an opportunity.” 

May we – as individuals and as a community – be blessed with the ability to shift our own perspectives; to see our curses as opportunities, and to recognize and celebrate the abundant blessings in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.