Call the Midwife

By Debra Rubin/Hadassah Magazine

Midwife Yale Silverberg-Urian assist a new mother with skin-to-skin bonding and breastfeeding her infant daughter.

Rebekah Natanov was nearing the end of her first pregnancy when she switched from an obstetrician-gynecologist to a hospital-based midwife. Having studied maternal and women’s health when she was in graduate school, the Silver Spring, Md., resident was concerned that her ob-gyn would be too hasty to do an episiotomy and put her at risk for infection, too ready to push her to take drugs to induce labor if she went too many days past her due date and too quick to do a cesarean section.

“Midwives in general have a more natural outlook on birth,” says Natanov, 35, a research analyst at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, whose oldest daughter, Michal, is 4 years old. Midwives “rarely do episiotomies. You don’t have to fight to have something to eat or drink in labor.”

Midwives have been assisting women in childbirth for millennia. The best known in Jewish tradition are the biblical Shifra and Puah, the midwives recalled in the Passover story who defied Pharaoh’s order to slay the newborn sons of Hebrew women and have been known through the ages as the saviors of their people. According to some rabbinic teachings, Shifra was Moses’ mother, Yocheved, and Puah was his sister, Miriam.   READ MORE

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Rabbis Recall Their Most Unusual Gifts

By Debra Rubin/Hadassah Magazine

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt with a banjo given to her by a congregant.

Judaica. Jewish-themed books or artworks. A donation to a synagogue fund or other favored charity. Those are the traditional gifts that rabbis receive. But a banjo? A restaurant napkin holder? A possible tombstone?

As Hanukkah approaches, a time for gift-giving for some, we decided to look at some of the atypical gifts rabbis have received—for all kinds of occasions.

When a congregant walked into a meeting with Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt over the summer, he was carrying a banjo, and she wondered if he was taking lessons.

It turns out that the congregant, using bar mitzvah money, had bought the stringed instrument more than 30 years ago, but never really got into playing it. When he heard Holtzblatt play a banjo during the Return Again musical service she co-leads at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., he told her he had figured out why he had held onto it all these years: “It needed a new home, and you are it.” READ MORE

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New pluralistic military siddur will make the rounds on Memorial Day weekend

By Debra Rubin

The new  Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) siddur for the military next to a Kiddush cup. Credit: Debra Rubin.

The new Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) siddur for the military next to a Kiddush cup. Credit: Debra Rubin.


( — The Shabbat of Memorial Day weekend later this month will mark a first in American Jewish life: Three New York City congregations representing the three major U.S. Jewish movements will daven from the same prayer book.

Produced by the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) Jewish Chaplains Council specifically for the military, the siddur that the trio of shuls will use for those services made its debut at the Jewish Community Centers of North America (JCC Association) biennial in late March. Distribution of the books to U.S. military bases worldwide began in April.

JWB’s last military prayer book was issued after World War II. Although it was updated in the 1980s, many chaplains found the old military prayer book lacking. To the Orthodox, there were too many omissions; gender-specific language, meanwhile, bothered more liberal chaplains. READ MORE

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Jewish daughters tell of their moms in new book

By Debra Rubin

JewishDaugher-coverRachel Ament noticed that she and her friends often shared humorous anecdotes that were typically variations on a theme: overprotective, worrying Jewish moms who smothered them with love.

That includes Ament’s own mother. “My mom is probably every Jewish stereotype scrunched into one,” the Washington, DC, resident tells “At the root of all these stereotypical, worrying, overprotective moms, is love.”

A social media writer for Capital One, as well as a freelance writer, Ament decided about three years ago that it would be fun to invite Jewish women writers she admires—mostly bloggers, standup comics, and actors—to contribute stories about their mothers for an anthology.

The result—The Jewish Daughter Diaries: True Stories of Being Loved Too Much by Our Moms—features 27 essays, and is set for a May 6 release by Sourcebook in time for Mother’s Day (May 11). The youngest contributor is writer and BuzzFeed senior editor Lauren Yapalater, 24; the oldest is stand-up comedian Wendy Liebman, 53.


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First U.S. envoy of her kind taking close relationship with Holocaust survivors to new level

By Debra Rubin/

aviva sufian001

Aviva Sufian was just 8 years old when her mother took her to an American Gathering of

Jewish Holocaust Survivors event in Philadelphia in 1985. She remembers survivor after survivor standing up and announcing, “My name is, and this is where I’m from.”

Sufian, whose grandparents had come to this country shortly after World War I, says her parents “placed a primacy on my understanding the world they came from,” including understanding the devastation of the Jewish people under the Nazi regime.

“I had a close relationship with Holocaust survivors in the community I grew up in,” said Sufian, 37, who lived in Houston, studied Yiddish in high school and college, and as a student at Columbia University in New York conducted interviews with survivors for the Shoah Foundation.

Sufian’s career has since focused on the elderly, both in the Jewish communal and government sectors. Named in late January as the first special envoy for U.S. Holocaust survivor services, she will be combining her background in the field of aging with her knowledge of Holocaust survivors. READ MORE .

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Rabbi Kerry Olitzky creates ‘playlist’ for changing tunes of synagogue life

By Debra Rubin/

Playlist Judaism Cover - Round 2Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is an optimist.

While other Jewish communal leaders worry about dwindling rates of affiliation, Olitzky points to the creation of 600 Jewish start-ups in the past decade. “I’m very optimistic about the American Jewish spirit,” he says.

Olitzky does, however, worry about “a dearth of adaptive leadership:” leaders who not only recognize that the American Jewish community is in a period of transition and that the communal institutions as they exist today—synagogues, JCCs, federations—may not exist tomorrow, but are also willing to reinvent those institutions.

That’s why Olitzky wrote “Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future,” recently published by the Alban Institute. With chapters such as “Turning the Synagogue Inside Out,”  “The Marketplace of Ideas,” “Intermarriage as an Opportunity, Not a Problem,” “Don’t Forget the Boomers,” and “Leading the Jewish Community into the Future,” the book focuses primarily on synagogues.

Olitzky’s aim, he writes in his introduction, is “to assist synagogue leaders in reshaping the synagogue so that it can reclaim its vital role in American Jewish religious life.”

The executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing Judaism to the unaffiliated and intermarried, and author of several other books, Olitzky tells that he has always been interested in Jews “on the periphery, as opposed to people in the core.”

Olitzky says he is “way on the inside of the American Jewish community,” but has “a profound empathy for people on the outside.” Given the high number of Jews who aren’t institutionally affiliated, he says, “What we call the Jewish community is really the minority, not the majority. I’m puzzled why the Jewish community has been satisfied with reaching the minority.”

The author uses the notion of “playlist Judaism” to explain that, just as the music listener “wants to control his or her listening habits” and now has the option through iTunes and the like of buying individual songs rather than albums, the individual Jew “doesn’t want the Jewish institution to create his or her Judaism.”

“People do not want the things that meet their needs bundled with other things that they don’t think meet their needs and thereby be forced to buy the entire package,” Olitzky writes.

The author sees American Judaism as in transition, with those in their 20s and 30s “the first generation of fully American Jews” who are “far enough away from the trajectory of the immigration experience that they are part of the American fabric.”

No longer do many American Jews make their choices in terms of “what is good for the Jewish community,” says Olitzky, but rather they make choices about Jewish life based on what’s good for the individual.

As a result, the self-described futurist says that some institutions may no longer be needed. “I don’t worry that many of these institution will be sunsetted,” he says, pointing to the Jewish hospital as a no-longer-needed institution. The first Jewish hospital was founded in 1850 in Cincinnati to treat itinerant Jews who were refused health by other facilities, and also provided a place for Jewish interns and residents to train, he says.

With Jewish hospitals no longer needed for such a purpose, many were sold with the proceeds used to create foundations that support both Jewish and non-Jewish causes, says Olitzky.

The synagogue, too, he says, no longer has its original raison d’etre. “For their parents, the synagogues represented a claim on American soil as citizens. For the millennials, the synagogues are just buildings that serve a Jewish communal and religious purpose,” the rabbi writes.

“If synagogues continue to focus on the needs of the institution rather than on the needs of the individual, they will lose their dues-paying members and eventually become financially unviable,” he writes.

In “Playlist Judaism,” Olitzky advocates “public space Judaism”—holding holiday-related and other Jewish content events outside of Jewish institutions—and also gives examples of novel synagogue models. He points, for instance, to Ikar, a 500-plus family unit nondenominational “alternative synagogue community” in Los Angeles with “free-form worship,” which includes a drum circle, a commitment to community engagement (the congregation worked with an interfaith coalition to bring about changes in the city’s towing and impound policies, which targeted immigrants), and as of yet has no building of its own.

In Boston, Temple Israel’s Riverway Project is geared toward the millennial generation, with a focus on worship, intensive Jewish text study, and social action activities and events held outside the synagogue building, in an area where younger Jews are more likely to live.

While he’s not certain exactly what shape the Jewish community will look like in the next generation, Olitzky is certain that 21st-century Judaism is in an era of transition. “We don’t know when this era will conclude,” he says. “The only thing we can be sure of is when the transition concludes, the Jewish community will not look anything like it did before.”


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Seattle couple gets married … and married … and married


(JTA) — In less than a year, Dane Kuttler and Rowan Parker exchanged vows in 10 different wedding ceremonies at 10 different venues on two coasts under nine different marriage canopies.

In what Kuttler calls “Wedding Tour ’13,” the introverted Seattle coupImagele wanted to share their celebration with as many friends and family as possible while avoiding the pressures of one big party.

“It was fun,” Parker said. “We wanted to travel. We wanted to take a big vacation.”

The couple first exchanged vows in February in the Florida apartment of Kuttler’s grandmother under a tallit she had used when she became an adult bat mitzvah. Another ceremony was held over Memorial Day weekend in a waterfront town west of Seattle that Parker’s Unitarian family has been visiting since he was a child. Read more

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For new dad, a stronger bond from a cut foreskin


By Debra Rubin

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Natan Zaidenweber thought the mohel was kidding. His wife, Linda Raab, thought it was some kind of religious formality and didn’t give it a second thought.

But the mohel, Cantor Philip Sherman, was serious. Though most fathers demur when he invites them to perform the bris on their sons by clipping their foreskin, preferring to delegate the task to someone professionally trained in the procedure, Sherman finds that about 5 or 10 percent of dads agree to do the cut.

“It is the father’s mitzvah to actually perform the bris as Abraham did for his son, Isaac,” Sherman said. “Many fathers have told me what an incredible moment it was for them to do the actual bris and enter their sons into the covenant of Abraham.”

The Mill Valley, Calif., couple realized the cantor wasn’t joking only once the ceremony was underway. Sherman began with a naming ceremony for Jay Hilay and his twin sister, Sivan Rose. Then he again offered Natan the option of making the cut.

The new dad stepped forward, and as his startled wife screamed his name in a tone that she says was intended to say, “Are you crazy?,” a friend reassured her it would be easy. Read more:

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Since the 1800s, Hanukkah in the US is a response to Xmas

By Debra Rubin/Times of Israel

In 1860s Cincinnati, Rabbi Max Lilienthal noticed that many Jews were enjoying German Christmas customs, with decorated trees and a Kris Kringle figure. Having preached in some churches, he also noticed the tendency toward Christmas festivities and gifts that kept children interested in religion and their church.

Why not, he said, have Hanukkah festivals and pageants, with gifts for the kids?

“The children shall have it as a day of rejoicing [in] our religion,” Lilienthal explained. “Chanukah can be celebrated to delight young and old.”

In Baltimore, future Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold, too, believed that Hanukkah celebrations needed to be reshaped in line with Christmas ones.

“Christmas truly fulfills its mission of bringing peace and good will to men. All this and more, Chanuka should be to us,” she wrote in the New York Jewish Messenger in 1879.

And in 1940s New Orleans, there were the “Hanukkah doors,” a tradition among Jewish members of the women’s garden club. The women would cover their front doors with plain brown paper or gift-wrap and then decorate them with Mardi Gras beads, acorns, pine cones, popcorn, drinking straws, beans, rice, bottle tops and whatever else was handy around the house, creating hanukkiyot, scenes of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, the Western Wall or the Eternal Light.

Next to the doors, they’d put an explanation of the image.

Obviously, it’s not just in recent years that Jews have looked to Christmas and decided that Hanukkah should take on more prominence. READ MORE

An image from ‘Hanukkah in America: A History’ features Fredda Sacharows collection of hanukkiyot/Courtesy New York University Press

An image from 'Hanukkah in America: A History' (photo credit: New York University Press),

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Families close the marriage deal with eight pushups


By Debra Rubin

(JTA) — Reuben Meltzer had to strike a hard bargain for his wife.

At nearly $1,000, her family’s initial asking price was too much. He and Thy Vy’s family finally agreed: $200 and eight pushups apiece from Reuben, his parents, two brothers, two nephews and the best friend who had introduced the couple. Read more:

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