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December 4, 2016 / 4 Kislev, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Stern College’

God, Are You Threatening Me?

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Standing in synagogue this past Rosh Hashanah, an irreverent thought sprang, unbidden, into mind when the cantor arrived at the famous (or, rather, infamous) prayer of Unesaneh Tokef, which lists deaths that could eventuate in the upcoming year – “who by fire, who by sword, who my beast…” God, are you threatening me? thought I, at the moment when just such a thought could be most damning.

The hilarity of the moment, set against the determined somberness of the scene, brought on a burst of laughter, which I desperately struggled to smother. My blasphemy need not thwart the careful concentration of the other swaying, teary-eyed and appropriately quaking attendees. An awkward snort prevailed, which I easily passed off as a nose-blow, hiding my face in a tissue to authenticate my piety.

But the thought, and the frustrated emotions brought with it, did not leave me after exiting the prayer service that day. The ominous nature characterizing a good portion of the High Holiday liturgy can be difficult to understand. And I suspect I’m not alone in these struggles.

The writers of our holiday liturgy (in the case of Unesaneh Tokef, Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, 11th century, tortured for refusing a Christian conversion according to popular tradition) were no fools. On the holiest days of the year, they sought to compose lines that would stir religious fervor and zeal in the hearts of repenters, proving successful for centuries. If, today, we find ourselves struggling to relate to these prayers, it stands to reason that the change has taken place within us.

But what changed? While fear used to motivate, even inspire, mine is a generation that views threats as challenges and raises a skeptical brow at austere ultimatums. Reverence often seems a throwback to old times, and absolute authority, whether in classroom or in the synagogue, is a concept increasingly more difficult to swallow.

As a counselor at an Orthodox Jewish sleep-away camp this past summer, I witnessed this phenomenon first hand. I worked with forty teenage girls, ages 15 and 16, and quickly discovered the most dependable way to get nothing done: threats.

A quick anecdote to illustrate the point: when color-war rolled around, to the dismay of some and adulation of others, it fell on my shoulders to inspire the creativity, enthusiasm (measured exclusively by volume in the dining room), and leadership potential in my campers. Those campers of mine, chafing at the bit for authority, trotted off, whistles hung importantly around necks, to cut, paste, glue, sing, swim and dance the day away. Naturally, the campers who remained lounging in the back of the bunkhouse were not the ones easily inspired by the day’s competitive, pink and green flurry.

My first tactic to get those recalcitrant few out of the bunkhouse and onto the field: the nonchalant, well-it’s-your-loss shrug. No movement. Second tactic: bribes. No response (apparently stale cookies held little clout). Frustrated, I resorted to the last and final course of action: if you don’t leave the bunkhouse right now, I’m going to have to… call your mother, dock your cell phone privileges, send you home. The end of my sentence would not have made a difference, the response to the first half was so complete. In a moment I became the challenger, and the enemy. While before my campers had been laxly apathetic, they now sat up, alert, suspicious and determined to move nowhere.

Who by sword, who by fire; the stakes are definitely higher than leaving camp a week early. But the response I witnessed in my campers, and in myself, is not the quiet for which I had hoped. Was this true a generation ago? I cannot say. Nor will I hypothesize about why my generation has such a hard time fearing authority.

What I can propose is a refocus on the positive, making the long High Holiday services a more pleasant, less conflicted, prayer experience. There are many prayers within the extensive liturgy that focus on Divine love and compassion, from the repeated recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, to the beautiful description of the Jewish people as God’s handiwork (pe’ulatecha), beloved (dodeinu), treasure (segulatecha) and more. Selecting to focus on positive imagery and the message of forgiveness and progress can quell our conflicted feelings at the prayers that seem to daunt and portend.

Hannah Dreyfus

Living With Dorothy

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

            Suffice it to say that when I moved in with Dorothy, my friends were in shock.  Most of them were planning to live in the more popular Washington Heights, whereas I had decided to remain in midtown Manhattan.  Mostly, however, most of their astonishment was because I was 22, and Dorothy, or Mrs. Hilf, as I call her, was 95. 


Let me explain.  I met Mrs. Hilf through my good friend and college roommate Melissa.  Mrs. Hilf and Melissa were learning partners at Congregation Adereth El (in midtown Manhattan, near Stern), and Melissa thought I would enjoy meeting her.  She was right.  We hit it off right away, and I began visiting her weekly.  We usually planned to do some religious learning at our meetings, perhaps review the siddur or study the parshat hashavua, the weekly Torah portion, but more often than not, we just schmoozed. 


            After graduating from Stern College and receiving an invitation from Mrs. Hilf to share her one-bedroom apartment, I’ll admit I was hesitant to accept.  My mother urged me to say yes, while my good friends could not even imagine why I would consider the very generous offer.  (I did share the rent, but then again, we were rent controlled.) 


While I would be at a distance from my friends, there were significant advantages to the proposal, and I eventually decided to move in.  My boyfriend Moshe (now my husband) worked a block away, the commute to my graduate school was convenient, and I absolutely loved the bustle and convenience of New York City.


Mrs. Hilf and I talked about politics, literature, and life.  I confided in her about my personal life, and she, in turn, offered me sage advice.  After one particularly upsetting incident with Moshe, I recall coming home in a rage, ready to have it out with him and give him a piece of my mind.  Mrs. Hilf talked with me, calmed me down and told me, in a very matter-of-fact way, to get over it.  I have a hunch that if not for Mrs. Hilf soothing me, my relationship with Moshe would not be where it is today.



Dorothy Hilf and Little Leeba



Mrs. Hilf tells it like it is.  When I ask for her opinion, I know that I’ll get the unadulterated truth.  And I love that.  In a world where everyone is concerned with being politically correct, Mrs. Hilf prizes honesty and sincerity. 


But more than that, Mrs. Hilf taught me that age doesn’t matter.  She showed me that a positive attitude and a deep thankfulness for all we have are most important.  She is a paragon of what it means to be self-sufficient.  Now 102, may she live and be well, she lives alone, does her own marketing, emails her friends, and volunteers weekly at a soup kitchen.  She even hosts Sabbath meals in her apartment from time to time.  She appreciates when I stock her up on groceries and when Melissa delivers home-cooked meals, but she is always surprised.


Since getting married, I’ve made some new friends; they are not quite like Mrs. Hilf – they’re only in their eighties.  Before we moved to our current location, we lived down the hall from Mollie and Leah.  For five years we shared in each other’s joys and bonded over tragedies.  I borrowed onions and delivered chicken soup, and they played with my three-year-old daughter Leba and introduced her to the piano. 


My mother taught me that we can learn much from our seniors.  My mother visited the nursing home and made time to call on relatives and older friends who were ill.  For years, my mother had a study partner who was in his eighties.  To this day, she reads aloud her notes from those sessions and reminisces with fondness over the erudition he displayed and the thoughts he shared with her. 


I suppose growing up in a home with grandparents helped establish my love and respect for the older generation.  I miss them terribly now that they have passed on, and am sorry that I didn’t appreciate their presence even more.  They cared for me with so much love and, like Mrs. Hilf, never asked for anything in return. 


I continue to visit Mrs. Hilf most weeks, and try to bring Leba along with me when I can.  If I can instill within my daughter a respect and admiration for our elders, perhaps she too will look to those before us for guidance and love.  And when I see her greeting Mrs. Hilf with a hug and a kiss, I know we’re on the right track.

Chana Mayefsky

Rachel Levmore And How To Be A Pioneer In Get-Getting

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

        Rachel Levmore is not a doctor. She is, in fact, a lawyer – of Halachah. This does not stop her from comparing what she does to doctors who develop vaccines. Except Levmore’s vaccines are to prevent get refusal, not smallpox. And she, with the Council of Young Israel Rabbis, a 17-year-old Israeli organization supported by the Jewish Agency, inoculates the population by advocating couples to sign prenuptial agreements before they wed.


         Levmore serves as a toenet, a rabbinical court advocate in Israel, where she was one of the first women to be licensed in 1995. Since a toen is a fully licensed profession, Levmore and anyone else who wishes to serve is required to pass a thorough test on court proceedings and Halachah. One of Levmore’s innovations has been writing, together with two rabbis, the Agreement for Mutual Respect – the Israeli form of the prenup signed in the U.S.


         She is a pioneer and an improbable warrior. Levmore recently came to the United States – a visit that included speaking engagements at Drisha, Stern College and JOFA – to convince Americans to inoculate our population, too. It’s simple, really. Levmore wants you to sign a document that requires a husband, upon dissolution of a marriage, to pay an agreed amount (about $50 a day) after a waiting period until the get is given to the wife.


         Hopefully, there will be no get, no divorce. If there is one, hopefully, it will be mutually agreed upon and promptly given. Unfortunately, divorces do occur. Instead of waiting for a problem, however, Levmore argues that signing a prenuptial is actually an expression of love. “I love you so much,” the act of signing says, according to Levmore, “that I want to protect you against anything that may happen – I even want to protect you against myself.”


         Those who are skeptical about signing a contract about the end of a marriage that has not yet begun, Levmore notes, should look at the ketubah, the marriage contract the Jewish people have used for the last 2,000 years. It too is a document to protect the woman, albeit under different circumstances.


         Until the ketubah was instituted in the times of the Mishnah, a husband could throw his wife out of the house without providing means to support her. Because it was nearly impossible for a woman to support herself, the husband was (and still is) required to provide her with 200 zuz, or the equivalent of one year of work.


         Looking at the ketubah also puts the modern-day prenuptial in perspective. Among the decrees of Rabbenu Gershom, the renowned Talmudist, is a prohibition against polygamy as well as against divorcing a woman against her will. (Rabbenu Gershom also decreed a heter meah rabbanim in order to override his own decree in cases of dire circumstances.) These decrees were instituted in order to protect women against the problems of the day in about the year 1,000 CE – that of a husband traveling abroad and simply abandoning his wife for another.


         Looking at Halachah in this historical perspective, Levmore points out, allows us to see the prenuptial agreement simply as a natural extension of the desire to protect women. Today, 1,000 years later, there is a new problem in the Jewish community of get refusal. Today’s tragedy is of women whose husbands refuse to give them gets. Some demand exorbitant sums of money, and some simply refuse out of spite. A prenup, therefore, makes it financially unappealing to refuse a get by requiring the husband to pay for his folly.


         The batei din in America are easy to defend and even easier to attack. People either seem to support the rabbanim no matter what, or else attack the entire institution as being corrupt and misogynistic. Rachel Levmore does neither. Instead, she describes the need for a “meeting of Halachah and what has been fed to us in our mother’s milk -individuality.”


         In other words, Levmore wants to improve the system from within. And we are lucky enough to be included in this monumental, historical move to protect our people. All we have to do is sign.

Shoshana Batya Greenwald

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/rachel-levmore-and-how-to-be-a-pioneer-in-get-getting/2007/02/28/

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