Return to Blog, Updates

It is been a few minutes (years) of mostly posting on https://www.facebook.com/rabbi.bruce or other social media sites (Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/rabbi.bruce/)

Check out some of what I have been up to on those sites.

I left Amherst College Religious & Spiritual Life after 21 years at the end of the 2023 academic year and am now working on the next chapter of my life journey.  

Here are a few pictures from my work over that time (ironically, it is harder to find pictures from recent years than earlier years.  Hopefully, I can track down more pictures to add):

Even though it was long before I started at Amherst, an early highlight of my campus experience was giving an invocation before former Israeli Prime Minister spoke at Drew University in 1997 or 1998:

In a recent Commencement Speech, Bill Gates wrote: 

The first thing is, your life isn’t a one-act play.

You probably feel a lot of pressure right now to make the right decisions about your career. It might feel like those decisions are permanent. They’re not. What you do tomorrow—or for the next ten years—does not have to be what you do forever.

When I left school, I thought I would work at Microsoft for the rest of my life.

Today, I still love my work on software, but philanthropy is my full-time job. I spend my days working to create innovations that fight climate change and reduce inequalities around the world—including in health and education.

I feel lucky that our foundation gets to support amazing institutions like NAU—even if it’s not what I imagined I’d be doing when I was 22. Not only is it okay to change your mind or have a second career… it can be a very good thing.

I am embracing this teaching that my life isn't a one-act play.  Like Bill, I decided what I wanted to do while I was a college student.  I knew during my time leading Franklin & Marshall Hillel that I wanted top be a rabbi and work on campus.  


Birthright Expands

Birthright Israel  just expanded its eligibility guidelines to include student who participated in an educational trip during High School (it was already opened to students who visited with family members).  Additionally, post-college students will have some chances to go on the trip past the previous cut-off of age 26.

This is welcome news but leads to a few questions.

Why exactly are they making these changes?  
What other trends are impacting Israel trip applications?
How will this impact other educational trips to Israel (especially those for high school students run by NCSY, NFTY, and USY)?

Before I can tackle the questions about trends, here are my thoughts on why they are changing.
Noa Bauer, birthright's VP of International Marketing explains the party line here:
“I think everybody thought about [the change in the eligibility guidelines] for many years, and everybody wanted to have it,” Bauer said. “It was a matter of funding, and I think today you see more anti-Israel things on campus, and we realized over the years that people that have been to Israel again have more confidence for talking about Israel, and geopolitics, and anything pertaining to Israel after visiting with Birthright Israel. I think we’re one of the best platforms to do that for college students.”

They wanted to do it but it was a matter of funding.
I am not so sure... Last year saw a longer application period (it seemed as though it would never end). I was told that it was because the application numbers are down. Many of the qualified student who would go on the trip have already gone (then there are the usual issues of dates, time with family, etc.).

I found this reason curious because I learned this summer that movement-related trips to Israel are down as well. The reason conveyed to me is that is because many parents were hesitant to send students on a paid trip that would prevent them from going on a free trip.

This was troubling because birthright trips are ten days long (although some programs have birthright plus that extends the program and individuals can extend their ticket for a small fee) that offer an introduction to Israel at a rapid pace and the movement trips (see above for links) are 4-6 week programs that offer more in-depth trips.  Increased time = increased effectiveness when it comes to immersion (or most other things--see Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers:  The Story of Success).

There is probably more going on.  Some issues I would like to research more include the declining population of college-age students, the pressure on students to have jobs and internships, and competition from other Jewish educational programs.

For more information on Birthright, see my review of a book about the trip.


The Artist as Leader: Idan Raichel

Tzimtzum Leadership in Action

I attended a concert of the Idan Raichel Project at the UMASS Fine Arts Center the other night. It was an amazing concert that was enjoyed by the crowd from the first notes until the last encore.

The IRP began when Idan recorded music in his parents basement--inviting an eventual total of 95 musicians from many ethnic backgrounds, musical styles, and languages to contribute to the ever-growing project. The Project's breakthrough single, "Boee," was different than anything on the radio in Israel.  It mixed Amharic, Arabic, Spanish with Hebrew lyrics and brought together musical styles from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

The roots of IRP are evident at the concert:  I had never been to a concert where the headliners did so little headlining.
From the start to the end of the concert, Idan was on the side of the stage (as far from the center as any musician performing with him) with three singers in the middle of the stage.  OK, he wandered a bit but rarely took center stage.  But the three singers pictured on the right were at the center of the group.  This is not accidental.  On the IRP website, it makes clear that this is part of the project's DNA:
"From the beginning, Idan saw the project as a collaboration between artists who each bring their own musical culture and talents to the stage. “There would be no front man,” Idan says. “I would sit at the side and watch things and see what occurs. Every song would have a different singer, we would sit in a half circle and each musician would have a chance to demonstrate what they have to offer" (http://www.idanraichelproject.com/en/)
At a reception following the concert organized by the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, I went up to him to explain how impressed I was with his leadership style.  If I had it with me, I would have shared the famous article by Rabbi Eugene Borowitz entitled “Tzimtzum: A Mystic Model for Contem­porary Leadership.” (This is not an exact link but instead a link to an article in Shma that discusses the 1974 article).  This article discusses a method of leadership that is not about individual power but about the community empowerment: "leaders to exercise restraint of power in order to “make space” for people to emerge in their full humanity." 

Today it may not be as unusual as an idea as it was in 1974 but it is still far from the norm (especially in many parts of the Jewish community).  I have never seen as compelling example of this type of leadership as Idan Raichel in his performance (and in the project as a whole).  When I mentioned this to Idan (who recently shaved his well-known dreadlocks), he smiled and said "that is exactly it but I have never thought of it that way."  He may never have thought in terms of Leadership by Tzimtzum but it is obvious that he is a regular practitioner of it:
"This sentiment is reflected in the decision to name the collective The Idan Raichel Project. Says Raichel, “If I had called the album just ‘Idan Raichel,’ people would have thought that Raichel is the main voice on all the songs. I wrote the songs and I arranged and produced them, but I perform them together with other vocalists and musicians. On the other hand, we are not a group. It’s something in between." To date over 95 different singers aged 16 to 91 years old from dozens of different countries and cultural backgrounds haveparticipated in the Project’s recordings or performances.”  (http://www.idanraichelproject.com/en/)
What examples of this type of leadership do you see in your communities?  Does it work?

How can we better bring this type of leadership to our communities?

How can I be this type of leader?

I look forward to your comments and reactions.
Rabbi Bruce


Passover Preparation and Sources

For the last week or so I have been "all Passover, all the time."
I have been cleaning and kashering (Amherst and CBI first, now at home) and arranging for Seders (two seders at our house plus one at Amherst).

If you are joining us for Passover Seder or meals at Amherst and have not signed up, please do so now.

Starting a few weeks before Passover, I start seeing lots of material on Facebook or in my in-box.

Here are some selections of note:

  • Rabbi Dov Lerner collects Passover material and has downloadable Haggadot for you to make your own at Jewishfreeware.org I have seen this site grow in material and use--it should keep you busy for years of Seders.

(I am a member of the Rabbinical Assembly-- the international organization of Conservative/Masorti Rabbis.  Operation Pesach, run by Kosher Nexus, is a program of the Union for Traditional Judaism)


  • Last Minute Addition (not for those without a sense of humor):


Where Have I Been? Where am I going? Reflections From Ten Days Withouta Smartphone

It all started with a "birthday present" (not the one from the Hobbit). In a rush to run an errand on the way into work, I dropped my phone, an HTC Rezound. Just like not-yet King David defeated Goliath with a stone, my screen protector and case were defeated by a pebble on the ground. The cracked screen was barely noticeable at first until I opened the phone to put in the extended battery. Since I am not due for an upgrade for a while, I decided to live with it. Around two weeks ago, the plug stopped working consistently. I started to use the phone less while I researched my next move. No more mobile internet or gps use. I didn't have insurance, so I found the best step would be to replace the phone on eBay. First the main battery died and then my extra extended battery was slowly being used by "important calls." While I kept the phone with me, I did not use it last week at all. I ordered a phone from an eBay seller no specializes in phone replacements, had strong ratings, and a 30 day return policy. The phone arrived yesterday, working and in near perfect condition. A half hour at Verizon and time re-installing apps,and I back to where I was before. Or am I? (I will come back to this point).

It is not as though I had no technology access. Our family has three laptops, two iPads, one desktop computer with internet access, and two other smartphones and iPod touches (and a Nook that is mostly used when we go on vacation). I also have a computer in my Amherst office and one in my WNE classroom. I almost always have my laptop and iPad (although if I wasn't teaching at WNE, I would just use the iPad). None of the devices I use regularly have 3 or 4g mobile Internet, so I needed to be in a location with wi-fi to have web access. (By the way, it is a little depressing once I started making that list.  None of that includes non-working/old devices).

The problem is that most of my information life is on the cloud--housed primarily at google and Dropbox. This meant that I was always "behind" on email, didn't have up-to-date access to my calendar (yet alone Deborah's), ...

Since I was laid off from Smith in the 2010 budget cuts, I have added a lot of part-time jobs.  When working 8 years at Smith and Amherst, I thought it was hard having a full-time job split between two colleges 9 miles apart.  It is much harder working at one college 9 miles from, teaching two sections of an academic class 25 miles in another direction, and driving out to camp (45 minutes drive) every week or two for retreats.  I spend a lot more time in my car which means I get to hear lots of NPR and other talk radio.   Since November I have been at Amherst more as I am Interim Co-Director of Religious Life.  In general I spend a lot less time in one place than I used to.  Engaging in social media and writing my blog have suffered.  Also, I have found that I am reading different kinds of material than I used to read-- a lot about Israeli History, politics, and culture for my Modern Israel course at Western New England. It is not just the kind of reading that has changed, there always seems to be more I want to read. Having a smartphone means I can read a few emails or rss items while waiting or if I arrive somewhere early. It also means I find more to read.

Back to my 10 days relatively unplugged. I found that I paid closer attention to everything around me when I had no phone pulling at my attention. I enjoyed driving more when I didn't have the phone set to Google maps (where I always toggle to e.t.a.). Although I was not sure when I would get there, I got there with a more settled mind. While the cloud helps me have access to data, calendar, phone numbers, etc., it also saps at my attention span (academic studies have shown that there is little or no multi-masking in our brains).

The challenge is figuring out how to learn from this experience.  To bring it back to the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit, perhaps technology  is like the One Ring--it slowly takes over our lives.  At first we notice the convenience and the power but only later do we learn the consequences.  Does our (over-)reliance on GPS devices impact our innate sense of direction? (More on this here and here)  Phone numbers are much harder to remember since everyone has different area codes (seven digits was chosen in the 1950's because it was the typical capacity of working memory).  With cell phones, you don't even have to remember the phone numbers of your close friends and family.

While I hope to add to this in the future, I will start by sharing this selection from Rabbi Rami Shapiro's, Wisdom of the Sages (a modern reading of Pirke Avot):

"Rabbi Judah haNassi said:
What is the right path for a person to follow?
One that honors both self and other.

Be attentive in all you do;
Do not judge one deed small and another great,
for you cannot always know their significance.

Be virtuous, even if virtue is costly.
Avoid sin, even if sin is profitable.

Remember three things and you will not err:
If your deeds shouldn't be known,
perhaps they shouldn't be done.
If your words shouldn't be shared,
perhaps they shouldn't be spoken.
Act with attention, for all your deeds have consequence." (II, 1; p. 22)

An hour after finishing the original draft of this blog, I received an email from Asking Big Questions with this month's discussion guide, How Does Technology Change Us?  Great minds think alike.
Sunday March 10th:  I received this today from thedailyrabbi.com:  UNPLUG:  Spiritual Lessons From a Lost Cell Phone.


Four Chaplains Shabbat

In addition to the celebrations in New Orleans and nationwide in honor of the Super Bowl, we will mark 4 Chaplains' Shabbat: The 70th anniversary of the sinking of the USAT Dorchester.  

On February 3, 1943, the Dorchester was attacked by a German U-boat, and four chaplains -- one Catholic priest, two Protestant ministers, and one rabbi -- gave their lifejackets to other sailors and went down with the ship.  Read below to find out about their inspiring story.

This Shabbat, we read Parshat Yitro which contains the peak of the Israelite experience in the desert--Revelation at Sinai (notably, the Ten Commandments, Aseret Ha-Dibrot, which I translate as the Ten Utterances to more fully represent the Hebrew and Jewish theology).  This important Torah reading begins with Yitro, Moses' father-in-law and a priest of Midian, to the Israelite camp.  He offers Moses' important instructions on communal leadership and justice.  Just as the story of the Four Chaplains reminds us of the connections we have to people of different faiths, the part of the Torah containing Revelation begins with an acknowledgment that practical and theoretical knowledge comes from multiple traditions.

My work on campus as a Chaplain/Religious Advisor/Hillel Director (the titles vary) and now as Interim Co-Director of Religious Life at Amherst College) has taught me that despite the many important differences between various faith and ethical traditions, we hold similar views about the importance of helping others and reaching out to people in need.

Shabbat Shalom,

The Four Chaplains

Click on the names for their Biographies

THE STORY  (copied from The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation)


It was the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, and the U.S.A.T. Dorchester was crowded to capacity, 
carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers.

Once a luxury coastal liner, the 5,649-ton vessel had been converted into an Army transport ship.
The Dorchester, one of three ships in the SG-19 convoy, was moving steadily across the icy
waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland. SG-19 was escorted by Coast
Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche. 

Hans J. Danielsen, the ship's captain, was concerned and cautious.

Earlier the Tampa had detected a submarine with its sonar. Danielsen 
knew he was in dangerous waters even before he got the alarming
 information. German U-boats were constantly prowling these vital sea 
lanes, and several ships had already been blasted and sunk.
The Dorchester was now only 150 miles from its destination, but the 
captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and keep life jackets
on. Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship's hold disregarded the order
because of the engine's heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets
were uncomfortable.

On Feb. 3, at 12:55 a.m., a periscope broke the chilly Atlantic waters.

Through the cross hairs, an officer aboard the German submarine U-223
spotted the Dorchester.
The U-223 approached the convoy on the surface, and after identifying

and targeting the ship, he gave orders to fire the torpedoes, a fan of
three were fired. The one that hit was decisive--and deadly--striking the
starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line.

Danielsen, alerted that the Dorchester was taking water rapidly and 

sinking, gave the order to abandon ship. In less than 20 minutes, the
Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic's icy waters.

Tragically, the hit had knocked out power and radio contact with the three escort ships. The CGC Comanche,

however, saw the flash of the explosion. It responded and then rescued 97 survivors. The CGC Escanaba circled 
the Dorchester, rescuing an additional 132 survivors. The third cutter, CGC Tampa, continued on, escorting the
remaining two ships
Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were

seriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without 
clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that
death awaited.

Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing, according to eyewitnesses.

Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get in them.

Through the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in 

darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. 
Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.

Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend 

the wounded and guide the disoriented toward safety.

"Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for

those who would live," says Wyatt R. Fox, son of Reverend Fox.

One witness, Private William B. Bednar, found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies

and debris. "I could hear men crying, pleading, praying," Bednar recalls. "I could also hear the chaplains preaching 
courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going."

Another sailor, Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, tried to reenter his cabin but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Mahoney, 

concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had forgotten his gloves.

"Never mind," Goode responded. "I have two pairs." The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In 

retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the
 rabbi had decided not to leave the Dorchester.

By this time, most of the men were topside, and the chaplains opened a storage ocker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that Engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight.

When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.

"It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven," said John Ladd, another survivor who saw the chaplains' selfless act.

Ladd's response is understandable. The altruistic action of the four chaplains  constitutes one of the purest spiritual
and ethical acts a person can make. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father
Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They
simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.

As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains--arms linked and braced against the 

slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.

Of the 902 men aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors. When the news reached American 
shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and heroic conduct of the four chaplains. "Valor is
gift," Carl Sandburg once said. "Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes."

That night Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling and Father Washington passed life's ultimate test. In
doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness.

The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously December 19, 1944, to the next
of kin by Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, Commanding General of the Army Service Forces, in a ceremony at the
post chapel at Fort Myer, VA.

A one-time only posthumous Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and awarded by President
Eisenhower on January 18, 1961. Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor but was blocked by the 
stringent requirements that required heroism performed under fire. The special medal was intended to have the 
same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor.


Additional material for Four Chaplains Shabbat


Reflections on Renewing the Eruv at Camp Ramah New England

"Legal fictions such as Eruv just aren't my thing," remarked a rabbi in this area. "it doesn't make sense," said another rabbi (I will preserve their privacy by keeping both rabbis anonymous. "I once heard a joke about making an Eruv . . . The prince of the city told the rabbi asking for permission to build an Eruv: 'if you can imagine a wall by putting up a bunch of strings, why can't you imagine the wall as well?'". This is how a lay leader responded to my climbing on a ladder to repair the Eruv. Then, I saw this: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-march-23-2011/the-thin-jew-line --- Here is a description of the concept of Eruv from the website of an eruv in Atlanta: Some Jewish communities, including one Virginia-Highland synagogue, use strings, wires, and utility poles to create enclosed areas that help relax strict religious laws that prohibit carrying objects during the 25-hour Jewish Sabbath. Known as an eruv, the enclosure is virtually invisible to most people. Eruv is a Hebrew word that means to mingle or mix. Eruvim are built to create domains in public spaces, like sidewalks and streets, that form virtual courtyards that symbolically represent domestic space. Jewish law prohibits carrying items like keys and umbrellas outside of homes on the Sabbath. The rules also keep people from using baby strollers and medical devices like canes and walkers. Inside an eruv, Jews can enjoy the same freedoms to carry and push things that they do inside their homes. Although eruvim have been used in Jewish culture for more than 1,000 years, they are a relatively recent arrival in American cities. There are about 140 eruvim in the United States and they enclose spaces commonly associated with Jewish communities in large, older urban areas like Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. They also cover large areas in Washington, DC. The White House, the U.S. Capitol, and the Supreme Court buildings all are located inside the Washington Eruv. When you stop to think about it, an Eruv is a strange concept.

A History of JDub

I just read a great interview about the history of JDub records (its rise and fall).

Interesting look at an important (but now defunct) institution in the New Jewish Culture world.

I have found culture a great way to reach students who otherwise not come to Jewish programs.

It is an entry but not an endpoint.

Read the interview and let me know what you think.
Rabbi Bruce


Elect to Get Engaged in Election

I am going to try to post a little more often than I have over the last year.

While I am not interested in talking about the election directly, I will pose some questions I would be interested in having each candidate address.

Questions for Governor Romney:

1.  Can you explain the real reason you refuse to release the past ten years of tax returns?  Given the doubling of the stock market (and the leveraged nature of many investments funds), could it because you are significantly better off financially than you were when President Obama took office (despite reporting no wage income)?

2.  If elected, would you close all of your off-shore trusts, accounts, and partnership interests?

3.  Why do you refuse to release details of many of your domestic policy plans?  Is that the type of leadership the American people should accept?

4.  What about being a one-term Governor of Massachusetts has prepared you to be President (especially given your frequent absences from the state during the final years of your term)?

5.  How will your Presidency differ from that of President George W. Bush?

Questions for President Obama:
1.  Do you feel that your previous work experiences adequately prepared you to be the head of the Executive Branch of our government in a time of crisis?  If not, what other experiences and skills would you have wanted to have prior to running?

2.  Given that you have faced a confrontational and inflexible Congress, what responsibility do you have for government inaction and negative political tone?

3.  What would you have done differently during your first term in office?

4.  What staffing changes and policies will you change going forward?

5.  Has your changes to foreign policy been beneficial or harmful to the US?

Readers, please respond through comments.