Promoting Shabbat for liberal Jews

I mentioned the other day that the leader of Reform Judaism is “calling”: on liberal Jews to more seriously observe Shabbat.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said: “In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away, and the results are devastating.�

Reform Jews, he said, need to “put aside those Blackberries and stop gathering information, just as the ancient Israelites stopped gathering wood. We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.�

The URJ recently surveyed 12,000 Reform Jews about their Shabbat observance.

Only 36 percent of people over 40 said they “try to make Shabbat a special day,” compared to 53 percent under 40. This result support the conventional wisdom that younger Reform Jews are much more into observance and ritual their liberal parents and grandparents generally were.

The URJ has a Shabbat “website”: to help people get started.

Happy Eid

Today begins Eid Al-Adha — the four-day Festival of Sacrifice — one of the two major Muslim holidays.

I’ll be at the Mount Kisco Holiday Inn this morning, where the Upper Westchester Muslim Society will welcome some 400 people for prayers and brunch. It will be an extremely diverse group and many will wear the garb of their native countries.

tjndc5-5hwfgzch7roi3ylv90f_layout.jpgThe Eid takes place during the Hajj, the worldwide Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The picture shows pilgrims arriving to the Plain of Arafat near Mecca yesterday.

The festival commemorates the Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

Muslims believe that son was Ishmael. The Old Testament, of course, says it was Isaac.

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to make the Hajj? I have. Imagine being among millions of people from around the world making the taxing (and sometimes dangerous) trip.

The AP’s Scheherezade Faramarzi, a non-religious woman from a Muslim family, is in Saudi Arabia to cover the Hajj. She’s tried to participate, too, and writes about it in this “reporter’s notebook:”

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Performing the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage more ancient than Islam itself, is complicated and confusing even for those well-versed in Islam — so it’s particularly intimidating for someone who’s hardly religious.
As a secular journalist covering this central pillar of Islam, which began Monday, I am determined to go through the rites with an open mind.
A major hurdle is learning what to do. Before leaving my hotel in Jiddah for the holy city of Mecca, I took the first required steps. I bathed and put on the special clothes of a woman performing hajj: a long white head scarf, a long shirt, a pair of loose pants and a white robe to my ankles.
My colleague, AP Television News cameraman Imad Saeid, coached me through the next step: announcing my intention to perform the pilgrimage. I repeated after him the formula proclaiming the start of my journey, “Labeik, Allahuma, labeik� — “I am here at Your service, Lord, I am here.� Continue reading

From 9/11 to the meaning of faith

I blogged last week about “In God’s Name,”: a two-hour documentary about world religious leaders that CBS will show on Sunday at 9 p.m.

Frazier Moore, the AP’s television writer, has a feature about Jules and Gedeon Naudet, the French filmmakers behind the show. Here it is:

bio.jpgNEW YORK (AP) — “In God’s Name� begins with a brief introduction from its filmmakers, Jules (left) and Gedeon Naudet, who take the viewer back — back to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the brothers were in lower Manhattan working on a documentary on New York firefighters.
Jules was shooting inside the World Trade Center’s north tower when the south tower fell. Gedeon spent hours fearing his brother was lost. Jules feared the same about Gedeon.
This all became part of their film, “9/11,� which premiered on CBS in March 2002 and was subsequently seen around the world.
But years later, the film, and the awful day that dominated it, still absorbed them.
“It was the first time I had been confronted with death,� Jules says, “and I had questions, existential questions. What does it all mean? I remember talking with my brother: Is there something we can do with this in a documentary?�
The plan they hatched called for taking their questions to people well-positioned to address them: a dozen of the world’s leading spiritual figures, representing some 4 billion followers.
The Naudets’ wish list included Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists — not the sort of folks normally subjected to a pop-in from an inquiring film crew.
But the Naudets believed they could get access. And not just for an interview, but for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the personal lives of these public figures.
Turns out the brothers were right. The two-hour “In God’s Name� (9 p.m. EST Sunday on CBS) is a crash project still being completed. But the parts available for preview hold promise of a beautifully realized portrait of faith in a dozen human variations. For all its elements, it flows seamlessly with images and ideas that should awaken the viewer to new possibilities. Continue reading

A meditation room at DKNY? Priceless…

A colleague of mine got a post card today from the Donna Karan women’s clothing shop on Madison Avenue.

956_bio_homepage_main.jpgIt announces the “Installation of geometic stone Altars and Buddha Sculpture” in the “room for meditation.”

It’s the work of artist and stone carver Celine Cannon. The artist’s “website”: says that “Her work can be found in the possession of such noteables as Goldie Hawn, Donna Karan (pictured), Tom Ford, Meg Ryan and Sting.”

I found a USA TODAY story from 2002 that said that Karan does yoga (with the help of yoga guru to the stars Rodney Yee) to keep her centered.

“I use yoga to prepare me for the day ahead which is usually total chaos,” the designer explained.

Now her affluent shoppers can get centered, too.

Talking Shabbat, health care and Islam

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, is known for being an outspoken, provocative guy.

yoffie_sm.jpgIn his address the other day at the URJ’s biennial conference in San Diego, Yoffie covered the gamut.

On the ritual front, he urged “stressed out” Reform Jews to more seriously observe Shabbat — as a respite from pressures of daily life.

On the activism front, he called on Reform Jews to advocate for universal health care in their states, saying that the federal government had dropped the ball on one of the great domestic issues of our time.

On the interreligious front, he announced a major new partnership with the Islamic Society of North America. A few months ago, he addressed a conference of the ISNA. This time, he invited Ingrid Mattson, president of ISNA, to address the 6,000 Reform Jews in San Diego.

“Yoffie”: said:

We live in a world in which religion is manipulated to justify the most horrific acts, a world in which—make no mistake—Islamic extremists constitute a profound threat. For some, this is a reason to flee from dialogue, but in fact the opposite is true. When we are killing each other in the name of God, sensible religious people have an obligation to do something about it. Our task is to find the voices of moderation and to reclaim from the fanatics the true essence of religious belief.

“Mattson,”: in turn, said this:

2115902666_0718ba9da4_m.jpgThe American Muslim community is well aware, after 9/11, that much false information about our community as well as our religion, has been disseminated by religious and political ideologues. It is also true that many Americans simply know little or nothing about Islam and, perhaps, naturally extrapolate from the nasty figures they see in the news to Muslims in general. Of course, it is our responsibility to reclaim Islam from the terrorists and extremists. That is why American Muslims have been public in our views on terrorism and extremism in the name of our religion. We have published fatwas – religious verdicts – proving that suicide bombing, vigilante operations, terrorism, and hate-mongering is prohibited in true Islam. We have issued press releases, we have published articles and books, we have delivered sermons, we have given lectures to Muslims of all ages, we have held workshops and seminars, we have met with government officials in the US and abroad – all with the goal of spreading the message that mainstream Muslims oppose the extremists and we are putting our efforts, individually and institutionally, to marginalize those who misuse our religion for nefarious purposes.

New Yorkers cool with baby Jesus

Over the weekend, a nativity scene was displayed for several hours right in the heart of Times Square, just below the MTV studios.

It was the work of the Christian Defense Coalition, which has started the “Nativity Project,” encouraging the display of nativity scenes in the most public of places.

timesquarenativity-20071217b.jpgYou can’t beat Times Square.

Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition, said:

The nativity scene in Times Square also reminds us that the American people welcome such faith displays. While time the nativity scene was set up, thousands of people walked by, yet not one person complained and scores joined in singing Christmas carols around the display.

So even in New York, heathen central, people don’t complain about a nativity scene a week before Christmas…

An inspiring story

In case you missed it, “Beliefnet’s”: most inspiring person of 2007 is Dr. Liviu Librescu, the Holocaust survivor who died during the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

librescuprofilepic.jpgLibrescu held a door closed to keep the shooter out of his classroom while his students jumped out of windows. All but one of his students escaped.

He was 76.

Also, the “religion newsmaker(s) of the year,” according to the Religion Newswriters Association, are the Buddhist monks of Byanmar who protested in September in support of democracy.

Go to the Bible for Christmas recipes

If you’re looking for some new recipes for Christmas, you might want to take a look at the new website “”:

The website is connected to the book “Cooking With the Bible,” written by Hartsdale residents the Rev. Rayner “Rusty” Hesse, pastor of St. John”s Church in New Rochelle, and writer/editor Anthony Chiffolo.

There are Bible-based recipes aplenty. As their website explains:

Here you’ll find meals found in the scriptures, along with complete menus inspired by biblical passages, food lore, and our thoughts about the meaning of the passages these menus are drawn from.

Each meal has three sections:

First are the mouthwatering recipes inspired by events described in the Bible, like “King David’s Nuptials,” “A Meal in the Wilderness” or “The Prodigal Son Returns.”

Next we’ve listed all the ingredients necessary to understand what’s at stake in the biblical text the meal is drawn from, while also trying to answer how the words of the Bible can be relevant to those encountering them today.

Finally we offer a brief history and background of the biblical passage that inspired the meal and recipes.


New polling — just in time for Christmas!

We’re always hearing that surveys and polls show that around 90 percent of Americans believe in God.

Well, the “Barna Group,”: an evangelical polling operation, decided to ask people if they believe in — accept the literal truth of — several significant biblical stories.

Their results:

1. 75 percent of respondents believe that Jesus was born of a virgin (15% of atheists and agnostics agree! How can they be atheists and agnostics?)

2. 69% believe that Jesus turned water into wine. (Born-again Christians, 94%; everyone else, 49%.)

3. 68% believe that Jesus fed the crowd with five loaves of bred and two fish.

4. 64% believe the “great flood” happened.

5. 56% believe that the devil tempted Eve to bite the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

6. 49% believe that Samson lost his power when Delilah cut his hair.

Barna’s conclusions:

  • Born again Christians were far more likely than non-born again adults to accept each of the six narratives as fully accurate. On average the difference between the two groups was forty percentage points! In relation to four of the six stories tested, the born again group was twice as likely as their counterparts to view the story in question as literal truth.
  • Protestants were more likely than Catholics to accept each of the six stories as literally true. Catholics especially struggled to put their faith in the Old Testament stories. Examining a dozen Bible evaluated in this manner by The Barna Group in surveys in October and December, about half of all Catholics trusted the Old Testament stories evaluated, compared to about three-quarters believing the New Testament stories. Meanwhile, among Protestants, in relation to all six of the scriptural narratives, those who attend mainline churches were significantly less likely than those attending other Protestant congregations to say that they trusted the stories as told.
  • People who live in the South were more likely than residents of all other regions to embrace the truth of all six stories.
  • Downscale individuals were substantially more likely than upscale people to characterize each of the six stories as factually reliable.
  • Those who portrayed themselves as mostly conservative on political matters were substantially more likely than those who called themselves mostly liberal to consider each of the six stories to be literally true. The average difference between the two segments was 26 percentage points.
  • Reform Jews pray/party in San Diego

    Some 5,000 Reform Jews from across the country — including a couple hundred from the Lower Hudson Valley — are in San Diego for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention.

    The Reform biennial is always one of the country’s largest Jewish gatherings.

    sd-convention-center.jpgThere is a ton of programming, as you might expect. But a URJ “blog”: does a nice job of capturing the flavor of what’s going on. There are posts, for instance, about what San Diego’s Catholic mayor had to say to the gathering and about a real interesting discussion between some big-time California rabbis and Rick Warren, evangelical superstar.

    One rabbi’s post from a little while ago looks like this:

    13 Things I have Learned So Far

    By Rabbi Phyllis Sommer

    1. Drama is good. A little sparkle and flash goes a long way toward creating excitement! The Voice of God that speaks at the Oscars has joined us here at the Biennial as well. (you know, “now presenting…the President of the Academy the Union for Reform Judaism!
    2. There are so many Jews from so many places with similar experiences.
    3. Even in California, you need a coat at night!
    4. There is a desire amongst the participants (and hopefully translating into the rest of the Jewish community?) for creative and interesting worship and learning experiences.
    5. Wearing a badge means that everyone will smile at you. Even if they don’t know you. And you’ll invite people you’ve never met before to join your table in a restaurant just because they’re also a part of this grand shared experience.
    6. Two Starbucks are still not enough for one convention center.
    7. The coffee is cheaper a block away from the convention center.
    8. The coffee is necessary.
    9. Walking shoes are a must for the Biennial. An absolute must.
    10. Even with all the potential and possibility of the new prayerbook, there is still a need for handouts. What happened to a Green Biennial?
    11. The shopping opens at 11am today. Can’t wait!
    12. I still can’t get over what a room full of Jews looks like. And I’m a Jewish professional! It’s pretty amazing to me that I’ve been a rabbi for almost 5 years, I’m not new at this — and yet I still find great joy in being in a roomful of Jews sharing in prayer, worship, study….

    13. It’s impossible to see and do it all!