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Showing posts from March, 2018

The Vessel and the Flame

Parashat Tzav 2018 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Vessel and the Flame
Last week, I talked about the single word of the opening of the Torah portion and the book of Leviticus: ‘Vayikra’. Vayikra literally translates as ‘and He called’. I used ‘Vayikra’ to talk about heeding our calling in Judaism, inviting us to uncover our sense of purpose, meaning and mission in the contemporary Jewish experience, especially in the light of demographic challenges. I have the presumption (perhaps of folly and youth) to believe that many Jewish institutions are for the most part engaging in a topsy-turvy approach. They are focusing on funding and programming, obsessing over intermarriage and assimilation. None of these make for inspired Jewish living – as we say in Dutch ‘fear is a poor counsellor. Instead, they signal a spirituality of scarcity where we should be modeling a spirituality of abundance. Judaism, dear friends, is not a zero-sum game.
Knowing our ‘calling’ in any life situation, including our …

Our Calling: Thoughts on Purpose, Meaning, Mission and the Future of (Conservative) Judaism

Parashat Vayikra Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Our Purpose, Meaning and Mission
This week, a colleague shared an article with me from ‘New Voices – News and Views of Campus Jews’. In it is an enlightening, sobering and courageous interview with Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. I had the honor of meeting Rabbi Wernick at the USCJ Biennial and being heartened by the deep Torah he taught there, including Blues Brothers quotes about us being on a ‘Mission from God’ (no joke). And I am even more honored by Rabbi Wernick’s visit for my Installation this coming April.
So, the article gave me plenty of reasons to want to sit up straight and read it with a critical eye and an open heart. It is no secret that USCJ – one of the two movements with which we are affiliated – is experiencing challenges: Conservative Movement affiliation has plummeted to a mere 18% of America’s Jews. According to the Pew Report on Jewish demographics of 2013, 64% of those raised Co…

An Offering of Community

Parashat Vayakhel 2018 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
An Offering of Community
There’s a certain amount of irony about looking for creative things to talk about in a sermon that’s all about creativity. There have been pages, if not volumes, of commentary given on both the obvious and the arcane aspects of this week’s reading, ranging from the technicalities of dye colours to the dynamics of volunteerism. So basically, already these few seconds into my sermon, I admit a certain kind of defeat: I have nothing original to say. But lest you think this is a poor show, I will say this: what this parashah has to say is important, including its used, reused and recycled truths. Parashat Vayakhel is illustrative of the power of community living, the value of volunteering and the energising nature of inspiration and creativity. In a world that often at best neglects or, at worst, stifles these things, this is a message we should gladly rehash. 
In my brief appointment as your new Rabbi, I have been incre…

For My Daughter (International Women's Day)

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(I wrote this poem two years ago and Facebook reminded me of its existence. I have decided to republish it without edits in honor of International Women's Day today).



Today, I am a rabbi.
Today, I am a working mother, a tax payer, an earner for my family.
Today, I am a voter.
Today, I get to determine the boundaries of my body and plan my family.
Today, I get to choose what to wear and what not to wear as per personal preference or on religious principle. That's because,
Yesterday, Suffragettes laid down their lives to win us the vote.
Yesterday, Jewish women campaigned for ordination.
Yesterday, feminist activists fought objectification tooth and nail.
Yesterday, working women joined unions to fight for our rights.
Yesterday, we stood up for the right to choose who to marry, when to have a child (or not) and if we consent to physical intimacy. And yet,
Tomorrow, I want to see a workplace of truly equal pay.
Tomorrow, young girls should not feel pressured into being someone no-one can reali…

The Golden Calf: A Story

Sermon Ki Tissa 2018 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Golden Calf: A Story
We humans are fickle. We dedicate ourselves to the highest principles, only to be seduced by our basest instincts. There is always that danger that we focus too much on fragmented self-interest and we find ourselves trusting in the idolatry of the immediate.
But you weren’t there. What would you have done?
We witnessed miracles and Revelation. We saw the angel of death in Egypt and the Torah of life at Sinai. We were redeemed and covenanted. In our religious enthusiasm, we donated gold to the Sanctuary in the desert. We trusted.
Yet it wasn’t enough, it seemed.
Moses disappeared. He ascended the mountain to encounter God and we were left wondering how long he would be gone. Moses had always kept his promises. God provided for us in the desert, sated us with manna, quenched our thirst with Miriam’s well. Still we didn’t trust. Moses was a day late, or so we thought. We panicked.
This desert adventure is scary. We felt lonely…

Light For A Time Like This

Parashat Tetzaveh Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Light For a Time Like This
I’m rather fond of the term ‘living Torah’. I love the immersiveness of it, like a mikveh, but also its intentional ambiguity. Is it the Torah that we live or Torah that is alive? Or both? I was reminded of this idea of ‘living Torah’ when I met with some Art History students a few days ago. They – and their professor – had reached out to us. They wanted to see our sanctuary for educational purposes, so I gave them a tour and explained the architecture of this space to them. One of the students pointed at the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, and asked ‘what’s that?’ Without thinking of this week’s Torah portion, I explained what the Ner Tamid was and what it symbolizes. When I read Tetzaveh, synchronicity struck me: the opening verse of our portion discusses that very Ner Tamid!
Tetzaveh is a Parashah of many things, including an intricate description of the sartorial symbolism of the High Priest’s garb as well as a recounti…