Monday, December 21, 2009

And Then There was a Blizzard ... and a Story About a Water Pump ...

I was supposed to have left for a conference in Maryland yesterday morning, really early. The flight was scheduled to take off at 540am ... which means I needed to leave home really, really early. But there was a blizzard on the east coast, which meant that all the airports were closing (or already closed). And that meant that all the Christmas traffic was becoming more and more backed up.

I was on my way to a Jewish conference on social justice, sponsored by American Jewish World Service (  The conference is specifically for the alumni of what are called "Rabbinical Student Delegations" and I was a part of RSD 4, a trip to El Salvador for 25 rabbinical students ... our job was to study texts and do hands-on work during our winter break.  This was truly a life-changing trip for me three years ago.

And now we are reunited at the first "Alumni Institute" ... 57 rabbis and rabbinical students out of the 150 who have been on the trips so far.  I was the last to arrive (a day late), but am happy to be here.  Tonight we heard from Leoni, who works for an AJWS grantee in Haiti.  Her organization does the hands-on work focusing on organizing and empowering peasants to be come self-sustaining.  Listening to her tell stories about people building themselves fish farms, learning about sustainable agriculture, and the need for simple things like water pumps reminds me how lucky I am ... and how powerless I am over some things, like weather, and how powerful I can be to help change the world, one water pump at a time. : )

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Little Post About Jewish Family Service in Austin ...

From last night's email to the congregation for Day Three of Chanukah ...

An Idea to Help You Build the THIRD Candle of Your Chanukiyat Tzedek … and More to Do/Discuss …

One of the types of darkness people too often feel is emotional darkness, the darkness coming from not being able to manage one’s feelings and responsibilities. In Austin, we are fortunate to be our own Jewish Family Service agency to help us through times of emotional darkness.

JFS provides more services to the Jewish community than many of us realize, more importantly, providing these services with an understanding of Jewish culture and needs. One of the most important services JFS offers is counseling, both individual counseling and support groups for a wide constituency, all on a sliding scale so that people’s needs are met regardless of their ability to pay. Support groups offered by JFS meet according to interest but currently include one for single parents, “wellness with a disability,” a group for those with ongoing disabilities, and parenting children with disabilities, among others. Additionally, Mitch Sudolsky, Austin’s JFS Director, and I have been working together on a Jewish Cancer Support Group which will continue into the spring.

You might not know this, but JFS also runs an incredibly active seniors program, which includes providing transportation to activities at the Del Jewish Community Center campus as well as providing programming in congregate facilities. I have been fortunate to participate not only in Shabbat and holiday programming which keeps the Jewish soul nourished, but there are also exercise programs to keep the body moving, and discussion programs to keep the mind active. JFS also provides case management services to assist families with older relatives. From head to toe, JFS cares for our seniors.

Finally, JFS’s case management and crisis intervention services also extend to families dealing with divorce, death, job loss, domestic abuse, or health issues. Additionally, as you might remember from Friday’s email, I mentioned that someone from JFS had noted to me that they had seen an upturn in assistance being requested by middle class families. You should know that one of the most important programs (in my opinion) that JFS offers is emergency assistance to Jewish families in need. This assistance can come in the form of providing payment of utilities or rent, grocery store cards for families to buy food, and help with money for medication. However, the funds requested by too often far too often exceed the amount allotted each month and JFS must then refer families to other organizations to help.

While JFS is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Community Association of Austin and receives funding to support its work from them (, it also needs direct assistance from the community to be able to continue to provide these services.

So, this year, as you are considering ways to bring light to our darkened world, consider the good that JFS does for children, families, and seniors. To support JFS directly, OR IF YOUR FAMILY NEEDS ASSISTANCE, please contact them at: Jewish Family Service of Austin, 11940 Jollyville Road, Suite 110 South, Austin, Texas 78759. JFS’ phone number is (512) 250-1043 and their email is Like us, JFS is here to help.

- Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein    : )

PS ... We are delighted to announce that Mitch Sudolsky, the Director of JFS will be our guest speaker at CBI’s Shabbat services on Friday, January 29th at 6:30pm!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Little Post About Homelessness in Austin ...

From my email to the congregation last night for Day Two of Chanukah ...

An Idea to Help You Build the Second Candle of Your Chanukiyat Tzedek … and More to Do/Discuss …

Austin’s weather is usually pretty nice, but the past couple weeks have brought nights in the 30s (and even in the 20s in some places). To someone most recently used to Los Angeles weather, it has been pretty yucky and I have been thinking a lot about the people who can’t just go turn their thermostats up (like I do) when it gets cold outside: all those people who have no place to live.

Currently, there are an estimated 4,000 people in Austin alone who are homeless … and only 600 shelter beds. That leaves at least 3,400 people with no beds, but all 4,000 lack a place where they can feel secure and a place to call their own. (Downtown churches do provide emergency shelter space when it gets to 35 degrees (wet) or 32 degrees (dry), but even this does not meet all the demand … how many of us would want to sleep outside even if it were 40 degrees every night?)

IHN … Interfaith Hospitality Network …

This week, we here at Congregation Beth Israel have been able to help several homeless families through our participation in the Family Promise/Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), coordinated by Foundation for the Homeless here in Austin. During the day, these families spend time at the Day Shelter, but four/five weeks a year, classrooms in our Learning Center are converted to bedrooms for homeless families. Smith Auditorium becomes their dining room. Our washing machine becomes theirs. And our family becomes their extended family. We are really able to affect people’s lives in one of the most basic of ways, by providing food and shelter to families in times of need.

For a successful hosting, we require at least 50 volunteers, each one doing a small job to help this program succeed. Here are some of the (small) jobs available for volunteers: cook part of a dinner, set up before and clean up after a meal, help on move-in or move-out day, help entertain the kids, sleep over at CBI to be available for our guests in case of emergency, and many more! Everyone picks a small task and by working together we accomplish this great mitzvah! Our guests for this visit leave tomorrow, but we will have new guests arriving in Feburary. Please contact our IHN Chairs, Sandy Bootz ( or Meryl Wasserman ( for more information regarding how you can help in February. CBI also accepts donations earmarked for the expenses associated with IHN while the families are visiting. To help support this worthwhile project, please go to and click on the large “Make a Donation” button (then select “Social Action-Interfaith Hospitality Network”).

If you would like more information about IHN, please view this short video about the programs they offer and to hear personal stories of families helped by congregations in the Network: (Please note that CBI is the only synagogue in Austin participating in the Network.)

The ARCH … Austin Resource Center for the Homeless …

If you would like additional ways to help the homeless, please consider the ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless … found at Located at 500 East 7th Street downtown, the ARCH provides not only a meal, but also an overnight men’s shelter, health care, food, and most importantly, case management.

Its case managers are currently working to help people into transitional housing and are currently accepting the following items: beds, space heaters, dressers, kitchen tables/chairs, end tables/night stands, microwaves, dishes, pots and pans, coffee pots, and mops/cleaning supplies. If you would like to donate any of these items to the Recuperative Care Project at the ARCH, please contact Dawn Perkins at 512-305-4174 for instructions regarding donating (please note that you must make your donation of these items directly to the ARCH and, unfortunately, they cannot be brought to CBI). More information regarding this project can be found at Get a jump-start on your new year’s resolution to get rid of items you don’t need … check out their “wish list” to see if your “extras” could help the clients at the ARCH!

So, the next you go to your thermostat, please think about those who are homeless … and resolve to do just a little something to give others that same warmth and sense of security we feel when we know we have a place to lay our heads each night.

- Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein : )

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Little Post About Hunger in Austin ... and Everywhere Else ...

From my e-mail to the congregation sent last night for the first night of Chanukah ...    : )

Consider This on the First Night of Chanukah ...

There is an old Jewish joke that says all Jewish holidays can be summed up by saying the following: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” Chanukah certainly fits this bill.

But what if you can’t afford to buy food?

Just today at the Chanukah Luncheon for Seniors at the JCAA, a representative from Jewish Family Services told me that they were surprised by the people asking for assistance with food this year: middle class families. In these uncertain economic times, more families are being hit even harder than ever with the effects of unemployment, underemployment, and costly medical expenses. This is especially true in Austin, where more than 20% of our residents are designated as the “working poor.”

Usually, we think of those who are on fixed incomes due to age or illness when we think of those in need, but this year we must also think about those who had not needed help before, like the middle class families the JFS representative told me about. Unfortunately, the “safety nets” in place to help care for these individuals are overwhelmed right now.

As we sit down to celebrate Chanukah, filling our stomachs with lovingly-prepared latkes, yummy deep-fried sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts), in addition to all the trimmings, please remember those who are hungry and those who are called “food insecure” (people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from) and consider making a donation to one of these fine organizations:
  • Donate to the Capital Area Food Bank to help those in need … you can participate in CBI’s “virtual year round food drive” by going to and clicking on the “Virtual Year Round Food Drive” tab on the lower left side.
  • Donate to “Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger,” by going to This Jewish organization fights hunger in the US, in Israel, and all over the world.
Please note that 1 pound of food donated equals 0.8 meals, while $1.00 donated can feed 5 people a meal.

More importantly, though, at this season when most of us have been blessed to have plenty more than we need, please consider bringing a little light to those in need of one of the most basic things … and, remember, every little bit helps! : )

- Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein      : )

PS … Both Mazon and CAPB have cool functions on their websites where you can donate as little as $5.00 per month automatically (just look for the words “sustaining donation” on both websites)!

For less than the cost of one meal out for you, you can feed 25 people a meal, each month, without even thinking about it … imagine how many people we could feed if even 1/20th of CBI’s membership gave just $5.00 a month?!?!

(Okay, here’s the answer … we have more than 600 families … so 1/20th represents just 30 families … times $5.00 per month equals just $150 a month … times 5 people fed a meal per dollar … so that COULD equal 750 people fed a meal this month by CBI’ers alone! Just imagine!)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Why Isn't Liberal Judaism (Like Chabad) Fluorishing in the FSU ... and Elsewhere?

I just finished reading an article discussing the recent dedication of a new orthodox building next to the Kotel ... a $20 million dollar building which was partially paid for by a well-known, non-orthodox actor.  It got me thinking:  Why do people donate to more traditional Jewish groups, even if they don't follow the group's teachings?  Why do so many reform Jews support Chabad, which is then able to go all over the world and establish/reestablish Jewish communities?
Unfortunately, when we support more traditional organizations, we take away the possibility of teaching progressive Jewish values around the world.  Consider this now-two-year-old article regarding reform/progressive Judaism's challenges in the Former Soviet Union:

Unfortunately, little has changed since this column was written.  Progressive Judaism still struggles, not only in the FSU, but also in Israel, where traditional Jews have a stranglehold on how Judaism is defined, and funded.  In fact, currently, the progressive Jewish movement in Israel is in crisis.

When asked why reform Jews donate to Chabad in particular, people often say they want a part in "protecting authentic Judaism."  Unfortunately, this is not accurate ... authentic Judaism changed over time to meet the people's needs ... and we are not living in a shtetl any longer.  While I respect many of the things Chabad does and the services it provides, perhaps we can help more reform Jews understand that we are also "authentic" in our approach to Judaism ... and support will flow to the reform movement in the US, in Israel, and even to build/rebuild progressive Judaism in the FSU.

For more information about progressive Judaism around the world (and learn about congregations worldwide), see the World Union for Progressive Judaism's website:

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Aaaaah, Shabbat ... : )

Rabbis work a LOT during Shabbat ... yet there are times when I NEED Shabbat.  I do get jazzed to see people I don't get to see during the week.  I definitely "get high" on hearing people sing our beautiful Shabbat melodies ... and I love the sound of voices bouncing back and forth off the walls in the Sanctuary as we come together to celebrate the gift we received ... to me, this is definitely the gift of Shabbat.

How do we set time aside from the ordinary week?  Certainly, there are all the traditional rules regarding how to celebrate Shabbat.  But non-traditional ways of setting aside time to be special each week sometimes mean even more.  These can be things I can't, or won't, do during the rest of the week ... sometimes very simple things.  I remember hearing about someone who turned the car radio off on Shabbat as a way to separate his week ... and I used to love going out to dinner with friends before services and then staying until I was one of the last people at the Oneg ... in my hectic lawyer-life, I never left room for me to just "hang out," so this was special time for me, just on Shabbat.

And now?  Shabbat most often consists of leading services and preaching, leading Torah study, and Havdallah, sprinkled with a hearty amount of B'nai Mitzvah celebrations.  Nowadays, my biggest Shabbat thrill is a nap.  I wonder if I will get my Shabbat nap tomorrow?   : )

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Conservative Rabbi Goes Rogue ...

While in rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-LA, we often used texts by Rabbi Jacob Neusner when studying Mishnah ... Rabbi Neusner is a prolific scholar ordained by JTS, the conservative movement's rabbinical school. 

He has now written an opinion piece for The Forward, one of the US' largest Jewish newspapers, where he "goes rogue" and supports the Reform Movement ... it is an interesting piece to read, all the more so because he is a conservative rabbi.

Make sure to read at least some of the comments following ... they are more evidence of how we Jews choose tear ourselves down, rather than respect different viewpoints within our own religion ... isn't it enough that non-Jews sometimes want to tear us down?  Why do we feel the need to help them?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An Article Regarding the State of Women Professionals in the Jewish Communal World ...

When I was still a somewhat new-ish lawyer, I worked for the then-4th-largest firm in the state of Nevada. I remember a friend leaving maybe 18 months after we both started working there (he started exactly one month before me). When he was getting ready to leave, we did something very dangerous ... we discussed salaries. He told me that he made $5K more than I did, even though we went to the same kind of law school and we had both worked for judges for a year before going into private practice (I had even billed 100 more hours than him during the prior year, which was really the true test of value at the firm). At the time I thought, "Wow, it's 1994 already, aren't we past this kind of stuff yet?" It took me a while, but I got up the nerve to ask the Managing Partner of the firm about the discrepancy ... and he told me, "We were overpaying him, we are paying you the right amount."

It is now 2009 and I have changed professions, but it appears that not so much has changed in far too many places ... read Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu's reflections on equity in Jewish communal work:

Unfortunately, I believe she is correct. When looking for a position near the end of rabbinical school, I was quoted a salary for a position that was substantially less than a married, male classmate (with less practical experience) was quoted for the same position. I choose to believe it was a mistake (and the position was clearly not the right one for me), but it does make me wonder ... if we are all created in the image of God, shouldn't the Jewish community be doing better? At the very least, shouldn't my experience be better now as a rabbi than when I was a lawyer? How many more years will it take before we have true equality for everyone, especially in the Reform Movement where we so often preach equality?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Woman Who Was Arrested at the Kotel for Wearing a Tallis ...

For a religion committed to all people being made in the image of God, it makes me cry when I hear of injustices regarding the treatment of women who want to pray. The comments to this first-person account of being arrested for wearing a tallis at the Kotel are as important to read as the story itself. Let me know what you think after you read it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving in Austin ... I have much to be thankful for ...

Thanksgiving is a time to slow down and take a moment to breath. And breath I did ... I was fortunate to spend the most lovely, quiet Thanksgiving yesterday with Cantor Marie Betcher and her husband, Jonathan ... just them and me and ChiChi, my Chihuahua (it is good to know other "dog people.") The day was truly what I needed ... good friends, good food, and great conversation ... a perfect way to stop and take a breath from this crazy week and celebrate everything for which I am thankful. : )

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Cross-Reference to One of My Favorite Blogs ...

I "knew" the author of this blog before I moved to Austin, where I met him. David Wilensky, a college student in NJ who was raised in the synagogue where I now work, challenges reform Jews in thoughtful ways to explore the meaning behind their theology and rituals. Check it out:

I take this young man out for lunch every time he is home on a school break ... the mental gymnastics he provides are well worth the cost of his meal. : )

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Day in the Life of a Rabbi ...

Today was long, but extremely fulfilling. I taught an adult education class (more than 30 people interested in what it means to be a reform Jew), followed by meeting with congregants about a variety of issues and then helped lead our kids' choir. After teaching a second/different adult education class (more than 20 people interested in writing Jewish ethical wills), I met with more congregants and then went to the Austin Area Interreligious Ministries 25th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, where our kids' choir sang beautifully. (It was so cool to hug all those kids after they performed ... to see their faces light up is a true joy.) A few minutes of "meet and greet" at the event was followed by a trip to the homeless shelter area to feed folks with the leftovers from our Internet Cafe, followed by an extended hospital visit. A quick drive-thru trip for dinner was then followed by a meeting with a family to plan tomorrow morning's funeral. I got to the office at 8am and it is now well after 9pm ... what a day. What a moving, meaningful, fulfilling, and exhausting day. What a day. After I work on tomorrow's eulogy, I think it is time to read the Sunday paper. : )

The Rabbi Shot at the President ... a great story ...

My first real post is here simply because it makes me laugh ... here is an article from a site called "Jews in the Wild West" ... yes, the rabbi apparently took a couple of shots at the president of the congregation ... but read it to see what the biggest complaint about the incident was. : )

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Brand New Venture ... What's the Point of this Blog? : )

Well, I'm not sure ... yet. As of now, I think it will be a space to share interesting articles ... and perhaps a few thoughts others might find interesting. I am hoping that, once I get a little more confident with this medium, perhaps others will begin to comment and true conversation can begin. If you stumble across this, let me know what you think ... suggestions are always welcome! : )