Monica Steiner Hooray!: Abraham the Woman Would Have Stayed
Monica has served as a lay leader at CBB for 11 years and on our professional staff for the past 5+, most recently as Director of Donor Relations. This month, CBB wished Monica and her family farewell as they move across country so Monica can begin studying for the rabbinate at Hebrew College.
“How did you decide to go to rabbinic school?? When did you know you were called to the rabbinate? ” These are the questions I keep hearing and having no adequate answer for. You have asked me in the lobby and in emails, at the gala and on the phone, and so I decided I’d try and share something of substance about my calling. You’ll have to tell me later if any of this makes sense. If it doesn’t, well, I’ve got a lot of learning to do, so let’s stay in touch. : )
First, I can tell you that I never went to Hebrew school or learned the cadence of communal Judaism as a child. But I gleaned an important sense of self in chevruta, in learning partnership, with my mother.
Often, as I grew up, we’d study the alef bet’s mystical meanings, copying each Hebrew letter from a Xerox my mom kept in her bed stand. Always she listened to my ideas like a peer.
She taught me to make matzo brei, to bless Hanukkah candles. She would tell stories, recounting how her grandfather hid in an iron oven as a little boy to survive the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. I hardly breathed as she spoke in caressing words, as if to rock that child he once was. Fascinated yet unmoored, I’d smile and shrug when she would finish; tears in the hold of my little body’s ship, leaking with studied silence onto my pillow at night. It was, I knew, a pillow made from the bundle of goose feathers our family salvaged, fleeing. I never went to Hebrew school, but I laid my head on Jewish history every night of my childhood.
I was also a theatre kid all the way through elementary and high school. Musical theatre was what I did for fun, and what I thought about as I watched the clock in math class. I was antsy inside me until I could get out again on the stage.
In high school, I would walk through the doors of our performing arts center lobby and breathe a deep and involuntary breath of satisfaction and -at the same time- nervousness, excitement maybe, vulnerability. I’d walk to the inner doors and into what they call “the house,” where we had 500 seats, raked, all the way down to a beautiful expansive stage. An orchestra pit. Two stories of red velvet curtains. I felt intoxicated, every time I walked into that space. With my friends in the cast, the camaraderie of kindred company, I felt expansive, and alive, and … at home.
Theatre was –almost– everything to me. The lines and melodies I would start out not knowing, and puzzle together in rehearsal and alone in my room at night. I would practice in front of my mirror, loving the music …and myself… with a religiosity that felt sacred. And I’d arrive backstage for our shows in stitches of anticipation, but when I’d step on stage, I felt electric. When I sang to an audience, I felt like there was nothing between me and eternity.
But the show would always end. The house lights would come up and I was just me again. And as much as I reveled lustily in my passion, I just wasn’t enough. The project of performance, even in a community of actors, was not enough. I felt a suspicious inkling that grew into cynicism about my plan to become a professional performer. I was a senior in high school and I looked out, forward over my lifetime ahead, however long or short I had, I imagined what success might look like at its very best. Show after show, Broadway I conjured! – and yet even in that unlikely best case scenario, I wondered: to what end? Towards what ultimate purpose?
I had an inkling, an intuition, that my consuming passion and desire was a poor idol to worship for this lifetime. This passion was not bad objectively, but I didn’t know how or where else to channel that side of myself to serve something bigger. I just felt consumed by it. So I ran from it.
We read in our Torah how our first patriarch, Abraham, was called to leave his home and everything he knew of himself for a land Gd would show him. “Lech, l’cha” said Gd – Go, GO! Get yourself going! GO to your truest self. GO to what you might become. GO on behalf of something bigger than YOU. GO to a future you can create ONLY IF you leap. This is the seed story from which our entire Jewish people eventually emerged.
There are, as you can imagine, many commentaries on this foundational story. One I just heard last week from one of my teachers made me smile. The commentator thinks, what if Abraham didn’t actually hear Gd say “GO,” saying “lech l’cha,” when Abraham first set out. No, Abraham set out because of an intuition, an inarticulable inkling that he had to get going, that he had more he had to be. And he kept going for the same reason. He had inklings that he had to follow at each step along his journey, but could not have said quite why.
The commentary continues: Only as Abraham got to the Land Gd was taking him to did Abraham finally hear Gd say GO, lech l’cha. Only as Abraham saw the place he’d been traveling to all along, did the many inklings resolve into a big picture he could finally see, into what we might describe as a calling that made any sense at all.
I am thinking about theatre right now because, when I left high school, I left theatre behind. I ran from the part of me that felt comfortable in service to my passions and ego. But, now I see that I was not just running away, but toward something more. I was running –GO! Lech l’cha! I can only hear it NOW– towards the parts of me that could balance that consuming fire in me. The parts that could combine into a balanced whole, a self channeled towards a lifetime of service.
Of course, at the time, without theatre, I felt insubstantial and broken. But that, as it turns out, was good too.
Our tradition teaches, it is not when we are full but when we are dwelling in our brokenness, that Gd is with us. This is why the theme of wandering and rootlessness in our tradition is so prevalent and powerful. And we don’t even need to physically go somewhere to risk breaking through our comfort, and into sacred growth.
What do you still want to learn? We could ask that question every single day of our lives and it would always be relevant. What do you still want to learn? Who do you still need to become?
The humility in that question creates space to become more. To serve more. To plant for a future that we won’t see, but that needs us now so that it will exist at all.
I couldn’t have articulated this 20 years ago, but its truth is what I had an inkling for.
And it was our Judaism that held me as I ventured into my wilderness of learning and becoming.
At 19, packing for college, I happened on an old certificate in the closet, which my mom explained was from my grandfather. He’d given me a Hebrew name when I was born: Morasha—legacy. This was the first time I’d heard my own name. My grandfather’s hopes echoed down the decades. But his legacy? I knew so little!
Inspired and hungry, though trembling, I checked out a book, kind of an encyclopedia, called Jewish Literacy from our local library. I attempted to fill in—by rote— the expanses lying empty between matzo brei, feathers, and very basic blessings.
I failed to get far.
But the book, as I held it, felt holy. I quickly stopped reading to “know enough” and continued on because as I freed the words from the page, it was like I had felt puzzling through my lines and melodies in play practice. I felt my old passion stir, but also a partnership forming, this time in a bigger way that went beyond myself. I was breathing in our history and culture; and Gd, it seemed, across all our generations, flooded the most intimate places within my atoms.
I was insatiable, but I felt daunted at leaping into all I did not understand. The little bit of Jewishness that lived so familiarly in my soul felt —with sudden vertigo— newly infinite.
It was disorienting at the time, and frankly, I felt like setting Judaism down and stepping away completely. However, a new inkling, a sense of responsibility, surprised me: I had a legacy to carry, stubbornly if for reasons I could not yet articulate.
Wrestling inwardly, I held fast to this inkling and descended on the rabbi at UC Berkeley Hillel. “Tell me!” I demanded, “What the hell do I do with all of this?!” She laughed, and I knew I’d be ok.
She listened to my questions with an excited smile, she saw me peering hungrily at her bookshelves, and she pulled down Berakhot. She showed me my first page of Talmud. She helped me pair my hunger with self-restraint; my ego with patience. She taught me, “The wise learn a little every day.”
And we did.
I never considered rabbinic school then. I could not hear the possibility –yet– when the weight of all I didn’t know about Judaism overwhelmed me.
I became a lawyer instead.
My husband and I joined this temple. We became parents –three times over– and I pivoted professionally, lickedy-split, when I had the chance to join our professional staff and dwell in this place every day of the week.
I was learning, finally, not just Jewish texts like I had at Hillel, but what it means to dwell fully in Jewish community: our services, our festival year, our compassion in action through tikkun olam, and our deep and sacred friendships. When can I start calling this a vocation? When can I start saying I was called to the rabbinate?
When I enter the sanctuary here, I always catch my breath, involuntarily. It is electric to me. It is sacred theatre. And it is intellectual, ancient sacred law. It is our generations of parents and children loving each other and learning every day together —all at once.
The demands of our shared endeavor in Jewish community is a chance for me to be everything, and too much, and my offering is given and received entirely in good faith.
Everywhere I’ve come from –All those tries. All those real parts– have slowly resolved into a bigger picture and a calling I can hear will integrate and use ALL of me.
It has taken me my lifetime so far to try, and feel I’m failing, and realize: I’m growing. To feel too daunted to leap, but to try, and feel I’m failing, and realize: I am something wonderful and also I am a speck of dust, but in just the right way to serve something sacred. On this path of inklings, I can finally hear that no learning is lost. I can finally hear that I have been called all along.
I will take this community with me. The years we have shared –the love and support and good faith you have shown me every day.
The Jewish life we all create together is everything to me. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. And now you make it possible for me to venture again to a place of unknowing.
I am so full. And beyond these boundaries where I have grown comfortable, rabbinic school will push me –joyfully– into humility again. Into new melodies to puzzle through, and new modes of encounter with our tradition and our People, writ large. It’s time to go forth again, not running away from anything at all, but heeding a call that I can hear clearly (enough) now. I am full and empty, ready to integrate what I am and what I might yet become and be able to contribute.
I want to acknowledge my husband Michael. I don’t talk a lot about Mike because it’s like bragging at how good a job your heart does. It’s there, beating crucially whether its function is deserved or spoken about… or not. Mike, thank you honey, for making it all possible. As you like to tell me, it’s not easy being married to a great lady. Thank you for putting up with me and loving me. I love you.
I thank my children and my mom and family, my dear friend Paul who reminds me that it really is YHVH or the highway; my boss and dear friend Elizabeth who took a chance on me here and helped me grow exponentially, my mentors and loving clergy guides Rabbi Steve, my chevruta Rabbi Daniel, and Cantor My Cantor Mark. I thank the whole cast of this sacred play: our staff and especially their families –Shari, I’m lookin’ at you babe! Also the Board, our volunteers and congregants – living and of blessed memory. I wish I could take the time to name each one of you, my dear friends. Thank you.
Lech lecha! my beloved– GO!
But please. Before you do. TELL ME. What do you still want to learn?
Til death, I think, friend of my soul,
you have to rush towards them,
those angels approaching the
we keep open
on all four sides.
Together in this small and infinite room, we are the same. What do you still want to learn?-And there! Right there. You are raising the sparks. You are these sparks.
I sat in awe as Rabbi Steve Cohen described the Givat Haviva International School (GHIS). First, he told me about the composition of students living and learning together. Then he explained the mission and vision. I heard words like “conflict resolution,” “peacemaking”, “leadership opportunity.” These high school students from around the world (25% are Israeli Arabs, 25% are Israeli Jews, and 50% come from other countries, many from impoverished areas and war zones) take advanced academic courses, all taught in English, while learning to engage in respectful dialogue and peaceful dispute resolution, volunteering in the community, and engaging in extra-curricular activities. With passion and commitment, in the fertile climate of GHIS, they are becoming global catalysts for change.
The purpose of my meeting with Rabbi Steve was my desire to be engaged in a meaningful endeavor at CBB, after retiring and moving permanently from Michigan to Santa Barbara. I was mesmerized by what I was hearing. I was told that Nurit Gery, GHIS’s Executive Director, would be visiting Santa Barbara the next weekend and it might be a good idea for me to meet her and learn more. I am fortunate to have done so.
What came out of all this was an opportunity for me to become the CBB volunteer tutoring coordinator. That is, I, along with Sissy Taran and Toby Donner, match volunteer tutors here with GHIS students. This is facilitated through GHIS administrators and faculty.
We provide two streams of student assistance. One is tutoring in English, oral and written, and the other is helping with college admission essays. Currently, more than 30 individuals have offered their time, energy and expertise in working over Zoom with GHIS students since early last summer.
I feel honored to be part of the GHIS program at CBB, especially in seeing the amazing volunteers who generously share their wisdom and in knowing what a difference they make as they contribute to each student’s success.
For more information about volunteer tutoring opportunities, please contact me. Diane Blau, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Diane Blau lives in Santa Barbara with her husband Dr. Larry Blau, having moved here permanently from Michigan in December, 2020. Diane is President Emerita of the Michigan School of Psychology and Larry, a specialist in occupational and preventive medicine.
Current events have illuminated how our culture has become complacent with outdated, non-inclusive policies and practices that marginalize minorities. Unfortunately, as a result most of us have faced unintentional as well as explicit forms of antisemitism. Being Jewish requires a refined inner grace to know when to not take things personally and when to speak up against antiquated systems that perpetuate hostility, prejudice, and exclusion. This is what brings me to share the following story.
Third grade started a little bumpy when a school event was scheduled on Yom Kippur. I sighed when I saw the email notification hoping I misread it. I then took a deep breath and reminded myself that the world does not stop for our high holidays and most people are unaware of their significance. The recent emails from the school district proclaiming its commitment to inclusivity, awareness, and sensitivity to its diverse student population felt empty as Jewish students were eclipsed (hopefully unintentionally) on this occasion.
Like any good Jewish mother, I brought my concerns about this event to the school principal. I was eventually reassured that the school intends for all students and their families to feel included and represented. Although the event was rescheduled, my questions were left unanswered about the accountability systems that are in place and/or needed to be established to support the district’s commitment to building awareness, inclusivity, and respect.
Fast forward through numerous emails and conversations with the school board and assistant superintendent about the district’s role in building a more inclusive culture that breaks down unkind habits that marginalize minorities. Through these discussions it became clear to the district’s decision makers that the staff position responsible for accountability had long been vacated.
Then, compounding an already disturbing situation, my nine year old daughter experienced her first encounter with antisemitism at school. My heart broke and my blood boiled. Unfortunately, her teacher’s response leaned more towards being dismissive than reparative or inclusive. This was not alright with me.
First, I doubled down on empowering my daughter about her Jewish roots to make sure she felt proud of who she is despite outside input.
Next, I leaned on our CBB community who showed up, as always, with mountains of support and resources. I educated myself about successful and inviting ways to create partnerships within the school setting that address this kind of challenge. I then teamed up with Edjudaica in an effort to build awareness by distributing Hanukkah kits to every class at my daughter’s school and throughout the district. I continued my long-term strategies of working with the assistant superintendent. I kept encouraging the district to evaluate and improve the culture and curriculum into a more safe, inclusive, and respectful environment, and to examine their policies and professional education opportunities.
After multiple meetings and tirelessly following up, the school district approved the 2022-2023 school calendar with the inclusion of Yom Kippur as a day off for everyone! In addition, a black out date calendar was created that provided school sites with an overview of numerous holidays and occasions with clear expectations that prevent scheduling of events on those days. This translates into no more school pictures scheduled on Rosh Hashana, for example. Additionally, a multicultural resource list on the district’s website is in the process of being created to build community awareness. Lastly, the district reassigned two staff positions to ensure that all school personnel are informed and held accountable to supporting cultural awareness, sensitivity, and inclusion in an equitable way.
I hope my daughter has learned from my actions and the response from the school district that it is never alright to put anyone down for being different and that nothing changes when we remain silent.
Since this shift is for only one school district within our larger community, this is just the beginning. It is my hope that the foundation has been established for a more supportive and inclusive educational environment for all districts to emulate. If children are encouraged to learn about and respect the cultures and practices of others at school, it will create a positive rippling effect throughout our community and beyond.
Holly Goldberg, PhD manages community systems change initiatives and evaluation projects aimed at improving outcomes for children and childbearing families. She is a published researcher and subject matter expert with nearly two decades of experience in the fields of maternity care and early child development.
Charles during his mikveh immersion at Goleta Beach. Photo by Phoebe Light
Charles Perkins: Public Affirmation Speech
Author’s note: With much gentle nudging and calm reassurance, our own Rabbi Daniel Brenner convinced me that my public affirmation ceremony would benefit from a few short words about my conversion process — my “journey home” into our beautiful Jewish faith community. I’m not by nature someone who enjoys public speaking, and sharing these words with CBB was a challenge for me. But I’m so glad that I was able to. Taking just a few moments to share these words during the ceremony made it more meaningful and powerful than I could have imagined it would be. The words I shared are reproduced in the following paragraphs with some light editing.
I’m grateful for your presence here tonight. Without you, this would be a little bit like the classic example of a tree falling down in the forest when no one is around. If no one hears the tree fall, does it make a sound? [Rabbi Daniel explained that this is in fact why we require ten Jews to form a minyan.] And now I think I will share a few of the main reasons that brought me.
Jewish values, as I understand and try to live them, assign a positive normative and spiritual value to asking questions for the sake of asking questions. As a philosophy PhD student, I have been devoting much of my life to extremely speculative and abstract intellectual problems that have no clearly plausible practical value. These problems are not even philosophical questions that connect to morals or ethics. My research is currently focused on the extent to which the scientific method constrains empiricism through its dependence on typology. And I know that topic can seem like an unclear, useless, abstract problem to solve. But if we ask ourselves, “Why did God make us?” one viable Jewish answer is that humans are here to make meaning in the world that God has created. Without humans, the world that God has made would only go or play, like a boom box in a vacant room. God would know everything about that world, but there would be no one else to know anything at all. Such a world, if not completely meaningless, would be a pale imitation of this world that God chose to make. So I feel that the philosophical questions I engage with are important, not because they necessarily help us live righteous lives or become better people, even if they might do that incidentally. Rather, engaging with abstract problems of metaphysics and epistemology glorifies Hashem through study, by making meaning primarily for the sake of meaning. So my first reason is that Judaism validates my choice to work hard on these problems that can be difficult to justify as legitimate problems.
Observing the Sabbath, if only through my persistent refusal to clock in for a Saturday shift at one of the many service industry jobs I have had to pursue during my years in graduate school, has been radically empowering. If you had asked me to describe my “best life” before I started observing the Sabbath, I think most of my description would have been highly acquisitive and shallow. Things such as employment, recognition, and money would have played a primary role, even if (out of denial, or in an attempt to be tasteful) I attempted to downplay their importance. The Jewish imperative to rest does not condemn my efforts to pursue those things, but it does limit them. And that limitation makes room for things that are more important, such as a relationship with God, love, friendship, feeling well, empathy for others, and concern for the collective good. Largely because of the Sabbath, the “best life” that I would describe now really would prioritize those things. The Sabbath radically changed my idea of success. So that’s my second reason. Of course there are more reasons, but tonight I wanted to share only a few that are, for me, the most meaningful.
Still there is a question, Why convert? I could still observe the Sabbath and justify my work through Jewish values without actually becoming a Jew. But if I did choose that path, I think I would be turning down an opportunity to be myself. Embracing the values I just described without converting would, for me, be living as “kind of a Jew” or “sort of a Jew.” I think I would be rejecting an opportunity for my true self, who is Jewish, to grow and flourish. In my personal situation (I cannot speak for anyone else) such an identity would not serve me or this Jewish community in a positive way. It would leave me with a vague, indeterminate, frankly blurry, sense of who I am. Answering the question, “Are you Jewish?” with “pretty much,” or “almost,” or “sort of,” is not, for me, that different from answering the question, “Who are you?” with “I’m pretty much,” or “I’m sort of,” or “I’m almost.” I don’t think this community should accept “sort of Charles” or “almost Charles” or “pretty much Charles.” I really appreciate that you are taking me in as Charles, who is a Jew.
Charles Perkins moved to Santa Barbara in 2018 to pursue his PhD in Philosophy at UCSB. He enjoys MahJong and is looking forward to welcoming his brand-new Bernedoodle puppy Tuesday into his home later this year.
First mentioned in 1238, one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the Czech lands.
In 1568 the Jews were expelled from the town. Historical sources refer to their number at the time as “sizeable.”
In 1853 the first Jewish family moved back, in 1880 there were 332 Jewish citizens, in 1900 there were 415 and in 1930, 215 people claimed their Jewish heritage.
The Jews in Pribram enjoyed a rich social life; there was a chevra kadisha, a Sisterhood, and charity and youth organizations. Before WWI there was even a kosher restaurant.
During the Nazi occupation, 171 Pribram Jews were killed in the camps, including 18 children under 15. The youngest was Pavel Schling, he was four years old.
In 1873 the building of the synagogue (in the then-popular Moorish style) began and in 1875 it was finished and the first Torah scroll was placed in the synagogue.
In the 1960s many Torah scrolls were sold to Western Jewish organizations all over the world.
The last Pribram rabbi, Dr. Emil Friedman, was killed in Auschwitz in 1943, along with 543 Jewish people from Pribram and the surrounding area.
During WWII, the synagogue was used as a warehouse and from 1946 to 1957 it housed collections of the town museum.
In 1966, due to only a very small number of Jewish people in Pribram, the congregation donated the synagogue to the town of Pribram.
The magistrate accepted the donation, only to tear the synagogue down in 1969.
The location of the medieval Jewish cemetery in unknown.
The new Jewish cemetery was founded in 1879. There are currently 150 beautifully preserved grave stones and a monument to the 543 Nazi victims, unveiled in 1954. The last Jewish burial took place in 1958. The cemetery is very well preserved and taken care of.