Donations for Relief in Ukraine

Donations for Relief in Ukraine

As the war in Ukraine continues, many of you may be wondering what you can do to help.

A number of options exist. It is clear to many that Ukrainian Jews are particularly affected by the conflict, from President Zelenskyy to soldiers to everyday citizens, including in our sister city Kharkiv (for one recent piece of Jewish news from Kharkiv:

With this in mind, I encourage would-be donors to consider making a direct donation to the Joint Distribution Committee here:

The JDC has been in place doing relief work and support work for Jewish communities throughout the former Soviet Union for decades, and as such they have a strong network in place. They run a lean operation that permits a high proportion of donated funds to go directly to those who need it. I’ve personally visited the JDC’s offices in Israel before and was impressed by the work they do there and elsewhere in the world. If you’d like to learn more about them, you can read here:

There are other ways to give, of course, and some of these may appeal to you more. If you are looking to give specifically to a non-Jewish organization, you might also consider giving to the International Red Cross ( or UNICEF ( There are also fund-collection drives happening in a number of contexts, within the bounds of the Jewish community and beyond. With these, I cannot speak to the portion of donations that will be used for overhead and administration, as opposed to direct aid.

Dear Rabbi – December 2021

Dear Rabbi – December 2021


Dear Rabbi,

In last month’s article, someone asked you a question about the names of God. I want to know something about the names of people.

When I was growing up, it seemed like we always used to call everyone by their father’s Hebrew name. Now I hear us using mothers’ names sometimes too. Is this just a modern cultural thing? And is there any rhyme or reason to it?

-Musing about Monikers

Dear Name,

When you say “call everyone by their father’s Hebrew name,” I’m assuming that you’re talking about calling people to the Torah.

This is true — the established traditional practice was for a man to be called to the Torah by his Hebrew name in its patronymic form (i.e., “[son] son of [father],” like “Ya’akov ben Yitzḥak”). And when we began to show more concern in the Jewish world to the idea of gender egalitarianism, including by calling women to the Torah, we also began to think about ways to modify this practice, like by calling people by the names of both of their parents (e.g., “Ya’akov ben Yitzḥak ve-Rivka”) — using a name with both patronymic (father’s name) and matronymic (mother’s name) components.

When we use both parents’ names, usually the father’s name comes first and the mother’s comes second, but when the father is a Kohen or a Levi, the father’s name will move to the end (e.g., “Moshe ben Yoḥeved ve-Amram ha-Levi”).

But while it is a ḥiddush (an innovation) to include the mother’s name when calling people to the Torah, there is a well-established traditional time to use a person’s mother’s name: when saying a healing prayer for them, like the Mi Sheberakh prayer. For this reason, it is not uncommon to reverse the order of mother and father (e.g., “Ya’akov ben Rivka ve-Yitzḥak” instead of “ben Yitzḥak ve-Rivka”) when we mention a name for a healing prayer.

Today, these sorts of customs vary widely. Some people maintain the traditional practices: patronymic form for Torah (as well as for signing official Jewish documents, like a marriage contract or a divorce decree) and matronymic form for healing prayers. Others will use both names for both, and reverse the order for healing prayers, as indicated above. Still others will use both names for everything, without reversing the order (unless the father is a Kohen or a Levi). In our own synagogue, we typically let individuals determine how they prefer to be called, either in the traditional style or in the more modern, two-parent style.

It also sometimes happens that a child has only one Jewish parent; in these cases, if that child is Jewish (whether Jewish by birth or by conversion), we would typically call them only by the name of the Jewish parent.

With all of the above, it should be noted that there are exceptions. New cultural developments invite us to innovate further as well. The fact that many contemporary Jewish households include two parents of the same gender, or include individuals who identify as neither male nor female, demonstrates that the formula “[child] son/daughter of [father] and [mother]” isn’t one that will work for all situations.

There is also much more to say about names than I can fit in this space. Sometimes people change their Hebrew names, and sometimes people choose to be called according to different names for certain purposes or situations. If you (or another reader) would like to speak to me at greater length about your own name or about the varieties of practices around naming, please let me know.

Rabbi Noah S Ferro

Dear Rabbi – September 2021

Dear Rabbi – September 2021

Do you have a question for the rabbi? Write to Rabbi Ferro at [email protected] with the subject “Dear Rabbi…”

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve noticed that for “pandemic mode,” we’ve abbreviated our High Holiday services a bit. But there are still some pretty long parts we’ve kept in. How do you decide what to keep and what to take out? And how about the parts that get read in English?

-Wondering About Worship

Dear Wondering,

Thanks for noticing!

The shortest answers to your questions are: the longer the prayer has been a part of the service, the more likely we are to try to keep it in, in one form or another; and the prayers that we read in English are the ones we feel like reading in English to help people stay connected to what’s going on — as Jewish tradition explicitly tells us that prayers may be recited in Hebrew or in any language that the pray-er can understand.

However, there’s a bit more to say here, of course.

The key statutory prayers of our tradition are the Shema, with its blessings before and after, and the Amidah, the 19*, 9, or 7 blessings for Weekdays, Musaf on Rosh ha-Shanah, and all other special days, respectively.

(* – We actually have 20 blessings in the Fast Day liturgy when the prayer leader recites the full Amidah; but this is better for Jewish trivia than answering the question at hand here.)

The Shema is a twice-daily meditation and declaration of faith, and we give it its due by surrounding it with blessings. The Amidah is a replacement for the sacrifices of the Temple that we recite three times a day (four on Shabbat and most holidays, and five on Yom Kippur).

These two elements are both considered important ritual duties of every single Jew, and for this reason, we do not remove these from our prayer services.

Other items are largely optional, like Psalms (biblical poems) and piyyutim (post-biblical poems). In fact, the liturgical poetry of piyyutim runs throughout the Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur liturgy and is a big part of what makes it as large as it is. Some piyyutim are very traditional, dating back as many as a thousand years or more. But there are three competing tendencies in our tradition that can apply to our High Holiday services and the elements of prayer that we can consider optional:

  • adding new obligations or customs to Jewish life and prayer without ever letting go of old ones;
  • trying to practice a Judaism similar to one of the rabbis who lived during the Talmudic period; and
  • not making ritual demands of people that they cannot actually meet.

When it comes to requiring the lengthy recitation of as many medieval poems as possible, we would certainly have a hard time balancing all three of these tendencies at once.

Lastly, though also very important, is the question of what really “moves” people. In most synagogues, people really appreciate hearing the Shema and the Amidah in Hebrew, even if they themselves do not understand it. I couldn’t possibly imagine not reading Kol Nidre with its traditional Aramaic text and the traditional melody; it wouldn’t feel like Yom Kippur for me without hearing these.

So when we make our decisions, all of these issues come into play. They help us decide what to shorten, what to retain, what to read in English, and what to read in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in reality, there’s no “secret recipe.” It’s mostly the same year to year (most years), but with small experiments scattered throughout. As we hear from you (and from everyone else) about your yearly experiences, we’re able to make some additional adjustments for the following year as well.

Dear Rabbi – July 2021

Dear Rabbi – July 2021

Do you have a question for the rabbi? Write to Rabbi Ferro at [email protected] with the subject “Dear Rabbi…”

Dear Rabbi,

I thought I understood what all the Jewish holidays were supposed to be about, but I’m confused about Tish’ah b’Av.

With most holidays, there’s something I can find in our prayers or readings that makes me feel uplifted. But with Tish’ah b’Av, it’s all doom and gloom!

I have a hard time mourning for a Temple I don’t really feel a connection to, especially now that Jerusalem is rebuilt and there’s a State of Israel. Is that really all there is to it? We’re sad and we fast because the Temple was destroyed a long time ago? Or is there something else I’m missing here?

-Tripped Up by Tishobov

Dear Tripped Up,

Tish’ah b’Av (AKA Tishobov, the Fast of Av, the Ninth of Av) is an unusual holiday on the Jewish calendar. As you rightly identify, it is a fast day connected to the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. According to tradition, these were destroyed in 587 or 586 BCE and in 70 CE, respectively, both on the very same day: the ninth day of the summer month of Av. (This year, 9 Av begins on the evening of July 17, after Shabbat.)

Tradition associates other low points in the story of the Jewish people with this date, including the decree of the Israelites’ punishment to wander in the wilderness (Numbers 14:22-23). And a number of major moments from the Holocaust and medieval anti-Jewish persecutions can be reliably dated to 9 Av or near it.

So in that sense — yes, there’s more to this occasion than just remembering the Temple or the destruction wrought on Jerusalem at two particular points in history.

But even with a thriving modern Jerusalem a mere plane-ride away, we shouldn’t ignore the significance of the destruction of the Temple — even those of us who don’t look forward to seeing ritual sacrifice return to prominence some day.

Archaeology and a careful study of our biblical sources point us to the likely possibility that the Temple in Jerusalem was only one part of how the Israelites observed their religion in earliest times. But the Temple eventually became essential to an important ritual process of atonement — you made mistakes, you brought offerings to the Temple, and the Priests offered them up on your behalf to cleanse you of guilt.

With the destruction of the First Temple, people had to forgo this ritual of atonement for less than a century. With the destruction of the Second, they had to forgo it for millennia, and possibly forever.

When the First Temple fell, we came to understand that God dwelled not only in the Temple’s sacred precincts in Jerusalem, but in any place in which the Jewish people found itself. When the Second fell, we came to understand that ritual sacrifice (and perhaps even ritual itself) lacked the power to assure that God would have a good “working relationship” with the Jewish people (and more broadly, with all of humanity).

We read the following in an important rabbinic work called Avot de-Rabbi Natan:

“Once, Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him and saw the Holy Temple destroyed. Rabbi Yehoshua said: ‘Woe to us, for it is destroyed — the place where Israel’s sins are forgiven!’

[Rabbi Yoḥanan] said to him: ‘My son, do not be distressed, for we have one form of atonement that is just like it. And what is it? Acts of loving-kindness, as it says, For I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifice (Psalms 89:3). And so we find that Daniel, that proper man, would busy himself with acts of loving-kindness. And what were these acts of loving-kindness that he was so busy with? … He would help a bride and bring her happiness, he would escort the dead [in a funeral procession], and he would always give a perutah [a small coin] to a poor person. And he would pray three times a day, and his prayers would be gladly accepted’ (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 4:5).

In this passage, Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai suggests that perhaps sacrifice isn’t the point, and never was the point. Some of the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible make some similar statements. And in the Middle Ages, too, the great rabbi and scholar Maimonides suggested that ritual sacrifice was something God was once willing to accept as a concession to human beings’ own primitive nature, rather than something God truly desired.

I therefore believe that there’s a blessed and glorious “a-ha moment” buried in our mournful Tish’ah b’Av observance: the realization that the Temple and its rituals belong not so much to a divine plan as to a human one. The divine objective — encouraging us to pursue relationships with God, nature, and one another that are meaningful, deep, and moral — can be better served today by means other than ritual sacrifice.

So if that’s the case, why mourn on Tish’ah b’Av?

First, we know that tragic historical moments like those commemorated on Tish’ah b’Av caused physical harm to individual people that has had real and lasting effects on the Jewish people as a whole. Real people died, painfully and horrifically, in these acts of war and destruction. Imagine: maybe you could be lucky enough to survive the destruction itself, but at the cost of losing the people and things that made your home a home; to say nothing of the sight of seeing your own neighborhood in flames, or the knowledge that your enemies have triumphed over you so completely.

Now add to this the pain of thinking that God, too, is somehow in league with those enemies — or that God used to care what happened to you but no longer does. Perhaps you called out in prayer or offered countless sacrifices as you believed you should — but nothing worked.

In discovering that God doesn’t only care about Jerusalem, or that ritual behavior isn’t the only way to garner God’s attention, we may have gained useful and important insights into the nature of the Divine. At the same time, we discovered that God doesn’t always act the way we might expect on Jerusalem’s behalf, and that God doesn’t always respond to our rituals reliably and consistently.

Much like Adam and Eve in Gan Eden, we found our eyes opened by the loss of our Temple. Though we may have come out the wiser for it, we also lost a great deal of our innocence in a painful way. This experience is a trauma in Jewish history that still resonates today and still threatens individual Jews’ spiritual health and equilibrium.

This fact alone would justify the somber observances of Tish’ah b’Av.

Dear Rabbi – February 2021

Dear Rabbi – February 2021

Do you have a question for the rabbi? Write to Rabbi Ferro at [email protected] with the subject “Dear Rabbi…”

Dear Rabbi,

We’ve gotten a lot of snow lately. When I was a kid, we would always play in the snow when we had a chance, including on Saturdays.

I’m a lot more observant today than I was growing up, though, and I know that there are a lot of things we aren’t supposed to do on Shabbat.

No, I don’t really make snowmen or have snowball fights anymore, but my grandkids do. So I’m wondering: does halakhah (Jewish law) have anything to say about playing in the snow on Shabbat?

-Snowbody in Particular

Dear Snowbody,

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that halakhah has things to say about playing in the snow on Shabbat; the bad news is I don’t think it gives us a conclusive answer.

I’ll explain. We start with the Talmud, which doesn’t have much to say about snow one way or another. But it does discuss an idea called nolad, meaning “[just] born.” An item that is nolad is something that has just come into being, and these items are generally understood to be off limits on Shabbat: things we shouldn’t handle or move. But the Talmud tells us that rainwater does not fall into this category, and our later halakhic judgments mostly agree that this also extends to snow (R. Moshe Feinstein is a notable exception). So from that point of view, handling snow is not problematic in and of itself.

Then we come to a few other opinions which deal specifically with snowballs and snowmen themselves. The tendency in Orthodox halakhic literature is to forbid the making of snowballs on Shabbat but to permit the use of snowballs already prepared before Shabbat.

Two major figures we see articulating the mainstream view are Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rabbi Moshe Stern. Permission to throw snowballs also assumes that you are not in a space where carrying is forbidden by Jewish law, i.e., that you are within an eruv or a private domain. A few Orthodox figures also permit even the making of snowballs on Shabbat. No mainstream Orthodox figures, however, permit the making of a snowman on Shabbat. While there may be other concerns at play for some rulings, the overarching concern about a snowman seems to be the sense that in putting snow together with more snow to form a particular shape, one is building something (boneh) and thus violating one of the thirty-nine categories of forbidden labors on Shabbat. I will not presume to offer a decisive halakhic ruling here for our community, but I do need to point out a few problems with the Orthodox position on our friend the snowman. All of the opinions mentioned above come to us from the mid- to late twentieth century.

So I am left wondering: Did the question actually never come up until then? Or did our prior legal decisors simply assume that Jews did not need guidance on this subject? We’re also left with other uncertainties. Authorities who feel that the halakhah “clearly forbids” the building of a snowman on Shabbat pull from a few different sources — chiefly, from the Talmud (Beitzah 32b) and Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Shabbat 7:6). Both of these supports, however, are difficult to apply to our situation. The Talmud passage cited tells us that the rabbis issued a decree against building temporary structures on Shabbat lest we come to build permanent structures of similar design or using similar techniques and materials. For obvious reasons, extending this logic to include the use of snow as a building material is hardly a natural inference.

The Rambam suggests that “Whoever gathers one part to another part and sticks everything together until it is one body, this is surely similar to building.” We must note a few things here: First, Rambam is speaking in the context of making cheese — gathering up curds and putting them together to make a larger, solid mass of cheese. Second, the phrase used here is “similar to building” — which is very different from what was said in two consecutive sentences immediately before about other parts of the cheesemaking process: one is liable on account of a particular, identifiable forbidden labor.

Finally (and not insignificant here, as above), is that the passage has nothing to say about a material like snow which is inherently impermanent. Clearly the voices that permit the making of snowballs on Shabbat would agree that this Rambam does not apply neatly to that question, and one wonders on what ground it might apply differently to making a snowman.

In the end, it is not clear what the Torah or the rabbis of the Talmud have to say about snowballs and snowmen on Shabbat. Conservative Jews following more stringent patterns of observance are likely to refrain from these activities on principle — either because our Orthodox compatriots do, or simply because in the absence of a clear answer it is common to err on the side of caution.

If you’re committed to making the most of snowy days with kids, there may be forces pulling in the opposite direction. Jewish law commonly relies on explicit rulings and precedents but also has a reverence for established practice, and one can ask in good faith whether the absence of any discussion in the literature of “building” with snow for nearly two thousand years doesn’t establish its own sort of precedent, especially since we know that snow itself was not considered extraordinary by our sages (see Yoma 35b and Psalm 148).

We are told in the Torah (Deuteronomy 13:1):The whole of that which I command you — that shall you take care to do; do not add to it or take away from it. In accordance with this verse, we might find grounds either to forbid or to permit a wide variety of activities — including some common ways of playing in the snow. So long as it is done with integrity, I do not believe that either course is mistaken.