Reigniting the Spark of Community


Before the pandemic, I took so much for granted: hugging friends, visiting family, singing at concerts, eating at restaurants, going
anywhere I desired. The virus flipped our world upside down and forced us apart from the people and spaces that fill our lives with love, sustenance, purpose, and energy. I am grateful to live in a time with technology that allows us to stay hyper-connected, but screens have not replicated what I missed most – my Jewish community.

Zoom did not nearly replace the spiritual energy I receive when gathering in temple to worship, sing, learn, and eat bad oneg cookies
together. I miss the laughter and handshakes and hugs. I miss the highs of lifting each other up on chairs in celebration and the lows of carrying each other through suffering. Fundamentally, I miss Jewish life.

This experience brought new meaning to the words of the first-century sage Hillel: “Do not separate yourself from the community”
(Pirkei Avot 2:4). I always thought of this teaching as an obligation to sustain the community, not the self, but the pandemic has made me rethink that assumption.

In Parashat Korach, we read of the dynamic between individuals and their community. Korach leads a rebellion against Moses and
Aaron, charging them with the crime of separating and elevating themselves from the community. “You have gone too far!” the rebels accuse. “For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?” (Numbers 16:3). Though God quashes Korach’s rebellion and the earth “swallows [the rebels] up,” his false accusations regarding the relationship between the individual and the community are not totally without merit. Every individual is holy, and God is found when we gather in community.

Speaking to this dynamic, the 20th-century commentator

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik asks: “

 “Does the individual stand above the community which should serve its needs, or should the individual subordinate himself to the community’s needs?”

To answer this question, Rabbi Soloveitchik uses the story of Moses as a paradigm. He notes that the sages compare the worth of Moses to the entirety of the Israelite men. Yet when the Israelites sinned by fashioning the Golden Calf, Moses is reduced to their sinful status. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s interpretation of this seeming contradiction is that it “seems that the community and the individual are placed in balance with each other and are interdependent” (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance, pp. 114-115).

During the pandemic, I became particularly aware of this interdependence. We all play a role in sustaining community, but the distance
helped me understand how much community sustains and uplifts me.

It is not simply the extremes of Moses’ righteousness compared with the sin of the Israelite community that highlight this relationship. I
found it in the slow depletion of my spirituality in the absence of singing, gathering, and learning in community. I felt it while singing muted on Zoom instead of experiencing the cacophony of all the other holy (and often atonal) voices. I experienced it while crying on Zoom, thousands of miles away from friends, welcoming their newborns into the covenant.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and while that’s true, the absence of physical Jewish community weighed heavily on my
emotional and spiritual wellbeing in a way I never previously understood. 

After the earth swallows Korach and his rebels, a plague breaks out in the camp. The Torah tells us that Aaron “stood between the dead
and the living until the plague was checked” (Numbers 17:13). After shouldering the weight of fear, rebellion, and plague, Aaron goes straight to the Tent of Meeting, the place where Israelites convened to worship. He returns to sacred space, full of ritual and connection. Aaron’s actions after the plague read like an instructive for us to return en masse to our Jewish communities once it is safe
to do so.

We have all experienced and dealt with the massive trauma of COVID-19 in different ways, and no panacea could possibly mend our

individual and communal brokenness. Yet, the Torah urges us to show up. Show up spiritually at services, even after an exhausting week. Show up righteously to seek justice, even when you just want to collapse on the couch. Show up socially, even when you don’t want to see other people.

The 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber teaches that God is the electricity that surges between people who relate to each other humanly – and I think we could all use that spark.

On Healing After Betrayal


The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was one of my favorite shows growing up. Though much of the racial commentary flew over my adolescent head, I was impressed by the cast’s camaraderie. They danced and laughed and loved in a way that felt genuine, which is why the swapping out of actress Janet Hubert, who played the original Aunt Viv, felt like a betrayal. I was too young to read the gossip, and there was no Google to reference. Still, it struck me as odd that a family show with such palpable chemistry would unceremoniously replace their beloved matriarch. Until recently, I didn’t know the story of pain and betrayal left unresolved for nearly 30 years. What transpired when cast members finally confronted each other met to talk about the breakup sheds light on the
subject of this week’s Torah portion.

In Parshat Naso, we read about betrayal as a crime the Torah calls maal: “Should man or woman commit any wrong toward a fellow Person, that betrays the trust (limol maal) of Adonai, that person shall bear guilt. And they shall confess their offenses which they committed. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to whom they wronged” (Numbers 5:6-7). As noted in Torah: A Women’s Commentary, the term maal has the “legal meaning of [theft] as well as a broader idiomatic meaning of betrayal.” The Torah is clear: When we wrong each other, we betray God. The only way we can rectify our betrayal of God is by making amends with those we’ve harmed.

The rabbis teach that “Yom Kippur brings atonement for wrongs between people and God, but it can only bring atonement…if the person offended has first been reconciled” (Mishnah Toma 8:9). Yet, most of us enter the day without taking the necessary action to truly repent to God. We confess to the harm we have caused through our careless speech, deceit, gossip, hostile impulses, and arrogant behavior. Yet rarely do we acknowledge these shortcomings to those at whom they are directed.

And, if we are honest, these are not once-a-year transgressions; these are behaviors we are faced with every day and often ignore. We might use Yom Kippur as the once-a-year catchall for our faults, but in the eyes of God and our tradition, confessions are meaningless unless we continuously strive to make it right with the people we have hurt. Parshat Naso teaches that our admissions are meaningless unless we go a step further and make restitution.

In the 30th anniversary special of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, we witness such restitution. Amidst a chummy reunion with the cast that finished the show, it cuts to Will reuniting with Janet Hubert. She asks, in an exceedingly human moment, “I just want to know one thing: Why? Why so far? You guys went so far. I lost so much. How do we heal? You look good, by the way.” As is so often the case in grudges and wrongdoings, Will admits simply, “I don’t know your story.”

In the third season of the show, Janet Hubert was pregnant, surviving an abusive marriage, and offered an unfair contract

extension. Will was a jealous 21-year-old with skyrocketing fame, fearful of the world, and coping with childhood traumas through comedy. As they sit together, for the first time in 27 years, they air their pains and admit their wrongs. “I had been banished, and they said it was you who banished me,” Janet unloads. “It’s weird. We’ve said such hateful things about each other, and I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry,” he replies. They hug, genuinely, triggering a memory that reminded me what made the show so special.

Though wisdom accumulates with time – such that two people who have held grudges for 27 years might gain enough insight to eventually seek reconciliation – our tradition attempts to normalize this behavior. Parshat Naso reminds us of the regularity with which we betray God by treating each other poorly, and we are rebuked for our apathy. It demands we not wait 27 years to make amends. It demands we confess now and regularly and go above and beyond to make it right.

At the end of the segment, Will says, “I go out in the world and talk about understanding and human relationships and then have someone that I haven’t spoken to in 27 years. I’m just so happy that we were able to make that reconciliation, and I hope other people can take something from it.” This, too, is the hope of Parshat Naso – to make guideposts and find inspiration from narrative. Only we can hold ourselves accountable to heal the relationships in which we have erred. Then, and only then, can we make right by God. It’s up to us.



RAP-ENTANCE: A Soul-Opening Experience for the High Holidays


Long before I became a rabbi, I was a DJ and a Hip-hop-head. Music always scored my life, and for years I’ve wondered,
“How can that music be harnessed for religious practice? How might John Legend or Billie Holiday elevate me spiritually and open channels of empathy?”

In 2018, I began concocting an alternative High Holiday experience – an audible journey that would tap into ancient liturgical themes
and refract them through the lens of music. I found a liturgical analog along the contours of the shofar service, which serves as a spiritual alarm clock – a clarion call – that awakens our souls and demands a reckoning with our past
RAP-ENTANCE was born.

Two years later, our world is on fire. We celebrate our holiest days apart due to a pandemic as our country comes to terms with four
centuries of systemic racism that led to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others just this year. It seemed fitting to create 
a sequel to RAP-ENTANCE this year, using themes of the Yom Kippur prayer book (machzor) to confront racism, explore concepts of privilege, and stand up for racial justice.

In addition to the many High Holiday experiences available via livestreams, I hope RAP-ENTANCE can act as a soul-opening addendum or spiritual alternative to what you’re used to.

The project aims to rejuvenate our understanding of High Holiday themes and inject new channels of empathy, love, and reflection. Let
the powerful beats reverberate through your body, echoing your own heartbeat. Let the words invigorate your spirit. Let the dance of rhythm and rhyme serve as a reminder; we are living, breathing, dynamic creatures capable of
innovation, re-dedication, and change.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches, “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs repair.” Wherever you find yourself on this spectrum, I hope RAP-ENTANCE will help you tap deep into your soul and offer an opportunity for reflection, honest assessment, and loving agitation.

Tizku l’shanim rabot – be worthy of your years, and may they be many!

Learn more about RAP-ENTANCE and sign up for RAP-ENTANCE:

I Was Diagnosed with Cancer in the Middle of a Global Health Crisis

May 25, 2020 By RABBI ALEX KRESS

As the anesthesia mask came down, just a few months after my 30th birthday, I said goodbye to my old body. An ultrasound, family history, and medical uncertainty forced my hand; “It might be cancer,” my doctor worried. Two hours later, I woke up in an aching, unfamiliar body. All of which, perhaps, would have been unremarkable if the world, too, hadn’t become so unfamiliar itself.

Two weeks earlier, as COVID-19 first caught the wind and jumped oceans, I ricocheted between my responsibilities as a Hillel rabbi at UCLA and officiating lifecycle events. A cancer diagnosis cannot slow the momentum of a rabbi’s calendar, and shelter-in-place restrictions had not yet come to Los Angeles.

Eight days before surgery, at a funeral for a woman my mother’s age, I held a broken family as I worried mine would soon mourn me. A few days later, in a session I teach on Judaism x Hip Hop, I emphasized the sanctity of life instilled by both the Torah and rapper Childish Gambino. That weekend, I stood under a chuppah remembering a bride’s late father and worrying my 3-year-old daughter would face the same fate.

The morning before my surgery, at a baby naming for a little boy my son’s age, we thanked God, “…for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this moment.” Those often-said words of gratitude had never held such a multifaceted meaning. As the baby’s parents cradled him, the newlyweds kissed, and the family mourned, my fears melted, and a sense of love – and God – overpowered me.

Yet nothing could prevent my brain from uncontrollably imagining doomsday scenarios. One second, I’m singing Alicia Keys in the mirror; the next, I’m wondering, “Will my kids remember me?” Another moment I’m preparing to officiate a wedding, the next thinking, “We’re only 30. She’ll remarry, right?”

Suddenly I stood in the valley of the shadow of death, and I did fear harm. Cancer, with COVID-19 looming in the background, had wholly shattered any illusion of security I held. As my mind developed future family photos without me, we sheltered in place together for the most intense and wonderful family time we have ever known.

In the book of Isaiah, amidst great upheaval, God admits to Israel, “I hid My face from you; But with kindness everlasting, I will take you back in love” (54:8). The uncertainty of COVID-19, and my cancer diagnosis, have made the world feel like God’s face is hidden. In times like these, I crave the biblical God who heals, but who, inconveniently, I don’t believe in. The more I look, though, the more I see the God I do believe in.

I marvel at the colorful realization of a child’s imagination come to life on the sidewalk. I cherish my 3-year-old’s magnetic attraction to colorful flowers, enchantment with rocks, and exuberance when spotting a palm tree. I’m reminded of childhood as we spot Mickey Mouse or elephants in the passing clouds.

I’m charmed by my daughter’s warm greetings for everyone walking past our home and the way she blurts out random information to neighbors: “My Mimi broke a bone in her foot!” I melt every time she says, “I love you, daddy,” and fear, perhaps irrationally, that these moments are numbered.

 In aggregate, these little divine sparks of light and wonder make life worth living. As Isaiah alludes, God manifests in kindness and love, but also in the laughter and fullness of a family in quarantine; in the courage, stamina, and kindheartedness of healthcare professionals, grocery store employees, and other essential workers ensuring our wellbeing; in communities sending food to those in need and opening stores early for vulnerable populations to shop safely; in the volunteers participating in the first human vaccine trials; in the sacrifices of people worldwide to flatten the curve.

As we weather this unprecedented storm in quarantine, fear and chaos seem to govern both my home and life outside of it. But at another angle, perhaps obscured, COVID-19 and cancer have provided me a new perspective during a challenging moment in my life.

In moments of uncertainty and change, we can lament our lack of control and kvetch about annoyances – I know I have. Or, we can focus our energy on loving big and spreading kindness. Few elements of life are in our control, but those are firmly in our grasp.

When I turned 30 a few months ago, I had no idea that COVID-19 and cancer would disrupt my life so violently, but I have discovered an opportunity to reorient my life toward the intangible sparks that make life worth living: love, kindness, amazement, and gratitude.COVID-19

The Jewish Song That Comforts Me in Uncertain Times

March 26, 2020 By RABBI ALEX KRESS

Bonfires have a gravitational pull about them.

It’s not solely that radiant orange warmth on a cool mountain evening or light after the sky surrenders to twilight. It’s not even
their talent for roasting undeniably delicious marshmallows. I think their magic lies in the dance of the flames, those blues, oranges, and whites burning bright while peacefully submitting to the will of the breeze.

Last summer, I found myself at a moment of peaceful submission, surrounded by community and warmed by fire – when I first heard the song. Jared Stein, an extraordinary musician, sang words I knew intimately to a tune with which I was unfamiliar. It was written, he told me, by someone named Yosef Goldman:

Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar maod v’haikar lo l’fached klal

“The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to fear at all.”

The mellifluous syllables contoured to the music as only prayer can. This was not the raucous, table banging energy of URJ Camp Harlam during Shabbat in the Poconos.

I closed my eyes as the song gained momentum, spinning faster and stronger around the fire, singing and swaying and transcending, for just a moment, to somewhere higher. The song slowed into extended silence, as the fire’s gravity pulled us back to earth.

Instinctively, anticipating the need to quench a future thirst, I pulled out my phone to search for a recording. No luck, just a
cavernous YouTube recording. Instead, I did the next best (and completely rational) thing I sent the songwriter a Facebook friend request. Not awkward! He accepted!

For months, the tune returned to me in fragments and transported me back to the bonfire – until, on a Tuesday in November, Yosef
Goldman released a recording of “Gesher.”

The song was even more beautiful than I’d remembered. It wrings as it lifts, pierces as it hugs, ebbing from the individual and flowing
to the communal.

It begins quiet and timid, fearful and unsure of the path ahead. As the song journeys forward, intimate voices slide in and fade out,
guiding one foot in front of the other. At times erupting in power, in others sinking into doubt, ultimately landing in a peaceful submission to circumstance.

As we traverse the narrow bridge in front of us, Gesher provides us with a musical roadmap: Give fear room to process, but do not let
it take root; humbly accept the unnatural and urgent circumstances before us; and then, put one foot in front of the other, sing with gusto, and digitally embrace your people.

Soon, we’ll be singing together around another bonfire.


Looking for more songs to blast during difficult times?
Check out Rabbi Alex Kress’s “Quarantunes” playlist on Spotify or Cantor Rosalie Will’s “Songs for Healing,” also available on Spotify. 

The Holiness of Handwashing: Lessons from Ancient Jewish Wisdom and Instagram Celebs


Actress Kristen Bell posted this image on her Instagram the other day with the caption: “My mom sent me the handwashing blacklight
comparison. 30 SECONDS WITH SOAP YALL!!!”

Aside from Bell’s mother’s very relatable, low-key guilt trip in pursuit of clean hands, this image is a reminder that I haven’t been
adequately washing my hands for many years.


With coronavirus (COVID-19) containment in full swing, handwashing has been front and center of preventative efforts, including the
many songs you can sing (and even this prayer you can say) to make sure you’re scrubbing for enough time. Surprisingly though, the benefits of handwashing were only discovered in 1846 and didn’t see wide implementation until well into the 20th century. In fact, handwashing wasn’t a standardized element of American healthcare until the early 1980s.


Though handwashing in the medical realm is relatively modern, handwashing in the religious world is decidedly ancient.


In Judaism, we first see the practice in the Torah, when God commands Aaron and his sons to “wash their hands and feet” before
even stepping foot inside the Tent of Meeting, let alone making an offering. (Exodus 30:18)


In this world, holiness centered on cleanliness and hygiene. After the destruction of Temple-centric Judaism in 70 CE, the early rabbis
embedded the tradition of handwashing in the Talmud, where we learn that “anyone who treats the ritual of washing hands with contempt is uprooted
from the world” (Sotah 4b). Though perhaps a little crude, the rabbis were onto something: Those who washed their hands lived longer.


In recent weeks, as COVID-19 has aggressively spread, I am astounded by this ancient religious wisdom.


In the Jewish communities of my youth, I never encountered handwashing as a Jewish ritual. It wasn’t until my teenage escapades in Israel
that I even became aware of it, discovering strange little two-handled buckets and dedicated washing sinks in every restaurant and hotel. As years passed and I encountered more traditionally religious communities, I occasionally washed as a guest at this or that Shabbat table, though I never incorporated the ritual into my practice.


That was, until COVID-19.


In the past few weeks, following recommendations from my mother and the Centers for Disease Control, I’ve been washing my hands a lot –
and I’ve started saying the ritual handwashing blessing every time:


Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam Asher Kidshanu
B’mitzvotav Vitzivanu al Netilat Yadayim


Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the washing of
the hands.


Though tradition saves these words for the ritual act alone, I have found great meaning in using them for both ritual and antibacterial


Now, when I wash, I offer gratitude for the human mind that discovered washing your hands prevents the spread of illness; I am reminded
that our tradition obligates us to protect the vulnerable, now more than ever; and I take a moment to appreciate my good health, knowing it can be whisked away at any moment.


As we continue to face the challenges of this pandemic, this ancient ritual provides me with moments of gratitude and grounding during
uncertain days.


If you’d like to say a blessing during handwashing but aren’t comfortable using the blessing reserved for ritual, try Rabbi Joseph Meszler’s “A 20-Second Prayer During Handwashing.”




RAP- PENTANCE: A Hip-Hop “Praylist” for Rosh HaShanah


Long before I became a rabbi, I was a DJ and a hip-hop-head. Music always scored my life, and for years I’ve wondered, “How can the music that soundtracks my life be harnessed for religious practice?”

This summer, as I prepared for Rosh HaShanah, I began dreaming about an alternative High Holiday experience – a musical journey that would tap into ancient liturgical themes and refract them through the lens of hip-hop. Kind of like Rosh HaShanah: The Remix.

As I prepared to lead services, I realized that the perfect liturgical analog for this new experience was the shofar (ram’s horn) service. The shofar’s blast is a spiritual alarm clock that cries our souls awake and demands a reckoning with our past year. We hear the shofar during a particular section of liturgy that is broken into three parts: malchuyot (sovereignty), zichronot (remembrance), and shofarot (literally, shofars or poetically, redemption).

Our journey through music has those same three stops, mirroring the arc of Rosh HaShanah liturgy in which we sound the Shofar. The only difference? Our shofar is hip-hop. Like the sound of the shofar, hip-hop can shake us awake and demand an honest assessment of ourselves.

I have long found hip-hop to be the music of my heart, and RAP-PENTANCE: The Praylist is a reflection of that deep love.

I’d be honored if you could find 45 minutes to try out this new experiment with me. I hope that RAP-PENTANCE will help you tap deep into your soul and offer an opportunity for reflection, honest assessment, and loving agitation.

Shanah tovah u’metukah, to a sweet & happy new year!