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JCC East Bay Shamash Residency

The rotating Shamash Residency is a unique opportunity for a local rabbi, Jewish scholar, or Jewish educator to teach and learn with the JCC staff and community. During each immersive residency, a rotating rabbi or educator will join us to explore Jewish holidays, texts, culture, and traditions.

The Shamash Residency fosters meaningful collaboration between Jewish educators, our staff members, and our vibrant community. Selected scholars will participate in the design of community holiday programs, contribute to a monthly blog, and offer Jewish learning for over 80 staff working throughout Oakland and Berkeley.

To learn more or to apply for a future residency, please click here.

Current Shamash Resident: Rabbi Dr. Rebecca Joseph: January-June, 2019

Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, 2019

One of the most gratifying parts of the Shamash Residency is working with the JCC’s talented and committed staff. If you’re at all familiar with our programs and activities, you likely know that it’s a team with a broad array of job responsibilities in multiple locations. What might surprise you is just how varied it is culturally and generationally. Tailoring staff development activities to address individual aspirations, interests, and questions in personally meaningful ways while strengthening group identity is an incredibly valuable challenge as a Jewish educator.

Shavuot, which begins this year on Saturday evening, June 8th, is a good example. The biblical festival marking the beginning of the wheat harvest is mostly observed today as zeman matan Torateinu, the time commemorating God’s giving the Torah to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. It’s the least known of the major Jewish holidays. While many find it hard to relate to as an ancient agricultural rite, its seeming exclusivity can also be distancing. Yet it is possible to experience ourselves powerfully in the story.

With the help of a puzzle made from Chris Johanson‘s painting “Untitled (Overlaying Figures)” and a handful of biblical and rabbinic texts, our all-staff development training focused on hearing the stories of some of the individuals who stood among the myriads at Mt. Sinai. After learning that All the people witnessed the thunder (kolot) and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking (Exodus 20:15)…”each and every one according to their ability: the elders according to their ability; the young men according to their ability; the little ones according to their ability; the nursing babies according to their ability; the women according to their ability; and even Moses according to his ability… and even the pregnant women, according to their ability” (Shemot Rabbah 5:9), we drew head-shaped puzzle pieces of different sizes, created and shared stories of the individuals they represented in two rounds. We told our own stories with a third piece. Silently awestruck, we put them all together and completed the puzzle.

In another session, our preschool teachers studied a 13th century text describing how young children in medieval Germany were introduced to learning Torah on Shavuot. We observed how this experience engaged different senses to creative multiple positive associations through a structured series of activities. This generated discussion about how their teaching approaches are similar and different. The mention of honey in the text created an opportunity for a sweet multisensory experience on the spot. As we tasted date, fig, and bee honey with fresh goat cheese and flatbread crackers – all known in biblical times, the group expressed wonder at our ability to connect with in such potent ways with generations so far removed from us in time and place.

I’m very excited to be teaching again this year at the JCC’s all-night, family-friendly Tikkun Leyl Shavuot on June 8-9. Now in it’s 31st season, more than 40 invited scholars and spiritual leaders will facilitate opportunities for transformative learning and practice. Consider this your personal invitation to join me and hundreds of our East Bay neighbors and friends at this revelatory community-wide gathering.

Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Dr. Rebecca Joseph
Shamash Resident


About Rabbi Dr. Rebecca Joseph

Rabbi Dr. Rebecca Joseph is a master educator and non-profit consultant with more than three decades of experience in program design, fundraising, and leadership development. Many in the East Bay and broader Bay Area community know her as a chef, cooking instructor, and expert in Jewish foodways.

Inspired by Judaism and culinary arts, Becky helped seed the phenomenal growth in kosher food blogging with The Parve Baker. As National Jewish Food Conference founding executive committee member and multi-year presenter, she also played important roles in establishing the Jewish Food Movement. In 2010, Becky created San Francisco’s 12 Tribes, an award-winning kosher catering company focused on mindful, sustainable lifestyles and the first to receive Uri L’Tzedek’s “Tav HaYosher” Ethical Seal. Concern with inequities in the food system led her to partner with The Thrive House for Youth, introducing Cooking Matters for middle school students, a summer culinary arts programs for older teens, and baking workshops for grades K-3. She served on the advisory board to the tech startup H.O.P.E - Helping Other People Eat and improved operation of a year-round, volunteer-run food pantry providing groceries to households in urban food deserts.

Becky’s current projects include a book of Torah commentary with recipes for the home baker and a culinary companion to the Talmud. Previously, her recipes and food writing appeared in, The Jew and the Carrot and Sh’ma Now, hosted by The Forward. She led sessions on rabbinic gastronomy at the JCC East Bay’s community-wide Tikkun Lael Shavuot and chanted from the Torah at Yom Kippur services led by the Jewish Studio Project.

Rabbi Dr. Rebecca Joseph’s prior experience includes positions in the non-profit sector, higher education and government. Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, she earned a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California-San Diego, BA from Swarthmore College, and held University of California-Berkeley, Fulbright, and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.

The JCC East Bay is deeply grateful to the Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation for their generous support of the Shamash Residency.  

Notes from the Shamash Sofa: Passover 

Passover is just around the corner. On a recent Friday morning, an enthusiastic group of about 25 JCC staff members joined me for a holiday food tasting. I had prepared four varieties of charoset, the condiment that accompanies the bitter herbs at the seder and many enjoy on matzah for breakfast. Teams of three tried to determine the ingredients, whether the charoset was raw or cooked, and, using that information, where in the Jewish world each originated. The reveal, which gave everyone a chance to learn how close they’d come, included a short narrative about Passover in each of the communities represented – Egyptian, Indian-Iraqi, Portuguese, Surinamese, and Gilbratarian. (I know that’s five. The last was represented by a brick – which is a story for another time.)
Charoset has a long, fascinating history. Absent from the Hebrew Bible, it first appears in Jewish sources in the first century CE. The rabbis of the Mishnah state that it is brought to the Seder leader with matzah and bitter herbs but disagree about whether it is required as part of the ritual (Pesachim 10:3). We learn from the Jerusalem Talmud that charoset was also called “dukkeh,” because women pounded the ingredients into a paste (Pesachim x, 3; 37c-d). Yemenite Jews still use this name. Others, including Persian Jews, call it “halleq,” for the date syrup used in their recipes. Some of us form the charoset using ancestral methods, some take advantage of modern labor-saving innovations like the food processor.
Rav Pappa, a 4th century sage was a brewer and producer of sesame oil lived in in Sura, a Jewish town west of the Euphrates in Babylonia, now Iraq. He refers to charoset sweetened with spices. (BT Pesachim 116a). Dates and the syrup made from them are ingredients in the earliest extant haroset recipes, also from this area. By the late middle ages, charoset recipes reflect older traditions and innovations as Jews adapted to new places and circumstances. For example, pepper, cumin and ginger appear in Germany; hyssop, a member of the mint family mentioned in the biblical exodus story, in Egypt, and mint in Syria.
The seemingly ubiquitous Ashkenazi American charoset comprised of apples, nuts, cinnamon, and sweet wine has a history, too. It can be found in the early-mid 20th century cookbooks and classes designed to speed the assimilation of Jewish immigrants and refugees and help them become “real Americans.” Over several generations, pecans replaced walnuts where the latter are plentiful, some added raisins or other ingredients, creating and passing on new family recipes. With greater interest in diversity and inclusion, Jewish American cooks continue to modify their recipes according to their cultural preferences, tastes, and aspirations. What’s in your charoset recipe? It turns out quite a lot.
Rabbi Dr. Rebecca Joseph
Shamash Resident
The rotating Shamash Residency is a unique opportunity for a local rabbi, Jewish scholar, or Jewish educator to teach and learn with the JCC staff and community. The Shamash Residency fosters meaningful collaboration between Jewish educators, our staff members, and our vibrant community.


Don’t you love dipping apples in honey?

Sweet, tart, sticky with all the potential of a fresh New Year. It might be a perfect Jewish ritual: easy to prepare, satisfying to execute, fun to share, symbolic and delicious.

But before we enjoy the tasty treat, there are a few steps:

1. You need to shop for (or pick!) the apples — Prepare or there will be no apples or honey

2. You need to dip the apples in the honey— Personal Action is required

3. You need to allow yourself to taste— physically Experience the sweetness

A simple dip of apple into honey therefore, can show us how to prepare for a sweet and new year:

Prepare: think about the past year and what you would like in the year to come: set some intentions.

Personal Action: decide how you will celebrate the New Year: do you want to join us at one of our High Holiday services or lunches? Maybe you want to come march with us the evening before Rosh Hashanah begins (Erev Rosh Hashanah) on Sunday, September 9, in the Oakland Pride Parade? Or just spend time with family and good friends.

Experience: Slow down and use your senses to fully experience what may be around you: the sound of the shofar or your own voice, the sweetness of the wine or grape juice, or the light from holiday candles. Or even try a new way to pray with me and visiting artist Aviva Chernick on Saturday, September 22 at Prayer Lab - No Hebrew, belief, or prayer books necessary.

Whatever brings you to the JCC East Bay —- I hope you will have the opportunity to dip some apples in honey this season and experience a sweet New Year together.

Reflections on the months following Passover from Tamar Zaken, Spring Shamash Resident
April, 2018

The Season Following Passover

I am always relieved at the end of Passover, like I accomplished something great because I cleaned up my house and avoided leavened bread for a week. I think it is truly a philosophical relief, as we leave this time when we are constantly reminded of the story of the Israelites enslavement in Egypt, and slowly transition into a time of waiting, trudging through the desert, anticipating the revelation of Torah that awaits us at Mount Sinai.

What can we do to ease this transition from slavery to freedom? Mimouna, a North African Jewish holiday that occurs the evening that the Passover holiday ends helps to do just this. The holiday of Mimouna originated among Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian Jewish communities and these immigrants brought the holiday with them when they arrived in Israel in the 1950s and 60s. The holiday emphasizes the Jewish value of Hachnasat Orchim or welcoming in guests.

During Mimouna, families open up their homes to all who will enter, with costumes, sweets, flour-heavy foods like the oily pancake confection moofleta, and music. The tradition is that no one is specifically invited: all homes are open to everyone and people go from house to house, visiting with neighbors and friends, both Jewish and non Jewish.

The Moroccan Jewish liturgical poet Rabbi David Bouzaglo explains some of these traditions in this excerpt from his poem: You, People of the West:

“…This is the way of the native Arab, now in Morocco
To give the Jews a plentiful gift, as much as one has to offer.
Flour, Honey and grain, milk from a healthy cow
Fish, mint and butter with wildflowers and herbs
There, Hebrews and Arabs recline together
Their hearts rejoice with music and song
The Hebrew woman wears the Arab garb
And the man, a Adraiya**, Incense and perfume
And you cannot tell the difference between a Hebrew and his Arab brother
A city-dweller from a countryman, all have one spirit…”

In fact, tonight the JCC East Bay is joining with many other Bay Area organizations for a Muslim-Jewish gathering, at which Rabbi Dorothy Richman will sing this verse over a Kosher and Halal meal. I was honored to share these verses with the JCC for the laws of Passover. It was a way of saying: we are part of your community and we love you because you are our neighbors.

At the JCC of the East Bay, this Mimouna spirit exists all year around. During Passover I had the opportunity to lead a seder for older adults. There was such a wonderful sense of community as participants called out ideas and questions and sang along to some of the most popular Passover “hits” like Dayeinu. At the Oakland after school program I was welcomed in warmly to teach the staff about Shabbat. Staff members shared their resting rituals and we talked about how to create community during Shabbat at our after school sites. This week I met with other staff members for session on Shavuot where we discussed how we communicate messages (from Torah to programming schedules) within the JCC community. All of these have reminded me of the inviting, open spirit of the JCC East Bay. I am honored to be part of this celebration of inclusion this spring.

Reflections on Purim from Rachel Brodie, Inaugural Shamash Resident
February, 2018

“Behind the Crescent Moon: Thoughts on this Month in the Jewish Calendar” 

The catchphrase for the next month on the Hebrew calendar (Adar, which comes in with the new moon Wednesday night, February 14, 2018) is "be happy, it's Adar!" Indeed, with spring approaching and both Mardi Gras and Purim shedding rhinestones and dripping schnapps all over the calendar, many people find it easy to get into the spirit of Adar. But what about the times when we find ourselves out of sync with communally-dictated emotional states?

My first memory of contending with this dilemma was in the month of Adar, forty-two years ago. My grandmother (my father’s mother) had just died. We observed the intense period of mourning governed by ancient Jewish wisdom and then, as a family, we slowly inched our way back into the world outside our bubble of grief. When it was time to join our community in the celebration of Purim, I announced that I was not participating.

I had been especially close with my grandmother and I was a vortex of many emotions but none of them seasonally appropriate. With the narcissism of most young children and mourners, I wanted the world to cry with me. I wanted Purim to be cancelled. But my father insisted that I go with the rest of my family to the synagogue, to listen to the story of Esther. I did not have to wear a costume, I did not have to actively partake in any of the frivolity, but I had to attend. I had a massive meltdown. He was unrelenting. I was seething. He didn’t look too happy either, but off we went.

I made a point of sitting alone in the corner. I made a point of not being responsive to the well-intentioned attempts of friends to connect with me. I spent a lot of time in the ladies’ room crying.

Walking home I exploded with fury: the experience had only made me feel worse. It was cruel to make me go, how dare he or anyone else tell me how to feel, etc. I couldn’t understand it at the time, but what my father explained to me then and again when I could actually hear him (which wasn’t until about 10 years later) was that while it wasn’t any easier for him to be there, he went to be reassured that even if we weren’t feeling it in the moment, joy, even silly fun, had not been extinguished with the death of this one beloved person. That to know it’s not “all about me” is actually the good news. That while I didn’t yet want to feel joy again, I needed to see joy as essential to our being, vital for our well-being, and within reach. But also, that in the same way that the Jewish holidays cycle through emotional states, we as individuals do too. That what I could not have known then and did not want to know at the time was that I would feel better, I would experience joy again… but also grief again and so on.

Exactly twenty years later, in the month of Adar, just after Purim and just before my 29th birthday, my aunt sent me Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tuscon. Not sure I was interested in reading it, I flipped it open to a random page and read:

“Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job or a limb or a loved one, a graduation, bringing a new baby home: it's impossible to think at first how this all will be possible. Eventually, what moves it all forward is the subterranean ebb and flow of being alive among the living.

“In my own worst seasons I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.”