CJL Executive Director

Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude and there is so much to be thankful for this year – technology that keeps us connected; food and shelter and other basic necessities; and a vaccine on the horizon. But this year, I also think about the resilience of those early Pilgrims adapting to a new life in America under very harsh conditions. They celebrated Thanksgiving, in part, because they weren’t sure they would make it through those challenging times. And when I think about the complicated and often tragic relationship between Native Americans and the newly-arrived Americans, I realize that Thanksgiving is also a time for healing divisions and building understanding across differences.


From the Center for Jewish Life, built on the historic land of the Lenni-Lenape peoples, to your homes all across America, my blessing this Thanksgiving is for

a year of plenty

a year of resilience

a year of connection

a year of healing

a year of blessing


Happy Thanksgiving.


Friday, August 22, 2020

Greetings to all of you from Michigan, where I am spending the final weeks of summer vacation with my family.  In just a few weeks, Princeton's new academic year will begin. This is traditionally my favorite time of the year. I love joining with the talented and caring staff of the CJL to welcome our new students to campus and to welcome back returning students who are already part of our vibrant community.

It's hard to believe only a week ago we learned that the fall semester will be completely virtual. This news brought a sense of profound loss and disappointment, as we had hoped it would be possible to safely gather on campus. I know first-hand just how hard colleagues throughout the University were working towards this goal.

I also know from talking to students and parents, and from my own experience, that it's frustrating and exhausting to keep readjusting our expectations and plans and that many students and their families have been scrambling to decide where to live and what to do about this year. 

I want to personally assure you that the CJL community is here for you now more than ever.

We will be building friendships and community for students wherever they are this year. From High Holiday services to our First Friends program, from learning fellowships and study breaks to personal check-ins, the CJL staff and student leaders will be here for you.

We will be contacting you in a few weeks to learn about your final plans for this year and to hear what kind of support and programming you need and want from CJL. In the meantime, I encourage you to reach out to me, our staff, and our student leaders.  We look forward to updating you about our fall activities and to making this New Year one of connection, growth, and good health.


Friday, April 18, 2020

I missed my father, may his memory be a blessing, at our seder this year. Growing up with two Holocaust survivors at the table, my dad and his sister, and more than a dozen cousins who had escaped the Soviet Union, the feeling of freedom around our Passover table was palpable, even if unspoken. I wonder what he would have thought about a Zoom seder with more than 200 Princeton alumni, students, parents, and faculty. I’m guessing he would have shaken his head in disbelief and laughed in delight. My children were very young when my father died and don’t have any direct memory of him. They never heard him speak about how he survived the war, faith, and resilience intact, and unintentionally inspired his daughter to become a rabbi. Perhaps that’s why I’m so moved this year to commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, with a survivor who is the mother of a math professor at Princeton and the grandmother of my children’s close friends. It is so rare and precious to hear direct survivor testimony these days.

Zsuzsanna Osvath survived the war in Budapest, thanks to the heroic efforts of her babysitter, Erzsebet Fajo, who risked her life to hide Zsuzsanna, her brother, and her parents. Zsuzsanna was the Director of the Holocaust Studies Program at the University of Texas, Dallas and authored two books, “When the Danube Ran Red” and “My Journey Home: Life after the Holocaust’” Please join us on Monday, April 20, 7:30 pm via Zoom for this program.

At a time when we all need to find resilience, leaving Passover and heading into Yom HaShoah, the Jewish calendar gives us the gift of learning from our past as we face an uncertain future. May the stories and the memories of those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust and rebuilt their lives continue to be a source of inspiration to all of us.


Friday, April 3, 2020

Three weeks ago, I performed a wedding for two close friends in the living room of the bride's childhood home. This was the Friday before Princeton's spring break, and the last day the Center for Jewish Life building was open to the community. The wedding was originally scheduled to take place this past Sunday, but with the growing concern about Coronavirus and family members unable to travel safely, the public celebration was postponed. The bride and groom wanted this private ceremony to make sure that the bride's elderly mother could see her daughter married. With a home-made chuppah and wedding vows, joyful singing, and the smashing of a glass, we consecrated this marriage - bride and groom, rabbi, mother, brother, sister-in-law, two friends, and a medical aide.
Yesterday, the bride's mother died of Coronavirus. The mayor of Princeton indicated this was the first such death to happen in Princeton. The bride and groom, who were caring for the mother before she went to the hospital, are now in quarantine. The reality of 1,000 Americans dying each day has a specific name and face for me, and I can see the mother of the bride with her walker, in a sparkly silver dress, crying and thanking me and saying "I never thought I would live to see my daughter married".
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Last night, the CJL hosted a Zoom call for parents where we talked about the adjustment to having college students living at home again, concern about academic motivation and summer internships, the loss of graduation celebrations, and we offered prayers for health and safety. We also spoke about the remarkable shift the CJL has made in these past three weeks towards building community through phone calls and emails, online Torah study and blogs, virtual cooking classes, and Kabbalat Shabbat services over Zoom. And I was moved just to hear the parents mention the names of the students I miss so much.
At the end of the call, one parent lingered and shared that she had made seven shiva calls over Zoom in just this past week. I was so unsettled to hear this that I stayed up most of the night numbing myself with stupid television shows, falling asleep on the couch. In the midst of all of this, I saw a television commercial for State Farm Insurance. I don't really remember what it was about, but there was one image that stuck with me. After scenes of closed schools, empty restaurants, and abandoned parks, there was a big outdoor sign that said, HOPE ISN'T CANCELLED.
And then it hit me that this is really the central message of the Passover Seder that will be here, whether or not we feel ready, next Wednesday night. At our Seders, beyond all the resonances of diminished freedom and the tips on how to hold Seders over Zoom or with fewer people around the table or without an elaborate meal or even all the basics of the Seder plate, beyond the celebration of freedom from slavery in Egypt and the singing of Dayeinu is the message, HOPE ISN'T CANCELLED.
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The CJL will be hosting a virtual Seder on each of the first 2 nights of Passover, and over 100 people are signed up to join us for the first night. We decided to complete the communal Seder before dinner since it seemed difficult to get the timing right for coming back together with people who will be eating in their homes all across the county with their immediate family, or with their new friends virtually via the Zoom breakout "dining rooms" we're creating. That means yesterday, as I was planning the Seder with Rabbi Ira, we were debating what to do about opening the door for Elijah since that traditionally takes place after dinner.
And then in the middle of the night, it hit me that throughout the generations, no matter where Jews celebrated their Seders and no matter how wonderful or difficult their personal or national or worldwide circumstances, they opened the door to Elijah the prophet to usher in more redemption. We sing Eliyahu HaNavi at the end of every Shabbat as part of the Havdallah ceremony inside our homes or synagogues or maybe outdoors at camp. But only on Passover do we bridge our families and our homes to the outside world by getting up from our tables and opening our doors to Elijah the prophet and to a vision of a world redeemed.
And this year, when we are all restricted from leaving our homes and passing through the threshold of our doorways into the world, it's even more powerful for us to welcome healing and safety actively - to stand up despite our isolation and anxiety and despair - and to open our doors and our hearts with singing. In this way, each and every one of us sends into the world the quintessentially Jewish message that HOPE ISN'T CANCELLED.
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As we prepare to celebrate Passover at our Seders next week, I share these words of prayer and hope written by Rabbi Naomi Levy:
Next Year in Jerusalem!
Next Year in Health!
Next Year Free from Worry!
Next Year with Family and Friends!
Next Year Feasting!
Next Year Rejoicing!
Next Year in Laughter!
Next Year in Love!
Next Year filled with Song and Celebration!
Next Year with a Vaccine!
Next Year in Abundance!
Next Year in Peace!
Next Year in Blessings!
Shabbat Shalom-
Rabbi Julie