Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2017

And Sarah said, "Hashtag Me Too"

#metoo Parashat Lech Lecha Friday/Saturday, October 27-28, 2017 Cantor Penny M. Kessler
Thank you to Rabbi Tiwy for giving me the opportunity to offer some words of Torah tonight and tomorrow morning.
“Hashtag me, too” is the rallying cry giving voice to millions of women who have been used and abused sexually, physically, emotionally, and intellectually for decades. From the lofty heights of show business to secretaries and janitors, women are finding their voices and declaring that their stories of abuse need to be told. Some have never told their stories, while some have come forward in the past, only to be told to shut up and show up lest their livelihoods – and in some cases lives – be threatened.
I have friends and rabbi and cantor colleagues who are telling their stories for the first time, some in decades, some who experienced abuse and harassment during their seminary experiences. And – personal disclaimer – while I am grateful that I have never been physically abused, there are m…


Some things you don't ever forget.  On the morning of 9/11/2001, I was AOL chatting with one of my nieces. I ran to the TV, and all I remember is numbness. I drove to Stanley's office, trying to reach relatives by phone, but phone lines were jammed. As much as I wanted to stay home, Stanley insisted that my place was with my congregation; he'd make sure that the children made it home OK. I - reluctantly, I admit - drove to the UJC.  I stopped at the light on Coalpit Hill Road and South Street, my windows open because it was a beautiful weather day, and I couldn't bear to be locked up in my car while the world was falling apart around me.  That's when I heard that the first building had collapsed. I started to sob. The driver of the car stopped next to me looked over at me with a equally horrified look on her face. We nodded sadly at each other, and silently drove off to our respective places. When I got to the UJC, we were all walking around quietly. Lynne, Jodi, a…

#BlogElul Day 10: It's all good (Forgive)

I just noticed that I rarely say "I forgive you" when someone apologizes. I say "thank you," "no
problem," "no worries," or "it's ok." I might say, "thank you, I really appreciate it." I almost never say "I forgive you." What's that about?

Forgiving someone for a harm means acknowledging both the offender's and the offense's humanity. People who ask for forgiveness have humbled themselves; forgiving means that I accept that offenders have realized they messed up, even while they tried to do the best they could given their circumstances. As a forgive-ee, I also humble myself, making myself aware of my own imperfections; if I can forgive myself for my human frailties, I can do the same for others. Yeah, it sounds arrogant, but really, it's not.

So how come I rarely say, "Yes, I forgive you?"

Maybe it's that I've been trained to either look past harms done to me or to not expect a…

#BlogElul Day 9: See (me)

"See me" is the tag line of a series of commercials for a skin condition medication. Don't see the condition, see the soul inside.

When God sees me (and I believe that God sees each of us), what does God see?

Does God see the outer me? Does God see my real and imaginary imperfections? Does God see the impact of of a life of years? Or does God see the inner me, the soul inside this physical vessel?

If God sees my soul, I imagine God sees a host of good intentions and lost opportunities. God sees someone who tries hard to do the right thing, frequently succeeding, often not. I hope that God sees love, laughter, loyalty, passion, and compassion.

Since I can't see God - except in my imagination - I see love, justice, mercy, kindness, trust, sweetness, unconditional discernment, and steadfastly loving discipline. I see a desire for me to be the best Penny I can be. I see an entity to whom I can turn any time for any reason, no matter how trivial I think my issue might be…

#BlogElul Day 8: (Hear)ing above the hiss

Tinnitus is a bear.

What started out over a decade ago as a constant thrum of a bassoon in my left ear eventually became a hiss that accompanies me 24/7. My right ear joined the unhappy chorus about 2 years ago. No one really knows what causes it, and it can only be controlled, not cured. My brilliant audiologist, Dr. Arthur Tepper, has worked with me to manage the condition, which is a blessing, considering that the physicians basically gave up on me.

Although I often hear the world through the haze of a hiss, I am vocally healthy. My voice is still clear, my perfect pitch is still on target, and I can tell in an instant if my piano is out of tune. If the tenor misses the high note in Nessun Dorma - even by a smidgen - I squirm and shudder. So all is well that way.

There's definitely an up side. Tinnitus encourages me to listen intently and hear things I might have missed if I weren't paying attention. When I'm out for a walk, I pay particular attention to the sounds of…

#BlogElul Day 2: Search

Today's #BlogElul prompt is "search."

Like a lot of Jews, I'm embarking on a yearly pre-High Holy Day search for me.

I spent a lot of years searching for myself. I looked for me in academia, in spirituality, in meditation, in therapy, in food and diets and exercise, in a bunch of different places. I looked in Judaism, dabbling with Orthodoxy in college and finding a bit of me in Reform Judaism (which is a good thing considering that I identify as a Reform Cantor). I looked for myself in other people, always hoping that someone else would tell me who and what I was.

And this year, my search for myself continues. Every time I pick up the search, I ask God to help me be fearless and thorough. I ask for compassion for myself so that I don't jump feet first into self-pity. I ask for perspective so I don't focus only on the negative aspects of my being.

Maybe this will be the year I finally figure out what I'm looking for.

#BlogElul Intro/Elul Day 1: Act

Every year we rabbis and cantors review the machzor to prep for the High Holy  Days. And every year, we remember that while the words in the machzor don't change from year to year, in fact we change, so we are the ones we should be reviewing.

That's what #BlogElul/#ElulGram is all about. Thank you to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer for once again welcoming us to spend the month of Elul in self-reflection through her yearly initiative. Rabbi Sommer presents daily prompts, and we are invited to write, tweet, post photos, share music - every kind of expression - about the day's prompt.

For the 1st day of Elul, Rabbi Sommer suggests "Act."

There's a saying that "faith without works is dead." That's such a Jewish concept. I believe that Judaism is less concerned with what I think than with what I do. And the High Holy Days are the paradigm of placing "doing" on a higher level than "thinking."

The whole deal with teshuvah, the process of adm…

Invocation for Bethel Democratic Town Committee Annual Dinner - April 2017

Holy One of Blessing, Creator of all humanity, we come together tonight to praise a woman of valor, Mary Gert McCollam. You know, friends, Mary Gert is mentioned in our holy scriptures. We read in the Book of Proverbs:
Who can find a woman of valor? The price of a woman of integrity is far above rubies. She wears strength and beauty and she laughs at the future.
She opens her mouth with wisdom and the learning of kindness is on her tongue.
Give her of the fruit of her hands. She will rejoice in the time to come, Let her works be praised on this earth.
May Mary Gert and her lovely family be blessed now and always.
Holy One of Blessing, Creator of all humanity, we ask your blessing on the Bethel Democratic Town Committee. It is fitting that Mary Gert is receiving the Shannon Award for Public Service; may we always remember that our mission – Mary Gert’s and the Shannons’ mission – is to serve Bethel with compassion, integrity, dignity, uprightness, and honesty.May we always remember to protec…