Category Archives: Jewish Community

I needed to make the first move

It was not hard to take a back seat to my own spiritual growth.

As a youngster, I dutifully attended High Holiday services but felt that it was a pretty boring endeavor. The overwhelming feeling of formality blocked any emotional response on my part. The hazzan (cantor) chanted in an operatic voice, sometimes so dramatically, that it was actually jarring.

Synagogue was an ‘event’ that I was attending. There were all the trappings of a Broadway show: everyone was dressed up, there were ‘ticket takers’, ushers, and even assigned seats. Eyes faced front, and of course there was no talking or stirring.

Reading the list of sins that everyone was asking forgiveness for, did not apply to me. I knew that I didn’t steal or commit any major crimes, so I was even disconnected from my purpose in being there.

As I got older, things did not change too much and I can’t say that I matured spiritually. Again, I was hoping to “feel something” from just sitting in synagogue.  After all, I was where I was supposed to be, doing what God seemed to expect of me by fulfilling my part of the equation. I am not sure if I felt a sense of awe though what I did feel was a measure of comfort in listening to familiar melodies.

No one taught me enough about the prayers or their purpose for me to gain any meaning out of the experience. Sure, I knew how to repeat some of the words but never learned what they meant or their relevance to my life. No one talked about a relationship with God. “He” was there, I was here. That was that.

I don’t blame my Hebrew school or teachers, because really, was it possible to learn all that much in a six-hour a week enterprise?

I intended this to be a short post so I will cut to the part that had the most impact on me. It was learning that I was in charge of my own experience. I know that seems obvious, but it took me awhile to understand that I had to make the first move. God was interested in an ongoing relationship, not in my trying to connect in a one time event.

No service was going to ‘make me more spiritual’ or help me feel connected to the Jewish community. There is a deep and rich experience that is at the core of communal prayer. But I didn’t experience that, not then. I needed to make the effort to reach out and go beyond my self, my ego. How engaged I would be was my responsibility.

So I started to study and to learn. I’m still learning. I also needed to be comfortable with bringing God into my life.

As it turns out, that’s what is supposed to happen:

קָרוב ה’ לְכָל קרְאָיו. לְכל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת:

Karov Ado’shem L’chol Kar’av. L’chol Asher Yikr’u B’emet.

God is close to all who call out [to God] —to all who call with sincerity. [P’sukei D’zimra, Ashrei]

For sure, there are tools we can use to help us focus our thoughts and be present, and I will share some of those in future posts.

Learning about prayer is a helpful prerequisite. Knowing Hebrew is an asset, but for now, pre-Rosh Hashanah, call out to the One who needs to know you’re there.

 

 


If you are interested in pursuing any of the ideas above or other engagement strategies, please connect with me [ruthschapira.com].


How to create a meaningful Jewish community online

Zooming alone

We are thankfully in the midst of some re-openings, however, our situation will not revert to more innocent times or change radically soon. So, we will need to adjust our thinking and reconfigure options for the most probable scenarios of the ways in which we come together since online gatherings are here to stay.

How will it be possible to develop real and meaningful connections when limited to on-screen interactions?

When content alone is not enough

Many organizations have been preoccupied with developing creative content to interest existing and potential members online, with options ranging from virtual lectures, tours, study sessions, and concerts to cook-offs. I get it. Offering programs online has been pretty much an essential activity since we’re not meeting in person.

Virtual offerings (for the most part) tease us with the prospect of an enriching experience but, like participating in a massive trivia contest, the time passes but not much is gained. How would your members answer the following questions:

Was this program of lasting value? Has this experience helped me become a better person? Has this allowed me an opportunity to interact with others?

No matter how flashy and attention-grabbing, or intellectually appealing they seem, online programs are not helping to form a sense of community among those attending.

Zooming alone

Ironically, after attending an online program whose goal is to uplift, people may feel instead an acute sense of loneliness, exacerbated by the lack of interpersonal connection. There is little to make the experience feel personal and the empty, unfulfilled feeling might affect future connections.

Success is not defined by how many people attend and the diverse places they represent. Nor is the amount of texting-length exchanges in the chat box an indication of interaction.

Consumerist attitudes

Online programs are set to deliver a product for a consumer mindset where we expect to get something when we give something. What is being offered is simply part of this value proposition.

The “Register Here” button on every program feeds into the consumer mentality even more when it is free. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions and google calendar scheduling, people might miss the event and have no compelling reason to watch the recorded segment (a sometimes banal endeavor) since it most often is a one-way conversation.

Despite the potential for deeper experiences with meditation and spiritual teachings, they too tend to be one-way broadcasts and do not work in forming community.

Can we yearn for something different?

People need to feel a sense of community more now than ever before.

Rather than spending precious resources in developing content we need to work instead on ways to deeply engage people with us and with each other. Otherwise, we face irrelevance.

Using these times as an opportunity will change the game. Rather than people considering themselves consumers they might act as co-creators of a rich, shared experience.

Offer education instead of information.

Education versus Information: Tip the scale

Begin to rethink how much learning you’re really providing. Are you just providing information, which gets lost without a context and an opportunity for discussion? Wouldn’t you rather provide an educational opportunity for people to be personally engaged and moved by your content?

When weighing the scales between content versus participation, tip it toward interactivity.  Try some of the ideas below:

  1. Offer online content with a strong facilitation component. It is well known in education circles that learning does not have staying power unless there is an effort made by the individual to integrate the learning. You can offer the content as a trigger and afterwards engage participants in responding. How was this for them? Was there a learning? An informational nugget to take away? In what way will this information be helpful? Begin a conversation among participants. If there are many participants, you can devise break-out rooms in many existing platforms like Zoom.
  2. If the your leaders are not comfortable or effective in this role, consider reaching out to those whose skills match the moment. Or re-train those you already have on board. In these times, it is an essential skill to be able to facilitate effectively in an online environment. 
  3. How well do you know your members? Conduct a brief survey of members, either via an online survey or decide to conduct a town-hall type meeting virtually to gauge members’ thinking about changes they would like to see.
  4. Decide to launch a ‘chevruta-initiative’ to study text. The synagogue or organization provides the matching service and those who are interested in learning on a weekly or monthly basis would be paired up with another member to learn a text of their own choosing or as part of an organizational-wide initiative. All the details (phone or zoom, this text or that) would be worked out individually. Host a monthly online check-in as a way to share learning and build momentum.
  5. Personally interview members with a sample script as well as optional questions like: what about being a member of our community particularly works for you? What might not work so well? Share results online in a community forum.

If you are interested in pursuing any of the ideas above or other engagement strategies, please connect with me [ruthschapira.com].


The True Jewish Meaning of Love

This is a new experience for me, responding to a reader request!  After reading a post on Gratitude, I was asked to write about Love.

Even though writing through a Hebrew/Jewish lens is naturally limiting, “Love” as a subject is so encompassing and elusive that we will need to narrow in even more.

Our focus here will be on love in a committed relationship.

Love in Parallel Terms

When speaking about concepts in Judaism, scholars recommend beginning at the source where it first appears in the Torah.

We won’t get much past that, but it will be a start.

At the outset, we will need to unpack Judaism’s view of what is foundational within the relationship between a husband and wife. We will actually be taking the idea of love out for now. [gendered language is used here as it is in the sources].

Here is how the Bible describes the relationship between Adam and Eve in Genesis/B’reisheet (2:18) 

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃

The usual translation is “The LORD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make for him a help mate“.

Note that two words are used to describe the relationship, often translated as one word, ‘helper’.

We will focus on the Hebrew root word for ‘mate’, נגד [Nun, Gimmel, Daled], which technically means “opposite” or “parallel” or “in front of”.

Translating the word exactly, the English meaning would be:  “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make for him a helper opposite him“.

How can this be? Isn’t that a paradox? Wouldn’t someone trying to help you be on your side? How can a helper be in opposition to you?

Yet, this translation offers such a rich insight into the nature of what love really represents, especially in a committed relationship.

What Love Really Means

Here, the deeper meaning is that when you’re in a committed relationship that person really gets to know you, understands your ways, and often needs to be that force that, while seeming to oppose you, really brings you to your more complete self.

Because that person loves you, and knows what you are truly capable of, they can often stand up to you, demanding that you be your best. That is true love. Risking momentary displeasure from you to achieve a higher goal.

Our sages expand on this further in the Talmud (Yevamot 63a):

” A help meet (sic) for him — (כנגדו literally, opposite, opposed to him) If he is worthy she shall be a help to him; if he is unworthy she shall be opposed to him, to fight him”.

The sources add: “whenever one confronts someone of equal power, moral and ethical weight, such a confrontation is termed נגד. It is a head-on collision of will.”

Two Become One

Despite the obstacles of will, the relationship is so intimate that two people should become extremely close—so that your needs become the other person’s needs, your wants, their wants. Your desire, theirs:

“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife so that they shall become as one flesh.[Genesis/B’reisheet 2:24]. Two halves work at becoming whole.

עַל־כֵּן֙ יַֽעֲזָב־אִ֔ישׁ אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְדָבַ֣ק בְּאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהָי֖וּ לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד׃

The word used for ‘cling’ here is the same root word that is often used in describing our relationship with God (d’veykut).

That is how Judaism sees love. Not as an infatuation, or romance, but as a deep commitment to each other.

That leads us to the first place in the Torah where we read of a sexual relationship between Adam and Eve.

Biblical Intimacy

In biblical Hebrew, when a man and a women connect on an intimate level, it is not called love. The word used is Da’at, meaning knowledge  דעת [Daled, Ayin, Tav], so perhaps the term “carnal knowledge” would be a more accurate translation.

“Adam knew Eve, his wife”:  וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ  Genesis/B’reisheet (4:1)

Knowledge implies a complete and deep understanding of your mate. Deep feelings of appreciation as well as one’s intellect are taken into account. True love involves a deep connection that is not a passing infatuation. It also brings up a quality of the infinite, inner knowledge of a soul knowing another soul.

Is Your Ego at Work?

Notions like “falling in love”, “love at first sight” and “love is blind” do not hold true in the Jewish concept of love.  There is no word in the Bible for romance. In modern Hebrew, the word is “romantika”, certainly not based on Hebrew root words or letters, and interestingly, the word for infatuation is “Ahava Iveret”  אַהֲבָה עִוֶרֶת  — and wouldn’t you know it, Ahava means love, while “Iveret” means skin, what one might call “surface lust”.

Infatuation, lust, passion is more about your ego than the other person. The focus is on what you can get out of the relationship, not what you can give.

The root word for Ahava, [Hey,Vet] הב , the Aramaic meaning of “to give”.

What Quality of Love Do You Seek?

The Jewish notion of love is counter cultural. Counter to all the novels spilling romance, movies that portray “love at first sight” and songs that might even demean a relationship down to its animalistic passions.
Your inclination might tell you something different. Follow your heart in this matter. Listen to your Jewish soul.

 

 

 

 


Elul: The vanity of individualism

 

“..the more enamored we are of our selves, the more fixed we are in our own ‘realities’, limiting the possibilities of our awareness.” Daniel Brown, Harvard clinical psychologist

Our culture is so far deep into self aggrandizement that sometimes we lose awareness of how susceptible to the craziness we’ve become. It takes a lot of mental energy to steer clear of the ego-filled information we hear on a daily basis.

Even if we are not participating, it seeps into us on a deeper level than we might think.

A natural break from the noise

The rhythm of the Jewish calendar offers us a reprieve. As we come into the month of Elul we have breathing space to consider our true selves and who we want to be.

Only when we establish our connection to the Divine and admit our place in the world can we begin to undergo a spiritual reckoning.

In acknowledging The One, we are forced to limit our own deception at being in charge all the time.

Why is this important now?

As we enter the month of Elul, we have an opportunity to straddle time. It is an amazing gift that we have…to simultaneously look back on the past 11 months of the year while preparing ourselves to greet the New Year on Rosh Hashanah.

It is an incredible time for the hard work of honest self-reflection. How can we truly engage in the liturgy of the High Holidays without first asking ourselves the deep questions we need to ask?

What promises did I make last year that were not kept? In what ways did I deepen my connection to loved ones and my community? Did I fulfill my goals for myself? Was I a better person this year than I was last year? Did I deepen my relationship with God? 

Our connection to God

Our tradition says that God is closest to us in this month. The mystical meaning of Elul’s acronym Aleph-Lamed-Vov-Lamed is for “Ani L’dodi, V’dodi Li”, the words meaning “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3).

It is a hesed, kindness from God that there is this closeness because we need the unconditional love of our Creator when we take a hard look at ourselves, without our defenses, without excuses, and with a pure heart to confront our dark side.

Our selfish tendencies

The dark side doesn’t always mean that we sublimate our urge to commit an evil act. After all, how common is it that that we set out to steal or commit a crime?

So we shouldn’t give ourselves credit for not engaging in those behaviors.

The Yetzer HaRa [the Hebrew term for this inclination] can mean our tendency to act in our own self-interest. That is more pernicious and confronts us almost every day. This dark side, our Yetzer HaRa is our ego, is our selfishness that hides right under the surface.

Sleeping late. Making sure that we get the recognition we deserve. Putting off acts of kindness. Constantly checking our “likes” on social media. Honking the horn excessively to rid ourselves of anger. Refusing to apologize properly. Neglecting to show appreciation.

These are all products of our ego.

Taking a habitual approach

It is overwhelming to work on everything about ourselves that we might want to change. Studies about personal change agree that taking on too many changes at once does not increase the chances for success. Nor will it contribute to positive self-esteem (not to be confused with ego).

Thousands of years ago, Rambam wrote about a method for increasing generosity. Briefly, instead of giving one check for $100, he advised to donate $1 a day since in this way, you would be incorporating a new behavior and making it a habit.

Select just one trait of yours to work on. Is it patience? Honesty? Anger?

Then select just one very small behavior change that you will do regularly in order to create a new habit in this month of Elul.

So for example, if you want to work on patience, think of a strategy to employ when you are most likely to lose it. It could be switching your thoughts to gratitude (waiting in line? Be grateful that you are able to purchase the items in your cart).

Are you about to lose your temper with someone you love? Think of your history together and let kindness fill you up instead. Or take a breath. Whatever will work for you.

Allow some time for this

It might take some practice to come up with which trait to focus on and the strategies to use. Be patient with yourself.

If you need help with focusing on what trait to work on, ask loved ones. They’ll usually have no problem offering you some options! It takes guts to do this work. It is not easy.

You also may need ways to remind yourself of the new practices you are undertaking. Try setting up reminders with Siri, Alexa, or some other platform. You can also try post-it notes.

But it will work. Do it regularly and enjoy this wonderful opportunity that Elul affords us to work towards a clean slate with loving acceptance by Hashem.


Postscript: What I described above is the work of Mussar, ancient Jewish practices that work on changing traits, increasing connections with God, and becoming a better person, which I will describe in future posts and perhaps offer in online sessions. 


The Secret Hebrew Meaning of Gratitude

The Joy of Gratitude

Hebrew is a language with deep meanings that go way beyond an outer definition, and to understand foundational concepts, some words are best understood in Hebrew.

Gratitude is one of them.

There are several terms for the experience of being grateful.

Being Aware of the Good

The most common modern Hebrew expression is HaKarat HaTov which exactly means ‘Recognizing the Good’.

So, before you even decide to be grateful, you have to begin to be aware of the good as a necessary first step.

What are you grateful for? You can begin at the source, your very breath, and travel outwards from there—a sense of appreciation for your bodily functions (there are blessings for that) and your health, for your family and friends, for your shelter, for your job/interests/passions—it is an endless list.

Being aware can mean that before you taste that delicious cup of coffee, you spend just a few seconds experiencing a sense of gratitude for all the effort that went into allowing you to take that first sip.

It is an appreciation of the experience beyond the experience.

Many spiritual practices in Judaism begin with the quality of gratitude. Why?

Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice

The expression Hakarat HaTov does not exist in Biblical Hebrew. There, the term for thanksgiving/gratitude is Hodah/Todah/Hoda’ah/Modeh all from the root letters of the word Vov, Daled, Hei. 

The beautiful thing is that this root word means thanksgiving and also to acknowledge, to admit. 

In this way, in order to properly show thanks to someone, you have to first admit that they did something for you. You need to acknowledge that it was not you who caused the thing that you are thankful for, it is them.

Similarly, in thanking God, we admit that we are not the ‘be all and end all’ of our existence. It is God to whom we show appreciation.

This takes a measure of humility. It takes having a certain amount of humility to recognize the many gifts that you enjoy in even a single day, an hour, a moment.

If you try this practice, you might begin to sense that you are occupying a bigger place than the one you’re in. You might become aware that there is a greater Unifier at work here.

You might sneak a peak at a spiritual sense of the universe.

Are you stealing?

Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa, in the Talmud (Berachot 35b) offers strong words for those who go through life without recognizing the good in their lives:

Anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he stole from God and the community of Israel. 

What does a lack of gratitude mean and how are you stealing?

Is it more difficult for thieves to steal from those they know or those they don’t know? Once there is a relationship, how can you deprive that person of something?

Is it not often the case that when a person steals, there is an abject denial of who or what they are stealing from? It is this denial that allows them to engage in stealing over and over again.

When you acknowledge the source of your blessings, you can’t be stealing.

And once you are aware of God in the world, how can you ignore the gifts you’ve been given?

Having a sense of this appreciation and gratitude is so important that it is considered foundational to our sages.

This is one quality that will remain

“…In the time to come………..all prayers will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled. Vayikra Rabbah 9:7


Are you afraid that Klal Yisrael will disappear?

Will our connections with each other slowly melt away?

Clearly, we are not paying attention

Or taking advantage of obvious opportunities.

One would think that the pandemic would have caused us to do some deep thinking about our communal future as Jews.

No matter what theological differences there are among us (and no doubt there are many), what we can all agree on is that Judaism will be forever changed. Our isolation from each other, more acute now, exacerbates the reality that there is not even a faint desire to come together to discuss this from the vantage point of Klal Yisrael, the entire Jewish people.

Yet, for the first time in history, the worldwide Jewish community is facing similar struggles:

When and how will we gather? What will the ‘new normal’ look like? What will take the place of large communal gatherings? What will become of the large-scale conferences that brought many different constituencies together? How will the leadership of Jewish organizations change?  

Has there been any communication between the major movements to work towards a sense of unity and purpose?

How can we even engage in this process when we communicate by megaphone?

Megaphones blast one-way messages. No dialogue, no discussion, and certainly no enlightenment.

As a Jewish people, we are missing the message that we were clearly given thousands of years ago.

Tisha B’Av was just last week. What we learn from this designated day of communal mourning is that the Second Temple fell due to ‘baseless hatred’ (sinat chinam) between Jews. 

Although we do not actually say “I hate you” to their faces, we act that way against groups of Jews who hold different opinions and behave differently than we do.

At first we shake our heads in disbelief, making snide jokes.

We judge. We criticize. We hate in our hearts.

This creates even more distance from each other than before.

The irony is that most who actually observe Tisha B’Av seem numb to its message. Often there is more hatred and non-acceptance from that side toward fellow Jews who don’t observe in their accepted manner.

But we are all guilty of accepting the status quo with each other. With no immediate threat we have resorted to functioning this way.

I question how much we feel connected with each other as fellow Jews, as part of the same people. Is there such a thing that we recognize today as Am Yisrael —the people of Israel, i.e. peoplehood? Is there meaning when we utter B’nai Yisrael (Children of Israel) in prayers and blessings?

For sure, there are many pressing and urgent needs that have to be tended to in each separate Jewish community that take time and energy to resolve. We cannot solely exist in our enclave-like comfort zones, resigned to seeing ourselves as separate.

And even though we might be connecting with fellow Jews from areas far and wide on our little screens, the conversations and issues are not centered around our overall unity.

So much of our regular lives have been on pause which gives us the unique opportunity to think deeply about some larger questions.

Is there a way to get back the feeling that we all belong to the larger Jewish community—Klal Yisrael? How do we begin to reconstruct the feelings if oneness that have been absent for a long time? Is there any way that Jews of different religious leanings can come together? Can we even agree that this is a core value?

We are living links in a chain. That’s how we are described in our Torah and by others who are not Jewish at all.

We will need to give up our megaphones in favor of dialogue. We need to be vulnerable and expose our deep need for each other, as a step toward fulfilling a dream that is part of our history, culture, and liturgy.

If our participation in Jewish communal life is limited to only seeing to short-term problems, we are abandoning the hope of unity that is core to our existence as a people.

Just as we need to reconfigure Judaism in new ways, may we all be able to be open to each other and create new paths of peace.

P’tach Libi b’toratechcha. Open my heart to Your teachings.

 


Questioning the boon of Zoom Judaism

In my memory, there has never been so much Jewish content available online, for free. Podcasts, interviews, seminars, webinars, zoom rooms, concerts, and lectures (did I cover everything?) are just a click away. Many synagogues are successfully navigating uncharted waters by developing engaging online content. Others are still struggling with the technological challenges.

The big question is whether this new mode of participating in Jewish content will take up residence in our future, and if so, will connections with our on-screen communities supersede those IRL (in real life?).

This issue has come up often in online conversations with friends. Helene and I discussed this in an email exchange and I could sense her passion about this issue so I invited her to be a guest blogger.

Why renew your synagogue membership?

by Helene Geiger

I have a friend who has been spending his Quarantine touring virtual services around the world. He often tells me all the different ways that our Temple’s minyans and shabbat services fall short, when compared to the production values at (fill in the blank: Central Synagogue/White Plains/Park Avenue/Wilshire Blvd/etc etc).  It’s almost to the point where he’ll link into one location for Lcha Dodi, and a different one for Yigdal.

He also tells me that he is currently questioning the value of his synagogue membership. “Because of Covid, I won’t even get my High Holiday seats this year,” he complains.

True. But surely he’s missing the point. Because joining a synagogue is more than finding a place to daven – it’s about being part of a community. And in this time of Covid, the value of community has never been so evident.  In fact, in this time when so many of us feel isolated far away from friends and families, our local synagogue community has stepped up – creating new opportunities to come together virtually, to connect on a human-to-human level.

As my friend sees it, a synagogue is just one more URL competing for his business. And all he is doing is comparison shopping – looking for the very best available singing and oratory on the market. But to my mind, he’s using the wrong metric to measure “quality”. Surely there is a value to truly belonging. And surely you are kidding yourself if you think you “belong” to is a place that doesn’t know you & doesn’t particularly want to know you. If all you are doing is streaming – you can watch, but they’ve muted your audio, your video, and also your soul.

Covid has caused all of us to distance physically.  But socially, our local synagogue is more connected than ever. Zoom into our services, book clubs, learning programs, volunteer committees – and you won’t be anonymous. Participate, chat, ask questions – this is your chance to get known by other congregants whom you might never have met before. They’re zoomed-in because they want to connect, eager to catch up with old friends and build new relationships, as well.  And because you are part of their community, they are eager to get to know you, eager to play Jewish Geography with you, and eager to share their experiences/knowhow/resources with you, too.

Why am I renewing my synagogue membership this year? Because my synagogue is my community. It’s where I am valued. It’s where I connect. And it’s where I belong, in the truest sense of the word.



 


Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically

Remaining in Focus

What many of us strive for in life is achieving personal integrity, a state of being when our ‘inside’ motivation matches our ‘outside’ behavior.

Ideally, our actions should reflect who we (really) are. We don’t just want to believe that we’re honest, we want to act in ways that are honest, a perfect match-up of our intentions and behaviors. Don’t be deceived; this sounds relatively easy but is in fact very difficult.

It is just as challenging for businesses and organizations to hold a high ethical standard.

Accountability

Years ago a new field emerged called ‘corporate responsibility’. It was the very beginning of companies making an effort to conduct business honorably.

No longer can companies quietly go about the dirty business of polluting the environment, paying unfair wages, and not treating employees equitably. At least not without negative social consequences and losses of revenue. To a large extent, social media sees to that. However, even more now than before, it seems that there is still a long way to go.

In the last weeks, we’ve seen that even organizations who promise to uphold the highest ideals of communal values of fairness fall short. As a society, it is challenging to change stubborn and hateful behavior.

What about Jewish organizations?

But should we not hold smaller organizations, those with an especially narrow focus, to the same standard? After all, relationships with employees and constituents are more regular and frequent.

In the current economic climate however, as organizations might need to downsize, it is even more important not to compromise on these values. People are more vulnerable in so many ways and the more expedient way is not the most sensitive.

The Torah provides a foundation for how employees should be treated and laws are expounded in the Talmud regarding specific challenging situations and additional pressures.

This information would ideally inform decisions and interactions so that the values of a religious organization should live up to its potential as a model of ethical behavior.

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz states in Judaism and Justice: the Jewish Passion to Repair the World that there are two principles in operation regarding Jewish behavior.

Jews are driven by their twin impulses to survive as a people (Exodus) and to help the world be ordered in accordance with a higher moral standard (Sinai).”

Expanding on this concept, Jewish organizations need to survive in order to fulfill their ultimate mission of bringing the ethical teachings of Torah out into the world. But not at the cost of compromising its own behavior.

Leadership in a stressful time

The challenges facing the Jewish community now are perhaps more acute than ever and as a result, we need to be aware of ethical breaches and inconsistencies and expect more of our organizational leaders.

This pursuit of ethical excellence is discussed widely in the Talmud as well as the intimate relationship between character, leadership, and community. In Arachim (17a) our sages note:

“One said: According to the leader, so the generation. The other said: According to the generation, so the leader.”

We are ultimately accountable. Our leaders need to hold us to a higher standard, but they too are products of our culture. Our culture seems to value the development of our outsides (material gains) in favor of focusing on our insides (ethical and spiritual development). Organizations have often conducted themselves similarly, prioritizing  external goals (a new building, more members) over those that are less tangible (meaningful experiences, membership connections).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in the Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership  states that “Leaders must be relentless learners and believe in the people they lead”.

Leaders must be open to change and in so doing, model that for others.

Yes, these are extremely challenging times. Organizations need to work extremely hard with minimal resources to reconfigure themselves in the (God-willing) post-pandemic world.

We can weather this storm but in order to do so ethically, we need to uphold our values.

 


If Covid-19 is a test, are we passing?

 

 

What if God is waiting for us to cry out? What if all we need to do is to cry out in despair, as Abraham did thousands of years ago?

חָלִ֨לָה לְּךָ֜ מֵעֲשֹׂ֣ת ׀ כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה לְהָמִ֤ית צַדִּיק֙ עִם־רָשָׁ֔ע וְהָיָ֥ה כַצַּדִּ֖יק כָּרָשָׁ֑ע חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט׃

“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Genesis 18:25

There is something so biblical about what is occurring now. In addition to all our challenges with dealing with Covid-19, yesterday I heard that there is a swarm of ‘murder hornets’ headed this way.

Is this not plague-like?

Where are the masses of us turning towards God, pleading for a respite from this horror?

But, instead of unifying ourselves during this pandemic challenge, it has created divisions among us.

For me, it has been an impossible challenge to be tolerant of my own people who defy orders of social distancing and as a result, put others at risk at a funeral. And again….for a second time! ?

So, I need to do soul searching, to find that place that allows the anger to wash over me, and try, hard as it is, to put myself in someone else’s place.

I need to do that with many things these days.

If I remain angry, then what have I learned from our history if not to work at being tolerant?

For us as Jews, this is a unique obstacle that has had devastating consequences.

Baseless hatred, known in Hebrew as Sinat Hinam, was what the sages blamed for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. This was considered even worse than the three most egregious sins: forbidden sexual relations, idol worship and bloodshed.

It sounds so ancient….the destruction of the Second Temple…but what I often forget is that this was the total eradication of everything we had known as a people up to that point. Our way of connecting with God. The rhythm of life that brought us together as a people at least three times a year. Even our societal systems. It all needed to be different.

Yet, there was recovery.

So many times after destruction there was hope.

We already have learned so much about ourselves: both our generosity and our selfishness.

It is so hard, but we need to find a way to strengthen our ties and not dissipate them.

Perhaps in these times each stream of Judaism needs to do the impossible—-to overcome the historic challenges that have separated us and rely on what is at our core as a people, our connection to the One.

If we are undergoing a test of our resilience, it means that we have to cultivate our ability to act humanely in the face of adversity, care for each other in new ways, and strengthen our own communities and the world in new and uncharted ways.

 

 


The Old Testament is not my Bible

 

 

 

Torah is a living entity in my life and is an endless and forever Giving-Tree.

It is this imagery that captures me when we lift the Torah and say “Etz Chayim Hee LaMahazikim Ba” (It is a Tree of Life When You Hold It Close (my own translation).

On so many levels, the Torah informs me about how to live a life with more humility, with more honor towards others, with an appreciation for the Creator.

So, I have a visceral response when I hear the words describing the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament.

And really, until now, I did not really own up to how much this description bothers me.

Though I am offended, I realize most people do not take this as seriously as I do, or are even aware that when they use that term, a judgment has been made.

It is especially when fellow Jews use the term to describe our Bible that I can’t help but feel a little bit of my insides wince. Ouch.

I am not sure why Jews are comfortable saying this term.

For zillions, it seems perfectly fine to refer to the Hebrew Bible as “Old”.

According to Google’s first search results, “Old” means a. having lived for a long time; no longer young, or b. belonging only or chiefly to the past; former or previous. Some of the synonyms offered for this are: bygone, past, former, olden, of old, previous. 

Quite the opposite image of a living Torah. A Tree of Life does not wither, become bygone, or old.

When talking to Christian folks about religious matters, I tend to be forgiving, knowing that their entire faith rests on the “New” Testament, which for them, supplanted the old.

I choose not to correct their usage of the word, but in my references to Torah I use the term “Hebrew Bible”.

Even Dictionary.com offers this more honest explanation of the word “Old Testament”

1. the first of the two main divisions of the Christian Bible, comprising the Law, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa. In the Vulgate translation all but two books of the Apocrypha are included in the Old Testament.
2. this testament considered as the complete Bible of the Jews.

But in truth, is it not obvious to any one of the Christian faith that saying “Old Testament” negates an entire belief system, while I am respectful of theirs? Does this come with the territory of being a minority? Do we need to always be on the defensive?

After all, what’s the big deal, you ask? Well, there are so many reasons why I find this term offensive.

  1. The term “old” is comparative and relative, that is, “old” compared to what?
  2. Who exactly is the arbiter here of what is “old” and what is “new”? Why do I need to accept someone else’s label?
  3. The word old, in Western cultures, holds negative associations (why use or buy something “old”, when “new” is young, improved and trendy?
  4. The term used by a people for their holy texts should be the one that others use as well. How is it acceptable that one faith decides to create their own term for my holy text, which by its very meaning, puts it aside, rejecting it as “old”.
  5. Can you think of any other example in Western culture where one faith’s holy text is renamed in this way? Is there a pejorative name that is used when referring to the Qur’an for example?
The world of Biblical scholarship, from what I understand, is moving away from employing this term. I’ve yet to see a huge difference.
I hope as Jews, we can be way ahead of that curve. I hope we can begin to assert ourselves and our heritage by using our name for our treasured teachings.

 

 

 


Passover and gratitude in the days of covid19

 

Podcasts. Virtual tours. Songs. Make-Your-Own-Haggadah. There is an endless array of information and resources about how to celebrate Passover while ‘sheltering-in-place’.

Everyday, more information floods my inbox with advice and tips about how to make adaptations so this Passover-in-isolation does not feel so isolating. I often feel that I am drowning from the overload. Every time I open another suggestion or click on another link I am reminded that this Passover, I will be away from family. So now, I am ignoring what might be wonderful suggestions.

I am not ungrateful though. So many people have put a great deal of effort into this outreach and I am really so appreciative. I understand that it is not smart to bypass the opportunity to provide options that can fit into all types of observances.

After all, Passover is one of the most celebrated holidays and this alone helps me feel like we’re all a big family just trying to get through this period of time together.

And yet, if I am honest with myself, my response to these offerings seems selfish and indulgent when I think about my mother z”l, and how she must have had to observe Passover while in hiding, with death always around the corner. Thankfully, I am not living in that nightmare.

So, despite the barrage of exciting and new ways people can celebrate while ‘sheltering-in-place’ I think I will need to work harder to arrive at a better state of mind.

One small thing I am doing to switch around my perspective is to practice gratitude. There is much to be grateful for, and the list becomes endless when I begin at the source—being grateful for the gift of breath.

Once I begin there, I experience an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the gifts I have been given. Working my way through my limbs, my living situation, and then to my family and friends, the anxiety and fear seem to dissipate.

I try to stay focused in the present and not go to places in the future that I can’t control and are too dark for me to imagine.

I also remind myself that my breath, Neshimah in Hebrew, is connected to my soul, Neshamah.

It takes patience to rewire my brain but whenever I get into that place, the place of appreciation….some of the worry fades.

With all that is swirling around us, it helps me to just focus on the very gift of life that I’ve been given.

We can feel for others who have lost loved ones, feel deep appreciation for those who are on the front lines helping us get through this, and yet be appreciative for our ability to arise each morning.

Elohai Neshama she natata bi, tehora hi

My Creator, the soul that you have given me is pure.

Modeh Ani Lefanecha.

I am grateful before You.

May you have a healthy and safe Passover.

 

For previous posts on Passover, you can click on the links below.

Passover seems to awaken my creative spirit and as a result, I’ve written quite a few posts about Passover, like how to create a memorable Passover experience, how to make the seder ‘teen-friendly’ how to approach Passover like a teacher, and even how to avoid the typical stereotypes about Passover.


Yom Kippur Juxtapositions

How can I reach the heavens when all I can think of is that I need some caffeine?

Yom Kippur heightens the juxtaposition between the holy and the mundane. It is a day when we suspend our daily functions (e.g. eating, bathing) in order to help us reach a higher, less base level of existence. Those unfamiliar with the rites of the holiday often focus on the strange edict of fasting as some type of divine punishment, some way of beating us into submission. Others see it as it is intended, as an opportunity for us, for just one 25 hour period, to transcend our animal instincts.

The challenge of Yom Kippur for me is putting all my effort into staying in the world of the holy, paying attention to my soul’s yearning for Divine inspiration and not getting pulled into the forces of my ego-self. The self who is absorbed with what I need to do, what I think about things, what I will do next. Almost every few minutes, countless temptations attract my baser self. Remaining in a higher realm all day is really, really hard work, and more difficult than one might imagine.

Forcing myself to focus in on the liturgy and not have my mind stray is a persistent challenge (uh oh, I forgot to make an appointment for the oil change……..did I send out that email?…..how long will we be standing? I should have brought a sweater…..).

Another challenge is not veering off into the land of judgement. How can I do that on this auspicious day? Yet, I need to continually refrain from seemingly harmless thoughts that are, in fact, evaluative (why are people talking during the service? I can’t believe I just heard someone’s cell phone go off…..Why doesn’t the cantor sing melodies I’m familiar with?…).   

The hardest part is realizing that even in this battle I wage to stay in the purest of realms, God is aware of it all—and that thought fills me with dread. I am not reaching my highest potential, I am not measuring up. I am falling short.

Yet, it is God who created my conscience (Psalm 139:13) and often is my higher self that realizes exactly when I am being petty, when I’m being judgmental, and when I am not acting in a God-like manner.

My effort to polish my soul, to continually strive to be my best self is that place in me where God resides. Despite my failings, God has put faith in me that I will be able to change, to be a better person.

“God, you have examined me and You know me” (Psalm 139:1).

God is the still, small voice in me that urges me on, the One who is my cheerleader, who believes that I will live up to being B’tzelem Elohim, created in God’s image. I will steadfastly work on changing the behaviors I know I need to, hoping that God will continue to have patience with me.

May God grant us the opportunity to live lives of honor, in recognition of the Divine gift of life, and not stray from our obligation to honor others.


The Fruitless Pursuit of Organizational Self-Interest

Are you only seeing yourself?

I am amazed at the ingenuity of companies borne from the vision of a shared economy. Homes, cars, clothes, specialized equipment, bicycles and toys are just a few of the possessions that have morphed from sole ownership to group use.  In the recent past, it was unthinkable for us to share our homes with strangers who were just ‘travelling through’.

Just a decade ago, Microsoft’s proprietary encyclopedic platform called “Encarta”  tanked, superseded by the open-sourced Wikipedia (tagline free encyclopedia).  My family members would make fun of me when I quoted  my source as Wikipedia (others also thought to make fun, see here ). Now it is a respected resource on the web.

Open source has won out and collaboration is the preferred business model. Are we learning from this?

Organizations benefit from participating in a shared economy. A true approach would not be the result of the latest round of downsizing, or mergers….cost saving measures that don’t speak to an organic strategy. The culture that spawns innovation is different.

Organizations need to begin to think about their success in terms of others’ successes.

About a year ago, I was invited to a “Bring Your Parents To Work Day” at Amazon, and was treated to a day-long experience of multiple educational workshops in which representatives of various divisions shared the mission and passion of Amazon. Among other ideas, what sticks with me is how open the company is to collaboration with their customers and even with their competitors.

For sure, companies and organizations need to perpetuate themselves, but even Amazon’s Founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos said “One day Amazon will fail” however employees need to postpone that eventuality by “obsessing over customers” and not worrying about its own survival: “If we start to focus on ourselves, instead of focusing on our customers, that will be the beginning of the end…..we have to try and delay that day for as long as possible.”

Even Apple has ventured into these waters. CEO Tim Cook speaks about the key traits of employees who are oriented to collaboration and not attached to personal recognition. (For sure, there is still a long way to go, even there).

I would love to see more examples in the Jewish community of true collaborative models. Often, there is a tendency to put up even more barriers, in an attempt to save whatever constituencies there are from falling away. I often have a hard time making distinctions between the nuanced missions of organizations who seem to have similar goals.

It just makes sense, in an era of diminishing resources, to be nimble and humble enough to actively seek partnerships. The willingness to share derives from an organizational culture that supports it, not as puffy words in a mission statement, but as a core part of the organization’s strategy and direction. Not simply as a survival mechanism, but because working together ultimately makes the most sense. Rather than duplicating resources, organizations can exponentially expand their reach if they buddy-up.

This take more up-front work, more of a focus on long term vision than short terms gains.  This concept is already noted in our tradition:

“One time I was walking along the path, and I saw a young boy sitting at the crossroads. And I said to him: On which path shall we we walk in order to get to the city? He said to me: ‘This path is short and long, and that path is long and short.” Talmud Eruvin 53b

Meaning, sometimes the most expedient way takes more up front time and effort. Ultimately, the choice is ours.
Do we want to take shortcuts that might put the goal even further away? Do we focus on the here an now, the short-term results and worry about the consequences later? Do we busy ourselves with the everyday so we can’t focus on strategies that make sense for the long-term?
We need to take the longer road, but doing that takes patience and commitment. It also assures us that we will arrive where we want to and be successful once we get there.

Shavuot: reminding me of who I need to be

It is hard for me to personalize Shavuot, though I know there is great spiritual meaning to be found within it.

Shavuot is one of the three major holidays named in the Bible.  As such, there is special designation as one of the Shalosh Regalim (literally three legs–meaning pilgrimage festivals). Then, it was a time of a huge in-gathering of the Jewish people who trekked to Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest. In later rabbinic times, Shavuot was designated as the time of the giving of the Torah.

Important, right?

But, embedded within the two other holidays, Passover and Sukkot, there are tools that help me imagine as if I was truly there. In the Haggadah, phrasing like “Avadim Hayinu” (we were slaves) helps me get back to that time of bitter slavery. The salt water, the charoset, the naming of the plagues…all those are brilliant memory instigators that tend to stick. The sukkah that my husband builds and we eat in during Sukkot is a substantial trigger of transport, to what it was like being in the desert and living out in the fields. The lulav and etrog are physical reminisces of the harvest.

Those are palpable reminders that help me take a journey back into my imagination, to a different time, and allows me to think of myself as part of a larger picture. Shavuot has no such tools for me.

“What about the Omer you say? Isn’t that tangible?” Right, yes, the counting of the Omer, sefirat haOmer, is a concrete way for me to bridge Pesach and Shavuot (the counting begins on the second night of the Seder until day 50, Shavuot), and offers me a spiritual time of introspection and momentum-building.

But yet, I am searching for a ritual that has some heft to it, and not the kind you get from eating cheesecake and dairy foods.

Shavuot is a much harder holiday to grab onto, and there are no built in ‘bells and whistles’ to easily awaken us to the grandeur of the experience. Shavuot demands something much more difficult and in some ways, more subtle.

We commonly refer to the chag as commemorating an event, the giving of the Torah, but we are discouraged from thinking of it as a one-time event. Instead, it is what we try to commemorate everyday as a constant unfolding of the Torah’s principles and teachings within our lives, as we commit to live by it everyday. Truly, it is an overwhelmingly awesome holiday.

In opposite ways, the desert and the fields during harvest were times of intensity, and brought us together as a people in distinctive ways that we get to revisit every Passover and Sukkot. But I need a way to bring me back to the time when I was part of that nation standing before Sinai….a nation, a people. A people united in spirit. With a message to offer that emanated from the charge to live life in an elevated way. To be holy. To strive to be something better. I need to experience that.

As a people, we face the experience of the Torah alone, but together. Each person is a witness of themselves, and what they know to be a higher standard of behavior.  But we are also responsible for one another. In these times, simply regarding our own journeys does not serve us as a people, and today, that might seem more challenging than ever.

We can not only ask “How do I measure up?” but “how do we measure up as a people?”

I need to regard myself as part of a people on a regular basis. I need to speak up when we are not living our highest ideals, even when it is difficult to do so; to put myself and my opinions ‘out there’. I need to be a participant and not a spectator.

Perhaps this Shavuot we will inch a little closer to the realization that Am Yisrael Echad, the people of Israel are one.

May you experience the blessings that Shavuot offers us.

 

 


When “Never Again” becomes “Yet Again”

Yet Again?

This piece in The Hill, written by Rabbi Steinmetz, senior rabbi at Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun and editor-at-large at J’accuse Coalition for Justice is a well-expressed post about our inability to respond properly as a Jewish community to recent tragic murders. These are heart-wrenching tragedies borne of the oldest hatred, Antisemitism. Please click here to read the post and be informed. Comments welcomed.