Category Archives: Jewish Community

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.


Purim and Personal Responsibility

This Purim, start a chain reaction against Hatred and Antisemitism

 

When did you need to step up or speak up in your life? Were there opportunities you missed? Hatred and Antisemitism begin with words…..we read this, in the Megillah, the scroll we read on Purim:

“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” Esther 3:8 

That’s it. A people who are set apart, with different laws. Different practices. That’s enough to set things off. It’s reason enough it seems, to murder people.

“Accordingly, written instructions were dispatched by couriers to all the king’s provinces to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—and to plunder their possessions.” Esther, 3:13 

So, if there is one thing you might want to commit to this Purim, in addition to four mitzvot of Purim, of hearing the Megillah, eating a festive meal, sharing gifts of food, giving food to the poor, it might be doing one small thing to helping get rid of Hate. How? It’s an overwhelming problem, but it can start by being kind to a stranger, speaking up when you see injustice, writing an op-ed about the hatred you see around you, donating to an organization committed to ending Hatred and Antisemitism, signing a petition, and taking your place as a person with the right to speak up.

“When the storm passes the wicked are gone, but the righteous are an everlasting foundation.” Proverbs 10:25 (edited for gender)

To see my source sheet with more questions and texts, click here and you’ll be taken to Sefaria.org


Antisemitism, BDS, and the fight for justice

This new non-profit organization hopes to bring these issues to the forefront. Please read an excerpt from its website below:

jaccuse

“Antisemitism is on the rise, from all sides of the political spectrum.

In some cases, bigots are straightforward in their disdain for Jews, likening them to termites or mowing them down in a house of prayer.

In others, they mask their own discrimination, cynically claiming the banner of human rights. They use exaggerated criticism of Israel as an excuse to bully, ostracize, and silence both Jews and their nation state. Lacking adequate counterweight, the world increasingly views Israel through a morally relativist or plainly antagonistic lens…read more here


Bringing God Home from Jewish Summer Camp

leaf

Take a moment to truly see

Jewish summer camp was an incredible oasis where I received daily doses of spiritual inspiration. At 10 years old though, my first summer at camp was more of an annoyance. There was too much praying and too much Hebrew. I didn’t understand why there were  classes at camp, after all, it was supposed to be a fun place. Looking back, why wasn’t I suspicious that the What to Take to Camp list included a Bible?

It took a few summers before the rhythm of the summer’s spiritual essence took hold of me.  The experience was so compelling that I craved it every summer season, participating first as a camper and then in successive staff positions, which took me through my college years and way beyond. Although almost two decades have passed since then, I still can conjure up memories of those times in an instant.

I told my adult friends that the summers were like an inoculation against Jewish apathy; an injection of Judaism that carried me through an entire year’s worth of holidays, services, and events that paled in comparison to the energy and exuberance of living Jewish at camp.  My beloved suburban friends couldn’t understand my desire for the hang-my-towel-on-a-rusty-nail experience. No air conditioning, worn out mattresses, and splintered floors  were a small price to pay for the inner peace and joy I felt immersing myself in the waters of Torah and learning.

There were speakers, experiences, texts, and interpretations in abundance, and there was no end to what I could learn. I filled myself up from the constant buffet of knowledge from visiting scholars, teachers, Israeli staff, and resident educators.  I spent 9 weeks during the summer as an active member of a vibrant and observant Jewish community–something that I have yet to experience in a sustaining way. I felt God’s presence all the time, in the prayers, in the natural setting, in the deep discussions,  and in the special sweetness that appears when a community comes together.

As those days came to an end in my adult years, I wondered how I would ever feel that way again. Where would I experience God now? How could I possibly recreate that exquisite sense of overwhelming quiet that prompted my new spiritual awareness? There, you feel God’s presence….you can’t help it. You are primed for it. Those starry nights were a Hollywood-like backdrop for thinking deep and spiritual thoughts.

I realize now how much that immersive experience contributed to my life as a practicing Jew and when I started to think about camp’s overall impact on me, it brought me to wonder once I put those years behind me, how I ever made the transition from being ‘there’, in a spiritually charged place, to being ‘here’. I needed to discover what it meant to seek out my connection with God and figure out how to make those feelings easier to grab onto.

Well, I did eventually figure it out. I brought God back home with me. I do remember that I decided that it was up to me to bring God into my life. I would no longer depend on what the outer environment offered me. I need to be in charge of my own experience….and I could alter my perception of things. I could capture moments of awe. It is all accessible to me, every single day. It just took looking and seeing beyond the surface. I would be able to see the Holy One’s work in a pebble, in a leaf, in a daffodil. I was responsible for how spiritual I felt, not camp.

So, now I have teary, heart-to-heart conversations with the One Above, the One who is everywhere. In my car. In my quiet times. Sometimes in the emerging light of the dawn and more often, in the darkness of night. And at those blissful times, as more and more of them fill my day, I thank The Holy One of Being for Being.

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Post Note:

I was fortunate to attend many of the Ramah camps as a camper, teacher, staff counselor, and Assistant Director.  The ones I attended—one of which no longer exists—-included those in New York (Nyack, Glen Spey, Berkshires), Massachusetts ( Palmer) and Pennsylvania (the Poconos).

Related posts: 

Parents: Don’t let summer choices drive you crazy

Seven Things to Do When Teens Come Home from Jewish Summer Camp