Category Archives: Religion

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.

 

 


Care for Your Soul

green leaf plant palm

How are you tending to your soul?

“People are such perfectionists when it comes to clothing their bodies. Are they so particular with the needs of their soul?”  Sara Schneirer (1890-1935).

Your soul is not separate from you, it is you. Everything you do makes a mark on your being. Your very presence is a gift from God. How are you caring for yourself? How are you tending to your soul?


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


There’s no secret sauce: we already know the recipe for Jewish engagement

pexels.elephant-trunk-hand

          How many ants does it take to move an elephant?

That’s what the traditionally bureaucratic Jewish community feels like to me sometimes, like ants trying to move an elephant. No matter how many ants you have, there won’t be any way to move that elephant unless you think about other ways of tackling the problem. Similarly, some Jewish organizations are adding more and more to their offerings (more ants) but not really tackling the issue of increasing Jewish engagement in different ways. Many have written about this, most recently, Ron Wolfson in “It’s About People, Not Programs.” 

There are all sorts of traditional tactics that different organizations use….from offers of ‘free’ programs to urgent requests to sign this petition or that (they even provide the pen), to guilt-laden messages like ‘if you just cared a little bit…’.  And then there are the organizations that use fear. They report some of the worst anti-semitic attacks from the past year, complete with the horrid pictures, and also offer statistics about assimilation. As if it is not hard enough to read headlines about hatred just once,  these are delivered into my mailbox, just for me.  I recently read yet another mood-boosting online article:  “A Bleak View of American Jewry” 

The fact is, I care a lot about the future of the Jewish community, so I need to know that the elephant can, in fact, move. So, wouldn’t it be wonderful to read, just now and then, about stories of success? There are many good ones out there. How did you engage people in your efforts? Tell me some stories, we love stories.

I’m lucky, in my work, to hear moving experiences almost every single day. I hear from people who have been touched in a deep way and it has brought them closer to their faith, their families, and places of worship. I will make a commitment to myself to write about that more. I know that being in fellowship changes people. It’s a slow and steady process of relationship building that bears the sweetest and juiciest fruit.

A Chabad Rabbi said it so simply. When asked what his techniques were for engaging so many young students Rabbi Yosef Kulek, at the University of Hartford, summed up Chabad’s approach and success in one word: Love (a dose of great marketing doesn’t hurt). “I know that sounds cliché but it’s really true,” he said.

Chabad has expanded its reach by 500 percent over the span of 15 years. Since 2000, their presence on campus has increased from less than 30 to over 198 today. Yes, growth in the Jewish community.

Unfortunately, there’s no short-cut for the kind of persistent and loving approach that is needed to engage people in a tradition that is overflowing with richness and beauty. Relationship building takes an enormous amount of time, and doesn’t show up in data on how many followers an organization has, how many posts were Favorited, or how many clicks per view a website link got.

It’s about a whole lot of attention and love. That’s what I think will move the elephant.

pexels-elephant sunrays.

 

 

 

 


Questions and a Meditation Before Yom Kippur

 

“…and after the earthquake a fire; but The One was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice….” Kings I 19:12

Am I coming to face the Divine with a polished soul, cleansed from sins I tossed into the living waters?

For the past ten days, between Tishrei 1 and Tishrei 10….did I fully use the opportunities I had to correct myself?

How can I possibly achieve the mountain of individual work I know I need to do knowing my limitations?

Yet, how can I approach the Holy One unless I truly own the fact that, created B’tzelem Elohim, I hold the Divine in me?

The still small voice in me, how can I honor that voice?

What behaviors can I commit to, what promises can I make to the Divine, that will honor others as Holy Souls of The One?

How can I make sure to live every moment in its purity with gratitude to my Creator?

How can I make sure that “Lo BaShamayim Hi” also means that everyday, in my heart, I remember my vows to The Blessed One?

What can I do to make this fast, this year, at this time, different from others?

A Yom Kippur Meditation

Draw yourself into the present moment, letting all thoughts slowly fade….

Notice your breath. Breathe in very slowly……………..breathe out even more slowly…

Take another breath this way……….Focus on the movement of your chest, your belly as you breathe…

Let go of any tightness, relax all parts of your body as you feel a lightness of being…….

You are in the present moment. You are a Holy Soul, B’tzelem Elokim…

Your soul is pure. Your soul is tehora.

Elokai Neshama she’Natati-bi Tehora-hi. My God, the soul that you gifted me with inside, is pure.

As you take your next breath, imagine a pure, blue-white lightness filling your soul, filling your entire body, radiating outward from you to the universe…

Begin to feel very light as your essence is not longer separate from that around you….

You are approaching the Holy One as this essence…..

The feeling of attachment is strong…you are part of the One and you are Loved by One Who Loves All….

You are unique. Your purpose here is yours. You bring lightness to the world that is your own….

Your presence is a wonder….

You are filled with gratitude…

The gratitude you feel flows freely from you and will, with the help of The One, envelope others in this bright, New Year….

You are in this place, this Makom, and in the world’s place.

 


What do you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 

thou shalt not.jpg

We live in a visual world, right? So why not go with that? My morning commute is peppered with the various church signs I pass on my way to work. I wonder who actually writes these pithy things.  Is there a team of writers in a back room somewhere brainstorming a year’s worth of compelling sayings to post outside on the church lawn? Do they mail a smattering of weekly messages to the church elders who get to select which ones to post on their outdoor billboard sign? Seriously, who writes these? I smile as I drive by signs like “Yes, We’re Open Between Christmas and Easter”, “Home Improvement Needed? Bring Your Family Here”, and “What’s Missing Here? Ch….Ch. UR!”.

Signs like these are old buddies, enticing you in, knowing your faults but pretty much accepting you as you are. “Haven’t been here for a while? Don’t worry, c’mon in, you’re good here.” “Having a bad day? I can relate. Stop by”. The welcoming spirit is what these churches advertise, it’s what they’re about, and they know it, and they’re just waiting for you to come around.  Take a peek at these church signs which are so engaging to read.

Not so with the synagogues I see. When I Googled (in images) ‘synagogue signs’ not a one made me chuckle. They were all quite boring, actually. Not exactly like a beckoning buddy, but an authority figure; more staid, formal, and reserved–and sometimes even indifferent: “Here’s our name. Isn’t that enough?”. “Here’s a list of services and times.”

Am I wrong? Sometimes you can’t even tell it’s a synagogue that you’re passing by  –fear of ensuing graffiti? Attacks? Perhaps. On the whole, synagogue signs don’t accuse you for not believing, cajole you to enter the sacred space, or even seem to welcome you in. Lack of judgement can often substitute for apathy. Okay I’ll admit, there might be some signs that say “Welcome”, fine. But sometimes being so mild-mannered can be construed as disinterest. We all know that person who doesn’t want to ‘intrude’ in our lives by asking us questions, but to us, it just feels as if the person can’t be bothered.

What I do see sometimes are program announcements on billboards: “Rockin’ Shabbat”, “Shabbat Under the Stars” and once I even saw an audacious sign that proclaimed:  “A Synagogue You Can Believe In”.  Take that one in and let its spiritually arrogant message sink in. It’s revealing that the sign is about the building. Really? I’m going to join because of that? What exactly are synagogues of today offering? The most common thing I see on signs is the word “Free”. If a consumer message is what is displayed, what else would someone think about?

Why should the synagogue downplay its message? Are we that insecure about our spiritual lives? Perhaps we’re not as clear as we think about who we are and what we communicate to the outside world. So, what would you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 


What I Learned About Leadership From An Evangelical Minister

lessons-learned

Here’s what I learned about engaging lay people from an Evangelical minister during a holiday dinner party: a faith community’s goals should be reflected in its paths toward leadership.

Last week I sat diagonally across an intense yet energetic, full-of-spirit kind of guy who gives greatly of his time in his church, and who has subsequently become a minister. In that role, he leads study groups and connects closely with church members, taking on their stories and their pain, and in the process, connects them to their faith on a very personal level. The group studies scripture, but the group isn’t just about studying. Teachings are put into practice right then and there.

One of the members of the group said an elderly woman in the parish didn’t have enough money to pay her heating bill. In very short time, group members found the funds for her, paying her electric bill for the winter. I asked if anyone informed the priest, to see if there was a pathway for things like this to ‘bubble up’ to that level. “No,” he quickly responded, “there was no need, this was within our ability to do, and we took care of it quietly”. I didn’t need to ask for elaboration, what he didn’t say filled a huge space. This was true leadership by lay leaders, taking on responsibility to do what needed to get done. No fanfare. No bureaucratic red tape. They knew it was in the mission of their work to care for other members.

He finds immense spiritual nourishment from this work and engages in it while working full-time, attending to his marriage and his two teenage daughters. It’s what he does, what he feels called to do, and it kind of makes you wonder about your own free time.

It took no time at all for us to find common ground about topics that in other circumstances would cause a lot of eye-rolling and polite excuses by others who would choose to converse about much juicier topics. But, we were at a holiday gathering, and the spirit of the season was seated at the table. We soaked up our differing ideas about faith, belief, the bible, and the role of organized religion in people’s lives. I learned a lot from him, and he from me.

Among the things we talked about was the structure of his church, and how lay people who are so moved religiously, are gently led on a path to leadership. The priest encourages them to receive training–doing so incrementally and slowly, and then, when ready, they provide ministry to others within the church. This is accomplished within a small group model, one person ministering to several small groups, even though the church might have thousands of members.  It keeps things small, intimate, and full of personal meaning.

Certain positions within the church lead to ordination by an Archbishop, like that of Deacon, who after years of study and involvement attains a level respected highly by other church members. I thought about what this means, especially when comparing that to the many synagogue lay leader positions that seem mired in fiscal management, operations and building maintenance, and fundraising.

I know that the entire structure of synagogue life is different, but what can I learn from this? How could my experience of synagogue life be so radically different from the picture of spiritual meaning that I heard? It seems like a commitment to living a Jewish life is not generally a requirement for attaining synagogue leadership roles.  What if there was a pathway of leadership that involved religious and spiritual growth?  Can you imagine that? What if there was a requirement for leaders to be personally committed to advancing their spiritual and religious practice? How inspirational would that be, to see people in leadership roles involved in holy soul-work?

If the synagogue’s goal is to build a faith community, how are we working towards that? We know that there are Jewish spaces that have transformed themselves, and it would be interesting to know if their leadership pathways are reflective of that change. What strategies might we employ to incorporate this kind of thinking?

For example, The Union for Reform Judaism developed a strategy for small group work that might operate on the method mentioned above, though I’m unaware of any evaluative material about the outcomes of that enterprise. There might be other innovative approaches to this as well.

We need to learn together, pulling from as many different sources as we can, to reinvigorate the purpose of creating community.