Category Archives: Religion

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.

 


Questioning God

“It is because I believed in God that I was angry at God, and still am. But my faith is tested, wounded, but it’s here. So whatever I say, it’s always from inside faith……Within my traditions, you know, it is permitted to question God, even to take Him to task.”  Elie Wiesel, The Tragedy of the Believer.

In recent weeks, I have been overwhelmed with questions that I ask of God. It is a fruitless exercise because really, there are no possible answers.

Some of my questions are the really big ones….like the ones about humanity and our future.

I live with my unanswered questions and they stubbornly remain with me, as I go about my day in these strange times.

Now, piled on top of my doubts about health and safety are new questions about hate and fear and it is a growing heap of biblical proportions.

Has it only been weeks that things are this way? Have we not been on pause for an endless amount of time? 

Enough is Enough

There has been so much to cry out to God about—to scream with outrage that enough is enough.

Thousands of years ago, Abraham was one soul speaking for many when he cried out at the injustice of destroying cities when it would mean that law-abiding people would also perish:

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

Imagine the audacity of Abraham. Not only did he question politely, he challenged God’s decision aggressively and as we know in later verses, did not back down. He stayed the course no matter the consequences. He directed his anger at God and felt justified.

During these months of Covid, my frustration and anger had no target—-because who was there to blame?

These feelings, stubbornly were present each morning as I checked the numbers of newly dead. It was overwhelming.

And yet, there was to be more anger on top of that.

New situations of hatred and racism bore an even larger balloon of anger, except this time, there are situations that can be remedied with the capacity to provoke long term change.

Within the outcry against racism and bigotry is a budding leaf of hope.

Who is responsible?

We are being challenged to our core as a society. As Elie Wiesel says, we can take God to task. But ultimately, we are responsible for each other. We create the environment of either hatred or peace. We have the ability to change things.

How can we be loving toward each other?

Hundreds and hundreds of years after Abraham confronts the Creator, God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah, and challenges us to be our better selves and earn our place on this planet:

כֹּֽה־אָמַ֞ר יְהוָ֤ה צְבָאוֹת֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הֵיטִ֥יבוּ דַרְכֵיכֶ֖ם וּמַֽעַלְלֵיכֶ֑ם וַאֲשַׁכְּנָ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃

“Thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place.” Jeremiah 7:3

In order to connect to God, we need to connect with each other, treating each other with kindness, justice, and compassion.

There can be recovery.

So many times after destruction there was hope.

We already have learned so much about ourselves in these months; our instinctive selfishness yet our expansive generosity, our innate capacity for hate yet our boundless ability to love.

I have faith in God, and I also have faith that we can arrive at the place (HaMakom in Hebrew) that we are meant to be.

 

 


Being in the Wilderness: A Shavuot Experience

 

The quiet allows the voice of our soul to emerge

On the week before Shavuot, we begin the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, known in English as Numbers. In Hebrew, the book is called BaMidbar (wilderness, desert).

Already we’re experiencing some confusion, why the two different names? Each name refers to a different verse. The name of the book in Hebrew is related to the first verse, which sets the stage for where God speaks to Moses…in the wilderness.

However, the English/Latin name is related to the second verse when God requests Moses to take a census of the Israelite community.

There is a beautiful reason given for the spiritual connection between the two verses but this post will instead focus on the deeper meaning contained within the first verse.

Let’s begin:

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting……

What is interesting here is the meaning of the Hebrew word for wilderness.

The beauty of the Hebrew language is often, contained within each word, is its opposite meaning. These paradoxes speak to the very essence of creation, in that there is potential for opposing aspects: darkness and light, Inclinations toward the good or evil, our spiritual inclinations versus our bodily passions.

In this case, the Hebrew root word for BaMidbar  also means two things at once. There is both a sense of being limited and yet expansive.

How can that be so?

The three letter Hebrew root of BaMidbar is Dalet (D), Bet (B) and Reysh (R), means all of these: desert, wilderness, words, to speak and thing.

So in a sense, it means that which is limitless yet that which is tangible and identifiable.

It is a word that has so much potential steeped within it. For example if we take just one meaning, speech, it can be something that can be used to transmit ideas that are grand and awesome. yet, when used incorrectly, speech can be reduced to the petty and heartless.

Similarly containing opposites, the wilderness can be a place of peace or a place of threat.

There is a beautiful teaching from the Ohr Torah Institution and Rabbi S. Riskin about this:

It was by means of these Divine words [dibrot] that even the desert [midbar] —a metaphor for an inhospitable and alien exile environment: boiling hot by day, freezing cold by night, and deficient in water, the elixir of life—can be transformed into sacred space, the place of the Divine word (dibur].

The world is a desert [midbar] waiting to become a sanctuary [d’vir] by means of God’s word [dibur], communicated by inspiring leaders [dabarim]. 

Being in the wilderness allowed us to ‘lose ourselves’ enough to be able to receive the Torah. In the wilderness, our destiny was secured by God and so our very ability to live was granted by God every day. In this there was a sense of comfort, even in the middle of ‘nowhere’.

Our sages put it this way:

 Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah.                                                                          Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7.

This is noted again in the Talmud,

One should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah. Nedarim 55a

It is through this process that we can begin the journey that is the source of our lifeline, the Torah. We need to lessen our ego-driven lives to be open enough to receive Torah.

The still small voice in you….how can you honor that voice? How can you become “ownerless” in order to be open to the Divine experience?

I am offering this Shavuot Visualization to you should you want to enter the world of the D-B-R….A Shavuot Visualization

 

 

© Ruth Schapira, 2020. All rights reserved.


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.

 

 

 


Do we own our Jewish history?

 

 

I read something from an unlikely source that struck my deepest core as a Jew, and came to a full stop at a passage from the first chapter of “How to be an Anti-Racist”, a new book by Ibram X. Kendi. I’m sure Dr. Kendi did not intend this outcome, in fact, I feel guilt at even sharing this, because I personalized a phrase he used to illustrate a core issue of his, one that influenced his childhood and his present thoughts about racism.

Perhaps in writing this, I am part of the problem he was writing about: maintaining my narrow vision; not seeing the entire picture he was portraying and co-opting a phrase instead, one that relates to my world. But I am compelled to write this and soon, will return to the book when I can focus my proper attention on the larger issue of racism.

For now, as a Jew, I am not able to move past the part where he writes about how his parents came to their revelatory understandings about Christianity.

Dr. Kendi’s description of his parents’ journey to Christianity was stated so simply and powerfully, and I was struck by its truth and how for me, it applies to Judaism, to our own history. And I wondered why we don’t own our own reality.

Kendi writes about his parents’ college years as Black Americans, when his parents began to crystallize their thinking—defining Christianity on their own terms:

“What is your definition of a Christian?” Dad asked in his deeply earnest way. Cone looked at Dad with equal seriousness and responded: “A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.” …… Receiving this definition was a revelatory moment in Dad’s life. Ma had her own similar revelation in her Black student union—that Christianity was about struggle and liberation.                           

                        

Christianity was about struggle and liberation.

Oddly enough, in the instant when I read that description, it resonated with me. I feel that we share that story, even if not in the same way. It seems to be our story too.

Let me say first, that I don’t want to play the comparison game about who struggled more, blacks or Jews. It’s like asking who suffered more, someone who survived the death camps or someone who escaped from slavery?

Some things defy comparison. Our compassion needs to be for ourselves and others. It’s in our Jewish DNA.

So we can pay attention to our own history, and begin to actually own it.

The Jewish story, our history, could be distilled in that one sentence….Judaism is about struggle and liberation.

From slavery in Egypt/mitzrayim to freedom in the desert/bamidbar—our freedom came with even more challenges.

Throughout our history we struggled to be free.

From the destruction of the First Temple to the riches of Babylonia. From the Crusades to the Golden Age of Spain. From the destruction of the Second Temple to a reformulation of what it meant to be Jewish. From the death camps to Israel.

The times when we were truly ‘liberated’ during our thousands of years of history are minuscule (click here to read our history in more detail).

 

Our very name, Yisrael/Israel is derived from the Hebrew root Yud-Shin-Raysh which means to struggle with, contend with, be upright with—and the ‘with’ is none other than God.

We are truly Children of Israel/B’nai Yisrael when we sit with the struggle. When we challenge and when we obey.

Struggle and Liberation….

And it is often a struggle to come to terms with liberation.

Thousands of years of disgrace, discrimination, and hatred seemed to disappear ….until now. Now, we are dealing with hate speech.  Antisemitism. Death threats. BDS. Academic Freedom. Muggings. Killings.

In North America, it is a struggle to maintain a strong Jewish identity in a free society. It is a struggle to be different. It is a struggle to have faith.

Israel’s challenges are borne in part, from her liberation as a free state, which seems to foment hatred by others.

Freedom has a price. It demands our attention and not taking anything for granted.

May we be strong enough to struggle, may we be able to appreciate our freedom while being strong and bold enough to stand up for ourselves as Jews. May we stay the course, not to survive, but to thrive.


Shema: Searching for the “One”

The Experience of the Holy

This post is not about matchmaking, or even the journey to find your ‘soul mate’.

Here, searching for the “One” refers to our deep desire to achieve integration, to be at ‘one’ with who we are on the inside with how we behave on the outside. To feel whole.

The challenge is that often, although we know who we want to be in the ideal, we often behave in ways that don’t hit that target. Syncing doesn’t always occur, mainly because life gets in the way and we don’t pay close enough attention. It takes an awful lot of work and there’s only so much bandwidth.

So we need a tool, and reciting even the first line of the Shema prayer (Deuternonomy 6:4) might get us to focus on who and what “the One” refers to. The Shema affirms the Unity of God.… but this goes beyond mere numbers. We don’t say that God is “one” as opposed to “two”….we say that God is all encompassing. Oneness as in totality. Everything.

The verse also demands that we pay attention. 

Shema Ysrael Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad. 

Listen up Israel, the Lord is Our God. The Lord Alone is One.

The word Shema is often translated as “Hear” but one can hear without listening. We do that most of the time when we don’t work  hard enough to be fully present in our conversations. The command (and it is a command), is for us to listen, as a person and as a people, to what it means that God alone is “One”.

Actually, the Shema is a very compassionate statement. God’s singularity is unique: God alone is One. We’ll never approach the integration we’re seeking because, well, we’re human. The very name Israel means struggling with God, yet being on a straight path toward God. Layers of understanding are provided for us in these words.

Since we are created in God’s Image (B’tzelem Elohim), we are tasked with emulating God. It is a goal that we strive for but will never be able to reach in our lifetimes. Our fallibility as human beings is our constant search for our innermost essence, our spiritual side, the truest part of ourselves, yet we always have to deal with the physical reality of our bodies.

It is our challenge to navigate between the physical and the spiritual.  We are physical creatures who yearn for glimpses of a spiritual existence. We want what we can’t have, but still, we can experience tiny morsels of an elevated existence.

We can teeter above our baseness by trying some of the tools we have available: meditation, study, prayer, fasting, blessings, chanting and more. Venturing too far off by exclusively immersing ourselves in these practices is not the Jewish way. We don’t remove ourselves from our reality. We don’t take on extreme behavior. We want to experience and enjoy all the gifts of this world.

Our task is to connect with God and others, and build loving relationships.

So we live within the struggle. Body and Soul. Head and Heart.

May you experience, even for brief moments, the glory that is within you.

May you be in alignment with your truest essence and live with the joy of knowing that you were created in the Image of God. 

 

 


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.


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?