June 24, 2022
As I come to the end of my tenure at JVC, I can think of no better place to ponder my future than at the beach, where I spent last week watching the sparkle of the sun on the sea and noticing how the ocean presented itself differently each day, one day calm and gentle while the next day was full of whitecaps and a crashing surf. I saw an incredible variety of forces at play, including the moon, the wind, the tide, the geography of the beach, and even the water itself. Each one pushes and pulls on the individual drops of water to create the force and flow of the waves.
On our last full day at the beach, the wind picked up and the waves became too rough for our comfort. We sat on the beach watching the surf and I noticed that while the swimmers had mostly left the water, there were suddenly a half dozen wind surfers and kite surfers in the ocean. If you’ve never seen those sports, they are truly an extraordinary thing to behold. Athletes harness the wind and speed through, across, and even up and over the waves as they race up and down and in and out.
It hit me suddenly. The wind is a force of nature. It’s not good or bad– it just is. And we may be pushed out of the water by it or if we’re not careful, even find ourselves struggling to stay in place against its rising strength. Or we can choose to harness the wind, learn to keep our balance and let that unpredictable external force take us for a thrilling and unexpected ride. We can stand against the gale or we can take our skills, our experience, and our tools and trust ourselves to the wind.
Two thousand years ago, our ancestors faced a similar choice. With Jerusalem under siege and the collapse of their defenses imminent, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai arranged a secret escape from the city and negotiated with the military commander and future emperor Vespasian to set up a school in the town of Yavneh. That school became the birthplace of modern rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the second temple ended the centrality of Jerusalem in daily Jewish ritual practice. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai recognized that while no one could withstand the coming storm, it was still possible to harness the wind. We would not be who we are and I dare say that Judaism would not be the relevant force that is in the world today if not for that decision.
I’ll confess that I’ve had my share of moments of feeling the gale at my face recently. Two years ago, I would never have predicted that my time at JVC was running short. And yet, as I’ve begun to harness the wind, I find myself more and more excited to explore my next professional chapter, while knowing that the friendships and professional relationships that I have will last far into the future.
I’ll end this section by expressing my appreciation to everyone who has read, commented on, and provided feedback for these blog entries. Your engagement has meant the world to me. I do plan to continue writing and look forward to sharing my future blogs on social media.
May 27, 2022
This is a blog I’ve known I would write for more than two years. It’s one I’ve pondered as I’ve written dozens of others, as I’ve learned and taught and lived and considered the impact of the Judaism that I experienced growing up.
This is the blog I offer in memory and in honor of my beloved rabbi, Rabbi Steven Sager, who passed away last week. If basketball coach Dean Smith was my north star for team building and leadership, Rabbi Sager was the guiding light of my Jewish journey, and my ability to seek meaning in the mundane moments of life. It is only recently that I’ve begun to realize how much his teaching impacted me.
And yet this isn’t the blog I expected to write. The one I turned over and over in my head for those two years was about the chevra kadishe, the burial society that takes on the most sacred and selfless of Jewish ritual responsibilities, the dignified care and burial of the dead. The chevra kadishe that serves the Durham, NC community is one that I hold as a proud example of community volunteerism at its best. But it’s not the right topic for this moment, though it may be one for the future.
Instead, I found myself thinking this last week about the tradition at Beth El Synagogue in Durham of having a b’nai mitzvah student engage in a conversation with Rabbi Sager instead of delivering a prepared D’var Torah. While each student certainly met with him and learned the parsha (section of the Torah that is read that week) together with him, the conversation itself was free-flowing and didn’t always follow the path of previous discussions. For those of you who know my speaking style, you may know that “extemporaneous” is not my favorite set-up. To this day, the only place I regularly speak without notes is at Beth Am Synagogue, when I am introducing my reading of the haftarah. Both the ability to offer words of Torah without written notes and the ability to prepare a haftarah on two days’ notice can be tracked very clearly back to Rabbi Sager’s influence.
My Bat Mitzvah parsha was Vayetzei, the story of Jacob fleeing from his brother and spending the night in the desert, where he dreamed of a ladder ascending to heaven. As part of his dream, Jacob has an encounter with G-d, during which he is promised that his descendants will inherit the land on which he stands. In our study sessions, Rabbi Sager had highlighted for me the fact that the text says that Jacob stopped at “the place,” not “a place.” He was, it seems, destined to be at that place at that moment in order to have that experience. Upon waking, he comments that the place was holy and he hadn’t known it when he stopped there.
The place was holy and he hadn’t known it when he stopped there.
Being at that place at that moment created that experience. Another mile, another night, another decision, and maybe the story would have turned out altogether differently. He would have passed a night in peaceful slumber, gone on his way, and never experienced that sacred and transformative moment, never known the destiny that belonged to him and to his family.
Rabbi Sager gave a high holiday sermon many years ago, in which he told the story of beginning to mark Shabbat as a teenager. He was curious to learn and experience more so a teacher advised him to do one new thing each week. Light candles one week, then add a ritual of cleaning your room the next week, then perhaps build Shabbat into the Friday night meal. Go forth and do small things, he was told. For those of you who are long-term JVC veterans, you may recognize an old JVC motto in those words. Go forth and do small things. While it’s no longer our motto, it defines our approach to accessible acts of service even today.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my approach to building community and making meaning. And I realized that these two memories both capture and define it. Be attentive to the moment – this place, this time, this experience—you are meant to be here so pay attention and seek to name what may otherwise fail to be noticed. Be open to a new vision of the future. Know that at any moment, you may be on sacred ground and not know it. And go forth and do small things – find nuggets of knowledge and notice the meaning in the mundane.
As we continue to make meaning out of small and sometimes difficult moments, as we continue to seek ways to make Judaism relevant in the world today, as we try to understand why bad things happen to good people, may Rabbi Steven Sager’s memory continue to be a blessing.
I heard the most fascinating story recently about a phenomenon that was observed during the Civil War called Angel’s Glow. On a cold April night in southern Tennessee, some of the soldiers injured at the Battle of Shiloh noticed that their wounds were glowing. In a seeming miracle, those soldiers who observed this “angel’s glow” were more likely to recover from their wounds, which didn’t fester or become infected. More than 100 years later, a high school student on a Civil War battlefield trip learned about this phenomenon and began an exploration with his microbiologist mother and a friend, using 21st century scientific tools and knowledge. Ultimately, the group identified a bacterium known as Photorhabdus luminescens, which is phosphorescent, thrives in cold conditions, and would have been present near the battlefield. This “good” bacteria not only glows, it feeds on “bad” bacteria, meaning that it helped to cleanse the wounds on the battlefield and prevented infection from setting in.
In telling this story, the reporter used a term called Time Folding. In 1862, soldiers observed a phenomenon they couldn’t explain, so they created an explanation that fit their understanding of the world. In 2001, researchers explained a phenomenon they would never have a chance to observe in real life – light pollution today makes it unlikely that the glow would be observed, even if the same perfect environmental conditions were to exist. And someday, future scientists may use that explanation to develop new approaches to fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Those future scientists will, essentially, be in conversation with both the soldiers at Shiloh and the researchers who put a scientific explanation to the miracle (which makes it no less miraculous.)
We need look no further than the Talmud to see time folding playing out in Jewish wisdom. The Talmud regularly records rabbis responding to their colleagues who lived centuries before and, even more remarkably, their long-dead colleagues are even understood to answer back. They built on each other’s arguments to arrive at a conclusion that would have the force of law. While the Talmud was codified centuries ago, the conversation goes on, with voices continuing today to add their perspective, honoring the wisdom that came before and understanding it as it applies in today’s context.
Our ability to communicate with the generations before us and the generations to come is part of what we mean when we talk about continuity of the Jewish community. The term Jewish continuity has been used to shut down voices of change and progress, yet I would challenge us to understand it differently – that we are in an ongoing conversation with our ancestors and our descendants to create that best world to which we aspire when we talk about tikkun olam—repairing the world.
Whenever we tell a story from history to children, we experience time folding in a microcosmic level—we bring the past into the present and we create an opportunity for the next generation to take the conversation on into the future. But we don’t, or rather we shouldn’t, take history uncritically into the future. The soldiers created an explanation that was meaningful and may have truth but it was an incomplete understanding that fit within their understanding of the world. The researchers took the legend and applied modern science to create an explanation that has empirical truth but lacks inspiration and meaning. In the future, someone may take their truth and add back the miracle by creating life-saving cures.
As we fold time to talk with the voices of the past, we can ask both what we can learn and how we can bring it forward. We can take the lessons of the past, process them using the tools and wisdom of today, and share them forward with the humility of knowing that we are but one link in a long chain building, perhaps, toward a more perfect world.
April 29, 2022
Two weeks ago, we had the joyful experience of visiting family for the Passover Seders. This welcome opportunity was preceded by the less joyful experience of a few hours on the New Jersey Turnpike. Long highway road trips always lead me to a certain level of anxiety as I wonder whether each action I take will result in a micro-shift in timing that will put us in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time and cause us to be in an accident. But then again, says my anxious brain, what if that micro-shift in timing causes you to prevent an accident instead? And round and round we go.
Popular culture today loves stories about accidents of timing. The chance meeting in the elevator that leads to true love. The hero who books a last minute ticket on the same plane as the hijacker. These moments make great plot devices but how do we deal with them in our historic tradition and in our real lives? How do we stay alert to those decisions we make in a moment that may lead to momentous consequences?
There’s a story from the time of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem about one of these moments. I’ll spare you the gruesome details but a famous rabbi was being martyred by Roman soldiers and the method of death was one that was designed to enact maximum pain for a maximum amount of time. One Roman soldier, overcome by this scene, acts to hasten the rabbi’s death in order to end his suffering and in so doing, causes his own death as well. Tradition teaches that Rabbi Hananyah’s disciples said of this situation “some people earn their place in the world to come over a lifetime and some in a single moment.” In other words, both the learned rabbi who had spent a lifetime doing good works and the young soldier who had acted at a moment’s notice had earned their place in heaven.
I’ve always been struck by this story, horrifying as it is, and it spins in my head whenever my brain starts going down the anxiety-ridden path of wondering whether each action is going to cause some unintended consequence, traffic-related or not.
What does it mean to earn our place in the world to come over a lifetime? I think we can understand that more easily, in some ways. Do good works. Be a good person. Make ethical choices.
But what does it mean to earn our place in the world to come in a moment? Or, perhaps, to lose it? How do we ever know whether this moment is the one that matters? The Roman soldier actually knew—tradition teaches that he asked before he acted. And I suppose the person who runs into the burning building to save someone knows that their act is momentous. But what about the mundane decision they’d (hypothetically) made 3 minutes earlier when they’d decided to walk to the store instead of drive, putting them at that spot at that moment? We might know when we speak to a friend in crisis that our words matter. But what about the decision to reach out and reconnect with them when we didn’t know they were struggling?
How do we live with the knowledge that any action at any moment may start the chain of events that leads either to catastrophe or to a miracle? Toni Morrison’s Beloved tells us in a similar situation — “Know it. Know it and get down off that porch.”
We can set ourselves up to live a life of intentionality and good works. We can pay attention to the world around us and act to right the wrongs and care for the people in our lives. We can do all those things. We can and we should. And we still have to live in the uncertainty of not knowing the end result of the ripples our actions will have.
So we have to do the best we can with what we have. Drive safe and buckle up, but get on that highway…even if it’s the New Jersey Turnpike.
April 15, 2022
A wise sage once said “whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.” Now if you’re a fan of 1990’s era “RomComs,” you may recognize that this particular sage was Meg Ryan in the Nora Ephron film You’ve Got Mail. Ryan’s character is chastising big box store owner Tom Hanks on his pseudo-
apology for having effectively put her book store out of business. She reminds him that while he focused on the bottom line of profits and losses, she had defined success as being part of the fabric of the neighborhood and had gotten to know her customers through their book choices.
I had the opportunity recently to discuss the rituals of Passover and to consider the balance of rituals we draw from the Haggadah and those that evolve in families and friendship groups as they gather year after year. For the last two years, many of us missed those personal rituals as our Passover observance was disrupted by COVID. Now, as we slowly reengage with the “before-times,” I’ve started wondering what the meaning of the Passover Seder really is.
The holiday of Passover marks the Exodus from Egypt. It marks the move from slavery to freedom. It marks the creation of the nation and people of Israel. Traditionally, we participate in the Seder, a Hebrew word that means “order” and indeed, the Haggadah that guides us through the Seder has clear rituals and guidelines on how one is supposed to remember the exodus from Egypt. But robust as those rituals are, I wonder if they’re sufficient. Do they, in and of themselves, help us appreciate what it is to go from slavery to freedom? Do they help us understand what it is to be a people?
Well…whatever else the seder is, it ought to begin by being personal. We combine the rituals we receive through the Haggadah with the ones that we learn through experience – favorite foods, favorite people, that not-so-funny joke Uncle Joe tells every single year. The combined picture of religious ritual and developed tradition can define our Seder – if we want our Seder to belong only to the group. And yet traditions evolve – they grow as we do, or they begin to grow impersonal.
There are people every year who will experience a Seder for the first time—whether because they are new to Judaism or because this tradition has not been one that they’ve participated in, or maybe because they are children who are aging into the experience for the first time. Perhaps it is through their wonder and questions that we can re-examine our what and our why. Perhaps by seeing how they make the Seder personal to them, we can find our own meaning.
As we gather around our Seder tables this year, we all have the opportunity to make it personal, to ask what we can learn as we retell our foundational story and perhaps reconnect with our social sides. In a world where the gap between individual and communal identity seems to be growing and where the story of exodus is all too real for so many people, making it personal matters more than ever.
Hag Sameach. Have a joyous and meaningful Passover holiday.
April 1, 2022
I had the chance recently to go on a hike that both challenged and thrilled me. We drove a steep and winding path to the beginning of the hike and as we stood at an overlook right by the trailhead and got ready to begin, we spent a moment looking at the incredible view from high up above the Shenandoah Valley. Given that we were starting from such a high elevation, I was looking forward to a gentle hike up and down the top of the ridge.
3 miles and more than 3,000 feet of elevation later, we finally reached a point that actually called itself the “peak.” And this time, as I looked at the vast panorama of the valley, I realized that when we started, I knew how far we’d come but had no idea how far we had to go.
Which, I realized, is an apt metaphor for the world today.
In the world of half-glass-full optimism and half-glass-empty pessimism, I’ve always considered myself a half-a-glass-of-water style realist. I neither believe that all hope is lost nor do I think the path ahead of us will be easy – whether we’re thinking about the pandemic, global climate change, or the need to reckon with our nation’s history of racial injustice. I do recognize, though, that it’s sometimes easier to look back than up. It’s sometimes easier to see what we’ve accomplished and choose not to look at what still needs to be done.
The path up to that first overlook had been in a car and was undoubtedly the easier part of the work of reaching the peak. Fortunately, that’s not necessarily true of all of our “midway to the peak” challenges (with any luck, we are past the hardest part of the pandemic) but it does seem to be more true than not these days. And as I discovered on that hike, we don’t necessarily know how hard the climb is in front of us.
In Pirke Avot, our tradition teaches us that “it’s not ours to complete the work but neither are we free to desist from it.” In other words, we cannot hope to personally solve the challenges facing the world today. And knowing that we won’t be the solution must not paralyze us into not doing our part. But what the text doesn’t give us is the balance. We can’t do everything and we must do something. And while we know that “something” falls somewhere between “everything” and “nothing,” it’s hard to say exactly where that place is – and we can assume it’s somewhere different for every person.
So what should we do? The view from the beginning was magnificent—it would have been easy enough to stay there, to look curiously at the (deceptively flat looking) trailhead and decide it was for someone else to undertake. We’d already done something. And reaped the reward in the form of that first overlook.
But we hadn’t really stretched ourselves. We hadn’t tried hard. We hadn’t gotten uncomfortable. We hadn’t seen just how much we could do. Had we done what our sages asked of us? Had we understood the balance between not doing everything and not starting at all?
Looking out at that incredible view from the peak, I can say it was worth it. Ill-equipped as I was in my off-brand tennis shoes with no ankle support, carrying less water than I should have been, and with profound gratitude for my friend who was both good company and a good guide, it was absolutely still worth it. As I took in the view from the peak, I knew that I’d done something challenging, that I’d pushed myself in a way that I usually don’t, that I’d pushed past the discomfort (and would continue to push past the sensitive ankles for another week or more.)
We may know how far we’ve come but we can never know how far we have to go until we stretch ourselves and try. And it’s worth it. We must always believe it’s worth it. . . even when we can’t see the peak.
March 18, 2022
Like many synagogue-goers this year, I marked Purim by listening to a performance of the parody song, “We Don’t Talk about Haman,” based on Disney’s Encanto. It’s true though – we don’t talk about Haman — one of the traditions of Purim is drowning out Haman’s name while the story is being read. Although drowning out the name isn’t the same as not telling the story – and that matters too.
In the Torah, we’re told that the Exodus from Egypt is marred by an attack from the evil nation of Amalek. They attack from the rear, picking off the weak and most vulnerable people rather than attacking the warriors in the front of the line. In response, the Torah instructs us to “blot out the memory of Amalek.” But in another section, we’re instructed to “remember and do not forget what Amalek did to you.”
So which is it? Do we blot out the memory of Amalek or do we remember and commit to not forgetting? What does it mean to blot out a person’s memory at the same time that we remember the harm that they did? And how is remembering different from not forgetting?
And as always, how do we apply it to today’s world?
The nation of Amalek is traditionally understood to be the ancestor of Haman, the villain of the Purim story. More generally, Amalek has come to be understood as evil incarnate, a predator that preys on the weak, ignores the rules of engagement, and seeks to destroy for the sake of causing harm. Any reading of history will tell us that there are always those who seek to fill the role of Amalek, to destroy indiscriminately for the sake of power or for seemingly no reason at all.
Perhaps when we blot out the name of Amalek and yet commit to remembering the harm that they did, we’re reminding ourselves to stay alert, to remember that we can never afford to say “that can’t happen anymore.” Perhaps when we boo the name of Haman even as we follow the tradition to hear every single word of the megillah, we’re reminding ourselves that we could play any role in that story or no role at all so we need to recognize the moment when we will have to choose.
I was in a conversation recently where someone asked whether the admonition “never again” in reference to the Holocaust was meant to refer to anti-Semitism or to genocide. The answer, I believe, is yes. It’s both. It’s being attentive to the presence of Amalek as it manifests in each generation, whether we’re under direct threat or not.
The world is being asked to respond to the unfettered aggression of Russia as it invades Ukraine. We watch in horror as humanitarian routes are attacked and bomb shelters full of civilians are targeted. Are we seeing Amalek in our generation? Perhaps. Regardless, the question is the same. What are we going to do about it?
March 4, 2022
As a child of the 1980s, I lived with the existential fear of nuclear war throughout my childhood, relieved only moderately by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yet one of my most powerful memories of that time was actually a war that was fought in the middle east with the United States and the former Soviet countries in an alliance with dozens of other nations against the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. The memory I hold most clearly from that time is driving home from a music lesson on January 17, 1991 as the radio broadcasters announced the launch of a coalition invasion against the Iraqi occupation.
By the time I got home, regional officials had cancelled the college basketball games scheduled for that night. From the lens of a 13-year-old living in a college town, that was no small decision and signaled that this war happening thousands of miles away deserved our attention, that it was our issue and not just one for the servicemembers fighting on the front lines. While adult-me recognizes that the disruptions to our lives that night were extremely minor, it was nonetheless a transformative moment for teen-me. I’ve thought of the power of that moment over the years and I remember being vaguely uncomfortable when the call to action after 9/11 was to spend more money, to drive our cars, and to continue our consumerist culture with no disruptions. What were we being asked to do, I wondered? What is the nature of sacrifice? What does it mean to inconvenience ourselves to focus on a greater good, either through a symbolic gesture like the cancellation of a basketball game or through a personal change of behavior or habit?
This question comes up regularly at JVC. As I’ve written about many times before, we strive to make volunteering convenient and accessible, while our longer-term goal is to make service a priority in people’s lives, to build commitment so that when the need is real but the timing is inconvenient, it will still be important enough to prioritize and respond. Lowering barriers is a goal and it always will be. Being accessible is a goal and it always will be. And yet we do ourselves no favors when we don’t also acknowledge that sometimes what is asked of us is to push the needs to the front of the priority line, to put the things we enjoy to the side and to stretch ourselves into an uncomfortable space.
In this moment, we are all asking what we can do to support the people of Ukraine. At the same time, we’re watching gas prices shoot up and we know that the price of fuel, food, and other basic necessities will quickly follow. The economic impact will likely grow. And it might be a natural response to both be horrified by the suffering in Ukraine and to resent the impact at home that’s fueled by international sanctions that are cutting Russia off from the world. It might be a natural response but it’s also an opportunity to check our priorities and ask ourselves if we can afford to pay more for gas, if we can bear to drive a little less, if our inconvenience (for those for whom the economic cost is an inconvenience and not a burden) may be in service of a greater good.
Watching the crisis unfold half a world away, we may slip back and forth between horror and disconnection. We may want to help and still balk at the sacrifices we’ll be asked to make. This is the moment to ask ourselves what it means to serve when it’s inconvenient, when it stings, when it involves a sacrifice. This is the sacred work of caring for community.
February 18 2022
This week, we fulfilled a long-held dream of my sons when we welcomed a dog into our home. Much to their dismay, this adorable, friendly, sweet dog is only on loan for a week while her humans travel on vacation. From the kids’ perspective, they’ve loved playing with her, learning her habits, taking her for walks (or having her take them for walks, as the case may be.) From my lens, this week has begun to teach them that taki
ng care of another living creature is responsibility as much as fun, especially since Blue requires more regular care than the fish we got early in the pandemic.
The rule in our house is that animals get fed before their people eat. We trace this rule straight back to the Torah, which places care of animals before feeding of people. While most of the feeding and walking of the dog has fallen to me, it’s still remarkable how much more effective “because G-d says so” is as a motivator than the more mundane “because I said so” when telling a child to be patient.
As I thought about it, though, I’ve become more and more intrigued by the Torah text that has led to the precept that animals should be fed first. The text comes from Deuteronomy and says that G-d “will grant grass for your cattle in your field so that you may eat and be satisfied.” The interpretation is that if G-d puts feeding animals first, then so must we. In addition, there is an implication that if we don’t take care of our responsibilities, the benefits and privileges that we count on will not follow.
We see that concept in Jewish text and tradition in multiple places. Pirke Avot reminds us not to put off studying Torah for when we have time, because we won’t have time if we don’t make time. . . and studying is not optional. Similarly, as the Israelite people are being invited to be part of the covenant with G-d, they respond “we will do and we will learn.” In other words, we will follow these rules and take care of our responsibilities because we trust the source of authority…and then we will learn more about why we’re doing it. In each case, we understand that we take care of our responsibilities because they are ours—they are our “must dos.” They don’t exist only when it’s convenient or comfortable. If we took that approach, our pets would starve, our fields would go untended, and our ancestors’ wisdom would be lost. Because sometimes, even most of the time, responsibilities aren’t the thing we most want to do in the moment.
There are a lot of conversations happening right now about rights, privileges, and responsibilities. At JVC, we sometimes connect this conversation to one about the difference between tzedek (justice,) and hesed (kindness.) When we frame service as justice and equity-building, we understand that we are responsible for righting a wrong in society, even one we didn’t create, sometimes even one that we don’t directly benefit from. We understand that this is our responsibility when it’s convenient and comfortable, and no less so when it’s not.
We can and should participate in acts of hesed, acts of loving-kindness that are above and beyond our core responsibility. But whether we give the rawhide treat and let the dog on the couch (where she has been camped out next to me all day!) we are responsible for making sure her basic needs are met.
February 4, 2022
A friend of mine was recently talking to her daughter about the tight-knit metaphorical “village” that we live in. She described a supportive community as an environment where you “give what you can and take what you need.” In other words, if everyone gives what they can, then anyone who needs support will find the resources they need to get through either an immediate crisis or a chronic challenge.
There’s an unspoken assumption, accepted without judgment, that not everyone in a village will give and receive at the same rate, but on balance, the system works to take care of the community. Political Scientist Dr. Daniel Aldrich refers to this as “horizontal social capital,” the networks that connect us and the ties that bind and bond us. They are the people who show up with a meal and who feed pets and take care of children when you aren’t able to. The stronger your social capital, the more resilient you are and the better able to handle either a personal crisis or a community-level disaster.
We see these villages at work in formal and informal ways, from Meal Trains and Go Fund Me campaigns to the formal structures of CHAI’s Northwest Neighbors Connecting Village. The idea of communal responsibility is baked into every aspect of Jewish tradition, from the idea that “All Israel is responsible one for another” to the creation of a communal tzedakah fund in every village and town with a Jewish presence. We’ve always known that it takes a village.
Indeed, social capital and informal villages are at work everywhere you look. Wherever there is a person sleeping on a neighbor’s couch after being evicted, we see a village at work. Wherever we see neighbors out shoveling their street together, regardless of whether they personally have a car or were promised a visit from the snow plow, we see a village at work. And wherever we see a community holding a mourner through the week of shiva, we see a village at work. In this FEMA “Prep Talk,” Dr. Aldrich presents research that shows that the ties that exist before a disaster are predictive of the ease with which a community will be able to recover should a crisis occur.
Now, please don’t tell anyone I said this but…I’ve always believed that the strengthening of these types of informal support systems could put JVC out of business… and I’ve always hoped that someday it will! I’ve believed that the needs JVC is designed to meet could be met informally at the neighborhood network level before they needed to be addressed in the formal, programmatic ways that JVC and many of our social service partners work. I’m not so naïve as to believe that this reality is anywhere in our near-term future. Ultimately, this utopian reality will require real structural reform and a focus on equity and justice to become reality, not to mention a serious commitment to mitigating the climate crisis. Most days, it seems more likely that JVC’s work in meeting urgent and vital community needs will become more critical, not less.
And yet there are days that fill me with hope. I had one of those days earlier this week when I got an email from my 10 year old son’s science teacher. She told me about a conversation they were having in class about blood types. A student asked whether it was better to be AB+, a universal recipient, or O-, a universal donor. The emerging consensus was that it was better and safer to be AB+. My son raised his hand and stated that he would rather be the universal donor because he couldn’t imagine not being able to give. Implicit in his response, said the teacher, was the trust that the resources would be there for him should he ever need them. The conversation pivoted after that point and more and more students shifted their perspective to see themselves as the givers, with the unspoken assumption that, as my friend said to her daughter “if we give what we can, we’ll be able to take what we need when we need it.”
I share this not-so-humble brag about my son not (only) to showcase his generous soul but also because the story is instructive of how a village works. It takes one person reaching out to another to establish a social tie. It takes one person stepping up and staying “I’ve got what you need and I give it with generosity.” One leads to another leads to another and another. Ties expand and they strengthen. Organizations like JVC facilitate those ties but they don’t work without the generosity of participants and the willingness to both share resources and accept help when needed.
We give what we can and we take what we need. We’re here for each other and we know that others will be here for us. We are a community.
January 21, 2022
Last Monday, we m both the Jewish holiday of Tu B’shvat and the American holiday marking the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a national day of service. Much has already been written about the intersection of these two commemorations so as I considered my own contribution, I began to think about the values that JVC embodies as we seek to be both a moment and a journey.
We’ve spent years at JVC building a culture around making volunteering accessible, easy, and fun to do. As it should be . . . much of the time. We’ve built a culture around a highly professionalized system of registering, being screened as needed, having supplies or appropriate supervision available, and generally making the process of volunteering both meaningful and predictable. As it should be . . .much of the time.
But this moment has me thinking about another kind of volunteering. Volunteering that is both more difficult and often closer to our hearts.
I’ve been thinking about how we show up when volunteering is hard. When it’s messy, when it’s inconvenient, when it may involve known or unknown risks, when showing up for another person requires you to engage directly with their trauma.
How do we show up and how do we learn that we need to show up? How did we ever learn that there are times that we need to inconvenience ourselves, stretch ourselves, and even put ourselves at some emotional or potentially physical risk?
Tu B’shvat in North America feels like a weird holiday. The freezing temperatures and bare tree branches are hardly conducive to a holiday that celebrate trees and nature. And yet we mark Tu B’shvat as the first step toward the harvest festivals that mark the spring, summer, and fall months. On Tu B’shvat, we remember to plant the seeds. We will water them and we will wait patiently and fretfully until we see the first hint of green coming up from the soil and then we will nurture and support the plants as they emerge from the earth and eventually bear the fruit (and grains and vegetables) that feed us all.
Volunteering is like that. When volunteering is easy, we plant a seed. We say that this is possible for you to do. When volunteering is meaningful, we plant a seed. We say that you need to know what impact you’re having and more importantly, what impact you’re not having in this moment. When volunteering is convenient, we plant a seed. We ask people to remember what it feels like to meet a real need and by extension, to remember that needs are real.
And it seems fitting that on the day we mark the planting of seeds, we also remember and honor Dr. King. He famously said “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” It’s not enough to plant the seeds. We must take on the responsibility to nurture them and care for them, to take that which was planted by past generations and to both weed out what does not serve us and nurture that which does.
And as Dr. King reminds us, we cannot set our timetable for justice by the desires of the person “who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time.” And so it is with volunteerism in the service of equity-building. We see that seed start to emerge from the ground with the understanding that it must be nurtured according to its needs, not our own convenience. If we water our plants only when we feel like it, we will see them wither and die . . . or we may drown them with our good intentions. If we care for community only when it’s convenient, we will see our very sense of community similarly wither.
When we put another person’s needs above our own comfort and convenience, we reinforce the sacred ties that bind us as a community. When we make ourselves uncomfortable, physically or emotionally, to raise up another person, we understand our role in the world. Indeed, a supportive, connected community is the very harvest that we seek to reap with the seeds that we plant by making it easy to serve.
January 7, 2021
I have a pet peeve that I want to share.
Have you ever noticed that almost every movie has a scene where someone falls from a building, a cliff, or out a window? And sometimes they bounce off a convenient overhang or they land in a pool or a snowbank or maybe they just hit the ground and roll a little. And then they get up, shake their head in disbelief, and rush off to their next adventure.
Until eight years ago, I never really paid attention to those scenes. I never noticed how omnipresent they are in movies of all types. I never noticed, that is, until January 9, 2014 when my husband fell off a ladder from two stories up, bounced (actually, rolled) off of a porch roof, and tumbled to the ground. I assure you – he did not pop up and rush off anywhere, at least not under his own power. What followed was a week at Shock Trauma, a few more weeks in rehab at Sinai, and a lifetime of dealing with the (thankfully limited) aftereffects.
Since then, I’ve become much more attuned to these scenes in movies. I see how they diminish and minimize trauma and I wonder to what degree they unintentionally change our perception of what’s real, what’s survivable, what constitutes actual trauma and is deserving of sympathy and accommodation. If the expectation is that a person can fall from a two-story building and pop right back up again, then what’s wrong with that person who can’t? They must be really weak or fundamentally flawed, right?
Now thankfully, in spite of what Hollywood would have us believe, not that many people actually fall from high places on a regular basis. And of course, the point I’m trying to make isn’t actually about ladder safety anyway (though that is important.) My point is that this is just one example of the regular diminishing of the experiences of “the other,” an unfortunate societal trend away from empathy and toward judgment.
We’re seeing this trend play out more and more recently, especially with calls to let the pandemic take its course because for most people the Omicron variant will be little more than a bad cold. The implication being that anyone who suffers serious illness must somehow have done something wrong – be unvaccinated by choice or be making unhealthy choices. Explain that to my friend who spent the night in the ER with her fully vaccinated six-year old daughter as she struggled to breathe. Explain it to the person having a heart attack who won’t be treated in time because the ER is too full.
Our Jewish sources, like the wisdom traditions of many cultures, push us toward empathy. The Torah reminds us to care for the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Pirke Avot says not to judge a person until we have “reached their place.” But I worry about that wisdom and whether we’re inclined to assume we know a person’s experience because we’ve seen or even experienced something similar. I worry that even the goal of empathy may lead us to a place of judgment.
I see well-trained stunt artists make it look easy to walk away after jumping out of a building and it frustrates me. I see people use the story of the “self-made millionaire who defied the odds” to question any person who struggles to make ends meet and it frustrates me. I see people assume their outcome is the outcome for everyone and it frustrates me. It frustrates me and yet I wonder how often I fall into the same trap.
How do we, then, stop ourselves from questioning another person’s reality, especially when their reality is different than what we’ve been conditioned to think it should be?
For me, the answer begins with asking myself if my assumptions are based on a fictional interpretation of a safe distance to fall.
In moments like these, I often think back on a conversation I had in college. I had reached out to a friend who I knew was heading into a difficult break-up. When I called her, she said that she was still in the middle of the conversation. I asked her how she was doing and she replied “it’ll be fine. It just has to stop getting bad first.”
It has to stop getting bad first. Before it can start being better, it has to stop getting bad.
I’ve rarely heard words so wise said so casually.
With the COVID positivity rate increasing at an extraordinary pace, as tornadoes devastate communities in the Midwest, as we hear about yet another school shooting, sometimes I wonder – when will it stop “getting bad?”
I worry that the answer is “no time soon.” That things will in fact get very much worse before they stop getting bad, with not a glimpse of “better” in the foreseeable future.
I wonder, though, why we would expect it to stop getting bad when we aren’t doing anything to change our course. My friend, painful as it was, changed course by ending the conversation and the relationship. She set herself on a path toward healing.
And that observation led me to another memory—one from the summer of 2001 at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, where I had my first real experience with Talmud study.
The text we were learning is one that discusses the appropriate time for saying the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers. This text, while esoteric on its surface to a group of students who didn’t make a practice of participating in daily prayers, nonetheless left a strong impression on me.
The text laid out the times of the morning that a person was to say the morning prayers. If you said the prayers during that period, you got “full credit.” If you missed the window, you were still expected to fulfill the obligation to say the prayers but in that case, you got “half credit” – you did it, but you didn’t do it on time.
I’ve often thought about the wisdom contained in that teaching.
When a student turns in an assignment late, they get credit for the work but may pay a penalty for the delay.
When a friend forgets your birthday and you have to remind them, they get credit for the kind wishes but not for remembering to send them in the first place.
And most relevant right now, when humankind neglects to take care of the planet and ignores warning after warning, finally putting in place the beginnings of a response that is generations overdue, we get credit for what we’re doing… but not for doing it in time.
These two concepts come together in discussion after discussion… about anti-racism and understanding the current impact of historical inequity, about climate change, about stopping the spread of infectious diseases. Nothing will stop “getting bad” until we shift course, make different choices, turn away from the destructive path. Even then, it takes time before it stops “getting bad.” And the harm doesn’t disappear with the first good choice.
This is the wisdom of our Jewish teachers. They saw that when you tell a person it’s just too late, you create hopelessness and disinvestment, not an inspiration to correction. And at the same time, they saw that harm is done when you come to the table at a time or through a circumstance that’s less or later than it should be. You get credit for what you did…and we still see what you did not do.
And today, as we fight to change the course of the climate catastrophe, the pandemic and any number of other issues– as we slowly change course, we can look honestly back and honestly forward and say in this moment, we get credit for doing the right thing…but not at the right time. And that’s both the best we can do in this moment and a lesson for the future.
December 10, 2021
I have a confession. I actually like Shabbat at this time of year. I like shutting down in time to light candles before 4:30 and I like the relaxing evening that follows. I like having a few hours between candle-lighting and bedtime during the one time of the week that my kids don’t argue about their (lack of) screen time.
It feels like a confession because the list of things I like about winter is relatively short. Early Shabbat, hot apple cider, Mitzvah Day…that’s about it. This is not my favorite time of year by any stretch of the imagination. But I’m willing to say it – I like starting Shabbat in the middle of the afternoon.
I’ve written before about the amazing benefit of having guilt-free time off, time when you are precluded from working. What I’ve noticed about winter Shabbats, though, is that it’s not just about stepping away from work and screens, it’s also about the choices we make to spend time “together alone”. Summer Shabbats are about friends and outdoor playdates that last until the sun starts to set. They are glorious. Winter Shabbats are about family, playing board games and watching plays hastily put together by our kids. They are precious.
It happens to be that these early fall and winter Shabbats coincide with JVC’s busiest season. As we move from big event to big event to big event with the Casserole Challenge, Mitzvah Day, and MLK Day all happening within a two-month period, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to help the team to find moments to take a deep breath, slow down, and relax. And I’ve realized that for myself, on these weeks more than any other, it’s time to take Shabbat small. To be grateful and to be quiet.
We can experience the awe of creation by going big as part of the larger community, and by going small and hunkering down in our home. As both the biblical author Kohelet (traditionally understood to be King Solomon) and the folk group The Byrds remind us, “to everything there is a season.” As you encounter Shabbat this week, I invite you to consider what you need to step away from and what you need to step into.
November 26, 2021
Thanksgiving is a more complicated holiday than it was when I was a kid, before I had learned phrases like cultural appropriation and come to understand the genocidal impact of the European colonialists march across North America. I understand those things better now, understand the deeply problematic nature of a holiday that celebrates those first interactions between indigenous communities and European settlers but fails to acknowledge the aftermath. And yet I can’t quite let this holiday go, the way I eagerly supported a transition from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. Partly that’s because of the personally meaningful nature of this holiday for me—it was my late aunt’s favorite holiday and not infrequently also her birthday, and it’s the only time of the year that I can count on seeing one side of my extended family. And more than that, it’s (in theory at least) a holiday about giving thanks and feeling gratitude.
How do we reconcile a holiday about gratitude with the deeply problematic history to which it is tied? Can we reconcile it? Can we wrest the Thanksgiving narrative away from its historically oversimplified and somewhat amnesiac roots and place it more firmly in the practice of seeing and expressing gratitude? Maybe or maybe not, but this internal discussion led me to consider the intersection between gratitude and responsibility.
At JVC, we often discuss the nature of gratitude and the concerns that we have about gratitude that exists in a vacuum. Gratitude in a vacuum looks like expressions of thanks for a person’s good fortune without recognition of the cultural and systemic forces that made that good fortune more likely to come about for one person (or one group of people) than for another. And gratitude in a vacuum can look like a disconnection from history and a failure to take responsibility for both historic and current injustices.
In Judaism, the connection between thanksgiving and good food exists every day, not just on one day in November. Six times a day, before and after each meal, we are instructed to make expressions of gratitude. The birkat hamazon, the prayer traditionally said after meals, includes a phrase that has troubled many people. The phrase translates to “I am an old person and yet I’ve never seen a person begging for bread.” The phrase is meant to express gratitude to a G-d who takes care of people, who makes sure that no one goes hungry. And yet that phrase is wholly and demonstrably false. We’ve all seen people going hungry, unable to afford or produce the food they need to survive. What does it mean, then, to say in an expression of gratitude that we’ve never seen a person begging for bread?
To me, this is the intersection between gratitude and responsibility. We are grateful for the bounty that we have. It’s okay to be grateful. It’s good to be grateful. After all, guilt and share are rarely productive emotions. And yet in our gratitude, we can hold responsibility for the society we live in, for people who are suffering and even more so for people whose suffering is tied up in deep inequity. Perhaps the unspoken end of the phrase “I’ve never seen a person begging for bread” is “because I did something about it. Because I acted when I saw need and even more so when I saw injustice.” Perhaps it’s time we all start to speak that phrase out loud.
Which brings me back to Thanksgiving. Try as I might, I cannot bring myself to be sorry that my ancestors traveled here from Europe. I can regret and hold responsibility for the harm that was done, and yet I cannot wish them back to the Europe of either the eighteenth or twentieth centuries (when my ancestors arrived on this land.) Even if I wanted to, I cannot change history—none of us can. What we can do is express thanks and feel gratitude, while also holding responsibility for injustice and acting to repair harm.
Maybe this year, in the days after we gathered cautiously with friends and family in our still-pandemic reality, we can take some time to focus on what it means to be grateful and hold responsibility simultaneously. Native Land Digital has created this map to help us locate the indigenous tribe on whose land we are living, to help raise consciousness. That can be a good start. And perhaps we can begin to understand that accepting responsibility doesn’t need to mean giving up the holidays we love, though it may mean that we celebrate them differently. We can live in that nuance without fear or shame, if we choose to live in that nuance with courage.
November 12, 2021
There are two narratives coming out of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. One trumpets the commitments made, the agreements entered into, the changes that are coming. The other blasts the goals as insufficient, demands more ambitious action, and questions the intentions of world leaders who took the stage but have not led by example.
Which narrative is true? Well . . . both.
We should be happy that global leaders have committed to ending deforestation and have set goals for reducing methane and carbon emissions. We should be happy to hear about investments in electric vehicle infrastructure and reducing plastics.
But happy isn’t the same as satisfied. To take the first step is important, especially if it has been delayed for far too long. To take the next step and the next and the next is even more important, and it requires a much higher level of commitment and a willingness to make hard, sometimes unpopular choices.
How often do we find ourselves tempted to equate happy with satisfied? Or to say that we took one performative step so surely we must be done and the problem must be solved— or at least we must no longer be responsible for it because we did our part.
On a long ago Rosh Hashanah, I remember the rabbi of the congregation I grew up in telling the story of when he got interested in observing Shabbat. A mentor advised him to make one change, do one act the following Friday. Maybe he could start lighting candles. Then the next week, do one more thing—maybe clean your room before you light candles. And one thing more and one thing more, until the day is marked as special from sundown to sundown. From this story came JVC’s long-time motto—go forth and do small things…to make a big difference in the world.
To take the first step is important, to commit to it even more so. And yet we can recognize that the first step is more performative than substantive, more for setting our intention that for marking the change we want to see.
At the recent Shoshana Cardin Symposium, Rabbi Shai Rishon highlighted the story of a person who challenged the scholar Hillel to teach him the entire Torah as he stood on one foot. Hillel famously responded “that which is hateful to you, don’t do to anyone else. Now go and study.” Rabbi Rishon focused on the often overlooked end of the quote – “now go and study.”
In last week’s board retreat, JVC’s leaders unpacked the reason that “go and study” is an important part of learning Torah, and it ties in to the disconnect in Glasgow also. It’s important to state an intention and to understand the framework for what you’re doing. Yet the work of learning Torah doesn’t end with the first time you declare your intention to do so, or even with the (self-focused) decision to identify what is hateful to you and commit not to do it to others. Nor does the act of declaring that climate change is a threat to humanity actually remove one drop of carbon from the atmosphere.
You want to make a change? Do something. Take the first step. Be proud of it. As the Chinese proverb says, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Then go forth and do small things, adding one to the next to the next. And go and study, to learn what next action you can take with your hands, your wallet, and your vote to make the difference you want to see in the world.
October 29, 2021
Last weekend, I had the privilege of reading the Haftarah at my synagogue and as always, the text was layered with meaning and substance. The narrative described two miracles by the prophet Elisha, who was an heir to the legacy of the prophet Elijah but who sadly rarely gets invited to anyone’s Passover Seder.
The haftarah included two stories where Elisha performed miracles. In both, the beneficiaries of the miracles had a reputation for good works – one was the widow of a man who had protected scholars from the king at great personal cost and the other was a woman who always offered Elisha hospitality when he was in her town. In both, the beneficiaries were served by a miracle that operated just at the edge of the natural laws—the widow paid her debts by selling oil poured from a bucket that seemingly had no bottom and the hospitable woman conceived a child after years of infertility.
One surface message seems clear. Good things happen to people who do good things for others. This message, while overly simplistic and apt to be misinterpreted to blame those in distress as being guilty of some wrongdoing, is nonetheless one that resonates with volunteers. We want to believe that our good service creates the “people helping people” world that we want to live in.
Another surface message resonates even more deeply for me. The main characters in these stories are both the beneficiaries and the perpetrators of acts of service at various points. Each of us, we can deduce, will be both the helper and the helped in our lives. We want to live in a community where people help people. We do that by taking the first steps ourselves and helping people in their moment of need, whether we anticipate the payback or not.
There are many layers to these stories but I’m just going to take it one level deeper. The end of the haftarah recounts the next chapter of the story of the childless woman. After being promised a child by Elisha, she does have a son. Several years later, the child experiences a sudden pain and dies in his mother’s arms. She rushes out to find the prophet Elisha and accuses him of not keeping his promise. He rushes back to the house and after an initial attempt by his colleague fails, is successful at rousing the child back to life.
What’s happening here? What does it mean when the woman says “Didn’t you promise me a child?” After delivering the miracle of the child’s conception, why does Elisha feel duty-bound to rush back and save the child upon his sudden death? He did his miracle. Isn’t he done? Shouldn’t the woman be grateful and have no further expectations of him?
That’s where we go a little deeper. When does our one-time work become an ongoing obligation? When does an act of service create an expectation of commitment? How do we hold responsibility for the work that we do?
At JVC, we’ve confronted this issue several times. When we began offering Bunches of Lunches on a weekly basis, it was a wonderful surprise for the organizations that we were serving. It was an extra benefit, a support on top of the work that they were doing.
Until it wasn’t. Until it became something that people were counting on, something that would be missed if JVC suddenly needed to take the week off because of, say, a holiday that prevented us from handling bread. For the record, our ability to engage secular partners to meet these moments is one of the things I am most proud of the JVC Team accomplishing in the last year—and after the extraordinary year that we had, that’s saying something.
We can learn from Elisha’s response to the woman. We understand, as he did, that our obligation doesn’t end at the point at which we’ve initially delivered the service, the point at which we feel really good and proud of our work. If we help today and the need is back tomorrow, we’re obligated to know that, to care about it even if we can’t assist. And to assist if we can. That’s the world we want to live in, the world where people help people in the way and to the extent that they need.
October 15, 2021
A few weeks ago, my husband and I fulfilled a long-ago Hanukkah gift promise to take the kids to Monticello to learn about Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers with whom they’ve become well acquainted through their love of the musical Hamilton. As we toured the grounds, we confronted a markedly different history than the one I was taught during a childhood visit to the plantation. We learned about both Jefferson’s leadership and inventiveness and his cruel and inhumane treatment of the enslaved individuals over whom he held power.
My children left the tour puzzled and disturbed. How could the visionary leader who penned the phrase “all men are created equal” so utterly fail to see the humanity of those people living closest to him? How could a leader who claimed his own right to political independence abuse a woman for years, denying her both freedom and control over her own body? Even more troubling, Jefferson himself knew the inhumanity of the slave system. In 1786, he wrote, “What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment or death itself in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment … inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose.”
How do we understand the disconnect between the visionary Thomas Jefferson and the slaver Thomas Jefferson? What does our tradition have to offer us to understand the flaws of even our most foundational leaders?
Last Shabbat, we read the Torah portion that tells us the story of Noah. In that parsha (portion of the text,) we read that the world had become so evil, G-d decided to destroy it and start over. Only Noah, “a righteous man in his generation” and his family would survive, and would be entrusted with the care of a pair of every type of animals, putting the seeds of rebirth on an ark that could withstand the deluge of the flood.
What do we know of Noah, this righteous man “in his generation?” Or as a d’var Torah I recently read asked, maybe the better question is what was the rest of humanity doing that was so awful and what wasn’t Noah doing within that context. The Jerusalem Talmud teaches that people in Noah’s generation knew just exactly how far they could push the envelope before getting into trouble, how much they could cheat, lie, and steal without it being considered a crime. According to this midrash, the wrong so grievous that it couldn’t be righted was to always look at how much one could get away with, rather than seeing one’s responsibility for the good of humanity. So the question still stands – where was Noah in all of this? Did he lie, cheat, and steal, just a little less than the others? Were his wrongs offset by the occasional kindness to a stranger? What did Noah do to exceed the expectations of his generation?
And what about Thomas Jefferson? What of the fact that Jefferson simultaneously set a vision for equality and freedom and yet knew and recognized the evil he was perpetrating? That he could say in 1814 “there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity” and yet do nothing about it, including the decision only to free seven enslaved persons in his will. Did he simply feel unable to push beyond the weight of the familiar, to take a stand for what he knew was right?
This last piece frustrated my kids. How, they asked, could anyone do something they knew was so harmful and wrong? They assured me that they would never do such a thing and couldn’t understand how anyone would.
“Are you sure?” I asked them this as we piled into our gas guzzling mini-van for the return trip home, pulling out our prepackaged snacks that had undoubtedly been made by underpaid labor and then shipped thousands of miles at great carbon cost to reach the big box store where we bought them. Do you not see how a person could violate their principles, do what they shouldn’t do in the name of convenience, familiarity, and even a bit of laziness and greed? Do you not see how hard it is to push back, to break with the familiar and find the righteous path? Did you not notice the sustainable choices we didn’t make on this trip, just to provide one small example? With our solar panels, our electric car, and our recognition of our own bias and privilege, I would generally consider our family righteous “in our generation.” But righteous against an actual standard of justice? Maybe not.
In a recent conversation as I was bemoaning my children sitting at home waiting for COVID test results after experiencing minor symptoms, I remarked that my frustration was a reflection of a culture that feels very common right now. I want the world to do the right thing. I want the rules to be strict, to protect my loved ones from harm and build a better future– I just don’t actually want the rules to apply to me. I want to be the exception, for my comfort and convenience to be paramount even as I recognize the correctness of the restriction I’m facing.
So yes, I understand how Thomas Jefferson could both recognize the inhumanity of the slave system and participate in it as an “enlightened individual.” I recognize the cognitive gymnastics that are involved in justifying decisions that we know are harmful, the ability to say that our one action won’t change the system, the ability to diminish or even deny another person’s humanity the moment it becomes inconvenient to recognize it.
It’s easier to be righteous in our generation than it is to be righteous. Easier to follow the right path most of the time, when it feels attainable and maybe even easy, easier to pass off the harder work to other people or future generations. The question for today is what it means to be righteous in this generation and how we might be able to exceed that standard.
October 1, 2021
The high holiday season which ended yesterday is all about rituals, transitions, cycles, and the opportunity to begin anew with ever more wisdom and experience. Within the month from Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah, we mark the creation of the world, focus on our own repentance, revisit both the fragility of awaiting the harvest and the experience of wandering in the desert, then conclude by ending and immediately restarting the story of our heritage as recorded in the Torah.
It is this last moment that got my attention this year. Each week on Shabbat, we read a section of the Torah. We read it. Perhaps we study it. Hopefully we learn something new from it. Then we put it away, confident that the next week, the next section will be there for us.
On Simchat Torah, we read the last section. We stand with Moses at the edge of the promised land, knowing that he won’t be going any further with the Israelite people but confident that their future is bright. Then we immediately begin again. We don’t wait a week, or a day, or even an hour. We finish one scroll, either put it away or spin it back to the beginning, and away with go with the story of creation.
Why? Why can’t we wait? Are we so eager that we just can’t wait to flip back to the beginning? Are we worried that if we roll out of the cycle and don’t immediately roll back in, we’ll lose our way?
I hope it’s the former but rather suspect there’s a good bit of the latter mixed in. I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial when I say that it’s harder to build a habit than it is to break it. It’s true with healthy diet and exercise, and it’s equally true with the habits of perpetual learning and intentional action.
We follow rituals to ground us in an ethical and moral framework that we’ve chosen. Through these rituals and traditions, we take away some of our choices and embrace a different kind of freedom. We might choose the ritual of observing Shabbat and gain the benefit (among others) of building a habit of breaking away from screens. We might choose the new practice of unlearning old biases and change the language we use, understanding that if we break this habit in private, we will miss the benefit (among others) of truly deepening our connection to humanity. We might choose the tradition of reading one book a month by an author who represents a community different than our own, and gain the benefit (among others) of building a habit of challenging our thinking.
On Simchat Torah, we come to the end of a cycle and we jump right back in without breaking stride. We take advantage of our momentum to continue to put ethical guardrails on our lives.
Let’s continue our path forward, even as we start the cycle again.
September 17, 2021
On Rosh Hashanah and again on Yom Kippur, there’s a section in the liturgy known as Unetaneh Tokef where we ask, in fear and in tremendous awe of G-d, what our collective future holds.
Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by flood? Who by earthquake and who by plague?
I don’t know about you but this year, the list felt more like the day’s headlines than the work of a poet from over a thousand year ago.
I wonder…is that a good thing or a bad thing? There’s something encouraging about knowing that our ancestors feared the same things we did, that they faced and survived the same threats that we do. Surely every generation has had its moments of believing that there’s no way out, that both individually and collectively, we are seeing the end of days. So it’s going to be okay? Right? Right??
This list of terrible fates is framed within a larger context of knowing that the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are days of judgment, days when each of us will be called to account for the things that we have done and the things that we have not. Whether you are religiously observant or not, whether you believe in an all-powerful judge or not, the idea of having a periodic calling to account is a powerful one. In these days of awe and repentance, we’re called to be honest with ourselves. Not about whether we are good people—no doubt, we all believe we are– but about whether we lived up to our responsibilities, took the just and ethical path, did better and learned more than in the year before. Did we live up to our own expectations and promises from a year ago? How are we doing in the balance between intention and action?
And the author is clear on where we are in this moment. This is not a “say you’re sorry and wipe the slate clean” moment. Through acts of repentance, tzedakah, and prayer, we can mitigate or reduce the divine judgment. So we may be able to avert the worst consequences of our harmful actions but there are still impacts we can’t avoid. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We’re hearing it from climate activists and public health officials every day.
Indeed, these words of guidance may be the most important lesson of our time. We can’t avoid the consequences of our collective action (or inaction) but we still have power to chart our course, to move off the most destructive path. Don’t give up, but do get busy.
At JVC, we often talk about the ABCs of charge – affective (feelings,) behavioral (actions,) and cognitive (thinking.) The author invites us to feel our way forward through genuine teshuvah (repentance,) to act our way forward through tzedakah (acts of justice and charity), and to think our way forward through tfilah (prayer.) What is the internal change we want to make? What is the external change we want to build toward?
Who will live and who will die? Who by water and who by fire? Who by earthquake and who by plague?
And what are we going to do about it?
September 3, 2021
The last two weeks have been full of anniversaries – good ones and hard ones. Last Monday, my husband and I marked 12 years of marriage—that’s the kind of anniversary that brings warm memories, celebration, gratitude, and
perhaps a thoughtful recommitment to the values and love that bring couples together. A week later, our nation marked the 16-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – that’s the kind of anniversary that would be best marked with memories but this year, brought another devastating hurricane instead. In the few days since, my extended family has marked both birthdays and days of loss. And so it goes, over and over and over again. Year after year. We mark time by moving from memory to memory, always adding to the thread that takes us back in our own history and connects us to the generations that have come before.
We are now entering a month of holidays that tie us not only to memory and history but to the very creation of the world. As we mark Rosh Hashanah, we express our gratitude for creation and the opportunity to start the cycle all over again. We move to Yom Kippur, where we consider our actions over the last year and commit to self-improvement. And on to Sukkot, where we remind ourselves that we cannot exist outside of the health of the land. Each holiday has its place in the calendar. Indeed, we count on finding these holidays in their proper place—sometimes early, sometimes late (but never on time.) We mark time by moving from holiday to holiday, tradition to tradition.
How do we understand our need for these fixed points in the calendar even as we move inexorably forward in time? How do we use these fixed points to give us something to look forward to when time is dragging, or to put on a brake when life seems to be barreling forward out of control, as it has been lately?
The journey forward can be a lonely one, an uncertain one. Anniversaries, holidays, and other markers on the calendar are about community; we do as those who came before us did. They put context to our lives and remind us we came from somewhere, that we belong somewhere. Sometimes they remind us of what we’ve overcome or serve as a warning for the future. What if we took every hard anniversary – every anniversary of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack—and turned it into a pledge to fight injustice and project our planet? What if we took the anniversary of a lost loved one to check in on an isolated neighbor or relative? What if we used the period from Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot and Simchat Torah to ask ourselves what our responsibility is for the future of creation and the people made in the image of G-d? What if we use the cycle of the year to set our path moving forward?
What if…we live our lives with intention? Let’s try it this year.
August 20, 2021
August 6, 2021
Growing up in the 1980s, I remember huddling in my bed at night, having just heard about the failure of one arms summit or another, fearing that the world would end in a bright light and a mushroom cloud before the sun rose the next day. I spent those nights praying that the leaders of the US and USSR would just do nothing. If they would just do nothing, then nothing bad would happen. After all, it takes an action to start a nuclear war.
I suspect that in many ways “do nothing and everything will be fine” is the mantra of my Gen X generation. Don’t start a nuclear war. Don’t do drugs. Don’t drink and drive. All generally well-intentioned advice. Do nothing and nothing bad will happen.
It reminds me of a folk tale. A girl named Yetta lived in a small town. As a child, Yetta never did anything wrong. When other students in her school bullied and teased a classmate, Yetta never joined in. When other students cheated, Yetta did her own work. As an adult, Yetta continued on her straight and narrow path. When her neighbors figured out how to cheat their way out of paying into the tzedakah (charity) fund, Yetta didn’t participate and she always paid her fair share. When people in her neighborhood were discriminated against because of where they came from, Yetta never joined in and she was always kind to everyone she met.
Yetta grew old and eventually she died. When her good deeds and her bad deeds were weighed on a heavenly scale, her good deeds won overwhelmingly. After all, Yetta never did anything wrong. The angels who oversaw the scale were so impressed that they said “Yetta, you lived such a righteous life. You can have anything you want, do anything you want. What can we do for you? World peace? End a plague? Save a town from fire?” Yetta thought about the angels’ offer and said, “If I can have anything I want, I think I would like a muffin with jelly every morning when I wake up.”
The angels were, of course, shocked. As I assume you were. As you should be. After all, Yetta was a righteous person, wasn’t she? She never did anything wrong.
Actually, Yetta never did anything at all.
And that’s what I’ve had to learn in my own journey toward justice. The mantra of “do nothing” doesn’t work today. In truth, it never worked but that truth was hidden to me under the layers of privilege through which I saw the world. “Do nothing” requires us to see nothing, to close our eyes to the injustice and needs around us, to start by establishing the status quo as the way things ought to be. Yetta did what she was supposed to do, yet she did not see the world around her so when she had a chance to act, her interest was entirely self-involved.
As climate activist Greta Thunberg said recently on social media, “Some people make it seem as if we’re not doing enough to stop the climate crisis. But that’s not true. Because to not do enough, you have to do something. And the truth is that we are basically not doing anything…”
Doing nothing is an action too. It’s the decision to choose the status quo in spite of its harm. It’s the decision to put one’s own interests ahead of the communal good. It’s the refusal to ask oneself who is being harmed in any given situation. It’s the decision to stay quiet and not to speak up in the face of injustice or even existential threat.
Pirke Avot tells us “Not learning but doing is the main thing.” We make choices all day, every day. We need to recognize that each action is a choice, an action, a move toward justice or away from it but never neutral. Knowing the right thing to do and having the courage to do it are not the same activity. The latter requires a commitment to action, together with the courage to act in the face of resistance.
Let’s all commit to doing something today.
July 23, 2021
I turn to one side and see that I’m not doing enough, not pushing hard enough for change, not using my voice to name all the ways in which our society is failing to meet its own vision of justice and freedom.
I turn to the other side and see that I’m going too far too fast, pushing people beyond where they are ready to go and causing them to turn aside and shut my voice out altogether.
I turn this way and that, round and round. What I am supposed to do? How does my voice fit into the cacophony?
I turn back. To my first teacher of Torah. And to his friends and teachers, who I was able to learn from at a Shabbat celebration of his special birthday. And they gifted me the story of Serach bat Asher.
Serach bat Asher is a too often overlooked female hero of the Torah and commentary. As the granddaughter of the patriarch Jacob, her story is told almost entirely in the midrash (oral tradition). The tradition teaches that when the time comes to tell Jacob that his beloved son Joseph is alive, there is a concern that the shock may kill him. Serach is tasked with communicating the message to him, which she does by singing a song. She sings, “Joseph my uncle did not die, he lives and rules all the land of Egypt.” She repeats the lyrics of the song (which rhyme in Hebrew) over and over and they gently penetrate Jacob’s consciousness until he begins to understand what she is saying. Her song is followed by the triumphant arrival of Jacob’s sons, who bear the same message but are accompanied by a parade of horses, chariots, and royal accoutrements. By this time, however, Jacob is prepared and having processed his initial surprise, he responds with great enthusiasm and prepares to go see his son in Egypt.
Serach is the lynchpin of this story. She is able to communicate in a way that Jacob can hear. She helps him understand without shocking him to the point of death. Her voice penetrates, overcomes the obstacle of what Jacob “knows” to be true, and helps him cope with the trauma of seeing the world differently. She saves his life, while also giving him the gift of truth.
I turn this way and that. I see and learn from people who see the world as it should be and will stand for nothing less than building that reality. I see and empathize with the people who cannot bear the pain of confronting past injustices from which they have benefited and continue to benefit, consciously or not. New information, even when deeply hoped for, can be traumatizing when it challenges the world as we know it. I strive to make my voice a bridge. I strive to make JVC’s work a bridge.
For her role in reuniting Jacob with Joseph, Serach is gifted long life. Very long. Tradition teaches that she lives through all the years of slavery, helps to identify Moses as the long-awaited redeemer, and perhaps plays a role with King David as well. Some traditions hold that Serach has actually never died but awaits the future in the Garden of Eden.
While we can’t know if the miraculous aspects of Serach’s long-life are true as we understand truth, there is great power in the idea that a person who can communicate in ways that others can hear has gained longevity, in impact if not in years of life. Henry David Thoreau said, “It takes two to speak the truth. One to speak and the other to listen.” Serach’s story adds nuance to that idea. It takes two to speak. One to speak in a way that can be heard. The other to listen and not shy away from shocking or difficult information.
There are many ways to bend the arc of the universe toward justice, all valuable and all necessary. Through my work, I strive to be Serach, to speak in ways that can be heard, to move people gently and firmly toward new truths and ultimately toward hard internal confrontations and new and different actions.
I want to thank Rabbi Steve Sager and the scholars who joined Beth El in Durham for his special birthday. You are an inspiration.
July 9, 2021
This week represented an interesting intersection of Independence Day in the United States and the “three weeks” period in Jewish tradition, a time of mourning that leads to Tisha B’av, the day that marks the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. These markers of national creation and destruction both create the opportunity to ask what we do to build toward a national vision that we believe in.
Most residents of the United States understand the basic tenants of the Independence Day holiday. With an emerging national identity as Americans, a commitment to the concept of self-rule, and a vision of the great potential of a democratic nation, America’s founders declared their independence from the British empire and the rule of the monarchy. Our history books have traditionally not done justice to some of the other factors that played into the desire for American independence – among them, a desire to expand territorially at the expense of indigenous communities with whom the British had treaties and a regional commitment to the institution of slavery even as it was slowly ending elsewhere in Great Britain. The vision of the founding fathers was, as good visions often are, broader than their ability to achieve or even understand it. Their vision included equality, democracy, and the ability for a person’s worth to be judged by their contributions and character rather than by a rigid social structure. At the same time, American independence was restricted to legal freedom for white men only, a vision that falls far short of what we recognize as freedom and justice today. America’s founding and history is a study in contradictions—much to be proud of, much to answer for, much to work toward.
At the same time, we sit in the midst of this most difficult three-week period in the Jewish year. We learn that the destruction of the Second Temple was due to “causeless hatred” and tradition points us to the story of two men whose personal dispute boiled over into a communal betrayal and the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. We also look back at the history of historic (not modern) Israel and see a narrative that goes from a strong commitment to G-d to a betrayal of the ideals of the Torah and a sliding toward idol-worship and injustice. In this three-week period, we are invited to think about the gifts we’ve been given, the world we want to build, and the price we pay for destructive actions.
This year, as I sat with the complexities of Independence Day and the sadness of the days before Tisha B’av, I was struck by a meme on Facebook. It said “Happy Independence Day. What revolution are you gong to start today?”
Interesting question. The United States, at its core, was founded through a revolution. The Israelite nation and the construction of the Temple represented twin revolutions – one military to conquer the land and one political as the Israelite people insisted on having a king (against the guidance of G-d) instead of the system of judges that initially ruled the land. How do we take the complex legacies of both the United States and Jewish history to identify the revolution that needs to be started today? Not a political revolution necessarily. Not a violent one, certainly. Maybe a personal revolution, a decision to lead with honest reflection and equity. Maybe a cultural revolution, a decision to speak out about injustice and to call out the harm that is done by causeless hatred and self-obsession. Maybe a communal revolution, a decision to be part of communities that lead with love and not with hate.
We can look at the twin poles marking the creation of the United States and the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and understand that we live in the potential that exists between creation and destruction. We live in the decisions that take us from vision to action and from hope to consequence.
What revolution of good will you start today?
June 25, 2021
Each year that we’re privileged to spend a week at the beach, I ask the ocean what lessons it has to teach me. Without fail, the powerful forces of the ocean, the beach, and the raw nature at the edge of the water will speak to me when I’m ready to hear. This year, the lesson literally swept me off my feet.
One day, as I stood “still” in the water, I noticed how strong the current was. Before I realized it, I was more than a hundred yards north of where I had entered the water. I started swimming furiously back to where I started and after half a minute, realized that I had gotten….nowhere. I hadn’t moved farther north but was also no closer to home. I went farther toward shore where I could more comfortably walk and started the long slog back south, only to have waves sweep my feet out from under me every few seconds and move me back to the north. I could make no progress at all to get to where I wanted to be. Even though I was in no particular danger, being less than 5 feet from shore and with energy to spare, the moment I realized that I couldn’t move toward my goal was a scary one. I wondered what I would do if I were farther out to sea, if my kids were with me in the water, if I were in deeper water and being pulled out in addition to sideways. I know what to do in a riptide, theoretically, but would I be able to put it into practice and would the last step – Signal for Help – be heeded if I needed it?
I was reminded of all the times I’ve heard about the challenges of getting out of poverty, of the nearly insurmountable forces that continually buffet people about and set back their progress toward the goal of economic self-sufficiency. What if, instead of water, the current was the continual stream of expenses of daily living – food, housing, medical bills? What if my best efforts to swim against the current, which were adequate to stay alive but let’s just say less than Olympic level, were a full time job making less than a living wage? What if, instead of water, the waves were a broken down car, a leaky roof, or an unexpected illness? What if I couldn’t make or sustain progress toward my goal, kept drifting farther down or out to sea, and no one was nearby and able to help? What would that do to my energy and ability to keep trying?
To solve my problem, I turned toward shore and got my feet under me. After a few strong waves, I got myself safely, if inelegantly, to the beach. And in less than a minute, with the barriers removed, I was right where I wanted to be.
I have no doubt that a stronger swimmer than me would have been able to surmount the current I struggled with, might even have been able to keep their feet under them when the waves hit…but there are more swimmers like me than swimmers like Michael Phelps. My experience was that of the profoundly average.
Let me say that again….my experience was that of the profoundly average. And while there are certainly inspiring stories of people who begin their lives with the odds stacked against them and make it to economic self-sufficiency using sheer grit, raw talent, and overcoming all obstacles, the world we live in is mostly made up of the average (that’s generally what we mean by “average.”)
So before you judge a person for their circumstances, ask yourself what the current is like where they are. Ask yourself if you would be able to withstand it, and whether the privilege of being closer to shore or having a boat (like inherited wealth or a salary that allows you to save money monthly) instead of fighting the current from in the water, might make your circumstances different. Ask yourself not whether the person being pulled by the current should be stronger but whether you can help them reach the beach where the absence of obstacles allows an average person’s average skills to be sufficient.
June 11, 2021
A few years ago, I watched a fascinating documentary about the construction of the St. Louis Arch. What struck me was how much had to be built, and ultimately deconstructed, in order for the arch to go up. Since then, I’ve noticed how often we build things in order to build things, at wh
ich point we unbuild the things we built so that we could build the thing we actually wanted to have. To build a skyscraper, we must first build a massive amount of scaffolding, bring in elevators, and create whole structures in order to hold equipment and protect people from the job site. Indeed, historical buildings are often encased completely in a temporary structure of metal scaffolding in order to stabilize them for renovation All those supports will come down before the buildings are ready for use but all those supports are critical to success.
I wonder… do we build temporary structures in order to build permanent ones in other areas of our lives? The idea of scaffolding instruction is an innovative theory in education today. The concept is to build on experiences and knowledge to build further skills and knowledge, with increasingly little support needed. For example, scaffolds like holding a child’s hand are removed as the child develops skills and confidence in walking.
In many cases, the scaffold can simply be removed when it’s no longer needed. At the same time, how often do we teach children something (hopefully benign) that they will ultimately need to actively unlearn? Whether it’s believing in the tooth fairy or assuring kids that thunderstorms are just the clouds talking to the rain, we build a world of fantasy to prepare children to face their fears. When they’re ready, they may unlearn these “truths” on their own, slowly or in a moment of epiphany, or we may need to step in and help them with their unlearning.
Does this apply at a societal level? One of the principles of the justice movement is the idea of restorative justice. Restorative justice, reparations, and other programs that are intended to create equity can be thought of as temporary (but not short term) structures that help to create the ability to build the equitable society to which we aspire.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, there was a recognition that people who had survived the Holocaust had been harmed in many ways. Their property and wealth had been taken, their health permanently damaged, and the psychological trauma could barely be conceived of. The Holocaust reparations program was the building built around the survivors. It ensured that, while their loss and trauma couldn’t be undone, they would be entitled to special care for the rest of their lives—care that might help to compensate for challenges in working, ongoing trauma, and for the lost wealth that had to be rebuilt in order to achieve financial stability.
So what does the scaffolding of restorative justice look like in this country? What are the buildings that need to be built? What have we started to build and what still needs to be created? Laws that guarantee equitable treatment are not scaffolding – they help to articulate the world as it should be. Programs that favor an historically disenfranchised population are scaffolding. Where both formal and informal injustices have meant that a community has not been allowed to develop and maintain wealth and has been subject to health disparities that lower both length and quality of life, the scaffolding of restorative justice may need to look like generations of “special treatment” to close that gap – which has to be closed by creating equitable opportunities and also by helping people to recognize and challenge their implicit biases in hiring, property valuation, health equity and criminal justice. That is not the quick work of bringing in a ladder to get to the top of the building – that is the slow, painstakingly honest work of holding up the building while rebuilding it from the ground up in a new way.
Someday, the scaffolding will come down around Notre Dame Cathedral and it will be a wondrous masterpiece of architecture for the world to enjoy again. Someday, perhaps, the scaffolding can come down around the American vision of equality for all people and we’ll realize that we have a stable and equitable society and that we’ve achieved justice in the true sense of the word. Until that day, however, we need to recognize that our structural foundation is shaky, that people are slipping through the broken floorboards, and that the scaffolding of restorative justice is a critical part of building the country that we all agree we want to see – one where all people are treated equal.
Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice, Shall you Pursue.
May 28, 2021
If you need an uplifting experience (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t these days?) try this. Pick a person or people that you both like and respect. Ask other people to tell you nice things about them. Let the joy flow.
I got to do this twice recently. For the JVC annual meeting, we created a scrapbook honoring outgoing chair Terry Willner and a video honoring the JVC staff. For each, we asked people to submit letters, pictures, or short videos expressing their gratitude for the people being honored. It was a highlight of my year to receive these materials, to go through them and see the impact that these special people have had on so many of their peers.
Amid all the tragedy, tension, and trauma of these last few weeks and the ongoing challenges of living in a pandemic, these letters were a welcome break. And the best part was that I could be wholly filled with joy at the privilege of getting to share them. There was no humility needed, no question of whether I was bragging or showing off. It was someone else’s accomplishments I was sharing, someone’s else’s ego that I got to build.
And it got me thinking. What if we all spent more time celebrating each other? We live in a world that all too often ties our “right” to another person’s “wrong”, our happiness to another person’s failure. Social media would have us believe that it’s not enough to have a great vacation, it must also be better than anyone else’s. It’s not enough to do well on the test – we’re grading on a bell curve in our society and someone has to fail.
Yet Jewish wisdom teaches us that it is wholly wrong to tie our happiness to another person’s distress. In fact, not coveting your neighbor’s possessions is a really important law in Judaism. Not to be competitive on which commandments are most important or anything, but this one made the top ten!
I wish I had the time right now to do a deeper dive into why that is. Why is jealousy so dangerous as to be mentioned in one of the ten commandments? We’ll come back to that this summer.
For now, I will take another piece of advice from the Torah – we will do (first) and we will learn (also). Join me. Let’s look for our friends’ good news, compliments, and proud moments and just be happy for them. Let’s enjoy looking through the photos of a vacation we don’t have time to take. Let’s be excited for someone to earn a fair wage without comparing it to our own. Let’s learn from a person with knowledge without being threatened by their expertise. Let’s celebrate with the person who got that new car we can’t afford.
And if that exercise is difficult, let’s let it be difficult. Keep doing it.
And if that exercise makes it easier to empathize with someone we care about, maybe it will have the side benefit of making it easier to empathize with a stranger. And maybe it will help us all realize that our freedom is bound up with each other’s, that our joy is incomplete when another person is suffering.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to think about the many people who thanked me for giving them the platform to celebrate Terry, Erica, Abby, Alli, Alex, Cicily, and the entire JVC team.
May 14, 2021
Up and down. Back and forth. Here and there. Over and over again.
That pretty well sums up how I feel these days. There’s optimism about the pandemic’s course in Maryland, coupled with devastation about the overwhelming toll it’s taking in India and fear that the next variant, the next surge, is right around the corner. There’s excitement that younger teens in the US can now be vaccinated, coupled with frustration at our nation’s continuing struggle to provide equitable access to all people, and growing fury at those people who simply refuse to be vaccinated. It’s hard to keep my head from spinning…and that’s just the pandemic.
My heart hurts as I see friends and family in Israel suffering, terrorized, and hurting both physically and emotionally under the burden of rockets raining down on them. I am temporarily lifted to see statements that reinforce the humanity of people on both sides of this conflict, yet I feel myself slipping ever closer toward losing my own empathy in favor of the promise of momentary security for people I love. To recapture my own humanity, I’ve pushed myself to read articles and consider the perspectives of people I disagree with, even as I remain committed to the idea that any one-sided perspective that fails to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish refuge can only ever serve to put Jews in danger.
And through it all, overlying it all, is an existential fear for the future of the planet. As the temperature and the winds have mimicked my moods – up, down, up, down, over and over again, I wonder constantly whether we have the wisdom and commitment to make changes.. and whether it’s already too late.
I am exhausted… I want to get in my car (let’s pretend it would be the all-electric one), drive to the beach, and just escape into the peace the waves bring me.
And I can.
I want to crawl under the sheets, pick up a bad romance novel, and lose myself in a book I know has a happy ending
And I can.
That, my friends, is privilege. The ability to step back from what’s overwhelming you and put it away long enough to take a deep breath.
At 2:00 a.m. on the first night of Shavuot (Sunday night/Monday morning,) I’ll be leading a workshop on the way that Jewish tradition and the Carolina Way can be merged into leadership lessons for the moment. While leading this session in the middle of the night may not actually help with my exhaustion, the preparation for it has been an enormous gift as we look at what it means to Play Hard, Play Smart, and Play Together. Specifically, we will look at what it means to Play Hard. It means be all in when you’re in. And all out when you’re out. Know when your breaks are coming and know how to give the “tired signal” when you need it.
There is tremendous privilege in being able to take a break. Recognize it, own it… and do it anyway. Whether it’s the structured break of Shabbat or the unstructured break of turning off the news long enough to decompress, our ability and willingness to step back benefits ourselves and others because when we are re-energized, we are more effective activists and actors.
Up and down. Back and forth. Here and there. Over and over again. This is life.
April 30, 2021
I want to give credit to my colleague Abigail Malischostak for getting me thinking about counting, as she prepared Jewish source texts for our recent Bunches of Lunches anniversary gathering. We started talking about all the things we “count up to” on a regular basis.
We count the days of the week, the month, and the year. We count toward milestones like birthdays, holidays, and the last day of school. In Israel, the names of the weekdays are a count toward Shabbat. We count to mark time in anticipation of something exciting.
We count the days of the Omer, a period of time that takes us from the Exodus at Passover to the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai at Shavuot, and also takes us from the planting to the first wheat harvest. The Omer traditionally also marks a period when a great plague swept through Rabbi Akiva’s academy, decimating the students as a punishment for their ill treatment of each other. During the Omer, we count to get us through a period of mourning and anxiety.
We count acts of service for JVC. Each year, we set quantitative goals and we report our data scrupulously to see how close we are to having our count reach our goal. We count to understand our impact.
The pandemic has focused our attention on another sort of counting. What does it mean to count when there is no goal? No time-bound milestone that we can see?
The pandemic and related disruptions to our life began over a year ago. To give the specific date, I believe this Blursday will mark day number five million and seven of the pandemic disruptions (or something like that—I stopped looking at a calendar sometime last summer.) And we see somewhere in the future that there may be a return to a life closer to what we remember. Can we count toward that date? Not really– in spite of the desire of many people to fix an end date to the pandemic, the virus seems to have the final say for now. And somehow, counting without an end date in mind just doesn’t have the same ability to motivate us, as we’ve seen consistently through behaviors that are counter-productive to the goal but indicate an understandable unwillingness to live with disruption when it feels like it will last forever.
As we’ve counted Bunches of Lunches, we’ve gone back and forth on whether we are counting to understand impact or whether we want to set goals and work toward them. We know the bar will move each time we hit a milestone, yet having that goal in mind is motivating and inspiring. We started Bunches of Lunches with the goal of 300 meals. We’re now honing in on 60,000. When we hit that number, we’ll move the bar and set another goal. We don’t have to but we’re a goal-oriented society. Show me the finish line and I’ll help you get there.
Our ancestors understood the importance of counting toward a goal, of envisioning the point we are trying to reach. We work for 6 days each week to get to Shabbat, a day that is not defined by the sun, the moon, or the stars, but only by the Torah and our human connection to the divine. We count the Omer because we know that fixing our sights on the end of a bad time will help us get through it. We know it will end so we count our way through it (there’s an interesting parallel to labor contractions here but that’s a blog for another day.)
As we start to believe in a post-pandemic world, how can we resist the urge to set an arbitrary end date and count toward it? How can we use counting to motivate us to continue the public health practices that will get us to the end point, whenever it may come?
Maybe we set our goals differently when we can’t count toward a fixed end date. Maybe this is the week that one household will reach its pandemic goal of 100 meals donated. Maybe we start each day or each week by establishing a reward – an online chat with a friend, a favorite movie, a special meal, an act of service—and counting toward it. Maybe we count down – watching a dwindling number of new cases and new deaths and being grateful for every future life that will not be lost if we continue down our current path.
Thanks to Rabbi Hillel and his ruling on Hanukkah candles, we Jews count up more than we count down. We count toward, not away from. We count to increase holiness. We count to fix ourselves in the world, not just on it.
May our days increase and may we always have a exciting horizon to count toward.
April 16, 2021
(shared from my submission to the Na’aleh Leadership Insights Series)
Over my career in Baltimore, I’ve been fortunate to learn from nationally known experts and to hone my leadership style alongside professional and lay peers. Yet in the midst of this pandemic, I’ve come to realize that in truth, my leadership style was hard coded into me as a child. It is known, simply, as The Carolina Way.
Having grown up in Chapel Hill, NC in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve long known the influence of legendary basketball coach Dean Smith on the culture and ethics of the community of my youth. It’s only been in the last year, though, that I’ve realized how much that culture has influenced me as a leader and, through me, the team at Jewish Volunteer Connection.
The core values of The Carolina Way are: Play Hard. Play Smart. Play Together. Last January, the JVC team reorganized our work flow to better define roles, clarify areas of overlap, and better understand how our job functions were deeply interconnected. The goal of the process was to help the team play together by playing smart. The result of the process was to bring into sharp relief not only the close bonds the team felt but also the significant confusion that actually existed about roles and handoffs.
Enter the pandemic. Weeks of working remotely turned into months, responsibilities shifted and grew, and fortunately, a vacant position was filled to complete the team. As the pace picked up leading into our traditional busy season (winter,) this tightly knit team began to show signs of strain. When there’s too much to do, a miscommunication that creates extra work feels personal. When you can’t step into your colleague’s office, a question unasked leads to an assumption that shouldn’t be made… and frustration leads to further breakdowns in communication. When you can’t see your colleagues, it becomes too easy to believe that you are the only one who is overwhelmed. The team continued to care deeply about each other and about the work…but it just didn’t feel like fun anymore.
As I began to recognize this troubling trend, I was immediately reminded of some of the Carolina basketball team’s most famous moves – “point at the passer” and “raise your fist.” Coach Smith insisted that any player who scored a basket had to point to the player who passed him the ball. Shooters get the public credit but no player acts alone. Focusing on gratitude even as you celebrate success ensures that all members of the team are recognized for their contribution. At JVC, we’ve started “pointing to the passer” in our weekly staff meetings. As a Jewish organization, we know that gratitude is literally baked into our identity – the name Jew comes from the tribe of Judah (Yehuda,) whose name translates as “I am grateful.” Through this practice, team members thank each other for help with programming, planning, or just being there to talk. More than just celebrating organizational success, this practice pushes us to recognize the importance of the team to our own work.
“Raising your fist” while playing basketball at UNC means that you’re tired and need a breather. A player who takes himself out of the game can also determine when he’s ready to go back in. Players who recognize their own personal limits are players who are focused on the good of the team. At JVC, we’ve implemented this practice as part of our team huddles. Team members are invited to ask for help as they begin to become overwhelmed. We ask team members to say they need help before the crisis hits. Help will always be available to the team member who asks. Like the Tar Heels, we’ve built a culture where needing a break or asking for assistance is a sign of good judgment and dedication to the team. Because we play hard, we need to play together. As his father-in-law Yitro had to point out, even Moses couldn’t do it all himself and needed to involve others before his exhaustion turned to resentment and poor performance.
As part of this new process of defining the JVC Way, we’ve defined “wins” – clarifying that volunteers, nonprofit partners and our staff all have to be satisfied with an interaction for it to be fully deemed a success. We’ve defined “losses” – failing to meet goals certainly but also acting outside of our ethics and values, or wearing down our team beyond a healthy point. We’ve clarified who our “opponent” is – no easy task in JVC’s niche environment. Through these conversations, we are beginning to unpack the things that our team needs the most to be successful– we are fortunate to have a deeply committed team that is engaging fully and honestly in this process.
Even now, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface toward fully realizing how the Carolina Way will become the JVC Way. As we’ve ritualized gratitude and team-centered work, we’ve also begun to talk about using rituals and practice strategies to build skill and purpose around tasks we dread. We’ve talked about the roles of confidence, focus, practice, and ritual in creating success when the pressure’s on – whether it’s the last few seconds of the big game or the final preparation for a big event.
As we move forward, we will remember that a team doesn’t have to be together to play together. By working hard, working smart, and working together, we will be satisfied with the work we produce, we’ll win more than we don’t, and we’ll have fun while doing meaningful work. Most importantly, our team will continue to grow together.
In this process, I have used the book The Carolina Way by Dean Smith, John Kilgo and Gerald Bell as my source text.
March 19, 2021
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. And, if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning.”
This quote is one that I’ve written about before. When I first heard it at President Clinton’s inauguration, it grabbed me in a way that few other lines of poetry ever have. Over time, I’ve realized that the sentiment expressed in this poem is one that is deeply resonant with my understanding of what it is to be a Jew, and of what it is to be an American. It’s one that I think about as I think about the legacy I want to leave for my children and my community, through my actions, my writing, my decisions, and my philanthropy.
“And you shall teach your children on that day.” When we sit down to read the Haggadah next weekend at our Passover Seders, we will be reminded of our responsibility to history and to the future. To see ourselves as if we had personally come out of Egypt. To teach our children that we were strangers in a strange land.
We are commanded to see ourselves in our history and to bring the next generation along on that journey. Yet the Torah makes it very clear that the history we must learn is that of a deeply flawed humanity. The story of the Exodus begins hundreds of years earlier, when an arrogant young man infuriates his brothers and they retaliate by selling him into slavery. These, of course, are the ancestors who make up the tribes of Israel—the very people who form our national identity as a Jewish people. Even the heroes who lead the Israelites out of Egypt are not presented as one-dimensional heroes. Brave, joyful Miriam is banned from the camp for her critical gossip. Brave, regal Aaron consents to the building of the Golden Calf. And wise, powerful Moses himself has moments when he’s quick to anger and oversteps his role as G-d’s messenger.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. And, if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” That’s the extraordinary thing about our sacred text. We aren’t asked to ignore our flawed ancestors. We aren’t asked to believe that our history contains only perfect people. Instead, we’re invited to see the humanity in their heroism, to see both their faith and their struggles. More than invited, we’re commanded to see ourselves in their narrative, to see ourselves in the miracle at the Red Sea and equally in the incident with the golden calf. Our ancestors’ mistakes can be our learning, but only if we choose to see them with brutal honesty.
As we sit down to the Passover Seder as Jews and as Americans, let’s revel in the miracle of the exodus from Egypt. Let’s rejoice in the opening of the Red Sea and let’s join G-d in mourning the loss of Egyptian life when it closed. Let’s appreciate what it means to be chosen and at the same time, let’s look honestly at what freedom and responsibility look like, and understand how quickly we can move from good intentions to bad actions when we’re scared and uncertain.
Let’s face history with courage as part of creating the legacy we will leave for future generations. Let’s see ourselves as if we personally had gone out from Egypt. Let’s tell our children on that night.
Chag Sameach (have a good holiday.)
March 5, 2021
One of my favorite parts about periodically reading the haftarah for Shabbat services at my synagogue is the chance to really pore over the (English translation of the) text, both in order to introduce the haftarah before I chant it and to make sure that I’m infusing the trope (melody) with as much of the meaning of the words as I can. As I sit down with what are often very poetic texts from the prophets, it’s always remarkable to me how relevant these ancient texts are to today’s world.
Last week’s haftarah didn’t disappoint. On the cusp of the Israelite’s return to the land of Israel following the destruction of the first Temple and the exile to Babylonia, the prophet Ezekial presents a powerful—and highly detailed– vision of a rebuilt Temple. The prophecy he offers, however, has a caveat. To achieve this inspiring vision, people need to remember G-d and follow the laws of the Torah. In other words, the future can be brighter if you’re willing to do the work.
What strikes me about this text is the presentation of a vision as part of delivering a moral imperative. We closed this week’s JVC Board Retreat with an exercise called a Destination Postcard. Each board member was encouraged to write or draw a vision of what will be happening when they have arrived at their “destination” as a JVC leader. What are they doing? What’s happening around them? What has changed?
The purpose of naming and documenting the vision is multifold. It’s inspiring – if I like the vision of the destination, I’m willing to do the work to get there. It’s clarifying – if I know where I’m going, I can tell when I’m making progress and when I’ve gone off course. It builds confidence – if I can name the destination, it raises my belief that it’s possible to get there.
In the last year, there have been moments when it’s been hard to believe that we would ever achieve anything resembling the “normal” that we knew before the pandemic. In those moments, it was helpful to name the things I missed the most, to make tentative plans even if they were on a flexible and long-term timeline. Like the prophecy from Ezekial, it was helpful to articulate the vision of what we’re building toward, especially since what we hope to build toward is not exactly the same as what we left behind a year ago.
Like COVID-19, the pandemic of racial injustice is also pervasive in our world. Here, the connection that struck me wasn’t just the setting of a vision but the detail and clarity of it. Ezekial describes the new Temple in excruciating detail—cubits (a unit and measurements,) materials, and more. The detail both gave life to the vision and also made it clear that not any Temple would do – the imperative was to create the one that G-d demands. Similarly, to achieve a more just society, we need to focus more on creating a common language, to understanding what we mean when we use certain terms or opt not to use others. We need to understand what it means to be “economically self-sufficient” and how that differs from being employed. We need to understand what it means to be “given a fair chance” and that it’s not a term that can be applied in one situation without context. We need to understand what a “level playing field” looks like and that it doesn’t suddenly appear when you’re an adult and first apply for a job.
Like Ezekial’s prophecy, our ability to name our destination and to apply detail to its description can help to motivate us to do the hard work of living the moral and ethical lives that we’re asked to live. No one promises that it will be easy but with a vision in mind, it can at least seem possible.
February 19, 2021
As much as we all like the idea of vacations and even staycations have their appeal, it’s difficult to step away from work. The work never ends, the requests are unceasing, the needs don’t go away, and the combination of guilt for things undone and dread about the pile that we’ll return to can make it feel like a burden to walk away.
As usual, Jewish tradition has wisdom to share.
The traditional observance of Shabbat creates a break from the world of work and the acquisition of things. As Abraham Joshua Heschel says in The Sabbath, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”
By rejecting the tyranny of things of space one day a week, you gain freedom by giving up control. You don’t choose to walk away from work. Rather, you’re forbidden to work. You don’t choose to avoid social media and the constant onslaught of news, opinions, and requests. Rather, you’re forbidden to look at them. For 24 hours, the guilt is gone. The choice taken away. Sometimes, it’s easier to say “I can’t,” than it is to say “I choose not to and that’s reason enough.”
These concepts were among the thoughts that went through my head a couple of months ago when we made the decision that we would close the JVC office for President’s Day weekend. The JVC staff worked tirelessly through the national holidays for Christmas and MLK Day. We earned comp time for these days, yet there’s a difference in workload when you return from a day off than when the whole office is closed. We needed to close the office, to push people away from their to do lists and their email, and we needed to give ourselves the gift of a work Shabbat, the gift of guilt-free time off when the world slows down and you don’t have to scramble to catch up when you come back.
In a pandemic that has blurred the lines between work and home and has put almost all communication on the other end of a screen, it’s become even more difficult to create firm boundaries and protect our need to rest, to recenter ourselves, to remember miracles both large and small, to focus on gratitude. Accepting the gift of a day off means giving ourselves permission to look up and see the world around us.
Having a few days off and feeling the peer pressure not to check or respond to email was a good reminder to me about the gift that a mandated day of rest represents. In this area, as in so many others, the wisdom of our sacred tradition carries into today.
February 05, 2021
There are weeks that we read a portion of the Torah in shul and we struggle to make sense of it and find relevance to the world today.
This is not one of those weeks.
Last Saturday, we read the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We followed the Israelites as they fled slavery so fast that they didn’t have time for their bread to rise and in our minds, many of us danced along with Miriam and her timbrels as she stepped confidently into the path formed by the splitting of the Red Sea. Some of us felt the urgent pull of the future on the other side of that vast water. Others of us may have connected with the people at the end of the line, those who wouldn’t step into the path until they saw the community go before them. Or maybe we even empathized with the people who stayed behind, who couldn’t bring themselves to trust in an uncertain and unseen future. After all, the last time their ancestors had taken a long journey to an unknown land, it had led them into slavery.
For the Israelites, Egypt represented a life that was both utterly intolerable and yet familiar in its routines. They knew what to expect in Egypt, awful as it was. The path forward toward Israel represented a hopeful dream, yet there were so many unknowns and barriers in the way. Would they make it? Should they chance it? Would they even know when they were safe?
We’re in a moment like that right now. For a year (fortunately not 400 years!) we’ve stayed away from others, we’ve worked and learned from home in less than ideal circumstances, we’ve struggled with anxiety and isolation. Many people risked their lives every day to take care of others. We’ve parented while working; we’ve worked while being tech support and teacher’s aide. We’ve buried so many loved ones that the pain has become unbearable. We’ve been enslaved by the pandemic in so many ways, yet we made our way through each day until we reached a reality that felt both utterly intolerable and yet familiar in its new routines.
Now here, before us, is the Red Sea. The promised land is on the other side. The path is narrow and unsure – we must make sure that the most vulnerable get on it first. The walls of water on either side are unfamiliar– how is it possible to believe that this path will protect us? Like the Israelites, we see the enemy approaching from the rear and sneaking in on the sides, in the form of COVID and now its newly emerging and more infectious variants.
What do we do? Do we grab our timbrels and lead the way if given the chance? Do we wait and let others go first—after all, the path is narrow and our wait may serve to keep others safe? Do we gather everyone who cannot withstand the enemy and make sure they get on the narrow path first? Do we stand at the water’s edge, unsure of what the dripping walls may mean for us? Or do we hold back and stay where we are?
Psalm 118 includes the phrase “From the narrow place, I called to G-d, and G-d answered me from the wide expanse.” Consider how this phrase, sung as part of the Hallel service on Jewish holidays, invites us to step forward optimistically. We have dark days ahead and the enemy that haunts our path will come for us still. The path through the sea is a narrow one, though we hope to see it widening soon. As we wait our turn for a vaccine, we can consider what it was like for the Israelites to stand at the edge of the Red Sea and look forward with both optimism and fear, staring into the unknown with only faith and the support of each other to guide them.
January 22, 2021
In this week’s parsha, Bo, the Torah describes the final 3 plagues—locusts, darkness and the killing of the first born. It’s the continuation of the Exodus story that began last week, when Moshe and Aaron came before Pharaoh and said that the Israelite people needed to go “out” to serve Hashem. In this parsha, they make the same request and he asks them who wants to leave. The response is that everyone wants to leave – the people, their children, their animals, their aged, etc. Pharaoh says they can leave but their children have to stay. The Israelites aren’t leaving without their children and the response to this offer is the plague of locusts. After another false start and the plague of darkness, Pharaoh changes his mind again, saying the people can go but must leave their animals behind. This is also unacceptable because they need the animals for their sacrificial ritual.
In his “negotiation,” Pharaoh offers to let the Israelites have what they’re asking for . . . sort of. He’s willing to give them just enough to be able to say he did it (and to forestall the crisis being caused by the plagues) but not really enough to meet the needs of the people, or to change the status quo. Pharaoh tries to stack the deck by holding back something that is necessary to the Israelites’ continued survival – either their children or their livestock. That guarantees that they won’t be able to do anything to address the core underlying issue; their slavery. They will have to come back to Egypt.
The work of social justice is the work of changing systems, of understanding that many of the basic responses we put in place to address poverty, including the work of volunteers, can have the effect of perpetuating systems by giving enough to momentarily forestall the worst of the crisis but not changing the underlying reality. In JVC’s racial justice statement, we understand that risk and commit ourselves to making sure that volunteers understand the end game – a more just and equitable society. As Amanda Gorman said in her beautiful poem during the inauguration, “what just is, isn’t always justice.”
The parsha ends with the instruction to tell our children about the Exodus, to explain it and to see it as if we ourselves were coming out of Egypt. We are reminded that it’s not enough to meet immediate needs, or even to understand and advocate for the larger issues at play. We are all part of history and we bear the responsibility to make sure that the next generation feels invested and takes ownership over the work that needs to be done. As we are reminded in Pirke Avot, it is not ours to complete the work but neither are we free to desist from it.
This week, we marked the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was assassinated at the tragically young age of 39, yet his impact and his legacy are part of the fabric of this nation. He did not live to see the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, yet it happened because he inspired others to continue his work. He did not live to see the first black president, or the inauguration this week of the first female vice-president of African and South Asian heritage. Yet their elections were made possible because of the work of Dr. King and many other leaders who both fought for justice and taught the next generation.
The story of the exodus from Egypt is one of the richest in the Torah. The path from slavery to freedom resonates on both a practical and metaphorical level and the instruction to teach the next generation is a reminder that we all have a place in history… and a role to play in bending the arc of the universe toward justice today and tomorrow.
December 25, 2020
I realized something recently that I’m not proud of. It’s been much too long since I’ve written about fire. I say this, not as an aspiring pyromaniac, but as a person who has always been compelled by the image of a flame as a spark of light and warmth. I realized it’s been hard for me to see and appreciate the light of optimism recently. Today I’ll share a few thoughts on the symbolism and power of fire.
We just celebrated eight nights of Hanukkah, the festival of lights. Each night, we used the shamash (helper candle) to add one more light than the night before. As we used one candle to light another each night, I was reminded of the teaching that a flame, like love, grows and does not diminish when it shares itself.
As we light candles, we can also see that even the small flame of the menorah or the Shabbat candles has the power to banish darkness far beyond the reach of the actual flame. When the power goes out late at night, the darkness can feel all-encompassing. Most of us aren’t used to deep darkness and the absence of the ever-present whirring of our electronic devices. Light a single candle in that moment and consider how full the brightness is, how the reach of the flame gives you confidence to walk forward in the darkness. When we use our own spark to light a candle for someone who sees only the darkness, we give them confidence too. We invite them to take cautious steps forward. This is as true when we invite someone to challenge their assumptions as it is when we assist someone in economic crisis.
There was a famous debate between Jewish scholars Hillel and Shammai about whether the proper way to light the menorah was to start with one candle and add one each night, or to start with eight candles and take one away each night until the light dwindles out at the end of the holiday. The rabbis, as they often did, acknowledged the validity of both arguments but ruled that Hillel’s approach was the way it should be done. His argument was that when given an opportunity, we should build holiness day by day, rather than take it away. Just as we add a new flame each day until the lights burn full and bright, we have the opportunity to add to our volunteer soul as we move forward. Maybe today it’s making a bagged meal, and tomorrow it’s taking the time to read the discussion guide, and the next day it’s exploring the root causes of food insecurity, and going to an emergency shelter to serve a meal, and then beginning to learn a new vocabulary and lens through which to see the world. And still we make those bagged meals because while the arc of the universe may bend toward justice, it isn’t there yet and people are still hungry. And maybe these flames are added over the course of years and not days. Still, we light the candles from one to eight and remember that Hillel teaches us to add holiness, and that we can add spread light to others without diminishing our own.
December 11, 2020
Many years ago, a student asked an intriguing question of a group of peers who were gathering to light candles on the Tulane campus where I was working for Hillel. He asked “what was the miracle of the first night of Hanukkah?” He went on to note that if we take the story of Hanukkah at face value, the Maccabees lit the eternal light with the one day’s worth of oil that they had. And it burned for a day, as one would have expected.
Now, at the end of the day, it didn’t go out. It burned on and on into day two, three, four, etc. That miracle was clear. The oil should have been gone and it wasn’t.
But on that first day, there was enough oil to burn—nothing miraculous really happened. So why do we celebrate the first day as one that represented a miracle? What was the miracle of the first day if it wasn’t the oil lasting.
He proposed that the miracle of the first day of Hanukkah was the decision to light the flame. With the flame already out, it made more logical sense to wait until there was a sustainable supply of oil before lighting the flame and risking it going out again. To have the eternal light go out while the Maccabees were in charge of the Temple could be worse than having them fail to light it at all. Nevertheless, the Maccabees lit the flame and trusted that it would all work out.
I find this level of faith inspiring and troubling at the same time. It takes tremendous faith to take action in the face of insurmountable odds. It takes courage and passionate commitment to act when the chance of public failure is high.
On the other hand, the path from passionate commitment to unbridled power and corruption is relatively short and straight. The Hasmoneans, who were part of the family of the Maccabees and inherited power from them, reigned for only a century and in that time, oppressed the people they ruled, broke tradition by anointing themselves both priests and kings, and forcibly converted a conquered population. The faith that inspires people to believe they deserve a miracle may quickly become the arrogance that leads them to deny rights to others.
So what do we do with these ideas in today’s world? How do we find the courage and faith to act when common sense tells us our actions are useless? I don’t know…but maybe I should ask Greta Thornberg, who started an individual school strike to protest inaction against climate change and who has inspired a global movement. Maybe I should ask Melvin Belli, the first person to bring a lawsuit to court against a tobacco company. Or Natan Sharansky, a Russian Jew who fought for freedom when merely identifying as a Jew was dangerous.
And when we do hold power, when our efforts have been rewarded with unlikely success, how do we maintain our humility? If we believe the adage that power corrupts, how do we avoid it for ourselves? 19th Century Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunim instructs us keep two pieces of paper in our pockets. One should say “the world was created for me” and should be looked at when we are suffering and unsure of ourselves. The other should say “I am but dust and ashes,” and should be used to remind ourselves that, however glorious the miracle we have received, we have no more right to expect good fortune and power than any other person.
As we live in this balance of taking risks when it’s the right thing to do, and maintaining humility in those moments when we are on top of the world, we understand this more complex miracle of Hanukkah.
November 26, 2020
Like nearly a year of holidays before it, Thanksgiving will be different this year. How will it be different? Well… that’s up to us.
Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday. The story that underpins it – happy pilgrims supported by cheerfully helpful indigenous tribe
s as they began to peacefully coexist in this land over a dinner of turkey and stuffing– doesn’t stand up to any level of historical scrutiny. Yet it’s a holiday dedicated to being grateful. Isn’t that a good thing? Shouldn’t we all take the opportunity to add a little more thanks to our lives?
If we step away from the problematic origin story, what do we have left? What do we do with a holiday focused on giving thanks and gratitude? What does Judaism teach us about the importance of being grateful?
Jewish tradition’s focus on gratitude begins at the moment we wake up, as we’re instructed to begin our day with the Modeh Ani prayer (translation: “I give thanks.”) We move into the daily prayers and recite a series of prescribed blessings, thanking G-d for everything from our bodies to the world around us.
As we move through the day, we say blessings over the special and the mundane. There’s a blessing for seeing a rainbow, escaping danger, going to the bathroom, and eating food. Judaism gives us these blessings to add a level of mindfulness to our daily lives, to remind us that nothing in the world just happens and nothing in life is guaranteed. We should be grateful for each and every thing in our lives.
In today’s world, an awareness of our blessings also requires an awareness of the cost by which we acquired them. When we eat food, do we consider the cost in human labor and fossil fuels to bring it to our table? When we enter our home, do we consider the indigenous community that was displaced when the Europeans first settled here?
At JVC, we believe that people commit to things they care about, that people care about things that they’ve involved in, and that people get involved in things that feel accessible. Maybe Thanksgiving can become the low barrier entry point to a practice of daily gratitude. Maybe we begin with Thanksgiving Day – saying thanks for the blessings in our lives and taking a moment to understand their cost. Then we make a practice of one daily gratitude – whether it’s pulled from traditional Jewish blessings like Modeh Ani or from our own invention. We place that gratitude in context by considering who made it possible or who lost something in the process. As we articulate one gratitude a day, we become more aware of the world around us and maybe, just maybe, we understand better our place in it.
If a year from now, Thanksgiving is a day of gathering, perhaps of learning about the indigenous population whose land you now live on, but not the single day of giving thanks, then perhaps we will have claimed Thanksgiving 2020 as a turning point. For which I hope we will all be truly grateful.
November 13 2020
Amid the torrent of news that came out last Saturday was the announcement of the death of
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l, the former chief rabbi of England and a giant in the field of modern Jewish thought. Rabbi Sacks wrote extensively about service and communal responsibility and his teaching on the intersection of kindness and justice as reflected in the complex word “tzedakah” has profoundly shaped JVC’s approach to deepening our work.
To honor Rabbi Sacks, I revisited his book To Heal a Fractured Word: The Ethics of Responsibility. I challenged myself to open to any page, choose any line, and see where it led me. Unsurprisingly, my finger landed on a line with profound relevance to the world today.
“Freedom is fearful, precisely because it involves responsibility.” (p. 137)
The line is from a paragraph about Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, as part of a chapter called “The Birth of Responsibility.” Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that Adam and Eve fail to live up to the new potential unleashed by their acquisition of knowledge. They want to have both the freedom of doing as they choose and a lack of responsibility for the consequences of their choices. They want the freedom to make choices and they want someone to blame when they make bad ones.
What is the intersection of freedom and responsibility? As we grapple with the most active hurricane season on record, how do we balance the decisions that add convenience and joy to our lives with the harm that they cause to the planet? As we understand the freedom that comes with having income and wealth that are adequate for our needs, can we also accept the responsibility of knowing that we benefit from structures that deny that freedom to others?
I suspect that one key to integrating the concepts of freedom and responsibility is understanding and naming both the potential benefits and the potential harm of our decisions. That seems easy enough when applied to personal benefit and personal harm. Where it gets trickier is when you are applying it to personal benefit and communal harm. Or even personal harm and communal benefit.
Freedom means getting to make choices from among a set of options. Choices have consequences, both good and bad. Freedom does not absolve you of those consequences, even if you are not the one impacted by them. As Rabbi Sacks notes, freedom puts moral choices in our hands.
“Freedom is fearful, precisely because it involves responsibility.”
What choice will you make today as a free person? How will you use your freedom to make moral decisions? How will you use your freedom to restrict yourself for the benefit of others?
May Rabbi Sacks’ memory be for a blessing.
November 2, 2020
Recently on Shabbat, we read the story of Noah and the Ark. Most of us know the basic outlines of the story – the flood, the ark, the animals by twosie twosies, and the rainbow at the end that is G-d’s promise never to destroy the world by flood again.
This is a loaded
As we consider the rich but troubled history of the United States, I wonder if this idea of being righteous in your generation may be helpful. As we strive to balance the vision of freedom, liberty, and democracy held by men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington with their embrace of slavery, I wonder… were they righteous men in their generation? The same question can be asked of many of the leaders of the suffrage movement, who were passionate advocates for women’s rights and simultaneously made anti-Semitic and racist statements. Were they righteous women… in their generation? Can we hold these leaders’ values sacred and strive to build a country that lives up to them while understanding that they themselves could never have imagined our expansive view of what it means to be “created equal,” that Jefferson and Washington in fact participated in a system that represented the very antithesis of equality. story. There are so many directions that we could go with it. This year, I’m struck by the description of Noah as “a righteous man in his generation.” The Torah calls Abraham a righteous man. Noah, by contrast, is a righteous man…in his generation. And considering that Noah’s generation is the one that caused G-d to regret creating humanity in the first place, that may not be quite the ringing endorsement that it sounds like at first.
I participated in an educational program recently about the history of racism in the United States. The presenter shared examples of the painfully ignorant and hateful writing of many of our most esteemed national leaders and cultural icons. The horror in the virtual room was palpable. . . . and quite honestly, it worried me. It’s not that I didn’t find the writings that were being shared to be horrible and horrifying. It’s that the more horrifying I found the things I heard, the harder it was to believe that I, the enlightened 21st century female leader, could ever think such hateful things. And the harder it is for me to believe that I could think hateful things like that, the harder it becomes to imagine that the things I do think could be hateful. And that’s dangerous. That limits us to, at best, being righteous in this generation. Righteous in the context of a culture that we can’t or won’t see beyond.
Instead, can we challenge ourselves to see Jefferson, Washington, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others as righteous in their generations? They were righteous and they saw the potential of expanding access to power beyond narrow confines of birth or gender. They were of their generation and failed to see expanding that access beyond the confines of white male landowners or white Christians in general. They were righteous leaders and had an important impact. They were of their generation and perpetuated, the prevailing misogyny and deadly racism of their day.
Will we be righteous in our generation? Will we be righteous? Perhaps the answer lies in how hard we try to see what’s not easy to see through the lens of our own generation. As Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
October 16, 2020
Every once in a while, I like to ask for ideas for my blog. This week was one of those weeks and I appreciate everyone who helped to inform these thoughts. The common thread among all the comments I received was a wondering about reality. What’s real? How do we perceive what’s real? Can our realities differ and still be real? What motivates us to “choose” a certain reality to become ours and does that change over time?
Two weeks ago, we welcomed a new year and began again to celebrate a cycle of holidays that have been part of Jewish tradition for thousands of years. And yet, by spring, we will surely complete a full year’s cycle of marking those holidays in totally new ways. On Sunday, we began again with the cycle of reading the Torah. We may read these stories with new eyes, though, as we consider what it means to eat from the tree of knowledge and what we would give up at
It’s also certainly true that children live in a reality all their own and we are but privileged observers. How do they establish their reality? What pieces do they pull from the world around them and what comes from a more basic place inside of them? We know that their version of reality will change—that they won’t always think that painting their own hands and cutting their own hair are empirically the best ideas EVER! And yet as we unintentionally guide them toward a version of reality that mimics our own, how do we both celebrate their reality and invite them into ours? How do we respond when their understanding of the world around them challenges our own? Again, questions with no easy answers. a call from G-d. If our traditions inform our reality and our traditions are cyclical, how do we continue to move forward in time? How do we map eternal wisdom and the guidance of our ancestors onto current scientific knowledge and expanding awareness of how inequitable power dynamics shape culture? I won’t even try to answer these cosmic questions.
As we grow from childhood to adulthood, as we try to find balance when the world around us seems to be spinning out of control, we may seek to ground ourselves in a reality that feels comfortable and makes sense, using that pre-determined version of reality to interpret the inputs that come our way. This is normal, even a natural coping mechanism… and it’s got the potential to be both healthy and dangerous. Believing that better times are possible in a time of chaos empowers us to keep moving, even when it feels that we cannot possibly make a difference. Believing that good people can’t do bad things shields us from seeing our own unintentional harm, or acting to repair it.
There are difficult days ahead. The pandemic is reasserting itself as we head into the cold months, and the divide between those who comply with public health measures and those who don’t grows more rancorous every day. The reality of pandemic is forcing itself upon us – it won’t change no matter what we choose to believe. The reality we choose is what we will do about it, how hopeless or empowered do we feel? What will tomorrow bring?
A friend of many years gifted me this thought in response to my query, which helped to shift my own reality from angst to hope. “There is a very powerful line in the haftarah that we read on the first day of Sukkot. It says that a really long day will come when there is neither light nor darkness – just kind of cloudy and gray. And then, at the time of dusk, ‘there will be light.’ Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch comments on this verse and explains it as follows: ‘there will be a day when all seems gloomy. The amount of light in the sky will resemble the times of both dusk and just before dawn. And people will not know, is it the dawn leading to day or the dusk leading to night? And just when it seems that everlasting night is coming, there will be light – a new day will dawn instead.’”
The light is the light, the dimness is the dimness. But what does it signify? What do we see when we see what is there? What we see determines what we feel, what we do, how we act.
Let us choose the reality of hope, help, kindness, and justice.
September 17, 2020
As promised, I took the opportunity of tashlich at the beach this year to think about what it means to throw your sins out to the water, only to have them returned to you on the next wave.
We have a rule in our house. You shouldn’t say sorry for something if you already know you’re planning to do it again. That doesn’t mean that people don’t make mistakes after genuinely expressing regret—we all do that and we understand that some of those mistakes are habits of long-standing and are hard to break. But it does mean that it hurts when someone does something hurtful. And it hurts more when they do it again. And it hurts yet more when they make you believe it’s going to get better and then hurt you again and again.
Maybe it’s a gift to see our own misdeeds wash back up on the next wave, to see when our participation in a ritual can serve to mask an unwillingness to make a hard change. One of the principles of racial justice work is to recognize the difference between intention and impact. Intention is throwing your metaphorical sins into the water and saying you hope you don’t do it again. Impact is bravely acknowledging the harm caused to the person who was hurt, asking forgiveness, and identifying the internal change that has to be made to prevent future harm.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I had the opportunity over the holiday to learn from Rabbi Steve Sager, the Rabbi Emeritus at the synagogue I grew up in. He shared a teaching about the shofar blasts. The first blast is a clear steady blast. We follow it with 3 blasts, each a third of the length of the first. Then comes the 9 blasts, each a third of the length of the ones before. The first is wholeness, the reality of the world as we know it. The second represents brokenness. The third represents shakiness or even a total shattering. And the closing tone is the wholeness of the single blast. Wholeness, brokenness, shakiness, wholeness – the path of history and the path toward necessary change.
We have to break the wholeness, choose the brokenness, endure the shakiness, and know that a new wholeness awaits us at the end.
What are we willing to break this year?
September 17, 2020
I stood on a dune overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the Outer Banks last Sunday and I saw a fury I’ve never seen before in the waves. Hurricane Paulette was churning many miles offshore, ready to strike Bermuda, and we were seeing the extreme edge of the storm. The waves crashed, the wind whipped, and there was a constant roar as loud as a jet engine.
I stood on that dune and I pondered this feeling of standing at the edge of the storm, knowing much worse is just offshore, knowing that it wasn’t coming for us this time but that’s a moment’s respite only in today’s world, knowing that this storm was a manifestation of the constant physical and emotional buffeting that we are all experiencing today.
I stood on that dune and I cried. I cried for the future that my children will inherit – climate crisis, racial injustice, rising anti-semitism, a pandemic made worse by societal inaction. I cried for the helplessness of knowing that I could stand firmly against the wind and it wouldn’t make any difference if the storm came for me.
I stood on that dune and I prayed. I’m not entirely sure what I prayed for as the thoughts tumbled and jumbled about in my mind. The wave of hopelessness followed by the wave of commitment followed by the wave of fear followed by the wave of inspiration led me to pray for both the return of Red Sea-sized miracles and for the strength of character to actually live according to the values I espouse.
I’ll confess that most of the time these days, I don’t see a way out of the path that we’re on – the ravages of climate change, a rising distrust in knowledge and science, an increasing breakdown in public civility combined with a refusal to look honestly at history and a maddening focus on self-interest at the expense of communal good. I look back at human history and I take some small comfort in knowing that we aren’t the first generation to face mass catastrophes that piled on each other or to believe that there was no future to be faced, bravely or not. Still, the edge of the storm is terrifying and the worst is out there just offshore.
This weekend, I’ll stand back on that dune as we experience a Rosh Hashanah like no other. We will join the roar of the wind with the blast of the shofar. We’ll raise our voices proudly in prayer and song, as we merge tradition with spiritual innovation. We’ll make commitments to ourselves and to G-d and we’ll pray for mercy and to be spared harsh judgments.And as we stand on that dune and walk down to the water, we’ll consider what it means to do tashlich in the ocean, as we cast our sins into the water only to see them be brought right back to us on the next wave – but that’s a blog for another day.
September 4, 2020
When asked a few years ago to think about a teaching in Judaism that was particularly impactful for me, I chose the phrase “All Israel is responsible one for the other.” This concept of communal responsibility has always resonated for me. I see neighborhoods, communities and societies as the metaphorical boat in the story about the passenger who
drilled a hole below his seat and then didn’t understand why his fellow passengers were upset because, after all, “it’s just my floorboard that I’m drilling.”
Responsibility runs in multiple directions. It means holding personal responsibility for our own behavior and how it impacts people around us. It means holding communal responsibility for the ways that societal norms impact people for better or worse. On the flip side, it means knowing that there are people who feel responsible for you, for ensuring that in a crisis, you will be supported and carried.
I started thinking about this concept of responsibility the other day while talking with the executive director of one of JVC’s nonprofit partners, one that has benefited from dozens of meals each week since the end of April. She mentioned how the clients that they work with now know that they can show up on Monday afternoon for a meal, and how knowing that reduces a stress in their life, gives them something they can count on, and increases their level of trust in the case workers who want to work with them.
When we started the community Bunches of Lunches project in late April, we expected it to be a one-time activity, to provide a one-time gift of food to people experiencing hardship. When the result exceeded our expectations, we decided to make it a short-term regular project, knowing that the need was only going to grow as the pandemic spread out of control and the economic impact widened. When we realized we could sustain the program over the course of months, we accepted the additional work and logistics of managing it in the long term.
Somewhere along the way, we also accepted the sacred responsibility of being counted on, of being responsible for setting an expectation for hundreds of people around Baltimore and the organizations that support them. There’s an incredible privilege in that, in knowing that we have the opportunity to do something that matters to so many people. We will continue doing Bunches of Lunches because people are relying on us. We will continue doing Bunches of Lunches because it matters if we don’t.
On Yom Kippur, we will ask G-d to nullify all the oaths and promises that we made last year and to nullify in advance all the oaths that we’ll make in the coming year. Making a promise in G-d’s name is a serious business and not one that people should engage in lightly, or at all. At the same time, we have an opportunity to revisit the promises we’ve made each other in this last year and to think about the promises we want to be held to in the coming year. What are people counting on us to do?
It’s hard to feel responsible. It’s hard to know that someone’s counting on you, especially when meeting their needs is hard and inconvenient and you’re already exhausted because life is really hard right now.
It’s hard to feel responsible. And yet the feeling of knowing someone is really counting on you, that what you do really matters, is the most empowering feeling in the world.
Ultimately, we are all responsible for one another, whether we like it or not. So let’s dive in.
August 21, 2020
I have a confession. I moved out of Baltimore in the middle of June without a clear plan for when we would move back. I was pretty sure we would be back but it wasn’t clear if we’d be gone a month, two months, or six months. We had t
he most amazing cushioning, you see. My parents own a lake house in North Carolina, about an hour from where I grew up and only 5 hours from Baltimore. We spent two months there. We had two extra adults providing supervision so my husband and I could work and we had the lake, space for running and playing, and more bugs for the kids to study than I care to remember.
In many ways, it was a idyllic summer. Several times as I floated in the lake in the late afternoon, I caught myself thinking that I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I would always stop those thoughts with a jolt and remind myself that for the sake of the hundreds of thousands of lives that have been lost in this pandemic, I’d trade it in a minute. For the sake of better options for the millions of children and families that don’t have our kind of cushioning, I’d trade it in a minute. Still, it was awfully easy to let go of the crises I couldn’t see and sink into the peace of the world in my immediate orbit. We can find both a gift and a problem in that, as we all need those moments of respite yet we must simultaneously maintain our sense of communal responsibility for that which we do not always see directly.
This pendulum swing from moments of great peace and satisfaction to the ever-present stress of wondering what the future holds is well known to most of us, I suspect. We experience it in small ways as we move from the satisfaction of a project completed or a child entertained to the stress of seeing how much more there is to do. We experience it in big ways as we celebrate milestones with great joy, then move to a generalized anxiety about an unknown future under the specters of a global pandemic and climate change.
This week, we enter the Hebrew month of Elul. This is a month of comfort and peace, of soulful preparation for Rosh Hashanah, and of thoughtful consideration of the year that has passed. Each day during the month of Elul, we are invited to read Psalm 27 . I’ve loved this psalm since my freshman year of college, when my rabbi taught us a melody to the lines that begin “achat sha’alti.” In English, the full phrase is “One thing I ask of the Lord, for this I yearn. To live in the house of Hashem all the days of my life. To behold G-d’s peacefulness and to pray in G-d’s sanctuary.”
The psalm itself models the pendulum swing from grateful certainly in G-d’s grace and protection to personal requests, then back to confidence and finally on to end with an anxious plea that shows the true uncertainty in the author’s heart.
In preparation for writing this blog, I found the achat sha’alti melody online and listened to it. As I drifted back to that Rosh Hashanah many years ago when I was introduced to both the psalm and the melody, I reflected on what it means to ask to live in the House of Hashem all the days of our lives. For me, it means living in the love of humankind and the knowledge that we can do better for ourselves, our neighbors, and the planet. It means being aware of the many gifts we’re given and expressing gratitude by being responsible for the stewardship of them. It means, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has talked about, seeing the world through G-d’s timeless eyes and understanding our temporary place in the world in that context.
As we enter this month of reflection, I hope that everyone will take a moment to listen to this melody and consider the question of what it means to live in the house of Hashem all the days of our lives.
August 07, 2020
Last week, we marked Tisha B’av, the saddest day of the Jewish year. On this day, we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We wish for a day when it can be rebuilt.
Here’s the thing, though. Do we? I mean do we really? Do most Jews today really look longingly back at the good ol’ days when we had the Temple? The priests? The rituals in the Temple? The animal sacrifices?
In some ways, the answer is yes. The traditional prayerbook liturgy still calls for the return of the Temple and the daily sacrifices. For some people, that yearning is real. For others, more theoretical. After all, it’s easy to miss something in theory when there’s very little chance of it actually coming back any time soon.
It makes me wonder about memory and yearning for the past. We’re engaged in an important national conversation about history and national memory. At the same time, many of us are personally living in a pandemic reality that makes us look longingly back at a 2019 that frankly wasn’t the utopia we seem to remember. In both cases, our ability to engage fully with history and memory seems limited by the gap we need filled in our souls at the time.
I wonder if we can put this tendency to use by being more honest with our memories, while still holding onto those things that we’ve lost. Can I mourn the ability to freely move about, to have my children in school with their friends, while being honest in saying that I struggled with a lifestyle of rushing from thing to thing, grabbing lunch at 3:00 from the drive-thru Dunkin Donuts on my way to get the kids so I could get dinner ready before heading back out for an evening meeting. Can I imagine a future where we can move freely about and also preserve the relaxed family dinner?
We can mourn the past. We can resent the present. We can yearn for a history that never was. Or we can look backward honestly and forward with optimism, understanding that we can build a future that takes the best elements of the society we want to build and rejects the injustices that we were taught had to go with them.We are moving from the mourning of Tisha B’av to the rebirth we mark at Rosh Hashanah. This is a time for hope and optimism and critically, it’s a time for honest reflection.
July 24, 2020
July 10, 2020
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks talks about an inherent tension represented in the word tzedakah. The root of the word, tzedek, means justice. Yet the word is commonly used to mean charity. Charity and justice, points out Rabbi Sacks, cannot mean the same thing. Charity is something that you receive out of kindness, having done nothing to deserve it. Justice, by contrast, is something that you should have by right.
As an organization, JVC has longed lived with the tension between justice and charity. We recognize that many of the acts of volunteerism that we support are in facts acts of justice, not acts of kindness. They are acts made necessary by a societal failure to care for its most vulnerable citizens, by inequalities that benefit some at the expense of others.
JVC is clarifying its role in the overall arc of social justice and there will be more conversation about that in the coming weeks as we strengthen our commitment to bridging the gap between acts of service and the context in which they happen.
This week, however, I want to focus on the other side of the spectrum, on acts of kindness that are not, at their core, the result of injustice.
I think back six years, to the feeling of being cradled in the arms of community as my family experienced the trauma of my husband’s accident. People brought us food, shoveled snow, drove my husband to appointments – they did it not because we couldn’t have figured out how to do those things but because it was awfully nice not to have to. It was awfully good to know people cared.
When we see a friend or loved one struggling, we want to help. We want to make it better. We want to do anything to show them that they’re not alone. We want to clean their house, do their laundry, take care of their kids, bring them food… anything to lift the burden. We want to jump right in.
Enter the global pandemic.
What do we do now? When we have a loved one who’s ill with COVID or anything else, and we can’t do all those things that we’re used to doing, what can we do? How can we safely ease a burden when we can’t go in their house? How can we be satisfied by dropping food off at the front door, knowing it has to be reheated and plated and then cleaned up—and that we can’t go in the house to do it?
So we have yet another thing that the pandemic has ripped from us – along with our ability to gather for prayer and celebration and our summer plans and our kids’ schools and camps, and our sense of normalcy. Another thing that the pandemic has taken, along with the health and even the lives of our loved ones. The helplessness is hard.
Here’s a thing that we don’t have to let go of so easily though. No, we can’t go in to quarantined houses to clean and cook and play. We have to find new ways to show we care. We can help make appointments, send food, be available to talk, even provide child care over zoom. We can do our part to keep other people safe.
We can do it. We have to. Because an act of kindness is born of genuine caring, and genuine caring means figuring out how to do the best you can with what you’ve got.
June 26, 2020
The process of growing can be painful and requires a vulnerability that doesn’t come easily to me. At the same time, as I’ve turned to Pirke Avot (a section of the Mishnah full of ethical teachings) for guidance, I’m reminded by Ben Zoma that a wise person is one who learns from every person. He quote Psalms in saying “From all who have taught me have I gained understanding,” So I’m grateful to everyone who has taught me as I have gained understanding. And today I share a story that both shamed me and profoundly shaped me.
In my ninth grade Government class, we got into a discussion about a bill that would strengthen penalties for racial discrimination in certain cases. I asked if it was necessary, challenging my classmates by asking if any of them had ever actually seen a act of racial discrimination in person. To my surprise, most of the hands in the room went up – certainly, all of my black classmates said yes. I was stunned. My honest belief at that time was that the civil rights legislation in the 1960’s had made discrimination illegal and now that people had equal access to voting, education, and jobs, we were on an inevitable upward trend toward full equality.
I was wrong. And I’m so grateful to my classmates for being my teachers – for teaching me both reality and humility. In that moment, I came to understand both that there were many things in the world that were true despite my not having noticed them and that I needed to start paying better attention.
I’ve held that story for 30 years, never wanting to talk about it because I was ashamed of my ignorance and for having spoken it out loud. I’m telling it now for the same reasons.
In Chapter One of Pirke Avot, we are reminded that when we are growing up around wisdom, there is no better thing than silence. And we are surrounded by wisdom, if we remember to listen and trust the voices of people of color speaking about their own experiences, if we commit ourselves not to respond to their stories with “but…” or “don’t you think” or other phrases that diminish and question a person’s lived experience. Be silent. Challenge yourself to understand why you need to change another person’s narrative to fit your own worldview.
And in the same chapter, Hillel pushes us to understand that “whoever does not increase [their] knowledge, decreases it.” It’s okay to be embarrassed once in a while. It’s uncomfortable though. What matters is what we do with the discomfort. Do we learn from it? Or do we double down and dismiss opinions that challenge ours? Do we increase our knowledge or do we reject information, thereby decreasing our knowledge?
My own path toward becoming anti-racist has been stumbling and is far from complete. My commitment is to being silent when learning is required and to being vocal when the moment calls for activism. To being a learner among the wise and being a teacher among my peers.
I appreciate the wisdom of the sages and the wisdom of my ninth-grade classmates.
June 12, 2020
When a person dies, you often here Jewish people say May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and May their memory be for a blessing.
What do those phrases mean? Why do we remind people at their moment of sadness that there are other people who are mourning too? How can someone’s memory be for a blessing?
Judaism is a religion centered in community. We pray as a community, live as a community, gather for both happy and sad life moments as a community. Or at least we used to. How do we understand the hope that someone will be comforted among other mourners in the context of a world in which we maintain physical distance? Yet this statement makes even more sense now, as we experience our joys, our griefs, and our mundane moments within our own four walls. May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. You are not alone in your grief – others are walking this path. You are not alone in your grief – there are people here for you. You are not alone in your grief – you belong to a rich tradition that has survived tragedies on a personal and communal scale.
The other phrase – May their memory be for a blessing—has taken on particular resonance in the last few weeks as the death of George Floyd has sparked a global movement to recognize and address racial injustice. What does it mean for someone’s memory to be a blessing? We can understand it on a personal level, that remembering a loved one should bring the mourner peace and comfort. We can take it out a level, that the memory of a loved one should intensify our awareness of the world around us and our responsibility to it. Just as we say a blessing as we eat to remind ourselves not to take the food for granted, a person’s memory can be a reminder to live fully in the world.
What happens when we take it out yet another level? When a person’s memory becomes the spark for something far larger than they could ever have imagined? George Floyd didn’t choose to die. He didn’t choose for his death to become the flashpoint of a movement. Yet it is. The world will be better for it. Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder of Be’chol Lashon suggests that we use a different phrase in this case – May his memory be for a revolution. A comment on her social media post reminded readers that in Israel, the term “May her memory be for a revolution” is used to memorialize victims of domestic violence. Mourner express a hope that through their memory, other lives with be saved.
A blessing can be a comfort. It can be a reminder. It can be an invitation to remember your personal responsibility. A blessing can be the spark of a revolution. May George Floyd’s memory and the memory of all those who died unjustly and unnecessarily be for a blessing, a revolution, and a call to each of us.
May 28, 2020
There is a story told about Rabbi Haim of Romshishok in Lithunia. Rabbi Haim had a dream in which he was shown both heaven and hell. He started in hell where he saw that people were sitting at a table full of food, more than they could ever want. Yet the people were starving and miserable. He looked at their arms and saw that they had spoons attached to their hands but their elbows were splinted and the spoons were long and they could not bend their arms to bring the food to their mouths. After this sad sight, Rabbi Haim traveled to heaven where, much to his surprise, he found that the people
were similarly sitting at a table loaded with food and their arms too were splinted at the elbows with a spoon attached to their hands. Yet in heaven, the people were satisfied, happily talking and looking content and well-fed. Rabbi Haim looked more closely and saw that in heaven, people filled their spoons and fed their neighbors and were fed by them in return.
The story goes on to say that Rabbi Haim rushed back to hell to share this news with the people there. Upon telling them how to solve their problem, he was devastated to hear them say that they would rather starve than help the other occupants of hell, whom they held in much contempt.
So let’s talk about masks.
Like the occupants of heaven and hell in the story, we cannot change our circumstances right now. We live in a world with a deadly disease that can spread asymptomatically and strikes unfairly and unpredictably. It seems we should all lock ourselves in our houses and never come out.
And we also live in a world where people need to work to earn the money to pay their bills, where some people must be exposed day after day because they run the hospitals, clinics, stores, and infrastructure that must be maintained in order for the basic necessities of life to function. We live in a world where we can’t lock ourselves in our houses and never come out. Not all of us anyway.
As we learn more and more about the spread of the novel corona virus, we are able to make more informed choices about how to behave and how to protect others. Experts are increasingly confident that droplets are the main transmission source for the disease, droplets that spray from our mouths when we talk, laugh, sing, cough, sneeze, and to some extent in our regular breath. Droplets that are largely captured by cloth masks and surgical masks.
As we come to understand that while respirator masks protect us and others, the more available and durable cloth masks largely protect others more than they protect us. My mask protects you and your mask protects me.
So here we are, standing with Rabbi Haim at the entrances to heaven and hell. Our elbows are splinted. The food sits in our spoon. We have a choice to make.
What are we going to do?
May 15, 2020
My thoughts this week are dedicated to a rabbi who has served as mentor and teacher and helped shaped every aspect of my Jewish identity, with wishes for his full and complete recovery from serious illness.
This rabbi’s Caring Bridge page features a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, in which he considers “the precision of pain and the blurriness of joy.” His point is that people are able to describe pain in graphic, detailed terms of how, where, when, and why it hurts. Yet when asked to describe a joyful moment, the response is “it was great.” Why do we do this? Why do we focus our attention so much on pain and allow joy to wash over us?
There’s value in being able to provide a detailed description of pain; the goal, after all, is to identify it and make it go away. We want to be able to describe pain with precision. We want to offer detailed, nuanced information about the how, where, and why of communal pain and inequity too. After all, in the work that JVC does, we want to challenge the idea that pain and suffering are simply how things are.
Perhaps in some cases, the experience of joy should not be examined too closely. The feeling of standing at the edge of the ocean fills my soul with joy. I have no interest in learning why. It binds the pieces of my soul together and I’m content to simply feel it.
And yet, as we seek to find joy in these dark moments and to find ways to bring joy to others, perhaps it would be worth a closer examination of the precision of joy. What is it about a child’s drawing that fills us with joy and how does that translate to decorating a brown bag meal before delivery? What is it about a quick conversation with a stranger in line at the coffee shop that brightens our day and how does that translate to a friendly calling program? What is it about welcoming people to our home that fills our souls and how does that translate to preparing our favorite casseroles to freeze and donate.
As we all think about the influences in our lives that have brought us to this moment and to our own unique way of walking in the world, perhaps it’s time to look at both the blurriness and the precision of joy.
May 1, 2020
Growing up in a progressive southern town in the 1980s, I was taught that it was deeply offensive to cross the street to avoid walking too close to another person. Even today, crossing the street or stepping off the sidewalk are signs that a person doesn’t feel comfortable with the person they are about to encounter – these are classic microaggressions used to communicate to minorities that they are seen as a threat and not to be trusted.
I was also taught that it was unconscionably rude to stand idly by while someone else works hard at work that you could help with – for example, a person should not stand by and let someone else carry in the groceries or haul supplies from one place to another.
And then there’s today. On those rare occasions that I leave my house to go for a run (or a walk, if I’m being totally honest,) I’m the first one to step off the sidewalk or cross the street to maintain physical distance – it’s not a microaggression, it’s a public safety measure and a way to honor the people who are out because they have no choice. I’m doing the right thing. I know I am, no matter how awful it feels. I look people in the eye as I move away from them. I wish them a good day. I smile sheepishly. And I hope they understand because I want to hide my head in shame every time.
Earlier this week, I stood idly by as friends and strangers unloaded hundreds of beautifully decorated bagged meals in the carpool line at Krieger Schechter Day School. I did not offer to help. I could not offer to help. My job was to point them in the right direction and pick up the boxes after they had walked away. I followed our established protocol and the guidelines of the CDC. I was doing the right thing, no matter how hard it was to do. I explained over and over again why I was not helping. We laughed together at the discomfort of the moment. And I hope the people I was avoiding understood, because it went against every fiber of my being.
It’s a struggle to take the values of a religion of action like Judaism and enact them through inaction. I’m learning, though, that this moment does not call for inaction after all. It calls for different action. It calls for a rethinking of what constitutes right and necessary. It calls for a thoughtful and creative engagement with traditions and norms. It calls for intense intentionality and strong communication.
It’s a new normal. It’s uncomfortable. We’ll do what we must. Yet we’re fortunate to be able to dive into the discomfort because it means we’re free to choose the right thing to do. And to know and to say why we’re doing it. And through it, we build community through distance.
April 17, 2020
The period from Passover to Shavuot is, simply put, a weird period in the Jewish year. We are simultaneously marketing the precarious time from the first planting to the first harvest, the journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, and the anniversary of a 2nd century plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples. We watch the skies, we study, we mourn. It is in some ways a time when we recognize the things we can’t control, seek understanding and wisdom about the world around us, and regret the losses we can no longer stop.
In this new and different reality of physical distancing and virtual connections, each of these commemorations means something different than it did a year ago.
How many of us have a new appreciation of food shortages, even ones that exist primarily in our own minds? How many of us have planted a garden, in preparation for a time when we cannot access fresh fruits and vegetables? If you have planted a garden, watch the plants grow and consider the miracle of circumstances that have to happen together for them to thrive. If your plants suffered in this week’s storms, think about the fickleness of nature and be grateful that your livelihood doesn’t depend on your garden.
As the Israelite people left Egypt to begin their journey to Mt. Sinai and on to Israel, they had to shed their identity as slaves and take on the identity of a free people, one that accepted responsibility for the welfare of the community and understood that the law of G-d was a law that required people to care for each other. Traditionally during the Omer, many people read a chapter from Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, a section of Mishnah that deals more with ethics than law. As we enter the Omer this year, we are also faced with more ethical decisions than legal ones. Do we need that item enough to risk our own health or someone else’s to get it? Do we protect our own health or do we prioritize the needs of a neighbor who is at heightened risk? How do we cope with our own isolation and loneliness, when all we want is a hug from a friend? Where do we look for guidance? How do we value the wisdom we’re offered, especially when it conflicts with our own desires and comforts?
The plague is particularly interesting this year. Tradition teaches that Rabbi Akiva’s students were stricken with a plague after they lost their ability to engage in civil discourse. They could not argue without denigrating their opponent. They could not honor another perspective as having any value at all. And if that hits a little too close to home these days, the plague itself was thought to be something like diphtheria, or maybe croup. In other words, they got a fever, a cough, and lost the ability to breathe freely. Now I would not argue that the current pandemic is a literal plague sent by G-d but whether it’s literal or metaphorical, I do think the opportunity to see the connection is here so we should take advantage of it. We’re trapped away from each other—what have we given up? We cannot engage in person— did we appreciate our connections when we still had them? . The virtual connections are vital but they’re a pale imitation of in-person connections. How will we value what we’ve lost? Will we choose to see the sacred humanity in every person, even those with whom we profoundly disagree, or who make us uncomfortable in their difference? How will we bring civility back to the world?
This year, the Omer is an opportunity. Time has lost all meaning, yet we focus diligently on counting each day. It seems possible that the slow return to our new normal will occur sometime around Shavuot, at the end of this period. What will we be like then? What will we take from this time?
April 3, 2020
Judaism is defined by its communal approach to life. We gather to pray. We gather to learn. We gather to eat. We gather to mark holidays. We gather to celebrate life’s joys and to support people in times of loss. We gather, sometimes just for the sake of being together.
One of the things that makes this moment in history so painful is that our instinct to gather can cause dreadful results. We’ve seen family dinners, choir practices and minyans result in clusters of disease and death. We must fight our instinct to reach out in communal solidarity every day as we see people suffering and lonely and grieving. How do you hug someone from 6 feet away? Can we redefine communal Judaism to provide an answer for this moment?
As with most moments, we can look to our history and our tradition and discover that painful as this moment is, it is not totally unprecedented. More than 2000 years ago, the destruction of the first Temple forced the Jewish people into exile and fundamentally ruptured their understanding of ritual practice. Judaism was, up to that moment, a sacrificial cult. People repented for sins, celebrated bounty, and marked holidays through sacrifices of both produce and animals at the Temple. People traveled to Jerusalem three times a year to bring sacrifices. Until they couldn’t. Until the Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem was inaccessible.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs talks about the radical act of redefining Judaism in light of the destruction of the Temple. What could we be if we couldn’t be what we were? Would Judaism simply fade away? The leaders of the time decided that it wouldn’t. They replaced sacrifice with prayer, Temples with synagogues, and priests with rabbis and scholars.
What can Judaism be if we can’t gather in synagogues and homes for months on end? What will we do if the guidance not to kiss the mezuzah becomes permanent? How will we celebrate our Seders if the generations of our families are separated?
In the last week, I read Haftarah for my synagogue and participated in a shiva call via Zoom. Neither action felt comfortable. One pushed me outside of my traditional screen-free Shabbat practice. Both felt radical. Both felt profoundly necessary. As I “sat” with a friend to mourn her father and considered how eye contact feels different through a screen, I also thought about the fact that we were living in different states and in normal times, I would not have participated in this shiva at all. I thought about the gift of that opportunity and the unfathomable pain of a mourner who could not travel to her father’s funeral.
We all hope that social distancing is a short-term phenomenon, yet we would be missing an opportunity if we don’t also consider how the need to be physically separated invites us to rethink our understanding of what Judaism “must be.” Perhaps our need to gather should be challenged to include more virtual experiences. Perhaps once we can travel and we can gather again in people’s homes, one of the traditional practices of mourning should still be a zoom night so that friends from far away can become part of the circle of support. Perhaps once we can go back to the synagogue for services, we should still spend Shabbat afternoon on the porch, talking to neighbors as they sit on their porches.
Moments of change and disruption can feel hopeless. Yet we know that we can adapt to even drastic disruptions. We can because we must. And if we’re lucky, this disruption will leave us with a reminder neither to take our gatherings for granted or to assume that they can only happen in one way.
March 20, 2020
I should be thinking about Passover. It’s just a couple of weeks away. My mind and my children’s backpacks should be full of creatively harmless plagues and questions and matzo covers and recipes for chocolate matzo.
Instead, I’m back at Rosh Hashanah. All those months ago, we sat in the synagogue as we pondered the book of life. Who will live and who will die, we asked? Who by fire and who by water? And who by plague? We wished each other well and that we should all be inscribed in the book of life.
The doleful tune that accompanies these words in the high holiday services has been running through my head. As I look on social media, peer out my window at neighbors sitting on their porches and taking walks, and occasionally brave the store to pick up groceries, I can’t get it out of my head. Who will live and who will die?
I’m not one to stay stuck in this painful inaction, though it’s tempting and I spend more time here than I want to. I’ve forced myself to ask how we can still help to tip the scales. While JVC is taking every recommendation around social distancing, we also recognize that humans are social creatures. We need to know we’re not alone. It’s been gratifying to see the enthusiastic response to our calls for volunteers, both direct service volunteers to take meals to our most vulnerable community members and indirect service volunteers who are looking for creative ways to get busy helping others. We are increasingly developing virtual volunteer opportunities with our community partners, as the need to reach out to people who are isolated becomes a non-physical activity.
Who will live? We will. Our community will. We can emerge from this moment stronger and more cohesive, if we choose to. We can save lives by staying away from each other. We can save lives by coming closer to each other in new and different ways.
May we all be the answer to this plague.
March 6, 2020
As we approach the holiday of Purim next week, there are lots of lively debate about who the real hero is of the Purim story? Is it Queen Esther, who put her own safety at risk to approach the king and tell him of Haman’s evil plot? Is it Mordecai, whose leadership pushed Esther in the right direction? Today, people even suggest it might be Vashti, whose act of rebellion in refusing to perform for the king has been demonized but perhaps served as an example of a woman claiming ownership over her own body.
I want to offer another suggestion. I believe one vastly overlooked hero of the Purim story was the king’s servant. The servant was asked to read to the king and instead of choosing a story from the royal chronicles in which this arrogant and empty-headed king figured as the hero, the servant chose to read to him the story of how Mordechai had uncovered a plot against the king and having reported it, succeeded in saving the king’s life.
How does this make him a hero? Knowing that his job was to soothe the king, the servant managed to call out the best of the king’s nature and both inspire his gratitude and direct it toward Mordechai, who was known to be a Jew. When the very next night, Esther revealed Haman’s evil plot against the Jews, including herself and Mordechai, the king was enraged, Haman was executed and his plot was foiled.
Assuming that the servant didn’t know the ultimate consequences of his action, is he a hero? A wise friend recently noted that the entire Purim story is full of tiny, spread out, circumstances that are either miracles of miraculous coincidences. These small miracles go unnoticed until you see the entire arc of the story and recognize how each little thing allowed the miracle of the Jews survival to happen. Which doesn’t answer the question – is the servant a hero?
I propose that he is, though likely an unwitting one. Perhaps the choice he made was unintentional. Maybe he just stuck his finger into the scroll and decided that was the place to start reading. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he knew that the king could be influenced to the good or to the bad and chose a story that pushed the king toward the good.
Perhaps we can all be that kind of a hero. In each interaction, we have an opportunity to influence the people around us and, in turn, to be influenced by them. Are we intentional in the way we act? Do we draw out the best of the people we’re with, celebrating their best selves and challenging them when they need to be challenged? Do we seek out people to surround ourselves with who do the same for us?
We can strive to be brave like Esther and wise like Mordechai. We may see our roles in life play out on a public stage, or in the halls of power. Or we may not. We can also strive to be intentional like the servant, to use our influence quietly to bring out the best in the people in our lives.
Let’s all be like the servant.
February 21, 2020
On Shabbat last week, we read the portion of the Torah called Yitro. Yitro is Moses’s father in law and becomes an advisor to him as Moses takes on the role of leader of the Israelite people. This week’s parsha features
two significant moments. First, Yitro helps Moses understand that his role is to lead, not to manage everything by himself. He suggests to Moses that he create a leadership structure that builds from small group leaders to leaders of leaders and on up the chain to Moses as the (mortal/non-divine) head of the people. In other words, Yitro helps Moses to develop an organization that can grow exponentially and still function as a whole because it’s held together by a connected leadership structure and a common set of values. If you’ve ever wondered what the Biblical origin of the VolunTeam concept is (and I’m sure you have!) this is it.
Yitro, as a close confidante who did not experience the daily burdens of leadership that Moses was feeling, was able to see that shared, peer-based leadership was necessary to solidify the foundations of this emerging nation. In many ways, Moses had to let go of leadership in order to establish himself as the leader. He had to learn to trust others.
As JVC has expanded peer-based leadership opportunities with VolunTeams, Live With Purpose, and multi-site Days of Service with projects led by volunteers, our staff has also had to learn to trust others. We’ve learned that peer-led recruitment can be vastly more successful than top down marketing and JVC’s growth has proven that point over and over again. We’ve learned that peer-led learning can be intimidating for the leaders and we need to provide the right resources, including training. At the same time, when peer-led learning works well, it can be transformative for both leaders and participants. Like Moses, we’re learning as we go.
After creating this leadership structure, the people reach Mt. Sinai, where they experience the revelation of being proclaimed “chosen” and are given the ten commandments as the most basic rules of their emerging nation. With a solid leadership structure and the opportunity to choose their chosenness (although there’s a story that the mountain itself was lifted up and held over their heads to “encourage” them to make the right choice), the Israelite people are ready to become a nation, to take on the role of being a light unto the nations, to be a righteous and ethical people.
At JVC, we strive each day to live up to our mission, vision, and values. As we’ve created structures that empower volunteers to take on leadership and to bring their wisdom to this work, we’ve been able to grow in depth and breadth and to expand our impact on volunteers and on the community.
February 07, 2020
In Judaism, there’s a prayer for everything. There’s a prayer when you get up in the morning, a prayer when you eat, a prayer when you see a rainbow, even a prayer when you go to the bathroom. When I was in San Diego, my colleagues and I talked about this as I fulfilled a lifelong dream by heading to the beach to watch the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean. As we drove, we asked what the Jewish prayer was for the sunset.
Turns out that in Judaism, there’s a prayer for almost everything. But there’s no specific prayer for seeing the sunset.
As I reflected on my trip to San Diego and my two visits to the beach, I wondered why that is. What is it about the sunset that invites us to come up with our own prayer?
Sunset is an interesting time in the day, especially in Jewish tradition. Sunset is the end of the day, a transition to darkness and rest, a time of fragility as we lose confidence in our ability to see and control the world around us. Sunset is also the beginning of the day, as we light candles to welcome holidays, as we feel strength in the reminder that we’re part of a greater whole. As we choose our perspective, we choose our prayer.
The Pacific Coast exhibits this same type of contrast. Crashing waves hit against rocks that have not yet broken down to sand and then onto cliffs that rise far overhead. The sense of power is overwhelming as I looked at the water. When I looked up at the cliffs, I was struck by the utter fragility of the scene. What keeps those cliffs standing against the waves? Was my prayer determined by the waves or by the cliffs?
Each day, we’re confronted with situations that we can choose to perceive in different ways. Is that person on the street just lazy and unwilling to work, or did they lose their job and their home after a medical crisis? Did the person who just offended me do it in malice or in unintentional ignorance? How will my perspective affect my reaction?
What perspective do I choose to take? What’s my prayer for this moment? What’s yours?
January 24, 2020
In connecting fine wine with great leadership at the board meeting last week, Kenny Friedman commented that in order to make a great wine, the grapes have to undergo stress or pressure while they’re on the vines – so winemakers will deliberately create some sort of environmental stress. He compared that to great leaders, who must also undergo some stress and pressure – often having to push themselves out of their comfort zones and be tested in some way, even taking risks.
As we pushed ourselves to go deep in our work as part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, I considered the risks that Dr. King took in his own leadership. Despite our rose-colored national memory, Dr. King was not always the much beloved figured that he is today. He was pushing the country hard in a direction where much of society had very little actual interest in going. Among people who held power, he knew that his views were unpopular at best, dangerous at worst. He kept going. He hardened under the pressure and thereby inspired others to change the world.
This week’s parsha, the section of the Torah that we’ll read in the synagogue this week, also contains some fascinating examples of leadership under pressure.
Last week and this week, the Torah portions describe the Israelite people’s experience as slaves. Concerned about the size of the Israelite slave population, Pharaoh decreed that all sons be killed and he tasked the midwives with carrying out this horrific order. The midwives refused, claiming to Pharaoh that the Israelite women were so fast in childbirth that they just couldn’t get there in time. While their rebellion couldn’t be an open refusal to carry out these killings, they nonetheless took significant risk to do the right thing. They’re a model for us in understanding that following the rules can have drastic and unthinkable consequences and that conscience must be part of decision making and leadership.
Following his rescue from the Nile River and his childhood in the household of Pharaoh, Moses kills an Egyptian taskmaster and flees to the desert. While there, he encounters G-d and is invested with the role of representing G-d to the Egyptian Pharaoh and the Israelite slaves. While Moses begs not to be given this leadership role, he ultimately accepts it and pushes himself outside of his comfort zone while at the same time cultivating the public leadership of his brother Aaron.
For us, the question of leadership is how today’s strains and stresses will hone our leadership and our community for the future? What kind of leader do we seek to be?
January 10, 2019
Yesterday marked exactly six years since my husband Alan fell off of a ladder from more than 20 feet in the air.
Yesterday marked exactly six years since I began to understand what it means to have a village and to have to learn to depend on one.
Today I’m conscious of being part of more than one amazing village and of helping people navigate through difficult times.
A few weeks ago, I pondered the process of going from being a helper to being a recipient. I touched on the idea of building a village then and decided to return to it now.
I would venture to say that most people don’t build a village with the idea that someday, they’re going to have a crisis and need to turn to them. Most people don’t actively seek out relationships with an imbalance of need. Then again, most people believe that really bad things can’t happen to them. It’s called magical thinking and while it’s often presented as an aspect of adolescence, it’s one that I suspect most of us don’t outgrow until it’s forcibly ripped away from us.
So how do we build ourselves a village? Each time that we do a kindness, each opportunity at which we say “sure, I’ll help you with that,” we’re building a village around reciprocity. Each time we accept someone for what they have to offer, we’re building a village around valuing each other. Each time we say to the least educated person in the synagogue, “you’re the one who is allowing us to make a minyan today and we couldn’t do it without you,” we’re building a village around honor. Each time we say to a person we don’t know that we will help them anyway, we’re building a village around dignity.
That’s not to say that people who find themselves without a village at a time of crisis have failed in any way. There are many reasons why people may find themselves isolated, not all of them easy to resolve. At the same time, we all have an opportunity to notice the people around us who are struggling, to show up for the people who need it the most and can repay us the least.
In the Torah this week, we will read about the death of Jacob. As he lays dying, he calls his son Joseph to him and makes one request – he wants to be buried in the land of Canaan, not in the land of Egypt. This request, like any request having to do with death and dying, connects us to the idea of a village. It’s a request that Jacob certainly cannot fulfill on his own, nor can he ever repay his son for fulfilling it. A village shows up for requests like this, as Joseph does. A village shows up when it’s inconvenient, when there’s no expectation of repayment, when the only reason for doing it is because it’s the right thing to do.
Judaism is built on the concept of community. Baltimore, with its tight knit niches and neighborhoods, is built on the concept of community. The community I grew up in, for all that we have spread ourselves far and wide, was built on the concept of community. For these truths, I am deeply grateful.
December 13, 2019
The Torah portions being read in synagogues last week and this week are among the best known in the Biblical narrative. The story has, in fact, made it all the way to Broadway in the form of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It’s the story of the patriarch Jacob and his twelve sons, including his favorite and much-favored son Joseph. Jealous of Joseph, his brothers conspire to kill him until they’re stopped by their oldest brother Reuben. Reuben intends to save Joseph but he lacks the courage to confront his brothers directly, instead convincing them to throw Joseph into a pit with the intention of going back later to rescue him. Reuben’s “rescue” plan is thwarted and Joseph ends up being sold into slavery in Egypt, thus setting into motion the chain of events that will lead to the entire Israelite people becoming slaves.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks cites this story and others to paint a picture of Reuben as a character whose impact never quite lives up to his intentions. He wants to do good but by doing it subtly, by trying not to antagonize those around him, by not risking his own position to stand up for another, he fails to accomplish his aim. He fails to be a leader and a role model and therefore fails to protect the people he wants to protect.
Contrast this story to the traditions and history of Hanukkah. The Hanukkah story recounts the fierce battle to reestablish Judaism in Jerusalem, to refuse to accommodate to the power of the ruling authority (how the Maccabees handled power when they won it is a different topic and one worth examining another day). Traditionally, Jews are encouraged to light their menorahs in the window, to proclaim ourselves proudly for all to see.
As we come to the secular new year with its frequent talk of new year’s resolution, I find myself thinking about these two ways of doing good. There are times, without question, when the prudent course of action is to act with discretion, to do the best you can without risking too much. How much more could we gain, however, by proclaiming ourselves more publicly? By stepping out of our comfort zone? By being willing to give something up for a cause we believe in?
When we risk a little more, we become a model for others. We give other people permission to step forward as well. In this secular new year, my commitment is to examine my own practices – to use less and conserve more, to avoid less and embrace more, to confront beliefs that are toxic and to stand for what’s right. Where I can, I hope to share these moments publicly. Not for the sake of the “humble brag,” but for the sake of shining the light in the window.
December 13, 2019
In just under a month, my family will mark the sixth anniversary of my husband’s accident. Though those days feel far behind us, this time of year always inspires me to think about one of the most challenging parts of that time – the feeling of going from being the helper to being the recipient. I’m grateful to my friend Diana, who my colleagues know as the “Mitzvah Day knitter from Atlanta” and who is currently recovering from surgery, for bringing me back to this reflection this year. She’s had to adjust to accepting help – from people opening doors for her to letting go of some of her traditional volunteer responsibilities to letting people bring her things so she doesn’t have to get up. As she traveled for work, she witnessed the simple goodness of many people as they helped her get through the airport and on to her snowy destination. She is deeply grateful for it all.
What does it feel like to be the recipient of volunteer help? It’s not easy. It’s really not easy when you’re not used to it. It’s ego-bruising. It’s hard to ask. It may not be clear who to ask when your need is sudden and urgent, or when the size and scope of your village is unclear. Sometimes, it feels easier to just do it yourself. It feels easier to take that last little bit of strength and energy and keep getting it all done. Until you just can’t.
So where does that leave us? What’s our responsibility to people we see struggling?
Though this isn’t the season for it, I’m reminded of the Passover seder and the story of the four sons. The Hagaddah tells the story of four very different sons and asks how the parents should tell the Passover story to each of them. One son has done his homework and is prepared to ask for exactly what he needs. Give it to him, exactly as he asks for it, says the text. I’m reminded of a friend who gathered her village to help her family prepare for a difficult stretch and who asked for exactly what she needed to help her family prepare. Her friends happily rose to the occasion, grateful to be told what to do. How did she nurture and sustain a village to be there for her in that moment? That’s a topic for a different day.
The next son is angry, denying that he has a place in the story. The text treats him harshly, which is uncomfortable, but I would suggest that sometimes you have to push someone who may not yet be willing to deal with the situation they’re in. Give them a place to pour out their anger but unlike the text, don’t let go and walk away.
The third son, a simple son, only asks “what is this.” For this person, the Haggadah says to give a simple explanation. This son reminds me of the role I’ve played with the family members of other brain trauma patients. When all someone can say is “what is this,” find someone to guide them on the path.
The fourth son doesn’t even know how to ask. The Haggadah says we must start from the beginning and tell the whole story. Take care of everything. I would suggest that this is the son who resembles most people who find themselves in the unexpected role of recipient. This son doesn’t know where to begin and perhaps is ashamed to ask. Today, there’s a lot of literature on how to help people experiencing an unexpected trauma, especially those who aren’t asking for help. The consensus is not to wait to be asked. Push help. Don’t ask someone to come up with a task for you. Tell them you’re bringing dinner and ask them what they want. Remind them it’s okay not to be okay and be present to listen when they’re ready to talk.
Like my friends who are currently going through rough patches, I’m deeply grateful for the help that was offered, both the help I knew I needed and the help that showed up unexpectedly. I’m also grateful for the Facebook responses to my inquiry that helped me develop and guide these thoughts.
November 27, 2019
In his recent visit to Baltimore as a scholar-in-residence at Beth Am Synagogue, Rabbi Shai Held from the Hadar Institute took on the question of what it means to Love Your Neighbor. This command is one of the most fundamental in Judaism and yet there is no consensus on what it means. Is loving your neighbor a feeling or an action? Is it both? Can a person be commanded to feel a certain way? If a person’s actions are loving but their feelings are not, does it matter?
I won’t try to capture all that Rabbi Held taught in the confines of these few paragraphs, although I would recommend listening to his interview on NPR as Rabbi Held, reporter Sheila Kast and producer Melissa Herr explore this question both in the studio and out on the streets with Baltimore area residents.
What struck me about the question is how we understand change over time. If, yesterday, I refused to give money to a stranger in need, it’s clear what I did and what I need to do differently in the future. It’s clear that I cannot change my past action and it’s equally clear that I can do better in the future.
But what about feelings? When do they change? How often do we acknowledge when we feel something that’s inappropriate? How often do we say “I feel resentful about giving money to people and I think I need to work on that”? Are we really that honest with ourselves? It’s far easier to say “I’ll do what I have to but my feelings are my feelings and that’s just the way it is.”
Rabbi Held suggests that emotional honesty is a part of fulfilling the commandment to Love Your Neighbor and that if we don’t, then we habituate ourselves to doing good actions with great resentment or a sense of superiority. At JVC, this is one of the key reasons that we focus on service learning. We invite people to participate in volunteering for any reason and we assume that not every volunteer has the best of intentions, even those who think they do. Our challenge is helping people to do the internal work of challenging assumptions, overcoming fears, and connecting values with actions.
Actions are easy to see. Actions are easy (sometimes) to change from one moment to another. Feelings are hard. Feelings flow. We strive for the “aha” moment that signals a change in knowledge or feeling. We recognize it’s far more likely that we have a lot of “hmmm….” moments that result is a slow change over time.
We are commanded to love our neighbor. Is it an action or is it a feeling? The answer, as with so many things in Judaism, is yes. And we are invited to explore what it means over time, as we grow and learn and begin to care.
November 15, 2019
On our recent trip to Israel, I did something that scared me. Something, in fact, that I had previously said I would never do. I rented a car—and I drove it.
Now this might not sound too scary to many of you but for me, it was a pretty big deal. While most traffic signs in Israel are in both English and Hebrew, many don’t have words at all and street name signs are. . let’s just say “inconsistently present.”
As I try to do, I dived into this experience for what it could teach me. I used the rule of 1/60 (understanding one experience to be 1/60 of a deeper experience), which I’ve written about before and which helps us to understand that we can have an experience that builds empathy without trying to create equivalency.
In this case, I considered what it must be like to be an immigrant, to move permanently to a new place where you don’t speak the language, don’t understand local jargon and culture, and may or may not have someone to guide you as you learn.
Not only was the experience of both driving and generally being in Israel intimidating, it was also inspiring. If you want to learn about Israel, take a cab. You would be hard-pressed to find someone more interested in making sure you know everything about the country than an Israeli cab driver. We also made friends with waiters, shopkeepers, train travelers, and even the staff at the rental car office who assured me over and over that we had “full insurance coverage.”
And of course, then there were the friends and family we were there to see. The increased level of comfort I felt when we were out with our Israeli hosts was palpable. It’s intimidating and frankly embarrassing to have to start every conversation with the words “M’daber Anglit?” (do you speak English.) It’s far easier to fade into the background and let the natives handle everything. When they’re there to do it, that is.
So what did this moment of dipping my toe into the experience of being a foreigner in a new land teach me about the immigrant experience and how we can support newcomers, and especially new English speakers?
Be kind. Be generous with your time. Try to understand what is being asked. As my mother likes to say “answer the questions they don’t know they need to ask.”
Honor their bravery. Ask yourself if you could start over in a place where you have to learn a new language, especially as an adult.
Honor their effort. Ask yourself how many languages you speak before criticizing a new English speaker.
Stretch your boundaries. Go someplace where you don’t speak the language and try to navigate. Bring back the memory of that stress, while also understanding that your travel stress from a time-limited, well-funded travel experience doesn’t compare to the trauma of a refugee. Remember the rule of 1/60th and understand that empathy is not equivalence.
Remember that we are instructed to welcome the stranger, because we were strangers ourselves.
November 1, 2019
Jewish tradition says that the prophetic era ended around 300 BCE, with the death of the prophet Malachi. Since then, people have been left to figure things out here on Earth through study, prayer, discussion, and experimentation. Today, two thousand years removed from the days of the prophets, we generally dismiss those people who say they speak for G-d. We call them crackpots, we question their sanity, we reject their warnings. After all, there are no prophets today.
There were 56 prophets and prophetesses, according to Jewish tradition. Many of them shared words of warning. They reminded the Israelite people to heed the laws of the Torah. They described the coming doom, destruction, and exile should the people fail to change. They were generally successful as future-tellers, describing a future that would indeed come to pass, yet they failed in their core responsibility, which was to get people to heed their warnings and change their behavior. One notable exception is the reluctant prophet Jonah, whose story we will read on Yom Kippur. Jonah fled the responsibility of delivering a warning to the people of Ninevah but, after a three-day stint inside the belly of a “big fish,” actually achieved the objective of motivating them to repent and be spared.
Why does this matter? After all, there are no prophets today.
As I watched images from the Global Climate Strike in the last few weeks, I began to wonder. What is prophecy? What is it that allows one person to see what others don’t . . . or won’t? What is it that gets one person noticed and allows her to build a movement, while others go unheeded or are utterly dismissed? Is prophecy always the ecstatic experience of hearing G-d speak, or might prophecy also come from hearing the message of the voice in the everyday world? Is prophecy a choice to speak up and speak out, to say aloud what others can’t hear?
Can we, in this year to come, strive to be prophets? Can we heed the words of the prophets among us?
Can we make the choice to hear the things that are uncomfortable to hear? After all, we may all be prophets today.
October 18, 2019
Sokkot is a joyous holiday, a reminder of the joy of bringing in a harvest and a reminder of the path from slavery to freedom. It’s a celebration, coming on the heels of ten days of soul-searching and repentance.
It’s also an invitation to think about the meaning of home. In the most traditional observance of the holiday, people actually move out of their comfortable, permanent homes and into these temporary dwellings. More commonly today, people decorate their sukkah, bring out tables and chairs, and make the sukkah their dining room for the week. In both cases, the sukkah is more than a simple shelter; it’s an extension of home.
What can a sukkah teach us about the difference between shelter and home?
A shelter keeps the rain off (as does a sukkah,) and provides some semblance of security through walls (as does a sukkah.) It can keep you safe and dry, possibly even warm and comfortable. But a shelter, like a sukkah, is temporary. It’s not a place to create long-lasting traditions, or to memorialize your “forever memories.”
A home, by contrast, is a place to settle. It’s a place to feel both physically and emotionally safe. It can be a place for a person to begin moving beyond focusing on their most basic needs and to begin dreaming of the future. It can be a place for children to begin collecting books because they have a place to keep them. It can be a place for people to make healthy food choices because they have the storage for tools to prepare their meals. It’s a place, like a sukkah, to hang artwork and decorate in ways that express the owner’s personal style and values.
Shelters are important. They matter. They meet basic needs. It took 40 years to get from Egypt to Israel. 40 years of wandering in temporary shelters and learning what it means to be free. 40 years of eating manna that fell from heaven but not producing a harvest or preparing a meal. 40 years of not being quite home yet.
Home was the goal, though. Home is always the goal.
As we increase our relationship with organizations that help people transition successfully from shelters to permanent housing, we understand the importance of home. We will look at ways to bolster the sense of emotional safety that comes with stability and permanence. We will look at our sukkot and at our homes and ask ourselves what we do differently when we feel safe and stable.
Home is always the goal.
October 04, 2019
Jewish tradition says that the prophetic era ended around 300 BCE, with the death of the prophet Malachi. Since then, people have been left to figure things out here on Earth through study, prayer, discussion, and experimentation. Today, two thousand years removed from the days of the prophets, we generally dismiss those people who say they speak for G-d. We call them crackpots, we question their sanity, we reject their warnings. After all, there are no prophets today.
There were 56 prophets and prophetesses, according to Jewish tradition. Many of them shared words of warning. They reminded the Israelite people to heed the laws of the Torah. They described the coming doom, destruction, and exile should the people fail to change. They were generally successful as future-tellers, describing a future that would indeed come to pass, yet they failed in their core responsibility, which was to get people to heed their warnings and change their behavior. One notable exception is the reluctant prophet Jonah, whose story we will read on Yom Kippur. Jonah fled the responsibility of delivering a warning to the people of Ninevah but, after a three-day stint inside the belly of a “big fish,” actually achieved the objective of motivating them to repent and be spared.
Why does this matter? After all, there are no prophets today.
As I watched images from the Global Climate Strike in the last few weeks, I began to wonder. What is prophecy? What is it that allows one person to see what others don’t . . . or won’t? What is it that gets one person noticed and allows her to build a movement, while others go unheeded or are utterly dismissed? Is prophecy always the ecstatic experience of hearing G-d “speak”, or might prophecy also come from paying attention to the spark of the divine in the everyday world? Is prophecy in the modern era a choice to speak up and speak out, to say aloud the sacred messages that others can’t hear?
Can we, in this year to come, strive to be prophets? Can we heed the words of the prophets among us?
Can we make the choice to hear the things that are uncomfortable to hear? After all, we may all be prophets today.
September 20, 2019
As Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas and then made a path up the east coast to strike my beloved Outer Banks, I found myself reliving the heart-breaking days during and after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit and devastated a city I’d called home for three years, I remember wondering if the city would ever be the same. As rescue and recovery workers went house to house in the impossibly difficult work of searching for bodies, as homeowners dealt with the trauma of learning that their homes had been moved off their foundations or collapsed completely, as people who knew no other world began to understand that they couldn’t return home, we saw both the utter destruction and the profound coming together of a great American city. When JVC took its first volunteer mission there just four short months after the storm, we saw destruction but we also saw resiliency, commitment, and a welcoming attitude that even nine feet of flooding couldn’t drown.
The Bahamas are there today. The storm destroyed whole towns. People are missing whose fate won’t be known for weeks or months, if ever. It’s unclear how to begin to rebuild and the ever-present threat of the next storm begs the question of how to prevent it all from happening again. This is the face of a new reality for us all and one without easy answers. Yet we know the people of the Bahamas, supported by the people of the world, will survive and thrive one day. That’s community. That’s humanity.
While the destruction in the Bahamas is at a scale where JVC isn’t able to engage from a hands-on perspective, we did look toward the Outer Banks of North Carolina as a possible volunteer site. Our partners at Nechama, a Jewish organization dedicated to disaster response, did an immediate assessment and ultimately decided not to set up a project site there. Why not? The community was inundated, they said. Not by water, not by sand, but by volunteers. Residents, neighbors, and volunteers from surrounding counties were already hard at work clearing out the damage and rebuilding homes and businesses. Neighbors who were spared stepped up for neighbors who were impacted. That’s community. That’s humanity.
In just over a week, Jewish people around the world will gather in synagogues and communal worship spaces to commemorate the creation of the world. We will focus on the many blessings in the world. We will express gratitude through prayer and reflection. We will all, I hope, ask ourselves what we’re doing to support the work of creation. We will all, I hope, dedicate ourselves to the work of supporting community and to the care of both the natural world and the people and creatures in it.
If I see you in the coming weeks, I may ask you what your commitment to the world is this year. I hope that you will do the same for me. We can all help each other to help each other.
L’shanah Tovah. Have a healthy and sweet new year.
September 06, 2019
What does it mean to feel safe? What does it mean to be comforted?
We are in the midst of a seven-week cycle of comfort and consolation that leads us from the depths of despair at Tisha B’av to the height of optimism as we celebrate the birth and continual rebirth of the world at Rosh Hashanah. On Shabbat morning during this time, we read messages of hope and affirmation from the Prophets, and we’re reminded each week that this world is special in the eyes of the Divine.
It’s affirming, no doubt. But what it is about these messages of divine comfort and these reminders that difficult times are temporary that makes us feel safe?
A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I took the day off from work to celebrate our tenth anniversary. We began our day with a hike at Lake Roland, where a cloudy day became a rainy one at about the halfway point of our walk. As we continued walking, listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops, I realized something surprising. I was not getting wet. In fact, the tree canopy was so heavy that as long as we kept to our path, we were actually in a blissfully cozy environment where we could listen to the rain but be protected from it reaching us.
And I felt safe.
And I felt comforted. The sound of the rain, the cool and comfortable temperature, the hand of my husband clasped in mind – in that moment, everything was good.
As volunteers, we are part of helping people feel safe and comforted. When volunteers serve food, tutor children, visit isolated seniors, or participate in the myriad other volunteer activities in our community, we are providing a canopy that protects people from the threatening storm. When volunteers engage in service with dignity, with an ear toward listening and hearing the people whom they are serving, they are offering the support of their presence.
In this new year, we will all find opportunities to spread a canopy of peace and comfort over each other and over people we’ve never met. It’s one of our most sacred obligations.
August 23, 2019
Why should I care about other people’s children?
I have my own children. I’m busy. I have enough to worry about.
So why should I care about other people’s children? Really—why should I?
Why was I sitting at my desk last week, crying at the news that a friend’s nephew had lost his life to gun violence? I’ve never even met this child. Why should I care?
Why was I checking Facebook obsessively the other day until I saw that my friend who I haven’t seen in 20 years got the all clear on her son’s most recent brain MRI? Why should that matter to me?
My point, of course, is that it does matter. That I do care. And that I should. We all should.
Our tradition reminds us that we’re all made b’tzelem elokim, in the image of G-d. We are reminded that each person has a spark of the divine presence. We are asked to care for the stranger, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to care for the widow and the orphan. We invite the hungry and the lonely to our Passover Seder. We give tzedakah, even when we’re barely making ends meet.
In so many ways, Judaism demands that we pay attention to each other and that we live in community and in responsibility one to another. It is perhaps that lesson that has allowed us to be the “light unto the nations” that we are instructed to be. It is perhaps that communal care that has given us the resilience to withstand some of the greatest tragedies of human history – on a collective scale and on a personal level. It is, perhaps, that by knowing that we never let anyone else be utterly alone, we also know that we are safely enmeshed in a community safety net.
Why should I care about other people’s children? Why should any of us care about people we’ve never met?
Because it’s who we are. And it’s who we must always seek to be.
August 9, 2019
This week has been tough. Multiple mass shootings around the country, continued violence in Baltimore, an increase in divisive rhetoric even as we mourn together as a nation.
This week is always tough. It’s the third and final week in a downward spiral toward the nadir of the Jewish year, marked by Tisha B’av (the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av.) This day, which we will mark this year on Saturday night and Sunday, August 11 with a fast and the reading of the book of Lamentations, is the anniversary of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. During the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’av, we read the three “haftarot of admonition,” which are passages from the Prophets full of warnings and grim descriptions of the destruction to come. Historically, these warnings from the prophets went unheeded and the chaos they described became reality as the Temple was destroyed and the Israelite people sent into exile.
Following Tisha B’av, the cycle begins to build again. Each week in the synagogue, we read one of the seven “Haftarot of consolation.” These are readings from the prophet Isaiah, which paint a hopeful picture of a better future and remind the Jewish people that G-d continues to support them. These seven weeks culminate with Rosh Hashanah, a celebration of the birth, and continual rebirth, of the world.
Three weeks down. Seven weeks up. Why?
I’m reminded that things fall apart far more quickly than they are built– that friendships, societies, and lives can be destroyed far more quickly than they can be created. I’m reminded that it takes one hurtful word to cause pain and many thoughtful ones to relieve it.
At the same time, I’m reminded that what can feel like utter and permanent destruction may ultimately be rebirth in a new reality. The Jewish people did not die out with the destruction of the Temple. Religious practice shifted from Temple sacrifices to synagogue and home-based prayers. Many people were killed during those dark moments in history. Those who survived clung to a collective identity that has allowed the Jewish people to thrive through the centuries. The number seven has spiritual significance in Judaism, as it represents the cycle of creation. The Jewish people that emerged from the catastrophe of Tisha B’av truly had to create their world anew with their faith intact.
I look around at the challenges in the world today. I wonder where we are in the cycle of destruction and rebirth. I wonder if we can control our destiny. We are taught that the Temple was destroyed by causeless hatred. Can we define our own low point here and now, commit ourselves to causeless love, and start our seven weeks of rebirth?
July 26, 2019
Last Saturday night marked the 50th anniversary of American astronaut Neil Armstrong becoming the first human being to step foot on the moon. Coming off of our annual trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where we paid a visit to the Wright Brothers Memorial, I am fascinated by the speed at which we moved from the first powered flight to landing a person on the moon. 66 years. It took 66 years from the Wright Brothers’ first flight across the sandy dunes of Kill Devil Hills for human beings to set foot on the dusty surface of the moon.
How did these technologies emerge? How did flight go from a dream, to a theory, to an experiment, to a test and on to a proven fact? How did a 59 second flight across a sandy plain on a breezy December day inspire the idea of reaching for the stars? How many people were inspired and motivated by that first flight to become the engineers and scientists who created the reality of human space flight?
I am reminded of Theodor Herzl’s inspiring statement – “If you will it, it is no dream.” Herzl dreamed of a Jewish homeland in the modern world. The Wright Brothers dreamed of people moving vast distances through the air. President Kennedy dreamed of putting a person on the moon. Each of these men took their dreams and helped to will them into being, through their own work and through inspiring leadership.
Each day, I look out at the world and am overwhelmed by the challenges – global climate change, inequity, causeless hatred, human cruelty . . the list goes on and on. I dream of a sustainable future. I dream of an end to inequity and a society that balances kindness and justice. I dream of a world where people are as willing to see each other as they are to see themselves.
Herzl reminds me, “If you will it, it is no dream.” That’s the challenge, though. It’s easy to dream. It’s harder to will it into existence.
I don’t have answers. I have dreams. Each day, I try to ask myself what I can do to bring my dreams to life. I wish I could say my will always matches my dreams and my intentions.
Saturday night also marked the beginning of a Jewish day of mourning that falls each year on the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz. This date marks the anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the Temple.
While separated by thousands of years in actuality, I found it interesting to juxtapose these anniversaries. The hopefulness of the moon landing and the tragedy of the fall of Jerusalem perhaps point to two fates that lie before us. Will we choose our dream? Can we will it into existence? Can we sustain it in the long term?
I hope so.
July 12, 2019
In the town I grew up in, the 4th of July fireworks were set off from the football stadium. No one was allowed to be in the stadium during the show because of the inherent danger of being too close to the fireworks, and also because it’s easier to watch the show from farther away so you don’t have to look straight up. Therefore, people watched from parking decks and buildings and fields nearby.
The reason the stadium was kept closed during the show made a lot of sense to me growing up.
Also. . it’s not true.
The truth is that I was terrified of loud noises as a child. As a result, my parents avoided the stadium with its live music and other entertainment and instead, brought us to my father’s office parking deck near the stadium where we (and others) watched the fireworks from a safe and quieter distance. I made up the rest of it to make the facts fit into my understanding of the world as I saw it. I must confess that I didn’t “unlearn” this story until I was in college.
Why do I tell this story? It’s an example of one of the things that I “knew” when I was younger that, as it turns out, was not true at all. I also “knew” that Orthodox synagogues were always in the basement of conservative synagogues, that fathers called their mothers “mom” while mothers called their mothers “stepmom” (this was done to avoid confusion, obviously), and that all schools brought TVs into their classrooms to watch basketball the Friday of the ACC conference basketball tournament. I “knew” quite a lot back then.
These reflections make me wonder what I “know” today that I will need to unlearn at some point in the future. The things I must unlearn now and in the future are likely of greater consequence—they cover areas of unconscious bias and cultural norms. As a leader and a parent, the things I know impact a wider circle than they did when I was a child.
In Pirke Avot, Ben Zoma asks “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” (4:1.) It takes a certain level of humility to learn from every person. It takes even more to unlearn our understanding of the world and to relearn it through the eyes of people whose voices we have not always heard. While I tell these stories of the things I “knew” with a nostalgic smile, it is far more challenging to face those things I must unlearn today.
So I ask. . . what do you “know” today? Are you willing to unlearn and learn something new?
June 28, 2019
Is it possible to be utterly happy and painfully sad at the same time? It is. It surely is.
Those two emotions dominated my experience during our family vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina last week. As I sat on the beach, as I played with our children, as I watched their love and comfort for the ocean grow, I experienced moments that were as close to perfection as I ever expect to be.
At the same time, I felt profoundly aware of the fragility of the location where we sat. The Outer Banks are a thin, low-lying strip of land between the mighty Atlantic Ocean and the waters of the Sound. With rising sea levels and increasingly powerful hurricanes, I’ve accepted that this beach will not be there for my children’s children. Each year, as we say good-bye to the cottage we’ve come to love, I know that we may not be back.
The Torah tells us that G-d gave Adam “dominion” over the earth, both plants and animals. The Midrash (oral tradition that accompanies that Torah) explains that this dominion is a responsibility, not a power. It records that G-d told Adam, “See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” As the children of Adam, we are failing utterly in our charge.
What will we do? What can we do? What can JVC do in service of our responsibility to the planet? On Good Deeds Day, volunteers cleaned streams and prevented trash from reaching the Chesapeake Bay. It was a small step, yet an inspirational one to volunteers and neighbors who expressed interest in continuing to monitor and clean this strip of stream.
We will continue to take small steps. Much of the work that JVC does falls into the category of “micro-actions,” individual activities that impact one person or a small group. That’s our work. That’s our task. We add up micro-actions, we take care of one need at a time, we come together to create collective good. Yet we still must keep our eye on the larger picture. We must and we will continue to ask how we can meet urgent needs. . . and we must ask how to change the world so those needs never become urgent in the first place.
I look forward to continuing our work.
June 14, 2019
I often encourage people to use their daily experiences to connect with and build empathy for people who are struggling – financially, emotionally, physically. Yet even as I’ve written and spoken those words, I’ve struggled with them. Empathy helps to build understanding, helps us to touch another person’s pain. Yet empathy also runs the risk of becoming equivalency, which devalues the experience of another by trying to equate it with one of your own.
A simple example is that of budgeting. My experience of having to budget for camp, private school, and vacation can give me empathy for the frustration of working hard to make a life for your family and of occasionally struggling to make ends meet. It should not, however, be mistaken for the stress of having to budget for food, medicine, and housing — and of regularly having to choose between paying one bill or another but being unable to pay both.
So how can we understand and build empathy without falling into the trap of equivalency. Do our Jewish sages have wisdom to offer? Of course they do!
In the Talmud (brachot 57b,) the authors wrote about the concept of 1/60th. A dream, they write, is 1/60 of prophecy. Sleep is 1/60th of death.
When we wake up from a dream, we may have a moment of confusion, a moment when we are unsure of what’s real and what was the dream. As we emerge back into consciousness, however, we know the difference. We know that a dream is something to remember, something to interpret, something to revisit even. We equally know that it’s not prophecy, not a sure sign of what’s to come. For the most part, especially when our dreams take on the characteristics of a Hollywood movie, we’re probably even grateful for that knowledge.
So we can do the same with empathy-building experiences. We can take the feelings they inspire – the frustration, the stress, the grief, and we can use those feelings to connect with the experience of another person. And we can. . . we must. . . understand the rule of 1/60th. We can accept that while we can touch another person’s experience, we cannot know it. We must not equate it. And if our own experiences inspire us to want change, let us apply that inspiration to our empathy and work toward a more just future for everyone.
May 31, 2019
In anticipation of the Star Wars Episode IX movie coming out in the theaters this winter, I’ve started showing my two sons all the Star Wars movies. This led to an interesting debate in our house – what order is the “correct” order to watch these movies? Should they be viewed in the order in which they were made or the chronological order of the plot? How would the kids’ experience be shaped if they watched Anakin Skywalker as a young child and troubled teen, without the context of knowing (spoiler alert) that he would become Darth Vader. How would they feel about the development of an army of stormtrooper clones to “protect” the republic without having the visceral reaction of associating stormtroopers with the Empire?
This led me to speculate on how often people judge others for making decisions without “seeing” something that may in fact be unseeable to them. I have heard people say they don’t understand why the Jews of Europe didn’t see the Holocaust coming and I would suggest to them that in a world where the Holocaust hadn’t yet happened, the idea of it was virtually unimaginable. As a country, we are wrestling with this issue as we grapple with how to understand and honor (or cease to honor) historical figures that both shaped the nation and were themselves deeply flawed human beings. If Obi-Wan Kenobi could have seen the future, what might he have done differently? Would it have made a difference?
In the end, we showed the kids the original 1977 movie first, after which we went back to Star Wars Episode I and are now working our way forward chronologically. I do wonder, though, how they would understand a path that began with hidden greed, untreated psychological trauma, and the stoking of fear, if they didn’t already know that it ended with tyranny.
May 17, 2019
Beginning on the second day of Passover, Jews traditionally “count the Omer.” This Biblically dictated process of counting each day from the beginning of the harvest to its peak was originally focused on the sacrifices and offerings being brought to the Temple. Since the destruction of the Temple, the period has also been seen as connecting the holidays of Passover (when we left Egypt) and Shavuot (when we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai).
Both approaches to the counting of the Omer are really about the process of going from potential to full actualization. From an agricultural perspective, the period from the beginning of the harvest to the peak is a race against time. The crops have grown, the yield looks good, yet until it’s out of the fields and in storage, many things could still go wrong and what looked like a bountiful harvest may turn into a year of struggle. Similarly, the act of Exodus from Egypt gave the Israelite people the potential for freedom. Yet until they reached Mount Sinai and were given the Torah to guide the creation of their own society in the land of Israel, they were not really free – they had liberty, but not a structure to maintain that freedom through the taking on of responsibility.
At the same time that we look forward to commemorating the receiving of the Torah and experience the heady anticipation of a good harvest, the period of the Omer is also one of semi-mourning, marking many tragedies and massacres that occurred during this time. This juxtaposition of mourning against great anticipation has relevance to us today. As we work to build a culture of service, empathy, and care for the other, we also recognize that the more successful any social movement is, the more voices of hate and anger may try to interrupt it. We work diligently. We feel optimistic. We celebrate our success. At the same time, we also stay attuned to voices that seek to sew discord and keep people apart.
May this period be one of optimism and introspection for us all.
May 3, 2019
My week began with an interfaith dinner at the Muslim Community Cultural Center and will draw toward
its close with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. At the interfaith dinner, Rabbi Daniel
Burg cited Holocaust survivor , who proposed that the United States should be bordered by the Statue of Liberty on one coast and a Statue of Responsibility on the other. These two concepts – liberty and responsibility – must work in tandem to ensure a just and safe society. By itself, liberty is insufficient as a goal because it focuses only on a person’s own self-interest. A society that is truly “free” is one with a sense of communal responsibility. Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts of violence have increased in both frequency and scale in this country. At the same time, every act of service, every relationship built, every stereotype challenged, strengthens the threads that tie this nation together. As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, we remember that unthinkable things can happen when a society fails to feel responsible for the humanity and human rights of all of its members.
April 19, 2019
In a Facebook group of Jewish educators, a recent post suggested that while we all look for ways to keep the Seder relevant and engaging, we need to be careful about making the 10 plagues into too much of a game. The toy jumping frogs, cotton ball hail, and small rubber locusts can make us forget that the plagues were, in fact, plagues. They caused suffering and destruction, even death. They were a punishment on the people for the actions of their leader.
The Haggadah reminds us of this fact. As we recount the name of each plague, we spill a drop of wine onto our plate. We can’t fully rejoice when our freedom comes at the cost of another’s suffering. The spilling of a drop of wine shouldn’t be confused with an apology. The Haggadah never suggests that the plagues were the wrong thing to do, or that the Egyptian people weren’t both complicit and in some cases actively involved in the suffering their leader inflicted on the Israelite people. Still, we take a moment from our rejoicing to remember that our freedom came at a cost.
In our long history as a people and even today, we have frequently been caught in a struggle for survival. The moment that we lose sight of the humanity of the group with whom we are in conflict is the moment that we lose sight of our own humanity. The physical action of spilling out a drop of wine, of reducing our joy and remembering the suffering of an enemy in the process of our own liberation, reminds us that all people are made in the image of G-d.
April 12, 2019
Don’t look now but Passover is coming up fast! In two weeks, Jews around the world will sit down at their Seders and recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, studies show that participation in a Passover Seder is one of the most common expressions of Jewish participation, even for people who are not otherwise engaged in Jewish life or ritual practice.
These Seders will be diverse in form, varied in length, and will range a spectrum of Jewish ritual practice. Yet the Seder, at its core, is an invitation from our sages to engage in experiential education at its finest. We’re given props—mostly edible ones like charoset and matza. We’re given thought-provoking questions – four of them, to be exact. Most importantly, we’re told that each of us must see him/herself as if we personally had come out of Egypt. We’re given the opportunity to dive into the story. Whether we take that mandate literally as some Sephardic traditions do, setting up water to create a literal splitting of the sea, or whether we adopt a more metaphorical approach, talking through the experience of slavery, the plagues, and the flight from Egypt, we are invited into the exodus narrative.
At JVC, we talk a lot about empathy and the importance of trying to see the world through the eyes of another person. The Seder is designed to be an empathy building experience. This year, before the Seder, I invite you to read the Haggadah. Find something in the story that speaks to you, that intrigues you. Ask yourself what it would feel like to have to choose between a terrible present and a dangerous journey toward an uncertain future. Ask yourself what it would feel like to have to pack up and leave your home at a moment’s notice, not knowing if you would ever return. As you spoon the charoset onto your plate, ask yourself what it would feel like to work all day every day and still not be able to improve your situation. Understand those parts of our history and know that they are today’s reality for many people.
The Passover Seder, like much of Jewish tradition, contains lessons that are relevant for today. It has a special connection and appeal as it invites us into the experience and reminds us that but for a miracle, we would all be slaves today.
March 8, 2019
Two times in the last couple of months, we have been outraged by news reports of vicious crimes committed against innocent people. The first, a stabbing allegedly perpetrated by a homeless individual asking for help. The second, a hateful attack on a famous actor in Chicago. Both stories fed into deep societal fears. Both stories made us angry. Both stories made us want to reach out in deep compassion– to the victim in one case or to the victim’s family in the other. And both stories, apparently, were false. The husband and stepdaughter of the stabbing victim have now been arrested and charged in her murder. The actor, while the story is still incomplete, has been accused of staging his attack for unknown reasons.
Now what are we to do with the residual damage caused by these false accusations? What are we to do with the knowledge that people in Baltimore and far beyond stopped rolling down their windows to give blessing bags, money, and a human connection to people on the street? Can that damage be undone? Once people are given license to fear, how do we reconnect them with empathy? Once people are given license to doubt the accusations of victims, how do we reestablish their sense of justice?
There is a Jewish folk tale, told in many versions, of a person who sees the community rabbi accidentally eat an apple off the fruit seller’s
cart without paying for it. The person whispers the story to a few people, speaking in greatest secrecy. The story, of course, spreads like wildfire, as secrets usually do. The rabbi is shamed and the source of the rumor guiltily asks his forgiveness for spreading the story. The rabbi instructs him to take a feather pillow to the town square, open it, and spread the feathers everywhere. He then gives the person the impossible task of gathering up the feathers once again. The rabbi’s point is that words, like the feathers, can never be fully gathered once they begin to spread and it’s often hard to know even how far they’ve traveled.
So what do we do? We double down on our empathy. We tell the stories of the people we meet on the street. We treat people with dignity. We remember that the story of one does not define the reality of all. We send our words like feathers into the world, not to do harm but to do good.
February 22, 2019
I’ve become fascinated recently with the concept of optimism, of daring to believe that the best
outcome is both possible and likely. In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book To Heal a Broken World, he highlights a moment when the Israelite people are invited to choose optimism. In the dessert, as they are about to enter Israel, they are instructed that they have before them “life and death. Choose life.” To a people who have known only slavery for generations and who’ve spent 40 years wandering in the dessert as penance for their lack of faith, this is an extraordinary thing to ask – not only must they be able to imagine a better future but they also have to believe that this better future is a possibility for them and not just for others.
As I read further into Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy on optimism, I was reminded of a story about Coach Dean Smith, the legendary former coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. The story is that the team was losing badly at home in one particular game. Carolina was down 22 points with just over 11 minutes to go. Coach Smith called a time out, gathered the team and, as legend tells it, he smiled at them and said “all right guys. . .we’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em. This is gonna be fun.” He then proceeded to explain exactly how the rest of the game would play out. He pointed at one player and said he would get things started with a three pointer, then told another to steal the inbounds pass and get a lay-up. He predicted that the other team would get flustered and start making mistakes. Carolina would capitalize on them and would retake the lead at around the five-minute mark. True to his prediction, Carolina won that game by several points. It all began with a confident statement, an optimistic outlook, and faith in the players.
While I can’t say for sure if the story of what happened in that huddle is true, I do remember the game and the electric feeling of optimism that spread through the entire building as the team clawed its way back. As JVC builds optimistically toward a future where service is a priority in every household in Jewish Baltimore and where recognition of the inherent humanity of the other is a priority and Jewish value, I’m often reminded of that philosophy. Choose life. Where we are right now is exactly where we need to be. We have everything we need inside ourselves and as a community to get where we’re going. We have optimism. We have talent. We have each other. We have the conviction that this work matters.
This is going to be fun.
February 8, 2019
Did you know that the first American-built steam engine train once lost a race to a horse-drawn carriage? Personally, that is one of a near infinite number of train facts that I never thought I needed to know until I had children. I find this one particularly fascinating however, as I put myself in the place of the engineers and entrepreneurs who had staged the race to prove the merits of this new technology. I can imagine that there were some people in the crowd that day who scoffed at the idea that a machine could ever outrace a horse and who gloried in its failure. Fortunately for us, there were others who recognized the potential and understood that failure is a necessary piece of progress. Jewish history is replete with stories that highlight the decision to proceed in the face of uncertainty, to believe and to work toward an uncertain future. From the very beginnings of Jewish people-hood at Mt. Sinai, as the Israelite people are given a law code that will guide their future nation, there is a statement that “we will do and we will learn.” In other words, “we believe it’s possible – let’s get started.” We saw this optimism in the early days of the Zionist movement, as kibbutzniks and other Jewish settlers turned swamps into forests, deserts into gardens—day by day, challenge by challenge, toward a future they believed could be. We see it today, as scientists and engineers advance sustainable energy technologies, even in the face of derision at every set back.
Do we believe in what we are trying to build? Do we believe that something better is possible? Do we commit to learning from every failure and mistake? If we do, then we can fly – remember that the path from steam engine to jet plane ran straight and short.
January 25, 2019
I have to.
There’s no other way.
We often live our lives with these statements of certainty. Subconsciously, these terms demonstrate an absolute belief in things happening in the one and only way they can and a decision that we can’t handle things going any other way.
But what happens when things don’t go that way? When the world doesn’t cooperate with our absolute certainty that it “must be” a certain way? I thought about these questions last week as I looked forward at a calendar packed full of meetings and I thought “everyone better stay healthy next week. I’m really busy. I can’t handle anything going wrong.” I thought about these questions a lot more this weekend as my two sons were diagnosed with the flu and my husband and I scrambled to balance their need to stay home and recover with our need to fulfill our work commitments.
Did we handle it? Of course we did. That we did it with no real consequences is a reminder that we’re fortunate to have flexible jobs and people in our lives that can support us. And in the end, we were grateful for the gift of an inconvenient but ultimately mild (as the flu goes) illness, and for the modern technology that allows us to work remotely.
3,000 years of living in Diaspora (away from the Jewish homeland of Israel) has created a Jewish tradition that is steeped in the idea of transience, that values community over physical location. As Tevye says in the play Fiddler on the Roof, “we’ve been kicked out of many places. Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats.” Confronting the unexpected helps to both clarify our values and bolster our sense of community and our feeling of empowered self-worth. Can you handle it? Of course you can – you have no choice.
So the next time I find myself giving in to a statement of certainty about the way things have to be, or what I can and cannot handle, I’ll remind myself that in this life, few things are certain. One thing that is certain is the human ability to cope with what we must. As we all see people around us and on the news who are coping with unimaginable circumstances, we can both celebrate their ability to manage the unmanageable and consider ways to support them in their journey through an uncertain life.
November 16, 2018
I took my younger son to the playground a couple of weeks ago and since there was no one around, I took a turn on the swings. I went higher and higher, relishing in the memory of how much I’d enjoyed the swings as a child. Suddenly, I experienced a feeling that the enthusiastic child inside me didn’t understand– sheer, abject terror. My stomach dropped, my fingers clenched, and I tried desperately to stop as fast as I could. What happened?
As I pondered that moment, I recalled that a year ago, I’d had a similar experience as we plummeted down the “big slide” at a water park. Ahh, I thought, I’m afraid of falling. No, I argued with myself, I just spent a week at Disney World and didn’t have that reaction to any of the roller coasters.
What was the difference?
The difference, I realized, is that I was buckled in for all those roller coasters whereas the swing and the slide are free falls, with nothing holding you in but gravity and faith.
Why is that relevant to JVC?
We live in scary times. It’s challenging to find a feeling of safety, even when we’re inside our safe spaces at home, at the synagogue, at work, and at school. Threats, both natural and human-made, seem to surround us everywhere. How do we face it all?
To me, my connection to Judaism is the “buckle” that keeps me grounded, that keeps me feeling safe even when it feels we’re hurtling out of control. Judaism is a religion, a faith, a people, a tradition, a community, an ethical system, and more. Whatever Judaism is to you, my hope is that it can serve as the grounding force that keeps you feeling safe in challenging times, and ties you to community in all its forms.
November 1, 2018
There’s a well-known Facebook meme of Mr. Rogers, which quotes him as saying that in any tragic situation, people should “look for the helpers.” They’ll always be there. The helpers always show up to provide assistance, comfort, and a helping hand.
As our nation begins to process the horrific crimes committed by a man filled with hatred and anti-semitism, we should simultaneously take a moment to look for the helpers. In this case, the helpers I mean are the volunteer members of the community’s chevra kaddisha, the burial society that takes on a sacred commitment to honor the Jewish dead by ritually preparing their bodies and escorting a person from the time of their death until they are buried.
As I read a compelling NY Times article (note: this article contains graphic details) about the work of the chevra kaddisha, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my father years ago. My father has been the volunteer head of the chevra kaddisha for their community since I was a child. Not particularly religiously observant himself, this role has connected him to Judaism in so many meaningful ways.
In this conversation, my father commented that while there are a number of doctors on the chevra kadisha list for their synagogue, they rarely volunteered to perform a tahara (the ritual preparation of the body.) My father speculated on the reasons for this but he was clear about why they would always be on the list. They got called in for “special cases,” situations where the state of the body meant that most volunteers would find it difficult to participate.
The context of the conversation was the sudden and tragic loss of a 20 year old member of the congregation, whose life ended in a violent accident on Erev Rosh Hashanah. At services the next day, as news spread among the congregation, one of those doctors approached us and simply said to my father, “Whatever you need. I’ll be there.”
This is what we do. We show up. “Whatever you need. I’ll be there.” This is the sacred promise that Jews make to each other. This is the sacred promise that volunteers make when we connect meaningfully to the work that we do.
October 5, 2018
With the high holidays now behind us, we prepare to enter the Jewish month of Cheshvan. Cheshvan is unique in being the only month of the year with no holidays (except for Shabbat.) After the intensity of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the emptiness of the month of Cheshvan can be both comforting and disquieting.
Because of this lack of holidays, Cheshvan is known as the “dark” month of the Jewish year. I like that image. Not darkness in the sense of emptiness, but darkness as in a blank slate. Judaism is a ritualistic religion. With each holiday, we are told what to do, what to eat (or not eat,) what to say, how to act, and even how to feel. Cheshvan gives us a whole month with no such guidelines.
Therefore, the question of the month of Cheshvan is “what will you choose?” What will you choose to imprint on this blank slate of a month? How will you choose to act? How will you choose to feel as you are driven by modern events rather than rituals built around historic ones?
If Cheshvan is the “dark” month, then we have the opportunity to bring light to it. An organization in Israel has deemed Cheshvan “Jewish Social Action Month,” and while I generally reject these “Hallmark holidays,” I do like the idea of bringing light into darkness, of bringing meaning to the blank slate. Perhaps with the holidays behind us, each of us can find a little extra time for one more act of service. Knit a scarf. Visit an isolated friend or neighbor. Check out Bookworms and see what a difference volunteers make in the lives of children.
Cheshvan begins on Tuesday, October 9. Let it be a month of light and hope.
What makes something sacred? Are spaces inherently sacred? Can a moment be sacred by definition?
These were questions raised by Rabbi Posner of Beth Tfiloh on the last night of shiva for Sam Gold, Pammy Franklin’s grandfather.
Maimonides says no. He argues that space and place are not inherently sacred; rather, their sacred nature comes from actions that have happened there, from the decision of people to name the place as sacred. Israel is a holy land, he says, because we believe it to be sacred, because that is where G-d entered into a covenant with the Jewish people.
To me, this raises a larger question of the nature of things. How do we define sacred and profane when it comes to a place or an object? Who defines those things? Can they ever be redefined?
This question came to the front of my mind this week as students and protesters at UNC-Chapel Hill, my alma mater and hometown, forcibly removed a statue of “Silent Sam,” a confederate soldier who has stood in the middle of the campus for generations. Many people cheered this action as long overdue, others condemned the action while celebrating the intent, and still others argued that this statue, like other confederate monuments, represents a history and tradition that should be honored even today. For me, seeing the story and commentary flaring up on social media brought me straight to the question of how we define the sacred and the profane.
Silent Sam, like most confederate monuments, went up on campus in the early 20th century, during the height of the Jim Crow South. The speech made during the dedication was rife with racist vitriol and white supremacist sentiments. Can a statue so dedicated ever shake its profane nature? Can a statue honoring a movement dedicated to the continuation of human slavery ever shift its identity to honor bravery and dedication to home? At the same time, can the space be redefined, likely absent Silent Sam, as one of memory and history?
Maimonides says that we the people are the arbiters of sacred and profane and I agree with him. As the nation wrestles with a history full of promise, progress, and deep inequity, we will confront this issue more and more often. We must ask ourselves how we choose to define our shared spaces, how we will understand history in the context of our modern values.
Each year at Rosh Hashanah, we look forward and we look backward. This year, I invite everyone to look forward, backward, and inward. I invite you to think about the spaces and places you see as sacred or profane. I invite you to also look at those spaces through the lens of someone who disagrees with you. May we all gain in wisdom and empathy as we choose to create the sacred and shun the profane.
August 9, 2018
“It is not your responsibility to finish the work. Neither are you free to avoid it.” (Pirke Avot)
It can be overwhelming to face the challenges in the world today. What can we do? What can we impact? Can we really make a difference?
I’ve been asking myself these questions as the tide of daily news brings story after story of hunger, hatred, inequality, destructive fires and on and on.
Then I saw a story on the internet, the story of a single act, intended only to provide a limited benefit but which ultimately changed an entire ecosystem. The story, recounted here, describes the release of only 14 wolves into Yellowstone National Park. The goal of the release was, simply, to reintroduce wolves into their former habitat. The results ranged far beyond that one simple goal. The wolves preyed on the deer population, decreasing their presence and creating a host of other benefits, from increasing the diversity of plant and animal species to stabilizing the river banks. All from the reintroduction of 14 wolves.
Our scholars understood this. They said “Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world.” (Sanhedrin, 37a) We may never truly know the impact of our actions. Who will be the beneficiary of an act of kindness? The one we help, certainly. And the one they then have the strength to help. And the next one and the next one. Who will be saved when we save a life? The ones we save, certainly. And their children, and their grandchildren and on and on through the generations.
As we begin our preparations for Rosh Hashanah, this is a good time to think, not of big things that need to happen but of the little things we can do each day. Now is the time to do what we can, when we can, and how we can, and trust that with each small action, the arc of the universe bends ever further towards justice, a notion championed by faith leaders throughout history.
July 27, 2018
On Tisha B’Av, we marked the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. As I mentioned in the last Schmooze, we’re taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “causeless hatred.” The story of that causeless hatred is a complex one, about two men named Kamtza and bar Kamtza, the enmity that another man felt towards one of them, and what happens when a misdirected party invitation creates a moment of stubbornness, pleading, humiliation, anger, and revenge, followed by a cascading series of decisions that led to the invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. The story is too long to recount here but you can read it on this Chabad website.
The question is often asked—who was most at fault in the dramatic scene in which bar Katza arrives at the party to which he was not invited, begs to stay, and is unceremoniously thrown out by the party’s host? Who is most at fault in his subsequent decision to inform against the Jewish community to the Roman emperor? The answer, generally, seems to be that there’s plenty of fault to spread around.
I want to highlight one group that sometimes goes overlooked in this discussion. The guests at the party, particularly the community’s leadership (the Rabbis,) stand by and do nothing to stop as bar Kamtza is thrown from the house. Could they have intervened? Was it their place? What is, after all, the role of the “innocent” bystander?
These questions plague me. Social media is rife with videos of verbal and physical assaults, of bullying, and of other instances of tragedies in progress. In many of them, you can see bystanders stepping in, using their voices and their bodies to intervene. I wonder for myself, and I encourage you to ask yourselves, what would you do? What would you risk?
In moments both big and small, we have the opportunity to use our voices as our power. To stand beside the person who needs to be defended, to align ourselves against causeless hatred. It’s uncomfortable and risky. It may be thankless. It is, simply, the way to save the world.
June 29, 2018
The Talmud says that Sleep is 1/60 of Death, and Dreams are 1/60 of Prophecy (Brachot 57b.) The amount 1/60th seems to constitute the merest taste, the edge of experience. Why so little? Perhaps it’s all we can handle – prophecy must be an overwhelming experience and death is certainly an experience not to be pursued. Or perhaps a taste is all that’s really needed. Perhaps we can use that experience to project and empathize with the full experience.
I’ve been troubled recently by what seems to be a decrease in empathy in civil discourse and even in basic human interaction. Have we lost the ability to understand anyone whose experiences don’t mimic our own? Could the concept of 1/60th help us to regain that ability?
I’ll give one small example. When we left the beach on Sunday, my children went home with my parents while my husband and I drove back to Baltimore. I miss them terribly. Yet I know they are safe, happy, on a scheduled vacation, and I have the plane tickets ready to go to bring them home. My experience is the merest taste of what a parent would experience if their child were taken from them against their will. As I read stories of families separated at the border or forced apart by other circumstances, I grabbed back onto that feeling, nurtured it, allowed myself to dive into it and consider a reality where my children were lost to me. Painful as it was, I used my taste to further develop empathy for people who are genuinely suffering. My goal is not by any means to equate my experience with theirs, but to foster and develop empathy for a trauma happening at a scale that I can’t begin to imagine, and to use that empathy as an impetus to action.
It would have been easier to simply cover the feeling, to dismiss it and enjoy our free evenings. It would have been easier not to make any connection between my short-term, chosen experience and the terror being experienced by other families. It would have been easier not to engage empathetically. It would have been easier. And it would have been wrong.
As members of a community, we have a responsibility to seek opportunities to connect, to develop empathy, and to relate to others. Perhaps 1/60th is all we can handle. Perhaps 1/60th is all it takes to begin.
June 14, 2018
If I asked you to tell me how you know a day has passed, you would probably talk about the rising and setting of the sun. If I asked you how you know a month has passed, you might talk about the phases of the moon. If I asked you how you know a year has passed, you might offer me points about the seasons, the stars, or even the position of the sun.
What if I asked you how you know when a week has passed?
There is no way to tell from nature that a week has passed. That’s because a week is entirely a human/divine construct. Seven days make a cycle. Why? Because the Torah says so. G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. We are instructed to do the same. Seven days = one cycle = one week. The boundary marking the change from one week to the next is Shabbat.
We spent time last year engaged in a deep and thoughtful conversation about the role volunteerism may play in defining Shabbat for some people. The conversation turned around making a separation, defining a moment as special, though perhaps in a non-traditional way. Shabbat is sacred because G-d decreed it so. Shabbat is special each week because people make it so.
Next week, my family and I will travel to the North Carolina Outer Banks for our annual pilgrimage to the beach. For me, this week at the beach often serves as one long, extended Shabbat. It is an opportunity to step away from the hectic schedule of “regular” life, to do some deep reflection, to find spirituality in the waves, to read, to think, and to reset for a return to Baltimore and the busy, wonderful, chaos of daily life.
I encourage each of you to find the opportunity to retreat into a deeper contemplation of life, whether that’s each week on Shabbat or at more sporadic intervals. As we seek to see, understand, and serve others around us, we must first and foremost ground ourselves.
Shabbat Shalom (and thank you for your patience if I don’t return emails next week).
May 31, 2018
In honor of Memorial Day this weekend, I paid close attention to the “Prayer for Our Country” that we read in the synagogue each week. In that prayer, we beseech G-d to “Pour out blessings. . . .” to our country and its leaders. I was struck by the word Harek, meaning “pour.” It’s a graphic term and creates an image of a jug overturning, spilling its contents far and wide. It feels much more effusive than a simple “please bless them,” which sounds like a discreet and more limited request.
What’s necessary in order to “pour out” blessings? (it’s worth noting that the word Harek is also used in the Haggadah when we beseech G-d to pour out G-d’s wrath upon the nations but for here, we’ll concentrate on the positive uses of the word.) For a jug to pour out its contents, it must be filled; there must enough in the jug for something to be available to come out.
For G-d, this is no issue. But what about for us? Are we prepared to pour out our “blessings” of care, nurturing, attention, patience, thoughtfulness, and all the others things that are asked of us each day? Do we have enough in our metaphorical jug to pour out for those in our inner circle and even more to reach those people we don’t know but who need our attention nonetheless?
In May, the JVC Live With Purpose project was making sugar scrubs, which were given to clients of CHANA with the hope that the women can engage in a measure of self-care while navigating the traumas and uncertainties of being survivors of domestic violence. Through this project, it was our goal to help women fill their proverbial jugs, to achieve a level of self-care that will enable them to continue to pour out love, care, and blessings for themselves and their children.
For each of us, the use of the word “pour” when describing the process of blessing others is important. Remember that you cannot pour out what you do not have, and that the continual process of refreshing, refilling, and pouring out the goodness in our souls is the very process of living in community. I hope that everyone has a chance to refresh, refill, and pour out blessings to others this summer.
May 17, 2018
On Saturday night, we begin the holiday of Shavuot. Known as the “Festival of Weeks,” Shavuot marks seven weeks since the beginning of Pesach and traditionally commemorates both the beginning of the grain harvest and the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. One tradition during Shavuot is the reading of the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman who marries an Israelite man. Upon his death, her mother-in-law Naomi encourages her to return to her people and begin her life anew, but Ruth insists on staying to support Naomi, potentially at the risk of her own future remarriage and any possibility of having children. Ultimately, Ruth’s dedication is rewarded as she not only marries the Israelite man Boaz, she becomes the ancestor of King David.
This story fascinates me, as our society increasingly engages in a conversation about “the family you choose.” A few years ago, Bar Mitzvah student Matthew Grossman led a JVC-supported project at Dru/Mondawmin Healthy Families, a program serving parents of young children in central west Baltimore. Through the project, participants made Family Trees, on which they listed not only their biological relatives but also the “families they chose,” whether they be neighbors, teachers, relatives, or friends. In a recent conversation with the Executive Director of Dru/Mondawmin Healthy Families, she reminded me how impactful that project was and how families still talk about it today.
The “families we choose” are, ultimately, our community. They are the people we rely on and for whom we feel responsible. They are the people we celebrate with and who we support and are supported by in times of crisis. They are the people to whom we feel most connected. They represent a fundamental belief that family and community cannot be defined externally; they must be developed internally.
As we head into Shavuot, I encourage each of you to think about the “family you choose” and to reach out to let people know that they matter to you. I hope that we can each make sure that those people we encounter who are isolated also have the chance to find their families of choice, to know they have a community that supports them.
Hag Sameach (have a happy holiday.)
May 4, 2018
As you read in the email that I sent earlier this week, this has been a tough week at JVC. The sudden death of former JVC Program Associate Sara Feldman’s fiancée Mitch Liebeskind has left us all reeling and devastated. It has also prompted a lot of thinking for me about Jewish rituals in mourning. Traditionally, the week following the funeral is called shiva, during which bereaved family stay home and are comforted by a steady flow of visitors who provide both emotional and material comfort in the form of visits, food, and daily prayer services. It is a period of deep grieving, when everything else is put on hold while mourners cope with the initial magnitude of their loss. The community is there, not to fill the void left by the loss of a loved one, but to remind mourners that they are not alone, that while the specter of loneliness and isolation may loom large in the path ahead, there are people who will be there to walk that path with them, who will support each mourner in taking those first hesitant steps back into a normal routine and who will be there for each painful “first” in the future.
I draw two important lessons from the practice of sitting shiva. By forcing the mourner to step back from the daily rituals of life, the practice of sitting shiva insists that the mourner confront his/her grief. Trauma cannot be ignored. Grief should not be minimized. Engaging with grief and trauma is a key step to healing. As we confront some of Baltimore’s most challenging issues and strive to make an impact through volunteerism, I believe that underpinning our work with a sense of empathy toward trauma and grief is critical to creating successful and meaningful relationships.
The second lesson is that of community. While each mourner must find his/her path forward and will walk that path alone in many moments, Jewish rituals in mourning are all built around community. People are social animals. We understand the risks of isolation. The challenge comes when we are asked to find the time to reach out to the isolated senior, the lonely relative, and the grieving friend. By understanding the demand that Judaism puts on us to comfort the mourner as a reminder of the importance of seeing those people who live on the edges of community, we find the motivation to notice, to reach out, and to be present.
April 19, 2018
Who have you lost? Who do you remember? Who do you honor?
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day,) these are the questions that come up in conversation and on social media. In the last few days, I have seen stories about grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors who were lost to the horrors of the Holocaust or in the defense of the state of Israel. Each one of these stories had one thing in common – connection. Though we all bear the responsibility to remember those who have no one to remember them, these particular stories were not about strangers. They represented the opening of people’s hearts to expose the pain within and they give life to the departed through the sharing of memory and the commitment that their lives should not have been lost in vain. I am grateful to read their stories, to commit their memories to mind and heart.
Now on Thursday, the mood has shifted abruptly as Israel marks its 70th anniversary. 70 years ago, the Jewish people became the first people in the world to establish a modern state in an ancient homeland from which we had been exiled for 2,000 years. As renowned educator Avram Infeld reminded me several months ago, “Because of Israel, there are no Jewish refugees today.” In other words, because of Israel, Jews everywhere have a safety net should we discover that our citizenships around the world are not as secure as we believe them to be. That is one lesson of the Holocaust. It is also a reality that ethnic groups throughout the world face every day.
Israel is our answer to the question of where we would go if we couldn’t stay where we are. What is our responsibility to people who have no answer to that question because they’ve become refugees from their homes? What is our responsibility and what is our opportunity? What is the lesson we have learned from our own history?
April 5, 2018
One of the better known aspects of the Passover Seder is the song Dayenu. The word Dayenu translates to “It would have been enough for us” and the song narrates the experience of leaving Egypt and traveling to the land of Israel to set up a nation with laws, rituals, and ethical boundaries. After each statement, we sing the refrain “Dayenu.” If only G-d had done this but not that, it would have been enough. Again and again, we’re reminded of G-d’s bountiful blessings.
This song has long puzzled me. I appreciate the overall message that we should count each and every blessing, every miracle in our lives, and not take any one for granted, yet I often find myself wondering “what if.”
What if Moses had led the people out of Egypt and the Red Sea hadn’t split? Would the voices begging to be taken back to the seeming safety of slavery have won?
What if G-d had taken us out of Egypt but not helped us in the desert by providing food, water, and all the necessities of life? Would the Israelite people have survived? Would they have developed a national identity or devolved into small survivalist groups?
What if, having survived 40 years in the desert, the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan with no laws, no ethical grounding, and no sense of peoplehood? Would that people have formed a nation?
As I pondered these questions this year, I began to reflect on the American experience of slavery and particularly the experience and aftermath of emancipation. Perhaps “dayenu,” freedom from slavery was enough. But freedom begun where education was previously prohibited, where income or the prospect of income was insecure at best, freedom without full rights and equal treatment under the law, was not a full freedom at all. While the Israelites had 40 years to transition from slavery to freedom, 40 years of being cared for and 40 years of learning how to live and wield power in the nation that would be theirs, the experience of slavery in America provided the opposite experience. From the indignity of slavery to the indignity of racism codified into law, emancipation in America was far from a smooth experience. As we sing Dayenu and ask ourselves “what if,” we may also ask our American selves “what if” and “what now” as we confront a history that, like the story of the Exodus from Egypt, shapes our identities today.
March 21, 2018
Next Friday night, Jews around the world will sit down at their seder tables to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Throughout the text, we will be challenged with the question “why.” Why is this night different? Why do we eat certain foods and not others? Why should we recount the story of the exodus from Egypt? Why does this all matter?
The answer to almost all of these questions can be summed up in the mandate to see ourselves personally as having come out of Egypt. The retelling of the story, the traditions around food, the mandate to tell the story to others. . . .all of these are about helping us live an experience we did not actually live, to develop empathy toward a narrative that may feel foreign.
At JVC, our service learning curricula draw wisdom from this tradition. We often ask questions that encourage volunteers to put themselves in the shoes of the clients they serve. “What would it feel like?” “What would you do in this situation?” Just as the Haggadah invites us into the story of the exodus from Egypt and reminds us that it is our story because it is the story of our ancestors, we are invited each day to join the story of the people we serve and reminded that their stories are our stories because we are neighbors, citizens, and human beings.
As you gather around the seder table next week, I invite you to bring yourself into the story of the exodus, a story that plays out anew every time refugees flee a desperate situation, every time a family loses their home to eviction or foreclosure, and every time a woman or man leaves a dangerous living situation. We care for the strangers because we were strangers ourselves.
Hag Sameach (have a happy holiday!)
March 8, 2018
Joy and sadness, terror and relief, light and dark. . . . Judaism is a study in contrasts.
The holiday of Purim which just passed commemorates the story of the Jews of Shushan, who were threatened with destruction by the evil Haman and saved at the last minute by the courageous intervention of Queen Esther, who had hidden her Jewish identity up to that point. The story takes us from the depths of despair to the freeing joy of relief and on to the triumph of military victory over an enemy bent on our total destruction. This pattern repeats throughout the Jewish calendar, inviting us to examine the world between two extremes. With the seismic swings of fortune that are not only possible but routinely appear in Jewish history, we are reminded never to get too comfortable. . . or too uncomfortable. . . . in any situation.
Jewish philosophy follows a similar pattern. A professor once reminded my graduate school Ethics class, “if you can see the validity in two different sides of an argument, keep looking. You’re missing at least a dozen more.” His argument was not for moral relativism. He believed strongly in a traditional understanding of Jewish law and ethics. Rather, he reminded us that polar extremes of perspective rarely lead to strong communities. I think about that reminder often as I encounter people whose perspectives on social issues vary widely from mine. I think about it when I speak with someone whose life experiences are foreign to me and whose choices defy my easy understanding. I remind myself of it frequently when I find myself quick to judge, eager to present the “easy” answer that another person has “clearly” missed.
As we connect people with volunteer opportunities that challenge their sense of comfort and even their perception of safety, we invite them into a rich Jewish tradition of seeing the world between two extremes. The experience of service through the lens of dignity invites people to find the commonality between “us” and “them” and to remember the swings of history that move people and communities from joy to despair and back again.
February 21, 2018
There’s a well-known teaching from Pirke Avot that says “It is not your obligation to complete the work. Neither are you free to desist from it.” I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot lately, because of its resonance in so many areas of my life.
I’ve been challenged often with the question of whether our work, particularly our indirect service projects, truly meet JVC’s mandate to serve “vital community needs.” Are these projects the answer to society’s most pressing needs? And the answer, very honestly, is no. These projects are not the answer. They are one answer. They are today’s answer. They are the answer to one individual, one family, one person who will breathe a little easier knowing that the chronic stress of food insecurity has been lifted for one moment. And we will continue to be today’s answer even as we strive to find ways to push for longer term, more systemic solutions. Because if we each do our part, we can make lives easier, not just moments.
Recently, I’ve also found myself pushed more toward political advocacy than I ever have before. I have tended to leave the work of advocacy to others while I take leadership in the area of direct service. I’ll admit to feeling that my lone voice didn’t matter. As I consider the admonition from Pirke Avot, however, I recognize that each voice does matter. I am not alone, nor am I free to isolate myself. That applies to all areas of life.
February 9, 2018
At the end of my trip to Florida for the conference last week, I spoke with a group of Associated donors in Palm Beach Gardens, including former JVC Chair Laurie Luskin and the father of former JVC Chair Lynn Baklor. It gave me the opportunity to think about JVC’s path over the 17 years of our existence. Three directors, nine chairs, at least three significant changes in direction. . . and each time building from strength to strength, all leading in a straight line from the radical idea that people need an easy access point for volunteering through a Jewish lens to today’s JVC that has already engaged volunteers in more than 10,000 acts of service by the midpoint of the year.
In just a few weeks, Jews throughout the world will sit down at their Seder tables to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah reminds us of the importance of retelling the story every year, even though we may know it well. Why? We’re told that we each must see ourselves in the story, that one of our responsibilities is to remember that if not for the miracle of the Exodus and the faith of our ancestors, that we and our descendants would still be slaves today.
As I consider my legacy in the line of JVC leaders, I remind myself that if not for the bold vision of The Associated in creating JVC, and if not for so many dedicated lay leaders and staff over the years, we wouldn’t be where we are today, a leader in the growing field of Jewish volunteer engagement.
January 24, 2018
Rabbi Chanina, a 3rd century scholar, is quoted as saying “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and most from my students.”
I’ve been thinking about this text as the JVC staff prepares to travel to Florida for a gathering of a national cohort of Jewish Federation-based Volunteer Centers. JVC is one of the largest and arguably the most multi-faceted of these centers, and we often serve as consultants to colleagues around the country. As I’ve stepped into an informal leadership role with this growing national cohort, I’ve been privileged to work with inspiring and dedicated colleagues from around the country. JVC Baltimore is recognized as the national leader in most areas of Jewish volunteer engagement. At the same time, I’ve been struck by how many questions I want to ask colleagues about their programming, approaches to outreach, and strategies for service learning.
Jewish scholar Ben Zoma asks “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” As I prepare to stand in the front of our national cohort as the leader of next week’s conference, I look forward to learning from each and every person that I encounter.
January 12, 2018
One of my Rosh Hashanah resolutions this year was to spend more time learning. For the first time in six years, I’ve stepped away from reading books primarily for escapism and picked up books that are rich and deep in content. I’m currently reading To Heal a Fractured World by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs, the chief rabbi of England. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore the deep connection between social justice and Judaism.
Rabbi Sachs notes an inherent contradiction. “The word tzedakah is untranslatable because it joins together two concepts that in other languages are opposites, namely charity and justice. Suppose, for example, that I give someone $100. Either he is entitled to it, or he is not. If he is, then my act is a form of justice. If he is not, it is an act of charity.” How then, he wonders, does Judaism insist that tzedkah means both?
JVC exists at the nexus of justice and charity. Our mission and our mandate is to help people see the connection between those concepts, to remember that volunteering isn’t only something we do because it feels good. Volunteering is something that we do because it is the right thing to do.
December 29, 2017
I’ve written before about the short periods from one holiday to the next when we’re invited to reflect on life, relationships, and our place in the world. I’m about to enter another such nine day period. You won’t find this one on any calendar, though. It’s the nine days between my husband Alan’s birthday on New Year’s Day and the fourth anniversary of his fall off a ladder from a height of twenty-five feet. We’ve marked this period in different ways each year. We’ve hugged our children close and tried not to dwell of “what might have been.” We’ve asked ourselves if we’ve earned this second chance he was given. We’ve tried to appreciate each day.
There’s a tradition in Judaism that invites us to say 100 blessings a day. Many of these blessings are prescribed at certain points of the day or as a person does certain activities—eating, learning, even going to the bathroom. Others come along as they come up—seeing a rainbow, hearing thunder, reaching a destination safely. To achieve the goal of saying 100 blessings a day, though, one must become profoundly aware of everything that is both wondrous and fragile in the world – from the functioning of our bodies to the majesty of nature to the extraordinary benefits of modern technology.
For me, profound awareness was an outgrowth of trauma but it has become a blessing in itself. I hope that each of us can find the opportunity to notice and appreciate 100 blessings a day.
December 15, 2017
During Hanukkah, we light candles, fry foods, and recall the miracle of a small amount of oil lasting far longer than it should have following the rededication of the Temple. We celebrate the holiday for eight days because, we are told, that’s how long the small amount of oil lasted.
I never questioned that story until a friend who was both student and teacher to me asked a simple question.
“What was the miracle of the first day of Hanukkah?”
There was enough oil for a day. The oil should have lasted that day. Therefore, one might argue, no miracle actually happened on that first day.
Or did it?
“What was the miracle of the first day of Hanukkah?”
The miracle on the first day of Hanukkah was the decision to light the flame.
It was the Maccabees’ leap of faith that if they took the first step, the rest would work itself out. The belief that by acting immediately instead of later, a miracle could occur.
I believe that we’re all faced with those moments in our lives. The moments when we have the opportunity to take a leap of faith. The moments when our actions can serve as an inspiration and a call to action. During this Hanukkah season, I hope that we can all take a moment to think about the miracles we’re trying to create, and to have the courage to act on them.
November 17, 2017
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC with a delegation of leaders from The Associated system and area synagogues. Our delegation met with both of Maryland’s senators as well as Congressman Andy Harris and Congressman John Sarbanes. When Congressman Sarbanes spoke, he made the point that “proximity matters.” In order for people to identify and come together around common areas of interest, he said, they must first meet each other. They must get to know each other and move beyond stereotypes and misconceptions to a place of real human knowledge. As I listened to him, I was reminded of the oft-repeated message in the Torah to love the stranger, care for the stranger, and protect the stranger in our midst. The two concepts work in concert. You can’t care for the stranger if you don’t know the stranger. Relationship requires proximity. Much of the work that JVC does is about creating opportunities for relationships to build by creating experiences where people from diverse backgrounds come into proximity with each other. As we work to develop our low barrier Live With Purpose programs, one of our challenges and opportunities will be to ensure that we work to build from low-barrier experiences to those that create proximity and therefore the opportunity to truly know the “other” in our lives.
November 2, 2017
A recent New York Times article by Nicole Karlis highlights the important benefits of volunteering, not only for the recipient but also for the volunteer. The article notes that human beings are social creatures and are not meant to exist in isolation. As a result, the instinct to protect the group is strong, especially following natural disasters like the ones that have pummeled our country and our world this summer and fall. Volunteering is inherently a deeply satisfying act of self-preservation. These concepts strike a powerful yet familiar chord in the Jewish community. The concept of “peoplehood” and common responsibility are threaded through every aspect of Jewish life – the need for a minyan of 10 to say certain prayers, the creation of a chevrei kadishe (burial society) as one of the first acts of many nascent Jewish communities, and the existence of a communal charity fund are only a few examples. We recognize that what is good for the community is ultimately good for us.
On Wednesday, November 1, our colleagues at the New York Time for Good program (the JVC equivalent in New York City) traveled to St. Thomas with the Afya Foundation to deliver medical supplies to residents struggling to recover from the summer’s hurricanes. While there, they met a woman who has been organizing volunteers, identifying needs, and connecting with humanitarian organizations to provide relief. At the same time, the volunteers discovered, her own home is damaged and her income is gone. Read Agi’s story on their Facebook page for an example of how helping leads to healing and also how important it is for the caregivers themselves to be taken care of.
We all know how good it feels to do good. We all recognize the inherent value of helping. It’s comforting to see that the instinct to do good is a healing tool that is built into both our human psyche and our Jewish tradition.
October 20, 2017
This weekend, we mark the beginning of the Jewish month of Cheshvan. Traditionally known as the “dark” or “bitter” month, Cheshvan has the distinction of being the only month of the Jewish year without any holidays or other commemorations (other than Shabbat.) Following a month of both joyous celebrations and heartfelt atonement, Cheshvan is a quiet time. I’ve spoken recently about the “in between” times as we move from holiday to holiday, from commemoration to commemoration. Cheshvan doesn’t have those defined boundaries and, on the surface, it can feel like a vast and open desert. At the same time, this gap in the calendar allows us the space to do reflection at our own pace, to begin the process of living those High Holiday promises we made to ourselves. As the leaves turn colors and the natural world stores its resources for the cold winter months ahead, Cheshvan offers us the opportunity to take stock of our own worlds and to notice those around us who may feel isolated when the calendar stands empty. We are given more control to build our own celebrations, to reach out to our neighbors “just because,” and to create our own communities. I look forward to using this time to restore, refresh, and recommit.
October 9, 2017
At first glance, our decision to make our October Live with Purpose project the “Soup-Kot Soup Kits” project may seem to be more about a catchy name than any strategic connection between the project and the holiday. In truth, however, the connection goes much deeper. Soup Kits are containers of ingredients that will make a hearty, nutritious meal for four people when boiled with water and a can of tomatoes. They are targeted for people who have stable housing and yet experience food insecurity, meaning that their income is insufficient to meet their basic needs for food, housing, medicine, etc.
Similarly, Sukkot represents the celebration of the harvest, the end of a long period of food insecurity – not economic insecurity but the insecurity of an agricultural people who don’t know until the harvest comes in whether it will provide bountiful plenty or be lost in the fields to a sudden storm, a disease, or any other calamity. Sukkot invites us to appreciate not only the harvest and the divine and natural forces that bring it in, but also the return of a feeling of food security. At the end of the harvest, an agricultural people can take stock and know what they have to store for the winter. They may not have all they want but they know what they have and they’re able to plan.
As we address issues of food insecurity through JVC’s programmatic initiatives, I invite everyone to remember that providing food is only one step toward addressing the issue of persistent hunger. We should also stay attentive to opportunities to enhance dignity by putting control in the hands of the recipient. In The Associated system, Jewish Community Services does this by providing gift cards to grocery stores rather than packages of food, giving control and dignity to the recipients. At JVC, we do it by ensuring that gifts of food are delivered packaged as a gift and not a handout, as well as by working with organizations that encourage people to achieve economic self-sufficiency and that strive to provide healthy food in neighborhoods that are food desserts and lack access to fresh, affordable, and healthy food options.
September 25, 2017
The story of Jonah and the Whale is one of the better known stories in Jewish tradition. In this story, which is traditionally read the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the prophet Jonah is instructed to go to the city of Ninevah to warn them to repent before they’re destroyed. Unwilling to go, he flees aboard a ship, which encounters a storm. Jonah is cast overboard, where he’s swallowed by a whale (actually, a “big fish.”) After three days inside the whale, Jonah is deposited on land, where he fulfills his mission and successfully gets the people of Ninevah to change their errant ways.
There’s a lot to unpack in this story and I want to focus on an aspect that I’d never thought about until I heard a d’var Torah by Rabbi Phil Miller. Phil speculated about what happened to Jonah inside the whale. What did he do with his three days? Perhaps being in the whale for three days gave him time to reflect on his life, to get his priorities in order, to confront his anxieties directly, even to take a much-needed break from his daily responsibilities in order to focus on his mission and purpose. Perhaps having three days of introspection was actually more valuable to Jonah than the more overt message of being chased down, scared, and swallowed by a whale in the first place.
Each year during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I try to find time to “get inside the whale,” whether that means taking a walk, finding a spot in the woods, or simply finding a place in the house to do some quiet reflection. I invite each of you to do the same. Whether it’s 3 minutes, 3 hours, or 3 days, try to find time to step away from the daily grind and focus on the year that’s passed and the year to come.
May we all be inscribed in the book of Life for a good year.
September 8, 2017
Even as Hurricane Harvey bore down on Houston, the country marked the 12 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As a former resident of New Orleans, I was profoundly impacted by that storm and carry the memories of it and the impact of our volunteer work in that community with me to this day. JVC’s first volunteer group arrived in New Orleans three months after the storm and mere weeks after the last of the flooding had subsided. Our work focused on rebuilding – not buildings, but lives and hope. As we helped homeowners clear the destruction from their homes, we sought to salvage any memory we could. How do you help a family cling to their memories when you open a closet door and see photo albums stacked floor to ceiling, all waterlogged to the point where they can’t be opened? You sit and you listen and you share in their joy at finding a Kiddush cup that can be cleaned and used again. That trip taught me more about the Jewish value of kehillah, community, than any other experience in my life. If you would like to see the impact that volunteers have following a disaster, I invite you to watch this documentary made by a volunteer on our December, 2005 trip to New Orleans. As we mobilize for a response to Hurricane Harvey and likely Hurricane Irma, I know without a doubt that people recover best from disaster when they feel the embrace of a community that feels responsible for them.
August 11, 2017
Next Monday will be the last Monday of JCamps. While this date may not seem to be of great significance, it was seared into my memory two years ago. On that date, I remember the phone ringing in the middle of the morning. “There’s been a terrible accident,” said my friend.
Our community lost a leader, a mensch, a friend, and a change-maker that day with the death of Neely Snyder z’l.
It’s been difficult to say what Neely’s full legacy is, or rather which of her many legacies is most prominent. Because of her, children at the Historic Samuel Coleridge Taylor School in West Baltimore worked in partnership with Pearlstone to create a community garden. Because of her, LGBTQ Jews in Baltimore have an organization dedicated to creating an inclusive community. Because of her, those of us who knew her are more intentional in our work, more present in our family lives, more aware of those members of our community who are isolated and excluded, and more willing to step up in moments of need.
The anniversary of Neely’s passing comes as we enter one of the “in-between” times of the year, with camp wrapping up and a few weeks before the beginning of school. It’s a good time to reflect and set goals for the year.
In Neely’s memory, my commitment is to keep my eyes open for the most vulnerable among us and to use my place, my power, and my privilege to ensure that everyone knows that they are valued.
I invite you to join me in making a commitment to making the world a better place this year.
In Neely’s memory. Zichron L’vracha (May her Memory Be for a Blessing.)
July 28, 2017
In today’s world of “rush, rush, rush”, and information overload, it can be challenging to find time to reflect. The “next thing” often crowds our thinking, even as we try to focus on where we are and what we’re doing. The Jewish calendar recognizes this challenge, and creates reflection points throughout the year, times when the schedule of holidays and observances both offers and requires a period of reflection.
We’re in one such reflection period now. The nine days between the 1st and 9th days of the Jewish month of Av are a period of communal mourning leading up to Tisha B’av (the 9th of Av) the day that commemorates the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. During this time, many people refrain from eating meat, avoid music, and focus their thoughts on the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout time. As I mentioned in the last Schmooze, there’s a tradition that the 2nd Temple was destroyed because of “causeless hatred” and this nine day period can provide each of us the opportunity to reflect on our own role in building or breaking down community. In both my personal life and in my role with JVC, I feel fortunate to have this gift of structured reflection time built into the calendar as a reminder to check in with myself on my intentions, my actions, and the role I want to play in this world.
July 14, 2017
The 17th Day of Tammuz (July 12 this year) on the Jewish calendar is commemorated as a fast day from sunrise to sundown. Tradition teaches that several calamitous events happened to the Jewish people on this day, including the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem three weeks before the destruction of the Second Temple on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av.) There is an additional teaching that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “causeless hatred.” (sinat chinam.) Causeless or baseless hatred is conceived of as hatred for no reason, with no rational explanation. How often, I wonder, do we use this strong word “hate” to describe our feelings toward a person about whom we have little or no knowledge, simply based on a different political, racial, or religious identity, or even a different sports team preference. How easy is it to walk down this path of causeless hatred as the algorithms of social media technology feed us information that reinforces our own beliefs? As we enter this three week period, I hope that it can be a period of reflection for each of us, an opportunity to consider how and why we make judgments about people. Much of JVC’s work focuses on building bridges across communities by bringing people into contact and communication with each other. As we get to know the “other” on a deeply human level, we have the opportunity to break down much of the causeless hatred that keeps us apart.
June 30, 2017
My summer began last week with a trip to Nags Head, North Carolina with my family. For the third summer in a row, I stood on the beach where I stood as a child and watched my kids play in the sand, test their sense of adventure in the waves, and generally embrace nature in a way they don’t often get to at home. Several times during the week, I looked around and thought “this is altogether good. This is everything I need in the world right now.” It’s nice to have moments like that, even if they require you to briefly shut out the world beyond your immediate view.
One morning, as I stood looking out over the horizon, I remembered reading that in Judaism, there is a blessing for every moment, whether momentous or small. You can see some of these blessings on this website. Upon seeing the ocean, we are reminded to bless our Creator who “re-enacts the work of creation.” That struck a particularly powerful chord with me during this trip, as we watched the beach in front of our cottage get redesigned several times by passing storms. The gentle slope to the beach became a cliff one day and then returned to its gentle slope the next. As each individual grain of sand moved according to the force of wind and waves, I was reminded that we are all engaged in acts of creation and re-creation all the time. Sometimes, we don’t even notice the change at first but with our persistent and committed efforts, we can truly move mountains.
June 16, 2017
I recently finished reading the book Daring Greatly by Dr. Brene Brown. In the book, she describes the gremlins that begin to whisper in our ears when we are getting ready to make a bold and uncertain move—when we’re ready to try something new, step into a leadership role, or make ourselves vulnerable. In this week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha, Israelite scouts face the same dilemma as they are sent to inspect the land of Canaan in preparation for bringing the people into the land. Upon returning, all but two of the scouts give in to their “gremlins” and spread lies about the size and strength of the inhabitants of the land, in order to make people too afraid to try to enter. Only two scouts have the courage to dare greatly and believe that they will be successful, with G-d’s help.
How often do we look at the challenges facing our world today and see, as the Israelite scouts did, giants that cannot be overcome? How often do we fail to act because we simply don’t believe that we can make a difference?
As I write this, Baltimore City is reeling from a spike in violence and struggling to secure funding for education, youth engagement, and basic city services.
Can we fix these problems? On first glance, we cannot—as the Torah records one scout saying, they are giants and we are grasshoppers. Can we make a difference? Can we put in our best effort and trust in the future? We can. In fact, we must.
May 24, 2017
The holiday of Shavuot begins next Tuesday evening at sundown. In preparation for this holiday, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the Center for Jewish Education (where the JVC office is located) put out a display of books related to the holiday. I found myself intrigued by the children’s book “No Rules for Michael.” It tells the story of Michael, a child whose teacher decides to have a day without rules. Initially excited at being “free from rules,” Michael becomes more and more distressed at discovering that not having rules means his friends don’t share, the classrooms toys aren’t put back where they belong, and he never gets a turn. Like the Jewish people at Sinai, Michael discovers that having boundaries and guidelines for life creates freedom rather than restricting it because people learn to live in community with each other. Jewish law demands of us that we care for the stranger, protect the weak, and educate children. These laws set the basic outline for civil society, a community in which people recognize their interdependence and the inherent humanity of each person. At JVC, we strive to ensure that our volunteer work protects the dignity of the recipient and honors each person’s essential humanity. By doing so, we work to build a society where the “rules” benefit everyone.
May 5, 2017
In the last week, we have commemorated three important holidays—Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day,) Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day,) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day.) On both Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, the entire state of Israel comes together for two minutes of collective memory as a siren blasts throughout the country. If you’ve never seen it, I suggest checking out this video to see the power and camaraderie of this moment.
In reflecting on these two days, spaced only one week apart, a Facebook friend recently noted that “We have two memorial days in Israel every year: one to remind us the cost of having a state. One to remind us the cost of not having one.”
As we look forward to the American Memorial Day in a few weeks, I hope that we’ll all remember to honor the service of those individuals who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country and to look for opportunities to serve those who have served us and who carry their wounds both inside and out. And may we also honor and serve those members of our community who survived the Holocaust and commit to carrying their stories forward to the next generation.
April 21, 2017
As I prepared my kitchen for Passover this year, I encountered, for the briefest of moments, the feeling of scarcity. While pondering the Passover groceries, looking for a snack, I thought, “if I eat that now, I won’t have any for later. . . and what if one of the kids wants it and it’s gone.” In that moment, I felt a fraction of what it must be to live with food insecurity, to have to make every food choice with great thoughtfulness and consideration for both future needs and the needs of others. It was a false equivalence, to be certain. My fridge was full, my “scarcity” temporary and of my own choosing. Still, I chose to embrace the feeling and will use it to be more thoughtful and empathetic in the future. At Passover, we celebrate the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt and their emergence as a free people and a nation. Food insecurity enslaves millions of people in this country and I’m proud of the work that JVC does to address this issue in the Baltimore community. When a person’s basic need for healthy food is met, they’re able to focus on larger issues such as education, work readiness, and family care, thus creating a path out of poverty and into self-sufficiency.
February 11, 2017
On Shabbat this week, we will celebrate the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat. Tu B’shvat, often known as the “birthday of the trees,” represents the first signs that spring will return as the earliest budding trees in Israel begin to emerge from their winter slumber. It’s a good reminder that even in challenging times, we hold out hope for the spring to return and new life to emerge. This holiday, which is traditionally celebrated by eating fruits, is a good opportunity to reconnect with the natural world and I encourage you to spend time outside this weekend, reflecting on the wonder of the natural world and considering the role that each of us can play in connecting people to the earth and to each other.
January 27, 2017
Earlier this week, I attended a workshop entitled “How To Have Difficult Conversations” taught by educators from Pardes, Institute for Jewish Studies. The workshop focused on the importance of engaging with people with whom we have honest disagreements, and discussed how to have challenging conversations “for the sake of heaven.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17) In the discussion, we learned that the willingness to acknowledge another person’s perspective is one of the most valued qualities in Jewish scholarship and law.
I find myself intrigued by this idea of sharing another person’s perspective. How easy is it to assume we know how a person ended up in the situation they’re in, why they’ve made the choices they’ve made, and what they should do to fix their situation? Do we take the time to understand the perspective of another person, especially one with whom we disagree?
I’ve identified a challenge for myself and I encourage you to join me. My goal is to have a conversation with at least one person with whom I have a strong, philosophical disagreement, and at least one person whose life is, on the surface, very different from my own. In having these conversations, I will seek to understand their perspective and be able to share it as a story I “own,” even though it will not be mine. By understanding each other, we build community and strengthen our world.
January 6, 2017
JVC Assistant Director Erica Bloom recently sent me a link to a “Personal Impact Canvas” exercise. Linked here, the canvas helps to guide a person from intention to action, focusing on each person’s issues of passion, personal impact circle, and short and long term trajectories. In many ways, this canvas encapsulates the work that JVC does. It asks “what do you care about?” “how can you help?” and “who can you get involved?” The exercise reminded me of a story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Modern Musar (Ethical Mindfulness) Movement. Rabbi Salanter recounts that as a young man, he wanted to change the world. He learned that he couldn’t make the impact he wanted so he focused instead on changing his community. Faced with frustration again, he turned next to trying to change his family. Ultimately, he realized that the only thing he could change was himself. By changing himself, however, he began to influence his family, his community and ultimately the world.
As we enter the secular new year, I encourage everyone to take the opportunity to engage in a Personal Impact Canvas, to consider the impact you want to have on the world and what resources you have to achieve your goals. Consider also the role that JVC can play in moving forward your goals and please let us know how we can be involved. Together, we can change ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world.