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As a kid, my mother taught us to put an orange on the seder plate as an act of feminism. Around that same time, she gave me a hot pink T-shirt with rainbow sparkle letters that read, âAnything boys can do, girls can do better.â It was the â80s and my passions for girl power, rainbows and Jewish rituals were ignited.
My mom, and many other feminists, passed on the famous origin story of the orange, that Dr. Susannah Heschel was lecturing in Miami, and, while she was speaking of feminism,Â an Orthodox man supposedly shouted that “a woman belongs on the bimah [pulpit] as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate.â And so, as feminists, we all added the orange as an act of resistance; a symbol of women’s rights.
But, alas, that story that I had heard and retold for decades was a myth
(IFF/Philadlephiaâs Rabbi Robyn Frisch discusses the myth here). And while I was studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I was quite surprised as the story was debunked by my rabbi and I learned what REALLY happened.
It was the 1980s, and Heschel was speaking at the Hillel Jewish student group at Oberlin College. While there, she came across a Haggadah written by a student that included a story of a young girl who asks her rabbi if there is room in Judaism for a lesbian. The rabbi in the story replies in anger, âThereâs as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate!ââimplying that lesbians are impure and are a violation of Judaism.
The next year, Heschel put an orange on her seder plate and shared that she chose the orange âbecause it suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.â
The seeds of the orange, like other items on the seder plate, symbolize rebirth and renewal. And some folks have taken on the tradition of spitting the seeds to remind us to spit out the hatred experienced by all marginalized members of our communities.
Since the addition of the orange, other symbols have been added to the traditional seder plate (watch our fun video guide for what to put on a seder plate). Some vegetarians and vegans have added a âpaschal yam,â in place of the shank bone, which traditionally represents the paschal lamb. Others have included olives for peace in the Middle East. And some have placed potato peels on their plates to commemorate Jews who starved during the Holocaust.
Most recently I learned that members of Rabbis For Human Rights, who work to support the under-paid and over-worked tomato pickers in Florida, have included a tomato as a symbol of contemporary slavery.
âWe who believe in FREEDOM, cannot rest until it comes.â This year, as I prepare to lead the Passover seder for my family and friends, I am emboldened to add these various symbols to our plate as reminders of who is not free. What segments of my community are still enslaved? What human rights issues must be addressed?
I am empowered to take action and commit to do the social justice work to bring equality and dignity to everyone. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., âNo one is free until we are all free.â
This year InterfaithFamily/Atlanta hosted our first annual Promukkah: Prom-themed Hannukah party in our Ponce City Market office! The evening was a blast with rockin’ dance music spun by Russell Gotchalk of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, delicious nosh, a corsage/boutonniere making station and a very popular photobooth.
Highlights include dancing the hora as we celebrated the recent marriage of Baca Holohan and Kai Murga, some incredibly creative outfits with lights, wigs and glowing shoes, as well as enormous jelly filled doughnuts.
We celebrated the festival of lights with members of the greater Atlanta community including our co-sponsors: Moishe House-Inman Park,Â SOJOURN,Â the Sixth Point,Â Limmud Atlanta + Southeast,Â AAspire, Bechol Lashon, theÂ Jewish Federation of Greater AtlantaÂ andÂ Honeymoon Israel.Â Plans for next yearâs gathering have already begun!
My face lit up as we entered the room full of glittery drag queens prancing around the stage, singing cheesy, campy songs. Sally Struthers was relaxing in the audience after her performance at the local theater (donât worry, we got a photo with her); dozens of queers were laughing and holding hands and flirting and drinking. It was our first time at a gay bar since the shooting in Orlando and we felt at home. My partner and I have been shaken up after recent events and were thrilled to be surrounded by âfamily.â My heart was soaring as we arrived on the dance floor full of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and gender non-conforming folks. We felt free in our bodies. We felt safe as a queer couple. I looked around the room and saw beautiful loving souls celebrating life, celebrating love.
So, it surprised me when tears suddenly came rolling down my face. In that moment I truly, deeply knew what it meant to say, âWe Are Orlando.â This tragedy could have happened anywhere at any time. Anyone could have been the victims. I hugged my partner close and sobbed on her shoulder. âThis could have been us,â I thought.
As we left the nightclub that evening, I grabbed my sweetieâs hand tight.
That night I felt heartbreak and pain, but it felt good to be with my community. And while I didnât feel safe, exactly, I felt at home with my people. Happy.
Like everyone I know, Iâd been shattered by the shootings at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Like everyone in my community, I voiced my outrage, marched, cried. Being surrounded by my queer community and loving allies filled me with hope and connection. Connection to everyone around me. Connection to the Source of Healing.
Only days later, the world was rocked by violence, once again. Only this time it wasnât my people. This time, black men were killed in the streets. This time felt different. While I grieved with my Black friends and community, this wasnât my community. This was not my family. I cried tears for those who suffered from trauma, who were scared, who were victims of individual and institutionalized White Supremacy.
My heart sank when I learned of the retaliation attacks against police officers. My head has been spinning. The world I live in has been feeling shattered, broken and in need of mending.
Itâs been a painful month.
And itâs easy to feel powerless. Scared. Angry. Itâs easy to point fingers and blame and stomp and run away.
Part of me wants to run and hide and ignore the world around me and wrap myself up in the safety of my White Privilege. Wouldnât that be easy? When I drive down the street, I donât have to worry about being pulled over. When I peruse through the grocery store, no one assumes that I am shoplifting as I carefully place produce into my canvas shopping bags. I donât worry for my brotherâs safety when he is out in the world. Iâm not fearful for my nephewâs life. It would be so easy, so simple to just check out and ignore the horrific news stories and be silent.
And part of me wants to hide in my femme, cis-gendered privilege. I can easily pass as a straight woman, avoid gay bars, use the womenâs bathroom without being questioned or harassed and feel âsafe.â
But I canât hide behind my many layers of privilege. I canât just run away. The tug is too strong. As a Jew, as a queer female identified cis-woman, as a feminist, as a white person and as a rabbi, I know that it is my obligation, my duty and my responsibility to work toward radical inclusion and social justice.Â It is my duty to work toward tikkun olam, healing the world.
Today, I choose to be loud. To be a part of the solution. To take a stand.
And this is complicated. What does it mean to be an advocate for the queer community, a group of people of whom I am a part? My people. My precious loved ones.
And what does it mean to be an advocate for the Black community, a group of people of whom I am not a part? My friends. My allies. My precious loved ones.
How can I use my power and privilege to create change in the world? Not as a savior, not as a hero, but as an ally. As a fellow human being.
Today, I choose to take action. Today, I choose to:
*Â Educate myself and my community about racism, about micro-aggressions, about White Supremacy and about White Privilege. About homophobia, transphobia and the bathroom laws.
*Â Donate to advocacy groups like Black Lives Matter, Atlanta Movement for Black Lives Reparations Fund, Help Queer&Trans Women and Femmes of Color Heal, SOJOURN (Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity), Georgia Equality and Equality Federation.
*Â Participate in rallies, protests, marches, vigils and spiritual gatherings.
*Â Volunteer to engage local residents in community conversations about why updating our non-discrimination laws to include gay and transgender people is vital.
Today, I will challenge narratives. I will listen actively. I will love deeply. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heshel, today I will âpray with my feet.â
I remember standing with a few friends after my oldest son was born. We were talking, as new mothers do, about how hard parenting can be, how scary. We were comparing neurotic-helicopter-mom moments, laughing at ourselves.
I shared a story about taking my son to the doctor when he seemed to have a fever. âHis temperature is high!â Iâd cried to the pediatrician, who only chuckled knowingly and said, âWell, maybe you want to unwrap some of these blankets when heâs indoors.â Of course my son was fine, just overheated.
I blushed telling this story. My friends grinned. They had the same stories, of course.Â About cutting food up (choking hazards!) into tiny bits too small for the kids to actually pick up. About perceived rare (thanks, WebMD!) skin conditions that turned out to only be heat rash.
But I remember, in the middle of all the laughter that day, someone said, âWell, who can blame us? Itâs the âJewish Mother Thing.â Weâre supposed to be anxious and neurotic!Â Itâs in our DNA!â The laughter continued, and then we probably all had some coffee, or wine.
As the years have passed (10 of them), Iâve gone back to that moment a lot. Because it turns out that as a parent, Iâm not especially neurotic. Iâm the mom who often shows up with junky snacks, when other people have baked gluten-free, organic muffins. Iâm the mom whose kids shower once a week. My boys walk around the neighborhood unattended, own pocketknives and occasionally we forget to eat dinner.
Do these things mean Iâm not a Jewish mother? Of course stereotypes are flawed, inexact, problematic. But when I joined a Jewish Mom group on Facebook and saw the effort other Jewish parents put into the details of summer camp selection, perfect birthday cupcakes and finding the best specialists, I found myself wondering, and feeling a littleâŚ different. Outside the norm.
It never occurred to me until I saw so many Jewish Mothers all in one place that I might not be one, in the traditional sense. But of course this is absolutely logical, because I never had a Jewish Mother. My own overworked mom, raised Catholic in Californiaâregularly left me at the library until after the doors were locked (it was fine, I sat and read on the steps). She didnât make kugel and she didnât speak in Yiddishisms. I rode public buses and did my homework (or didnât) without anyone ever looking at it. I survived, and learned, I guess, how to parent a little haphazardly, with spit and tape. I learned how fine things usually are, in the end. I learned to avoid stress whenever possible.
But does this mode of parenting make me somehow less Jewish?
Hereâs the thingâI am a Jewish mother. I know I am. Because Iâm raising Jewish sons. And maybe what the rising intermarriage rates suggest is that weâre going to see a shift in the âJewish Mother Thingâ in the near future. Maybe the next generation of Jewish mothers, raised themselves by women from a more diverse array of religions, regions and cultures, will be less similar, less careful, a little less neurotic. Because they donât have this âJewish Motherâ stereotype in their heads.
Or maybe not! Maybe all mothers are anxious sometimes and the âJewish Mother Thingâ is a fiction, a narrative weâve crafted as a culture, a way of embracing and forgiving ourselves for our neurotic maternal impulses; a myth we perpetuate.
In any case, I want to take a moment today to honor us all.. This week, for Mothersâ Day, I want to say to ALL the Jewish Mothers of the world, Yasher Koach! Good job on your perfectionism, or your relaxed attitude. Good job on the homemade cupcakes, or the Ho-Ho you stuck a candle in at the last minute. Good job on remembering the dental appointment, or forgetting and rescheduling it because you took the kids for a hike that day instead. Good job on raising a diverse world of wonderful Jewish kids who will strengthen and alter and carry on our tradition. Iâm proud of us all.
On Sunday, January 10, 2016, InterfaithFamily/Atlanta hosted a fabulous open house at our new office space in Ponce City Market. Over 100 Atlantans celebrated with us as we blessed our new home. After reciting the Shehecheyanu prayer, guests shared their blessings for IFF/ATL and our board member, Rebecca Hoelting, hung our new mezuzah from Atlantaâs own Modern Tribe Jewish gift shop. We enjoyed music from the Pussywillows, thanks to the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, ate delicious food from the markets in PCM, and hung out in our cool new gathering spaces like the meditation room, the green room with picnic tables, and a secret room that looks like the inside of Jeanieâs bottle. Everyone left with a florescent green Shalom Yâall tote bag full of goodies and IFF resources.
We are looking forward to more exciting events in 2016!!
It was just over a year ago that my partner, Mercy, and I were dreaming and praying as we co-created a vision board for the year 2015. Vision boards are one of my favorite ways to create sacred art; a display of what I want to manifest in my life in the coming year. After journaling and sharing our wishes with each other, Mercy and I glued pictures, colors, words and shapes that represented our hopes and dreams for the coming year onto a big white board. This process allowed me to surrender my wants over to the universe and open myself to the organic unfolding of my life.
My job and her schooling were coming to a close, and I was getting anxious about what would happen next. At the time, I was working as the interim Hillel Director at Vassar College and Mercy was completing her graduate program; we were gearing up for our next adventure together. There were so many unknownsâwhere would we get work? Could we both find jobs in the same city? What if only one of us found a job? Would we be able to find fulfilling work that paid a decent salary? How do we know if we should apply for jobs that we find to be less exciting? It was a very stressful time for both of us.
The combined images on our board served as a constant reminder of our dreaming process and kept us focused on our hopes for our next jobs. We wanted to live in a warm climate, walking distance to nature, with farmerâs markets and bike paths. We wanted jobs that were spiritually fulfilling, close to home and that offered good health insurance. Affordable housing was important, and a progressive queer community was a must.
After months of searching, interviewing, traveling, rejection letters, job offers, tears and a ton of prayers, our visions finally came to life!
We moved into a tiny apartment in Virginia Highland, GA, this summer, just a block and a half from the entrance to the Beltline and a short walk to Piedmont Park. We have found spiritually nourishing communities, beautiful hiking trails and delight in the Tiny Doors Project.
And, most important, I found the job of my dreams!! I love the work that I do at IFF. Itâs one of those jobs where it doesnât feel like work, and every day is full of exciting adventures and creative opportunities.
I am blessed to serve as a resource and guide for folks in interfaith families and relationships as the Director of IFF/Atlanta. I am honored to support and empower them as they make Jewish choices, meeting them where they are at in their lives and decision-making processes. Officiating at lifecycle events has been truly life affirming. As I work with Jewish organizations to become more welcoming and inclusive, I have found some incredibly supportive community partners!
And, I am thrilled to announce that we have just signed the lease to our new office space in Ponce City Market!! What a gift to have found a space that is a 10-minute walk from my home in the center of town.
While our office itself is quite small, just large enough for four comfy chairs and an end table, it is perfect for intimate conversations with couples, meetings with my fabulous project manager, Laurel Snyder, and catching up on emails. But, the best part is that we have access to so many incredibly funky spaces and conference rooms. Thereâs a meditation room, complete with pillow rocks (yes, big pillows that look like rocks) and a cozy space for intimate yoga classes and grounding meditation sessions. We are also looking forward to taking advantage of the indoor picnic table areaâa perfect spot for catered meals, book groups and conversations. Lastly, we are already planning Love and Religion workshops and movie nights in the hidden party lounge.Â With a big, long couch, silky pillows and a popcorn machine, it feels like the inside of Jeannieâs bottle!!
To celebrate, we are hosting a fabulous Hannukat Habayit: a festive Housewarming Party, on Sunday, January 10, from 2-4pm. The entire community is invited (get more info here) to help us bless and toast our new home at Ponce City Market, and hang our mezuzah from Modern Tribe!Â We will be enjoying live music by the Pussy Willows, provided by the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, and will serve refreshments from the award-winning chefs of the Ponce City Market.
Working as the director for InterfaithFamily/Atlanta has been beyond my wildest dreams. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve in a dynamic and diverse city. Living and exploring in Atlanta has been a true gift.
As 2015 draws to a close, Mercy and I are preparing to create our 2016 vision board. In preparation, we created a blessings jarâa spiritual âthank youâ container, acknowledging the Divine for the many gifts we have received. On colorful slips of paper, we are reflecting upon 2015 and sharing our deep gratitude for: our adorable apartment, our incredibly awesome jobs, our spiritual teachers, health insurance, bike paths, healthy colons, colorful dreidel spandex, etc.
Next week, during the winter solstice, we will, once again, journal and share our wishes with each other and then glue pictures, colors, words and shapes that represent our hopes and dreams for the coming year onto a big white board. Iâm curious to see what 2016 brings.
This time of year, I often find myself answering questions about the âDecember Dilemma.â As an intermarried-child-of-intermarriage, people want to know how I handle this tricky season, when Christmas and Hanukkah compete for our attention, and pine trees threaten to darken our doors. After all, Iâve been experiencing this for two generations myself. Havenât I learned something in all that time?
I do have an answer, actually, but itâs a radical notionâthat in fact, thereâs no such thing as the December Dilemma. Or rather, that this is a problem weâve created for ourselves, out of anxiety and insecurity.
If this is the case, the obvious solution to our problem is to release that anxiety and turn our attention to enjoying our own distinct holiday, to making Hanukkah a resonant, meaningful season. Just as we do with Passover or Sukkot. When we arenât measuring ourselves against jingle bells and candy canes.
But how do we do that?
For years I tried to make Hanukkah appealing to my kids. Since they often spend Christmas with their Catholic grandparents, and receive copious gifts as a result, my instinct was to try to match that particular kind of childhood joy. I didnât concoct a Jewish Santa, but I did spend money. I bought and wrapped loads of presents, filled bowls with gelt and dreidels. I bought twinkly lights shaped like stars of David. I wanted Hanukkah to outshine Christmas in my childrenâs memories.
You know what? It didnât work. Not because the presents werenât appreciated, but because thatâs not the point of Hanukkah. That store-bought abundance* didnât feel organic or authentic to anyone. Eight days is a long time to slog through that brassy sort of cheer, and also, only Santa is Santa. Pale comparisons are just that. No menorah will dim the presence of a tree in the corner, or the inundation our kids feel from the outside worldâthe endcap displays at Target, the aisles of red and green candy at the grocery store. Every year we all feel a little let down by Hanukkah. Donât we?
So last year, I asked myself a questionâwhy does this holiday matter? I asked myself what there was to love about Hanukkah. If it isnât a runner-up week of gifts and gelt, whatâs the actual point? I tried to remember what had mattered to me about Hanukkah, as a kid. What were my best Hanukkah memories?
When I did, I found that every single one was a memory of the dinner table or the kitchen. Of my dad grating his knuckles year after year, making latkes. Of my sisters and brothers teasing each other when we unwrapped boring gifts like dried fruit or clothes. Of the smoke alarm going off. Of drinking wine and idly spinning dreidels on a crumb-covered tablecloth, as we caught up with each otherâs college-age lives.
You see, the beauty of Hanukkah is thisâif we actually celebrate it, it affords us eight consecutive nights to slow down and focus on the little things, the personal, the mundane. Hanukkah forces us to look into each otherâs eyes every night for a week, and connect. To wait until the candles have burned down to wash the dishes or check email.
This is a miracle, honestly, in todayâs world. What other holiday accomplishes that sort of slowdown? Thereâs no pressure to perform Hanukkah. Thereâs no long synagogue service or requirement that you take time off school or work.Â You donât have to dress up or make a fancy meal. You only have to spend an hour every night loving your family and friends fully. Being aware of them.
So last year, we did something radical at our house. We opted out of the December Dilemma. We didnât spend money. We didnât throw a party. We didnât travel. We didnât compete with Christmas at all, and the result was mindblowing. It was actually a little bit painful to register the shock in my kidsâ faces when neither my husband nor I hurried away from dinner to make a phone call or wrap up a little work.
We skipped cub scouts and book club that week. We didnât go the gym. If homework hadnât been done by dinner, it wasnât going to get done. For eight nights, we prioritized only each other, and it was moving to see how deeply that resonated with my kidsâto see that they totally got it. We played dumb board games and ate popcorn. One night we watched a movie together, and I know it sounds cheesy, but I canât remember a calmer, happier week in our household. The kids have been talking about it ever since. They canât wait for this year.
Hereâs the thingâyou can only lose a battle you choose to fight. Christmas wonât stop being Christmas, whether you have a tree or not. Christmas wonât stop being an abundant overblown season of candy wrapped in tinsel. If the way we measure joy is in candy, Christmas wins every time.
But thatâs only one kind of currency, and if we measure joy in calm pleasure, in togetherness, in slowness, in conversation and low-stress fun, Hanukkah resonates differently. It matters. It becomes real.
Think about lightâthere are fireworks in the world, and then there are fireplaces. Both are illuminating. But they meet different needs. If you measure the cheery glow of a fireplace against the bombastic blaze of fireworks, youâll be disappointed. But if you stare deep into the hearth, accept it on its own terms, and warm your hands, you canât help but see its distinct beauty. You canât help but recognize how much you need it.
*the author would like to recognize that plenty of Christians struggle with this issue too, and that for many people, Â the real spirit of Christmas has nothing to do with the Â âholiday shopping season.âÂ
A few weeks ago, I bonked my head while getting ready for bed and got a concussion. This was not my first time experiencing brain damage. I bruised my tender brain two-and-a-half years ago after a small car accident when I was living in Philadelphia. The air bag went off and temporarily knocked me out. It took two years to fully recover from this intense blast. My doctor informed me that I was more prone to âre-concussâ my brain because of my previous accident and wasn’t at all surprised that this recent slight blow to my head was so traumatizing.
My symptoms include mega migraines, difficulty focusing, memory loss and utter exhaustion. The path to healing includes copious amounts of sleep, hours of meditation, brain rest, bed rest, no screen time, asking for help, accepting help, radical acceptance and deep surrender.
As a type-A, physically and socially active 40-year-old in a new city (I moved to Atlanta in May of this year), I find slowing down to be quite challenging. I love being out in the world; hiking in the North Georgia Mountains, biking on the Beltline, yoga-ing at Kashi and exploring various cafes and shops. I also love catching up with friends on social media and reading articles about social justice and spirituality. To lie in bed all day, every day, for weeks without much human contact or brain stimulation is very challenging. Needless to say, practicing radical acceptance and deep surrender donât come naturally to me.
At first, I was in complete denial. âThis is just a really, really bad headache. I feel like an anvil is smooshing my head, but Iâll be OK. Iâm just overtired/dehydrated/stressed out,â I justified.
As the pain and the fuzzy thinking worsened, it became obvious that I had acquired a second concussion and thatâs when I began to suffer. âHow could this happen to meâŚagain?!?!?!? How will I work, make money, make friends, go on dates with my partner, exercise, shop at the farmerâs markets, buy a house? How can I possibly slow down again and survive this intense pain and boredom? Didnât I already go through this a few years ago?WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?â
It can be very difficult for me to accept when things donât go MY way. Iâm fairly certain that I know how my life is supposed to unfold and putting it on hold was not an option. Being present with what is, is countercultural. In a culture that likes to numb out with instant gratification, instant messaging, fast food, home delivery and smart phones, we are trained to avoid discomfort at all costs.
In Mussar, a Jewish spiritual movement that started in the 19th century, there is a spiritual concept called âAccepting Sufferingâ (Kabbalat HaâYissurin). In this practice, we are first asked to explore the difference between suffering and pain. According to Alan Morinis in his book With Heart in Mind: Mussar Teachings To Transform Your Life, âPain is a direct reaction to an invasive stimulus and reflects simple cause and effect. Suffering, on the other hand, arises from interpretation and expectation.”Â In other words, when we experience physical pain and think, âOuch! That hurt!â That is pain. While we try our best to avoid pain, sometimes it is unavoidable. But when we think, âwhy me?â we are entering into the world of suffering.
Once we have discovered our suffering, our challenge is acceptance. We are called to be present with it. It is only when we are present with our suffering that it can pass. How can we be present with the suffering and accept our lack of control?
For me, this is not easy. It is not about pushing it away and stuffing it down. That only allows it to further manifest itself in another way. And it isnât about becoming a victim and allowing everything to happen to me. It is about accepting my powerlessness in life. There are some things that we just cannot change. When we practice acceptance, we are allowing the world to run as it does. We are accepting our reality.
A prayer that has helped me tremendously with acceptance comes from the 12-step recovery model: âG-d/Higher Power, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.â
I cannot change the fact that I bruised my brain a second time. I am powerless over my limited abilities and the speed of my healing process. But what I do have power over is my perspective and attitude. Every day I have a choice: I can choose faith or I can choose fear. When I choose fear, I spiral into panic. âThis. Is. Not. OK.,â becomes my matra and I am only able to see how this is just plain wrong. It doesnât seem right or fair. But, when I move into faith, I feel a deep sense of peace and am able to surrender to what is. I am able to observe my body as it heals and relax my brain. My heart opens as I practice gratitude. When I accept my situation, I ask for help and receive the gifts of living in community.
May this new year of 5776 bring moments of radical acceptance, deep surrender and inner peace.
My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.
A week later, I found out that my colleagueâs wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37.Â N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.
Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?
We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”
As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldnât be added to that dreaded death list.
I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesnât serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.
I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.
What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of Nâs death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.
Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.
I wasnât always into Judaism and my journey to become a rabbi was not typical. While I grew up steeped in Jewish tradition and community, I spent my twenties rejecting the religion of my childhood.Â I grew up in the Conservative Jewish movement in Schenectady, New York and to me, Judaism felt homophobic, misogynistic and exclusive. The traditional teachings and practices didnât seem relevant to me. I was out as a lesbian, I was a feminist and my partner at the time was Christian. I did not feel welcome.
It was while praying, singing and dancing at ecstatic prayer services in Berkeley, California, that I experienced a passionate connection with a Higher Power and felt the spiritual calling to become a rabbi. I knew then that I wanted to share the beauty, traditions and deep spirituality of Judaism and help others to connect with the Holy.
Some of my friends did not feel welcome, either. I was pained every time my Jewish friends married their partners of other faiths. NOT because they were committing to their sweeties who were not Jewish, but rather because they felt rejected by so many Jewish clergy. It was disheartening to watch them struggle as they tried to find someone willing to officiate at their interfaith weddings. Many times this rejection was coupled with the fact that members of their own families were judgmental of their choice of partners.
Through my discovery of inclusive, queer and spiritual Jewish communities in the Bay Area, I reconnected with my Jewish heritage. While working as an educator for over a decade, my relationship with the God of my understanding deepened. I practiced yoga, meditated daily and eventually joined a welcoming synagogue. After several years, I felt compelled to immerse myself in Jewish studies and to join the tradition of God wrestling as a Morat Haderech (spiritual guide).
Today, inclusion is at the heart of my rabbinate. My passion is creating inspiring and relevant rituals and ceremonies and invigorating Jewish practices. As I teach, I empower people to make choices that feel authentic and meaningful to them. I am honored to officiate at interfaith weddings and to guide couples as they navigate their journeys together.
I am thrilled to serve as the new director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta!!Â After living in Virginia Highland for only a few weeks, I am already fully enjoying all that Atlanta has to offer including the beltline, Piedmont Park, weekly festivals and that sweet southern hospitality!Â I am looking forward to partnering with local organizations, connecting with people in interfaith families and relationships, and now that all marriage is legal, I canât wait to officiate at legal local weddings!
Please be in touch!! I am always available by email to answer questions or discuss anything interfaith. Also, we have a local Facebook group and are in the planning stages for lots of workshops and resources for different life stages and events. Let me know if you would like more info or have any ideas about how we can make InterfaithFamily/Atlanta thrive.
Iâm looking forward to meeting you.