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For the past couple months, as I’ve settled into our office space at the San Francisco Federation building on Steuart Street, I’ve been surprised by how few Federation employees knew where we were. Since InterfaithFamily is an organization of welcoming and love, I decided this needed to change.
We began by re-envisioning our space. Where four desks once sat, we nowÂ have an open space working area with a desk, conference table, coffee/tea cart and some comfy couchesâ€”all donated to us by the Federation or local friends who were redecorating their homes. We added some art, some greenery and a couple of great lamps that shine a natural light. Our space was ready to welcome visitors; now we just needed people.
Enter #WelcomeWaffleWednesday! A couple ofÂ Wednesdays ago, we brought in a gourmet coffee cart and waffle bar for all of the people who work in our building and the one next to us. With the delicious scent of waffles welcoming all who walked in the building and coffee so fresh you could taste it in the air around you, a diverse group of Jewish professionals joined us for treats and mingling. Along with introducing ourselves and our space to the building, we were excited to be blessed by our visitors.
About half of our guests, while waiting for their waffles to cook, participated in an activity where they decorated cutouts with words and pictures of blessing and good wishes. We shaped the cutouts like hamsas, a beautiful symbol of protection in Judaism and many other faiths and cultures. The hamsa, which is believed to protect us from evil, was enriched by the blessings of our visitors. They now hang on our walls along with our art, bringing beauty, love, community and blessings to all who enter our office.
Now that Wednesday is over, and the waffles are gone, I look back on these past few weeksÂ and a smile creeps over my face. I know this office welcome was just the beginning of a significant number of meaningful friendships and partnership opportunities. And the success of our event leaves me with one important conclusion: We need more #WelcomeWaffleWednesdays in this world!
Iâ€™ve been spending a lot of time in the bathroom lately. Let me explain: Weâ€™re potty training our twins. This past weekend I was in the bathroom every 20 minutes begging, pleading, praying for my kiddos to use the potty. We didnâ€™t always leave that room excited and hopeful, but when we did it was amazing. And when there was success, there was even a blessing:
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who formed the human body with skill creating the bodyâ€™s many pathways and openings. It is well known before Your throne of glory that if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before You. Blessed are You, Adonai, who heals all flesh, working wondrously.
I donâ€™t generally recite this traditional â€śbathroom prayer,â€ť but remembering that the body and its functions are a part of divine creation gives me a little bit more patience for my children as they learn to use their bodies. (For those of you in Jewish-Catholic relationships, thereâ€™s no patron saint of potty training, I looked. There have been some moments I could use more entities to pray to.)
For me, potty training is an act of faith. For my twin toddlers, itâ€™s tortureâ€”unless they get to watch Daniel Tiger. Hearing Daniel and his friends sing the calm, uplifting tune of, â€śWhen you have to go potty, stop and go right awayâ€ť motivates them and keeps them happy. When I start singing along, their faces light up. The hymnal of Daniel Tiger makes me forget my desperate desire to hear that familiar tinkle and a feeling of connection and joy overcomes the three of us sitting there in the crowded bathroom.
We repeat this ritual over and over, prompted by the ring of a timer. Excitement mingles with fear and anxiety as we all rush into the bathroom hoping for a positive outcome. We mostly know what to expect in there: sit in the same seat as last time, sing the same familiar song, pray to God for what we need and give praise often.
This isnâ€™t the spiritual practice Iâ€™m used to, yet the ritual feels strikingly familiar. For most of my adult life Iâ€™ve engaged in the spiritual and religious practice of prayer that includes repeated ritual either alone or in a community. When the clock nears 6 pm on Friday or 10 am on Saturday I rush to the synagogue, sometimes with excitement and sometimes with anxiety or reluctance. The rabbi reads the familiar opening prayer that helps the congregation settle in.Â The cantor sings a song to raise our excitement for joining together in community, and smiles fill the room when a familiar song is shared. We continue in this ritual for an hour or so and then we leave the room and go on with our lives until the next time. Sometimes I leave the room feeling energized and excited, and sometimes I feel sad or dejected. But I know that I will return to that room and that ritual and have another opportunity to try it again and to feel that spiritual connection I so long for.
While the potty training ritual is messier, smellier and quicker, it has all the makings of a spiritual or religious practice. Every time I walk into that room with my toddlers, I hope and pray that we will all leave it excited and successful. I hope and pray that they will feel empowered and â€śgrown up.â€ť In some ways it feels as though my higher power in that ritual is not the god I pray to regularly, but instead, my toddler or sometimes the potty chair that we have all come to worship. My prayers are directed at my little ones as I say, â€śYou can do it! Go pee-pee in the potty!â€ť all the while praying silently, â€śPlease, please, please let her go pee in the potty this timeâ€ť or â€śPlease God I donâ€™t want to clean up an accident right NEXT to the potty as soon as he stands up.â€ť
These arenâ€™t (usually) the prayers I say in synagogue, but they are prayers. They are the language of my hopes and dreams, motivated by love and gratitude, and sometimes even fear.
Potty training is a hard and confusing task filled with extreme ups and downs. Weâ€™re doing our best to muddle our way through and within an hour our moods can swing from wild desperation to joyous celebration. Potty training is an act of faith and the ritual helps us through when itâ€™s hard and lets us celebrate when itâ€™s great. One day my kids will be potty trained and will forget that this was ever something they struggled with. But until that time, Iâ€™ll have my prayers, Daniel Tiger and a large canister of Clorox wipes at the ready.
To read more about parenting, check out the InterfaithFamily Parenting Blog.
When my kids were young, I introduced them to the practice of saying the Hebrew blessing, the motzi, before eating. Thank you, God, who brings forth bread from the earth.
My older child instantly connected not only to the routine of the ritual but the theological aspect as well. But a few years ago, my other son started to challenge the idea of God. At a young age, he was already an avowed atheist and didnâ€™t want to thank God for our food. I explained that he still needs to stop for a moment and acknowledge what it took for that food to get to his plate.
As a pre-dinner ritual, we started to list all the physical conditions and individuals who made our food possible: the sun, rain, seeds, individuals who plant and harvest under harsh conditions without sufficient pay or job security, the people who process it, those who drive it to the store, the store clerks who sell it to us whom we see as we pay our grocery bill. And me, to make it into dinner.
Motzi is a moment of gratitude so we donâ€™t take for granted the deep blessing of sustenance. I learned this practice many years ago when I helped organize a Passover seder for Worker Justice (laborers seeking justice) in Los Angeles. Included in our haggadah was this prayer as part of the Kiddush ritual:
A toast to those who made this wine!
To the holy-oneness of everything whose creation gives us sweet fruit for the mouth, eye and nose to enjoy
To those who put passion, dreams and capital into wine and entrepreneurship
To those who plowed the fields
To those who planted the vines
To those who tended the vines
To those who picked the grapes
To those who fermented the fruit
To those who cleaned and maintained the winery
To those who bottled the wine
To those who loaded and trucked the bottles for delivery
To those who sold the wine
And to those who served the wine here this evening!
We give you our thanks!
This got our family thinking about what we were really trying to accomplish when we said the motzi. We talked about the most important part of that moment: taking time to stop and appreciate our food. But those particular words we say are human–made. Yes, they have survived thousands of years, but they are the expressions of a certain group of rabbis a long time ago. We make these ancient words into idols, enshrining them while depriving us of a creative thought processâ€”the kind of passionate engagement with ideas and words that must have inspired those rabbis to formulate such poetry so long ago.
Liturgist Marsha Falk encourages us to exercise our creativity: â€śNo convention of prayer ought to become completely routine; lest it lose its ability to inspire authentic feeling.â€ť My son would probably agree with her assertion that our traditional opening blessing formula â€śis an example of a dead metaphorâ€¦ a greatly overused image that no longer functions to awaken awareness of the greater whole.â€ť (The Book of Blessings, p.xvii)
Greatly influenced by Falkâ€™s ideas, I have been crafting my own prayers for years. So I asked my son what he would want to say instead of the motzi. This is what my young atheist came up with: â€śThank you, source of stuff, for the food.â€ť Sometimes he says, â€śThanks to the universe and science and all that stuffâ€¦ for the food.â€ť
These days, we take turns saying a blessing at our table so everyoneâ€™s interests and concerns are heard. I donâ€™t want to lose the traditional prayer language completely and I want my kids to know those formulations. When we say the motzi in the usual way, I talk to my kids about how I infuse those sacred words and sounds with my own theological understanding of the universe; how we are interconnected with the food, the sources of that food and the people who made it possible for such bounty to reach our plates. To me, that holy process is God.
Other nights, our sons offer their favorite renditions. Lately as they start to cook parts of the meal themselves, the son who helps gets to offer his favorite way of blessing the food. But we always stop, appreciate and bless.
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 Atlantaâ€™s 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 Jeanieâ€™s bottle. Everyone left with a florescent green Shalom Yâ€™all tote bag full of goodies and IFF resources.
We are looking forward to more exciting events in 2016!!
When I see a rainbow, Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” comes to mind every time: â€śThe lovers, the dreamers, and meâ€¦â€ť
On our familyâ€™s winter vacation we spotted an amazing rainbow running down the side of a mountain. It was truly breathtaking and left us oohing and aaahing. We were the lovers and the dreamers in that instant. I didnâ€™t think to say either the Shehecheyanu or the prayer to be said upon seeing a rainbow: We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers, is faithful to, and fulfills Your covenant with and promise to creation. We just gaped with open mouth in wonder at the beauty of creation. No words had to be said in that instant. We all felt our connection with each other and the One.
However, upon reflecting on that sighting, it would have been cool to mark the moment with Judaism by calling upon ancient words that are ever-new. So, I say them now to myself as my house hums with the noise from my dogâ€™s collar and the peace of sleeping children.
What about the rainbow being a symbol of our covenant with God? God shows Noah the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of Godâ€™s covenant with humankind that never again will there be a flood to destroy them (Genesis 9:8-17). After Katrina, we can only wonder what a flood covering the earth must have been like.
The covenant was made again at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the 10 Commandments. It is thought and taught in Judaism that every soul was presentâ€”even those who were yet to beâ€”at that most awesome moment in our shared history and â€śmemory.â€ť So, what about people who arenâ€™t Jewish and are members of our families and our congregations? Were they there too? Is this their covenant too? Is the rainbow their symbol as well as those born to Jewish parents or brought up with Judaism?
I believe that when someone joins a Jew in the overwhelming, sometimes arduous, joyful and profound task of living with Judaism, their soul gets wrapped up in the tapestry of Jewish tradition that is 4,000 years strong. It is strong because it has always been diverse and ever renewing. The rainbow is the sign of continual creation and we are partners with God is this task. This is the core of the meaning of life, for me.
As we enter a new year, let us remember our rainbow connection.