The Shabbat Excuse

SaraSeveral years ago, my son’s 4-year-old classmate Sara was diagnosed with cancer. All of the families at our pre-school were devastated by the news. It could have been any of us, but it was sweet little Sara. We wanted to help. We were desperate to do something—ANYTHING—to help. We knew they had tons of toys, food and prayers. My friend Robyn Cohen and I spent hours on the phone trying to process the horror of it all and we knew we needed to do something for the family. Yet, there wasn’t much to be done.

Finally, on a Thursday afternoon, Robyn and I had an idea. We attended a pre-school where every week there was a “Shabbat Star” (even though many families at the school were not Jewish). We decided that this was our excuse to do something for Sara and her family. Because of the 40 minute drive to the hospital, we needed to pace ourselves. Each family in the class would sign up to drive to the hospital and bring Shabbat to Sara and her family. Since it was already Thursday, I raced to the bakery and got a challah and Robyn found candles. I gave the goodies to my husband whose office was a little closer to the hospital. He would be the first of many “deliverers” of Shabbat.

“Hi Sara! Guess who is the Shabbat Star this week? YOU are!” My husband announced to Sara and her parents. Sara beamed at the sight of the Shabbat kit and challah. And that was the beginning of our new ritual. The parents took turns each week. The school provided the challah and Sara’s family knew that every Friday there would be a Shabbat visitor. I vividly remember one of my visits. Sara wanted to know what was going on at school and was so happy to receive the latest artwork from her classmates.

We were fortunate to realize that Shabbat was good for Sara and her family. It guaranteed a visitor on a steady basis. It gave Sara a familiar structure from preschool. But, in retrospect, it benefited ALL of the families that stood by praying for Sara. It gave us an excuse to stop by and a way to feel useful. It united all of the families by discussing who would be the “deliverer” next week. We were delivering challah, but really it was so much more. We were delivering Shabbat. Another week of chemo was complete. Another hurdle had been jumped. We were honored to be able to deliver a challah and a smile to Sara and her family.

Sara's smiles logoSara survived another 10 months and her family made sure that every day had a positive experience. There is now an organization called “Sara’s Smiles” through which Sara’s family strives to help other families “Lift the cloud and inspire the joy.” Shabbat was a small piece of this quilt of positivity in the face of tragedy. If you want to learn more, check out saras-smiles.org. This non-profit currently delivers “inspiration kits” of positivity and support to 14 pediatric hospitals in six states, and the number is growing every month.

If you know of a family struggling, I’d recommend the “Shabbat excuse.” It is an easy way to support a family going through a rough time. A little challah and a little ritual can go a long way. And if you know of a family dealing with childhood cancer, check out “Sara’s Smiles.” It is a wonderful legacy to a very special little girl and her family.

10 Months for 2

Jillian at camp

Jillian (center) during her days as a counselor at Eisner camp, with her campers

The need to belong is part of the human condition. We all want to feel a sense of home, we seek it out, we write songs and poetry about it and we hold on for dear life when we find it. I figured out how to belong to Judaism at camp.

My Jewish camp was the Union for Reform Judaism’s Joseph Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. I still remember the first time I drove up to the gates, sick with nerves, worried if I could fit in. I also remember the tear-streaked ride home those two months later when I was grounded by such a deep sense of belonging the likes of which I had never felt before.

Each winter, as the countdown for those bright summer days began, we would throw around the term, “10 months for 2.” I suspect that if Twitter had existed in those days, it would have become my favorite hashtag. And this was the reality that we felt deep within our pre-teen and teenage souls; that we lived those ten other months of the year in exile, waiting to return to the holy land once more for those two precious months. Oh, how much we could cram into 60 days.

At camp, I could not only figure out who I was but I could also be anything. I lived in Jewish time and space, where days were marked with fun and creative prayer and song, where we interacted with Israelis on staff who taught us about Israel and connected us to the larger Jewish world, where we learned and shared a common vocabulary and sang familiar Jewish songs in a way I had never experienced at my home synagogue. And because we lived in Jewish time, swimming, arts and crafts, drama and every sport imaginable became part of our Jewish summer camp experience. We were given ownership over our religious experiences and we celebrated Shabbat (and I truly mean celebrated) each week with creativity, music, dance and our own words of gratitude and introspection. I didn’t even realize how much Jewish knowledge I had gained in these series of two months until I got home and realized I knew every melody and every prayer and wanted to teach them to my interfaith parents and my friends (even if they weren’t as keen).

I imagine we all have those transformative experiences in our lives, the ones we think back to regularly, which we credit for our personal growth and identity. Mine was Eisner Camp and I would hazard a guess that the large majority of my fellow campers and counselors would say the same, even though we have all chosen our own, different paths through life. My path led me to the rabbinate, to wanting to make Judaism as alive and vibrant every day as it felt during those summers, to help everyone who wanted to belong to Judaism and the Jewish community and to create connections and friendships that last a lifetime.

The impact that Eisner Camp had on my life is immeasurable because these ten years later, the mere thought of camp makes me smile and remember a million experiences, moments, songs, sounds and people. Writing this blog post alone reminds me of the hot sweaty perfect Friday night song sessions, the trials and tribulations of camp friendships and the moment my team won Maccabiah (color war). I wouldn’t be who I am without camp. I wouldn’t be a knowledgeable, engaged Jew—let alone a rabbi, and I certainly wouldn’t still feel like a little piece of my heart is living 10 months for 2.

My Life is Changing

I often feel that life is a series of days unless we pause occasionally to celebrate. There are definitely highs and lows of each day and some events stay with us for days or weeks, but generally days and weeks come and go. This is why entering a period of pause each week, called Shabbat is so crucial. This is why holidays and life cycle events are so important. They mark our time with meaning.

This past weekend, two events occurred in our house which felt they changed our lives. Although the two events were not monumental to most, they felt dramatic to me.

The first event was that my six-year-old had her first spelling test. First grade is very different from “half-day” kindergarten. In first grade, she gets on the bus at 8:30 and comes off the bus at 3:30 and has had all kinds of experiences that she navigates herself. Most of her day is at school—not at home now. However, this first spelling test brought me nearly to tears of joy. She had reached a new place in her young life. Now, she was being tested and judged based on what she studied and how she performed. Now, we as parents, had a new responsibility on our shoulders: to help her study.

The second event that occurred was that our daughter went on her first sleep-over at a friend’s house around the corner from where we live.  We were proud and filled with nachas (a Yiddish word meaning pride from a loved one’s accomplishment). She had to make her needs known. She had to perform her own self-care.

I got into bed the night she was not home and felt God’s presence as I have not felt in a long time. Perhaps because I have been moved by the stories my colleagues—fellow rabbi-rabbi parents have shared about their own son’s brave fight of childhood cancer and about the thousands like him—I cherish even more keenly and with a different perspective our children’s lives.

When I say I felt God’s presence, what I felt was the support of thousands of other parents over generations who have had the joy of seeing their children accomplish new feats. I felt excitement at what was to come. I felt in awe of how life moves along and how obstacles are overcome.

I love the shehecheyanu prayer (the Jewish Kodak moment blessing). It is said at new and joyous occasions and it thanks God for sustaining us and enabling us to reach this new place. The word “chai” (life) is in the middle of this hard-to-pronounce word, shehecheyanu. Judaism is obsessed with life. With living the best life we can. Harold Kushner wrote a whole book called, To Life. Think Fiddler on the Roof, “To life, to life, l’chayim.”

Of course I said shehecheyanu. I say it at every wedding. I said it when a first tooth was lost. (I think I was too sleep deprived to say it when that tooth grew in at three or four months old!) I said it when it snowed for the first time this season a few days ago in Chicago. But, I wanted a different, more specific prayer for this occasion of watching my daughter grow up.

Those who were raised with Judaism can be skittish about spontaneous, personal prayer. We like scripted prayers that start, “Baruch Atah Adonai…” I wrote my rabbinic thesis on spontaneous Jewish prayer because I am terrified of it. But, I prayed to God from my heart in my bed that night.

Over Thanksgiving dinner or the first nights of Hanukkah, maybe give yourself the freedom to add your own words, your own sentiments to our scripted prayers. Or fill the words from the sheets you read or which flow from your mouth out of memory with kavannah, special intention.

Judaism is all about turning the mundane into the sacred. A spelling test? A sleep-over? Yes—these were sacred moments to mark.

The Power of Prayer – Helping Children through Anxiety and Stress

I couldn’t stop thinking about Connecticut, the 26 people killed, 20 of whom were children. My children are in elementary school. I was scared to tell them because I was afraid they’d never want to go to school, but with media everywhere and emotions so raw, they found out about the tragedy. I struggle with what to tell them. I struggle with letting them leave the house. I want them to go out into the world without fear. I worry that they won’t want to go to school and that they won’t want to go to sleep.

Several years ago, my second son, Sam, was scared and having trouble sleeping. When Sam used to fear monsters, I could calm his fear with helping him control his imagination. But this time the fear was real. My older son, Rob, had nearly been hit by a car while his brother was two steps away. Rob walked into the street as a car came around the corner and he walked into the side of a moving car and bounced back onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, Rob was fine physically, but emotionally, we were all affected. Sam saw it happen and became anxious all the time. The school noticed the problem too. I spoke with the school psychologist and she suggested prayer. My inner agnostic didn’t take her seriously at first, but I quickly realized that this idea had some merit. My kids already knew the Jewish bedtime prayer, the Shema. Religious Jews say it several times a day but at night, it seems to have special meaning. The translation is “Hear o Israel, The Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” I explained to my kids that we should say this prayer together every night. It is our way of letting go of the fear and stress we have and having some faith that G-d will take care of us. As a parent, I noticed that the kids immediately relaxed and were able to get some sleep.

After the incident in Connecticut, I began to think more about prayer. I thought about the concept of saying a prayer before we eat — Hamotzi. We eat all the time, why should we take a second to say thanks? Today I realized that the act of prayer makes us realize that we can’t take the simple things for granted – like our kids will be safe when they are at school. We should say thank you for what we have. The agnostic voice in my head says that if there is a supreme being, he doesn’t have time to listen to my prayer for the food that we eat. I now realize that prayer isn’t just for G-d. Prayer is for us; to save our sanity in an insane world, to give us a moment of calm and appreciation of the good things. I feel that if we have the balance of appreciation, we can ride out the tougher things like a bad day or a human tragedy with a little more strength. Prayer gives us calm, focus, and a little bit of inner peace. Oprah Winfrey used to recommend keeping a journal of appreciation — write down the good things in your life every day and it will help you avoid depression. I now realize that religion is way ahead on this concept — appreciate what you have and it will save your soul today, tomorrow and in the future. It can get you through a bad day and help you sleep at night.

In a few months, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia will be offering a class called “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” These online classes (with two in-person sessions) teach about various Jewish rituals such as the Shema and Hamotzi. As a parent, I realize how meaningful these small prayers are toward helping us all function and appreciate the life we have. As we share more details about the class, including how to register, in the coming weeks, I hope you will spread the word about this class and encourage even the most cynical to look into it. When we watch tragedy take place in the world, I find prayer to be one of the more powerful weapons in our parental arsenal. In the meantime, I say a prayer for the families in Connecticut. I am so sorry for your loss.

Is There a Jewish Prayer for Thanksgiving?

There’s a great feature on JewishBoston.com called “Ask A Rabbi.” And you needn’t be in the Boston area to benefit from this column! Today’s seem particularly apt to cross-post to our blog, given that the question posed was:

My wife grew up Christian. For her family, Thanksgiving always starts with a prayer. I’ll be joining my in-laws for Thanksgiving this year, and they’ve asked if I’d like to share a Jewish prayer. I want to pick the right one; what should I say?

Here’s how Rabbi Baruch HaLevi responded on JewishBoston.com:

Dear Friend,

Great question and obviously a timely one for us all, since the majority of us have family members of other faiths and will likely break bread with them this Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is perhaps the perfect intersection of our two great religious traditions in Judaism and Christianity. Unlike Christmas vs. Chanukah or Easter vs. Passover, where there are clear theological conflicts and a myriad of real-life complications, Thanksgiving is conflict-free (unless you talk politics, in which case you’ll probably need more than prayers to navigate that terrain with grace and peace).

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, contains the best of what it means to be an American — gratitude for abundance, inclusivity in our society and around our table, open hands, open arms, open hearts. Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the summation of the heart of both Judaism and Christianity — faith, gratitude, peace and brotherly love.

Too easily, however, it turns into just another meal, another family gathering, another seemingly ordinary day. The religious mission, however, is to elevate the mundane into the sublime, to remind us that the ordinary can and should become the extraordinary. That is one of the reasons we might choose to bring religious readings to the table and something I applaud you for doing.

created at: 2012-11-20

There are so many prayers in both of our traditions which bring to light these themes of gratitude and abundance, welcome and compassion. With that said, I think it’s important to choose some that bring you a sense of integrity. One should never speak words in prayer or in life which don’t reflect your beliefs, your integrity, your soul. One should also take into consideration both the nature of the day and the others around the table. In this case, with your in-laws being Christian, there are plenty of prayers to be drawn from our shared tradition of the Hebrew Bible, specifically the latter part of the Hebrew Bible, known as “the Writings” and “the Prophets.” I encourage you to peruse these sections of the Bible — but most likely you will end up within the Psalms.

The Psalms, attributed to King David, express a soul’s longing for God, gratitude for living, uncertainty about the future and the quest for faith, compassion and goodness.  Here are some Psalms you might want to consider, though I’d encourage you to read through them all and choose what speaks to your soul the most. Also, there are many different versions of these, so Google until you find a translation that speaks to you.

Psalm 118 – Thanksgiving Day Prayer: God is Good

Psalm 100 – Thanksgiving Psalm: Praise

Psalm 111 – Thanksgiving Psalm: Nourishment

Psalm 30 – Thanksgiving: Give Thanks Forever

Psalm 28 – Psalm for Thanksgiving: Let God be Your Strength

Psalm 150 – Thanksgiving Day Psalm: Every Soul Rejoice

Beyond the Psalms:

Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Maralee Gordon

A Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy

A Thanksgiving Prayer (author unknown)

We Pray For Children by Ina Hughs

In addition, here are a few more “edgier” but interesting selections (tread lightly with these at your in-laws’ table):

Pray For Peace by Ellen Bass

Love Is The New Religion by Brian Piergrossi

Hope this helps. Enjoy your turkey. Watch your football. Stuff yourself with pie. Talk politics if you must. But above all else, remember that love and peace, and gratitude and celebration, are what this is all about. Thank you for reminding us that this holiday is an expression of the great Judeao-Christian ethic upon which this great country has been built. Eat, drink and be merry, and read some Psalms as well.

Learning to Pray

This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.

On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.

As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.

In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koof daled shin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.

Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.

Praying in Israel

On our site, we have a whole slew of articles and blog posts looking at the complications that arise in Israel between democracy (society for all, equality, etc.) and the rabbinate (enforcing an Orthodox view of who is a Jew and how). On the one hand, Israel is a democracy. As a democratic state, women are equal to men. But as a state that also upholds Jewish law (via the rabbinate) and is lacking a constitution, religious and secular laws frequently butt heads.

We often look at the limitations imposed on intermarriage, difficulties in having conversions to Judaism recognized, and the whole “who is a Jew” debate in Israel. But today, we’re looking at gender equality. One of the issues I keep an eye on is that of women’s participation in Jewish practice. In Israel, this isn’t a simple issue. In Jerusalem, the Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall, aka Kotel), is a popular spot for folks to pray – both locals and tourists. For the last 45 years, the wall has been supervised by a rabbi, under the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. (There’s also a special police force, led by a “Chief of Police of the Kotel.”) Since 1997, that job has been filled by an Orthodox rabbi who “has maintained rigid gender separations”. While he seems ok with women quietly praying, he takes offense, and tries to prevent, women who pray full Torah services.

  • – Permissible: quietly whispering prayers to yourself, using a prayer book.

  • – Not permissible: singing prayers, wearing a tallis (prayer shawl), reading from the Torah. (Remember: prayer services on Monday and Thursday mornings, on Shabbat (Saturday) morning and afternoon, and on certain holidays include a reading from the Torah.)

  • Quick history lesson:
    in December 1988 during the first International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem. A group of approximately one hundred attendees went to pray in the women’s section of the Wall, and were verbally and physically assaulted by ultra-Orthodox men and women there. After the conference was over, a group of Jerusalem women continued to pray at the Kotel frequently, suffering continual abuse; they eventually formed the Women of the Wall. After one incident, WOW filed a petition to the Israeli government; the government did not agree to the group’s proposal, and included as response a list of halachic opinions that ban women from praying in groups, touching a Torah scroll, and wearing religious garments. Most Jews, even many Orthodox Jews, do not agree with these opinions; supporters of the WOW note that, according to Jewish law, a Torah scroll can never become ritually impure, even if a woman touches it.

    This group, Women Of the Wall (WOW for short), continues to pray there each Rosh Chodesh (the marking of the new month according to the Hebrew calendar). And most months they’re harrassed.

    At the heart of this group’s struggles is that conflict of state versus Orthodox rule. Here’s the short version: Women challenged the prejudice against them, on both halakhic (Jewish law) and legal (secular) grounds. The Supreme Court agreed, allowed women to fully pray, read from the Torah, and wear prayer shawls. Hareidi politicians (the most conservative branches of Orthodoxy) freaked out, countered with extreme overzealous measures (7 years in jail for praying?!). The Supreme Court backed down, days later, to appease the Hareidim, and agreed that the women couldn’t pray, read Torah, or wear tallises.

    That was almost 10 years ago. But WOW continue to pray at the Kotel, on the women’s side, each month for Rosh Chodesh. They then leave the Kotel and walk over to Robinson’s Arch to finish services, including the Torah reading.

    Last month, I blogged about the ongoing ordeals for Jewschool:

    By now I’m sure many of you have heard about today’s monthly Women of the Wall gathering. The short version is that the police, allegedly present to protect the women from those who do not believe they have a right to daven at the Kotel, approached many of the women, said they weren’t permitted to wear talleisim, and took the names and id of three women who’ll be “further investigated.”

    Last month, I was honored to have Deb, who prays with WOW each month (and who does a fantastic job designing our beautiful booklets), chat with me about the harassment she’s faced there. She feels she’s singled out because she wears a more traditional tallis (for the police and Orthodox, they read that as “a tallis for a man”) while other women wear more colorful or stylish tallises (read: “men wouldn’t wear them, so they’re not really tallises”). Today’s Jerusalem Post] article about the arrest goes into this distinction a little.

    Why’s this relevant to InterfaithFamily.com’s readers? Because these issues aren’t isolated. A country that claims to be for all Jews, but doesn’t treat women equally, doesn’t recognize the children of intermarried couples or conversions done in other countries, is not living up to its ideal. As Deb said,

    the group is “called ‘women’ but it’s actually creating a space for all who want to daven [pray] there, who have the right to access this public, Jewish space.”

    So, noting that Rosh Chodesh was yesterday and today, I was dismayed to open Facebook this morning to see Deb was arrested. I asked what happened. Like last month, she was told she had to change the way she wore her tallis, and she did. As the group was leaving the Kotel for Robinson’s Arch, she readjusted her tallis. And that was enough. They roughly arrested her and pulled her into the station. She’s since been released, but with conditions. (While in the police station, WOW sang protest songs – Deb could hear “We Shall Overcome” – and held their Torah service outside the station instead of at Robinson’s Arch.)

    If we support groups like WOW who are fighting for change in Israel, perhaps other organizations will likewise support the fights of patrilineal Jews, Jews by Choice, interfaith couples and others in Israel.

    [sub]Deb, being forcibly detained:[/sub]