How I Met the Mother of My Children

Mychal's wedding

Mychal and Kirsti's wedding ceremony

Divinity school is an unlikely place for a rabbi to meet her spouse. In my first week of graduate school, I became friends with a Coptic nun from Egypt, a Southern Baptist minister, a Jewish Buddhist and a young scholar of Early Christianity. The last would one day become my wife. I was one of a handful of Jewish students and I relished the opportunity to study religion more broadly within this diverse community before making the final decision to become a rabbi. It became increasingly clear to me that I wanted to pursue a career like my classmates who were studying to become ministers and priests. They were community builders, teachers, healers in a fractured world. Apparently, I needed future ministers to help me decide that I wanted to become a rabbi.

For the first time in my life, I was dating a Jewish man. Since I was seriously considering becoming a rabbi by this time, I believed I had to marry someone Jewish, and he met all the criteria of a perfect spouse for me. He was not only Jewish; we had been counselors together at a Jewish camp, he spoke fluent Hebrew, had spent time in Israel and studied Judaism in college. But he simply wasn’t the right person for me.

My life took a major turn when I met Kirsti. She had grown up in a non-religious household with parents who had rejected Christianity. So, of course, she became fascinated by religion: religious people, religious texts, religious language. Like me, she was pursuing her masters at Harvard Divinity School. She would go on to earn a PhD in Early Christianity as I embarked on rabbinical school. We shared a love of religious mysticism and stayed up nights talking about Jewish and Christian mystical texts, and struggling with belief. In those early days, we also had to process the reality that dating a woman was new to both of us which, frankly, overpowered any worry about coming from different religious backgrounds.

Although she did convert many years into our relationship, Kirsti and I still question religion together and bring our knowledge, ideas and queries to the dinner table. We address our children’s musings with honesty and depth rather than supplying overly clear-cut answers we think they should be hearing. We hope our kids will be inspired to treat all people and ideas with respect and inquiry while being grounded in a rich, Jewish tradition. My Jewish life has been profoundly shaped by traveling this path with Kirsti for the past 20 years. She has led me to challenge pieces of our tradition that I blindly followed, and has deepened my connection to certain parts of our liturgy and rituals by seeing them in a new light.

I am delighted that as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, I have the opportunity to help families from mixed backgrounds navigate Judaism like we have. I will also strive to help Jewish communities become more welcoming to all types of people who don’t fit the long-gone model of a traditional, Jewish family. We are most enriched as a community when we offer space for people to bring their whole selves and their full narratives to Jewish life.

Maybe a rabbi meeting her spouse at divinity school is a rarity, but each family’s story is unique, with its own twists and turns. Who we love and choose to share our lives with cannot be reduced to a checklist of criteria to be met. Our stories are far more interesting than that.

A Day of Unplugging – My Personal Challenge

Shabbat was created to give us one day of rest each week. Traditional Jews follow a very strict guide about what activities they avoid for 26 hours, beginning at sundown on Friday and ending after sunset on Saturday. They don’t work, clean, shop, spend money, watch movies, listen to music, write, draw, drive, cook with heat, turn on or off anything that is electrical, battery, or gas powered, or carry things outside the home. One of the widely promoted benefits of disconnecting from electronic devices is to reconnect with family, friends, and analog activities. It can be a special time to spend doing things that we have a hard time getting to.

For less traditional Jews, keeping Shabbat can take many forms. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “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.” In the global scheme of the modern world, separating time from space seems like an impossible dream.

Technology is part of my identity. I am rarely without my smart phone, one of those people who checks email and social media first thing in the morning and after lights out at night. Giving it up for 26 hours is a frightening prospect. I have tried many times and failed miserably. Cooking, I can do without, lights and heat can be easily set to operate by timers, shopping can wait, and all other “don’ts” can be accomplished with my smart phone. That’s the thing, the smart phone is operation central of my life. How could I possibly live without it?

I unplugReboot, “a non-profit group designed to ‘reboot’ the cultures, traditions and rituals of Jewish life” has created an event to help us see Shabbat in a whole new way. It is called the National Day of Unplugging and with this blog, I am publicly committing to unplug on Shabbat, March 7-8. (IFF President Jodi Bromberg made the pledge too–read why here.) Is it possible for me to succeed? My idea is to separate the space into manageable sections. The first section will be enjoyed at Unplug SF, a celebration of Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging from 7:00pm to 12:30am. Catching up on sleep will cover the hours well past dawn, so that leaves about 11 hours to fill until Havdalah at 6:49pm.

For liberal Jews living in the modern world, what is OK and what isn’t OK on Shabbat? Each individual must decide what a spiritually meaningful Jewish practice looks like. These are not always easy decisions. The world does not stop just because it is Shabbat for a small minority of people. My family and friends might not understand my lack of response to their calls, emails, and text messages. Maybe it is just hard to change old habits and try something new. I cannot know what it feels like to unplug unless I try it. There is a cool page of real people’s reasons for unplugging on the National Day of Unplugging website. A couple of my favorites are “play with my puppy,” “spend quiet time with my loved ones” and “get outside.”

The unplug pledge is really just one day out of my entire life. My dog needs a hike, my family needs my attention, I need some exercise and there is beautiful world waiting to be discovered. I unplug to stroll the happy trails on Montara Mountain!

What Does it Mean to Be Welcoming

The following is a guest post by Gina Hagler, reprinted from her blog, Musings of Ruth

WelcomeI’ve been part of the interfaith community for many years. I’ve felt comfortable, uncomfortable, welcome, tolerated, and most points between on the spectrum. I can tell you which things left me feeling more or less comfortable. I can even give you a definition-in-progress of what I would consider a welcoming congregation. What I hadn’t thought of before last night, is how many aspects of welcome are universal.

Why are we making it so complicated when we sit together as Jews to assess how welcoming our congregations are? Why are we trying to look at ourselves through the eyes of others – especially others who are coming to us from a world view we have not experienced firsthand? Why are we making this such a Herculean task?

Perhaps we should first think about what has made us feel welcome in new experiences. We’ve all been the fish out of water at one point or another. What made it less painful? What eased our introduction? What made us feel we could return? What made us want to return? Why isn’t this our simple first step to understanding how to put “strangers” at ease.

While I was still shaky in my Jewish identity, I took my kids up to New York several years in a row for winter break. I wanted to take them to services but I certainly didn’t know any synagogues in NYC. I wasn’t that confident that I would know exactly what to do once I got into the synagogue, but I wanted my kids to see that the services they participated in at our temple had elements in common with services at all synagogues. I did a search on synagogues in Manhattan and found Central Synagogue.

From the moment the site opened, I knew this was where we would go. The tone of the site, the readily available information, the pride the synagogue had in its history — all lent itself to the implicit expectation that of course we would want to visit and of course we were welcome. We went and sat in the way back – clearly newcomers and clearly not your standard Jews since 2/3 of the kids were Asian. People turned around to smile at us. Someone approached us to ask if we needed a Siddur as he held one up for us to see. He told us we were welcome to join them downstairs after the service for an Oneg made up of simple food.

Within five minutes of entering the building, we had been informally welcomed, given what we needed to participate if we chose to in a way that did not assume we were familiar with the object, and invited to something we may not have known about in a way that explained all we needed to know to feel bold enough to check it out. My kids felt right at home. They were delighted to hear prayers they knew and to be able to join in. They were thrilled to hear tropes that were familiar. There was no way they were leaving without the Oneg. They met some other kids. Several adults made it clear I was welcome to join in their conversations. Ever since, we make it a point to attend services there whenever we are in New York.

This synagogue was not specifically trying to attract interfaith families, or even families from ambiguous or undecided Jewish backgrounds. They were trying to attract those interested in a Jewish life, without making a distinction between faith backgrounds. As strange as it may seem, I felt more immediately welcome at that temple than I have at any other temple I’ve visited. I’m convinced it is because they were genuinely proud of what they had to offer and genuinely happy to have us.

Maybe when we’re trying to decide how to make someone comfortable at our temple, we should start by thinking about what makes us comfortable and ask ourselves if our congregation is welcoming anyone – Jewish or not – in such a way. Maybe the first step in making people feel welcome is to be welcoming.

What Millenials Want from Us

Beth CousensI recently had the opportunity to hear a presentation by Dr. Beth Cousens, a creative and strategic thinker, who works with leaders in Jewish education and in Jewish life to help organizations ensure success. Her focus on strategic thinking, partnership and creative and relevant Jewish educational ideas have helped her to be a respected voice in the field.

She shared with us her insights about engaging and empowering young adults in Jewish life. Our focus was Millennials, ages 22-35, how best to serve them, engage them, and what to expect from their “engagement” with our institutions. For example, she explained that many Jewish young adults don’t know how to be Jewish, as adults. They don’t want to register or sign up. They are very interested in the answer to the question “What value is added to my life?” and they are very much looking for meaning. They don’t want to be segmented unnaturally; i.e. don’t offer Torah study for singles. Offer Torah study if you want to offer Torah study and welcome the singles! Or, offer a singles event. But don’t try to combine two things that don’t naturally fit together.

They are definitely looking for DIY Judaism. No longer can Jewish institutions and congregations “do Jewish” for their members. These young adults want to do for themselves! They need our organizations to help them learn how to do it.

 

She shared 5 calls to action:

  1. Go to them. Help infuse Jewish content into their networks.
  2. Stand for something. Help them live within the context of Jewish ideas. (If they are looking for friends, love, work, etc. they will go elsewhere. They come to Jewish institutions for Jewish content!)
  3. Talk about and teach Jewish adulthood.
  4. Organize around Judaism. (Can we have house meetings to ask them what they are looking for and work with them to create programming for them?)
  5. Open our institutions: Create low barriers with high content.

I love the format of InterfaithFamily’s classes and workshops. Our mission falls directly in line with what these Millennials are looking for with our Love and Religion and Raising a Child offerings. We offer accessible and non-judgmental information so that interfaith families and those who support them can incorporate more Judaism into their lives. Check out our current offerings and stay tuned for changes to come in 2014!

What would you add to Dr. Cousens’ five calls to action?

Be a Better Person

I, like you, receive a large number of email messages every day. Messages from list serves often go unopened and unread. However, I was intrigued by the headline: “It’s that time of the year when Craig n’ Company offers you free Inspiration for the holy days without the Guilt!”

I kept reading. Jewels of Elul Vol IX, The Art of Welcoming is a booklet featuring “Jewels” from a wide variety of esteemed contributors. I don’t usually respond to name dropping, but this time it worked. On the list I saw my childhood rabbi, music specialists I worked with throughout my career, Rabbis and communal leaders I really look up to – I was in! Of course, it took 12 days before I finally clicked on my first (second, third and fourth) messages from this group of esteemed Jewish leaders. I quickly found that each message truly is a jewel!

Jewels of Elul

I want to share with you an excerpt from email #9 in the series (you can sign up to receive Jewels one by one in your inbox), the words of Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Legal Counsel for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. His article, titled Treat The Stranger That There Be No Stranger posits the following:

For more than a century, American Jewry’s passionate effort to ensure that America was a welcoming country for immigrants was infused by powerful historical lessons. We were, of course, the quintessential immigrant people, fleeing from land to land, looking for those rare countries that would welcome and perhaps even protect us. Our effort was, as well, a reflection of biblical values. We take pride that the most oft-repeated command of our tradition is to treat the stranger as ourselves. But what of our own community and our synagogues?

In 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler vigorously called on us to reach out to “all who enter,” to open our congregations to intermarried families, later to the LGBT community, then to Jews through paternal descent. And then he called for our synagogues to become “caring communities” serving the actual needs of their members. There followed a different kind of welcoming as synagogues opened their hearts, doors and resources to absorb the deluge of “boat people” from Southeast Asia; Soviet Jews, Sudanese refugees, Ethiopian Jews all followed.

Along the way, there were efforts to make our synagogues more accessible to differently abled Jews whose physical and mental capabilities made integration into our schools, our services, our programs an often discomforting challenge… In this New Year, may we so treat the stranger that there be no stranger in America’s synagogues.

I am challenging each of us as individuals to do our part for our community (big or small, near or far, no matter how you define community). In this New Year, what will YOU do to enable the differently abled, to welcome the stranger, the new immigrant, interfaith families, LGBTQ? How will you help the poor or feed the hungry?

If each of us does one thing to help the world, we can embody tikkun olam (repairing the world) and become a stronger world because of our efforts. You may not be required to solve all the world’s problems, but neither can you desist from trying to do your part (adapted from Pirkei Avot, 2:21).

Taking Time for Holy Days

I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever—someone who takes on one too many things. In college it was double-majoring, studying abroad and captaining the crew team. In my professional life, in addition to my job, I publish articles and stories in my free time, read non-stop and blog about the books, fiercely dedicate an hour on most days of the week to the gym and cook as many of my own meals as possible. Not to mention making time for friends and family.

But this year is different. As we near the very early High Holy Days, just a mere three weeks away, I find myself already reflecting on the year behind me and the year to come. That’s because it’s been a special year—one in which I fell in love with a very special person who has interrupted my “plow through” model of living and captured not only my attention, but my time.

I don’t know about you, but time is probably the number one thing that stresses me out. There are only so many hours in a day, and I plan on sleeping for at least eight of them. So when you’re already feeling like you can’t do it all, how do open up your life to fit someone else in?

You want to, so you just do it; that’s how. And in doing so, I have found myself spending a greater percentage of my time on things like cooking dinner (my boyfriend is a great cook, but that means we spend more time preparing delicious meals together than I would alone), taking weekend road trips without my laptop, making plans with twice as many friends and family members (his and mine) and generally spending more time enjoying life.

Ireland

On our trip to Ireland, we spent plenty of time driving along the countryside and stopping to enjoy the view

I also find myself reflecting on our time together. Being in the moment. Feeling gratitude. Sharing it with those around me. As long as I’m still doing the things that are important to my daily wellbeing (cooking healthy food, going to Pilates), I find that the other, more stressful items on my professional to-do list still get done, but with less energy spent worrying over them.

I don’t believe many of us are meant to multi-task (or at least that’s what my neurologist father tells me). I believe I get more done when I’m busy, but I also find I have more creative space in my mind when I break up my schedule every now and then with a day at the beach, a day at home, an evening with friends or family.

My resolution for next year is to continue on my journey toward the appreciation of time. I hope to accept it, rather than fighting it. (Guess who will win?) I resolve to enjoy my glass of wine or my company and not think about the blog I could be writing or the looming article deadline. Call that long-distance friend who I don’t see nearly enough. Try not to look at the clock during a class at the gym, thinking about all the things I need to do before tomorrow; but get the most out of what I’m doing at that moment for my mind and body.

This holiday season, I will be surrounded by my boyfriend’s family members—some I’ll be meeting for the first time. And he’ll be surrounded by mine. I’m thankful for the new people in our lives who will be sharing their time with us now and in the year ahead.

What are you thankful for this year?

Looking for helpful High Holiday how-to’s? Try our booklet. 

How Jewish New Year Resolutions are Different

According to a website called statisticbrain.com, the top five New Year’s resolutions people made for 2012 were:

  1. Lose Weight
  2. Get Organized
  3. Spend Less, Save More
  4. Enjoy Life to the Fullest
  5. Stay Fit and Healthy

When calculated for types of resolutions, they found that 47% of resolutions made were related to self-improvement or education; 38% were related to weight; 34% were related to money; and 31% were related to relationships. (The total comes out to over 100% because people made multiple resolutions.)

Like most Americans, I make New Year’s resolutions in December (or, in years that not procrastinating doesn’t make my list, I sometimes make them in January). And this time of year, in the Jewish month of Elul, I also engage in making resolutions.

MeditationElul is the month that leads up to the Jewish new year, and it is the month in which Jews are supposed to be involved in the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul – our spiritual preparation for the new year. It is a time to look inside of ourselves and engage in the process of teshuvah. Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentance” but it literally means “turning” – we seek to turn toward wholeness in our relationships with others in our lives, with God and with our true selves.

When I make my resolutions in the month of Elul (this year Elul occurs from August 7 – September 4), unlike in December, my resolutions aren’t about being thinner, healthier, wealthier and happier (not that I would mind any of those things!). Instead, I make resolutions about how I will relate to my family, friends and community and how I will engage in the world. I contemplate not just my physical wellbeing, but more important, my spiritual wellbeing.

One of the great things about the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh is that it’s something that everyone can do, regardless of their own faith tradition or lack thereof. (I don’t know of any religion or culture that wouldn’t encourage individuals to look inside of themselves and contemplate ways that they can be better people in the year ahead.)

If you are not Jewish, you may or may not be comfortable accompanying your Jewish partner or family to synagogue for the High Holy Days. And you may or may not feel connected to the at-home rituals that are part of these holy days. But you can still find meaning in the process of reflection in which Jews engage at this time of year.

I hope that as the Jewish New Year approaches, all of us will give ourselves the gift of taking time for cheshbon ha-nefesh, for the accounting of our own souls. May we recognize and be grateful for our generosity and goodness; and may we be honest with ourselves about those qualities that we need to improve – and may we seek to do so in the year ahead.

Are you taking time for yourself during the month of Elul to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh?  Have you made any resolutions for the year ahead? If so, please share them below.

How to Be at Home in the Minority

Straddling two worlds, feeling like an outsider, taking on the identity of your family but still retaining your own—these are all difficult positions to be in, but familiar to many. In a recent blog post on Huffington Post, Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman talks about being a minister married to a Jew and raising Jewish children. She is often in the minority, but as she points out, she is just as uncomfortable when she is among other Christians, because of the lack respect for other religions she sometimes witnesses.

The author was recently at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York state. She found herself among many religious leaders, discussing topics of inclusiveness. There, post yoga-session, she found herself getting a very spiritual reminder of “what is possible when we can be confidently rooted in our own traditions enough to reach out, embrace, and learn from ‘the other.’”

You can read her blog post here.

The Spirituality of Mindfulness Meditation

If someone had told me two years ago that I’d be spending a half hour most days of my life sitting on a cushion focusing on my breath, I would have told them they were crazy!  (Then again, if someone had told me 15 years ago that I’d be living in the suburbs driving a minivan I would have told them they were crazy too.  Fact is, we never know what the future holds or what we may decide to embrace.)  But for the past year and a half I have been practicing mindfulness meditation.

I began my practice by participating in a MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) eight-week foundation course in the winter of 2011, and after developing a daily (well, almost daily!) practice of my own and attending a terrific Jewish Meditation Retreat led by Rabbis Jeff Roth and Joanna Katz of the Awakened Heart Project, I participated in a ten week practicum in which I trained to teach MBSR.

meditateMy study – and much more important, my practice – of mindfulness meditation has taught me a great deal. I originally enrolled in the MBSR foundation course a year and a half ago because I was seeking a way to reduce stress and anxiety, which are all too prevalent in so many of our busy lives. I realized that I was often running from here to there as if I were on a treadmill from which I’d never get off – work, errands, my three kids’ activities, you name it! I usually felt like my day was one big “To Do” list that I was trying to get through. And too often I wasn’t succeeding – let alone enjoying the moments in the process. Even on the days when I did “check off” everything on my To Do list, I usually ended up feeling exhausted and depleted, and not very satisfied.

I hoped that my MBSR practice would help me feel less stressed, more relaxed and more focused, but I never expected for it to be a spiritual experience. After all, I’m a rabbi. I find spirituality in prayer and Jewish ritual. I never expected to find spirituality in just SITTING!

But boy have I learned a lot. My mindfulness practice has taught me so much about the importance of being in the moment – of being truly present in my life. I have come to realize that my mindfulness practice is fully interwoven with my Jewish spirituality. After all, the blessings we say in Judaism are all about being mindful. For example, when I say HaMotzi (the blessing over the bread) before eating a meal, it causes me to pause and be mindful of how grateful I am to have my food, as well as to appreciate where it came from and the human work that went into creating it and bringing it to my table, and to recognize that eating is a sacred act. Or when I put my hands on my children’s heads on Friday night and recite the traditional blessings for children, I am mindful of how lucky I am to have them in my life as well as how fortunate I am to be part of a religion that spans thousands of years of history and thousands of miles of geography.

When I’m truly mindful, whether it’s during a meditation sit or going about my daily life, I experience a wonderful sense of spirituality. In a way, my meditation sits are like “little Shabbats.” Like Shabbat itself, they offer me a time to BE, and not just a time to DO. And just as the beauty of Shabbat can be carried into and infuse the other six days of the week, the beauty of mindfulness meditation has come to enrich the moments of my life when I am not meditating. I now have a greater sense of being truly present – and not just “getting things done” – as I move throughout my life.

Recently, the teacher of my MBSR practicum shared a beautiful saying in class. She spoke of how we are all human BEINGS and not human DOINGS – yet all too often we live our lives as if we were “human doings” and not “human beings.” For me, mindfulness meditation and Shabbat (along with blessings and many other rich resources from the Jewish tradition) help me to remember this and to spend more of my life BEING – truly appreciating the beauty in the world, and in my life – and not simply DOING. I find that my mindfulness practice hasn’t just enriched me personally but it has also enriched my relationships with others as it has enabled me to be more present for them.

These days, on my daily “To Do” list (which is still as long as ever!) I have a “To Be” entry, reminding myself to take time every day for meditation and contemplation. And I have no doubt that this is very spiritual!

What about you? Are there things you do that you find helpful to be more present in your life? Are there religious rituals that bring you a sense of mindfulness and gratitude? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

Is God Taboo?

Many will agree that taboo topics of conversation include sex, politics, money, and religion. We’re guided not to discuss these things at work, sometimes not even with our extended family, but do we talk about them at home, with our spouse? With our children? If you don’t talk about these topics, how will your children know what’s important to you?

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Jim Keen states, in response to his daughter’s query, “What is God?” in When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent’s Perspective,

“My wife and I had never really discussed the topic of how we would explain God to our kids. The frequent discussions we had had about raising our children in an interfaith family had left what suddenly seemed to be a large gap.”

Certainly, none of us want to leave a large gap in our child’s development. So, let’s start talking about it.

Answer these questions for yourself: Where does God live? How does God listen? Does God ever sleep? Does God forgive me? Does God hear my prayers? Children are thinking about these things and developing their own responses. Ask your child what he/she thinks. Share your ideas. If you’re stuck, check out the Children’s Spirituality Quest Set published by Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, VT. They are designed for children ages 3-6, but I’ve used them when teaching teens. This set is perfect for any family; it has been “endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders.”

Another book you may consider adding to your child’s library (or your own), In God’s Name shares insights from many different people about qualities that they see in God and what each calls God. This book allows the reader to create his/her own connection to God and adapt one of the names in the book or develop his/her own name for God.

My personal favorite is called God’s Paintbrush. In writing this, I discovered that there is now a special 10th Anniversary Edition of God’s Paintbrush. In the introduction, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells a sweet story of a child explaining to his grandmother why he likes this book so much. “It’s because it asks questions.” When asked if the answers to the questions were in the back of the book, she explained, “no, the answers are inside you.”

Sandy continues,

“For children to give us a glimpse of what is deep inside them is their great gift to us. For adults to give our children the language to talk about their spiritual lives is our great gift to them. Time and again parents have read these pages to open a window in the soul, their children’s and their own.”

She goes on to share some ideas for how to read and utilize the book to open the door for conversation.

So start your conversation. Take the “taboo” label off God and start talking about God with your partner, with your children, with your family, and maybe even with your friends!