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I arrived at the Dallas Arboretum at 8:30 am on an early fall Saturday. The lush gardens were quiet in the pre-opening hours. I breathed in the crisped air on the walk to the building where I would be spending the next eight hours.
As I approached the location of my congregationâ€™s Womenâ€™s Retreat, the stillness of the setting was broken by the buzz of female voices. A friend, who happened to be standing by the door, greeted me with a warm embrace and â€ś
As I scanned the hallway and refreshment area, I saw old friends and acquaintances, mixed with many strangers. I saw born Jews and new Jews, those in the process of becoming Jewish and women not Jewish but connected to the faith through a spouse or partner. I saw 20-somethings and 80-somethings, and every age in between. It was truly a group representative of the diversity of my synagogue.
As I worked my way through the crowd to the coffee, greeting people along the way, I could feel myself begin to relax. Like many of my mom friends who were in attendance, there was much coordination involved to get here; from clearing Cameronâ€™s calendar several weeks before the event so that he could be with Sammy, to preparing breakfast before I left, walking and feeding the dog, and going over the logistics of homework that needed to be completed.
Tearing away from these duties as commander in chief of the household was never easy. But the opportunity to spend eight hours with women I love, and make connections with others that I did not know, was too good to pass up.
After coffee and conversation, our group of 80-plus women came together for a non-traditional Shabbat morning service that incorporated yoga and poetry with standard pieces of liturgy. During our worship, we stretched, we sang, we danced, and we listened. We moved, and were moved physically and spiritually.
At one point in the service, our female cantor said, â€śI have a Shabbat gift for you.â€ť She asked us to close our eyes and she began to play a subtle melody on her acoustic guitar. She then began to sing â€śMay I Suggestâ€ť by the singer-songwriter Susan Werner.
May I suggest
Cantor Nirenâ€™s beautiful voice sang the lyrics that deeply touched us, and as the music faded away, the only sound that was heard was women sniffling, as many of us had been moved to tears. The song inspired presence and reflection, and was a lyrical present. But as the day went on, I began to feel that this moment was part of a larger gift called connection.
The song and retreat were, in a way, just vehicles of goodwill that enabled us to be in the right frame of mind to receive this more meaningful gift. In an ideal world, taking the time to foster relationships like this would happen regularly and organically, without such grand preparation of the body and mind. But the reality of our daily lives often makes this difficult, if not impossible. So, it becomes necessary to physically and mentally separate from our everyday distractions in order to nurture our souls.
When we do this, we are able to draw closer to others, and reconnect with our better selves. After a day of talking, walking, dancing, praying, and actively engaging, I felt energized and rejuvenated, not tired. I understood why we are so often advised to take time for ourselves.
After my â€śme-dayâ€ť spent with many wonderful women, I was refreshed and would be returning home a calmer, more patient and clearheaded wife and mother. This was a gift for me, and for Cameron and Sammy.
As I left the arboretum with a spring in my step, I called Cameron and Sammy to check in. Sammy answered the phone. â€śHi buddy!â€ť I said. â€śHow was the day with Daddy?â€ť
â€śHi, Mommy. Our day has been great! Daddy and I went to brunch, then we took Brady (our dog) to the park and then we went to Daddyâ€™s office. While he worked, I did my homework. Then we went home to get some jackets and now we are on our way to the state fair,â€ť Sammy said.
â€śWow, sounds like youâ€™ve been busy. Do you want to meet for dinner?â€ť
â€śWell, we really want to go to the fair. Is it okay if Daddy and I do that?â€ť
â€śOf course. Iâ€™ll see you at home later.â€ť
Cameron and Sammy arrived home about 9:30 pm. Sammy walked in and said, â€śThis was one of the best days ever! Daddy and I had so much fun!â€ť
Seeing Sammyâ€™s excitement, I realized that a relaxed parent and spouse were not the only gift Cameron and Sammy received from my participation in the retreat. They were able to deepen their bond by spending the day together. Extended father-son time was rare given the demands of Cameronâ€™s job. Being able to connect with each other one-on-one was a wonderful opportunity.
I know the clergy and lay leaders who organized the Womenâ€™s Retreat saw it as a way to bring the women of our congregation into relationship with one another. I do not know if they realized how the programâ€™s benefit would extend beyond the participants. But hearing from Sammy and Cameron about what a fun day they had together made me see that the retreat was a gift that kept on giving.
I am so excited. It is back to school time. Not for Sammy, heâ€™s been in school since late August, for me.
Several years ago, I received a call from my friend Renee who is a teacher at our congregation inviting me to participate in a new class. She was going to be teaching a pilot of a Florence Melton Adult Mini School curriculum called Foundations of Jewish Family Living. It was designed as a course to help parents understand how Jewish values influence daily life. It was going to be taught on Sunday mornings during religious school hours.
It sounded interesting, but my first inclination was to say no. Sunday was my day to sleep in, food shop and practice yoga. I wasnâ€™t interested in committing to something that felt like an obligation. I had enough of those.
But the course material sounded interesting, and Renee is a friend and excellent teacher. I was torn – guard my Sunday me-time or do something to indulge my intellectual curiosity. I chose to take the class, but not because I had a burning desire to expand my Jewish mind. While I love learning, I made my decision because of Renee. A personal invitation from a friend is hard to turn down.
Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism, says that people â€ścome to synagoguesâ€¦and other Jewish organizations for programs, but theyâ€¦stay for relationships.â€ť I came to adult Jewish education because of relationships and have stayed for the same reason.
When I arrived on the first day of class, I found old friends and new faces, Jews and those who are not Jewish, born Jews and Jews-by-Choice. A diverse group united by the common theme of parenthood, and the shared goals of raising good, decent children within Judaism and creating more meaningful lives.
As we studied together this varied group bonded as we shared deeply personal stories, debated ideas, offered each other inspiration and saw the world â€“ Jewish and otherwise – through each otherâ€™s eyes. We expanded each otherâ€™s minds, but also each otherâ€™s hearts. After 10 weeks we were more than classmates, we were like family.
I began to look forward to getting to the room that was my new Sunday morning home because I enjoyed both the social and intellectual aspects of the class. I wasnâ€™t alone, others felt similarly connected, and after completing the parenting curriculum we decided that we wanted to continue to learn together.
Over the past two-and-half years, we have explored the Jewish experience in America, Judaismâ€™s denominations and the challenges they face, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We have also deepened our connection to one another supporting each other during the good times – births, celebrations, conversions, new careers and moves â€“ and bad â€“ deaths, illness and job loss.
For the transplants among us we have become, in a way, each otherâ€™s Dallas family; and for the Jews-by-Choice and those who aren’t Jewish among us we have become each otherâ€™s Jewish family. But it is not just familial ties that have kept us together. The freedom to choose what we learn has been an important factor too.
Rather than being limited to topics selected by synagogue leaders, we have been allowed to select the subject matter we study. This ability to indulge our groupâ€™s Judaic curiosity has resulted in a classroom filled with people who are excited to learn and eager for discussion.
This combination of community and learning has been a powerful force in strengtheningÂ our connection to our congregation, and made a large organization (Temple Emanu-El has over 2,500 families) smaller. I suspect that the engagement and relationships developed through our class are an example of the Relational Judaism Dr. Wolfson speaks of.
But whatever you call it, it is one of the things I look most forward to each week. Now after the summer break, I am eagerly anticipating getting back to school and to my family. We have a lot to catch-up on.
My family has a regular Shabbat observance. We either celebrate at home or attend our synagogueâ€™s family service and dinner. But while we religiously mark the Sabbath in Dallas, we are not very good about practicing this tradition when weâ€™re on vacation. In fact, when weâ€™re away we donâ€™t celebrate Shabbat at all.
My son Sammy keenly pointed out this fact during spring break. As we rode the chair lift to the top of a mountain in Colorado, he said, â€śMommy, its Friday.â€ť
â€śI know, one more day of skiing,â€ť I responded.
â€śNo, itâ€™s Friday,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s Shabbat!â€ť
â€śOh yeah,â€ť I said a little embarrassed that I had forgotten the significance of the day.
â€śHow are we going to celebrate?â€ť Sammy asked.
â€śWell, we donâ€™t have candles or matches and even if we did, I donâ€™t think itâ€™s safe to leave them burning in the hotel room while weâ€™re out or asleep,â€ť I answered. â€śWeâ€™ll celebrate next week when weâ€™re at home.â€ť
â€śWe can still say Shabbat Shalom,â€ť Sammy replied.
â€śYouâ€™re right, we can do that,â€ť I said.
â€śShabbat Shalom,â€ť we said together and gave each other a kiss.
It wasnâ€™t the most meaningful observance, but at least it was something.
After we got home and back into our regular Friday night routine I began to think about how we might maintain our ritual on vacation. I was motivated to find a way to do this before the start of our summer travels.
I knew packing candles and matches was out of the question since we would be flying, and buying Shabbat supplies at our destination would require too much effort. I wanted an easy and convenient solution. I wanted an app.
Now, I recognize that a Shabbat app is veryâ€¦un-Shabbat. Itâ€™s not exactly kosher to use an electronic device to mark a holiday on which you are meant to disconnect, but I decided to check my phoneâ€™s app store anyway. To my surprise, I found several options including iShabbat.
I chose iShabbat because it was simple. It allowed me to â€ślightâ€ť the candles by dragging a â€śflameâ€ť to the wicks and provided the words for the blessing in Hebrew, English and transliteration. A selection of traditional melodies such as Adon Olom and Sholom Aleichem could be played in the background while the candles â€śburnedâ€ť over a two-hour period.
With app in hand we embarked on the first leg of our month-long vacation in mid-July. On a Friday night in Seattle we test-drove iShabbat in a park near Pike Place Market as we watched the sun set over Elliott Bay.
We opened the app, and Sammy lit the candles as we recited the blessing together. Then we played Sholom Aleichem and wished each other Shabbat Shalom as we took in the beautiful view. It was a meaningful way to mark our family tradition and ensure that we carry Shabbat with us on vacation.