A Shabbat Gift

Our cantor, giving the participants in the congregation's Women's Retreat a musical gift on Shabbat morning.

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 congregation’s Women’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 “Shabbat Shalom.”

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 Cameron’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, “I have a Shabbat gift for you.” She asked us to close our eyes and she began to play a subtle melody on her acoustic guitar. She then began to sing “May I Suggest” by the singer-songwriter Susan Werner.

May I suggest
May I suggest to you
May I suggest this is the best part of your life… (Werner, 2001)

Cantor Niren’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 “me-day” 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. “Hi buddy!” I said. “How was the day with Daddy?”

Cameron and Sammy

Cameron and Sammy capturing the gift of father-son time in a self-portrait.

“Hi, 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 Daddy’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,” Sammy said.

“Wow, sounds like you’ve been busy. Do you want to meet for dinner?”

“Well, we really want to go to the fair. Is it okay if Daddy and I do that?”

“Of course. I’ll see you at home later.”

Cameron and Sammy arrived home about 9:30 pm. Sammy walked in and said, “This was one of the best days ever! Daddy and I had so much fun!”

Seeing Sammy’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 Cameron’s job. Being able to connect with each other one-on-one was a wonderful opportunity.

Me-day
My “me-day” was spent with many wonderful women.

I know the clergy and lay leaders who organized the Women’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 program’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.

Unplugging, Part 2

Two months ago, I declared my resolution to unplug with you on this blog. I told you I’d let you know how it was going along the way. I have been reticent to write about it again, but I feel compelled to come clean. I am doing a pretty bad job.  I am doing a great job at being mindful of how often I turn to technology, which is one step in the right direction, but I am probably only achieving total shutoff every 1 out of 5 weeks, which is much worse than where I thought I’d be.

If you are observant enough that unplugging isn’t novel, or if you have your own version and you’re pretty good at it, you may not find this of interest. But if you’re one of the many people who told me, “That’s a good idea, I wish I could do that,” I thought I’d let you know where I am getting hung up. You can use my hang-ups as a reason to not try yourself, or as a guide to how to create your own unplugging objectives. Up to you.

Here is where I find myself reaching for the things I said I could live without:

Reason # 1 (the one I kind of anticipated): Making plans

Because this is not really a “turn off electricity because of our religious observance” rule, we are turning off our phones but interacting in a non-religious world for most of Saturday. Saturday is a big day for us to be together as a family and with friends.  All of these friends have their phones on.  When my girls were younger, I was home on Fridays, so I could focus on family time and planning for the weekend on Friday during the day.  But now I work fulltime in the office, and so I am trying to both be in family time and plan family time simultaneously on Saturday.  It’s a rarity to have the day all planned by Friday night so that I don’t feel an urge to text a few friends so I don’t miss them at the soccer field, or to plan a spontaneous play-date when naptime is over.

Reason # 2: Getting anywhere

When I was living in LA in my 20s, everyone lived by this incredible map book called The Thomas Guide. Over time, the book was imprinted in my brain in a way that only comes from the act of reading off of a page. Now, I use the map app on my phone to get anywhere. And it hasn’t really imprinted. So I either need to print out directions to anywhere I need to go by sundown on Friday, or fumble my way through Boston by trial and error, both of which I am failing to do.

Reason # 3: Music

We live stream a lot of music in our house (and our car). If the rule is that the phone is off, the Internet radio is, too. I try to draw a hard-line on this one, but I am stuck with commercial radio, which I am not crazy about, and CDs, of which we don’t have many that I am not sick of already.

Reason # 4: Reading

I recently put a real page-turner that I took out from the library on my phone. Sure, I have magazines to read, but I want to finish that book, gosh-darn it.

Reason # 5: Writing

Writing is a diversion I really enjoy. It allows me to clear my head, think differently, and attempt to get interesting things up on this blog. But after over 20 years of relying on word processors, I just can’t write that quickly on paper anymore. And my hand cramps. And then I need to transcribe it on Sunday. So I’m not writing, but I’m not crazy about not doing it.

Reason # 6: Winding down

On a good week, Eric and I put the kids to bed and enthusiastically play a board game or talk about what’s on our minds. But on a regular week, when we are stressed and tired, there’s nothing that feels more romantic than snuggling up on the couch and watching a movie or six episodes of How It’s Made. But our resolution was that unplugging means no TV on Friday nights. Some weeks, we just decide to skip that rule, and others, we both just go to bed early, which is good for our health but doesn’t achieve the objective of taking the TV away so that we can better connect to one another.

Because of all of these things, I’ve cut myself some breaks that feel unavoidable in the moment but don’t help me in achieving my goal. I’m not ready to change the rules just yet – I want to give it some more time. And even with the rule skirting, I think we’re getting somewhere. When we don’t use the Internet radio, we talk more, read more stories, or remember to look out the car window at the beautiful trees instead of looking at the pictures on the phone. We may not actually ban TV for 24 hours, but we are mindful of not turning it on before we have a conversation to unwind together first. And the phone has pretty much disappeared from our dinner table 7 days a week, when it had crept in a little too much. So we’re getting somewhere. Its just slow going.

My Resolution to Unplug

A warning to you, kind reader: You have read this story before. It’s about unplugging from technology and reconnecting with your family. It’s not a new idea, in fact I know I’m late to jump on the train. But it’s also about resolutions, and Shabbat, so hopefully I can bring in a little something new to the conversation. And if not, please indulge my unplugging declaration, and a Sweet and Happy New Year to you.

So here’s my story:

I am not a big believer in New Year’s Resolutions. It’s not that I doubt people’s ability to change – quite the opposite, as my resume reflects a career in pursuit of change.  It’s just that when it comes to resolutions, I think people have a tendency to set their sights too high, to pick a goal for a 12-month period that is rarely sustainable for more than a few weeks.  Change is an iterative process, and if we’ve never done something very well before, it is rare that we can go from not doing something to doing it well every day. By setting ourselves up like that, by saying “I am never going to lose my temper with my kids,” instead of saying “I’m going to remember to breath more deeply when little Frankie gets me frustrated,” we fail to set up enough small victories to keep fuel in our tanks. In measured steps, I think anything is possible, but in huge bounds, as least for me, the hit rate is not always as good.

Cell phoneThis year, there’s a change I really want to make. Technology, especially in the form of Eric’s and my pretty little iPhones, is getting in the way. It all started out rather innocently – when Ruthie was a baby, I started taking my phone out more and more to snap pictures of her – she was so phenomenally, well, phenomenal, and I loved being able to take a snapshot and immediately send it off to her grandparents or her dad. When Chaya was born, it seemed harmless to hand the iPhone over to Ruthie to play a shape-sorting game so I could buy five minutes and finish nursing in peace. And when we try to track down two or three friends at the hectic gate at the zoo, its great to have the tool of texting to save five minutes of searching with two hot kids hanging around my neck.

But despite its innocent beginnings, it is still getting in the way. Too often I catch myself taking the phone out to snap a photo of the girls and accidentally being caught up in an email that really could wait until nap time for a response. Or I complain about not having time to talk with Eric, and then get distracted by a news alert on the phone during our ten minutes of quiet together before bedtime. So how can I blame Ruthie for asking for a video more than I think she should, or begrudge Chaya’s fascination with the lit-up screen of the phone when the alarm sounds in the morning?

It’s not that the touchscreen has no place in my girls’ development – I believe that their comfort with technology will play a role in their future academic and professional success. And in my own childhood memories, anything that parents forbid became an obsession, so I think parenting around technology should be about limit setting rather than prohibitions. Truthfully, though, after reading lots of blogs and articles about unplugging (see introductory note), I don’t know what those limits should be.

So here’s our resolution, or perhaps experiment: This year, we are unplugging on Shabbat. Eric and I started talking a couple of months ago about the technology issue, but unplugging every day sounds like a bound to me, something so grand that we’d quickly fall short and taste progress-deterring failure. I started to ponder a middle ground – a set of small steps – and as the High Holidays approached, I realized that that small step is handed to me by Jewish tradition. Shabbat is not just a day of rest – it is a chance to practice a different way of living, and a different way of being as a family. So committing to do something differently 1/7 of our year is a natural thing to do as a Jew, and a great way to try on this no-technology thing.

I am not a dummy, and I know that tons of Jews have been doing this forever – that many believe we are not fulfilling the commandment by using electricity at all on Shabbat. But we are not becoming Shomer Shabbos – that’s not where we are as family, or as Jews. So rather than saying to my kids “Cell phones and computers off because we don’t use any electricity on Shabbat,” I am going to try this on: “Cell phones and computers off because we are going to be together as a family on Shabbat,” to sing our own songs, tell each other our own stories, play games that require sharing a game board or using our bodies.

I see this experiment as twofold. First, I hope it lets us see how we like life without technology, and to inform what the best limits are for our family. As I said before, I don’t anticipate our final rule will forbid technology, but I hope that living without it for a controlled period every week will help us figure out how much we’d like to live without it over the course of a whole week. And second, I hope it will teach us some new things about how we want to be on Shabbat. Maybe we’ll hate it and decide we want to be on our phones all of Shabbat…or maybe we’ll love it and next year will decide to turn something else off for 24 hours.

The initial rules are no cell phones, no Internet, no TV – landline is OK.  We’ll see how it goes, and hopefully I’ll let you know on this blog.

What do you think? Have you tried this, or do you have a different resolution? How do you make Shabbat a different day than the other six?

Finding God

Sunset on Lake Kezar

Finding God at sunset on Lake Kezar in Maine

I’d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogue’s pews, but we don’t. That’s not to say we don’t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, it’s just not necessarily divine.

My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.

I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.

For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain we’ve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.

Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.

Breckenridge, CO

Connecting spiritually at 11,000 feet in Breckenridge, CO

Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but it’s not for others. In my extended family the “right” way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. It’s OK to refer to a beautiful place as “God’s country,” but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.

This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)

But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God – be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legos– it’s the right way for him.

Celebrating Shabbat on Vacation

Lighting the candles with iShabbat in Seattle

My family has a regular Shabbat observance. We either celebrate at home or attend our synagogue’s family service and dinner. But while we religiously mark the Sabbath in Dallas, we are not very good about practicing this tradition when we’re on vacation. In fact, when we’re away we don’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, “Mommy, its Friday.”

“I know, one more day of skiing,” I responded.

“No, it’s Friday,” he said. “It’s Shabbat!”

“Oh yeah,” I said a little embarrassed that I had forgotten the significance of the day.

“How are we going to celebrate?” Sammy asked.

“Well, we don’t have candles or matches and even if we did, I don’t think it’s safe to leave them burning in the hotel room while we’re out or asleep,” I answered. “We’ll celebrate next week when we’re at home.”

“We can still say Shabbat Shalom,” Sammy replied.

“You’re right, we can do that,” I said.

“Shabbat Shalom,” we said together and gave each other a kiss.

It wasn’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 very…un-Shabbat. It’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 phone’s app store anyway. To my surprise, I found several options including iShabbat.

Our second vacation Shabbat was observed at Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island

I chose iShabbat because it was simple. It allowed me to “light” the candles by dragging a “flame” 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 “burned” 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.

Jewish Summer Camp’s X Factor

Shabbat at camp is "cool" and adds a sense of sacredness to the camp experience.

My son just returned from his second summer spent at the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Greene Family Camp. While Sammy is glad to be reunited with his puppy, he misses his other home.

I know how Sammy feels. I was a diehard camper too and I’m so happy that he thinks camp is as magical as I did many years ago. But having a deep attachment to camp is not unique to campers attending Jewish institutions.

I spent my summers at a YMCA camp, and as I watch the videos for religious and secular institutions alike I consistently hear children describe what makes their camp stand out with the same words I used almost 30 years ago – lasting friendships, great activities and a place to forget your worries. All of these endorsements are of course tied to images of beautiful settings and examples of camp spirit.

But even though there are universal aspects to camp, I always suspected that there was something special about Jewish camp.

As a teen, I envied my fellow youth groupers who spent their summers at the URJ’s Camp Harlem not only because I longed for a Jewish camp experience, but also because their camp connection seemed richer in way that I could not explain.

Now that I’m seeing Jewish camp through adult eyes, I feel that there is truth to my teenage suspicions – there is something special, something different about Jewish camp. Call it an X factor, an indefinable quality that we recognize when we see or experience it, but can’t easily describe.

My husband thinks what makes Jewish camp different is personality and soul. He sees the experience that Sammy is having as one imbued with life and character beyond the rah-rah kind of spirit depicted in shots of color war competitions and heard in the lyrics of official camp anthems.

An acquaintance of mine thinks the uniqueness comes from the experience of being with all Jewish kids, regardless of whether or not their parents are both Jewish, and engaging with Judaism in a way that makes being Jewish cool.

I think the specialness comes from the incredible sense of community that is embodied in the phrase “Welcome to camp” that greets you as your car enters the gates and is repeated continuously by staff and campers alike. Immediately you know that you are part of the larger camp family. You belong.

Curious to get a camper’s perspective, I asked Sammy what he thinks makes camp special. He replied, “It just is. It’s sacred ground.”

Maybe that’s the best description of all. What do you think?

Matzah

Yesterday’s post was on Chametz, the bread and character traits that limit us.  The next them is Matzah.

I also hinted at yesterday, that Matzah is the bread made quickly, and symbolically related to our zeal to do Mitzvot.

I find it interesting that we enjoy Shabbat with slowly prepared Challah, but we enter Shabbat with haste.  There are always last minute things to do.  Showers to take, dishes to get into the oven and the hot plate to set up.  We are very much like Matzah, moving quickly to get all the jobs done.

I get to candle lighting and force myself to slow down, take a moment, put money in the Tzedakah box and breathe.  Then I pick up the match and light the Shabbat candles.

Shabbat Shalom!

This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.

Five Things People Assume When Your Spouse/Partner Isn’t Jewish

Whenever we meet someone new, I always worry about the reaction they will have when I tell them that my husband isn’t Jewish.  I keep having images of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof ripping his clothes in mourning when he found out his daughter married a non Jew. While that hasn’t happened, I have found that some people can be pretty opinionated on the issue of intermarriage.

I think we have found a fairly open community, open in that people are accepting of us, but in some cases it is very much a “don’t talk/don’t tell” kind of relationship.

So here goes, my top five things people assume when your partner isn’t Jewish:

1) You don’t care about Jewish spirituality.  I admit, when we got married, I didn’t care that much about Jewish spirituality, but I cared enough that I wanted certain elements in our ceremony (breaking the glass, mentioning G-d…).  We have grown and have learned there is a lot to Jewish spirituality, a lot of amazing things!

2) You probably belong to a Reform synagogue.  I actually go to a Modern Orthodox synagogue.  I don’t feel that the Reform path is for me.  And that’s ok.

3) You probably don’t keep Kosher or Shabbat.  Yes, we are kosher in this household.  We don’t have separate dishes yet, but it is on the radar.  My son and I keep Shabbat, no driving, using the phone, etc., etc.  We have a beautiful Shabbat dinner and lunch.  That being said, I do give my husband a “pass” every now and again, because I know he needs that space.

4) You celebrate non Jewish holidays.  Every family is different.  We are a full time Jewish household.  Other families do some of the non Jewish holidays and some do everything.

5) You are the reason that Jewish continuity is threatened.  Oy.  Yes I know.  It says in the Torah.  When the time comes (after 120 years), I will have that discussion with G-d.  I know plenty of Jewish people who are Jewishly married who don’t really care about Jewish spirituality.  Yes, genetically they are Jewish and their kids are Jewish.  From what I’m seeing it is getting harder and harder to guilt these types of families into marrying Jewish.

Ahad Ha’am has said, ”More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” What does this mean?  It means that Jewish continuity occurs in the families that have shown some interest in Jewish mitzvot, ritual, and spirituality.  I read a statistic that about 30-40% of intermarried families are raising their children with Jewish spirituality.  (Not too bad!)

Is a kid in an intermarried family, raised with Jewish values, more likely to “stay Jewish” (for lack of a better term) than a kid in a fully Jewish family raised with no Jewish values?

What would you add to the list?

Saying “No” to Hebrew Day School

My kids attend a Jewish daycare/preschool program full-time, and they’ve blossomed under the Jewish instruction. Also, I’ve come to appreciate the support it gives me as a parent trying to raise Jewish children. There are Shabbat songs and Israeli folk dances and Shavuot art projects that are unknown to me because I converted as an adult. I like that my kids have something to add to our observance; when we sing songs for Friday night dinner, I love that they teach me about a shabbat dinosaur knocking on the door.

Since Eli will begin Kindergarten in the fall, our local Hebrew day school has started its sell on why our son would be a great fit for their school. In many ways, he is a perfect fit. But we won’t be sending him to the Hebrew day school, and instead he will attend a secular private day school. One that doesn’t teach about Shabbat dinosaurs knocking on the door.

I hadn’t really thought about how public our decision would be, until friends, day school staff, and congregants began to call us on the phone or cornered us in hallways and asked us to consider the Hebrew day school. Suddenly I’ve felt defensive about my decision, and I didn’t know how to respond without it sounding like I was saying, “My child is too good for this school.”

So my husband and I put our heads together and formulated a response that focuses on Eli’s best interests and stays far away from discussing why the Hebrew day school is NOT in his best interests. Hopefully people won’t believe that this is an indictment of the Hebrew day school. I don’t know if it will work. People are sensitive to these issues.

We are not turning our backs on Judaism or our local community, nor do we discount all we have learned from the past 3 years at a Jewish daycare. Still… I know it feels like a betrayal to some people, even though our decision was never meant to be.

Shabbat Dinner Conversation

I decided that the Shabbat table would be a good time to speak of the good things we have experienced during the week.  First I asked my husband if he was grateful for anything specific (other than the nice meal he was about to eat).  Then I asked my husband if anything inspired him over the week.  I answered the same questions.  One day, G-d willing my son will also answer these questions, and I hope he can add a few more. 

What do you talk about around the Shabbat table?