Monday, November 26, 2012

The Blessings and Curses of the Full Time Jewish Student

At 6:30 a.m., my eyes open and search for the tantalizing snooze button. As I struggle between gaining a few more minutes of sleep and reading online sermons, the clock ticks away—I eventually lose the opportunity to do both. This pattern repeats every morning.

Is it easy to be a full-time Jewish student? In New York City’s Upper West Side, one would most likely think it is. I, however, cannot agree whole-heartedly. Throughout my eleven years of Jewish day school, I have witnessed some of its most severe challenges and reaped some of its greatest benefits.

While in many schools, both public and secular private, students my age become numbers, my Jewish day schools have nurtured my formulating Jewish identity. My high school teachers, some with double PhD’s and published books, are addressed only by their first names, generating a culture of both amiability and constant accessibility that my peers and I use gratefully. They have set the foundation of Jewish and academic knowledge that enables me to pursue my passions. Most importantly, however, they’re full-time educators, parents, and members of their own communities, and like Marc Kramer mentioned, they are expected to be committed to their personal lives, too. Perhaps it is through their unremitting commitment to their own values that strengthen the learning environment that my friends and I experience each day. Each day, along with the dual curriculum, I learn values of klal Israel that teach me how to become a member of the greater Jewish community.

My unique “job” of being a Jewish student is accompanied with many compromises. Unlike most full-time working people, my day exceeds the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  time frame. There is no separation between school and work for me; with nine different classes ranging from math to Talmud, my workload by no means relaxed. I accepted the fact that I may never be cheering for my school at a Friday night football games, but there are times where the copious number of assignments interfere with my involvement in the Jewish community; this I find tragic.

 Too many mornings have passed where I am unable to read, contact, and learn from the greater Jewish world. If I, a product of Jewish day school education, cannot visit the sick, feed the hungry, and be active in a synagogue, then who will? If my growing pile of Talmud homework is preventing me from pursuing tikkun olam and pluralism, then to what value is my education? I am so fortunate to learn Jewish values from my wise teachers, yet am given no time to apply them.

As my graduation date rapidly approaches and my future plans will soon unfold, I look back on my years spent inside classrooms. I have been shaped by both the advantages and hardships of the Jewish educational world, and I cannot imagine discovering my passion for spiritual leadership in any other way.
Will I one day become a non-profit Jewish educator? Will I lead congregations, Hebrew schools, summer camps, and youth groups? I have no idea. I do know, however, that my alarm clock will continue to ring each morning, presenting me with the opportunity to balance both my mandatory and personal Judaism.  Perhaps, I will someday learn to accept that struggle while feeling less guilty about the compromises. But who knows? My life in the Jewish workplace is only beginning. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sharpening for a Pluralistic World

“…Just as in the case of iron, when one implement sharpens another, so too do two [Torah] scholars sharpen each other when they discuss questions [of Halahkah] together..” -Talmud Bavli Ta'anit 7a

Can pluralism truly exist? This question is the topic of Jewish debate on a daily basis. Is there a way a group of people from different denominations can learn from one another without igniting another war? Can we find a way to be united somehow? These questions commonly linger in the mind of an interfaith-driven teenager like myself.

Only three months ago, I didn’t think that achieving such a goal was remotely possible. This past summer, however, my rather pessimistic expectations were exceeded. Only three months ago, I boarded an El-Al flight to Israel alongside twenty-five Jewish incoming seniors from across the country. Among the group, our beliefs and practices varied, but all of mindsets created a constant for the program: we wanted to learn from one another this summer.

Throughout the first few days after our arrival, we all attempted to be friendly, forcefully proposing casual cocktail chatter in order to “test the waters.” However, by the first weekend, controversial conversation topics began to seep out from mouths that could no longer conceal them. For the duration of the summer, we spent countless hours stargazing and debating issues that impact both the American Jewish community and the future of the state of Israel. People did not hesitate before vehemently sharing their beliefs with others, and they rocked my Jewish identity in ways that I never realized I needed.

Perhaps the most significant lesson I gained from these thought-provoking discussions was that my faith, like that of many other teens I learned, needed sharpening. Surrounded by a tolerant and pluralistic community, I felt compelled to strengthen and reexamine the beliefs that once blindly carved a path for my life. Repeatedly this summer, we were all taught that one must sharpen a knife with other knives, rather than with pillows, for a tool of any kind would never be useful otherwise. This seemingly literal concept gradually evolved into the foundation of our faith-based dialogue: while sensitivity is pivotal for communication, we were a community driven to grow. We were motivated to use the knives of our own faith to sharpen those of our peers, even if that entailed crossing the borders and boundaries we never fathomed to discover ourselves. Through the exhausting summer of spiritual growth that ignited both laughter and tears, we became friends. Today, I now have twenty-five new friends from different walks of Jewish life; we thrived in the pluralistic sanctuary we’ve created for ourselves and are prepared to expand it to our own homes.

As different as a group of Jewish teens may be, we all associated ourselves to the broad umbrella of the same faith and could easily have been united by title alone. However, in our respective communities which aren’t structured like those in Jerusalem, no one faith is the majority—making the need to create pluralism that much stronger.

Now more than ever we must face the irreligious intolerance that amplifies on a daily basis. We are living in a world where our own tribalism prevents us from seeing the faces of our neighbors. The stereotypes of other faiths that exist in our minds reflect our fear in pursuing justice. Even among parents and grandparents, thoughts of intermarriage traumatize them, immediately inhibiting any support of interfaith friendships because of the enigmatic future to which they could lead.

I, however, continue to remain hopeful, despite the many obstacles that lay before a perfect world. For little had I known, the walls of intolerance can be broken down over a circle of chairs and a breezy, star-lit Jerusalem night sky. The sense of hope that glowed among the optimists sitting in those seats, however, can travel to any zip code.

So can we achieve the same pluralism among different faiths? Absolutely. We simply need to create the dialogue that allows us to learn from one another. And perhaps, once we’ve created a safe circle of hope, we can challenge and sharpen our faiths together. 

Yonah: The Art of Running Away

When you’re sitting at the doctor’s office beside a half-friendly nurse, staring at a needle the size of your spinal chord in her hand, your mindset wouldn’t be one of complete ease. Once this terrifying injection begins inching toward your skin, perhaps the most convenient reaction is to run as far away as humanly possible. Despite all instructions to sit still from your now not-so-friendly nurse, nothing seems more relieving than the thought of sprinting away from shots of any kind. Clearly, these doctors do not know half as much as you do about Tetanus, chicken pox, or Menangitis—if disease prevention involves pain, it is not worth it!

For Yonah, a prophet and humanist, running was not only a constant in his life, but also a method for both avoidance and Cheshbon haNefesh, the accounting of the soul. The name Yonah in Hebrew literally means dove, the symbol of peace; it is rather ironic that Yonah’s habit of running created tension and unrest with God. However, unlike other rebellious leaders in Jewish history, Yonah chose to run full circle. Throughout the four chapters in the book of Yonah, we witness Yonah running from God and to God. We experience God’s work in an ungodly nation through a prophet whose natural instincts weren’t so different than ours.

Yonah ran from God. God commanded Yonah travel to Nineveh in order to proclaim its destruction. Yonah, realizing that this commitment was not worth his own fears, reacted with an action. With a one-way ticket to Tarshish, Yonah ran from not only a life threatening responsibility, but also his own self-doubt. This esteemed messenger of God was truly stuck in his own pool of self-consciousness and needed a quick leeway out. Like most Jews living in post-modernism, Yonah struggled with his own doubt. Only years after Yonah’s life did we discover the significance of embracing our lack of certainty, or as we call it today: faith. Rabbi Art Green, the author of Radical Judaism, suggests that we should shift our focus. “We people of faith have nothing we can prove; attempts to do so will only diminish what we have to offer. We can only testify, never prove.” We blindly blame Yonah for avoiding God when he was really just struggling with the same doubts we embrace as the essence of Judaism today. We, Jews in a post-modern world, endorse the Tarshish, or the haven for avoiding troubles.

Yonah ran to God.  By the second chapter, Yonah had already experimented with his running. En route to Tarshish, the city where responsibilities disappeared and self-doubt was welcomed, Yonah was swallowed by both a big unidentifiable fish and his own loneliness. Without direction or guidance, Yonah succumbed to the prayer of his own heart and ran back to God. Perhaps it was the overwhelming sense of loneliness that drew Yonah back to the responsibility that God originally gave him. By running away from the commitment, Yonah ran away from any guidance and comfort that accompanied it. Once he was in complete solitude, Yonah admitted that despite his own doubts and fears, he could not live a life of faith alone. Today, as the search for a revived Judaism rises, we continue to place the most value on community. Judaism, with all of its ups and downs, will never survive without a community to sustain it. Yonah needed to successfully run away from his fears before realizing how crucial it was to face them.

Perhaps the process of running from and to God is the core of our Judaism today. We must recognize that God is not only the haven for our doubts, but also the partner with which we embrace them and search for answers. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Seconds to Change

86,400 seconds.

The number 86,400 defines our time slot in one day. Within this seemingly large span of time, we have the potential to build and improve each day or utterly destroy it. Over time, seconds tend to pile up, some wasted and unnoticed and others misused and neglected; we frequently extend these seconds of regretted decisions and poor judgments into minutes, days, and weeks.  It is only during the final days before entering a new year that we stop and reflect upon the seconds, both the happiest and most miserable, that had passed before us. The ways in which we choose to spend these seconds, while commonly taken for granted, truly shape us.

One year ago, I realized that the seconds we waste in life are not renewable resources-- life can change in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, the horrifying consequence of taking time for granted entered my life, unannounced and unexpectedly. Last summer, I traveled to my second home at Camp Ramah Darom, the largest Jewish summer camp in Clayton, Georgia, anticipating my fourth consecutive summer there with my friends. Upon our arrivals, all seventy-two of us reunited and reacquainted immediately, sharing stories of our academic year and already searching for ways to lead our camp as the “Gesher” eidah (age group). Among the unique group was Andrew Silvershein, a sixteen-year old aspiring musician, avid writer, and a South Florida resident that we all referred to as  “Sunshine” because of his optimism and unremitting friendliness. None of us knew, however, that our first reunion as seventy-two campers would be our last.

During our three day camping trip to the Ocoee River in Southern Tennessee, one of the rafts which held seven Gesher boys overturned on a class three rapid. While the six other boys safely returned to land, Andrew’s foot was wedged underneath a rock; he was pulled under water for approximately eight minutes too long and passed away that afternoon, after being rushed to a local hospital. My eidah, camp, and Jewish community at large were left in utter shock that day. I will never forget that long afternoon, waiting and praying around the campsite alongside my friends. I will never forget the formidable silence that engulfed us for hours that evening and the endless seconds of grief that followed. I will never forget the countless times during which my friends and I angrily looked up at the sky and doubted God’s omniscience and loyalty to His own creation. However, through tear-filled eyes, my friends and counselors saw an entire Jewish community waiting for us back at camp, with open arms and words of comfort. Most importantly, I will never forget the life impacting grieving and growing process my camp had undergone that summer, and how I never would have been able to overcome this alone. Today, Andrew’s memory will forever remain a blessing; it serves a reminder to us that not a single second in life should ever be wasted.

While this tragedy was out of anyone’s control, it still sparks moments where I wish I had taken better advantage of Andrew’s short time in my life. His burgeoning passion for music and songwriting was undeniable; it should have been elevated each and every day, rather than simply noticed. Too many seconds passed where I stayed silent while watching Andrew share his talents. Too many seconds of potential conversations, laughter, learning opportunities, and friendship building disappeared without my awareness. As I prepare to embark upon another new year filled with spiritual seeking and question forming, I will never forget the seldom encounters I had with Andrew, but more importantly—I will never forget the ones I could not have, for I let them slip out of my hands.

In Pirkei Avot (Avot 1:6), or “Ethics of the Fathers,” we are taught the value of forming memorable relationships. "Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person favorably." How could I have created a more unique friendship to Andrew? How do we acquire the friendships we carry so strongly with others today? How do we preserve our relationships with others? Moreover, how do we take the given number of seconds per day and ensure that they will be implemented toward building these relationships?

After a life-changing summer, I arrived at one conclusion to these questions: never remain silent. In order to acquire the great friendships, we must take advantage of every second that would have otherwise remained empty. If we come across any person who emits light that can brighten a room, we must not let that person walk forward alone. If we encounter a potential friend with a hobby worth sharing, we must not prolong an opportunity to approach him. Lastly, if life presents us with an opportunity to chazak v’nitchazek, strengthen and be strengthened by another person, we must never let silence overpower us. By remaining silent during the times we are called to speak, it is as if we are taking a clock and erasing precious time. And because life can change in the blink of an eye, every second must be treated like an opportunity.

Despite the celebrations and obstacles we may face without warning, there is still an inexorable truth in life: we still have 86,400 seconds tomorrow. The events in our lives may construct or destruct our faith, but the time we have each day to react is the everlasting constant in our control. Perhaps if I had transformed a moment of silence into an hour of dialogue, I would have connected to an optimistic friend in more ways than I already had. If too many seconds of today were misused in your clock, then let us focus on tomorrow and the potential for success it brings. As we approach a new year, may we take this short amount of time each day to improve both our relationships and our global community by overcoming silence. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

God's To Do List

If you were to look around at the Jewish world in which we live, would you be pleased? Would you see everything you ever dreamed of? A perfect world bereft of ignorance, selfishness, and intolerance? Most likely not. Unfortunately, such an ideal life would require tireless effort, true selflessness and dialogue that the average person tends to avoid. Today, we live in a harsh reality where the concepts of taking without giving, indulging without sharing, and judging without knowing overpower the seemingly insignificant acts of kindness.        

A wise and acclaimed scholar in history, Reb Nachman of Breslov, taught that every Jew has the potential to leave an impact in life through faith. “Every single Jew is a portion of God above, and the essence of Godliness is in the heart.” According to the rebellious lives we live today, however, would God really be impressed with the representation of inner Godliness that the Jewish population at large display daily? I would like to think that an active God has already mapped out His ideal “to-do” list of easily fixable goals for a more faithful world.

1.                        How we value our money. We have an obligation, as the future of the Jewish world, to remain responsible for our fellow men. Our monthly paychecks enable most of us to afford not only the basic necessities for our families, but also the lavish luxuries that embellish our lives unnecessarily.  Wealthy Jewish families invest in second and third homes by the mountains and beaches while their neighbors are struggling to afford their first. Larger congregations fund extravagant synagogues and sanctuaries while members of our Jewish community at large can barely provide nourishing meals on their tables. As Ruth Messinger explained in her article, “Ethical Consumption,” everyone needs to experience the sweetness of having enough. Perhaps we should reconsider the ways in which we consume our finances and take one more step toward eternal selflessness, a world in which we can provide for everyone to have enough.

2.                        How we value our time. If you have an extra hour of your day, how would you spend it? So many of us claim that we don’t have that extra five minutes to stop and think, let alone to take action to improve our world. However, if we do not strive to provide for our communities worldwide, then how else would we live up to our title as the “Chosen People?” For if we were not chosen on this earth to ameliorate it, then we merely exist, rather than truly live. Unfortunately, too many extraneous minutes are spent analyzing our inner selves and even worse—our neighbors of different backgrounds. We look at Jews of different denominations and audaciously claim that they are “less” of Jews than we are. In order to set the paragon for our faith, we must not consume our time in the flaws that diverge us from our neighbors but rather the sparks of light that unite us. In the future, we, as a whole, should focus on how we can utilize that extra hour to enhance our universal Jewish community.

3.                        How we value our community.  How often do we rely on our family, whether immediate, congregational, or external? Our stable community is the everlasting constant throughout every aspect of our lifecycles, varying from births, bnei mitzvah, weddings, other simchot, and the funerals. We have constantly been surrounded by a minimum of ten fellow Jews with which to celebrate during the zeniths of our successes, and mourn during the moments of despair. Your Jewish community, wherever it may be, has stood beside you during the days you will cherish for the rest of your life, and during the days you wish you could forget. Under any circumstance, we turn to that open community for all of our needs and troubles, but do we open our arms to them? Are we balancing our respective Jewish community or simply consuming its benefits? How often do we offer all of the time, support, and gratitude that we are provided with on a daily basis? If we truly want to be the waking representations of Godliness, then we must propel our stable communities to new heights. Never again should there be a congregant who must celebrate or mourn alone. Perhaps that is why Jewish law requires a quorum of at least ten people during a formal prayer service; no one should experience a life of faith by himself. If we were chosen to live by certain standards of faith, then we are obligated to enhance our communities together, not abandon them entirely.

The future of Judaism is in the hands of those who consume their money, time, and communities in the most genuine ways. We must take the portions of Godliness that we were given and enable faith, a uniting factor of every organized religion, to prosper. A community of faith is only jeopardized when it is unbalanced, unsupported, and unattended. It is our obligation to take God’s “to-do” list and transform it into a new reality, a perfect world that we strive to see. If we refocus our hearts and minds into the entire community, rather than just ourselves, we will truly be consuming our values correctly.

Tisch: Expand Your Table

Every Friday evening in Crown Heights was considered to be a holy experience. Jewish men of all ages would briskly walk through the windy Brooklyn streets, recognizing familiar faces as they entered Shabbat together. From a distance, one could see a swarm of black hats enter the modest home of the Hasidic Rebbe, where hundreds would gather to sit at his tisch. Melodious niggunim would be chanted, the volume of the singing increasing with each new tune. The Rebbe’s words of wisdom would echo through his dining room walls; they would enhance the warmth of Shabbat alongside the innumerable plates of chicken and vegetables. This tradition thrived in Hasidic communities; the Rebbe’s tisch was just one of the many enlightening factors that united that Jewish community.

Considering that the word tisch is a Yiddish term for table, it seems unusual that such a concept should be limited to religious Jews. Shortly after, however, I learned that a tisch is not only a Hasidic table of singing and eating Jews; it is rather a universal value that can be expanded to every community we visit.

A rejuvenating tisch is not limited to any age or gender. In fact, one does not need to a learned rabbinic figure to host such an enlightening experience. As a spiritually seeking seventeen year old, I found an ideal community in the grassy green acres of Clayton, Georgia. My growing passion for Judaism is nurtured and fostered at Camp Ramah Darom, a Conservative Jewish summer camp that eternally impacted my life. This past summer, I formed a unique bond with seventy-one other teens my age, each with a passion that compiled into one remarkable tisch. Every Friday evening, my Gesher eidah, or age group, would congregate around long tables and jubilantly sing various z’mirot together, laughing at the solos and hand motions that others would incorporate to the songs. Full from plates of baked chicken and boiled potatoes, my friends and I would listen attentively to the rebbes, or our college counselors, share personal stories regarding their faith and theology. This tradition constitutes a typical Shabbat evening at Camp Ramah Darom; it is what truly epitomizes the magic found there every summer.

After my life changing summers at Camp Ramah Darom, I was determined to find that same tisch, energy, and faith that my Conservative Jewish summer home provided. Eventually I came to realize that no two tables are alike; we must strive to create new spiritual circles rather than replicate them.

A tisch can be formed by a group of people that recognizes a common passion they share. That passion, however, need not be affiliated to any one Jewish denomination or synagogue. During my freshman year of high school, I was exposed to pluralistic Judaism during a RAVSAK teen shabbaton known as “Moot Beit Din.” With a common love for davening, studying, and debating, high school students from all over the country gathered for this one weekend in D.C to recognize and strengthen Jewish pluralism. Despite our denominational differences, my new friends and I were able to sit around a table on that Friday night and contribute to a memorable tisch, filled with rituals of every sect of Judaism. I sang with teens from every mark of the Jewish spectrum, expanding my standards for communal faith.

More recently, I have discovered that the essence of a tisch can be shared with other organized religions. I found myself delving into powerful discussions with my interfaith group, Common Ground Friends, over boxes of pizza at the local united Methodist church. Teens who are spiritually engaged in their own churches, mosques, and other worship centers joined me around a casual table in the church’s humble fellowship hall to share our religious differences, but also embrace the common ground that unites us all. Through music, food, and dialogue—everything which constitutes a traditional tisch—I fostered my own Jewish values while meeting teens that I consider my greatest friends today.

An ideal tisch community is nonexistent. How you expand your table, however, is what truly defines your walk of faith.

Find the Common Ground

“Religion does three things quite effectively: Divides people, Controls people, Deludes people.” – Mary Alice McKinney
Today, if you were to check the top headlines of any publications, you would come across the latest havocs and horrifying events that have occurred in our “progressive” society. Varying from murders, economic instability, and words of pure hatred, newspapers cover and print stories that remind us that there is plenty more work needed to be done in our communities. While many would assume that in the evolving world in which we live, issues like miscommunication and prejudice would naturally deteriorate; however, that has not been the case whatsoever.
Some consider religion to be the ultimate blame for all the negative media surrounding us. Others have blatantly stated that religion is the underlying source behind divergence and strife, the cause of all the wars worldwide. Unfortunately, the spite people feel toward religion and theology has not only enhanced the lack of unity among us, but also created the walls and boundaries that prevent us from ever overcoming this intolerance. I, however, view life differently. I think religion is beautiful—when viewed in an optimistic light.
While religion, like many factors that ignite differences in beliefs, is flawed, there is a consistent concept in every denomination, branch, and active group: faith. Faith, bereft of any laws, practices, or restrictions, can be simply defined as hope. Faith is not the proof for our beliefs; it is the hope that we believe serves a larger purpose. This sense of hope is the foundation of most religions; it brings people comfort to believe in something greater in the world, even if that idea will remain unseen forever. While faith alone offers no guarantees, it unites people from all walks of life and creates a community, strengthened and manifested through that one shared hope. While religion marks the lines and limits that separate humanity, faith, or hope, is the full circle we can strive to create together.
How can we, as Jews and people of all different religions, be united in some way? How can we overcome the boundaries that diverge us in order to truly coexist? Where can we draw the beginning sketches that will one day evolve into a full circle? Perhaps the solution is simpler than we think: find the common ground.
The common ground that connects people of all different walks of life is the hope, or faith, that unifies every religion. As an active, pluralistic Jew, I strive to find the common ground that enables me to learn and grow alongside people who view theology, rituals, and religion at large differently than I do. By recognizing first that no two walks of faith are identical, we can sooner accept our differences and search for the common ground that unites us. When we share mutual values, we will be expanding the lines and boundaries that once restricted us from coexisting.
It takes true faith, or hope, to accept that we may never find tangibility in our different religions. We must face the inexorable truth: the only proof we have for our religious opinions solely based on faith. However, we can use this same hope to change the world. By taking the first step of recognizing our differences in order to reach our similarities, we will be taking one step toward coexistence. Through interfaith dialogue and respect, we can learn from one another the ways in which to beautify religion, rather than eradicate it. Ignorance diverged us, bur faith, alone, can unite us once again. Because of hope, the everlasting message that serves as the backbone to every belief system, religion is truly beautiful when shared.

Torah for Today

Throughout my childhood, the Torah was considered a sacred object, one that was covered in velvet and locked away in an ominous closet each week. This heavy scroll was associated with thoughts of horror and shame when dropped on the floor; it was revered and acclaimed after surviving another entire year without blemishes or god forbid: smudges. The Torah and all of its values were not to be touched without rubber gloves or a yad, or else an angry Hebrew school teacher would magically appear from a hidden corner. Even worse, my relationship with this oversized text reminded me that the contents of this literature were merely history—never to be repeated.

For faithful people, both Jews and non-Jewish thinkers alike, the Torah is viewed as the polar opposite. They can take this heavy text, rip it apart from its bedazzled exterior, and focus on the core. Not once do they consider this sacred literature to be intimidating, but rather relevant as they apply its eternal messages to their daily lives. It’s not that these people consider the Torah to be any less divine; they just strive to create this “everyday holiness” that is more travel friendly. They can take the jaded parchment and fit it all into their palms of their hands, prepared to take it with them wherever they go.

Luckily, publishing companies eventually strengthened this concept of everyday holiness. At any Barnes & Noble across the globe, one can find JPS pocket sized Bibles and Etz Chayim chumashim on the Judaic shelves—soft covered books that hold the same sacred texts of our faith. What truly holds us all back from not only purchasing one of these pocket sized Bibles, but also making holiness more personal?

Nothing whatsoever held me back.

Today, I have my own purple JPS Tanakh, worn and faded from its constant traveling. The pages are filled with endless notes, highlighted verses, and most importantly, questions. With the ability to make my own initial smudges, I discovered and strengthened a personal connection to the texts ad traditions of my faith. Guided by the questions in my own book, I let myself seek the best answers—answers that carve and mold my own Jewish path.

While I have since gained a deeper understanding and respect for the traditional Torah that is read in synagogues, I value my personal text, filled with pencil marks and creases. I encourage you, regardless of your age, gender, or religion, to create the smudges that will draw you closer to your beliefs. I consider my small purple Tanakh as form of everyday holiness in my life; I know that if my Bible is falling apart, it shows that my life is not.

Perhaps the Torah, the essence of Jewish Scripture, is much more simple and contemporary as we all think: take your faith beyond its biblical origins and create everyday holiness.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Four Questions for a Better World

Eight more problems left.

I stared at my open math notebook in defeat; how was I supposed to finish these final trigonometric graphs without falling asleep?  Underneath my math homework laid an incomplete research paper, two pages of vocabulary words to learn, and a 1950’s play to analyze. Thoughts of sleep and relaxation dwindled in front of my eyes as the clock ticked unsympathetically.

For the average junior in high school, pulling all nighters to complete her homework can easily be compared to, if not greater than, the primordial exodus from Egypt. While I’m sure my ancestors would disagree, my math homework had become my personal form of bondage. Like a post-biblical slavery, once could say.

As we approach Passover, we embark upon traditions that have existed for thousands of years. We compile a bowl of chopped apples, walnuts, Maneshevitz wine, and cinnamon to create our charoset, we watch our relative attempt to compose a creative rendition of the Passover story, but most importantly—we ask four questions that shape and define our Seder. This year, I am offering four post-biblical questions that could perhaps inspire us to stop and reflect before celebrating our exodus from slavery.

1).: Are we truly free? We may be free from the torturous reign of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but there are alternative forms of slavery that we cannot ignore. This year, more than 16 million children were at risk of hunger while 50% of every dollar spent on food is wasted. Thousands of men and women suffer from homelessness while more people owning second homes are feeling emptier than ever. As a wise rabbi once explained, Egypt can be interpreted as a “narrow place” for the Israelite slaves once living there, but has our country truly provided a haven for such hardships? Has our country become its own Egypt, or “narrow place?”

2). Where is your narrow place?  While you may be blessed with a roof over your head and food on your table, life is not perfect. Everyone we know-- wealthy, poor, faithful or faithless—is experiencing a form of exodus from the factors in life they strive to improve or change. It is critical for people to find the line between their hardships and what allows them to feel free .For me, those eight math problems, as seemingly insignificant as they may seem, have enslaved me to my desk at bizarre hours of the night; overcoming that assignment makes the freedom I celebrate each year only that much more limitless.

3). How can we create freedom today? We cannot wait until Passover each year to find an exodus from our respective bondages. For others, freedom is not only a desire, but also a necessity in order to survive. How can we ensure that the statistics of hardships in this world do not grow exponentially? For some, it could be as simple as taking that first step and seeking help. Slavery exists in myriad forms; a phone call to someone could be all it takes to relieve you from your mental slavery. Others may find that outlet of exodus by being the listener—the connection others need in order to find strength. The cure to slavery is ultimately in our own hands.

4). How can we broaden our narrow places? We are taught in Judaism to open our doors and “let all those who are hungry come and eat.” Yet far too many people eat at tables set for one. The “narrow places” that we once experienced in Egypt simply should not occur in homes today. Perhaps the only solution is expanding our Passover tables and inviting more people in. This year, and every year following, I encourage you to open your doors to invite the person with nowhere else to go.

The source and solution to hardships are in our control. We can wake up one morning and eradicate hunger, spread faith, and bridge the narrow places if we so choose to. This year, let us take these four questions and find the answers. That would make my math homework a whole lot easier. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

An Apolitical Faith

I despise politics.

Between the Democratic hippies and the right-wing Republicans, I consider myself somewhere in the middle, where most of the ignorance lies. I simply do not see the point for politics to consume the lives of average Americans. Because of politics, families have been torn apart; something as futile as a misunderstood speech or discussion creates more wars than unity. Past presidents have had their lives jeopardized by extremists who disagree with their personal and religious values. Therefore, I do not believe that established politics of any form should be preached from the bimah or voiced in a synagogue.

My genuine odium toward politics was not derived from my own Jewish community. In fact, I was blessed with a synagogue whose spiritual leader refrained from sharing his political views altogether. My rabbi’s sermons regarding Israel presented every political angle of a situation, but never concluded with one formal approach. When interrogated about upcoming elections, my rabbi refuses to share his preferred presidential candidate.  While many congregants find his confidentiality to be unnecessary in the modern rabbinic world, I admire him for it. I can only hope that one day, when I stand before a Jewish community of my own, I will remain impartial and open-minded.

As a spiritually seeking seventeen year old, I just want answers. I am always formulating questions regarding the existence of God, faith, and new approaches to spirituality. When I take these questions to the Jewish leaders that surround me, I only want religious opinions. Unfortunately, I have been told that there are too many political boundaries between different Jewish denominations to break in order to find the answers I need. “Don’t listen to that rabbi’s answer; he’s doesn’t support Israel!” “That congregation does not serve Kosher Kiddush lunches; we cannot eat with those ‘goyim.’” “That synagogue plays music on Friday nights; how could that rabbi teach you about God when he, himself, won’t even follow the laws of the Torah?!” I learned to abhor politics when they hindered my personal connection to Judaism. Never again will I settle for anything less than the theological answers I need in order to grow in my faith. When cruel gossip is incorporated with one’s religious opinion, I simply shrug and keep searching for truth. It is a shame, however, how politics both inside and outside a Jewish community can diverge its future generations rather than unify them.

Is it even possible to eradicate politics entirely within our own Jewish communities? Will we ever see a day where congregations can be unified based solely on faith?
Until that day arrives, it should be our obligation to avoid the political flaws that distract us throughout our respective faith journeys. Judaism may be an ever-evolving faith, but its values of kehilla kedosha, a holy community, are everlasting. Let us take our faith to new heights while we grow closer as a Jewish community, completely void of the politics that attempt to diverge us.

May Judaism become an apolitical faith once again; let our leaders be inspired to guide spiritual communities of any size, and let those communities reconnect to the solid roots of our faith.