Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How Am I Supposed to Feel?

How am I supposed to feel about the Kotel? That topic seems to be left out of the Jewish Day School curricula. We learn about these cold stones and their rich history, starting from the days where they were amalgamated into the great Temples leading to their destructions. We are told to fast and mourn the loss of the original Temple once a year, and to pack some extra skirts for the day we visit Jerusalem. We practice writing notes on ripped notebook paper and praying in the wall’s direction. None of these lessons, however, taught us how we must feel upon touching the smooth Jerusalem stones that constitute the beloved Kotel, a wall that has successfully allowed us to build walls of intolerance between our fellow Jews. How am I, a progressive Jew who has made a home for herself in Diaspora Judaism, expected to feel about the Western Wall?

Everyone else seems to have formed connections and relationships with this seemingly lifeless wall. Through protest, song, and liberation, Women of the Wall (WOW) express their love of the Kotel and their hopes for change. As they wrap their tallitot around their shoulders and carry the weight of the Torah—and the future for Jewish feminism in Israel—in their arms, we undoubtedly recognize their feelings about this holy ground. We see the Orthodox and right wing men, bowing fervently toward the wall as the sun beats down ferociously onto their black suits and streimels. On the other side of the partition, the tears and pleas from their wives and mothers echo throughout the kotel plaza and moisten the centuries-old stones. Behind them, with no shortage of Polaroid’s and distinctive red stringed “Kabbalah” bracelets, stand clusters of American teen tours who also manage to formulate an impromptu prayer or two to match words to their feelings of awe. Sure, the experiences are all included in the ten-day package, but their overwhelming feelings of excitement, confusion, and peace alike, are priceless. Even Christians flock to the Kotel, their minds marveling at how their very feet can trace the footsteps of their savior. Suddenly, at the sight of the Kotel, devout Christians feel a genuine sense of connection to the holy land that no bible study or church service can provide.

This one wall, despite its controversy, brings more people to their knees than any other ancient artifact. This one wall that ignites years of denominational battles and gender conflicts also humbles almost the entire range of the Jewish spectrum. So where does that place me, a Jewish American teen, influenced by the cries and passions that make up the Kotel’s voices?

I tried to feel that great mind-consuming awe that everyone else seemed to experience upon touching the Kotel stone. In fact, I tried to feel anything other than the dry Jerusalem heat, but unfortunately walked away feeling like the same white canvas with which I entered. That one wall, while beautiful, did not feel particularly more awe-inspiring or life changing than any other wall in Israel. Yet surrounding my blatant apathy, I heard the melodious chants of Jewish feminists, the heartfelt wailing of observant mothers, the mumbled prayers of Orthodox black-hatters, and the clicks of tourists’ cameras. I watched as these eclectic sounds and perspectives crossed paths and formed their own connections to history. I may in fact never understand the meaning and depth of such a holy place, but it is those around me who remind me that the Kotel is inexorably a place of feeling. For me, I will feel the Kotel through the feelings of the voices that surround me, for it is their unremitting passion that awakens this lifeless wall and humbles those who see that magic.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sinning for the Right Reasons

I’ve seen it before. The beauty, the simplicity, and success of it. I’ve wanted it before- the lifestyle, the perspective, the culture that revolves around it. I’ve dreamt of it, the actions and consequences, and the redeeming reward that follows it.

Yes, I’ll admit it; I’ve wanted to sin. I’ve craved the art of sinning multiple times, but not in the crime committing way. I wanted to sin in the ways that my Christian and Catholic friends sin, where there is always a direct pathway leading back to the relentless love of God in the end. I wanted to sin so that my rabbi could assure me that my God loved me enough to excuse me from my wrongdoing. I wanted to admit my errors, cheated test answers, and gossip stories within the dark walls of a confessional booth and move on with my day knowing that I was instantly forgiven. I wanted to walk forward from my synagogue pews with my daily sins to the bimah to become saved by God in front of my community.

While my non-Jewish friends can always bask in the gift of eternal love, my community seems to prefer the “sin and suffer” model, a system in which every ethical decision is accompanied by copious amounts of guilt. After our every action, we replay all the potential outcomes and consequences in our minds until the very sin we had committed dissolves beneath all our man-made guilt. While my friends seemingly felt no shame in calling themselves sinners, my community hid behind that truthful title; while the Christians in my life confidently confessed their flaws to God and their congregations, the Jews chose to deal with their sins behind closed doors, resulting in an endless process of self-guilt.

I’ve asked Judaism for this glorified Christian culture of sinning and saving, but was unfortunately rejected. Through the guidance of a few rabbis and pastors, however, I learned that perhaps we are blessed with the long process of forgiveness in Judaism. Our tradition, unlike other religions, takes us on a life-changing journey known as teshuvah that teaches us how to transform our sins into opportunities of rebirth and rejuvenation. Judaism uses sin as outlets in which to express and refocus our love for God, rather than holes from which only God and His/Her clergy can “save” us. Perhaps Judaism’s cycle of sinning was not designed to be instantaneous or glamorous; perhaps our trail to forgiveness from both God and our loved ones was intended to be as deep and consuming as the very sins we commit.

Our sins are meant to open our own eyes. We have become so skilled at seeing the sins—and salvations-- of others that we forget to look into ourselves. There may be a sense of comfort for some people in knowing that their sins will immediately covered by the arms of a savior, but do they, themselves, truly see the opportunities to save themselves? So many people in the world can approach an altar with open hearts before large congregations, but could they approach their own mirrors the same way? I’m not pointing fingers because I, more than anything, envied this method. It took years of sinning and forgiving, however, to realize that some of my most vulnerable and genuine moments of teshuva occurred when I faced my sins alone, bereft of any applause or congratulatory hand-shakes. Above all the consequences and grounded weekends, it took the feelings of pure disappointment and grief with myself—isolated from the world-- to see the power of a real apology.

Each sin we commit opens the eyes of those who see us. Self-introspection is merely the first step. Throughout the month of Elul, I try to absorb myself in what Judaism calls Cheshbon HaNefesh, the accounting of the soul. It is during that month where I look back on the Emily I was in the world all year and align her to the Emily I want to be in the next year. While my mirror may hold my deepest emotions, epiphanies, and feelings toward my sinful actions, it does not hold my relationships. After realizing the faults and ways to grow in my own behavior, it is my responsibility to strengthen my relationships with the ones who have been affected by them. Accepting my sins and my own apologies will never be enough—I must reach every person I impacted on a personal level and rebuild the foundation of trust that I threatened. This act of forgiveness, one that can only exist in solid relationships, tests my faith more than black confessional booth ever will; it reminds me each day that the people around me, loved ones and strangers alike, can see and define me by my very actions. It takes my efforts and actions in rebuilding myself to open the eyes of those who see me.

Each sin we commit opens our eyes to God. For some, God’s unconditional love can lie at the core of every sin. For some, each moment that they missed the mark is really just a confirmation that they will always be sinners, saved and protected by their god’s love. For Judaism, God’s love does not work so easily. Instead, we must strive to transform our sins into moments of deep reflection, growth, and humility. While any sin, regardless of size, can leave Christianity sighing in relief when realizing that their god will love them relentlessly, Judaism must shift apprehensively in knowing that our every action impacts a relationship far greater than that of endless love. Our sins do not expose us to God’s instant forgiveness, but rather a life-long relationship, complete with its moments of happiness, fear, guilt, and disappointment. Our sins—and our faith at large—do not expose us to God’s love for us, but rather our love for God, and how to manifest that in our evolving relationships with Him/Her. Our sins are only one of the many components in our multi-faceted relationships with God; learning how to step back and transform our sins into actions of kindles helps create the balance we need in this relationship.

Judaism’s process of sinning and forgiving, while perhaps not as efficient as a confessional visit or glamorous as a community wide altar call, teaches me to step back, stare into the mirror, and realize that I must take responsibility for both my sins and my relationships. While this system is far more grueling, the result—a growing love-centered relationship with my God—is worth every sin.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Community First

“The Conservative movement is dying!” shouts the rabbi, teacher, and elderly congregant to their half-empty congregations. I have heard so many adults say this with concerned looks on their faces that it no longer fazes me. In fact, I’ve begun to understand why they’re worried. As I look inside Conservative synagogues today, I see a deficit of young people. Instead, I witness older generations who seem to spend most of their time arguing over the rules and regulations that should govern our congregational life.  “Can Rachel’s non-Jewish boyfriend walk onto the bimah?” “Can we consider serving meat for Kiddush lunch instead of bagels?” “Should we try to include the Imahot in the Amidah one week?”
It seems like an endless cycle of fractioning committees of elders into smaller sub-committees to examine such issues, and the message appears to be that above all, we are an institution that places politics above people. Meanwhile, my generation, the people who will ideally propel this movement forward, are hardly to be found. These young people, my friends, are often found outside of institutional synagogues, striving to find their voices in places where they will truly be heard.
No longer willing to shout over the din of institutional politics, many young adults are leaving the pews of rigid and hierarchical synagogues and discovering the essence of Jewish living: community. We are seeking places where our opinions and insight are not underestimated but rather encouraged.
I have no intention of degrading the movement that raised me. Conservative day schools provided me with the core foundation of my education; its Ramah Camping movement grounded my Jewish identity in ways I needed; and its seminaries train the educators and leaders who will ultimately drive the Jewish future. But I worry that when the rising leaders from these groups assume the pulpits of Conservative institutions – rather than communities – they will become the last young people to regularly walk inside the sanctuary.
In order to strengthen the Conservative Jewish world, our synagogues must focus less on the politics and embrace the young people who want to become leaders. Our rabbis must meet their congregants halfway, taking Judaism out of the pulpits and offices and into the coffee shops, basketball courts, and homes. Our Hebrew schools must look towards Ramah and USY as successful models of Jewish learning and growth and replicate those experiences for synagogue youth. Our boards must represent our communities without isolating themselves from them. Our services and minyanim must emphasize the enduring beauty of communal voice, rather than the authority of the rabbinic voice. Our parents must encourage us teens to see our synagogues as second homes rather than weekly chores.
Most importantly, we, as an evolving multi-generational Jewish world, must open our synagogue doors to the teens who feel excluded. We must transform synagogues from mere houses of worship to outlets for community building. Teens my age should not need to look outside their synagogues for social action opportunities, tutoring programs, inclusive youth groups, interfaith and Israel groups, or Saturday night movies. We should see our synagogues and the people in them as the rock that upholds our busy, volatile lives; we should see Jewish values being echoed in every aspect of our lives with the synagogue at the core.
Today, I hold the Conservative movement to this standard; I believe whole heartedly that we can create these sacred moments and places once again.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Judaism: A Wandering People No More

We have always been wandering. From deserts to overpopulated cities, we, the Jewish people, have taken comfort in being nomadic in our journeys. Today, what should be considered mere recollections of our Biblical past now exaggeratedly defines our present and future: we have and will always wander the earth.

Somehow, this unsettles me.

Perhaps our motivation to constantly pack and repack our lives is rooted in our desire to find the “greener grass” in the world. Abraham’s first descendants were obligated to seek destinations with the freshest water and pastures in Canaan. Moses’ spies scouted new lands that seemed the most appealing and convenient to conquer. Settlers in Israel strive to build temporary homes for themselves in order to maintain the tiny triangle of Israel in the heart of the Middle East. Since the Biblical days of our faith, we have been encouraged to never settle for compromise. While our time in places may be ephemeral, our unremitting goal of finding the greatest potentials for success is eternal.

Perhaps we do not believe in the concept of a permanent home. Maybe our nomadic state of mind is derived from the faith we place in the “Olam Haba” or the world to come. There are many traditional Jews in the world who fervently believe that our final zip code will never be confirmed in this lifetime. When an American tourist visited Hofetz Chaim, a Polish rabbi, he came across a home less than humble with nothing other than books, a table and bench. “Rabbi, where is your furniture?” the American asked.

“Where is yours?” the rabbi responded nonchalantly.

The tourist, now confused, answered. “But I am only passing through.”

“So am I,” said Hofetz Chaim. “So am I.”

There are Jews in this world who see their every action as a contribution toward the next life that they will enter post death. There are Jews who detach from their homes and can flexibly move from place to place simply as a channel to prepare for a new world that has yet to arrive.

Despite the various reasons for which we have refrained from plant ourselves in any one location, our constant wandering has created a negative image for the rest of the world. Our lack of commitment to any one home implies that we would rather escape than involve ourselves with the issues that surround us. It implies that we are always running away from something rather than toward anything. For hundreds of years, we have resorted to being mere temporary citizens of the world, allowing our Judaism to keep us detached from any one place like the dilapidated luggage we carry. Today, in order to preserve Judaism in an ever-evolving world, our mindsets must change. We must confront the inexorable reality: we are no longer simply passing through.
In a world stricken with unjust poverty, turmoil, and strife, there is truly no time to wander in hopes of ignoring the present and finding a more convenient future. There is no current opportunity for a “next world” that will somehow expunge the pain from this one. Given the active presence of anti-Semitism and ignorance in some parts of the world, there is truly no way that we can continue to fickly appear and disappear into people’s lives. In a world where the presence of Judaism often competes with evolution and change, we cannot afford to wander away and be forgotten.

How can we, as a global Jewish community, eradicate this intergenerational impulse to wander? How can we ensure that our faith and its people will be fully present and permanent rather than nomadic and destructible?

Perhaps the underlying challenge is that we, to this day, are homeless. Our lack of home leaves us wandering in uncertainty, searching for places to secure our present and plant our future. Our ancestors sought new lands for more than the clean water and pastures; they were searching for an empty place to transform into a sacred space. Our first pioneers in Israel did not suffer through typhus and malaria for the tiny destination on the map, but rather for its potential of serving as a home for Jews who need it. Even today, Jews in suburban areas cluster together, aspiring to create the comfort of a home within an area where the pursuit of Judaism requires real effort. We, Jews, throughout our past and present, wander away from the potential of building a home for one another.

The solution, while seemingly simple, requires us to rely on our broader Jewish community. We must learn to create homes for ourselves. Rather than wandering elsewhere, we must strive to create dwelling places in our any given zip code. It is famously said [and sung] “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham” or “and they shall make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them” which describes the sanctuary that we will create in which God will dwell. Through these words comes with the realization that the idea of home is not given to us but rather created and strengthened by us. Dwelling places are not already built for us with their quirks and charm but rather with the open opportunity for us to fill them.

It is only when we choose to stop seeing our world for what it should be rather than for what is actually is will we be able to create a home. When we accept our current zip codes instead of wandering in an endless cycle, we will be able to create the sanctuary where God will feel inspired to enter. In the words of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, God can be found wherever we let God in.” God will dwell among us, grounded Jewish citizens of the world, once we are willing to call the four walls surrounding us a home. When we decide to park our moving trucks, take off our shoes, and place a welcome mat by the doors of our sanctuary. When we can look around us and ensure that every Jew--Biblical and modern, young and old, inside and outside of Israel, religious and passive—can feel welcome in the sanctuaries we create at all corners of the earth. And when that day finally comes, our days of wandering will be mere memory.

Holiness in All Things

Today, any headline bolded across the cover of any newspaper can remind us that we live in a world that is far from complacent. Any rally where parents and children alike still need to voice their hatred against gun violence reminds us that we are still far from achieving peace. Any prison that convicts and detains the falsely accused reminds us that this world is far from just. Any state with laws denying couples the right to marry one another reminds us that we are far from reaching love. And yet, despite these events that represent bigotry and senseless hatred in the most raw and hurtful forms, there is holiness.

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov [Besht], the founder and pursuer of Chassidism, emphasized that there is a spark of holiness dwelling within each and every person. During his time, the same conflicts we encounter today were disguised beneath different names, yet somehow this rebbe fervently viewed each person as internally holding an aspect of the Divine, one that we must cherish.

On one Yom Kippur morning, an illiterate shepherd child entered The Baal Shem Tov’s shul. Enamored by the spirit inside the sanctuary filled with devout Jews, the young boy wanted nothing more than to connect to God alongside them but could not connect to the prayer language from outside his own farm. Having been surrounded by only animals, the boy desperately cried out the only words he knew: “cock-a-doodle-do!” The Baal Shem Tov embraced this shepherd, claiming that his presence and intention opened the gates of heaven. The Besht overlooked the boy’s unusual jargon and instead reached for the spark of holiness dwelling inside of him. The Baal Shem Tov recognized the holiness that outshone their differences.

In this world of over seven billion people, The Baal Shem Tov can find seven billion sparks of holiness, each illuminating a world of injustice and strife. Sometimes, that holiness can be discovered in the midst of unspeakable terror. In 1941, Michael Stolowicki was a three-year old orphan whose mother died from the harsh conditions that accompanied the refugees escaping the Holocaust. Rather than being left to join the millions of victims in the concentration camps, Michael was saved by his non-Jewish nanny. Gertruda Babilinska protected this young Jewish boy as her own child, risking her life to feed him and cure his illnesses. Outside their tiny window in Vilna, Jews were rounded up and killed instantly. Babilinska lived off of meek rations of bread and her spark of holiness, raising a Jewish child in the shadow of death.

According to the Baal Shem Tov, a person’s spark of holiness can be multiplied, divided, and shared. The shepherd boy in Eastern Europe inspired an entire congregation with his commitment to personal prayer. Michael Stolowicki grew to pursue the same compassion for others as his nanny offered to him. One person’s spark of holiness has the opportunity to illuminate the entire world.

Unfortunately, it still takes great tragedy to recognize the simple holiness in a person. It takes a holocaust to meet Gertruda Babilinska, a widespread vote against marriage to meet an LGBT activist, and, perhaps worst of all, a school shooting to meet a pure-hearted parent. While it is not in our control to prevent these painful events from existing in life, it must be our obligation to recognize and kindle the spark of holiness that dwells in each person—before an act of suffering exposes it for us.

In an ever-evolving religion, the essence of our Judaism remains eternal: we must find, embrace, and pursue holiness. Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR states “it is about praying, singing, crying, and working with all our hearts to bring holiness into our world. It is about seeing every person, in every generation, as a potential agent of transformation.” You, me, and all things in between are agents of transformation, planters of a world far higher and holier than what we see today.

From our rebbes, nannies, activists, and parents of all ages, we see that every person can be an asset to creating a world of holiness. However, it is what we choose to do with the sparks within us that determines how we will impact this world. We can discover holiness within arm’s reach—but it is where your hands will then go that takes the sparks to new heights. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Timeless Rebbe

Each day in 18th century Medzhybizh, Poland was an opportunity for you to be transformed. Every day held the potential to be spiritually rejuvenating, challenging, and nourishing. In a world without smart phones or social media, there was only one “attraction” that invited travelers from near and far. There was only one way to be uplifted by the most raw and pure form of enlightenment that was worth any distance. Each day in Poland was a chance to learn and realign life goals in the presence of Israel Baal Shem Tov, the rebbe of all rebbes.

Today, our image of a Chassidic “rebbe” is most likely limited to a bearded old man, hunched over a stack of dusty books. We instantly think of the picture of Rebbe Schneerson glued to Chabad Mitzvah trucks, parading up and down the streets of Manhattan. When we think of a rebbe, many of us cringe and assume that the face of an aging teacher implies orthodoxy and tradition that will remain forever stationary in time. While many of the rebbes today do in fact match the visual stereotype, the knowledge and spirit they carry are boundless. Today, Chassidism is no longer a denomination that remains in Borough Park; it’s a philosophy and path of faith that can be shared in communities of any size. The rebbes, then and now, are the leaders of the soulful Judaism that we yearn for at Romemu and beyond. Perhaps the concept of this Chassidic leader or the rebbe today can be explored and expanded to new faces.

The rebbes we hear and see all share some common ground. Firstly, they are all students and disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism. Men in the 18th century would travel through cities to learn from their leader, then would relay the information they gain back to their own communities, forming what is known today as different Chassidic dynasties, each varied by slight nuances in ideology. Despite the differences in learning or culture, however, every student, old and new alike, of the Baal Shem Tov would agree that a rebbe is viewed in an entirely different light than anyone else.

The rebbe, also known as “admor,” is not a function, but rather an integral role in the community. A Chassidic master must have sacred relationships with his students and be somehow affiliated to his first teacher, the Baal Shem Tov. Besides these standards, however, the rebbe is cherished for his unique ability to shape the lives of others. While a rabbi today teaches congregants blessings in order to educate them, the rebbe gives blessings and can change the course of people’s lives. A rabbi is conferred with his title from institutions, but a rebbe is given his title by other people. A rabbi teaches us about Judaism, while a rebbe teaches us about the soul and its journeys. A rabbi provides us with information, but a rebbe assists our encounters with transformation. Given the strong and personal impact a rebbe plays on a person’s life, it must seem sensible to some that there aren’t any new stereotypes of rebbes in other Jewish denominations, or even in other faiths. But not to me.

I believe that each of us, both inside and outside of the community, has the potential to provide people with transformation. There is nothing hindering us from blessing the people around us. There need not be anything restricting us from offering words from our hearts that may change the lives of our loved ones. While there are no self-proclaimed rabbinic figures, we each have the ability to constantly create and recreate our souls and grow together. We could all, in fact, be the rebbes of our generation.

In 18th century Poland, the image of the rebbe is limited. In today’s world, the opportunities to impact the souls of others are endless.We could shed a light to American Jewry and strengthen our relationships with those that follow our lead; we could display the very essence of a charismatic rebbe in our every action. We need not grow beards or reside in the Chassidic neighborhoods of Europe; we simply must be the rebbes that can see through the defensive exteriors of others and rejuvenate our souls.

Each day in New York City, or anywhere you may find yourself in life, is an opportunity for you to be transformed. 

The Angels in Our Midst

         B'shem Hashem, elohei Yisrael
        B'ymini Michael u-smoli Gavriel
        U-milfanai Uriel, me'acharai Raphael
        V'al roshi, v'al roshi, Shechinat-El

This song, also known as Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s “Angel Song,” unifies Jews from every corner of the world. The simple words are chanted into a beautiful chorus of harmonies and melodies that invite the immanent presence of God into any room. Usually sung either during Shabbat or before sleeping, this prayer seeks protection as we complete our phases of creation and stress and transcend to a world of stillness and tranquility. Most importantly, however, this “Angel Song” serves as our global Jewish compass, steered by the various angels in our midst.

With four angels leading us in each direction, we encounter four unique qualities that embody God. The first two angels, Michael and Gabriel, sit at our right and left respectively and are Biblical; the last two angels, Uriel and Raphael, sit before and behind us respectively and are derived from the early foundation of Rabbinic Judaism. All together, these four angels provide the blanket of security over our fears, the protective layer over our faith that allows us to store away our doubts.

On our right sits Michael, known in Biblical history as the “archangel” who defeated evil and acts of injustice. Today, we refer to Michael as the angel of mercy, the one who constantly improves our right hand and advocates on our behalf. According to a Midrash, Michael, meaning “Who is like God” was the angel that prevented Abraham from sacrificing his only son and stood beside Moshe after his death, unwilling to take his soul and accept the death of a leader. Powerful and determined, Michael is the right hand we need when we cannot fight injustice alone. Michael is the right arm of Moshe, Miriam, Dr. King, and Mother Theresa. Michael is perhaps our wake up call when our arms are not being used to make this world a safer and more just place.

Lingering on our left side is Gabriel, whose name means “God is my strength.” Gabriel is considered the defender of the Jewish people, the executer of all judgments. Perhaps it is through Gabriel that we learn the pivotal value of resistance that we need during the times we feel spiritually threatened. Represented by fire, this angel is the force of strength and judgment that destroyed a city tainted by its sins and corruption in order to defend the world. Gabriel is the inner fire that enables us to defend the defenseless, to uphold the weak. Gabriel is the fire that complements Michael, the angel of mercy, motivating us to resist injustice for the sake of others and for a better world. Without fire, there would be no change. Without resistance, we would live a life of indifference, which is and forever would be the greatest tragedy of all. Gabriel is the fire within us that serves as constant reminder that we, Jews and non-Jews alike, are responsible for creating a different world, not a world of indifference.

In front of us lies Uriel, the angel of light. While the Bible, Talmud, and all other Jewish sources could surely explain every meaning behind the purpose of light, I only see it as serving one purpose: the illuminate the darkness that envelopes us. Darkness and lightness, both Divinely created, are somehow the two most humanly controlled concepts that exist today. We are so quick to leave a room of darkness for the next person instead of lighting even the dimmest candle of hope. Not only are we obligated to be “Or LaGoyim,” or the light to the other nations, but we must also be the light for another. The phases of darkness that enter our lives will only amplify and overpower us if we allow them to do so; with the guidance of Uriel, we can look in front of us to see darkness defeated by the light we create together during the most challenging of times.

Behind us is Raphael, the angel of healing, the angel that absorbs our deepest pains, diseases, and despair. Raphael, like most medications today, is not the cure for our pain but rather the guarantee that we are not alone in the healing process. Moreover, perhaps as Raphael isolates our illnesses and weaknesses behind us, he allows our gradual healing to surround our every direction and eventually provide us with a new light before our eyes, or Uriel. It takes the deepest pain to recognize the unremitting power of healing, no matter how long it may take. It is the healing guidance of Raphael that will allow us to eventually leave the pain and sorrow of the tragedies in Newtown, Connecticut and Colorado behind us and slowly begin to heal until we see the light once again. The shock of death will remain behind us in the arms of an angel, but the warmth of healing is in the arms and legs of our community

Trough the words of one Shlomo Carlebach prayer, we can point our actions toward distinct directions. We can create a moral Jewish compass that inspires us to follow in the footsteps of our angels. And of course, in between those four pathways and above our heads, the presence of God [Shechinat-El] will dwell

Friday, January 18, 2013

Prayer: A Process Grounded in Community

Three steps forward, three steps back. Bow to the left, right, center. Raise heels three times.

These seemingly simply instructions have guided the way I pray since I was nine years old. My Israeli teachers distributed our oversized and unfamiliar red Siddurim to my third grade class and called out the motions with the turn of each page. Our forty-five minute tefillah services every Monday enabled my nine-year old friends and I to hear the constant directions of where our feet must go and regurgitate the actions blindly. This process repeated until I turned fifteen.

As ever evolving Jewish people, we somehow feel that it is acceptable to undergo drastic changes in order to remain relevant in today’s world. Many synagogues have considered and pursued egalitarianism and ordain female clergy. Others serve cheeseburgers at Kiddush luncheons and do away with yarmulkes and tefillin. Some communities endorse the revolutionaries of our time by wearing rainbow and intertwining the Beatles music into every holiday that promotes freedom. Yet, somehow, in spite of all the radical changes and ideas that rabbinic Judaism has encountered since its formation, prayer is the one prevalent concept that may never be eradicated.

Prayer, derived from the Latin term “to beg,” is a fundamental value of our faith today. For hundreds of years, Jews across the globe have congregated to recognize, praise and communicate with a higher theological being. Depending on the denomination and synagogue, some congregations of Jews sit separately by gender, vehemently uttering every word in their siddurim. Other communities take more liberal approaches, beating tambourines and dancing in circles while wearing a multitude of colors. While the styles and structures may differ, prayer unties congregations as they grow together. One cannot help but watch in awe as a room filled with faithful people, regardless of background or religion, springs into life. For an outsider looking into a community, prayer is truly beautiful. For the nine-year old who is handed a book of foreign words and given bizarre body movements to emulate, prayer is perhaps a work in progress.

By the age of fifteen, I began to glimpse at the English words to which I was bouncing my heels. I realized that already in the first prayer, Birkot HaShachar, I was praising a God who “gives sight to the blind,” “clothes the naked,” and “makes me in His image,” yet just outside my own front door lies blindness to others, or intolerance, homelessness, and despair. This prayer compelled introspection, too, as I looked at myself and questioned if I was really living in the image that was created for me, or if that was even a good thing. As time progressed, prayer became more of a double standard: I would praise God when I accomplished a goal that I prayed for, and blamed myself when it failed miserably. While the motions I learned since I was nine years old remained consistent—I knew when to click my heels and bow—the liturgy and meaning left me confused and alone, grappling with my faith at large.

It was during my Gesher summer at Camp Ramah Darom when I learned the core values of prayer that I will pursue for the rest of my life. One of our teachers, Rabbi Hillel Nuri, stressed the importance of praying with others, constantly staying connected to others through each prayer. Through all tragedies or joys in life, we must preserve the communities we create by the words of our prayers; “faith cannot be separated from community.” The words, whether translated in English or read in its original Hebrew form, in our siddur must not leave us feeling isolated but rather united. Our feelings toward liturgy, no matter what they are, are perfectly normal and acceptable; it is our actions that follow that define our path in Judaism. We can either remain hidden beneath our anger and confusion, or share our struggle with those around us. Perhaps that is why we are required to pray in minyan or quorum of ten people; no one should ever experience faith alone.

While Judaism may constantly evolve, prayer is everlasting. Looking back, I’ve come to realize that in order to struggle and grapple with the liturgy of the prayers we recite as a nation, I needed to learn the basic motions. While we may not have all the answers to the questions that accompany our quests for understanding, we have something more powerful and indestructible: the warmth and support of our community.

So until I master the work in progress that is Jewish prayer, I will continue with the cycle that began with my oversized red siddur.

Three steps forward, three steps back. 

Embracing Pluralism

Here I am, sitting silently amongst the tension. I watch in awe, somewhere in the middle or off center-left, as my new friends defend their various Jewish backgrounds on a casual Saturday night in Tzfat, Israel. 

“My father, an Orthodox rabbi, would never officiate at a wedding for an intermarried couple, unless, of course, the spouse had converted. Halacha, or Jewish law, must always come first,” says a modern Orthodox girl on my left.

“But my mother, a Catholic, never converted,” argues a liberal Reform Jew to my right. “In my Reform community, I am still considered Jewish despite the intermarriage between my parents! In fact, without an intermarriage, I would not even be here today.”

Just six months ago, I never would have imagined that I’d somehow be struggling with the question of interfaith and its impact on Judaism with all different kinds of Jews surrounding me. In a pluralistic setting that we, twenty-six American Jewish teenagers, had created over the summer in Israel, it suddenly felt acceptable to cross the sensitive boundaries that divided us in our individual walks of faith. Will we allow our separate denominations, I wonder, to expunge our newly formed friendships? Will our different community affiliations destroy the sacred space we’ve created for spiritual growth?

One year earlier, the world of Jewish pluralism had barely entered my realm of thinking. Growing up in a Conservative Jewish sheltered bubble through both synagogue and Camp Ramah, I never considered the idea that the “other” Jews who existed around the world particularly cared about what I believed. I simply believed, like many American Jews today, that sects of Judaism were structured into a scale with Orthodoxy titled as the “most religious” and Reform as the “least Jewish” of them all, for reasons that I can no longer understand today. For years, I secured my place on this scale of American Judaism with the ignorant awareness that some denominations were placed at higher and lower levels, but I refused to ever explore these other communities. Besides, if non-Conservative Jews distanced themselves from my lifestyle, then what could I possibly learn from them?

It was during my last summer at Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, GA, when I learned about the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a Jewish high school program that would later open my eyes to the perspectives of other Jewish denominations and shape my pluralistic view of Judaism. In early June 2011, a friend in my age group had drowned while we were rafting down the Ocoee River in Southern Tennessee. He was rushed to a local hospital where he passed away that afternoon, leaving my entire camp and community in a shock and utter grief. This tragedy inspired me to question theology and Conservative ideologies beyond the mandatory lectures throughout the week. Unsettled by the limited opportunities for spiritual introspection during the day, I attempted to explore my faith at night alongside my friends, who, understandably, wanted no involvement. It seemed sensible that, after overcoming a ten-day mourning period at camp, my friends did not need to hear phrases such as “How could God let this happen?” or “the Conservative movement has struggled with death and dying for years” anymore. My curiosity toward Judaism, text studying, and spiritual growth only burgeoned as the summer continued, but my social circle was taking a faith break. As a result, I was nicknamed “little rabbi” and “super Jew,” names that seemed to justify my constant desire to debate God’s omniscience with the first person I saw. I wondered if I would ever be fortunate enough to find a community of Jewish seekers with whom I could explore my own Jewish path. Throughout the emotional whirlwind of a summer, I simply wanted to unravel the rudiments of my Judaism and analyze their every aspect.

During my last week of camp, a counselor pulled me aside and provided me with information that marked a new direction to my post-Ramah junior year. She simply looked at me and said, “There are people out there who are like you. They’re applying to a program called the Bronfman Youth Fellowship, a five-week program in Israel next summer. You really should check it out.”

Weeks later, the Bronfman website became my most frequently visited computer page. Unfamiliar terms such as “Jewish pluralism,” “Ma’aseh,” and “Edgar Bronfman” entered my daily realm of thinking. As the days progressed, I continued to learn more about this once nebulous yet intriguing Jewish program. This organization could somehow amalgamate twenty-six high school students from across the Jewish spectrum to learn together? Five weeks in Israel will be spent learning from some non-Conservative teachers? Fascinated by the idea of exploring Judaism through new perspectives, I felt motivated to expand my sheltered Jewish bubble. Three months into my academic year, I opened the summer application, realizing that I had found my future community.

Seven months, five essays, and two interviews later, I packed my suitcase and joined the twenty-sixth Bronfman class for five life-changing weeks in Israel. Would these random people be interested in starting vehement theological discussions at any hour of the night? Will any of them enjoy being challenged and passionate about their beliefs this summer? I anxiously (and perhaps creepily, too) eyed the circle of unique thinkers from across the country. Little did I know, these twenty-five other individuals would inspire nights of deep, endless conversations, reconstruct my view of Jewish denominationalism, and sharpen my faith with the experiences of their own.

While I had traveled to Israel with Jewish groups in the past, this journey was unique in infinite ways. I never imagined that I would find the opportunity to debate God’s omniscience while overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, learn Torah from acclaimed professors and rabbis while wearing Bedouin pants and a T-shirt, and become more comfortable with the idea of pluralism, a phrase that I had begun introducing to my Jewish vocabulary---all within the first week there. Once the first Shabbat as a community approached, I couldn’t help wondering if there was any scientific force on earth that could even attempt to drag me down back to reality.

As the weeks progressed, however, I faced some of the religious issues that our faculty had warned us to expect. Shabbat observances, levels of kashrut, and forms of modesty were tense topics that inspired hours of heated debate. A term like “more religious,” originally so common in my pre-Bronfman life, suddenly made me cringe when it was used to categorize the twenty-six of us rather than unite us. We defended our separate denominations in an attempt to secure the only Judaism we each knew, rather than looking at the incredible Jewish influences that surrounded us: each other. Striving to create a pluralistic community, we, in a sense, embodied both the strengths and flaws of our own denominations, allowing these titles to box us into different categories. Ultimately, that is how most Jews identify themselves today—through the offered boxes left for us to “check.” I learned over the course of five weeks in Israel, however, that the boxes themselves have become the issue in American Judaism today.

Unlike the radical thinkers who endorse the concept of post-denominational Judaism or “Judaism with no prefix,” I have come to value different Jewish denominations, the communities that ensue from them, and the traditions that make each one unique. Since post-denominational Judaism has evolved into a denomination of its own, I believe in the idea of “experimental” Judaism instead, a Judaism that encourages others to explore all denominations and integrate themselves into different communities.  People, myself once included, have the tendency to commit to one community both physically and mentally, almost entirely for security. This association, however, prevents us from exploring and experimenting with our individual walks of Jewish life and ultimately creating pluralism. This summer, our pluralism was not a reflection of our agreements and shared conclusions, but rather our willingness to grow from every perspective and opinion we encountered. Our pluralism was defined by our ability to unite, talk, struggle, and laugh together despite our different walks of life that diverge Jewish communities on a daily basis. Most importantly, however, our pluralism marked an incredible feat in our generation of American Judaism: we, teens, jettisoned the walls of ignorance and fear that our ancestors built to insulate us. We embraced our differences and discovered beautiful commonalities through our experiments with the faith that divides so many people. to We live in a world where too many focus on the direct destinations of their Jewish life, rather than on the journeys themselves. There is myriad knowledge and warmth we can gain by visiting the synagogues or communities that emphasize different ways of being Jewish than what we’re accustomed to practicing.

From my one summer in Israel, I learned that it is truly impossible to experiment with faith unless you are willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Denominations are necessary in order to strengthen communities; however, tolerance and the ability to explore these denominations, is the most vital step to creating Jewish pluralism. From the countless conversations I witnessed among my Bronfman friends, I realized that pluralistic Judaism could exist. And through the friendships we created based on understanding and faith exploration, I realized something more: pluralism can thrive.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Reoccupy Judaism

In the midst of the various “Occupy” movements that emerge and disappear even more rapidly than Shabbatot in the winter, I tend to wonder if we as a global Jewish community are speaking as loudly and defiantly as we think we are.

Younger generations of Jews are propelling a “post-denominational” identity as a statement against organized religious denominations, synagogue obligations, and membership dues. They seek what Rabbi Elie Kaunfer calls “Empowered Judaism,” or the idea that they can create and strengthen a communal, meaningful, and sacred space bereft of any formidable membership related obligations. This movement of young Jewish independent thinkers intimidates their parents, grandparents, rabbis, and ritual committee chairs across the country that are rooted in the traditions and comforts of a formal synagogue experience. I think that there can be a middle ground between these two loud attempts to secure a meaningful Judaism in contemporary society. I think Judaism can be “reoccupied.”

While I do think that successful pluralism cannot be created when denominations define Jews, I do think that those labels are the stepping-stones that inspire us to form communities. It is when we become so consumed by those titles and statuses that we isolate ourselves from other movements and tear down all walls of tolerance. We defend our separate denominations as an attempt to secure the only Judaism we each know, rather than looking at the incredible Jewish influences that surround us. As an aspiring pluralistic Jewish world, we, in a sense, embody both the strengths and flaws of our own denominations, allowing these titles to box us into different categories. Ultimately, that is how most Jews associate themselves today—through the offered boxes left for us to “check.” I, however, feel the boxes themselves have become the issue in American Judaism today, for they limit us into thinking that there can only be one way to practice faith.

Unlike this new generation of post-denominationalists, or “Jews without prefixes,” I value different Jewish denominations, the communities that ensue from them and the traditions that make each one unique. Since post-denominational Judaism has evolved into a denomination of its own, I believe in the idea of “experimental” Judaism instead, a Judaism that encourages people to explore all denominations and integrate themselves into different communities.  People, myself once included, have the tendency to commit to one community both physically and mentally, almost by means of security. This association, however, prevents us from exploring and experimenting with our individual walks of Jewish life and ultimately creating pluralism. We live in a world where too many focus on the direct destinations of their Jewish life, rather than on the journeys themselves. There is myriad knowledge and warmth we can gain by visiting the synagogues or communities that emphasize different aspects of Judaism than what we’re accustomed to.

With these two existing Jewish movements today—one that maintains the traditional synagogue movement structure and another that strives to destruct it—we may never reach unity between generations. While denominations are what can ultimately unify us, it is our inability to broaden our view of community that makes them detrimental to Judaism today.  It is truly impossible to experiment with our Jewish identities unless we are willing to step outside of our comfort zones. Denominations are necessary in order to strengthen communities, however, tolerance and the ability to explore these movements are the most vital steps toward creating Jewish pluralism.

So rather than being independent Jews and avoiding the commitments of being members of our own faith, let’s simply expand the definition of membership. Let’s appreciate denominations that have helped Judaism thrive for all these years, but eradicate all our exclusivity and explore every community. Let’s experiment with the denominations of Judaism that we try to jettison and allow ourselves to grow and be inspired. Let’s, if we may, reoccupy Judaism.