Tag Archives: rabbi

Where The Riches Are

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I took a bite of the steaming hot, four-cheese pasta I had ordered in mid-town Manhattan and nodded my head. Yes, I agreed with my friend sitting across from me, this was too delicious to be true. We were out for a girls lunch. A work/pleasure hybrid of a lunch break as my companion was evolving in her Judaism and wanted to talk about her next steps in learning and growth. She was pretty, composed, and very down-to-earth. I had liked her the minute we met weeks before at an outreach event I helped run in NYC. We were about the same age and instantly hit it off with easy conversation that balanced giggles with depth.

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A little background for the buildup. While I’m pretty grounded, I have this weird sixth sense and I believe that I see people’s auras…just a little bit. Just sometimes. The color, the energy. It doesn’t happen often but I have experienced the phenomenon. (Oy. If I’ve freaked you out and you want to stop reading, I totally get it.) Once, many years ago, I told my roommate in school that a black energy appeared to be radiating from her. The words tumbled out of my mouth and I realized mid-stream how strange and offensive they sounded. She got very quiet but spoke after a few moments. “I was institutionalized”.  Then quiet again. Gulp. I wasn’t prepared for that. Since then, I’m more cautious about sharing my observations though I still get into trouble occasionally.

I share this with you because I felt I really had a grasp on my lunch date’s energy. She was admirably calm. She was patient and it was as if nothing could phase or stress her. She spoke deliberately and slowly; she paused before answering. She was like… a warm blue. (In contrast, I speak quickly and often kick myself mid-sentence for not filtering more. Over the years, I’ve conditioned myself to lock my jaw shut and pad my responses with “Can I process that and get back to you in the next couple of days?” I have yet to regret that answer and use it liberally to ensure that I am thoughtful and not rushed.) I digress but don’t worry, the bombshell is coming.

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So there we were, indulging in carbs, enjoying girl talk, speaking of personal development and lofty ideals when my friend cleared her throat. She wanted to confide in me about something from her past. Of course, I gladly obliged and assured her that my lips were sealed. Whatever she wanted to tell me surely wouldn’t shock me. I knew my friend was on her journey in spirituality and connection to Judaism. It was clear that she hadn’t been particularly sheltered though she came from a solid family and a good home. Whatever was in her past couldn’t be so bad.

Then, with her reflective, collected disposition, she described how she became addicted to cocaine and battled to stay clean. She had a stint in rehab and was a real ‘mess’ (her word) through college. I used up every bit of control I had to show no signs of shock. I knew addiction existed and I had met addicts before but her? I just couldn’t reconcile it. How could this composed, even sophisticated, soft-spoken young woman have such a dark, out of control side? I thought to myself, maybe I don’t know her that well. Perhaps she was unstable? Could it be?

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“I hope I haven’t changed the way you look at me”, she said. I vigorously shook my head and worked hard to convince both of us that she hadn’t. As I walked to the subway from the restaurant, I reminded myself that an addiction shouldn’t define a person and that her future wasn’t hinged on her past.

Fortunately, my friend didn’t vanish from my life. We actually grew closer and stayed in touch for many years. I absolutely adore her and she has taught me a lot about how complex human beings truly are. Looking back, I so admire her confidence that day. She fully accepted herself and felt comfortable to talk about choices that would bring most people shame. Since then, she’s married and had many children. I wonder if she would tell anyone what she told me all those years ago but it doesn’t matter. She has a depth of self-acceptance that most of us would and should envy. Perhaps hitting rock bottom and having to climb out of that pit builds self-acceptance.

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Fast forward ten years to the opposite scenario. I was working on campus and had developed a relationship with one of our students. She was a sorority girl who would do coffee with me from time to time. She joined our weekly learning program. Her etiquette was always on point. Based on her Facebook profile, she seemed to have an exciting party life but never spoke of it to me. I always had the sense that she was holding back in the hopes of making a good impression.

One day, after about a year, she and I met at the Starbucks on campus. I could see she was going through something but didn’t want to share. In the hopes of convincing her of the importance of vulnerability, I said to her, “Y’know…you don’t have to be perfect all the time. That must be really draining.” She started crying despite valiant efforts of staying composed. Suddenly, she was mortified that she had dropped her guard, apologized profusely, and excused herself. This poor young woman really wanted to reach out, she spent so much energy acting like everything was okay, and she just couldn’t make peace with herself. She couldn’t accept that she was flawed, like the rest of us.

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I’ve quoted this line before but it bears repeating. My very favorite verse of all time from the Torah is one pertaining to offerings. While I can’t say all laws of korbanos (ritual offerings) are my favorite area of Judaism to explore, this particular point is so profound that (even) I cling on to it. All meal offerings, the Torah demands, must be offered with salt and not honey or yeast (Vayikra 2:11-2:13). Yeast inflates and honey sweetens. G-d doesn’t need us to offer falsely inflated or sweetened versions of our true selves. Rather, we are required to use salt, something that brings out the natural flavors and preserves. (Rabbi Mordechai Gifter)

What a gift. G-d, who is perfect by definition, is requiring us to be as we were created. Flawed. Broken. Vulnerable. Makes sense. After all, He created us that way. But why?? Why can’t we achieve perfection? Why can’t I love myself…once I’m perfect?

The whole point of this life, the one that begins the moment we are born and ends the moment we die is our quest for correction, our journey to perfection. I’m awed by people who try to make an impact and be an “influencer” under the guise of perfection. I have no desire to emulate that. I want to embrace this life, accept every part of myself, and understand that the creased, bent, and fractured pieces are where the riches are.

Into the Fog

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I remember my friend being jealous of me at 19 which was fair. She called me lucky and I was. I had figured myself out; what direction I wanted my life to go. I knew that I wanted to reach out to other Jews as a career. I knew I wanted to raise a religious Jewish family. My friend, on the other hand, wasn’t sure of what she wanted or who she was. Come to think of it, I had been blessed with complete clarity from a very young age. I knew for certain at 12 of who I wanted to be at 24. I made decisions at 14 that were based on goals for my 18 year old self.

Imagine my surprise to wake up at 30 in a fog. That’s what I feel I have been walking around in for the past year. A haze of thoughts, circumstances, and postponed decisions circling me and for the first time since I can remember, I lack the certainty I’ve always taken for granted. We’re supposed to ask ourselves what God wants from us given the situations we’re presented. Want to know what happens when you ask yourself the same question over and over again? Disconnection from the original question. A white noise whitewashing any hint of my inner voice.

Ironically, I’m jealous of myself at 19 too. Where did that assured girl go? The unadulterated idealism that wasn’t shadowed by responsibility and practicality? It’s as though someone put a thick pair of glasses over my eyes when I could see just fine before. Or maybe someone just took my much needed pair of glasses off.

There is an upside. I’ve learned to live in the moment. It’s the only way to be happy. If I find myself  contemplating the future, I remind myself that worry and stress is counterproductive. So now I just push (shove) thoughts of the future out of my mind. I look around at my wonderful family, my nice -rented- condo, the food in my fridge, my health and the health of those I love. But what if I can’t feed my family tomorrow? What if I can’t afford to pay next month’s rent? These questions are monsters hiding under my bed. They only exist in my mind.

There’s another upside. I’ve also learned that if I turn outward, if I refocus my attention toward people in need (emotionally or otherwise), I stop feeding my negative thoughts. There’s no space for self-absorbed negativity when you are put in the position of being someone else’s cheerleader.

I’m in a fog about many things but of one thing I’m crystal clear: Life is for living and living well. We only get one chance to live this life the way we think best and I’d much rather soak up my blessings than panic that they’ll disappear tomorrow. This silver lining is my lifeboat as I wade through the fog.

God’s PR People

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I’m friends with professionals who are in Judaism’s marketing department. They are synagogue leaders, teachers, non-profit directors, counselors, rabbis, rebbetzins, youth group advisers, and the list goes on.

My question is this: Is custom packaging Judaism for any given audience wrong?

I am confident that enriching and expanding the Jewish community is a good thing. My question is one of parameters.

It seems that Judaism – and the Torah specifically- should be enough. The wisdom is rich and relevant. The values are clearly for the good of the people. Why should the Torah need PR?

On the other hand, those said values and guidelines have an image. Like it or not. When any given person thinks about living a Jewish life, a picture is conjured up. A picture also comes to mind when considering the G-word for that matter (rhymes with cod).

For some, God is Santa and He needs to hand out presents to us so we know we’re loved.  For others, God is a deadbeat dad who created a world and walked away. Worse yet, God is a sadist who takes pleasure in the world’s clashes and suffering.

So too with Torah Judaism. Picture Judaism. (I’ll give you a minute…) Did  you think of a faceless old rabbi with a silver long beard and dusty black hat sitting in a stuffy room hunched over a book?

Surely our definitions of God and Torah Judaism needs reworking.

Obviously Judaism isn’t just for the old Torah scholar. Judaism is for all of us.

Packaging God and Judaism has already been done by every single one of us. Every Jew who’s spent two minutes thinking about his/her own heritage.

Not only is it right to repackage Judaism and God, it is necessary since there are so many distorted images already out there. In order for us all to be great Jewish leaders (which would be ideal), we need to have a mature grasp on what God and the Torah is really all about.

That way, we fully understand the content to ensure it’s not manipulated. The message must always stay intact. But the packaging? That’s up for grabs.

How Madonna and College Girls Are Ruining Feminism

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I’m a die-hard feminist. Have been since I can remember. There was really no choice since adults always described me as “feisty” and “outspoken”. When we’d have company over as a kid, I’d usually sit on the men’s side of the table to discuss current events and ideas (as opposed to recipes and diapers- sorry ladies!). Maybe if authority figures noticed any shred of deference or submissiveness, my life would have taken a different track. But I doubt it.

Let’s define our terms. What is feminism? I think it’s generally understood to mean the desire to have equal rights and treatment to men. Also, an acknowledgement that women are as good, smart, strong, and capable as men. Lastly, women are equal to men.

I’m not a feminist under those conditions. Judaism recognizes women as having incredible power and abilities but are different than men. We look different – I don’t think I need to draw you a picture. We sound different- men’s voices are generally lower in pitch and women’s are generally higher in pitch. We usually make decisions differently (see Myers-Briggs for evidence). We typically excel in different areas of study. Notice all my qualifiers: “usually”, “typically”, “generally”.

Turning a blind eye to these vast differences is the ultimate slap in the face to our gender.

I don’t even think the words “equal”, “better”, or “worse” should be used in a conversation about women and men because of our extensive differences. Would we use those adjectives to discuss giraffes and elephants?

In my opinion (like all things you’ll find here), the newest wave of American feminism was led by Madonna (her 80’s version- not current day). I was at a laundromat the other day and I saw an interview with Madonna from the 80s where she declared that she didn’t care that people had a problem with her being so sexual. She was “taking back control” of her sexuality. That’s why she was dressing in black leather with plenty skin exposed, in seductive poses, with a long blond ponytail, and a cone-shaped chest. Here’s the thing. If she didn’t claim that she was in control, we might think that it was the men controlling her and Madonna creating an image of male fantasy. Beyonce is considered to be a feminist with you-go-girl songs but her videos tell a different story.

It’s difficult to determine just who is in control, after all. When the sorority girls use Halloween to dress up like a Playboy bunnies, can we really say that they’re “in control” of their sexuality? Or are they, like Madonna, dressing like pin-up girls to gain male (and female) attention? Was Marilyn Monroe a feminist or was she objectifying women by just being a physical object to be lusted?

When I gave a series of classes on modesty to a group of co-ed college students, I was fascinated with the reactions I got. The girls just didn’t seem to care about feminism (secular definition). When the boys saw how little the girls cared, they gave up answering my questions with what they thought would impress the girls. They – the girls and boys- unanimously agreed that cat calls and whistles was in no way demeaning to women. Many of them agreed it was a compliment and would be pleased for their mothers or sisters to be on the receiving end.

Ultimately, Judaism’s view on women and modesty appealed to most of them because it’s so much more rational than this new definition of female power. Women are to be treated with respect, like queens, for their innate worth. A woman’s physical appearance is a beautiful shell but pales in comparison with the beauty of her mind, heart, and deeds.

I hope my boys grow up valuing women for their internal worth and not just their physical appearance. Sadly, this generation’s college girls are following in the footsteps of Madonna and true feminism has taken an enormous step backwards.

Cut My Life Into Pieces

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How can Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits shlita be in the same article as Papa Roach?

I’ve decided that imperfection is the great equalizer for humanity. Not one of us is perfect. So it is. If you cut my life into pieces, you’d see disjointed roles, relationships, and goals. I’m teaching, mothering, trying to build up two personal work projects, support my husband with his schooling and a small business plan of his own. The common thread that ties these pieces together is that I’m one person with the same strengths, weaknesses, dreams, challenges, values and temptations. When I begin to feel overwhelmed by my responsibilities, I remind myself of the message my husband’s rebbe, Rabbi Berkovits, lives and teaches over and over and over…

Are you ready for the message?

This is the big secret your kiruv (Jewish outreach) rabbi isn’t telling you.

😉

We’re all here to attain greatness. Slowly, brick by brick, we are here to become great people. Dignified, honest, disciplined, generous individuals creating happy, refined families and developing thriving, vibrant Jewish communities. In that order.

When I attended Rabbi Berkovits’ classes in Israel every week during my husband’s fellowship at the Jerusalem Kollel, the lesson never changed. Somehow, though, it sounded different, taking on the shape of the area we discussed. How does one prepare for each holiday physically and spiritually? What constitutes dignified speech, behavior, and appearance for Jewish leaders? What does it mean to be a truly GREAT person as defined by the Torah (given all our limitations and weaknesses)?

From the age of 13 when I got my Alanis Morisette audio cassette, I realized on some level that we enjoy wallowing in our feelings. We’re all fortunate enough to be incredibly self-indulgent and just sink into the pit of anger, depression, frustration, or disappointment we carve out for ourselves. It’s interesting that seniors and teenagers have the highest incidence of depression. Do you know there are more deaths from suicide than homicide each year? We statistically hate ourselves more than anyone else. Or we just hate our lives. Isn’t that the same thing?

Let’s not get super heavy. Suffice it to say, the Torah outlook on what drives us to get up each day and live our lives no matter who, what, where, or when is the universal obligation to recreate ourselves each day into our absolute best selves.

Papa Roach, allow me fulfill your wish: You’re fine. This article is named after a song that glorifies toying with suicide; I’d like to propose a different interpretation. “Cut my life into pieces.” Break down our lives, every moment spent, every dollar, every exchange.  “This is my last resort.” We have to be determined. It’s life or death. We’re either zombies, just surviving, looking forward to the next nap, movie, drug, distraction, or escape of choice. Or we’re living. Relishing and cherishing the effort we make to improve ourselves, the attempts, the falls, the fails, the fruits of our labor. These are the real joys and the point of life.

We’re on the Eve of Destruction

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Today marked the end of my winter break and the six month anniversary since we left our Kiruv (Jewish Outreach) jobs in Los Angeles to start anew in San Diego. These are the two reasons why today should have been tough but thankfully I succeeded in shoving those pesky thoughts into the back of my mind so I could soak up the sun and enjoy ice cream, the beach, and a playground with my kiddies. It’s funny how in 2014 (!) Americans who are going through difficult financial times can still enjoy luxuries like cell phones and Starbucks. We stress about the future but when I take a second to look around at the here-and-now, I see we have it good. Still, many moments I’m not plugged into such present-mindedness and I worry.

Sometimes my husband and I lose our patience while waiting for The Answers. In case you don’t know, here are The Questions:

  1. Will he find a job?
  2. When?
  3. What?
  4. Where?
  5. Will he like it?
  6. Will it like him?
  7. Will it support us?

When we hit boiling point- when we feel like we’re on the eve of destruction– we brainstorm. My husband predictably mentions creating our own small business and buying a lottery ticket. I predictably suggest starting our own non-profit. Somehow by the time the kids are in bed for the evening, the momentum is lost and we apply for a few more jobs online, shoot out a couple emails, and call it a productive night.

While doing something dramatic to rescue us quickly from a panic is tempting, the small consistent effort we invest has to amount to something…right? Well, we’ll keep on trucking. Maybe a virtual fairy godmother will read this and pluck us out of our maze with a tweet, link, text, email, or status update that solves everything. Meantime, I’m hittin’ the hay to wake up for work tomorrow- a job that ends in June- gulp. Torah wisdom tell us that “salvation comes in the blink of an eye” and we learn from this to never despair in the face of imminent destruction. While it’s tempting to allow negative thoughts to creep in, particularly on a day like today, I have faith redemption is around the corner.

Going to Mass on Christmas Eve with the Kids

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It’s the source of jokes and marketing campaigns. From theaters to amusement parks and many venues in between, the age-old question that haunts many devoted Jews this time of year: What should we do Christmas Day? Many plan to eat “Moo Shu Jew”- that is, eat at the best local kosher Chinese restaurant. One thing is for sure, Chanukah is over so there’s no chance we can piggyback on the commercial blow-out that shadows Christmas to exploit Chanukah. A good thing. Well, I haven’t quite figured where I’ll be on December 25 but the good news is I know where I’ll be Christmas Eve- where every good rebbetzin should be- church!

It started with a phone call from a local church asking for help from the rebbetzin of my shul. Christmas eve is the one time of year when everyone wants to go to Mass which makes finding group leaders for children’s groups very difficult. Would the rebbetzin of my shul come and help supervise the church’s youth group? To be clear, there would be no religious overtones with the kids- only games and toys but still, this all takes place on the church’s property and facilitates the members to attend Mass without disruption. This poses at least a couple interesting questions. First, is going to church permissible according to halacha (Torah law)? Second, is this something a Jewish person should do or want to do? The rabbi (her husband) agreed that as long as she doesn’t enter the sanctuary, there would be no problem with going inside the building that hosts youth programs. As for question two? The rebbetzin empathized with a fellow community leader’s struggle to locate reliable people to help with childcare and wanted to help. Additionally, she felt that it was appropriate from the standpoint of derech eretz (acting with consideration for others). Obviously this is an out-of-the-box perspective….which I admire.

I don’t know if I would have stepped up had I received that phone call myself, but last Thursday the rebbetzin told me she had an unusual request. She had just heard the good news that her daughter-in-law gave birth to her second baby and she wanted to book her ticket to Arizona when she realized she had a scheduling conflict. She was supposed to go to church on Christmas Eve here in San Diego. Would I fill in for her? This is a woman who serves the Jewish community of San Diego in a myriad of ways so there’s no way I’m not going to oblige if I’m able. So yes, I said yes. But what came so naturally to her, to help out the church doesn’t come naturally to me and I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind since I was asked. I’m bringing my children with me which adds another layer of complexity as I try to delicately explain Christmas, church, and Jesus to my very young boys who seem to be taking this all rather well. It’s going to feel strange walking into that church tomorrow evening but despite my uneasiness I’m really proud of representing the Jewish people to the Christian community 

The Conference

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Thank you kindly for reading this and being so supportive- it has encouraged me to share with you more and I hope it helps the reader as much as it’s helping the writer.

This year, I didn’t get to go to The Conference. The picture above is from last year- I’m the brunette in purple on the right but we all look alike 😉 The Conference I’m referring to is the annual conference held in Baltimore for WIK (Women In Kiruv — Kiruv is Jewish outreach). Obviously, I’m no longer a Woman In Kiruv so I miss The Conference this year. And boy do I miss it. Last year, I met so many other women in community and campus outreach, connected with a few new ladies, caught up with a few old ones, shared and received ideas to improve every aspect of the job, and argued over what expectations are and what they ought to be. Like I said, the WIK Conference last year was amazing.

Here’s an example of a topic that was discussed- but there were so many. It was the first (and only) time I’ve left my young children for a couple nights and I came back floating! Listening to experts in the field generously share their experiences, hearing other women from around the world who all but live my life, being part of the idealistic out-to-better-the-world club of Women In Kiruv was a dream come true and all the more difficult not to return this year.

Luckily, I am teaching Jewish Studies to first graders and seventh grade girls which makes me very happy. I believe Kiruv is not a far cry from Chinuch (Jewish education) but as I interviewed last year, many administrators disagreed which astounded me. During one such interview, the school’s principal noticed that my resume accurately portrayed most of my work experience in Jewish outreach as opposed to teaching. The principal asked me if I realized how vastly different Kiruv is from Chinuch. With Kiruv, one can concentrate on relationship-building and each individual whereas in education, the focus needed to be on the curriculum at hand.

Perhaps that’s an apt description of a typical Jewish studies class but having read the results of the Pew survey and personally meeting the overwhelming number of assimilated Jews, should it be?  My dad still cringes when recollecting memories as a boy attending cheder (Hebrew school) which all the Jewish kids in his neighborhood were sure was a punishment. I was interviewed by a dean at another Jewish school where I mentioned that my high school experience was dry when it came to Jewish studies. His response was that he wasn’t interested in his teachers doing more than they already did and when I came across his graduates who now attend USC (the campus my husband and I worked), many find Judaism irrelevant now. I shouldn’t and don’t place blame on any one thing or person though if it’s broke- why not try to fix it?

But I digress. I am so fortunate to have found one of the only Jewish Day Schools left in the USA that has a complete and thorough mix of affiliations and each student is accepted and cherished. Not to mention the school’s headmaster and principal are student-centered and sensitive to the importance of relationship-building outside a classroom. While I’m no longer a Woman In Kiruv, at least I get to be a woman who spreads Torah’s wisdom, devotion to God, and love for Judaism. Interestingly enough, people used to ask me all the time “How do you do it?” when I was a Woman In Kiruv. No one asks that anymore because working mothers are far more common- though no less formidable. Truth is, my lifestyle then was much easier because I got to set my own schedule. I would meet several girls for coffee daily, recruit new students with my husband on campus daily, host weekly programs and cook for Shabbos meals which definitely adds up to a whole lot of work but I loved it and I got to make my own hours. Now that I have a job with a set schedule, I dash out of the house at 7:30am having gotten the kids changed, breakfasts served, lunches made- not to mention a mirror check so I look presentable. I return home at 4:30pm to help with homework, make dinner, organize/clean remains from the morning, bathe children, and do bedtime routines. By 7:00pm I have my evening to grade papers, create lesson plans, prepare for the following day’s rush, and talk to you fine people. I guess I’m whining about what every working mom whines about but I never realized that being a Woman In Kiruv would be a less consistently exhausting career.

So, what was this post about? Ah, yes. The Conference. By now I hope you know that being a Woman In Kiruv is an identity – just like being a Rabbi In Kiruv is one. My husband is not only facing a possible career change but also a transition in identity. The Conference serves as a reminder of that- or rather missing it does.

There are many mitzvos (commandments) that Jews are supposed to do daily, weekly, monthly but only six that we are instructed to do constantly. The first of the six? Faith in Hashem. God does everything for us and what we perceive as difficult is actually training ground to grow as bigger and better people. My prayer for myself, my husband, and anyone else that needs it is that we receive the blessings, clarity and resources we need to live our lives to the fullest and maximize ourselves as individuals.