Saturday, November 30, 2013

The First Funeral

This past Sunday I had the kavod, the honor, of conducting the funeral of one of my mother-in-law's best friends, Helen.

First, let me be clear: Sunday wasn't about me. Sunday was about being a kli kodesh - a holy vessel - and facilitating the memorial of one incredible woman. Helen was one-of-a-kind; a mother and wife and sister and friend who died suddenly and far too young. It was a surreal, sad, and difficult day, but it was one that gave me food for thought about the career I've chosen to pursue. Below are my thoughts on the process itself.

This was the first funeral I'd ever done. It wasn't a dress rehearsal or a practiced memorial service, which we've done throughout school. This was in real time, with a real grieving family; one I know well. It was serious and nerve-wracking and upsetting and really, really hard. I was the authority, the ringleader, and the decider. To their credit, HUC has done a great job of preparing me for leading a memorial service. But to be in the moment, standing face-to-face with mourners, requires a set of skills few classes can teach you.

The funeral began the Friday before, when I went over to the house to speak with the family. When a rabbi or cantor performs any life cycle event, they typically do what's called an "intake." No matter how close a family may feel to a rabbi, the intake sheds light on stories never told and on memories not yet shared. For weddings, funerals, B'nai Mitzvahs, and baby namings, the intake presents a much clearer window onto where the family is "at" leading up to the rite of passage.

The intake was extraordinary. We all cried, we laughed, and I learned much more about Helen than I had ever known. Her husband and daughter shared stories that blew me away, and I shared those very stories from the lectern on Sunday morning. I was able to gain clarity on how Helen came to be Helen, and on the deep sense loss in which her loved ones were immersed.

The funeral itself took place on a beautiful sunny day in Simi Valley. A large crowd turned out, many of them still shocked by the news. As "the rabbi," my job was to be present: to listen and comfort and serve as a receptacle for people's grief. Even though I knew Helen, I wasn't a mourner on Sunday; I was the facilitator. Knowing and owning that was essential, as was carving out space for myself to say goodbye to her in my own way.

As it has been at funerals I've attended in the past, the hardest part was the burial. Saying goodbye and speaking platitudes in a service is one thing; lowering your loved one into the ground and placing earth upon their casket is just something entirely different. Watching her bereaved husband shovel earth into the grave on Sunday, listening to him bid farewell to his beloved wife, was beyond heartbreaking. And immediately after that, one by one, the community did their part to shovel earth into her grave. We all said our goodbyes to her, sang a round of "Me and Bobby McGee" (Helen was a big Janis Joplin fan) and eventually left the cemetery to return to our lives.

I spent the rest of the day immersed in thoughts about ritual. As many of you know, my senior thesis is on the topic of ritual: how Jews connect to Judaism through it, how we as Jewish professionals innovate it, and most importantly - how to measure whether or not a ritual has "succeeded." And much of what my chevruta and I have done is discuss what makes a ritual "work" or "not work."

Though we've concluded it's particularly challenging to evaluate oneself, I think that this funeral - as a life cycle event - really did "work." I felt like it honored Helen, it gave her loved ones the space to grieve and to mourn and laugh and cry, but it was clearly a funeral. Jews do death really, really well. We have such an intricate, well-structured system for grief and mourning. And through the sacred texts of the psalms, the hesped (eulogy) the chanting of El Maleh Rachamim, and the minhagim (customs) at graveside, I feel like we as a community sent her off right.

It was the best possible sendoff we as a community could have ever given Helen. It was a really strong learning experience for me (one, I must admit, I wish I hadn't had under these circumstances) and, I hope, as meaningful an experience as it could have been for her family and friends.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Men and Women and a Movement

Last night my husband and I had the privilege of going to the home of Michael Zeldin, Senior National Director of HUC-JIR's Schools of Education. We went for a delicious dinner and stimulating conversation. The topic: "Where Have All the Men Gone? Power and Gender in Reform Judaism."

You know. The light stuff. 

Our conversation was with Stuart Leviton, the President of Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ) and Rabbi David Wolfman, a strategic planning consultant for the MRJ. Stuart is a lay leader and past president of Congregation Kol Ami here in Los Angeles. His aim last night was to inform us about the organization's vision, engage us in a conversation about gender, involvement, and affiliation across North America, and hear our personal narratives with regard to the politics of gender in our work.

The first part of our discussion centered on affiliation writ large. The following questions were put on the table: Why affiliate? Why be a part of a movement; part of a community? It had all of us students - particularly those of us about to graduate - scratching our heads. 

What did they mean, why affiliate? It felt like a wake-up call; a splash of cold water to the face. To ask a group of soon-to-be rabbis and educators a question like that was intentionally provocative. It's sort of like saying to a doctor, "Why see a medical practitioner? I have Web MD." Yet, we knew to listen, respect, and reflect on what they had to say because there was value and truth to all of it.

Our speakers offered the non-surprising but still-alarming-for-various-reasons fact that men are leaving the Reform Movement in droves. Individuals and families and communities and congregations across North America are freaking out. Across the country lay leaders and professional Jews are asking themselves, (as the title of the discussion itself stated) where have all the men gone? Everyone, it seems, is deeply worried. Even as I write this it sounds like the trailer for an upcoming Hollywood blockbuster. 

So, in light of this massive flight of Y-chromosomes from synagogue life, people like Stuart and Rabbi Wolfman are currently engaged in conversations about what all this means: for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), for the day-to-day activities of its functioning North American synagogues, and especially for its youth. (For the record, the URJ's president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, has made youth engagement a top priority during his tenure) 

Stuart and Rabbi Wolfman asserted that in myriad conversations across North America, men feel displaced, unwanted; they feel as though their needs aren't being met. Men feel they have no outlet and that women have taken center stage in the synagogue. Men want a safe space, they want role models, and they want to feel like they have a place in contemporary American Jewish life. 

Okay. Let's take a deep breath. 

First, I very much appreciated what Stuart and Rabbi Wolfman offered us. It was valuable, stimulating, and provided each of us with essential information as we go forth in our careers as Jewish professionals. There was a lot I wrestled with last night, but it was still hugely important that I listen and take it all in. As a future leader of the Jewish community, talking about the alienation of any part of the population is huge. 

What was most challenging about last night was not that they were speaking about the male/female dynamics of contemporary synagogue life. Additionally, what they shared was no surprise; it's a well-known and well-documented fact that since the 1990s a vast majority of HUC-JIR's graduates have been female, resulting in fewer and fewer men being drawn to professional Jewish life. That's had a traceable ripple effect on all areas of the Movement.

No, what was most difficult to swallow was the fact that everything being presented last night appeared from my perspective to be so specific, only focusing on one narrow part of a shift in contemporary American Jewish life. The conversation felt really one-sided: men feel this and it's not good. Men feel left out and we need to not make them feel that way. Men need a place to express their emotions and the synagogues you'll work for aren't cutting it. The end.

In my mind, this should have been a joint conversation with, say, the Women of Reform Judaism. It could have been a more meta discussion incorporating the recent Pew study, or a discussion about Jews' increasing involvement in less established models of Jewish life: for example, the hugely popular IKAR here in LA.

The one-sidedness of the conversation, in a way, alienated me. It left me out as a potential partner in shaping future gender boundaries of Jewish affiliation. It made me feel even more feminine, more womanly, more "other." I believe that approach casts men and women even further apart.

Our world doesn't only exist in solely "male" and "female" terms anymore; gender is a spectrum. And there appeared to be no spectrum present last night; only very stark differences that fell into categories of black and white. It lacked nuance or recognition of the amazing work so many of my colleagues are doing for all Jews: not just men, not just women, but the entire Movement.

Another discussion point was concern over the fact that boys do not have male role models to look up to, and that's resulting in this widespread flight from organized Jewish life. So, maybe it's a generational thing, but when I was growing up I had many role models. I looked up to teachers, rabbis, parents, older friends, camp counselors; you name it. And truth be told, I had role models who were male and role models who were female. I didn't discriminate. I was an equal-opportunity role model seeker. 

Now, today, I have mentors who are male and mentors who are female; some are gay, some straight. They're single, married, partnered, divorced, bald-headed and brunette, some with glasses and some without. They're as diverse as you can get, and not just in physical ways. Why do I gravitate towards them? Because my parents - and those role models - taught me to value what's in a person's soul. Not their gender, not their looks, but who they are

I wonder how this particular conversation on affiliation and involvement might shift if we stopped spending so much time on gender and started looking into the souls of those who lead our synagogues and institutions: male, female, and those in transition. I wonder what would happen if we adjusted this particular conversation to focus on a vision we have for the entire mishpucha (family), which includes within it the widest variety of individuals and family systems imaginable.

As we discussed on Sunday night, what keeps people returning and investing and deepening their relationships to Jewish institutions are depth and quality. Depth and quality lead men and women to connect in ways that matter to them, and those ways are diverse for every single human being. It's not only our job as Jewish professionals to present a deep, rich, and high-quality Judaism accessible through multiple channels; it's our sacred task. 

Gender isn't one sided, and it's not even as simple as what I've presented here. Indeed, it's much more complex. As our guests said to us last night, these conversations are intense and provocative but we should embrace and not fight them, for they help us grow. We will likely never live in a world that is free from gender. It is a part of what we do and who we are. But what we do with these conversations - how we see gender, how it colors our experiences, and where it holds us back from our own self growth - is so tremendously significant. It's our future. And all of us are invested in that. 


Friday, November 8, 2013

Strangers in the Nail Salon

Yesterday morning was about an eight (out of ten) on the intensity scale, so naturally I found my way to a manicurist's chair before work in the afternoon.

Everyone has their own sanctuary. Luckily I have several, and one is the nail salon. The ones I go to are serene, clean, and quiet. And I'll be honest - freshly painted nails help me think clearly.

Around midway through my manicure I heard a woman walk into the salon. My back was to the entrance, but she was loud and noticeable. I mean, I noticed her. You couldn't not notice her.

She was going on and on about being a physician and not being comfortable in that space. "Give me the hospital! Give me an operating room! Give me my stethoscope!..." she kept repeating. It was weird. I was confused. I couldn't turn around to see the source of the voice, but I could see the other women in the salon looking at each other with those eyes. You know, the "who is this lady, is she for real?!" eyes. The partial eye roll, partial sideways glance. I know the look well.

This went on for a few minutes until, out of nowhere, she snapped at someone: I can wear my wedding rings on my right hand, okay! I can wear them how I want because my husband is divorcing me and I can do what I want! I can do what I want, okay? Don't tell me what to do!" 

Instantly, I felt nauseous. I couldn't see this woman's face, I had no idea who she was yelling at, but .. I got it. Things clicked.

I maneuvered my body to get a look at her and when I did, I felt even more nauseated. She was stunningly beautiful, poised, put-together, and looked ... I don't know ... regal? Maybe in my head I thought she'd look terrible. I figured she'd have mascara running down her face or something. But, no. Not a hair out of place. Not a drop of mascara beneath her soft almond eyes.

I listened to her go on and on throughout the rest of my mani. She trashed her husband, insisted that she made a huge mistake marrying him, didn't want to hear one single word about the fact that she was still wearing her rings because they were on her right hand, okay!? and then stated she was "super nervous" about walking a red carpet that night. It was such a bizarre confluence of predicaments.

I listened to this woman, this stranger. I watched the other women in the salon - ostensibly strangers to each other - giving one another looks, then nodding in her direction. Even the manicurists were gesturing to her and making faces, speaking in Vietnamese, perhaps trying to make sense of her. She seemed completely oblivious to it all.

My heart ached for this woman. I wanted to go up to her, ask if she needed a shoulder or a listening ear, see if I could help her in some way. Of course I didn't, because that would have been totally weird and invasive. Just as the nail salon is my sacred space, it was hers, too. Maybe she would have responded well, or maybe she would have smacked me across the face. Who knew?

I left the salon wondering, what was my obligation to this woman? Why did I feel compelled to talk to, protect, or help her? Why was I so invested in her well-being? Couldn't I have just ignored her, rolled my eyes along with the rest of the posse, or gone about my day just as oblivious to her as she appeared to be towards everyone else? The answer is no, obviously, because here I am blogging about it.

Kabbalistic Judaism teaches that we have a mythical, mystical group of people known as lamed-vavniks. The tradition goes as follows: there are 36 (in Hebrew, the number is lamed-vav) truly good souls roaming the earth. These tzadikim, or righteous individuals, are strangers. Not only to us, but to one another and to themselves. We don't know who they are or when they will appear to us; they too don't even know who they are! But they are here, and their role is to reveal the purpose of humanity through words and actions. Their purpose is to help make the world a better place.

It hit me when I was in that nail salon that this poor woman stuck in her own personal hell might actually be a lamed-vavnik. It was a bizarre thought to have. Truly. I can't remember the last time I thought about the lamed-vavnik tradition. I have no idea what religion this woman was, whether or not she cared about anything other than her jewelry or her soon-to-be ex-husband. All I had was that small picture onto her. And yet ... I was still thinking about it throughout the day. (And, coincidentally, my mentor SCR brought up lamed-vavniks in our meeting today)

It dawned on me that whether or not this woman was actually a righteous tzadik just having a really, really bad day or not, she was still human. And human beings sometimes get themselves into nasty situations, willingly or unwillingly. Sometimes they act out. Sometimes they don't. Occasionally they'll be open about why they're in such a dark place. Most of the time, they won't be.

What I had for this woman was empathy. I cared. I wanted to help. I wanted to give her a hug. Now, I don't think I'm some sort of tzadik myself for feeling, owning, and sharing that. Rather, the exchange got me to think about the hidden agendas and unknown identities of all those we encounter in our day-to-day lives. Perhaps the strangers we meet - those kind and gentle souls and those difficult, loud, hard-to-ignore ones, too - are in fact lamed-vavniks whose purpose is to usher in an age of peace, kindness, and goodness for all humanity. We'll never know.

But, in the meantime, we can certainly extend our own warmth, compassion, and kindness to them. For we never know what the impact of goodness can be.

Shabbat shalom to you and yours.

With love,

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

On Being a Millennial

Stumbled upon this interesting take on the "millennial" generation. It's a father's perspective on his son:

It got me to think about the ever-present generational gap, the subjective nature of "success," and the aspiration(s) my generation either has or doesn't with regard to life goals. I could definitely relate to some of it. However, coming to the end of a six-year graduate school journey I have a different lens through which I view this. Namely, I just worked my butt off for a long time and I'm ready to work. But - how exactly will I measure my own success in the years to come?

Your thoughts?

Monday, November 4, 2013


Coming back home, no matter the length of time one's been away, is always an adjustment. Al achat kama v'chama - how much the more so - when one's been in Israel.

Aside from the obvious time change and jet lag, there's also all these other factors that you have to sort of re-jigger your mind for. You have to account for the difference in language & communication, the difference in what things look like and what people look like. You have to prepare yourself for the change in atmosphere; the weather, the buildings, the signs and whatnot. But especially after leaving Israel, one experiences a total shift in the level of intensity; the thickness of the air surrounding you. 

Many people know the Hebrew word "aliyah." When one makes aliyah they figuratively ascend to something, including Israel. (It comes from the root l'alot, meaning to rise) There's making aliyah to become a permanent resident of Israel, doing an "aliyah" to the Torah, ascending physically - aliyah style - to the city of Jerusalem, which is high up in the hills. 

But when one makes "yeridah," which comes from the root laredet, meaning to go down, they literally descend from Israel. It's used as a derogatory term for those who have lived in Israel but leave, whether they do so in search of greener pastures or for family reasons or a job opportunity. It's not a kind expression. 

Each time I go to Israel it feels like I'm stepping up to a more concentrated intellectual experience, a thicker slice of life, a more polarized and less wishy-washy, highly opinionated, intense existence. When I leave and go back home, it feels like stepping away from the furnace, taking a step downstairs, entering a more calm, carefree zone, and taking a deep breath of fresh air. The terms aliyah and yeridah sort-of describe, at least for me, the never-a-dull-moment experience of going to Israel and the sudden shift in coming home. And I definitely felt that yesterday when I left the airport and came back to our apartment a mere three miles from the glorious Pacific Ocean. 

Let me be clear - this is not an endorsement of either term. It's simply a way to describe the experience of being in such a uniquely intense place and adjusting to coming back home. 

The question on the table is this ... how does one take the transformative and powerful experiences of Israel and bring them - in my case - to their congregational internship, to school, to her families and friends? How will people take to the highly-concentrated, bottled-up, intense collection of experiences I've garnered over the past ten days? Will even people listen?

These are questions I'm sure I will ponder as the days go on. For now, I'm rolling back into school and catching up on emails. I've got a strong cup of coffee to my left and my day planner to my right. Bring it on. 


Saturday, November 2, 2013


(This post has been edited since its original posting)

Well, our 2013 Symposium has come to an end.

Yesterday was a really interesting, painful, hopeful, mishmash-of-a-day. We woke up early and trekked up to Jerusalem to meet with Dr. Charles Greenberg in his home. Dr. Greenberg is a professor emeritus of Social Psychology at Hebrew University and is chairman of the board of Defense for Children International. So what does this man do? Well, he basically studies, documents, and advocates on behalf of children who have in some way become victims of the Arab/Israeli conflict. 

I'm going to be honest - there is nothing quite like hearing the effect of war/conflict/strife on children. It's just ... it's gut-wrenching. I don't know how those in the group who actually have children felt, but even as a teacher of toddlers, kids, and teenagers - I just can't. It's takes the emotional, visceral reaction to another level. And the one glimmer of hope that I had leaving Dr. Greenbaum's home was that he is not the only person who is doing this work. There are many people - good people - who have committed their lives to chipping away at a system that allows children to be implicated in violence. That gives me hope, and comfort, and reminds me that there are true tzadikim - righteous, just people - roaming this earth. 

We came back to Tel Aviv to meet with an extraordinary woman named Robi Damelin. Robi is a representative of Parents Circle Families Forum ( PCFF is an organization that brings together Arab and Israeli families who have lost a member of their family in the conflict. One of the first things she said, which sort of put everything into perspective, was this: "it's not all hugging and kumbaya and let's love one another. It's really, really hard and frustrating and difficult. But it's the only way ... we will ever get this conflict to stop." (Paraphrased)

My words can't do justice to this woman. I won't even try. She had so much chutzpah, and confidence, and strength, and she was so dynamic and brilliant and funny ... and there was so much pain behind her eyes. Her son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper several years ago at a checkpoint in the West Bank, and she talked about him constantly throughout our discussion. I was blown away by her grit and determination and fearlessness.

The take-home that I will share with all of you reading this blog is that you should, most definitely, become familiar with the Parents Circle. Why? Because the common thread of grief is, for better or for worse, a gateway. It is an opening, a hope, a symbol of possibility. And instead of wringing their hands and wailing and screaming and sowing further seeds of hatred, this unique group of people - which has grown to over 600 families - has chosen a path of maturity, grace, and compassion. It may sound patronizing, but I think each and every one of us can learn something from their work.

The rest of our day included a heated and informative discussion with +972 Magazine blogger Noam Sheizaf, a talented man with a sharp eye on the country's political and social activities. I highly encourage you to follow and keep an eye on him - . We then trekked to Beit Daniel, thee Progressive Synagogue (Israeli version of Reform) in Tel Aviv. Beit Daniel is more of an empire than a synagogue, with a grand complex in the northern end of Tel Aviv that serves as its Beit Knesset, a massive complex in the southern end of the city with a hostel and programming called Mishkenot Ruth, and dozens of preschools throughout the city. Beit Daniel is a symbol of what is possible for Progressive Judaism in Israel - obviously something I very much care about - but the meeting felt very rushed and low on content. The Reform Movement in Israel is so complex and nuanced, it needed more than a quick visit and talk with the rabbi of the shul.

Following a super-relaxed and low-key Kabbalat Shabbat by the Mediterranean, I retreated to my hotel room for an early night. Woke up the next morning for a meaningful closing session with Colette Avital, a politician who was originally with Labor but recently switched over to the Meretz party. Good lord, that woman was smart. She had some really great, brilliant things to say about the same things we've been discussing all week.

In conjunction with her talk, we convened, shared feelings, hugs, congratulations, and a really holy moment guided by my now dear friend and busmate Rabbi Darah Lerner of Bangor, Maine.

Following our conclusion, I spent the day trekking around Tel Aviv with my dear friend Elana. We walked to the beach, had a late lunch, lazed by the pool of her friend's hotel, shopped in the Tachana (old train station) and had your typical Tel Aviv-y Shabbat.

It was such an unbelievable contrast from the intensity of the week. I'm going to be honest - I really enjoyed the beautiful sunshine and the carefree feeling of a Saturday afternoon by the sea. But it was such a notable difference; such a complete 180 from all that's been seen and done and experienced the past seven days.

I decided not to fight it. I held the two in my heart and allowed them to coexist. On the one side was the intensity, excitement, and exhaustion of a powerful and action-packed week. On the other side was the simplicity and laissez-faire attitude that characterizes this beach metropolis. The two were there, together, side by side, living separately but getting along, acknowledging and respecting one another but choosing to live separately within me. And I thought to myself ... now isn't that kinda symbolic?

This trip has been amazing, challenging, thought-provoking, and rabbinate-shaping. I feel like I am returning to the States with a newfound understanding of the country I love and care about deeply; her citizens, her government, and her diverse society as it exists today. It was a gift to be able to share this experience with Partners for Progressive Israel and I know the processing and reflecting has only just begun. (So, in other words, stay tuned!)

The time has come for me to shut off the WiFi and board the 15-and-a-half hour flight to Los Angeles. I bid you all a hearty l'hitra'ot. Until we meet again.