Monday, May 14, 2018

Thank You God for Making Me According to Your Will - A Positive MeToo Moment

As I write this I am sitting in limud (learning) at the Rabbinical Assembly convention. I am constantly in awe of my colleagues: their accomplishments and their learning. Perhaps it is a symptom of being a woman in our society. Perhaps it is that we watch others change, but rarely see change in ourselves. And perhaps it is simply my nature. But I look at my colleagues, seeing their accomplishments, and respect, admiration, and amazement washes over me like a waterfall. “See what she has done.” “Look at where he is.” And, “Wow,” plays over in my head. How lucky am I to be surrounded by these amazing, erudite, accomplished rabbis. 

And then this happens.... a colleague told me I was her hero. “Me? Really?” I responded in my heart. How could I be her hero? I’m always so impressed by her. She always seems so determined, so well put-together. A heartfelt thank you burst from my lips. For not the first time this week, my eyes filled with unshed tears of overwhelming emotion. “Because of the Beth Tzedec position?” I recently took on a new temporary position, being the first woman to serve Beth Tzedec in Toronto, the largest Conservative synagogue, on their rabbinic team.  It’s flattering, and humbling, and overwhelming to be part of this foundational shul. I was there a dozen years ago in an educational position, but now I am not merely a rabbi, but one of THE rabbis. I am opening the door for women to follow me. 

But this is only part of her praise. Rather it’s for the trajectory of my rabbinate, spending my career in a galut (exile) from female rabbinic colleagues and full acceptance (if that can truly be found anywhere). Although I never set out to break boundaries and explore the midbar (wilderness), it’s true. I have spent my career as the only woman rabbi, often surrounded by, or at least frequently encountering people who doubted or demeaned me as a rabbi and scholar. I have been the first woman rabbi people met, or even heard of. I lost a job due to gender. (I recently came across letters from individuals offering to support me should I choose to sue. Their praise humbled me then, and humbles me now.)

Beth Tzedec is the first time I am serving in a fully egalitarian setting, the first time I am the same as other rabbis - not only in how I am respected, but in my function. I teach. I preach. I daven. I counsel. Perhaps I am safe. The community knows me. I left Beth Tzedec on very good terms. And I have been welcomed back with open arms. 

Nevertheless, to hear from a colleague, from another woman who impresses me, who I believe stands as a wonderful dugma (example), not only of a woman rabbi, but of a rabbi, struck me speechless. And so I give her this, an anonymous, but public thank you. You inspire me. You impress me. You motivate me and galvanize me to reach further and to do better.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Year of Kaddish - Reflections on Minyan 2p

I’ve written before that minyanim have their differences. One difference is the way the recite Kaddish. Some minyanim are almost completely made up of mourners. The majority of attendees are there to say Kaddish. Others have a core group supplemented by mourners. Some minyanim have clergy leading Kaddish. At others only the mourners recite. In some minyanim Kaddish is recited in a quiet undertone; while at others it is said in full voice.

I recite Kaddish in full voice. My words often carry out across the chapel, at times blending with the voices of others. I am one among many, supported by the other voices, our words carried to heaven by the sheer volume, ballooning upward, strong and steady. At other times my voice carries the voices of others, leading the kahal in our Kaddish. I wonder at the hesitancy of those quiet mourners. Are they uncomfortable with their role? With the words? Is it sorrow that holds back their voices?  I wonder, and I hope that the strength of my voice supports those quiet around me.

Inspiration in Memphis

Writing from Memphis at the JCCA-Jewish Welfare Board convention. It’s a conference of rabbis serving the US Armed Forces, and the most inspiring group of people I ever get to be with. I love these people. They serve our men and women in uniform and the Veteran’s Association. They, with their families: parents, children, siblings, and extended families, sacrifice so much to ensure the religious freedom (and freedom from religion) for our service members, whether Jewish or not. I cannot say enough about how much these colleagues inspire me.

This year the conference is in Memphis, and OH that southern hospitality! The Memphis community is so welcoming and supportive of the work of our chaplains. Of course this isn’t only the JWB. The JCCA is here too, and the numbers gave the Memphis Jewish community the opportunity to show off their hospitality. And boy did they! I don’t even know where to start. 

The food - Barbecue! I’m from New York. To me a barbecue is the thing you light in the backyard. In the south it’s an entity unto itself. WOW! The setting was pretty cool too. The community rented out Graceland for us to spend the evening. Again, WOW! More on that later. Dinstuhl’s chocolates. If you have the opportunity to buy, eat, or hoard Dinstuhl’s chocolates, I cannot say this enough, PLEASE DO! Not only is the chocolate really wonderful, but the owners are some of the kindest, most generous, and welcoming people I’ve ever met. Besides the chocolate that seemed to flow through the conference (which they purchased; they do not take any money out of the company. They work, really work, at the factory without salary, and buy all their chocolate getting only the same employee discount as anyone else.) they shared with us their wonderful memorabilia collection. Again, WOW! The collection was amazing, but the people so much the more so. Simply, Wow!

So, Graceland, in our world Elvis is a bit of a caricature. Too much is made of his end days, and not enough of his true nature. Elvis was a man who grew up with nothing. When he had something, he shared everything he had with those around him - those he knew, and total strangers. He brought his parents and grandmother to live with him. He gave away, not only money, but memorabilia, cars, and so much more. At Christmas time he’d set up an office, and any registered charity could send a representative to get a check. All of them, regardless of mission. If you were a legitimate charity, you got a donation. Simply because Elvis was a generous person. Simply because Elvis could. He lived without, and he wanted to ensure, to the best of his abilities, others wouldn’t have to.
 The Chaplains - These are some of the most inspiring and fun people I know. They live a unique life of service. Rather than clinging to their roots, those same roots allow them to soar. They travel the world, ministering to our men and women in service. They serve our service people and their families. And with them, their spouses and families serve. No matter how far away they are I know I have a system of support around the world. They are my friends and my family. I know I can call upon them, the chaplains and their spouses, day or night to share sorrows and joys. I thank them for all they do, and I salute them.

Monday, April 23, 2018

A Year of Mourning - An Overwhleming Amen

So here I am at the Rabbinical Assembly convention. It’s something to which I look forward; spending time with colleagues; learning; simply being, if only for a few days.

This year the experience is just a little different. This year I am saying Kaddish. Saying Kaddish in a minyan is often a moving experience, but a small one. Even on Shabbat I am surrounded by a relatively small crowd, sometimes spread out across a large room, with many reciting Kaddish together. The experience here is different. Hundreds of rabbis in a small room, crowded, standing together, but only a few of us are saying Kaddish. Our individual voices can clearly be heard across the room. In many ways it is so much lonelier than what I have been experiencing. 

But then... there is the response... A hundred strong voices booming out to answer our words. I feel it in my heart, in my sternum, it vibrates through me in answer to my pain. Then I realize friends and colleagues are turning towards me. They smile. Their expressions reaching out in support. Tears fill my eyes. I strengthen my voice. 

After minyan people check in. Those further from me in the room come over. “Did I hear you saying Kaddish? Who died? When?” There are questions about memories. Some remember my dad from our JTS years. There are hugs. Hands on my shoulders. More smiles. More tears almost leaking from my eyes, but, for the moment at least, staying put.

And I wonder, after this, how do I return to my regular minyan?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

I'm a Realist AND I Believe In Miracles - Happy Birthday Israel

I will bring you out... and save you... I will redeem you... I will take you to be My people... I will bring you to the land which I swore to give, and I will give it to you as an inheritance. (Shemot 6:6-8)

These verses are the five promises God made to Israel. They are most familiar to those reading the Hagaddah. The number four abounds during Pesach- cups, children, questions, promises. God tells the Israelites, "I will bring you out. I will save you. I will redeem you. I will take you as My people." For each of these we drink a cup of wine. But there is a fifth promise. It is the promise represented by Elijah's cup and the question of whether we should drink a fifth cup of wine at the seder. "I will bring you [back] into the land I have promised you."

While Jews have never fully left the land of Israel, 70 years ago we returned as the governing majority, a first move towards fulfilling Herzl's dream. Just over 40 years earlier, 120 years ago, Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in  Basle, Switzerland, dreaming first of a refuge, and then of building an ideal society. We still have much to do. Israel is not perfect. With our support, expectations, and effort it will continue on that path. As in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, "It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free from it."

Tomorrow, when we celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, we will recite Hallel, the songs of praise added to our t'fillot to celebrate God's miracles. There is some debate over whether this Hallel is recited with or without a bracha to begin and whether we should also recite Al HaNissim (For Miracles) in the Amidah. Though Israel is certainly not a utopia; though we are brought to the heights of ecstasy and the lows of despair by news, though daily life in Israel continues for many to be a struggle, and for too many of us aliyah is not a realistic option, the creation and development of Israel over the past 70 years is nothing short of miraculous. In the words of David Ben Gurion, "To be a realist in Israel you have to believe in miracles." I drank that fifth cup, and when I recite Hallel this Thursday, I will say that bracha. How about you?