Each day of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, you will find Days of Awe jewels from our congregants, clergy and scholars. In these you will find a mix of meaning, perspective, and sacred text together with practical reminders to plan ahead. Be sure to check this section of our website to see everything our community has to share about the season!
|Ed Gross – 1 Elul
Anthony Garrett – 2 Elul
Matt Wald -3 Elul
Norman Gelman – 4 Elul
Sherry Linkon – 5 Elul
Rena Milchberg- 6 Elul
Jeff Rubin – 7 Elul
Marilyn Kresky-Wolff – 8 Elul
Cheryl Kollin – 9 Elul
Martha Hare – 10 Elul
|Noa Baum – 11 Elul
Bob Singer – 12 Elul
Rabbi Hazzan Rachel Hersh – 13 Elul
Jesse Abraham – 14 Elul
Loren Amdursky – 15 Elul
Arthur Berger – 16 Elul
Amy Jaslow – 17 Elul
Michelle Spivak Melinger – 18 Elul
Craig Lustig – 19 Elul
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb – 20 Elul
|Polly J Panitz – 21 Elul
Barb Richman – 22 Elul
Gil Rosen – 23 Elul
Steve Shapiro – 24 Elul
Susan Kimmel – 25 Elul
Audrey Rothstein – 26 Elul
Catherine Whiting – 27 Elul
John (Moshe) Mosheim – 28 Elul
Lora Griff – 29 Elul
Luther Jett – Bonus Enlightenment!
Where is my home?
“Portland Maine is just the same as sunny Tennessee
Any old place I hang my hat is, home sweet home to me ….”
Jimmie Rodgers, a.k.a. “The Singing Brakeman” apparently appropriated those lyrics from an older song written by William Jerome and popularized by an entertainer who styled himself “The Happy Tramp”. The life of a wanderer is not an avocation to which many people aspire. Most of us want to have a fixed home, a place where, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” as Robert Frost put it. The Jewish people yearned to return to their homeland for 2,000 years ; when they finally got there, it is debatable (at best) whether those sharing the same place felt obligated to take them in.
Nevertheless, it is evident that one of the unifying tenets of Jewish civilization has been that notion of returning home, to Israel/Palestine, the site of the First and Second Temples. At the close of nearly every major Festival, the cry goes up, “Next Year in Jerusalem!”
So, perhaps it is paradoxical to note that just as this aspiration has sustained the Jewish people, so has the idea of portability. Following the destruction of the Second Temple and subsequent exile, it was no longer possible to travel to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices as way of maintaining unity as a people. But, as the post-Temple rabbis established, Torah does not need a Temple in order to be studied, nor do Tefilim (prayers) require a Temple in order to be shared. The ethical practices which form the core of Jewish theology and civilization are universal, and never intended to be tied to one location, nor even to one particular group of human beings.
And yet, the ache for home is equally universal. Last year at this time, I wrote of my own nostalgia for the home where I grew up, noting that despite that yearning, I no longer wished to return there. It wasn’t the place I missed, after all, but the people who made it a home — specifically, my parents. Indeed, when I reflect on my own life choices, I am grateful that I left home as a young man. There is comfort in clinging to the places which remind us of our youth, but it can also be stifling to do so. So, what is home, to me?
It’s not a place. It’s a feeling. It’s people and relationships whereby one feels “taken in” — nurtured and welcomed. It’s community, and I am at home amidst several communities, as a writer, as an educator, as a citizen … and as a member of this congregation, Adat Shalom. As we approach the Days of Awe this year with plans to observe them at our physical home on Persimmon Tree Lane, may we each experience there the sense of welcoming and inclusion, of spiritual and intellectual nurture, of new and enduring relationships, which truly make a place a home. Shanah Tovah!
The Zen of Mini-Pancakes
Last year on Rosh Hashanah, my mother entered hospice. In July 2018 she was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and her doctor said she couldn’t imagine her living for more than a year.
I spent the next months visiting Philadelphia on a regular basis and watched my mother decline. Her previous social, autonomous and pristine self was diminished to extreme dependence, fatigue and painful moments. It was so hard to see her go from vibrant to infantilized. I tried to plan and prepare but realized that I needed to change my expectations.
To our surprise, she outlived the year prediction, and my visits continue. I recently took the train to Philly for a surprise visit and walked from 30th Street station to her senior residence in Logan Circle. On the journey I thought about our Adat Shalom retreat themes, gratitude for this day and this visit, the blessing of time together. My mother and her aid greeted me in the lobby; my mom looked at me and said, “That’s my daughter!” I swept her away in her wheelchair and said, “Let’s go look at the flowers at Logan Circle,” and we sat and watched the fountain and the passers by.
Then I wheeled her over to Le Pain Quotidian for lunch. She looked over the menu and said, “I want the mini-pancakes.” When the order arrived she savored every bite, repeatedly saying, “These are really delicious,” “They are better than last time we ate here,” “I really like these.” She ate almost every mini-pancake and berry on the plate. We even treated ourselves to a gooey brownie for dessert. I felt so satisfied that we could enjoy this moment and our time together.
As I approach this Rosh Hashanah, I reflect on this long difficult year. I am generally a doer and a planner, but we know that death can’t be planned. I am working hard to slow down, to just appreciate the moment, to be zen. I try to take away one positive experience with my mother each visit: sing a song, say a prayer, look at old pictures, take time to appreciate the mini-pancakes. I do not know what this next year will bring but I do know that I have many moments to savor.
I was raised Catholic but I think I was born with a Jewish soul. My mother is Catholic. Her family left Spain in the 1500s for Central America and were probably Jewish at some point. My dad was born in Korbach, Germany, where his father was a rabbi. That side of my family left Spain before the 1800s. My Aunt Ruth and my father were barely able to escape Germany to New York. Just weeks after their arrival to the US the rest of my family was rounded up and probably transported in those awful train cars to concentration camps where awful things happened. My aunt, my dad, and my great uncle were the only survivors of a family of about 100.
When my dad was 17 and had been living in the US for a couple of years he enlisted in the U.S. Army and went to fight in Europe, and it was rumored that he had gone back to go look for his parents, maybe to try to save them. My grandparents died in the gas chambers and I do not know if he carried guilt about it. He never wanted to talk about it. I sometimes think with anguish about my grandparents’ last moments, and their thoughts about who would remember them.
In Korbach there is a big wall with the names of my family members inscribed in stone. My dad was never able to come out of the Holocaust. I think that for him the Holocaust happened every day, and he fought it all day until the next day came. He renounced his Jewish life to the outside world and to everybody, or should I say he refused to talk about it and kept it all inside in a sealed bottle – the good things he had had and the suffering inside of him – until he died.
I converted to Judaism almost ten years ago. That was one of the richest periods of my life, so much learning, reading, discovering, etc. During the first High Holidays I started to learned about Teshuvah, Tikkun olam, and asking for forgiveness from people I had hurt. I learned that by asking for forgiveness, God and those I had hurt could forgive me, and if people did not want to, God would. I remember thinking, how am I going to ask this or that person for forgiveness for something I did 30 years ago? Will they remember? Will they think I’m nuts?
One evening a day or two after Rosh Hashanah. I was in my apartment thinking about how was I going to ask for forgiveness. I made a list of people I could see, others I that I could call, others I could try reaching via email or letter, and others who had died. It was 9 pm and it was pouring rain outside I could hear thunder. I grabbed paper and a pen and started to make a list of all the people to whom I felt I had done something I regretted or wished I had not done. I thought that I probably had enough paper for that, there were not that many. And then I started, I went back, like way back to my kindergarten days and started writing. And I wrote and wrote and ran out of paper got more paper and ran out of paper again. It was like if I had opened a faucet. I was writing letters asking for forgiveness from people that I thought I would not be able to reach or had died. I wrote to some I thought I would try reaching just in case.
And I kept writing and writing letters, dozens of them, I could not stop; the names and situations just kept surfacing. Things came up that I had forgotten, and things and people from the day before. I hand wrote a letter to each person telling them to please forgive me and explaining what I had done, not done, said, etc. so they would at least understand where I was coming from. I had 40 letters and knew I needed to write more, but also had the urgency of doing something with the letters I had. It was still pouring rain outside and it was pitch black. I said to myself that I had to take those letters and put them somewhere where I felt would be good a place for them. I think I folded the letters, signed them, and addressed them with names in a nice stack and got into my car. I thought that putting the letters in a river would be good.
Rock Creek was not too far, and it would be huge with the downpour we’d had. So I drove to Rock Creek Park, but it was dark and I could not see a good place to have the river take my letters. I could only hear the river, lots of water in the distance. I was in front of a fence. . I could not see much because I had not brought a flashlight. I remember thinking, what if I slip and fall in the water? I could barely see.
I had tied all my letters with a string. I saw a way to throw the letters so that they would fall in the river through all that darkness. I found what seemed like a good place to throw the letters so they would land in the water. I was thinking, what if the police come and ask me what am I doing? What If I get mugged? What if the letters land on the land and not in the water? I grabbed my letters and threw the package in the direction of the water, and I thought they fell in the current because I could see its movement and huge flow. I was totally drenched.
The letters were gone. I walked back to my car and it was still very dark. I remember hearing the sounds of thunder and feeling like being under a shower. I found my way out of Rock Creek Park. It was an eye opener for me to write so many letters. In the next months I wrote some more, called people, emailed them, pleaded with some, and asked God for forgiveness. My wish for the High Holidays and Elul is to find the paper and pen in me and to look back and look forward deep inside like I did that night a few years ago. I am still anxious and embarrassed about asking for forgiveness, but at least I can try.
Every year my wife Abi and I go to Rock Creek with pieces of paper written to people we want to reach and pieces of Challah and throw them into the flow. We see the pieces of paper and the bread in the water disappear and hope and pray for a good year for us, our families, and those we remember.
Confessions of a Convert: Three High Holidays
First: My earliest memories of high holidays are not the smells of kugel or the bustle of getting to services or trying to grapple with weighty spiritual endeavors such as Teshuva. My earliest memory is doing a lot of dishes while my then-girlfriend and her family went off to services. At night. For hours. It seemed a bit excessive to me. Plus the next day? It seemed a bit much. I was not the least bit interested in attending. You can imagine what I thought when I heard about Yom Kippur.
Second: The end of Kol Nidre and the sanctuary was emptying out. The rabbi had a custom of not leaving the sanctuary until everyone left. I sat in the pew and cried. I don’t know if it was the melodies of Kol Nidre and Avinu Malkenu that I had found somber and moving and somehow important. I don’t know if it was the act of confession, beating my heart with each chant. Perhaps it was just the first time I felt an understanding of what the holidays are about. I still understood little of the Hebrew and only a bit more understanding of Yom Kippur or Kol Nidre. And yet—there I was, in the still of an empty sanctuary, utterly overwhelmed by the process that we call teshuva and by the possibility of hope that seems to me to be at the heart of this season.
Third and Present: We baked the kugel in stages, in between school and work, dishes and homework. The children’s service is about to start, one of the kids doesn’t want to go, and I got the schedule wrong for when I signed up to usher, so now there’s that. Then there’s trying to get a hold of the babysitter so he knows to come earlier. I sit with half an ear and heart, interrupted by one child complaining about how none of his friends are in services. I sigh and try to remember that once these days had no meaning for me, and that then I was lucky to find some meaning in grappling with repentance and feeling a sense of hope for the future. Now I’m just alternating between a profound irritation, a belief that just maybe I’ll get more time this year, and a calmness born from the recognition that these years, the high holidays are less about my spiritual development and more about my kids so they will have those memories of the bustle and the kugel, the melodies and the quiet, the sense of repentance and most of all, that sense of hope.
Each year, I’m deeply moved by our Kol Nidre service: the somber chanting of the Al Chet; the beautiful, stirring voices of the choir; the powerful message in Rabbi Sid’s sermon.
I always sit near the front so I can watch as the Torahs are carried through our community. As a photographer, I see a wonderful tableau. The procession moves slowly as congregants gather round, hoping to kiss the scrolls, to show their respect. It’s beautiful to see their outstretched arms, many dressed in white, as they reach for the ancient texts. I’ve always wanted to capture those moments in photographs, but of course, photography cannot be part of Kol Nidre. So the images stay with me, in my head and in my heart.
Similarly, there are many such images that linger long after Shabbat services are completed.
The bright face of a B-Mitzvah child as they receive their family’s blessing…and the faces of family members as, often with tears in their eyes, taking in their newly minted young adult. There are the looks of joy shared among our talented musicians and the passion in the eyes of those who stand to respond to a question posed by clergy. And, I see the focus of Rabbis Fred and Rachel as they share their wisdom and many blessings.
How I’d love to photograph the thrill I see on the face of a new retiree celebrating with an aliyah and the gathering of our youngest members, our children, as they scamper up to the bimah for kiddish and a bit of challah. (Can it be that I’ve watched so many little ones become a B-Mitzvah over the years?!) And, there’s the support I see as those who come forward for the healing circle reach for one another and draw close. So many beautiful images.
I see each of these images with a photographer’s eye and a congregant’s heart. They nourish me, and help me connect with this community and Judaism in a way that resonates deeply.
Whether we’re together at Adat Shalom, Wootton, or a Pearlstone retreat, home is where the heart is. My heart is with this community.
The Essential Machzor
My son, Daniel, and his wife, Victoria, will be on their honeymoon on safari in South Africa, and my son, Adam, will have started a new job in Rhode Island days before the holiday and worried about taking leave so soon. I’m sending them off into the new chapters of their lives with some piece of the tradition. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of a new year and Yom Kippur, with its self-reflection and heshbon ha’lev, spiritual accounting, can help clear the slate to enable a fresh start.
What are the essential pages from a 1000+ page book?
We must scrutinize our own lives carefully at least once each year so that we do not allow unwanted behavior to become so rigid that it will be too difficult to undo. We must repair the wounds we have inflicted before they develop into permanent ones. We must recharge our communities with a devotion to that which is godly and holy lest we lose all sight of our purpose.
13 & 14 The Hineni, Here I Am, on p. 852 is the plea of the prayer leader for his/her unworthiness to represent the congregation in their petition for forgiveness. Truly, how can one person take on all this responsibility. Although the traditional version from the 1500’s is beautiful in its own way (to be sung by someone with a deep voice and a beard), I found this contemporary version (“quaking in my canvas shoes“) more moving.
15 & 16 For me the conclusion of Yom Kippur is the singing of the traditional Aveenu Malkenu, with its mournful melody (pp.1183-4) and many years of associations, but I think my new daughter-in-law might relate more to the interpretive version on p. 436 in the words of poet Ruth Brin:
I might imagine God as teacher or friend, but those images
like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now.
[ . . . .]
God is far beyond what we can comprehend.
And lastly, what cannot be copied onto a pdf, is the Tekiyah Gedolah, with shofar blowers of all ages demonstrating the continuity of our living faith in the future. We conclude with “Next Year in Jerusalem”!
From Trauma to Transformation and then, Peace
Over the last few years, as our nation’s moral/ethical fiber was stretching and bending, I observed how my own individual, family, and communal fibers were being tested as well. It was time for me to pivot — I moved away from a practice in commercial dispute resolution to focus on mediating family disputes, family foundations, businesses, elder mediation, and couples divorce. At this time in history, this work has become a deep calling and one that I feel privileged to take on.
In the context of conflict resolution and peace-making, understanding trauma has become a critical piece of my work. As an attorney I never trained in trauma. As an individual I never understood trauma’s impact on humanity. The past six years I have worked with the Victims of September 11th, and I have come to appreciate the depth to which anyone who was present at Ground Zero/World Trade Center suffered psychic and emotional shock. My colleagues and I are vicariously experiencing trauma after hearing the grueling, albeit often inspiring, stories told day after day.
About six months ago I started teaching mindfulness to attorneys and staff at the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. This has turned out to be a profound way of helping the staff in managing their own PTSD/trauma, but also of positively contributing to their lives. And it has transformed my own relationship to the September 11 Community knowing that I am impacting not only staff, but the victims, the health care workers, and the families. For this opportunity I am profoundly grateful.
Much, if not all, conflict originates with personal trauma. By deepening my own understanding and experience of trauma, my purpose and reason for working as a peace-maker has been made clearer than ever. I was born after my 7-year old sister died from a concussion. As a baby and as a child, I really had no cognitive way to empathize with my parents and my surviving sister — nor understand how negative behaviors could present themselves after an immense loss of a child. “What’s the trauma?” you might ask, I did not suffer the loss myself, I was not mature enough to appreciate the loss. Maybe it was vicarious trauma. Now I am seeing how being present and open to this event in my life helps inform my capacity to work with clients who are in the middle of deep and troubling situations. When I am able to direct my own, or a client’s, awareness to a trauma, which may be personal, family, ancestral, communal, organizational or historical — it opens the door to healing and growth in the relationship.
Through conversation, mindfulness, and understanding, parties begin to see the interrelationship between the current conflict and prior traumatic events. When we shift personally or professionally from an adversarial posture in the family system to a collaborative model, I have found that real healing is possible. When I came to a clearer realization that ultimately my family did the best with what they knew, it gave me a broader sense of compassion for the contribution they made to me. I am learning how this experience at birth and in my early years informs each and every conflict I become involved with. I believe in the collaborative spirit that all the parties in a conflict are being supported, all parties can begin healing conflict, and when done communally or historically we can literally change the world and move towards peace.
Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon
I’ve been reading Days of Awe for a long time, at least half of my life (I’m 68.) This book, a collection scripture, law and stories, enriches my High Holy Days every year. Where else can I be reminded at what time a circumcision is performed on Rosh Hashanah? Or have easily at hand the Twenty-Four Things that Hinder Teshuvah by the Rambam? Every year Agnon reminds me about the order of things, the stories that matter, and how to conduct myself during this time of judgement. Agnon collected many folktales in this book, especially of Chasidic origin, and it a pleasure to reread them-they are old friends. Days of Awe is my required reading for Elul. If you are not acquainted with it yet, I hope you will become familiar with it soon. Shanah tovah.
A tale from Days of Awe:
A tale is told of one who sat in study before the tzaddik Rabbi Mordechai of
Nadvorna…and before Rosh Hashanah came to obtain permission to be
dismissed. The tzaddik said to him, “Why are you hurrying?” Said he to him
“I am a Reader, and I must look into the festival prayer book, and put my prayers in order.” Said the tzaddik to him, “The prayer book is the same as it was last year. But it would be better for you to look into your deeds, and put yourself in order.”
A few weeks ago, I found myself with an extra hour on my way to a memorial service for a much-loved, elderly friend of the family. The service was about 15 minutes from my hometown, so I detoured to the place where I grew up.
I haven’t lived there for nearly 45 years. Since I left, I fell in love, built a career, raised two amazing daughters with my terrific husband, and, most recently, stopped working and became a grandparent. As I was driving, I wondered if this visit would give me new insights about my life’s arc from childhood to the present, perhaps even a window into what lies ahead.
“The more we understand ourselves, the more skilled we will be at…listening to the nurturing voice deep inside us that says, ‘This is important to you,’” writes Mary Pipher in her new book Women Rowing North, about growing older. “The more self-knowledge we have, the more likely it is that we will be able to act in accordance with our truest selves.” Please, I thought, let my pitstop yield helpful self-knowledge.
I recalled from my last visit, perhaps 20 years ago, that the town had undergone significant physical and economic changes. Many trees on my street had been cut down, and the Jewish Community Center had been replaced by a senior living center. This time, I decided to go to the park where I played as a child and to see my elementary school and the outside of my old apartment building. As I suspected, they were all smaller than they had loomed in my childhood.
What I was unprepared for, though, was the ocean of deep memories that washed over me. Wave after wave, the recollections came. Among them: Sunday afternoons when my sister and I played in the park, pumping our legs harder and harder on the swings while our dad sat on the bench, listening to the baseball game on the transistor radio we gave him for Father’s Day. The salmon sandwiches our mom made for picnics there. The pumpkin costume I wore while marching in my elementary school’s Halloween parade. The yew my Girl Scout troop planted. The crosswalk on my way to kindergarten just hours after my sibling was born and, while crossing the street, reflecting on what it would be like to be a big sister. Racing home up the large, curving hill so I could watch live news coverage of a NASA rocket launch.
Some things endure: I still geekily follow the space program, and I think it’s sweet to see what costumes little kids choose for Halloween. I continue to love being outdoors, though I’ve swapped swings in the park for long hikes.
I wonder what our daughters will recall about their childhoods decades from now. But as this Rosh Hashanah approaches—my first as “Bubbie”—I am starting to think about how I might instill deep memories for my grandson. While it’s unfair that children seem to have no specific memories of their wondrous and miraculous first year, he knows he is deeply loved. As he gets older, I hope that he will like taking long walks where we will try to identify what kinds of rocks we see. Will he like to go camping and gaze up at the stars? Will he be an avid cyclist like his Grampa and parents? Will he like to pick raspberries as much as I do? Someday, will he help me chop the ingredients for charoset? I hope whatever memories we build together that he will recall them with smiles, laughter, and love.
Coming Home to Persimmon Tree Lane
How appropriate it feels to be preparing to move our High Holiday traditions back to our physical and spiritual home on Persimmon Tree Lane. As our forefathers created tradition and community by spelling out in minute detail the preparation of the Tabernacle in Exodus, we now negotiate, arrange and reconfigure in our own space to bring our community home.
In this time of fear and concern, the antidote to self doubt and isolation is community. We are, as humans, distinguished by our need for belonging and connection in order to find meaning and fulfillment. As Brené Brown so eloquently states in her book, Daring Greatly:
“Those who feel a deep sense of connection believe they are worthy of love and belonging. It is these “wholehearted” who live a life defined by “courage, compassion and connection” and attribute successes in life to their ability to be vulnerable.”
This year as we worry about the viability of our moral, political and physical world around us, we prepare our home for connection and belonging that we rely upon. May we all feel the sense of worthiness and have the strength to continue to take risks, explore new ideas, new friendships, new experiences and Tikun Olam. L’Shanah Tovah
Rabbi Fred on Climate Tshuvah
The work of Elul, and of these daily “Elul Enlightenments,” is to open new doors of reflection and repentance, with increasing urgency as Tishrei draws near. Today, two-thirds of the way through this preparatory month, many of us are striking! We’re among thousands gathered downtown, and millions elsewhere, actively rejecting business as usual while the world burns, and embracing a vision of justice and sustainability.
Then tomorrow night, many of us will gather for Slichot, the overture to our Days of Awe (don’t miss it, 7:30pm!) – and in ten more days, we’ll all cross the threshold of a new year, and begin our Ten Days of Tshuvah together. These three things closely intersect, through what we might call “climate tshuvah” – hard, sacred work, to which we are collectively called.
Contemplating climate involves an inescapable irony. The more you know about global heating, the more frightening it gets (a spate of recent peer-reviewed papers suggest that earlier consensus estimates were too low; ill effects will come faster and stronger). Yet every expert in the growing field of climate communications agrees that “there’s hope” must be a central component of every discussion or presentation on the topic. So the more we become attuned to the limits of hope, the more we must spread the message of hope.
Today’s youth-led Global Climate Strike is itself grounds for hope. It’s an example of the “audacious hope” that Rabbi Rachel asked us all to summon (in last Friday’s Elul Enlightenment): “Rosh HaShana reminds us that the seed of hope, alive within all of us, must now be nurtured anew so that it can flower into the כח (ko’akh), moral courage, to step forward into the future and build towards the world we want to leave for those who will come after us.”
Another member of our community, a 14-year old named Sara [!], just issued the regional Interfaith Power & Light strike invitation, asking us all to step forward today in solidarity with her, with Greta Thunberg, and so many others: “If you care about kids, you should want the Earth to be healthy and whole for them.” (More on this theme of intergenerational solidarity at Rosh Hashanah).
This question of legacies l’dor vador, from generation to generation, looms large around the Days of Awe, and our annual deep dive into tshuvah (introspection, repentance, and improvement). This season, we ask the big questions: What exactly have we done, or failed to do? Where are we currently headed? What are we on track to leave for our descendants?
Climate-wise, the news isn’t so good. In this biggest of arenas, hope doesn’t come in a rosy picture frame, wrapped in a bow! Rather, a sober honest hope comes via the distinction between analog and digital. Consider:
Emissions are analog, but on a staggeringly large level. Every mile we don’t drive, burger we don’t order, or degree we lower the thermostat, we reduce our footprint and our pollution culpability – measurably, if infinitesimally. Every dollar we give as tzedakah to green NGO’s, or invest in green businesses, or withdraw from fossil fuel companies (i.e. in retirement accounts or mutual funds), we come a teeny bit closer to breakthroughs in sustainability. Every day (like today!) on which we march, or lobby and organize, or canvass and vote, we ever-so-slightly increase the odds of government intervening at the scale that the reality requires.
Impacts, on the other hand, seem digital: the flood or fire did or didn’t get the house; the species survived, or went extinct; the new vector for disease did or didn’t affect/hurt/kill someone we love. This digital frame is popular enough that some advocates misleadingly speak of “ten more years,” or “how late is too late,” or “game over” – when in fact, in the aggregate, these impacts too are analog. Even if it’s just buying time: every year before sea level rise renders a neighborhood or city uninhabitable, grants precious time in which to be forward-thinking. Every hurricane over warming oceans that doesn’t reach Category 5 at landfall saves lives.
That’s where hope, and tshuvah, comes in. Climate tshuvah makes a real difference.
Climate tshuvah insists on deep introspection regarding our actions and their adverse impacts; true dedication to reducing our footprint going forward; and trying our best to make amends for past emissions by doubling down on our advocacy and education. This alone is the path of justice of sustainability, of brachah and chayim, blessing and life (rather than the klalah/curse and mavet/death to which the status quo leads; this from Deut. 30:19 which we read on Yom Kippur morning).
This life-affirming path is not actually about “saving Earth,” or life on Earth, or even humanity; all will likely remain, if battered and bruised, many generations hence, once the global climate is finally stabilized – which will eventually happen, hopefully by planned, deliberate action steps; failing those, by painful collapses of human and natural systems. Today’s efforts are quite simply to try and save as many people, ecosystems, and species as we can, along the way. We’re trying to expand and preserve what quality of life can be maintained, by as many people as possible, for as long as possible. We’re trying to rapidly bring down emissions (mitigation), and ramp up readiness (adaptation), so as to minimize future suffering.*
That may seem at first like rather wan hope! But it’s real; it matters; and it’s what we’ve got.
We rightly reject the Bible’s overly simple schar v’onesh (reward and punishment) theology, since ours is a world in which good people suffer, and evildoers flourish. But when we consider how our actions have adverse impacts “unto the third and fourth generation,” it begins to make sense (per the full Thirteenth Attribute in Ex. 34:7, a whitewashed version of which looms large in the Yom Kippur liturgy). Why? Because carbon emitted today stays aloft, and wreaks climate havoc, for that same century or so. We’ll be long gone, but our descendants will be around – and their future fates will hinge on what we did or didn’t do, way back in 2019.
Let that be our motivation to change our ways, now. To turn. To return. To do climate tshuvah.
Today’s Global Climate Strike isn’t the first massive action, and it won’t be the last. Will you be part of the next one, and the one after that?
At tomorrow’s Slichot we’ll tell stories and sing songs, all of which point toward our general work of tshuvah, some of them motivating our climate tshuvah specifically. Will you be there (or elsewhere), focused on introspection and repentance and self-betterment?
Rosh Hashanah is around the corner, with Yom Kippur close on its heels. (And Hazon.org is deeming the whole rest of 5780 as our “Year of Environmental Tshuvah”). Will we act in ways that help us deserve to be written in that metaphorical Book of Life? And will we do enough climate tshuvah to help today’s coastal poor people, and countless endangered species, and our own great grandchildren, to also be inscribed for life?
For me, the theme of “coming home,” evokes complex feelings. This year, and in particular, the past few months, have been challenging for my family, and during this High Holiday period I hope to find a Jewish and Adat Shalom context for my mixed feelings about “coming home.”
For more than a year, my partner Pete and I have working to adopt our son Joshua. Our efforts to become a “forever family,” to allow us to legally “come home,” have been filled with highs and lows. Our expectations of a success have met with repeated legal and bureaucratic hurdles. Occasionally even our intentions have been questioned.
More recently, in late July, I was assaulted, just blocks from our home in Northwest DC. The man who attacked me was homeless and likely mentally ill, and had been previously noticed by some of our neighbors.
It’s an understatement to say that my sense of home and what it means to come home have been shaken. “Home” has become fraught with emotion and feels fragile. Importantly, however, among all of our tumultuous life events, a central element has been the tremendous caring, support and love from our family, friends, neighbors and most certainly, the Adat Shalom community. Maybe, with all of this support, I’m still feeling a bit confused about “coming home,” but I’m more committed than ever to “building home,” and really building a much bigger homes.
I am no Jewish scholar, but I know that as Jews, we pray together, and we are commanded to act together as a community. On Yom Kippur, much of our atonement is said in the plural voice. We atone not just for our individual failures, but those of others, of our community. Our sins before God may be erased without much effort, but our sins against other people, other creatures and our planet require proactive, community effort.
After he heard about my recent experience, a neighbor said to me, “our community has become complacent.” His comment really resonated with me. We live in a time when communication is easy, but authentic connection can be hard. We are hyper aware of the great challenges of our time, but coming together around shared solutions seems like a difficult, if not impossible task.
I’ve always been intrigued by a modern interpretation of the coming of the Messiah, suggesting that we can’t simply, passively wait for Elijah to arrive and all will be well. The Messianic era will arrive when people come together and we do the work to build our community, our home as a place of peace, respect for others, care for those in need, and commitment to addressing the problems we face.
My hope is that as we “come home” to our beautiful sanctuary and synagogue for the High Holidays, that it will serve not just a place for prayer and contemplation, but as an inspiration and motivation to act, to be engaged, and to understand that “coming home” isn’t enough. We have a responsibility to be part of the construction team that will ultimately build a better home for our family, friends, neighbors, Adat Shalom community and the world.
Reflecting on Forgiveness
Amidst all this talk about self-reflection and forgiveness around the holy days, I share with a community I hold dear these very personal and somewhat indulgent thoughts.
My 93-year-old father has taken up a new hobby. When he’s not busy looking for lost things, which consumes a good deal of time these days, he looks for lost people. It’s become an obsession – scouring the Internet for the pretty woman who devotedly wrote to him when he was serving overseas during WWII, tracking down scribbled correspondence from the Hungarian prince he helped escape from war-torn Europe, sending midnight emails to the daughter of a college pal who hosted holiday meals for the few Jewish cadets at The Citadel in the late ‘40s.
Why, now? Why after these many years is Dad determined to use the little time and energy he has left seeking out these old, really old, friends. Closure you think? That’s part of it, he’ll admit. But forgiveness is the accurate answer.
To get to that answer, I’ve been doing a lot of talking with Dad. I sit with him on the couch holding his skinny, crooked hands. I use my outside voice, my best efforts at enunciation, and all the patience I can muster. He looks me square in the eye, focuses hard to hear and reads my lips. We’ve had time for this recently as I am caring for Dad and Mom much more these days.
So, Dad, what do the pretty woman, the prince and the pal have in common?
Dad doesn’t feel he told pretty woman what her letters meant to him when he was a scared 18-year-old kid fighting a war far from home. He never told Valentine, the Hungarian prince, what a good friend he was and how he kept Dad’s spirits from lagging during the long days of deposing Nazi war criminals and the long nights in his room full of ghosts. (He was assigned a room in the former officers’ quarters of a death camp.) And, he wasn’t in contact enough with his pal, Milt, whose southern hospitality made those additional years away from family more bearable. He should have helped Milt more when his wife passed and when he became ill. He’s got a bad case of the “shoulda-couldas”.
Dad is the most forgiving person I know. No matter the injustice, slight, oversight or indignity that comes his way, he forgives. Everyone says this about him. The only person Dad can’t forgive is himself. He’s trying to make up for that now and I’m struggling with it myself.
This has been a rough year – a roller coaster ride of professional and personal challenges. Most notable, I lost my dear mother-in-law, my heroic ex-husband, and a good friend. Two by death, one by neglect.
In my prayers this year, I’ll be looking for a sliver of light to pass through, an opening for self-forgiveness, and the courage to take up my Dad’s new hobby. Perhaps that light will lead me out of this very dark year.
And, Dad? He found pretty woman whom he’d last spoken to in 1946. She lives in a nursing home in Massachusetts. A dozen roses and a card with a long overdue message are on their way.
Coming Home – But What Exactly is Home?
Just what do we mean by coming home? That is our theme this year – Coming Home, Back to Adat Shalom for the Days of Awe (aka High Holidays).
So, what does this mean? Some could reasonably argue that wherever we are gathered, that is home. That the Adat Shalom spirit is with us when we are together –at a retreat, at a potluck, wherever else we gather. After all, how many years did we spend wandering Montgomery County looking for a home? We went through several locations, starting with the living rooms of the original members. Then we went through a series of churches and the JCC in Rockville, before we finally found land and built our building. And throughout all that we always felt at home. As a second wave member (I joined in 1993, when we were meeting at Christ Lutheran Church), I still felt that I was where I was supposed to be and that it was home.
I started to think about the places I have called home. There is the home where my parents raised a family for 34 years. In reality, only my parents lived there all those years, as we grew up and left. But we always came back. I have a photo of all of us at what we called the “Final Bash,” the last family party taken a few weeks before they sold the house and moved to another state. We all wondered how the new place could possibly feel like home. But my parents have now been in Asheville, NC for 20 years, and that is the family home that we all return to for gatherings. Now the grandchildren come with their partners and eventually, hopefully, there will be great-grandchildren running down the hall or riding their tricycles in the driveway.
I myself have lived in a few states, with Maryland being the longest (half my life at this point). And while I love visiting family and friends elsewhere, it is really nice to come back home to Germantown and the life I have made for myself here. And that life contains my other home – Adat Shalom.
So, I guess that means the memories and relationships that we nurture are what makes a place a home. It will be extra special this year to come back home to the Adat Shalom building and gather new memories of celebrating all of the Days of Awe in our own space (including the glitches that will happen), and reinforce just what home means to us.
Thoughts on the High Holidays
While Jewish communities around the world were celebrating Yom Kippur on Monday, September 22, 1972, I was helping an American TV crew escape from Ugandan president Idi Amin’s secret police at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kampala. I saw firsthand how the words of a dictator could imperil the lives of innocent people. A few days later, on the eve of Succoth, my family and I were evacuated from Uganda following Amin’s announcement on TV that he would build a monument to his hero, Adolph Hitler.
As I remember the events of that day, I recognize more clearly how the language of hate can quickly turn into deadly actions. Several years after I retired from the Foreign Service, I joined the staff at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. During my 16 years there, I frequently toured the Museum’s Permanent Exhibition with senior officials of the U.S. and foreign governments. I felt it was my duty to point out several important and embarrassing aspects of American policy during the 1930s and 40s. These included the restrictive immigration policy, the open hostility of some senior U.S. officials towards Jews and the widespread popularity of isolationism.
Between 1933 and 1938, the United States did not fill the quotas for Germans who wished to immigrate to the United States, partly due to the hostility of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long towards Jews. In an official memo to U.S. consular officials in June 1940, Long advised the consuls to “put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas.”
Long wasn’t the only American official trying to block entry of Jewish refugees into the United States. Senator Robert Reynolds (D-NC) proposed stopping all immigration into the United States for a period of 10 years. And he and other congressional colleagues opposed efforts in 1939 by Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers (R-MA) to allow 20,000 German refugee children under 14 years old to enter the United States, similar to the British Kindertransport. The bill never came to a vote despite strong support from labor and religious organizations and Eleanor Roosevelt. American public opinion also opposed the bill. And the America First Committee, led by Charles Lindbergh, was opposed to immigration and American involvement in World War II until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Leaders of the AFC, including Lindbergh, were accused of being anti-Semitic.
As we join together at Adat Shalom for the High Holidays, we need to reflect on this history and what Americans did not do to make our country a place of refuge for those fleeing the Nazi onslaught. Events today are not the same, but too much of the language of senior U.S. Government officials is stirring up hate against those who seek refuge in the United States, as well as against Americans who do not agree with our political leaders. As Jews, we have an obligation to speak out against the language of hate. As we know only too well, words of hate can lead to dangerous actions.
A Lot of Jews
I had a big birthday this year, and I have been looking back. In Elul, especially, I look back Jewishly. I have been a lot of Jews: I was born in Memphis, Tennessee and grew up active in a Reform temple in Norfolk, VA, with a lot of extended family in the Tidewater area. I’m a Southern Jew.
I fell in love with being Jewish through MAFTY, with friends singing and swaying to Debbie Friedman’s compositions and learning about Martin Buber in the Teatron. I am a musical Jew, a thinking Jew, a creative Jew. I learned more about Judaism during college, and spent time in more traditional settings than I had before.
I am a comfortable Jew, a praying Jew. I went to medical school and became a psychiatrist.
I am a Jew with plenty of good company. I got married at a temple, had children who went to Jewish day schools, had a bris, a baby naming, Bar and Bat Mitzvah and family funerals and burials. I built sukkahs and held seders,
I am a family Jew. I make challah for Shabbat every week. I am a gastronomic Jew. I joined Adat Shalom and held many leadership positions, including co-President. I am an organizational Jew.
What am I now, and what will this year hold for me? I am a podcast Jew, a searching Jew, a reading Jew, a meditative Jew, a dancing Jew, a political Jew, a curious Jew and a growing Jew. These Jews that I am often need different experiences at different times. What I know I always need is community, a bunch of Jews, a minyan of Jews, a crowd of Jews, a program of Jews, a friendship of Jews, a personality of Jews and people connected to Jews to share Shabbat and life with.
As Mordecai Kaplan said, Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. I am an evolving Jew, and what fulfills me is learning and experimenting with something new. Adat Shalom has supported me as so many of these Jews, and continues to support me and others like me, which is maybe all of us? Tfilah Shebalev is an experiment in evolving Shabbat practice, once a month on the first Shabbat of the month this year. Sandy Perlstein, Marc Gunther and I are a challenge of Jews seeing what may be meaningful to us. You can explore with us what that could look like and we would welcome your thoughts and participation. Bring all your Jews with you!
Everyone Wants One
‘Coming home’ is complicated for me in 5779.
Much thought and care went into designing the sanctuary at Adat Shalom. There is grace and beauty in the simple, unadorned finishes, the organic ark, the floating Mishnaic phrases, the tent. Natural light bathes the congregation from above and below, embracing the bimah. Once we are all safely transported and ushered into the sanctuary for Yamim Nora’im, the sanctity of the moment will undoubtedly be enhanced by being in a sacred rather than public space. May the G-d of logistics shine and share its countenance upon us these days.
As special as the building is, it is truly the spiritual community that is Adat Shalom that creates our home. The struggle and exploration that occurs in this building nurtures the Judaism in all of us. A special treat for me these past two years has been the Yesidot Halimud class, educating its students so we feel more at home in our liturgy and our faith’s historical legacy. How much more home can you get?
Yet there is a discordant note. My mother passed away last Tishrei. The heat and light of hearth and home created by her motherly affection has gone out, replaced by the void of orphan-hood. I am also only now appreciating that the mindful, creative attention she needed during the final years of her life that seemed a burden at the time, was kindling for a glow that embraced both of us; that flame too has been extinguished.
Along with my mother’s passing comes the practical act of selling the bricks and mortar home of my youth, a home built by my parents in a community they chose in the 1950s. Always more than just a building, it has remained an enduring repository of a whole bunch of stuff, but is also chockfull of family memories that my siblings and I could still reach out and touch. But no more. It is time to let another family create its own stories in that house, overlaying the uniqueness and foreverness of my own youth.
For one coddled with twin good fortunes of a long surviving parent and an undisturbed homestead, this year has been a transition to a new emotional homelessness.
Looking past the narrow confines of my own situation or our community we witness millions around the world forced to find their own new homes. Those who believe they are solving problems by extracting themselves from what was home, as well as those who are driven from their homes by forces greater than themselves. The causes, the stories, the mitigations vary widely across the globe; so many human tragedies result from humans’ treatment of the other.
Hurry now to the Phillips Collection to artistic expressions of global displacement. Displacement has been with us for years, millennia, but the exhibit tells us that displacement has risen steadily over the last 50 years to now exceed 15 million new people this year alone. The exhibit is titled ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement,” but is only there until September 22nd.
Home. Everyone wants one. Celebrate what you have when you have it. Search for it when you do not.
The Audacity of Rosh HaShana Hope
Now midway through the Hebrew month of Elul, we are less than two weeks from Rosh HaShana. Since we left Tisha B’Av* in August, we’ve been on a steady course of increasing optimism and hope, which is meant to reach its psycho-spiritual zenith at the new year. Our haftarot in the synagogue have us on a weekly diet of Deutero-Isaiah during this season, entreating our ancestors (and, by extension, us) to embrace an optimistic vision of the future, insisting that the traumas of the past are now over and good things are about to be restored and strengthened.
On Rosh HaShana itself, we will proclaim and affirm with shofar blasts: Today the world is newly conceived, newly born! All of the potential for joy, for peace, for harmony and for beauty that inspires us when we welcome a new baby is now in our hearts for the world itself. It is a beautiful, powerful expression of faith in the future, of the planet, and of humanity and one which seems harder than ever to muster within ourselves. So much seems terribly wrong! We hear daily (if not hourly, or even more frequently in our Twitter-defined sense of time) how dire is our climate crisis. Many of us watch with horror as our national leaders make choices and deliver rhetoric which is at odds with so much of what we’ve been taught to value as Americans, as lovers of Israel, as citizens of the planet. Our Jewish gut-reaction to increasing manifestations of anti-semitism and its larger umbrella of ethnic hatred are newly enervated even as we try to school ourselves to stay calmly engaged.
Rosh HaShana’s message of renewed potential, of fertility, of planetary vitality feels positively audacious. And perhaps that is why it is needed most. Our internal response must be to hear this audacious call to faith in spite of our very real fears. As we’ve learned from the famous teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, “the whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is not to make yourself [more] afraid.” So many in our community have turned their concerns into activism; we continue to be inspired by their example and take their invitations to join in, whatever the cause. Our Rosh HaShana celebration is spiritual activism. Joining our hearts, our voices, our whole selves together to hear the sound of the shofar and to take up the seasonal theme of audacious hope in our prayers and our learning is nourishment we need now more than ever. The problems before us cannot be solved without this vision of the future. Rosh HaShana reminds us that the seed of hope, alive within all of us, must now be nurtured anew so that it can flower into the כח (ko-akh), moral courage, to step forward into the future and build towards the world we want to leave for those who will come after us.
In addition to the many wonderful tools for this spiritual activism already at our disposal – the practice of reciting Psalm 27 each day, the sound of the shofar blast as an alarm, the communal chanting of beloved prayers, meaningful words from our teachers – I add a poetic verse I discovered recently, an excerpt from a much longer composition by the great Rabbi Avraham Israel Kook, modern Israel’s first chief rabbi, who asks us to remember this moral courage is within each of us.
Rav Kook writes:
Ben Adam Aleh L’Malah
Human, rise up above, rise up
You have strength within you
You have wings of spirit
Wings of powerful eagles
Do not deny them
Lest they deny you
Seek them out
And you will find them without delay
(lit. they will be found by you . . . )
-HaRav Avraham Israel Kook
“The Lights of Holiness”
Rav Kook implicitly acknowledges that we humans are likely to lose sight of the moral courage in us and adjures us to seek it out, perhaps on a regular basis. Rosh HaShana is the fertile ground for nurturing that strength, even when we need some internal audacity to find it and lift it up.
*The “9th of [the Hebrew month] Av”, which Jewish tradition designates for mourning the destruction of Jerusalem in Biblical times and for many other Jewish traumas and tragedies over the last 2500 years.
As I get older,
my mistakes and my accomplishments multiply like weeds.
Still I strive
to outrun myself
with the weight of more good deeds,
in the hope they will
those regrettable blunders
which haunt me.
How is it I am weighed down
with more than enough chaff
to smother my wheat?
Will I ever find the peace
that allows forgiveness
for my own transgressions?
Or are my transgressions needful spurs
prodding me toward good?
I weary of self-dislike
and yet, at times
it feels well
Perhaps I require the silence of nothing
when impulse threatens.
Can I look my pettiness in the eye
Will that strength ever
reliably dwell in my hands?
Is serenity possible?
Am I good enough?
Will I ever
Home is Israel. As an Israeli, my Jewish identity was always centered on what I was not: I was not religious. I was not part of the primitive world of my grandmother, who kept Kosher and lit candles and didn’t travel in a car or touch the light switch on the Sabbath. As a young, politically active adult I hated “the Dosim,” our derogatory term for those stuck-in-the-middle-ages-black-hats, or the knitted-yarmulkes-national-religious-fanatic-settlers. Those who imposed rules on whom and how to marry, who closed stores and restaurants on Shabbat, those who were turning the Zionist dream into a fundamentalist nightmare. I did not, on principle, fast on Yom Kippur. It was a day of feasting and watching videos with my friends in Tel Aviv.
I loved my country and was proud of being Israeli. I was proud to be Jewish but it was a given, not anything I had to actively seek or do. It meant being part of a history and a unique revival of nationhood. It meant the language and poetry, the literature and the Bible that I loved so much, but as the mythology of my people, not the word of God. It was also nightmares of Nazis and feeling grateful and safe that we survived, getting together with the cousins on holidays, going through the motions at the Seder.
And then I married an American, and in 1990, following my new husband Stuart for his PHD studies at UC-Davis I left home for what he promised was “five to six years max”.
I never planned for, nor dreamed of, living my life away from Israel. I did spend 5th and 6th grades in Palo Alto when my father was on sabbatical at Stanford University, but then we went back home — to Israel. As an adult I went to graduate school in New York City but went back home — to Israel.
We lived in Davis for eleven years — never believe a plant scientist telling you a graduate degree will take five or six years.
Stuart, a survivor of Reform Judaism, had nightmares of Hebrew School and a strong aversion of anything related to religion so we never attended services or joined the Jewish congregation in Davis. All our friends were Israelis. With them we celebrated holidays together, “for the kids”, and it was “for the kids” that I started lighting candles on Shabbat, mumbling the words I wasn’t sure were correct, since I never did hear what my grandmother said behind the hands covering the eyes. It was just so my kids would know they were connected to some tradition, but it didn’t really matter because we were going back home where it was part of the culture and everyone was Jewish.
But as the old Yiddish proverb says, Man plans and God laughs…
After Stuart was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis it became clear that the academic track he planned was no longer relevant, and returning to the stress and heat of Israel without a stable job was too risky. He found a job with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office here.
Suddenly, I was not going back home.
Perhaps the most painful part for me was realizing my children will not be Israelis. They won’t be able to read the poetry I love so dearly. They will not hear the rich layers of multiple meaning embedded in every Hebrew word of the Bible. I found myself asking questions that never occurred to me. What does it mean to be Jewish in a non-Jewish culture? I didn’t know, but I felt strongly that I wanted them to have a connection and for the first time in my life I had to figure out how to maintain a Jewish Identity for my children, who at that time were eight and ten.
With all the turmoil and adjustments in our life, my family refused to “shop around” for a congregation. The idea of joining a synagogue was still far too foreign for my sensibility. So we joined a small chavurah, a lovely cooperative of parents teaching the kids at Sunday cheder, to create a positive connection to Judaism without the oppression of the old traditions or the formal, less personal atmosphere of a synagogue. We had services for High Holidays, completely lay-led, filled with lots of music and singing. We also had services for Bar Mitzvahs, each family creating its own ritual with a hired Rabbi. I loved the community, but as the years went by, my children were no longer going to Sunday cheder, and having services just once a year was no longer enough for me.
I longed for ritual and an on-going sense of community.
The Orthodox mainstream in Israel had deprived me of the privilege of being Jewish and I was going to reclaim that privilege. This time it was for me, not just “for the kids”.
I found it here, at Adat Shalom. I found ritual, renewal, song and learning, inspiration and wisdom of Rabbis and members, and best of all, lots of Hebrew that reconnects me with everything I love about my grandmother’s world, helping me infuse it with new meaning and relevance.
But above and beyond all that, I feel grateful to the abundance of love and support of this community. I feel it every time I walk through the doors. It has sustained me and helped me survive as our family continues to face the challenges of Stuart’s M.S.
My friends in Israel think I’ve gone off the deep end. But I feel I have come home.
This summer, I studied antisemitism with an international group that met in England. The concept of place and home resonated with me. I was already reflecting on the forced status of Jews as wanderers, along with being exposed to such contemporary manifestations of antisemitism as 21st century graphics based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was truly disconcerting. In my bones I identified with a feeling of being without a place of safety that was historically conditioned, along with fears that our safety may again be threatened.
It was generally taken as a given by the course presenters and probably most of the participants that antizionism is a manifestation of antisemitism. I too accept that Israel is a Jewish homeland, but is it a place where I might feel at home?
A few months prior to the course, I spent a couple of weeks in Israel –exploring antisemitism among other issues, with a progressive bent. I was taken aback by how much I truly loved the Israeli participants and being in Israel. I realize that I am identified with two countries that I love–one my secular home, the US, and the other a spiritual home, Israel. In both of these “homes” the politics are exceedingly fraught, and the leadership horrifies me. Does this mean that I have two loyalties? or two disloyalties?
On a practical level, I am clear that I am an American. There are many things I do not understand about Israel and my real struggles are here in the US. Yet, I sometimes feel other in what one can call American, even liberal American, settings.
On a spiritual level, I have had a longing for many years to find a true home where my soul can grow, and my spirit can find ease. The yogis, among others, tell us that our only real home is in our spiritual center, a part of us beyond our body and our everyday mind. But, as human beings we need something far more tangible in order to blossom. As summer turns to fall and the Yomim Noraim beckon us to reflection, I find myself extremely grateful that I do have a spiritual home – a place that can stimulate my mind while providing a container for my restless spirit. This allows my soul to expand. Whatever my questions or concerns are for the world at large, I can invest myself in the services at Adat Shalom, held in our building surrounded by its beautiful landscape, and refresh myself for the upcoming year.
Coming Home to Joy
What a gift this time of year is for reflection. Every year, during the High Holy Days, my husband Bill Franz (z”l) and I would find a quiet place and time to share our reflections of the year past, ask forgiveness for transgressions and voice hopes and intentions for the coming year.
In the first year after Bill died, I found comfort in Jewish mourning rituals—some traditional and some more modern, like going to the Mikvah to mark the first Yahrzeit. During this time I honored Bill’s wish to spread his ashes in places that he loved—Montauk, New York, where his family spent many summers during his youth; Capon Bridge, West Virginia, at our favorite dance camp; and close to home along the Capital Crescent trail in Bethesda. I’ve honored Bill’s memory with a memorial bench along this trail — bearing his favorite quote, “Behold this new day; it is yours to make”. A dear friend and former Adat Shalom member, Judy Duffield, turned some of his clothes into a beautiful quilt wall hanging that graces my home. I found comfort in each of these actions, along with support by loving friends and family, and through Caring Matters, an excellent bereavement support group.
In year two, something has shifted for me. Now I am moving from being a widow to living the rest of my life. Of course, though I will never be done mourning Bill, my tears are less frequent and my perspective seeks new possibilities. As I reflect on this past year, I’ve taken baby steps—small but decisive moves to find my way back to joy through dance.
Bill and I met in 1995 at a ski and dance weekend in Pennsylvania. Dancing—waltz, swing, blues, and tango– was a huge part of our joy together and of our social scene over the years. One of my sweetest memories was dancing at a bar in Dallas, after a cousin’s wedding — just enjoying our familiar embrace, swaying to slow, sultry music. It was also the last time we danced before Bill got sick. For a year after Bill died, I could not even listen to music in our home.
I did not realize it, but my body was ready to dance before my heart was. Rabbi Hazzan Rachel explained to me that while grieving, the mind, heart and body may heal at different rates. So those baby steps started by hearing music and watching others dance. Then I joined an exercise class that incorporated music into lifting weights and aerobics. On vacation, I danced in new surroundings where no one knew me. Recently, I’ve been able to return to our familiar local dance venues. Finally, after two years, my head and heart have caught up to my body. Dancing feels like coming home to joy.
When the Days of Awe approach, I haven’t always grasped the opportunity for a new beginning. But this year I have space to reflect and confront the changes in my life. As this High Holiday season arrives, I am beginning anew — as a newly retired person, and as a mother-in-law for the second time.
I am in the midst of what the psychologist Erik Erickson called the seventh stage of life: “generativity vs. stagnation,” when you come to grips with what you have and have not accomplished and, if you are blessed, watch your children mature.
This year I left a founding Executive Director position I had held for ten years. I retired from a cause: homelessness. I had spent my career improving community care for people with mental illnesses and for those who had been homeless. I was tending to clients, and staff members, and budgets, and Boards of Directors, but also advocating, testifying, and organizing for innovative programs and better financing. My colleagues and I experienced successes and defeats. How do you leave this behind? You don’t — it remains your passion, but no longer your paid profession. You measure the progress you have seen and realize that the work never ends.
At our son’s wedding in May, I was elated that now both sons have wonderful partners. Members of two sides of our family made the effort to join in our celebration, despite recent losses — In one case, a husband, and in the other case, a mother.
At the Adat Shalom Retreat in May, I struggled with the concept of expressing gratitude in a spiritual way. Now it comes to mind all the time. During this season I will give blessings every day for the fulfilling career and the loving family I have had — and for the gift of freedom at this time of life.
By the Reeds at Water’s Edge
I was drawn to the water on a blustery day.
So calm, so still it was – defying the wind
That nearly took my hat away.
Would the reeds spoil the shot?
Buffeted as they were by the relentless gusts,
Would it all be a blur?
What a surprise!
The reeds stood still
And stood out.
Varied in height,
Upright or bent,
Each was unique.
Like us, they were.
Gathered at water’s edge,
Poised as if to see
The flow of time.
But how far can one see?
The stream soon bends from view.
Our fate is obscure.
Might we be like Moses,
Drawn from the reeds
And destined to lead?
Or shall we remain among the reeds?
Buffeted though they be,
There’s beauty in what I see.
Unique but not alone,
They have a home.
The Sacred Why
One of the great things about starting a new job is that you get to ask a lot of questions and, at least for the first few weeks, your colleagues are patient and explain things. At least that’s how it’s been for me in this first six weeks of being the interim education coordinator at Adat Shalom. There are a range of answers to my why questions; sometimes it’s because we’ve always done it that way and other times no one is really sure.
As a congregant, I generally accepted that we did things a certain way because of some combination of tradition and logistics. Now, as a member of the staff who oversees educational programming for our children and families, I find myself looking at things with a different perspective. I’m asking myself and my colleagues, both professionals and lay leaders, how and why we might do things differently in order to help Adat Shalom become a stronger and more intentional community.
Curiosity is the starting point. But we also have to have the right perspective, and I have found that every question I have is rooted in one nuanced inquiry: What is the kavanah, הָנוכ, the Jewish reason if you will, why we do what we do? What is the intention? And I don’t just mean the intention behind personal Jewish practices like lighting candles, keeping kosher, or celebrating holidays. In my new position, I find myself looking at our communal practices like attending services, volunteering together, or wearing kippot and asking… Why?
Why do we wear kippot in the sanctuary? Why do we have formal education for our kids on Shabbat morning? Why do we engage in tikkun olam efforts?
Behind each of these questions is a kavanah unique to our community. We wear kippot because it reminds us who we are in the grand scheme of things. I t’s not about me; I’m not the be all and end all. Something else — whether that ’s family or community or God — is out there too. It’s almost like a uniform, one that empowers us to walk into our sacred spaces and say, I’m here, I’m just like everyone else, no better and no worse, and I’m ready to focus and be a part of this club. Wearing a kippah doesn’t make you more or less Jewish, but there is a reasonable and meaningful intention behind its practice.
We hold Torah School on Shabbat morning because Jewish time matters, and our founders envisioned Saturday as sacred time for the entire family, time for learning, time for reflection, and yes, time for lunch. When we end our week with intention together, the entire community becomes stronger. Will Saturday programming sometimes conflict with other things on your schedule? Probably. And that’s okay. Shabbat happens every week. You’ll get another chance in six days – you just have to take it.
Ultimately, taking a chance on Jewish community is a huge part of the power of why, the power of kavanah. When we know why we do things a certain way, we are able to connect more deeply to a community that has been created with intention. We may not participate in every program ever week, but we remember, as Kaplan taught: Tradition gets a vote. Engaging in rituals or practices may feel weird or a bit awkward. Kind of like starting a new job. But that’s how we all learn, but being uncomfortable, by being unsure, and by asking why.
I’d like to invite us all to bring a fresh perspective to our Jewish practices as we approach and enter 5780. Bring a sense of curiosity. Bring the why. Don’t just go through the motions – allow yourself to experience a little productive discomfort with intention and a willingness to try. I don’t have any of the answers yet and I may never, but as a community working together, we should keep asking the questions.
Cycles of Learning
School has long been the place where I felt most at home. My life has been organized around the academic calendar for 55 years, from the time I started kindergarten. Like the Jewish calendar, the school year shapes my life into a repeated cycle of return and renewal. Going back to school each fall gives me an opportunity to try again to get things right. Sound familiar?
Late in the summer, as I prepare for a new semester and the High Holidays, I take stock of what has worked and what has not. I have been teaching for more than 35 years, and I have never finished a semester without a list of ideas about how to make the next course better. Each cycle of High Holiday reflections generates a similar list of ways I could make myself better. If I want to get things right this year, I have to figure out where I went wrong last year and make thoughtful choices about what I might do differently.
While I’ve done research on how course design facilitates student learning, I also understand that teaching, like living, is not simply a matter of methodology or planning. Teaching involves interaction, and that makes it about who I am as a person. As the writer and educator Parker Palmer puts it, teaching involves “my selfhood, my sense of this ‘I’ who teaches – without which I have no sense of the ‘Thou’ who learns.” So as I prepare for the new semester, I ask the same question that shapes my preparation for the Days of Awe: Who do I want to be this year?
To be the teacher – and the person – I want to be, I have to think about how to control my own behavior. How can I talk less and listen better? How can I rein in my sarcasm and impatience? Can I manage my time to make sure I give others enough attention? I wrestle with these same challenges when interacting with family members and friends, while being part of organizations, even when dealing with myself.
In all of this, I try to balance intentionality and improvisation, to be generous with myself and others, and to be as fully present as I can. In my classes as in the rest of my life, I repeatedly fail. But I recognize failure as a crucial part of the cycle of learning, especially when it is followed by reflection and opportunities to try again. The High Holidays teach us that we should not just reflect on where we have fallen short but also learn from our failures.
In teaching and learning, as in life, the cycle is the key. We commit each year to doing better, knowing that we will do it all again next year – the striving, the failing, the reflection, and the return.
Two Faiths, One Story
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, as we do every year, we will read the Akeda, the story of the binding of Isaac. Of all the passages of the Torah that we regularly encounter, this has long seemed to me the most morally troubling. Why would God demand as a show of faith that Abraham sacrifice his son? Why would Abraham obey the command? Was the experience as traumatic for Isaac as Leonard Cohen’s musical retelling of the story implies? What were the further consequences in the father/son relationship?
Few Jews realize that Muslims also have their version of the akeda. The Dhabih Allah, Sacrifice for God, is recorded somewhat ambiguously in the Qu’ran, Sura 37:102-112, not naming the son to be sacrificed. Although the son’s identity has been debated by Islamic scholars, Islamic literature long ago decided that it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was to be sacrificed. An interesting difference in detail is that Ishmael is said to have been a willing participant.
The Eid al-Adha, feast of the sacrifice, commemorates the event. One of two annual Muslim feast days, it was celebrated this year beginning on August 10th or 11th, depending on location.
Perhaps more significant for Jews, the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, surrounds the outcropping on which the binding is said to have occurred. A shrine, not a mosque, the Dome was completed in 691-692, approximately 60 years after Muhammad’s death. The rock is also thought by many to have been the point of departure for Muhammad’s Night Journey to Heaven where he entered the Divine Presence and prayed with Jesus, Moses, and other prophets acknowledged by Islam. Others believe that the departure took place from the site of al-Aqsa Mosque, a similarly ancient structure, also on the Temple Mount.
The importance of the Temple Mount to Muslims is embodied in these buildings and in the religious significance of the events said to have taken place there. The High Holy Days offer a suitable occasion to contemplate the significance of the many overlapping and conflicting features of Jewish and Muslim belief systems. They continue to have profound consequences worth exploring by those engaged in interfaith dialogues.
The traditional belief is that at this time of year we are written into the book that determines our future, on the basis of our conduct and maybe our prayers. As the year draws to a close I’m trying to make sense of the weird book into which I was written.
Either I got more than I deserved, or I’m a saint.
Late last winter I turned 65. I celebrated by going the customer service window at Metro Center and getting a half-fare senior citizens fare card. Then I tried to get my cash balance on the old card, about $180, transferred to the new one.
What was written into that book was an extra zero. Suddenly I had $1,800.
For years on those days when I boarded a Metrobus and the fare card reader was broken, and the driver waved on for free, I went through the whole day feeling good, far more than justified by the $1.25 I’d saved. And here was $1,620, all at once. When I first saw it on the turnstile fare card reader, I thought the machine was broken.
I felt very good for a couple of hours but I had to call Metro. In the transfer, someone had also mis-spelled my name, and my monthly deductions from my paycheck were no longer coming through either. And I decided to ‘fess up. They’d probably discover the error at some point anyway.
The clerk who answered the phone fixed the spelling of my name, but when I talked about the extra money in the account, he said to hold on and he’d figure it out. Then he hung up on me instead.
I called back. With some difficulty, I got the same clerk on the line again. This time he did put me on hold. After 5 minutes listening to bad on-hold music, he came back and said, in an annoyed voice, that my balance was $1,800. So I gave up.
But this was only one of my undeserved breaks this year. We bought an apartment, hired a contractor to re-do the kitchen and a bathroom, and sold the house. Two weeks before our move-in date, the contractor said he’d neglected to apply for one of the necessary permits, and there would be a six-week delay. (Actually, it turned out to be eight.) But my wife and I had a roof over our heads every night, because of the kindness of two different Adat Shalom families.
And there’s the recent study that says 40 percent of American families can’t afford a $400 emergency expense.
I do believe that some of the book we get written into is our own doing. Some isn’t. Something to think about in this season as the book is written and sealed.
GRATITUDE AND AWE
This past June, I was privileged to participate in the 50th reunion of the international year program I completed in Israel right after high school. The program, based in Jerusalem, was called Machon L’Madrachei Chutz La’Aretz (Institute for Leaders from Abroad). Now they call such experiences “Gap Years.” It was a combination of a semester of university-level classes, followed by three months on kibbutz, and a couple of months working in Jerusalem.
Of the original 70 of us, 28 attended, and we came from a number of countries. My friend Miriam from Tel Aviv and I had planned an entire three-day program for the group. For all intents and purposes, reunion planning was my hobby for the previous year. We were really pleased that a number of our chaverim formed a committee to help with different aspects of the program.
I had a few big takeaways from the reunion. Perhaps the biggest insight was that I was deeply grateful that I had this experience immediately after high school. Similar to almost all of us on the program, I was relatively provincial and had not been exposed to much outside of where I came from. That all changed.
I grew up in Berkeley, California and went to high school in San Francisco. I truly thought that the epicenter of the Sixties was exactly where I lived. The anti-Vietnam demonstrations in Berkeley, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Haight-Ashbury…they seemed like the vanguard of all that was cool and important.
Moving to Jerusalem at the age of 17 really rocked my world, and opened my eyes. My fellow students came from Morocco, India, Canada, France, Holland, England and a number of other localities. The Israeli-Arab conflict was simmering, two years after The Six Day War.
I became fascinated with world events and have kept that fascination to this day. In fact, much of my professional life has revolved around engagement in international issues.
Another big take-away was a sense of awe and gratitude that I was fortunate with a long and fulfilling life. We had created a twenty-minute video of the “now and then” of our program. A section of the video was called “Lizkor” and it honored all of those who had passed away, some of them way too early in life. We also had a section that showed what we each looked like 50 years ago and what we looked like now.
Sometimes I can feel sorry for myself that I didn’t get that really big job or didn’t do as well as I might have on some task or personal interaction. I could probably play quite a game of “trivial pursuit” regarding my deficiencies or challenges.
Because of my exposure to the wider world in dozens of countries, I became acutely aware of people I knew who grew up under terrible dictatorships, lost a limb in a war, never knew their father because he was taken to the gulag, remembered being hungry much of their childhood, overcame a terrible disease, and the list goes on.
The point being that there is so much to be grateful for and we should not be cavalier about we have enjoyed and been exposed to. The regular practice of focus on gratitude certainly is a helpful one for me.
Coming Home for the Holidays
I was thrilled to learn that High Holiday services would be held in our “home.” During the design and construction of the synagogue I was chairman of the land & building committee, and we wanted to design the building so that High Holiday services could be held in the sanctuary. We were frustrated by various constraints, but mainly zoning regulations. Based on the hope of a future resolution to the impediments, we built the social hall next to the sanctuary so that they could be easily connected. The new creative solution was a wonderful surprise.
While I do not conflate our holding High Holiday services with the scale of other important events, Jewish history has many examples of “going home.” Perhaps the most important example is the founding of the State of Israel, to where so many Jews do “Aliyah” (translated as “ascent, or “rise,” which now means “moving to Israel”). Other examples are return of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel and the recent acceptance of full inclusion of LGBTQ people into American Jewish communal life.
Until I joined Adat Shalom, I was the “wandering Jew,” trying to fit into various types of Jewish practices and shuls (without much success). As so many in our community, I finally found a comfortable religious centering with like-minded people. Our community also wandered from temporary space in churches to the JCC until we constructed our synagogue. Although necessary and sufficient, High Holiday services at various high schools was a form of homelessness. Now, as the biblical Hebrews, we finally found our way to the “promised land,” i.e. Persimmon Tree Lane.
Perhaps more than our religious practices, Adat Shalom, like Judaism in general, is a family, even while we acknowledge our differences. We worship and suffer together through the year. Like a family, we want to be home for the holidays, even if mythologically, like praying to return to Jerusalem. For me, these High Holiday services will be enriched and inspired by gathering together on our own small plot of land on this Earth in this Universe, as I had dreamed.