Author Archives: Heidi Hoover

About Heidi Hoover

Rabbi Heidi Hoover is the rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, NY. She was ordained in 2011 by the Academy for Jewish Religion (New York) and holds a MA in Jewish Studies from Gratz College. She was a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, has been profiled in the New York Times, and has guest blogged for The Lutheran magazine. She is a participant in the Sacred Stories Project, a joint venture between Clal and the National Museum of American Jewish History. Her interests include the relationship between Jews and Germany, the experience and history of conversion to Judaism (she is a Jew by choice), and assumptions made about religious identity based on appearance and other superficial characteristics. Before rabbinical school, she had a career in publishing technology as a consultant and trainer.

The Value of Truth in Social Media

There is a story in Jewish tradition about a man who insults another man without realizing that the man is a prominent rabbi. When he does realize it, he is horrified and tries to apologize. He asks what he can do to make up for it. The rabbi tells him to take a feather pillow to the top of a hill, tear it open and let the feathers blow away. The man doesn’t understand but he does it, then comes back and says, “Now what?” The rabbi says, “Now go and gather up all the feathers.” The point is that once words are out there, they cannot be retrieved—we should take care what we say, because we won’t be able to control it or take it back, like the scattered feathers from the pillow.

With the advent of the internet, this becomes true in a whole new way. Once we post something on Facebook or Twitter, on a blog, or even when we send an email, those words and pictures are out there, and we no longer control what happens to them. They can be spread far and wide, and take on a life of their own. People who have posted thoughtlessly offensive things, or jokes that weren’t understood as such by those who saw them, have been virally shamed on social media, in ways that have, in some cases, destroyed their lives. This has happened often enough that a book has been written about it.

When we think about a story like the one with the feather pillow, we often think about carelessness or meanness on social media that directly hurts individuals (including, potentially, ourselves). We also tend to think about text that we’ve written ourselves or pictures we’ve taken of people we know. We don’t think as much about text or pictures we receive on Facebook or other social media and pass on, and we don’t think about our responsibility when passing on information that seems like it’s there to help people. Unfortunately, many warnings and dire reports on social media turn out to be false.

Today, vulnerable populations—immigrants, LGBTQ people, people of color, Jews, Muslims, and others—are feeling more threatened than they may have a few months ago. Inflammatory stories or warnings that are based on rumor, not fact, can increase fear and anxiety unnecessarily, and make it harder for all of us to know what we really need to be paying attention to and worrying about. Passing on this kind of information without verifying the truth of it, thinking, “Well, it can’t hurt to pass it on,” or “If it’s true, people need to know,” actually can hurt people. These rumors make people afraid to leave their homes and go to work. Children live in fear that their parents won’t come home. Fear and anxiety can cause physical illness. This is all harmful.

Even passing on true stories about bad things that happen, without passing on stories of encouraging responses to those events, is harmful because it adds to the climate of fear. For example, a few days ago a Jewish cemetery in Missouri was vandalized. In response, over 1,000 people (including Vice Presiden Mike Pence and the governor of Missouri) came to a gathering to clean up the cemetery, and Muslim-Americans raised over $100,000 to help pay for it. If the vandalism were publicized and not the tremendous, positive, community response, it is far more frightening, because it shows the hatred but not the support and love. While the hatred is real, the support and love is too, and is most likely greater. The hatred is only part of the truth. The hatred and the response to it is the whole story.

We need to take responsibility for the truth, and the whole truth, of what we decide to pass on when we see it on social media. When you see information that does not cite a source, even if it is sent by someone you know and trust, ask where they got it before passing it on. If they cannot cite a credible source (like a government agency or a reputable news organization), do not pass the information on. Snopes.com and Politifact.com are two resources that can also quickly and easily help to determine what is factual and what isn’t. Check the date on articles before you share them and make sure they’re current–not from a previous year.

It is more important than ever that the information we disseminate be true. Let us take our responsibility to our friends—on Facebook and in real life—and neighbors seriously, and do all we can to help and support them by being mindful of the truth of the words we put out into the world.

Trust Your Gut — But Verify

Near the beginning of the movie Men in Black, Will Smith‘s character is being tested to see if he has what it takes to be a man in black. He and the others who are being tested run a gauntlet of monstrous-looking cutouts, and must make split-second decisions about which to shoot. All the candidates except Will Smith shoot every monster. Smith points his gun at them but does not pull the trigger until the last cutout, a little white girl with a pile of schoolbooks. He shoots that cutout through the forehead. When asked why, he explains that each monster looked dangerous at first, but then he noticed something that made it clear that it wasn’t a threat. He shot the little-girl cutout because she didn’t belong in the neighborhood and the books were too advanced for her, so it was clear that she wasn’t as she presented. He is chosen to be part of the organization, and none of the others are.

In our culture, we are frequently urged to “trust our gut.” We place a high value on instinct, on gut feeling. In self-defense classes, I was taught to believe “that ‘uh-oh’ feeling.” In parenting books, I read that my instinct as a mother was most often correct. And I can certainly think of situations when I didn’t trust my gut and it turned out to be right.

The problem is, sometimes our instincts are wrong. We can learn reactions that become gut feelings. When my older daughter was a toddler, she loved to run up to pigeons on the sidewalk, until one suddenly flew up close to her face. Startled and terrified, for a long time afterward she would scream when she saw a pigeon and refuse to walk toward it. Her gut told her that pigeons are scary and dangerous, though they are not. In Men in Black, Will Smith’s character is able to look at strange-looking aliens without prejudice, assessing them instinctively based on factors other than their appearance.

Many people have learned, one way or another, that people with black or brown skin are dangerous, or that those dressed in Muslim garb are dangerous. In reality, they are no more dangerous than people with light skin, or who don’t wear clothing indicating they are Muslim. The perception that young black men, in particular, are dangerous has had tragic consequences when it is police officers who get a gut feeling that their lives are endangered and shoot these young men.

The story of the Exodus is Judaism’s foundational story and is important to many other traditions as well. It begins with a Pharaoh who makes an assumption about the Israelites, that they are dangerous because they are numerous. He enslaves them, and his reaction to his unjustified prejudice ultimately leads to tragedy for Egypt, which is devastated by the 10 plagues that precede the Exodus.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know when our instincts are wrong and when they are right. It can help to live in a diverse environment where we daily encounter people who are of all different races and ethnicities, and we can see that prejudices are often unfounded. We can work to retrain our brains to recognize real threats. For me, learning to physically defend myself helped me to see more clearly where there might be danger, and helped me to be less fearful overall.

There are people who are criminals, who are terrorists, who are murderers. But they are not most people, and we are better off training our instincts to identify danger through behavior rather than skin color or clothing. Let us look for the humanity in others, respecting our instinctive response to them, but working against prejudice that is unfounded.

Would You Resist?

I am a rabbi. I am 46 years old. I am also the granddaughter and grand-niece of Germans who were and are not Jewish. What that means is that my grandfather and my great-uncles were in the German army during WWII, during the Holocaust. As far as I know, no one in my family was a member of the Nazi party, but neither were they resisters—they were not “righteous Gentiles.” I don’t talk about this much, but I spent many years feeling guilt and shame about my heritage, and when I converted to Judaism, it added a whole new dimension that I had to figure out. My conversion to Judaism, and my family of origin, placed me on both sides of the Holocaust.

Ten years ago I went on a trip for rabbis to Berlin. I’d been to Germany many times to visit family, but this was my first trip there as a Jewish professional. One evening we met with an Israeli diplomat. Among other points that he made, he said that after the Holocaust, Jews and Germans both said, “Never again,” but the phrase had a different meaning for each group. Jews meant: “Never again will we allow ourselves to be slaughtered.” Germans meant: “Never again will we stand by while innocent people are murdered.”

I have known for many years about the baggage of shame I carry as the granddaughter and grand-niece of Germans who served in the army on Hitler’s side, and of those who stood by and did not resist. But since the presidential election, that baggage has presented itself to me in a different and new way.

There are those who, since the election of Donald Trump, have said, “Wait and see. Listen. Don’t act yet.” I have a very strong visceral reaction to this, that this is a time when we cannot afford to wait and see, that we must protest and intervene before it’s too late. My grandmother in Germany once told me that after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, her father came home and said, “We’ve made a terrible mistake.” Of course, history has shown that he was exactly right, but it seems it was already too late.

For many years I have said that had I been in the situation that my grandparents were in—he drafted into the army, she at home, struggling to survive with three very small children (the oldest was my mother, born in 1939)—I do not know what I would have done. I do not know if I would have been brave enough to resist. That is painful, but I did not really believe I would ever truly be tested.

Since November 8, I believe that test may come, and it is terrifying. Because of my emotional baggage, I feel compelled to act, to not repeat what my grandparents did and did not do. Never again will my family stand by while innocent people are murdered.

I speak about social issues from the pulpit. I have spoken against the police shootings of unarmed black men, against domestic violence, for LGBTIQ rights, for women’s rights. I have written about these issues. But social activism in the form of protests, community organizing, and even letters and phone calls, does not come naturally to me. I am pushing myself. I’ve written to our president, to members of Congress, to the governor of North Dakota, multiple times in recent weeks. I’ve made phone calls. I will push myself to do more.

It may be that the parallels I see are not actually parallels, that the current situation will not play out in disaster. God knows I pray that is the case. But I don’t feel that I can take that chance. I need to join those making a strong stand against anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, misogynist, racist, antisemitic, and homophobic rhetoric and actions. I need to act, and not wait, in part because I believe it’s the right thing to do, and in part to atone for my family. May the best that is in each of us prevail.

Even Those We Hate Are Made in God’s Image

There is a myth of a time when everyone in the world was able to work together on the same project. The myth appears in the Torah. It begins: “All the earth had the same language and the same words.” The people decided to build a tower up to the sky, in order to “make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!” But God does not approve of this project. Consequently, God decides to “confuse their speech, so that no one understands what the other is saying.” They are scattered over the earth, and it’s called the Tower of Babel.

One question that comes to my mind about this story is: When I look at our world and this horrible race for the presidency, and the divisiveness, and racism, and sexism, and homophobia, and all the other terrible things that exist, how could God have a problem with people being united and understanding each other? Based on a midrash, our rabbis had the same question. This is the story told in a collection called Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer to explain what the issue was for God:

There were steps going up one side of the tower and down the other. The people would take the bricks up one side to build the tower higher, and go down the other side, having carried the bricks up. If a person fell down the stairs and died, the people didn’t care. If, however, a brick was dropped and broke, they would weep and wail, saying, “Oh, no! When will we be able to get another brick up here?” (paraphrased from New Studies in Bereshit, by Nechama Leibowitz, p. 103)

From this we understand that the rabbis believed that valuing human life is more important than unity and understanding one another. That’s a very big deal. I certainly feel pain from the way lack of understanding of each other and our disunity seems to be tearing our country apart right now. I’d rather we were united. But valuing human life is more important that understanding each other and being united. And in fact, we know from the best parts of our tradition that Judaism actually values challenges and disagreements. However, challenging and disagreeing also goes terribly wrong when we lose sight of valuing humans.

The Torah also says that every one of us is made in God’s image. That means Donald Trump is made in God’s image. Hillary Clinton is made in God’s image. One of those statements is likely to be difficult for you. Every Donald Trump supporter is made in God’s image. Every Hillary Clinton supporter is made in God’s image. One of those statements is likely to be difficult for you. But it’s really important for us to remember it, especially when it’s difficult. Because the election is going to happen tomorrow, and we are all going to have to keep living together in this country. Demonizing and dismissing those who we don’t understand and those who we abhor is not the way forward. It is not helpful to us, I believe, to characterize those we disagree with politically, or even abhor, as enemies. We cannot allow ourselves to forget that every single one of us is made in God’s image and is thus to be valued as a human life.

We can and should disagree, and do so passionately. But we must also listen to each other. We must cultivate curiosity—if the person whose opinions I abhor is made in God’s image, what can I learn from them about why they hold these opinions? Where can we find common ground? How can we work together? How can we share this country? Because we do share it.

I hope everyone is planning to vote tomorrow. Vote wisely and thoughtfully. And before we condemn those who are voting differently than we are, before we dismiss them or demonize them, let us remember their value as human beings, value that they have because they, like us, are made in God’s image. We are not united and we don’t understand each other, and we haven’t since the Tower of Babel. But unlike those ancient, mythical, united people, we can respect other human beings, have compassion for them, and work toward being able to coexist constructively. There are many people who feel damaged by this election process, by the vitriol and negativity. May we do God’s work by being instruments of healing for our nation and culture. We might not build a tower to the sky, but let’s try to build a country where every human being is respected and valued.

Meeting Angels

Last January 26 in the evening, I went to Manhattan to participate in a shiva minyan after the death of a friend’s father. I was on the subway headed home, reading a rather esoteric book about finding a spiritual path through some of the most obscure Jewish laws, called The Boy on the Door on the Ox. At one stop two men got on the train. One was white, one black. They were dressed exactly the same, in padded khaki jackets, khaki pants, and work boots. Each carried a medium-sized bag, one of mesh, one of plastic. The white guy, who was a big guy with a Russian accent, said loudly as they entered the crowded car: “Aren’t these seats reserved for the handicapped?” I was sitting in one of the two seats that are indeed reserved for those with disabilities. The women next to me jumped up and was out of there. The white guy plopped down next to me, pretty much right up against me because, as I said, he was a pretty big guy. He smelled very strongly, mostly of alcohol.

His companion had a cane, and I moved to stand so that he could have my seat, but he gestured for me to stay seated, saying, “No no, it’s fine, I’ll stand.”

“You can have this seat,” I said. “I’ll get up.”

“No,” he said again. “I’m glad to have the choice to stand.”

I didn’t know what that meant, but okay. I remained seated.

They talked, and I read, but was distracted by their conversation, carried on fairly loudly. The guy next to me was saying stuff to his friend like, “You know why I don’t go to AA meetings? Because they said I shouldn’t hang around with alcoholics, ha ha ha.”

At some point he turned to me and said, “Don’t mind us. We’re from a different walk of life.”

I said, “I’m fine; we’re fine here.”

Then they started talking with me. The guy who was standing asked what I was reading, and I explained that it was a book about Jewish law and how it can inform your spiritual life. He said he’s Muslim, but “I don’t judge anyone. I think we have to accept each other.” I said I agreed.

It came out that the man next to me, with the Russian accent, whose name was Yuri, fought in the Russian army in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. At one point he commented that Jews run the world, saying, “Look at Israel. America will do anything for Israel.”

I said, “Or maybe it’s not that Jews run the world, but that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.”

He waved a hand. “Let’s put that aside.”

I said, “Let’s put the whole thing aside.”

“OK,” he said.

A bit later he mentioned that his grandfather was “a big-time cohein (descendant of the Jewish priestly class) in Russia.”

That surprised me because of the earlier Jews-running-the-world comment. I said, “You’re Jewish?”

“Of course,” he said.

Sometime in the course of this encounter it came out that these two men had just gotten out of prison, as in they literally had just gotten off the bus from Sing Sing, which explained the identical khaki clothing and the bags they carried.

I got off the train before they did. I found out that Yuri’s friend’s name was Marcellus, wished them well, and said goodbye, and they travelled on.

I felt that I’d had a remarkable glimpse into a world entirely different from the one I live in, and it felt like a huge privilege. I imagine the woman who jumped up and moved away when they got on the train felt afraid, or at least nervous, but throughout the experience I felt completely safe and not the slightest bit afraid. In a way that I didn’t understand, I felt protected. The moment that really showed how safe I felt was when Yuri commented about Jews running the world, I immediately pushed back. Had I felt the least bit that the situation was potentially dangerous, I wouldn’t have risked a conflict like that. I know that many of you would not have cared about whether there would be a conflict in that situation, but that’s not how I am. For me, my willingness to go there meant that I felt entirely safe, which seemed strange, given the situation. After I got off the train, I  thought, “That was amazing! And so weird! What was that?”

Then I found myself thinking, without wanting to detract in any way from Yuri and Marcellus’s humanity, that maybe they were angels. It was like a commentary in Jewish tradition says, “Before the angels have accomplished their task they are called [humans], when they have accomplished it they are angels.” And if they were angels, messengers, there must have been some task they were there to accomplish. At that time, I was dealing with feeling fearful in a number of ways, working on that issue in my spiritual and psychological life. I think they were there to show me that there are things in life and in the world that I’m not afraid of, that other people are. Wherever you are, Yuri and Marcellus, I hope things are going okay, and I thank you for being angels to me, for giving me a message I needed at that time.

I believe that whether we realize it or not, we may encounter angels in our lives, and we may be angels. As with God, we don’t have proof one way or the other of the existence of angels, divine messengers. We have no obligation to believe that they are real. But they are present in Jewish tradition, as well as other traditions.

It might help us to name these kinds of experiences as angelic because it brings a sense of holiness to our lives and becomes part of our connection to the universe, to something greater than ourselves, something that cares about us. It might help us to feel that we are not alone, not ever.

It’s true that there aren’t angels that stop everything bad from happening. I don’t know why that is. It’s one of the mysteries, and that’s not a satisfying answer. It doesn’t satisfy me, and probably doesn’t satisfy a lot of you. But it’s also true that sometimes someone or something, a person or a feeling or an idea or a dream or a thought or an element of nature, comes when it is needed and makes things better—a little better or a lot better. And it’s true that sometimes we have the opportunity to be someone else’s messenger of God.

Let us look for those opportunities to be angels doing God’s work in the world. If we choose to, may we recognize where there are angels, mal’achim, messengers of God, in our lives, and may we be surrounded by them.

Towards A More Perfect Union

It’s Monday evening, July 25, and I’m watching the Democratic National Convention. Senator Cory Booker, a dynamic and powerful speaker from my state’s neighbor, New Jersey, is just finishing his speech. Near the beginning of his speech, he said he wanted to share an African saying, which goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I’d never heard that before, and I thought it was amazing. (It may not actually be an African proverb, but it still moved me.) It applies in so many ways.

Our nation is a representative democracy (not a direct democracy) with built-in checks and balances. When President Obama was running the first time, with the slogan, “Yes we can!” he promised a lot of change, fast. A lot of Americans who had never voted were inspired and got involved. I worried at the time that they would be disillusioned when they realized that the president of the United States can’t do all that much on his or her own, because Congress is the only body that can pass laws. President Obama got a lot done, but there was a lot he couldn’t do, because of Congress. Our system is designed not to be able to go too fast. Everyone has to work together so that we can move forward at a more deliberative pace, and ideally so that nothing gets out of control and we can go far as a stable country.

I get impatient sometimes, not just on the national level, but on the level of my synagogue community. There too, it’s hard to get anything done quickly. Nearly everyone involved is a volunteer, valiantly working to fit in synagogue tasks around full-time jobs, family, and other other obligations. Many decisions must be discussed and approved by the board of trustees, which meets monthly. I’m not the only one who sometimes—often, even—wish we could move forward more quickly. But it matters that as many community members as possible feel invested in what we’re doing. It matters that I, as the rabbi (or a prominent congregant or two), don’t do everything myself, because that isn’t community. While I could move forward more quickly alone, perhaps, if I can temper my impatience, the community is more sustainable if we are all going forward together, even if we do so more slowly.

The saying Senator Booker quoted is difficult, not just because of our slow national or local progress. Some issues are so painful that it’s hard to stay together, because it feels essential to change them fast. When the news every day names more victims of gun violence; when there are more and more black men killed by police; when police too are being gunned down; when inequality is growing and good news seems scarce; how can we not want fast change? The saying seems to imply that you can’t go fast together, but it doesn’t say so. Yes, you can go fastest alone, but when you’re trying to change a culture, alone you can’t do it. No one can. But perhaps, if we dedicate ourselves to being together, to really listening to each other, to recognizing that all of us have part of the truth and none of us has all of it, we can not only go far together; we can also pick up the pace. May we resist the forces that want to pull us apart, and may we work together for far-reaching progress.

Image credit: Nisha Gill / Flickriver
Creative Commons/Some Rights Reserved

What You Decide Matters

Last week, citizens of the UK voted to leave the European Union. Brexit has been all over the news. Maybe you’ve seen the video of this guy, who is upset over the outcome even though he voted to leave. You see, he thought his vote wouldn’t make a difference. Anecdotally, there seem to be quite of few UK citizens like him, though anecdotes aren’t data, so we can’t tell from Facebook or other media if they make up a significant percentage of voters.

This view of ourselves as ineffective and insignificant is not new. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” That comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah, and was written millennia ago. In this week’s Torah portion (Parshat ShlahMoses, the great Israelite prophet and leader, sends scouts into the Promised Land to see if it’s a good place to live, and if it can be conquered. Out of 12 scouts, two say the land can be conquered, while 10 return to say that it is a wonderful place, but the people living there are very intimidating. Looking at the people who live in the land, these 10 scouts felt as small and weak as grasshoppers. And because they feel that way, they assume that the people they saw looked at them in that way too.

How often do we make assumptions about our impact on others or what they are thinking about us? How often do we assume that our choices don’t make a difference?

There are times when we are insignificant. Our lives in the context of geological time on earth are not even a blip. Compared to the vastness of the universe, or the mysteries of life, death, and God, we are barely there. At the same time, we can and do affect the lives of others with the choices we make, and that matters. Our votes matter, even if it’s hard to see it. Our attitudes on social media—where we put our support, whether we choose to troll or help—matter. Our behavior when we encounter others on the street, in the grocery store, or wherever we may be, matters.

The 10 Israelite scouts thought they were insignificant, but they were not. The influence of their despair on the rest of the Israelites, who believed them, meant that an entire generation, the generation that left Egypt in the Exodus, died in the desert during 40 years of wandering instead of entering the Promised Land.

A Hasidic Rebbe, Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa, taught that a person should keep two pieces of paper in their pocket at all times. One says, “I am but dust and ashes,” and the other says, “The whole world was created for me.” The point is that sometimes we feel powerful and important, and then we need to reminded that we are made from the earth, the dust. When we feel that we have no impact, we need to be reminded that the whole world was created for each of us.

As we in the USA go forward in this important election season, may we recognize our significance, and may we have the wisdom to know which message to pull from our pocket as we make our decisions.

Image by Rlevente

Which Judaism is the Authentic One?

Last week I met one of my neighbors, an Orthodox Jewish woman. She asked what I do for a living, and I said I’m a rabbi. She hesitated for a moment, digesting the information, as other Orthodox neighbors have done when they first hear this (my family moved recently, so we’re still meeting our new neighbors). Then she asked where, and whether it is a Reform synagogue (it is).

She asked if I grew up religious, by which she meant Orthodox Jewish. Deliberately misunderstanding, I said I did, and then it was my turn to hesitate. Did I want to tell her I converted to Judaism? I would be lying if I said I grew up Jewish. I’m terrible at lying. So I clarified that my upbringing was religious, but not Jewish. “Oh,” she immediately responded, “So you’re not Jewish!” “Of course I’m Jewish,” I said. She said, “You converted. A Reform conversion?” “Yes, and I went to the mikvah. They don’t let you be a rabbi if you aren’t Jewish!” She shrugged, “Well, Reform, you never know.” She asked if I had ever considered Orthodoxy. I said I had, but it wasn’t for me. She nodded. “Reform is easier, right?”

So there it was. She wasn’t trying to be mean or belittling, but to her, Reform Judaism isn’t the real Judaism. There’s one kind of Judaism that’s authentic, as far as she’s concerned, and it’s hers. That’s part of her belief system. Last week Rabbi Shmuel Goldin wrote an op-ed in The New Jersey Jewish Standard addressing this issue. He makes the distinction between believing all Jewish practice is right vs. believing all Jews having a right to choose their practice, though he might vehemently disagree. Rabbi Goldin also said that just as he believes his Reform rabbi friend’s practice is wrong, he is sure that his friend believes his practice is wrong. This, he says, is a way to be pluralist, and I agree with him. I do think pluralism is harder for someone who necessarily believes that if he is right, everyone else is wrong, and I respect him for finding a way to get there.

I don’t tend to use the words “right” and “wrong” when it comes to this topic. I prefer the word “authentic.” And I don’t think Orthodox practice is wrong — I believe it’s authentic Judaism, and I believe that my Reform Jewish practice is authentic. I don’t believe that if I am right, you must be wrong, and recommend Rabbi Brad Hirshfield’s book You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right.

It stuck with me that my neighbor’s assumption was that I’m Reform because it’s easier. It certainly is in some ways, but that’s not why I’m Reform. I like the autonomy of Reform Judaism, but as a Reform Jew I have the responsibility of learning about the ritual and ceremonial halacha (Jewish law) that I don’t consider binding, and taking on commandments that will bring more holiness to my life. (Ethical commandments are still binding on Reform Jews, which many people don’t know.) I actually think that’s as difficult as following the commandments in an Orthodox mold, but in a different way.

In the course of the conversation with my neighbor, I mentioned events coming up in the next couple of weeks that I needed to prepare for: two b’nei mitzvah, two weddings, sermons, hospital visits. “Wow,” she said, “You really do everything, don’t you?” “Yes,” I said. “It must be a hard job,” she said. “It is,” I said, “and very rewarding.” It seemed to me that, while she was friendly the whole time, her respect for me increased over the course of the conversation.

I’m glad to have met her and talked to her. She’s a mensch, a good person, whose life is very different from mine. I don’t expect we will really be friends, but I hope we’ll have the opportunity to increase understanding between us.

Photo by Flickr user cazleavey.

When Impostor Syndrome is Good

It’s ordination season. After years of hard work, both theoretical and practical, a number of rabbinic and cantorial students will become real, grown-up clergy this month. My ordination, in 2011, was an overwhelming and momentous experience. This year, I have the honor of being the presenter at the Academy for Jewish Religion’s ordination for my congregation’s rabbinic intern.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes in his book, I’m God, You’re Not, “No matter how old you are, it always seems you’re never quite old enough to be a rabbi. No matter how much you know, you’re never wise enough. No matter how devout, you’re never pious enough. Tough job, the rabbi thing.” He is not saying that this is the perception of others looking at the rabbi, but the rabbi’s perception of him- or herself. He goes on to say that part of what makes a rabbi good at the work is feeling that they might not be good enough, and that they still have learning and growth to do in the vocation. It is necessary and possible to have confidence in your ability and at the same time feel that there is always more opportunity for improvement. I expect this can apply to many professions, not just the clergy.

Rabbi Kushner is making impostor syndrome an asset, even raising it to a level of holiness. Impostor syndrome is when competent people believe on some level that they are fooling everyone into believing they are worthy of their positions, when actually they feel that they are not good enough, and eventually, everyone else will realize this. Naturally, Buzzfeed has a collection of charts that make sense to people with impostor syndrome. Number five is the one that resonates the most with me. Also eight. And nine.

It is a tough job, the rabbi thing. As are many jobs. Never feeling that you’re completely worthy doesn’t let you relax, but then, in many professions, relaxing does mean that you’re not doing it as well as you could be. I’ve heard that arrogance and overconfidence is necessary for fighter pilots who have to land planes on aircraft carriers, because that is so hard to do that no one who has a regular level of confidence would believe they could do it. Being a rabbi is different (or being a priest, or a doctor, or a member of Congress, or a teacher, or a CEO, or a member of another profession that confers authority). Despite our culture of autonomy and anti-authoritarianism, for many a rabbi is an authority. With authority comes power over others. A healthy sense of limitations, a sense that we might not be quite good enough, is an antidote to the corrupting influence of power.

Impostor syndrome can be crippling. Like anything, it can go to far. But it is good for anyone who has power over other people to maintain a sense of their own fallibility and weaknesses, a true humility. Perhaps counterintuitively, this creates great leaders.

Dealing with a New Place

Last Thursday my family moved to a new house. I love our new house. It’s beautiful, bigger than the old house and it has a driveway. In Brooklyn. Already this has changed my life for the better. I am filled with gratitude, and my house is filled with boxes.

The unpacking job is huge. I don’t know where things are. We also can’t unpack many of the boxes yet, because we don’t have anywhere to put the stuff. Our old house had a wall of built-in bookshelves and a large cabinet and shelf unit that didn’t come with us. The new house has no built-in bookshelves, and the closets don’t even have hanging rods in them.

We have to get more furniture before we can unpack our stuff, so we have a place to put things. This feels unsettling. We have to live with the boxes because we want to choose furniture carefully, and even when we get it it won’t be in the house immediately. We’re also still figuring out how we want to arrange the house, and want to decide carefully how to place furniture. And we’re hosting the seder for the first night of Passover in less than three weeks, so we have to be pretty settled by then.

When is Passover 2016? Click here to find out!

I’m not saying this to complain or ask for encouragement. I’m saying it because it reminds me of entering into Judaism. There is a huge, long, rich tradition of liturgy, interpretation, music, and ritual. If that tradition is the house, we could consider the Hebrew language, the denominations, liturgy, Jewish texts, music, and prayers the furniture. Our stuff is our longing for connection with Jewish community and with God, our need for comfort, our desire to find the purpose of our lives.

READ: What Makes A Jewish Home Jewish?

How do we unpack this stuff, how do we find our answers and get what we’re looking for, when we don’t know anything about the furniture? Maybe the prayers of the liturgy are the place to find connection to God, but that’s not true for everyone. If you are unfamiliar with the service, it can be hard to ascertain if that is the way for you. Maybe attending Torah study regularly is a way to both be inspired and to become comfortable as a part of a Jewish community. Before you know anyone, though, it can be hard to tell.

The other day my husband and I chose a place for one of our cabinets and put it there. A few minutes later, I said, “I don’t like it there. I think we should put it on the other side of the room.” My husband said, “We just put it there. We can’t tell if we want it there so quickly. We have to live with it for a while and then decide.” He was right, but it’s hard because I want everything to be in place and beautiful and unpacked. Yes, I do want instant gratification. I think I’m not the only one.

So it is when we first come to a Jewish community. We will probably not be able to unpack all our needs and desires at once. We have to live with the uncertainty of whether this is the right community for us, meanwhile noticing small connections that we start making from the beginning. It is the community’s job to include newcomers and help them feel comfortable. It is the newcomers’ task to recognize that the knowledge and belonging will come, but it will take time and patience, and a willingness to live with the situation for a while to see what develops. In time, that settled-in feeling comes and the new place becomes ours..

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