Author Archives: Rabbi Melinda Mersack

About Rabbi Melinda Mersack

Find Your Mercy

I think we could all use a little more mercy and compassion. Day after day, the news is filled with fighting, chaos, and tragedy. It can be disheartening and dejecting. We may even find ourselves at odds with the people we love who may feel differently about politics or religion, or who simply interpret an event or action in a different way. It may be difficult to remain civil in the face of conflict, but this week’s Torah portion reminds us that we are capable of great mercy and understanding that can help us respond to trying situations.

We read, “Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin (Exodus 34:6-7),”and so begins a sort of renewal of the covenant between Moses, the people Israel and God. Moses speaks these words to God to incite compassion, and God responds to Moses’s call. In return for the people Israel adhering to God’s laws, God will grant them safety in the Land of Israel. In these two verses, our sages identified 13 attributes of mercy within God.

Who knew there were 13 ways to be merciful? These attributes are an example to us how we should live our lives and treat others. Judaism teaches we are created in God’s image, so if God has 13 attributes of mercy, then we must be filled with abundant mercy, too.

In stark contrast, there are fewer terms for anger in the Torah, fewer terms for punishment, and fewer terms for transgression. While some may think of the Jewish Bible’s God as wrathful, here we see that God is multifaceted, just as people are. While we read that God becomes angry and punishes the people when they go astray, we also read God is full of kindness and forgiveness. It is meaningful that our sages stress these forms of mercy over any of enmity or retribution.

So, instead of becoming angry with your co-worker, relative, or friend, find your mercy.  With so many ways to be merciful, we may need to reflect inward to find the appropriate response. Ask yourself why this person feels as strongly as they do. Check yourself when you feel irritated or provoked. Recognize that while your feelings are legitimate, the person you’re upset with has legitimate feelings, too. Seek understanding. Find commonalities. While you don’t have to agree with a conflicting viewpoint and you should never silence your voice, the Torah gives us a roadmap for being in relationship with others. The challenge is to identify and follow that path.

Prayer of a Cancer Survivor

I was just diagnosed with breast cancer. So, there’s that. In some ways, it’s hardly a surprise since my mother died from breast cancer and one of my sisters was diagnosed when she was 40. There are 5 women in 3 generations in my family, now including me, who have or have had breast cancer. The good news is I have every reason to believe that I will be a survivor. They caught the cancer early. The mass is small. It’s an excellent prognosis. I believe I will follow in my sister’s footsteps and have a long life ahead of me with my husband and children. Please, God, I continually pray.

While the doctors are optimistic, they do not walk in my shoes. They did not watch my mother suffer when the cancer metastasized to her liver and then her spine. They did not watch her die in the hospital, sitting with her, holding her hand. They did not grieve her, still grieve her, the way I do today. I think I’ve always been waiting to be diagnosed. Now that it’s happened, I feel a mixture of fear, anxiety, and relief. It’s now my turn in our family to fight this fight. And, I will fight. And, I will pull from the strength of my family, friends, and colleagues. I am humbled by their offers of support and prayers. So many prayers. Please, God, I continually pray.

I pray for my future health and well-being. I pray for my husband that he have continuous strength and good health. I pray for my children that they will grow up in a world that is safe. I pray that they will have long healthy lives filled with joy and love. And, I think about what I want my legacy to be.

I’ve always planned for this moment, in a way. On the occasion of each of my son’s births, I wrote them a letter. I wanted them to read when they were older about the joy and love I feel for them as their mother. I put the letters in a safe place and have decided to write a new one on significant occasions.  At the time of the new occasion, I give them the old letter I previously wrote and write a new one to be saved and given at the time of the next special occasion. A new tradition steeped in faith, love, and hope. I want my children always to know how amazing they are and how much I love them.

An Open Letter to the New President

Be quiet and listen. Just listen. The voices of the American people are crying out to you. Some are rejoicing. Some are in anguish, but all have a voice that deserves to be heard. One of the strengths of our great country is that it is a melting pot of diverse backgrounds and heritages. For over 200 years, we have been known as a beacon of opportunity to the world. Your ancestors and mine traveled to this country seeking a better life. And, we all want a better life for our children. So I urge you to please listen. Listen to the voices of every American as she or he tells you what they need to make their lives and the lives of their children better. Some will speak about economic opportunity. Some may voice concerns about the safety of our country and American values. Some may speak of their own personal safety and protecting their civil rights. Some may not be able to speak. Their voices have been systematically suppressed. Even these people, need to be invited to speak and be heard. Every person has a story, and, to lead the United States, it is imperative that you listen to these stories in order to truly understand the people and what they need.

As the American president, you have accepted the responsibility to serve others. You do not have the luxury of selecting whom you serve. You have accepted the task of serving every American and you can learn from the wealth of wisdom of your predecessors. Let their advice guide you.

John Quincy Adams described the makings of a true leader, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Teddy Roosevelt urges the acceptance of criticism, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

Ronald Reagan believed in the value of kindness and generosity, “Live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, leave the rest to God.”

A Rabbi’s Christmas Message

With the flurry of discussion about how Jewish and interfaith families are handling the confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas this year, I’m here to say “chill out.” As a rabbi whose job is to engage with and support interfaith families, I’m well aware that this time of year may create angst for interfaith couples as well as their parents and relatives. I’m not dismissing or diminishing the very real emotions that are tied up with these holiday celebrations. What I do want to say is that we don’t need to feel concerned, anxious, or afraid.

READ: When Hanukkah and Christmas Coincide

Historically, some Jews have seen Christmas decorations in the home as a symbol of assimilation that should be combatted, or have felt their presence in public places as exclusionary or a symbol of pressure for them to adopt Christian beliefs. I, too, have had those feelings. Growing up in Kentucky, I very much felt self-conscious about being a minority and was wary about anyone forcing their religious beliefs on me. We may feel inundated with the commercialization of Christmas, but it is just that- commercialization. We are fortunate to still be living in a country where we have many freedoms. I’ve come to realize that any coercion I may have felt was my interpretation and was not the message that was intended. It took years before I let down my defenses and was able to appreciate the sheer joy of this season. People are generally friendlier, more polite, and in good spirits. The lights are beautiful. If a Jewish or interfaith family has a tree and it brings them joy, so be it. As was stated very well by my colleague in an earlier post, it doesn’t make them any less Jewish.

In fact, the origins of the Christmas tree are not Christian. They are pagan. Like other customs adopted by later religions, the tree was given added religious significance tied to the birth of Jesus. We do that, too. Jews have also modified practices that were once pagan to add Jewish significance. Today, we light the Hanukkah candles to remember the miracle of the oil and celebrate our religious freedom, but this ritual is likely an adaptation of the known custom to celebrate light at the time of the winter solstice.

I’m Fired Up and This is Why

A packed church of nearly 1,500 people gathered in unity to demand social justice. We came together from different faith backgrounds and secular communities, those who live in the city and those who live in the suburbs, from various economic backgrounds, black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. We were one community. We represented more than 100,000 people from our member organizations and we joined together for a common purpose. We’d been working behind the scenes on proposals to help strengthen our community and seek criminal justice reform, including decreasing overcharging for nonviolent drug offenders and the creation of mental health crisis centers to offer treatment to those who are mentally ill instead of incarceration. We committed ourselves to creating 1,000 new livable wage jobs. We comforted each other about the current tenor in our country, and lifted each other up with promises of action. We will not give up. We will join together to create positive change. Our elected officials were present, committing themselves to working with us, and we will hold them and ourselves accountable on reaching our goals. (See story here).

I was inspired and challenged by my preacher brothers and sisters and rabbinic colleagues who joined me in this call for justice. They are my mentors and I am emboldened knowing I am not alone in this fight.

We learn from our Jewish values that we must not remain silent. “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor!” (Lev 19:17) our sacred text reads. When someone is acting or speaking in a harmful way, it is imperative that we do not stand by idly (Lev 19:16). It is imperative that we call them out on their behavior or words for the betterment of all those in our society. When systems are in place that intentionally target and oppress any group of people, we are obligated to act to reform those systems (e.g., Why We Need to Move Away From Jailing the Mentally Ill, Federal Drug Sentencing Laws Bring High Cost Low Return).

We cannot be passive. As partners with God, we are empowered to create the more perfect world we all seek. We will not let hatred, bigotry, or the sin of indifference take hold in our community, our city, or our nation. We were 1,500 strong. We are more than 100,000 strong. Add your voice to ours and we will continue to grow in strength and power. There are many national organizations that are taking up the fight: Bend the Arc, T’ruah, the Religious Action Center, ACLU, ADL, NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, Equal Justice Initiative, and more. Together, we will create the world as it should be. Be part of the solution, today.

Advice from Our Sages: Get Out and Vote

“Mommy, if we didn’t live in the United States, where would we live?” my son asked me. His question came because his friends in school were talking about the current election. “Well, Israel.” I responded, but with a caveat: We aren’t going anywhere. While I have very strong opinions about this election, I believe it is incumbent upon us to work to strengthen and improve our society for all its citizens. If I don’t like the result of this presidential election, I believe it cowardice to turn tail and run. My ancestors didn’t survive the Cossacks in Russia, escaping to this country of empowered citizens with the ability to effect change, for me to abandon it in its time of need. And we are in great need.

The tenor of this election has made many of us sick. Adults acting like babies. Name calling. Spewing words of hate. How can I tell my own children they must be civil and accountable for their actions, when our leaders don’t do the same?

What I won’t do is join in the negativity, nor be overcome by despair. Each of us has a voice. Each citizen has a vote in order to make our voices heard.

Our sages offered the same advice. In many Jewish texts, we are taught about the importance of government and our obligation to care for it and ensure it does its job of providing for the social welfare of all its citizens. (Read more here).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who immigrated to the United States in 1937, reminded us that the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights afford us the freedom to practice our religion in peace. He called on Jews to remember the principle of hakarat hatov, “recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent on each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to register and to vote.”

During the Civil Rights movement, Rabbi Joachim Prinz remarked, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

What My Road Trip Taught Me Just in Time for the High Holy Days

My husband and I took a weekend getaway to Toronto. Crossing the Peace Bridge into Canada, it struck me how only one lane was allowing entry into the United States, while several lanes were entering Canada. I wondered, “How welcoming does it feel to those who wish to enter the United States?” I realize there are practical and security issues that went into the design of the border crossing, but I saw it as a metaphor. How often do people enter our synagogues or temples and feel truly welcomed?

Think about the entrance to a synagogue. Is the main entrance clearly marked? When you enter the building, is there someone there to greet you? Is there signage that makes it clear where you are supposed to go? For a family who has never stepped foot into the building before, this may be uncomfortable and intimidating.

The High Holy Days are quickly approaching. This is the time of year when our synagogues will have the greatest attendance. It is an opportunity for Jewish institutions and professionals to make a lasting impression by putting their best foot forward.

There are real challenges to making our institutional buildings warm and inviting. Security issues aside, now is the time to consider what changes we can make to ensure that our guests feel truly welcomed. Now is the time to make sure we are presenting ourselves as we truly wish to be seen.

Consider the High Holy Day ticket. Traditionally given to people who pay membership dues to the congregation, this is used for admission to services. Is the message we want to be sending: Pay first, and then you are welcome? Pay first, and then you have access to God? To community? To holiday observances? When we create welcoming and inviting experiences, people will choose to donate without feeling obligated to do so in order to obtain tickets.

READ: The Lowdown on High Holiday Tickets

Rethink the “customer” experience. Give every person a friendly greeting when they enter the building. Post signs that help everyone find the place they wish to go. Make your building and services child-friendly so those who wish to enjoy the experience with their children may do so. Set the tone and make it clear that children are welcome. Provide quiet toys for use during services. Families will thank you.

Access to rabbis. Think about the impression it makes if the rabbis and cantor would greet people before the service and not just from the bimah (altar). When clergy make themselves accessible to members and guests, they become more approachable and relatable.

Create opportunities for community building. Offering services is insufficient. We are a social people and need to feel connected to others around us. We are likely to return to a place if we have friends or other people we are looking forward to seeing.

  • To Jewish leaders: Take time to make intentional introductions. Help members and guests connect to each other. Create processes to follow up and cultivate connections within the membership following the High Holy Days.
  • To members and guests: Take ownership of your experience. Speak to the people sitting next to you. Introduce yourself to new people. Ask questions. Participate. Finding your place in a community may take a little time and effort.

Include everyone. Ensure every person in attendance feels valued and appreciated for who they are- people of all ages, abilities, any gender identity, interfaith families- people of every shade, shape, perspective and background.

We must live the value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) and demonstrate that every person is truly welcome in our communities.

 

Rabbi Melinda Mersack is the Director of jHUB, which provides new ways for interfaith couples and families to comfortably explore Jewish culture in the modern world, a program of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and an InterfaithFamily affiliate. Rabbi Mersack is proud to be a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow and a Brickner Fellow of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Mersack attends summer camp as visiting faculty every year, and is an advocate for interreligious dialogue and social justice. She holds a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, and a Masters of Hebrew Letters and ordination from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.

Back to School: There’s a Prayer for That

I feel a little anxiety. A little sadness. I’m excited, but also a little helpless. For the first time, my kids don’t want me to drive them to school. I expect this from my middle schooler, but my 9 year old? When did he stop needing me?

I know this is healthy. This is normal. I want my kids to be independent, but is it bad if I also want them to need me just a little? We hear experts talk about helping kids transition from summer vacation to the routine of the school year (e.g., parents.com). Summer homework completed? Check. School supplies purchased? Check. Early to bed? Check. Discussion to prepare them for their first day and new schedule? Check.

I never thought I’d need to prepare myself. I didn’t expect to feel anxious wondering if my kids would get to school safely and on time. I didn’t expect to feel a loss that I didn’t get that one-more-hug before they disappeared into the building. Don’t get me wrong. I give my kids space. I encourage them to succeed and fail on their own. This is just another first day of school. I suppose it’s a glimpse of what’s to come and, for that, I’m unprepared:  first day of college, becoming an empty nester, weddings and births. I just need to quiet my brain and hold on to the moment.

Thank God, there’s a prayer for that.

Barukh Ata Adonai Elohenu Melekh ha’olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu la’z’man ha’zeh. Loosely translated, “Thank you, God, for this moment in time.” (More on Shehecheyanu)

Thank you, God, for the health of my children. Thank you, God, for allowing them to be filled with confidence and strength. Thank you, God, for the opportunity to be their mother. Thank you, for enabling me to witness their growth.

My kids are ready for this transition and this new year. I will be, too, eventually. I just hope they give me a ginormous hug when they get home.

 

Rabbi Melinda Mersack is the Director of jHUB, which provides new ways for interfaith couples and families to comfortably explore Jewish culture in the modern world, a program of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and an InterfaithFamily affiliate. Rabbi Mersack is proud to be a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow and a Brickner Fellow of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Mersack attends summer camp as visiting faculty every year, and is an advocate for interreligious dialogue and social justice. She holds a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, and a Masters of Hebrew Letters and ordination from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.

Hitler Speaks at My Jewish Summer Camp

It was mid-morning on a Wednesday. I was serving as visiting faculty at our regional Reform Jewish overnight camp and was sitting with 50 high school age campers when Hitler started speaking. I had to resist the urge to leave the room when I heard that voice and its inflammatory speech. I listened uncomfortably to those hate-filled words, but what came next was inspiring. This program was part of a regularly scheduled daily shiur (educational lesson). What’s special about Jewish overnight camp is that exploring being Jewish is part of the program. In addition to the sports, arts and crafts, swimming, 65 foot alpine tower and high ropes course the campers enjoy, the kids also live Judaism and explore its meaning and personal relevance to how they live their lives and make decisions. This summer’s theme was “Jewish Values through a Modern Lens”. During the shiur, campers explored Jewish principles like “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Lev. 19:16)”, “Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18)”, “Do not separate yourself from the community (Avot 2:4)”, and how they pertain to current hot topics such as gun violence, immigration and criminal justice reform.

In a safe space, campers were encouraged to share their opinions and struggle with these very real issues. Without judgment. Without criticism. The conversations that ensued were heartening. One teen spoke about how scary the current tenor in our country is, how it motivates her to speak out against bigotry and hate. Another teen said that Judaism grounds him in knowing that when he advocates for social justice he is doing the right thing.

At a time when it is easy to be discouraged by the violence and divisiveness in our country, I became filled with hope listening to these kids. They not only understand the connections between the age-old Jewish wisdom of our texts and values, but they feel it in their core. Camp empowers our children to be themselves and to celebrate who they are. The sound of that hate-filled voice became drowned out by these kids finding their own voices and claiming their faith for themselves. How will they live Jewishly in the coming years? I don’t know. I can’t predict the choices they will make, but I do believe that they will be inspired by the Jewish values they explored here at camp. I am encouraged, because these teens will shape our future. I believe with perfect faith that they will illuminate a better path for us all.