Author Archives: Rebecca Sirbu

Rebecca Sirbu

About Rebecca Sirbu

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu, is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Rabbi Sirbu directs two rabbinic fellowship programs, teaches seminars to rabbis, rabbinical students, and lay leaders across the country, and coaches individual rabbis in attaining their career goals. She was the founding director of the cutting edge MetroWest Jewish Healing and Healing Center at JCC MetroWest and the Center for Jewish Life at JCC MetroWest in West Orange, NJ. In addition, she is a trained hospital chaplain and speaks and writes on issues of health, healing, spirituality, and Jewish women. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar College, she holds a masters degree and ordination from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

We Can Do It!

Hope is a Jewish value. The Psalmist says “Hope in Adonai and be strong.” The national anthem of Israel is Hatikva – the Hope. Yet, in the Jewish community today I hear more complaining and lamenting than I hear expressions of hope.

This past week I spent a day with a group of women Jewish non-profit professionals. We gathered under the auspices of Advancing Jewish Women and the Jewish Community. Over the course of the day we identified obstacles to women’s advancement in the Jewish non-profit sector, and brainstormed ideas to overcome these obstacles. The women at the gathering were smart, articulate and creative in their ideas. But the highlight of the day for me was when we all had a chance to share our personal journeys. We were asked to create a collage the represented two points of challenge in our lives and how we chose to overcome those challenges. Each woman took a turn relating the events that formed their adult identities. Stories of deep challenge were shared: deaths of family members, job loss, painful transitions, and sexual harassment. Each story brought tears to the eyes of those gathered in the room, and we sat with each other in our pain.

But we did not wallow in the pain. In each instance, I was amazed at the courage and perseverance the women showed. Not a one of us was knocked out by our painful experience. Instead we rallied and rebounded. Family relationships were reformed, new jobs were found, and difficult transitions turned in to wonderful new opportunities. The collective and individual strength of the women in that room awed me and filled me with great hope.

These women are the next generation of Jewish leaders. Each is poised to take the helm of a Jewish non-profit in the near future. I can assure you that the future is in good hands.
These women have the wisdom to steer the Jewish community through this current period of malaise caused by the economic crisis and shifting religious affiliations. They will not moan about the state of the Jewish world as so many of our leaders do today. They will take the reins and with courage, creativity and perseverance lead us in to a new era.

“We can do it!” was the slogan pasted on posters of Rosie the Riveter during the Second World War encouraging women to help in the war effort. This poster has always been one of my favorites. Roise is strong, powerful, and above all hopeful. The job can be done and we can do it! Women should raise a new version of this poster across the community today.

I am profoundly hopeful that the very real obstacles women face in the culture of leadership in the Jewish community will be overcome. We have slowly been moving towards more inclusion of women in leadership roles in the Jewish community over the past 30 years. More must be done. But I see it happening. The income inequality gap will close. Parental leave and flex time policies will be instituted, and women will rise as leaders in established Jewish Institutions and as founders of new projects yet to be launched.

The women I sat with this week are my hope. They go to work each day fighting for a better world for all. The psalmist asked “I turn my eyes to the mountain from where will my hope come?” My hope comes from the stories and leadership of these women. We have a lot to look forward to!

Posted on June 18, 2012

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Are We in a Technologicaly Borderless World?

I remember a friend proudly showing off her father’s Apple II computer when I was in grade school. We were warned not to touch it. In high school, we were required to take a computer class which taught us BASIC code. I think I learned how to program the computer to make a dot matrix smiley face. The whole time I sat at the computer I was afraid I would break it. I was a nervous wreck and did not enjoy the class while some of my classmates thought it was the coolest thing ever.

I got my very own personal computer, a Mac, when I started college. Again, I was scared of it. I was sure that I would lose all of my work at the touch of a wrong button. My boyfriend made fun of me and secretly programmed my computer to make all sorts of silly and confusing sounds when I typed. Every time I hit the period key the computer made a sound like something was crashing to the floor. Oy!

So it comes as some surprise to me that now I love new technology and gadgets. I want the latest smart phone and ipad. I thrill to check out the newest social media sites. I love being able to navigate a strange city with my GPS. Doing research for a possible kitchen renovation I came across the website www.houzz.com. I was entranced by picture after picture of new kitchens. I created my own personal page where I could save my favorite pictures and ideas. And I read a blog post which described how through the use of Bluetooth technology, we can now use our smart phones and ipads to control every device in our houses. Need to change the channel? Who needs a remote any more, use your iphone. Wondering if you left the coffeemaker on this morning? Look it up on your phone, and remotely turn it off. Want to turn on a light before you get home? Just program it from your phone. The world of the Jetsons cartoon is now a reality. (Minus the flying cars..but they are probably going to be here soon.)

The Jetsons

As a Rabbi Without Borders, I have to wonder if there are any borders to our use of technology. When carrying around a phone becomes too burdensome, and we can put all of the information we need in a chip in our bodies, would that be OK? Why use a phone, when I can touch the palm of my hand to program something? Some deaf people use cochlear implants. They are already “chiped.” Many amputees use bionic limbs that move in incredible ways. These sound like great innovations now, but is there a point at which there is too much technology? At what point do we cease to be human and become robots, or cyborgs? What happens when the computers we make become smarter than us? What will the value of human life be then?

These questions are no longer science fiction. They are real, and for me deeply theological. I am someone who has been swept along on the tide of new technologies. Will I keep going with the tide or climb out of the water?

Already there are times I get out of the water. Each Shabbat I try to unplug. “Try” being the operative word. Each year it gets harder and harder. I still keep a firm line that I do not check or respond to emails on Shabbat. I don’t get on Facebook or Twitter. But what about using my kindle or ipad to read? Sitting down with a good book is one of my favorite activities and a great way to spend a summer afternoon on Saturday. I am now reading most things on my ipad. At first I would not do this on Shabbat. Now I do. But my finger itches to click on the Facebook app. I see I have 10 notifications…..for now I don’t click. I have a need to make Shabbat a different day, and getting out of the flow of information is one way that I do this.

I really wonder how God wants us to use these technologies. Does God really care if I read Facebook updates on Shabbat? No, I can’t say that God does. But not reading them helps me to keep a quieter mind and feel more connect to the holy on that day. Does God want us to develop in to cyborgs? I really do not know.

Jewish tradition generally welcomes medical innovations. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides was both a rabbi and a doctor. Israel leads the world in fertility treatments and other cutting edge medical science. Everyone wants a Jewish doctor right? But is there a line we should not cross? IVF was scary to many people when it was first introduced and now it seems normal. We can keep people alive on machines for years on end. But should we? Rabbis and Jewish scholars can argue both sides of this question using traditional Jewish sources. There is no one right answer.

With each year and with each new technological innovation it becomes easier and easier to cross lines we never imagined crossing in the past. Who knows what the future really holds for us? Bionic limbs, eyes, chips to store our memories in? Medical innovations and new technologies go hand in hand.

For now I am happily swimming with the current. But I like my Shabbat rest stops. And I wonder if and when it will make sense to get out of the current. Are there borders here? Without posing the questions, we cannot get to the answers.

Posted on June 4, 2012

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Tomorrow’s Rabbi Today

What does the synagogue of the future look like? Today synagogue affiliation rates are dropping, as are affiliation rates across all religious denominations in America. This fact combined with the current economic climate is causing many synagogues to close or merge. Rabbis and lay leaders across the country are trying to reinvigorate their synagogues and attract new members. Much of the conversation focuses on the rabbi. What skills do rabbis need today to lead a successful synagogue? How do rabbis acquire those skills? What new roles can rabbis find outside of the synagogue walls?

Hayim Herring’s new book Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today strives to answer these questions. Rabbi Herring does an admiral job of describing the changing context of American synagogue life and exploring the issues synagogues must look at to strengthen their core functioning. He advocates using social networking and collaborative programs to increase a congregation’s reach. His assessment of how to create a strong organizational system is right on target. He then goes on to address the question of the rabbi.

Here, I think Rabbi Herring gets a lot right, but also makes a few missteps. I agree whole heartedly with his assertion that rabbis today need to be passionate leaders who can speak to the issues of the day and enhance our understanding of our world by using Jewish wisdom. I also agree that today’s rabbis need to be entrepreneurs. The Rabbis Without Borders program, which I direct, focuses on giving rabbis the skills they need to be entrepreneurs. We need rabbis who are thinking out of the box and using Torah in new and creative ways which will help people make meaning in their lives. I was turning each page of the book, saying to myself, “yes, yes, you got it right,” I then hit a page which surprised me.

The heading on this page is “Reducing Some Current Rabbinic Roles.” The first role listed is: pastoral counseling. What? I was so shocked I had to stop reading for a few minutes to absorb the thought. Rabbis should do less pastoral counseling? Rabbi Herring writes, “This is one area where they can scale back. Rabbis can partner with Jewish Family Service (JFS) counseling staff or develop a “train the trainer” approach, and train Jewish metal health professionals to provide a Jewish spiritual dimension to their counseling.”

I must respectfully disagree with Rabbi Herring on this point. Not all rabbis have a talent for pastoral counseling, and those who do not, are well advised to refer people elsewhere. However, pastoral counseling is an incredibly strong tool for a rabbi to use in making a significant impact in both an individual and a communities life. I experienced this first hand when I was the Director of the MetroWest Jewish Health and Healing Center in West Orange NJ. The program was a join program between the JCC, JFS, and local chaplaincy group. In my role, I was available for pastoral counseling for the community at large. After introducing myself to the area rabbis, and leading a few workshops with the social workers at JFS so that they could understand my role and how it differed from theirs, I expected referrals to start coming in, which they did. Social workers are not trained to handle spiritual matters. In fact they are advised to steer clear of them. Even after conducting in service trainings with them, most of the JFS social workers were uncomfortable adding a spiritual assessment to their intake or addressing spiritual issues in their session. Several started referring clients to me for counseling. Together we were able to serve many individuals and help them work though mental and spiritual issues. In addition, rabbis, who did not feel comfortable counseling also, referred their congregants to me. My partnership with the area rabbis also worked well. I could serve their congregants needs, but not steal them away since I did not lead my own congregation.

But the greatest surprise came from the number of unaffiliated people who called me for counseling. A good 80%-90% of the people I saw for counseling were unaffiliated Jews. These were people who needed to a rabbi about an issue which brings up spiritual questions like bereavement or illness and had nowhere else to turn. Because I was based in a JCC, and not a synagogue I was easily accessible. Once I met with someone a whole host of questions and needs would be presented. I was able to skillfully introduce people to Jewish prayers, texts, stories, and meditations which could help them. Clients were amazed that Judaism had so much to offer. And in many cases, after meeting with me they expressed a desire to learn more and be connected to the community. I was then able to match them up with synagogue communities, or other leaning opportunities.

Pastoral counseling is a means to growing the larger Jewish community. There are some questions about the meaning of life and death which cannot be found through a Google search. Pastoral counseling is a unique skill and training which some rabbis and other clergy possess which is markedly different from what a mental health professional can offer. Rather than dismissing pastoral counseling as a skill rabbis can do without, I would instead argue that rabbis should receive better training in pastoral counseling and chaplaincy. When a rabbi is able to connect with an individual at a time of need, then that individual will have an emotional connection to that rabbi and by extension the Jewish community which will last a lifetime. We need to find entrepreneurial ways for rabbis to offer more pastoral counseling not less.

Posted on May 21, 2012

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Rabbis Without Borders: A Vision

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Have you been wondering what a Rabbi Without Borders really is? We have produced a video which describes who we are and the impact we are having on the Jewish world. If you are curious please take a look.

Posted on May 7, 2012

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The times they are a changing…..Thank God!

When I was in rabbinical school in the mid to late 1990s the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical School, did not knowingly admit or ordain gay or lesbian rabbis. I say “knowingly” because there were some students in the closet. Being a supporter of gay ordination, I did everything I could to try to move the process forward.

I will never forget the day that myself and another student met with the then Chancellor Ismar Schorsch. The two of us began to passionately speak about the Jewish values which informed our belief that gays and lesbians should be ordained. After only a few sentences had left our mouths, the Chancellor interrupted and said, “Let me stop you there. Gays and Lesbians will not be ordained at JTS while I am still Chancellor. It is not going to happen.” Then, he escorted us out of his office.

The experience left me a little shaken and very sad. I could not believe that he would not even listen to us. He had no interest in even discussing the topic. None! I hated that I was attending a school which did not uphold one of my core values. The Bible tells us time and again “Welcome the strangers in your midst because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” I hold the value of welcoming, inclusivity and acceptance as one of the highest Jewish values. As a Jew growing up in Austin, Texas, I often felt like a stranger. As a woman studying to be a rabbi, I often felt like a stranger. I think most people feel like a stranger at some point in their lives. In my mind a Judaism that is not open, welcoming and accepting is not a Judaism that I want to practice.

Chancellor Schorsch retired in 2006. One year later, The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) voted to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis. I was thrilled and excited by this change. Aaron Weininger, a Rabbi Without Borders Student Fellow, became the first openly gay student admitted to The Seminary. And last year Rachel Isaacs became the first out lesbian to be ordained by JTS. (She transferred in to JTS and graduated a year ahead of Aaron who will be ordained this May.)

While I celebrated this progress, I heard from rabbinical school students that The Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Israel, the Conservative Movements Rabbinical School in Israel would not admit gay students. This posed a problem since all JTS students are required to spend a year studying at The Schechter Institute as part of their rabbinical school training. The gay and lesbian students were again being made to feel like strangers, unwelcome in the Movement and Institutions they wanted to study in. Gay and lesbian JTS students had to find somewhere else to study for their year in Israel. To my mind, this was an unacceptable situation. I lamented the fact that while admitting gay student JTS did not seem to be capable of thinking through all of the various needs of these students and could not find ways to support them.

Then, just last week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, The Schechter Institute board voted to admit gay and lesbian students. The significance of this decision coming in Holocaust Remembrance Day cannot be understated. Both Jews and homosexuals were singled out by Hitler to be exterminated. Jews wore a yellow star while homosexuals were forced to wear a pink triangle. Gay Jews were of course twice cursed. I would like to think that the vote of the Schechter board, coming on the day it did, was an acknowledgement that past discrimination against homosexual students was wrong. I would like to think that Jews, gays, women, and other minorities are all in the same boat. We must look out for one another, support one another, and advance each other’s goals. To do any less would be an abdication of our responsibility as Jews.

While this decision is momentous, I know that the fight for full acceptance of gay rabbis is not over. Many synagogues will not hire a gay rabbi and some other rabbis will not accept gay rabbis as equal colleagues. Women rabbis still face this issue and JTS began ordaining women over twenty five years ago!

I strongly believe that the Conservative Movement needs to stand behind each and every rabbi they ordain. The Movement has a responsibility to these rabbis to support them in their job searches and career growth. Lay leaders and Jewish professionals across the country need to have conversations about diversity and acceptance. If we cannot practice this in our own intuitions how are we to promote acceptance of difference, particularly religious difference, with a clear conscience. How can we fight against anti Semitism the world over if we do not accept the minorities within our own communities?

“Never Forget!” is said each and every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day. We must remember those who died due to discrimination and prejudice and we must make sure that we ourselves do not employ discriminatory practices. Each one of us was created in the image of God. We are all holy beings no matter the color of our skin, our gender, or who we love. God loves each one of us and we need to love ourselves.

Yashar Koach (Right on!) to the Schechter Institute for making this decision. Let’s continue to support each individual who wants to study, teach and lead the Jewish people.

Posted on April 23, 2012

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Modest Dressing

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Modest dressing — what does it mean for a woman? Many religious communities have strict rules about what a woman should wear and how much of her body can show. Look at examples in the Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, Mormon, and strict Christian denominations.

This is an issue I have often struggled with. On one hand, I am a liberal Jewish feminist woman who firmly believes that a woman should have the freedom to dress as she pleases. If that means wearing short skirts, and exposing cleavage, then OK. However, my principles get tested quite often. Last Shabbat I watched a young teenage girl walk in to synagogue to attend a friend’s bat mitzvah wearing 5 inch heels and a skirt that was so short you could almost see her underwear when she walked. This outfit was not OK. I was horrified that this girl’s mother let her leave the house that way. I wanted to lecture her on the holiness of her body and ask her to change.

And… I was amused by my own reaction to her outfit. Rationally I know that she was copying a look she sees on TV and magazines. She had internalized some message that this look is attractive, and she wanted to be attractive. Yet, she was also sexualizing herself in a way that was not appropriate for her age, and the occasion she was attending.

Where is the balance between dressing to feel attractive and dressing to convey a sense of respect for your body? Who determines this balance? Is it totally subjective or not?

How we dress conveys messages to the people around us. My seven year old daughter has already picked this up. She has divided the girls in her first grade class in to “girly girls” who wear a lot of pink, “tomboys” who dress more like boys, and “cool girls” who wear black. She wants to define herself as a cool girl, and black instead of pink has become her color of choice.

Clinton and Stacy, the style gurus on TLC’s program What Not to Wear work with women on each episode to find a style of dress that sends the particular message the wearer wants to send. In some cases they encourage a woman to wear more reveling clothes. In other cases, they encourage a woman to cover up, and show her sexiness without letting it all hang out. In all cases they choose clothes which are generally more sophisticated that the woman was wearing before, and the end result is a woman who looks put together and in control of her life. I find it fascinating that Clinton and Stacy always seem to find this elusive balance between dressing a woman to be attractive and respecting her body. Somehow they have discovered some objective rules for a balanced way to dress, yet these rules are applied subjectively with each different woman they encounter.

I am an avid fan of the show because I want to be able to ferret out these rules to use on myself and to teach my daughter about how to dress. I want both of us to send the message that we are strong confident women who are comfortable with our bodies.

Issues of modesty, body image, and self confidence have all gotten rolled together. This is a difficult ball to unwind. Finding the balance may just mean applying some objective rules subjectively. A skirt should cover most of a woman’s thighs, how much is “appropriate” depends on the particular woman, her body type, and the event she is attending. A top could dip lower for social occasions, but not for work. And exactly how low depends on the size of a woman’s chest.
In the end, the women are free to dress how they like side of me is horrified that I would apply any rules at all to women’s dress. However, the practical women must wear power clothes to look their best, and it is not about their bodies, side of me acknowledges that some rules are necessary to achieve a self confident, powerful, put together image in today’s world.

I will continue to struggle to find the right balance between these views.

Posted on March 26, 2012

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Israel and Jon Stewart

There are times when Jon Stewart just hits the nail on the head of an issue. Last week he had a segment on how all of the Republican candidates for office and President Obama spoke at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual convention in Washington DC.

All of the Republicans spoke about how they would back up Israel and bomb Iran so that Iran cannot develop nuclear capabilities which it would likely use against Israel. All claimed that the current Obama administration would not do so. Until of course President Obama took the stage and said that he would do everything in his power to keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb including military action. Basically everyone agrees that a nuclear Iran is dangerous for Israel, the Middle East and the world at large. Everyone agrees that Israel is an important ally of the US, and the US would protect her if the need arises. Jon Stewart expertly points out all of these facts, and then closes the segment with some incendiary quotes from politicians criticizing Israel. Who , he asks, has the gall to say such things? – Well Israeli members of parliament, of course, since only in Israel “Can you hold political office and criticize Israel.”

The simple meaning of this final line is that no American political candidate or nationally elected politician will criticize Israel. The clips which he played demonstrated the truth of this statement. However, the ability of any American to criticize Israel is also now up for debate.

I myself usually do not write or talk about Israel for fear of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. If you lean a little left on Israel those who lean right will attack you, and if you lean right, those on the left will attack. There is no winning. Better to not say anything at all.

The problem with this approach is that then we leave the conversation to all of the people who are shouting their position from the rooftops. If everyone is shouting, then no one is listening. Not listening to each other is not good for Israel, and is not good for the Jewish community as a whole. We could learn a lesson from the clips Jon Stewart shows. The truth is that once all the yelling dies down, we would see that we are all basically standing in the same place. All of this rhetoric and energy around Israel is because American Jews actually have a very strong relationship with Israel. We care. In fact, we care so passionately we fight with each other over things large and small.

For decades, American Jews have questioned whether we have a right to criticize Israel. Some argue yes, we are all one big family, so we can set each other straight when we need to. And others say no, we are one big family and we just need to support each other. There is truth to both positions. There is no “right” way to talk about Israel.

I would love to see everyone calm down a bit and remind each other that we are indeed all coming from a place of supporting Israel. We just support Israel in different ways, and have different ideas and dreams about what Israel can and should be. Let’s talk about ideas and dreams. Let’s also talk about possible solutions to the political realities Israel faces.

I truly wonder if we can learn how to talk and listen to each other again. Because I don’t want Jon Stewart’s jokes to ring so true. He can make fun of the situation because when all else is stripped away, it is silly. We are squabbling and posturing to each other for no reason.

Each of us can take steps to lower the rhetoric around Israel. Be brave, start conversations with friends and relatives. Truly listen to points of view which differ from your own, and ask others why they care about Israel. There are a lot of great stories and connections that we can build in this way.

Posted on March 12, 2012

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Ending the Day

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Often I find I need some time at the end of the day to reflect on the day, calm my mind, and get ready to sleep. I am not the kind of person who falls asleep the instant my head hits the pillow. I find having a bedtime ritual helps bringing the day to a close.

My ritual involves saying the Shema at bedtime each night. I typically recite it after I have turned off the light and gotten in to bed. I take a deep breath, center myself, focus on the words I am saying.

In Hebrew the words are: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohainu Adonai Echad
The meaning of these words can be translated in a variety of ways:
Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, The Lord is One.
Listen Israel, The one God is your God.
I am your one God. I listen to you.
I hear you Israel. I am your one God.

Understanding the exact meaning of the words is not necessary. The words can be used as a chant or mantra, the very cadence of the words themselves can give comfort. After I say the Shema, I think back on my day. I thank God for the things that went well, and ask for help on the things I am struggling with.

Sometime I use this quite time to journal or I just sit in silence meditating on the ideas in the prayer: God, oneness, listening.

This ritual has become so important to me that I do it with my daughter at bedtime as well. We say the Shema together and then I ask her to think of something that happened that day that she wants to thank God for. There are evenings when she relates wonderful stories about her day, and sometimes she is silly. But either way it is a special moment in the day that we share together. If I am rushing to get her to sleep and forget to prompt her, she always remembers, “Mommy, we need to say Shema.”

This ritual of calming one’s self before sleep and feeling grateful for the good things in our lives, brings nice closure to the day.

Posted on February 27, 2012

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Singing the February Blues

February is the shortest month of the year, yet to me it always feels like the longest. There is something about the short cold days, the lack of sun that makes my spirits take a dive. This time of year I have to gather around me anything that brings me comfort to keep myself going. Luckily, over the years, I have developed a wealth of resources. I want to offer a couple of them to you with the hope that someone will find them helpful in their own life.

The first resource I turn to is prayer. I find two different kinds of prayer helpful. The first kind is the prayer of my heart. For this prayer, I don’t need the liturgy in the prayer book. I just need a quite space where I can close my eyes and direct my thoughts towards God. In these moments I talk to God. I simply share my thoughts, worries and anxieties. Sometimes I even blame God and express anger over something in my life. “Why does it have to be this way?” I shout in my head. Having a place to direct these thoughts and feeling calms and comforts me.

Then, I turn to more traditional prayers, the Psalms. “Out of the depths I call to you God!” cries out Pslam 118:5 . “And you answered me out of the great expanse.” You answered me. YOU answered ME. How great would it be to have God answer me, to know that everything will be alright, to know that spring is just around the corner. A funny thing happens when I chant these verses over and over to myself. After a while, I do feel like I hear an answer. I feel like God hears me that God is there for me. I relax and feel less alone.

Then, I continue to read Psalm 118 and come to verse 14. I like the translation and tune used by Rabbi Shefa God, “My Strength (balanced) with the Song of God will be my salvation.” I need this reminder of my own strength. I am strong. It just gets lost in the cold days and the pressures of daily life. So, here is my reminder to find it again. To connect to that place within me that gives me energy, love for my family, and passion for my work. I chant these verses and find my strength again.

Now I feel strong and cared for by God. Sometimes this is enough. I can stop my practice here. But at other times I still need to bring more light into my life.

Then, I turn to a gratitude practice. Several studies have shown that increasing a sense of gratitude in your life will increase happiness. Jewish liturgy has numerous prayers of gratitude. One of my favorites is Modeh Ani – which says “I am grateful to You, the living and enduring God, for restoring my soul to me in compassion. You are faithful beyond measure.” Traditionally said upon awakening in the morning, this prayer thanks God for life itself. I like to start there, being thankful for life itself. Without life, I could not have the other good things in my life. After reciting the prayer I make a list of the things in life I am thankful for. Usually this list lifts my spirits and then I can turn to Psalm 30; “I extol You O God for You have lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me. O God, I cried out to You and You healed me.”

Am I fully cured from the February Blues? I don’t know if there is a cure. But I do feel healed. Healing is different from curing. Even when someone is very sick, I have witnessed that they can experience healing. Emotional healing and/or spiritual healing is always possible. The prayers and practices I shared help me feel healed. They help give me the strength I need to carry on with life when life is not so fun to live. Maybe these practices are only helpful to me. But given that these Psalms and prayer shave been passed down for generations, I may not be the only one to experience their healing power. I hope you can too.

Posted on February 10, 2012

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Jews, Hope, and the 99%

Many Jews have ambivalent feelings about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Thankfully, the Jewish story in the United States has largely been one of success. The dominant narrative (but by no means the only narrative) is that Jews came as immigrants to this country, worked hard, got educations, and moved from the poor, to the middle class, and in many cases in to the upper classes of American society. Those Jews who have achieved great financial success feel attacked by the Occupy Movement. At an event held by the Edgar Bronfman Foundation where Simon Greer, the head of the Cummings Foundation, presented on “Jews and the 99%”, a man in the audience commented, “Why am I being painted by the Movement as a bad guy? I am not a bad person. I am an example of how to succeed in this country.” He was able to fulfill the American dream. He grew up poor, went to college, founded a business and is now considered to be “successful by any standard,” he said.

What Simon Greer, and an Op-Ed by Anderw Kohut the president of the Pew Research Center, point out is that Americans are not upset that there is income inequality in this country, but rather they are upset that it seems that now those in the lower economic echelons do not get a fair chance at raising themselves out of their current state. In Kohuts Op-Ed, he cites “ a Gallup poll last month found 54% believing that income inequality was an ‘acceptable part of our economic system’…What is different these days is that a despondent public, struggling with difficult times and an uncertain future, is upset over a perceived lack of fairness in public policy. For example 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.”

People need to have hope that they can do better. Hope that their dreams can be fulfilled. Hope that their children’s lives will be better than their own. Depression is really an apt word for the state of this country right now. A key symptom of depression is a lack of hope. Kohut ends his op ed by writing, “What the public wants is not a war on the rich but more policies that promote opportunity.”

Jewish leaders and the Jewish community have a lot to teach Americans about hope. The concept of hoping for a better time in the midst of the deepest darkest days is a central theme in our liturgy, the way we organize our communities, and the Jewish nationalist quest for a homeland in Israel.

First take a look at our liturgy. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ce, Jews have prayed and hoped for the re-establishment of the Temple. This hope for an eventual return to the holy land, and the re-building of the Temple carried the Jews though thousands of years of Diaspora living. While holding on to this hope, the Jews leaders crafted a Judaism not based on offering sacrifices to the Temple, but rather on daily prayer and rituals. A new Judaism emerged, one which today makes the rebuilding of the Temple itself irrelevant. Yet, it was the hope for the return to the land of Israel and dreams of the Temple that carried Jews forward. Without hope, all would have been lost. Statements and prayers for hope can be found all over the prayer book and Jewish texts.

Then, during the nineteenth century Jews across Europe had the hope of one day making it to the “goldene medina,” the golden land of America, where they imagined the streets were paved with gold. This hope propelled tens of thousands of Jews to travel from across Europe in many different waves of immigration to the US. Then once they were here, the hope of eventual success in America caused Jews to organize Jewish welfare boards, Jewish Social Service Agencies, Jewish Community Centers, and the United Jewish Appeal in order to help Jews here in America and those suffering from persecution in every corner of the world. The Jewish community erected an amazing social support system which still exists today. The Jewish value of helping the poor, widowed, and orphaned was then and still is today taken seriously by the leaders of these organizations. With the hope of eventual success these great organizations would never have been established, and the Jewish community would not be as successful as we are today.

And of course, there always was the hope of returning to the promised land, to Israel. While Jews dreamt about Israel in different ways, some for religious reasons, others for secular nationalist ones, the goal of achieving a homeland stayed with Jews for centuries. It is no surprise that the name of the Israeli nation anthem is “Hatikvah,” “The Hope.”

We have a lot to teach about sustaining hope and the power the simple act of hope has to propel people forward to achieve great things. The Talmud teaches, “you must remove the stumbling block before the blind.” Now is the time to organize to remove the stumbling blocks which stand before us. The Occupy Movement will not succeed if it is based in anger. The message needs to be turned around and made positive. Hope is a positive message. It is the message that propelled Barak Obama in to the White House four years ago. But four years of continued economic depression had taken hope away from the average American.

Let’s restore the hope that the American economy can be strong again. That those who work hard and want to succeed can. Let’s remove the stumbling blocks that exist for those born into poverty. There are many different viewpoints and public policy arguments to be made on how to do this. I am not going to advocate here for any particular one. But I am going to strongly assert that before any particular policy can be effective we have to re-establish the grand hope that our country has the will and resources to help all of its citizens get a leg up.

All of us need to start preaching the call for hope. This is the starting point for our individual and collective success.

Posted on January 30, 2012

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