When I cook in my kitchen, I have a lot of company. I sometimes speak aloud to my grandmother who helps me intuit when the recipe “looks right.” My father looks on when I make pizza—none was better than his. My mother-in-law sits at the kitchen table recopying her recipes, telling me stories about her life. They are blessed and welcome spirits who provide context for my life.
But I have other company, too—sometimes in my kitchen, but not always. They come unbidden, but are welcome. They teach me to receive every moment of life not in expectation, but as an astonishing and treasured gift—and above all—as a limited resource.
They are the souls who treasured a crumbling crust of bread from their meager prisoners rations in the labor camps. They are the mothers and children who starved in the siege of Leningrad. They are our ancestors who were caught in sieges when the first and second Temples fell, or when the Crusaders crushed their lives. They are the helpless and voiceless pawns caught in current national and global conflicts. They are our neighbors, nearby and a world away. And they remind me that human suffering at the hands of tyrants cannot be sorted into neat columns of place and time and nationality or placed in historical context. They provide context for the way people behave in the world.
Understandably, we try to do this, especially when the reality of the human capacity to harm others makes us feel as if we can’t breathe, either. It’s all just too big to grasp. But really, the tragedies are not about sheer numbers, nor the depth of an oppressor’s depravity. Every tragedy is individual. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose precious lives were cut short in the name of ideologies – were all once babes dandled on their parents’ knees.
I have no idea how those who survive/d in the most extreme suffering manage/d to open their eyes each morning. I would like to think I could, somehow, to be resourceful enough to not starve or freeze to death. To do whatever it would take. Would I be strong enough? Perhaps. Would the overwhelming pain of it all make my soul long to flee my body? Very likely. Would I be able to pray? I’m not so sure—because when I see the news, I am not so sure I can pray today, either.
The cultures that razed the temples to the ground, brought about the horror of the crusades, and the scourge of the diabolical reign of madmen in the last century were easily identifiable enemies. But the threat we now face is more insidious, and just as deadly. It emerged over the years with war games and paintball and laser tag and the Hunger Games. And today, just as in ancient Jerusalem, the oppressor’s culture is alluring to many even as it destroys the lives of innocents. Today, though, we have no idea if our neighbors are among those who are armed and ready to do harm to others and claim it as their right. Today, we do not know if our children are safe in their schools. How did this happen? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Last Sunday was the second yahrzeit of those who were murdered in Sandy Hook. That town is right next door. Literally. Members of my congregation live there. And they will never, ever live “normal” lives again. Their friends and neighbors lost their children, their innocence, their sense of physical security and for many, their faith in humankind—forever. Children all over town have been traumatized beyond description. In Sandy Hook, as in all other communities in which such tragedies occur, the earth spins slightly off its axis.
Since that infamous day, over 70,000 of your neighbors have been senselessly murdered with guns, and another 200.000 have been wounded. The scale of these atrocities add up to staggering numbers while the ability of their assailants to be armed to the teeth (some 300 million weapons in civilian hands) is each day protected in the name of the chilling ideology that a one’s right to own a gun outweighs the rights of children (and all of us) to live in security. How powerful is the fear of an enemy that cannot be identified! We would, as a nation, never tolerate such an assault from an external enemy. And yet, it is nothing short of terrorism. In truth, the earth is spinning of its axis for all of us.
Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel said, when he attended a demonstration against the Vietnam war, “I am here because I cannot pray.” I get it. The anger and frustration have to be channeled into positive, wise and compassionate action.
And I have to ask each morning: what can I do to be worthy of this day, of the breath I draw? If I cannot utter a prayer, is there some way I can BE a prayer? Can I find the wisdom and strength to do whatever it will take, even in my own small way? I think of the Maccabees who were small in number and mighty in the strength that they drew down from the Creator of all life, and of the light and love and justice that are commanded to bring into the world. Like the oil that burned miraculously in the menorah of old, will I be able to burn bright enough, for long enough?
Think of Yael, who risked her life to ensure that the Maccabees would be victorious. Think of Judah and Mattathius who lead the few and the brave. We know our ancestors’ names not because they set out to do something earth-changing—but because they did something—and that something, eventually, changed the world. They remind us that when we respond to the call for justice, and do something—we are worthy of our breath – praying with each small act, lighting one small light at a time—and changing the world.
Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
The images of the secular New Year—Times Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakers—are all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanah—a shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honey—are more subdued and complicated. They suggest introspection mixed with hope, intention and possibility.
And I’m glad it is this way because this combination of emotions allows both for the celebration of that which might be in the year to come and face the reality of loss of all that is no longer possible.
Sitting in the same space we sat in last year and hearing the same somber tunes we hear year after year grounds us in continuity. We know that come what may, we can be sure this place, these sounds, these words will be here again next year, just as they were here last year, just as they were here ten years ago.
But the continuity also reminds us of what has changed in the last year. Some of the changes are for the better, the new love, the child now wearing a tallit for the first time, the new job, the new home. But not all the changes are for the good. Looking around the sanctuary, or the dining room table, at familiar faces we may be acutely aware of those who are not there. Or maybe the tunes and prayers are familiar but the sanctuary and all the people because you have had to move communities after a messy divorce or a job change. Maybe the clothes are old because buying new ones was simply not an option with this year’s finances. Our losses, whatever form they take, can be painfully clear at Rosh Hashanah.
The liturgy of the season returns to the refrain, “Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, V’nasuvah, Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem” “Return us Adonai to you and we will return, renew our days as in the days of old.” The traditional understanding of this prayer speaks to the need to rededicate ourselves to the path of Torah so that the presence of God will be as profound as it was in ancient times. But my own experience with the loss of loved ones at Rosh Hashanah, gave me a different way to understand it. Loss can alienate us from God and from that which is holy, we need help and support to be able to feel grace and the presence of the sacred. We want to feel the feeling of blessing that has slipped away.
My favorite version of this prayer, one set to the Rosh Hashanah nusach or tunes, is somber and has the power to bring me to tears. I remember the last day of my grandmother’s life, the first day of Rosh Hashanah over 25 years ago. It was the only time I ever saw her pray, I got to hear her sing the traditional tunes. The next day she was gone. Each year since, on Rosh Hashanah I am returned to that special relationship and to her absence.
At Rosh Hashanah, we do need to look forward and imagine how we will improve ourselves, our communities and our world in the year to come. But we also should allow ourselves to grieve for that which has been lost and is not retrievable. Services might be somber, but it is also appropriate cry and feel the power of the music, the sounds, the liturgy and the visuals the moment. Our sense of loss can and should propel us to reach out to those who are still with us, to seek help and support for that which we cannot change on our own. Judaism gives us permission and space to feel both the joys and the pains of life. Unlike the celebration of the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah encourages us to take stock, not to ignore the bad, even as we hope for a better year to come.
For those not immersed in the British television phenomenon that is Doctor Who, TARDIS (an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is the Doctor’s mode of transportation. Because I am not a Whovian, I asked my daughter about it and later verified her explanation with Wikipedia: “A properly maintained and piloted TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and any place in the universe.”
Prayer, tefilah, is meant to serve the same function as the TARDIS. The words, the melodies, the movements, are all designed to transport us to another dimension, a divine dimension. For months, I have been thinking about this connection, dreaming about creating a Tefilah TARDIS to help me reach God. But I never did. It seems that I, too, was waiting for the arrival of a doctor—a spiritual doctor.
I got to see him on the second of Elul, the month in which we begin preparations for the High Holidays, at a meeting of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. Rabbi Avi Weiss was invited to teach a professional development workshop, but I knew to expect something personally meaningful, and Rabbi Weiss did not disappoint.
In the section of his lesson, Teshuva: Rendezvous with God, Rabbi Weiss introduced a variety of texts about seeking and encountering God. Here I found the inspiration for my TARDIS, in the poetry of Yehuda HaLevi (translation by Nina Salaman):
I have sought your nearness,
With all my heart have I called You,
And going out to meet You,
I found You coming toward me.
These words perfectly capture my intention when I pray, whether I am praying alone in my living room or surrounded by others in a synagogue. The goal is to be transported, to be elevated to where God is and to bring God to where I am. I regret that I am often unsuccessful in achieving this goal. My prayers, a perfunctory recitation of a fixed liturgy, fail to transport me.
In his book, Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Weiss writes that prayer is “reaching inward to stir our soul, outward to embrace our fellow human being, and upward to encounter God. Here, holistic prayer enters a new realm.” I don’t know if he envisions the use of a Tefilah TARDIS, but Rabbi Weiss certainly recommends a properly maintained and piloted prayer experience, one that transports us to anywhere in the universe where God will meet us.
Could I create a tool with which to attempt a rendezvous with God? While Rabbi Weiss guided us through his lesson, I returned to this passage and imagined it inscribed on a Lucite box.
It took the better part of a week to collect the materials, paint the lid and exterior, and design the interior of my Tefilah TARDIS. Once it was completed, I began integrating this box into my daily routine, setting it on the table to remind me that the goal of prayer is to seek God. Sometimes I take a piece of chalk and write what I’m praying for—strength, patience, forgiveness, peace—on the lid. Other times, before I begin reciting a psalm, I remove the CD to write the names of friends in need of healing. Occasionally, I look up from my prayer book and turn the box to reveal the notes I’ve placed inside it.
As Elul ends and the High Holidays begin, I am ready to be transported.
There’s a reason you haven’t seen me online much this summer. I went underground to avoid the graphic images of children suffering in Israel and Gaza, Iraq and Syria; to escape the vitriolic language of my friends’ Facebook updates; to disconnect from bullying demands that I demonstrate loyalty to my ally and condemn the enemy. Unable to find peace, I chose to disengage from the violence in the world upstairs and embrace the silence in my basement studio.
Here, I breathe normally and work purposefully. I empty my mind of anxiety as I systematically empty bottles of glaze onto ceramic plates and bowls, pieces that feature sunbursts and flames—light to dispel the darkness of this summer. Somehow, my hiding in the basement studio transforms into an act of sympathy with those seeking shelter from missiles.
Thinking only of the micro-motions required to finish this piece, I steady my left hand against the rim of a Yahrzeit candle holder and begin writing the words of the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days and allow us to acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12) I patiently apply three coats of glaze, allowing each letter to dry before tracing the next. I cannot possibly number the hours I spend absorbed in this task, seeking solace in this underground sanctuary.
Recently forced to emerge from hiding—to teach Torah and serve as a rabbi—I can barely resist my desire to avoid the news and graphic images of violence and destruction that continue to plague the world above ground. Sitting at my desk, struggling to find some wisdom that I acquired in the studio to share in this space, I realize this is my Torah: how I spent the summer devoted to healing my own broken spirit.
Writing this piece and daydreaming about glazing ceramic pieces, I wonder more than once if sharing my experience of hiding in the basement will be of value to anyone else. Will teaching this Torah help anyone else find peace? Maybe others don’t suffer anxiety about the state of the world or feel the need to hide as strongly as I do. Maybe it’s true that I’m over-sensitive. Or maybe someone will read these words—the description of one person’s experience of trying to mitigate her anxiety—and find them to be helpful. If so, I’ll consider my return to the blogosphere a first step toward pursuing peace.
The experience of channeling nervous energy into the creation of Judaica helps me get through difficult days. I rewrite the words of the Psalmist in glaze and sing them quietly; they awaken my soul from despair. I find the strength of spirit to emerge from hiding, ready to heal our broken world.
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Although he has now healed into death, I prayed for the recovery of my rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, for many weeks this summer, folding into my daily practice a prolonged chant of Moses’s plea on behalf of leprous Miriam: Ana, El, na, refa na la. Please, God, please heal her.
Just a few months ago I was with Reb Zalman as he chanted the morning liturgy accompanied by whirling Sufi Dervishes, this, in itself, an ecumenitical healing. Now, as I mourn and review what my teacher has taught me, I recall my own first experience collaborating in prayer across religious modalities and dogmas.
It was the second week of my residency in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and looking over my shoulder as I scanned my patient census, our department chair noticed a patient had identified as a member of the Church of Christ. She offhandedly pointed to this patient name and said: “You’ll want to pray in the name of Jesus Christ.” I probably blanched visibly, most definitely not wanting to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, wondering what I was to do if this was the expectation?
I headed to the neuroskeletal surgery unit with trepidation.
There, I visited with Ruth, recovering from numerous spinal fusions. When I asked about her experience, she explained, smiling: “Jesus is filling in my cracks!” This reminded me of a story the Integrative Medicine doctor Rachel Naomi Remen tells about her final therapeutic session with an oncology patient wherein she returned to the patient a picture he’d drawn at their first meeting, of himself as a broken vessel. She asked if, now, these many months later, he’d like to emend the drawing in any way. The patient picked up a yellow crayon and drew rays of light pouring out of the cracks.
My patient was deeply moved by this story and we spoke of what it is to be filled with supernal light, and how that seems even more possible when one is broken open. Ruth said that when we’re sick we need a healing God and I saw that she was able to visualize God healing her as God filled her with Presence.
Then Ruth told me she’d never met a Jew, and asked if I spoke Hebrew. Could I pray in Hebrew? I said yes, and that we could pray Moses’ biblical words of supplication when his sister Miriam was so very sick. Oh yes, she would like that, and could I hold her hand?
So I chanted Ana El Na in the late Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield’s haunting melody… And in the intervals where I was accustomed to hear members of the community intone names of those in need of healing, Ruth began to murmur and then call out: I see you, Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you, Baby Jesus!
I smiled to myself. Here we were, collaboratively praying in the name of Jesus Christ and I had not sublimated my identity or compromised my theology. Rather, Ruth’s completion of my prayer to her own satisfaction had deepened my part in the mitzvah of healing the world.Ana El Na, Aryeh Hirschfield, as sung by Hannah Dresner
Today, among the many other things you do in your busy life, pray for the safe return of three kidnapped Israeli teens:
Naftali Fraenkel 16, Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gil-Ad Sha’er, 16
Take a moment any time today to pray for Naftali, Eyal, and Gil-ad. You can add the 250 Nigerian school girls, and all children around the world that have been forcibly taken from their families.
If prayer isn’t your usual thing, it might not come naturally. So, here is a very simple prayer anyone can say today (please cut, paste, or forward it as you see fit):
Holy Blessing One, my heart is heavy with fear and sadness on behalf of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gil-Ad Sha’er. I am overcome by the worry of their parents, family, friends, and community. I pray too for the safe return of all children around the globe who have been taken from the loving embrace of their families. Let them be safe. Let them be reunited with their families—alive. Let me feel safe and appreciative of those in my life. Let us all feel the safety of our connections. Amen.
What does it mean to pray for an outcome you have no direct control over?
- Prayer changes the person praying. To pray means an expression of empathy. It means to hold these children in your heart and mind. To feel or imagine their fear and their family’s pain.
- Prayer means a cultivation of hope. To pray means to hold on to hope, to keep alive possibility, even remote possibility of a positive outcome.
- Prayer changes the Universe. For outcomes that are not certain, we keep open the possibility that our sentiment, does indeed effect the universe. In religious language we speak of a flask of tears—our prayers—that God collects. God, the “Rock” is actually shaped by the drip-drop of our collected tears. We change God in the unspoken but clear language of our sincerity. In more “scientific” terms, we are conscious that every action, every molecule effects its surrounding. In that sense, we are all connected. When we pray, we hope to be part a movement that changes outcomes for the better.
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A few days ago, I ran across an article asking a rabbi what a person could do instead of going to shul to say kaddish. The person in question wasn’t bed-bound—he just didn’t like going to shul.
It’s a difficult question for a rabbi to deal with—although the author of this article did pretty well- because it’s difficult to know what the real underlying question is: Why doesn’t this person like going to shul—is it because he doesn’t know the meaning of the words he is saying? Is it because he draws no comfort from attending a service with people he doesn’t know? Is it because he is unfamiliar with the service?
Similarly, there are many people who are beginning to ask themselves if a minyan could be made online? These don’t seem like related questions, but they are, in that they come from a place where we are unfamiliar with our communities—we no longer need to fear friendship with non-Jews, but in doing so, many of us have failed to develop relationships with our own family, our own tradition – and then, when we seek comfort from it, we find it alien.
I wonder what the boundaries are for our ability to Jewish when we are not face-to-face. Going to shul is such an important part of being in the Jewish community—even for those who don’t love prayer, or don’t understand it well. And what, also, do we say to the person who doesn’t like shul: of course we hope they’ll connect in other ways, but it seems wrong to simply let the person give up on one of the ways we have to directly connect with one another—people we may have nothing in common with, other than being there for each other at a difficult time. And what of the idea that perhaps it isn’t only about you—that it is for others—God, our people, the deceased—that we do these things?
The internet sometimes gets proposed as a solution to this (and related) problems. But even if we set aside the problem of using electronic networks on Shabbat and other restrictive days, how much benefit to us as individuals or as a people could there be in a connection which never demands anything of us (because, for example, how can you bring food to the mourning community member who lives more than a day’s drive away?), and what happens to the idea of a people, even?
And yet, I do think that there is something to be gained from an internet community. I do see how it has enabled me to reconnect with people far from me and stay connected to people I might not otherwise stay connected with, even if it is not the same as the relationships I have with the people who are right here, next door.
What do you think those limitations are? Can we build true Jewish communities online?
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Each week, I put out a call on Facebook for those in need of blessings. I time these calls to connect with ritual making bread for Shabbat. It is customary to set aside a portion of dough, as a token of recognition of God’s generosity, when making a large amount of bread. Fulfilling of the obligation provides a unique opportunity for prayers of healing and divine intersession. Most weeks I make a large quantity of bread and have always offered personal prayers for those who I knew were in need. But within the last year or so, I have been placing calls on social media to add names to my list.
At the beginning, I was unsure what this odd call into the wilderness would yield. Was Facebook, the forum for cute babies and cats, breaking news and political commentary a place for prayer?
The results have been instructive.
Unlike the cute baby photo of my kid that I recently posted, I don’t get a deluge of responses. Each week not many more than handful of people take me up on the offer and simply like my post and I add them to my list.
But it is not quantity that matters. Many just leave a name or a ‘like.’ Sometimes I know from their feed what the issue is, sometimes not. But opening up this venue has lead to some of the most meaningful sharing and connecting that I have experienced on social media. I have learned some amazing and difficult truths about what is going on in people’s lives.
Here is some of what I know, that you might have missed completely.
– Your friend with the perfect kids in the amazingly cute dance outfits is not sleeping at night because it has been more than a year since her husband had full time employment
– All the photos of food in fancy restaurants are the way B. recovers from another bout of bad news at the fertility clinic.
– The increased posts about the family dog are in inverse proportion to the level of affection M. is feeling for her husband. Any day now she is likely to replace her spouse of 11 years with another pet.
These are not of course the precise details of what people share with me weekly, but they are typical of the kind of sharing that does happen.
The real secret is that if we push beyond the surface sharing that typifies social media, we have the power to connect and create something truly sacred. As one father in crisis, wrote me that he was grateful for my weekly offer because he is working hard not to make his child’s suffering and trauma the focus of any more attention than it need necessarily be. But as a result, he is without support that he desperately needs. Even though he rarely remarks on my post, my weekly offers reach him like a beacon of connection in sea challenging isolation.
Prayer has that power to move us beyond the facile connections of Facebook in no small part because it offers the recognition that that there something more, possibly painfully so, than high scores on Candy Crush, sunsets on beaches, or reports of snow days. In Jewish tradition prayer is best said in a community. In no small part gathering together, physically challenges the isolation that so many of us feel.
But we need not turn to prayer to create holy or deeply meaningful connections. Consider taking a Facebook post ‘offline’, with a phone call or an email or even in person. Remind the person what they mean to you and the value they bring to your life. Take time to share some of what is going on in your life, the real stuff not just the fluff. Listen for the challenges and difficulties that they face.
That is the secret of meaningful transcendent connection.
A number of recent essays have been swimming their way across the blogosphere and seem to have serendipitously swirled together. The Conservative movement, even at its largest and healthiest, has always been, like the Jewish people itself, overly worried about its imminent destruction, so when a young woman asks why men raised in an egalitarian setting, who like her, care about halakha, leave for Orthodoxy, when she cannot do so, when the Pew report seems to indicate shrinkage in the stable Jewish middle, when the once-dean of a Conservative rabbinical seminary writes the movement’s obituary, and when the smirky response to the woman asking how her friends could abandon her is responded to with the claim that it’s her own fault for daring to be equal, cause ya know, men can’t stand to have anyone be equal to them, it makes them expendable, one might expect a flurry of worry from the most worried of all Jewish movements. And there were.
Of course, there were also some very interesting discussions spawned from these articles ( by which, yes, I do mean to imply that I found most—except for the first of these—exercises silly). The one that I found myself most interested in was a discussion of when we lost the idea of obligation, and how important it is to get it back. Not simply for the idea of halakha—but also in terms of obligations to one another, and to our communities, and to God—rather than the pursuit of happiness, that goal that seems to take up so much of Americans’ time, and yet be so fleeting.
And so I invited those people who, like me, are Conservative because we care about halakha, deeply and passionately, and we care about the idea of obligation, in all those ways, to have a conversation about how to revive it: To revive a sense of seriousness about halakha, about egalitarianism, and about obligation, together.
The Conservative movement is my home because these are all things that I cannot do without, and I’m ready to find that core of people—whom I know are there, because I’ve met them and davenned with them, and eaten with them—so that the Conservative movement knows they’re there, too.And I invite you too. If you’re interested, leave a message for me and let’s start talking.