Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Opening Jewish Conversations, Opening Jewish Community

Flashback: a few weeks ago, on this very blog, a post about Jewish conferences is published… authored by yours truly (shameless, right?). The piece was about how valuable such gatherings are – so valuable that they should be placed above sleep on our collective priority list. Just weeks after writing that piece, I found myself in Cambridge, Massachusetts for… you guessed it: another Jewish conference.

Southern reunion at Boston airport! Lex, Rabbi Shulamit Thiede of Charlotte, NC, and Walid Musarsaa, a student at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC.

Southern reunion at Boston airport! Lex, Rabbi Shulamit Thiede of Charlotte, NC, and Walid Musarsaa, a student at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC.

I was at Harvard University for the weekend conference, along with a few hundred others from around the country – in fact, 8 states out of the 13-state ISJL region were represented there! We had all come together for the first-ever conference of Open Hillel.

Open Hillel is a campaign that seeks to broaden the parameters of permissible conversation about Israel and Palestine at Hillel chapters around the country. Those who attended this conference feel that the value of machloket l’shem shemayim, spirited debate for the sake of heaven, should manifest itself even on the question of Zionism; that especially on questions related to Israel and Palestine, which often touch us in the deepest corners of our neshamot (souls), we should be open to a vast array of differing perspectives. Open Hillel believes that all Jews – even those who aren’t Zionists – deserve to be heard and included in Jewish communal conversations.

I learned an unbelievable amount at this inspiring event, attending sessions about human rights, the bounds of the Jewish “Open Tent,” even exploring issues like intermarriage and gender identity. I met wonderful students, recent college graduates, and older community members who were united by their desire to lay it all on the table – to staunchly debate the topics about which we disagree and, as a result, to grow in our knowledge of the issues.

But I had a funny thought while at this conference. Does it relate to my work at the ISJL at all?

The ISJL serves a geographic region; my department, the education department, specifically serves religious schools. The premise of our work is that every Jewish child should have access to an excellent Jewish education. We serve communities with twenty-five students, or five students, or even one single student. They receive access to the same resources that a community with 300 students gets. Every community is welcomed, and none is valued more than any other.

Open Hillel does not serve a particular geographic region. It does, however, serve a Jewish constituency, including a group which, like smaller communities, is occasionally overlooked: those whose perspectives differ staunchly from many Jewish institutions’ stances on Israel and its policies. Open Hillel recognizes that, regardless of any individual’s political stances about Israel, our Jewish institutions must provide a space for all to engage equally; that every Jewish person should have access to an excellent Jewish community.

I believe our Jewish community can and must uphold the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu div’rei Elohim Chayim” – “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Talmud Eruvin 13b). In Talmud, in our synagogue board meetings, and even at our dinner tables, we engage in rigorous debate about issues we deem important. Valuing and participating in debate is not merely part of being Jewish – it is perhaps the basic premise from which the rest of our tradition follows.

Though the focus areas are different, Open Hillel addresses issues of inclusion and empowerment– as does the ISJL. The ISJL knows that the existence and experiences of our wonderful Southern Jewish communities might be totally unknown in other places. Through our work, we build awareness and ensure that Southern Jews are viewed as a vital piece in the beautiful puzzle that is American Jewish Life.

Open Hillel wants to do something similar by demonstrating that harsh critics of Israel – even Jews who are not Zionists – are a crucial part of our community’s make-up. That so many of these people, who some might believe are just apathetic about their Judaism or actively “self-hating,” are as deeply in love with their Jewish identities as those who think differently. The goal these organizations have in common is to foster a diverse Jewish community that will thrive for centuries.

That goal can and should be our Jewish communal Torah. The rest is commentary. Let’s go and do it.

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Posted on October 22, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Praying on Display: Learning to Pray All Over Again

Ann with the Torah

Ann with the Torah

I have always derived great pleasure from personal prayer during worship services. Spirituality is core to my identity; the journey of our Shabbat and holiday liturgy is familiar to me and comforting to me. It is my time, which might sound selfishand I had not realized just how dependent on that selfish time I had become, until recently when I became a Jewish professional.

Last year, in addition to my work with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, I accepted the position of Educator at my home synagogue in New Orleans. Along with this amazing dream of a job comes the awesome responsibility of teaching others how to involve themselves in worship. One way we do this is by teaching the liturgy in Hebrew classes and prayer services; another, for me, is by setting the example of being sincere in my own prayer.

The irony? Sincerity in my own prayer has never been an issueuntil now, when I am on “display.”

Trying to strike a balance between teaching, leading, and praying is not an easy task! During the High Holidays last year, I was so very busy trying to keep up and catch up with all of my responsibilities that frankly I did not even attempt very much personal prayer. This year, by contrast, I was totally prepared, and had all of my projects for families and children set up in advance… in an effort to set the stage for my own prayer space once again.

I still wasn’t back to my usual spiritual self. Even with all of the preparation, the holiday experience was still just off-and-on successful. I feared a return to truly meaningful prayer while “on display” might be a lost cause for me, until a good friend and cantorial soloist pointed out something really simple and profound:

My personal prayer and spirituality can be every bit as sincere and meaningful as it once was, if I accept that it will never be the same as it once was.

My cantorial soloist friend taught me that now, my greatest spiritual moments were to be focused on enhancing the worship experience of the congregation. This is where she derives her Shabbat and High Holiday holiness, outside of herself. And this is where I am now learning to do the same thing. Part of this experience is not taking myself so seriously! I began to see the insanity in what I was trying to do, and it made me laugh at my own self, and simply relax and let it be.

With this new role, I also appreciate new elements of prayer. I still, and always will, value my private prayer moments, too. But when I see a kid have an “aha” moment connecting the dots in our liturgy, or lead a prayer with confidence, or an adult catches my eye during a sermon because he or she remembers that we discussed a similar point, or I notice someone following along in the Hebrew because I helped them learn how to do that, these will now be my personal worship experience focus!

What has been your journey as a lay person or a Jewish professional in personal prayer?  How is it different as you have aged, grown or changed roles?

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Posted on October 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

On Wedding Vows, Giving, and Receiving

Chana and Joel Engelman with officiant Peter Cherneff. Photo by Avi Burstein

Chana and Joel with officiant Peter Cherneff. Photo by Avi Burstein

My sister, Chanie, and my new brother-in-law, Joel, got married this month. I’m very fortunate to have incredible co-workers who are happy to see pictures of the very special occasion and hear all about the event itself—and of course, I’m also happy to share one of the beautiful pictures here, because that’s what proud sisters do!

But I also want to share with you a thought I had before the wedding—a thought that extended from marriage to the larger community, and also seemed particularly appropriate at this time on the Jewish calendar.

I had the honor of sharing a reading under the chuppah. As I looked at books of readings for weddings, poems, websites with readings and other sources, I came across this reading. I didn’t end up reading it to the happy couple under the chuppah, but it spoke to me.

“Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”—Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

This line is meant to describe the giving and receiving that takes place between partners. In many ways, however, it articulates my feelings about service. There is so much judgment associated with receiving help. Too often, even well -intentioned givers, engaged in the generous act of offering help, make judgments about the people receiving our assistance.

We may find ourselves judging others for “allowing” themselves to get into this situation. We might feel saddened by their vulnerability, their need—or willingness—to rely on others. We may even use those in need to make us feel better about ourselves: hey, at least we are not in their position.
Judgments of these kinds really impede on our ability to give lovingly and completely. Giving with judgment is still giving, and it is better than not giving at all. When someone is hungry, food is essential. Food without judgment is like getting icing on the cake.

But that is not the type of giving and receiving that a couple strives for in a marriage. Nor should it be the giving we strive for as we serve our communities. Rather, community offers us a lot sometimes, without us asking for it. And by receiving the joy given to us by our communities, we can truly give to people who rely on the greater community for things like food, shelter, and so on, without judging them or their situation.

While I have given thought to the relationship between those who conduct and those who receive the benefits of service (a problematic construct), thinking about it in the context of a marriage—particularly the marriage of two people who truly give to each other and the world with all their hearts—gives me a unique appreciation for the special bond that unites us as people who are constantly giving and receiving.

During this time in the Jewish calendar when Jews ask for a lot—forgiveness, health, a sweet new year–let us also ask for the ability to gracefully receive all we are given this year as well as the ability to give gracefully, without negative judgment of those who receive our help.

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Posted on September 28, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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