Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A giant is dead -- David Lieber, a Bible scholar who united the spiritual and intellectual

One of the most inspiring figures of my rabbinical school education was Rabbi David Lieber, with whom I studied Psalms and who was the editor of the Etz Hayim Humash, a Torah text and commentary that can be found in nearly every Conservative synagogue and that has greatly enriched how we view our biblical heritage.

I was saddened today when I learned that he had passed away late last night. The funeral services will be held in Los Angeles Thursday.

Rabbi Lieber was the kind of giant of Jewish scholarship that is so rarely found today -- for Rabbi Lieber, unlike for so many current scholars, there was no divide between the academic and the spiritual. When you studied Psalms with him, it was with the tools of modern scholarship in hand. But the atmosphere in the classroom was characterized by anything but the sterility we sometimes associate with the academic -- it was deeply spiritual.

His technique was slow and deliberate. Just as it was with the ancients and the medievals, Rabbi Lieber treated every word and turn of the text like there was the possibility to uncover infinite holiness beneath it. Rabbi Lieber knew that, as brilliant as the medieval scholars were, they had unfortunately lost something that the ancients knew so well -- the Psalms are poetry. For Rabbi Lieber, the value of modern scholarship is that it -- in things like its revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken tongue -- had reawakened us to the true depths of the beauty and poetry of the text. It had reawakened us to realize that the Psalms are songs that were meant to be sung -- meant to be sung at specific spiritual times and places.

Dr. Lieber, thank you so much for what you have given me. I am so deeply grateful to The Blessed Holy One that I had a chance to learn with you.

May his memory be a blessing.


The services will take place at 11 a.m. on Thursday at the American Jewish University (formerly, the University of Judaism) where Rabbi Lieber was long the president. He is survived by his wife, Esther, and his children, Michael, Danny, Susie and Debbie. Notes of condolence may can be sent to his wife at, 305 El Camino, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.


I had not been aware of this, but Rabbi Lieber served as a chaplain in the Air Force. He was born in Poland and grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.


It took them a few days to get around to it, but the New York Times finally wrote a nice obit-- focusing on the contribution that the Etz Hayim was for Judaism.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A community of caring, a legacy of study . . . and song

Walking around Jerusalem -- as I hope, God willing, to be doing in only about a week -- one often sees a sign like the one to the right. It's a death notice -- one that Minna found posted outside a pet store -- announcing not only where the funeral will be (on the very day the notice was posted), but also where, in the ancient tradition of the Jewish people, the mourners can be found afterward, so the community can visit them during their week of initial mourning.

Minna went to the funeral earlier this week for the deceased, Rabbi Mickey Rosen, and I expect she will be writing about that experience soon on smamitayim -- about how clear it was to her while she was there that Rabbi Rosen left a deep mark on many people. [True to her word -- as usual! -- Minna did write about the experience. See second half of this blog post.]

So, I will only say a little bit here about Rabbi Rosen's emotional and spiritual impact -- just that he was the founder of Yakar, a synagogue and place of learning that deeply impacted many people, including my former rabbinical school colleague, Barry Leff who wrote a hesped recounting how much he was impacted by Rabbi Rosen and by Yakar and the songs of prayer he participated in there.

I will just share something indicating that Rabbi Rosen was also very much a scholar. Here is a description about Rabbi Rosen's recent book, QUEST FOR AUTHENTICITY: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim:
The Przysucha (Yiddish: Pshiskha, pronounced Pe-shis-kha) school of Hasidism believed in a service of God that demanded both passion and analytical study. There was little or no study of kabbalah in Przysucha, and the emphasis was not on trying to understand God, but on trying to understand the human being. It was clear to them that one could not stand with any sense of integrity before the Divine Presence unless one first had some clarity of who one really was.

Directly or indirectly, Przysucha had declared an internal war upon the hasidic leadership of its time. It simply refused to accept anything that smelled of falseness and self-deception, be it the honor due to a zaddik or a particular religious practice. Przysucha equated pretension and self-deceit with idol worship.

During the early part of the nineteenth century, when the center of the hasidic world was in Poland, R. Simhah Bunim transformed Przysucha Hasidism into a movement and thus rose to become a, if not the, dominant personality in the Hasidic community.
May his memory be a blessing.


Rabbi Rosen only had a small impact on me personally, although I vividly remember how his talit seemed to be constantly in a process of falling off and being pulled back up when he spoke before his congregation. But it does strike me how what I wrote above has weaved within it -- even in just the title of this blog post -- three themes that I am striving to weave into a whole in my own life as a person, as a rabbi and as a spiritual caregiver:
  • the thread of scholarship (davka academic scholarship (in addition to other kinds of Torah learning))
  • the thread of spiritual care (with the community caring for Rabbi Rosen's family )
  • the thread of spiritual inspiration (with Yakar's songs of spirit)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

From Somalia to Jersusalem

In sleepless hours Wikipedia is often my friend. Up late, feeling pain over the incomprehensible evil and stubbornness that is Antisemitism -- that it should even follow us as far as Mumbai -- I found myself finally becoming curious over this piracy that is threatening cruise ships and supertankers off the horn of Africa and the links it might or might not have to Islamic fundamentalism in Somalia. I learn the pirates are thriving in the chaos that is Somalia in the wake of so many wars, both civil and with neighbors like the also deeply-impoverished Ethiopia. I learn that Ethiopia is a land of many high mountains and that its seasonal rains in its west are what fed the annual floods of the Nile -- floods that literally made possible the civilization that had once enslaved the Israelites with its water and soil for crops growing in a desert. And I learn of the small and ancient community of Jews that once lived in that west of Ethiopia, and tears come to my eyes as I read again how once nearly 15,000 of them were rescued in only 36 hours from the chaos that was Ethiopia in 1991 when the State of Israel sent planes to get them. I learned how even the Orthodox rabbis of Israel -- who can sometimes be so frustratingly inflexible -- gave their blessing to this mission by granting permission to break the laws of Shabbat by flying planes then.

In a world where there is so much hate and killing and violence, it is good to remind ourselves of where love comes from. As a chaplain, it is good for me to remind myself of where caring comes from. It is good.


These thoughts came to mind, today, as I was reading a talk that Art Green recently gave about Zionism -- about his Zionism -- to a group that is sometimes accused of being anti-Zionist, or even anti-Jewish. Good reading.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A deep sadness as Shabbat approaches

The latest news reports about the Mumbai attacks say that five hostages have been killed inside the Chabad House there.

I pray the reports have been exaggerated.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What to be thankful for

On this Thanksgiving, there are any number of unfortunate things happening in the world to remind us of what we have to be thankful for, the tragedy in India first among them.

You can find some of my thoughts on this Thanksgiving here.

And Minna's here.

May it be a peaceful one for you.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Can we talk?

Pope Benedict may have gotten himself in trouble, again. Or at least that's what would seem to be implied by an article -- headlined "Pope Questions Interfaith Dialogue" -- from the New York Times' new Rome correspondent, who quotes the following from a letter the Pope wrote to an Italian politician:

“an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.

My guess is that -- while I doubt that the Pope is being misquoted here -- he is, as it was in the controversy about his 2006 Regensburg lecture, being a bit misunderstood. This Pope has not yet learned (and maybe he never will) that for someone in his station it is impossible to try and make subtle statements about something as sensitive as whether Catholicism sees other religions as legitimate or not. My guess is he was trying to make a statement about exactly what is possible in inter-religious dialogue, not whether inter-religious dialogue is a good thing or not (which, based on his meeting with Muslim leaders earlier this month, for example, he seems to be in favor of).

As a Jewish clergyperson whose primary occupation at moment is training Christian ministers in pastoral and spiritual care these kinds of issues are anything but theoretical. I work with students who may believe that true healing can only come through Jesus, a belief I certainly don't share. Can I come to care about the learning and growth of a student who believes this way, and even help them to apply it? The answer has to be, yes, or else I would have to quit my job. But that doesn't mean it is easy for me. I am helped by the thought that I care about the well-being of all members of humankind, Jew and non-Jews, and want them all to know what it is like to be treated as if they are made בצלם אלוהים/btzelem elohim -- in the image of God -- especially when they are sick or helpless. But, as I said above, it is not always easy.

There is no doubt that the fate and health of the Jewish people -- the people who brought the concept of בצלם/btzelem to all the world -- has a special and dear place in my heart. I became a rabbi most of all to be in service to that people and to be a force working for their health and survival and for the health and survival of their Holy tradition -- of Torah.

As I stated above, my current professional life is primarily among non-Jews. I know that I still believe I am serving the Jewish people in that work, if indirectly. But I also know that I feel a hunger for a more direct involvement and that I will be searching for ways to bring that into my life in the coming years and months. That is in large part why it was such a gift to me this year to be able to spend two months in Israel. I am deeply grateful for that.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bringing the holy to the hurting

One of the most interesting things we can do for our learning and spiritual growth is akin to making a deposit in a time capsule -- we can write something about who we are in our spiritual journey. Then, later, we can look back at it and ask ourselves what's still true about it -- what it says about the core of who we are -- and what's changed -- that is, what it says about how we've grown.

That's what I tell my students when I give them an assignment at the beginning of a chaplaincy unit to write a "Statement of Ministry", a statement that expresses what they think pastoral (or spiritual) care is about and what they think they're doing when the minister to a suffering person. Because CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) is so much about learning in a group process, I ask the students to read the statements they write out loud to each other, which allows them to start the process of discussing what is in common about their pastoral theologies and what differs (I learned a lot the other night about how my students have very different ideas about whether caring for others is draining or nourishing for the soul -- an important question I hope we have plenty of opportunity to explore in the weeks ahead!).

This time, during the reading out loud, I decided to also share with the students my own statement of ministry -- the one that I wrote in my first unit of CPE back in the summer of 2003. It was interesting to me to see how much my view then has in common with my view today -- it's still the same core view of what it we are doing when we try to offer comfort and healing to others. Here it is:
Alan Abrams June 16, 2003

Statement of Ministry/Spiritual Care

Parshat Va-Yeirah (Gen. 18:1) begins with the appearance of God to Avraham at the oaks of Mamre. The Medieval commentator Ramban, following his predecessor Rashi, understands this theophany as God coming to comfort a physically suffering Avraham. Significantly, neither commentator explains how God comforts the suffering Avraham; it is as if they are saying nothing could be more comforting than the simple presence of God. But the Ramban goes one step further than Rashi: he says this appearance of God's presence is specifically to reward Avraham for carrying out God's wishes.

So, too, when a spiritual caregiver comes before a suffering person, the primary thing the caregiver brings is his or her presence. But when that caregiver is a clergyperson (or clergy-in-training), he or she may bring something additional in the eyes of the suffering person -- a piece of the presence of the Divine, itself. And, if that suffering person does indeed perceive a piece of the Divine presence appearing along with the clergyperson, then the clergyperson is also bringing what the Ramban said God's presence brought Avraham -- a sense of being rewarded for following God's will. Or, perhaps a better way of saying it is that the Divine presence communicates God's approval to the suffering for how he or she has conducted his or her life.

Thus, my job as a spiritual caregiver is a) to be present to the suffering person, and b) to communicate the nonjudgmental presence of the Divine, if that should be something the person will welcome and benefit from. The first of these two sounds very simple, but, in fact, it is the greatest challenge for the spiritual caregiver. Learning to truly be present is a lifelong task. It involves careful listening with all the senses. It involves being able to put aside one's own prejudices, assumptions and fears to the greatest extent possible. It involves the courage not to run away in the face of death and unspeakable suffering. The presence of a fearless, but compassionate, face even in the places that inspire the greatest fear can send the comforting message that, on some level, everything will be all right.

The Torah (Gen. 1:27) says that God created humankind in "the image of God (btzelem elohim)". I am constantly amazed and awed by the thought that God would have graced each one of us with a piece of God's own unimaginable holiness. I seek always to be better able to see and accept that Godliness in each person before me. Part of this holiness means that each human is unique and distinct. While my training and experience gives me important tools that allow me to more quickly recognize problems and characteristics that many humans hold in common, I must always strive to use those tools with great care. May my training not blind me to the uniqueness and holiness of each human before me. May I always strive to see the tzelem elohim in each person before me. This is a huge part of what it means to be truly present.

I do not believe that I carry any greater piece of the Divine than any other human. But, I know that is not how many people will perceive me; they may see me as a representative of the Divine. As a spiritual caregiver, I must undertake a spiritual assessment of the suffering person that includes an assessment of how that person views me. I must do my best to present a compassionate and loving image of the Divine. I must accept anger at the Divine projected at me with that same loving face.

Part of projecting that image of Divine presence, as well as other means of comforting the suffering, will be developing a spiritual toolkit of prayers, psalms, etc. It will also sometimes be my job to refer the suffering to other caregivers, spiritual and otherwise, when the needs of the suffering person are beyond my means to address.

I expect spiritual care giving in a hospital setting to be deeply spiritually rewarding. I believe that God lives at the gates between life and death, gates that live especially strong inside the walls of the hospital and within the people who are found in hospitals. I look forward to the feeling of closeness with the Divine I know I will find. But I also expect spiritual care giving to be deeply exhausting spiritually, emotionally and physically. I expect the battle against burnout to be a continuous and difficult one. Part of being a spiritual caregiver will be finding others who can care for me; I must be willing to accept that care.


As I said above, this statement still expresses much of the core of what my pastoral theology is about. But there are differences. In the statement, I gave a great deal of emphasis to the possibility that the patient might see the patient as a representative of God. While I still think this is true, I don't give it the same kind of emphasis I gave it in the statement. Specifically, I don't think I would today write what is in the statement about the presence of the caregiver communicating God's approval to the suffering person for how he or she conducted his or her life. I just think it's more complex than that.

I can't believe how long it's been since I've posted here -- over a month (and even longer since I've posted anything specific to chaplaincy and chaplaincy education).

There are a lot of reasons for that. One is that I am at a stage in my own education and certification process that is more about taking in (and introspection) than it is about being outwardly expressive -- I am working on researching and writing papers that express my particular approach to pastoral care and education about it. (I am seeking certification as a CPE supervisor, which is a person who trains others in spirituality and pastoral care.)

I am starting to get very excited about that work: I am starting to see a congruence between how I see chaplaincy education and how I've always seen the (Holy) process of Talmud study -- that it's fundamentally not about learning content (laws, techniques, etc.). Rather, it's about the learning process itself, a process that has the potential to stimulate the development of the individual into the kind of person -- self-authoring and self-differentiated -- that one needs to be to be an effective rabbi or pastoral caregiver. The work of Robert Kegan is really helping me here.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

City by the sea, people before the gates

The sidewalk tables at a fashionable cafe, the ubiquitous presence of two-wheeled conveyances (both the people-powered bicycles and the gasoline-fueled scooters) -- these things you find in the above pic are typical elements, along with the warm Mediterranean sea, of the Tel Aviv Minna and I got a taste of in a short visit there this week shortly before Yom Kippur (which starts this evening!).

The Tel Aviv of today is a bustling, diverse and economically booming city. While the newspapers we read there very much reflected the concern that is rising worldwide over declining stock market prices and other elements of the current international financial crisis, one of the major questions the papers addressed was one that would only be asked by people who are still looking optimistically foward to how they will spend their money: how the crisis would affect Israelis' overseas travel plans. It turns out Europe is looking real good because of the strong Shekel, but the United States is still a bargain for Israelis as well.

We used our time here in Tel Aviv to mix work and play, using the cafes as (wireless internet-equipped) workplaces. We walked along about two miles of beachfront one late afternoon and evening to the South Street Seaport-like old port complex where we sat and drank coffee by the sea for a bit and reread (on my phone courtesy of the cafe's wireless internet connection) a New York Times travel section article on Tel Aviv that came out this past summer. It was interesting to read how the writer described things that we had seen now with our own eyes. He starts his article at the "separated beach", which men and woman use on alternate days to accomodate Orthodox concerns about men and woman bathing together. I wasn't expecting the visceral negative reaction I had to seeing the beach itself. I think it was probably because -- and I wasn't expecting this -- the beach is not only separated, but they have built a wall around it so you can't even see it (or the sea) from the beachside pathway.

We also took a daytime walk through some of the once-downscale neighborhoods in the south that are becoming gentrified. This plaza at a renovated school complex in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood was a perfect place for some folks (and their children and their dogs) to pass a peaceful late afternoon:
While we were sitting in one cafe near Neve Tzedek, Minna found a flyer for an organization that is working to advocate for the interests of non-religious couples in Israel. One of the unusual characteristics of Israel is that the Orthodox rabbinate controls matters of family law for Jews. This means it can be very difficult, for example, for some people to marry legally in Israel. This has led to the phenomenon of some Israelis flying to Cyprus just to get married (Israel, as part of the practice of recognizing marriages legally performed outside the country, recognizes these marriages as legal). The organization is called משפחה חדשה/mispahah hadashah, or New Family.

I really enjoyed our time in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem has the spiritual force and focus that attracts me -- and countless others -- there for study and spiritual growth. But the future health of the state of Israel -- something very dear to my heart -- will depend much more on what happens in Tel Aviv than Jerusalem. It is here that Israel strives for its success in the "knowledge economy" that has become the key for success -- especially for a very small country without much in the way of natural resources -- in the world marketplace. Here are high-tech engineers and dealmakers. Here are the artists and media creators who can make export their products (like Betipul) to foreign markets.


More than once since I have been here in Tel Aviv I have felt reminded of the war that started on Yom Kippur exactly 35 years ago and that cost Israel dearly in lives lost before the invaders were beat back. As we enter Yom Kippur -- the holiday that more than any other in Judaism asks us to contemplate our own mortality -- I wish for peace for all. May war once and for all disappear from our earth and may it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that we will all come to see the wisdom of the peaceful ways in which the Holy One has instructed us.

[x-posted to smamitayim]

Friday, October 03, 2008

Death of a Leader

Minna traveled to Jerusalem in search of opportunities for study and to experience joy in this ancient (and now modern) home of the Jewish people. But sad events can follow us wherever we go. Yesterday, we found ourselves at a funeral for the father of one of Minna's most beloved teachers in her rabbinical school at Boston Hebrew College. The funeral was at Jerusalem's main municipal cemetery, Har HaMenuhot, pictured to the right. It's built around a huge hill on the northwest side of Jerusalem, just south of the main road to Tel Aviv. There were quite spectacular views to the north from the burial site.

The funeral was attended by many of Minna's classmates. I found the below picture on a memorial page to the deceased, Zelig Leader. From right to left is Zelig, his son Ebn (Minna's teacher) and Art Green (the leader of Minna's school).

In the Israeli fashion, the words spoken at the funeral were short and intense. Ebn spoke first and, very much in his style, led the assembled in the wordless tune of a niggun.

I did not know Zelig, himelf, but I very much knew of the famous "Leader Minyan" here in Jerusalem, which is known for the intensity and length of its Shabbat and holiday services and which has been an important spiritual home for many American rabbinical students and others coming to spend a year or so in Jerusalem. I was suprised therefore that the second speaker was not a participant in the minyan, but was a leader in the Jerusalem scrabble club who spoke in English. Apparently, Zelig's inspirational spirit was an important force there as well.

Zelig's youngest son also gave a powerful and tearful talk, begging for forgiveness. Zeglig's brother also spoke powerful words.

After the words of those הספדים/hespidim were spoken, Zelig's body was carried out by members of the black-hatted הברה קדישא/hevre kasisha (burial society) on a stretcher wrapped in a burial shrowd (no coffins are used here in Israel). The stretcher was placed in a van that we walked behind to the burial site where he was laid to rest in the presence of his family and friends.

May his memory be a blessing.

[x-posted to smamitayim]

Monday, September 29, 2008

In supervison

In my field, we call the person who does the kind of work that I do a "supervisor." That's kind of a confusing word because I'm really an educator -- I educate student clergy and others about how to be a chaplain or how to go about the task of providing spiritual care to hospital patients and others dealing with crisis, grief and loss.

And sometimes you really find me in front of a classroom, looking a lot like a teacher or a professor. But you'll also find me meeting with my students individually behind a closed door for 45 minutes or an hour and discussing with them in depth the struggles -- often deeply personal or spiritual -- they face in their work with hospital patients. The skill sets I use at those times look very much like that of the psychotherapist. Listening intently -- and helping the person I am listening to examine and understand their own thoughts, actions and feelings -- is most of what I do there.

Popular culture has tended to favor professions like police work or medicine for its television characters, but the pschotherapist is finding a place in a new hit HBO series called In Treatment.

It turns out this show is based -- quite closely from what I understand -- on a much-praised Israeli television show called בטיפול/Betipul. Minna and I have started watching it and are really loving it. It's a particularly appropriate show for me to watch now because I'm at a stage in my studies where I'm working to figure out how exactly the insights from the world of psychotherapy and psychology fit into how I think about the work that I do. And, I'm especially focused on figuring out how to integrate elements of Jewish and Hebrew culture and language into my thoughts. So, it's great to have this opportunity to see how the ideas and concepts of psychotherapy -- and the things that come up in psychotherapy sessions -- are expressed in Hebrew.


The gift of being able to be here in Israel while I engage in this thought and study is just one of the many gifts that have come to me this past year. It is only about 11 months ago that I first met Minna. In March, I crossed a major hurdle in my pursuit of full certification as a CPE (clinical pastoral education) supervisor. I've been able to do some great learning in my career and have had some great students; I was really enriched by my encounters with those students. . . . Something really Holy happened there sometimes. . . It's just such an incredible thing to be there with people when they are really struggling to find their way to serve God and to grow into the most of what it is that God has granted them the possibility to become.

I was able to do some exciting bicycle rides this year, including three really interesting ones in and around Jerusalem so far (especially this one). The best ride of the year, was touring in Rhode Island with Minna, but it was also great to do a century. I also had a ton of fun this year building and experimenting with an Xtracycle.

There was some traveling to chaplaincy conferences that really led to some great thought, fellowship and growth. The best was having a chance to be a part of a meeting of the new ACPE Jewish supervisors group in Dallas, but I was also really to go to the Racial Ethnic Multicultural networks's conference in Memphis on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assasination.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that you will have the sweetest of years ahead. A year of health and joy.

Shannah Tova.

[x-posted to smamitayim]

On the edge

I wrote the below last week and posted it on another blog, but, with the holiday approaching this evening, I think it's still worth repeating here.

The last time I lived in Jerusalem, I took a walk one hot day from the Old City back toward the south where I lived. I stopped in a little park on the top edge of a steep ridge not far south of the Old City, and sat down to look at the beautiful view of the valley and heights to the east. I took my computer out of my backpack to write. But, suddenly, I realized somebody was behind me. I looked up to see a young Arab boy with a donkey laden with goods. He spoke to me. I didn't understand his words, but after a bit I came to understand he wanted the soda I was drinking. I handed him the bottle. He drank what was left in it, threw it on the ground and then, with his donkey, disappeared over the steep lip into the valley and the village below.

That brief, almost surreal, encounter has stuck with me and often comes to mind. It's a reminder that Jerusalem is a place of edges -- a place where many different things meet. It is not just the most intimate and complex of borders between Palestinian and Jew. It is also, very much, a place where First World and Third World meet.

The heights around the Old City, and the stunning views from them, are a powerful visual reminder that this is indeed an edge space. Yesterday, I rode my bicycle up to one of those heights -- up to Mt. Scopus, the site of Hebrew University where Minna was having her last day of Ulpan . After spending some time with Minna, I rode the bike to the east side of Mt. Scopus and took in the views -- of desert, of Arab towns and even of the Jordan and the Dead Sea -- that one can see in the deep valley and the mountains beyond. Here's some of what I saw:

In the last picture, you see a monument that dedicates the area there on the east side of Mt. Scopus as a National Forest in the name of a Canadian donor. There are many such monuments and forests around Israel in beautiful spots like Mt. Scopus.

But, as you can see from the trash in the foreground of the below picture, you often find garbage and disarray in the same spots.

I understand this as another manifestation of how Israel is very much a place of edges and boundaries -- ones that are also very much still in flux. What might be a National Forest, today, may be a housing development or a place for a highway tomorrow. A Jewish settlement might become an Arab town, tomorrow and vice versa.

After leaving the area around Hebrew University, I headed south to where this hospital just north of the Mt. of Olives.

It turns out to be run by Lutherans, which is a reminder of home (where my boss and two of my co-workers are Lutheran Clergy).

After leaving the hospital, I descended from the heights of Mt. Scopus and the Mt. of Olives down to the deep valley that runs on the west side of the Old City. I was a bit confused when I got down to the bottom and took a wrong turn into the heart of an Arab town (Bab Ez' Zahara). I was conscious that tensions are fairly high right now. Ramadan is still going on (it ends this coming Monday, the same evening that the first of the Jewish High Holidays -- Rosh HaShannah -- begins). And just the other day there was an attack where a Palestinian driver rammed his car into a crowd of Israeli soldiers at the northwest corner of the Old City. I wasn't feeling frightened but I decided to turn around, nonetheless.

I then managed to get my bearings and ascended a steep and congested road to the very northeast corner of the Old City. The marketplace that iscentered around the Damascus gate spills out all along the road there. I had to get off the bike and walk through the crowds. Finally, I got past the crowds and took a little rest around the New Gate, where I entered the Old City briefly and headed for the Jaffa Gate. The picture at the top of this blog post was taken not far from the Jaffa Gate. That's the Tower of David on the right above the woman's head. A bit of my trusty bicycle is visible on the left.


There was a 'border dispute' of another sort not far from our apartment last night as well. Someone -- presumably a right-wing Israeli extremist -- set off a pipe bomb outside the house of a left-wing Israeli historian. The historian Zeev Sternhell was, thankfully, only lightly wounded. So called Jew-on-Jew attacks are relatively uncommon here (and usually not fatal), but they are far from unknown. (Here is a New York Times story giving some of the background.)


Another edge we are on here is the one between seasons. I did not see it (even though I was only a few blocks away!), but Minna saw rain, today (even if only the lightest of drops). It is a sure sign that the long (rainless) summer is over.

It is no accident that the High Holidays come at this time of the turn of the seasons. Rain -- or the lack of it -- was a life-or-death issue for the ancient farmers of this little land that, unlike great Egyptian empire to the West and the great Babylonian empire to the east, has no great rivers to irrigate the crops even when the rains fail. So, it is not surprising that the themes of life-and-death that characterize Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur found a place in those ancients' minds and hearts at this time of year.

Just being in Jerusalem -- just being in this place characterized by edges -- brings those themes to life for me. Life seems so much more precious to me here. More intense. It's the thing I love most about being here.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that the journeys to the 'edges' that you make in this New Year be ones that bring you to the side of life. And to growth and joy.


Here, by the way, is the approximate route of my ride:

Bigger map

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven years

Seven years ago, today, I was newly returned to the United States from my rabbinical school Israel year. Watching the destruction of these towers -- towers where I worked for some 10 years of my life -- on a dorm lounge television screen in Los Angeles was a surreal and unspeakably painful experience for me. I felt so disconnected. I didn't understand why I was in Los Angeles. Why wasn't I there? In New York, my beloved city?

That feeling of disconnectedness stands in sharp contrast to the feelings of connectedness I have now . . . . now that I have finally been able to return to Israel after such a long time -- much longer than I would have imagined when I left here seven years ago.

One of the things I believed in the moments before that first tower fell was that the towers were indestructible. I knew, of course, that what was inside could be consumed by fire but -- in the wake of the buildings having survived that first bombing in 1993 -- I thought the steel frame could withstand anything short of a nuclear blast.

Jerusalem also gives a feeling of being indestructible. Especially, when you look out from a distance at some of the neighborhoods built on hilltops (like then ones you can look up to from around the mall). The state of Israel, as a whole, feels even more solid to me than it did seven years ago. It does not have the feeling of being a bold experiment, but of something solid and thriving.

But the World Trade Center reminds me of how tenuous even the most solid-feeling thing can be. . . . and of how important it is to be grateful for what we have while we have it.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that all that is strong for you stays strong and that you should know safety and peace.

[X-posted to smamitayim]

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

More Jerusalem riding

Here's a map of my latest excursion (in the green):

View Larger Map

You can read more about it here.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Growing to be connected? (can there be a reconciliation?)

Living in a more communitarian place (see this about one of my shopping experiences in Jerusalem), has reinforced for me how important community is for me and how I understand both education and pastoral/spiritual care. Community is the primary vehicle for making both education and for pastoral/spiritual care happen, in my view.

But, I've also been spending some time with the developmental theory of Robert Kegan. I'm finding his theory very compelling, but it's been a bit troubling to me that I'm finding myself attracted to a theory that seems to value the opposite of community -- Kegan's theory holds that a more developed person will be "self-authorizing" and more "self-differentiated" (as opposed to respecting the authority of the communities one belongs to).

Kegan recognizes this problem and tries to address it in the 6th chapter of his book In over our heads. He writes (221-2):

"Increasing differentiation" may indeed be part of the story of everyone's development, but "increasing differentiation" can itself be the story of staying connected in the new way, of continuing to hold onto one's precious connections and loyalties while refashioning one's relationship to them so that one makes them up rather than gets made up by them. "Increasing autonomy" does not have to be a story of increasing aloneness. "Deciding for myself" does not have to equal "deciding by myself."
I'm not sure if I buy Kegan's effort to reconcile his theory with the feminist and non-Western critiques of his theory as being too individually focused (and, thus, irredeemably Western and male). But if I can find some value in his effort, I might be able to extend this "reconcilliation" method to help me incorporate other interesting theory into my own approach. For example, the family systems approach of Edwin Friedman gives us some great ways of thinking about a clergy person can manage some of the more challenging dynamics that come up in congregational life. But, I also find myself feeling almost a sense of revulsion to his theory -- it seems to suggest that a clery person must separate his or herself so much from his or her congregants that he or she doesn't really care what those congregants feel or say.

I haven't looked at Friedman for a long time, but he's on my reading list. . . As are more community-focused thinkers like bell hooks (here's an interesting video of her). My hope is that I will be able to come up with my own theory that will be able to reconcile elements of both these kinds of thinkers -- and be able to articulate a value of both community and of the growth of the individual.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Jerusalem riding

Here's the route (in the blue) of an exhausting -- but fun! -- bicycle ride I took in Jerusalem, yesterday.

View Larger Map

You can read more about it here.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The highs and lows of Yom Rishon

Sunday -- Yom Rishon/יום ראשון, in Hebrew -- is, of course, not a day off in Israel; it is the first day of the working week. As you can see from the above picture, there was plenty of activity in the center of Jerusalem, today. This picture is of a busy corner not far from the Shuk. I walked to that colorful outdoor marketplace after walking Minna to Hebrew Union College where she had a meeting. I spent about 120 shekels (about $35) there, mostly on fruits and vegetables, and then I continued to walk -- with a heavy load! -- towards the Central Bus Station, where I was going to try and get a bus map. But it was a bit too hot for me, especially with all that food I was lugging, so I gave up a couple of hundred yards shy of the bus station and started walking home.

The station by the way is one of the higher points in this mountainous city at an elevation of about 820 meters. Later in the day, after doing some reading as part of my research for a while, I would return to this high point, again -- this time by bicycle -- and also go almost to one of the lowest points in the city, the Jerusalem Mall, which sits at an elevation of about 700 meters.

I started my afternoon bike ride -- by far my longest in Jerusalem so far -- around 6pm by entering the southern part of the Gan Sacher park. Here is a view of part of it:

I wish I had been in more of a picture-taking mood because I saw some really cool stuff. The park was really hopping with that incredible mixture of ultra-religious Jews and secular Israelis recreating in the same space.

I almost went all the way to the mall afterwords -- thinking it would be fun to stop at the Burger King and get a kosher Whopper there there before riding back -- but then I realized that I had forgotten my keys for my bike locks. So I turned around a couple of hundred yards shy of the mall.

I rode on bike paths and sidewalks most of the way, which is really against my general philosophy of bike riding -- which insists that it is safer and better for all concerned if cars are forced to share the road. I am really impressed, however, by the extent to which Jerusalem's adult bike-riding population seems to adhere to this road-centered philosophy. I really see very little bike-riding on sidewalks and very little riding against the direction of traffic. . . . I'm not sure why I'm not "claiming my lane" here too in my Jerusalem bike-riding so far. I'm just feeling a little bit timid . . . . But excited, too. It's really a blast riding here!

[X-posted to smamitayim]

Thursday, August 28, 2008

X-y goes to the Mega

This morning I put the rack on the biike and -- after walking Minna to where she needed to pick up her ride to school -- went to the Mega (a huge discount supermarket about a mile from where we live) to stock up for Shabbat. A dream of mine was to be able to do my grocery shopping by bike in Jerusalem. Above is the bike -- which we call "X-y", by the way -- loaded with the 300 shekel (about $85) of groceries I bought. The panniers are REI 'Round Town panniers (now on sale at a great price there, by the way) with these great reusable shopping bags from reusablebags.com stuffed in them. These reusable bags are the size of an old-fashioned standard paper shopping bag.

When I got back to the apartment (quite sweaty from climbing up the steep hill to get there!) a young neighbor took an interest in my bike.

Here's another pic of the bike loaded.

It was a fun little ride! :) . . . . . Part of what I'm hoping to do, by the way, during my time in Jerusalem is to connect with the simplicity of life that I had when I lived here during my rabbinical school Israel year. . . . . Little things like not owning a car and walking almost everywhere . . . . Shutting off the water in the middle of the shower (in this water-poor country) to soap up and then only turning back on the water when it's time to rinse. . . Going shopping for fresh food -- vegetables! -- almost every day (in contrast to the processed-food and carbohydrate-heavy diet I have back in the States). . . . All those things are good for my soul. . . . . I remember how hard it was for me when I returned to the States after my Israel year and found myself in one of the most ostentatiously consumption-oriented places on the planet. Seeing all those people driving huge Mercedes SUVs and Ferraris and Hummers. . . Well, that was bad for my soul. . . . . Bringing a bike with me here for things like shopping is part of that wish to be good to my soul by living simply while I am here. . . . So, it wasn't just a fun ride, today. It was a soul-nurturing ride.

[X-posted to smamitayim]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

How do people learn?

That's the big question I need to work to express an articulate answer to in the coming weeks. . . . As I write this I am sitting at a table in an apartment in Jerusalem. I had the opportunity to come and live here for two months for personal reasons, but I made a commitment to my employer that I would use this time to work on the papers I need to write as part of my effort to become certified as a professional teacher of chaplains and other spiritual caregivers. The next paper I need to write is about my educational theory.

Back before the summer started, I made a stab at writing in a single statement what I believe about how people learn:

Through participation in a loving community of mutual caring, learning and personal transformation led by a teacher/role model(s) able to bless students and give them a balance 1) of structure (דין/din) with flexibility/compassion (חסד/hesed), and 2) of immediate presence with (progressively increasing) withdrawal (tzimtzum).
That statement needed work then and it still does now. . . . . Most importantly, I need to do some serious work reflecting on how the work I did leading a group of chaplaincy students this summer relates to that statement. Is that really how the learning happened in practice? If not, is that because I a) really believe something different about how learning happens, or is it because b) I just didn't get it right this time (and I can work to better implement my theory next time I lead a group of chaplain students).

I also need to work towards asking myself what educational theorists or models correlate with my belief. I need to seek out those sources and engage them -- asking myself how they enrich, or undermine, my understanding.

I am so grateful to be able to do this work while I am in Jerusalem. I have missed this holy city so much. I have not been back since my rabbinical school year (2000-2001). . . . It is certainly a frightening place to be, however. . . Although it might surprise people to know what it is that I feel fear about. . . . It is not so much terrorism (although that is a real concern). It's the challenge of being somewhere so foreign. . . . Where just doing little things -- like going to the supermarket, or crossing the street -- can be confusing and make me feel small and incompetent. . . . . Minna put it well in a conversation she had with her Hebrew language teacher -- Jerusalem is a place of strong smells: both the beautiful smell of the abundant flowers . . . and also smells that are a bit more like manure. . . . This is a city of contrasts. I love it for that. Those contrasts are part of what makes life feel so incredibly intense here. . . I feel so alive here!!! . . . So grateful to the Holy Blessed One for sustaining me and upholding me so that I might see this, again.

[X-posted to smamitayim]

Evaluation as blessing (a chaplaincy education summer comes to its end)

My first job after finishing rabbinical school was teaching Talmud and Rabbinics at a Jewish high school. There were so many things that I loved about that job, but having to evaluate students -- and assign them grades -- was not one of them. In one faculty meeting, I raised the question of why we gave grades at all. I remember the head of school being somewhat impatient with my question. In retrospect, I came to understand that we assigned grades at that school because that is what our customers -- students, parents and the colleges the students would be applying to -- expected us to do.

Of course, that's not what people like to say grades are about. They like to say it's about motivation -- "why will the students do the work if we don't grade them?"

That kind of thinking strikes me as being about a fundamental misunderstanding of what learning is really about and of what a person really needs to prepare his or her self for true success in the world. What the student needs most of all is to develop a love of learning and a basic curiosity about the world. In a world where the demands of jobs are changing and an ever-increasing rate, to be prepared students need to have learned how to learn. And, most importantly, they need to develop the values, independence and self-confidence needed to evaluate for themselves what is best for themselves and what success really means to them.

Grades serve none of these goals. Grades foster dependence. They stunt students' personal growth by encouraging them to look to others to tell them what is right for them and what success looks like. They are just
very poor preparation for what students will face in the real world. In the work force, very few people are assigned grades. To be successful, we need to develop skills in evaluating our own work for ourselves in ways that will allow us to identify goals that will help us to continuously improve and grow. And we need to develop skill at identifying our accomplishments and articulating them to ourselves and to others.

All this is true for high schoolers, but it becomes more true for people seeking professional graduate education. And it is even more true than that for clergy and others in ministry. Most of the work for people like us is done without peers or supervisors present. Feedback from congregants tends to consist of only of the extremes of "great job, rabbi" or "I just don't like your sermons; maybe we should replace you with someone younger and cheaper."

So, a few weeks back, as we came to the end of our intense 11-week program of chaplaincy education for our four Christian seminary students and our one ordained Catholic Priest, I was left to wonder why am I writing these people evaluations?

In those final weeks, I started to realize how much anxiety some of my students were having about this. At first, I thought this was silly, but then I realized that they really did have something to worry about -- my evaluation would be read back at their seminary and could affect their progress towards ordination. This made me feel very cautious. Back in the high school, I could be fairly sure about how colleges would interpret the "A's" and "B's" I assigned. But, in the fairly arcane world of denominational ordination processes, I had no way of knowing how my words would be interpreted.

I also in those final weeks started to feel the pull from my students for affirmation. One student kept asking me, "are you going to miss us?"

It is natural to want to respond to such a request for affirmation. Who wouldn't you want to tell everybody else that they are wonderful and get back the gratitude for saying that?

But I didn't want to succumb to that temptation. I wanted to give my students something more than just affirmation. I wanted to give them a blessing.

What is a blessing? One model we have from scripture is the Priestly Blessing in the 6th chapter Book of Numbers where Aaron and other priests ask for God's blessing for the people. That is, the priests are there seeking to summon the Holy for the people before them and to connect the Holy with the people's well-being and success.

כד יְבָרֶכְךָ ה', וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. כה יָאֵר ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. כו יִשָּׂא ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם. כז וְשָׂמוּ אֶת-שְׁמִי, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַאֲנִי, אֲבָרְכֵם.
May HaShem bless you, and may He keep you.
May HaShem shine His face upon you, and extend grace unto you.
May HaShem lift His face upon you, and may He give you peace.
[In this way, they will put My name upon the people Israel, and I will bless them.]

This is a core part of what I think the blessing -- especially the blessing of the student at the end of a program in the form of the evaluation the supervisor writes -- should be for the supervisor in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE): We are summoning of the holy for the person and wishing for their success in partnership with the holy.

The important thing to realize about this is that this kind of summoning of the holy has to be something that is much more than the "feel-good" kind of "instant gratification" that would be giving the student the simple affirmation they may crave.

What I'm starting to understand is that what blessing really should be about is honoring the very place that has the most potential to access holiness in relationships -- that precious space "in-between" that is can be created by the interaction. There are many names for this space in-between. Levinas, for example, calls it the trace, "
a memory of being-in-general, of the infinite".

So, the blessing that comes in an evaluation should be about honoring the interaction -- honoring what happened in the conversation between the supervisor and student about the student's work on the hospital floors. This interaction -- when it functions at its best -- is one where the two together tried to better discern the student's true path towards serving God by together examining the student's effort to serve people in pain (and bring something of the holy to them).

Honoring it means recording it. Recording it with love and care. . . . . Here I feel a need to make a digression and just say how affirming this summer was for me about the process of CPE, especially the potential for CPE to bring to light for a person the most important spiritual and personal growth issues that are before them. That may sound like the task of psychotherapist -- and it certainly is. But it seems to me that the psychotherapist is almost crippled next to the CPE supervisor. They psychotherapist only gets to see the client in the "closed container" that is the therapist's office. But a CPE supervisor like myself gets to interact with the student both in the "closed container" of weekly individual supervision and in the open container of the work setting -- a work setting (the setting of caring for people amid suffering and death) that naturally brings to the fore the issues of ultimate importance to a student. What an incredible opportunity to get to know something that is the essence of another human being. Holy work indeed!

So, what is honored and recorded as part of this process of evaluating/blessing the student is what has hopefully indeed turned out to be a holy interaction where something of the true essence of the student came to light. Where the supervisor was able to hold up that essence (I see an image of a ball of fire burning amid two upraised hands) and, for a moment, look at it together with the student. Where the two together can name what is true about it. Where the two together can wish and hope for the place where it can burn best.

What a gift to be truly seen, to feel truly seen. That is the blessing that I hope I gave my students in their evaluation. Only they can say whether they indeed received such a blessing. But that is the the number one way that I hope my written evaulations were a blessing for them -- in that they felt truly seen, seen in a loving way.

I also hope that I have given them a record of what they accomplished in those 11 weeks -- and each one of them accomplished quite a great deal. I hope what I wrote is something they will be able to look back on in the weeks, months and years to come and see something they can be proud of -- to know that they did something really important (even though they got no grade for it).


One danger of this approach -- as some have warned me -- is that I will set expectations for myself and my students that are too high (and thus set us up for failure). What happens, for example, if I have a student who I really don't like or -- worse -- who I think is dangerous to the people he or she ministers to? How can I bless that student? I haven't faced that kind of serious challenge, yet, in my work. . . . Although I don't always feel that I have to like my students. But what is absolutely necessary is that I can find compassion for them . . . And through that compassion find a way to truly care about their learning and growth.


There are also some practical matters about how I do evaluations -- rules that have been passed down to me by my own supervisor -- that help serve the goal of the student being able to experience his or her evaluation as a blessing. The number one rule is that there should be no suprises -- there should be nothing in the written evaluation that was not previously discussed with the student.

When this works, the student will finish reading the evaluation and then look at the supervisor -- as one of my students did -- and say "that's pretty much what happened." That is -- when the relationship between supervisor and student has worked as it should -- there is a congruence between how the supervisor and student understand what happened. The evaluation should reflect that congruence.


One thing that I think would have suprised the "before-CPE" me is how much I use explicit God talk in these evaluations. I often talk -- especially in the final sentences -- about the student's relationship with God and how they do, or do not, understand themselves as loved by God. . . . I think this is a very important thing for most spiritual caregivers. The ministry that we bring to our patients and othes very often is just that -- to urge the person to feel God's love despite their suffering. This is not something that we can do if we do not ourselves feel God's love. . . That may be the greatest long-term challenge for the person seeking to make a life in spiritual caregiving. . . . And it is why spiritual self-care -- as I have written so often on this blog -- is so important.

Blessing others is something that seems to have a much stronger tradition in Christianity than Judaism and many Christians expect their clergy to bless them. In Judaism the traditions and models for giving another a blessing are less clear. In terms of the Torah, we have the Priestly Blessing I mentioned above. We also have the example of Issac and Jacob giving blessing to their sons. In terms of modern practice, the strongest tradition is the weekly blessing of the children (which makes use of Jacob's blessing). There is also a strong tradition of Hasidic rebbes giving blessing to their adherents, but that tradition is rather foreign to me and my practice. This practice is something Jewish Renewal movement leader
Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wrote about in his main academic work, Spiritual Intimacy: A Study of Counseling in Hasidism .

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The core skill -- helping people find their way

Today I spent a few hours with a graduate student friend helping her think through some fascinating papers she's writing about the world of the ancient Rabbis. At one point -- as I was pounding my first on the table repeating something I had already said several times before -- I started to doubt myself. Was I really helping her? Was I being too harsh? Should I be gentler?

Then she cleared up all the doubt in my mind by suddenly saying, "you're a lot more patient with me than anybody else."

Clearly she was experiencing me not only as helpful, but as gentle. I know that my chaplain students this summer often experienced me the same way. And what really surprised me was that what I was doing with my friend felt so much like what I did with my students in my individual meetings with them -- what I did with my students is try to help them think through their work with patients and, also, how they understand their personal paths as people working in ministry. I tried to slow things down for them so we could think together. I summarized for them what I had heard about what they were thinking, and gently quizzed them when something was unclear to me. In visual terms, I tried to hold up their thoughts and experiences in the air in front of the two of us, so we could look at it and consider it together. In this way, I tried to help them find their way.

As I try to take advantage of the relatively quiet and reflective time I have before me in the coming weeks to try and work on finding my own way, it strikes me that helping people to find their own path may be the core set of skills I've been developing as I work towards full certification as a Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor. The number one basic component of that skill is also a core skill in the task of pastoral care to people in need -- listening. Listening with genuine curiosity and interest. . . . Wherever my path as a rabbi and as an educator may be taking me, I think that will be the core of what I will have to offer to my students and others who come before me.

I have to say it feels very good to be here. I thank the Blessed Holy One for leading me to this place where I have such an incredible opportunity.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Self-care as getting away -- my century, my spirit

With my chaplaincy students this summer, we paid a lot of attention to the issue of self-care. Taking good care of yourself is important for everyone of course, but it's especially important for people in helping professions where our work with people in need pulls on our hearts and souls. Call it burn-out or compassion fatigue or whatever else you like -- the bottom line is that people like clergy are at high risk for it.

My students had a lot of ideas about what self-care meant for them, but the most common theme was some form of "getting away". For one student that was a physical getting away -- she needed to get physically away from the hospital and be somewhere else. For another student, getting away meant nothing physical. Rather, it meant something that took his mind elsewhere, like reading.

During the 11 weeks of our summer program, I was the one trying to teach others about self-care. But when the program came to an end last week, the rubber hit the road, so to speak, for me -- how was I going to "get away" in a way that would be restorative to me after what was a great, but profoundly exhausting -- especially spiritually exhausting -- summer?

People who know me will not be surprised that I chose bicycle riding -- I went on a three-day bike tour this week (that started with a "century", only the second 100-mile bike ride of my life). But that might give you a false impression about how I understand self-care. You might think that means that I think physical exercise is the essence of self-care. Or you might think that I believe (as so many people do in our body-image obsessed society) that the essence of self-care is maintaining excellent physical condition.

But for people in a spiritual profession, maintaining the body is just not enough. Things that nurture the spirit are much more important.

So, for me, one of the most important things that self-care is about is the same thing my students cited -- getting away. I don't just bike ride; I bike tour. That means putting packs on my bike with my clothing and other gear. It means moving, under the power of my own legs, through physical space away from where I started. This gives that sense of physically getting away that was so valuable to my one student.

But bike touring also means the mental getting away that was so important to my other student, and, for me, this is much more important than the physical getting away. When, for the last hour and a half of my century ride, I unexpectedly found myself riding in heavy rain on a two-lane road with no shoulder as darkness started to fall, very quickly the only thing that mattered anymore for me was the task of riding (and doing everything I could to remain visible to the passing cars and to keep out of their path). All the things that had obsessed me in the closing weeks of the program -- all the painful and touching stories my students had brought me about the struggles in their lives and in their work with patients -- passed away. In those moments, I was able to get away in a profound way. That was real self-care for the caregiver.

I had another student who said that the essence of self-care was something a bit different than getting away -- it was to work to maintain a sense of inner peace and balance throughout everything he did. One of the deepest moments of inner peace I had in recent years came on another dangerous, rainy bike ride in the dark a previous summer. On that ride, I broke through the fear and focus I had on this week's ride to a place of freedom and joy. I was at peace with where I was, with who I am and what I was doing. I did not feel any need to question, only to be. That, in particular, is real self-care for the caregiver.

Even though I did not have such a deep moment of inner peace on this bike tour, there were many moments where I did experience profound peace. I felt free, and aimless.

I've written before about how an aimlessness can nurture our spirits and help restore us. What I wrote about is the potential for Torah study -- especially Torah study done for its own sake, or תורה לשמה/Torah Lishma -- to create this restorative aimlessness for us. It can allow us to get away in a profound way and enter the world -- and minds -- of our ancient Sages, people for whom finding the way of a proper service to The Holy Blessed One was their highest value. In this way, our spirits can be restored and we can find our way back to a new purposefulness in our efforts to best serve in the world in which we live.

May it be the will of The Holy Blessed One that you should find your own path to caring for your spirit and your body. And may that restore you in your efforts to find -- and walk -- your true path of service.


By the way, here is the (approximate) route of my century ride, starting here in Reading and ending up in New Hope via downtown Philly.

View Larger Map

I took two days to get back from New Hope, ovenighting in Kulpsville before taking the final ride back.


Self-care, of course, does not start at the end of an intense program. One needs to work to care for oneself along the way. For me, one of the biggest challenges in this kind of self-care is to pace myself. My pattern throughout my life is to get very excited at the beginning of a new semester or a new job and to ride that excitement to great accomplishments in the early weeks and months. But, as with all 'highs', that excitement eventually fades and then I find it hard to find the energy to just fulfill my basic obligations.

With my awareness of that pattern in mind, I didn't a better job this time of caring for myself through pacing. In the opening weeks of the program, I intentionally worked less in the evenings and on Sundays compared to my usual pattern. Bicycle riding did play a role in this self-care plan and I was able to get out on the bike for an hour or two most evenings in the first half of the program. As the program went on, however, I did experience something of a collapse. This wasn't as bad as in the past and I was able to do a very good job of having enough energy for my students and for my work throughout the program. Bike, riding, however, did fall off the plate and I did not ride nearly as much in the second half of the program.


I was struck in the final minutes of my tour about how there was something of what you might call a parallel process between how my ride went and how the summer program went for me: In the first part of the ride, I had lots of energy and excitement for the task of doing a century (162 kilometers) that first day. I was so excited when I made it to the Philadelphia Art Museum at around 1pm (about 95 kilometers in). [The pic to the right, by the way, is of the "Rocky" statue at the Art Museum; there was an international crowd of tourists taking pics of each other there.] But soon I started to tire and the remaining 80 or so kilometers I did that day were largely a struggle, as were many of the kilometers of the two 'return' days. As I was doing the last 10 kilometers or so back to Reading, I noticed that I was passing some milestones -- like the last bridge over the Schuylkill river I would cross -- that should have been making me feel excited. I should have been able to feel a sense of accomplishment building as I passed each of those milestones. I should have been able to slow down and savor it.

Instead, all I cared about was finishing. I just wanted it to be over and to be able to get off that bike and get my sore muscles (and rear end, especially) into a hot bath. That was a little sad.

The summer program ended for me in kind of a similar way. In the last week or so, I had to do two all-nighters to finish all the written work I owed to students and others on-time. So, at the end, instead of being able to savor what a huge accomplishment the summer was to me and share that joy with my students, I just wanted it to be over. I just wanted to be able to finally stop working.

But, while I have some sadness about that, mostly how things went represents an accomplishment. I was indeed able to get my work done on time (and I never really faced the crippling dread that I would perhaps not be able to make my deadlines, a dread I well know from the past). And I was able to give my students what they needed from me in those final days; I don't think they were cheated in any way by my need to 'sprint' at the end.

This was my first time supervising a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) unit on my own. My supervisor told me I did an excellent job. I agree with that assessment, something that it is not always so easy for me to say. . . . . My efforts at self-care are a lot of what made it possible. I'm thankful to my students for their work and to my supervisor and my peers for their counsel and guidance. I owe them all a lot.