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 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.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

A pen that truly was mightier than the sword -- goodbye Solzhenitsyn

It's been so long now since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that we may have forgotten what an amazing achievment that event was. I know that I had long had little hope that the 10s of millions of people of Eastern Europe could ever be liberated from the Soviet yoke that fell upon the late 1940s in the wake of World War II.

But there were a small number of people who did not lose hope. They risked their lives to fight the mighty Soviet system. For the most part, they fought completely alone. They did not use guns or bombs, but words and ideas. Their weapons were hope and courage and righteous outrage. Chief among them was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died today.

As a teen his books consumed me, starting with the amazing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, his chilling description of one person's day living in a concentration camp. Like Orwell's Animal Farm, this novella amazed me for how much it was able to do with the simplest of language and images, and how few words it used. It was as damning an indictment of the Soviet system that could be imagined. In Western Europe, many on the left had continued to idealize the Soviet system in the first decades after World War II, and considered American capitalism to be the greater threat to humanity. Solzhenitsyn almost singlehandedly crushed that terrible misconception.

And he did not just write short works. Cancer Ward and The First Circle were huge novels that deeply impacted me. Their images were rich. They were indeed indictments of the Soviet system, but they were about much more as well.

Aleksandr, I thank you for what you gave us.