Thursday, November 03, 2011

Still broken -- too many seeking certification as chaplaincy educators are turned down

Less than a month ago, I had reason to celebrate when I was approved as a full supervisor in the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, something I had spent years working hard for. But tonight I feel sadness in hearing that some of my colleagues were turned down for certification at a meeting of this association -- the leading American group for the training of chaplains and other spiritual caregivers -- in Atlanta.

Any healthy education and certification process is designed for its members to move in an orderly and predictable way towards completion. There will always be some who are not able to finish and drop out for one reason or another. But they should be a small minority; sadly, this is not true in our association. Too many are turned down. The pain of this experience -- of working so hard to prepare and traveling to a distant city to appear in person before a committee -- is substantial for most who are turned down. It's a suffering that is unnecessary; it does not help us create better supervisors.

I pray that those who were turned down in Atlanta will find healing and the strength to "get back up" and continue to pursue their professional goal. And I pray our association will find its way towards collectively seeing the wisdom in reforming this broken certification process.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Filling the gaps -- the essence of Midrash

A couple of quotes from Daniel Boyarin on the nature of Midrash:
The text of the Torah is gapped and dialogical, and into the gaps the reader slips, interpreting and completing the text in accordance with the codes of his or her culture. . . . Midrash is a portrayal of the reality which the rabbis perceived in the Bible through their ideologically colored eyeglasses.
What I like about these quotes (from pg. 14-15 of his seminal Intertextuality and the reading of Midrash) -- despite the fact that they're just plain wonderfully clear! -- is that it opens the way towards an understanding of Midrash that can span both the ancient product of our rabbis and today's efforts to create contemporary Midrash. It puts the text of the Torah at its center and characterizes an important key aspect of that text that has shaped the way the Jews have related to their Holy texts through the millennia -- by charging into the 'gaps' to (incredibly!) both preserve the integrity of the ancient words, while also infusing them with free and contemporary meaning.

I am grateful to have been assigned to again read these words of Boyarin. One of the great gifts of this semester of my doctoral work is that I am privileged to study with two of the greatest contemporary readers of ancient Jewish texts -- Jeffrey Rubenstein and Elliot Wolfson. I'm enjoying it!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Approved! (A full cup)

I am proud to be able to say that I was approved as a Full Supervisor today in the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education, the premier group for training chaplains and other spiritual caregivers. It's been a long road, but one with much great learning on it. I am excited and grateful to so many for their help, Minna first of all and, of course, also my training supervisor Greg Stoddard of Reading Hospital. Also thanks to Rabbi Mychal Springer who gave me the opportunity to work at the Jewish Theological Seminary this past summer.

Now to celebrate!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve and the Holy of Holies

I never owned a Volkswagen Bug, but nearly 30 years ago I proudly bought (and still have a copy) of the "Compleat Idiot How to Keep Your Volkwagen Alive" guide, first published in 1969 by an aerospace industry 'dropout'. With its 'groovy-looking' and clear diagrams of repair tasks, the guide seemed to promise a better and simpler life amid the technology -- like the motor vehicle -- that we depend on for all the best of what we can do, but that also threatens (think, global warming) to destroy us. It said, 'there's another way.' We can have material things that serve us, instead of us having to live a 'rat race' existence where we feel enslaved to those things and an obsessive need to consume and constantly acquire more and more. It said, "small is better."

Until recently, I had never owned an Apple computer. But I always admired them. They also carried with them this promise -- one Steve Jobs credited in part to the influence on him of the Whole Earth Catalog -- of a better way to live. A way that did not mean we always had to pursue having lots of complex gadgets. One that said that it was possible to own things that were beautiful -- beautiful with an almost Japanese aesthetic that found beauty in the small and simple.

This is part of why so many of us seem to mourn so much at hearing of the death of this man who was, in fact, not someone most of us knew at all. He stood for something much beyond his actual deeds. He stood for that 'small is better' belief and aesthetic. His very life was a beacon of hope for America and its future. He embodied the possibility that the great and terrible rent that came upon this country in the 1960s amid the Vietnam war -- the split between Counterculture and Nixon's Silent Majority, a split that has grown into the current great gap between Red and Blue states -- could be healed. Rather than being in conflict, the goals of the Counterculture and of commerce could come together. This greatest success of American companies in our time -- this Apple -- showed that one could made piles of money by bringing Counterculture values to life. In a sense, Jobs was a modern-day priest, someone who appeared almost magically to be able to enter the Holy of Holies of our time, a place that would have destroyed an ordinary human with its beautiful and terrible power. Jobs could see clearly things that were obscured for the rest of us. The music world despaired of finding a way to distribute music on the Internet that could also allow money to be made. Jobs, on the other hand, saw a way to make it simple -- just sell the songs individually for $1 (minus a penny) each. It seems almost obvious in retropect, but only this 'priest' could both see it and pull together the resources to make it happen.

Jobs' greatest inheritor is Google, another company that has found fantastic financial success while pursuing a sense of higher values -- especially its famous "don't be evil" maxim -- as well as pursuing simplicity in the user experience. It remains to be seen what the future of these two great American companies is and whether they will continue to uphold their values. But as we approach this Yom Kippur, we can bring a hope -- a prayer -- not just for individual existences to prosper in the year (and years) ahead, but also a hope for the nation and the world: a hope that we will find a way towards a small-is-better prosperity in the model that this 'priest' (or prophet) modeled for us. A prosperity that does not mean destroying our planet. A prosperity where we can be truly satisfied with what we have. A prosperity where every person has the opportunity to live out his or her dreams. A prosperity that frees us from violence, homelessness and pain. A prosperity that does not forget the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

Tzom Kal.


Of course, there are other reasons we have so much emotion at Jobs' passing. First is how young Jobs was -- only 56. It shows that no matter how blessed a person might be in many parts or their life -- including the wealth needed to afford the very best of medical care -- many years are not guaranteed to any one of us (certainly, a theme with resonance on Yom Kippur).

I also feel like I _owe_ Jobs (or at least Apple computer). Apple has _taught_us so many things that we often paid them nothing for. For example, Apple taught me that a notebook computer was something I both _needed_ and could afford. I will never forget that group project session in 1993 when I was finishing up my first masters degree. Another student pulled his Powerbook 100 (see pic above) out of his bag and pulled up the group project we were all working on -- we finished it together right there and then in that student lounge instead of each having to go home (or to a computer lab) to work on our individual sections independently. It blew my mind and I knew I had to have one. I ended up buying an early IBM Thinkpad instead, a device that helped transform how I worked and thought. IBM got my money for that purchase -- not Apple -- but I never would have spent the money if the Powerbook 100 hadn't 'taught' me what its value could be. Similarly, the iPod and the iPhone taught us -- and other music device and smartphone manufacturers -- what was possible. We have all benefited tremendously. It is certainly true, however, that Apple rarely has invented anything new. I had an mp3 player by RIO before the iPod was ever released. But it never really worked right. Apple under Jobs has known how to take complicated technology and put it all together with data and media in ways that _seem_ simple -- or at least are experienced as simple by the user. They just work. They teach us how it is done.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Choosing life . . . . . in a world of brokenness

Who is in charge of your life? God? Yourself? Others?

If you were in synagogue a few days ago on Rosh HaSahnnah, it would be understandable if you might have felt as if your only option is to submit to some predetermined fate about the course of your life. The great image of the High Holiday season -- articulated dramatically in the ונתנה תוקף/U-netaneh Tokef prayer -- is that of God high in the heavens, writing in a book that determines the course of your year to come. We sing together the words:
בְּראשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן
On Rosh HaShannah it (who shall live and who shall die) it is written.

וּבְיום צום כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן
And on Yom Kippur (this coming Shabbat) it is sealed.
And, yet, the prayer also gives us something to do in the 10 days between these two holidays -- a path to reduce the severity of the decree written on Rosh HaShannah:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה
מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה
Teshuvah, prayer and tzeduckah avert the severity of the dec
But what exactly does this "teshuvah, prayer and tzeduckah" mean? I could try and help a bit by translating all the words into English -- repentance for teshuvah and charity for tzeduckah -- but that leaves us still wondering what is really meant by repentance and by charity (or, for that matter, even prayer). What, for example, are we meant to repent from? If it's from sin, what does sin mean for us?

Whenever I think of the nature of Judaism, I always think of the choice of our ancient Sages to end the Torah with the heartbreaking image of Moshe standing on the edge of the Promised Land, knowing that he will die there and never see the land of his forebears. The Sages could have instead chosen to end the Torah with the next book in the Bible -- Joshua -- and its tale of a triumphant reentry into the land punctuated by dramatic military victories carried out with God's help. But our Sages chose to end the Torah in the wilderness -- in a place of exile and brokenness. There's a powerful message in that for us -- brokenness is not just something for Moshe, it is for all of us. That is where we live. We live knowing we will die, and even that we may die in pain and disappointment. We live knowing the world is full of suffering -- even the death of children to cancer -- that we cannot hope to make sense of.

It would be easy to lose hope knowing that we live in a world that is broken, and that is unlikely to be completely fixed in our lifetimes. It would be easy to become discouraged. We could -- and sometimes do -- lose faith like the people Israel did on their 40-year journey in the wilderness.

But God calls us back with the demand that we -- even on the edge of the place of potential doom that is the sealing of the decrees on Yom Kippur -- embrace the best that it is possible for us to be as humans. To be humans who choose to acknowledge our mistakes and errors and then to repent from them. To be humans who choose to acknowledge God's greatness through acts of prayer. To be humans who choose to try to make the world around them more just -- especially for the weakest and most needy among us -- through acts of righteous giving. In effect, to be humans who choose life. . . . even amid the threat, or even nearness, of death. Even amid knowledge of the brokenness amid us and around us.

Some weeks back, I wrote here about how I was hit by a car while bicycling. I was not hurt badly and did not need to go to the hospital. Yet, I have found myself thinking about the accident often, and have been wondering why I seem to think it was such an important event for me.

I am still not sure. But I know that I keep thinking of the moment when I realized the car was going to hit me. To my surprise, it was not fear that gripped me. Instead, I was able to intentionally do the thing that I had learned would be most useful towards increasing my survivability in the face of an impact -- I relaxed. I allowed myself to roll up onto the hood of the car and then fall back down on the ground. In effect, at that moment when it seemed like I had no control over what would happen to me, I still grabbed for what agency I still had to work towards my goal -- my goal of choosing life.

As chaplains and spiritual caregivers, or just as people, we often meet people whose time left on earth appears to be short -- as if a 'car' is coming towards them -- or who have experienced much loss, including the loss of independence or of loved ones. We often struggle to find ways we can be of some comfort. I know of no magic words for those moments. But I do know it is always still possible to choose life for the moments that remain to us, to be a force for good -- for teshuvah, prayer and tzeduckah -- in the world.

May the year ahead be a happy and healthy one in which you are sealed in life -- and one in which you are able to find your own way towards choosing life for yourself.

Shannah Tova.


Above, you may have been confused by the picture of a bicycle. It is Bira single-speed cruiser bike with coaster brakes (also featured below on top of a labyrinth of all things that I found in the East River park with the Williamsburg Bridge in the distance). For me, cycling is one of the little ways I try and choose life a bit more often. I got the bike from NYU's bicycle share program and rode it down from the Village today to Bowling Green downtown (where I write this blog post courtesy of free wi-fi in the park).

NYU's bike share program is just a pilot that will hopefully soon be supplanted by the ambitious plans for a municipal share program. Based on the great success of bike share in Paris, this program hopes to revolutionize how people get around the City. In Paris, people rent the bikes from automated stations with credit cards. The rentals are meant to be short term -- just to ride to the next bicycle station where you drop it off (the rates are designed to encourage people to quickly return the bikes). I hope it really comes to be -- as planned -- by next summer!

From NYC biking

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years

That's how long I worked in the World Trade Center (Tower 2, 27th floor) and now that's how long it's been since those towers have been gone. I was in California, in my first weeks of rabbinical school when the disaster happened. I had recently returned from a year in Israel -- the year that the Second Intifada began, bringing with it the resulting atmosphere of fear where we were all afraid that the bus you were on might explode at any moment.

So many people have things to share today on this anniversary, but I mostly feel a need for silence and quiet contemplation, so I won't write much here. The one thing I will share is that, although I have often felt deep pain -- especially in those first weeks -- about the event, I have much less often felt anger. I have much less often felt a desire for revenge, than I've felt a desire for healing -- a desire that the world will be healed in a way so that people are less likely to become so drunk with their anger as to commit such unspeakable acts.

The sadness that is in me today is not just about the losses 10 years ago. It's also because I'm not sure that we've moved much farther down the road towards that more healed world. And that's a loss, too.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that we should all know peace and wholeness. May it come soon, speedily, and in our days.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Finding hope amid the pain of mental illness

There was an interesting New York Times story a few days ago about a Protestant minister who is running writing workshops for psychiatric patients at a mental hospital in Queens. It's incredible work -- using the Holy scriptures and images to help inspire some of the most suffering people among us to access their creative voices. And through that, to find some of the things they lack the most: a sense of agency -- of having some kind of control in their lives (the opposite of helplessness) -- and having hope.

Minna is also in the midst of her own version of this important creative work -- she is running a six-week voice and singing workshop at a local state mental hospital. The stories she has brought back of these patients creating their own songs -- and asking for help for each other by singing them together -- have been so inspiring for me, and I hope soon to share a detailed description of some of this work. Two of my students this summer also ran a workshop for mental health clients at a day center where the clients composed their own prayers.

We often think of mental illness as so 'other' -- as something strange and far off that only happens to people who are locked away in some giant, cold instutution. But, in fact, it is widespread and touches us all. It is hard to find hope amid its inexplicable afflictions. Kol HaKavod -- more power to you! -- to all who do this Holy work of helping find voice and hope amid it!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Scary, but not hard -- getting hit by a car

"I've been hit harder before," I told the driver of the PT Cruiser as I tried to convince her I wasn't hurt bad and that she really could get back in her car (which now sported a dented hood after decking me and my bicycle Friday afternoon) and drive away. "I hope not!" she exclaimed.

It was true that I have had harder falls before (both on a bicycle and once courtesy of an angry man I was arguing with about sidewalk etiquette back years ago when I was a journalist working in lower Manhattan). But I've never been hit by a car while on a bicycle before. And I'm grateful that -- even though she _didn't_ see me before she pulled out of the parking lot she was in onto busy Commack Road -- she _did_ see me (rolling up onto her hood before falling back onto the ground) in time to stop her car before the wheels crushed me.

But, despite coming out of it with only mostly minor scrapes and bruises (even my bike is _mostly_ ok) -- I've been thinking about the accident a lot since it happened. I know all too well that bicycle accidents can have emotional impacts well beyond any physical ones -- an accident I had when I was a freshman in college (I was 'doored' in Boston) scared me away from serious bicycle riding for over 20 years. Cycling, on some level, requires a certain kind of fearlessness even to get on the road at all. At the very least, you need to _trust_ that the drivers in the cars constantly passing you on your left will not hit you if they see you.

I'm not sure if I've lost my 'fearlessness', but I did get back on the road for a little bit today, riding around Sag Harbor with Minna and her Mom. Minna and I are here after almost a week of bike touring as vacation. We rode from our home in West Reading, PA, to the Jersey Shore (no, I did not see Snooki!) where we picked up a ferry to lower Manhattan and then the Long Island Railroad to my Mom's house. It was one of the best bike tours I have ever done. Not in terms of scenery (although we did have some very good riding, especially the last 10 or 15 miles in PA on the way to cross the Delaware in Washington's Crossing). But in terms of the _real_ goal of a bike tour -- 'getting away' -- it really worked. I forgot about all the stress of the hardworking (but great!) summer I had just had teaching pastoral care at JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary), and about the upcoming final year of coursework (and much uncertainty) for my doctorate at NYU. All that mattered was the road and pushing one-pedal-at-a-time to cross it. And all the places we passed by and through. The bucolic fields of PA. The slums of Trenton (where are you now, Stephanie Plum?). The historic tow path along the Delaware and Raritan rivers. A shady tree where we had collapsed for a rest and where a man sounding like Tony Soprano in a Cadillac SUV asked us if "you guys are alright" because "you're on my property." The great taste -- enhanced by our exercising so hard -- of fresh tomatoes and peaches from a farm stand where we took a break. . . . But mostly it was just great having an adventure together, just the two of us -- very cool.

Now a couple of more days here near the sea where I will be able to get daily to the salt water to help heal my scrapes (and the wounds on my psyche and soul) and then back to 'the world" . . . . and soon the chagim (High Holidays) and a chance to ask God for another year. . . . . I hope it is a rich one for everyone!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hot city, hot bikes

It was truly broiling today as I walked to the subway this afternoon in New York amid the near-record temps, but I still stopped to take a pic of this strange thing (one thing I love about cycling is seeing all the creativity people put into modifying bikes to different tasks). I think it's a tandem that's been converted into an electric (front hub) cargo bike. ..... At least I think the homemade part of the setup below is meant for carrying large amounts of cargo, although it's hard to be sure.

From New York Cargo Bikes

Speaking of homemade setups, here is a pic (circa 1947) of Minna's Mom on a homemade child seat her father made for the back of this bicycle.

And here's another shot of today's cargo find.

From New York Cargo Bikes

Shabbat Shalom


P.S. If anybody ever tells you that a rainbow never grows in Brooklyn, I have this pic from the other day (that I snapped on the way back to my Brooklyn sublet from the subway) to prove different.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Finding a way back to gratitude (the chaplain's role in the face of mental illness)

"I needed to focus on what I still had, and to be grateful for that."

Those were some of the inspiring words I heard today from a survivor of profound mental illness at a session on mental illness my students (and other summer chaplaincy students) went to in Westchester. The speaker had been a highly successful young woman with a strong faith in God and a strong connection to her faith tradition when she was struck in her senior year in high school by the onset of a major depression that lasted for years and led to multiple suicide attempts. Not suprisingly, she became angry at God.

She credits her recovery largely to an excellent, partnering relationship with a therapist and to medications that addressed her despression and psychosis. But, for this person of faith, finding the way to a place of recovery also meant healing her relationship with God, and finding a way to once again see God as a partner, rather than battling with God. "I put my life in God's hands and asked Him to help me," she said.

This was not just a matter of finding trust in God, or reenvisioning who God is -- it was also a matter of profoundly reenvisioning her understanding of herself and her capabilities. That is, like so many people who suffer an illness or injury, she had to learn to accept a new understanding of what's possible for her -- one that no longer included being a high-performing student at a top university. And, most importantly, she reframed her world view to find gratitude for what she now had.

Gratitude is a profoundly spiritual category. By raising up the importance of gratitude in her life, this women gave me a picture of what role a spiritual caregiver could play in her recovery. The spiritual caregiver is not the one to cure or help control an illness. But, working alongside medical personnel, the spiritual caregiver can assist a person in an accompanying spiritual reframing -- one that can lead them to a much more satisfying and complete life when their mental illness is controlled.

I intentionally say 'controlled' and not 'cured.' As another speaker today said, mental illness is similar to diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure or asthma -- it can't be cured, only controlled. Under stress, the sufferer may experience a loss of that control -- higher blood pressure or a renewed episode of depression.

Stress, the speaker said, is one of the two main categories of the true causes of mental illness; the other is genetics. It's never that a person is 'evil' or 'weak' (although almost all people with mental illness will sometimes blame themselves that way).

She also had an elegant definition of what qualifies a series of symptoms as mental illness and not just a tough time -- if there is either 1) extreme emotional pain, or 2) disability (like being unable to work). Many people have only one of these, like the high functioning person at work who returns home to be emotionally unavailable to his or her family amid alcohol use or some other addictive behavior.

I was so glad to have the chance to learn with these two experts today, both of whom suffer from mental illness themselves, and to see a stronger vision of where the place for the spiritual caregiver might be amid this suffering. I wish them both further strength!


By the way, the first speaker I spoke of never said she was grateful for her illness itself. In fact, she seemed uninterested in even trying to understand why it happened to her. For her, her illness is something that is just a part of her life. Her gratitude is something that is rooted in the here and now -- in focusing on what she has, and on the kind of relationship she wants to have with God.

Jewish pastoral care -- guided by sources, not theology

Being a Jew in the field of chaplaincy education is always a bit of an adventure -- the very term 'chaplain' can bring up Christian connotations in people's minds, as does the term 'pastoral care.' So, as a Jewish person, I am always trying to navigate between what I feel I can comfortably borrow from my Christian colleagues -- whose hard work and devotion to caring for the suffering have brought us the gift of an established way of thinking about how to train spiritual caregivers -- and what I must reject as being inconsistent with my Judaism. And, more importantly, what gifts do I have to bring out of my tradition to the broader field of pastoral care?

I had opportunity to think about this yesterday when I made a presentation on Midrash and Jewish pastoral care to some chaplaincy students at a hospital in Baltimore. I opened with one of my favorite quotes from Abraham Joshua Heschel: "A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought."

Heschel is often described as one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the 20th century. But can a man who -- as this quote indicates -- so clearly rejected with centrality of the cognitive (of thought) really even properly be called a theologian? I remember what one of my rabbinical school teachers told us about how to properly read Heschel. Don't look for organized thoughts, he said. Heschel organized his writing around sources (Holy texts from the Bible, Talmud and elsewhere) and so to understand him, you have to read his works the same way -- by revolving around the sources.

I think you might be able to say the same thing of the whole of Judaism. Our tradition -- our way -- is not so much organized rationally around structured thoughts, as it is around sources, the holy texts that guide and instruct us. At the beginning of our summer chaplaincy program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the head of JTS' Center for Pastoral Education, Mychal Springer, gave a lecture about the nature of Jewish pastoral care (a talk that will become a book chapter soon). I noticed as she spoke that she was organizing her statements in the kind of Jewish way I described above -- she was going from holy text to holy text and talking about how that text instructs us, how it helps us to know who we are as spiritual caregivers when we stand before a suffering person.

In the field of Clinical Pastoral Education, we often ask the people training to be its educator/supervisors, "what does your theory tell you to do in this situation." I have always bristled at this question. "What theory?" I have thought. "I have no theory, I only have sources."

One thing that may be coming out of this wonderful summer of teaching pastoral care in a Jewish institution that once nurtured me so much as student is a greater confidence of embracing my "theorylessness" and my "sourcefullness." It's a genuine part of what makes me a Jewish supervisor, and not just a supervisor who happens to be Jewish.


By the way, this way of thinking about about sources as _instructing_ us is related to some thinking I have been doing about how to define spirituality in an inclusive way that accounts for a Jewish approach. Here is an _insruction-centered_ definition of spirituality I came up with for a paper last semester (thanks to Even Senreich for helping inspire this definition):

Spirituality refers to a person’s sense that there is something larger and universal that exists beyond his or her person, and is, most importantly, a source of ultimate instruction about what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, what is meaningful and what is not. This source might be other humans (as in a member of a nation deriving ultimate instruction about when it is right to kill from a sense of his or her membership in that nation), or it might be something beyond the human (eg, God). The person might be part of that source, or completely separate from it. The magnitude of a person’s spirituality – both in general and in a particular moment – is measured by the extent he or she feels instructed by his or her source when faced with the most difficult and existential questions in life.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Finding our voice at the edge of the unknown: a workshop at JTS

It's so easy to get lost. When you're caring for somebody who's really ill or really suffering, their pain -- including feelings of hopelessness they may have -- can overwhelm not only them but also us. Skilled chaplains learn to walk alongside people in their pain and uncertainty -- to get down in the pit with them -- but skilled chaplains also need to be able to step out of that pit, to reconnect with God and their holy sources of support, purpose, and meaning. Through this kind of act of reconnection from places of despair, the chaplain can also help the suffering person to find their own way out of the pit and to reconnect with the sources of holiness and meaning in their own lives.

This week, Minna and I worked with pastoral care students at the Jewish Theological Seminary to help them grow in just this type of work. We brought together elements of workshops we had done separately before. Minna's great skill is with voice -- both using her own voice as a singer and helping others to find their own voices in her role as a voice teacher and spiritual guide. My focus has been on what I call personal Midrash or spiritual reflection -- a way of finding meaning from our own experiences with the help of our holy texts and other resources. The moment where I really felt our work coming together into one was when Minna used a holy resource -- an ancient Midrash on the Song at the Sea -- to ask people to reflect on their own moments of victory and of uncertainty in their life experience.

Minna asked us to stand and sing the opening lines of the song together -- the song the Israelites sang in joyous gratitude after God saved them from Pharaoh's soldiers by splitting the sea. As the sound of each other's voices washed over us, Minna asked us to imagine something with the help of an ancient Midrash, one that suggests the Israelites actually sang the song while still crossing the sea. "Imagine your own preemptive victory song," she asked. "Your own song anticipating a victory in your life."

As I switched in my own mind to imaging myself singing of victory while still in a moment of fear and uncertainty, I was stunned to realize I had moved -- while singing the very same words! -- from an expression of thanks to an expression of sincere prayer; to an expression of humbly asking God for the victory, for the redemption from moments of fear. Around me, I heard the words of the song coming from my own mouth and others:
Ozi v'zimrat Yah, va'y'hi li lishu'ah.
עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה
Yah is my strength and my song and has become my rescue.

As one of the rabbinical student participants expressed, being amid people singing the same words created a community experience -- I was being pulled along by the others in my prayer amid my fear. They were helping me find my own way out of the dangerous sea.

Later, I wondered what an experience like this could mean to a person truly standing at the edge of the unknown amid illness, suffering and profound uncertainty: to feel pulled along by others, or even just one chaplain, an act of healing that would be assisted by Holy resources like the song, but that would also be rooted in the most physical of experiences, the experience of using our own physical voice. This is truly what I would call spiritual reflection, or even personal Midrash -- the use of our spiritual imaginations in dialogue with our Holy resources.

After our singing and reflection, Minna invited us to actually write our own preemptive victory songs, to create something that we could carry (and that could also carry us) as we face uncertainty or the unknown in our own lives or in the lives of those to whom we minister. In the songs we heard, one student beautifully combined parts of a holy resource we talked about during our presentation -- Psalm 30, which we say in the morning liturgy just before Pesukei d'Zimra/Verses of Song -- with her own pleas and questions, including questions about the role of women and women's voices in Judaism. Another student adapted the tune of the Beatles' "Long and winding road" giving it words that reflected her own current life concerns and questions, and concluding with the original song's plea for help to find the way.

I was also impressed with the way one student's song reflected a kind of deep tension that many of us feel with our holy resources -- they are both sources of profound meaning for us, but can also be difficult and troubling. She took a hymn whose melody she loves but whose words she finds troubling and adapted it with new words. And the part of me that sometimes feels I'm stumbling through life was moved by one student's story of riding a bicycle race with a bent wheel. In his song, I saw a resource for continuing on in the face of difficult circumstances and disappointment.

The workshop had opened with one of Minna's own songs -- a beautiful song called Edge of the unknown that she wrote while she was engaged in her own pastoral training (the video is from a performance she did in Reading a few months back):

I had also shared with the student's some thoughts I have about the theology of the book of Psalms, a book that (in Psalm 30) cries out with the words (verse 10):

'What profit is there in my silence, in my going down to the pit
מַה-בֶּצַע בְּדָמִי, בְּרִדְתִּי אֶל-שָׁחַת:
Can dust praise You? Can it tell of your truth?
הֲיוֹדְךָ עָפָר; הֲיַגִּיד אֲמִתֶּךָ.

It was a great experience!

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Fat commuter on a bicycle . . . another demographic

Sometimes, I did feel discouraged watching all those young legs passing me as I climbed the Williamsburg Bridge this morning on my summer bike commute from an apartment I started subletting in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to the Upper West Side where I am running a pastoral care training program (CPE) this summer. But mostly I felt exhilaration. What a joy to be high above the East River in the sparking sunshine and the cool of the morning. To pass through the still quiet streets of trendy Soho and then the long ride up the Hudson with the George Washington Bridge in the distance.

It was the second time this week that I made the trip of about 11 miles. I think about two one-way trips a week are about all my work schedule and my large, middle-aged body will really allow. But I'm grateful to the Holy Blessed One that I am able to enjoy this activity. Just as I am grateful to the Holy Blessed One for my students this summer and this special opportunity to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and to return to some of my old haunts in
Brooklyn -- I went walking towards the more trendy neighborhoods of Williamsburg last night.

It's both incredible to see the transformation and also to see how much is still the same since my college days when I had a summer job delivering photofinishing, including to Katz Drugs that is still there on Graham Avenue just a few blocks from my new sublet. So many multi-generational Latino families were out on the street with their children. On the one hand, the area where I'm living is quite ugly (a lot of industry) and has a lot of giant public housing projects. On the other hand, sometimes walking through those projects and seeing the families and the
beautiful playgrounds with sprinklers running for the kids to run through in the heat, it looks like a pretty wonderful place for a kid to be able to grow up. In fact, Minna's father was raised in a project just a couple of miles away; I'll have to ask him sometime more about what that experience was like for him.

The New York Times had an interesting article and then some reader letters this week about the struggle to get another demographic -- women -- to embrace bicycle riding. The City has been doing great things to try and make it easier for more people. Incredible!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Garabaldi is back!

The above statue of the great Italian nationalist (along with about a third of Washington Square Park) has been 'trapped' behind construction fencing for nearly two years now, making the already crowded sidewalks around NYU nearly intolerable (especially when there was snow on the ground this past winter). So, I was really heartened when I went down to NYU today to see this key corridor is finally open, again. The park was at its very best today amid the great weather -- full of energy, music and young people.

Garabaldi, once again you are part of a blow for freedom! :)
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Many rivers to cross -- chaplaincy and bicycling in the Big Apple

Ok, so I only crossed one river (and, ok, that river is really a strait), But, my 35-mile bicycle ride, today included two thrilling passages high above the sparkling East River, as well as many great views of the Manhattan skyline and of the Hudson waterfront. The most exciting part for me, however, was that this was no pleasure ride -- it was a test run for regularly bicycle commuting later this summer from Bushwick, Brooklyn (where I will be subletting an apartment), all the way to the far Upper West Side and the Jewish Theological Seminary where I am running a chaplaincy education unit.

So, the ride you see in the map and link below was a working one: from JTS where I am staying right now to a student's clinical site in Queens this morning where I visited the amazing program the student is placed at this summer -- I rode complete with a tie and sport jacket in my pannier so I could 'clean up' when I got there!

Google map of route.

After my time with my student, I took off the sport jacket and tie and headed for the Williamsburg bridge and then NYU. I went through so many amazing neighborhoods, seeing the incredible ethnic diversity of Queens and Brooklyn's working class neighborhoods and their immigrant inhabitants. Seeing all these people striving to make lives here, I was reminded of the incredible power of the human spirit, a spirit that so often drives humans to acts of love and achievement even when they might have once faced great suffering at the hands of others. I was reminded, as I have been so many times during our chaplaincy program this summer, of Psalm 137, the Psalm that inspired the reggae song Rivers of Babylon. That a song authored by an ancient Hebrew poet could so move modern-day people from a very different culture in the Caribbean speaks to the universal nature of its theme -- the theme of the experience of exile. The pain of exile. And the refusal of the human spirit to just sit there in it.

My hope for my students this summer is they will find the strength to accompany their clients as they visit their places of painful exile. They will not flee from these spaces, I hope. But they will also be there with an outreached hand to help pull their clients up as their powerful human spirits seek new homes, new meanings and new freedoms.


One part of the ride I really enjoyed today was going through Flushing Meadow Park, the site of New York's two world fairs and the place where some of my earliest happy childhood memories (of being in the Space Park!) happened. Here is my bike near Yitzhak Rabin Walk there:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

One day's salad, the next day's compost

A sign of summer and the end of spring: I pulled up the last of our lettuce and arugula (a spring crop), today, to make room for the tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers we hope to have a bounty of come late summer.

We had definitely enjoyed some nice salads from these leafy greens, but they had -- as is their like as the weather warms -- begun to go to seed and become more tough and bitter. So, instead of putting these last of the greens on our dinner plates, I am allowing them to 'compost-in-place' to form a sort of mulch along with the sheets of wet newspaper you can see 'between-the-hills' in the pic above. The hills themselves have been newly planted with cucumber seeds (I am afraid our local groundhog may find the seedlings-to-come to be tasty, but I am hoping he/she will leave at least some of them for us!).

One (non-chemical!) defense against the likes of our furry groundhog friend and the beetles that have already ravaged some of our tomato plants is the upside-down planting method, which we tried out successfully last year. We're experimenting now with some irrigation methods for the upside downers (note the 'upside down' two-liter A&W bottle in the foreground below). This page, taught us how to do this, although, as is our wont, we refused to actually follow the instructions! :)

From Planting Day (6/12/11)

Gardening -- like bicycling -- is an important means of self care for me amid the challenges (and joys!) of being in ministry. Last summer, it was a great gift to me to be able to spend early mornings quietly tending to our little backyard garden before getting ready to head to my busy workday of teaching a chaplaincy summer program. This summer -- while I have the new joy of being able to spend time in New York City, the place of my birth -- I will less often be able to walk out to my garden first thing in the morning. I was glad to be able to be able to be in it for a few hours, today!

For a moving reflection on how your backyard might be a source of spiritual nourishment, see the words of our friend and teacher Natan Margalit on his Organic Torah blog.

Have a great week!

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Sunday, June 05, 2011

Making Israel the curriculum -- receiving (and transmitting!) Torah in a spiritual age

Today, another class at Boston's Hebrew College was ordained as rabbis to take up the mantle of being teachers and exemplars of Torah among the people Israel. They have all come to this day with the help of wonderful teachers and a community of peers -- a nurturing environment that we all must be grateful for as its existence helps form the next generation of inspiring spiritual leaders in the Jewish world.

But this must be a time not only for joy and gratitude, but also for sober reflection. We who care about the future of the Jewish people and the existence of a compelling cadre of spiritual leaders must ask ourselves tough questions about the education of rabbis. What works? What of the huge body of the thousands' years old Jewish tradition needs to be fit into these few years of education, and what is not necessary? How can we best assure that the products of this expensive education will be 'good' rabbis? And, at a time when opinions about the politics of the State of Israel are more contested than ever among the Jews, we most especially must ask about what role we expect the Israel year to play in this five or six year education process.

Once, there was little controversial about the idea that future rabbis should spend a year of their education in Israel. We expected our rabbis to be, without exception, passionate supporters of the State of Israel and its policies. We expected our rabbis to love Israel and its state without exception. And, so, an Israel year was expected to be part of a necessary process of the future rabbi strongly bonding with the State of Israel.

But, as diversity in opinions has grown among American Jews about the State of Israel's policies, many rabbinical students have come to resist this conception. Some have even claimed that being forced to spend a year in Israel would violate their core ethical beliefs. Others have questioned whether contemporary Jewry -- a Jewry that looks to rabbis as a source of spiritual inspiration and comfort as opposed to sources of political opinions -- really needs its rabbis to be experts in the land of Israel. And some have just questioned whether the substantial financial sacrifice of spending a year overseas is justified when any course taught in Israel could be just as well taught here in the States.

Of course -- as Danny Gordis’ recent article in Commentary criticizing Hebrew College makes clear – not everybody is happy with this change and some, like Gordis, appear to wish we could just magically turn the clock back to a time when American Jews had no questions about Israel. I certainly don’t agree with Gordis on many things, but, as a passionate supporter of a State of Israel myself, it is also challenging for me to accept that there will be rabbinical voices critical of Israel. Unlike Gordis, however, I know a vibrant Judaism is only possible if our emerging spiritual leaders have a place to express these kinds of voices as they go about their spiritual journeys.

Unfortunately, most of the discussions about Israel quickly devolve into contentious, unpleasant binary debates where there is no room for exploration and genuine sharing – only for people to be labeled as either pro-Israel or anti-Israel. With this unproductive unpleasantness as seemingly the only conceivable option for discussions about Israel, sometimes people within rabbinical schools become afraid to have discussions about Israel and the reasons for the Israel year. Rabbinic students are given weak, vague explanations for the requirement like it is “very important” and that they should, in effect, just “trust us” that they should do it.

That’s just not good enough in a spiritually focused age. For those of us among rabbinic educators who, like myself, are passionate about the need for rabbinic students to do an Israel year, it is incumbent to come up with justifications, and curricula, that address spiritual needs and growth. Today’s rabbinic students know that contemporary Jews expect more than just deep knowledge from their rabbis -- today's Jews also expect true spiritual leadership and thus rabbinic education needs to be fundamentally a spiritual experience that helps its students grow in their ability to use, and be, spiritual resources for the people they serve. All of our rabbinic schools understand this new importance of bringing spirituality into their curriculums overall.

Thus, I think we need to also reconceive the rabbinic Israel year in spiritual terms. It should not be about acquiring knowledge or even forming an emotional connection. It should be about the student developing his or her ability to employ the land of Israel as a spiritual resource. Below, I will put forth some specifics about how I think Israel year education can be transformed to do this. I will propose a new focus on the experiential aspects of Israel education in a way that allows each student to craft his or her own learning using reflective practices, social media tools and structured spiritual mentorship. But first I want to share a personal experience that may give you a better idea about what I mean by "employing the land of Israel as a spiritual resource."

Shortly after arriving in Jerusalem for my year there as a rabbinic student I found myself walking up a beautiful hill in the early morning darkness amid a huge stream of fellow Jews. We soon passed through the (not-quite-ancient-but-still-very-old) gates of the Old City and traversed narrow pathways of well-worn Jerusalem stone – the same kind of stone that makes up the Western Wall, where we would soon arrive.

In my country of birth, the United States, the holiday of Shavuot – supposedly one of the most important on the Jewish calendar because it, like Passover, is one of three holidays where ancient Jews made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem and because it marks God’s giving of the holy Torah at Mt. Sinai – had never yielded much meaning to me. But here, as the sun started to rise and the small group of non-Orthodox rabbinical students and other liberally-oriented religious Jews I was with started to pray, I felt this holiday’s incredible power – as God, Torah and Israel (both the land and the people) came together in a heady mix sparked by our collective pilgrimage up to the Temple Mount.

Nowhere other than in the land of Israel could I have had such a powerful spiritual experience associated with the Shavuot holiday. As a rabbi, I do not think I have anything spiritual to offer to others that is not rooted in my own spiritual experience with things I find meaningful. Thus, this unique spiritual experience of the holiday – an experience that was in no way connected to any classroom experience or even to an informal experiential curriculum –was an essential part of my rabbinic education. It is a spiritual resource that is mine to call on every Shavuot. It allows me to enter every Shavuot with genuine spiritual excitement – excitement I can share with others of the faithful to help them find paths to personal meaning.

That is, this experience helped me grow spiritually – in particular in my ability to use Israel as a spiritual resource with Jews back in the States. Amazingly, the act of teaching out of my own genuine spirituality makes that teaching experience a support for my own continuing spiritual health and growth – teaching others reminds me of what it was like to experience Shavuot with fresh eyes, and thus renews me.

Art Green, the founder and current rector of the Hebrew College rabbinical school, touched on this in his remarks at the ordination. “The moment of giving will be the moment of receiving,” he said of acts of teaching (as we approach in only a few days Shavuot, itself, the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah to the people Israel). He told his graduating students that it is through such teaching that we retain access to those powerful moments where we felt called to become rabbis in the first place and to teach Torah among the people Israel.

It is this kind of spiritually focused educational vision that an Israel year should be about for rabbinic students. It should be about their developing spiritual resources through learning derived from their own powerful personal moments – even the ‘terrible’ ones – that they can experience in that most amazing of tiny countries that sits on the fault line between West and East and that has inspired so much passion, both love and war, through the ages. (For an example of how the ‘terrible’ can also lead to rich learning, see Minna’s beautiful Yom HaAtzma'ut reflection from 2009, where she talks about how, on the one hand, the experience of Israel could be sweet and inspiring for her, but how it could also steal her voice away and make her feel foreign and strange.)

But how can we make these kind of experiential and spiritual educational experiences more likely to occur for rabbinic students in Israel and how can we leverage these experiences into spiritual growth in these students’ ability to meet spiritual needs of others back in the States?

One way, of course is to have group trips and retreats be a part of an Israel year, and most programs do employ these techniques. But this alone is lacking for two key reasons. One, is that spiritual growth and learning is a fundamentally individualized process -- you can't expect a group oriented activity to "meet the student where they are" on their spiritual learning journey. But, more importantly, group activities alone don't consolidate people's learning. To consolidate learning, there needs to be some form of disciplined reflection on the 'action' that happens in the experience. There are many well-established tools for helping consolidate this learning, including journaling, group-based reflection in a case conference format, spiritual direction and structured mentorship. The application of these tools is strengthened by encouraging a maximum student 'buy-in' -- the student should be encouraged to take charge of his or her own learning by, in consultation with a mentor, drawing up his or her own individualized curriculum, or learning contract, that expresses the student's hopes for how he or she will make "Israel the curriculum" for him or her.

I think I can help make this happen. My training as a pastoral care educator (I am a certified Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor) has shown me how structured and disciplined reflection on powerful experiences – like talking with the dying in hospitals – can be leveraged into dramatic spiritual growth. And my experience with social media and video ethnography has shown me how new technologies can be employed to enrich this reflective learning process.

With Skype, for example, students in Israel could meet with a mentor or spiritual director back in the States to develop learning goals and educational opportunities, as well as reflecting on those experiences. Students could keep video journals of their experiences. The mentor and the student could develop ongoing discussions about those video journals. Alternatively, the student could use blogging or Twitter as a journaling tool.

Minna and I found blogging – including posting many photos – to be a powerful way to find learning in our experiences when she did her own rabbinic Israel year a couple of years back. Check out this blog post for Minna’s own take on why actually being in Israel can be a key part of a rabbinic student’s learning, as well as on how engaging in shared writing or other reflection helps consolidate the fruits of experiential learning. Also, check out this great blog being kept by a JTS rabbinical student for another example of how blogging can be learning – a way of making Israel the curriculum.

A truly deep experience of Israel – the kind of experience we feel in our bones – can be an invaluable part of a rabbinic education, an experience that can only happen in that especially sensitive time for spiritual growth that are the heart of the rabbinic education years. But those experiences cannot happen if we stifle our students with a demand that they can only be either pro- or anti-Israel. Students who are in Israel need the same kind of deep support for their spiritual growth that they have become accustomed to in the States. They need a curriculum that recognizes that the Israel year is a particularly rich time for experiential learning. They need a curriculum that recognizes that each student will have their own individualized path to discovering how their Israel experiences can act as spiritual resources for them and allow them to become more able to give Torah to the people they minister to as rabbis back here in the States – and, in doing this giving, be more able to receive Torah themselves.

Hag Sameach! – may you have a Shavuot rich in Torah, both giving and receiving.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Return to Manhattan -- on two wheels!

The most exciting thing I'm doing this summer is leading a chaplaincy education group at JTS, my old alma mater (and a place that had so much to do with my early days of spiritual formation and growth in my early 30s as I was just starting to consider becoming a rabbi). But that is not the only _return_ I am going through -- it's also a return to living again (albeit only for about three days a week) in Manhattan, where I once lived for over a decade. So much is wonderfully familiar, but there are also great changes. One of those changes is the amazing (I could barely have imagined it would happen!) transformation of New York into a bicycle-friendly city.

I got a taste of the new _friendliness_ today when I chose to ride the 6.5 miles or so from JTS to FEGS Manhattan PROS, an amazing daytime program for people with mental health issues, where two of my students are interning this summer. Almost the entire ride was down the waterfront of the mighty -- and beautiful! -- Hudson River. This was a waterfront that was long almost completely inaccessible to pedestrians and bicycles; now there is a beautiful and generous bike path down its full length in Manhattan. It was so great to partake of it! Cycling is such an important part of how I care for myself amid the strains (and rewards!) of being in chaplaincy and chaplaincy education. Even on a very hot day like this one, the feel of the air quickly brushing past me as I ride through it always makes me feel a sense of freedom (as well as a little bit cooler). I even went on a short ride on my lunch break yesterday; upper Manhattan is such a great place for it -- and I was able to stop at the amazing Fairway supermarket to buy some stuff for lunch, etc.

I am grateful for Minna for helping me see how this summer of working in NYC could be about more than work -- that I could also approach it as a personal "adventure in New York City," one of the two cities (along with Jerusalem) that I love most in the world (as well as the place of my birth!). . . . The personal adventure of this summer is part of a larger personal adventure I've been on in NYC. As I type these words, I am in the basement of the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU's main place for training filmmakers and game-makers and alike. It -- like so much of New York -- is a place where the surrounding buzz of creative energy is powerful and palpable. Being here makes me feel like my creative energies, too, continue to burn strong and have something new and powerful to offer the world -- I feel young, again! And so I am glad to be a doctoral student in NYU's Education and Jewish Studies program as I have for the last two years.


What I'm sure, however, will never be bicycle friendly about NYC is the issue of bike theft. I've tried to defend myself as best I can, first and foremost by using a _junker_ bicycle that I hope will not be so attractive to thieves and vandals. It's an old Schwinn mountain style bike I bought used for $35 about a year ago just for this purpose. I've got three locks on it (one a small cable lock just to keep someone from taking the seat). I put an old rack on it with an old "Around Town" REI basket-style pannier that -- teamed up with a reusable Fairway shopping bag -- gives me pretty significant carrying capacity

In only a few days I will be at the Hebrew College ordination to see some new rabbis take up the mantle of being teachers of Torah in Israel (Minna is going to sing!). And a few days after that we will celebrate Shavuot, the holiday that marks the giving of Torah to Israel at Mt. Sinai. I am reminded -- as I begin these two personal adventures in NYC of leading this summer chaplaincy program and of taking a bicycle to these transformed streets -- that Torah comes in many places, many forms and from many sources, all of which enrich us and lead us towards service of the Holy. My students at this mental health center will be walking the halls of a place that may not seem spiritual at all to many eyes at first. But I know that the Ultimate Questions about spiritual matters like the role of suffering in the world are particularly powerful and present for people coping with mental illness. I am confident my students will bring much Torah to the people they minister to, and, perhaps even more so, that they themselves will learn much Torah from the people so experienced with suffering who they will be caring for. May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that they will all be enriched by this sharing of Torah!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Getting in touch with our (dirty!) hands

From Early Spring Planting Day 2011

One of my favorite parts of counting the Omer with Minna every night during this season from Passover to Shavuot is when she recites the final words of the meditation before the blessing:

וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ; וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנֵהוּ
The works of our hands -- establish them for us! The works of our hands, establish them!
These words -- a quote of the Psalmist (Ps. 90) imploring God to do this establishing -- came to mind, today, as I was working with my hands (and getting dirt under my fingernails) in the little garden in our backyard. It felt especially satisfying to transplant the four little plants in the picture above -- we not only grew each one from seed, but we had saved the seeds from plants we had grown last year. (We had even taken some of the seeds -- soaking in water as they must for a few days before you dry them -- on a short bicycle tour we took to Lancaster County at the end of last summer.)

I stand in my own sort of middle space right now during this middle time in the 50-day count of the Omer -- a short break between a very busy (but productive!) semester of graduate study at NYU and an exciting return soon to the role of a chaplaincy educator/supervisor in a busy summer in a CPE program at The Jewish Theological Seminary (which starts on Monday). In this middle time, it is important for me to care for my spirit as much as I can. Cycling and gardening are two of the most important ways I engage in that self care, so I felt really centered and happy, today, as I worked my hands in the dirt.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that all the work of your hands shall be upheld -- firmly established! And may your own summer be a productive and joyful one.


Another sign of Spring has been these baby birds hatching in a nest their parents built in our porch light. Minna took this picture only a little more than a week ago, but already all of these little guys have (literally) flown the next.

Fly on, little guys!

Monday, May 02, 2011

No L'Chaim -- Osama . . . . and Obama's legacy

Today, I heard someone say that, while he would not celebrate Osama Bin-Laden's death in the kind of 'party' atmosphere we've seen from crowds on Times Square etc., he might say a L'Chaim when he got home.

I'm not sure if, while he was speaking, he saw the irony in using the words "To Life!" in making a toast to someone's death.

As some of my classmates in a seminar on Jewish Education at NYU wisely pointed out, today, the Jewish religious tradition has plenty of room in it both for celebrating the death of an enemy and for feeling sadness on hearing of such a death. Perhaps our most famous celebration of death are the sounds we hear every Purim of our children making joyful noises with their grogers every time we recite the name of the hated Hayman -- who wanted to kill all of us -- as we chant the book of Esther. On the other side is the midrash that teaches us that God scolded the angels when they wanted to sing in celebration at the death of the Egyptians drowned during our salvation by God's hand at the Red Sea -- the work of My hands is drowning in the sea and you sing a song?!?!?

As this day has gone on, it has become more and more clear to me on which side of our tradition I stand on this -- I will not be making any L'Chaims. I will not be dancing.

I worked for 10 years of my life in the World Trade Center (Tower 2, 27th floor). Although I was not there on that fateful day and lost no one I knew well, I cannot begin to tell you how many tears I have cried over that disaster, that terrible wound to the city I love so much.

So, no, I will not mourn Bin Laden. I am glad he no longer has the power to kill or maim. But I will not celebrate his death, either -- the loss of something made by God's Holy hands.

I am ever mindful of the dream of the prophets -- that vision that the lion should lay down with the lamb, that the swords should be beaten into plowshares and that we should study war no more.

Please, God, bring it soon, speedily and in our days.


Rabbi Irwin Kula had a slightly different take on Bin Laden's death and our reaction to it. In a post on Facebook, he emphasized the importance of allowing all our voices to be heard:

We human beings are very complicated as we navigate a world we cant help but neatly parse good and evil. We have two choices in response to moments like this both of which have roots and affirmation in our ancient texts...whether understood as god's word or our inner lives manifest:
Proverbs 11:10 "When the wicked perish there is song."
Proverbs 24:17 "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles."
What happens to a culture in which only one of these responses is expressed and validated? What happens to us as individuals when we can only feel the truth of one of these responses?
Seems to me we are never as powerless as our nightmares and never as powerful as our fantasies...


The Hebrew for the Midrash I cited above is

ואמר רבי יוחנן מאי דכתיב (שמות יד, כ) ולא קרב זה אל זה כל הלילה בקשו מלאכי השרת לומר שירה אמר הקב"ה מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה

It can be found in the Talmud on Megillah 10b (English translation).


A post I made on Facebook earlier, today:

“If this means there is one less death in the future, then I’m glad for that,” 9/11 survivor Harry Waizer was quoted in the NYT. “But I just can’t find it in me to be glad one more person is dead, even if it is Osama Bin Laden.”

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A sign of Spring

This guy has moved in with us for a bit (nesting in our porch light!) it seems.

As we move into the final days of our great spring holiday -- Pesach! -- I wish our visitor (and everyone!) a productive Spring, full of health and much joy.
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Monday, April 11, 2011

Signs of Pesach -- 'herbs' grow!

With only about s week to go before Passover, it's probably over-optimistic to hope that these little guys (lettuces and such) will yield something for our seder plate. Still, I'm so excited to see them sprouting in our little back yard that I can't help but be hopefull!

More realistic is the hope that the below (a horseradish we planted last year) will yield something to dip in (bitter herbs!) for the seder plate. The roots may only be small (you are really supposed to wait two years before harvesting horseradish), but I think it will still feel very special to have something from our own garden to celebrate Judaism's great spring holiday -- the Feast of Freedom!

May your Pesach be a meaningful and healthful one, one full of joy and liberation -- as if you yourself were brought out of mitzrayim!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Almost there

In just a few days, the buds on this little White Star Magnolia tree will be blooming with beautiful flowers -- spring is clearly almost here!

From Early early spring 2011 (Wyomissing creek)

And some of this tree's neighbors (in Wyomissing Creek park here in Reading) are already blooming! Minna and I saw the first crocuses and daffodils (and others) on a little walk this afternoon. Here are some of them:

From Early early spring 2011 (Wyomissing creek)

From Early early spring 2011 (Wyomissing creek)

A nice treat to be able to enjoy the first fruits of Spring as Purim approaches!