Friday, July 1, 2016

There Are More Than Four Questions

My daughter is learning the Four Questions in pre-K in preparation for Passover. She is very excited about the upcoming holiday, eagerly singing songs like "Where is Baby Moses?" and "Frogs on Pharaoh's Head." Yet, there are clearly more than four question floating around for her. When she learned about a few of the plagues, she asked why the plagues happened to everyone when Pharaoh was the one who made bad choices. The next morning the question was how God didn't burn when God was in the burning bush. Then why Moses was in the river Nile.

To try to concretize some of the story, I showed her the movie "The Prince of Egypt." This film is beautifully done and helped facilitate some conversation around parts of the Passover and Exodus story. What the movie also did, though, is show the pain of the plagues as they were inflicted on the Egyptians. By the time the Israelites emerge on the other side of the Sea of Reeds watching Pharaoh's army drowning in the sea, one is left with a bittersweet feeling.

While I understand that we want to be age-appropriate with our children and help them to see the fun and joy in the festival of Passover, I would also encourage us to remember that we have a responsibility to be honest about the power and questions the story raises. Amidst plague masks and toys is a dark story of an entire nation being punished by Pharaoh's hardened heart, which is in part hardened to ensure the Israelites are clearly delivered by God, reminding us that freedom can come at a price. Amidst the songs and the foods is a deep question of what it means to be free in our time, not just in that Exodus story. I would offer that most children can find some degree of that understanding, and we as adults should push ourselves to reflect on the deep meanings and questions of this festival.

As we approach our family's seder, we are certainly focusing on the joys--the food, the family, the singing, and especially my daughter's "Four Questions" debut. And, we will encourage her to offer her many other questions along the way, because each of us at every age is supposed to find meaning in the seder, the story, and feel it applies to them.

As you approach your seder, may it be one of many questions, because that is how we learn, that is how we grow, and that is how we will continue to find meaning in this Festival of Passover, the time of our freedom and celebration.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Mommy at the Mikvah

The first time I went to the mikvah it was before my wedding. I am a Reform Jew and mikvah was not really on my radar until preparing for my wedding as a rabbinical student (with a newfound awareness of all kinds of rituals). With my mother and other important women in my life blessing me, I immersed in a beautiful mikvah in Pittsburgh and never imagined I would do so again. Years later, I considered immersing as part of my pregnancy journey but hesitated because there was no mikvah in Atlanta where I felt I could go anonymously and comfortably as a rabbi in the community.

In November 2015, we opened MACoM: Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah, a mikvah designed to be welcoming and inclusive of our diverse Jewish community.  I am on the board, a committee or two, and the clergy advisory group, so I knew most of the inner workings of this mikvah. However while I thought I might want to use it occasionally, I never thought about becoming a regular user: until I finally went and discovered this was the ritual I did not know I needed.

I would ask my fellow parents, particularly of young children, this question: When is the last time you heard silence? Our lives are constant refrains of "Mommy" and "Daddy," phone calls, bedtime stories, questions, requests. Even the night isn't silent with the white noise of the baby monitor.

When I went into the mikvah, it was silent. There were no requests, no questions, no calls...just silence. It was disturbing for one moment and then completely soothing. As I went under the water, time slowed down and everything paused.

As parents, there is the feeling that the days are long but the weeks, months, and years are short. We have milestone transitions such as the start of a new school year or a birthday. The day-to-day rushes past with the sweet moments that seem memorable until they are replaced by the next.

Mikvah offers parents--both men and women--an opportunity to pause. Much like the havdalah ceremony at the end of Shabbat, we draw out the time into a meaningful ritual transition. The preparations for the mikvah slow us down, the immersion in a quiet pool invites us to be still with our thoughts. We can make the mikvah experience an opportunity to think about the past month and intentionally go into the next one, reflecting on our many roles, joys, and challenges in the frame of Jewish ritual. Whether going monthly or in another increment of time, we can take a deep breath and emerge renewed, ready to enter back into the noise and see what comes next.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Family Seder

Some of my earliest Jewish memories are from Passover. I vaguely recall, as a very young child, watching Grandpa Hurwitz cough while eating horseradish root (or, because my  mother retells it to me, it feels like I was there). I remember learning the piano chords to the Four Questions and then proudly playing them at my Great Aunt Lenore's home when we all gathered for seder one year. I remember a seder at my Grandma Irene's home in Florida, dusting off the dishes she never used.

But most of all, I remember the seder as it usually was, in our home growing up. It was a remarkable blend of the intentional and the unintentional. Recipes were handed down, but not discussed with any fanfare. China was from my parents' wedding, but when we had more than 10 people, interspersed was my great-grandmother's china (a floral pattern my mother hated). After her death, we used my grandmother Julia's silver, which as a Ukranian Catholic she never could have envisioned happening at a seder, but we also had plenty of plastic forks and plates around. The haggadah was just the one we happened to have, one with a burned corner where a guest had accidentally set fire to it from one of the decorative votives on the table. The matzah cover was a horribly ugly blue felt creation from my brother's early religious school years that was somehow gorgeously meaningful in its weirdness. You get the idea.

We didn't think too hard about the actual content of the seder. We knew we'd do it all in some form or fashion, but there were never plague bags or gimmicks to make it flow. We'd read, each person in their turn, and then we'd eat. We'd talk some more, and then we'd go to bed. I recall the first year, as an aspiring rabbi, I was given the role of introducing the seder. I wrote a d'var Torah about the meaning of freedom (I wish I still had it now) and proudly set the stage for what the festival meant to me, and to us, in that space.

I believe it has been a decade since I have been in Pittsburgh for a seder. It's been years since the last family seder Micah and I experienced, in Las Vegas in 2008. Usually we spend Passover in a community we have created through our rabbinates. The first night usually at The Temple, the second night with couples whose weddings and conversions I officiate.

I find myself each year yearning to make our Passover authentic. Somehow the seven days pass so much faster than they did when I was younger. before we know it, we can eat bread again. I almost miss it by the end. Micah and I spend time talking about the seder, ways to make it creative, and in that way we find our authentic seder voice (one more scripted, one more spontaneous). I often feel we could do more in this festival, but that is an ongoing journey.

Now, with children of our own, we have another growing edge. We are taught about the Four Children: wise, wicked, simple, and unable to ask. We know that we are all of these children in some way.

In our daughter and son, we have these children looking at us in anticipation of being taught. It is no longer abstract. To our five year old's wise questions, we try to answer from our own faith and uncertainty. To our children's simple questions, we answer easily. To their wicked moments (of which there are few), we try to respond with compassion. And, for all that they are unable to ask, we model our own commitment.

When thinking about Passover this year, something in me yearned for a different experience. While I can tell you the practical reason we are traveling for Pesach this year is because we did not take vacation time at winter break, there is a spiritual reason. I knew, deep down, that we need to have a family seder. Our children need to make a memory that is organic, drawn from the deep connections that exist in a family, not just created by their rabbi parents and Temple community. They need to have the experience of learning that which is not always explictly spoken--that for some reason even the least religious of us are drawn to a ritual that has been handed down from generation to generation, that somehow we find a new meaning embedded in the parsley, matzah, and this year, Grandma's brisket.

I think about this weekend and am brought to tears by the image that our children will experience something powerful beyond words: a seder table filled with family members they already know well. Four generations will gather together and say that we are proudly Jewish and connected to our people, and say that we are lovingly connected to one another as well. In that moment, it does not matter what parts of the liturgy we do or forget, or what tunes we do, or whether things are like they are at home. What matters is that we come together and give ourselves the gift of a night to remember. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Giving Thanks for Strep

Yesterday came the call every working parent dreads: "Your daughter has a fever and you need to pick her up." We immediately went into emergency-preparedness mode, shuffling to make sure she got to the doctor and making plans to have her home the next day. Fortunately, we received the diagnosis of strep throat which, unlike what I call the "$40 virus" (named for the doctor's copay), is treatable with antibiotics and improves almost immediately. She will be in school on Friday, hurray. And, she got sick at the best possible time because I am off on Thursdays.

Yet Thursdays are my day to get stuff done. So, this morning as my daughter perkily ate breakfast after her second dose of antibiotics, I was calculating how many of my plans for today were in the trash. Certainly the things that are just for me, like a good long run, were off the table, as was my introvert time folding laundry over television. Powering through five errands at once? Unlikely. And as my mood started to tip off the precipice into grumpiness...two little arms reached around me and said, "Mommy, I'm so excited to have a day just with you."

In that moment, the grumpiness was erased. What a gift, as someone who usually works on six days of the week, to have a full day with my daughter and enjoy time together. My daughter proceeded to inform me that we were going to have a girls' day because her brother would be at school. Since she was fever-free and chipper, we found ourselves out and about doing some of the errands on my list.

Today I learned that my daughter loves shopping. I knew it in the abstract, but never had the patience (or time) to watch her discovering the numerous useless items of kitsch that can be found in Bed, Bath, and Beyond while searching for the one item you actually need. Ladybug timers! Egg cups shaped like eggs! Odor-eliminating beads that glittter! Fruit snacks! When we passed the nail polish, she asked what I thought about doing manicures, and we each picked a new color for our polish collection. Then, we went to DSW to pick out the hiking shoes my family is giving me for my upcoming birthday. I always wondered who on this planet would buy the gaudy shoes in the clearance section...and now I know that person is my daughter! She excitedly found shoes in my size, trying to convince me that I could use a floral-printed, rhinestone-enhanced, four-inch pair of heels, or rhinestone-covered flats, or maybe a fuschia purse.

There is tremendous joy in hearing my daughter's imagination and energy in the hours which are usually spent at school. Today I was the one listening to made-up songs, conversations with stuffed animals, and the questions that popped into her mind. I don't have to ask about her day when she's tired--I've had the pleasure of experiencing it with her. She kept telling me, "It's fun to have a girls' day, Mommy." Why yes, my love, it is. Clearly you and I both needed it. Next time, let's do it without the strep throat!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Mommy, what is a racist?

Last week, The Temple hosted marchers for the NAACP's Journey for Justice, a march from Selma to Washington to draw attention to injustice and inequality. Over 140 Reform Rabbis are participating in the march, carrying the Torah as a symbol of our commitment to the pursuit of justice for everyone.

Outside of our social hall, we displayed large photographs of the bombing of The Temple and of our late Rabbi emeritus Jacob Rothschild with Dr. Martin Luther King. Walking past these photographs, my daughter asked me, "Who broke The Temple?" I took her to the other photograph and reminded her of Martin Luther King and his dream of equality. Then, I said, "Bad men didn't like that The Temple believed this too, and they broke The Temple." She asked, "Who were the bad men?" And I said, "They were racist." "But Mommy, what's a racist?"

It is tempting to say to my four year old that I'll tell her when she's older. After all, why draw attention to race at a time when she barely notices these things? Yet, there are many children out there who do not sit in a place of privilege, whose reality already includes difficult truths about how our society works for some, and not others, on the basis of race.

Yesterday, I marched with the Journey for Justice and my children joined me for a part of it. The leaders of the march encouraged all of the children (we had eight "Rabbis' kids" there) to be up near the front. At first I said we didn't need to do that, they weren't there to draw attention to themselves. But then someone explained to me that we were walking through rural Georgia, we were expecting some nasty comments, and it was safest for our children to be near the front. Later that day, we had two African-American children, ages 4 and 6, and they too were walking up front because that was the place they could be most protected.

This is the difficult truth--that for as simple as it seems to us to treat people with dignity and respect and to see and respond to the injustices that exist, there are still plenty of people in this world who don't or won't see them. I walked next to a young man from Texas who was marching because he was denied the right to vote in a recent election. We talked about children and he asked how I explained racism to my daughter. I said, "There are people in this world who don't like people simply because they look different from them." We then talked about raising our children to be a generation who know from the earliest ages how to treat others and bring about goodness in this world. If we teach them from the beginning love and pursuit of justice, they won't know any differently.

I have added the photo of my children "strolling" through the march to their photostreams. One day, they will look at this picture, alongside Pride Parades and Hunger Walks, and know that even before they really understood, they were being taught to pursue justice. And I will tell them that alongside us were people who wanted the same thing for their children that I do for mine: a peaceful, safe home, access to food and healthcare and quality education, a strong community, and the ability to pursue their dreams and potential to the fullest. Kein yehi ratzon--may it be God's will, and may it be ours.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Today we found ourselves in Jerome, Arizona, as part of our family vacation with my in-laws and my husband's brother and his family. It was here that I learned the hard lesson of what it means to be the parent I want to be.

My mother-in-law decided to stop in a little jewelry store to buy my daughter a ring. The souvenir rings they bought in Sedona were quite large on a four year-old's finger, and this shop had some child-sized rings. We tried on several before deciding on a turquoise and silver ring--total price of $21. It was slightly loose, but seemed to be a better choice than the other ring which fit almost too tightly. 

As we were walking out of the shop, I asked my daughter to say a big thank you to her grandmother. As I was about to add the next logical sentence--be sure not to lose this special present--my mother-in-law hugged my daughter and said, "Just so you know, if you lose this, I won't be angry. Accidents happen, and I don't want you to be afraid to tell me. This is just a little present." 

I stopped in my tracks--how did she know what I was about to say? Immediately the many things I have lost came back to me, particularly the memory of the first thing my parents were angry with me for losing--one of the 14K gold earrings that I was given when I was eight.

Of course I want my daughter to treat her possessions carefully. We don't replace things that get broken or lost when these things happen out of carelessness, and we often have to explain that things sometimes cannot be replaced (or at least not immediately). Yet, this was a reminder that she is only four years old, and this was my opportunity to remember that I can help her preemptively be forgiving of that fact. As my mother-in-law said, accidents can happen.

And ten minutes later, while sitting at a barbecue restaurant, we discovered the ring had slipped off her finger and was nowhere to be found. I was so frustrated. In my gut, I wanted to yell at my daughter, "How could you be so careless?" And in my mind, I remembered being an eight year old girl on the other side of this. Yet the battle between instinct and aspiration was almost insurmountable, and all over a $20 ring.

I asked my daughter to apologize to her grandma for accidentally losing this ring. Grandma said it was fine, and then the two of them walked over to the server to leave our phone number in case it turned up. In the course of the conversation, in which my daughter was in tears, the server gave her a Hello Kitty keychain. This Hello Kitty hung in the rearview mirror of her car which was totaled in a car accident back in May. This woman, a young mother of two, was ejected from her car and should have been killed, but she, her friend, and the Hello Kitty survived. It was a reminder to her of resilience, and she decided that my daughter needed it. 

As I think about this morning, I am grateful. I am grateful to my mother-in-law who said to me, "We can't sweat the small stuff," and gave my daughter permission to be a flightly four year old, which I am not able to do as often as possible. I am grateful to the server who shared her story, reminding us that life is bigger than things (something I am well-aware of as a rabbi, but am sometimes forgetful of as a parent in the heat of the moment). Raised in a family where we sweated things small and large and had a memory longer than elephants, as a parent I want to teach my daughter forgiveness of herself, a recognition that things happen and we cannot let them overshadow our sense of self. Yet, instinct and aspiration as parents are not always in sync.

I am eternally grateful to this woman who looked at my daughter and knew she and our family needed this story. Hello Kitty is going to have a special place for us--we promise not to lose it--and one day it will go to someone special. In the meantime, it is reminder to me that every day we have the opportunity to choose the parent we want to be, and we can never lose hope that one day we will succeed. 

-dedicated to my mother-in-law, Jenny, who finds more stories and connections than anyone I know

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Today the Kotel was Ours...

From 6/18/15

This morning, I had the opportunity to take a group of about 20 people from our Temple Family Israel trip to the kotel for Women of the Wall's Rosh Chodesh minyan. It was the first full day of our trip so many of them were quite jetlagged, but five young women who will become bat mitzvah this Shabbat came, as did several mothers and grandmothers and even a few fathers and a grandfather. Some had converted to Judaism, others were born into it. For all but very few, this was their first time at the Kotel because it is the first time they are in Israel. 

What an experience to have as your first time at the Kotel! We began by joining with Anat Hoffman and others in trying to be allowed to bring a Torah scroll through security. They knew it would be denied entry, but they did it knowing another Torah scroll could come through and be available to be read. We sang with others as the leadership of Women of the Wall argued with the guards, then entered the kotel plaza, some of us wearing tallitot. We joined in the joyful sound of women's voices singing, drowning out (mostly) the shouting which came from some of the Orthodox women who felt that what we were doing was an abomination.  We had the opportunity to witness three young women become bat mitzvah with a Torah scroll at the Kotel. 

As we prepared to leave, I asked the group what it felt like--what did it feel like for the women and what did it feel like for the men watching from the back? Amazing, wonderful, powerful. One man pointed out that he walked to the men's side and immediately was able to be wrapped in tefillin, but was sorry no one would do that for his daughters (and I am of course sorry I did not bring my tefillin to give the five girls the experience that so many boys and men have). 

What I said to them, with tears in my eyes and throat, was this: "The Kotel has always been complicated for me as a woman, a Reform Jew, and as a rabbi. It has, at times, been powerful, but mostly it has been complicated. I haven't much wanted to come. Two years ago, I brought the mothers and daughters on our family trip to the Kotel and had to frame the experience almost apologetically, as if to say, "This is a very sacred place, but it will also likely make you really angry as a woman." Today, though, I didn't have to apologize. We were able to go in there and the Kotel felt like it belonged to me, and I hope it felt like it could belong to you."

For me, this was one of my most profound experiences as a Jew. I actually prayed at the Kotel in a way that felt like me--modest, but dressed in clothes I would wear if I were at services outside, wearing a tallit which I often wear on the bimah at home, the kippah that my mother made on my head, standing with women with whom I share a community back in Atlanta. It felt amazingly spiritual as I finally made a connection. 

The Women of the Wall is about more than just the Kotel--it is part of a larger fight for the recognition that "religious Jews" are not just Orthodox ones and that the diversity of the Jewish people must have a place in Israel as it does elsewhere. It is my prayer that the women and men I brought from our group will join in that fight, and that we will continue to see forward steps.   Today was beautiful, but it was still dramatic, there were still a few people yelling, there were police protecting us as we prayed. There is still work to be done, but today to see a Torah scroll held high by women was an achievement. Today, the Kotel was ours.