Wednesday, January 24, 2018

You WILL wear a kippah!

My daughter, who is in first grade at a Reform Jewish day school, recently told her teacher that her parents said she doesn't have to wear a kippah during tefilah (prayer services) at school. I received an email asking if this was in fact the case, and I was shocked. [A note of background--my husband is the rabbi for the school. As a Reform school, it walks a fine line when it comes to some ritual practices. The kippah policy is that middle schoolers may choose, but elementary students will wear during tefilah unless they have a parent's permission not to.]

As a woman rabbi who wears a kippah when I am in prayer services, communal events, and other specifically Jewish and/or rabbinic moments, I was amazed that MY daughter would not want to wear a kippah. Setting aside that I was a little hurt she didn't want to be like her mommy, I was surprised that I would need to make a case for wearing a kippah to my own daughter. I get asked about my kippot almost weekly. It's usually not a question about the kippah itself, but something like, "Hey, I didn't know women wore those," or "Wait, you're a rabbi? I didn't know women could be rabbis/haven't ever met a woman rabbi before/how long have women been rabbis?" Thus, my kippah is a symbol of my ability to stand on the shoulders of the courageous women who have come before me in pursuing visible equality in our Jewish community, and a reminder of my sacred calling not only as a Jew, but a Jewish woman and a rabbi. The kippah is often a lot more than just a headcovering.

When I was 10, we moved to a new city and congregation and a woman rabbi (the congregation's first) had also just started in the community. She unapologetically wore a kippah and tallit and it was revolutionary for my mother and many like her because it gave them permission to try it out and claim this ritual practice as their own. Incidentally, my mother began to make kippot and wore them any time she was in the synagogue, but would not let me wear pants on the bimah (a blog for another time). Both of these shaped me--I wear a kippah in the situations I described earlier and I still don't wear pants when leading services.

Hearing the news that my daughter did not want to wear a kippah felt like a rejection of all of these things...but she's six years old and even more, she cannot reject that which I have not yet taught her.

So, my daughter will be wearing a kippah at services--she does not get an exemption from her parents at this point. But she does get to choose what kind of kippah she wants to wear, and has selected one that is bejeweled with rhinestones. Even more importantly, I am now talking to her about what it means to me to have her try this now, while she is young and we are responsible for her Jewish practice, so she has the information later when it is up to her to decide. And just as I talk about the progress women have made and need to make in so many ways, I will tell her more about my story, and her grandmother's story, and how we are all working towards a day when a woman wearing a kippah or being a rabbi isn't such a surprise!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Jew Remembers Christmas

This year, I've been thinking about Christmas more than usual. My father died five months ago, and because he was only officially Jewish for the last ten years of his life our family celebrated a secular Christmas. For the last ten years, we were rarely together on Christmas Day but by phone, we'd fondly remember the stories of one of my father's favorite holidays of the year, telling stories of our childhood. Without him here, it feels like these stories won't be the same.

As a rabbi who works with interfaith couples, I often validate that Christmas has a lot of appeal because I know from my childhood how fun it can be with the various traditions and customs that exist. It seems everyone is getting ready to celebrate Christmas, there are lights and cookies and presents and music and--except at the mall--people seem to be happier than usual. For those who do not celebrate it, this time of year can feel isolating. And for those who, like me and my family for the last ten years and counting, no longer celebrate Christmas, there is a special type of nostalgia of knowing what we used to do, and making this day and season something different.

In that spirit, a few reflections of things I have come to realize about Christmas (and holiday traditions overall) that may be of particular interest to those feeling a little nostalgia or envy at this time of year:

Holiday traditions often transcend religion: The things that make a holiday special are rarely only religious in nature. Perhaps it is the friends who have become like our family (meaning they know how wacky we are but still share holidays with us!), the decorating of a house, the custom that becomes tradition that becomes ritual carries power. For example, we had the custom of a fancy Christmas Eve dinner at home. Each year on December 24, I often cook something a little fancy just because it's what we used to do--and is a family tradition, not a religious one. As we had close family friends with whom we used to always spend Christmas (and many a Thanksgiving too), I have made sure we have a tradition to getting together with close friends during Chanukah so our kids will also have a sense of tradition of being with friends, not just family.  In Judaism, with the many home rituals that accompany holidays, we have many ways to make holiday traditions through food and community.

A little anticipation goes a long way: I believe this year Costco had Christmas decorations in the store the same week as Yom Kippur. Whether one observes the advent or not, there is a sense of anticipation and preparation for December 25. I can remember the various stages of Christmas in my childhood: getting and decorating the tree (and protecting it from the cat), pulling the ugly holiday mugs down from storage and using them for a month, decorating the house, holiday concerts, playing carols at holiday parties (great money, by the way), shopping and wrapping, etc. It was fun and everyone was in it together. Let me assure you, we can create that same anticipation for almost any holiday.  As Jews, we also have our own preparatory periods. The month leading up to Rosh Hashanah is a time of spiritual reflection, and the month leading up to Passover is a time of cleaning, cooking, and yes, some spiritual reflection thrown in there too. While there is no religiously-prescribed Chanukah preparations, if we are looking to be in the "holiday spirit" we can create a sense of anticipation in our families in many parallel ways to those celebrating Christmas: decorating our homes (we put our Chanukah menorahs on display, and a few twinkle lights around the house--some of which also make an appearance in our sukkah in the fall), planning activities and extending invitations for Chanukah parties, and more.

Don't play the "Chanukah is just as cool" game: I actually believe that for interfaith families who have a Christmas celebration, whether at home or with extended family, this time of year can be easier because there isn't an envy of those celebrating Christmas. For those of us who don't have that, we might be tempted to try to make Chanukah as elaborate as what we perceive is happening around us. Yet, let's not play into that pressure. Chanukah is fundamentally about pride in being Jewish, miracles, rededication. On the list of holiday significance, it is far below many others such as our festivals and high holy days. Outside of the United States, Chanukah is much less of a deal and gift giving in particular is minimal.  Make Chanukah meaningful in its own right, not a competition. Remind our children that we have a lot of holidays that are opportunities for fun, food, family, and friends. Give them the tools to explain to those who are not part of the Jewish community what Chanukah is (and is not) so they feel empowered at this time of year. Do the traditions of Chanukah, but be cautious about appropriating things that are really just "Jewish Christmas" decorations. We have actually moved some of our gift giving to our children to other holidays to remove some of the pressure at this time of year.

Embrace the generosity of the season: The end-of-year charitable contribution season and the December holiday season are times where people are in a more giving spirit overall. This is a great way to bridge the divide between "Team Chanukah" and "Team Christmas" by volunteering, donating, and otherwise giving back to our communities and helping those in need.

Whatever this time of year means for you and your family, I hope that you have a meaningful and joyous holiday season. Remember that whatever you do this year can become the stories of years to come, and all of us have traditions, joy, and meaning to share.

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.