Posts Tagged ‘judaism

For anything I said in times of stress, sleep deprivation, or when I was otherwise not myself

For any attention-seeking, especially on social media

For any laziness and procrastination

For any time I missed the chance to do an act of kindness, to help a person or cause

For any inability to see an issue from someone else’s perspective

For ever thinking my way was the only way

For any time my raging emotions overpowered my desire for kindness and harmony

For any fights

For any jokes I made in poor taste

For any time I failed to consider my privileges in life, or the struggles of others

For complaining about mundane problems and forgetting how lucky I am just to be healthy and thriving and blessed with the best opportunities

I hope you, God and fellow humans, can forgive me.

Because I have missed the mark.

That phrase, to me, is the definition of Yom Kippur atonement.
Most of us don’t set out to do evil.
Instead, we aim our arrows towards one target and we miss.

That’s why there are 10 commandments reminding us not to do the Very Bad Things, and 613 more telling us what ordinary things we should do or avoid. Because life is complicated, and we are held back by the limitations of our perfectly imperfect human minds, and everyone makes mistakes.

Yom Kippur is about picking up all the fallen arrows from the ground and starting fresh.

As the season changes, so do we try to change and improve ourselves.


May you all be written into the Book of Life.


“Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.”

For some reason, this quote from the Reform prayer book has stuck with me. It keeps coming back into my thoughts. And when your wandering mind keeps circling back to an idea, that idea matters.

I pray every night, sometimes silently and sometimes out loud, in that safe space of solitude just before falling asleep. It’s a very different feeling than praying amongst a community – I can’t say if it’s easier or harder to concentrate, but for me it feels more intensive.

Sometimes it’s a powerful experience. I’m pouring out my soul, asking for whatever I want to happen. Sometimes it’s something as simple as wishing to have a good, productive day, free from anxiety and self-doubt.

Then sometimes it feels like I’m just talking into thin air. Talking to nothing, letting out words that no one will ever hear. The cynic in me, like the wicked child at the Passover seder, just asks “Why? Why bother?”

Maybe it’s because of the disheartening news of all that’s going on in the world lately. Too much evil, too much suffering and fear, too much destruction. Ferguson. Hamas. ISIS. If simply praying for peace was enough to stop or prevent suffering, then none of this would have ever happened. (I’m not about to come up with some divine explanation why very bad things happen, because honestly that makes me uncomfortable and it’s a topic for another post.)

So which is it? What can praying actually do? Can it accomplish anything?

Maybe that question is the wrong way to approach it. I believe prayer is a mode of introspection, and it is in those moments of uninterrupted introspection that we lay out a spiritual road map and decide what we want our lives to be. It is then that we begin to build a self.

Maybe it’s the act done with intention that matters more than the outcome.

Maybe it’s the process of watering an arid soul, mending a broken heart, and rebuilding a weakened will that allows us to learn, grow, and reach out to improve the world around us.

Prayer alone isn’t enough. But it’s a good place to start.

“In the English language there are orphans and widows, but there is no word for the parent who loses a child.”  -Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Dear Sammy/Superman Sam,

You wouldn’t know me.  We never had the privilege of meeting in person.  Yet I speak for hundreds of people when I say you’ve changed my life in ways you could not have imagined.

Several months ago, I discovered your parents’ “Superman Sam” blog, thanks to friends of mine, and my rabbi who is a dear friend of your family.  And I, a healthy 20-year-old with (very fortunately) no experience with life-threatening illnesses, began quietly following your story.  I feel as if I know you now.  But that is not enough.

I read about every good day and every bad day.

I read about the transplant, and will never forget your words to your cells, and your parents’ prayers.  Superman himself would envy your courage.

When I was frustrated about whatever trivial things were happening in my life, I went to the blog, and your strength gave me strength too.

I cheered when you went into remission, and as you grew stronger every day.

At Shabbat services on campus, literally HUNDREDS of people, who never even met you, said your name during the Mi Sheberach and dedicated their Torah study sessions to you.

A month ago, when the cancer came back, I refused to believe it.  I kept praying and hoping for a miracle, as before.

At that point, we were all reminded that tomorrow is promised to no one.  That the ground beneath our feet can shift in a moment, and life is so very fragile.

Yesterday, I walked past a display of Superman pajamas at Target and thought of you.  Then I went online and saw the news.  And I wept, as if you were a member of my family.  Because you are.  All of Israel is responsible for one another.  Your suffering, and your family’s sorrow and determination to fight back, is all of ours too.

Now, what I must do is join the many people who are speaking out on your behalf.  I will show the world how utterly wrong it is that childhood cancers only receive 4 percent of all cancer research funding.  The world is certainly more than 4 percent children, and children certainly don’t add up to 4 percent of all cancer cases.  Does that make people angry?  Well, it should.

I will do whatever I can to help other children, in your name.  Maybe it’s fundraising for more research and better outcomes, maybe I’ll pursue social work one day.  Who knows.

Today we mourn.  But tomorrow, we spring into action once more.

Sammy, you wanted to do something amazing, and you did.  You united hundreds, thousands of people, through your bravery, in only 8 short years.

May his memory be for a blessing.  

I always wondered why we say “for“, rather than just “may his memory be a blessing”.  Now I think I understand why: so that the people closest to the late person can turn to their memories for a purpose, for comfort, for inspiration.  That is what I wish for the Sommer family and all others.

File:Superman shield.png

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So welcome back, my readers!

Tonight begins Sukkot, the Harvest Festival, and I’d like to say that seasonal festivals are wonderful because they celebrate the passage of time.  It’s always worth noting and celebrating the fact that we’ve made it through another year and made it back to where we started.  And we’re all different people in some way, so that bit of sameness and familiarity in life is refreshing.   

I feel that especially at this time of year, in a literal sense with the start of a new school year, new classes, activities, and friendships, and in a spiritual/religious sense with the High Holidays and all the festivals that follow.   (Interesting how it’s a time to contemplate and a time to celebrate.  Maybe those acts are related?)  Fall is a very spiritual time for us all — it’s when we turn over a new leaf just in time for the leaves to start changing.  We let go of the old, and embrace the new.     
(Soon campus will look something like this.) 
Since we’re still in the New Year state of mind, I’ll leave you with this: my very first Rosh Hashanah mini-sermon, delivered this year.   
Good evening, BaRuCH.  
As you all know, Rosh Hashanah is that time of year when we self-examine and reflect on our lives.  What we’ve accomplished in the past year, and what we have yet to achieve. What motivates us, why we do what we do.  And most of all, what we stand for as human beings.  What gives our lives meaning.  
The Binding Of Isaac, one of the readings for Rosh Hashanah, is an interesting case study of how people make sacrifices for what they believe.  Abraham is summoned to sacrifice his own son Isaac at Mt. Moriah in order to prove his faith in G-d.  Abraham almost goes through with the sacrifice, until G-d tells him that he’s already passed the “test” of his faith.  And he’s rewarded for this. G-d blesses him with many descendants. 
The big idea here is that in order to live meaningful lives, we must dedicate ourselves to a cause – some higher purpose beyond ourselves.  Abraham proved his commitment to his faith in the most dramatic of ways.  But Abraham’s sacrifice was only one in human history.  50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr and the heroes of the civil rights movement were courageous enough to speak out and fight against injustice during the March on Washington. They made enormous sacrifices in the name of their beliefs- the hope of a brighter future for so many.  
One of my all-time favorite quotes is, “Find something you would die for, and live for it.”  I hope that in the year ahead, we all find something meaningful that’s worth making sacrifices for. Maybe it’s our faith and spirituality, maybe a personal goal, maybe fighting injustices in society today and making the world a better place. Whatever it is, let it guide us towards becoming better people.  
L’Shanah Tovah. 
So that’s really my state of mind right now.  I don’t know what my purpose in life is, but I do know that a friend just said I’ve kept them going through rough times, and that is the greatest compliment there is.  Maybe doing “something meaningful” isn’t about saving the whole world.  Maybe it’s just about helping a few people in a big way. 
So stay tuned for more Divrei Torah, maybe poems, reflections, and random bursts of inspiration!  Writing is like a box of chocolates- you never know if you’re going to end up with something nutty or something good, but it’s made to be shared and enjoyed.  
Happy Sukkot and Chag Sameach! 
Hello, friends.
Now that summer is underway and we’ve settled into a post-Birthright routine that doesn’t revolve around sleeping away the jetlag, I think it’s time to reflect on the whirlwind of these two weeks (10 days, then a wonderful weekend extension with my Dad after he came for a conference).  So this is what I learned from my time in Israel.
-It’s hard to believe you’re still in America when you enter the international terminal.  You know you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.
(Not my photo, but an accurate one.)
-When you make it through an 11-hour transnational flight full of screaming babies, you can make it through anything.  (It doesn’t matter what time you fly, there will be screaming babies on an El Al flight.)
-You may never understand how Israelis stay so thin and fit in a country full of falafel, breads, pastries, and hummus.  Maybe they’re just magical people.
-Israel is great at accurately naming its streets.  (These are in Jerusalem and Tzfat)
                       photo (73)            photo (74)
photo (75)
-Jerusalem is the only place better than Brandeis University to truly celebrate the joy of Shabbat.  There’s a moment on every trip when you start to feel at home in a new place, “Wow, I like it here and I could be very happy staying here at some point.”  That feeling finally hit me in Jerusalem, the heart of Israel.
-Walking through the crowds of Mahane Yehuda, then passing those same empty streets on foot while all the shops were closed for Shabbat, really served as a reminder that Shabbat is a day of rest.
And the spirituality of praying at the Kotel twice in one day, and singing and dancing with women we’ve never met, is probably the defining moment of the trip for me.  Old or young, religious or not, we were all one sisterhood, one unbreakable chain of strong Jewish women, as it should be.
             Image                                           Image
-When Israelis try to strike up conversations with you in Hebrew, and you have no clue what they are saying, just nod, smile, and know you’re doing something right if you can pass for Israeli to begin with.
-Just one Israeli iced coffee will make you question why you’ve been drinking American coffee all your life.
-A bathing suit is not a bathing suit in Israel, it’s a “swimming costume”.
-Also, sunscreen is not sunscreen, it’s “sun cream”.
-Even though it goes without saying, the Mediterranean architecture against the blue sky is so beautiful.  This was at the Port of Jaffa.
                                                                    photo (78)
-Remember all those trees that people planted in your honor as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah gift?  Well, they really have made the landscape of Israel greener.
                                                                 photo (80)
-Everyone instantly becomes a “cat person” in Israel.  The cats there are adorable!  This one, just like us, was making his way to the Kotel on Shabbat.
-In Kabbalah art, a circle is never just a circle.  Everything represents creation and the birth of the universe.  This is the print I bought in Tzfat.
                                                                     photo (83)
-If you think a downhill hike isn’t difficult, then you haven’t taken the Snake Path down Masada.
                                                                 photo (77)
-Israel’s cities are developing and urbanizing faster than ours.  The new city-wide train route in Jerusalem didn’t even exist when I was there 5 years ago.
-Jewish observance in Israel is very diverse and pluralistic.  Meeting more observant people at Brandeis has made me wonder if religious pluralism is more about letting everyone practice religion in their own comfortable way, or about facilitating exchanges between people who observe in different ways.  I still haven’t resolved this question, but I think in Israel, it’s possible to have both.  Many of us identify as Reform Jews, and even though Reform Judaism isn’t yet recognized by the Israeli rabbinate, the more religious Jews in Jerusalem welcomed us into their world no matter what our backgrounds were.
-Those inevitable travel mishaps put things in perspective, and eventually, they do make you stronger.  One day I can brag about that time I fell down hiking at Ein Gedi, aggravated an old ankle injury, got a house call from a doctor in the Negev who only spoke Hebrew, and still pushed through to finish the trip when I could barely walk.
-If you don’t leave your hotel before the cutoff time when everything closes for Shabbat, then you get locked in the parking garage.  This happened to me and Dad in Jerusalem.  (On the other hand, it’s pretty amazing to see a Shabbat candlelighting in a hotel lobby.)
-Tel Aviv is one of the best beach experiences of your life… unless you get to visit the beaches of Netanya just an hour away.  My Israeli family friends took me there on the weekend.  As it turns out, my Hungarian grandma had settled in Netanya for some time after WWII, and I can see why she must have loved living there — it’s so beautiful and full of life.
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(Low risk of jellyfish attacks that day — always good to know when you’re getting in the water)
-The camel ride is thrilling, and surreal when it hits you, “I’m riding a camel.  An actual camel.  This is what people really did 2000 years ago.”
photo (76)
The defining images of a Birthright trip.  (More camel photos are trapped inside my other camera…)
-You learned so much from those intangible moments that were and weren’t on the itinerary.
-There’s the sobering moment when you visit a vibrant elementary school full of young children in Haifa, and see an entire wall of former students who died defending Israel’s security, and realize they were all your age, or barely older.  And you have the same realization walking through the military section of Har Herzl Cemetery.
photo (82)
(Still, making this hamsa with the kids was a highlight for me.)
-There’s the moment when you finish a hike and realize it doesn’t matter if you’re fit or coordinated or not, you had the strength to do that, and it is incredibly empowering.
-There’s the feeling of completeness that hit all of us when the Israelis joined the trip, and the moment when we realized just how close we’d all grown over those 5 days together.
-There’s that moment of horror when you and your kibbutz roommates are trying to catch the lizard that got into the bedroom, and accidentally snap its tail off. (Sorry about that.)
-But most of all, there’s the feeling that even when you’re sleep deprived and you’ve had enough of the sweat and uphill hiking and kibbutz food and waiting in line to use all 3 clean bathrooms that exist in the State of Israel, you love this country and know that 10 days is nowhere near enough time to bond with your new family and experience all the adventures you see yourself having, and it makes you wish study abroad would come sooner, because traveling and seeing the world are simply exhilarating.
-And now that you’ve seen the Jewish Motherland, you finally understand the idea that all of Israel is responsible for one another.
                                             photo (81)
So, until next time, Israel.
Shalom and L’Hitraot,
P.S. Comment if you have anything to add.  I miss you all!

Interfaith relationships.  It’s a topic that never fails to come up in young-Jewish-adult discussion groups.  But this year, it’s become more than the hypothetical for me.


Reform Judaism is a big part of my identity.  I rarely miss a Friday night service or a Hillel Shabbat dinner.  I really do love Jewish holiday traditions, especially when I’m away from home and not required to celebrate them — which says a lot.  I happy volunteer to read and write Divrei Torah.  And I just went on my first date with a very smart and accomplished classmate who I’ve known since freshman year.  He is not Jewish.
It’s funny how this is such a contentious issue in discussions, but when it actually becomes reality, the difference doesn’t matter.  Coming from different traditions doesn’t feel any more significant than majoring in different subjects, or being born in different states.  It’s just a biographical fact.  And us getting together isn’t about rebelling against my family, or Judaism, or society — it’s just something that happened.
Disclaimer: I’m not going to talk about marriage here.  I’m not ready.  This is the point in my life where a typical date is meeting up in the dining hall, studying à deux at a library desk for two, and maybe venturing out into the city on a free campus shuttle.  (On that note, isn’t it possible to do these things with anyone?)  I can’t say I’m 100%
I’m still trying to figure out whether all things happen for a reason, or we just apply reason to random events.  But I do know that I’m an incredibly spiritual person, and I believe people cross paths and enter each other’s lives when they are meant to.  And so many moments when I’ve needed to talk to someone, he and I have just sort of run into each other by coincidence.  It’s like something is drawing us together for a reason.  Our mutual friends could see us getting together even before it happened.
I think what bothers me most is that interfaith dating is even an issue to begin with.  I’m speaking as someone who’s been excluded from social cliques before, and I know how that hurts.  This is a reason why I love Judaism: we view our people as one big family.  We create community, and we welcome the strangers in our midst, because we were once strangers too.  Maybe that’s why I always gravitate towards the friends who are a little bit different, off-center in the best of ways, with an interesting family story and cultural background, because that’s really who I am.  People attract my interest because they are different from the status quo.  Maybe that comes from being a granddaughter of immigrants, maybe it’s just my curiosity, maybe both.
But at what point does a community-centered religion become exclusive to the many people who are not like us?  Shouldn’t interfaith relationships be less of a taboo, if we are to be welcoming to all people?  Maybe I am in the minority here, but I believe so.
I’ve considered entering the Jewish professional world, but I am uncomfortable with the rabbinical school policy that their students cannot be in an interfaith relationship, because our rabbis influence our individual Jewish journeys the most.  They, more than anyone, should understand and promote acceptance towards all.  This is the problem: I love Judaism, but I can’t stomach the idea that it could become a divisive force between two people enjoying a pure, innocent love that’s so hard to find.  I think the communal aspects of religion should, among other duties, help people build bridges.  And bridges are about connecting different pockets of people, not more people of the same background.
I do not know what the future holds for any of us; I just want to know that whatever is meant to be, it can happen without causing any rifts or conflicts between anyone.  I understand the practicalities of Jews marrying within our religion for the sake of continuing our civilization, but selling your daughter for ten goats and a dowry was once practical too.  Times are changing.  Society is constantly changing and globalizing.  And maybe this means we need to rethink whether the taboos around love and relationships are really even necessary.

Posted on: April 18, 2013

So I wrote this post before the tragedy on Monday, and decided it still needs to be posted because more than ever, we need to see beauty and hope.
This was the collaborative art project that we did at BaRuCH’s Tefillah B’Teva (outdoor nature-centered prayer) retreat this past weekend.  6 of us were given a piece of cardboard and told to fill in the outlined spaces with combinations of paint, tissue paper, and beads to look like the sunrise, sunset, or dusk.  This was my individual piece:


But we were not told what it was for, until everyone was finished and the two wonderful coordinators put the pieces together to create this: 



A hamsa, made in six parts.

As someone who is still exploring and questioning and sometimes doubting who I am, I see this as a metaphor for life.  You never know exactly what your role will be among your friends, classmates, and peers, and in the larger mosaic of society.  You can only create and decorate your piece with the passions, talents, and resources that YOU, and only you, were given.  And sometimes you will be surprised by exactly how and where it fits in.  You never know in what ways you have touched people’s lives, and become their missing pieces.  Whatever it is, your life has a purpose.  Just remember that.
(Credit to Emma and Mea who coordinated this event: I cannot thank you enough for inspiring us all through art and reflection this weekend.)

Making Your Piece Count