Thursday, October 20, 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

Temporary Refuge

I am writing while I am sitting in my sukkah this morning. Sukkot is my favorite holiday and I try to enjoy my sukkah as much as possible during the week that it stands in my yard. My family and I eat, read, work and even sleep in our sukkah. I look forward to it all year and I am always a little sad to take it down at the end of sukkot.

This year I was not sure our sukkah was going to last until the holiday started — the winds were over 20 mph and I was sure the whole thing was going to fall apart. With lots of rope and sandbags my husband managed to keep our sukkah upright, but it was a very clear physical reminder that a sukkah is supposed to be temporary and offers little protection from the elements.

I sat down this morning to write about how much I love my sukkah and how part of my enjoyment is accepting that it is only temporary. And then my friend Rabbi Lisa Levenberg posted this article from the New York Times and I realized how trivial anything I could say would be.

It is amazing and beautiful and tragic. Emily Rapp shares her story about her love for her son who, because he was born with a rare genetic disorder, will never have a chance to grow up. She is painfully aware of the truth of Ecclesiastes (the book we traditionally read on Sukkot) that nothing is forever.

She writes:
How do you parent without a net, without a future, knowing that you will lose your child, bit by torturous bit?
Depressing? Sure. But not without wisdom, not without a profound understanding of the human experience or without hard-won lessons, forged through grief and helplessness and deeply committed love about how to be not just a mother or a father but how to be human.
 You can read Emily's article here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Rosh Hashanah Sermon

This Rosh Hashanah I talked about Google and how we need to let ourselves be uncomfortable in order to grow. You can read it here.

Monday, August 29, 2011

God does not control the weather

This morning I read that Michelle Bachmann is blaming the recent earthquake and hurricane on God. While this is not the only ridiculous thing she said recently, I take particular issue with her suggestion that she knows how God works.

God does not control the weather. I have written before about how hurricanes and earthquakes happen because they are part of nature—not to punish us.

Even if I did believe that God uses nature to punish humanity, how would Senator Bachmann know what we are supposedly being punished for? She seems certain that God is sending a message to politicians.

The antidote to Michelle Bachmann is this article by Rabbi Edward Bernstein. God does not use the weather to punish us, and certainly I can't believe in a God who would kill 35 people in a hurricane to prove a political point.

I do believe that there are consequences for our actions. Although God does not control the weather to reward and punish humanity, we certainly punish ourselves when we ignore science and fail to care for our ecosystem; we can't pretend that we have no impact on the earth.

Deciding to choose Blessing

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions...

John Tierney, The New York Times' science columnist, recently wrote an article about decision fatigue: the idea that our ability to make a decision gets degraded from making hundreds of small decisions throughout the day. The more we choose, the less able we are to make more choices.

The Torah (always ahead of its time) teaches us in this week's portion that there are only two choices we need consider: blessing and curse. Blessings will abound if you follow the commandments and curses if you do not- the obvious decision, in any case, is to follow the commandments. The portion then provides lists of commandments about where to worship, how to worship, what to eat, how to mourn, and how to celebrate the major festivals.

As Reform Jews we often struggle with the concept of mitzvot and what it means to be commanded. And yet we are very aware that we are all Jews by choice -- we define our Jewish identity by the choices we make every day.

A mixture of science and Torah can teach us how we can choose blessing in our own lives

I delivered a sermon about this at Temple Ahavat Shalom on Friday, August 26, for parshat Re'eh. Click here to download a PDF. Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What I learned at Camp #5 - Take a Leap of Faith

 Riding the Zip Line at Camp Newman

Number five: take a leap of faith
While at camp this year Isaac and I got to try the zip line. A zip line is a long suspended cable that runs downhill—you put on a harness, climb to the top of a tower, and get clipped on to the line with a D-ring and a roller. You slide to the bottom of the hill, suspended in the air by the cable, cruising along at about 40 miles per hour, soaring over the trees, and when you get to the tower on the other side, someone lowers you to the ground on your rope.
It was lots of fun, but to get started you literally have to take a leap of faith. From the top of the tower you stand on a little platform and you have to jump off. You just jump and let the rope do the work. When it was my turn to hide my nerves at being up that high I asked lots of questions: What if I could not slow down when braking? How should I hold my hands? How hard do I tap the cable to slow down? Finally Tal, the young and tattooed Israeli woman who runs the zip line, yelled up to me, “Stop thinking and just jump!” I did, and the ride was great. Sometimes we need to just let go—to make the leap and have faith that we will enjoy the ride and land safely. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What I learned at Camp Newman #4 - Change your perspective

Number four: change your perspective
While we were at camp we experienced the first rainy day in summer ever in the 17-year history of Camp Newman. This is California; rain gear wasn’t even on the packing list! And this was serious rain—not a drizzle, but a downpour most of the day. Trying to entertain 600 very active kids indoors all day was a challenge, but it wound up being a great day.
It started with reciting the schecheynu at breakfast; from the beginning, the counselors and campers faced the day with positive energy. It was not a rainout—it was an adventure. There were lots of board games, and tables were flipped over for indoor gaga. The camp was like a multiplex, with every available room showing a movie. There was even a sculpture-making class in the director’s kitchen. What could have been a disaster turned out to be a fabulous day.
Sometimes you have to just be flexible—take a step back and look at the bigger picture; one rainy day was not going to ruin camp. Our expectations shape our experiences and we have the power to change our perspective and, please forgive the pun, find the silver lining.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What I learned at Camp #3 - Prayer is about you, not about God

 Hiking with Rishonim and Rabbi Paul Kipnes at Camp Newman
Number three: Prayer is about you, not about God
This summer at camp I was with a group of eighth and ninth graders who were spending a month exploring Jewish experiences in nature. Every other day Rabbi Paul Kipnes and I would get a new group of 14 kids to take hiking. At the beginning of each hike we started with tefilat haderech—the travelers’ prayer. We talked with the kids about why, historically, we needed a travelers’ prayer and what kinds of things we would pray for today as we started our short journey up the hills of Napa. The kids went around the circle listing things they wanted protection from—like poison oak, bees and sunburn—and what blessings they hoped to find, like connecting with friends and having fun. We turned all these hopes and fears into a prayer, our own customized tefilat haderech.
I could stop here and tell you about the beauty of writing our own prayer—and it was beautiful—but that was the point of the exercise. I wanted the kids to see prayer as relevant, and to find beauty in writing their own. What I learned was that, especially for teenagers who are very vocal about their struggle with belief in God, there needed to be some other meaning in prayer aside from asking God for protection. And so we started talking about what we really expect to happen when we pray.
Nobody really expected that our prayer would protect us from poison oak and sunburn, but taking the time to talk about our fears reminded us all to watch out for “leaves of three” and to put on sunblock. Talking about our hopes set us up for blessing because we were already expecting to find it on the trail—we recognized the benefits of hiking together because we were looking for them. Our prayer was not about God, it was about ourselves.

Friday, July 15, 2011

More lessons from Jewish Summer Camp: #2 Pray in English

 Shabbat at Camp Newman

Number two: pray in English
It can sometimes seems that our tradition feels praying in Hebrew is more authentic than praying in English—but there’s a reason there’s so much English in our prayerbook:  sometimes you just need to pray in English. It’s the language that many of us are most familiar with, and in which it is easiest for us to express our thoughts and feelings.
You may not be surprised to hear there is a good mix of English and Hebrew in prayer services at camp, but you might be surprised that English is not the only vernacular to find its way into the prayer service.
One of the prayers we say in every service is the kaddish. We are all familiar with the mourners’ kaddish that comes at the end of our service, but there is also a hatzi kaddish—a “half kaddish”—that is a marker between parts of the service. When the kaddish was added to the service, it was considered so important that its words be understood by the person praying them that it was not written in Hebrew—that’s right, it’s not in Hebrew. The kaddish is, in fact, in Aramaic, which was the more commonly spoken language at the time the prayer was written and found its way into our service.
And if Aramaic, then why not English? Dan Nichols, who is a rock star among songleaders, and who joined us at Camp Newman for the first two weeks of the summer, wrote a melody for a version of the hatzi kaddish in English. On Shabbat morning, instead of the familiar chant, “Yitkadal v’yitkadash shemei rabbah,” we instead prayed and sang “may your wonder be celebrated, may your name be consecrated.” Later in this service we’ll sing the Aleinu. At camp, this was another prayer that we sometimes sang in English. Campers could be heard remarking, “have you heard that new Aleinu? “Let us Adore?” Those of us who remember the old Gates of Prayer siddur know that “Let us Adore” is not new—but it is rare nowadays that we sing the Aleinu in English.
Singing these prayers in English that we usually chant in Hebrew forces us to think about what they really mean. It challenges us to face the meaning of the words and to pray in a different way. The early Reform rabbis were very aware of how different it is to pray in the language you speak. When the meaning of a prayer was considered problematic or challenged the prevailing ideology, the earliest Reform prayerbooks chose not to translate it from the Hebrew—trusting in congregants’ lack of Hebrew knowledge to avoid any awkwardness. But at Camp Newman, Dan Nichols frequently reminded campers to “embrace the awkward” in prayer—to really read and listen and understand when we pray.
We do not come to synagogue to complete a checklist of required prayers; we come to refresh and restore our souls. There are times when we seek the comfort and connection of the Hebrew prayers and other times when we seek the challenges of wrestling with the words.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

5 things I learned at Camp Newman this summer #1

 TAS Alum and Camp Newman Counselor Sam Avishay welcoming campers on opening day.

Number one: be welcoming.
As soon as you arrive at Camp Newman you are greeted by a large group of teenagers, clapping and dancing and singing “Shalom Aleichem.” You know you are in the right place and—more than that—you know that you belong there, and that the people around you want you to be there.
Judaism values the welcoming of guests. Abraham and Sarah welcomed strangers into their tent, rushing to help them wash the dirt off their feet and preparing them something to eat. On Sukkot we symbolically welcome our ancestors into the sukkah, already filled with the friends and family we’ve invited. On Passover we say, “let all who are hungry, come and eat.” And of course, Shabbat is traditionally a time for inviting others to share a meal with us.
We are a welcoming people. “Come in, sit, have a nosh.”
Arrival at camp takes welcoming guests to the extreme. And while our own guests might be taken aback if we greeted them with singing and dancing and clapping, we all know how good it feels to be warmly received and to know that we are wanted and that we are exactly where we are supposed to be.
In our own lives, think about how you let others know they are welcome and that you are happy to see them. It is not just inviting people to our homes. Think about when you are meeting a friend—are you wholly engaged and present, or are you on your cell phone and texting?
At camp we welcome each other with our heads and our hearts, with words and song. And once you arrive, you turn around to welcome others. There is a sense of ownership toward camp—everyone feels the responsibility to welcome newcomers.
So just imagine if we stretched that feeling to our synagogue. When Dr. Ron Wolfson spoke to our congregation last year he taught that we are each responsible for welcoming each other to our synagogue—that it is up to us to create that feeling of warmth and acceptance and to let each other know that we are glad to be here, in this place, together. Being welcoming is about being fully present and making a real connection with another person.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Made with love

Next Spring my daughter will become bat mitzvah and I will present her with the tallit that I am making for her. I have spent the last two days rubberbanding fabric and carefully pouring dye to create what I hope will be a very cool tie-dye effect for her tallit. Last year when I had the chance to make a tallit for myself I knew that this summer I would make one for my daughter to wear. I have been thinking about colors for a year now, so I was ready to start on the first day of camp.

I thought I was ready, but I have been surprised at how spiritual the experience has been so far. Holding the blank fabric in my hands, I realized that less than a year from now I will be standing next to my daughter on the bimah and presenting it for her to wear. The blank canvas was full of possibility and I felt the pressure to get it right. I wanted it to be perfect for her, something that she will love and treasure and hopefully want to keep and use for many years. It took me much longer than I expected to get all the fabric rubberbanded the way I wanted -- at first I thought I had a pattern and design in mind, but I soon realized that I had to give up the pattern. Today I carefully used a spoon to pour the special sun-activated dye over the material, again thinking that I could follow a pattern.

Choosing tie-dye meant that I had to give up some control. I know it will look like a tie-dye... I think it will look cool and I like the colors I chose for her, but it is not an exact science. I won't actually know what it looks like until I remove the rubber bands and open it up tomorrow.  I am not the most artistic person and I have been known to be a bit of a control freak, so it was a good exercise for me to create something that just by the nature of the project I can't control. It was an excellent metaphor for parenting -- another creative endeavor that requires me to let go.

As I worked with the dye I was thinking about my daughter, about how proud I am of her and all the blessings she brings to my life. I was also thinking about all the blessings that I hope her future holds and imagining the day when she will wrap herself in this tallit and the blessings and love that it was created with.

Friday, June 17, 2011

My tips for packing for Summer Camp

My family and I have been going to Camp Newman for 5 summers now and we packing for camp down to a science. Here are my tips for packing for camp:

15 tips for packing for camp:

1. Make a few copies of the packing list for camp - I write each kids name on the top list and use it as a checklist, I keep one in my purse so when I am out I can look to see what I still need to buy.

2. Zip top bags - I use them for everything - shampoo in one, sunscreen in another, bug spray in a third. They also hold stationary, pens and friendship bracelet string. I write their names on the outside of the bag and what goes in it so they can find their stuff.

3. Label everything, and I mean everything.  My favorite tags are Name Bubbles and Label Daddy, but I also keep a sharpie next to me while we pack. My kids tease me about putting their names on everything, but I have seen the inside of a cabin half way through camp - stuff is everywhere, the kids just throw all their stuff together when they are in a hurry to clean up.

4. Not everything that goes to camp comes home again. One summer one of my kids left her duffle bag at camp, she brought home everything in her laundry bag instead. Don't send anything to camp that you would be heartbroken if you never see it again. I still miss that duffle bag and I'm still not sure how a kid can forget to bring that home.

5. Don't be afraid to make adjustments to the suggested packing list. Our list never includes a flashlight, but I always send one. Our list also suggests only 4 pairs of shorts for 12 days - I send 6 figuring that my kids are likely to be able to wear the same pair for 2 days, but not three. I make the same calculation with shirts and pajamas.

6. Yom Sport is color wars - send something in Red, Blue, Yellow and Green  - you never know what color they will be.

7. My girls like an organizer to hang from the bunk - there are camp ones, but any small hanging organizer works. Some clothespins are also great to send.

8. A plain pillowcase works great as an autograph memento at the end of the session. Send a sharpie to go with it and everyone in the cabin can sign.

9. Those $1 glow bracelets are fun to bring to share with the cabin.

10. I send a fitted sheet to go on the mattress under the sleeping bag. No particular reason, it is just a nice little touch of home.

11. This year my oldest packed some crazy accessories for theme nights. As kids get older groups have more theme nights and activities - don't worry if you don't know what to send - the counselors also bring things to share.

12. A small backpack. At Camp Newman they go on an overnight in tents, away from their cabin, a small backpack helps them pack for the overnight.

13. Pack lots of sunscreen. I also send a sunscreen stick to make it easier to put sunscreen on their faces. Kids will share, counselors will remind kids to apply and reapply but I try to make it as easy as possible for my kids to stay slathered in sunscreen.

14. Closed toed shoes are a must.  I love Keen toe protecting sandals, I'm sure they have saved me from a bloody foot on more than one occasion.

15. That being said, I throw in a pair of cheap flip-flops for the pool or shower or for stepping outside to hang up a towel on the clothesline. They are not an alternative to shoes, but an alternative to bare feet.

Still want more packing advice? Check out All Packed Up

Friday, March 18, 2011

Thinking about God

I love it when people try to connect religion and science.

Whenever there is a natural disaster there are always those who announce loudly that it is the will of God or that God is punishing us. Jon Stewart points out that there are those who are just as quick to proclaim miracles. Either way, it seems people can't help but imagine that God is acting directly in their lives.

Scientific American blogger Jesse Bering writes about why people make that connection; in essence, experiments seem to show that once we hit a certain age our brains are more likely to interpret random occurrences (a picture falling, or lights flickering) as signs of supernatural existence. (You can read the article in its entirety here.) I'm not saying there's isn't a God, if you know me or have ever taken a class with me, you know I am quite vocal about my belief in God -- just that not everything that happens is because of God's direct involvement.

It's not surprising that people see God acting in their lives. It's tempting to look for signs from God everywhere -- it's how our minds give meaning to what otherwise seems meaningless. Attributing things to God gives us a sense of power in an uncertain world. If we view natural disasters as punishments and miracles as rewards, then we have the illusion of control. If we know what God wants and we know what the consequences are, then we believe we can influence everything in the world.

It is tempting to think that we can control the uncontrollable ... and incredibly self-centered. We aren't the center of of our world, jus as the earth isn't the center of the universe.

Bering's article is a reminder that while we may be "wired" to see signs everywhere, we are not required to do so.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

God is not in the earthquake

The earthquake in Japan yesterday and the tsunami that followed it were devastating. Here in California we are not strangers to the destruction caused by earthquakes — though our thoughts are with the people of Japan, for many of us the destruction was a reminder that what we were watching on our TVs and on the web could also happen here.

The world can be a scary place. As much as we understand about earthquakes, we are far from being able to predict them. So what do we do? We prepare our emergency kits and try not to let our fear paralyze us.

For many of us, there are questions. “Where is God in all this?” “How can God allow such destruction?” Unlike the man-made tragedies in Africa — tragedies that organizations like Jewish World Watch are able to address and fight — there is nothing we can do to stop earthquakes or tsunamis.

As always, we seek answers in our tradition and in our holy writing. In the Book of Kings we read about Elijah. He is standing on the mountain before God:

And Adonai passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but Adonai was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but Adonai was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but Adonai was not in the fire. And after the fire — a still, small voice. (I Kings 19:11-12)

God is not in the earthquake or the tsunami; God is the still, small voice that compels us to reach out and help others, that offers comfort in our darkest hours.

The Talmud teaches that there is a blessing to say after an earthquake or tsunami, acknowledging the continuing and awesome power of creation, even in the wake of tragedy:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam
osei ma’asei vereisheet.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Creator of the universe, who reenacts the works of creation.
Earthquakes and tsunamis are just part of the way the world works. We acknowledge God as the creator of the forces of nature that are at times awe inspiring and at times destructive. 

The Jewish Federation is absorbing all administrative costs when you donate to help support relief efforts in Japan - click here for more information on how to donate.