Monday, March 13, 2017

An Introductory Word or Two (from Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward)

What follows is the introduction to my recently published book Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward to give you an idea of the tone and subject matter of the book. This book can be purchased at either in paperback form or as a Kindle e-book. For more information, please contact me directly at or search for my name on

Today in our world and in our country, as we confront so many different challenges and threats to our collective and individual well-being, we constantly look for support for our soul and our well-being. While religion and what one believes should and can offer such support, the degree to which it does so is often a hot controversial topic. Not of course, that this is a new phenomenon. Religion has always been so much at the core of our beings as humans, whether we individually admit this to be the case or not. In fact, in cultural and ethnographic studies, religion is one of the core markers of any people being studied. (1)

One cannot study European History, Ancient History or any other people’s story and narrative without speaking of religion. For Ancient Man, as well as for many tribal and land based cultures and people today, religion is still at the core of their individual as well as collective beings. Simply, for many, if not most people throughout history, religion has been an exclamation mark – the Of Course! of their lives. This is especially true for those who are closer to the land, as the land they work and depend upon, and the Higher Being to whom they pray for sustenance from the land are clearly connected in a visceral way that is core to daily life. Religion provides responses to questions that elude us in the more tangible aspects of our lives, and as such, provides a support that is specific and unique to its context alone.

As an expression of this sentiment, look at these words of George Copway (Kahgegagahbowh) as recorded by Ken Nerburn in his important collection of teachings in The Wisdom of the Native Americans (California: New World Library, 1999):

I was born in Nature’s wide domain! The trees were all that sheltered my infant limbs, the blue heavens all that covered me. I am one of Nature’s children …

And whenever I see her, emotions of pleasure roll in my breast, and swell and burst like waves on the shores of the ocean, in prayer and praise to Him (God) who has placed me in her hand. It is thought great to be born in palaces, surrounded with wealth – but to be born in Nature’s wide domain is greater still!

For those of us in the modern industrialized and technologically advanced world, however, God and God’s presence in our lives has apparently become more and more of a question mark. Namely, we ask, “Is there a Higher Being, and do I care?” Do I need a Higher Being? Do I believe? What do I believe? Why should I believe? Because we question instead of exclaim our beliefs, does this mean that religion is no longer at the core of our being?

In the throes of addressing the results of a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, we are dealing with an American population in which 16.1% claim that they do not affiliate with any religion. Further, this number is reported to be double that of those who say they were unaffiliated as children, reflecting a movement away from what would clearly be labeled normative expressions of religion in more individual lives as we continue on our present trajectory (3).

Through my career, I have had many opportunities to address these issues as an instructor, lecturer, and head of schools and educational systems; and as an avid observer, as well as a self-identified person of faith. One of the seasons which I have found often raises the issue of identity with religion to the point of hyper-awareness in the United States is that of the winter weeks leading up to Christmas. There is no surprise here, given the commercialism and obvious “front and center” of the season, in addition to the obvious profound meaning of the time.

That being said, my experience has been that something else is going on. As one measure of the impact of this observance on the non-Christian members of American society, one need only observe the proliferation of options for Jewish families and community members as alternatives for this day of obvious importance to so many. Further, I have often found on an annual basis, the issue of what winter decorations and religious symbols appear in our public spaces becomes an item on the agenda of school boards and agencies as an interesting point of angst. When I held various leadership posts in different regions throughout my career, communities and individuals would often contact me about their discomfort regarding the visual evidence of the Christmas season. In my work with these communities, I tried to convey the difference between “teaching religion” and “teaching that religion as an institution with its many forms has a value” to us as individuals, groups and a national entity.

At its foundation, religion as a system of thought and faith as well as its potential in conveyance of meaningfulness to our daily lives and actions provides us with a unique and singular synergy as it touches the very core of our beings with the comfort it provides through a belief in something bigger than us and beyond the daily regimen of our busy lives, so filled with technology, industrious undertakings, and efficient use of time. Many would agree that it still remains the Of Course! in our hectic lives, whether or not we recognize it as such.

In more recent years in the United States of America, we have witnessed attempts to remove the words “under God” from our Pledge of Allegiance, legal proceedings have been pursued to remove sculptured representations of The Ten Commandments in several American cities, and stirrings are occasionally heard regarding the same feelings of discomfort having the words “In God we trust” on our currency and the various references to God in our songs of national pride. Clearly, the operational meaning of separation of church and state is being tested, retested, and perhaps even redefined in a manner far different from what we were taught was intended by the founders of these United States of America. This is somewhat ironic as we remember that the notion of our national forefathers was to permit all Americans to worship as they like and prefer, but to be free to worship nonetheless, not to the exclusion of those who wish to exercise their prerogative to not do so.

This was a radical departure from most places and spaces in our collective history of the world (as well as what is still present in many regions around our globe today), in which one’s national identity, cultural life and religion were a package deal, very often defined by the ruler of the land in which one lived. The American separation of church and state was precisely intended to teach all to value the notion of religious belief in a manner most appropriate and meaningful to them – that is, to encourage religious practices and beliefs, ALL religious practices and beliefs, without the “state” determining which “church” such practices and beliefs would have to conform to for any individual.

Conversely, way over on the opposite side of the continuum of belief and meaningful living from those who would turn their back on religion and its various instructions and frames to enable and support our lives, Fundamentalism has truly become a formidable challenge for so many of us in our contemporary world. As increasing numbers of members of our society become more liberal and less rooted in their treasured past on the left side of our cultural continuum, on its right side we have compelling instances of whole groups, communities, even nations who have literally closed their eyes and minds to any shade of these more liberal, some would say less principled, approaches to life. For some, it’s even simpler than that; with adherents claiming that if you do not believe exactly as I do and do as I do, you are rendered as persona non-gratis! As a result, these forces have become stubbornly rigid in what they believe to be the most stringent definition of their respective religious communities. In short, our world is increasingly being painted in black and white distinct color blocks; while many have worked so hard for generations to achieve a moderate approach of understanding that so much of life ultimately and truly happens in the variegated gray zone.

So, how do we reconcile this dynamic? How do we balance our allegiance and valuing of the past and its rootedness as well as the lessons learned from its sources with a more measured and positive outlook for our future? How do we take chances and strive for more meaning and substance in our lives in a synchronistic manner that encompasses and protects the valuing of all shades of belief systems? This is the question, which is explored here; and the search at hand, and a challenging and sometimes exhausting search it is!

I do want to note that the voice of this book is definitely based in Jewish thinking and texts. That being said, all are welcome to engage in the thinking and dialogue that I hope will evolve as a result of reading these essays. It is more about the fact that we may believe than the specifics of what that system of belief is. In that spirit, please use the Jewish texts here as emblematic of a system of belief from which the intrinsic thoughts and questions are extrapolated and feel free to do the same within other systems of belief and thought, also represented here at points.

There will be many questions in this book and it is intended that we read this thoughtfully and slowly, pausing to consider and answer these questions. Imagine reading this manuscript in a meditative mode, letting into your soul the questions, journeys and experiences of those that have gone before us as we consider the questions of our own journeys and experiences. You might even want to keep a journal nearby in which you can write your own thoughts and truly become a participant in the intended discussion that is this collection of essays and thoughts in any way that is meaningful. This book is much more about the questions asked than the various approaches provided; in fact each chapter will end with Questions for Continued Thought and Discussion. Welcome on what I hope will be a shared and meaningful journey, where we accept challenges that are thrown our way and use them to strengthen our own approaches in attempting to live a meaningful and important life.

Questions unite, answers divide. Martin Buber (and attributed to so many others as well)


(1) Cultural anthropologists have long studied the elements that define a society and religion is clearly a central factor. For a brief survey of this work, the reader is referred to Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, William H. Swatos, Editor. USA: Hartford Institute, for Religion Research,

(2) Ken Nerburn in his important collection of teachings in The Wisdom of the Native Americans (California: New World Library, 1999) relates in writing stories and lore of the Native Americans. There was a great controversy regarding committing to writing these generationally transmitted stories through telling, such an important element of the continuation of the Native American culture and community. Pages 3 – 4 are quoted here.

(3) Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Project, January 8, 2014.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

When Leaders Go Astray

I recently learned a fascinating piece of Gemara (Talmud) found in Masechet Nedarim, 81a, which I just completed learning this past week (at least for this time around as we are always cycling back through learned material). This section of Talmud is about our vows and promises, the words we use and the limit of the power of those words as well as the largess of their potential. In this particular text we are taught that Torah Scholars (the academic and practical and perhaps spiritual leaders of the Jewish community hopefully) do not generally produce Torah Scholars as children, but rather our Torah Scholars who are supposed to be important role models in our community often come up through the ranks, so to speak, from the impoverished members of that community. Why is this the case? In typical Gemara style, the Rabbis do not hesitate to provide reasons. One reason suggested for this statement is so that one group of people does not think that the Torah is exclusively theirs and not belonging to others. Another Rabbi states that the gift of Torah should never be taken for granted and is ultimately meant to be earned and honored for its own worth by each person who embraces it. Yet another perspective is that those who think they are entitled to such an inheritance may take it for granted, will become corrupt and not act appropriately for the community. Sound familiar? It appears that we have an interesting slippery slope of what can happen when our leaders and scholars and teachers do not work hard every day to maintain their position but rather come to a point where they feel entitled and above the masses, so to speak. With so many of our religious and political leaders succumbing to their perceived privilege of power in being “above or outside of the law” regarding accountability for their actions, this is definitely a dynamic with which we are all too familiar in our world today. Another nod to the wisdom of the teachers from long ago!

It should be pointed out that this discussion in our text takes place within the larger context of consideration of the limits of the power of various members of the community, including and especially those to whom members of the collective may come to for guidance and help and directives on all matters of life, specifically here regarding consequences of words and promises (or vows) they have uttered. Further, we are reminded that the entirety of the law was in fact given to all members of the collective and all of those people have equal access to it. Thus, we understand that our Torah scholars (think rock stars for this community) can and do come from those who are least resourced and privileged, and perhaps just because of that station in life, know a thing or two about how to behave, how to answer people’s queries and how to, in a word I think we all know by now, be a “mensch.”

Omar Saif Ghobash in his Letters to a Young Muslim also has what to say about leaders and leadership, limits and how leaders in one’s world (their rock stars, if you will) can be misinformed and lead others astray if they do not observe necessary limits. He shows his son, other young Muslims, and all of us in these letters the potential problem with various leadership types. He speaks out specifically about the “Muslim warrior” as seen in today’s world – taking matters into his or her own hands supposedly in the name of Allah. How do they know that they are doing anything near the will of Allah, he enjoins his son to ask himself. He challenges his son and others with these words, “Perhaps the modern Muslim warrior is one who embraces life in its complexity and fights for social and economic justice with his or her mind, rather than for a stretch of desert territory with his or her body.” He goes on to say that “very fixed ideas of what it means to be a good Muslim” as taught by leaders, imams, and so many others need to be challenged and that his son has to take great care in choosing his role models.

In the United States today and throughout the world, too many people are taking on the reins of leadership and telling us through their words and actions, too often violent and destructive, what THEY think should be. Consider the Jewish and Israeli community years ago, when a young man by the name of Yigal Amir followed the teachings of his Rabbis and teachers who used and manipulated the Jewish concept of “threatening life” to speak of Yitzchak Rabin (may his memory be for a blessing) and then felt he had permission as “a good Jew” to kill him and then did so. For a few moments in time, Jewish voices around the world looked at language used and impressions made by what we and our leaders say; and then after too little time, it was basically back to business as usual. Of course we know that this notion of following the teachings one learned and engaging in violent behaviors is repeated too often and is profoundly frustrating.

There is an important lesson here regarding the danger of leaders becoming too comfortable, too revered, too honored and being treated as if and then acting as though they are above the law to which all are subjected. Jewish Law is structured in such a way that DOES NOT allow this to seep into our psyche as an accepted teaching. This is why the King of the Jewish nation as it would evolve was instructed to always have the Torah by him, why so many people continue learning the text of our heritage every day and we are oft taught that it is our actions and initiatives in our daily secular and general lives that are the true test of our character, not the family from which we come and not the amount of knowledge we have. It is for this reason, perhaps, that those who are worthy as Torah scholars do not reach that status by inheritance, privilege or predestined circumstances, but rather, by how they pull themselves up, address the challenges of their lives, and thereby know how to act as human as possible and be the role models we are to follow. I think there is an important lesson for all of us here.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Parshat Mishpatim 2017/5777

In the Midrash, Rabbi Joshua’s nephew Hananiah taught: Just as in the sea there are ripples and wavelets between each major wave, so between each of the Ten Commandments there are Torah’s minutiae, both written and unwritten. Rambam teaches that when we consider each and every potential extension (all Toldot) and every imaginable iteration of each and every Mitzvah, it is impossible to imagine such a voluminous and complete understanding of what is the spirit and the meaning of each and every law.

In addressing this impossible task, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler teaches as follows:

Standing at the foot of the Holy Mountain the entire People of Israel have now witnessed and received the Ten Commandments (or “Ten Utterances”…) Moses then ascends the mountain and disappears into the mysterious cloud that obscures its summit. Here this week’s portion begins: V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifnayhem – And these are the rules that you shall set before them. (Exodus 21:1) What follows is a detailed law code covering damages, civil law, criminal law, capital offenses – the fine print of the covenant, and the foundation of a living code of law that sustains Jewish discourse and codes of behavior to this day.

These are the ripples and wavelets that bring our Aseret HaDibrot and all Given Law to life. These details are the clothing that allows us to interface with the skeletal ideals that we are given that should dictate how we live individually and collectively; and in turn will inform further development and definition of our laws as we continue in our existence. This is the beginning of Civil Law as we know it, where everyone in society has rights and everyone who has more privilege than others have responsibility towards those who are less resourced in any way.

It is interesting to note that in discussion of law, we are told that there are משפטים and חוקים – the second of these are those laws that we do not necessarily understand but do because they were dictated, whereas the first, from which our Parsha takes its name are those laws that (elmaleh she’hem lo ichtivu) even if they were not written, we would know to do them as thinking rational human beings. Would we? All we have to do is look around our world today and note that there is still abuse, slavery, degradation of human beings and so much else that is proscribed against in this Parsha – yes, those laws that we would do even if they were not written – if, that is, we have a conscience and a sense of good and bad or not so good. These ideas of shared and reasonable use of power, freedom and initiative are at the root of all of Jewish law as reflected in our Torah and in the commentaries that will further explain both the letter and the spirit of its letter.

Einat Kramer, the founder and director of Teva Ivri, a non-profit organization promoting Jewish social-environmental action in Israel and the coordinator of the Israeli Shmita Initiative understands this well. Her organization is a nationwide coalition that seeks to restore the meaning of the Shmita year (mentioned in our Parsha in 23:10 ff, immediately after being told וגר לא תלחץ as a time of holding back not just in terms of our relationship to the land but also in our relationship to each other – using this SHABBAT, if you will, for personal reflection, learning, social involvement, and environmental responsibility in Israel in which the notions of shared destiny and cooperative spirit dictate decisions made.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the seemingly fantastical story, though it is absolutely true, of Csanad Szegedi, the leader of Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, which cited as one of its foundational beliefs that Jews were indeed trying to control the world and as recently as April 2014, was asking for a list of all Jews that are in any way connected to the Hungarian government for purposes that cannot be for their benefit. However, at this point, the party was no longer under Szegedi’s leadership because in 2012, he found out that he was indeed a Jew. While being ostracized and villianized by those he led for so long in solidarity while maligning others, Szegedi today is a practicing Shomer Mitzvot Jew who has undergone complete conversion even though he was Jewish according to his rooted identity. His name is David.

Today he works to defend human rights for all people. He has stated as follows, “I am aware of my responsibility and I know I will have to make it right in the future.” Here is an example of someone who now observes these משפטים but apparently came to them not from a basic and natural inbred knowledge as suggested in our Gemara, but rather through learning and more akin to the notion of “וגר לא תלחץ “ (found in Chapter 23.9 in our Parsha is one of the 36 times this is cited as a requirement of Torah based practice) – NOT to oppress the other for we had that experience and know what it feels like. One would like to think that our basic human instincts are to be good, but unfortunately way too much glitter and personal validation and other extraneous stuff gets in the way of that instinct, if indeed it is so.

As Sacks narrates this rather remarkable story, he teaches us that

What makes us human is the fact that we are rational, reflective, capable of thinking things through. We feel empathy and sympathy, and this begins early… Yet much of human history has been a story of violence, oppression, injustice, corruption, aggression and war.

The core elements of Parshat Mispatim insure that hopefully we work towards the former of feeling empathy and concern for the other and not the latter where power overtakes and precludes all use of reason and identity with those in a different station in life than the one in power. In the Code of Hummarabi, for example, so much of the law is to protect the King and his rule. Here the ideal expressed by Einat Kramer above is what holds sway in the details – the waves and ripples of this Parsha of Civil Law. In fact this reinforces the fact that religion properly practiced for the observing Jew is NOT singularly about rite and ritual, but rather that is merely representative of and part of the daily life well and appropriately lived. As I often teach, most of the Gemara, Mishneh Torah and the volumes of other “How To” appendices to our Book of Law is about our dealings in business, our treatment of family, our use of land, our taking care of each other and NOT about the RITUAL of Jewish Life. Baba Kamma 30a is just one of many texts in which we are taught that the chasid, the pious Jew is one who is knowledgeable about and agile in the practice of civil and tort law. Is this natural or too demanding as we consider every possible motivation and evolution of the laws and practices we are given through Rabbinic generations of insuring that we live justly and practice intentionally?

We learn in Baba Kamma 79:2 as follows regarding that Rabbinic extension of law as Rambam referred to in indicating that this is an almost limitless task:

אין גוזרין גזרה על הצבור אלא אם כן רוב צבור יכולין לעמוד בה - A decree cannot be made if the majority of the public cannot follow it.

Unfortunately, it feels like more and more of our public are not following the basic standards of behavior that our Parsha would have us assume as human beings. So do we forget these basic human instinctive proper behaviors?

Part of the darker reality of life is clearly found in this Parsha, as we talk about the existence of servitude, selling of daughters, murder, injury to others, death caused by animals and other challenges to life as seen in the culture of the Torah, and still evident in our lives today. So what do we do with this code of behavior? The Jewish ideal is NEVER idyllic, that is to say, this is not about the eradication of these practices and incidents, which will occur wherever human history plays itself out, but the question is what you will do about these realities of life. Einat Kramer, our social and environmentalism ethicist, presents a really interesting and provocative thought regarding the Yovel, the year after every seven cycles of Shemitah years. As in the Shemitah year, we are COMMANDED to allow the land to rest as we do every seventh period of counted time, the Yovel is something that has not occurred in our history since the B’nai Yisrael lived tribally in a fixed location. It is not something that we do but rather is the idyllic – the time when all land goes back to original owners, all individuals have complete and total personal agency and all live in peace.

It is, says Kramer, our idea of Utopia – to be striven for in our daily actions, acknowledging both those elements of our lives that tempt us to not be the best we can be while trying to withstand their lure and striving for what are hopefully those actions that should indeed be the frame for our lives and be those behaviors that we would observe as Sacks’ thinking and rational human beings, not needed to be told to be, well human and caring. These are our משפטים – let them continue to guide us and remind us both of our experiences that have taught us well and our instincts that will hopefully serve us as well.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward – The Publication of My Book

During the second week of February this year, my book Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward was published. The work of writing the essays in this book and in fashioning its total effect was done over the course of about a decade, reflecting parts of lessons, observations of events in my life personally and in our public domain and so much else. It was in every sense of the word a process and it still is a process with each chapter ending with questions for discussion that I hope will be taken up in this forum or in another one at a future point. It is my hope that we will all join together in understanding that the questions we ask are often more important than answers we take on, and in fact, approaches may be better suited to the complexity of our queries. We acknowledge that to one such inquiry there may and no doubt will be a plethora of approaches, all worthy of consideration and thought. The discussion in which I hope you will join me concerns religion, our foundational beliefs, the history and the chapters of that history attributed to others that form the basis of our reality today and our concerns and hopes for our present situation and the future. At the center of this discussion is religion – those beliefs and truths that each person, each people, each collective hold onto as part of their humanity.

I do not have illusions about this book becoming a best seller or achieving the type of popularity that would place it on the front of Barnes and Noble’s book displays. I will humbly say it would be nice because I think the message is critical. As critical as that indicated by Omar Saif Ghobash in his book Letters to a Young Muslim or in Charles Kimball’s book When Religion Becomes Evil and other treatises that look at what has gone so terribly wrong with the very institution that is supposed to inspire us to be our best and want the best for all of humanity. The focus is both as true to the value and legitimacy of holding onto a system of beliefs while recognizing and appreciating the good in other such systems as the Dalai Lama or Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and so many others would ask of us to do. I do think it would be an important read for those who are concerned with interfaith relations, with how we hold onto what is wonderful about our religious traditions while being honest about potential challenges and shortcomings, and for all of us who are so concerned about what is going on in our world today around the increased perceived danger of holding an ideology. I think it would be most valuable in classes as a text for advanced high school students, college and graduate school courses on the Value of Religion in our Society Today.

It is the conversations begun here that I hope will spark other conversations that we all engage in as we purposefully and intelligently realize that religion can be gentle and kind and not, as the extremists and radicalists amongst all of us would have it, vicious and vindictive. It is about the religion that I love as an observant Jewish woman; it is about the ideology I share with so many monotheists and about the ethical core that is the possession of the collective called humanity who believe that what is in your heart is as valuable as what is in mine. I ask you to join me on this journey and to use this space to share your perspectives and thoughts as you read through the pages of these thoughts and ideas that I bring together from the arts, from the different Monotheistic Faiths, from Native Americans, from the Eastern world and from my own spiritual home, the faith that we trace all the back to Abraham in Canaan.

For ordering information please go to and search for Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward by Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein. It is available both as a paperback and as an e-book on Kindle.

Please use this space to begin discussions that will be continued… And for more thoughts and writings from my blog, please go to May we all continue to work for a peaceful world of understanding and sharing of humanity, accountable to The Creator of All (or to whatever Source you deem appropriate for you). And now, please do discuss in our virtual room without walls …

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Jewish Community Response to the Refugee Crisis of Human Beings in our World Today

A while back, one of my daughters and I were speaking and she was explaining to me that shuls/synagogues have offered to sponsor and take care of refugee families in her city, which is a Sanctuary City, but found out that a family that was supposed to come, will not be allowed to do so. What should the synagogue do?

It is indeed troubling that freedoms and aspects of life that we took for granted are not at risk. It does feel like we have jumped back several decades, unfortunately and sadly; so let me suggest an approach from the 70s and 80s. Any of us who remember the days of fighting for the rights of Soviet Jews, remember so many actions that we all took.

There were public rallies on behalf of Soviet Jewry; long and concentrated letter writing campaigns to our Congressman, Senators and other officials; shuls/synagogues would “adopt” a Soviet Jewish family and make their pictures public, speak of them constantly and try to maintain whatever contact was possible; there were bracelets we all wore with names of Soviet Jews on them; ceremonial mention of families at our Sedarim and our family Semachot. Mostly, we KNEW THOSE NAMES and they were part of our lives until they could live their own lives freely and within the parameters of basic human rights without fear for their safety and well-being.

I would suggest that Jewish communities, schools, shuls and synagogues, JCRCs, Jewish Federations and so many other agencies should consider these actions. We are taught that each and every one of us should see ourselves as if WE LEFT EGYPT so that we remember the experience of not having agency in our lives and G-d taking care of us. There is a Jewish teaching that G-d gives us resources and blessings so that we can use them responsibly to help others.

For those of you who may say “But that was for Jews…” let me remind you that first of all, NOT all of those Soviet Jews were in fact Jews given so many mixed marriages and other factors; and secondly We are commanded to NOT OPPRESS and take care of the OTHER person as Jews no less than thirty six times in the Torah; and thirdly, and most important we are to help all of G-d’s created members of humanity. And here is our opportunity to act responsibly and do so.

So I recommend taking out those files from 40+ years ago and so and consider you plan of action. If your files are missing, contact me. I still have mine! Let us all work together in meaningful and foundationally faith driven ways to show our concern for our fellow human beings, for if one is threatened, well, you know the rest….

Please note that I do not normally put up more than one post every two weeks or so, but this is of timed importance.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Beyond Google: Why We Are In the Place We Are or Are You My Shul?

I have often said that our lives and what happens to us is as much about timing and place as anything. Those who watch and go by the stars or astrological signs say something so similar. I have been doing wonderful things in the past several years professionally and am really enjoying the path my life is taking at this point as I continue my passion of teaching (i.e. learning with) people of all ages in so many different settings. That having been said, I have often felt that if I was not located in this place – Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in the Greater Philadelphia area, my life would have been so much more gratifying professionally. Why did G-d ordain that this was where I was to play out the involvements and elements that are my life? In terms of both my profession and personal life as a Halachically (referring to the laws and dictates) observant and well-educated Jewish woman and as one who truly believes in Klal Yisrael – that is all Jews are part of this community regardless of where they identify ideologically, and beyond that as one who believes in the rights and our responsibilities toward all human beings as all are created by G-d and in the image of G-d – BeTzelem Elokim, Philadelphia has not been an easy place for me to be, to say the least. That being said, I have been fortunate, humbled, and honored to be involved in the facilitation of learning experiences and programs for tens of thousands of fellow Jews and human beings of all ages and in all settings through the years (decades, actually). For me this has been enough…. On many levels more than enough and it fills me with an ongoing sense of awe and gratitude.

That being said, when people ask me “What shul (synagogue) do you belong to and what community provides sustenance for your personal Jewish soul and experience?” -- which is a normative and expected question for someone like me, I really do not know what to say. What shul do I belong to anyway? While the answer should be simple enough, I always feel like the ongoing message of the three little bears and Goldilocks – except I have a hard time finding the fit that is “just right” on any level. I teach in one place, I feel embraced in another place and I belong everywhere in general but nowhere in particular. My shul of choice is located in another community and I do go there as much as possible (Go Mekor!) but I live in the community I live in and have resisted moving away from because there are so many other things I LOVE about where I live – as a community of intentional diversity, long standing relationships and friendships, beautiful and peaceful environs, and so much else. I am so committed to and enmeshed in this location. These connections are to me critically important components of the community I want to live in so I gave up on finding THE SHUL that works for me and just deal…

Nonetheless, I have recently figured out the answer to this quandary and know now why I am supposed to be here at this place on the Google Earth map, confined to walking distance in finding MY community for Shabbat, indeed a special time for me as a Halachically observant Jew. We have such a special group at our home one Shabbat a month on Friday night to doven and enjoy each other’s company over Shabbat dinner, bringing together a wide swath of Jews with different levels of observance and affiliations – and WE ARE community! I, as an observant Jewish woman can and do exercise my right to doven (pray) as an individual not bound by or to the parameters of a specific prayer quorum. So I take my Koren Siddur (thank you Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) and spend Shabbat in an array of different communities, being part of a group and simultaneously praying on my own to G-d, no different than Rebbe Nachman of Bretslov (for those who understand that reference), praying alone in his corner. And then lo and behold, I found a true treasure about four months ago. It turns out that there is this lovely little Conservative Movement identified shul (Yay MBIEE) that IS JUST LIKE THE SHUL I grew up in as a Jewish Law/Halacha Abiding Jew in my youth in Baltimore. There is a full Torah reading, prayers for the State of Israel and for the country in which we abide, full dovenning, and so much else. I sit down in this space with my Siddur and I feel embraced by the memories of my childhood, in which I learned and was schooled in what it means to be a knowledgeable and committed observing Jew, while also being concerned about and involved in the world around me, putting the foundational Jewish values I hold so dear into important and needed action. I now feel like there is a place where I belong in addition to being able to travel in and out of the different shul communities that exist within the Shabbat boundaries that contain my movement. I am happy!

The Lubavitch Jewish community has this concept called and lived as Shlichut. Mormons call it their Missions. What is this? It is when individuals are sent or placed in specific communities to live as an exemplar of the foundational values and teachings of this way of life to which they ascribe. The Rabbi of this wonderful little shul, Rabbi Charles Sherman (who it turns out I met very long ago when I was a USYer and part of one of the last LTF cadres of that group) referred to me as a Community Jew. Yup, that’s me, a Community Jew in a Community of Jews…. And this is my place and now I feel like I have landed. I am indeed comfortable anywhere and everywhere but it is nice to know that there is a “base” that you can feel is yours. For me that has always been my family, which is also the case for Lubavitch and Mormon communities, by the way. That being said, its important that we all have various spaces to feed our soul in the many different ways we need.

So here is my challenge to all of us. I do believe that we all have our mission or Shlichut in this world. Hold onto that and maybe, just maybe, you too will figure out why you are where you are on the Google map and what it is you are supposed to do there to make a difference as well as how to find the surprise place that will feed your soul.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Let’s Take A Collective Spiritual Breath Filled With Faith and Consider What It Means to Be a Person of Observance

Last night I listened to an interview with Omar Saif Ghobash about his book Letters to a Young Muslim regarding his perspective on what it means to be a good, observant Muslim and what our children and youth have to understand about that goal in a time and context in which there are many messages that would not extol the value of moderation and in fact would convey the notion hat the only way to be a good Muslim is to be the strictest Muslim possible, whatever that may mean. Does this include obliterating the notion that everyone else who is not a Muslim does not have a right to believe and live as Muslims do? No, clearly no, says Ghobash, who teaches that being Muslim is not antithetical to being human but reinforces and is reinforced by it.

In a review written on this book by Aymann Ismail, the following is stated by a self-identified devout Muslim:

…whenever news breaks of a terrorist assault on a church in the name of Islam. I understand how alien and unfriendly Christianity can feel to young Muslims. When an entire generation of Muslims is getting inundated with anti-Muslim imagery while being taught only rules and not given the tools to actually study and interpret the Quran, it leaves many young Muslims vulnerable to terrorist groups with evil political goals. This is an uncomfortable truth mostly deflected within Muslim communities. It’s easy to say that monsters don’t and shouldn’t represent us, but what are Muslims doing to protect their children from radicalism?

Simultaneously, within the last few days I read a piece by a wonderful Rabbi whom I have come to know in my work around inclusion of all members of the Orthodox community and for whom I have come to have great respect. Rabbi Haim Ovadia, recently wrote in his own daily blog that his concern with increasing degrees of strict levels of adherence to Jewish law that go beyond the parameters of law as it has come down to us, may regrettably lead us to the point where we have less and less Jews who are observing more and more laws. In my own daily learning of Gemara, I have recently come across the following reference from the Yerushalmi (9:1) “’Is what the Torah prohibits not enough for you, that you seek to amend new prohibitions for yourself?” We learn clearly in Devarim/Deuteronomy 12:32, “Do not add to and do not subtract from the words of the Torah.” Further we are taught that the virtuous and humble Jews would avoid making such additional restrictions, while those with ulterior motives were more quick to do so. Clearly, there is an important message in these individual sources and in their interfacing in the past few days.

At the same time, it is hard to look at the news these days without being confronted by the Christian Right (Alt-Right?) and their attempts to once again exclude so many people in this country – from rights to their bodies, from safety in the public square and from basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (fulfillment?) that are the hallmark guarantees of what it means to be an American.

There were millions of people, those very Americans, who have been protesting and have been gathering peacefully (in mostly all cases) to remind all of us that to be a person observant of any faith and ideology DOES NOT mean exclusion of others, vilification of those with whom we do not agree, or increasing the level of strict adherence to whatever we hold as true because …. well, because we decide to or listen to those who decide to.

I have always been a firm believer in the texts that define who we are, whether those foundational texts that are recorded for our benefit are the Tanach (Jewish source) the Holy Bible – Old and New Testament (Christian source) or the Koran (Muslim source). These texts remind us to do as the Prophet Micah instructs and “walk humbly with our G-d” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” [VaYikra/Leviticus] and to “not oppress” ANY vulnerable party, an instruction repeated 36 times in the Five Books of the Torah. That is all about who we are as OBSERVANT MEMBERS of our chosen communities. So, as we settle in to this next chapter of American history and the fears many of us share about our world, let those millions of people who have stood up for these fundamental truths now take action. We are taught that “it is not for you to do all of the work that needs to be done, but do not stop from doing your part.” [Avot 2:21] Only then will we all show that spiritual motivation and the value of faith truly are behind who we are as people of observance, regardless of which path that observance takes.