Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Love Love. Hate Hate

One of the things I love most about working in a synagogue is that we get unique opportunities to bring innovative, exciting, meaningful, and significant programs and speakers to our community members. This Friday is no exception.

On Friday evening, at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, we will be featuring a guest speaker: Christine Quinn who will be speaking about an important public service campaign that is designed to celebrate diversity and combat hate crimes called "Love Love. Hate Hate." Christine Quinn is the Speaker of the New York City Council and an avid anti-hate crimes proponent. We are lucky and honored to have her in our congregation and our community this Shabbat. Services will begin at 8pm.

I am so excited to hear about this new campaign, what she has to say about how NY is trying to combat hate-crimes and work on legislation that is FAIR and EQUAL for everyone, and to see how our community welcomes her and challenges her on important issues. You can bet there will be a follow-up blog....stay tuned!!! Or better yet...see you at services!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Rabbi Wood & the tale of the Electric Menorah

"It's the third night of Chanukah....who wants to screw in the light bulb to the menorah?"
My brother and I would jump up and yell "I do! I do!" My father would then hand one of us the light bulb and we'd gingerly screw it in place before he plugged it in. The smell of latkes coming from the kitchen, where my mother was undoubtedly covered in flour and potatoes, was overwhelming our house. But this was Chanukah - or at least what I remember best: the glow of our electric menorah in the window during those cold midwestern nights, the smell of latkes cooking in the kitchen, a few small presents on the dining room table and, of course, dreidles and gelt.

Whenever I tell this story - or reflect on the warmth of Chanukah that I felt as a child - I always get the sense that my family is embarrassed about our electric Menorah. My mother is sure to remind me, every year, "You know, we always lit REAL candles too!" "Of course," I respond, "but what I loved most was the orange glow of that electric menorah against the dark of night. The safety and warmth it provided me as a child. For whatever reason, that image sticks with me the most." Isn't that what Chanukah is about - safety and security against the unknown, families, and warm memories of our ever burning lights?
And electric Menorahs are not that strange. There is a HUGE electric Menorah that is lit in Jerusalem every year. The Reform Temple of Forest Hills will be lighting our own electric Menorah outside the building at our Friday night Chanukah dinner and dedication. And I know many other synagogues and communities will be plugging in, screwing on, and polishing their electric Menorahs this season too!

The funny thing is, year after year with all of the children gone, and even after they've moved houses, my dad STILL puts up our electric menorah. Sure, the light bulbs have died or changed color (the reds and blues are pretty too!), there are no kids eagerly waiting to screw in the bulbs, and we have different neighbors and postal workers asking when Chanukah starts so they can see the menorah. But it's such a part of our family tradition - so every year, it gets lit.

My mother, who is originally from New York, brought the Menorah back to the Midwest one year as she was heading home from a trip out East. She thought it would be fun and feel special to see one electric menorah in the midst of a slew of Christmas-light laden homes. Little did she know what a long-lasting tradition she was creating for us...

Chanukah traditions are a special thing. Although Chanukah is not a major festival in Judaism, it IS a holiday and it is a great joyous time for us to remember past miracles. The proximity to Christmas makes Chanukah always get a little more press than it deserves, but it's not bad press. And every family has different traditions. Some families celebrate Chanukah and Christmas. Some families make latkes and sufganiyot (doughnuts)to eat with friends and family. Some families figure out traditions for focusing less on the gifts or gelt and more on the historical significance. Some families even screw in the electric bulbs by the third night. Every family has a different tradition, and each one is special and significant in it's own way.

A few years ago, I was given the most spectacular present. When my ancestors left Russia at the turn of the last century, they carried everything they owned with them on their backs. Little did I know that many of the things they carried were their own pieces of jewelry, Judaica, books, and clothes. As I was sitting with my grandmother and parents one day, my grandmother brought out a very large box. In it was the biggest, most beautiful silver menorah I had ever seen. And it was for me. One side had been broken and restored and in the middle of a small Jewish star in the center was the Hebrew word "Tzion" (Zion). As I held the Menorah in my hands and listened to it's story, I felt a sense of connection - connection to my family members who carried this thousands of miles over a hundred years ago, connection to those whose hands had passed it down to me and where they came from, and connection to the unknown future that lay before me. This Menorah made me really feel a sense of tradition and helped me understand my important contribution as a link on that chain.

So every year now, I light candles on my "family" Menorah. It's my own tradition. And every year as I light it, I think about everything that it represents - to the Jews, to my family, and to me. And it's nice to know that even though my own traditions have started, or changed, they'll always be an electric menorah with bright orange lights sitting in a windowsill against the dark winter night, burning ever brightly....

Happy Chanukah!

What are your family traditions????

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Generosity of Spirit

I've always been so interested in the human condition - the human spirit. As a rabbi (and a daughter, sister, friend, etc) I interact with all different types of people in a myriad of different ways. But the one thing I notice about all of these interactions, and all of these relationships, is the need for human connection.
Whether it's the congregant who comes into my office with one question and then ends up talking to me for 45 minutes, or it's a phone call from an old friend, or even a connection with someone online (the power of social networking is something, isn't it?!!?) everyone is seeking the same thing - to be heard and understood and cared for by another.
In Martin Buber's famous "I and Thou" he writes: "Through the Thou a person becomes I" meaning that we can truly understand ourselves best in relation to another. We gain better knowledge of who WE are when we interact with others, lean on them, support them, love them, guide them, and share experiences with them. We are not meant to be creatures that exist in isolation.

One of the things I've noticed most, over the last few weeks, about others is the generosity of spirit that many people have. Most people want connection. Most people want to say and do the right thing and be a good person. Most people want to have good relationships and friendships and feel like they've contributed to society. But generosity of spirit is something beyond all this - it's an extra step further. It's going out of your way to help another, or to lend support, or to offer a kind word when unprovoked. Lately, I've been trying to open my eyes to the people around me. And what I'm noticing is really beautiful - so many of them have such generous spirits. It's inspiring....every day.

All of us want and need something beyond ourselves. That's why many of us drift to religion - to seek a greater power (God, Holy Spirit, Source, The Divine) that can help us better understand ourselves and better understand the world. For isn't that one of the most sacred relationships we can ever have?

The human condition is fascinating - just look around you, and you'll see what I mean.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Is Halloween good for the Jews?!?!

A lot of people talk about the "December Dilemma" of Christmas and Hannukah. Some interfaith families struggle with how to celebrate both, how to respect both traditions, or how to appropriately integrate both holidays under one roof. Other Jewish families struggle simply with the proximity of Hannukah to Christmas - constantly having to defend Hannukah as not being "the Jewish Christmas" or with trying to lessen the emphasis on the gift-giving and increase awareness of the tradition and history of the holiday. Whatever category you fit into, the December Dilemma is a reality of being a Reform Jew in the 21st century.

Some of us might also feel a little bit of strain when it comes to Halloween. Although it is not viewed as a "religious holiday" it's origins have a religious background and the tradition deals with things like spirits, the devil, and pagan Celtic festivals in the Middle Ages. Nowadays, Halloween is taken much more lightly by the general American public and is meant to be fun (I think). But, it can often result in dangerous situations and an unnecessary amount of candy and treats, for no good reason. Some people argue that celebrating Halloween is antithetical to Judaism (read here). Others believe that you can do the same things on Halloween as you can do on Purim, and that is makes much more sense for us Jews, religiously. You want to wear costumes, go around visiting neighbors, eat sugary treats and celebrate by being silly?!?!? Wait for Purim!!!!

But is that really the answer? Perhaps, as modern Jews, we don't completely abandon a secular holiday, and try to justify it with a religious one. Perhaps we don't want to give up a day that is fun or silly, or that the rest of the world enjoys, simply because it doesn't speak to the religious aspect of our lives that is used to creating meaning from holidays. Perhaps, the solution is to infuse that day with some meaning of our own.
On Halloween day, the junior youth group at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills will be reading stories about the Dybbuk (Jewish spirit), the Golem, and other tales of spirits within Jewish tradition. We want to teach our children that it's okay to engage in activities on Halloween, but that there are also Jewish perspectives to be considered. Perhaps you and your family can make costumes that have a funny Jewish theme to them. And then, you can reuse them when Purim rolls around a few months later.
Or, if you're really stuck, the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) has a great resource page on ways to make Halloween feel more Jewish as a family, without completely abandoning this day, altogether.

Is Halloween good for the Jews??? Is it against everything we believe in? Is it just another dilemma for us to work through in our modern world? Or, is it perhaps ANOTHER chance for us to get creative, think outside the box, and continue to build meaningful Jewish lives in our modern world? You decide....

Monday, October 11, 2010

Have I ever told you about my favorite time of day? It's just as the sun is beginning to set, but the world is still light. There's such a softness to the world at that moment...I live for it.

I decided I was working too hard today (what else is new) and I needed to take a break, so I went for a run in a park near my neighborhood. It was perfect. The weather was cool but not crisp. The sky was blue but turning darker as the sun disappeared. There were people and families, but it wasn't crowded. And I had a great time just listening to my music and turning inward for a few moments of solace while I jogged.

But then I stopped. The sun was slowly sinking down and I could say rays of light coming through the branches of a beautiful tree. It was a magical moment. And it reminded me of a passage from one of my favorite books.

Years ago, at summer camp, I had a counselor whom I adored. She and I connected and bonded. We shared many things, but she introduced me to this book called "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" by Annie Dillard. I read it that summer and have loved it ever since - maybe because of her, but maybe because it speaks to me as well.

Here is the passage:
Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I am still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never known it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

What have you done this week, or this month, that has taken your breath away? What has given you pause to reflect?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Practice what you preach

I'm on the NYC MTA (Subway) at least 5-6 days a week. And while I sit there for anywhere from 30-50 minutes, I watch the people around me. I might pretend to do work, or be engrossed in my music, but really I can't help watch the different kinds of people that occupy the same space as me for a particular length of time. I will never see the majority of them again, most likely, but I am so fascinated by having a glimpse into their lives for just a few moments. Some of them are joyous, beautiful, and content. Others are sad, worn, and even deflated. Of the 8 million stories...I'm getting a glimpse of them every day.

There are rules associated with the subway: You don't look at anyone else. You don't talk to them unless you know them or have a specific question. You take up as little space as possible so that others might fit in too (esp during rush hour!)If someone is asking for spare change, you dig into your pockets only if it's convenient for you not to move too much. You keep your distance in whatever way you can in a crowded, crammed, small space.

Today I was riding home and was about halfway there when the door opened up and a homeless man walked in. Instantly, the car smelled different. The half a dozen people or so sitting near me (it was an off-peak hour) turned their heads away.
He was dirty. He smelled. He was limping and wearing only one shoe, and having trouble walking, and his clothes were ripped. It was, admittedly, hard to look at him. He kept talking to himself and trying to move through the subway car. Slowly, but surely. I wondered how long it had been since he'd eaten a real meal. Or had a shower. Or proper clothes and a bed. Or even seen a doctor. I couldn't help but watch the others around me, partially frightened, but also wanting to just ignore him or make him go away. It made me angry, hurt and very sad.

When we got to the next station everyone but me and two other people left the car. I saw most of them go into the subway cars next to us, just to get away from him - this man who was not disturbing or causing harm to anyone. Eventually he managed to sit down and occupy some precious space.

As the train pulled into my station I got up, fished into my pockets, and took out whatever I had. He wasn't asking for anything, and I wasn't sure what he would do, but I gave it to him anyway. He needed it much more than I did. And when I handed it to him, he didn't say anything - but he looked me in the eyes and smiled. His eyes expressed his gratitude, and that was more than I needed.

Every day I think about what it means to be a religious leader. How do I help others? How do I inspire others to live Jewish lives of fulfillment and purpose? How do I make this world a better place? It starts from within. It means less talking and more doing, sometimes. It means having the courage to know what's right in a situation. And we all have the ability to make changes in our world every day.

This Shabbat, as I know the comfort of friends and family, and food, and shelter, and blessings, I will think of his eyes and his smile...I pray that he may know a blessing or two in his life as well.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Independent Minyan vs. Future of Judaism

Over the last several years I've noticed a new trend cropping up throughout the various cities I've lived in - Independent Minyanim. A minyan in traditional Judaism is a quorum of 10 men needed to recite certain Jewish prayers. In more progressive Judaism, 10 men and/or women can be counted to fulfill this obligation.

Independent Minyanim are sort of like an alternative to belonging to a synagogue, temple, or affiliated congregation. While each one looks different and serves different segments of the Jewish population (for various reasons) each one has something in common - by their very definition they are apart from congregational life. Some minyanim meet daily, weekly, monthly, or only a few times a year. Some are organized, participatory, and even have consistent locations for meeting. Others are come-and-go as you please. There may be meals/food associated with these meetings, or these minyanim might even plan and schedule other group outings or events that have nothing to do with prayer.

In my opinion, independent minyanim seem sort of like an offshoot of the chavurah movement that came about during the last half of the 20th sentury where groups within synagogue life were forming smaller groups for various activities - even prayer.

My concern is what impact these independent minyanim are going to have on the future of Judaism in America. As a rabbi, I'm in a tricky situation. Most of my rabbinical school friends and even colleagues often prefer going to or facilitating these minyanim. They claim that no congregation gives them the spiritual sustenance that they need, and so they seek out alternative groups. But, isn't it our job to be creating these kinds of experiences within the congregations that we work in? Others, like laypeople that I know of, don't want to belong to a congregation (cost, not important to belong, don't see value, etc) but still want to be Jewish and pray - and they like the ease of these minyanim.

Tonight I have some friends who are hosting an independent minyan in Queens. I'd like to go check it out - for curiousity's sake. But, I have to work tonight. Tonight we're having our Tot Shabbat, our L'dor V'dor dinner, and a Family service. It's my job, as the rabbi in our congregation, to work with kids at every age to engage, participate and experience the joy of Shabbat. And, to me, that's a huge part of the future of Judaism, as well.

But, as the congregational world grows smaller and smaller and minyanim take more ground, I sense a real shift that's going to change the face of Jewish America and our organizational structure. So I ask you, is this trend going to be healthy for the future of Judaism? Do we embrace it and learn from it, or do reject it and try to refocus our aims and structure within the synagogue? You tell me....

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rabbi Wood....You ROCK!!!

Today was the first day of Sunday School at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills (where I work)! It seems like EVERYONE else is starting today too. And it's a tough time of year. We've just celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah II, Shabbat Shuvah, and now we have Sunday School. Five days in a row!!! The way the holidays fell this year, it's possible that you've been at synagogue every single day this week since Wednesday evening!!!! And it can get a little exhausting, even for us professionals.

But, there is nothing like the start of a new Sunday School year. The kids have such great energy, the synagogue is buzzing with life, there is laughter and music in the air - it's just so uplifting. And after a long week, it really is refreshing and revitalizing. I saw parents tentatively drop their kids off at the classrooms. I saw kids walk into their classrooms even more tentatively. And at the end of the day I saw them embrace as they reunited, recounting what had been learned that day. I saw kids walking out with art projects in their hands and smiles on their faces. It was beautiful.

As I was walking out of the building, I stopped to chat with our amazing group of teens who were done for the day (working as aides in the classrooms) and chit-chatted with them for a few moments. Then one of them exclaimed, "Rabbi Wood - you rock! I love you"

I was a little taken aback. But then, I was happy she said this - not for myself, but for her. How wonderful, to have Jewish role models that you can look up to, talk to, and even feel comfortable enough to say things like that to, after having only known a short period of time. How great to have a rabbi that you feel you can talk to after a long day, and who can be there for you in a way that is different from your parents or friends. I hope I can always provide a sense of Jewish positivity in these kids (and all kids) lives for years to come. I care less about the fact that I "rock" and more about the fact that she wanted to express her love and gratitude to me for my role in her life.
It was a really special day. And it gave yet another undeniable reason why I feel so honored to be doing the work that I do, day in and day out, for the Jewish people.

Great start to 5771. How's your year going so far???

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hope for the future

This is the first 9/11 since 2001 that I have spent in New York. The feelings and the somber nature of this day are so palpable here. Here in New York, everyone knows someone who was affected, or who saw the buildings go down, or who saw the smoke from the devastation for weeks afterward. Everyone has a story of that day, and that story is as fresh in their minds as though it were yesterday.

The senior rabbi I work with, in Queens, was one of the many chaplains that worked tirelessly for months with victims of the attacks - families, witnesses, rescue workers, etc. who were in need of emotional and spiritual support. To hear him talk about these events and the way in which it affected their lives is so difficult - but so important to hear. New Yorkers were shaken in a way that they had never been affected before - and it changed their lives, and ours, forever.

I think that history will categorize this time in our nation's history as being "post 9/11" when America feels a perceived (or real) sense of insecurity in a way that hadn't been felt for decades before. I think our nation is scared and doesn't always know whom to blame - the economy is down, morale is down, security is threatened and our fear is up. I think this was true in 2001 and, sadly, I think it is still somewhat true now.

But I am hopeful. I am hopeful that rather than continue to war with our neighbors, we will try to drop our "arms" and open our arms to embrace them. I'm hoping that we can continue to promote peace and understanding and harmony in our lives (check out the cool stuff Jazzrabbi is doing in Indiana). I'm hopeful that we will remember the past with reverence and tears, and look to the future with optimism and hope and laughter. Yes, living in New York in 2010 and experiencing 9/11 for the first time here - I am sad when I think of the past. But I am hopeful for the future.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Slow down, you move too fast....

New York. Of all the things New York has taught me in the last month, it's this: slow down!!! Not the city, mind you...me. I came in here guns blazing, ready to take on the world. And this city, ironically, has taught me that sometimes I need to take time to get everything done. I'm a fast mover, a fast talker, and a fast thinker. But I've learned some important lessons.

In a city of millions of people, sometimes things just take time. Wherever I am, there are always lines. If I need to get something done, it might take multiple steps/trips and have to go through lots of people. If I want to go somewhere, I can't always jump in my car and speed off to wherever I need to be - there is too much traffic. And if it's public transportation, forget it - I'm on their schedule.

I'm not always the most patient person in the world (though I am ALWAYS trying to work on this). New York has taught me that with millions of people around me every day, and everyone is trying to get somewhere or do something or be someone - there needs to be a lot of patience. I try, every day, to be patient with myself and with others, no matter what the situation. It's hard, but I find that in New York, this is a key component to healthy living.

So far, I'm loving the city - and I'm loving the great lessons I'm learning. Who knew that I'd have to come to one of the most fast-paced cities in the world to learn that I personally need to slow down a little and continue practicing patience?? I love the fast pace of everything here, but the irony of my own personal need to slow down, be patient, and wait my turn is all too evident.

What great lessons have you learned this month??!!??

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Reflection and Connection for the 5771 HHD

My (new) congregation is doing a "Reflection and Connection" book for the upcoming Jewish High Holidays. Each family, that wants to participate, is asked to reflect on either a favorite High Holiday memory, what it is that they are most grateful for, or hopes and dreams for the new year ahead. And it has to be 100 words or less.

I decided to reflect on a memory. Here's what I submitted:

An unspoken bond in our family. We waited for it each year, that moment of musical ecstasy. I would watch as my father bowed his head and my mother closed her eyes. My brother would sway to that familiar melody. Avinu Malkeinu. The organ swelled, the four part choir sang with beauty, clarity. I could feel my soul being lifted by the music, the moment, the awesomeness of it all. Every year I wait for that moment when I'm connected to my family, my heritage, my memories. I wait for that moment when my soul is lifted on high and I am renewed.

What favorite memory of the High Holidays comes to your mind? Or, what are you most grateful for? What do you hope this new year will bring?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Life is a journey; A sacred pilgrimage

A very close family friend is dying. He's not seeing many people, but I had the opportunity today to sit with him, for an hour or so in the hospital. It was the most sacred gift I could have ever asked for, with him.

As a rabbi, I make many hospital visits - all the time. I'm comfortable being in hospitals, and I'm comfortable being the rabbi making those visits. I've had good training and lots of experience. But sometimes the lines get a little blurry - I AM a rabbi, but I'm also like another child to this family friend. They are so close to us and have been for so many years, that they ARE family. This wasn't a rabbinic visit, this was a personal visit.

We talked about many things - we laughed and cried together. We talked about the journey I was making across the country, and really in my life. The kind of courage that it takes, perhaps, to move forward and onward, even when we are uncertain of what lies ahead. We talked about where we'd been, what used to be, and what life might bring. I can't begin to describe to you how special it was. This will, in all likelihood, be the last time I see him. And I'm so thankful for what we got to share together, not only today, but throughout the last 25 years that we've known each other.

At one point in the conversation, this friend and I mused about our mutual love of a special poem, that I've only ever come across in the High Holiday Machzor (special prayerbook for the High Holidays) "Gates of Repentance" and it's beautiful applicability to our conversation today. And I was surprised at how much of this poem I had internalized, so much so that I was able to recite the majority of it for him, right there, in that hospital room. It brought tears to both of our eyes.

We didn't talk much about death, or illness, but we did talk a lot about journeys, lifetimes, family, friends, and our shared history together. And even though we never said it, outright to one another, we shared our last goodbye together as well.

"Life is a Journey"

Birth is a beginning
and death a destination
And life is a journey:

From childhood to maturity
and youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
and ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to desecration
and then perhaps to wisdom.
From weakness to strength or
from strength to weakness
and often back again;
From health to sickness
and we pray to health again.
From offense to forgiveness
from loneliness to love
from joy to gratitude
from pain to compassion
from grief to understanding
from fear to faith.

From defeat to defeat to defeat
until looking backwards or ahead
We see that victory lies not
at some high point along the way
but in having made the journey
step by step
a sacred pilgrimage.

Birth is a beginning
and death a destination
And life is a journey;
A sacred journey to life everlasting.

~~ Rabbi Alvin Fine ~~

Friday, July 9, 2010

Times they are a changin'

I can't help but think about beginnings and endings this week. At sundown we begin Shabbat, the end of one week. Friday is also the beginning of the weekend - when we can stop, relax, rejoice, and take some time for ourselves (hopefully). I'm also thinking about so many colleagues (newly ordained or otherwise) who started their new jobs this week. My replacement began work this week as I am beginning to wind down and end my job. My life is cluttered - my house is full of boxes and everything is everywhere. I'm having to start transferring all neccessary things to a new part of the country and mentally reorganize my life to be in New York starting next month. Yes, lots of beginnings and lots of endings.

Truth be told, I've never been good at transitions. I work through them just fine, but I hate feeling as though things are unsettled. I hate the goodbyes, and I hate the sense that I have to leave somewhere, even if I am going off to turn my dreams into reality. But at times like this, I have to remember how neccessary some transitions are in life. In order to go forward, we must actually put our foot out and step forward - scary or uncertain as that step may be.

God said to Avram (Abraham) "Lech Lecha" - go forth. Even though Abraham did not know what this meant, or where this would take him, he went forth anyway. Abraham trusted in God, and trusted in himself to muster up the courage and put one foot in front of the other. So, too, have I tried to muster up that courage and go forth in my career and my life. But by going forth, it always means we must leave something behind as well.

This Shabbat, I'm trying not to focus too much on the difficulty of transitions, but on the notion of beginnings and endings. There is a sense of holiness in every new endeavor we begin and in every place that we leave. I have to really start thinking about the relationships I've created, the community I've contributed to, and the ways in which I've grown. I also have to remember that I have new and exciting adventures coming my way - who knows who/what might be right around the next corner, waiting for me?

Whether you are in the middle, at the end, or just starting, I wish you continued success on your own life's journey. And I hope that each of you finds holiness and peace where you are, at this very moment, on that journey.
Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, July 2, 2010

My kinda town...

Heading to the windy city (my home away from home) this weekend for the 4th, friends, family, and fun! I have the great honor of officiating at one of my childhood friend's wedding ceremony. I've known her since she was 1 month old!!!

I'm also going to get to see my family and a few friends that live and are visiting Chicago this weekend. Even though I'm moving in a few weeks and don't really have time to be out of town, I'm very excited about the festivities this weekend. All that "life" stuff can wait until later - now it's time to relax, rest, rejuvenate and have a great time with all those near and dear to me. Pics to follow soon...

Got any big plans for Shabbat?? The holiday weekend??

This rabbi wants to know!!

Whatever you do, be safe and have fun.
Shabbat Shalom!!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A special goodbye

People told me being a rabbi was going to be awesome. And, for the most part, I believed them. Most days, it really is great. Other days, it's harder. But some things are truly special, and I try and really treasure the truly special moments as much as I can.

Even though I'm looking forward to being in NY next year (and pursuing my dreams), I will miss Tacoma. I will miss the people, and the community here, and the special relationships that I've created. But a piece of them, just like all congregations I've served, will always be with me.

One of the most special things I got to do, while being here, was totally unexpected. I had a group of kids that were working towards a "Religion" Boy scout badge. They had to accomplish three things (as determined by me, their spiritual leader) in order to get signed off for their badge. One of the kids decided he wanted to talk about God with me and he wanted to create some drawings that reflected his own understanding of God in his life. Sounded like a great plan to me, so we embarked on the journey, together.

Well, little did I know what was in store for us....

Talking theology with children can be so varied, depending on the kid. But this kid...I should have known how profoundly life-changing this kid's words and thoughts were going to be on me. He's a deep thinker. He looks at the world and his environment holistically, rather than discreetly. For his "final project" he produced a series of drawings about God that reflected his theology. Certain and uncertain notions of God in this world. Where and when and how he feels and senses God.
It was, to say the least....POWERFUL. There was such simplicity to each drawing, and yet if you looked at them, exegetically, there was so much more there. I told him how special I thought these drawings were, and how much I loved getting to talk theology with him. When he showed me those drawings, we went through each one and he explained how it reflected his own thoughts about God in this world and in his life, and the questions that always come up for him, about religion and God. I urged him to never throw away these drawings - to hold on to those notions of God and those drawings forever.

Last week, I had to say goodbye to this young gentleman, who was heading off to summer camp. After we hugged, he handed me a book. He and his mother had created a hardback, published version of his drawings called "The God Book." I will treasure it always. On the inside it reads, "Dedicated to Rabbi Wood." Yes, a piece of Tacoma (and of this special guy) will always be with me. And perhaps, I will always be with him, as well.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It's a small world after all...

This weekend, I was in our nation's capitol. While I am a world traveler and have lived in different countries throughout my life and been to many, many different places throughout the US, Canada, and abroad, I had never been to Washington, D.C. before. Shocking, I know. And I call myself an American....

I was there for a friend's wedding, but I decided to stay 1/2 day longer to get in some touristy stuff. The first thing I made sure to do was to go visit the United States National Holocaust Museum. I've always heard of it's acclaim and I wanted to experience it firsthand. Since I was short on time, I opted not to do the tour of the permanent section of the museum, but instead chose two of the shorter exhibits. I went through the Children's exhibit called "Daniel's story" that was geared towards teaching children about the Holocaust from a kid's perspective, who experienced the Shoah. It was, educationally, extraordinary. Emotionally, it was very difficult.
The second exhibit I went to was about the proliferation and spread of Nazi propaganda as an impetus of setting the stage for the Holocaust. When I was in college, I took a course in the Politics of the Holocaust, so I was fascinated by this exhibit and reminded of how much politics really dominated Germany during that time period. It was thorough and interesting, but also very chilling and frightening.

As I left the museum I popped into the gift shop and the first thing I saw was a book that one of my congregants just published! Kurt Mayer's "My Personal Brush with History" was on display in the middle of the store! I was so proud of him, of his book, and of his courage to share his story with the rest of the world. A little piece of Tacoma in DC.

Needing something lighter after the Museum, I decided to walk around the Memorials. I have to say, if you've never been, they are really impressive. The Washington Memorial is glorious and as you walk from that, towards the WWII memorial, past the Reflection pool, and see the White House, the Capitol building and eventually the Lincoln memorial, you feel as though you are a part of living history. It also doesn't hurt that I love history and majored in Poli Sci (I suppose).

It was unbelievably hot and humid, so by the time I got to the Lincoln Memorial I, along with hundreds of others, sat down on the steps to get some shade, a little rest, and look out on the view towards the Memorials. While I was sitting there, I overheard a fascinating conversation. A teenage boy was talking to a group of older teens a few feet away. He was explaining that he was there on a National Leadership conference. And then, he said he was from Seattle! He asked the others where they were from, and one of them said...Israel! I couldn't believe what I was hearing...a genuine dialog between two teens from both of my worlds - the Pacific North West and Israel!!!! Even though they only chatted for a few more minutes, it was beautiful to listen to their interest in each others cultural differences, their lives and experiences, and how they happened to be there at that moment.

It felt too perfect to be just a coincidence. I'm sure this kind of thing happens all the time, but the setting was just so dramatic and it caused me to really reflect on the differences and similarities that people share. More often than not we like to express our opinion, let our voices be heard, and really push our agenda on to others. But, have we taken the time to consider the similarities that we share with others? How often do we just sit back and listen, without a need to interrupt, and truly hear someone else's story? Both perspectives are important, I believe, in order for us to understand how to interact with others in the most effective way possible.

I loved my trip to DC for so many reasons - I was there to experience a simcha (happy occasion), to visit sites and museums I'd always wanted to see, and to have a nice day off. But, my favorite unexpected treasure was the lesson I learned - it is a small world, after all, and there is always much to be learned!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A little birdie told me...

Do you twitter? Send tweets? I know that might be kind of a personal question to ask, but I'm curious. It seems like a lot of people I know are REALLY in to Facebook, but haven't discovered the untapped resource potentials of twitter!

Me, I'm really getting back into it. I started it a little over a year ago and, at the time, I didn't understand the appeal. Who cares what I'm doing? No one (that I knew of) was really utilizing it in a way that compelled me.

Then, about three months ago, I was in San Francisco at a conference where I realized that a LOT of my colleagues were tweeting. And they'd developed all sorts of online relationships and communities. So, inspired by all of them, I decided to give it another shot.

WOW! I have started following all sorts of interesting people around the world who are interested in the same things I am - Judaism, New York, books, news, current events, music, even just plain funny stuff! And people are following me to see what I have to say, too (uh-oh, the pressure is on)!

Over the last three months, it's really made me think a lot more about social networking and the ways in which we, as professionals and as people, reach out to others and let others in. And I've met some great people, developed closer connections with my colleagues, and even found a community that I care about - all online.

I love Facebook, but I've been doing it for over 6 years now. And while it's useful for some things, there are lots of times when you just want to say what's on your mind. Plain and simple. In 140 characters or less.

Follow me on Twitter @lizwood1982 if you dare :)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Life and Judaism: Action, reflection, reaction

I don't pay much attention to Valentine's Day...or many other "Hallmark" holidays, as it were. I don't believe in setting aside one day, making it more special than other days, to tell people how very much we care about them. Especially if it means we don't think about them the rest of the year, or don't put in much effort at other times too. I feel the same way about holidays. I don't preach to Jews to take stock of their lives and an accounting of their souls only during the Yamim Nora'im (High Holidays). I want people to be examining their lives and their actions year-round, in a daily discipline.

I say all of this because I believe that the way we treat others, and the way we treat ourselves, should be an ongoing process of action, reflection, and reaction. I also believe this to be a valuable means of engaging with our own sense of Judaism. And, luckily, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Recently, I heard a colleague talking about the dilemma of making everyone aware of all the different organizations that exist in the Jewish world, incorporating all of the different values and concepts of Judaism into daily practice (or, specifically into Religious Education curriculum), and not feeling overburdened by missing any key concepts, philosophies, thoughts, or beliefs. It's a challenge - that's for sure. But it's also not a finite task. We don't usually have only one shot at integrating all the important things about Judaism that we want to integrate. And we also can't consider these to be finite tasks - there should be ongoing reflections of our actions and reactions, in Judaism and in life.

Let me give you a concrete example from life: About a week ago I was at the drugstore and a woman in a wheelchair was in front of the item I needed. I patiently waited until she was done and then grabbed what I was there for. She began to apologize profusely for being in my way, talking about how the chair was too bulky for the small aisles, and that I should have just asked her to move. I told her that the apology was unnecessary and that I would have waited, regardless of whether she was in the wheelchair or not. And then I added that, in fact, it was not her responsibility to move, since I was the one who's mobility was much easier to maneuver. She and I struck up a conversation about the difficulty of being disabled and the way in which one feels like a burden to the non-disabled world.

I must admit that even a few years ago, I'm not sure I could have had this conversation with her. But, recently, my own mother became wheelchair-bound. And it has opened my eyes, my heart, and my mind to a world that was previously unknown to me - the difficulty of existing differently in this world. And I'd like to think that not only do I have a sensitivity to that difference, but upon reflection, my reaction can be to help others who are disabled feel more comfortable in a world that is difficult to maneuver. And I've learned to incorporate this type of reaction into all parts of my life - personal, professional, at the synagogue, socializing with friends, etc. And I don't believe it should be contained to National Disability month or any other specially designated time. These are the kinds of actions, reflections, and reactions that can occur throughout our lives and that become integral to who we are.

So, too, is it with Judaism. Are we being welcoming enough? Are we focusing enough on social action or tzedakah? On outreach and engagement? On learning, knowledge, text? On prayer and ritual? How do we integrate them all without giving one too much attention while ignoring the others?

It's easy to be overwhelmed by it all. But it's even easier to remember that we don't have to do it all at once. We focus on a few key things - act, reflect, and react - and then suddenly they are integral to who we are.I believe the best way we can live our lives is through the ongoing process of living and learning, acting and reacting, and reflecting on the very many important issues that create the fabric of our lives.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Mazel Tov - Ordination Class of 5770!!!

Rabbi Wood, Rabbi Dunn(Segal), Rabbi Ross

Today is a very special day. Today is the Rabbinic Ordination of the class of 5770 at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, OH. While I am proud of ALL of the Ordinees (my friends, colleagues) of the class of 5770, I am especially proud of the two ladies that shared so much of the journey with me day in and day out - my old roommates Emily and Amy.

Rabbinical School (as I'm sure Cantorial School will be) is a very intense period of time. You are learning so much - both in and out of the classroom - on what it means to ready yourself for the sacred task of leading the Jewish people. There are very high highs and very low lows. There are moments of solidarity with the community, joys and triumphs. There are also moments of personal grief and hardship. But nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to that moment of Ordination. Standing in front of the open ark, the President's hands upon you blessing you in the ways of our ancient tradition. The journey that has been and the journey that will be all stand still in time, as that moment is sanctified and made holy.

This week, in our parasha, we learn about Moses sending spies to the land of Israel to scout out this Promised Land. What does it contain? Is it dry and arid or is the soil good and rich? What are the people like? What will it be like to enter in to it? The spies return and talk of the great abundance of the land - it is a land flowing with milk and honey.
10 of the 12 spies return and say that they are fearful - there are people there who are giants, and there is no way the Israelites can enter in to the Promised Land without being destroyed. But Caleb and Joshua resist these fears and urge others to resist them as well.

The first time I met Amy was during our Year in Israel, on the beach in Tel Aviv. Throughout that year we traveled around Israel together and became close friends, deciding to live together in Cincinnati upon our return to the states. When Amy decided to take time off from school, I decided to live with another student - Emily. Emily's connection to Israel and love of the Israeli people is so profound and so inspiring. She has taught me a great deal about having a deep and genuine love for the land, the culture, and the people.

This week's parasha speaks to us on so many different levels. There are important lessons to be learned and it contains ideas and hopes that I would like to impress upon this Ordination class. The future is uncertain, and while we'd like to know what lies ahead in our own destiny, we must sometimes proceed fearlessly, with faith in God and faith in ourselves. Resist the temptation to give in to your fears. Know that there may be bumps and challenges ahead, but that there is great reward and that life will be full of a great abundance of gifts and treasures.

To Amy and Emily and the entire Ordination Class of 5770 - May you be a blessing to the Jewish people. May you proceed fearlessly in your rabbinate, full of hope and wonder and excitement for what lies ahead both personally and communally. May this day be a moment in time when you celebrate your accomplishments and marvel in what great abundances lie ahead for you. May you go from strength to strength and always remember your own gifts, talents, and blessings that you bring to K'lal Yisrael. MAZEL TOV RABBIS!!!!!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Beha'alotecha - Committing ourselves to service

This week, we read from the Torah portion entitled Beha'alotecha meaning " when you raise up" in reference to the lamps (menorah) that Aaron was commanded to build, from God. While there is much to be gleaned from this portion, I've always loved it's aptly named title - the idea of raising something up, elevating it, in order to make it more special, more significant, and even holy.

Fifteen years ago, I had some pretty significant stuff to say about this portion - it was the portion that I read from for my Bat Mitzvah. Though I'm not sure where any of the paraphernalia of the big day has gone - you know, the certificate, the invitation, a copy of my speech (I'm, admittedly, a little jealous of jazzrabbi's photos from his post), I do remember the things I spoke about, my impressions of the day, and the way in which those things lead me down the path to where I am today.

In this parsha, the purification of the Levites is described, and they are actually elevated before God as an offering - they are to be set apart from other Israelites and are placed before God through their service to the Sanctuary. When I was 13, the idea of service called out to me. Judaism, at the time, was for me a call to being part of a community, to doing good in the world, to helping others through mitzvot and g'milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness). My drash (sermon) was about the importance of service - through any means possible: giving of your time, your money, your skills so that others may benefit from your gifts.

Today, I find that I am much more fascinated by the importance of that day in my life...and the idea of "beha'alotecha" - to raise up. Whereas most of the kids my age were interested in "just getting through it" I felt such a spirit within me as I led my congregation in worship, read from the Torah, and engaged in a sacred Jewish ritual. It was the first time that I can remember when Jewish ritual (aside from weekly Shabbat services) took on a huge important role in my life. Although I may not have felt like a woman or an adult, I did truly take pride in my Judaism and my spirituality on that day. My journey to, and through, Judaism has always been significant to me. Though it is often hard to articulate my path to the rabbiniate, I find that looking back helps me to pinpoint some of those sacred key moments. I can see, now, that my Bat Mitzvah was one of those moments.

The idea of setting someone or some group apart, and raising them up, is a scary notion. What purpose does it serve? What does it accomplish? Is it neccessary? But here it is, in our Torah, clear as day. As a new rabbi, I am constantly thinking about the ways in which others try to set me apart, even elevate me, in ways that are new to me. Often times it is a scary notion for me to think about. After all, I'm only human, and being elevated or distinct to someone else is a lot of pressure and responsibility. But I am reminded that elevation can also bring about awareness of the significance and importance of something - that it can be a great reminder to me of the sacred task I have to help lead the Jewish people to make this a better world.

I suppose there is a distinction between me and other Jews. I have committed myself, dedicated myself, to a life of learning Torah, of engaging with the Jewish people, of service to God. I have chosen a career (and a life) that is different from others. Perhaps like Aaron, I was given instruction from God on how to help create a light so that others may see their own ways to Judaism. That, I suppose, is my hope in all of this.

While it is a scary notion that I am distinct or different, it is also an awesome responsibility - one that I try never to take lightly.

What is the purpose?
I think the purpose of raising something up - whether it be time or space or people - is to really understand the sacredness and potential of God's presence in everything and everyone.
What does it accomplish?
I believe it accomplishes our ability to better understand how to make something sacred, how to treat something as holy, how to understand the specialness and diversity that is present in this world.
Is it neccessary?
Yes, I believe that committing ourselves to service, whether it be as a rabbi or as a Jew or as a volunteer or as a human being, is the most sacred task that any of us can undertake - for it brings about holiness and God's presence in our world.
And distinction is neccessary for us to remember that there are some things in life that are not just mundane or normal. Becoming a Bat Mitzvah, engaging with others, dedicating ourselves to service for God and the Jewish people, moments of working towards good in this world. These are most sacred and worthy of our distinction.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The gift of Torah in our lives

Tonight begins the Jewish holiday of Shavuot (Festival of weeks) - one of the three major pilgrimage festivals celebrated throughout the Jewish year. Shavuot celebrates the the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai which is the culmination of the 50 days between Peasach (when we were freed from Egypt) and the journey through the wilderness to reach the foot of the mountain (redemption).

For some reason, not too many people concern themselves with Shavuot. Jews, and non-Jews, know a whole heck of a lot about Hanukkah (which is pretty minor in our religious year) and a good deal about the High Holidays and Passover and Sukkot. So why does Shavuot get overlooked? Along with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is a MAJOR festival. It has it's own themes, it's own nusach (Jewish musical mode), even it's own customs and traditions.

Customs and traditions can be very powerful. No matter what the Jewish holiday (major, minor, or somewhere in between), we can always embrace customs and ritual - even if they are different from "traditional" religious customs. These new rituals and traditions that you create are just as valid as the traditional ones. For example, many people eat dairy on Shavuot. If you are lactose intolerant, this is probably NOT a custom you will want to embrace! But you could always choose to make lactose free treats and enjoy the spirit of the chag in your own way. Many synagogues celebrate Confirmation on Erev Shavuot, but other synagogues wait until that Erev Shabbat to celebrate with their teens as they affirm their beliefs in Judaism. Both are valid and wonderful expressions of commitment to Judaism.

This morning I was thinking about the gift of Torah. In the last three years, I have been in three different places for Shavuot - Louisville, KY; Cincinnati, OH; and Tacoma, WA. Next year, I'll be in Forest Hills, NY. And each place has held special memories and customs of this holiday, for me. In Louisville, at my student pulpit, I was able to engage in a city-wide Tikkun Leil Shavuot (all night study session) with Orthodox and Reform Jews - our theme was the number 7, so I presented on shiva (7 days of mourning) at 12:30 at night. Last year, in Cincinnati, I went to two different study sessions. One was at a Reform synagogue and one was at an Orthodox synagogue. We studied well in to the night, and then two or three of my friends and I went out for breakfast at 4am and continued talking about Torah. I didn't go to sleep that night - it was all too energizing.

This year, my good friend Rabbi Phyllis Sommer challenged all those on Twitter to "tweet" Torah to the top. This means that the more people that put a tag on the word "Torah" (#torah), the more likely that it will be picked up as a topic that is a popular trend amongst all subjects being tweeted. It may sound sort of silly, but the truth is, it has been REALLY meaningful for me. All day long I get to prepare myself for Shavuot through engaging with words of Torah. I get to connect with my colleagues and friends from around the world and see what their thoughts are on Torah. And I feel part of a greater community - a virtual kehillah kedosha of those ready to stand at Sinai, before God, and really receive the glorious gift that has sustained the Jewish people - the Torah.

In our modern lives, with technology abounding at our fingertips, when we are constantly moving and doing and changing, it is so nice to know that wherever we are, whatever our customs are, or how we choose to celebrate, there is one thing that is constant: the Torah is there for us, ready to be received.

Chag Sameach

Friday, May 14, 2010

Pre-Shabbos Prep

Many people like to spend their Friday afternoons "preparing for Shabbat." That can mean everything from cooking, cleaning, preparing one's self and space physically or even emotionally. My favorite way to prepare for Shabbat, on a Friday afternoon, involves two things: mental preparation and relaxation. I know that the latter seems silly. You may be saying, "Why relax if you're about to enter into Shabbat when we elevate time and give ourselves space to stop working (in whatever way is most meaningful for you)?"

As someone who works on Shabbat, and doesn't always give myself the time to relax as I should, I find that the few moments of relaxation before Shabbat help remind me of how I want to enter in to Shabbat - hopefully to have it help carry me through that time. I like to go for a walk or engage in other kinds of physical activity, listen to music or catch up on some bad television, or even call friends and family and connect with them. Whatever I do, I make sure that it is time for me and that it is enjoyable.

The other great thing that I like to do is reflect. Whether it be reflecting on the past week, thinking about the upcoming Chagim (holidays) or the Parsha Hashavua (the weekly Torah portion) or great philosophical/theological questions that I wrestle with.

Earlier this week, after momentarily discussing some theological musings with a friend, I stumbled upon a series of questions that I had listed in a former blog from several years ago. I think I'd like to spend this pre-Shabbat time focusing on just a few of those questions:

1) What does it mean to be human?
2) What do you believe about human nature and issues of good vs. evil?
3) How does one provide meaning to human existence in a Jewish way? Why be Jewish at all?

These are big ones, I know. But perhaps if we give ourselves the space and the time to breathe, and to reflect on these questions in our own lives, the spirit of Shabbat will be that much more meaningful and that much sweeter, in our own lives.
Happy thinking and Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

VEDEM (Czech: "I lead")

Last night, I went to the Music of Remembrance world premiere of a work entitled, "Vedem". The Music of Remembrance series in Seattle, WA puts on two shows a year (fall and spring) and commemorates the lives lost during the Holocaust through musical and artistic expression. This is it's 12th season. Last night's performance included a piece called "In Memoriam", Pavel Haas's String Quartet No. 3 and the world premiere of Vedem. Vedem had 15 smaller pieces and featured piano, cello, viola, violin, clarinet, mezzo-soprano, tenor and (most importantly) the North West Boy Choir. The boys choir did an unbelievable job telling the haunting and chilling tales of these young men who were living in Home 1 in Terezin. It was sad, scary, chilling, and yet - somehow - uplifting.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was the special guests who were present. Of all 100 boys who lived in Home 1 and contributed weekly to this literary journal, filled with poems and prose of their feelings/observations/doubts/fears/desires, only 15 are known to have survived the Holocaust. Of those 15, only 6 are still living today and four of them were able to be with us in the concert hall that evening. Those survivors were able to witness the world premiere of the artistic interpretation of their own personal stories and memories.

The survivors spoke of what a great honor it was to the memory of those whose lives were cut too short - some of whom were literary geniuses, and what a great loss to this world their death had been. They spoke of being honored by this piece, but it was all of us who were truly honored to be there - to honor their courage, their fortitude, and their human will to continue fighting for bits and pieces of humanity and normalcy in an inhuman time and place. It was truly, a magical evening of remembering.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mother's Day (and a mitzvah!)

I don't know about you, but I find Mother's Day to be the hardest day for which to buy that perfect present. Perhaps it's because it falls, every year, right in between my brother and father's birthdays, so I'm all shopped out. Or maybe it's just that it's hard to come up with unique, significant ways (each year) to tell your mother how very special she is to you. In thinking about what I wanted to get my mother this year, I thought a lot about who she is and what she's given me. My mother is one of the wisest, most compassionate, insightful human beings I have ever met - okay, maybe I'm a little biased. More than that, she's instilled in me a deep commitment to love deeply and act compassionately and justly in this world - to help others individually and collectively through our own gifts of time, talent, and privilege. (Yes, mom, I gained ALL of that through you!)

Instead of buying another cookbook, or piece of jewelry, or even sending flowers, I made a donation, instead.
Jewish Women's International (JWI) is a phenomenal organization that is committed to promoting the well being of Jewish women through areas of leadership, social skills, and community training. One of the many projects they do is called the Mother's Day Flower Project.

It is estimated that over 30,000 women will spend Mother's Day in a battered women's shelter. The Project collects donations and then sends cards on your behalf to the recipient letting them know that through the donation made, thousands of women will be receiving Mother's Day bouquets and beauty products - women who might not ordinarily get recognition or gifts. To me, this was an easy mitzvah. I was able to give something to these women who have gone through unimaginable abuse, and help empower them to continue working towards recovery and healing - through a simple gift. And what better gift to honor my own mother with than an act of kindness, compassion, and love?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

ל"ג בעומר שמח - Joyous moments on Lag B'Omer

In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical value. The letter lamed = 30 and gimmel = 3. Thus the thirty third day of the Omer is called (L"G) Lag b'Omer. We know that Rabbi Akiva's disciples were plagued until, miraculously, on the 33rd day of the Omer, the plague ceased. During the first 33 days of the Omer, traditional Jews commemorate the death of those thousands of disciples by refraining from joyous celebrations, not shaving or cutting their hair, or engaging in any kind of overtly joyous behavior. On Lag B'Omer, however, we celebrate the end of that plague and rejoice.

A few years ago, a friend and I were looking at a wedding invitation and the friend turned to me, with disdain and remarked, "They're getting married on Lag B'Omer....ughh, that is SOOOOO Jewish!" I never really understood that. I understood, of course, the significance of Lag B'Omer being a moment in time during the counting of the Omer that is one of great joy, where weddings are permitted, men can cut their hair, and big bonfires are created to celebrate the LIGHT and joy of the holiday. What I didn't understand was her disdain. Why shouldn't a Jewish couple, who clearly adheres to Jewish beliefs, rejoice in this day, by marking it with their wedding? True, they are Reform Jews who don't consider themselves to be highly observant, but if that makes the day more special and meaningful for them, who am I to judge the importance of that tradition or ritual? I should only hope to be so lucky to be able to mark significant days in my life with other important external significant events, as well. It can often make tradition more meaningful and more beautiful. Instead, every Lag B'Omer I am reminded of this person's disdain for another couple's choice.

Today is a day of great celebration. Not only is it Lag B'Omer, it is also the day that many of my classmates and new colleagues are being invested as cantors and ordained as rabbis from the New York campus of Hebrew Union College. I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of each and every one of them. In some ways, the hard part is over and today is a day of rejoicing. But just like Lag B'Omer, we're not done counting yet and the journey continues onward. So, too, do my newest colleagues have a lifetime of learning, experience, and counting ahead of them. Each one of them is going to have great achievements, a few setbacks, and continue on their own journey to fulfill the sacred work of guiding the Jewish people. There will be so many moments that lift their hearts up and that help them remember why it is that they do what they do. There will be other moments of great difficulty and strife. But that's true of every journey. That's what makes the days count - really count. For today, I wish them each MAZEL TOV and I rejoice in the celebration of that journey with them. And how lucky that they get to celebrate on Lag B'omer - how very, VERY Jewish....indeed!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Butterscotch candies and sacred memories

All day, yesterday, I felt as though my grandfather was with me. I woke up yesterday morning and realized that it has been 20 years since he died. 20 years...and I still remember it as though it were yesterday. We were living in France at the time, but were fortunate enough to fly back to New York, as a family, for his final few days and to be present for his funeral and for the period of shiva that followed. It was the first Jewish encounter that I ever, personally, had with death and dying. Even though I was just a little girl at the time, I remember so much of that week vividly.

As I was going through a pair of pants, later on, I found a $20 bill tucked away, as if it were waiting for me to find it. I wrote it off as coincidence - a lucky start to my day, I guess. Then, later, I had a cousin on my grandfather's side call me, and we shared some great news together - I would be renting an apartment in Queens from these cousins. It seemed b'sheyrt (fate) that these cousins who were close to my grandfather would be sharing in this with me on the day of his yarzheit when we mark the anniversary of his death. Even though my day was going well, I had to admit that I wasn't feeling well at all. But I needed to help lead services last night, so I mustered up all my energy and did what rabbis do - lead services even when we're sick. At one point during the concluding prayers my throat was beginning to hurt and I reached down to find a throat lozenge, but instead ended up with a butterscoth candy in my hand. I smiled. These were the exact candies that my grandfather used to give to me and my brother when we were little, any time we visited him in his office. I opened it up, put it in my mouth, and memories of my very young years, with him, flooded back to me as we read the Mourner's Kaddish. I realized, in that moment, what a great gift memory can really be.

In Judaism, we value collective memories and individual memories as though they were sacred. And they are sacred. Jewish perspectives on death and dying are, to me, some of the most humane and compassionate practices that we have. The liturgy of a funeral service is meant to provide two essential functions: to celebrate and commemorate the passing of a life (and remember everything that life encompassed) and to help those who are grieving say goodbye to their loved one. Within traditional Jewish practice, those who are grieving are forbidden to do most normal activities during the period of learning of the death until burial, and then are given seven days (shiva) to really grieve the loss of their loved one. Thirty days mark another significant period of mourning, followed by 11 more months of grieving until finally, after a year, one is realeased from all Jewish mourning obligations for their loved one. However, year after year, we mark the anniversary of that loved one's death by saying Kaddish for them. To me, this understanding of human nature is what makes Judaism so beautiful. Jewish customs of mourning recognize that when a loved one dies, it takes time, different amounts of time to really deal with that grief. The most significant grief happens immediately, and it eases as time goes on - but it never goes away. And the rituals within Jewish mourning recognize that every year, we bring ourselves back to those memories - of the lives of our loved ones, of their passing, of our own grief. Judaism is truly remarkable, like that.

On my grandfather's yarzheit, I always think of two things: 1) How much I wish I had known him better or had more time with him 2) How grateful I am that I've had a lifetime of such wonderful memories with my grandmother. Through all of my interactions with her throughout the years, she has helped me to understand their lives, the collective memories of our family, and who he was - this grandfather who left me when I was just a little girl.

Perhaps my grandfather was not WITH me yesterday, but his memories certainly were. And they will always continue to be with me.

Zichron Livracha - May his memory ALWAYS be for a blessing.