Sometimes unforeseen circumstances at camp open up moments for learning.
Imagine 90 of us, teens and staff and faculty, sitting close together in the Pinat T’filah, a small enclosed amphitheater, with little room for movement or navigating around the space.
Our Torah arrived late to services (another unforeseen circumstance) and was sitting at the top of the amphitheater, while I, the rabbi, was on the opposite side with no easy or unobtrusive way to put the Torah in its place in the center on our makeshift ark/table.
As we approached the time for the Torah service, I was thinking: How am I to get the Torah to me so I we can do a hakafah (Torah processional)? How am I even going to walk around this tight space? Then it came to me!
Rather than the rabbi bringing the Torah to the community. The community will bring the Torah to the rabbi.
I asked the teens to carefully, gently, lovingly pass the Torah from one another until it made its way all the way around the group, down to the last person who sat closest to me. As I explained the procedure for our hakafah, an amazing thing happened. Everyone’s eyes opened wide. There was a shudder of excitement. The Torah slowly made its way around the group. Some teens held back, too nervous to participate. Other teens leaned in, reaching out for a chance to hold, hug, kiss and pass the Torah.
In Jewish tradition the Torah is to be revered, not worshiped. The scroll is a sacred object, to be protected and cared for. The Torah is second only to the life of another person.
To see our teens so lovingly and proudly carry the Torah around. To see them hug it, as if hugging a dear friend. And kiss it, as if giving it a “Shabbat shalom” kiss. The scene brought tears to my eyes.
Yet another moment of pride in our URJ Camp Newman campers, who are learning and growing as Jews, who feel comfortable being themselves, and who are immensely proud of their personal Jewish commitments.
One of the things I love the most about serving on faculty at URJ Camp Newman each summer is the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of Jewish teens.
Consider this task: draw a picture of a 7th-8th grader. What does she or he look like? What are his or her concerns? How does she or he like to spend their time? What do they think about Judaism and its role in their lives?
This summer’s CITs (counselors in training) were asked to do this task and this is what they created:
Do you see what I see?
A gender-neutral camper!
It’s a new day. Our youth leaders have a fresh and open understanding of what it means to be an emerging adolescent. They know that we cannot assume that a young person identifies with how their body may present themselves to the outside world. They know, that they – as CITs – and we – as adults – need to accept emerging adolescents for who they are and help them become who they want to be, who they are deep down inside.
This makes me proud. Proud of our youth, who are leading the way and teaching us about inclusivity. Proud of our camp, that creates safe spaces for our youth to learn and grow and explore the deepest recesses of their beings to find themselves.
In this month of Pride, I am proud of the progress we have made. Let’s keep it up!
I’m having another “lo alecha” moment right now.
One of my favorite ancient Jewish sages, Rabbi Tarfon taught:
Lo alecha ha’melacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben horin l’hibatel mi’mena
It is not our obligation to complete the work, but nor are we free to refrain from doing it.
In light of yesterday’s tragedy (that seems like such a cliché word these days) in Orlando, I’ve been struggling with what to do. I feel helpless.
Where do I start?
With teaching and advocating for tolerance of those who are different. Aren’t we all different? I’m already doing that. Last night we participated in not one, but two peace vigils. We gathered with interfaith friends and colleagues at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno and then again with Gay Central Valley to march and pray and cry and yell. Is it making a difference?
Do I build bridges with my interfaith community, especially in support of my Muslim friends who are just as saddened and distraught? I’m already doing that. I spent more time this weekend with my Muslim friends – at a Ramadan iftar than with anyone of any other faith. Is it making a difference?
With political action to put an end of the ownership of assault weapons? One presidential candidate says it’s too late to do that. “There are already millions of them out there.” Well, that’s an inane reason! When the AIDs epidemic was ravaging the world, did we say, “there are just too many sick people out there, so we don’t need to find a cure.” With the numbers of people in our country who go hungry every day, do we say, “there are just too many hungry people out there to feed, let’s just give up on them; they’re on their own!” No! Of course not. And now, we are dealing with yet another mass shooting. Are all the emails and phone calls to our political leaders making a difference?
So, this morning, I’m stuck. I know I must continue to do the work. I am not free to refrain from it! But, where do I pick up and begin again?
How much has really changed in the world in the last 24 hours? Not that much, but yet a great deal!
As a woman growing up and living in a comfortable, Jewish family in California in the last part of the 20th century, I’ve been blessed. Never did we go hungry. Never did I worry for my safety as I walked down the street. I had access and privilege. My parents and grandparents taught me to do what is right, to fight for civil rights and social justice. To help redeem the captive and oppressed. To help feed and house those in need. To protect the safety of others. To demand equal freedoms for all human beings. To do my civic duty and exercise my rights as a citizen of this country.
Never did I think that as a woman I couldn’t do what a man could do. I knew women rabbis. I learned about women political leaders, like Golda and Margaret. Of course I’ve experienced chauvinism and the proverbial glass ceiling. Yet, I’ve always felt empowered.
Today feels different, though.
As I think about my 2 sons, my 4 nieces and 4 nephews, I feel like the world will be different for them. The possibility that we can have a woman leader of the most powerful nation on this planet, overwhelms me, and I am filled with emotions.
I am filled with hope. Hope that what we’ve always said, that “when a woman sits in the Oval Office” things will change.
I am filled with anticipation for the months ahead. The hard work that we all must do to silence and marginalize the racism and bullying and bigotry. The hard work that we will do to advance the causes of civil rights for all.
I am anxious about the inevitable misogyny and double standards that will continue to arise in our public square conversations.
Today, I feel like the possibilities are endless and the stumbling blocks are being obliterated.
I didn’t think I’d be that woman.
You know, the canine version of the cat lady.
I have friends who lovingly and proudly refer to themselves as cat ladies. They have cats and love them dearly. I don’t question or besmirch that. I’ve offered condolences to them on the loss of a cat. Honestly though, I used to think it was a little weird, and a bit much when I saw how grieved they were. But now I don’t.
I never had a pet growing up. Well, unless you count the goldfish I would win each year at the annual Purim carnival. We’d bring those home and they’d live for a couple of weeks and then we’d give them the typical “burial at sea,” as they say. No cats in our house, mom was allergic to them (I am now too). No hamsters or guinea pigs. No dogs, though I do remember my sister and I asking if we could have one.
So it was a bit of a self-revelation when ten years ago, after beginning a phase of life in which I would be working from home, that I found myself asking my husband if we might consider adopting a dog. I had found that I was going a bit stir crazy being home alone all day. Rather than talking to myself, it seemed less lonely if I had a companion to talk to and keep me company. He was open to it, especially because he came from a dog family; he still talks about Wink. We decided a dog would be good for for our boys, who were 13 and 8 years old at the time, and me.
Cookie entered our lives in a big way. We rescued her from the animal shelter, having been abandoned by a cruel person who left her along the side of a highway. Her days there were numbered. We were probably her last hope. We still laugh at how we didn’t realize how big she was until we got her home and realized her wagging tail would hit the walls in the hallway of our small home when she’d walk down it to find us. We were never sure what her DNA make up was, yet she clearly had many features of a Great Dane. Wow.
Well, this week, 10 years later, we had to say goodbye to Cookie. We all knew she was declining. Though we never knew her exact age, we guesstimated it at somewhere between 12-14 years old. Among other things, she had a neuromuscular degenerative disease moving up her spine. She could no longer stand long enough to get through a bowl of food. And one afternoon this past week, she just couldn’t stand anymore. So, as a family we all said our goodbyes, both in person and virtually (thank you Facetime). She laid her head on my lap and my husband held on too, both of massaging her favorite spots.
And for two days afterwards I was sad, grieving, missing her presence in the house. The only thing that made me feel better was writing about her or talking about her with friends. I had to sit my own little type of shiva for her. In a way, I became that woman, that dog-lady. I realized that it’s not such a quirky thing to love one’s pet and miss them when they’re gone.
So, this blog is a way for me to get some of my grief out. Like a eulogy of sorts. My kids have done it too, on their Facebook and Instagram pages, each in their own way.
My dear friend Rabbi Paul Kipnes helped me too, with this prayer he sent to me:
Mekor HaChayim, Source of all that lives, we come before You this day in sadness.
(Pet’s name), who brought us so much joy in life, has now died. (His/Her) happy times
in our family’s embrace have come to an end. We miss (pet’s name) already.
Help us, O God, to remember the good times with (pet’s name). Remind us to rejoice in
the happy times (he/she) brought to our home. Let us be thankful for the good life we
were blessed to give to (him/her).
We are grateful to You, Holy One, for creating (pet’s name), for entrusting (him/her) to
our care, and for sustaining (him/her) in our love for a measure of time. We understand
that all that lives must die. We knew that this day would come. And yet, O God, we
would have wanted one more day of play, one more evening of love with (pet’s name).
O God, as we have taken care of (pet’s name) in life, we ask that You watch over
(him/her) in death. You entrusted (pet’s name) to our care; now, we give (him/her) back
to You. May (pet’s name) find a happy new home in Your loving embrace.
As we remember (pet’s name), may we love each other more dearly. May we care for all
Your creatures, for every living thing, as we protected the blessed life of (pet’s name).
May (his/her) memory bless our lives with love and caring forever. Amen.
[Adapted from Prayers by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman and Rabbi Barry Block]
As I swept the floors this morning, I realized that there was already less Cookie hair gathering on the bottom of my Swiffer. For 10 years I complained about her shedding. “Our next dog won’t shed!,” I would declare. But this morning, it didn’t seem so bad to have had to sweep up all that hair for these years. She gave us a lot more than strands of hair. She protected me from strangers at the door. Little did they know her big bark was meant more to be friendly than frightening. She gave all of us, including extended family members, confidence to be around big dogs. She gave my boys someone to care for and love and take responsibility for. She gave us unending love.
And we all loved her back. Hopefully our love gave her redemption from the cruelty of her prior owners. Hopefully our love gave her a sense of security and warmth. Hopefully it gave her knowledge that she was part of a family who would not give up on her.
So Cookie’s memory will bless our lives. We will remember her. Her unending love will continue to strengthen us all.
We’ve come a long way.
Or have we?
Contrasting images from this past week keep swirling in my mind’s eye:
This past week the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox rabbinic association, prohibited the ordination of women rabbis. RCA president Rabbi Shalom Baum justifies this decision by saying,
“…as the role of women in society advances, we must consider and encourage appropriate professional opportunities open to learned women in our community, as we find positive ways to express the beauty of Torah and the importance of its values that have been extant for millennia.”
Guys, this is the 21st century! Seriously. Have we not yet learned that “separate but equal” isn’t really equal?!
It is not surprising that Orthodox women, such as Rabba Sara Hurwitz are speaking out, and progressive rabbinic associations, such as the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network and Central Conference of American Rabbis are rallying in support of Rabba Hurwitz and her Orthodox colleagues:
…As such, we, the Women’s Rabbinic Network and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, hereby stand with unequivocal support of ANY woman, who after appropriate, rigorous study and counsel through a recognized rabbinical seminary is ordained by said institution. We applaud these women and their commitment to the study of Jewish law, history and culture for the sake of transmitting our sacred tradition to future generations. We also commend the rabbis and lay leaders who have taken the bold step of teaching, supporting and hiring these newly ordained women as clergy. We stand together with our new Orthodox colleagues who, together with us, work to ensure that Judaism is alive and thriving for all Jewish people who wish to be included in our sacred community.
Snapshots 2, 3, 4: Shabbat morning, November 7, parshat Chaye Sarah at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention.
With 5000 members of the Reform movement gathering together for Shabbat morning worship, women and men dance together with the Torah. The room is filled with joy and singing. Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, Nashot HaKotel, joins hundreds of others in dancing with the Torah in her arms, her eyes twinkling and a wide smile on her face.
As she dances by me, I snap a quick picture and pray that the time will come when she can do this in her own home – our Jewish home – Israel, without the fear of harassment or arrest.
The Torah service continues with the honoring of Daryl Messinger on her installation as chairperson of the URJ. In its 142 year history the URJ has never before had a woman serve as chairperson. For a movement that is unerringly committed to egalitarianism, that has ordained women as rabbis since 1972 and cantors since 1975, this appointment has been a long time coming.
And finally, the Torah service ends, with the traditional hagbah and g’lilah, lifting of the Torah to show the assembled the words that had been read and dressing it. I was invited to participate in this honor with my colleague Rabbi Stan Schickler in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators. Despite this being a honor usually accepted by men because of the physical strength needed to do it, we decided I, as president of ARJE, should take it on.
I continue to be overwhelmed by the comments I have received since Shabbat morning. Women have been simultaneously shocked that I could physically lift the scroll and proud of me and my accomplishment. Yet, as my friend and colleague Rabbi Valerie Lieber wrote on Facebook:
…people should not be surprised when kick-ass women like Laura can excel at it. Women like her and so many others are super strong and balance so much. We were built for this honor!
So, as I reflect on this past week and these snapshots about the role of women in Judaism, I am left wondering. How far have we really come? We have come far.
But not quite far enough.
In honor of #NationalComingOutDay.
Back in 2011, the editors of Moment Magazine asked this question of their corps of rabbis:
What guidance would you give your child if he or she told you he/she was gay?
My response then and now is:
The first thing I would say to my child is, “I love you. I will always love you. You are created in the image of God, b’tzelem elohim.”
I would look to offer the same guidance that I would offer to my child if he/she were straight. I would want to make sure that he/she seek to create relationships that are grounded in Jewish values: loving and mutual, healthy and safe, caring and respectful.
My children – and the teens I work with – know that they can speak with me about anything, and I will be there for them, listen to them, and offer my support. Yet, sadly there are still challenges with living an “out” life. For that reason, I would want my child to have Jewish adult gay role models that he/she could turn to for support – someone with whom he/she could find a safe place to talk about the challenges, hopes, fears and dreams that they may share in common. As a parent, I would see it as my obligation to help my child bring that type of mentor into his/her life.
You are not alone. Whether you are questioning your gender identity, your sexual identity or your sexual orientation, there is someone in your life who will always say, “I love you. I will always love you.”