A time to hold on: A time to let go

Nature has many lessons for us if we only take time to notice and listen. Yesterday I was reminded of what a tree can tell and teach us. There is a little tree out my window that, although I watch throughout the year, I don’t actually focus on. However, yesterday it spoke to me in a new way. The tree appears to simultaneously be letting go of her dead leaves and holding on to some beautiful ones. Most have gently fallen, but I couldn’t help wondering if she is intentionally clinging desperately to the remaining beautiful red ones. Possibly she is hoping (like many of us) that winter will not actually arrive this year and she will stay dressed and warm. However, past experience indicates that, the tree has no choice, winter will arrive, the temperature will drop, the winds will blow, and the red leaves will fall.

IMG_6495We, however, may have more control than the tree. As Thanksgiving approaches it is a good time to take note of that tree and its possible message. Are we holding on to what is important or are we clinging to what should be let go? Are we letting go of what should be discarded or are we discarding what deserves clinging? For many of us, life is full and we don’t always take time to reflect, but as we sit around the Thanksgiving table, along with giving thanks, it might be healthy to pause and make sure that our “holding on” and our “letting go” are in synch with our beliefs, hopes and dreams, and that we are not letting the whim of the winds make decisions for us, as it does my little tree.

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Finding Quiet in a Fallen Branch


This morning I am reminded of a variation of the age-old question “If a tree branch falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? “

Working from my home office gives me interesting insight into the world. From my 2nd floor perch in Cambridge, I have a wonderful view of the outdoors. With windows on 3 sides, I can look down the street and in the distance see the cars travelling down Mass Ave. Depending on the season and time of day, they can be moving quickly, stopped in traffic, inching cautiously because of snow and ice, or more likely these days, slowed down by construction, including unending pothole repairs. (Ah yes, the summer road bumps in Boston are a direct reflection of the historical winter we had!)

However, if I look more closely and slowly, I watch a parade of characters walk by. Again, depending on the season and the time of day they walk slowly or quickly. There are college students that walk by in packs, parents walking with their young children on the way to the local elementary school, young professionals with ear buds, tote bags in hand, and comfortable shoes on their feet on their way to work. There are older people pushing shopping carts. Many people are carrying coffee, talking on their phones and otherwise very focused on their destination.

This morning has given me pause. Sometime while I was away last week (a story for another time), a very big branch fell from a tree onto the sidewalk. Although the branch is not totally blocking the sidewalk, and not really in anyone’s way, it does look odd. I am not yet sure whose responsibility it is to remove the tree. If I learn it is ours, it will go “on the list” and become one of our next activities. In the meantime, I am watching people’s reactions to the tree. Most people don’t notice it until they are on top of it. They are walking down the street in automatic fashion, focused on either themselves or their destination and then are literally “stopped in their tracks” as they approach the broken branch.

I love watching people react. It forces people to slow down. They approach it and look around wondering. “What is this?” “Where did this come from?” I know that many of us, including myself, operate on autopilot. We wake up day after day, make our coffee or tea, begin our day, and then rush around from place to place, checking things off our list. In New England, in the winter, the rushing keeps us warm. It is how we survive. However, as we move into the heart of our summer, it feels important to counter our default and try and slow down. It feels crucial to take breaks from our regular routine, to find ways to disconnect from the bigger world, to quiet some of the extra noise in our lives, to be present – truly present with those we most cherish, including ourselves. This is the time to put on that “oxygen mask” and make sure that, whether there is a tree blocking our path or not, or whether it made noise when it fell, we find ways to slow down, take deep breaths and notice the beauty and wonder that surrounds us every day. If not now, when?

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A time to follow rules and a time to break them.

As a young girl, I was very compliant. If I was told to do something, I generally did it. If I was told not to do something, I usually didn’t. There were exceptions (ah yes, the motorcycle ride, and a few other things) but I think of myself as a rule follower. On occasion I may actually take on a leadership role in order to change the rules, but I don’t like breaking rules.

Given that, it was somewhat surprising that I found myself with my head in the Ark of an old Synagogue in Kolin, Czech Republic, with a tour guide, and several others yelling at me in a variety of languages, including German that “it was not allowed, that it was special, and that I should stop.” The truth is, I honestly didn’t hear them yelling. I really didn’t. Even if I had, I am not sure I would have stopped until I was “ready” because I knew something that they didn’t. We all knew that this beautiful Ark was donated by Samuel Oppenheimer from Vienna in 1699 and for some reason was still there. However, I knew that, although it was special, the thing that made it sacred, the Torahs that once lived inside it, were no longer inside. And that one of them had a profound impact on my life. Although my head was in the Ark, breathing the smells and senses that can only be part of a 300 year old object, my heart and soul were moved beyond words and were split between being in Lexington MA in the 21st century and being in Kolin, Czechoslovakia in the decades and centuries pre 1930’s.


Kolin was a thriving Jewish community for hundreds of years – the 2nd largest in Czechoslovakia. This isn’t a history blog and I am not a historian, so I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that the Nazis destroyed the community in their quest to annihilate Jews everywhere. Although they wanted to destroy the people, they wanted to hold on to some objects so that they could create a museum dedicated to the history (and it would be only history) of the Jews. With such a goal, during their path of destruction, they salvaged many items. One of which is what I lovingly refer to as “the Kolin Torah.”

Over 40 years ago this particular Torah made a pilgrimage via the Westminster Synagogue in London to reside in permanent loan in Lexington MA. On Kol Nidre 1972 (5733) 42 years ago this week the Torah was dedicated at Temple Isaiah as a memorial to the 6,000,000 Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Rabbi Cary Yales z’l delivered stirring words when he brought that Torah into our community. (http://www.templeisaiah.net/Resources/The_Kolin_Torah.aspx)

This Torah has been through a lot and is quite fragile, so we treat it gently at Temple Isaiah. Most of the year the Torah lives behind glass. However, traditionally, on Yom Kippur morning the Torah is carried into the congregation, and spends one day being read from, and living in our ark among our other Torahs. Traditionally, the President carries the Torah through the congregation. I had the privilege of serving Temple Isaiah as President from 2008-2010. In October 2008, I wrote the following as part of my monthly President’s column:

“For me, one of the greatest perks of being President is the honor of walking through the Congregation with the Kolin Torah on Yom Kippur. In many ways, it was just as I imagined it would be. In other ways, I was totally unprepared for what would greet me. Who would have thought that I would have been thanked numerous times as I made my way through the maze of congregants? How could I possibly have anticipated the faces that I saw? Many faces that I have known for a long time – who were both touched to be touching our sacred Kolin Torah and who were proud of me, proud that their friend had this honor. Some of the faces were new faces to me. In those faces, I made connection after connection. I don’t know their names, they may not remember mine, but for those few seconds we were connected in a very powerful way. In some of the younger faces, I saw awe and reverence. Most of them could not have understood the depth of meaning in this experience but they knew enough to know that this was a special moment and they were proud to be a part of it. The older faces were so full, full of the horror of the Holocaust, the gratitude of the present and the hope for the future. And all the while, the community was united through the music we sing together and yet each person seemed totally alone with their own individual thoughts. This is us at our best. United as a community and yet allowing each individual to be their own self.”

Several years later those moments carrying the Kolin Torah and connecting to each individual in our community remain among the most emotional moments I have ever experienced. As I entered the Synagogue in Kolin and as I stuck my head in the Ark I felt as though I was connecting our Torah and our community with its ancestors and history. In those few minutes with my head in the Ark I was reassuring whatever empty space was in that Ark that we had taken care of the Torah, that we were giving it the respect it deserved, that it was contributing to a vibrant and meaningful Jewish community across the ocean. I had hopes that somehow, in some small way, the spirits and the ghosts that were there could know that.

Now, as Yom Kippur 5775 approaches, there is one more link to connect. As the community welcomes the Kolin Torah into its midst this year and as I touch the Torah with my Tallit, I will be bringing regards to the Torah from its original home. I will be remembering the Ark and the cemetery. I will hope to convey to that incredibly powerful scroll that I was in its home and breathed the air of its younger years. Past, present and future will all converge in the sanctuary as they often do but for me, it will have added meaning this year.

I may have broken a rule when I stuck my head in the Ark, but I have never been so glad to have broken a rule. As I atone for my sins this week, I think I will leave that one off the list.

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Reflections on a Baby Naming

“A person has three names: one that he is called by his father and mother; one that people know him by, and one that he acquires for himself”
Midrash, Kohelet Rabba

Words matter. Names are important. What we call ourselves, what others call us, often impacts the way we view ourselves and the way we are seen in this world. With that as a belief, what a great privilege it was to recently be involved in a naming ceremony for my granddaughter. “My granddaughter” – the words “my” and “granddaughter” don’t yet naturally fall off my lips together. I am new at this stage.

Her name was not a secret before she was born and yet, stringing her names together in a particular way, to create a unique first, middle and last English name and a Hebrew name that would be attached to a living breathing person didn’t quite seem real until her birth. At that moment the words became powerful and the connections across time and space felt very meaningful.

Like many of their generation her parents are not members of a synagogue and like many other children she will be raised celebrating a variety of holidays. In the spirit of Judaism in the age of millennials, neither of those things got in the way, and we planned an intimate naming on the porch of a summer house that my parents, her great grandparents, purchased almost 50 years ago.

Through surfing the internet (What to Expect at a Baby Naming) we found that
there were so many options available to us in a progressive Jewish naming ceremony that everyone’s needs could be easily met. We created a very brief ceremony that included wine, stories, jokes and a few blessings. We talked about the meaning and origin of her names. We talked some about our wishes, hopes and dreams. As we stood on the porch we also talked about the great grandparents that she was named after and will never have the opportunity to know in person. To her they will just be names and stories. For me, they are my parents. They are the ones who brought me home from the hospital, who gave me my name.

I had tears in my eyes as we finished our ceremony with Shehechiyanu. Wanting to hold on to the moment, possibly wanting to share the joyous moment with others, I began filming with my iphone, because that’s what we all do these days. Midway through I had an abrupt awareness that although it might be wonderful to show this video at her Bat Mitzvah, wedding or some other meaningful moment, by filming it I was watching and not participating in this powerful blessing. I abruptly cut the video short and completed the blessing as a full participant. (Note to self: Beware of that tendency throughout her life. The moments will pass quickly and it doesn’t really matter if I remember them, what matters is that I experience them.)

Within a few minutes we were all back to the games and jigsaw puzzle we had been doing beforehand. Everything was the same and yet, it was different. As a family we had now created a new intentional link in our chain from the past to the future.

In the midst of wonderful family chaos, I stopped for a few semi quiet moments and reflected a bit more about my parents and my grandparents, their hopes, their dreams, their lives. They were raised in a very different time and place. I wish they could have been here to experience this moment. I wanted them to witness and appreciate the complexity of the fabric of Jewish life today in the United States. My mother and I both had to fight to be “counted” in our Jewish community. Their great granddaughter was born into a very different reality. The role of women has changed; the role of synagogues has changed; Jewish education is changing. The meaning that she will make of her world and the ways and place in which Judaism will matter in her life will be different than any of our experiences. We can’t yet even imagine what that will look like. I want them to know that, however that looks, she is already, and will continue to be, embraced in a loving circle of family with deep roots formed and strengthened by the ways in which each one of her ancestors lived their lives.

As her life progresses, she will be known by many names, some given by others and some chosen by her. For the moment, I am filled with joy, awe, respect, tenderness and hope as I think about the names, and the meaning embedded in those names, that her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, bestowed upon her on the porch of a home filled with meaning.

How blessed I am to be here, to be living and breathing in this time, and in this space, as this precious child begins her journey and acquires her names.

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Chosen Family Friends

I pulled up to number 62, parked the car, unbuckled my 1-year old son from his car seat and walked across the front yard. I noticed a blonde woman with curly hair, a large green turtle swimming pool and a toddler as I approached. “Is this where the Newcomers playgroup is”? “Yes, she replied.” I sat down with my son and we began to play.

Fast-forward 30 years. Today, the blonde curly haired woman, whose name I learned was Donna, and I, are both expecting our first grandchild any minute, any hour – “B’sha’ah tova” as I wrote about last week. For those wondering, “No, my one year old son didn’t marry her one year old daughter, although they have remained the best of friends. We are not expecting the same grandchild.

Since that day our families have become what we call “chosen family friends” – those friends you make at an important time in your life and who are there for you through each and every milestone of life, small and large. A year later, when my water broke in the middle of the night with my second child, Donna was at my house in her pajamas 10 minutes after I called. When Donna was at the hospital having her 2nd child, Erica, the one year old, stayed with me. My third child was born on Donna’s birthday, so I had to miss her birthday party. Donna coordinated the pastries for the Oneg the night before my children’s B’nai Mitzvot and I did the same for her. I officiated at Erica’s wedding. Donna set up meals of condolence when my parents passed away. The list continues. We have simply been there, sharing together with our families so many of life’s important and meaningful moments. Early on the only ground rule in our relationship was that we each knew that our primary loyalty was to our children and although we shared lots of our own hopes, dreams and questions, about being parents and about life, we would never divulge their confidences to us.

And so several months ago we found ourselves in the midst of a strange conversation where we learned that we had each been keeping a very large secret from one another and that, in fact, we were both on track to become grandmothers the same week, this week.


As I sit here waiting and reflecting, I find myself thinking of my wishes for my son, my daughter-in-law and my yet to be born grandchild. One of my wishes is that they find a “Donna and family” – someone who can share the good times and the challenges, who can celebrate and who can mourn together, because much as it pains me to think about, no matter how things play out, there will be times of celebration and times of mourning in their lives.

Donna and I didn’t meet through our Jewish community, although had we both been involved in a Jewish community at that stage, we might have. In those days most congregations didn’t reach out to young families the way many do these days. Since then, more communities have come to understand what a crucial, developmental time it is when babies are young and families are in formation as families.

What I wish, for all young families, is that religious communities near them are able to embrace them, to welcome them, to provide ways for them to connect to one another, to help them meet their “Donna’s”.   Synagogues and other organizations can’t wait for these families to approach them; they can’t and shouldn’t expect these families on their own initiative to “join” the communities. Some will, but many have too many other obligations and pressures to be seekers and joiners at this point. They need help, they need resources and they need connections.   I urge all communities to imagine a world where they reach out, where they create connections and opportunities for connections, where they welcome everyone, of all backgrounds and abilities, those with screaming and those with laughing children, so that all young families can find those friends who will help them celebrate their milestones and share their challenges together.


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A Good Hour. The Right Time.


At a good hour. At the right time. B’sha’ah tovah. That is the traditional Jewish response to learning about a pregnancy. Generally, in the United States, we say “Congratulations, Mazel Tov, or Wonderful” but Judaism says, “At a good hour”.

I have been thinking about that phrase recently. Why? Not because I am pregnant. Been there, done that. However, that was before I understood the ways in which Judaism could frame life, that was before I was familiar with the phrase “B’sha’ah tovah”. I was “old enough” that I could have understood it, but I didn’t yet. To be honest, I can’t quite remember the role that Judaism played in my life in my late twenties and early thirties, when I was starting a family. Like many of my peers, Judaism had been important in my teens – youth group, Israel trips and Brandeis University connected me in a strong way. After high school my family moved and left the synagogue I had grown up in, and although I celebrated holidays with family and friends and had a Jewish wedding, I didn’t consciously think much more about Judaism in those years.

Fast-forward many years. (Cue “Sunrise Sunset”) “Is this the little boy I carried?” That once little boy is now married and expecting a child. I am about to become a grandmother, a Jewish grandmother.

Over the years I have learned many ways in which Judaism can help me frame life. I learned the most valuable lessons during times of grief. During some dark moments, Judaism provided me with a frame and a lens with which to navigate sadness and loss. The value of Shabbat is another lesson learned later in life. Not Shabbat in a religiously observant way but Shabbat in a progressive “make sure you treat the day as special and appreciate it” kind of way. Over the past 30 years I have found meaning and direction through Jewish rituals and texts that I didn’t know about when I was becoming a parent. However, I now have the opportunity and the blessing to choose the ways in which I want to integrate them into my life as a grandparent.

As my daughter in law passes her 38th week of pregnancy, I am acutely aware of the power and truth of the phrase “b’sha’ah tovah”. My hope and plan is to travel to be near them at that “good hour, at that right time” and so, although I am always cognizant that we never know what tomorrow will bring and that we have to live in this moment, I am experiencing a whole new level of living hour to hour. Although I am spontaneous in some ways, I am also a serious calendar freak. I thrive on writing down my plans and fitting things together in a Tetris like way. An hour between appointments. Ok, let’s schedule coffee with a friend. Two free nights. Let’s make plans with so-and so. Driving to New York. Let’s plan to stop and visit X. And on and on. So, how to plan now? Should I grocery shop for 1 day, 2 days, a week? Should I make an appointment for next week or statistically is it more likely I should make the appointment for the following week? This is one of those times when I am so aware that life is larger than any of us, when the saying “Man plans, God laughs” feels very true. At this stage due dates don’t matter and plans are irrelevant. This child will emerge from the womb when the time is right.

“B’sh’ah Tovah” This child is already teaching the grandparents that they no longer can plan in the same way, and that they have entered a new phase of life. I am once again amazed that Judaism has understood this concept for centuries and am excited to be experiencing it now. It is truly one of those moments when I will be more than happy to reschedule anything that arises, to throw food into the freezer or garbage and to delete and edit all of my Google calendar entries at a moment’s notice. In the meanwhile, I continue to intensely wonder when that “good hour” will arrive.







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Meah Graduation Talk

Two weeks ago I was honored to give a talk about my Meah experience at the Hebrew College Meah graduation. Here are excerpts from my words.  Bottom line, I am very excited and optimistic about the future of Judaism. If you want more detail, keep reading.


Like much of Judaism, this was not an individual journey, but a communal one.

Meah.  A simple word meaning one hundred.  Meah graduation represents one hundred hours of learning.  But, being here at Meah graduation is more than that for each of us.

Each of us has our own experience and made the decision to participate for different reasons. Each of us has a different story. In some ways that is the essence of what Meah has been about for me, the stories of so many, the stories of my fellow students and teachers, and the stories of those whom we got to know from generations past.The “why” for me was simple. I wanted to take Meah to fill in the gaps of my knowledge. I went to Hebrew School, spent time in Israel, have been involved in the Jewish community as a layleader, as a professional, even as an educator. But I have always been very self-conscious about the gaps in my knowledge. But it was never the right time. There were kids to raise, committees to be on, travel to do, projects to coordinate, a career to attend to, family and friends to spend time with, a Temple Board to lead – the list goes on.

Having completed Meah I now know, more than ever, that there ARE things missing in my knowledge base. That is not how I expected to feel upon completion. However, I now feel very positive about those gaps rather than negative. I know with certainty now that I will never know or understand everything about Jewish history and the Jewish experience but I feel secure in my understanding that knowing everything is not the goal for me. Somehow that feels comforting and empowering in a way that I didn’t feel before.

What is most striking to me about this set of classes is the way in which it put my own personal and family history into a context that is both personal and universal. I am also acutely aware that the story is continuing and that each one of us is writing the story and is the next chapter of the story.  Whatever ways Judaism integrates into our lives and into the lives of our children, grandchildren and community, that is what future generations of Meah students will learn about.

The story is not over. Learning about the beginnings, and all the earlier pieces, has truly served to make me appreciate and actually feel incredibly optimistic about what’s next – which according to the New York Times may be artisanal gefilte fish, slow-fermented bagels, organic chopped liver and sustainable shmaltz- or it may be something else.

Generations before us have struggled to make meaning out of Judaism all across time and space. We are no different. And we are different. We will make and leave our mark and we can’t yet know what it will be.  That is an incredibly exciting feeling.


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