Why is this year different?

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For as long as I can remember (and even longer as evidenced through old photos!) I have sat around a table the first night of Pesach with a large group of family. From the small dining room at my grandparents’ house to the little bit larger dining room in my parents’ home, to the even larger family room at our home in Lexington and finally to the combined dining/family room referred to by our contractor as the “Seder” room in Cambridge. The room has always been full – sometimes so full that it felt like the walls must be made of elastic.

This year we decided to host our large family Seder on the sixth night of Passover. The reasons were varied, but centered around two important truths 1) the extended family all really wanted to be together for Passover and 2) Monday night April 14th was not a night that everyone would be able to be together.   I wrestled (like a good Jew) with the idea of “evolving” the holiday (like a good Progressive Jew) to meet the needs of the “next generation”. Ultimately we decided to give it a test/a pilot (a word I am using often in my work). The troops cheered and we made our plan.

I knew we would be giving up “something”, but wasn’t quite sure what that would be. Lo and behold, about 10 days ago, with a jolt, I realized that Michael and I did not have plans or a place to be for the first Seder. We’ve never received an invitation for the first night because everyone and anyone who knows us knows that we hold a Seder, that Passover is our favorite holiday and that Seder is our favorite night of the year. We knew that if we waited for an invitation we would be alone on Seder night. Could we treat the first night of Passover as a regular night if we were having Seders on nights 2 and 6?   Could we have dinner on our own and eat Matza and discuss freedom? After thinking about it for less than 60 seconds we knew that the answer was no. We knew that “that night was different than any other night”.

Fortunately, we have a large circle of friends to whom Judaism is meaningful and we knew that, if we asked, we would be welcome at dozens of tables. And yet, asking is not easy. Or at least, asking for oneself is not easy. Many of us are great at fundraising and at getting people involved for other “needy” causes, but don’t think of ourselves as the needy ones. We are not comfortable in that role. We want to give and not receive.

However, we knew we had to express our need for an invitation. So we did. Of course, we were welcomed with open hearts (to one of those rooms with full tables and elastic seeming walls) and we are looking forward to sharing the Passover experience with another family, whose “in” jokes and rituals we will not know but will be familiar anyway. Through this process, I have learned an important lesson about what it means to be on the other side of the table, to be the one wanting and needing an invitation.

As we all prepare to sit around our tables tomorrow, the next day, and even next week, my wish for everyone this Passover season, and going forward, is that we are all able to ask for what we need and offer what we can give as we continue to be thankful for the freedoms that are a part of each of our lives. As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

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Tambourine signed by our Seder attendees over the years.

 

 

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Wrapped in my Mom’s Warm Winter Coat

photo(8)As my mom’s 8th (how could that possibly be?) Yartzeit surrounds me (due to the significant difference between the Hebrew and English calendars this year) I find myself thinking about what we take and what we leave behind when someone dies.  There are the values that are ingrained in us – those we don’t always have a choice about.  If we are lucky, we are happy with those values and lessons learned.  If not, we struggle to create and develop new ways of approaching the world.

But there is also the “stuff” -the “things”, the “objects”.  My parents died 7 months apart – too close together for me to have the luxury of grieving in a timely way for either one of them.  The months surrounding and following my mom’s death are a blur to me.  I know I spent hours and hours, days, weeks and months dealing with their apartment, their many possessions, and mountains of paperwork, courtesy of the IRS.  What to hold onto?  What to let go and leave behind?  What to put in green garbage bags?  What to sell, what to give away?  Eventually, I just wanted to have it behind me.  I wanted to shut the door of their beautiful apartment and never face it again. Looking back, with 20/20 hindsight, I tried to do too much too quickly and it was hard to separate the wheat from the chafe.

My mom lived in New York City and had a beautiful long winter walking coat.   At the time, I lived in the suburbs and felt that I had no use for a long coat so into the discard pile went the coat.   Five years later we moved to a neighborhood in Cambridge with a walk score of 91 (out of 100).  Our first winter here I thought a little bit about that coat.  The second winter I thought even more about it.  I kicked myself for letting it go, for not being able to appreciate the “value” – and I don’t only mean the monetary value – in it. There isn’t a lot I regret in life, but I did regret giving away her coat.  (By the way, one of my other regrets is that I never spent a year as a ski bum in Colorado.)

One day  I told a close friend about the coat and voiced my regret.  When I finished she looked at me and said “Margie, I think I have the coat”.  My heart leapt.   It turns out that she, with clearer eyes, couldn’t let the coat go to the discard pile.  She took it and tucked it into the back of her closet, where it hung for several years.

During the fall she brought me the coat  – complete with my mom’s requisite Kleenex in the pocket.  As the temperatures plummeted I put the coat on.  It fit perfectly and the feeling was indescribable.  Somehow, my mom was once again wrapped around me and with the wrapping came a reminder of so many of the gifts my mother gave me.  The gift of a smile, the gift of asking the right question, the gift of supporting people when they most needed it, the gift of being present.  And so, although I hope to be able to put the coat away soon (and turn to my own worn spring jacket) the coat reminded me that, regardless of what happens to the coat or whether I wear it or not, I will always be wrapped in my mom’s unique values and special traits.  I think that is a lesson that is true for all of us.  As loved ones pass on, we can continue to hold them close and listen, learn and be supported by them each and every day.

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A renewed appreciation of bald Rabbis

893929_715159761829279_453605823_oThe week between Christmas and New Years reminds me a bit of the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Time removed from other time. Time of reflection. Time of taking stock. Today I am thinking about Rabbis. Growing up, I was in awe of Rabbis. They seemed larger than life. It would never have occurred to me to have a silly conversation with a Rabbi. It would not have occurred to me to talk about the Red Sox with a Rabbi. It certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me to go out to dinner with a Rabbi. Rabbis were separate. They stood tall, had large voices, wore robes and were a bit scary. Oh, and they were, of course all male and many bald. As a non-visual person, they all sort of looked alike.

Fast forward many years. The Rabbinic world has changed and my world has changed. As a professional working in the Jewish community there are Rabbis everywhere I look. To borrow an overused line – some of my best friends are Rabbis. A prerequisite of any early position I had in the community was that I learn to not be intimidated by Rabbis and that I be able to have honest and sometimes difficult conversations with them. Over the years I have done that. Although I have continued to have deep respect for them, I call them by their first names and treat them as equals. Sometimes I don’t even know that someone is a Rabbi.

Recently, my sense of awe in Rabbis has been rekindled. Like many, I have been touched deeply and profoundly by the illness and death of Superman Sam Sommer. Like many, I never met Sam and in physical life have barely crossed paths with his parents. (As an aside, although we generally refer to it as “in real life” I think we have all discovered a new reality and learned that real life can and does also happen via social media.)

I have been one of those from the sidelines with no words of my own. I have devoured the outpouring of words and love, been witness to tears, a lot of grimacing, and much head shaking. Individually, we all know that the world is not fair, but sometimes we are able to ignore that. Other times it hits us front and center. Collectively, this is one of those times. Those times can render us helpless and/or it can bring out the best in people. In this case, a generation of Rabbis has stepped up to the plate (yes, I now feel comfortable using baseball metaphors when I talk about Rabbis.) This generation is male and female. This generation wears jeans and tee shirts and listens to jazz, pop and rock music. Like past generations, this generation is committed to improving the world. To do so, this particular group of Rabbi’s has committed to shaving their heads to raise funds for and bring about awareness of Childhood Cancer. They are part of St. Baldricks 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave – although there are now many more than 36.  No amount of money or awareness can help Sam but it can change the course of the lives of others. In the midst of much talk of the Pew Study and the future of Judaism, what is happening right here and now is so powerful. The Rabbis are taking their commitment to Judaism and are leading in a new direction. They are bonding together, teaching us as they go, and collectively impacting the world.

I am once again reminded of how I felt as a child . I am in awe of my Rabbinic friends and colleagues who are changing the world one hair at a time. And, I do find it mildly amusing that for a short time the balding Rabbi will once again reign.  Fortunately, in 2014 the balding Rabbis will be both male and female.   We’ve come a long way, but clearly there is much for each and every one of us to do to make the world a better place.    A huge thank you to all (Rabbis and others) who are taking large and small steps to do just that and allowing so many to contribute along the way.

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September Magic

 

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Fenway Park, 2013

Last Shabbat I fell asleep to the voice of Julie Silver singing the words  “L’Dor V’Dor: Fom Generation to Generation” in my ear.   I woke up to those same sounds on Saturday morning.  The odd thing about it was that I was 3000 miles away from Julie, and hadn’t actually heard her voice for months.  Nor had I been to Shabbat services that evening and experienced any of the other wonderful contemporary musicians or their musical arrangements that often fill my heart and soul and keep the music on repeat in my brain. 

So, what had I done on Friday night to lead to hearing Julie’s voice, crisp and clear in my ear?  True confession.   I had sat on the sofa and watched a group of bearded guys win a baseball game.  That’s it.  

Superficially, that’s it.  Filling in the details, I had watched the Boston Red Sox clinch the 2013 American League East Championship, after totally crumbling in 2011 and finishing in last place a year ago. On one hand, just a game.  On another, for me, and for many others, so much more.  Within minutes of the win, with the players and the fans celebrating in the stands and on the field, my memory brought me back to 1967.  As many Boston fans (particularly of a certain age) will tell you, 1967 was a magical year for the Red Sox.  The Year of the Impossible Dream. In that year, despite all odds, on the last day of the season, the Red Sox won the American League Pennant.  Only one year previously, they had been in 9th place with a dismal record. 

On that brilliant October day in 1967, I was seated in the stands with my brother, my father and my grandfather. The game ended, and I along with thousands of others rushed onto the field.  As the radio announcer Ned Martin famously reported  “There was pandemonium on the field.” I was part of that pandemonium.  I grabbed a chunk of Fenway grass. The moment was magical and imbedded deep in my soul.   As a now rational, grown woman with grown children, I have often been in awe of how a baseball game and team can impact me so powerfully.  

During the course of my childhood there were only two places that I regularly sat in a row with my dad, grandfather and brother.  Those two places were Fenway Park and our synagogue.  Although I had never made the connection consciously, Julie’s voice in my ear on Friday night seemed to make it for me.  Possibly,  in part, that explains my passion for both of them.

In a light hearted way, but knowing that “many a truth is said in jest” I decided to see if I could draw any other connections between Judaism and baseball, between synagogue and Fenway Park.  Here’s what I’ve thought about.

1) Hard work, learning and fun can go together. Neither baseball nor Judaism was necessarily meant to be easy.  However, there is no reason that working hard to learn something can’t be fun. 

2) The importance of team and community.  In baseball it is a team.  In Judaism we call it a community.  Either way, neither baseball nor Judaism is a solo sport.

3) Everyone needs a day of rest in order to do his or her best.

4) A good manager can help people discover the right roles for themselves.  (Imagine if all Jewish communities worked to help participants find their places, find the spots where their unique gifts would be most appreciated, find the opportunities to contribute in the best way for them, and by each contributing their strengths thriving communities were created.)

5) Wouldn’t it be great to have a clean up batter and designated hitter?  I know that many of us in congregational leadership (both professional and volunteer) feel like we are both the clean up batter and the designated hitter. Wouldn’t it be nice to share those responsibilities?

6) Every day matters although it sometimes seems as if some days are more important than others.   At this time of year (in both baseball and Judaism) the “big games” take place.  However, although it doesn’t always seem true, what happens in the spring is as important as what happens in September.  A win in April, a meaningful Shabbat service in May, both truly have the same impact as a win at the ballpark or a full sanctuary in September.

7) You can turn things around.  If the Red Sox could do it, the Campaign for Youth Engagement can do it.  If the Sox went from 69 wins and 93 losses to 95+ wins, then the CYE can dramatically change the face of youth engagement. The Impossible Dream can truly be possible.

8) The young guys and the older guys are important.  You can’t win by focusing on one at the expense of the other.  The power is in the working together.

9) Baseball and religion can both be divisive if passions are carried to extreme, and can be unifying when treated with the respect they deserve.

10) It’s about building memories.  Memories are the building blocks upon which we create relationships, develop values and find our places in this crazy world.  Both baseball and Judaism have served that role for me and I suspect can do so for others.

And so, as the Red Sox head into the post season, and as we once again begin a new cycle of Torah reading, I will welcome the generations past as they appear in my memories, and will continue to work towards instilling passion for the Red Sox and Judaism into future generations.  L’Dor V’Dor!

 

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Back to School Isn’t Only for Kids!

As I sit on the porch in New Hampshire with the sun shining and the pond glistening through the trees in the distance, fall feels very far away. If only there was a way to slow down time.  (So far the only way I’ve found to do that is to “plank” – that tortuous position where somehow your “core” is strengthened – then I take notice of each drawn out second as I try to hold on for as long as possible. But I know that I can only plank for a minute or two a day – the rest of the day, time passes much too quickly). Before we know it, summer will pass and school will start.  For most, school implies children.  Children learn, parents teach.  However, one of the most important lessons I learned early on in my parenting is that children teach and parents learn. 

When I first became aware of that, I was awestruck.  It just wasn’t how it was supposed to be.  I had thought that I would impart my vast body of knowledge – acquired through twenty-seven years of living – and that my children would just soak it up. Wrong.  I still had lots to learn.  I began seeking out knowledge about parents and children, and that has kept me learning ever since.

A few years ago, I had the great privilege of joining the Adult Learning Faculty at Hebrew College to serve as an instructor in the program “Parenting Through A Jewish Lens.” I loved teaching the course, exploring with parents how Judaism informs their parenting journey.  Parenting has been going on for many generations and, although there are some differences, in many ways the struggles of parents have been the same throughout the ages; children have always begun as dependent creatures and parents have always striven to help them become independent creatures.  Children have always challenged their parents in a myriad of ways.  Parents have struggled with finding the best ways to teach, to discipline, and to help their children grow – to hold close and to let go. As a living religion, Judaism provides wisdom on these topics.  Participants might not always agree with the “wisdom,” but debating this makes for wonderful discussions, and discussion is an integral pat of Jewish learning.  In our course of study we created new Jewish wisdom together and built connections to one another.

I taught, they learned and then a funny thing happened.  They began to teach and I began to learn, just as had been my surprising experience 30 years earlier. And then, as previously, I realized that I wanted to know more. This time my appetite was whetted to learn more about Judaism.  Although I have a strong Jewish background, I realized there was so much more to learn. I asked myself the very Jewish question (found in Ethics of our Fathers) “If not now, when?” So last September, I enrolled in Me’ah, Hebrew College’s two year adult learning program, and began my 100 hours of Jewish study. I became a student where I was on the Faculty.  I went from teacher to learner once again.  Taking a class, being a learner, is a commitment – it takes time and energy.  Yet, the rewards for me have been wonderful.  Being exposed to great teachers, conversing with thoughtful students, and “connecting the dots” of living an authentic Jewish life has been powerful.  

And so, as I sit watching the pond, I am reminded that learning and teaching are totally intertwined and that, although challenging, the rewards of learning are immense. I’ll never learn it all, neither about parenting nor about Judaism, and so for me this is a life-long journey. While I’m not able to stop time to understand everything I’d like to understand, or to make summer last forever, I am looking forward to reconnecting with my fellow students after a summer away and diving back in to learning.  Image

[For more information on Parenting Through a Jewish Lens and Me’ah visit http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/adult-learning%5D

 

 

 

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The Ice Cream Cone Approach to Youth Engagement.

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Recently, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been full of stories and photos of campers and counselors getting ready for their return to camp, their trip to Israel or their adventure with a service-learning program. I am so happy for all them. They are following a path that we, in the professional Jewish world, have set out for them.  We’ve done studies, we’ve collected anecdotes and many of us rely on our own histories to understand the life impacting importance of a Jewish summer camp experience, a summer of service learning or a summer trip to Israel.  We look to many of these young people to be our future leaders and we are continually thinking about ways to engage them upon their return.  Those are all wonderful and important things to be thinking about and we should keep thinking about all of those things. 

However, in the meantime, there are thousands and thousands of Jewish youth who are not going to summer camp, not going to Israel, not participating in a Jewish summer experience this year.  They are the homebodies, or the ones in summer school.  Maybe they are the ones working to contribute to their family finances. Some have medical issues that need attention.  There are the musicians and the artists in our midst who need the blank slate of summer to create.  There are those who need or want to be home for any number of other valid and important reasons.

Let’s think about what we can do for them.  Not what we can do for them sometime in the future, but what we can do for them this summer, right now.  How can we (the established Jewish community) remind them that they too are valuable to us, that they too have a future with us, and that they too contribute to our community?  We cannot leave youth engagement solely to the wonderful camp and trip staff.   

We all need to be involved.  But involvement doesn’t need to be complex and it doesn’t need to be heavy and intense or scary. It doesn’t need to involve sitting around conference tables and scheduling meetings.   It can be as simple, fun and tasty as taking a walk with an ice cream cone.  What if the leaders in our communities spent an hour having ice cream with a younger person who is at home this summer? It could be a win/win situation.  Eating an ice cream cone with a younger person is generally more fun than eating one alone and choosing a flavor is more enjoyable in conversation.

Imagine what September could look like if, over the summer, Youth Professionals, Rabbis, Cantors, Educators, Temple Presidents, Synagogue Board members, and Teens in leadership positions each had one ice cream cone date with a younger person.  What if, before the ice cream melted, the younger person had discovered someone who listened to them, who respected them, who cared about them, someone who wanted to help them figure out their connection to Judaism?  Not someone who told them what to do or how to connect, but someone who listened to their passions, learned about their spark and helped them figure out their particular place in the chain of our tradition. 

And, what if all the older teens and adults who are committed to our communities, had the chance to share their stories, to get to know a younger person, to have an opportunity to learn about what the younger person was thinking about, what mattered to them, and who they were as individuals, not as a demographic?

I know that isn’t all it would take.  There would have to be follow up and more actions.  However, it could be a start.  It could be that one small step.  It could be the lighting of the match.  Or to invoke Humphrey Bogart “it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Think about it.  And, after you have thought about it, invite someone out for ice cream. (And if your diet doesn’t include ice cream, improvise.)

I think you will be glad you did.

I scream. You scream.  We all scream for ice cream.

 

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Life Lessons Learned at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 2013.

Not only am I a life long learner, I am a 24/7 learner. My field is “life”, “families”, and other “communities” and I am always trying to learn and translate lessons from one venue to another. Sitting at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, eating an assortment of exotic foods, sloshing through mud, and listening to a wide array of high quality music, mostly jazz, I found myself thinking about how what was happening on stage related to life. Here’s what I learned in no particular order.

There is a time to be serious and a time to laugh. Both are essential.

Eye contact and smiles communicate a lot.

Listen to one another.

Respond to what you hear.

Let others express themselves.

Find ways to make others sound better.

Push the limits, but stay on stage.

Let others have the space they need to do what they need to do.

There is a time to back off and a time to move forward.

Having someone on stage doesn’t mean that those in the audience are not participating.

It’s not always about you, but sometimes it is.

Everyone needs different amounts of attention at different times.

You can say a lot quietly.

Older people and younger people can play together.

It is ok to not always know where you will end up.

We don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel, but we must learn to improvise on it.

That’s it. Simple and complicated at the same time. It is up to us to apply these lessons to our own lives. By doing so, I believe we will be able to strengthen any and all of our communities.

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