Breathe In…Breathe Out: Preparing for the Days of Awe

When I was young, my parents would take my siblings and me on long car rides to visit relatives out-of state. One of our favorite songs to sing on those rides was: “The ants go marching one-by-one, hoorah, hoorah!…” When we played outside, we loved watching ants climb into their colonies, busy with their work. The ants fascinated me.

I was not quite so fascinated with ants, however, these past few weeks, as they took over my kitchen. At first, there were just a few, scurrying over the counter and near the sink. I set traps. I sprayed. Nothing helped. The situation became so bad that I realized I had to call in the exterminator.

He sprayed the entire exterior of the house and then the inside: the kitchen, upstairs, the bathrooms, and I thought I was finished (although he did tell me to call him back in two weeks if I still had a problem).

And then after two weeks, “the ants go marching one-by-one…” Just as I was preparing for a dinner  party, I went to my floor-to-ceiling pantry, and I realized that I had floor-to-ceiling ants. Everywhere. Crawling up the walls. On the ceiling. In the pantry. Everywhere. And not “one-by-one” but by the thousands! A million times worse than before. It was as if they thought THEY had been invited to the party! And my guests were coming in five hours! Eek! I still had a lot of cooking to do. OY! How was I ever going to get it all done?!

I called the exterminator again in a panic. Left a message. Started to empty the pantry. Thankfully he called back right away and said he could come that same day. But I did have to empty the entire pantry and a few other cupboards.

Thankfully, my food was not infested. But I was thinking, how am I going to pull off getting this dinner ready? I now had the contents of my entire pantry on my dining room floor, table and in parts of the kitchen.

And then I realized, just breathe.

BreatheNo one was sick. No one was hurt. It wan’t an emergency. My house looked like a mess, but if I took a minute to just breathe, I would find a way to get everything finished.

So I breathed, slowly – in and out. I reviewed my list of what I was serving. I prepared each item one at a time. I ignored the mess on the floor. I found things that needed to be thrown away that had been sitting in the cupboard for too long.

The exterminator came. I finished prepping. I even had time to put everything away and clean up the kitchen before my guests arrived. I just didn’t have time to change my clothes, but it was ok.

And I sat down with my guests and just relaxed. And breathed and enjoyed being with them in my serene backyard.

My situation with the ants comes at a time on our Jewish calendar when we are also supposed to metaphorically “breathe”. This coming Saturday evening, we usher in the Hebrew month of Elul. This is the month that immediately precedes our High Holy Days. We’re supposed to slow down, breathe in, breathe out. We’re supposed to stop rushing around trying to “get it all done.”

During this time we review our own lists: how was our past year? What went well? What could have been better? What relationships can we improve? To whom do we need to say “I am sorry?” Do we have excess “stuff” that we’ve been carrying around for too long that we can/should “throw away” or let go?

How do we prepare our own souls, our own selves, so when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do arrive next month we are spiritually, emotionally and physically ready for all they entail?

If we stop, take the time to breathe, reflect and think, we can enter these Days of Awe refreshed, renewed, and with full intention of heart, mind and spirit.

Kol ha’n’shamah t’haleil Yah, hal’lu Yah!

Let all that breathes praise God, Halleluya! (Psalm 150:6)

No Longer Feeling Trapped – Breaking the Silence on Mental Illness

Last week, I went for sushi with a friend.

As we were eating, I became aware of the 75+ gallon fish tank that was a focal point of the dining room. What fascinated me about this tank was not only were there a few large gold fish swimming inside, but that the entire tank was dominated by one huge fish. It appeared that this fish was much too large for the tank. I observed the fish swish it’s tale once or twice, immediately arrive at the end of the tank and then maneuver to turn around and begin this process again – over and over and over.

Fish in TankNow, I’m no fish/fish-tank expert, but it seems to me that this fish needed a different size tank for its home. Its current tank was too small and it seemed to be trapped, constrained by the walls of this inappropriately sized tank. I actually felt sorry for this poor fish (I know…it doesn’t make sense: I was eating fish as I watched this).

There are times in our lives, when we too, feel trapped or constrained by the circumstances of our lives. Sometimes, we might be suffering from mental health issues, sometimes from physical issues, sometimes from circumstances that we feel are beyond our control. We feel boxed in like this fish – we can’t seem to budge, we can’t make headway, we think we have nowhere to go.

We are often loathe to share our feelings because we don’t want to burden others, or we think we’re the only ones to experience this, or we think we should be able to “snap out of it” on our own, or we think there’s a stigma attached to these type of feelings.

Everyone around us seems so…happy, so content. Their world seems so much larger than ours. The rest of the world seems so wonderful and perfect. So why are we so miserable?

Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re feeling like this. It’s our friends, family and those around us who realize that something’s wrong. How do we approach a loved one when we are concerned for their well-being? How do we let someone “in” if they express concern for our health, whether it’s our physical health or mental health?

As a community, we need to begin talking about mental health issues and increasing mental health awareness.  Let’s keep in mind a few things about mental health issues:

  • About 1 in every 4 people in the US will experience some type of mental health issue during their lifetime.
  • Mental illness is a real illness, the same as every other kind of illness. It is not “all in someone’s head”.
  • Mental illness comes in many different forms – just as other illnesses come in all forms. And there are many different types of treatments.
  • Just as more research is needed to discover new treatments for cancer treatment, the same is true for mental illnesses.
  • The more we talk about mental health issues, the more educated we become.

As a Jewish community, we too, need to become more pro-active about mental health education. We need to encourage conversations, outreach and advocacy about this issue.

We’ve had no problems addressing the issues of cancer, diabetes, ALS, weight-loss. Now it’s time to bring mental health issues out of the darkness and into the light. For too long, many people with mental health issues feel like they live under a cloud of anguish and despair. Their families and friends feel distraught and worried. To whom can they turn for solace, comfort, support, community, hope and healing?

As long as people have roamed the earth, illness has existed. Both physical illness and mental health illness. We see mental illness in the Hebrew Bible going all the way back to King Saul. David used to sooth Saul when he was exceedingly agitated by playing his harp. Where can we find what soothes us now, as we cope with our own struggles and those around us?

Every one of us knows someone affected by mental illness: it could be a loved one, a friend, a co-worker, an acquaintance or ourselves. And mental illness has many forms – just as physical illness does. It can be subtle or wildly out-of-control; it can be easily managed or difficult and painful. We need to understand what we can do so that everyone in our embrace feels nurtured and strengthened, so that everyone knows that they feel safe, so that everyone knows that they do not have to feel “trapped”.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are all created “b’tzelem Elohim” – in the image of God. It is up to us to educate ourselves so that we can remove the stigma, and treat everyone with dignity, respect and honor in that “image of God” that each and every one of us so deserves. And so that those who are ill no longer feel they have to remain under the cloud of silence and secrecy about their suffering.

May we open our ears so that we hear the pain in the voice of those who are mentally ill. May we open our eyes so that we see what is going on in front of us and truly see the suffering in the eyes of another. May we open our hands to act on what we see and offer help to those in need. May we open our mouths to respond to the emotional pain in those who suffer, and may we offer healing words of love and comfort. (adapted from Rabbi James L. Simon)

If you feel burdened or trapped or feel that you need to talk to someone (or if you have a loved one in this situation) please know that you can always do the following:

  • call your physician
  • call your rabbi, priest, minister, clergy person
  • go straight to the emergency room if you feel that you might harm yourself or someone around you.

For some excellent Jewish resources on Mental Health issues, please click on the following links:

The Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center Mental Health Page

A book for families dealing with mental health issues: Caring for the Soul, R’fu’at Ha’nefesh

A terrific article on mental health issues and the Jewish community: From Darkness to Light: by Rabbi Marci N. Bellows (The Jewish Week. 4/20/12)

Iran is the Wild Middle East – Can it Be Trusted?

I was born at the end of 1960.

I grew up at the time when young Americans were drafted into the US war in Viet Nam.

I vividly remember the Six-Day War in Israel and how that solidified Jewish pride and identity for so many Jews around the world. I was six years old at that time.

Just before I became Bat Mitzvah in September of 1973, Israel was attacked by her neighbors on Yom Kippur and yet another war – the “Yom Kippur War” – began, taking its toll on so many in our beloved homeland.

I spent my childhood and youth protesting wars, marching in rallies to support Israel, and trying to make sense of the world around me.

“War is Not Healthy” Necklace

I wanted to make my protest visible. So I wore a necklace around my neck that was popular with so many of my friends at that time: “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” I also wore a bracelet on my arm with the name of an American soldier who was taken Prisoner of War in Viet Nam: Sgt James Ravencraft (I wore that bracelet for decades – until I visited the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, DC and found his name on the wall, saw that he died and made a paper engraving of it).

We shook our heads in disbelief every time a plane was hijacked by terrorists, every time the PLO made radical statements and demands. This was in the era before suicide bombers, before car bombs and plane bombs and the World Trade Center was destroyed.

We cried out at poverty and hunger, the plight of the Soviet Jews and at other injustices taking place in our world.

Sadly, the world has not changed. Violence and war rage on. The fundamentalists appear to become more extreme. The internet and social media have enabled messages to be disseminated around the globe in a nano-second. Terror tactics have become more sophisticated. And our enemies have become more wily, more conniving.

In trying to understand the dynamics that exist between enemies and in the hopes that peace would be less elusive, Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobvici made a wonderful, stark and fascinating documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “Deadly Currents” on the tails of the First Intifada. One professor interviewed in the film made a comment that still rings true today (I am paraphrasing): We are Westerners. We approach this conflict from our Western perspective with our Western sensibilities. The Israelis are, for the most part, Westerners as well. But they are Westerners living in the Middle East. This is not the “Wild West.” This is the Wild, Wild EAST. With a different sensibility, a different culture and a different mindset. It is difficult – if not almost impossible – for Westerners to understand the mindset of Easterners.

As Westerners, we might think we have an agreement, an arrangement with set protocols, set standards, set directives. Yet, that is only because that is how we work from our Western perspective. However, that is not necessarily how things work from an Eastern perspective.

So what does that tell us about the P5+1 Agreement that was signed on Tuesday with Iran? Iran is an Eastern country signing an agreement with Western allies. Is Iran to be trusted?

Israel and her Arab neighbors do not want a nuclear Iran. There are murmurings that Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan  and the Gulf States have been meeting clandestinely to figure out how to deal with a nuclear Iran because they all feel that Iran is not to be trusted.

If Iran attacks Israel, all the countries surrounding Israel will be affected, so it’s in all of their best interests to come up with a cohesive plan – even if those countries do not have relations with Israel.

Why was Obama so adamant on signing this agreement? I’m sure he’s aware that Iran’s actions will speak louder than any document they sign.

Our children, our future, our Jewish homeland deserve to live in a nuclear-free world. We deserve to live in a world at peace.

However, we need to be sure that our agreements will not be exploited for other nefarious purposes.

As David J. Cape, Chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said in his opening paragraph in the press release issued yesterday:

“While we share the goal of a diplomatic solution to this crisis, the Iranian regime has a long record of exploiting diplomacy as a cover to advance its nuclear program. The success of today’s agreement depends on Iran’s actions, not its words.”

(For CIJA’s full statement, click here: CIJA Statement on the P5 +1 Agreement )

Reform Movement and AIPAC Statements:

Reform Movement Statement on the P5 + 1 Agreement

AIPAC Statement of the P5 + 1 Agreement

It is my hope that one day, the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah will be fulfilled, when peace will reign:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb

The leopard lie down with the kid…

Nothing evil or vile shall be done;

For the land shall be filled with devotion to the Eternal.” (Isaiah 11: 6 & 9)

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares 

and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation shall not take up sword against nation;

They shall never again know war.” (Micah 4:3)

“We Deliver Love…” If Only!

The other day I was stopped at a traffic light behind a floral shop delivery van:

“We Deliver Love”

Their tag line (as seen on the photo above): “We Deliver Love.”

If only life were that simple. If only our world could be filled with love by receiving a delivery of flowers! No more hatred, no more violence, no more racism. Only flowers…lots and lots of flowers, and therefore, love!

Unfortunately, we know this isn’t the case. We know where hatred, violence and racism abide, love, flowers and beauty seem to disappear.

How can we “deliver love” to the world around us in the midst of violence, evil and hatred?

Perhaps we can learn something from what has come to be known as “The Golden Rule”, one of the most famous lines in the Hebrew Bible which teaches about “love:”

“V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha (Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Many other religions have their own version of this as well.

There is much discussion surrounding this: what does it mean to “Love one’s fellow”? WHO is one’s fellow? Is it only people just like ourselves? Or is it everyone? Do we love those people who don’t love us back? I was thinking about this last week because as we are well aware, last Wednesday and Thursday, on two different continents, racism and hatred motivated vicious attacks on religious institutions.

We all know of the horrific shootings on Wednesday, June 17, 2015 at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Nine people who were engaged in bible study were gunned down in cold blood by a young man steeped in hatred and racist ideas.  First, he sat alongside the pastor studying for awhile in this beautiful, historic church, before pulling out his gun. (For a thoughtful, cogent and articulate perspective, please read Rabbi Lucy Dinner’s “Response to the Massacre in Charleston”. Rabbi Dinner is a Reform rabbi and a southerner, with keen insight into the situation).

The very next day, Jewish extremists perpetrated a horrific arson attack on the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha in Israel. This is one of the most famous Catholic churches in the Holy Land. They too, were steeped in hatred and racism.

And if we were to scour the news, we would find multiple other events happening across the globe on a daily basis, all motivated by those same ideologies: hatred and racism.

Racism and hatred are learned ideologies. Each of us is born innocent. Those who hate, are taught to hate by others around them, by their environment, by their cultural upbringing.

But there is hope that even those who grew up learning about violence, hatred and racism can change. For example, in Israel one NGO called: “Combatants for Peace” comprised of Israelis and Palestinians grew out of a desire of Palestinians and Israelis who were tired of fighting each other. They now work together to promote dialogue, understanding and harmony.

So what does “V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha” have to teach us about this situation?  Dr. Jacob Milgrom, (in his book “Learn with Torah,” Vol. 5, number 30) teaches us three things about this verse:

  1. Loving to or for your neighbor implies action not just feeling. (Do for your neighbor as you would do for yourself) (both Hillel and Jesus taught what is hateful to you, do not do to others, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Hatred is a learned response and therefore, it can be unlearned as well. We need to take whatever actions are necessary to teach understanding, respect and tolerance.
  2. “Your neighbor” implies someone who is physically close to you. This is not a stranger, not an anonymous next door neighbor – but someone who shares your neighborhood with you, who shares the same fears, hopes and dreams as you. For example, this means we must help our friends in the South understand that the Confederate flag is hateful and hurtful to many.
  3. How can you love someone else if you don’t or can’t love yourself? If we can’t find a way to love ourselves, it’s difficult or impossible to love another. When one feels worthless, one can’t find those God-like qualities within – and can’t recognize that other’s are also made in the image of God. Therefore, it becomes much easier to treat others as “less than” or as value-less.

So let us ‘deliver love’ by learning how to love one another and ourselves in our actions and our deeds. And then maybe our world can be filled with flowers, beauty and love for all. 

Israel Pride

Sunday was a gorgeous summer day: sunny, hot, not a cloud in the sky. It was a perfect day for a parade.

Thousands of Jews from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut gathered in New York City to celebrate Israel.

We were young, we were old. We were religiously observant. We were secular. We were Jews of every age, shape, size, political and religious persuasion.

But we all shared one thing in common: Ahavat Yisrael – Love of Israel.

Teen draped in Israeli flag during the 2015 NYC Israel Day Parade
Teen draped in Israeli flag during the 2015 NYC Israel Day Parade
Each group gathered on the side streets along the Upper East Side, to feed into 5th Avenue for the start of the parade, shortly around noon. Each group wore their own colorful t-shirt, marching under their own banner. It was so joyous to see so many of us from all over the Tri-State area.

And who better to begin the Parade than the “YOWies?” – “Yids on Wheels” – a group of Jews who ride motorcycles, raise awareness and “community goodwill” as part of their mandate. Israel and their Jewish identity, along with a love of biking, brings these folk together. Having the “Yowies” begin the Parade was a demonstration that this parade was going to be FUN, it was meant to make us smile and bring joy.

There was no political agenda to the parade: no speeches, no rally “talks”, no fundraising. This was true “klal Yisrael – the community of Israel, the Jewish people, joining together as one united people. It was a beautiful site to see. It was a spectacular event in which to participate.

The only “small political element” that didn’t  dampen our spirits in the least, was a tiny group of Jewish protesters, who were limited to standing in a small cordoned-off area. But their voices were barely heard, their protests seemed…anachronistic, archaic, irrelevant. And they didn’t even cause a stir.

5th Avenue was closed to cars as we marched. All along the way, the NYC police were lined up on the side, not simply providing security, but smiling and cheering us on. It was a display of “NYPD Blue” at their finest! Behind the police stood our supporters, friends and everyone who loves watching a parade!

Israel Parade NYC 2015
Scenes from the Israel Day Parade, 2015
There was music and bands. Radio and TV stations broadcast the Parade so others could share our joy and celebrate Israel with us.

We want others to know that Israel is more than violence and struggle with her neighbors. Israel is more than the headlines we read about in the news.

Israel is a modern, hi-tech, country. The people who live there affirm life each and every day. Like those of us who marched in the parade, the people of Israel are young and old, they are Jews, Muslims and Christians. They are Arab, Druze and Bedouin. They are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular. They are of every religious and political persuasion. And they have much to celebrate.

At the same time, Israel needs our support. We need to visit. Each of us – no matter if we are Jewish, Christian or Muslim, has roots in this special place. We need to discover our heritage. We need to discover with our own eyes the Israel of today and only then, can we truly make educated opinions and work to make peace a living, breathing reality for all who live there.

As Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism once said:

Im tirtzu, ayn zo agada, l’h’yot am chofshi, b’artzaynu, b’Eretz Zion, b’Y’ru’shalayim. – If you will it, it is no dream, to live as a free people, in the land of Zion, the land of Jerusalem.”

Tarnished Faith/Faith Restored

Yesterday I had the great luxury and pleasure of spending the day on an interfaith clergy retreat with my local colleagues. Our session was held at a beautiful retreat center and camp situated right on the Long Island Sound.

My view of the Long Island Sound during my interfaith clergy retreat
My view of the Long Island Sound during my interfaith clergy retreat
As we sat gazing at the water, the facilitator made a request: listen to the silence, the “sound” from the Sound, the words from your soul. What do you hear?

The day was powerful and rich. Filled with collegiality, friendship, learning and an openness of spirit that come only from spending time with one’s peers.

I felt God’s presence suffuse the space: from both the majestic view that surrounded us, as well as from the sharing of our hearts and souls with each other inside the meeting room.

But feeling God’s presence is not unusual for me. I have a deep and abiding faith. From the moment I was born, my mother sang the “bedtime Sh’ma” to me every single night before she put me to sleep:

“Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.”

The Sh’ma is a simple text. It is a declaration of faith. It reminds us of our connection to the Divine.

It was my mother (and father) who showed us by example what it meant to have a personal relationship with God.  My relationship with God sustains me and nurtures me to this day. And from the time I was born to this very day, I cannot go to sleep at night until I recite those words.

So last year, when one of my congregants and dear friends in Highland Park, Illinois, gifted me with a beautiful, silver Sh’ma necklace, I was very moved. She didn’t know my connection to this prayer. Or how it represented a link to both God and to my mother. I put that necklace on and haven’t taken it off since. It symbolizes my unwavering faith.

At one point during yesterday’s clergy retreat, I happened to look down and saw that my beautiful Sh’ma necklace had suddenly turned BLACK with tarnish! In the morning, the necklace had been perfectly shiny silver – and it had never tarnished before.

Tarnished Sh'ma Necklace
Tarnished Sh’ma Necklace
I noticed this during a particularly important part of our day: we were discussing “crises of faith” in a manner of speaking. In our spirit of trust and love, we were talking about difficult topics, painful feelings and questions that made us wonder.

It was as if my necklace was suddenly mirroring the feelings reflected in that room. And, the calm waters of the Long Island Sound simultaneously developed white-capped waves.

Doesn’t each and every one of us sometimes have a feeling that our faith has become “tarnished” or “blackened” when we reach a challenging moment in our lives or enter “troubled waters”? That we find it difficult to reach God when our burdens seem overbearing? How do we find a way to restore that lustre to our faith? To refresh and renew our relationship with the Divine so that we can feel God’s presence shining brightly in our lives?

Just like we need to work on our relationships with those whom we love, our relationship with God also takes hard work. When we question and struggle with issues, we are engaging in dialogue with God. When we join with community in prayer, social action, study and celebration, we experience God’s presence. When we reach out to those in need: of healing, of support, of friendship, we are bringing God’s light into our lives as well as to the lives of others. As Jews, we believe that we will come to know God through our actions, through our behavior. 

And so, my colleagues/friends found our time together yesterday restorative and affirming. It renewed our faith in the work we do, in the friendships we share, in the trust we have built and in God who gives us life and strength.

And my necklace is now shiny and silver once again.

Sh'ma Necklace - Polished
Sh’ma Necklace – Polished

Picking Up the Pieces

On Sunday, the weather was so beautiful that I decided it would be a great day to clean all of my outdoor furniture and prepare my backyard  for the warm weather. My backyard is a very serene and tranquil setting. It’s a perfect place for entertaining guests,  sitting with my morning coffee, reading and writing, or simply relaxing. 

My backyard
My backyard
I put on rubber gloves, filled a bucket with Pine-Sol, pulled out a scrub brush and hose and got “down to business.”

I started to scrub the glass-topped patio table, when suddenly, without any warning, the top shattered into thousands of little pieces. Thankfully, the thick rubber gloves kept my hands from being cut by the shards of glass.

Shattered glass table top
Shattered glass table top
The shock of this unexpected “bang” momentarily stopped me stunned in my tracks. I stood there just staring at the table and the ground for a moment. And then I realized that the glass must have suffered a hairline crack from the harshness of the winter. Thankfully, it shattered while I was cleaning, and not when I had a houseful of guests sitting there eating.

The rest of my day was spent cleaning up the broken glass and trying to restore order to the patio.

None of this is tragic. It was simply a table-top that shattered. A table can be easily replaced.

But I realized that the unexpected way  the glass shattered – from right under my very hands – is a metaphor for the fragility of life.

Our lives can shatter in an instant, just as the glass shattered so quickly, without warning.

Over the past few weeks we have witnessed this with the terrible earthquakes in Nepal, the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia: life was normal one minute and irrevocably shattered the next.

Each of us has our own story: a spouse suddenly announces they want a divorce, or a loved one is diagnosed with some dreaded illness, or some devastating event shatters our world. One moment all seemed fine. And then, everything changed in an instant. Our world was turned upside down without any notice.

We might be paralyzed in our tracks by the shock of what just took place.

How do we continue? Where do we find the strength to pick up the pieces?

We gather strength from community, from the loving embrace of family and friends.

We can dull the sharp pain of the edges of broken shards when we reach out in love and support to those who are suffering, whether by word or deed, whether by offering a loving touch or just offering to sit in quiet companionship. We can be God’s hands, slowly but surely sweeping up the broken pieces and helping to restore life to a new sense of “normal.”

May we gain wisdom in our lives

overflowing like a river of understanding.

Loved, each of us, for the peace we bring to others.

May our deeds exceed our speech,

and may we never lift up our hand

but to conquer fear and doubt and despair.

Rise up like the sun, O God, over all humanity.

Cause light to go forth over all the lands between the seas.

And light up the universe with joy

of wholeness, of freedom. and of peace.”

(Mishkan T’filah, A Reform Siddur, pg. 287, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007, New York.)

Food for Mind, Body and Spirit

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