Waiting for my child to return home in the snowstorm

Last night, my daughter got off the bus 3.5 hours later than she normally does, from her school which is 7 miles away. You can imagine what was going on through my mind as I waited for her. I’m not the only one who had these thoughts last night. I know that many of you were concerned about the safe arrival of your friends and family after yesterday’s storm. It should not take 8 hours to get to northern New Jersey from the city! It’s one thing if we can contact our loved ones, as there is reassurance in knowing that they are okay. But my daughter is five. She does not (yet) have a cell phone. (Suffice it to say that now we are looking into other methods for communicating with her in instances like this).  We knew she was on the road, but we had no idea where and no idea when she would return. It is unconscionable to me that the bus company was not answering the phone. Yes; they have and will hear about it again from me. In any case, to say that I felt unsettled and worried as the evening progressed is an understatement. I understood that the weather was bad, but to not even know where your child is. It is beyond.

At some point in the evening, I found myself shoveling snow to try to accomplish something while also getting out some of my emotional energy. I’ve always found the act of shoveling snow soothing, comforting, and it makes me feel accomplished when I look back and see a physical change in my driveway and sidewalk. As I shoveled more and more snow and sprinkled some salt on the ground – still without her return, I began relying on other measures to cope. I sent text messages to friends, asking them to pray for her, for us. Friends started trying to figure out how we could get in touch with the bus company, just for peace of mind. I began calling other parents whose children were on the bus.

But the most painful moment for me was when I was shoveling the sidewalk in front of our house. There was a patch of the sidewalk that was still covered in leaves underneath the snow. The combination of the heavy, wet leaves and the several inches of snow made it difficult for me to easily lift my shovel. It pushed me over the edge of my already vulnerable state. I immediately began to cry. Both the shoveling and my waiting were beyond my control.

leaves and snow

As I cried, with my head hanging over my shovel, looking towards the ground, I felt guilty for not picking up my daughter from school. I should have known better than to have her take the bus. I had thought about it in the afternoon, but between my anticipated arrival time at her school – and the fact that I had my other daughter with me – I decided that it was best for her to take the bus. In hindsight, I will never do that again.

In our Torah portion this week, we read:

Jacob then made a vow saying, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God.” (Gen. 28:20-21).

Wow. The timing of these verses after a night like last night is no coincidence.

There is something so powerful in calling upon God in moments of distress. It was comforting to me that other people were praying for us, waiting for her, just like Jacob, to return home safely. At the end of all our long journeys, we are so grateful to…just be home.

Many of us are returning “home” for Thanksgiving. For some, home is where we were raised. For others, home is where our family now is. To some, home is the Holy Land, the land of Israel. Tzeit’chem l’shalom. Go in peace. Bo’achem l’shalom. Return in peace.

But no matter where home is, we are reminded that home only is what it is because of who is with us while we are there.

I am beyond words grateful that my daughter was safe from all harm. Thank you, God, for protecting my child on her journey home to me.

80 Years since Kristallnacht: Thoughts on Swastikas and Diwali

Today we commemorate Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” which is given its name for the shards of broken glass shattered in the streets of Nazi-Germany on November 9-10, 1938. On that evening, Nazis ransacked German synagogues, killing about 90 Jews. Kristallnacht is considered a turning point in the history of the Holocaust for this very reason. Tonight, I will light a yahrzeit candle before Shabbat in memory of these Jews and to mark this occasion. In our shul, a speaker will talk about his family’s experience during this time.

It’s been 80 years. Another whole lifetime. Have things changed?

Nearly two weeks ago, 11 Jews were murdered while praying in a Pittsburgh synagogue. As a rabbi of a synagogue myself, I can tell you that this has wreaked havoc on our world. How do we protect ourselves while still wanting our synagogue to be open enough to allow entry to those who wish to be there for the right reasons? How do we explain to our children why people are being wanded with a metal detector when they enter into a house of worship, a place which I have explained to them is literally a safe sanctuary?

Suffice it to say that anti-Semitism still exists. Some say it’s on the rise. Some say it’s always been here, but just getting more press. Who am I to make these claims? But as a rabbi, I am doing my best to encourage children and adults to continue being proud of their Jewish identity despite what is happening in the world around us. Continue to wear that Star of David necklace. Continue to voice your Jewish pride. Do not hide your Judaism, my friends.

And then, something like this happens: a kid in middle school is bullied for being a Jew, a swastika is found on a door to a Jew’s home, a gunman opens fire in a synagogue on Shabbat.

Just this morning I learned of a practice by my friends who are Indian: placing swastikas on the doors of their home on the holiday of Diwali, as a sign that all who enter should be blessed. I’ve tried to read up on this practice and admittedly, I do not know much and would love to learn more. I am grateful to be part of a community comprised of residents of all faiths, including people who celebrate Diwali. It was a victory in my town only in the last few years when the school district decided to close on this holiday. I celebrate that victory.

And yet, wow.

diwali swastika

I don’t even know where to start.

It’s clear that I was raised in a white, working-class (and Jewish) bubble. To me, a swastika was nothing but a sign of hate, nothing but a sign of anti-Semitism, nothing but disregard for the dignity of the soul of another person. To learn that it could serve as a sign to wish others well? The thought honestly blows my mind because of years of seeing it only as a sign of hate.

As it turns out, the symbol – this “swastika” – has been around for about 5,000 years and only in the last 80+ has it taken on a new – and hateful – meaning. I say to myself:

“I want to know more.”

In the Jewish tradition, there are rituals that we follow because they are obligatory upon us: holding a Passover seder, keeping kosher, lighting candles on Shabbat. These are called “mitzvot” – or commandments.  If these commandments are written in the Torah or are rabbinically-derived they are obligatory and we cannot change them without a formal process of re-examining that mitzvah. I teach my bar/bat mitzvah students that a mitzvah is not necessarily translated as a “good deed,” but rather a “commandment,” to demonstrate that sometimes we might not feel like doing them, but we are obligated to do them nonetheless.

And then, in the Jewish tradition, there are rituals which CAN be changed because they are not mandated, but are rather community customs, or minhagim. In the Jewish faith, some customs might be to eat legumes on Passover (or not eat legumes on Passover). When reciting a certain prayer, one community may stand and another might be seated. These are customs, depending on the scenario, that can be altered.

If I were a rabbi in an Indian community, this might be a dilemma I would face about the desire/need to change community custom – or not – around the display of a swastika on Diwali.

As a rabbi, I want every Jew to practice their Judaism freely, in a safe space. I would never want someone to tell me that I cannot practice my religion in the way that is commanded of me or in the way that it has become my custom. So too, I would never want to tell a person of another faith that they cannot practice their religion freely. I guess this means that I would never tell someone who celebrates Diwali to remove the swastika from their door.

And yet…and yet…and yet.

I am left with so many questions.

A part of me wants to add a caveat to my previous statement – that I wouldn’t want someone to tell me that I cannot practice my religion freely.  What I would add to that are the words “so long as I am practicing it without harming others.” I say that because I obviously do not support acts of terrorism which are done as a religious act in the name of some supposed God. I would not even call that a god. In the Jewish tradition, life supersedes everything else.

The question for me is where we draw the line regarding what is safe to other people.

It’s clear when the killing of innocent lives is done in the name of religion, there should be no place for this and justice should be met.  But where do we draw the line with hate crimes? If a swastika is placed on the entry of my door or on the front steps of my synagogue, it is a hate crime. But when that same swastika is placed on the door of a Hindu on Diwali, it represents only well wishes. Can those two scenarios mutually exist? I honestly can’t even get my head around it.

To my friends who celebrate Diwali, I want to know more. Please share with me your thoughts, your struggles. Is this something that is commanded of you – and must be practiced or is it merely a custom, which, given the current context of anti-Semitism and hate, might be altered or eliminated? Are you upset with me for even proposing that question? It’s really a genuine inquiry.

And to my Jewish friends – you may be upset with me for being so open to swastikas on the holiday of Diwali. Please don’t misunderstand me or quote me out of context, especially as I’m genuinely wrestling with all of us. I’m invoking the commandment to dan ‘cha zechut — give others the benefit of the doubt. It’s really a question about the boundaries of religious freedom.

At first glance at the above photo, I see hate. The red paint or chalk on the stairs seems like blood – and sends my mind off into a world of terror. But as I look closer, I see flowers and twinkling candles, leading me into the home.

I would be thrilled if an Indian friend were to invite me to a Diwali celebration in their home. And now knowing this, if I was greeted at the front door with a swastika, might it be up to me to change my internal dialogue to see that swastika as a sign of a (gulp) blessing?

Is it possible that the same emblem which greets me in one context with hate and fear, could, in another context, shower me with hope and love?