When joy collides with sadness…

It’s been a long time since I wrote just because. Just because I wanted to write and not because I needed to write for work or the local paper or or or

I like writing like this because it is the most raw and beautiful form of expression. Completely uninhibited. Even if I know you are reading this.

Doesn’t it feel liberating to be…yourself?

I’m a little overwhelmed with emotion right now. My kids are off to camp for the first time in two years. I’m back to my office after 16 months. And colliding with this joy and hope…Yes, that’s it! That’s why I’m so off.

My joy is colliding with my sadness.

Today is my sister’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of her passing. She’s been gone for 28 years. By now she should have been married, had children, been a successful accountant, everything she wanted. She died when she was 18. And even after all of this time, as resilient and hopeful as I try to be (try being the key word here), clearly, I’m still not over it. Are we ever?

We say “may her memory be a blessing.” We share those memories – even though it’s hard to remember them. (I was only 13 when it happened). We name our children after our loved ones. We give to charities in their memory. My sister played the flute in high school, so I donate to an organization that gives instruments to children in low-income families. Ooops, allow me to go do that right now…

Wow. I just went to their website. And there she was. A beautiful young girl (get this!): playing the flute. It’s like she’s playing it for me. It’s like I can hear her again, squeaky and off-key at first and then, oh so melodic and graceful.

What I would give for just one more note.

I grew up in an area with few Jewish families. When my father, z”l, was observing a yahrzeit for his father, z”l, he would have to “round-up” a minyan, a quorum of people, to recite the necessary prayers. He insisted on serving them breakfast or a meal. At first, he would make the eggs, platter the lox from the synagogue kitchen and then, as it became harder to stand on his feet, he would eventually invite everyone to meet at a local diner. Oh, to have one more diner meal with my dad! It was always a competition to see whose meal in the family was the cheapest. But never when it came to guests on his tab.

This morning I gathered with people on my deck: friends, friends like family, community members. And they joined me so I could say some prayers in memory of my sister. What I love so much about my tradition is that when we gather to do this, we don’t sit and weep, although that would certainly be okay. We gather together to pray. To connect. To support. To go to another place.

As a spiritual leader, I’ve been guiding my community through this pandemic. Instead of praying towards Jerusalem as we would while praying in-person, I prayed towards my screen. Finding some way of connecting, rejoicing, and dancing from the privacy of our own homes seemed to test my creativity, stamina, and spiritual truth.

But screens cannot replace touch. An embrace. Just plain being in someone’s physical presence. What I would give, sometimes, to just hug someone through the screen.

This morning, on my deck, in the 84-degree heat others buoyed me up. Because when joy meets sadness, we embrace the beauty and glory of the moment, our God-given ability to connect with others, to lend a tender and supportive space and place for a moment of sanctity.

But before people came to support me, I was alone with my kids. In the midst of getting them ready for day camp, I had them join me as I lit a candle in memory of my sister, their aunt. I brought out Michelle’s high school graduation picture, one of the last ones we had of her before she passed. It’s been in the same frame for years. It’s gone to college with me, moved with me all over the country and world, and today it sat right in front of my daughters as they ate warm bagels (one everything, one blueberry) from the smeary granite countertop.

My 5-year old, who has never even met my sister, looked at the picture and said in the sweetest voice: “I miss Aunt Michelle.”

My heart melted.

Oh, to miss someone we haven’t even met in this lifetime.

Before I knew it, the kids were back home, as they enthusiastically shared the details of their day at camp. They wanted to know how my day was. And, perhaps more importantly, whether I had any leftovers from the breakfast I served at morning minyan on my deck.

“Of course I have leftovers. We’ve got bagels and lox and deviled eggs, cookies and cheese danish and so much more.”

Their eyes lit up. They looked at each other. I knew they had a plan.

“Let’s have a party!” They said together.

And so we did. Off they went to set the table, select the dishes, put the food out, and arrange cloth napkins in perfectly long circular rings. Before I could blink, one put fake flowers with a faux butterfly into a translucent vase to add to the festivities, trying to sneak in some cream cheese with her thumb.

For a moment, I remembered when I was gathering platters this morning to use on my deck. I said “no” to the cupcake one, to the one with balloons – those platters should not be used at such a solemn occasion.

But here they were, throwing a party on the afternoon of my sister’s yahrzeit. And they didn’t even know that tomorrow would be her actual birthday.

When sadness meets joy, we welcome, we marvel, we lift up that joy as if it’s the only thing we’ve got.

Even leftovers can be turned into a party.

A wrath in pursuit of reproductive justice

The other day, I found myself alone weeping painfully in my car. The tears suddenly turned into anger and I started yelling and cursing at the windshield, raising my hands above the steering wheel as if I were yelling at someone. In my head, I was. If my rage could have done harm, I am certain it would have shattered the glass sunroof of my car.

There was nothing specific that happened to me that caused me to experience such rage, except for the thought, the concern, that maybe some demon of a person would force my daughters, God forbid, to do something with their bodies against their will. This is called rape. Worse yet: maybe our government would try to force my daughters, my babies, God forbid, to do something against their will a second time: bring an unwanted child into this world because of that rape.

At that horrific thought, my rage took only a short detour to pray: “Please, God, protect them.” And then instantly, I felt deep sorrow and then, like God, wrath once again.

I began to think about how people vote. How people vote based on tax policy, how white supremacy sadly draws people in, how people vote to have borders “protect” our country, but simultaneously perpetuate white privilege and a “zero-tolerance” nationalism such that over 5,500 children are separated from their parents in just a few years. I cannot fathom how that which drives people to vote for some of these inhumane causes is at the same time horrifically unconscionable to me. (How dare you separate any child from their parents!) I vote in part to protect my children from the continued criminal behavior and women’s trauma that pervade our nation on a daily basis. But why should women’s rights and reproductive freedom be a reason for me to vote in the first place? Shouldn’t these be basic human rights protected by our nation’s Constitution?

I began yelling aloud at the person in my head voting against this protection of my daughters. Instantly, I felt betrayed.

I am saddened by those who believe in voting to withhold the right of my daughters to make choices about their bodies. Or those who want to force my daughters to have an unwanted child if raped, God forbid. Is this how we define “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” And have we really just confirmed a woman who – despite her saying she will leave reproductive rights unchanged – has been nominated by a president who has committed to appointing someone who would overturn Roe v. Wade? My OB-GYN and I will not have it.

Let me be clear. I do not think the choice of abortion is completely going away. I believe it in my heart because I believe that citizens of our country will revolt. It is safe to say, however, that our country’s recent confirmation will try to make it more difficult for women to make these choices about their bodies. As Roe will be left up to the states to legislate, women may need to cross state borders or – worse yet – resort to unsafe conditions out of desperation. Ten states have already passed “trigger laws” which would ban abortions if Roe is overturned and it is expected that at least another ten would follow suit.

I have made my voice heard. I have registered my vote. My daughters were there with me, helping me put my ballot, with excitement, into the box. Thank God, in that moment, we all felt safe. Especially with our masks. Because, as much we are a religious family, we also believe in science.

But even after the ballot is received, my rage continues. And it will continue to push me forward to fight for the rights of my daughters. Every single day.

Please do not use my page as a political platform that would rape my daughters of their reproductive freedom. It is a basic human right to decide what to do with one’s body, in whichever state they reside. I am not denying your children their ability to choose a different path with their life if, God forbid, they are raped, too. I pray this never happens to your children.

You see, that’s what “pro-choice” is all about. You make your choice; I make mine. But please do not contest this God-given right they deserve, rights so basic to the essence of what it means to exist, that to deny them of these rights nationwide strips them of their innocence, their confidence, and the values I have worked so hard to instill in them.

We have regressed decades, my friends, decades. But there is hope. It is within us.

Countless times in our sacred scriptures God’s wrath flares up and when it does, it is in pursuit of justice.

May my rage – and yours – shatter the glass sunroofs of our country, in the pursuit of protecting the future generation and safety of my daughters, granddaughters – and yours, too.

By myself, but not alone

On Monday, I had surgery. It was on my foot – no big deal. Or so I thought.

Despite being prepared during this pandemic that no one would be waiting for me in the waiting room and that no one would be allowed to walk me in or out of the hospital (or shall I say “hobble” out of the hospital), I was really unprepared for how much I felt alone during what seemed like a fairly routine surgery. And, I know I had it easy compared with so many others before me.

When I think about people dying alone, mothers giving birth alone, loved ones experiencing great pain and illness without being able to speak or see their family, that is great pain. That is loneliness. And those were the most difficult stories that I heard during this pandemic. Devastating. And me? I would be in and out of the hospital in only a few short hours. Who was I to complain about being lonely?

But I was.

After walking through eerily empty hallways and infrared temperature checks, I eventually found my way to the operating room area. I got into my hospital bed, fully masked and nervous to be sedated. In between my frantic last minute texts to friends and family (please, say prayers for me!), a petite and kind nurse started to ask me questions about my health history. I paused and asked for her name. “Michelle” she said. “One “L” or two?” I asked. “Two.” And I immediately started to cry.

Michelle looked at me and said, “please, tell me why you are crying.” I explained to her that it’s scary to go through something like this alone, but Michelle (with two “Ls”) was the name of my sister, who passed away decades ago. Somehow, instantly, I didn’t feel so alone. The nurse got it and was deeply touched that she filled that emptiness for me. She said under normal circumstances she would give me a hug, but, she couldn’t. Honestly, she didn’t need to. I felt so protected and cared for, just knowing that somehow, somewhere, my sister was with me. Michelle would take care of me.

“Will you be with me in the OR, Michelle?” “Yes, sweetie.” She called me “sweetie” as if I was her junior, even though I was sure I had a least a decade on her. There was comfort in knowing that Michelle would be by my side.

As I lie in the hospital bed, different people gradually opened the curtain to say hello to me and ask me to sign my life away. I met with the anesthesiologist, several surgeons, some aides, some more doctors and nurses, all of whom would be with me in the OR. We probably had at least a minyan taking care of me.

And, as it goes, before I knew it, I woke up and my surgery was over. As they were pushing me on the gurney, I thanked everyone and asked the crew if I could buy them lunch as a token of my appreciation. It was 4 o’clock. My doctor met me in the recovery room and showed me how to wear my new, fashionable boot. As he velcroed the pieces together and gave me instructions on wearing it, I started spacing out – and not because of the anesthesia.

I was instantly taken back to middle school, high school maybe. My father, of blessed memory, had four (or was it five? I’m embarrassed that I don’t know…) toes removed after various other medical complications. He wore custom-made boots for as long as I can remember. I remember helping my dad put on his boots, with plastic-like braces that stretched up around his calves, sometimes leaving marks as if they cut off his already-poor diabetic circulation. I remember tightening his laces and as a young, bratty child sometimes complaining about how long it would take to do this sometimes every morning. I feel horrible admitting that now.

I stared at my new boot and immediately felt empathy for my dad. If he suffered for years in his boots, I could handle one month. I remembered making sure the tongues of his boots were in the correct position and how his customized insoles were properly in place. I remembered how his laces would sometimes break after hanging on by only a thread. I remembered how difficult it was to get the length of each side of the laces correct because if one was too long, the other side was too short. Putting on my boot brought me back to my father. He was instantly there with me too, helping me recover.

“Do I wear my boot while sleeping?” I asked my doc.

“You can, some people like to do that for more support.”

If this boot brings me closer to my father, you better believe I’m wearing it to bed for more support.

No one walked me into the hospital or sat in the waiting room eager to hear how my procedure went.

Although I was by myself, though, I was far from being alone.

Michelle, Dad: thanks for being there by my side when no one else could.



Mini Pretzels & Cheesy Whale Crackers

One of the things that I loathe about my Passover cleaning is cleaning my kids’ car seats. If there is one place that is a leavened product-magnet it is my kids’ car seats. Whether it is Popcorners, or rice cakes or a bagel on-the-go, it seems that those things can never get cleaned. Without Passover, their seats might always be gross. Are you with me?

So the other day, after removing all of the padding and shifting the buckles and straps, as I was vacuuming their car seats outside on a beautiful, warm day, I saw a half of a mini pretzel and a cheesy whale cracker stuck in a tiny crevice of the little one’s seat. Lovely.

But no problem here because…

My mom just won a new Dirt Devil as a door prize and she passed on her winnings to me, just in time for Passover.  (Thanks, Mom).  I took out the smallest attachment and put it on the vacuum. I was excited to suck up the food pieces with it.

dirt devil

But no such luck.

Even the smallest vacuum attachment could not reach those pieces of hametz, leavened snacks.

I immediately began to worry. How would I sleep at night during Passover knowing that a half of a mini pretzel and a cheesy whale cracker was stuck in her car seat? Would my declaring all of my leavened products like dust in the earth be good enough when these snacks were much larger than a speck of dust? Since I cannot own leavened products on Passover, would my temporary selling of it to someone who was not Jewish satisfy, even though I can see it?

I tried to get it with my fingers. Nothing. Maybe my small pinky? Nope.  That didn’t work either. I ran inside to get a handful of Q-tips. Surely that would do the trick. But even the Q-tip could not dislodge the hametz from its hiding spot.

The fact that I was so concerned about this made me feel – for a slight second – righteous, as if God saw my determination as even a little bit worthy. Do I get an “A” for effort?

I moved to my other daughter’s car seat, as if taking a break to clean the second car seat would loosen the hametz from the crevice of the first one. It didn’t. Because after cleaning the second seat, the half of mini pretzel and cheesy whale cracker were still there in the first one.

I became frustrated and so I decided to bang on the side of the car seat, as if to use force to dislodge the hametz. I thought of my kids singing “Bang, bang, bang, dig your hammers low…” – that kids’ Passover song that describes the slaves in Egypt. But the banging didn’t work either. And then, in a last ditch effort, I decided to do something a little different. I turned over the car seat and shook it a bit. And then…out popped the half of a mini pretzel and cheesy whale cracker onto the blacktop of my driveway. Uh-mazing!

I took a moment to celebrate and then I paused to think about my methodology in getting it out.

I had been pushing and pulling, picking and prying at those things, all to no avail. I had used all sorts of instruments to suck it out, pull it out, and poke it out. And then, when I finally took a completely different approach – turning the entire car seat upside down, something finally shifted – and it didn’t even happen by force.

Isn’t that true of life, too?

I instantly thought about areas of my life where I tried to control, force, or push my own agenda, thoughts, feelings and hopes. Sometimes this was at the detriment of my family members or my co-workers, and other times, I realized that I was the only one that lost out.

Sometimes to get rid of the hametz, of that which bogs us down in life, we have to shift our perspective or our understanding. Sometimes to remove the schmootz, the goop of our lives, or to move on from a problem, we just have to see it with new eyes, or try not to force that which cannot be pushed.

And when we do that, we are blessed with showers of mini pretzels and cheesy whale crackers that pop out, completely on their own.

Isn’t it amazing how things just fall into place when we don’t try to force them?



There was a time when I would cry over spilled milk.

There was a time when I would cry over spilled milk.

I remember the time when I literally cried after pumping breast milk for dozens of minutes, only to spill the entire bottle on the plastic, laminate countertops of my then-Long Island home. Even though I was blessed with enough milk to donate to babies in the NICU – and I needed to purchase a large storage freezer for the sole purpose of storing my milk – those mere eight ounces of breast milk felt like gold to me.

Or there were the times when I would get my kids ready for bed at night, pouring milk into their sippy cups and accidentally knocking the cups over before I sealed them. Somehow, at the end of a long day with two young children, this would push me over the edge. I would cry over spilled milk.

And then there were times when the spilled milk of my life was dumped in other ways – like the times I lost sleep at night over something that happened at work or the time when I internalized, while still nursing baby, that I would soon be a single mom.

With Passover soon upon us, I just began my lengthy to-do list of my pre-Passover insanity. This year, because my head happened to be in my storage freezer searching for frozen bagels to consume (or rather, to feed to my kids), I found a bag of random stuff. When I opened the bag, I noticed two items inside: frozen cheesecake from last Shavuot (I know) and plastic bags of pumped breast milk. I looked at the dates on the breast milk bags. They were two years old. This means that I didn’t get rid of them last Passover.

It doesn’t surprise me that I didn’t throw them out last year. Back then, I was still hanging onto the baggage in my life – the stressors of work and single parenthood, the woes of relationships, the pain of one more loss. And although I believe that muddling through our pain is the best way to get beyond it, at least back then, dumping my expired breast milk down the drain just felt like one more loss and one more dream unfulfilled. They would stay in the freezer next to the frozen corned beef.

I thought I would always have at least three kids. Then life happened. Needless to say, it was difficult for me to stop nursing my second child. As beautiful as it was to see her become more self-sufficient, I enjoyed the bonding, the comfort and our time together. Selfish, I know, but I did not want it to end, especially knowing that she might be my last.

When I stopped nursing my baby, I began finding other ways of clinging on to my dream of another child. I kept every article of clothing, all the baby toys and even my pumping parts, should I be blessed with another pregnancy at some point.

But one day, in the middle of a yoga session, I realized that I already had everything I needed.

Before I was a mom, like Hannah in the Bible, I found myself praying for a child. After years of infertility, countless rounds of fertility injections and IVF, I would finally have a baby. And then, years later, another. I was blessed with not one, but two healthy children.

Just last night my daughter said to me, “Mommy, do you like being a rabbi?”

“Yes, honey. I love being a rabbi.”

“But do you love being a Mommy even more?” she asked, with a slight reservation in her tone.

“Yes, dear. I love you two more than anything else in the whole, wide world.”

And the truth is, isn’t that enough?

Two nights ago, I put my old breastmilk on the counter to thaw and just last night I poured it down the drain. I didn’t even shed a tear. As I looked at the golden milk swirling around my stainless-steel sink, I noticed residual pieces of soggy broccoli from last night’s dinner. The juxtaposition of the leftover food and my milk was powerful, as the green residue enveloped my milk with a mundane sanctity.

breast milk down the drain

“It’s just spilled milk,” I told myself.

And then, I moved on.

This year, as I continue my Passover to-do list, I’m feeling a bit freer than last. I’m free of the “should-be’s” and “must-haves.” I’m learning to live with the spoils of the spilled milk of my life. In fact, in addition to getting rid of my hametz, my leavened food, I’m also ridding my home of bags of baby clothes and heaps of toddler toys. I will drop them off at a local women and children’s shelter, where my hametz will be someone else’s treasure.

Sometimes pouring your own milk down the drain is a deeply liberating feeling.

In another life, I must have been Baptist.

In another life, I must have been Baptist.

There is something about the energy, hope, and uplifting sense of spirit in a Baptist worship service. As I entered the sanctuary of a Jersey City Baptist church this past Sunday, with nine other members of my synagogue, I felt that sense of spirit. The church choir led us in song, furiously clapping their hands, dancing, lifting their arms up to the sky, as if God was reaching down and touching their fingertips.

We, 550 people of faith, were all there for the same purpose: to advocate for gun safety, affordable housing and education funding. Before the program began, as I walked down the aisle, I found myself bobbing my head and swinging my hips to the music of the choir. I loved it.

I approached my seat on the dais, the stage, where I would jot down a few notes for the opening prayer which I would lead. Upon grabbing my seat, I immediately wanted to get up and dance, grab the hands of some choir members behind me – people I didn’t even know – and rock out in praise of the good Lord. I decided to remain seated so that I did not block others’ view of the choir, so instead I just danced in my seat, swooshing my knees back-and-forth, clapping with joy, ignoring the fact that I still hadn’t fully planned the prayer which I would recite in front of the crowd just minutes later. It didn’t matter, though, because in that moment, I needed to dance, to clap, to pray with my body.

Outside, friendly people who served as security guards, opened doors for everyone to freely enter. They were in pedestrian clothes with yellow tape around their arms that read: “Security.” I wondered if they were credentialed or just members of the church who stepped up to volunteer.

Flash forward two days later—

I sat with colleagues in a synagogue to debrief about our program on Sunday. The doors were locked and I needed to wait for someone to buzz me in. Security was obviously a concern. When I got inside, we talked about what we did well on Sunday and what could have been done better. I acknowledged the glory of the choir, who led us so beautifully in uplifting song. I left the meeting, got into my car, programmed my cell phone’s GPS to lead me home, but not without also doing a search for a nearby place where I could grab a cup of coffee. I needed it.

I followed my GPS, listening to where she told me to go. Before long, I noticed that the streets began to have more potholes. The houses got smaller and closer together. Sidewalks were cracked and fences were broken. And then, just as I turned down the street which would lead me to my coffee, I spotted this:


My heart sunk. Wow.

I turned down the street, heading away from the sign, which was posted outside a shop on the corner. I quickly found myself turning my car around, finding a parking spot, and heading towards the shop, where three black men greeted me outside.

“I just saw your sign and I wanted to support you,” I said to them.

One man, presumably the shop owner walked inside with me. It was a tiny shop. Inside were two children. One of them, perhaps a teenager, was smoking a cigarette. The entire shop smelled like a mixture of cigarettes and musty incense. I headed towards the refrigerator, where I would look for a calorie-free, caffeine-free option. As I reached into the cold fridge, I took note of my expensive Calvin Klein coat.

“We have lots of other things, too, ma’am. T-shirts, and lots of other stuff.”

“No, thanks. I just wanted to grab a drink. Here, I’ll take this one. How much?”

In my head, I honestly thought that he would jack up the price. Two dollars, at least, or maybe $2.50 for this bottle of flavored sparkling water.

“Seventy-five,” he said.

“Cents?” I said silently in my head. I thought to myself how silly that was, that he should at least charge a dollar. And then I thought that maybe the other people buying a sparkling water might not be able to afford it.

“Keep the change,” I said to him, giving him a dollar bill.

“Awh, thanks so much, ma’am,” as if I had tipped him with a $20.

Before walking to my car, I snapped a picture of their sign, trying hard to act as if I was checking my phone, so as to not embarrass them. I felt like such a snob taking that picture.

I asked the guy standing outside which street we were on, since there were no street signs. Once I got in my car, I wanted to head in the right direction, towards my coffee, which I still craved.

I made a left, and then a right, and then went straight past the coffee place, which was under construction. I said to myself, now giving up on my coffee, “It’s a good thing I stopped for this sparkling water.”

On my way home, I began thinking about the ways in which the media, publications, society, songs, culture, you-name-it have taught me to see people of color as different, as scary, as unsafe.

It saddens me that a shop owner felt the need to put up a sign like this, a sign which conveys that not only is business suffering, but also that it is assumed that nefarious activities happen there.

I now think back to my time in the Baptist Church. So wrapped up in the majestic songs of praise, I felt little difference between me and those church choir members. As I lugged my Coach purse in tow, I was completely oblivious to the socioeconomic differences between me and many of these people in church. As I walked down the aisle that day, skipping along to the glory of the music and as I sat with fellow NJ clergy on the dais, the church’s stage, I was not aware of the difference between my skin color and so many of them.

But maybe I should have been.

Because although there is not a difference between us, let’s face it, there still is a difference. We have a long way to go to acknowledge those differences, which will help us pursue a time when equality and justice will reign.

Until then, I will marvel in my naivety as I pray with my soul sisters. And I will dance with my Baptist friends as we, hand-in-hand, celebrate the glory of God with trust and faith in a more hopeful and colorful future.

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?


In Memoriam: UPHS Alum, this one’s for us

I just cried like a baby.

One of those deep cries that is borderline wailing. As I type this, I can still see the goosebumps on my arms, raising up from my pale, sunscreened skin. I am so sad.

Within the last week+, I learned about the death of two of my high school classmates. Two. And I’m not even forty. I didn’t know them well. I knew their faces, I remembered their mannerisms and their smiles in history class and in the halls of my very rural public high school.

Tonight I also learned about a third classmate, who past away months ago. And although I probably haven’t seen her in decades, or spoken with her in many years, she was one of the most cheerful people in school. I remember her cheering for me on the high school tennis team; her determination was fierce, but it took a close second only to her jovial sportsmanship. If I close my eyes, I can see her on the sidelines after she finished singles and I began my doubles match. She was wearing her white, polyester tennis skirt and a gold, collared team shirt. My win would be her win.

Tonight I caught myself crying, my head buried in my arms, hunched over the granite island in the middle of my close-quartered kitchen. I was dumbfounded as I thought to myself:

“These people all have young children! This is not fair! This is not the way that life should be.” When I think about these children being raised without these parents, Oh, God, I cannot bear the pain.

I immediately think of my own children, so grateful to be alive. At the same time, this horrific thought occurs to me: how would my kids get by without me?  I cry even more before realizing that my daughter asked me to leave her door open when she went to bed tonight. So I caught my breath, swallowed the cries, and tiptoed to her room, gingerly shutting the door so she could not hear me in tears. God, be with me and my children.

I grew up in a small town. We called it “the valley.” It was one of these “blue ribbon” school districts that won many awards. We prided ourselves – or perhaps our school administrators prided themselves – on it. But we’ve had our fair share of troubles: high school shootings, rampant drug addictions, and DUIs that made top-news in the local Town and Country paper. Some of us are still here. Many of us moved away.

But on nights like this, even those of us far away don’t feel so far away from home. Because the truth is, when stuff like this happens, I feel very close with my classmates. I feel connected to this place. I send random hug gifs to those in the valley. And I pray for someone who I haven’t seen or spoken with in years. Because…we have a past together; because their pain is our pain; because that moment, that touch, that look, that smile, that perhaps-even-tiny connection we made with them in homeroom class touched a deep part of our fleeting souls that we didn’t fully appreciate…until now.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy like this…or three tragedies…to have these feelings. As my father, of blessed memory, would say: “That ain’t right.” But that’s the way it is. We can’t label these feelings. We don’t know how to describe them. But they are there and they affect us. We are in this together; we are together – despite our distance.

I made myself a hot cup of tea before I sat down to write this. Echinacea-flavored Yogi tea, for immune support. I might need it after a day like this. If only we were immune from this stuff: these diseases, these tragedies, this pain. My Yogi tea bag message says it all: “Give love, get love.” And so we shall. And so we will.

Rest in peace, Bill.

Rest in peace, Jared.

Rest in peace, Rachel.

We, those who grew up with you, those who were raised and taught with you, those who cheered for you, even those of us who weren’t even friends with you, remember you and pray for you and love you. In your memory, we will spread love and random acts of kindness throughout the valley and beyond.

We’ve got your families in our prayers. We’ve got your children in our loving arms. We are going to get through this…together.

Time Heals Wounds

One year ago today was the day that my then 17-month-old daughter grabbed my piping hot cup of tea off the counter. It came crashing down upon her, trapping boiling hot water in her onesie. It felt like one of those scenes in a movie that happens in slow motion because I watched it happen, tried to stop it, and was unsuccessful at preventing her from experiencing the pain she would go through in the weeks and months to come. My other daughter witnessed the scene, glass shattered on the floor, as I called the doctor in one hand and stripped my daughter’s clothing with the other. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever witnessed. You never want to see your children in pain. She let out the most piercing cry I have ever heard. If I close my eyes, I can hear her screaming all over again.

The last few weeks have been difficult for me. More than likely this was because I knew I was approaching this anniversary and I feared that I would somehow relive it painfully again. I am not overwhelmed with guilt; I know that accidents happen. But there’s something to be said about approaching that one-year anniversary and remembering where I was on that traumatic day.

It was June 20th, 2017, the first day of my 10-day vacation. A Tuesday. To be honest, I don’t even remember what I had planned for my vacation, since I would tend to my daughter’s every need for the entirety of said “vacation.”

Immediately after the accident, I dropped off my older daughter at the shul where I work. Thank God for good colleagues and friends. I quickly rushed my younger daughter to the local ER, where they spent so much time taking down information and were slow to help relieve her pain. I remembered going to the same hospital to deliver her, only then it was I who was painfully crying. I’d rather be in labor twofold all over again than helplessly watch my daughter this way.

We waited and waited. She cried as I embraced her with every fiber of my being. I fed her bananas, challah and crackers and tried to distract her with an iPad that I threw in my car last minute. Eventually we met with a doctor, who told us that she’d be okay. They would send us home with some ointment or cream that night. I was so relieved.

Just in case, though, the doctor took a picture of my daughter’s burns and sent them to the best burn unit in the state for a second opinion. The burns went all down her chest, covered the left side of her face and ear, and bubbled over on her left upper arm. We received word from those doctors that we should be rushed by ambulance to the burn unit and she would need an IV to ensure she was properly nourished. And to think the ER doctors were going to send us home.

The ambulance driver was able to boost my cell phone with some more juice on that 40-minute trip to Livingston, which was helpful for contacting family. And the little one? She was the cutest and the most well-behaved patient. And by then, the pain medicine was starting to kick-in. Thank God.

On the way to the burn unit, the medic prepared me for what would happen to her:

“They will separate your daughter from you and she will go into a room. They call the room “the tank.”  There, they will wash her body and put bandages all over her wounds. The process is very, very painful and difficult to watch, so you will not be allowed to go into the room with her.”

I said to myself:

“I’ve been a chaplain. I’ve seen pain. I can take this. And my daughter cannot be alone! I’m sure I can talk my way out of this rule.”

For once, I was not able to talk my way out of this rule. And I’m not sure I would have wanted to, as her guttural screams echoed from “the tank” throughout the hospital hallway and pierced through my soul. My maternal instincts or love could not protect her from this.

As the crying slowly diminished, I knew they would soon bring her to me. And when they did, she looked like a cute, little baby mummy, bandages wrapped around her.

mummy isabelle

The doctor came in.

“I would prepare yourself for being here for about a week to 10 days.”

And that’s how long it was. 10 days. The entirety of my vacation.

During those 10 days, we learned so much. We learned that severe burns, like the 2nd and 3rd degree ones on her body “peak” at 36 hours, which is why the ER doctor was ready to send us home because they didn’t “look bad” immediately after the accident. We learned that a high-protein and high-fat diet is what the body needs to heal burns. We learned how quickly you can build community in a hospital of strangers when you spend your days and nights with other parents and people who are going through the same thing. We felt the love, too, as our own community lifted us up through prayer and matzah ball soup.

A couple of my colleagues came to say a prayer for us. It was then that I felt the power of my own rabbinic hospital visits, now being on the receiving end.

When we were discharged, her wounds were just at the very beginning of recovery. In fact, it’s been a year, and she still is not healed completely. She still lotionwears a cute, but constricting and hot compression vest for 23 hours each day, to smooth out her skin. The worst area on her upper left arm is still visibly wounded. We still have to put cocoa butter on her burns three times a day, massaging the worst part to “even-out” the skin. She still needs to be careful in the sun, so I’ve stocked up on sunscreen and we’ve got plenty of wet suits to cover her skin for water play at camp. But for the most part, thank God, she’s healing nicely and I’m able to continue drinking a hot cup of tea without worry…in June.

Will she need surgery one day? Only time will tell. And this much I do know: Time indeed heals wounds.

isabelle vest

My anticipation of this dreadful day was not so bad after all. For the most part, I focused mainly on my older daughter’s “graduation” from Nursery School, which took place today, too. I had thought that I wanted to write this blog post last night because I didn’t want to take away from the older one’s celebration. Today would be “her” day. No need to remind anyone of where we were a year ago, especially if I’m the only one who remembers. But instead, writing this today, on the anniversary of the younger one’s accident and on the day of the older one’s graduation from school, reminded me that life goes on, that time does heal wounds, that we can replace the sadness with joy. And sometimes, it doesn’t even take much.

The body is a wondrous miracle. Often when it fails us or when it’s harmed, we appreciate it even more. But each time I look at my baby’s scars – slowly but surely getting smaller – I’m reminded of the blessing of our bodies.

We recite in a prayer about such wonder:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת

Blessed are You, God, Healer of all flesh, who makes the wonders of creation.

May You continue to heal her flesh.

May You continue to make us wonder.

May You continue to replace the pain with joy.

So today, just before bedtime, I watched my younger daughter play with one of her doll babies. First she changed the baby’s diaper. Then, pushing her baby in a stroller, she played doctor with her baby. She caught our attention, pointing to the baby and said: “she’s got a boo boo – a burn – but she’ll be okay.”

My heart sunk, as if she had known what happened to her a year ago today.

Yes, baby. She’ll be okay. And so will you.

burn baby doll