Monday, November 14, 2011

When Sodom Met Wall Street

When the Occupy Wall Street protests began and I was still trying to figure out exactly what was going on, one of my friends in New York posted a bunch of pictures on Facebook from the Financial District.  There were photos of people of all nationalities and walks of life, signs and posters, tents and crowds.  While browsing through the album, one picture really stuck out to me—a paper mache golden calf that looked remarkably like the Wall Street bull.  The calf was being carried through throngs of people on the shoulders of clergy and lay leaders from a few local churches.
In an article written by Donna Shaper, one of the ministers involved in the creation of this new golden calf, she discusses their project in relation to the Bible.
“We started with verse one,” she writes, “[when] the Exodus people were disappointed with the same Moses who had taken them out of the wilderness. Then Aaron was summoned to leadership.  Aaron plotted an overthrow of Moses by building a new altar, a golden calf, made from the earrings of the people. The people had a big expensive party in front of their handmade idol. Then Moses came back and destroyed the calf, begged God to repent of God’s wrath against the people for their idolatry.
The people repented. And God promised not to destroy them. We remain in prayer, as the calf of Wall Street is not yet in mothballs….We went for the basics of our many faiths, the golden rule which is so distanced from and by the golden calf: do unto those downstream from you what you would have those upstream from you do to you.” [1]
This Shabbat, we read about the destruction of Sodom in Parashat Vayeira. The question of what exactly happened in the city to deserve such an unspeakable punishment isn’t spelled out.  We don’t know much about the people and how they treated each other.  We don’t know about the success of business and the availability of housing, or what the employment opportunities were like.
But midrashim tell us of Sodom’s vast riches.  We read about how blessed the city was in terms of bounty and harvest—from fruit trees that lined Sodom’s paths, to flakes of gold that would fall from roots of greens pulled from the earth.  Even the stones used to build and protect the city, these rabbis wrote, were inlaid with precious sapphires. [2]  This was not a city suffering from drought or plague.  This was a city drowningin plenty.
But, as we know, wealth is no sin–particularly when we know that prosperity is often presented as a blessing from God.  Abraham was blessed with great wealth, Jacob with prosperous flocks of sheep.  Sodom was destroyed not because of its prosperity, but because of how its citizens responded to their wealth.  According to the rabbis, selfishness and greed took control of the city.   The inhabitants of Sodom complained, “we live in peace and plenty—food can be mined from our land, along with gold and silver, precious stones and pearls.  What need have we to look after wayfarers, who come only to deprive us?  Let us see to it that the duty of welcoming the stranger be forgotten in our land.” [3]
Forgotten in their land? The residents of Sodom who lacked for nothing viewed other people as a threat to their possessions, taking their self-protective attitude to the extreme.  According to legend, inhabitants of Sodom were forbidden to extend acts of kindness to strangers.   They were unconcerned with helping those who could do nothing for them.
There are so many stories in our tradition about the sins of Sodom, all of which seem to highlight this tremendous greed and arrogance that permeate the city. I’ll give you two examples:
When a poor man came to the land of Sodom, each resident would give him a denar with his name inscribed on it, but not one of them would sell the needy man a morsel of bread to eat.  Eventually, when this man died of hunger, each citizen of Sodom would then come to claim his coin.
In another story, each inn had beds for weary travelers when they passed through Sodom.  But, if a visitor were too tall for his bed, they would lop off her feet at the ankles.  If he were too short, they would stretch her so that she would fit. [4]
Throughout the Torah, we are commanded over and over again to care for the stranger, the orphan and the widow—examples of individuals living on the outskirts of society with no means to care for themselves. We are not asked to give of ourselves for the betterment of society…we are required.  And so were those living in Sodom.  Instead, they abused the poor, despised the stranger, and rebuked anyone who attempted an act of kindness toward someone less fortunate.
Have you been drawing comparisons to the current economic climate in this country? It’s very hard to read this Torah portion without doing so.
Over the last three decades, working class Americans have become subjected to a barrage of difficulties.  As companies have cut back on their labor force, we’ve seen them shifting the work from laid off workers onto their remaining employees.  The average American man or woman is working more hours than at any point in our country’s history, producing more than ever before, and returning home at the end of their long day with less income.
There are those in positions of power who have forgotten the lessons of Sodom, and have prioritized the bottom line.  There have always been the poor in this country, but like Sodom, the preservation of wealth has been taken to an extreme.   Others blessed with extreme affluence in America have committed to giving the majority of their wealth to the philanthropic causes and charitable organizations of their choice, either during their lifetime or after their death.
The Giving Pledge, founded by Warren Buffet, is a moral commitment by billionaires to make the world a better place, inspired by those in our country who give generously—and often at great personal sacrifice.
Each of these individuals commits through a public letter, featured on the website of the Giving Pledge.  Lynn Schusterman, well known for her unbelievable philanthropic efforts within the Jewish community, writes, “I found myself moved to action by the words of the great Jewish sage, Hillel, found in the text ofPirkei Avotpart of the rabbinic writings: If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I care only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
Mrs. Schusterman continues, “While times are difficult and our standing in the world is under challenge, we remain an unparalleled driver of innovation as well as a beacon of freedom, democracy and justice for much of humanity.”
We don’t have the means to financially contribute to the betterment of the world, as Lynn Schusterman and others do.  But, no matter what our financial standing may be, let us learn from the lessons of Sodom, protecting and supporting each other in any way possible instead of hurting and ignoring others for the sake of material gain.
As Jews, we are commanded to give tzedakah.  This is not a recommendation, or a request, but a straight up command.  It’s an issue of righteousness, not charity, and there’s really no choice offered to us about whether or not we’d like to participate.  Just because we aren’t able to give what Mrs. Schusterman can give doesn’t mean that we’re home free.  It is up to each of us to take on this mitzvah, and to make a serious commitment to bettering the world around us.  As Rabbi Tarfon taught, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abstain from trying.”
You and I are responsible for one another, Jews and non-Jews, rich and poor, old and young, urban and rural.  We are to care for those who cannot care for themselves, and work tirelessly to reduce iniquity when we are able.
May we be grateful but not complacent, willing to work together to bring positive change to our country, our community, our people and our world.
Shabbat Shalom.
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[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/donna-schaper/occupy-wall-street-the-go_b_1004946.html
[2] Tosefta Sotah 3:11–12; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 109a.
[3] Book of Legends 36:30
[4] Book of Legends 36:30 and 36:31

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Home for the Holidays


For the first time in 4 years, I am spending the High Holidays with my family.  I can’t tell you how wonderful it’s been to sit down to a bowl of mazoh ball soup (sinkers, not floaters), brisket and kugel with the sounds of bickering sisters in the background. There really is nothing better than ringing in the Jewish New Year with my parents, listening to my dad quote The Princess Bride over and over again at the table while my husband passes the honey cake around.  And for the first time in 4 years, I’ve been able to attend services as a congregant instead of a student rabbi.
It’s truly a blessing to spend this time with my family, particularly because it’s most likely the last chance I’ll have in a long time. While I can’t wait for June to roll around–when I will stand before God, my professors, my family and classmates to be ordained as a rabbi–I wonder what my personal spiritual experience during this sacred time will be like.
I was able to be home this year because my mother is going through treatment for breast cancer.  She is the strongest person I have ever known and continues to inspire and astound me every day.  Despite the surgery–her first ever, the chemotherapy and all that entails, my mom has let nothing stand in the way of doing what she loves to do.  That includes celebrating Rosh Hashanah with gusto and flair.
Because I was back at home for the holidays, I was able to lead family services at a synagogue in town where I used to work as a youth director.  While my mom couldn’t join me for the first service–sitting in a sanctuary full of 600 families is dangerous when you have a compromised immune system–she came with my sister and sat in the back for services on day two.  Serving student pulpits all over the country is an amazing experience, but I’ve never been able to look out into the congregation before and see my mom’s face smiling back at me.  It made the pulpit feel like home.
I am grateful for the opportunity to spend the holidays here.  I am grateful that these experiences will make me a better rabbi.  I am grateful that my mother’s strength and brilliance shine through her illness.
Blessed are you, God, Ruler of the universe, who has granted us life, sustains us, and has enabled us to reach this season.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Retrospective

It's finally happening...I can see a light at the end of the HUC tunnel.

This past year, I had the privilege of serving as a rabbinic intern at two congregations. One, Adath Israel Brith Shalom, was a large thriving synagogue in Louisville, KY. I primarily worked in their education department, although I had a great time learning from their three rabbis. The Temple, as the locals call it, was truly a special community. From the moment I arrived, I was treated as part of a big friendly family, which is the way the community runs. There are many different styles of worship services, a diverse leadership structure in place, and a whole lot of energy, but everyone loves being part of such a grand and welcoming institution.

Me and fellow student David Gerber rocking it out at Temple Sholom

My other internship was local, at Temple Sholom here in Cincinnati. I worked with a newly minted young rabbi from the LA campus of HUC, running adult education classes, worship services for Shabbat and holidays, and songleading for them regularly. Temple Sholom is a smaller synagogue with a core population of fiercely dedicated members.

It was interesting for me to go back and forth between the two pulpits--from big to small, from settled rabbis to new leadership, from a younger population to a more mature constituency. Working for these two synagogues simultaneously taught me a lot about the type of rabbi I'd like to be, what kind of synagogue I'd like to work for, and what aspects of rabbinic mentorship are most important to me as I make my way out into the real world. I'm grateful for the opportunity to serve both communities.

Oh look, a Master's Degree! Thanks, HUC!

This year, I've taken on a position at HUC-JIR Cincinnati as Coordinator of Outreach. I'll be responsible for the social networking coming out of this campus, planning and executing all of our events geared toward the greater Cincinnati community--from classical music and jazz/hip-hop concerts to lecture series and seminars--and managing The Skirball Museum.

So far, the job is wonderful. It brings me back to my days as a youth director, when every day was a new adventure. Learning about outreach, marketing and branding will serve me well in the years to come, and I'm having such a great time working with local synagogues, organizations, schools, newspapers, and more to build up the profile of HUC. There is so much to offer here on campus, and it's exciting to be part of ensuring that HUC Cincinnati grows as a central innovative institution in Cincinnati.

I was lucky enough to spend more time at camp with BBYO this summer, where I go to recharge my love of informal Jewish education. I am always inspired by the teens, both by their unbelievable passion for learning and service as well as their potential as Jewish leaders of the next generation. I hope I can keep going back--it's one of my happy places.


Lonestar Region represents at CLTC (BBYO's Chapter Leadership Training Program)

As this academic year begins, I look forward to finishing out my HUC career by absorbing as much as possible from my mentors, professors, colleagues, and classmates, and giving as much of myself as I can.

Monday, March 21, 2011

An Act of Faith

Dear Readers:

It's been a very exciting couple of years at HUC, and my blogging has fallen by the wayside. I'm bringing the blog back for my last year-ish of rabbinical school, and invite you to read my fourth year sermon delivered on campus in the fall. You can also check out a video of me giving the sermon in the chapel on campus by clicking here.

I hope you enjoy the sermon!

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An Act of Faith

I interviewed for HUC in New York in the spring of 2007. Unlike some of my luckier classmates, I didn’t know anyone that had ever gone through the interview process other than the rabbi at my home congregation, and had absolutely no idea what to expect. Dinner on ‘erev interview’ with a few students and faculty members did little to soothe my anxiety, but I did feel a bit better after spending time with another hyper-confident girl who would be interviewing right before me the following day. Fast forward to the next morning….I got to campus early, parked myself in the lobby, and waited. About five minutes before my scheduled interview time, my new friend, fellow interviewee, and comforting presence tore past me while running down the hall, hysterically crying.As her sobs echoed off the walls, the rabbi heading up my interview committee called out to me….”Jen! We’re ready for you, come on in!”

I was nervous before, but walking into that room--the space that brought a perfectly normal woman to frenzied tears—was terrifying. I honestly don’t remember 90% of what the committee asked me.What I do remember is that as the interview was drawing to a close, I was overcome with gratitude that the committee hadn’t asked me one question about God. It was then that one of the rabbis asked, “Is there something you thought we would want to discuss with you that we haven’t brought up?” Me, being the silly na├»ve girl that I once was, responded, “I thought you’d want to talk about my relationship with God.” He smiled, looked around, and said, “So Jen, tell me about your relationship with God.”

My heart dropped….they were going to find me out. I glanced around at the table full of esteemed faculty and community members, and then blurted out, “Ask me in five years.” Luckily, they laughed. Even luckier, I was accepted. And while it’s only been three and a half years since the interview, I still find it difficult to talk about my relationship with God. Perhaps you can relate.

This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, begins with God speaking to Avram for the first time. God said toAvram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make known your name, and you shall be a blessing.” (Gen. 12:1-2). And then, perhaps more surprising than God personally reaching out to a human being, Avram goes! He takes his wife, his nephew, and all of their stuff, and just picks up and leaves. What an act of faith.

God is an amazing, powerful presence in the lives of Avram and Sarai, later called Abraham and Sarah. In their lives, God destroys cities, causes Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy, grants the land of Israel to their descendants, and so on and so forth. God is so involved in the lives of Abraham and Sarah that their initial act of faith seems commonplace—their faith seems only natural…an acceptance of God’s role in their lives. Abraham and Sarah—along with the rest of the people in the Bible—believe in God because God is undeniable. They may argue with God, or go against God’s commands, but they never question God’s presence.

Just as God was undeniable in biblical times, we can’t refute that things today are quite different.Modernity has swept in. Miracles once attributed to the Almighty are now ascribed to normal instances of science…. research provides “scientific” reasons for the splitting of the sea, the plagues in Egypt, and the flood. Biblical stories are ‘proved’ or ‘disproved’ by archeological evidence. God doesn’t speak to us from the heavens anymore, and modern commentary suggests that we not look for God in the same ways that Biblical ancestors did. As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote, “God is found not in the sky but in the soul.”

Faith has shifted from being an obvious expression of reality to something internal. It is much more difficult to believe without experiencing God’s miracles first hand. Jacob wrestled with an angel….we read about their struggle. Moses approached a burning bush…we watch The Prince of Egypt. For some, this lack of evidence is what true faith is all about. Faith seems to me to be a willingness to trust, just as Abraham did when he set out to a strange new land.

Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith have often been cited as an example of Judaism’s faith requirements. Appearing in his commentary on the Mishneh, they range from requiring recognition of the existence of God, to believing in reward and punishment and resurrection. It’s not hard to understand why different religions—Judaism included—have attempted to define what it means to have faith. It’s comforting to accept tenets of belief in order to feel a part of a bigger community.Absolute certainty is always easier than constant questioning, and for some, it is that certainty that allows them to accept the things that happen in their lives.

Obviously, not everyone is able to believe with perfect faith, and as a movement, Reform Judaism rejects blind faith as a way of life. We search for relevance in our lives through the rituals we choose to observe, and the way that we treat other people. In that same vein, each of us may experience our struggles differently, but it is the struggle itself that makes us who we are as Jews, and as part of the Jewish people.

Faith is a funny thing. Moments of crisis tend to be the time when we question our faith, although that very questioning says something about our relationship with God. Moments of awe and joy--the birth of a child, a natural wonder—can lead people to feel connected to something bigger than themselves.

Struggling with our own personal relationship with God is something intrinsically sacred to the Jewish people, as we can see through our patriarchal narratives---both Abraham and Jacob wrestled with a God who was right in front of them. For us, we wrestle with God in a different way, allowing us to grow as individuals, bond with our communities, and participate in a religion that encourages questioning, engagement, and discourse.

Last year during Rosh Hashanah, I met a man who was so ashamed at his self-perceived lack of faith that he only stepped foot in a synagogue during the High Holidays. He was a Holocaust survivor, and while he spoke about feeling God’s presence in his life, he was sure the community wouldn’t accept him because he did not believe that God could interfere with the world around him. He felt that if God did have this ability, that God would have stepped in during the Holocaust.

We can all share similar stories of Jews that feel alienated because of their beliefs, but it’s important to think about how our synagogues reflect our Reform Jewish values. The dialogue that this congregant and I were able to generate over the course of the year was as meaningful for me as it was for him. It led me to think about what it meant to be the spiritual leader of a group of people, and how much influence our congregations can have over someone’s feeling of self-worth and value when it comes to their belief system.

We, as rabbinical students, are constantly renewing our journey of faith, and we have to be willing to allow others the same privilege. If we can let the people we work with know that there are an infinite number of ways to have an authentic, meaningful relationship with God, perhaps our members will feel more compelled to be involved, to be lifelong learners, and to explore their own journeys more deeply. Perhaps if I had more opportunities that drew on these themes, I wouldn’t have been so terrified to discuss my own beliefs with my HUC interview committee.

Abraham and Sarah left their home, their families, and their land on God’s command. Our ancestors therefore needed an intercessory God in order to develop their faith…they needed a God that was intertwined with their daily life; a God that would speak to them in times of joy, sorrow, and pain, and a God that would hear and respond to their cries.

With the creation of the covenant between God and Abraham, the nature of the relationship changes between God and the Jewish people. In a similar way, our relationship with God reflects the ideals and values of each individual person.

It is my hope that we can each learn to trust our journey of personal faith, as Abraham and Sarah did as they set out from Haran. Sometimes you have to leave home to go on the right journey…in doing so, the covenant you create might be stronger. The risk is worth it. Once we are able to recognize the value of our own beliefs, we will be better equipped to develop a community of faith wherever we end up. Faith is one of the most personal experiences of our lives; however, our encouragement and support when it comes to our congregants’ beliefs is what will shift this personal experience of faith into a kehilah kedoshah—a holy community—where each person feels a sense of belonging.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rosh Hashanah 5770

Wrestling with God

This summer at a pluralistic B’nai B’rith camp in Pennsylvania, I met a young man who had been through a terrible ordeal. At age 16, David had come down with a typical case of mono. About a week after his diagnosis, the infection spread to his brain—uncommon but not unheard of—and he slipped into a coma for a two-hour period. Upon awakening, David found that he had no memory of his life—to the point where he did not recognize his mother or father, and could not remember his age, or even his name.

A year and a half later, at camp this summer, he still had not regained any shred memory of his life before that brief, life-changing illness. After David and I got to know each other a little better, he asked me a question that threw me off guard. He asked, “What could I possibly have done, as a 16-year old child—to warrant this type of divine punishment? Why would God do this to me?” While many of us have not had an event unfold into something as extreme as David’s amnesia, this question is one that most of us have asked at some point in our lives.

During my short time as a rabbinical student, I’ve heard this very question from of a woman watching helplessly as her mother fell ill, a man who lost his job when the economy crashed--after 40 years with the same company, a teenager dumped by her boyfriend, and several other people with a variety of different experiences.

What I would like to talk about this morning is not the answer to this question, because I don’t believe that anyone can authentically provide an answer to why bad things happen in the world. Instead, I’d like to discuss our relationship with God. Unlike most other religions, Judaism does not have a mandated dogma—there is no statement of belief that one must abide by in order to be considered a Jew. In fact, our forefathers struggled with God on a regular basis.

In today’s Torah portion, traditionally read by Reform communities on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, we learn about God’s challenging test of Abraham, as he is asked by God to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering. The greatest struggle in Abraham’s life, to this point, was his unwavering desire to have a son with his wife Sarah. God asks this man, who has left his father’s home for a strange new land because of the strength of his faith, to give up the most important thing in his life. But why?

As we read a few moments ago, God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, the son whom you love, Isaac.” There is so much repetition in this statement by God, that our Midrash tells us that we should read the verse as if we are listening only to God’s side of a two-sided conversation. The interpretation fills in the missing half—Abraham’s responses to God—and this is what it might have sounded like:

God commands: Take your son.

Abraham replies: I have two sons (Ishmael and Isaac) which do you mean?
God says: Your only son

Abraham replies: Both are only sons– Isaac is the only son I have from his mother, and Ishmael is the only son I have from his mother.

God says: The son whom you love…

Abraham says: Master of the universe, are there separate compartments in one’s innermost self for love? I love both of them.

God replies: Very well
then—Isaac.


This Midrash provides us with the resistance that we need from Abraham when facing such an unbelievably challenging situation. Abraham—our pillar of faith, the father of the Jewish people, is having a moment of crisis with regard to his relationship with God. This is an essential example of Abraham’s true humanity, and what makes our biblical characters so relatable for Jews in every place and in every generation. It helps us in our own journey to find a personal relationship with God to know that even Abraham struggled.

Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, participated in a more physical struggle with the divine, when he found himself wrestling with a strange man in the middle of the night as he traveled to meet with his estranged brother Esau. The two wrestle all night, until Jacob's opponent suddenly touches the socket of Jacob's hip, causing it to wrench out of place. Despite this physical pain, Jacob refuses to relinquish his hold on the man, and demands a blessing in return for his release.

The stranger blesses Jacob, saying, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob names the place Peni-el—meaning, “I have seen God face-to-face.”

Jacob not punished, ridiculed, or shamed for wrestling with God, but is blessed with a rebirth as Israel—a name vibrantly connected to the Jewish people since that moment. As the people of Israel, we are also blessed with the ability to struggle with God.

Faith is a funny thing. Moments of crisis tend to be the time when we question our faith, although that very questioning shows us that we do feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. Struggling with our own personal relationship with God is something intrinsically sacred to the Jewish people, as we can see through our patriarchal narratives---both Abraham and Jacob wrestled with a God that was right in front of them. For us, we wrestle with God in a different way, which allows us to grow as individuals, bond with our communities, and participate in a religion that encourages questioning, engagement, and discourse.

As a movement, Reform Judaism upholds this concept of wrestling with God, and rejects blind faith as a way of life. We search for relevance in our way of life, in the rituals we choose to observe, and the way that we treat other people. In that same vein, each of us may experience our struggles differently, but it is the struggle itself that makes us who we are as a Jewish people.

When we ask questions at critical moments, we add meaning to our lives. We search for something out there bigger than ourselves, and turn to our community and family for support and guidance. We reach out to others with hope in our hearts, and turn towards ourselves to discover what really matters.

For the Jewish people, the next ten days represent a period of deep introspection as we attempt to right any wrongs we have committed in the past year between ourselves and others. I invite you to take the time to consider your own journey towards faith, understanding that our questions provide each of us with unlimited opportunities to learn and grow. May the New Year bring us ever closer to understanding our personal relationship with God, and farther along the path of our journey toward faith.


Shanah Tovah.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

I am a slacker: Second year highlights



I can't believe it's been so long since my last post, but I sort of gave up keeping up with the blog when I realized how crazy life could get as a second year rabbinical student. This has truly been a whirlwind year...here are some of the highlights.

1. Serving a student pulpit

If I had to pick one thing in my two years of HUC that made me feel like an authentic, knowledgeable, real live rabbinical student, this would be it. Working with the families of the Columbus Hebrew Congregation in Columbus, Indiana taught me so much about my role in the Jewish community, and the future expectations that will be placed on me as the rabbi of a synagogue. For the first time in my life, I was teaching Judaism primarily to adults, which was very different from working with kids and teens. Watching my adult education classes grow from 2 students to 20 was surprising and rewarding; to know that I can teach a group of highly educated (Jewishly and secularly) and highly motivated Jews without them seeing me as a little kid.

During my last visit, I had the opportunity to lead one of my congregants through her bat-mitzvah, which we had been preparing for since the beginning of the year. This young girl, having never learned Hebrew, led all of the major prayers in the service, and chanted 13 lines of Torah beautifully in front of her family and friends. The entire community's overwhelming pride and love was palpable, and her service incorporated elements of this community, her own poetry and creativity, her deep love and knowledge of Judaism, and marked the beginning of her path as a Jewish adult in a way that I've never seen done at one of the larger established congregations that I've belonged to in the past. I love working with congregations that don't take Jewish community for granted, and it's definitely going to be something I look for when I am (eventually) ready for a full time position.

2. Songleading

This year, I learned to play the guitar (with a little help from my friends). Coming from a musical background, it was really easy for me to pick it up. I used the guitar for services throughout the year at my pulpit, and picked up a few jobs here and there (Chanukkah celebration at an assisted living facility, leading a preschool seder at the big local synagogue). This newly acquired skill is already opening serious doors for me, and I think it will be a great benefit for the future. I can't wait to play at camp this summer, since last year's morning services were a bit awkward with no musical accompaniment.

3. Dan's insane cooking skills

Dan is not playing here...this is for real. He goes to work at 6 in the morning, comes home around 3, and cooks all night. The weekends? He bakes. This, my friends, is the reason that we had to buy an elliptical for the apartment, so we don't get super fat eating all of Dan's amazing food. While I've tried to convince him that he could actually do this for a living, he assures me that he doesn't want to be told what to cook, and really just wants to make delicious food for his family and friends. Fine, works for me.

4. HUC's financial and political turmoil

This isn't really a highlight in a good way, but HUC has been through a rough year. Towards the beginning of the year, the school announced that they were going to have to think of some way to make up the millions of dollars that they were losing because of their endowments being under water....the rumors started flying. These rumors mostly focused on the closing of 1 or 2 of the stateside campuses, and most likely LA and/or Cincinnati. Then, we found out that the rumors weren't really rumors, and these scenarios were actually being considered. Needless to say, the morale on our campus on the part of the students and faculty was seriously damaged, and the tension mounted between campuses, and between students/faculty and the administration. This past weekend, after a highly anticipated board meeting, it was announced that all three campuses would remain open, although a major restructuring of the entire school would take place in order to save HUC. They have not officially released the proposal yet, but I am so grateful that I'll be able to finish out my program in Cincinnati. www.saveHUC.org

5. OLLIE!

I just had to add him in here, because he is the cutest shmoopster in the entire world.



Anyway, I will do my best to keep up with the blog on a regular basis, now that my life is calming down a bit. Wish me luck on finals.

Jen

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Life as a Student Rabbi

Last weekend, I visited my pulpit in Columbus, Indiana for the first time. Throughout the year, I will spend 8 weekends with them in addition to the High Holidays and Passover, acting as their student rabbi. Sha'arei Torah has been around for a really long time, and has had student rabbis serve the congregation for over 40 years, so while I was panicking and uncomfortable with being called 'rabbi,' they are used to the nervousness that goes along with the first visit.

I pulled up to the family's home where I would be staying on Friday afternoon, and was surprised to see a big log cabin in front of me! Built by hand by the home's previous owner, this family lived in a big comfortable log cabin, which was decked out with all of the normal things (like indoor plumbing and AC) that makes a modern home livable. It was really great, and a 'woodsy' experience. The family itself was amazing, from the homemade fried chicken, to the stories they told about growing up in a town with 10 Jewish families.

As for the service, my greatest accomplishment was my guitar-playing debut. I did the entire service on guitar, which was a big deal for me (and I managed to only skip one verse of one prayer). Singing in front of 25 people with a guitar is much less awkward than singing alone, and the group was full of positive feedback. I was also nervous about setting the Torah by myself, which involved rolling the gigantic scroll 3/4 of the way down and finding the 3 lines in the text that I was chanting that evening. I had nightmares. With the help of the president, I managed to figure it out, and am much more comfortable working with a scroll as a result! Overall, the service went well, and the community was overwhelmingly warm and welcoming.

Aside from school, which is challenging and interesting, life at the moment revolves around getting my act together for the High Holidays. I've written my sermons, prepared my service, and am working on Torah and music, but it's definitely anxiety-inducing to be completely in charge of the planning and execution of worship services for the holiest day of the year, especially for a community that so rarely comes together for Jewish practice.

Since we're in the middle of Elul, the Jewish month of introspection, I leave you with this passage written by Obama for the Jewels of Elul project. May you all have a meaningful period of reflection and understanding.


The Roots of a Dream
by Senator Barack Obama

Just as the courageous Zionists who established the State of Israel were energized by Theodore Herzl’s dictum, so do Americans draw inspiration from the notion that determination can turn our dreams into reality.

As someone who grew up without a strong sense of roots, I have always been drawn to the belief - embedded in the long journey of the Jewish
people - that you could sustain a spiritual, emotional, and cultural identity in the face of impossible odds. And I deeply understood the Zionist idea - that there is always a homeland at the center of our story.

For America’s Founders, that story was based on a set of ideals - freedom and equality, justice and opportunity. Generations of Americans have worked to build a more perfect union that lives up to those ideals. And time and again, Americans have come together to meet great challenges at home while working to repair the world abroad.

Today, we face another defining moment. We must reclaim that basic American Dream for all Americans - the idea that if you work hard, you can support a family; that if you get sick, there will be health care you can afford; that you can retire with the dignity and security you have earned; and that every American can get a world-class education. Abroad, we must advance peace in a dangerous world and achieve a clean energy future that breaks our dependence on foreign oil, while securing our planet. Americans also stand firm in our friendship with the Israeli people and our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.

As Israelis take stock of their remarkable achievements over the last 60 years - and as Jews everywhere reflect with reverence on this treasured past while looking to an uncertain future - Americans are united in our determination to help Israel achieve lasting peace and security. These are dreams we can achieve if we are willing to come together and work for them.