Starting Over
November 1, 2015, 10:10 pm
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I have been waiting to write this post. I have been waiting for the shock and hurt to subside, for some reasoned thinking to resume without malice aforethought. That has taken almost seven months. But tonight a radio story told by a 58-year-old man gave me an insight that I just had to use…to explain…to gain more peace.

This man’s story was about a call he received from a much older former neighbor who had doubted his dad’s word years before. The neighbor called to apologize and say that the man’s dad had been right all along. And because of the person the father was, the older man should have taken that word as the truth the first time. One of the story’s points was how rare the occasion is to have that wrong righted, even years later.

The last three years of my life have been fairly well consumed with learning to be Jewish, joining and helping to mold a Jewish community, and finally going through the rituals of rebirth as a member of the tribe. One of the questions advised to come from the rabbis at my beit din was why would I want to be Jewish? Persecution and separation are part of the tribe’s history.   Why take on the possibility of becoming a target of such treatment?

While thinking this through and how to answer, all the scenarios of hate speech and vandalism and rejection by Christian friends ran through my mind. The deep family history of various forms of Christianity would be hard to put aside, and there may be hurt feelings from family members. In reality, friends and family have been quite accepting and interested in my journey. They want to know more about Judaism and its attraction for me.

Never, in all this contemplation, did I entertain the notion that the community to which I had given so much and from which I had learned even more would be the persecutor. Never did I imagine that speaking the truth in a religious community would be thought of as traitorous and rewarded by removal from my responsibilities and complete shunning by the leadership.

We all make mistakes in judgment. We hurt people in ways we never perceive, and, hopefully, shamefully, also in ways we are fully aware of. Even though religious leadership is held to a higher standard because of the laws and beliefs they profess every day, they are just people. They make the same hurtful decisions that everyone else does. I would like to think that they have gained some higher insight from their years of study and practice, to realize as the older man did, that knowing the person, they should have known the truth was being told. But, sadly, that knowledge didn’t count in my case.

As I try to accustom myself to a new rhythm, I will always remember the music and rituals I left behind. I remember the study and knowledge that was so attractive and appealing. But what is the awesome result of all this anguish is that the congregation still lives!  We left as a group, realizing that it was the relationships between us, the members, that mattered, not who led us. We are together and growing and happy to all be “the leader” as needed.

This has certainly been a deeply painful learning experience for us all. We now know that problems become apparent over time that are not clear in the beginning. We also know there are situations we cannot solve and must walk away from toward a healthier future…with our new chavurah and/or established congregations. May everyone someday find their own peace.

Triple dunked
April 26, 2015, 7:20 pm
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Here we are, back in Colorado in January.  After the beit din and celebratory dinner of the previous evening, there was no time to be wasted before the second half of my conversion process which is immersion in the mikvah.  We wanted to get this ritual finished before Shabbat began that evening so that I could enjoy my first Shabbos as a full Jew.

Many folks who know what a mikvah is think of it as the spa-like pool in a synagogue’s basement where mostly women go to ritually immerse themselves.  That’s the sheltered, warm, and accessible model.  Actually a mikvah can be any body of natural free-flowing water.  In Colorado there are some interesting options.  Rabbi Barbara likes to go to the natural hot springs west of Denver.  These are long-time sacred Native American places which were converted to a tourist attraction in the late nineteenth century.

We woke up on Friday ready to take off for the springs with Rabbi Barbara’s friend, Ileana.  And looked out the window to find…snow and ice overnight.  Now we had both been checking the Denver weather for a couple of weeks, and all the reports said partly-cloudy to sunny with highs in the 50’s, better than what was predicted in North Carolina.  Perfect!  So where did this snow and ice come from?  After some hurried discussion with Denver residents and the front desk, we decided it would be okay to go west over the mountains in our four-wheel drive car and just be careful.  Rabbi went to a morning conference session, I dressed for ice duty.  Luckily, the car came with an ice scraper.  Several ice buckets of hot water and an hour of vigorous scraping later, the windows were clear and the wipers unstuck.

Denver is prepared for such events as the roads were sanded and traffic moved along with no problem.  We traveled west toward Idaho Springs, a very small mining town which seems to be a gateway to several famous ski resorts. Just as we topped out in the mountains, the thick fog we had been traveling in suddenly disappeared and brilliant sunshine flooded the peaks.  It was as if we had punched through a cloud into heaven.  Rather bizarre but what a sign!

The springs resort looks a bit like it might be the original structure, but we weren’t there for the architecture.  Hot mineral water flows into small rock-hewn pools in a carved grotto of continually damp and painted stone walls.  They are close together, so Rabbi Barbara and Ileana were able to situate themselves right next to me.  There would be no shouting across the room.  And the water is really hot!  Much hotter than the average spa pool.  There was going to be a new me–whether from ritual immersion or a fresh layer of skin we would soon find out.

The point of the immersion ritual is to wash away the vestiges of an old life, to begin a new life from the roots of the hair on my head to the toenails on my feet.  No finger or toenail polish, no makeup, no dirty hair, no creams, nothing should be on the body that will hinder the water reaching and filling every pore.  And off comes the bathing suit; no modesty here.  There will be three complete immersions with blessings between: the blessing for immersion and the Shehecheyahu, the blessing and thanksgiving for new occasions.

Many converts describe the sensation of blessed immersion as almost fetal, when the body returns to floating in a bubble of warm liquid.  I actually did have that sensation as my water was quite warm.  I felt no need to rush; just floating under water with my hair moving like seaweed was a heavenly feeling.  I pity those who must do a quick dunk-and-run in a very cold ocean or lake, not able to savor the buoyance of water and minerals.

Did I suddenly feel Jewish after this final official ritual?  It’s not as if I have been stamped with a “J” on my forehead for all to see.  The only way anyone will know I am Jewish is by what I say and do.  How I continue to enhance my ritual practice.  How I speak up when a conversation or joke is harmful to individuals or the legacy of the Jewish people.  How I tactfully educate as needed and continue to educate myself.  How I respect other religious practices and ask for the same respect for mine.  How I choose to serve and support a congregation in honesty and truth.

On Friday, January 9, 2015, before sundown, I became a Jew.  My last acceptance will be into the congregation when I will carry the Torah in procession and officially be blessed with my Jewish name.  That’s next.

The beit din
April 21, 2015, 10:52 pm
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A chat with a friend the other day reminded me that I haven’t written in a while…a long while…as in before my beit din in January.   She had not gotten the word that I had taken my seat in the other pew. That is a terrible omission on my part (especially not telling her) as interesting stuff abounds, and I will twirl it out in several posts.

The weeks leading up to my formal conversion were a whirlwind of creative activity for Rabbi Barbara and me. We were traveling to Colorado for the annual meeting of Renewal officiants.   We would meet the two other rabbis who would comprise my beit din with Rabbi Barbara. We would enjoy the largest ordination of rabbis and cantors in Renewal history. And we would unfurl the chuppah we were commissioned to make for this and all future ordinations.

This chuppah had been in process for about seven months. Much of that time spent trying to portray their wishes of a progression of Biblical highpoints, then talking the buyers down from that complicated project to a simple interweaving of meaningful colors and symbols. And it is big, 52×72, and beautiful in Dupioni silks. Watching it sail over the heads, down the center aisle, to receive the ordination candidates was a bit like being the mother of the bride. We birthed it and then released it into the world, all radiant and ready to welcome new leaders every year.

I watched this ordination as a real Jew because two days before I had taken on that mantle of history, community, and humility. A beit din can be a real trial of knowledge, depending on which denomination you are joining. Though as Rabbi Barbara assured me, Renewal rabbis aren’t concerned as to whether I would know the minor feast days or the calculation of Passover. Those things will come through practice. Rabbi Barbara, Rabbi Nadya, and Rabbi Victor were more interested in my inner Jew and how I have come to identify myself as Jewish. How my soul responds to ritual, mitzvah, and the cry of the world we live in.

The four of us had a conversation, not an examination. This spoken dialogue has never been my method of choice for conveying thoughts, as I have long been one of those folks who would rather die than give a speech. But Rabbi Barbara had helped me prepare well with some pointed and difficult questions in the weeks prior. And I had spent a year and a half thinking about why I was putting myself through this extra study and uncertainty. Now was the time to open the mouth and let that inner dialogue be heard.

I wasn’t really thinking much either, only listening to them and responding in the moment. I cannot tell you now what they asked me.   There were no tears or group hugs. Just smiles and hearty welcomes after a unanimous decision. Then a gathering of folks for a celebratory dinner out.

Is that all there was to it? Not hardly. The conversion process isn’t completed without the washing away of the old self and emergence of the new from the mikvah. That’s the next post.

The Hanukkiah
December 8, 2014, 11:24 pm
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20141206_221347I received a package the other day, hand-addressed from Contemporary Judaica Designs in Atlanta. Someone was maybe thinking of me and my approaching beit din? I don’t know if anyone outside the congregation is mindful of that date actually.

I opened it and found no card or receipt. What I did find was a beautiful, solid brass hanukiah (menorah) in the form of a tree branch with two forks holding the candle cups. I checked the company website and there it was…handcrafted by an Israeli artist named Anat Basanta.

A call to Rabbi Barbara took her out of the running. She has other plans up her sleeve. Maybe someone in the congregation? There were only a couple of possibilities and those were long shots. I have relatives in Atlanta. Maybe they conspired with my sisters to get a combo Christmas/Hanukkah/birthday gift? A quick call to that source nixed that possibility.

Whoever went to the trouble to find this for me certainly needed some words of gratitude. I finally called the store, hoping they could tell me the sender without some breach of security. They readily revealed the sender: my children. My oldest son, who is quiet but fiercely conscious of other people and their needs, knew before I did that I would need something for my holiday of Hanukkah while the family’s Christmas swirls around me. He found the hanukkiah on a website and knew it was for me. Their celebration of my choice to be Jewish is a true gift: that of their love for me as I am.

I am truly blessed in the friends, family, and coworkers I have in my life. I am fortunate to have my rabbi as my guide through these years of discernment and study. She gifted me with my Jewish name, a perfect fit that I don’t think we realized at the time. Gavriela: strength of God.

May that strength continue to uphold me and Temple Or Olam as I go out into the world as a proud but thoughtful member of the Jewish tribe.

Sweet Shabbat
September 14, 2014, 11:26 pm
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It was Friday, the start of another Shabbat. And it has been like that lately—just another day. Not much time to actually “do” Shabbat. The summer weather calls me to be outside and active after sitting at a desk all day. It’s difficult to slow down and take the time to clean up, light the candles, make a nice dinner, sit around contemplating those you are with.

My shabbats have consisted lately of mostly Torah study and a Hebrew lesson Saturday morning, followed by trying to be relaxed while worrying over all the stuff I am not doing that will just back up into the stuff I already have to do the next week.

This Friday was no different. We decided the night before to have people over while my daughter, my son, and his friend are at the house, a total crew of nine. I am making a menu at work and running through the grocery store later so that food will be ready before they descend. It’s a good thing these are good friends because no tablecloth hit the table before they arrived. Everybody usually gathers in the kitchen anyway, while we all sip wine and munch on whatever is handy.

This is a Gentile crew. An agnostic couple, a lay minister, my also agnostic children, the culturally Christian spouse. I am not about to foist a Jewish ritual on this captive audience. They are friends and I want them to stay that way. Challah is on the table simply because it is easy and it was available (which is not always the case) and I bought both loaves. I quietly sneak the candles onto the table and light them to add some sparkle.

“Oh, you lit the candles!” says the minister. “Don’t you do something with those?” Well, yes, I say, there is a blessing that is usually said over the candles to begin Shabbos. “Are you going to say it? Go ahead and do it.”

So….I shush everyone and step behind the table. The tall, beeswax candle flames are just about my eye level. I slowly circle my hands over the flames, sweeping the warmth toward me and then back out to the watchers. I cover my eyes and recite pretty well…Barukh atah Adonai…the blessing over the Shabbat candles.

Then the brief moment of sweet silence is broken by a discussion of what I just said and why we do it. Not for very long, though. We’re hungry!  Gut Shabbos, y’all!

Barukh atah Adonai ,                                      Blessed are You, Lord our God

eloheinu melekh ha’olam,                                Ruler of the Universe

asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav                             Who has sanctified us with commandments

v’tzivanu                                                            and commanded us

l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.                                To light Shabbat candles.

It Could Have Been Me
April 17, 2014, 10:57 pm
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That could have been me, that person walking innocently through the parking lot of the Overland Park Jewish Community Center.  I belonged to just such a center in Atlanta.  It had all the amenities I wanted and was right across the street from my workplace.  I walked over there, did my workout, then hopped the bus home. 

It was the early 70’s when Atlanta school desegregation was roiling and white old-style Southerners were the city’s majority.  My grandmother was a dedicated member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  She was also a devout Christian, one who read her Bible every day and transferred her membership when her mainline church began to preach acceptance of black faces as members.  The jist of her words was the same as those of Glenn Miller, although not as crude and coated with a bit of paternalistic tolerance. 

She was lovely, sweet, intelligent, a great cook, a card shark, and steeped in the class traditions of rural south Georgia.  I honestly don’t know what she would have felt if I had been shot at the JCC.  I certainly hope it would not have been an anguished cry that they got the wrong person; it was supposed to be a Jew!  Although I fear it might have been just that thought. 

Never would she have contemplated her position as evil.  But that’s what it was.  And if my lovely grandmother can believe and advocate such evil, then so can the Germans, and the Hutus and Tutsis, and everybody else–including you and me. 

A lesson that Jews must keep learning over and over is to be ever vigilant.  Just as we get comfortable with the status quo, somebody decides to blast a hole through the complacency.  We cannot again be the frog in the slowly warming pot.  It is our duty to recognize and call out the evil in ourselves first, then where we find it enslaving others.  May we all see with clear eyes and open hearts. 

Passing Over
April 14, 2014, 11:03 pm
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Today is the first day of Passover, starting at sundown tonight. It’s the beginning of the seasonal year, not the calendar year. Everything is focused on freedom and removal from the “narrow spaces” and the darkness that was life in Egypt, and also our own narrow spaces that we need to escape.   It’s very much a family time to begin the eight days of unleavened bread and remembrance.

Actually, Passover Seder is similar to a Christian Christmas dinner when family members try to gather for a few days to remind us who that family is, to eat the family favorites, to relive the hurts and attitudes that send us back to those spaces we inhabited in childhood. I’m sure the same scenario goes on at the big family Seder of Passover. At least Jews have a script from which to conduct the dinner so peace and harmony can reign for a few hours.

That script is the Haggadah, the Exodus story of liberation from slavery. Group participation is mandatory, with speaking parts, plague props, required glasses of wine, and then food and lots of it. Many families write their own Haggadah that incorporates family interests like social justice or gay rights. But the all-important “first night” Seder on the first evening is where the action is.

Well, unless you happen to be Jewish, or almost-Jewish, and live somewhere removed from the centers of Jewish population.  It’s tough to get the extended family together other than a weekend, which makes “first Seder” night a mobile date. And if you happen to be celebrating alone, well, you can make your own “family” from those other random Jews who are looking for a group. Or you can pass right on by that first Seder, and the second Seder, and settle into the comfortable lap of your congregation at its community Seder as I will do on Saturday.

This will be my Passover celebration, other than the obligatory denial of leavened bread products. That I can do just fine, but cleansing the house of every crumb of bread is definitely a nonstarter here. Maybe someday it would be nice to have a fairly large group of interested parties, maybe 12 or so, mixed faiths and friends, to do our own shorter Passover Haggadah and meal.  We will work up to that. In the meantime, I will content myself with matzot, some lovely Jewish themes that WDAV was playing this afternoon, and anticipation of Saturday’s Seder which is always a good time.

Whatever you celebrate, or nothing at all, may you have the courage this month to begin escaping your own confining spaces to freedom.

Chag sameach! (happy holiday!)