solitary confinement is not worthy of us

This is a cross-post from Torah by T’ruah, in which rabbis (and in some cases, rabbinical students!) connect the weekly parashah to human rights issue of our day. I wrote about last week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech.

Parshat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double parshah, speaks powerfully to our fundamental human need for connection to each other and to Gd —and therefore to the isolation that is an anathema to it.

The covenant of Torah that began with the distant and dramatic display of Gd’s power at Mount Sinai is sealed here as Israel stands before (nitzavim lifnei) Gd. This immediacy of acceptance of Torah is in sharp contrast with the fear and trembling of receiving of Torah.

Indeed, part of that covenant, Moses says, is the ingathering of those who are dispersed, on earth and in heaven —underscoring the importance of physical proximity for this final step. For their part, the Israelites are to love Gd bchol lvavecha uvchol nafshecha, “with all your heart and with all your soul”—a spiritual proximity.

Most vividly of all, the parshah ends with a poetic description of the location of Torah: It is not in heaven, and it is not across the sea. Lo rekhokah hi . . . ki carov eilecha . . . meod: “It is not far off . . . but very close to you.”Torah is inside us, in our mouths and in our hearts.

Significantly, the Israelites stand together “to cleave”to Gd (uldavka bo). A list is actually enumerated: chiefs, elders, men, women, children, strangers. The breadth is staggering, as Gd promises this covenant with those present and with those absent (veit asher einenu bo). This is no individual teshuva: This is a community, everyone and everywhere, reaching out and hanging on to Gd.

And this is the capstone of Gd’s relationship with Gd’s people, whom Gd has been preparing since Abraham heard the call generations earlier. Covenant means relationship, and relationship means intimacy.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA's office, demanding accountability for the death of a man -- ruled a homicide -- held in solitary at Rikers Island.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA’s office, demanding accountability for the death of a man — ruled a homicide — held in solitary at Rikers Island.

This summer, as part of my participation in T’ruah’s Rabbinical and Cantorial Fellowship in Human Rights, I interned at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, working on its coalition for prison and jail reform in New York.

Currently, one of the main issues for advocates is the use of solitary confinement behind bars. The situation is bleak in New York, where isolation is regularly used as a punitive measure, and at rates above the national average —but the state is not unique in this practice.

Nationwide, there are estimated to be more than 100,000 people in segregation in prisons, jails, detention centers, juvenile facilities, and military installations. Terms can be days, weeks, months, years, or decades.

The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has decried solitary confinement in the U.S. as such, and for good reason. People in solitary confinement are usually held in cells the size of a parking space —with no windows and doors with only food slots, through which communication with guards, therapists, and doctors is conducted —for 22 to 24 hours a day. Visits are severely curtailed, and TVs, radios, and books might not be allowed. As a punishment, solitary may be meted out for the most minor of infractions, and there is little oversight or accountability in the process.

Every study of the subject tells us that solitary confinement is an affront to humanity. In isolation, human beings suffer “irreparable emotional damage and extreme mental anguish,”in the words of one expert. After 12 years in solitary, one prisoner noted: “I lost the will to live. I lost hope . . . Day after day all I saw was gray walls, and over time my world became the gray box.”

What we learn in our parshah is that intimacy is required for relationship with Gd and community. What we learn in our prison system is that intimacy with either is impossible in solitary confinement.

Isolation of human beings for extended periods of time is an abomination, with heartbreaking emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects. The Torah calls us, in its final, poignant moments, to move close to Gd and to others. As a community, we must ensure that all of us are able to do so.

Solitary confinement is not worthy of us as a people in relationship with Gd.

Access resources to become involved in the response to solitary confinement through T’ruah or the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

guest post: ableism in kedoshim

july4My first guest post: a d’var Torah by the awesome Emily Fishman!

The oft-quoted Leviticus 19:18, “וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ– love thy neighbor as thyself,” literarily comes to summarize a list of how to set up your world to be a just one, where the vulnerable are protected and the powerful have their privilege checked.

One of the specifics in the section is לֹא-תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ–וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר, לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל, “Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling-block before the blind,” verse 14. This verse, especially the bit about the stumbling block and the blind, is quote frequently in halakhic literature as a shorthand for entrapment, luring someone into sin. For example, an adult is forbidden to hit their parent, that is a matter of law. The parent, though, should not hit their adult child lest the child be tempted to hit back — that is a matter of lifnei iver. Another example: A nazirite is not allowed to drink wine. Therefore you are not allowed to offer wine to a nazirite because of lifnei iver.

By contrast, veahavta lereiacha kamocha is hardly heard in legal discourse, outside of a few citations by the Rambam. And I can imagine how helpful it could be! Don’t hit anyone — because love they neighbor as thyself. Don’t overcharge in business — because love they neighbor as thyself. Don’t throw loud parties at 3am — because love thy neighbor as thyself.

But no, it’s the bit about the blind person that gets dragged out time and time again.

In interpreting biblical verses, giants in the tradition, such as Rashi and Rambam, pull on the Talmud’s statement, “Ein mikra yotzei midei pshuto” (Shabbat, yevamot) — a verse’s interpretation may not contradict its plain meaning. Though it isn’t universally applied, let’s try it here.

What is the literal meaning of lifnei iver? The halakhic implications of not putting stumbling blocks in front of the blind would surely include tucking your backpack under your chair rather than leaving it in the aisle at the library. Making sure that all announcements posted on the bulletin board are also conveyed auditorily. Taping down the edges of rugs so they don’t get folded and become tripping hazards.

Using lifnei iver to name a category of situations where a person is drawn to forbidden acts not only obscures the simple meaning of the verse, it also subliminally erodes the esteem in which we hold blind people. They lose their agency, becoming faceless victims to circumstance, led into horrible situations because they can’t control their own environments.

We have a similar problem in English. We say that someone is “deaf to the cries of those in need” or “blind to the plight of people.” What we actually mean is “willfully ignorant.” We use “schizophrenic” to describe an incoherent argument and “obsessive-compulsive” to describe our coworker’s tidily organized desk.

But this leaves us open to harming others in our inarticulate use of language. How would it feel to be a deaf person and have your identity constantly used to mean “ignorant”? How would it feel to be struggling with anxious repetitive behavior that caused clinically significant impairment and have your diagnosis dismissed as behavior typical of precise or controlling personality types?

Perhaps we are drawn to expansive readings of lifnei iver because we convince ourselves that we would never be so careless as to place an actual barrier in front of an actual blind person. And it feels daunting to try to shift our language around any of these issues. There are too many people asking too many things of us. And maybe I don’t understand why they are asking me to change my language from an intellectual or emotional perspective.

How would the halakhic category of caring for each other’s vulnerabilities be different if we framed it as Veahavta lereiacha kamocha instead of lifei iver? If we came from an angle of thinking through and asking how we can be of service to another human like ourselves, rather than taking a patronizing tack and assuming we know how to best serve a person who is unlike us?

Veahavta lereiacha kamocha relationships are admittedly harder than lifnei iver relationships. It requires us to learn about each other’s experiences, act with compassion and humility, give benefit of the doubt, and trust that everyone else is doing the same. But what we stand to gain is a life where we learn about each other’s experiences and community characterized by compassion, humility, trust, and second chances.

Kamocha means that the person in question is fundamentally like me, relatable. It pushes against our instinct to view ourselves as separate from each other. Kamocha encourages us to see difference as incidental rather than fundamental. This solidarity lends itself to compassion. Problematically, the lifnei iver frame puts me in a place of approaching an “other” who is fundamentally different from me. On the other hand, the veahavta lereiacha kamocha tack lends itself to broadly defining who we mean when we say “us” and using language to both reflect and encourage inclusive notions of community.

In the mindset of lifnei iver, if I don’t understand the utility of putting effort into changing language, then it isn’t incumbent upon me to try. I don’t have evidence leading me to believe that what I do is going to trip them up. Additionally, I have no responsibility to be proactive, to think about and ask about other people’s needs. If I just care about avoiding stumbling blocks, then I am only responsible for the harm I do through action, but not the harm I do through inaction

But if we work the same situation from a frame of veahavta lereiacha kamocha, we come to a very different conclusion. A human being has told me that they want me to change my language around a particular topic — gender, mental illness, disability, race, income, whatever. They seem to have a real stake in the issue. Veahavta lereiacha kamocha does not invite me to weigh whether I think this language should or shouldn’t matter to them or whether it will or won’t radically change society.  It invites me simply to respect another human’s stated experience and join them in creating the world they wish to live in.

shlepping to shul

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

Continuing the story of my visit to Birmingham, on Saturday morning we went to shul. We could go to Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, an orthodox synagogue, or Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, a Liberal congregation. Though I knew that I would probably appreciate the davenning more at the orthodox shul, I chose BPS because I was curious about egalitarian Judaism in the UK. To be a little snide, this service out-Reformed a Reform synagogue in the U.S.: To some extent, what happened was almost unrecognizable to me.

After a 20-minute walk, we arrived at the synagogue before services started at 11:00 a.m. — which seemed quite late. Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in synagogue before services started; because the ones I attend on Shabbat morning tend to be about three hours, I (like many people) drift in 30 or 45 minutes late. So we actually sat for a little while, and the very nice member of the congregation who welcomed us explained that because of the summer holidays, attendance would be sparse, and asked those of us who were Jewish to please sing out during the service. Indeed, there were perhaps 25 congregants, and almost no young people. The rabbi (who is a woman) was away, and in her place a congregant (also a woman) led the service.

The service was quite abbreviated, with none of the prayers — including the Amidah — said (or even printed) in full. Many were replaced by responsive readings in English. I knew almost none of the melodies, and I think (though I’m not an expert) that the ones used were difficult to sing, and not that spirited. Honestly, I felt like I was in church, which is not bad per se, but not what I would want in a synagogue.

The Torah service was in the same vein. The procession of the scroll happened only after the reading, and there was only one aliyah, meaning that only a very small part of the parshah was read. And the tallit of young girl who had the aliyah was longer than her overall shorts. (I realize that makes me sound crotchety.) The Torah reader gave a short d’var and then did just that: read the Torah. He didn’t chant it; he just read it from the scroll. He then offered his own translation. I’ve never seen this tradition before, though I was told it is standard practice in these congregations in England. The reader did gain my affection by talking about the points of grammar he considered when making his translation; he even used the words “infinitive absolute”!

After kiddush, we went back upstairs so that the non-Jews could look at the Torah scroll close up. The congregation has four scrolls, which is quite a lot for a 300-member shul. (Most synagogues do have more than one, to avoid constant scroll rolling, since a holiday might make it necessary to read from different parts of the scroll.) The building, too, was quite modern and expensive, which seemed out of sync with its anemic congregation. As it turns out, the synagogue moved just a few years ago: Its original building was bought by a developer planning to build a skyscraper on the property. So the congregation had to pay only about 10% of the cost of the building.

After lunch, we split up into groups to go to different parts of the city to try to get a sense of the multicultural and multifaith character of the city. I’ll just note that I found this exercise a little problematic, for reasons that I don’t want to go into here. But one of the things that I noticed were the near ubiquitous signs reading, “This area monitored by CCTV cameras.” My association with these cameras in the U.S. is the over-policing of low-income areas and neighborhoods of people of color, particularly under the pretext of the drug war — so I found the situation horrifying. But two native Brits confirmed that this level of surveillance is standard (or at least has become so in the post-9/11 and post-2005-Underground-bombings world). None of the natives I spoke to gave a thought to the cameras, and one even characterized Americans as “uptight” for opposing them.

Finally, we finished up the day at dinner with more guests, interfaith community organizers from Sparkbrook. We heard about The Feast, which brings together Christian and Muslim youth, and then from Rev. Richard Sudworth of Christ Church Centre (the first stop in Birmingham, where we heard from awesomely named Mohammed Ali), as well as from Javed Khan, who works in the community around Christ Church, which is majority Muslim. Rev. Sudworth talked about his church’s role in a community that is not reflective of its membership: A new experience, they’ve stepped back and concentrated on supporting the work that is already being done by groups in the area. It really resonated with me, as I think it’s a good model for the kind of work I want to do in a Jewish organization with other groups.

Next up . . . we attend church!

mourning

Next week is Tisha B’Av (literally, the ninth day of [the month of] Av), a holiday in the Jewish year cycle that commemorates the destruction of both the First and the Second Temples in Jerusalem. Tradition also ascribes to this day various other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, including the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Observance often includes fasting and reading the book of Lamentations — as befits a day of mourning.

Preparation for the holiday begins three weeks before, on the 17th of Tammuz, when (according to the Mishnah) Moses is said to have come down from Mount Sinai, with the first set of the 10 Commandments, seen the children of Israel worshiping the golden calf, and smashed the tablets. My teacher Ebn Leader connects this event with Yom Kippur, when it is said that Moses came down again from Mount Sinai with the second and final set of tablets, and thus the people knew that they were forgiven. Indeed, during these many weeks between 17 Tammuz and 10 Tishrei (Yom Kippur), we carry out a process of forgiveness.

But first we mourn. This has been a powerful metaphor for me lately. I’ve faced some painful realities, and so I’ve had to give up hope for a relationship of mine. (I apologize for the lack of specificity: I’m trying to be discreet without being overly cryptic. And it’s not my husband!)

I’m not sure what mourning looks like in this context. I feel loss. Devastating loss. But I am still in relationship with this person — it’s just not going to be the relationship that I had hoped. And certain limitations mean that this person will likely never be aware of the shift. So I’m dealing with this on my own, and I’m left to wonder: What can that relationship look like now? Am I able make the adjustment? How do I deal with my feelings about the change? Where can I find what I need (what I had once hoped to get from this relationship)? Will I ever be able to forgive the many ways in which this person has let me down?

As Ebn notes in his d’vrei Torah about Tisha B’Av (and it’s really worth reading the whole thing!):

The ninth day of Av is the day we acknowledge Hurban Yerushalayim. We usually translate this as the “destruction of Jerusalem,” but Jerusalem is also “yir’eh shalem”: a vision of wholeness. Tish’ah b’Av is the destruction of the vision of wholeness that we may have had, that may even be the driving force of our life, that is now shattered on the rock of evil and suffering. When we acknowledge that shattering, our love gives birth to disappointment, anger and deep sadness.
I don’t know the answers to any of the questions that I have. This situation and this realization offend my commitment to recognizing the humanity in every person: I don’t ever want to give up on someone. And I know I can’t keep making myself vulnerable in the ways I have in the past. That pain is overwhelming.

why have kids?

First: I don’t know whether I want children. I’ve never felt a strong desire for children. I have felt pressure from my mom and from (what I perceive is, more on that below) Jewish tradition. I’m mostly undecided, and I think I could be okay not having kids. I do wonder though, if it were socially acceptable, whether I would just decide not to. Which is strange to me, since I am not usually ruled by others’ expectations. I think part of it is the fact that relatively few people choose not to have kids, so I wonder if I’m missing something. I also wonder how to know that I won’t regret that decision. Deciding to become a rabbi has only intensified my anxiety about this issue: I don’t know any rabbis without children.

Over the holidays I read (on my Kindle app on my iPhone) Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness. It’s a short and quick read, and it in no way answers its own question. I was left with the overwhelming feeling that there is no rational reason to have kids. People do it because they want to, because they are expected to, because they were faced with an unintended pregnancy — all valid reasons. But it’s not necessarily going to make you a happier or more fulfilled person (at least not for a long while).

The book is divided into two parts: LIES and TRUTH. The first category includes “Children Make You Happy,” “Breast is Best,” “‘The Hardest Job in the World'”; the former, of “‘Bad’ Mothers Go to Jail,” “Smart Women Don’t Have Children,” and “Women Should Work.” Obviously, some of these are provocative, but Valenti does manage in some way to take on some of the sacred cows of motherhood. Much of the book draws from first-mother accounts, and the stories, quite frankly, are horrifying — and played into my worst fears. The standout in the book is her (unfortunately ill-formed) argument for the need in our country to move from individual to community parenting — thus requiring us to advocate for “government and workplace policies that honor parenting for everyone.” That’s a world into which I would want to bring children. Valenti just doesn’t really offer a way to get there.

Interestingly, related issues were raised last Shabbat in a Jewish context; at Temple Beth Zion, a congregant, the aunt of one of my classmates, gave a d’var Torah about the Biblical imperative to procreate, from the weekly parshah, Bereshit. In the first account of the creation of humans — the only humans at the time — in Genesis 1:28, G-d tells them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The talk was intensely personal, and it deeply resonated with me.

At my request, she sent me a copy of her d’var. Speaking from her perspective as “a Jewish woman who chose not to give birth or be the primary raiser of children,” she talked about her struggle with that decision and her exploration for its validation in Jewish tradition. She grew up in a different time, when women were told that being a mother was part of having a full life. (I’m actually not sure that things have changed that much, though perhaps the messages are less explicit.) She began to speak with women older than she and discovered that this might not be the case. After much agonizing, she related, “I felt at the end of the day that primary parenting is a huge responsibility and a lot of work that, while potentially quite wonderful, was not one of the major life works that I wanted to take on.”

She explained that she made that decision with the belief that it was in opposition to Jewish law and practice. At the time, she identified as a secular Jew, so whether there was support for her choice in Jewish tradition was not of import. When she became more religious mid-life (when having children was no longer an option), she began to explore what Jewish texts actually have to say on the issue. There are in the Tanakh examples of women who do not have children — most notably Dvora – which is to say nothing of the men and women who cannot have children. She also cited the story of Jacob’s reaction to Rachel in her despair over not having children; a 15th century rabbi interprets it as anger at her forgetting her basic worth as a human being.

Wrapping up, she asked, “What does it mean to be a mensch (human) in regards to procreation and the domination of the planet by human beings in the 21st century? What is our holy work and what is our holy work today as we explore our connection back to the very first mitzvah — of procreation?” Citing the writing of Rav Kook (the first chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine) on the issue — his view is that procreation is not mere instinct but pursuit of divine goodness, to be found everywhere — she concluded,

From my point of view this means that procreation originally set the precedent for human holy activity that now includes all activity that nurtures the human race.

Oh my God! I forgot to have children!Thus, her work as a mentor and advocate for Jewish women is her holy work — born of the Biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.”

This decision weighs on me, and it’s something I’ll continue to wrestle with as my window for having children continues to close because of my age. The d’var giver joked that she didn’t want to have the realization of a woman in a t-shirt she saw: “Oh my God! I can’t believe I forgot to have to have children!” Like her, I want “to make an active, intelligent decision about whether or not I [am] going to give birth and raise children.”

first services

On Monday I led my first service all by myself, an hour-long morning service for Rosh HaShanah. (In June, at my bat mitzvah, I just led two parts of the service: the Amidah and the second part of the Torah service.)

rosh hashanah prep; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

A little over a week ago, the community relations coordinator at an assisted living facility about 10 miles north of Boston emailed the school to ask if there was a rabbinical student available for three one-hour services (on both days of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur). The director of job placement at the school then emailed the student body with the plea — and noted that it would be a great opportunity for someone with little experience, that it would be a real mitzvah for the center, and that the center would pay for the services. The first certainly described me; the second pulled at my heartstrings; and the third sealed the deal. I volunteered.

Helpfully, the center had a shortened service booklet (above) that had been put together specifically for its services, so I was able to work from that. I added a few parts and wrote a d’var torah; found tunes for parts of the liturgy that I’m not that familiar with (because they’re specific to the High Holidays, which are only once a year); got a crash course in shofar from a fifth year student (who was an awesome teacher!); and outlined and timed the serviced. And I practiced. And practiced. And practiced. At least as much as I could in a few days, during the first week of classes.

After the first day, I was just glad it was over. About two dozen people came, as predicted by the community relations coordinator. A few were the children of the residents, and I think they were my toughest audience. The residents were of varying cognitive and physical ability: about half were from the assisted living side of the center, and the other half, from the skilled nursing side.

I didn’t feel particularly nervous, but I performed with only mixed success. I did the parts I knew well (except when I started the Amidah in the wrong tune, which happened both days for some reason). And I was pleased with what I had written to say: an introduction, a kavanah (intention, or meditation, for the service); a preface to the shofar service; and my d’var. And, per the advice of the rabbi in charge of job placement — who sat down with me last week to offer advice — I greeted, and introduced myself to, and chatted with everyone before the service started. I think this went a long way in earning me some goodwill in spite of my mistakes.

Ah, yes: The mistakes. I just forgot most of the tunes for the High Holiday-specific parts of the liturgy. I do not have much singing ability, despite my performance at my bat mitzvah — which came after months and months of practice. And when I did remember how a part started, I usually got off track in the middle. These missteps were made worse by the fact that the tunes didn’t seem to be known very well — at all? — by the service participants. So it was just my poor singing that filled the room. I had wanted to learn them, though, to break up blocks of just plain reading in Hebrew; I think if I were a more skilled song leader, I could have repeated the refrains and gotten more participation.

I’m pretty sure that after I finished one “song” I heard a woman say, “This is terrible!” My husband maintains that the speaker was probably talking about something else, but I’m not sure she was wrong. I felt terrible at not doing well by the residents in their celebration of the holiday, and I felt even more terribly about representing Hebrew College poorly. I had, after all, told everyone where I studied when I introduced myself.

downtown boston from tobin bridge; photo by lehcar1477

When I left, I felt sick at the idea of going back the next day. I started to calm down as I drove away — and I began to feel better when I started to pay attention to the program that happened to be airing on Boston’s NPR affiliate: author Brené Brown spoke about her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I almost laughed aloud as I listened to Brown explain that “Overcoming shame, and allowing ourselves to take risks and ask for help is important not only for our personal and professional success, but also for our success as a culture.” Then I began to marvel at the view of downtown Boston from the Tobin Bridge (left), feeling grateful to be living in such a beautiful city and to have such unique opportunities.

By the next morning, I felt much less embarrassed and much more determined to do (and capable of doing) a better job on the second day. And so it went.

I slowed down and made sure to get the transitions from piece to piece right (calling out page numbers, opening or closing the ark, explaining the prayer that followed, etc.). I also decided to take one of the sefer Torahs from the ark. I wasn’t able to read the portion for that day (the akedah), but I knew the songs for the Torah service well, and people generally love to touch the scroll. I didn’t flub the Hebrew, and I remembered the tunes. After the service, I stood at the door and shook everyone’s hands, wished them a happy new year, and chatted briefly. It was a nice way to end the service; I wish I’d done it on the first day. Plus, it gave all of the participants a chance to tell me what a lovely service it was, which many of them did. Many also asked whether I’d be back for Yom Kippur.

Side note: As a rabbinical student (and as a rabbi, too, I imagine), the “holidays” are overwhelming. I spent all my free time before and during the holidays in preparation (for the services or the meals), and then three to seven hours a day at holiday meals. Several families associated with Hebrew College generously hosted me, but the majority of the people at these meals were unknown to me, and meeting new people as a rabbinical student can be exhausting. Rosh HaShanah is now over, and in a way I feel as though it didn’t really happen. Davenning as a service leader bears little resemblance to doing so as a service participant, and I didn’t have any time to do the reflection on the new year that I spent much of the last month preparing to do. Welcome to the rabbinate, I suppose. I need a chag from my chag.

Back at the assisted living facility, I was especially proud of the fact that I seemed to have won over a woman who was very cranky when she arrived. She sat down and basically began heckling me. At 10 minutes before the hour, she called out, “Let’s get this service started already!” Then she offered, “I suggest you introduce yourself to everyone before you begin!” When I told her where I went to school, she shook her head. “I’m very familiar with all of the rabbinical schools, and that’s not a rabbinical school.” Later she asked, “What will you call yourself? A rebbetzin?” She wrinkled her nose and gave me a doubtful look when I said that the term would be “rabbi.”

What took the cake, though, was her remark after the service. She came up to me and beamed, telling me what a great job I had done. She put her hands on my shoulders and looked straight at me.

“You’re going to make just a wonderful rabbi’s wife!”

UPDATE: The community relations coordinator called me on Thursday, two days after the second service to tell me how much the residents loved my services! She said they especially appreciated how I greeted each of them, asked their names, and then took the time to talk with them.

bat mitzvah

after the ceremony, with the sefer torah; photo by gay lee pearce

My bat mitzvah ceremony was almost two months ago, and with all that has happened since then, it seems even further in the past. But yesterday in Hebrew class our book included a text about the ritual of Orthodox boys’ first haircuts — traditionally at the age of three, on Lag B’Omer, at the tomb of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in the Galilean town of Meron, in case you’re interested — and one of the book’s exercises asked us to reflect on one of our own meaningful Jewish rituals. Since I have to do it in Hebrew, I may as well attempt it in English first . . .

I completed the adult b’nai mitzvah class in June, after seven months of study. The group of 15 — all young adults in the D.C. area — met for two hours each week; the class was held at Sixth & I and was the first of its kind for the synagogue. Sixth & I hired an outside rabbi to teach the class, a woman I had first met — and loved! — when she taught one of the sessions of the Jeremiah Fellowship I completed a year ago. As I noted at the end of our ceremony dress rehearsal, I am likely one of the few who can say that her bat mitzvah prepared her for rabbinical school. I don’t know what this first step in my journey to the rabbinate would have been like without all that I gained from the class, the rabbi, and my classmates.

We read about prayer and the liturgy, talked about the holidays, learned how to put on a tallit and lay tefillin. We wrote d’vrei torah and practiced leining our parts of the parshah. Even after all these years of my adult Jewish education, it continues to thrill me that there is always more to learn.

The class was an interesting mix of Jewish backgrounds. A few people had had b’nai mitzvah as teenagers but had not found the experience particularly meaningful and hadn’t been involved in the Jewish community since then. Like me, others had never had one, despite having been raised as Jews, and some of us weren’t raised Jewish. I in particular was in a different place in my Jewish journey than everyone else, as I began visiting and applying to rabbinical schools shortly after the class started. But we all shared a desire to deepen our commitment to Judaism.

In addition to the opportunities for spiritual and intellectual development and liturgical proficiency, the class also gave me a glimpse into the future. A curious thing happens when you say that you are planning to become a rabbi, probably not unlike what happens when you say that you are studying to become a rabbi, or that you are a rabbi: in the class and elsewhere, people began jokingly referring to me as “rabbi,” asking me questions about Judaism, and deferring to my leadership. More than one person whom I do not know well at all wanted to talk about G-d in the course of otherwise fairly pedestrian conversations. In all of those moments I felt acutely inadequate.

I am going to rabbinical school because I don’t have answers, in more than one sense. I need and want to know more to be able to serve the Jewish community, and I am well suited for the rabbinate in part because I don’t require certainty.

The class was my first experience of being a part of a Jewish community with the “rabbi lens.” As rabbinical school became a reality, what I wanted to get out of the class changed. I watched the rabbi teach and observed how she handled the class and its questions. I listened to what others said about why the class was meaningful to them. I led one of the rehearsals when the rabbi couldn’t make it to class. I began to feel less a part of the class and more an aide to the class. Of course, this position came with risks. After a tense second-to-last service rehearsal, in which we were all nervous and on edge, I snapped at one of my classmates. She was understandably upset with me, and righting that wrong and repairing that relationship (which I am happy to report did happen) took on a different import. I felt a power imbalance and a new responsibility — and the crushing guilt that must always come with being a “bad representative” of a group’s leadership. I knew it behooved me to make amends, no matter the extenuating circumstances. I asked myself for the first, but presumably not the last, time, “Can I be a good rabbi if I . . .?”

part of the amazing card my friends gave me, with pictures from their own b’nai mitzvah

The service itself was wonderful. For some reason I’ve always been cavalier about milestones, ceremonies, and celebrations. I don’t remember attaching much import to high school or college graduations, and I was fairly blasé even about my wedding (noting again for my reader(s?) that this was not my attitude towards my marriage). And it took me a while to warm to the idea of this one: My cousin found out about it a few months prior and said to me, “Hello!? You have to tell us about these things!” But the excitement came. I practiced every day, I invited friends and family, I got my hair done, and I bought new clothes (a true sign of how meaningful I held the occasion, since I loathe shopping; the best present I’ve ever gotten was when my mom bought me a wedding dress and sent it to me).

At the Saturday morning service on June 4, 2012, I gave my d’var torah, I led the amidah and the second half of the Torah service, and I had two aliyot. Almost of this involved carrying a tune, and the truly hilarious part of the day was finding my family in the social hall downstairs after the ceremony and hearing each of them exclaim as they hugged me, “I didn’t know you could sing!” I didn’t either, and I am happy to now have the confidence that I can lead services and not embarrass myself.

I remember Sixth & I’s rabbi, acting as gabbai while we read Torah, giving me a hug after I finished my aliyah, and saying, “Nice job, rabbi.” I remember that so many of my friends came to support me. I remember my mom’s thrill at meeting the rabbis who helped us lead the service, women who were both holding at least one of their small children after the ceremony. It’s not clear to me what my mom’s conception of being a rabbi is, but she turned to me as we were leaving the synagogue and said, “See? You can be a rabbi *and* have kids!”

I almost started crying when I saw my father-in-law after the service. He has known more than his fair share of tragedy and thus is understandably staid, with a deadpan sense of humor. He drove 12 hours from his home in Louisville, Ky., to attend the service, a generous gesture from a fairly cynical atheist and generally non-practicing Jew. His face lit up when he saw me after the ceremony, and with a huge smile that I’ve never seen, he told me what a great job I did. In my mind I can still see his expression, and I think it would have been enough just to have that memory.

torah portion

parshat naso; art by siona benjamin

Since October, I’ve been taking an weekly young adult b’nai mitzvah class at Sixth & I, where I got married.

Isn’t that how the life cycle goes? Marriage, bat mitzvah two years later, followed shortly by rabbinical school? No?

My participation in the class is a little strange, since I am in a more than slightly different place than most of my classmates. (As far as I know, no one else is applying to rabbinical school.) And the experience of my classmates is pretty varied: Some are products of mixed marriages, so didn’t grow up Jewish, but are now connecting with their Judaism; others had a bar or bat mitzvah as a kid but didn’t feel like they got much out of it and want to learn more now. And still others grew up nominally Jewish and just didn’t have b’nai mitzvah. There is at least one other convert.

I’m in the class to learn the order of services, the prayers, and trope, and to have the experience of leading services and chanting Torah. To be sure, I’m getting that, even if the class occasionally veers a little too much into the “Introduction to Judaism” realm. Plus, I love the instructor, the beyond awesome Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel.

The ceremony will be this summer at Sixth & I, and our parshah is Naso, from the book of Numbers (the longest of the weekly Torah portions). The parshah addresses priestly duties, purifying the camp, the wife accused of unfaithfulness (sotah), the nazirite, the priestly blessing, and consecrating the Tabernacle. The four or so lines that I will be chanting (Numbers 4:28-5:2) are the end of census instructions and the beginning of those for camp cleaning.

We talked about the full parshah last week and began to work on our d’vrei Torah. Most of our discussion in class focused on the ritual of the sotah, because it’s just wacky. There’s really no other word for it, at least at first glance. It’s like a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We began discussing it more seriously than an initial reading would suggest it merits, but I don’t know that I’ve gained much insight into the passage yet.

And so, I leave you with this: “What also floats in water?” “Bread! Apples! Very small rocks!”

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