she who has a why

[S]he who has a why can bear almost any how. -Frederick Nietzsche

The second week in January I took an interfaith seminar called “Experiencing Islam” in conjunction with Andover Newton Theological Seminary (ANTS), which shares the hill with Hebrew College. I had lunch on one day with an ANTS student, and I told her (a short version of) the story of my journey to the rabbinate. One of the weird things I find about being a new rabbinical student is that, after months of talking about nothing else, I am no longer regularly asked — and I don’t ask any of my classmates of themselves — why I want to be a rabbi.

In talking with my future colleague, I found myself thinking back to the high holidays in October of 2011, almost a year-and-a-half ago. I went to Sixth & I’s Yom Kippur services at Calvary Baptist Church, which Rabbi Shira Stutman led. During the service, Elissa Froman gave a talk. In her introduction, Shira noted that Elissa was planning to start HUC-JIR Rabbinical School the next summer. And I remember having a twinge of jealousy and wanting that (or some version of that, with perhaps another rabbinical school substituted) to be said about me. This wasn’t the beginning of my decision to apply to rabbinical school, as I had already been thinking seriously about it (as much as two or three years before), but Elissa was certainly motivation to really get going.

I don’t know Elissa well, although I should. We have similar interests, are involved in some of the same organizations, and have many mutual friends. Unfortunately, what I know most about Elissa is that she is sick (which is of course not the sum of her identity).

Elissa was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma more than six years ago and has had two relapses, as well as a bone marrow transplant, and she’s been in the hospital for the past year dealing with complications from treatment. (This is information that she, her family, and others authorized by her family have shared publicly.) Elissa didn’t go to rabbinical school last summer, as she had planned. And that plan was a deferment from the year before. And I’m guessing that it’s probably not in the cards this summer, either (although, who knows?). It does seem like she has yet a struggle ahead of her.

In October, a friend of Elissa’s started a fundraising page for her and her family, as her stay in the hospital stretched into its eighth month. My friend Eve sent an email to our Jeremiah cohort about the effort, encouraging everyone to give: “Maybe some of you know her better than I, but, ever since meeting her back in the early 2000s, her work and life have been an inspiration.” (If you want to donate to this effort, you can do so here.) The page and its success are certainly a testament to the impact that Elissa has had on so many people. As the page’s creator wrote in the introduction:

If you are here, it is because you know and love Elissa Froman. You know the impact she has had on the people lucky enough to surround her, you are those people. Or maybe you know of her. You know of her advocacy work, her commitment to community, social justice, civil rights, and making the world a better place.

The morning that Eve sent her email, my classmate Lisa (also a former D.C.-er and friend of Elissa) led the Torah service at school. I also happened to be at the front of the room because I had an aliyah (the honor of saying the blessings before and after the Torah reading). As we sang mi sheberiach (the prayer for healing that is usually said in the middle of the Torah service), we shared with each other later that we had both been thinking about Elissa. All of this is to say that her presence is far-reaching.

And if you need even more evidence of Elissa’s awesomeness, watch this video that her friends made for her 29th birthday.

A year before Eve sent her email, to the day, Elissa wrote the last post that appears on her blog, where she’s chronicled her battle with cancer and her plans to go to rabbinical school. (By the way, you should read all of her blog. It is touching and heartbreaking and funny and honest and all the things that make a blog worth reading.) That last post was also written mere days after she spoke on Yom Kippur. In it, Elissa reflects on the five years since her diagnosis and expresses hope for the next five years, during which she was to finish her rabbinical school education.

It’s obviously painful to read in retrospect. I met with Elissa shortly after she wrote the post. We had coffee in the middle of the day, and I excitedly told her about my first visit to a rabbinical school and my plans for more visits and applications. And she shared with me her hopes for her rabbinate. We talked about how great it would be to one day be colleagues with similar interests, working as rabbis for social justice organizations.

Elissa’s been on my mind recently, and not just because I told the story of my journey to the rabbinate. Elissa’s sister recently sent an update on her progress — as she does regularly — to friends of Froman. And as many of you know, last semester (my first in rabbinical school) was very challenging for me, emotionally and spiritually. While I don’t think I’ve ever treated this experience flippantly, I always want to remember that first and foremost I am able to have this experience. This is a blessing and a privilege.

So Elissa, I’ll go to rabbinical school for both of us — until you join me.

UPDATE: Elissa Froman passed away on Friday, March 22, 2013 (11 Nisan 5773). May her memory be always for a blessing.

You can make a gift in her honor to the National Council of Jewish Women, her longtime employer.

homelessness

One morning in D.C. I met a friend at Caribou Coffee, and I grabbed the restroom key off the bar as soon as I walked in. The barista glanced at me but said nothing. I walked back to the restroom, which was clearly marked: “For Caribou customers ONLY.” A homeless man sat at the table closest to the restroom, sipping his cup of coffee, alternately watching me and his shopping cart of belongings just outside the door.

“If I did that, they’d make me buy something before used the restroom.”

I didn’t know what to say. I muttered that I was going to buy something; I just really had to use the bathroom. But I knew that he was right. My privilege as an upper middle-class white woman (even one dressed in her stinky running clothes) had given me that pass. I look like someone who is going to buy something. Or someone who isn’t going to bathe in the bathroom. Or both.

I don’t see homeless folks where I live in Boston. I know they exist, even in the affluent suburbs where I live and go to school. But besides running or a quick trip to the drug store, I drive everywhere. It’s hard to see anyone from the bubble of my car.

Before I left D.C., the plight of homelessness weighed on me heavily. I walked everywhere, including to and from my office downtown, where there are homeless people on almost every street. In the months before I moved away, I struggled every day with how best to treat these people with humanity. My general policy is to give money — change — to whomever asks, but I feel deeply the inadequacy of that response.

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tzedakah box: tiempo israelitico synagogue; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As I was packing, I decided I didn’t need to schlep a full tzedakah box, which my husband and I had been adding to since we moved to our apartment four years earlier, to Boston. I put the coins in a plastic bag and began doling it out. There was a lot of change, and I began to go out of my way to give it away. I’ll be honest: This increased interaction with some of the most vulnerable residents became a source of stress, as I found myself feeling increasingly helpless in the face of such a daunting social issue. I didn’t know if what I was doing was ultimately helping or hurting, and I don’t know what a better alternative is.

But when a person is asking something from me — a person who my tradition teaches me was created b’tzelem Elohim, “in the image of G-d” — I can’t decline a request for change, something that literally costs me very little to give. Because of this, I am unconcerned, as many are, about how the requesting party will use that money; that is simply not a factor in my thinking about this issue. As often as I can, I look the person in the eye, I smile, and I give.

I arrived at this decision about how to respond to these requests after a text study during a fellowship I participated in. The Jeremiah Fellowship, run by the local D.C. organization Jews United for Justice, was a 10-month program to train the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers. The text study, “Can You Spare a Dime? Jewish Perspectives on Spontaneous Tzedakah,” which focused specifically on these kinds of street requests, was in three parts: To give or not to give? What about people who aren’t really in need? Are there alternatives to giving money?

We’re told in Vayikra Rabbah 32:2:

Rabbi Pinchas says in the name of Rabbi Re’uven: To anyone who gives a small coin to a poor person, the Holy Blessed One will give many small coins. But is the giver really just giving the poor person a coin? Isn’t she really giving him his life? How so?

If a loaf of bread costs ten coins and a poor person is standing in the market and only has nine, and someone comes along and gives him one [more] coin so that he buys the loaf of bread and eats it and his soul is returned to him [i.e., he is saved from starving to death]. The Holy Blessed One says to the giver, “In your case, too, when your own soul threatens to break loose from your body [i.e., when you’re on the verge of death], I will return it to you.”

The text study (several more pieces besides the one above) had a profound effect on me. I like that the Talmud acknowledges that not everyone who asks is in need (or, by extension, will use the money for the professed need) and suggests non-monetary ways to help those in need — while still affirming our obligation to give even just a little, and to do so with compassion.

sign near occupy dc on k st nw

sign near occupy dc at vermont & k sts nw; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I know that not everyone agrees with my approach — including some of my fellow Jeremiahs, who looked at the same texts I did. While I lived in D.C. I also made a (small) annual donation to an organization that worked with the local homeless population. Each week my husband bought a copy of Street Sense — a publication by and about those experiencing homelessness — from a vendor near his office. And I spent many a Christmas day repainting various buildings of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, a downtown D.C. shelter.

All of this is to say that I loved being in back in D.C., where homeless folks are visible, even if they are a painful reminder of how short our society falls in an important test. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

labor seder

Sunday night was Jews United for Justice’s (JUFJ) annual Labor Seder; for the two months prior, I led the program committee that wrote the haggadah. I was also honored with a reading and with leading the Shehecheyanu, one of my favorite prayers. As the graphic to the right alludes, the event this year focused on the issue of immigration in the D.C region.

As my reading, “Why a seder about immigration?,” stated,

In Hebrew, the word for immigration (“hagirah”) comes from the same root as the word “ger,” a word that can mean “stranger,” “foreigner,” or “other.” The word is used frequently in the Torah, most often in mandates to treat strangers living in our midst with respect and decency since we ourselves were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. Indeed, throughout history, the Jewish people have so often been in the position of the stranger, and much of Jewish history can be characterized as a history of constant migration, forced and voluntary relocation, and resettlement.

In short, the fact that all Jews at some point immigrated to our country obligates us to be concerned about the plight of all immigrants in our country. During the seder, we talked about the demographics of the immigrants in the D.C, their contributions to the region’s economy, and the struggles that they face, including paths to citizenship (for those who came here both legally and illegally). We largely focused on issues related to jobs — of which citizenship is obviously a huge part. D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have all recently been grappling with laws relating to immigrants, in particular the DREAM Act and the local reaction to the federal “Secure Communities” program.

Immigration issues have become a passion of mine since I studied their local implications as part of the Jeremiah Fellowship, a program that JUFJ runs to train “the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers.” I learned a lot from the unit — and even more from writing the haggadah. I strongly believe in the kind of immigration reform advocated by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) — an ally of JUFJ and a co-sponsor of the seder — to wit, “. . . an effective immigration system guided by the rule of law, the national interest, fairness, and compassion.” There are specifics to this vision which I won’t get into here, for a variety of reasons. At this point I am so deeply enmeshed in this philosophy of immigration reform that it’s really hard for me to understand the ferocious opposition to any realistic — to say nothing of compassionate — action. It’s an issue that progressives don’t even agree on. However, if you seek vitriol, read the online comments on news articles that cover efforts other than the immediate deportation our country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants.

In addition to delving pretty deeply into immigration policy, I also began thinking about my own family’s immigration story. They aren’t Jewish, but they’re not Native Americans either — so they had to have arrived at some point. But it’s a story I hadn’t heard.

I decided to ask my dad. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have the kind of relationship with my father that facilitates these kinds of conversations. Or more precisely, I’m not sure he’d understand why I was asking in this context. Plus, my father is a lawyer, which for him means that he has to give precise answers at all times. It turned out that he had some genealogy, from my maternal grandfather, as well as his own family history. When I asked him about it at the beginning of February, he told me that he had loaned out his “big file” with all of that information to his brother and wouldn’t be able to get it back until mid-March. I told him that was fine, chuckling to myself that he didn’t give me any idea of that file’s contents; he never wants to misstate. A few days later, though, he got back to me with some details.

woody guthrie, apparently a relative

My maternal great-grandmother’s birth name was Guthrie, which family line can be traced back to John Guthrie in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to my grandfather’s notes, John Guthrie arrived in Jamestown in 1652. There was apparently a Guthrie Castle built in 1452, near Guthrie Hill, and that a Guthrie was dispatched to France in 1299 to get Sir William Wallace (“Braveheart”) to return to Scotland to oppose the English. It appears from my grandfather’s charts that the name was spelled “Guttery” until about 1854, when it became “Guthrie” again. My dad concludes this section: “Phil Kastelic [my uncle] may be able to tell you more about the recent Guthrie line: apparently Woody Guthrie is from the Guthrie family tree, and PMK is very proud of that connection.”

On his side of the family, my grandfather recorded Thomas Wilkes as his earliest known ancestor; he was born around 1630, location unknown. His son, Joseph Wilkes, is shown as having been born in New Kent, Va. in 1660. There are separate notes based on correspondence between my grandfather’s father and a Wilkes relative in Maryland that indicate that Thomas Wilkes arrived from England on February 25, 1653, at age 23, as an indentured servant. These notes also indicate that the birthplace of Joseph Wilkes was “just up the York River from Jamestown.”

So, not only did my grandparents’ ancestors both arrive at or near Jamestown in the 17th century — but they arrived within a year of one another! I was proud to tell this story at the seder on Sunday night, during the table discussion of attendees’ own family immigration stories. And I’m looking forward to hearing about my dad’s side of the family.

the fourth school

jeremiah

the prophet jeremiah, from fall rabbinical school tour; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the fall I visited four rabbinical schools. There are only a handful non-Orthodox institutions (that is, ones that accept women) in the U.S. I ruled out two online/commuter schools, as well as the ones not on the East Coast (per my husband’s request). In early to mid-December, I decided to apply to just three of the schools I had visited — and I began to make plans accordingly: asking for letters of recommendation, sending transcripts, organizing essays, completing forms, etc.

When I took the GRE on December 9, I had to choose the schools to which to send scores, and I included school #4 on that list. I think I just wasn’t quite ready to rule it out. (Plus, I got to send four reports for free, so I thought, “Why not?”)

Five days later, the admissions director at school #4 called to check in. Surprised at his call, I wasn’t ready to have the conversation about why I had decided not to apply, so I only mentioned one reason. But I didn’t feel great about how poorly I had articulated my concerns about the school, so I sent a follow-up email. In it, I explained that I had come to the conclusion that school #4 was just not a good fit for me, for various reasons. I’m not going to be a productive member of the matriculating class — and the school shouldn’t want me — if that’s the case. I didn’t hear back.

Sidebar: I’m not trying to hide the identity of the school in question: In fact, it’s probably easy to figure it out. But I don’t think it’s all that important to this narrative.

Then last week, I did get an email, after he had received my GRE scores; he hoped for an opening to start the conversation again. This unexpected development shook me up probably more than it should have. I started spiraling into a tizzy of questions: Why is he doing this? As a new admissions director, does he just want robust application numbers? Am I letting flattery cloud my judgment? Are the concerns I raised about the school actually not accurate? Is this school actually my destiny?

The last is a bit of an exaggeration. But I did wonder, much to my husband’s chagrin, whether this was a sign from the universe. I’m willing to believe that things happen for a reason. And I think having grown up with an evangelical Christian father makes me more susceptible to doubt in the face of someone else’s certainty. (It could also be reasonably inferred that I am also an over-thinker and an over-worrier.)

I agreed that we should have another conversation; it happened yesterday, and it went really well. I was able to go through with him a list of my concerns. None of them were fully alleviated, which is not what I was expecting anyway. But next I’ll speak with the associate dean, as well as a current student. (Both are women, which may hint at the nature of some of my concerns.) And after a conversation with a rabbi I trust, an alumna of school #4, I’m going to go ahead and apply. What’s one more application, right? I don’t want to close that door quite yet.

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