Judaism & Israel, Personal

Nourishing the Spirit: What Prayer CAN Do

I wrote a whole section of my thesis on prayer’s “ineffectiveness” according to many pieces of wisdom literature (blog post on my thesis coming soon). And yet, I still pray. I still go to services and want to become a rabbi. So why do I pray? Why do I ask for prayers?

A few days ago, an immediate family member was in the hospital, and I felt paralyzed. I was too overwhelmed to individually message each of my amazing friends and community members. So I asked for prayers from the Brandeis Jewish Community (see my other blog post about how much I love it). I was met not only with people who said that they would pray for my family member but also with an outpouring of love and support. This experience got me thinking once again about the benefits and dangers of prayer:

Let’s start with the benefits:

  1. I live in a different state than most of my friends. They are unable to come to the hospital or sit with me physically, but them saying that they are praying for me and my family helps to comfort and support me. It is a way to feel “in community” without my physical community around.
  2. As a religious person, asking for “prayers,” allows me to ask for support in a way that feels more comfortable to me. Vulnerability and fear especially, are very hard emotions to let oneself feel, but making a request like this is a way to show them with very little risk.
  3. I am/was powerless in this situation. I am not his doctor. I cannot do anything physically, and at the moment I asked for those prayers, I could not even be in the room with him. But prayer, both my own and others’, allows me to feel some sense of agency even if it is false (studies show that the difference in how percieved agency feels and how actual agency feels is not substantial).

There are a few dangers with endorsing the “power of prayer.” I am not advocating for prayer over seeking medical attention or acting in ways to improve the situation. From my perspective, it can help emotionally as an “add on” to actual actions that one takes, and it really isn’t doing much harm when used in that way. And for those of us who are religious, it brings more comfort than anything else can.

Judaism & Israel

Living “Shomer Chol”: How I Engage With Judaism Outside of the Synagogue

It’s hard to feel “holy” or like you’re observing Judaism in hospitals. The white walls, hurried nature, and scientific language does not necessarily command spirituality. But we don’t stop being Jews when we walk into medical insititutions. So how do I blend those two things together, Judaism and hospitals? How do I blend my “academic self” with my “Jewish self”?

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a rabbi about the practice of “keeping Shabbat”(observing the commandments of what to do and not do on Shabbat), and she noted that to her, keeping Judaism in mind during the “chol,” the weekdays (and all days) is more significant than just keeping Shabbat. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what that means to me.

I very rarely went to Kabbalat Shabbat/Friday night services in High School. I was a debater for my first three years and a swimmer for all four. It didn’t feel like Shabbat, and it also didn’t feel “right” to be cheering on my teammates on a pool deck when I should be celebrating Shabbat with friends (this doesn’t necessarily require going to synagogue). So I changed this when i went to college. I think I missed about three Hillel dinners of the four years I had in Brandeis Hillel, and that was very intentional (blog post on Brandeis Hillel coming soon). But this is still all about Shabbat.

After four years, a mess of medical experiences, and a semester in Israel, living “Shomer Chol” means living my values and keeping God and the Jewish people in my heart no matter whether I’m in an airport, hospital, or on Ben Yehuda street. But what does this actually look like? It looks like finding the chapel in every new hospital that I go to. It looks like engaging in disability advocacy with the reasoning that we are all made in God’s image (B’tzelem Elohim). It means engaging in all kinds of learning. In many ways, writing my thesis was a holy process for me because Judaism puts such a value on learning.

Taking this attitude of “Shomer Chol” has prompted me to think about how Judaism can fit in to the most mundane of tasks. The first thing that comes to my mind is shopping in the shuk (outdoor market) on Friday morning for Shabbat. the act of buying carrots or challah in itself is not holy, but with the intention of buying those groceries in order to feed friends or family and to celebrate shabbat together is. Journaling before I go to bed is a way of praying for me. I listen to Jewish music on my way into school or work.

I am just as Jewish when I sit in doctors’ waiting rooms as when I sit in my home synagogue or when I’m leading services. I’m still learning how to put my identities together. But I hope that now, I’m at least doing my best to live “shomer chol.”

Divrei Torah, Judaism & Israel

How I Write Divrei Torah (In 9 Easy-ish Steps)

I want to preface this by saying that I am by no means an expert in the field of writing Divrei Torah and much of my process has come from talking to others much more experienced than me and from trial and error. This is my process; yours may be different.

My Divrei Torah generally follow this formula: summary of the portion, connection to something ancient (either Jewish or Classical), connection to our lives in the modern world (how I do this depends on my audience and whether world or community events need to be addressed), connection back to the Torah/Judaism/Holiday, overall message for us.

This being said, let’s get into the process:

Step One: Figure out what the Torah portion is using HebCal

I’ve tried writing it in my calendar. I’ve tried the ridiculous parsha song that my friends have attempted to teach me (I get through Genesis and then I just get confused). HebCal to the rescue. in the age of the internet, who needs to remember things anyways?

Assuming that I am giving the D’var Torah on Friday night (and it’s not a High Holiday sermon or anything special like that), I begin this process on Sunday or Monday.

Step Two: Try to remember what happens in the Torah portion

Even after consistently having to know what the parsha is every day for four years, I still can’t seem to remember what happens in each of the parshiyot. To combat this problem, I start at Pop Torah (this serves to jog my memory as to the context of the portion). Then, for a more comprehensive summary, I got to this website (keep this one in mind because it will become crucial later). It is now Monday evening (assuming I haven’t procrastinated extensively).

Step Three: Read the Parsha (It’s hopefully still Monday)

This one is relatively self explanatory.

At this point, I generally pull up the original text on Sefaria and pull out a few verses that I find interesting, looking at the Hebrew as well as the English. Then, thanks to Sefaria’s commentary tool, I can pull up various commentaries on those verses alongside the original text.

Step Four: Read what other people have written on the parsha

On Tuesday, I read the divrei torah written by other rabbis and assorted religious leaders  on Reform Judaism and on Chabad’s website (which is refusing to link for some reason), and beat myself up for not coming up with an idea that I like. By the end of the day, I eventually resign myself to whatever ideas (never more than three main points) seem the most appealing or relevant.

Step Five: Write!

Now begins the writing process. Or the attempting to write process. By the end of Tuesday, I usually try to get something down on paper.

Step Six: Beat myself up about not being able to write 

No explanation needed.

Step Seven: Scrap everything and start over

Wake up in a frenzy of anxiety and excitement on Wednesday or Thursday morning, scrap everything I had written previously and write the whole D’var Torah in less than half an hour.

Step Eight: Almost Done!

I’m almost done. All that’s left is to let the ideas simmer for a little bit longer before reading the D’var Torah out loud. Also, remembering to print it or bring whatever I wrote it on is a step that is simple but absolutely crucial if one would like to avoid glares from Shabbat observant  (traditional) Jews.

Step Nine: Reread, Print, and Share!

Other things I’ve learned:

  1. Be aware of who your audience is and match the language, cultural references, and tone to them. For example, the D’var Torah I would give at a retirement home is different than one I gave to my college minyan (one of those groups understands Harry Potter references and the other doesn’t).
  2. Feel free to share. Logistically, I am not usually able to read my Divrei Torah to people before I give them at services, Shabbat meals, or other Jewish events, but if you would like, grab a friend, mentor, parent, whatever, and share it with them. Sometimes this can make you less nervous.
  3. Practice. Reading your D’var Torah out loud before sharing it is crucial. Know how to say the Hebrew if you are quoting Hebrew. Make sure that all of the sentences that made sense on the page make sense when you read them out loud.

How do you write Divrei Torah? What scares you about writing Divrei Torah? How does your process differ from mine? Let me know in the comments!




Judaism & Israel

An Open Letter to the Rabbis that shaped me

I’ve been thinking a heck of a lot about how I got to where I am today, seeing as I am starting rabbinical school in about a month, so I wanted to write an open letter to all of them, and maybe if you are reading this and have been impacted by a rabbi or two, you can share this with them.

Rabbis (and other Jewish professionals),

You are teachers, mentors, friends, supervisors, surrogate parents. And you have shaped me in more ways than you will ever know. So here’s a list of what I learned from you:

  1. The value of “walking the walk” and living our religious values in and out of traditionally religious spaces. It’s not enough to just say that we believe in social justice and compassion. Rather, we need to observe the commandments all of the days of the week and year. As Rabbi Andrea London would say, “Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed.”
  2. To stand tall in the face of adversity whether that be family drama, a diagnosis of a chronic illness, or discrimination. You have taught me that we are not a people who backs down in the face of hardship.
  3. What “Talmud Torah,” the study of Torah really means. You have encouraged me to question the texts that I am presented with and think deeply and critically about everything that I come across.
  4. What it means to be a real “teacher.” You make all of us your teachers, just as Pirkei Avot instructs us to do. This includes catering to your students and letting your passion for the subject come forward in the way that you teach.
  5. When to use humor, when to use comfort, and when to give advice. It will be a lifelong pursuit for me to learn this balance. But you have shown it to me. You have taught me that there is no one way to help people and that all of these tools are incredibly important, but we need to be careful when we use them.
  6. The power of using humanity (and occasionally vulnerability) to aid others on their journey with tact and grace. You inspire me to continue owning who I am and sharing my story with the world.
  7. To take care of myself. People in my life like to joke that unless you connect the “self care” action to my future career, I won’t listen (and they might be right). I learned how to set boundaries from chaplains and Hillel rabbis because they convinced me if I wanted to do this work, I needed to learn to separate myself from it.
  8. To believe in myself. You have encouraged me, shaped me, and inspired me through the ups and downs of many years of my life.

You all are the kind of people who I am proud to know, and I feel blessed after every conversation, warm encounter, or hug. You have held me as I cried, celebrated with me at the times of my accomplishments. Many of you are the first people I called both after my diagnosis and when I got into rabbinical school. Many of you were/are significant enough in my life that your names have abbreviations in my journal.

There are not enough words for me to write in this sort of “love letter” to the people who I look up to every day. You taught me who I am. I would not be here without you (Not just because some of you wrote my recommendations and another one of you was on the admissions committee). Without your advice, your writing, your spirit, I wouldn’t want to do this work. Thank you. You embody the values that you champion. Thank you.

If you’re wondering who this is directed at, here are a few of their names: Rabbi Andrea London, Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Rabbi Andrea Cosnowsky, Rabbi Toba Schaller, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, Rabbi Jessica Wainer, Rabbi Jade Ross, Rabbi Michelle Stern, Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler, Rabbi Elyse Winick, Rabbi Stephanie Sanger-Miller (who is the reason that this blog post is coming out today). Those are all women which was unintentional, but I’m not mad about it.

Disability and Chronic Illness, Personal

Being a Patient Feels Like A Full-Time Job Without Good Benefits

I don’t think that I’ve gone more than an hour over the past week without a call from a doctor’s office, an insurance company, or an email from a care coordinator at one of the three hospitals that I see healthcare providers at. It’s exhausting (Ironically, while I was writing this paragraph, I had to take a break to pick up the phone). No matter what kind of self-soothing mechanisms or support system one has, this is not easy.

I am not unique. Being a patient is more stressful than anything else I’ve ever had to deal with. And I’ve done quite a bit.

Why don’t we talk about the stress of being a “patient”?

We have ways of conceptualizing being “ill” but fewer ways to conceptualize the idea of being a “patient.”

Being a patient is not just the experience of coping with symptoms. It’s not just going to doctors appointments and getting tests done. It’s an experience that invades your life and can make it difficult to focus on living normal life. For example, I had a follow-up appointment with my doctor in Boston (who I adore) three days before graduating from college. Do you think I wanted to be getting blood taken and sitting in a doctor’s office for hours during senior week when many of my friends were sleeping off their hangovers? Of course not. But being a patient is a full-time job involving a lot of fighting with electronic medical records, emails and calls from doctors and trying to remember where in the world I got the bloodwork done for goodness sakes.

We like to be “inspired,” to watch people be strong going through difficult experiences with disability or illness. We don’t like negative feelings. 

I’m sure that many of you have shared those videos on Facebook or Twitter of people standing up from their wheelchairs to walk across the stage at graduation or a deaf person hearing for the first time (blog post on the dangers of inspiration porn to come soon).

But frustrating and exhaustion don’t go viral. A video of someone crying in their car after a doctors appointment that was particularly emotional is not going to get likes on Facebook. So we hide that. We try not to complain to people outside our communities because we feel unjustified in having negative feelings. And that’s not fair to us.

You may see me as always on top of my mental and physical health and totally capable of managing a move to Jerusalem, lots of transitions and a new drug trial at the same time. But there was a time this past year when I was taking 5 and 1/2 classes, preparing to run High Holidays with a brand new Hillel staff, and managing my physical and mental health after a period of terrible health related things. And I found myself sobbing on the stairs outside of services because I was too overwhelmed with the stress and uncertainty of it all (shout-out to my friends and Hillel AD for being amazingly supportive). That’s not the first time that I collapsed in the arms of my support system, and it won’t be the last. Just because I am able to write about this stuff does not mean that I am not human in dealing with it. Every chronically ill or disabled person has these experiences. They just aren’t what we share on social media.

So how do we support our “patients”? Our friends, family members, etc. 

  1. Offer to take some of the daily stress off of them. We have to manage all of our medical commitments, work or school, and everyday tasks. We have to feed and cleanse ourselves too.  Someone making a few meals, buying us a week or two of a meal kit delivery service during a particularly difficult flare or doing our laundry can make a huge difference.
  2. Be present. You may not be able to “fix” any of the things that are overwhelming your “patient.” But you can sit with them. You can drive them to doctor’s appointments and take notes for them (I had my friends do this for the first time this year and it was positively life-changing to not worry about missing details). You can buy them their favorite treat to come home to after a day of medical tests. If you can’t be present in person, check in by text or phone after a hard doctor’s appointment (but be okay if they don’t want to share details or are too emotional). Also cute gifs and funny videos or goats screaming like humans don’t hurt.
  3. Let us complain. We feel bad for talking about the same pain day after day. It’s extremely monotonous and boring, but some days, we just need someone to listen as we talk about the annoyance of a kneecap that can’t seem to keep itself in place or a recurrent migraine that isn’t helped by the oscillating Chicago weather.
  4. Remember what’s going on. People who remember when my doctor’s appointments are or what tests I’m having done or who I’m waiting for a call from are my favorite people. This is especially true for those of you who are parents, clergy, or mentors to younger people. We SO appreciate it if you check in with us the next time you see us.

I hope that you will keep these things in mind when you interact with the patients in your life. If you also feel like a full-time patient, let me know what you think!

Thank you for reading! This post may have been a little bit all over the place because that’s how I’m feeling at the moment, but hopefully you learned something. If people would like a more detailed blog post about my tips for being a patient and managing one’s own health, please let me know Drop your thoughts in comments or email me!

Divrei Torah

D’var Torah: B’har

I’ve been thinking a lot about the boundaries between the worshipper and the person being worshipped, the line between mortal and immortal, human and divine. In greek myth, the boundaries are a little more clear. The gods are fallible; they make mistakes like humans do. But I’ve never thought of the God I pray to as being fallible like the Greek gods. That’s not the God I pray to as I mouth the words of the Sh’ma before I open my eyes. That’s not the God I believe in.

You may be thinking: what is this girl talking about? We came to hear about Torah, not Greek myth. This is a synagogue, not a college classroom. But I promise I’m getting there. In this week’s parsha, B’har, we read about the Shmita year when the land should not be farmed and the yovel or Jubilee year when all of the land that had been sold in the previous 49 years goes back to its original owner and all slaves are freed. While I was looking through this parsha, one particular verse stood out to me, Leviticus 25:23. In this verse, God, by way of Moses is addressing the Israelites and giving them instructions on how to observe the Jubilee year which end with כִּֽי־גֵרִ֧ים וְתוֹשָׁבִ֛ים אַתֶּ֖ם עִמָּדִֽי” “ because you are strangers with me.

So what in the world does it mean to be strangers with God? Isn’t God the one who’s supposed to know the plan and guide us on our way? God isn’t supposed to be strange to anything or a “stranger”, whatever that means. While this verse may scare us a little bit because it questions our traditional ideas of God, it can also teach us two very important lessons:
First, this verse reminds us that even strangers are “with god,” so to speak. in the study of narrative and theology, there is a concept called theoxeny. This is the idea that any stranger (xenos) in Greek could be a God (theos in Greek), and because of this, we must extend hospitality to them. We see this in Judaism too when the angels come to Abraham to test his hospitality. Every stranger, not just the ones that look like us has God within them. We are taught that every person whether they be an immigrant, queer or disabled or is in any other way different, holds God within them.

Second, we can be reminded that even the figures that we look up to are strangers at some times or in some situations. A few months ago, I got rejected from 2 fellowships in one day, and I was questioning all of my decisions and my place in the Jewish world. But then I walked into my mentor’s office. the Brandeis Hillel Assistant Director, who herself was just a few months away from becoming a rabbi, comforted me and shared that she also had been rejected from one of the same scholarships. She reminded me that everyone is a stranger sometimes, even those who seem invincible. That’s just the most recent example, but I’ve had every role model, including Rabbi London, remind me that being a stranger is part of the journey. We are all human, and if God is sometimes a stranger, it’s okay for me, for all of us, to be too. We often think of our parents and mentors as always being extremely put together, but I’ll tell you a secret: rabbis, teachers, professors, parents; they all get scared too. They all get lonely sometimes. They all need us to extend our hands to them too. If God is a stranger with us, everyone else is too.

Four years ago, I stood here at Beth Emet giving a very different D’var Torah about the very same parsha. For context, I was BESSY (Beth Emet Senior Synagogue Youth) President at the time. Then, I was about to embark on a journey to college, as a stranger looking for connection and community which I found in many ways. Now, I stand here today looking out at a new journey, rabbinical school, preparing to be a “stranger” once again. But I know that I have God, and all of those who I look up to, with me, if not in body, in spirit and within my phone. It’s amazing how we can stay in touch with one another these days. We all may walk as strangers, but as Leviticus 25:23, we walk together in good company with God. And we must welcome in every stranger among us as if they are themselves the God that we pray to. Shabbat Shalom.


In Defense of Harry Potter: The Heroic Journey

My copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has been my constant companion through some of the hardest times of my life: when my parents would be screaming at one another when I was about 9, I would be curled up in our alcove above the stairs reading it. When my sister had double-hip surgery when I was 12, it came with me to the hospital. It came with me to camp and to my freshman year of college. Harry Potter (and Judaism) have been two of the strongest constants throughout my whole life thus far.

A few months ago, my Classical mythology professor (who also happened to be my thesis advisor) began a debate about the merits of the Harry Potter franchise. This arose because his young children are falling in love with the series just as I did when I was about their ages. His argument is twofold: First, the story is just a repeat of Joseph Campbell’s heroic pattern of withdrawal and return. Second, that this kind of narrative limits what children think is possible.

Let’s take these arguments one at a time: yes, it is a repeat of this cycle. But everything is a repeat of this cycle because it is appealing to us as humans. Life doesn’t always make sense, and we like narratives that make sense. But this isn’t a reason to discredit the series. The plot may be a bit simplistic, but what is the purpose of this media? To entertain? To teach? Keep that in mind and I’ll come back to it.

Once again, with regards to my professor’s second point, I don’t disagree with him; I just don’t think that he is thinking complexly enough about this issue. Does HP have a male, straight protagonist (who is coded as white)? Yep. Does HP erase Jews, POC, people with disabilities and many other marginalized groups? Also yes. But this is a problem that the fandom (which is a huge reason that I still hold an affection for Harry Potter) has talked honestly about, and when it comes to fan communities, the HP fan community is the most diverse community I’ve ever been a part of. We choose to still love the series (and more importantly, the community that sprung up around it) without brushing any of the gender/representation issues under the rug. Podcasts like Witch, Please and Harry Potter as a Sacred Text have done a great job at this.

Harry Potter may have its faults, but it also has, and continues to do, a ton of good in the world. It gets kids excited about Latin when they see the spells in the books (also JK Rowling was a Classics major), can give us some wonderful metaphors for dealing with mental illness (see this blog post,) and most importantly (to me, anyways) is that it provided an escape from hardship and a narrative vocabulary that is accessible to kids.

By this last point I mean that unlike many bible stories (I’m going to rabbinical school; don’t throw things at me) or other pieces of narrative, HP is accessible. It’s relatively easy to read, but it can provide metaphors that can help kids extensively. Of course any narrative can do this, but Harry Potter is the one that I and many of my friends latched onto. This may be difficult for those of you who didn’t grow up with the franchise to understand, but it really is “real for us.”