Monday, December 31, 2018

Year End Reflection: When Traditions Change

2018 was a year filled with a great deal of change and that included changes in holiday traditions. The CreativeMornings RVA talk on Dec. 14 was on tradition - transforming old ones and creating new ones. It is exciting to transform and create new traditions and yet I don't want to minimize the grief that can come with letting some traditions go - even for the best of reasons.

It is nearly a year since I told my spouse that I wanted to separate and divorce. This was not an easy decision or one I took lightly. It was long a time coming and I knew I was hurting her terribly. Yet I also knew in the deepest part of my being that it was absolutely the right thing and what I had to do. It has been a year of navigating living arrangements, dating, hurt feelings, finding new ways to still be a family while not being a couple.

In addition, I completed my conversion to Judaism. My Beit Den and immersion in the Mikveh was the most life-altering and transforming experience of life, second only to becoming a mother. A friend had suggested journaling for the week leading up to my immersion on the days of Creation along with saying goodbye to my old self. I let go of my old self and truly began a new book of my life. It is said in Judaism that when you immerse in the mikveh as a convert, you receive your Jewish soul. That is exactly what happened. Reading from the Book of Ruth and hearing my Hebrew name used for the first time, brought me to tears of joy and belonging.

So what happens to all the traditions associated with the December holidays when one is separated, dating, living with someone new, and now officially Jewish. Last December, I celebrated Hanukkah with my spouse and daughter, and then Christmas with them. This year Hanukkah was early and I celebrated with the new person in my life, his child, my daughter, and her boyfriend. Then celebrated a rather low key Christmas morning with boyfriend and child, followed by an afternoon joined by my daughter of the American Jewish tradition of a movie and Chinese food. I found myself both happy and sad. It was a joy to celebrate Hanukkah and introduce people to new traditions. Yet I also found myself missing the traditions of the past.

New traditions take time to feel like traditions. This was a year filled with new traditions - so of course, much of the time I felt like I didn't really know what I was doing. It was not yet the familiarity of long-held traditions. I definitely felt connected to Jews here and around the world also lighting candles, making latkes or other fried foods, and to generations of Jews who have done so before us.

So I found myself sad or tearing up at different times. I found myself missing the Christmases of my childhood with my parents and grandparents. I was missing the cooking, baking, and large family gatherings of my past. I felt overwhelmed by all the Christmas and feeling very much like an outsider as a Jew. I was also angry at the Christian privilege that seemed even more prominent this year.

So as 2018 comes to a close, I know that 2019 will bring its own changes and adjustments. I definitely have ideas for traditions I want to begin - starting with Shabbat dinners or brunches and a Hanukkah Party. I know that part of what I was missing and grieving was coming together around a table with friends and family to eat, laugh, share stories, light candles, prayer. I want cell phones out only for photos. I want silly and profound conversations. I want to bring people together who do not yet know each other. I want to create a home filled with the tradition of being a place where family and friends gather for occasions large and small, happy and sad, planned way in advance and the last minute take-out and movie night. One thing I have learned in 2018 is that I cannot wait for others, if this what I want, then I need to be the one to make it happen.

 Happy New Year!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

הוד (howd/hod): Majesty and Humility

The Hebrew word Hod can be translated many ways with different meanings that include splendor and humility. This has confused me tremendously as I see these terms as being the opposite. Hod is one of the sefirot - the energies and attributes of God that are part of Kaballah. Between Passover and Shavuot is the counting of the Omer, during which one reflects on these divine attributes, which and each attribute correlates with a part of God's body. Hod is the left leg or left foot and is paired with Nezah, on the right, which can be endurance, eternity. One of the reflections during Omer this year spoke to the humility of endurance. Tara Rose in her reflection from another year brings the humility and splendor together, "When we see Hod in our left foot, we can be reminded to move forward with humility, and at the same time, to move forward with majesty and splendor." (Rose, Tara) 

Recently I had a rather sudden and unpleasant experience of failing to be self-aware, of failing to understand who I needed to be in a particular situation. One can be very authentic, authentically oneself and realize that different contexts require that we bring forward certain aspects of ourselves and others need to remain in the background. In professional spaces, we need to bring our best professional selves and realize we do not just represent ourselves but who we work for - whether that is ourselves or someone else. 

During the counting of the Omer with a friend this year, was the first time I encountered the word "hod." The first translation of hod I encountered was humility. When I was discussing this with a friend she offered this definition of hod "embodied awareness of self in relation." That is what I forgot in this recent experience, I lost this embodied sense of awareness. Truthfully, in looking back, it was a day in which I was anything but embodied and in deep need of approval and proving myself. The problem is that in my struggle for approval, acceptance, and to prove myself, I did the exact opposite. 

We are embodied, social beings and yet every day we are bombarded with messages that lead us away from embodiment and away from being connected to one another. Every beauty commercial, self-help seminar, weight loss, plastic surgery and so many others have us looking outside of ourselves for what it means to be beautiful, confident, likable, and comfortable in our skin. There is money and power in leading human beings outside of an inner grounding in our bodies, our hearts and our souls - we forget who we are and therefore look outside of ourselves for meaning. It is there that we become convinced that it is the next ten pounds, the next job, the next product, the next plastic surgery, the next self-help guru will be the one to finally fix our lives, to settle the deep dissatisfaction that has taken hold of us. If we can't find it in those settings, our medical system is set up to find a treatment or pill to fix what ails us. Yet we will never find it outside of ourselves and additionally, we won't find it in a shallow self-awareness that is unwilling to face the monsters within. 

Hod requires that we understand and practice being authentically ourselves all the time while understanding that not every aspect of ourselves needs to be known to everyone or in every place. It also requires that we be able to read our context, who are the people we are with at a given moment, what is our relationship with them, where physically are we located. These are not always easy things to read and we all learn through a great deal of trial and error. Hod goes directly against the notion of it being all about me or letting it all hang out. I am sure each of us can call to mind a situation where someone shared something inappropriate to the setting they were in. Sharing the details of your last breakup over lunch with your best friend - appropriate; sharing those details in the break room of your office  - not appropriate. 

Other topics that require a great deal of hod are discussions of politics and religion. Many of us have strong, passionate opinions. Yet not everyplace is the place to share those - even if the topic comes up. I know how easy it is for me to get caught up in the excitement and passion of the conversation that I lose sight of myself and context. Afterward, I have that feeling of dread "did I say too much" or "did I speak out of turn." It is great that I realize it after the fact, it would be better if I had checked myself at the moment.  Another important piece is not to assume I know I am in a place that people are in agreement with me or due to my own arrogance that takes on an attitude "how could anyone not see it this way." In this day and time, we need to practice this embodied awareness of self even more. It is a reminder to me that I don't know everything; not assume that others agree with me or that everyone who disagrees with me is bad, evil, or wrong. It is a reminder to ask if this is the time, place or person to share this information or my opinion. It is so easy to lose touch with myself in the passion of the conversation. My passion and my love of conversation, connecting with others is a strength. It becomes a weakness and a stumbling block when I fail to balance it with awareness of myself and others. 

This experience had some unpleasant consequences for all involved. I did all that I could to make amends, apologized and took full responsibility. I fully acknowledged my mistakes. Now all I can do is move forward with both majesty and humility.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Leadership and Ethics: Lessons from Starbucks

Diversity, inclusion, racism, misogyny, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, are common news topics. Really every day a new story of white privilege and male privilege fill our newsfeeds. For all those that make the case that systemic racism and sexism is still thriving and in some ways has found new fertile ground, there are others who deny it, refuse to see it and see those who share their experiences with racism and sexism as attention seeking victims.

One of these stories was the police being called to a Starbucks and arresting two African American men who were waiting for a third person to join them. From a simple request to use the restroom while waiting for their friend to arrive and the plan to order and spend time and money at the Starbucks, escalated to the police coming and arresting the two men, just as the friend arrived. The video has now made its way around the web, white people shocked that this happened, people of color shaking their heads at yet another example of white privilege, with both Starbucks and the police left with the question of what's next. What is different in this story, is the response of Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson. He owned that this was about bias, it was about racism, and his response was unequivocal - "was nothing but reprehensible."

If you have not yet seen the video of his statement and apology, go watch it. He demonstrates leadership, integrity, and putting his ethics into action. In addition, as you listen to his apology - notice what is in it and what is not.

In his apology, he takes full responsibility for what happened. As the CEO, he owns that in the end, responsibility begins and ends with him. He just takes responsibility. He offers no excuses or explanations. He doesn't deflect blame to the manager or to the police. He says, this is a "management problem and it is one I need to fix, making sure this doesn't happen again."

What is so remarkable is the unequivocal way he apologizes and takes responsibility. It is so rare that we hear an apology like this one. Here are a few things that make his apology so unique:
  • there is no "I am sorry if feelings were hurt"
  • there is no "I am sorry and yet.....there were these extenuating circumstances that let you know it isn't really my fault"
  • he does say "I am responsible"
  • he does say "I am sorry"
  • he does say "I am going to take steps to make this better"
  • he names specific actions that he is proposing and ones he has already taken and
  • within a day, released a planned anti-bias training that included closing the stories for employees to attend.
Now I want you to think about the last public figure apology you heard or saw, the last apology you gave, and/ or the last apology you received. Did the person take full responsibility without explanation or trying to excuse it away? Did the apology include an "if" as in "if I hurt you, or "if I was offensive"? Did the apology include "I want to make sure this doesn't happen again" or "how can I make amends?"

Kevin Johnson is setting an example for his company and employees as well as the rest of us. Being an ethical organization begins at the top and it is not just a nice set of statements hung on the walls and posted in every employee's cubicle. It is not just about what will keep one from being sued or going to jail. It is a culture that walks its talk. It is a culture that expresses its values, integrity, and ethics in everything they do. It is expressed in their personnel policies, the way they treat their customers, the letting nothing - even profit - come before one's values.  It will cost Starbucks an estimated $12 million in lost revenue to close its store for an afternoon - take that in - $12 million!

We are not accustomed to this. We are accustomed to the Well Fargo disaster where employees opened accounts without permission of the account holder in the name of profit, our public officials who lie openly and boldfaced with no shame, companies that promise to stay in the United States, maintain jobs and then do rounds of layoffs and take those jobs overseas, all the various incidents with airlines, and nearly every industry has a story of the lack of ethics, the lack of integrity, in the name of the bottom line.

That is what makes his apology and actions so important. Is he perfect? No. Will this happen again, even at a Starbucks? Probably. What is important is that he is giving all of us an example of what leadership, ethical leadership is and looks like. We need many more leaders like this and we need to start being this way in our own lives.

It is hard to say "I am sorry" and tack on nothing else. Usually, we want to do something like "I am so sorry I am late, traffic was terrible (regardless of whether it was or not); I am sorry I forgot, I was xxxx." We want to explain ourselves, we want to say "I am not a bad person." "Please don't be mad at me." It is a habit and so common we may not even notice it. So I challenge you, the next time you need to apologize, try "I am sorry I did X or didn't do X or forgot X. I should not have done that or I should have ..." Then stop, just stop - don't explain, don't add anything. This is hard - really hard. Sit in the discomfort. I can't promise you that all will be well, but do pay attention to how this feels. Pay attention to the response you get from the other person. The difference between an apology that is truly an apology, that truly takes responsibility, is different, it is genuine. We are very habituated to giving excuses with our apologies, so stop and think as you start to say "I'm sorry" and practice not tacking anything on. If you are a parent, practice with your child: replace "I'm sorry I yelled and lost my temper but you were not cooperating and we were late" with "I'm sorry, I yelled, I lost my temper, yes I was frustrated that x y or z was not happening, that is not an excuse for yelling. I am sorry." What can you add? "I am going to count to ten the next time I feel myself getting ready to yell." "Next time, I think we both may need to walk away and try again in a few minutes." In this way, we model taking responsibility, which is one of the most important lessons we can teach our children. Yep, I mess up too and I am taking responsibility for it. Is it easy? Does it always feel good? No, and it is the right thing to do.

Imagine if in our homes, schools, faith communities, public offices, companies, we put ethics first, we put integrity first. We have homes, schools, faith communities, public officials and companies that do this. How are those places different? What if we began to demand from ourselves this level of integrity and then begin demanding it from our institutions? What if we refused to accept the empty apologies, the lovely worded statement of values that in no way matches the behavior of the organization? What if we rewarded the ethical organization?

So thank you, Kevin Johnson, We all have a great deal to learn from your example!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Struggling with Beings both Human and Divine

With my hair still wet from the mikveh and my certificate
As part of my journey to conversion, I wrote a D'var Torah on a passage of my choosing. I chose Genesis 32: 25-33. I saw the Beit Den and immersed in the Mikveh on Tuesday. It was a profound and transforming experience, one that still feels both amazing and overwhelming. I am so incredibly grateful to the companions and teachers on this journey. I am so grateful to Congregation Or Ami for its welcome and embrace! Now that I am a full member of the Tribe - I share this reflection.

D’var Torah: Genesis 32:25-33

Jacob’s struggle with God/an angel resonates with me on such a deep level and has for many years. I see my own spiritual journey as one of wrestling with God. Wrestling with myself, with religious institutions, with all I have learned, and so it makes perfect sense that I would finally find my home, my people, my God among Israelites - those who struggle with God.

Jacob’s encounter with the angel comes after his dream where he sees angels ascending and descending on a ladder (Genesis 28:12-13) and the night before he is to see his brother, Esau, since he stole his blessing. Jacob has learned some hard lessons since he last saw Esau. He himself has been tricked by Laban - laboring for seven years and then Laben substitutes Leah for Rachel. He has served Laban for many years, amassing his own wealth, enabling him to flee Laban. In addition, his marriages have given him eleven sons, a daughter, and Rachel, his beloved, is pregnant with his twelfth son. He is not the same man who took his brother’s birthright for a bowl of stew; or with his mother’s help stole his father’s blessing. He knows how it feels to be in Esau’s shoes and it tells us a great deal about Jacob, that he fears his brother’s anger.

So the night before this meeting that Jacob dreads, he wrestles with a man, the text tell us. They wrestled all night. In the morning, the man wrenched Jacob’s hip. Jacob stops the man from leaving and demands a blessing. This demand for a blessing is classic Jacob. He has no problem demanding what it is he wants and doing what it takes to get it. The man asks his name, which is itself is strange if the being is an angel or God, would he not already know Jacob’s name? He then tells Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Yet who is this being that Jacob wrestles with all night?

Sforno, Rashi, and Chizkuni all affirm that the being is an angel but have different explanations about who the angel is or what the struggle represents. For Sforno, the struggle symbolic of all of Jewish history. The Jewish people would struggle, struggle all night long, yet in the end the Jewish people will prevail. Rashi tells us that the angel is Jacob’s guardian angel and yet he also struggles with Esau. Finally Chizkuni, argues that the angel is Esau’s protective power that both makes sure Jacob will show up in the morning and to assure him that Esau will not harm him. Jacob tells us that he wrestled with God and names the place Peniel - I have encountered God face to face and yet I live.

Rabbi Charles Kroff in his D’var Torah, “Chasing Your Demons: Finding Your Friend” tells the story of a family where the four sisters are all in conflict with each other at the funeral of their father. They refuse to sit together, look at each other or interact in any way. Rabbi Kroff contrasts this with how Jacob wrestles with himself, with Esau, with God, which then results in the embrace of Esau and Jacob the next day. Esau does not harbor bitterness or anger. Jacob can accept the embrace because he has wrestled with what he had done, with Esau, with God, with himself - he can take responsibility for what he did. Rabbi Kroff asks “Haven’t we all struggled with our fears and our vulnerabilities at some time in the dead of night?”

Rabbi Kroff quotes Rabbi Cohen saying that Jacob"was conscious of all the different forces in his life with which he struggled: God, Esau, the side of himself that haunted him like a shadow. He was surely confronting both the human and divine in his life... That night, all the parts of Jacob and all the parts of his life came together, and he would never be the same" Rabbi Kroff tells us that this wrestling leads to transformation, to a new name to represent that who Jacob was when he laid down the night is not who he is in the morning. Jacob asks for a blessing and is given a new name, Israel. Jacob struggled with God, himself and other humans.  Israel means one who struggles and prevails with beings both human and divine. However we understand Jacob’s experience - a dream, vision, or an actual physical battles, it is only through being willing to face what we fear, face ourselves, face truth, face God, that we can transform. I would say that for Jacob, that struggle through the night is the cumulation of a lifetime of struggle, and in the morning Jacob can finally embrace his full self. Florida Scott Maxwell states “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done … you are fierce with reality.”

I have wrestled with myself, with life, and I don’t know whether I have yet achieved having possesed all I have been and done. I do know that in my own wrestling, my own long, sleepless nights, I too have been transformed. Nowhere is this more true, than in my spiritual journey. To come to this place, to find my spiritual home within in Judaism, is not possible without struggling with first with the religious tradition I was brought up in, my search for a spiritual home within Christianity and within Unitarian Universalism. Yet is not just with religious institutions or traditions - in some ways they are only the surface, I have also had to struggle with God, with myself, with where I belong, who am I and who am I meant to be, and certainly struggle with the demons of insecurity, doubt, fear.

When I say I have found a home in Judaism, that home is not a place to get comfortable, to be quiet, or to cease from struggle. Oh it may be all that at times, and it is also loud, opinionated, with a fierce wrestling with God, with tradition, with Torah, and with how to live life fully and in service to healing the world. Not even Jacob stops struggling, soon he will lose Rachel, think he has lost his son Joseph, and will end his days not in his homeland, but in Egypt.

Part of conversion to Judaism is to choose a Hebrew name.  There are many ways to go about this process but for me it was this text. This text that resonates so deeply with my own journey. I choose Yisraela (יִשְׂרְאֵלָה) as my Hebrew name. It will serve as a reminder of the struggle to this point and that life will continue to offer challenges with beings both human and divine.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Grateful for Failure?

With yet another "we have decided not to move forward with you, thank you for your time" result of a job interview, I find myself reflecting on the question of whether or not to be grateful for failure. All too often, there is a rush to turn the failure or setback around into something positive, into "the next one will be the right one" or "must not have been meant to be." It hurts to be told no; it hurts to fail, to have yet another setback. It took everything I had not to cry on the phone with the recruiter.  I shed many tears that night and I am grateful for the friends and my coach who offered a listening ear, comfort, and just let me be without jumping to lessons learned and what comes next.

Now that we are on the other side of the holidays and 2018 has begun, I am ready to take the next steps. I took a full break from job hunting - unsubscribed from job posting lists, did not do any networking and made the decision that I needed to thoroughly look at what I have done and what I need to do going forward. In addition, the focus on the job search which has been unrelenting for over two years, has meant things like my conversion journey were often put aside. My first priority for 2018 is to finish all the written homework I have for my conversion and then figure out what the next steps are. I am ready to be a full member of the tribe!

In my study of Judaism, particularly as I explore music, I have come across this idea of failure, set-back, roadblocks as things to be grateful for; to not worry; that all this is in one's favor, and that everything that is mine will come in time.  One of the places this comes up is in this beautiful version of Modeh Ani. Each morning I watch and listen and offer my thanks for another day. Here are the lines that I am referring to:

על כל כישלונותיי מודה אני
Al kol kishlonotai modeh ani
For all my failures I give you thanks

על אכזבותיי פחדיי ומכשוליי
Al aczavutai pachadai umkshulai
For every letdown, fear, and setback

הם כולם לטובתי
Hem kulam ltovati
They are all in my favor

The second song is the parody of "Despacito" by the Maccabeats.


קח את החיים שלך בדספסיטו
Kach et hachayim shelcha bedespacito
Take your life slowly

כל דבר בזמן שלו יבוא קרידו
Kol davar bazman shelo yavo querido
Everything that's yours in it's time will come, dear

וכל עכבה זה טוב רק תאמין בו
Vechol ekaba ze tov rak ta’amin bo
And any obstruction is good only believe it,

My rabbi sent me to look up Taanit 21a and the story of Rabbi Nachum Ish Gam-Zu, whose name means "all for the best." He was called that as it was what he said all the time. He insisted that no matter what the calamity that happened to him "it was all for the best." As I delved further and read more commentaries, it is clear that this notion that "all is for the good" is grounded in the assertion that everything that happens, comes from God and since God cannot do bad things, then everything, no matter how awful, must be "all for the best." This is grounded in the assertion that God is omnipotent, all powerful, an idea I have long rejected. I wonder if Rabbi Nachum Ish Gam-Zu would be able to assert that even the Holocaust "was for the best." It was the Holocaust, other genocides, and the way people so often treat each other as objects to be used and discarded that led to my rejection of the omnipotence of God. Now this is a classical theological question called theodicy and I am not the first to reject the omnipotence of God or that God has some master plan that is beyond our understanding so just trust that it will all work out.

So what about being grateful for failure? If God is not all powerful, then suffering does not come from God. Harold Kushner's answer that creation is on-going and incomplete provides part of this answer. The assertion that we are commanded to tikkun olam - repairing the world, means it is our task to do our part in alleviating suffering. Does this mean I don't believe there is a plan or some greater purpose? No, there is a plan and yes it is beyond any single person's understanding and it is ever evolving. If creation is not a "one and done" event but never ceasing, then the plan is ever evolving as well. We each have a part and role in the plan - we each have a purpose, our part in healing this world. If that is the case, then we are going to get it wrong sometimes. We are going to mistakes, there will be setbacks, there will be suffering.

Viktor Frankl asserted, quoting Nietzsche, that "a person could survive almost any how, if the person knew why." Frankl asserted that their must be meaning in suffering. This, however, was not a static meaning. Meaning evolved as our life changes and evolves. He had one purpose in the camps - to accept the suffering he and the other prisoners were experiencing without turning away or escaping into fantasy and later his meaning or his purpose was to help others find the meaning in their lives. Frankl did not sugar-coat suffering or even say it was good. In fact Frankl said "But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering—provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic." (Man's Search for Meaning, @69% in Kindle edition) So those in the concentration camps must not asked to see the suffering as good or even justified and whatever meaning people found there could never justify the evil of the camps. The suffering of the concentration camps could have been avoided and should have never happened. Much of human suffering - poverty, hunger, violence, war - these are of our own making and just as we have made it - we can end it. In fact, if we are to take tikkun olam seriously, then we are commanded to end it.

So be grateful for failure, for set-back? Yes, there is reason to give thanks even for the failures, the setbacks, the obstacles, at least in cases like not being offered a job. It hurts, absolutely, and yet in stepping back, taking a larger view, I can choose to see it as part of this process. Job searching is not for the faint of heart because one will often hear "no" far more often than "yes."  Maybe it was for the best and is too soon to know. Yet in the morning, I can give thanks for failure because it is a part of life. It is how we learn. One of the greatest gifts Judaism has given me, is permission to fail, the expectation that we will fail and have setbacks. If we accept that, then we can keep going.