This is Healing: From Yom Hashoah to Hope (Via a Renewal Beit Din)

pier to lakeThis is healing: When a rabbi asks gently, “How was that? To know you were Jewish for so many years?”

And the young man describes years of that feeling, of “almost Jew,” or “not Jewish enough.” Those in the room hear the pain and the confusion.

This is healing: When a rabbi acknowledges how hard your travels were and says, simply, “Thank you. Thank you for coming home.”

And the young woman smiles, her heart so open that the joy spills into every corner of the room.

Even this is healing: A cold, cold night at the lake, with the rain alternating between a steady downpour and a soft drizzle, crazy and confusing moments with a small crowd of friends walking you down to the water, occasional shushing so neighbors are not alarmed. A ritual that involves each person present speaking kavanot as you stand, and dunk, chatter your blessings and the Shema and finally, Shechechiyanu: Thank you, Holy One, for bringing us to this sacred moment in time.

After years of knowing who you are, you are, “Jewish enough” because your community has finally recognized that you were a Jew all along.

Conversion to Judaism: What is that, really? Some years ago I realized that all the study and experience that preceded the actual beit din was not about building a new identity. The identity was already there.

The time spent reading, living congregationally, journaling about Judaism and Jewish life helped fill in some corners, of course. But there is no “almost Jew” who could study – and master – all the aspects of a multi-cultured culture thousands of years old. No one born Jewishly could do that either. Study the Talmud all your life and you will still have no idea of how Jews lived in Alexandria in the first century of the Common Era (understanding the works of Philo, a prominent Jewish philosopher who lived and wrote in the city back then, would be a lifelong commitment on its own…).

None of us is, by any measure, ever “Jewish enough.” Such a measure is both arbitrary and useless.

In the end, as Renewal rabbis know full well, it is not about whether you have memorized the minor festivals or can recite the Thirteen Principles or even, simply, name the number of branches on a hanukiah. It is about the heart and soul. It is about knowledge and understanding. It is about a word Jews seldom use freely.It is about faith.

Our history makes it hard for us to advocate for faith. Our texts do not command belief, but action. We often birth our Jewishness – however we come by it – by asking questions. But there is also a faith in one’s Jewishness, a certainty, a knowing.

This is healing: Still feeling the shiver, after warm showers and the application of many thick towels, they come into the room. The young couple before us will be married in almost exactly six months. He knew he was Jewish when he was  just twelve, he told the rabbis. But when she told him she wanted to convert, he felt he had been granted permission. He finally knew how to go home.

She is – heart and soul – connected to her people. She speaks of her pain at a Yom Hashoah gathering, and one of the rabbis says, “When a Jew cries, and you cry, you know you are Jewish. When another Jew laughs, and you feel that joy, you know you are Jewish.”

They arrive in the room, hair still wet, the memory of the cold still clinging to them. Those waiting begin singing and clapping: “Siman tov u’mazeltov umazeltov v’siman tov!” And afterwards, there are many warm and heartfelt blessings for long life, growth, a family and a Jewish home that is nourished, each and every day, by their commitment and their love.

“Be mensches,” my husband, Ralf, says. “Be good. That’s not a blessing, it’s a commandment.”

We all laugh. Then we go out into that good, dark night, a night that saw the transition from Yom Hashoah, from a day honoring grief and anguish and sorrow to a day of joy and hope.

This is healing.

Stand By Your Blessing

 “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.
Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it.
Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”
Pirkei Avot / Sayings of Our Fathers
5:22

Simchat Torah, which means “rejoicing in the Torah,” is an annual love fest demonstrating our abiding affection for the challenging, beautiful, sweet scroll of our stories.

We have a special tradition for Simchat Torah at Temple Or Olam. As we roll the Torah back to the beginning, I ask members of our congregation to stand by the column of their choice in the book of Genesis. Then I look. I scan the column for the blessing they have chosen, though they have no idea where it is.

To be frank, I don’t either.

Nevertheless, some of the letters shine and glisten at me; some words emerge from the parchment. The letters of Torah turn and turn and turn again. I read them: They are telling me something about the soul before me.

This past year, a young man in our congregation stood before a dry text indeed. One person begat, the next did the same. I read the series, despairing of message or purpose. Shem begot Arpachshad who begot Shelah who begat Eber. Sixteen verses later, I read the final lines introducing Terah and his sons: Avram, Nahor, and Haran.

I started grinning.

“What?” asked the young man.

I looked up at him. I’ve known him for many years, and watched with increasing joy as he has taken one firm step after another toward this year’s planned beit din. There, I know, three rabbis will surely and joyfully acknowledge what we in our congregation already know (he’s Jewish!).

He had chosen the column that introduces Avram’s birth.

What did Avram do? Take his heart in his hands and journey towards a different life. What is this young man doing? He is taking his heart in his hands and journeying towards a different life.

I went along the table. A young teenage girl stood by a column that began with Sarah’s invitation for everyone to laugh with her, to share her joy at the miracle of Isaac’s birth. This young girl, I know, was born only after many long years of painful waiting and hoping on her parents’ part. “You are a particular blessing,” I say. “Ask your parents to tell you the whole story sometime if they haven’t yet.” Her mom is standing nearby. She laughs. Like Sarah?

I moved to a congregant in her seventies who has recently been celebrating her freedom – after many decades – from a certain family member’s demands. She pointed to the scroll, to the passage that describes how Joseph’s family sold him into slavery. “That’s my story,” she says, when I tell her.

Torah is so rich I could probably find something in every column for every congregant. Laws of probability, coincidences – you can throw them all at me while I try to explain how magical it feels to discover Torah within the souls of my congregants.

Torah is terrible, rich and frightening. It is tender and it is violent. It is often perplexing. It is real. It is human.

Maybe this ritual of ours is really about how much I love my congregation. Since I know the people of Temple Or Olam, I can read their stories in the ones before me on the scroll. Sarah and Jacob and Joseph are Stacey and Nick and Susan.

The unfurling parchment is ancient and magical.  I turn it, and turn it, and turn it again, looking for those I love, those before me, those about me.

We are black letters on white parchment, the strokes and lines of a human endeavor, of human striving. Everything is in that.

Where the wild things are…

Ritual. We studied it, we practiced it, we analyzed it. Great ritual, we were taught, creates lasting memories, stories that live for years. Learning to create ritual was part of my rabbinic training, and my teachers were awesome architects of the same.

Naturally, one wants to live up to one’s teachers.

Last week, a young woman in my congregation went before a beit din, a panel of three rabbis to complete her conversion to Judaism. Big ritual. Huge.

I prepared with care for her beit din and for her mikvah, the ritual immersion that formally completes the process. I had a beautiful tallit at the ready, a prayer shawl in all her favorite colors. Between her beit din and the mikvah, we would go out to dinner and before our meal I would lovingly lay the tallit on the table. She and her three witnesses would tie the tzitzit, the ritual fringes at each corner. The tying would be a spiritual practice and gift. We would wind and knot threads with our blessings and hopes. It would be heartfelt, prayerful, lovely.

I imagined myself naming each Hebrew letter of the tetragrammaton, and demonstrating how our loops and knots made it possible for us to tie God’s unpronounceable name into each fringe. “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, YHVH,” I would say. “Each letter is paired with a number, each number breathes a sound. Think it, and you’ll hear it: The unpronounceable name ends in a whisper.”

Then we would travel to a nearby lake, where a family had kindly offered us the use of their dock for the young woman’s mikvah. We would recite blessings I had crafted especially for her. Women supporting each other, co-creating a ritual we would all remember the rest of our lives.

What is it they say about the best laid plans?

One of the women got lost finding the restaurant, which had failed to turn on its neon signs. I talked her back to the right intersection on my cell phone, standing on the corner, jumping up and down and waving both arms frantically. When she got out of her car, a stream of unprintable things emerged from her otherwise calm and pragmatic person. Then I called the last woman who is chronically late to everything.

“ETA?” I asked.

“I don’t know where I am,” she answered.

I repeated my routine, hoping no one would recognize the small, hopping woman on the corner as the rabbi of Temple Or Olam.

Later, I laid out the prayer shawl in the near empty restaurant on an empty table. I began leading us through winding and tying. I asked the women to silently weave their prayers into the tzitzit. Ahh, I said to myself. This will be wonderful. Sweet. Transcendent.

“Whatcha all doing?” asked a curious staff member. “That’s puurrty,” she added, pointing at the tallit. “What’s that?”

While I was explaining, one of the woman got her threads twisted up and started joking about being handicraft challenged.  Then the food arrived, and I had to find a way to keep the tallit from getting immersed in balsamic vinaigrette.

Later, we piled into one of the cars to make the drive to the lake. It was only minutes away. We got lost almost immediately – despite Google maps. There were many u-turns and a close encounter with a car with flashing blue lights.

Finally, we found the house. We climbed out of the car and began traipsing over the lawn, which, despite the terrible drought, was both very long and very wet. Sprinklers? Condensation from the lake? Suddenly, the young woman told us in a small voice that she was actually terrified to get into that lake and that she hated nature and that there were bound to be live things, including fish, in the water, and that the lake bottom would be nasty and muddy, and and and.

The other women attempted to comfort her.

“You’ll be all right,” said one.

“It will be fine,” added the other.

Our young woman kept describing the horrors that awaited her. We rounded the house and walked toward the pier, the small flashlight in my hand shedding insufficient light. We were nearly at the water’s edge.

“Omigod!” our young woman squealed. “What is that?”

“Omigod,” whispered someone.

“Omigod,” I said, in utter disbelief.

All of us saw it, despite the dark. Between the small flashlight I was carrying and the lights from the house, we couldn’t miss it.

A bobcat. He stood stock still, staring right at us.

Gingerly, we walked half backwards onto the pier, hoping the thing would go away.

“Is it still there?” one of the women asked.

“I think so,” I said doubtfully. “I can’t quite tell.”

It will go away, I told myself, as we all made our way to the end of the pier. It will go away because we are making a fearsome noise. Dear, Holy One of Blessing, I prayed internally. We’re not so good with this much nature just now…

It has gone away, I told myself, as the young woman climbed into the water.

We heard a splash.

“I saw that!” she cried out. “There was a fish jumping over there!”

She began frantic movements in the water to scare away the fish.

“Go away!” she called out. “Go away!”

She was thinking of the fish. I was thinking of the bobcat.

We raised a towel, the young woman took off her bathing suit, and I pulled out laminated sheets with our brachot. Three of us crouched around the laminated sheet and the little flashlight. One of us stood with her paper copy illuminated by her cell phone. (Later she told me that she was stealing herself to kick the bobcat into the water if it attacked. I don’t know what she was thinking. This is a woman with weak ankles, and I am not sure she could kick a nerf ball, much less a snarling, though smallish, beast. And another thing: How do cats feel about water?)

I asked everyone to breathe deeply. Somehow, we regained our sense of place and, after nervous giggles and anxious interjections from our young woman, we read our blessings in turn.

Before her final immersion, we blessed her with the fearlessness of Ruth. “Our people is your people,” the women read together. “Our God is your God. We are standing together at the mountain of Sinai, ready to receive the gift of Torah.”

She slipped back into the water a last time. She emerged. We chanted the Shema and the Shehechiyanu softly in the moonlight, and wrapped her in the towel and the tallit. We walked back down the pier and sighed with relief; we did not see the bobcat.

We got lost all over again going back to the restaurant parking lot. We laughed and mazeltoved and drove home.

There was, I admit, some residual anxiety on my part. When I got home it was nearly midnight. Nevertheless, I asked my husband, Ralf, to google pictures of bobcats. “Yes, it looked like that nasty, scary one right there!” I said.

“Were its ears forward?” he asked.

“I… I think so,” I answered.

“Then you were fine,” he said comfortingly. “When you don’t see their ears, that’s when you have reason to be on your guard.”

“But I was already scared!!!” I protested.

Our son, Erik, gave advice from his survival training course. Everyone should group together so you look like one large entity to animal in question. Spread out your clothing so you look bigger, and back away slowly…

“At least,” he concluded, “I’m pretty sure that works with elephants.”

The next morning we all received this email from the young woman we love:

“Don’t worry everyone, found out this morning it was simply a statue in the backyard to SCARE THE GEESE!!!
Out of control!
Thanks again for being there last night. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
 J”

I had dreamed of this beit din for a long time. For weeks, I had imagined us at the pier in sweet darkness, women alone and prayerful, conscious of our strength and our joy.

The real world played tricks on my dreams. There were so many emotions I never imagined. Aggravation and impatience at getting lost again and again. Unexpected and unknown fears. Giggly and giddy lightness.

“This is one crazy mikvah story,” one of the women said.

“I don’t think we will forget this one,” I said.

It was awesome ritual.