Specifically Jewish and Not

JPS Tanakh - Post by Jessica

I just finished my second week of class, and am entirely caught up in the whirlwind that is graduate school. Classes, readings and assignments are enough for a fulltime job, never mind meeting classmates, doing my internship or any kind of recreation activities. Still, it’s been a very good kind of busy, in that I love my classes, my classmates are extraordinary, and I feel confident that I made the right decision, if only I can keep up my momentum and keep going.

Because I’m doing the dual degree (an MPA in Public and Non-Profit Management and an MA in Jewish Studies), my course load this semester is three of the five Core Courses and one Jewish studies class. I spend more than three times as much time right now on the MPA courses than the MA courses, so the difference when I walk into the MA class is pretty stark. Not that it’s better or worse, just different. Part of the difference is that is it my smallest class this semester, but another is something that has been floating around my head for the last ten days or so.

It’s the difference between doing the MPA by itself and what it means to be doing the dual degree. It’s hard to say, since I’m only at the beginning, but each week, I step away from the hustle and bustle of microeconomics, statistics and introduction to management to consider the community organizational structures of the Jewish community. We’ll be going through history at a blistering pace, but it’s still something to spend a class talking about the rise and fall of Saul, David and Solomon. Granted, we’re more interested in the idea that this is what Jews say about their history than that these texts represent exactly what happened, but I’m not complaining. Twenty or so Jews discussing Jewish things for two hours a week, I’ll take any time. Especially when 8 of us go out to Israeli food after class and I get to know more of my amazing cohort.

Outside of that class though, I’m figuring out how steeped in the Jewish thing I want to be. For instance, in a class where we were given a choice of organization to discuss with a partner, I chose the government task force, versus the 92nd Street Y. I don’t know if people understand why I cover my hair (which is fine) but I know why and I think it makes me more conscious of my behavior in class and at school in general, which is definitely a good thing.

There will be inevitable conflation, as well. The times when I’m going to be more stressed out than many of my classmates because I’m travelling home for the holidays randomly or unable to do a lot of the homework on days when it seems like I should be able to, just because it happens to be Sukkot. I’ll face these head on – it’s a fact of life in any academic pursuit outside specifically Jewish institutions. Still, I am intensely grateful for this experience, everything that led me to this place, and excited for what the future will bring!

Be Called to Search

Post by Melissa

This past Friday I have the D’var Torah (literally word of Torah) at our monthly All-Staff meeting.  I was inspired as I awoke of what I wanted to address, wrote it while walking to work, and liked how it turned out.  So, I wanted to share it with you all :)


This week we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Elul – the month preceding Tishrei which brings us the Yamim Noraim.

Beginning on the second day of Elul and running right up to the day before Rosh Hashana we blow the shofar every morning (except on Shabbat).  The shofar is a loud and distinctive sound.  It calls to us in a way which we cannot ignore, nor mistake for anything else. It calls us to action.

Does everyone have the sound in their head? Ok, great – moving along.

Many drashot around this time highlight that the Hebrew letters which spell the word Elul – aleph, lamed, vav, lamed – are an acronym for the well known saying “ani l’dodi v’dodi li” commonly translated as “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” This is part of Shir Ha’shirim, which is a love poem said to be between Gd and the Jewish people.

I don’t want to go there though. There are lots of pieces around you can read if you want to on that.

There is something else about the word Elul which strikes me more.  In Aramaic, which was the colloquial language at the time when the months were likely named, Elul means search. So the month of Elul calls us to search.

But what does that really mean?  

On a personal level, I think we all have to decide for ourselves. We all know in our guts what we need to be searching for as we approach the new year – the hard part is to letourselves listen toour internal shofar and act accordingly.

I pray that this month as we begin out individual searches… {I concluded with stuff relevant only to my coworkers and not to the general public, so you get a new prayer below}


I pray that this month, as we begin our individual searches, we can come together as a collective Jewish people and move forward.  We can only do this by each acting in the best interests of the community and putting aside that which divides us in favor of what unites us.  I pray that this month brings comfort, closure, and healing to us all.  May we be guided to fulfilling and meaningful teshuva as we prepare for the new year.

be the change.

Tonight* I had the opportunity to listen to a very inspiring speaker. This woman was living an uninspired life devoid of Jewish connection. She had one project which led her to another and one day while reading the newspaper she had an aha moment. She realized she could no longer wait for someone else to do something. She challenged us to think of what moved us in our lives and what we could do to really effect change. She shared a quote which provides her with ongoing inspiration: “You are the someone, everyone else is waiting for.”

I have never heard a room with ~150 young adult Jews be so silent.

Post by Melissa

I’m still thinking of my thing but want to extend the challenge to all of our readers….

What stirs you at your core? What will it take for you to be the “someone” everyone else is waiting for?

*I was so moved and inspired in the moment, that I wrote this post from my BlackBerry on the way home and emailed it to myself to post. It reminds me of the quote in the photo which I have loved for many years and can only hope to execute half as well as those who have gone before me.

Falling in love….

Post by Melissa

This past week, I had the opportunity to house-sit for a close friend who lives in a different neighborhood than D and me.  Within just a few miles of her house are synagogues of every denomination, as well as the Federation, JCC, kosher restaurants, mikvah, and nice parks.  Basically, everything I could want out of life.  Over the course of this week, and especially Shabbat I found myself falling in love time and again.

The first time was early in the week when I learned just how lovely it is to walk to work every day.  I was living about a mile and a half from my office, and even on the bitter cold mornings it was a lively walk and it really jump-started my day. I fell in love with walking to work.

A few days later there was a panel discussion I was interested in hearing.  It featured 6 local Rabbi’s speaking about a semi-controversial topic of inclusion (which I do not want to get into in this post) which was really interesting to me.  Being in this other neighborhood in the evening, I would normally not have been able to attend, however since I was house-sitting I could.  It was so wonderful to meet a friend and walk to and from the event together.  The same day I learned that a rabbi I admire would be speaking about his work at Seudah Shlishit that Shabbat. Luckily, I was already up on the right side of town so I was able to go! It was way too short of notice for me to have made plans to be here, but since I already was – I was good to go.  I fell in love with being able to go to (read: walk to) dynamic events.

On Shabbat we had the opportunity to daven (pray) with two different Orthodox minyanim (prayer groups). Friday night services were dynamic.  They were led by a friend of ours* who has a beautiful voice and there was such kavanah (spirit) throughout the entire room.  From my side of the mechitza, I felt enveloped in the energy of the moment.  This was only more intense with the fuller room on Shabbat morning as I could hear the men’s voices drift over the partition.  I fell in love with the mechitza.  Though what I really fell in love with at that minyan was how strictly everyone takes the no talking policy and how focused they are on their own davening. The kids step outside to talk and women will simply exchange a quiet hello as they come in and go to the back of the room to begin their own davening.

We also had the opportunity to have wonderful meals and walks and talks with wonderful people.  While walking between our various friends places, we also got to say Shabbat Shalom to people we didn’t know who were also out and about, walking through the neighborhood.  There is just such a dynamic Shabbat observant community there, it was phenomenal.  Everyone is out and about, walking to and fro, and enjoying the holy day of rest with whomever they may encounter. I fell in love with the community.

I know this whole post sounds so idyllic, but coming from a great but small community which is very insular, it was a wonderful change. I left the house yesterday, and while it was nice to get home and sleep in my own bed without a wandering dog – I already miss it and am looking forward to the next time I get to spend time in the community.

*A Yid of No Despair in the World (so good to see you A!)

Interfaith Shabbat

post by Jessica

So, I mentioned Interfaith Shabbat in my previous Random Thoughts post. A commenter here (hi Yid :) ) asked if I could talk more about that. It really was a great event.

Well, one of the big parts of my job is to work with student leadership. One of our more amazing leaders came up with the idea of interfaith/multicultural shabbat after an event at the student union with a bunch of cultural and ethnic organizations. Since it was November, we decided to try it for second semester, and she sent out an email asking about dates to the listserve of the people who participated in the first event.

We had a consensus of February 4, and we started advertising when school got back in session. All the advertising framed it as “Come learn about Judaism,” so we’d get people who were interested in learning about us, rather than say, people who were just interested in a free meal, or interested in proselytizing.  In addition to asking the specific groups (i.e. the ones from the listserve), we also encouraged people to invite their non-Jewish friends to come and see what Hillel is about.

Our program for the evening was pretty similar to what we usually do on a Friday night, but with a few twists to hopefully make it more meaningful for those visiting.  First, non-Jews who didn’t come with someone (those from the other Student Associations) were directed into the Reform service, which had prepared a special explanatory service, both to explain what they did and a little about some of the things they didn’t do (i.e. compared to other denominations). The Conservative & Orthodox were open to visitors, but there were fewer special explanations. After services, we all gathered in the MultiPurpose Room for dinner – at which point we realized that although we had set for 150, we actually had closer to 165 people there. A quick setup of another table followed. We introduced Shalom Aleichem, the concept of kiddish and hand washing. Then, dinner was served. We served a traditional dinner – Matzoh Ball soup, chicken, kugel, veggies and chocolate cake. And we had enough for everyone – barely.

The best part about the whole thing was that people sat together and were talking at their tables about Judaism. Since we’d framed it as a learning about Judaism, everyone seemed to have good questions and be engaged in the topic. At the end of dinner, we had scheduled an informal discussion about Judaism and other faiths in the little cafe area off the main lounge, and it actually took a little while for that to come together since people were having such a great time talking at their tables. It got started though, and people talked for about two hours about a lot of different things related to religion, including religious reasons for covering and food restrictions. While the main discussion was going on, several other groups in the building were having smaller discussions as well.

In the end, it was a great success, and we made a lot of great connections with other groups – Asian American Student Association, African Student Association, Pakistani Student Association and more, not to mention several members of the Muslim Student Association, who were very interested in the similarities and differences. Given what those interactions can sometimes be like, it was incredibly positive.

The funny thing was, after having this great interaction with so many students (including several Jewish students that we don’t see a lot of who brought non-Jewish friends), we had a guy email our rabbi on staff asking how dare we have an Interfaith Shabbat and shouldn’t we just “stick with the Jews.” Given what the event was like, this seemed to totally miss the point. All of these students spent the entire evening talking to other people about Judaism. Not just Judaism, but THEIR Judaism. All evening. From 5:30 – 10:30 – and even with some stragglers afterward. It couldn’t have been more in line with our mission – and giving some other college students an insight into the Jewish community that they might not get otherwise! Since these people are going to be our future leaders, it’s definitely important.


[btw - Happy Valentine's Day!]

Twice the Adar, Twice the Happy?

As I mentioned last year (and likely will every year of this blog – who doesn’t like an excuse to write about happiness?), the Talmud tells us that when Adar begins, joy increases.
So what happens when its a leap year and we have Adar Rishon and Adar Sheini? (In the lunar calendar, we add an entire extra month for leap year, not just a day. These translate to Adar 1 and Adar 2 basically)
Do we get a talmudic mandate for two months of happiness and joy? Just Adar Sheini because its the original Adar? Just Adar Rishon since it is when Adar begins?
I’m interested to hear a more educated take on this, but my gut reaction is to embrace it! Two months of obligated happiness as the winter weather drones on and its easy to lose sight. Two months of mandated happiness as we drift away from the secular New Years’ reminder that we can always start over. Yes please!


Post by Melissa

In line with the mandated happy, this month I am going to start living my dream. (Which I will post about separately, per a comment yesterday.) What is your first step to increased happiness in the coming month(s)?

A Talit is Not an Accessory

As someone who walks the fine line between the Conservative movement and Modern Orthodoxy while defying labels, egalitarianism is a hot bed topic. *

Post by Melissa

I can understand the rationalle behind egalitarianism, even though I don’t currently buy into it on a broad spectrum personally.  However, I am a part of a traditional Conservative community and at this time, that influences my choice to remain semi-egalitarian.  I will allow myself to be counted in a minyan and accept an aliyah.  As a part of an egalitarian community, I do not want to put them in an awkward or uncomfortable place by limiting their ability to have a minyan (ie at Shabbat mincha where there are often only 10 people) or be rude to the gabbai.  I will no longer be shaliach tzibur or leyn torah/haftorah though as that is an honor and action which is typically planned in advance.  However, if the opportunity arose to lead a woman’s minyan or read megillah in a women’s reading – I would be happy to do so.  I do not think that doing any of these things takes away from a man being able to do them, it is just baby steps on working my way to a different way of life.  Meanwhile, I totally support my sisters who make the choice to be fully egalitarian, and those who do not.

I also fully support a woman’s right to take on additional mitzvot, such as wearing talit and tefilin.  What I don’t support is doing it to make a statement or as an accessory.  It is a mitzvah which by engaging in, you obligate yourself to – so unless you feel ready to take on additional obligations, I do not encourage it.  There are plenty of mitvot for women which are not embraced as widely (*cough* mikvah *cough*) and are somehow “less than” as mitzvot because they are specifically for women.  That is where I see the downfall in egalitarianism.

We drape Bat Mitzvah girls in a talit (with or without any sort of head covering) and teach them that to be a strong Jewish woman is to do these things just like their fathers and brothers.  I recall very precisely  my own experience of becoming a Bat Mitzvah, and feeling like I was on the cusp of Jewish womanhood by leading more of the service and reading more from the Torah.  After my brother left for the US Army, I  took his tefillin and the Talit he had decoarted in USY as my own, and wore them in the synogauge minyan every Sunday before I taught Religious School.  I didn’t know why I was doing these things, just that it felt right to do it because the men did.  Last time I was at my parents home I reread my Bat Mitzvah speech (the content of which I should really post for you all someday as it my parsha was Pinchas and I spoke of women’s rights, D jokes that it will be the intro to my book) and could not help but be amused at how much my understanding of Jewish feminism has changed in the past 17 years.  I am still standing strong on the sentiments of my youth, just with very different actions and a more mature understanding of my place in the religious history, alongsde my modern sensibilites.

I now know that being a woman in Judaism is its own very special thing! We have our own obligations (even to daily prayer!) which are distinctively different because women are different.  We are not men and we do not have to be men to be successful or religiously observant.  If we embrace the power of being Jewish women – we have only the world to gain.

What is your take on egalitarianism, feminism, and being a Jewish woman?

*What I am writing will surely offend some people – that is not my intention.  It is also not meant to be a stance that represents anything or anyone other than myself at this point in time. I reserve the right to change my mind at any point in time.  I could also write endlessly on this, but need to keep blog posts shorter than the whole book in my head.  There will be more to come I’m sure.

Reclaiming Mikvah

First some housecleaning since it has been so long with no posts from us!  Jessica and I spoke today, and we are doing away with the designated days for posting.  We will post when the mood strikes us as jobs and family life are currently taking more time than they were when we began this project.  We are committed to keeping this blog alive and active and welcome your input!

Ironically (or not, because Hashem has a way of guiding the world just-so), I had been thinking about writing a mikvah post as I have had some interesting conversations lately, and today Chaviva (aka, Kevitching Editor) posted about the lost spirituality of mikvah in her life.  As I began to write her a comment, I realized what I had to say was better suited to its own post here. So thank you Chaviva for getting me going enough to write what has been on my mind for a few weeks now.

Post by Melissa

Mikvah is a beautiful ritual with immense possibilities for spiritual enrichment; a ritual which can be as powerful or monotonous as you choose to make it.  Women singularly hold the power over this experience and what we share with one another can only help empower us to make it our own special moment.  I believe that embracing mikvah as not only something we must do, but something we choose to do, is one of the most feminist things we have the opportunity to do as Jewish women.

As someone with a long history of body image issues, having someone see me naked is no easy thing.  I could be stalled there from the start, however I make the choice to mentally prepare myself for the mikvah attendant to see me and am always relieved when it is a nice woman who doesn’t make a big deal of checking and has trust in my ability to follow the checklist and have appropriate preparation.  Regardless, I find myself having to push aside my fears and issues and simply trust in the tznuit-ness of my mikvah attendant.  I have to believe with all my being that she will not watch me as my naked back is turned to her. Once I slip out of my robe and begin to walk into the water, all else must be forgotten.

I focus on every step I take going into the water.  They are each a step away from the rigors of daily life.  A step into the calming natural waters of life. Being completely present as I descend into this sacred space is a blessing all its own.

Once fully into the mikvah pool, I get myself situated into the middle, take a deep breath and allow myself to be absorbed by the water, exhaling as I go in.  Exhaling all the negativity and stress. Holding in the beauty of the moment.  Taking a moment to right myself before repeating not only the physical dip into the water, but the spiritual one as well.

After I have completed my immersions in a kosher manner, which often takes me many more than the five I am aiming for, I take a moment to just be in that space.  I allow myself to reflect on the past month and the coming month; on the relationships which have grown or wavered; on those people in my life who need the healing embrace of these living waters.  I allow myself a  personal prayer to connect to these people and ask God for the strength to be what is needed in the coming month.

Before I exit the waters, I take the time to embrace my innermost spiritual self, really pushing my own comfort levels.  I force myself to think of the women all over the world who are also in this space at this time, and for the times before.  Connecting not only to my physical ancestors, but to all those who are my soul-sisters in this mitzvah. Sending them wishes for the healing and nurturing waters to provide for them in the month to come.

Ultimately, I find that embracing the deeply spiritual side of this ritual in a world where so many rituals feel monotonous is empowering.  It allows my entire sense of who I am as a modern religious woman to be revived and renewed on a monthly basis.  I know that I will miss it when I am blessed with pregnancy, and only hope I can find another source for a connection of this level.

You are likely asking a few key questions now, so lets just be blunt:  Yes, it is an annoyance to have to re- schedule other things to get to mikvah on the right night and time. Yes, I hate having to trek out in the cold, dark night to be scrutinized by a stranger.  Yes, I dislike having to schedule an appointment in a small window and feel rushed to get through.

Yes, I have to focus hard to get into the space to make it a truly spiritual encounter.

Yes, it is worth it to know that I am fulfilling such a wonderful mitzvah.

Yes, it is powerful to step into my Jewish femininity every month.

Count your blessings

I wrote this drash for a work meeting but wanted to share it with you all as well… Whether or not you celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope you take this time to count your blessings…

Jewish celebrations of Thanksgiving date back to the 18 century including a classic work of gratitude and thanksgiving in a Jewish context from Rav Gershom Seixas’ Thanksgiving drasha for the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of NY.

The essence of Jewish prayer is to thank God for what we have been given and the Rabbis taught that we are to say 100 blessings a day. Talk about being thankful! What would your life be like if you had to search for a 100 things to be thankful for every day? It certainly would cultivate a sense of appreciation for the world around us. Saying 100 blessings would help us realize that no matter how difficult life can be, we all have many good things such simply being alive, our health, our friends and our loved ones.

Since it may be hard to come up with 100 blessings each day, the Rabbis suggested a few. Upon seeing lightening, one may say: “Blessed are you, who made the world.” When you see the ocean, you can say: “Blessed are you, who made the great sea.” And upon seeing fruit trees in bloom, one may say: “Blessed are you, who leaves nothing lacking in the world, who created good creatures and beautiful trees, for the benefit of all people.” And what about the other 97 blessings? A Rabbi who’s blog I read suggest that we offer the following words: “Baruch Atah AdHashem, Blessed are you God,” and then insert whatever we have to be thankful for. On Thanksgiving, perhaps it would be this blessing: “Blessed are you God, who has given me a warm home, a loving family, and this glorious meal.”

One of my Rabbis takes it one step further by suggesting the inclusion of a short dvar Torah at the Thanksgiving meal – regardless of whether your guests are Jewish or not.

After all, Thanksgiving involves family, food, and maybe a little guilt. How could it not be a Jewish holiday?

The Dash

Post by Melissa

Ok, I’ll admit it – I don’t buy into “the dash.”  However, growing up in the Conservative movement, I do understand it.

I can understand why to some people writing G-d feels like a more true upholding of not using/writing the name in vain.  I can intellectualize this concept and action.  Though, to my best knowledge, God as an English word, is not remotely close to God’s real name. So, while I can understand the use of it, I really don’t get it…

To top it off, I got an email from a definitely Orthodox organization which said “May the A-mighty give comfort” – really?! We can’t write Almighty out either?

Please, share some insights dear readers. I’m lost!


{I apologize in advnce if this offends you, but if it does – set me straight!}