Boxes are for things, not people

I have long eluded boxes.  This is not new to me.  What is new to me is people feeling like they absolutely must be able to place me in one.  And I am not alone.  There has been a lot of talk around the web over the past few weeks about who fits in what denominational box and what exactly defines the walls of those boxes.

I will never understand who gets to decide the walls and what they are made from because it seems they are always shifting and organizations and individuals like to try to change the walls constantly based on what they feel defines the box.  Often times, the walls seem to be based on an other-ness, a sense of “if you don’t fit in what I think defines my box, you must belong in that one” – even if the people in that box feel the same sense of other-ness about the person you want to place with them.  This all sounds very vague, and it is intentionally that way because while there have been some big things in the news on these points, it is also very personal for me.

The only box I ever fit in - Post by Melissa

There is no box for me. You cannot put walls up to define me amongst a group of other Jews.  I do not fit in any denominational boundaries.

And while I have come to accept this about myself, many people I meet along the way do not know how to cope with this.  They keep trying to place me into a box I don’t fit into – trying to make me into something I am not.  Perhaps this makes people feel better about themselves for some reason.  Perhaps they think it gives clarity on some level.  Its hard for me to say why people do what that they do, what I can tell you for sure is that it doesn’t feel good to me.

So, to save you all the trouble of trying to box me in, here is what you need to know.  I do not identify with any denomination in Judaism today. I do my best to live a shomer Torah life. I learn and question and learn some more each time something comes up, so that I can make educated decisions, based in halacha.  I avoid leniency or stringency for the sake of leniency or stringency – striving to live a more centrist, yet religious, lifestyle.

As for others, stop trying to make them fit what you want or expect them to be.  Religious and spiritual journeys are highly personal. We are all on a path (which is ironically also the literal translation of halacha), and there is nothing to make one stop dead in their tracks like feeling judged about the direction their path is taking at any moment in time.

We need to support, love, and respect one another in these times more than ever. I love this video‘s reminder of that, so I shall leave you with this as a happy note.

The Gender Debate

Many of you have heard about the family who is refusing to tell their friends/family/the world the gender of their baby, Storm. While I only partially understand their premise, it brought all sorts of gender issues right to the forefront. This Shavuot, I had the pleasure of being around several wonderful small children and their parents (even around here there are little Jews afoot!), the combination of which gave R & I an opening to talk about some of the gender issues surrounding parenting.  As I was thinking about it, I stumbled on two related blog posts from two different blogs:  10 Myths about Gender Neutral Parenting.  And Is it a Boy or a Girl?

As we contemplate the next step in our lives (moving and starting grad school), I keep thinking about that next bend in the road that will take us (hopefully) to parenthood.

It took me a while to realize that my parents attitudes about toys and clothing weren’t the norm. I got barbies, baby dolls, frilly princess dresses, the works – when I asked for them. I also got sporting equipment, a mini-toolbox and a (very, very fake looking) toy ray gun. Maybe it was the fact that there were no male siblings (or any siblings forthcoming at all). More likely, I think it was a conscious choice. My bedroom was painted blue, my bedding not stereotypically girly, even when I moved into a big kid room. I embraced a lot of it – my bedroom at my parents house is still blue, although I chose a flowery border and bedding to go with it when I got older.  I clearly remember embracing all of the girly things (until we moved to Canada, I lived in dresses by my own choice),but  my parents had presented the other opportunities to me – legos came in the regular colors and the pinks and pastels kind, my first “baby doll” was really a stuffed rat that I decided was a boy, and so on.

This kind of upbringing left me with this idea that no one would enforce gender stereotypes on their children. Clearly, since the women I know have some kind of occupation, whether they are currently engaging in it or not, they couldn’t buy into it! Life, however, has a way of surprising you.  Several years ago, a  friend had a baby girl. I am fairly certain every single thing in the child’s wardrobe is pink. As was the play kitchen she received at her second birthday, and the play laundry set as well. Not that this means that this wonderful toddler won’t grow up to be a strong woman – it just hit some kind of nerve in me. Parents are the entire world for their children at the beginning. We model every behavior and attitude, and to limit or categorize experiences from the get-go as “boy” experiences or “girl” experiences when so few of them really, truly are,  seems excessive. Society’s strong gender messages will get through to the child, even if the parents aren’t reinforcing them. My parents allowed me to wear dresses and play barbies, even while encouraging other kinds of play, never labeling things. I learned later, both about the weird stereotypes Barbie plays into and that society expected me to like Barbie and my male cousin not to.

I wonder about all of this in the context of more traditional Judaism. With a bris or simchat bat in our future, our potential baby’s gender wouldn’t be a secret. Still, I don’t think I would go for the little blue or pink room based on gender. Especially given the gendered nature of our religion and lifestyle, I would want our children to be allowed to explore as much as they can so that they understand that so much of what is “feminine” or “masculine” is cultural – a skirt in Scotland could be a kilt, and a dress might be a galabiyya, etc. Not that men and women aren’t different – but that the differences are probably way less than we think they are. Maybe this is too naive a hope in a Rabbinic family, where the pressure to conform might be even stronger. At the same time, if I’m not thinking about this and hopefully setting an example…who else will?

Thoughts? Questions? Things to share? There might be more on this subject, and I’d love feedback. I’m hoping to write more regularly from here on out! 

The (Evil) Rotem Bill

Ok, so I am sure that some of you are surprised at the lack of commentary on this blog about The “Rotem Bill” which has been all over the Jewish news lately.  For those of you who live under a rock (ok, maybe that was too harsh) and haven’t heard about it,  in short the bill began as a way to ease the conversion process and questions, especially in regards to the relatively recent immigration of Jews from the Former Soviet Union.  However, over time the bill evolved to the point in which it grants all authority over conversion to the Charedi Chief Rabbinate, including retroactively saying conversions are not Kosher.

The reason I have neglected to say anything on it is not because it has not been on my mind, but the exact opposite.  It has been such a heated part of my life, I could not think of how to express myself in words suitable for public consumption.  In fact I still cannot, however I also cannot go another day without mentioning it.  So instead, I will share links to many other prominent organizations and leaders who have written and spoken about the topic. This is by no means a complete list – merely a list of what I have seen and found interesting so please feel free to share more.*

Organizational Statements:

Masorti.org (link)

USCJ.org (link)

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) (link)

Professional Statements:

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO and Executive Vice President of USCJ (link)

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President, Rabbinical Assembly (link)

Rabbi Marc Angel, Founder/Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel (link)

Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) (link)

Opinions:

“Are you Jewish Enough?” – Jewish Journal – 07.13 (link)

“The Diaspora Need Not Apply” – New York Times – 07.15 (link)

“Rotem’s Bill Promises but Doesn’t Deliver” – The Jewish Week – 07.20 (link)

“Editors Notes: Unconverted” – JPost  – 07.23 (link)

*As much as I am open to different viewpoints, sometimes I have to hold my ground and this is one of those times.  If you do not agree that this is bad for world Jewry, kindly keep your opinions to yourself or share them on your own blog.  This is something neither Jessica nor I are distant from and we ask you to respect that.

Men plan, God laughs.

post by Jessica

Today, R & I had lunch with our friend E downtown.

This may not seem that dramatic, but if you had a copy of our summer plans as of three weeks ago, this news would have struck you by surprise.

Why? Today, Monday, July 26, was originally moving day, the beginning of our personal Great Schlep to New York City and the beginning of my husband’s and my journey to becoming the Rabbi and Rebbetzin.

Of course, any plan can be modified by a few days one way or the other. The truth is, we had something dramatic happen about three weeks ago. On July 7, we received an exploratory phone call asking if we might be interested in two positions that had opened up at the largest Hillel in the state (also happens to be our Alma Mater), both at an executive level. So, as of our HR training this morning, R is officially the Interim Executive Director and I am the Program Director of a Hillel!

Had the call come even 15 hours later, we probably would have already found an apartment in New York City, and all bets would have been off. We were, in fact, in New York to look for places when we got the call. Given that these positions, which fit so well into our career plans (seriously, we both get experience in areas we want, we feel strongly about Hillel as an organization, and the financial benefit is nothing to sneeze at), fell into our laps at precisely the right moment (or, at least, the last possible moment), we have both had a feeling of the bashert, meant-to-be, about this. We are beyond excited and beyond nervous for this opportunity.

Of course, it has had its share of challenges. We’ve had the basic outline for our plan to move to New York for just about six months, and changing those so quickly has been a challenge. We did finally rent an apartment though – it’s just a little farther west of New York than expected! Since we’ve already been working for a week (despite when our HR training was), it’s been a challenge to try to get our apartment ready here and work as well. Still, we’ve been managing.

We didn’t make the decision lightly, either. R had to request (and did receive) a deferment from the Rabbinical School, which required explaining himself to a lot of people. I have to officially withdraw from NYU (that still has to be accomplished) and reapply in the fall, although I am told my chances are good, but I’m not guaranteed my spot. That’s been the toughest part of this whole thing!

So, our journey for the next year is going to be dramatically different. As we slowly ease our way through the transition, I’m going to work my absolute best to keep our readers up-to-date on what’s going on. As my absence for the last little while has indicated, that can be a huge struggle, but I’ll try not to keep you hanging as long next time! My deepest thanks to Mel, who has kept our little project going while I’ve been so busy!

Future of Women in Judaism

As mentioned on our Facebook Fan Page, I was recently asked to write a piece about the future of Judaism as it relates to women’s involvement.  I took it on in a true Melissa form and am both proud of the result and humbled at its inclusion.  To see my byline alongside Anita Diamant (Author and Found of Mayyim Hayyim) and Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (Founder of Uri L’Tzedek) is one of the greatest honors in my life.

Since I am spending today in the car with my parents, headed to celebrate my niece’s 6th birthday I leave you with a few links to peruse in my absence.

My piece for the Future of Judaism Series at Patheos: An Ever-Evolving Judaism: Women Meeting the Needs of Community

The entire “Future of Judaism” series at Patheos.

A brief blog post about the series which acknowledged my piece from MyJewishLearning.com

I’d love to hear your feedback!

The women who inspire me….

Post by Melissa (Photo Copyright realphotography.com)

Into each of our lives, come people who inspire us and who we look to for advice and mentorship.  I am lucky to have had a few Rebbetzins as these people in my life, who I can only hope to emulate in some small way when my time comes.  I want to take a moment to talk about the three Rebbetzin mentors I have had to date, and the strongest lessons I have learned from them.

The first Rebbetzin who really made a positive impact on my life and serves as my mental inspiration, is Debbie.  Debbie was always happy to welcome new and familiar faces to both the synagogue and her home.  I will never forget the first time I had lunch at her home and she said the following when I asked if I could help: “This is your first time here, you are a guest.  Next time you come, don’t wait this long. Just make yourself comfortable and do what needs to be done.” Granted, it has been a few years so my recollection may have slightly changed her words, but definitely not the thought behind them.  Debbie also had four children underfoot, so having friendly visitors who could be useful was a great asset.  She was sure to find a balance between making new people feel welcomed and appreciated and treated as guests, and also making sure everything happened and people felt comfortable in her home.

The second Rebbetzin who has strongly impacted my life is Tammy (pictured happily dancing with me at my wedding).  Tammy may be the wife of a Rabbi and the mother of four wonderful teenagers, but her knowledge and wisdom goes far beyond that.  I was recently engaged in a conversation about who our Rabbi’s were, and I had to admit that honestly, mine is not anyone with smicha (Rabbinic ordination), but rather – Tammy.  She is the person I approach with my questions and the one I trust to give me a truthful and halachic answer, that is also relevant to life as a Jewish woman.  Tammy takes the time to get to know the people in her community and to find ways to get people involved.  She is always happy to help connect people to each other and the greater Jewish community.  I know that I can not attempt to count the ways in which she has enriched my life,  including and most importantly – introducing D to our synagogue’s young adult community.

Last, but certainly not least – and certainly not the last Rebbetzin who will inspire me, is Melanie.  Melanie is not only a Rebbetzin in my community, but a very dear friend.  On a regular basis she reminds me, and others, that it is but one of many hats she wears.  While her husband is a Rabbi, she too has a professional and personal life.  She is an amazing mother to her three young children, and is never afraid to get down on the floor and just be a mom.  Her children already love being Jewish and have a sense of giving and tzedakah, which is greater than many of my peers.  Melanie inspires me daily and this is but one small and very special part of that.

Not ironically, all of these women are well educated in Judaism and have social work backgrounds.   Each of them shines a light on what it means to be an educated lay leader and an observant Conservative woman.  If I can take just one thing from each of them, it would be their welcoming spirits and eagerness to meet new people.  They truly will always be a part of me and I cannot thank them for that enough.

What you see isn’t always what you get…

Post by Melissa

As an outwardly frum married couple* we often get asked “where are you from” or “when did you move here” with no pretense.  While they seem like simple questions,  the subtext (based on context and nonverbal cues) is that because the asker (another frum person/couple) has not seen us in their community, we must be new to town or just visiting.  Clearly in a city with a relatively small Orthodox community, they should know all religious people.

D and I are well aware that we do not fit the mold of a typical Conservative Jew, and that even more so we do not fit the average person’s idea of a typical Conservative Jew, so we are happy to smile and tell people briefly that we live near the traditional Conservative synogauge in town – and can just smile back at the looks and comments we receive. In fact, they can make great stories!

Once, at our local Kosher market/deli a woman stopped to ask us many questions and share all about the young adult community here thinking we were new.  After awhile it came out that we had lived here for a few years, and then where we live. Without missing a beat she says, “You live by X? So where do you daven (pray)?”  We still laugh about that moment.

More recently we had the honor of attending a simcha (joyous event) at a local Chabad house where some friends of ours regularly learn.  I had 5 women ask me where I was from, without it being part of a bigger conversation (and given the small number of women present, it was probably about 25% of the female attendees).  To each one I would answer briefly, as usual, and in all but one case the conversation ended with a confused and dismissive expression while the woman walked away from me.  The one woman who didn’t, I actually was able to engage in a nice conversation with and made a new friend to go shopping for stylish modest clothing with!  (Of note, D was only once asked the question and it was part of a conversation about how we knew the family who brought us.)

While we are used to these sorts of questions and the scrupulous looks in response to our answers, they still are irritating on the most basic level.  While we have learned to accept them as part of being outside a mold, our friends do not.  Those who we shared the funny run-in at the kosher market with were amazed that this happens to us, but figured in the context it was amusing.  Meanwhile, the friends who watched the questions at the simcha were appalled.  It became a larger topic of conversation later in which a variety of friends tried to understand why people would jump to conclusions and then not wait to hear more about the people who were so different from what they expected.  The best assessment was that they don’t know how to relate to someone who looks and talks like them, but is actually very different.

That said, I want to encourage you to take to heart the age old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover.” While you cannot avoid making a first impression, leave your judgements aside as you meet new people.  You never know what you can learn from a person, organization, or event which is different than you initially thought. You might be missing out on a new friend.

*Based on my wearing a skirt and sleeves with my head covered and D having a beard and knit kippah on the top of his head, and sometimes visible tzitzit.

{My apologies for the delay in posting. It is still a Melissa post even though its on Thursday…}