Elisha Cohen was one of the eighteen kids in my daughter’s nursery class, two years ago. Elisha’s family moved to Houston shortly before we moved to Charleston, and since they did not live in our area, we did not know the family well, although we certainly knew of their reputation as a dynamic couple in Jewish outreach. And yet, despite the fact that the Cohen family was little more than strangers to us, their six year old child has dominated my facebook wall this week – as I, and about 100 of my facebook friends have repeatedly shared the request to help save his life.

The Cohens are counting on the prayers and kindness of strangers as their last resort.

We left Houston about a year and a half ago, but we have kept close ties with the community, where we have many friends. Shortly after we moved, I saw a number of posts on facebook from these friends, asking to pray for a little boy in the community who had been diagnosed with cancer.

I was horrified to learn that it was Elisha Cohen.

My husband and I prayed for him and checked updates that his mother posted about how he was doing. We rejoiced when after months of treatment, he was declared in remission, and enjoyed seeing the pictures of the little boy on the mend, playing with other children. But this September, he relapsed and from what we read, we knew it was not good.

We saw constant updates from Devorah Cohen, pleading that everyone pray for her son. The addition of Rafael to the beginning of Elisha’s name, in the effort to fool the Angel of Death. A plea that Jewish communities around the globe take challah, in conjunction with the Houston Jewish community, who arranged a challah baking event, done in Rafael Elisha’s merit. Devorah’s plea that every person forgive and let go of a grudge, in the merit of her son. Pictures of Rafael Elisha looking terribly ill. Friends collecting money for the Cohens’ exorbitant medical bills.

And with every post we read, we looked at our own five year old daughter, with tears in our eyes as we could only imagine the unfathomable pain the Cohens were enduring. Their desperation to fight the losing battle to save their son.

This past week, on the heels of the report that there was nothing else that doctors could do to help her little boy, Devorah Cohen made a desperate plea, asking everyone to sign a petition for the FDA to grant a compassionate exemption for a medical treatment that could possibly help Rafael Elisha.

There are some who have declined to sign the petition because the clinic the Cohens want to try is controversial and many feel that the treatment it offers is ineffective. The Cohens have made it clear that they are aware of the clinic’s reputation but they also know of success stories. They have no other avenue to try and they are desperate to try anything they can to save their son’s life. Who can blame them?

We pray that we should never know the pain the Cohens are experiencing right now. Please show them your love and support in these three ways:

1.  Pray for Rafael Elisha Meir ben Devorah.

2.  Sign the petition and share it with as many people as you can. The petition can be found here

3. Donate money to the Cohen family to help with Rafael Elisha’s medical expenses here.

 

May Hashem grant Rafael Elisha a refuah shlaima and may we merit to share joyous occasions together.

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The Results of Pew: All about you

For days, I have been mulling about the results of the Pew study published this week, which spoke of the astounding rate of assimilation that is plaguing the Jewish population in the United States. I have read blog responses to the results and frankly, I have been shocked.

Not by the results of the study. I grew up in an all-Jewish enclave in Long Island, New York and while there was a time in my life (the first twenty-seven years to be exact) when I would have been shocked by the results- and even questioned their veracity, I now live in a small Jewish community in the South and I did not find these results surprising at all.

What I did find shocking was the lack of personal accountability in the responses to these findings. Some responses included the need for global changes in outreach. Others came out and said let’s change the religion because clearly it isn’t meeting the needs and desires of the people. And yet another stated that the answer to the problem is that we should teach Jewish values to non-Jews.

I have yet to see a post or blog that includes the honest statement of: Wow, this was a wake-up call; we should be strengthening our Jewish identities before we finish the job of wiping the Jewish people off the face of the earth that Hitler began.

And this is the problem of our generation. If there’s a problem, it’s someone else’s fault. It must be that Jews are not engaged because the religious community is too judgmental (which is a real issue). The religion itself is too rigid. G-d didn’t write the Torah with respect to my needs and desires so we should change it to one that fits more with the 21st century society.

Never mind that the Jewish people are rapidly disappearing off the face of the earth. In our society the motto seems to be: “if it’s not my way, change it to my way”.  If I choose to assimilate, my response to this study becomes: let’s change the expectations to make me right, rather than, I am part of these statistics and maybe I should change. No wonder more Jews claimed that having a good sense of humor was paramount to their Jewish identity rather than observance of Jewish practice. It doesn’t require much sacrifice to tell over a good joke about a rabbi, a preacher and a monk.

The answer to how to solve the problem of Jewish assimilation does not require much brainpower. Other studies have been done before to determine what we can do as a Jewish people to ensure Jewish continuity and there are two basic answers: Jewish education and Israel.

Jewish day school has been proven to be the number one way to invigorate your child with a strong Jewish identity. In a Jewish day school, surrounded by other Jewish peers and becoming knowledgeable of their Judaism, religion begins to mean something to students.

In Why Marry Jewish, Doron Kornbluth issues the following challenge:

Do you know what Jesus’s mother’s name was?

Do you know what Moses’s mother’s name was?

If you know more information about a religion that is not your own,  your level of Jewish education is probably lacking.

It seems that many parents today are afraid of their child knowing more about Judaism than they do. It’s not really clear to me why that’s the case. Are you afraid of your child knowing more math than you do? When us parents went to school, there may or may not have been AP classes; today kids are learning higher level math, science and even Spanish in middle school, than we learned in high school. Does that bother you? It probably doesn’t. So why shouldn’t you want your children to know more about your religion? Are you afraid they will come home telling you how to observe? Ask you why you don’t observe certain practices?

We all make choices about our observance level and at the end of the day, if we feel comfortable with our choices, we shouldn’t feel uncomfortable when our children ask us questions but rather have the courage to share our well-thought out answers with them. Our children deserve to know why we choose to live our lives the way we do. Our answers are the basis of their Jewish identity.

The goal of a Jewish education should not be to dictate Jewish observance, but to make our children knowledgeable and proud Jews. And no Jewish parent should ever be afraid or threatened by that. We owe it to our children as their birthright.

And what about adults who are passed the age of Jewish day school?

The opportunities for Jewish Education do not end in 8th grade or after a bar-mitzvah.

There are a number of classes and programs available to adults in both elementary and advanced Jewish learning. Every adult is encouraged to take advantage of these opportunities. There is no excuse nowadays to know more about your chosen profession than your religion. These classes don’t require life-style changes; but they do enhance your Jewish knowledge and pride.

And possibly most important, a trip to Israel can be an eye-opening, life-changing experience. There is nothing that can push you to make Judaism a central-point in your life than going to Israel. Our synagogue is running an affordable and exciting trip to Israel this February, including touring all over the country and the chance to spend two Shabbatot in Jerusalem. In publicizing this trip, I have been shocked by how many Jews in our community have never been to Israel. Jews in their 50’s who have never had the awe-inspiring experience of being in a nearly all-Jewish country, hearing our language spoken as the dominant tongue, kosher food abound (even if you don’t keep kosher, the sight of so much available kosher food is astounding, and the Israeli flag representing our freedom and sovereignty after years of oppression waving proudly in the air against the backdrop of the bluest sky you’ll ever see.

A trip to Israel is not cheap. It’s not easy to take off time to go to Israel. But it is an investment in yourself that a trip to Bermuda can’t compare to (I know, I’ve been). It gives you spiritual strength and pride. It makes you feel G-d’s presence. It makes you feel like your religion should be a paramount part of your life- in whatever way that means to you. Aside from paying day school tuition, there is no more important way to spend your money than on a trip to Israel- especially if you have never been.

So there you go, the arrogant 32-year-old’s solutions to the Jewish world’s problems of assimilation: Jewish education and going to Israel. And an honest approach to the results of the study called personal accountability.

Will the next Pew study have different results? Only you can answer that question.

A Teaching Moment for Teachers

I will never forget watching my elementary school principal pick food out of the trash and think I hope he doesn’t find my lunch. I was a picky eater (I still am) and the principal was a Holocaust survivor.

He was a principal that did not use classroom management techniques to get our attention because he did not need to.  He had a short white beard, a limp from an injury he sustained shortly before liberation, a steely stare and a commanding voice with a strong accent. If he so much as looked at you, you were immediately quiet. When he walked into the room, you did not have to be told to stand up out of respect.

And as a man who nearly starved to death at Auschwitz, he did not tolerate wasting food.

He would walk up to the microphone with a half-eaten sandwich in hand and demand, “Whose is this”? The guilty party would walk to the front of the room on shaky legs and retrieve their sandwich along with a strict admonishment not to waste food. And after being called out like that, you learned your lesson: you did not waste food.

Kids aren’t like that anymore. Neither are principals.

In the eight years between the time I graduated elementary school to the time I entered the classroom as a teacher, it seemed things had changed. Teachers were no longer “always right”. And kids were no longer afraid of teachers, principals or parents.

Perhaps it was the advancement of technology- cell phones barely existed when I was in 8th grade; when I walked into my first 8th grade classroom as a teacher, nearly every student had one.  When I was in school, if you dared use chutzpa with a teacher, you sweated all day, knowing the teacher would call your parents and that you would be in hot water when you got home. Now, when every kid has a cell phone in school, they can often call their parents to complain about the “unfair teacher” so that by the time the teacher can get near a phone at the end of the school day to discuss the child’s inappropriate behavior, the parent has already called the principal to complain about the teacher. Accountability is no longer a word that is stressed in homes and schools, and it seems that the plague of self-entitlement has resulted in its stead. And this is not the fault of our children and students, but rather the fault lies with us- the parents and educators.

One of the lead stories on msn.com is “Airline kicks 100 teens  off flight” and the article goes on to explain how 100 Jewish students from the Orthodox school, Yeshiva of Flatbush (a great school and my mother’s alma mater) were kicked off a flight on a way to a school trip, due to “rowdy behavior”. When you look at other articles, it appears there are different accounts of what actually happened on that flight and whether or not the decision of the airline was warranted. Whatever actually took place, it is clear that some of those students were not acting appropriately on the flight. By all accounts, some did not put their phones away on when they were asked to and had to be told to sit down. I would argue that this behavior is typical of a group of teens flying on a school trip. I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that they are Jewish.

However, anyone who read this news story probably had the same thought I had: what a chillul Hashem-  a desecration of G-d’s name. And for me, it brought to mind a memory of Rabbi Friedman.

Before every school trip, from first grade to when I was in sixth grade when he retired, Rabbi Friedman got onto the school bus before we departed and gave us the same speech. “You are Jewish boys and girls. Everywhere you go, people will know that you are Jews. They will be watching you to see how you behave. You have the choice to make a Kiddush Hashem or to make a Chillul Hashem” and then giving us no choice but to obey, he fixed us with his steely glance and said, “Make sure you make a Kiddush Hashem”.

The speech made an impression every single time. And it was a speech I repeated to my students when we went on trips. It’s a speech I’ve repeated to my own children when we go places.

Children are children. Children and teens will get overexcited and misbehave. But we need to realize that the world does not look at Jewish children as children. They look at them as Jewish children. One need only look at the comments (several of which are blatantly anti-Semitic) below the MSN story to see that this is the truth. It’s a message that we as administrators, teachers and parents don’t always take to heart. In an era of self-expression, when everything has to be “fair”, we are not always as strict as we ought to be. I am not blaming the administration or chaperones of Yeshiva of Flatbush for these students’ behavior, and again, I think it could happen to any school- Jewish or not. And as I don’t have all the details, I am in no place to point blame. But I do think this is a teaching moment for us as leaders. How do we educate our children?

There is no question that schools have advanced in terms of teaching techniques and educational technology in comparison to the days when I was in school. But perhaps in some ways, we might be wise to revisit some of the ways of the past in hopes of reintroducing respect to our students.

 

The Charleston hashkafa

Over the past ten months that we’ve lived in Charleston, I’ve written about a number of reasons why we love living here- the beautiful downtown, the warm and embracing Jewish community, the amazing people we have met, and of course, the dolphins. Those are all true. But I’ve avoided writing about one reason and the main reason that I feel I’ve found a haven in this beautiful city. And that is, I rarely hear the words, “modern Orthodox”. Nor do I hear the word, “yeshivishe”. There may be those who will correct me but people here do not know from, nor participate in what I nonaffectionately refer to as “the hashkafa wars”.

I used to work in a school where the question often arose as to whether I am yeshivishe or modern-Orthodox. My students would analyze my practices and try to decide which camp I fall into. No TV- must be yeshivishe. But she teaches Oral Law to women and loves learning halacha- modern-Orthodox. Wears a sheitel without leaving out a lot of hair- yeshivishe. Does not accept the concept that rabbis are infallible- Modern Orthodox. Back and forth they would go trying to neatly categorize myself and my husband into one of two boxes that they knew. I loved these kids, I loved the school, and I loved the community. And I would excuse these questions as coming from kids who have limited experience with different hashkafot. But the truth is, these questions are not limited to high school students. I’ve had the question asked by adults- and very knowledgeable adults- from New York and smaller communities-and even by friends. “I just don’t get you”, they’ll say, “What are you?”

And at moments like these, I feel awfully bad for G-d.

Modern-Orthodoxy is not a religion, although quite honestly, I sometimes believe that people lose sight of what it’s all about and prioritize their hashkafa (religious worldview) over G-d Himself. The words, “modern-Orthodoxy” mean, and should mean something different to each person. There is no one modern Orthodox model, nor is there is one yeshivishe model. And nor should a person have to belong to one of those boxes.

The Talmud mentions a number of questions that G-d will ask us upon our death after 120 years. Among them are: Did you deal ethically in business? Did you set aside time for Torah study? I don’t profess to know it all, and I’ve never been dead before, but I can promise you: G-d will not ask if you stood rigorously to the principles of modern-Orthodoxy. Nor will He ask if you followed the community’s standards of what is considered to be “yeshivishe enough”.

The Torah does not mention the words, “modern-Orthodoxy” or “yeshivishe”. And here’s a novel thought: the Torah doesn’t mention the words Orthodox, Conservative or Reform either. What it does say is that G-d asks from us to follow His ways and to do His mitzvot. There is no Jew in the world that does every mitzvah perfectly. We are all on different paths to serve G-d. Our Jewish observance is between us and G-d and no one else (except maybe our spouse). There are some Reform Jews who may not observe Shabbat in the way the Torah and Rabbis instruct us to, but they are very kind people, fulfilling the mitzvah of Loving Your Friend as You Love Yourself. There are some Orthodox Jews who may observe Shabbat to every slight detail but are perhaps negligent in the observance of lashon hara. According to the Torah view, neither one is right- we are all obligated to observe all of the mitzvot- and it is our job to ensure that we are on a path of growth.

We just enjoyed a fantastic Shavuot retreat in Charleston. Our committee worked incredibly hard on the program, ensuring that every detail would go well. The food, the decorations, the accommodations, the welcome bags…  But what we realized is that there are two details (probably more) that you have no control over. The weather  (which was baruch Hashem, amazing) and the kind of people who attend your program. If people are complainers, or unfriendly and refuse to mingle- you have a disaster of a program no matter how well you plan.

When I first saw our participants on Friday night, I admit I was a little nervous. It was a real mix- some women wore sheitels and had husbands with beards, other couples appeared more “modern”. Would they mingle, I wondered, or stick to their hashkafa groups? Would our Charleston Jews see an example of the religious divide that often exists “up North”?

I feel so blessed to say that throughout the entire program, our participants were warm and friendly to each other and to our local Charlestonians (and amazingly, did not complain at all! Not only that, several sent donations and letters of appreciation!!!). Hashkafa was not an issue. People sat with different people, they made new friends and it did not seem to matter if someone came from Teaneck, Monsey or Los Angeles. It was fascinating because while they came to absorb Charleston culture, they actually got a glimpse of what Charleston is all about without realizing it- this is no hashkafic divide in Charleston. There are no separate communities of yeshivishe and modern-Orthodox and shomer Shabbat and not-Shomer Shabbat. We are all one people. People are respectful of each other and how one chooses to serve G-d. And each person is accepted no matter where they are on their religious path. It’s beautiful. It’s what it should be. I believe it’s how the Torah wants us to be. And it should be a model for some larger communities that perhaps have a stronger Jewish infrastructure with kosher pizza but have lost the purity of our small Jewish community in Charleston, South Carolina.

the best vacations are spent at home

As I reflect upon the magical two weeks that we were privileged to spend in Israel, I find there is one word that keeps popping into my head – the Hebrew word, meragesh. According to my El Al stewardess, the word means exciting or emotional but since all Hebrew words carry more meaning than their English translation, it makes for an appropriate description of our time in Israel- which was far more powerful than I can possibly describe in mere words.

It was meragesh from the first moment of our trip- which I defined as when the security guard at JFK questioned us if anyone gave us something to bring to Israel which could be disguised as a bomb- a moment, I had anticipated since booking our tickets and which invoked a huge smile and tears because I hadn’t heard the question in five years (I had to explain to the concerned guard why exactly I found this question so moving before he arrested me. Thankfully, I don’t give off the vibe of a terrorist). Seeing the Israeli flag on the El Al tail, the pilot wishing us a shavua tov and the clapping at the conclusion of the flight (I had warned my husband that I was going to start clapping and singing “Haveinu shalom aleichem” myself if no one else did, thankfully for him, another weirdo started  it first). It was all so poignantly familiar.

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Instead of heading straight to Yerushalayim on a crowded sherut with an Israeli driver whose life ambition is to cut off every Egged bus (an experience one MUST have at least once), we decided to rent a car and head North for the first days of our trip. We both love hiking and aren’t able to do it with our brood of kids so ignoring our advancing ages and failing physical condition, we aimed at what we were told was the one of the most ambitious hikes in the North (only because the most challenging hike is closed).

As mentioned in previous blogs, I am a fast paced person, which means that my mind is usually racing with some idea I am working on (those ideas tend to come out of my mouth, hence the name, “constant comment”). On the beautiful Zavitan in the Golan, as we climbed rocks and waded through pools, my mind cleared. I wasn’t thinking about the details of our upcoming Shavuot program or the teaching schedule I need to put together for school. I was able to let it go and just appreciate the astounding tranquil beauty around me. The colors in Israel are far more vibrant than anywhere else- the sky is much bluer, the green of the trees more verdant, the contrast- breathtaking. You can walk the world and appreciate the artistry of G-d’s creation but in Israel, every bit of it was painted for us- by the virtue of the fact that we are part of the Jewish people. It is a heady feeling but also one that imposes such serenity- perhaps too much so- because as I dipped my feet in the beautiful ponds as if on a cloud, I came plunging down to earth and fell right into the water, spraining my foot in the process. 400 steps and a steep incline to go. I made it to the top (more out of fear of falling down the cliff) but have added a new item to my list of personal achievements- which includes three births without epidurals (I have an abnormal fear of needles).

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We saved Yerushalayim for the end of the first week to build the anticipation (because our usual experience is anticipation to get off the sherut NOW). This was, of course, the most meragesh experience of our trip. Miami Boys Choir sings a song called, “Shabbos Yerushalayim”, but in truth, it is not only Shabbos in Yerushalayim that is so powerful, it is the stark contrast between Erev Shabbos and Shabbos itself. We walked through the busy, bustling streets of Meah Shearim- people so intent on getting to their destination, it’s like New York on steroids, Egged buses at a standstill with cab drivers attempting to weave in and out of traffic and American yeshiva students crowding the seforim stores drinking their Re:Start your day energy drinks. If I thought Erev Shabbos in my home with three kids to bathe and food to cook for our guests is busy, it is nothing compared to the energy you feel in downtown Yerushalayim on a Friday- the entire city is preparing for Shabbos.

 

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We filled up our bags with all the delicacies Yerushalayim has to offer- challot that are crispy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. Hadar Geula cholent. Phil’s rugelach from the shuk- many of which did not survive the walk back to our rented apartment (makes you wonder how anyone can dare call the flaky, dry chocolate bun we are familiar with from America the same word as the succulent, gooey chocolate pastry that one eats in Israel). We walked home, laden with packages, exhausted from the sounds and the heat- all of which makes up the pre-Shabbos excitement of Yerushalayim.

And then… Shabbos. A real Shabbos. Shabbos the way it was intended to be. The kind of Shabbos that if every Jew experienced once, he would keep Shabbos the rest of his life.

Despite my hobbling, we decided to daven Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel- our first time to enter the Old City in five years. We entered the Armenian quarter, a path I have walked a hundred times and visited thousands of times in my dreams. The golden light reflected in the smooth, ageless stones. The hurried paths of different stripes of Jews- the Chassidim in their long coats, beside the American kids on a youth trip, wearing jeans and singing Am Yisrael Chai jubilantly. The birds singing their own song to welcome Shabbos. A sense of serenity, of purpose.

We passed the newly built Churva synagogue, which I had never seen before- a symbol of the rejuvenation of Jewish life in the Old City, by returning the historic shul to its former glory since its destruction in 1948. The panoramic view of Har HaZeitim as we descended the steps and finally, the Kotel itself- the quiet of Shabbos filled only with the voices of strangers- united in their religion alone- singing together to greet the Shabbos.

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As I walked the streets of the Old City, I was struck by a feeling that this was my first Shabbos in five years. I go through the motions every Shabbos- I prepare food, I bathe, I light candles, my husband makes Kiddush, we eat Shabbos meals, we go to shul. But Shabbos with all its external flair is missing that stark quiet- the feeling that G-d must have experienced after 7 days of creation when it says, “and He rested”. An experience I can only imagine as that contrast between a Friday in Meah Shearim and a Friday night in the golden Old City.

Traveling to Israel is not merely going on vacation- although one can certainly find enough “vacation activities” to keep you busy for months. For us, going to Israel is feeling a sense of belonging as a Jew. Being in a Jewish country where everyone speaks Hebrew and where there are not only kosher restaurants at the airport, but even a washing station for eating bread! A country where no one looks at you weirdly when you whisper a blessing after exiting the bathroom and where a random Israeli will offer you use of his cell phone when you realize that your phone plans fell through. The street signs are replete with Israel’s colorful and inspiring history (I’m slightly obsessed) and Jewish history comes alive with every step you take. The very fact that hitchhiking is so common in Israel speaks to the familial society that is Israel- what normal person in America would ever hitchhike… or pick up a hitchhiker? But in Israel, we are all one mishpacha- one family. You feel it most the day of a terror attack, rachmana l’tzlan when the radio calls it a “Yom kashe”- a hard day for the country, because one of its own was killed. One country, one people, one family.

Perhaps most poignant was seeing our family and friends in Israel who have made the jump. Like Avraham, they have left behind their birthplace, family and comfort zone, and have made Israel their home. Their children speak Hebrew fluently, chummus is a staple of their meals and when we went to restaurants they poked fun at us for using the English menu (and then used it themselves)- they have become so acclimated to Israeli society, they don’t even order iced café (lest they betray their Anglo origins). We watch my sister-in-law and our friends who are living our dream with happiness for them and the slightest touch of envy. We hope one day to join them but right now, Charleston is the place we should be. But we are so grateful to Hashem (and to my amazing mother who baby-sat the kids!) for giving us the opportunity to visit home.

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The Rebbetzin that Married the Rabbi

Here’s a fact about being married to a Rabbi: the wife automatically becomes a Rebbetzin. Some women love the role; some women love their Rabbi husband and walk into a role they don’t necessarily want.

I chose the role before I met the husband.

I remember the moment I decided I wanted to be a Rebbetzin. It was not the moment that I watched a tall and handsome man deliver an impassioned dvar Torah about the land of Israel, and thought, wow. Nor was it the moment that I first saw that tall and handsome man, two months before, at our first Atlanta Kollel meeting (after which our friend Shmuel passed me a now-famous yellow note that suggested, Moshe Davis????).

It was actually about two years before the summer that we met, when I decided that I wanted to marry a Rabbi. It was as I finished the first story in Rabbi Emmanuel Feldman’s “Tales out of a Shul”, a book which includes anecdotes from his forty years in the rabbinate to describe how he built Atlanta from a tiny Orthodox synagogue into the thriving Jewish community it is today. He writes in his introduction that it is a serious book which is funny and a funny book which is serious, and indeed, it is one of those books that will make you laugh and cry. I don’t think, however, that his intended result was to make a Rebbetzin.

And yet, as I finished that first story, that was the decision I came to. I was inspired by the thought of spending my life getting people excited about Judaism- especially in places where religious excitement is not a given, making people knowledgeable about their Judaism, and being a part of peoples’ lives- through the good and the bad. Rabbi Feldman had spent his life making a difference, and I decided then and there, that I wanted to do the same. I wanted to build.

I embarked on that decision through a career in Jewish Education, a passion to which I have devoted the past ten years of my life. While I started teaching with the intention to give, every educator quickly learns that true education is not merely transmitting material, it is a learning experience that goes both ways. You get far more than you give, and I have been blessed to learn so much from each and every one of my students. There is nothing I enjoy more than receiving a letter from a former student thanking me for teaching them something they found useful. And to my former students who are reading this: I still reread your letters and think of you when we use the wedding gifts you gave us, and one of my kids sleeps with the stuffed apple signed from all of the girls in 7G2 (some of whom are married now).

But when I met my talented husband (who has the natural distinguished air of a rabbi) I knew that it was time to expand my role. It actually took some time to convince him of this, especially because prior to our meeting, I had been described to him as “much older” (????) and therefore he assumed I was spending so much time talking to him because I was being nice, rather than interested. After some age clarification, he decided that the fact that I am one month and six days older than him should not be a barrier to our relationship and so seven months to the date we met, I became a Rabbi’s wife. (Or more accurately, a Rabbinical student’s wife). Although, I promise I did not marry him for the title!

Eerily enough, my husband and I met in the very city where “Tales out of a Shul” takes place, in fact, in a synagogue just down the road from Rabbi Feldman’s. Perhaps even eerier: the synagogue that my husband leads in Charleston is similar to the one Rabbi Feldman describes, probably due to the fact that are they both in the deep South. In any event, we are definitely living out our own “Tales out of a Shul”!

I should not give all of the credit of my decision to Rabbi Feldman, however. While my family does not include many shul rabbis (although we can definitely boast accountants- and in fact, my father rallied hard for me to join the family tradition), shul leadership is certainly in the blood. I literally cannot remember a time when my father was not vice president or president of our shul, or the parent organization to which our shul belonged. He is on the board of many Jewish organizations, and has led a number of community initiatives including starting a chevra kaddisha in his community, and organizing an inter-shul Baseball League (This is otherwise known as Jewish communal ants-in-the-pants, a disease I’ve inherited).

Shul involvement was an important part of both of my parents’ homes as well. My paternal grandparents were the founders of their shul. My maternal grandparents were large contributors to their shuls and my Saba was the shofar-blower. Some of my earliest memories take place in shul: saying Shema with my father at Maariv on Friday nights (which is one of two reasons I send my daughters to shul with my husband on Friday night) and picking out a beautiful etrog with my Saba before Succot. And of course, one of my favorite memories, from when I was about seven years old: laughing at something that I found funny (at shul) and since laughing is contagious, my mother started laughing, followed by my Savta. My Grandma, who was from Maine (which according to my mother made her very proper… or maybe the problem was that my Savta, mother and I were all born in Brooklyn and were therefore very improper) did not find this funny and shook her head at us for our inappropriate behavior at shul. Which quite honestly, made us laugh harder. In short, shul has always been another home (although I have since learned to treat it with more respect than an actual home. No more laughing fits at shul for Ariela).

So for me, it was a natural result of my upbringing to choose a life that would revolve around a shul. My father, knowing the ins and outs of shul life, and the politics that often accompany it, was less than thrilled with my decision, and in fact, any time I went on a date with a Rabbinical student, I would tell my father the boy was an “aspiring shoe salesman in Toronto” (our understood code word for rabbi).

Thankfully, in my parents’ eyes, my husband can do no wrong (which can be frustrating at times), and therefore, his chosen profession is something they are now incredibly proud of. In fact, it is actually quite fascinating to observe the many ways they are able to weave the words, “South Carolina” into a random conversation with a stranger. They have been to visit our home in the “#1 Tourist Destination in the U.S.” and my father has a spare set of golf clubs in our basement (which are still waiting to be used).

As for me, I have never regretted the decision to be a Rebbetzin (or to marry my husband). Our shul experience has thus far been extremely rewarding, both in Houston, as well as here. Our shul is a historic congregation in an old and beautiful building and although membership has gone up and down over the years, we are now on an upward swing, baruch Hashem. Since our arrival, we have been running a myriad of programs and classes and we have been thrilled to see results in larger crowds coming to shul on Shabbat. It’s been hard work, which can sometimes be frustrating, especially when we run an event that doesn’t get the attendance we would like, but overall, the experience has been an incredibly fulfilling one for my husband and myself. We read Rabbi Feldman’s book sometimes and share a laugh about a similar story that has happened to us (especially relating to the very weird phone calls my husband sometimes gets), but the feeling we share most with the book is the joy that one feels in building.

Now onto building an Atlanta-sized community in less than forty years so we can write our own book to inspire would-be Rebbetzins!

Returning home: Culture Shock

It’s been nearly five months in Charleston and after visiting New York this past week for a conference, it became immediately obvious to me, and apparently others, that out-of-town living has taken its effect.

I stepped off the plane at JFK and of course, the first thing I noticed (aside from the frigid weather- which you can’t escape, especially when you have to walk a mile OUTSIDE to baggage claim, because you arrived on a tiny two-row-on-each-side plane and need to climb up ladder-like-stairs WITH a stroller, which of course, no one offers to help you with, because it’s New York) was a chasid.

This may be part of the landscape of New York to those of you live there. It probably was to me as well, about nine years ago when I too, was a New Yorker. Now, the vision of a chassidiche family, with boys with curly payos invoked such excitement. I had not seen one in five months. A fellow Jew! Eagerly, I tried to smile at the father of the children to convey a shalom aleichim. Nothing happening. Oh, right. Chassidiche men don’t look at women. Maybe if I explain that I live in South Carolina and it’s exciting for me to see such a visible Jew? Ariela, keep quiet and just walk (says my friend, Toby’s voice, playing in my head).

The ride home from the airport: The way people drive here! I found myself holding onto the bar next to my seat from fear (ok, let’s be honest. My sister was driving, this is nothing new).

Central Avenue in the Five Towns: sheitel stores, Jewish book stores, kosher restaurants galore, tznius (modest) clothing stores.Women in beautifully-styled sheitels, pushing strollers as they talk to their friends. The only Jewish store I’ve seen in the past five months (aside from two brief trips to other cities) has been the gift shop at the Reform temple. But of course, the most exciting thing about visiting home for the past nine years, has always been a trip to the kosher supermarket. So much meat to choose from! Kosher fresh desserts that are pareve and fat-free! Pre-washed romaine lettuce! (the one reason I might someday move back to New York)

This past summer, I went to a frozen yogurt store in Brooklyn and upon entering, asked a person who worked there if the entire store was kosher or just a few flavors. The non-Jewish store worker looked at me like I came from Mars. I suppose I do.

Contrast that with the Wal-Mart I went to in Charleston before we moved and I was checking out the stores for kosher food. I asked an employee if there was a kosher aisle. “Kosher? What’s that?” I tried to explain it’s a specialty kind of food, sort of like Asian, to which she pointed me to the Asian food aisle. I tried someone else. Kosher? Oh, you mean pickles? Right. Not exactly Central Avenue. (I have since found a number of stores that have kosher aisles).

All which makes New York a really fun place to visit (especially when most of your family and friends live there) but not a place I want to live. And every time I return to New York for a visit, I feel more and more impassioned about our decision to live out-of-town.

At the conference I attended, when the moderator asked if anyone sends their kids to a school they never expected to, I explained that we send our kids to a community school, which concerned me at first, but so far, it has been a wonderful experience for our children. A number of women told me afterward that, “I have a good attitude” (I don’t, it’s a really good school!), and one laughingly told me, she was going to say that she sent her kids to a school that is slightly more right-wing than she had wanted but when I spoke up, she swallowed her comment. At a marriage seminar, the speaker explained how the decision for one spouse to be Orthodox and the other to reject Orthodoxy leads to irreconcilable differences. I told her that I know several such marriages and while it’s difficult, these marriages can sometimes work. While several other “out of town Rebbetzins” agreed, it seems that this does not happen too often in New York. And when I casually mentioned that I have to order meat online (and in fact, did so during one of the lectures so as not to miss the deadline), I received looks of shock from those who have a plethora of meats to choose from at a number of different grocery stores (honestly, it’s just not a big deal). As my friend said to me, “it’s so interesting to hear your questions, as you’re a real Five Towner, who is now coming from this out-of-town worldview”. Sometimes, it’s interesting for me to hear the words come out of my own mouth.

I wonder if these women look at me with pity. I don’t. Even if I have to wash my own lettuce. (Actually, my husband does it for me because I abhor checking for bugs and he’s very nice).

I think back to a conversation I had with a friend of mine who lives in suburban New York. We spoke about her kids and she said that while she loves her neighborhood and has great kids,she is disappointed that her kids are not wholesome (knowing how wholesome she is, I doubt that) and that they are often busy with friends and not home with the family. Another friend asked me if I wear shorter skirts now that I’m living out of town and don’t have the social pressure to dress “frum” (the answer is no).

I think living out of town has added wholesomeness to our existence and made it easier to work towards our family’s mission statement of living before G-d (not man) with sincerity. My daughters don’t know the word, “Uggs” or any other brand name of shoe (my oldest is not yet seven and therefore, I should not gloat. It might be that “Uggs” becomes a part of the vernacular at seven). My kids, as imperfect as they are (they get it from me) are pretty wholesome. And most importantly, to our family, Judaism is not “what everyone else is doing”, a religion of social pressure. We practice Judaism because it’s what we believe. We keep Shabbos because that’s what we do, certainly not because that’s what everyone else does, because not everyone else does it. We can’t eat certain foods that some of their friends eat, and it’s a good lesson for them to learn that you can’t always have what you want just because someone else has it (this lesson applies equally to non-kosher food and expensive toys). And for me, I have learned what it is to “sacrifice” for Judaism every time I take a woman to the mikvah and the water is cold (it rarely happens, but on occasion), and she dips anyway; when the eruv is down (again, on occasion), and we need to figure out a creative way to get to shul without carrying anything (and love that my children know what an eruv is!). I appreciate these experiences as character building for all of us in the family.

Which is not to say that New York Judaism is something we want to stay away from. There are many truly amazing people there, who are spreading and living true and sincere Torah lives. The amount of chessed in New York, and the Five Towns, in particular, is unparalleled. I envy the amount of Torah learning that goes on there and wish I had as many options to attend classes. In fact, when we decided to move to Charleston, we decided that our children will spend summers at a New York day camp so our children can benefit from the mainstream Orthodox world, even if they don’t live there.

And I might change my mind as my kids get older and new challenges arise. But for right now, as much as I enjoyed my trip to New York- seeing my amazing friends and family, the intellectual stimulation from the classes, playing with the adorable nephew I rarely see, this trip also reinforced my belief that at least for right now, living out-of-town is where we want to be.

 

Chanuka… a season of surprise

I got a call yesterday from a Charleston online newspaper who wanted to interview me on my thoughts about Chanuka in a special section of their newspaper called, “The Local Yokel”. I agreed despite finding it absolutely hysterical to be featured under that section (it seems that no one else finds this name funny but me), but I just couldn’t decline talking about Chanuka.

Since I was a little girl, Chanuka has been my favorite holiday. Just the very word conjures images of lighting the candles and singing Maoz Tzur with my family around the Chanukiot that we made in school, playing dreidel with my Saba and Savta, A”H, and the big plastic dreidels filled with candy that my Savta used to give us, and years later, my children, as a special Chanuka treat. OK, and presents -especially the one I received when I was seven which was my little sister Nava (although it took me quite a number of years until I viewed her as the gift she is).

But my image of Chanuka changed forever eight years ago when I received the shock of my life.

I had been dating my husband for about five months (this is actually a dispute about when we actually started dating, he claims it was four months) when we decided to fly to Chicago so I could meet his parents. Things were going well, but as my husband had never dated anyone else, he was more hesistant than I was about where our relationship was going, which was a cause of anxiety for me. Anyway, we went to Chicago, had a wonderful Shabbos with his family and when Shabbos was over, he asked me if I wanted to go downtown to see the beautiful city at night. I agreed and even invited his sister to join us, but she declined. He drove me to a spot next to the aquarium which is on Lake Michigan overlooking the city and then asked me if I wanted to sit on the lawn and learn some Torah.

Now, I love learning Torah. And I love the outdoors.  But it was December. In Chicago. Which means, it was freezing. And I have the blood of an old person, meaning, I am always cold. But we weren’t married yet, which means that I didn’t respond as I would now, (i.e. Ummm… no), and with a shiver, I said brightly, “Sure!” But instead of continuing to learn the piece about Chanuka that we had been learning before, he suggested we learn a piece of Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance. Weird, I thought to myself, but again, bright smile and “Sure!” So with my teeth chattering from the cold and thoughts of Siberia in my head, we sat on the lawn while he read the untimely subject of what does it mean to love G-d? He read about how we are supposed to think about G-d all of the time, when we’re eating and drinking, when we wake up and go to sleep- to be lovesick about G-d the way a man is about a woman. And then he asked me, as he often did when we were learning, “What’s the obvious question?”

So, to give some background here, I was teaching development of Jewish law at the time, and I think analytically in general. So I wondered aloud about the juxtaposition of this law against the previous one, why Maimoides had used this word rather than a different word and my husband (who was not yet my husband) continuously asked, “no, the obvious, obvious question?” . At this point, I was getting annoyed- like, how am I supposed to know what the obvious question is in your head, it’s clearly not obvious to me- and especially not when my brain is frozen with cold. And then he put me out of my misery of trying to discover what the proper question was and asked it himself; “will you marry me?”

I will never forget that feeling of complete and total shock. I had no clue that was coming. And followed by even more shock when he pulled out a diamond ring in the exact style that I would have wanted in my ring size. He must have immediately regretted proposing to a girl who resembled a gaping fish. I just stared at him for a long time in shock saying, “ohmigosh” over and over until he pushed me for an answer, which was, “Yes, ohmigosh. But now can we please go back to the car before I die of frostbite?”

It was the fifth night of Chanuka (incidentally, Nava’s birthday).

How did he know what ring to get? So this is the part of the story that doesn’t paint me in the most positive light, so if I was already lowered in your estimation by admitting that I don’t know how to put blankets in a duvet cover, or that I drink diet Coke for breakfast, this won’t help my cause (and you wonder, why do I admit these things in public?)

A few weeks previous to this momentous occasion, my friend Miriam had called me and we had chatted about a number of different topics before she told me that a friend of hers had just gotten engaged and told me about her ring. She then asked what kind of ring I would want someday. So we discussed and somehow she got my ring size finger out of me too. At some point, I got suspicious and asked her why she was asking me this. My friend Miriam who is brilliant in many ways surpassed her brilliance that day and laughingly responded, “Arie, you have an active imagination. Do you really think Moshe would call me?”

Fair point, I thought and all suspicions were dropped. Yes, I’m a dolt.

You never get over a surprise like that. And since then, Chanuka has been even more special to me than it ever was before.

But somehow, I don’t think that this story would make good material for an interview as the Local Yokel.

So why else is Chanuka special to me? In thinking this over, I’ve come up with three main reasons:

Firstly, I realize that the images of Chanuka that I conjure are all related to family. Chanuka is a time for families to enjoy the beauty of the holiday together. Unlike other holidays which feature a lot of time praying in shul like Rosh Hashana or a lot of mitzvot to keep you busy, like Purim, this is a holiday that is meant to enjoy togetherness. We light candles together. We play dreidel together. We get fat on latkes and doughnuts together. In a busy life, there is nothing more beautiful than having an excuse to experience a fun-filled Jewish holiday together.

Secondly, to me, Chanuka is a time of miracles. It represents the Jewish military victory over the Greeks, of the few against the many. It reminds me that even when the cards are stacked against you, nothing is impossible when G-d is with you. When I say the blessing on the candles of “the miracles that happened during those days, at this time”, I think about the miracles that G-d continues to do for the Jewish people- most notably, the miracle that is the modern State of Israel- our recent case of a victory of the few against the many.

And thirdly, I take great comfort in the Jewish victory over Hellenism which took place during the Chanuka story. The Greeks did not allow the Jews to practice brit mila or to celebrate Shabbat. And yet, here we are, thousands of years later and the Jewish faith is going strong. The mitzvah of brit-mila has become widespread (not personally; I only have daughters) and  Shabbat-observance is only growing in numbers. We have not fallen to modern Hellinism. The Jewish people have stood strong.

So as I look forward to lighting my Chanuka candles with my family surrounding me, I eagerly anticipate the light we will bring into the world and the hope it represents.

Happy Chanuka to y’all.

Dear CNN: We are so proud of Israel!

I have never been so proud to be a Jew.

As CNN portrays our little Jewish state as a war mongering military with no respect for human life, I am thrilled to discover that both my community in Charleston, as well as my friends around the world, refuse to believe the Hamas propaganda that much of the media has swallowed and are eager to stand up and say, “we stand for Israel”.

We believe Israel has the right to defend itself, just like any other country, and are proud in our capability to do so. Even more so, we are incredibly proud that despite the fact that Israel could flatten Gaza, the government has opted for surgical air strikes- so as to damage the capabilities of terrorists, but avoid hurting innocent civilians as much as possible. And even more so, we are proud that Israel is saddened by any senseless loss of life. Despite our military prowess, we have not lost our sense of humanity.

Over the past week, I have literally found myself surrounded by Israel pride. I wore my red skirt yesterday (ok, let’s be honest: I have worn my red skirt almost daily, ad nauseum) to show support for my friends and family in Israel and was thrilled to see the color reflected everywhere I went. I was amazed by the tremendous show of support at the JCC’s Israel Rally last night- from Jews and Christians alike- that although was planned at the last minute, was a beautiful and inspirational event.

I check my facebook page and am literally bombarded with youtube clips, blogs, cartoons and articles that friends post by the minute (and many of which I “share”) stating their unequivocal support for Israel. No matter whether they voted for Obama or Romney, what their religious views, their age, whether they live in Israel or America, the overall message has been: WE STAND WITH ISRAEL.

I am amazed to read my friend’s posts in Israel: Friends who open their homes to anyone who needs to escape from the rocket bombardment in the South or Tel Aviv. I read the posts of friends who have been enduring rocket attacks for months; who have little babies with whom they have to run to bomb shelters at night. Despite their obvious hardships, they don’t leave for America to their families- they stay put, they endure it and implore everyone to pray for a better tomorrow. I am moved by posts that I read announcing an Israel-sponsored trip to the zoo for all families from the South, to give the kids an escape from their turbulent lives. I am moved to tears when I watch clips of an Israeli art therapist who taught frightened children a joyful song about how to react during a “red alert” in efforts to calm their fears.

I am amazed when I see our “mighty” Israeli soldiers dancing and singing that we are a people of believers and that there is no one to rely on but G-d.  When I see Israeli soldiers trying to protect innocent Palestinian children.

I take great pleasure in watching clips of our Prime Minister Netanyahu, whom I believe G-d granted special and unique talents to adequately represent us to the world. My husband and I watch him explain (not defend!) Israel’s actions and we swell with pride to think that this incredibly articulate man, who speaks with such conviction, is representing our country. He blows both Obama and Romney way out of the water.

I am so proud of my parents who are en route to Israel right now and never thought about canceling their flight.

And yet, while we glow in our Israel pride, we feel incredible sadness at what our family and friends in Israel are enduring. It is incredibly painful to read the ugly words in the media about our beautiful state. The thought of children living in fear and sleeping in bomb shelters is heart wrenching. It is sad to read about what the Palestinians in Gaza have had to endure- at the hands of the Hamas terrorists who dominate them and use them as human shields to fight a PR campaign against Israel. And possibly the worst fear of all- that of our soldiers in harm’s way if G-d forbid, there need be a ground invasion.

Israel: we stand with you, we pray for you. We hope that as we are in the month of Kislev, a month when G-d has performed miracles for us in the past, He will perform one for us now as well. Bayamim ha’hem ba’zman ha’zeh.

In the meantime Israel, we are so incredibly proud.

Imperfect Imma

I was woken up this morning with the exciting news that Adiel (my 21 month old) colored on the walls. Again.  And I can’t say I emerged from my happy cocoon with a reassuring and calm smile on my face as I heard this information. (I am capable of smiling things off, just not in the morning before coffee).

Being an Imma is not an easy job. In fact, I would say that from my experience (having only a career in education to compare it to), it’s the most difficult job in the world. And I resent all of those women who make it look easy.

You know what kind of women I mean. The ones who appear calm when their kids are having a fit at the grocery store like it doesn’t rattle them at all- or even worse, the women who have children that don’t have fits in grocery stores. The kind of mothers who serve perfectly well-balanced meals on the table every night (featuring something with semolina- and never serve leftovers or wacky mac) and whose laundry is always done, folded perfectly and put away.

Let’s put it out there: I am not a perfect mother, nor do I appear to be. When my kids lock each other out of the other’s room and then start screeching, my face looks like a storm cloud (comfortingly enough, like Mama Bear’s in the Berenstein Bears. Only now that I think about it, her angry face is usually reserved for her husband. Which actually means that she probably is a perfect mother, just not a perfect wife), and I will often escape the chaos to go on facebook and read about how other people’s kids are driving them nuts. I admit I get super overwhelmed in the morning when after dragging my happily-sleeping children out of bed, I can’t find where Adiel hid her shoes this time, and we find ourselves late for school. Again. And as confessed in an earlier entry, I have discovered a late-developing allergy to the words: It’s not fair, which makes me grit my teeth. Like, whoever told them life was fair?

Why am I admitting all of my imperfections in a public forum?

Because I think there are many other mothers like me out there. Most of you probably  don’t tell your kids that “Trix are for Immas” (which my kids refuse to believe), but I have every faith that there are those of you who struggle with the image of that perfect mother and feel like you don’t measure up.

I am making my admission to publicly dispel the myth of that perfect mother. I don’t believe that such a concept exists (even the ones who feed their kids semolina). We all parent in different ways- some of us are more structured, some of us less so, some of us are strict, some of us are more tolerant. And different situations in parenting call for different kinds of reactions- sometimes we have the attribute that will prove successful in a certain situation and sometimes we don’t. No parent wins every time. Our job as parents is to work with who we are and to strive to be better. But our striving for perfection needs to be measured against ourselves rather than the fictional perception of the “woman who does it all”.

Despite the fact that I don’t live for cooking and cleaning and that I don’t always show as much patience and selflessness as a mother should, I think I’m still a good Imma. I try to spend individual time with each of my children. We make parsha desserts before Shabbos, and then read parsha stories together on Shabbos. I am strict in regards to their behavior towards others and their junk food consumption (out of my everlasting fear that they will end up like me) and strongly believe in “not giving in”, but also try to encourage them and bring out their strengths (although it is certainly a work in progress to focus on positive traits rather than negative ones). We try to go on fun family trips as often as we can and at the very least, try to have Sunday excursions. My kids and I laugh together (and then I report their funny comments on facebook), we talk to each other and enjoy each other. When they’re not coloring on the walls in the morning before I have my coffee.

So I’m not perfect.  And I certainly have room to grow to become a better Imma. But when my kids entertain my baby on Shabbos mornings so I can sleep, when Elisheva (4), runs to give parsha cupcakes to other kids before eating one herself, when Yaelle (6) davens on Sunday morning without anyone telling her to and when I find her fast asleep at night with a Practice-Reading Alef-Bet book on her chest, I know that I must be doing something right. Even if I’m not perfect.