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Jewish Inspiration October 7, 2017

Journey of Shul

Uncategorized November 24, 2014


Some of you may have missed “Finding Meaning in Terror,” my most recent post, if you receive notifications via email, since it appeared on the same day as an ad which appeared at the top of the email.  Please be sure to check it out.

“May G-d avenge their blood.”

Sounds harsh?  This is a standard prayer that one might say when hearing of the death of a fellow Jew at the hands of a hate crime – of one who was killed for being Jewish.  Last week, I included this short prayer at the conclusion of a Facebook post. 
One of the murder victims. His wife is a Markowitz from Cleveland. Rebecca Blech Schwartz, I am so sorry for your family. May his soul find rest and may God avenge his murder.
“Kraft described Levine as an exceedingly humble person, and while he was a serious learner devoted to increasing his knowledge of Judaism and Torah, he also had a sharp sense of humor and loved to joke around. Growing up in Kansas City, Kraft and Levine loved to watch the Kansas City Royals baseball team.”
Rabbi Kalman Levine The stories are coming in fast about the four rabbis murdered during the brutal terror attack in a Jerusalem synagogue – one of the them, in…

I know that previously, when posting thoughts of this nature, I’ve received some inquiries about the “avenge” piece, and this time was no different. In the chat box of a Words With Friends game, an acquaintance asked: 

I always felt good about the simple Jewish approach to vengeance: it belongs to G-d. We pray to Him to bring it on people who perpetrate evil, and we go through appropriate legal channels (including this incredible law firm) to bring about justice ourselves, but we do not take vengeance into our own hands.
Then I read this emotional piece by my friend Sarah Rudolph, expressing resistance to using the term – and it really made me think.  Revenge people-style, and revenge G-d-style are not the same thing.  People-revenge is angry, instinctive, emotional, and anger-driven.  G-d revenge is restoring justice to a world gone mad.  I don’t want revenge, because I don’t want to become an ugly person.  I want G-d to do it – because I know He’ll do it right.
And I’m proud of a religion that knows the difference.
Controversial Observations, Uncategorized July 1, 2014

Was All That Praying a Waste?

My friend Andrea is our guest blogger today. See end for Andrea’s bio.

What horrible news we had yesterday, about Eyal, Gilad and Naftali A”H, the boys murdered in Israel 18 days ago. As Jews and non-Jews everywhere reel from the news, I am starting to see the question pop up, on my Facebook feed,  in blog entries and on a bulletin board that I frequent: questioning what the point was to all that praying everyone did.

Now, I am not the biggest “pray-er.” I do take challah and pray for people on a regular basis, but I find that spontaneous prayer works better for me than reading psalms or formalized prayers.  In the time that the boys were missing, what I saw in news, on social media, and in communities everywhere, was an incredible number of people praying, doing mitzvot and reading psalms, in the merit of the return of the boys. I saw the people of Israel, and so many of our friends, coming together – unified by our desire to see the boys home safe.

In addition, many of us, if not all of us, recognized the unity that was sweeping across the world of Judaism and were impressed that three missing boys could cause such an incredible shift in the old adage “two Jews, three opinions.”  We had one opinion and it was very clearly “Bring them back home safe.”
While we now know that by the time people started davening for them, they were dead, I believe that those prayers were still heard.  It is because we cannot change what has already happened with prayer, and once a prayer is spoken it cannot be taken back, that I believe that those prayers were all heard. They were heard by the world, who saw that Jews were coming together and praying (not reacting in violence), they were heard by ourselves, as aforementioned, and most of all, by God.  If you don’t believe in God, then all that good karma was out there and is still coming back to us…
This past Thursday, my daughter was in an accident.  It was  a very serious situation and one which, if any one of ten different things had gone differently, I would be sitting shiva right now. In fact, it is miraculous that all ten of those things did not happen. After seeing the question “Why did we bother?”  I decided that all that davening, and all those mitzvot and all that ahavat yisrael acted  to make it possible that instead of a tragedy, in or family, we are dealing with “just” an accident, instead of a tragic one.
God heard our prayers.  God saw our achdut (unity) and all the amazing mitzvot done in the merit of the safe return of the boys.  I believe that because there was nothing else that could be done for them, all the incredible goodness that was generated by these prayers and actions, was redirected.
Some people may have survived car wrecks, chemo might have worked, or aerosol cans blew up and yet the injury was “just” like a bad sunburn. In addition, many people were praying for the safety of the members of the IDF who were looking for the boys, and the delay in the discovery of their bodies meant that the IDF had legitimate opportunity to discover the smuggling tunnels, weapons production locations and to confiscate whole arsenals that will not be used against Israel now.

A friend pointed out all of the above and that we will never know how many lives have been saved by removing those threats.

Do you know someone who suffered in the past 17 days from something that could have been much worse and wasn’t?  Do you know someone who walked away from something that should have killed them?  Maybe they, and by extension, you, we, klal yisrael were the beneficiaries of that good outcome precisely BECAUSE we all showed such achdut and we all prayed and did mitzvot!  This may not be the answer we wanted or expected but it is absolutely an answer!
So I, a Jewish mother who is NOT sitting shiva today, believe that your prayers and our achdut are the reason for that. Thank you!
Your prayers in the merit  of a speedy and complete recovery for Ariel Mia bat Chana Miriam very much appreciated. and it was very clearly “Bring them back.
Andrea Levy considers herself an “Under-Constructionist Jew.” Formerly a non-observant, mostly cultural Jew, Andrea and her family are very pleased to have grown in the direction of increased observance of mitzvot. She is married to Marc Schwartz and has two children, Max and Ariel. Collectively, the family is known as “The Schwevys.” Andrea owns a business providing Kosher Catering in Hamilton, Ontario, as well as working as a kosher supervisor for the Hamilton Va’ad Hakashrut. She is the lead volunteer for the Adas Israel Synagogue’s United Shabbat programme. Andrea enjoys post apocalyptic and dystopian books and loves all things Zombie and Vampire.
Uncategorized March 17, 2014

I’m Praying For You… But How?

Notice I cropped out the name and avatar of the asker but not the compliment (cough, cough).

So the question at hand is: when someone says, “Pray for me,” and you’re Jewish… well, what does that actually mean?  How do you actually do that?  I’ll add my own question, just to stir the pot.  What do you do with those group texts and Facebook posts to pray for people?  Do you truly pray for them all?  Do you forward them all as requested?  How do handle all this in the digital age?

First things first.  There are multiple “right” ways to pray in Judaism.  All are predicated on obtaining the person’s Hebrew name.  That formulation is [Hebrew name] + [ben (for male)/bat or bas (for female)] + [mother’s Hebrew name]. If any of these are unknown, just use the names you know, intending that God will understand who you mean.

That said, here are some options in terms of prayer, listed in order from “beginner” to “advanced”:

1. Say a short prayer in English in your own words, and when you mention the person’s name, use the formulation above.

2. Say a short formal prayer using the person’s Hebrew name as formulated above.

3. Say a chapter of Tehillim / Psalms (or more if so inclined) – which chapters to say are highlighted in the link –  in either English or Hebrew (preferably in Hebrew, even if you don’t understand the words), and when you are done, do #1.  Next step would be committing to saying a chapter each day for that person.

4. Do #3, but follow up with #2 instead of #1.

5. When praying the formal Amidah prayer, either at home or at synagogue, include the person’s Hebrew name in the paragraph about healing.

Now let’s talk about name management.  Here’s what I do, personally.

I have a notepad app on my phone, and whenever I get a name to pray for I add it to my app.  I also note who the person is and where I got the name from so I can follow up.  Praying indefinitely for people I don’t know and am not being updated on is hard for me.  I have learned to transfer the list to paper that I keep near my prayerbook because when I’m praying (as in #5) I don’t want my phone out to check the names.

Which names get added?  People that have a connection to those I know personally, I add to my list.  Other names, such as texts and Facebook posts, I say a quick prayer (see #2) or chapter of psalms (#3) for and move on.  I don’t forward such requests unless I know the sick person myself.  This may be wrong of me, but otherwise there’s no end.

How do you pray?

Uncategorized February 13, 2014

The Day We Prayed

It was toward evening in Rockville, Maryland as the second day of the conference progressed.  Dinner was winding down and we anticipated a session from a woman who had sailed the Pacific for 2 years with her husband and two kids after he got laid off, followed by a “best practices” presentation by various city representatives.  The evening would close with a soulful musical session of Jewish spiritual tunes.

There was a collective gasp that arose from the front of the room.  I casually looked up, expecting the usual relieved laugh and “everyone’s okay” from the crowd.

It did not come.

Instead were swift shouts of “call 911!” “Is there a doctor??” “Is she OK?”

She was not OK.

A woman had leaned on a railing that overlooked a stairwell.  The railing broke away from the floor and supporting wall, sending the woman down, down, down… panic, distress, and grief filled the air of that room.

Here’s what I know.  I cannot help from a medical standpoint.  And people in crisis will not improve with rubberneckers.  So I did what I know how to do in a crisis: I prayed.  I fished through my handbag for my prayerbook, flipped quickly to the back where the Book of Psalms is printed, and started saying whatever my eyes fell on.  I don’t know what happened next, but someone gave me a microphone, directed the women away from the scene of the tragedy, and before I knew it, I was leading the group in saying Psalms, word by painstaking Hebrew word, phrase by painstaking phrase.

This group.  Many had never prayed before.  Many had no idea what we were saying, or why.  I never lead groups in prayer without introducing, explaining, translating.  But there we were, as the emergency crew arrived, as she was carried out, mercifully conscious, to the waiting ambulance, as people were instructed to move cars, to move away, we kept going, phrase by phrase, empowered by what we could do.  Empowered by the strength in numbers.  Empowered by our bond, our solidarity, from that moment of panic to that moment of doing.  Empowered by doing just that, saying those words that were not understood but whose cadence reminded us of our common bond: Hebrew, though we may not understand it; spirituality, though our definitions of its expression may vary; care and concern for our fellow sister, though many of us had never even met her.

That moment was magical, transformational.  Beauty in the midst of tragedy.

I know I shall never forget it.

Please spare a prayer, in whatever language you know, for Naomi bat Rosalia.

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized January 6, 2014

Yoga and Orthodoxy: Compare and Contrast

Assignment: Compare and contrast yoga and Orthodox Judaism.

The panelists are all familiar with both yoga and religious, observant Judaism.  They are all friends of mine in real life.  Some are highly trained yogis and others practitioners.  Note: the ideas and opinions expressed below do not necessarily reflect my theology.  

The Similarities

Sandy Gross:

They’re the same, in that it’s morals and ethics.  It’s more like Mussar (spiritual character development in Judaism).  As far as Orthodoxy, yoga just uses different tools – poses, for example – for us to “practice” applying these morals and ethics (in yoga they’re called Yamas & Niyamas).  Orthodoxy uses other practical tools – the 613 laws.  Both are practices, and practical, and that’s why I like JFX (the Jewish Family Experience, our congregation) so much!  We can always use more tools to help us be more mindful and inspired people:)

Scott Simon:

I think what is interesting about yoga poses – which most people consider “yoga” to be – is that they are not really about getting into shape.  They are actually meant to prepare the body to be able to sit for long periods of time in spiritual quest (meditation etc).  Judaism I am sure has methods to begin the process of getting us ready to enhance our connection with G-d through prayer.   

Sindy Warren:

I agree with Scott’s point about the yoga poses (asana practice) being intended to ready the body and mind for meditation, which can be, in some ways, likened to prayer.  I also like Sandy’s point about both paths being moral and ethical guidelines for proper living.  They can also both be seen as paths for spiritual growth and bringing one closer to one’s own potential.

Sandy Gross:

I view the laws, mitzvot, as very present moment opportunities to connect to G-d.  If one chooses to do them:). Ha. That’s why I think a lot people have connected so well into yoga – learning to integrate your upper arm bone into the shoulder socket properly in a weight bearing position (and other physical alignment hard rules), for example, may not seem very “spiritual”  but to me, it’s integrating mind with body, helping the body to return to harmony – it should be considered spiritual.  Alignment for me is respect for this amazing body and this is extremely spiritual.  I am integrating it with its operating system (G-d?) with every move I make.  I try anyway…that’s why we call it a yoga “practice”  :). 

Karen Marocco:

I think in many ways Judaism and yoga complement each other. Below are some of my thoughts:
For me, yoga is very much a practice of mindfulness. On the surface it’s about being aware of how your body moves/feels, the quality of breathing, what you eat etc. But it’s also about being mindful/aware of your thoughts, habits and actions-even throughout the day when you’re not doing the actual poses. For example, loshon hara  (the Hebrew term for the sin of gossip) is something many of us struggle with – or at least I do. Practicing mindfulness has helped me become more conscious of my words. It’s hard to better yourself when you’re unaware.
In teacher training we had to choose one yoga sutra/teaching that resonated with us and write about it. I chose the sutra surrender to a Higher power because it’s so in alignment – get it, ha! – with Judaism.  When my mom got sick, we turned to science/medicine for help. But ultimately, we believe that it rests with God. We do what we can and then surrender the results to Hashem (God).
Jody Trostler:

Interestingly I believe that my connection to yoga when I started practicing 13 years ago-ish was what was missing for me spiritually in Judaism. I was raised very secular and did not know what I did not know about the power of Judaism spiritually and intellectually. 
As I have learned and grown Jewishly,  some of the common practices of vinyasa yoga have become a bit uncomfortable. OM-ing and bowing/namaste is one of them. I felt a bit uncomfortable in my first yoga class after returning from my first and only Israel trip. I think my experience was so deep and profound spiritually that everything else felt shallow. Now I realize that I was being judgemental in these thoughts. 
I remember Shawna Rosner and I were talking about this years ago and she told me that instead of namaste she would say the Shema. I loved that and I now have adopted that practice (thanks Shawna!). This brings me close to G-d and is a reminder to pray when I am in a good place.
As my Jewish education has expanded and grown through mussar and Sunday school I do see several crossovers in the yoga teachings and mussar. It’s all great stuff and it just reinforces that I am on a path of growth.
The Differences:

Shawna Rosner:

First of all, I believe that Orthodoxy and yoga are mutually exclusive and in my life they remain so. I have always been closely identified with being Jewish and practicing Judaism, and did not turn to yoga to fill my need for religion. However, I found that I really cherished the snippets of philosophy on life that were often times interwoven into my yoga classes (and still do). As I have come to study more Torah, and Mussar in particular, I have found many parallels between yoga and Judaism and some differences as well. I no longer go to a yoga class craving the spiritual lesson as I have found it elsewhere (mostly thanks to JFX). 
My yoga practice is based on a mind and body experience. I try to find peace, balance and equanimity in my yoga practice, but I would be deceitful if I didn’t admit that the physical benefits of the practice are very important to me. I feel better after yoga and I believe this is just one step in becoming a better me and better able to give more of myself to those around me a d the universe as a whole. I also feel this way after studying Torah and Mussar. 
For me yoga is not a soulful experience. By that I mean I do not feel closer to a higher power when practicing. However, as Jody mentioned I do take the opportunity to say Shema during opening and closing of class and when Sanskrit just doesn’t feel right to me. So in essence I bring some Judaism to my mat. 
Thank you for the opportunity to express my views. For those that have not yet read Letters to a Buddhist Jew, as I did in Mussar, I highly recommend it!!
Sindy Warren:
Yoga eemphasizes being in the resent moment.  Learning to sit with the instant discomforts (of he body in asana practice and of the mind in meditation) and not reacting.  To create space betwween stimulus and reaction.  Orthodox Judaism, I think, places a huge emphasis on he future (ie, the World to Come).  Mussar, too, is forward looking and also focused on the post – what should we do in certain situations, looking to our ancestors (the mussar masters) for guidance.  Judaism has a unique way of blending the past with he present and he future – the holidays being representations not nly of our ast but of the present (and future) spiritual energy in the world.
Another interesting difference is the idea of doing or not doing, depending on the practice.  Judaism teaches through action.  Be generous, and you will become more generous.  Do first, then believe.  Yoga teaches the importance of non-action (to wit, the phrase “don’t just do something, sit there”).  

Sandy Gross:

The main difference (although I focus on the similarities mostly:)  is that Judaism is a dualistic religion.  Yoga, is non-dualistic.  G-d is everywhere including and especially in us.  Two quotes on the walks at the new Evolution:
“The sun shines not on us but in us.” John Muir
“My body is my first prop.”  BKS Iyengar
And, yoga is not a religion, it’s considered an (experiential) science.  The Latin root of the word “religion” is to “realign with your origin.” That word religion needs a new PR campaign.   I feel like I am religious then, if you define it that way:). Again, I’m trying!  
Karen Marocco:

Namaste: This is the most uncomfortable part of the yoga practice for me. Namaste is what many teachers and students say when ending a class. Often translated as the light in me honors the light in you (which I think is a beautiful sentiment.) However, literally namaste means “I bow to you.”  Even though people bow their heads as a gesture of respect and not worship I was always taught that you don’t bow to anyone but God. There have been Jews who have chosen death over bowing to another person. 
Sandy Gross (on bowing):
The bowing in Namaste, to me, in this non-dualistic path of yoga, means you’re technically bowing to yourself.  Your higher Self that you share with everyone else… Acknowledging that we are one.  That there really is no separation.  
I think I remember also hearing that the bowing is the representation of the physical, lower-cased self, with the higher Self or light/G-d, energy within that we all share.  
In the OM yoga tradition in which I was trained, we did not bow nor say Namaste. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. 

Thoughts from the Facebook discussion:

Renee:  I think a mindful yoga practice is a lot like living the Kabbalah.  Technically if done properly, EVERYTHING one does is out f gratitude to G-d in both practices – so es, food choices are simple and prayers are offered; positive community; mind/body/spirit connection; ego not important; meditation several times a day…

Ariella:  To be “good” at both you’ve got to be committed. Both are complicated. 
Allison:  You’re always learning with both Judaism and yoga.
Chantal:  I’m very wary of bringing in the spiritual side of yoga as some of the origins really border on avoda zara (idolatry) if not outright… Tread carefully!
Dave:  They’re both misunderstood (and dismissed) by the ignorant…
Wendy:  Yoga is quieting the voices in your head, it is profoundly moving if you let it be, it’s about gratitude on a very deep level, a connection with yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. Yoga is good for you. There is no doubt about it. 
What are your thoughts, OOTOB readers?  What’s your experience with yoga and/or religious Judaism?  Does yoga satisfy a spiritual or religious need for you?
(For an interesting related read, check out this article and especially the comments.)
Uncategorized June 20, 2012

Swayin' While Prayin'

When I pray
I sway.
Why? you may say.

The Yiddish word: shuckle.
Is there a Hebrew equivalent?

It’s how I saw people praying growing up.
I don’t know another way.
I’ve tried to stop.
It happens by itself.

Sometimes, the emotion of my words gets into my body and takes over.
Or, I’m thinking about my grocery list (oy!).
Then, the sway/pray wakes me up.

Shake!  Awake!
Think about where you are. (Not Heinen’s.)

Are you not ashamed
to be swaying
like a saint
when your mind
grows faint?

Close your eyes.
Sway.  Be silent.  Let your body remind your heart.
To listen.
Take part.
Be on the same page.
Be one:
Words.  Mind.  Heart. Body.
Sway, and pray.
Or: pray, and sway.

Either way.