The Elul I never imagined

by Jen Gubitz

In 5771, I missed Elul.

The final Elul of my rabbinical school career and I missed it. I didn’t even know the significance of the Hebrew month of Elul until my first year at Hebrew Union College’s Jerusalem Campus. But in just a few short years, Elul’s absence in the arc of my year was palpable.  It was as though I’d purchased an eleven-month Hebrew calendar that skipped right from Av to Tishrei.


When I went to lead Rosh Hashanah services for Brooklyn Jews’ unaffiliated 20s and 30s in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I was undeniably off my A-game.  Tefillah, normally one of my strengths, was an oddly detached experience: I missed cues, fumbled Hebrew, and felt empty and exhausted.  “Its okay,” my dear friend and co-leader Rabbi Marc Katz said to me, “I could tell you weren’t totally present because I know you, but I don’t think anyone else noticed.  Really…don’t worry.  I’m sure,” his pep talk continued, “you’ll have your head in the game for Yom Kippur.”  The sports metaphors were Marc’s, but an accurate description: since late-August I had been sidelined, and now felt like a junior varsity rabbi, on the disabled list, like a mere spectator with terrible seats to the central experience of the High Holidays.

When what I thought were mosquito bites turned out to be shingles, and a few days off of school to rest and recover became six plus weeks needed to heal, I turned to netflix and acupuncture.  I un-guiltily watched four seasons of Friday Night Lights (about Texas football – not Shabbat), moved into my acupuncturist’s office, and slept in twelve hour shifts.

And then I went back to school.  Too soon.  When post-viral fatigue set in, it wasn’t even clear I’d be ready to compete in time for Rosh Hashanah.  I assumed that the fatigue would be a lasting symptom; that I would never return to my normal self.  So again, I did not move from my couch for the week prior to the main event and suited up but an hour before services would begin.  They were ‘good enough’ Marc felt, and while for me – a non-practicing perfectionist who errs on the side of practicing – even I was satisfied to have simply gotten through the game.

And then on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I awoke.  The shingles on my face had more or less healed and the exhaustion I had known even the day before, but expected never to lift, in fact, lifted.  While I still took the next ten days easy, just as Marc had predicted, on Yom Kippur, in front of 600 people, we hit the ball out of the park.  During the Amidah standing prayer, facing towards the arc, I caught myself wondering: “Wait…if the rabbis are leading the main service across the street, who’s leading this one?”  It was a healthy dose of reality.


Enter spiritual director Rabbi Yael.

“Take a deep breath…” she urged. “Find a calming, centering place of being…and just tell me what’s on your mind.”

“I missed Elul,” I blurted out.  I had mentioned this to my mentor the week prior and he agreed.  Objectively speaking, I had been so sick throughout the entire month of Elul that I had missed every opportunity to teach and learn about Elul, and to really turn myself inside out for a good introspective cleaning.

“You missed Elul?  Wow.”

I told her the trajectory of events that seemingly led to my blunt statement.  I had spent the summer working as a Chaplain Intern at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  The experience was both amazing and treacherous.  A long subway commute in the New York City sweltering heat combined with the emotionally intense training program stretched me to realms beyond any previous experience.  I loved the opportunity to engage with patients, families and staff, and I pushed myself – too hard – it seems.

“Well, its no wonder you ultimately got sick,” Rabbi Yael noted.  “But I’m not sure you missed Elul, Jen.  I think you just had the Elul you weren’t expecting and never could’ve imagined.”

“But I didn’t get a chance to teach an adult education program about it!” I chimed in, rattling off a list of other Elul-esque things I had missed.

“So they’ll learn about Elul next year.  It’s okay.  Really.”

The Elul I wasn’t expecting and never could have imagined likely started on June 6, 2011 – the moment I stepped foot into Sloane Kettering.  That ‘turn yourself inside out for a good introspective cleaning’ occurred in the intensive learning sessions and intense patient encounters.

Sometimes our bodies can teach us and can force us to behave in ways our minds can not and will not.  It seems that my body felt the need both to expel some of what it had learned and to prevent me from doing any further exploration (for the time being at least.)  A cold would’ve been sufficient, I had thought early on.  But I tried to go back to school well before I was well enough, so no – a cold, it seems, would not have stopped me or adequately forced me to slow down and rest my body.

I was lucky to recover. I still have a few scars and a lot of gratitude to those who cared for me.  AND I know that my illness pales in comparison to much of the suffering our loved ones and congregants experience, or that my Sloane Kettering patients faced daily.

My calendar did not skip Elul in 5771.

It was certainly the Elul I never expected and never dreamed of…and it was an Elul I now cherish.

But I gotta say…Elul 5772…it was so nice to see you again.

Jen Gubitz is the assistant rabbi at Shir Tikva in Wayland, a product of URJ-GUCI, and loves teen engagement.  She is very religious about Indiana Hoosier Basketball, good coffee, poetry and puns.  And hopes never to get shingles again… although she wouldn’t mind watching another show start to finish….

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