About Rabbi Beth Kalisch

I live in Philadelphia and am privileged to serve as the spiritual leader of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, PA.

What’s the Jewish Way to Travel?

By Rabbi Beth Kalisch

“These were the journeys of the Israelites,” Parashat Mas’ei begins (Num. 33:1), and here it is, the season for summertime journeys.  But what, exactly, is the Jewish way to travel?  

To judge from every synagogue mission and Birthright Israel trip I’ve been on, it would seem like the key ingredients are the hats and the buses. Traveling around with 40 of your closest friends, trying to stick to a schedule that packs in activities from 7 am until 10 pm, being warned over and over to wear your hat and to drink enough water…. and somehow still loving it.

But what about when we’re just taking summer vacation on our own?  What’s the Jewish way to travel then? What’s the Jewish way to take a vacation? This is the kind of thing a rabbi thinks about on her vacation to Nicaragua.  This is the kind of thing a rabbi wonders about when her hotel shower catches fire.

By way of explanation… Nicaragua is a beautiful, beautiful country.  ImageVolcanoes, beaches, cloud forests with butterflies and hummingbirds, colorful colonial architecture, hand-woven hammocks on every porch, and more flavors of fresh-squeezed fruit juice than you can remember the Spanish words for.
All of that beauty makes Nicaragua a great destination for Jewish travel (however unorthodox that might sound!)  The wisdom of Shabbat, that human beings need time for rest and renewal,  makes a good argument for relaxing vacations, for watching the sun set while lying in a hand-woven hammock.  It’s easier to feel spiritual with such a breathtaking backdrop; it’s easier to appreciate God’s creation among such incredible biodiversity. And our sages taught that on the Day of Judgment, each of us will be called to account for any permissible earthly pleasure that we did not indulge – surely, that includes jugo de calala, Nicaraguan passion fruit juice.  

But Nicaragua is also the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and that poverty can make travel challenging.  In most of the country, you need to boil the water or treat it with iodine before you can drink it.  Many roads are unpaved, which doesn’t make for the smoothest ride on the second-hand school buses that areImage the most common form of public transportation.  And since hot water is more of a luxury than a standard plumbing feature, even midrange city hotels feature electric showerheads.  They’re safe most of the time, I’m sure, but I’d recommend against being the lucky person who happens to be taking a shower when the heating element starts sparking and smoking, and then bursts into flames.

But even beyond the physical discomforts, the challenges of traveling in Nicaragua are the emotional ones.  A homestay in northern Nicaragua provided one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had, simple but delicious rice and beans, homemade cheese, home-hatched eggs, and a home-grown fried banana, but also a harsh glimpse of rural poverty: houses with dirt floors and corrugated tin roofs, schools that are open only on weekends because even children spend the rest of the week working in the fields, latrines and bucket baths in place of indoor plumbing.  ImageOur sages imagined all the troubles of the world being weighed on a scale – and poverty was as heavy as all the rest put together. It was draining to be there; by the time we left the rural village, I needed a hot shower, a down pillow, and a bit of luxury more than ever.

Of course, at the same time that I was cursing the electric shower and craving a soft pillow, I was also a little embarrassed by these feelings, as I realized anew just how privileged my “needs” are, and just how lucky I am to live such a comfortable life in such a wealthy country.  And I think that’s what makes uncomfortable travel a Jewish thing to do, too – whether we’re encountering poverty in the developing world, dealing with culture shock, or even trying unfamiliar foods, stepping outside of our comfort zone reminds just how big the world is, how far and wide it extends beyond our day-to-day concerns – and can help us gain greater perspective and reassess our priorities.

Judaism has never demanded asceticism, but neither has it permitted shutting ourselves off from the uncomfortable parts of the world.  So that polarity is my new guideline for Jewish travel.  Wherever I go next, I’ll be looking to balance growth and renewal; to push my boundaries while still feeling like I’m on vacation; to make myself think, and also not to think much at all.

But as for the shower?   Next time, perhaps I’ll just stick with cold water.

(PS  I can’t help offering a few additional suggestions for traveling Jewishly this summer… Have a great trip!

–    Visit Reform synagogues around the world!  http://wupj.org/Congregations/Overview.asp
–    Visit Israel, or even tack on a few days in Israel to a trip in Europe or Asia – sometimes the connecting flight is incredibly cheap!
–    Volunteer in the US or around the world.
–    Remember the workers who make your vacation possible (start by tipping the housekeeping staff!), and consider buying carbon offsets.)

Rabbi Beth Kalisch currently serves as the Adjunct Rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York City and is also working to build Jewish life in Brooklyn.  As usual, she is already dreaming up her next trip.

Saying Goodbye

By Rabbi Beth Kalisch

Last week, I had to say goodbye to my congregation.

It wasn’t unexpected or sudden.  There was no bitterness, no sense of abandonment.  When I came to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue three years ago to serve as their Assistant Rabbi – my first pulpit after being ordained by HUC-JIR – the offer was for a 2-3 year position.  They designed my position to be a short-term, rotating assistantship that would prepare me for rabbinic leadership in other contexts.  I knew the position was short-term by design, and so I spent part of the past year making plans for the coming year.  As goodbyes go, it was definitely the easy, gentle kind.

And yet.

There’s something so bittersweet, so surreal, about saying goodbye to people you have not only grown to know, not only grown to love, but who have also allowed you to be present at some of the most sacred and intimate moments of their lives.  How do you say goodbye to someone whose mother you buried, someone you held on a cold windy day at the cemetery?  How do you say goodbye to a girl who studied with you for months leading up to her bat mitzvah, or a teen who called you up during some tough times in college?  How do you say goodbye to a committee chair who’s put hours of work into a project you thought up together but that still isn’t finished, or to a couple you counseled and stood with under the chuppah as they began their married life together?  The relationships we develop as rabbis – the relationships that are the backbone of what it means to be a rabbi, that strengthen our community and that are the reason most of us went into the rabbinate in the first place – are not the kind of relationships that lend themselves to easy goodbyes.

And yet, we have to learn to say goodbye.  Not because I’ll never see my congregants again – whether it’s bumping into each other in this small Jewish world, or keeping in touch on Facebook, I know I will see so many of them again, whether next week or years from now.  And I’m very grateful for that.

But I need to make sure they have room in their hearts to embrace their next Assistant Rabbi as fully as they embraced me.  And I need to make sure that the flames of Jewish connection that I was privileged to help kindle and tend during my time as their rabbi continue to burn brightly long after I am gone – that will be the true test of my leadership as a rabbi.  The Hebrew term for clergy is klei kodesh, sacred vessels, which I take to mean, in part, that I help to bring the Holy into people’s lives.  But I am only a vessel for that connection, not the connection itself.

And at the same time, even as I say goodbye to them, they will always be with me, too.  In the Torah portion of my last Shabbat with my congregation, B’ha’alotcha, Moses acknowledges that spreading awareness of God’s presence is not a one-way street from leaders to the community.  “U-mi yitein kol am Adonai nevi’im!” he exclaims, “Would that all the Eternal’s people were prophets!”   The blessing of rabbinic life is that Moses’s wish comes true in so many moments.  My congregants have so often been my prophets, showing me God’s presence and revealing to me God’s will in so many situations when I might never have recognized it otherwise. 

They were my prophets each Shabbat, as I watched the spirit of God pass through them as they prayed. They were my prophets in our classes together, from the youngest ones in our early childhood center to my devoted adult b’nai mitzvah students, as I watched the spirit of God fill them with Torah.  They were my prophets when they comforted a loved one after a death – it was through their arms that God comforted the bereaved.  They were my prophets when they dragged themselves out of bed early to volunteer at our Shabbat morning food pantry, and when they challenged me with the very toughest questions.  And when a prophet speaks, her words resound beyond that moment.  Her words are not forgotten.

Saying goodbye means that I will no longer be leading their congregation, and they will no longer be my congregants. But in another sense, I hope I will always be their rabbi.  And wherever I travel, they will always be my prophets.

Rabbi Beth Kalisch served for three years as the Assistant/Associate Rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City.  Starting in July, she will be serving as the Adjunct Rabbi at Central Synagogue, also in Manhattan.