Finding God in the Small Moments

As the long days of summer bring sunshine and long days full of light, we are grateful for the taste of freshly picked berries, the warmth of the sun on our faces and the smell of newly mown grass.  This Psalmist has written “You have gladdened me by your deeds, Adonai, I shout for joy at your handiwork. How great are your works, O Adonai, how profound your design.” (Psalm 92:4-5).

We are commanded to set aside time in our lives for Shabbat, each week to take a day of rest devoted to giving thanks to God for the blessings of our lives and taking time to appreciate the small moments.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks of the Sabbath as “a palace in time”. Heschel reminds us that “there are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”

If we can be attuned to the small things in each day, we find that sense of the holy in everything, not only on the Sabbath day. This is the meaning of finding God in the small moments of our lives. It is the reason that there are blessings to say before eating, upon waking in the morning, and going to sleep at night, on seeing a rainbow, upon greeting a friend that one has not seen in more than 30 days, and more. The rabbis teach that in reciting these blessings we are reminded that every moment is precious, all part of the sacred gifts of God.

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is on the executive board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a founding member of the Indiana Voices of Women leadership and spirituality group, and a writer of feminist midrash who enjoys singing and playing guitar.

Bar Mitzvah on the Brain

I have bar mitzvah on the brain.  Of course, as a congregational rabbi, I train bar and bat mitzvah students, teach family classes, counsel parents, and help guide families through this milestone on their Jewish journeys. But lately I have bar mitzvah on the brain because I am planning the upcoming service and celebration for our oldest son.  There seems to be a preponderance of articles and discussions lately about bar and bat mitzvah.  Perhaps this is just something I am noticing in the way that you notice cars when you are in the market to buy a new one, or how the whole world seems to be pregnant when you are hoping to have a baby.

I have found some positive messages, such as the nechemta offered by the author of “Dancing My Own Way”, published this month in The Atlantic. Her story was one that I growing up in the same era as the author, could relate to, even though I did not attend even close to 60 bar and bat mitzvahs in my 13th year. I was moved by Wendy Jaffe’s letter to her daughter, re-posted by one of my friends on Facebook this week, in which she lovingly explains all of the reasons that we cry at bar mitzvahs.

Less positive were some of the more controversial pieces that have appeared within the last few weeks, such as this save-the-date video.  As a rabbi and a mom, I have followed the discussions and news features on this one with interest, but in the end, I hope that for this young man, he will be able to remember his bar mitzvah not for all of the notoriety or controversy that has accompanied his save-the-date video, but for the meaningful ritual of welcome into adult Jewish life that the ceremony is meant to be.

bar mitzvah drawing imageAnd I found myself resonating with some of the messages that Alan Sufrin and Patrick Aleph call for in their ideas about rethinking bar and bat mitzvah. Sufrin talks about teaching our children to struggle with themselves and with their Judaism, and how not to see bar and bat mitzvah as an endpoint, but as the new beginning that it is meant to be.  Aleph calls for a radical shift in the way that we educate our bar and bat mitzvah students and their families and prepare them for Jewish adulthood.  He asks why we hold pre-teens to and educational standard that very few adults have achieved, and suggests that we need to re-examine b’nei mitzvah expectations and education.

I can’t stand the idea that the message for young adults today, and for their family members and guests is only about the party, such as in this montage of photographs from bar and bat mitzvah parties.  And I find it scary that there is a market out there for bar and bat mitzvah simcha speeches in which you can hire a rabbi to ghost-write the speech for the parents or even the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl’s d‘var torah.

I want my son and the bar and bat mitzvah students in our small congregation to know that bar and bat mitzvah is about preparation for a lifetime as a Jewish adult, that it’s not just an “event” that is all over by the next morning. I want my son to be part of building a Jewish community that is a place where most of these b’nei mitzvah will regularly lead worship, read Torah, and wear their tallitot after the big day is over. Not that this is all there is to becoming a Jewish adult, but these certainly are the responsibilities that a young man or woman is being prepared for.  I hope that I am able to teach them that becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is about attaining a certain level of Jewish literacy, and spiritual development, and that this is an ongoing process of Jewish adulthood.  I want them to learn and grow and question and look at the bigger picture of what they will be able to do within the context of their Jewish lives and our community. That is what it means to become a bar and bat mitzvah, and take the next step on your Jewish journey. And that is why as a rabbi and a mom, I continue to do the important work of helping young people and their families connect to bar and bat mitzvah as a time for learning, practice and celebration, within the context of a meaningful, relevant Jewish life.

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is on the executive board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a founding member of the Indiana Voices of Women leadership and spirituality group, and a writer of feminist midrash who enjoys singing and playing guitar.

Happy Birthday Women of Reform Judaism

2013 marks a significant birthday for Reform Judaism – the Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), formerly known as the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS) celebrates its centennial.

The first Jewish Sisterhood of Personal Service was organized in New York’s Reform Temple Emanu-El by Rabbi Gustav Gottheil in the late 1880s. While women now had a place in the sanctuary thanks to the innovations of Reform Judaism and the abolishment of the women’s section, women did not have an active role in the spiritual leadership and congregational governance.  Women’s groups offered leadership in religious schools, decorating the temple and maintaining the temple kitchen.  For the most part, governance positions and access to membership were not open to women until 1920 when after the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, Reform congregations began to offer formal membership to women who were unmarried or were not widows and sisterhood presidents were given the leadership opportunity to serve on congregational governance boards.

The National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS) was formally organized as a national movement in 1913 at a special meeting in Cincinnati.  Rabbi George Zepin of the Union for American Hebrew Congregations and Carrie Simon, a civic leader and Washington Hebrew Congregation’s rebbetzin, spearheaded the creation of the NFTS as a national organization, proclaiming that “that the increased power which has come to the modern American Jewess ought to be exercised in congregational life.” At the meeting in Cincinnati, Carrie Simon was elected founding president. Carrie Simon envisioned NFTS’ mission as carrying the banner of religious spirit and strengthening the congregation.  Conservative and Orthodox women, originally invited to be a part of NFTS, would found their own organizations with a decade of NFTS’s beginnings.

Sisterhoods actively assumed responsibility for many school, temple, and communal activities.  Its national committee on religious schools funded textbooks for child and adult education, were founding supporters of NFTY, our Reform youth movement. NFTS brought rabbinical students fleeing Germany to the US, raised scholarship funds for rabbinical students, and solely funded a dormitory at Hebrew Union College.  NFTS was also a founder of the Jewish Braille institute, and many sisterhood women transcribed articles and books into Braille.

NFTS leaders called for the experiment of electing women to synagogue boards; called upon its members to lead summer services in the absence of vacationing rabbis, and instituted Sisterhood Sabbath, a day when, in some congregations, women could lead the service and preach to the entire congregation. Today we take many of these contributions for granted, even as many orthodox and conservative congregations are still wrestling with and questioning the place of women in leadership. NFTS recorded important experiences in women’s participation in the synagogue —the first time a woman trustee sat on the pulpit during services, the first time a woman read scripture on Yom Kippur, and would later point to these examples of successful female religious leadership as “a revelation of what the women may do if they ever enter the rabbinate.”

Today, the Women of Reform Judaism has grown from 49 sisterhoods with 9,000 members in 1913 to more than 65,000 members in 500 affiliates in the US, Canada and twelve other countries. The WRJ continues its work building upon the foundation its foremothers started 100 years ago.

Happy Birthday Women of Reform Judaism!

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is on the executive board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a founding member of the Indiana Voices of Women leadership and spirituality group, and a writer of feminist midrash who enjoys singing and playing guitar.

An Attitude of Gratitude

When each of my sons were in 3rd grade, their classes participated in a 3rd grade school musical just before Thanksgiving.  Recently, while attending a workshop with our congregational leaders,  I found myself humming the melody and words to one of the catchy tunes: “I’ve got a gratitude attitude“, by Teresa Jennings.  I was at the Flourishing Congregations workshop, sponsored by the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. The premise of Flourishing Congregations is based on the concept of Appreciative Inquiry, that by asking the right questions and focusing on possibilities rather than problems, a congregational community will be able to see the larger picture and create energy, innovative ideas and solutions.

By asking, “What’s the possibility we see in this situation?” we find that:
what we ask determines what we find;
what we find determines how we talk;
how we talk determines how we imagine together;
how we imagine together determines what we achieve.  (Sue Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry , pages 6-7.)

By beginning with the question of “What gives life when our congregation functions at its best?”, we are able to search for the best in people, our congregation and the community around us.  Our day was a model for what we can do in our congregations by asking the right questions and using the assets that we already have.

We began the day with Appreciative Inquiry interviews, personal conversations with someone we did not know and asked questions like: Tell me about an experience in your congregation when you felt most alive, most fulfilled, or most enthusiastic about the congregation” or “Tell me about a time when you most deeply felt a sense of belonging in the congregation.” These stories helped us to uncover the positive core of our congregation’s lives and lifted up the potentials and possibilities and reminded us that in every congregation something works very well. Our day continued with “World Cafe”, a large group process where we met in successive rounds of small group conversations that created a “culture of dialogue” and allowed us to brainstorm and share ideas about best practices that work in our congregations and network to find ways we can learn from each other and/or work together in the community.   We also spent time in the process of “Asset Mapping”, using post-its and big sheets of paper as we considered what our assets, strengths and resources are and how we can match up unconnected assets to each other to strengthen our congregation and to create new ideas and new possibilities.

Not surprisingly, these resources can work well in congregational life because they focus on hope rather than dwelling on the negative, something that is the essence of what it means to be a community of faith.

Not surprisingly, also, is that in Judaism we have a Hebrew term, hakarat hatov, for this idea of appreciative inquiry, or looking for the positive, or being reminded that something works well.  Hakarat hatov literally translates as “Recognizing the good”. In other words, Hakarat Hatov is about Gratitude.  Gratitude is about recognizing the good that is already part of our lives; it requires us to think about all of the things that we can be grateful for that we already have.  No matter how hard things might seem or what a difficult time we might be going through, there is always something we can find to be grateful for.  Hakarat hatov asks us to recognize the good that we already have, to acknowledge that what we have is a gift and to be thankful for it and to give thanks to the One who gave it to us, whether the source of the gift is another person, or the Source of All, God. As Jews we start each day with the Modeh Ani blessing, thanking God for the most important gift of all, the gift of life. The short morning blessings that follow remind us to be grateful for the most basic capacities – to stand, to get dressed, to use the bathroom; all of which are the most fundamental parts of our existence and without which we would be unable to go on and do all of the mitzvot that we have the potential to do in each day.

As we approach the holiday of Thanksgiving this year, may we find an attitude of gratitude, and may we awaken each day with the middah of Hakarat Hatov, consciously recognizing the good in our lives.


Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is a member of the Executive Board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a founding member of the Indiana Voices of Women leadership and spirituality group, and a writer of feminist midrash who enjoys singing and playing guitar.

ופרש עלינו סכת שלומך

 Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha  Spread over us the shelter of Your peace

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ייְָ, הַטּוֹב שִׁמְךָ וּלְךָ נָאֶה לְהוֹדוֹת

Baruch atah Adonai, ha-tov shimcha ul’cha na-eh l’hodot. 

Blessed are you Eternal One, Your name is Goodness and You are worthy of thanksgiving.

These words form the chatimah, or seal, at the end of the Hoda’ah prayer, the second closing benediction of the Amidah (Modim Anachnu Lach). It is natural for us to go about our daily lives scarcely noticing the many blessings that we have each and every day. The words of the Hoda’ah remind us that we are surrounded by miracles and blessings – our lives, our health, our families and friends, our work in this world.  The words of this prayer remind us to pause and notice them, to take a moment and lift our eyes up to see the beauty that is in this world, to feel the sun on our face, the wind in our hair, to see the beauty of autumn’s splendid palette of colors as the leaves float down to the ground.

From the sounds of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we have moved into the shelter of the holiday of Sukkot. The Sukkah is a simple structure. It provides a shelter from some of the elements, while letting others, such as wind and rain, come in through the roof.  In the Sukkah we can see the stars. In the Sukkah we can appreciate the wonders of nature, and the fragility of life.

The sixth tractate of the second division of the Mishnah (rabbinic commentary on the Torah, 200CE) is called Sukkah.  The very first verses give a detailed description of how to build a Sukkah:

  1. It must be less than 30 feet high.
  2. The walls must be strong enough to withstand ordinary wind gusts.
  3. The shade offered by the roof of the Sukkah should be able to block most of the sun’s rays while allowing the stars to be visible at night.
  4. There must be at least three walls, made of any material.
  5. The Sukkah must be a temporary structure.
  6. It is a mitzvah to eat one’s meals in the Sukkah.
  7. While it is a mitzvah to live in the Sukkah as much as possible, you are not obligated to sleep in eat, especially in colder climates.  And if it is raining hard enough that there is more water than soup in your bowl, you may finish your meal indoors.
  8. The Sukkah can be decorated with fruits, vegetables, and art projects.
  9. There is no minimum size, but the Sukkah must be large enough for at least one person.

It is a mitzvah to build your own Sukkah and live in it during the week of Sukkot.  It’s also a mitzvah to wave the lulav and etrog, and to invite guests to join you in the Sukkah.

When we spend time in the Sukkah, we get a unique chance to experience the natural world. We feel wind and rain, hot and cold. We see the sun and the moon and stars through the schach, and as we eat our meals we are joined by bugs and bees, and sometimes birds and squirrels. We become closer to nature and are reminded of our interdependence with all that lives and grows.

Living in the Sukkah connects us to our ancestors who left the protection of secure roofs to journey forward in the time of the Exodus towards freedom. They placed themselves under God’s protection, the only true source of protection and security

ופרש עלינו סכת שלומך         Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Sh’lomecha (Spread over us the shelter of Your peace).

When we pray the words of Hoda’ah and give thanks for the miracles that we experience each and every day, we realize that we cannot take them for granted. Life is too precious, and these gifts are too important to notice them only when they are gone.  Our daily recitation of the words of the Hoda’ah can lead us to a practice of being aware and appreciative of the miracles that surround us each day, and to also make it a practice of expressing our gratitude to God and to our loved ones.

At this season of thanksgiving, we are thankful for the daily miracles that surround us each day.  As our awareness of them grows, may we be changed, lifted up, and transformed.

Moadim L’simcha,

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is on the executive board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a founding member of the Indiana Voices of Women leadership and spirituality group, and a writer of feminist midrash who enjoys singing and playing guitar.

Now Here – Being In the Present Moment

Have you ever wanted to fast forward or rewind parts of your life like you can on your VCR or DVR?  Ever wanted a button to erase something you said or did, or skip past particularly unpleasant moments of life? Sometimes, it seems like we’d be better off if we could do that.  And sometimes it’s all in the way you look at things.  For instance, the letters N-O-W-H-E-R-E can either be read as NOWHERE or NOW HERE.

In the movie “Click”, that came out a few years back, Adam Sandler plays a young husband and father struggling to climb the corporate ladder, to make things better for his wife and his family.  In the opening scenes, he shows up late to his son’s swim meet and in his hurry, mistakenly hoists a boy that he thinks is his son out of the water to congratulate him on his lap, only to miss his son’s event.  His boss threatens to give a promising account to another employee unless Sandler cancels his family’s fourth of July weekend camping trip.  And during family dinners he is reluctantly bodily present but mentally absent, his mind continually on work and tethered to the office by the cell phone in his ear. Hoping to pull off the project that will guarantee his financial success and make him partner in the firm, Sandler prepares to pull an all-nighter to create an architectural model, but first he must watch a video on Japanese architecture.  Late that night, when the TV remote control doesn’t work an exhausted, sick, and fed up Sandler heads out to find a universal remote and winds up at the only store that is open – a Bed, Bath and Beyond. There in the aisles past bath and bedding, he has a spiritual moment. Noticing a door marked “beyond”, Sandler enters and meets a mysterious man with a remote control that allows Sandler to freeze and fast forward life events seemingly at will.  Soon, when the going gets tough, he is clicking away.  But to his great sorrow, Sandler soon finds that he has clicked away the most important and meaningful moments of his life; that he was not present in the moment, but rather on auto-pilot, and he cannot get those moments back.  Rather than being NOW HERE, he has discovered that he is NOWHERE.

As I struggle to find the words to say this Yamim Noraim, my kindergartener comes over to my desk as she often does and insistently tries to gain my attention.  “Play dollies with me Mommy,” she says over and over again.  “Not now, honey, Mommy has to work on writing sermons.”  “Then will you play dollies with me?” “Maybe, in a little while I can play. Go see if Daddy can play with you now.”  After what she thinks is a little while – maybe 5 minutes, maybe 15 she comes back. “Mommy, now can you play dollies with me?”  I hesitate for a moment – if only because Barbies is not my favorite game – I always preferred playing with baby dolls or stuffed animals.  And I remember when her brothers wanted to play – trains, legos, with their dolls (action figures).  They don’t want to do that anymore.  And they are old enough to know not to bother me when I’m writing. I sigh. Recently people have asked me how this school year is going, is everyone doing well, isn’t it wonderful that they are all gone all day, aren’t you relieved to have them back in school. And the truth is, no, I’m not really so relieved.  I miss them.  Since she’s now back in school, I already miss my daughter crawling onto my lap, still sleepy, when early on Friday mornings I am studying Talmud over Skype with my chevruta partner. During the school year life is so busy and I am so busy that we don’t get to enjoy each other because we are so busy rushing to places that we need to be, and things that we need to do.  So when I can, I force myself to remember how quickly time passes.  Soon enough they will be rushing out the door to be with friends in the evenings as well as after school, they will go off to college, and G-d willing will make a good life for themselves and not move back into our home (oy!), they will be young adults leading their own lives, following their paths, creating their own families.

The High Holydays are a time for reflection, a time for prayer, and a time for being present.  This time of year is a wake up call to us to get up from our sleep, and return to our souls, to remember what is most precious, and stop living our days on auto-pilot.

And so I embrace the now and try for a moment not to worry about anything but being in the present moment.

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is the Midwest Regional Representative of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a founding member of the Indiana Voices of Women leadership and spirituality group, and a writer of feminist midrash who enjoys singing and playing guitar.

Everyday Blessings

Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, Shekachah Lo B’olamo

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has such beauty in the world.

As summer has passed by all too quickly, I have delighted in watching my three children enjoying the outdoors and the world around them.

All too often I find myself caught up in the busyness of life and forget to notice and be thankful for the many blessings that surround me.  One of the reasons I am grateful for my family is that they remind me to appreciate the many small gifts that are a part of every day.

Jewish tradition teaches us to utter brachot (blessings) throughout the day, and in so doing to live at a deeper level of awareness of experiences that we might otherwise miss.  In reciting a bracha (blessing), we invite in or recognize God’s presence in our midst. Blessings can be said in any language, and express a kavannah, an intention from one’s heart.

According to the great medieval Jewish philosopher, the RaMBaM – Moses Maimonides, there are three types of blessings:

Birchot HaNehenin – Blessings that we recite before eating, drinking, or smelling nice things.
Birchot HaMitzvot – Blessing that we recite prior to performing a commandment.
Birchot Hodaah – Blessings that express praise of God and give our thanks to God, or ask God for things.

There are traditional blessings for many of these experiences of life; you can find these in the siddur.  It is also appropriate to create your own blessing. Begin with the traditional formula: “Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe” and then continue with whatever you want to say – about your life, your health, how you are feeling, something good or bad that has happened, the world, your spouse, your children….

Reciting blessings open us to the potential for holiness in the world, and remind us that everything is interconnected, linking us to the oneness of God.

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is the Midwest Regional Representative of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a founding member of the Indiana Voices of Women leadership and spirituality group, and a writer of feminist midrash who enjoys singing and playing guitar.