Far Too Busy?

spinningby Rabbi Wendy Spears

The High Holy Days season is the most frenetic for rabbis as they prepare for the largest crowds of the year attending synagogue worship. In addition to writing and editing multiple sermons, rabbis are also focused on the opening of synagogue membership season. New folks are coming in the doors to check out what the synagogue can offer them, while veteran members are re-evaluating their involvement in on-going activities. As a community rabbi rather than a synagogue rabbi, I am a step removed from this although I see my colleagues trying to juggle a lot of plates.

The end of August and beginning of September is also the time many families make the transition from the relative relaxation of summer schedules to the fast-paced action of the new school year with its requisite renewal of sports practice, music and art lessons, homework, and Hebrew practice. I see many of my friends consumed by busy-ness. Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte writes about all of this frenetic activity in her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything on the to-do list completed.

Happily, I find myself in a very different place. I’ve entered a new chapter in my life in which I am succeeding in putting mindfulness into practice. I have one child in college and the other in high school. They have begun to take charge of their own activities. The hard physical work on my part of their early childhoods is completed, as is the need for constant conversation to stimulate their developing brains. I am devoting more time to my rabbinate, to my enjoyment of attending cultural activities with my husband, and to my own spiritual sustenance. I take time to reflect and be present much more in the moment. I used to admire my colleague Rabbi Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, for his ability to do this on a regular basis. As Brigid Schulte writes, “Without time to reflect, to live fully present in the moment and face what is transcendent about our lives, we are doomed to live in purposeless and banal busyness. Then we starve the capacity we have to love. It creates this ‘unquiet heart’ that is ever desperate for fulfillment.”

With Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, beginning on the evening of September 24, we have a tremendous opportunity to be present in moments of holiness within community. It is the time to begin reflecting on what we’ve accomplished and experienced this past year and to rejoice in that, while also recognizing the mistakes and hurts we’ve caused others and to make amends. I plan to read again the wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes during the many moments of silence during worship. The wisdom literature attempts to teach us how to live a good life when we know that the people and things in this life are ephemeral. Much of the literature sounds as if it was written today rather than thousands of years ago.

While many people I know complain about being too busy, I find that I’ve really stopped feeling that way and saying those words. I make time for what’s important to me, whether it’s for myself or to spend with friends and family. As I think back on this odyssey of raising my children, I didn’t over schedule them with sports, lessons, and other activities. I tried to leave them enough time to just be. Sometimes we went on field trips to explore the culture of Los Angeles. Most often, we were at home on the weekends and available to each other or to be with friends and extended family.

While it’s in my nature to push forward and get a lot of stuff done, I’ve tried over the past year to stop cramming so much into each minute of the day. Previously, I was constantly looking at the clock, trying to determine how much I could get done before the next activity or appointment. I was consistently late, and I really hate being late. This year, I’ve been a bit easier on myself and have even left some things on my to-do list undone. I’ve started to exercise again and have let go of some hobbies. I can honestly say that I feel calmer, even though my calendar of activities looks as full now as it did last year. And I feel more prepared and eager for the opportunity for spiritual introspection on these quickly approaching High Holy Days.

#overwhelmed #busy #roshhashanah #rabbis #highholydays #mindfulness

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com

Sinning Against Myself

Mirror, mirror...

Mirror, mirror… (Photo credit: janetmck)

Look in the mirror.  Look at the face that looks back at you.  What do you see?

Do you see a person

— who needs sleep?

— who needs to see a doctor?

— who drinks too much?

— who eats unhealthfully?

— who is too tired to know what she needs?

— who is depressed?

— who needs regular exercise and doesn’t get it?

— who hasn’t laughed in a month?

— who is secretly struggling with something she hopes no one else will notice?

— who needs help and won’t ask for it?

— who has been offered help but refuses to accept it?

— who is lonely?

— who is frightened about something?

— who hasn’t had a day off  in HOW long?

Modern secular culture encourages us not to take care of ourselves. We see advertisements for unhealthy foods, for “fun” gambling, for TV shows that are on late at night. We get caught up in the push for certain kinds of success. With our families scattered all over the country or the world, care for children or elders often falls on one or two family members, who get no help or relief. We avoid admitting to depression, mental illness, disabilities, because of the stigma they carry. We avoid asking for help because that would involve admitting that we need it.

These are sins against ourselves. When we fail to get enough sleep, good food, and enough exercise, we forget that our bodies are limited, that we are setting ourselves up for illness. When we fail to ask for or accept help, not only do we hurt ourselves, but we keep others from having the opportunity to do a mitzvah.

Ask: What could I change in my life so that I could get enough sleep? Help taking care of my aged parents? Help doing whatever it is I need to do to take care of myself?

Then make a plan.  Do it.

If the answer to that question is, “Nothing,” or “I don’t know” then make an appointment to talk with someone who can help you find options: a rabbi, a therapist, a counselor, a friend.  Admit how hard it’s all gotten to a person who won’t tell on you. Ask them to help you find some ways to lighten the burden.  Those ways exist, whether you can see them or not.

Make the call.  Do it.

For sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone: those include the sins against ourselves.

Someone is waiting for you, and for me, in the mirror.

Having it all

English: Fall Maples in Nara, Japan Português:...

English: Fall Maples in Nara, Japan Português: Bordo Japonês (Acer palmatum) durante o outono em Nara, Japão (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Kari Tuling

Tuesday being my day off, I took the opportunity to go pick out plants for my backyard landscaping project. I bought a Korean maple – one that looks like a Japanese maple, but with green leaves that turn rather than continuously-red leaves – and a bunch of grassy perennials. Today, Wednesday, the nursery will be delivering the tree along with 60 cubic feet of slate rock and 45 cubic feet of cedar gravel. I am going to make a Zen-garden-like dry riverbed that winds through a grassy flowerbed. Because I like to dig.

Tomorrow, of course, I will return to the office and do all the usual rabbi things: teach, attend meetings, set up events in the community, write a sermon. I am hoping that I might have a break in between meetings and picking up my son from school to dig a very big hole for the tree – but the project could end up waiting a few days if something comes up that demands immediate attention. Even so, I am not worried; now that the High Holidays have passed, I should be able to get back to it.

My life here is like that: an intermingling of rabbinic meetings and hole digging; of representing the Jewish community by giving a prayer at the Kiwanis club meeting and then being a mom while explaining the High Holidays to my son’s teachers. In a town of this size, my full persona is on view: not just my congregation, but also the whole community knows if I walk the walk.

Lately we have seen much in the way of discussion about women and having it all. There are genuine problems facing women who wish to take on challenging, interesting, and high-paying positions. The assumptions surrounding these positions are built up around the assumption of a worker who can commit everything to his or her position, relics of the days when positions were rigidly assigned by gender. Really, we could choose to structure these things differently. It is not necessary to insist that only people who work incessantly can be successful.

And there are those folks – there are many in my generation (Gen X), for example – who choose walk away from these assumptions, wishing to find a different path, one that is more humane in its structure. But that act of walking away is seen by many as a loss, as a less-ambitious approach to a career. It appears that there are no paths back to the fast track once you make your exit.

But is it necessary to define success in these terms and these terms only? What about those careers where the human touch is most valued? What, for example, qualifies as a successful rabbinical career?

One known and accepted career path is to take an assistantship at a large congregation right out of school, then move or get promoted to take on an associate rabbi position or a solo position at a mid-sized congregation, and keep moving up in size and scale until the summit is reached: senior rabbi in a truly large suburban congregation. A select few then move on to accept national positions within the movement itself, which is no small achievement.

Once upon a time, of course, all of these positions were held by men who were the primary wage-earners, who were married to women who was the primary home-keepers. So, much of what constitutes success in these roles is defined in those terms: success is measured in the size of the congregation, the size of the paycheck, and the size of the community. Bigger, of course, is better.

Similarly, rabbinical job listings are posted by size: to apply to congregations of X size requires Y number of years of experience.  As the congregation gets larger, so does the number of years required. It is indeed a convenient way to organize the information. But perhaps it also gives the impression that one should necessarily move up in size as one gains in experience. To choose to be small – would that not indicate a less-ambitious path?

If measured solely by size, then I suppose my current position could be viewed as ‘less than.’ I am in a small town, with a small congregation. Our school is small, our building is small, and our budget is small.

But that kind of assessment misses so many things. Specifically, it misses that this congregation has an active, educated, and involved population that gives the rabbi respect and autonomy. It misses that this congregation sits next to a major university campus, and that ideally the rabbi here should be willing and able to engage in genuine and sustained academic study. It also misses that this particular position requires that the rabbi be a community rabbi in the fullest sense – that is to say, the rabbi must be fully comfortable with the pervasiveness of the role itself, and that role requires a lot of emotional intelligence and interpersonal poise.

And it misses that this position offers extraordinarily rich non-monetary compensation in the form of time and flexibility.

In other words, I don’t just get to be a rabbi; I get to do that while also having time to think. And, of course, time to dig up my yard.

I have not always taken this view. At one time, before I became a rabbi, I had the impressive title (“Senior Manager of Marketing Communications”) and the impressive car (BMW 318ti) and the impressive address (Laguna Niguel, California).

Yet somehow, in this most lovely small town with a long winter, I feel so much more successful here. Why? Because I am living on my own terms, according to what it is that I value most: I have found a position with time to think, time to be involved in my family life, the opportunity to really make a difference in a community, and the opportunity to write.

Impressive? Perhaps, perhaps not. Satisfying? Yes, in the deepest sense.

Rabbi Kari Tuling serves a most wonderful small congregation in Plattsburgh, New York, where she is also working on her dissertation, learning to play piano, and digging up her backyard lawn. Not necessarily in that order.