Posted by Beit T'shuvah
By Matt Shapiro
With our son turning two this week, Sarah and I have begun to think about the years ahead and what they’ll look like for us, both personally and financially. One of the big questions marks, of course, is education. As two Jewish professionals, we hope to send Jonah to a private Jewish school, and also have the opportunity for him to participate in the variety of Jewish organizations and programming that have become the norm for mainstream affiliated Jews in the US. At the same time, we can’t ignore the logistic challenges this very well might present to us, given the very high cost of day school tuition, among other Jewishly-fueled expenses. How do we balance financial concerns with spiritual goals?
To further problematize the issue: yes, it’s true that most Jewish organizations have scholarships available, should we need them, and make a point to help those who may be financially at need (it’s also important to note that things are different in the Orthodox community, but I think that’s part of a much larger conversation). This potentially problematic dynamic, in which one needs to repeatedly ask for help, was highlighted for me a few years ago in an conversation I had with someone I grew up with. Though we both grew up in the affluent suburbs of Chicago, her family had come upon some tough times and was struggling. She shared with me that once her family lost their resources, they were essentially unable to be a part of the Jewish community. I attempted to make the argument that scholarships would have been available, but it was about something deeper than that. Once they were less well-off, she felt distant, apart from the other people around her. Even if they received scholarships for whatever they needed, the expectations of financial success and resources are still high, implicitly suggesting that this is what’s required to be a full member of the Jewish people.
American Jews have recently, by and large, been tremendously successful financially, and, in turn, I believe we have become desensitized to how wealth-acculturated our communities are. Many young families are struggling to make ends meet (the frequently cited thought that we’ll be the first generation to be less well-off than our parents might not end up being true, but it’s certainly possible) and tuition and program costs continue to rise. It’s no surprise then that people might very well not want to have to ask for material help just to have their spiritual needs supported. Questions can very well be asked about if day school is necessary to begin with, and perhaps there are ways to develop new, cost-friendly alternatives than currently exist. This doesn’t change the fact that we have grown accustomed to a standard of living that much of the country, let alone the world, can barely touch, which may in turn implicitly reinforce misplaced priorities.
My friend Michael Shefrin wisely pointed out that it actually costs almost nothing to be a Jew; it costs a lot to be a part of the institutions we've created. I see this dichotomy, between what God asks of us and what we set up for ourselves at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh. We’re taught that when pilgrims came to the Temple for the three pilgrimage festivals, each person was supposed to bring what they could afford. The standard was set that it was individualized, based on personal resources, not uniform, to a lofty financial standard. The opportunities are indeed there in many Jewish organizations today to recognize personal financial situations, but I also don’t think this is the only message about money being communicated. The cultural expectations we set, the way we determine what’s feasible for the population being targeted, the bigger picture goals beyond the budget: all these and more play a role in how we set financial expectations that can either bring people in or push people away. I know there aren’t any easy solutions here, and I’m not so blind as to think that no one else notices this. I do think the bigger problem is that this isn’t being addressed as a larger existential question within the Jewish community. It’s a complex problem with many different dimensions. But we can’t begin to figure it out if we aren’t even asking the question.
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July 29, 2013 | 1:49 pm
Posted by Beit T'shuvah
My True Purpose
By Joan Praver/Board Member—Volunteer
Sometimes, as I’ve aged, I’ve questioned whether I have made any contribution toward Tikkun Olam, improving the world. Being asked to be on the Board of Beit T’Shuvah has given me the opportunity to touch the psyche of many of the residents. By conducting a writing class, where they are encouraged to drop their facades, to reach deeply into their past of addictive behavior and bring some of their hidden life to the surface. I believe I’ve opened a door and touched their souls.
In this process I have grown to better understand myself and have reevaluated my contributions as a volunteer. It is said, “If you help to save one life, it is as though you have saved the world.” I make no claim to that but I do believe I have found my true purpose in having been created.
July 26, 2013 | 11:21 am
Posted by Beit T'shuvah
By Rabbi Mark Borovitz
I have been engaged in a great civil war, most of my life. I call this a civil war because it is a war I fight, or give in to, each day inside of me. It is a war for and of my soul. It is a war for living decently and doing the next right thing. It is a war for not "losing it" and becoming bombastic. It is a war for the "both/and" of life.
Last night I had the honor of leading a Minyan (prayer service) for Robert "Bobby" Rosen. Bobby was a man I knew, not a famous man, and a REAL man! He embraced everyone, didn't care about fame or fortune. He didn't care about anything except being a decent person who truly, as we are taught, loved his neighbor as he loved himself. He treated the stranger well and cared for all he encountered. At a memorial celebrating his life, in Florida where he lived, people from all walks of life attended and spoke stories of his warmth and kindness. I was reminded of my father and grandfathers and those generations of men who just embraced life and people. Bobby taught us all how to live well by the way he lived. His children and grandchildren extolled him in life and in death. They honor him by living his principles and values.
Thinking about Bobby brought me to the realization of this civil war that I am engaged in. I don't embrace everyone, unfortunately. I get bombastic and angry at people instead of embracing them. When this happens, I am losing this civil war. "But you are a Rabbi," people say to me. This is true and I am a human being. Bobby's generation, my father's generation, is/was "The Greatest Generation" according to Tom Brokaw. Their greatness wasn't in their fame and fortune, it wasn't even in fighting the Second World War. It was in treating people well. It was/is in embracing all people as human beings. It is/was in setting the standard of living well through deeds of loving kindness.
I am made small by Bobby's kindness and his example. I am very emotional as I write this. I see how I fall short and how I hit the mark; it is simple to live this way and very difficult. Bobby, my father, their generation all rebuked people who acted poorly and did it with a love that made their rebukes feel like embraces. I realize, this morning, again, how and where I fall short and I am so remorseful. I am committing to do better, to embrace more and to not worry about being right. I commit to embrace the "both/and" of myself and everyone else more. I ask you to honor this "Greatest Generation" with me by embracing life, people, God and living well one grain of sand more each day.
July 22, 2013 | 2:53 pm
Posted by Beit T'shuvah
Conducting a particular variety of creative writing, in a group setting where everyone writes and reads his or her piece aloud, can act as a catharsis, particularly when they live in a rehab and have been requested to write something truthful and revealing about themselves.
For the past 14 years I have brought in a paper that has two metaphors and five unrelated words, and asked the attendees to choose one of the five topics and create a short story, poem, or essay. I write along with them, putting myself on an equal footing, and am the last to read.
The results can be highly therapeutic. Most residents have sordid pasts that they've buried deep inside themselves and hearing the exposures of others makes them realize everyone is in the same boat, praying to reach a new destination in life where they gain self confidence and the desire to learn how to love the person they've been hiding within.
Board Member / Volunteer
July 19, 2013 | 10:22 am
Posted by Beit T'shuvah
By Harriet Rossetto
The Zimmerman case has confronted us, once again, with a basic flaw in our judicial system. “Justice” is the result of what is legal, not what is moral. Due process is not to be tainted by issues of right and wrong—this is irrelevant! I heard Justice Anthony Scalia say (with my own ears) that if someone is convicted and sentenced to die, proof of his innocence cannot be considered if due process was honored.
Ekow N. Yankah captured “The Truth about Trayvon” in today’s NY Times. Racial disparity cannot be mentioned in the court of law although it is always the Big White Elephant (excuse the racial metaphor) in the room. He points out wisely that “reasonable doubt” and “reasonable suspicion” cannot, by definition, be free of bias. Despite the legal instructions to the jury to disregard their feelings, their certainties and doubts are rooted in their conditioning and personal experiences. We are not color blind. The same evening I heard Justice Scalia say that innocence or guilt is irrelevant in a court of law, I heard Rabbi Adin Steinsoltz talk about Jewish justice; a justice that includes both mercy and morality; a justice more restorative than retributive.
There is no justice without morality, without the nuances of right and wrong. Justifiable or non-justifiable can only take place in the Higher Court. As a person of conscience, I am horrified by a system of justice where due process overrides innocence, where moral monsters escape consequence.
July 17, 2013 | 3:20 pm
Posted by Beit T'shuvah
By Matt Shapiro
Yesterday was Tisha B'Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, on which we recognize numerous tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people through the centuries. We are taught that the destruction of the Second Temple, which happened on this day, occurred because of sinat chinam, causeless hatred between one person and another. I’m hearing that message, of how destructive thoughtless hate can be, echoed loudly this week. Over the weekend, with George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, vitriol and vindictiveness are the order of the day. There are those calling for calm, but the eminently personal forums of social media enable our deepest emotions to come to the surface, and the dialogue is ugly. I feel my own desire to respond with rage and fear, the sense of helplessness fueling my desire to speak with anger.
As all this bubbles below the surface, I have an obligation to try to see my part. The words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel ring in my ears: "in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible." This quote disturbs me on a number of levels. The first is superficial, and keeps me where I already am: somebody must be guilty here! Any situation has someone who’s guilty, so we need to hold that person to the fire. But that’s not what this teaching really has to offer me, the lesson that will move me forward. What this thought teaches me is that I too bear some responsibility here. I make judgments against people without thinking, I take action without playing out the consequences, and I hold prejudices and biases that I don’t necessarily work to overcome. As long as I have these parts of myself internally, how can I expect them to be overcome on a societal level?
One of the most frequently cited commandments in the Torah is to care for the stranger, since we were strangers in the land of Egypt. If I truly care for the stranger, not just those who are like me, but also those I would be inclined to see as “other,” then my eyes can be freed from the lens of prejudice, a lesson I need to internalize. Prejudices and biases are inevitably part of how I’ve come to see the world, and this larger situation is a reminder to me of my own obligation to move from a place of fear and distrust to a place of love and acceptance. This applies even and especially with people I might initially see as different from me, “strangers.” If I can’t do this for myself, how can I expect others to do so?
This is troubling for me, to see my own internal responsibility for what I have an obligation to work on, challenges that seem difficult, if not insurmountable. In this moment, I’m blessed to remember the teaching "lo alecha ha'mlacha ligmor, v'lo ata ben chorin l'hevatel mimenah." This translates roughly to "it's not your job to finish the work, but neither are you free to ignore it." I don’t have to completely fix myself all in one day, one month, or one year. I do, however, have an obligation to take on the work, one day at a time; otherwise I’m being negligent in what I have to contribute. Each of us can and, in fact are required to, commit to do our part, the work that we each have the capacity to do. Then, we need to try to have faith that what we’re each doing is what needs to done, both individually and collectively.
These texts, and others, help me grapple with the feelings of helplessness and frustration that I’ve been experiencing when I think about these events. This is relevant Judaism, as discussed last week. It's not a purely intellectual exercise, hiding out in rooms filled with arcane books; it's not a purely "spiritual" exercise, trying to connect mystically while removing myself from the world around me. It's about both searching the wisdom of our tradition for insights that can inform the situation in which I find myself today and utilizing those resources to see how that wisdom and the corresponding actions make me a better person than I would otherwise be. It also helps immensely to see that I’m not doing this alone, that this is a task and responsibility that we all share. I still feel a deep sense of sadness over not only the verdict in this trial, but in the loss that preceded it. By bringing the Jewish tradition into the conversation and seeing how this can connect me to others, at least I have some wisdom and hope to guide my actions as I move forward.
July 12, 2013 | 11:34 am
Posted by Beit T'shuvah
By Rabbi Mark Borovitz
I am sitting here, at 2:58 a.m., and thinking about what I am going to blog about. It is a weekly exercise for me; I have ideas during the week and then they go out of my head. I ask my wife, Harriet Rossetto, for an idea and she offers suggestions, some of which I take. Today, however, I am thinking about disparate ideas and wonder why these different ideas come into my head, what is wrong or right with the way I process, see and understand the world?
This is a very deep and troubling question for me. I am constantly “on the outs” with most conventional thinking and thinkers. I am usually laughed at, ignored or vilified for my bringing together of different ideas and tying them together to prove a point (maybe it is my point, maybe it is God’s point). As I am sitting here, now at 4:46am, I realize that my “way” of thinking isn’t mine at all. It is a way that I have learned and a way that God intended.
This is brought home to me by a blog I read this week by Professor Moshe Benowitz, one of my teachers at the Schechter Institutes in Israel. Moshe writes about how we are supposed to be glad on the 9th day of Av, when the land of Israel and the City of Jerusalem are restored to the Jewish People. What a concept!! He goes on to prove his point with citations and commentary, which is, in my opinion, brilliant. Moshe defines Redemption in a beautiful way: Redemption is the restoration of the norm.
In seeing Redemption through this lens, I am able to celebrate the 9th of Av as a day of “joy and gladness happy occasions” as the Prophet Zechariah teaches us. I can celebrate, not just my sober birthday as a time of redemption, rather, my natal birthday, my anniversary, truly every day that I cause “restoration of the norm.” I think that this is why I never think that what I have accomplished is “that great” while wanting to be noticed.☺
As I am writing this, I realize that Tisha B’Av is not about destruction any more; it is about restoration and creation. I realize that my way of putting things together is my unique addition and ingredient towards restoring the Sovereignty of God in this world.
Each of us has a unique way of thinking and putting things together. We have to stop “going along with everyone else” and start to restore the Norm of God’s Sovereignty, the Norm of caring for the poor, the widow, the stranger and the orphan. We have to restore the Norm of cooperation and decency in Washington DC, Los Angeles, CA., and all points in between. We have to celebrate the Norm of Israel being a place of refuge for Jews and treat the stranger well. We have to make these celebrations happen, in our time, in our place!
We can do this, we must do this, please join me and my teacher Moshe Benowitz in celebrating Tisha B’Av as a day of restoration. The work is begun, it is not yet finished. We don’t have to finish it and, as our Sages teach, we are not allowed to invalidate the work. Rabbi Hillel said it best, “If not Now, When?”
July 10, 2013 | 1:03 pm
Posted by Beit T'shuvah
By Matt Shapiro
In Talmudic discourse, sometimes the phrase “mai nafka minah” comes up; roughly translated, this means, “what goes out from it?” As in, “this conversation is all well and good, but why does it matter?” This phrase came to mind for me in reading Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s (RSY for the rest of the post, for brevity) recent blog post about the need for an intellectual Judaism. RSY lays out an argument explicating how, though many Jews are very educated, there’s a need for more intellectual programming and teaching in order to raise the level of Jewish conversation. Though I agree that there can always be higher standards of learning, I don’t think it’s what’s primarily missing. To me, what’s missing in many Jewish communities is a sense of why Judaism matters at all and how it can enhance our lives.
Much of RSY’s argument hinges on different texts, in true intellectual Jewish fashion. Yet looking at the context of the sources gives a very different picture. By and large, the sources he utilizes are Chassidic thinkers; using Chassidic thinkers to justify the importance of intellectualism ignores what the movement was actually about. Chassidic thinkers emphasize connection with God, not dry intellectualism, though there is certainly a textual element to their thinking. Just as saying that being intellectual is critically important in Judaism ignores the larger spiritual element of the religious civilization as a whole, so too does quoting Chassidic thinkers to prove this point ignore their larger message.
There’s also an interesting quote RSY brings that, to me, proves exactly the opposite point he claims it supports. At one point, he writes, “Judaism teaches that…God desires the heart. For the heart to be pure it must be honest and critical; to dismiss big and important questions and concerns is to jeopardize one’s spiritual health." Out of all the quotes to prove why intellect is important, I’m not quite sure why this is the one he chose. It's true that the word “heart” can indicate something a bit more complicated than just our emotions; it's important to note that, at least in Biblical Hebrew, "lev," the word for heart, means both emotions and thoughts. This, to me, seems to be what we should each bring to the table, our full minds and also our full emotional experience. Furthermore, the quote we read in the first paragraph of the Shma, one of Judaism's central prayers, states, "you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might." This speaks to the completeness with which I should devote myself to truly living a life filled with Torah. It is not an intellectual pursuit, it’s a fully realized one, in which all parts of me must be unified and working together with integrity. The question then, I think, is how to bring our my self to Judaism, and in order for that to happen, I have to see a full spectrum of what Judaism is, not just one dimension of what it can be.
In my experience, intellectualism on its own doesn't work for a healthy spiritual life. What I need is relevant Judaism. Relevant Judaism, as we try to teach it at Beit T’shuvah, incorporates the intellectual tradition of Judaism, and also emphasizes the spiritual aspects of Judaism as a religion and the cultural elements of Judaism as a civilization. Judaism is so much more than just one thread in the beautiful tapestry of its history. Knowledge in and of itself is limited, and even isolating. There needs to be education not only in terms of teaching facts and texts, but education oriented to showing why those facts and texts matter in my life and how they can be applied. Judaism is not purely an intellectual pursuit. It is a religious system that must be felt and lived, uniting all parts of one's self in the service of something greater. That's not something that I can just think about; it's something I have to do. For next week, I'll follow up on this concept with one or two practical examples of how I personally try to utilize this approach. I'm not opposed to learning or to deepening one's understand of Judaism; learning Torah is one of my favorite things to do. I also know how the learning without the application becomes empty, and RSY's conclusion that “taking ideas seriously is an essential part of living a Jewish life” seems to be just part of the picture. The question of what the nafka minah, the takeaway, should be looms large for me. Yes, it's true that I should engage my minds with Judaism- the bigger question for me, each step of the way, is why it matters and how it makes my life better.