Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I was catching up on reading The Forward, when I came across an article called “Shomrim Don’t Want Police to See Security Video.”
If the shomrim (the private, volunteer security force) put up private security cameras on their own dime, I could imagine legitimate reasons why they wouldn’t want the police to view all the footage. It would be a matter of privacy, and they probably wouldn’t want certain embarrassing events ending up on You Tube, such as a person walking into a light pole while concentrating on a cell phone.
Except – wait a minute – these are public cameras being installed with public money. They aren’t private, at all. And they are being installed as security cameras, to reduce crime in the neighborhood. So of course the police should be allowed to view all the footage, right? It’s all public property, put there for the public good.
But the shomrim are against it, and not because they’re afraid of non-crime activity becoming public You-Tube fodder. To the contrary, their stated reason for wanting to keep the tapes from the police is that they want to withhold evidence of crimes.
Now, the shomrim have long been accused of withholding key evidence from police, including lists of suspected child molestors. But, in the past, they have always denied wrongdoing. This is the first time I know of that they have affirmatively stated, in the press, their intention to obstruct justice.
Here is the money quote from the Forward from Jacob Daskal, head of the Boro Park shomrim, “If it’s a public thing it might hurt a person who doesn’t want to arrest her husband for domestic violence.”
I’m surprised this admission of intention to withhold evidence has not made a bigger splash in the Jewish media. Is it because they are “only” talking about withholding evidence of domestic violence? Is this a statement from the Jewish community that we think violence against women is okay, and should go unpunished?
If so, we are not only wrong, we are living in a fantasy world in which we think this is the only type of crime in which the shomrim will (and do) obstruct justice by keeping important evidence from the police. What if they held back a tape regarding a child molestation? A rape? A robbery? A murder?
What would it take, exactly, for the public to rise up and declare, “The shomrim are supposed to protect the public and help to identify and punish crime. Once they start covering it up instead, they are a menace to society.”
Why are they getting a pass on this?
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August 29, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I recently received the Fall edition of Reform Judaism magazine, and quickly came across the article, “What Do You Know…about Synagogues?” on page 10. The Editor’s note at the start of the article says, “This is the first article in a series designed to increase your Jewish knowledge in an interesting way.”
That sounded good, so I quickly began to read the series of questions. And I was thoroughly disappointed with what I found there.
Instead of a list of interesting questions that would actually have a chance – and I mean any chance at all – of increasing the reader’s knowledge about Judaism, it was instead a list of completely useless trivia questions. The kind I hate the most.
Rather than questions whose answers would help a person to learn about synagogue buildings, rituals, or life, they are mostly “gotcha” historical questions that have absolutely no bearing on Jewish life as it is lived today. What a wasted opportunity.
Then I thought, “Well, if I were going to write a quiz under that name, what would I write? Could I come up with ten questions that have some actual educational value, as well as relevance?” The answer is, “Why yes, I could.” See below:
1. What feature does a building need to have in order to be considered a synagogue?
a. A good sound system
b. A window
c. Prayer books in English and Hebrew
2. Who in a synagogue is considered to be part of the clergy?
a. The synagogue president
b. The rabbi
c. The cantor
d. Both b and c
3. Who may conduct a synagogue prayer service?
a. The rabbi
b. The cantor
c. Any knowledgeable Jewish person
d. All of the above
4. Where are the Torah scrolls kept in a synagogue?
a. The ark
b. The synagogue office
c. The synagogue safe
d. The geniza
5. Where in a synagogue are old, unusable documents with God’s name on them kept before they can be disposed of properly?
a. The recycle bin
b. The geniza
c. The ark
d. The supply room
6. What can you find in any synagogue over the place where the Torah scrolls are kept?
a. A chuppah (canopy)
b. A box of prayer shawls
c. An eternal light
d. A star of David
7. Is it proper to put a mezuzah on the doorpost of a synagogue?
a. Yes, but traditionally, only if people eat and sleep in the synagogue building
b. Yes, all synagogues should have one
c. No, no synagogues should have them
d. Yes, but only if a rabbi lives in the building
8. Is there a traditional prayer for a person to say upon entering a synagogue?
b. Yes, it is called, “The Sh’ma” and is about God being one
c. Yes, it is called, “Hinei Ma Tov” and is about how good it is to be together
d. Yes, it is called “Ma Tovu” and is about the loveliness of the dwellings of the Israelites
9. Who should wear a kippah (yarmulke) in a Reform synagogue?
a. Anyone who wants to
b. Only men
c. Only women
d. Only Jewish people
10. Who should wear a prayer shawl (tallit) in a Reform synagogue for daytime services?
a. Anyone who wants to
b. Only men
c. Only women
d. Only Jewish people
Answers: 1b, 2d, 3d, 4a, 5b, 6c, 7a, 8d, 9a, 10d
Tell me, honestly, which list, either the magazine’s or mine, do you think has a better chance to increase a person’s Jewish knowledge in a useful or meaningful way? Why isn’t the difference obvious to the editors of the magazine?
August 22, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Summer is always our busy time at work. For reasons I won’t go into here, this year it’s been even more busy than normal. I have worked into the evening more than I care to, and have even gone in on a number of Sundays.
Included in this work has been the fruition of a huge new project, some routine annual (but detailed) work, and a small crisis or three.
At the same time, I’ve been worried about one of my two cats, who underwent an ultrasound and a biopsy, and who is in the early stages of kidney problems, as well as some unexplained and possibly related swollen lymph nodes. We’re supposed to be getting new food for him from the vet this week, but twice in the last week I’ve noticed him not finishing his breakfast, which is, to say the least, not normal for him.
We spent last weekend with my in-laws and my husband’s uncle and aunt (aunt-in-law?), all of whom are perfectly nice people. However, it meant I was out of town for Shabbat. Also, as an introvert, spending so much time in the company of people I don’t know well can be a strain, even in the best of times.
And ever since last Thursday, I’ve been worried that I have absolutely no good ideas for what to write about on my blog this week.
All this stress has manifested itself in my body, including certain symptoms you don’t need to know about. I’m pretty sure that if I had my blood pressure taken, I would be severely scolded by the nearest medical professional, and perhaps offered some medication.
I know I don’t need medication. What I need is to slow down. What I need is some time for rest, relaxation, and contemplation. What I need is a space in which to remember myself and all the things I have for which I am deeply grateful. What I need is to be surrounded by a community I love, and which embraces me.
What I need is Shabbat.
August 15, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
A couple of weeks ago I was going through a presentation for a couple dozen people, and I mentioned I’m Jewish. I was surprised when the reaction included more than a few gasps. I wondered what they were thinking. This was in a city on the main freeway between San Francisco and Sacramento, so it’s not like we were in some place where Jews are unheard of.
Did it mean they had never knowingly met a Jewish person before? Were they surprised because I didn’t fit some stereotype they have of what Jewish people look, dress, or act like? Were they surprised that I would say such a thing out loud?
Needless to say, it wasn’t an appropriate venue in which to voice those questions out loud, nor to seek answers to them. I certainly didn’t (and still don’t) have a close enough relationship with them to expect entirely frank answers, in any case.
It did remind me, however, of the interesting place held by minorities whose differences are not apparent at first glance. Unlike some other types of minorities, we can – and often do – make decisions about when, and when not, to “out” ourselves. It’s one of the things we Jews have in common with those in the LGBTQ community.
I remember many years ago I conversation I had with a gay colleague, who was telling me how great it felt to be at the San Francisco Pride Parade. “On one hand, I think I shouldn’t feel that way,” he said, “I feel very assimilated, and people where we work don’t care one way or the other that I’m gay. But for some reason, it felt liberating to be surrounded by other gay people.”
I assured him there was nothing wrong with feeling that way. “At the Pride Parade,” I offered, “you know nobody’s going to ask you something like, ‘Why aren’t you married yet?’ that shows they assume everyone is straight. I feel the same way in December, when I’m at the synagogue. Even though I’m very assimilated, it’s nice sometimes to be someplace where I know nobody is going to wish me a ‘Merry Christmas.’”
Although I generally have no problem telling people I’m Jewish, sometimes it’s hard to decide whether or not to bring it up. A number of years ago I had lunch with a client in Monterey during the week of Passover. Of course, he suggested a seafood restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.
It just so happens that I’m allergic to fish. It’s God’s little joke that I’m only allergic to “regular” fish, not to shellfish. So, in a nutshell, if it’s kosher fish I’m allergic, and if it’s treif I’m not. So there I was, in a seafood restaurant, not eating “regular” fish because I’m allergic, not eating shellfish because it isn’t kosher, and saying, “No, thank you” to the bread because it’s Passover. Do I explain to the guy why I’m eating chicken, and little else, in a seafood restaurant, or do I just let it pass unless he asks?
A similar situation happened while I was at dinner as part of the interview process for the job I now hold. I was eating pasta with red sauce, and the vice president’s wife was next to me eating pasta with green sauce. “Look,” she said, “together we make Christmas!” I thought about mentioning I’m Jewish, but wondered, briefly, if it would hurt my chances of being hired. Then I thought, “If they’re the kind of company that doesn’t want Jews around, I’d rather find out sooner rather than later,” so I spilled the beans.
Her response was, “Oh, you’re in a mixed marriage, too!” To this day I don’t know whether she was referring to the fact that she’s Catholic and her husband isn’t, or whether she was commenting on the fact that she’s black and he’s white. Either way, I knew I was going to be okay.
Although I’ve had such positive experiences with “coming out” as Jewish, those gasps I heard in the training class give me pause. What do they mean? What were they thinking? Will there be a time when declaring my Judaism will result in something worse?
August 8, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
A year or two ago, the cantor of our synagogue gave a class on how to lead a shiva minyan, which is a prayer service for a person who has died. Usually, it is held in the home of a loved one. The word shiva means “seven,” and traditionally a family will observe shiva for even days, but in the Reform world, families often don’t observe the full seven days.
The class was taught in a matter-of-fact way, almost as if there’s a science to it. Since that time, I have lead several shiva services, and I’m beginning to learn that once you have the basics down, it’s more of an art.
Although we, as shiva leaders, need to know how to chant the prayers in Hebrew, it helps to be sensitive to the fact that many of the participants in the service (and we do want them to participate, not just observe), are not well versed in Hebrew. This is because, often, non-Jewish friends of the family come to the service, and, sadly, some Jews are not completely literate in regard to the prayers.
Therefore, I have learned that it’s helpful to ask a family member, before the service starts, whether they think most of the participants will know the Hebrew prayers. If not, I ask the family member their preference regarding how much Hebrew or English to use.
If it isn’t practical to have this conversation with the family before the service, I start in Hebrew. I have learned to keep an ear out for how many folks are joining in. I can then adjust, and use more English, if it would allow more people to participate.
Another thing they didn’t mention in class is that not everyone knows which way north is. This matters because when we stand and pray, we face east, toward Jerusalem. I have a reasonably good sense of direction, but if I’m going somewhere new and especially if there is a windy road, I can easily lose track of which way is which. So now I carry a trusty compass in my car, which I can check before I enter a house, so I have a good idea of which way to face.
Once I know which way is east, I know that is where I want to be during the service, with the participants facing me. This is where my training for my Master’s Degree in Organizational Behavior comes in. One thing they drilled into our heads is, “Take charge of the room.” What this means is that it’s very helpful if I can arrive early enough to influence how the room is set up, so the participants will already be facing east, if possible.
In class, we practiced saying the prayers, but we didn’t talk much about what, if anything, to say in between the prayers. That’s a skill I’m developing now. I find that when many of the participants aren’t Jewish, it’s helpful for me to explain a little bit about Judaism and what the prayers are about as we go along.
Regardless, it’s always helpful to say something about the person being mourned, especially if I knew him or her, and can say something specific. Even if I can’t, I find it’s helpful and appreciated if I add some things like, “When we say the V’ahavta and pray about loving God, you may want to think about (the name of the deceased) and how much s/he loved you.”
Then there is the part where we pause and ask people to tell short stories about the person who died. The trick here is to be comfortable with silence. Some people are shy or uncomfortable speaking in front of groups, but if you are patient and wait long enough, eventually someone will talk. Then, others will follow.
One time, I was afraid I would have the opposite problem. One person said something, which prompted someone else to ask a question, and soon, the two people were talking back and forth. On one hand, I wanted to remind them this isn’t a conversation, but one of the people was the son of the person being mourned, and I wanted to give him the space to say what he wanted to say. Fortunately, the back-and-forth didn’t last long, and then a couple of other people told short stories before I thanked them and continued with the service.
I’m sure there are plenty of things I still don’t know about leading a shiva minyan, and I bet there are more surprises ahead. Stay tuned, and I’ll let you know what happens.
August 1, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
If you asked me whether I pray, my initial reaction would be, “Of course I do. I pray at services on Friday night and Saturday morning. Every morning I say ‘Modah Ani’ to thank God that I am still alive. I pray every day.”
In a sense, those prayers aren’t my prayers. They are prayers written by other people, in another time. Sometimes, they express the things I want to express. Sometimes, they just feel like words. There a moments when the repetition of the same words feels tiresome; there are intervals when it feels comforting. And I never know when one of the “old” prayers will cause something new to pop up.
But when I go beyond my first reaction, the next thing I think about is my time in the car on my way to work. Often, I use this time to admire the scenery, to check in with God informally, and to think about what is going on in my life. This, too, is a form of prayer.
When I first got my iPhone, I made the mistake of loading it with various podcasts, and listening to them on my way to and from work every day. After about a week, I felt something was wrong. It didn’t take long for me to realize what was missing was my time of reflection and communication with God. Now, I listen to Podcasts only a few times a week.
R. Nachman of Bratslav said, “The days pass and are gone, and you find that you never once had time really to think…You must therefore make sure to set aside a specific time each day to review your life calmly.”
I need that time in the car, for my personal piece of mind, as well as in order to blog.
Since I started blogging for the Jewish Journal, I’ve gotten a number of questions about it. One of them is, “How long does it take you to write a post?”
My answer is, “It takes days; it doesn’t take any time at all,” How is that possible?
During that time in the car, my mind wanders over what has been happening in my life, and it starts to put the pieces together. Whenever I find a quiet time, whether in the car or elsewhere, I set my mind to wandering. I try not to think about writing. As any creative person will tell you, most of the work of creativity is getting out of the way and allowing the process to happen.
It takes me no time to write the blog, because, in a sense, the blog writes itself. My mind wanders, until words and phrases start to form in my mind. Then I know it is time to sit down and type it out. I do edit what I write, but the final version is usually remarkably close to the first draft, because all the work is done beforehand, in the background of my mind while it wanders.
I don’t write in order to blog; I started blogging because I was writing, and putting it up on a blog seemed like a more efficient way to distribute my writing than just emailing my pieces to friends, like I used to do.
In her book, “A Spritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey,” Merle Feldsays, “What is a prayer? A prayer is the articulation of something very particular at the core of one’s being, flung out into the universe. Perhaps it finds its mark, perhaps not. The essential thing is the articulation and the flinging.”
My time in the car and at the keyboard is my act of articulation, and my act of posting on this blog is my act of flinging. I don’t know whether this post or any other will find its mark, but it is my prayer, in all its particularity. Do I pray? Yes, I pray the prayers of others every day, and, once a week, this blog is my prayer. What is yours?
July 25, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
My father, alav hahalom, died shortly before Passover in 2011. When we learn that a close relative has died, but the person has not yet been buried, we are called an onen, or “someone in between.” Mourning doesn’t officially start until our loved one is buried, so we are in between the time when the person was alive and the time when mourning begins.
One of the reasons we Jews bury our dead as soon as is reasonably possible is because we know it’s important to start mourning. Acknowledgement of the death, caring for the dead person with respect, and a speedy burial are all part of this process. Life cannot continue for the living until their beloved dead are properly cared for.
Unfortunately for me, at the time of his death, my father was married to a woman who isn’t Jewish. She doesn’t know about our traditions, and felt no need to conform to them. Shortly after my father died, she left town to be with two of her daughters, saying she would deal with my father’s arrangements after she returned.
My father died on a Saturday morning. The following Friday night, I went to the synagogue, and the rabbi pulled me aside before services. “When is the funeral going to be?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“I’m sorry,” he responded.
“It sucks,” I told him.
“It sucks” is hardly an adequate description for what it feels like to know your father’s body is lying, alone, in a drawer in a morgue hundreds of miles away, unattended by a shomer, waiting for an undefined period of time before someone decides they’re ready to arrange for the burial.
This state of being “in between,” of my father being dead but not buried, was surreal. It was difficult for me to sleep, knowing he was not at rest. Time seemed to stretch out forever. Hours felt like days. When he was finally buried, twelve days after his death, it felt like a couple of months had passed. It was brutal.
All of this came up for me while I was watching the news about the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. According to a story on CNN, the family of Micayla Medek did not receive confirmation of her death until 19 hours after the shooting occurred. 19 hours.
I want to make it clear that this is not an indictment of any of the officials, first responders, investigators, or anyone else in Aurora during that awful time. They all had to set priorities, and, from all accounts, their actions were above reproach. They arrived on the scene within a couple of minutes, and they secured the theater. They got literally dozens of injured people the medical help they needed, and they even captured the suspect without any further violence. Those were the things that needed to happen first, and it took time. Then they turned to collecting evidence and identifying the dead, a grisly job if ever there was one.
My focus, rather, is on Micayla’s cousin Anita Busch, and the rest of Micayla’s family. Waiting for a loved one to be buried is one thing. But waiting to find out whether a loved one is alive or dead is quite another.
What must they have gone through during those 19 hours? I’m sure they held out hope the entire time that Micayla was still alive. They must have wanted to rush to her side at whatever hospital they imagined she might have been at. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to think your daughter or sister or cousin is lying in a hospital somewhere, possibly dying, and not be able to fly to her side.
But they weren’t able to do that, because they were in a terrible state of onen, of being “in between.” Their loved one was not between death and burial, she was between life and death, and her family had no way to know whether to hold hope or to mourn.
If hours can feel like days while waiting for my father to be buried, how slow must time have been for this family, as they frantically tried to find out Micayla’s fate? How surreal must it have been for them? How horrific and exhausting? My heart goes out to them, and to all the families, friends, first responders, and others who have suffered and are suffering due to this tragedy.
Now, at least, the victims have been identified, so the survivors, the families and friends, and the others involved can begin to heal.
My handy Webster’s dictionary defines “aurora” as, “A luminous phenomenon of streamers or arches of light appearing in the upper atmosphere…” May Micayla’s soul, and those of the others who died that night, be a light over Aurora during this time. May their memories ever be a blessing.
July 18, 2012 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I attended a secular summer camp as a child, and never expected to set foot in a Jewish summer camp. However, my rabbi invited me to Camp Newman last Shabbat for our synagogue’s annual visitor’s night, and it turned out to be an amazing experience.
Within minutes of my arrival, I got a taste of what was in store for me that evening. I bumped into my friend Judi and her teenage daughter, Aviva. When she saw me, Aviva spontaneously started bouncing up and down, singing the camp’s welcoming song, a version of “Shalom Alechem.”
This reception epitomizes the kind of unrestrained joy that consistently bursts forth at Camp Newman. Even the adult visitors kept saying things to me like, “Isn’t it great to be here?” and “Don’t you just love this place?”
I was a bit disappointed by the number of buildings and the amount of paving in what I expected to be more of an outdoor environment, but the gorgeous surroundings, including cultivated vines of table grapes, and what I understand to be acres of open space and hiking trails adjacent to the main camp compound, provide a good atmosphere.
Judaism permeates the environment. Campers start the day with the “Modeh Ani” prayer thanking God for returning their soul to them in the morning, and end the day asking God to watch other them at night. Throughout the day, they say Hebrew prayers over their meals. There is a large Mogen David on the hill overlooking the camp, as well as Jewish flags, mosaics, and murals on display.
These are the kinds of things one might expect at a Jewish summer camp, but the staff at Camp Newman isn’t satisfied with doing just the expected, or staying on the surface. I was quite moved when, during the service, the counselors each took out a tallit, held it over their campers, and blessed them with the Priestly Benediction. Clearly, both the staff and the campers receive something meaningful from the experience.
Song is used more effectively here than I have seen it used anywhere else. On Shabbat, campers sing during services, the staff sings to the campers as they arrive at the dining hall and as they leave, and campers sing together at various other times. It’s hard to describe the effect of all this singing to one who hasn’t seen it him- or herself, but it adds to the feeling of affection and connection evident among the campers and staff.
Camp leaders quote The Jewish Sector’s Workforce: Report of a Six-Community Study as reporting that “7 out of 10 young Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s attended Jewish summer camp.” Watching the teens singing, dancing, and throwing their arms around each other’s shoulders at the dance party at the end of the evening, I couldn’t help but think, if I had gone to a camp like this when I was a kid, I’d likely be a rabbi now. Whether that would have been good or bad for the Jews, there is no way to know.