Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I was recently watching an episode of “Breaking Amish,” an unscripted show about four young Amish and one Mennonite person who go to New York to decide whether to give up the ways of their families and to become “English,” or, in the language most of us would use, to adopt the American culture instead.
I discovered this series late in its run, and became fascinated by the stereotypes and misconceptions the Amish in the show have about the rest of us. In particular, when two of them decide to get married, their Amish and Mennonite (respectively) Best Man and Maid of Honor throw a bachelor/bachelorette party, to which they invite a stripper. The Amish couple are upset, while those throwing the party seem confused.
“We thought you wanted an English wedding,” they say, “and this is what the English do. Why are you so mad?”
In contrast to my experience with bachelor and bachelorette parties, they seem to assume that all such celebrations must involve strippers. They seem to think that all non-Amish or non-Mennonite people are sexually loose. They seem to have absorbed a lot of stereotypes about American culture that may be true for some of us, but which most assuredly are not true for others.
I found myself wishing there were someone there who could point out these stereotypes to them, and say something like, “Sure, some people have strippers at these parties, but many don’t. Here are some other things people do at these parties instead.”
One of the opportunities I saw in writing this blog is to dispel some of the common myths people seem to have about Reform Judaism. For the most part, my plan – and my practice – has been to simply write about Reform Jewish life as I experience it, and to hope that by doing so, some readers may learn some things they didn’t know, and thereby learn the error some of those incorrect beliefs.
I know there are false beliefs out there, but sometimes I am still stunned when I see them. The vitriol that some people fling at the Reform movement is something I have difficulty taking in stride. A recent example of these kinds of false accusations are contained in the comments section of a recent online article I read titled, “Can Reform Judaism Get Its Mojo Back?”
One comment, for example, asks rhetorically, “Will the sect calling itself Reform Judaism survive after having jettisoned the Torah…What a silly question, why of course not!”
This isn’t the first time I have seen the claim that we have “jettisoned the Torah.” What a surprise it would apparently be to this writer to discover the many Torah Study groups in Reform congregations, the Saturday morning services in which Reform congregants read from the Torah scroll, the Simchat Torah celebrations in which we dance with the Torah scrolls, etc. And people have continuously been predicting the demise of the Reform movement in the next generation or two for a couple hundred years, yet it is still the largest Jewish movement in the US.
I actually copied a whole list of comments I could dissect here for their various incorrect assumptions about the Reform movement, and that might make me feel a little better, but I’m not convinced it would be productive.
What I take out of all this is how readily we seem to accept stereotypes and inaccuracies about the “other.” Whether we are the Amish exploring the world of the English, or one political party looking at the other, or one Jewish stream criticizing another, it seems easier to argue based on our incorrect but closely held beliefs of the other than on facts. We seem so mired in what we think we know about others that we don’t take the time to investigate what is fact and what is fiction.
How much better the world would be, if we would just step back for a moment, and make an honest effort to see each other as we truly are.
12.2.13 at 3:51 pm | Bullies can only continue to do what they do with. . .
11.27.13 at 12:00 am | Apparently, the technician gave my phone to the. . .
11.20.13 at 12:00 am | When we thank some donors at the expense others,. . .
11.13.13 at 12:00 am | Do we think the dead, like God, can hear us no. . .
10.30.13 at 1:00 am | I like to feel that, somehow, my visits do make a. . .
10.23.13 at 1:00 am | How do you determine when someone has died?
12.2.13 at 3:51 pm | Bullies can only continue to do what they do with. . . (499)
10.16.13 at 1:00 am | It can be difficult to transition from one. . . (37)
8.28.13 at 1:00 am | Or, just how hard is it to get a refund for what. . . (18)
November 7, 2012 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
As a rule, I don’t write about work. But rules are meant to be broken, and some things cannot, or at least should not, be ignored.
On Monday morning I learned that a bright, well-liked 26-year-old employee had died. She is survived by three small children. She seemed fine at work on Friday. On Saturday, she didn’t feel well, and went to the doctor. The doctor sent her home. Then she died.
It’s really hard to know what to make of this. I’ve heard it said that one must be aggressive in seeking medical attention – that if you know something is wrong and the doctor doesn’t seem to recognize it, you need to insist on getting further tests or seeing someone else.
But let’s face it. When you’re 26 years old, even if you feel bad, you don’t think you’re going to die. It’s not like she was in a car accident or something. I have no idea what felt wrong to her when she went to the doctor, or how bad it was, but I don’t think it would be right to blame her for following the doctor’s advice and going home to rest.
Nor is it necessarily the doctor’s fault. I don’t know what she said to the doctor, or how serious she thought the problem might be. I don’t know whether she died of something that is hard to detect and diagnose. I don’t know what the doctor did in order to check her out.
Although I have lead shiva services, attended funeral and memorial services, and washed & dressed dead people, this is only the second time I had to tell anyone that someone had died. The first time was after my father’s death, may his memory be a blessing, and, aside from telling my husband, I did it all long distance: over the phone or by email.
This time I had to stand up in front of a group of employees and say it in person, in public. It’s hard to know what to say at a time like that. The employee who died worked in another building, so some people at the building where I work knew her fairly well, while most had never met her. Plus, each person reacts to these kinds of things differently, anyway.
After the announcement, and after everyone had returned to their desks, I went to the area where the people who had known her the best were sitting. They weren’t working; they were talking about what had happened. The first thing I said to them was, “I’m glad you’re talking about this,” and then I joined them for a while.
If nothing else, it’s a reminder that life is short. We don’t know when death will come, or when our lives will be threatened. We don’t know when it might be dangerous to follow the advice our doctor gives us, or when the advice really is the best thing for us.
It is a reminder to show those around us how much we love them, right here, right now, while we still have the chance. Because one day, they, or we, will be gone. And it could happen at any time, without warning, and without regard to age or youth or seeming vigor.
October 31, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I recently came across an article by Sarah Sentilles called, “Rape and Richard Mourdock’s Semi-Omnipotent God.” In it, she takes Richard Mourdock to task for his statement that a pregnancy caused by rape is “something God intended.” She’s in good company there. What intrigued me about this article, however, is the focus it places on what is, or is not, God’s will.
As Sentilles rightly points out, nobody really knows what God’s will is. We have plenty of texts, sacred and otherwise, which we hope will point us in the right direction. We have thousands of years of discussion, recorded in the Talmud and elsewhere, about what we think God does and doesn’t want us to do. But nobody really knows.
Sentilles puts her finger on the pulse of the theological problem with Mourdock’s statement when she writes, “If God allows certain things to happen and prohibits others—if God intends certain things instead of others—then it follows that God approves of what God chooses.”
The logical conclusion, then, is that everything that happens, including rape, is something God approved. It makes no sense for someone who believes God has this power to pretend they can pick and choose which things that happen are God’s will and which things are not. They all are.
Many people run into a theological crisis because they believe God is three things: All powerful, all knowing, and good. If that is the case, how can God allow bad things, like rape, murder, disease, etc. to exist?
One answer to this question is that it doesn’t make sense to believe God is all three of those things. Instead, you have to pick two. If God is all powerful and all knowing, and God allows so many terrible things to happen, then God can’t be good. If God is all powerful and is good, then there must be a lot of things happening God doesn’t know about, or God would stop them. If God is all knowing and is good, then God must not have the power to stop the bad things from happening.
I happen to believe in the third choice. Maybe it’s because God gave up some of God’s power in order to give human beings free will, or maybe it’s some other reason, but I believe God is not able to stop bad things from happening. I believe pregnancies, both those that are wanted by the people involved and those that are not, are a result of biological processes, not God’s will.
This doesn’t mean God has no role to play in our lives. Even if there are many things, like biological processes, that proceed on their own without interference from God, and even if human beings (and animals, perhaps) have free will, God’s will can still influence us.
Even if God can’t (or won’t) make us do certain things or stop us from doing others, I believe God gives us hints about what God wants us to do. Maybe that tickling of your conscience when you’re about to do something wrong is God’s hint. Maybe that great idea which popped into your head was really God’s idea. Maybe the reason life seems to go easier for you when you’re on the right path is God throws some stumbling blocks in front of you when you’re on the wrong one.
So no, I don’t think it’s okay to respond to anything with, “It was God’s will,” but I do believe God is able to nudge things in the right direction. Our job, then, is to listen to that small, still voice inside us, and to act on it.
October 24, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Our synagogue is launching a visioning process this fall. We are using what looks to me like the Action Research Model. The plan is to hold a series of community conversations in which we ask as many congregants as possible what our strengths are, what our challenges are, and what people would like the synagogue to be like in the future.
The information will be gathered using the Facilitator/Recorder method championed in the book “How to Make Meetings Work” by Michael Doyle and David Straus. It’s a great model, in which one person is the facilitator, paying full attention to the group, while another person is the recorder, writing down the ideas which the group generates, using chart paper so everyone can see their ideas are being heard and captured.
It’s a deceptively simple, yet effective, model. Unfortunately, the person training the facilitators didn’t seem to recognize the importance or the complexities of the recorder role, so she spent virtually all her time walking us through the meeting agenda and training the facilitators, with only a few comments devoted to the recording role.
As a person who has experienced working with poorly trained recorders, I know this is a mistake. Poor handwriting and a poor choice of marker colors can make what is being read difficult to read. Even worse, a recorder who doesn’t properly understand his or her role can create chaos by jumping into the conversation inappropreiately, or, as happened to me once, he or she may even passively aggressively refuse to write down an idea with which they disagree.
A poorly trained recorder isn’t a disaster, since a good facilitator can overcome many of these issues, but it requires them to work a lot harder, and will likely reduce their overall effectiveness.
I believe the community conversations will be helpful, and will help build an even greater sense of interconnectedness and community. So if that is all that happens, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
Next, the data from the meetings will be consolidated into themes, then reported back to the congregation, and additional input will be solicited before a report is generated. It is a time-consuming project that is as much art as it is science. I have helped with this process in other circumstances, and it takes a big leap of faith, since I won’t be involved in it this time, to trust that those carrying it out will do it well. It is so easy to miss subtleties because we all have our own biases that we need to try to keep out of the process as much as possible.
Even more importantly, I am concerned about what will happen after the data is compiled and the report is published. At that point, we will engage in a process to make an action plan based on the information we received, and then, we hope, put the plan into action.
We went through a very similar process around community organizing a number of years ago.
After the data was presented and the initial plan was formed, communication to the congregation dropped off. As a result, even though many meetings and other action was taking place as a result of the data received, many congregants didn’t hear anything about it, and thought nothing was happening. A large amount of energy was generated in the community conversations, which quickly dissipated as the action process moved forward. We don’t want to let that happen again this time.
It will be interesting to see how the process unfolds. Stay tuned for future developments.
October 17, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I don’t remember how I heard about it, but several weeks ago I signed up for CERT training, which I just finished this weekend. CERT is an acronym for “Community Emergency Response Team.”
The idea is that, in case of a large emergency like a major earthquake, the professional first responders will need to concentrate on the big population centers, leaving smaller neighborhoods to fend for themselves for the first 4 or 5 days, until mutual aid can arrive from elsewhere. In the meantime, CERT volunteers can help take care of their neighborhood by doing light search and rescue, first aid, etc., as well as by assisting elsewhere in larger shelters or as needed.
CERT was inspired by the Japanese emergency response system. It was first brought to the US in Los Angeles, and has since spread to all 50 states, as well as a handful of other countries.
I have to say, my first impression of the training was that it was quite poor. The trainers had trouble getting the audio to work for the videos, and a couple of them admitted they hadn’t reviewed the materials they were teaching in advance. We were told the training started at 8:30, but some of the trainers thought it started at 9. The whole thing seemed unorganized.
And that was before we got to the presentation on first aid. As the EMT teaching that section moved from abrasions to things like lacerations and impalements, I felt my blood pressure begin to drop steadily. I went from sitting up straight, to leaning forward, to pushing my chair back so I could rest my chin on the table in front of me, all in an effort to allow more blood to reach my brain.
I have never fainted, but I have come close once or twice, and I know the warning signs. I thought I was going to make it through okay, though. Then he got to the part about what to do if something is impaling a person’s eye.
Now, understand, when I was a kid, I had my eyeball scratched. It hurt like crazy, and I had to wear an eye patch for a while. So I may be sensitive about blood and such, but I’m geometrically more distressed by anything that has to do with eye injuries.
Luckily, I was sitting on an aisle, so I was able to turn in my chair and put my head down by my knees. As this point, I was thinking it would probably be best if I left the room so I couldn’t hear the trainer any more, but I realized that if I tried to get up at that point, the rest of the blood would rush out of my head. There was no way I could make it to the door on the other side of the room.
I was sitting in the second row, hanging out into the aisle, so I thought the trainer, or maybe any of the other 20 or so people in the room, would notice and ask if I was okay. At the same time, I didn’t want to interrupt the training. As I was wondering whether I should say something, one of my classmates asked the EMT, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”
“No!” I exclaimed, keeping my head firmly rooted by my knees, “Don’t answer that question!” He didn’t, baruch hashem, yet still nobody, in this whole room of people in the middle of being trained to provide first aid – including an EMT, two nurses, and three nursing students – seemed to notice I was not completely well.
Soon enough it was break time. I was eventually able to move my head back onto the table, and in time I could sit up again like a normal person.
I’m glad to say the rest of the training went along fairly smoothly, and the search and rescue simulations were both fun and very informative. I think I’m going to try to take the Advanced Training on how to manage a shelter, and I’ll steer clear of the medical stuff as much as possible.
As the CERT folks say, there’s a place for everyone, and I’m glad it’s clear to me where my strengths and weaknesses lie. When the next big emergency comes, I will be much more able to be a rescuer rather than a victim.
October 10, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I have been working all kinds of extra hours, stressing about deadlines, workflow processes, what is going to fall between the cracks, how bad it’s going to be when we discover what we missed, etc. But I’m not feeling overwhelmed. Part of the reason for that is I’m naturally resilient. And part of the reason for that are the islands of sanity that keep appearing in my life.
Sometimes the island is something unexpected and spontaneous, like when I came to work on a Monday morning after working on Sunday, and found an email from a client saying, “As always, thanks for your prompt support and kind nature.” People often don’t understand what an impact a note like that can have on someone.
Sometimes the island is something planned and expected, like Friday night after services, when I went to the house of a friend and spent the evening singing with Dan Nichols and my community. It’s on nights like those that, no matter what is happening in my life, I can lose myself in the sweet harmony of the music.
When I’m lucky, I may get an extra treat like the recent Simchat Torah celebration, with kids, elders, and everyone in between dancing and laughing, hugging the torah and lifting it high, spinning and clapping and holding hands.
Or it may be what happened the other night, when I came home with a real need to speak with my husband about something I thought he might not want to hear about, and he immediately dropped what he was doing in order to attend to what I had to say.
I realize that although some of these islands may seem random, and some may seem scheduled and thus readily accessible, it’s not as simple as either of those things. I am grateful that these islands are here for me because of the community I have helped to build.
They are here, at least in part, because I have left behind people and organizations that were toxic to me, and I have added relationships that are nurturing. They are here, at least in part, because I give when I can, and, because what goes around comes around, that helps me to find opportunities to find what I need.
The islands are here for me because I live in a caring community, where we look after each other. When I hear people say, “Why join a synagogue? I’m not a joiner,” I feel frustrated. My answer is, “Because, when you find the right synagogue, it is a boat that will help you find the islands. Please don’t miss the boat.”
October 3, 2012 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Saturday afternoon my husband and I went to a friend’s house for a birthday party. While we were there, one of the family mentioned they were going to an amusement park the next day, and asked if we wanted to come along.
“I can’t,” I said, “I’m going to help build a sukkah tomorrow morning.”
“Hey,” said our friend Ruth, turning to her fiancé, “You promised you were going to build me a sukkah this year!”
For those unfamiliar with the term sukkah, it is the Hebrew word for a temporary hut or booth. The Jewish holiday of Sukkot (the plural word for sukkah) started at sundown on Sunday, and runs for a week. Among the rituals of Sukkot, we are supposed to build a sukkah, eat meals in it, sleep in it, and invite friends to come enjoy it.
It reminds of the time the Israelites lived in temporary dwellings while wandering in the desert, and reminds us of our own vulnerability. It is also a nice way to get in touch with nature, since the roof of the sukkah is covered with organic materials and is supposed to allow us to see the stars and the sky.
Anyway, a conversation ensued about how the sukkah had to be built before Sunday night, but that the trip to the amusement park the next day would preclude it from being built on Sunday. I know we’re not supposed to do any work on Shabbat, but before I knew it, Ruth’s older son was looking up the specifications on the internet, and soon a contingent had left for the hardware store to buy supplies.
While they were gone, Ruth’s younger son rushed around, gathering greenery and scarves with which to decorate the sukkah.
The others returned from the hardware store with a collection of PVC pipes and connectors, burlap, twine, a thatch-like material for the walls, and lights to string up.
“Did you make a sketch or anything?” I asked them, amazed that they could figure out exactly what was needed, seemingly with so little effort.
“No,” they said, “we didn’t need one,” as they proceeded cut lengths of pipe and to lay out the frame.
“Well,” I thought, “these guys are video game designers. They think and draw things in three dimensions all the time. That must explain it.”
That sufficed, until we got to a certain point in the construction and discovered we didn’t have enough PVC pipe after all, leading to a second trip to the hardware store.
But in fits and starts, including a break for pizza and another break for birthday cake, the birthday-party-turned-sukkah-building-party resulted in a smashing success, with enough room inside the sukkah for the whole family to eat meals, and with space for some to sleep in it if they want to.
It was a lot of fun to participate in the first sukkah building experience for Ruth’s kids and fiancé. It truly did feel like a mitzvah. Plus, now that they have all the materials, in future years they will have a sukkah to erect every Sukkot, and to which they can add additional decorations as the years go by.
May they use it for many years, and in good health.
September 25, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
During the High Holy Days, one of the words we hear about the most often is “T’shuvah.” This is the time to make t’shuvah. The Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah. Often translated as repentance, t’shuvah also means to turn, or to return. But from what are we turning, and to what are we invited to return?
As part of the Saturday morning liturgy, we say, “Elohai, n’shamah shenatata bi t’horah hi,” or, “God, the soul you have given me is pure.” In contrast to Christian theology, we don’t believe in “original sin.” We are all born with a pure soul, free of sin.
Then, of course, life happens, and we mess up. It is inevitable. We lie, we cheat, we steal. We hurt ourselves and others. We make poor choices. And, too often, we try to deny what we have done. These things may be called sins.
It is important to note, however, that although sins may be deeds, they do not constitute a state of being. Although I sin, that does not render me a bad person. It just makes me human. And, as a human, I have the opportunity at all times, and especially at this time of the year, to reflect on my sins, to turn from them, and to try to be a better person.
And if I am to be a better person, whom should I emulate? Should I try to be more like a famous person from history, such as Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Should I try to be more religious, like Moshe Rabbinu? Should I try to be more like my rabbi, Michael Lezak?
There is a story in the Talmud about a rabbi named Zusya, who became deathly ill, and then became very frightened. When his students asked him why he was so afraid, he said,
If God should ask me why I did not act like Abraham, I can say that I was not Abraham. And if God asks me why I did not act like Rebecca or Moses, I can also say that I was not Moses.” Then the rabbi said, “But if God should ask me to account for the times when I did not act like Zusya, what shall I say then?”*
Or, as the aforementioned Rabbi Lezak told us he learned on a recent retreat with the Institue for Jewish Spirituality, “I am not a failed attempt at being you. And you are not a failed attempt at being me.” The person whom we should emulate, then, is not someone outside of ourselves.
Rather, when we contemplate to what are we invited to return at the start of each new year, I would suggest that it is to ourselves we must return. This is the season during which we look back over the past year, and find the forks in the road where we chose to be someone other than our own best self. This is the time to remind ourselves, “I was made in the image of God. God made me with my own uniqueness for a reason,” and to ask ourselves, “What can I do in the coming year to nurture and to set free the pure soul God has given me?”
*Translation from Blog Sameach