The Power of Achshav

Screen Shot 2020-05-15 at 2.41.48 PMToast Shared at Class of 2020 Virtual Hillel Toast

It’s so special to be with you today.  And I do mean WITH you – all of our team at Hillel is behind you.  We support you.  We’re as proud of you as we would be if we were all squeezed in the townhouse together.  WE. ARE. WITH. YOU. – and I don’t want you to forget it as you venture into this uncertain world.

Last Saturday night, my husband and I attended our first ever Zoom Bar Mitzvah party.  I honestly had limited expectations – and dare I admit, was a bit excited to get it over with so I could watch TV mindlessly on the couch.  But after spending an hour honoring our friend’s son, I put away the computer with a deep joy in my heart.  The parents of the Bar Mitzvah had made a very clear choice – this would not be a sad moment to act as a placeholder for what could have been.  This was a celebration of intention, rid of all the excess things that aren’t all that important.  Grandparents reflected on their deep pride in the Bar Mitzvah boy.  Parents shared pictures of 13 treasured years watching their son grow.  Friends shared their musical talents as we collectively left Shabbat with Havdallah – a marking of time that feels more precious these days when one day seems to blend into the next.  There was a happy surprise, a fab DJ, and I danced my heart out for the three songs that blared through the computer screen.  I’m sad to report I was not chosen as the winner of the dance contest, but I still finished the night with a smile on my face.

Why do I share this story with you?

I know there is grief in this moment, a loss of an opportunity to be with one another on the mall this Sunday.  Every house in America feels some sense of sadness – whether a lost job, lost precious moments as grandchildren grow and can’t hug their grandparents, so many layers to this moment.  I lose the chance to tell your families, face to face, how much I adore you.

But like the Bar Mitzvah, I hope you’ll make a choice this weekend and for the weeks to come as we all navigate this moment in history.  You can choose to view this moment in your lives as an offramp to the highway, or you can choose to view this moment as the highway itself.  This may feel like a pause, but THIS. IS. IT.  Life is messy and all the accolades in the world don’t speak truly to a person’s resilience.  My staff knows that when I hire employees, I rarely do it based on their resumes – I do it based on whether I want to hang out with them.  Are they kind?  Are they curious?  Do they listen closely to what the world is trying to tell them?  There is no pause in being the best person you are called to be.

I’d like to call this – the power of Achshav – NOW.  In parshat Re’eh, which we’ll read in a few months, the opening verse states: ‘Behold, I place before you TODAY, a blessing and a curse.’  HaYom Bracha – Rabbi Isaac Bakhshi noted the placement of these words side by side is no accident.  TODAY, ACHSHAV, NOW is the blessing.

You have spent four years with so many distractions.  Texts & TikTok, Blackboard & BS.  But I’ve noticed something magical happening in the last weeks.  Students are answering emails.  They are picking up the phone on the first ring.  They are present and ready to connect.  HaYom Bracha.

GW has taught so many of you to leap and strive.  More on that resume!  More on that social media feed!  More networking!  But I believe this is not what the class of 2020 will be remembered for.  You, my friends, may just be the leaders of the next generation that redefines what MORE means.  More deepened relationships.  More thoughtfulness about the person you want to be and the values you want to hold. More time spent on the things that are important.  More willing to spend less on STUFF and spend MORE on tzedakah and equalizing the great disparities in this country.  Today is the blessing – and you have all the skills you need to do good things – not “when normal returns” but ACHSHAV.  TODAY.

All of us at Hillel could not be prouder of you – and as always, know you’ll always have an open door and open hearts waiting for you in Foggy Bottom.


Me & Ben & Choices (Yom Kippur Remarks || 2019)

This past year, I started a love affair with a man who isn’t my husband.

We have a lot in common. We went to the same summer camp. I spent a summer in Israel with his sister.   His family is deeply invested in Jewish values and supporting the wider Hillel movement. He speaks often about Jewish topics, his memories of a vibrant Jewish childhood that shaped him into the man he is today.

But our love affair – like so many – is complicated, with a few bumps in the road. For one – I’m married and he happens to be interested in men. He’s a famous Broadway star, recording artist, one award away from a coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) – I’m none of these things. We’ve never actually met, other than the evening on the Upper West Side a few months ago when we ended up together on the southeast corner of Amsterdam and 72nd Street. I tried to talk to him – about real things, like these aforementioned commonalities – but he was on the phone and likely fearing an attempt from some silly fan wanting a selfie – he brushed me off. We then awkwardly walked a few blocks together until he turned towards his destination and left me alone.

Tonight, I’d like to talk about Jewish choices. My love and I – I’d like to reflect on two of our choices made this year and what they have me thinking about as we consider our own choices, this Yom Kippur.

Last Spring, I found out this love of mine – let’s call him Ben – was coming to play a show in DC. In an absolutely bashert, meant to be kind of way, the show was on my birthday. The only wrinkle in this beautiful series of events was that the show was on Saturday night, starting a solid 45 minutes before the end of Shabbat. As I don’t travel on the Sabbath, I had a conundrum on my hands – should I go late? Should I not go at all?

Because I have the best husband there is, who was mostly sick of me fretting over this decision – he bought me tickets the day before the show. I did a lot of homework on the venue and their typical setlist routine, anticipated two opening acts, figured I would arrive just in time for Ben to sing, and fate would be on my side. Instead – long story short – we got there after his singing began, couldn’t find our seats, and thus ended up in the last row of the third balcony.

I’d love to tell you none of this mattered – that the show rocked my world, that I got lost in the music, that I didn’t care about my seat or shortened musical experience. But I’d be lying. I was bummed. I was distracted by the bar lights immediately behind us, by the ambient noise as people walked past to the bathroom.

I made a Jewish choice. Was it the right one?

The second choice made was Ben’s. Following this successful concert tour that swung through Washington, one last date was added. It was set to be the biggest musical audience of his career, bringing him back to one of the preeminent stages of the world – Radio City Music Hall – his first time back since winning the Tony there. The date? September 29th, the first night of Rosh Hashanah. Huh? Rosh Hashanah? My menschy boy, who goes on national television and repeatedly says he is looking for an NJB – a nice Jewish boy. Ben, who speaks in his shows about his trips to Israel, his family’s Bar Mitzvah revues, shiva for his grandparent?

Ben made a Jewish choice. Was it the right one?

This has all had me thinking a lot about the nature of choice in these ten days between Ben’s show and this moment. I’ve been pondering three aspects of our choices – first, the impact choices make on us personally, secondly, the impact our choices have on others, and finally – the complexity of us all as whole beings in possession of a multitude of choices.

First, let me say – I love Ben. I really do. I’m not here to judge him and I hope you aren’t here to judge me. I’m sure some of you might scoff at my Shabbat choice – why waste money on that ticket if you are going to miss half of the show? You spent 96% of the day in compliance with Shabbat – you can’t ‘cheat’ for 45 minutes? And as a Hillel professional, can’t I see that Ben might find a show a deeply spiritual experience? Despite my best googling attempts, I don’t know of Ben’s exact words at the show. But if I was a betting woman, I’m guessing Ben shared Rosh Hashanah memories and wished all a hearty Shana Tovah. I know my Ben.

We each make a series of individual choices everyday. Some are easier than others. Suzy Welch, an author and business journalist, speaks of the 10-10-10 rule she uses when making her own. How will she feel about the consequences of her choices in 10 minutes? In 10 months? And in 10 years?

On the surface, this is a straightforward exercise but I actually think it’s harder than we think. A student asked for my counsel last week on whether he should go to work on Yom Kippur at his new internship – he wanted to make a great impression and really cared deeply about the professional value in the experience; he wanted me to tell him what to do and I wasn’t going to do so. I asked him to apply the 10-10-10 rule. He felt that he may feel guilt in the short term, but in 10 months or 10 years, it wouldn’t matter that he missed services. But we flipped the rule to think about the long-term of the job – will the internship have any less weight on his resume, in 10 months, if he doesn’t show up on Wednesday? Will his employer remember him as a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ intern as a result of his choice made on Yom Kippur?

When we make choices for ourselves – me going to the concert, Ben holding a concert in the first place – we often get stuck in the short-term. My birthday, my bank account, my love of an album just released. Ben’s rocket ship that is currently rising to fame, his fear that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity may not be here tomorrow.

But taking a deep breath and sitting throughout Yom Kippur with the long-term impact of our choices is an exercise I’d charge us to all take on in the day to come. Which of your values are clearer when you view them played out across the months and years ahead? What is truly important in your life – and what just won’t matter tomorrow?

While individual choices like these are undoubtedly important, I’ll admit that what most captivated me about Ben’s Rosh Hashanah show was not the choice of an individual entertainer to entertain – but of the many who would be prompted to join him. Where were they not, because they were there? What family recipe was missed, what meaningful moment with a grandparent, what quiet moment denied because like me – they love Ben and wanted to see him rock Radio City?

Jewish texts and history are filled with such examples of the impact one choice has on a multitude of others – Eve chose to eat the apple, Adam chose to blame her, and our time in the Garden of Eden ended. Miriam chose to send her brother Moses down the river, Pharoah’s daughter found him, and the ripple effects of the Passover story were felt for generations to come. Oskar Shindler felt the need to help others – and stories of Jewish life for some families were saved and shaped. Whether we like it or not, our choices impact others.

Dr. Erica Brown recently shared with me the story of Yasha the Magician, told in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘The Magician of Lublin’. The short version of the long story is that Yasha went out into the world and made a series of poor choices – he cheated on his wife, he lied, he stole. To make up for the error of his ways, he decided to build himself a tiny space – not even big enough for a bed – and to stay within it for the rest of his days. In doing so, he was isolated from making more mistakes and thus, his poor choices couldn’t negatively impact others.

Some might certainly view this as admirable. After all the pain Yasha had caused, wasn’t it good to not cause pain anymore? But if you’re like me, I thought this was a very sad story of a likely lonely man. Making choices that impact others is a reality of our daily lives – should we shy away from this fact or do the work required to own this truth?

We will beat our chests repeatedly over the day to come, reprimanding ourselves for all we’ve done wrong this year that has negatively impacted others – we’ve lied and we’ve cheated and we’ve been afraid of ‘the other’. I’ll admit I’ve never bothered to look beyond this reading of Al Chet – it’s an act of apology and of teshuvah, aiming to return to our best selves.

But the blessing of Yom Kippur is not just the chance to stop the negative but to affirm the positive. When I don’t lie, what truth can I tell to another to help improve their lives? When I don’t cheat, how might that make way for someone who honestly has striven to do their best?

This Yom Kippur, how can we not merely apologize for how our choices negatively impact others, but to affirm that we have the chance to make choices that can bring light and joy and goodness to the world?

Finally, I’ve wondered about Ben’s concert choice in light of how I feel about this love of mine. Is he not my guy anymore? Am I bumping him off my Spotify playlist, not tuning in to every Today Show interview he does anymore because of a single choice he made?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a judgmental woman living in a judgmental society.   I put people in boxes – I like you or I don’t. This Supreme Court decision is right and that one is wrong. This political party is my party – that one is not.

But what does it mean to re-frame our judgments of the whole into a judgment of individual choices? Google tells me that it’s estimated each of us makes 35,000 choices a day! What to eat, what to wear, what to watch, how to view another, what concert to attend or to host. I challenge you to agree completely with your best friend or favorite political candidate on 10 choices they have made, much less 35,000.

As a mother, it’s easy for me to grasp that the judgment of character and the judgment of choices must not be confused.   When my child misbehaves, I have become an expert in saying – I love you but I don’t like the choice you just made. And yet, I think we have a much harder time doing this with one another.

Rambam envisions our lives as a series of choices, being weighed on a scale of good and bad, of justice and mercy. We do not know the nature of how G/d is judging the multitude of choices we’re making every day. Does one good choice outweigh ten bad ones? Do I need to make 100 tiny good choices to outweigh the one massive poor choice I made 10 years ago?

In a beautiful reading of this unclear balance of the scales though, Rabbi Elazar says:

He hides away some sins and does not put them on the scale, allowing the merits to outweigh the sins. Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Hanina, says: He lifts the side of the scale that holds the sins so that the merits outweigh the sins.

In other words, on this Day of Atonement, we do not fully understand the nature of the judgment of our choices. But we are led to believe in this commentary, that G/d is forgiving – that each day, our 35,000 choices are weighted against one another – and then we’re given the benefit of the doubt, the little extra finger lifting up the side of the scale that lets us be viewed more favorably.

What does it mean to look upon others – and ourselves – with the same sense of loving-kindness? It’s easy to say – I don’t like Ben anymore because of that one big public date on a calendar. But Ben made a lot of decisions that day, and the days before and since. He’s a human being and so am I.

The world feels enormous to me most days, filled with endless choices. Should I finish up with this email at work or hurry up to pick up my kids? Should I put this apple peel in the compost bin or cave into my laziness – because will it really matter anyway? What should I think of the white policewoman who killed the black man eating ice cream on his couch, the hug that came afterwards, how it all relates to the inordinate number of incarcerated black men in America? How should I consider impeachment – is it good or bad for this country? Was Demi Lovato’s visit to Israel a publicity stunt or good for the Jewish people? Is giving tzedakah to a gun control organization enough to make sure Pittsburgh or Christchurch or the shooting at the Walmart in Texas will never happen again?

I am but one mind and one heart in a sea of uncertainty. I approach Yom Kippur with a deep sense of how little I am in such a big world. But I believe in a G/d who is merciful and in turn, I must be forgiving of the poor choices I made this year and forgiving of the choices of others that I didn’t agree with. I must strive to not see others as good or bad, to not see myself as good or bad, but to view each of us as complex beings made up of endless choices, all of whom are trying to do the best we can with the day we’ve been given.  We will not get all 35,000 of our daily choices right today or tomorrow or the next – but the act of repentance and teshuvah, the cycle of our lives dictates that we must keep trying to get more right than wrong.

In the words of my love Ben, in his hit song “Hurt Me Once”, ‘You have all these choices.’ This Yom Kippur, may you think about how you can make good ones. May you know the challenge – but also the power – of how your choices can positively impact others. And may you be forgiving – of yourself and of others – for the wrong choices we have all made this year and hold great hope for the chance to get them right in the year to come.

G’mar Chatima Tovah

Rosh Hashanah Remarks 2019 || 5780

applesHello.  My name is Adena, I’m the Executive Director at GW Hillel, and I’d like to formally invite you to join us for Rosh Hashanah!

Yes – I know what you’re thinking?  Invite you to Rosh Hashanah?  But you’re here already.  My team and I have collectively, hopefully, invited you 10 times already – multiple Instagram posts, emails, streetside conversations.  But in preparing for the holiday, over these past long months of summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about what an invitation Rosh Hashanah itself really is.

The summer for me was a deeply challenging one.

Professionally, I’ve been lost in the land of concrete, sub-contractors, and fundraising as we tore down our former home at 2300 H Street.  I’ve gone back and forth between feeling a deep sense of confidence and a deep sense of doubt – what am I doing here?  Am I doing a good enough job for our students?  Are we building the community of radical hospitality that we seek to – and will a physical space help us to do that in a more impactful way?

Personally, it was a summer of many sleepless nights.  This is my sixth pregnancy – and for those who know me, I only currently have two children.  I was incredibly nauseous from the start.  And I realized, once we heard that this pregnancy was a healthy one, that I’d barely taken a deep breath all summer.

So in the midst of all of this internal struggle, I often turned to the best, most thoughtful and inspiring teachers I have – my six year old daughter, Layla – and my three year old son, Oliver.  I noticed something I had never fully noticed before about how they respond to compliments.  They take them.  With gusto.

I’ll say: ‘Layla – that was such an incredibly good question you asked.’

Layla responds:  “Yes it was.  I know.”

I’ll say:  ‘Oliver – wow, that’s a very impressive tower you just built.’

Oliver responds: ‘It’s very tall.  I know.’

Mommy: Wow, that outfit is awesome and so sparkly.  I love your sense of style.

Layla:  I know.  I look great.

These moments of pure, unabashed confidence always catch me off-guard.  But why?  I’ve come to the realization that I notice them because I’m surrounded by growns-ups all day and I rarely hear these grown-ups do the same.  Compliment a college student on their bright thought or great attitude.  “Oh.  Thanks.” – they will reply.

I also noticed this phenomenon last year at a women’s luncheon for Hillel professionals, held not long after I took the job here as Executive Director.  Somewhat hesitantly, I was sharing how proud I was of myself with a very small group of peers.   Excuse my French – but I’m a badass, I said!  I’m balancing motherhood and learning to raise money, and stretching myself, and I’m a good wife and sister and daughter and neighbor!

A few moments later, another woman in a very similar stage of her career said to me – I wish I could talk about myself like you just did, Adena.

When is the moment when we change our ability to take praise so purely?  And why is this particular version of humility so prized?  And what does it all have to do with Rosh Hashanah?

I’ve pondered these questions and have many hypotheses.  Perhaps we are uncomfortable with overt ownership of our strengths, as we’re thirsty for a counterbalance in our lives.  We are also empathetic beings – if we are high, does it mean others must be low?  If we are too proud of ourselves, do we lose space to also be humble?

As it’s so prone to do, if we only look a bit, Judaism offers insights and a hypothesis of its own.  I think we’re told not once, but TWICE in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy that not only do confidence and humility NOT have to compete – but that one is needed in order to lift up the other.

One presentation of this can be found in the ritual of reciting Selichot.  For those unfamiliar, Selichot are certain prayers and poems often read in the days leading up to this holy season of introspection.  Picture them as many training runs as you prep for your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer marathons.  They are evening invitations to get yourself in the headspace of the holiday.

My husband, Josh, remarked on one he had read the other night – Machnisei Rachamim – that says the following:

  • Propagators of prayer, Make our prayer heard.
  • Presenters of Tears, Put our tears before The King who gives into those tears.

I’ll admit when he first shared this, my inclination was to be mad at G/d – who are you?  You invite my prayers so you can hear them?  You help me to cry so I can cry before you?  Why not just help me skip the pain in the first place?

Example two is laced throughout our services this season.  G/d is portrayed as a father and a king, a G/d of judgment and a G/d of mercy.  Huh?  My own dad is a comforter and not a ruler from on high.  My dearest loved ones don’t judge me – they see me with mercy and love me for who I am.

So what is the invitation of Rosh Hashanah? How do these examples answer our question of confidence and humility?

When you dig into both of these examples, you realize they present a yin and a yang of sorts. America may be polarized these days but the reality is, our whole lives are filled with grey spaces. Blacks and Whites are forever mixing together in the holy messiness of our lives.

I know that the challenge of building our new home at 2300 H Street – a planning process that by my estimates is going on its TENTH year – will make the moment all the sweeter when we finally open our doors. The struggle has helped us to clarify the value of home. With so much time to plan, we understand more fully the need for our community to welcome one another with open arms, to think critically together on how we will exercise our Jewish values in the world.  I will have personally learned far more about the professional, the giver, the asker, that I want to be, than had someone just handed me the keys to a new home. My great pride in opening our doors will be enhanced by the humility I also feel at how long it took to get there. Confidence and humility – lifting each other up.

And I tell people all the time that I would never wish my journey to motherhood on my worst enemy – it has been a painful one, filled with deep bumps in the road and the worst days of my life.  But never have I wanted to trade it.  My adoration of my children, my sense of priorities, my best mothering moments can be attributed to the pain it took to get here. I am a great mom to my kids because I am a mom who has been humbled by the process of becoming one. I am a confident mother AND I am a humble one.

The real invitation this Rosh Hashanah offers is to allow our confidence and humility to co-exist. If we only cried without someone to comfort our tears, we’d struggle daily. If we were only shown mercy, would we ever try to improve ourselves?  We are invited to recognize that confidence does not have to come at the expense of humility – nor does humility have to come at the expense of confidence.   To be the best person we can be requires us to have both, sitting side by side in our hearts.

This Rosh Hashanah, I invite you to think about your year and be kind to yourself.  Tell yourself you are awesome.  Recognize the hard and holy work it took to be YOU this year.  Take a compliment – you DO look great!  That was an awesome question you asked!  You worked so hard on that project and it shows!

AND – not BUT – be humble.  Be grateful.  There is more work to be done.  Someone beside you tonight is lonely, missing home, and could really use a smile and hello as you leave this room.  Deeper kindness can always be extended from you to others, more mitzvot waiting to be done.  There is a global issue – climate change, prison reform, immigration, SO. MANY. ISSUES. – that need you working a little harder to make change today than you did yesterday.

This Rosh Hashanah, pray with your might and know your prayers can be answered.  Cry through your pain and know that G/d can take your tears.  May your confidence grow and may your humility be plentiful this year.

Shana Tovah.

The Power of the Pinch

I spent Friday night with some powerhouse women.  We thought critically about who we are.  We spoke about trusting our guts, having confidence in our values and the communities we seek to be a part of.  Grape juice flowed, challah abounded, and heartfelt wishes of ‘Shabbat Shalom’ were shared.

I spent Friday night at sorority recruitment.

These two sets of statements may feel at odds with each other but in fact, they were perfect partners, layered one on top of the other.  Each week, I connect with community members on the deep equation we are always trying to solve at Hillel – how do we best meet the beautiful challenge of supporting students in the moments they are encountering (politically, spiritually, stressfully) with the deep Jewish values they all hold to be true.  When we do the math correctly, the solution is astonishing; I was blessed to see this in action on Friday night.

I have spent my college years and career at urban universities, admittedly sometimes struggling with the Greek life system.  The social worker & mother in me believes in the product but not always the process.  But on Friday night, I felt magic.  During the break from rush, I was enveloped in a swirl of black shirts, hundreds of women taking a breath from a whirlwind of conversations.  I walked from one group to another and caught woman after woman off-guard; they were lost in a moment and I interrupted the moment with Shabbat.  But instead of annoyance, I was greeted with gratitude.  Yes, it is Shabbat!  Yes, Shabbat belongs to me!  Each took a small pinch of challah, an act of radical intention packaged in a small bite.  Intention – whether around stopping one’s life for 25 hours for Shabbat or 25 seconds – is a powerful force we all possess.

How can we all bring a metaphorical pinch of challah into our lives, pausing to recognize our values in life’s hectic moments?

A Charge to Dwell

(remarks from Pittsburgh Memorial Gathering)Community Vigil-Square

I’m so thankful to be a part of this GW community today. I’m so thankful to be a Jew.

I sat at my computer screen last night and stared blankly at the white space before me. What does one say at a moment like this one? I don’t know what to say to my children, too young to fully understand what’s going on and yet inheriting this world we are shaping for them. I don’t know what to say to my youngest brother, a reporter in Pittsburgh who held in tears all day yesterday as he tried to tell the stories of others. And I will be honest – I stared at the screen and I didn’t know what to say to you.

But in the few short moments I sat there, I kept getting interrupted. I was interrupted by my colleague, Meraj, who supports the Muslim students here on-campus; he shared, ‘This Must Stop.” I was interrupted by my colleague Maryam who had joined us at what I believe was her first Shabbat dinner, on Friday night; we couldn’t fathom the contrast of our beautiful Friday evening with the next morning. I was interrupted by Jordan in the Diversity and Inclusion office checking in to send love, by my old neighbor Nadine who moved to Boston and had been thinking of me all day, by my community rabbi and our own Rabbi Dan Epstein, who were busy organizing a bus to Pittsburgh tomorrow.

These interruptions of our lives are missed if we aren’t paying close enough attention. All around us, people are good. People are reaching out, people are showing empathy. I don’t know the right words today, but I do know this.


When I was an undergraduate like most of you, I was on a Jewish journey of my own. For my senior thesis, I studied the Jewish community at NYU and I came across a model from sociologist Robert Wuthnow of dwellers and seekers, a model I’m guessing likely applies to all faith communities and not just my own. Dwellers go to synagogue because their parents went and their grandparents went and that’s what you do – you go to synagogue. Seekers are on journeys – they are thirsty for a connection with G/d, they want the magic and the meaning of religious and spiritual life.

Seekers may often get the glory and glamour, but dwellers keep the Jewish wheels turning. They plow the fields, they keep our Etz Chaim, our Tree of Life, alive and well. Dwellers show up to synagogue on time.

When I looked at the list of loss yesterday, at these holy Jews who are no longer with us on this Earth, I thought to myself – I know these people. I may have never met them, but I know them – and I know you know them, too. They are the people who make up the fabric of your childhoods, who offered you lollipops at synagogue, who know your parents and doted on you even if you barely knew their names. They are in the corner of your eye when you engaged in Jewish life, they were sitting at your Bar or Bat Mitzvah service even if they weren’t at the party. They dwell so others can seek, entering into a Jewish contract that we are all a part of, whether you know it or not.

Can we think of a way to dwell in the months to come, to honor them? Can we seek out a tradition, a value of Jewish life – to light candles, to ask questions, to raise our voice in pursuit of justice, to mark a holiday we may not have marked before? Can we double down as proud Jews since they are no longer able to?

Today, we dwell together. Tomorrow, may we continue to dwell, too.


The Cycle of Fewer Sorries

thank you(Yom Kippur Remarks: 2018)

Two years ago, some of you may not have been lucky enough to catch GW Hillel’s World Debut of our take on Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”. Besides sharing my name – Adena BIEBER Kirstein – with the Biebs, I also share sick beats. In another life, I dreamed of being Lauryn Hill, bringing my soulful rhythms to a global audience. Instead, I became a Hillel Director, an excellent second choice if I do say so myself.

For this video, our Hillel staff team dressed in neon colors and lip synced to Justin’s hit song, right in time for Yom Kippur.   For those of you not well versed in Top 40 hits, in short, the song has Justin pondering whether it’s too late to say sorry.

Two years later, I’m here to tell you change is possible. I no longer think that song is particularly relevant for this Yom Kippur. I’m not here tonight to care whether it’s too late to say sorry – I’m here tonight to say something revolutionary, on this holiest of Jewish nights, for Yom Kippur.


Sorry for running five minutes late. Sorry for not seeing you earlier when you were walking towards the elevator (even though I eventually held the door for you). Sorry for not being the first one to go down and get the laundry. Sorry to the dentist when she was being far too harsh with my gums and my mouth wasn’t opened wide enough. Sorry I didn’t see your text immediately and made you wait two WHOLE minutes for a response. Sorry I’ll be travelling for work and won’t be in my office for work to help you with your work while I’m doing my work. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.

And that was just this week.

At the start of this summer, this overuse of sorry was starting to get to me so I turned to my most often consulted rabbi, Rav Google. I came across an article that pushed me to make a simple tweak in my use of the word sorry –

replace it, instead, with THANK YOU.

I immediately aimed to adopt this new practice.   In theory, this is an easy shift of vocabulary. But I quickly learned it was more challenging than I anticipated. There are sorrys that are easy to replace with thank yous – and sorrys that are not.

Let’s say, for example, I run five minutes late to a coffee date. I arrive, rushed, and instead of apologizing, I say this – Thank you so much for your patience. Easy, right?

But what about the following –

I’m in the elevator and the doors are quickly closing. My eyes are focused on my phone and I don’t see someone running towards me to hop in. I quickly put my arm in the door, make sure it’s opened, and the person gets on. ‘Sorry about that!’

What’s the right replacement? Thank you for…understanding that I’m a distracted American who doesn’t pay attention as much as I should? Thank you for…not being angry I was more interested in my Insta feed than you, a holy human being running towards me?

If you truly plow the fields of this holiday, really work the day as an opportunity for self-reflection instead of simply hunger, you’ll recall a key concept we’ll confront again and again – we’ve all messed up – big time, in many ways. But with Tsuvah (repetenace), Tzedakah (giving), and Tefillah (prayer), we can turn the ship around.

Last time I checked, that didn’t mean – if you say sorry way too much, it’s all good.

Gratitude, when really worked at, cracks a soul right open. It creates space that a sorry rarely can.

About 10 days ago, I was sitting in shul listening to a man named Josh speak. Josh is married to Aliza, and while I don’t know them terribly well, I would call them a spiritual power couple. Josh leads services, has a stunning voice, speaks eloquently and with great intention. Aliza is a stellar educator, bringing Torah to the masses in easily accessible but deeply considered ways. Neither screams from the rooftops about how fabulous they are; they are humble and diligent in their pursuit of education.

I happened to be sitting behind Aliza while Josh was speaking. He was helping to prepare the congregation for the High Holidays, speaking about the liminal space of the 10 days, when we have the capacity to be simultaneously heightened spiritually but ‘not quite there yet’. He shared with the hundreds of people that were there a stunning thought:

He quoted Aliza, repeating a thought she had about the shofar. The sounds of the teruah are the sounds of din, harsh judgment – dah dah dah dah – The shofar calls us to get our acts together, to remember we are being judged by our actions. But tekiah, right beside it, is rachamim, mercy – daaaaaaah – a long slow warm embrace. It’s okay. You did the best you could. There’s always time to make change. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

It’s a beautiful image, isn’t it?

So naturally, I leaned forward to Aliza when Josh was finished speaking and I said – WOW, Aliza – you are a rock star! You came up with that?

Aliza immediately laughed, blushing and said – NO! It was Ramban! I told him that!

A husband, in front of hundreds of people, gave his wife credit for something that was actually shared by one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time.   If I were Aliza, as humble and uninterested in the spotlight as she is, would I need an apology? Was Aliza embarrassed, with her peers thinking she took credit for something that wasn’t true?

Should Josh apologize to his wife?

Sorry, Aliza – sorry I misquoted Ramban and sorry I misquoted you. Sorry for potentially telling hundreds of people you took credit for something that you didn’t actually say. Aliza may be embarrassed, may be angry. Conversation over.

But what if their conversation, on the way home from shul, instead went something like this:

Aliza – thank you for not only being such a great partner to me, but for teaching me so deeply. Thanks for being someone I constantly learn and grow from and with. Thanks for sharing the holidays with me and for helping me get ready for this auspicious period of the year. And thanks for your understanding when I don’t listen as closely as I should, when I thought you said YOU had a thought but instead it was Ramban all along.

I’m guessing any of you in any kind of relationship – a friendship, a parent/child connection, a romantic partnership – can imagine what is lifted up in this scenario by a thank you instead of shut down by a sorry.

After my summer of attempted thank yous over sorrys, I’ve been made keenly aware of two things. The first is that saying sorry so much is the ultimate example of the boy who cried wolf. We say it so much in this country and so often, that is has hollowed out the very meaning of the word. I’d ask you – is our country a more empathetic place these days before we say sorry so much? Are we leading the world in civil discourse and thoughtfulness as a result? I think not.

But secondly, in an odd turn of events, the thoughtfulness around thank you instead of sorry leads to a much truer pursuit of the tshuvah, tzedakah, and tefillah that we speak of today.   Let’s call it the Cycle of Fewer Sorries.

Let’s go back to me running five minutes late. Before I say thank you though, I really need to think about why I ran late in the first place. Maybe I have too much on my plate. Maybe I’m too distracted by Facebook instead of much holier pursuits. Maybe I’m taking care of something – like helping a struggling student – that may be important to share with the person I’m late for – because it will make them more open to those around them who may be struggling, too – or because it will help them to understand the challenges I’m facing running a non-profit instead of jumping down my throat for all I’m doing wrong.

I ran late because I’m not a perfect person and the person I’m running to meet probably isn’t perfect either. It’s a good thing to mutually know that about one another; it helps us to have a more meaningful conversation with one another as a starting point. Where might we go, as a result? How can we potentially work a bit harder to honor the other’s time and not be late next time, or to be more empathetic to the load others carry? How can we give – of ourselves, to each other, of our time to causes that help students that struggle – to shape the community we seek to be a part of? How can we pray – for the student I got held up with, for the ability to manage our time in meaningful ways? Tshuvah. Tzedakah. Tfillah. All because I didn’t say sorry.

I pray that we keep saying thank you this year. I will pray we reserve our sorrys for when they are really needed and merited. And I pray you have an easy and meaningful fast.

G’Mar Chatima Tovah.

Don’t Meet Me in the Middle

venn(Rosh Hashanah Remarks: 2018)

As we Jews like to do on Rosh Hashanah, I’ve been thinking a lot about the year that was.

I’m unaware of just how we got into this mess, We got so aggressive.  I know we meant all good intentions.

So pull me closer.  Why don’t you pull me close?  Why don’t you come on over?  I can’t just let you go.

Oh baby, why don’t you just meet me in the middle?  I’m losing my mind just a little.
So why don’t you just meet me in the middle?

Despite my best intentions, I have become a minivan mom.  And any good minivan mom, in a deep desire to not completely lose her sanity or sense of self, refuses to add children’s songs to her listening repertoire.  Instead, my children and I rock to local radio stations and this summer, on repeat, we sang The Middle by Zedd and Maren Morris.  Nothing like a nearly three year old singing about losing his mind just a little!  But beyond the amusement in little children singing grown-up lyrics, my five year old daughter again asked one of her favorite car questions:

‘Mommy – what’s this song about?’

The obvious answer, to anyone like me who hears the song 27 times a week, is that it’s about a tortured love affair.  Plates smashing, pull me closer, share admissions regardless of objections.  There’s love and anger, there’s a need for personal strength and a desire to be taken care of so one doesn’t have to be strong anymore.

The song, my dear five year old, is about compromise.  But is that the middle?

In a Jewish context, as we start this beautiful and challenging cycle of life once again, the song speaks to the concept of Ben Adam L’Chavero – mitzvoth between human beings and other human beings.  The commandments, for example, to love your neighbor as yourself, to act fairly in business, to honor your mother and father – all fall into this category.

We all know, dwelling in Washington, DC and witnessing this unique moment in history, that meeting in the middle is something that is both out of style and simultaneously, something we should all be doing. It’s trite DC talk to say we all need to reach across the aisle, to find common ground and build bridges to a brighter tomorrow!  Sounds great, right?  Or these days, does it sound empty?

The tough part of this whole ‘reaching across the aisle’ thing is that rarely is the aisle split perfectly down the middle.  If there are 51 Republicans, 2 Independents, and 46 Democrats in the Senate, why meet in the middle for a simple majority vote?  Last time I checked, 51 beats the band out of 100 every single time.  What is the middle in this scenario?  We’re all losing our minds just a little.

Ben Adam L’Chavero’s oft-mentioned partner is, Ben Adam LaMakom – between a person and G/d.  Mizvot like Sabbath observance or prayer fall into this category; I shouldn’t care if you pray three times a day or turn the lights on and off on Saturday morning or eat bacon til your heart’s content – that’s between you and the good Lord up above.

Whether an atheist or a deep believer in G/d, the MIDDLE is even more tricky when viewed in this framework.  I am a woman of faith and I have daily chats with G/d.  I think G/d helped me have babies when I struggled to have them, helped me find a job of such deep personal meaning, helped lead me to a partner in this world I could not live without.  There is no meeting in the middle; G/d creates the ultimate super-majority in my life.  What I believe I need of G/d and what I think G/d needs of me are both important but not standing on even middle ground.

The same could be said for a proud Jew that doesn’t believe G/d exists.  How can there be a middle when there’s no party to bargain with?

My grappling over the middle though really reaches a peek in a framework I can’t quite find a Jewish context for – the middle I seek within.

I meet with students all the time – holy, smart, menschy students – who struggle every day with their inner voice.  Should I pursue that internship to build my resume or should I focus on my school work?  Should I eat those extra potato chips or should I go to the gym?  Should I hang out with that potential partner or friend because I don’t want to be lonely, or should I trust my gut that this person isn’t the one for me?

I struggle with this myself, on a daily basis.  When I leave work early to get my kids and beat the traffic and go to my holiest job of them all as a parent, I feel bad that I’ve left my colleagues behind.  When I work long hours or travel up and down the Northeast Corridor to raise money for a new building we hope to open soon, I feel guilty that I’m not home with my kids.

My professional coach calls this our inner captain and our inner saboteur.  We all have both within us.  Our captain says we rock!  We can do anything!  We have all the capacity in the world to be anyone we want to be!  Our saboteur says – NOT SO FAST.  You can’t do that because of X, you shouldn’t do it because of Y.

Reaching for the middle with other people?  Reaching for the middle with G/d?  Reaching for the middle within ourselves?

To my dear daughter, and to all of you, I may have some bad news about that pesky song that keeps playing.  I don’t think we should be trying to meet in the middle.

I’m sure you paid close attention recently to the commemorations of the life of Senator John McCain.  I thought that the memorials to him were incredibly honest about his feisty temper and mistakes made.  Just like us, he was not perfect.  I never met the man but from all I’ve learned, I’m guessing that if you asked him what his proudest accomplishments were he would NOT say – when it all went down, 50/50, when I met my friends in the middle!  Much was said the week that he died about difficult conversations and friendships forged out of differences.  He did not pursue the middle.  He pursued values, and the hard work it takes to get a sense of equilibrium and compromise.  He pursued difficult conversations where a shared victory didn’t mean 50-50, but instead meant grappling with difficulties and finding a place where all would give and all would take and that be the goal and not a disappointment.

We’re living deeply in a world of black and white these days, and college heightens that.  The world is disordered so we want to put it all in boxes that help us organize our thoughts.  She is a Republican and he is a Democrat, he is gay and she is straight, I don’t like her but I do like them.

This year, may we pursue the difficult work of the mess.  May we be comforted by a sense of something far greater than ourselves.  May we go to bed each day not celebrating the victory won, but the process that it took to get us there and the compromises we had to make along the way.  May we not beat ourselves up when our captain and saboteur battle.

From my family and our whole team at GW Hillel, I wish you a year of compromise and blessings, of learning and growth. Shana Tovah!

In Praise of Coffee

IMG_1961-1Last Sunday was Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning and fasting for Jews.

Although always well-intentioned, my beloved husband again took it upon himself to put us on a caffeine detox plan.  This plan, run twice each year before this holiday and Yom Kippur, goes a little something like this:

  • day one: 1/2 decaf + 1/2 caffeine in the coffee maker; I notice something suspect and stop at the Shenkman Hall Dunkin Donuts on my way to the office
  • day two: 2/3 decaf + 1/3 caffeine; head pounding, anger growing, stop at 7-11 around the corner from my house so I can drink coffee on the way to work
  • day three: stupid equation of 7/8 decaf + 1/8 caffeine; anger at husband, grouch to children, potential bitterness at Jewish life and fast days and the meaning of it all!!
  • day four: husband realizes deep anger and makes a full pot of caffeinated
  • day five: I feel guilty, make full pot of decaf, repeat visit to Shenkman AND 7-11

Which brings me to 5:58am this Monday morning, the day after the fast.  I awaken and hear no children calling my name, see aforementioned husband sleeping beside me.  I feel nothing short of joy – coffee awaits me, unlimited coffee, beautiful blessed coffee that I love.  I LOVE COFFEE.  I love the act of it, the conversation around it, the feel of a hot cup in my hand.

So I tip toed downstairs and I pushed the brew button.  A few short (read: long!) minutes later, the coffee maker beeped and I held a big cup in my hand.  And I blanked…

What was the blessing for coffee, a blessing that felt so relevant at the time?  The blessing that connects to water?  The one that connects to the beans growing from the earth?  My hebrew school / camp / parent-guided education failed me and I couldn’t think of the appropriate b’racha.  Until the Hillel Director in my head chimed in and out came something like:

Hashem, Lord our G/d, Master of the Universe – I’m so freaking grateful for this cup of coffee, this cup that lifts me up and makes me whole, that gives me joy and starts my day.  I’m grateful I have the money to buy this coffee maker and replace it if it breaks.  I’m grateful my children are still asleep so I can be intentional around this cup.  I’m thankful my husband loves me so much that he wants me to have as easy a fast as possible.  I’m appreciative that I have enough self-awareness to know how moody I was with my family last week because I missed my coffee.  Thank you Hashem, for a job that lets me drink coffee all day, in the spirit of meaning making and connection.  AMEN.

How can we live more empowered and grateful Jewish lives?  And why might we be waiting for permission to bring holiness and intention into our daily routines, even if it’s not the “right” way to do it?

Look Down, Look Up

IMG_4986The night before I moved to college at NYU, 18 years ago this fall, my parents and I ate in a diner in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  As I cried into my food, ridden with anxiety at the biggest change of my life, our waitress offered her unsolicited advice.   With long nails and sky high hair, her thick Jersey accent shared: ‘Whatever you do, don’t look up!  If you do, they’ll know you are a tourist and they’ll mug you!’

Who ‘they’ was, I don’t know.  But her words stuck with me throughout college and for the rest of my ongoing urban existence.  Keep it moving.  Look like you belong.  Turn inwards or else you’ll be opened to the world in a way you may not want to be.

In spending the last 36 hours in New York, it struck me that a lot has changed since half a lifetime ago in Manhattan.  Mr. Softee cones seem to have doubled in price.  Every bodega I remember from college seems to have been replaced by a bank.  But not all the news is bad.

Last night, I enjoyed the company of the newest members of the GW community, many New York residents of the Class of 2022.  These hopeful beings, optimistic in their vision and ready to downsize to a smaller town down the Northeast Corridor, were born the year of my diner visit in Elizabeth.  They lived through 9/11 but blessedly may not remember it.  Their parents bought them milk in those aforementioned bodegas, but all they can potentially recall are the banks.  They enjoyed Mr. Softee cones, regardless of the price.

And last night – GW told them to look up.

The message was subtle at first, so quiet I barely noticed it.  But first an alum, then a current student, then a colleague at the university all echoed the same sentiment at this welcome event.  Worry less about your classes and more about your life.  Take your head out of your books and put it into the world’s questions, many of which are written based on the daily workings of this new city of yours.  Do not be afraid of what you may see if you look up.  Be afraid of missing what you will miss, if you keep your head down.

Have you looked up lately?  And can we work to be part of a world that encourages others to do the same?

The Great Exchange

Two big things happened in my life this week.  First, I dealt with a campus uproar.  Secondly, the city of Washington planted a tree at my house.

The tree’s auspicious appearance felt fated; I had just returned home from a massive Passover shopping expedition with my daughter, a rite of spring in endless Jewish households.  Upon arriving home, with birds chirping and sun shining, the tree had arrived just in time for the holiday; it’s dead predecessor had been removed nearly a year ago, with no indication of when the city would plant the newest Sassafras on the block.

Both before and after its’ arrival, I had been fielding phone calls and texts all day from campus.  Although deeply concerned by the comments that generated the controversy, I was and continue to be far more concerned with our student response; discomfort, after all, offers life’s best teachable moments.  Should we give the issue oxygen, perhaps bringing hatred more spotlight than it deserves?  Should we stand up for injustice, yelling from the rooftops, oxygen already given by others?  Where is the give and where is the take, on a day you are deeply saddened by how far we still have to go to create a world of peace and meaningful disagreement?

Blessedly – trees and Pesach give me endless means to sift through these unanswerable questions.  My beautiful Sassafras gives more oxygen than it takes; only when this inequality remains can the tree thrive.  The karpas we will eat tonight is alone, fresh and sweet; but when tempered with salt water, bitterness remains.  However, the bitterness of the maror is made sweeter and more palatable by the charoset.  Passover, after all, is not a story of isolation; it is a story of exchange and conversation, give and take.  Tonight, we enter into a conversation with our history, each other, and ourselves.  It is not our sole responsibility to give a conversation oxygen; in fact, it would leave us lonely and unchallenged.  Yet we must bring our voices to the table, in order to create an engaged community we all seek to be a part of.

This Passover, what oxygen will you give towards your growth and the growth of your community?

Chag Sameach from my family & from GW Hillel.