Faith & 21 Year Olds

ameI can’t get the people of Charleston, South Carolina out of my head.  I keep thinking of faith.  And I keep thinking of 21 year olds.

Nine souls filled with peace strived to give goodness to the world and gain strength on Wednesday night.  Faith dictated their choices.  They could have stayed home and watched TV.  A man likely heard their pleas, their reflections, their grappling, and he was ‘almost’ moved enough to not end their lives.

He is 21 years old, a time ripe with promise for some, with fear of what’s to come for others.  The world was his for the taking, for the good and for the bad.  Instead of taking on the world for the good, he took the worlds of others.

There are so many layers of community and faith, of optimism and sorrow, on mental health and parenting and intuition and how we treat others when we think they are ‘off’ or misguided.  I don’t have answers, just many many questions.  I could espouse moral platitudes about paying attention to those around you, about remaining faithful in darkness, about how our country CAN DO BETTER.  I’m not wise enough and none seem adequate to stand up to the sadness of this moment.

What light can you bring to the world, this Shabbat, in honor of Clementa, Sharonda, Cynthia, Tywanza, Susie, Myra and Ethel and Daniel and Depayne, nine people of faith?

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The Bright Future

brightI’ve always struggled with Yom HaShoah events on campus.  Without a doubt, we MUST remember and make the Holocaust an important part of the Jewish (and global) curriculum.  But each year in the spring, whether for a speaker or to read names on Kogan Plaza, students come out of the woodwork to our remembrance event and then I never see them again.  They (RIGHTFULLY) prioritize remembering a horrible past.  But what about their bright Jewish futures?

These past few weeks, following a number of swastika incidents on campus, I think my Yom HaShoah struggle may need tweaking.

After the most recent incident, I planned to hold my regular uGeW meeting.  We were scheduled to talk about hot topics, none of which involved anti-semitism.  Yet as any good educator must be willing to do, it was obvious to me that I needed to throw our lesson plan out the window and give space for 8 incredible students to process what was happening on campus.  The room was tense, the conversation heated.  It became apparent to me that swastikas and Holocaust remembrance are, and must continue to be, doorways to the future as much as to the past.  My students asked of each other questions on choices and consequences, on how to honor the past and represent themselves proudly into the future.  Questions of self-awareness entered the conversation, as did those around reputation and ego and how we perceive our peers.  So many layers, so much good conversation, all infusing their worldviews and sense of Jewish selves.  Could a Jewish educator want anything more than that?

What do moments of Jewish sadness allow you to question regarding your own Jewish future?  What thoughts and questions have been on your mind regarding the recent events on campus?

The Choices You Don’t Make

book2There’s a certain something that happens when you have coffee with a former student.  The blessing of my work is often in what happens after I leave the “official” picture, when a college student becomes an emerging adult, when ideas batted around in dorms and classrooms become fully-formed moving pieces in someone’s life.  I felt that way this morning, when catching up with J. as he breezed through town.

J. likely never made the social media #OnlyAtGW posts when in college.  Instead of working on the Hill or aiming to take over the SA, he spent his years on campus sometimes wondering why he chose to come to college here in the first place.  He got his hands dirty in gardens on campus, and promptly following graduation, he got out of town.  I’ve always been struck by the aura of spirituality and goodness that radiates around him, in a subtle but definitive way.

In telling me of his journeys since college, I asked how his parents had been receiving the news of his choices.  He will never be the Jewish doctor or lawyer of many mothers’ dreams.  Explaining that it took them a while to come around to his career path, J. ended by saying that things are good.  His mother, in pursuit of understanding her beloved son and his choices, recently asked him, ‘What book can I read?’

Was there ever a better question asked by a mother?

We all circle around each other, understandably judging the decisions of others in order to place our own life choices.  As a young parent, I haven’t yet experienced what it means to have my daughter make different choices than I had anticipated for her.  J.’s mom could have asked in her question: Why did you leave the path I built for you?  Instead, her question said: How can I understand your chosen path?

How can you bring joy or take action to support the decisions of others – instead of bringing resentment that their choices might have been different than others?

Getting Out of My Prayer Box

boxMy best professor in social work school broke down the dichotomy between vertical and horizontal spirituality.  In the vertical, we look to the heavens and wait for an AHA moment to come down upon us.  In the horizontal, the person across from us shares a connection.  We understand each other on a vital level, and we feel the holy sits between us.  My best coffee dates are the ones infused with horizontal spirituality.  But do I really know how to provide space for the vertical with my students?

I’ve always had a theory that Jews aren’t good at praying & I’m guessing we have good company in some other faith communities.  I hear it all the time from GW students, not in what is affirmed but in what is denied.

“I hate Rosh Hashanah services.  I don’t know what THEY are saying.”

“I don’t go to services on Shabbat because I’m not good at Hebrew.”

In my mind, hating services and not learning a language feel quite disconnected from the real idea of PRAYING.  The Judaism I grew up with handed prayer boxes over to its’ youth; in the box was stale liturgy and frontal speeches that spoke to the head more than the heart.  I’ve seen with college students that you either become a seeker and hope to find meaning in the box, stay in the box and say prayers out of obligation, or you throw the box out altogether because it feels so far removed from anything remotely meaningful.  What would it mean to get out of the box but still aim to pray?

I bumped into my friend George from the MSSC in Kogan Plaza last week.  He invited me to Morning Glory, a new initiative he’s launching with a simple concept: let’s get together and pray, every Monday morning, with no faith-based agenda other than to look towards a being higher than ourselves.  So on a snowy morning yesterday, I went.  I stood with 6 people, only 2 of which I know.  For no more than 10 minutes, we held hands, we asked for what we needed from above, we closed our eyes, and when I opened them, I felt tears in my eyes and saw the same tears in the woman next to me.  Why do I go to synagogue every week yet rarely have such a profound spiritual experience?  Why does the Jewish community do so many things well but still hasn’t quite figured out how to REALLY, TRULY, DEEPLY pray?

How can you make prayer a regular part of your life, getting outside of your own personal prayer box?

(And I’d LOVE to see you at the next Morning Glory, every Monday at 9am – MSSC, 2nd Floor!)

Beautiful Bouncing

menorahMy daughter loves her menorah.  She can’t stop pointing in the direction of the window, excited for her Abba to come home so we can light candles as a family.  A discussion with my husband led us to decide to not buy her Chanukah presents this year; she’s not old enough to know that gifts are tied to the holiday.  As she grows and her consciousness evolves, I’m sure this conversation will change.  Just as many parents do, we’ll need to decide how our holiday giving takes shape.  Yet although only eighteen months old, her feisty personality clearly foreshadows the fact that her voice will be asserted into the conversation.

This week, I was blessed with two great conversations (coffee not involved) within two hours of each other (coincidence or bashert – I’ll let you decide).  The first was with an alum named A. who had just handed in a large check to our organization, larger than his means allow; his parents have a family foundation and if one of their children gives even a dollar, they are allowed in on the decision process of where the money should go.  His mom and dad have definitive ideas on what’s important to them but A. has already impacted some of their choices based on his own worldview and what’s important in his own life.  The second was with a student, L., who shared that her family isn’t particularly giving but that inspired by a Slingshot presentation she recently heard, she’s engaging her family in a giving circle in honor of Chanukah.  She’ll be asking each family member what’s important to them and donate $20 on their behalf to a charity they mutually agree upon.

The stories had obvious ties of conscious giving, selflessness, & pushing oneself to stretch a bit further on behalf of others.  But I was mostly struck by what it means to engage with your family around the values of giving.  In both conversations, it was clear parents have the potential to inspire their children – and children equally have the power to inspire their parents.  My daughter reminds me of the pure joy of lighting the Chanukah candles.  And A. and L. remind me of how values aren’t necessarily passed from the old to the young, but instead do a beautiful bouncing amongst generations, with the potential to push each other to a greater good.

When was the last time you engaged your own family in questions of how, why, and where to give?

PS: I’m digging the Chanukah content we’re putting out each night from GW Hillel.  Check us out on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to add some more inspiration to your holiday.

Helping Others Run

runOn a picture perfect fall morning, I sat in a coffee shop with a wanderer sitting before me.  Most freshmen tell me a formulaic story of a nice Jewish family, reflective high school thoughts, questions that now live in their hearts as four years sit before them.  Of course, deviations abound – divorces, Christmas trees, loss, once-in-a-lifetime moments.  If I’ve learned anything in my job, it’s that everyone has a story to tell.

I felt no different this week, sitting with C.  He had written to me about an unrelated request and my biases and downfalls almost did me in – without a Jewish name, I assumed he wasn’t part of my ‘target market’ (note to the non-Jews of GW: I still LOVE connecting with you, too).  But then, in the way meant-to-be-things tend to happen if your eyes are open to them, another student told me I was wrong: don’t be fooled by the name.  C. has a Jewish soul.

So C. and I chatted, over coffee (mine) and OJ (his), with light streaming through the coffee shop window.  Raised in one place, swept away to another international location, thrown into an environment that never felt quite right.  This fact, combined with the messy divorce of his parents as a teenager, led him to realize something had to be DONE to escape a reality that didn’t suit him.  Drugs seemed a great option, he told his father.  Or maybe running away?

His father’s reply?  ‘Skip the drugs, son.  Let me help you run away.’

All of us have gifts we want to offer the world – but we choose which of those gifts get utilized.  I could teach someone to swim but I don’t particularly like the pool.  As a parent, I have many things I’d like to give my daughter – freedom to leave my home as a teenager isn’t necessarily one of them.  Yet C.’s father undoubtedly knew that the best gift he may be able to give to his son wasn’t necessarily the one he wanted to give.

What gifts might others need from you, even if it’s not always easy to give them?  And for those around you who struggle, how can you help them do the running they need to do to become whole again?