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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My Week in Chabad Land

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Anger and rebellion have been my religious companions ever since I can remember. As I traveled in the world of Buddhism for a couple of decades, dabbled in yoga and Hinduism, and even graduated from an interfaith seminary, there continues to be a nagging feeling. Who is a Jew? Am I a Jew? Is that enough? Ashamed? Yes. Angry? Incredibly so! I shout out, why as Jews where we not taught to learn about the Pirket avot, the biblical text that teaches moral and ethical strategies to be happy and successful? I am adamant that I want to know why we were not introduced to the Tanya as teenagers. I am told that it is an excellent psychological text that with guidance, can massively improve our lives and provoke us to step into new rivers of spirituality. I recently heard that men were asked to lay tifillin in the center of New York City! I can’t imagine. But somehow, deep inside, I say “Can’t we all stand and say who we are?” When we act as Jews and don’t hide, can we heal the horrors of just a generation ago, can we make a difference in the world, can we even help to fix the world? I ask the simple questions. Can I stand up? Is it simple to practice Judaism? After all, aren’t we all the same…just Jews. I heard a Rabbi express concern about this question: “Am I Jewish enough?” I thought we were all of the same value? When we drop the social dress code at high holiday services and look at each other, are we not all wanting the same things, are we not all of the same neshama, the same soul fabric?

But somehow the answers don’t come. It is July 4 weekend. I can’t believe that I am in Park City, Utah with Evie, my best girlfriend since nursery school and yes, living in the world of Chabad for five days. I know, it is the Rebbe Shneerson’s yartzheit. But I certainly have more important things to do than attend workshops and talk and listen with a lot of rabbis and yiddishkites. Evie and I were supposed to go to a spa to celebrate our decades old friendship. But then, she told me, “I don’t know much about my Judaism, but I have been attending Chabad classes with a very special rabbi.” I ask, what makes him so special that we have to replace our spa weekend for a conference in ski country, where I can’t even pursue my favorite sport! “Rabbi Bryski”, she gushes, “is a wonderful teacher and he accepts everyone into learning about our Judaism. He takes the ancient texts and makes them relevant to my life”. Oh geez…here we go. Well, as life takes us, my life was becoming a little confusing, shall we say.

Just three weeks before, I had conducted the unveiling for the father of my late husband. It was a beautiful service at a Jewish mausoleum in Florida. We cried, we prayed, we remembered and we consecrated his life forever and more. Then, the next weekend, I led Erev Shabbat services at our Reconstructionist Shul (that meets in a Quaker house) where we created a sacred evening of welcoming the Shabbat and creating a community of sharing about the Parsha for the week. And then, on Sunday, I served as the replacement clergy on Sunday at our Interfaith church. I couldn’t resist teaching the c ongregants “Alna, elna, refanalah” instead of the usual healing prayer, as we remembered and sent healing prayers to those in need. And as only Jews can only do, Rob, my significant other, jumped up and explained to the interfaith assembly about the Torah portion of the week and how G-d prayed for Miriam who suffered with a white rash using the healing words of alna elna.

Now, let’s fast forward to Park City two weeks later. Some of the most famous Chabad rabbis are here. People are arriving from all over North America. Many religious, some teetering between a secular life and more Judaism. And then, just a few of us, we counted ourselves as curious, at best. Jon Huntsman, the Governor of Utah ope ned the conference. He said that in his home closet, he has shirts, suits and a yamulka. The fourth governor of Utah was Jewish and introduced Judaism into the state. Governor Huntsman felt compelled to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. He informed us that the Chabad Rabbi of Utah had recently spoke and prayed at the annual Mormom festival in Utah with over 18,000 people (?) in attendance. He said that there was a beautiful exchange and new understandings were forged. A nice conference beginning…

I was put in the corner in Talmud Torah for my various behaviors as a child. As an adult, I have certainly been shunned and mollified repeatedly for my spiritual choices. Thro ughout the weekend, we were all accepted. We were invited to Shabbat dinners in every part of the country, more than I could imagine. We were seen as a one Jew, one Jewish soul meeting another. No one cared that I was a reconstructionist. No one balked that I was ordained as an Interfaith Minister and was conducting interfaith weddings. Now that was a first. But here I am in a sea of Jews…we are all the same, they say. Can I stand a little straighter? They tell me I am finding my way. One mitzvah at a time.

Now, the most senior of rabbis is present. He was the translator for Rabbi Shn eerson and is famous I didn’t know he was such a big macher. But he gave an excellent first speech on Friday and recounted stories of Jews that were tortured, and how Judaism saved them. Hmmm.

Well, I asked myself, a long standing burning question (or three) that has been brewing in me. Maybe, I should speak with this Rabbi. Maybe, we can talk together. Well after his speech, a line of people stood ahead of me. Ok…I wait. I watch. I say to him. Wow. You are fortunate. You don’t have to move. You stand here and hold court=2 0and people just come to you. I am impressed. He smiles with his grey beard parting like the red sea…really! Then his eyes crinkle…just like Santa Claus…Now I am in trouble. I see Santa Claus. I say, I specialize in torture and I have a question that I need to ask you. He says, come with me to the lobby and let us talk.

We walk to the lobby. I ask him what I should call him? He says Rabbi would be fine. I promise to you that I did not say that he could call me Reverend Doctor Rhonda. I said simply, my name20is Rhonda. I implored him to speak to me unabashedly and with truth for the questions and confusions that I was experiencing. I could see he was pretty evolved and very learned in the way of the Torah and in understanding people. I asked him if the tortured souls that call out for their gods in the torture chambers is the same tortured souls of the Jews who call out for their g-d. Are we not the same, I ask? After a moment, Rabbi Manis Friedman, says definitely no. We are not the same. Our souls are different. We know we are Jews and we see differently. We have a unity in one G-d, and for G-d's unity to be fully realized, we need diversity. Only then can we learn from each other, as another's wisdom can enhance our relationships with each other and with G-d. And that when we call out already knowing we are Jews and that our cry is for deeper knowledge and Jewish learnings.

Rabbi Friedman’s answers are deep and I know so little. But we are seeking common ground together. I tell him about my interfaith activities, my car accident and how it all came together with horseback riding. He smiled and said I was on the right path. WHAT?? He didn’t say to find a Jewish teacher, he didn’t admonish me to find my one god, my Jewish roots and you know what I mean.

Then I tell him about my trip to Nicaragua last summer and how I helped bring a Torah to forty Jews in this small country. You see, they have not had a Torah in 27 years. Previously, they had borrowed the Torah from Costa Rica two days a year during Pesach and their Shul has long been destroyed during the Sandinista era. And I tell him that the US president called the Jewish community of Nicaragua to congratulate them on their new Torah and how the community is attracting Jewish scholars. The Rabbi listens. I tell him about my job opportunity in Africa and how the government accepted my proposal to aid one million women in the DRC. And I tell him about my family where Rob and I brought Judaism to the children, my step children. How we offered a lubavitch education to my youngest and had him Bar Mitzvahed and how my eldest step daughter went to Birthright. The Rabbi listens. Then he says, you are on the right path. There is a small inner voice I hear, maybe, you are doing the work of Chabad. No, I cry. I am just living a=2 0life. Trying hard everyday not to just exist, as the Rabbi suggests. And then we talk.

He tells me stories I ask him about his passions, his desires at this stage of his life. He tells me he wants to “fix the world”. We share a moment. His fixing and my fixing. Worlds apart. But are they? A mitzvah is a Mitzvah. If we help one more person to have an easier day, a lighter experience, a more purposeful life, a healthier body, a soaring spirit, are we not all looking to accomplish the same thing? After a few more exchanges, we=2 0part for lunch. What the heck just happened. I am informed, that I just met with one of the most famous rabbis in the world. I don’t think I really understood half of what the rabbi said to me. But were we not, just two Jews, meeting soul to soul? I walk away from our conversation a little straighter, slightly more aware that I could explore, yes, I could study Judaism and maybe add one Jewish ritual for now into my life . Might I be able to fix the world with a renewed sense of purpose? Will I have access to more wisdom, Jewish wisdom that is, when I sit with my patients? Within these wonderings, I feel quieter.

The stories and teachings continue. We spend time with the rabbis and the re bbetzin. We hear modern living ideas influenced by Jewish teachings. I see a light of knowing and contentment in their eyes. Rebbetzin Rivka is so quiet and humble. Yet, she is alive in her spirituality and in her studied and practical Torah knowledge. Her love for people and for Judaism is so palpable. She is honest in her struggles and in her joys. Yes, a light shines through her. A soul that is alit with life. I don’t recall meeting a fellow seeker that had this concert of life playing so beautifully all within a moment of time.

Somewhere within us all, we Jews know who we really are. Rabbi Friedman, says that us Jews are remarkable. We all know. We are all striving, searching20for something that will give us more tranquility, more purpose of why we are here and what we are supposed to be really doing. So I say to myself, maybe one mitzvah more wouldn't hurt. Maybe, if I allow myself to experience the yearnings, no arguments, no anger, no shame will be fed, for the hunger of my soul will be more transparent. And I can find clearer way to answer to its call. And so Evie and I will return to Chabad land, mountain air next year.

Thank you for reading. Thank you to Rabbi Hesh Epstein and his most capable team for offering us this week of learning and community.

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