A Healthy Relationship

Recently, I went through what can only be described as a faith crisis. It felt heart breaking. It felt frustrating. It felt ironic. Ironic that I, the woman who has a whole website full of chizuk- two websites in fact- and a group dedicated to faith and inspiration, and who hopes to have been there for countless others when they had their own faith crises- was sitting here, crying into her siddur, and doubting G-d. It felt a bit like living a lie.

And yet, here I was. Then as time passed, I realised that perhaps we all had crises, and perhaps it was a part of being human, and perhaps my relationship with G-d was like any other relationship.

Healthy relationships include arguments. Disagreements, losses of faith, quarrels- call them what you like, every relationship has them, including your relationship with a Higher Power. And no matter what happens to me down on earth, this Higher Power remains the same- unchanged, and still loves me and forgives me for doubting Him (it took a very wise woman to remind me of this).

Crises end and life resumes. My life has chamged, but G-d hasn’t. What’s most important is that I’ve learned not to judge myself for these tremors. They are normal, and if it weren’t for these moments- or, let’s face it, days- when I felt G-d had abandoned me, then perhaps there would be something wrong with my faith, something unintelligent, unquestioning even.

At the end of the day, no matter what we have said and done, G-d is still there, and still loves us.

Where Will This Conflict End?

Recently, I haven’t been able to write much for this blog. I have been pressed for time, and for energy, and unusually for summer, I am busier than ever. Bezras Hashem, I have been lucky enough to try new things and spend time with great people- but unfortunately, my blog has suffered. I am still always thinking about what to write next- still saving articles, still keeping an eye out for publishers, still writing poems. But today, at the end of another long and wonderful day, I want to instead share with you the thoughts of another blogger. An inspiring, fascinating writer and a dedicated ger tzadekes- Safek:

“The Sabbath still ends pretty late up here. Havdalah was at 11:35 last night and we weren’t done until later. There were a lot of visitors this weekend and things ran a little late. By chance, we opted to drive home after havdalah, to sleep in our own beds instead of the RV. I came home, bleary-eyed and tired and I logged on to my computer to stay awake until Mr. Safek arrived with the RV, to help him unload it.

I blinked, not quite believing what I was seeing, reports of Nazis marching, with lit torches on a college campus in Virginia. Reports of clashes with counter-protestors that turned bloody, and reports of death at the hands of a terrorist who drove through a crowd of people.

It’s important to note the context in which this news came to me.

Our Chabad House hosts many visitors in summer and this weekend we had not only several families from NY and New Jersey, but also a large, rambunctious camp group of college boys. This group spent more time at the Synagogue than most camp groups that come through, so we spent more time with these boys than many of the other groups. For many of them, this trip was their first deep interaction with Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism. Many were wearing kippahs and tzitzits for the first time, proud to show them. They sang and danced and were loud and lively, with a youthful enthusiasm and idealism. They had been camping all over Alaska and told us stories of using an icy cold glacial river as a mikvah, of climbing mountains while singing Jewish songs. They stayed clear across town in a hostel in a kind of run down part of town, walking the whole way for services, tzitzits out and kippahs showing the whole way, unafraid.

Their unofficial theme was, “Jews Take Alaska!”

We laughed and explained that they were a little late. Our Mayor is Jewish and Jews have been a part of Alaskan history since it was recorded, coming here first with the fur trade before gold or oil was ever discovered. These boys, rough around the edges as they might be, represented hope, idealism, and pride and their presence challenged us to keep up. They came from college campuses not unlike the one in Virginia. As we waited for Havdalah, I sat and listened to them talk with our Rabbi about the possibility of starting Jewish clubs at their campuses or what the clubs were already doing, their fears about being “too pushy” or “too religious,” but also their obvious desire to bring back a little of what they’d experienced here in the mountains with all this inspiration.

As I drove back home last night on the highway, in the opposite lanes, I saw a police car stopped with flashing lights, I looked over and saw a moose that had been killed on the road, fresh blood spread across the roadway, it’s body torn as I looked away I felt a growing unease after the easy lightheartedness of the weekend, but I tried to brush it away. Moose are killed on the roads up here, but something about this moose and the timing had me feeling on edge.

It wasn’t long after that I opened up my computer and read about the protests in Charlottesville.

I saw pictures of men who looked like me or my family and who were younger than I am, carrying torches and yelling hatred about my family. I saw pictures of violent conflict on our own soil and even pictures of the car plowing through a crowd of people as if they were moose, bodies flying. It was surreal. I saw the columned buildings of the college campus in the torchlight and I immediately thought of those boys I’d spent the weekend with, headed back to college campuses this fall. My mind reeled and I began to think about how I would explain this to my own children.

We are often sheltered from events in the lower 48 here in Alaska, separated by timezones and distance. I am not naive enough, though, to think that the same hate does not also exist here, in the small communities in the same woods those boys were singing through. I remembered feeling nervous when I saw that they were walking through the less desirable parts of town visibly Jewish and some unease when I realized they would have also been doing this in some of the more remote areas, places where people who seek to avoid the mainstream go and where the beliefs and ideas that made them feel the need to separate from the rest of the world are allowed to fester. There are compounds built in the woods up here where all different kinds of armed people who believe this world is headed in the wrong direction wait.

This is all just 2 weeks or so after our own Rabbi counseled us to have our son wear a baseball cap when he can, to cover his kippah, and for him to tuck in his tzitzits, telling us that another boy in the Synagogue had been the target of racist graffiti on his school notebooks, swastikas scrawled across his notebooks as a threat…in elementary school.

Most converts are asked by the Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) that converts them why they would want to join the Jewish people and subject themselves to anti-semitism. My answer will be an easy one. We already are effected by it. Already, those who would hate Jews hate us. They make no distinctions for my husband’s murky halakhic status or my own lack of any Jewish status. To them, we are Jews and to them, I am even worse than a born Jew because I once was like them, fully white, and chose to cleave to a people I was not born to. If we chose not to convert, it wouldn’t stop people from hating us, but it would cut us off from support and inclusion in a community that understands what it is to be the target of such malice.

The contrast between the day of Shabbos and the night after was a stark reminder of the world we live in now, where hate has become more openly expressed again. I don’t doubt that it’s always been there, but now we see them march with no masks over their faces. However, we also see hope in young men who also no longer want to hide their Jewishness.

I can’t help but wonder where this conflict will all end and worry over my children. There is no mountain far enough to shelter us from such a storm.”

The Shabbes Table

Yesterday, I went to an exhibition which I had visited at exactly the same time last year. The exhibition included pairs of Shabbes candles, a realistic Shabbes table, and even a Sefer Torah. As I listened to the recorded brochos and touched the candlesticks, I remembered my thoughts as I had stood before this same table last year.

“I wish this were mine.”

As a Baalas Teshuva, the thought of celebrating Shabbes with my family was unthinkable. A kind of dream which I thought would never become a reality. I was moved almost to tears as I sat at that replica table last year- and remembering this yesterday almost knocked me over.

After a family reconciliation, my other relatives began- or continued- their own Jewish journeys, and Shabbes dinner became a central function of our lives. We laughed, cried, and told stories at the Shabbes table. Sometimes, it’s stressful: I can’t face hosting guests or mediating disputes, and I forget what a blessing the Shabbes table is. It’s not always perfect, but this week, as I light the candles, I’m going to try and remember to thank G-d for this beautiful gift He gave me.

Tu B’Av

Another Tu B’Av has passed, only this year, it wasn’t the happiest day on the calendar. Perhaps it’s not permitted to be sad on such a joyous day, but amidst all the flowers and greetings and statements I’ve heard- some despairing, most smug, all disheartening- I’ve found it hard to smile and rejoice. I’ve dwelt upon the past, and I’ve prayed G-d to help me, but sadness remains.

I know that words hold an immense power, but I’m not sure if it’s superstitious for me to wonder if all those times I swore I’d never want to marry left me in this state. Perhaps my vow not to marry was heard by G-d, and perhaps He has decided to teach me a lesson about my words. Perhaps that’s why I sit here, now, reflecting on 15th Av, and wishing it were my turn to say “Soon by you”.

They say man isn’t supposed to be alone, but I’m going to hazard a guess and say that women aren’t supposed to be, either. One thing I know for sure, is that it hurts to be alone when you were happy just a short while ago.

Transforming Learning

In today’s Hayom Yom we read about the importance of truly connecting to Hashem when we study Torah; “Uknei l’cha chaver (lit. “acquire a friend for yourself”) was changed to read v’kaneh l’cha chaver- “the quill shall be your friend”. This was, in turn, interpreted to refer to the “quill of the heart”, meaning that “whatever one learns one must experience emotionally”.

When I read about this today, I began to think about my own relationship with learning. When I read Sefer HaMitzvos, for example, I sometimes feel disconnected. Reading about the laws of keeping slaves and returning property is all well and good in the context of Biblical times, but the promise of “When Moshiach comes these laws will be relevant again” isn’t always enough to make me really connect with my learning.

B’ezras Hashem, in this day and age, there are a number of resources available to make learning accessible and relevant. There are videos and websites, shiurim and Q&As. There is no shortage of material, but unfortunately, I rarely find myself using it. Reading the Hayom Yom this morning strengthened my resolve to do so, and made me want to suggest that we all have an obligation to enhance our learning until we truly feel our souls connecting to Hashem every time we read words of the Chumash, Tanya, or any other text.

Torah study links the Earth and the Heavens, and we have a duty to do everything in our power to strengthen that bond.

Gut Shabbes! (Va’eschanan)

Sometimes, my views and actions attract a lot of attention from both my non observant and Chareidi friends. People seem shocked by my “values” and in many cases, they are shocked that a frum woman could believe certain things. “Why do you want to invite such people for Shabbes dinner? I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that,” or “How can you put up with such a person? I couldn’t, and I’m not even frum”. They feel that because I’m Chassidic, I should stick to mixing with other Chassidim, and that I am free to exclude people based on their religion, denomination or orientation.

I’m not your average Chossid. As someone coming from a non observant background, certain parts of my old lifestyle have stayed with me. I might have abandoned secular newspapers, music and films, but my views sometimes differ from those of major Chareidi rabbonim. I come under fire for this a lot, and sometimes, I begin to wonder if what I’m doing is necessary or even right.

Then I read the Hayom Yom today.

“The Alter Rebbe repeated what the Mezritcher Maggid said quoting the Baal Shem Tov: “Love your fellow like yourself” is an interpretation of and commentary on “Love Hashem your G‑d.” He who loves his fellow-Jew loves G‑d, because the Jew has with in himself a “part of G‑d Above.” Therefore, when one loves the Jew – i.e. his inner essence – one loves G‑d.”

What I do is second nature to me. Supporting someone- anyone- who is having a hard time, inviting people for a meal, or just giving them a chance to vent their frustrations- I don’t do it because it’s a mitzvah. I do it because I love every Jew- and, yes, every Noahide- who I encounter. We may be Chassidim, but that doesn’t mean we should shut ourselves off from those around us. Because when we fail to love each other, we fail to love G-d.

G-d gave us the precious gift of Shabbes in love. This Shabbes, let’s embody G-dliness. Let’s bring Holiness down to earth. Let’s spread love among our neighbours, without stopping to judge them or think badly of them just because they’re different.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 8:25 PM tonight, and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 9:41 PM. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Shmuel ben Soroh, Chashachana bas Bryna and Shai bas Odeya. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

A Time for Mourning

Yesterday was, in my eyes, the first time I properly observed Tisha b’Av. Between fasting, wearing white, and going to shul for both evening and morning services, I feel that I kept to the day’s laws and customs as well as I could, and, perhaps strangely, I felt proud of myself doing this. As a BT, it takes a lot to wake up at six AM for services and to observe a fast day which is relatively new to me, and not something I grew up with.

But when you look past the day’s practices, it’s what’s inside that matters the most. Abstaining from food and wearing white are mere reflections of what’s going on in our hearts, minds, and- above all- souls. And yesterday, for the first time, I felt a true, heart-rendering connection to the Temples that we lost.

My days are governed by to do lists and streams of thoughts and worries. Other than on shabbes, I write an article every day. I also set reminders to daven mincha and maariv, study Chitas, answer various messages, and deal with household chores. Tisha b’Av was absent of these things. I couldn’t study Torah, and I decided not to write or work. I cried, I said kinos, and I felt my heart ache.

I mourned the Temples and the baseless hatred which had destroyed them. And today, I stopped mourning. I entered back into everyday life. And above all, I resolved to change the world. To mend it. I wasn’t going to sit and mourn; there’s a time and a place for that, and yesterday was that time and place. Today, my role is to rebuild the temple, to counter the hatred, and to make sure that next Tisha b’Av is spent joyously and not in mourning.

May we merit to see the arrival of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Temple, speedily and in our days iyH.