Thursday, November 21, 2013

Is I Is or Is I Ain't an Observant Jew?

It feels great to be writing again, and even better to be in dialogue with all of you again.  I'm going to post part of a reply someone sent me after my last blog and tell you why I'm posting it.  Here it is:
You are unique, and fitting in to a group is not easy.  I feel that way often.  I should say, I felt that way often.  When with Orthodox Jews, I always felt like an impostor, even during the years I covered my hair, arms and legs.  When around less observant, I'd get judgmental  (read: jealous) about their choices or lifestyle.  (It was actually a warning signal to me that I needed to reassess certain religious choices I was making.). 

Ok, I totally relate to what she's saying.  COMPLETELY.  But it brings up so many questions for me.  For one, "fitting into a group is not easy." PREACH!  It is NOT easy.  At least not for me.  And so my question here is, to what extent do we need to let go of individualism to live in a functioning community, and to what extant do we need to hold onto our individualism so that we don't lose ourselves to the community.  If we are TOTALLY individuals it's hard to see how a community can function when your own needs and freedoms come before the needs of the community.  However, I think we can all agree that a community that comes at the cost of of the individual loses what makes the coming together of people so beautiful and meaningful.  Not to mention that the foundation would be frail and easily broken, in both cases.  There's definitely a balance somewhere in there, but I think each community has their balance somewhere on a spectrum between the two.  And I think that's good.  There is room in this world for EVERY KIND of community.  Example: A hareidi (ultra-frum) community often puts the community first.  This leaves little room for individual expression, but holds a certain container that wouldn't exist otherwise.  On the other side you have communities where individuals' freedoms come first, but I may not want to raise my kids where there is naked gardening.  Extremes, I know.  And honestly, naked gardening sounds kind of awesome, but not really.  

Moving on.  "When with Orthodox Jews, I always felt like an impostor." Hells to the yeah.  I mean, I was, am, doing it.  I dress modestly, I observe basic halacha.  It's not that so much as the fact the I don't know that I totally buy into it.  So while I don't go swimming on Shabbos, part of me is like, Rabbi dudes, I'm not going to build a raft.  I live next to a pond.  It's a hot summer day that lasts forever with my kids.  WHY CAN'T I GO SWIMMING?! Or this one: I've been with my husband for 15 years.  We know ourselves and our limitations.  So when I'm a niddah and feeling crazy emotional and yelling at my kids, and just need damn hug from my husband, WHAT THE HELL? I NEED a hug!   I'm not going to jump him.  I feel like it hurts my relationship to have to distance myself so much for 2 weeks every month.  And the whole Kosher thing?  I keep it for sure.  But in my heart, I don't care if there's a tiny bug in my salad.  I think having 4 sets of dishes (meat, dairy, Pesach) is ABSURD and impractical.  There's no way they lugged all that cookware through the midbar for 40 years.  And 6 hours?!  If the problem is that there might be meat in my teeth, how 'bout I floss?  Like I said, I keep all this now, but I do it with reservation and some resentment.  

Next. "When around less observant, I'd get judgmental  (read: jealous) about their choices or lifestyle.  (It was actually a warning signal to me that I needed to reassess certain religious choices I was making)."  So this is a big one for me.  When I began my religious journey it was definitely with some hesitancy.  But for each mitzvah I took on, I never stepped back.  When I saw other's on their journeys live between worlds, (say, keep Shabbos while in Israel, come back to America for a visit and hit the movies Friday night) I got really judgmental.  And here you should definitely read jealous.  I would've felt like a hypocrite if I did it, but I resented the fact that I didn't.  When I see funky frum Jewish women sometimes uncover their hair, or worse yet, have their hair covered in an awesome tichel wrap, with a flowy shirt and a hot pair of jeans, OH MAN do I get jealous.  They look so COOL, and hip and awesome, and I look down at my jean skirt with my sneakers and my muffin top hat that looks so lame, but doesn't slip off like my tichels and this is a ridiculously long run-on sentence, but MAN I feel that burning jealousy.  How come they can do it and not be hypocrites, but I can't?  

And the second part of that sentence is an even more pressing question for me.  "It was actually a warning signal to me that I needed to reassess certain religious choices I was making."  Here is my question:  Do I insulate myself in a world (community) where everyone holds to similar standards so that I am not tempted to veer from observance?  In the orthodox world, veering from orthodoxy is well, falling off the path.  And it's our choice, who we surround ourselves with, how we spend our time, what we fill our heads with, etc.  Just like an addict shouldn't hang out in a crack house, maybe a frum jew shouldn't choose to live somewhere that holds these temptations.  And are they just that, temptations?  Or is it possible that observancy does not flow with my heartsong?  That to be true to myself as I know me, there is space for me to live with a little less restriction and therefor less resentment and jealousy?  

I am asking these questions out loud as a process of sharing my thoughts.  Maybe you struggle with something similar?  Maybe not.  I know that I am not really looking for advice.  I think this is a personal path and that there is NO RIGHT ANSWER.  But if you feel inclined to share your struggles, choices, victories, I would love to hear.  I am ALWAYS open to dialogue.  Unless it's about what to watch tonight on Netflix.  

1. Hot apple cider on in a cold November rain (please tell me you just sang that in a nasally voice in your head like I did)

2. Make your own pizza night!
3. Beautiful friends that share their journey with me
4. My 2 year-old playing peek-a-boo with his bellybutton this morning
5. My husband giving me time to write this in the middle of the day
6. Waking up before the kids and getting a shower (YES!)  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Guest Post!

Thank you Rachel Love Cohen for sharing this with us!

The Jewish Agency for Israel, Hazon (America's largest environmental group), Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, and Pearlstone Retreat Center joined together this weekend to convene the inaugural conference for a growing national Jewish movement of intentional community building. This speech was given at the first plenary.

My passion for intentional Jewish community building is likely a result of the social isolation I felt in my early years.  I was a child of suburbia.  My mother went back to her job when I was six weeks old and I went off to a babysitter each day.  My father spent most of his waking hours at work.  Both sets of grandparents lived out of town.  My sister was five years younger and, in my opinion, an unacceptable playmate.  We were minimally affiliated Jews.  I went to Hebrew school, but we had no connection with synagogue life. We rarely, if ever, had guests.  What if the house wasn’t clean enough?  The food tasty enough?  We gave cursory waves to the neighbors, offered quick smiles to people we passed in the supermarket, made perfunctory exchanges with gas station attendants and bank clerks.  I observed: be pleasant but detached.  

I felt a loneliness and lack of connection that I could not adequately voice to my parents.  As I matured, I had windows into other people's lives.  Friends whose families took vacations together, my large pack of cousins that all lived in the same distant town, kids that went to one summer camp year after year, families with many children.  These groups were building a shared sense of belonging and I felt envious.
When I was fifteen I worked at a small, rural, Jewish day camp.  For the first time I felt held and supported through a sense of deeper meaning and connection to community. That fall I joined my synagogue’s youth group, and again, felt the tenderness of intimate communal belonging I had never known but so instinctively craved.  As I gently allowed myself to feel relevant and purposeful in these chosen communities, I saw myself defined not just by my own individual qualities, but by who I was in relation to the community.  It was a revelation.  Who I am is directly linked and impacted by who I am to you and who you are to me.  

It took me fifteen years to find that sense of belonging again.  I attended five colleges, nine programs in Israel, made Aliya, left Israel, and was a resident of more municipalities in America than I have fingers to count.  I dragged first my husband Yishai, and then our kids, around with me to numerous conventional communities, gauging the social climate, measuring, calculating, computing, and assessing all aspects of the prevailing social systems and interpersonal patterns.  And over, and over, and over again I was disappointed - sometimes despondent - over the inherent lack of intention and substance.  Yet I could not give up my search.  I was compelled to address the insistent demand I felt within - to belong to something bigger than myself; to define who I was in the context of something greater than my individual experience alone.

Despite finding a handful of secular intentional communities that seemed absolutely perfect for our family, when I seriously considered our ultimate life in one of them, I realized a non-Jewish community could not serve our purpose of social sustainability.  We would not be able to participate fully or authentically in community life without the aspects that define a Jewish community and resonate so profoundly for us.  Regular communal prayer, shared holidays and life cycle events, acknowledgment of Shabbat, awareness and consideration of kashrut, and the collective consciousness of almost four thousand years of shared history are all imperative to me.

Finally, last year, when a seasonal job was advertised with Teva, the Jewish environmental education program, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, I knew we had to seize the opportunity.  

Isabella Freedman is first and foremost a retreat center, hosting transformative theme-based Jewish retreats and rentals.  But for those lucky enough to find themselves a position there, as staff of the retreat center or Teva, or as participants in the Adamah farming fellowship, it also serves as a Jewish intentional community.  It is a short-term, cyclical community in that most people stay seasonally, for three to four months at a time.  There are approximately fifty people living and participating on-site at any given time, most of whom are single and between the ages of twenty to thirty.  Communal meals provide the setting for powerful relationship-building opportunities.

Yishai interviewed for the position and was offered the job.  We were met with some raised eyebrows and questioning expressions from family and friends.  Were we crazy?  How would we survive on so little?  Where would we live?  There was no on-site housing available for families.  No Jewish day school for our five year old.  No regular synagogue services.  Only three other families with children.

By moving to Isabella Freedman, we have chosen a lifestyle based on ideals.  Despite some very real obstacles, we are more content and fulfilled than we ever have been as a family.  Our children are growing up in a social environment much larger than we alone can provide.  They have many aunts and uncles that love them, teach them, discipline them, and watch over them.  The depth and meaning in the relationships that they are creating is palpable, and the single most important reason we live in community. Authentic access to other human beings is sorely lacking in society today.

We have had to use savings and live frugally, but the rewards have been life-changing. We have opportunities to develop deep, authentic relationships based on shared values such as environmental stewardship, a progressive stance on Judaism regardless of affiliation, Jewish farming, mindfulness and personal improvement, and committment to communal living.  The friendships we grow and nurture with members of our community serve to strengthen and enhance our own identities, interests, and independence as individuals, and ultimately, improve our relationships with each other as family members.

This type of community experience must become available to any Jew that desires it.  In order to proliferate the creation of Jewish intentional communities, my husband and I created New Jewish Communities, an internet forum where ideas and views on Jewish intentional community building can be exchanged for the purpose of 1) connecting people with existing, forming, and conceptualized projects of intentional Jewish community; and 2) establishing the first Jewish Ecovillage in America: an intergenerational community of people who are consciously committed to living Jewishly, in the same geographic location, with the intention of becoming more socially, economically and ecologically sustainable

There has been much support for the agenda of New Jewish Communities.  As a part of a growing global movement for a more sustainable world, these communities will integrate a supportive social environment with a low impact way of life.  They will connect Jews through active and deliberate social participation in a vibrant Jewish context.  They will strengthen and repair the individual, the family, Judaism and society by developing a system of mutual support that is becoming more difficult to achieve in conventional social systems.  In this way, New Jewish Communities will change the face of contemporary Jewish life, and I look forward to being a part of that transformation.


Rachael Cohen is a big-picture thinker, captivated by social systems and social change.  She believes in the process of community building as a means to remedy social disintegration and repair individual well-being.  Rachael has a masters degree in macro social work and community practice, as well as a certificate in nonprofit management.  She is currently working on relationship-based social change through the internet forum New Jewish Communities, and in Falls Village, CT, both at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and within the local community.  Rachael’s full time job is raising two marvelous daughters.

So guys, if you're interested in being part of the Jewish Intentional Communities movement, or just want to know more, join the facebook group

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Longing to Belong

Hi everybody.  I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve written a blog.  A while.  The main reason being that the last blog I wrote I couldn’t publish.  It was about the happenings between my husband and me.  And while I was somehow born with the desire to share ridiculous amounts of personal information with the world while lacking the most basic shame filter, my husband wasn’t.  Therefore, for the past few months I haven’t written because I didn’t have permission to write about what was going on with me at the time.  And I am really bad at writing about anything else.  In summation, my husband and I are working VERY hard on our relationship and will continue to do so, and now I am back because there is more happening in my life than marriage strife. 

Here is what’s trending in the microscopic world of me:  I went to the Jewish Intentional Communities Conference.  I went with my husband and three kids.  And can I just say, I AM NEVER SHARING ONE ROOM WITH MY WHOLE FAMILY FOR 4 DAYS EVER AGAIN!  I love them, they’re great, they don’t smell too bad.  But I am a terrible sleeper and I laid there every night, all night, fantasizing about throwing my kids off the bed and tossing their blankies and pillows after them.  See ya suckas! 

There is much to be said about the conference, the brilliant ideas, the incredible people, the connections, the talent, the fun.  But this blog is about me and my experiences so I’m going to ignore all that and go into my experience of being at a conference with 200 people.  I went from being excited to nervous to confident to insecure to extroverted to introverted and back again.  When we were broken into smaller groups and given a topic, I was able to be fully present, confident, opinionated (in a good way I think), and strong.  But walking into the dining hall with the tables filling up with the various clicks, and my high school—braces wearing—flat chested—squeaky voiced self, smiled awkwardly and scanned the room for a friendly, accepting face.  It’s a painful regression, but one that seems to be on complete autopilot.  The best I could manage was to acknowledge it, remind myself that I am ok, and sit. 

Through the conference we found that the common theme that united us all was the longing to belong.  My friend, Rachel Love Cohen, presented this idea so eloquently in a panel talk and maybe she’ll give me a copy of her speech so I could publish it here, because she said it better than I ever could.  But it resonated with us all.  We want to be part of Intentional Communities because we want to belong to something outside our nuclear family spheres.  We want to contribute and be needed and have a place and an extended family.  We want to live in connection with others beyond fair weather friends.  And since our world is so disconnected that half (or for some unfortunates among us, most) of our social interactions are virtual, we need community life. 

That is where we all felt a commonality.  But here it gets more painful for me.  You would think that at a conference full of Jewish hippie dreamers I would feel right at home.  I didn’t.  I felt that I was on the margin, just like I always feel I am on the margin of any community I’ve ever been a part of.  Because I’m not looking for diversity, plurality, equality.  I’m not a free-spirited hippie who is open to anything.  I am an observant Jew.  At least for now.  (My whole journey with Judaism is ever changing and shifting and I am unsure of exactly where I hold.)  And as an observant Jew, an inclusive community is actually quite exclusive.  I don’t want a community where my children can only eat in certain homes.  I don’t want a community where my desire for basic modesty imposes on your freedom.  I don’t want a community where Shabbos is kept in the shul but not in the homes.  And so, I feel alone. 

And I guess that is what scares me.  I always feel alone.  In a frum community I feel separate because I don’t know where I hold.  Because I question so much and at times need to take space from halacha to discover my heart connection with Torah.  Or sometimes I need to say, connection with Torah is not my priority right now.  And it’s really hard to do that in a traditionally frum community.  On the other hand, it’s hard to say that I want boundaries and rules in a hippie, live off the earth, community. 

Will I ever find a community of people with whom I feel I truly BELONG?  It is such a painful longing held so deep within me.  And of course I could say that as I go deeper within and create a calm and connected center inside, I may not desire it so strongly externally.  But I’m just not willing to wait for inner peace before I find MY community of people.  I want to go on my journey with them!  And be supported as I swerve near and far and be that community for others on their journeys.  And we can all listen to Journey together, ironically, but not, and cry out “DON’T STOP BELIEVING… JUST HOLD ON TO THAT FEE-EE-EE-EE-LING.”

And by the way, I sounded awesome in my head as I belted that out in caps.

And now for my GoodList:
1. My husband who was AMAZINGLY supportive throughout the whole conference
      2. Connecting with some incredible people (some I knew previously, some I didn’t) and hopefully    maintaining those connections
      3. Kosher food I didn’t have to cook for 4 days… and therefor no dishes!
      4. Eden and Ben.  The two awesome kiddos who became my kids’ besties
      5.   Listening to hippies belt out some old school Otis Redding around a campfire with guitars and banjos
      6. Watching my 2 year-old son do alef-bet yoga.  Freakin’ amazing
      7. Being inspired