Burning my head lighting Shabbat candles, singing in the choir, and just wondering how to pray…

Who burns her head lighting candles??? Seriously! Ok, Shabbat Shalom! I’m in Tsfat praying with a group of Jewish young adults at a spirituality/hiking/volunteering program called Livnot! Many of these Jews pray differently than I do. I’m torn between experimenting with new practices or sticking with the prayer I feel comfortable with. I don’t usually light Shabbat candles. I love saying the blessing with my congregation as a congregant lights them, but I haven’t had many experiences lighting them myself. I’m a rookie match lighter, but I see a bunch of girls lighting Shabbat candles, and I decide to light one.

I take the match and light the candle perfectly, and everything’s just dandy! But wait…it’s not over yet. I see girls putting their hands up to their heads and sort of covering their eyes which I’ve seen before, but I’ve never done myself. Why would I cover my face? Don’t I want to fully see the light? But this is a chance to be adventurous! This is a chance to try new things! I put my hands up to my head and OWWWWW OWWWWWW OWWWWWWWW I just burned my head because I accidentally pressed the match onto my forehead and didn’t exactly coordinate very well. Oops! 

So yes, I think I might be the first woman in the world to burn my head while performing the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles! This is an example of the consequences of copying people’s prayer and conforming to the crowd without understanding the meaning behind the mitzvah, prayer, or action. It reminds me of when we say Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh, and I go on my tippy-toes just like everybody else, but I have no idea why. On the other hand, in the K’dushah when we say, “Vkara zeh, el zeh Vamar” and people turn side to side, I do not turn side to side, and I remain still because I have no idea why they’re doing that, yet I have never asked anyone why or searched for more information. I need to start asking more questions and understanding different ways of prayer so that whether I do something or I don’t do something, I understand why. 

 

Sometimes praying feels weird. Whenever we begin to chant the Amida, and then its time for independent or silent prayer I feel different. Everyone around me seems to be reading the prayers, bowing their heads passionately, whispering words, and owning their prayers. And all I want to do is close my siddur and talk to God. Can’t I just talk to God? Can’t I just thank god and vent to god and ask god questions? But there are prayers for a reason. I must be missing the boat. Maybe liturgy class will answer this because then I’ll actually know what these prayers mean! Too many times, I find myself muttering words not knowing what I’m saying or feeling like I’m just stealing words that do not belong to me. Sometimes my prayer feels fake, and I know that God must know I’m thinking about making quesadillas for lunch while saying the V’ahavta. This is awful! Sometimes I’m just so much more into the dialogue with God when I’m in control of my words and prayers. I want an honest conversation, which is why I’m in love with Hitbodadut where you have free-flowing out-loud dialogue with God. Sometimes I love the prayers and it feels beautiful to say the same prayers my ancestors have said thousands of years ago, but sometimes I want to break free and do my own thing with God. Most of the time I just close my siddur and speak with God silently while people finish their prayers. I love speaking to God and having a few moments of stream of consciousness, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m missing something, and if maybe there’s a way to do both. It seems like we don’t have enough time to do it all when we pray; the time goes by so fast!

  

This was definitely my best high holiday experience of my life! Before I became very passionate about Judaism in the last 2 years, I used to have so much difficulty sitting through services because I never knew what was going on, and I can’t sit still that long. It never felt active. The choir used to annoy me because they’d sing all these songs and it felt like a performance while the rest of us sat there zoning out and thinking about the delicious meal waiting for us at home.

This year I was in the choir. I was alert! I knew the songs, I knew the prayers, and I felt like part of the service as opposed to some girl staring at the clock and counting the hours in how many episodes of Law and Order it would take before I could finally shove bagels in my mouth.

I felt a beautiful sense of holiness when I said these prayers and sang these songs with such heart because I practiced them and felt like I had a relationship with each one. I felt like I was inspiring. Then I remembered how I used to view the choir as an exclusive band gracing us with their talent but not realizing that none of us understood a word they were saying. I looked into the eyes of congregants and wondered whether or not they felt inspired and moved, or if they were just counting down the hours until they didn’t have to listen to me anymore. Now that I’m entering the path toward being a rabbi, I realize that I’m going to start knowing what things mean and feeling more comfortable with the liturgy. But I never want to forget what it feels like to be the bored congregant who feels like he/she knows nothing because that’s such a real experience for so many Jews in this world. Congregants needs to feel they have a role, their prayer should feel just as meaningful as the clergy or the choir. It’s not a show, and it’s not a hierarchy, we’re all just praying together. I’m also wondering what it’s going to be like to pray as a rabbi. I don’t want to be so focused on how I’m viewed by my congregation or how I’m doing my job that I’m not praying meaningfully because I’m too distracted. I won’t be inspired by a beautiful sermon, I’ll be giving it. Going to services will be part of my job, whereas in the last 2 years going to services has been a break or escape from my job. I wonder how it will feel, but I couldn’t be more excited, and I know it will be quite the journey.     

My Romantic Rendezvous with Havdallah

yupp hi

How could I fall in love with the end of Shabbat? It seems like a sin because Shabbat is this beautifully magical time overflowing with peace, comfort, and joy. It’s that holy breath of Halleluyah!  It’s the feeling of being wrapped in warm blankets, drinking a strawberry milkshake, and listening to THIRD EYE BLIND blasting ALL AT ONCE. It’s the let’s chill out, sing Lecha Dodi, dance our booties off, stuff our faces with challah, quench our thirst with the most delicious grape juice in the world (for wine detesters like me) and thank God we’re all holding hands together, enjoying this precious gift of life.

Shouldn’t I want Shabbat to last forever? Shouldn’t I want to hold onto it like it’s that last bite of ice cream at the bottom of the cone with the delicious chocolatey filling? I despise goodbyes, concluding paragraphs, airport farewells to Paul, and graduations—why on earth am I falling in love with the end of Shabbat?

Although I love Shabbat, I can’t help looking forward to the sweet swelling in my heart I feel during Havdallah. Havdallah is a Jewish ceremony that marks the symbolic end of Shabbat and brings in the new week. The ritual involves lighting a special havdallah candle with several wicks, blessing a cup of wine, and smelling sweet spices.

Now that I’m in rabbinical school in Jerusalem, I’m celebrating Havdallah every single week. When my classmates and I stand under the stars,link arms, play guitar, and sing the havdallah blessings with infinite amounts of joy and passion raining out of our bodies, I literally get tingles…and only the good kind.

I swear, it’s the fire. You don’t even understand: my eyes are hooked on that fire. Before the candle is dipped in the wine, and the fire jumps the plank, the fire is everything. I stare at it, hoping it stays alive forever and wishing this moment would never end, but I’m fully aware that in a couple of short moments it will be gone, and another Shabbat will be history. Crowding around the fire, we protect it from the wind like it’s royalty because in that moment, it truly is.

I cringe when the fire vanishes, but I know in my heart that in a week, Shabbat will be back in action, and then we will ultimately be performing our Havdallah ceremony all over again.

There’s something so comforting about the routine and stability Judaism adds to my life. Shabbat and Havdallah are reliable. They aren’t like those flaky friends who plan a deluxe vacation to Abu Dhabi and then cancel, leaving you lonely and in massive debt. No, as promised, Shabbat and Havdallah always return, and they remind me of my grandparents, always bringing me hugs, smiles, and presents from the 99 cents store!

So what if Havdallah brings Shabbat to an end? So what if Havdallah reminds us that Shabbat isn’t permanent? You know, there’s something stunningly gorgeous about how temporary Shabbat is, and Havdallah highlights this for me. While Shabbat gives me joy and happiness, Havdallah gives me hope and excitement that Shabbat’s coming back! It’s exhilarating to look forward to something, to count the days, to work hard and enjoy what you’re doing but at the same time know that eventually this magical force will strike back into your life like lightning on a warm summer night—you just need to wait patiently and soon you’ll be rewarded with the wonder and amazment all over again!

It’s running at Bear Mountain in Autumn and hearing the crunch of the red, orange, and yellow leaves. It’s hopping around Splash Park at summer camp! It’s reminiscing with my best friends, it’s giving and receiving a warm tight hug from my boyfriend! It’s something that doesn’t happen all year round or even every day, but I know it’s coming back.  Really, it’s “The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow” sort of deal because I hold onto it, I take it with me, and I REALLY KNOW that we’ll be reunited before I can say Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.   

You know, maybe Shabbat really is like that last bite of ice cream; if I hung onto it too long in hopes of savoring it and keeping it forever, we all know what would happen; tragedy would strike, and it would melt all over my hand! Havdallah reminds me to enjoy Shabbat before it turns into soup and to look forward to the pleasure which will one day be mine all over again.

BE OK with knowing NOTHING because guess what? You’re learning EVERYTHING!

So after being in Rabbinical School for one week, I can tell you one thing for sure: I’m DEFINITELY getting my money’s worth because I got off the plane knowing none of this, and I’m literally learning something new every other minute! Whether it’s a new song, prayer, Hebrew word, or Jewish idea, it’s all brand new! And another thing…they pray like ALL THE TIME here!

 Cool Things I’ve Learned: 

1. ANI MADEEFA OH-F ECHAD does not mean I PREFER NOBODY… it means I PREFER ONE CHICKEN! OFF ECHAD means nobody…I loved finding that one out in Ulpan class today when my teacher told me how cute I am with my one chicken! Hey maybe somebody will buy me some Kentucky Fried Chicken!! = )

2. Apparently you DO NOT wear TALLIT on Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat unless you are the rabbi or cantor leading the service…and apparently my rabbi and cantor at home were too polite to tell me I looked like a complete fool when I wore my tallit to Kabbalat services in America for the last month! Good times great oldies……W6.7

3. SMEEHOOT is a grammar rule, not a schwarma topping! Who know?

4. There are actually GROUPS of verbs that go together with rules and patterns! I’ve been teaching myself Hebrew for the last year with little guidance, and I had absolutely know idea and when I found this out, I honestly felt like I just SOLVED Hebrew and wanted to alert the authorities!

5. Sitting on the living room couch, singing TROP with your roommates can literally be more entertaining than robbing an ice cream shop. But…I’m serious. We’re learning to chant Torah, and it’s just insanely beautiful!

I feel like I came here knowing nothing, like I’m the underdog or imposter who shouldn’t really be here but somehow got the admission committee wasted enough to accept me into rabbinical school and now I’m the luckiest girl in the entire world every day that I’m here. Of course this isn’t true… Of course I deserve to be here, and I know I have the energy and passion, but sometimes it’s easy to forget I belong when everyone sings so beautifully and makes genius comments, and talks about NFTY and URJ CAMP and I’m like, say what????????as I sing like a walrus with tonsillitis!

And I don’t care how many friends encourage me and tell me I know stuff because at the end of the day, I’m TOTALLY fine with the fact that I know nothing because I know it sounds insane but I’m having fun learning! I remember learning Calculus, Shakespeare, AP BIOLOGY (OH GOD!), and constantly thinking, “Why do I need to learn this, why does this matter?” But right now I’m taking Hebrew, Cantallation, and Biblical History, and even when it’s not interesting, I still think, HOLY CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE DOUGH, I’m going to be a rabbi, and I want to learn this!

I always come back to this idea: I’m here for my future congregants! I need to be educated, I need to be motivated, I need to be determined, and I need to be experienced! There’s an entire religion to skydive into, and I’m just getting started!

So I know it’s going to be a constant pattern throughout the next 5 years that it seems like EVERYBODY around me knows something I’ve never heard of or that I’m the dumbest one in the room…but this is completely fine! Because I’m learning with the best, I’m learning FROM the best, and at the end of the day, I”M LEARNING.  

Goodbye Otzma, Shalom Rabbinical School

Goodbye Otzma, Shalom Rabbinical School

   Whoa…After spending 10 months volunteering in Israel on OTZMA, I felt like I really gained some hint of a clue. Going from FOOL to PRACTICALLY-SUPERSTAR, I learned a couple of Hebrew words, fell in love with an amazing boy, met the sweetest adoptive family in Karmiel, and made awesome friends in multiple cities. I climbed mountains, hiked the desert, ate buckets of hummus, sang Jewish songs and crawled through caves with random people who quickly became my best friends. I created a life here, but now this life has vanished into history like a magic trick gone tragic.

My Carmen Sandiego—superhero boyfriend, Paul, is heading to South America to save the world for a little while, and most of my friends are busy home-sweet-homing-it-up back in America, Russia, Australia, and pretty soon Ukraine (NO GALIA DON”T LEAVE I LOVE YOU!!!)

Why is everyone gone? And more importantly, why the hell am I still here all alone? Honestly, it feels like some dream-crushing life-thief shredded up my entire life and then buried the leftovers. Now I’m forced to start brand new. SICK JOKE! As I tiptoe through this foreign country feeling like a stranger, a newbie who doesn’t really know anyone or anything at all, I remember that it wasn’t too long ago that I was a proud OTZMAnik who referred to Israel as my home. 

But OTZMA continues to get smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror because I’m no longer an OTZMAnik. I’m an HUC rabbinical student, also known as a wanna-be rabbi with 5 long years ahead of me. I know what you’re thinking…HOLY ICE CREAM CONES!!! It’s just so odd to me because I’m walking down the streets of Jerusalem with these new incredible people, and I’m bombarded with memories from my old life. I walk by places where Paul made a funny joke or bought weird carrot juice he made me try and not going to lie, it tasted half-a-cup delicious. I walk by the train I used to take every day on my internship at Women of the Wall, but now I don’t take the train because who in their right mind can afford a Ravkav train pass? Not this girl! I see a biker, and I think it’ll be Marc, but it’s not. I see a runner, but it can’t be Elyssa because she’s in America. The people who became my life have exited stage left, and it’s just plain weird. Betty doesn’t send me the Sunday Letter, and I don’t even have to fill out the Shabbat Sign Out…doesn’t anyone care about me anymore??? The Kotel, the shook, even the bus station are just leaking with memories, some good, some bad, some completely beautiful in every way imaginable. And now it feels like none of that even happened…I must’ve just imagined it all. Here I am standing in the middle of King George street, overwhelmed with nostalgia, and missing people that won’t be making a guest appearance in my life for a very very long time.

But during all of Otzma, I was the wanna-be rabbinical student. All I talked about was getting into HUC. I wore my kippah, and I imagined a dream life. A life where I surrounded myself with other future rabbis, cantors, and educators with the same goals of changing the world with Judaism. Somehow I got my booty into Rabbinical school, and I’m never going to forget that I’m living my dream. It’ll never lose its magic, its wonder, its WHOA BABY I can actually achieve live my life as a blessing. So this isn’t Otzma. But Otzma raised me well, Otzma prepared me for the next step in my journey, and for that I’m eternally grateful. It’s been real Otzma, but I have to let you go now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eggs and Hatred Won’t Kill Prayer

As I smile at my alarm clock, ditch my cozy blankets, and jump out of bed before sunrise, I join my fellow Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion students as we set out on a holy mission. Heading over to the Kotel for Rosh Hodesh with Women of the Wall, we know that today we will strive for social justice—today we will chant our prayers and pray with all of our heart—today we will work toward liberating the Kotel once and for all.

This Rosh Hodesh Av, we joined women and men praying with tallitot, kippot, and tefillin as we celebrated the beginning of a new month. I felt like I was floating on a hammock of happiness while being surrounded by my Hebrew Union College classmates who share the same dream of becoming Reform rabbis, cantors, and educators and improving the world through Judaism. As we begin our new journey toward becoming Jewish leaders, we think about the long journey Women of the Wall has taken, and how far we have come toward freedom of prayer.

As I proudly wrapped myself inside my white and blue tallit, without panicking over the possibility of being arrested, I remembered to appreciate the feeling of freedom and security that used to be missing in action from the Kotel. Passionate and persistent women like Anat Hoffman and Lesley Sachs suffered as they got detained, arrested, and harassed repeatedly. Because of their dedication and perseverance, it is now possible for my classmates and me to lock away our fears and proudly wear tallitot.

Today, instead of focusing on being hit with flying chairs, Women of the Wall used a chair to lift up a young girl as she bubbled with excitement and celebrated her bat mitzvah at the Kotel. What a beautiful memory for this energetic young girl. What a beautiful time in our history that a girl has the right to put on tallit and celebrate her bat mitzvah in such a sacred space. Still, our journey for peaceful prayer at the Kotel is far from the finish line.

This morning Haredi men assaulted a female reporter. The police held Women of the Wall back from entering the women’s section. Overflowing with seminary girls, the women’s section did still appear to have some room for us, but we were blocked off from the area. Instead, we prayed near the entrance of the Kotel. Singing with joy and holding our prayer books up high, we prayed as we ignored protestors who blew whistles and booed loud enough to damage their vocal chords. It is sickening and disheartening to be booed by other Jews while saying the Shema, our anthem that joins Jews together as K’lal Yisrael. Imagine just how powerful it would be if every Jew at the Kotel said the Shema together as one. Instead, we hear a cacophony of praying, booing, and whistling.

When I hear whistling, screaming, and booing, I instantly feel like I am at a chaotic football game leaking with bad sportsmanship. Although we are all Jews, Rosh Hodesh at the Kotel feels like we are two opposing teams. It is as if we need uniforms, cheerleaders, and face paint because it turns into some sort of game or battle that neither team truly wins. The Kotel is supposed to be a place for peaceful prayer—a place where Jews have a space to pray the way they feel called to, to feel close to God, and to feel connected to their ancestors. Instead, Rosh Hodesh at the Kotel feels like a competition or a fight between Jews all praying to the same God.

I watched an egg bounce off the tallit of the woman next to me and crack onto the hot pavement. This egg instantly reminds me of an egg on a Seder plate for Passover—the holiday that connects every Jew at the Kotel—the holiday that celebrates the fact that as an entire people, we were freed from Egypt and brought into a covenant with our creator. We are all Jews, and I will never understand the idea of Jews hating Jews. A fellow rabbinical student told me that a couple years ago, he heard protestors make hateful comments to Women of the Wall supporters such as, “It’s people like you that made the Holocaust happen.” No matter how many hateful comments, eggs, or cries of anger accumulate over the years, we still remain hopeful. One day we will all pray together in peace at the Kotel—and that one day is sooner than it seems.

Literally Blessed

43 Shabbats. In the last year I’ve spent 43 Shabbats in the one and only Israel. Some were spent with my adoptive family, some were spent in a synagogue, some were spent in a mercaz klita (immigration absorption center) and some were spent at Shabbat-luck dinners with some of the nicest friends and best chefs I’ve ever met. One thing about my Shabbat experiences was always consistent: I secretly imagined myself celebrating at Temple Beth Sholom–my favorite place in the entire world–the place that inspired me to become a rabbi.

What is so fantastically delicious about going to Shabbat services at Temple Beth Sholom? It is the smile on every congregant’s face as we sing “Lecha Dodi” and “Yismahu.” It is the holiness sweeping through us as we chant the “V’ahavta,” and as we proudly say the “Sh’ma” like it is our anthem. It is the joy I get when I look into the cantor’s eyes and catch every drop of her contagious enthusiasm. It is the fact that my rabbi’s sermons stick with me and inspire me to be the best Jew I can be. It is the camaraderie and the community formed within our congregation, and most of all it is the closeness I feel to God. Synagogue is my home. It is where I love to be; it is where I need to be.

While in Israel, I had an array of diverse experiences, and I met Jews from all streams of Judaism. I spent Shabbat praying in ways I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable like in Orthodox synagogues where men and women are separated by a m’chitzah or in homes where I was told my Hebrew name lacked legitimacy because I’m a girl and I was named after my Grandpa. I’ve spent Shabbat chanting prayers in tunes I’ve never heard, and saying the Amidah silently when I’m used to shouting it out with excitement. I’ve spent Shabbat sitting in a circle and spending 2 hours hearing where other young adults come from Jewishly, and I’ve spent Shabbat repeatedly watching a Youtube video of a Temple Beth Sholom service and wishing on every star that I could just teleport myself into our sanctuary and pray the way I know, the way I’m used to, and the way I feel comfortable. I’m blessed to have been surrounded by such Jewish diversity, I’m blessed to have spent Shabbat in Israel, and I’m blessed to have learned new ways to celebrate Judaism…but no matter where I go or what I learn, it’ll never feel as special and as holy as it feels at Temple Beth Sholom.

After spending 10 months volunteering in Israel, last week I FINALLY came back to America and got to spend Shabbat at my temple. It wasn’t like one of those things you look forward to and build up for months and months and then it sucks and you’re disappointed; it wasn’t like flat orange soda or a crummy camp reunion. It was exactly as magical and holy and beautiful as I remembered. I sang Heal Us Now and Oseh Shalom with my choir on the bimah. I hugged friends and congregants I hadn’t prayed with in way too long. I watched a 13-year-old girl get ready for her bat mitzvah, and I remembered when I stood on this same bimah for my bat mitzvah 9 years ago. Best of all: I wore a tallit and a kippah without feeling judged or hated like I am at the Kotel.

My rabbi and cantor called me onto the Bimah for a blessing. They each put a hand on one of my shoulders, and then they blessed me. I wish I was paying attention! I wish I remembered a word they said, and I wish I could tell you what the blessing entailed, but I was fully in the zone. In this moment I swear my smile was so ridiculously wide that the dimple on my right cheek got smushed out the window. I almost cried, but it was like my smile beat the tears at rock paper scissor shoot because I couldn’t even cry, I couldn’t even tear up! I couldn’t even stop exploding with happiness and awe for one second. Because this bimah is where it all happened. This bimah is where I had my baby naming ceremony–this bimah is where I had my pre-school graduation–this bimah is where I had my Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation–this bimah is where I stand RIGHT NOW as my congregation celebrates the fact that in 5 years I will be Rabbi Jenn Maggin.

In 3 weeks I will begin Rabbinical School at Hebrew Union College: Jewish Institute of Religion. 1 year in Israel and then 4 years in Cincinnati. For so long this was all a dream–a fantasy that I needed to turn into a reality. 2 years ago when I gave birth to this dream, I was a graduate student at Teachers College: Columbia University completing my Masters in English Education but dreaming for so much more. All I remember is waiting at Secaucus Junction. Countless trips to Sbarro pizza on the second level of Secaucus Junction as I waited for my 10:45 train and avoided falling asleep on the left over pizza crust. Countless walks around the station as I’d think about how I was caught between two lives, the life I was currently living as an almost ELA teacher and the life I wanted to be living as a rabbinical student and someday a rabbi. I felt like I’d always be stuck; I felt like I’d always be waiting. Secaucus Junction: The place in the middle of nowhere that gets you somewhere. Well the train came. I’m finally where I want to be. It’s funny that my rabbi and cantor blessed me at Shabbat services…because in this moment, and in this time in my life, I couldn’t possibly feel a drop more blessed.

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