Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Today is Tuesday, a workday, that I've chosen to take off for a number of reasons.  When I originally asked for the day, I intended to drive to St Louis to surprise my family and visit my hometown.  Circumstances prevented me from doing so, but since I had the date already reserved as 'off', I decided to stick with it.  Throughout the last week, I debated my decision, questioning whether or not it's important enough for me to take off when I didn't really have a good reason to do so; I'm not sick, I'm not in St Louis, I'm not really doing anything worthy of a day away from the office.

And I'm sick with guilt, and afraid of what my colleagues (who don't normally do this sort of thing, at least to the best of my knowledge) might be thinking of their first year Cantor, taking off when she doesn't really need to.


This day is good for my sanity.  After all, I have plenty of unused vacation days stored up.  I've already tackled one of the two mountains of laundry that have been staring me in the face for weeks, and I'll tackle the next one later today.  I'm heading out for a walk in a bit, something I haven't done in a long time.  I'm sipping coffee and attempting to come to peace with yesterday's tragedy.  I'm initiating conversations with my aunt and mom about wedding planning and hoping to get on the ball.  I'm thinking ahead to tonight's board meeting, which I have every intention of attending.  I'm allowing myself the day to rest and recharge and reconnect with myself.  I know that come tomorrow, I'll work harder and be a better Cantor because of what I did today.

And then...the guilt pops in.

The guilt that I won't see my 4th graders today and someone else will.
The guilt that my co-clergy and other staff are working today and I'm not.
The guilt that I don't have children at home who demand attention whenever I'm not working.
The guilt that I'm not in St Louis and have no legitimate reason for taking the day off.
The guilt that I could be working harder today than I am.

It's amazing how I can delegitimize my life because my responsibilities and roles are different from that of my colleagues'.  My life is still my own, full of complications and stresses and difficulties, even though I don't have a family or an overabundant workload.  As much as I try to remind myself that it's unnecessary and unhelpful to compare my life to others, I can't help but carry the guilt of having it relatively easy--even if, to me, it's isn't always.

It's days like today when I realize how many growing edges I still possess in realms both personal and professional.  Maybe someday I'll learn to set aside the guilt and just enjoy this peaceful day off, without fear that anyone is looking down on me for taking it.  Or maybe not.

I don't exactly know why, but I've been feeling pulled back to this space as of late.  So much has changed since my last post over 18 months ago, in ways good, great, and huge, and I've been missing this outlet I once used regularly to help make sense of the happenings in my life.

Since September 11, 2011, I have: Finished school.  Accepted a position as Cantor at a congregation in Nashville, TN.  Said goodbye to my student life in NYC and hello to my professional life in Nashville.  Found an apartment free of rodents and ridiculous rent, with a gym, swimming pools, and loads of glorious space (not to mention a DISHWASHER and WASHER AND DRYER!!!).  Entered a new decade.  Fell in love with a wonderful man, happily allowed him to move into my apartment, and even more happily agreed to marry him.  Begun to figure out the intricacies of being a clergy person and working in a professional environment.  Transitioned in more ways than I could ever imagine in the space of 18 months.

Lots of change, indeed.  All of it good and exactly as it should be, but not without challenges and my fair share of struggle.  As I reflect upon the past year, I've had to wrestle as I attempt to figure out who the hell I'm meant to be in many aspects of my life, once again.  Perhaps it's this inner fight that's bringing me back to this place that, even 18 months later, still feels like the one constant home I've had all along the journey of the last 6 years of my life.

Who knows how often I'll post, if ever again.  But for now, I can say with absolute certainty that I'm glad to be home.  And I hope to take my coat off and stay awhile.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11, 2001--Ten Years Later

Many of you who know me know that I am someone who does not watch the news on a regular basis. It's difficult for me to absorb all of the sadness, the despair, the cruelty, the destruction, and the suffering that occur in our world on a regular basis. I DO care about the world around me, and I like to know what's going on; but it's hard to watch these terrible things happen, knowing there is so much behind the madness that I could will understand and so little I can really do to help. Whenever I hear about the terrible events that occur in the world, I'm forced to question the very core my belief system, that God and prayer and time and the goodness of humankind can solve any problem. Though I know it's both perfectly healthy and very Jewish to be confused about such beliefs, it's uncomfortable to be shaken up in this way, especially when I have to help others through their own confusion. I know I don't need to have all the answers and I know that I actually bring some comfort to people when I can admit that I'm just as confused about my beliefs as they are. We're all human beings, after all. But still, I want to help the people around me believe as strongly as I do that the world makes sense, and that God, prayer, time and the goodness of humankind really can make this world a better place.

Being in New York City on September 11, 2011--10 years after our country was shaken and devastated in a way none of us have ever experienced--feels so different than any other anniversary of that terrible day. There have been threats of another terrorist attack on the city at some point this weekend/week, and those who were here 10 years ago are noticeably frightened. At my voice lesson on Friday in Midtown Manhattan, my teacher turned around to the window with every siren that went by. I couldn't help but see the fear in her eyes and hear the sighs of both worry and relief as the sirens faded. As I drove to New Jersey with friends yesterday, cars and trucks were being pulled over and searched as they made their way into and out of the city. All weekend New Yorkers on the streets have seemed to be more concerned than normal about the people and packages on the streets around them. Everyone is nervous that someone might happen--everyone knows how easily something COULD happen.

Last week's Torah portion, Ki Teitze, teaches us that we can not be indifferent to the world around us. We need to think of ourselves, of course, but we also need to care for the simplest beings--human, land and animal--all around us. In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we are taught what to do when we enter the promised land of Israel and how we can appropriately thank God for arriving safely to this place. Today, I find myself caught between the messages of the 2 portions: the nagging realization that I can not be indifferent to--or simply forget--the upsetting events that shake me, along with the reminder to be thankful to God for this land I am blessed to live in. I am thinking also of the many deeds of lovingkindness that occur out of events as tragic as 9/11. Perhaps it is the perfect timing of these two Torah portions with this important anniversary that moves me to see these honorable acts of humanity all the more clearly and to pay more attention to everything that surrounds me.

Yes, there is sadness and destruction. Yes, there is hurt and desperation. No, I can not fix everything. But I can do something, many things, to work towards peace in whatever large or small ways I can. I hold this to be true. THIS I can preach and believe in with unwavering faith.

As we drove home from New Jersey to Astoria last night, my friends and I couldn't help but notice the pillars of light that shine nightly where the towers once stood. We rode past in a moment of silence, thinking of how all of us and our country have changed since that painful day 10 years ago. I was struck by the images of the lights coming out of the darkness--the lights of hope, of faith, of perseverance. I pray that each of us can resemble those lights, allowing the horrific events of 10 years ago to inspire us to shine ever more brightly, to see the goodness that arises even in the worst of times, and to do what we can to build a more peaceful world.

May we remember always.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hurricane Irene = Sunny Day Irene

Thanks for keeping up with me through the storm, folks. I'm okay! Turns out that it was more of a scare than anything, which is always a good thing. I'm currently hanging out at my friend Marsha's apartment, where I've been since about 6pm last night--we've had some heavy rain and rough winds, but our power in intact and we are perfectly safe. The sun is trying to peek out of the clouds as a means of telling us the worst is over. A few Astoria friends have already contacted me about meeting up for dinner later to celebrate the disaster that wasn't.

Marsha has truly been the hostess with the mostess--she made me DELICIOUS baked spinach ziti for dinner, provided me with a very comfortable couch to sleep on, and is now hard at work making me banana pancakes for breakfast as I blog and sip my iced coffee. I'm feeling incredibly blessed and lucky this morning to have such good friends in the area who help me to feel safe and secure in troubling times. It's really hitting me that a.) a year ago, I would have been alone right now and b.) I'll be leaving all of these wonderful people in less than a year. I'm so blessed to have finally found a community and made a life for myself, so I'm trying to push the negative thoughts out of my head and focus on the blessings that are abundant in my life right now. I'm feeling SO, SO fortunate that it doesn't make any sense to think about anything else besides gratitude.

I woke up singing the new melody for Psalm 150 that I learned at Kallah. How appropriate for "everything that breathes" to praise God on a day like today. I know I am breathing in all of the friendship, love and many blessings in my life.

And breathing out a huge sigh of relief.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Come On, Irene

So, you may have heard there's a little storm coming our way.

This post is mainly to assure everyone who might be worried (and it turns out there are a lot of you...thank you for your care and concern) that I'm okay for now. I've taken all of the necessary precautions and stocked up on important items: water, food, batteries, flashlights, chocolate, etc. I've shut my windows tightly, done lots of laundry, and charged up my computers and phones to full power. I've printed out emergency numbers and NYC's recommendations for what to do if/when the hurricane strikes--the printouts are sitting safely on my dresser, as far from the window as can be.

I am NOT in an evacuation zone. Trust me when I tell you that if I were, I'd be typing this post from somewhere else. I strongly considered getting out of dodge, especially when I had a zillion gracious offers from people in York, DC and Jersey. If I thought I needed to leave, I'd leave--I'm no fool. I've been checking with some friends in the neighborhood who are also sticking around, and I will join them for the evening if a.) I'm really feeling scared/alone and b.) I can safely leave my apartment to get to them. The fact that they'll be staying in the neighborhood, whether or not I'll physically be with them during the storm, is actually a great comfort to me. In addition, it seems as though most of my neighborhood is sticking around to weather the storm; no one seems panicked, though they're taking precautions just as I am.

If I've learned anything the last few days, it's that I have a whole lotta people who love me and want me to be safe. I've had countless emails, phone calls, texts, tweets, and Facebook messages demanding that I get my butt outta here and/or reminding me to buy enough necessities for the coming days. I've had offers from people to come and stay with them (and stay as long as need be.) I've had friends/family who've asked that I stay in constant contact when the storm hits. It's incredibly wonderful to know that I have so much love and support--it makes riding out the storm alone seem a little less lonely. It's nice to be reminded of how much I am cared for, even when people--my mother, mostly--are screaming at me to get on a plane and come home.

It's also nice to know that, finally, I have a community of people right here in Astoria who I can lean on if things get really bad. That might be the most reassuring thing of all for a variety of reasons.

As it turns out, FEMA is instructing people to use social media as a means of contacting friends and family, rather than tying up the phone lines. I plan on posting to both Facebook and Twitter (you don't have to be a member of Twitter to follow me...just go to http://twitter.com/#!/tlf1982) as often as possible, so I ask that you please check those sites before calling my cell phone.

Thank you all again for your love and thoughtfulness. I love you for loving me so much, and for being the caring people that you are.

Until next time, I leave us all with the following prayer for weathering the storms--both the physical and the personal: Blessed are You, Source of Life and Nature, whose awesome power and strength fill our world and inspire us to be strong in the face of all of life's difficulties.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Summer 2011

Tomorrow is my last first day of school. Ever.
Today is my last day of "official" summer vacation as a student. Ever.

Today was my last day of freedom, the last day of this wonderful summer that has helped me learn how to love the amazing city I've lived in for the last 3 years. I started the day with brunch at a fantastic Moroccan restaurant in St Mark's Place with friends, followed by shopping, a flash-mob in Union Square, more shopping, Sarah's Key at the Paris movie theater, and Mexican food in Turtle Bay. It was the perfect New York day; beautiful weather, great friends, good eats, lots of laughter and culture. I'm already wishing I could go back and relive this day, and it's not even completely over yet.

As I departed from my friends after dinner, I took some time to walk around the city alone before heading home. I thought about how the many ways this summer has changed me; for the first time ever, I can actually see myself spending a little more time here after I'm done with school. I have finally found a circle of friends that give me the love, support, and social life I've been craving the last 3 years. I've been dating and meeting new people and seeing all kinds of amazing sites. I've learned how to appreciate the beauty all around me in this city--the architecture, the lights, the diversity, the culture, the energy. Now that I'm preparing myself to leave, I've fallen in love with the life I've built for myself in the city I was always excited to move away from.

I know I still have 10 months to enjoy and experience NYC, which I plan to do to the fullest. However, I can't help but feel a little sad that this amazing 3 months has not only passed by so quickly, but has come to an end. Tomorrow, as I hop on the bus for my 4th and final HUC Kallah, my carefree days of exploring will be over and real life will begin once again.

More than anything, however, I'm feeling so thankful for the last 3 months and the friends I've shared them with. It feels really, really good to have found my peace with New York City and come to realize how and why so many people love it here. Could I ever stay here permanently? I doubt it. I'm happy to know, though, that I'll always look back on my time here and smile--mostly because of this amazing summer. This summer has been an incredible blessing, and I pray the good energy carries over into this (big) school year.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fourth Year Highlights

I wish I had the time to talk all about my fourth year of cantorial school in detail. Since I don't, however, I'll share some highlights (and one particularly awful low-light) with you. This year was huge in terms of professional and academic growth, but for the most part, I'd like to talk about the moments that made me the most proud, thankful, and happy.

Debbie Friedman (z"l) Concert
On November 6, 2010, I was privileged to sing in a concert at Temple Israel in celebration of the newest rabbis. The concert featured none other than my friend and teacher Debbie Friedman. Debbie was a professor at HUC-NYC until this past school year, when she returned to Los Angeles to be closer to her family. When I found out that she'd be performing at my home congregation the same week as I'd be visiting for my cousin's bridal shower, I emailed her to ask if I could join her on the bimah for the concert. Being the sweet soul that she was, she graciously agreed and allowed me to sing an ENTIRE song with her playing guitar in the background. The entire time, I expected to sing WITH Debbie, not IN PLACE of Debbie--to sing her song "Mourning Into Dancing" by myself, with her smiling and kvelling at me in front of so many people from my home congregation, was a thrill and honor I'll never forget.

Performing at Temple Israel with Debbie Friedman z"l

Debbie passed away rather suddenly from pneumonia on January 9, 2011. The loss that the entire Jewish community suffered when she died is still radiating through our veins; there isn't a day that passes that I don't think of Debbie, or miss her terribly. Her passing makes me even more grateful that I had the wonderful opportunity to learn from her, to sing with her, to connect with her on so many levels, and to play and sing her songs. My life is forever changed because of the impact she had on me and my Jewish identity, musical and otherwise, and she will forever be an angel that guides me through everything I do.

Julius Chajes Practicum
I must admit that when I received my practicum assignment at the end of my third year, I was terribly disappointed to have been given a composer I'd never heard of. I was hoping to sing the music and dive into the life of Charles Davidson, or Max Helfman, or another composer I was actually familiar with. However, as soon as I heard the opening riffs of Chajes' beautiful compositions, I fell in love. His writing style so beautifully described the Israeli deserts and "Palestinian Nights" the texts spoke of. I shared this practicum with my classmate Michelle, and we both agreed that the work we did with the choir, cellist, clarinetist, organist, and pianist was so worthwhile in the end. There is much I could say about what I learned from singing Chajes' exquisite music, but I'd rather leave you with a video of my performance of "By the rivers of Babylon." I must say, I really earned my stripes with this piece, and while I know it's pitchy in spots, I'm proud of my performance and to have this piece solidly stored in my repertoire. (I'm sorry it's sideways, BTW...I couldn't figure out how to rotate it.)

"By the rivers of Babylon", composed by Julius Chajes, accompanied by pianist Joyce Rosenzweig and cellist Elizabeth Thompson

Wandering Jews of Astoria
This year, I have been incredibly active with the Wandering Jews of Astoria, a 20-30's group of Jews that meet for a monthly Shabbat service and potluck dinner, as well as a few social events throughout the year. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of this group, which has helped me to make wonderful friends in Astoria and feel like an integral part of the community. For the first time ever, I feel as though I have a core group of friends that has nothing to do with Hebrew Union College, people I can call upon should an emergency arise (God forbid!) or I need help with anything. In March, I hosted a Shabbat minyan in my apartment, where I somehow fit 22-people in my apartment and everyone made it out alive. I've taken on the role of t'fillah coordinator/teacher, in which I help those who are not comfortable leading a Shabbat service learn how to do so. It's a fun role for me to take on, and I love knowing that the minyan will be able to continue on even after the HUC members graduate and move away from the area.

Wandering Jews Chanukah party

Michael, myself and Marsha (all proud Wandering Jews) at the Mets game

At the end of our fourth year, all HUC-NYC rabbinic and cantorial students graduate with their Masters degrees. This year, I was proud to walk across the stage at Temple Emanu-el as I earned my Masters in Sacred Music degree from the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. As we prepared for the ceremony, most of us went in thinking the ceremony would amount to, "Mazal tov, you have another year of school, a thesis to write, and a recital to prepare before you actually become anything of importance! Good for you!" I think we were all surprised to find that the ceremony was actually beautiful, and that we all felt excited and optimistic about the exciting year ahead. While none of my family members were able to attend the ceremony, I was tremendously honored by the presence of "The Barbaras"--the president and immediate past-president of Temple Beth Israel, my student congregation in York, PA. The evening turned out to be very special, and I'm glad that our attitudes changed as the ceremony progressed.

After 4 years together, we have Masters Degrees in Sacred Music!

Hava Nashira
These Hebrew words, meaning, "Come, let us sing!" are actually the name of a program held every summer at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Founded by Debbie Friedman, Hava Nashira is a yearly gathering of songleaders, cantors, and Jewish music lovers from around the country. Together, we sing (a LOT), learn, teach and network with those who love Jewish music as much as we all do. It was truly an honor to attend this conference this year and to learn from the leaders in contemporary Jewish music
. I took one-on-one workshops with Cantor Jeff Klepper (Shalom Rav, anyone?), Peter and Ellen Allard, Cantor Ellen Dreskin, Josh Nelson, Merri Lovinger Arian, and Shira Kline (with special appearances by other amazing teachers) and learned more than I could possibly imagine.

Vicky, Benjie, Julia and I after lunch at Hava Nashira

The most amazing part of Hava Nashira, however, was Shabbat. Far and away, this was the most amazing Shabbat experience I've ever participated in; there was so much energy, so much spirituality, so much love and singing and appreciation of being Jewish that it was impossible to hold back our emotion. As I looked around the room, which was practically buzzing from the energy of our incredible harmonies, I saw tears falling down almost everyones cheeks (including my own.) I wish I could share some of that with you in some way, but unless you're there for yourself, words or recordings or descriptions can't do justice to such an amazing Shabbat.

There are so many other things I could talk about in this post, like the amazing summer I've had in New York City, but I will save them for another day. Hopefully, year 5 will be discussed much more thoroughly, on a much more regular basis!

Blog Resurrection

I can't believe it's been over a year since I last posted here. It seemed that for awhile during my 3rd year of school, my life became rather monotonous: school, work, study, repeat. I didn't have nearly as much to say as I once did, when life in Israel and my first year in NYC were so exciting and new. While I was always experiencing new things through HUC and my pulpit work, none of them seemed particularly blog-worthy or special, thus I lost my motivation to write about them.

Now, however, life seems to be taking a dramatic turn once again. Or at least it will, as my last year of school begins and I transition from cantorial student to fully invested (or--as it would seem--ordained) cantor. This year feels different from any other; it's my last year as a student, and in some ways, it feels like my last year as a "kid." From this point forward, life will become all about grown-up things: thesis, recital, job-hunting, saying goodbye, moving and starting over yet again. Now that I think about it, it almost feels the same as when I was preparing to leave for Israel, when a whole new chapter of my life was about to begin, when I had no idea what the future would hold or where the next 5 years would take me. What a journey it's been, and what I journey it will continue to be as I work, study and sing my way through my last year of cantorial school.

I'm sure this year is going to bring big things professionally and personally, in ways I've never experienced before. For so many reasons, I hope you'll join me as I close the HUC chapter of my life and open myself up to whatever comes my way from this point forward.

Friday, July 23, 2010

My Theology of Pastoral Care

As one of our classroom assignments for CPE, we had to write a paper about how our theology has changed (if at all) from the beginning of the unit. We were each required to read aloud and lead a class discussion on our papers in class. These discussions were, not surprisingly, incredible. This is the paper I presented, showing not only how my relationship with God has changed, but also how I have grown into a Pastoral Care Giver over the last 8 weeks.

Prior to stepping into the Health Care Chaplaincy building on June 3, I honestly believed that CPE would be a program geared solely towards helping patients in a hospital. I came in prepared to deal with the emotions that are connected to the illnesses of my patients. I had no idea that the program would actually be focused on me as the Chaplain—my past experiences, my transference and/or counter-transference, my feelings in the present moment, and my own growth as both a Chaplain and a member of the clergy. As I sat in the chapel during that first hour of the program, I realized this summer was going to turn my life around in ways I never could have expected; I realized that in order to be the best, most effective Chaplain I could be towards others, I would have to come to terms with the hardships in my own life. I also came to learn that much of my relationship with God, which I’d worked so hard to foster since my troubling high school years, was going to be questioned all over again. The comfort and peace I’d found through singing God’s praises were both stripped away as I walked into the rooms of my patients, using only my words, experiences, and skills that I’m just now learning I really do possess.

As a cantorial student, I’ve always found my relationship to God to be most evident when Jewish texts are juxtaposed with melodies sung in a heartfelt, meaningful manner. I believe that through my own singing, or by listening to others sing around me, that God hears my truest, most deeply hidden thoughts and prayers. The music creates a pathway that connects my soul to God, and vice-versa. On the first day of CPE, when Bonita’s (our supervisor) very first sentence to me was that I would not be allowed to sing with my patients, I worried that I could not create the same sacred, important connections between the people in the hospital rooms and God. Bonita said to us later that day that “you are enough” and while I believed her, a part of me felt concerned that by cutting off such a deeply rooted part of my spirituality, I would not be able to be me—and therefore—I would not be enough. My own insecurities were thrust into the limelight by taking away the one thing that has always made me the feel most comfortable around people. My sense of authority—clerical, pastoral or otherwise—was challenged in a way it had never been challenged before, and my fears led me to believe I was not the Chaplain I wanted to be.

Along with the insecurities derived from turning off my inner music box, I was also hit hard by the harsh realities of life as a pastoral care giver. In listening to my patients’ stories, I had a difficult time setting aside the personal issues that these stories brought up in me. It became clear from the beginning that the inner conflicts I had worked so hard to either resolve or put on the shelf were not going to stay put so easily. These issues were made even clearer because of the loneliness I so often experience living alone in New York City. I began to question God’s purpose in bringing these concerns into my life once again at this moment, when I was trying my best to not only bring comfort to my patients, but also to survive in a city I am not comfortable living in. The questions grew stronger and more intense as I learned about my mother’s prescription for dialysis, which was exactly what I prayed she would NOT have to eventually endure. It all seemed like a cruel joke, as though God was in some ways laughing at me, saying “I had you fooled, Fishbein!” My own anger and questioning towards God had me questioning the use and purpose of prayer within my patient visits; it seemed hypocritical of me to offer words of prayer when I myself felt as though many of my own prayers went unheard. Though I offered to pray with most of my patients, the prayers felt inauthentic, as if God had never entered the room for either the patient or myself.

It was only a couple of weeks ago when I had 2 major revelations that changed my chaplaincy and relationship with God for the better. First, I began finding time everyday to pray to God on behalf of myself. Despite my anger, I tried to keep the lines of communication open, asking the Divine to grant me the calm presence and peace of mind I was desperately needing. I found that praying for myself allowed me to feel less angry, to more easily leave my problems in a “box” by the patients’ door, and to listen with greater intent and ability to the stories and meta-stories of my patients. Second, I realized the gift that comes with negative experiences in the life of the Chaplain. By living through a vast array of painful occurrences, I had a wealth of spiritual and intellectual commonalities with my patients. While I can not exactly understand what they themselves are going through in their hospital bed, I can understand some of the feelings and spiritual dynamics involved with serious medical conditions. By allowing myself to use my past experiences in “use of self” moments with patients, a whole new world of personal and spiritual connection was created. By exploring and utilizing these revelations, I have been able to more clearly see how my baggage is, in part at least, God’s gift to me as a Chaplain. My personal struggles allow my patients and I to feel comfortable around each other, and give me the ability to bring God into the room and (hopefully) keep God’s presence in the room once I’ve left. These revelations also, somewhat strangely, help me to feel a bit less alone in New York City; just as my patients relate in some ways to my past experiences, I relate in some ways to their present ones. Those relations—where we as strangers can connect as people—are the places in which God is truly the most present. In many ways, those connections have the same power as the combination of a beautiful melody with a significant text. It is through this realization that I became aware of the fact that I, even without music and singing, am enough as a Chaplain.

Throughout the summer, there has been one text that has run through my mind over and over again in relation to my work as a Chaplain. The following words sum up the evolution of my relationship with God, and with Chaplaincy, this summer:

I wait for God, I seek God’s presence, hoping for an answer to prayer. In the midst of the people, O God, I extol Your might and celebrate Your deeds in joyous song.

We must purify our hearts, and the Eternal One will answer our prayer.

Eternal God, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your glory. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to You, O God, my Rock and my Redeemer.

-Ochila La’El, Gates of Repentence page 411

As I began this process, I believed that the best way I could pray to God on behalf of both the people I serve AND myself was to pray through song. Through the song, I sought and felt God’s presence with me. I have learned, however, that in order to be an efficient and genuine Chaplain, I need to wrestle with God on occasion, questioning and even doubting God’s role in the events of my life. Through my struggles this summer, I have become more in touch with myself and my role as a pastoral care giver. I have opened myself up to new relationships with others, which have led to new and exciting pathways to the Divine. Now, as I slowly gain confidence in my pastoral skills, I pray that the words we speak together reach God in the way I feel they do. I pray that God continue to give both myself and the patients I work with the courage to say what is true, and the ability to continue to realize God’s presence within human connections.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

CPE: First Reflections

Summer 2010 is going to be intense.

I've just finished my first full week of my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) summer program, taking place at Beth Israel Medical Center in downtown NYC. This week has been pretty tame in comparison to what's yet to come, since we haven't officially began working in the hospital yet, though already we're learning a lot about pastoral care and counseling. Moreso, however, each member of my group has learned a tremendous amount about each other and ourselves, and how we can apply all of these new personal discoveries to the work we'll be doing with our patients.

This particular program is comprised of people of all religions, working together to learn how to become multi-faith hospital chaplains. We administer pastoral care to all people, whether or not they share our religious beliefs. Because of this, I have learned a tremendous amount about the faiths of my group members. My group is comprised of 3 HUC students (myself and 2 rabbinical students--one from my class, one from the class above me), 1 JTS student, 3 Episcopalian students studying to become priests, and one Muslim imam. It has been a truly wonderful experience to open my eyes to the customs and beliefs of my classmates (both Jewish AND non-Jewish) and to share my own Jewish customs with others. I already feel more sensitive to the spiritual needs of my patients because of what I've learned from my classmates. This experience has also sparked a previously unrecognized interest in interfaith work, both inside and outside the world of hospital chaplaincy. I continue to be amazed at the commonalities between all of us; our beliefs are different, but all of us have the same goal: to help our congregants connect to God in whatever ways our jobs allow us to. It's a very powerful realization that has given me a huge amount of respect for clergy people across the board.

Like I said, we haven't begun our work with patients as of yet. So far, the program has focused on the kinds visits we're meant to have. Pastoral care is so very different than a visit from a doctor, nurse, family member, or clergy person. These people are meant to provide care from a glass-half-full perspective; they are the patients' cheerleaders and positive-thinkers. They are the ones who tell the patients that they are going to beat their cancer or disease and feel better very soon. Pastoral care focuses on a glass-half-empty perspective, giving the people we see a chance to talk about their fears, their pains, their heartaches. Our job is to allow them to realize and externalize the frustrations that come with being at the hospital, and the disappointments and anguish that accompany terminal illness and death. Once they've done that to whatever degree our 15-20 minute visits will allow, we offer them a custom-made, spontaneous prayer to God that offers relief from pain and suffering and whatever comforts God is able to provide.

Obviously the process is difficult and frightening for both the patient and the chaplain. Confronting one's most substantial regrets, fears, weaknesses, and feelings is never easy. To demonstrate this to us on a level we can understand (since none of us, thank God, is near-death), we've had to participate in a lot of exercises to draw out some of our most hidden secrets and anxieties. This week has been emotionally exhausting in that sense, but I really have come to understand a little bit of how our patients feel as they go through this experience. I've thought a lot about my life, particularly the down times, as I've gone through this process. It's not fun and it feels never ending, but it's important to me as a chaplain and as a human being. It has also, even in just one week, helped me to connect to God in a way I never have before. In some sense, I feel God's presence with me in a very different way--one that is difficult for me to explain in words, but is easy for me to feel. I look forward to exploring this newfound relationship as the weeks go by and I begin to work with my patients.

We officially begin working with patients on Monday. Yesterday, we were assigned our units for the hospital (Beth Israel is too large for everyone to cover the whole hospital without confusion, so we're each assigned specific sections of the hospital.) As of now, I'll be working in Cardiology and Orthopedics, specifically patients in the Head and Neck division. I will also be assigned one more unit, which I am hoping will be either Bariatrics OR the Eating Disorders division of the Psych ward. I haven't talked much about my senior thesis (another topic for another blog), but I'm thinking that some work with patients with eating disorders or food issues would be not only helpful for my thesis topic, but cathartic for me on my weight-loss journey. If I'm not assigned one of these areas, I'll probably work with patients in General Surgery as my third unit.

To say I'm excited about this summer would be a complete lie. I'm TERRIFIED of what I will experience in the next 10 weeks. It's scary to be the person to facilitate discussions of death and pain and loss, especially in those moments where you know that you won't have the right answers or words of comfort. However, I've already learned that this work is the true definition of holy work. I might not have the right answers, but I will have the power to bring God's presence into the life of someone who needs it more than anything. It's a pretty amazing and powerful thought, and a job that I'm already feeling honored to partake in.

In closing, I want to share an experience I had with my group on Thursday. We were taking the grand tour of Beth Israel Medical Center and stopped at the ICU to meet some of the staff there. The rabbi who was leading us on our tour was asked if he would lead a prayer for a patient who was being taken off the ventilator. The patient was not Jewish, so he asked the Episcopalians in our group if any of them might be interested in leading the prayer. One of them bravely, without hesitation, said yes. He checked with the family to see if they'd rather have a rabbi or a Christian student-chaplain, and the family requested my classmate. We watched her courageously enter the room and gather the family members. We couldn't hear the words she offered, but all of us silently listened and prayed along with her. She came out of the room, emotional and a bit shaken, and said that she knew she'd made a powerful difference in that family's life. We were all kvelling over her strength and courage as we felt God's presence all over the ICU, surrounding both her patient and all of us. It was, by far, one of the holiest experiences I have ever been blessed to be a part of.