Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Fun NYC Day

Yesterday we 2nd year students participated in another day of Orientation, though this time slightly different. This was our orientation to New York City, which got us out on the streets and into some of the more interesting parts of the city. It was a really wonderful, though completely exhausting, day.

We began our day at Temple Emanu-El, on the East Side, near the famous Plaza Hotel and Park Avenue. This is the synagogue where all HUC New York students are ordained or invested at the end of their 5 years. The main sanctuary is completely breathtaking; colorful mosaics, pillars of marble, beautiful stained glass windows and adornments (it reminds me a lot of the New Cathedral Basilica in St Louis, for those of you who are familiar with that.) Some of my classmates jokingly called it "The Church" because it definitely resembles a church more than a synagogue, but it is beautiful nonetheless. Emanu-El treated us to breakfast and a meeting with their senior Rabbi David Posner. Rabbi Posner is a character to say the least, but the speech he presented to us was very moving and inspiring. He talked about how the most important quality a Jewish leader can have is rachmanut, mercifulness. He mentioned that to be compassionate, loving, and kind to your congregants and to yourself is the best way to make a name for yourself in your Jewish community. For someone who struggles with the academic side of Judaism, and who is scared to death to be in this intense HUC community, it was exactly what I needed and wanted to hear. After breakfast, we spent some time in the amazing sanctuary, where we wrote letters to ourselves that we will read on the day of our ordination 4 years from now. It was an incredibly emotional thing, thinking about the cantor I am now and the cantor I will be in 4 years (or in 40 years, for that matter.) I know I will have chills and probably tears when I read the letter on that amazing day in May 2012. It's really not nearly as far away as it feels.

Then, we headed off to spend some fun time in NYC. We had the option of either going to the Central Park Zoo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the waterfall exhibit on the East River. Originally, I wanted to go to the Met since I've never been, but decided that the waterfalls would be different (and they're closing in October, unlike the zoo or the Met.) So we took the subway to almost the Brooklyn Bridge, where we walked along the Greenway (though there is nothing 'green' about it,) looking at the unimpressive waterfalls until we reached the South Street Seaport. The Seaport is a touristy area, with a mall and lots of child-friendly shops. It kind of reminded me of Navy Pier in Chicago, without the huge frightening ferris wheel. We had lunch there and walked around a bit. Then, it was time to hop back on the subway to go back to HUC.

Once back, we had a session with some members of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing. One of the most saddening parts of living in NYC is that there are homeless people almost everywhere you go. I pass them everyday as I head to my subway stop in Astoria and again as I walk to HUC in the city. It's heartbreaking to see them, and even more heartbreaking to know that I really can't help everyone (though I try to give something every day, even if it's only a quarter.) The Interfaith Assembly is a program that advocates for the homeless and helps them develop important life skills to make it on their own. They sent 2 speakers to talk to us, both formerly homeless people. One of them, Collin, is just at the beginning of his recovery, moving into a new apartment and working for the IAHH as a speaker and advocate. He gave his very first speech to us, telling his story to an audience for the first time. It was very moving and powerful, and I admire his strength and courage and wish him nothing but the best of luck and circumstances.

This presentation was used as a segue to introduce us to the HUC soup kitchen, a project that is run by students to help the thousands of hungry and homeless in NYC. It is something I've been interested in ever since I first heard of it years ago, and I am excited to get involved as much as I can. We'll see how it goes scheduling-wise, but I really hope I can find time to help cook, serve, or clean up. Whatever I can do I will.

We then had a discussion with a representative from the Muslim community in NYC. She talked a lot about the treatment of the Muslim community after 9/11 and the work she is doing to combat the animosity from opposing groups. It was very interesting and very important, though by that time we were all exhausted and ready for a break.

Finally, we headed to Temple Sha'arey T'fillah for dinner and Shabbat services. TST is where Cantor Bruce Ruben, the head of the SSM, was cantor for 24 years before coming to HUC. The dinner was lovely, as were services. I finally got on the train to go home around 9:15pm, and was home around 10. I fell into bed and pretty much didn't get out until 9:00 this morning. It was, however, a wonderful day and a good break from the HUC crap we've all been dealing with all week.

Today's been a day of errands, laundry, packing for our Kallah which runs tomorrow-Tuesday, and vegging. As much as I love my classmates, it's so nice to be away from them for the day, to remember how much I love 'me' time and do the little things I haven't had time to do all week.

Thanks to all for sending love this week--I've needed it and appreciate it so much. I'm sending it right back to you! Have a great weekend :)

BTW, my classmate Leora took some great pics of the day, so as soon as I get them I'll post them--I really want you to see the amazing synagogue!

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Orientation has continued all this week, slowly getting us more accustomed to HUC-New York and it's surrounding neighborhood. It's been an exhausting week of lectures, music learning, people meeting, scheduling, re-scheduling, and running around the building trying to make sure all the little logistical things get done. We're all pooped, and I am no exception.

The past two days have begun with a morning of music with Cantor Faith Steinsnyder. She's been giving us an overview of High Holy Day (HHD) music, complete with a binder of tunes to prepare us for our first HHD jobs coming up in late September. There is SO MUCH MUSIC to learn, to master, to understand, that the job is overwhelming to say the least. I'm glad that I already know many of the big pieces (Avinu Malkenu, Sh'ma Koleinu, Unetaneh Tokef, and more) but the idea of standing before a congregation in a MONTH as their one and only Cantor is scary and frightening and totally surreal. It's an exciting challenge to try to master, but with everything we have going on right now, I'm terrified I won't be able to learn all the music in time.

Today, 4 of us decided to buy our books for the semester. As cantorial students, it is traditional to buy the majority of your music books at the beginning of the second year of school. Therefore, my locker at school is filled to the brim with collection after collection of music, from modern composers, old-school composers, and out-of-print and hard to find collections. I also will have a bill that is comparable to that of a piece of good jewelery, which is a frightening thought. Thankfully, my wonderful Cantor and friend, Linda, helped me out tremendously by giving me some music and sending me some more in coming weeks...thanks Linda, you're the best! Having all of this music is just another reminder of everything there is to learn, everything we'll have to do in the next four years. Once again, it's overwhelming to say the least.

I've also spent the week meeting all of the older students, both in the SSM and in the rabbinic and education programs. Many people are very nice, though most are intense and incredibly intelligent. I am trying to remember everyone's names, which I'm hoping will come with time. The 3rd year class of cantorial students seems VERY nice, as does the 4th year class. I don't know the 5th years all that well yet (they don't spend much time on campus--much of it is spent working on their thesis papers and recitals.) Everyone has been helpful, giving us reassurance and welcoming us, helping us open our lockers and find the right people to talk to and get on the right subway. It's nice to have them here, and I hope I can be as helpful to people next year.

Did I mention that NYC is a HUGE city? My burrow of Queens, in and of itself, is huge. There is so much to learn, to figure out, that it's daunting and scary at times. I just know eventually I will wind up somewhere in New Jersey or Connecticut because I took the wrong train, or get completely lost and find myself wandering into the not-so-nice areas of NYC. At least I'll be learning what NOT to do for the future, and maybe spotting some good eateries or shops along the way. Again, thinking positive...

I should add that the area around HUC, Greenwich Village, is incredibly beautiful and fun. There are fantastic restaurants (so I've heard) and cute stores and shops (and a Kmart and Walgreens and Bank of America!) within walking distance. NYU is a really great campus, full of greenery and beautiful buildings. I'm happy that school is in this area, and that I'll have the next 4 years to explore it. I'll take pics sometime and blog about it, I'm sure.

So, the name of the game, at least for now, is OVERWHELM. Eventually it will all get straightened out, I'm sure, but it's going to take time. There's lots to process and lots to do and lots to look out for--but like everyone's been saying, no one in the program has died of overwhelm. At least not yet...

Did I mention that I begin in my pulpit in South Bend NEXT WEEK? Kinda snuck up on me, so guess what I'll be planning in the coming week, once we get back from Kallah???

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

First Day Back

Hi guys. I was really hoping I'd have some fun and interesting tidbits about the school year to share with you tonight, but sadly, I came out of orientation feeling more DISoriented and disappointed than I expected to. Poorly planned programming, mass amounts of disorganization, and a group of people I'm just not all that excited to be here with. I'm hoping things get better once real classes begin, but for now I'm very ready to throw my hands up and be done with this NY business. I could do the program at Cinci, right?

I did have a chance to spend some quality time with the C-Squad, which is always nice. I'm pretty interested to see if I form new friendships with some of the people I went to school with last year, especially the ones that never gave me the time of day before. I'm going to be optimistic here, though inside I'm highly doubting any new friendships will arise. I somehow want to try to meet people outside of this program, who have nothing to do with HUC or being a "professional Jew." No idea how that will happen, but I'll keep you posted.

In the days before school started, I'd been spending time getting to know my neighborhood and subway system. I live in a wonderful area, full of great restaurants and bars, bakeries, cute shops, and anything I could want or need. My subway is great, too--it's a straight 40 minute ride to school, with 5 minute walks to and from the train stations. In the city, it drops me off right by my bank (which is fab since there isn't a Bank of America anywhere close to me in Astoria) and a huge, 3-level K-Mart. I never thought I'd be so excited to see a K-Mart as I was when I discovered it yesterday. I also have a Lane Bryant about a mile from me, which is a really nice walk when it isn't too hot--and, it's far enough away that I won't go there too often to blow the money I don't have. Always a plus.

I want to write more about the apartment and my neighborhood, but I want to wait until I can take pictures again...I accidentally forgot my camera battery charger, so until it comes, I can't take pictures! As soon as I get it and can take pics again, I'll post pictures and brag about this apartment that I'm beginning to love.

And thank God I love this apartment--otherwise, I'd have run away by now.

I'm sorry this post is so boring...I really thought I'd be excited about today. I'm really, really hoping that I look back at this post at the end of the year and laugh at how silly I was for hating this campus.

I miss Israel.
I miss St Louis.
I miss normal life, without mass transit and obnoxious New Yorkers and an hour long commute to school.

I know it will get better. A routine will certainly help, as will meeting some new people and becoming friendlier with the ones I go to school with. Optimism is the name of the game now, I guess.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The First Week

A very blurry Times Square--I didn't notice it until this posting, but on the right side of the picture is a sign that says "Baruch Habah" (Welcome) in Hebrew. No idea what the sign is for but I'm hoping it's a good omen.

I've been in New York since Sunday, and what a week it's been! We've been constantly busy cleaning, shopping, putting together, arranging, rearranging, breaking apart boxes, and more. The apartment is starting to look like a home, a cute perfect-for-one-person kind of home. I think I am going to like it here.

Things didn't start off quite so nicely. On Sunday, there was bad weather just outside the NY area that delayed flights into NYC for a long time. So, instead of arriving at LaGuardia at noon as scheduled, we sat in the airport in Baltimore for a few hours until the weather cleared up. Aunt Diane and I literally sat on a plane for 3 hours, and finally went inside just minutes before they announced the flight would be leaving. I guess getting our butts off the plane was exactly what Mother Nature wanted us to do to get the flight going again.

Anyways, when we finally got here, Adam was already inside (he took a different airline since he had a free flight) putting together some of my electronics. Thank goodness he was there to put in my AC's before we got there! At first glance, I had a horrible "What the hell was I thinking when I first saw and LIKED this place?" kind of moment. The apartment was dirty and smelly and not at all like I remembered. I spent the rest of the night moping around and trying to get excited about living here. It didn't really work until...

The next morning we left the hotel to rent a car (including our GPS system, so we'd know where we were going) and hit up the Brooklyn IKEA. IKEA is the greatest place in the world to buy new, inexpensive furniture if you don't mind putting it all together yourself. We spent at least 6 hours perusing the showroom, writing down what we wanted, and finally making our way to the warehouse to pick up the boxes. It was a LONG day, and the car was VERY full, but somehow we made it home. We then had to carry the heavy boxes up the stairs (did I mention my building has no elevator? Yep, I have a free stair-stepper!) Adam was ready to kill me by the time everything was up, but we made it. He began putting together my bedroom furniture while Aunt Di and I went to buy a bed and get some dinner for all of us.

Our GPS system, who we lovingly referred to as "Judy" because she spoke to us in an English accent like my voice teacher in Israel. By the end of the week, we wanted to chuck her out the window because she kept giving us this "Lost satellite reception" screen and then gave us completely wrong or out of the way directions

Aunt Diane and I covered in IKEA boxes

Tuesday, we went to Bed Bath and Beyond to pick up all the stuff we'd ordered, and then to Ashley Home Store in New Jersey so I could buy a couch. I got a pretty brown one that is very soft and comfy! We then came back here to wait for my bed to arrive and put more stuff together/away. Then, it was time for a Target run, where we bought things like Ziplock Bags and batteries. It was an incredibly exciting day, let me tell you. But! We put everything on my bed, which is the greatest bed I've ever seen or had. I love everything about it, especially the fact that it's high off the ground. I kept mentioning to everyone that I would be closer to God whenever I'm asleep...I love that :)

My beautiful bed

Wednesday, things finally started to come together. We took another trip to BB&B to return some stuff and buy some more, and then went to lunch on 31st street, near my home subway stop. We also found a grocery store and stocked up on staples and fresh fruits and veggies (I can not wait to cook for myself!) We came home and continued to put stuff together, which we did throughout the rest of the day. Thursday was finally a day to relax a bit. By this point, mostly everything was put together and all we had left to do were the little things. We also had to bid farewell to Aunt Diane, which was bittersweet for all of us. She's been a huge help throughout this entire process, and my apartment would not look nearly as cute (and I would never know how to make a hospital corner on my bed) if not for her. After Aunt Di left, Adam and I putzed around the apartment for a bit, doing all the little things that needed doing and chilling out some. Around 4pm we got restless, and decided to see if we could find a half-price Broadway show for the night. We took our first subway ride into the city and got in line at the TKTS booth at the Marriot Marquis. We were in luck and landed half-price seats to Avenue Q--I'd never seen the show, but know and love all the music, so I was very excited. Literally as soon as we got our tickets, the rain started pouring down, so we hung out in a fancy office building on 7th Ave until it slowed down a bit. As soon as it did, we ventured 10 blocks to the famous Carnegie Deli, so Adam could get the corned beef sandwich he so desperately wanted (and deserved.) We shared the biggest sandwich I've ever seen and stumbled out of there like 2 stuffed pigeons. It was quite the sight. Then, we hung out around the touristy Broadway section of NYC, playing around at the stores and waiting for the show to begin. Finally, we made it to Avenue Q, which was fun and adorable and wonderful after a week's worth of hard work.
Adam displaying HALF of the ginormus sandwich we shared at Carnegie Deli. We both left feeling like Weebles.

Being silly with a huge bottle of Hershey's Syrup in the huge Hershey's store in Times Square

Avenue Q! Go see it!

And today we've been putzing around some more, doing our first load of laundry and picking up some groceries for Shabbat dinner. I'm so excited that Julia is coming all the way from Brooklyn to eat with us; I'd wanted to have a big gathering for dinner, but since I don't yet have my couch and the apartment is still a bit of a mess, I decided to keep it small. Adam, Julia and myself will be the perfect first Shabbat dinner in my apartment.

Tomorrow, Adam leaves and I will be faced with my new reality of living alone. I was so excited to live alone, and now that it's so close I can taste it, it's a little bit scary. I'm still excited, but it's going to take a lot of getting used to, like everything else in this crazy part of the world. I have to admit that I miss Steph and having HUC'ers all around me, even though last year I complained non-stop about being too close to everyone. I guess I will feel better in time.

Anyways, that's been my first week! Orientation for school begins on Tuesday, so I have 3 more days of freedom before the madness of HUC begins once again. I hope everyone is well--I miss you all and send lots of love from the N-Y-C!

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My First Sermon

This was the sermon I gave at Temple Israel on August 8, 2008. On Shabbatot throughout July and August, T.I. offered a series of sermonettes on the Jewish journeys of young people from the congregation. I volunteered to speak/sermonize, for the first time ever, and this is the final product:

“Hineni.” This phrase, found a few times throughout the Book of Genesis is mostly associated with Abraham. Literally, it comes from the root “Hinei”, meaning “behold” or “here.” In Torah, the use of the word usually tells us that something big is going to happen, or as my friend and classmate Marc puts it, we’re about to get to a “whoa!” moment. For example, we first hear this word at the beginning of the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac. God calls out to Abraham, who answers “Hineni-Here I am.” Now, this is NOT the first conversation God has had with Abraham—in fact, it is one of many. So why the special reply? Abraham must have known something important was about to happen, that he was at the beginning of a special moment in his life, a moment worthy of a “whoa!” In modern Hebrew, the word is rarely used, if ever at all. Yet, this past year has been full of “Hineni” moments for me, abounding with those wonderful “whoa!” moments that told me time and time again that something special was happening.

Exactly one year ago tonight, I was towards the beginning of one of the most incredible journeys of my life. I arrived in Jerusalem in late June 2007, one of 53 fresh-faced first-year rabbinical, cantorial, and Jewish education students invading the classrooms and courtyards of Hebrew Union College. The first few weeks were a blur of orienting ourselves through the streets of Jerusalem, brushing up our unremarkable Hebrew skills, and using those skills to argue with our Israeli landlords and utility companies when something inevitably broke or didn’t quite meet our American standards. It was a struggle unlike anything I could have prepared for; the simplest tasks of life, such as drying our laundry, suddenly became so much tougher than I knew they could be.

And yet, even on the mornings when I’d wake up to find my underwear and socks strangely hanging from the tree outside my apartment building instead of on the rack where I’d put them to dry, there were moments so incredible, so special that they indeed reminded me of “Hineni—Here I am.” The first of these moments came as I stepped off the airplane into Ben Gurion International Airport. Without problems, I picked up my luggage and made my way to the money changers, where I used my choppy Hebrew to ask the man at the counter to change my dollars into shekels: “Ani tzricha l’kabeil shekelim, b’vakasha—I need to get shekels, please.” I was so proud of myself for using my Hebrew to communicate to a real Israeli in ISRAEL that I hardly cared that I couldn’t understand a word he said to me as he responded to my request. It was a “Hineni” moment, where I knew for the first time that HERE I AM—in Israel, living my dream of going to cantorial school to become a cantor. It was really happening—whoa!

These moments popped up all over the place for all 53 of us, individually and collectively. Singing the Shecheyanu together as a group at our first morning t’fillah, harmonizing beautifully and singing with full kavana, full intention—was a powerful “hinenU—Here WE are. We all began to realize that these moments would soon fill our lives on a daily basis as we traveled around Jerusalem, schlepping up hills and schvitizing in the intense Israeli summer heat.

My year was full of first experiences, each one proving to be more challenging than the next. I will never forget the fear and anxiety I felt as I stood next to Cantor and Professor Extraordinaire Eliyahu Schleifer, co-leading my first Saturday morning service, and how the second I opened my mouth my fears were calmed and my voice was strong. I will never forget how my arms ached and my heart pounded as I practiced lifting the Torah as Hagbah, surrounded by friends and our summer interns who were all praying along with me that I wouldn’t drop it. And believe it or not, I lifted the Torah high and managed to get it back onto the lectern without disaster. I will never forget the proud moment I reached the top of the rock structure at Timna National Park after overcoming my fears of heights and small spaces as I climbed my way up. After huffing and puffing to my friends and colleagues that “I would never do this again!” I made it, smiling and exhilarated. In all of these moments, God was calling to me, and in the end I responded in the same way as Abraham—“Hineni--Here I am.” With every “Hineni,” I began to accept challenges greater than any that had come before them, and I continued to respond as Abraham did, growing, learning, changing through every experience.

I was blessed to be in this program with several other people who found the “Hineni” moments in their own lives as often as I did. Perhaps the most shining example is my friend and rabbinical student colleague, Dave. After 10 years as a personal trainer, Dave finally realized his dream of becoming a rabbi. He brought his wife, Gal, and daughter, Dahlia to Jerusalem and worked hard to set up not only a life for himself as a rabbinical student, but a life for his family. Dave knew, perhaps more than any of us, what it meant to live his life full of “Hineni!” moments. As I watched him proudly lead services and deliver an unforgettable d’var torah, I knew that he was saying his own “Hineni” to himself, realizing how lucky he was to be a student at HUC, studying what he loved with his family by his side.

In early February, the week we resumed classes after our winter vacation, Dave and Gal stood before us with tears in their eyes. Dave told us the news about the baby Gal was pregnant with; she had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a severe, life-threatening condition. With tears rolling down his cheeks, he announced that he and his beautiful family would be leaving us to return to their home in San Francisco to seek help for their unborn daughter. He told us he was going home to try to save a life, and that we could help his family the most by thinking positively, sending warm, healing energy and prayers their way, and thanking God every day for the opportunity to live out our dreams.

When I learned about Dave and Gal’s devastating news, I experienced an all-too-familiar feeling of being angry with God. How could God do this to my friends and to their baby girl? How could God possibly give David a chance to live his dreams, and then so suddenly rip it away? I thought back to my times in high school, some of the toughest personal moments of my life, when I was angry with God and the world for the constant struggles I was dealing with. Ironically, through my anger I turned to God and to prayer and to music here at Temple Israel. This led me to build an incredibly special relationship with Cantor Blumenthal, who helped me to discover and realize my passion for singing Jewish music. Because of this blessing, “Hineni—Here I am,” studying to be a cantor at HUC. Finally, I realized: God had sent this baby into all of our lives for a reason—a reason unknown to any of us at the time, but one we would soon to come discover. Slowly, my anger with God morphed into a profound sense of positivity and good energy for my friends and their baby girl. I learned that holding on to Hope and Love, doing exactly what Dave and Gal asked us to do for their baby, would help everyone, including myself.

Their baby girl, Tikva Ahava Spinrad—HOPE LOVE Spinrad, was born on June 10. Though she had some ups and downs, she continually surprised and impressed her doctors, showing to them and to the world what the powers of prayer and positivity can do. She proved wholeheartedly that she held the same “Hineni” philosophy as her dad, living her life full of might and spirit. She and her entire family became an inspiration to me, showing me that the littlest beings can call out the most resounding “Hineni!” Unfortunetely, her health took a turn for the worse in recent weeks, and it pains me to tell you Tikva Ahava passed away yesterday, August 7, three days shy of her 2-month birthday. While I am still grappling with the reasons why, and what I can best do to comfort her family right now, I know one thing for certain; “Hinenah—Here SHE is”, with me and all of us who love her, continuing to fill our lives with Hope and Love. Please keep my friends Dave, Gal, Dahlia, and Tikva in your hearts and prayers during this difficult time.

As Dave and Gal stood before us that cold February morning, they reminded us to take full advantage of the opportunities awaiting us at HUC. Inspired by their request to spread Hope and Love throughout the world, I became interested in a program called the FSU Pesach Project, initiated by HUC and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. This program sends young Jewish leaders to the Former Soviet Union to lead Passover seders for the small liberal Jewish communities throughout Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. I knew this program was a once in a lifetime opportunity to help a Jewish community unlike one I’d ever known, one that would give me lasting memories and an unforgettable learning experience. I signed up for the program, participated in the fundraising efforts, and helped to put together a handbook full of songs and activities to help everyone leading the seders. Finally, on April 17 I boarded a plane to Belarus with my friends Brad and Ariel, and we were on our way to meet the Jewish communities of Brest, Baranovichi, and Minsk.

None of us had any idea what to expect once we got off our plane in Belarus. We knew we’d be leading Passover seders and working with the young people from our communities, but we had no clue what was really awaiting us. In every community, the people reached out to us with warm hugs and kind words, translated by our interpreter Ana. While the people didn’t have much, they gave as though they had all the riches in the world. Coming from Israel, we were unprepared for the cold Belarusian springtime. In every community, people gave us clothes and coats off their own backs and out of their own closets. They refused to take them back, telling us to hold onto them as we made our way through their country. I still have the pink sweater and black woolen poncho that kept me so warm while I was there, and they will forever serve as reminders of the incredible warmth and kindness we found in Belarus.

These people continued to impress us with their warmth, proving that spirituality and Judaism could inhabit any space. Their synagogues, hidden in run down office buildings, opened with light and warmth as soon as their congregants began singing and praying. Sadly, anti-Semitism and Jewish hatred still fill the streets of Belarus. As I sat with these lovely communities, teaching the Passover story of Jewish liberation to these people who were afraid to even admit their Jewish heritage, I realized what freedom is all about. From that week forward, I began thanking God for my freedoms with an entirely new appreciation for the life I am able to lead. My “Hineni” moments were now felt with such appreciation and gratitude as I thought of my new friends and favorite Belorussian communities.

Upon returning home from Belarus, I was able to experience a plethora of Jewish and Israeli holidays, including Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut. As my mourning for those who gave their lives for the State of Israel turned to celebration for Israel’s Sixtieth birthday, I began to realize that my time in Israel was quickly coming to an end. Suddenly, memories of all I’d done began to flow through my head as I simultaneously remembered all the things I hadn’t yet done. It was a shocking realization that my year of a lifetime, a year of such growth and spirituality, learning and love, was practically over. I packed up my apartment as I studied feverishly for finals, said goodbyes to all of my classmates and teachers and the streets I’d come to love, and boarded a plane back to the United States. When I stepped onto the gate at Lambert Airport in St Louis, before I greeted my family who was excitedly waiting for me, I said “Hineni!” out loud, to myself and anyone else who’d wanted to hear it. Here I am, one year of Cantorial School under my belt, my year in Israel officially behind me. It was as joyous as it was sad, knowing that I had already accomplished and grown so very much, though a wonderful year had officially ended. “Hineni” I said to myself, as I walked towards the baggage claim to reunite with my family. Here I am, back in St Louis, preparing for the bright lights of New York City and the 4 years of school that await me.

And tonight, I stand before you, saying “Hineni” for the last time in this speech. Here I am, in the place that has always opened its arms to me. Here I am, in the synagogue that will always be my home and my favorite place in the world. Here I am, hoping that you know that Temple Israel has been along with me, in my head and in my heart, throughout my entire year in Israel. In my head and in my heart you will stay, in New York City and wherever my path to the cantorate may lead me. “Hinenechem—here YOU are,” wherever I may go and whatever I may do.

I would like to end with a prayer: God, may we all have the ability find whatever brings us to the point of “Hineni!” May we all live lives full of experiences that change us, force us to grow, remind us to Hope and Love, and trust in You for whatever we may need.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon—may this be God’s will. Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

I Did It!

Ed, Rayna, me and Kerry during Rayna's Torah reading (thanks Aunt Diane, for the picture!)

My first solo life-cycle event, that is. And what an event it was.

On July 12, I had the privilege of leading a Bat Mitzvah service for my former music ed professor's daughter, Rayna. It was the first service I have ever led completely on my own--no rabbi or rabbinical students to work with. Just myself, Rayna, her mom, and some help from the amazing Jewish community in Columbia, Missouri.

It was nerve-wracking. I wasn't the slightest bit worried about Rayna, as she proved week after week that she was more than capable of learning her parts of the service in a short amount of time. As I usually am, I was concerned with choreography: getting everyone where they need to be when they need to be there, making sure the Torah is always in the right place at the right time in a respectful manner, asking the congregation to stand or sit, etc. As much as I may have worried, everything (of course) came together beautifully. Special thanks to Kerry and Ed Hollander for their help as gabbai'im--they really helped to keep my nerves settled and the service running smoothly.

I can't tell you how good it felt to lead this Bat Mitzvah. Standing on the bimah in Columbia, I had flashbacks of my entire year in Israel, thinking about how far I have come in the last year. No longer am I afraid or intimidated by the idea of leading a service by myself--I proved to myself that I can do it, and that I am GOOD at it. I am going to make a GOOD cantor. The confidence I have gained is incredible; it makes me feel stronger and motivates me to keep learning and keep trying and keep taking risks to grow and change and evolve. To be able to do what you love and do it well, with poise and confidence, is a huge blessing. Thank you, Rayna and Wendy, for giving me the gift of this realization and the opportunity to be a part of this huge moment in your family's life.

Of course, the service wasn't perfect. I forgot to tell the congregation to sit a few times and then called the wrong family up to lead Kiddish. Nevertheless, we laughed it off, kept going, and everyone (including myself) was happy. I guess that's what life is all about. Laughter, prayer, music, love. What else can a girl ask for?

Mazal tov, Rayna, on a job well done :)