The Last to Close the Gates of Heaven

A little known fact I learned this Yom Kippur, during Neileh services.  Anchorage, Alaska, is, in fact, the final Orthodox Jewish community to say Neileh, sounding the shofar later than any other community in the world.  As we davened, I couldn’t help but feel a weighty responsibility, as if we were the last to leave a sacred place, entrusted with closing the gate as we left.  We davened as the sun left the mountains, lighting up the aspens, their leaves turned bright yellow with fall and we continued davening into the darkness until it was the proper halakhic time, the last community of Jews on earth to sound the shofar ending Yom Kippur.  In the coming months as our time of sun grows shorter and shorter, Hawaii will take over this honor, becoming the last candle lighting and havdalah of the world, but for Yom Kippur, it was still us.

Alaska is a remarkable place to be an Orthodox Jew and I’m reminded of it again this week.

For work, I need to go and do some work up on the North Slope of Alaska.  I will be traveling to some of the most remote, rugged terrain known to mankind, a place where cowboys from Texas drill oil from the wilderness and where your safety preparations include classes on polar bears.  In the 5 years I’ve worked here, I’ve never had a reason to go there, but now, suddenly I do.  Being Orthodox complicates things somewhat.  I will need to figure out candle lighting times…and when I’m up there…there may not be any sun at all to figure them by.  I will also need to bring my food with me.  Although the cafeterias there apparently have really good food and everything is provided, none of it will be kosher.  I will also need to keep yichud laws in mind as I will be a vast minority there among the men that work there full time for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

It’s times like these that having a local Orthodox Rabbi familiar with Alaska is a very handy thing indeed.

While most people would probably groan at the idea of visiting above the arctic circle in November, I’m actually really excited about it.  I’ve never been there and it’s a place that few actually really go.  The reason I am going is to improve the wireless networks there that help the hardy people that live there to work and to pass their off-hours.  When storms hit, these people are often stranded without work to do for days at a time, far from family and friends and cooped up in dormitories.  These networks provide them the ability to Skype with family, to get email with the latest news, and to feel connected to the rest of the world even when there are whiteout conditions and they can’t see past their window.

I’m excited to be able to have another Alaska adventure and also to help more people while I’m here.  I’ll also be training a teammate so that my knowledge of this particular technology will be passed on.

Judaic Studies…in Alaska (or how to teach your children when you live very remote from Day Schools!)

Next year, Hashem willing, our children will be in Orthodox day schools.  This is a requirement for most converts because we may not be able to teach our children everything they need to know when it comes to Judaism.  Most day schools are simply private schools that follow a “dual curriculum.”  Students spend roughly half their day on secular studies, which is all the stuff that public school children study and then the other half is spent on Judaic studies, where they work heavily on learning to read and understand Hebrew as well as learning all that they need to know to live an Orthodox Jewish life.

Our children were in day school when we lived in Florida, but they’ve now been out 5 years here in Alaska, so we have a LOT of catching up to do to smooth their transition back in.  I’m fairly sure that no matter how hard we work now, there’s going to be some bumps when they move back into that environment, particularly for our son who will be starting Yeshiva (high school boy’s school).  Another challenge is that we live where we live, a hour behind even Pacific time and far from any large Jewish community, so resources are a challenge to find.

But…Alaskans are resourceful by nature, so resources I have found.

An average day for us begins like anyone else’s.  We go to work and the children go to public school.  After a full day of public school, they come home and begin their homework from that day.  When I come home, I move from being a network engineer to being a homeschooling teacher.  If I’m very lucky, I have a cup of tea to soften that change!  After I’ve checked in with the kids on their secular homework, I make us some dinner and we all eat, then it’s on to Judaic studies.  I use a mix of different things.  The basics is covered by an online program for Jewish homeschoolers called Melamed Academy.  We also looked at Nigri International Jewish Online School and really liked their program, but it didn’t work out for our timezone.  Melamed Academy is mostly self-study, so it can be done at any time, so that’s what we went with.

I supplement with materials from chinuch.org.  It’s primarily a website in which Jewish educators share materials, but anyone can create an account and download educational materials for free.  I find extra vocabulary lists, study sheets, and parsha study sheets there.  In addition, high on my mind is that my son will need to prepare for Gemara study.  To that end, he has an additional study session weekly with his Zaide.  I found study guides at Boniyach.com for them to try out.  They have programs for boys from elementary school on that help ease them into Mishnah and then Gemara study and I’m hopeful that they will be helpful in their studies.  My daughter also spends a few hours every Sunday at our local Chabad House’s Hebrew school.

We try to wrap all this up by 9pm at night so that everyone can get to bed and sleep since my day begins at 4:30am, when I get up to get ready for work at 6am.

I’m very proud of the way the kids have adjusted to this schedule and their enthusiasm for their Judaic studies.  They also seem to work through their secular homework quicker because they are eager to move on to their other lessons.  I’m very fortunate that they’re both eager learners, even if it means I have to work to keep up!  We’re at a holiday lull in Judaic studies, but I’m using the time to organize materials for after the holidays when we begin the Torah over again.  I often learn alongside the children, having to study myself to help teach them.

Will it be enough to ease the transition?  I’m pretty sure there will still be some big gaps for both of them and we’ll have to help them handle being behind.  Both of them are very good students at school and won’t be used to being the kid who is behind, which is more what I worry about than them catching up.  We talk about not comparing themselves to others and also focusing on how far they have come and how proud we are of them.

I love how our days are full of Torah, even if it means my nights are sometimes a bit too short and I definitely look forward to my Shabbos shluf (nap)!

Jonah – Running from G-d

Every Yom Kippur, we read the story of the prophet Jonah, who was ordered to go to a non-Jewish city called Nineveh to tell them to repent.  The Jews at the time were a mess and Jonah knew that the non-Jews he was going to would indeed repent.  He didn’t want to go, which is why he tried to flee in the opposite direction and wound up swallowed by a big fish until he came around.

I was swallowed by the beautiful wilderness of Alaska, a much more pleasant place to spend my time being stubborn.

It was 2014 and, for a variety of reasons, it seemed like our conversion path had finally hit a dead end.  We consoled ourselves, buying a puppy, which brought some joy back into our home and definitely some liveliness.  The kids needed the distraction and we all needed the love that Sam brought into our lives.  We fled into the mountains whenever we weren’t working, hiking, riding motorcycles, and really exploring.  We drank in the natural beauty around us as an alcoholic does liquor to numb themselves.  I felt cut off from my connection with the Creator, so I sought comfort in the creation.

Alaska, for it’s part, did not disappoint.  It served up regular seasons full of majesty and beauty and experiences beyond the imagination.  I walked on glaciers and climbed mountains.  I interacted with wildlife, holding my breath when an orphaned moose calf had me backed up against our garage.  I was in awe of this place we lived and I set myself to being a proper Alaskan, fishing license and all.

Yet, there was always an ache underneath it all, a tugging.

 

No matter how far off the grid I went, I could not escape Hashem.  No matter how beautiful the creation was, it always silently pointed back to the Creator.  I knew I had unfinished business there and that there was only so long I could drown my sorrows in hiking and watching the northern lights.  It became more and more apparent to my husband and I that eventually, we were going to have to finish what we’d begun and that in the meantime, our children’s Jewish education was suffering and we were making it more and more difficult for them.  We needed to choose…assimilate and disappear completely or give up this fleeing and do whatever needed to be done to finish this process.

I would expect that most callings of any kind are like that or at least they are for me.  Early on, when I was dating Mr. Safek, I often thought it was the wrong thing to do, particularly the more I learned about Judaism and the harm being with a non-Jew could do, dubious halakhic status or not.  Every time I tried to leave, though, I found I couldn’t.  The feeling of not being able to make sense of my life without him was very similar to this.  Our lives just no longer made sense without Judaism in them.  When we finally gave in and came back to the Synagogue, it was less effort than it had been to stay away.  We slid back into an Orthodox life like a tired person finally no longer fighting sleep slips into crisp cotton sheets, the ache easing.  Life early on with Mr. Safek had always been like this, so much easier when I stopped fighting us being together and simply enjoyed our lives together.

The children, too, were happier once we were back.  For all the fun outdoor adventures we’d had, they too had felt the emptiness underneath it all.  Living Orthodox, they admitted how much they had missed all the Shabbat traditions and all the uninterrupted time with us.  They were happy to be learning more again, even if it meant a lot of catching up to do.  My son was eager to wear his kippah to school and soon I again was used to seeing tzitzit strings.

Now that we were determined to do whatever necessary to finish conversion, including moving, the way became easier, the obstacles simply turned to dust.

In retrospect, we needed that time away to heal some of the wounds from when we’d been working on conversion in Florida and to solidify our reasons behind wanting to convert.  We needed to go off and experience life away to really appreciate the choice we were facing.  I suspect that Jonah also needed his time in the fish.  There are times when Hashem has a plan for us that we can’t hide from, but we need a little time to adjust to the idea.  For me, the most comforting thing about Jonah’s story is that when he does come back to his mission, Hashem is there with him.  Hashem rebukes him, but he doesn’t abandon him just because he’s had doubts and tried to avoid his duty.  There is still a close relationship there.  Jonah still matters to Hashem even when Hashem could have just as easily chosen to make another prophet to obey Him.  In fact, Jonah matters so much that Hashem opts instead to instruct him.

On Yom Kippur, may we all find the courage to turn away from our own stubbornness and be welcomed back.

5778

Here in Alaska, the leaves are leaving the trees quickly, fluttering to the ground and piling up.  Our brief fall is fleeing and the chill is setting in.  In this week, we’ve been preparing for Yom Kippur.  It even feels like a whole new year with the house painted a new color, one of the biggest things we needed to do to get it ready for sale.

As I look back over the past year and ahead to the new, I see so many things I could improve on, but I also see a lot of progress I made.  My Hebrew is so much better this year, since I really concentrated on improving it last year.  I still can’t read as fast as our lightning-fast Chazzan goes, but I can read much more smoothly and I can can keep up reading along, even through the Torah portions in the Chumash.  For me, that’s a big thing.  I find I suddenly feel so much more comfortable in services because I know where we are and if I need to step away, I can find where we are.  This year, I’m hoping to bulk up my vocabulary.

I’ve also really grown in my ability to let go and trust.  That’s brought SO much more peace into my life.  I think studying Menuchas HaNefesh really helped with that.  It’s basically the Jewish way of living in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.  I find it helps me to realize that anything I’m going through or feeling is fleeting and I am grounded in something greater.  I’m able to let go of the things that used to take up so much time and space in my head and instead focus on what’s most important in my life.

A year ago, this time, we were kind of floating between Jewish communities.  We were sort of affiliated with the Reform Synagogue in town, but we never really felt like we fit in there.  We were accepted as Jews, but I never felt like we belonged as people.  Every week, someone would say something that just didn’t fit with how we experience Judaism.  Although everyone was very nice to us, it really felt like there was this invisible wall that we just couldn’t reach past.  We longed to return to Orthodox Judaism and finish our conversions, but we just weren’t sure it was possible in Alaska and for some reason, even the idea of moving hadn’t entered our minds.  We were like the elephant that doesn’t know it is now big enough to pull up the stake and instead we thought we were stuck.

Now, there is a way forward.  It means saying goodbye to Alaska, something we all have mixed feelings about, but it also means opening up a whole new world for us as a Jewish family.

This week, I concentrate on Tefilla, Tzedekah, and Teshuva, which are the things which can improve or soften the judgment we were all given on Rosh Hashanah.  I look at my life for where I can make improvements, where I can offer more to the world of what I have to give, where I can improve my habits.  I also can’t help but be grateful for the year we had and for where we are now compared to then.

May 5778 be a year of success for you as well, a year in which you rise above whatever has been bringing you down and find a greater connection with Hashem, in whatever way you connect best!

The Power of Perception and Choosing Piglet Over Eeyore

I have a very wise, non-Jewish friend who often will say something profound and then later I’ll discover that the idea she’s spoken of already exists within Judaism.  It’s become almost a running joke with us.  One of the ideas that she believes very strongly in is the idea that our perception of reality has the ability to shape our reality.

You can see this in science, where they’ve proven that the very act of observing something with a preconceived notion will make a researcher more likely to see outcomes that support their preconceived notion.  We all experience it much more concretely in our lives when we have a friend like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh who is very negative and can see only the worst in every situation or when, as children, we decide to look for something.  As a child, my family would pick morel mushrooms in one of our small forests on our land.  It never failed that none of us would see mushrooms until one of us had found at least one, but then suddenly, we’d see them everywhere.  When you’re looking for something in the world around you, you tend to see more of it.

This idea also plays out in Judaism, where often we’re told to focus on the good and it will be good, to not dwell on a possible negative outcome and to always believe that the good will happen.  I see this play out among my friends as well, with Orthodox friends frequently giving a “Baruch Hashem” when something unfortunate happens, instead focusing on the idea that it could have been much worse.  Most recently, I had an Orthodox friend in Israel who had a pipe burst in her kitchen over Rosh Hashanah.  Instead of being upset that her kitchen was a mess for the holiday, she was instead grateful that it happened over the holiday because everyone was home and able to find what had happened soon after the pipe had burst, minimizing the damage.  She was able to see the good even in a soaked kitchen.

Conversely, I have friends who are bikers who view the world as a scary and violent place and are always fearful of a fight.  Consequently, they often do find themselves in fights.  I have other friends who view the world as a very unjust place and as a result, everywhere they look, they find injustice that must be fought against.  I have friends who feel that men are oppressing women and find evidence of this all around them and others who fear the world is being destroyed and again are granted all the proof they need to support these fears.  It is as if there are seeds all around us for whatever flower we want to see, just waiting for our attention to sprout.

To me, it is a testament to the power of co-creation that Hashem gave each of us when He made us in His image that we have such amazing power to shape the world around us just by the lens through which we choose to view it.  I’ve had some amazing examples of this in my own life.  One was the recent storms and watching my friends react to them.  One friend was focused on how unprepared most of the cities were and how much better the response should have been and as a result, he was very upset about the storms even though his home was left untouched.  Another was focused on how many people were helping each other and all the volunteers rushing to offer aid, as such, she was inspired by the kindness of all these strangers.  Both were looking at the same events, but both came away with a completely different experience of them.

Which brings me to my re-entry into the “real” world from my holidays.  Yesterday I wrote about an experience with our own home, both here and on Facebook.  My intentions were to share something positive, given that so much of what we are fed as information lately is negative.  I wasn’t intending to upset anyone or brag and, Facebook being what it is, I limited the audience of my post there to only my Jewish friends, people I thought would be most likely to understand the lens through which I viewed what had happened.  I expected that a few people might notice or comment on my post, but that many just wouldn’t be interested, but I didn’t really expect anyone to be upset.

Oddly enough, some people were.  Most were relatively mild and it came down to them wanting someone to blame.  Why didn’t our painters lock the house for us?  Why didn’t we leave a key with a neighbor or call someone before the Yom Tov?  Why didn’t we plan better?  For them, there was comfort in thinking that it was human negligence alone that led us to the situation we were in and they were satisfied when I freely admitted that there were several things we could have done differently so as not to be left in that situation again and that we were working on those things now.  The way I see it, their concerns and objections were well-intentioned and reasonable.

Then I had one friend whose objections to what I wrote were more theological and she was much more upset.  To her, my entire interpretation of what had happened made me a bad person.  To her, it was extremely presumptuous to credit divine protection for the fact we hadn’t been robbed when during that same weekend, a hurricane and earthquakes had left other people in other parts of the world homeless.  Did we think we were so special or that us observing the Yom Tov so worth of reward while these people deserved death and destruction?  How could I be happy about our belongings being safe when mothers in Mexico were mourning their dead children?  How in the world could a just G-d save my home while destroying theirs and how could I believe in such kinds of calculations?

I really was taken aback by the passion in her arguments.

I had written what I had written before even checking the news, having been offline through the holiday.  As a non-observant Jew who is very involved in social justice, she had been online throughout and following the news carefully, so she and I were coming from very different viewpoints.  I was not intending in any way to minimize the suffering of anyone, but merely thanking Hashem for our good fortune.  I don’t live in a world where there is only a certain amount of good fortune to go around where somehow my family receiving goodness subtracts from the amount of mercy available to others.  A friend wisely pointed out that many of those families who had lost their homes were probably thanking Hashem that their lives had been spared with just as much sincerity as I was thanking Him for our possessions being saved…were they too in the wrong since other lives had not been so fortunate?

In the end, I realized that nothing would help my friend feel any better or better understand my perspective.  We simply live in very different worlds and, glimpsing the hurt and anger in her world for a moment, I don’t think I would want to trade mine for hers.  I can celebrate one friend’s success or good fortune without feeling that I have let others who are suffering down and I live in a world where suffering and joy can both exist and where I choose to focus on joy while still doing what I can to relieve suffering.  I can’t imagine how hard it must be to feel like you must focus only on whatever is “wrong” in the world until every problem is solved before you can be happy over the smaller things, where suffering and injustice must constantly be ranked and weighed to decide who is allowed to rejoice and who must be silent.

There is much we can work on in this world to make it a better place and so many places where we can work to help those less fortunate than ourselves, but I don’t think we need to deny our own gratitude for what goes on in our own lives to do it.  I believe Hashem created us with the capacity for far more complexity, for the ability to reach out in concern for others while still feeling joy within ourselves.

I also can easily admit that I can’t explain why my house was spared and so many other homes destroyed this weekend.  It’s far beyond me to know why so many earthquakes have shaken Mexico lately and not Anchorage or why hurricanes just keep pounding Puerto Rico.  I don’t automatically assume that the people in either place have done some great evil that deserves divine punishment…I simply can’t know why they have been chosen to suffer these things and I do feel compassion for them.  And, without any contradiction to me, I am also grateful that no one stole our belongings.

I choose to look for the good and to look for things to be grateful for.  I choose to look for the people who rise above disasters to help each other.  I choose to be inspired and to donate what I can to help them rebuild.  I choose to believe that Hashem is good and that if I can’t see the good in what has happened, it’s a matter of my perspective not being wide enough to see all the ripples from whatever has happened.

I make these choices when I look at the events of my life and the world around me because those are the choices that bring me joy and make my life more meaningful and help lift me up more to a place where I feel like I have more to offer the world around me, rather than dragging me down to a point of feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.  Perhaps that is childlike or simplistic, but I’ll also freely admit that my Jewish learning is probably more at a child’s level right now, more at what a 7 year old might know…and I’m ok with that.  I’ll keep on growing and learning and I feel like being an optimist is a better way to help me continue doing that.

I can let someone else be Eeyore in this story.  I’m content to be piglet, albeit a kosher version.

 

A Rosh Hashanah Miracle

I’ve often heard stories of miraculous happenings that occur when people are rushing to make it home in time for Shabbos or similar holiday stories.  I did expect that this Rosh Hashanah, we’d have one of our own to share.

Our home was being painted the two days before Rosh Hashanah and Mr. Safek was happy thinking it would be finished by the time we packed up the RV and headed to the Synagogue for services.  Unfortunately, the painting ran long.  He set up the RV and then took our truck back to the house, promising he’d be back by candle lighting, hoping the crew would finish before he had to leave.

Unfortunately, they did not and he was faced with a difficult choice…break the Yom Tov or leave our home unlocked, the back door open, for the entire 3 day Yom Tov, during which we’d be miles away, with no way to check on our home and no access to a phone.

He agonized, but as there was no more time left, he made his choice and joined us in time for candle lighting, leaving our home unsecured.

Soon we were all swept up in Rosh Hashanah services and it was rare our minds had time to drift back to our home.  We knew that theft has really become a problem in our area and there was a good chance that someone would come and take our things.  As I lay down that first night, trying to find sleep, I thought of what we had that would probably be taken if someone took advantage of the situation.  In my mind, there was little that couldn’t be replaced.  I worried about pictures on my laptop that I wasn’t sure I’d backed up.  I worried about the kids’ musical instruments and wondered how hard it would be to quickly replace them.  Beyond that?  I realized that pretty much everything important in my life was already with us…or had very little value to thieves.  Our books would hold little appeal to them and I don’t have any fancy jewelry.  What nice Judaica we have was with us.  Most importantly, though, my family was safe and sound with me.

I let go and left it in Hashem’s hands.  Either our things would be there when we returned or if they were missing, it would be for the best, perhaps to make it easier to pack later?

Amazingly, I didn’t think much further about it, not even enough to remember praying for the safety of our home during my davening, although I prayed for so many other things…it simply did not feel important enough.

The days went by and finally, havdalah came and it was time to pack up and come home.  It was disorienting driving after so many days spent in prayer and study, as if this was some kind of dream world after we’d lived in the real world for the holiday.  I remembered our home and began to worry, not so much that it had been broken into, but about how the kids might take it.  We returned home and I decided not to say anything to them as we carried our pillows and blankets inside.  Mr. Safek was still getting the RV ready to come home.

I walked inside and saw the back door was indeed open and my heart began to sink, but as I looked around…I saw everything was in its place.  Nothing had been touched!  I went from room to room and there was my daughter’s bass, my son’s viola, my laptop with the family pictures stored within it…it was all there just as we had left it!

I thanked Hashem and considered that perhaps He had watched over our home with extra care, realizing the sacrifice we had willingly made.  Our home was spared and even Iggy the cat did not leave through the open door.

And, due to the rain, the paint still isn’t done.

When Anti-Semitism Becomes Mundane

We had a meeting with our son’s teachers this morning, just to check in on how he’s doing and he’s doing really well this year.  During the meeting, one of the teachers said to us, “Well, I’m sure he’s told you about the incident that happened in my class…”

My husband and I looked at each other, hoping that he hadn’t done anything wrong, our minds obviously cycling through every possibility.  We didn’t know about any “incident” in Chemistry class, but our son is 13 and while he’s a good, well-behaved kid, you just never know.

“Oh, well,” the teacher began awkwardly, perhaps a bit embarrassed, “we were studying chemical reactions in class and another boy, who really was just being a jerk, wrote something to your son.  It was…”

He paused, looking for the right words, the approved words.

“It was about your culture, you know, the history.”

It never ceases to amaze me how many people think the words “Jew” or “Jewish” are somehow bad words, as if we’d be insulted for him to use them.

“You mean it was antisemitic?” I went right to the point.  It wasn’t hard to draw the lines between who we are and why chemical reactions might be related.  Images of gas chambers probably came to mind.

“Yes.” the teacher seemed relieved that I’d understood without him needing to say the words, “Your son handled it really well.  He was upset, but he stayed calm and he gave the note to me and we’ve handled it.  The other boy has been disciplined and I moved him to another part of the class.”

It’s also odd that my husband and I were relieved at this point.  Oh…it was JUST ordinary antisemitism…and our son handled it well.  That’s all it was.  What a relief.

The meeting continued and another teacher mentioned how glad she was that Ian brought his “culture” into their class discussion of the book Animal Farm, how his “unique background” was really interesting.  I noticed how no one, from guidance counselors to teachers wanted to say, “Jewish.”  My son and husband were sitting there, kippahs showing and yet, the word for what we are, for what makes us different hung heavy in the air, made bigger by the fact it was unsaid.

When I was newer to conversion, I used to wonder at the casual way that my Jewish friends seemed to shrug off antisemitism and how my husband just kind of treated it as a mundane annoyance.  I couldn’t understand how having swastikas spray painted on the synagogue didn’t really provoke outrage so much as annoyance at having to figure out how best to remove them.  I didn’t think I’d ever feel that way, but today I realized I do.

The teacher stressed that my son really doesn’t seem to care if kids pick on him for other things.  He accepts that as just part of the age and maturity level of him and his peers.  This, however, he felt was different and needed to be reported.  I’m proud of him for making that distinction.  He also obviously didn’t feel it was a big enough issue to even tell us.  It’s just part of the color of his world at this point, which does make me a mix of sad and proud of him.

Just everyday mundane antisemitism, the kind that makes you more roll your eyes than clench your fists.

It does make me glad that we’ll be moving and that the kids will be in schools where “Jew” is not a word that isn’t spoken, just hanging there heavily, but one that has the joy attached to it that it deserves.  To me, that was almost more unnerving than something an ignorant teen decided to taunt my son with, the fact that the faculty at his school couldn’t use the proper language to describe what had happened.