The Simchas Torah that Stole Our Simchas

It’s often when everything seems to be going along just fine with everything coming together when the unexpected happens.  This time, the kids and I were in our truck, waiting for Mr. Safek and Sam the dog to arrive at the Synagogue with the Shabbat RV 2.0.  All our meals were carefully packed up, our clothes, and the kids were very much looking forward to all the festivities of the three day Yom Tov.

And then, as we parked to wait, I looked down at my phone and saw I had a text message from Mr. Safek that made my heart stop just a moment.

“I’m ok, but please call as soon as you’re safe.”

That’s never a good sign.

Our driveway, in what is probably the only real downside of our house, slopes down into our garage.  The RV had been parked facing down this incline, towards the house and Mr. Safek had been packing it up to the road to then join us at the Synagogue.  Unfortunately, as he let up on the brake and stepped on the gas, the RV simply rolled forward instead of the engine engaging to pull the beast backwards.  It rolled in slow motion down the incline…and into the house, shattering the front windshield of the RV.  With not much time left before candle lighting, Mr. Safek had to quickly survey the damage and make a decision.

We were not going to be able to stay in the RV for the 3 day Yom Tov.

So, we had to change plans quickly, rushing to the store to gather some last minute supplies and then home to move everything out of the RV and back into the house as well as prepare to spend the holiday in the house.  The kids were crushed, knowing they would miss out on all the fun planned.  Mr. Safek was upset, feeling like he’d let the family down and worried about the damage to the house and the RV.  I was worried about us having enough food.  I’d planned on us spending at least one meal a day at the Synagogue.  B”H, everyone was ok, but suddenly, things were kind of chaotic.  No dancing, no sushi under the stars, no time spent with our community.

Life just happens sometimes.  As they say, “Man plans, G-d laughs.”

The three day Yom Tov was long, but we did get in a lot of good rest.  Books were read, games played and while a couple of our meals might have been a bit unconventional, no one starved.  We survived and talked about what a funny story this would one day be to tell.  After Shabbos, Mr. Safek discovered that the damage to the house was only a gutter and that our insurance should cover the windshield of the RV, so we’re very fortunate.  Right now, our sukkah is down in pieces, waiting for its new owner to pick it up and I’m busy putting cloves into our esrog and I’m enjoying the post-holiday quiet, a chance to catch my breath before we dive back into work, school, and everything else that was on hold a bit for the holidays.

The esrog smells amazing, mixed with the pungent spice of the cloves and the smell always reminds me of Sukkos all year long, even if our Sukkos this year was a little less joyful than some past.

Holidays aren’t always what we expect them to be and perhaps, in that, too, there’s a lesson.

Trust, Sukkos, and Snow

It’s there, lurking in the forecast for this week and the weekend with cute little gradeschool snowflakes to denote the days it might happen.  Those innocent looking little snowflakes belie the fact that we don’t yet have studded tires on the truck and that we’ll be spending 3 days this week in the Shabbat RV 2.0 with only a few inches of scant insulation between us and the winter weather outside.

And yet, this all makes sense when I look at our Sukkah outside.

Hashem asks us to build a sukkah, a temporary dwelling that must be open to the elements, after Yom Kippur.  We’ve just opened ourselves up and begged Him to forgive us and grant us a shiny new clean slate and He tells us, almost in response, build a sukkah.  Nothing in the Torah or timing of the holidays is a coincidence, so it’s obvious that Yom Kippur and all that atonement has something to do with now building a hut in the yard and dwelling in it.  We’re taught to leave our homes with their thick, sturdy walls and comforts and instead move closer to Hashem, showing our trust in Him by instead eating in a small hut where we can see the stars.

Our sukkah this year is definitely a modest dwelling.  Mr. Safek built it on the smaller of our two decks, just off the dining room.  While it does fit the halakhic requirements of a sukkah, it is small and we have to kind of cram into it.  Instead of the lush palm fronts we used to use in Florida, we have dry bamboo and some pine boughs.  The cold winds that we’ve been having coming down the mountains mean that my husband has already had to re-arrange the roof a few times and there is a decent pile of leaves accumulating in the bottom.

Ours is not the picturesque, beautifully decorated Sukkah I see on pinterest or on my Facebook feed, but we’re grateful to have a sukkah of our own at all.  We also have a esrog all the way from Israel and the arba minum, the collection of branches that my son and husband hold and shake each day even if they’re feeling a bit blue from the chill.  When our newer neighbors ask us what it’s all about, we just reply, “We’re Jewish.”  Over the years, they’ve grown accustomed to that being the explanation for a lot of things that are different about our family and they just take it in stride.

Hashem has just given us a gift on Yom Kippur, a gift we probably didn’t do much to deserve.  He has given us His trust, allowing us to try another year in this world, to see if we can do better at bringing His holiness into the world.  He’s trusted us with His creation and trusted us to be His ambassadors to this world.  He’s wiped our slates clean, all our debts forgiven.  So, when He asks us to build a sukkah, even in Alaska, it seems a small thing to do in return.  We do it with joy, most people decorating their sukkahs and here in Alaska, even Orthodox Jews who do not keep kosher fully or who drive to shul on Shabbos will still build a sukkah.  I actually find this mitzvah more universally kept among Jews here than many other places we’ve lived.  Perhaps Jews in Alaska grasp the idea of trusting Hashem to shelter us in the wilderness on a deeper level?

Wednesday, we will move our now winterized Shabbat RV 2.0 to our Synagogue for the winter.  There will be no more running water and we are limited in what electricity we will have as well.  Each week, I will have to choose between what will get plugged into the extra extension cord for Shabbos.  Will it be the hot water urn, a crockpot, or the small extra heater?  We’ll have one bigger heater for the main compartment, but beyond that, I’ll have to choose whether we need hot drinks, hot food, or hot bodies more.  Right now, we plan to spend one Shabbos per month at home to rest and recuperate, but the rest we hope to spend at the Synagogue, as we did all summer.

It’s a lot about trust, just trusting that our short, dark Shabbos will pass by easily and that we’ll be sheltered and protected by Hashem there just as in our Sukkah.  Perhaps He’ll reward us with some nice views of the aurora borealis or a visit from some moose, which are more numerous in town in the winter as they come down from the mountains to forage for food.

For me, this theme of trust began last year when we came back to our conversion path after our break.  When we came back, I decided that I was ready to do whatever was asked of us rather than trying to resist and push our lives the way I thought they should go.  I was ready to trust and just surrender to this process even if it meant leaving Alaska.  I’d accepted that we were in the wilderness and that we’d have to wander a while, just trusting that Hashem would guide and protect us and lead us to our destination.

Now, as the sun is out less and less and the snowflakes appear in the weather forecast, I’m preparing to trust a little deeper and let go a little more, trusting that we’ll find ways to stay safe and warm for Shabbos just as we find ways to eat in our Sukkah.

 

An Alaskan Kind of Sukkos

We opted to stay home for the 3 day Yom Tov and celebrate the beginning of Sukkos in our own Sukkah.  Sukkos is a quirky holiday and one of my favorites.  We built huts in our yards to remind us of our past as wanderers, wandering the desert with Hashem’s protection.  Men are obligated to eat in the Sukkah and in warmer climates, they even sleep in it.  Here, we had unusually good weather for the beginning of Sukkos, which is to say that it hasn’t snowed yet.  We huddled in the Sukkah, able to see up to the sky, as my husband said kiddush, the blessing over wine.  Although out sukkah this year is smaller than usual, even Sam the dog smooshed in.

We went for a Shabbos walk as usual and I was surprised to see the mountains just outside of Anchorage capped with snow above the tree line, a sure sign that it won’t be long before we also have snow here, down in the valley.  It’s time to say goodbye to running water in the Shabbat RV 2.0 and prepare for winter.  We also thumbed through the zmanim (times for services and candle lighting) for the next few months and began making plans for how early we’ll need to begin taking the children out of school on Fridays for Shabbos.  We already have 1 unexcused absence recorded for our son for last week’s Yom Tovs that we’ll need to dispute.  Somehow, no matter how many notes I send or phone calls to the office to explain, every year we still must fight for our holidays to be counted as excused absences by the public schools.  My husband and I mused that while we may have more worries about the cost of tuition next year, at least we won’t have these holiday worries anymore with the kids in Jewish day schools.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit worn out by all the 3 day Yom Tovs this year.  It’s hard enough doing them at home, but doing them in the RV has been particularly challenging.  I’m looking forward to that much more reason to celebrate on Simchas Torah!  I love our holidays, I really do, but sometimes, in years like this, I also love having made it past them, with the pace of life slowing a bit as winter comes on.  It’s then that I can nod sympathetically at my non-Jewish friends as they complain about the rush of their winter holidays.

In the meantime, Judaic studies continues and life never really fully slows down and we daydream about what our lives might be like after our move and, G-d willing, after conversion.

Until then, we prepare for snow.

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!