Written on 5/6/2023, this is a longer reflection on finding myself back inside of Jewish community and figuring out what that means for me now.
Took Nelson down to the beach for our morning walk. We don’t usually go on the weekends, or evenings. There’s just too much humanity at the beach on the evenings and weekends; more stuff to notice and contend with. More people taking up space rather than reveling in the surroundings.
Anyway, Nelson has had a tough week (I guess I have too?) and so I told him that we could go at his pace (slow) and he could lead the way. This would have been less of an issue with fewer people there, but I prioritized my promise to him, and paid no mind to the inconvenience I was causing others by walking on the left hand side of the path, where all of the good smells were.
When we got past the beach, he pulled me straight to the brick bathhouse and now-empty Miri’s Cafe. We shared a sad moment about the missing dog water bowl and toy library and other delicious smells, and kept walking. He pulled me along the wall of the brick building - which is not a path that we usually take. As he did, I felt, more than heard, the sounds of Judaism happening within. My brain registered it as “Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov” & I couldn’t believe my ears. I peeked in the window and saw a rabbi friend joyfully leading a Bar Mitzvah ceremony.
Nelson pulled me towards the open door, and even tried to go in. Of course, my Familiar would gravitate towards a room full of Jews. The Shabbat smells must have been too much for him to ignore - and more tempting than the various picnic- and bbq-smells we had passed along the way there.
I say “of course,” because last night was the first time that I have engaged in physical Jewish community since I stepped away from my career as it had been. Also “of course,” because yesterday’s Eclipse was all about ending an 18 month cycle of sloughing, dismantling, unlearning and relearning. Ending my exile. At least that’s how it seems.
It was a self imposed exile, and I return changed. Last night I brought EB with me to a friend’s synagogue for Tot Shabbat, dinner and then a Shabbat service that she invited me to lead with her. He was a bit discomfited to see me up there. Whereas my friend’s kiddos are super used to interacting with their mom as the leader, EB wanted me to just be his mom. It was wild to see him shrink into himself in that place. He’s not like that at parties. He’s not like that at school, or in camp situations. There’s something about being in Jewish spaces with me as the leader that makes him recoil and cling to me.
He warmed up & by the time Tot Shabbat was over, he was playing with his friends and some other kids - sharing his toys. I noticed that the one kid with the least amount of self-restraint and the least-present parent making a bee line for EB’s toys. (He had actually tried to take one out of my hand during the Tot service, so I already knew he would need extra eyes on him). I could see EB was upset, so I went over to help him hold his boundary. With sinking suspicions that things were going to go awry while I was leading, I took my place at the front of the room, next to my bestie, and re-entered the role of shaliach tzibbur. I just had to hang a bunch of worries on an imaginary hook behind me as I sat down to do the thing.
Just as we were finishing up I saw my friend’s husband bring their daughter and EB back into the room from the play area. EB’s shoulders were heaving with silent sobs, head down, red faced. I could see the tears from where I was at the front of the room. As soon as the song ended, I leaned my guitar against the wall and went to go check on him, giving my friend a nod - she, too, had seen that entrance. Poor EB. The same kid who had taken his toys had now smacked him in the face with a tennis racquet - twice. His face hurt, but so did his feelings, and his sense of justice; he had shared his toys with that kid, had kindly asked for privacy, and the kid didn’t back off. Nor did the kid’s parents intervene.
At that moment, my role was clear: to be Elliott’s mom. He wanted a cup of water, so his friend showed us where the water was (she didn’t leave his side once, which was so heartwarming). I asked him if he wanted to come back up with me to sing the last song, and that was a hard “no” - so, I didn’t.
At that moment, I made a choice that I don’t think I could have made when I was working at a synagogue. The only times EB came to synagogue, or saw me rabbi, was when he was a babe in his dad’s arms. I remember once, before a big Friday night service, he saw me in the foyer and started crying and reaching for me. I had to go, so I pried him off of me and handed him over, red-faced and wailing. It felt awful.
I can’t do that anymore.
I had a lot of big feelings about that when I got home from leading this service, but ultimately, I felt 100% in alignment with the actions I had taken. My first priority is as a mom, not a rabbi. I’m not that community’s rabbi, so it was easy to do. But it raised the question: could I even *be* a single mom & a congregational rabbi? I know that there are folks who do and they make it work, but for me, right now in realigning my actions with my priorities and purpose, I couldn’t do it.
Which I knew 18 months ago when I withdrew my name from consideration for a local position. And again, when I outlined my boundaries around time with my child during the interview process for another, and didn’t get the job. Given the way the systems are, and the way that I am determined to lead my one wild and precious life, I cannot be a congregational rabbi. At least not the way the role is structured now.
My present learning is of a “so now what?” kind of nature. Now how do I engage with Jewish community? As a leader within the community? The good stuff that drew me onto this path in the first place: using our voices and the teachings of our tradition to lift us up for a moment, to remind us to slow down, to notice, to experience our lives and to revel in the opportunities that we create for rest. But. When I saw my child crying, there was no question as to what was my most sacred: holding that little person through the pain.
I hate a binary, so this is clearly a both& situation. The new way forward for me combines boundaries around my time with my child, and my role as a parent, above and beyond that of leader. Sure, now I will take weddings on my EB days - primarily because he loves hanging out with his babysitters (and I finally feel safe enough about COVID to broaden the circle of people we let into our house). That’s a boundary I’ve figured out. Leading worship on EB days is still a TBD. There’s also a lot happening for me around the idea of community in general; building with the people who I want to spend time with, connecting the folks on the fringe, like myself, to each other and to That Which Connects Us All.
At any rate. I find it hilarious that today, the day after all of that my dog, my familiar, that little piece of my heart who led us on our walk today, took me straight to the smells of Shabbat lunch and the Jews.