Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What's the Connection between Yom Kippur, the Ba'al Shem Tov and the Hyatt Workers?

With Ashley Adams and Local 26 President, Brian Lang, at 2012 protest

At the close of every Shabbat, we invite Elijah the Prophet to join us in the passage from holy day to weekday. This will also be true this coming Shabbat as we end our Yom Kippur observance—the Sabbath of all Sabbaths—and prepare to go back into the world. Ideally, we will leave that experience--ending our fast, walking out of the synagogue, going to our individuals home and lives—somewhat changed.

These past weeks many of us have been focusing on teshuva, on the work of repentance and return. This requires inner work: figuring out just when did I harm someone, what can I do to repair it and how can I learn from this so that I don’t repeat the offense?

Yet, it is not solitary work. There’s a reason that Jews gather in droves for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s fun to see old friends, to share news and to argue about the rabbi’s sermon. But the deeper drive that brings us together is that we are stronger together than alone.

This is certainly true when it comes to the changes that we call tikkun olam, repairing the world. When we invoke Elijah’s name (and in our congregation, Miriam the Prophet as well), we expand our vision beyond personal transformation. Elijah represents the Jewish ideal of Mashiach, the Messiah or the Messianic Age. We pray that this Shabbat, this day of peace and togetherness, a day when we all feel welcome and at home, will never end. We pray that when we end our fast and leave the synagogue, that we will discover that Messianic Days have arrived.

In kabbalistic tradition, as described in the mystical book of the Zohar, the Messiah is said to abide in “the Bird’s Nest.” Imagine a nest at the top of the highest tree, far from predators on the ground. In that nest, a golden dove sings with the sweetest song we might ever hear. That nest is far away, but not impossible to reach. So is the idea of the Messiah.

In a Hasidic tale, the Ba'al Shem Tov climbed a ladder of his followers’ prayers in order to reach the top of the bird’s nest. Knowing that the Messiah could not live without the beautiful dove in the nest, the rebbe wanted to capture the bird, bring it back down to the world and thus force the Messiah to follow the beloved dove to earth.

Martin Buber explains the tale in this way:  “Salvation hinges upon one’s desire for the perfection of the world…a hundred people together can do so, if, each climbing upon the other’s shoulders, they form a ladder that will reach to heaven.”

I had a rare glimpse of the ladder reaching to heaven working with the Hyatt 100 and UNITE/HERE over these past five years. The courage of these women and men who were fired on August 31, 2009 inspired me to speak up on their behalf. Through the Boston Hyatt housekeepers, I got to know hotel workers in Chicago and Baltimore and across the nation. Because of this ladder of workers reaching to heaven, union and non-union workers succeeded in reaching an historic agreement with the Hyatt Corporation a year ago that ended a global boycott.

Only the Boston workers were left out of that agreement. Most had moved on to other jobs, many of them starting at the bottom of the pay scale in a new hotel, despite decades of experience with Hyatt. The three Boston hotels were never going to give them their jobs back.

This week, they learned that they had indeed reached high up on the tree, coming close to the Bird’s Nest. While the Messianic age has not yet dawned on the world, UNITE/HERE, the union that represented the Hyatt 100, reached another historic agreement on their behalf (see article in Friday’s Boston Globe article).

As the Boston Globe noted in their editorial, this victory represents more than the $1 million in compensation to the Hyatt 100 and the promise of priority in future hiring. What this ladder to the Bird’s Nest signals is a warning to other companies who seek to oppress their workers. Thanks to everyone who participated in the boycott of the three Hyatt hotels in Boston and Cambridge, the entire hospitality industry was put on notice: do not behave as Hyatt did, or you will pay.

As we prepare for our upcoming Day of Atonement, may we all remember that our prayers (the inner work) can bring us closer to redemption, as long as we remember the ladder: that we are standing on the shoulders of others, and that is our obligation to hold up those who stand on our shoulders as well.

Wishing you g’mar chatimah tovah—may your year be sealed in goodness, and tzom kal—an easy fast that permits you to focus your mind on redemption, your own and the world’s.
 At the 2010 Hyatt Shareholders' Meeting in Chicago--Have you ever tasted bitter herbs, Mr. VP?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Returning and Being Welcomed Home.

29 Elul, Wednesday, September 23

The Sufi mystic Rumi put in this way:
“Come, come whoever you are! Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving, come. This is not a caravan of despair. It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken your vows a thousand times, still, come, and yet again Come!”

The poet welcomes us all, no matter who we are or what we have done or how others might view us or how we view our fellow travelers. No matter what we may have done in the past year, no matter how many times we have tried to change (and how many times we have failed), we are welcome back, to keep on trying.

Like the poet’s welcome, our tradition teaches that God is eager for us to return home.
I know that for many people, the synagogue hardly feels like “home” and God is not the one we expect to find there. I’m sad about that, not just because I find a welcoming home there, but because I don’t know of many places in our high celebrity, low tolerance, and intensely divided culture where we truly feel welcomed for who we are.

I experience Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a place and time for us to face our own humanity and to embrace everyone else’s. Why else would we recite an inconceivably long list of sins as if “We” were responsible? When I pray for “all of us” it’s because all of us have flaws. All of us feel alone and vulnerable. And, out of the social contract of this spiritual community, all of us are responsible for each other.

I may not love every person, or be loved by everyone. But together, we share in and create a common sense of the transcendent -- that which is far beyond what any of us can control, can own, can be or do. That is the transcendent mystery that we sometimes refer to as God.

So it doesn’t matter so much who I know or who knows me. If I take my place in the community and act responsibly, knowing that I am doing the best that I can, then I can open myself, with compassion, to the truth that others are also doing the best that they can. Even if we fail, we know that teshuva is always available.

As Rabbi Jonathan Slater explains in a commentary on the Hasidic text Birkat Avraham,
“Failure is not a flaw, and it is not irreparable. It just happens, sometimes willfully, but often through inattention, a well meaning mistake. Knowing that we are accepted even when we make a mistake, knowing that we are connected to God and can return in any moment through teshuvah, frees us meet whatever comes our way….
“When we know that we are fundamentally acceptable, that whatever we offer will be received with grace and welcome, we are liberated to give of our whole selves. We will not hide away those parts that we fear are unlovable, we will not withhold our whole beings from others. Nor will we expend energies pursuing endeavors that we believe will satisfy others, that we hope will make us seem ‘good’, ‘complete’ – enough – all the while knowing that it is not enough, since we are not enough. We will be free to apply our efforts to precisely those things we are good at, with ambition, intention and hope. We can try new things and fail – or succeed! And, we will know that we are accepted.”
I pray that during these Holy Days and into the year ahead, we can each know that acceptance and love. I pray that we will not be afraid to take risks, to create, to share, to invent, to reach out, to teach, to learn and to love. To say “thank you” out of true gratitude. To admit our mistakes honestly and say “I’m sorry.” To speak the words “I love you.” Before it’s too late.
Thank you for joining me on this journey toward a new beginning. May we all find the welcome and acceptance to be able to face our mistakes with tenderness and judge others with kindness.

Shanah tovah umetukah
Wishing you and yours sweetness and goodness in the year to come! 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Walking Humbly into the New Year

28 Elul, Tuesday, September 22

Alan Morinis tells the story, in his book Everyday Holiness, when he finished speaking to a crowd and a woman excitedly came up to speak to him. She opened by saying to him, “You have a wonderful, wonderful…”
Before she got to the end of the sentence, his mind was already filling in the blank. Perhaps she was going to praise his voice, or his way with words, or presence. He was all ready to accept the compliment, when she concluded the sentence, “…wife.”
I chuckle every time I read that story, knowing how my mind can jump ahead in the conversation and fill in the blanks in the most flattering way. This story illuminates the quality of anavah, humility, which is one of the most basic qualities in the “spiritual curriculum” of Mussar, Jewish ethical self-examination. As Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda taught in Duties of the Heart, “all virtues and duties are dependent on humility.”
What’s instructive about this tale is that the woman had no idea what Alan was thinking. He recovered quickly enough to say “thank you” and enter into conversation on her terms, not his. Anavah begins with a state of mind. It is not about self-effacement or false modesty. Rather, it’s an outlook on life that acts like a stoplight, telling us when to move ahead and when to hold back.  “No more than my space, no less than my place.”
If Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, then it’s a time to consider our place among the entire human family. Coming to the end of Elul, I hope that I am better prepared to enter these holy days with humility.
I hope you will take a moment to listen to this song by Israeli singer Yael Naim, who made it famous several years ago as the soundtrack to an ad for the Apple MacBook Air. This song really has nothing to do with Apples or technology or television. I offer it to you in the waning hours of Elul as an expression of my hope for all of us and for our world in the year ahead.

I’m a new soul
I came into this strange world
Hoping I could learn a bit about how to give and take.
But since I came here, felt the joy and the fear
Finding myself making every possible mistake.

I’m a young soul in this very strange world
Hoping I could learn a bit about what is true and fake.
But why all this hate?
Try to communicate
Finding trust and love is not always easy to make.

This is a happy end
‘Cause you don’t understand
Everything you have done.
Why’s everything so wrong?
This is a happy end
Come and give me your hand
I’ll take you far away.

I’m a new soul I came into this strange world
Hoping I could learn a bit about how to give and take.
But since I came here
Felt the joy and the fear
Finding myself making every possible mistake.
New soul…in this very strange world…every possible mistake

Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes….

Monday, September 22, 2014

Food for Thought

27 Elul, Monday, September 22
Pumpkin, leeks, beets, dates…are these the foods you plan to eat on Rosh Hashanah? In our house, those are the menu items we look forward to the most. Like charoset on Pesach or blintzes on Shavuot, the Jewish tradition provides a special set of ritual foods that are tied to the holiday. And they are, for the most part, fun to eat.
Everyone loves the Pesach seder. And many enjoy a seder celebrating the trees on Tu B’shvat. In the Sephardi community, the tradition of a seder on Rosh Hashanah takes all of our good intentions for the New Year and makes us “eat our words.”
We know that apples and honey are traditional foods for Rosh Hashanah. By eating something sweet, we inaugurate the New Year with an act of sweetness.
It’s not enough to pray that we improve our deeds in the New Year. When we eat the pumpkin, we offer a prayer that any “evil decree’ be torn up and that all of our good deeds be proclaimed  In Hebrew, pumpkin is kara, which sounds a lot like the word for “torn up” and the word for “proclaim.” (We make pumpkin “rugelach” using puff pastry and pumpkin pie filling. Yum!)
Because the Rosh Hashanah seder relies on puns and wordplay, it’s a fun a way to inject humor and delight into your Rosh Hashanah gathering.
From the earliest rabbinic text—the Mishna (c.200 CE)—we read of these simanim. Simanim is the Hebrew word for “signs.” Like a sign on the road, each food points us in the direction of a good New Year.
You can bring this ritual to your own Rosh Hashanah table this year with this handout and host’s guide.  Well worth a visit to this site!
Many people eat pomegranates, because their many seeds remind us of the 613 mitzvot. They offer the promise that in the coming year we will be full of many opportunities to bring goodness and light into the world.
We can use the traditional Hebrew puns, but it’s also fun to make up new ones in English. In addition to the traditional wish for beets in Hebrew, we can hope for a year of peace when we “beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks.” Or we can pray for peace by eating peas.
Though the seder officially ends with the head of a sheep (or some substitute the head of a fish), with a wish that we be “at the head and not at the tail,” in our house we place a head of lettuce on the table. Then we all pray for what we hope God will “let us” achieve in the New Year.
All of these foods give us a good start for the New Year, proving once and for all that you are what you eat.

Brisket will never be the same.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Say Thank You

24 Elul, Friday, September 19

When the Limestone group returns to Boston, we have made it our tradition to share Shabbat dinner together. This is always made possible by those we left behind: loving spouses, former Limestone participants, and other family members who did not join us on the trip. They prepare the repast and welcome us as we emerge from our cars after the long day’s journey home.

Like the First Creation, it’s a fitting end to a week of labor.

The rituals of the Shabbat meal give us an anchor and ease our transition back into home life. We share stories with those who did not participate and we swap our own perspectives on what we did, saw and heard over the course of the week. In the end, no matter what challenges we faced, what hurdles we overcame, what emotions we navigated, Shabbat feels good.

The great Jewish thinker Maimonides (Rambam – Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 12th century Spain), taught:
If we contemplate the world around us, it will lead us to praise and to gratitude, and to awe at our place in the universe.

While this may sound a bit mystical, Rambam was one of the greatest rationalists in Jewish philosophical history. Either way, it suits the experience of returning home from a gratifying week. For the work we have accomplished, we are grateful. For the relationships we have strengthened, we are grateful. For the growth we have observed in our children and ourselves, we are grateful. For the peace and natural beauty we have glimpsed, we are grateful. For all the comforts and pleasures in our homes, we are grateful.

Rabbi Jonathan Slater, who has taught me mindfulness, share this thought at our summer retreat:
“It is completely unlikely that we are here. Say thank you.”

None of these blessings were earned, deserved, produced or controlled by any of us. We certainly had a hand in them, as partners with God. Yet it is completely unlikely that we are here. Even if I don’t know who I’m addressing, what else can I do but say thank you?

It doesn’t take a trip to Northern Maine to know this. Each one of us can access that sense of improbability that leads to appreciation. When we awaken in the morning, the first Jewish prayers speak of gratitude. Before we’ve even stepped out of the bedroom, we can acknowledge that being alive is a gift. Opening our eyes to see is a gift. Standing up on our own two feet is a gift. Having clothes to wear is a gift. Say thank you.

Modeh ani lefanecha, ruach chai vekayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati bechemlah, rabbah emunatecha.
I am deeply grateful in Your Presence, Source of all that lives and exists, for You renew my soul each morning in great love and faithfulness. 
These are the very first words to say upon awakening. Wake up and notice: How good it is to be alive!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Where is the Finish Line?

23 Elul, Thursday, September 18

The trip to Limestone is usually magical. As we reach the northern miles of I-95, past Bangor, the traffic thins out, the trees become more lush and Mt. Katahdin rises to the west. This year, the trip was much quicker but no less magical. As the 30-seater prop-jet glided through clear skies over the miles of forest, I could make out the windmills along the Canadian border to the east, and not much else in between, except trees. It was one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever taken and the peacefulness of the empty landscape was as expansive as the horizon.
Just to emphasize the wonder of being in Northern Maine, when I arrived, I had a vision. As I waited outside the one-room airport, a man in white shirt, black vest and pants, a large kippah, tzitzit and peyos came out of the building, talking on his cell phone. I’d seen Amish people in northern Maine, but never an observant Jew! It felt like a hallucination. I waited patiently for an opportunity to talk to him and was disappointed that he got in his car, still talking on the phone, and drove away. Most likely, he was the mashgiach for the potato processors, here for the day to check out the factory.
At the hotel, our group was in pretty good spirits. Halfway through the week, they were excitedly discussing the week’s projects. I had a lot of catching up to do: where they were working, what had been done already, who the folks were in the house we were repairing, and all the tidbits that get shared over the course of the week. All in all, the Limestone magic was intact.
But before we got any further, the illusion shattered. A small group of the volunteers had stopped to meet a middle-aged woman in her broken-down trailer, to find out whether we might be able to do a little work for her on our final day. Just as they were all talking together outside her door, she saw through the window that her kitchen stove was on fire. 
Two of the men ran in after her to help her put out the fire. But since it was a grease fire that was not so easy. Nothing seemed to be working. The fire grew bigger. As the flames spread to the roof of the trailer, the other volunteers witnessed, horrified, from outside. The men’s wives shouted at them to get out.
Finally, the power went out and the three of them quickly left the trailer. When the volunteer fire fighters finally arrived on the scene, they did not appear to be very skilled. In what appeared to be a Keystone Cops routine, eventually they put out the fire. The firefighters went back in and miraculously located the woman’s purse, with her car keys and wallet. One of the cats got out (I never heard about the other one).
Most upsetting to the group was the feeling that they were responsible for distracting the woman from her cooking and felt guilty that they had contributed to this disaster. They could not escape the horror of what they had witnessed and their fear for this woman’s future.
Throughout the crisis, Sharon, one of our Limestone friends stayed with the group, calmly assuring them that it would be all right. Sharon, who is a social worker, had been the contact between our group and this woman. She insisted that this accident could have happened at any time. And then she said with great compassion, “everything happens for a purpose.”
That was difficult to believe. But two days later, I visited a family whose house had burned down a year ago. We had raised money last summer to help replace their belongings and were amazed when we visited them this year and saw their new prefab home. It was one of the most beautiful homes we had ever seen in those parts. Unlike their first home, it was clean and tidy and filled with lovely furniture. It was as if having a new home had also transformed their attitude as well. Truly, the fire had been a curse that yielded blessing.
Could we count on that happening for this other woman? No, we can’t count on anything. But she gained something that we could not have counted on either. At our closing circle Sharon reflected on the fire in the context of our many years together. She talked about how inspired she and the community are by our very presence each summer Sharon recounted that when she tells people about our annual trip, they often ask, “why would they do that?” Then she added, with awe and admiration, “not everyone goes into a burning building to help someone they had only just met.”

Everything happens for a purpose—or put another way, we can find purpose in everything that happens. We cannot know the impact of our actions. We cannot predict how anyone’s life can change. There are people we have helped who have left town and never been heard from again. But for the people who have watched us for the past nine years, our commitment has given them hope and empowered them to make a difference. 
Perhaps our purpose was not just to repair homes. Perhaps our work had something to do with repairing hearts. A fitting task for the month of Elul.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Yet Another Detour: When Curses Turn to Blessings

22 Elul, Wednesday, September 17

I almost didn’t make it to Limestone this year.

In the morning of the first day that Yonah came home from the hospital, it became clear to me that it would be impossible for either one of us to make the seven-hour drive to Limestone. Yonah was still in terrible pain from the surgery, even with the heavy medication, and he needed to sleep. I was not about to leave him at home. No one could predict how quickly he would recover.
But even if he were awake and pain free, he would have been miserable sitting around and watching everyone else do the work that he was prohibited from carrying out. Yonah has been to Limestone nearly every year since the summer before his bar mitzvah. He loves climbing on the roof. He has developed carpentry skills. At 6 foot 1, he often volunteers to lift heavy loads. Not to mention how much fun he has with the others on the trip. None of this would be possible in his condition.
With a great heaviness, I informed the group that we would not be making the trip. Given that this was to be our last Limestone sojourn, I knew I would mourn this loss. But every parent knows that when our own children are in pain, we go to their bedside. There was no question in my mind that this was where I needed to be.
That day was the hardest day for both of us. Until about four o-clock, when three dramatic events unfolded. First, Yonah came into the room where I was working. He was feeling angry and frustrated. Yet he had come up with a plan. If only his friends could come over and cheer him up, would that be ok? I was so glad he was up to having people over and that he had figured this out for himself. Of course we agreed, as long as they didn’t stay too late, since he still needed lots of sleep.
About an hour later, I got a phone call from the surgeon. I had never met Dr. Cook, though he had called me on Saturday night to say that the surgery was a success. I had several questions for him, including my concern about the extent of Yonah’s pain. Dr. Cook assured me that the first two days are the worst. Then he made a magnanimous offer: if Yonah was still in pain on Thursday, he would squeeze him in, even though he didn’t have a free minute in his schedule. I felt comforted by this kind man.
And not long after that, I got a text from Limestone. Because people don’t check their phones during the day, they had just gotten notice of our decision to stay in Boston. In a creative and very generous gesture, they insisted that before the week was out I should fly up to Presque-Isle, just a half hour’s drive from our motel in Caribou. And they had all agreed that the group would pitch in to pay for the flight.
I was so moved by this idea and by the open-heartedness of the group. Though I waited until the next day to make a decision, by Tuesday Yonah’s condition was improving, and Brian agreed to stay home with him for a day so that I could leave.
Expectations can be cruel. When we don’t meet them, our hopes are dashed. Then again, when we have no expectations of others they almost always surprise us for the good.  Every single person I encountered that day made something ordinary feel extraordinary. One Elul practice is to learn to give others the benefit of the doubt, in Hebrew: to judge everyone lechaf zechut.  If we assume that people are doing the best they can, we begin to notice how much goodness surrounds us.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

When the Journey Takes a Detour

21 Elul, Tuesday, September 16

The Limestone trip this year began in the month of Av, just three days before Rosh Hodesh Elul, the final month of the Jewish year.  Nevertheless, the season of Elul, with its call to contemplation of the meaning of our lives, arrived a few days early for me. On the day we were to drive up to Maine, I was sitting at the bedside of our twenty-year-old son Yonah in a hospital room as he recovered from an appendectomy.

Any parent who has worried about a child who is in pain knows the cauldron of emotion that arises at such a time. From the first moments when Yonah described his pain, I worked to balance my own growing concern with my responsibility to keep calm. While going through each step, from the call to urgent care, to the doctor’s visit, to the hours spent in the ER, Brian and I sought to keep it all in perspective, for Yonah’s sake as well as our own.

But when we finally saw him wheeled down the corridor to the operating room, I allowed myself to know fear. Of course my rational self knew that the odds were very good that this would be a routine procedure and he would come out just fine. But my rational self was in a struggle with all the ways that my mind imagined the procedure could go wrong. Brian and I didn’t speak about it. We didn’t speak much at all. Just being together provided a blanket of comfort and hope, while the fear rustled the sheets beneath.

Fortunately, by the time Brian and I returned from a quick trip home for dinner, the surgeon called my cellphone to report that Yonah was coming out of surgery – in one piece. Within the hour we were able to see him. We did not leave his side until he had been wheeled into a room of his own and was settling in for the night.

As soon as we awoke on Sunday morning, we sped to the hospital. I spent the entire day in Yonah’s hospital room. While he slept off the anesthesia, I had a lot of time to think.  I reviewed the past twenty years, from choosing Yonah’s name to his college experiences. I considered the hopes and dreams I had for him so long ago and the miracle of his own growth in body and mind. I wondered whether I had been a “good enough” mother and  what our relationship might be as he sets off on his own. I marveled that we had never been in this situation before: no surgeries, no broken bones, no stitches. Poo-poo-poo.

I was also filled with awe. Awe at the medical advances that prevented the outcomes I dreaded. Awe at the capacity of the human body to assist in its own repair. Awe at the inexpressible bond between a mother and son.

Sitting by Yonah’s bedside, my heart pulled taut by its indestructible tie to that strong young man, lying in pain. Then I thought of others in pain, others in hospitals. But for this moment, he was the one I had to give my full attention. Being with him was my responsibility. I cannot deny that my deepest connections are to my children, my partner, my close family. And yet, being with him opened my eyes, and my heart I pray, to the suffering of other mothers and children.

That is the way that God works in the world as I know it. When we open our hearts fully to experience the fullness of our own emotions, we also become more attuned to the experience of others. That’s the Elul lesson I learned that day:  to be fully present to those I care about the most also creates the capacity for empathy. Yonah’s recovery proved to be a source of blessing for him and for us in so many ways.