I Am Alive.

image-1By Mindy Rubenstein

Yesterday my good friend in New York told me about all the people she knows who have passed away just in the past week. She said it’s surreal and unsettling, but she’s trying to keep a sense of normalcy in her home, especially for her children. 

She told me about visiting her sister in law, who not only had been sick but had just lost a close family member, so she was now in mourning. But she hadn’t even processed the emotional loss, she said, because she was feeling so bad physically. And as I pictured this young woman in my head, I thought of my own difficulty breathing the past few days, the discomfort in my chest, the low-grade fever, and the feeling of fatigue I realize are psychosomatic. I thought of my parents who live several hours away and have quarantined themselves. 

At the end of a long day, I took a bath and tried to relax, to breathe. I have during my lifetime — I’m in my 40s now — gone through intense emotional ups and downs. I can’t say for sure if mine are any worse than others may experience. But they feel worse to me. I do take a low dose of medication, have talked to therapists, and pray often. I take walks daily. And I try to put my passion into my family and my creative work. 

But over the weekend a deep sadness and irritability fell over me. I was vicious with my husband and myself, and looking back now it was like something had taken over my mind, had moved in and decided to sabotage my plans for spiritual awakening and inspiring others. I stopped writing, stopped praying, stopped loving. It hurt deeply to feel so lonely, so far from myself, from others, from G-d. 

This week I read an article that my cousin, a therapist, shared that said this time is especially hard for anyone who already struggled with mental health. This new situation has made me think more of my mortality and to appreciate life, but reading the stories of health care professionals and hearing about all the death and suffering is taking a toll on even the strongest among us. 

So as I lay in my warm bath, thinking of death and having to focus on my own breathing that I no longer take for granted, I suddenly felt sublimely peaceful. I felt filled with light and love, like my lifeforce could easily slip away into the next world. All this pain and fear and suffering could be gone. 

And then I thought of a story I read recently of a young Jewish man who was being wheeled to the gas chambers with other seemingly lifeless bodies. At the last moment, he managed to get out in Yiddish just three words: I am alive. Again, he said it louder, I AM ALIVE. He was set aside, survived the Holocaust and went on to have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

I, too, am alive. And as long as I’m still here, whether it’s another day, a decade or more, there’s still work to be done. It isn’t easy. And sometimes it hurts. 

In Europe, the Nazis and their collaborators sealed the synagogues to punish, dehumanize and ultimately exterminate the Jews. Here in America, our government has asked us to close our shuls to SAVE us from harm. America tries to protect its Jewish citizens; the Nazis singled us out for destruction. 

Yes, this pandemic is terrible and it’s dangerous and, in too many cases, lethal. But we will get through this. There is no government-sponsored plot to kill off Jews. With G-d’s help, this too shall pass, and we will be more sincere in our commitment to prayer and Torah.

There are people dying alone in hospitals, and my friend and I said how utterly sad this is. One man wept as he said the Shema prayer to his dying mother through the speakerphone of a reluctant and overworked doctor. 

As he listened to the man saying goodbye to his mother, “Time slowed down and I felt restored to myself,” the doctor shared through a social media post. “It woke up some emotion in me that I had long forgotten about.” 

These words really struck me and I’ve read them over and over again. He was restored to himself? As I put my hand to my chest and feel the rise and fall, feel my heart continue to beat, I think of the life-force keeping me here, even if I don’t acknowledge it. 

We are never alone. As long as we are still here and can feel this heartbeat — G-d, Love, Life, whatever you choose to call It, remains within us. 

Let’s take a moment to appreciate each precious breath — in and out — that’s being given to us. 

I am alive. And so are you.

May Hashem heal all our people, speedily and in our days.

 

From where will our comfort come? Look up, look around, look within…

While waiting for my 15-year-old daughter to come out of an appointment today, I read this in a newspaper article, and it really affected me. “Traditionally we seek solace in religion, sports, entertainment, and in the promise that modern science and societies provide all the tools needed to solve any problem,” says the writer, explaining how the current situation has upended all that. 

But what now? 

Those who have read my articles know I openly express my own emunah (faith) and adult-onset adherence to the Jewish mitzvot. Which is great. But in the trenches of daily living when things get ugly, I admit I have almost always looked externally for solace. Or blamed others for my feelings of fear, disappointment, or sadness. 

My husband should make me feel better by saying and doing the right things, for example, or my religion and trusted rabbis should provide a source of inspiration. Or I turn to my beloved chocolate, or watch a feel-good Netflix documentary as my kids groan over this sappy source of “entertainment.” 

This afternoon, while doing a mini-architecture project, my 9-year-old daughter ended up crying. We’ve been homeschooling for months, by choice, and for the most part, we have taken a pretty loose approach to the process — allowing them to discover themselves and their own interests. It’s what’s dubbed de-schooling, and it’s been an overall amazing experience. 

But today I tried to get her and her brother to better stick to the schedule I create for them each week. I made her finish something she was in the middle of before taking off to start a science experiment. And the power struggle ensued, culminating in tears and frustration. 

After a bit of cooling-off time, I went to her and we mended ways with a hug and a walk outside. 

During our walk, I reminded her and myself that it’s okay to feel frustrated or sad or angry. We talked about thoughts and emotions and where they come from. But really she just wanted me to stop talking and pointed out a heart-shaped leaf. So, of course, I had to take a picture of it, and her. Capturing the moment provided me solace and evidence that we did some science. And we found out its type — there’s an app for that. 

But wow, what a reminder that this world contains such beauty, such comfort — when we stop to enjoy it. And it’s a reminder that there’s a loving Creator of all this magic.

We are learning new ways of ‘being’ during this crazy time, learning to think differently. I love the videos of people in Israel and Italy on their balconies connecting to each other through music, despite all odds. 

We are here in this seemingly crazy world just temporarily. It’s not meant to be easy. Each challenge large or small makes us smarter and stronger. And while we used to seek solace in sports, entertainment, and in the promises of modern science and societies, now we must look up, look around, look within. 

There is underlying goodness, a light within all things and all people, just waiting for us to notice. Now is the time.

……………

Mindy Rubenstein has worked as a professional journalist and writer since 1998. As editor of Nishei, she helps women and children express themselves through writing. She has written about her Jewish journey for various publications. You can read some of those articles here. She and her husband live in Florida and have four children. 

Read Judaism didn’t fix my life, I needed to do it. 

Submit your thoughts and ideas here.

We are all in this together and will come out better in the end

image-1Dear Friends, 

Things are uncertain, to say the least. One of my main clients told me that she doesn’t think she’ll need my writing services for now since their organization has essentially shut down. After we got off the phone, I felt nauseous. While just a few days ago I had more work than I could manage, thank G-d, I suddenly faced a new reality. My husband has been in a commission-only job the past 12 years, and that, too, has suddenly changed. 

IMG_2523 (1)And I started to think about all the people in similar situations and all the industries affected by this seeming craziness… We are all in this together! We are figuring it out as we go –– as individuals, as families, as communities, and as one big interconnected world. 

A few months ago, which now seems ironic, I started homeschooling three of my children by choice. It was the right decision for us as a family and we spent the beginning figuring out how to navigate that new world. Our children began to blossom, exploring the world around them and asking questions about EVERYTHING. 

In school, they were told minute to minute, bell by bell, what to do and learn and memorize. They were tested and tried constantly to meet the standardized expectations set for other children their age.

But who are they? What makes each of them unique? What do they really like? 

We have explored these questions together the past few months, through trial and error and schedules and free time. Art, math and science and learning that doesn’t always — and almost never — fits neatly into just one category. 

It has been fun and messy and never boring as I balanced working from home with helping my children learn. And as it turns out, human beings are designed to WANT to learn. When it’s not forced upon them, when they have a say in the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ and the ‘where’… 

And everything is learning. There is no separation between school and life. Life is learning. Informal conversations while cooking with them, cleaning the house together, grocery shopping and budgeting and interacting with adults and peers and siblings. And watching us, their parents, disagree… then regret our mistakes, work things out and keep going. This is real learning. 

They are learning the most by watching us as adults re-discover ourselves, face our own fears, and how we react to this new unprecedented situation.

Are we doing it with grace? Are we reminding them and modeling for them our solid belief that IT’S ALL GOOD. Really. It’s all good. 

It doesn’t feel like it right now. It’s scary and chaotic and messy and uncertain. 

But I have never been more certain that this, too, is for the good. Yes, people are getting sick and people are dying. I can’t pretend to know what it feels like to lose someone to this disease, G-d forbid. My heart breaks when I read some of the stories from Italy and other places. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like I couldn’t breathe, but I prayed and talked myself through it, one deep breath at a time. 

And as I try to delicately share news and current events with my children, I remind myself and them how precious life really is. That we get to wake up again each day is something we often take for granted. 

But all we can try to control at any moment is our thoughts and how we LOVE. 

That’s all I really want to do now — to love. I told my kids as I woke them up this morning after we said Modeh Ani together…that the seemingly bad news is that I sort of lost my job. But the good news is I have all this time to focus more on them (and myself, which makes me a happier person overall). They asked me a bunch of very practical questions, some of which I could answer. 

Then we cuddled up on the couch together, said our morning prayers, and made a plan for the day that we may or may not follow. 

But either way, even in those dark moments when love and safety and certainty feel so far away, it helps to take a walk, look up at the sky, breathe deeply. Think of how precious and good that breath is. Seek out the people online who are sharing positivity. It’s amazing how this new reality seems to be bringing out the best in many people. 

No matter what happens in the coming weeks and days and moments, we are in this together. And that’s truly beautiful. 

The world can really use some inspiration. If you feel inclined to share, please send me your experiences, your ups, and downs, to editor@nishei.org

With love and gratitude,

Mindy

…………………………………………

Mindy Rubenstein has worked as a journalist and writer since 1998. She helps nonprofits and schools with website content, writing, and editing. In her spare time, she also helps women and children express themselves through writing. She has written about her Jewish journey for various publications, including Aish.com and Chabad.org. You can read some of those articles here. She and her husband live in Florida and have four children. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Mother Teresa and the Parsha 

image-1By Mindy Rubenstein 

Last night I watched a movie about Mother Teresa with my children. They liked seeing a human being with such passion and persistence, someone who was so determined to help and love others, no matter how unlovable they seemed. 

That we watched such a movie wouldn’t seem unusual, except for the fact that we are classified as Orthodox Jews. Our family tries to observe the Torah in all aspects of our lives, including its 613 commandments. Many Orthodox Jewish families don’t watch television or movies, let alone a movie about a woman honored by the Catholic church as a saint. But I’m probably not like many other Orthodox Jewish mothers, and I’m not into labels. 

I love being a Jew, now that I know what it means. Growing up, being Jewish meant we weren’t Christian; it was more about what we didn’t do. Pretty much every Jewish person I knew intermarried. 

As an adult, I started digging more deeply into my faith, its history, as well as its privileges and responsibilities. I fell in love with Judaism and the way it was presented by the young, passionate Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and rebbetzins we encountered in the spiritual desert in which we had been raised.  

My husband and I chose, against all odds, to start keeping Shabbat and kosher and the many other details that go along with living Jewishly. We sent our kids to schools that teach the text of Torah, its rules and obligations. And they learned to read Hebrew. 

But there was always something missing. Always a nagging within my soul as I tried, along with my husband and growing family, to integrate into the fold of “frum” Judaism. The people we met on our journey throughout Florida, Atlanta, Maryland and Virginia, as well as frequent visits to New York and New Jersey, seemed to follow many of the “rules” dictated by Torah.

They picked up a bencher after eating and said the Hebrew words, they were part of Kollels where the expectation is to study Torah part of the day and reach out to the community the other part. They wore head coverings and tzitzit. They had big families, separate dishes and walked to synagogue on Shabbat. We tried to emulate these aspects of life. 

Yet as my older children entered their teen years and began to think more for themselves, they started to pull away. At first, I panicked. I wanted to control them, to push them back towards Torah and the life I envisioned for our family. But then I tried to watch the Orthodox Jewish community through their eyes. And I tried to watch myself through their eyes.

And that’s when I started to understand what had been weighing on my own heart and soul the past 13 years, since I first discovered Torah Judaism.

How do we really connect with G-d and with others? How do we show love and warmth and acceptance? Isn’t that the core of what Torah teaches? Yes, the details are essential. Studying Torah and Gemara and Chassidus are part of who we are. And that’s beautiful. But are we smiling at people? Are we truly welcoming newcomers? 

Do we feel inspired and on fire? Kids and teens have an amazing sense of when people are genuine. And when they are being loved and accepted for who they are. They recognize when someone has such a deep connection with G-d that it allows them to truly connect with and love others. 

In my personal journey to find truth and goodness in Torah, I expected my family to feel it, too. My husband was blessed (or cursed?) with a job that has allowed us to pursue this journey throughout various communities. It hasn’t been easy, to say the least. With any life decisions, there are pros and cons. But I do take some solace in knowing that our motives were to seek G-d. And, as it turns out, to share His message. 

In this week’s Torah portion, called Beshalach, which means, “sent forth,”  we read about Pharaoh chasing Jews as they fled Egypt. Under this threat, they cried out to G-d. Indeed, it is often opposition that awakens our deepest reserves of energy, that gets our adrenaline going.

Here in our little corner of the world, there are no perceived threats. Comfort and contentment can cause us to lose sight of our priorities, weakening our sense of urgency in our Divine mission. Physical or spiritual adversity, however, can shock us out of indifference. 

How do we awaken from our slumber and complacency, so we will demand a world the way that it was meant to be? That we should want with all our hearts to break out of this spiritual prison. How do we observe Torah and serve G-d with a passion and enthusiasm that brings people closer?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his last public address, said, “The only thing I can do (now) is to hand the matter over to you. Do everything you can– even if it demands the unconventional, maverick but down-to-earth– do everything you can that people will truly yearn… from their own hearts and own understanding– and demand, How much longer?” 

The torch that had been passed from leader to leader, from prophet to sage since Abraham. That torch has now been passed to each of us. Let’s open our eyes and grab it! 

Mother Teresa, the Lubavitcher Rebbe… it’s no longer up to people like them. It’s a different world now, and the power lies within each of us.

Do something, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Smile at someone. Make a phone call to check on a friend. Send a nice text message. Give your spouse a hug. Ask what this world needs from you. 

We must strive to bring even the most distant people back, showing them that they are truly loved. When we remain true to this objective, we are assured that in the end, no one will be left behind. 
………

Sources: Daily Wisdom, translated and adapted by Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky, pp. 126-127; Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, compiled by Tzvi Freeman, pp. 200-201.

To submit an article to Nishei, email editor@nishei.org.

Read more articles here or here.

 

 

 

Teach Like Your Soul’s on Fire!

spiral-1037508_1280A non-Jewish friend shared a reggae song with me recently, and I was moved by its lyrics and graceful passion. The lovely woman singing seemed to be on spiritual fire!

As I listened carefully to the lyrics of this song, I found that, like many songs of this genre, they’re usually religious. I don’t know much reggae other than a bit of Bob Marley (and Matisyahu), but people seem drawn to it. Maybe it’s the tempo and style; maybe its the depth of the lyrics.

Even if we don’t realize it, we are all searching for a deeper connection, for truth and passion, for G-d — whether it’s through music or something else.

The term reggae comes from rege-rege, a Jamaican phrase meaning “rags or ragged clothing,” and is used to mean a raggedy style of music. The reggae genre came into being in the 1960s. So just 80 years ago — not that long really.

To put it in perspective, Torah and mystical thought came into this world around 3,000 years ago. And I came to it 12 years ago, searching for that beauty and richness in life most of us seek.

The deeper I dig, the more I find and realize that it’s pretty much the foundation for all elevated, mindful living. Probably even reggae. Though most of Torah’s beauty and deeper meaning, the sparks of the higher world, have been “lost” even to Jewish people.

So it’s like a mission now to collect all these hidden sparks… sometimes from really low and dark places, and to bring them into being. Those sparks can be anywhere. Those sparks are within you.

But, and this is a big, confusing BUT… Those sparks sometimes don’t seem to shine in Jewish schools or in modern-day frum life in the U.S. Those sparks, that fire for serving G-d, is sometimes not even found in synagogues except maybe within a few knowing beings.

And that makes it painful, deeply painful, discovering that the light I was seeking IS in Torah, BUT it’s still often trapped. Even in a Torah community, even in Torah schools, it can still be trapped.

And sometimes it doesn’t even feel like we are collectively as a community trying to reach for those sparks. Have we forgotten our mission?!

It’s seemingly lost somehow in the minutiae of daily life, kosher symbols and skirt lengths and warming trays. Keep doing those things, of course. Keep serving G-d through the mundane yet holy mitzvahs of daily life. But do it with joy. Do it with FIRE.

And please, PLEASE, teach it not just with tests and memorization… teach it with love and enthusiasm! Kids know truth when they hear it. Infuse your Torah lessons with the deep, hidden magic and inspiration they deserve.

As I read this to my teenage daugther who has experienced the educational system for over a decade, her eyes lit up. “You should share that with other people,” she said. “When you talk fast like that, the way your words are coming out, it makes it easy to listen to and understand what you’re saying.” Yes! Words from the heart enter the heart.

Tests and pages and pages of memorization seem to take the light and love out of it.

TEACH LIKE YOUR HEART AND SOUL ARE ON FIRE! Teach like you’re an inspired music star!

Let’s live inspired lives so we can be an example for our children and our students. Otherwise, they may turn away, seeking inspiration and authenticity elsewhere. Sparks are waiting for them, and us, in the most unexpected places — even in the classroom. We just have to remember to look for them — and to create them.

What are your thoughts?

Share your positive experiences with enlightened, inspired Torah education. How can we improve and grow? What are some concrete ways teachers are succeeding at giving over their magic in the classroom?

Going Back Home and Learning to Seeing the Good

By Mindy Rubenstein

This Shabbos I spoke about my Jewish journey to the lovely community at Young Israel of Tampa, run by Rabbi Uriel and Dvorki Rivkin. The Rivkins have opened their home and adjoining synagogue to the community for more than a decade, giving of themselves selflessly to anyone who reaches out for advice, a meal or a place to stay.

I first met the Rivkins in 2006 while looking for a place to go for Yom Kippur with my husband and our two toddlers. My husband and I grew up around the block from each other in nearby Seminole, with our families both attending a small synagogue called Beth Chai that was later torn down to make way for a housing development.

From the moment my husband and I walked through the door of Young Israel — now married with children — the Rivkins warmly welcomed us with open arms. That evening 12 years ago was one of my first glimpses into the world of Torah Judaism and chassidus, and helped set the path for my family.

Along with people like Rabbi Yossi and Dina Eber with Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco, they showed a world illuminated and distinctly different than the darkness many of us have come to think of as normal and unchangeable.

As my young family and I wandered through various places learning more about the 613 mitzahs of the Torah, I have come to understand that the initial embrace — both physical and symbolic — of people like the Rivkins and Ebers is what it truly means to live a Jewish life. To be kind and compassionate even when it’s uncomfortable, to take a few extra seconds to offer a smile and warm hello to someone you meet. To seek out ways to help those around us. And to seek out the good in everything.

We have seen many communities and gotten to know people of all backgrounds along our journey, from Vizhnitz to Reform to Chabad to Belz to Modern Orthodox to the completely unaffiliated.

And there is one thing in common with the people I have met who inspire me to live better: they are kind, positive, and made an effort to be upbeat even when facing challenges.

While carefully keeping the mitzvahs is essential, living with kindness and a positive attitude is something we should strive for in all we do. It took me going around the country and back home again to understand that. It’s something I am still learning.

On the wall of the Rivkin’s shul in Tampa now hangs the Yahrzeit (memorial) plaques they rescued from our childhood synagogue Beth Chai, including one for my husband’s grandfather. When we visited a couple years ago, my husband was shocked to spot the familiar name next to him while he was sitting in the synagogue. It also happened to be his grandfather’s yarzheit, and it was again during our visit this past Shabbos. My husband’s mother, along with his brother and his family joined us for Shabbat lunch and got to see the bulb next to his name illuminated once again.

As I explained during my “talk” to those gathered at Young Israel on Shabbos: While integrating the mitzvahs into our lives has taken years of classes, chavrusahs and visits to our mentors, there is one simple idea that encompasses what it means to live Jewishly — to strive to always seek and find the light, the good, in any person or situation.

It’s always there, waiting to be uncovered. Sometimes, all it takes is a smile and a few moments of kindness for the light to come flooding in.

 

IMG_6387

My kids and I enjoying a little fresh air before Shabbat, at Lettuce Lake Park near the Rivkin’s shul in Tampa.

Whole

painting

the thoughts hover surround consume

must be released to cause peace

in the mind

so confined

let them out

share

compare

tell a friend

give over the pain

the worry the fear

to that Unseen Power

be quiet

still

listen

It’s there within

It surrounds you

Infinite Light and Love

that’s always been yours

plug in

recharge

bring the thoughts to words

that flow from your lips

speak your fears

or simply say: i am here

please be with me

let me be with You

unite body, soul

heaven, earth

feel your breath

you are Whole

 

poem by M.E. Baum, Nishei contributing writer

artwork by Miriam Schapiro, Fanfare, 1958. Oil on canvas. 72 × 84 in. (182.9 × 213.4 cm). The Jewish Museum, New York.