Stress. Overwhelm. Too busy. Too much on our plates. Deadlines. Emails. Homework. Work. Bills. Family obligations. Social life? Grocery shopping, running errands, the buzz of daily life, newsfeeds - constantly being pulled in several directions at once. Quiet time? When?
It’s true. We can’t slow life down. It’s constantly flowing from one moment into the next, a perpetual stream of consciousness, one thing adding onto another, our responsibilities can seem, at times, insurmountable.
How is it possible to get it all done? What happens when one deadline falls after another - and the steaks are constantly high? Where do we go? Who do we turn to? Who do you turn to?
The American Institute for Stress (that actually exists!) reports that : 44% of Americans feel they are more stressed today than 5 years ago.
1 in 5 Americans deals with extreme stress which includes some form of body shaking, heart palpitations, and depression.
Work stress apparently causes 10% of strokes.
Additionally, according to this organization’s research, stress is the basic cause of all human illness and disease! In fact, 3 out of 4 doctor visits are stress-related ailments, which costs the nation $300 billion every year in medical bills and lost productivity - which by the way, is $100 billion more than what obesity costs Americans.
Stress has truly become an epidemic in its own right, and so many of us are suffering because of it. We will always have obligations, but it’s too easy to FORGET to stop and check in. It’s too easy to forget to take a breath when we are overwhelmed. Perhaps that is exactly why we are called to be here today, on Rosh Hashana - ready to step out of the chaos of the everyday and get clear on how to best move forward in our lives.
Last year, I took an opportunity to teach religious school to 1st-5th graders. At first it seemed like an innocent gig - show up at the worst time of day, after kids have been having their brains stuffed with information and then have them come into another building and continue to be stuffed with more information, with hopes to inspire a deep love of Judaism. Right. Then I find out, I wasn’t going to have 8 kids, but 20. By myself. For 2 hours. Awesome.
Unfortunately, the synagogue couldn’t find another teacher for that time slot, and it was clear I was taking on a huge obstacle alone. Heck, I was a clown in my former years, I could handle kids. But this wasn’t a show. This was a learning environment. A sacred learning environment, and talking about God and religion can be very vulnerable.
So week after week, I functioned in fight or flight. I prepared the best I could, but we couldn’t have group conversations. 20 kids couldn’t all share their responses - there just wasn’t time. The only ones who could contribute where the ones who readily spoke up. The loud ones were the ones who took the floor. The quiet ones, the reserved ones, the ones who didn’t understand or who had thoughts but no words, almost never even had a chance. Anything that sat on the periphery of that classroom was completely ignored.
It wasn’t until the middle of the spring semester when I even realized that there were several kids who had legitimately never spoken in class. I was dumbfounded and deeply ashamed. I had let the noise totally distract me, and for months had been completely negligent to the students who may in fact, have needed me the most. I quickly had to change gears and began redirecting conversations to the unspoken, asking them by name what they thought or if they had questions- which was usually answered with, what one might call the “deer in the headlights” look.
And not only was it difficult and foreign for the quiet ones, but the vocal ones, the ones who needed to share at every question - became even more passionate about contributing. So, getting to hear those quiet voices took some serious mind power; I had to acknowledge the noise and let them feel heard, but encourage enough silence for the quiet to speak.
So this is the dance! We ignore the quiet voice. Perhaps because it isn’t flashy or it doesn’t offer us the immediate gratification we are seeking. It is the voice that we have to strain to hear, and sometimes even have to work pull it out. It's like searching on google, and not getting the results you want right away….you have to reword it again so what you need shows up on top - no one wants to search page after page! We want what we need to show up clear and obvious.
The thing is, is that quiet voice is never obvious. It’s the one that holds the inner truth, our inner secrets and our inner pleads. It’s the voice that, for many of us, is the one we don’t want to hear because maybe, it reveals something about ourselves that we’ve been running from or perhaps, we’re too ashamed to admit.
But what happens when we perpetually ignore that voice? And let the loud chaos of the world around us be our constant distraction?
I believe it causes us forget who we really are. That would stress anyone out.
We are not those bills. We are not the obligations. We are not the newsfeed. We aren’t even those emails. Those are things that keep us plugged into society - but they are not who we are.
It’s like the prophet Elijah, who in the depths of his despair begged God to take his life. He was scared, overwhelmed and feared that who he was in the world was not accepted. On the brink of his own destruction and that of the world around him, he retreated to a cave to find solace. It is here that he hears - what scripture calls - Kol Demama Daka, a still quiet voice - the voice of God, who provides him the inner wisdom and guidance for what to do next. He got quiet, amidst the chaos of the world - and heard his truth; he was needed, and he did have a purpose.
That quiet is so powerful that The Book of Psalms writes, (Psalm 65):
לְךָ֤ דֻֽמִיָּ֬ה תְהִלָּ֓ה אֱלֹ֘הִ֥ים
For you God, silence is praise.
Ibn Ezra, a sage and rabbinic commentator of the Middle Ages, he understood this passage to reflect his true nature, saying that, “To God my soul is silent.” Perhaps he is drawing a line here between his mind or his ego, and the purest part of himself. And when we are being our purest, truest self, it is like a praise to God, because we are being what we were designed to be.
This was exactly was the Rabbis of our tradition, some 2000 years ago were concerned about. That we would become so obsessed with the craze of the world, that we would forget what is most important.This is why our tradition asks us to pray daily throughout the day - to get centered and call to God - and even better if we can do it with a community.
But, I’m going to tell you a secret. We aren’t supposed to read all of the words. Rather, are supposed to find the words that can lift us for that moment in need and let prayer be the way to recover the inner silence. As my teacher, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson wrote: If you are uncomfortable praying with words teach yourself to sit with silence. Let your awareness of your need become your prayer, let your awareness of God’s love be your answer.
Could we imagine pausing multiple times through the day and simply checking in? Taking a deep breath and make room for that inner voice?
As for those quiet students, they learned that they were welcomed. They saw that there was space created for them, and eventually they could be heard. They may have still been quiet or short on words, but by the end of the school year, they were contributing without being called on.
In a moment, our prayer service will call forth this kol demama daka- the still quiet voice - reminding us, that voice is within us all. As if in paradox, we blow the loud sounds of the shofar to wake ourselves up, but as the text reads, it is so we can hear that quiet tender voice.
Praying, praising, joining in song, releasing the tensions of our mind, pleading for help and even repetition of empowering words can rewire the brain and can help bring a deeper sense of peace, contentment and connection - to our inner selves, to each other and hopefully, to the One that makes all of this possible.
In other words, it’s quite possible that prayer could be the antidote to stress.
May this year be a year of goodness and joy, and a year of hearing the kol demama daka, the still quiet voice.
Thinking about Sacrifice in a New Way
In the Torah portion we are about to read, we are told all about the proscribed rituals that the high priest was responsible for carrying out on Yom Kippur. God tells Moses to tell the priest Aaron a detailed script of procedures and offerings; a sacrifice. Aaron is instructed to draw lots out for two goats, one of whom will carry the community’s sins out into the wilderness and one who will serve as a purification offering to God. God tells Moses that not only is this the proper procedure for Aaron in this time, but that this should be a “law for all time.”
While all these details may seem irrelevant since animal sacrifice is no longer a custom today, here we are sitting today sacrificing our usual Saturday rituals or freedom to be in synagogue together for a day of atonement. And while no goats are being sacrificed in the service (thankfully as I’m a quasi-vegetarian), the meaning of sacrifice can still be relevant. Sacrifice is in every choice that we make. We sacrifice time, money, sleep, etc… things that we might want to do or like for something else that we want to do. Last week I talked about being more honest about what it is that we desire and what we actively do to get it. This week I’m talking about the opposite: what are we giving up to achieve what we desire? The word “sacrifice” seems to come with a negative connotation these days. But I’d like us to think about how sacrifice benefits us in a positive way! Sacrifice does not mean giving up something for nothing; it means giving up one thing valued for something else we believe is worth more.
The Merriam Webster definitions says it is “an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.”
When we look at it this way, we realize that sacrifices are holy because they are an expression of what we value. In every choice we make, we sacrifice one thing for something of greater value and meaning. The law of sacrifice reveals and operates according to our personal value system.
One way sacrifice is beneficial is helping you to get ahead. In order to make progress, we must leave something behind; give up the comforts of the familiar in order to venture into something new. You must realize that you wouldn’t be having this experience now if you never left the comfort of your home!
Later in the service of Yom Kippur, we will stand and read statements as a community acknowledging the ways that we have fallen short this year. While we will be expressing the things we haven’t done, this is also a reminder of the things that we value as a community and strive to uphold. In this moment we will take stock of whether our actions lived up to our values this past year and recommit to upholding them in the coming year.
So I want to encourage you to also think about the personal sacrifices that you’ve made. Like maybe sacrificing your favorite Netflix show when you chose to do your homework, but you know that this choice will benefit you in the long run. Or maybe you sacrificed hanging out with friends to instead stay in for some solitary Netflix time and self-care? Maybe it was bigger than that. Maybe you sacrificed going to a concert that you payed for in order to help a friend who was feeling sad. I sacrificed some sleep to write this speech which I hoped would be meaningful to you all!
Maybe looking at what you choose to sacrifice can help you to understand what it is that you value so then your choices can better reflect that in this coming year.
I’m going to ask you a few questions to think about. I invite you to close your eyes if it feels comfortable and think about the questions as I ask them.
If any of these questions brought up something for you that you want to talk about, I welcome you to join us back at Hillel this afternoon between services! We’ll be open from 1pm-4pm. May you be inscribed in the book of life and may your sacrifices this year bring greater meaning to your life!
Learning about Civility at COSTCO
Debbie Yunker Kail
This past summer I had a really disturbing experience…at COSTCO…of all places. I usually do the COSTCO runs in our family but this time the three of us – my husband driving and my baby in the back seat - all went together. The parking lot was a zoo but after circling for a while we saw someone about to pull out and my husband put on his blinker. As the person was pulling out, we saw another car coming down towards us and it looked like they wanted the spot too. My husband pulled into the spot we were waiting for. Standard parking lot procedure, right? Put on your blinker, park, go shopping.
As I was gathering my things to get out of the car, all of a sudden there was an older man banging on my husband’s window. He was yelling at us, that we stole his spot and we needed to come out and measure who had been closer to the spot. I thought he must be kidding until I realized he wasn’t leaving. He kept banging, my husband asking him to leave and me starting to worry about our baby in the back seat. He kept banging for another minute or so, finally left and then pulled up his van behind us so that we couldn’t even leave the space if we wanted. I was scared to leave our car and we couldn’t leave the parking lot. He finally pulled around, got a spot almost literally across from us, and then gave us the finger the entire time he walked by our car. I was too shaken up to even go into COSTCO so we went home.
The man seemed to be in his 60s and was driving a mini-van. I thought to myself, he is probably someone’s father, maybe even someone’s grandfather.
While I don’t know why he did this, I know how he made me feel. Aside from the fact that COSTCO is already scary enough with oversized everything and no signs in the aisles to tell me where to go, he made me feel that I was not welcome at in a public place. He made me feel that my family’s safety was in jeopardy because we had parked our car incorrectly, according to him. He made me feel like the basic rules of society didn’t matter.
While most explanations I come up with in my head come back to my misfortune to be on the receiving end of one man’s anger management issues, I can’t let go of this story as a model for something much bigger. I’ve thought about it so much since then and have retold it countless times.
I think it’s because this one 5 minute experience that I had married two issues I worry about a lot: civility and mental health. On the surface this seems like a mental health issue to me -- Did this man have such severe anger management issues that he couldn’t handle someone taking a parking spot that he thought was his? What made him think it was OK to threaten a young family? Or anyone? But when I looked deeper it also felt like a civility issue to me – what does it say about my neighbors’ values that I saw several people witness this man banging on our car, yet no one stopped him. Moreover, what values does this man have that allows him to justify his own behavior?
I’m being captain obvious here, but our society is going through a pretty divisive time right now. Our presidential election, Charlottesville, Ferguson, the list goes on. More and more public demonstrations. Alongside what seems to be fewer and fewer real opportunities to talk with people who have a different perspective than I do. Refraining from talking to people who are different than us, refraining from talking to people we love about hard topics where we are likely to disagree – this makes it easier and easier to write people off as “other.” They aren’t like me so there’s no point in talking to them. They wouldn’t understand my perspective anyways. Their opinion is so far off from mine, I don’t think they will listen to me. All of a sudden, it becomes very easy to dehumanize the people around us who are less like us.
And social media makes all of this so much easier to carry out, right? Social media makes it easier to only read articles we already agree with and to only see posts from our friends with whom we agree. But social media also seems to be breeding a lack of civility in places where it really could bring us together instead. Recently, I have seen several people I otherwise respect make public judgments that harm more than they help. In public posts directed at no one in particular, I have seen Facebook friends calling people out for not posting enough about national tragedies, criticizing personal choices on how we spend our money or time, and publicly insulting local organizations.
I know these people mean well. They want to call us to action. And it’s tempting to spread our messages this way - Facebook gives us the chance to reach so many more people that if we called or had in person meetings!
But they are calling people to action in a decidedly non-Jewish way. On Yom Kippur, we come together and repent in the plural. We say together “We have trespassed. We have dealt treacherously. We have robbed. We have spoken slander.” We don’t stand up and point at each other saying, “You have trespassed. You have dealt treacherously. You have robbed. You have spoken slander.”
I love how our tradition sets up this holiday. Guess why? Because the other way doesn’t work! People yelling at me doesn’t make me want to be better. Whether that’s in a COSTCO parking lot, through a Facebook post that I feel might be targeted at me, or if someone actually points their finger at me. If I actually am wrong, none of these ways give me the support to do better. None of these modalities make me feel cared for, that someone could help me do better. They all seem like the gratification is in showing me how I’m wrong, NOT in standing with me to become better together.
Moreover, these kinds of public accusations create distance in moments when we could be drawing closer together. The negative impact of this is compounded by statistics that show that overall, teens are more lonely now than they were 5 years ago – in the Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse – In 2015, more than 30% of 8th, 10th and 12th graders agreed with the statement “I often feel lonely” while in 2010 it was 24%.
What our society needs right now, and honestly what I need right now, is not more yelling, but more times to come together to support each other and learn from each other. The same study reported that “those who spend an above average amount of time with their friends in person [vs on the phone] are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.”
We are all so busy but we can’t count on our phones to make us feel more connected. We have to count on each other. I said last week that showing up means you believe in the power of being together. As you reflect on who you want to be in the coming year, I invite you to also reflect on WHERE you want to be. What communities can you make better? How can you be part of “we.”
Most of the time when I think about what I can do to make our country feel less divisive, I think about attending rallies and donating money. Maybe writing letters and signing petitions. Those things are very important and all have their place in mending and advancing our society.
But let’s not minimize the power in the small things I can do, we can do, in our everyday lives to build a more civil society.
Growing up, we were probably all taught “Don’t talk to strangers.” Well – scratch that. This year, go out of your way to talk to strangers! Say hi if you are passing someone on the sidewalk or in the grocery aisle. Hold a door for someone even if you are in a rush. Then take it to the next level. Use social media to ask for help, not to criticize. And the next time you see that friend or family member who you know has a different view than you on an important issue, ask them about it and really listen. Why do you believe what you believe? What experiences led you to this? Can I share where I am coming from?
So – you know this had to end with another COSTCO story, right? So last Sunday, I took my exhausted, post-Rosh Hashanah self to get a few bulk items for the Kail household. Up and down the aisles, dodging carts and so many samples. As I was waiting in line to check out, I mindlessly turned around and an older woman behind me said, “I love your hair!” I jumped out of my head for a second, long enough to squash the self-critical thoughts of how I thought I looked, smiled, and said, “Thank you!” All I can tell you all, is that a simple complement from a woman I don’t know, towards a tired and scatter-brained Debbie, reminded me that we can do this. We can make big places like COSTCO and smaller places like this service feel like communities simply by talking to each other. We can do our little part to heal our divisive society by showing up for our friends. I really believe that if we live life in the plural, if we live life open to meeting and knowing those around us, together we can bring healing to our world.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
May we all be inscribed for a blessing in the Book of Life!
In purchasing 1020 S. Mill Ave in Tempe, Jewish footprint at Arizona State University will expand
Tempe, AZ – September 26, 2017 - Hillel Jewish Student Center at Arizona State University today announced that it has purchased a property to double its footprint at the Tempe campus and expand programming opportunities for Jewish students. The new property, at 1020 S. Mill Ave, is located directly south of Hillel’s current facility at 1012 S. Mill Ave.
Additional space will allow for multiple events to occur at one time, addressing new needs that have emerged as Hillel has doubled its student engagement over the past year. Under the leadership of its executive director, Debbie Yunker Kail, Hillel now has more frequent and diverse concurrent meetings and programs, increased attendance, and a growing staff to support these efforts.
“This space is essentially the start of a new era for Hillel at ASU, as it will open us to countless opportunities that were never before possible,” said Rachel Poulin ’18, Hillel student board president. “It will support our growing community and significantly increase our potential to impact Jewish students.”
Built in 1964, the building on 1020 S. Mill Ave. sits on .22 acres and is 3,225 sq. ft. It is adjacent to Hillel’s current building, which is 3,678 sq. ft. and also sits on .22 acres. The new property permits Hillel to accommodate its immediate growth, while also allowing for the potential of a much larger facility to be built in the future on the combined properties.
“We are grateful to those in the community who helped us take advantage of this unique opportunity to secure the property,” Board of Directors President Steven M. Goldstein said. The purchase was made possible through the generosity of: The Molly Blank Fund of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Andrew & Amy Cohn, Deeann Jo Griebel, The William S. and Ina Levine Foundation, and Barry & Barbara Zemel. Stu Siefer provided help with initial architectural plans, Barry Zemel championed this project from the beginning, and Ms. Kail led the fundraising initiative.
“We are spending this year going through a thoughtful process on how to integrate the building with our current facility,” Goldstein said. Hillel plans to incorporate students’ voices into how the space can be best used to engage Jewish students at ASU. The facility development process will be led by Joel Schaller, Hillel Vice President.
“We are incredibly excited that Hillel at ASU will be able to increase its programming and Jewish student engagement with its expanded space,” said Eric D. Fingerhut, President and CEO of Hillel International. “The new opportunities that will now be available for Jewish students at ASU will help connect more Jewish students to Jewish life, learning and Israel.”
About Hillel Jewish Student Center at Arizona State University
The only pluralistic organization for Jewish students, Hillel offers leadership development and professional mentoring as well as religious, cultural and Israel education initiatives. The center serves as home base for many Jewish students and is open daily from 9am-8pm. Hillel is present for students during key formative years, and as such inspires students to gain knowledge and experiences to direct their own path and make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. Hillel at ASU is an affiliate of Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world.
About Hillel International
Founded in 1923, Hillel has been enriching the lives of Jewish students for 90 years. Today, Hillel International is a global organization that welcomes students of all backgrounds and fosters an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. Hillel is dedicated to enriching the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. As the largest Jewish student organization in the world, Hillel builds connections with emerging adults at more than 550 colleges and universities, and inspires them to direct their own path. During their formative college years, students are challenged to explore, experience, and create vibrant Jewish lives.
by Debbie Yunker Kail
A woman proudly hung on her mantelpiece a needlework plaque that said “Prayer Changes Things.” A few days later, the plaque was missing from its place. The woman asked her husband if he had seen it. “I took it down, I didn’t like it,” her husband replied.
“But why” the woman asked. “Don’t you believe that prayer changes things?” “Yes, I honestly do,” her husband answered. “But it just so happens that I don’t like change, so I threw it away.”
He’s right – change is hard! But change can also be very good.
Tonight starts a very special 10 days in our Jewish calendar. They are often referred to as the Yamim Noraim - Days of Repentance or the Days of Awe. These ten days are here for us to reflect on what we did well and more importantly, how we want to be different in this coming year, how we want to change.
Our tradition teaches us that God has books he will write our names in, prescribing who will live and who will die. So…the books are open now, but only the completely wicked are written immediately. The rest of us have 10 days to make sure we end up in the right book!
Our liturgy gives us a prescription for making it into the book of life – repentance, prayer, charity will avert the severe decree! In Hebrew the refrain that we will sing tomorrow is: U’Teshuvah, U’Tefillah, U’Tzedakah Ma-a-vi-rin’ et ro’-a Ha-ge-ze-rah.
So – I have a confession. I struggle to believe in a God or in a religion that tells me that I have 10 days to do all the right things to determine my fate for the next year. I know that I want to be a good person, and I also believe that if I mess up, even in these 10 days, that doesn’t mean that God will write my name in the wrong book. I don’t believe that it’s all prescribed that I might get sick or face some horrible accident and that if I just play these next ten days right, I’ll be okay.
Look – nothing happened to me when I said that! :)
Even though I don’t believe this exactly, I have given a lot of thought to what I might act like if I did. So before I tell you what I do believe in, take a moment to think about how you would live these next 10 days if you DID believe that these 10 days are the ones that matter most for your life in the coming year. Would you hold more doors? Call an old friend or relative to reconnect? How much Netflix would you watch?? Would you find time to look into that local organization you’ve been meaning to volunteer with? Linger with friends even if you have homework waiting for you? Or maybe you might look at your phone less during dinner with friends?
Here’s what I do believe in. I believe in a religion that gives us a beautiful structure with many dedicated times throughout the weeks, months and years to take a step back from our daily lives and evaluate where we are. I believe in a religion that pushes me to be more mindful.
I believe that there is value in suspending my disbelief and living as if these ten days were the ones that mattered most. So for the next couple of minutes, join me!
So let’s examine this structure, this prescription of repentance, prayer and charity and see what we can learn from it and how it might help us.
Repentance or Teshuvah needs to include a change of heart and a clear change in behavior the next time a similar situation comes up. And we are also taught that repentance between man and man has to happen before repentance between man and God. So – according to this you have a few more days to call anyone with whom you’d like to reconcile before the big day, Yom Kippur, next week where you can ask God for forgiveness one last time.
Prayer – Prayer is hard and I really believe it means something different to all of us. For some it’s reading familiar words in our prayer book. For others, it may be reading the English translation while we listen to the Hebrew. Some of us may be closing our eyes so we can focus on the words we hear our community saying. And others may be staring off into space, listening to the words in our heart. What do these all have in common? We showed up to do it together. By showing up we are making a statement that we value being with others, that there is something special about being together (even with an ad hoc community!) that you can’t get by praying alone…however you pray.
Charity – Now’s the time to look outside of ourselves. What needs exist in our community? During these high holidays, our repentance prayers are in the plural, reminding us that we are responsible for each other. We have a responsibility to make the world a better place than how we found it and committing to that is especially important at this time of year.
A 2014 article in Time Magazine cited that giving of ourselves was actually one of the top pathways to happiness too. So there’s an added benefit!
Ok, so you’re still with me? We are mapping out the three things we are supposed to do in the next ten days: repentance, prayer, charity. In plain terms, the prescription is to right our wrongs with those we may have hurt, be together in community, and look outside of ourselves.
So hopefully now this is feeling doable and valuable!
I hope you will approach these next ten days as if they are the days that matter most. Whatever you believe about the book of life, these days are given to us to be more mindful than the average day.
And if you are willing to dive in, here are some tips for making the most of the next ten days:
Executive Leadership Coach Joel Garfinkle writes in the Harvard Business Review with some tips for having a tough conversation…
If you have a hard conversation to have with someone – don’t shy away!
I don’t know if Dr. Dweck knew…but she was really setting us up to be successful with our Teshuvah this week.
The whole idea of teshuvah doesn’t really work if we don’t believe that we can change, right? If we don’t believe we can change, why do all of this hard work of asking for forgiveness, of taking time to be together when the world around us continues?
Believing in teshuvah means believing that mistakes don’t define you negatively. You may be different, relationships may even change, but ultimately there is growth. Maimonides, one of our greatest thinkers, actually teaches that if you do teshuvah, your sins become mitzvot – good deeds!
So –Live life as if these are the most important days you have, and see what that feels like. Use these ten days. Use them to decide how you want your experiences to define you. Use these ten days to make meaning of the last year and use these ten days to repair what needs repairing - between you and others and between you and God. Use these ten days to reflect on your life, to take ownership, and to make sure that life doesn’t happen to you, as if you are a bystander. Use these next ten days to show up for your community – as we learn from the requirement of prayer and charity – this might mean coming to services but it could also mean being more active in one of your clubs or finding a way to volunteer for a cause you believe in. Maybe you even use these ten days to learn about all of the ways you can grow with Hillel (sorry…had to do a plug! :) ). And, use these ten days to commit how you will show up for your community in the year ahead.
Most importantly, use these next ten days to embrace change – even if it’s not on needlepoint! :)
This sermon was given by ASU Hillel Executive Director Debbie Yunker Kail.
Last week Mark Zuckerberg announced a new development coming to Facebook – he said that they are “building a way for people ‘to express that they understand and that they relate to you” when you share something sad, such as news of a natural disaster or a death in the family.”
It sounds like this new development will be a helpful way for us to show virtual support for our friends. I know I’ve been at a loss at how to respond on Facebook to friends who post about tough things that don’t really merit a “like” even when I want to show I’ve read it and support them.
So, I can see myself using this new virtual option a lot, and I am sure others will too.
But too often we are still challenged to seek or give support in the real world, face to face.
And so, I’m a little worried. I’m worried about how trendy it is to perfect our outer selves, lifting weights with friends for 2 hours or trying out a new Zumba class, when it doesn’t seem to be socially acceptable to share our inner feelings at even close to the same rate.
In fact, I’d say I have conversations almost daily about healthy eating or working out, some initiated by me and some initiated by others. These conversations are usually in public spaces and are often amongst a group. I’m glad when I hear people talking about physical health in ways that motivate others to get healthy. I even started a new way of eating after talking with a student this summer about her new plan!
The thing is, I can count on one hand the amount of times I have heard mental health discussed in the same public forums or with the same frequency.
To be clear, when I say mental health I am referring to anything related to our psychological and emotional well-being, from having a bad day to receiving a clinical diagnosis. And, I understand that sharing our stress or sadness isn’t always natural in a group setting.
But, I’m still worried that we aren’t asking for help enough. I’m worried that saying we are sad or stressed or seeking professional help is so socially taboo that we keep it all pent up inside.
I’m worried that so many people are hurting on the inside and there isn’t a way to talk about it. I see it in Facebook posts and blog posts. I hear about it when I’m meeting one on one with a student behind the closed door of my office or when we’re out for coffee. These private moments are the ones where thoughts about stress, feeling overwhelmed, or finding ways to seek help come up much more regularly.
And maybe there’s something natural about sharing these more private emotions in a more private setting. It can make us feel so vulnerable and so it makes sense we’d be more likely to share with close confidants.
I just can’t help but wonder how much more connected and supported we might feel if it became more socially normative to talk about how we were working to better ourselves.
And so, I’m particularly struck by our prayers over Yom Kippur when we do just this – we come together in a public and communal setting, with many people we don’t know at all, and we confess and pray for a better year. We pray and reflect so that we can become better versions of ourselves.
When we recite the Ashamnu prayer throughout the holiday, not only do we recite our sins out loud, which provides a “safely in numbers” effect, but we state each one in the plural.
We have trespassed. We have dealt treacherously. We have robbed. We have spoken slander.
With every statement, the language pushes us to take communal responsibility for all of our collective wrongdoings over the past year.
As we go through the lists of transgressions in the Ashamnu and Al Chet prayers, I feel protected by this group recitation – I don’t have to single myself out - and, I feel gratified that I can offer the same protection to others.
Pause and think about the power in this annual ritual.
I don’t have to say my personal sins out loud alone, in a way that would single me out. And yet, I do say my sins aloud, which makes them real. We all say all of them, knowing that some of them have more personal application than others.
If we had a way in our day to day lives to claim our challenges and hopes for the future, how much more supported might we feel? Too often, not sharing our real thoughts and feelings can lead to further isolation even as many of us engage in our same social interactions. Our friends may not even know if we are having a bad day or a tough month.
Right on the ASU Counseling Center website, it says, “Stigmas and stereotypes often prevent people from getting the help they need, even from reaching out to a friend.”
Did you know that you can walk into the Counseling Center any time, 8-5 and they have a 24 hour line??
Even at a center that is open for walk ins or call ins 24 hours/day, they acknowledge how hard it is to seek support.
And yet at the largest public university in the country, where it’s just as easy to remain anonymous as it is to become a leader, we really need to find ways to destigmatize mental health and more generally foster supportive and open communities. My friend Aaron Krasnow, the Director of ASU Counseling Services recently told me that “Healthy communities are those where the needs of individuals and the group(s) are not mutually exclusive.”
There are many, many other ways to get personal support and to be a part of building a supportive community at ASU – and all of them will naturally strengthen the fabric of the ASU community, and therein strengthen your own personal network.
There’s research to back up the idea that feeling more connected to other people makes us happier and less stressed. I found one Harvard study that showed that personal happiness was more related to feeling connected to a community than it was to income or education levels.
A PBS site for the show This Emotional Life gave more detail, noting that “when we feel safe and supported, we don’t have to narrow in on survival tasks like responding to danger or finding our next meal. We are able to explore our world, which builds resources for times of stress and adversity.”
So, there are real reasons we need community, and that’s something Judaism and Hillel can offer.
I mentioned last week in my sermon that Hillel is here for all students, any time. We mean it!
Everything at Hillel is focused around building connectedness. You will rarely see student leaders at a planning meeting agonizing over the best decorations or event theme. Their conversations consistently revolve around the interpersonal experiences we are creating when people walk in the door, or when they encounter Hillel on campus. Our staff and student leaders are constantly having coffee meetings with anyone who’s interested, just to get to know them better. And, our different internships and fellowships form smaller close knit groups within the broader Hillel community.
In addition to all of this, Hillel’s building at 10th and Mill is open all day as a community center – students just swing by to grab some bagels or whatever other free food we are offering, and end up making new connections almost every time.
Before this shameless plug goes on too long, I’ll take a step back and just state it plain and simple.
Hillel is here for the high holidays – and we are here for so much more. If you are looking for a place to connect with people like you, Hillel is a diverse community that likely has something for you or the means to create it if you don’t find it.
When we feel like we can’t share our true feelings, we can start to feel disconnected from our friends, family, and community.
And so I’ll pose the question - Why do we come together on Yom Kippur? Why isn’t apologizing to friends and loved ones enough? Why do we publicly face our transgressions together? And, why is it the High Holidays, and not say – Purim and Simchat Torah, where alcohol is flowing – that really bring us together? Something about this time of year and the holiday’s themes draws us together, no matter where we’ve been the rest of the year.
It is my hope that the connectedness that Hillel fosters today will continue beyond the walls of this room, and go a long way to create a supportive place for ASU students. A place for new friendships to form and a place where you can be real, no matter what type of a day you’re having.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
May we all be inscribed for a blessing in the Book of Life!
Earlier this year, Kent Broyhill sent $100 to the University of Nebraska. A nice donation, right? No, he was paying a parking ticket from 40 years ago, when he was in college!
Apparently when he tried to pay his fines in 1974, the campus police told him that they only accepted cash. He had none, and the nice police officer told him to just pay as soon as he was able. He forgot all about it until a recent conversation with a friend, so he realized he wanted to make good on his promise and sent in $100, not remembering how much he actually owed. He said paying the fines put his mind at ease.
This story is a simple illustration of how life can get in the way of our best intentions. From the short bit I read about Kent, he seems like a good hearted guy. It’s cool that a conversation with a friend reminded him of this small error he wanted to fix.
But what about when our mistakes are bigger? There is a lot that gets in the way of us being who we want to be, living how we want to live. I know for me, there are many things I am working on, patience being one, and I am often easily distracted or interrupted.
So, how do we stay focused? What's the process of even envisioning who we want to become and how do we get there?
There is a midrash, or interpretive story that was developed by rabbis to fill in gaps in the Torah, comparing Cain to Moses. This story gave me a good understanding of what this process really is. I’ll admit it’s a little strange to compare these two biblical characters, as the stories about Cain and Moses are very different and come at different points in our peoples’ history.
So, here’s a quick refresher on the stories and then I’ll tell you what I think we can learn from them about envisioning who we want to become.
Story 1- In the Torah, the story with Cain and Abel happens pretty quickly – Abel is a shepherd and Cain is a farmer. They both bring offerings to God and God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. Cue dramatic sibling rivalry – Cain kills Abel, denies it to God (which you can’t really do), and then since you can’t do that, God calls Cain out and Cain is said to “leave God’s presence.” He is basically a banished man – he goes and settles somewhere else.
Ok, so hold that story in your brain, here is the second story:
Fast forward in the Torah to Moses’ interactions with God at the famous burning bush. God is sharing the news with Moses that he’s been chosen to free the Israelites from Egypt and Moses is like, “Who, me?” He is worried people won’t believe him or take him seriously. He is worried that his speech impediment will get in the way. He really resists God, coming up with all kinds of reasons why he’s not the right guy for this huge job.
So – why are these stories similar? I really didn’t think they were at first. Why did I find a midrash comparing them? At second glance, I think that Cain and Moses are compared for us because in very different ways, and with very different results, they were both totally stuck in their heads! Cain and Moses are compared here to show us two different ways the story plays out – in fact, to show us how hard it is to become who we want to become when we focus on our deficiencies, on what we don’t have, on what others think of us.
Way 1 – We have these feelings and find a way to move past them. Moses is insecure. He is being tapped for the promotion of a lifetime and all he can think about are the reasons why he’s not qualified. It takes God as his personal life coach to say – Hey, I’ve got your back and I’ll even help you build a team so that you can get this job done. We all know that God was a good coach since Moses does go on to do this job.
The lesson for me here is that we can and should have someone with whom we can be honest with about our deepest worries and fears. For Moses that is God. Some of us might connect to God, a friend, parent, or partner. We need support networks and we need people to see us for what we can become, even before we see it ourselves. Hillel is that place for where people make their best friends, explore Israel for the first time, or grow as a leader. Hillel is here for you no matter what as a support network.
So what about when we don’t rely on our support network? No one is available, or we are too hesitant to ask for help. Or maybe we don’t even realize that we need help in the moment.
That’s Way 2, Cain’s story. We all have feelings that sometimes lead us to do things we regret later, big or small. As we know, Cain’s example is pretty severe. Cain is jealous. Cain acts on his jealousy. He wasn’t lucky enough to have God or even a trusted friend to talk to before he commits the unthinkable. When I read the stories of Moses and Cain together, it makes me wish that God had talked to Cain like he talked to Moses. I would even be happy if somehow Cain had literally anyone else to confide it. But he didn’t, and his jealousy got the best of him.
[Ok, so now raise your hand if you have ever spent some time thinking about what someone else thought of you, or of a skill or quality you didn’t have. Now, keep your hand raised if that made you say or do something that you later regretted!]
Cool – so Judaism’s got you on this one. The lesson with this path is particularly relevant at this time of year. In the midrash where Cain and Moses are compared, the story goes that when Cain tells Adam about what it was like to leave God’s presence, Cain says he left happy because he did teshuvah and reconciled with God.
This is crazy – you may have heard that teshuvah means repentance. So is this story saying that Cain just apologized to God for killing his brother and then he and God made up? That can’t be. At least that doesn’t really make sense to me.
Teshuvah is often defined as repentance - at this time of the Jewish year you are supposed to apologize to those you’ve wronged and hopefully make amends. If you are on the receiving end of an apology, you’re supposed to accept and honor that someone tried to resolve things.
Well teshuvah is even more than that. It really means return, asking us to return to a more authentic and improved versions of ourselves each year.
Art Green defines teshuvah as “reestablishing…trust between humans and God.” This is a trust that comes from knowing that God has faith in us and God believes in us, like God believed in Moses.
I think Cain leaves God’s presence happy after teshuvah not because his slate was wiped clean, which we know it wasn’t, but because he came to the realization that he could still move on having a relationship with God. He could still be understood by God and God would still believe in his humanity.
Teshuvah doesn't mean that you don't lose the punishment or wipe away the transgressions, but it does mean you see beyond those actions to a better version of yourself.
In this way, teshuvah teaches us what it means for our actions to define us. For anyone who learned about Cain in Hebrew school Cain was probably defined by the murder he committed. That is what he is remembered for, more than anything else. This midrash shows us a different side though.
What will define who we are is how we return to God after our missteps. Many of us, myself included, might question our connection to God, or Gods existence. So when thinking about teshuvah I often think about how I am reconnecting with my true self, how I am returning to the self I really should be.
This midrash that ends with Cain reconciling with God after doing teshuvah teaches us that we are in charge of our own identities. We are defined not by our actions today, but rather by how we are able to integrate our wrongdoings into our persona and emerge as a stronger, more accurate revision of ourselves tomorrow.
Judaism gives us a tool to take our inherent nature to be self-absorbed, to worry about ourselves, and harness it for the best. When we don’t do this, what happens is that our insecurities can become all we think about and can really define us – sometimes by holding us back (like they almost did for Moses) and sometimes by pushing us to act in ways that are not how we truly want to act (in Cain’s case). Teshuvah gives us the opportunity to have our thoughts, experiences, and actions define us in a more productive way.
Now, I'm not telling you to be stupid, or to do dangerous things. As you spend the year it's also about experimenting, risking, making mistakes. Teshuvah just means that mistakes don’t have to define you negatively. You always have control over how you will learn from your actions, you always have control over how you will approach each day. That Cain was able to reconcile with God teaches us that we always have another chance, even when we think we wouldn’t or shouldn’t.
So, as you are entering this new year, 5776, I invite you to think about what currently defines you. What actions do you think others remember about you? What about that would you keep and what about that can you learn from and change in the new year? Each year during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish tradition invites us to do this reflection, this teshuvah, and come out as a revision of ourselves that is better than before and at the same time is just us returning to our best selves yet. I hope that you will find new meaning in your past actions, I hope that you’ll find new ways to integrate your regrets into who you are in ways that bring you closer to who you want to be, and I hope that you’ll always remember you have another day to try again. And, I hope you’ll remember that it’s never too late to pay your parking tickets!
Shanah Tovah U’Metukah – I wish a happy and sweet new year for you all!
Today, we have some great news. Hillel's staff is growing, which means we will begin the upcoming school year better equipped to welcome new students and continue growing Jewish life on campus. In fact, this fall ASU Hillel will have more student life staff than we have had in the past four years!
ASU Hillel’s Comprehensive Israel Engagement Initiative will expand the Israel education and engagement offerings on campus by hiring two new full time staff and forging an innovative new partnership with Jewish Arizonans on Campus (JAC).
These new staff will complement the student engagement and leadership development work Director of Student Life Jordan Rothenberg, and bring the total recent new hires to three, as Jacob Ladin began as Hillel’s full time Office Manager in May.
Please scroll down to read our full press release.
Have a wonderful rest of the summer!
Israel Education Coordinator - Welcome Andrew Gibbs!
ASU Hillel announced today that Andrew Gibbs will serve as their new Israel Education Coordinator. This new position was created and will be implemented in partnership with Jewish Arizonans on Campus, with generous support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix. “This program addresses a critical need at ASU. We are pleased to support the effort to educate and engage more students, and to arm them against the BDS movement,” said Richard Kasper, Jewish Community Foundation President and CEO.
Previously a development associate at BBYO, Andrew will return to his alma mater and his roots, as one of his roles will be advising the pro-Israel group he founded at ASU in 2009. Leveraging his own deep knowledge of Israel as well as local and national resources, Andrew will train students to build authentic partnerships across religious and other cultural lines, including partnerships that take Israel education outside of the four walls of Hillel or JAC. He will also seed new initiatives designed to bring Israel education to the forefront of the ASU Jewish community.
This proactive approach to Israel education is designed to engage students from all different religious, political and academic backgrounds before anti-Israel sentiments become deeply seeded on campus. Stuart Wachs, CEO and president of the Jewish Federation acknowledges and supports the value of a proactive approach. “It was after seeing once again how unfairly Israel was portrayed in the war against Hamas last summer, the double standards placed on Israel and the rise in anti-Israel/Anti-Semitism on college campuses that the Federation determined that Israel advocacy with a focus on the ASU campus was critical. The Federation is proud to have been an impetus for the collaborative approach between JAC and Hillel and to be funding this initiative. By working together, Hillel and JAC will reach more students and affect more lives.” Once Andrew is up and running on campus he will also begin working with local teen groups on high school-focused Israel education.
“As a former student leader of both Hillel at ASU and Jewish Arizonans on Campus, I am extremely eager to begin working with the passionate and dedicated students of both organizations as well as the rest of the ASU Jewish and pro-Israel community,” Andrew said. “I left campus only 4 years ago and yet it’s become increasingly more difficult each year to publicly identify on campus as pro-Israel. My focus will be on empowering students, instilling a love for Israel within them, and teaching them how to speak effectively about Israel. Through this, they’ll become advocates capable of answering the complex questions and creating relationships on campus with student leaders, many of whom don’t have a stance on the issues.”
Andrew has spent significant time in Israel, including the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, the Nativ College Leadership Gap Year program, and a semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A Scottsdale native, Andrew lives in Scottsdale with his wife Rachel, where he is active at Ahavas Torah and teaches in Congregation Beth Israel’s Merkaz Yisrael (Israel Center).
IACT Coordinator for Campus Engagement - Welcome Jessielyn Kreitzer!
In May, Jessielyn Kreitzer was appointed as ASU Hillel’s first IACT Coordinator for Campus Engagement. IACT stands for Inspired, Active, Committed and Transformed, a program started in Boston by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston’s Jewish federation) and expanded nationally beginning last year. ASU Hillel is one of only 12 campuses to receive the program since it went national.
In her new role, Jessielyn will focus on all things Birthright. She will develop innovative trip recruitment strategies, staff ASU Hillel’s Birthright trips, and continue connections with all Birthright alumni. This holistic approach to the trip and to Jewish community building has a proven track record of keeping Birthright alumni connected to Jewish life when they return to their home campus. More than 80% (and on some campuses 100%) of IACT alumni become involved in Jewish life in the year following their trip.
“I was greatly impacted by the experiences I had on my own Birthright trip in college and I am very much looking forward to sharing these same experiences with the students at ASU. It is because of Birthright and my trip leader that I decided to become a Jewish professional,” Jessielyn told us.
Originally from New Jersey, Jessielyn graduated from Muhlenberg College and spent a large part of her childhood involved in her synagogue, NFTY, and Jewish summer camp. Most recently she worked as an administrative assistant for the Juilliard School Drama Division and spent two summers on senior staff at Camp Daisy and Harry Stein.
Check out our new website! If you are interested in Hillel you can come here to learn more information about how to get involved with Jewish Life at Arizona State University. Navigate through our pages, check out our BLOG, and have a kosher meal or two while you do it!
We can't wait to start the new school year. If you are new to campus, tell us about yourself here! If you are a parent, check out our Parents page to learn more about upcoming events and our Parents Club, a great way to support your student and ASU Hillel. And, if you are a parent, alum, or community member with a job or internship posting, please submit it to our new job board for ASU students to see!
Have a great rest of the summer!
The Hillel Staff