Infertility Speaks

Many people have approached me over the years requesting spiritual support for their infertility and pregnancy losses. I am always willing to offer this support when I can. I am posting a collection of my Jewish liturgy and rituals relating to infertility and pregnancy loss here for accessibility – for anyone who needs them. I am also available to teach clergy and other Jewish communal professionals about ways to support those in their communities who are facing infertility. It can be challenging to find a place in the Jewish world without children. But those who are longing for children need Jewish community more than ever. I hope these are helpful. Please feel free to reach out if you have questions or would like to speak more.

Prayer Before Starting IVF

Water: A Prayer/Mikveh Ritual for after an IVF Miscarriage

Hearing in our Hearts: Hannah’s prayer

Infertility Speaks: An Imagined Support Group for Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah
This is a script for an imagined infertility support group for Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah. You might use it as an alternative or in addition to the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah day 1 (when we read Sarah’s story), or the Haftarah reading on Rosh Hashanah day 2 (when we read Hannah’s story). Or you might use it to open up conversation about this very painful topic with your community when you encounter any of these women’s stories in the Torah. There are suggested debrief questions to share with your community at the end.

The Mishkan Within

Guided meditation for Parashat Terumah based on these sources – written by Rabbi Heather for Illini Hillel students

Plant your feet on the floor and sit in a way that is comfortable for you. Take a deep breath. Now take one more. When you’re ready, close your eyes or soften your gaze. Take another deep breath. Begin to feel your body relax. Your toes. Legs. Hips. Keep breathing. Release any tightness you’re holding in your torso. Your chest. Drop your shoulders. Keep breathing. Release your jaws. See if you can feel your eyes and ears. Relax those too. Take one more deep breath.

Picture yourself in a desert. In Hebrew, it’s called a midbar – it means wilderness as well as desert. Notice the sand – feel its texture beneath your feet [pause] Gaze up at the wide blue sky and the mountains [pause]. Notice the colors of the mountains. Brown, beige, red – what else is there? [pause] Breathe in the stillness. The silence. The emptiness. [longer pause]

Imagine a beloved leader is up on one of the mountains. You followed this leader out of Mitzrayim, the narrow place, and now you are here, in this vast, expansive wilderness. From the constriction of slavery you arrived in open nothingness. What does this nothing sound like? Smell like? [pause] You don’t know where you are going. You don’t know what’s coming next. You are afraid.

When your leader returns, you receive instructions. You are to build a mishkan, a sanctuary. Here in the desert. Here in the nothingness. Here where you’re far from everything you’ve ever known. A place for the Divine to dwell. God does not need this space – “God is garbed in everything. No place is devoid of the Divine.” But we need a space where we can connect with God. A sanctuary in the desert of our souls. What should this sanctuary look like? Imagine its colors and structure. What textures are part of this sanctuary? Take a few moments to explore it.

Now bring your attention back to your body with another deep breath. The rabbinic tradition links the mishkan to the human body. You are a dwelling place for the Divine.

Like your skin that covers and protects you, there are tapestries and wool hangings around the sanctuary. Your sense of touch is one of the first ways you connected with the world as an infant, while your other senses slowly developed. Your skin is a gateway to human intimacy. Imagine slowly dipping your hand into the desert sand. Notice its temperature, its texture. [Pause] Lift a handful of sand on an inhale. And release the sand with an exhale. Notice the sensation of the sand slipping through your fingers. [Pause] Take another deep breath. And when you are ready, you can release them.

There is an incense altar in the sanctuary, connected to your sense of smell. Scent can return memories to us from long ago. Inhale deeply now through your nose, and exhale through your mouth. Is there a scent that feels like a sanctuary to you? [Pause]

There is a menorah in the sanctuary, and a menorah in you – as the menorah sheds light, your mind, your intellect, enlightens your body. Take a deep breath and envision a warm light filling the sanctuary of yourself. Notice the quality of this light. Are there specks of dust that float across? What color is the light? White, yellow, blue, something else? Feel the warmth of this light that brightens even the darkest places, making the desert feel like home. [Pause]

Now place your hand over your heart and see if you can feel its beat. Tap. Bum-bum. Bum-bum. Tap gently with me. Your heart is the innermost part of the sanctuary – the Holy Ark, containing the Tablets of the Covenant. What else does your heart contain? Listen for its wisdom as you continue tapping. [Pause]

Take a deep breath and pause your tapping. You can keep your hand on your heart if you wish, or you can let it rest. [Pause]

Your body is the sanctuary. Your textures and colors, your breath and your skin. God said that all those whose hearts were moved to give, should bring a gift to the sanctuary. Everyone was asked to give according to their ability – no more, and no less. Every gift was perfect. Every gift was accepted. However your body looks or feels, you are a holy sanctuary. You are accepted. You are loved. You are whole. You are a dwelling place for the Divine.

Take another deep breath and we’ll sit with that for a moment. Explore the sanctuary within.[Pause]

Take another deep breath. Notice the ground beneath your feet. The temperature in the room. The sound of your companions breathing beside you. Take a last few deep breaths in this space and when you are ready, slowly, gently – open your eyes.

The Soil and the Seeds: On Openness, Vulnerability, and Leadership

I gave this d’var at Illini Hillel on February 3rd, 2023 at a Renewal Shabbat experience in honor of my January 8th rabbinic ordination. I wanted to share something I learned about leadership during my rabbinical program with my community. This d’var was given on Shabbat Beshelach, two nights before Tu B’Shevat, the new year of the trees.

Where do untold stories go?
Do we bury them like sacred texts?
Do the stories turn into seeds underground?
If the seed splits like the Red Sea,
and a stem starts to grow, where does it go
if it can’t burst through the soil, if it can’t rise up singing,
if it never blooms?

Where do untold stories go? I’ve been asking this question for years in various leadership roles. We talked about it at Davvenen Leadership Training Institute, DLTI – the most formative training program I experienced in rabbinical school. Sometimes leading means we “tell the stories communities need to hear, instead of the stories we want to tell.” The best leaders know how to “hold space instead of taking up space.” As a leader, when I open up, it’s to create openings for others to grow. I am the soil, not the seeds. It’s an honor to bear witness, to share just enough that others are inspired to stretch, crack, and split through the shells of their seeds. It’s a blessing to empower others to grow. 

I built a life out of soil and I like to think I’m good at it. I am soil when I train and empower students to lead, when I facilitate grief groups, and when I serve as a mentor. Until DLTI, I thought I made great soil because I am comfortable with the seeds of my own stories – I am comfortable with my vulnerability. However, over time I learned that while I’m open, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to be vulnerable. The stories I share are curated and crafted. I’ve written the stories before sharing them, or I’ve considered the role they play in others’ stories. I share when it’s something a mentee needs to hear, instead of a story I need to tell. That’s a way of being a leader, but it’s not vulnerability.

At DLTI, we took turns leading and then “labbing” prayer services. In labs, our teachers offered feedback on how to make the prayer service more powerful. Transformation occurred every time a prayer leader cracked open their shell, showing a hint of their own stem. We learned to lean into vulnerability in just the right way, to draw on our stories and lead from the heart. Leaders are the soil, but we are also in the soil. And we lead best when we let it show – not a lot, but more than I had in the past.

In a conversation with one of my DLTI teachers, I set a kavanah (intention) that I was going to try this vulnerability thing. I planned to tell a story that had been longing for soil at a Saturday night open mic, a story that truly made me feel vulnerable.

Saturday night arrived, and every presenter who came before me told their own hard story. They split their shells in the soil of our kahal (community) and beautiful, vulnerable stories bloomed all over the sanctuary.  However, I noticed that the kahal was worn out from all the emotion – a few people left, and those left in the room were drained. It was time to tell the story the community needed to hear, instead of the story I wanted to tell. So when it was my turn, I shared a story that never fails to make me (and others) laugh. It felt good to lift people up. The tone was right on. Afterward, my teacher congratulated me, knowing I made the decision to share something lighter in lieu of vulnerability: “That was davvenen leadership,” he said. It was, and I was proud.

…until I was sad. Devastated. I figured I was just tired at the end of a long day and a long week. But where do untold stories go? The question was tugging at me.  When I felt tears well up during a song circle later that night, I realized that 1am was not the best time to analyze my feelings, and I went to bed. Besides, I thought, these are the kinds of decisions I make all the time as a leader. Surely I’d be fine the next day.

But I wasn’t. A friend noticed, and we walked to a private space where I explained everything. My friend acknowledged that I made the right choice the night before, and then pointed out that this moment was different. She invited me to share the story I needed to tell. I hesitated, but she meant it. I let the seed crack open.

When I finished, I felt lighter. I learned an important lesson about vulnerability that day. I learned I could plan ahead and ask a friend in advance: “If I cannot tell this story tonight, can I tell you another time?” Or as an alternative, I learned to notice my need to share in moments when I can’t, and to honor that need by sharing with a friend later. 

This question came up for me again at Hillel last fall. When a friend was in the ICU after an overdose, I wanted a morning prayer minyan for my friend’s healing. Progressive in-person minyanim aren’t regularly accessible here, so I figured I’d find a random one online. When Carly suggested I invite students I am close with to pray with me the next day, I was nervous. Should I be that vulnerable? Was this a story I needed to tell or a story the kahal needed to hear? When is it ok to ask the community I’m leading to show up for me, the leader? I decided to try it, I’m glad I did, and I’m grateful to those who joined me in prayer that day. Leaders need to both support and be supported. Sometimes leaders have to find support outside the community or outside the moment, like I did at DLTI. Other times it’s good to be vulnerable with those you are leading, like I was last fall. It’s hard to know the difference, but I’m learning every day. 

We celebrate the leadership of Moses in this parsha – a reluctant leader whose brother Aaron had to help him share his story. Tu b’Shevat is on Monday, celebrating not only trees above ground, but seeds buried in soil, a generative darkness that encourages growth. In honor of this parsha and holiday, I invite you to notice your own opportunities to lead, grow, and lean into vulnerability this week. Every seed wants a chance to grow, and, as I continue to learn, even soil needs soil sometimes. Shabbat Shalom.

On Blessings: My Rabbinic Smicha Remarks

Presented at my rabbinic ordination ceremony on January 8, 2023

I became a mom on October 3, and today, I’m becoming a rabbi. “Mom” and “Rabbi” are two pretty big names to earn within three months. While my journey to motherhood included five years of infertility, pregnancy losses, and IVF, my journey to the rabbinate included five years of stumbling through Hebrew, wrestling with God, and finding my voice as a spiritual leader. I learned so much from both journeys. I can’t tell you which was harder. I can tell you that both have been worth it. 

I can also tell you that having ALEPH community to support me through both journeys has been a powerful blessing, especially when I felt most isolated and uncertain. I found out I was pregnant at my first Ohalah Shabbaton in 2018. Reb Marcia was reading “Blessing for A New Beginning,” by John O’Donohue, and I teared up thinking about the two new beginnings that were “quietly forming” for me: the beginning of my life as a parent, and the beginning of my rabbinical school journey. I miscarried a few months later. 

And since then, these two journeys have been deeply connected. At our last in-person Shabbaton in January 2020, ALEPH friends surrounded me with song and prayer in a private blessing circle for my IVF process. We recorded the songs, and my friends’ voices accompanied me to my doctor appointments. My daughter, Ella, who is watching from home with her daddy right now, came from an embryo transferred 10 days after the 2021 Ohalah Shabbaton. From January to January, from injections to hospital visits, from beginnings to blessings, we have been in it together.

For my ALEPH capstone, I put together a book of my original rituals and blessings. Many of the pieces were written in response to prompts from my teachers – holy homework assignments. And many of them are connected to my experience with infertility. A mikveh ritual for after an IVF miscarriage. A blessing for starting an IVF cycle, which I shared with ALEPH friends on Zoom the night before an egg retrieval. 

In moments of pain and in moments of joy, blessings remind us that the world is holy. The Baal Shem Tov taught, “God is garbed in everything! No place is devoid of the Divine.” We do not make something sacred by blessing it. Blessings help us elevate the holiness that already exists. If there was anything holy to be found on my IVF journey, my ALEPH community elevated that holiness through blessings of love, presence, and compassion. I am grateful for the blessing of my daughter, for the blessing of this smicha, and for the beautiful neshamot who blessed us along the way. 

As we take the next steps on our journeys, may we all be blessed with communities like the one I found here. May we be surrounded by people who remind us that holiness is pulsing through the universe, as close to us as our own heartbeats. And may we be blessed to be that blessing for others – elevating the Divine Sparks that shine around and within us, and reminding others, every day, that they are not alone. (Amen) 

“Can I Take the Place of God?” Parashat Vayehi

Dvar Torah presented at ALEPH’s ordination weekend Shabbaton on January 7, 2023

“Can I take the place of God?” Joseph surveyed his pleading brothers. His brothers, who threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery all those years ago. Their father, Jacob, was dead now, and his brothers were worried he would pay them back for what they had done. 

Joseph said to them, “Al-tirah, ki hatachat Elohim ani?” “Don’t be afraid, for can I take the place of God? Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people.” As a leader in Egypt, Joseph saved his people from terrible famine, and he saw God redirect the evil his brothers intended toward this positive outcome. Joseph refused to respond to his brothers’ hateful acts with his own.“And so, don’t fear,” he repeated. “I will sustain you and your children.” The text says he comforted them, and spoke to their hearts. 

A flashback: Joseph’s parents, Jacob and Rachel were facing infertility, long before Joseph was born. Rachel, envious of her sister, Leah, who had children, said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob became angry. Vayomer, “Hatachat Elohim anochi asher-mana mimech peri-baten?” He said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied the fruit of your belly?”

“Can I take the place of God?” The same phrase – hatachat Elohim – in the voices of father and son. While Jacob lashed out, using this phrase in anger, Joseph softened it. 

When Jacob said “Can I take the place of God,” he didn’t speak to Rachel. The text de-emphasizes their relationship, saying “Jacob said,” not “Jacob said to Rachel.” We can imagine Jacob throwing up his hands in rage, spitting out the phrase “Can I take the place of God?!” He couldn’t be present in relationship with Rachel. He couldn’t respond to her pain because he was exploding with his own, blaming God for denying fruit in baten, her belly. Notice that he does not use the word rechem, womb, which shares a root with rachamim, compassion, because there was no compassion in his reaction. After this, Rachel gave him her handmaid, Bilhah, who bore two children on Rachel’s behalf. The first child, Dan, means judgment. The second, named Naftali, means struggle. Anger and jealousy begat judgment and struggle. When Rachel finally gave birth, she named her son Yosef, Joseph, meaning “increased.”

After Jacob’s death, Joseph said the same words to his brothers.“Can I take the place of God?” But the text says Vayomer Yosef aleihem  Joseph spoke to them. Unlike Jacob and Rachel, the text emphasizes the relationship. Further, Joseph addressed their feelings first: “Do not be afraid. After all, can I take the place of God?” He comforted them, and spoke to their hearts. He brought in the compassion that was missing from his father’s exclamation. 

Like his father, Joseph believed this was all part of God’s plan. In Jacob’s situation, “Can I take the place of God” meant “I’m not God. I don’t decide who can give birth.” In Joseph’s situation, “Can I take the place of God” meant “God sent me here, not you.” Both Joseph and Jacob believed God was responsible for their experience, but Joseph had the advantage of hindsight, and understood the reason.

It is so much easier to make meaning out of trauma once the reason has been revealed and you’ve moved beyond it! Jacob and Rachel were facing infertility when Jacob lashed out in anger – yes, at Rachel, but perhaps also at God and himself. Not knowing how things would turn out, Jacob only knew he could do nothing about his wife’s suffering. I get it. Sometimes I’m angry I can’t change my situation, and sometimes I’m too upset to be compassionate toward myself or others. I’m sure you can think of moments like that too. Maybe you blamed a loved one, God, or yourself. We’ve all been there. 

Joseph was in a significant leadership role, like many of us. He rose from the pit to the palace, and made meaning from his pain by acknowledging the blessings that came from it. He was in a position not only to support his family financially, but to see and speak to them with compassion. I’ve found that sometimes, after growing through trauma, we are better able to make space for others in their suffering, and to appreciate the blessings that appeared along the way.

This brings me to one difference in the words Joseph and Jacob used to say the same thing: “Can I take the place of God?” Joseph said “Hatachat Elohim Ani?” Jacob said “Hatachat Elohim Anochi?” Both “Ani” and “Anochi” mean “I.” The Zohar teaches that Anochi is associated with Binah, one of God’s upper sefirot, a part of God that is transcendent and hidden from the world. Ani is associated with Shekhina, the Divine Presence, the aspect of God that is most accessible to us on earth. Jacob used the word Anochi. For him, God was responsible for the infertility – but God and the reason were hidden. Jacob was unable to find meaning in his wife’s pain or his own. For Joseph, who used the world Ani, the Divine and the plan were revealed; Joseph was able to make meaning from it, and could respond to his brothers with kindness. 

We can’t expect ourselves – or anyone else – to find meaning, or to find God, in the midst of trauma. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pray or seek the Divine at those times. Some of our favorite Hasidic masters taught us how! 

None of us are in the place of God. We have limited control over our outcomes. Sometimes that’s frustrating and sometimes it’s a relief – who wants that responsibility? Either way, when it feels like God or meaning are distant or hidden, we can learn from Jacob’s outrage, and we can remember to treat ourselves and others with compassion instead. And when we have come through our trauma, when we’ve emerged from the pit to find ourselves in the palace, like Joseph, we can remember to appreciate the Divine blessings in our lives. We can speak to the hearts of those who fear, and act in the world from a place of love and compassion.

Creative High Holiday Offerings for 2022

A Shofar OfferingShofar’s Cry: Sarah and Hagar Speak
This is an interpretive Torah experience for Rosh Hashanah, incorporating Hagar’s story from the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the Akedah, which we read on the second day. This is designed to be read aloud by two people, each taking one of the parts. It would work well on Zoom as well as in person. Please feel free to use it with attribution.

A Haftarah Offering – Hearing in our Hearts: Hannah’s Story
In Tosefta Brachot, the rabbis said, “Hannah spoke in her heart,” meaning that her lips moved, but sound did not escape them. This poem is for those who know the words that were on Hannah’s heart, and for those who need to hear them to understand.

Afternoon learning offering – Infertility Speaks: An Imagined Support Group for Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah This is a script for an imagined infertility support group for Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah. You might use it as an alternative or in addition to the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah day 1 (when we read Sarah’s story), or the Haftarah reading on Rosh Hashanah day 2 (when we read Hannah’s story). Or you might use it to open up conversation about this very painful topic with your community when you encounter any of these women’s stories in the Torah. There are suggested debrief questions to share with your community at the end.

Yom Kippur liturgical offering – Held in the Brokenness: A Prayer for Forgiveness This is a prayer for repeat mistakes – the ones we come back to over and over, the ones we find ourselves thinking about on each Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur liturgical offeringUnknowable A prayer about God in search of us, with a reference to God asking for our forgiveness on Yom Kippur

Gun violence prayer – Mourners Kaddish for Mass Murder This is for anyone speaking about gun violence on the High Holidays this year

Empathy and Exodus: Parashat Shemot for 2021

You’re walking through the desert and you’ve been walking forever. You are walking away from something you’re trying to forget. You’re not sure what you should be walking toward, but you do know you have to walk. There is sand between your toes and there’s a pebble in your sandal that’s just large enough to be an annoyance, digging into your heel. You don’t stop to remove it because you are compelled, with a focus you’ve never felt before, to just keep walking. Nothing will stop you. Until you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?

Parashat Shemot is the beginning of the story of Exodus, and it includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through a burning bush. When Moses moves toward the strange burning, God calls out to him. “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, Hineini, “Here I am.” Hineini is a statement of focused presence. I am here. I am listening. I am ready.

“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

You have removed your shoes, the pebble lost in the sand now. Your heart is pounding in your head and the voice is pounding with it. I am, I am, I am, it says.  Hineini, you respond. I am, too.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” says God. “I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings.”

Their cry and their sufferings have enslaved you too. You tried to leave them behind, but somehow they came with you – their voices, their faces twisted in sorrow. You tried to escape it, but memory makes escape impossible.

God was not enslaved by the Egyptians, and yet, God knows the sufferings of the Israelites just by seeing the affliction and hearing their sufferings. According to Rashi, God demonstrates that God is with the Israelites in their affliction by appearing in a thornbush, instead of a more innocuous plant or tree.

“The cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them,” God says. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

God, the God of my Ancestors, I am Here, but Who am I? I am the pebble in my sandal, I am trying to escape, I have been walking because I am afraid.

“I will be with you,” God says. “I will be with you.” God doesn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God doesn’t tell Moses “This is your job – now deal with it.” God doesn’t shut Moses down when Moses admits to his own impostor syndrome – something so many of us are familiar with. “I will be with you” is validating and honest. God never tries to convince Moses that the exodus will be easy. Instead, God shows Moses that he will not be on this journey alone.

People often feel isolated when we face challenges, alone in our personal deserts, waiting for a bush to burn. I can talk with multiple people in the same week who are facing similar challenges, but they all think that they are the only one. It’s tough to combat feelings of loneliness because vulnerability is scary – our own and the vulnerability of others. Of course we are compelled to walk away from it all, to face the suffering of others by suffering alone.

This is why God’s promise, “I will be with you” is such a powerful and healing response. When we don’t actually know the outcome of a situation, “It’s all going to be ok” is hard to swallow, and “just stay positive” can feel like blame. Validation and acceptance create a safe space for real growth and change. “Yes, this is really hard. It feels impossible. And yet, here I am with you, and I will stay.” My friend Donovan likes to say “Your presence is the medicine.” When there’s not much to say to someone who is suffering, being present is enough. Presence means you’re not walking away. Presence says “Your pain is not taboo.” Presence says “You have not lost me, even if you feel like you have lost everything.” Presence says “Hineini,” Here I Am. I am listening. I am with you. Like Moses, most of us just need to know that we are not alone.

In honor of this parsha, and its arrival at a time of continued fear and uncertainty in the face of rising virus numbers, I encourage you to really listen to your friends and loved ones, to seek an understanding of their suffering. Listen to what your loved ones are saying and not saying, and check your assumptions when you’re about to offer advice. A simple “I will be with you,” may be more than enough. Suffering is hard, and isolation makes it harder. Your presence is the medicine. Only together can we do the work of healing.

“Let Everyone In”

This is a story I shared at story slam on loss many years ago. I didn’t feel ready to publish it until now, when I realized that this is the story that comes to mind each time we read in Parashat Vayetze, as we do this week: “God was in this place, and I, I did not know.”

From 2010-2014, I was the Camp Director for Camp Kesem, which is for children whose parents have or had cancer. Even though I haven’t been to Kesem in many years, I’m still learning from it every day. I’m going to share a lesson I learned from Kesem two years after I left it – but to begin, I have to go back to Camp Kesem 2012. 

It was the night of the big dance party at camp. Imagine music blasting, college-age counselors in tutus and fairy wings, sparkly leggings, rainbow headbands, and a dining hall decked out with streamers, balloons, and inflatable themed decor.  Realizing I’d forgotten something in Blinn, the coordinator lodge, I left this raucous scene and headed out into the cool night.

When I walked into Blinn, I saw one of our campers, Sam, shaking and pale on a filthy brown couch. A counselor was sitting with him, her hand on his shoulder. The picture is a bit ridiculous when I think about it – a woman wearing dragon wings and neon tights sitting with an upset teenager in gold spandex. Sam’s grief was raw and palpable. His mother had died only a month before, and he hadn’t been sure if he would come to camp that year. But he wanted to try because it was going to be his last year as a camper. We tried to get Sam to respond, but he couldn’t seem to speak – just shallow breathing and extraordinary pain. He finally agreed to call his dad, who decided to come pick him up. 

I left to go find the Kesem co-chairs and Sam’s unit leaders. When I came back, Sam was lying on one of the beds in the big room in Blinn, in the dark. One by one, his counselors and fellow campers entered. I left to give them some space.

When I entered the room again later with a friendship bracelet for Sam, the entire unit was there, all the counselors and campers, circled around the bed where Sam lay beneath a sleeping bag. It was silent, with the exception of a few chords here and there on a counselor’s guitar, and it was dark, except for the glow of the moon through the window. Some of them had placed their hands on Sam’s arms, his back, and his legs. Others held onto each other. All of them were sacred in that moment, holding Sam in his grief, embracing him in the depths of his pain. Every agnostic bone in my body knows that something like God was in that room that night. The love they created in the room had its own vibration, a hum like synchronized heartbeats, like the silent voice of a community joined in prayer. 

When Sam’s dad came to pick him up, the counselors and coordinators all walked out with him. I walked back into Blinn, where one of my co-chairs threw her arms around me. “We’re doing this,” she whispered. “We’re really doing Kesem.” 

We were thrilled when Sam decided to come back to camp at the end of the week to enjoy the closing talent show and campfire, which included a ceremony for graduating campers. At the talent show, he and the other boys in his unit sang a song they wrote called “Bromance.” At the campfire ceremony, each graduating camper had a chance to share what camp meant to them. 

“This place can heal you,” Sam said, “if you let everyone in.”  This, I thought, is why we Kesem. Kesem had been with Sam in the darkness of his grief, and now we were together again, at the end of a long week, crackling and glowing like sparks around the campfire. 

On February 18, 2016, a counselor called to tell me that Sam had committed suicide. Kesem 2012 flooded my senses. The room, the darkness, their hands, the love, and the fire. The narrative that I had built in my mind, in which Kesem saved Sam from the depths of his grief, seemed to crumble around me. Kesem can’t always heal, even if you do let people in. The vibration of one night isn’t forever. A moment of redemption is only a moment. There’s only so much we can do for a camper, for a counselor, for anyone we love. 

Two days later, I facilitated an online grief group for Sam’s fellow campers and counselors. The campers were all in college themselves, many of them working at Kesem chapters on other campuses, so most of them couldn’t fly out for the memorial. Other counselors had interacted with Sam in deeper and more consistent ways, but as the camp director, I really only had the opportunity to connect with him on the night he left and the night he returned. 

I tried to move forward after that, but I still felt betrayed by my memories. In addition to grieving Sam himself, I was grieving the loss of the story I told myself all those years ago – that Kesem could heal Sam, and that for once, love really was enough. 

A week later, I went to a class at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, the concluding session of a course that focused on suffering and spirituality. At the start of each class, there was an opportunity for students to check in and and share anything that was on our minds before diving into the texts together. 

“I’m grieving a suicide,” I said, “and I’ve been thinking a lot this week about suffering and spirituality, so I’m glad I’m here.” 

They murmured “I’m sorries” and we entered the texts together. No one asked me to elaborate. We were there to study one of the sermons of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, the ultimate example of a man who managed to cleave to God in the midst of devastating spiritual, physical, and emotional tragedy. 

At the end of the class, the teacher invited us to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, and the words of the ancient liturgy wrapped themselves around me as we spoke them together. When several of my classmates put their hands on my shoulders, I felt my own hand wrapped around Sam’s. I remembered the hands of the campers and counselors with Sam in Blinn Lodge, touching his arms, his back, and his legs. 

We didn’t know what would happen to Sam when we gathered in the room that night, but we sat with him in the depths of his pain, and we gave him what we could. By providing silent support for me in my own grief, my classmates gave me what the counselors and campers had given Sam – a reminder that we are not alone. No matter what happens in the years that follow, their love for me was enough in that moment, and our love for Sam was beautiful that night. 

“If I Ever Stop:” An Autumn Poem

Since it’s the autumn equinox, I thought I’d take the opportunity to (re)share why my Kesem/MMFC name is Autumn. The leaves undergo a tremendous change during the autumn season, and they look beautiful while they’re changing. I chose Autumn because I wanted my name to remind me that change can be beautiful. This is also the reason behind the name of my website, my Instagram (scatteredleaves322), and my Twitter handle (@scatteredleaves). I also chose “Autumn” because it was a theme I wove through my second-favorite poem I’ve ever written (below), which I read as a speaker at my college graduation in 2006. The poem also focuses on change, and it’s dedicated to the wanderers, everywhere ❤

If I Ever Stop

if I ever stop wandering…
then I’ll be lost,” you said.

it was three in the morning
when every
bears false importance.

sentences drifted through our lips
like cigarette smoke
we spoke like it was the last time
and maybe it was because we were students
living in a universe-city
where brilliance thrives
on crowded streetcorners

you were going to write a road novel
you didn’t have a driver’s license, but poetic license was enough
you built your own road out of paragraphs
and we gathered free verse like wildflowers
blooming stubbornly in gritty spaces

“nothing is free anymore,” you sigh.
we’re so old, and I travel alone these days
filling jars with wind and colored leaves
in relentless autumns of discovery

you left the universe behind
and lost yourself in the city
where they toss people out like yesterday’s news

they sell ragged stanzas
and false importance
on the corners where life used to bloom
we never knew we’d have to pay
for free verse

the pages of your novel
are stark with winter now
I try to wrap you in a dusty book jacket
but you brush the words from your skin
forgotten lines and question marks
fall like feathers

“breathe,” I whisper.
your warmth hovers
like a sentence at dawn

when you’re ready to wander again
search for me between the wrinkled pages
I’ll be there
with an open jar
of autumn.

Thanks to everyone who rides the winds of change with me, from one season to the next. Happy Equinox, to one and all.

With everlasting love,
Autumn 🍁🍂

Contagious Hope: Yom Kippur 5782

Collecting hopes at the University of Illinois

On the Thursday before Rosh Hashana, I invited random people to share their hopes with me for two hours as I stood in the quad. I had two giant rolling corkboards with me, each with an invitation tacked to the top: Share a hope, wish, or intention for the new year. The school year just started, and the Jewish new year was about to begin. Anyone could participate in a way that was meaningful for them. 

“Do you have any hopes to share?” I called out. 

Many people did. Some people wrote specific hopes –  such as passing pre-calc. Others were more general. Some hoped for good grades, better sleep, better work life balance. An end to COVID. Health. Happiness. Self-acceptance. One person wrote “Make life-long friends and live a great life to remember.” Two people took pictures of their hopes after they wrote them down. One man wrote that he wanted health for his brother – and the world. I don’t know this man or his brother, but we prayed together for his brother’s health, right there in the quad. I hope his brother is feeling better now.

Even those who couldn’t stop to answer my question smiled as they rushed by. Some people laughed as they were on their way to class, saying “No! I’ve got none left.” “Don’t worry about it,” I called after them. “You’re not the only one!” After awhile, I began including an additional offer: “If you don’t have any hope left, come absorb some of ours!” Hope, it turns out, can be contagious.

Like just about everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about contagion. In the last 18 months, many of us have learned far more about contagious diseases than we’d ever planned to. We know how vulnerable we are. We know how easy it is to transmit, carry, and catch a disease that quite literally takes your breath away. We understand, in a way that we’ve never understood before, that what’s inside of me touches what’s inside of you. That the health of one person can change the health of the world. We truly are all inter-breathing. And while that’s terrifying in the face of a pandemic, it also reminds me how intimately connected we are – by our breath, by our bodies, by the Oneness of the world.

This intimacy means we have the power to infect one another, to spread both physical and spiritual diseases. But that’s not the only option. My friend and mentor, Lee Kravetz, who is a marriage and family therapist, science journalist, and author in the Bay Area, wrote a book about social contagion, the spreading of behaviors, thoughts and emotions: “Whether it’s mirroring someone’s posture or mimicking someone else’s speech patterns, we are all driven by unconscious motivations triggered by our environment.” 

Social contagion theory teaches us that behaviors are infectious. Emotions are viral. Even thoughts are catch-able.  How we interact with individuals impacts not only how they interact with us – but also how they interact with others, with themselves, and with the world around them. We have the ability to influence others with something as minor as a smile, or eye contact, the colors we wear, the tone of our voice, the images we post on social media. And the most remarkable thing about them? Social contagion, like physical contagion, is often completely unconscious. We pick up on cues from the world around us all the time without even noticing what it was that shifted our mood or colored our experience. More important, I find, is that we are inadvertently influencing others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well — and that includes positive cues, like hope, happiness, laughter, and benevolence. As we enter a new year – one in which we continue to fight another kind of contagion, I wonder what it would look like if we leaned into that power. How might we learn to spread the opposite of disease? Can we spread resilience instead? Or wonder? What would it look like to dedicate this year to spreading hope? 

Jewish sources include many examples of social contagion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of them are stories in which social contagion spreads for the worst – even in biblical times, bad ideas quickly went viral. Consider the story of the golden calf in the book of Exodus. The Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai after many years of wandering in the desert, after God freed them from slavery. Moses went up the mountain to receive the Torah from God, and said that he would return in 40 days. The first emotion to spread was uncertainty. According to medieval commentator, Rashi, there was some confusion about the timing – would Moses come back on the sixteenth of Tammuz or the seventeenth? Did those 40 days include the day that Moses went up the mountain? When would Moses return? The next emotion that went viral was fear. Commentators disagree about who started spreading it, but soon, just about everyone was terrified that Moses would not return, believing instead that that God abandoned them to die in the desert. Some commentators say that Satan – yes, contrary to popular belief, Satan does appear in Jewish texts, but that’s a dvar for another day – Satan exacerbated the situation by showing the people an image of Moses, dead on the mountain, that was so real, the Israelites could reach out and touch it. 

Have you ever fallen into an anxiety spiral where the story in your head is more real than what’s in front of you? Did your fear come from a seed sewn by someone else? Many of us know what that feels like. 

You know what happens next – even Aaron, Moses’s brother, participated in building and worshipping a golden calf, a false idol. When social contagion spreads, it’s hard not to get swept up in the current. But not everyone does. Even in the story of the golden calf, the Torah noted that women refused to give their jewelry to Aaron to be melted down for the calf’s construction. And according to a midrash (a story about the Torah, which I like to call “Torah fanfiction”), the tribe of Levites also did not give in. The midrash also says that Miriam’s son, Chur, denounced those who were spreading fear – and he paid for it with his life. The angry and terrified crowd murdered him for standing up for what he believed in. It’s hard and sometimes dangerous to share a dissenting view when a social contagion is spreading. 

What about positive examples of social contagion from our tradition? Two took place at the Sea of Reeds, more commonly known as the Red Sea. A midrash teaches that when the Israelites stood before the Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army behind them, one man took the first steps into the water. The man was given the name Nachshon, which comes from nachshol, “of the sea.” Nachshon faced the water, and the future, with bravery, and his courage was contagious. The others followed, and the sea split. 

After the Israelites made it to the other side and the army drowned in the waters behind them, Moses and Miriam each began to sing the song of the sea. Rashi says that Miriam thought to pack her timbrel as they were leaving Egypt because she believed so strongly in the coming redemption. When they began to sing, others joined Moses and Miriam in this joyful prayer of thanks to God.This is an example of a social contagion that started with one voice, and spread to many. And it’s a contagion of gratitude that spans the generations. This prayer is among the oldest lines of poetic verse in the Torah and they’re part of our daily liturgy. Mi Chamocha, ba’eilim Adonai? Who is like You, among the mighty, Adonai? 

A final moment to share, also from Exodus, takes place in the Torah portion we read the week after the incident with the golden calf. In Parshat Vayakhel, God tells the Israelites to build a mishkan, a sanctuary for God. “Everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring gifts for the Lord – gold, or silver, wool or linen, wood or oil, spices or stones, anything to make the Sanctuary more glorious for God,” said Moses. The Israelites, moved by their hearts, brought all kinds of golden objects, colorful wools, silver, copper, and acacia wood. They worked together to make the Sanctuary sacred for God. They eventually brought so many gifts that Moses had to ask them to stop. I love this contagion of giving. And I love the Israelites for how human they were. Of course they yearned deeply to give to the Holy One, to give so much that they had to be asked to stop – right after so many of them spread and gave in to the contagion of fear that led to the building of the golden calf. 

I’m sure many of us can think of contemporary social contagions, both negative and positive. Today I’m going to consider just one example from this summer. When celebrated Olympic gymnast, Simone Biles, decided to withdraw from the 2021 individual all-around competition to protect her mental health, her decision set a wave in motion. “I say put mental health first,” Biles said. “Because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. So it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.” We’re just going to sit with that for a moment. Such a powerful statement about what matters most. Afterward, although a few commentators accused Biles of being a “quitter,” Biles’ decision to prioritize her mental health was generally widely praised and credited with starting a wider conversation about the role of mental health in sports. Other gymnasts relayed their own stories of struggle as a result of her sharing. Biles sent a message to all of us about the power of prioritizing health over performance. Before she withdrew from the competition, Twitter celebrated the gymnast’s excellence in her sport by creating a Simone Biles emoji that appeared whenever someone used the #SimoneBiles. After she withdrew, people continued to use that emoji, along with another hashtag: #mentalhealthfirst. Simone Biles taught us all that this is what excellence looks like. 

The ideas we share, the emotions we express, the stories we tell ourselves and others, all have the power to spread. Will we spread fear and distrust this year, building more false idols? Or will we spread something different, building a sanctuary of healing with our words, our hopes, and our actions? 

I want to clarify that I’m not encouraging anyone to spread toxic positivity – to “just be positive” in the face of suffering. Pretending that things are ok, when they’re not, is another form of idol worship at a time when the truth demands to be seen. Let’s be honest about the threats of our world, but let’s think about how we respond to them. One of my other mentors, Josh Feldman, says that “Our daily experiences are a laboratory for the invention of the future.” When we are in a lab, trying to create the next great invention, sometimes the experiment goes wrong. The data we collect from each experiment, even the failed ones, help us decide what to try next. We are not here to deny the darkness. We are not here to ignore the facts. We are here to decide what to do with them. 

What if the Israelites had approached their fear with curiosity and honesty while Moses was on the mountain? “Wow,” one might have said to the other. “I’m really scared right now. I’m not sure when Moses is coming back and I’m having a hard time trusting that we will be safe in the future.” That’s a truth worth sharing. “I’m afraid too,” the other might have responded. “Thank you for telling me. I’m grateful to know I’m not alone.” Vulnerable sharing, supporting one another, and speaking from your own experience, are also contagious behaviors. That might have been a better response to the facts of their fear.

The new year has begun and there’s still a lot of darkness around us. From the ongoing uncertainty of the coronavirus contagion to the horrific effects of climate change, gun violence, and systemic oppression.The pandemic taught us that the health of one person can change the health of the world. Social contagion theory teaches, and our Torah shows us, that the hope, courage, voice, and generosity of one person can change the world too. 

So I return to the question I posed at the beginning: What will you spread this year? How will you respond to the darkness? And how will you model what you want to see in your community when you show up as part of it? 

Anne Lammott writes, “Sometimes hope is a radical act, sometimes a quietly merciful response, sometimes a second wind, or just an increased awareness of goodness and beauty.” This year, spreading hope, wonder, or resilience may be a small act of bravery for you, an attempt to plot a better course, even when you feel the current pulling in another direction. Maybe it feels like a radical act, taking a bold step into the sea of your uncertainty, like Nachshon, or bringing the timbrel with you, like Miriam, because some part of you believes redemption is possible. Maybe you’ll put your mental health first and inspire others to do the same, like Simone Biles. Maybe yours will be the voice that encourages others to join the song. 

Two weeks ago, I stood on the quad and invited strangers to share their hopes with me. I’m going to conclude this part of our service by inviting you to do the same. What do you hope for this year? For yourself, for your community, and for the world – call it out. 

Thank you everyone. May we carry these hopes in our hearts and into the world, and may we be blessed with the courage to bring them to life. 

I ended this sermon with the song, “One Voice,” by the Wailin’ Jennys. I encourage you to listen to it now.