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) 

Podcast Interview: Trans-Affirming Hebrew Name Change Ritual

In the Torah, names are powerful and signify moments of transformation. Our Jewish ancestors Avraham, Sarah, and Yisrael each received new names as part of their journeys.

As a child, Spencer Kaseff struggled with self-loathing. Assigned female at birth, but unsure of his gender identity, Spencer was deeply sensitive and spent a lot of time alone. But in December of 2019, Spencer left that part of his life behind during a Hebrew renaming ritual.

This episode is a conversation between Andy Anderson (they/them), Spencer Kaseff (he/him), and Heather Paul (she/her) about Spencer’s emotional renaming ritual that was performed at Hillel International’s Global Assembly in 2019.

“There’s a need for transgender Jews to receive new Hebrew names as much as new secular ones, but very few resources exist for transgender renaming rituals. According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, calling a transgender person by the name they use to refer to themselves can reduce their chance of suicide by as much as 65%. In Judaism, we can take a step toward inclusion by honoring and celebrating the journeys of transgender Jews through Jewish renaming.” -Heather Paul

Want to watch the video or view a ritual template for your own use? Check it out on Ritualwell. Thanks to Andy for interviewing us – and thank you to Spencer…for everything ❤

Voice from the Void: 30 Scatteredleaves Creations from 2020

Sometimes words bang on the doors of me, begging to be let out. Is it a striving desperation to make meaning out of madness? To tame an untamable experience by shaping it with narrative?

Several weeks ago, my classmates and I encountered Rebbe Nahman’s texts about The Void – and the silence within it. For many of my classmates, facing that silence led to more silence. But for me, it just made the words louder. I write constantly. Sometimes the words rush from my fingers faster than I can type them, an unstoppable flood pouring from the rock Moshe hit with his stick, when he couldn’t find words himself. It seems the harder it is to find the words, the more the words find me.

Chaim Bialik writes, “It is that very eternal darkness that is so fearsome – that darkness from the time of Creation…Every man is afraid of it and every man is drawn to it. With our very lips we construct barriers, words upon words and systems upon systems, and place them in front of the darkness to conceal it; but then our nails immediately begin to dig at those barriers, in an attempt to open the smallest of windows, the tiniest of cracks, through which we may gaze for a single moment at that which is on the other side.”
Perhaps writing is one of my attempts to create a penimi from a maqqif (something I can grasp within that wish is ungraspable). A way to crack a hole in the darkness of the void. A way of finding God in a place that appears empty, so that I can chase the next void, and the one after that.

With that in mind, I share a list of things I created within the void of 2020 – rituals, poems, prayers, and videos. This is not a comprehensive list. I only included the creations I felt I could publish or name in this space or elsewhere. The list doesn’t include all of my school writing (one of my classes had weekly reflection assignments) and it doesn’t include every private ritual I created for people who needed them. It also doesn’t include the virtual programs I built. But it’s a start.

I’m grateful for all the words that found me in the emptiness, but I pray for a 2021 that is full – full of inspiration, full of healing, and full of hope. Blessings on your journey, beloveds. See you on the other side.

Published on Ritualwell:

  1. Prayer Before Starting IVF
  2. Postponement Prayer (also published in When the World Turned Inward, Vol. 2)
  3. Virtual Memory Circle
  4. Hearing in our Hearts
  5. God’s Lament: A Letter to Daughter Zion (from Reb Shulamit’s class)

Videos:

  1. What Have We Lost?
  2. History of Loneliness
  3. History of Languages
  4. Looking Behind: A Monologue from Lot’s Wife
  5. Light and Darkness

Published in the Forward:

  1. ‘In the Torah, name changes signify moments of transformation.’ In the lives of transgender Jews, they are just as powerful

On my blog

  1. Nahman’s Dancing Circle, Chayei Sarah, and Pixar’s Inside Out (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  2. Get In, Get Real, and Grow (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  3. Letter to Rebbe Nahman (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  4. Shelters (in Place): A Pandemic Sukkot
  5. Holding the Shattered Pieces
  6. Grief in the Book of Ruth: Ruth’s Letter to Mahlon (from Reb Shulamit’s class)
  7. Silent and Sacred: Parshat Shmini for 2020
  8. Letter from God to the Ones Who Struggle: A Reinterpretation of Song of Songs (from Reb Shulamit’s Class)
  9. Alone Together: Parshat Vayikra
  10. Where Are You?

Publishing in 2021, but written in 2020

  1. Letter from Vashti to the New Queen of Shushan (publication set for February, I hope) 
  2. Prayer for the Covid-19 Vaccine
  3. Havdalah for Letting Go 
  4. Mezuzah Ritual for Moving into a New Home

Papers for Biblical Civilizations class

  1. A Tale of Two Floods 
  2. “To Teach and Enlighten:” The Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges
  3. Three Contemporary Prophecies written in the style of the prophet, Ezekiel
  4. A Contemporary Apocalypse in the style of the Book of Daniel
  5. Bringing Biblical Life and History to Hillel