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  • Having “THE” Conversation

    Posted on April 7th, 2013 Special Contributor No comments


    The longevity revolution has sparked many a new reality. One of them is the growing need for families to set up a time to engage aging parents (and themselves) in a conversation about wishes at the end for life. The advances in medical technology, coupled with the expanded life expectancy of baby boomers and their parents, have made these conversations ever more necessary. I am often asked to do on this issue, as well as on the subject of care-giving , I stress the importance of congregations having an annual session on how Judaism looks at end of life issues. This includes not only the texts that inform these discussions, but an overview of State or Provincial laws that will impact these decisions. With a growing number of states in the USA passing or considering “Death With Dignity” laws, this issue will only grow in relevance.

    April 16 has been dedicated as National HealthCare Decision Day. That week would be a perfect time to develop a program, a sermon, or convene a conversation that will raise the issue from within Jewish values and texts. This is a delicate subject to raise with our parents. Maybe even more so with our own spouse. Yet, as many of your know, having the conversation and documenting that conversation via an Advanced Directive and Health Care Power of Attorney, can reduce a significant amount of stress in moments of crises and help to alleviate potential guilt.

    Author: Rabbi Richard Address

    Congregations can be a excellent source of strength and support for families having to make these decisions. The role of the relationship developed and maintained over years, can be a foundation for a person and family feeling cared for and supported. By having the congregation initiate these conversation, it can also provide a sense of meaning to congregations who might otherwise be bereft of adequate knowledge in these areas.

    Having the conversation about one’s wishes for the final phase of life requires some time and planning.

    Make sure that the parties involved agree that they will be having this converation: no surprises! Create an environment that is supportive to this conversation. Take your time. Sometimes the conversation may go off into memories and moments that may bring tears and/or laughter. This is part of the conversation and is very important. Raise issues that we know can cause some concern; i.e. what are your wishes if the medical condition is such that there is nothing more that can be done? It is often helpful to use a template on which to base the conversation. There are numerous books and forms available from hospitals, doctor’s offices, religious groups, etc. It may be advisable to discuss one’s religious views regarding end of life care and be aware of the views of the person’s faith.It is also helpful to be familiar with local options for Palliative Care and Hospice Care. It is important to understand these terms and how they can be of benefit in certain circumstances. Additionally, familiarize yourself with the laws of your state.

    Sometimes these discussions may be met with defensiveness. Try and approach this discussion from a perspective of family unity. “We want to make sure your wishes are honored and that there is no confusion, should the case arise that decisions have to be made.” Remember that as important as an Advanced Directive may be, equally important is the Power of Attorney for Health Care. This document allows a designated care-giver to make decisions for someone if that person is unable to speak for themselves.

    And again, please remember to re-visit these documents every few years as people’s minds, life circumstances and medical technology can and will change.

    Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min is the rabbi at M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ and the founder of Jewish Sacred Aging.

  • A Meditation in Preparation for Rosh Hashana

    Posted on August 22nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    Much of the work that we do during Elul is practical as we get ready for the new school year and for the mechanics of the High Holidays. But even the most busy among us can and should take some time to reflect on where we have been and where we hope to go in the year ahead. Originally, I developed an earlier version of this meditation to be done with a group as part of tashlich, but I have found that it is helpful to enter into this kind of reflection ahead of the holiday season as part of my personal preparation. I do it as a silent reflection and have provided instructions for this approach. One should allow at least 25 minutes at minimum to make one’s way through the whole thing so that you have at least two minutes of thought on each topic but you might take more time if that is what feels right. Alternatively, this meditation can serve as a prompt for journaling or reflective conversation. Let me know how it works for you! -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Sit or stand as you feel most comfortable. Place your feet comfortably apart, firmly feel the ground below you. This meditation takes you through the months of the Jewish year. After the instructions for each month, take at least two minutes to reflect and consider.

    Tishrei: Think back to last Rosh Hashana, recall the sound of the shofar. What has cried out to you in this last year? What moved you from the routines of your life?

    Heshvan: Sometimes we are awakened for good and sometimes we are awakened to that which is bitter. We cannot overlook that which is difficult or hard, reflect on the pain and suffering that has been a source of challenge this last year.

    Kislev: Recall the candles that burned last Hannuka. Light can transform darkness. Miracles can happen. Consider one or many of the rays of light that have given you hope this past year.

    Tevet: The winter rains are that which later bring forth possibilities. What have you done in this last year that will create changes in the future? Reflect on the work that you have done that has not yet born fruit.

    Sh’vat: This is the month where we celebrate the trees. Each year they add a ring to the strength of experience that they already posses. Focus on one way in which you have added to your own strength this year.

    Adar: We all hide elements of ourselves from the world. Consider what part of yourself you are keeping hidden, ask yourself what you risk by revealing it and what might you accomplish if you shared it.

    Nissan: Sometimes freedom comes in grand moments, other times in small steps. What have you managed to let go of in this last year? Who or what helped you in that process? What did you learn or gain?

    Iyar: Even when times are good there is often grumbling and it is only to be expected when times are tough. Focus on some of the complaints that have recurred during this year, ask yourself if they are warranted,

    Sivan: Revelations can change the way we see or act. What new things have you discovered about yourself this year, how have you grown in your understanding? Consider something that you have learned about yourself or something that you hope will be revealed soon.

    Av: Baseless hatred can be the source of much destruction. Where have you been quick to judge in this last year? Consider the implications of your negative judgments, for yourself, those close to you, and your community. How might you repair damage done or shift your approach in the future.

    Elul: Where are you now? Consider the year that lies ahead. What work do you want to do, need to do, so that you can be fully present?

    End with the singing of a niggun or meditative song such as Hashiveni or with the blowing of the Shofar.

  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 2

    Posted on January 24th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs.  Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

    by Andi Milens, Vice President at Jewish Council for Public Affairs

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was something my grandfather told my father when my father went to work for him. He said: “Always remember that the people who work for you depend on you for their livelihood.”

    Here’s my attempt to contribute to the canon:

    1.      Follow your passions.

    2.      Give 100% but save some for yourself. No matter how much you love your chosen field, no matter how much you love being immersed in the Jewish community, find something outside the Jewish community that you enjoy. Everyone needs to take a break every now and then.

    3.      Find mentors and confidantes – people close enough to understand your circumstances but removed enough that they can offer you objective guidance. And be a mentor to others; serve the Jewish community by fostering the next generation of Jewish professionals.

    Author Andi Milens

    4.      Establishing good working relationships is key to your success. Develop strategies to work with all kinds of people.

    5.      Diversify. Remember that there are a lot of pieces that make up the Jewish community puzzle. Shimon the Righteous said that the world stands on three things: Torah, the service of Gd, and deeds of kindness. So too, the Jewish community stands on many professions and institutions – each is necessary but none alone are sufficient.

    6.      There is always something more to learn. When you think you’ve learned it all, it’s time to think about your next career step. Take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills. Find people to learn from, inside your institution and outside. And remember that you can learn something from everyone – even if it’s an example you don’t want to follow.

    7.      Trust your subordinates to do their jobs. Give them an appropriate amount of guidance, then give them the resources and the autonomy to carry out their responsibilities. Back them up publicly, teach them privately. If you don’t trust them, find new subordinates.

    8.      Most of the time, it’s not life and death. Sometimes it is. But most of the time, it can wait until tomorrow. And remember that everyone thinks that what they’re doing is the most important thing.

    9.      Know how to accept, admit and apologize when you are wrong. And sometimes even when you’re not. It’s more important to be effective than it is to be right.

    10.  They say that knowledge is power. But sharing knowledge builds trust, which is more powerful than knowledge.

    And always keep a copy of Pirkei Avot handy…whatever you’re looking for, you can probably find it there.

  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 1

    Posted on January 23rd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs. Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

    Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami

    How We Create Boundaries and Maintain Perspective

    1.      Da Lifnei Mi Ata Omeid (Know before whom you stand). Remember that most issues are not really about you.

    2.    Encourage your congregation to call you before setting funeral times. Be actively in touch with families of those about to die to give them your contact numbers and to ask/instruct them to make you the second call after death.  If Rabbi (not the family) calls mortuary to set time, you have more control over your schedule and your life.

    3.      If you have a partner/spouse, involve your spouse/partner in setting times of funerals and baby namings, and of whether to accept weddings. (Honey, I have a funeral for Sunday and 11 am or 3 pm are available; what’s best for our family?)

    Author Paul Kipnes

    4.      Use your partner/spouse/trusted friend as a “boundary keeper” to strengthen you when you weaken.  When you are considering relaxing your boundaries, check by him/her for a “reality check.”

    5.     Tell your children/spouse/partner whenever you skip a meeting for them.  Skip meetings for them.  Schedule in kids games/events, sometimes in your calendar under assumed names.

    6.      Get thyself a therapist.  Who else is NOT nogei-ah b’davar (not touched by the issue)?  A therapist can help you think through the challenging issues that will arise.

    7.      Make it a policy not to attend any B’nai Mitzvah or Wedding receptions. Explain it to every family with whom you meet.  (“I cannot choose one family over the other; nor can I attend all receptions and still see my family.”)

    8.      Don’t waste time getting bitter.  Do what you have to do, and teach your congregation before next problem.  Every situation is an opportunity for education.

    9. Train your lay leaders to protect your vacations and conferences. Set up a clear process for handling synagogue needs when you are away. Send a detailed coverage plans email to staff/leadership whenever you will be away.




  • Confronting Family Stress at Passover

    Posted on April 8th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.

    I often think that Passover is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. Both are holidays for which there is significant preparation, anticipation and expectations. Both are holidays when we make a special effort to reach out to family and gather together in celebration. Both have rituals and customs but also meanings that go beyond what is openly stated and done. And both holidays share much in the way of culinary and entertaining/ritual advice to be found on how to do the holidays ‘right.’ But one place where Christmas has the advantage is in the acknowledgement of  how the reality of these expectations and family gatherings –or in many cases lack there of- mixed together with the pressure of doing it ‘right’can create its own stress and disappointment.

    In addition to helping Jews understand the importance of Passover, it is incumbent upon Jewish professionals to help provide tools and frameworks for coping with our anxieties and the very real complexities of the holiday. Recently, I spoke with Sarah Spencer a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco and a director of Camp Be’chol Lashon who pointed out that many of the rituals and forms of the Seder provide a fantastic structure for dealing with difficulties. Discussing her understanding of the Seder as a model of how to create diverse community, I have a new appreciation for how the Seder might provide a some clues to diffusing the tensions it creates.

    1.     Our stories are the starting point, they resonate with other and echo through the generations. The whole reason to have a Seder is to tell our story so that we can embrace freedom and revelation. Long before Sigmund Freud made it popular, Judaism recognized that in order to be free we need to In order to be free we need to tell our story. We must speak of that which is difficult in order to move forward. But we need not see this speaking, nor even the existence of difficulties as out of the ordinary. Indeed according to our traditions, each of us is obligated to recall our places of slavery and darkness. The presumption is that we all have those places and difficulties and that we all have the potential to move beyond them. Keeping this in mind, we can embrace the Seder not for the perfection it represents but as the opportunity to move forward which all of us need.

    2.     We are opening our homes to strangers. The assumption that we know those who are sitting around the table, is often just that. When real strangers join us at the table, we understand that there will need to be listening and patience to help bridge the lack of familiarity and we work towards doing that. If however, those at the table are family, we may not extend the say level of courtesy and patience. Given that there are many families that come together only a few times a year, and even those who know each other well may make assumptions about who the others at the table are, we would do well to approach those invited to Seder as though they were strangers and treat them with thoughtful courtesy as opposed to presuming we already know and understand them.

    3.     Ask questions. Many of them. How are we to know the strangers with whom we travel? How are we to understand the stories others tell? As Spenser reminds us, asking questions is the essential ingredient for speaking across differences. An expert in diversity and community building, she reminds us that asking questions about differences is the only way to really understand and engage with others. The asking can start before the Seder. Talk with guests and ask how they want to make this night different from other nights. Using the four questions as a guide, encourage the framing of question of curiosity not of accusation. Remind yourself and your guests that questions can lead to hurt or openness; the difference lies in how we ask and how open we are to answers.

    4.     There are 4 children. We know this so well that sometimes we forget that at every table, and within each of us, there are indeed 4 different children. If we are hoping just to have wise sons and daughters gathered then we have not really prepared and anticipated the difficulties that are inevitable. If we can step back and remember that the challenges, the indifference, the inability to pay attention is not personal, but universal then we can gain important perspective on the matter and formulate responses that are appropriate and able to be heard not just reactive and ignored.

    There is no short cut around the stress of Passover. The tensions are built into the anticipation and the importance of the holiday. Yet if we are able to frame and understand the difficulties within the contexts set up for us by our tradition, then we will find that we hold many tools for approaching the hard places and setting ourselves free.



  • Help Coordinating Volunteers: Lots of Helping Hands

    Posted on November 3rd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Lots of Helping Hands is the kind of web resource that puts to rest any skepticism about the usefulness of the web for creating and maintaining real life community. A tool for organizing volunteer help, it can become an indispensible aid not only for specific individuals but also for the Hesed Committee coordinators.

    I first learned about LHH, as it is abbreviated, from Pamela Kelner the Director of Jewish Family Services in Nashville, Tennessee. Kelner has used the site for both helping individuals and for larger scale projects. The site invites users to set up communities around particular issues or people for which volunteer help is needed. Typical uses might be those with new babies or undergoing short or long term illness but it could also be used for shiva coordination or preparations for the High Holidays.

    Upon registration, which is free of charge –as is the entire service- coordinators are welcome to input lists of tasks that need to happen to get help to the person in need, rides to chemo, help with picking up kids, a visit. According to Kelner, “you can really specify your needs, one family was gluten free and nut free, they could post recipes that they liked, they could specify this pizza place has gluten free. It is a way to communicate your needs in a straight forward way.” Addresses for doctors, hospitals and meal delivery are all easily stored on the calendar with the tasks.

    Potential helpers are then invited to join the community, view the needs, and volunteer for particular tasks. The work of scheduling and seeing what is needed when is largely regulated by the volunteers themselves. It is very user friendly. Jennifer Oppenheimer of Chicago who recently used the site to help coordinate support for a relative going through cancer treatment noted that the site takes some of the discomfort out of trying to be helpful, “I have been part of groups that help [sick friends or congregants] and this would have made it easier. Because sometimes you don’t want to bother the person [in need] you want to help and this allows you to help without contacting the person directly.” In addition to delineating the tasks clearly, the site also lets you specify how many volunteers are needed which cuts down on duplication.

    Both Oppenheimer and Kelner noted that the visual aspect and online gathering place for volunteers is a wonderful feature of using LHH. Oppenheimer noted that each time someone signed into the community, the cancer patient “experienced it like a hug.” Kelner felt the impact on the volunteers who “could see how many people were involved. This was a band new family to our community and when you saw that there were 70 people signed up it was empowering.”

    Coordinating the intake of volunteers and inputting the needs takes some work. But the technical skill needed is limited and multiple coordinators can share the work. Sharing the task of coordinating is a good way of getting those who live at a distance to get involved. Different coordinators can be assigned different tasks, such as intake of volunteers and sending out email announcements. Like the Caring Bridge, the site can also be used to update the community about the status of the individual seeking help. It is a terrific tool for communicating more broadly.

    Kelner does point out that she would not necessarily use the sight for coordinating a large group where there are many tasks that need to be done at the same time slot. The interface is not well set up for that sort of coordination.

  • Why Judaism? Loving Kindness

    Posted on August 26th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Rabbi Joseph Meszler

    As we approach the High Holidays, the question of why Judaism lurks behind many sermons and clergy conversations. This week, guest blogger, Rabbi Josesph Meszler of Temple Sinai in Sharon, MA provides an answer to that question. The author of a Facing Illness, Finding God, he draws on Jewish text and personal experience to help us understand why Judaism matters.

    When the prophet Micah told us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God,” he may have been summarizing what could be characterized as a Reform halacha. Rabbi Rami Shapiro once wrote that many of our commandments could be divided up into one of these three categories: doing justice in the world by engaging in tikkun olam, facing the inevitable pain of life through loving kindness, and walking humbly with God through our ritual observance. But it is the middle injunction, to love kindness, that I think draws more and more people to the synagogue today. The main function of our religion seems to be to help us cope.

    I believe Jewish people are looking to their Judaism as a source of solace. Healing services have become commonplace. Debbie Friedman’s Mishebeirach has long been something of an anthem. Rabbis are no longer sought after to be towering figures in robes speaking from high pulpits or deciders of halacha but rather a compassionate person with empathy. Congregants will forgive a rabbi a bad sermon; they will not do so if we are not there in their time of need. Jews today want rabbis to embody the Judaism that they need, a dependable human touch.

    My hometown rabbi, Gustav Buchdahl, once remarked to me that today people seem to look for “therapeutic Judaism.” We want our Judaism to help make us whole and to help us heal. While this refocusing of Judaism cannot be at the expense of social justice or vibrant prayer – the other two parts of the verse from Micah – I believe he is accurate in that we crave shleimut: peace of mind/wholeness/completeness. Something in our age seems broken, and we are trying mend not only our world but ourselves.

    As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I have had my own experience with illness and faith. Now completely healthy, my wife (and our colleague) Julie was once ill and had to have a scary operation. As I was sitting in the waiting room, surrounded by strangers who were preoccupied with their own thoughts, I was overflowing with anxiety. I began to pray in a way that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught – to scream silently in my mind. I didn’t know how loud thoughts could be until I was mentally screaming to God to please help my wife. It was in that moment that I needed a human touch the most, and I was fortunate that my Judaism was there for me.

    I believe the Judaism of the future is going to be as a spiritual practice, and its central function is going to be to be as a source of comfort.

  • What do we tell the children? Autism in a Jewish Family

    Posted on June 17th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 7 comments

    All too often we as individuals and as community leaders battle with expectations of perfection that can create unreasonable pressure for our children and families. While we understand that the perfect Jewish family is a myth, there is often silence when it comes to speaking about the challenges we face. This week, we have the pleasure of reposting a piece by Deborah Greene wife of Rabbi Fred Greene (HUC-JIR  NY 2001) While in general it is our practice to post the words of our alumni directly, we felt that Deborah’s piece spoke to a family reality that she and Fred share together.

    Fred Greene

    What follows is a tremendously inspiring story of strong thoughtful parenting. It is a wonderful model for talking with kids about hard issues of all sorts. It is hard to overestimate the power for our communities of seeing that they are not alone in their struggles. This piece was orginally posted on Deborah’s blog Puzzled.

    Deborah Greene

    To Tell or Not To Tell

    “We, the one’s who are challenged, need to be heard. To be seen not as a disability, but as a person who has, and will continue to bloom. To be seen not only as a handicap, but as a well intact human being.” (Robert M. Hensel)

    The summer we told Yael about her autism. Her sister Leora by her side.

    As parents, we are faced with many difficult conversations. Amongst them, there is the “don’t do drugs” talk, the “don’t drink & drive” talk and of course there is the good old-fashioned, highly anticipated “birds & bees” conversation. Most of us spend a good amount of time thinking about how to get these conversations just right. We look for the best books, ask friends how they handled these conversations with their own children & seek out guidance from trusted sources. If you are the parent of a child with autism, you also need to tackle the “telling my child that they have a lifelong developmental disability” conversation. I can promise you that this particular conversation is one of the most intimidating, nerve-wracking & anxiety inducing conversations of all.

    You see, this particular conversation will help to shape how your child will see himself or herself for years to come. You want to impart the knowledge of who they are and why they are different without making them feel that their disability defines them. You want to help them understand their struggles, without making them feel limited in their capabilities. You want them to see themselves as “differently-abled” and not “disabled.” In addition, you want to help to ensure that they themselves won’t use their autism as an excuse, a “get out of jail free card” so to speak.

    Then there are the other components of this conversation. When do I tell my child? How will I know when the time is right for them to handle this information? How much or how little do I share? Do I share this information with their friends & classmates? The list goes on & on.

    Fred I began to think about having this conversation with Yael towards the end of her 2nd grade year. We knew that upon entering third grade, the social gap would widen significantly. We were already seeing her friends surpass her both socially & emotionally. What were seen as “little quirks” by her peers before, were now being seen as “strange” or “weird.” We also felt that it was becoming important to try & help her understand why she always had a teacher aid, went to social skills groups & needed occupational & other therapies. I guess you can say that we felt as if we wanted to help create a picture out of the many different puzzle pieces that made up her daily life.

    So, I talked with her therapists, began looking for good books and hit the web in search of a “how to guide” to having this conversation with Yael. We waited until the 2nd grade school year was over. Then, we waited for the perfect opportunity, believing we would know it when we saw it. Alas, the picture perfect moment never seemed to present itself. There always seemed to be something about it that we felt wasn’t “quite right.” Truth be told I think we knew that we were going to change our daughter’s perception of herself, and her sister’s perceptions as well, for the rest of her life. No matter how the conversation went, she would now know herself not simply as a person, but a person with autism and that scared the heck out of us. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Jewish Meditation

    Posted on November 19th, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    This week I am glad to share with you the wisdom of Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz whose has been blogging for the last few months as part of project she started to enrich her congregations spiritual life during Elul. Rachel has an extensive background in meditation and hassidut and has created a short series about meditation. I share with you here a post on breathing and encourage you to look at her subsequent posts.

    Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

    Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

    Why do so many meditation practices, found in so many spiritual traditions, begin with the breath?  Something so simple as breathing in and breathing out?  Breathing is something we do every moment of our existence in this world.  So simple, and yet it teaches us so, so much.  In meditation practice we wish to bring our attention to this moment – to sense what it really is to exist in the present.  So simple?  Where else would we be?  Well, try it.  Close your eyes and just gently bring your attention to the sensation of breathing in and out.  Notice how the air comes in and, at a certain point, the air goes out again.  If you notice your mind wander, or you start to think of other things, as soon as you notice that that is what you are doing, gently bring your attention back to noticing your breathing – the air going in and going out.

    Chances are, if you are like most of us, you’ll notice certain things.  One of them might be, as you begin, ‘am I doing this right?’  To that question, I answer with another question – ‘what were you doing the moment before you closed your eyes and brought your attention to your breath?’  I’m guessing that you were probably breathing.  Were you worried then about whether you were doing it right?  So notice how quickly we move to judgment, even on something as basic as breathing.  Being present to this moment means just noticing what is arising right now.  As soon as we make a judgment about it – its nice, ugly, distracting, good, bad… that is something additional, and it removes us from just being fully present to what is. Its completely natural and human, and so don’t get annoyed with yourself when you notice judgment arising – that’s another judgment!  Just notice, and let it pass by.

    Read the rest of this entry »

  • The Power of Speech and Silence

    Posted on September 2nd, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    This week Rabbi Julie Pelc offers up some learning about the power of speech and silence. Her timely reflections are a good reminder to all of us at this busy time of year when we spend so much time thinking about what to say.

    Julie Pelc

    Julie Pelc

    Rabbi  Pelc recently began work as the Director of Jewish Student Life at Santa Monica College Hillel.  She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism and the Executive Director of the National Organization of American Mohalim.  Previously, she was the Assistant Director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health.

    This summer I was thinking a lot about a text I encountered from the Tikkunei Zohar.
    “Some speak with their eyes, some with their hands, some with the shaking of their head, some with the movement of their body, and some with their feet” (Tikkunei Zohar, 70, 177b)

    I like to teach this text to those who desire to become better listeners.  I often use it with HUC students who are embarking on chaplaincy internships in hospitals and other healthcare settings. These students come face-to-face with the importance of a nuanced kind of listening almost immediately upon beginning their internships. They understand how much can be communicated by one who cannot physically speak and what it’s possible to learn about someone by watching the way in which they move their bodies.
    But I think it’s a kind of listening we should all strive to practice. In our everyday lives, we rely so heavily on the spoken word for communication with our families and friends that we can easily miss the most important questions, exclamations, and cries.

    Sometimes, though, it’s hard to listen for nonverbal cues this in the moment.  We (understandably) are drawn to spoken language; we believe we are listening to others, but sometimes the words themselves can both compel and distract us from other kinds of meanings.

    In an article published in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about what he calls “The Naked Face”:

    All of us, a thousand times a day, read faces. When someone says “I love you,” we look into that person’s eyes to judge his or her sincerity. When we meet someone new, we often pick up on subtle signals, so that, even though he or she may have talked in a normal and friendly manner, afterward we say, “I don’t think he liked me,” or “I don’t think she’s very happy”

    This is, I think, what the Tikkunei Zohar is talking about.  All of us communicate in countless different ways using so much more than just our words.  Sometimes, if we don’t truly listen, the effects can be disappointing or frustrating.  But sometimes the resulting effect can be much more disturbing.

    In our professional lives, we can miss the point entirely if we ignore non-verbal communication.  I once received an email from a former student asking me for a book recommendation about why bad things happen to good people. She told me she’d been raped on her college campus by a man she thought was her friend.  She wrote to me of her struggle – months later – in trying to understand how God would allow something like this to happen to her.   I wished that I lived in the same city and could have met with her in person.  Even over email, though, I realized that a bibliography on theodicy was not her only request.  What she really needed was for someone to listen to her lament, and, perhaps even more importantly, she needed to express her doubts, fears, anger, and confusion.  Before hearing or absorbing the voices of others, the voice she needed most was her own.

    I felt completely at a loss of how to respond to her request for a book suggestion.  To deny her this request may have been understood as an additional dismissal.  I wanted her to feel that I heard her.  She had asked me, as her rabbi, for a book.  I felt a sense of obligation to listen.  But listening, in this situation, required a special kind of hearing – I had to listen underneath her words and try to intuit a question and a need just beyond the surface.

    My book suggestion – at first – was a journal.  I told her that I was there to talk with her as she worked through her feelings and that I could, in time, recommend books and articles about theodicy, too.

    I still (years later) wonder what more I could have done for her had I been present to truly listen – in person – to her eyes, her hands, the shaking of her head, the movement of her body, and her feet.