Monday, September 5, 2011

Closing Time

One of my favorite songs from the college years is "Closing Time," by Semisonic, a song about a bar that is about to close and all of the random people you are encountering for an evening of fun, are all about to go their separate ways. "Closing time, every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." Some timely words as this project of mine is coming to an end.

The past two weeks, in the midst of my final month of this blog project, have included an earthquake, a hurricane and a move across town for my family. Not to make excuses, but I have certainly had my hands full. Needless to say, I was able to fit in a few more calls to long lost family and friends who knew my mom in her hey day. And during these talks, I've learned so much about my mom's childhood, her dreams and her family life.

Not only did I learn more about her, I made some new and close relationships with extended family and friends from her past. They are now like family to me. And, with their help, I have uncovered a treasure trove of long lost family photos of both my mom and her family (through her father's side) as well as keepsakes of her name in school violin concerts and the like. I am sure more discoveries will find their way from New York and Washington State to my little mailbox in Silver Spring. And I feel so fortunate for this month of detective work and exploration.

Since I grew up with my nana (my mother's mom) assisting with our raising from toddler hood to high school, I have lots of photos and stories of my family through my mother's mother. What I gathered this time around, are photos from my mom's father's side. My papa was the youngest ordained hazan (cantor) in the USA at the age of 13. He conducted weddings from my mom's childhood apartment in the Bronx and officiated at so many smachot (celebrations).

Here are just two photos shared with me. One of my mother posing in all her splendor and another of my great grandmother Anna, the grandmother of my papa (my mom's dad and my nana's husband) lighting candles to start the holiday of Passover, sometime in the 40's-50's. Just unreal. As I bring the light of the holiday candles into my home each week, I am inspired through the lighting of my Grandma Gertie's brass candlesticks from Poland (my dad's mom) and now through these unearthed photos of my great grandmother on my mother's side. My family always grew up with Jewish spirituality and connection and apparently observance was a part of the picture back in the day. Since I have returned to this way of life as of my college years, it is such an empowering feeling to look at my ancestors and ways in which they connect to G-d.

So with my 33rd birthday a week away, I wanted to close out this year and say just how fortunate I feel to have had this year to explore myself as a person and to push myself both physically and mentally to the next level. No I didn't have the chance to visit New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia or see the green fields of Ireland. But I am still young and please G-d, I will have many more years ahead of me to explore these places with my family in the future.

I have had some highs, both literally in my zip lining and my bike riding lessons and some lows, encountering a fear of bugs and struggling to find volunteer positions with bar tenders and the local aquarium in town. Some projects never came into fruition while others, such as shadowing a professional pastry chef, taught me so many new tricks of the trade I can bring to my kitchen.

I have learned that one can always make time for the important things, no matter how busy or how overloaded one becomes. And that nothing ever goes the way you envision it in your head. I struggled to make time each month between my husband's hectic schedule, two kids under the age of four and a part time job that changes moment to moment. But somehow, I made it happen. Sure, there are things I wished I accomplished, like whitewater rafting and others I probably could have done without (bugs are totally overrated), but all in all, I have truly grown as a person. I have learned more about my strengths to handle unexpected challenges and both the importance of and the limitations of relying on friends to get you through a tough spot. At the end of the day, you have to come through for yourself. Expectations of yourself are often unrealistic and expectations we have of others are all the more so.

You learn how to be a good person by being one yourself. And we get through difficult times by becoming the person we wished we had during those times of our deepest fears.

I am thankful for my family who was so supportive and understanding through this process and to my children who have taught me in their short little years thus far, how I can go on to be a caring and tuned in mom despite not having a mother figure in my life all these years. One of the hardest challenges I have faced was bringing my daughter home from the hospital and not having my mom to call or to share with me the memories she had of raising us. Now at least, I have a few of those stories backed up by photos, of her earlier life back in the day.

As I embrace my 33rd year, a year I never thought in my whole life, I would live to see, I just want to be more aware of my inner voice, take nothing for granted and to be the mom to my kids that I always wished I had. The biggest blessing in life we can give to others is to be true to ourselves and have no regrets. This year has afforded me the opportunity to pencil myself into the gerbil wheel of residency and new motherhood and I feel to lucky to have brought it into fruition. What will this next year and the future hold for me, that no one knows. But at least I have been granted the days and the minutes to be here in the life of my kids to savor their ups and their downs, their new achievements and the obstacles along the way.

Thank you all for joining me on this journey. Your emails, calls and personal stories of mother loss and tackling hidden dreams and fears inspired me to follow through this daunting path.

Its closing time and I'm back to my routine of a life, but this time with a better head on my shoulders and a few less fears in my pocket. I feel lighter, refocused and inspired to face my next adventure, whatever life has in store for me. Mid-thirties... ready or not.... here I come!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Turning the Page

Its been a long and awful week. Listing events in the order of occurrence, not importance:

-Horrible canker sore in my mouth just the day before a fast day meant I couldn't eat much before or after the fast
-Burn on my hand from cooking
-Passing away of Steve's grandmother who we loved so dearly
-Job challenges which shall remain mysterious
-Husband working 30 hour on call shifts
-Weird medical malady that left me thinking I had cancer all week (thankfully not the case!)
-Two weekends alone with the kids and no hubby or shabbat plans in sight
-Breakdown of my car leaving me stranded with the kids
-Husband gone for 60 hours including an overnight shift and 40 hour trip to Denver for funeral that me and kids couldn't attend
-Friends letting me down in a hurtful way

As you can see, I have shed a lot of tears and burned a lot of brain power swimming in the misery of this terrible week. Friends and family have surprised me in their support while others have focused rightly so on their own issues that consume us all in our day to day efforts.

One can literally become so consumed in their pity for oneself that it can become a barrier to enjoying life and seeing the good things that surround you. I started to become that person. To be fair, everyone should have the right to acknowledge their feelings and come to terms with the hardships they face. In fact, I find myself often in the situation where I either am afraid or don't know how to ask for help. I get so caught up in keeping it all together or taking care of other people, that I overlook my own needs.

For example, picture a weekend where Steve is working, I'm trying to shuffle work, taking care of the kids and making shabbat plans. Here I am, calling friends offering to host a meal, including shopping and staying up late night just to make a few dishes to create a shabbat atmosphere for me and the kids when the hubby is away. Its critical for me to try and maintain a senses of stability when the schedule gets us down, but sometimes my desire for creating a Jewish environment ends up with me taking on too much so that I am in over my head when most other people would pick up ready made food, eat on paper and plastic with the kids and call it a day.

As I was sitting in my doom and gloom of a night, reflecting on the hardships both physical and mental of this week, I realized that the answer of how to turn this all around lay simply inside ME. By doing something nice for another person or reaching out to ask for help, I can give someone else the feeling that I want to have and I can let someone into my world to do something nice for me.

I have been overwhelmed with the support of friends today talking me through my challenges, buying me groceries and driving me and the kids 30 miles to the airport to pickup Steve's parked car after my own broke down. I feel so lucky to have friends such as those.

But I decided tonight was the time to also turn the corner on my blog project. After my first outreach call to my mom's maid of honor, I was able to put the pieces and detective work together to locate my mom's long lost first cousin. Through the help of, Google and Facebook, I found her alive and well in Seattle (my favorite city on the planet thus far).

I chose to end my night with a bit of exploratory learning about my mom, her home life and childhood, her musical talents and her dream of creating normalcy in her life by marrying the man of her dreams and starting a family. She succeeded in so many of her goals, becoming a junior high English teacher, settling down with my dad and bringing life to three lively kids. Even though she died, she continues to live inside each of us and instilled in us the dream of making our home and family, not our jobs, the center of our worlds.

Perhaps there is a light at the end of all our tunnels. We just need to lift up our eyes to the mountains and see the horizon for all its glory. It would have been easy to mope around in my pajamas tonight clinging to the challenges that lined my week. But, I'm done with that. I've shed enough of my tears and had my disappointments. I have places to go and stumbling and falling down is a part of the real world.

We've all been there and know how easy it is to get stuck. But at the end of the day, it isnt other people who are going to recenter your world.... its YOU. Its a decision, whatever your malady, whether it be emotional, physical or mental difficulties, to choose to view it in a different light. Reconnection with my family and with those my mom held very dear has warmed a place in my heart that used to be cold. To hear the obstacles my mom overcame in life just to make a loving family is so inspiring to me. And here I am in the midst of it all, living the life she always wanted.

Perhaps all those things that can make it seem like the sky is falling down all around us are really just there to teach us that we're human and that we're still here. No one is immune to pain and hardship. But everyone can choose to turn the page.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Connect the Dots

Friday afternoon is probably the absolute worst time of the week to blog. But seeing as the first week in August is coming to an end, I feel an internal obligation to just get out what I have been working on and prove to myself that this project isn't over until its really over.... which is supposed to be at the end of this month.

How is it that I find myself in the last month of my year long project to get through my 32nd year? Where did the year go?

The truth is that my goal for this month was/is to go whitewater rafting for my first time ever. Come to find out once I did the research, that the season is mostly over at this point in the year. I've looked into a few places mostly in West Virginia, a reasonable drive from the DC area, to have my time in the sun. But, its been challenging to fit it in with my new found time consumers: moving and the trauma ICU.

We are moving across town at this end of this month into a townhouse and although its literally just down the street, it seems as though this move is to another world. Friends talk as if they will never see us again and some feel as though us going to a new synagogue means that something was wrong with the old one. Before I get too ahead of myself, I should say we're mostly moving because of rising costs and lack of space in our current place. We found this wonderful set up that we just could not turn down. I am sad to be leaving but very optimistic/excited about the new opportunities that lie for us just across the way. Those plans, combined with my husband's return to the trauma ICU for two months, means a mommy with the kiddies most of the time.

So, finding time, weekday or weekend to grocery shop for the next two months is going to be a challenge let alone rafting. So I've reluctantly put rafting on the agenda for perhaps a future trip. So, I've decided to spend this month trying to tie my whole year together. I've realized over the years that although I have been so upset from losing my mom, I really have little knowledge about the woman she was. I have a few photos with her when I was first born but she was already so ill and that its hard to remember her that way. We have some family photos pre-my arrival in this world which are lovely. And a few years back, my dad burned all the family super 8 movies onto dvd. It was the first time I saw my mom move.... of course there was no sound, but I will take what I can get.

So for this month, I have set out to learn a bit more about my mom, try to track down old family members and friends that knew her and see what I can learn. Its not really a fear to overcome but it will be a challenge. It will also fulfill a dream of mine to learn more about my mom and who she was as a person. Through the wonderful aid of Facebook, my dad encountered the maid of honor at my parents wedding. A childhood friend of my mom's that learned of her death many years after she had passed. Through some effort, I was able to connect with her and hear old stories of my mom growing up, playing violin and taking care of others. In so many ways, it felt as if I was on the phone with my mom. It was such a powerful experience to hear how someone I do not remember even meeting impacted others and shone such a vibrant light into this world. It made me want to go back and be there, like a fly on the wall, watching her grow up and become the woman, mother and wife that she became.

From that encounter, I am now on the hunt to locate my mom's first cousin who is somewhere in the state of NY. They apparently were inseparable through childhood and I am hopeful, in this world of technology, that she is out there awaiting my call, email, text.... you get the point.

I guess I've seen enough of those long lost family reunion shows on tv and never realized just how much detective work I could do to uncover the true story behind my mom. I am so invigorated and inquisitive about the opportunities to uncover lost stories and photos and who knows what else.

So August may be on its way, but this little lady isn't done until the clock runs out and the birthday candles are literally on the cake. Have faith and doors will open along the way. The end is in sight and so is my 33rd birthday. A year I have looked forward to my whole life and one I plan to spend under a shady tree in my hammock. And now that I will soon have my own backyard, its a place I cannot wait to make into a reality.

So forgive me for the last minute pre-shabbat post but the research will go on and the puzzle pieces come together. Although I know a complete picture can never be, a mosaic of a few pieces here and there can help make me feel more whole inside and fill up the hole I have had in my heart for so long. Slowly slowly, its starting to fill with love, memories and hopes for the future.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bugging Out

Its been a long time coming and I have run from the idea that I should use one month this year to overcome my fear of bugs. I would say that I am a pretty loyal person. Enough that if a huge bear was attacking my family at a camp site, I would be the one trying to lure it away. But you put a spider on my couch or an ant on my picnic blanket and I am running for the door people.

I have seen Fear Factor and all of those other "overcome your fears for money" shows but no one is giving me money to see me overcome these personal issues. Well... not yet anyway. I guess I can hold out hope that Oprah or Ellen will read this and be so inspired to see how far I've come and help me take my story to the next level.

But I do live in reality and bugs are everywhere. Especially in the summer, from the mosquitoes which I actually find more annoying than scary, to the ladybugs which are both cute and not welcome in my home to the roaches outside in the hot DC sun. Lets not talk about the bed bugs I have heard so much about from friends who bought a used mattress or succumbed to from an infected apartment rental. I am just not a bug person. Never have been and never will be.

I expected to spend this month whitewater rafting, even tried to fit it in to my week long trip to Colorado last week but Denver is home to my husband's family and we chose to see our relatives and take a quiet family vacation to Vail instead of me squeezing in another blog-related pursuit.

That being said, in a location that shall remain nameless, I came face to face with small, little white bugs known as none other than maggots. Yes sir, real indeed. I was sitting down on an outdoor chair when some water squirted out under my seat and onto my foot. When I got up to look and examine the cushion underneath, I saw some dried piece of food and some friendly little white critters crawling around like it was chocolate mousse pie. Maybe it was but it certainly wasnt in edible condition.... for humans anyway.

My first reaction was to jump up and try to shake myself free of any loose hanging stragglers on my outfit or sandal. Despite the fact that they were under the chair and none had touched me, I still could not remove the idea that one had to be stuck somewhere on my body or belongings and I just might not see it. Its sort of that feeling like you're itchy all over when you see a creepy crawly thing even though nothing touched you.

Once I calmed down from my clear over reaction, which was obvious to both me and my 3.5 year old, I took a step back and thought about how to handle the situation. I eventually agreed to assist in the cleaning of the chair cushion and helped wash those tiny little buggies back into the great outdoors where they belong. I wouldn't say I willingly confronted the little guys but I realized I was needed to step in and assist in the reclamation efforts and I did as I should.

Now back at home, I have been secretly awaiting another opportunity to encounter another bug and save my family from its control. Last night, after sleeping for a few hours, my big kid woke up asking me to sing her a song. While singing her back to sleep, I noticed a huge millipede on her wall right by her water bottle about an inch from where she lays her head. Without a second thought, I ran to the bathroom for a tissue and squashed the little creature. Not exactly mother natures best solution as I am not a huge fan of killing anything. But it was too late to run outside and I was home alone with both kids. These bugs move SO fast that if you don't trap them or squish them, they can hide for months and you'll never find them.

I cannot say my anxiety has passed but I am proud of myself for coming out of my shell just a tad to overcome what has been a long time fear. I am certainly still planning a rafting adventure for next month, the final piece to end this blog project of a year. But until then, I guess I will be on the lookout for critters along the way and try to force myself to both acknowledge their existence, attempt not to kill them and linger for a few minutes in their midst before standing on top of the kitchen table. You will never find me inside one of those plastic containers you lay in during those competition shows lined with bugs galore. Not my style. But to challenge myself on a daily basis to put myself into the sphere of discomfort in an attempt to let go of something that doesn't bring me closer to being a better person, is something I can certainly live with. Who knows, maybe I'm on my way to having a pet tarantula someday... or worse maybe one of my kids will fall in love with one and let it loose one day just to test if Ive really confronted my fear. Wouldn't that be a blast!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Home is Where the Heart Is

Can we talk a word about home. What exactly is it? Its a debate I keep having with my husband and we both hit the ball back and forth over the net trying to sort out what this means.

To most, its where you grew up. The place you remember as a child, small and simple and where you discovered or began to discover who you were. You made old school friends, received an education and explored the mini world around you. You spent time with family, pushed the envelope time and time again and the place you left behind when you went off to achieve higher education, take a job or find yourself, whatever that means.

To some, home is where you physically live. As in, the place you sleep at night and the community to which you and your family belong. My husband always says, "Home is where you are, where we raise our kids." Its a lovely sentiment but to me the word home needs to mean so much more. Yeah sure, wherever we are as a atomic family planted in this world is technically home. But to me, home is an emotional experience and a mental state where I can finally set down my baggage, unpack my junk and settle in to a place that "feels" like home. Its not just finding the right jobs or the right Jewish community, its about feeling a click inside me that says, "Yep, here it is, you're home."

I am a northerner and I do go out of my way to show my allegiance to Boston. Its the place I grew up, discovered my inner voice and met the man of my dreams. Will it be the home I choose to return to or simply a place in my mind as a reminder of the "me along the way" in my path of life? The jury is still out on that. But, I do think people can have many homes. I'm a Jew and there is no denying that. The feeling of alive I felt while living in Jerusalem for two years is simply in-explainable. Its an inner jolt one cannot put in words. A part of me years to return there while the rest of me feels pulled towards family I know will never relocate and a professional life I know I could never recreate in a million years there.

Sure I have memories of my home life as a kid. I remember my nana, who moved in to help my dad raise us as kids, telling me what it will be like when I have kids of my own. Spending time at the playground and swing set of the elementary school behind my house on summer afternoons dreaming of the return to school next fall and the fun that came with it. I remember playing in the creek across the street from my house, catching salamanders with my brother and skipping rocks. Summers at the Cape, staying at a rundown motel with a swimming pool and spending afternoons at a beach filled with seashells. No it wasnt a fancy life, but it was home. It was cooking in the kitchen, smelling chicken soup boiling on the stove or sitting next to my dad at Shabbat services, watching him cover his eyes and sway with the tune. Home was a place with a fluorescent green door that only faded more over time and a backyard filled with forested land and a barely-there vegetable garden and a rotted porch that we sunbathed on as kids. It was a place I felt safe and one where I daydreamed about my life before me. But that home is a place I left a long time ago. In fact, its a place we no longer own or return to. Does that mean I no longer have a home? Can I never go back there again? Or is it something that comes with me wherever I go?

This concept of home is playing a bigger role in my consciousness these days as we are currently looking for a new place to rent for the remainder of Steve's residency. This will be our third move in four years. Just a bit crazy if you ask me. But not exactly by choice. The first move was to the DC area for residency to start. The second move happened when we learned we were expecting baby 2 and the need for more space fast was evident. I also started working from home and the little livable and workable space we did have was less than modest. Our hopefully third and final move of residency is due to the rising cost of our complex that blows my mind.

A lot of our discussion has turned towards the question of where do we go next. Not in next for the rest of our lives when Steve starts applying for jobs in two years, but next as in next month, August. We've been looking like mad in our current neighborhood with choices few and far between and a place we simply could never afford to buy in once we are done with the schooling. We've also explored joining a neighboring community with a lot of rental options and the possibility of buying something comfortable when all is said and done should we choose to stay. I think for us, its just a hard sell leaving a place we've grown in to and up in for four years. So many friends we have made along the way and two children we have raised from birth in front of our eyes.

Which path do we choose has a lot to say with how we define home. Is it truly where we reside, in our own internal place of residence? Is it our neighborhood and Jewish community who supports and cherishes us through every life cycle event (death of Steve's dad, birth of our two kids, etc.) or is it a place in our past we can never recreate but can only hope to come close to for our children? A lot of our scoping of neighborhoods, backyards and synagogue options has begun to focus less and less on me and Steve and more and more on our kids. Where can they have a bigger outdoor space to run around far from traffic and close to home? Where can we make services with varying schedules and find lots of school friends for our kids to spend Shabbat afternoons with. I'm tired of leaking ceilings and noisy lobbies. I'm tired of staring out at parking lots and hearing laundry carts roll up and down the hallway. I'm tired of rent increases of 10% or parking policies that take advantage of young families or seniors in our community.

Its clear its time to move and to relocate somewhere a la carte for another two years. Here's to hoping our new home offers some quiet and relaxation with friendly faces of new and old. Some day, I hope to unpack all those boxes jammed way up in the small closet we call a storage space and find a home for our things we find so dear. Will that truly be our home or will it be just another place we hang our hat? I think that home is what you make of it and inside, I hope it just becomes a place, like the feeling I had inside when I met Steve on December 2, 2000, that just feels right. The place I/we were meant to be and the place we can truly come into our own. Something I guess we will only know when we get there. Maybe its something that has been with us all the while, or maybe its a place in our minds. Either way, one things for sure, a move is in our near future and where we will end up, nobody knows.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Time is Running Out

Realizing I am already at the end of June with only two months left of this lovely blog project has put me in a quandary. I still have so many things I would love to do in my final months but not enough time to fit them all in.

To be honest, I am also somewhat relieved that fitting all these adventures in around working and school time will soon come to an end. But I do hope to be able to pick a few things to incorporate into my weekly lifestyle to find that "me" time I have been missing for so long.

Take for example this month where I was exposing myself to my fear of deep water. Kayaking was a wonderful experience and proved to be just the right opportunity for me to explore my love of water and fear of small boats. I tried to organize paddle boating downtown and actually walked right by the place but the family schedule didnt allow for the excursion. I guess in hindsight, taking a 3.5 year old and a toddler on a mini-boat that they both would attempt to jump out of is probably not the best idea. But it looked both so scary and so much fun. Perhaps another time.

I also wanted to learn to drive a friend's family motor boat and try to water ski. Something that also didnt pan out but maybe will make a future appearance as an add in over the next two months.

My list of remaining ideas include: white water rafting, yoga-lates (thats yoga and Pilates in one), becoming fluent in Hebrew, traveling to New Zealand (and a score of other places for that matter), mosaic art studio classes professionally, zumba class and the slew of things I was turned down for during the year: volunteering at the aquarium and zoo, serving as a park or forest ranger, bartending and more.

So what will next month hold? Hopefully whitewater rafting and some rough rapids either in CO or WV. I hear there are great places in both. And August still undecided but Im taking recommendations for my final frontier. I forgot to mention in the middle of this all, we are planning a move to a nearby abode so on top of this, I am also contacting moving companies, dealing with realtors and finding the shock of relocating once again (albeit local but still) yet another adventure to pile on top.

Hopefully things will iron out smoothly and some calm will return to my life once again. I guess thats probably an unrealistic hope with two kids under the age of four but some calmer waters on the horizon, I suppose, is fair to request.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guest Blog Post for Mayyim Hayyim from Self Care Month

A Moment to Myself

Women go to the mikveh for many reasons. For most, it is seen as a monthly ritual to purify oneself in living waters, mayyim hayyim, after menstruation and preparation for physical reunification with a spouse. I think many women look at the mikveh as a monthly chore, another appointment to fit in to an already busy life, and the last step before they reunite with their husbands.

As someone who came to Jewish observance in college, I always associated the mikveh as a secret kept between Jewish women, the place everyone knows you go to, but no one asks about. In fact, I always find it the biggest surprise when I run into a friend at the mikveh. Your eyes meet each other, perhaps smile and nod, and then go back to your own space.

I view my visits to the mikveh as an encounter with nature, a time for me to pencil myself into the weekly hustle and bustle and immerse in rainwater. I admit, between working, traveling, caring for the kids and fitting in holidays, I often find the scheduling of an appointment grueling. But I find that if I can just make the time to go, once I get there, I can finally relax and focus on the moment. A time to care for myself—not just in a physical way but in both a spiritual and emotional manner as well. In fact, I no longer fear the need to visit a mikveh when I am on vacation or visiting family. I enjoy researching new communities, finding out-of-the way mikvaot and making the time to escape the family retreat or hotel of a foreign city to explore into the night. Some of my fondest memories of travel occur on my visits to mikvaot around the world.

It was one of these vacations that recently brought me back to my hometown of Boston and Mayyim Hayyim. To visit a mikveh so gentle on the eyes and calming to the spirit is refreshing. Every aspect of the mikveh was well thought out and planned to be a relaxing experience, from the building design to the fluffy towels. Users are invited to open the bor cap and let in the rainwater directly prior to immersion. I just took in all that surrounded me. A deep breath in and a minute to myself. It’s like stepping into another place in time where everything you’ve been rushing to or from just stops.

To me, the most powerful moment of my immersion experience was being allowed to spend a few minutes alone in the waters by myself. I was left surrounded by the stillness of the night and holiness of my act. It was as if time was standing still and I could finally quiet my mind and focus on coming closer to myself.

Jen Singer works in environmental consulting and lives in Silver Spring, MD with her husband, Steve and their two children, Ma’ayan and Aviv. Follow Jen on Twitter @jenluftigsinger.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Into the Deep

Anyone who knows me really well will know that I have a slight obsession with water. I love rain. I love Seattle. I love gray weather when you bundle up and carry and umbrella and venture out into the world. I like traveling, snorkeling, swimming, beaches and the ocean. But the issue that has always scared me, just a little, ok a whole lot, is that of boats.

I have taken the ferry from the Cape to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket like any true Bostonian. I've been out on a few motor boats while friends water ski but I usually sit right up front, near the driver and love being a bit away from the water's edge. I have even been out in a canoe a time or two. But every time I get into the smaller boats, I start looking around for some kind of creature to jump out at me. Maybe I've watched Jaws too many times as a kid or read "Is There A Loch Ness Monster" a little too closely. It was honestly one of my favorite books growing up.

So for my 10th month, I have decided to tackle my fear of deep water. Since I plan to fulfill my lifelong dream (so far) of going whitewater rafting during one of my two remaining future months, I figured overcoming this obstacle would be a good place to start.

Since it has been almost 10 years since I last sat in a kayak, the last being one of my earliest dates with my husband back when we were young kids exploring Boston together, I decided it was time to return to the deep water. I did some asking around and came upon Jack's Boathouse in Georgetown on the waterfront in Washington, DC. A good friend came along to share in the experience of water deluge and take a few photos to prove my accomplishment (and survival).

We drove to the boathouse, got geared up in life vests and went off to pay for our excursion. Just as we finished filling out the paperwork, you know where you sign your life away if some sea creature eats you or you capsize and dont make it back to civilization and release the boat people from the responsibility of keeping you safe, we were told a storm was coming and they were no longer letting boats go out. These people had no idea how hard it was to find a Sunday when my husband was off from work and could watch the kids, find an hour when the kids were both sleeping to lessen the burden on him and find a friend to also have the same stars align, drive downtown, find nearby parking and get to the boathouse ready to go. Lucky for us, ten minutes later, they decided to allow folks to go out for one hour stints but we were instructed to return once the rain started to fall. No rain and no storm, we were finally on our way.

Next we boarded our double kayak, double since we decided it was more stable of a boat than a single and also because of the reality that neither of us really knew what we were doing so it was likely that we would quickly drift apart in the water should we have selected separate boats. I have to admit that I didnt expect a long instructional class, but being a newbie to kayaking or at least somewhat removed from my previous kayaking experiences, I was hoping for some reminders on how to row. Nope. Nothing. We were handed some oars, pushed off into the water and on our own.

I was calmer than I expected but still not totally relaxed. First, I was worried about turning over and falling in. Then I was scared we were going to get caught in the wake of the motor boats going by. I became more confident that the ducks sticking their heads out of the water weren't going to eat me and once I realized anything in the water would be too small to make a dent in the boat, I started to chill out a bit. I did get concerned that we'd forget our way back to the boathouse and no one would know where we were. I should fess up that I'm pretty technology obsessed, between facebook, twitter, blogs and email, I try to stay fairly in tune and awake to the world around me. And here was, in this tiny little boat, with another pal with NO CELL PHONE. I had a camera and my car keys, two very useful objects when lost at sea.

Needless to say, I survived. I have to be honest and say it wasn't the most relaxed I've been but then again this project isn't about finding my comfort zone. Its about pushing myself to own up to my fears, tracking down some of the minor goals I've had along the way and taking back my life in a way every motherless daughter should. I can't say I'm a pro but I am bit less worked up inside when the thought of a boat crosses my mind. Sort of makes my dream of living in a houseboat off the coast of Seattle a little more of a reality. Call me a hopeless romantic but its true my friend. Always been my dream. Just a little obstacle in the way but after today, I'd say that wall is coming down a bit. Know a good place to scuba? May be next on my list.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Putting Up the Pedestal

A few weeks ago I was at what has become my small family's annual reunion over Memorial Day weekend.... Out on the back porch at night with my siblings and our spouses, nothing but stars in the sky to light the way. I started to think about what my life has been like, and how my relationship with my father is probably much stronger than most other children who grew up with both parents.

From prom dress shopping to spring break vacations and more, we have formed a strong bond that is often hard to describe. While growing up with my siblings, as the third child, I was certainly the baby of the family. Always receiving direction, support and inspiration from my older sibs. And while we didnt have all the fancy toys many kids of our time did or exotic sleep away camps to attend, we did have the weekly pizza take out and summer weeks at the Cape. College tuition was paid for in full without us having to take loans and he was always running the carpool shuttle to and from sports, drama, Hebrew school and more. Playdates and sleepovers, birthday parties and Montessori school.

When I think now to the challenges I face with a husband in residency, living far from family and a crazy work/home/religious life schedule, I have great awe and admiration for my dad. Not only did he encourage homework and extracurricular activities and art classes at the museum or summer classes for my siblings, but he somehow was able to afford food, clothes, social activities and more. All on one salary, working 50-60 hours a week, shuttling kids, living with his mother in law and raising 3 young kids, two cats and a dog.

Sure, we didnt have a fancy house. No fancy cars or shmancy clothing like some of the cool kids in school. Didnt have the healthiest diet (we got to eat sugary cereals that at the time I thought was pretty cool) and also faced lots of comments from friends.... I still remember being told once in Hebrew school that someone's mom thought I wore too much makeup or that other parents didnt think we had enough supervision during play dates since it was my nana watching us and not a mom. I remember being instructed by my teachers in elementary school on how to adjust the mother's day card to make it suitable for my nana and asked if I had anyone at home who could chaperone my field trip.

You know what, I never went hungry. I was always schooled in taking my classes seriously and making the most of my academic career. Always pushed to look up a word I didnt know and couldnt spell. My Judaism was instilled in me at an early age, attending Hebrew school from K-12 on the weekends or at night after school. An investment that has shaped the person I have become.

So sure, we can look back and miss a mother figure, someone we put up on a pedestal as the perfect person. I remember the way my heart sank when I was in my mid-20's and found out that my mother was a smoker. Something my father still does to this day. How could she? What right did she have to limit her life anymore from us? But the more I thought about it, I realized it only upset me so much because it made her more human and less porcelain like as a doll on my shelf, the way I used to look at her framed photos at night.

She was a real person, real wants, real faults. I am sure we wouldve fought in my teenage years and who knows if she wouldve approved of all of my social choices over the years. Maybe she wouldve been frustrated when I became religiously observant, keeping kosher and shabbat, doing things differently than the way my parents raised me. But I also know, looking at my baby boy who is now 15 months, one month older than I was when she passed, that she molded me, that I clung to her, recognized her voice and raised my arms when she came to greet me in the morning from my crib. Memories I unfortunately never had. But something is therapeutic to me in looking at my kids now and being so thankful that as hectic and crazy as it was, my dad kept it all together for us. To the point that I didnt really realize that I was so different. So much that when I went to college, I forgot to tell some of my closest friends that I grew up without a mom. Everyone knew in my childhood and I didnt realize it was something critical to share.

I hope I can provide my kids with the stability, security and love rooted in family and Judaism to show them the same respect and dignity that was shown to me. My dad always told me he had two choices, to let it break him or to pick up and go on. As simple as that sounds, I have always held that sentiment close to me. Some people choose to go through life looking at their glass half empty. Look what happened to me? Look what I missed out on? Woe is me. I made a decision a long time ago, that wasnt my road in life. You have to take what you get and go your own way. Mold your life into one that you want. Stop waiting for things to be handed to you or for everything to work out just so. You cant walk around life with a chip on your shoulder. These thoughts only hold you back. If youre not happy with the way things are, make it better for yourself and someone else. You cant pick the life you were given but you can choose how to mold it in your own way.

"Your keep your heart above your head and your eyes wide open, so this world can't find a way to leave you cold, and know youre not the only ship out in the ocean, save your strength for things that you can change, forgive the ones you can't, you gotta let 'em go.

Looking back now on my life, I cant say I regret it. And all the places that I ended up not the way Ma wouldve had it. But you only get one chance at life to leave your mark upon it. And when a pony comes riding by you better sit your sweet @$& on it."

--Zac Brown Band, "Let It Go"

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Last Haul

So how is it that its already June? Public speaking is behind me, thank g-d, and I am coming down to the wire. The last three months have arrived. Many have asked what I plan to do when this is all over. Will I feel relieved? Have all this free time.

So the truth is, I have given some thought to the time after. Will I write a book? Will I start doing private energy efficiency consulting for synagogues in the area? Will I just go back to my normal crazy part time work schedule during normal business hours rather than this adding in time at night and on the weekends to fit in my blog projects? Will the pressure of figuring out my life's professional goals and fears to overcome every month be lifted off me when this is all said and done?

Ive gotten pretty good (as you can see) with drafting a list of questions to answer. And maybe thats how I will spend my first month post-year 32, lets call it year 33 for the sake of this discussion, contemplating these issues. At the end of the day though, people really just want to know if I will keep blogging. And to that I can say that I believe I will. There is something therapeutic to putting down my thoughts and just releasing it into the world as they say. I dont think I can sustain a new every something per month but I can continue to let everyone into my world of balancing craziness on a string and somehow remain standing most of the time.

So for my remaining few months, I have a goal to go whitewater rafting which was supposed to take place in June, as in now, somewhere probably in West Virginia. I hear Harper's Ferry is a wonderful spot. That is, until we booked the last minute family trip to Colorado in July due to my husband's wonderful (read ridiculously frustrating) schedule change in the 9th hour. In fact, we found out about his availability on the night before we had to give final notice of our daughter's enrollment for summer camp and were luckily able to cancel the week at the last second.

Anyway once CO entered the picture, I have now started to think that Rocky Mountain rafting sounds a whole lot better. But that would be for July.... leaving me project-less for June. I do have other ideas kicking around though such as overcoming my fear of deep water. I would be fine on a cruise ship (though Ive never been) or a ferry (lots of trips there)... but the smaller canoe type or motor boats in deep water have always frightened me. Perhaps I saw JAWS too many times as a kid. That and the Perfect Storm are enough to keep me awake for hours.

So now I am trying to locate some boating options, through friends and word of mouth and schedule a few expeditions to tackle this fear. That still leaves me with the final month and I have no idea how to end this year long expedition. Good thing I have a bit more time on my hands. Speaking of time, Im off to bed but more good things are coming right around the corner---I can feel it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guest Blog for COEJL

Repairing the World through Green Synagogues

by Jen Singer, COEJL guest blogger

Growing up in a reform Jewish household, I was always committed to tikkun olam (repairing the world). I spent my years in college and graduate school pursuing environmental studies and doing what I could to improve the environment around me. From setting up a campus-wide recycling program at Brandeis to working with local communities in the Boston area on greenhouse gas emissions inventories and reduction plans, I have always viewed my responsibility to protect natural resources as an extension of my Judaism.

Since joining the Orthodox community in college, I have sought to apply my love of the environment to my Jewish halahic (legal) observance. In a world of strict adherence to the mitzvot (commandments), making the case for greening the planet has not always been an easy road.

It’s hard enough for families and individuals committed to a strictly kosher and shomer Shabbat lifestyle to find the time or the financial resources to buy organic or install state of the art technology to “go green.” But being environmentally conscious can also be both an investment in the health and wellbeing of your family, and fiscally beneficial in terms of offsetting healthcare costs and drastically reducing utility bills (even without installing solar panels and driving an electric car).

When I joined Ohev Sholom—The National Synagogue with my husband in 2007, I was looking for a way to contribute to this fast growing community of committed individuals. Starting a green group and creating environmental goals to lessen our environmental footprint over time seemed like the normal progression for someone with my background.

In 2007, we started a basic recycling program, gathering paper from the staff offices and collecting bottles and cans from our weekly Kiddush lunch. In 2008, we had an informal energy audit by the Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, which identified a number of energy efficient challenges facing the synagogue. Since then, we have made a commitment to focus on low cost and no cost efforts by replacing our incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents and retrofitting our outdated exit signs with light emitting diode (LED) counterparts. We also switched to environmentally friendly cleaners and installed our first low flow toilet.

It is important to note that our efforts extend beyond physical changes. In 2010, we launched an environmental education campaign aimed at children and their families using the holidays as a basis for our teachings. We held a Tu B’shvat seder and organized an arts and crafts booth at our annual Purim carnival to make recycled mishloach manot containers.

Yet we remain committed to increasing energy efficiency and decreasing the environmental footprint of our facility. While our previous audit identified some basic improvements, we had no baseline of our energy consumption and could not establish reduction targets. Falling on my expertise, we turned to ENERGY STAR’s Portfolio Manager tool. We collected the minimum of a year’s worth of energy data for all fuels (and later added data from 2008-2011) as well as some basic space characteristics about the synagogue including the square footage, number of computers and more.

Portfolio Manager provides a 1-100 rating of energy performance and facilities earning a score of 75 or higher are eligible to apply to earn the ENERGY STAR label, indicating that they are performing amongst the top 25% of similar buildings across the country. Soon we found out that Ohev Shalom earned the label AND became the first synagogue in the country awarded this distinction. We are overjoyed with our accomplishment and inspired to do more. We plan to build upon our efforts and demonstrate that Orthodox Judaism takes the responsibility to be shomrim (guardians) of the environment seriously. Our hope is to serve as a role model for others in the Jewish community and I personally welcome the opportunity to work with other synagogues to take that vital first step.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

So when I signed up for this month of public speaking, I was figuring on having weeks to prepare for my big speech, lots of prep time practicing and a huge cool down after. Not at all my experience.

I signed up for my dvar torah a few weeks in advance (you do know how hard it is to plan anything with someone in residency), wrote the speech four days before and spent a few days trying to edit, memorize and deliver my talk.

I did have a dry run at the synagogue the day before and some wonderful friends and family who provided feedback and listened as I droned on with my text again and again. By the time came for the big day, I felt ready. Not sure if I was ready to talk or ready to just get it over with. Probably the latter if Im being honest.

Part of my anxiety was not knowing if my husband would be home to help with the kids that Saturday in the morning at home or during the actual talk. Once we got clearance for him to switch shifts, it was then hard to figure out who could watch the kids so he could hear me speak. Next it was waiting to find out when I was going to speak as we used to have talks in the middle of services but have recently pushed them to the end. Once I heard the end was my place, I settled back into my seat and began reviewing my notes.

When the time came, I walked slowly to my place and took a deep breath. I have to say it was somehow easier for me to look out at the faces in the crowd that I did not know then to focus on those I had in my circle of friends. Strange I suppose but I guess I figured that they didnt know me yet or what time and effort I had put in so it was up to me to deliver my words in a way that gave them a sense of myself and to open up their worlds to the green side.

I shook a bit inside and tried to think of all those who came before me to share their thoughts in this holy place. I also tried to think about how proud of myself I would be, here in month 9 of this blog project, putting my money where my mouth is, that is, to finally use my mouth to spread my love of the environment and tell all members of my community about my blog project.

When it was all said and done, I received such wonderful feedback face to face, via email and calls from members of the synagogue who heard me in person or read my speech on the internet. I felt so supported and so proud of all that I had accomplished. I then had to turn around and talk again at our ENERGY STAR plaque ceremony a few days later before a smaller group of environmental organization reps and some congregants. With the main talk behind me, I felt more ready to take that next step.

I am happy to say that I raised my voice and put my thoughts on the table for all to see. Not sure Im going to make this a regular thing, but certainly it will no longer be a barrier to sharing my opinions with others. I am looking forward to savoring the last three months of this project. Some ideas include whitewater rafting, learning to drive a motor boat (overcoming my fear of deep water), and more.

See you all next month under the sea.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Dvar Torah (Speech) from Ohev Sholom Today

Parshat Behar

I have to admit I have a deep fear of public speaking. While I have gotten in front of a crowd on a few occasions, I am not a huge fan. So why is it that I am standing before you today?

Nine months ago, I turned 32, the age of my own mother when she died. I was merely 14 months old. Turning 32 has become this age, in my mind, that I have always come to fear AND one that has led me to a crossroads in my life.

This year, I decided to launch a blog project, called year 32, where every month I would select a professional goal to meet or a fear to overcome and blog about it, to share my experiences with family and friends. I have had the fortune of spending the past 8 months shadowing a professional pastry chef, volunteering at a local flower shop, overcoming my fear of heights while ziplining in Rock Creek forest and more. And now, for month 9, here I am, coming before you all, to stare my fear of public speaking in the face. If only I could imagine everyone in their underwear. I suppose that’s too much to ask, even for an open orthodox shul, such as our congregation.

But in all seriousness, today I want to share with you a topic that is very near and dear to my heart: the environment. Coming from a home of chemical engineers, a love the environment and a fear of toxic chemicals was instilled in me at an early age. I have spent years dedicated to making a cleaner and healthier environment for those around me from designing a campus-wide recycling program as an undergrad at Brandeis to earning a master’s in urban and environmental policy at Tufts.

I come before you NOT just to talk about what I have spent my life doing to preserve and defend the environment, but for us as a community, to be able to explore together, what the environment has to do with Judaism, this week’s parsha and our shul’s responsibility.

Lets start with the first question. What does Judaism have to say about the environment? The law of baal tashchit, do not destroy, appears in devarim 20 verses 19-20. Our sages teach us that hashem created the world and all of its contents for humans to both rule over and guard. During biblical times, these passages were interpreted to relate specifically to times of war where we learn that when you wage war against a city, you must not destroy its fruit bearing trees. However, in rabbinic times, these same verses are interpreted to teach the importance of refraining from any kind of destruction. It also comes to teach us that winning the war cannot be our only consolation. We have to think about what we are doing to the world around us, as we are fighting this war and what kind of environment we will be left with, after all is said and done.

Sefer hahinuch, a 13th century text, written by an anonymous Spanish author, explains in mitzvah 529, that the purpose of the mitzvah of baal tashchit is to cling to that which is good and to avoid destruction altogether. While our text in devarim refers to fruit bearing trees, Sefer Hahinuch takes this to the next level saying that not so much as a mustard seed should be wasted or spoiled. This law comes to teach us that in order to become righteous people, we should become distraught at any spoilage or destruction that occurs in our midst lest we become a wicked people unaffected by wasted resources.

There are many other halachot related to environmental protection including baal hachaim (preserving animal rights) and those included in this week’s parsha. So let us explore my next question:

What is the role of the environment and our responsibility to protect it. In this week’s parsha, Parshat Behar, literally on the mountain, takes us through the conversations between hashem and moshe. We learn of the obligation of the shmitah year, where every 7th year the land of Israel is to be given a complete agricultural rest, and of the yovel or jubilee year, where every 50th year, neither the land nor the vineyards can be worked, slaves are freed, and property is returned to their original owners.

To me it seems such a straightforward and simple idea, that if we put so much demand on our land, our animals and our natural resources, that at some point, they too, need a time to recharge and recuperate from all that we demand. And yet we are surrounded, by so many in the Jewish world, who still believe that the land is OURS to conquer and that the link between environmentalism and being mindful of our consumption of natural resources is not of Jewish origin. Let alone a halachic or Jewish legal obligation upon us.

I recognize that it is not always easy to make choices that lessen our impact on the environment and have to admit, that I am a recovering vegetarian and that I do wear leather shoes. But I try to buy organic produce, dairy and meat where possible and I only use environmentally-friendly and non-toxic cleaners. I carpool when I can, and I try to use less energy at home through computer management software, changing light bulbs to lower wattages and turning off lights when not in use. I know sometimes the costs of organic groceries or healthy cleaners may place a burden upon already stressed financial resources, especially for those committed to keeping a strictly kosher lifestyle or pursing private Jewish education for our children.

I choose to view these choices as making an investment. I pay more for healthier and non-toxic products as part of making an investment in my health and the wellbeing of my family. Perhaps we will save on healthcare down the road and we will keep our bodies free of toxic chemicals. But also we are preventing animals from being fed antibiotics AND kept in inhumane conditions and preventing water pollution from the runoff of pesticides on agricultural lands.

I constantly ask myself if I am I doing everything in my power to respect all that g-d has given me? Am I realistic about how much I need or how much I can donate to others? Do I apply my ethical actions of how to treat people to my expectations and demands of kosher meat producers and agricultural growers? Am I raising my voice loud enough by carefully selecting which companies I support with my wallet?

It is with these thoughts that I turn to my third and final topic for discussion here today. What is the responsibility of our community, of our shul, to protect and demonstrate our commitment to be shomrim, or guards of the environment? I have dedicated my life to studying the impacts of climate change on cities and local communities. I work in environmental consulting improving the energy efficiency of commercial buildings across the country. And while there are great politics surrounding the science of climate change, I firmly believe that the cost of inaction and our halachic responsibility TO ACT is far TOO great to sit back and wait. We humans are consuming more than we need and we do place unnecessary pressures on the natural ecosystems. We are causing air pollution NOT just with our cars, but with the energy we consume in our homes and our offices. I ask you today to please put the politics aside, regardless of your political affiliation or your love/hate relationship with tofu and focus on what WE can do as individuals to reduce our impact on the environment.

When Steve and I first came to this shul in 2007, 6 months pregnant with Ma’ayan, we met with the rabbi and he looked us straight in the eyes and said, welcome to ohev sholom, what can YOU offer the shul. The first thing that came to my mind was to start a green group, carve out a basic recycling program and set a goal of making this sacred space both safer and healthier while also lessening our environmental footprint over time.

Since 2007, we have built upon our small paper and bottle recycling system to now include a switch to environmentally-healthy and kid friendly cleaners throughout the synagogue, a retrofit from incandescent to compact fluorescent lightbulbs and an energy audit of our facility. But we have not stopped there. We are examining opportunities to reduce waste from Kiddush lunch by purchasing greener disposables, exploring a composting program and planting a garden with our children to beautify this space in a natural manner.

I am proud to announce that through our management of energy resources, we have officially become the first synagogue in the country to earn the energy star label for a house of worship. Joining 16 churches and soon to be the first mosque, we have met this goal NOT by purchasing fancy electric cars, or installing solar panels on our roof (wonderful as they may be), but through the simple, low cost, and no cost measures of assessing our energy bills, and making operational decisions to minimize waste, such as holding daily minyan in the chapel, rather than the sanctuary and using window air conditioning units for staff offices, so as to not cool the whole sanctuary or the entire top floor of the shul, for the comfort of a few, during business hours.

Let me provide a bit of background about the energy star program. Energy star is a joint effort of the environmental protection agency and the department of energy, that offers a label certification for both buildings and products. Most people are aware that your television or computer can have energy star certification. But energy star also has a buildings program including residential, commercial and industrial facilities.

As a house of worship, we fall under the congregations network of energy star. In order to qualify for this prestigious award, we collected a year’s worth of energy data for all fuel types, as well as some basic space characteristics such as our square footage, the number of refrigerator/freezer units, computers and more.

I have spent months working with the rabbi, jeff, carol and mike to locate these pieces of information and input them into energy star’s free online tool called portfolio manager. This tool provides a 1-100 score for energy performance and facilities that earn a score of 75 or higher are eligible to apply for the energy star label. Based on our management actions and conservation efforts thus far, our synagogue earned an energy performance score of 75. I should note that we could not have achieved this accomplishment without the assistance of Richard Reis, a professional engineer and member of the Washington ethical society, who volunteered his time to provide the required third party verification of our application, certifying that our data is an honest record of our size and consumption.

Being the national synagogue and all, it only added drama to the process when we learned that we had officially become the first synagogue in the country to earn this distinction. While many other shuls of all denominations have earned prestigious awards for their environmental activism and efficiency efforts, none have earned the energy star label.

While I am proud of our accomplishments, I have to be honest and say, we still have a long way to go. We still have more lights to replace and windows to reseal and recaulk and so much more that can be done. In fact, we have just begun to replace our outdated exit signs with LED high efficiency bulbs. A small sign that has a huge impact. And I should point out that energy is only one piece of the puzzle. We just installed new low flow hand washing sinks downstairs which you will notice when you go downstairs for lunch.

And we are taking efforts to educate our children about our greening efforts as well. A few months ago, I had the privilege to join with our youth director, Sarah Shapiro, to lead a Tu B’shvat seder for our kids and oversaw an arts and crafts table during the Purim carnival where we made recycled mishloach manot containers. Through these examples, I witnessed first hand, the impact of our shul’s greening program on our children. To them, treading lightly comes naturally. From being reminded not to waste their breakfast food to being gentle to the animals and plants we see outside, we have so much to learn from our children about caring for the earth.

Ohev has reached a milestone for Jewish communities across the country but we must keep our head Behar, on the mountain, so that we remember our obligation to hashem and to each other. To take only what we need and to make sure that what we take, is taken in a way that lessens its impact on the environment and on each other. I ask that you join me and Ohev in bringing our greening initiatives home with you today. You may ask what can I do to get involved?

Here is a list of a few things I came up with and you can feel free to add your own:

You can start by performing a home energy audit. Replacing incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents, using timers on Shabbat for lights and hotplates, installing dimmer switches or removing lights altogether when not needed. Turn off the water when brushing teeth, take shorter showers or bathe the kids together to save on water. Buy organic where possible, carpool to work and school, take public transportation and start reading the newspaper electronically. We all have so many decisions we make on a daily basis that impact the environment around us. It is up to us to decide how much pollution we put into the atmosphere by controlling our electricity and natural gas consumption, preventing water and paper waste and removing toxic chemicals from our homes and food supply. Let Ohev be our shared starting point. But please, for the sake of our children, take a piece home with you, here today.

ENERGY STAR has provided us with some free brochures for the grownups on how you can join Ohev on lessening your impact. We also have Lorax coloring books for the kids. Both are located on the table outside the sanctuary for you to take home. Make your commitment to guard the earth and keep it holy and be a light unto the nations. Not just in our daily minyanim, kashrut and Shabbat observances and but in our obligation to reduce our impact on this gift of a planet, we have been given. I welcome your feedback and your support as we embrace this honor and invite you to join me and the synagogue staff at our energy star plaque presentation this Monday at 2:30pm in the chapel. Please keep an eye out for the plaque which will be on display for all to see in the near future and hopefully this plaque will serve as a reminder to both our commitment and our obligation to tread lightly.

Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day

Every year around this time, I start looking forward to mother's day. Not for the bought gifts and fancy plans but for the homemade arts and crafts my big girl brings home from pre-school so proud and for the secretive planning my husband starts working on weeks in advance.

For those who know me, I am apparently a bit hard to keep a secret from. That combined with the fact that I work from home and pretty much know where everything is and recognize hidden items, makes me a challenging person to surprise. However, I love surprises. So my husband has taken to unexpected homemade dinners and other neat treats to allow us to celebrate this special day each year.

Today we had a family made dinner of a pizza bubble ring (sounds as cool as it is to eat), veggies and a special treat to finish it off. It was fun making the food with our kids and spending time together as a family. I also enjoyed a few hours off on my own to clear my head and walk around downtown.

Its always days like this when I think about my own mother and my recent trip to her grave in Massachusetts when we were in Boston for Passover. I have secretly always loved going to her cemetery, not just because I get to visit with her and my dear nana, may they rest in peace, but also because they are buried in a field surrounded by beautiful calming trees in a park of only plaques in the ground. Headstones have always bothered me, like people competing for attention and showing off their worldly possessions even after they have passed on. There is something soothing about seeing nature around us and knowing they are there underground with only a simple stone plaque surrounded by chirping birds and swaying trees.

I have also begun working on my May project which is overcoming my fear of public speaking. I have to get up in front of my entire synagogue next shabbat morning (that's 285 families worth of folks) and share my blog project and discuss my recent successes during my month of service where our synagogue won a very prestigious greening award. I keep asking myself what is it that makes me so fearful. Is it the people----no. The announcement of our award---no. Perhaps its the fear of opening up in such an active fashion. Unlike writing my blog or being featured in articles (check out this coming week's Washington Jewish Week for example), public speaking not only lets your voice be heard when you are sharing your emotions, but also requires you to show your face, your expressions to those around you. What if they reject what I say? What if they wanted me to say something else?

Its days like these when I am encompassed by the love of my family in a day-long extravaganza,that I remind myself that its ok to be loved, that its ok to let others show you what you mean to them, and that its ok to share who I am with others. Its the famous adage "better to have loved than lost than never to have loved at all" that is keeping me going. I wouldn't be me if I didn't lose my mom and I wouldn't be having this amazing year of experiences and internal struggles if I didn't set out a goal for myself to push myself to face these fears. Its game time as they say and I'm ready to rumble. Here goes nothing.....

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Caring for the Self

So April hasn't exactly gone as planned. This month was supposed to be about learning how to bartend, mix drinks, man the crowds. Projects were lined up and canceled at the last minute, much to my disappointment and dismay. But the show must go on.

We all know my dreams of shadowing an aquarium animal specialist/diver or a zoo keeper for a month didn't work out. And believe me, I tried. I called the National Aquarium in Washington, DC, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD, and the National Zoo in DC. They all have, get this, a 100 hour minimum volunteer policy and a time frame of at least a year. Unless you are a college student with free Sundays or a retiree, who else is eligible to volunteer for you? Why is it so hard to just go and watch someone do their job and learn about it? I would love to have someone come and shadow me for a day and see how the consulting world works or how to manage two kids under the age of four for thirty hours alone. And how does the aquarium or zoo know if I could be one of those undercover millionaires like they show on TV looking to donate. Trust me, if I could get in there for a few days and just watch them work, I'd be more than happy to make a small donation to their organization. Free labor and money, who in this day and age would turn that down?

Guess there is something to be said for television cameras.

Anyway, so in between planning May's public speaking extravaganza which is turning out to be quite a handful, I decided to dedicate April to self care. A friend of mine recently did 31 days of self care for the month of March and that inspired me. When do I have time for a pedicure? To go shopping for a new dress for the Passover holiday? It was also about celebrating the experience of being a woman. I had my eye brows done for the first time in 32 years. Something most of my friends began in high school! I bought some new eco-friendly and non-toxic make up. Formaldehyde-free nail polish and mascara that doesn't contain tar. Yes, ladies, read your labels. I had my haircut per my semi-annual schedule into a new style and even ordered some new curl gel. A lady can dream of curl control, can't she?

But the highlight of my month so far, which is quickly coming to an end, has been a visit to such a beautiful Jewish ritual bathhouse (also known as a mikveh in the Jewish world) in my hometown of Boston, MA. Actually, Mayyim Hayyim is located in Newton, MA and is just a wonderfully designed and warm place for women to experience such an elevated act. For the many reasons people turn to the mikveh, monthly rituals or other life cycle events, this mikveh elevates those moments in its beauty, design and peaceful presence. Stay tuned for more on my experience at Mayyim Hayyim when I serve as a guest blog on their website coming soon.

And alas, May is creeping into my mind with next week's arrival. I have a public d'var torah (speech during a Saturday shabbat service) at my synagogue planned for May 14th and another for Ohev's plaque presentation for earning the ENERGY STAR label on May 16th. I am also working on an article for the Brandeis magazine on my baking shadow month, a guest blog on Mayyim Hayyim and another guest blog for the Committee on Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) based on my ENERGY STAR accomplishments with Ohev. Did I mention we are the first synagogue in the USA to earn this distinction? Very cool indeed. So, already as you can see, I will sure have my hands full next month. With a few days left in April, maybe its time for me to slip into some cozy slippers and have a hot cup of tea to take in the relaxation before the fear of public speaking becomes my next task to tackle in front of a huge crowd of people in their underwear (if only).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Onward and upward

Dear Blog,

I haven't forgotten about you. Nor my steep task at hand. I have been working so hard on so many projects, sometimes I fear I have bitten off more than I can chew. Here I am, less than a week before Passover, and in between the plane trip planning to Boston (Go Red Sox!) and the hustle and bustle of work, here I am in the throws of April with my blog project screaming for attention.

I will not let April become the forgotten month. Progress will be made. Bartending is the theme for April and with two wonderful bartenders at my service, I have gigs lined up for Saturday and Sunday nights of this week alone. How much serving I can do is still yet to be determined due to liability and regulations. But the fun of being in the bar, learning from the masters at hand and helping where possible, entices me. The loud music and flashing lights of a club always result in a good time but to me, a hometown Boston gal, the appeal of the local bar with the folks relaxing to laid back tunes is also a fine environment. More on the bar scene to come.

For now, I am typing away trying to make a deadline to be featured in Brandeis Magazine as part of an issue featuring food. My baking month is being highlighted for efforts shadowing an alum. I am also working on pulling together a plaque presentation for my synagogue's ENERGY STAR certification and coordinating May as public speaking month where I grapple on several occasions with my fear of speaking before a crowd, both large and small. But alas, I am ahead of myself.

So fear not, I am busying myself with all this all encompassing assignment and remaining true to this project in my 8th month. Passover in all of its glory will not delay the departure of this train. I will fit in serving a few beers, or watching drinks be served and learning more of the behind the scenes of the bartenders world. So off I go in my scheduling, writing and planning. The plane tripping and family consumption of the mandatory matzah will be mixed in as well. Perhaps the mix of Passover and bartending has a real connection underneath it all. You know, the 4 cups of wine being served by someone else at the table to signify royalty to a people who were once slaves. A night out at the bar made complete by a tender serving up a frosted glass bottle or a fruity drink with an umbrella to celebrate a night out with friends.

So the blog world continues and so shall our relationship. If not for another 4 months or so. Then who knows what will become of these thoughts, these experiences and these dreams once I hit 33. Perhaps a book. Perhaps a slip back into the every day life. Perhaps a continuation of finding my niche in this crazy world of possibilities. What I do know is that I am getting ahead of myself. Its only April and spring is still deciding whether it wants to come this week. August seems so far away so I will remain with my clinking glasses and bowls of snacks and prep for my upcoming night at the bar.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Food for Thought

Finally a volunteer opportunity came my way that allowed me to help the homeless in my community. I have been calling soup kitchens and food banks for the last three weeks. I understand most of these places are staffed by volunteers themselves who work on part time schedules, but when people are calling to literally show up and help in any way they can, it is so critical that these organizations are there to return those calls and open their doors to people.

After some deep searching and a few wonderful recommendations, I stumbled upon Manna Food Center located in Gaithersberg, MD. Not only did I have an email response back from their volunteer coordinator the next day, but I was invited to volunteer for various days and times the same week I contacted them. Manna is a non-profit aid organization that donates food to families in need, senior citizens and people with disabilities all around Montgomery County (thats just outside DC for those distanced folks reading).

Happy to have a dear friend volunteer with me, we settled on a date and time and showed up to be greeted by a volunteer in the warehouse. Large pallets of every kind of food from rotisserie chickens to birthday cakes were spread out, ceiling to floor, throughout the warehouse. We were escorted into the back to sign in, put on plastic disposable gloves and assist with bagging collard greens. Food is donated from various types of organizations from processed food vendors providing boxes of crackers and cookies to local supermarkets with left over packaged salads and sandwiches which went unsold that day or the day before in their aisles.

We bagged collard greens for about an hour, taking large handfuls and stuffing them into plastic disposable bags. When full, we passed our bags to a man with a large shopping cart who tied the bags and distributed them to the food boxes. The cases of collard greens were cold since they were put on ice to keep their freshness. Water dripped all over the floor and we sat on milk crates to keep help keep our backs somewhat comfortable as we hunched over to fill our bags.

When we were done, we were directed to the shelves with the food boxes, each filled with a package of rice and a bag of our collard greens and we walked up and down the aisles with a variety of additional items (bunches of broccoli and bananas for example) to add to them. I noticed that certain boxes received more food than others depending on where it was located on the shelf. It was hard to see what the boxes on the top shelves already had and the lower shelves were simply easier to fill.

It started me thinking that if I was in the situation where I needed to rely on a place like Manna for food, I would hope to have a lower box handed to me. That being said, I am certain the recipients of these meals are just so happy to receive something. I did see a lot of the donated fruits and veggies were beyond their prime and many boxes of them were discarded. Some donations like the tofu or ready made supermarket sandwiches were also beyond date so those were sorted through as well. Its nice to know that even people who have nothing still deserve some dignity and food that is clean and in decent condition. That being said, it hurt me to see anything going to waste when we could put one more apple in one more person's basket. Definitely will make me think twice before throwing food away or taking too much on my plate---something I am guilty of on a regular basis.

I sometimes wonder if its a third child syndrome or something. You know, people blame everything that went wrong in their lives on their childhood. I could say that I had two older siblings so I needed to take all the food I thought I could possibly eat at the meal in my first serving to make sure I had enough to eat before everyone else ate all the food. Which if you come to any of our family meals that include my older siblings, this still holds true today. However, I have learned in my own small nucleus of a family, that sometimes waiting to take seconds allows for both a more enjoyable conversation and sometimes the surprise of not really being so hungry for more.

That being said, I think I had a great childhood, complete with a warm and loving family, a nice big backyard surrounded by lots of grass and my elementary school complete with a playground and a pretty decent education. Our childhood is our starting point in life but its what we choose to do with it and where we let it take us that is the most important. To say I couldn't do this or that, only limits me. To say I can try and I can dream, only expands my abilities to become more.

Ok enough ethical mumbo jumbo. I had fun today packing veggies and making food boxes up. I found it especially interesting to see folks lined up inside the lobby of the food center ready to pick up their goods. When I used to live in Jerusalem, I volunteered regularly at a food pantry for Jewish victims of terror and their family. Located in the observant neighborhood of Meah Sharim, Ohr Meir V'Bracha, is a weekly food distribution center where volunteers, mostly yeshiva and seminary high school students, come on a weekly basis to pack food baskets from donated goods and watch as survivors of terror attacks and their families arrive to pick them up (complete with chicken and challah bread for shabbat) as well as deliver goods to survivors unable to pick up their own food.

The organization itself was started by a victim of terror who lost a few children in a bus bombing. She also helps collect financial donations to send children of terror to summer camp and provide for family counseling and cover medical and cost of living expenses. If you are looking for one of the most honest and need-worthy charities in Israel, this is THE place. The difference between the American and Israeli food banks was that the Israeli center met in a parking lot in rain or shine and didnt have fancy loading docks or machinery to load and unload the trucks. They had a mini delivery van or two and rows of baskets. I hear now that they have built a proper office to manage paperwork and even set up a local office in New York to oversee American donations. Regardless of their difference, people are in need and thank g-d these organizations are here to help out where they can.

In honor of today being my mother's birthday, which I somehow forgot to mention in this entire post until now, I really wanted something to do to occupy my time. And ideally something that could just be busy work for a few hours to distract me from the day. My mom died in 1979 at the age of 32, which I believe if my math is correct, would have made today her 64th birthday. It always sort of creeps up on me, her birthday every year. Her death date is a more prominent date in my mind (November 6, Cheshvan 16) since I go to the synagogue and say kaddish for her every year. In addition, my synagogue also has the date of her death on their internal calendar and always happens to send me a letter reminding me that the date of her yahrzeit is upon me and would I like to make a donation on her behalf.

But her birthday always catches me by surprise. I see it as a day that used to be so happy for her and I try every year to look around me for something to smile about on her behalf. Yesterday I bought some pretty orange tulips at Whole Foods. On Monday, I baked banana chocolate chip muffins with Ma'ayan. And today, I went to the food pantry to pack food baskets.

These are some of the things I do to make myself smile at a time when I want to be sad. At a time when I want to mourn the life that once was and the one that was taken away from me when we were both so young. But I have to remember sometimes that this day isn't just about me for my pain. Its for the woman I wasn't afforded the chance to see and to hear and to love in person. I feel like I owe her some happiness and a smile. I do these things to remember her and to keep her memory alive. She bestowed so many wonderful things on this earth, in her family, in the kids she taught, in her love of Judaism. To me, giving to others without being thanked is what I truly believe is the best way to honor the memory of a loved one who has passed on. So tonight, may it be that my actions and my merits be in her honor and on her behalf so that her soul can continue to rise just that little bit higher. Or at the very least, may she look down and smile at the life and the good deeds she has inspired once again.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Month of Service

This month has flown by and I feel like I have done nothing towards my blog project. How is this possible? I am in the midst of month seven and what do I have to show for my efforts? I have put in so much time contacting the aquarium, a park ranger, two soup kitchens and a few bartenders to try and volunteer/shadow with no success.

Well, no success is a little harsh. I have had numerous conversations with the aquarium folks who seem so nice and I would feel so lucky for a few days there. I spoke with one soup kitchen a half hour away since the local down-the-street place apparently does not return phone calls or emails for volunteers but the farther away place has been just delightful and I have a volunteer gig there next week. I came across a few bartending options which included a non-profit catering towards fundraisers and someone local who bar tends on the side looking for someone to assist at a real serving gig. While I loved the idea of hosting a benefit for a brain cancer foundation to raise money and awareness for the disease which took my mother's young life, I can barely find time to work at my volunteer projects, make my work hours and schedule a trip to the grocery store these days. The bartender looking for assistance thought I had some experience and wanted support at a chabad event in DC. Due to my lack of drink coordination beyond the basic rum and coke, I was unable to fulfill that role.

So here I am mid-March and I started wondering how have I been spending my time this month. And suddenly it all came clear. I have been volunteering each week, little by little, but rather than it being a planned monthly excursion as glamorous as my ideas above, I have been quietly fitting in environmental research and support to green my synagogue on a weekly basis. I launched the green committee at my shul when I first moved to the area. Its been a small venture since then, slowly gaining steam through a Tu B'shvat seder, mini recycling program of commingled containers and paper and now has expanded to include an energy efficiency initiative, green purchasing program for cleaning supplies and paper goods and an eco arts table at the purim carnival.

I have input all of the synagogue's energy bills into the EPA/DOE's Portfolio Manager online tool and we have applied to become the first synagogue in the US to earn the ENERGY STAR label for houses of worship. Fifteen churches have earned this distinction but never a synagogue. Its a long story I will not go into here but as a technology-neutral program, Portfolio Manager actually tries to place emphasis not just on those buildings which have the fancy state of the art windows and boilers but also those facilities which operate as a green building, i.e. not lighting and heating the 500+ seat sanctuary for weekday minyan when a 100 seater chapel will do. We may not have the fancy equipment, but our energy use is so low for our sized space just by our operating decisions. I have poured months of work into what is currently under review in some office building in DC and should this come into fruition, the hype and promotion could be huge.

So perhaps this month isnt a total wash after all. Some volunteering in my local community has taken place and hopefully some soup kitchen/food pantry assistance will also take place during the last two weeks of the month. I have donated clothes to Goodwill, dropped off extra toiletries for the local shelter's drive at my daughter's pre-school, and ran an eco arts booth where kids decorated Purim baskets made out of recycled plastic containers that we collected from shul families.

Sometimes volunteering time can come in the form of little things that pop up all around us every day that we put off until we have time for spring cleaning or we know the people in need. But maybe its those mundane needs of the community that call to us in a way that we often dont hear where we can be the most helpful. Sure everyone can and should send money to Japan or provide support to the survivors of the family in Itamar, Israel. But we are also needed here to do our parts and carve out our roles to help those around us. Maybe its not a perfect month in the making but maybe thats the point afterall. Just giving where we can one day at a time.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

March Madness

I know the point of this blog is to share my monthly experiences taking on a new goal or fear per month and share the highs and the lows, the ups and downs with all of you. Its my way of taking pictures to remember my deepest thoughts, stay on top of the moment as it arises and have something to look back on at the end of all this.

But many people simply use a blog as a diary. A very public diary depending on how many people follow your posts and you open yourself up a bit to the outside world. People can see how you think, how you express yourself and often times, blogs go a little too far. We've all seen those photos on facebook that we cannot believe people posted. You know, if your boss saw those, you may not have a job on Monday morning. Sometimes blogs go too far as well. You share a story about an old relationship gone sour or that family reunion that didn't end too well. And guess what, your old love stumbles upon your blog or that family member checks in and bam: too much information shared often in the heat of the moment and you can't take it back.

Well, forgive me tonight for using this sacred space, that I share with all of you, to open myself and my mind up to my innermost thoughts. Its not news that I am Jewish or that I lived for a few summers (high school, college) and a few years (newly married) in the land of Israel. I've considered relocating (making aliyah as Jews call it) and always have that deep place in my heart that knows its where I long to live.

That being said, I am American through and through. Not just because I was raised here or my family is here. But because I have that whole "I'm American and I am entitled to x, y and z." I believe if you work hard, in school/at your job, it pays off. You earn a fair and decent living and you can be successful. I am very western in my thinking and very open to freedom of religion and especially freedom within Judaism for us all to practice in our own ways.

I have had little stance on settlement building. Two state solutions and various political parties in Israel. Yeah I admit to being an environmentalist at heart but I wouldn't say I'm a staunch green party supporter. I'm just not that politically minded. I sort of like just being. Living in the moment and living somewhat care free.

However, over the weekend, during the Jewish holiday of shabbat, a family, with children, living in Israel, was murdered. Whether it be because they were religious or living in a settlement in the West Bank. It doesn't matter to me. Two parents and three little kids including a 3 month old baby were taken from this world in the most heinous of crimes. Since hearing the story, I haven't been able to sleep. My mind is racing with thoughts of how it happened. And now I've heard photos of the crime have surfaced somehow online. I keep looking at my children wondering if that could be us. If that could be a family I know. If I could ever move there, to a place where something like this could happen. Did the parents go first or the kids? Did the mother know what was happening to her children? How can one possibly comprehend these acts of terror? All I pray is that everyone was taken in their sleep, without knowledge, without pain.

I am quickly reminded that acts of violence occur everywhere. And right down the road in Baltimore is the murder capitol of the USA. Crimes like this happen all the time. In fact, Israel has one of the lowest interpersonal crimes/murders/rapes than most places in the world. Main crimes are stealing and auto theft. I have always felt safe walking around there at night. Feeling like I am part of the family in the Holy Land.

Since last night, I havent' been able to shake the feeling that Jews aren't safe anywhere. And I have had the urge to blanket my children in love today like never before. I pray that my nightmares go away soon. That I can block out the reenactment of these crimes which runs round and round in my head. Tonight I will tuck my kids in tighter, hug them a little longer and lock the door to my apartment a little stronger. Truth is, nothing can bring back those who have been taken out of this world. But in their names and in their memories, I will pick my head up and go on. May their memories be for a blessing. May their souls ascend to heaven quickly. And may their surviving children only know a future of peace.