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My Spiritual Journey: Remarks by Paula Blackstien Hirsch, Kallah Bereishit, 5777 / 2016

12/12/2016 10:52:19 AM


Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach

As the wheels of our plane touched down in Berlin 4 weeks ago, I turned on my phone – there was a voice mail from our President, Ryan Friedman, to call back as soon as I could. I assumed he was calling to ask me questions regarding a Special Meeting of the Congregation being held the following evening – one that I was sorry to be missing. I am likely one of few people in this congregation who would be sorry to be missing such a meeting – but more about that later.

Of course, he wasn’t emailing me about that at all, but rather to ask me if I would accept this incredible honour of serving as this year’s kallah bereishit. I was both shocked and humbled, and then, over the ensuing few weeks, became completely panicked as I tried to: a) find the time to research and write something; and b) imagine how I might possibly stand before you today and articulate, in any intellectually or emotionally meaningful way my spiritual journey – after all, spiritual is not really a core attribute or descriptor that I believe defines me as an individual – so what would I say? While I identify strongly as a Jew and have a deep sense of connection to our history, traditions and culture, I tend to leave the more spiritual aspects to others in my immediate nuclear family who are more connected from a religious perspective.

Before I proceed with my journey, I want to wish our Chattan Torah, Effi a Mazel Tov and to say how wonderful it is to share in this honour with you. Effi, as my colleague on the Development Committee, on the Board and on the Executive, I came to respect your knowledge, your wisdom and your sage advice.

I am going to start my journey in the middle, and then go back to my more formative years. As many of you know, Steve, Jason, Neil and I lived in Mississauga for about 16 years, until 2000. We were active members of Solel Synagogue participating in numerous roles, as we do here. Like many, I had wrestled with the notion of a supernatural God, and during our early tenure at Solel, I engaged our Rabbi and friend, Larry Englander in a discussion about this inner struggle. Interestingly, it was Larry who introduced me to Mordechai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization – I read it and felt I had finally found a philosophy within which I could find comfort – the concept of godliness through action and the strong emphasis on tradition, culture, nature, creativity and the arts, and Israel totally resonated with me.

I started preparing for today by searching for a framework through which I might relay my thoughts and insights. I re-read Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach, scoured the internet and listened intently throughout the High Holiday services for threads that might resonate, that I might string together to describe my tapestry – the threads that have been woven together through my life to inspire and cultivate my strong identity as a Jew. Initially, I felt as though I was staring at the backside of my tapestry – nothing more than a jumble of tangled and seemingly arbitrary threads. But, then… as I contemplated the many people and experiences that have influenced who I am as a Jew, my tapestry began to take shape.

I came upon a written piece that is attributed to Kaplan, a three pronged framework through which I have chosen to share my journey with you – through 3 concepts - Behaving, Believing and Belonging, in that order.

1st Behaving: For me, behavior is about a code of behavior, traditional practices, and our rich history and culture that distinguish us from others in our communities, and that as liberal Jews we reconstruct to adapt to modern society; the lineage that, as a Jews, Steve and I have strived so hard to pass on to Jason and Neil.

* It all started for me in Niagara Falls, with my sister Susie, our older brother Gary who lives in Israel, and my parents, who I am privileged to have here today, as well as others from my immediate and extended family. My parents were the first influence that shaped my Jewish identity and my love for Jewish tradition. They were very active in our synagogue. Our family congregated around our dinner table for kabbalat Shabbat every Friday night, and many of my fondest family memories are from celebrations of Jewish holidays, either in our own home or with our extended family in Toronto. We also kept a somewhat kosher home. I recall vividly a conversation with my parents when I was a teenager, when I was going through a phase of wishing to keep more kosher than was the custom in our house at the time, and I sometimes reflect back on this dialogue and believe that it and other similar conversations likely shaped the rational approach I still take to Jewish custom and tradition in my own life today. My mother always bought kosher meat from the single kosher butcher in St Catharines – but we did not have separate dishes and I pleaded with them to start. As if it had been rehearsed, the response from both of them was - if I was prepared to stop eating in restaurants, they would buy separate dishes for our home. Not only was I not prepared to go that far - their response actually made sense to me; and that rational, logical approach, is fundamental to the way in which I currently approach Jewish custom and tradition.

* Today, it is sharing Shabbat with family and friends every Friday night, almost without exception, celebrating the Chagim, and partaking in other Jewish rituals that anchor me in my Judaism, not only because tradition is so important to Steve and me, but also because we felt it important to pass on to our children. Indeed, there is one Friday night in our lives that Steve and I will never forget – a Friday night when Steve served as Chief of Family Medicine at the Hospital and we felt compelled to be at the annual hospital gala. We did the blessings over candles, wine and challah with our kids and then raced out the door, but as the door was closing, Jason who was about 4 or 5 at the time blurted out “what’s more important Dad? The hospital or Shabbat?” After that, we never attended such events on a Friday night, and indeed, it is now Neil who has become the most observant in our family.

* There were no day schools in Niagara Falls and so, we grudgingly attended after-school cheder 3 evenings per week and on Sundays, and while we definitely put in time, I can’t really say I learned very much – this lack of a solid Jewish education is one of my real regrets about growing up in a small town. While it instilled a strong sense of Jewish identity, we lacked the Jewish cultural and educational benefits of a big city.

* My parents believed strongly that we should go to shul and be familiar with services, so we attended fairly regularly and Susie and I shared a Bat Mitzvah – however we were allowed only to chant haftorah, not torah, and we could do it only on a Friday night. Our shul was definitely not egalitarian, and my feminist and egalitarian spirit was likely fueled by that experience. Indeed, Steve and I chose to have our wedding ceremony at Beth Shalom Synagogue, primarily because Rabbi Monson was the only Conservative Synagogue Rabbi at the time who would allow me on the bimah to chant Torah for our Aufruf. Our Niagara Falls shul could best be described as conservadox and I recall with pride my parents being the trailblazers who broke the custom of separate seating, so that we could share cherished holiday observance together as a family unit, a value far more important to me then and now, than the custom of separating men and women during prayer. My draw to liberal Judaism was likely shaped from these early days.

* And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of our collective history in shaping my Jewish identity. While I don’t have immediate family who perished in the Holocaust, participating in the March of the Living just a few years ago simply reinforced for me the importance of Israel and our traditions. For me, one of the most meaningful parts of that trip was visiting Treblinka, and searching for the names of the towns in Poland that link me to my own ancestry, within the sea of rocks that form a memorial to those who perished. My love and support for Israel stems in part from appreciating the need for a Jewish refuge, a place where any Jew is welcome, whether I choose to live there or not.

My 2nd Lens - Believing: as noted, I have struggled with the concept of praying to a God. I am rooted professionally in science – first as a physiotherapist and now focus my efforts on improving the quality of healthcare delivery. I tend to approach life in a very logical, organized, rational, analytical and fairly consistent way – paradoxically, while I tend to thrive professionally in seemingly endless ambiguity, I don’t deal that well with a lot of grey zones in my personal life. It was only when I stumbled upon the teachings of Mordechai Kaplan that I started to find some comfort in this believing space – a way of thinking, of feeling, a way of fitting. I could accept and find comfort in the notion of acts of Godliness - of Tikkun Olam. And yet, prayer per se is not core to my own spirituality.

Having said that, you’d kind of have to wonder since synagogues have traditionally been houses of prayer, and if you followed Steve and I over the past 30 years, we’ve probably been members of more shuls than most in this room – first Solel, then Temple Kol Ami, then Kol Ami and Bet Raim at the same time, and finally our membership here at Darchei Noam, our home, to which I will return as I close my remarks this morning.

But I digress – where then, if not through prayer, have I found spirituality - that inner transformation, those moments in my life where I seem to lose all perspective of time and

space, those moments in life that seem magical! As I reflected over the past couple of weeks on my spirituality, I came to realize that I find these moments in nature, in music, and in other forms of creative artistic expression that I have recently begun to pursue in earnest.

I have experienced many magical moments in nature – moments where my heart and mind were elevated – where the splendor and beauty of nature are almost beyond belief – I recall several of these but have time to share just one.

* Steve and I have travelled to Israel many times. On a few occasions, we have combined our love of Israel, with tikkun olam, and with being in nature. I clearly remember climbing the hills toward Jerusalem during one of our Alyn Hospital bike rides– now I strongly dislike climbing hills on a bike, and yet somehow, my focus on the difficulties in life experienced by the little disabled girl whose picture was attached to my handle bars, and for whom I was riding, combined with the magic and sheer splendor of riding through the hills of Jerusalem, transcended me spiritually; before I knew it, the three hour climb was over and I was riding into the driveway of the Alyn Hospital to the piercing sound of the shofar. It was magical!

There are many other instances, in nature, where I have experienced this emotional high, whether skiing above the clouds surrounded by snow-capped peaks in Switzerland’s Jungfrau mountains or sailing alongside a rumbling gigantic turquoise calving iceberg in Alaska – truly magical scenery, beyond words - moments in my life which I identify as spiritual.

* And then there is music - As Beethoven said “Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life” and so it is for me. I first came to appreciate this when I sang in the Temple Kol Ami choir. My spirit was elevated as I chanted the High Holy Day and Shabbat liturgy to the tunes of Debbie Friedman and others, and, while I initially missed participating so actively in making music when we first joined Darchi Noam, I now find myself so uplifted by the voices and instrumental music of the many talented people who infuse our services with soulful music.

* Combining my thematic concepts of Behaving or tradition, with Believing, and the spirituality that I experience through music, I recall a very recent experience in Berlin that was a particularly poignant moment. As we sat a few weeks ago in a Friday evening service in a synagogue in Princelauer Berg that was used as a stable and warehouse by the Nazis, the familiar and traditional tunes that have been passed down through the generations, that bind us together as a people no matter where we call home, pierced through the cavernous Moorish architecture, and both stirred and moved me spiritually. While we did not understand the small amount of German spoken in the service, it was the music that bound us. And the notion of standing in Berlin, singing together with people who we later found out came from around the globe, in a place where Hitler tried to obliterate us as a people was a most spiritual experience for me…

* And finally, I have for years, not only enjoyed the arts but enjoyed my own ability to express myself creatively through art. As I reflected on spirituality, I noted that when I engage in these pursuits, I lose all sense of time and space. Indeed, the creative process is central to one’s journey of discovery. It is a space for experimentation, a means through which to transcend reality through non-cognitive means. Whether through clay, fabric, glass or even food, the process of engaging myself through artistic expression has become for me, vitalizing, liberating and in a sense, spiritual.

My 3rd lens - Belonging – that intuitive sense of kinship that binds a Jew to every other Jew in history, both in the diaspora and the State of Israel.

* One of the most profound influencers of my Jewish identity was belonging to Canadian Young Judea. Joining this Zionist youth movement was part of growing up Jewish in Niagara Falls, but it was attending summer camps from the age of 10 and beyond that impacted me most. When each summer ended, we yearned for the next summer, when we could be back at camp again, a place where I experienced this profound sense of belonging, a place where we formed life-long friendships, many who are still our closest friends today. Through Young Judaea, we developed deep bonds through a range of experiences that define who I am today. Camp Sholom, Solelim, Bilium, Bilium Israel, and then, because I still had not had enough, back to camp as staff. Camp is where I received a bulk of my Jewish education, discussing Jewish history, culture, politics and Israel, and debating the crossing of t’s and the dotting of i’s in resolutions about Zionist ideals during mid-year conferences. Camp is also where I developed a love of Israeli dancing. During our high school years, Susie and I would escape to Toronto by bus for the weekend at least twice a month, where we would join with camp friends with whom we identified so strongly, at the Bayit on Friday nights, and we’d lament when Sunday afternoon arrived and we had to travel back to Niagara Falls. Young Judaea is where I met the love of my life, Steve, someone I knew could be my partner for life, because I knew that based on this solid foundation, we shared the same values that are integral to who we are as Jews and as individuals.

* While my parents were also role models when it came to tzedakah and volunteerism, Young Judaea also awakened me to issues of social justice. I remember being front and centre at rallies for Soviet and Syrian Jewry and other causes, alongside my friends from Young Judaea. Those values and that belief in fighting for social justice continues today as Steve and I strongly support and participate in such organizations as the New Israel Fund.

* And finally, the place that I have chosen to end this spiritual journey, belonging and volunteering at Darchei Noam. When Steve and I decided to move back to Toronto, we decided that Darchei Noam aligned most with our view of Judaism, but for political and leadership reasons at the time, members who were are friends were leaving to join Kol

Ami. And so, we changed our plans and joined Kol Ami. As you know, the leadership has changed, and Rabbi Tina was for us and many others, a magnet that eventually drew us to Darchei Noam.

* We were welcomed so warmly by both friends and strangers and quickly developed a strong sense of belonging and community. The Darchei Noam community at large, and a chavurah where we communally usher in Shabbat on a regular basis, have enriched our lives beyond belief. This community is in many ways a microcosm of much of what we value in our lives – deep connection with Judaism, an egalitarian and inclusive approach to tradition, a sacred and safe place that celebrates strongly the traditions of our ancestors, yet values and encourages questions and adaptations to practice. A synagogue that is not just a place for prayer – but a vibrant community centre that emphasizes and provides generous opportunities for education, creative expression, connection to Israel, and so much more.

* One of the phenomena I have come to appreciate through the years, which I know is also rooted in Judaism, is the benefit one receives from giving – an almost spiritual experience if you will, that is far greater than the benefit of receiving. We joined Darchei Noam just before the start of the capital campaign for this beautiful new home. We often reflect on that process, and how it defines Darchei Noam in many ways. We were visited by Alan Levine who we had known for many years, and Myer Siemiatycki who we had barely met. The tone of that meeting and the warmth that we felt during that exchange, inspired us to want to contribute, to be a part of what defines Darchei Noam as a community.

* And so, on the theme of giving as means of helping others, and also because volunteering increases one’s sense of belonging, we quickly immersed ourselves in the community. I have chanted Torah in services, been on the Membership and Development Committees, coordinated annual Galas, and been on both the Board and Executive. My most meaningful contributions as a volunteer, whether at Darchei Noam or at places like the Sinai Health System, have always stemmed from being able to share what I have developed professionally if it will benefit others. And when I got that email from Ryan and wondered why I had been given this honour, I had to believe it was due to my more recent contributions to Strategic Planning, changes to organizational governance and tactics for strategy deployment that I spearheaded over the last few years while also being secretary on the Executive. Changing culture is hard - and what we tried to do was to retain what is so unique and special about Darchei Noam, while introducing organizational strategies and practices to enable the Board to engage in more meaningful dialogue and to improve the Board’s oversight of our community’s vision and goals. This work continues, under the able leadership of others, and was punctuated during a Special General Meeting that I mentioned when I began today, that meeting that I was so sorry to be missing.

* I contributed in these ways simply because I could, because it came naturally to me, and because I know these practices to be critical to organizational sustainability – because I care deeply and am passionate about ensuring the sustainability of this community that has done so much to enrich Steve and me.

This incredible honour has been a gift to me, helping me to move from the random threads on the back of my tapestry to a clearer, more distinct pattern on the front – a better understanding of my spiritual journey by reflecting on the threads that have been woven together to form my identity as a Jew through the lenses of Behaving (or Tradition & culture); through Believing (or spirituality); and through Belonging - the gift of community that we have found through Darchei Noam.

Thank you for this incredible honour and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, 3 August 2021 25 Av 5781