Building a Jewish Practice: Circle, Line, or Spiral?

Rachel Petroff Kessler
December 13, 2011
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I continue to find my place as a Jewish professional, with an eye on what will sustain me and my family during what I hope will be a long career in the field, and not lead to burn out after a few short years. I know that this effort will be life-long, and I believe that central to the task is ensuring that I (and my family) have a meaningful Jewish practice. I do find tremendous meaning and sustenance in being part of others’ sacred moments. It is for me a great blessings to be present when parents celebrate a child’s consecration, when learners gain new insight or when a community comes together to support one of its own. Yet I know that I cannot rely solely on others and need to find sacredness within my own life as well.

For a number of years now, I have become aware of my tendency during the Jewish holidays to put my efforts into preparing professionally, while neglecting home preparations. There was the year I arrived home after handing out Chanukah bags to my religious school class to realize that we had failed to procure a Chanukiah for our apartment. Or the time I planned multiple Sukkot events but forgot to get a lulav and etrog for personal use. The list goes on, and it probably comes as no surprise to other Jewish professionals that I struggle not only with once-a-year holidays (that always seem to sneak up on you), but also with having a meaningful and consistent Shabbat practice.

My husband and I are still trying to find our rhythm with Shabbat dinners – more often than not, we find ourselves sitting down to eat just 20 minutes before I need to be out the door to get to the synagogue. Occasionally, we don’t eat until after services (which, with our synagogue’s 8:00 is less than desirable). Driving, using a computer, and writing are all things I normally don’t do on Shabbat, but are par for the course when I am working (and have forgotten to print out a study sheet in advance). So far, I have been fairly comfortable distinguishing between “work behavior” and “home practice” for Shabbat, but just as the ancient Rabbis felt the need to build a fence around the Torah, I worry that I am moving backwards in my practice and weakening the sacred set-apartedness that Shabbat has in my life.

Even though we describe the Jewish calendar as cyclical, focusing on our annual cycle and the ebb and flow of holidays and seasons, I must confess that for most of my life I’ve conceived of my “Jewish journey” as fairly linear. Developing a Jewish practice was about “growth,” and that to me meant that the goal always lay ahead, even if one moved towards it at an uneven pace. This has meant that sometimes a change in my practice is a sign of moving backwards, and failing.

During my first year of graduate school, Dean Michael Marmur challenged the idea of a cycle and taught that we shouldn’t imagine the Jewish year as purely circular – we may engage in returning, but never to exactly the same place. Each year we celebrate the same holidays, but the changes that have happened to us in between give us the chance to have a new experience. For me, this is a useful way to think not only about the Jewish calendar, but about my Jewish practice. Change is constant, yet so is repetition. Even what may initially seem to be a step backwards is simply another step on a path so winding that in the moment it may not seem like progress at all. The goal is not to end up at some place at the end, but rather to simply be involved in the journey.

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Rachel Petroff Kessler is the Family Educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland. Originally from upstate New York, Rachel has worked as a Jewish educator in a variety of settings, including Hillel at Binghamton, Kutz: NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens, and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Rachel graduated from HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education in April 2010 with a Masters in Religious Education and was a summer fellow at Yeshivat Hadar in 2009.

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