Lasting lesson

This year on Rosh Hashanah at Mussaf (the latter part of the morning service) I found myself doing a mental review of the structure of the service, which has three main parts: Malchios (Kingship), Zichronos (Remembrances), and Shofaros (Relating to the Shofar). 

Malchios reflects the theme of the High Holiday season, in which we are reminded that Hashem (G-d) is the King of Kings. Zichronos is both a reminder that Hashem remembers everything – poignantly, He “eternally remembers all forgotten things” – and asks Him to recall the righteous deeds of our ancestors. Shofaros focuses on the role of the shofar in the Biblical history of the Jewish people and in our prayers.

Every year, as I flip through the pages of the machzor, I “hear” the voice of the teacher from whom I first learned about the structure of the service. Erudite but patient, brilliant but able to present complex topics in the simplest of ways, he passed away in January 2023. His name was Rabbi Moshe Kahn, and he was a long-time professor of advanced level Judaic studies at Stern College for Women. He was most known for teaching Talmud classes to women, both at Stern and at the Drisha Institute.

I never enrolled in any of his classes because I did not have the Hebrew/Judaic background to understand the material. Even if I had, I am not sure I would have had the focus and dedication to engage in the literal hours of preparation and chavrusa (partner) study that was needed weekly to keep up in his classes. When studying in the Stern beis medrash (Judaic study hall), I often overheard his students reviewing material or discussing how to resolve a challenging problem in the text. I had great respect for their brilliance and grit.

But before I knew him by reputation, I had the opportunity to learn from Rabbi Kahn during orientation Shabbos of my first week at Stern. Fresh from public school in Charleston, West Virginia, my first few days on campus were a disorienting blur of adjusting to the culture of a Jewish women’s college in New York, getting to know my four roommates (crammed as we were into our room in Brookdale Hall), navigating the class registration system, and suppressing my natural tendency to smile at strangers as I passed them on the city’s busy streets. 

I was also coming to terms with being placed in “Elementary” level Judaic studies. This was necessary because I did not have the Hebrew or text-based skills to enroll in higher level classes. The Elementary level was small – we were a handful of first-year students. Some, like me, were public school graduates, others were recent immigrants or international students, and a few were graduates of Jewish day schools with weaker Hebrew curricula. Most of the rest of the incoming students at Stern enrolled in classes on the Intermediate, Upper Intermediate, and Advanced levels because most had the benefit of 12 years of Jewish day school education plus a year of seminary study in Israel. They were light years ahead of me.

Learning the basics is necessary, but I was disappointed to discover that the Judaic classes in which I could enroll would involve wrangling with Hebrew grammar and basic concepts, which was technical and tedious. This was not the intellectually and spiritually stimulating experience I had envisioned. I was overwhelmed, homesick, and frustrated, but I was still excited to be pursuing the Jewish education I wanted so badly.

For the first Shabbos of the school year, most of the first-year students stayed on campus to participate in a Shabbaton. Rabbi Kahn was the scholar in residence, which meant he would deliver a handful of drashot (lectures) on Friday night and Saturday. I didn’t know who he was, but I was eager to hear what he had to say.

One of his drashot, which I recall to this day, was an explanation of the obligation to hear shofar blowing, and how tradition evolved to include 100 shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah. On its face, the topic had the potential to be somewhat dry, but in Rabbi Kahn’s hands it was fascinating.

Since childhood I had known the names of the sounds produced by the shofar. Tekios were the long sounds, Shevarim were short and broken, Teruahs were sharp stuttering sounds, and Shevarim-Teruahs were an amalgam of the broken and the stuttering sounds. From Rabbi Kahn, I learned that the different short sounds resulted from a Talmudic debate about how to create a Teruah sound (Shevarim, literally “broken,” being the name for one of the possibilities). Since the rabbis of the Talmud were unsure which variation of sound was correct, they incorporated all of them.

The Talmud further mandated that each Teruah sound be preceded and followed by a Tekiah (long) sound, and that three sets of sounds be produced during the Mussaf service (9 total blasts of sound). Because of the debate about which version of Teruah was correct, this quickly resulted in multiplying by three, and because Shevarim-Teruah was actually a combination of two sounds, the grand total for the service was 30 sounds.

But then, there was a question of when the shofar should be blown during the service. The shofar sounds were attached to the three parts of Mussaf (Malchios, Zichronos, and Shofaros). At one time in Jewish history, it had been the practice for congregants to pause in their personal recitation of the silent Mussaf Amida after each of these sections and to wait for the baal tokea to blow the shofar (there are some communities that still have this custom). At some point, the rabbis placed the initial shofar blasts before Mussaf. These became known as tekios d’mushav (the shofar blasts that occur while the congregation is seated, though paradoxically most congregations have the custom to stand), and another full set of sounds, tekios d’meumad (the sounds to be heard while standing) were blown after each of the three sections during the chazzan’s repetition of the Mussaf Amida (adding up to 60). Finally, an additional 40 sounds were added at the conclusion of the service to add up to 100.

Rabbi Kahn imparted all this knowledge in a way that was organized, accessible, and stimulating to students of any Judaic background. Readers should know that my recounting is certainly flawed by gaps in memory and education (and augmented by some online research), and certainly does not do justice to Rabbi Kahn’s transmission of the information. But in my consciousness, at every Rosh Hashana I think back to his words, the pride and amazement I felt at following the thread of his lesson, and the fondness I felt for the Talmudic wisdom behind what had previously been an underappreciated custom.

Over the last two and a half decades, I have heard other rabbis or teachers explain the same lessons regarding shofar blowing, and none have been quite as succinct or clear as Rabbi Kahn in his brilliant summary of the Talmudic discussion. I couldn’t appreciate the depth and breadth of his Torah scholarship then, but looking back, I am profoundly grateful to have had an opportunity to learn from him at such a pivotal moment in my education. 

While my Hebrew skills gradually improved over my years at Stern (and have continued to improve since then), four years was not enough to reach the level of enrolling in Rabbi Kahn’s classes. However, I have come to appreciate the wonderful opportunity I had to be adjacent to greatness in Torah study, and to have gleaned some life-long lessons from the briefest of exposures to Rabbi Kahn. May his neshama have an aliyah (may his soul ascend) in the merit of the impact he had on so many students, and may all our tefillos (prayers) connected to the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana be answered for the good.

Passover’s Many Names, and their Meaning

When I was cleaning and decluttering in preparation for Pesach, I came across a paper on which my son had written four of the Hebrew names by which Passover is known. If I recall correctly, this was an assignment he completed during virtual schooling in the weeks before Passover 2020, when he was in first grade.

The names of the holiday include: Chag HaPesach (the most common name for the holiday, which refers to the korban Pesach, Paschal lamb, that was offered on the eve of the holiday when the Temple stood), Chag HaMatzos (the festival of unleavened bread), Chag HaAviv (the festival of spring), and Chag HaCherut (the festival of freedom).

Passover is not the only Jewish holiday which is known by multiple names. For example, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is also known as Yom Teruah (day of sounding the shofar) and Yom HaDin (the day of judgment), among other names.

The multiple names result both from different contexts in which the holidays are mentioned in Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) and other traditional sources, and also express different aspects of how we observe and think about the holidays.

When it comes to Passover, one of the first things we think about, after all, is how differently we eat during these eight days. Matzah becomes the main staple of our diets, making the name Festival of Unleavened Bread particularly apropos. On the other hand, the Festival of Freedom more accurately reflects the meaning behind the holiday, as it celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery.

I have always found particular enjoyment in the fact that Passover is the festival of spring. I love it that the natural world bursts into bloom at this time of year, and that by observing the holiday, we have the opportunity to pause from our regular schedules and bask in the change of seasons. In years like this one, when the weather is primarily overcast and cold, I find myself fighting a sense of disappointment. However, I try to focus on the few days that have been sunny and clear, and on the many spring flowers that are persistently blooming, even when they are showered by a “wintry mix.”

If I could add one more name to Pesach, it would be Chag HaMishpacha, the festival of family. For so many Jews, even if they are not particularly observant of Jewish law, Pesach is a time for gathering together for seders (the ritual meals on the first and second nights of Passover). After two years in which we held seders with just our immediate family, we were fortunate this year to have some of our extended family with us to celebrate once again. Being together added a dimension of warmth and celebration that we had been missing for two years. 

The Haggadah, the guidebook we use for the seder, speaks extensively about the importance of transmitting the story of the Exodus from Egypt from one generation to the next, to the point that we are supposed to view ourselves as if we had actually been physically present during the time of Moses. While a person can connect to this experience solely through study and imagination, it was clearly the intention of the rabbis who composed the Haggadah for seder participants to connect to the Exodus through the guidance of their elders.

Inevitably, at a seder in which there are participants from multiple generations, an older relative will talk about something that was done, or said, or eaten at a seder in their distant memory. As we sit around our tables laden with matzah and wine, we are linking ourselves to seder tables from time immemorial, all the way back to the Exodus itself. It is a festival of family, and of continuity, just as much as it is a festival of matzah or freedom.

And so, I am saving my son’s first grade assignment to continue reminding myself of the many aspects of Passover and of how, with his rudimentary Hebrew handwriting, he is forming his own link in the tale of our nation’s redemption.

The Power of the Pen

The latest cycle of Nach Yomi, an initiative to read one chapter a day of the biblical books of the Neviim (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings), began in January, and participating students are now deeply immersed in the Book of Shoftim (Judges). As I read through these holy books, which I have read at least superficially in the past, I find myself being struck by words, events, or ideas that I passed over on past readings.

For example, a few weeks ago, in reading chapter 18 of the Book of Joshua, I came upon the extraordinary instruction of Joshua to the tribes of Israel to “write” about the land of Israel. The directive comes in the course of dividing up the land among the tribes. By chapter 18, several tribes have been assigned to inherit particular portions of land, with the borders and topographical features described in great detail. However, much of the land has not yet been assigned.

Joshua’s instructions, using the Hebrew word “kotev,” the standard word used to mean “to write” in Hebrew, is an injunction for the remaining tribes to not waste their time in staking their particular claims to the land. Three representatives of each of the remaining seven tribes are to traverse the unclaimed land, and in effect produce a comprehensive land survey that will result in an equitable distribution of the land through a lottery system.

The word “kotev” appears in several verses in chapter 18 to record Joshua’s instructions to the tribes. Verse 8 is the most direct of these verses, when Joshua tells the tribes, “Go, walk through the land, describe it in writing.” 

Based upon the context of the previous chapters, it seems that Joshua is telling the tribal scouts to record their observations about the length and breadth of the land, to note its size, natural borders in the form of rivers, forests, and mountain tops, and to note the best use of the various sections of land, such as areas for grazing or planting. With three representatives of each tribe at work, the information gathered will be substantial, and will serve the immediate purpose of dividing the land, and the long-term purpose of having a record of how it was divided.

Beyond the practical understanding of this section, I read in the words a more poetic interpretation.

It feels to me like Joshua is telling the tribes to connect to the land through writing about it. These stragglers among the tribes seem reluctant to lay claim to their portions. Part of this is circumstantial – for various logistical reasons, a handful of the tribes received their portions before the others. But perhaps the remaining tribes didn’t fully appreciate the land or had misgivings about making it their long-term home. Perhaps they needed to commit their observations to writing to feel more invested, and more ready to make the transition from nomadic people to land owners.

As a writer, I can well appreciate the benefits of processing thoughts through writing them down. Even writing a seemingly dispassionate description of a place can lodge it in one’s imagination in a richer and more emotionally resonant way. Writing about a place gives it more significance, and makes us feel personally attached.

Looking back to the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar), Moses instructs the 12 spies who enter the land of Israel to report to him about the nature of the land, including its produce and its other inhabitants. The mission is tactical, but conceived with the hope (later dashed) of demonstrating the magnificence of the land to the spies, and thus to the whole nation.

The context here is different. The Hebrews have been within the land for years by this point, but they are not yet rooted. They need to feel a deeper sense of connection and ownership. When there was a group of 12 “tourists” in the Book of Numbers, a verbal report was all that was requested, and ends up failing miserably. When the children of Israel hear a negative report from 10 of the spies, they despair, and the nation is punished by wandering in the desert for 40 years.

At the beginning of the Book of Joshua, there is a second exploratory mission. Two spies enter the land to devise a military strategy, and they also bring back a verbal report. This time, the report is fact-based, and their mission is successful, resulting in conquering the city of Jericho at a time when all the tribes were united in their mission. Now, the time of apportioning the land, there is the potential for dispute about borders and other matters of land ownership. This time Joshua gives the tribes a writing assignment. 

As an aside, I was struck with Joshua’s assumption of a level of literacy among the ancient Hebrews. There is no question that there will be at least three literate members of each tribe to write down their observations. This seems noteworthy for the ancient world. Perhaps this story gives credence to the tradition that the Jews spent their 40 years wandering in the desert immersed in Torah study, and thus had a high level of literacy. In any event, Joshua gave this command without hesitation, knowing that each of the tribes would easily produce representatives capable of carrying out his writing assignment. 

Presumably, writing helped the tribes to produce an honest assessment of the land, but again, I think there is more to it. As opposed to verbalization, writing requires more commitment because more effort is involved. At the same time, formulating one’s thoughts in writing increases our commitment to those ideas. If you are invested in the outcome of a situation, you put it in writing. Joshua wants the tribes to be invested in the land of Israel, so he tells them to put it in writing.

And so they do, and this leads to a successful distribution of land parcels to all the tribes of Israel, fulfilling Joshua’s responsibilities as leader and enabling the people to move forward with settling down. Though conflicts later arise, at this moment, there is agreement among the tribes. The land gets divided, and the people can proceed with establishing agriculture and commerce through their new communities. The writing assignment has served its purpose.

My pandemic year

The last few weeks have been a time of increasing optimism, as COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates go down, and as vaccination rates go up. Spring is beginning to emerge, and the days are getting longer.

At the same time, it is a time of great sadness, as we must grapple with more than 500,000 deaths from the virus in the United States, and more than 2.6 million globally. It’s difficult to comprehend and painful to think about.

Many of my friends are posting today about what they were doing a year ago, as we all had the dawning realization that we were entering a period of uncertainty, though we could not have imagined how long it would last. In spite of generally feeling optimistic of late, as I reflect upon where we were a year ago, I find myself revisiting feelings of fear and frustration.

A whole year. The time hasn’t been wasted, but it has been different in innumerable ways. So many plans canceled, delayed, or diverted. So many interactions put on hold. Relationships interrupted by social distance. 

As much as we have been incredibly resilient, and found new ways to communicate and connect through technology, we know we are still missing so much from in-person human connection and physical closeness. We are missing spontaneity. We are missing the engagement of all our senses in our experiences. We are missing each other.

I know how very privileged I am to live in a comfortable home with a family that is happy and healthy. To be able to continue my job from home, and even to consistently send my children to in-person school for most of the last seven months, which has saved my sanity. (My heart goes out to parents, children, and teachers who have not had a break from virtual school.) But life is still unmistakably different from before, and that is very sad.

Today I am sad for those who have died from COVID-19, and the family members who lost them, often without being able to say goodbye. I am also deeply sad for all of those who are truly suffering from isolation from family and friends, loss of income, and loss of hope and opportunity. These have been such difficult times, and the after-effects will go on for some time.

But things will get better.

The glimmer of hope provided by the three FDA approved vaccines is growing brighter every day. I am grateful that many of my family members and friends have already been vaccinated, and that they stayed healthy and safe all these months of waiting. We are all still waiting for things to truly get better, but they are moving in the right direction.

A year ago, if I had known how long this would last, I would have found it unbearable. But here we are. I am reminding myself to continue breathing deeply and taking one small step at a time as we continue to navigate uncertainty. We have come so far, and I am hopeful that the difficulties of this time can soon be relegated to memory as we move forward into healthier and better times together. 

“When it’s darkest we see the stars”

A conversation with Reverend Ronald English

Events in recent months have caused me to reflect a great deal about race and inequality in the United States, and I wanted to articulate some of those thoughts in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Growing up, I attended diverse public schools, but my kids go to a Jewish day school that is predominantly white. They don’t regularly interact with diverse peers at school, and that has made me realize that this is an area in which their education is lacking something that was part and parcel of mine.

Over the summer, my husband and I let our daughter, who is now 11, watch some of the news coverage about the Black Lives Matters protests, and we talked about the unfairness of fearing police brutality if your skin happens to be dark. We also talked about the right to peaceful protest, and of course the fact that it is wrong to resort to violence to make a political point.

Amid the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, these issues have continued to play in the background of the news, with the issues of protest versus riot and disparate use of police force brought into stark relief with the horrific invasion of the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

Even before that dark day, however, I decided that I needed to speak to my kids more about race in the U.S., and the history of how we got here. As I have been processing events, a couple of resources have been particularly helpful in guiding my thought process.

This PBS interview by Kelly Corrigan features Bryan Stevenson, who has dedicated his life to representing death row inmates, including those wrongly accused, and advocating for racial justice. He talks about his own background and family history with slavery and segregation, and the interview includes a visit to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama, which beautifully and hauntingly memorializes victims of lynching (the memorial was modeled, in part, on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum).

In addition, I was encouraged and inspired by a recent podcast by The host, Rabbi David Bashevkin, interviewed Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz, an educator and school administrator, about what role Orthodox Jews should play in advocating for racial justice. She incisively articulates the similarities and differences in the experiences of Jews and Blacks in the U.S., and talks about her own advocacy efforts as well as issues the Jewish community needs to confront in its consideration of race in the U.S.

A few days after listening to the podcast, it occurred to me to reach out to Ghee Gossard, my third grade teacher, with whom I have stayed in touch over Facebook. I remember learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from her, and feeling inspired by the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. I thought she might have participated in the 1963 March on Washington in which Dr. King delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. While it turns out she has participated in other protests, she was not involved in the famous march.

That got me thinking about how fascinating it would be to speak to someone else, who had actually been there on that historic day. I informally polled some friends and family members to see if they had participated, or knew someone who had. I wasn’t having any success. (My father was a teenager living in D.C. at the time of the March, but had only recently moved there, and had not attended.) Then, I decided to reach out to a former classmate, Leisha Gray, whose father I recalled was the pastor of a church in my hometown of Charleston, WV, and was active in Civil Rights issues. I messaged Leisha on Facebook, and she responded right away to say that her father had been at the March, and she could put us in touch.

This turned out to be an incredibly fortunate connection because her father, Reverend Ronald English, was not only a participant in the March, but also had close ties to Dr. King.

Rev. English grew up in Atlanta, his family was close to Dr. King’s family, and they were actively involved in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, of which Dr. King was the pastor, following in the footsteps of his father, Dr. Martin Luther King Sr.

Rev. English was himself a mentee and ministerial assistant to Dr. King Jr. At the time of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, Rev. English was just 19 years old, and he and a friend drove all night from Atlanta to D.C. to participate in the March. I had the great privilege of speaking to him by phone on the evening of January 14, 2021.

I asked him to describe the experience of participating in the March. He told me about the overnight drive, filled with excitement and apprehension.

“Getting there was quite an interesting experience,” said Rev. English. “When we passed through Lynchburg, Virginia, there was a noose in the middle of the town.”

This was meant to deter participants from continuing to the March. Many of the marchers came to D.C. from the South, and the majority arrived on the day of the event.

Most of the demonstrators came by bus, and Rev. English describes the event as being well organized.

“There were so many buses there, they had been assigned schedules.”

Thinking about footage I had seen of Southern police officers in physical confrontations with Civil Rights activists in the 1960s, and about recent events in D.C., I asked him what he recalled about the police presence that day. I was surprised by his answer.

“I don’t remember seeing an officer,” he said. “The capitol police were not a conspicuous presence.”

They would have been there to direct traffic, but, in his memory, they were not an intimidating force.

“They didn’t anticipate trouble,” said Rev. English. “They took the meaning of the March, grounded in the philosophy of non-violence.”

Approximately 250,000 people participated in the March, and an estimated 75 to 80 percent of them were Black. An Associated Press account published that day noted that Capitol police and National Guard members had been assembled for the event, but there had only been three arrests, and none involved the demonstrators.

In spite of the enormity of the crowd, because of his connection to Dr. King’s church, Rev. English was able to get close to where Dr. King and others, including the late Congressman John Lewis, were speaking.

“I was excited,” said Rev. English. “I was nervous in the sense of an anticipation of what this experience was going to be like. It was amazing to see the number of people. There was a contagious energy.”

When Dr. King took the stage, the energy increased even more.

“The momentum went to a different level,” he said.

I asked what it was like to hear the now famous words “I Have a Dream” for the first time. It turns out Rev. English and other members of Dr. King’s congregation had heard that phrasing several times before in church sermons and at the June 23, 1963 Walk to Freedom in Detroit, Michigan. Following the advice of colleagues, Dr. King had not planned to deliver that speech for the March, and had prepared other remarks. However, shortly before taking the stage, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson approached him.

“She said, ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin.’ He put the papers aside,” said Rev. English. “The rest is history.”

Even though the words were not new to Rev. English, the feeling at the March was completely different.

“It was one thing to hear it in church. It was another thing to hear it at that place and time,” he said. “It had such vigor, such rhythm. There was a different intensity.”

“You could hear reverberations in the crowd,” he continued. “Not only had we heard something, we felt something. It inspired us to move on with the movement.”

While the March was an inspirational day, there were many difficult days ahead for the Civil Rights movement. Just a few weeks later, four Black girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

“Dr. King said ‘My dream has become a nightmare,’” said Rev. English.

However, Dr. King and other leaders persevered toward new goals. In many ways, Rev. English said Dr. King’s message in the last year of his life – against racism, militarism, and economic injustice – was more disruptive than desegregation.

“It didn’t cost anything to integrate,” said Rev. English. “It brought a certain type of prosperity – everybody’s income increases. Racism and economic injustice went hand in hand. He challenged the country to deal with the issue of poverty. That was too much. Everybody on staff knew his days were numbered.”

Before he died, Dr. King was planning the Poor People’s Campaign, a series of protests, culminating in a huge march on Washington, to draw attention to poverty in the U.S. He was assassinated a few weeks before the campaign was to begin.

Rev. English related the dark times following Dr. King’s assassination to current events, with political discord, an economic downturn, and the COVID-19 pandemic all converging.

“He talked in that last sermon, he said there are some difficult days ahead,” said Rev. English. “I don’t think he imagined it would be this difficult. It’s been a dramatic phase of difficult days.”

However, Rev. English still finds reason for optimism.

He noted that the Biden/Harris campaign has looked at current events and said “this is not who we are.” Rev. English sees it differently.

“I always felt this is who we are. We have been shocked into the reality of who we are,” he said.

The task now is to confront that reality.

“That’s where I find the most hope and optimism.”

He referred to the biblical creation story.

“Out of chaos, we have a cosmos,” he said. “Every time we have seen a dramatic rupture, we have seen a dramatic reconstruction. When it’s darkest we see the stars.”

Moving forward, “significant rather than cosmetic” change is needed, he said.

Rev. English was very generous with his time. We were on the phone for close to 40 minutes. I felt a bit selfish to take so much of his time because my blog has a relatively small readership. On the other hand, I thought of our conversation as being a record of an oral history that is important to document and share, even on a small scale.

After ending the call, I had to usher my kids off to bed for the night, and they immediately began peppering me with questions about who I had spoken to, and what this was all about. We spent a few minutes talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. I hope to continue our conversation and show them the “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s a small step in their education, but I’m deeply grateful to be able to share a first-person account of history with my children. More than that, as so many of us have struggled against pessimism, fear and despair, it’s deeply comforting to hear a voice of optimism from someone who has lived through equally dark times in our nation’s history.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 26

August 31

I took the last two weeks off from blogging because I was extremely busy with work projects during one week, and on vacation the following week. I must admit to feeling more than a little burned out a couple of weeks ago, but it is amazing the difference a week away from work can make, as well as a few days with a change of scenery. I wouldn’t have minded the luxury of having more time off, but I feel much more rested and less stressed after this short break.

Today was significant for two reasons. First, my kids went back to in-person school. And, second, I finally completed and submitted a big and complex grant proposal today. 

I am very happy and grateful that my kids were able to return to school today. They were excited to go back, and I feel that they are as safe as they can be with all the precautions the school has taken with respect to cleanliness, social distancing, and mask wearing. I am particularly thankful that they were not at home today, a very stressful and tense workday that would not have been compatible with constant interruptions from the kids.

I have to admit, though, to feeling a tinge of sadness at seeing photos the school sent out during the day, which showed students sitting far apart and wearing masks. This is absolutely what we need to do now to keep everyone safe, and I am deeply appreciative that the school is taking things so seriously, but I’m still a bit sad that the kids have to suspend a lot of the social aspects of school that come from being in close proximity to each other. I know they will adjust and that this is not forever, but it still makes me a bit sad.

I alluded a few weeks ago to the grant proposal that was due today. It is one our organization has applied to every two years for the last several years. It’s an extremely technical grant with a lot of complex guidelines and requirements for multiple, detailed attachments. While preparing it is far less stressful now than it was a few years ago, the final steps of putting everything together remain very stressful and mentally draining. I had a few moments of panic today related to technology issues and getting some details right on the proposal. Working remotely made it more challenging to collaborate with my coworkers, but we figured out some workarounds and everything got done with time to spare. It feels a bit too good to be true, but we have the official confirmation that everything was received, so now it’s just a matter of waiting to hear what happens.

I feel so relieved right now. In a few minutes I will walk to school to meet the kids, and I am sure I will be swept away in their thoughts about today, and their needs this evening, but for a few minutes, I am breathing deeply, grateful that I was able to focus and accomplish today what needed to be done, and that my kids were safely supervised back in school, where they belong.

September 2

The difference between working at home with the kids in the house, and working from home while they are at school is like the difference between reading a book in a crowded waiting room versus reading in a quiet corner of a library. It’s feasible to read in the waiting room, and you might even be surprised by how much ground you cover (especially if you are really good at blocking out background noise), but there are frequent interruptions, and the quality of the reading isn’t as good, or as enjoyable. Most important, it’s hard to retain information without the ability to focus intently for significant blocks of time. So, no matter how much ground you feel you are covering, you are unlikely to retain as much information as you would in a less distracting environment.

What I have appreciated these past few days is the opportunity to have quiet time to collect my thoughts and let my mind wander. I find myself actually able to remember what I was planning to do from one moment to the next, or at least remember where I wrote my to-do list instead of all of my responsibilities for my kids/house/finances/work being lumped together in an overwhelming, unrecognizable mess. In short, I feel like I got my life back. At this point, I am happy to continue working from home because it’s much more relaxing now.

I know that my kids’ school is the exception to the rule. Across the U.S., many schools are open in unsafe circumstances, and millions of kids are still trying to learn virtually. It is deeply painful to know that the least privileged children in our society are the ones who will suffer most right now and that the deficits in their education will place them at increasing disadvantages as time goes on. I am thinking of them while simultaneously being grateful that my kids are able to safely attend school.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 22

August 11

For all these months of working from home, I’ve been using my own laptop, as in one that my husband and I purchased a few months before the pandemic with the thought that it was just for home use, and perhaps the occasional free-lance project. Today, finally, I have a new laptop that belongs to work. Before social distancing began, JFCS generally discouraged working from home, in part, I think, because most of the agency’s work has to do with directly serving clients. Previously, it didn’t seem possible to do our work remotely, so few staff people had laptops.

Well, clearly, a lot has changed in recent months. Remarkably, the front line staff have been able to continue providing nearly all services in virtual mode. The system is not ideal, but it is working, and members of our community are receiving the help they need, which is what is most important. 

Whereas at first we thought we would be working from home for just a couple of weeks or months, five months in we know we are in this for the long haul, though no one knows exactly what that means (late 2020? spring 2021?). While that reality is depressing in many ways, it’s good to come to grips with things as they actually are, not what we want them to be. So, today I got used to working on my new computer, feeling good that my organization wants me to have the equipment I need to do my job effectively.

August 12

In the 1987 film “Broadcast News” the journalist played by Holly Hunter periodically bursts into tears, when she is alone, then composes herself to go back to work. She’s not sad or scared, she’s just stressed out and needs to release the tension, so she lets herself have a good cry, then she pulls herself together and gets on with her day. This article revisits what is so great about Holly Hunter’s character, including her outbursts of emotion. This quote sums it up: “Hunter plays these episodes not as if Jane is a hot mess, but like she’s releasing a valve that she knows must be released, then getting on with things.”

I love this character because she is so relatable and realistic, even for those of us not working in careers with the extreme pressure of broadcast news.

We all have that personal stress valve, and, especially in times like these, we need a release. Sometimes laughter does the trick, but sometimes crying is the only thing that helps. In “normal times” on a stressful work day, when I am having trouble focusing, I might watch some sort of sappy YouTube clip which will make me tear up for a couple of minutes. Afterward, I feel more relaxed and able to focus on my work.

This morning, while reading a news story that wasn’t at all sappy, I found myself beginning to tear up, and realized that I am probably long overdue for a good release of emotion. With so much going on, I rarely have the time for my YouTube clips, but apparently, I still need the occasional “good cry” to release some feelings. So, cue the sappy videos, I’ll be back to work shortly.

August 13

Six years ago, when I was relatively new to my job, I had to submit a grant proposal for a new program that I didn’t know that much about. The proposal process was complicated and stressful, and we had two partner organizations for the grant. The instructions we got from the funder were unclear and confusing, and the website for submitting the grant was difficult to use and had a lot of glitches. I felt totally overwhelmed, and even though my coworkers helped prepare the proposal, we were all sort of grasping in the dark, and it fell to me to pull all the pieces together. On top of everything, we were doubtful that we would be funded, so the whole process felt like an exercise in futility.

I remember wishing I had someone to turn to who could guide me through this frustrating process. In a nail-biting finish to the process, when we thought the proposal had been submitted, we found out after the fact that it had not gone through because of a computer glitch. By what seemed to me to be Divine Providence, the funder unexpectedly extended the deadline, we figured out the glitch — which involved four of our staff members on a speaker phone call with tech support from the funder — and we got the proposal in. Did I mention that we were all crowded into my tiny office, devouring a huge bag of peanut M&Ms while we hashed out the final steps of the proposal and nervously listened to tech support?

It was a relief when we were finally done, and then the waiting began. For about three months, the application became a background stressor as we wondered if we would receive funding. Finally, we were notified that we got the grant, and received the full funding we had requested. We couldn’t believe it. Of course, now the real work began for the department implementing the grant, but my part was largely over, until time came to apply again.

Looking back, the learning curve of that process is one of my proudest professional moments. While I would not want to experience that stress level again, it was amazing to see what I could accomplish under pressure.

Six years later, we are applying again for the same opportunity (which we have since applied for and received two other times). The instructions from the funder are just as confusing as in the past, though fortunately the online portal is now easier to use. And, it helps tremendously to have our past work to build upon rather than starting from scratch. However, a significant factor in helping this process go better is all that we learned in what felt like a trial by fire six years ago.

Unfortunately, there is no better teacher than experience. But it’s a good teacher for a reason — while you may not remember all the details of the experience, you remember a lot, and you also remember that you can do it. Sometimes that’s all you need to help you pull through.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 21

August 3

At some point in 2019, recognizing that I was feeling stressed out, I said to myself that I needed to take more time to relax and listen to music. Unfortunately, I didn’t do a great job of following through on that intention, and life has only become more stressful since then.

Through my dance classes, I have recently been introduced to the ballet piano music of Nathan Fifield.

Fifield has piano versions of popular songs from Disney soundtracks and Top 40 music, as well as adaptations of many other movie soundtracks. In dance class, it is amusing to be doing traditional barre exercises to popular songs that have been softened or dramatized with piano flourishes, and mentally be fitting the lyrics the songs. On the other hand, Fifield’s music has reminded me that years ago, going back to high school and college, I would often relax by listening to the soundtracks of some of my favorite films. Sabrina was a particular favorite that I had nearly forgotten until my ballet teacher played it for a barre exercise. I had also forgotten the loveliness of the theme from the quirky 2001 French film “Amelie,” which I hope to rewatch sometime soon.

So, in recent weeks, I have begun taking moments here and there to listen to some of these calming piano pieces, to reduce my stress and reawaken hopeful thoughts.

Today, while struggling to focus on work, I opened a browser tab to YouTube, and found the soundtrack to the BBC miniseries, North and South, based on a book by Elizabeth Gaskell, one of my favorite 19th century writers. In general, I try to avoid listening to music while I write, because I find it distracting, but with my head full of swirling thoughts today, the placid background music was just what I needed. 

In this time of struggle and difficulty, these lyrical tunes are carrying me away from my crowded thoughts and reminding me of pleasant dreams.

August 4

For only the second time since I began working from home, today I stopped by my office for a few minutes. I needed to print a long and important document and didn’t want to use my own paper and ink at home. (I live in walking distance of work, so it was worthwhile to stop in.) There were very few people there, and I thought it would feel eerie to be there, but instead it felt peaceful and quiet, in contrast to the three ring circus that is my home. After being in a constant state of multi-tasking for months, as I sat at my desk for a few minutes, I felt calm and relaxed. Of course, on a normal work day, the office would be bustling with activity, some of which makes it harder for me to focus on work, but today there were no hallway conversations or meetings in the office next door to create distractions.

I looked around my office — that place dedicated to doing my job — and it was nice to see all of the tools I need right there where I left them, sort of a time capsule of “the way we used to work.” There was even a bottle of hand sanitizer on my desk. I used some while I was there and left the rest for when I eventually return. I’m sure I’ll need it then.

Later in the day, working at home, a brief storm caused the electricity to go out for a few hours. It was frustrating to not be able to work, but nice to be at home where I could do a bit of tidying up, and relax on the couch afterwards. There are, it turns out, still some perks to working from home.

August 5

I am not a fan of the shorthand of calling people “woke” if they seem to be enlightened by all the recent issues to which we are expected to be sensitive. First of all, it is grammatically sloppy. Shouldn’t it be “awake” if we are talking about people suddenly coming to a progressive awareness? Second, and I am not the first person to point this out, it creates yet another way of classifying people, giving them a sense of superiority, allowing themselves to be blinded to their own imperfect attitudes, and creating more strife with others.

Someone wisely pointed out that it’s not really feasible to suddenly be “woke.” Do you really wake up one day to have an appreciation for everyone else’s pains? From that day forth you have no unconscious bias of your own? Now you have the authority to berate everyone who is not quite as “woke” as you? I don’t think so.

It makes more sense for all of us to be in a state of “awakening,” in which we are open to understanding the lived experience, as the expression goes, of those around us, and seeing where we might harbor unkind thoughts about others that we now want to challenge.

I know I have found that many of my attitudes have shifted over time as a result of my experiences and the people I have met, and worked with, from other cultures, nations, races, and religions. While there are good and bad people in every culture, lifestyle, and religion, most of us are good people, just trying to live our lives. You don’t have to call yourself “woke” to recognize other people’s humanity.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 20

July 27

This morning, in the midst of preparing breakfast, I misplaced a half stick of butter. I was sure I had taken it out of the fridge, but couldn’t find it anywhere. After a few minutes of looking, I gave up and pulled another one out of the fridge.

The mystery was solved today when I picked my son up from camp. As he was getting in the car, his counselor called out, “Did you tell your mom what you found in your lunch today?” Yep, the missing stick of butter was in his lunch box. Apparently, it was the talk of lunch, and resulted in some good natured teasing in which my son was called “butter boy.” The whole scenario made him laugh hysterically, and also gave me a good laugh. Unfortunately the stick, now mostly melted, was still in his lunch box when I opened it at home.

Clearly, I am distracted. And I’m not alone. This evening, my husband took my son an hour early to his little league game because we had the time mixed up. An hour early is definitely better than an hour late, but on a hot day, it’s really not a great scenario. Fortunately, they had chilled drinks to keep them cool, and my son, who is easy going, wasn’t upset about the mix-up. However, my husband and I are both finding it increasingly frustrating to manage everything.

On the other hand, these sorts of forgetfulness are just part of living a busy life, with or without a pandemic. It’s good that we are still able to laugh at ourselves. As the saying goes, this should be the worst of our problems. 

July 29

We are drawing toward the close of the hottest month of summer, and it is the eve of Judaism’s saddest day, a fast day known as Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av commemorates many tragedies in Jewish history, including the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. Over the centuries, many prayers for this day have been composed to commemorate historical atrocities, including the Holocaust, and the tragedy of all these times is condensed into this one day of sadness.

I began this week tired and stressed out by work and other responsibilities, and also shaded with a sense of dread about Tisha B’Av, which is truly a miserable fast day — 25 hours of no food or drink during the hottest part of the year. In contrast with Yom Kippur, which is uplifting, Tisha B’Av is depressing.

In spite of all this negative feeling, I come into this time with a bit of relief and happiness. Yesterday my daughter’s leg brace came off, and for the first time in two months, she was able to walk up and down stairs today. So, while I dread the fast and the obligation to dwell on sadness, I am buoyed by good news within my family.

Isn’t this the essence of life itself, pandemic or not? While we all go through times that are purely happy or unhappy, most of our days are some combination of the good and the bad. Life can be pretty great in general, and in spite of that you can have an awful day. On the other hand, you can be wrenched with feelings about others’ suffering, and still celebrate events or moments that are personally good. We are all tied up with others, and feel each other’s pain. By necessity, we compartmentalize the negativity so that we can enjoy life. We don’t turn our back on others, but learn that we are not obligated to be constantly sad, fearful, or depressed.

On the other hand, the day of Tisha B’Av is a reminder that it’s important sometimes to stop and reflect on the sadness and all that is not right with the world. In these particularly trying times, when there is so much negativity and strife, I will focus my prayers and lamentations on the senseless divisions I see in our society, with hopes of helping things become better. To transcend these times of difficulty, sometimes we have to marinate a bit — just one day — in the negative feelings.

So, I enter this depressing day with the fortification of more positive developments for my family, and with hopes of general healing for my community, my religious homeland, the nation of my birth, and our troubled world.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 19

July 22

It seems like lately my husband and I look at each other on Monday evening and say, “Is it really still just Monday?” Each day seems long and packed from start to finish. My kids have been in day camp since last week. It’s great for them to get out of the house and be with friends (mostly outdoors, wearing masks), but rather than basking in a few hours of reduced interruptions (and it’s really just a few hours, not a whole day), we both feel like their time out of the house disappears in a flash, and meanwhile, the effort of preparing them for camp (packing lunch, snacks and bathing suits, as well as applying sunscreen and reminding them to wear hats and masks) is completely exhausting. My daughter’s limited mobility makes getting them into the car and navigating the drop off and pick up lines even more challenging.

On the bright side, being in camp has really been beneficial to their physical and emotional health. They come home happy, and are tired enough to sleep better at night. That makes it all worthwhile for me.

But I think that’s why, even though I went to bed somewhat earlier the last two nights, I am as tired on Wednesday as I would expect to be on Friday.

I continue to be proud of my consistent streak of blogging about our experience during COVID-19, but I let myself take a break the last two days. I realized that I was staying up later at night to put my thoughts together, whereas in the beginning of this adventure, I managed to find time to blog during downtime at work. July happens to be an especially busy month for my job, with lots of grant reports due, so I suppose it’s understandable that I have less energy to put into blogging.

Still, I hope my schedule will even out, and I’ll find the peace of mind and time (just about 20 minutes a day!) to continue recording my thoughts. Some weeks I’ve been really proud of my insights and creativity (if I say so myself). Others, like this one, it’s still therapeutic and beneficial just to have a release for my feelings, and a record to look back on all we’ve been through.

July 23

In a lot of businesses, things slow down over the summer. However, in my job, July is one of the busiest months of the year. That’s because the fiscal year closes on June 30, and there are multiple grant reports due in the weeks that follow. 

I was feeling a little bit full of my own importance this week as I juggled multiple reports, from several departments on vastly different programs. So much responsibility invested in me. And, then, I got a gentle reminder that the work I do merely supports the infinitely more difficult work of career counselors, social workers, case managers, service coordinators, paralegals, and attorneys.

In a meeting about one of our programs, I learned about a heart-wrenching situation involving one of the agency’s clients. It was the kind of news that stopped me in my tracks and made me realize that I am incredibly fortunate to support the work of the brave souls who serve the poor, the young, the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, the immigrants and refugees, and other extremely vulnerable members of our community. I remind myself all the time that I could not handle the responsibilities of our frontline workers, and that is not hyperbole or false modesty. 

Every day they see people living in impossible circumstances — often the real-life representations of statistics most of us just hear on the news — and in many cases, there is very little they can do to “remove the barriers” as we say in the business. And yet, they find small ways of making things a little bit better. When someone is facing eviction because they can’t afford their rent, sometimes there is financial assistance available, and often there are other things that can help — assistance with child care so they can hold a regular job, enrollment in utility programs so they have enough cash for the rent. Every little bit of assistance is a step in a bigger plan. Over time, people’s lives are changed for the better. Sometimes, their lives are literally saved.

Before I started my job, I didn’t have a full appreciation for the daily grind of living in poverty. Being poor is not just a matter of making difficult financial decisions or learning to live without some of life’s comforts. It is actually a daily exercise in survival, where there are often no good options, and every choice you make can have devastating consequences.

My boss, Dana Gold, has developed a game that simulates the daily decision-making process of people in poverty. I know some of my friends are all too familiar with the scenarios depicted in the game, but for others, it may be eye-opening to see how missing a day of work because of illness or dealing with an expensive car repair can plunge a person into the vicious cycle of poverty that is hard to escape. 

In our culture, sometimes people joke about being poor because they are overextended in one way or another. But real poverty is not a laughing matter. If you’ve been fortunate enough to not understand this through experience, you might benefit from checking out

Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer

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