Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Problem with How We Comfort: A Lesson in Empathetic Listening

There are a few ways that we tend to try and respond to someone when they share their feelings or painful experiences with us. Most of them end up invalidating the sharer.
1. Relaying your own experiences to try and make the sharer feel less alone.
Why this doesn't work: Firstly, this person came to you asking for help, so you should feel honored. This means that the conversation should revolve around them, not you. By sharing your experiences, you are shifting the conversation to be about your experiences, and therefor, the sharer may feel like you are invalidating their feelings. The second reason this doesn't work is because "you don't get it". I have sat here at my computer staring at a blank screen for hours over the past few weeks trying to find a more polite or elegant way of saying it, but that's what it comes down to. I have this issue the most when I try to share with others because my life is unusually complicated, and the responder sharing one experience that they share with me doesn't mean that they understand how that experience interacted with all of the other stuff in my life. As someone who has tried to share with many different people over the years, I recognize that this is a natural reaction and one with good intentions. That being said, I don't think that we should lose the opportunity to improve our comforting skills.

2. The "think positive" approach.
Why this doesn't work: I have had quite a few people in my life tell me to look at the cards I have dealt to me and "see them in a different light" and therefore, turn the negative things into positive things. First of all, when one is in the midst of the hand with the terrible cards, it's pretty hard to see the cards in any other order then they are in your hand. I know this from experience. You may realize that you've learned something from the experience a few years later, but it is nearly impossible to learn from experiences like that in the present. The second reason why this doesn't work is because it often feels like you are minimizing the terribleness (just imagine this is a curse word) of my hand by telling me that I can turn it around with my mindset. 

3. Pity or the "I'm Sorry" approach
Why this doesn't work: Oh goodness, how I despise this approach. I have seen it hundreds of times. I know that when you say you're sorry to me, you don't mean to make me feel worse, but the way I see it is that you don't know what else to do, so that's what you say. I know that we,  as humans, are naturally programmed to do this. We say and do what we know. And I know that you don't understand, but pity isn't the best way to try and convince me that you do. 

Alright, everyone still with me? Great. You're probably thinking, Emily, you just told me all of the ways that I try to comfort people are invalidating of the sharer's feelings; what do I do? Empathetic listening is a term that I learned on Dear Hank and John (it's a podcast, you can google it). Basically, you want to be a comforting mirror. You want to reflect the emotions that the person you are talking to are sharing with you. For example, "you seem really upset about this" is actually not an invalidating answer because it allows you to acknowledge the sharer's emotions without needing to understand an experience that you have never had. Strangely, this is also what you should do if your child is throwing a tantrum. The second part of empathetic listening is asking clarifying questions and  trying not to interrupt the person. Asking questions about the details of whatever the sharer is feeling will make them feel heard. Alternatively, you can just give them a hug. This is often my strategy because sometimes you can tell that someone is upset about something, but they don't want to talk about it.  So that's it. As always, leave a comment if you have questions or comments.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Od Yavo: The Song that Has Bookmarked My Life

"Od yavo shalom aleinu, v'al kulam. Salaam"
Still, indeed, peace will come, it will come upon us.

The first memories I have associated with this song make sense: song sessions at camp, closing services every shabbat evening. This song is used for a prayer for peace often. But this song started to mean something to me approximately six years ago when I found out that a former camp counselor (who I adored) was staffing my eighth grade Israel trip. I remember the sounds of the guitar at the end of that pre-trip meeting, and they indicated that even though, at the time, my life was slipping away, it was all going to be okay.

The second memory I have of this song is at camp between my Freshman and Sophomore years of high school. I have a vivid memory of us dancing around the dining hall, the illuminating smile of my caring counselor reminding me that I was going to be fine. Throughout my time in high school, at every event that we sang this song, I was reminded that I was going to be okay.

This past summer, I sang this song with my campers, and this fall, every week at Hillel Shabbat dinner after we finish the prayer after meals, we break into song, without fail. The most significant memory is Fall Fest after I had just spoken to many people who I didn't know, and when I spent most of the song cleaning up bottles of wine and grape juice.

This past weekend, I got the opportunity to go to HUC-JIR for their college leadership weekend. We closed our Friday night service with this song, and I was reminded, that even with the pain and suffering of the world weighing on our minds, we were going to be okay. And as I smiled while blinking away tears, I remembered the true power of Od Yavo.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

L'dor Vador: My favorite Jewish Concept

L'dor Vador-generation to generation- has always been one of my favorite concepts in Judaism, and I have always really respected my mentors and I have so many of those that I can thank for wanting to be a Rabbi now, but I'll write a blog post on my trip to HUC this weekend when my eyes aren't begging for sleep. Regardless, L'dor Vador.

Seven years ago I was a camper in Tiferet, the arts unit at my camp, and there was one counselor who I really looked up to. Two years after the fact, I heard that she was going to HUC-JIR (Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion) to become a rabbi, and I was inspired, thinking, oh, I can do that. \

This past summer at camp, I worked in the aforementioned unit, Tiferet. I was there for six weeks, but for the sake of the story, let's just focus on the first two. Those first two weeks, I was a counselor for a little girl with a long last name who turned out to be the daughter of the Director of Admissions and Recruitment at HUC-JIR. We spent A LOT of time together.

This weekend, when I visited HUC-JIR, I got to see both my former counselor and my camper from this past summer. I was struck with the incredible nature of our tradition that it can create this kind of connection where the student becomes the teacher, the camper becomes the counselor, the mentee becomes the mentor. I am so lucky to live in this interconnected web of Reform Judaism. It has taught me that I truly can impact others just as those before impacted them. And I can only hope that someday, that camper grows up to impact more campers and the cycle will continue. A never ending cycle of love and learning (and camp).

Before this weekend, I never truly knew the meaning of L'dor Vador. Now I do.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

My Intense Love of Reform Judaism Both On Campus and Off

I've been involved in my temple since I was about three years old so I am no newbie to the world of Reform Judaism. I went to Sunday School for many years until I became an aide in a Sunday School classroom and then to the cantor (I helped him lead services). If you want to read more about how much my synagogue means to me, you should read this blogpost. The URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) sponsored my camp where I grew from an awkward, quiet fourth grader into a confident counselor. The URJ brought me my youth group (NFTY-CAR) which helped me make it through my high school years. It gave me the resources to help a friend create a three-day camp and year long partnership program with a school in Waukegan, IL (more on that here). My community has given me so much, and that's the reason that I want to give back to them (More on that in a second).

This weekend is the URJ Biennial which I am not at because of travel craziness and the next biennial being in the city I live in, but I have been watching the lifestream every second that I have not been in classes the last few days. Last night, the incredible Alan Goodis opened with his song Esah Einai, a song that I listened to thousands of times as I fought my way through my freshman year of High school. I couldn't help but tear up as I attempted to write an essay at the same time. This morning, the URJ passed a resolution to make our communities more trans-inclusive, and I was once again on the verge of tears(geez, I'm emotional). I could't be prouder to be a part of this community.

Two days ago, the board of the Reform Organization here on campus attempted to take a yearbook photo. I say attempted because we are perhaps the most dysfunctional family possible. But we are family. I was welcomed into services on the first week of school, and I immediately relaxed after a crazy week of new experiences. Reform Judaism feels like coming home.

So many amazing clergy, educators and friends have contributed to my life, and there is too many to list here. Perhaps I'll write a longer blogpost about just them at some point. It is because of all these amazing people who made Reform Judaism my home that I am on the path to becoming a Rabbi.

In conclusion, there are not enough words that I can write to describe how blessed I am to be a part of the Reform Jewish community. Or at least not words that I can write without crying in the middle of the dining hall. All I can do is thank God and hope that this family will welcome me and allow me to welcome them for now and forever more.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Has Anything Really Changed?: A look back in time

Recently, for my classics class, I was reading an Ancient Greek Law Case about a woman named Neaera. Neaera, at the time that the case was brought against her former pimp, was almost seventy years old. What he was accused of is complicated and unimportant to the point, however, the two major issues addressed in this case were Neaera's sexual history and the question of her citizenship.

I was intensely frustrated and disappointed when I read this case for the first time. The fact that Neaera was previously a prostitute should have absolutely no bearing upon this case, however, like it would if this case was brought in front of a modern jury, her past served to discredit her. It peeves me that this case from thousands of years ago feels to the modern reader like an episode of Law and Order : SVU. Shouldn't we have stopped judging the sexual pasts of women by now? This is ridiculous. Why does a woman's sexual past contaminate her in the eyes of the public? Not to mention that in this case, Neaerra had not worked as an escort for many years. I admit that I tend to be a very cynical person, but while reading this case, I continue to believe that human nature may never change as much as we would like it to.

Alright, onto the second question of this case. This, along with the amount of vlogbrothers videos I've been watching (links at the bottom) have made me think a lot about what it means to be a citizen or a part of a nation. Neaerra is not an Athenian citizen because of complicated reasons having to do with her coming to Athens from Corinth after pretending to be related to someone else. It's not really relevant to my point, but I'll try to find a place where you can read the case if you're interested and include it at the end of that blog post. The main thing that comes to my mind on this topic is this quote from James Joyce's famously incomprehensible book Ulysses: "A nation is a group of people living in the same place, and also in different places." What really is a nation? Sure, we have people who are technically citizens of the USA, but what about those people who have immigrated here on Visas? What about the families that came here before there were formal rules for citizenship? What are the rules for belonging to any community? How do we know? Can we self identify? These are non-rhetorical questions that I would love to hear your thoughts on (Yes, I know I just ended my sentence with a preposition. It's my blog, be quiet). I'm planning on doing a whole blog post on communities and this quote with regards to immigration, probably later this month.

Questions? My email address is

The case referenced: