The Freedom of Shabbat

A being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity.
~Karl Barth

They had Shabbat at the sleep-away camp I went to when I was ten, and I wanted to take it home with me. I made a pretty challah cover in arts and crafts, and carefully packed it in my suitcase to try to take Shabbat home, but it didn’t work. The challah cover just stayed on a shelf in the linen closet after I unpacked it.

Years later, I found the lavender and white carefully needlepointed cover neatly folded in the back of the closet, after I returned from a trip to Israel one summer. I pulled it out and tried to bring the Shabbat I had experienced in Israel into our home. This time it lasted for two sweet Friday night dinners. Then I must have forgotten about the challah cover again. Other stuff seemed more important.

It wasn’t until I lived within a community of people who observed Shabbat that I finally got to experience it on a weekly basis. For a person who is very driven, it is a healing oasis. I don’t think there is anything but a higher spiritual purpose that could get me to stop wanting to accomplish more things.

When I finally began to welcome Shabbat on a weekly basis, I heard the expression that Shabbat is the “pause that refreshes,” and that just fit so perfectly. It fits even more now than ever before. Now, it’s a chance to unplug from all the ways in which we are wired. This past Shabbat I was pondering how Shabbat becomes even more noticeably distinguishable from every other day of the week as we progress technologically. Shabbat moves in, and we lay down all the gadgets that accompany us all week long. We are left with just ourselves—and the people right around us. It feels so gloriously natural and old-fashioned—but there is no way I would free myself up in this way without a strong spiritual incentive motivating me.

It’s ironic, because from the outside it may look like those of us who are observing Shabbat are curtailing our freedom, but I know there is no other way we would release ourselves from all our gadgets. We are actually choosing to “disconnect” in order to more fully reconnect spiritually one day each week.

It’s fitting that we use the expression, “observing Shabbat.” Shabbat becomes the only chance we give ourselves each week to slow down and observe the people and places that are beside us. It provides us with time to more fully appreciate and savor all the blessings we can see (like candles shining) and feel (like welcoming hugs) and taste (like warm challah) and smell (like chicken soup simmering) and hear (like singing together, and even conversing with a real live person next to us).

We’re all here on our unique spiritual journeys—searching for different missing parts. Shabbat gives us the time and space to be mindful and observe where we are on our journeys. When we slow down to a Shabbat pace, we can pause to reflect upon the week that has passed, what its highlights were, and hopefully, reconnect with our purpose.

That challah cover I once made in camp got used so many times after I got married and was blessed with children that it became irreparably stained—with lots of spilled cups of wine and grape juice. We eventually replaced it, and for a while our little ones played pretend “Shabbat” with my old stained challah cover—on regular weekdays.

We get lost from our purpose again and again in our lives. It’s coming back to it that is miraculous.

Bracha Goetz is the author of 30 Jewish children’s books that can be found in Jewish bookstores and online here: http://www.amazon.com/author/spiritualkidsbooks-brachagoetz. This story is due to appear in the upcoming anthology, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less, which is scheduled for release on April 19th.

Shloshim for Reb Meir Schuster, Man at the Wall

Ever get the sinking feeling that your efforts don’t really matter? Like you really can’t make a difference?
When feelings of futility hit, we can now watch the Shloshim observance for Reb Meir Tzvi Schuster, of blessed memory, which was held yesterday in Yerushalayim. Then we will quickly remember what one person can do. It can be viewed at the website: www.rebmeirschuster.org.

As explained in one of the hespedim given, Reb Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory, who was the Rosh Ha Yeshiva ofAish Ha Torah said, “If one person can destroy 6 million Jewish people, one person can save 6 million Jewish people.”

Reb Meir Schuster – from an ordinary background like you or me – developed the clarity, the caring and the perseverance to help tens of thousands of Jewish people return to a Jewish way of life. And from all of these returnees are already coming hundreds of thousands of children and grandchildren who could have lost their Judiasm otherwise. This is not even counting all the schools, programs, books, articles, etc. already made by all these baalei teshuva (and their offspring) which have helped so many other Jewish people come to value their heritage. From the exponential ripple effect created, 6 million does not seem far off at all.

For decades, day and night, Reb Meir Schuster ran after each neshama he could find at the Kotel and the Central Bus Station in Yerushalayim, bringing each diamond in the rough to a Shabbos meal or a center for Jewish learning . He founded the Heritage Houses so that at last there would be Jewish hostels in the Old City of Yerushalayim and later, he started the Shorashim Outreach Centers for Israelis that are also flourishing. Without self-interest, he simply and consistently devoted himself to doing what he saw needed to be done. And then he just kept at it.

Perhaps what can inspire us most of all is remembering that Reb Meir Schuster was not charismatic and he was not a master salesman. He was a shy and sweet man of few words, but every Jewish person was extremely dear to him, and that is what came across.

Yesterday, privately, Rebbetzin Schuster shared some thoughts on what she learned in the past month about how Reb Meir succeeded with all the young people he reached. She put it this way, “Reb Meir saw into their souls…and they saw into his heart.”

In case anyone would like to contribute to the wonderful endeavors that Reb Meir Schuster began, in his memory, I am providing their links here:
Women’s Heritage House http://www.rebmeirschuster.org/DONATEhh.php
Men’s Heritage House http://www.heritagehouse.org.il/donate/
Shorashim Outreach Centers http://www.shorashimcenters.org/Donate.html

Important New Children’s Book – Let’s Stay Pure

We have learned that blockages in our bodies are the root cause of disease. Detoxification, the removal of blockages is the basic cure for disease. And never accumulating blockages in the first place, is the healthiest and most flowing state for our bodies to be in of all.

Our bodies parallel our souls, and the blockages that cover our souls cause our spiritual sense of dis-ease. It is possible to become aware of what blocks us from accessing our souls, and we can consciously learn how to remove the blockages. It is also possible to help children avoid accumulating these blockages as much as possible. This is done by helping children develop the inner resources to deal with life’s challenges, which are all around.

My Let’s Stay Safe book (Artscroll/Mesorah/Project YES, 2011) focuses on ways to keep a child’s body safe from harm, which in turn protects the child’s spiritual development. My new book, Let’s Stay Pure, highlights the importance of safeguarding each child’s radiant soul by creating healthy boundaries on the materials, activities, and other influences to which we allow a pure neshama to be exposed.

A couple of years ago, a mother contacted me and basically begged me to write a kind of “Guard Your Eyes” book for children. Once I started writing it, I realized it was actually expressing the thoughts that guided my parenting when my children were growing up. From my own experience growing up, I knew that destructive values seep in subliminally, diminishing clarity without our being aware of it. A pure neshamah craves truth and needs all the help it can get to shine brightly and joyfully.

Hashem has given each of us a pure neshamah in order to experience the greatest, deepest, and most lasting pleasure possible in this world. It now seems easier than ever for a neshamah to get covered over with garbage. Yet keeping the connection between a neshamah and its infinite Source clear from debris brings incomparable pleasure. Although children appear small, each child has a neshamah that is as infinitely gigantic as an adult’s, and each neshamah is always seeking pure nourishment. It takes a lot of thoughtful effort to nurture a neshamah in our current generation, but it is so worth it.

When we provide our spiritual heart, as well as our children’s core, with the pure nourishment it needs, the spiritual arteries don’t become clogged. (It’s the junk that forms the gunk.)

Let’s Stay Safe has helped protect the innocence of many children. I hope that Let’s Stay Pure will help to further protect many of our children’s pure souls. Through a honed awareness that comes from learning to be more careful and wary, our little ones actually have a much greater chance of being able to retain, yet refine, their sense of trust in our world, instead of losing it, G-d forbid.

There was one jar of pure oil left that was found amidst the garbage in our Holy Temple during the first Chanukah, and it miraculously created a light that continued shining. Despite the garbage that may presently block all of our light from streaming through, the pure potential miraculously remains in each of us, and we can still find it.

And by helping children protect the spark within from becoming obscured, our little candles retain the ability to shine with a healthy glow, each with a uniquely beautiful radiance.

Bracha Goetz is the author of twenty-four Jewish children’s books: http://www.amazon.com/Bracha-Goetz/e/B001KCI086. Pages from her new book, Let’s Stay Pure, published by Torah Temimah Publications can be viewed here: http://www.judaicapress.com/Lets-Stay-Pure.html.

Why I Write Jewish Books for Little Children

OK, so I act like a child sometimes. But that’s because a lot of me remains child-like, and I really want those aspects to continue right along with me.

There is a gigantic sense of wonder about the world, for instance, that doesn’t seem to be decreasing at all. And a delight in simple things that can seem ridiculously corny to some people, I guess, but that’s just how it is. So I’m finally understanding that’s why, even though I was once a top student in the psychology department at Harvard, I’ve not been drawn to write long professional treatises on scholarly subjects. Nearly halfway through my life, G-d willing, I’m starting to get (accept) (even appreciate) what my essence really loves to do.

It’s not easy, and I can see why, because I just now looked up “childish” in the thesaurus, to try to find another word to use, and look what I found: infantile, juvenile, babyish, brattish, senile, simpleminded, weak, and foolish. Not too positive. So that’s what I’ve been up against!

People who know my background find it hard to believe that my favorite books have always remained picture books, and that those concise volumes are what I’m still drawn to read, much more than longer things. Picture books opened up the world to me when I was little, and now still, when I open one that I love, worlds within open.

So, when I began to have children, I began writing the kinds of books I have always most wanted to read – books to unfold the deepest and most important mysteries of life – in the simplest way possible. The Happiness Box, for example, probably emerged from the excitement of potential that cardboard boxes of all sizes still manage to contain for me. My mother loved to say that the best toys are cardboard boxes because children can find so many ways to play with them – including playing under them and on top of them, of course. In this book, one of the most essential tools in life, the skill needed to achieve happiness, is demonstrated in a way that children, as early as possible, can learn how to create their own happiness.

The deep concept portrayed in Aliza in MitzvahLand is that we are not here to be entertained, but to make this world better. And even very young children can absorb this outlook about their purpose in life, if the understanding develops delightfully, with concrete examples of ways to help others so that a child need never feel bored. Remarkable Park shows how the natural world that surrounds us, is chock full of deep spiritual messages for us. When even the “lowly” ant has so much to tell us when we are receptive – what an amazing adventure life can become!

The Invisible Book actually proves, in the simplest way imaginable, that it makes perfect sense to believe in an invisible G-d. Oh how I yearned for this book as a child, when I had so many unanswered questions that I was afraid to verbalize, so my inner confusion just mounted.

There is the series of What Do You See board books designed to help even the littlest toddler begin to see the everyday objects around them through their uniquely Jewish eyes. And then there is my newest book, Let’s Stay Safe which, I realize now, actually came about because of two more words I found in the thesaurus when I just looked up the word, “childish.”

The two other words I haven’t mentioned yet, as synonyms provided for the word “childish” are “trusting” and “naïve.” These two words still apply to me as well, but dramatically less so, since I became painfully familiar with how molesters in our midst operate. I don’t want more of our children’s sense of wonder, kindness, or joy in the world to be destroyed on account of perpetrators. Therefore, I wrote this book, to increase our children’s awareness of real dangers that exist, so that they can be far better prepared to avoid them. Empowering children to be less vulnerable is the goal.

It has been dangerous for our children to remain naïve. Through a honed awareness that comes from learning to be more careful and wary, our little ones can actually be able to retain, yet refine their basic sense of trust in our world, instead of losing it, G-d forbid.

Children may appear very small, but their neshamas, just like ours, are infinitely gigantic, and always seeking pure nourishment.

I’m figuring out now that I became a children’s book author because I wanted children to be filled with hopefulness and the delight of discovery, for as long as possible, like me.

But unlike me, I also want them to be able to grow up seeing clearly that spiritual meaning can be found all along this wondrous journey through life, from their very earliest pages.

Bracha Goetz is the author of 16 children’s books, including Remarkable Park , The Invisible Book and Let’s Stay Safe! She also coordinates a Jewish Big Brother Big Sister Program in Baltimore, Maryland, and can be contacted for questions, comments or presentations at bgoetzster@gmail.com.

Whitney Houston: Didn’t She Almost Have It All?

Wikipedia says it this way: In 2009, Guiness World Records cited her as the most-awarded female act [performer] of all time. Her list of awards includes two Emmy Awards, six Grammy Awards, 30 Billboard Music Awards, and 22 American Music Awards, among a total of 415 career awards as of 2010. Houston was also one of the world’s best-selling music artists, having sold over 170 million albums, singles and videos worldwide.

So, didn’t she almost have it all?

Like all addicts, she knew what was missing – big time.

Rabbi Shais Taub in his wonderful book, God of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction, says it this way: Our somethingness is not our true essence. Oneness is our true essence. Not that it bothers all of us equally. Some people can live with it. Some people can’t…The real problem that lies at the core of addiction is that addicts are people who are in dire need of a relationship with God but are able to substitute fulfilling this need with a behavior that is essentially self-destructive.

The real problem is that a hollow sound reverberates within our souls once our awards get placed upon the shelf. Awards, applause, and notoriety only take away the loneliness very briefly.

The drugs, the alcohol, the whole bag of potato chips, illicit sex, and gambling can take the pain of loneliness away oh so briefly too. The yearning for that elusive unconditional love only grows more and more intense afterward, though. And the search gets ever more frantic, with the pain being so unbearable that it needs to be kept numbed, so that it can’t be felt anymore…at all.

Addicts are those who can’t live feeling alone, which really means, apart from God, the only source of unconditional love there actually is. Some people, it seems, can handle the separation, but those more sensitive, with their souls more exposed, and aware of the great love that is missing in their lives, cannot.

We may think that babies or pets can love us unconditionally, but that’s not real love; they are just trying to get their needs met. Physical beings can’t love unconditionally, only spiritual entities, with unlimited capabilities, truly can.

If we acknowledge the loneliness that is widespread, and then mine beneath the loneliness, we can discover that each of us is never actually alone. We are all on this amazing journey TOGETHER – with all of our souls connected and amazingly intertwined. We are all here to help each other through, revealing the full potential of each of our souls. Whenever the Oneness becomes clear, the love keeps reverberating.

Whitney Houston, a sensitive and very gifted person, felt what was missing in her life strongly, like many of us have. Being extremely talented, beautiful, powerful or wealthy can lead to extreme anxiety, however, if the source and purpose of one’s great gifts are not embraced, over and over again. Whenever we forget, and get cut off from the source of all our blessings, we experience a similar estrangement. This time, we saw it magnified to superstardom size. The pain from feeling isolated, instead of spiritually in union with the origin of all blessings, became unbearable.

The cause of all of our addictions is the suffering we experience when our souls become blocked off from the infinite whole of which they are an essential part. Abuse causes that blockage to occur, as the intrinsic value of those victimized, their godliness, becomes negated. When that connection gets obstructed, addictions are the desperate attempt to seek whatever temporary relief can be found. Relief is sought to escape the despair that results from the perceived loss of that vital bond.

Even all the awards in the world can’t make that kind of hurting end.

We thrive when we experience the deepest pleasure from the most intimate relationship possible – the one between our essence and its Source. When that relationship is viewed as severed, our gratitude dries up too, as we no longer understand from where all our gifts come.

A powerful G-d-given voice flowed through her. A stirring message can still resonate.

Bracha Goetz leads a spirituality group at Jewish Recovery Houses, coordinates a Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters Program in Baltimore, Maryland and is the Harvard-educated author of sixteen children’s books, including Remarkable Park , The Invisible Book and Let’s Stay Safe! You can reach Bracha Goetz at bgoetzster@gmail.com.

Can You Picture G-d Differently?

Debbie’s father would beat her almost daily for looking “too happy.” Over forty years later, she is asking, “How am I supposed to believe in a G-d that’s described as an all-loving Father?”

Yaakov volunteers as an advocate for victims of sexual abuse. He has heard so many chilling accounts that he is feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of his mission. “Is G-d in the closed dark rooms where children are having their innocence stolen from them?” he asked last week.

As the relative of a recent victim, even later in my life, I suddenly found myself, not only experiencing profound disillusionment, but even having a very shaky time continuing to believe wholeheartedly in an all-merciful G-d. And I was surprised to find out pretty quickly that I had PLENTY of company in that too.

Yes, even for many adults, an image of a vengeful G-d can still override all the other ways in which
G-d can be understood.

It was astounding for me to discover, as I began to unexpectedly meet more and more survivors of abuse, how common it is for those survivors who still believe that G-d exists to picture G-d as a powerful and often cruel tyrant.

I began to struggle toward a new way of picturing G-d to help these survivors, and to help myself as well. I learned that imagining G-d very differently can transform lives – and this is possible even for those that have been deeply scarred from abuse in their childhood.

The key, it seems, is remembering that our souls are a part of G-d.

And since who we really are is our souls, who we are, essentially, is a part of G-d. Having anger toward G-d for letting cruel things happen, loses its force, the moment we see ourselves as being a part of G-d too.

Like G-d, our souls transcend the physical world. Like G-d, our souls go on forever. Like G-d, our souls can see and yet they cannot be seen. Our souls are a part of the endless spiritual entity that we can’t possibly grasp, and yet, at the same time, they are the deepest truth we know.

So it turns out, our souls are the best understanding we have of what G-d could be.

And since our souls are a part of G-d, they are made of the same infinite and invincible stuff that G-d must be made of. So our souls will never give up. Our souls are the sparks that can never be snuffed out, no matter how searing the pain has gotten in areas that cover our souls. Even the souls that have left this world as a result of the abuse on their bodies – those sparks are still shining too.

It’s not easy to comprehend that we are souls, as we live in a physical world that is constantly reminding us that we are bodies. And it certainly is not easy to understand that even the horribly painful things, happen for an ultimately good purpose. But not believing that, leaves everything arbitrary, random, and nonsensical. Our souls can’t buy that.

“As I wander through the dark, encountering difficulties, I am aware of encouraging voices that murmer from the spirit realm.” These words were written by Hellen Keller. Darkness can surround a person physically or emotionally. Yet no matter how many difficulties we encounter and no matter how much suffering is endured in this lifetime, there is always one still small spiritual voice that never goes away.

One’s self esteem can be trampled on, but the blows can never reach one’s innermost core because that’s untouchable. Harsh messages can muffle the inner voice that is still, miraculously, continuing to give us encouragement to go on. Abuse in dark rooms can obscure one’s inner light. But a person’s pure spiritual essence continues forever to remain as unsullied as ever. And maybe the most amazing part of all is, no matter what we’ve been through, down deep, we continue to know this.

We are not able to see why very painful experiences may be required in order to reveal our purest essence. Maybe the crucible we pass through can help our entire being ultimately emerge in our most sensitized, integrated, and compassionate state. We only get glimpses into the purpose of our soul’s journey in this lifetime. What we can readily discern, though, is that our soul only wants what is absolutely best for us, since it is us, in our most unpolluted form.

Picturing G-d differently, for those whose trust was broken early, begins by recognizing that there is a “piece” of G-d within our souls. Getting in touch with the part of us that nobody could touch in a demeaning and destructive way – helps reveal our hidden radiance. Through regaining trust in our pure souls, we let calmness, love, and joyfulness stream back into our lives.

Instead of picturing G-d as the sadistic abuser known too well, those who have been deeply crushed – even closest to their core, as innocent, purely trusting children – can come to picture G-d like the indefatigable souls that never deserted them. Then even without yet fully understanding why the suffering had to be, we can all become capable of shining our obscured light once again. And each time a soul’s light manages to still shine in this world – miraculously – and heroically – it’s light can even shine into a closed dark room.


Bracha Goetz serves on the executive committee of the national organization, Jewish Board of Advocates for Children. She also coordinates a Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters Program in Baltimore, Maryland and is the author of fifteen children’s books, including Remarkable Park , What Do You See in Your Neighborhood? and The Invisible Book.

This article was originally published in the Jewish Press on February 25, 2011.

For My Husband, Ode to Our Last Sukkah

We didn’t realize it would be,
The last sukkah of you and me.
Those boards, they stretched – it wasn’t wide,
Still all our children fit inside.
And grandchildren, as they came too,
And all the guests, thanks most to you.

The decorations that you saved,
All through the years, everyone raved.
How our grandchildren loved to see
What their parents once made at three!
The decorations grew and grew,
As each year brought us something new.

Now we go to our children’s home.
Now we are the ones who roam.
Yes, over thirty years have passed,
Our fragile house of hope did last.
As baal teshuvas we began this trend.
May our chain of sukkahs never end.
What was built came out of our hunger, our thirst.
It wasn’t our last sukkah. Just our first.


Bracha Goetz is the author of sixteen children’s books, including Remarkable Park , Let’s Stay Safe! and The Invisible Book.

Groundbreaking New Children’s Book Released: LET’S STAY SAFE!

Groundbreaking New Children’s Book Released: LET’S STAY SAFE!

Let’s Stay Safe, published by Mesorah Publications, is the newest breakthrough from Project YES, a division of Agudath Israel of America Community Services. According to Artscroll, “It may well be the most important picture book that a parent will share with his or her young child.” We all want to keep our children safe, secure, confident, and happy.

With this book’s delightful pictures and child-friendly rhyming text, Let’s Stay Safe helps us give our children essential life lessons in safe and unsafe behavior:
• Personal safety • Staying away from strangers • Crossing the street safely • Bicycle safety • Fire safety • Safety in the home

In language that can educate and empower, this groundbreaking book gives children the tools to stay safe and secure in our increasingly difficult world.

A Personal Message from the Author (Bracha Goetz):

Over four years ago, our youngest daughter, Shira Goetz, gave me the encouragement needed to write a book designed for frum children about personal safety. I “knocked on the door” of every frum publishing house I could think of with my safety manuscript, but no company was willing to publish it back then.

It would still be just a file on my computer, if not for Rabbi Yakov Horowitz. Over two years ago, I sent my manuscript to Rabbi Horowitz, the Director of Project YES, and he devoted himself to getting the safety book published. Along the way, the personal safety book evolved into a more comprehensive safety book that includes personal safety as another normative safety measure. That’s what makes it a major breakthrough for the frum world – abuse prevention being acknowledged as an essential topic to be included for parents and children to learn in order to guard their safety, right alongside fire safety.

I believe that without Rabbi Horowitz’s tremendous efforts – and my daughter’s heartfelt prayers through these years – we would not be able to witness the miracle of this book being published now by Mesorah Publications, with the endorsement of Torah U’Mesorah as well, thank G-d. Although I really only became aware of the underground world of abuse in our midst just four years ago, B’H, there has been great progress during this time in beginning the process of weeding it from our beautiful garden. It should only continue – and prevention education is key.

From this whole endeavor, I learned that we don’t have to be great scholars or have lots of money or prestige to make our communities better places. We can be baalei teshuva, gerim or FFB’s, and if we see what needs fixing, we don’t have to be afraid, we can work on repairing things. I also learned during these four years, over and over again, that we really can never accomplish anything on our own. We need Hashem to smile upon every single effort we try to make. And we need support from other individuals committed to striving for improvement.

I wrote this book to help keep our little ones safe. In the merit of reading this book to young children, may all of our precious ones be blessed to remain pure and in good health, with shining neshamas.

Let’s Stay Safe is currently on sale at an introductory price of $10.79. Go pick up a copy here.

Aren’t We Supposed to Question?

We had a bunch of guests over for Shabbos lunch. This was on a summer afternoon, just a couple of years ago. Since my husband hadn’t returned yet from shul, everyone was passing the time in the living room, waiting. There was a relatively new guest, David, seated on the couch, who had only just started coming to us to experience Shabbos. Sitting on chairs across from him, was a couple who had become Orthodox about fifteen years ago, and a few others guests were milling about too.

The couple was discussing something about what the rabbi had said in shul, and David piped in with a question about what the rabbi said. I don’t even remember anymore what the actual topic was. All that I remember vividly is the brief exchange that transpired next.

The wife stated very emphatically that one must never question a Rav. David responded very innocently that he thought that Judaism was a religion that welcomed questions, so rabbis would welcome being questioned. “Aren’t we supposed to question?” he asked, and a stiff silence followed. Nobody responded to David. Not even me. I just didn’t know what to say then. Another guest must have changed the subject, thank G-d, and the conversation in our living room shifted somewhere else. But David’s comment had scooped me up out of the living room, and it got me sailing back through time.

Back to an innocent time of questioning. Over thirty years ago, the wonderful Orthodox rabbis that we discovered – or that discovered us – encouraged the questioning of everything. They taught us that Judaism was all about questioning, and then questioning more, until you reached greater and greater levels of clarity. Keep asking until you find emes, we learned, within the Torah and within yourself. And we thrived on this – this freedom to examine and sift for absolute truth.

No stuffing dogmas down our throats – as in other religions, we learned. No more unconsciously accepting assumptions – as in the subliminally anti-religious mind-sets we hadn’t even realized we’d adopted. Develop delving skills, sift for truth! We were so thrilled to see that the way to study Torah was through questioning. It was open for genuine exploration, earnest close examination, and so were its welcoming teachers.

We loved discovering that wise people learned from everyone. And even though the rabbis and rebbetzins who taught us, had so much more Torah knowledge than we had, they let us know that through our questions, they were gaining new and refreshed perspectives on just about everything. They really helped us understand that we were expanding and deepening their wisdom through our challenging inquiries.

Then I was jolted back to the present. When did the encouragement of questioning stop?

And why don’t we feel safe anymore to question?

I’ve been trying to figure that out ever since.

It no longer tastes like the Torah we were first offered, when those with clout invalidate sincere questioning by dismissing it as being presumptuous.When people only feel unafraid to voice their doubts and questions as anonymous comments on frum blogs, we can be grateful for these opportunities for suppressed voices to be heard, but it also highlights that a fear of speaking up is prevalent. Instead of feeling threatened by these anonymous comments, and seeking to forbid them by imposing bans on these venues, we need more leaders who can garner genuine respect by encouraging as much open questioning as possible. Then they too can actually benefit from the perspectives and challenges presented.

Critical feedback is needed by all of us, if we really want to improve. The man recently caught on video kissing a mezuzah before stealing from a store, can serve as a kind of ridiculous caricature to keep in mind of how far off the derech we have gone, with plenty of our extra stringencies or just mere cultural trappings covering up – from others and even from ourselves – our inner spiritual lacking.

Painful experiences have taught us to fear communal reprisal, arrogant attacks from those who wield power, and mafia-like intimidation tactics within our midst. We discovered that our leaders made decisions based on financial backing and political favors, instead of on pure spiritual motivations. And we found out that this has been going on unquestioned. As we learned a little more Torah that we hadn’t initially been taught, we also came to understand that in the hands of unscrupulous people, Torah can be misused as a deadly poison (Yoma 72b).

Thank G-d, this isn’t supposed to be the religion that promotes viewing its leaders as infallible or even unapproachable. Throughout Jewish history, there has been an ebb and flow of leaders who became mired down by corruption. Power corrupts, and the Torah emphasizes concern, in reference to a Jewish ruler “lest his heart become haughty over his brethren” (Devarim 17:20). The ruling elite can too easily come to place its own preservation above all else, if left unchecked.

Nearly every day I hear from a baal teshuva who has become disgusted by an excessive focus on the superficial aspects of frumkeit at the expense of the intrinsically meaningful aspects that initially drew the individual to yiddishkeit. They describe their disillusionment with the stress on the façade and on sheer phoniness in place of underlying true moral behavior. Many of those who have been burnt by the corruption that has become entrenched, have been slinking away, but that’s exactly what intimidators are trying to achieve.

The ones whose eyes have been opened and the ones whose hearts are full of essential questions, could be just the ones needed most to help us all return to more pure practice.

Yes, we are supposed to question, alright.

Hope you’ll come back someday, David, along with everyone else who left, disillusioned. I’m sorry it took so long for me to have the clarity to answer. Your question really helped.

Originally posted here.
Bracha recently released – What Do You See on Purim?
A fun way for toddlers to learn vocabulary!
Teach your toddler about the holiday of Purim with this bright and colorful word-and-picture book! Children will learn basic vocabulary while becoming familiar with the objects and concepts that are unique to this special holiday.

Almost Trashed

This is what Alan found in the garbage one day:
movie ticket stubs,
crumpled candy wrappers,
a partially eaten ham and cheese sandwich,
yesterday’s newspaper,
empty soda cans,
crushed cigarette butts,
and an old pair of tefillin.

Then Alan suddenly understood why
he had been desperately searching
through garbage
for years and years.
He must have known,
deep down,
that along with the trash,
what still had value, the most value,
was also being thrown away.

Alan stuck his hand into the garbage
and pulled out the tefillin.
Then,
for years and years,
in turn,
the tefillin searched desperately,
found its way
through the garbage piled high in Alan,
and pulled out Aharon.

Bracha Goetz is the Harvard-educated author of fourteen Jewish children’s books, including Remarkable Park, Let Your Fingers Do the Mitzvos and The Invisible Book.

Let Your Fingers Do the Mitzvos

Just Released in Time for Chanukah!

by Bracha Goetz

Published by Judaica Press, 2010

Let Your Fingers Do the Mitzvos is a new book for little children that is full of tremendous potential. It enables children to actually experience the joy of doing mitzvos while the book is being read. The two dimensional children in the book’s illustrations transform into three dimensional finger “puppets” when children put their fingers through the holes on each page – and act out each mitzva!

As we watch, our children themselves give life, not only to the cardboard boys and girls in the book – but also to the mitzvos they pretend to perform. Let Your Fingers Do the Mitzvos is ideal for children coming from observant families where they get to see these mitzvos actualized, and it is also an engaging gift to give to a young Jewish child who does not ordinarily have the opportunity to experience all these customary mitzvos.

Children love to pretend, and with this book, they can get a real taste of the pleasure that is possible in doing mitzvos such as walking in Eretz Yisroel, dancing on Simchas Torah, baking challah, giving tzedakah – and even expressing gratitude to a parent with a great big hug. Their little fingers, stuck through the holes of this sturdy and colorful board book become either arms or legs, depending upon what’s needed to take part in each mitza!

Let Your Fingers Do the Mitzvos will be enjoyed again and again by young children who can fully delight in this interactive and novel book. It can be found in local Jewish bookstores and online at Judaicapress.com.

Just Ten Minutes?

“Take ten minutes out of your day,
To do what you enjoy,” the “experts” now say.

Ten whole minutes? Is that all we get?
Nearly twenty-four hours with pleasures unmet?

Has it come down to this? Must we settle so low?
Our foremother knew more than today’s “experts” know.

“All her days were good,” our Torah makes clear.
Sarah enjoyed every minute – each year.

And within our souls, her dormant trait lies,
An innate potential that need only arise,

To extract out life’s pleasures, and feel ecstasy,
Not just for ten minutes – for an eternity!

Bracha Goetz is the author of twelve Jewish children’s books including Remarkable Park , The Invisible Book and The Happiness Box. She also serves on the Executive Board of the national organization,Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, and coordinates a Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister program in Baltimore, Maryland.

How to talk to Our Children about Personal Safety

Here are signs to protect our children from danger:
In 95% of cases, the molester’s not a stranger. He’s someone you know and respect. He’s disarming. He is drawn to children. And he’s awfully charming.

This is a handy little jingle for parents to keep in mind, but even though it’s short, my rhyme is not for little children. In order to adequately prepare our children, however, first we need to be aware of the red flags ourselves. Then we simply need to schedule an “annual check-up” time to clearly and calmly bring up the subject of personal safety with our children.

What would be a good day each year on the Jewish calendar for us to easily remember to discuss this safety topic with our children? It’s useful to pick a particular day that comes once a year, so we’ll be more apt not to forget to do it. (We don’t want to discuss it too often, as we do not want to instill excessive fear in them, but we do want them to remain cautious.) Holidays that require substantial preparation are not appropriate times for such a discussion, but how about Lag B’Omer? The warm weather has arrived, so it could be a good time to remember to have a yearly frank, yet upbeat conversation about this important safety issue – maybe even right along with reminders about fire safety rules.
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But if Lag B’Omer has long since gone by, and we have failed to have a prevention education with our children, it is essential for parents to cover this topic with their children before they have gone off to camp.

Parents can have a safety talk about the prevention of molestation with children as young as three, with age-appropriate adjustments being made gradually as maturity and understanding grows, year by year. We do this just as we would discuss any other safety hazard, with some increased detail for our older children.

We can start off by telling our three year olds that nobody should ever touch them in the areas that are covered by a bathing suit. The only exceptions would be a parent or a doctor, who may need to check those areas for health reasons and put cream on a rash in those private areas. If anybody wants to touch them there at any other time, for any other reason, they should say “no” to that person, even if that person is a family member, babysitter or counselor. And if somebody has already touched them in their private areas, they should tell you about it. We can tell them that if anybody ever touches them in a way that doesn’t feel right, they can ask the person to stop, try to get away as fast as they can, and tell you about it afterwards.

Another conversation, at age four, could remind the child of the basics that were discussed the previous year and add that family members may include older brothers, uncles, a step-father, grandfathers, and cousins. Neighbors and family friends may not touch the areas that need to be covered by a bathing suit either. And not only should nobody touch their private parts – nobody should touch any part of their body in any way that doesn’t feel right. If a touch feels strange to them, and they are not sure if it is wrong or right, they should come and ask us about it. We really want to know. Even if they feel silly asking us about it, we very much want them to ask us. We can explain that there are good touches and bad touches. And we can encourage them to ask us about any touching that they are not sure about as well.

At age five, we can tell them that they will probably have some questions for us after we talk with them about personal safety, and we hope they will feel comfortable to ask us their questions at any time. Too much information is overwhelming to a child, so we want to try to keep each annual conversation about this topic, short and simple. We can remind them annually that if anybody ever tries to touch them in a way that feels scary or wrong, even if it’s just a soft, stroking of their arms, some tickling, or picking them up, they can tell the person doing it to stop, and then they can let us know about it.

We can also add on, at whatever age we feel it’s appropriate, that nobody should ask them to touch or look at their private parts either. And every year there can be a reminder of this safety rule as well. We can ask them, “What if someone wanted to touch you and said to keep it a secret?” And wait for their responses. We can remind them that secrets like that are bad and dangerous, and those are secrets that they need to tell us.

Another important point that could be added one year would be that somebody who has been treating them nicely for awhile by giving them extra attention, treats, money, or gifts, may gradually or quite suddenly start acting in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. We can explain that this could be very confusing, as a child might feel that if the person has been so nice to them, that they should go along with whatever confusing touches the person may have started giving them. It’s very helpful to explain the typical “grooming” process in this way, so the growing child will at least be familiar with this possibility. With this awareness, a child or teen is much more apt to respond to inappropriate touching as an unacceptable real danger if, G-d forbid, his safety is ever jeopardized in this way.

As the children grow older, even through their teens, we can annually add to their basic training that if anybody ever asks them to watch or do things that feel scary or wrong, we hope that they will not feel embarrassed to tell us. We can let them know that it’s best to tell us right away, but even if they didn’t tell us right away, whenever they do tell us, we still very much want to hear about it because if something disturbing or frightening may have happened to them,it was not their fault. This needs to be emphasized, calmly and clearly, once a year.

It would also be helpful to explain to an older child that confusing touches can lead to holding on for a long time to confusing feelings. Some children may have even enjoyed certain aspects of improper interactions, like the extra attention it brings, and they do not need to feel ashamed of having this mixture of feelings. The best thing for their neshamas, however, is to not keep any kind of confusing feelings locked up within them. Great relief can come from talking about any disturbing secrets they may have with someone they feel they can trust. We need to reassure them that such burdens don’t have to be carried by them alone. We can also let them know that if they ever feel that they have something to share that they do not feel they can tell us, we can help them find an appropriate professional with whom they can speak.

In age-appropriate ways, as our children grow, we need to reaffirm to them on a yearly basis that victims of abuse are not responsible for the abuse. They need to tell an adult they trust about what happened, and continue telling until someone takes action to stop it.

By teaching our children how to guard the precious bodies that Hashem has given to them, we will not be abdicating our responsibility to them. It is still our responsibility to protect them, but this annual training will make it that much more possible for us to fulfill our parental obligations. In helping to protect our children from molestation, we are guarding not only their vulnerable bodies, we are also shielding their innocent souls.

Bracha Goetz is the author of twelve Jewish children’s books including Remarkable Park , The Invisible Book and The Happiness Box. She also serves on the Executive Board of the national organization,Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, and coordinates a Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister program in Baltimore, Maryland.

Originally published in the Jewish Press on Jun 28 2010

Message to the World – The Power of Prayer

Imagine you’re in a room full of Jewish addicts. And you’re volunteering to lead a group on Tuesday evenings. The group is called “Spirituality.” What would you talk about?

This week I decided to ask them what they would talk about. I tossed out a question that I had heard a rabbi ask at the time the Super Bowl was happening, about creating one’s own super bowl ad. “What message would you want to give to the world in thirty seconds if you had a chance to speak to 100 million people?” I asked. They loved it!

With my arm outstretched into a closed fist (a mike), I walked around holding it in front of each resident of the Jewish Women’s Recovery House, as she spoke. Leslie, twenty-four, had been in the recovery house for almost four months since she got out of jail after her last DUI. She was very eager to respond. “Here’s what I’d say!” she exclaimed enthusiastically. “If you radiate positive energy into the world, that’s what you’ll attract. If you give off negative energy – that’s what you’ll attract!” I told her she had a few more seconds before her thirty seconds would be up, so she elaborated just a little bit more, and just as excitedly.

Next Rosie wanted “the mike.” Rosie, thirty-five, and a registered nurse, had only been in the recovery house for a week and a half after being released from a local psychiatric hospital. “I started reading a book I found by a Rabbi Twerski. Here it is!” she said, picking it up from the couch, right next to her. “It’s called Angels Don’t Leave Footprints: Discovering What’s Right with Yourself. And I only started it, but it says that we are really better than angels because we can change and grow. We each have a piece of G‑d inside of us. It just gets covered up, but there’s always hope that we can come to recognize who we really are.”

Ellen, forty-one, a publicist, had come from a detox facility after getting clean from heroin. She had also not been in the house for a full two weeks yet. Ellen waited patiently for everyone else who wanted to speak to go before her, but when her turn came, she was just as ready to share her message as were all the others. “I’ve learned that G‑d hears us. The answers G‑d gives us in life, they may not be the ones we wanted to get, but who are we to know what’s ultimately good for us? It can sometimes be a very long road until we really accept that.”

Then, I don’t know how or why, but all of a sudden it hit me! “I just realized something! I practically shouted. Your words – the words that each of you just spoke here – they really did reach 100 million people – but they reached even more than 100 million people!” They were all looking at me like I was nuts. “They reached everybody in the whole world!”

“Your words, your messages to the world … they sounded like prayers to me,” and my voice started cracking. “You have so much. You are such enlightened souls from all you’ve been through.”

I had to keep going. “You’ve heard of the butterfly effect, right? In the physical realm, the flapping wings of just one butterfly can create tiny changes in the atmosphere, but those tiny changes can end up eventually altering the path of something like a tornado! In the spiritual realm, our individual prayers travel far and wide – they don’t stay put within these walls – prayers don’t care about walls – they go right through them! A tiny prayer’s vibrations travel all around the world, way faster than the speed of light! So your words, your prayers, really could havereached everybody in the whole world already.”

There was complete stillness, and a glow in the room. “Yeah,” smiled Rosie. “I guess they really could have.”

Did you get the messages that these women sent you last Tuesday night? I’m sure you did, in some way. It could have reached you in a ray of hope you felt in one flash of an instant.

But just in case the flapping of their beautiful fragile wings was imperceptible, now you have this.

Bracha Goetz is the author of twelve Jewish children’s books including Remarkable Park , The Invisible Book and The Happiness Box.

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Just Ten Minutes?

“Take ten minutes out of your day,
To do what you enjoy,” the “experts” now say.
Ten whole minutes? Is that all we get?
Nearly twenty-four hours with pleasures unmet?
Has it come down to this? Must we settle so low?
Our foremother knew more than today’s “experts” know.
“All her days were good,” our Torah makes clear.
Sarah enjoyed every minute – each year.
And within our souls, her dormant trait lies,
An innate potential that need only arise,
To extract out life’s pleasures, and feel ecstasy,
Not just for ten minutes – for an eternity!

Bracha Goetz is a Mentoring Coordinator in Baltimore, Maryland and the author of eleven children’s books, including The Happiness Box, The Invisible Book, and What Do You See At Home? For Bracha’s presentations, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.

Waking Up Is Hard To Do

Silly me! It took me so long to open my eyes to the fact that we could have religious leaders who appear outwardly very pious and above reproach, but really aren’t. Waking up is a struggle alright.

Over thirty years ago, after searching for spirituality in many religions, reading the book, A Tzaddik in Our Times, had such a powerful effect on me. I saw for the first time that a pure, simple, kind and spiritual life could be found within my own religion. It seemed like a way of life that most valued those who courageously cared about the downtrodden. If this was the way a true Jewish hero could be identified, this was the kind of Judaism about which I wanted to learn. And, thank G-d, I got to do that. The teachers in the women’s division of Ohr Someyach, at Neve Yerushalayim and at Aish Ha Torah all seemed to embody these kind of beliefs as well. They offered such a wonderful world view, an idealistic and yet practical one that I was so grateful to finally find.

Getting married and leaving the baal teshuva yeshivas to settle in an apartment and find work, was sort of like landing with a thud, though. We discovered that the real Orthodox world we moved into wasn’t all that much like the idyllic picture that had been painted, but we were determined, with G-d’s help, to make our own beautiful world within it. With tapes and seforim and shiurim as encouragement to stay on course through the years, we were able to keep on overlooking all the behavior that didn’t seem to fit in with the lifestyle we’d chosen. And we were OK with making excuses for each seemingly crooked, arrogant or illegal action we’d encounter. As baalei teshuvas, we figured that we probably just didn’t get the whole picture. They must have great reasons, based on the Torah, for doing what they were doing – and we just probably didn’t understand them yet.

For many years we were blessed to cultivate a genuinely happy frum home, thank G-d, just overlooking what we thought were a few “bad apples” or seemingly wrong behavior that we couldn’t understand fully. But then something hit us in the face that was so traumatic, we couldn’t look away anymore. The intimidating cover-up that followed was probably even more shocking and horrifying than the initial trauma, however. We learned overnight that we were trying to be dan l’chaf zechus (giving the benefit of the doubt) too often, even when it wasn’t appropriate. We found out that could sometimes be extremely dangerous.

Naïve and way too trusting, we were hurt to the core of our beings, but not disillusioned enough to leave. We knew there was nothing better out there anyway– we’d been there and done that already. And checking out would just give the frum perpetrators and their Mafia-style supporters, that much more power and free rein as well. So we came to see that what we needed to do was ask Hashem for help to try to encourage others like us who lack the confidence and courage as we did, to work on addressing the denial and strive to actually implement improvements. Everybody has to pick and choose what they are willing to stand up for, but if frum people are less fearful of standing up when they see smaller wrongs, they hopefully won’t have to get a brick thrown in their face to wake up, like we needed.

We can’t blame our rabbis or the institutions and organizations they lead for not having courage if we don’t have it. As we take on the responsibility to clean up the dirty business we encounter, their actions will reflect ours. We initially were drawn to Torah Judaism because it seemed so sweet, and for so many of us, it really is. At the same time, we need to accept the difficult truth that power corrupts in this way of life too. We really thought that in this more spiritual lifestyle, money, power and political machinations would not sway our community’s leaders. We were taught stories about great rabbis in the past who wouldn’t take one coin for a yeshiva if the funding might have been somewhat tainted from some unsavory source. And since it is emphasized repeatedly in the Torah that bribes are strictly forbidden, we actually thought that those in positions of authority who dressed like they believed in these precepts, would actually be scrupulous about following them.

To take just one area in critical need of improvement as an example: we can wait for the administrators of our schools to create basic safety plans and written policies for dealing with sexual predators. We can wait for community leaders to demand that our day schools conduct background checks and fingerprinting of their employees, just as public schools do. We can wait for somebody harmful to teach our children about inappropriate touching. Or, each one of us can decide to take responsibility when our children are being left unprotected. We can “vote with our dollars” if that’s all that will get our administrators to pay attention. But first we have to stop fearing them.

Before the destruction of our Second Beis Hamikdash, corruption was widespread among the Kohanim Gedolim. Much more recently, in the past generation, there were many Jewish people that turned away from Orthodoxy after widespread corruption in the kashrus industry became apparent. The corrupt flaws proliferating in our midst now involving financial scandals, prostitution and abuse are being highlighted, so that we can remove them. We have a lot of work to do on ourselves if we really want to be shining lights to the world, and not just dim bulbs.

The Vilna Gaon reminds us that just as water (which is often compared to Torah) helps plants to grow, it also helps weeds to grow. Alongside the wondrous blossoming of our Torah communities, abusive and corrupt behavior can also grow, strangling what is most valuable, if left unchecked. In order to have a beautiful garden, we can really never become complacent about the weeding that goes along with it. The weeds look so much like the real thing, but they are out to strangle all that is good.

Scandals are G-d’s way of nudging us to get weeding. So after the denial, the shock, and the disillusionment have passed, we can be grateful that G-d still thinks we are up for the job.

Abuse causes agony not just for the victim, but for the victim’s family members as well, who are shunned and silenced, while well-connected perpetrators are supported. And yet, when I asked my husband just last week, what he would say if he had to tell a person in one sentence why this way of life was valuable, he responded that he would still say, “It brings the deepest pleasure possible.”

What’s different about my family now is that we are finally no longer so complacent. If it feels in some ways like we’re living under an oppressive regime in our midst, we are coming to understand now that we’re the ones responsible for letting that situation develop. Through education, however, we can enlighten each other about the frum-style intimidation and cover-up tactics that have become so successfully entrenched. In the future, things can really be the way we thought they once were.

We want to wear the outer garbs and perform the rituals as long as they are vehicles that can continue to bring us to a higher level of consciousness about G-d. Unwilling to surrender the soul of Judaism, we’re craving integrity. Parents can devote their lives to instilling purity in their children, and then have their efforts destroyed overnight. May Hashem give us all the courage to keep waking up.

Bracha Goetz serves on the Executive Committee of the national organization, Jewish Board of Advocates for Children. She also coordinates a Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters Program in Baltimore, Maryland, and is the Harvard-educated author of eleven children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See in Your Neighborhood? and The Invisible Book. For presentations, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Press (4/23/10)

We’ve Got It Backwards

“Mommy, I can’t read this.
It’s all upside down!
Mommy, it’s the truth –
Why do you have that frown?”

“b’s and d’s aren’t easy.
For me, they are hard.
M’s and W’s –
I can’t tell them apart.”

“Tatte, I can’t daven,
Like others in shul.
I don’t want to go.
I look like a fool.”

“Kids laugh at me.
It’s because I’m so slow.”
Years have passed by,
And you sure did grow.

There was no instant cure.
You worked hard many hours.
You didn’t give up,
Drawing out untapped powers.

Doors started to open,
We thought were sealed tight.
The first blessing read,
Brought such huge delight.

There’s still dyslexia,
But your eyes shine with joy.
Courage is now,
A big part of our boy.

You learned how to struggle.
You’re not scared to try.
You fall down. You get up.
I barely hear you sigh.

“It’s all upside down!”
Your words were not wrong.
Those given a big weakness,
Can end up the most strong.

Bracha Goetz is a Mentoring Coordinator in Baltimore, Maryland and the author of eleven children’s books, including The Happiness Box, The Invisible Book, and What Do You See At Home? For Bracha’s presentations, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.

Why Does it Matter How We Dress?

I think I was fifteen that summer. I got all dressed up in the nicest dress I had with me. Actually I think it may have been the only dress I had with me. It was a sleeveless blue one, and I was even careful to wrap a crocheted shawl around my arms. Our counselors had told us that there was a big sign in Mea Shearim that said that we had to cover our arms when we were there.

That Saturday morning I got thrown out of the synagogue. The women in the little shul in Mea Shearim started screaming at me and calling me names in a language I didn’t understand. I found out afterwards what they were shouting at me. And, when I found out what the words meant, I realized that they had really made me feel like the low words they were shouting at me. They pushed me out of the shul and chased me away, from Judaism. It hurt a lot. I just kept thinking, “Could this be God’s world?”

Back at the youth hostel, I curled up in bed and reread the short essay on the application I had written to go on the teen tour to Israel that summer.

Application for U.S.Y. Israel Pilgrimage July-August 1971

I would love to go to Israel. Many people would love to go because of a lifelong dream they have had. When they even say the word, “Israel” something pulls strongly inside them. I respect these people greatly. I would love to feel something and believe in something as strongly as they do. I admire these people – but I don’t share in their understanding.

I feel, somehow, that Israel could help me. I want to be in the spiritual city of Jerusalem. I want to go to the land where dreams are fulfilled. I feel drawn to Israel like a magnet.

When I was in Temple, I saw an old religious man sitting in the back. He was praying with such emotion, such love, that it made my own emotionless state very evident to me. His face was filled with so many years of thought. I want to go to Israel because when I come back and say “Jerusalem” in my prayers – I will really be there – along with the old man in the back.

Then, still not ready to face the world, meaning my friends, I re-read my most recent diary entries:

July 1, 1971

i am here.

i know very strongly inside of me already that Israel and me were made for each other. after we got off the plane, the bus took us straight to jerusalem, straight to the wailing wall and the beautiful night hit me. the Bible actually came alive. it was spectacular.

I belong to this so much. It’s me. Just by being here, I feel creativity growing in me already. Touching the Wall touched something in me that is buried deeply, afraid to come out. Can I find deep within me the strength that helps that Wall to keep standing?

I can hardly believe it’s for real. The Old City looks like a fairy tale village I’ve been dreaming about for years.

july 5, 1971

The big why is hitting me in the face.

i am so spoiled.

Today we saw the memorial to the Holocaust

at Yad Va Shem.

And now we are sitting around the dining area,

complaining about the food

and our hotel rooms.

But that photo of the man with tallis and tefillin praying,

surrounded by laughing Nazi soldiers,

keeps staring at me.

How strong his prayers must have been,

With a feeling that even went beyond death,

can we still have that kind of strength?

july 16, 1971

there is still an ember glowing which i have been trying to smother. but it will just keep on glowing, probably sinking deeper and deeper into my being. is it a sacred part of me? too much for me even to speak about.

july 21, 1971

when i am praying

when i am listening and learning

i feel like myself.

The next entry, written on July 23rd, would be furiously penned. It would be about being thrown out of the first Orthodox shul I ever dared enter, the one in Mea Shearim. After that, there would be no more entries about seeking spirituality in Judaism. Not during the last two weeks of my tour in Israel, and not for years to come. My budding spirituality was replaced by cynicism. I tried to stuff my neshama down – to cushion it from further blows, but it just kept on popping up.

So I searched for spirituality elsewhere. In other religions, in expressive arts, in the vastness of science, in noble humanitarian causes, in romantic relationships with non-Jews, in all kinds of places. Places that wouldn’t judge me superficially, by how I was dressed.

And yet seven years later, after too many degrading experiences that I wish I’d never known, I finally found in Judaism, the spiritual sustenance that I was craving. Back in Israel, I found myself wandering one Shabbos morning to that same synagogue. With long sleeves and stockings, I walked in and poured myself into a prayerbook. The women, seeing my newness, helped me find the right pages. And a few invited me to their homes afterwards, to share their simple Shabbos meals.

Why did I return? Only because nothing else ever fit the same deep way. Nothing else lit up my Jewish soul. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t smother that ember that just kept on glowing in darkness. And it yearned for more. A certain sacred part of me would not go away.

The insatiable longing I had for years found the infinite pleasure it was seeking.

I also found again and again the intolerance and closemindedness that can turn so many away. And we, who have returned, despite this, can try to do all that we can to work for understanding, with all those involved.

I hope that I’d never ever throw a young woman in a sleeveless dress and a crocheted shawl out of an Orthodox shul, but I don’t live in Mea Shearim.

I don’t live in the Garden of Eden, either, though.

There, before we internalized physical desires, our bodies served as the pure garments of our souls. Once we had a taste of self-gratification from the Tree of Knowledge, however, our bodies were no longer perfectly aligned with our spiritual essence. That’s when clothes became necessary, and G-d provided us with the clothes we needed. With self-refinement, our physical bodies can journey back to be in tune with our deepest spirituality.

At fifteen, I really think those women in that shul were trying to teach me this. They didn’t know how, and they sure weren’t helpful, but they tried in their own way.

And all I can do is try in my own way too.

Fragile Wings

Where was the freedom promised?

Where was the open sky?

Come on and meet the prisoner,

Who thought that she could fly.

Religious girls in summer,

Blouses buttoned high.

I’d see long skirts, with stockings,

As I would pass them by.

I’d laugh inside me, mocking,

The girls I used to see.

Those girls are missing so much.

How trapped could people be?

But how could I have known then,

Jogging through summer rain,

I strode past them, uncovered,

In years before the pain.

Those girls kept their wings hidden,

And my own wings got crushed.

Why did I jump too quickly?

Why was my childhood rushed?

Crystalline wings they treasured,

Even at that young age.

My wings, I learned, were fragile,

When I hit bars inside the cage.

My wings have long been broken.

Can they still be healed?

Those girls now fly past rainbows.

Tell me, how does it feel?

Inside, I’m thrashing lamely.

Can I get free?

Now that I see the picture –

Reversed, ironically.

Where was the freedom promised?

Where was the open sky?

Here I am. Meet the prisoner,

Who thought that she could fly.

_______________________________________________________________________
Bracha Goetz is the Harvard-educated author of ten children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See at Home? and The Invisible Book. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations for both women and children, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.

A Hellenist Left Standing

It was the twenty-fifth of December,
And when she closes her eyes she remembers,
Just how it was.

A Jewish girl from Queens,
Had fulfilled her secret dreams,
Decorating that bright, forbidden tree.
A Jewish girl from Queens,
Had fulfilled her secret dreams.
She helped hang tinsel merrily.

Her boyfriend’s family,
Was friendly as could be.
They had fun watching her delight.
Her boyfriend’s family,
Was friendly as could be.
By the fireplace they sang carols that night.

Then they piled into the car.
It wasn’t very far.
Greetings called to those they’d pass.
Then they piled into the car.
It wasn’t very far.
Each year the family went to Midnight Mass.

But there in a church pew,
She didn’t know what to do,
As everyone else bent down to kneel.
But there in a church pew,
She didn’t know what to do.
In those moments was her future sealed?

Alone, trembling, she stood,
Still uncertain if she should.
What stopped her from kneeling in that place?
Alone, trembling, she stood,
Still uncertain if she should.
The word “Jew” was stamped on her face.

The twenty-fifth makes her remember,
Because it’s Kislev – not December.
She almost fell, like Hellenists of old.
The twenty-fifth makes her remember,
Because it’s Kislev – not December.
Once she, too, chose tinsel, not the gold.

So radiant – hidden away.
A golden light, still pure today.
Flashing bulbs can’t come near its glow.

So radiant – hidden away.
A golden light, still pure today.
Her Jewish home shines with treasures she didn’t know.

For now many years have passed.
Each Chanukahs spins by so fast.
And as grandchildren light, my past becomes less real.
For now many years have passed.
Each Chanukah spins by so fast.
Standing by lights, I whisper thanks I didn’t kneel.

Bracha Goetz is the Harvard-educated author of eleven children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See in Your Neighborhood? and The Invisible Book. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.

Great Children’s Books By BBT Contributor Bracha Goetz

Bracha Goetz has just released her latest book:

What Do You See in Your Neighborhood?
A wonderful everyday word-and-picture book for toddlers which teaches basic vocabulary – in a Jewish kind of way! This could be a great gift to give anyone with a little one! You can get it online from judaicapress.com or at local Jewish bookstores.

Bracha is the Harvard-educated author of eleven children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See at Home? and The Invisible Book. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.

BrachaGoetzBooks